RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Space 1999:"Breakaway" (Season 1, Episode 1)

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It has been a bit over thirty years since I last watched this show attentively. After R3's disastrous encounter with "Man From Atlantis", I was a bit hesitant to subject good childhood memories to the light of 21st century sensibilities.

How well did it hold up? Well, that'd be telling.

Oh, okay. I'll tell you, but after the jump.

(Is it appropriate to post 'Spoilers' for 35 year old TV shows?)

Play by Play

We open on the surface of the moon… the dark side. We know this because of the caption. It's September 9th, 1999. Astronauts are checking the integrity of a nuclear waste dump, on orders from Professor Victor Bergman and Dr. Helena Russell. While checking on the seals, one of the astronauts goes beserk and runs into a laser fence.

Meanwhile, Commander John Koenig is en route to take command of Moonbase Alpha in order to put mankind's first attempt at an interstellar flight back on track. When Koenig arrives on station, Victor greets him, and lets him know that the situation with a 'virus' affecting the flight crews for the Meta probe is worse than reported. Koenig consults with Dr. Russell, who reveals that it seems to be a radiation poisoning of some sort, but she can't isolate it. Since she can't isolate the cause, she is very hesitant to okay the meta probe astronauts.

Koenig meets with Captain Alan Carter about the Meta crew's readiness to leave for Meta. Carter insists that they are all ready to go. Koenig goes to his office where he gets a call from his boss, Commissioner Simmons. Simmons informs him that they have to keep everything regarding the mysterious deaths on the down low so that funding isn't cut and the Meta probe isn't scrapped. Koenig agrees, but wants Simmons to stop sending up nuclear waste, since Koenig, Russell and Bergman think that it might be part of the problem. Simmons reluctantly agrees to delay shipments.

Koenig decides to go check out Disposal Area Two, where most of the astronauts were stricken. On the way, they pass over Disposal Area One, which has been closed for some time, but is still used as a landmark. Koenig has the pilot take him down for a closer look at Area One. Apparently Koenig was commander of the base five years ago when they were still using Area One. Bergman tells him that Area One is constantly monitored and has not shown any signs of trouble. The pilot, Collins, however shows some signs of a headache as they head for Area Two. Once at Area Two, everything seems to check out okay as they use their radiation dipsticks to check the seals. Collins goes nuts, and tries to open the observation post to vacuum. Collins is subdued and dragged into an airlock just as a smashed window gives way.

Koenig and company speed back to Alpha, where Doctor Russell is cutting life support for two of the astronauts.

In main Mission, they figure out that Area One is giving off heat without radiation. Electrical activity burns out two cameras, so Koenig takes an Eagle to take a look. He's shot down by electomagnetic activitiy and does a bellyflop in the Eagle.

He's rescued during the commercial break, but Dr. Russell is angry about his irresponsibility (rightly so). While Russell fumes, Bergman has come up with a possible solution- it's not radiation that's the problem, it's electromagnetism interacting with the artificial gravity systems.

They decide to investigate Area Two, since they weren't monitoring for magnetic effects, this time with a remote control Eagle. A magnetic surge takes the Eagle down. Since Area Two has 150 times more waste than area one, they determine that they are on top of a huge bomb.

Koenig summons Simmons, who is not pleased to be summoned. They determine that the best course of action is to disperse the waste as widely as possible. A heroic logistic effort is made to take Eagles and empty the waste dumps… but equipment is failing rapidly due to the magnetic surges.

Despite every effort, Waste Area Two starts to detonate….higgaldy piggaldy ensues. Moonquakes, power outages… the earth rises spookily over the lunar horizon in exactly the wrong way. The moon is leaving Earth Orbit.

The residents of Alpha struggle against immense G Forces as the moon blasts its way out of orbit. Eventually the forces let up a bit, and the artificial gravity compensates for the remaining 3g that they are experiencing. They try to figure out whether or not they can evacuate… that answer is 'no'.

While trying to establish contact with Earth, they receive a signal from Meta, the planet that they were trying to send the probe to….

Maybe their best hope lies there…


Okay, that was far better than it had a right to be.

A little history may be in order. During the time that this was filmed (it was filmed in 1973, aired in 1975), Star Wars was just a glimmer in a film student's eye, Jon Pertwee was the Doctor and Star Trek had been off the air for about five years. There was no indication that a serious S-F drama pilot would work.

Well, this one did…. mostly.

Although it was created to crack the American market, the pacing was quite a bit more thoughtful than American TV of the era. It dealt with nuclear waste as a given, though a necessary evil. Although the premise was patently ridiculous, it was treated in such a way as to lessen a bit of the objection to the idea that the Moon could survive a sustained nuclear pulse orbital ejection.

In fact, the show did quite a head fake. For the first 45 minutes or so, it felt like a lunar procedural. They were trying to determine the cause of an illness, not avert nuclear disaster. The fact that they came up with a sensible (albeit doomed) plan to stop the reaction and were implementing it made sense.

Honestly, a lot of this show made sense. Except the main premise. Which just goes to show you: if the show's core idea is ludicrous, you are well served to make everything else about the series as sensible and realistic as possible.

This they do in spades. Alpha is livable, reasonable and very well designed. The comlinks (combination handheld videophones/computer control/ access control and garage door openers)make a lot of sense. Although the form factor is a bit off, what we see the comlinks do is nothing that an iPhone couldn't do today.

An interesting idea is using artificial gravity in the living spaces of Alpha. Yes, artificial gravity is a double talk device, but at least they attempted to 'splain why they didn't go bouncing through Moonbase Alpha. The 'exterior' shots nicely simulated 1/6th gravity with a combination of slow motion and wirework. I thought that it was surprisingly well done, especially for the state of the art nearly forty years ago.

Martin Landau convinced me that he was a good and able commander. He's capable of bad decisions, and he (mostly)bears the burden of these. Barbara Bain turns the cold of space down a notch with her portrayal of Dr. Helena Russell, physician. Her portrayal in this makes me think that she could treat sprains and other minor injuries by the laying on of hands. Not in a spiritual sense- she's just so cold that her hands would be like putting ice on an injury.

Barry Morse came off as a bright guy, but not omniscient, and Roy Dotrice (as Commissioner Simmons) portrayed the commonplace evil inherent in civil servants.

Overall, this was far better than I expected it to be-- I knew I enjoyed it when it aired, but I was ten, and still thought that the Batman TV show was high art. After thrity some years, it holds up amazingly well. Let's see how the rest of season one fares.