Nowhere is the disconnect between ambition and execution in television drama more apparent than science-fiction. What made Space: 1999 different from its 1970s peers is that at least in its first season this disconnect had little to do with budgetary constraints and was more a function of story and character - areas where more modestly budgeted programs frequently outshined it. Dubious science aside, Space: 1999 often posed intriguing ethical and philosophical questions (at least in its first season). Unfortunately, the drama all too often hinged on characters acting out of character, leaving even many who enjoyed it wondering if a bit more time and money should have been spent on the scripts.
More than any technical shortcomings, the story issues made the program an ideal candidate for Big Finish Productions to revisit on audio. Big Finish’s first entry in that series was released on September 13th, 2019—the 20th anniversary of the in-universe date when the moon got blasted out of the Earth’s orbit. While the cast is all new, the starting point for the initial release was the first television episode, "Breakaway." Adapted by Big Finish’s long-standing Executive Producer, Nicholas Briggs, the audio version of "Breakaway" makes an earnest effort to expand upon the drama of its television counterpart but ultimately falls a bit short.
Ironically, "Breakaway" was arguably the original program’s high-water mark, the one that really did take the time to flesh out the script and ensure it functioned as a proper drama. Granted, this was partly a function of the episode’s troubled production, but the end result set a bar that the subsequent TV episodes rarely matched ("The Black Sun" being a notable exception). Future releases in the audio series will have a somewhat easier task surpassing the new iteration’s uneven premiere. As with the television program, the issue once again lies in the writing.
Briggs’ decision to expand the episode’s story to two hours should have been an opportunity to let the new cast grow into their characters against an undeniably dramatic backdrop. To their credit, the cast approach their roles with verve but don’t get much to do but argue and express frustration. While those are very sensible reactions to the situation at hand, by the second hour it becomes repetitive, with the interplay between Commander Koenig (played by Mark Bonnar) and Dr. Russell (Maria Teresa Creasey) coming across as especially forced.
The script is especially distorted by the perceived need to offer a more scientifically plausible explanation for sending the moon out of Earth orbit. Whether the audience for a new version of Space: 1999 was likely to be bothered by a recapitulation of the original’s dodgy science is an open question. What seems certain, though, is that trading one piece of questionable science for an explanation that’s no less speculative and requires a significant plot contrivance hardly feels like an improvement. The resulting combination of tiresome exposition, extra suspension of disbelief and an undue emphasis on the preparations for the probe mission to the planet Meta all cause the script to drag.
The urgency surrounding the Meta mission served as a useful motivation for key events in the TV version in large part because the production team used it as an undertone. Brought to the forefront, the back and forth about training flights and back up crews clutters the narrative. It ultimately leads to Koenig making a choice that seems driven more by plot expediency than the personality displayed up to that point. Ambiguous characters are generally welcome in a drama, however, after spending most of the story contrasting Koenig with the callousness of Commissioner Simmonds, having the Commander put members of his crew at risk in the way he does strikes the wrong note. It speaks to a general sense that the script was about one draft away from being solid.
Big Finish announced their Space: 1999 series in August, about one month ahead of this release and just over a month after recording it. The timing suggests a compressed production schedule that might not have allowed time to fine-tune the script for "Breakaway." Ideally next year’s boxed-set release, reputedly mixing new adventures and reimagined TV stories, will strike the right balance. Whatever its flaws, this initial release succeeds in showing that there’s still plenty of potential in Space: 1999.