This month, Raz Greenberg travels back to the 70’s with David Lane’s UFO – A Question of Priorities
Each month, Raz Greenberg reviews an overlooked piece of science fiction, fantasy or horror – be it a film, a television episode, a comic or a game – one that should have gotten more attention when it first came out and should still be remembered, in his opinion. This month, he goes back to a seminal piece of live-action science fiction television – from a man better known for his work with puppets.
Mention the name of British producer Gerry Anderson to most people, and they’ll probably think of marionettes sliding down the passages to their futuristic vehicles in the famous puppet show Thunderbirds. But Thunderbirds and the other puppet shows produced by Anderson were just a part of his still-underappreciated contribution to the world of genre films and television. The supermarionation technique he developed and the people trained in his production company ruled the special effects industry from the late 1960s until CGI took over, giving the James Bond films of the 1970s, the Star Wars and Alien films and many other franchises their realistic look. This look is deeply rooted within Anderson’s own live-action show, Space: 1999 (originally broadcasted 1975) which featured impressive futuristic worldbuilding, but unfortunately, also lackluster scripts. Five years earlier, however, Anderson fared much better with his earlier live-action television production UFO.
Taking place in the then-future of the 1980s, the show followed SHADO, a special task force charged with defeating an alien invasion to Earth. As this invasion consists of both flying-saucer attacks and brainwashing of the human population, SHADO must fight its war on both Earth and in space, setting bases underground, underwater and on the moon, all while keeping the invasion secret from the general public and struggling with ever-skeptic top brass that wishes to cut their funding. The leading figure in the show, SHADO commander Ed Straker (Ed Bishop) is a brilliant but ruthless and often impatient leader, expecting results from his subordinates no matter the cost.
It was the show’s eighth episode, A Question of Priorities, which demonstrated how UFO was more than just another us-vs.-them affair. I took things in a very dark direction and made it clear that the greatest cost in the war against the aliens has been paid by Straker himself. The episode begins with Straker visiting his son, much to the displeasure of his ex-wife (Suzanne Neve). Just as Straker is about to leave, his son is hit by a car, and Straker rushes to find an appropriate medical treatment, but things get complicated when SHADO becomes involved in an attempt to help an alien defect to Earth. Can Straker fulfill both missions, as a father and as SHADO’s commander?
Above all else, A Question of Priorities is an incredible acting showcase for Bishop. While often the subject of ridicule among the show’s critics, who compared his usual ice-cold performance to the wooden look of the puppets in Anderson’s other shows, in this episode he got a chance to reveal what stands behind his though personality, and did so with enough honesty to make the audience sympathize with him. At the same time, however, he also displayed enough restraint to maintain his character’s usual sense of dignity.
Writer Tony Barwick and director David Lane also do an incredible job in giving A Question of Priorities a different focus from the show’s usual special-effects extravaganza. They give Straker’s struggle to save both his son and the world a sense of desperate, even nightmarish task, in which he interestingly avoids involving his comrades – even his closest friends among them – preferring to carry the burden on his shoulders alone. This decision leads to a shockingly tragic conclusion, of the kind you just didn’t see on genre shows at the time – certainly not on American television shows like Star Trek. Barwick and Lane have later collaborated on another strong episode in the show, Confetti Check A-OK which further explored Straker’s tragic character, presenting his meteoric rise in the ranks of SHADO in grim contrast to the collapse of his marriage.
UFO is best known today as the inspiration for the successful X-COM franchise of computer strategy games. An even more important legacy of the show can be found in its influence on Japanese animation in general (ever wondered why so many girls in anime shows have purple hair?) and specifically on Hideaki Anno’s revolutionary giant robots show Neon Genesis Evangelion. Anno’s show borrowed some of its key visuals from Anderson’s show, such as the uniform and the underground base, alongside plot devices like the struggle to keep the war against aliens under budget and inner tensions that rise among members of the anti-alien task-force. But A Question of Priorities demonstrates the deeper influence which the British show had on the Japanese show: the great personal cost which those involved in the war pay, the personal tragedies and deep psychological scars that this war leaves, and dysfunctional family dynamic that was in the basis of both shows. UFO remains an important chapter in the history of genre television, one which still awaits the wider recognition it deserves.