I must apologise for the title. This is what I was coincidentally presented with by the neural network which I fed my most popular blog titles, on the very day I completed my viewing of the 1969-70 Century 21 (Sylvia and Gerry Anderson) series ‘UFO’. An explanation is in order because something needs to be addressed first.
From the real twenty-first century, Century 21 Films often comes across as appallingly sexist, and this might be all the more surprising because of Sylvia Anderson’s heavy involvement in their production. ‘UFO’ is no exception. I presume things improved as time went by but I wonder if it’s a case of the best way to oppress a group is to get them to do it for themselves. Then again, the problem arises that we are creatures of our own time just as she was of hers, and there’s an issue of sensitivity versus awareness. We are, for all we know, being insensitive and bigoted in our own ways right now but we cannot for the lives of us see it. Therefore we should perhaps be rather more forgiving in the belief that in a few dozen years time, we may be judged in the same way. Looking back, it’s easy to see that women tolerated a lot which we are hopefully more aware is unacceptable, but the question arises of what their perspective was at the time.
The problem with the 1960s (CE) is that it falls between the easy availability of reliable contraception and the relative acceptance of second wave feminism. This means that “sexual liberation” in fact meant more open sexual objectification of women for quite some time, and this is present in popular culture across the board. Hence yes, it is in ‘UFO’, but it’s also in everything else and something we have to acknowledge in all such works. That said, its presence in ‘UFO’ has some saving graces. For instance, the Moonbase women rank above the male interceptor pilots because they have to give them commands, which I think reflects the situation in the RAF in that the pilots have to take commands from the ground staff. Moreover, women are seen as maintaining their own in situations where they have to contend with, for example, giving presentations wearing totally ridiculous costumes. They are also asked to make the tea rather a lot though. It’s all the more disappointing that there’s so much blatant sexism given that there’s a fairly hamfisted attempt to address racism in more than one episode.
Let’s also get this out of the way: the purple wigs worn by the women in Moonbase are completely ridiculous. However, they would’ve gone over the heads, so to speak, of most of the viewers since hardly anyone had a colour television back then. There are internal and external attempts to justify this, though the former is not explicit. It seems that Sylvia Anderson simply thought they looked good in the lighting conditions. It’s also been stated that they were part of the uniform, which is kind of the canonical representation and it seems that at the time, wigs were a lot more popular and this trend would be expected to continue. There’s probably a whole thesis to be written about wigs in ‘UFO’, because whereas those are the most obvious, Ed Bishop also wore a wig because his hair was being bleached into oblivion at the beginning of the production run due to an attempt to make it the same colour as his character in ‘Captain Scarlet’, and there are other examples of wigs.
Right. At this point SPOILERS FOLLOW for this and ‘Doppelgänger’, also known as ‘Journey To The Dark Side Of The Sun’, and I want to point out that in particular, if you haven’t watched ‘Doppelgänger’ it will be somewhat ruined by what I’m about to say. I know it’s just a minor film made in the late ’60s, but it’s surprisingly good. On the other hand, looking back from the 2020s it’s probably quite obscure and it’s not that easy to get hold of, as in, it doesn’t seem to be on any streaming services.
‘UFO’ starts off being mainly set in 1980 and the last produced episode is set in 1984. The only date mentioned in an episode is 16th April 1981. I may have remembered that wrongly because 14th April is Gerry Anderson’s birthday. It started to be made before the Apollo XI mission, but its depiction of the lunar surface is quite accurate compared to how it was expected to be before that era. For instance, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, made the year before, shows somewhat craggier vistas. I presume this is because the Surveyor landers had sent back images from ground level by then. The famous 1966 Lunar Orbiter 2 picture of Copernicus crater seems to look like what we associate with it now, i.e. rounded dusty hills, but maybe they expected more detailed pictures to show irregularities and sharper peaks. Incidentally, this is one argument against the Apollo landings being hoaxes – the surface looks very different than had been expected.
It’s clear that in 1969, the expectation was that astronautics would have continued to progress at the rate it had been from 1957 onwards. There were only a dozen years between Sputnik I and the Eagle landing, and projecting that forward it seemed reasonable to expect there to be a lunar base by 1980 if not before. However, even at the time although 1980 seemed quite far ahead, it also seemed very much like the near future to me, and I specifically noticed that it was the futuristic show which was set in the nearest time span to the present day at the time. It doesn’t seem entirely necessary to do this because in a way, there could have been a scenario where a secret set of missions had set up a base in the ’60s, as was imagined by various people, and it could’ve been a contemporary series. However, placing it in the near future does allow the idea that UFOs would become more prominent in the next few years and creates a sense of menace which is perhaps more convincing. It can be contrasted with the ‘X-Files’ in that way. It should also be remembered that the idea of humans not living there might well have seemed less convincing than us living there given the time period. At that point, a human Mars mission had been announced to launch in 1979, and I was fully expecting this to happen all the way through the ’70s. What actually happened, of course, was a serious budget cut to NASA once the landings had happened and a change of focus onto the development of the Space Shuttle. The early designs of the Shuttle actually look quite like the Sky 1 aircraft which appears in many episodes. I can also remember a schools career TV programme in all seriousness in the 1970s telling pupils that mining skills would still be useful in future because of mining projects on other planets. This was absolutely taken seriously at the time, and in a way the real oddity is that this didn’t happen rather than that it did, although I do recognise that Apollo was very much a propaganda stunt. It’s also possible to look at the development of space travel as stimulated by governmental awareness of a UFO threat, and therefore the end of the Space Race is just replaced by a separate provocation, which incidentally may have united East and West against a common enemy.
