What IS the scariest single hour of TV ever? Something out of Night Gallery, perhaps, or one of the more 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.
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.
So 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.
And 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.
Cellini 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…”)
The 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.
For 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?