The first season of SPACE:1999 was troubled from the start. The pilot episode, “Breakaway,” was about how the moon was blown out of Earth’s orbit by a radiation virus. (Don’t ask. Science was no more a concern here than it was in any other science fiction show, including STAR TREK, its loopy fans’ claims to the contrary.) The people of Moonbase Alpha were now riding the universe’s most cumbersome and hard-to-steer spaceship.
The final episodes of season one included shows that were among the show’s best. One, TESTAMENT OF ARCADIA, is loaded with seventies sci-fi stuff, like ancient astronauts and humanity’s origin being on another planet. MISSION OF THE DARIANS has one of the bleakest ‘red shirt’ deaths in SF TV and an ambitious depiction of a fifty-mile-long spaceship. Another was an episode which scared the crap out of kids looking for a neat-o space show like Star Trek.
DRAGON’S DOMAIN focuses not on the regulars but on Tony Cellini, a pilot we’ve never seen on the show before, though he’s friends with the regular cast members. Cellini is having nightmares about a failed deep space mission he went on before the moon wandered off. During the mission, Cellini claims, he and the other three crew members investigated a spaceship graveyard.
The alien craft discovered by the Earth travelers were abandoned and empty of life. Except something was alive that didn’t show up on the earth ship’s scanners. Cellini returned to earth alone with a story of the rest of his crew being killed by a space monster.
Now, on the moon, Cellini senses the presence of the ships he encountered years ago…and the monster that wiped out his crew. He hijacks an Eagle ship and flies into space, where he docks with the ship he abandoned years ago. There, among the bodies of his former crewmates, he again confronts the monster. Belatedly, Commander Koenig and the Alphans show up so star Martin Landau can finally do something of consequence this episode.
DRAGON’S DOMAIN, then, is like an episode of STAR TREK in which a red shirt takes up most of the show, with Kirk showing up in the last moments to win the day. The episode is a compact mini-movie and encompasses all of 1999’s strengths and weaknesses, from wacky science to fine model work and a strikingly grim tone for a show advertised as a space adventure for the whole family.
1999 wasn’t a TREK rip-off, but producer Gerry Anderson’s attempt at a 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY rip-off. Originally meant to be a second season of Anderson’s U.F.O., 1999 is considered a dumb, scientifically-nutso scifi show that couldn’t compete with the perfect STAR TREK.
The idea that science fiction is or should be scientifically accurate is pointless. These shows are all fantasies (small ‘f’), and if they don’t adhere to science as understood at the time the shows or movies are made, who cares, if the stories are good? What possible consequence could there be to having sound in outer space on a space show? This was and is the reflexive response even today when people attack the show.
1999 wasn’t like TREK. Martin Landau’s Commander Koenig would have Capt. Kirk locked in his quarters for his emotional reactions. This was a seventies show, with unisex costumes and Serious Adults talking about “radiation viruses” and every alien spoke British. It was a space Gothic, an attempt to bring some of the chill and quasi-religious wonder of space ala 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to T.V. While the show had its share of sloppy writing, everything came together for this episode.
It’s a unique episode in several ways:
SPACE:1999 was an expensive and trouble show, produced in England with input from American financiers. Late in the season, Italian co-financing meant previously unknown Italians suddenly popped up among the Mostly Brit population of Moobase Alpha. The star of this episode is Tony Cellini (Gianni Garko) an Italian character we don’t know, and who’s a man of action, which means we shouldn’t get too attached. Guest Men of Action in these shows usually do something dumb to show how the hero is a better kind of Man of Action. One who’ll be back next week.
Much of the ep is in flashback. This adds to the disquieting tone, as if we’re listening to a campfire story. This is references by Dr. Russell in the episode’s frame story, in which Dr. Russell types a report on the episode’s events (on a manual typewriter). She points out that what they’ve gone through was a new myth, their version of St. George and the Dragon.
The use of music is particularly good this episode. Albinoni’s Adagio is used for the probe ship and Cellini’s trip back to Earth, reflecting Gerry Anderson’s (pretentious) attempt at 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-like profundity about man’s smallness in the universe. The Barry Grey score uses an organ/keyboard sound like later electronic drone scores to create a sense of unease in the viewer–something BAD and mysterious is afoot.
The monster is a mass of tentacles around a bright spherical center. The monster hypnotizes its victims into submission, then swallows their screaming bodies and ejects their smoking bones. It’s like something out of H.R. Giger, or Lovecraft.
In fact, it’s the most Lovecraftian episode of a science fiction show set in space that I can think of, though FARSCAPE had some gross monsters on it. It’s the most monsterous of any of the beings the Alphans encounter, and its origins are never learned–it’s just this gross, slimy THING out there, like a spider waiting for something alive to wander into its web. Maybe it was taken from a planet, or cooked up in one of those alien ships. Whatever it is, it is used to show that even if the crew gets lucky this time, there are things far worse than just pissed-off humanoids out there, beyond out solar system. The ‘dragon’ has characteristics that don’t make a bit of sense, which makes it even scarier in this context. It seems to get inside the ship through a combination of a burst of light and teleportation. It also has the ability to hypnotize victims.
The episode is also driven by dreams Cellini has of his experience. The persistent reminder of his experience turns out to be linked to the appearance of the alien spaceship graveyard, floating through space. All of this keys into 1999’s specific charm, its blend of space, horror and an attempt at SPACE ODYSSEY-like profundity that it never quite reaches. In this it’s a link between 2001 and ALIEN. (The scenes after Tony returns to Earth are not too different from those at the beginning of ALIENS.)
DRAGON’S DOMAIN is the most overtly horrific episode of this strange show. 1999’s first season is built around the idea that space is a dangerous place to visit. Unlike the bland second season, the first one was an attempt at an adult space show, its tone closer to the reboot of BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA than to any of the incarnations of STAR TREK. In this episode, the straightforward, serious-minded approach works to set us up for something horrifically potent.