BluRay/DVD Reviews

UFO

By • Oct 28th, 2003 •

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A Gerry & Sylvia Anderson Production 1970

The year is 1980 – Unbeknownst to the general public, Earth is being visited by aliens from another world, abducting humans for organ transplants. Our only protection is SHADO – Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation – secretly housed beneath a film studio and headed by the intransigent and dedicated Commander Ed Straker. With a base on the moon, interceptor space ships, early warning satellites, a fleet of nuclear powered submarines and all-terrain land vehicles, Straker and his team maintain an ever-present vigil against the aliens…

UFO was the unique Gerry Anderson’s first TV foray into live action, after famously creating with his then wife Sylvia and using a technique later to be referred to quite rightly as ‘Supermarionation’, the children’s puppet series SUPERCAR; FIREBALL XL5 (the first British TV series to be syndicated in the States); STINGRAY (another milestone in the fact that it was the first British TV series to be filmed in colour (or ‘Videcolor’ as Anderson coined it), specifically for the US market) and the phenomenal THUNDERBIRDS, which, at the time of writing, is enjoying it’s long awaited, and overdue I might add (though not necessarily very good), big screen live action reincarnation. Later came JOE 90 (now a Disney property I believe and probably on the big screen drawing board somewhere); the more violent CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERONS (people actually died – well, puppets did anyway and which is again being remade as a CGI series) and the short-lived SECRET SERVICE (which did admittedly have an element of live action but was still essentially a puppet show).

I say ‘first TV foray’ as Gerry’s first real taste of the big time (no pun intended) was his big screen offering DOPPELGANGER (1969, aka: JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN), a surprisingly intelligent and mature piece of science fiction cinema, much in contrast with his previous juvenile outings, starring Roy Thinnes (THE INVADERS) as an astronaut sent to explore a planet discovered to orbit the Sun exactly opposite our own Earth, and which turns out, bizarrely in a twist straight out of the TWILIGHT ZONE, to be an exact mirror image, people and all, of our own world.

The film was a moderate success, and has subsequently become a cult classic with SF and Anderson fans for many reasons; not least of which are it’s associations with UFO. To recoup some of the expense of making DOPPELGANGER, many of the sets, props, costumes, vehicles, model footage, some music cues and even actors, were reused in UFO, and the ‘Harlington-Straker Studios’ under which the SHADO base is secretly housed is, of course, actually Pinewood Studios where both DOPPELGANGER and UFO were filmed. The result is a very high production cost series for its genre at that time (simply compare it to a 1970s DR. WHO or any other contemporary SF TV episode). It was also his first TV series squarely aimed at adults.

As for the SHADO organisation, well, to be honest, there was indeed a base on the moon, but after that they only actually had three interceptors (with one missile each), one satellite, one submarine – but wait, it did have a fighter jet which launched from the nose – and three all-terrain vehicles. Luckily for us, the aliens never sent more than three UFOs at a time. And they almost always landed in the south of England – actually just down the road from SHADO HQ, which was nice.

Though still highly watchable, and charmingly technologically outdated, the series is ultimately let down by the fact that Anderson insisted on keeping the same team around him that had worked on his previous productions. This is fine when it comes to the lavish special effects and model work of the late great Derek Meddings*, but the directors and writers were obviously still in puppet mode. The characters are stiff and lifeless; basically just talking heads that don’t do anything physical apart from move from one side of a room to the other and have fixed, grave, 100% serious expressions. When they’re not doing that they’re travelling around in futuristic vehicles, a device Anderson had always previously used because he couldn’t get his puppets to walk convincingly and which is why his early series were always based around vehicles (SUPERCAR, FIREBALL XL5, STINGRAY). The Interceptor pilots even board their ships by sliding down a chute a la THUNDERBIRDS.

It’s not until three quarters of the way through the series, when experienced ‘live action’ directors like Cyril Frankel (THE WITCHES (’66), THE AVENGERS, THE SAINT, THE CHAMPIONS) and David Tomblin (who like Frankel had had vast experience on many other ITC action series like THE PRISONER, DANGERMAN and THE SAINT, and would later work as First Assistant Director on, amongst others, the INDIANA JONES movies, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN and BRAVEHEART) were brought in, that the actors started running around having shootouts and fist fights, actually outside the studio, to the point where actor Ed Bishop (until UFO a resident Brit yet American-accented bit part actor who, in this, his first starring role, portrayed the hard-nosed yet flawed Straker to perfection (he even made the blonde wig look cool), and who had also featured as a communications officer in both the excellent THE BEDFORD INCIDENT (’65), and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (’67); was appropriately a moon shuttle pilot in 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY (’69); also previously the voice of Captain Blue in Anderson’s puppet show CAPTAIN SCARLET, and of course was another carry-over from the cast of DOPPELGANGER), who after playing a floor pacing, cigar and butt chewing, frustrated, suited executive for 23 episodes, suddenly explodes as an all-out rootin’-tootin’ machine-gun totin’, forward rollin’ action hero, like the USAF Colonel Straker he was portraying should have been all along.

