By the end of the 1970s, the science fiction television and film space was exploding. Once a niche genre for the visual arts, the seventies saw a sudden wave of neverending new and exciting sci-fi, thanks to groundwork laid down in the sixties by shows like Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Science fiction was growing up.
What we talk about when we talk about '70s sci-fi is almost always dominated by films — Star Wars, the expanding Planet of the Apes franchise, Alien. When people do think about seventies sci-fi shows, Battlestar Galactica tends to take-up the attention.
If that's where it starts and ends for you ... you're missing out.
Before Battlestar — before all of that — there was Space: 1999, the grooviest, oddest, and best science fiction show of the '70s — a show that's streaming right now for free. Nearly 50 years later, this 1975 sci-fi classic absolutely holds up. Here's why you need to binge it right now.
Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, Space: 1999 tackled the near future with a kind of bargain-basement aesthetic borrowed from 2001. But, it fused that look with the pacing and style of the '60s Star Trek. The show takes place in the year 1999, and Moonbase Alpha is where it's at. Barbara Bain and Martin Landau respectively play Dr. Helena Russell and Commander John Koenig. In the pilot episode, "Breakaway," the Moon is accidentally blown-out of Earth's orbit by an explosion, which sends everyone on Moonbase Alpha hurtling through space.
That's right. The moon becomes a freaking spaceship and a space station. At the same time.
If you have a problem with this as a premise for a science fiction show because you're an armchair Neil deGrasse Tyson ... well, you're not going to like Space: 1999.
Space: 1999 is gonzo, over-the-top seventies sci-fi at its best. Straight away, the opening theme music tells you exactly what kind of show you're watching. A big brass fanfare immediately gives way to a funky disco beat, and the bellbottoms worn by the crew of Moonbase Alpha bring it all home.
Put it this way: if you borrowed the costumes from 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and then did some acid? The result is Space: 1999.
Although Space: 1999 starred two super-famous American actors in Landau and Bain, it was mostly produced for English television. This sensibility is actually wonderful, because if you can imagine a series that hired Doctor Who writers (Johnny Byrne), but also had the showrunner from Star Trek: The Original Series season 3 (Fred Freiberger), you've just described the mood of Space: 1999.
After Landau and Bain both left Mission: Impossible, they took on the starring roles in Space: 1999 with a strange background in science fiction. The original Mission: Impossible was filmed at the exact same time as the original Star Trek, and by the same studio, Desilu. The casts of both shows saw each other often, meaning both Bain and Landau had a good idea of how science fiction shows already worked thanks to their close proximity to classic Trek.
If you're going to watch the show right now, this is the smartest way to do it: go ahead and watch the zany pilot episode "Breakaway," then skip the rest of Season 1. It's good in its goofy way, but it lacks one very important feature: Season 1 does not feature the all-important Space: 1999 character of Maya.
Played by Catherine Schell, Maya is from the planet Psychon, and first appears in the Season 2 episode "The Metamorph." When she first shows up onscreen, she's a straight-up lion. I don't mean this as a metaphor! Maya is a shapeshifter, so she actually transforms into all sorts of creatures and animals throughout the second season of the show. "The Metamorph" also features a side character on Moonbase Alpha named Picard (Gerard Paquis). So, yeah, before the Trek heyday of the 1990s, you've got a shapeshifter living on a space station, and a dude named Picard in space, way before either The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine.
Space: 1999 represents a kind of alternate version of sci-fi in the '70s. Instead of big-budget slick fairytales in space (like Star Wars) or hardcore horror with perfect set design (Alien), this show wore the kitschiness of the '60s Trek and the '70s Doctor Who on its sleeve all the time. The spaceships were cool, and the aliens far out.
Almost nothing about the series makes much sense, but Bain, Schell, and Landau sell the show with a kooky mix of charm and earnestness. Space: 1999 shouldn't be as entertaining as it is, but watching it now feels like sci-fi comfort food. You know exactly what kind of show you're in for when the moon is blown out of orbit in the first episode.
In other words, it's not perfect. Or is it?