It's nearly forty-five years since Gerry Anderson's UFO went into production. A series about the covert operations of SHADO - Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organization - it saw Earth develop defences against covert alien invasion. The entire series is currently available on DVD from Amazon.
Although the series still has a cult following, it's one of the lesser-remembered Anderson shows today. This is a great shame as it proved to be one of the darkest, bleakest SF shows ever aired and deserves to be looked back on and celebrated. Join me as I rank the episodes, from worst to best, though as a warning to new viewers, some of the write-ups do describe the endings...
UFO's worst episode is aptly named indeed. While this article is here to reappraise the series, it can't be denied that a sizeable chunk of the show is every inch the "junk" that Patrick McGoohan once cruelly described the entire programme as. Tacky models, awful wigs (and not just the purple ones), appalling fashions, wooden acting, a dire opening title sequence (but thankfully a stellar closing one) and workmanlike scripts run through the programme, and at least half a dozen of the episodes are below par.
Ordeal is one such episode. Without wishing to make this guide too spoiler insensitive, an "it was all dream in the end" episode is unlikely to satisfy anyone, and this episode certainly doesn't.
UFO's most rewarding moments come when the series tries to flesh out the characters, particularly the taciturn lead, Commander Ed Straker. Unfortunately, for every episode where the character is given depths, there's an episode like Close Up where the central figure of the series is made to look like a complete buffoon.
Close Up contains an oddly spikey relationship between Straker and a Moonbase operative, the beautiful Gay Ellis (played by Gabrielle Drake). An underdeveloped and completely out-of-character subplot features Straker making odd overtures to Gay, including his insistence that "and don't ever forget, you're a very attractive girl." Later, when he returns to Earth, an underling spends several moments making his superior officer look a complete cretin by explaining how a new space camera is worthless, and illustrates the point by showing him a shot of Gay's "private area", magnified several thousand times over. Straker, ever stoic, seems oddly unconcerned by two of his underlings getting together to make him look an utter fool, or the fact that Gay's crotch looks like an alien planet when seen close up.
Computer Affair is one of a couple of UFO episodes that touches on racial tolerance. While well-meaning and earnest, such topics can often come over as ham-fisted when dealt with on television, and UFO is certainly no exception. In another episode (Survival) Commander Straker will tell black pilot Mark Bradley that he's so oblivious to skin tone that it wouldn't make a difference if he was "polka dot with red stripes". In the scripting stage it's charming and sweet... in execution it's toe-curlingly trite.
Here we first learn of a relationship between Mark and Gay, revealed because Gay hesitated in a word association test over the word "black". Elsewhere, Straker kills an alien by feeding it a truth serum after it refuses to talk, despite no indication that the aliens can speak English. As a result, his second-in-command, Colonel Freeman (George Sewell), threatens to resign and insists he won't change his mind... then changes his mind about thirty seconds later.
One of UFO's sillier instalments, with a one-note plot dragged out over 47 minutes. The length of ITC productions are handy to explore characters and develop situations further, but when you've only got one situation - Paul Foster is brainwashed by aliens to kill Straker - then it can drag.
The programme at its most slap-dash also sees three white pilots enter the chutes for the Interceptors... before cutting to a shot of Mark in one of them! We all know that it wouldn't matter if Mark was polka dot with red stripes, but even so, it's shoddy work. Harry Baird had, er... "acted"... as Mark Bradley in five previous episodes, before leaving the show after this one, citing the unfair "week by week" contracts for minor roles. The absence of his semi-regular character didn't affect the stories much, but the rest of the cast did complain less about getting splinters.
It's hard to dislike an episode as idiotic as The Responsibility Seat, a nonsense mess of a story with logic almost as haphazard as its lacklustre editing. Key scene has to be where the usually intuitive and intelligent Ed Straker has to get voice identification to prove that Jane Merrow's journalist is up to no good... despite the fact that she's previously bugged his office, ran from him, and smashed him over the back of the head with an ornament, giving him concussion and nearly killing him. Possibly because we get ample shots of Merrow's chest in this, one of the most sexist episodes of them all, Straker is distracted and won't listen to reason until it's confirmed for him by the base computer. Merrow was frequently active in the ITC roster, and, as with her treacherous role in The Prisoner, was known for playing femme planktelles.
The secondary story is Colonel Freeman, suffering the pressure of having to give orders in Strakers' absence, despite the fact that Straker must have taken time off before anyway and, as a Colonel, he would be used to giving orders in the first place. Add to this some delirious Soviets with the worst "Russian" accents you've ever heard, and it's a mish-mash of inanity that's somehow easy to love.