February 14, 2012

WHAT SPACE: 1999 IS ALL ABOUT

On February 12, 2012 Jace Hall graciously participated in an online fan chat during which he allowed us to ask him some questions concerning his Space: 2099 project. My fundamental question, which I put to him that day, requires a bit of background explanation:

  When the initial poster images of the new Space: 2099 were released there was of course initial excitement from vast swaths of Space: 1999 fandom. There were some exceptions, specifically amongst die-hard Eagle fans, who balked at the changes apparent in the Eagle design in these first promotional images. That aside, the posters were (and are) certainly impressive. But as the initial shock and excitement settled down (as much as it can in such  short time) and I had the opportunity to ponder these images further, I began to feel uneasy. Not precisely about what they were showing to us, but rather what they weren't showing to us, and what they could be telegraphing. (I notice that others are also now discussing this subject online at the Forum at www.space2099theseries.com )

  So what was I seeing? Well, for one thing, there is no Moonbase Alpha visible in the images. There is a small graphic of Alpha subtly appearing in the Space: 2099 logo itself, but that is all. Some have suggested that the inclusion of the Alpha graphic indicates the base will be in the series, but I'm not certain about that (or whether, if it does appear, it will be in more than the opening episode.) So the absence of Alpha is one concern for me.

  My second concern is that there appears to be a large spaceship under construction on the surface of the Moon. Why is it there? Is it indicating a re-imagined version of the Meta Probe (and by extension, possibly indicating that the plot of Breakaway may be loosely re-interpreted here?) I don't really think so, based on the name on the side of the ship - "Asimov". Besides, it's been clearly stated that this is not a re-make, but a re-imagining. There are two reasons why a ship appearing in a re-imagining of Space: 1999 might have the name Asimov - one, because the producers think it would be an appropriate or likely nod to the important science fiction writer. The second reason would be an acknowledgement of the reviews Isaac Asimov wrote of the original Space: 1999 back in the 1970s, which are (specifically the second review) notoriously negative and nit-picky. If the producers have named a ship in the new series Asimov due simply to the first reason, they are clearly unaware of the second (which seems unlikely). And if they are indeed aware of the second reason, and still named the ship Asimov, they are tone-deaf to the feelings of Space: 1999 fans, who have long taken issue with Asimov's reviews. As has been suggested by Paul Stankevitch, the only appropriate thing to do with a ship called Asimov, in a series based on Space: 1999, is to blow it up!

  Another concern I have with the promotional posters is that an Eagle (although Eagle fans will say it is not an Eagle!) is shown on what appears to be a spaceship or space station landing platform, with an astronaut looking back to the ship and the Moon in the distance. There is a significant glow in the lower right portion of the image - could it just be the glow of the sun coming from behind the Moon? Or could it be the Breakaway blast? Could it be the glow of some unknown space distortion? The possibilities for that glow are almost endless, and difficult or pointless to speculate on at this stage.

  But what one must ask about this image is what is it showing us? Why is the only astronaut shown to us in these images not on the Moon, but on a space platform looking at the Moon?

  In the online discussion Jace Hall said, "Over 35 years ITV has been presented with numerous pitches for the franchise. They have always said no. They thought they had heard every angle, every vision, and their interest was not sparked. Johnny Byrne himself pitched a version of the show to no avail. So you gotta ask yourself, what kind of idea did I bring to the table that ITV had not ever been presented with?" Various of the fans online during that discussion were throwing forward ideas of how to get the Moon out of Earth orbit, aside from the nuclear waste induced explosion of Breakaway, including black holes, space warps, technological effects, etc… (another fan has suggested to me that Jace should read E.C. Tubb's novel Earthfall to see another fascinating alternative way to get the Moon out of Earth orbit) to which Jace added, "Are any of the ideas you're throwing out there something that ITV hadn't already seen?"

  So, with the teaser images doing just that - teasing us, and leading some of us toward further speculation of what they are implying for the series ahead, and then combined with Jace's statement that "we gotta ask" ourselves what kind of pitch did he make to ITV that clearly involved a premise different, removed from, or beyond the scope of what we fans were contemplating - what could that pitch have been? And therefore, what could the new series be about?

