|Although the seventies was largely a time of inaction for the space program, it was also a time of great promise, at least if you were a kid.|
Of course, it was not all rosy. I vaguely remember my kindergarten teacher making the class climb under our desks for a duck and cover drill. At the time, I knew nothing about nuclear weapons, and if the Russkies had nuked my dad’s Chevy plant the shockwave would have certainly killed us in the suburbs. Instead, I had visions of Japanese Zeros strafing my elementary school. Later we were exposed to textbooks that made a big deal about the Dust Bowl and soil depletion and I was briefly convinced that we were going to see all our grass dry up and blow away. When that didn’t happen, I think I learned a lesson about trusting adults, or at least textbooks.
Although the seventies was largely a time of inaction for the space program, it was also a time of great promise, at least if you were a kid. The Space Shuttle was being built, and it was going to revolutionize everything. There were going to be regular flights into orbit to construct giant rotating space stations and solar power satellites. After all, if NASA could put a man on the Moon, all this other stuff was going to be easy, right? (Actually, no.) And there was Star Trek, which was in perpetual reruns and taught us all that the future was going to be a rollicking fun place.
But then there was Space: 1999.
Space: 1999 premiered in the United States in fall 1975, but it might not have made it to my part of middle America until later. I only have two distinct memories of the show’s original run. I remember seeing an ad for the upcoming show and being incredibly confused at the image of an Eagle spaceship falling to the lunar surface and exploding. Having been raised on Star Trek, I couldn’t conceive how they could blow up their only ship and still have a show. The other memory was watching an episode called “Dragon’s Domain” about a monster on a ship that grabbed people with its tentacles, sucked them into its glowing mouth, and then spit out their cocooned bodies. It scared the heck out of me, and like most kids who watched it, I had nightmares.
Those were my specific memories of the show. My more general memory was that it sucked. It wasn’t the future in space that I wanted.
Star Trek was a positive show. It was also a very American show. Star Trek proved that humanity had a bright future in space, and a young boy could grow up to travel around the galaxy, battling Klingons and teaching alien women to love. In contrast, Space: 1999, despite having two American actors in leading roles, was rather… British. I love Britain, and the British people, but they don’t exactly have a reputation for being cheerful. Maybe that’s due to genetics, or maybe most of it comes from a long, slow decline of empire. But when faced with bright, young, loud, American optimism they tend to mutter “You’ll learn, Yank,” and turn back to their pint of bitter.
|The stories for Space: 1999’s first season tended to be grim. The music was somber. The episodes did not end on a high note.|
The premise of Space: 1999 was that the Moon was blasted out of Earth orbit and sent on its way zipping through the galaxy. Moonbase Alpha, a large facility of several hundred people and an apparently endless number of Eagle Transporters, was taken along for the ride. The Alphans encountered a different alien race or challenge to their existence each week. But they didn’t exactly embrace their fate. They figured that Earth was devastated, they would never see their families again, and they’d probably eventually run out of food and air. Things were not going to end well.
Space: 1999 was merely the last in a long line of shows produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Most of their earlier efforts were puppet shows intended for children. They had a much brighter atmosphere and a positive gee-whiz attitude towards technology. Space: 1999 was only their second show aimed at adults, and it was not optimistic. The stories for Space: 1999’s first season tended to be grim. The music was somber. The episodes did not end on a high note. The one standout aspect of the show was incredible model work. It looked neat.
Space: 1999’s look was clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, Alpha looked like a clone of the Moon base briefly seen in that film. The ships looked similar too. If you were a major space geek during that era you could try to force yourself to ignore the themes of dehumanizing technology and killer computers in the classic film, or the lunar cataclysm of the TV show, and imagine that it might be cool to live on the Moon and fly around in Eagles. But it was not easy to do so. Space: 1999 was a downer. Lots of people consider the premise—Moon blasted out of Earth orbit, visiting a new planet each week—to be unbelievable. But from a physics standpoint, it’s no crazier than Star Trek’s warp drive. What annoyed me most was that spaceflight was not depicted as fun or exciting or uplifting.
Recently American TV producer Jace Hall announced plans to revive the British show, this time calling it Space: 2099. He has promised that the show won’t be “dark and gritty.” Hall’s people have even produced some artwork, showing a sleeker version of the Eagle. Hall is not revealing many details, and he admits that he is simply shopping around the show and does not have a commitment of money from a studio or a network.
|But in 2012, is it optimistic to postulate a Moon base even eight decades from now? After all, we’ve already spent forty years not sending humans to the Moon.|
The chances of Space: 2099 ever making it to television are probably pretty slim. Name recognition alone won’t sell it, and the original premise was not terribly exciting. Besides, spaceflight—and space opera—no longer occupies the American consciousness the way it once did. Then again, a decade ago I would have argued that it was impossible to remake Battlestar Galactica, because the theme of a bunch of people endlessly fleeing killer robots was too defeatist for American television. But producer Ron Moore demonstrated that he could turn that premise into great drama with a social message. If Space: 2099 somehow keeps the original show’s premise, it’s still possible that it could work.
The producer is clearly trying to bank on the name recognition of the original show, although the necessary date change might undercut that goal a bit. But while this change is driven by necessity, in some ways it is symbolic. In 1975, only a few years after the Moon landings, it seemed reasonable, if a little optimistic, to assume that humans might have a Moon base in another quarter of a century. Maybe it wouldn’t be very big, but NASA had demonstrated that the Moon was only a stone’s throw away, so certainly humans would go back soon.
But in 2012, is it optimistic to postulate a Moon base even eight decades from now? After all, we’ve already spent forty years not sending humans to the Moon. Efforts to revive human lunar programs in 1989 and again in 2005 were canceled. And when a presidential candidate recently announced plans to establish a base on the Moon within a decade, he received nothing but derision. The idea is not mainstream. Moonbase Alpha barely qualifies as fringe. I find that disappointing, but I learned many years ago that the world was filled with disappointments. Deal with it, Yank.
Ultimately, if Space: 2099 does take flight, it will have a tough time going, not just because space shows are no longer doing well on television, but because it’s not 1975 anymore.