Rewatching UFO

UFO was a British sci-fi series from the early 1970's. If you've never seen it this probably won't make much sense.

Throughout my childhood I was always accompanied by a Gerry Anderson puppet series - from vague memories of Supercar and Fireball XL5 through the vivid images of Stingray and Thunderbirds to more fleeting viewings of Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 as they became too childish for my developing teenage tastes. I must have seen the later, live action programmes UFO and Space 1999 but they never made the same impression as the puppets, again probably down to my increasingly adolescent interests.

These early memories were rekindled when I bought Filmed in Supermarionation - a documentary about the production of those early shows. Not from the programme itself (which I confess I never watched) but the included bonus DVD which held one episode from each of the puppet series, stretching back to Four Feather Falls (imagine a very primitive Woody's Roundup from Toy Story) which stirred some very, very distant recollections. I curled up on the sofa and worked my way through fragments of my formative years.

Sadly most of it hadn't aged well, even through very rose-tinted glasses. OK, it was kids' television but even so it was surprisingly thin. The vehicles were wonderful, the explosions were dramatic and the music was (mostly) great but virtually every plot boiled down to 'Will they make it?' 'Yes, just in time.' Despite the sci-fi settings the attitudes seemed more stolid 50's than swinging 60's and after a while I found myself viewing them as sociological time capsules rather than childhood delights.

(As an aside, following up on these early shows I rediscovered Space Patrol, another early 60's puppet show but one that had weathered the years much more successfully. But I digress.)

Rewatching these shows made me think about the later Gerry Anderson productions which were ostensibly aimed at a more adult audience. A quick scan of eBay led me to the box set of UFO which, a few days later dropped through my letterbox. Once again I got settled in front of the telly and started on another retro-futuristic odyssey.

In some ways this was worse than the puppet shows. Having actual actors for contrast made the models more obviously fake looking and the repeated use of pieces of footage (some in almost every episode) just rubbed it in. The dialogue was often cringeworthy, the acting wooden, the entrenched sexism & abuse of power shocking and the plotlines inane & incoherent. It was as if their idea of 'adult' content was just catsuits & shouting added in to the childrens' TV scripts.

As I ploughed on the shows made less & less sense. Coming from deep space virtually all of the UFOs made a close pass of the moon before entering the atmosphere at a point where they could be intercepted by the sole defensive aircraft. If they got past they inevitably arrived in the south of England where the same three land vehicles could be driven to them in an hour or so. The super-secret SHADO organisation had their logo plastered all over their vehicles, operated regular shuttles to the moon with nobody noticing, and had a chief of staff who maintained a public identity as a film producer. The moon base had Earth-normal gravity, all of the SHADO personnel were English (apart from the American boss) and when the aliens appeared they were clearly men in rubber suits - in fact within the show they were identified as being human.

It would be easy to just write this off as bad TV but I'd read about an interesting game to play with films & TV shows - imagine an extra fact or insight that subverts the more obvious plot. The example given was for Sleepless in Seattle - if you imagine that Tom Hanks' character has actually murdered his wife the film changes from a simple rom com to a creepy stalker thriller. Could I come up with an interpretation that made sense out of this mess of a series?

Looking at the episodes this way really changed the experience. Rather than just accepting the sequence of actions & events I began to question them - is this what it seems? Am I getting one person's perspective rather than an objective overview? How much is happening directly and how much is being inferred, or explained away by one of the characters? It became a much more interpretive experience, a garbled riddle instead of a plain, unquestioned narrative.

It quickly became apparent that Ed Straker, the head of SHADO and main protagonist, was not only the central character but the focus for virtually everything that went on. He was the main (at times almost the only) decision maker within the organisation and nothing seemed to be instigated without his direct authorisation. In fact it looked as if nobody else in the control room (or wherever he happened to be) was actually doing anything, they sat at desks or pretended to be in discussion but only spoke when they gave some information to Straker or relayed his commands. A few of the officers were a bit more active but again it was mostly to give information to the commander, pass his orders onwards or provide sounding boards for his explanations. In fact the more I watched the creepier it got, the staff seemed to be actively avoiding making eye contact with Straker but would occasionally glance over as if checking on him. Later in the series a female senior officer appeared (with no explanation for her appearance or her male predecessor's disappearance) who spent a lot of the time watching Straker, there was a hint of intimacy between them but it didn't appear to be sexual or even physical. Somehow the commander was in a subtly different world from his compatriots.

And it was clear that he wasn't much of a commander. His management style was to shout at people until he got what he wanted, there was no sense that he actually understood the runnings of the organisation to any detailed level. He would quickly descend into anger if things didn't go to plan and would blame anyone around him for the slightest perceived failings, not the behaviour of someone with responsibility for life & death decisions and ongoing strategic planning, let alone someone leading a team of skilled professionals in stressful situations.

Despite this high-pressure job Straker was shown to have a 'cover story' of being a producer in a film studio, although this only seemed to consist of him walking around the lot being recognised or ending conversations about deals being struck. It seemed scarcely credible that someone with such obvious anger management issues could maintain either of these two roles but it would be easy to see someone with an inflated sense of their own importance persuading themselves that they would be exceptional at anything they put their mind to, especially if they never encountered any negative reactions. I'd read some psychological research that showed that the mind is very adept at coming up with a reasonable sounding explanation when faced with information that didn't fit with it's internal world view. Might this all be happening in his mind?

