Friday, May 19, 2017

Space:1999 Y1 E14: Death's Other Dominion

"We are living people frozen in eternity."
"Is it death that gives meaning to life in the end?"

Adventures of the cerebral kind await Commander John Koenig, Dr. Helena Russell, Alan Carter and Professor Victor Bergman when they respond to a remote signal on nearby planet Ultima Thule.

In honor of all things wonderful by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson we return with another glorious FAB FRIDAY entry by revisiting one of their greatest TV achievements, Space:1999 (1975-1977).

Arriving on icy cold snow planet (189 degrees below at night), Ultima Thule, they find human survivors of the Uranus expedition of 1986. This is one of the many failed human missions first gleaned with the Meta Probe/virus thread touched upon in pilot entry Breakaway. You also have the lost Jupiter mission of the Astro 7 in Matter Of Life And Death. These are just a few examples.

Space:1999 never shied from shining its light on humanity's flaws. Our successes were always coupled with failures. Even trust in Computer was in effect trusting in ourselves, man's flawed creation.

Immediately elements of Space:1999, Year One, Episode 14, Death's Other Dominion rekindled memories of the original Battlestar Galactica's Gun On Ice Planet Zero (1978). At the very least in production design the two share similarities, but, of course, Space:1999 predated Battlestar Galactica by a good three years and featured the celebrated work of Keith Wilson (see here).

With the ice planet themes this writer was half-expecting to see Swedish born actress Britt Ekland appear.

While the storm sequences are effective, Blu-Ray genuinely brings out the best of that makeshift snow that is, seeing it up close, personal and visually sharp, actually foam, but hey it's an alien world so you never know.

It's like Professor Bergman proclaimed in Breakaway "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" (p.61). Things are just different in space particularly within the mythology and approach established by Space:1999 in its ephemeral two year run.

The former Captain of the Uranus expedition, Jack Tanner, played with vigor and Shakespearean aplomb by John Shrapnel, appears to have gone mad in his ice imprisonment, but he is merely one of the lucky ones to escape the damages of experimentation. He and others continue to urge the Alphans to leave and "go home."

But it was Dr. Rowland who lured the Alphans to this place, Ultima Thule. Of course madness is the result of eternal life for these immortals. They cannot create life and they cannot end it. They have lived for 880 years in a kind of time distortion.

Sadly, the deep dark secret and fact is that many, The Revered Ones, live in an almost eternally catatonic, zombie-like state as a result of Dr. Rowland's experiments in a red-hued catacomb that doubles for purgatory or hell. They live as the remnants of Rowland's attempt to control or tame nature and the natural order of life.

The dream is to board a ship called the Phoenix, another wonderful Martin Bower miniature (see here), and live among the stars as immortals escaping this icy prison planet.

Ironically though, as the horror of the episode's final minutes reveal, the Phoenix is quite literally the key to mortality. It is a transport to the end and not the beginning. It is quite literally a rocket tomb should the Thulians choose to use it. It is in fact an escape, but an escape from immortality.

Space:1999 was always a heady science fiction thing more interested in tempting and titillating the mind than filling the screen with sci-fi action adventure nonsense. More often than not Space:1999 embraced real science fiction and horror sometimes fusing them both as it does here in Death's Other Dominion.

Space:1999 often sacrificed good pacing for its deep dive into science fiction concepts yet its amazing production and great use of color always attracted young eyeballs that still managed to comprehend concepts and get the fact this was science fiction like nothing seen before. It slowly weaved its magic around even our young little minds without sacrificing its conceptualizing and storytelling missions. Space:1999 wasn't overthinking its aim to children, but rather focusing on science fiction stories. This was the key to its longevity and success.

However flawed in its attempts Space:1999 was indeed attempting something wildly different in touching upon those existential, metaphysical science fiction themes and largely succeeded.

Death's Other Dominion questions how far humanity might push for that elusive, eternal fountain of youth or the idea of living forever.

"We have the secret to eternal life. Must we also seek to understand it?" Yes, Space:1999 leaves the questions to the audience to consider and reflect never providing easy answers.

Freddie Mercury and Queen would one day sing a song called Who Wants To Live Forever for another immortally themed film called Highlander (1986). The answer here seems to be split.

In many respects Death's Other Dominion posits the simple idea of You Can't Always Get What You Want or The Grass Is Always Greener. Some of the Thalusians clearly have experienced the imprisonment of immortality for too long and most or many wish to leave for Moonbase Alpha happy to shed the idea of living forever for a taste of real happiness even if that existence is finite.

Meanwhile, the visiting Alphans appear to have lost their minds too (or is it the planet's influence?). There is an awful naiveté in their trust of Rowland.

Matters of faith and trust in human ingenuity are one thing but defying nature is entirely another. In this man versus nature tale could it be the unquenchable quest and taste for knowledge that accompanies the scientist has overtaken good sense (because they are literally drinking Rowland's Kool Aid)? Or has the mere desperation of Alphans to escape their own Moonbase imprisonment clouded good judgment?

Clearly there is a great deal of mystery surrounding Ultima Thule and its profound influence on those who reside there.

What we do know is that it is a prison. The icy death trap that is the planet is the sentence for all who enter it and lives will be forever frozen in time.

Ultimately what Death's Other Dominion teaches us is that no matter how much we wish to live forever, cheat death, we cannot escape it. Death will always be at our door. We cannot deny the fate of it try as we might. One day it will come.

Death's Other Dominion: B+.
Writer: Anthony Terpiloff (Collision Course)/ Elizabeth Barrows.
Director: Charles Crichton.

Additional commentary: In keeping with the tradition of offering counterpoint to science fiction and horror author John Kenneth Muir, clearly one of the world's leading experts on all things Space:1999 we return to his still terrific, still relevant book Exploring Space:1999.

The writer dubs the episode "one of Space:1999's most dramatic and effective hours" of television. It's hard to argue against a Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda) and Anthony Terpiloff pairing as they do bring a certain elevated quality to the series.

As noted often by analysts of the series, Space:1999 often analyzes man's over reliance on technology and ultimately offers reasons not to trust it. Muir notes once again the episode continues its "exploration of the downfall of technological man, and human arrogance." As Muir correctly notes, Dr. Rowland exhibits "excessive hubris." The Shakespearean overtones, approach to the entry and use of colorful language is clearly by design in the episode's creation. Indeed the Tanner character and Dr. Rowland are filled with tragic flavors thanks to actors Brian Blessed and John Shrapnel. As Robert E. Wood would note in his book, Destination: Moonbase Alpha The Unofficial And Unauthorized Guide to Space:1999, Dr. Rowland's hubris would be "his downfall."

Ironically, despite an overreliance on technology and despite its failures, Rowland literally intercedes and destroys computer equipment concerned it will actually succeed in foiling his own selfish plans.

Muir is a big fan of this particular installment referring to it as "excellent." Author Robert Wood would concur.

This writer found the entry smart and well-built but probably slightly less enthralling than the aforementioned authors. Still, sometimes viewing vintage work like Space:1999 through an experienced, contemporary lens can present its problems. The magnificent set designs, the wonderfully crackling dialogue and the pensive script once again highlight Space:1999 may have its flaws but by and large refused to dumb down material to tell a story or shine a light on the human condition. It's impossible to deny this is a high quality affair in 1975.


Spacer Guy said...

I've watched Space: - I'll never forget that music and weren't the spaceships great!!!

SFF said...

The Eagle designs rank among the very best in science fiction! I agree with you. And, as you note, some of the other ship designs were fascinating too.

Thanks Spacer Guy ("Now that's a Star Trek" lol)