Friday, January 29, 2010

Space:1999 Y1 Ep2: Matter Of Life And Death

Welcome back!

It's FAB FRIDAY people! We look back at Gerry & Sylvia Anderson's epic classic Space:1999.

We return to the isolated moonscape reality of Space:1999 and our moonbase Alpha residents. Space:1999, Year One, Episode 1, Breakaway, was a good table setter. It exhibited the series' potential. It will be interesting to see where things go in this second installment. Nevertheless, the production values are very high. The show looks superb and this digitally remastered set is how a science fiction series should look at least on standard DVD for a show from the mid-1970s. Babylon 5 is a great example of a set allegedly digitally remastered, but the print looks terrible in comparison to Space:1999. You wouldn't think that would hold true for a set two decades older than Babylon 5. Space:1999 was critically knocked, but it's like comfort food for this Sci-Fi Fanatic. I'm not sure if the criticism is fair, but a thorough examination is forthcoming.

When we last left off the denizens of Moonbase Alpha had broken away from Earth's orbit due to a nuclear blast on the moon. The team is in Alpha's command and control center, dubbed Main Mission [Year One]*, when Eagle One returns from its reconnaissance mission. Its report indicates Terra Nova [New Earth] has the resources capable of human sustenance. According to the ship's pilots, the planet is "just waiting there for us." Suddenly an electrical charge hits the ship and its pilots. Aid is needed. A rescue crew is en route for the latest entry of Space:1999, Year One, Episode Two, Matter Of Life And Death.

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Those flashy opening montages with the quick edits are just too damn good to pass up, especially with the image synopsis they throw at you for the episode in play. It's too damn cool. Ron Moore's reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica [2004] implemented a similar approach to each entry's opening. The space tube transport arrives to find the pilots are still alive. When the transport arrives Russell, Koenig and Bergman find an extra passenger on board. The passenger is no ordinary passenger. The man happens to be Dr. Russell's husband. Koenig is probably less than enthused. Still, this is only the second installment of Space:1999 and the Koenig/Russell relationship dynamic hasn't been explored enough to feel that tension. I can't help but imagine the arrival of Russell's husband might have been better served later in Year One. Interestingly, one of the pilots is actor Stuart Damon. While viewing Babylon 5 we noted the appearance of actor Tristan Rogers who played Scorpio on the long-running soap opera General Hospital. Damon, too, was also a regular on the aforementioned soap as Dr. Alan Quartermaine. He's much younger and thinner here. I'm not proud of it, but I had teenage friends that lured me into the world of General Hospital after school and the ongoing Luke & Laura saga. Good grief, don't ask.
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In the medical bay, Russell indicates her husband has been presumed dead missing for five years. I can't help but note that the British/ American ensemble cast is such a unique blend of casting. It's not something you see often, but it's a hell of a hybrid here. More on this splendid cast at the end of the entry. Allegedly her husband's mission failed while locked in orbit around Jupiter. Russell indicates they lost contact. Koenig believes radiation had a hand in it. I'm beginning to think radiation may have a hand in alot in Space:1999, but it makes sense. Nuclear power and radioactive waste has always been a big part of our global conundrums, but it was especially disconcerting in the 1970s when the Cold War was growing colder. Russell indicates that man in sick bay is her husband Lee. She is in a mild state of shock it would seem. Bain plays it beautifully really. Koenig is suspicious as their moon is billions of miles away from Jupiter. The two are informed they are needed in sick bay. One thing is clear, Gerry Anderson was fortunate to obtain a handful of truly seasoned, semi-veteran actors for Space:1999. They are a pleasure to watch as they truly light up the screen. I suspect this wonderful cast and a plethora of terrific guest stars managed to elevate some of the weaker scripting along the way.
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The moon has located planetside of Terra Nova and the team on Moonbase Alpha is eager to head down to the multi-colored planet. Koenig refuses to implement a full station evacuation to the planet below until he knows more about what happened to the Eagle One on on its return. It's a sensible move by a very sound leader in one Commander John Koenig. Pilot Carter is a little anxious and voices the anxiety of the rest of Moonbase Alpha's desire to relocate to Terra Nova. Should we not implement a touch of caution like Koenig ye young Alphans?
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In sick bay, Lee Russell is regaining consciousness. Koenig asks for Bergman's assessment. Bergman suspects he may have been trapped on Terra Nova and adapted to the environment there. The mutations in his body may be eluding the reading capabilities of Earth's medical instruments. Koenig still wonders what we're all wondering. How did Lee Russell get aboard the Eagle One?
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Koenig speaks with Russell about bringing her husband out of his comatose state. Russell wants to proceed with caution. Koenig needs her to move faster. In three days Moonbase Alpha will be out of range of Terra Nova, which is forcing the urgency. The moon is literally moving across space and time. Russell relents and agrees to make an attempt to revive Lee. Koenig attempts to ask the man questions but he fades back out of consciousness once again. Lee speaks with Russell in private once her colleagues have exited the room. Lee is actually alert, but played dead until the men were gone. Lee asks Helena where he is. She explains he is on Moonbase Alpha, which was knocked loose from Earth's orbit due to a nuclear event as covered in Breakway. Lee grabs Russell's shoulders and she is electrified, tossed clear across the room and knocked unconscious.
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I do love those Eagle shots!
In Main Mission, Alpha control, we are treated to a small moment with that cute, little brunette Sandra Benes. With her unique accent she has a very Chekov quality about her. You can clearly sense the influence of Star Trek as Main Mission watches the view screen much like the crew of Star Trek watched theirs aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. Still, let's be clear, there is a very special flavor and quality to Space:1999 as original and different as Star Trek but never achieving the same degree of acclaim for its outlook and vision of space. There is no question about it.
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Nice belt. I like it!
Koenig is summoned to Dr. Russell's quarters where he is brought up to speed regarding the Russell/Lee incident in the care unit. She believes she passed out. Koenig isn't buying it. Russell tells Koenig she was talking with Lee. He is surprised to learn he was cognizant. He is uncertain Lee is really her husband. We are beginning to learn Koenig is very intuitive and a man of good sense. Koenig is quite close to Russell in her quarters, but we have no reason to believe their relationship is any more than professional at this point.
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Later, Bergman and Koenig review a physical scan of Lee's body heat signature which indicates he is perfectly normal. A second scan shows absolutely no body temperature. Koenig asks the question. "Is Lee Russell dead or alive?" Koenig knows it takes billions of years for a human to adapt to anything. There's no way Lee can pull off such an evolutionary feat in just five years.

