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The Scariest Hour in TV History: Space 1999: “Dragon’s Domain”

Monday, April 29th, 2013 | Posted by markrigney

What IS the scariest single hour of TV ever? Something out of Night Gallery, perhaps, or one of the space1999-07more high octane Twilight Zone episodes? Star Trek’s “The Devil in the Dark?” What about recent vintages like True Blood, or some modern-day zombie flick? Salem’s Lot was made for TV and that has chills aplenty, but it’s far longer than an hour.

What’s left?

Space 1999. That’s right. Not usually a rock ‘em-sock ‘em sort of program, and definitely relegated now to the “dated” category, but still… for one awful hour in 1975, Space 1999 changed my life.

Let me admit up front that I was a scaredy-cat kid. If a more frightened child ever existed, I have yet to meet him, her, or it. I was scared of the dark, terrified of the basement, and petrified of being alone: demonstrating fear of abandonment in all its forms, from sensorial to parental. For years, in watching TV broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz, I never once saw the Wicked Witch; at the least hint that she was to make an appearance, I’d flee the room.

I think I was twelve (at least) before I realized how Dorothy actually disposed of Mme. West. The Fun House at the Ohio State Fair frightened me so much, I wouldn’t walk past it, much less venture inside. When some evil elementary school trickster handed me Stephen King’s short “The Boogie Man” and told me it wasn’t scary at all, I was stupid enough to believe him.

space19991-300x199So you could say that what Space 1999 did to me was my fault, but honestly, it wasn’t. The first several episodes were downright dull. Very little happened. How could I have possibly prepared for what the show unleashed next?

“Dragon’s Domain” was the 23rd episode numerically in the Space 1999 series, and was first aired in the U.K. on October 23, 1975. In the U.S., it must have aired in summer; I watched it during prime time and still had time to go outside after and play badminton with my dad. When it was time to come in, I refused to open the door. I was literally shaking, too terrified to risk what might be on the other side.

Well. Now that I’m older than dirt and hoarier than Methuselah on his deathbed, I felt it was high time to revisit the single most traumatic viewing experience of my childhood, and so off I went to Youtube in search of my past.

xcxornxpjyqtbigAnd you know what? While the sets are clunky and the technology looks hardly better than stone knives and bearskins, the show plays well. The scripting is efficient, the acting solid. Stars Barbara Bain and Martin Landau actually pay attention to each other (any able actor will tell you that acting is listening).

Best of all, the script wastes no time in letting us know that fellow astronaut Tony Cellini (Gianni Garko) is just about out of his head with grief, guilt, and fright. Wisely, the script doesn’t tell us why. Instead, it shows us via extended flashback the launch of a probe mission commanded by Cellini, a voyage that begins so right you just know it’ll go wrong (they even launch, unlike contemporary airlines, “on schedule”).

To an accompaniment of classical organ music, “eight months of uneventful routine” leads to a new planetary mass on the outer edges of our known solar system.

Cut to commercial. When the show returns, the probe has encountered a graveyard of space ships: a “car park of all space peoples,” as one crew member puts it. But there is no sign of life on any of the ships.

This is the point where, as an eight-year-old, I should have run out of the room.

space1999lunchbox2Cellini docks at one of the desolate ships, and in the next instant, a tentacle-laden monster bursts through the hatch, roaring and hissing. It charms one crewmember after another into its maw, and then –– horror of horrors –– it spits them back out again as blackened, charred husks.

Note the key effects deployed in service of rendering this poor eight-year-old sleepless and nightmare-ridden for years: the crew is out of control, and far from help; the monster has tentacles; the monster demonstrates to those still alive what will shortly happen to them by quickly regurgitating its victims; and finally, the creature appears to be invincible.

Cellini flees in an escape pod and somehow makes it back to Earth, where of course no one will believe a word he says.

(That’s scary, too –– for kids.  “Daddy, there’s a monster under my bed.” “No, son, there, isn’t. Now go to sleep.” “But Daddy…”)

space1999_04The script functions for nearly a half hour as an extended flashback, a risky gambit in lesser hands, but writer Christopher Penfold and director Charles Crichton keep things grounded by focusing, after the disaster, on the lack of belief back on Earth and the political fallout of a failed mission. Yes, they allow Landau to deliver a few too many lines with raucous and unearned exclamation points; but beyond that, the show really does play, Pleistocene special effects and all.

(Actually, the exterior scenes age quite well; it’s only the interiors that disappoint.)

