Tuesday, April 23, 2019

UFO: "Survival"

A UFO lands undetected on the lunar surface, and an alien sniper makes it to within range of Moonbase. There, the alien opens fire on one of the personnel domes, and shatters the glass of a window. A SHADO operative is killed during explosive decompression, but Foster (Michael Billington), who is commanding Moonbase, survives the attack.

An all-out hunt for the alien and the UFO is launched using moon-hoppers, and when the ship is detected, interceptors are called in to destroy it.  Unfortunately, in the blast, Foster's moon mobile is damaged.

He is left on the moon's surface to die, and must team up with the alien sniper to survive until a rescue can occur.  The alien and the human become uneasy allies. But when a rescue team arrives, they see the alien pilot as a murderer, and not a possible friend, and shoot him dead.

Meanwhile, Commander Straker (Ed Bishop), believing Paul Foster dead, attempts to convince Lt. Mark Bradley (Harry Baird) to assume command of the installation, even though Bradley fears that racism is still alive, even in SHADO.

"Survival," only the fourth episode of UFO shot, does not stand up as one of the most scintillating hours of the short-lived but well-remembered series. 

The "My Enemy/My Ally" concept -- of enemies learning to become friends to overcome a mutual threat --- is a long-lived trope of cult-TV, and not much interesting happens in "Survival," in part because Foster and the alien can't really talk to one another.  The space suits, though marvels of design and quite realistic looking, actually serve to hinder the performances and the connection which Foster and the alien are supposed to share.  

On the other hand, it is true that "Survival" is one of the earliest stories employing this particular trope, which was later seen on series such as Planet of the Apes (1974), Land of the Lost (1974-1977), Jason of Star Command (1979), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981). Galactica 1980 (1980) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). 

In stories of this type, enemies of unlike background and nature must team up to survive some hostile environment, such as a desolate planet ("The Enemy), or a cave-in after an earthquake ("The Trap"). Here, the desolate location is the moon. Often, these stories end with understanding forged, though "Survival" ends in jingoistic fashion with the alien being murdered by humans, even over Paul's protests.

One certainly hopes that the officers responsible for the alien's murder were punished, or at least chewed out by Straker following their execution of the alien. Here, after all, is a once in a life-time opportunity to capture a living alien being, and one who seems, at least in this case, to be friendly. Imagine the source of information/intelligence this alien could have been. It's a waste in many ways for him to be mindlessly gunned down on the lunar surface  A golden opportunity is squandered..

More interesting perhaps than the now-familiar My Enemy, My Ally story line of "Survival" is the subplot about a SHADO officer named Mark Bradley. This officer -- a man of color -- is Straker's selection to take command of of Moonbase, but he feels he is not really wanted in the role. Straker argues with him, noting that racial prejudice "burned itself out" five years ago, and is no longer a factor in decision-making on Earth. Even if Mark was "polka-dotted" with "red-stripes," Straker sees him as the best person to assume command of Moonbase.

This scene plays two ways today. 

First, it is wonderful that UFO imagined an end to racism as early as 1980, and set out to create an international/multi-cultural crew for its heroic organization, SHADO. The ideal here is that racism dies before the 20th century does. If only this were true. At the same time, it is rewarding that series writers in 1970 understood that a man of color could be the best man for this particular job, in a competitive, high-stakes career. 

Today, however, Straker's hostility towards Bradley, bluntly informing him that HE is the only one who still believes in racism, comes off in today's era as paternalistic and a bit condescending. Of course, Straker is one of the all-time great science fiction TV heroes/characters, but today, it is unfortunate to see a white man in power lecturing to a black man that racism is not the problem; rather it is the black man's perception of the world that is concerning.  

Of course, to expect a program made in 1970 to conform to 21st century ideals of diversity and race relations is absurd.  It is fascinating, however, to witness how a sci-fi series attempted to be forward-looking in one way, but could not see how that same approach would be viewed as condescending forty years later.

This reminds me of how Star Trek -- a future of race and gender equality -- would occasionally have Spock make comments about how women were more illogical than men. Yikes! Cases like this are a reminder that artists can possess the very best intentions, yet it is still difficult to overcome the conventional wisdom of one's day, even if the intent is to be forward looking and positive.

Next week: "Computer Affair."

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

UFO: "Timelash"

In "Timelash," Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) and Colonel Lake (Wanda Ventham) are tracked by a UFO in Earth's atmosphere as they return, late-night, to the Harlington-Straker movie studio that houses their secret, subterranean SHADO HQ.

Upon return to the studio, however, the duo finds that it is daylight, and that the base -- and all SHADO personnel -- are trapped inside an extended bubble of time.  

