Gerry Anderson’s first foray into television live action drama was this fondly remembered series, created by Gerry & Sylvia Anderson and Reg Hill.
UFO is set some ten years in the future and depicts a world coming under increasing attack from a mysterious race of aliens. In the opening episode we learn that they are harvesting organs from their human victims although their ultimate aims remain nebulous.
In order to combat this threat, a secret global organisation called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation) is established. SHADO has various bases but the key one is located underneath the Harlington-Straker film studios in the UK.
SHADO’s commander is Ed Straker (Ed Bishop) who juggles a public job as chief executive of the film studio whilst in private he leads SHADO’s continuing battle against the alien menace.
His second-in-command is Colonel Alec Freeman (George Sewell) whilst Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billington) is a new recruit introduced in the fourth episode Exposed.
Incoming UFO’s are initially tracked by supercomputer SID (Space Intruder Detector). The forward line of defence is launched from Moonbase, which has three Interceptor spacecraft fitted with nuclear warheads. The Moonbase operations are co-ordinated by Lt Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake), Lt Joan Harrington (Antonia Ellis) and Lt Nina Barry (Dolores Mantez) amongst others.
If the UFOs manage to evade the Interceptors and penetrate the Earths atmosphere then SHADO calls upon various other forms of defence, including the submarine Skydiver which can launch the interceptor aircraft Sky One, whilst Mobile land vehicles can also be called upon if the UFO has made a successful landing.
Although Gerry Anderson had, until this time, been responsible for a series of successful children’s Supermarionation series (Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet) UFO was very much a move into a more adult form of storytelling, despite the fact that visually it had much in common with his Supermarionation series.
As with those series, special effects were supervised by Derek Meddings whilst the various vehicles were designed by Meddings along with his assistant Michael Trim. The model-work and effects were the clearest links to the previous Anderson shows, but the story content was much darker (although elements of Captain Scarlet had probably begun this process).
The concept of human beings being forcibly used as organ donors is a fairly horrifying concept whilst later episodes such as The Long Sleep and Timelash are notable examples of stories that delve a little deeper than many sci-fi series of the same period. Timelash, for example, sees Straker inject himself with a drug (X 50 stimulant) in order to stay awake during the mysterious time freeze with the result that it’s not clear what part of the story actually happened and what may be a result of his drug-induced dreams.
Elsewhere in the series there was more emphasis placed on human relationships than was often seen in science fiction programmes of the time. Although it may seem somewhat stilted and naive today, the interracial relationship in The Computer Affair was noteworthy at the time of its original broadcast whilst several episodes (Confetti Check A-OK and A Question of Priorities) show exactly how Straker is unable to juggle the demands of his secret job and his family life.
Whilst these, and other examples are laudable, it’s undeniable that UFO’s sexual politics were fairly underdeveloped as very often women are simply used as eye-candy, which can be either amusing (particularly Alec Freeman’s various toe-curling chat up lines) or irritating, depending on your point of view.
But while parts of the series have badly dated (and the mystery of the purple wigs was never explained) there is much to enjoy across the 26 episodes of UFO. So as I begin a rewatch of the series, I’ll blog a short review of every story which will hopefully capture some of the key points of each episode.