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Helena is being tapped as an energy source for her alleged husband Lee. Lee throws a care unit attendant down. As a tussle is underway, Helena arrives and Lee immediately calms. Koenig wants to speak with Lee in his office. He orders Helena to stay away from Lee. His commander instinct is good and he knows something is clearly amiss even if Helena doesn't want to accept it. "What are you doing on Alpha?" Koenig probes with several questions in succession. Lee informs them they are all in danger. Bergman inquires if the planet is inhabited. Lee tells them Yes, but "not in the way you think." He warns them all to stay away from the planet. Koenig knows they are marooned on Moonbase Alpha and cannot sustain life indefinitely.

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Moments later Lee Russell sits down and whispers "Helena" and dies. Dr. Mathias confirms he is dead. It's a touch melodramatic, but good.
Terra Nova is passing by Moonbase Alpha and Bergman is working hard to determine what happened to Russell. Koenig is ready to move to Phase two and get personnel to the planet below. He puts unnecessary pressure on himself and Bergman. Bergman asks for an hour to run skin tests. Koenig agrees reluctantly. It's slightly out of character to see Koenig making such a rash decision to get to that planet. Moonbase Alpha is clearly not in dire straits at this time and an ignorant decision to the new planet could prove lethal. It flies in the face of a sensible Commander Koenig. The move to go there feels irrational based upon the evidence thus far and the lack of facts set before the Alphans in particular Koenig.
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The CommLock. A nifty device with the same screen size and color of that found on my father's kitchen table TV as a child. Go figure.
Dr. Russell isn't completely broken up by Lee's passing, but then again I'm not sure she ever really believed he was alive. She gives some indication of my suspicion to Koenig. She tells him "I guess I never really had him back. I'm alright." Eagle Two is on standby for departure. Bergman arrives in Main Mission and the control console closes for a private meeting. It's a pretty cool technical development as Koenig's command console can be enclosed for private meetings by a sliding wall. Bergman informs Koenig of some pure science fiction. Good stuff.

