Moonbase Alpha Comes of Age
If you're one of the legion of Voyager fans -- particularly Janeway and J/C fans -- disgusted by "Endgame," pissed off by the lack of meaningful relationships and frustrated at the absence of well-rounded female role models who don't wear catsuits, I have discovered the perfect antidote. It's called Space:1999.
Now, before you laugh, let me make my case. Of course I watched Space:1999 on and off during its original run and in various later incarnations, and of course I rolled my eyes at it. After all, it originally aired during my first focused iteration of Star Trek reruns in the 1970s when I was still under 10, so it made very little impact on me by contrast -- or to be blunt, I thought Space:1999 was stupid. A lot of the dialogue makes original Trek sound like Shakespeare. I paid so little attention to it that when I later saw Martin Landau in such classics as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Ed Wood, I never stopped to think about the fact that this was the doofus from Space:1999 -- the story of a couple hundred mostly-human voyagers lost in space, bonding together as a family as they searched for a safe haven or a way home. Have I mentioned that, done correctly, this premise is a relationship fan's dream?
Ahem. At some point early on during Voyager's run, I was discussing a piece of Your Cruise Director's fan fiction called "Gems" with Laura Williams -- a wonderful fan writer and former critic for Now Voyager. I thought "Gems" seemed like a bit of a ripoff of classic Trek's "The Empath," in which McCoy was willing to die rather than sacrifice the lives of either Spock or McCoy. Laura said the story reminded her more of the "love test" episode of Space:1999. As I soon discovered, there is no actual episode entitled "The Love Test"; Laura was referring to "Brian the Brain," a second-season Evil Robot story in which manmade megalomaniac Brian kidnaps Moonbase Alpha's Commander Koenig and Dr. Russell to use as hostages against one another so he can get them to refuel his ship.
This plot hinges on one of the greatest fanfic devices ever created -- the Love Test. Brian suspects Koenig and Russell are secretly in love with each other; the fact that they keep touching and calling each other "John" and "Helena" is sort of a giveaway. When they vehemently deny it, Brian tests his theory by putting each of them in a separate airlock and letting the air out. He tells them that at any point either can save the other's life by pressing a button to send all of his or her air into the other airlock. Naturally they resist as long as possible, as they're not about to admit their feelings just because some obsessed 'shipper -- I mean robot -- is forcing their hands. But when they're dying of asphyxiation, they both hit their buttons at precisely the same second, saving each other's lives and causing Brian to crow gleefully, "I knew it! You love each other!" He lets them out of their airlocks, and they stumble straight into one another's arms. Later, after the crisis is averted, the pair have an affectionate discussion in front of approving crewmembers about whether they passed or failed the love test.
I watched this episode after Laura told me about it, but it still didn't make much of a conscious impact. Then a few weeks ago my beloved husband -- the man who has 27 homemade videotapes containing every episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, who has rewatched all the Adam West Batmans and every single installment of Land of the Lost and I can't even keep track of how many other shows -- came home with the first season of Space:1999 on DVD. I laughed at him; I might have yelled at him, but I had just spent $45 on the 2001 Star Trek holiday ornaments and figured I'd blown my chance at taking the high ground. Since we'd already worked our way through the entire set of Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg Avengers tapes while folding laundry, I let him put on the first few episodes of Space:1999.
Now, the pilot was just as silly as I'd remembered, although the lunar effects were passable, and it suddenly struck me what a lovely resemblance Barbara Bain bears to Louise Fletcher. But the second episode! I'd never seen it before. In "Matter of Life and Death," the crew of Moonbase Alpha encounters Helena's long-lost husband, who has mysteriously traveled from Jupiter where he disappeared to a planet deep in space where he evolved into a being made of antimatter. John walks around the first half of the episode looking crushed that Helena's husband has shown up. Then he has to protect her from the awesome powers of the antimatter planet, where they get caught in a plasma storm and go stumbling around in the woods together, with high winds blowing them and stuff falling on them. Sound familiar? But "Matter of Life and Death" has a better ending than "Resolutions," because when Helena thinks John is dead, she actually cries. And John's last words before he gets resurrected by her husband are, "Helena...we almost made it, you and I." When Lee Russell (who lets go with a lot more grace than Janeway's Mark Johnson) brings him back, John and Helena walk off together hand in hand.
