Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea 18 (Space: 1999, I Clavdivs)


Yes, I really am tackling Space: 1999 and I, Claudius (or, as I insist on referring to it for no other reason than "it makes me happy," I Clavdivs.) in one entry. It even makes sense to do so. Because one thing that we're going to have to deal with over the remainder of the series is the fact that the nature of television is shifting rapidly. And the beginnings of that shift are starting to happen around what we're watching now. One of the easiest lenses to look at that through, at least for our purposes, is the way in which British television is made for the export market. In other words, shows designed to make money by being sold to other countries.

The BBC, of course, had done this to some extent for years. In terms of Doctor Who, this has been tracked extensively by the folks at BroaDWcast. But notably, these sales were mostly to Commonwealth countries, with Hartnell and Troughton stories often airing well into the 1970s. Despite Innes Lloyd eying the possibility in the 1960s (hence the conscious reintroduction to the premise of the show at the start of Tomb of the Cybermen), no successful effort to show Doctor Who in the US happens until 1972, when Time Life, who bought the distribution rights, sells a package of Pertwee episodes to a PBS station in Philadelphia. (In a moment of explaining things to a different side of the Atlantic than usual, PBS is basically what the BBC would be if Rupert Murdoch got his way - an underfunded and stitched together coalition of local stations with an extreme lack of money for producing new content outside the children's market. They market to the sorts of people who in the UK watch a lot of BBC4 and read The Guardian. But more on them in a few paragraphs.) But it's not really until the late 70s/early 80s when Doctor Who manages to take off in a meaningful sense in the US, so we'll mostly drop that strand until... oh, The Five Doctors sounds like a pretty good place to pick it up next, no?

The logic behind this is fairly straightforward: there are a whole lot of English speakers in the US, so it's a really obvious market to sell in. But right around now there's an odd transition going on in the nature of what a typical UK to US export looks like. In the 1960s, had we done a piece on exports, we'd have talked mostly about ITC - Lew Grade's production company that made, of the things we've talked about so far, The Prisoner. In the UK, Grade's shows went to ITV, whereas in the US they usually ended up in CBS.

Several things characterize the ITC approach. First of all, they were generally budgeted with the export market in mind. This gave them the budgets to do glitzy action set pieces that BBC productions couldn't touch. Second, they were generally put together so that episode order didn't matter that much. Even a limited run show such as The Prisoner really only needs its first and last two episodes aired in the correct positions in the run. Third, they were often made by Gerry Anderson.

We should pause here and talk a little bit about Gerry Anderson, just because I've kind of ruthlessly and inexcusably skipped him. I was going to do a Thunderbirds entry, but the end of the Troughton era was getting crowded and I found the five minute sample of Thunderbirds I watched dull and I just decided to cut it and come back later. Actually, I did talk about Anderson a fair bit over here. And said I'd talk more about him later, so I suppose it's later now.

Anderson, basically, is one of the great masters of schlock action stories. He is Terry Nation with a flair for the visual. His initial success was in children's television in the 1960s with a technique he cleverly branded Supermarionation, in which marionettes were controlled by extremely thin metal wires that could also transmit electricity to handle facial movements and things. The result was an iconic visual style that could be wrapped around quality action pieces just so long as nobody actually had to walk.

In the 70s, however, Anderson reinvented himself as a live action producer with some significant successes. And then there was Space: 1999 - his Waterloo, if you will. I approached Space: 1999 with... not so much trepidation as bemusement. For a variety of reasons, Space: 1999 is something of a punchline in science fiction fandom. The most obvious reason is that, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1984, it is one of the great examples of a title that took a gamble on a date and got it completely wrong. Tragically, our nuclear waste dumps on the moon did not explode in 1999 sending the moon hurtling out of orbit onto an interstellar voyage.

But there are subtler reasons. Space: 1999 is one of the archetypal examples of the fringe cult show. By this I mean that it has enough fans that if you go to a sci-fi con, or at least an American one, you will have several, often very, very dedicated Space: 1999 fans (though this is less true now due to generational shifts in fandom). However, and this is equally if not more important, you will never find enough Space: 1999 fans to make doing anything that caters to them financially sensible. (Other examples of the fringe cult show include Buck Rogers, classic Battlestar Galactica, and until recently, erm... Doctor Who, actually. At least in the US.)

