UFO watch (Episode 19 – The Cat With Ten Lives)

cat

Written and Directed by David Tomblin

In my post on The Sound of Silence I mentioned how the second production block of UFO saw stories that sent the series in new directions, and this is certainly the case with The Cat With Ten Lives.

Writer/Director David Tomblin had previously worked on The Prisoner and he brought something of the style of that series (along with guest star Alexis Kanner) to The Cat With Ten Lives.  It’s very much Kanner’s episode (possibly not surprising since he and Tomblin had a lengthy working relationship – stretching back to the film Reach For Glory in 1962, where Tomblin was the assistant director).

Jim Reegan (Kanner) is an Interceptor pilot back on Earth for 48 hours leave.  Along with his wife Jean (Geraldine Moffatt) he’s driving home after a dinner party (which involved a rather strange sequence with a oujia board) when they spot a cat in the middle of the road.  Jean takes a fancy to it and asks to adopt it, but before Reegan can answer they both spot a UFO close by.  They are overpowered and taken to the UFO (Tomblin has some nice shots here from their point of view as they are carried to the alien’s ship).  Reegan awakes to find himself back in his car, along with the cat, but there’s no sign of Jean.

Straker is interested in his story but tells Reegan to report to Moonbase for duty the next day.  He doesn’t seem in any fit state, but Straker is adamant.  Reegan has taken the cat to SHADO HQ and this is where things start to get really odd.  Somehow, the cat is being controlled by the aliens and in turn the cat is controlling Reegan.  And by having free range of SHADO HQ, the cat is able to observe everything that takes place.

Jackson (Vladek Sheybal) has another theory about the aliens – he believes that they may not have any physical form at all, as a recently recovered alien body turned out to be completely human.  He surmises they may be able to “re-program” human brains, thereby providing them with physical vessels to pilot the UFO’s to Earth.  Like all the information that’s drip-fed abuot the aliens it never really goes anywhere, but whilst this could be seen as a weakness it’s also one of the series’ strengths.  UFO poses many questions about the aliens and their intentions but never provides any answers.  Maybe a second series would have come closer to providing some solid facts, but there’s something more frightening about an adversary who is unknowable and intangible,

Reegan is unable to destroy the UFO carrying Jean (thanks to the cat telling him not to!) and Straker recalls him to Earth for a medical assessment.  It has to be said that it’s impressive that the cat was able to control him when Reegan was orbiting the Moon and the cat was on Earth, but distance seems to be no objective.  When he’s back on Earth, the cat has the same amount of control over hm and under its influence Reegan attacks Foster and returns to Moonbase.

By a somewhat tenuous bit of theorising, Straker and Foster decide that Reegan’s being controlled by the cat.  Yes, really.  Straker is able to deal with the moggy and this breaks the control it has over Reegan.  Although this isn’t necessarily good news for him.

The Cat With Ten Lives is, as I’ve said, an odd one.  You can either sit back and enjoy the ride or decide it’s too silly for words.  I favour the former and there’s plenty of other incidental pleasures along with way.  Kanner was always a strange, idiosyncratic actor and this is very much in evidence here.  He’s always compelling though and it’s difficult not to feel sorry for Reegan.  It’s a pity that he wasn’t in more episodes, as the opening section of the story is quite interesting as we see the exhausted Interceptor pilots relaxing in-between engagements.  A few more scenes like this, which have a similar vibe to WW2 pilots resting between missions, would have been welcome.

A purrfect episode, you might say.

UFO watch (Episode 18 – The Sound of Silence)

sound

Written by David Lane and Bob Bell
Directed by David Lane

The Sound of Silence has some good moments, but it’s never been a favourite of mine. The main problem is that since Russell Stone (Michael Jayston) is such an unlikable character, when he’s captured by the alien it’s difficult to be particularly bothered about whether he’s going to be returned safely to his family or taken away to be sliced and diced.

His sister (Susan Jameson) and father (Richard Vernon) are more personable though, so it is possible to feel a little empathy for them as they search for answers but Russell Stone is presented, right from his opening scene, as a cold, officious character. He chases Culley (Nigel Gregory) off their land at the start of the episode (and poor Culley seemed to be doing nothing worse than living rough in the woods).

The unfortunate Culley and his dog are later found dead, murdered by the alien. It seems that both were mutilated, but whatever the alien was looking for he didn’t seem to find it in them. However, Russell Stone is captured intact and placed inside a cylinder, presumably to be flown back to the alien’s planet.

