Space: 1999 – Earthbound

The end of February brought us a new Space: 1999 audio adventure from Big Finish Productions. Ostensibly, we are presented with three stories, “Mooncatcher” written by Marc Platt, “Earthbound” written by Iain Meadows, and “Journey’s End” written by Nicholas Briggs. It turns out, “Mooncatcher” is the only completely original tale on this disk. The other two stories are, in fact, a two-part retelling of the classic TV episode “Earthbound” which featured Christopher Lee as the alien space ship captain Zantor. I’ve been looking forward to this release because “Earthbound” was one of the most memorable episodes of the original series and Marc Platt is one of my favorite classic Doctor Who authors. Platt wrote the weird and wonderful twenty-sixth season Doctor Who episode “Ghostlight” along with the novel Lungbarrow, which delved into Time Lord society and the Doctor’s personal history in a really interesting way.

Space: 1999 – Earthbound

Platt’s story didn’t disappoint. As the story opens, the Moon is hurtling toward a strange, spherical object in space. Moonbase Alpha personnel receive strange transmissions from its vicinity and the object is so smooth, it appears to be artificial. Astronaut Alan Carter and Paul Morrow (both played by Glen McCready) take an Eagle spacecraft to go investigate. As they approach, Moonbase personnel figure out the signals they’ve received are a warning. Carter and Morrow are out of range, so Commander Koenig and Dr. Russell go out to try to help. Before they arrive, the sphere opens up and tendrils pull the first Eagle inside. It turns out the object is a life form, like a space-traveling coral reef and this is where the story gets really interesting. The life form begins delving into Carter and Morrow’s memories and pushes them into a dream state. In the original series, Morrow was effectively Koenig’s right-hand man, but we never got to know him well. This audio episode revealed much more about his past in a way that was true to both the classic series and the new audio series. The character came much more to life for me. As one might expect, Carter and Morrow are eventually rescued by Koenig and Russell, though we’re thrown several interesting twists and turns along the way.

The premise of Space: 1999 is that disaster strikes Earth’s moon and it’s sent hurtling out into deep space. Our characters are those people running Moonbase Alpha, a base which both oversees the storage of nuclear material and deep space launches. Although some people clearly follow a military-like rank hierarchy, the implication is that most people on the base are civilian employees. One issue rarely raised in the original series is why should Commander Koenig be the person who makes all the decisions for this group of people stranded far away from Earth. The new version of “Earthbound” addresses that.

In both the TV series and the audio series, Koenig’s boss, Space Commissioner Simmonds is stranded on the base with them. In the new version of “Earthbound,” he steps forward to question Koenig’s decision to look for a new planet for the Alphans to call home and says they’re priority should be to find a way to return to Earth. He makes his case to the Alphans and a vote is called. This early part of the episode has distinct echoes of contemporary populism in both the United States and United Kingdom. The Alphans vote by a narrow margin to return to Earth if possible and Alpha’s command staff is tasked with making the dream a reality. The problem is the dream isn’t a very realistic one and tensions grow between the command staff and the Alphans that voted to go home.

In the midst of this strife, a space ship arrives that looks as though it’s going collide with Alpha. Alan Carter takes an Eagle out to try and stop the collision, but fails. Fortunately, the space ship makes a safe landing near the base. Commander Koenig, Dr. Russell and Professor Victor Bergman board the ship. They find a group of aliens in croygenic suspension. Dr. Russell tries to wake one, but fails, accidentally killing the first alien. The alien ship’s computer wakes another. Distraught, the alien makes telepathic contact with Helena, learns human language, and learns that the death of their crewmember was an accident. In the process, Captain Zantor, leader of the Kaldosians, forms a strong emotional bond with Dr. Russell.

We soon learn the Kaldosians were seeking Earth, and their computer knows how to find it. Commissioner Simmonds sees an opportunity and sets a plot in motion to capture the Kaldosian ship. Dr. Russell struggles to keep this from happening, in part because of her bond with Captain Zantor. Those who know the original series probably remember how the episode ended. However, this isn’t exactly that same story and Nicholas Briggs definitely throws us some twists. I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers. Barnaby Kay, who plays Zantor, does a fine job taking over a classic Christopher Lee role. Kay doesn’t so much try to imitate Lee but he works hard to play the character with the same combination of power and Zen-like calm Lee gave to the character.