  Putting these pieces together, and reading between the lines, I've come to the troubling conclusion that the new series might not be based on the Moon, and Moonbase Alpha, at all. Sure, it will in all likelihood begin there. But the ideas telegraphed to me indicate that the Alphans may be forced to evacuate Alpha and the Moon, potentially on the spaceship Asimov, which is under construction on the lunar surface. (And, for the previously mentioned reasons, if they do end up traveling on a spacecraft called Asimov, I for one will consider that a slap in the face to fans of Space: 1999.) The next step? Perhaps they're going to blow up the Moon. Or the Earth. Or both? If the Alphans are on the spaceship and for whatever reason can't return to the Moonbase, then they would return to Earth, wouldn't they? There must be a reason why they don't do that - surely something must allow the Alphans to get out onto a journey through space.

  But this discussion so far has just been the prelude to my question to Jace. Having already come to my possible conclusions, I wanted to attempt to find an answer, so I asked the following: "Can you confirm that this new series will take place on Moonbase Alpha, and on the Moon traveling through space?" The answer from Jace Hall was, "At this time I can't give out answers to specific questions about the content like that. I would like to but I just can't… I think that your question is a fair one though. It will eventually be answered, I promise!" I did press on a couple of times in search of another answer, following his polite deferral, but I remain quite concerned that there was a deferral at all, concerning whether the single basic setting of Space: 1999 - the moon and Moonbase Alpha - would be a part of this new series.

  I understand completely (as do most other fans) that nothing new can be the same as Space: 1999. And I don't expect this new series to be the same as Space: 1999. I expect there to be changes, and probably very significant ones. But the fundamental set-up of the series, and the setting of the Moon and Moonbase Alpha, has always been one of the most defining aspect of the show, setting it apart from others like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, in which the protagonists travel the galaxy in spaceships, under their own power, with control over their course, and thereby their destinies. Jace did say, "The only thing that can be Space: 1999 is Space: 1999. Why would anyone want to change it? It is awesome." Interesting statement. Of course, this new Space: 2099 series is not changing the original Space: 1999 - it is re-imagining it.
  Following my reference to the voyage of the Alphans on the runaway Moon as being the central premise of Space: 1999, Jace wrote the following, "Please don't read into this statement as I know it will be easy to try - but - if you feel that the basic premise of Space: 1999 is a moving moon then I think you may not appreciate or care about what the original show was really able to achieve, and what the bigger picture was that it provided for so many people! Not saying there is anything wrong with just liking the moon… but I got so much more from the show than that…! This statement does not in any way mean that a moon won't be present in our series… we are just currently not discussing specific content."

  I pointed out that I've written a book on the subject of Space: 1999, so I well know that it was about more than a traveling moon. Jace did also say, "I am very big on plausibility in stories… Space: 2099 will certainly be guided by that sensibility." This also makes me wonder - since the Moon's breaking away from Earth and subsequent journey through space was often cited as implausible (if not utterly impossible) by many of the show's critics, could this not be another allusion to a change in the set-up of this new series? Has Jace continued to give us the clues to find our own answers?

  Might the Alphan journey begin on a fragment of the Moon, with the intact Moonbase Alpha still on it? Maybe, but with Jace's catch-word of "plausibility", I wonder that if the traveling Moon is too implausible, would this be any less so? Might the Asimov ship have the ability to warp or travel through wormholes or folds in space? If it did, perhaps the Moon and Alpha (still in orbit around Earth) might be its home base, but with the action taking place elsewhere, on this star trekking ship? We could speculate endlessly...

  As I've thought about this discussion, and Jace's comments, since the chatroom discussion I have been pondering exactly what is Space: 1999 about? And is the voyage of the moon itself an integral part of the series, or a removable one? That is what I would like to now explore here. I will also be referencing quotes from various people involved with Space: 1999, notably Johnny Byrne and Christopher Penfold, and I am extracting various elements from my book, Destination: Moonbase Alpha.

  Let's start with the obvious statement that there is a thin line between survival and extinction for the Alphans, living in perilous conditions in deep space. But the Alphans did not take their survival for granted - space travel is perilous for the Alphans, and the failure of life support systems, airlocks, or power plants could spell their end, as could power drains, radiation sickness, explosive decompression, or any of a litany of other hazards, not to mention alien attacks.

