Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cult-TV Flashback: UFO (1969 - 1970): "Sub Smash"

In “Sub Smash,” an alien ship sinks a tanker at sea called the Atlantica. 

The forces of SHADO are concerned about an alien incursion in the ocean -- and the abductions of humans at sea -- and send out Skydiver One to patrol the region of the sinking. 

Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) goes along on the important mission despite the fact that he suffers from claustrophobia, or a “morbid dread of confined spaces,” as he describes the condition.

When Skydiver is struck by the same alien weapon that downed the tanker, Straker orders the failing vessel abandoned.  ‘Sub-smash’ procedures are initiated.

But because the ship is damaged, the airlocks are slow to fill with water and empty and only one crew-member can leave at a time.

Straker determines that he should be the last individual to leave the sinking sub, a position which means he will soon run out of air, and his feelings of claustrophobia will only skyrocket…

“Sub Smash” is another strong Straker-centric episode of Gerry Anderson’s one-season wonder, UFO.

In large part, the hour concerns Straker’s brush with mortality, his bloody-mindedness in overcoming his own claustrophobia and his reckoning about the reasons that life matters.

On the last front, Straker notes that “the older you get, the more precious life becomes.  You grow aware of what life is.”

These words feel very much like a genuine and meaningful “verity” about the human animal. 

I know Straker’s words are true in my own, personal experience.  When I was twenty or so I went about my way feeling invincible and immortal most of the time.   Now, as a husband and a father in my mid-40s, I can readily detect how much I have to lose, and how amazing the gift of life really is.

It makes abundant sense that Straker would have these same feelings about life at this juncture.

Near the end of the episode, the claustrophobia overcomes him, and Straker begins to panic. He breaks out into a sweat, and fears that he is losing his mind.  He begins to see imagery of Mary (Suzanne Neve), his estranged wife. 

In other words, as the air runs out, he begins to see his life flash before his eyes.  He sees his mistakes. He sees his defeats.

But then -- as it often does -- the mission at hand calls Straker back to reality. He learns that Nina Barry (Dolores Mantez) was not able to escape the ship, and that she needs his help.  Summoning all of his trade-mark “bloody-mindedness” (his words, from “Timelash,”) Straker races to save her life.

In my review of “Confetti Check A-OK,” I mentioned the beautiful and expressive cinematography of UFO.  You can see that quality again here, in “Sub Smash,” though it is deployed for less-sensitive and perhaps more sadistic purposes.

Throughout this episode, the camera frequently adopts a cockeyed or tilted angle so that the ubiquitous interior of the listing Skydiver seems off-kilter, or somehow “wrong.” 

Essentially, the camera in “Sub Smash” expresses Straker’s worsening claustrophobia and so we get many tight, sweaty close-ups of Bishop’s face as the commander grapples with his internal demons. 

Another, brilliantly-staged shot, reveals Barry bracing for a trip through the tightest tunnel imaginable.  This composition starts on a close-up of the young officer reckoning with the tunnel, but then the camera zooms back, further and further, revealing the difficulty of her climb. The tunnel seems to stretch to infinity.

I have also written before about, how, in some under-the-surface sense, UFO is all about “cost,” both monetary and personal cost in the war against aliens.  “Sub Smash” finds Straker putting the mission, again, ahead of his own well-being, and even sanity.  The cost of his participation in the mission could be his life, or his (fragile?) mental health, but the episode also points out that Straker achieves victory when he focuses on his task, not the failures of his life.

Unlike “Confetti Check A-OK,” this is not an episode about revisiting the past and past mistakes.  It is about, instead, the urgency of now.

Specifically, Straker becomes almost hopelessly lost in the memories of Mary, and it is only a return to the dire present that serves to refocus his mind.  In this case, his single-mindedness, his capability to address the situation before him, that keeps him alive.

I appreciated the understated nature of the emotions in play here too, both in terms of Straker’s comment about the value of life, and in terms of Alec’s (George Swell) quiet, determined desire to help Straker through a crisis.  Alec is desperate, in fact, to help his claustrophobic friend.  But he never mentions Straker’s condition to the other rescuers.  Instead, we just see the worry cross his face and remain there.

I appreciate this subtle approach.  No need to feed us this information with a spoon.  The characters behave as we would hope they would, and in realistic terms, and there’s something very protective and loyal about Alec’s decision not to reveal Straker’s weakness to the commander’s men.

It would be tempting to term “Sub Smash” a mere bottle story, one that focuses on the cliché of people trapped on a sinking ship at sea. 

But in truth, “Sub Smash” is really about the way that Straker thinks, and the way that he manages his priorities. 

He is strong when he focuses on the mission, weak when he thinks about himself, and his life.  He can conquer his fears by being present -- through mindfulness -- and that approach ties in well with Straker’s remark about understanding what “life is.”

On a very simple but imperative level, life is about surviving the current crisis, and making it to the next one, isn’t it?

That’s how Straker grapples with being stranded in a sinking ship (a metaphor for his personal life?) and how he grabs a life raft to the future, one might even say.  There’s someone to rescue today -- Nina Barry -- and that task gets Commander Ed Straker to tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. Superb episode. I watched this one for the first time in decades two years ago. The terror of claustrophobia is well-rendered; Delores Mentez stuck in that torpedo tube is chilling.

    What makes this series extra authentic for the viewer is the sense that the SHADO crew is made of up dedicated professionals... they're not just actors doing a superficial walk.

    The "physicality" of "Sub Smash" is very impressive which only adds to the episode's ultimate effect. It reminds me in no small way of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's equally brilliant "Submarine Sunk Here"

    You really have good taste in picking the best UFO episodes, John.


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