JOHN KENNETH MUIR's RETRO TV FILES
SPACE:1999 [1975 - 1977]
AN INTERVIEW WITH STORY EDITOR
JOHNNY BYRNE
Click on the book cover to the left to order John Kenneth Muir''s analytical study of the TV series Space:1999. EXPLORING SPACE:1999, from McFarland.
I first met Space:1999 screenwriter and story editor Johnny Byrne at the Breakaway Convention in Los Angeles in 1999. Since then, we have discussed Space:1999 many times. I remain a stalwart admirer of his work on the program, including the episodes "Force of Life" "Another Time, Another Place" and "Testament of Arkadia," all classics of science fiction television that merit comparison to the genre's best literature. The following interview was conducted in February 2001, and discusses some aspects of the much-neglected, fascinating 1970s space opera. - John Kenneth Muir
John Kenneth Muir's officially licensed Space:1999 Novel: The Forsaken, from Powys Media. Order it by clicking on the book cover to the left. This original novel picks up the story of Moonbase Alpha between Year One and Year Two.
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Interview with Johnny Byrne:

MUIR: I'd like to begin with one of the enduring series mysteries. Is the planet Terra Nova in Matter of Life and Death really the planet Meta, as some fans have come to believe?

BYRNE: No. They put all the Meta stuff into the first episode,
Breakaway, which was being shot while I was writing Matter of Life and Death. There was a strong pull to make each episode a stand-alone story because the series would have been selling in syndication, and we didn't have a clue in what order the shows would be screened. If I had been told to follow on with Meta, then I would have used Meta.  Instead, I created Terra Nova, and there seemed to be some reason to do that, to actually get away from Meta. Had I been wrong to do that, Christopher Penfold or someone would have surely told me I was wrong.

MUIR: What do you remember about working on that particular story?

BYRNE: I spent a long time with Charles Crichton [episode director] putting this into a shooting script in the most maddening form of detail. It was kind of a primer in filmmaking, and if there had been flaws that kind of stood out, Charles would be the one to spot them.; I was really at the mercy of superior experience there.

MUIR: Since
Matter of Life and Death was a rewrite of an Art Wallace script, can you recall what your contributions were?

BYRNE: Looking back, I see the things that interested me. I was very fascinated that Richard Johnson had been cast, and I liked the idea of someone being Helena's husband. I would have looked for a level of human story there, and seeded it into the script. The problem was that nobody was sure who was having whom, or who was supposed to be having whom.  At that time, Koenig was calling Helena Dr. Russell and all sorts of things.  It was a bit formal.   Nobody had sat down and planned out in detail how it was going to develop. The Lee Russell relationship made the show special for me. I remember that.

MUIR: My problem with that story is that everybody dies in the climax and then is miraculously resurrected when Helena wishes it.

BYRNE: If you kill of your main characters too often, you do have this terrible reality gap. So you have to choose your moments very carefully. I think Gerry [Anderson] is very keen indeed on waving a magic wand, and everything comes out all right in the end. I'm not sure I would have worked it out in quite that way.

MUIR: But it was a fertile time for you, those early days?

BYRNE: Oh yes. There was something deeply subconscious working all the time and none of us were aware of it.  And it only happened to those of us who were there all the time, because the writing of the individual scripts was only a step in the whole process. We were in the planning of the episodes, we were seeing the dailies, day-by-day, we were working ahead and looking at new stories. We were at starship control, looking for those unidentified little blips - which were the scripts keying into something special.   But the whole thing was mostly unformulated. Chris [Penfold] and I would sit in his office and have these heightened conversations about story. We were off our rockers.

MUIR: How so?

BYRNE: I recently looked at
Another Time, Another Place after 20 years and I heard Bergman say that line that if you don't return to your moon, you'll have nowhere to die.  It made perfect senee to me when I wrote it, but now I have no idea what I was talking about. It's open to interpretation.

MUIR: How did
Another Time, Another Place come about?

BYRNE: I was trying to outdo what I had done before. The Alphans have this terrifying moment that splits and separates them, they are shunted billions of miles through space, and they encounter an alternate reality.  Well, suddenly here is the Earth, another moon, another set of Alphans. The big moment came when they discovered the alternate base, and Carter and Koenig find themselves dead on the moon surface in a crashed eagle.

MUIR: It's a brilliant show, and watching it you really get caught up in the sweep of it. It's very dream like.

