Thursday, September 24, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Space:1999 - The Complete Second Series

Space: 1999 – The Complete Second Series
Blu-ray (6 discs) or DVD (8 discs) Running time: 1200 Minutes
Released by Network on September 28, 2015. SRP £79.99 (Blu-ray) £59.99 (DVD)
Subtitles: English 1.33:1 DTS-HD 5.1  HD: 1080p

This is a Regions B Blu-ray only available from the UK. This release is BBFC classified PG for Parental Guidance.

Review written by Robert Franks

Space: 1999 is a series of two halves, not only literally, but figuratively also. The divide between series one and two is more than just a second year, but with it came a whole new emphasis and style for the show. And, that tonal shift divides fans of the series greatly. One camp sees the first series as a unique and classy sci-fi show with the second series becoming nothing more than a Star Trek rip-off. Then there are the fans that view the first outing as too somber, colourless and boring with the sophomore year as action-packed with new, more likable characters. No matter which faction you fall into there is no doubt that release of Space: 1999 The Complete Series Two on Blu-ray has been a long time coming.

In a move reminiscent of the series original production, both interest and funding for the restoration took many years in between the release of the first season on Blu-ray. Yet, as with many formats in the past, as time moves on, production costs start to come more in line with reasonable budgets making the viability of such restoration projects easier to achieve on modest funds. And so, after nearly five years Network are following up on their Series One high definition set.

But before getting into the details of these beautiful discs, let’s take a look back at the series produced by Gerry Anderson in the mid-1970s. The series always had a rocky start, and was actually re-tooled from an aborted second season of UFO. When ITV asked to move the primary location of that series to a Moonbase, Anderson proposed UFO: 1999. While that series never came to be, George Bellak, an American television writer, was brought onboard to help refine the focus. Bellak changed several of the ideas and produced his own pilot script, which featured many of the concepts eventually used. The hope was that with his input the series would possibly attract American network interest. While a US network deal eluded Anderson, other changes in the American market were starting to work towards the series advantage.
When NBC cancelled Star Trek in 1969 its ratings had been deemed unacceptable, but in the 1970s many local televisions stations were eager for more syndicated progammes. Thus Star Trek found a new, healthy second life in constant repeats. With that came a new demand for other science-fiction related series to fill many of these local station schedules, timing seemed perfect for Space: 1999 as a syndicated series.

However, the often cerebral storylines of the first season weren’t quite what the audience was looking for. With syndication deals not being renewed an action plan was needed to revamp the series and hopefully reinvigorate sales.

During all this, Gerry Anderson separated and eventually divorced his wife and long-time producing partner, Sylvia. This left an opening in production and Gerry hired Fred Freiberger to come on board as a producer. Freiberger had produced the final series of Star Trek and it was hoped (again) that he could again make the series more palatable to the lucrative American market.

This is where the divide starts. Many would argue that while Freiberger revamped the series to be more action-packed, he also removed an essential element of Space: 1999 – the quality of the scripts. Freiberger also added new characters that the viewers would find interesting. Chief among these was Maya, an alien princess with the ability to metamorph into other creatures. However, many would point to the series more light-hearted approach as a mis-step and the end of a beautiful sci-fi series.

Series two detractors often point to the reality of the Moonbase Alpha situation and how many of the episodes end with a too-happy epilogue (with Koenig, Russell and Maya joking similar to Kirk, Spock and Bones at the end of Star Trek episodes). Sure it may seem out of place, but it also gave the characters a chance for some nice personal interaction as friends. Let’s face it, if it was always so depressing in Main Mission Moonbase Alpha would have a staggeringly high suicide rate.

What is NOT depressing are Network’s shiny new Blu-rays. This release certainly proves one thing – the film elements for both seasons on startlingly beautiful in high definition.

While it’s beyond the scope of this review to access which season may have been better, your reviewer has always personally preferred the second series. Sue me, I’m American and the second series is just much more enjoyable in my book. I was a young boy of nine or so when the series was originally syndicated and I can tell you that the first season did nothing for me at the time. I think even my parents were confused (my dad preferred Kung Fu, which was on right afterward anyway). However, I distinctly recall watching the second series with my family. It was essential Saturday early evening viewing for me (along with the Godzilla movies and Star Trek just before – I was pretty much glued to the TV most Saturdays).

It does appear that many US stations put the series on in that “family” timeslot, and maybe that’s the key. Where the first series failed to grab me with the slow stories (but brilliant special effects) and second season was just more fun, it was more colourful (on purpose even) and even my dad seemed to like it now. So for me, Space: 1999 has always been a bit nostalgic, something I barely remember from a time long ago when we did sit down as a family and watch TV together.