Worse, a saboteur within their organization, Turner (Patrick Allen), is responsible for the frightening situation.  Moving about "outside of time," Turner is able to manipulate events at the studio, in order to pave the way for a UFO attack on it.  The aliens have given this double-agent "immunity" to time's passage. 

Straker and Lake find themselves slowing down -- moving toward a paralyzed state -- once inside the frozen time-bubble, and must resort to taking stimulant injections to avoid freezing. Straker keeps shooting up the drugs, despite the fact that they pose a danger to his life, noting that he "made a choice, a long time ago," to die fighting this war.

Straker and Lake must stop their nemesis, who brags that he can play time "like a trumpet," destroy the incoming UFO, and eliminate the hidden device freezing time if they are to survive this particular time trap...

"Timelash" is one of the magical, damn near miraculous "back eight" episodes of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's UFO (1970). These final episodes in the series run were shot after a considerable hiatus, featured new, more charismatic cast members, and were, generally more highly-stylized and fast-paced than the earlier run of stories. 

Although the initial run of shows featured classic installments such as "Confetti Check A-OK," and "A Question of Priorities," the latter run kicked things up a notch visually and in terms of action, with trippy stories such as "Mindbender," "The Long Sleep," and this episode, "Timelash."  

Although there are two distinct approaches to UFO storytelling described above, it is fair to state that "Timelash" remains one of the best episodes of the series, from either filming period. This assessment is true, I believe, because the episode operates, simultaneously, on three levels of artistry.  

In the first case, the episode carries off its brilliant high-concept -- a moment of frozen time -- a full generation before Star Trek stories attempted the same thing in the 1990's and 2000's, and more so, had the benefit of CGI to create their static "bubbles" of existence. The UFO series had to do the same thing, first, but with complex practical effects. This means that actors had to appear frozen on camera for long takes, and that some objects had to appear to levitate in mid-air (birds in flight, or a stool tossed into the air, between two stage-hands). Even particles of matter -- like saw-dust spraying up from a table-saw -- had to be created in this bubble of time, all without the benefit of digital effects.

Secondly, for all its action, high-concept and fast-pace, "Timelash" is one of the best episodes in the series in terms of showcasing Straker and his iron-willed character. In "Timelash," the audience sees him resorting to repeated stimulant injections to stay awake and fight this battle.

This use of drugs was a controversial touch at the time the episode was aired, and resulted in the episode being banned from transmission in some areas.  But in this episode, Straker drives himself and his body right to the edge, and, indeed, over the edge, to keep fighting.  He is relentless. And, I suppose, someone might even make the claim that he boasts an addictive mind-set. His compulsion to win this war, by any means at his disposal, consumes his life.

Coupled with this mental and physical determination (nay, obsession), Straker discusses his philosophy with Lake in "Timelash." He notes that humanity has "got one thing" the aliens haven't: "bloody-mindedness." Throughout the episode, Straker's bloody-mindedness is on full, impressive display as he thinks on his feet, outwits his opponent, and pushes himself beyond the physical limits of most mortals. It's a tour-de-force episode for Straker, one that shows he's not just a "general" in the war against the aliens, but a soldier to boot.

Lake's development as a character is worth mentioning too. She takes up fire-arms at Straker's side to fight this war, and let's just say this portrayal of a competent female combatant is way ahead of its time when one considers that Star Trek's Crusher and Troi were still caregiver characters, breaking crockery over enemy's heads (instead of driving vehicles or using phasers) as late as 1991.

Thirdly, "Timelash," much like "Mindbender," takes full advantage of one particular aspect of the UFO format, namely the fact that the series' action takes place, often, on the back-lot of a movie studio.  As much as it concerns Straker's determination, and a high-concept alien strategy, "Timelash" concerns movie magic, the tricks that make the audience -- us -- believe that what we are seeing on our TV screen is real, or at least possible.

Here, there are all the "frozen time" gags I named above to enhance the perception of an extended moment.  These are carefully crafted illusions, and at the same time the audience is asked to reckon with them as "real," it is reminded, because of the studio back-lot setting, of the essential artificiality and sleight-of-hand regularly deployed by films and television.  A magical moment occurs, in other words, in a location devoted to creating magical illusions on a daily basis.

So this episode is not just a straight-up action-adventure featuring a healthy dose of character development for Straker, it is also genius in the way it is self-reflexive, asking the audience to believe what it is seeing, but also note the marvels of the "movie magic" that bring "Timelash" to our screens.

Action-packed, gritty, and fun-as-hell, "Timelash" realizes the full-potential of this nearly half-century old sci-fi classic.

Next week: "Survival."

UFO: "Survival"

A UFO lands undetected on the lunar surface, and an alien sniper makes it to within range of Moonbase. There, the alien opens fire on o...