The strange case of the runaway moon
Suspension of disbelief is important to some genre fiction, but it’s got its limits.
As I was getting ready for work this morning, I noticed “Space: 1999” in the listings — it was playing on Shout! Factory TV — and watched a few minutes of it.
“Space: 1999” was a British-made science fiction program which came out in 1975. It was syndicated in the U.S.A., but if I recall correctly, none of the Nashville stations carried it. I remember reading about it in magazines as a 13-year-old but being unable to watch it. The show starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (a real-life couple who had previously appeared together on “Mission: Impossible”) and was created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who’d previously been associated with “Thunderbirds” and other puppet-based adventure programs.
Even as a teenager, though, I remember thinking that the show’s basic premise was ridiculous.
Most science-fiction shows of that ilk take place on a spaceship, traveling here and there by means of some sort of faster-than-light drive. As you probably know, Einstein’s theories indicate that it’s impossible for normal physical objects to travel faster than the speed of light (and to even travel close to that speed would require fantastic amounts of energy). But if the demands of episodic television require you to travel to a Planet Of The Week, that won’t do.
There have been theories about how faster-than-light travel might be accomplished. “Warp drive,” normally associated with “Star Trek,” involves literally changing the shape of space itself, allowing you to travel in sort of a shortcut as space folds over onto itself. “Hyperspace” drives somehow involve taking a shortcut through some other dimension or plane of existence. A wormhole, which is a form of rotating black hole, has been theorized as a possible conduit from one place in the universe to another, although it’s not clear whether a wormhole would be stable enough for spaceships to travel through, or what sorts of gravitational forces might exist near one.
The ideas that have been discussed for faster-than-light travel seem impractical, and right now we don’t have any ideas about how they might feasibly be accomplished. But that doesn’t mean they’re impossible; many technologies we have today would have seemed just as impossible to people from a few hundred years ago. So it’s OK to suspend disbelief and imagine that some day the problem of faster than-light travel will be solved (or that it already has been solved by some alien race we haven’t met yet). That’s what makes for good stories, bringing us in contact with Vulcans, Wookkies, and parasitic aliens that burst out of your chest.
“Space: 1999,” however, doesn’t take place on a spaceship. The premise of “Space: 1999” is that an accidental explosion blasts the Moon out of Earth orbit and sends it hurtling through interstellar space. The characters on the show were residents on a moon base at the time of the accident, and so now they are helpless passengers as the Moon careens through the galaxy.
The esteemed science fiction author Isaac Asimov was quick to point out the flaws in this, back in the day, and if the show were to be released today, I’m sure Neil deGrasse Tyson would do the same.
First off, any explosion powerful enough to send the moon out of Earth orbit — much less out of the solar system — would blow it to pieces, and would certainly be catastrophic for anyone who happened to be on the moon.
Secondly, because of the issues mentioned earlier, the moon would take years just to get clear of the solar system. I can’t even imagine how long it would take to reach the distance of the nearest inhabitable planet.
The show eventually attempted to explain this by saying that the moon passed through various wormholes or hyperspace tunnels, and certainly many other programs and movies have made use of those same plot devices. But it’s one thing for a powered spaceship to intentionally travel through a wormhole (as on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), and quite another to say that the moon, hurtling randomly through the vast emptiness of space, would happen to accidentally pass through a different wormhole each week, taking it close to a different habitable planet each week.
Gerry Anderson reportedly chafed at the criticism, saying that viewers gave some leeway and suspension of disbelief to every other fantasy or science fiction project, so why not his?
Well, there are limits to suspension of disbelief. It’s one thing to say that, hey, maybe one day we’ll figure out how to get around Einstein’s theories. It’s quite another to imagine the Moon as a cosmic Plinko disk that lands on the big money every single time.
It also has to do with the tone of the project. “Doctor Who,” which began life as a children’s program, gets a pass on some of its plot holes because of its whimsical approach. We don’t expect “Doctor Who” to always make sense; it steps over into the fantasy end of the fantasy/science fiction spectrum.
“Space: 1999,” from what little I’ve seen and heard about it, didn’t project that same vibe — it seems like it wants to be taken seriously somehow, which is somewhat surprising given how much fun Anderson’s prior SuperMarionation projects can be. (One critic quipped that Gerry Anderson, after all his years working with marionettes, seemed to have a knack for finding actors who looked as if they were made out of wood.) The premise it asked us to believe was way too outlandish for what the show was presenting itself to be.
I am curious about the show, though; I’ve only seen bits and pieces over the years. And it does have its fans, even though it only lasted two seasons. I’ll have to figure out when it airs on Shout! Factory TV and check out a few full episodes.
A classic episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” featured an movie cobbled together from three episodes of a cheesy 1950’s science fiction series, “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.” The movie was entitled “Crash of the Moons,” and the plot of one of the episodes had to do with an asteroid, which Rocky Jones and his compatriots referred to as a “gypsy moon,” passing close to another moon or planet. It was a similarly-outlandish plot (but from two decades prior to “Space: 1999,” and aimed at children, so there’s that).
The MST3K episode making fun of “Crash of the Moons” was quite funny, however, and gave us this lovely little musical number, which seemed appropriate to close with. The musical number played on the fact that MST3K already featured a robot character named “Gypsy.” (Because that term is now more widely recognized as derogatory, the character was renamed “GPC” for MST3K’s most-recent live tour, and I suspect that will carry over into the new TV episodes now being planned.)