Thursday, October 06, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 12: Gerry & Sylvia Anderson's UFO: "Confetti Check A-OK"

There are so many good reasons to remember and love that one season technological wonder from late 1960s-early 1970s, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's UFO. Prime among these reasons for me is the exquisite character of Ed Straker, as played with grace and humanity by the late, great Ed Bishop.

If you've watched the show with any regularity, you know what I'm talking about. Straker was hardcore. And I mean, hardcore. In the episode "Timelash," for instance, when confronted with an alien plot to fracture time, this commander of S.H.A.D.O. (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) shot-up with amphetamines to keep himself going. That act got the episode banned in the series' home country, the UK.

In "A Question of Priorities," Straker had a more difficult dilemma, choosing between saving his young son's life following a car accident, or capturing an alien spacecraft. The S.H.A.D.O. resources could only be involved in one assignment. Guess which option this hard-nosed, Earth defender ultimately selected?

So many series pay only lip service to the idea of the "strain of command." In Star Trek, Captain Kirk (in the classic episode "The Naked Time") complains about "no beach to walk on." In other words, that he has no life other than the Enterprise. In Babylon 5, we see Captain John Sheridan arrive on the station from the Agememnon and in no time confiding in his sister that he blames the death of his wife on his captaincy of that vessel. But in both series, these conflicts resolve within the hour and the men go on happily, or at least effectively: with friends, with purpose, with lives. Yes, the burden of command is great, but I submit that no man understands that better than does Ed Straker, a former U.S. airforce officer who has given up everything important in his life to battle the organ-stealing aliens from beyond. The choices he makes in UFO destroy his life, and ultimately isolate him. The episode "The Responsibility Seat" reveaks just how desperate he has become for human contact, to the degree that he almost beds a woman who is a betrayer.

Yet the episode that I believe best reveals Straker's ongoing sacrifice is not even the sterling (and haunting...) "A Question of Priorities," wherein he loses his son, but rather "Confetti Check A-OK." This episode commences in S.H.A.D.O.'s underground headquarters as one of Straker's underlings celebrates the birth of his first child. Naturally, this celebratory occasion gets Straker thinking about his past, and his alienation - over the years - from his wife, Mary (actress Suzanne Neve).

The episode follows a flashback format as young Straker is an air force officer working to put S.H.A.D.O. together (ten or so years before the events of the series). He has just married Mary, and Ed soon makes the first compromise in their personal life: he postpones their honeymoon (and at the airport too!!) for career business. This will become the recurring theme and conflict of their marriage, and later we see how the purchase of a new home together is sullied by Straker's constant absence from it. Work, for this man, understandably comes first. And that work is saving the planet. Yet Straker - because of regulations - can't tell Mary the truth about where he is and what he's doing. She just believes he's ambitious; that she's not as important to him as his job. Nothing could be further from the truth. He's actually protecting her, and everybody else by getting S.H.A.D.O. up and running.

Before long, Mary announces that she is with child, but still, Ed is absent for something like 20 hours a day, consumed by the "work" he can't share with her. Finally, after her mother plays Iago and puts the suspicion in her mind, Mary comes to believe that Ed is having an affair. She hires a private detective, who takes pictures of Ed entering the apartment of a beautiful woman named Nina Barry...a S.H.A.D.O. recruit. When Ed is confronted with these accusations - again, regulations don't permit him to defend himself. In a rage, Mary falls down the stairs and goes to the hospital. But the point is obvious: their marriage is over. He cannot speak up to tell Mary the truth; to tell her that he is commanding the most important venture in human history.

So many science fiction TV series focus on the heroes as essentially happy, stable people, doing what they love. It might be commanding a starship, investigating the paranormal, going to high school, or whathaveyou. Of course, there are the dark episodes where these heroes are in a funk and face emotional crises, but these tend to be put aside by hour's end. Not so with UFO, and "Confetti Check A-OK" spells out exactly what Ed Straker has lost by opting to command S.H.A.D.O. and fight the secret war against aliens. He has given up his youth, his innocence, his wife, and his marriage. And the job will still take more, as "A Question of Priorities" proves.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson shows often get a bad rap as being "kiddie programs" (because many - like Stingray and Thunderbirds - feature "supermarionation," articulated puppets), but UFO is so ahead of its time because it probes the personal life of its lead character, Ed Straker with a total lack of romanticism or even optimism. This is something that Star Trek, Doctor Who of that era and even another contemporary, the enigmatic The Prisoner, rarely - if ever - attempted. What makes UFO. so memorable today is this great, tragic character of Ed Straker (and also the constant acknowledgment that space adventuring is expensive...and a business...and politics), and the sacrifices he makes to keep us all safe.

So today, in memory of Ed Straker and the quiet war he waged at great cost to his personal life - but could never acknowledge, much less be honored for fighting - I dedicate my 12th Cult TV Friday Flashback to UFO and "Confetti Check A-OK." It's really heartbreaking, and surely one of the top two or three episodes in the series' memorable one season run. If you've never seen this great, underrated sci-fi gem, what's stopping you? It's out on DVD and you can get the whole box set for under 70.00. Don't miss the opportunity to see a show that is, in many ways, a forerunner to The X-Files and
Dark Skies.

1 comment:

  1. John:

    I'd have to agree with you that Confetti Check A-OK is an outstanding episode of UFO.

    I would say that both this one and A Question of Priorities are first rate sci-fi drama that should be seen back-to-back.

    Thanks for not revealing to your readers where the title comes from - that scene is really cute. I'm a sap for romance!