There are many things that characterize this sort of show, and a much larger discussion to be had about science fiction post-Star Trek and, in turn, post-Star Wars and the demise of the golden age aesthetic, but let's save that for the inevitable Star Wars post. Instead, let's just sum up the basic logic of Space: 1999, which amounts to "let's do a really big budget sci-fi show." The problem is that it was basically a complete disaster. Within the UK it failed for straightforward reasons - the fragmented nature of the ITV system meant that it didn't have a consistent airtime and, in fact, ITV's fabled Doctor Who killer failed to actually air opposite Doctor Who consistently. This led to extended and focused efforts to revamp ITV, generally with the tried and true method of hiring BBC talent and paying them about four times as much to do shows that weren't as good as what they'd been doing on the BBC. (See also Forsyth, Bruce and, more recently Ross, Jonathan.)

In the US its failure was more subtle. The show was, after all, carefully tuned to the US market, grabbing Barbara Bain and Martin Landau from the recently-finished Mission: Impossible as stars so that the show let American. But US networks were getting increasingly good at making homegrown shows in a more or less ITC style - things like Land of the Lost, or, for that matter, Mission: Impossible. And they were increasingly less interested in just buying a huge chunk of British episodes. As a result, US distribution of Space: 1999 was often outside of prime time and on local unaffiliated channels, only some of which were major powerhouses.

And, of course, there was perhaps the larger issue - Space: 1999 sucked. Barbara Bain, in particular, was godawful in it. The plots were wretched. The dialogue was often more wretched. They even hired Pip and Jane Baker. The effects were quite good, but that's about the only remotely positive thing that can be said about the series. The result basically ended Anderson's career until a 90s nostalgia revival in his old Supermarionated material allowed him a late career comeback. But if Space: 1999 marked more or less the end of the era where the UK exported glossy and cinematic action serials to the US, there was at the same time a rise of a very different sort of UK-to-US export with a considerably more enduring legacy. And for that we turn to I, Claudius.

It is not that I, Claudius is the first BBC series of its kind. It's not. But it is without a doubt one of the most important and acclaimed. It didn't actually make it out to the US until 1977 as part of Masterpiece Theater, a PBS series devoted not entirely but at least substantively to airing British (usually BBC) dramas, focusing largely but not exclusively on period drama. Masterpiece Theater has in fact been around since 1971, but the gist of it is straightforward: PBS realized that their upmarket viewers would probably enjoy British programming that felt British, and that nobody else in the US would air most of these programs, which meant they were relatively cheap to acquire as such things went.

I, Claudius being the archetypal example of this. I'm actually not going to go too into detail on the specifics of I, Claudius (Although rewatching a few episodes, I admit that I was vaguely scandalized that my Latin teacher in high school showed us the series senior year. Jesus that's a lot of sex.) mainly because for our purposes here the specifics of the show are far less interesting than its basic approach. The heart of I, Claudius - and really of the classic BBC period drama in general - comes from the fact that it developed not out of the cinematic tradition that Space: 1999 (and the ITC genre in general) aspired to, but out of a theatrical tradition.

The BBC, at least in its earliest conception, was in part a sort of national theater. We haven't talked about this tradition in a long time, but it has come up before. But on the most basic level, BBC drama drew on actors from the theatrical tradition. On one level, this is just a nice way of saying that BBC drama looks cheap. I mean, the BBC has some fantastic costume designers and can knock together a period set like nobody's business, but the fact of the matter is that Space: 1999 is a glitzy action series with explosions and space adventures, and I, Claudius is a bunch of middle aged men talking to each other at great length.  Another way of looking at it, however, is to look at it as a facet of a fundamental division between American and English styles of drama. And the easiest way of doing that is probably to look at actors.

It would be too much of a generalization to say that British and American actors have completely different approaches. But there is a real difference in what you might call the default technique of each. American acting, since the mid-20th century, has been dominated by various forms of the Method. Although it's much more common in 2011 to see people reject that label, Method acting is usually defined by a heavy focus on the actor's psychological state and on getting it to match the state of the character. (Though this is often accomplished by finding experiences in the actor's own past or aspects of the actor's own personality to draw on.)

The British tradition, on the other hand, tends to be based more on making conscious decisions about the character and following through on them. In this approach, the actor focuses less on the authenticity of the character and more on acting as a communicative practice - on how the acting conveys information about the character. This school tends to be based heavily on gesture and facial expression.

These days the dividing line is pretty lax. Matt Smith, for instance, is British, but uses lots of Method techniques in his acting. But he modeled his portrayal of the Doctor on Troughton, who is just about the least Method actor ever. But it still captures a basic division in aesthetics that is close to that of the cinematic/theatrical distinction between Space: 1999 and I, Claudius. Space: 1999, like the Method, is about creating things to be looked at. The Method tries to create a seamlessly realistic character that is observed voyeuristically through the fourth wall. I, Claudius, on the other hand, is about displaying the complex machinations of people and about communicating the various depths and contradictions of them. In other words, we're not supposed to look at characters in I, Claudius. Instead we're supposed to study them and try to understand them. In fact, if we don't pay attention and think carefully about what actors are trying to communicate in I, Claudius, we'll miss information. Whereas with the Method, the actors are supposed to disappear.

