I just rewatched the Space: 1999 episode Mission of the Darians for the first time in about 40 years. As a boy I certainly missed what was interesting about it when it aired in the U.S. about a year after it first aired in the U.K. on 30 October 1975. Though made on a shoestring budget and further cheapened by taking many time-saving narrative shortcuts, the episode is one of the series’ best and on the whole stacks up well against a Joan Collins Star Trek episode. So what is so interesting about it? I would point to three things: 1) its sources are interesting and prominently signaled in several cases; 2) it has a grand scope even beyond the norm for a space-opry-esque series; and 3) it is remarkably adult in its writing.
MISSION OF THE DARIANS: the story.
Moonbase Alpha encounters a vast spaceship twenty miles long and five miles wide broadcasting a distress signal. A visit to render aid goes awry as one of three teams gets captured by troglodytes, one gets lost, and one encounters the elfin masters of the ship, the Darians. It transpires that the ship is a multi-generation ark carrying the remnants of the incredibly ancient Darian race to a new world for the usual reasons. Alas, the ark ship has suffered a calamity, in that its nuclear reactors, or all but one, exploded nine hundred years before. Still, the ship seems to be on course for a landing in a hundred years.
The majority of the ship is wrecked, contaminated, and gone wild. It is now inhabited by the troglodytes I mentioned above. These are the survivors of the nuclear accidents, and are called ‘survivors’ by themselves and by the Darians. In reality, they are, of course, the distant descendants of the original survivors and have fallen deeply into barbarism. Everyone on the ship is a Darian, but I’ll conventionally keep the names used in the script.
The story has three plots that come together at the climax. Koenig and Bergman encounter the Darians and over time learn the truth about the situation on the ship. Russell and a red shirt named Bill Lowry are the ones captured by the troglodytes. Finally, Morrow and Carter wander through abandoned sections of the ship.
Koenig and Bergman meet Kara and Neman, the latter the captain of the ship.
The Darians, who number but 14, have been working to repair the ship; Kara, played by Joan Collins with her legs on exploitative display, is in charge of this. Neman is captain and also the figurehead of a religion the Darians have implanted among the survivors to help mitigate their barbarism. Koenig is welcomed and asked if perhaps the Alphans would want to join the Darians, their resources ensuring them a stake in the new world to which the ark is traveling. Bergman starts an analysis with readouts of the ark’s resources and discovers that the ship’s stores have not had nearly enough to supply the Darians on a day-to-day basis, much less over a 900-year span.
Russell and Lowry fare poorly amongst the troglodytes who apparently inspect everyone they run across for mutations (nuclear disaster, remember) and euthanize them immediately if they are found to be such. ‘Clears’, as they call them, can presumably either stay or get sacrificed to the god Neman, whose picture appears on the door from which suited helmeted figures emerge to collect the sacrifices. The high priest is played by the great Aubrey Morris. In any event, Russell is designated for sacrifice.
Morrow and Carter meanwhile have been wandering the ship giving us a chance to see its ruined great spaces (thanks to matte paintings). They discover the troglodytes just as Russell is being spirited away by the suited figures; in the melee, Morrow gets into the inner sanctum following the suited man carrying Russell, whereas Carter, taken prisoner by the survivors, manages to turn the tables by showing that the other suited man is not an angel but merely a man. Carter raises up the equivalent of a torchlight mob of survivors angry at having been duped and they all enter the sanctum.
Koenig meanwhile has had a number of ugly surprises. He has discovered that there are survivors besides the Darians; that Neman seeded a religion among them to keep them in line and instill some knowledge and science in them; then that the Darians have been cannibalizing the survivors in the absence of other resources; and finally, in the rescue of Russell from a vivisection lab, that the Darians have been harvesting organs to keep themselves alive because they are sterile (nuclear accident, don’t y’ know). The one thing keeping them going is their sense of mission in transporting the collected gene bank of their race to the new world (figure 2). So Neman is the original captain of the ship from the time of the accident, 900 years old. Even with transplants he looks pretty good, Joan Collins even more so.
