Tuesday, April 23, 2019

UFO: "Survival"

A UFO lands undetected on the lunar surface, and an alien sniper makes it to within range of Moonbase. There, the alien opens fire on one of the personnel domes, and shatters the glass of a window. A SHADO operative is killed during explosive decompression, but Foster (Michael Billington), who is commanding Moonbase, survives the attack.

An all-out hunt for the alien and the UFO is launched using moon-hoppers, and when the ship is detected, interceptors are called in to destroy it.  Unfortunately, in the blast, Foster's moon mobile is damaged.

He is left on the moon's surface to die, and must team up with the alien sniper to survive until a rescue can occur.  The alien and the human become uneasy allies. But when a rescue team arrives, they see the alien pilot as a murderer, and not a possible friend, and shoot him dead.

Meanwhile, Commander Straker (Ed Bishop), believing Paul Foster dead, attempts to convince Lt. Mark Bradley (Harry Baird) to assume command of the installation, even though Bradley fears that racism is still alive, even in SHADO.

"Survival," only the fourth episode of UFO shot, does not stand up as one of the most scintillating hours of the short-lived but well-remembered series. 

The "My Enemy/My Ally" concept -- of enemies learning to become friends to overcome a mutual threat --- is a long-lived trope of cult-TV, and not much interesting happens in "Survival," in part because Foster and the alien can't really talk to one another.  The space suits, though marvels of design and quite realistic looking, actually serve to hinder the performances and the connection which Foster and the alien are supposed to share.  

On the other hand, it is true that "Survival" is one of the earliest stories employing this particular trope, which was later seen on series such as Planet of the Apes (1974), Land of the Lost (1974-1977), Jason of Star Command (1979), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981). Galactica 1980 (1980) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). 

In stories of this type, enemies of unlike background and nature must team up to survive some hostile environment, such as a desolate planet ("The Enemy), or a cave-in after an earthquake ("The Trap"). Here, the desolate location is the moon. Often, these stories end with understanding forged, though "Survival" ends in jingoistic fashion with the alien being murdered by humans, even over Paul's protests.

One certainly hopes that the officers responsible for the alien's murder were punished, or at least chewed out by Straker following their execution of the alien. Here, after all, is a once in a life-time opportunity to capture a living alien being, and one who seems, at least in this case, to be friendly. Imagine the source of information/intelligence this alien could have been. It's a waste in many ways for him to be mindlessly gunned down on the lunar surface  A golden opportunity is squandered..

More interesting perhaps than the now-familiar My Enemy, My Ally story line of "Survival" is the subplot about a SHADO officer named Mark Bradley. This officer -- a man of color -- is Straker's selection to take command of of Moonbase, but he feels he is not really wanted in the role. Straker argues with him, noting that racial prejudice "burned itself out" five years ago, and is no longer a factor in decision-making on Earth. Even if Mark was "polka-dotted" with "red-stripes," Straker sees him as the best person to assume command of Moonbase.

This scene plays two ways today. 

First, it is wonderful that UFO imagined an end to racism as early as 1980, and set out to create an international/multi-cultural crew for its heroic organization, SHADO. The ideal here is that racism dies before the 20th century does. If only this were true. At the same time, it is rewarding that series writers in 1970 understood that a man of color could be the best man for this particular job, in a competitive, high-stakes career. 

Today, however, Straker's hostility towards Bradley, bluntly informing him that HE is the only one who still believes in racism, comes off in today's era as paternalistic and a bit condescending. Of course, Straker is one of the all-time great science fiction TV heroes/characters, but today, it is unfortunate to see a white man in power lecturing to a black man that racism is not the problem; rather it is the black man's perception of the world that is concerning.  

Of course, to expect a program made in 1970 to conform to 21st century ideals of diversity and race relations is absurd.  It is fascinating, however, to witness how a sci-fi series attempted to be forward-looking in one way, but could not see how that same approach would be viewed as condescending forty years later.

This reminds me of how Star Trek -- a future of race and gender equality -- would occasionally have Spock make comments about how women were more illogical than men. Yikes! Cases like this are a reminder that artists can possess the very best intentions, yet it is still difficult to overcome the conventional wisdom of one's day, even if the intent is to be forward looking and positive.

Next week: "Computer Affair."

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