Gerry and Slyvia Andersons’ 20th Century -UFOThe Dark Herald
On May 4th, 1970 National Guard units opened fire on rioting students at Kent State University. Four students were killed. The country largely approved of the shooting.
Any discussion of UFO has to begin with the culture of the crossover year of 1970. The Youth Rebellion, despite what Boomers like to tell themselves and everyone else, was correctly viewed as an assault on societal values and the dominant culture at the time was determined to put it down. Everyone hated the hippies and beating them up was a lot more mainstream than Woodstock would ever be.
However, some of the counterculture was going mainstream. The costume clothing of 1968 was strongly influencing fashion two years later. Colors were as bold and revolting as the cut. You could see it all on the Brady Bunch which was about as mainstream as you could get. The birth control pill had removed the biggest drawback to unrestrained sex, and that was introducing a cancer into the institution of marriage.
The biggest cultural shift was coming from the ad men. While society in general disapproved of the Boomers’ obsessions with sex and drugs. The advertising agencies were still trying to attract the youth market, which admittedly was the biggest it had ever been. A top-rated TV show would have an audience of sixty million. All of them would be watching those commercials. Madison Avenue needed the cultural revolution to go mainstream.
In a nutshell: Television was changing the dominant influences of society.
Into that stew was introduced, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s first live-action series. UFO is an oddity. It was a show that managed to go both too far and not far enough at the same time. And that was easy to do in 1970.
The new series rose from the ashes of Doppelganger. The failed film that had left Gerry Anderson the proud owner of a bunch of fairly expensive sets and props. They are pretty easy to spot in UFO. The reel-to-reel computers. The spacesuits. Straker’s car with gull-wing doors is especially obvious.
A lot of the music was recycled Barry Gray as well. The Astronaut’s Sleeping suite from Doppelganger was used for spacewalks, the end credits music was also a retread from the same movie. Although, a lot of Stingray’s incidentals are easy to find if you are looking for them. It was needed, the score this time, was awful. Very little of the show’s budget appears to have been spent on the music. And what was spent was buying a lot of Swinging London-type electric organ Wurlitzer beats.
Premise: UFO took place in the far future of 1980. It turned out that the flying saucer scare of the 1950s was based in reality. There really were Aliens coming to Earth and they came to do us harm. Humans were being kidnapped and dissected for organ harvesting. Either to keep the Aliens alive or possibly to create vessels they could inhabit. It was never quite made clear because Gerry Anderson couldn’t make up his mind. It should be remembered that UFO tropes were nowhere near as hard-wired in 1970 as they are today.
While general knowledge of the Aliens was suppressed, the world’s governments finally agreed something needed to be done. In 1980, SHADO was stood up, (Gerry Anderson loved him some acronyms). SHADO was clandestine to prevent general panic but for the first time, Earth had a defense against the UFO incursions.
The SID satellite set up a detection belt around the planet. Once the alert sounded the Interceptors would launch from the moon. Once they missed, it was the SkyDiver’s turn. The SkyDivers were… Never mind here’s a picture of one.
If Sky One didn’t get the job done, then it was up to Derek Meddings Mobiles to finish it on the ground. If Derek Meddings didn’t get explode something that episode, the UFO would disintegrate within 24 hours in Earth’s atmosphere. Indicating that it was a largely self-solving problem if left alone long enough. Although they appeared to have a longer lifespan if they were underwater, which means that the SkyDivers weren’t completely insane. SHADO clearly had a need for submarines.
Since SHADO was clandestine it needed a cover story for its day-to-day operations and Gerry Anderson picked one of the silliest ones I can think of, a movie studio.
A movie studio? Seriously?
I think Anderson came up with that one for two reasons. First, a writer must write about that of which he knows. Second, he probably had some vague idea of being able to use the setting to camouflage some of the stranger things going on at SHADO.
“What is that horrible, slimy thing!?!?”
“Relax, it’s gotta be for a movie.”
UFO was the first major (for values of major) live-action science fiction show since Star Trek.