At about this point the torchlight mob crashes in and in the fight Neman’s head is crushed along with his hopes by being driven by a survivor through the physical structure of the gene bank.
There is a tableau at the end: Kara declares they’re all as good as dead now, and Koenig basically tells her to put on her big-boy pants and make common cause with the survivors, who were always their resource. She eyes the leader of the trog mob thoughtfully, and just before cutting to the final scene the trog leader casts an appraising glance at her.
On the eagle heading back to Alpha, those in the cabin contemplate the empty seat of Lowry, while in the cockpit Kano asks Carter what happened and Carter, in no mood to revisit the unhappy past several hours, tells him to remind him to tell him some time. Then Carter asks Koenig what he would have done if he were in command in a situation like the Darians’. Koenig thoughtfully gives Carter the same answer Carter had given Kano.
MISSION OF THE DARIANS: the story sources.
When Bergman hears that the spaceship Daria is an ark ship, Neman adds, having scanned the Earthers’ minds, that he believes Earth, too, had an similar ship. Bergman smiles and notes that yes, it is like Earth’s Ark spaceship. This is a nodding reference to the Canadian SF series The Starlost, of 1973. There, to make a long story short, the spaceship Ark (figure 4) transports different cultures from the dead planet Earth to a new home but a disastrous accident has crippled the ship, killed most of the crew, and left the various cultures in segregated domes retaining no knowledge that they are aboard a ship. There is of course an antecedent in the Star Trek episode For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky, too, but the Star Trek episide, while obviously a source, is not a direct one.
At three points that I recall, we are shown matte paintings exhibiting the vast size of the Daria. At one point or another we see a vast machine room.
Do you see it? The composite image (figure 7) of human actors walking within the framework of matte painting? Does it remind you as much as it reminds me of the analogous scene in Forbidden Planet of Morbius and the men of the C-57D in the Krell machine?
Not convinced about this passing reference? Consider that at the beginning of the Mission of the Darians Bergman comments on the Daria as the Eagle approaches: “Twenty miles long by five miles wide,” and Koenig replies, “One hundred square miles of space ship.” The specification is, in my opinion, another passing reference to Forbidden Planet, when Morbius notes the dimensions of the Krell machine (I condense): “Twenty miles.” “Twenty Miles.” “A cube twenty miles on each side.” “… a minor alteration was performed throughout the entire 8000 cubic miles of its own fabric.” I argue no more than that the writer of the Space: 1999 episode (Johnny Byrne) was familiar with Forbidden Planet and planted these Easter eggs to give the pleasure of spotting them.
The elephant in the room is Wells’ Time Machine. If you look at figures 2 and 4 you’ll see that the Darians are costumed as elves or maybe as Greek gods. This analogizes them to the Eloi in the Time Machine, the race of elven people evolved (thanks to rigid class barriers) from the upper classes of England. The survivors bear similarities to the Morlocks, evolved from the brutalized lower classes. Byrne of course knew better than to borrow beat for beat, and in fact subverted expectations by reversing the situation in the Time Machine to good effect. There, the Morlocks prey on the Eloi for food, that being the price for the Eloi’s otherwise untroubled existence. Wells also displayed his sense of black humor in having the traditionally exploited class now exploiting the exploiters. The Eloi seem aware of the facts of life, but refuse to talk about or face the unpleasantness. Here, it is the Darians who have used religion to manipulate the survivors into ceding to them bodies untainted by radiation poisoning. These, of course, provide organs and the leftover bits food.
MISSION OF THE DARIANS: analysis.