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This is just sick design work. It's off the charts I tell ya.
Koenig informs the crew they will be exiting and evacuating Moonbase Alpha for Terra Nova. "At best it's a calculated risk." I'd say so. I feel as though Commander Koenig is acting out of some unreasonable desperation here. He is obviously weighing the life support option of remaining on the Moon against their chances of survival on Terra Nova, but at the same time there is far too much evidence pointing to a very big unknown on the planet below and little evidence to suggest they should jump ship immediately. It also points to the potential for death. I'm not sure I would roll that dice. It doesn't feel like there has been sufficient calculation of any kind. Death is not a good option. This is a really frustrating development and flies in the face of the kind of sound and sensibly decisive leader we were beginning to know. Koenig assembles his team with Carter, Morrow, Benes and Russell. He asks Bergman to stay behind to take over his command should something go wrong. It will. It should based upon the evidence here. This is really not a sound plan.
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As Koenig and crew prepare to take off. Two staffers in the Medical Section are electrocuted by the deceased body of Lee Russell and thrown across the room. His body disappears. As the countdown for lift off commences, Bergman contacts Koenig to inform him of the Medical lab incident that resulted from the attempted autopsy of Lee Russell. Bergman informs him the body has vanished and tells Koenig to abort the mission. Seven seconds and counting. Bergman calmly pleads with Koenig to reconsider the launch, but Koenig indicates "we'll just have to face those risks." Off they go to the planet of Terra Nova. Bergman fully embraces the role of good sense first established by Koenig. Sound judgment has left the building or the Moonbase. What the hell is Koenig thinking? All of the evidence points to a major unstable situation with more evidence than you can shake a stick it that points to a significant unknown. Space:1999 is clearly all about the great unknown, but that doesn't mean the denizens of Alpha have to fly in the face of sound human behavior in facing it.
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The set design for the planet is amusingly fake, but still pleasant in all its lavish orangish and red colors. It's also a delight to the eyes because of the steep contrast to the dark mood of the show to date. The Eagle has landed. Carter will remain with the Eagle until the two parties rendevouz back at the bird in 1800 hours. The whole decision seems significantly risky and entirely incomprehensible. I mean, this isn't a calculated risk. This is anti-matter, black hole sized risky! The writers go too far or make some giant leaps with what is a conceivably interesting story and some good ideas and moments, but the missteps are great.
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The parties explore what amounts to a colorized version of a Lost In Space [1965] set. Folks, I'm all about Lost In Space. I'm all about sets and miniatures and real, tangible make-up, so I'm digging this. It's really quite impressive just as the sets on Lost In Space were impressive ten years earlier. Parrots and flora seem to be the order of the day. How did parrots get there? Perhaps they were brought there by man or they aren't real at all. Russell tests an orange, rusty-colored watering hole with one of her handy testing devices. With the touch of three buttons, A-B-C to be exact [this is high-tech stuff], the information and results are transmitted all the way back to Moonbase Alpha. "No impurities" reports Bergman. Koenig and Russell drink to that, "Clear fresh water." I wouldn't call it clear. The rubber fruit is apparently edible as well. I was a little surprised there was no mention of the bird species by either Koenig or Russell.
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Bergman reports a problem to Koenig. The atmosphere sealers and insulation aboard the Eagle are "acting up a bit" according to Carter. The teams heads back to the Eagle. Everything is going terribly wrong and going south quickly. Carter is stuck inside the Eagle which is now engulfed in smoke. Paul Morrow's laser gun misfires. Benes has gone blind. The Eagle explodes. Bergman reports the situation on Moonbase Alpha is deteriorating rapidly as well. Moonbase Alpha explodes and some seriously crazy stuff is happening on Terra Nova. Benes is missing amidst the wind and turmoil on the planet. Things have gone very badly very quickly here. It's pure chaos in minutes. Koenig manages to get Russell undercover before falling rocks literally take him out. All I can say is, they were warned. So much for risking it all. Koenig whispers to Russell that they almost made it. He dies. Helena cries.
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Seconds later Lee reappears before Helena to rub it in. "I tried to stop you coming here." Lee informs her he was transformed by radiation off Jupiter and was scattered into deep space. "Matter never dies, changes its form." He is anti-matter man. He couldn't survive in her world and she cannot survive in his world. "See what you want to see." She is given the power and strength to make it all better and to put things right. Koenig is alive. The flowers and birds are back. All is well. "We cannot stay here John," she tells Koenig. Bergman informs Koenig Operation Exodus is ready. He informs Bergman to cancel. They won't be coming to Terra Nova. Great news and lucky news since moments earlier Koenig was dead. Huh!? What!? What the hell just happened? It's a bit too tidy. Why did Lee come to Moonbase Alpha anyway? If they were all destined to die and then be saved by him, who really isn't him, why would Lee even bother really? There are some gaping holes in logic here that I seem to be missing.
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Back on Moonbase Alpha a bit of sadness comes over Russell as she sees Terra Nova sink away and, in a sense, any representation of what was her husband Lee. She says farewell to her late husband with some closure however questionable his existence. The problem for me was the lack of character development or emotional foundation between Russell and her later husband. Still, this is just one in a whole host of issues touched upon in Matter Of Life And Death. There are some great ideas in this installment that just never quite come to life [pardon the pun]. Perhaps some commentary from Writer Johnny Byrne over at The Catacombs says alot about a rushed re-write and efforts to bring a story into focus from an already established script. Nevertheless, Byrne exemplifies his class and this is just the beginning of big things to come for Johnny Byne on Space:1999. "I shared the credit with Art Wallace, because the basic idea, no matter how far we had departed from it, was his. I could have taken the full credit but I was happy to take a shared credit. Matter of Life and Death had been written too hazily and could've done with a lot more rethinking about it, but it had to be done." There's alot to Byrne's words here and it translated to the small screen.
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The Philosophy of Space:1999: "We're a long way from home, and we're going to have to start thinking differently if we're going to come to terms with space." [Bergman]
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Matter Of Life And Death: C+
Writer: Art Wallace & Johnny Byrne.
Director: Charles Crichton.
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Director footnote: Director Charles Crichton [1910-1999] would direct eight episodes of Space:1999 Year One and six episodes of Space:1999 Year Two. Crichton would become internationally known for his absolutely hysterical and classic film A Fish Called Wanda [1988] starring Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Cleese and Michael Palin. Crichton would be nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay [co-written with John Cleese]. A lasting, impressive legacy.
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Author John Kenneth Muir, a staunch advocate for the pilot Breakaway, is even less supportive than me perhaps of this entry and gives a host of good reasons why this episode fails in Exploring Space:1999. I'll offer you his key points because they are just too damn good to bypass. He calls the entry "crippled by plot-holes and poor character motivation, not to mention a seriously wrong-headed conclusion." This simply reinforces the episode I experienced. He's not wrong, as I mentioned, Matter Of Life And Death has its problems. He feels the tidy conclusion I referenced the weakest portion of the entry.
