Friday, February 5, 2010

Space:1999 Y1 Ep3: Black Sun

Getting old sucks! You hear nice things about the golden years, but when you get right down to it things just don't work right. Parts hurt. Don't sugarcoat it man, aging profoundly stinks! Then there's that whole death thing. Martin Landau looks none too happy about it either.
As we accept the inevitable, let's enjoy FAB FRIDAY!

We now return to Space:1999 and a solid set of production values that continue to give the writing a run for its money. An asteroid suddenly changes course and Moonbase Alpha is placed on red alert. With only one minute to prepare the commander and company pretty much brace to be toast. Then, once again, as if moving through space and time with a mind of its own the asteroid changes course yet again, coming within range of Moonbase Alpha enough to shake them up, but not enough to destroy their chances of survival. The rock explodes on screen. A black sun is visible and the commander indicates a gravitational pull is drawing them toward it.

Eagle One is sent on a probing mission. "It's round. It's huge. It's black. Boy is it black." There's the science for you in the latest entry. Here we go with Space:1999, Year One, Episode 3, Black Sun. The pilot indicates, "does anyone have any idea what it is?" I think that's why you were sent out there jack. In a move of sheer genius the commander has the pilot fire Eagle One's laser into the sun with no impact and little affect. Ya think? "It swallows laser light too," the pilot reports. I'm beginning to get nervous about this particular batch of geniuses. Professor Bergman is busy doing impressive mathematical equating. The pilot's name is Michael and apparently has a love interest in Sandra who is back on the base nervous for him on this mission. He's sure to be dead meat then. The commander tells the pilot to get the hell out of there. He's being pulled toward the black hole sun [Soundgarden's Black Hole Sun is quite possibly one of the greatest rock songs of all-time]. The pilot's ship explodes. Shocker! I didn't see that coming. Seriously, no surprise there. Sandra faints. No surprise there either.

Yikes! That is extreme, hardcore math. Science fiction is my happy place. Science fiction is my happy place. Science fiction is my happy place. Whew! All better thanks.
Commander Koenig is sure they will be dead in three days time. Computer is certain as well indicating with 100% certainty that it is indeed a black sun. I'm not sure we needed Computer for that one. The gravitational pull is immense. It's force immeasurable, "even light cannot escape it." Here's the kind of high concepts attempted on Space:1999. The ideas are good if a tad boring and out there. Still, it can be ambitious.

A forcefield is activated around Moonbase Alpha. Sandra, clearly over her loss already [huh!?], indicates "it's beautiful like fish scales." Kano counters, "you can cut through fish scales." This is not the strongest of scripts. Alan Carter pilots an Eagle and fires upon the forcefield for testing purposes. The base is protected and their plan appears to be working. Somehow I imagine the force of the Eagle's laser is slightly less test-worthy when compared to the actual weight and power behind a black sun. I'm just guessing here. Koenig and Bergman give one another a big hug in their orange spacesuits. They are elated. Doctor Russell is not happy with Bergman and Koenig for risking their lives outside the base. Bergman indicates the Computer gave them a 98% chance of survival. Commander Koenig makes his most logical point thus far. This was a morale booster. The truth is revealed. The power and force inside the black sun is far more capable of bending space and time than the Eagle's paltry test. So what's the point asks the doctor.

Commander Koenig has one Eagle left in tact and on standby should there be survivors. The sun is draining base power and it is getting cooler. Paul indicates to Koenig the gravitational pull is increasing exponentially with each passing minute as they move closer to the sun. It's happening faster than originally calculated. Koenig orders Bergman to re-energize the forcefield. They need to ready the lifeboat Eagle. It will provide safety for a handful of passengers. Soon it is determined they are having problems with one of the anti-gravitational units creating the forcefield when it blows. Bergman is electrocuted.
WHAT!? There is a surprising new development in the medical unit. We suspected Bergman would survive. The reason he survived is noted when Russell tells him, "your mechanical heart saved your life you know." WOW. Okay. That was a bit of a surprise and a bit unlikely.

A forcefield protects the base, but what is protecting the moon on which it sits?
Mr. Kano informs Koenig they have four hours remaining. Kano is the computer geek and is certain they cannot survive without Computer. "Is that a fact?" responds Koenig. Personnel are rubbing their hands to keep warm as they are all growing colder on the base. Kano reports Computer has been placed on minimum capacity. Koenig gives him a little dig when he tells Kano and the crew, "now we'll have to think for ourselves." The forcefield is put to the test. Kano is like a dog with a bone. "What about Computer?" Give it a rest geek boy. He can't live without his beloved Computer. I think he would marry it. Chill it man. We're trying to survive here.

Carter approaches Koenig about the lifeboat. He's slightly pissed Eagle Five is loaded and ready to go and as head pilot he wasn't informed. He may have a valid beef. This is actually a pretty good sequence and captures what Space:1999 seems to be lacking thus far, tension.

