“UFO”: a Groovy (and Classic) 1970’s British SF Television Series

UFO DVD release cover
UFO DVD release cover, displaying (left to right) actors Gabrielle Drake, Michael Billington and Ed Bishop — image source: Wikipedia (fair use asserted)

This holiday weekend has been a time for reminiscence for the Frisco Kid. First of all, as a veteran myself, I’ve spent some time reflecting on the U.S. service members who have given all, including their lives, for their country. In a much lighter vein, I have been thinking about my past in terms of movies and video. In particular, I’ve recalled some of the early influences in my genesis as a science-fiction/fantasy fanboy. Undoubtedly, this trip down memory lane has been triggered by my recent encounter with British film-maker Simon Cox and his film, KALEIDOSCOPE MAN (currently in crowd-funded production). Last night, I remembered three UK science-fiction television shows (all created and produced by the partnership of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson through Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment) that I watched during the 1970s: UFO, SPACE: 1999, and THUNDERBIRDS. In this post, I tackle the first of these series.

But how did it come about that I watched these shows? After all, how does a boy in Lexington, Kentucky in the 1970s find out about these British television programs  and others (including MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS, FAWLTY TOWERS, etc.)? Via PBS, of course. But how did I know that these programs were showing on PBS? One of my neighborhood friends. He and his family were/are British. His father was then the Dean of the College of Architecture at the University of Kentucky. So, thank you, Dominic, whereever you are today!

OK — time to throw some more literary theory at you. Recall my mention of Rosenblatt’s transactional reader-response theory in a previous post. Like any good theory, Rosenblatt’s makes self-evident assertions — here, that a reader’s response to a text changes as s/he accumulates new knowledge and experience. Case in point: my reaction to UFO, which aired in 26 episodes from 1970 to 1972. I watched them as PBS reruns, probably in the mid-70s. As a boy of ten-to-twelve years, I focused on the science-fiction story: an epic battle between aliens in UFOs and the forces of SHADO (an acronym for Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation). I loved the spacecraft, the aircraft, the weapons, the cool Moonbase, the submarine that launches an aircraft, etc.

Well, as a middle-aged man, what do you think struck me about this series when I re-viewed it this weekend? First off, it is — well — a very groovy show. You really don’t have to even play the video at the end of this post (although I encourage you to do so) to get an idea from the still of the groovy 1960s costumes that were worn by the cast of this series. Now recall that the story is set in 1980. Not quite the 1980 that you remember? Well, the makers of UFO did anticipate one development by including cars that look like DeLoreans.

Gull wing doors, anyone?
Gull wing doors, anyone? — image source: Future Dude

Although that model never really caught on, it did make a classic film appearance in BACK TO THE FUTURE, the 1985 SF comedy directed by Robert Zemeckis. The second aspect of this series that immediately caught my attention — and it’s related to the grooviness factor — is its out-and-out sexist portrayal of women. Now, I’m not going to belabor the point (too much). Calling out sexism in the television and movies of this era is like “handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500,” to quote Martin Sheen’s character, Captain Willard, in Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW. At least Mike Myers caught on to this aspect of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and developed an awesome parody of it through his character, Austin Powers, in the eponymous movie series. Although Myers poked fun specifically at the James Bond franchise, which was very hot in the 60s, he also managed to target much of the hypocrisy that accompanied the real progress made in that decade. Also, the 1970s itself was a parody of the 60s. No wonder Yazoo (AKA Yaz) wrote a hit song about it, “Goodbye 70s” (Upstairs at Eric’s, 1982):

Apparently the women in form-fitting leotards and mini-skirts, the leering men, and the director’s penchant for doing “location shots” of female anatomy went completely over my head the first time I watched this series. I do recall, however, that I had a crush on the women of SHADO’s Moonbase (hello, adolescence). Besides their purple hair, they were intriguing because they were the leaders in that sphere. Not in a Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton kind of way, mind you, but definitely in charge.

The Women of SHADO's Moonbase
The Women of SHADO’s Moonbase — image source: Cumbrian Sky

Today I see them as being assertive, with a confident sexuality. Apparently, in the 60s, women who could make it to the Moon could take on this type of persona. Back on Earth, however, they were apparently valued mainly for being “shagadelic”. By contrast, the male characters in UFO wore significantly more clothing (except for the men on the submarine, whose mesh-like uniforms probably earned them additional “hazardous-duty pay”).

Nevertheless, UFO is an absolutely classic SF television series that has influenced contemporary SF authors and film-makers. Look for posts in the future on SPACE: 1999, THUNDERBIRDS, and other SF/F blasts from the past.