So it's worth noting that at almost the same time the cinematic ITC style was flickering out as a viable form of export the BBC was busily nailing down a new style of export in which the old television play dynamic is used and a bunch of the really excellent actors that the UK is positively lousy with sit down on a BBC set and allowed to talk to each other a bunch. And this proves a reliable success for the BBC that continues to the present day - indeed, not just for the BBC, as ITV are busily proving with Downton Abbey these days.

This is a thread that's going to develop a lot as the blog moves forward and these two approaches begin to intermingle more and more. But for now lets simply observe that for all of its love of the occasional action set piece, right now one of the absolute most interesting things about Doctor Who is that it is a science fiction show - a genre usually associated with the cinematic approach - that nevertheless acts like a television play in most regards. And that distinction, in both the extended and immediate future (and for that matter in the past), is going to prove enormously significant for the series in both good and bad ways.


Millennium Dome 9 years, 3 months ago

I'd better just say it before my other half has to: "The Avengers" was not produced by Lew Grade's ITC but by their great rival ABC (who eventually became Granada on one side of the Pennines and at the risk of re-opening fresh wounds Yorkshire Television on the other).

Because "The Avengers" is so archetypical (and probably inspired all those ITC spy serials) it is often conflated with them.

Meanwhile, I am very interested in what you say about the differences in UK v US acting.

The distinction that I normally say is (and to be fair it's more to do with movies) that the UK produces actors and the US produces *stars*.

By which I mean, it often seems that rather than asking an actor to produce a different character specific to the piece they're doing, they will often be playing variations on the same character (occasionally it is implied their *own* character) and the part will be tailored to the actor (i.e. you know exactly what I mean when I say a "Schwarzenegger role" or a "Cruise role" or, perhaps, a "Christopher Walken role" in a way that you wouldn't if I said a "Jaccobi role")

A case in point would be De Niro who is famously *very* Method and yet always seems to be playing De Niro.

Except in "Stardust", obviously.

I'm not saying that's *wrong*: you could say that American actors are *specialists* where British counterparts are generalists (or jacks-of-all-trades, even).

Or am I making sweeping generalisations? Probably.

Oh and poor old Space:1999 - they tried their best. Mostly. But so hard to get past all the beige.

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David 9 years, 3 months ago

Good Heavens I adore I, Claudius. Even wrote my dissertation on it (comparing it to ITV's The Caesars 10 years previously and to the original Tacitus / Suetonius / Dio source texts), though as a result I won't be going near it again until the horrors of dissertation writing are a dim memory.

I was wondering if you were thinking of writing an entry that included Morecambe and Wise, who were around this period regarded as the funniest men on British Television. The 1977 Christmas special most notably got 21 million viewers (or 28 million, depending on the source). An entry on what made an iconic television figure during this time - as, after all, Tom Baker's Doctor became Doctor Who the Televisual Icon and remained so long after Tom had stopped doing it.

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William Whyte 9 years, 3 months ago

We loved calling it "I, Clavdivs" too. Best joke ever!

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Anton B 9 years, 3 months ago

Yes I Clavdivs - it never ceases to amuse me too. The difference between 'American Method' and 'British Classic' acting is ably demonstrated by the apocryphal anecdote that's beeen doing the rounds for years attributed to a spat between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the set of the movie 'Marathon Man'. I won't bore you with the full version here, suffice to say it ends with Olivier saying to Hoffman - 'Dear boy, Have you tried acting?' Derek Jacobi is of course a National Treasure!and the best Master ever. Still really enjoying following this blog just been too busy to comment recently. Keep it going please.

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Seeing_I 9 years, 3 months ago

I call the Claudian serial "I, Clavdivs" as well, pronouncing the V's anachronistically because I like the way it sounds. :D

Maybe 6 or 7 year ago Doctor Who was a fringe/cult thing at US conventions, but that is no longer the case - Dalek Girls, Amys, Tens and Elevens abound, and I can report that at this year's Dragon*Con, you had to line up 2 hours beforehand to get a seat in the panels & events.

