It’s only in recent years that I finally watched UFO, a cult TV show from 1970 which pre-empted other classic shows years and decades later, as well as my all-time favourite computer game; it’s a show which combines the most daring and outrageous visual and musical style of the era, and blends it with cutting-edge special effects, and an anthology of episodes covering various science fiction tropes and moody, downbeat drama.
All of this came from the creative minds behind classic British childrens’ shows like Thunderbirds (known for the international organisation with outlandish vehicles) and Captain Scarlet (a darker, more paranoid series about alien ‘Mysteron’ infiltrators, always watching us from afar).
I rewatched it earlier this year whilst our activities were still somewhat restricted by the pandemic; it was just the sort of escapism I was after…
Set in the near future of 1980 (gasp!), aliens are probing Earth’s defences and nobody can be sure what their intentions are. The ‘Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation’ [‘SHADO’] is set up using an English film studio as cover, to co-ordinate the international response to the threat from space.
It has a moon base ready to launch space interceptors and a computer satellite (‘Space Intruder Detector’, or ‘SID’) to help analyse the flying saucers heading to Earth, whilst a patrolling submarine in the North Atlantic stands by to launch a rocket aircraft from hiding to catch any aliens that might reach our planet (which happens rather a lot).
It’s absolutely barmy, doesn’t make a lick of sense, and I don’t care.
Any show made by Gerry Anderson is guaranteed to have flashy model vehicles and lavish explosions; these aren’t supposed to be practicable, sensible, operational pieces of equipment – they’re supposed to swoop around on screen amid quick cuts of actors bringing their most intense looks of concentration (including an impossibly young Stephen Berkoff as a SHADO pilot), and a good deal of pyrotechnics.
Criticising dated special effects for looking dated – much like criticising silent black & white films for being dated – is something that never gets my applause. The first thing is, does it help tell the story? Whether it ruins a viewer’s immersion in the drama is up to the viewer (the borders of the uncanny valley vary according to your viewpoint!).
However, this show was aimed at adults more than children – the opening scene of the first episode has a hapless trio gunned down by alien invaders they stumble across. The aliens themselves (here to harvest human organs) are humanoid, but breathe liquid and must wear protective suits to guard against Earth’s environment, including chunky contact lenses, one of which is removed in a striking shot included in the opening credits.
Naturally, the 1970 TV networks looked at all the bright colours and exploding models, and decided this was a kids’ show, airing it just after finishing school homework and before teatime.
The head of SHADO, Ed Straker (Ed Bishop), narrowly escapes an alien attack when Earth’s governments first receive proof of the alien incursions. He becomes obsessed with his work, neglecting his family, and separates from his wife after their son is killed in a car collision which continues to haunt him. He’s not exactly a laid-back, amiable fellow; no Shatnerian captain, this leader!
The supporting cast is refreshingly diverse, even if the script occasionally (and agonisingly) reflects the attitudes of the time – one early episode features a bizarrely racist line of questioning supposed to unsettle one of the interceptor pilots. Perhaps a bit of Cold War spy paranoia seeped in as well, with SHADO having to conduct its operations without attracting public attention. Speaking of Cold War fiction: the series features Michael Billington (who auditioned for James Bond four times before playing a Russian agent killed in the opening of The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977), Vladek Sheybal (who appeared in Bond films From Russia With Love in 1963 and Casino Royale in 1967), Shane Rimmer (who popped up in You Only Live Twice in 1967 and The Spy Who Loved Me), and in one episode, Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny to three separate Bond actors from 1962 to 1985).
Sylvia Anderson – Gerry’s wife – designed the characters and costumes for the show, and it’s a glorious riot of colour. The moon base staff (male and female) wear silver catsuits; the women wear purple wigs instead of peaked caps. Moon pilots wear blue jumpsuits with orange helmet visors. The submarine crew (male and female) wear beige string vests. Formal dress consists of navy-blue Nehru jackets. As with the classic Star Trek, the sets and decor all reflect 1960s modernism (the show started filming in 1969).
Forget modern, ‘gritty’ science fiction: everything here is brightly lit so the audience can see what’s going on and where it’s taking place. Somehow, it all feels more inviting and intriguing and lively. The music by Barry Gray is jazzy and cool, and in one scene visits a nightclub playing a Beatles song.
It all feels effortlessly cool. This is Austin Powers without the irony. It’s earnest about the way it ignores how stylish it is. (The silver miniskirt and purple wig? Oh, that’s just for work… and the moon base commander has a space-age compact to help refresh her distinctive makeup too!)
Don’t mistake my enthusiasm for thinking that I love it unreservedly. The vivacious style is at complete odds with the downbeat, paranoid tone (compare and contrast the opening credits with the ominous end credits music set to a slow pan away from Earth, almost like something from 2001: A Space Odyssey). As I mentioned earlier, there’s no way the set up can be taken seriously.
