Space 1999: Breakaway/Matter of Life & Death

Ah, Space:1999. The Brits answer to Star Trek by way of 2001:A Space Odyssey–  an utterly daft story with rock-solid production values. You have to admire the courage, and damned audacity, of the Brits who decided they could pull a show of this scale off back in 1973/74; maybe Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were just plain crazy, but I wish we had people like them working in tv today, and likewise such bold moguls as Lew Grade. British television today lacks such characters, such daring, such mad ambition.    In some ways it hasn’t aged well, but in others its just as damned impressive as ever- indeed, even in these post-Babylon 5, BSG days, Space:1999 remains a bold and arresting achievement, even if it is in many respects a failure. Back then, in the dark, dismal, strike-riddled, National power-cuts ‘seventies, Space:1999 was pretty amazing for this particular kid, even on a small black and white tv set (one week I watched it over a mates house whose slightly-wealthier parents had a colour tv and it was incredibly even more amazing). The spectacular title sequences of every episode, featuring dramatic action shots from the coming episode accompanied by exciting seventies action music, was just nirvana for me as a kid, leaving me riveted to the screen for the next fifty minutes. Gerry Anderson was a genius at title sequences; loud explosions, loud music, loud drama; priceless. This country needs another Gerry Anderson in television.

Space:1999 grew out of an aborted second series of UFO. Originally, a second series of UFO set in the year 1999 (near twenty years after the first series) would have involved humanity taking the fight to the alien invaders. Set on the SHADO moonbase, heavily expanded and fortified with weapons and fighters, the moon itself was to be launched into space to attack the alien home planet. I don’t know about you, but as daft as that sounds, its such a wild High Concept Science Fiction idea I only wish it could have been made.  Alas, the deal for a second season of UFO fell through, but many of its ideas and assets would be transferred to another project, becoming Space:1999. Instead of the moon battling a particular alien menace, it would wander the universe, defying any law of time and space as it careered through the cosmos led by Commander John Koenig.

John Koenig. My God what a frustrating character- and what a frustrating actor, a woefully miscast Martin Landau, playing him. American backers insisted on American leads, and while actors like Robert Culp were considered, Landau and his wife, Barbara Bain, were still ‘hot’ off Mission Impossible and offered the solution to both the male and female lead casting problem. This was still the era (if it has ever changed since?) of star-power, when the acting talent welded considerable clout. As well as high fees, the actors had demands such as regards on-screen time and which angles they had to be shot from. Eager to satisfy American backers and with an eye to selling the show to American Networks with established stars, Koening and Bain were brought on board, Diva troubles and all. Bain is either a terrible actress or particularly brilliant playing the cold and clinical (sic) Doctor Helena Russell.

I certainly would not suggest that Landau is a bad actor. He’s a very fine supporting actor and  character actor. His turn in Woody Allen’s Crimes & Misdemeanors is wonderful, as are his other performances in films such as Ed Wood. But he’s not a leading man, and certainly not a commanding, charismatic hero figure like William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. Landau clearly lacked the physicality for the role, Sylvia Anderson later bemoaning how “flat-footed” the actor was. Landau’s John Koening always seems to be out of his depth, lost, aimless, any confidence stemming from false bravado.  He often seems an idiot (as much due to the stupidity inherent in the scripts as much as Landau, to be fair), making wild and crazy decisions. In Matter of Life and Death, Doctor Russell’s husband, dead back near Jupiter some five years before, suddenly turns up on a stricken Eagle following a reconnaissance mission on an alien world. Although the world seems perfect for the Aphans needs for colonisation,  the mysterious presence of Russell’s  long-dead husband strikes Koening as cause for concern. Koenig delays exodus operations until he is sure there is no danger on the planet. However, when Russell’s dead husband, Lee, announces to Koening that they are indeed all  in grave  danger and the planet will be their doom, Koening suddenly decides to go ahead with the exodus anyway, leading the Aphan’s to the planet surface with a big grin on his face confident nothing is wrong! Has the man got a death wish, I wondered, watching this episode the other night? The show’s second episode and already he’s a critical danger to the personnel of Moonbase Alpha. How on Earth the Aphan’s will ever survive the next twenty-two episodes with this guy in charge is beyond me.

Its one of many WTF moments in Space 1999 that defy belief. The fact that it’s Koenig who is the architect of most of them (likely because the actor insisted on being the series’ centre of attention in his contract stipulations) makes Landau’s performances such a bizarre pleasure. He often seems to me to be a round peg in a square hole, a man suffering from post traumatic stress, the wrong guy in the wrong job suddenly dropped in an almighty desperate mess when the moon gets blasted into deep space. It’d be like Sulu or Yeoman Rand being given Captaincy of the Enterprise’s five-year mission when Kirk and Spock got killed on an alien planet in Trek’s pilot episode. It is almost endearing seeing Koenig struggle hopelessly with every crisis. Its the kind of miscasting that somehow strengthens the role in ways the original writers and producers never envisaged at the time. Koenig is an over-confident jerk of a time-bomb waiting to go off in every episode.

Breakaway remains a very impressive pilot episode, inspite of the central premise being utterly daft nonsense more typical of an Ed Wood b-movie. Even today its production values are rock-solid and certainly theatrical quality for the time. The production design is heavily influenced by 2001 with hardly a tenth of that film’s budget, managed through clever use of a modular system of set-building. The huge Main Mission control room is particularly impressive, a large multi-storey set that is simply amazing (they don’t make ambitious shows like this anymore, certainly not over here in old Blighty). Fast-moving to the extent that the viewer often forgets how implausible the whole thing is, characters are quickly introduced and the setting established before the nuclear shit hits the fan and we are off on our cosmic adventure.

Watching the series again after many years, I’m going to dare the frustrating lapses of logic and dodge the many plot-holes and hopefully revel in 1970s fashions, 1970s actors and1970s music. Failing that, I’m just going to watch mouth agape as Landau’s remarkable Commander Koenig lurches from incredible gaff to the next..

3 thoughts on “Space 1999: Breakaway/Matter of Life & Death

  1. Thanks for your interesting review. I hope you do carry on thru the remaining 22 episodes of Year 1. I think you’ll find some gems, a few average and a small handful of clunkers, though overall enjoyable.

    From the clip art above, I take it you are watching this on blu-ray? If so, it’s quite outstanding picture quality.

    Looking forward to more reviews though I have to warn you that the first 6 episodes are a very mixed bag. 🙂 I won’t tell you which is which so as not to bias you.

  2. I have been watching all the episodes of Space 1999 on Hulu, and just finished the “Matter of life and death” episode. I too love to revel in the 70s motifs and remember how enthralled I was with this show when I was a kid. But the breathtaking ineptitude of Commander Koenig prompted me to type into google this question; Was Commander John Koenig an idiot?. Thank you for confirming my assessment. It’s amazing the crew of Moon Base Alpha made it through 24 episodes of Space 1999! Glad they did though because I still love this campy show.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, Koenig always looks confused (perhaps Martin Landau was going for ‘thoughtful’?). A freind of mine actually likes this, arguing that Koening isn’t really a leader but rather a reluctant HR manager in a rather bad place.

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