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One of the biggest problems for me is thoroughly redressed by Muir and that is the decision-making of Commander John Koenig. He first points to his sound leadership in Breakaway, but then points to the "erratic" nature of his thinking here. For a short series, based solely on what we saw in the pilot, Koenig throws his cautious nature out the window in a radical move and it makes no sense whatsoever. I couldn't agree more. There is a huge disconnect here. Muir calls this misdirection a result of a poor script by its scriptwriter. He points to the fact that none of the characters grow from their poor decisions. They simply are. When it's all over there are no consequences to Koenig's actions. The universe simply gives them another chance. Muir calls it "thoughtful of the universe." Very funny stuff. He indicates the series never paints this kind of portrait of Koenig as a leader ever again. It's a good thing too, because in reality, they would all be dead as of the second installment. Can you imagine a two episode series? He also points to a missed opportunity, whereby Russel's character could have been the focus. Bain is still kept at a distance for us to embrace caring about her and this might have been an opportunity to learn more about her. That's a fair point.
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The scriptwriter also mishandles the concept of anti-matter versus matter. Muir points to another poor example in Star Trek: Generations. The aforementioned film at a 35 million dollar price tag was an utter disaster and Space:1999, with its budget limitations, "should not be judged too harshly." Still, while the ideas are there, Muir reckons the series, despite limitations, still had some firepower technically and were going for the explosive, rousing conclusion rather than a logical script.
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All in all, this is a messy second outing whereby logic is completely thrown out the window in favor of effects. Muir says, "This is not an open-ended mystery that inspires imagination. It is a confused story with an implausible ending." This coming from one of Space:1999's fairest champions.
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The Cast: The regular cast was noted in the Breakaway entry. Here is a brief overview of cast highlights from this impressive international cast.
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Martin Landau [1928-present]. American born. Space:1999's Commander John Koenig. He appeared in 47 of the 48 Space:1999 episodes except Year Two, Episode 21, Dorzak. Landau first landed roles in Maverick, The Twilight Zone [1959-1964; Mr. Denton On Doomsday & The Jeopardy Room], The Untouchables, Rawhide, Bonanza, The Outer Limits [1963-1965; The Man Who Was Never Born & The Bellero Shield], The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Wild, Wild West, Gunsmoke and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. [featuring Robert Vaughn who would later star in Gerry Anderson's The Protectors]. Landau signed on for the part of Rollin Hand written especially for him in Mission:Impossible [1966-1969] for three seasons [76 episodes]. He received a Golden Globe Award in 1969 for his role as Rollin Hand in Mission: Impossible. This was followed by Space:1999. Landau went on to appear in film and television including: Meteor [1979], The Return Of The Six Million Dollar Man And The Bionic Woman [1987], Murder She Wrote. I vividly recall our favorite Space:1999 commander resurfacing in the late 1980s. I had all but remembered him as John Koenig and, to me, he had finally arrived outside of that universe. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Tucker: The Man And His Dream [1988]. He did in fact win the Golden Globe for his role. He was nominated yet again for Best Supporting Actor for Director Woody Allen's Crimes And Misdemeanors [1989]. This was a huge breakthrough role for Landau. Landau finally won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Director Tim Burton's Ed Wood [1994] playing the role of Bela Lugosi. He has since appeared in the films The X-Files [1997], The Majestic [2001] and 9 [2009]. He has since received Emmy nominations for his television work in Without A Trace [2004-2005] and Entourage [2006-2008]. This is a mere snapshot of a vast catalogue. Landau was married to fellow actress Barbara Bain from 1957-1993.
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Barbara Bain [1931-present]. American born. Space:1999's Dr. Helena Russell. Bain won three consecutive Emmy Awards for her role as Cinnamon Carter in Mission: Impossible in 1967, 1968 and 1969.
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Herbert "Barry" Morse [1918-2008]. British born. Space:1999's Professor Victor Bergman. Sadly, Morse passed away in 2008 and dedicated his body to medical science. He is best known for his role as Lt. Philip Gerard on The Fugitive [1963-1967]. Morse appeared in The Untouchables, The Defenders, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Invaders, The Saint and The Twilight Zone. He actually appeared in The Outer Limits with Carroll O'Connor and Grace Lee Whitney of Star Trek: The Original Series fame in an episode called Controlled Experiment. It was shot as a pilot but was passed over for My Favorite Martian with Bill Bixby. Speaking of Martians, Morse appeared in a version of Author Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles [1979] along with actress Nyree Dawn Porter of Gerry Anderson's The Protectors and actor Roddy McDowall.
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Prentis Hancock [1942-present]. British born. Space:1999's Paul Morrow. He also appeared on Doctor Who, the Tom Baker years.
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Nick Tate [1942-present]. Australian born. Space:1999's Captain Alan Carter. He has quite a resume too. He appeared in a wonderful Aussie film called The Year My Voice Broke [1987] [starring a young Noah Taylor] as well as a number of other Aussie-based productions. He has also appeared on The X-Files, Farscape [A Constellation Of Doubt], Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [Honor Among Thieves] and Lost [Tabula Rasa].
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Zienia Merton [1945-present]. British-based. Brunei born. Space:1999's Analyst Sandra Benes. She is, for obvious reasons, an extremely popular guest at sci-fi conventions globally. She appeared in 35 episodes of Space:1999 across Year One and Year Two. She appeared in Return Of The Saint [The Nightmare Man] and with Tony Anholt in Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense [The Late Nancy Irving]. She even appeared opposite William Hartnell's Doctor Who [Marco Polo] [1964].
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Clifton Jones [1942-present]. Jamaica born. Space:1999's David Kano. To my utter surprise he was the voice of Blackavar in the animated film Watership Down [1978]. It is one of my all-time favorite animated films based on the book by Richard Adams.
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Anton Phillips [1943-present]. Jamaica born. Space:1999's Dr. Bob Mathias.
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Suzanne Roquette [1942-present]. German born. Space:1999's Tanya Alexander. She appeared in the HBO Mini-Series Band Of Brothers [2001].
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Moonbase Alpha: It's worth analyzing the layout of Moonbase Alpha for the uninitiated. It was built inside a crater on the Moon. It was designed as a space exploration station and as monitoring station for the nuclear waste disposal being stored on the far side of the moon. It is both solar and nuclear powered. There are 5 Launch Pads on Moonbase Alpha. Eagles ascend on the Launch Pads to the base surface from undergound hangars. The Eagles are stored and maintained underground. Cylindrical Travel Pods are transported across base through Travel Tubes. Alphans reach the Eagle Launch Pads via these Travel Tubes. There are 8 Anti-Gravity Towers surrounding the base to stabilize gravity for Moonbase Alpha. There are peripheral Research locations outside of Moonbase Alpha complete with Launch Pads. The Moon also houses Nuclear Disposal Area 1 and Nuclear Disposal Area 2 as evidenced in Breakaway.
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The base itself is comprised of six sections. Command is the office location of the commander of Moonbase Alpha adjoined with Main Mission. Main Mission is the command and control area of Alpha in Year One. This includes a view screen and Computer. Command and Control would be located underground to a more protected, safer area of the base dubbed Command Center for Year Two. Additionally, there is a Service Section, Technical Section, Reconnaissance Section [Eagles], Medical Section and Security Section. Alan Carter is section chief of Reconnaissance. Dr. Helena Russell is section chief of Medical. Tony Verdeschi is section chief of Security in Year Two.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Avatar

