Right, I’ll begin by getting my joke about not enjoying historical dramas out of the way here.
Everyone remembers where they were when they first saw that the Moon had left Earth’s orbit on 13th September 1999. In all likelihood, it would most probably be while watching Space: 1999, the sci-fi drama from husband and wife creative team Gerry & Sylvia Anderson, the pair who brought us shows like Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, and Joe 90, to name but a few entries in their extensive – and impressive – body of work.
Now, 20 years on from ‘Breakaway Day’, the fictional date of the Moon’s heading into deep space, Big Finish Productions – makers of officially licenced audio drama releases of Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Star Cops, The Prisoner, and many other TV shows – have added another string to an already well-laden bow, by reimagining the Andersons’ very last joint live action project, and bringing it up to date for a modern audience.
Full disclosure: I was never a big fan of Space: 1999. Considering how much of their output was puppet-based, this live action show felt more wooden than most of what had come before. My overriding impression of Space: 1999 was people in beige outfits, standing on beige sets, and doing beige acting. It felt so humourless and dull compared to Supermarionation shows of our childhood, which appeared to be so bright, entertaining, and funny. The Andersons’ Moon lacked – for want of a better word – atmosphere.
Things went from bad to worse when the second series ended up receiving a brand new producer, Fred Freiberger, who was previously best known for being the man who’d killed Star Trek, having presided over its third and final season. Such was his unsuitability for the role on this show, he apparently decided to name a planet in the tale ‘The Rules Of Luton’ after a place he’d seen on a road sign while driving to work, because he thought Luton sounded exotic. It limped along after a revamp of the format, but was holed fatally beneath the waterline, and that was that.
Big Finish have therefore managed to pull off a near-miracle, taking a programme I didn’t much care for, and transforming it into something far less starched and po-faced than it was on TV, which also feels like a contemporary drama production, bringing it up to date without taking it too far away from the original version at the same time. There’s something to be said for taking the 1970s retro-futurism of the original, and making it feel relevant and new, as well as being able to paper over some of the cracks inherent in explaining how the Earth managed to leave orbit in the first place.
This new Big Finish adaptation also picks up some of the dropped threads from the TV version of ‘Breakaway’, making more sense of the strange signal that’s coming from outer space, and tying it closely into the eventual fate of Moonbase Alpha. The script by Nicholas Briggs – the Big Finish writer, director and producer (plus voice of the Daleks in Doctor Who) – lengthens the original, giving the story more room to breathe, as well as time to build up the world of this 1999-that-never-was, using news broadcasts to explain how they got from Apollo to planning a mission to deep space in just 30 years.
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A nice conceit is having a programme on one of the news channels focusing on all the activity with Moonbase Alpha and the Meta Probe which is called Space: 1999, as well as using the series’ title track as its own theme music. In fact, the Barry Gray piece is intact here, complete with its full 1970s porno funk wah-wah guitar, which is a pure burst of adrenaline (and which was also far more exciting than the actual TV series itself at times). The sound design by Iain Meadows is spot-on, combining some familiar-sounding effects with what is overall a very cinematic feel.
The Anderson connection is maintained here by Gerry’s son Jamie, who’s done a great deal not just to maintain but also promote and progress his father’s legacy; this means that Big Finish’s take on the show feels not only authentic, but also legitimate, having the endorsement and involvement of the Anderson family, with Jamie acting as Script Editor. Like their version of The Prisoner, the idea here is for Big Finish to have a mix of adapted scripts and new tales; Space: 1999 is just as – if not moreso – successful in giving new life to old stories.
Part of the updating initially comes as a shock to the system, with a liberal use of “bastard” and “asshole” bandied about – this certainly marks an adult tone for the series, even grittier than the original, but after the initial surprise, it does work within the context of the redefined series. Another example of it being brave enough not to have a blind, slavish adherence to the TV series is altering the gender of one of the characters; they’ve also changed the dynamics, with Commander John Koenig and base Chief Medical Officer Dr. Helena Russell having a far more combative and fractious working relationship, and it’s a breath of fresh air.
The cast is incredibly strong, with all of them giving top-notch performances – in fact, they even exceed the originals, who rarely – if ever – seemed to emote, with all the lines being delivered in a very low-key and unenthusiastic manner; the new cast are far removed from this, and definitely give it their all throughout. Mark Bonnar and Maria Teresa Creasey have a hard act to follow in replacing Martin Landau and Barbara Bain as Koenig and Russell, but I actually prefer them as the characters, as they feel far more credible in the parts. There isn’t actually a weak link amongst the ensemble, so Big Finish have done a great job assembling the best people for the roles, as ever.
What’s ramped up my enthusiasm for this release even more is the beautiful touch of putting together publicity material in the form of a specially-produced remake of the opening titles, featuring the cast of the Big Finish series; the video – by Chris Thompson – makes you wish this was a TV revival, as it looks so good, and it’s also a prime example of the meticulous level of care and attention to detail in all aspects of this production by Big Finish. Perhaps the greatest testament is that ‘Breakaway’ has made me actually want to give the TV series a second chance.
As far as Big Finish’s Space: 1999 revival is concerned, I’m over the Moon.
Space 1999: Breakaway is out now from Big Finish. It will be available elsewhere from 31st October.