Classic Sci Fi TV: Our ongoing look back at many of the classics of science fiction and fantasy television.
What Is It? In this British made series, the Moon gets torn out of orbit Earth’s orbit when a nuclear waste dump erupts in a massive explosion, sending the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha on a journey through the stars.
When Did It Air? 1975-77. ITV (Syndicated in the U.S.), 2 Seasons Totaling 48 Episodes
Starring: Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Barry Morse, Catherine Schell, Nick Tate
Created By: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson
Is It Must-Watch Sci Fi TV? No, but the first season is definitely worth a look as a retro guilty pleasure
The Skinny: This series arrived on the scene in the mid-70’s from the Andersons who had created multiple popular Supermarionation sci fi shows like Thunderbirds, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons as well as the 1970 live action series UFO (more on that gem at this link). The scope for Space:1999 was big with one of the largest budgets a television show had seen at that time and it rode the wave of Star Trek popularity to television–that show had become a phenomena in the syndication market after its cancellation by NBC. The special effects were first-rate for the pre-CGI era and the art direction of the show gave it a certain beauty and alien ambiance. It also followed the typically British trend of mixing horror with sci fi elements. Unfortunately, though, the stories often did not quite match up to the show’s production values. Space: 1999 was already playing fast and loose with science with its basic premise of the Moon hurtling from star to star each week. The weekly stories stretched the science elements even further and the wooden acting and slow pacing did not help matters much either. Still, the first season of the show had a certain charm as it approached 2001: A Space Odyssey headiness with its ambitions, even if the plots easily fell apart upon closer scrutiny. The show started out strong in the ratings, but had fallen off notably by the end of its first year. It barely survived cancellation and Fred Freiberger–hated by many sci fi fans for allegedly ruining the third season of Star Trek–was brought in to “Americanize” the show. Space: 1999 went through many changes in its second year as it amped up the action and shuffled around the cast (dropping fan favorites like Professor Bergman and Paul Morrow without a word). One of the good additions was Catherine Schell as the alien Maya, but she couldn’t help save the show from the monster-of-the-week formula it mostly followed from that point forward, and it was cancelled after it wrapping up its sophomore year. Space: 1999 had it moments, mostly in its first season, and many who grew up with it still have fond memories of the show. But it has not held up well with time and has since mostly faded to a cult curiosity from a past era.
Cancelled Too Soon? Yes. This show was originally produced by ITV on the assumption that one of the major American networks would carry it as a first-run series. But ABC, CBS, and NBC (there were only three at the time) all passed and it went into syndication instead. Some network affiliates actually aired it in Prime Time, preempting regularly scheduled programming, but that did not last long and it was typically shuffled off to Saturday afternoon schedules by mid-season were it was often preempted by sports. The show was nearly cancelled after its first year, but ITV decided to keep it going and made some major changes (as mentioned above), when all that was really needed was better scheduling. The ratings did not improve, but there were still talks of a third season which would have been only thirteen episodes to keep cost down. That did not happen, though, and the show was cut short at 48 episodes which meant that it did not have much life in syndication after its first run.
Revival: In 1999, the fan-produced mini-episode “Message from Moonbase Alpha” made the rounds at several conventions (you can watch it on YouTube at this link). This was penned by series writer Johnny Byrne, and Zienia Merton reprised her role as Sandra Benes sending a message that the Alphans had left the moon to the planet Terra Alpha. This gave the series a finale of sorts and was included in some of the DVD sets. There have since been talks of a reboot of the series from ITV titled Space: 2099, but progress has been very slow on that.
Where Can You Watch It? The entire series has been released on Blu-ray and DVD, though you have to search around to get the latter format at an affordable price. It is also available for streaming at Hulu.
Interesting Fact: If the third season of Space: 1999 had gone forward, there were also plans in the works for a spin-off series starring Maya which would have run concurrently with the parent show. Both would have run for thirteen episodes, though it is not completely clear if Maya would have left Moonbase Alpha or if there would still be a close connection between the two shows.
Did You Play With? Space: 1999 actually produced quite a number of toys, but probably most popular were the die-cast metal Eagle transporters from Dinky Toys. There were two available: the regular transporter with the passenger module and the cargo Eagle with the nuclear waist canisters. The modules could be removed and switched around to each version and these certainly offered hours of fun to young fans of the show.
Further Reading: Robert Wood’s Destination: Moonbase Alpha goes behind the scenes of the show and also gives a detailed look at each of the episodes. And John Kenneth Muir’s Exploring Space: 1999 also gives a great overview of the show and is worth checking out.