Friday, January 11, 2013

Space:1999 Y1 Ep12: Voyager's Return

"Many people have put science before responsibility"
- Dr. Helena Russell-

"We definitely felt that we did not want to make the English equivalent of Star Trek."
-Johnny Byrne in an archived interview for Fanderson's FAB #60-

This FAB FRIDAY post arrives on the day of Gerry Anderson's memorial in England and is a tribute to the man and all he created from a vast imagination that will endure forever more.  The legacy of all things from the world of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson continues.

Early on Space:1999 was often disparaged and unfairly held in contrast to Star Trek. Byrne, who penned Voyager's Return, actually captured some of the distinct differences between Space:1999 and Star Trek and the essence of his own approach to science fiction versus that of Gene Roddenberry's scriptwriters for Star Trek in an interview for Fanderson. It's a fascinating comparison and speaks directly to the uniqueness between these two wonderful franchises. "There was this division in the minds of people who come up through the written form of science fiction that screen writers knew sod all about science fiction and science fiction writers knew sod all about screen writing. In those days, a lot of the science fiction stories that appeared on screen, science fiction writers would have considered extremely naff because the genre had exhausted many of the very basic themes that seem to strike people on a first time basis as interesting. I felt much of Star Trek followed the screen tradition of science fiction - they lacked a lot of the philosophical feel." This speaks directly to the essence of Space:1999 as a quieter, more reflective science fiction drama and perhaps why the series was often difficult to penetrate, comprehend and connect to.  Even the actors themselves had difficulty grasping the material in play.  It generally retained a kind of isolation and remoteness that seemed to capture the sense of space the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha were now challenged by.

Byrne observed that Star Trek tended to "admire" its aliens rather than "understand them." He concluded his personal reflections on approaching the mysteries of Space:1999's journey by articulating, "We wanted to create a series that would take people like us that had been kicked out for one reason or another. Every aspect of what followed as a result of that: our knowledge, our understanding, our tolerance, our responses, our thinking - all of these would slowly change as we moved out. We wouldn't have instant answers. We wouldn't know why certain things happened because not all mysteries are immediately answerable or accessible. We were putting people like ourselves through an accelerated form of spiritual, philosophical evolution." This was the vastly different approach to science fiction Byrne took with Space:1999. This approach to science fiction formed the foundation of Space:1999's atmosphere as well versus the far more colorful approach taken by Star Trek. But, more importantly, these series were special and unique establishing mythologies with distinct character as science fiction entries.  Both remain one of a kind today.

The reflections as articulated by Byrne are those which continue to pull me back to the long underappreciated and forever maligned series that was and still remains uniquely Space:1999. Every time I watch an episode after all these years I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop and be disappointed by its quality, but it never fails me. Decades after its making and the series still leaves us with ambiguity and questions. It presents us with stories open to interpretation and a world without easy answers as the Alphans characters act as channelers to human understanding and comprehension. This approach caught my attention as a young boy and as an adult Space:1999 still holds up thanks to a mature effort toward science fiction storytelling. Space:1999 is indeed a kind of progenitor to series like Stargate Universe and films like Sunshine. These productions leave us quietly reflecting on the idea of space as a massive unknown and this truly traditional approach to sci-fi continues to reverberate in film and television today.

Gerry Anderson may have created an imperfect series, and it may not be the first to approach science fiction in this manner, but he isn't given the credit he deserves for creating a series as challenging and unique as Space:1999. Often derided as nothing more than a kids' filmmaker, Anderson gave us much more than puppets. But even Thunderbirds had heart and simple, effective stories. UFO took things further with morally ambiguous entries like A Question Of Priorities. Space:1999 creates an even more murky world and an even darker existence without easy solutions. Space:1999 was indeed one of the strongest works of science fiction in the 1970s in its ephemeral two year run.

