Sorry about the unimaginative allusion in the title to David Bowie’s wonderful 1980s record (LP, not CD…). What else could I use to recall one of my main childhood terrors? Yes, I’m writing here today about memory and, particularly, about the childhood terrors that remain with us for decades, in this case consciously. Yet, at the same time, in a fuzzy, hazy way that calls for the need to check up as an adult what exactly scared us so much as children.
So here it is: my childhood memory, not too deceptive I hope. This was 1976, I was ten, and my paternal grandparents were the first in my working-class family to purchase a colour TV set (Wikipedia claims that colour broadcasting started in Spain in 1972, with the Munich Olympic Games). I was already a fan of Space 1999, an SF British series created by Sylvia and Gerry Anderson, of Thunderbirds fame. Their series –produced 1973-76, aired in Spain 1976-77– narrated how an explosion of nuclear waste unwisely kept on the Moon set our satellite spinning out of orbit into the galaxy, taking the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha with it. Space 1999 was a success in many countries around the world (not in the US, where Isaac Asimov did a good demolition job out of its bad scientific premise). It still maintains a classic cult status in many of these countries, continued thanks to the DVD pack editions. I have no idea how many of the 48 episodes I did see, but by the time the memory that I’m narrating bore down into my brain, I was already totally fascinated by metamorph Maya, a humanoid alien female who could take any shape.
The episode I saw that afternoon, apparently within the TV magazine for children Un globo, dos globos, tres globos, was The Beta Cloud (season 2, episode 14). This is information I learned only two weeks ago, after an intensive Google search leading to the corresponding YouTube link. The adults chatting around me as I watched the episode (with my younger, far less impressionable brother) never knew that the story of how the Moonbase Alpha crew fought desperately to kill an unstoppable monster has stayed with me since then. For two reasons: the absolute terror produced by understanding that the monster could not be stopped, and a scene in which the creature is partially burnt when it runs against an electric fence –remember this is the first TV programme I ever saw in colour. My clever girl Maya finally stops the fearsome thing, and maybe that’s in the end why I’m still writing about strong female characters.
I saw The Beta Cloud again a few days ago. The fine sets and special effects still maintain all their 1970s charm, and what can I tell you about that amazing spacecraft, the Eagle Transporter? Never sufficiently praised! The cheap props, though, and, above all, the flared trousers of the male crew uniforms quite spoiled my rediscovery of the series (the girls wore skirts…), and so did the haircuts –Star Trek’s costumes have stood indeed much better the test of time. I won’t comment on the acting, oh my! As for the monster, that was a howler –so silly! An obvious guy-in-a-suit hairy concoction, rubber-masked, moving like a toddler with a bad diaper rash case. Yes, I did recall the plot correctly, with the climactic electric barrier scene and Maya’s last-minute intervention. I wasn’t scared but I perfectly understood why my ten-year-old self was.
Before I move on, let me remind you of the context: this was late 1970s medium-budget British TV. On US 1970s TV, in contrast, they had the best SF series: the old Battlestar Galatica, Logan’s Run, The Six Million Dollar Man. Star Wars soon followed, with its blockbuster big budget. Not that expensive, Alien, which is not that different in plot from The Beta Cloud, came out in 1979 with the marvellous monster designed by Giger. It was still a guy in a rubber suit but what a suit… Morphing, the computer technique that helps us to see on screen credible transformations, was first used in Willow (1988) –and Space 1999 did without it convincingly for Maya. So, all in all, not that bad.
What puzzles me is this. Space 1999 was not a series for children, but aimed at a general audience. Unless, that is, the Andersons were working on the well-known premise that ‘the Golden Age of SF is twelve.’ At any rate, the inevitable conclusion after seeing The Beta Cloud is not only that I have personally outgrown its 1970s TV-related limitations (the whole generation I belong to), but that all TV audiences around the world have. Only a committed lover of vintage TV can really enjoy Space 1999, whereas good 1970s SF films survive much better. It might be a matter as simple as budget, with TV getting ever closer to what cinema requires (a trend started, by the way, by The X-Files).
As I smiled condescendingly at my younger self, I could not help thinking that a contemporary ten-year-old would not be scared by The Beta Cloud. I wonder indeed what scares today’s kids! So much lost innocence…
PS If you have enjoyed my post, do read “Espacio 1999 y yo” by Antonio Quintana Carrandi at http://www.ciencia-ficcion.com/opinion/op01379.htm
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