By the end of the sixties, Gerry Anderson had had a string of success with his Supermarionation science fiction series, from modest beginnings with Supercar to box office forays with Thunderbirds and the more sophisticated electronic puppets of Captain Scarlet. It seems he was anxious, however, to try his hand again with human actors, an area where success had eluded him in the 1950s. Following on the heels of Captain Scarlet (a puppet series about earthmen defending their planet against an alien menace) came UFO (a live-action series about earthmen defending their planet against an alien menace).
Actually the above quip is rather unfair to the two series, which were quite different in plot as well as style. In Captain Scarlet, Spectrum was an overt quasi-military organisation in snappy coloured uniforms based on a flying base up in the stratosphere, and whose adversaries the Mysterons taunted them at the beginning of every episode with a promise to do something to somebody or something. It was also set in what appeared to be the 21st century. In UFO, by contrast, Anderson opted for a storyline that was closer in spirit to the later X-Files. In the year 1980 (a convenient decade or so away when the series was first conceived in 1969), Earth was being visited by spinning craft and shadowy figures in spacesuits, a state of affairs apparently ignored by the governments of the day. The red-suited aliens never spoke and were rarely seen face to face, but seemed to have intimate knowledge of some aspects of human society and the power to read or control human minds in some cases. What made the extraterrestrials such a menace was their disconcerting habit of attacking and destroying, but in particular abducting individual humans who were never seen again. In the opening episode it was made clear that the aliens were in fact a sickly race who were using the organs of human abductees in their own bodies. Anderson later claimed that he got the idea in 1969 following the pioneering heart surgery of Dr Christian Barnard.
SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation) was the secretive organisation set up to combat the alien threat. Owing to the fear that mass panic could arise if the true nature of the menace became known, all the organisation's operations were necessarily covert. Defence vehicles were based on the moon or under sea, and SHADO's physical headquarters itself was based underground, beneath a supposed film studio. Needless to say, the culture of anonymity placed great demands on SHADO's operatives and required constant vigilance to avoid any unfortunate revelations to the public. Those wishing to leave the organisation, or outsiders who had witnessed a UFO event, were given an amnesia drug to wipe their memories, and the death penalty could be enforced on anyone found wilfully passing secrets to any outside body. Behind the day-to-day battle to defeat alien attacks, the search for a long-term strategy involved finding out more about the creatures and if possible their home planet. Both goals were to prove elusive, since the green-skinned humanoids themselves aged rapidly and fatally on exposure to the earth's atmosphere if their protective suits were removed, their spacecraft had the capacity to self-destruct, and nothing came of a plan to follow the returning invaders back to their home.
Central to the saga of SHADO was its boss, Ed Straker, played by Ed Bishop. Straker was a hard, sometimes ruthless, leader who was so singlemindedly devoted to his job that he allowed his young son to die in an attempt to make contact with a defecting alien. Although not devoid of feelings, nothing caused him to deviate from his goal. He was the object of two alien assassination attempts. His operational cover was film director and head of the Harlington-Straker film studios, the buildings and film lot that provided the overground cover for SHADO. Bishop played the character with a close-cut white wig, presumably to give an impression of age, so I was surprised to see him on TV in the 1990s.
George Sewell played Alec Freeman, Straker's more human but still tough right-hand man. Michael Billington, a regular on British TV, played the younger Colonel Paul Foster, who was lured into joining SHADO from the outside following a train of events which began when he witnessed a UFO incident. The feeling seems to be that the character of Foster was placed to provide some attractive eye candy for the ladies, while the men had already been well catered for in the sex appeal department in the persona of the Moonbase operatives (notably Gabriel Drake as well as Antonia Fraser, an actress better known in the dance department, and Dolores Mantez), Ayshea (Ayshea Brough) in the SHADO HQ and later Colonel Virgina Lake (Wanda Ventham). Another male pin-up was provided in the form of Peter Gordeno as the Skydiver captain and pilot Captain Carlin, although he did not remain for both seasons. Polish actor Vladek Shebal played the rather eccentric and sometimes almost sinister Doctor Lester Jackson, and in the early episodes Grant Taylor played General Henderson, one of the prime movers behind the SHADO project (the actor was in fact dying in real life).
Overall the quality of the show was good, benefitting from reasonable and imaginative ideas, half-decent special effects and guest appearances by name actors and actresses (including the likes of Patrick Mower, Alexis Kanner, Darryl Frost, George and Jane Merrow). The tone of the show was somewhat more adult than the Supermarionation series, which proved to be something of a mixed blessing as anxious ITV networks scheduled some episodes deemed to be possibly controversial for late-night slots, ensuring lower viewing figures. Women in their underwear were not an unknown sight on the show, while two episodes featured the use of drugs. The theme of invaders mutilating human bodies to harvest their organs was possibly not for the squeamish, and there was a moderate (but not excessive) use of violence.
The levels of acting got a mixed reception. Some reviewers considered that the worst offenders were the purple-wigged females of Moonbase, although it is noticeable that their stints in UFO did not appear to hurt the acting careers of either Gabrielle Drake or Antonia Fraser. Ayshea Brough, on the other hand, shortly after gravitated to host a children's TV programme, Liftoff with Ayshea. Michael Billington at times appears to struggle not to overact, while Vladek Shebal tries to steal every scene he appears in (he was a respected actor, I should add). Given the genre it was all pretty reasonable: compared to the thespian disaster of Space 1999, it was brilliant.
Inevitably with hindsight one sees holes in the plot and story of every production, and UFO had its share. One problem with the overall concept was how one could keep moonbases, submarine-based aircraft and bases of tracked vehicles a secret forever, not to mention the mutilated bodies or disappearing abductees. Then again, recent developments such as Enron and Arthur Andersen show that it is possible to keep these things off the audit sheet at any rate, and the need to preserve secrecy made good material for some of the episodes. A more serious flaw might be the question as to why the aliens did not simply raid in force rather than sending their spacecraft in dribs and drabs, especially as their own planet was presumably some light years away. The view of the 1980s was also quite interesting. The spinning tape reels and flashing analogue computers were arguably compatible with the mainframe and mini computers in use in real life, but Ed Straker's gull wing car and optimism about the amount of space travel taking place, and its levels of comfort, proved very much wide of the mark. In the fashion department, Sylvia Anderson envisaging a sort of post-hippy chic collarless suits and sideburns for the men and hippy-chick power dressing (or provocative catsuits) for the women. In the event, we got arguably an even worse fashion disaster for the next decade.
The series ran for two seasons with a more or less unchanged format, although Gabrielle Drake was not available for the second season and George Sewell was superseded by Wanda Ventham for the last few episodes. Gerry Anderson had plans for a UFO 2, placing the show further into the future, but in the event this metamorphosed into the ill-fated Space: 1999.
Of all Anderson's live-action shows, UFO was the one that perhaps came closest to gaining adult respectability and has attracted a fairly loyal following over the years. In the 1990s a resurrection of the show, with a new series set some years after the original, was mooted, with Ed Bishop and others being willing to reprise their roles, but nothing came of the project. As noted above, some of the concepts in the show (government secrecy, alien invasion) found their expression very successfully in the nineties in the X-Files.
The Official UFO site, owned by Carlton, has downloads, but is rather slow unless you use Broadband.
UFO Series Home Page is also quite good and covers a lot of incidental material, including some nice sound files.
Dimensions of Gerry Anderson: UFO has an image gallery and links.
Lieve Peten's site is good fun.
Michael Billington has his own website and reminisces about UFO and other TV shows and films he appeared in.
The late Vladek Sheybal.
Back to Homepage | Back to Culture | Back to Cult TV page