UFO (TV series)

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This article is about the television show. For other uses, see UFO (disambiguation).

Template:Infobox television

UFO was a British television science fiction series created by Gerry Anderson. Anderson had previously made a number of very successful marionette-based children's science fiction series including Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. He had also made one live-action science fiction movie, Doppelgänger, also known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, and now felt ready to move into live-action television and aim at a more adult market.

UFO was Anderson's first series with live actors, but he had long experience with the one-hour format, good scripts, and exemplary production values. The show was aimed at children, but not exclusively, and also had broad appeal for teenagers, involving more realistic violence and remarkably 'adult' storylines.

UFO first aired in the UK in 1970 and in US syndication over the next two years. There were 26 episodes including the pilot, filmed over the course of more than a year, with a five-month production break caused by the closure of the show's original studio.

An idiosyncrasy of the series is that the term "UFO" is usually pronounced as a word, "you-foh", and not as "you-eff-oh" as is more common with the acronym. This is particularly true of the lead character, Ed Straker. Technically speaking the series title should properly be pronounced "you-foh" as well. However, the "you-foh" pronounciation was not consistently applied and some supporting characters use the more traditional form.

In a sad coincidence, lead actors Ed Bishop and Michael Billington died in June 2005, within five days of each other.

Contents

Plot overview

Missing image
2aliens_on_desert_planet.jpg
A fan-made CGI illustration of two aliens from the series.

The premise of the show is that in the near future (a fictional version of 1980) the Earth is under attack from aliens. Their spacecraft can cross the vast distance between their planet and ours, but are only large enough to carry three or four people, and can only survive for a few hours in Earth's atmosphere before disintegrating or exploding. In flight they are surrounded by horizontally-spinning vanes and emit a distinctive pulsing electronic whine (actually produced by series composer Barry Gray on an Ondes Martenot). They defend themselves with laser-type weapons, but can be destroyed by conventional explosives. The alien ships can, however, survive underwater, and one episode deals with the discovery of a secret undersea alien base. The alien astronauts themselves are armed with machine gun-like weaponry that appear to shoot bullet-like projectiles.

Captured aliens are almost human in appearance but breathe a green oxygenated liquid, which is believed to cushion their bodies against the extreme acceleration of interstellar flight. To protect their eyes from the liquid the aliens wear opaque contact lenses with small pinholes for vision. The show's opening sequence begins by showing the (remarkable for the time) image of the removal of one of these lenses from an obviously real eye with a pair of forceps – a sight which upset some squeamish viewers.

To defend against the UFOs, a secret organisation called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation) is established. Operating behind the cover of the Harlington-Straker Studios movie studio in England, SHADO is headed by Commander Ed Straker (played by Ed Bishop), a former United States Air Force Colonel who poses as the studio's chief executive. In reality, this was a clever cost-saving move by the producers -- the studio was the actual studio where the series was being filmed, originally the MGM British Studios, later Pinewood Studios.

Typical of Anderson productions, the studio idea was both practical and cost-effective for the production and a neat plot device. It removed the need to build an expensive exterior set for the SHADO base, while providing that all-important "secret" cover (concealment and secrecy are always central themes in Anderson dramas) with the trademark ring of plausibility. A studio was a business where unusual events and routines would not be noticed, and where comings and goings at odd times, the movement of vehicles, equipment, people and materiel would not excite undue interest and could easily be explained away as "sets", "props", or "extras".

A regular Anderson leitmotif was the concept of the mechanical conveyor - e.g., the automatic boarding tubes of Stingray and the Thunderbird craft. In UFO, this appeared in the guise of Straker's "secret" office, which doubled as a lift that takes him down to the SHADO control centre located beneath the studio.

SHADO has a variety of high-tech hardware and vehicles at its disposal to implement a layered defense of Earth. Early warning of alien attack would come from SID (Space Intruder Detector), a computerized tracking satellite that constantly scans for UFO incursions into the solar system. The forward line of defence is MoonBase from which the three Lunar Interceptor spacecraft with nuclear missiles are launched. The second line of defense includes SkyDiver, a submarine mated with the submersible, undersea-launched Sky One interceptor aircraft which would attack UFOs in earth atmosphere. The last line of defense are ground units including the armed, tank-like SHADO Mobiles, fitted with caterpillar tracks. Special effects, as in all Anderson's marionette shows, were supervised by Derek Meddings.

