Gerry Anderson’s UFO (ITC 1969-1970). Series Introduction

Gerry Anderson’s first foray into television live action drama was this fondly remembered series, created by Gerry & Sylvia Anderson and Reg Hill.

UFO is set some ten years in the future and depicts a world coming under increasing attack from a mysterious race of aliens.  In the opening episode we learn that they are harvesting organs from their human victims although their ultimate aims remain nebulous.

In order to combat this threat, a secret global organisation called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation) is established.  SHADO has various bases but the key one is located underneath the Harlington-Straker film studios in the UK.

SHADO’s commander is Ed Straker (Ed Bishop) who juggles a public job as chief executive of the film studio whilst in private he leads SHADO’s continuing battle against the alien menace.

His second-in-command is Colonel Alec Freeman (George Sewell) whilst Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billington) is a new recruit introduced in the fourth episode Exposed.

L-R Ed Straker (Ed Bishop), Paul Foster (Michael Billington) and Alec Freeman (George Sewell)
L-R Ed Straker (Ed Bishop), Paul Foster (Michael Billington) and Alec Freeman (George Sewell)

Incoming UFO’s are initially tracked by supercomputer SID (Space Intruder Detector).  The forward line of defence is launched from Moonbase, which has three Interceptor spacecraft fitted with nuclear warheads.  The Moonbase operations are co-ordinated by Lt Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake), Lt Joan Harrington (Antonia Ellis) and Lt Nina Barry (Dolores Mantez) amongst others.

moobase
L-R Nina Barry (Dolores Mantez), Joan Harrington (Antonia Ellis) and Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake)

If the UFOs manage to evade the Interceptors and penetrate the Earths atmosphere then SHADO calls upon various other forms of defence, including the submarine Skydiver which can launch the interceptor aircraft Sky One, whilst Mobile land vehicles can also be called upon if the UFO has made a successful landing.

Sky One
Sky One

Although Gerry Anderson had, until this time, been responsible for a series of successful children’s Supermarionation series (Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet) UFO was very much a move into a more adult form of storytelling, despite the fact that visually it had much in common with his Supermarionation series.

As with those series, special effects were supervised by Derek Meddings whilst the various vehicles were designed by Meddings along with his assistant Michael Trim.  The model-work and effects were the clearest links to the previous Anderson shows, but the story content was much darker (although elements of Captain Scarlet had probably begun this process).

The concept of human beings being forcibly used as organ donors is a fairly horrifying concept whilst later episodes such as The Long Sleep and Timelash are notable examples of stories that delve a little deeper than many sci-fi series of the same period.  Timelash, for example, sees Straker inject himself with a drug (X 50 stimulant) in order to stay awake during the mysterious time freeze with the result that it’s not clear what part of the story actually happened and what may be a result of his drug-induced dreams.

A UFO in the woods
A UFO in the woods

Elsewhere in the series there was more emphasis placed on human relationships than was often seen in science fiction programmes of the time.  Although it may seem somewhat stilted and naive today, the interracial relationship in The Computer Affair was noteworthy at the time of its original broadcast whilst several episodes (Confetti Check A-OK and A Question of Priorities) show exactly how Straker is unable to juggle the demands of his secret job and his family life.

Whilst these, and other examples are laudable, it’s undeniable that UFO’s sexual politics were fairly underdeveloped as very often women are simply used as eye-candy, which can be either amusing (particularly Alec Freeman’s various toe-curling chat up lines) or irritating, depending on your point of view.

Totally gratuitous eye-candy.  Sorry.
Totally gratuitous eye-candy. Sorry.

But while parts of the series have badly dated (and the mystery of the purple wigs was never explained) there is much to enjoy across the 26 episodes of UFO.  So as I begin a rewatch of the series, I’ll blog a short review of every story which will hopefully capture some of the key points of each episode.