Given how different the premises were, there is no point in direct comparison, but it is interesting when you contrast the commanders.
Kirk was a Gary Stu. A fantasy insert for Gene Roddenberry. An admired, successful, and heavily decorated officer. Completely unstoppable by men, desired deeply by women. A brilliant captain who never lost. A man who has happy and content in the center seat of the Enterprise. Kirk was triumphant in both his private and professional life.
Straker on the other hand was much less enviable. He was profoundly isolated. The war against the aliens had cost him everything he held most dear. When Colonel Freeman, the closest thing he had to a friend, had kindly asked him, “Why don’t you go home?”
Straker replied, “what home?”
His marriage collapsed due to the pressures of command. Worse, a decision he made led to the death of his only child. The only thing Straker had left was the war against the Aliens. And he didn’t win every battle and even when he won it always carried a cost. This was pretty heavy stuff in 1970. Discussing divorce wasn’t mainstream back then. Only thirty-five years before King Edward VIII had had to abdicate for marrying a divorcee.
There was a lot of other stuff UFO addressed that wasn’t typically looked at back then. Drugs for a start.
Before I go any further into that, I need to talk about the cast. Ed Bishop had been in the Andersons’ stable of actors for a while. He had played Captain Blue in Captain Scarlet and had an important role in Doppelganger. Bishop was an American who had come to Britain for some postgraduate work at the London Academy of Music and Arts. When he graduated, he was so flooded with job offers in Britain that he decided to stay for a while. He eventually settled into permanent ex-pat life. Bishop started out well, he had plenty of character work in films even if the roles weren’t major. He had bit parts in James Bond movies and he played the Pan-Am pilot in 2001. But the big breaks would never come his way and UFO is the reason why. While he was everyone’s favorite rent-a-Yank in Britain, he was completely miscast as Straker. He was too young for the part, and you didn’t buy him as a leader of men, or a man of action. Because he just wasn’t.
Gerry Anderson knew that going in. Which was why he had someone else in mind for the running and punching stuff part. Michael Billington played Colonel Paul Foster (SHADO only had three ranks Commander, Colonel, and Nobody). Billington was perfect for his role. Young, sexy, tall, and athletic. In fact, he was one of the finalists to be the new James Bond.
Paul Foster had been a test pilot, presumably with a military background. In those days it was just assumed that you had served somewhere along the line. A UFO was responsible for his spacecraft crashing. He was told, “no it wasn’t, they don’t exist. Stop asking questions.” Foster pursued The Truth. It says something about this show and the year it was made in, that its man-of-action was effectively recruited by Straker telling him, “kid, you know too much. Either join SHADO or I put a bullet in your head.” And he was totally cool with joining under those circumstances!
Foster was supposed to be the star of the show but while Bishop had been miscast, the character of Straker proved to be more compelling than the fairly generic Action Dude Colonel Foster.
These were the only two regulars. Although the cast seemed much, much bigger. About half of the first season was in the can when the show had to go on hiatus for nine months because they lost their studio space. Bishop and Billington were under contract but nobody else was. Consequently, some actors with major parts were no longer available, so new ones had to be brought in, and new characters were created for them. Since the episodes were broadcast in almost no order, the second cast tends to blend with the first in the viewer’s mind. Although, it did surprise me when Lois Maxwell (of Money Penny fame) became Straker’s secretary for a single episode.
Some of the characters’ jobs would change depending on the script. For instance, Col. Virginia Lake was Straker’s second in command in those episodes where Colonel Freeman wasn’t his second in command. Except in The Man Who Came Back, where she needed to be somebody’s love interest and somebody else had to be the XO that week, so he could yell at her for her affair. The rest of the time she was Straker’s love interest. Col. Lake was played by Wanda Ventham (AKA Benedict Cumberbatch’s mom).