Clearly Eagle Five was a need to know option. The ship is intended for three men and three women to ensure the survival of humankind in space. Humankind on Earth is in question for a number of reasons I'm not entirely clear including exhaustion of resources. Koenig chooses his six. Carter is selected. Carter is probably feeling like a bit of a heel following his outburst, but I do feel he reacted honestly and additionally perhaps as a pilot concerned for his fellow Alphans' lives. Dr. Russell [you know Koenig loves her] is also chosen along with Sandra and three others. No easy decisions there. There are supplies enough for five weeks. Carter tries to speak. Koenig stops him. "No goodbyes Alan." Dr. Russell prefers to stay. Koenig insists to Russell "it makes a difference... to me." It could be the first notable sign of real affection for her int he series.

The episode has clearly picked up after a rocky start due to some dodgy writing. The transport takes our intended survivalists to Eagle Five. I love that transport tube. Paul has accompanied Sandra to see her off and says goodbye. It's very sweet.

There certainly needs to be further development of this kind of character interaction. It's a genuine highlight. The Eagle lifts off. I love the Eagle and the Transport Tubes. I would marry both. The Eagle is one of Gerry Anderson's finest contributions to science fiction technology and the starship encyclopedia. This, of course, and his Thunderbirds.

There's a bit of levity between Bergman and Koenig as they prepare to, well, die essentially. This is another sweet, pensive moment between Russell and Sandra that considers how trivial our fears are when we were children. Black Sun features some of the finest character moments to date.

Bergman waxes poetic and philosophically with Koenig about science and mysticism, God and what we believe in. The scene speaks volumes about Bergman. He is a man who asks questions and ponders a higher power, while maybe not entirely comfortable speaking of the spiritual outside of his comfort zone of science. He keeps a good head about himself when the chips are down too. After all, it doesn't get much worse than death.

This installment grows stronger and more successful through its character interactions. These moments really shine. We begin to care for the Alphans, empathize with them as a result of their plight and appreciate their sense of acceptance as they come to terms with their fate. Episode three is the best to date in these terms.

Girls love guys with guitars. This is one character we'd like to see a little more of but won't. I like Paul, but I'm referring to the babe alert.
The entry is populated with a host of wonderful little moments like this. I tried to capture most of them here. Moonbase Alpha closes in on the sun. As the episode progressed I found myself really falling in love with the characters for the first time. They were all staring death in the face. The end was coming and these people were contending with their final moments of life. Their fates sealed, peace was settling in their hearts. They were resigned to it. There is courage and real humanity portrayed in the third episode. The moments, again, are very strong.

The moon enters the black sun and Koenig wonders what will happen inside. The forcefield holds. On board the Eagle Five, the surviving six are also affected. I'm not exactly sure why. Back inside the black sun there is an almost trippy 70s vibe. You'd think these guys were smoking something. Koenig and Bergman age into old, old men. They are like a couple of hippie dinosaurs. I feel as though the writers of the show are extremely ambitious, but not entirely successful in their executions. A voice speaks to Bergman and Koenig telling them to come with her. Bergman asks if the voice is that of God. They exit the sun and before they can learn more from the voice they find themselves alive and well and young again. Could divine intervention have been part of their survival here? The odds they faced were certainly not good. Perhaps Bergman will become a believer after all. Koenig is choked up with elation. "The force field held," he exclaims! "I wonder how" questions Bergman. This is when Koenig looks into the vastness of space. Was God out there for them? Certainly Bergman is in disbelief over their good fortunes.
The Eagle Five returns. Koenig is stunned and can only ponder the possibility of some kind of divine intercession. What else could it possibly be?
A celebration ensues following Eagle Five's return. This is a pretty special end to a fairly solid installment in the end. I love Alan Carter's very Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy moment as well.

No cigar issues with the old mechanical heart I suppose.
Something is out there indeed. With all intact on Moonbase Alpha our wayward denizens are calling their base home now. There is something unifying about the Alphans' acceptance of the base as home. This was a good story that began on shaky ground. It makes up for the questionable science fiction with some beautiful character moments and some lovely performances. Not to mention science is clearly trumped here by an inexplicable higher power.
Still, I enjoyed Black Sun for its intimacy.

The Philosophy of Space:1999: "John, have you ever wondered just how and why we've survived?" [Bergman]
Black Sun: B
Writer: David Weir [re-write provided by Christopher Penfold]
Director: Lee H. Katzin

Director Footnote: Lee H. Katzin [1935-2002]. This would be the final episode directed by Lee H. Katzin [Mission:Impossible, Man From Atlantis] who directed the pilot episode Breakway. There were budgetary and time overruns attributed to Katzin's efforts, which hurt him going forward. He had a very successful career as director including Man From Atlantis [1977] before succumbing to cancer in 2002.

