Trashy TV sci-fi, Brian Blessed and a surprising scientific gem – Russ Swan bends over backwards to justify a guilty pleasure…
We all have our guilty pleasures, and one of mine is watching trashy science fiction on obscure TV channels. The ones with high station numbers and, presumably, correspondingly low viewer figures.
There has recently been a rich seam of stuff from golden age of bad sci-fi, the 1970s, but the thing is that it's not all bad. You might have to put in some effort, but the occasional gem easily repays it.
I came across one last month, and frankly I'm still astonished.
There has recently been a rich seam of stuff from golden age of bad sci-fi, the 1970s, but the thing is that it's not all bad. You might have to put in some effort, but the occasional gem easily repays it
A station called Forces TV, on Freeview and other platforms, has been showing Space: 1999. The premise of the show is quite absurd: on 13 September 1999 (a date about 25 years in the future when the show was made), the moon is blown out of Earth's orbit by a chain reaction of stored nuclear waste.
It's such an unlucky event I had assumed that it must have been a Friday, but the calendar says different. No superstition in the shiny future as seen from the 1970s.
As it careens though the universe, the moon and the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha encounter a bizarre assortment of alien worlds and creatures, all of whom are bipedal humanoids with perfect English accents.
So much, so standard…
It's like a British Star Trek, although inevitably the commander of the base is American. The show was made by Gerry and Silvia Anderson, best known for Thunderbirds and other puppet-based programmes, and was one of their efforts to translate their film making to live actors and, I guess, attract a slightly more grown-up audience.
It has to be said that, on the whole, the puppets appear less wooden.
That, however, is certainly not the case in the episode in question. It included some of the cream of British acting talent, and the storyline took a twist that was unknown to anybody involved. Indeed, it could only became remarkable to us, now, in the 21st century.
The Alphans encounter an ice world inhabited by the survivors of an Earth expedition to Uranus a dozen years before, who had somehow been catapulted to a far corner of the galaxy. Time and space warp effects meant that they were now hundreds of years in the future and thousands of light years from home.
In the episode, Death's Other Dominion, the leader of the ice world is played by the great Brian Blessed. He was already a giant of screen and stage in 1974 when it first aired, and later went on to utter the immortal words "Gordon's Alive?!" in the 1980 movie Flash Gordon. Simply having him in the cast made me enjoy this episode more than usual.
But it is the name of the ice world that really made me jump. It is called Ultima Thule.
There is a real place in the outer solar system called Ultima Thule. It was visited and photographed in January this year – 2019 – by the New Horizons spacecraft, now travelling through the Kuiper Belt after visiting Pluto in 2015.
But get this: Ultima Thule was only discovered in 2014, eight years after New Horizons began its epic voyage, and 40 years after that episode of Space: 1999. Its name is still unofficial, but more appealing than (486958) 2014 MU69. It has its origins in classical history, as the world's northernmost island – possibly Shetland or Greenland.
It was chosen for a 70s sci-fi soap opera, and decades later for a real-life object. And the schedules created a near-perfect alignment, airing the episode within weeks of the fly-by – plus added Brian Blessed.
So don’t tell me I watch trash. This was the best thing so far this year.