BYRNE: It's like the remembered fragments of a dream.  The show is a dream state if you capture the moment just right.  It isn't symmetrical. What we did in that story was really hold a mirror up to the Alphans, and they see themselves in a possible situation, putting two realities against each other to see how they'd shape up. 
Another Time, Another Place was a journey into the mind.  We stayed away from the whole thing of pure technology and mechanics.  Of course, there were many things foisted upon us, like Regina's double brain. That was a crude image, one of those 'naff ideas that got the story into some trouble.

MUIR: Did David Tomblin [episode director] have any issues with the metaphysical aspects of
Another Time, Another Place?

BYRNE: None whatsoever.  He said to me, you know, we're going to make this work. He was given the script and made a brilliant show of it.

MUIR: Your next episode,
Force of Life is my all-time favorite. Yet this is one that seems to be criticized by the media and fans of other franchises. Why do you think that is?

BYRNE: I'm not sure. It was a very simple story, really. This was a process of a lifeforce traveling through space, chyrsalis into butterfly. That's entirely all it was. Why can't people see that? Just last night, I was watching this program about the universe, about the incredible ways life can survive. These scientists study these tiny microbes found on Mars, or learn how life can survive literally anywhere. It's incredible. I didn't know about these things when I wrote
Force of Life but it is the same thing. The lifeforce had its own agenda, and there were no philosophical discussions to be had. It couldn't express itself verbally, because it was very different from the Alphans. I mean, was it going to pop in and say 'charge me up and send me on my way?' That would have been ridiculous.

MUIR: The direction [by David Tomblin] is stunning.

BYRNE: The way it looked took some thought, and was beautifully expressed by David. I don't understand why people don't get it. I tried to express this universal thought of life developing, in a very simple form, and it found Zoref because it was homing in on his area of the base and he was the first form it found. I think that during the course of the story, it was spelled out pretty clearly.

MUIR: I was surprised when you expressed some dissatisfaction with
End of Eternity.  I've always judged it to be a superior show.

BYRNE: I felt it was one of those large concepts that was difficult to squeeze into fifty minutes. I knew it had greater potential than I was able to capture. There was a slight psychological flaw in
End of Eternity in the sense that maybe it was one of those time when knowning more about Balor and his background would have enhanced the story. But that's the reason I'm dissatisfied. I would have liked to know more about him. I mean, the thing about Balor was that he believed he was doing the right thing  He was just constantly beset by "small-minded" people who didn't understand what he was doing. That was his view.Since he'd gone beyond human, mortality no longer meant anything to him. In the end, there was too much about the psychopath and not enough of what made him a psychopath. It is one of those stories with genuine feature film potential. It could have been opened up in a big way. The thought of Balor on Alpha is terrifying because it's a closed off, vulnerable place.

MUIR: You're thinking of a sequel?

BYRNE: Oh, I always intended to write another story about Balor. It was in my mind at the time. He was a great character, so beautifully portrayed by Peter Bowles, and the episode was shot so wonderfully. Even when I see it now, I'm still impressed. When you see that scene played with the toy airplane, you just know Koenig isn't going to get out of this one unscathed.

MUIR: Can we talk about The Troubled Spirit?

BYRNE: You had troubled with this episode, didn't you, John? When I read the comments in your book [
Exploring Space:1999], I was tempted to ring you up. I'm sure I can explain it, but that's not the point. It shouldn't need to be explained. Maybe I was given too much latitude. There are elements that seem a little hubristic.

MUIR: I don't think that's it. I just think that some of the process isn't clear. I liked the self-fulfilling prophecy and the ghost, and all that material very much, but I guess I felt you didn't even need the plants. The story would have worked just as well with a regular seance, wouldn't it?

BYRNE: There were things written about plant intelligence in that period, and I thought about an experiment with equipment that could tap into those plant signals. There are basic components, biological constants, shared by plant and man. And what if those plant waves tapped into the uncharted portions of the brain?  I wanted the Alphans to delve into that part of the brain, to have the paranormal experience. I was combining horror and science fiction, and that stimulated me.  I loved the opening gliding shots, and the scenes in the travel tube. And I thought the make-up was wonderful.

MUIR: Any thoughts on
Testament of Arkadia and the notion of a story arc?

BYRNE: It's interesting, but the thing that is pinpointed as the weakness of
Space:1999, the premise, is in fact the stepping stone into everything that happened, all those inexplicable things. And if you take the even larger arc view, you seem to learn more about the series.

