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Space: 1999

The triumphant arrival

The triumphant arrival

Little boys need action. Advertisers must know they push cereal only to boys: girls are attracted to sparkle and color, but to gushing explosions of it? As a kid, Trix the Rabbit and all manner of bouncing, cherubic creatures blew out iridescent paroxysms of noise and motion as they said the product name over and over. A part of this nutritious breakfast! The first drug pushed to us is sugar.

(An aside: the whole spot’s flat, perfect video-ness, the colors and lines purely electronic, give it an otherworldly anima.)

This 1987 Trix spot wouldn’t have worked on me in 1987, at least in terms of making me buy cereal, but it captures that surreal, floating timelessness of ads experienced as a kid. When commercials came on ten years before, my seven-year-old mind was captured. Time stopped. There was only color and wonder in that thirty second world.

The greater world the ads popped into were just as much action, tension, other-ness, someplace-else-ness. Little boys also need to be somewhere else very different from where they are. Sesame Street and its trippy fuzzy creatures going down the alphabet and working out how to share was just wearing thin when I caught glimpses of what my mom put on after my TV time was up. I ran out to play in the woods where the trees still spoke and the stars were just above the leaves. But the bright, hard-lit spaceships against the TV’s square of night, the blasts of overwrought studio-musician soundtrack calling out surprise and triumph, started to speak. I didn’t even know I was getting what little boys so need.

Space: 1999 was a British science fiction series from the mid-Seventies, with two seasons made from 1975 to 1977. It was one of many science fiction shows from that era, most of middling-to-low budget and writing quality, and which in my mind rode Star Trek’s coat-tails. As a kid and even now, Space: 1999 seems to have been a height of seriousness, in both writing and the quality of visual look, that wasn’t approached with similar  monetary resources until the late Eighties when a revamped Star Trek became a big draw, and not for a big three network.

YouTube is by far the most powerful time machine, at least if you only want to get to postwar America. Earlier this year I remembered this show, typed the name, and the episodes came up. The enwondered-but-cheesy Seventies feel I remember is still there, from the white low-heeled boots to the flared legs of the jumpsuit costumes, but the show as a whole retains a seminal starkness. That hard white lunar set really looks like the Moon, and the Eagle spacecraft that serve as the space pickup truck the Space Shuttle was hoped to be float and kick up dust against the hard night with something like believable realism. To watch now is an interesting reversed reflection: here is the future from back then, and from now parts feel authentic enough even if they never happened.

Never seeming to make it big in the States, my first dim memory of Space :1999 I recalled on Yellow Aster Butte: the sky feeling high and occluded, pinkish, and a great, tactile sadness that was omnipresent but separate from me. From five or six years old inside a new house on an Ohio hillside, Moonbase Alpha was a very different and possible place. What attracts us to certain forms of story–certain tropes and sets of allegory–I’ll never know; I was never around computers, spaceships, engineering or math. But something about the Moon and that forlorn outpost got me even then.

By the time I was watching that first episode and experiencing my first cheese pizza, the Apollo program was three years done but still huge in the cultural mind. I’m sure this is what the Andersens, no dummies, picked up on when they created the show. People believed in Science’s promise, had a hope for the future as big as a child’s, and were ready for adventure. I think no small number of sane adults believed we would have bases and cities on the Moon, maybe trips to Mars, by the twenty-first century, and shows like this energized such reasonable hopes. 1999 wasn’t that far away.

The show was a mainstay on the CBC. I watched on the black-and-white Zenith with the yellowing plastic knobs, relegated to the magical basement. My first grade (or Grade 1, being in Canada) friends and I would run around at recess creating our own Moon adventures (that is, when we weren’t posted at rocks or drain grates circularly arranged around a large central stump Captain’s chair to play Star Trek), those of us who were stuck at church and able to watch only the dubbed French version caught up by those who could watch in English.

What kid wouldn’t love this show? The big horn opening, fast cuts timed to the single bass da-doop-doop-doop-doop, the first shot always that hapless Eagle spinning down into a white phosphorous explosion (which you can see is a cut, if you look closely). Action was tempered by suspense, by outlandish and impossible locations, by the generous use of backlit rotoscoped effects. I loved their laser weapons that looked like staple guns and thought the spacesuits eminently believable. Issac Asimov himself, aside from some (relatively) minor gaffes in basic science, liked the show. What my parents and other less-rare adults thought, I don’t really know, but our neighbor across the street worked in movies and gave me a fullsize poster for a UFO abduction movie he worked on. I’ve lost the poster and can’t remember the title, but it was all black, printed on foil, and scared me a little. I bet that guy at least respected Space: 1999 as marketable TV. 

