Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Gerry Anderson's UFO: "Identified"

In 1970 (and in America, in 1971), Gerry and Sylvia Anderson presented 26 riveting hour-long live-action episodes of sci-fi television: UFO.

Set in the far-flung, future year of 1980, this beloved cult series involves a multi-national organization, SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organisation), and its attempts to stop malicious alien incursions on planet Earth.

A splendid example of speculative realism, the series imagines -- again, from  an inception date of the 1969 or so --  a future in which the swinging sixties never ends, so much so that well-established, mature military officers, in 1980, wear radical/punk hair-cuts, and the latest Nehru jacket fashions. 

Modern viewers may find this "futuristic" affectation amusing today, since producers did not imagine the pendulum swing back to conservative fashion and politics in the 1980's, but the series is nonetheless consistent and meticulous in its portrayal of a world in which the swinging 60's becomes the even more swinging 70's and 80's (in terms of fashion, race relation, sexual politics, etc.).

This view of a "progressive" future is coupled with a world in which technological advances explode with great rapidity. Again, however, that explosion is vetted through the context of the Nixon Era. UFO rightly imagines a world in which the computer is ubiquitous, but not the fact that a revolution in "miniaturization" contributes to that ubiquity. So the series is dominated by wall-sized computer panels, with reel-to-reel tapes, and blinking lights.

What remains most intriguing, however, about UFO, may just be its ahead-of-its-time character-touches. The series lead, brilliant portrayed by Ed Bishop, is Commander Ed Straker. He is a driven, workaholic, divorcee. To fight the aliens on Earth, he literally gives up everything and every person in his lie. This does not seem odd to us today, in a world in which the divorce rate has skyrocketed, and technology means that we are never "off" from our jobs. But in 1970, Straker was a new -- and tragic -- brand of hero.

The world of UFO supports the nature of this particular hero. Like the Anderson series that followed it, Space:1999 (1975-1977), UFO imagines a universe of limited resources. During the program's two-dozen or so installments, Straker is constantly at war to get funds for SHADO, since bureaucrats control the purse strings.

Similarly, the aliens themselves, as we learn in the first segment, "Identified," are desperate. While Straker attempts to "harvest" the funds, resources, man-power, and technology to combat his enemy, the enemy is coming to Earth to actually, physically harvest our body parts, to overcome sterility and possible extinction.  This whole idea seems more timely today than it did nearly forty years ago.

"Identified" commences in 1970, as a young Ed Straker, an American Air Force officer barely survives a UFO attack.

Elsewhere, at the same time, a group of British youngsters spy a crashed UFO in the woods, and photograph it. One of the youngsters, however, a girl, is apparently killed, and her body taken by the aliens.

Ten years later, Straker is ensconced as the commander of SHADO, which possesses a base of operations at a movie studio. And the long-ago victim's brother, Carlin, is now an officer in the organization. The various installations of SHADO -- including an orbital satellite, SID, an advanced moonbase, and a submarine/jet combination, Skydiver -- monitor a UFO entering Earth's orbit.

The UFO is shot down by Skydiver, and the alien pilot is recovered from the water. Straker wants to know where the alien is from, who the aliens are, and why they have come to Earth. A medical examination of the pilot provides some troubling answers. The body possesses the organs of Peter Carlin's long-ago dead sister, meaning that the aliens are harvesting humans for transplant surgeries. Straker has the unpleasant task of telling Carlin what finally became of his sister.

"Identified" is a fascinating entrance to the world of UFO, because it accomplishes three tasks in one hour.

First, it introduces the world to the series single-minded lead, Straker. We get a strong sense of the man's mettle, right out the gate. He is serious, dedicated, single-minded, and edgy. He is also, incredibly lonely, and therefore sad.

Secondly, "Identified" introduces the viewer to the many diverse facets of SHADO.  SID is a great and detailed miniature, though Skydiver One does not hold up as well today, perhaps because it is very difficult to get water "right" on miniature sets.

The most fascinating aspect of SHADO's operation, however, is Moonbase. This installation, a precursor to Alpha, is commanded by a woman, Lt. Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake), and most of the lead officers are also women. That's a great move for gender equality in terms of the series' imaginings.  On the other hand, these capable, intelligent women also wear form-fitting breakaway space suits, and Lt. Ellis strips-down in one scene. Also, and for no apparent reason, all the women on the Moon wear purple wigs. Stylish and memorable, yes. Practical? I don't see how.

The introduction of the aliens in "Identified" is also fascinating. After an autopsy at HA, Straker speculates about the alien nature and purpose in a riveting, well-acted and written sequence. These extraterrestrial beings are intelligent and highly advanced, but "doomed to extinction" and "driven by circumstance" to take the abundant Earth's resources. Straker realizes the desperation of his enemy, and how it makes them exceedingly dangerous.

Follow-up episodes of UFO focus on alien gambits to acquire more human bodies, or disable SHADO defenses. Other tales, like "A Question of Priorities" and "Confetti-Check A-OK," contend with Straker's personal sacrifices as commander of Earth's last line of defense.

The second episode in the series, "Exposed" adds the final piece of the program's jigsaw puzzle, a young, "action" hero (and dashing lady's man) in the form of Paul Foster (Michael Billington). Foster is a memorable character, but UFO, the series, is all about Straker, a man of iron will and discipline, and a great tragic hero. He makes the series unforgettable, right alongside some of the more mind-bending tales (such as "Timelash,"or "The Long Sleep.")

1 comment:

  1. In one of the UFO novelizations, the purple wigs are supposed to be anti-static. Why the woman personnel can't just cut their hair short is never explained.

    And the opening credit sequence of this show has got to be one of the best ever.


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