The engine that really drives the show is a dread sense of déjà vu, the inevitability of a second encounter with “the dragon.” Another probe ship, a fresh crew. Fresh meat for the grinder. In that sense, the show’s dramatic engine works off the same hook that powers Aliens, in which, having seen the carnage and terror of which the aliens are capable, circumstance and heroism insist that our heroes must venture for a second time into the belly of the beast.

Enough spoilers. Watch it for yourself, and as you do, put yourself in my age-eight shoes. Petrified, but unable to look away, hooked by the ineluctable need to know what happens next.  That’s the juice that really fuels the entire horror field: our inability to look away, our atavistic need to know how (if at all) order is restored to the universe.

600full-space--1999-photoFor those inclined to really geek out on this episode, or nitpick it to death, may I suggest the following site: nitcentral. The site boasts scores of comments on the show, nearly all of them adoringly positive even as they find fault with everything from chess pieces to docking procedures.

So, there. My confession is made. (And in public, no less.) Your turn, gentle reader. What was your scariest hour of television?

12 Comments »

  1. I remember seeing that episode back when it originally aired and yes, it scared the bejeebers out of me also. (Now that whole car-wash-phobia has come into sharp focus.) I rewatched it on Netflix recently and it held up much better than other Space: 1999 episodes that I’d seen recently.

    The other TV snipped from my childhood that haunted me for years to come was the “execution by sliding down a gigantic blade” scene in The Long Ships, which I believe was mentioned on this site not too long ago.

    Comment by Joe H. - April 29, 2013 8:28 am

  2. For me, there’s no contest. RAI’s Odysseus (Odissea, 1968) miniseries was broadcast here in Finland when I was on 1st or 2nd grade. I was already familiar with the story, but still the episode with Polyfemos, the Cyclops, blew me away. It was unbearable, I was peeking from behind this big comfy chair, hiding behind it every time the cyclops grabbed yet another crew member, still hearing every scream as he munched on them. Needless to say, I was not particularly sympathetic towards Polyfemos as he later bellowed to his brother Cyclops that ‘Nessuno’ was trying to kill him.

    Here’s the relevant part:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQTVD1KA-Xo

    After all this time, still pretty effective. And to think that they cancelled Space:1999 here in Finland – twice – for being too scary for children!

    Comment by Dr. Inknstain - April 29, 2013 10:21 am

  3. No contest. The episode of Twin Peaks where Laura Palmer’s killer was finally revealed, from early in the second season if memory serves. I was an adult–a young adult, but still–and I was hiding under the covers that night, something I hadn’t done in ages.

    Spoilers:

    Just thinking about the scene late in the episode where Laura’s dad looks in a mirror and we see Killer Bob looking back still gives me the creeps.

    Comment by awsnyde - April 29, 2013 11:43 am

  4. I’m always on the lookout for a good, creepy episodic television. I’ll have to check out the Space: 1999 suggestion above.

    I’m with awsnyde though, the episode of Twin Peaks that he mentions is incredibly creepy! I think you have to watch the whole series up to that point to get the full effect of the surprise. But even without that background, the scene mentioned is incredibly chilling and disturbing.

    I can think of an episode or two of X-Files that also evokes the same creepiness. An episode called “Home” (I think season 5) is a classic. But there are others.

    Comment by mcglothlin.13 - April 29, 2013 1:53 pm

  5. That episode of Space: 1999 creeped me out as well, and is one of the few where I have much of a clear memory of the plot. It was certainly the only one I ever re-enacted with Legos.

    I never warmed to the show as a kid. I always WANTED to like it, but it seemed oddly disconnected, and I used to think that maybe I was too young to get Space: 1999. Upon revisiting I realized that it simply was scripted pretty badly almost all the time. Perhaps there were some brilliant episodes, but I didn’t stick with my revisit long enough to find out.

    Still think the Eagles were cool and that the guy playing the chief pilot was the most compelling character because he was actually allowed to carry out actions as opposed to standing around theorizing.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - April 29, 2013 3:06 pm

  6. Ooh, now I want to see this episode! By the way, was Space:1999 the series that included a shape-shifting female character who occasionally turned into Bigfoot? As a small child (I’m talking 4 or 5), I’d be glued to this sci-fi program just hoping it would be an episode where that character turned into a monster to battle some alien that had sneaked onto the ship.