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UFO watch (Episode 01 – Identified)

01 - identified

Written by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson with Tony Barwick
Directed by Gerry Anderson

The first notable thing about this episode is that it opens with a graphic murder – as we see a woman’s bullet-ridden body slump to the ground. The next is that, like all ITC shows, they would never shell out the extra money for night-time shooting, so we have the usual unconvincing day-for-night filter.  It will happen again throughout the series so be prepared. The third is that when Peter Carlin and his sister are being pursued through the undergrowth, Barry Gray’s score certainly favours the drums.  I don’t know who the drummer was, but he gave his all!

Our first shot of Alec Freeman (George Sewell) shows him attempting to use all of his masculine charm on Straker’s secretary, Miss Ealand (Norma Ronald), but with a notable lack of success. Never mind, as soon as he ventures into SHADO’s underground base there’s plenty of other women he can charm.  And In case you missed Freeman’s subtle approach, Barry Gray drops some slinky saxophone onto the soundtrack to hammer the point home.

The episode has a lot of ground to cover in order to introduce all the key players, so after our first look at SHADO control it’s off to Moonbase.  Gabrielle Drake’s performance in UFO continues to attract a certain amount of attention, and it’s not difficult to understand why.

A trip to Skydiver lets us know that Carlin (seen at the start of the episode ten years earlier, fleeing with his sister from the UFO attack) is now the pilot of Sky 1 although he remains unaware of his sister’s fate, Straker gets to berate one of his team, which handily allows a large info-dump about how SHADO works, and Freeman tangles with the cool Colonel Virginia Lake (Wanda Ventham)

After a tense tussle between Sky 1 and a UFO, SHADO are able to capture the alien occupant. They are unable to save the alien’s life, but an autopsy provides the chilling proof that they are harvesting human organs for their own ends. This strikes close to home when it’s discovered that the alien had the heart of Carlin’s sister, who vanished following the UFO attack seen at the start of the episode.  A bleak ending to the episode then, which makes it clear that there’s a long battle ahead.

Identified had to do a lot within 49 minutes – introduce SHADO and the reason for the alien attacks – but it managed it successfully and produced a well-paced episode that never flagged. An impressive opening.

UFO watch (Episode 02 – Computer Affair)

02 - computer affair

Written by Tony Barwick
Directed by David Lane

After Interceptor 1 is destroyed in a collision with a UFO, Straker calls the relevant personnel back to Earth.  Computer analysis decides that Lt Ellis diverted Interceptor 3 first because of her emotional attachment to its pilot Mark Bradley (Harry Baird) and both are reassigned to new duties.

Computer Affair juggles two plot threads – the investigation into the destruction of Interceptor 1 and the hunt for the UFO – quite deftly.  In the quieter moments of the episode you can play count the cigarette, as it’s amazing how many scenes feature the characters either smoking or handling a cigarette.  Nowadays of course they’d all have to go up to the surface and stand outside the building.

The relationship between Ellis and Bradley never really developed due to Baird leaving the series after filming just four episodes, although he does appear in a few other episodes courtesy of stock shots.  The use of stock footage also occurs in this episode as a few brief shots of Shane Rimmer (who appeared in Identified) crop up.

Straker assigns Freeman to hunt down the UFO and bring the occupants back alive and he in turn includes Ellis and Bradley in the retrieval team.  The scenes of the mobile units hunting the UFO through the Canadian forest, and indeed the whole episode, feature some stunning miniature work.  This was always a feature of Gerry Anderson’s productions, and there’s plenty of fine examples here.

One of the aliens is brought back to SHADO HQ and Straker is desperate to get some answers from it.  In order to do this he injects the alien with drugs to force a response but this only speeds the creature’s demise.  This is an early sign of Straker’s ruthless streak and there will be many more to come.

The amended computer report that confirms Lt Ellis acted correctly in reassigning the Interceptors (had she followed standard procedure then all three would have been destroyed).  This message of the story would therefore seem to be that for all their usefulness, computers are no match for human instinct.