Furthermore, on the issue of compare and contrast, Space:1999 benefited from a distinctly British flavor.  The British sensibilities toward programming were bolstered by a bigger budget than normal and this translated well into the product versus its American counterpart, Star Trek.  All of this seemed to generate an alien likability for children in tune with that vibe in the 1970s.  The contributions by so many Britons certainly helped set it apart.  Despite the American leads of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, Space:1999 had a strangely universal appeal that felt quite different.  It's hard to believe the comparisons were made.  The late, great, Irish-born writer Byrne, the late English-born director Bob Kellett [who directs Voyager's Return] and the late, great FAB creator Gerry Anderson were largely responsible here for this entry along with Brits Keith Wilson, Brian Johnson and the list goes on.  Space:1999 remains a testament to their vision as much as Star Trek was the vision of Gene Roddenberry and friends. But Space:1999 was indeed a very different animal.

We return once again to Space:1999, Year One, Episode 12, Voyager's Return.


Launched in 1985, an unmanned space probe known as Voyager has been located by Moonbase Alpha. The Voyager 1 probe should not be confused with a probe of the same name by NASA in September 1977 and a Voyager 2 probe in August 19777.  Space:1999's unmanned probe pre-dates the real probes by nearly three years when considering the finished script - remarkable.  The probe, seeking to acquire data and make contact on behalf of Earth in the outer reaches of space, is powered by two engines. One is a basic rocket engine. The other is a flawed nuclear-based engine called the Queller Drive. It's an atomic engine that allows the Voyager to cross space at incredible speeds. Unfortunately the flawed engine design releases neutrons into space polluting and destroying everything in its path. Eagle 2 is destroyed by its emissions while Eagle 1 escapes death returning to Alpha limping along and barely alive with a bloodied Alan Carter at the controls.

So with Voyager's mission to seek life, signs of intelligence and impart the existence of mankind, Professor Victor Bergman is over the moon, to coin a phrase, about its return. Commander John Koenig is interested in discovering its flight path back to Earth.  Meanwhile, Dr. Helena Russell is less than enthusiastic and sides with Paul Morrow that the Voyager be destroyed lest they risk the destruction of Moonbase Alpha upon its arrival.  They have just hours to make their decision.

The debate that ensues between Koenig, Morrow, Bergman and Russell present the two opposing opinions on the matter in a scenario reminiscent of the Kirk, Spock and Bones dynamic of Star Trek: The Original Series, but the comparison ends there.


Koenig hopes they might somehow be able to program the Voyager to shut down its lethal Queller drive to obtain vital information.

Bergman attempts to manipulate the Voyager command controls remotely by ordering a set of new command instructions but he is denied access.

Special guest Jeremy Kemp plays the part of one of Alpha's own intimately familiar with the Queller drive, because he is Dr. Ernst Linden, formerly Dr. Ernst Queller, the creator of the Queller drive. Only Queller knows how to dismantle an atomic bomb-like engine that is the Voyager's Queller drive, but even he is uncertain of himself nearly fifteen years later. Due to tragic past events Queller has changed his name continuing his work int he shadows.  Queller shall henceforth be referred to as Dr. Ernst Linden.

It is clear there is great hostility within the ranks toward the Queller drive made all the more volatile by the fact controversial figure Linden was somehow cleared for active duty as a member of Moonbase Alpha. Morrow clearly holds resentment toward the design of the drive and is particularly animated in his reaction to the fact Linden is on Alpha. Many have already experienced disaster at the hands of the Queller drive as installed in Voyager 2, which resulted in a catastrophic incident that took the lives of many including Morrow's father. So there is reason to be hostile. Further, Morrow wishes to inform Jim Haines who works with Linden of Linden's real identity. Haines lost both parents at the hands of a Queller drive and unbeknownst to Haines is working along side the creator himself. But, Koenig brings reason to a meeting between Morrow, Bergman, Russell, Kano and Carter assuring calm and understanding. He does not wish to reveal Linden's real name out of respect for his privacy.  For whatever reason, he was justifiably excused by the commission who employed Queller on Alpha. Further, after meeting with Linden, before the group, and even after a tentative assurance by Queller to do his best to disengage the Queller drive, despite his lack of confidence, Koenig puts faith in this man. Koenig places his faith in one man over the well-being of Alpha.  It may seem startling, but it does speak to the core of Koenig and his belief in redemption perhaps and his belief, above all, in those he lies upon on Alpha.

