During his association with Lew Grade and ITC, Gerry Anderson’s productions followed a regular pattern of production; most ran for only one season, and then it was on to the next. In the case of Space:1999, however, the show’s true origins can actually be found in one of his previous productions.
Despite phenomenal success in their country of origin the Gerry Anderson television series were always produced with American audiences very much in mind, with the main prize being a sale to a major American network. Sadly, only one Anderson series (Fireball XL5, sold to NBC in 1963) would achieve this success, with the others still airing around the USA in syndication – a process by which local stations affiliated with a particular major network would air programming outside of that network’s prime-time schedule. Although profitable, a series airing in syndication would earn ITC and Century 21 Productions only a fraction of the money that a network sale would have done, and so it’s understandable that many of their series only ran for one season. Why continue making more episodes of a show that the networks have already passed on?
In the case of UFO, however, it was a different story – well, almost. Sold to 136 local stations in 1972, many of them CBS affiliates, UFO did particularly well on both WCBS-TV in New York and KNXT in Los Angeles. The reason for this was not so much to do with the show itself, but more its position in the schedule. UFO aired at 7.00pm on Saturday evenings and was followed at 8 by the top-rated American network show of the 1972/73 season; sitcom All in the Family, which pulled in an average of 30 million viewers every week. Many of those viewers would tune in early in order to catch UFO in syndication, with the result that the series was frequently the most-watched show of its time slot by a substantial margin.
By now Gerry Anderson himself was too busy with production on The Protectors to keep a close eye on how well UFO was performing Stateside, and so was surprised to discover upon returning to London from Protectors filming in Salzburg that a series which had not been a part of his life for two years was now apparently something of a hit in a key market. With its success showing no signs of waning it was decided that a second season of UFO would be produced, with the working title of UFO 2.
Entering pre-production in late 1972, the proposed second season would see the action move from the early 1980s into the 1990s and to a vastly expanded SHADO Moonbase. Believing that the show’s most successful episodes were those set in space, the second season was to see the war with the Aliens escalate to the extent that very few UFOs were now able to get past Moonbase’s formidable defences. The once small and vulnerable outpost would now become a vast lunar city and the new SHADO Headquarters, with many episodes focussing on the latest Alien plot to destroy the base.
Anderson’s UFO 2 team began to form, with art directors Bob Bell and Keith Wilson designing the interiors of the new Moonbase and Brian Johnson the exteriors. With a third season of The Protectors also looking very likely, and Tony Barwick already committed to that show, Christopher Penfold was hired to be the new script editor. Ed Bishop was also very excited at the chance to return to the role of Commander Straker – but unfortunately, in early 1973, the project was to grind to an unexpected halt.
The conclusion of All in the Family’s run on CBS had coincided with the end of first-run UFO episodes in syndication, and while repeats continued in the same timeslot the ratings obviously began to decline. Rather than investigate the source of this drop, ITC in New York began to lose confidence in the idea of a second season entirely and pulled the plug on the project.
By this time however a substantial amount of money had been poured into preparing for the second season and Anderson was determined that that money would not be wasted, convincing Lew Grade that the work that had already been done on UFO 2 could be salvaged by reworking the concept into an entirely new series. Together with his wife Sylvia Gerry set to work writing a thirty-minute pilot script named Zero G for the new show – the working title of which was Menace from Space.
Zero G told the story of the inhabitants of Moon City, manned by operatives of the organisation W.A.N.D.E.R.; the World Association of Nations Defending Earth Rights. With an alien spaceship constantly observing the base, Commander Steve Maddox is currently overseeing an unmanned space probe sent to investigate their planet – and so, afraid that this is the first step in humanity’s conquest of space, the aliens alter the Moon’s gravitation to send it spinning off into the unknown void of space.
Many of the familiar elements of what would ultimately become the first episode of Space:1999 are present in the script for Zero G, which went through title changes in rewrites to The Void Ahead, then Turning Point, and finally Breakaway. Several sources over the years have indicated that the earliest versions of the script even retained familiar UFO elements, including the SHADO interceptors and moon mobiles, SID, and possibly even the same Aliens, but all were dropped as the focus of the story moved from alien intervention to humanity’s own short-sightedness.
Speaking of such, as had often been the case during production of UFO the life of Space:1999 would also see ITC America constantly imposing certain conditions on the series. One of the very first of these was in fact a belated reaction to the UFO episodes that had explored the personal cost that Commander Straker had had to pay in order to keep the SHADO organisation functioning; a great hit with fans, but apparently not so much with the executives. Abe Mandell, who would continue to be a thorn in Anderson’s side for the next few years, was particularly insistent that the new format of the new series would make it absolutely impossible to shoot any scenes on Earth; to avoid, as he described it, “people having tea in the Midlands”. The Andersons’ original solution was to destroy the Earth entirely, and when this was declared too grim for a family show they settled on the idea of the Moon itself leaving Earth orbit.
While Gerry Anderson fans will always debate the merits of UFO vs Space:1999, the story of how one became the other demonstrates how dependent all his television productions of that era were on achieving success in America, and how an odd sequence of events brought one of them back to life before transforming it into something completely different. More importantly though, it serves as yet another example of the Andersons overcoming adversity and aiming for the stars – literally, in this case!
Did you know about this change from the second series of UFO to Space 1999? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.