Straker had no home life to provide any grounding. Flashback episodes showed an implausibly idyllic marriage breaking down because he couldn't talk about his secret job, followed up by a strangely abstract incident where his son was injured in a car accident and died because the plane delivering special medicine had to be diverted in response to a UFO attack, which he also couldn't explain to his ex-wife because it was classified. With this, seemingly his only social contact outside of work, poisoned with the weight of global responsibility and underlined with traumatic but undeserved guilt he is left alone with only his professional colleagues, all of whom are subservient to his rank. Had any of this really happened or had he been deliberately isolated from any meaningful human contact? And why?

The different settings gave another clue. Events inside SHADO had a sharp, clear quality while anything outside tended to be a bit vague or dreamlike. Was the obvious back projection while he was driving a hint that this was a faked environment rather than simply the result of a limited production budget? Straker was clearly 'present' only in the controlled surroundings of the organisation's various settings. The uniforms (costumes?) of the personnel reinforced this - different styles for the different places, bland beige for the lesser ranks to emphasise the strong colours of the senior officers (players?), the logo prominently displayed at every opportunity. He was hardly ever shown travelling, the scene would being with, at most, him entering from a lift, airlock or the like. Could it be that he was drugged, subconsciously provided with a story that explained where he was & why, then awoken and led in?

In one episode there's some sort of mind control incident where Straker emerges from the secret headquarters and finds himself in the film studio lot, but strange & surreal events are happening out of temporal sequence accompanied by lots of confusion & manaical laughter. To my eyes this showed him breaking out of the managed environment while still under the influence of serious psychotropic drugs, perhaps his subconscious mind was trying to make him confront his inconsistent & illogical surroundings? Curiously the senior female officer was with him and was very active in providing promptings & explanations, perhaps attempting to manage a situation that had run out of control?

A picture was starting to emerge. Straker was being held in a tightly controlled environment and was being encouraged to act out fantasies involving command & control, in a setting related to alien invasion. He'd been psychologically manipulated to see himself as the most important person in the whole enterprise with no outside ties to distract him from the vitally important mission. This would fit with typical schizophrenic behaviour but it was clear that there was a lot of external support for his 'delusions' - the surrounding settings & people were far too well-realised and the objectives too specific for a straightforward internal monologue. So what could justify such an exercise? It's easy enough to come up with all sorts of sinister schemes but eventually there will be an Accounts Department who will want some serious justification for the expenses involved.

So here's my scenario. Straker was involved in some sort of close encounter with an alien race but the experience was so overwhelming that it shattered his reason. The authorities, fearful of an new, unknown & unpredictable race and desperate to learn what they can about them, set up this elaborate charade to allow Straker to 'recover' but in a way that allows them to tightly monitor & control the situation. Who knows what abilities or powers this alien knowledge might have unlocked in him? Scenarios are presented to Straker that are vague & uncertain and he's encouraged to rely on gut instinct & intuition - presumably to try to evoke repressed reactions from his subconscious. The settings are staffed with support personnel - some to encourage Straker to play out his responses, some with medical training to quickly intervene if things start going badly.

And it appears to be working. In the earlier episodes the UFOs are destroyed as soon as they are found but as the series progresses Straker starts looking for ways to capture them, to reveal their secrets. The original second in command, a fairly abrasive character who challenges Straker to explain his decisions, is replaced by a softer, female officer who is much less confrontational and presents herself as more of a friend & confidante (and, interestingly, wears the same pale colours as the lesser staff). The subsidiary storylines go from being about problems & failures to show Straker getting his own way and succeeding. The tone shifts from anger, crisis & trauma through resilience and on to the first stirrings of understanding. In a late episode a 'telepathic link' reveals that the alien race are dying and cannot understand why the humans attack them, quite a change from the remorseless body snatchers of earlier in the series. Straker is slowly recovering from the onslaught of the initial contact and is beginning to find a way to express it.

Sadly there was no second season to show how things developer but I think it's safe to assume this would not have been anything close to the resulting story. And yet it explains so much - Straker's anger & impatience as his body is assaulted by a cocktail of drugs, the lack of emotional responses from the staff as their planet is attacked by clearly superior alien forces, and virtually no casualties from the UFO's ray guns. Straker gets to & from the SHADO headquarters (or to & from the 'real' world?) in a room that slowly moves between the two, perhaps a way of explaining the change in surroundings inside the room in which the drugs are administered? In one story he finds an undersea alien base where a copy of the SHADO headquarters is populated by robot/zombie versions of the actual staff - another attempt by his subconscious to tell him that his surroundings are fake?

As a sci-fi drama it's impossible to recommend UFO - it really is just bad TV on all sorts of levels. This exercise was a fascinating experiment and really improved my experience of watching it but not enough for me to keep the DVDs. However if, like me, you find yourself unable to resist ploughing through some mediocre video just to see what happens it can make the process a lot more fun.