I like to let things simmer down a bit before I take the plunge. I don't fall prey to the hype and buzz that surrounds the so-called latest and greatest craze. I just don't. Heck, I haven't even seen Farscape in its entirety. By waiting things out it allows us to take a more neutral, unbiased, uncolored view of the product I think. I think some of those energies can really shade our opinions. After the craze fades, you just walk in and take it for what it is.

I unwrapped my plastic 3D ray bans and sat back with popcorn in hand, extra salt and extra butter [you only go this way once] and prepared myself for the film of a lifetime. That's what we've been told. Let's face it, it's been pretty pumped up and is now the biggest selling film of all time. Director James Cameron's much anticipated Avatar begins.

My very first reaction was, and I literally said this to myself honest to God, "we've come a long way since Space:1999." Don't get me wrong, I love those traditional, campy ;), miniature effects of the classics and I'll take that science fiction over and above the CGI science fiction any day, but this film was something bold and different visually and reason enough its getting all the attention.

The virtual world of Pandora was the film. The character and the life forms that populate the fictional planet of Pandora were the highlight for me. The story was simplistic. There wasn't a whole lot there to challenge the mind here, but what was up there on the screen was a fully realized, foreign planetary body of visual candy and well worth the visit.

It's clear, unless you're brain dead, Cameron's served up his take on corporate American greed and the military. His politics are certainly built into the film. There's the military campaign against the native Navi people that he equates to a "shock and awe" effort. The military also strikes first against this peaceful planet and as the native inhabitants amass a return volley the marine commander indicates he will fight "terror with terror." Well, the variables in this film aren't exactly the same as those found in our own global war on terror, but he makes his case with dialogue and Pandoran symbols. We get it James. We're killing the planet. We're [especially Americans] bad people. No one else appears to be polluting the planet. We got it. Was I rooting for the Na'vi? You betchya! It's hard not to, but I didn't exactly relate to the marine-like goons with the intelligence of a hammer portrayed on the screen for Avatar. They were nearly inhuman. Still, as I thought about it, this is nothing new. In Aliens, Cameron's marines were doing the bidding of an evil corporation on an alien infested planet as well. After all, we were colonizing off world with a covert imperative to inevitably gain weapons technology by extracting the local xenomorphs. It wasn't even a problem if folks got impregnated. Again, corporations bad. Oh, and Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver who appears in both films, was originally a scientist there like she is here in Avatar. Anyway, we got what we had coming in Aliens, but we weren't brow beaten with the message . Avatar takes Cameron's message to another level, and is about as subtle as a Pandoran rock fruit to the head, but it's still a damn fine film. The intended, not-so subliminal politics aside, there is a vibrant, colorful film that is a truly amazing visual, visceral experience to the senses.

To prove my point, James Cameron has had a few remarks in the press regarding American culture that are not exactly positive. This is one of them. "Really what this film ultimately does is hold a mirror to our own blighted history, where we have a culturally advanced civilization supplanting more “primitive” civilizations. Some of these civilizations and cultures have a lot more wisdom than we’ve shown. We just have bigger guns. We have ships that can cross oceans, we have horses and armor. And this country we’re in now was taken from its indigenous owners. And it’s kind of owning up to our own human history."

All of that aside, Cameron can make movies that move. By the way, those same people he's quick to reprimand are the same people distributing and promoting his film. The fact people are buying up his tickets in every concrete-built theatre house doesn't seem to be a problem. Trust me, we're all part of the problem, but so is Cameron. I'm making the point because it's hard to dismiss it because it is so woven into the fabric of his story. It's worth the discussion.

As entertainment, the film must be seen in 3D. It's worth the few extra dollars. One of the biggest highlights for me was the layered depth of the planet Cameron created in Pandora. The colors, textures and vibrancy of this bold new world is a joy to behold. In 2D it's clear you would miss some of the splendor, shock and awe of what he was trying to achieve. I remember writing about the much anticipated trailer and being disappointed by it visually, but cautioning that it might actually prove out to be much more explosive in impact in 3D. This rings true and 3D is the only way to see it. His 3D camera technology is so state of the art that it's fairly seamless in the viewing experience. You are part of the picture not distracted by it like the old 3D gimmicks [Jaws 3 3D anyone?]. Avatar won't look as good in 2D. It's that simple.

There were questions I kept asking myself as the film progressed that I have since forgotten and they just never get answered. Still, these shortcomings aside, the picture is an experience. The story, while simple and effective, is thankfully overshadowed by the power of the visual experience, the creative world and the stunning details of Cameron's Pandora creation. The tribal culture of the Navi reminded me of some of what I saw recently in Apocalypto. I enjoyed those details immensely in both films. In fact, it's interesting how the jungles, plants and waterfalls are captured in those aforementioned films in two uniquely different ways.

Avatar is unfortunately not the greatest movie of all time, but these things are subjective. While I'm a sci-fi fanatic it's not my favorite science fiction film of all time. You can give me a crashing Eagle One into dirt on a model set any day. Cameron's heavy-handed message aside, I did enjoy the picture. As a viewer I can relate to and appreciate the humanitarian bent of the film. Avatar is a solid adventure story. In the end, some folks clapped, some didn't. The Boy Wonder did a little. Pandora is worth a look. It's a tremendous work of art.

Avatar: A visual experience/ B- story.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Space:1999 Year One Ep1: Breakaway

The stunning visual effects of a Gerry Anderson science fiction adventure produced in 1975.

It's FAB FRIDAY with a look inside the world of Gerry & Sylvia Anderson!

Welcome to the bleak realities of Space:1999. This one has been staring me in the face for quite some time. Most of my science fiction DVDs do that you know. They stare at me in their pretty little cellophane wrappers no less. They are eager for me to watch them. They talk to me. Of course I can only pick one at a time and these are difficult decisions you see. Still, this one has been eyeing me steadily and I have been anxious to rekindle the fire with the old flame.

