Sunday, 20 November 2016

UFO - The Complete Series

Cast: Ed Bishop, Michael Billington, George Sewell, Gabrielle Drake, and Wanda Ventham

Creator: Gerry Anderson

1300 minutes (12) 1970-3
Network blu-ray region B

Rating: 9/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Following their excellent hi-def widescreen release of Invasion: UFO (1974) - a movie cut together from TV episodes, Network unleash a fully restored edition of the original series, and UFO is a welcome addition to any sci-fi collection. Few television shows from the late 1960s and early 1970s remain watchable today, especially when dated as genre material, but UFO is not merely tolerable as retro telefantasy, it has long since become iconic. This is a series that influenced and encouraged thinking about UFOlogy and provided a cultish landmark for conspiracy theories to flourish and fester around. The first live-action series created by Gerry Anderson, UFO was set in the ‘future’ of 1980, and it concerns a covert war between Earth and mysterious extraterrestrials. Although Anderson followed his very popular Thunderbirds (1965-6) - about machines as the heroes of ‘International Rescue’, with the darker Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons (1967-8) - which employed a similar premise to this, the solemn drama UFO was a great jump in quality and maturity for the former puppets-master of British television.

UFO is a continuation of Wellsian themes from War Of The Worlds, and US TV shows, like Larry Cohen’s The Invaders (1967-8), while it also predates The X-Files. Science fictional espionage was central to the James Bond movie franchise and UFO included spy-fi tropes - such as assassination, surveillance, advanced weapons, and traitors, mixed with stories about orbital debris as dangerous ‘space junk’, mind-control, ESP, and some nightmarish tales of abduction. Since the series is now set in our past, the design of UFO is obviously best appreciated as alternative history, today. This sci-fi aspect of a divergent timeline to ours is especially notable just as much for the show’s futuristic uniforms (silvery cat-suits and string-vests!) and its dated 20th century tech (not very futuristic computers, etc), as for its broadly liberal social mores and a laudably utopian absence of racial prejudice, in a world that is plagued by space warfare.

A former US Air Force colonel, Straker is in command of SHADO - Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation, a secret base hidden beneath a working film studio. Straker’s played by Canadian actor Ed Bishop - who had appeared in Kubrick’s classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and voiced puppet character Captain Blue in Anderson’s earlier Captain Scarlet, the children’s TV show that might be viewed as a prototype for the more adult-oriented UFO. Bishop’s curious Anglo-American accent and straightforward manner were perfect for the cool yet indomitable Straker, with his trademark blond hairstyle (yet, reportedly, the actor hated that wig!). He presided over a world-spanning military power, including the moon base, and an orbiting telescope capable of detecting and intercepting alien spies anywhere on the planet.

Straker was a decidedly flawed executive hero, with a broken marriage in his tragic past, and too few close friends in his present, even among his most loyal SHADO staff. Bishop essayed Straker’s grim isolation and a heavier burden of responsibility for his character’s position in several episodes - like when he orders astronauts into nuclear combat against UFO attacks, and threatens to personally shoot one of his colleagues after uncovering an assassination plot. Straker was an interestingly stylised ‘Cold War’ warrior - part general officer, part spymaster. And, symbolically at least, he was the ultimate soldier of his sort - clearly a deeply paranoid obsessive willing to engage hostile forces in a wholly fantastic but nevertheless psychologically brutal conflict played out on an interplanetary scale.

Although the origin of the uncanny visitors from the stars is never revealed, Straker often had to suppress his curiosity and settle for the hollow ‘victory’ of simply destroying them. Yet, despite adherence to a strict policy of militaristic response, Straker always managed to retain his humanity and engage the TV viewers’ sympathy, thanks to a finely balanced characterisation by Bishop.

An episode about UFO and human pilots both crashing on the Moon; Survival anticipates the cooperate-or-die notion of movie Enemy Mine (1985). Because the location backdrop used actual MGM studios, the temptation for toying with fantasy and reality proved quite irresistible for the programme’s creators, particularly when Straker is required to pose as an executive producer at the functioning studio, and this led to wholesale breaking of the fourth wall in bewildering thriller Mindbender, where Straker discovers he is just an actor in a TV show about UFOs.

In one instance of life imitating art, technical problems of the Hubble telescope (launched in 1990 by NASA) were reminiscent of a faulty space probe in UFO’s episode Close Up. Of course, fandom has favourite episodes, and those indulging in an even greater weirdness than usual really do standout. The Psychobombs involves random civilians reprogrammed by aliens into a suicidal trio of superhuman terrorists keen on sabotage at security bases. The character-driven Timelash sees Straker baffled and besieged by an enemy agent who stops clocks and freezes part of the world. Our hero’s quick thinking (in four dimensions!) saves the day.

Renowned for its cutting-edge special effects, UFO remains a visually impressive show in respect of its realistic miniatures, which sustained the pre-eminence of Anderson’s genre work. One of the most memorable model sequences in UFO was the Interceptors launch. From a hideaway hanger beneath the Moon’s surface, three space bombers popup out of lunar craters, like some of kind of mechanical trapdoor spiders. They are the first line of space defence against alien invasion. Each of these atomic-powered manned spacecraft is armed with a single nuclear warhead, programmed to launch on a collision course with any threats approaching Earth. The heroes of SHADO had plenty of hardware, including a ‘SkyDiver’ submarine carrying jet aircraft ‘Sky One’ (that launched from underwater), but the trio of Interceptors had a unique design. And, for the 1970s, at least, they did appear to be a convincing portrayal of militarised space age technology.

This hi-def box-set has plenty of extras, including new retro documentary From The Earth To The Moon, featurette The Women Of UFO, some commentary tracks, audio interviews, a new SHADO recruits briefing, deleted scenes, and extensive image galleries. 

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