The meeting with Linden comes after a non-committal response from Bergman regarding his own ability to dismantle the Queller engine. Even Bergman's response, while honest, surprisingly does not dissuade his opinion that Alpha should make efforts to save Voyager. After all, Bergman is a man of science with a hunger for knowledge and man's potential. It is in his very core to ask questions, to attempt answers, take risks and Voyager's return offers possibilities in that vast, dark void of space for which Alpha hurtles. It makes sense.

It also makes logical sense that a doctor of medicine such as that of Russell would question the gravity of Voyager's return and the risk it should bring to the health and well-being of lives she has taken an oath to protect. Her commitment is to life. Bergman's commitment is to knowledge and understanding. Their reactions seem natural. Koenig's decision to trust in Linden satisfies who Koenig is as a man. Koenig continues to exercise judgments that bring risk, but it is in keeping with his character - that of a man in charge of a mission into the unknown. With risk comes reward.

When Koenig tells his team he's "going with him" regarding a wavering, seemingly unconfident Linden, in essence, Koenig is going with man.  It is this decision that underscore his faith in the people of Alpha.  He must believe in them.  Their survival depends on it. If he can't trust in his people, Alpha and its inhabitants are doomed.  They must be tested and ultimately trusted to do their jobs.

The group sits in quiet contemplation over Koenig's decision and their fate. Again, Morrow wishes to tell Haines of Linden, but Koenig wonders if Haines really needs to know. He may be right too. As Bergman said earlier, it was a mistake and something went wrong. The Voyager 2 was hardly the malicious act of a mad man. And now, Linden has taken Haines under his wing almost like a father figure as they work closely on Alpha.

Bergman and Lindendiscuss the inability of the Queller engine to shut down when approaching inhabited areas. Queller has a theory and a possible solution.

As the minutes tick by and the Voyager's return grows closer, a trio of Eagles are launched to intercept if Linden has trouble.

Linden and Haines work together and Linden is excited at the prospect of success knowing all they need to do is override the Voyager 2 on-board computer with security codes. Unfortunately Haines begins to question how Linden could know this. Haines realizes Linden is indeed Ernst Queller, creator of the Queller drive and the man who indirectly murdered his parents. In a fit of rage Haines grabs and shakes Linden and inadvertently destroys the Voyager link-up.

Thus Commander rips Haines a new one and even calls the subordinate "stupid" for destroying their chance to shut down the Queller drive.

Linden resumes work but Main Mission reports the Voyager is being followed by three alien ships.

As the Voyager reaches the intercept position of the three Eagles, there is literally not a minute to spare. Koenig orders a hold on its destruction. Linden reports he is ready. Koenig orders Kano to link Computer to Main Mission. In a rare moment of seamless, flawless cooperation from Computer [and from any computer for that matter], the process of shutting down the Queller drive by Linden is surprisingly successful. Computer has not compromised their fate. The Voyager lands and Linden is given a shot at redemption. Linden expresses his gratitude.

The Voyager lands and, once again, production designer Keith Wilson has outdone himself with a unique and gloriously detail interior to the Voyager.  The practical looking lunar module, is stunning in and of itself, just complex enough to be a credible futuristic craft for the wonders of Space:1999. The interior of the Voyager is draped in dark black with terrific accents. It complements the harbinger-like nature of this vessel that has brought death across the galaxy. It also works to contrast against the purity and sterility of design established within Alpha.

