Tuesday, July 30, 2019

UFO: "The Long Sleep"

In "The Long Sleep," Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) learns that a woman he accidentally hit with a car ten years earlier, Catherine Fraser (Tessa Wyatt), has awakened from her decade-long coma. He goes to visit her in a local hospital, and the young woman recounts an incredible story.

Catherine reports how she met another hippie, Tim (Christian Roberts), and they left London together. They then shared a day together -- along with some liberal recreational drug use -- at an abandoned rural farmhouse.  While experiencing their drug trip, they encountered aliens, who were planting a device of some kind in the farmhouse basement.

The hippies stole a piece of the device, and the aliens sought to get it back, even as the addled youngsters failed to realize the danger to themselves, and to the planet. Tim fell to his death, after jumping from the farmhouse roof. Catherine fell unconscious only to see Tim being carried away by the aliens the following morning.

Catherine fled the scene, and then dropped the bomb piece somewhere...but all these years later, she doesn't remember where. 

Straker fears that the alien weapon is a bomb, and remembers that an earthquake in Turkey from around the same time, killed 87,000 people. Would this bomb decimate England in the same fashion?

Also watching the awakened Catherine is Tim, now under alien control for the long decade. He uses dangerous alien drug to learn where Catherine dropped the bomb activation piece, and the aliens set out to complete a murderous plan a decade in the making.

In the end, the bomb is found, and exploded safely in space, but Catherine dies, leaving Straker moved at her story, and strange fate.

I will confess it right out the gate: "The Long Sleep" is one of my favorite episodes of UFO. In fact, it may have actually been the first episode of the series I ever saw, back when the Sci-Fi Channel was running the series on weekends in 1994. On my first re-watch in over a decade, I found the episode emotionally-moving, stylishly-filmed, and mind-blowing, especially in the weird climactic reveal of Catherine's rapid aging, as a result of Tim draining the life from her. It's a weird, but wholly inventive hour.

I love the story of Tim and Catherine, two kids minding their own business (circa 1970, the hippie era), tuning out of the world, and finding each other, only for things to go tragically wrong. Tim talks meaningfully about how he once desired to becomes a doctor, and in a horrible perversion of that dream, he becomes (or masquerades as) an alien-controlled "doctor." It is a horrifying outcome, but fascinating considering the counter-culture times. Tim wanted to check out of life, and give up his dream of being a physician, but then is forced, basically to become a "zombie" within the system, controlled by the aliens.  Catherine, so much a part of the youth-culture, grows old before her time, losing the cherished youth and freedom, in a similar fashion. She is recruited, basically, by both the aliens and Straker in a  deadly war, and the life is literally drained from her by her service.

It has always fascinated me how the hippie generation sold their souls for corner offices and stock options in the  yuppie 1980's, but "The Long Sleep," sub-textually, at least, is about how youthful idealism gets drained away, bit-by-bit by a corrupt but powerful establishment/system, and freedom, idealism, and hope are lost, along with youth.

There are some people who look at hippies, no doubt, as destructive or irresponsible, but "The Long Sleep" shows them, like everyone else, eventually trapped by a system that mainstreams them into roles they don't necessarily want to play. My great friend and the script-editor for Space:1999 (1975-1977), Johnny Byrne, once termed the 1970's the "wake-up" from the "hippie dream," and "The Long Sleep" feels like a perfect visualization and exploration of that idea. The hippies thought they were charting something new, meaningful, and permanent -- a new way of living -- only to see their independence and counter-culture movement subsumed into the larger culture. Nothing changed, but the 1980's era of conspicuous consumption consumed them.

I admire the stylish touches of "The Long Sleep," from the slow-motion photography to the sepia-tone flashbacks, to the "bad trip" aspects featuring strobing red and blue lights (usually associated with the aliens.)  The episode is weird and haunting (just like I prefer them). There's a surreal nightmare sense to Tim and Catherine's deaths.  Tim transforms into a skeleton before our eyes, after his alien-sponsored mission is complete, and Catherine dies an old crone, since Tim was leeching life from her all along, to stay alive. These fates are horrific, and weird, and dream-like, and somehow speak to the idea of an epoch -- the hippie counter-culture -- living on borrowed time, as the mainstream culture also leeches life away from it.'

The episode also serves as a unique meditation on drug use. The recreational drugs that Tim and Catherine used impede their judgement, but make them feel free and unfettered. They find a crate of clothes and put on the clothes they want; the identities they desire. Ten years later, the drugs forced on Catherine by the establishment (human and alien) kill her.  One drug, used willingly, frees her. The other, used by Tim, against her will and knowledge, ultimately kills her.

"The Long Sleep" is also, a bit surprisingly, a very strong Straker-focused episode. He feels enormous guilt about striking Catherine with his car, and embodies a father's care about her. It is clear she is not simply a means to an end for him (as she is for Paul Foster, who is very cold-blooded here). Ed cares about Catherine, and wants to explain to her why it is necessary to give her a second dose of the alien drug, to find the bomb. He knows, basically, that he is killing her, and there is a softness, gentleness in her approach to her.  Perhaps her death reminds him of John, his son, who died in a hospital in "A Question of Priorities." 

I have always found the last scene of "The Long Sleep" haunting. Straker walks out of the hospital  alone, and stops in the courtyard, where he and Catherine once shared a visit. He pauses very briefly, and then continues on his way out, without a word, Colonel Lake (Wanda Ventham) moving to catch up with him.  This is our last view of Straker in "The Long Sleep," and in the entire series, actually. He walks away, haunted by another loss in his life, and in this unending war with the aliens. He walks away, meditating on the cost of that war -- a perennial theme of UFO -- and  strides into the cult-TV history books.

As most sci-fi fans know, UFO morphed into Space:1999, essentially, and for that I will always be grateful, since I some such a fan of that 1970's space opera.  And yet, one cannot help wonder what a second season of this format would have brought to audiences. I feel like the last several episodes of UFO, from "Mind Bender" to "Timelash," to "The Long Sleep" took real chances, were ambitious, and were, finally, brilliantly-executed. Had the series continued for another season or two in this format, with the remarkable Ed Bishop further developing the haunted Straker, the series would be better remembered today, no doubt.

"The Long Sleep" really gets it right, and I must note, for the record that there is no Skydiver, no Moonbase, no Interceptors, no mobiles, in it.  It is a story not about technology, but about people and relationships, and I feel like this was the vision of the future that UFO always wanted to enunciate, in tragic tales such as "A Question of Priorities," or "Confetti Check A-OK." Another season might have seen the writers, directors, and performers really make that vision a consistent reality, instead of the scattershot one we see develop in fits and starts in this single season.

Despite its large cast, the main takeaway from UFO is Ed Straker, and Bishop's focused, consistent , brilliant performance. He created in Straker a man who gave up everything in a time of war, and was haunted by his choices.  I would have loved, circa 1996 or so, to see a movie starring Bishop as an older Straker, reflecting on the choices he made. Would he have been alone? Lost? Would he have been appreciated, or a name lost to history, his suffering solitary forgotten?

With that thought, we leave this retrospective of UFO, a truly memorable entry in the cult-TV Valhalla. Next week, I begin a retrospective of The Evil Touch, a low-budget, Australian horror anthology from roughly the same era, the early 1970's.

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