Features | Written by Paul Mount 11/06/2021

STANDBY FOR SPACE: 1999

We take a look back at the popular seventies live-action Gerry Anderson series that propelled the world - or at least our moon - into orbit and the (then) far-off future…

By the mid-1970s, the glory days of Gerry Anderson and Century 21 productions were long gone, a distant memory in a rapidly evolving British entertainment landscape. Throughout the 1960s, mainly from an unassuming factory unit (recently - and shamefully - demolished) on the Slough Trading Estate Gerry, his then-wife Sylvia and a crew of loyal, hard-working writers, designers, FX technicians, puppeteers, and voice artists and actors had created a slew of extraordinarily ambitious marionette adventure series (‘filmed in Supermarionation!’). The shows captivated and fired the imaginations of a generation. Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons are iconic landmarks in the history of the development of the British television industry. In their heyday, under the enthusiastic auspices and financial patronage of Lew Grade at ITC, the Andersons built a veritable cottage industry of spin-off merchandise such as comics (specifically the massively influential TV Century 21), die-cast action vehicles, books, annuals, records, toys, and so much more. The Anderson shows created, in so many ways, the template for the mass merchandising enjoyed by so many of today’s big bucks film and TV franchises.

Times change, though, and by the end of the 1960s, the Anderson puppet show bubble had burst, in no small part due to a couple of less enthusiastically received productions such as Joe 90 and The Secret Service. Both of these shows failed to capture the same broad appeal of their predecessors; the latter in particular cancelled by Lew Grade halfway through its production run. Grade quite rightly suspected that its quirky, parochial concept - the exploits of a puppet version of gobbledegook British character actor/comedian Stanley Unwin as a secret agent priest and his miniaturising assistant - stood even less chance of making an impression overseas than Anderson’s more explosive earlier shows. Century 21 staggered on into the 1970s and UFO - the last series to bear the spine-tingling dramatic musical ‘sting’ at the start of an Anderson show - is arguably the most sophisticated, mature, and forward-thinking show ever produced by Gerry and Sylvia. But it never stood a chance in the UK as the shadow (pardon the pun) of the Andersons’ previous productions - regarded as disposable, silly children’s science fiction adventures - loomed large over the grittier, live-action adventures of Ed Straker and the heroes of the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation and UFO. When it was screened at all in the UK, it either ended up in random late-night regional slots or else used as Saturday morning or afternoon filler. It seemed that the cold, austere 1970s were no place for the Andersons colourful, fast-paced adventure stories and Gerry and Sylvia found themselves press-ganged into spending two years working on The Protectors, a bland, by-the-numbers action series starring Robert Vaughn and Nyree Dawn Porter.

Meanwhile, in the United States, something strange was happening. UFO had started airing and attracting both good reviews and decent audience figures. The wheels were set in motion for a putative second season, the requirement being that the show had to abandon its earthbound settings and storylines and relocate its action to the Moon, presumably with the original series’ Moonbase now established as the frontline in SHADO’s ongoing battle against hostile body-harvesting aliens. But as the Andersons worked on a new format for UFO2, the original series started to flag stateside, and enthusiasm for the new project quickly waned. Never one to waste an idea, Gerry laboured to refashion the concepts and ideas for the second run of UFO into an entirely new series. His original plan of kicking off a show with the Earth being destroyed was considered a step too far; a quick rethink led to a story in which the Moon itself is blown out of the Earth’s orbit and off into space, carrying with it a human contingent aboard the sprawling Moonbase Alpha complex. Space: 1999 was born.

If the show’s gestation had been troubled, then it's birth and first, faltering steps were also beset by a number of teething problems. To make the new series attractive to American audiences and networks, Lew Grade insisted that the two lead roles - new Moonbase Commander John Koenig and its medical office Dr Helena Russell - had to be played by American actors despite strong objections, in particular by Sylvia Anderson. Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, something of a minor Hollywood ‘power couple’ following their run in the hit US drama Mission: Impossible, moved to the UK to star in the series. The cast also included Barry Morse as the show’s ‘voice of wisdom’, Professor Victor Bergman and hunky Australian actor Nick Tate as space pilot Alan Carter (usually seen at the helm of one of the show’s iconic Eagle Transporter space vessels, which generally served to take the action - and the characters - away from the confines of Moonbase Alpha). Regular supporting roles were given to Prentis Hancock, Zienia Merton, and Clifton Jones.

At the time it was the highest budgeted British TV series ever made, the first season alone attracted a veritable ‘who’s who’ of British acting talent with a guest list including the likes of Christopher Lee, Roy Dotrice, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Ian McShane, Peter Bowles, Leo McKern, Patrick Troughton and, inevitably, Brian Blessed. The show entered production in November 1973 with Brian Johnson working on the show’s vast amount of practical special effects and modern sequences, and live-action production of the first episode was hastily relocated from Elstree Studios to Pinewood in Buckinghamshire when it appeared that the latter was in danger of imminent closure. Series opener Breakaway overran its scheduled ten-day filming bock by over a fortnight and, with scripts hastily rewritten and the format continually being tweaked. The first twenty-four episodes were completed over a protracted fifteen-month period, largely thanks to a series of industrial disputes and power shortages that caused massive disruptions across the country in the mid-1970s.

space 1999

Space: 1999 - complete with a pounding, urgent score from Anderson regular Barry Gray and a genuinely exhilarating, action-packed ‘in this episode’ title sequence - eventually debuted in September 1975 and reaction was somewhat mixed. Fans adored the explosive visuals and the sheer scope and scale of the production, while being conscious that many of the stories were ponderous and pedestrian, and often had a tendency towards the metaphysical. Several episodes suggested that the Moon’s wanderings were being orchestrated and directed by some mysterious god-like superior being or power. It was not without its supporters, and when it was firing on all cylinders, it was thrilling, eye-popping spectacle of the type that hadn’t been seen on British television before.

Despite its lavish productions values, starry cast and impressive visuals, Space: 1999’s first season never quite caught fire, and the show danced with cancellation for a while. Lew Grade, in particular, was not impressed by the show’s failure to attract network attention in the US. However, there was clearly enough potential evident on screen for ITC to commission a second season when Anderson and Fred Freiberger, already drafted in to co-produce the next series (following Sylvia’s exit from the production in the wake of her acrimonious split with Gerry), pitched a second series with new characters and new storylines. Space: 1999 lived to fight another day in a second season… but maybe that’s another story for another time, another place.

The first season of Space: 1999 is a flawed but ambitious series. At its best, it’s a colourful, vibrant adventure show. Albeit one plagued by its portentousness and self-consciousness and utterly unwilling or unable to kick back and have fun with its concept and present its characters as real, believable people caught up in an unbelievable situation. Visually, however, it still stands up to the cold, merciless eye of 21st century expectation and is not only a worthy addition to the formidable Gerry Anderson canon but also, at times, a fitting postscript to the glory days of Century 21 Productions and the man who really should be acknowledged as the British Walt Disney.

Space: 1999 returns to Horror Channel as part of the Sci-Fi Zone (6pm- 9pm) from June 11th. Sky 317, Virgin 149, Freeview 68, Freesat 138.