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Features: Articles & Interviews

Space: 2001: Writer Johnny Byrne wants to Party Like It's 1999

By John K. Muir
(Originally published June 2001 on DeepOutside.com)

The moon, as viewed from an Eagle cockpit window. From "Breakaway."

Just last month, director Bryan Singer announced his intention to spearhead an updated version of the beloved 1970s TV space opera Battlestar Galactica. But, to quote Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, "there is another..." In fact, a very different outer space adventure of the disco decade is also meriting some heavy attention in 2001 thanks to its recent release in DVD format: Space: 1999 (1975-77).

The epic story of 311 astronauts and scientists stranded on Moonbase Alpha when Earth's only satellite is blasted out of orbit by a nuclear cataclysm, Space: 1999 has long been one of science fiction television's more controversial jewels. A visually stunning, gothic journey through a mysterious universe, Space: 1999 regularly (and expertly) mixed science and metaphysics during its two-year, 48 episode, pre-Star Wars broadcast sortie. Starring Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Barry Morse, Catherine Schell, Nick Tate, Prentis Hancock, and Zienia Merton, Space: 1999 also met with vociferous opposition during its original run, particularly from angry Star Trek fans who felt slighted that their own slumbering franchise had not yet been revived.

One person who has been lobbying long to revive the dormant (but gathering steam...) Space: 1999 is series story editor and frequent script contributor Johnny Byrne. For Byrne, this desire to bring back the series is no mere whim. In fact, he's already taken the first giant step towards the initiation of revival. In 1999, he penned an officially authorized "short film" entitled Message From Moonbase Alpha that premiered at the "Breakaway" Convention in Los Angeles on September 13...the very day that, according to series lore, the moon was to begin its cosmic sojourn.

Starring Zienia Merton (as her popular character, Sandra Benes), Message from Moonbase Alpha was directed by Tim Mallett and shot by director of photography Glenn Pearce for Kindred Productions. The story picks up with the long-lost Alphans abandoning their base and seeking a home on an inhospitable planet called Terra Alpha. A sad Sandra, despondent about leaving Moonbase Alpha for the last Operation Exodus, puts the Alphan journey into perspective during a video "transmission" and offers a final farewell to the distant people of Earth. In a last minute twist, this special message is warped by the currents of time and arrives on Earth in the year 1999, a "meta" signal received but not understood by the pre-catastrophe Alphans themselves.

"It all happened very quickly," Byrne notes of production on the short film. "Glenn and Tim rang me up and asked me if I'd be interested in writing a small piece for the fans that would possible star Zienia. They would shoot it against some of the original series sets that had been reconstituted. It was going to be a sort of valediction for Space: 1999 to give it a sense of completion."

But, according to Byrne, he just couldn't let the concept pass away into sci-fi Valhalla. "Once I started writing the film, I realized that the more I tried to close the door on Space: 1999, the more I was opening it up in another way. I wanted Message from Moonbase Alpha to be the beginning of a re-launch for the series. That's always been part of my thinking, ever since I was cheated out of the show when it was cancelled in the 1970s. So the movie became a little 'hello again' instead of a simple 'goodbye.'"

And that hello was just the beginning. A successful 25th Anniversary Convention called Main Mission 2000 was held the following year in New York City, and now the DVD episode collections have become instant bestsellers. Coverage of this once-forgotten series has also appeared in Cinescape, The New York Times, and TV Guide to name but a few. This sudden glow of renewed interest hasn't gone unnoticed by Byrne, and he thinks it is the right time to leapfrog off these successes and bring Space: 1999 back as a new TV series. For one thing, he believes the world has finally caught up with Space: 1999's metaphysical musings.

"In terms of it happening now as opposed to 1975, I think we're living in age in which there is a serious spiritual vacuum. Values are being artificially created for people to feel a sense of belonging and worth. That's why we have such a strong downward pressure from political correctness. We're meant to abide by a kind of opaque series of pre-judgments and rules that are almost totalitarian in their severity. It's not enough to do as you're told, you actually have to think as you're told and feel as you're told. These shifting values mean that there is a lack of something concrete which people can hold onto and say 'That is the thing.' I think the voyage, the epic journey of Moonbase Alpha, is something that could have deep resonance for today's audiences. That kind of human drama, mixed with action-adventure and a spiritual dimension is something sadly lacking in today's science fiction."

And Byrne knows just how to bring the series back too. He envisions picking up the Alphan journey a generation later, after life on Terra Alpha has proven untenable. The older Alphans and their adult children would then return to the moonbase, now swinging nearby on a wide orbit, and begin their journey anew.

"We'd be dealing with a second generation of Alphans, with the son or daughter of Commander Koenig (Landau) and Dr. Helena Russell (Bain). We'd meet the son or daughter of the shape-shifter Maya (Schell) and Tony Verdeschi (Tony Anholt) too. Maya's offspring would be a kind of hybrid who wouldn't have Maya's metamorphic powers, but would still have alien qualities that might manifest in a different way."

In such an adventure, the story possibilities are endless, as Byrne is quick to tick off. "What if they return to the moon and discover that there's someone else someone alien inhabiting it, and are forced to re-stake their claim to Alpha? We could also open up areas of the moon not seen before on the original series."

And, according to Byrne, if he were to take command of the franchise, an old ally could prove to be a deadly enemy. One of the most-oft-criticized elements of Space: 1999 involved the so-called 'mysterious unknown force' (MUF) that guided Alphans to safety in times of extreme strife. Byrne posits the tantalizing notion that the assistance of this so-called "cosmic intelligence" might be conditional. "The Alphans would know that there was something out there that was inexplicable watching over them, but there would be a feeling of unpredictability too. That force would always be benign provided the Alphans stay true to their human values. But the moment they stray from those fundamental things that make them human, they might find themselves getting into trouble with it. Their spiritual and ethical values might go into a kind of freefall..."

And the original cast? Would they be involved in any proposed sequel? Byrne hopes so. "It's largely dependent on availability. If the original cast wanted to be involved, of course everyone would want see them return. If not, some characters could be left behind on Terra Alpha, or the script might indicate that others died during the evacuation of the planet."

But there are some built-in limitations too. For instance, the very title of the series Space: 1999 is already dated by two years! Byrne acknowledges this with a laugh. "It would be Space: 2025 or something like that. The title would have to be up for discussion... something like Space: 1999-The Odyssey Continues. But whatever it might be called, I would want it to be a series firmly grounded in what has gone before; involving inner-based encounters as well as 'outer'-based ones. The characters on Alpha should be fighting themselves and their human nature as much as whatever is 'out there.'"

Another problem involves the very premise of the series: that the errant moon traverses the universe. That shouldn't be a stumbling block either, at least not for the imaginative Byrne. "Space: 1999 doesn't fall into the classic mold of science fiction, no question about it. I'm the first to understand that. The very premise of the show is very dodgy, but you have to suspend disbelief in order to see the possibilities of it. All the professional science fiction writers and critics, unfortunately, never judged the series for what it was. They judged it for what it wasn't. This was a cardinal error and for that reason, I didn't take the criticisms of the series to heart. They were not judging what I had done; they were judging what they had to hoped to see, and it wasn't there."

If Space: 1999 does experience a re-birth, one must wonder if the Alphan odyssey will ever be successfully resolved. For now, that's the only destination Byrne doesn't care to envision. "It's far more important for the Alphans to travel than to arrive. If they travel successfully, remaining true to who they are, they will arrive eventually."

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