Space 1999 - War Games

You can tell from the title that this episode is not going to play quite as expected but in terms of resolution it cleverly keeps the viewer guessing until the very last scene. It opens in terrific fashion with an attack on Alpha seemingly coming from a nearby planet which the Alphans have been considering for potential colonisation. The attack devastates the base and the production team obviously must have had a lot of fun blowing everything up. There are explosions galore, collapsing joists, falling cables spitting sparks, the whole caboodle. We’re later told that 128 people were killed in the attack which must be something like half the crew. The effects team have a field day with the devastation caused by the attacks during the episode, most impressively when the structure of the buildings is breached personnel are pulled out into space without any trace of how this is done. Some people have spotted cut out Eagles and shots taken from other episodes but the impact of the whole thing together is really powerfully done. 

Left with little alternative Koenig and Helena venture down to the planet to basically beg for mercy. Here’s where it gets seriously Star Trek. The aliens are dome headed and emotionless sitting in glass boxes and pontificating. Played with all the seriousness they can muster by Isla Blair and Anthony Valentine the thrust of their argument is that humans are a virus with all their emotions and feelings. I’m not so keen on these omnipotent aliens whose literal appearance (powerful minds = big heads) makes them resemble talking eggs. In fact there is no need to show them at all as they could be represented more effectively by twinkly lights.  Also if they live this mentally based existence why do they need various buildings outside?

There is a real urgency to this episode that makes it one of the most exciting of the season. Each time you expect a clue or a sign that this is not playing out the way it looks some new horror overcomes the Alphans. As it turns out we’ve seen the clue at the start when an unusually trigger happy Victor declares “It’s war, John” as three craft approach looking like Earth attack ships. So John orders the Eagles to fire and as he himself declares “We’ve got ourselves a war.” The story even seems to get to kill off one or two familiar faces and place everyone in the sort of jeopardy from which realistically they could not recover. Imagine watching this at the time when episodes were just shown and you had no idea how many more there were.

The whole thing turns out to be more of a war in their own heads. Not quite `it was all a dream` more of a web of illusion spun by the aliens to warn the Alphans away. It’s a bold storytelling gambit from Christopher Penfold especially as the breakthrough involves Helena projecting her mind across space to contact John.

Director Charles Crichton revels in the chaos; the sequences of panic are extremely well shot and managed with more than just the odd circuit board blowing out which is the series’ normal visual signature for being under attack. Here you sense there really is something at stake. Later as the episode takes a more surreal turn there are sequences like Victor’s final recorded speech for anyone who might find the empty base- “we’ve learned that we still have much to learn”- and the bizarre scene of John floating in space coming to terms with death. As the episodes appear to have been made to show in any order this would be an excellent season closer. There is one visual mis-step when footage of a real atomic blast is inserted and coloured orange to make it look more sci-fi. This feel inappropriate despite being footage of a test explosion and looks jarring due to the change in film stock.

There are clues to spot if you suspect all of this may be undone later. For one thing the episode title refers to `games` and the first assault comes from Earth craft- Hawks -which are presumably precursors or alternatives to Eagles. The premise is essentially a reversal of the old adage that moments before death your life flashes before your eyes. Here Koenig’s potential future passes before him in moments and this is what we share. The idea Penfold is pushing is that it is fear which drives conflict though you can’t help feeling the unnamed race are over doing things by projecting their visions. After all if the Alphans had not `seen` the Hawk craft none of the events would have happened. The narrative suggests humanity has much to learn. `Fear leads to most conflict` may be a simplistic argument it certainly adds to the richness of the episode. All the problems that have happened have done so because of the Alphans own actions. It was niggling me all the way through actually that they fire first because the aliens don’t reply.

We see this philosophical approach often in the show but rarely with such impact. It also highlights the aspect that often gives the programme a distinct storytelling advantage over others in that the base’s flight through space is uncontrollable so the clock is always ticking in the background. Other shows have to find ways to disable engines and suchlike whereas Space 1999 has a natural drift that limits time for each scenario but also limits means of escape from difficult situations. 

This was one of the first set of scripts prepared for the show and reportedly TV execs weren’t overjoyed by a story in which some main characters appeared to perish and their reaction caused Penfold to start to distance himself from the series and he left before the first season was finished. (He later spent many years as script editor of Midsomer Murders)  If you’d watched it in 1975 you would be amazed by it and even today it stands up far better to scrutiny than you’d expect. This is exactly the sort of story the show should tell.

The rollercoaster scenario brings out the best in the cast proving, like the other stand out episodes of this first season, that they really can act. Barbara Bain in particular again surprises with her handling of the scenes when Helena is in the mind of the planet. 
This is a cracker of an episode that suprises and entertains all the way through.

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