Space: 1999 1.8 – Dragon’s Domain

Well, here’s a surprise. I figured since the kid insisted we watch Space: 1999 from time to time, I’d do up its most infamous child-scaring episode right, and we watched it together late at night with all the lights out. “Dragon’s Domain” is the one with the great screaming tentacled monster with the headlamp eye that skeletonizes its victims. But our boy is a much older boy than the boy who was once so very bothered by many of the monsters we’ve seen together. He was flatly and firmly unimpressed. So nine’s too old. You got kids of your own? Throw this at ’em earlier.

The kid said that he liked precisely two things about it. Recovering from getting clobbered the second time by the “Saint George” character who insists on fighting his dragon, Alan asks “What’s that guy got against me?” And among the models in the spaceship graveyard, our son spotted the same ship used by Julian Glover’s people in the previous episode, “Alpha Child.” That’s it.

But I thought this was the best of the first eight by a mile. I really like its scope. Much of it is a flashback to an incident in 1996-97 where “Saint George” takes off on a 14-month flight to visit a new planet in the solar system, along with Michael Sheard and two women. They find a graveyard of other spacecraft, but “Saint George” can’t get out of the cockpit while Sheard and the ladies are horrifically killed by the monster. The dude escapes, jettisoning the bulk of his ship, makes it home, and nobody believes him. 800 days into Moonbase Alpha’s journey, in between galaxies and nowhere near anything, “Saint George” has a nightmare of the monster again, because the big dude got hungry and parked his spiderweb of spaceships in the moon’s path. Seems a bit unlikely that a big dude powerful enough to do that could get whipped by an axe to the headlamp, but there you go.

Here’s the other thing I really liked, and it’s the show that Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade should have given us instead of this silly series. Douglas Wilmer plays the commissioner of Earth’s unified space program, and there’s a hell of a show here about putting together the funds to explore our own solar system, and finding seven or eight derelict alien spaceships on the other side of Pluto, with or without a big space monster. It’s somewhere that Anderson kind of looked at five years previously in his strange feature film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, but abandoned in favor of weird post-Kubrick metaphysics and philosophy about the strangeness of space. There’s even a little cameo by Bob Sherman, who’d later play the CIA guy in The Sandbaggers, as a newsreader for a show about the space program. I just think it’s a huge missed opportunity, because honestly, the nuts and bolts of how Moonbase Alpha got started is far, far more interesting to me than black suns and space rocks and rules of Luton.

But maybe I wouldn’t be focused on that had the big monster scared the pants off our son like it was meant to.

Space: 1999 1.5 – Death’s Other Dominion

So Space: 1999 has joined our son’s other little rotation of shows that we occasionally watch together in the afternoons, which reminds me of just how incredibly spoiled for choice the kids of today are. Remember all those afternoons in the late seventies when you felt like putting down the toys and books or coming in from outside playing for some TV time, and you just had to cross your fingers there was something better than F Troop on? Children today will never know our ennui.

Anyway, I decided against writing about the other shows we occasionally look at together, in part because who needs the extra work, and in part because Space: 1999 is usually so uninspiringly stupid. Not even a groovy guest star might have tempted me. He and I could watch BRIAN BLESSED in anything and I don’t have to write about it. I could even pass on the opportunity to make a joke about the possibility of spending eight hundred-plus years in the company of Valerie Leon, eternally thirty years young. Or a joke about one actor’s obvious hairpiece, or another about carved from ice on a distant planet or not, these dudes have the most 1970s pad I’ve ever seen.

No, I mention “Death’s Other Dominion” today for another reason. In this story, the Alphans deal with a time warp or something not really explained and meet the members of a lost expedition from Earth. From the Alphans perspective, all contact was lost just fifteen years previously, but for the people of Ultima Thule, it’s been about 880 years and they have not aged a day. Experiments to understand their immortality have left some of their number slowly vegetating in a distant cave as “the revered ones,” their minds completely gone as they twitch silently or rock side to side. And this really got under the kid’s skin in an unexpected and devilish way. Just before Tubi took an ad break, our son got up and went to the other sofa, eyes wide, as he said “This has really, really creeped me out.”

He was still so bothered by the implications and the visuals that when the episode comes to its thunderously memorable and incredibly grisly climax, he was less bothered by that freaky moment than the shuffling, mindless men and women walking back and forth in an ice cave, forever. I remembered the ending from when I first saw this one as a teenager – it foreshadows the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark in a chilling way – but had completely forgotten the cave of the revered ones. Funny what sticks with you. This might stick with him for quite some time.

Space: 1999 1.1 – Breakaway

Two nights ago, the episode of Xena that we watched had a really cheesy and corny ending with our heroines talking about how they’re lost without each other. The kid gagged, and, in that kid way, refused to stop talking about how corny it was. He asked Marie and me whether we’d ever seen an ending as corny as that. That’s not the sort of list either of us make, so we couldn’t answer.

But then I remembered. Ah yes, “The Rules of Luton” on Space: 1999. It ends, as much TV in the seventies did, with people smiling and cracking a joke, this one coming at the end of fifty minutes of our heroes being on the receiving end of three pissed off telepathic trees and forced to reenact the plot of the Star Trek episode “Arena.” Space: 1999 was always stupid, but the second season, when they tried to be as much like Trek as the law would allow as they boldly went where no moon had gone before, was really, really stupid. And then that episode ended with Martin Landau yukking about picking flowers.

