Space:1999: Breakaway – Starring Mark Bonnar, Maria Teresa Creasey, Timothy Bentinck, Clive Hayward, Susan Hingley, Glen McCready, Amaka Okafor & Jules de Jongh. Written by Nicholas Briggs – 3xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Space:1999 is an oddity that lives forever in the memory of older geeks. A live action show from the Gerry Anderson stable that made its mark on geek history with its several ranges of puppet-based sci-fi adventure heroism, it was part Star Trek, part Lost In Space, and it impressed on a generation one of the coolest spaceship designs ever, in the Eagle shuttle. It also was a noted if mystifying failure, pulled off air after just two seasons – more or less when it was starting to really get going and stride about the place, knowing what its job was. Essentially, it was a Firefly experience for an earlier generation – just as you settled down to enjoy it, blip! It was gone, its potential feeling always inherently unfulfilled ever since.
Whereas with some of its audio ranges, Big Finish has simply taken the format of a show and re-invented or re-invigorated it for a new generation of audio geeks, you can’t really get away with doing that for Space:1999 – its origin is absolutely tied into the bones of the central drama. So at least to launch its new audio version of the show, Big Finish has gone right back to the beginning of Space:1999 and re-imagined the origin episode with a new cast.
There are plenty of elements that will be familiar to those who’ve seen the original – a strange sickness on Moonbase Alpha, an even more mysterious signal being beamed at the base from deep space, and an eventual explosion that tears the moon and its moonbase, with over 300 people on board, out of the Earth’s orbit and sends it on its way on a journey into space. In that brief summary are the bones of this two-hour origin do-over.
What’s new in the audio version, apart from the cast and their energy, is that the whole thing has been given a believably pseudo-scientific kicking, so that when today’s keen geeks go ‘Hold on a minute, the moon’s not an egg – if you blast it with enough force to tear it out of orbit, you’d basically destroy the thing!’, Big Finish can wave a hand and go ‘Ah, but traversable wormholes!’ – which sounds pretty good and which is a suitably high-brow bit of technobabble to allow the concept of Space:1999, more or less for the first time, to fly without those nagging technical details detracting from the pleasure of the thing.
Stepping into Martin Landau’s spacesuit as Commander Koenig of Moonbase Alpha is Mark Bonnar – or The Eleven, as any fans of The Eighth Doctor Adventures will know him, and it’s exhilarating to hear him tackle Koenig, bringing out a side to the character that while not overtly combative, is righteously horrified at the price of the politics played by some other characters. While he’s not exactly the square-jawed hero of sci-fi serial legend, Bonnar’s Koenig exhibits that heart and that strength of purpose which quickly make him a commander in whom we as listeners can place our trust.
Meanwhile, in the process of giving Barbara Bain’s Dr Helena Russell a thoroughly (if slightly ironically, given the title) 21st century spruce up for audio, Maria Teresa Creasey delivers a force to be reckoned with, and arguably the most interesting and enjoyable character in the pilot episode. Imagine the ‘Damnit, I’m a doctor, not a virologist!’ punch of Dr Bones McCoy, only with the added irritation of being a woman in a hierarchy of mostly men, and the one talking the most sense of them all, and you’ll get an idea of why Creasey captures if not most of the air-time, then certainly most of the listener’s engagement.
There’s a degree to which this pre-exodus pilot almost has to be a touch on the under-dramatic side – it tells the story of how we arrive at the central conceit of the series, and so there’s almost bound to be a good deal of talking about plot elements that ‘couldn’t possibly happen,’ and a good deal more about PR, the space program, budgetary concerns, people on Earth being fed up with all that expensive faffing about in lunar orbit, till it begins to sound just a little wearing. But Nicholas Briggs pulls the script together with potential power struggles between the humans, the odd imminent spaceship crash, more focus on the strange signal being beamed at the base, and the hows and whys of the initial ‘breakaway,’ so that it stops short of becoming just lots of people talking.
If there’s anything less than expertly judged here, it’s probably a fall-back on TV news segments to cover the ground between the Apollo missions of NASA, where our reality and the reality of Space:1999 are united, and the creation and expansion of an international moonbase (where of course, our reality and theirs diverge – unless you know different!). That feels a touch too far towards spoon-feeding here, but it’s not an overly extended section, just a key for those who have no real idea what they’re listening to, and certainly once it’s done, we’re all in the same lunar orbit.
If you were perhaps hoping for a sound-alike version of the original TV episode of Space:1999, you’re not in that much luck here, as each of the main cast determine to take it their way and give it a modern new energy. But then, why you’d want a sound-alike version is rather mystifying – original Space:1999 exists, if you want the Landau/Bain version, and absolutely, it’s cracking space adventure.
But this audio version is clearly doing the groundwork in Breakaway for a potential ongoing sequence of box sets that could either reproduce the glories of the TV version, or take the crew of Moonbase Alpha off on new adventures with more 21st century concerns (not for nothing, it’s brought home to the listener towards the end of this story that, with the moon gone, it’s very possible the planet Earth and its people will be entirely screwed – which is a hell of a thing to have on your survivor-conscience going forward), or both.
This is your opportunity not only to get used to the new voices and the slightly tweaked characterisations, but to embrace them as new versions of the players in a grand science-fiction mythos – much like the Big Finish versions of Sapphire and Steel, The Avengers, Callan, The Prisoner and the rest. Grab yourself an Eagle, head on up to Alpha, and prepare to break away on a journey that has all the hallmarks of being treated with both modernity, relevance and love – a journey into the future of Space:1999. Tony Fyler