Aside from some of the better-written Star Trek episodes which I may have seen first (City on the Edge of Forever being the best example, written by the great iconoclast and stylist but horribly behaved Harlan Ellison), Space: 1999 was my first close-up experience with dramatic tragedy. It’s not a happy show. While it could be campy and overwrought–and bored the kid me with aliens who happened to be slinky Seventies stars in one-stitch costumes–its primary themes were isolation, abandonment, and the sheer repetitive inevitability of things not working out. The Moon, set adrift by human hubris as manifested by a nuclear waste dump explosion, did not control its destiny and could never go home. Strange alien races appeared and offered tests and tasks that were failed or not realized for what they were, and a potential paradise was always lost. It was tragic like Greek theatre is: alien, kingly Anglo-Saxon wise men in flowing robes suddenly appearing like a Greek chorus to pronounce upon the hapless humans and disappear again. It was Robinson Crusoe but the footprints in the sand kept leading to another disappointment, somebody else who wasn’t what you hoped.

I can see now why it wouldn’t be a big draw to Americans, and after we moved to Texas in 1978 (aged 8) I never saw the series on TV. Even among science fiction nerds, I had only one friend who knew the show. (One of my favorite elementary school memories is a sleepover where, after taking a break playing Monopoly on his Commodore 64, we made up a Mad Lib sort of game about the show. It was hilarious.) In rural-suburban North Texas, it was Morning in America, not fading winter dusk on an imaginary British Moon.

Fandom–the scary kind–was never something I got deeply into about anything. Even my Star Trek interest was a half-measure, restricted to Ballantine paperback novelizations and one or two other books. And, um, staying up until 11:30 on school nights to tape every Star Trek episode on our first VHS machine, having spent about two hundred bucks of birthday and Christmas money on VHS cassettes. My memory of coming to my senses is very clear: most probably freshman year of high school (spring 1985), standing in my room before the white Danish-furniture bookshelf that held the books (the tapes secured in a file cabinet drawer), The Star Trek Compendium open in my hands as something less than a voice but more clear than a sense registered: it’s just a show on TV. A few years later William Shatner appeared on Saturday Night Live and confirmed I’d made the right decision:  have you ever kissed a girl? get a life!  I kept the books but never looked at them again, finally mailing them to a middle school kid out east of Dallas somewhere. (His mom talked to me on the phone before mailing a check.) I kept the tapes until just a few years ago, mailing them off to a Missouri facility that promised to recycle them.

Would I have proceeded as far with Space: 1999 as I had with Star Trek if I’d stayed in Canada, if the show had been on in Texas? I don’t know. Given my depressive adolescence it might have been a dicey experiment. Star Trek could be serious, at least as serious as a prime time TV show from the late Sixties could be, but it wasn’t really a downer. Space: 1999 had a hopelessness about it that matched Eighties nuclear fears in ways its creators could not have anticipated. It could be downright gruesome in imagining the perils out there. It would never get better.

Watching those episodes earlier this year reveals as much about me as it does the show itself, or its original era, or times since. We have not gone back to the Moon, hardly visiting with a handful of robot flybys; we stopped listening to the surface experiments installed by the astronauts in 1977, because we didn’t want to pay for it. We–meaning Americans, at least–have made the sensible decision to look outward with instruments, sending to the stars smarter and more capable robots that don’t need to eat or breathe, don’t become morose, and that aren’t mourned when they are lost or stop working any more than a gearhead mourns a car’s end. Computers are where the brainpower went, the giant rooms of blinking lights producing strangely perceptive wisdom that these shows imagined transmuted into the machine I type this on, and of course phones. We gave up pensive reflection for the Free Market, a god far bigger than any of the gold lamé, booming-voiced actors tapped to portray them in 1976. “Better” and “worse” are hard to quantify or even think about. Things are so different between then and now. The air is cleaner. We dress better.

Yesterday I chanced into a long and gratifying phone conversation. You’ve done a lot, come a long way. We couldn’t have had this conversation a year ago, two years ago. You should take some time to pat yourself on the back. I don’t have to be convinced, even if I don’t feel it. I know things have moved.

Space: 1999 is an artifact now, not only of a time and place but of those sequences of self that led somewhere destructive and endless. Earlier this year it was fun to watch and think about, and I was able to remember childhood without regret. But it is now now, and that is a better place to be. I am still intrigued by the Moon, but not that one.

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