  In Space: 1999, modern man is responsible for his own downfall. Breakaway itself is the result of our inability to control or predict the implications or results of our own technology. Throughout Space: 1999 there are numerous references to failed space missions - they far outweigh the successful ones! The Meta Probe, Voyager One, the Astro 7, the Ultra Probe, the Uranus expedition that wound up on Ultima Thule, the Venus Space Station, and the Star Mission of 1996 which ended at Planet D - all failures! These failed missions not only impacted or killed those aboard them, but sometimes the alien life they encountered, as well. In this way, Space: 1999 also took a unique approach, with mankind ourselves as an invading presence in space. One of the original titles considered for the series, Space Intruders, recognized this concept. In fact, the original series Writer's Guide had this to say: "The Moonbase will be left upon its own to survive, to seek a friendly planet to colonize, and to defend itself against other space-lives, for now they are invading aliens."  

  The series was also essentially about modern man, rather than people from the far distant future. Therefore, a contemporary audience was more readily able to identify with people like themselves on Moonbase Alpha. Who can't relate to sometimes feeling alone, lost, or at odds with the world or universe around them? 

  Christopher Penfold has said, "When we began, we were in very much the same situation as the characters. We had the basic premise of a colony stranded on a runaway Moon, without any way of controlling its movements. Obviously, there was a limit to the dramas that could take place on the Moon itself and it was only as the series developed that ever widening potentialities presented themselves. Gerry Anderson's own description is that the Moon is a rogue planet wandering at random through space. But with the gravitational pull from other planets and stars, there is always the possibility of finding a new home… which could offer fresh life for the Moon's inhabitants. This is a theme that runs through the scenarios: the search for a new home away from the artificial environment of the Moon."

  Johnny Byrne commented, "The writers, like the Alphans themselves, were voyaging into the unknown. This was reflected in the progression of the first series. The further the Alphans receded from Earth, with all its apparent certainties, the more uncertain and challenging their lot became. They were confronting problems - moral, ethical, human, scientific - they didn't really understand. Or if they did, their understanding was never more than superficial. This was a crucial element in the first series - the sense that often there are no set and definite answers… Frequently they were dealing with matters the nature of which was beyond their Earthly limitations. Wisdom, when it did surface, was an acknowledgement of what they didn't know, rather than what they did." 

  Martin Landau said, "The bottom line… was that there was nothing frivolous about going through space and not being in control of your own destiny. Not having control over your trajectory… So, technologically, emotionally, the people on Alpha were not ready for deep space. Whereas in Star Trek they were moving around on their own and were much further in the future." Landau also said, "We're victims, something like pioneers, more identifiable as people… Space: 1999 is rooted in the present. We have taken a bunch of contemporary people and sent them flying, out of control, through space. We can't say, 'Hey, let's go there, because that looks nice…' We're at the mercy of everyone we encounter."

  Johnny Byrne said, "There was a feeling, a concern… to carry the feeling of the humanity of the people of Moonbase Alpha out there, not necessarily as a spoken dialogue, but something in terms of the situations and the characters' responses, and their utter bewilderment. These were our people, our younger brothers and children, who were out there. And they should have echoed our concerns, our feelings of… human beings in a tremendous state of transition and change, with all their weaknesses and limitations." Byrne also said, "The humanity came in… putting the Alphans into situations wherein, to a large degree, it was their humanity that was being tested. It might have been the heat levels were falling, or the food was running out, or something was about to hit them. Essentially in their contact with each other, and in their contact with aliens and things like this, the Alphans' humanity was being tested. It was always a question of humanity, rather than straightforward 'We take you - you can't stop us.' So it was moral values… that were being tested."

  Christopher Penfold stated, "It seemed to me that in dealing with what was not a very real circumstance - the idea of a group of human beings being cast adrift without any means of directing their future, beyond survival, in response to the circumstances that they encountered - that that in itself has a mythic quality about it. It really seemed to offer the opportunity of introducing into the context of what was always intended to be a popular drama series, those big questions that people sometimes are possibly a little bit frightened to ask themselves." Penfold also said, "I think there was a kind of philosophy being series one - it evolved - that tended to focus the stories on quite challenging ideas, philosophical ideas, and questions. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? What's the future of our universe? All that kind of thing…" Penfold also provided a brief summary of the series when he said, "We… cast the Moonbase adrift, with them looking for, or hoping to find, some eventual sanctuary."

