Interview: Robert Wood - Author of "Destination Moonbase Alpha'
Robert Wood’s new book “Destination Moonbase Alpha” covers Space: 1999 in the kind of detail us long term fans have been waiting for. Robert kindly spoke to Andersonic in February 2010 about his new opus.
At Andersonic we rate Space:1999 very highly, what does the series mean to you?
Space: 1999 is a life-long love for me. I was only 6 years old when it went off the air in 1977, but I remember watching the series as a kid, playing with my model Eagles, and collecting the bubblegum cards. My relationship with the series has transformed in quite remarkable ways over the years, but it has been an endless source of inspiration, and viewing pleasure. There has never been another series that has come anywhere near to capturing my imagination in the way that Space: 1999 has. I never tire of it, and in many ways it just keeps getting better and better. I am constantly awed by episodes like “Another Time, Another Place”, “Black Sun”, or “War Games” (just to name a few) for their depth and complexity. Several of my best friends in the world are people I’ve come to know because of my association with Space: 1999, so its impact on my life has been massive in all sorts of ways.
What prompted you to undertake writing such a book?
There were two reasons, actually. The first is simple: Telos Publishing asked me. I had done an earlier (frankly, far inferior!) book about Space: 1999 (called “The Future is Fantastic!”), which ended up being available for only a short time in 2001. I actually had no intention of returning to write another book about the series, but I was contacted out of the blue by Telos in July of 2007. They had heard positive recommendations of my earlier book and asked me if I would be interested in re-releasing it. I quickly gave it some thought, and responded that I would be interested, but only if I was able to completely re-write it. They asked me for a sample section, so I worked up a draft for the first six episode reviews. Telos liked what they saw and contracted me for the full book. And here we are over two and a half years later, and “Destination: Moonbase Alpha” is now a reality.
The second prompt was that, quite simply, such a book had never been published before. The kind of book I wanted to read about Space: 1999, and have sitting on my shelf, or have at hand to reference specific episodes or details as I’m watching the series (literally, an authoritative armchair companion), had never been written. My earlier book was a template for “Destination: Moonbase Alpha”, but this new book is a far deeper study of the series. The fact is that there haven’t been a lot of books about Space: 1999. There was “The Making of Space: 1999”, but that was a different creature altogether, and is wonderful for what it is. It opens a particular window onto the production of the series, but it doesn’t open all the windows. There was Chris Drake’s “UFO/ Space: 1999” book, which was limited by space constraints - he dealt with all of Space: 1999 in about 40 pages (including an episode guide and photos!), so there wasn’t much opportunity for depth of analysis. And, of course, there was John Muir’s “Exploring Space: 1999”, which I found differed so radically from my own feelings about the series that it was always a bit of an enigma to me: if I loved an episode, it was quite often a guarantee that John didn’t, and vice versa. Which is completely fair, and probably says more about Space: 1999 than it does about John or myself - the series is so multi-faceted and complex that it can be appreciated by a lot of different people and from a wide range of perspectives.
So, I was prompted to write “Destination: Moonbase Alpha” because there was no reference book in existence that analyzed Space: 1999 from the perspective and approach that I felt it needed. And I was asked to do it.
The book does get to the heart of the series in a way that previous efforts haven’t managed. There’s a very pertinent quotation from Zienia Merton in the book noting a viewer’s different reaction to the two series as s/he grows up. As a youngster I barely noted the difference between the two series; as an adult I see a massive gulf and still feel slight disappointment when I watch it. The book is very positive in its assessment of the second series, what do you feel were the changes for the better?
It is as much out of necessity as it is through my own personal opinion that Year Two is portrayed and assessed in a positive (or at least always fair-minded) manner. There are two series of Space: 1999, and while the larger proportion of fans favour Year One, there are indeed many fans who prefer Year Two. This book is meant for all fans of Space: 1999 - not just those fans of Year One. It is undeniable that as you read the book you will see my reviews tend to rank Year One higher than Year Two, but I hope fans of the second series will feel I’ve approached it fairly. That was certainly my intention.
