The Chopping Block: UFO (1970)
Welcome to The Chopping Block, a miniseries dedicated to television shows that showed great potential but were cancelled way too soon before reaching their pinnacle of perfection. In honor of its 50th Anniversary, here is a retrospective of UFO; a phenomenal science fiction series, gone way too soon!
What happens when you broadcast a series that comes off like some hybrid of S.H.I.E.L.D meets The X-Files? Well, that would be the British Sci Fi cult series UFO of course.
Developed by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet), UFO chronicles the exploits of a highly secret military organization is set up in the hope of defending the Earth from alien threats. In the future, Mankind is threatened by an alien race who kidnap and kill humans for use of body parts. The secret organization commissioned to stop the Aliens is named SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organization) and operates from a secret location beneath a film studio. They also operate a fleet of submarines and have a base on the moon as well as an early warning satellite (SID) that detects inbound UFOs.
The setting takes place sometime in the future: 1980 to be exact (Note: this series was filmed during 1969-1970 therefore, the 80's were perceived as a highly sophisticated decade when it came to advancement in technology along with futuristic fashion statements and trends).
SHADO is led by Commander Ed Straker, an American military officer who experienced an encounter with a UFO (pronounced "You-foh") when his convoy was ambushed when revealing classified information about the aliens. Under Straker’s command are Alec Freeman and Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billington). The latter was a former test pilot whose plane was critically damaged when SHADO's Sky One intercepted and destroyed a UFO within proximity to Foster's jet. His subsequent persistent investigation of the incident threatened to expose SHADO's existence and Straker considered having him killed, but instead was impressed enough with Foster to offer him a position with SHADO.
As George Sewell, who played Freeman, departed the series (along with a few notable actors Mark Baird, Gabrille Drake, Keith Alexander and Peter Gordino) during post studio productions, Billington’s Paul Foster had a more prominent part during the remaining episodes and instantly became Straker’s protégé. It is revealed during the first episode; Identified, that the aliens have arrived on Earth to collect human organs to sustain their species. Fast forward a few more episodes and we learn that they are from a dying planet thus offering further explanation of why they committed heinous actions. As the series had gained its momentum during the second half of the season, the stories became more fascinating.
The Look and Hook of the Series
Straker poses as a movie studio executive of Harlan-Straker Studios. However, underneath the studio lot lies SHADO's underground base. And to protect Earth while keeping watch of impending "close encounters," SHADO's Moonbase deploys three interceptor crafts, each armed with a highly explosive torpedo capable of destroying the alien spacecraft.
Among the cool vehicles used throughout the series, my favorite goes to Skydiver; a submersible base that can jettison an Aircraft (Sky 1) to intercept a UFO once it arrives on Earth. Should a UFO also avoid this and manages to land it can be tracked and destroyed by a group of Mobiles (armored vehicles equipped with Rockets) deployed immediately on site
With all these fascinating aesthetics, it wouldn't be possible if not for the brilliant SFX Genius that was Derek Meddings, (007 Films, Superman, Batman) who cut his teeth conjuring spectacular practical effects and vehicle designs that were cool before CGI became all the rage. Besides the special effects and the eclectic but “out-there” soundtrack courtesy of composer Barry Gray there were also interesting set pieces and futuristic designs such as the Gulf Wing cars, a studio exec office that doubles as a hydraulic elevator and a female moonbase staff dressed in silver catsuits and purple wigs, just to name a few of the Anderson's perceived take on the future.
Speaking of which, UFO had quite the selection of beautiful women that nearly rivaled most of the Bond girls during the era of the Sixties and Seventies. Most notably was Col. Virginia Lake (played by Wanda Ventham of Sherlock who is actually Benedict Cumberbatch's Mother in real life.), Ayshea, Lt. Gay Ellis and especially Lt. Nina Barry who during the 2nd half of UFO, became the new Moonbase Commander.
What I love most about UFO, is how the Andersons weren't afraid to take any chances when it came to taking on topics that may have been controversial during the early seventies era: Women in superior roles, interracial relationships, adultery or life and death decisions that pushed the envelope. As if that was not enough, there’s sexual innuendo, drug abuse, attempted rape and nihilistic endings made it more than obvious that this series was aimed toward a mature demographic. And to be honest, it is the stories that were the strength of this series. Prior to UFO, Anderson has been mostly associated with producing children series like Stingray and of course Thunderbirds. So, it was a completely different turn from his previous work.
The lead protagonist Ed Straker, is an overly complex man who goes against that Sci fi hero archetype. Straker is willing to sacrifice both his personal life and the ones he loves most to stop alien threats, as demonstrated in A Question of Priorities and Confetti Check A-Ok. Straker unlike Captain Kirk, could not be seduced as easily as seen in The Responsibility Seat. This episode tackled current topics like the "MeToo" movement. During the latter episodes, Col. Virginia Lake had more screen presence almost to the point of replacing Paul Foster as Straker's right hand man..er, Woman. This was a progressive move, considering how many female roles were not as prominent during that era.