A slower paced story than the opening episode, but not without interest.

UFO watch (Episode 03 – Flight Path)

03 - flightpath

Written by Ian Scott Stewart
Directed by Ken Turner

Oh dear.  This isn’t very good at all.  Let’s look at some of the problem areas in a bit more detail.

Our old friend the day-for-night filter makes an appearance at the start of the episode.  As mentioned in Identified this is rarely a convincing effect and the bright sunshine here makes it look even more false.

More problematic is that apart from one brief scene with Lt Ellis, the first ten minutes are devoted to guest star George Cole as Roper. Cole’s performance is curiously flat and although it becomes clear early on that he is being blackmailed it’s very difficult to care or feel any empathy for him. His silly haircut doesn’t help either.

The story would have probably worked better a little later in the run, where Roper’s part could have been taken by one of the numerous walk-ons that we see crop up in each episode. At least then there would be a little frisson to them betraying SHADO, as we would have seen them interacting with the likes of Straker and Freeman over several episodes. We’ve never seen Roper before so why should we care about his problems?

Why did the UFO target Roper’s car? Straker seems to believe it was because the information Roper passed on was inaccurate but how did the UFO know that the car was Roper’s? Nice modelwork though, although it does beggar belief that Roper could walk away from the crash with barely a scratch.

And how did the UFO that attacked Roper manage to land on Earth undetected? So far it’s seemed to be impossible for a UFO to land without SHADO picking it up.  The idea that the aliens are recruiting human spies is interesting, but how does it work in practice?  What can the aliens offer in payment?

The rather convoluted plan for the UFO to bypass Moonbase’s defences (thanks to Roper’s information) has been unraveled and Straker’s response is to put Roper on the Lunar surface with a rocket launcher to stop it. Why not put ten, or twenty people, on the surface, so that it wouldn’t be the suicide mission it turns out to be?

And since there’s only a single UFO approaching it’s hard to to understand exactly why there should be so much panic. Everybody does their best to ratchet up the tension, but it all falls somewhat flat. The final shot is quite nice though as it’s another example of how ruthless Straker can be.

With a more charismatic actor playing Roper this might have been a bit better but as it stands it’s something of a damp squib.

UFO watch (Episode 04 – Exposed)

04 - exposed

Written by Tony Barwick
Directed by David Lane

Exposed is the introductory story for Paul Foster (Michael Billington).  Foster is a test pilot who gets tangled up in a battle between Sky 1 and a UFO.  Foster remains adamant that he saw a UFO but nobody will believe him.  He keeps on digging though and eventually the trail leads to Ed Straker.

This episode allows us to see SHADO from an outsiders point of view.  Billington is good value as he tangles with various different characters on the way to his meeting with Straker.  But what he doesn’t realise is that everything has been coordinated by the SHADO boss in order to test Foster’s reactions and see if he’s a possible recruit.

If he responds in the right way then a job in SHADO will be his but it’s interesting to wonder what would happen otherwise.  There must have been other people over the years who stumbled onto the truth about UFOs and it’s hard to imagine that they’d all have been SHADO material.  Everything that we’ve seen so far seems to indicate that Straker would have no problem in silencing them for good, but luckily for Foster he makes the grade.

Also debuting is Vladek Sheybal as Dr Doug Jackson.  Jackson pops up regularly during the series and is particularly prominent in the forthcoming episode Court Martial.  There’s always something slightly unsettling about Sheybal’s performance and he contrasts well with the more straightforward members of SHADO.  With Jackson, you never quite know if he’s following a different agenda from everybody else.

Exposed gives us a chance to see the backlot at MGM Borehamwood, where the first production block was shot. The studio is the place where Straker and Foster meet for the first time and Straker has a unique way of determining whether Foster is the man for the job.  This seems to consist of pointing a wind machine at him and then pretending to shoot him at point blank range!