After the UFO is destroyed (another fabulous example of the series’ model-work) the cylinder is recovered and the question faced by SHADO is whether they will be able extract Stone from the cylinder alive and well.

The Sound of Silence is notable since it’s the first episode from the second production block.  The first seventeen episodes were recorded at MGM Borehamwood between April – November 1969.  After the studio was closed, production was put on hiatus until the middle of the next year when a further nine episodes were recorded at Pinewood between May – September 1970.

These nine episodes do feel somewhat different for a number of reasons.  New writers, such as Dennis Spooner and David Tomblin, were brought in and a number of regulars are conspicuous by their absence.  George Sewell (Alec Freeman), Gabrielle Drake (Gay Ellis), Keith Alexander (Keith Ford), Gary Myers (Lew Waterman) and Antonia Ellis (Joan Harrington) are all absent from the second production block due to work commitments elsewhere.

But although some familiar faces are gone, overall the second production block is of a very high standard and sees the programme take some risks as it ventures into previously uncharted territories.  There’s certainly some interesting episodes ahead.

UFO watch (Episode 17 – Sub-Smash)

17 - sub-smash

Written by Alan Fennell
Directed by David Lane

A ship is sunk in the South Atlantic and Straker believes that a UFO, operating undersea, was responsible.  He decides that capture of the UFO is a top priority and elects to lead a hand-picked crew onboard Skydiver to locate the alien craft.

It’s possible to guess the way that the episode will go pretty early on, after Straker admits that he suffers from claustrophobia.  So going aboard Skydiver probably isn’t the wisest move and it does somewhat stretch credibility that he would decide to take command himself after just one ship was attacked.  Surely the normal Skydiver crew would be just as good, if not better?

In story terms, of course, it allows Straker to be put under extreme pressure as well as allowing one of the series’ regulars (Dolores Mantez as Lt Nina Barry) a chance for a decent piece of the action for once.  Mantez had tended to play second or third fiddle on Moonbase, although she does feature more in the later stories, as Gabrielle Drake wasn’t available for the final batch of episodes.

Skydiver is attacked and is unable to surface, so Sub-Smash quickly turns into a classic submarine movie.  Five people are aboard – Straker, Foster, Barry, Chin (Anthony Chinn) and Lewis (Paul Maxwell).  As Skydiver is badly damaged, it will take time for everybody to escape.  Straker elects that Lewis, Chin and Foster will use the available escape hatch one by one, whilst Barry will exit via the crash-dive tube.

Lewis makes it out, but Chin isn’t so lucky – he goes berserk and dies before making an escape attempt.  Foster is reluctant to leave Straker, but does eventually.  This leaves Straker, like the captain of the ship, alone as he awaits the rescue craft.

Barry has already left, via the crash-dive tube, but she can’t get out because it’s jammed.  This provides Mantez with some very tense scenes and she certainly makes full use of the chance to flex her acting muscles, showing fear and desperation as escape seems hopeless.  Barry makes her way back to Skydiver’s main control area and together with Straker they both wait for rescue.  We’ve already seen, in Confetti Check A-O-K, that Barry was one of SHADO’s earliest recruits, and as the two of them desperately hang on (with the oxygen rapidly decreasing) there certainly seems to be something of a spark. She says: “If it had to be anyone…. I’m glad you’re here. I mean, I’m glad…..it’s you.”

Straker barely registers her words though, as the lack of oxygen and claustrophobia really begins to hit him hard.  He starts to hallucinate and replays the death of his son, which we saw in A Question of Priorities. Like the rest of the episode, it’s a wonderfully directed sequence and leads into an interesting jump-cut as we transfer straight to Barry’s hospital bed.

Rather than show Straker and Barry being rescued, they cut directly to the wrap-up scene where everybody (except the unfortunate Chin) can swop stories about what a close run thing it was.  This is initially somewhat jarring, but in retrospect it works very well.

Sub-Smash is very much Ed Bishop’s and Dolores Mantez’s episode and they both rise to the occasion.  Easily one of the best UFO episodes.

UFO watch (Episode 16 – Kill Straker!)

16 - kill straker!

Written by Donald James
Directed by Alan Perry

A lunar module, piloted by Captain Craig and Colonel Foster, is about to land back on the Moon when a UFO is spotted close by.  Straker orders an emergency re-entry, but it’s too late – unknown to SHADO the UFO has intercepted the craft.  But the module is not destroyed, instead the aliens (sounding rather like the Mysterons) subject Craig and Foster to a psychedelic light show and a subliminal message – “Kill Straker!”.