Unfortunately, Alpha is hardly out of harm's way. The aliens of Sidon beam a holographic projection aboard Voyager of leader Aarchon where Koenig, Russell, Bergman and Linden have boarded. Koenig accepts responsibility for the "primitive" Voyager craft and on behalf of Earth. Sadly life on two Sidon worlds has been extinguished thanks to the Queller drive. It's a wonder Dr. Linden hasn't taken his own life by now. The genocidal actions of the Voyager though are hardly the actions of an evil man. Sidon has made the decision to terminate all life on Earth once located. Koenig insists the humans will resist. Sidon assures the fact of their destruction will go unchanged but the manner may be altered.

Koenig orders Eagles into "extreme intercept positions."

Dr. Linden rests physically overcome by events that have transpired. He is distraught over the catastrophe of his efforts to bring understanding and knowledge to the forefront of human discovery and knowledge. "Many people have put science before responsibility," replies Russell. And again, as Russell insists, man has always sought knowledge and the advancement of science sometimes to the detriment of man. Think the atomic bomb and J. Robert Oppenheimer or the unlocking of the human genome and the dangers of unleashing science not fully understood by man. These are certainly realities and there are ramifications to man's quest for understanding, knowledge and power. As Russell notes, these "academic" intentions can have much greater consequences.

With the fate of Alpha and Earth hanging in the balance, Linden takes actions into his own hands to make amends for his many unintended atrocities. Linden plans to leave Alpha. Haines goes to Linden when he realizes this and offers to go with him. Haines, in that moment, has shown the greatest of human gifts, forgiveness.

Boarding the Voyager, Linden, proudly donning his Space:1999 uniform, plans to set things right by re-activating the Queller drive and taking the Sidon's supernova, but not before efforts at diplomacy have failed. Linden orders Koenig to recall the Eagles away from the Sidons. Linden will take it from here.

Kemp's performance is a standout.

Despite attempts to warn Koenig that "resistance is useless," the fate of Linden and the Sidons is sealed. The Sidons had the phrase so close to ST:TNG's "resistance is futile."

With the Voyager black box of recorded information secured by Bergman another chapter in their journey is closed. For Jim Haines a sense of peace or closure seems hardly in reach. Koenig assures Haines that only the man's name was changed that Linden was still a good man, the same man he knew. Koenig hands Haines the memory bank in the hopes he will carry on Linden's work and continue making strides and efforts to bring about the best man has to offer and to honor the good intentions of Dr. Ernst Linden Queller. This reinforces Koenig's earlier command decision.  With mankind's stab at the unknown it can often seem one step forward, two steps back, but as Koenig leads Alpha and his small band of human survivors, he offers us the idea that at least there is hope and there is good and that we mustn't stop trying because mistakes are made. It's a rather poetic closing to the conundrum of man. Voyager's Return succeeds in its ability to contemplate a belief in man and articulate that belief beautifully.  Byrne genuinely captures the best of science fiction by wrapping an environmental tale in space around more important concepts like man's place in the vast cosmos and, more importantly, man's understanding of one another.  This and universally strong performances from Landau, Bain, Barry Morse and Prentis Hancock coupled by the understated power of an impressive turn by guest Jeremy Kemp make for a solid entry or as Byrne called it in FAB magazine "a solid nuts and bolts science fiction story."

Voyager's Return: B+. Writer: Johnny Byrne. Director: Bob Kellett.

Additional commentary:
As is tradition with my Space:1999 coverage, I turn to the writer of one of my favorite books, Exploring Space:1999 by John Kenneth Muir, for counterpoint, where he accurately pegged Voyager's Return as an examination of "mankind's place in the universe."  Though he does cast Voyager's Return into a third tier category in his Year One introduction as a story that is "dramatically interesting" but with "small flaws in logic or execution" along with the last two episodes Alpha Child and The Last Sunset.  It's hard to argue with Mr. Muir, because he knows his Space:1999 stuff intimately, has read extensively on the subject, interviewed extensively on the subject including interviews with Johnny Byrne and has even written original novels.  The man is versed. He also owns original Space:1999 toys, but that really shouldn't count.

