Written by Tony Barwick
Directed by Ken Turner
Mindbender might be my favourite UFO episode. It’s certainly the most daring, as it comprehensively breaks the fourth wall.
A UFO crashes on the Moon and astronaut Andy Conroy (Al Mancini) retrieves a strange rock from the wreckage. Once back at Moonbase, he starts to lose his grip on reality. He’s an avid fan of Westerns, which may explain why he sees all of his colleagues turn into Mexican bandits.
Initially, he sees the bandits roaming Moonbase, which is odd enough but as he descends further into madness, to him Moonbase has become a dangerous Mexican town full of outlaws who he has to fight to the death. During the scenes both Ken Turner’s direction and Barry Gray’s music offer numerous nods to the Spaghetti Westerns so beloved by Conroy.
UFO is the last place you’d expect to see a Western (except on the back-lot) and it’s this juxtaposition which is so startling. Conroy is killed, but the mystery behind his madness remains unsolved. The rock ends up back at SHADO HQ where it infects Beaver James (Charles Tingwell) who becomes convinced that SHADO has been infiltrated by the aliens.
It then finds its way into Straker’s office, and this is where the heart of the episode lies. Straker and Henderson are having one of their usual arguments. “Let’s get back to realities” says Henderson and immediately afterwards, somebody says “Cut and print”.
The camera pulls back to reveal that SHADO HQ is nothing more than a film set and Straker is actually Howard Byrne, the leading actor. A dazed Straker exits onto the studio grounds and makes his way over to Theatre 7, where the rough-cut of his “show” is being screened.
There then follows a series of clips from Identified and A Question of Priorities. This could be seen as a way of saving some money by recycling footage, but it’s a key part of the episode. Straker is forced to watch the death of his son, whilst his co-star Mike (Michael Billington) leans over and tells him how it’ll make a great episode.
One recurring theme of UFO is how emotionally damaged Straker is, from both the break-up of his marriage and the death of his son, so it’s heartbreaking to see him have to relive those moments again. Ed Bishop is wonderful here – he says very little, but you’re left in no doubt as to the impact these shots have.
But even when he’s driven to the point of madness, the steel-trap of Straker’s mind still functions and he works out a way to get back to reality. He goes back into the office and repeats his argument with Henderson. As he begins to take control over the situation, things start to return to normal and, in effect, the fourth wall (which was shattered) now reforms, ensuring that he’s back where he belongs.
It takes a certain amount of nerve to do a story like Mindbender, but it certainly pays off. There’s a danger inherent in showing us “behind the scenes” as the camera reveals to us just how flimsy and small the sets are – Skydiver, Moonbase control, etc. Of course, it’s also lovely to have this peek behind the scenes and understand a little about how the series was made.
Possibly there might have been a feeling that UFO probably wouldn’t be renewed, so they might as well go for broke story-wise. Whatever the reason, I’m glad they did, as Mindbender not only works as a character piece for Straker, it also offers an ironic comment on the artifice of programme making. Wonderful stuff.