Saturday, July 16, 2011

Space: 1999 Episode One--Breakaway

Breakaway The pilot episode of Space: 1999 paid direct homage to Stanley Kubrick's then-already classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Early in the episode, Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) is going to the Moon in a passenger Eagle, complete with a stewardess/flight attendant. He has a visual communication with his superior, Commissioner Simmonds (guest Roy Dotrice) of the World Space Commission. He wants Koenig to get the Meta mission launched ASAP, and that is why he is going to Alpha and replacing Commander Gorski. Why the urgency? Delays could mean problems with the International Lunar Finance Committee meeting soon. The flight towards the Moon with the stewardess, scenes of the Space Dock (a space station orbiting the Moon), and the communications with Simmonds are reminiscent of 2001's classic sequence of Dr. Heywood Floyd going to a space station before going on to the Moon; Floyd has a video communication with his young daughter while he is on the station, and after he gets to the Moon, he has a meeting with an important group.

Before we met Koenig, we'd already met Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), the equivalent of Trek's Dr. McCoy and the important forerunner to Star Trek: The Next Generation's Dr. Beverly Crusher, as two of the Meta Probe astronauts were dying in Moonbase Alpha's Medical Center. Conferring with the head scientist on Alpha, Prof. Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), she is frustrated by a lack of answers. In addition to the Meta astronauts, workers at one of the Nuclear Waste Disposal sites have also gotten sick and died.

Arriving at the base, Koenig discovers Simmonds had lied to him about what was going on and was keeping the situation quiet. This rings bad today, but in the immediate post-Watergate era, I can imagine it would have been one heckuva shock. Today, of course, we've had so many scandals in the post-Watergate era (and space disasters, with the losses of Skylab and Mir, Challenger and Columbia), it is a much milder shock, met with a sense of 'oh, not again'. As it turns out, the previous Commander actually was covering up the severity of the sicknesses and deaths.

Koenig begins an investigation, and that finally starts giving them clues. While the illnesses acted like radiation, they are revealed to be caused by some kind of magnetic radiation. Critics such as noted science fiction writer (and professional scientist) Isaac Asimov jumped on this and other examples of bad science, although it clearly is an early example of technobabble (compared to original Trek, 1999 abounded it in it, although not to the extent that it dominates post 1980s Trek). Whatever this stuff was, it created lightning in space (again not very scientific) and extreme heat, exploding disposal area #1. Area #2 is much, much bigger, because the Earth of the 1999 universe depends on a worldwide network of nuclear reactors, which have obviously not had a disaster along the lines of Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the USSR, or Fukushima in Japan.

Eventually, area #2 goes up and acts like some kind of rocket engine, throwing the moon out of orbit and towards interstellar space. Disasters on Earth seem to have been limited to earthquakes in Yugoslavia, in the south of France, and along Earth's San Andreas fault. Again, completely out of touch with known laws of science. Tsunamis would probably have been a bigger issue, as well as the likelihood of more earthquakes worldwide. But it did set up the series premise: The Moon is blasted out of orbit, into interstellar space (and eventually, other galaxies and perhaps other universes as well), careening in and out of various star systems (without being gravitationally captured) as a rogue world. Well, at least the idea of a rogue world isn't theoretical or merely a science fiction concept, as rogue worlds have been discovered in real life. In the process, the Space Dock and the Meta Probe are both destroyed.

In the second season episode "Space Warp", that phenomenon is shown to exist in the 1999 universe, giving a possible explanation.

One very good explanation for what happened was introduced in the fanfiction "A Space Odyssey: 1999", by David Welle (webmaster of the Metaforms website devoted to 1999), which combines 2001 and 1999 (as you could probably guess by the title). In that story, it was the monolith TMA-1 which caused the moon to go a-wandering. Another one is "The Void Ahead", by William R. Swanson.

Series regulars appearing in this episode are Paul Morrow, Controller of Main Mission, the department head for the communications control center which acted as the 'bridge' of Moonbase Alpha and apparent second-in-command during the first year (played by Prentis Hancock); Data Analyst Sandra Benes, who monitors equipment and seems to be roughly equivalent to Trek's Uhura (played by Zienia Merton); Dr. (Bob) Mathias, who appeared to be the top doctor under Russell (played by Anton Phillips); and Alan Carter, Chief Pilot, department head of Reconaissance, and apparent third-in-command to Koenig (played by Nick Tate).

Written by George Bellak (uncredited assistance by Christopher Penfold).
Directed by Lee Katzin.

Pilot episode grade: Five stars out of five. Does a really good job of introducing the leads (Koenig, Russell, Bergman) and has appearances by the major supporting characters of year one (Paul, Morrow, Mathias, Alan); an excellent job of introducing Alpha, including the major sets (Main Mission, Medical, the transport tubes, and even the Main Hangar); shows the suits, Moonbuggy, Eagles, and the stun gun in action. I grade pilot episodes as a separate category on how well the pilot introduces leading and supporting characters as well as the technology.

Episode grade: Four stars out of five. I highly recommend this episode. It moves along very fast and does a good job of introducing Commissioner Simmonds. The mystery of the illness is well-handled, the concerns about launching the Meta Probe are well-integrated into the illness story, and the effects work is top-notch (no surprise, because members of the effects team from 2001 worked on 1999 as well). The only real hole is the science, and everything else nearly makes up perfectly for it from a dramatic perspective. The show really held up well when I viewed it recently.

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