It’s hardly a surprise that he does get offered a post with SHADO, particularly since he’s been on the credits since the first episode, but overall this is still a decent episode.  Not outstanding, but it’s a good chance for Michael Billington to make a strong first impression.

UFO watch (Episode 05 – Survival)

05 - survivalWritten by Tony Barwick
Directed by Alan Perry

A UFO lands on the moon and the alien shoots out a window on Moonbase, killing a SHADO worker.  As so often, the aliens’ motives remain unclear – why travel all that way for such a minor attack?

As the UFO is still on the Moon, Straker is keen to capture it.  New Moonbase commander Paul Foster is more interested in killing the alien in order to avenge the murder of one of his men, but things don’t quite go as expected.

As ever with UFO, there’s some gorgeous modelwork – the lunar surface is particuarly impressive. The full size lunar landscape looks very good too, although some of the rocks do have a tendency to wobble when somebody is thrown against them!

The main plotline develops in an interesting way, Foster leads a party to capture the UFO but it’s destroyed by the interceptors after the Moonbase party is attacked.  Foster is reported as missing, believed dead.  The alien is still alive though, saves Foster’s life and together the two of them begin the long trek back to Moonbase.

It’s surprising that everybody gives Foster up for dead so quickly.  Even if they were convinced that he couldn’t have survived you would have thought that they would have gone back to retrieve his body.  But his apparent death leaves a vacancy which Straker proposes to fill with Mark Bradley.

Bradley is reluctant for several reasons, not least his colour.  Straker is unconvinced by this, telling him that racial prejudice burned itself out five years ago.  This, of course, must stand as UFO’s least convincing predication of the future!  After winning him round with such winning words as “I don’t care if you’re polka dot with red stripes, do you want the job?”, Bradley agrees.

The lunar scenes with Foster and the alien are quite slow paced, understandable in a way because they have to simulate the lack of gravity and also since the alien and Foster can’t communicate.  But they could have done with a bit of trimming, as this section does drag a little.

But it’s a key story as it’s the first to portray the aliens in, for want of a better word, a more human light and not as implacable killers.  But as the series always had a fairly pessimistic viewpoint it’s probably no surprise that Foster’s new-found friendship is very short lived.

UFO watch (Episode 06 – Conflict)

 

06 - conflictWritten by Ruric Powell
Directed by Ken Turner

Conflict is a good episode for both Ed Bishop and Michael Billington.  Straker gets to lock horns with James Henderson (Grant Taylor), who as President of the International Astrophysical Commission is responsible for approving the funding level for SHADO.  And in the interests of good drama, Straker is always pushing for more whilst Henderson is always trying to cut back.

This conflict is at the heart of the episode.  Straker believes that the various items of space junk orbiting the Earth are a hazard to SHADO spacecraft and wants them removed.  Henderson doesn’t agree and won’t release the funds.

This is one of several key episodes that examines the conflict between Straker and Henderson and both Ed Bishop and Grant Taylor are excellent at portraying two totally single-minded individuals who both believe they are always right.

Shortly after their meeting, a SHADO lunar module is destroyed on reentry.  Straker is rightly convinced that the aliens were responsible – they have infiltrated the space junk with limpet mines.  But their ultimate aim strikes somewhat more closer to home.

Michael Billington gets another solid episode as Foster disobeys the ban on lunar flights to test a hunch.  It nearly gets him killed, but he proves to his satisfaction that there is alien involvement.  But Henderson isn’t convinced and after he thinks that Straker has left SHADO HQ undefended and in imminent danger of a UFO attack he attempts to remove him from command.

I’ve said it before, but the modelwork (particularly the lunar shots) are absolutely breathtaking.  Derek Meddings would later design the miniatures for the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker and some of the shots here wouldn’t have looked out of place in that film.

This isn’t an action-packed episode but the spat between Straker and Henderson is strong enough to drive the episode and makes it one of the stronger entries in the early part of the series.