❉ How well does Big Finish’s latest series stand up to its television counterpart?
Dateline: 13th September 1999. The interplanetary Meta Probe is due to be launched from a platform orbiting the Moon. What could possibly go wrong?
No genre embodies the tension between ambition and execution in television drama more prominently than science-fiction. Where Space: 1999 differs from its 1970s peers is that the disconnect had less to do with budgetary constraints – the first season’s £3M budget made it the UK’s most expensive series up to that time – but rather story and character where more modestly budgeted seriess frequently outshined it. Dubious science aside, the series often posed intriguing ethical and philosophical questions (at least in its first season). Unfortunately, the drama too often hinged on characters acting out of character, leaving even many viewers who enjoyed it wondering if a bit more time and money should have been spent on the scripts.
That aspect more than any technical shortcomings made the series an ideal candidate for Big Finish Productions to revisit on audio. Big Finish’s first entry in that series was released on September 13th, 2019 – the 20th anniversary of the in universe date when the moon got blasted out of the Earth’s orbit. While the cast is all new, the starting point for the initial release was the first television episode, Breakaway. Adapted by Big Finish’s long-standing Executive Producer, Nicholas Briggs, the audio version of Breakaway gamely endeavors to expand upon the drama of its television counterpart but ultimately falls a bit short.
Ironically Breakaway was arguably the original series’s finest hour, the one that really did take the time to flesh out the script and ensure it functioned as a proper drama. Granted, this was partly the function of the episode’s troubled production, but the end result set a bar that the subsequent TV episodes rarely matched. The future audio releases will have a somewhat easier task surpassing the new iteration’s uneven premiere. As with the television series, the issue once again lies in the writing.
Briggs’ decision to expand the episode’s story to two hours should have been an opportunity to let the new cast grow into their characters against an undeniably dramatic backdrop. To their credit, the cast approach the roles with verve but don’t get much to do but argue and express frustration. While those are very sensible reactions to the situation at hand, it becomes repetitive by the second hour, with the dynamic between Commander Koenig (played by Mark Bonnar) and Dr. Russell (Maria Teresa Creasey) coming across as especially forced.
The script is distorted by the perceived need to offer a more scientifically plausible explanation for sending the moon out of Earth orbit. Whether the audience for a new version of Space: 1999 was likely to be bothered by a recapitulation of the original’s dodgy science is an open question. What is certain is that trading one piece of dodgy science for an explanation that’s no less speculative and requires a significant plot contrivance hardly feels like an improvement. In addition to requiring more exposition and extra suspension of disbelief, this puts an undue emphasis on the preparations for the probe mission to the planet Meta.
The urgency surrounding the Meta mission functioned as a useful motivation for key events in the TV version in large part because the production team used it as an undertone. Brought to the forefront, the back and forth about training flights and back up crews clutters the narrative. It also leads to Koenig making a choice that throws his character into question. Ambiguity is generally welcome in a drama, however, after spending most of the story contrasting Koenig with the callousness of Commissioner Simmonds, having Koenig needlessly put members of his crew at risk strikes the wrong note. It speaks to a general sense that the script was about one draft away from being solid.
Big Finish announced their Space: 1999 series in August about one month ahead of this release and just over a month after recording it. The timing suggests a compressed production schedule that might not have allowed time to fine-tune the script for Breakaway. Ideally next year’s boxed-set release, reputedly mixing new adventures and reimagined TV stories, will strike the right balance. Whatever its flaws, this initial release succeeds in showing that there’s still plenty of potential in Space: 1999.
❉ Written by Nicholas Briggs, ‘Space 1999: Breakaway’ (BFPS1999CD01) was released September 2019, RRP £24.99. Click here to buy!
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.