More reviews of stuff


Destination: Moonbase Alpha - Robert Wood (Telos Publishing)

I've often wondered why it is that things that I have really liked have been the very things that critics have relished rubbishing. It was the same with music, but now, older and a little wiser, I've concluded that some critics just have their own agendas - anything new or different is frowned upon and the facts are never going to get in the way of giving something a good kicking. Space: 1999 was my first experience of this. I'd never been as impressed with anything on TV before nor have I since, yet it was greeted with virtual apathy by British TV stations and the public.

The author Robert Wood was clearly as taken with the series and it's his enthusiasm for the subject that drives the book. It's written from a very positive  viewpoint, making it an engrossing read. The research is excellent, augmented by the vast amount of interview material the author has accumulated, giving the reader a revealing insight into the writers' aims and philosophies. The actors' own words are no less illuminating and revealing, leaving one with the impression of a young and enthusiastic crew fired by the format to create something worthwhile and different. Johnny Byrne's thoughts on the format and his scripts are spread throughout the book and make fascinating reading, by turns profound and, in his assessment of the second series, very funny. What's also evident is the commitment of Martin Landau to the project, the enthusiasm of Nick Tate and the rest of the cast, and the talent of the designers. But it is also the erudition of Barry Morse which makes this book so compelling. His occasional criticism of the series since its production is revealed to have been driven by the frustration that the potential he perceived in the series was not being achieved, an understandable concern from anyone involved in a creative field.  

The book covers the development of the series in detail and has an introduction and overview to each series, supported by the recollections of those who were there, providing plenty of new material for even the most hardened 1999 fan. The episode guide wisely keeps the synopses brief and is augmented with some illuminating observations, exploring the metaphor and roots of each episode, challenging the reader's perceptions and encouraging a closer look. This follows the ethos of the first series in a way, accumulating facts on the series then discussing, extrapolating and exploring, looking beyond the (impressive) facade of the visuals. The changes to the format and the development of the second series are discussed in detail, with some particularly interesting revelations on the fate of Victor Bergman's character. The author does a laudable job discussing and assessing the second series so even-handedly and is able to distinguish its relative merits so clearly; this is one reader who will watch these episodes from a less jaundiced perspective as a result.

Space: 1999 had/ has so much to say about the human condition - the importance of faith and hope, the unreliability of our technology-based world, and so on - yet never stooped to spoonfeeding a solution, instead encouraging the viewer to think. The more one reads the words of Johnny Byrne, Chris Penfold, Barry Morse and so on in this book, the clearer the gulf between Space: 1999 and Star Trek becomes, and the more redundant the comparison appears. It's like comparing Once Upon A Time In The West with Blazing Saddles... or a three course meal with a ham sandwich.

The book's 450-plus pages are a testament to the imagination and commitment of those involved in the series - and, as said earlier their enthusiasm, which is undiminished after so many years. Destination: Moonbase Alpha is an excellent book for anyone with an interest in understanding Space: 1999, probably the last word on the subject, and definitely recommended.

Richard Farrell

Filmed in Supermarionation - A History of the Future by Stephen la Riviere (Hermes Press)

A mere forty years after the closure of Century 21's puppet studio finally comes a book covering the history of Supermarionation. Stephen La Rivière's book tells of APF's journey from its ballroom-based beginnings to its finest hours creating feature films beside the Mars factory in Slough.

The book's main strength is that it tells the story in the words of those who worked on the series, some very familiar to us, some perhaps less so. The chapters on the early history are especially interesting, particularly the reaction to visits from Roberta Leigh during secret pre-production on Four Feather Falls (which may have been the inspiration for Jeff Tracy's 'Operation Cover Up'!). The level of research gives a voice to many of the less well-known people who worked there, those who contributed to the refinements made to the puppets, developed the lip-synch machinery, video assist and so on. Like any group of people working together, the staff went through their ups and downs, relationships were formed and occasionally broken, however to his credit the author navigates a neutral route through such matters.

