Thursday, December 9, 2010

Space: 1999 Season One Blu-ray Review

Space: 1999 is hard to categorize.  It’s a mix of Forbidden Planet, Star Trek, and 2001 – A Space Odyssey and yet it’s it’s own thing as well.  All of the sets for the show were supposed to be originally for the second season of creator Gerry Anderson’s show UFO, but when that was canceled he had to come up with a new plan.  He retooled the show to focus on the moon-base concept that was already planned for and from that Space: 1999 was created.

Film (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Space: 1999 was the first science fiction show to air after the cancellation of Star Trek in 1969.  Unlike Star Trek, this show benefited from outstanding production values and quality special effects.  While Star Trek had to rely on the scripts and it’s amazing cast to carry the show, Space: 1999 started off with a record setting budget of $275,000 per episode and no serious science fiction competition.  The early to mid 70’s were devoid of good science fiction which should have primed the pump for this show but in reality it wasn’t until Star Wars hit in 1977, did the floodgates open for sci-fi.

This show also had the good fortune to have Brian Johnson handling the special effects.  Johnson had worked on 2001 and had brought his Oscar winning talents to the show.  Instead of using blue-screen techniques, he used the old fashioned method of filming the miniatures in front of black backgrounds and then rewound the film to film another take which worked great as long as the elements didn’t overlap.  Johnson would later go on to work on Alien and The Empire Strikes Back, so he was obviously a huge asset to this show.  The sets were also very impressive and the walls were cleverly designed to be used on both sides so they could switch the panels around to create an entirely new set from the existing set.

Another plus for the show was the decision to film the show using 35mm film instead of the customary 16mm film stock which turned out to be a brilliant decision years later, when the show was converted to high definition.  The casting of real husband and wife Marin Landau and Barbara Bain was also a coup since they had just left the highly successful show Mission: Impossible.  Barry Morse also joined the show who at that time was best known for his work as Lt. Philip Gerard, the detective who endlessly chased Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

While the show tried to carve a new path by appearing take a more cerebral approach to it’s science fiction premise, it still liberally took ideas and concepts from other works like 2001 and Star Trek.  In fact, the director Stanley Kubrick who had helmed 2001A Space Odyssey sued them in fear that the show would hurt his movie but later lost the case.  Despite their lofty intentions, the premise of the show (the moon blowing up and hurtling through space) was faulty one which was pointed out by no less than Isaac Asimov himself.

The idea of a moon-base that oversees the transport and storage of atomic waste deep within the moon, is an interesting one and touches on real life issues and fears.  When magnetic radiation leaks out of the waste disposal containers and begins killing the crew after driving them mad, it sets the events in motion that set up the show’s plot-lines.  It’s only a matter of time before the atomic material explodes, taking out a chunk of the moon and propelling the Moon away from the Earth’s orbit, but as Asimov pointed out, in reality the moon would have simply exploded entirely, taking the humans with it.  Even if it had someone not been blown to bits and sent away, it also wouldn’t have traveled so far from Earth as fast as it did.  But then again, if exact science had been followed, then there would have been no show.

Once the moon is shot away, the show’s main story-line is simply one of survival.  The 300 or so humans trapped on the moon need to find a hospitable world to colonize before their supplies run out.  Another unique aspect of the show was it’s willingness to show a darker side of science fiction that also contained some horror elements as well.  While plenty of red-shirts got killed on Star Trek, this show doesn’t hesitate to show gruesome deaths versus the fairly sanitized deaths on Star Trek.

I am fairly split on my opinion for this show.  I admire the effects, the production values, and the cast despite their Vulcan-like dispositions. It seems like everyone involved in this show decided that this was a serious affair, perhaps to be take more seriously, but it hurts the show. The languid pacing, the oh so serious acting, and the ponderous scripts are detrimental to an intriguing concept.  When every scene is treated like the fate of the universe is depending on it, it runs the risk of becoming parodied and turning into camp.  The only thing that prevented that was the talents of the principal cast.