This is a series which could have benefited from a serial storytelling style, rather than one-off episodes exploring different science fiction (or other, non-genre) dramatic tropes (mind control, time travel, submarine rescue). The scripts sometimes go hilariously off kilter: “These clouds give about as much cover as a g-string on a belly-dancer!”
Even so, I still find it oddly compelling. It’s a snapshot of a retro future we never got to see, a time when the future was still portrayed optimistically.
The show was cancelled after one season, but it went on to inform Gerry Anderson’s next live-action project set nineteen years later: Space 1999 (1975). One might also see seeds of inspiration in other shows – the moon base interceptors are precursors to the Viper fighters in Battlestar Galactica (1978), and the secretive, paranoid investigation of alien intruders was the recurring plot thread of The X-Files (1993), and SHADO’s inducing amnesia in UFO witnesses also featured in Men In Black (1997). There still seems to be an appetite for 1960s retro-futurism, as evidenced by more modern fare such as the alternate-history space race in For All Mankind (2019).
But the inspiration that first drew me to the show came from a computer game in the 1990s…
The game X-Com: UFO Defence (also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe, the title I knew it by) is an ambitious game from 1994 in which you take a role like Ed Straker, managing an international organisation (X-Com) combatting alien invaders.
You must decide where to build your bases on the virtual globe and design their layout, deploy interceptors and ground troops, allocate research and engineering, balance the budget and storage space, keep your international funders happy (or else they quit), and take charge of your troops on each mission as they sweep the area (turn by turn). Aliens (taken dead or alive) and their technology can be investigated to beef up your capabilities.
The various aliens begin with smaller incursions (smaller spacecraft, less powerful creatures) but soon send in their big guns as you fight back, establishing their own bases and using terror attacks around the world to unsettle your partner nations, and even hunting down your own HQ. Ultimately you take the fight back to them, on the surface of Mars (specifically the region of Cydonia where, at the time, alien enthusiasts believed there was a face carved into the Martian ground, surrounded by pyramids – modern imaging technology has shown this simply ain’t so).
That’s a pretty comprehensive game, but it never feels overwhelming. One aspect that makes it even more compelling is your ability to rename your troops and equip them with weapons and armour that suits their abilities: nimble ones who can run up and stun aliens to capture them, or provide first aid for injured comrades; or accurate ones who can hang back and snipe from rooftops; or the ones who can carry heavy weapons to deal with bigger threats. As their numbers grow and they gain experience, they get promoted (the top ranks based on how many there are to command). I usually rename the first soldier to gain a promotion to “The Guv’nor” – and then do my damnedest to make sure they survive…
Players often get attached to particular troops who’ve survived many missions and have developed their distinct abilities. This personal connection to a handful of pixels raises the tension on each mission (and it’s tense enough with the ominous music), especially when they get injured, or panic, or get mind-controlled by telepathic aliens. There is a genuine (if limited – it’s only a game after all) sense of loss when they get killed. I have a couple of friends who still remember having to heroically sacrifice of one of their troops when retreating from a mission that went wrong, which allowed the others to escape (Orsky Korsikov, you will not be forgotten).
The game was a huge success and spawned a sequel, Terror From The Deep, in which surviving aliens from the first game establish an underwater base and you have to launch submarines and submersibles to deal with the menace (otherwise, the game is much the same).
There were other spin-off games, but none matched the charm of the blocky-looking originals.
The successor to those old games was XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012 (a decent mash-up of the old US and European titles), which had modern graphics and allowed more customisation of your troops but lacked some of the fine detail and also grand scope of the original (you are limited to a single base this time; you are allowed a maximum of six soldiers on each mission; all of your soldiers can be promoted to the highest rank together).
A curious prequel set in 1962, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (2013) puts you in the first-person shoes of a US government agent investigating and fighting back against ‘The Outsiders’, and captures hints of retro-futurism seen in the old TV series. The latest game is XCOM 2 (2016), in which, many years later, the aliens have taken over the planet politically, and you must revive the old organisation and mount a resistance.
Returning to the TV show, in this age of reboots and revivals I wonder if it will ever be treated to a resurrection? Most of those who enjoyed it when it first came out are nearing retirement age now, and it seems like pop culture has forgotten about it.
The 26 episodes of the original, single season is equivalent to about three seasons of modern streaming shows. If it ever does return, I’d like to think – following the success of For All Mankind – they keep the groovy, 1960’s retro-futuristic style, but make the storytelling more serialised.
Until that happens, UFO will remain distinct: it’s camp, it’s vibrant, it’s got verve, it’s got style, and it’s very much a product of it’s time – yet there are details that set it apart from anything else (for example, it’s set in a 1980s Britain that never existed, in which roads changed so cars drive on the right).
Because it’s simply unique, UFO feels timeless now too.
It’s the sort of thing you could dip in and out of if you wanted to give it a try, and I’d recommend the first episode at the very least.