My rating: *****
I first saw this series back in the early 1970s when it originally went to air on Australian television. I was fascinated by it at the time but it was not until 1995 during a visit to France that my vague and distant memories of the series were reactivated. It was playing on French television every evening in fully dubbed splendour.
UFO was Gerry Anderson’s (of Thunderbirds fame) first live action series and very stylish it is too. It is a monument to early 70s futurism – set in 1980 with ultra stylish fashion by Sylvia Anderson, futuristic gull wing cars, state of the art pre-microchip technology, lovingly crafted models of a whole array of vehicles, groo-oovy music complete with Hammond organ, as well as electronic music. It is of course a bit slow by today’s frenetic TV standards and the plots are resolutely and interestingly downbeat in true dystopian 1970s fashion.
The series centres around a secret government organization, Shado, (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation) which operates underneath a film studio in Britain defending the earth against a dying race of aliens who visit earth to harvest human organs to prolong their existence. This overall structure allows for stories which also focus on political machinations and character interaction as well as the examination of the foibles of human behaviour.
UFO still has a very active fan base. In the mid to late 1990s I subscribed to the fan email list for a couple of years. What is interesting about the series is that attracts fans of both genders who while I was on the list at least played out in classical fashion the strict gender roles that are often apparent in fandom. At one stage on the list the female slash fans left in high dudgeon, fed up with the male fans’ concentration on building models which replicated those in the series. The classic case of females being focused on ‘relationships’, as opposed to a male focus on hardware and plot points.
What struck me in a recent reviewing of the series was the ubiquitous smoking and the presence of a well-used alcohol dispenser (very futuristic) in the head of Shado, Commander Straker’s, office complete with labels such as ‘bourbon’ and ‘whiskey’. In our current health obsessed times these reckless smoking and drinking practices so prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s are shocking to contemporary sensibilities. Smoking on Moonbase – even more so – given the air and life support constraints in such an environment. On this front, another 1970s TV series Department S is a shining beacon, featuring a writer of detective fiction and secret agent Jason King in the full glory of his outrageous sideburns at the wheel of his Rolls, flute of champagne in one hand, cigarette in the other. Driving with your hands full indeed!
I mentioned above the alcohol dispenser sporting various helpful labels. Amusingly absolutely everything is labeled in the series. The videophone on Straker’s desk is labelled ‘video phone’. A bug-tracking device that the second in command, Alec Freeman, uses in one episode is labeled ‘bug detector’ or something along those lines. There are also meals dispensers labeled ‘American’, ‘Russian’, ‘French’ and so on on Moonbase. Perhaps the crew working on the set needed guidance or perhaps the audience needed to know what all these futuristic props were for. But one has to wonder at an allegedly top secret organisation which clearly labels all its mobile units and planes with its own logo (Shado).
Returning to alcohol, one might also mention the ubiquitous use of drugs as well in UFO. Legal, illegal and experimental drugs are a constant feature.
In one episode, ‘The Long Sleep’, which was originally withdrawn from broadcast because of its drug references, two dropouts experiment with LSD and we see a long psychedelic scene of them tripping. The consequences of this experimentation are dire indeed, with abduction by aliens and death as the ultimate penalties. The girl comes out of a coma ten years after taking the drugs only to get injected with more drugs – a dangerous memory drug by an alien agent and also by Shado. Death ensues. Truth and amnesia drugs and other experimental drugs are also used liberally by Shado on its own personnel, on members of the public and on aliens. A member of Shado whose wife is a little anxious showers her with offers of sleeping pills which she obligingly takes.
To our morally disapproving eyes in the early millennium this all seems very shocking indeed.