❉ ‘UFO’ is quite, quite, mad isn’t it? One minute it’s purple wigs and spangly outfits, next it’s adultery and drug abuse.
It’s funny watching ‘The Future’ on TV, especially when it’s an old show. No-one really gets it quite right, but it’s often a fascinating document of its time. One teatime in September 1970, a new show from husband and wife team Gerry and Sylvia Anderson made its debut. The Andersons had been responsible for many a childhood favourite for over a decade – ‘Supercar’, ‘Stingray’, ‘Thunderbirds’, and ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’, all distinguished by their unique puppets, filmed in “Supermarionation”. This time, the strings were cut. Having taken puppets as far as he felt he could over many hours of blockbuster movies filmed in miniature, Gerry Anderson made a bold move to live action.
The show was ‘UFO’, the story of SHADO, a top-secret organisation based beneath a Film Studio, that repelled alien invaders from land, sea, air, and the Moon. Essentially taking the format of ‘Captain Scarlet’, and injecting it with more action. The Andersons also pitched it at an older audience. ITV must have missed that memo, as they aired the opening episode Identified at 5:15pm.
‘UFO’ is well-written and acted, with a strong central idea, good scripts, a rich ensemble cast, and high production values. It’s both very of its time, and just a bit ahead of it. The central figure is Commander Ed Straker (Ed Bishop), head of SHADO. Straker’s cool, hard, and totally driven in his pursuit of the aliens. Bishop gives a fantastic, nuanced performance throughout, and makes for an iconic leading man with his killer threads and albino-blonde moptop. The other regulars rotate around Straker, some disappearing abruptly due to a long mid-series production break, leaving him the one constant.
Produced in 1969 at the height of optimism about space travel, ‘UFO’ is set in the then near-future of 1980. With fresh footprints on the moon at the time, SHADO staff casually commute back and forward to Moon Base as if nipping up and down the A40. There are groovy outfits, cool vehicles, and the trademark inventive ‘tooling-up’ vehicle launch sequences that can be found in most Anderson productions.
It’s a design classic. The tape reels and typewriters are dated, but the attention to detail throughout is commendable. One thing that the Andersons always did very well was create worlds, and in their first live-action series the ambition previously seen in their Supermarionation shows is plastered all over the screen in glorious technicolour. Network’s clean-up of the 26 episodes is stunning, with vibrant, pin-sharp colours. ‘UFO’ has never looked more beautiful. The Derek Meddings model effects still look great, as does the luminous 2001-esque interior of SID. SHADO’s underground HQ suffers a little from the clarity of Blu Ray transfer, with some of its walls looking in need of a decent plasterer, but let’s just say that Straker spent all the money on Interceptors, cigars, and wigs.
‘UFO’ should have been a big success, but it suffered from two main problems – expectation, and tone. When Entertainment Magnate Lew Grade commissioned ‘UFO’ from the Andersons, he was expecting a family-friendly live-action ‘Thunderbirds’, but Gerry had other ideas, creating something altogether more adult and cynical. The unnamed aliens don’t just want to attack us, they want to harvest our organs. Straker’s personal life isn’t just compromised by his obsessive leadership of SHADO, it’s completely ruined – as seen in A Question Of Priorities and Confetti Check A-OK, where we see the harrowing death of his young son, and the break-up of his marriage in flashback. These events keep coming back to haunt Straker, who has clear, but unstated PTSD.
The darkness doesn’t stop with Straker’s tragic family life or the alien’s grisly M.O. There’s death, destruction, adultery, and alcohol and drug abuse sprinkled liberally throughout the 26 episodes.
That said, although ‘UFO’ could often best be described as bleak, this was tempered by its technicolour look, jaunty Barry Gray theme tune (somewhere between Van Der Valk’s Eye Level and ‘Hawaii Five-O’), and the fab gear outfits. Consequently, ‘UFO’ was such an uneasy fit for its timeslot to the point that some episodes went out in a late night slot, so it never found a family audience. The kids could enjoy the spiffy action sequences, but might have scratched their heads at the more grown-up elements. The Dads were probably quite willing to sit through it for the revealing outfits sported by the likes of Gabrielle Drake, Dolores Mantez, and Georgina Moon. The Mums probably didn’t mind the look of the dishy, cigar-smoking male leads either, but nobody was ever quite sure when it was on due to ITV’s schizoid scheduling.
Purple wigs, chest rugs, and spangly outfits aside, it’s really a show about security, secrecy, and paranoia. Underneath its candy-coated surface, it’s essentially a hard-edged spy series, with the routine druggings of civilian UFO-spotters a darker part of SHADO’s set-up, a trace element of the series’ cold war origins.
It’s also progressive, but only to a point, as Gerry and Sylvia’s utopian Century 21 ideals occasionally rub uncomfortably against attitudes of the time. The women of SHADO are refreshingly mainly ranking officers. Col. Virginia Lake (a sultry Wanda Ventham) is a match for Straker not just professionally, but is visually almost his mirror image. They spark off each other nicely, and could maybe have turned into a great TV power couple in time, had a second series happened. The female staff of moon base might be done up like Manga Barbarellas, but Gay Ellis and Nina Barry rule the roost. It’s the women outside SHADO that don’t fare so well, being generally portrayed as victims, to be killed, saved, or brainwashed as the plot demands. Paul Foster’s rather grubby episode-end seduction of a lady geologist in The Dalotek Affair is entirely because he already knows how she ticks, having previously pulled her on the Moon, before administering the amnesia drugs. It’s also harder to sympathise with Straker in Confetti Check A-OK when he loses it and slaps his pregnant wife, who then falls down a flight of stairs – no matter how much the script and Bishop’s sensitive performance shows him to be in the wrong.
As the series progresses, and the aliens employ different tactics, ‘UFO’ becomes even more daring and occasionally quite bonkers. The later episodes are tauter and push the format a little further – in particular the trippy, ‘The Prisoner’-esque Mindbender, which sees Straker break the fourth wall, and wander off set, hallucinating that he’s an actor in, well, ‘UFO’.
The lavish package of extra features included on this box shows a lot of love and care went into ‘UFO’. Its endearing discord of looking fabulous but being bleak to the core shows the Andersons weren’t always necessarily on the same page for this project, and it’s no secret that the couple weren’t getting on at this point. Sylvia Anderson took a slight backseat, but had a major say in the look of the show – taking charge of the costumes and giving Ed Bishop a radical makeover to play Straker, as related by Bishop in an archive interview. Gerry, more in the driving seat, and with an eye trained hungrily on the movies, seems to have concentrated on pushing the envelope as far as he could with the levels of grit.
When the time came to option a new series, ITV passed, although ‘UFO’ continued to air in fits and starts long after its cancellation. Reboots have been mooted from time to time, but have never surfaced, and perhaps that’s for the best. The 26 episodes presented here may just be Gerry Anderson’s crowning achievement. ‘UFO’ doesn’t have the family-friendly immediacy of his previous efforts, but as he was left very much to his own devices to develop the series, it’s maybe his most fully-realised vision – exciting, intelligent, colourful, and uncompromising.
❉ ‘UFO: The Complete Series’ on Blu-ray is available exclusively to buy from networkonair.com, RRP £75.00