Funny thing is, if you think about it too much, the flaws in logic are there for certain in all of the aforementioned episodes.  In fact, despite a nice, pensive pacing, it seems there is never enough time to get the stories exactly right.  Even though, they hardly seem rushed, some of the stories tend to lend themselves to closer scrutiny.

Muir wrote his book in 1997 and a change of heart on just about any material is possible.  Heck, I change my mind on some material within the same year, never mind sixteen years.  I'd happily return to my own entries here on the blog if time permitted for modifications.  Having said that, regardless of age, Muir lent his razor sharp mind and a lovingly, analytical focus to a subject that was near and dear to him.  It's even safe to say he may have been extra hard on the subject like a parent is to a child playing on the baseball team he's coaching. Sorry son.  But it's our nature to attempt to be fair and then ultimately overcompensate.  I say this knowing that our tastes change and our perspectives change with time and I know John Muir's perspective has certainly changed.  Some of the episodes have no doubt shifted into different categories along the way.  But one thing is certain, Muir's articulation of what he believed to be true at the time of writing is indeed strong, well-reasoned and insightful, which is why I love Exploring Space:1999 as an analytical piece and as a fun reference for additional commentary to my own FAB FRIDAY entries here. And listen I'm not on his payroll, but excellence is worth noting.

One of the great moments of reflection on humanity in the episode is when the Sidons demonstrate themselves to be devoid of compassion.  They are intent on revenge upon the human race and as Muir writes, "they are unable to show the quality of mercy."  This underscores as John writes, that despite a "primitive" human race they demonstrate hope for the future of mankind.  In fact, there is one scene that powerfully captures this insight.  Ernst Linden has decided to commit a selfless act out of love for his fellow Alphans.  He does this despite going underground and changing his name in an effort to hide from acts that were unintentional or as Bergman points out were "something went wrong."  Linden, as Koenig points out to Haines, is still a good man regardless of a name change.  He is still the same person.  The scene powerfully underscores that we cannot mask our true selves.  We cannot hide or fight our true natures.  We are what we are.  This is who we are to borrow a phrase from Millennium.  We can try to immerse ourselves in another identity, try to be something we are not, but ultimately we are not likely to change our inherent nature.

Linden, in a final selfless act moves to convince Aarchon of the Sidons to leave peacefully.  He attempts to impart his good nature of reason into a desperate situation only to find these superior beings are inflexible and that man, despite our mistakes, is truly the more hopeful race.  The Sidons hardly expected to see Linden use the Queller drive against them in a final act of sacrifice.  But Linden doesn't move to this option until the last.  This was his final option.  Linden captures Byrne's words rather poetically before his death indicating the Sidons ruthlessness proves that they have no more right to live than himself, who unintentionally killed hundreds.  At least Linden would have preferred people didn't have to die.  And even Jim Haines who lost both his parents at the hands of Linden's Quellar drive is willing to forgive.

I am a big fan of Jeremy Kemp's portrait of Linden in the episode.  The success of the episode really rests on his shoulders.  Muir calls it correctly.  "Kemp plays the tortured Dr. Queller... a man who has come to terms with his youthful arrogance and learned to live with a horrible tragedy in his past; Queller is one of the most sympathetic Alphans to be introduced on the series."  Amen.  He's really brilliant in the role of a man who killed the parents of many Alphans he now works among (speaking of logic problems, was there never an image taken of this great scientist?).  I think Ian McShane plays an equally sympathetic, if different, character in Force Of Life, but this is the caliber of the performers landed for Gerry Anderson's Space:1999.

