Monday, July 10, 2006

UFO sighting

You can tell that you've been hurled headlong into the abyss of middle age when random pop culture memories from your childhood blindside you out of nowhere.

Just now, for instance...

Back in the day, I loved me some UFO.

For those of you who missed the early 1970s — either because you spent those halcyon days under the influence of illicit pharmaceuticals, or because you simply hadn't been born yet — UFO was a short-lived (one 26-episode season) British television series about a near-future invasion from outer space (at that time, "near future" meant the early 1980s), and the stalwart Earthmen and Earthwomen who dedicated their lives to preventing alien creatures from eating us, or stealing our viscera, or whatever it was they had in mind. (The show never clearly defined the invaders' motivation, but it had something to do with organ harvesting.)

At the forefront of the War of the Worlds (no, wait, that was another show...) stood a top-secret paramilitary organization called SHADO — the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation (you know those Brits; they spell everything funny). Although SHADO was based in the United Kingdom for whatever reason, its commander was an American officer named Edward Straker (played by the laconic Ed Bishop, wearing a embarrassing white hairpiece that made him look like an albino mongoose had taken up residence on his head).

Straker and his minions carried out their operations under the guise of a motion picture studio outside London. (This proved handy for hiding spacecraft, submarines, laser cannons, and other esoteric hardware in plain sight. SHADO operatives could always pretend that their toys were mere movie props.) SHADO also maintained a base on the moon — prosaically named "Moonbase" — the support staff of which was comprised almost entirely of comely women whose everyday uniforms included purple wigs. (I kid you not. As you'll see in the photos below.)

UFO sprang like Athena from the fevered brain of Gerry Anderson, previously best known as the producer of science fiction kidvid programs featuring animated puppets — the so-called "Supermarionation" shows like Thunderbirds, Fireball XL-5, and Captain Scarlet. With UFO, Anderson proved deft at employing many of the same special effects techniques he developed for Supermarionation in a live-action setting. For a low-budget independent production made in 1970, UFO actually looked pretty stylish. (Later in the same decade, Anderson would return to live-action sci-fi with the pretentious and deadly dull Space: 1999.)

As a kid who had just discovered Star Trek in syndication, UFO captivated me immediately when it arrived on American TV in the fall of 1972. (As I recall, our local affiliate ran the show on Saturday evenings, before primetime.) It was intelligent (if somewhat derivative), well-crafted (though often clumsily acted), and exciting, even though it tended to be more cerebral (okay, slow) than most TV science fiction of the period.

UFO also featured a multiracial cast — something one rarely saw on the major networks in those days. In fact, UFO may well have been one of the first television series shown in the U.S. to portray an interracial relationship: a love affair involving a black man, SHADO pilot Mark Bradley...

...and a white woman, Moonbase commander Lieutenant Gay Ellis.

Ah, yes: Lt. Ellis. (Other characters rarely called her by her first name. I don't think that had anything to do with the fact that her first name was Gay. Although, in retrospect, maybe it did.) Played by doe-eyed Gabrielle Drake, she provided fantasy fodder for thousands of nerdy sci-fi geeks just beginning to experience the pangs of puberty. Myself included.

Generally speaking, I'm not drawn to women who look as though their skulls are being devoured by carnivorous orchids. For Lt. Ellis, I would gladly have made an exception.

Late in the show's run, Lt. Ellis's assistant, Lt. Nina Barry (played by the lovely and talented Dolores Mantez), was promoted to Moonbase commander. In the manner of her predecessor, the coolly professional Nina could work a mauve 'do and silver jumpsuit like nobody's business.

Part of the fun of UFO came from the abundance of nifty technology, much of which looked suspiciously like updated and detailed versions of equipment we'd seen in the Supermarionation shows. Straker drove a sweet gull-wing automobile — driven, oddly enough, from the left side of the passenger compartment, even though the show was set in Great Britain — that anticipated the DeLorean by nearly a decade.

SHADO's pilots did interplanetary battle with the aliens while flying one-man spacecraft called Interceptors, the stylistic forerunners of the Tie fighters that later appeared in Star Wars.

One of UFO's more poorly conceived elements, the Moonbase-launched Interceptor was a curiously limited attack vehicle. It couldn't be flown into the Earth's atmosphere as the alien ships could, meaning the enemy could easily outrun it. (Fortunately, SHADO employed a specially equipped jet called Sky One for engagement closer to home.) Also, each Interceptor only carried one offensive weapon, a missile mounted to its nose. Who would design a fighting machine that would be rendered powerless after a single missed shot?

But of course, such improbabilities — much like the show's bizarre fashion sense — only added to the enjoyment.

Brother, they don't make science fiction like that anymore.

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1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Janet offered these pearls of wisdom...

I never heard of UFO, but I did see the movie UHF with Weird Al. Does that count?:)

12:12 PM  

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