The show's concept was very dark for its time - the basic premise was that the alien invaders are coming to collect human bodies to use as involuntary organ transplant donors. A later episode, "The Cat with Ten Lives", contains a particularly sinister plot point suggesting that the UFO pilots are not humanoid aliens at all, but are in fact human abductees under the control of the alien intelligences.

The show also featured realistic, believable relationships between the human characters to a far greater extent than usual in a typical science fiction series, showing the clear influence of American programs like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek and British action series such as Danger Man. One early episode clearly established an interracial romance between two continuing characters (something that was uncommon on British TV in those days), while others showed the heroes making mistakes with sometimes fatal consequences. And relatively few episodes of the series actually had happy or (for the characters) satisfying endings.

One especially dramatic episode is almost entirely devoted to the breakdown of Straker's marriage under the strain of maintaining his secret identity. Another hinges on Straker having to make an agonising life-or-death choice -- to rescue his critically-injured son by diverting an aircraft carrying SHADO mobiles to deliver life-saving medical supplies, or to attempt a last-chance intercept against an incoming UFO.

Another episode concerns a plot by a woman and her lover to murder her husband. When they accidentally kill a UFO pilot instead, SHADO intervenes and doses the guilty pair with amnesia drugs. But Straker realises the drugs will not affect their motivation, which means they will go ahead with their murder plot - and SHADO cannot interfere without blowing its cover.

Some critics complained that the emphasis on down-to-earth relationships weakened the show's science fiction premise and were also a means of saving money on special effects. The money-saving argument may have been true to a limited extent, but Anderson had always hoped to direct live action TV drama and although the marionette shows helped him develop impressive skills in effects and scripting, he had always considered them as essentially being a way of keeping in work and earning money while he tried to break into "real" TV. Others counter that the characters are more rounded than in other science fiction shows and that sci-fi concepts and special effects did not preclude realistic action and interaction and believable, emotionally engaging plots.

UFO confused broadcasters in both Britain and the United States who could not decide if it was a program for adults, or for children (the fact Anderson was primarily associated with children's programming did not help matters). This confusion - coupled with erratic broadcasts - are considered as contributing factors in its cancellation, although UFO is credited with opening the door to moderately successful runs of later live-action, adult-oriented programming by Anderson such as The Protectors and Space: 1999.

As with all the later Anderson series, the special effects, supervised by Derek Meddings, were of the highest quality and outstanding for their day, given the relatively limited resources at the team's disposal. The space sequences involving the Interceptors and UFOs are very well shot (showing the technical improvements that had come along since Kubrick's 2001), with tight editing, fast action, and spectacular explosions.

In a clever refinement of the underwater effect developed for Stingray, Meddings' team devised a disconcerting effect -- a double-walled visor for the alien space helmets which could be gradually filled from the bottom up with blue-dyed water. When filmed from the appropriate angle it produced a very convincing illusion of the helmet filling up and covering the astronaut's face.

After the 26 episodes were completed plans were drawn up for a sequel to be called UFO: 1999 which would have been set in a much bigger Moonbase. A subplot of the episode "Kill Straker!" sees Straker negotiating with SHADO's financial supporters for funding to build more moonbases within 10 years, which could be seen as a prologue to the UFO: 1999 concept. When American broadcasters dropped their support for a second season of UFO, the idea was dropped, but a couple of years later the concept was revised into an even more far-fetched story about the moon being blown out of orbit and Moonbase along with it - Space: 1999. Some of the uniforms worn by SHADO personnel would be recycled for the later series, and the Eagle spacecraft used in Space: 1999 were originally designed for UFO Year 2.