I have to admit that I haven’t seen the second season, and I know that the show’s direction changed into a more action oriented direction, so perhaps things changed later on.  In my opinion, this show made the mistake of trying to incorporate the scientific coldness of 2001 and the dispassionate logic from Star Trek, but forgot to also include the humanity that Star Trek had in spades.  This strange combination makes this one of the most unusual shows to be produced and by extension, one of the most  treasured by it’s many fans that appreciate it’s unique qualities.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

For a show that aired in the 70s, this show looks remarkable! It retains it’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio without any modifications.  This 1080p transfer looks great with sharp detail and deep inky black levels (the space shots look amazing).  Colors are somewhat rare for this show with it’s white sets and faded uniforms, but that changes when the moon-base alpha team visit planets and the colors come alive with nice delineation.  Flesh-tones are consistent and normal looking.  I didn’t like the soft filter they used for Barbara Bain’s close-ups because now it looks like it was filmed through gauze, but overall this is a very impressive transfer.

Audio (3 out of 5 stars)

This Blu-ray comes with a brand new DTS 5.1 surround track that sounds pretty good.  The satellite speakers aren’t used that much unless it’s an effect shot whether in space or on a planet.  Dialogue is clear and front heavy and it’s well balanced.  The theme song is a true 70’s relic with it’s orchestral science fiction score at the beginning before breaking out into some truly cheesy disco music before switching back to the sci-fi score.  It’s wonderful and terrible all at the same time and fairly schizophrenic.

Special Features (5 out of 5 stars)

This box set sure didn’t skimp on the extras!  This is one of the most packed TV season sets I’ve seen and fans of the show should be ecstatic about this! While the episodes of the show are on Blu-ray, the majority of the special features are on DVDs. They are presented in HD and SD depending on the age of the extra.
  • Image Galleries – A ton of behind the scenes pictures.  Hardcore fans will love this!
  • Original Mono Tracks - For the purists.
  • Music Only Tracks – This is available on every episode save for “Breakaway” and “Dragon’s Domain”
  • HD Restored, Textless Titles – A look at the title sequence without the show’ s text.
  • Audio Commentary by Gerry Anderson – on “Breakaway” and “Dragon’s Domain.”  Anderson offers some good information but it’s sporadic and very dry so be prepared for long gaps of silence.
  • These Episodes – Over an hour and a half of specific video commentary on selected episodes with the cast and crew.
  • Memories of Space – A look behind the scenes with an emphasis on production.
  • Sylvia Anderson Interview – A talk with the former producer and wife of Gerry Anderson who has some very sharp words about the cast (especially her issues with Martin Landau and Barbara Bain), the American network executives, and her former husband.  This is a  no holds-barred interview and as harsh as it seems, it also seems to be an honest remembrance.
  • Text-less Generic Titles
  • Concept and Creation -  A look back at how the show came about.
  • Special Effects and Design – A look at the main highlight of the show – the special effects.
  • Clapper Board – Taken from a television documentary from 1975, this is a profile on Gerry Anderson which covers his career including his Supermarionation shows.
  • Guardian of Piri Remembered -  A talk with Catherine Schell who was a guest star on the show before becoming a regular during the second season playing Maya.
  • Barry Gray’s Original Theme Demo- For those people who can’t get enough of this science fiction/disco music.
  • Alternate Opening and Closing Titles
  • Landau and Bain US Premier Intro and Outro – This is a rough quality and short segment where Martin Landau and Barbara Bain introduced the show when the show premiered and added more comments when it ended.  This showed Barbara Bain in a much sexier light than her image on the show allowed.
  • SFX Plates and Deleted SFX Scenes With Music Track
  • Two Sets of Trailers – Back in the 70’s it was popular to re-cut TV episodes and sell them as a movie.  This weaselly practice was done by other shows like Dr. Who and it was done for this one too.  These trailers are for two the of the tele-films that were made up of earlier episodes cut together – “Alien Attack” and “Journey through the Black Sun.”
  • Ad Bumpers

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

This was a show that stood apart from other science fiction shows in many ways.  The good points include the excellent production values and special effects, the unique characters and the actor’s choices on how to portray them, and a darker tone that other sci-fi show lacked.  I also appreciate the show’s attention to detail to things such as when the ships lift off, there’s always moon dust dispersed from the jet exhaust.  When show-runners and their staff pay attention to the little details like that, it bodes well for a show.  This is fantastic restoration and an extremely thorough Blu-ray box set so I recommend it to fans of the show and anyone interested in a show with a different approach to science fiction television.
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