Having shaken off what he considered to be the curse of making puppet shows, Gerry Anderson was keen to make UFO as appealing to adults as he possibly could while also appealing to children so that the show could generate some money through merchandising. The result is a series full of cool machinery, aliens, and action but also very ‘grown-up’ themes like violence, sex, adultery, broken families, the death of family members, drug-use and even rape. For many this makes UFO one of Anderson’s best series, as it successfully builds upon the stunning action and special effects of the Supermarionation era and utilises that to tell stories that are more complex and dramatic than could be achieved with the puppets. Later in the series a satisfying balance is reached between the use of hardware and the dark themes, but to begin with the tone of the series gets a little lost, often going too far one way or the other. For me, the ‘grown-up’ themes sometimes stick out like a sore thumb as a desperate attempt to prove that the Andersons could make a sci-fi show that appealed to adults by giving the series elements of a soap opera. These moments are shocking, but usually because they don’t fit right in a series that is also trying to appeal to children with cool spaceships and action. Here are a few examples of moments or episodes that stand out for me as going a little too far in the wrong direction:
The Responsibility Seat
After discovering the truth about reporter Jo Fraser’s criminal record, Straker is suddenly faced with her stripped down to her underwear as she attempts to get him in a compromising position.
While the pair do grow quite close over the course of the episode, this moment does appear to come out of no-where. Sex is has never been addressed so directly or ham-fistedly in a Gerry Anderson show. It’s a far cry from what we’ve seen in the puppet shows, but it’s almost as if this moment has been put in deliberately to make you think exactly that, rather than serving the story intelligently.
The Square Triangle
An alien gets mixed up in a love affair as Liz Newton plots to murder her husband in order to stay with her lover, Cass Fowler.
I find Patrick Mower grating to watch at the best of times, but with aliens and SHADO getting mixed up in something as trivial as a soap opera love triangle it just feels like UFO is trying too hard to be something that it’s not. When Cass first kisses Liz and the music swells to a ridiculously over the top point I just can’t help but roll my eyes and feel as though Barry Gray would rather be scoring a UFO/Interceptor dogfight. The characters just aren’t written like two normal humans who are in love. Arguably characterisation isn’t a presedence in Gerry Anderson shows because the hardware is the main feature, but when you’re dealing with something as human and basic as a love affair the characters have to be well-written or there’s nothing left to draw the viewer’s attention.
A Question of Priorities and Confetti Check A-OK
Oh the depressing melodrama that is Ed Straker’s life. I appreciate that Straker is supposed to be a tragic hero who has given up everything to defend the Earth from aliens, and with that responsibility he has to be cold and detached in order to avoid a mental breakdown. However, the character starts to become a little hard to take seriously when we’re shown so many bad things happening to Straker which leave him more or less unaffected.
So here’s the full story. Because of all the late nights and secrecy caused by Ed’s work, his mother-in-law hires a private detective who provides Mary, Ed’s wife, with “proof” that Ed is having an affair when he actually isn’t. Mary tries to leave and becomes hysterical so Ed slaps her, causing her to fall down the stairs. But wait, there’s more! She is also pregnant. The baby has to be delivered by Cesarean section. Their marriage is well and truly over by this point. But wait, there’s more! Years later, Ed drops his son off at home one day, only for the son to get hit by a car when Ed tries to leave. Apparently he needs some special drugs which Ed attempts to have delivered to the hospital, but SHADO ends up having to divert the transporter to try and capture an alien and potentially save the world. So Straker’s son dies.
All this happens and Mary Straker is very upset, in fact that’s pretty much all she ever is. But Ed Straker just focusses on getting on with the work of hunting UFOs which is, after all, what the series is all about, thus demonstrating that he’s obsessed with work and emotionally stunted. Straker’s life is full of tragedy but with it all squeezed in to two episodes, so much happens that viewers just can’t fully take in without finding it a bit laughable. If Straker’s tragic family life had perhaps been an arc across the whole series, focussed on a little bit as a subplot to each episode, it might be a bit more powerful. But what we’re left with are two very melodramatic episodes which bombard the viewer with soap opera level drama that don’t match the tone of many other UFO episodes.
UFO hasn’t aged all that well, partly because the technology either looks far too dated or far too advanced for 1980, and partly because its first episode, and quite a few others, objectify women in bucketloads.
The Supermarionation shows never had to worry about trying to appeal to adults by using beautiful women who don’t really do all that much – and because they don’t do all that much it really sticks out that all they’re there for is to make certain people at home pay attention to the television screen who wouldn’t normally be interested. Fortunately this becomes slightly less of a problem later in the series. But Identified is perhaps the worst offender of trying to make something that feels like a kid’s show appeal to adults by making references to sex and other ‘grown-up’ subject matters including alcohol.