Finally, Muir notes one of the highlights of the series is the adversarial relationship between Russell and Koenig.  In fact, many of the heated and often healthy debates that take place on Alpha including those exchanges in this episode make for some of the best Space:1999 conflicts.  As Muir notes, there should have been more of it.  He points to the debate between a hunger for knowledge and science versus the safety of Alpha as an ongoing point of contention.  Of course, Bergman often fell on the side of science and Morse is exceptional in a number of scenes in this episode attempting to make logical points with a man like Paul Morrow who is overflowing with emotion.  Morrow and Carter were clearly the emotional variables, while Bergman was often calm, logical and analytical.  Koenig and Bain fall somewhere in the middle and on opposing sides at times which made for great exchanges.  Muir points to similar exchanges between Dr. Beverly Crusher and Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next GenerationSpace:1999 foreshadowing Star Trek.  So who was copying who here?  As Muir notes these debates made the characters and situations more "realistic."  Indeed, character growth and growth in general has always come from a healthy exchange of ideas and information and through debate. Couldn't today's politics do with a little less hiding or ham-fistedness and a little more listening and debate?  Doesn't our survival depend on it? It did for the Alphans.

Actor footnote: Jeremy Kemp [1935-present]. The English actor delivers a fine performance for the Space:1999 episode. Kemp's notable genre and TV contributions include Hart To Hart, The Greatest American Hero, The Fall Guy and Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Family.

Actor footnote: Barry Stokes [?]. The role of Jim Haines is played by Barry Stokes. Stokes would be seen as a Skydiver engineer in UFO, Episode 20, Destruction and Episode 23, Reflections In The Water. He also appeared in BBC's Survivors [1975-1977] series in the episode Long Live The King.

Director footnote: Bob Kellett [1927-2012]. This episode marks the series debut of director Bob Kellett, the temporary replacement for David Tomblin [Force Of Life] while he was busy on Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon [1975].  It's unfortunately fitting that Voyager's Return was the next to be placed in focus in the FAB FRIDAY series for Space:1999.  Sadly, Kellett passed away just weeks before Gerry Anderson in 2012.  This is a tribute to both men.


John Kenneth Muir said...


Great examination of "Voyager's Return," my friend.

As you indicate, our opinions about these things can be fluid as the decades pass. I'm not the same person or writer that I was in the mid-1990s so far as my tastes are concerned, though I hope my work in the book stands up, regardless.

All your points are spot-on, I think, and your rating of B+ is right on the money. This is a strong outing, from any reading.

I remember talking to Johnny about this particular story, and he stressed the notion of redemption, and of Queller as a Werner von Braun-type character.

What I loved about Johnny and his writing is that he truly believed in the ideal of redemption. Someone could make a terrible mistake, carry that mistake -- and the shame -- but still redeem himself through a good deed.

I love that idea, and find it very important, even on a personal basis because I've certainly made my share of mistakes. :)

The magnitude of Queller's mistake, of course, is colossal, but the point is that saving Alpha is also colossal.

The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions (as Dr. Helena Russell reminds us, explicitly), but good intentions can also lead, one hopes, to Heaven, or a sense of peace about one's life.

Happy Friday, my friend.


SFF said...

Nicely put. Tks John. An emotionally resonant comment for an emotionally resonant episode. SFF

SpaceLove65 said...

I truly loved year one of Space 1999. I used to stay up late just so I could see it. It was one of my favorite shows. I loved the cast. John, Helena, Victor, Sandra, David...and I thought Alan especially cool, as well as a favorite. I loved the relationship between John and Helena. I also was drawn to the other strong relationship between David and Sandra...I kept waiting for those two to get together...get married...have little Alphans! But this season was the absolute best. Later seasons lost some of my favorite characters. I couldn't imagine Space 1999 without Sandra, David, and especially Alan. Fans brought Alan (who was the local Alphan hunk) back to the show...but I think it was too late. I was never interested in Maya, the new character who could change her form. They should have stuck to the original show format from season one.

SFF said...

It's been a long time and too long for me to judge Season Two just yet. Maybe I will feel the same after a re-watch.

We'll see.

Thanks for your comments SpaceLove65!

Unknown said...

When push comes to purpose, Star Trek the Motion picture seemed to borrow quite a bit from this episode of Space 1999. Trek fans should not throw stones in a glass house nor at Space 1999. I think this episode is more closer to an A-.

SFF said...

Great point Robert. Thank you.

I think we are on the same page here. I could lean easily toward an A on this one too.

Take care