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Jesse 9 years, 3 months ago

the gist of it is straightforward: PBS realized that their upmarket viewers would probably enjoy British programming that felt British

When I was 11 and my friends kept talking about some show on public television called Doctor Who, and I faced the task of persuading my TV-wary parents to let me check it out, I used the phrase "It's British" repeatedly, in hopes that this would be read as "It's a classy, quality show."

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Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 3 months ago

Oh, I am well aware of its increased popularity these days. I was the last person they let in to the Night Terrors screening at Dragon*Con. :)

Buy yes. I should have made that clear in the post. I have now. :)

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 9 years, 3 months ago

"I call the Claudian serial "I, Clavdivs" as well, pronouncing the V's anachronistically because I like the way it sounds."

So.... as a 'w' sound, then? Given that Latin has no 'v' sound?

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Millennium Dome 9 years, 3 months ago

Should anyone reading this be wondering why my first comment mentions "The Avengers", it's because the article originally and incorrectly referred to "The Avengers" as one of Lew Grade's serials from ITC.

And now it doesn't.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 3 months ago

Yeah, I should really formalize the blog's corrections policy of "I fix errors of both fact and judgment." :)

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WGPJosh 9 years, 3 months ago

Fantastic look at the differences between UK and US television: I think you're dead-on about the British theatrical tradition and all the repercussions it has for how acting is treated and I think it also has a great deal to do with the infamous BBC archival policy (or lack thereof) during the 1960s which (if I recall correctly) you also touched on.

I'm really interested to see how you elaborate on this thread, especially once we get to the 1980s and early 1990s when Paramount goes out of its way to hire British theatrical actors to play huge lead roles in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!

By the way, I found your explanation of PBS to be absolutely hilarious and so, so true. Another great read!

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Millennium Dome 9 years, 3 months ago

Hi Philip, it's good that you take on board people's comments and corrections. I think all you need is a brief acknowledgement in the comments so that people don't end up up looking silly for commenting on things that are no longer in the article.

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Gnaeus 9 years, 3 months ago

I, Clavdivs (another pispronouncer here) I think was the model British export. Then Brideshead got filmed and the focus shifted to nostalgia and large houses. See also most of Julian Fellowes' writing career.

Also, Thunderbirds is, despite being the most famous supermarionation production, also achingly slow and not the key or most interesting one. Captain Scarlet is the one you should have watched!

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Wm Keith 9 years, 3 months ago

Millennium Dome, I disagree. If we point out errors and Phil takes them on board, then there has to be a transference of silliness from Phil to us. Blogging is a zero-sum game.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 3 months ago

While I am sorely tempted to agree with the idea that error correction is a zero-sum game, I usually do remember to make a comment acknowledging the correction, and apologize for forgetting in this instance.

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William Whyte 9 years, 3 months ago

I love what you did in bringing this in here and then using the ideas in your Brain of Morbius review.

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Henry R. Kujawa 8 years, 9 months ago

A couple of points: Philadelphia's independant UHF station Channel 17 was the one that got Jon Pertwee in 1972, not PBS. And they only ran 2 years' worth of episodes, rather than the full 3 seasons syndicated-- except what they ran was "THE SILURIANS" to "DAY OF THE DALEKS". And they were all cut for commercial time. This means the "pilot" which set up the entire run was missing, and in the 1st episode I saw, for example, the only light-hearted scene-- the one where The Doctor shows off Bessie to Liz Shaw-- was missing. They ran it 5 times a week, one episode each day at 7:30 PM, until the 4th Dalek episode, which they ran that Friday at 10 PM (having run part 3 earlier the same day at 7:30). About a year later they reran them, one episode PER WEEK, Saturday mornings at 11: 30 AM. Go figure.

I'm a huge Gerry Anderson fan, but it seems there was a major rift between him and his wife Sylvia. Gerry loved vehicles and machines; Sylvia was interested in people. With THUNDERBIRDS, Gerry "won". Each show got more cold-blooded and removed from all form of humanity, until, by the time SPACE:1999 came along, I used to joke it would have worked better with puppets. "1999" was abominable-- bad concept, bad design, bad writing, bad directing. How so many immensely talented people like writers, designers, actors could ALL do such HORRIBLE work is a mystery for the ages. By the way, I learned a few years ago it started life as the proposed 2nd season of "UFO", which would have jumped ahead from the future of 1980 to 1999, with an expanded moonbase and presumably better equipment to fight the aliens, maybe even take it back to their home world. UFO did actually get better writing and more human in its last 8 or so episodes, but Lew Grade objected to the change, he preferred the more "space" stories to Earthbound ones with humans.