I absolutely love and adore the Eagle and you will too. When I was maybe seven years old my brother would say to me whenever I said I loved something, "If you love it so much would you marry it?" My answer to the Eagle: "Yes, yes I would."
The old girl of which I speak is the 30th Anniversary Edition: Space:1999. It's a 17 DVD Megaset don't ya know? It stars the one, the only Barbara Bain and Martin Landau released in 2007. This is a Gerry Anderson production. Gerry Anderson, and it's no secret, is the mastermind behind this classic and it's probably his biggest success behind that of the wonderful Thunderbirds series. Thunderbirds was a phenomenon out of the gate in the UK. Space:1999 had a seemingly different response. It wasn't unsuccessful but it was a harder sell. It was also more sophisticated, darker and complex in its science fiction and intentions.

We won't go back in time nearly as far as Lost In Space or Star Trek: The Original Series by any means, but we are stepping back. Space:1999 and the Eagle landed in 1975 for two seasons until 1977. My memories of the series are fond, but certainly few and far between. I do not have the series steeped in the memory banks in quite the same way as Thunderbirds [1965-19566], Lost In Space [1965-1968] and Star Trek [1966-1969]. Perhaps it was the result of being a British-based sci-fi TV series, but then I never had trouble accessing Thunderbirds. For some reason, I just did not get the access to it and it never hit syndication with quite the same repetition as the aforementioned series. I was on a steady diet of Lost In Space and Star Trek reruns as a kid thanks to heavy syndicated rotation. Space:1999 caught my eye a few times. I may have seen more than I remember too. I do recall the alien female who was able to change into any variety of alien or animal lifeforms in Space:1999 Year Two. She came along in the second season and we will cover that more in detail when we get there. The two seasons were referred to as Year One and Year Two.

I love the honkin' shoulder zippers on those uniforms. But, I wouldn't marry them.
For now, let us embark on the adventures of Space:1999. As part of Fab Fridays and all things Gerry Anderson we launch to reacquaint ourselves with this series' highlights and lowlights. I don't know if I will have the same affection for it this time around as I did enjoying it as a child. I certainly loved shuffling around in feet pajamas with a bowl of Jiffy Pop popcorn and a good, old-fashioned episode of Space:1999 back in the day, but will it hold up? Does anything ever hold up? Why certainly, of course some do. Do most series hold up? Hmm, well, I do love Lost In Space despite its cheese and Star Trek is just pure, dead brilliant despite the fact both are over forty years old. The classic Battlestar Galactica [1978] has its stock repetition problems, but it still overcomes most of those annoyances today. Babylon 5 [1994], despite some horribly dodgy CGI, still manages to wow with its tale. So in keeping with Anderson's English heritage, to quote British musical outfit The Beautiful South, "I think the answer's Yes, I think the answer's Yes!"

I suspect my affection is still there for Space:1999 or at least I hope so. Speaking of affection I definitely had a thing for Barbara Bain, but she was definitely an older figure to me. Still, she was sexy to me in my small little world. The things I could do with that zipper. Martin Landau turned out to be a very successful actor working for the likes of Woody Allen in Crimes And Misdemeanors [1989; he was nominated for an Academy Award] and winning an Academy Award for Ed Wood [1994], but that was long after this little science fiction jaunt. I used to implore with people that Landau was once in a science fiction series called Space:1999, but since they had no sense of history when it came to science fiction my attempts to educate were lost on them. Oh well. In fact, Bain and Landau had a little duet going earlier in the ensemble series Mission:Impossible [1966-1967 Desilu Productions; 1967-1973 Paramount]. You'll recall Desilu handled Star Trek initially before being purchased by Paramount as well. Bain and Landau would depart Mission:Impossible to work with Gerry Anderson on Space:1999 [did Bain and Landau have a thing for colons?]. The two starred in Mission:Impossible Season One, Two and Three. They were replaced in Season Four by Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy. Bain played the part of Cinnamon Carter and Landau the role of Rollin Hand. The two were often working together, which began with their wedding to one another in 1957. They were married until 1993. Ironically, both were American actors working for Gerry Anderson. This was by design as Anderson hoped to secure financial support from the American market. Space:1999 could not be funded by British financiers alone. There is great detail given to this topic in John Kenneth Muir's Exploring Space:1999.

This A&E collection is allegedly Complete Uncut and Digitally Remastered. I've heard those promises before via Babylon 5 and the quality on that DVD collection was less than stellar. Still, when you love something you love it despite its flaws. Let the fun begin as I assess the first episode through these "prettiest eyes" [another The Beautiful South reference] to see how it holds up after all these years.


The best miniature sets in the universe.
We are slowly introduced to a number of cast members as the story begins on The Dark Side Of The Moon September 9th 1999. The scene is Nuclear Waste Disposal Area Two. My immediate reaction is positive to the DVD quality. There is a cinematic quality to the visuals. In fact, there is a quiet to it. It feels like Alien which makes sense as Brian Johnson has provided the visual effects. He gives it a certain atmosphere. Johnson also worked on Alien and The Empire Strikes Back. The score provided by Composer Barry Gray is also superb. It suits the mood of the series perfectly. He is to this series what Composer John Williams was to Lost In Space. Two men are entering an electronically fenced in area to dispose of waste from an Eagle transport vessel. Dr. Helena Russell [Barbara Bain] and Professor Victor Bergman [Barry Morse] are monitoring brain activity. One of the men becomes violent and goes ballistic tossing his partner. The man runs into the electrified fence and cracks his helmet only to go into critical condition. We are treated to the opening credits and it is so exciting and brings back such wonderful memories that I must share it. In fact, Gerry Anderson's openings were deliciously good. In both Thunderbirds and Space:1999 a rapid fire series of quickly edited images from the actual episode were inserted into the opening credits. This concept combined with the rousing score or theme song made for a dramatic, exciting teaser for the installment you were about to watch. It's one of the best moments for the show and is inspiration for up and coming editors-to-be. Here is the one for our pilot.

