One of my friends, prolific author Jim Beard, has been documenting (via social media) his episode-by-episode viewing of the old Gerry Anderson show, UFO. When I was a kid, it was a favorite. They re-ran this British series on Saturdays in syndication, and my brother and I loved it. UFO detailed the efforts the efforts of a secret organization called S.H.A.D.O. and their clandestine efforts to save the world from an ever-imminent alien invasion.
There’s so much to like about this 70s show!
- There were cool vehicles (submarines, jets, tanks and even spaceships) they’d employ every episode (who cared if it was always the same stock footage shots).
- It was set in the “future” – in the 1980s! And the future never looked better with the cool cars, slick hairstyles, and engaging “at work” attire. (The women’s work attire is a bit prurient, to be fair.) And they even got some of it right. Various episodes explored the reliance on computers, wireless communications, the frustrations of bureaucracy and fingerprint/voiceprint databases.
- The brilliant theme song by Barry Gray was like no other. It’s an engaging, swinging call to arms, heralding the idea that “now we’re going to get down to business!”
Let the Music Be Your Guide
The theme song always stuck with me. A few years ago, when I was working for the Reed Elsevier division that would become ReedPop (the group that manages New York Comic Con, Emerald City Comic-Con, PAX and more), I was attending a business meeting in Berlin. I don’t speak German, but prior to the trip I had been diligently listening to language tapes. The idea was to try and absorb some of the simple phrases that would facilitate rudimentary communication.
One night, walking back to my hotel, I heard a familiar song. It was a funky variant of the UFO Theme song! Like Ulysses being lured by a siren call, I followed the music to an urban park where an outside bar had created a “pop-up shop”, complete with a DJ. Our mutual appreciation of, and passion for, the UFO theme song allowed me to communicate with, and be accepted by, the locals. I guess I didn’t need those language tapes after all.
“The Responsibility Seat”
So, spurred on by Jim Beard’s daily re-watching of this vintage show, I watched an old episode, “The Responsibility Seat”, this past weekend.
The story was clever. The commander of S.H.A.D.O., Ed Straker played by Ed Bishop, was tricked into granting an interview to a freelance journalist. He was concerned he may have revealed some of the secrets of his UFO-hunting organization to her inadvertently. It turns out she didn’t work for the big media outlet as she led him to believe but was actually a freelancer. On top of all that, she was very attractive, and we find out that Stryker’s focus on his job caused his wife to divorce him. Now he’s lonely.
On top of that, the “B” plot focuses on the second-in-command taking over for the night and being confronted with several difficult decisions.
Each character stumbles through their challenges and emerges – just barely – victorious. And each character realizes that he triumphed by the skin of their teeth. At the end of the episode, they each share a collective “whew!” with one another. Not exactly the cocksure action heroes in a typical leading man role.
* * *
So often, a science fiction vision of the future becomes dated when viewed by modern day eyes. Can anyone watch an old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial and think it is portraying futuristic technology?
Even Star Trek’s innovations will be taken for granted today. I’m specifically thinking about Starfleet’s communicators and contrasting that with how my daughters must consider the modern equivalent, cellphones, as mundane.
UFO has whiff of that. It was first televised in 1970 and meant to represent the ‘near future’ of the 1980s. But…”what if” we think of this show as something a little different? What if we view this show as a super-secret documentary of this super-secret organization that successfully repelled the UFO invasion a few decades ago? What if it’s the story of what really happened? In today’s world of conspiracy theories and fake news, it’s easy to believe that it might gain traction in that manner.
I’m going to watch another episode in that frame of mind. I’ve been watching too much news lately anyway. And you know what, I’ll take any excuse to hear that snazzy theme music again.