When Men Were Men
Set in an ominous future—1980 as envisioned in 1969—UFO follows the men of SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization), a secret government agency defending Earth against alien invaders. During the title sequence, a militaristic march accompanies an array of high tech weapons. From combat spaceships and a moon-based tracking station, to an aircraft launched from a submerged submarine, this series showcases exciting battles using impressive, pre-Star Wars special effects.
The imaginative stories and high quality production values of UFO are not completely unexpected. By 1969, the year the series premiered on British television, the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were well known in the world of science fiction. In the mid-1960s, they had produced two successful marionette shows: The Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterions. In these series, collaborating with special effects guru Derek Meddings (of Batman and James Bond movies fame), they created fantastic worlds populated by wonderful machines.
Subsequent to the production of the cult live action film, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), UFO was their transition from marionettes to live action TV. A critical success that eventually led the Andersons to create the sci-fi classic Space: 1999, the 26-episode UFO quickly garnered an international cult following.
The series’ primary appeal lies in its sometimes brutal battles between humans and aliens. As expected in public broadcast TV, violent acts take on a moral cast: the invaders come to Earth with the sole purpose of killing innocent people in order to steal their organs. According to an alien autopsy performed during the premiere episode, “Identified,” the humanoid intruders represent an advanced but dying race.
While this “body snatchers” scenario is provocative, the series is less interested in exploring an “other” culture than in showing how Commander Ed Straker (Ed Bishop) leads the men of SHADO into battle. Frequently confronted with moral riddles, Straker is resolute in his mission to defend Earth. It doesn’t matter to him if he has to overdose civilians and SHADO members with a truth serum (as in “Reflections in the Water” and “The Long Sleep”), brainwash UFO witnesses (“The Dalotek Affair”), destroy UFO evidence (“Exposed”), or even jeopardize the health of his own son (“A Question of Priorities”). His rigid dedication looks forward to a famous villain in The X-Files, with the moral equation is reversed: the very same traits that make Straker a patriotic hero make the Smoking Man a monster.
Straker’s enthusiasm aside, UFO‘s most striking assets are its flamboyant futuristic sets and extravagant fashions. The female members of the SHADO Moon base wear heavy makeup, fake eyelashes, tight silver miniskirts, and purple wigs: as envisioned by co-creator Sylvia Anderson, the “future world of 1980” looks like an exaggerated version of the psychedelic 1960s.
UFO‘s distinctive mise-en-scène is both its more important asset and its most serious liability. The scenes involving spacecrafts and astronauts look terrific, but after watching a few episodes, they become repetitive. When the production budget was reduced for the second season, producers looked for stories involving more drama than expensive visual effects. This resulted in some exotic storylines: a Siamese cat turns out to be an alien in “Cat with 10 Lives,” Terminator-like zombies appear in “The Psychobombs,” a ghost materializes in “The Long Sleep,” and aliens freeze time in “Timelash!”
Even more bizarre is “Mindbender,” the most provocative episode. During the first few minutes, we witness Mexican bandits who seem lifted from a Spaghetti Western invading the moon base. In fact, a moon rock is producing hallucinations, and Straker is affected when the rock arrives on Earth. During a conversation with one of his superiors, a mystified Straker stares straight at the camera, and as it pulls out, we discover that he is no longer in his office, but on the set of a science fiction TV show (could it be UFO?). An astonished Straker walks away, only to find out that all the SHADO installations are movie sets. As these are the very same sets used to film UFO, the episode transgresses its own diegetic boundaries, raising questions about cinematic “reality.”
Even with such striking moments, the series now feels dated, given its old-fashioned politics. Though Straker advocates racial integration and promotes the series’ only black character to moon base commander in “Survival,” this particular “integration” subplot runs counter to most of UFO‘s race arrangements. Consider that the malicious aliens are identical to humans, except for their green hue: skin color, in other words, remains the show’s most reliable sign of good and evil.