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You'll note the newly reimagined Battlestar Galactica [2004] employed the same methods for its episode openings. So begins Space:1999, Year One, Episode 1, Breakaway. The transport tubes bring back such memories. I LOVE the transport tubes. I completely forgot about them. Russell informs Commander John Koenig [Martin Landau] that people are dying [nine men so far]. Professor Bergman was always a tremendous supporting character. His amazing sideburns were also stars in their own right. The Commander wonders if they will recover from the virus. Russell indicates it's not a virus, but perhaps radiological in affect. It is an unusual form of brain damage. Koenig wonders when the Meta-probe crew will be ready to research the newly discovered Planet Meta. Russell sees great risk in the mission. Bear with me, I'm slightly confused too as I continue to get my bearings.

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The two injured men rest unresponsive in Alpha's medical center. We meet Captain Alan Carter [Nick Tate], always one of my favorite supporting characters throughout the series. By the way, set designs are exceptional. There is a sterile vibe with loads of white, but there are a great many details to enjoy. Koenig reports back to the powers that be, as represented in the form of shifty Commissioner Simmonds, that the Meta launch must be delayed. Simmonds is played with Machiavellian spirit by Roy Dotrice*. . Koenig asks for a halt on atomic waste deliveries. Simmonds indicates it is one of the most pressing problems of our time. Koenig tells him to cease delivery and he will get the probe launched. Koenig is unafraid to take on the brass. Koenig reports he'll be taking a look at the nuclear disposal area himself.

Fan favorite: Nick Tate.
During Koenig's review from the air it is notable there are vast areas of toxic nuclear waste mounds from all of the dumping on the moon. Area One is full. They are approaching Area Two. The pilot is twitching a bit.

The Space:1999 retro look actually looks space age today. I love the bell bottoms.
Two men, Jackson and Ellis report no radioactive leakage. Meanwhile, as Bergman and Koenig look on, their pilot is quickly falling apart and begins rubbing his eyes. Men have been dying but why? Collins, their pilot, is definitely on edge as Koenig turns to him. He has a white eye and begins going berserk. He attempts to crack a window with his helmet which could kill them all sending them into the vacuum of space. Koenig stuns him with one of those snazzy Space:1999 laser guns. WOW! I remember those guns. I actually had a toy weapon as a child. No one could stop me. My weapon and my sheer agility bouncing across the living room hassock were no match for my brother and cousins in battle. Koenig and Victor subdue Collins and get out of harms way in a nick of time. The glass explodes into space. The men in the medical center have died.

Russell observes the latest victims have succumbed to Stage 5 mutation. All brain activity ceases and the patient dies. No one knows what is killing the men. Earth has tried to downplay the deaths as minor setbacks. Koenig is far more concerned as any good commander would be. On Earth, sinister Simmonds insists nothing will stop them.

Koenig figures out the common denominator. Men are flying over Area One to get to Area Two. Pilots are also performing flight training in that region. Koenig makes a correlation. A camera review of the area results in a destroyed camera. Koenig flies to the area. He gets into trouble and crashes in his Eagle. I love the Eagle. I love the Eagle even when it's crashed. They never did make a die cast Eagle in a crash mold. You may recall I also love crash landings. This entry has a great one. A rescue ship is sent out.

Returned to the medical lab, Koenig is checked out and released. Dr. Russell is less than pleased with Koenig's decision to venture out and risk his life like that. Could this be the start of something special between them both? I suspect there is an undeniable romantic connection. No better time than the pilot to get things started.

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Bergman is concerned about magnetic energy. The magnetic field is building. The professor believes Area Two could be next. An Eagle is equipped for monitoring via remote control. A magnetic surge occurs and crashes the Eagle. I have a feeling Space:1999 has a great many Eagles at their disposal. Koenig confirm's Russell's findings. It was radiation indeed - magnetic radiation. He confirms they are sitting on the greatest bomb man has ever made. The nuclear dumping has caused a very big problem for those located on home away from home, the beloved Moonbase Alpha.

Commissioner Simmonds arrives on Moonbase Alpha from Earth. Simmonds is updated on the existing problem. Four Eagles are sent to the area. Carter heads out in an Eagle One. Koenig gives Simmonds a piece of his mind. Here is a display of Koenig's leadership opposite Dotrice.

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A major nuclear explosion occurs as an Eagle explodes knocking personnel everywhere and the moon off its gravitational orbit. Carter attempts to reach out to Koenig and company. The moon is breaking away from the Earth's orbit as a result of the explosion. All are literally hostage to the g-forces of the moon's movement. Our team cannot move as a result of the planet's movement away from the Earth. The acceleration is overwhelming. Deceleration occurs as everyone regains body control. Carter is en route and headed back to base. He's going to make it.

Koenig reviews a plan on Moonbase Alpha dubbed Emergency Operation Exodus. Decisions will need to be made as a result. The situation certainly seems dire to the citizens of Moonbase.

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Human decision required indicates Computer. Computer is capitalized because it is essentially a character in Space:1999. The cast often refers to "Computer" for information despite their seeming lack of faith in the technology that supports them. I like that. "Human Decision Required." The human interface is the key to the series. Inevitably, good science fiction comes down to character and Space:1999 delivers enough to satisfy if I recollect correctly.

