A Retrospective by John Kenneth Muir
After the release of their live-action, 1969 science-fiction opus, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, British producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson set out with ITC to create a new television series that would feature film-quality special effects, sets and technology, as well as a provocative science fiction scenario. To those ends, UFO was born.

Starring Ed Bishop and George Sewell, both of whom had played significant supporting roles in
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, UFO is the story of a secret war waged against relentless alien invaders.   On the side of good is Commander Ed Straker, a decorated American Air Force officer, and his team of SHADO (Supreme Alien Headquarters Defense Organization) experts: Colonel Alec Freeman (Sewell), Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billington), Lt. Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake), Lt. Nina Barry (Dolores Mantez), Captain Carlin (Paul Gordeno) and later Colonel Virginia Lake (Wanda Ventham).

With an arsenal of high-tech equipment and vehicles, including a fully operational moonbase, space-borne Interceptor attack-fighters, formidable tank units called Mobiles, the submarine-jetfighter Skydiver and the SID (Space Intruder Detection) satellite, Earth is well-prepared to stave off the aliens.

And what do the mysterious aliens wants?  They have traveled to Earth in order to steal human organs, and in some cases, our very souls. They fight this war to prolong their own ebbing lives.  Armed with fierce, advanced technologies of their own, the aliens never let up their assault on our planet.  In each succeeding story they launch a new, more cunning attack. Their strategies are quite varied too.

On one occasion, the aliens enhance an Earthling with ESP ("ESP").  On another, they assume possession of a cat and use it to dominate a SHADO interceptor pilot ("The Cat With Ten Lives.")   With cruelty, they regularly turn SHADO astronauts into assassins and saboteurs ("Flight Path," "Kill Straker," "The Man Who Came Back," "Mindbender.")   They even resurrect dead people ("The Long Sleep") to facilitate their purpose on Earth.

In one of their boldest ventures, the aliens turn three normal citizens into time bombs ("The Psychobombs").

The most audacious alien enterprise is seen in the second-to-last episode of the 26 installment series, "Timelash."  Here, the aliens freeze SHADO HQ in a static bubble of slowed time so it cannot respond to an impending invasion.

As the above-listed episode descriptions reveal,
UFO is a series of great versatility. The format, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, is innovative in that it offers stories of many different locales and types.  Stories occur on the lunar surface ("Survival"), at the bottom of the ocean ("Sub Smash"), in orbit ("The Man Who Came Back,") and at UFO crash sites around the world ("Computer Affair," "The Sound of Silence.")

Additionally, there are heart wrenching psychological tales about the home lives of the main
dramatis personae ("Confetti Check A-OK," "A Question of Priorities"  and "Ordeal.")  With this kind of diversity, the series is rarely dull or limited.

The adaptable format also provided the Andersons with an opportunity to put their experience from earlier series and films to good use.  Miniatures from
Thunderbirds are updated and reused in various shows. The Skydiver sequences utilize the underwater techniques from the classic supermarionation series Stingray (1964). The props and spacesuits from the space agency EUROSEC (seen in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) double frequently for SHADO equipment. "The Man Who Came Back" even features stock footage of the impressive rocket launch from that film. This overabundance of highly-detailed miniatures and special effets makes for a truly intricate, believable future world (even if the series is set in 1980...).




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Produced in the latter of half of 1969 and the first part of 1970 (with some shooting reportedly done as late as 1973), UFO prospered for two dozen hour-long episodes.  It did not arrive on U.S. shores until it ran on PBS stations in 1972.   For a good dozen weeks, it lead the ratings in both Los Angeles and U.S. markets. Strangely, the series also seemed to skyrocket in quality as it went.  The writers grew more clever as time wore on, and so did the aliens.  While the opening episodes of the series sometimes seem a little laborious in exposition, later installments such as "The Psychobombs," "Timelash," "Mindbender" and "The Long Sleep" remain masterworks of science fiction television, fast in pace, dazzling in execution.