Straker and Freeman arrive at Moonbase to debrief Foster and this is where the fun starts.  When you consider the plans of Craig and Foster, it has to be said that they go about things in very different ways.  Craig favours the direct route, dropping into Straker’s bedroom at night with an empty hypodermic syringe (Craig planned to inject him with air).

Foster plays the longer game.  At first he doesn’t seem to be affected too badly, he’s annoyed about Straker’s override of the lunar module, which put both Foster and Craig’s lives in danger, that would be a natural reaction though.  But he gradually grows more argumentative and begins to question all of Straker’s orders – which raises an interesting issue.  The aliens instruction was “Kill Straker!” not “Kill Straker!  But first criticise his management skills”.

You have to admit that some of Foster’s points do make make sense.  Straker is pushing for a huge investment – he wants another four Moonbases set up over the next ten years as he forecasts increased UFO activity.  Foster asks what evidence he has to back this up, and Straker doesn’t have any – it’s just a feeling.  The question of finance was covered in the episode Conflict, where Straker and Henderson butted heads over the subject.  Straker could be right and there could be more UFO’s heading to Earth, but equally there might not be. Foster accuses Straker of empire building and this is an area that maybe could have been explored a little further in another story.

Freeman returns to Earth and is called to see Henderson. Foster has advised Henderson that Straker is unstable and needs to be removed from duty immediately. Straker, who is still on Moonbase, confronts Foster and the two face off before Foster is eventually overpowered and returned to SHADO HQ.

Foster’s brainwashing is revealed, but how to snap him out of it? As ever, Straker favours the direct mode, goading him beyond breaking point, as he tells Foster:

“I think you said it pretty well yourself. You told me you were going to push for a change of command. A change of command. Ten years. I’ve given ten years of sweat and sacrifice to get SHADO running the way I want it. I won’t let some young punk like you mess things up. You’re a threat Foster, a trouble maker, Now, I can’t fire you and I can’t shelve you, so……”

As Straker later admits, if Foster was going to kill, then it would have been then, under such heavy provocation.  Foster comes close, and the two come to blows, but Foster can’t kill him.  Once Straker has established this, then he’s happy to have him back on the team and tells him that he’ll listen to any reasonable arguments about the Moonbases, provided they do things his way!

Kill Straker! is a very decent episode with some good Moonbase action, the chance to see Straker in pyjamas and a stand up fight between Straker and Foster that looked very real, probably with good reason.  At 44:20 into the episode, Straker hits Foster several times and really drew blood.  Billington instinctively wiped it away, and a mark on Bishop’s white jacket can be seen shortly afterwards.

UFO watch (Episode 15 – E.S.P.)

60269782

 Written by Alan Fennell
Directed by Ken Turner

John Croxley (John Stratton) has a problem. He’s able to read minds, but this E.S.P. isn’t something he can control and it’s driving both him and his wife to despair.

He comes into SHADO’s orbit when a UFO crashes into his house, killing his wife. Being in the presence of SHADO operatives, particularly Straker, means that he instantly knows everything about SHADO and how it operates. Straker and Freeman track the increasingly unstable Croxley down to the ruins of his house. Can they reason with him? Difficult, when he knows everything they’re thinking.

John Stratton is rather good as the twitchy, sweaty Croxley but E.S.P. is an episode that doesn’t really satisfy. There’s the customary wonderful modelwork (the UFO crashing into the house, for example) but it does fall a little flat.  However, there’s a nice spooky feel to the story and Straker, Freeman and Foster all get a share of the action so it’s not totally a damp squib.

Croxley’s proximity to the UFO meant that he was able to read the aliens’ thoughts, so through him we learn something of their intentions. It’s pretty vague stuff, but it helps to make them slightly more tangible as characters.

UFO watch (Episode 14 – Confetti Check A-O-K)

14 - confetti check a-o-k

Written by Tony Barwick
Directed by David Lane

This is one of two key episodes (A Question of Priorities is the other) which examine Straker’s personal life in detail and reveal how it impacts on his other, more secret, life.

When a SHADO operative’s wife gives birth, the cigars are broken out.  Straker is given one and it causes him remember back ten years to when his own son was born.  This framing device enable us to see a much younger Straker, his marriage to Mary (Suzanne Neve) and the early days of SHADO.

This is only one of two episodes (the other is The Pyschobombs) that doesn’t open with the traditional credits sequence.  It’s an early indication that this is going to be quite a different episode as there are no aliens to fight – all the drama here comes from human interactions.