Yes, the Supermarionation puppets liked a drink. So many Thunderbirds characters are seen drinking booze at one point or another. But it’s hardly ever directly referenced. It’s just something done in the background of scenes in an attempt to make the puppets seem a little more human. But the scene in Identified focussed around Straker’s booze dispenser really forces the theme down your throat until you submit kicking and screaming to the idea that yes, this is a show for adults.
The trouble is that the basic premise and plot of Identified already has enough going on to appeal to kids and adults as SHADO mobilises all its hardware to bring down a UFO and perform a grissly autopsy on the alien body they recover. It has enough action, excitement and dark, serious moments to appeal to kids and adults. So all the other stuff about sex and alcohol which don’t actually serve the plot are a bit pointless and just make the show look dated, and look like it’s trying too hard to be ‘grown-up’, if anything making the younger kids at home a little uncomfortable. If only some of the writers and directors would have had a little more faith in the strength of the show’s format and it’s appeal, this all could have been avoided.
UFO does have an extremely strong premise to entertain, scare, and intrigue an audience of all ages, and even make them think. The show is at its best when it just tries to tell a good and thought-provoking story with some original concepts, rather than recycling soap-opera tropes or forcing in ‘grown-up’ themes that don’t fit into, or particularly affect, the rest of the story. The latter half of the series is inherently dark in tone, while the first half is a show trying as imitate dark ideas but not incorporating them particularly well.
But that’s just my opinion, do you think that UFO tried too hard to appeal to adults at first? Leave a comment below with your thoughts on the series.
3 thoughts on “UFO: A Soap Opera with Aliens?”
Great post, & I think that’s very well said. I’ve always preferred the later episodes (filmed at Pinewood) as they seem to have relaxed a bit from ‘trying too hard’ (as you say), although by then we do lose a few key members of the cast.
I’ve always disliked the Cofetti Check A-Ok story too – as you say, the show always felt a bit clunky when trying to develop the characters & delve too much into their personal lives.
I really like Identified though – I can’t really remember all the alcohol stuff! I’ll look out for it the next time I start re-watching the series.
You’re so right about the female ‘eye-candy’! This all went over my head as a child, watching it for the first time – bur I guess it’s all a sign of the (less enlightened) times.
I just think it’s a pity the show wasn’t allowed to be developed further with a 3rd season, as I do think Space 1999 is terribly dull in comparison (desire its excellent effects & hardware).
Thanks for another excellent & thought-provoking blogpost! 🙂
I have to say l really loved this show. Its very easy to criticise the scripts. I have seen an article which was very critical of the model depiction within the series discribing as rather wooden.
The late Edd Bishop was brilliant as Edd Straker the lead character of the show l sincerely believe its a shame he did not go on to become a major star as he had the potential to become so, he was also a very likeable individual in real life.
Going back to the series we are talking a production made forty five years ago with the immense talent of Derek Meddings who along with many other talented individuals constructed the scale models for the series. If you compare these with these new computer generated images now common place in the movie works l believe again they receive top marks.
The remarks l am making are not some doey eyed fan but of an individual whom is critical and precise in everything l do.
As for the sex appeal yes! Perhaps some might say it’s not required dispite being an adult themed show who would not want to be mesmerised by Gabrielle Drake who in her day was one of the most attractive leading actresses on the small screen again had the potential to go on to bigger things. Unfortunately like it or lump it sex sells and this only serves to enhance the show with again Sylvia Anderson being responsible for the costume design in the show.
I have just started to view the show again having first seen it when l was just fifteen it has stood the test of time well, perhaps if l were to be critical there has been such advancement in technology in recent years that items such as a tape recorder does somewhat look a tad out of place bearing in mind this was a futuristic show and l did think for 1980 it was in many instances a little to advanced.
The scripts were excellent well thought out, tight and in many instances exciting it has stood the test of time well and l still watch it and it holds my complete attention some forty odd years on from when it was made, if you look at other ITC shows using my favourite as an example The Saint the monochrome episodes based loosely on the charteris scripts were again very entertaining but when it went to colour some aspects of the show on selected episodes became silly. This cannot be said of UFO I have not seen one episode of which became as a disappointment. What about the brilliant episode Sub Smash, another Time lash, need l go on.
Where l do believe it went all wrong was Lew Grade should have commissioned a second batch of shows all the ingredients were there, Gerry always turned out a good product. I am so pleased l grew up with shows like UFO and they have left there mark on entertainment. The critics may at times not be kind but compared with some of this American rubbish its good quality entertainment in its day.
I will conclude by saying one downside of the show which left a tear in my eye was so many of the stars are no longer with us EDD BISHOP, GEORGE SEWELL, MICHAEL BILLINGTON, to name a few Michael being a mammoth talent in himself critic writer, and whom also screen tested four times for James Bond and who himself died so young way before his time, to all of you thank you so much for the show and lovely memories of which l will cherish to l too join you.
Michael Billington the critic (who, happily, is still with us) is a different guy to Michael Billington the actor.