One element that makes
UFO so memorable is its treatment of the lead character, Ed Straker (Bishop).; Unlike past and future Star Trek captains, Straker is not a philosophy-spouting idealist.  Nor is he an audacious strategist or rugged womanizer.  Instead, he is a beaten, lonely man, obsessed with preserving the planet from the exploitative aliens. His job consumes him to the point where he is an absentee father to his son, Johnny.  Straker is also coldly, ruthlessly pragmatic, and he sticks to what works.; Various episodes spotlight these characteristics, as well as his incredible loneliness, isolation, and most of all, his flawed humanity.

In "The Responsibility Seat," Straker finds himself in a romantic tryst with a freelance journalist, only to realize he can't trust her. In "Confetti Check A-OK," the break-up of Straker's marriage is depicted in painful, clinical detail.   In "Sub Smash," the audience learns that the SHADO commander fears death as he grows older.

Most incredible of all, in "A Question of Priorities," Straker permits his own son, Johnny, to die when he orders an aircraft carrying needed medicine to be diverted to a UFO crash site. The episode ends with Straker's wife, Mary, announcing her total hatred for Straker, leaving him alone in the hospital. The effect of all this character-building is something amazing and revelatory to behold. Straker may be a hero but the personal cost is a great one.

is a powerful series for other reasons. The attacking aliens are anything but your typical ridge-headed bad dudes. These aliens are mysterious and non-human to the nth degree. Though they occupy  human bodies during their incursions, it is never clear if they are actually humanoid themselves. Dr. Jackson in "The Cat with Ten Lives" suggests that the aliens merely use humans as instruments, somehow controlling them like puppets."  He speculates that the aliens may not have any physical form whatsoever.  Whatever their true nature, the aliens are almost pitiable creatures, always on the verge of extinction.  In "ESP" they beg for Straker's help, only for the plea to fall on deaf, jingoistic ears.  Likewise in "Survival," an alien saves Paul Foster's life only to be gunned down by SHADO astronauts.

Like its successor, SPACE 1999,
UFO is deteriminedly a philosophically deep series. Its overriding philosophy is not one of distrust or hatred, but rather of preservation and limited resources. These aliens are out to steal resources mankind cannot afford to give up and Straker is the last line of defense against an intractable foe and competitor in a Darwinian universe. UFO's central thesis seems to be that man must not squander his resources, let he become desperate and uncaring, like the aliens. "Destruction" and "Conflict" highlight man's pollution of the seas and the stars respectively.

Yet there is not much preaching on the show.  Crucial issues are raised and decisions are made, but no judgment is foisted upon the audience in terms of moral platitudes.. Call it "moral neutral," and one is left to judge for oneself if Straker is a hero - or just a warrior.  In another context, a social one,
UFO looks at a future world with a careful and detailed eye. Characters wear punk haircuts, lead promiscuous sex lives, and drive sports cars.   In each episode, Straker arrives at SHADO HQ garbed in fantastic nehru jackets and wearing a jagged, punk dyed-white cut. In other words, in UFO's 1980, punk is establishment!

Like its child,
Space:1999, UFO presents viewers with a potpourri of well-utilized cinematic techniques in its many episodes. It is not rare to turn on an episode and find jump cuts, flash-cuts, distortion lenses, high-angle shots, intense close-ups, sepia-tones and even POV subjective tracking.  The careful use of these film style techniques, all but gone from American television of the 21st century, makes UFO look different from most sci-fi shows.

The series is now available on DVD.(c) John Kenneth Muir, The Lulu Show LLC  2003-2004.
Above: Five of John Kenneth Muir's recent releases, including (left to right:) An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith, Horror Films of the 1970s, The Films of John Carpenter,Terror Television and Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper. Click on the cover to visit publisher web sites and order these books!
John Kenneth Muir is the author of a dozen books in the fields of science fiction and horror film and television. His first original novel, Space:1999-The Forsaken was published by Powys Media in early 2003. John's other titles include An Askew View: the Films of Kevin Smith, An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond, A Critical An Analytical Guide to TV's Battlestar Galactica, A History of Dr. Who on TV, Terror Television, Horror Films of the 1970s and Wes Craven: The Art of Horror.

John has written for magazines including
Cinescape, Filmfax, Collectors News and Farscape: the Official Magazine. He has appeared on Sciography and Destinies: the Voice of Science Fiction. Visit him at his web site, or read his latest monthly column at Far Sector.