During my adult life I’ve tried to re-immerse myself in Space: 1999, to varying degrees of success. Try as I might, I still find much of the first season far too slow, gray and dull to watch. Sure, I am probably even more blown away by the effects than I was as a child, but too often I can’t make it to the first commercial break before wanting to put something else on the TV. I have better luck with the second series. Maya has always been a favorite of mine with the cool, and cheap-but-effective, morphing effect. The series is just brighter, the characters laugh more and the whole thing just seems more “fun”.

Recapturing youth is a theme prevalent in many of our lives, and for me my on-again, off-again love affair with Space: 1999 has always been a part of that. In my head I romanticise the warm fuzzy feelings the series gives me, but upon viewing I’m always a little let down that the memory cheats. It’s not all bad though, I still find much that I like in the series. It’ll never be my favourite show, but it has always been a constant and my struggle to achieve a complete, high-quality collection of the series has been a long time coming.

In the early 90s, my fascination with all things video led me to start a laserdisc collection. Coming across several of the Image laserdisc releases for Space: 1999 led to me visiting every store in a 100 mile radius to track down all 23 discs. Later still I got some of the DVDs, but I was never too impressed with the quality. Then a few years back I was visiting the UK and was lucky enough to have some friends at the BBC give me a tour of Television Center. It just so happened that on this day some restoration work was being done on the first series of Space: 1999 and I got to see first-hand how good this series was going to look on Blu-ray. I’ve never forgotten that day, and those glimpses of the Space: 1999 restoration were only topped by a visit to the actual Blue Peter garden! (OK, I’m a weird American!)

With Network’s Space:1999 The Complete Second Series finally out I can now enjoy the whole series in beautiful HD. The images are crisp and sharp, the colours are vibrant and remarkable. Network has taken their usual care when preparing the episodes for the twenty-first century. Blemishes, scratches and sparkle have all been eliminated. Compression ratios appear to be fine with very little on-screen artefacting. This set is a worthy successor to the Complete First Series.

I will admit to one ‘problem’ with these discs, and I hasten to point out, it’s not really an issue, but the merely the only thing I could find fault in the images on these discs – Barbara Bain. No, not her acting, that has always been great, but with these episodes now in full HD and appropriate colour correction you wonder “what was the make-up person thinking.” In almost all of her scenes, Barbara looks as though her face is plastered in powder with a bright light shining right down on her as well. She is the whitest person I’ve ever seen! And all this while the other actors in the scenes have normal skin tones. She’s a very beautiful woman, so it seems a shame the new clarity makes her stand out this way. However, if that’s the worst I can say about the restoration (which is in no way the fault of those working on the release) then Network have another winner on their hands.

As with the original series release, the audio for each episode has been re-mastered to new 5.1 mixes. The original mono tracks are also available through menu selection, as are music-only tracks for each episode. I’ve never professed to be an audiophile, but the 5.1 mixes do sound very nice to my ears. Network have also included the untreated production audio on four of the episodes to give a sample of “raw audio”.

Network have included a multitude of other extras to round out the release. While many of these are interesting, some can be a bit mind-numbing (how many times do I really need to hear Martin Landau and Barbara Bain give the same anecdote), but I’m sure it’s nice for the Space: 1999 fans to have all this material collected together. One thing I should point out is that all six discs are Blu-ray. I had seen reported some places that the sixth disc with extras was a DVD, but that is not the case.

Unexposed: Behind the Scenes of Series Two:
In fact, the only thing missing would be any original content produced just for the new release, but they’ve found the next best thing. This extra was produced back in 1976 by a group of film students asked to make a short film about the production of a television series. Series two of Space: 1999 just happened to be in production at Pinewood Studios at the time. What luck!

What these students produced may not be the typical documentary you’d get today but they cover a lot of good material, including interviews with Gerry Anderson, Barbara Bain, Martin Landau, Keith Anderson (set designer) and Brian Johnson (SFX designer). Interspersed with behind the scenes footage from The Mark of Archanon and New Adam New Eve as well as plenty of model effects shots this little gem is an interesting throwback to old-school film documentaries. Personally, I loved every minute of it. (25:07, HD)

Cosmos: 1999:
This is another curious extra. The series was originally sold in Canada as the French-translated as Cosmos: 1999 and this is a short film made by Canadian fans Sylvain Labrosse and Yves Lapointe in 1979. A stop-motion feature utilising repurposed GI Joe and Barbie dolls with hand-made Moonbase Alpha uniforms, including a nice orange spacesuit and even a home-crafted monster. The real stand-out here is some of the model work and the sets. For details on this little gem be sure to check out the PDFs for a “making of” document written by one of the creators. (13:22, HD)