  A defining aspect of Space: 1999 has always been the 'Mysterious Unknown Force', which arose from time to time to seemingly aid the Alphans on a pre-destined voyage. This MUF could have been responsible for allowing the Alphans (and the Moon itself) to survive the Breakaway explosion (which, of course, critics love to say is a scientific impossibility), just as it seemingly allowed the Alphans to survive their journey through a black sun (black hole), and caused them to stop dead in space at the planet Arkadia. And there was Arra's prophecy: "You will prosper and increase in new worlds, new galaxies…", and her enigmatic promise that, "Your odyssey shall know no end." That the Alphan journey was pre-destined since the dawn of time was a recurring arc element in Year One. And surely if one can accept that such an odyssey can be pre-determined, and that planets can touch, but not collide, or that the Moon's journey could be stopped cold in space… then surely we are able to accept that the beginning of the Moon's journey could also be a matter of more than just cold hard scientific facts, and currently acceptable plausibility? Of course we can - we've been doing it since Space: 1999 premiered.

  Johnny Byrne said, "I love the richness and variety of the first season. The sense that something greater than the sum of the events we were recording seems to have taken hold of us early on. It showed itself most clearly in those episodes where the Mysterious Unknown Force, or MUF, is presumed to be present; and looking back, it was also there in many others..."

  The cause of the Breakaway blast - the explosion of nuclear waste stored on the Moon - whatever it's scientific likelihood, and whatever the validity of the premise that we might decide to store nuclear waste on the Moon (as opposed to any number of other things we might do with it) highlights not only the technological weaknesses of mankind, but also displays considerable environmental concerns. How are we polluting our planet (or space)? How are we disposing of our waste? While not the core of what Space: 1999 is all about, it's certainly a piece of the puzzle.

  In Byrne's view, "The moral of the series often was found in the divergence of man as Technological Man and man as Biological Man. Biological Man is very undeveloped in terms of Technological Man, and the conflict and the antagonistic nature of Biological Man are always going to confound the successes and productions of Technological Man. I think Chris caught that in 'War Games' and even in 'Black Sun.' The application of metaphysics to science; Technological Man and Biological Man, and the difficulty of reconciling them. It was very important, this whole question of Technological Man and his responsibility for science; scientists and their responsibility for the wonders they produce… We were very concerned about these things."

  Penfold's view is that, "The series philosophy is that we are proud to be a pretty interesting, complex species. That we are cognizant of the possibility that there are much more interesting and complex species out there - of which we may even be a part - but to encounters with which and with whom the adventurous amongst us look forward with great excitement." 

  Breakaway itself was a birth. The Alphan people were truly born in the blast of the Breakaway explosion - separated from Earth, from their past, from the base politics and financial concerns of the mother world. Sent on a one-way journey to meet their destiny - whatever lay ahead of them. Unable to halt the onward progression, hoping only to find a safe and hospitable world where they could live their lives… It's the same for all of us. As Johnny Byrne explained it, this was the epic origin story of a remarkable tribe of humans. This subject was brought up as long ago as 1975 in an otherwise bizarre and negative article on Space: 1999 in Cinefantastique magazine titled 'It's really disco, lost out there!', where the author Brian Stewart wrote, "Isn't there inherent poetry in the fantastic premise of the moon finally released, spinning through the void, taking a tribe of humans with it? I think so. If this had really happened centuries ago, even minus its human cargo, it would today be a legend of epic proportions. Like Gilgamesh and the Great Flood. It would have variants in all cultures."

  Byrne said, "Something that is very important is the concept of an origin story, an origin theme…" And the epic origin story of the Alphans - as Johnny Byrne mentioned over the years - includes mythical qualities and unexplainable elements. And, as in keeping with origin stories, there are also mystical, magical, or religious undertones, to the Alphan journey. The voyage of Moonbase Alpha is not necessarily bound by the currently understood laws of reality or science, and incredible, unexplainable things happen with surprising frequency. 

  While Alpha may not be the real home the Alphans are looking for, they are pragmatic enough to accept it as their temporary home (Helena said in Black Sun, "Something brought us home," to which Koenig replied, "Yes,… home.") As their journey progressed their emotional connection with the Moon and Alpha as their home also increased. Byrne said, "I always saw Space: 1999 as a unifying thing; something that would celebrate humanity no matter how strange and threatening, no matter how absurd and outlandish the places it took us to. That we would always hold on to those things and not simply relinquish them - certainly not easily… The Alphans were people in the process of writing the history of their origins, their time and their place, their values. The Celts did it, the Jews did it; many other races have done this. We were in the process of seeing this, in the beginning, at the modern stage. I think part of the epic quality of Space: 1999 was tied up in that concept. It was something larger than the sum of its parts, and that was the idea of people searching for a place."