An interesting phenomena I observed... after Gerry & Sylvia got divorced, something must have happened to Gerry. Because his NEXT series-- TERRAHAWKS-- was the most "human" and the BEST-WRITTEN he'd done since FIREBALL XL5. It's also funny as hell, once you get past the pilot. Amazing that a puppet show should be so much better on every level than an expensive live-action one.

Then again... I've been watching him since SUPERCAR, and in my view, THE best-written series he's done, bar none, was SPACE PRECINCT. When it debuted here, around the time of ST:TNG and ST:DS9, I found it blew BOTH of those shows totally out of the water. BETTER writing, BETTER characters, BETTER actors, BETTER imaginative use of sci-fi ideas. ALL OF THE ABOVE. I can barely stand ST:TNG. But I LOVE every frame of film of EVERY episode of SPACE PRECINCT. That show made Ted Shackleford one of my heroes.

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GarrettCRW 8 years, 9 months ago

There's also another nail in Space: 1999's coffin not mentioned here: it was one of the shows that made the horrid decision to hire Fred Freiberger as its producer in its last season.

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GeneralNerd 7 years, 2 months ago

I would say De Niro is still playing De Niro in Stardust. It's just De Niro if he happened to be a gay transvestite masquerading as a pirate.

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David Gerard 7 years, 2 months ago

I remember when Space 1999 made it to Australia first time round. It was way hyped up as an exciting new space series. British-quality scripts and American-quality effects! Instead, we got American-quality scripts and British-quality effects. It could have survived every other problem you note ... except that it was, in fact, rubbish.

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Craig 5 years, 5 months ago

As an Australian (no allegiance to either British or American styles or formats here), I have to admit to having never watched either Space 1999 or I, Claudius. (Incidentally, if you search YouTube for "I, Clavdivs", it brings up Episode 1 of I, Claudius)
So I took a break from reading this entry to enjoy an ep or 2 of Space 1999 on YouTube, and I have to admit I kind of enjoyed it. Straight away I noticed the quality of its looks (it was prettier and glossier than Dr Who ever was, at least up until the 1996 movie). It was a little silly (I'm not sure how an explosion on the side of the moon away from the Earth would make the moon travel backwards and further away from Earth), and Barbara Bain's acting was as wooden as my kitchen table, but now that I've found all 45 episodes on YouTube, I think I'll make my way through them. Or at least until some shape shifting alien joins the cast, as I believe happens at some stage.

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Ashley Pomeroy 2 years, 3 months ago

It's fascinating to compare Space: 1999 with Blakes Seven, which began a couple of years later and was firmly aimed at the domestic British audience. The total budget of Blakes Seven from beginning to end was probably less than a single episode of Space: 1999, but the writing was much better. It had characterisation!

It also had Brian Blessed, but he died. He died in Space: 1999 as well - in fact he died twice. The first time was surprisingly gory for a mainstream mid-70s TV show.

In its favour Space: 1999 had about three or four moments that terrified me as a small child. The tentacle monster. The man trapped in a casket. Martin Landau's face. The general gloomy air. The Eagle spacecraft was an excellent design that deserved a better show. Also on the positive side the technical aspects were terrific for the time. Compare the general look of the thing with pre-Star Wars films such as Logan's Run or the later Planet of the Apes films; it's at least as good. The lighting and set design - with ceilings, proper sets, selective focus, camera moves, decent blocking - had a cinematic quality that Doctor Who didn't capture until the modern era.

I think the fundamental problem was the writing. Too many of the stories were just a series of events one after the other followed by a perfunctory conclusion, or the revelation that it was a dream. Time and again Moonbase Alpha was threatened with something that caused a series of minor catastrophes, and then Barry Morse came up with a solution that almost failed because something blew up, but it was okay in the end. It was as if the writers were copying the basic, highly linear structure of 2001 without understanding that 2001 was more a thesis than a drama.

And I suppose the fundamental-fundamental problem was Gerry Anderson, because he in theory hired the writers. They all seemed to be jobbing former Z-Cars writers who ended their careers working on Heartbeat and Bergerac. Anderson was an assembler, a kit-basher. An engineer. Unlike Jim Henson or Gene Roddenberry he didn't have any kind of dramatic vision or knack for characterisation. The characters were just components. My recollection is that Barry Morse had a couple of good moments but apart from that it was a dramatic wasteland. A couple of episodes had the germ of a good idea but went nowhere with it. It's frustrating because it had potential.

As a kid growing up in the UK in the former TVS region I don't think the second series was ever broadcast. To this day I haven't seen a single episode with Maya in it. There is an apparently terrific Blu-Ray restoration of the show, which was show on 35mm, but I'm not tempted to seek it out.

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