Writer/Interviewer: Mark Phillips - September 2002, Issue 154
I was watching a little woman named Valerie Scott hang over a pit of boiling lava when my uncle interrupted this exciting episode of Land of the Giants to announce, "Mark, this fall there will be a new Sci-Fi show from Britain called UFO. It'll be much better than Land of the Giants. It's about a military organization battling aliens from Outer Space." I was only nine but I remember thinking it sounded really boring. But what I didn't know was time had run out for Land of the Giants. Scraping to bottom of the ratings, it had just received its cancellation notice. That was April 1970. So, when this strange show called UFO debuted on Canada's CTV network on Mondays at 7pm in September 1970, I was there, reluctantly ready to give it a chance.
The first episode begins with a photographer named Peter Carlin taking pictures of a flying saucer landing in the forest, while his frightened sister Leila and their friend Jean watch. Seconds later, alien gunfire rips into Jean, killing her. Peter and Leila run, and despite Peter's efforts to divert the aliens' attention, his sister is captured.
This sinister, unpleasant and violent beginning told me that UFO was going to be unlike anything I had seen before on television. The episode flash-forwarded to 1980, where Carlin is now part of SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organization). As commander of the submarine Skydiver One, he has spent 10 tormented years wondering whatever became of his sister, who, like Fox Mulder's sister from The X-Files, was shanghaied by aliens for some unknown reason. SHADO combats the aliens' saucers with a fleet of submarines, a moonbase with Interceptor ships and an assortment of planes. SHADO headquarters is located under a London film studio, where Commander Ed Straker poses as a film executive as a front for his real job, a military leader determined to repel the invaders.
The alien saucers were populated by green-skinned humanoids whose race was dying and they need human bodies. When a dead alien is examined, Straker learns that its organs belonged to Carlin's long missing sister. The episode ends with Peter and his sobbing family attending a memorial service for her and Straker vowing to continue the Space-age war. Not exactly an hour of uplifting fare, but as a kid, the cool spaceships and submarines captured my attention.
Viewers like to bond and forge a relationship with a TV cast, but UFO made that difficult. I had never heard of these actors before and their military characterisations put them at arm's reach. Even my favourite, beautiful Lt. Ellis (Gabrielle Drake) coolly sacrificed the life of an interceptor pilot in order to save two others from an explosion. My other favourite Moon girl was played by an actress with a wonderfully expressive face but no dialogue, Maureen Tann.
The Moon women certainly made an impression. One kid at school excitedly told the rest of us that he had seen a weird movie called 'Cat Women of the Moon', where strange women wearing purple wigs fired moon missiles at hostile UFOs. I didn't have the heart to tell him that what he was describing was really an episode of UFO.
As much as I liked UFO, its adult nuances kept it from being my top favourite. My father appreciated the maturity of the series much more than I did. I remember watching a rerun of Lost in Space, Irwin Allen's Outer Space saga, and my father, frustrated by its juvenile plot and loud music, said, "Mark, if you had to choose between watching a noisy children's show like this or an adult, serious show like UFO, which one would you choose?" "This," I replied, pointing to the TV as The Robot, wearing a straw skirt danced around with a bunch of grunting cavemen. My Dad shook his head in disbelief and marched out of the room. I was still too young to really grasp how significant UFO was. On the other hand, some adults considered UFO a kiddy show too. As my cousins and I watched UFO one night, my uncle asked us "What's this?" My cousin earnestly replied, "It's a show about red-eyed, green skinned, purple lipped, liquid breathing aliens who steal peoples' hearts by shooting them down with machine guns." My uncle made an immediate exit from the room.
Despite great ratings on Canadian TV in the 1970-71 season, UFO was ignored by the media. I recall thinking, 'Where did this odd show come from? Who are those actors?' When George Sewell, Straker's right hand man Alec, disappeared from the show after 17 episodes, I thought Sewell had died (he had been actually written out of the show). If I was concerned over any of the actor's mortality, it should have been for Grant Taylor, who was superb as gruff General Henderson. Towards the end of the series, Taylor was stricken with a terminal illness and shortly before he passed away in 1971, he invited his closest friends to a last gathering. "Say your goodbyes," he said stoically. "I'm dying. This is the last time you'll see me."
UFO was produced from May 1969 to October 1970 by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (best known for their marionette shows such as Thunderbirds and Stingray) and had suffered a choppy and unsuccessful run on British television. At that time, SF was considered 'kids' stuff', but British programmers found the story lines inappropriate for early slots, so it was banished to late night TV, where adults ignored the show. Canada was kinder, giving it early evening exposure. However, as of September 1971, UFO vanished from Canadian screens. There was no explanation, it was just gone.