Depending on the reader's knowledge of the Andersons' work, some of the anecdotes may of course be familiar, such as the problematical filming of Attack of the Alligators!, though these are elaborated upon, while other tales shed new light on the day to day workings of such a specialised studio. What comes across is the enjoyment and sense of fulfilment felt by those who worked on the series and their inevitable sadness when it came to an end. There is an honesty regarding productions that failed and a sense of lasting achievement regarding those that did. The role of Lew Grade, despite not being a creative force, is shown to be pivotal; it was his financial backing that gave flight to Anderson's ambitions yet the failure to get an American sale for Thunderbirds inevitably clipped the puppet studio's wings at their peak.

The book is written in a compelling style and takes care to look beyond the publicity brochures, hyperbole and long-held assumptions. For example, the author points out that when viewing the pilot episode of The Secret Service, Stanley Unwin's 'Unwinese' couldn't have been a surprise to someone in Grade's position - it was more likely everything else he had seen up to that point which led him to cancel the series on the spot. It was a merchandising dead-end and no amount of marketing would be able to sell a doddery priest as a kids' hero. The book's picture research is also excellent, with the accent on behind-the-scenes shots putting faces to names and demonstrating how many of these iconic images were achieved.  Both the standard of research and the way in which it is presented make the book a stand-out and it's recommended reading for anyone with an interest in Supermarionation.

Richard Farrell


Century 21 Volume One: Adventure in the 21st Century and Volume Two: Invasion in the 21st Century (Reynolds and Hearn Ltd)

There have been several reprints of TV21 strips over the years, however the main attraction of these particular editions from Reynolds and Hearn is that the publishers have had access to the original artwork. Despite some gaps in the TV21 archive, these two volumes present a good cross-section of both the artists and stories from the comic's first series.

TV21's editor Alan Fennell strove to emulate the standards set by Eagle in the 50s - mainly by using full-colour photogravure and nicking their best artists. The original artwork, now over 40 years old, has reproduced superbly in these volumes and even someone familiar with the original comics would find these editions of interest. Mike Noble's space scenes sizzle with colour, as do Bellamy's explosions and Ron Embleton's immaculate figurework. Also featured are two of Frank Langford's groovy Lady Penelope strips and some great figure work from unsung hero Brian Lewis in a lesser-known Thunderbirds strip. The work of Don Lawrence, Don Harley and Gerry Embleton is also ably represented.

However it's the work of the 'Big Three' that predominates: Noble's 'Planet of Fire' and Embleton's 'Monster Weed Menace' in the 2nd volume are some of the best art and stories to have appeared in the comic and are fine examples of how to pace and draw a comic strip. Elsewhere the occasional bit of ropey plotting is shored up by superlative art in strips such as 'Prisoners of the Eye Leaves' and 'Secret of the Iceberg'. The only criticism I could make regarding the selection of art is the removal of the colour overlays from Ron Turner's 'Curse of the Elastos' strip - admittedly they looked awful in the original annual, but the artwork was drawn to accommodate them, and the already pedestrian art looks very weak when stripped of them.

The introductions to both volumes give a potted history of the comic's development and Alan Fennell's attempts to marry all the series into one unified 'universe', something that fans discuss to this day. The introduction to Volume One refers to the conflict between the good guys and TV21's rogue state Bereznik as a 'thinly-veiled allegory of the cold war', when really it's just a straight rehash of the nervy political climate of the 60s. You'd be hard-pressed to find any allegory in TV21, it was a typical British comic with the emphasis on straightforward adventure rather than any character or depth. The dialogue is solely there to support the plots which move rapidly from one set-piece to the next.

While it's understandable that Gerry Anderson himself would write the foreword to Volume 1 - after all the original comic was based on the various series he produced - these volumes are celebrating the comic medium so what Volume 2 really needed was a foreword by the man whose work features so heavily in both tomes, Mike Noble. It is to be hoped that there will be further volumes which will correct this oversight, along with perhaps giving the artists a deserved mention on the cover too. Anderson's name may help sell the product but the contents were the work of a very talented team.

These two Volumes of reprints represent a good example of what the heyday of TV21 was all about and the artwork (and printing), is of a sufficiently high standard to attract not only the loyal older fanbase but hopefully also a new generation of comic readers. The superb reproduction is the main selling point of these two volumes and it's to be hoped there is enough original art available to support further editions. Recommended.

Paul O'Brien