Thursday, March 06, 2003

UFO

I've been watching Gerry Anderson's 1970s TV series, UFO. It's a post-Thunderbirds, pre-Space: 1999, live-action romp, with all the familiar Anderson hallmarks: transcendent Derrick Meddings model work, peppy music, bizarre fashions, creative sets, a multiethnic mix of characters, and a futuristic setting.

Gerry Anderson's live-action shows, including Space: 1999 and Space Precinct are generally regarded as inferior to his puppet-based, "Supermarionation" efforts - Fireball XL-5, Thunderbirds, and the like. But UFO has surprised me thus far; it shows far more internal consistency than the schizophrenic Space: 1999 ever did, and it's far more tightly written than Space Precinct.

Here's the basic premise: it's the year 1980, and UFOs of unknown origin are swooping down upon a largely unsuspecting Earth, harvesting her citizens for organs. Earth - or rather, the UK - has created a top secret organization, SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organization) to stop the aliens. SHADO command, hidden beneath a London film studio, is the hub of a far-reaching defence network, including a functioning moonbase with a trio of deadly-looking interceptors, SID (Space Intruder Detector), an artificial intelligence housed within a satellite in Earth orbit, Skydiver, a submarine capable of launching Sky One, an atmospheric fighter plane, and the SHADO mobiles, tracked land vehicles used to hunt down aliens who've managed to penetrate the outer defences and make a landing on Earth. The models are remarkably creative, inspiring a silent "gee whiz!" from anyone who appreciates fine craftsmanship.

American Ed Straker is the show's protagonist, a hard, bitter man who pretends to be a movie producer but secretly commands far greater responsibilities, for he is the commander of SHADO. He is assisted by a much warmer human being, Ken Freeman, his second-in-command and the moral centre of SHADO's claustrophobic universe. These two men, and their huge cadre of secret agents, fighter pilots, submariners, psychologists, and astronauts, fight a silent war for the fate of Earth.

The pilot episode sets the tone for the series: the first hapless humans who spot a UFO are graphically machine-gunned into oblivion by its spacesuited inhabitants, with realistic blood spatters that have excellent shock value even today, let alone in 1970, when the show was originally aired. One member of this unfortunate trio survives his wounds and winds up joining SHADO, but his sister is captured by the aliens. Later, a UFO crashes and an alien is taken into SHADO custody; we discover that the alien has that young woman's organs. It's a chilling scene.

The aliens aren't very alien at all; they're basically human beings with green skin and funky contact lenses. But even as I was thinking to myself, "How cheap; they're just people with bad makeup," one of the characters says, "They're practically identical to us - this green stuff is just chemical residue from their breathing tanks, and these are just contacts to protect them from the sun." By drawing attention to the low-budget makeup, the producers have effectively given us a better mystery to consider: why do these creatures look exactly like us? It should be impossible. But it does explain why they want our organs, or at least it explains why they have a use for them at all.

Commander Straker pronounces "UFO's" as "U-Foes." I'm not sure if the producers intended it, but I interpret this reading as "Unidentified foes," or simply, "you foes." Cool.

The moonbase is populated by three purple-haired British women; one of them, Lt. Ellis, seems to be the nominal commander of the outpost, although in one episode a male, Colonel Foster takes the job, seemingly temporarily. I find it interesting that the producers were willing to position three women as the first line of defence, even if they did put them in skintight silver uniforms and give them fetishistic wigs. Not that I'm complaining...

The show has its faults; often, the aliens appear to be ineffective. In episode after episode, SID detects a UFO (usually a single ship; never more than three), Lt. Ellis scrambles the interceptors, and the UFOs are destroyed. If they slip past the interceptors, you can almost guarantee that Sky One will shoot them down in Earth's atmosphere. Why do they only send just a few ships at once? Why not en masse, since Earth seems to have only three moonbase interceptors and one airborne fighter to defend it? To make matters worse, even if they make it to Earth's surface, UFOs break down in Earth's atmosphere very quickly. The organ harvesting can't be going well with all these limitations, and one wonders why Straker and company are so concerned.

On the other hand, the aliens can be very sneaky. In one memorable episode, a UFO takes advantage of sunspots to slip past Moonbase tracking and lands just a couple of kilometers away from the base. A suited alien steps out with a rifle, creeps towards the base, takes careful aim, and shoots a hole through one of the base's windows. Explosive decompression is the inevitable result, and it's only blind luck that only a single crewman dies. And he's not even blown out the window - the air simply evacuates, and the man slowly suffocates, dying in the airless silence.

The life of a SHADO operative is rarely easy; Commander Straker loses his young son in one episode, largely because of Straker's responsibilities to SHADO. His ex-wife isn't happy, and clearly Straker is shattered by the loss. The atmosphere at SHADO headquarters is almost always tense; there isn't much humour in this show, nor should there be.

Though I've watched less than half of the show's 26 episode run so far, I have to say that I'm impressed. This is one of television's lost gems, and I'm glad I ran across it.

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