Yeah, the show has some notable flaws by modern standards. The fight scenes were a product of their age, complete with Miss Piggy-style karate chops. Anderson kept changing his mind about the Aliens, (in the last episode he tried to make them sympathetic). The science was much worse than Star Trek’s. And then there were the costumes. Sylvia Anderson was the costume designer for UFO. She’s the one. Blame her!
Sylvia had been doing the costume design work for Century 21 since the Fireball XL5 days. This was the first time she was dressing humans and it showed. Although to be fair she had the utterly impossible task of predicting future fashions based on the trends of 1970, when all the rules of men’s fashion had been chucked out the window.
She clearly felt the Nehru jacket was the way of the future and given that the leisure suit was just around the corner, I wish to god she’d been right. It isn’t hard to argue that the tie is fundamentally silly, and men would be best served by getting rid of it. So fine, Nehru jackets. But why the purple wigs?
I had to look that one up. Apparently, Sylvia thought that the wigs would lower the possibility of static discharge. Keep in mind this was only three years after the Apollo 1 disaster. Static discharge was popularly believed to be the cause. And again, given the year, wigs as part of a women’s uniform weren’t all that out of the box, wigs were a lot more popular in the sixties. A couple of years later and Women’s Libbers would be denouncing them as symbols of oppression rather than a convenient way to avoid elaborate hairstyles.
The women in Moonbase also wore miniskirts as part of their uniform but Sylvia did that for sex appeal without apology. Although she was even-handed about it. The male Skydiver uniform was a string shirt that showed off the men’s nipples.
In truth, the Costumes were just one more element that makes the show a pop culture landmark. You can’t mistake it for anything else and you know when it was made just by looking at it.
So, what did I mean by, ‘it went both too far and not far enough?’
Most of the show’s themes were acceptable by its contemporary audience. In one episode Colonel Foster (the guy who joined at gunpoint) had been brainwashed by the Aliens. Straker takes him into a backroom and Foster is calm and resigned to the fact that the only discharge a man who knows too much will receive is from a 1911. But then he gets furious when he finds out that the only reason Straker is going to kill him is to protect his own career. He would resign himself to being eliminated for the good of the service. But a personal motivation for killing him was completely unacceptable, (it was all a test BTW). But you see the dichotomy that was mainstream in 1970 but would leave audiences deeply aghast today.
But there were also episodes that pushed the outside of the acceptability envelope. Gerry Anderson was more of a liberal than Roddenberry if much less of a pervert. UFO was the first science fiction show to feature an interracial relationship, even if they couldn’t come right out and say it. Also, the black guy was assured with perfect conviction that all racism ended in 1975. It had a female second in command (depending on the episode), who the commander would frequently send out to get the coffee. The rest of the time she presented strawman arguments that Straker would swat down contemptuously.
It was pushing some boundaries and clearly wasn’t comfortable doing it. The last episode broadcast started with a couple of hippies from 1970, they did psychedelics then had a run-in with the Aliens but were too tripped out to be frightened. The guy killed himself jumping off a roof trying to fly and the girl got run over by Straker and was in a coma for ten years. Standard Reefer Madness stuff. Socially acceptable but never on television. The episode that caused a genuine stink was Timelash. The Aliens hit SHADO with a… time freeze beam (just roll with it). To combat its effects Straker and Lake had to shoot-up uppers on camera.
That one turned out to be a problem in the US. A lot of stations refused to show it and any hope for a network sale died. That also meant that it was condemned to be a one-season wonder.
Two years after it had hard-wrapped, it blew up big on New York’s CBS station. It was being run right in front of All in the Family and suddenly CBS wanted to talk to Gerry Anderson. UFO II would evolve into Space 1999.
And that is another post.
Ultimately UFO was a show that was trying its 1970s trippy best. There were certainly much worse efforts out there and they weren’t half as entertaining. And I can honestly say it is the only show made in 1970 that I would willingly watch today.
Where to watch: Currently streaming on most free services with commercials. Also available on Blu-Ray for $60 bucks. And it’s a recent remaster. The streaming version appears to have been from that remaster because actors’ eye makeup really stands out.