  Author James D. Denney also latched onto the significant foundation of the series when he wrote, in a 1976 issue of Art and Story, "The show's creators used the runaway Moon concept as a vantage for observing human behaviour in a situation of total disaster, total uncertainty, totally helplessness in the face of incomprehensible dangers. Moonbase Alpha is a microcosm of human society on Planet Earth, and the errant Moon is in many ways a scale model of our own world - out of control, embattled and wracked by disaster, its inhabitants mercilessly buffeted by forces beyond their comprehension. Some critics complained that the stories were too esoteric, too abstract. But if many episodes seemed to conclude without answers for the questions they raised, if they often seemed to indicate that science is incapable of providing solutions to the overwhelming problems that threaten human existence, if stories were often resolved metaphysically rather than technologically, with the intervention of Something rather like God - perhaps its because such conclusions are closer analogues to our real-life (and real-death) situation on Spaceship Earth than the merely technological or heroic solutions proffered by less cerebral, less cognitive programmes such as Star Trek."

  Christopher Penfold agreed: "I think we were interested in asking questions which could not necessarily be answered… Not affecting closure, I think, is what it's about… What we tried to do was… to stimulate the spirit of enquiry, to promote philosophical speculation. That's a reason why so many of the stories have that 'What next?' kind of ending… We wanted to leave the Alphans' big questions unanswered, because there are no answers - yet."

  Johnny Byrne perhaps summed it up best when he said, "We can ask ourselves, 'What is Space: 1999? What is the basic nature of its appeal in the largest universal sense?' And the [answer is] that it was an epic story. It was humanity condensed to a small number of individuals, with all their hopes and expectations, going out there. And… it was an origin story. A great epic story of a people in search of a destiny (trying to fulfill a destiny) and a home."

  Barbara Bain said, "If one was philosophical about it, the show might be described as an allegory of the human will to survive…"

  So Moonbase Alpha is their abode, and the Moon itself represents the Earth in miniature (but with the worst of mankind symbolically and physically left behind in the Breakaway blast), hurled suddenly and uncontrollably into the unknown… For the lost tribe of Alphans, the Moon and Alpha are their shelter, their refuge, their fortress, their home, and their barrier against the alien and universal threats constantly at danger of destroying them. Alpha and the Moon are also their ship, sailing through the uncharted depths of space, and may yet deliver our wandering heroes to a new world where they can prosper and increase, and begin again.

  My conclusion is that the Moon and Moonbase Alpha are indeed at the heart of what Space: 1999 is. They are characters in this journey, and are intrinsic to the story of the Alphans, and cannot be removed from it. I'm afraid Jace Hall doesn't feel the same, but time will tell…

  As fans of Space: 1999 I think it is important to respectfully raise questions and concerns about Space: 2099 and Jace Hall, and not just welcome with open arms this new series and producer, without a healthy degree of skepticism. After all, if we who have followed the journey of the Alphans so closely for so many years don't stand up to voice our opinions and help influence this new series, and in effect defend all that was great about Space: 1999, then who will?

  What gives me comfort with Jace Hall at the head of this new Space: 2099? Well, for one thing, he has confirmed that he has indeed seen the entire series of Space: 1999. In fact, he says that he has seen the entirety of almost every science fiction television series (which puts him ahead of me!) And I was reasonably pleased with the re-imagined series of "V", of which he was also Executive Producer and primary creative force (despite evident interference from the network.) Additionally, apart from similar statements in the Space: 2099 press release, and in various online locations in the days since, Jace had this to say about his reasons for selecting Space: 1999 as a series to bring back: "I wanted to re-imagine it once I discovered how it could be done in an epic way that captures the heart of what the show was all about in the first place…"

  "Epic" and "heart" - those are certainly a couple of the right words, and they point in the right direction. The words, specifically of Johnny Byrne and Christopher Penfold, that I've quoted in this article clearly state what the show was all about in the first place… I just hope that the characters of the Moon and Moonbase Alpha will be there as part of this epic journey.