Seed of Destruction:
What if the second series had been produced more in-line with the style of series one? That’s the idea behind this interesting little experiment. Obviously this wouldn’t work with all of the episodes, and in truth they probably chose the one episode best suited to fit the parameters. Seed of Destruction is very slow-moving, and as dialogue-based as anything made the previous season. In fact, there’s only a single short scene that could be called “action-oriented”. So, the story fits the bill, but does the experiment work? The first noticeable difference comes as the first scenes now open the episode as a pre-credits sequence. The editing is pretty much the same, but the first ad break now leads into the opening sequence from series one. The actual biggest improvement, in my mind, is the music roll into the opening sequence over the shot of the commander walking out of the mirror. That dramatic roll of music lends the shot a much more dynamic and scary feel. After the opening sequence, now with obligatory “This Episode” scenes (all very cleverly chosen and edited), the episode settles into pretty much the same slow paced episode as previous. The other big change in the episode is the music. With the change in series tone and style the music had also been adapted, and the new incidental music is big and dramatic and totally in line with the feel for series one. That single action shot I mentioned previously comes when Tony and Maya have to overpower a security guard. The music in the original edit is more appropriate to some other 70s “amateur” productions (the less said about it the better). The new edit also has a pumping refrain, as an action scene should, but much more dignified. Take a look at this clip to see what I’m talking about:

And the final verdict? I think the new edit is in many ways superior to the original series two episode. That said, not all the episodes would work with this stylistic change, and the overall feel I’m left with is that the episode is pretty dull no matter what you do to it. But, I like that someone tried. (52:03, HD)

Behind the Scenes – Model Shop:
An interesting feature using film snippets shot during production at Bray Studios in the S/FX Unit. Narrated by Brian Johnson it gives an intriguing look behind the scenes of his department with plenty of explanations of setting up shots and effects without getting too technical. And, it proves Johnson has an amazing memory! (6:36, SD)

Contemporary interviews with Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Gerry Anderson and Catherine Schell, Keith Anderson and Fred Freiberger. Shot in 1976 during production of series two these look to be sourced from home video. Still interesting for some of their content. (29:05, SD)

There is also an in-depth interview with Martin Landau recorded in 1994. (44:53, SD)

Stock Footage Archive:
Scanned in HD from some of the original films, this is a collection of alternate takes and unused model shots. While presented in HD, these scenes are pretty much unrestored so you can compare some of these images to those in the actual episodes to realize just how much great restoration work went into this release.

A quick blooper featured from It'll Be All Right on the Night with some of the cast tripping over themselves.

Trailers and promos:
Included in this are some trailers for the movie Destination Moonbase Alpha and a few trails for series two in general. (10:43,SD)

Clean series two titles:
It does what it says on the tin.

Image galleries:
Some rather nice images here. A very few are marked with dirt so you can tell these are presented “as is” with no major clean-up work done, but the inclusion of some behind-the-scenes images more than makes up for this. Unlike other releases I could only find color images included in these galleries, although I know for certain of a few black and white only images that are not included, but there are galleries for every episode. (varies, HD)

Script and annual PDFs:
Some people may skip over these PDFs, but there are some noteworthy items of interest here. First off, shooting scripts for all 24 episodes have been included. Most of these are simple, but clean, black and white scans. For The Mark of Archanon however, they have also included a colour scan showing the blue, pink, goldenrod and purple line adjustment pages. An interesting production inclusion, especially when you can compare to the original shooting script provided also. There are a couple of other interesting inclusions; a production document with episode synopses and an ITC marketing flyer from 1989 advertising “An adventure that knows no bounds … 48 x 60 minute series.” Here you’ll also find a six-page “Making of Cosmos 1999” document written by one of the creators, Sylvain Labrosse. This includes some fascinating insight into what these kids (as they indeed were in 1979 when they produced this) were able to create on a shoestring budget. The joy they had for the actual series and the fun they had making their own film comes through the page. There are even plenty of behind-the-scenes photos and a couple of tantalising excerpts of self-produced comic books from Sylvain’s collection. Finally, scans of the five Space: 1999 annuals round out this collection nicely.

Please take a look at these comparison grabs taken from the R1 A&E Space: 1999 DVD set and the new Network Blu-ray.  Click on image to see the size difference. Top image SD and bottom image is (obviously) HD.:

This Week: When is the Doctor not the Doctor? It’s when he is Sergeant Grimshaw. Greg takes a look at the very first Carry On film. It is one of his favourites of the franchise and features William Hartnell along with some of the best comedy talent in the UK at that time. Greg looks at Carry On Sergeant.

Upcoming reviews: Greg will be looking at Acorn’s US Blu-ray release of George Gently Series 7.
Have a great week!
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Anonymous said...

Highly detailed review, helpful, thanks

warewolfboy said...

i actually saw that behind the scene footage at andercon 2014 before we watched the HD transfer of the supercar episode "false alarm'.

Greg said...

That's very cool!

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