I would definitely say that the single greatest change for the better in Year Two was the addition of Maya. She was a character of wide appeal, charmingly portrayed by Catherine Schell, and remains one of the most memorable aspects of Space: 1999 to many television viewers. The addition of Maya, however, should never have meant the exclusion of Professor Bergman, despite Fred Freiberger’s desire for Maya to become Alpha’s science officer. Barry Morse and Catherine Schell had wonderful chemistry together in their prior series The Adventurer, and I’m confident that would have translated very well to Space: 1999. I will point out, though, that Johnny Byrne is quoted in the book as saying (and I’m paraphrasing here) that Maya didn’t belong in the Space: 1999 universe as it had been originally imagined. She was in essence a Wonder Woman, an alien amongst them whose presence helped transform the Alphans into space people, rather than Earth people. And therein lies one of the root elements identifying the differences between the first and second series. I could go on discussing whether the Alphans of Year One were really Earth people, or whether they specifically represented the best of us - rather than a representative sample of the whole of us - and that the physical breakaway also represented a thematic break from the negative aspects of Earth, humanity, and our planet’s “so-called civilization”, as Bergman once put it.
But getting back to the question, I would also cite the expanded portrayal of Moonbase Alpha’s outlying installations (in episodes such as “The Exiles”), and the lunar catacombs (in “Catacombs of the Moon” and “The Mark of Archanon”), as being additions/changes for the better. You’re absolutely right to say there is a massive gulf between the two series of Space: 1999, and sometimes the only way to reconcile it is to look at the two shows as separate series altogether, or alternate universe portrayals. It is a very daunting task to attempt to reconcile the changes between Year One and Year Two - it’s something I’ve generally avoided. I’m afraid in that way madness lies. I prefer to let each season exist on its own terms, and appreciate each for what it is, rather than pit them against each other.
How do you rate Space: 1999 in relation to its contemporaries and what has come since then?
It is my firm belief that Space: 1999 is the finest science fiction television series that has ever been produced. And when I say that I am referring to the complete series; the entirety of Space: 1999. But to be more specific with regard to Year One, the thoughtful balance of metaphysics with science fiction is incredibly rare on television, and I think the writers (particularly Christopher Penfold and Johnny Byrne) were immensely brave. They set out on a unique path, deliberately not following what had come before them (Star Trek, UFO, etc...), and I think they succeeded in accomplishing what they set out to do. I’m not saying that Space: 1999 is perfect, because it isn’t. And I’m certainly not an impartial reviewer, but I’ve tried to be objective and fair in my book, assessing both the positives and negatives of the series, as I see them. No matter which new SF series comes along, none capture my heart and mind like Space: 1999. I don’t think an impartial reviewer could have ever created a book with the depth of “Destination: Moonbase Alpha”.
How did you go about researching and accumulating the background information?
Having been actively involved in fandom for Space: 1999 since about 1984-85, I’ve accumulated quite a lot of material related to the series. I’ve been attending 1999 conventions for 20 years, and I have a large collection of audio and video recordings from various events over the years, and these talks with the cast, writers, and others involved in the production of the series form the backbone of the book. And I’ve augmented that with bits and pieces from assorted other sources to tell the full story. There was a time I was editing a fanzine about the series years and years ago, and people would send in all kinds of clippings and stuff related to the show that they thought I might be able to use in the zine, and some of that proved useful in writing this book, as well. So the roots of “Destination: Moonbase Alpha” are very widespread. Whatever a reader may feel about my analysis of the episodes (and we are free to disagree with each other, after all), this book is able to present a complete picture of the creation of Space: 1999, told in the words of the people who made it. And that’s quite remarkable. Apart from that, the Catacombs website was immensely valuable, and Martin Willey (Catacombs webmaster) provided me with a lot of assistance. Many people helped in the creation of this book, and I thank them all.