    I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with previous comments that the creepiness factor of Twin Peaks rivals just about anything else that has ever aired on network prime-time. From the very get-go, too — like the Red Lodge scene in the pilot episode, with the backwards-talking dwarf. The scariest Killer-Bob moment for me was a flashback-memory scene where someone (was it Laura’s mother?) pictures Laura’s empty room, then the empty-room scene replays and (pure Lynchian composition here) your eye suddenly registers that a leering, bedraggled, gray-haired specter is actually crouching behind the foot of the bed. I just got goose-bumps typing that.

    I also agree that a couple stand-alone episodes of The X-Files were quite effectively scary, and I think the pilot episode of Supernatural has a horrifying finale, when the parents realize something is in the baby’s room, and the father darts up the stairs to find the mother stuck to the ceiling, going up in flames. The first time I saw anything of that show, it was walking in on THAT scene. My immediate, visceral reaction was “What the hell is this?”

    Comment by Nick Ozment - April 29, 2013 7:45 pm

  7. I’m so pleased this post has met with such a visceral response, and also with such a wide array of “answers.” Thank you all for sharing and suggesting.

    I do think we are “dating” ourselves a bit…those who grew up on seventies television had a certain menu to choose from; those from a little later on had an understandably different menu. I agree that several X-FILES episodes carried some spine-tingling weight, and the TWIN PEAKS scene where SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Maddie finally gets a close visit from Killer Bob (presaged by a white horse in a LIVING ROOM, NO LESS) is one of TV’s greatest chiller moments.

    That said, I was “too old” for those to actually shred my psyche. I respect and love them, yes, but they did not cause me to regress into a primordial, possibly Lovecraftian, fetal state.

    SUPERNATURAL…that’s a show I’m not familiar with. Something to check in on…

    P.S. – Youtube is the place to find DRAGON’S DOMAIN, and just about everything else in the SPACE: 1999 universe.

    Comment by markrigney - April 29, 2013 7:57 pm

  8. My childhood tv habits just didn’t include horror. My college tv habits wouldn’t have, except that a friend insisted that Twin Peaks had the best writing he’d ever seen on television. Here’s something nobody should ever do: I watched the entire first season in three days. What was I thinking? The episodes all kind of blur together, but some ways into the first season, there’s a dream/vision/something scene with the demonic Bob running in slow motion toward the camera. As he gets close, he opens his mouth. The shot cuts right up against his teeth as they slam together in a bite that reverberates at impossibly deep pitches. It’s poetry. Evil, terrifying poetry. Man, Poe would have loved Twin Peaks.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - April 30, 2013 12:25 am

  9. [...] those who saw my last post (“The Scariest Hour in TV History”), you will already know that I have ‘fessed up to being a scaredy-cat kid.  Had The Hunger [...]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Hunger Games and Kids: When to Say When? - May 13, 2013 2:48 pm

  10. [...] The Scariest Hour in TV history: Space: 1999 “Dragon’s Domain” [...]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 50 Black Gate Blog Posts in April - May 30, 2013 1:42 am

  11. Thank you so much for this. For years, I’ve wondered off and on if I’d ever recall what this episode was that scared the hell out of when I was also 8 years old. Now I know. The regurgitation aspect completely freaked me out. All I remember with complete clarity was that I was absolutely relishing in a bowl of whipped cream whilst I was watching this episode, one of my favorite vices at the time…..And I haven’t touched the stuff in 38 years since.

    Comment by stimpage - November 13, 2013 12:34 pm

  12. I recently re-watched this episode on Amazon Prime. For $1.99 I went back in time 40 years and boy what a ride. This episode also frightened the hell out of me as a young lad. I was also 8 at the time and I had nightmares about that creature and those skeleton bodies for months.
    In re-watching it.., I realized that this show had special effects that even Dr. Who could top. I loved that Cellini, upon returning to the probe 5 years later, grabs from the Eagle; A. his trusty axe, b. a butcher knife. So we are to believe that standard issue on a spaceship like the Eagle is an AXE and a BUTCHER KNIFE? Funny stuff. I guess the best/worst part was in the beginning when they were on the moonbase filling out their reports.. via a TYPEWRITER!! HAH!!! So here are all of these computers around them and all of these CRT screen and they fill out paperwork by using a typewriter.
    It was quite a thrill to see this episode though. Not quite as scary as I remember. My two sons, 10 and 6 did not even flinch. They just commented on how fake the monster looked.
    Oh well. Thanks for the memories.

    I do love the show, though. I love the EAGLE. A very cool modular design concept. Go Gerry Anderson!

    Comment by ssmis - November 10, 2014 11:01 am


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