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."

The Cult-TV Faces of: Drones (UAV)

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