In your book, you spotted an overall arc, and I think you are right. It is there, but it has this almost unconscious kind of sweep. On most normal TV, the writers look for the purpose of it all, what is the point of it all.; I think on
Space:1999, it is nearly subliminal. The very circumstances of this story, of this epic journey, became, I believe, an unconscious arc.  Had we been aware of it, perhaps we would have taken on a much more directed theme. Unconsciously, we started seeing similarities and patterns, and a way things could happen. The further into the show we got, the more we mirrored the Alphans in their situations, because it was happening to us on that very level. That carried over into the stories, the way in which the humanity of the thing unfolded.

MUIR: I thought I had read somewhere that you were unhappy with
Arkadia.

BYRNE: Oh no. I wasn't happy when we started on the show because the budget was so limited. But
Dragon's Domain had just been done, and it used the technique of the voiceover. I realized this was a valuable perspective and decided to use it in Testament of Arkadia. It's a very useful technique because it can help you bridge over story gaps. Also, it lends viewers the notion that what they are seeing is history, in the past. For an origin myth, looking back across 10,000, 3,000 or even 300 years of history, that seemed very appropriate to me.

MUIR: Was
Testament of Arkadia designed to be the end?

BYRNE: Absolutely not. It was just another step along the way.; Had we known the series was ending, I would have wanted to culminate with
Children of the Gods.  That was a story that put the series into perspective as an origin myth. We'd be looking back at the Alphans from the vantage point of tens of thousands of years in the future.

MUIR: We've talked before about how science is just another religion, another set of human beliefs. Where does that leave Victor Bergman, since he's the voice of science on the series?

BYRNE: Victor is the high priest of Moonbase Alpha. He was more than happy to abandon science and leap into faith, wasn't he? He was a fact junkie and new thought excited him. Knowledge excited him. That's what got him going in
Voyager's Return,the opportunity to get his hands on all that new knowledge.

MUIR: Could Victor Bergman have survived into Year Two?

BYRNE: Not as it was, no. The thought of doing Year One ideas with Year Two characters just does not make sense, and vice versa. I mean, can you imagine Victor in some Year Two episodes?  What would he have done? I think Barry Morse retired at the right time.

MUIR: What are your thoughts about producer Freddie Freiberger and the format changes to the series for Year Two?

BYRNE: Freddie is a good man. I respect the man, but I didn't like his approach to
Space:1999. He took it in a completely different direction. Space:1999 was an origin myth, a magical story filled with belief, mythology and faith. If you were on Alpha three thousand years in the future, this is the story you would see. It would be the magical history of a people, just as we view the stories we read in the Bible.

MUIR: The big difference I see philosophically between seasons is that in the first year, the very nature of the Alphans, their humanity if you will, is both their strength and weakness.   It helps them survive and it impedes their survival. In the second year, they are more confident, more able and less vulnerable, it seems.

BYRNE: It comes down to this.  The things that people do to prevent disaster are what invariably lead them to disaster. That's the essence of Greek tragedy.  We've all heard that man proposes and God disposes. That's the theme of many Year One stories.

MUIR: I know you've said it before, but do you think
Space:1999 still has stories left to tell?

BYRNE: Absolutely. People are more geared to understand it now than ever before. And I know just how to do it too.
Message from Moonbase Alpha was the beginning of that, a summation of Year One but inclusive of Year Two. That's the direction we would head in.

John Kenneth Muir is the author of a dozen books on the subjects of science fiction and horror films and television programming. His titles include
Horror Films of the 1970s, An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith, Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper, The Films of John Carpenter, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, and Wes Craven: The Art of Horror.; John has written for a variety of magazines including Filmfax, Cinescape,Collectors News, and Farscape: The Official Magazine. A regular columnist for Far Sector, John has made personal appearances at genre conventions, was a guest on Sciography and Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction.  He lives in the historic district of Monroe, North Carolina with his wife and two cats. For more information on John's work, please visit his official home page at www.johnkennethmuir.com
John's Terror Television (A 2001 Booklist Editor's Choice) features a chapter on Space:1999 that examines the series as a gothic horror program set in outer space. Click on book cover to visit McFarland's web site and order the book.
John's award-winning Horror Films of the 1970s book - a Booklist Editor's Choice for 2002 and an American Libraries Association best of the best reference book for 2003.
If you are enjoying this article and John's other "Retro TV Files" please SUPPORT THIS SITE by ordering through the Amazon.com link below. Thank you!
Left to right: Space 1999 script editor and writer Johnny Byrne, John K. Muir, Kathryn Muir and Nick Tate (Alan Carter!), at the Breakaway Convention in Los Angeles in 1999.
Also check out John's interview with 1999 star Martin Landau
and
his interview with spfx director,
Brian Johnson
and
don't forget to visit John Muir's
NEW Space:1999 Concordance