(To drive home the point, when I say telepathic trees, I’m not kidding. This wasn’t stuffing Stanley Adams into a carrot costume, this was a photo of three trees with a actor’s voiceover.)

My story told, I thought that would be the end of Space: 1999 around these parts, but yesterday, something wild happened. The “how does this thing make any money” streaming channel Tubi TV announced it had acquired Dr. Slump. We live in an age of wonders. I opened up Tubi, saw that Arale-chan ain’t there yet, but lo and behold, there is 1999. So I called down the kid to show him the trees and the ending, which was stupid, but less corny and less freeze-frame-smiling than I remembered it, and the kid had two things to say. He wanted a toy of the Eagle transporter, and the title sequence was awesome. Correct, in fairness, on both counts.

But then I said “That title sequence is good, but the first season title sequence is iconic. Check this out.” And his brain exploded. He demanded that we watch the first episode.

I tried to say “Son, I’m telling you, this show is really stupid,” and what he said was conveyed quite silently and I heard it very loudly. What he said was “Old man, stop it. I just saw explosions and cool spaceships and rocking guitar and fast editing and people screaming and the moon being BLOWN OUT OF EARTH’S ORBIT and you are to STOP AT ONCE showing me girls with swords in New Zealand and GIVE ME EXPLODING MOON SPACESHIP ACTION IMMEDIATELY.”

So I said we’d have time Thursday afternoon. And here we are.

He really liked it and wants to see more. Which is reasonable; I enjoyed this from time to time when I was a kid, too. But the first episode is very slow, even by 1999 standards. It’s a long, long investigation into the strange deaths of several astronauts, and none of it is too scientifically ridiculous for a while. The cast is kind of solid: season one features Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, and Barry Morse as the three leads. Morse is as awesome as he always was, just a terrific, watchable actor in anything. Prentis Hancock, Zienia Merton, and Nick Tate are the first season’s B-team. Guest stars this time include Roy Dotrice, Philip Madoc (for a single scene), and Shane Rimmer. I was saying just last month how Rimmer could usually be heard, uncredited, in shows from the period, and here he is without a credit today.

The explosions are well up to the impossibly high standards of Gerry Anderson’s visual effects wizards, the design is very good, and it’s all just so slow and lifeless and, most of all, dumb. But the space disaster business genuinely pleased the kid and he wants to see more. He might really, really start liking it when weirdo aliens show up. I’ll make sure all the lights are out when we get to the big tentacled thing that everybody remembers in “Dragon’s Domain.”

The Shape of Things to Come (1979)

The rush to capitalize on those sweet, sweet Star Wars profits led to this terminally dull Canadian entry, which is more formally called H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come despite not having much of anything to do with any book that Wells ever wrote. It was filmed in the fall of 1978 for as little money as possible, leading to some charming moments like a bit where Carol Lynley, who plays the deposed governor of the planet Delta Three, tells all her subordinates on the studio set to wait there while she goes through a door on location to a power plant, where they couldn’t afford to take all those extras.

It ticks the requisite boxes. Barry Morse is in the Obi-Wan Kenobi role, with Jack Palance as the Vader Villain. There is a cute robot called Sparks and several similar dangerous ones that are painted black and kill people. In one surprisingly grisly moment, a robot batters a man to death with a great big rock. Big spaceships are filmed from underneath, so there was plenty here to cut into a thirty-second spot for afternoon teevee. Surprisingly, however, I don’t remember this movie at all. Sure, it’s been nearly four decades, but this was, of course, exactly the sort of film I’d see advertised on TV commercials and run screaming to my parents to take me to see.

Our son mostly enjoyed it, but the brief upper hand that the baddies enjoy really bothered him a lot more than in similar stories. I think that’s in part because the circumstances are really grim – Barry Morse’s death scene is, while still PG-rated, a lot more graphic than Obi-Wan vanishing into the folds of his cloaks – but also because the good guys seem hopeless. Nobody has laser guns or light sabers, and the heroic leads, played by Nicholas Campbell and the downright gorgeous Eddie Benton, don’t seem to have any special powers or abilities at all, just luck.

Another factor that might have bothered our son: the grim tone is really set by an honestly effective sequence set on Earth, which is by far the very best part of the movie. So the plot is that the Vader Villain has taken over Delta Three and now controls the radiation drugs needed on the moon colony. Our heroes leave the moon to confront him, but immediately have a fault and have to land on the polluted planet Earth, which had been ravaged by a robot war several years previously.

They land in a remote mining camp where everything is still and quiet among the orange leaves of the trees, except for some strange, small shapes that the camera keeps finding, hunched over among the weeds. Campbell and Benton explore the isolated place looking for the operator, and it’s all shot like a truly excellent horror film from the period, not a bombastic outer space movie. Experience with this sort of story suggests that the shapes will turn out to be mutant raiders or something, but that gets subverted, too.

It’s a real shame the whole movie couldn’t be as effective as this sequence. The director, George McCowan, mainly worked in television in the 1970s and regularly directed cop and detective shows like Cannon and The Streets of San Francisco. His work here suggests he was a bit lost trying to make killer robots and spaceships seem believable or threatening to grown-ups, but give him an old radio transmission tower and a couple of attractive leads somewhere in a quarry in Canada, and he could make something a little magical.

Eventually, of course, everything has to blow up, because that’s what kind of movie this is. That thrilled our son much more than anything in the woods.