Stalk's Picks o' the Litter
Question of Priorities: Straker faces a terrible decision: attend to an alien defector or deliver life-saving medicine to his critically injured son.
Identified: SHADO officially goes into operation and encounters its first UFO. An alien pilot is captured and discovered to have a shocking revelation!
Psychobombs: The aliens target SHADO’s operations by transforming three humans into brainwashed walking bombs that ends with a tragic finale.
Timelash: Time stands still at the film studio and SHADO HQ for everyone but Straker, Colonel Lake and an enigmatic enemy who has ulterior motives.
Reflections in the Water: Straker and Foster investigate an undersea alien base that mirrors SHADO Headquarters and its personnel.
The Square Triangle: SHADO and an alien find themselves amid a murderous romantic triangle that ends in a disturbing credits scene.
Ordeal: Colonel Foster is abducted by the Aliens. (A Bait and switch episode, but still fun.)
Survival: Foster is stranded on the Moon, where he experiences a “close encounter” of another kind.
The Computer Affair: A SHADO investigation reveals that romance may be thwarting Moonbase operations.
Sub Smash: With the Skydiver submarine damaged and unable to surface, Straker is left face his claustrophobia and past traumas!
The Long Sleep: A woman awakening from a decade-long coma sparks a hunt for an alien bomb. Note:This episode was delayed due to scenes of drug abuse and is perceived by many to be the final episode. Judging by the ending it should have been.
Gerry Anderson had proposed a format in which the SHADO Moonbase had been greatly enlarged to become the organization’s main headquarters, thus pre-production on UFO 2 began with research and design for the new Moonbase, vehicles, outfits and so forth. Unfortunately, when ratings for the syndicated broadcasts in America dropped towards the end of the run, ITC lost confidence and had cancelled plans for the second season.
Unwilling to let the UFO 2 pre-production work go to waste, Anderson instead proposed ITC with a brand new concept that is unrelated to UFO, in which the Moon would be blown out of Earth orbit thus taking the Moonbase survivors with it. This series would be known as Space: 1999.
With all abrupt cancellations, there remained a few unanswered plot threads and there were quite a few from this series: Whether Foster's brainwashing from the aliens (Kill Straker!) may reoccur and if so, what will happen? Will he succeed at "Killing Straker" or die trying? At the very end of the episode The Long Sleep, we see Virginia Lake comforting Ed, as they leave the hospital. Is this a sign of a potential romance between the two SHADO superior officers? Who lives? Who dies? Did Straker, with the aid of SHADO, finally manage to tattoo the aliens once and for all? What planet did the aliens come from and what of their species, societies and where the green women at??
If you ask me, UFO was canned way too soon especially after the series had found its legs. Not only was UFO influential, but one of the things I loved the most about UFO, is how it foreshadowed the trends and events that has happened or is still current. For example:
- Spacecraft launched from an aircraft as in the episode "Computer Affair".
- Extensive use of computers in day-to-day life, even to the extent of predicting and analyzing human behavior.
- Electronic fingerprint scanning and identification against a database.
- Voice print identification systems: also, vocal analysis used to identify individuals in the same way as fingerprints.
- Metadata and a space observatory (called an "electron telescope"), as shown in the episode "Close Up".
- The episode "Survival" indicates that racial prejudice will have "burned itself out" on Earth in the mid-1970s, a prediction which unfortunately was not proven to be true.
- UFO also featured episodes dealing with issues that would become topical in later years, such as space junk and the disposal of toxic waste.
- Cordless telephones - The three telephones on Straker's office desk had no cords between the handsets and the base.
- MP3 Music Players – In "Court Martial," Straker's secretary Mrs. Ealand, has one playing on her desk.
- Liposuction – In "Ordeal," the doctor threatens, "When all else fails, I'll remove that blab around your middle surgically!"
- There's even a scene in Mindbender, where Straker is notified of a UFO sighting via 5x5' text messaging screen!
Sometime after its cancellation, UFO garnered a sizable cult following and is forever perceived as a very innovative science fiction series. There have been constant rumors of a live action Movie adaptation but as with many proposed TV and film projects, UFO falls within the category of development hell.
Also unfortunate, is that most of the cast from UFO are no longer among us. This article is dedicated to the memory of those whose contributions made this series both timeless and overwhelming.
Although Gerry Anderson's UFO had a very short lifespan, it still remains a cult favorite among science fiction enthusiasts and has influenced other mediums within entertainment. You can tell by watching the intro of Neon Genesis Evangelion, that they were inspired by UFO as well as the popular Videogame series, X-Com
Someone call Marty Abrams of MEGO and have him produce these figures! "Meee, want"!!