UFO, the ’70s cult science-fiction TV classic produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (Captain Scarlett, The Thunderbirds) has just been issued in a boxed DVD set. Not having seen many of the episodes since they were first broadcast on U.S. television in the early 1970s, I have made certain to whisper this important fact to my wife in order to pass on to Santa Claus.
For those who recall the series only vaguely (or not at all), UFO was set in the early 1980s and followed the adventures of the men and women of SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization). Organized after it became apparent that Earth was being visited by space aliens whose purposes were unknown but definitely not friendly, SHADO was headquartered in a subterranean bunker located beneath a London film studio. A forward base had been established on the moon, from which interceptor spacecraft could be launched at incoming UFOs detected by satellites orbiting the Earth. To deal with alien craft that penetrated this first line of defense, SHADO could deploy an array of hardware that included a fleet of submarines equipped with an aircraft that could detach itself from the bow and streak through the ocean depths and into the sky. For alien craft that manage to land on Earth, tank-like land-based vehicles could be dispatched to the scene.
The show’s motivating question–If the Earth were under attack by a strange and hostile force that appears uninterested in compromise or peaceful negotiations, how exactly would humanity defend itself?–is one of the most plausible in the history of SciFi TV. It has exceptional resonance today, given its startling similarity to the current war on Islamist terrorism in which we find ourselves.
The central figure of UFO is SHADO’s chief, Commander Ed Straker, played by the extremely talented actor Ed Bishop, who never really got the kind of roles that would have enabled him to become a star. Straker is a career military officer who “connects the dots” between seemingly unrelated events and concludes that only aliens from outer space could be responsible. Putting his career on the line, he battles disbelief and tightfisted politicians to create SHADO, a process that consumes nearly ten years.
On the surface, it seems hard to understand why UFO did not succeed. (It lasted only a single season, 1970-71.) In addition to lots of cool gadgets and special effects, its timing seemed impeccable, having been released just as the world was being engulfed by a mania about UFOs and mysterious space visitors (Chariots of the Gods, the Bermuda Triangle, etc.). So why didn’t it find a larger audience?
Simply put, UFO was too realistic. SHADO knew next to nothing about the enemy it was fighting. Who the aliens were, where they were from, and what they wanted remained matters for speculation. Almost every bit of information SHADO managed to acquire about them seemed to lead to more questions than answers. Many of the stories featured downbeat, ambiguous endings. And every now and then, the aliens would thwart SHADO. The series was, dramatically speaking, unsatisfying to a mass audience.
Then there was the problem of Straker himself. To put it mildly, he did not suffer fools gladly, which made him one of the most unusual lead characters in television history. While he was capable of kicking back in his office with his sidekick, Alec Freeman (George Sewall), and while he could (very occasionally) crack a smile, Ed Straker was most of the time a tightly wound spring. His job was to kill (or, if possible, capture) the aliens before they could do harm to any human, and that was that.
In short, Straker was no Captain James T. Kirk, a heroic figure who managed to answer all the audience’s questions and tie up all the loose ends with a witty quip before the final credits. Rather, Straker had a serious edge to him. Under the pressure of his job, we see his marriage collapse. Faced with a captured alien who refuses to talk, he doesn’t hesitate to order that a dangerous, experimental drug be used to break down his resistance, an effort that ends in the alien’s death. He even orders the destruction of an alien space ship he knows is carrying his friend, a top SHADO officer, back to the aliens’ home planet. To Straker, individuals mean nothing. All that matters is stopping the aliens.
Ed Straker certainly would have been a frightening man to work for, which is probably why the mass of TV viewers found him a frightening man to watch. His kind of single-minded determination was in short supply in the 1970s, which may explain why the series appealed to people of a conservative sensibility.
In real life, however, we sure could use someone like Ed Straker for the new post of national intelligence director. Fiction is now fact: We are up against a ruthless, determined foe bent on doing us harm and about whom we know rather little. Porter Goss seems to be making a good start at the CIA, lopping off a few heads and shaking things up a bit, but its not clear that he is in Straker territory yet.
If a real-life Ed Straker is out there, now is his time.
–John A. Barnes is the author of the forthcoming John F. Kennedy on Leadership: The Legacy and Lessons of an American President.