There's another couple during the first season consisting of Sandra, an elfin Kes-lookalike with dark hair, and Paul, a dorky mission control specialist, and another second season that includes alien scientist Maya who can turn into animals and hunky mission specialist Tony (played by Tony Anholt, father of Relic Hunter's Christien Anholt). It's funny -- Maya got on my nerves when I first saw the show, because I thought she was the token late-addition Exotic Alien Babe, and there was a bit of "let's bring on a younger hotter genius woman" trend going a la Seven of Nine's arrival on Voyager. But I really like her relationship with Helena, whose authority she respects and whose human qualities she seems genuinely to appreciate. Like P/T, I don't care all that much about Maya and Tony as a couple because in many ways they're more interesting apart, but on a show where the commander and the doctor who is for all intents and purposes his second-in-command are obviously in love, their relationship is just gravy anyway.
One of the kicks of Space:1999 is that Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were married while it was in production, as well as all the years before they worked together on Mission Impossible and for nearly two decades afterwards. The chemistry's electric, even though they're written mostly as an old married couple with almost no overt sexuality between them; still, when one of them smiles at the other and says "I'll see you later," you suspect they really mean it. As a bonus, there are no interviews where one actor says something nasty about the other one or says he or she deserved someone better. (Also, any couple that produced Juliet Landau -- Drusilla on Buffy and Angel -- is worth pondering for that reason alone.)
The touchy-feely count during the first three episodes alone is sky-high, especially when they think the moon is going to be destroyed, so John has to send six crewmembers off on a ship to be the sole survivors, and Helena says she won't go because she'd rather die on the moonbase (read: "with you") since the timing of her demise doesn't really matter, and he says, "It matters...to me." Later, when she gets back, they rush into each other's arms (again) and walk off together like they're headed for someone's quarters. The whole series is absolutely permeated with moments like this, though I must have been too young when I first saw it to appreciate it. For anyone who has issues with Janeway's touchy-feely tendencies as an authority figure, I would like to note that John Koenig is the most touchy-feely captain in the history of sci-fi -- every time the moonbase shakes around, he makes physical contact with virtually every member of his staff, male ane female, while he makes sure they're all right. He's sort of a cross between Benjamin Sisko and John Sheridan in terms of command style, less polished than Picard but less impulsive than Kirk. He calls his core group of advisers to impromptu meetings in the command center and doesn't even raise an eyebrow when hotshot Captain Alan Carter tries to contradict him because he's confident that he's in charge and everyone is going to listen to him.
One of my favorite episodes is "Dragon's Domain," the episode Voyager's "Scorpion" should have been. John and Helena have a big professional disagreement -- a losing-one's-temper-and-yelling disagreement -- which ends with him stomping out of her office in a huff. To make matters worse, he subsequently learns that she is personally responsible for the medical decision that destroyed the career of John's best friend Tony, and led to John getting temporarily reassigned from the moonbase. Helena narrates a long flashback that involves Tony having been lost in space, losing his entire crew, and claiming a monster was responsible. John was the only person on the space commission who believed Tony, while Helena found Tony mentally unstable -- thus giving the greedy commissioner the opportunity to let Tony take the fall for the crew loss, and to demote John for defending him. We learn all of this while Helena is trying to figure out why John took a medical decision so personally. She doesn't know yet that her testimony about Tony's probable instability was directly responsible for allowing conspiring politicians to take power at the space commission, thus letting such men create the situation that got them stranded on the moon.
So how does John deal with this? He goes down to the hydroponics unit and gets a flower. Then he buzzes the medical unit, asks how Tony is, asks how Helena is, and when she icily tells him that she's all right, he asks whether she's all right enough to let him in, and gives the flower to her. He apologizes "for chewing your head off." And she kisses him. Five minutes later, they're having exactly the same professional disagreement about Tony's mental state. John starts to raise his voice. Helena picks up the flower and loudly sniffs it. He modulates his rant; they start discussing the situation in civil tones. And in the end it turns out they were both right, sort of. In other words: a captain can have a screaming argument with the crewmember who's an equal in terms of the ability to make and rescind crew assignments (including the captain's), who also happens to be his lover. Then they can kiss and make up, and go right back to arguing without either one of them looking weak.
Compare this to the way Voyager's writers portrayed Chakotay the Maquis lap dog in order to avoid challenging the authority of his female captain, and to their insistence that Janeway and Chakotay could not become romantically involved yet maintain professional decorum. Space:1999 not only proves that such a relationship can be portrayed without any loss of respect for the characters, but that it can actually enhance the dramatic intensity of the series. And this is only the background of a single episode; the main plot focuses on Tony's nightmares and the mysterious creature that may or may not have caused his mind to snap. There are no soap opera histrionics, no characters falling apart over personal matters, just complex storylines given higher stakes because the emotions are engaged on so many levels.