When UFO premiered in American in 1972, I was disappointed to discover that these were the same 26 episodes previously aired in Canada. It turned out that Americans were not quite ready for UFO. A young mother wrote to a Seattle newspaper, 'This is a horrible show! It's scaring my children. Please remove it from your schedule.' Indeed, UFO was deplored by many critics because it was 'too violent'. American TV at that time was embracing gentler fare such as The Waltons and Happy Days. UFO's language also pushed the envelope. When General Henderson says in Mindbender, "Straker, I'm gonna kick your ass!" many local stations 'bleeped out' that line.
UFO, however, was a war series and was uncompromising in its depiction of personal conflict and violence. There was bravery, guilt, self sacrifice, obsessive determination, betrayal and sudden death. We saw a total of 17 SHADO personnel lose their lives during those 26 episodes and several episodes featured downbeat conclusions. Psychobombs ends with Paul Foster cradling the body of a young secretary who had been possessed by the aliens and The Man Who Came Back fades out on the body of Straker's close friend, astronaut Craig Collins (Derren Nesbitt), tumbling away through Space. Square Triangle's conclusion made my blood boil after a devious wife and her boyfriend get away with murdering her husband. The end credits show them walking away from his tombstone - it was a murder SHADO allowed to happen in order to preserve its anonymity.
The controversial subplots were also daring - a romance between a white woman (Lt. Ellis) and a black man (Capt. Bradley), the death of Straker's young son, and the demise of recurring interceptor pilots played by Michael Mundell and Al Mancini.
Feminists didn't know what to make of the show. Originally, Franco Derosa was cast as the male commander of moonbase but mid-way through filming the first episode, Derosa was dropped and Gabriella Drake took over as courageous Lt. Ellis. Ellis issued life and death orders and yet, there she was, doing a striptease in the first episode. Lt. Sylvia Howell (Georgina Moon) was one of the brave officers aboard the submarine Skydiver. Every week in the title sequence, she turned around in her chair and gave an angry pout. Her skin tight mesh outfit prompted critic Cleveland Amory to quip, "She sure has all the right equipment!" Wanda Ventham's Colonel Lake was tough-as-nails but she always displayed eye-popping cleavage as she heroically fired machine guns and interrogated suspects.
As UFO aired over the 95 independent stations in America during 1972-1973, the media finally began to pay attention. In The Monster Times magazine, Gary Gerani previewed the first episode and all he could say was 'Wow!'
Calvin T. Beck, editor of the Cult magazine Castle of Frankenstein, warned readers that, 'UFO is a bomb! Avoid this show at all costs!' However, he begrudgingly watched some later episodes and was surprise by how much he enjoyed the show. 'It's something of a classic,' he admitted.
Cleveland Amory reviewed the series in his March 1973 TV Guide column and he was appalled by what he saw. 'The fact that anything from Space must be an enemy is perhaps the most offensive thing here but it's got a lot of company,' he growled. 'For one thing, the violence is laid on with a trowel.' Amory said kids would love 'the terrific hardware' but adults would have problems with the people and stories.
A New York reader, Robert Barrow, wrote TV Guide to agree with Amory's assessment of UFO. 'The airing of such childish drivel serves only to fictionalize a mystery that is indeed quite factual,' he said. I located Mr. Barrow 29 years later and asked him what inspired him to write that letter. "I got into a snit about the use of the term 'UFO' as the title of what I considered to be a cheap Sci Fi Soap Opera," he says today. "It's not as though I'm a drama expert - when the original Star Trek TV series aired in the Sixties, I disliked it from the very first show. I just looked at Captain Kirk and his crew and thought, what a load of poop, this show will never go anywhere!"
Barrow, a noted researcher of UFOs, has since mellowed about UFO."I've matured enough to have more respect for the hard work that TV producers expend to offer thoughtful or escapist entertainment. I still wouldn't care for the series personally, but it would be pretty shallow of me to dismiss a premise embraced by others. My problem is that I wish the public would exhibit as much interest in UFO documentation as it does in fiction and fantasy about the topic. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that UFO was probably ahead of its time, if for no other reason than that so many succeeding motion pictures and TV shows have carried a similar theme."
Barrow has more respect for an earlier alien-invasion series, The Invaders, about one man's crusade to alert a disbelieving world of UFOs. "I loved The Invaders! As TV Science Fiction, it overwhelmed me and I couldn't miss an episode. Roy Thinnes was excellent. He came across as the perfect man alone in an uncaring world that refuse, or more likely, just couldn't be bothered to see the truth. Classic, absolutely classic for its time."