As with many Anderson productions, the series generated a range of desirable and well-executed merchandising toys based on the SHADO vehicles. The classic Dinky die-cast range of vehicles - quite large by the standards of the day - featured robust yet finely-finished products and included Straker's futuristic gull-wing gold car, the tracked SHADO mobile and the missile-bearing Lunar Interceptor. Like the Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet ranges, the original Dinky toys are now prized collectors items. All the major vehicles, characters, and more have been produced in model form many times over by a large number of licencee companies; the Anderson shows and their merchandise have always had widespread popularity, but they are especially popular in Japan.

The complete series has been released on DVD in the UK and in North America. Bonus features include a commentary by Anderson on the pilot episode "Identified", and an actor's commentary by Bishop on the episode "Sub-smash". There are also some deleted scenes and lots of stills and publicity artwork.

Characters

UFO had a large ensemble cast, and many of its members would come and go during the course of the series, with a number of actors - most notably George Sewell and Gabrielle Drake - leaving the series during the production break that occurred when the series had to change studios midway through production. It is established early on that SHADO personnel rotate between positions, so the occasional disappearance of characters - some of whom would later return in other positions - fits in with the concept of the series. Also, due to the scheduling of the series which did not reflect the production order, some episodes featuring departed cast members were not actually aired until late in the series, giving the impression that no major cast changes occurred. These are the major recurring characters in the series:

Missing image
UFOEllis.jpg
Gabrielle Drake as Lt. Gay Ellis wearing the infamous UFO purple wig.

Commander Ed Straker (Ed Bishop)

Former American air force pilot and astronaut originally from Boston who organizes SHADO following a series of UFO attacks in 1970. Straker masquerades as the head of Harlington-Straker Film Studios, SHADO Headquarters being located directly below the studio. Once married, job stress and the need to maintain secrecy regarding SHADO resulted in his divorce several years prior to the series. He had a son who was killed when he was hit by a car. One consistent element of the character is that he refuses to drink alcohol -- even though he has a fully stocked wet bar in his SHADO office. An early episode refers to him possessing willpower in order to avoid alcohol, which might suggest he was once alcoholic. Suffers from claustrophobia, a fact known only to the SHADO doctors and Alec Freeman.

Col. Paul Foster (Michael Billington)

Former test pilot whose plane was accidentally shot down during a dogfight between a UFO and SHADO's Sky 1. His subsequent persistent investigation of the incident threatened to expose SHADO's existence and Straker considered having him killed, but instead was impressed enough with Foster to offer him a position with SHADO. Foster appears to be somewhat of a protege of Straker's, as he is shown in a number of major positions. He is Moonbase Commander for a time (substituting for Lt. Ellis), is assigned to Skydiver for several months, and also receives a position of authority at SHADO HQ. He masquerades as one of Straker's film producers in the studio and enjoyed a brief relationship with Col. Virginia Lake. Foster has the unique distinction of having once actually befriended one of the aliens, though he was unable to prevent the creature from being killed by SHADO personnel; his overall demeanor became noticeably more cynical after this event (chronicled in the episode "Survival").

Lt. Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake)

Most often seen as Moonbase Commander during the first half of the series, Lt. Ellis is occasionally portrayed as lacking self-confidence, and at other times as a take-charge officer. She is briefly reassigned to SHADO HQ when it is discovered that she is romantically involved with Interceptor pilot Mark Bradley. She also appears to be attracted to Ed Straker, though nothing comes from this.

Col. Alec Freeman (George Sewell)

SHADO's first officer until about the 3/4 point in the series (when Sewell left following the change of studios). A ladies man in his early 40s, Freeman is Straker's right hand man and, occasionally, his muscle. Everybody's pal at SHADO, Freeman takes a sardonic attitude towards some of the things Straker and SHADO must do to survive, and at least once submitted his resignation in protest over a decision. Straker's closest friend and best man at his wedding, Freeman was the very first operative recruited into SHADO.

Missing image
UFOLake.jpg
Wanda Ventham as Col. Virginia Lake.

