‘Space: 1999 — Earthbound’ reviewed

❉ Don Klees on the latest volume of Big Finish’s audio reimagining of Gerry Anderson’s live-action ITV series.

Big Finish Productions’ Space: 1999 releases provide an interesting case study in the challenges the company faces when adapting beloved TV series into audio dramas. Like their ever-expanding Doctor Who range, this relatively new addition revisits a series where much of the audience recognizes the flaws of the televised original but appreciates its virtues even more (at least where the ambitious first season is concerned). At the same time, unlike Doctor Who where many of the original cast members have reprised their roles in one way or another, various factors resulted in Space: 1999 having an all-new cast, which gives it more in common with Big Finish’s take on The Prisoner.

Like the audio version of The Prisoner, the creative direction for Space: 1999 comes from Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs, who’s directed all of the instalments released to date. Though Briggs has only written two episodes, he set the tone for the audio version with his adaptation of the premiere episode Breakaway in 2019. Briggs clearly has great affection for the original series and audio as a storytelling medium, and as a producer, he set up this version of Space: 1999 for success in a multitude of ways. Foremost among these was a strong cast, led by Big Finish mainstay Mark Bonnar, who manages the neat trick of embracing the template the late Martin Landau established for the lead character of John Koenig without simply imitating it. Unfortunately, Bonnar and his fellow actors have often been let down by the writing, a situation that continues in the latest release, Earthbound.

As the set’s title suggests, it follows its predecessors in featuring an adaptation of a TV episode. The decision to mix adaptations of television episodes with original stories was a sensible move for a number of reasons. Even within the niche audience for an audio remake of Space: 1999, there would be finite interest in hearing the new cast walking in the footsteps of their predecessors. More to the point, there’s a finite number of episodes from the televised version that warrant a new edition, and the new cast deserves a chance to make the characters their own without inviting comparison so directly.

Overall, the original Space: 1999 stories in Big Finish’s releases have been true to the spirit of the show, with this set’s opener, Mooncatcher by Marc Platt, the best of an uneven bunch. That said, the adaptations of existing stories provide the best benchmark for how well the cast and production team articulate a new take on the series. Breakaway, Death’s Other Dominion and Earthbound are among the series’ most memorable installments, and to their credit, Briggs and the other writers have assertively avoided making these adaptations carbon copies of the TV versions. However, in each case, a fundamental misjudgment in the storytelling undercuts much of what made the episodes worth revisiting in the first place.

Glen McCready, Clive Hayward, Susan Hingley, Timothy Bentinck, Mark Bonnar, Maria Teresa Creasey, Amaka Okafor

On television, Breakaway was a wonderfully concise piece of drama, if not necessarily representative of Space: 1999 as a whole due to the need to set the story (and moon) in motion. The episode’s core strength was making its vision of the future feel concrete, establishing a tangible baseline that enabled many of the subsequent installments to be more abstract and philosophical. The audio version endeavored to expand on this world-building, but dwelling on the specifics of the Meta Probe mission and repetitive arguments between the main characters dissipated its dramatic impact.

Death’s Other Dominion embodied the show Space: 1999 aspired to be, a fusion of thoughtful science-fiction and action-adventure with a production quality even films in the genre rarely displayed at the time. The richness of its script and its philosophical preoccupations made it an ideal candidate for adaptation to the audio medium, but rather than using the audio medium to maximize those qualities, the new version became a somewhat ordinary space adventure. That lack of dimension left the cast without much to work with, especially guest actors Chris Jarman and Nicholas Asbury in their respective roles of Jack Tanner and Doctor Rowland, but the end results lacked dimension. The cliched characterizations, particularly turning Rowland into a traditional mad scientist, made the would-be ethical debates about immortality and its consequences ring hollow.

Spread across two episodes – the eponymous first part written by Iain Meadows and Journey’s End by Nicholas Briggs – the overriding imperative in adapting Earthbound seems to have been simply thwarting audience expectations on various fronts. While not a bad approach in itself for an episode many fans know by heart, it’s disappointing when that means foregrounding a character who adds little to the drama.

Mark Bonnar.

A largely one-note character, Commissioner Simmons was already tiresome in the audio version of Breakaway, and despite Timothy Bentinck’s earnest efforts there rarely seemed to be more to him than overbearing officiousness The same was true of the character’s on-screen analogue, and it was satisfying to see him dispatched at the end of Earthbound on television in such a memorable and almost poetic manner. It would have been equally gratifying for the audio incarnation, who’s had far greater opportunity to be a thorn in Koenig’s side, to meet a similar fate. Instead, Simmons sidesteps that comeuppance – seemingly at the expense of another character – after leading a mutiny against Koenig that feels like a plot point from a different show.

The latter element points to the core issue with Big Finish’s approach to Space: 1999. From the first release, the production team has often seemed so focused on mitigating the original series’ shortcomings (whether real or perceived) that they neglect to emphasize its positive qualities. This misjudges both the series and to some extent its fans.

The idea that the audience for this new take on Space: 1999 would be put off by unanswered questions about how the moon got sent on its journey through the universe strains credulity far more than anything on screen did. It was never a meaningful issue within the context of the show, and devoting dialogue to it in the audio version of Breakaway and other episodes was the dramatic equivalent of dead air. Likewise, it’s hard to believe fans were craving a dark, gritty version of the series at the expense of its fundamental optimism about humanity or prefer sacrificing the thoughtful science-fiction it offered at its best in favour of space-adventure tropes.

In its early years, television was often regarded as “radio with pictures”. While technically true, this reductive view downplayed the unique ability of the audio medium to tell stories that stretch the imagination, especially in the science-fiction genre. The original television incarnation of Space: 1999 used different tools but also aspired to expand the audience’s imagination. This audio iteration could offer the best of both worlds but so far seems stuck being television without pictures.

❉ ‘Space: 1999 — Earthbound’ is now available to own as a collector’s edition CD box set (+ download for just £19.99) or digital download only (for just £16.99), exclusively from www.bigfinish.com.

 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.

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