The flashback starts with the marriage of Straker and Mary.  Whilst we know that their marriage broke up and they are now irrecoverably estranged (Mary blames Straker for the death of their child as seen in A Question of Priorities) we get to discover here exactly how their relationship foundered.

When they marry, Straker is still working for the Air Force, but urgent business causes him to cancel their honeymoon.  You know that this is going to the first of many times that he puts duty first.  He’s been called to a meeting with General Henderson (at this time Straker’s immediate boss) who is unable to attend an important conference at the United Nations.  It’s been called to discuss the formation of SHADO and although Henderson had planned to be there, he’s still recovering from the injuries which he sustained from the UFO attack seen in the opening episode Identified.

Straker makes a very favourable impression at the meeting and although he expects Henderson to be made SHADO commander, instead the job is offered to him.  After some soul-searching he agrees, but he can’t tell Mary about it, so he can’t explain to her why he’s never at home.  Even her announcement that she’s pregnant doesn’t seem to make any difference.  He, of course, is torn – he loves his wife but he also has a duty and in the end it’s the duty that wins, meaning that he ultimately loses both his wife and child.

His refusal to explain his constant absences means that his relationship with Mary quickly deteriorates.  Her mother hires a private detective who photographs Straker with a beautiful young woman (Nina Barry).  Straker was with her on SHADO business, of course, but when Mary confronts him, he can’t tell her the truth and this is the final straw – she packs her bags and leaves.  The marriage is over.

Undoubtedly this is Ed Bishop’s episode.  Something of an underrated actor, he was never better than he was here, showing us (at the start of the episode) the younger, happier Straker and what happens to change him into the man we know today.  Confetti Check A-O-K is a very solid character piece that clearly highlights the loneliness of command.  The cost in human lives from the alien’s attacks over the years has been high but this episode shows that personal lives have also been lost.

UFO watch (Episode 13 – Close Up)

13 - close up

Written by Tony Barwick
Directed by Alan Perry

Straker has a idea about how to be proactive in the fight against the aliens.  He plans to place a highly advanced new camera in a probe which will follow a UFO back to its home planet.  They will therefore be able to see, for the first time, pictures of the mysterious home-world of their deadly enemies.

Straker needs a billion dollars for this project, but seems totally confident that he’ll get it.  As he tells Kelly (Neil Hallett) “It’s a space project”.  This helps to anchor UFO very firmly in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (when the series was made) rather than the early 1980’s (the date the programme was meant to be set).  At the time of the first Moon landings, space was seen as the future but as the 1970’s wore on, interest declined and the real-life possibility of a Moonbase, for example, seems remote today.

If the basic story premise of a space camera doesn’t sound particularly interesting, you wouldn’t be far wrong as Close Up is quite a slow moving and uninvolving story.  There’s the odd flash of excitement and, as always, some gorgeous modelwork but overall it’s a damp squib.

It does have a few plus points though.  Although it doesn’t seem to connect to the main story in any way, we spend the first five or so minutes with Skydiver.  We get to see the Skydiver submerge and there’s plenty of time to take a good look at the craft.  Another indication that the episode was underunning, maybe?

The other chief item of interest is the conflict between Straker and Lt Ellis.  Straker has gone to Moonbase in order to keep an eye on the probe and clashes with Ellis.  This is a little odd, since there’s never been any hint of conflict before and to be honest, Straker doesn’t come off well here particularly when he tries to win her around with such compliments as “don’t ever forget, you’re a very attractive girl”.  However this does mean that Gabrielle Drake gets some decent screen time, which even in an undistinguished episode like this, is welcome.

Eventually the pictures come back, but they’re worthless.  An onboard fault has prevented transmission of the range and magnification so there’s no way of judging the size of anything captured.

This then leads us into the closing scene, another odd one, in which Kelly demonstrates to Straker the problem with the pictures by showing him a shot of Lt Ellis, posing very nicely for him in the next room, magnified a thousand times.  Straker seems convinced, especially when he tries it for himself, by zooming into Ellis’ crotch area!

Tony Barwick wrote some of UFO’s best episodes, but he was also responsible for some pretty indifferent stories such as this one.  But much better from him was just around the corner.

L-R - Straker (Ed Bishop), Ellis (Gabrielle Drake) and Kelly (Neil Hallett)
L-R – Straker (Ed Bishop), Ellis (Gabrielle Drake) and Kelly (Neil Hallett)