General James Henderson (Grant Taylor)

Straker's superior officer, Henderson heads the International Astrophysical Commission, which is a front for SHADO and is responsible for obtaining funds and equipment from government in order to keep SHADO operational. Straker and Henderson butt heads frequently over the needs of SHADO and economic realities.

Col. Virginia Lake (Wanda Ventham)

Virginia Lake first appears in the pilot episode of the series, as a SHADO scientist and prospective romantic conquest for Alec Freeman. During the last quarter of the season, Lake returns to the series to, ironically, take over the post of SHADO first officer, replacing Freeman. A computer specialist, she also served as Moonbase commander. She was romantically involved with Paul Foster for a time. She initially has a somewhat tense working relationship with Straker, though by the end of the series they appear to have grown close and she is seen comforting him in the final scene of the final episode.

Captain Peter Carlin (Peter Gordeno)

During the first half of the series, Carlin is the commander of the submarine Skydiver and pilot of its interceptor aircraft, Sky 1. In 1970, Carlin and his sister found a UFO and were attacked; he was shot and wounded and his sister vanished. He joined SHADO in hopes of finding out what happened to his sister, and eventually learned that she had been harvested for her organs.

Lt. Nina Barry (Dolores Mantez)

One of Straker's first recruits into SHADO, Barry works as a tracker at Moonbase and later replaces Lt. Ellis as its commanding officer. She also serves aboard Skydiver at one point. She is attracted to Straker.

Captain Lew Waterman (Gary Myers)

Initially an Interceptor pilot on the Moon, Waterman is later promoted to captain and replaces Peter Carlin as commanding officer of Skydiver and pilot of Sky 1. He becomes a very close friend of Paul Foster's.

Lt. Keith Ford (Keith Alexander)

Former television interviewer who became a founding member of SHADO and its main communications officer. Actor Keith Alexander left the series after the production break, so the character disappears at the 2/3 mark of the series.

Lt. Ayshea Johnson (Ayshea Brough)

SHADO operative stationed at headquarters in most episodes. Initially seen doing miscellanous tasks (she's the woman seen smiling and waving during the opening credits), she later becomes SHADO's communications officer after the departure of Lt. Ford, and in her final episode appearance is shown working on Moonbase. NB: this character's full name is conjecture. In the credits she is identified only as Ayshea (as is the actress), however one episode gives her the name Lt. Johnson.

Dr. Doug Jackson (Vladek Sheybal)

SHADO psychiatrist and science officer. A somewhat sinister figure who sometimes appears to have his own agenda, Jackson serves a number of capacities within SHADO, including acting as prosecution officer during the court martial of Paul Foster. When Foster escapes custody after being found (falsely) guilty, Jackson successfully convinces General Henderson to have his guards use tranquilizer darts in their pursuit, rather than shooting to kill.

Lt. Joan Harrington (Antonia Ellis)

Another Moonbase UFO tracker, Harrington appears to have a dislike for Lt. Ellis.

Miss Ealand (Norma Ronald)

SHADO operative masquerading as Straker's movie studio secretary. She is the first line of defence against anyone entering SHADO HQ via Straker's office elevator. The character is not seen in most of the post-studio change episodes, being replaced in two episodes by a Miss Holland (played by Lois Maxwell).

Lt. Mark Bradley (Harry Baird)

Caribbean-born Interceptor pilot based on the Moon. He becomes romantically involved with Lt. Ellis for a time, leading to a temporary assignment at SHADO HQ on Earth, and briefly assumes the position of Moonbase Commander. Baird left the series midway through the season.

Trivia

  • It is never explained why female Moonbase personnel were required to wear purple wigs and extensive eye make-up. Gerry Anderson said it made them look more futuristic and film better under the bright lights, while Sylvia Anderson said she believed wigs would become accepted components of military uniforms by the 1980s.
  • Ed Bishop, who has dark hair in real life, initially bleached his hair for Bishop's unique white-haired look. He later began wearing a white wig when the bleaching began damaging his hair. Straker's unusual look may have been an attempt to make Bishop look like Captain Blue, the character he voiced in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Bishop, until recently, possessed one of the wigs he wore on the show and took great delight in displaying it at science fiction conventions and on TV programs. He also still owns a watch that was specially made for his character.
  • Many other male characters in the series also wore wigs, again because the Andersons felt that they would become fashionable for both sexes by the 1980s. Early episodes in which Michael Billington does not wear a wig can be identified by his receding hairline and long sideburns.
  • On both Skydiver and Moonbase, SHADO personnel enter fighter aircraft by sliding down tubes. This is a reference to Anderson's earlier series, Thunderbirds, which had the characters accessing their craft in similar fashion.