Author John Kenneth Muir's brilliant insights into the series continue as extracted from his wonderful book Exploring Space:1999. I always view the episodes and generate analysis before reading Muir's remarks. I also give credit where credit is due. In fact, it was clear upon reading his commentary here that Muir was right there with me on the character development angle. He really enjoyed those elements of Black Sun. There is much "humanizing" as the Alphans must essentially "face death" down. Surprisingly, but not incorrectly, he feels the strengths found in the entry do not excuse the lapses in science fiction logic. He judges the entry more harshly. I was willing to let those earlier setups slide, but Muir is less forgiving and maybe justifiably so.
On the surface, Muir is certainly not a proponent of the visual effects on display in this entry. I would agree. They are weak in comparison to the other installments. It's a bit like being run through a psychedelic 70s groove machine without the disco.
Muir does feel the character strengths simply cannot overcome the plot holes, whereby I was more open to accepting those strengths and making efforts to bridge the gaps in the story. He's not wrong. I kept wondering how Moonbase Alpha's forcefield was going to withstand these higher powers. As Muir suggests, if the moon is destroyed how is a forcefield going to protect the base? He also points to lapses in logic. "These gods are fickle" as he puts it. Earlier in the entry this force destroys an Alphan, but by the end it saves them and is essentially guiding them. So which is it? Is this a malevolent or benevolent god? He's spot on here. Also, he points to dialogue, whereby Bergman feels the forcefield saved them despite the belief in an intervening higher power. Huh? What? There are a lot of logic lapses here. Muir makes a valid point about the logic needed in storytelling. It is necessary to "offer interesting clues (sometimes solely visual clues) that lead toward a logical set of conclusions." Yeah, that's kind of important. There is too much contradiction in play here. His examples will point to the frustrations you'll have viewing the entry. I encountered them as well. Still, I viewed it a little more favorably than Muir on character access alone. It was a step in the right direction for me. In the end, there just weren't enough answers to the questions posed in Black Sun. There's no way for the viewer to "reconstruct" information to formulate answers to the questions. In this, Muir is, once again, absolutely on target. My science fiction imagination is quite vivid, but I'm not sure even that can satiate my thirst for understanding here.
It's noted in the episode guides at that Black Sun was Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Barry Morse's favorite episode. Landau made these comments at a 1978 convention as noted at the terrific website The Catacombs. I can't help but wonder if Landau has been kinder to this series he once starred with the passage of time. It's these words that have not helped the cause of Space:1999, because it sounds like an indictment of the remainder of the series. "Black Sun was one of my favourite shows. That was shot early on in the first season. We thought that was the direction the show was to take. We had relationships, humour, a bunch of us, and music... beautiful! Unfortunately you didn't see the version I liked. It was jazzed up because some people said it was slow. That was a period of finding out. That was the direction Barbara and I wanted the show to go in. Gerry also. We watched Black Sun and said it was really marvellous and it's what Space needed. It's the direction the rest of the show should have."


John Kenneth Muir said...

Hey Sci-Fi Fanatic,

Thank you for your continuing and dedicated look at Space:1999 episodes with my book (Exploring Space:1999) as an occasional reference/discussion point.

I think my own feelings have actually mellowed towards
"Black Sun" over the years (I wrote Exploring Space:1999 in was published in 1997).

Today, I find myself a bit closer to where you seem to be in your own good analysis: I still see the contradictions and problems in logic/science of the show but somehow these issues seem less important in light of the good character moments.

Anyway, I'm enjoying your retrospective very much.

best wishes,
John Kenneth Muir

SFF said...

What a pleasure to have you stop by Mr. Muir.

As I was reading your book, it wasn't until later that I found myself surprised the book was published so long ago.

It stood to reason that was certainly possible given the date the show concluded.

Anyway, it also says something about a good book. Dates don't matter. A solid book is a solid book and I do believe you have written the definitive book out there. I've really enjoyed it. Thank you.

Thank you also for allowing me to reference and credit you with it.

Black Sun is a pleasure. I was viewing some of the clips I put up in the late hours last night and some of those sequences are really beautiful. I'm glad you've had a change of heart on that one, despite fair criticisms.

Anyway, thanks for writing. I truly appreciate your thoughts. Hope to speak with you again.

Anonymous said...

To answer scientifically, moon could have had an alpha base and break away in one of the parallel universes of multiverse. Show is very thought provocative for children. I see how my children ask questions by seeing the show and start to ask scientific questions! Much better than watching Disney shows. There were two episodes of show that moon is hitting something . One black sun and another. My 8 year old believes that alien in black sun who talked to aged Koenig and Bergman is the same old lady in other episode ( ? Ayana) very good observation. Space 1999 must be rediscovered.

SFF said...

Gosh great comment.

Stuff like Space:1999 over Disney any day of the week. As a child myself I connected with the darkness and the hope of Space:1999 explorations just fine.

I also agree that Space:1999 is a series ripe for repeat viewing simply because there is so much subtext thematically to discover and rediscover. It's one of those series that allows the viewer to take something new away upon repeat viewing.

Excellent. Thank you.