The stories around this time also started to become more bizarre and interesting. The earlier episodes, although intriguing, had been a little dogged by sluggish sub-plots detailing main character development; Straker’s family problems, having to balance a home life and run a top secret military organisation, which eventually leads to his divorce and the death of his young son (A QUESTION OF PRIORITES), and various other individuals’ similar relationship problems. Though refreshingly unusual as these themes were in a series of this type, and which are now quite commonplace in TV SF, for most of the audience at that time they were just a little too downbeat. I put this down to Anderson’s concern, and inexperience, with dealing with an adult audience, and trying too hard to provide some serious drama, and also, in Gerry’s favour, that the 1970s TV audience simply weren’t yet ready for such complex storylines (Patrick McGoohan’s THE PRISONER, from the same stable, and with much of the same production crew, had suffered a similar fate only three years earlier).

Latterly however the series started to kick into gear with some great SF storylines that included an underwater alien replica of SHADO’s HQ and personnel (REFLECTIONS IN THE WATER); ordinary humans being imbued with extraordinary powers by the aliens, then, under mind control, targeting SHADO installations and able to literally detonate themselves with incredible force when brought into contact with high voltage electricity (THE PSYCHOBOMBS); an attempt to invade the Earth whilst time, and SHADO, is made to stand still (TIMELASH) and the penultimate episode MINDBENDER which almost enters the surreal realm of THE PRISONER where at one point Straker hallucinates that he is after all only an actor; UFO is just a TV series in which he plays Straker**, and the cameras take us on a tour of the 1970 Pinewood Studios, outrageously showing us the locales with which we have become familiar (Straker’s office, SHADO HQ; the Moonbase Control Sphere etc.) exactly as they really were, just wooden stage sets next door to each other on a sound stage, and the UFO series actors sitting around between takes drinking coffee, reading magazines and using their real names! If this isn’t a test of the suspension of disbelief I don’t know what is (and, may I add, not in what is now nearly 40 years and hundreds of episodes, innovative as some of them may have been, has STAR TREK been brave enough to do anything like this).

However by this time it was too late. The ratings had dropped, the networks had moved it into the graveyard slots and resultantly the planned second series was shelved to make way for SPACE 1999 (see Roy’s review), which was a great pity because UFO was ultimately the superior show.

Another endearing aspect of the series is how, in 1970, they imagined the world of 1980 would look: All cars would be low and sleek, electrically powered with gull-wing doors; men would all wear pastel streamlined suits with Nehru collars, and women (all compulsorily attractive) would wear mini skirts and knee-length go-go boots – and purple wigs if they were on the moon (note the ‘Century 21 Fashions by Sylvia Anderson’ credit for that one). The technology, as mentioned earlier, is amusingly archaic, as are all the social attitudes, music, and party scenes etc., which, as in STAR TREK TOS before it, are firmly entrenched in the sixties.

These boxed sets from Carlton Visual Entertainment each contain 13 episodes presenting the entire 26 episodes ever made of UFO. Without overstatement the picture quality is superb. The Anderson’s traditional use of primary colours is displayed to it’s full advantage and Meddings’ finely detailed model work can now be studied at leisure with your DVD freeze frame and zoom facility. Resident Anderson composer Barry Gray’s music for the series is some of the best composed for any Anderson series, especially his opening theme, and the opening title sequence, one of the most tightly edited and musically synched of any in a TV series anywhere, is a terrific attention grabber. The animated menu’s are also lavish and beautifully thought out and the special features extensive.

Volumes 1 – 4 are presented in a glossy fold out wallet with a detailed production note booklet and five UFO postcards. Volumes 5 – 8 are presented in their individual plastic boxes, an outer sleeve and a continuation production note booklet.

One word of warning, the episode running order is different in the US than in the UK, so make sure you get both sets in the same format, or you’ll end up with some episodes missing and some repeated.

(Details above relate to the Region 2 Carlton Visual Entertainment releases – The A&E Entertainment Region 1 releases may vary.)

* Derek Meddings would later move on to LIVE AND LET DIE (‘73), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (‘74), THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (‘75), SHOUT AT THE DEVIL (‘76), THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (‘77), SUPERMAN I, II, & III (’78 – ’83), MOONRAKER (‘79), FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (‘81), KRULL (‘83), SUPERGIRL (‘84), SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE (‘85) SPIES LIKE US (‘85) HIGH SPIRITS (‘88), BATMAN (‘89), THE NEVERENDING STORY II (‘90), HUDSON HAWK (’91) CAPE FEAR (‘91) THE NEVERENDING STORY III (‘94) and GOLDENEYE (‘95).

** As a side note, the idea for this sequence goes back to the first season TWILIGHT ZONE episode A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE (’60), penned by SF author and regular TZ writer Richard Matheson (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, SOMEWHERE IN TIME, DUEL), in which Howard Duff plays businessman Arthur Curtis who suddenly finds his office is a set on a soundstage and a film crew who insist he’s an actor playing Curtis in a movie. In both versions the character has to return to the point where the two realities overlapped in order to return to his rightful place.
Matheson should really sue.


Special Feature Information Vols. 1-4:
Gerry Anderson Commentary (Identified)
Alternate Opening Sequence
Production Gallery
Deleted Scenes Gallery
Behind The Scenes Gallery
Main Character Profiles
SHADO Dossiers

Special Feature Information Vols. 5-8:
SHADO Memorabilia
Production Gallery
Behind The Scenes Gallery
Ed Bishop Episode Commentary (Sub Smash)
Storyboards of The Cat With Ten Lives
Doppelganger Illustrated Text Featurette
Key Actor Profiles
Production Notes

Both: Aspect Ratio: 4:3

Directors: Gerry Anderson, David Lane, Ken Turner, Alan Perry, Jeremy Summers, David Tomblin, Cyril Frankel

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