Predictions

UFO, which was filmed in 1969, made a number of predictions about what life in the 1980s would be like, some of which (to an extent) have come true. Among the innovations predicted by the series:

  • Car telephones (aka cell phones)
  • Gull-wing doors on automobiles (actually these had been pioneered over a decade earlier in real life, in the Mercedes-Benz 300SL)
  • Spacecraft launched from an aircraft
  • Women in a position of authority in the military
  • Extensive use of computers in day-to-day life, even to the extent of predicting and analyzing human behavior
  • Voice print identification systems; also, vocal analysis used to identify individuals in the same way as fingerprints
  • Spy satellites.
  • The episode "Conflict" indicates that, in the UFO universe, racial prejudice was wiped out on Earth in the mid-1970s, a prediction that did not come true in the real world.
  • That cars would drive on the right side of the road in the UK and be converted to left-hand drive (a prediction that didn't come true either).

UFO also featured episodes dealing with issues that would become topical in later years, such as space junk and the disposal of toxic waste.

Episodes

Due to the highly localized nature of the ITV "network" in the United Kingdom, the 26 episodes of UFO were not only shown out of production order, but every broadcaster showed the episodes in different order. As the list below, based upon information from the book The Complete Gerry Anderson reveals, on several occasions different broadcasters aired different first-run episodes of the series on the same day. Some UK broadcasters didn't get around to airing some episodes until as late as 1973; as a result, some episode guides may list these episodes in different order. The North American DVD release of the series generally follows the production order, with a few diversions. The website ufoseries.com (http://www.ufoseries.com/faq.html) offers no less than seven different viewing order possibilities. According to The Complete Gerry Anderson, the episode "Exposed" was intended to be aired second, although it was produced fifth and appears as the fifth episode in in the American DVD release.

Episode # Original Air Date (UK) Episode Title Production order
1-01 16 September1970 Identified 1
1-02 23 September1970 Exposed 5
1-03
1-04
30 September1970 Kill Straker!
The Cat with Ten Lives
16
19
1-05
1-06
1-07
7 October1970 Conflict
E.S.P.
The Sound of Silence
6
15
18
1-08 14 October1970 A Question of Priorities 8
1-09
1-10
11 November1970 The Square Triangle
Sub-Smash
11
17
1-11 2 December1970 Destruction 20
1-12 9 December1970 Computer Affair 2
1-13 16 December1970 Close Up 13
1-14 30 December1970 The Psychobombs 22
1-15 6 January1971 Survival 4
1-16 13 January1971 Mindbender 25
1-17
1-18
20 January1971 Flight Path
Ordeal
3
9
1-19 3 February1971 The Man Who Came Back 21
1-20 10 February1971 The Dalotek Affair 7
1-21 17 February1971 Timelash 24
1-22 3 March1971 The Responsibility Seat 10
1-23 1 April1971 The Long Sleep 26
1-24 1 May1971 Court Martial 12
1-25 10 July1971 Confetti Check A-OK 14
1-26 24 July1971 Reflections in the Water 23

Several episodes were edited together in the late 1970s to form Invasion: UFO, a movie syndicated to American and European broadcasters.

Revivals

Several attempts have been made to either revive or remake the series. The first attempt, as mentioned above, evolved into Space: 1999. In the 1990s and early 2000s there were scattered reports of production companies around the world investigating the possibility of producing a new TV series or film, most recently in 2003 when Carlton International Media (current rights holders for the series) announced that an American company was planning to produce a new series, though as of 2005 nothing has yet come of this.

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