Now, Star Trek has rarely has the nerve to show a leader who's truly open to criticism. And it would never have the guts to do an episode like "One Moment of Humanity," in which an android tries to make love to Helena in front of John in order to arouse his rage. Nor would any Trek show have used the sainted Edith Keeler, a.k.a. Joan Collins, in an episode like "Mission of the Darians," a story about aliens who kill imperfect beings while their counterparts cannibalize perfect ones. Well, Jeri Taylor might have written something like "New Adam, New Eve," in which a guy who claims he's God (think of the charming Shatneresque Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) tries to breed a perfect race by making Tony fool around with Helena and John with Maya...and I find it awfully telling that the planet they're chosen to populate is called New Earth. Maybe it's a coincidence, and the peace rose in "Dragon's Domain" is a coincidence, and the plasma storm is a coincidence, but it resonates for this J/Cer anyway.
I know what you're saying, because my friend and local Space:1999 expert Cheryl has been saying it to me ever since I conceived this unwholesome obsession. "But Space:1999 is BAD!" Well, yes and no. After all, Classic Trek produced many episodes that were stinkers, some of which are my standards for worst-ever lists -- if it's worse than "And the Children Shall Lead," for instance, it's not worth saving on videotape. But the concept, the limited production values, and even the performances of original Trek were extraordinary in terms of the risks the producers were willing to take, and some of the scripts are absolutely brilliant. When I say in reviews that I think Voyager started out mediocre and sucked mercilessly during the final seasons, it's not just hatred of Seven of Nine or frustration with recycled plots that compels me to bash it.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with a good sci-fi cliche every once in awhile, any more than soap operas are wrong to keep running the death/divorce/remarriage/killing/actually-he's-not-dead/split personality/adopted child/etc. stuff that has kept them going for decades. And I don't even particularly object to women in catsuits, as long as they don't become the center of the show, usurping the position of a legitimate female authority figure and role model. So I can appreciate Voyager's "Dragon's Teeth" despite its being an obvious riff on TOS's "Space Seed," but I can't stomach the character-assassinating "Threshold" or the even more dreadful "Omega Directive" despite some quasi-innovative plotting. These episodes actually rate lower for me than "That Which Survives" and "Spock's Brain," my previous low points for serious TV sci-fi (please note: I am not counting Galactica '80 as serious TV sci-fi).
Space:1999 had godawful costumes that got worse as the show went on (Maya's heels! Helena's skirts!), drab-colored spare sets, terrible lighting, boring directing and cheesy special effects. It also suffered from a surfeit of proto-technobabble, a preposterous pilot episode and stunningly stilted dialogue. I've only seen about 1/3 of the episodes, so I might not even have seen the worst. But again -- and here I'm using the Treks, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, The Avengers, The X-Files, The Prisoner and my beloved VR5 as standards, since those are its peers -- it took risks. It asked questions bigger than could be managed cleverly within the constraints of an hour-long weekly serial, and for the most part it didn't drop them at the end of episodes. It developed relationships among the characters, tensions, romances, hostilities, which are manifest even in episodes where they're not directly relevant to the plot (and are arguably more interesting in such situations). It stuck with its overriding objective -- not getting the crew home, but finding and later making a new home (which would have been a much more enjoyable theme for Voyager that plodding through the Delta Quadrant only to get an abortive return, though Voyager could also have tried to do what Galactica did and weave both themes through the Menaces of the Week).
In terms of the characters, there's a preponderance of British accents but Koenig's crew seems more diverse than Kirk's -- more non-Western accents, more black and Asian faces. The roles of the main female characters are vastly better than anything on original Trek and post-Tasha Yar TNG. Space:1999 doesn't have a woman in command, but it has a man who's a lot more in touch with his emotions and a lot more democratic than certain other lost-in-space captains I can think of. As for Dr. Russell, she's more secure in her authority, more comfortable interrupting Koenig than Dr. Crusher was with Picard despite the latter's shared history. At good moments she reminds me of Kira...at least the way Kira would have been written in the 1970s when a butch haircut would have given the studio boyz massive coronaries. The professor actually tries to talk like a scientist within the parameters understood by an audience of the show's era, even if a lot of what he says is nonsense. And while there's lots of cheesy sexual situations, there's no real sense of the characters being exploited -- these writers are not toying with their audience to get ratings so much as attempting to push what boundaries they dare.
I am not claiming that this show is quality material -- it's low-budget entertainment with lots of badly-filmed explosions, stilted plots, boring technobabble and the occasional heavy-handed moral. But the actors give the impression of effort and the plots keep moving forward -- even the reset button episodes aren't really resets. It's a damn sight better than The Phantom Menace and holds its own just fine against the Trek lineup, well below the best but ahead of the worst. And because Space:1999 is so similar to Voyager, its assets shine precisely where Voyager fails.
Burned by Trek? Try the show that was its only real rival in the 1970s. Like fine wine, Space:1999 has gotten better with age.
Thanks to Laura and Cheryl, and a big belated thank-you to Philippa Sidle.