Barrow believes that the truth about real UFOs and their occupants is still out there. "The evidence indicates there are enough physical traces of their comings and going to concern the true scientist."
Novelist Alan Bennert, who has written for LA Law and The New Twilight Zone, also had a critical letter published in TV Guide. 'The most idiosyncratic aspect of UFO is its science,' wrote Bennert in 1973. 'In one episode, we are told that the aliens suffer from hereditary sterility, in other worths, if your father was sterile, chances are you will be, too.'
Today, Bennert regards his old letter with good humour. "What can I say? I was 18 years old and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to make a smartass crack about a line that cried out for someone to make a smartass crack out it. That said, I did enjoy other aspects of UFO, though 30 years later later the only episode I have any recollection of is A Question of Priorities. I though it had one of the most powerful endings of any episode of a SF series of the period. I still vividly recall Straker's wife leaving their son's hospital room after he dies, the hatred in her voice when she speaks to her ex-husband, the last shot of Straker standing there alone. Strong stuff for a genre show in 1970. I admired UFO's willingness to explore mature themes and character oriented stories, but I found the juxtaposition of those adult stories with the puppet-show spaceships (and the sometimes-absurd costuming - why were those SHADO babes wearing purple pageboy wigs?) to be something jarring. But the series was, overall, several orders of magnitude better than the one that followed, Space: 1999, and certainly deserves at least a footnote in the evolution of Science Fiction on television."
When I heard that David Gerrold, the respected and Hugo-Award winning SF author and Star Trek writer (The Trouble With Tribbles), had watched UFO regularly, I couldn't believe my ears, so I asked him directly. "I enjoyed UFO enormously," he admitted. "I was disappointed when it stopped production. The episode where Commander Straker has to choose between saving his son's life and continuing the mission at hand was my favourite. A Hollywood-based show would have had everything work out in the end. Instead, in this episode, Straker's son dies because the medicine doesn't arrive in time. What enormous anguish for the hero of a series. That was very bold and I admired the storytellers for not taking the safe way out."
Living in Canada, I had never heard of many of UFOs guest artists (which included such fine professionals as Tessa Wyatt, George Cole, Deborah Grant, David Collins and James Cosmo). Others, such as Jane Merrow, and Stephanie Beacham, had successful careers in America. Gary Raymond had achieved stardom on America's Rat Patrol series as Lt. Moffatt in the 1960s. Stuart Damon became a star on ABC-TVs General Hospital. Jean Marsh was acclaimed for her starring role in the series Upstairs Downstairs.
Even the bit players had interesting histories: Olivia Newton-John's sister, Rona, appeared as a nurse in one episode, and Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny from the James Bond films) played a secretary. Robin Hawdon and Steven Berkhoff went on to successful writing careers. Hans de Vries, who played a security guard in Psychobombs was nearly selected to play James Bond in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service (George Lazenby got the gig). The most unusual guest star was the controversial real-life UFO researcher, Dr. Frank Stranges, who appeared as himself in The Dalotek Affair.
UFO was supposed to go back into production in 1973 as 'UFO:1999', with Straker commanding a giant military Moonbase. Instead ITC cancelled it and commissioned a new Anderson project, Space:1999.
Sadly, some of the recurring cast have passed on. Vladek Sheybal, who was terrific as the pontificating, sinister-looking Dr. Jackson, died in 1992. Normal Ronald, Straker's dutiful secretary, and Maxwell Shaw, (Dr. Shroeder) are also deceased.
UFO had many solid pluses in retrospect: the photography by Brendan Stafford was light years ahead of anything being done on American television. The editing was exceptional, the sets by Bob Bell were clean and futuristic, and the music, by Barry Gray, was exciting. The late SFX master Derek Medding created saucers that spiralled out of lakes, crashed into houses and burst into fiery pyrotechnics every week.
UFO moved away from an uneasy mixture of Soap Opera and Horror and delivered some of the most dynamic action ever presented on television. Unlike Space:1999, which had a huge budget, name stars and massive international publicity, UFO was produced in its own neglected corner of the universe, feverishly expanding and experimenting with its narrow premise. It proved that sometimes the best work is done by budget-deprived artists and technicians who are inspired by personal vision rather than cushioned by a pedigree of big budgets and publicity.
In addition to writers such as Tony Barwick, David (The Prisoner) Tomblin and Terence (The Avengers) Feely, the series features a solid cast that had a natural on-screen chemistry.