Mission of the Darians is a morality play like Wells’ Time Machine. But where Wells made pointed commentary on the class system, Byrne focuses on how far an overpowering sense of mission and how desperate but also self-serving choices can make a hell of existence. The Darians clearly see themselves as something like the Greeks of the galaxy, their high culture being worth preserving and their race, via the poorly protected gene bank, self-evidently worth saving and propagating. It’s interesting to note across roughly contemporary science fiction that the objects of this overwhelming desire to preserve end up being destroyed, often along with their would-be preservers. In Forbidden Planet, the Krell data bank is destroyed by Morbius as being too dangerous to live. In Star Trek the preservers tended to be computers which lacked the humanity of their programmers and went astray with a cockeyed view of their own mission (The Return of the Archons, The Changeling, etc. etc.). I also recall Dominic Flandry‘s arch nemesis Aycharaych in Poul Anderson‘s Terran Empire series of stories, who indeed pled to Flandry in the 1974 Knight of Ghosts and Shadows not to destroy his home world because, though he was the last surviving Chereionite, his planet was a testament and shrine to the ‘Greeks of the galaxy.” (See the text surrounding a search for ‘Greeks’ here.) The general theme appears to be “at what cost do we preserve this treasure.”
One might think that the Darians are manufactured to be two-dimensional baddies. Cannibalism, amiright? Vivisection! Yet Byrne (and the director, Ray Austin) play a more sophisticated game. Just as the Eloi don’t want to admit to themselves what their situation really is, so, too, the Darians are more or less in denial. We are invited to put ourselves into the shoes of the Darians in the wake of the disaster, guided by the purpose of preserving and propagating the gene bank, yet sterile and unable to repair the badly damaged multi-generation ark ship. With dwindling resources, and always guided by the purpose of survival so as to accomplish their mission, they made one decision after another, each shaving away some of the distance between the good done in their eyes by preserving their race and the evils they wreak keeping themselves, and their dream, alive. And of course, it’s self-serving that carrying out their mission at any cost meant keeping themselves alive at any cost.
But you can see how reluctant the Darians are to reveal the truth, and how Koenig or events pry layer after layer of the ugly truth—false religion, euthanizing of mutants, cannibalism, vivisection—out of them. They are embarrassed and quick to offer justifications. And they are mortified by being seen through the eyes of others for what they’ve done and become. The episode uses some strategic (and modest) nudity in the vivisection room to bring home the horror of the body processing factory. Yet the euthanization appears to be consciously humane (the bodies’ brains are evidently switched off), and Neman claims that they have given religion to the survivors not just to facilitate the cleansing of the mutants away and the supplying of ‘resources’, but to distribute some knowledge. In a word, Byrne and Austin work overtime to make us sympathize with the Darians, and not just see them as two-dimensional opportunists who saved themselves to everyone else’s cost. To be sure, the story sees their actions as deeply immoral, and there is a plot point that they had invited the Alphans to join them for the sake of “resources.” They have fallen deep into moral corruption.
Yet when Carter asks Koenig what he would have done were he in the Darian captain’s position, he evades answering in the same way that Carter had signaled his pained unwillingness to relate the story to Kano back in main mission. As I read it, Koenig does wonder what morally unacceptable things he might do in the face of an overwhelming moral imperative (like thinking a gene bank must be saved and delivered) and a failure of resources. Or, put another way, he is a leader and knows humans well enough to know it could happen to anyone.
The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy—I mean the tv show, which is close enough to the book—parodied the ark ship theme with the Golgafrinchan segment in its sixth and last episode. There, Adams envisioned a planet in which the thinkers and the doers of the population concoct a ridiculous story of a giant space goat coming to devour the planet in order to con the useless middlemen, not smart enough or lacking enough common sense to see through the sham, to voluntarily board an ark spaceship for a new world (figure 10).
The joke is that the Golgafrinchan Ark crashes on Earth and becomes the nucleus of the human race. It punctures the ark subgenre in about three ways, and it shows its cards by having Aubrey Morris, erstwhile high priest of the Darian ark survivors, as the rather merry captain of the Golgafrinchan Ark who spends all his time in a bath tub on the bridge.
Morris’s presence—any actor could have played the captain—seems to me hardly a coincidence. He was chosen to show us that, like Byrne, the makers of the HHGTG episode were up on their ark ship subgenre history.
A note on the images. These images, taken from screen captures published here and there on the interwebs, are the copyrighted property of the makers of the relevant tv shows and movies. Here I have limited myself to images necessary to illustrate this critical discussion and rely on a fair use justification for their presence.