Space: 1999 Volume 02: Earthbound is available at: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/space-1999-volume-02-earthbound-2505


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Revisiting Space: 1999

I’m sure everyone remembers where they were on September 13, 1999. Or, at least, they would remember that momentous day if the events of the television show Space: 1999 had come to pass. In the show, that’s the day a nuclear waste dump exploded on Earth’s moon sending it out of orbit and on a long, harrowing journey out of the solar system. I recently found myself thinking about Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s series. I remember watching it when it first aired, but it occurred to me that I didn’t remember many details about the series, so I went back and watched most of the first season’s episodes.

The first thing that occurred to me as I watched the series is how much it owed to two sources: Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s previous live-action television series, UFO. The show reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the sense that it’s less about space as a setting for the story’s action as it’s a place where mankind will encounter phenomena that will stretch the mind and maybe even spur the next stage of human evolution. The uniforms, the moon base, and the overall feel of the show reminded me a lot of UFO and I’ve read that some elements of the series were, in fact, originally developed for a second season of UFO, which never materialized.

The science of Space: 1999 is much maligned. Isaac Asimov once famously remarked that an explosion big enough to knock the moon out of orbit would destroy it. Physicist Kevin Grazier has taken a much more balanced approach and calculated the energy it actually would take to knock the moon out of Earth’s orbit. He notes that enough energy to knock the moon out of orbit would be highly improbable and also remarks that getting the moon to leave Earth’s orbit isn’t as hard a problem as getting the moon to leave the solar system. You can read Grazier’s thoughts here: https://www.gerryanderson.co.uk/science-of-space-1999/

In his article, Grazier does point out one way in which Space: 1999’s science was ahead of its time and that was it’s presentation of rogue planets. In the series, the moon encounters numerous planets away from the sun wandering by themselves with no nearby star. Rogue planets were pure speculation when the series was created, but we now know them to be something that does exist. We still do have a science issue in that some of these rogue planets seem to support human-like life, despite the lack of a nearby star.

Part of how Space: 1999 sells its improbable physics is by giving us some of the most believable tech I’ve seen in a science fiction series. The Eagle spacecraft look like the kind of things you might have expected NASA to have developed if they had continued building on the Apollo program. The only real problem with the Eagles is their use in atmosphere and high gravity worlds as the series progresses. I believe them on the moon, but not necessarily flying through dense planetary atmospheres. The comlocks that people use to unlock doors and talk to each other feel like the kind of combination remote control, video cell phone that could have been developed in the 1990s.

One of the things I found remarkable about revisiting Space: 1999 was the quality of the cast. Of course, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, and Barry Morse all had wonderful, understated performances. They felt like humans coming to grips with the weird reality they found themselves in. I had forgotten that actors such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared in the series. Speaking of Cushing and Lee, I had forgotten how well the series did at presenting science fiction horror. The denizens encounter some truly frightening situations such as aliens who take over people’s bodies, or implacable tentacled aliens who dine on people’s flesh and spit out corpses.

One of the episodes I found especially interesting was one called “The Guardian of Piri.” In it, Catherine Schell plays an alien who convinces the Alphans they can have complete contentment if they settle. Much of it reminds me of the kinds of visions John Mark Ellis experiences in Children of the Old Stars and the Cluster’s eventual takeover of Earth in Heirs of the New Earth. The structures on Piri are even spheres, reminding me of the Cluster. Although I don’t remember the episode specifically, it does make me wonder how much the episode seeped into my subconscious and was reprocessed in my story.

So, where was I on September 13, 1999? I was working at New Mexico State University on the 1-meter telescope project based at Apache Point Observatory. We were about a month into a new semester, which meant that I was probably busy getting classroom demonstrations ready. I was also working on the novel Children of the Old Stars and thinking about some of the more metaphysical topics I wanted to explore in my series. You can help me create the new edition of my novel by supporting my Patreon campaign at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers