Saturday, September 4, 2010

UFO : Computer Affair - (1970)

UFO is a British television science fiction series created by Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson with Reg Hill, and produced by the Andersons and Lew Grade's Century 21 Productions for Grade's ITC Entertainment company. The Andersons had previously made a number of very successfu marionette-based children's science fiction series including Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. They had also made one live-action science fiction movie, Doppelgänger, also known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, and now felt ready to move into live-action television and aim at a more adult market. UFO was the Andersons' first totally live-action TV series. Despite the assumption of many TV station executives, the series was not aimed at children but deliberately sought an older audience; many episodes featured adult themes such as adultery, divorce, and drug use. Most of the cast were newcomers to Century 21 although star Ed Bishop had previously worked with the Andersons as a voice actor on Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons. UFO first aired in the UK and Canada in 1970 and in US syndication over the next two years. In all, 26 episodes, including the pilot, were filmed over the course of more than a year, with a five-month production break caused by the ultimate closure of the MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood, where the show was initially made. An idiosyncrasy of the series is that the term "UFO" is pronounced as a word ("you-foh"), as suggested by the real-world originator of the term Edward J. Ruppelt, and not as the more common "you-eff-oh". This is particularly true of the lead character, Ed Straker. Technically speaking the series title should properly be pronounced "you-foh" as well. However, the "you-foh" pronunciation was not consistently applied and some supporting characters use the now more common form. The show's basic premise is that in the near future – a fictional version of 1980 (a date indicated in the opening credits) – Earth is being visited and attacked by aliens from a dying planet and humans are being covertly harvested for their organs by the aliens. The show's main cast of characters are members of a secret, high-technology-equipped international agency established to defend Earth and humanity against the mysterious aliens and learn more about them.

The extraterrestrial spacecraft can readily cross the vast distances between their planet and Earth but are only large enough for one or two crewmembers. Their time on station is limited: UFOs can only survive for a couple of days in the Earth's atmosphere before they heat up, deteriorate and finally explode. The alien craft can survive for far longer underwater; one episode, "Reflections in the Water", deals with the discovery of a secret undersea alien base, which shows one UFO flying straight out of an extinct volcano, which Straker describes as "a back door to the Atlantic". A special underwater version of the standard UFO design is seen in "Sub Smash". In flight they are surrounded by horizontally-spinning vanes and emit a distinctive pulsing electronic whine that sounds like a Shoooe-Wheeeh![1] (actually produced by series composer Barry Gray, on an Ondes Martenot). The craft is armed with a laser-type weapon, but can be destroyed by conventional explosive warheads. The personal arms of the aliens resemble shiny assault rifles; these have a lower rate of fire than that used by SHADO. Later episodes such as "The Cat With Ten Lives" show the aliens using other weapons, such as a small device which seemingly paralyses victims. This is presumably for organ and body harvesting purposes, since pilot Jim Regan's wife Jean is taken for her organs in that episode.

Notably for science fiction, and uniquely for a television series, the alien race is never given a proper name, either by themselves or by human beings; they are simply referred to as "the aliens". Humanoid in appearance, the autopsy of the first alien captured reveals that they are harvesting organs from the bodies of abducted humans. Their faces are stained by the hue of a green oxygenated liquid, which is believed to cushion their lungs against the extreme acceleration of interstellar flight; this liquid is contained in their helmets. To protect their eyes the aliens wear opaque sclera contact lenses with small pinholes for vision. The show's opening sequence begins by showing the image, remarkable for its time, of one of these contact lenses being removed from an obviously real eye with a pair of forceps — although the scleral lens is never shown in contact with the eye. No more than two of the aliens are seen at any one time. In the episode Ordeal, when Foster in an alien spacesuit is carried by two aliens, one of those two aliens is always off-screen if Foster is on-screen. The prop alien spacesuits were made of red Lycra. At the start of production the alien spacesuits were ornamented with silvery chainlinking. Later this was replaced by silvery areas as in the image. In reality the dark vertical bands on the sides of the helmets are slits to let the actors breathe.

To defend against the aliens, a secret organisation called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation) is established. Operating behind the cover of the Harlington-Straker Studios movie studio in England, SHADO is headed by Commander Ed Straker (played by Ed Bishop), a former United States Air Force Colonel and astronaut who poses as the studio's chief executive.
In reality, this was a clever cost-saving move by the producers – the studio was the actual studio where the series was being filmed, originally the MGM-British Studios, later Pinewood Studios, although the Harlington-Straker studio office block seen throughout the series was actually Neptune House – a building at the former British National Studios, in Borehamwood, that were owned by ATV. Pinewood's studio buildings and streetscapes were used extensively in later episodes, particularly "Timelash" and "Mindbender", the latter featuring scenes that actually showed the behind-the-scenes workings of the UFO sets when Straker briefly finds himself hallucinating that he is an actor on a TV series and all his SHADO colleagues are likewise actors.

Typical of Anderson productions, the studio-as-cover idea was both practical and cost-effective for the production and provided a ready-made vehicle for the viewer's suspension of disbelief. It removed the need to build an expensive exterior set for the SHADO base and combined that all-important "secret" cover (concealment and secrecy are always central themes in Anderson dramas) with the trademark ring of at least nominal plausibility. A studio was a business where unusual events and routines would not be remarkable or even noticed. Comings and goings at odd times, the movement of vehicles, equipment, people and material would not excite undue interest and could easily be explained away as "sets", "props", or "extras". Another Anderson leitmotif was the concept of the mechanical conveyor, e.g. the automatic boarding tubes of Stingray and the Thunderbird craft. In UFO, this appeared in the guise of Straker's "secret" office, which doubled as a lift (elevator) that takes him down to the SHADO control centre located beneath the studio. The pilots of the space interceptors and the submersible "Sky One" jet interceptor slide down boarding chutes into their craft. The interceptors then rise from their hangar via elevating platforms to a launch pad disguised as a lunar crater. This was a carry-over from the earlier marionette series where it was used due to the difficulty in getting puppets to walk and get them into cockpits.

SHADO equipment:
SHADO has a variety of high-tech hardware and vehicles at its disposal to implement a layered defence of Earth. Early warning of alien attack would come from SID (Space Intruder Detector), a computerised tracking satellite that constantly scans for UFO incursions. The forward line of defence is Moonbase from which the three Lunar Interceptor spacecraft, carrying nuclear missiles, are launched. The second line of defence includes SkyDiver, a submarine mated with the submersible, undersea-launched Sky One interceptor aircraft, which attack UFOs in Earth's atmosphere. The last line of defence is ground units including the armed, IFV-like SHADO Mobiles, fitted with caterpillar tracks. Special effects, as in all Anderson's marionette shows, were supervised by Derek Meddings, while the vehicles were designed by Meddings and his assistant, Michael Trim.

The stories:
The show's concept was unusually dark for its time: the basic premise was that alien invaders were abducting humans to use as involuntary organ transplant donors. A later episode, "The Cat with Ten Lives", contains a sinister plot point which suggests that the UFO pilots are not humanoid aliens at all, but are in fact human abductees under the control of the alien intelligences, suggesting that (as in Captain Scarlet) the aliens, in the dialog of Dr. Jackson, "may have no physical being at all and therefore need a container, a vehicle, our bodies." The show also featured realistic, believable relationships between the human characters to a far greater extent than usual in a typical science fiction series, showing the clear influence of American programmes like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek and British action series such as Danger Man. One early episode, "Computer Affair", strongly hinted at an interracial romance between two continuing characters (something that was uncommon on British TV in those days), while others showed the heroes making mistakes with sometimes fatal consequences. Furthermore, relatively few episodes of the series actually had happy or (for the characters) satisfying endings. The episode "Confetti Check A-OK" is almost entirely devoted to the breakdown of Straker's marriage under the strain of maintaining his secret identity. Another, "A Question of Priorities", takes this exploration further, and hinges on Straker having to make an agonising life-or-death choice to rescue his critically-injured son by diverting an aircraft carrying SHADO mobiles to deliver life-saving medical supplies, or to attempt a last-chance intercept against an incoming UFO. Two key images from "A Question of Priorities" – Straker's son being struck down and his ex-wife declaring she never wants to see him again – are repeated in flashback in two subsequent episodes, "Sub-Smash" and "Mindbender", suggesting that Straker remains haunted by these unresolved emotional issues.

Another episode "The Square Triangle" centres on a woman and her lover who plan to murder her husband. When they accidentally kill an alien from a downed UFO instead, SHADO intervenes and doses the guilty pair with amnesia drugs (decades ahead of a similar story device in Men in Black, and one deployed for similar reasons). Straker realises, however, that the drugs will not affect their basic motivation and the end credits of this episode are run over a scene set in the near future, showing the woman visiting her husband's grave and then walking to meet her lover. Some critics complained that the emphasis on down-to-earth relationships weakened the show's science fiction premise and were also a means of saving money on special effects. The money-saving argument may have been true to a limited extent, but the Andersons made a virtue of necessity. They had always hoped to direct live action TV drama, and although the marionette shows helped them develop impressive skills in effects and scripting, they had always considered them as essentially being a way of keeping in work and earning money while they tried to break into "real" TV drama. Others countered that the characters were more well rounded than in other science fiction shows and that science fiction concepts and special effects in themselves did not preclude realistic action and interaction and believable, emotionally engaging plots. Ultimately, the mix of dark human drama with traditional science fiction adventure is probably the reason for UFO's enduring cult popularity and what sets it apart from the rest of TV SF series. For example, the time-freeze plot of the episode "Timelash" is similar to the Outer Limits episode "The Premonition". But UFO adds a drama twist: Straker repeatedly injects a drug (X 50 stimulant) to remain awake during the time freeze, which results in Straker being hospitalised in SHADO's medical centre. The ending not only shows him lying in bed recovering from the harmful effects of drug use, but has a subtext that the plot of the episode may, in fact, have been a drug-induced delusion. This SF and dark drama mix is why UFO cuts deeper than most similar series. UFO confused broadcasters in both Britain and the United States who could not decide if it was a programme for adults, or for children - the series was shown on Saturday mornings by London Weekend (the fact Anderson was primarily associated with children's programming did not help matters). This confusion – coupled with erratic broadcast schedules – are considered contributing factors in its cancellation, although UFO is credited with opening the door to moderately successful runs of later live-action, adult-oriented programming by Anderson such as The Protectors and Space: 1999.

In this episode:
Computer Affair - An astronaut is killed during a UFO alert and the UFO gets through SHADO's outer defences. Straker wants to know why it happened and suspects human error. Is the relationship between Gay Ellis and Mark Bradley to blame? This was the second episode in the Series


DAVID LANE   (1970)
47 MIN

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