Style is another unique aspect to Space:1999. It clearly presented an alternative science fiction universe and choice to anything that had graced television up to this point. Set design and the uniform of choice is clearly retro 70s in style still holds up and looks pretty damn good today. It was confident and self assured thanks to its vision which does borrow some inspiration from the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fairness, Space:1999 would have a similiar impact later on Alien as many of its special effects people including Special Effects Director Brian Johnson worked on both. Credit is even given to fashion designer Rudi Gernreich in the opening of every episode further highlighting the strength of Gerry Anderson's plan. In much the same way Star Trek uniforms still impress, those found here are equally memorable if less cartoonish. In fact, there is a kind of grounded, earthy allure to these outfits that Star Trek escape with its more fantastical, varied and vibrant colors.

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Back on Earth, the magnetic explosions on the Moon have caused significant loss of life on Earth and much damage too. Moonbase Alpha receives enough of a transmission to know they have lost contact with Earth. Earth's fate is unclear. It is believed there are no survivors. With the space dock gone and the moon's acceleration away from Earth a fact, our band of Earth explorers are very much alone. As the transmission fades the base receives a signal from Meta and Koenig believes that may be where their future lies for the 311 lost scientists and researchers alone in the vastness of unknown space. "Yes, maybe there." This ending actually sets up the overall theme of Space:1999. The series was very much about the great unknown as the moon is thrust into places we know very little about. This sets up the footing, or lack thereof, of each story and challenge week to week that would face the denizens of Moonbase Alpha. The trio of Bergman, Koenig and Russell are perfect representatives for the viewer. Their lack of understanding is ours and we are all in the dark going forward. Where other science fiction adventures seem to have tidy answers, Space:1999 always pounded home the fact that these people were essentially homeless and armed with little information in combating the unusual forces of outer space. This was always an uneasy show to grasp because it took us out of our comfort zones. As children, we certainly never fully appreciated the strange phenomenon in play.

The science fiction was actually fairly solid, the acting very good and the film quality of the DVD itself impressive. It is a visually and technically interesting series. The introductory episode of Breakaway is certainly a solid table setter of things to come. It has some nice moments, but I expect to see some improvements on the whole. It brought back some memories, but left me a little underwhelmed. I suspect it will improve on character development and story with notable highs throughout like most serial television. It was good to see so many familiar faces I had long since forgotten. It was like revisiting old friends. Now that Moonbase Alpha is alone in space hurtling toward an abyss of questions let the fun begin.

The Philosophy of Space:1999: "A giant leap for mankind... it's beginning to look like a stumble in the dark." [Koenig]

Breakaway: B-
Writer: George Bellak [re-write provided by Christopher Penfold]
Director: Lee H. Katzin*
*

Director Footnote: Lee H. Katzin [1935-2002]. Katzin was also filmed the pilot to Man From Atlantis [1977]. Gerry Anderson had these comments regarding Director Lee H. Katzin's handling of the pilot in his wonderful, authorized biography What Made Thunderbirds Go!: The Authorized Biography Of Gerry Anderson [2002] by Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn. "The New York office assured me that Lee Katzin was "the best pilot director in America",' remembers Gerry. 'The schedule to shoot the first episode was ten days, but it overran and we were soon tens of thousands of pounds over budget. Katzin finished editing his footage and screened the completed 'Breakaway' for Gerry. 'It ran for over two hours,' he remembers, 'and I thought it was awful. He went back to America, and I sent a cutting copy of the episode to Abe Mandell. Abe phoned me in a fit of depression, saying, "Oh my God it's terrible - what are we going to do?" I wrote a lot of new scenes myself, and these were filmed over three days. I'm pretty sure I directed them myself. I then totally recut the episode to 50 minutes, integrating the new footage." Given these remarks it is surprising Katzin returned for Anderson on the series third episode, the wonderful Black Sun. The book is now out of print and fairly difficult to find. I was fortunate to find a second hand hardcover copy.
*

As Anderson pointed out, getting Breakaway completed wasn't easy. Ian Fryer offered these additional insights in FAB 65. Lee H. Katzin had shot "too much material." The footage was "dull and slow." Gerry Anderson "was able to supervise the re-editing of Breakaway down to the required length, he personally wrote and directed twenty linking scenes to the by-now disjointed story together." In the end, "it all flowed perfectly and worked as a piece of drama."

Author John Kenneth Muir offers more glowing remarks about the pilot in his book Exploring Space:1999. "One of the most refreshing aspects of this first 1999 episode is its simplicity." He compares the beauty of this episode to the unncessarily long and overly complicated pilots of both Battlestar Galactica [classic] and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Moonbase Alpha is established with stunning detail as are the ships and miniatures thanks to Gerry Anderson's amazing team. He's right when he points to the characters being remarkably distinguished especially with the established leads of Landau, Bain and Morse. The visual effects are superb. I agree with him on all counts especially the miniatures and visual effects. They are simply splendid in their detail and hold up extremely well today. He points the "tension" & "attraction" between Koenig and Russell and this does make for one of the high points of the introduction. Muir gives this entry higher marks than myself, but it is a solid opener. Still, Muir's analysis is exceptional reading.

Year One cast:
Commander John Koenig [Martin Landau]
Dr. Helena Russell [Barbara Bain]
Professor Victor Bergman [Barry Morse]
Paul Morrow [Prentis Hancock]
Captain Alan Carter [Nick Tate]
Sandra Benes [Zienia Merton]
David Kano [Clifton Jones]
Dr. Bob Mathias [Anton Phillips]
Tanya Alexander [Suzanne Roquette]

Special Guest: Roy Dotrice [1923-present]. Dotrice appeared in Babylon 5, Season Two, Episode 22, The Fall Of Night. You can see him here. I had captured an engaging clip of him opposite Bruce Boxleitner. He also appeared in Hellboy II: The Golden Army [2008]. His film and TV credits are fairly extensive.