Tuesday, July 02, 2019

UFO: "Ordeal"

In "Ordeal," Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billington) finishes up a tour on Skydiver and then heads home, where he parties (drinks...) heavily before reporting to a SHADO health spa in England. 

There, he gets locked in a sauna. Soon, the aliens attack the spa, murdering the medical staff and SHADO officers, and capturing Paul. They take him aboard their craft, and force him to breathe liquid for the long interstellar journey to their world.

Skydiver's Captain Waterman refuses to shoot down the UFO carrying Paul away from Earth, but Moonbase scrambles interceptors to stop it in space. Foster's UFO is shot down, and explodes on the lunar surface, but he survives the inferno. SHADO's doctors attempt to revive him, and free him from the liquid atmosphere of his helmet.  It goes poorly, however, and...

...Foster awakens, having passed out in the sauna in the health spa.

"Ordeal" is widely regarded as the worst episode of UFO. It has earned this reputation, largely, on the basis of its final act twist. That twist, of course, is that Paul Foster dreams the entire adventure, and that the abduction and ensuing action are not real...just a sauna-induced fantasy/nightmare.

It is true that this ending is underwhelming (and a common narrative cheat in Anderson productions -- see Space:1999 "A Matter of Life and Death" and "War Games.")  However, on the other hand, the episode is visually dynamic, and one of the few stories to take on (other than "Mindbender") the perspective of a single character. 

In this instance, the character is Paul Foster.

In terms of visual style, "Ordeal" plays, at first, in psychedelic fashion. Foster attends a wild party  (wearing a truly hideous gold blouse) and drinks and dances to excess. The camera literally goes wobbly, as if under the influence itself, as he spends all night drinking. Accompanied by "Get Back" on the soundtrack, the party sequence depicts a night of substance-abuse, hedonism and debauchery.

On the second front, the episode, overall plays like Foster's "bad trip," and at times, adopts his point-of-view during it. When Paul is taken to Moonbase for instance, we see through his eyes (and through the alien green fluid) as Ellis and the others attempt to restore him to breathing normal air. During the abduction, we see through his "foggy" vision at the alien who carries him away, too.  They are blurred and slowed, as if the moment is not quite real.

The most disturbing moment of the episode occurs when Ellis attempts to free Foster from the alien helmet and it begins jetting out torrents of the green liquid. We see Foster choking and sputtering out the fluid as he begins to drown. Fortunately, it is all a dream.

But, dig a little deeper, and the episode "Ordeal" is surely a cautionary tale about excess. Foster begins the journey by drinking heavily and forgoing sleep, but by the end is, actually, paying the piper for his behavior, vomiting and retching from the aftermath of the experience. The visions he experiences while under the influence, simultaneously, go from relaxing to nightmarish. It is indeed, a "bad trip," and this idea would have a lot of currency among the youth of Great Britain (and America for that matter) circa 1970-1971.

So, if one chooses to look at "Ordeal" as an expression of Paul's hedonistic life-style, and not a traditional UFO adventure, maybe it isn't such a complete loss after all.  It is a visual representation of what it feels like to drink, party, forgo sleep, and then see the pleasant buzz turn dark.  Kinda neat, or ambitious, for a one-off episode.

The obvious drawback in gazing at "Ordeal" in this fashion involves some specific moments, however.  We see a number of scenes of Straker and Alec at SHADO HQ, for example, talking about how to get Paul back safely, or destroy the craft he is in, so he doesn't suffer a fate worse than death.  

These scenes must also be a product of Paul's imagination, if we are to assume the episode represents his "dream," yet they are not performed or filmed in such a way that they seem odd, or off, or like the product of a subjective hallucination or drug/alcohol-fueled delusion. On the contrary, they seem like perfectly normal scenes we've seen a dozen times with the aforementioned characters.  

Although it would have sacrificed the surprise ending, I submit it that it would have been better to shoot these sequences in subjective fashion as well, so the episode is all of a piece, stylistically.  As it stands, "Ordeal" doesn't quite hold together. 

It's not actually the final twist that is so bad, it's the fact that the many scenes at SHADO feel like cheats, because Paul would obviously not be privy to these moments, or, in his compromised state, would visualize them in a way that should seem, well, abnormal.

Still, "Ordeal" is well-filmed, and a nice showcase for Michael Billington, who rolls with the punches here. It's nice that Foster is not strait-jacketed into being a perfect little marionette, always playing the hero, and always doing what is right and proper. This episode reveals that he enjoys wine, women and song a little too much, perhaps.

Next week: "The Man Who Came Back."

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