Freed from the restrictions of kids’ puppetry, Gerry Anderson dove into surprisingly dark waters with UFO, his first (and best) flesh-and-blood production.
Although shot through with child-friendly, traditionally Andersonic elements – a top-secret international agency (SHADO: Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation), represented by model vehicles, engages in a Captain Scarlet-style war of attrition with a formless enemy – UFO introduces bloody violence, drug use, sexual frankness (even attempted rape in final episode ‘The Long Sleep’) and a pervasive atmosphere of tension and gloom.
In addition, there’s little chance to become familiar with a consistent team of regulars; SHADO crews are subject to high turnover, and important characters like George Sewell’s compassionate, wisecracking Colonel Freeman disappear without explanation. Our one constant is the driven, stoical Commander Ed Straker, hypnotically played by Ed Bishop, the towering creation at the heart of UFO . This adds to the sense of unpredictability, already permeating the series in its depiction of the nebulous, unnamed aliens.
In debut episode ‘Identified’, they’re harvesting human organs to survive, but later display Dalek-shamingly merciless genocidal impulses, while in ‘Survival’, an alien saves the life of SHADO’s brooding beefcake Colonel Paul Foster, the pair developing a silent bond of friendship until the gut-wrenchingly downbeat finale.
These bleak climaxes become a strong element of the show, Straker himself pushed through extreme emotional tortures in heartbreaking character studies ‘A Question Of Priorities’ and ‘Confetti Check A-OK’, the ice-cool military leader struggling with personal traumas while bearing the protection of the world on his shoulders.
Despite gaping plot holes, sumptuous explosions and distracting space-gear, Ed Straker makes UFO feel like a serious, mature and even profound show. His blend of ruthlessness and vulnerability is the prime reason that it remains so compelling.