I have very fond memories from my childhood of late Sunday nights, when my Dad would come up to check if I was asleep, and if I owned up that I wasn’t (what kid ever slept easy on a school night?), he’d let me downstairs to catch an episode of Gerry Anderson’s remarkable series. As I remember it being on Sunday nights they must have been repeats late in the evening, probably around 11 pm, because my Dad would have been out for a few hours and gotten back in about then, and popped upstairs to check on my brother and I. It would have been around 1972 or 1973, something like that so I’d have been about six or seven. Dad knew I loved space stuff so knew it would be a great treat: just like with Dr Who of that era, I’d be scared witless at the same time as being excited by all the futuristic hardware. UFO wasn’t really a kids show, at least not like the 1960s puppetry shows that Anderson produced previously- as I’ve gotten older and returned to UFO over the years on DVD and now Blu-ray, I’m endlessly surprised that while its officially a family show its really pretty dark and bleak. I mean, aliens abducting humans to steal organs and body parts? Yikes. I can’t imagine there’s any kids out there who didn’t get freaked out by the scary end-title sequence with Barry Gray’s creepy ambient music.
UFO is one of those shows that seems way ahead of its time while also inevitably dated as times have moved on (remember it was filmed in 1969/1970). Its decidedly non-PC, with sexist jokes and scantily-dressed women, clearly an indication of the times it was made in. Early in the pilot episode sequences of a character clearly ogling a female Shadow operative, while played for laughs, feels rather uncomfortable viewing now. And of course scenes feature characters endlessly smoking and drinking. There is something quite refreshing though regards UFOs non-PC credentials, a strange source of charm I suppose, but the show was ahead of its time, too, with black actors in fairly prominent roles of authority, with consideration of race relations and a mixed-race relationship featured in an early episode that feels very positive and forward-thinking.
March seems to be a month for looking back; the lure of nostalgia seems irresistible while stuck in lockdown for so long now… maybe lockdown and Covid have nothing to do with it and its just the endless siren-call of old favourites. Maybe settling down to the first five episodes of UFO is a reaction to seeing a few episodes of Starsky and Hutch on the past few Saturday nights. Speaking of the latter, I was surprised to see a fairly young M. Emmet Walsh appear in an episode last weekend, and Sherry Jackson in an episode the week prior (Sherry having a particularly memorable role in a Star Trek episode that I’m sure left its mark on many a young fan).
But I digress. I started this post writing about UFO. It just occurred to me, watching it… all the smoking and drinking, it began to dawn on me that its possibly just a matter of simple direction back then. For instance, there are many scenes with Alec Freeman (George Sewell) and Ed Straker (Ed Bishop) in Straker’s office in Shadow HQ, mostly dialogue-based scenes which are expositional and moving the plot forwards. Its just two guys talking, so it seems likely that the smoking and drinking was just a crux for the actors, something for them to do physically while talking. So they are just using props to make the scenes interesting, visually- moving to the drinks dispenser, pouring a whiskey, drinking it, or taking a cigarette, lighting and smoking it, or thumbing through a document file etc. The drinking and smoking feels incongruous now, of course, as its obviously unhealthy and looked at differently now than back then, but my initial thoughts that it was a reflection of the time or a way of ‘selling’ tobacco or booze to viewers were eventually dispelled as I considered what the director might have felt necessary when spacing out a scene in rehearsals to try keep mostly dialogue-scenes interesting for viewers. Maybe I’m wrong. But they even feature characters smoking while relaxing on Moonbase (can you imagine that, NASA letting astronauts smoke after what happened with Apollo 1?) which looks wrong, even though when I think about it, characters smoked on the Nostromo in Alien. I’m reminded of references to the great Peter Cushing, who was considered a master at using props when on-set (something I often have a keen eye on when I watch him performing in films).
Network’s Blu-ray of UFO looks pretty stellar- the series looks so much better now than it did back when I was a kid on my folk’s black and white television. I last watched the series on DVD several years back, and difference in the HD upgrade is really noticeable, its a great restoration, akin to that served The Prisoner and Space:1999 Blu-ray releases. Indeed its really quite extraordinary and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Its also something of a testament to the quality of the film-making I guess, and I do wonder what Gerry Anderson might have thought about the restoration. I bought my set when it first came out, so its accompanied by a 600-page book that serves as a great reference when watching the episodes. I expect later sets that were minus the book were better served by the disc-holders though- this set has a digipack featuring some of the most horrible clasps holding the discs that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter, truly horrendous packaging which is the sets weakest point. Such a shame the episodes had such TLC and the packaging (obviously well-intentioned) came so short. The box is gorgeous and the book is heavenly but the digipack is the work of aliens: still, its the show itself that counts (once you can pry a disc out of the bloody evil digipack).