George Sewell's Alec Freeman was a thoughtful, compassionate military man who registers complete shock after discovering a close friend is a traitor in Flight Path and bitterly hands in his resignation to Straker in Computer Affair. Michael Billington's introduction as Paul Foster in Exposed (playing an air force pilot who accidentally discovers SHADO's operation) provided UFO with an aggressive and occasionally unpredictable character who sometimes acted on his emotions.
Ed Bishop's Straker was the centrepiece of the series, a complicated man who, on the surface, seemed like a cold fanatic but underneath was actually a man who had suffered tremendous pain and guilt over some of his choices but he kept a steely resolve to get the job done.
"Straker is not someone who would ever enjoyed peace of mind," reflects Ed Bishop today. "Things were either right or wrong, that's how he ran SHADO. He was extremely dedicated and existed only under great pressure."
Straker pulled no punches whether while tangling with General Henderson or threatening to destroy a woman's brain by shooting an acoustical gun in her ear in order to save Foster's life in Court Martial. When a shady electronics seller give him some lip, Straker destroys the man's resolve by barking, "Listen here, funny man!"
In A Question of Priorities, Straker had an awful choice between delivering experimental lifesaving drugs to save his dying son or use SHADO's plane to locate a friendly alien who could stop the invasion. He formed an uneasy paternal to a trusting and courageous young woman in The Long Sleep. In the last shot, Straker walks away devastated after he must order the girl injected with a drug that turns her into a mummified corpse. In the fascinating flashback episode Confetti Check A-OK which details the building of SHADO in 1970, Straker is driven to such desperation to save his disintegrating marriage that he begins to tell his wife 'everything' about SHADO.
"That was one of my personal favourites," says Bishop. "We see Straker before SHADO was set up. That was a very personal story and working with the beautiful Suzanne Neve was wonderful."
Other viewpoints about the show vary. The late Terence Feely enjoyed writing for UFO but he always maintained, "Space:1999 had better characters while UFO had better stories."
Marc Martin, creator of the UFO Series Home Page(http://ufoseries.com) recalls that when he first saw the series in 1972 at age 10, "I was mostly interested in the futuristic vehicles and spooky aliens." Today he says, "UFO's main strengths are the special effects, music and its appealing characters. Its weaknesses are the slow pacing of the initial episodes and lack of continuity between episodes."
The show definitely had its incongruous quirks. There was never an explanation as to why the Moonbase women wore purple wigs, but it started a craze in Japan, where women dyed their hair purple!
Bishop was more concerned with the show's format. "Whereas Star Trek was about exploring new frontiers, UFO was locked into this narrow formula of 'us' versus 'them'," he says, "although we were certainly getting more imaginative as we went on. Obviously, the SFX were very successful and the look of the show was wonderfully realized by Sylvia Anderson."
Bishop pauses to share an anecdote that fully describes the fickleness of showbiz. After UFO ended its British run, the actor found his career temporarily stalled.
"UFO wasn't successful in Britain and my phone didn't ring. You could have used it as a soup ladle for all the good it did me. In 1972, I flew to New York City where UFO was getting a big push in syndication. Between looking for acting roles, I did odd jobs. One Saturday morning I arrived at a couple's place wearing my overalls and carrying my bucket of paste to wallpaper their kitchen. This nice couple cooked me lunch, and later their daughter came over and the three of them watched TV in the living room. As I worked in the kitchen, I suddenly heard the UFO theme music. I peered into the living room and there I was, on TV as Commander Straker. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was so bizarre. They had no idea the leading guy on UFO was wallpapering their kitchen for 75 dollars! After the episode was over, they thanked me, they paid me, and I left. That's showbiz!" The series has enjoyed several marathon runs on America's Sci-Fi Channel, and has been broadcast in Japan, Italy, France, Australia and Germany. All 26 episodes have been released on DVD by Carleton Video in the UK and A&E is now releasing DVDs in North America. Ed Bishop, Gabrielle Drake and Peter Gordeno attended a 'Fanderson' 'Century 21' convention in 2000, and Wanda Ventham appeared at an Italian UFO convention earlier this year. UFO may have taken the long way around for popularity, but for many of the cast, it was worth it. "The fans ask very profound questions and I try to answer them as honestly as possible," says Ed Bishop appreciatively. "It's wonderful to meet them and very flattering to hear that they enjoyed your work."
Transcribed for the SHADO Library and Archives by D.A. Rorabaugh from materials donated by Amelia and Ed Rodgers.
U.F.O. is the © and property of ITV Studios Global Entertainment and used for promotional purposes only.
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