Looking Back At UFO - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At UFO

Tony takes up ufology.
UFO sits in an interesting place in the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson story.

Having punctuated the Sixties with intriguing and, to children everywhere, must-see puppet-based action adventure series, most of them involving secret organisations, protecting the Earth from either alien, sub-aquatic, or opposing socio-political gittery, Gerry Anderson was starting to realise his dream of moving into stories with Actual People in them.

The Secret Service in 1969 had been a reasonable first step, combining real people with puppets, but issues of scale and the significant differences of set-ups for puppets and people saw the show suffer from insubstantial disinterest at the time. Though in fairness, the fact that the fundamental casting choice on which the series hinged was stone barking mad may have had something to do with that, too.

1969 also saw the Andersons make a feature-length movie, Doppelganger (also known as Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun), with a fully live-action case, and several of the stars of that movie transferred over to UFO in 1970.

The premise of UFO is fairly straightforward. If we said it’s War of the Worlds meets Thunderbirds, you’d get the idea. UFOs begin appearing in Earth’s sky more and more frequently, leading to the setting up of SHADO (yes, really), the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation, a multi-governmental organisation (with the US, the Soviet Union, and – naturally, because of Britain’s sense of post-imperial self-importance in the 1970s – the UK). It’s housed in a secret base, 80 feet below a British film studio – sure, it’s no Tracy Island, but it is very Torchwood, over thirty years before Torchwood was a glint in Russell T Davies’ eye.

SHADO has what amounts to a bunch of Thunderbirds at its disposal – a moonbase, a satellite signal tracking station called SID (Space Intruder Detector), some high-speed interceptor spacecraft, a massive mobile sub-aqua base called the Skydiver, which is capable of launching air defence plane Sky One, and some caterpillar-tracked ground vehicles called SHADO Mobiles. There’s also a private Concorde that goes by the name of Seagull X-Ray, and an assortment of less frequently used funky Anderson-style vehicles to help the stories along.

It hardly needs saying, but each of the big set-piece vehicles had their own launching montage, which had become an Anderson staple in everything from Supercar to Thunderbirds, and carried the double benefit of being able to be slotted in as re-used footage and being a colossal hit with fans, the impressive visual warm-up to humanity fighting back against whatever was threatening it.

In UFO, perhaps more than in some earlier Anderson series, the alien spacecraft are visually impressive for their day, too – more like flying cupcakes than saucers, they borrow a design element from things like the Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD movie, and have rotating sections to signify their movement. Naturally enough, four years on from the Dalek movie, the UFOs in UFO spin much faster, and even though you know it’s an effect, it’s still distinctly disturbing to this day.

Why are the aliens taking an interest in us? The answer is a subtle combination of medical replacement fears of the day and classic HG Wells. They’re from a race that’s dying and sterile, and so has to keep itself alive by organ transplant. They’ve identified humanity as a source of viable replacement organs, and so have started attacking us for…ahem…spare parts, with a possible view to full-on colonization down the line. Part HG Wells, part Kit Pedler, creator of the Cybermen. But also, to give it its due, a storyline that was re-used or re-imagined wholesale decades later in Star Trek: Voyager, with its Vidians and their Phage.

In a sense, UFO tries to reimagine shows like Thunderbirds, but in live action and with a touch more Star Trek about its dynamic. There’s definitely more smouldering sexism in UFO than the puppet performers ever made it worth going for. And there’s an unfortunately provocative nature about the uniforms worn by the crew of each of the SHADO installations.

While the women on the moonbase wear Bacofoil silver outfits (including mini skirts that might have been in style in 1970, but had long gone out of fashion by 1980, when the series is set), the crew of the Skydiver universally wear uniforms based on string vests. In fairness, that’s true of both men and women, but it’s a somewhat utilitarian nod to the heat that can build up in the atmosphere of submarines. Again, if the actors were puppets, it wouldn’t be quite so odd. But they’re not, so it is.

And as for SHADO HQ itself, there’s little getting away from the fact that… well, that they look and dress sort of like living versions of Anderson puppets. They’re not exactly Thunderbird pilots, but they’re what you imagine the Thunderbird cast would look like if they were played by live actors. Ed Bishop, starring as Ed Straker, Commander-in-Chief of SHADO, in particular, adopts a marionette stolidity and earnestness (not to mention a symphony of brown and beige playsuits in a nod to the Trek franchise) in his role. In some respects, that’s to be expected – Bishop had previously played the voice of Captain Blue in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, so to some extent he was on familiar ground in an Anderson production, but it is just a little too believable that he’s a scaled-up puppet to be entirely comfortable. It almost creates an uncanny valley in his performance, and leaves you unsure exactly what it is you’re watching.

That’s a sense heightened by the Bacofoil uniforms of the moonbase crew, with additional pink bobs for the women, and the whole string vestfest going on beneath the waves.

While the inclusion of the likes of George Sewell as Colonel Alec Freeman, SHADO second-in-command, was a deliberate attempt to steer away from the children’s TV angle and into more grown-up adventure like Bond and The Saint, in some ways that only intensifies the tonal valley in which UFO lives – is it a children’s classic or serious sci-fi?

It’s a show that never entirely seems to find an answer to that question. Certainly, it starts off dead serious – people are bloodily killed and, we discover, their organs harvested within the first five minutes of the first episode, which also involves a breathtaking and well-directed chase through a forest, with some clever, Dalek-style, gun-arm perspectives on the pursuit, and a Hammer Horror scream.

But the show also features all or most of the things you’ve come to expect from Anderson puppet shows – fantastic vehicles, hidden bases, stolid commanders, dashing pilots, and, well, not to put too fine a point on it, international rescues.

It was that sort of uncanny valley as to exactly what you were watching and where it was ultimately pitched that led UFO to have worse viewer reactions than it deserved. In fairness to the show, other projects involved far greater leaps of imagination to get you to buy into them. But the apparent inconsistency of walking, talking, probably romancing Anderson puppets made of flesh was a little too confusing for some among the audience.

That said, there were plans to make a second series of UFO, but to move the timeline on by another 20 years – almost. UFO: 1999 could well have been a reality, in which case, there’s little doubt the scripts and characterizations would have been tweaked to remove that lingering Thunderbirds feel at least from the human interactions.

What came instead of course was ultimately Space: 1999, though it didn’t come until 1975, and was itself somewhat… troubled by tone.

Rewatching UFO in the 2020s, the sense of Thunderbirds being played by human beings is still there, absolutely. Wanda Ventham as Colonel Virginia Lake feels like a combination of Brains and Lady Penelope, realised in human, rather than marionette form, for instance. But if you set your Inner Critic to low-power, you can still get properly lost in the stories UFO tells, and buy in to a credible enemy and a philosophically realistic threat to humankind.

Watch UFO today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad