In early February, we had a writing residency at Ragdale (see posts about that HERE and HERE). While there, we began in earnest the process of pulling together the material for a book about our year of following the end of Shuttle. In trying to conjure a context for our shared interest in the space age, we kept going back to the childhoods that forged our interest. The childhood memories that we reflected upon were as likely to be cultural touchstones as they were NASA’s scientific and technical achievements. Chatting and writing about these themes reminded us of a show that Doug watched in his childhood and that we had watched together in 2005: UFO.
UFO was a late-1960s British television show created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, a married couple who shared their working lives, which sounds familiar to us. Prior to UFO, the Andersons teamed up on The Thunderbirds (1965), a show that used their supermarionation technique. After UFO, the Andersons developed another space-themed television show, Space 1999, which featured husband-and wife-team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain in the lead roles.
Doug’s childhood memories of the show are of something scary and slightly illicit. He had to sneak around the house, watching the show in the dark and with the sound on low to avoid waking his parents. Unwittingly, he created the perfect viewing environment, a combination of unease and foreboding, for a show about an ongoing threat to the earth in the form of a piecemeal alien invasion. In an early episode, a dying alien is recovered from a crashed UFO (consistently pronounced as a two-syllable word in the series: You-Pho). After the alien expires and is autopsied, it’s revealed that the alien contained transplanted Earth human organs in its body. And thus, the series conceit is established: the aliens are coming to earth to harvest our organs.
Week after week, alien UFO’s emanating from an unknown origin planet attempt to make their way to earth singly or in small groups (usually of three). In order to do so, they must run the SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) gauntlet: a trio of space interceptors that are launched from the uber-secret Moonbase complex, and a jet fighter called Sky One that is launched from underneath the ocean where it normally cruises affixed to the front of a submarine, SkyDiver. It was the 1960s, when anything was possible. It was the 1960s’ version of 1980. The show’s other conceit is that all SHADO’s activities are concealed by using a movie studio as the cover story for the headquarters.
The show is moody, eerie, and dark. The main character, SHADO Commander Ed Straker, is as unlikable a hero as one can imagine for television. He runs his SHADO fiefdom with a ruthless disregard for his compatriots—there’s an undeclared war going on, after all. Worse, save for two episodes, one about his son and the other about the dismantling of his marriage, he’s completely emotionally flat—seemingly on purpose. Even in those two aforementioned episodes, Straker always chooses SHADO over his personal ties.
Balancing out some of the show’s harder edges are its mod, psychedelic 1960s British vibe. The show’s costuming includes pretty standard sixties iconic fashion, such as Nehru jackets for the male leads and short skirts or clingy jumpsuits for the women, but the vibe really hits the mark in the secondary locations. At the Moonbase complex, most of the clothing is shiny and silver, and the women wear shiny purple wigs (which are not donned when the same characters appear on Earth). The women’s uniforms, looking something like braided metallic track suits, thoughtfully and quickly change into a sleeveless, short skirt number (and viewers see the characters change clothes). On the submarine SkyDiver, men and women both get see-through mesh shirts.
The whole show has a glam-and-gadgets James Bond feel, and there’s a reason for that: many of the actors and several props and stages were used for Bond films. We’re sure that this list is incomplete, but here’s a quick list of the actors who appeared in both UFO and a Bond film: Ed Bishop (You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever), Michael Billington (The Spy Who Loved Me, and he tested for the role of James Bond more than any other actor), Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny!), Vladek Sheybal (From Russia with Love), Steven Berkoff (Octopussy), Anoushka Hempel (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and Shane Rimmer (The Spy Who Loved Me, Diamonds Are Forever, and You Only Live Twice).
That’s not to say that the show avoided hard-hitting issues and make-you-think tropes. The episode “Close Up” (a pun for the movie-studio cover story) involves a space telescope designed to follow a UFO back toward the aliens’ home planet. When the telescope sends images back, everyone realizes that they have no calculations of distance or scale and that a planet—or in the demonstration the scientist gives Straker, a woman’s leg—looks completely different and possibly unrecognizable from different distances. Measurement and scale is a topic we discussed at Lofty Ambitions HERE.
We’re in the midst of re-watching the entire UFO catalog, just one season, but back when a season consisted of 26 captivating episodes. Here’s the opening sequence: