A Question of Priorities is a key Straker episode. Ed Bishop always had a difficult role to play in UFO, since Straker is usually such a single-minded, humourless man. A Question of Priorities is one of two episodes (Confetti Check A-Ok is the other) which helps to shine a light on his personal life.
After returning his son, Johnny, home to his ex-wife Mary after a day out, the boy is hit by a car. He’s in a critical condition and requires a special anti-allergenic antibiotic that is still on the experimental list. Straker orders that a supply of the drug be flown on a SHADO craft from the USA.
However, news of a crashed UFO in Ireland causes Freeman to divert the craft. Mary is understandably distraught when she learns that something has delayed the arrival of the drugs. So what is the top priority for Straker? Capturing the alien or the life of his son?
This is one of the best stories in the whole run and manages to juggle both plot threads – the rush to save Johnny’s life as well as the mystery of the alien – very well.
As mentioned previously, it brings the human side of Straker into sharp relief. His ex-wife Mary (an excellent performance by Suzanne Neve) clearly has many resentments still lingering (which will be explained in a later episode) and expresses some of this frustration when Straker tells her that something important has delayed the delivery of the antibiotics: “Important!? What can be more important than your own son’s life!?”
The ever-dependable Philip Madoc hasn’t much to do as Mary’s new partner except glower (although he’ll have a better role as a different character in a forthcoming episode).
After visiting his son in the hospital, Straker returns to SHADO HQ. He hasn’t told anyone, not even Freeman, about his son’s accident although Freeman senses that something is amiss. This is another sign of the rigid compartmentalisation of Straker’s life – when he’s at SHADO then nothing else, not even the fact his son is fighting for his life, is allowed to interfere with the job.
The Ireland sub-plot is interesting, we see the alien set up a transmitter in the house of an elderly blind woman (Mary Merrell). The alien apparently wanted SHADO to pick up his transmissions as it seems he wished to defect, an interesting story development.
The ending of the story is bleak beyond belief. The alien is killed by another UFO and Johnny dies as well. Straker’s juggling of priorities couldn’t have turned out worse, SHADO failed to get any information from the alien and he has also lost his son.
If A Question of Priorites tells us anything, it’s that whilst Straker has ordinary, human feelings, his devotion to duty and to SHADO would appear to be his overriding motivation. And it cost him his marriage and now the life of his son.
Whilst the modelwork and the bright day-glo nature of the settings have caused many to bracket UFO along with Anderson’s 1960’s Supermarionation series, there are often much more adult themes running through the series than anything he previously produced. Some of the episodes are fine kids fare, but others, like this one, do certainly pack an emotional punch.