What did you learn in your researches, anything that changed your understanding of the production or series?
I think the single biggest revelation I experienced is to do with the departure of Barry Morse from the series, and how that came about. I don’t want to spoil it for readers, so I’m going to be vague here, but over the years Barry had his public version of the story. Of course, Gerry Anderson and Fred Freiberger have made their own comments on this matter over the years. But through my friendship and association with Barry (I worked with him on his memoirs, “Remember with Advantages”, amongst other book, TV, stage and audio projects, all of which were also in conjunction with Anthony Wynn) I have had access to his personal, private diaries. And in his diary the missing link (so to speak!) was awaiting discovery. It may be a bit surprising, perhaps even shocking, for some readers. But I am very pleased that I’ve been able to finally shed the full light of day on this subject.
There have been countless other “a-ha” moments along the way, and I’ve tried to get them all into the book. I also found it fascinating when I would go back to an episode that hadn’t been a stand-out for me in the past, only to discover how much better it was than I remembered. That happened several times during the writing of the book. The whole process of writing “Destination: Moonbase Alpha” only served to heighten and expand my appreciation for this amazing series.
The commitment of the cast comes across in their recollections, and their reaction to the fans’ support and the series’ longevity is really touching. The impression I get from Barry’s comments is a frustration that he recognised the series had so much potential that he felt it wasn’t achieving. I hope he realised that his attempts to humanise Bergman did pay off - I feel that, along with Carter, Bergman’s the most watchable, human character up there.
Yes, Barry knew that the fans strongly believed he succeeded with his portrayal of Bergman. I heard people telling him that exact thing numerous times, and I’m sure I did it myself, too. He was self-deprecating about it, and felt he could have done more, but I think that’s a sign of a great artist - always striving to do better, rather than sit on your laurels. And as people read the book they will come to a greater understanding of what coloured some of Barry’s more negative opinions about the series - considering how it all ended, I can’t see how it couldn’t have influenced his future recollections of the series in a negative way. I think it’s testament to the man that he was able to say as many positive things about Space: 1999 as he did. But he clearly always had a soft spot in his heart for us Space: 1999 fans, and he really did regard us - collectively - as his honorary grandchildren.
What kind of reaction are you getting to the book?
Fantastic, and entirely positive so far. I’ve actually added a “Fan Reviews” page to my website
where I can list some of the great feedback I’ve been hearing. And the feedback is very gratifying, as the book was a massive amount of work, and I freely admit to having opening night jitters when I heard that the publisher was actually mailing copies out to people around the world... it was the typical fear we often have of putting ourselves out there, open to judgement from others. But I’m feeling much calmer now that I know people are happy with the book.
If you could write a sequel to “Destination: Moonbase Alpha” what would be in it?
If there was a chance to write a sequel, it would be quite a different book than “Destination: Moonbase Alpha”, just out of necessity of subject matter. But it would definitely include a detailed analysis of original material that never made it into production, such as the unfilmed “A Breath of Death” script by Irving Gaynor Neiman, and Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s original “Zero G” script. I’d like to delve into some of the original script material that was edited out of the final shooting scripts and filmed versions of some of the episodes: “Breakaway” comes to mind, and George Bellak’s original script for “The Void Ahead”, with its sub-plot of Gorski’s advances on Helena. “Black Sun” also comes to mind for the far more complex relationship that Computer played in earlier versions of the script - if it had progressed in the direction it was originally going, all of Space: 1999 would have been quite different. I would also take the chance to analyze the novels in greater depth, and I think there should be room to provide some detailed coverage of the comic book series as well - they did some wonderfully inventive things. I would also compile a comprehensive guide to all the planets, space phenomena, alien races and spacecraft encountered and referenced throughout the series... There are a lot of other areas left to explore as well, but these are just some of the first things I think of when the spectre of a sequel is raised... apart from how much work it would be to write!
Robert, thanks very much.
Destination Moonbase Alpha