In a sense the actual title of the series is a misnomer, because the craft in question are no longer “Unidentified”. The first episode is actually called ‘Identified’. That said, the series maintains a mystery about the nature of the pilots. It’s never firmly established where they came from, there’s very little dialogue with them and it’s even suggested that their true form is that of “energy beings” rather than the mainly humanoid figures usually presented to the viewer. This seems to help with the mystique of the antagonists and allows one to project one’s own preconceptions onto them. It’s also very like the trope of not showing the monster in horror films, and allows the writing to play around with their protean conception. However, this sometimes leads to inconsistency. Before I go into that, I should set out the premise:
In 1970, UFOs started to attack and abduct people, leaving mutiliated bodies with missing organs. In response, a coalition of governments set up an above top secret organisation called SHADO: Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation. The truth was kept from the public as it was thought likely to cause panic. SHADO has three major facilities. One is in Southern England, hidden under a film studio, and the commander, Ed Straker, has a cover job as a film producer. A second centre is Moonbase, which monitors space for the arrival of UFOs and sends out Interceptor craft to destroy them before they reach Earth. A third line of defence is found in the form of a fleet of Skydiver submarines, which can launch aircraft to attack UFOs which have gotten through the space defences. There’s also a satellite called SID – Space Intruder Detector – which does what it says on the tin. Both the aliens and their craft can only survive for a short period in Earth’s atmosphere and they therefore tend to submerge themselves when they reach this planet. They also have spacesuits with liquid-filled helmets which allow them to breathe, and very advanced technology. They have caused massive environmental damage to their planet, which is not located reliably in the series, and have extended their lifespan at the cost of becoming sterile, and are harvesting human organs. The series centres on Ed Straker, the head of the organisation, and has a surprising focus in some of the episodes on what might be described as management and personal issues, particularly those affecting him personally. A second surprising aspect of the series is that there is more emphasis on underwater adventures than an apparent “space series” could be expected to have. However, the biggest surprise to me was the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, element of postmodernism, which I would absolutely not have expected from a 1969 SF series although it was sometimes attempted in ‘The Twilight Zone’ a decade earlier. Another unexpected aspect of the series is that it has similarities to ‘The Prisoner’ in later episodes due to crossover of staff.
From the in-universe perspective of the general public, it’s largely feasible to separate the more outlandish events from their everyday lives, with the exception of the occasional human who comes in contact with the aliens. Having said this, in 1974 an event took place in Turkey which destroyed a city and killed forty thousand people, but this was passed off as an earthquake. This generally leaves us with a much more plausible world outside of SHADO, with a few exceptions. One of these is that the medical profession completely accepts the existence of psychic powers in certain individuals, and in fact their attitude towards them is to encourage self-acceptance and they recognise that failure to do so can lead to psychosis and other mental health issues which can threaten the patient’s life. I don’t know if that reminds you of anything! The biggest issue is spacetime. UFOs are said to travel at many times the speed of light and something about the way they do this can lead to practically freezing things in time, which I think I can make sense of with a bit of technobabble and reference to another incident, though this may take it beyond authorial intention. Firstly, the dilation of time in relatively slow-moving objects, shown in the episode ‘Timelash’, apparently coincidentally given the same name as a Doctor Who serial, seems to be achieved in a manner similar to the sonic boom, with the compression of space or light in front of an object. Secondly, a space probe is sent back to the alien home world in ‘Close Up’ despite the absence of FTL in human technology, which suggests that objects in the space around a UFO also travel faster than light when the craft does. There is also an oddity regarding human potential, in that aliens can cause humans not to age for their own ends as in ‘The Long Sleep’ and also to become human bombs under their control by tapping some kind of internal energy source, as seen in ‘Psychobombs’. Hence this is not quite our world.
Another way in which it isn’t quite our world, or at least our timeline, is the result of the fact that it’s set in the ’80s, which is now several decades ago. If you want to play the game of successful and failed predictions with it, this is rather confusing, because there’s the aspect of which predictions came true by the 1980s, which are now realised and which failed, plus anachronisms. For instance, in ‘Survival’, a man uses paper maps of the lunar surface to find his way back to Moonbase, which today probably wouldn’t be shown in that situation even though it’s realistic and practical to do so compared to tablet-based maps or something similar, but also would in fact have been the likely solution to the situation if that really had happened in the early ’80s. To an extent, the sexism can also be placed in this category. Women at meetings are shown as taking notes rather than actively participating, they are often expected to make tea or coffee regardless of their rank, they’re leered at, and the show seems to encourage the male gaze. Although one would hope this was unacceptable today, the sad fact is that this was probably still going on in the ’80s, so whereas it’s quite a difficult watch, the chances are that if a period piece were to be made today which didn’t focus on social mores of that decade it would probably portray things as less sexist than they actually were and it’s probably more accurate to show things that way.
Although sexism is largely either not noticed or expected to continue, racism is highlighted on a few occasions, though not very elegantly. Straker, whose words are often to be taken as “word of God”, says that racism “burnt itself out five years ago” in an episode which seems to occur in 1984. This comes across as facile and is in fact questioned by a Black character, Lieutenant Mark Bradley, who mentions that not being in an ethnic minority himself, Straker is in no position to judge. Nonetheless, it makes it look as if racism was a short phase in human history which could be easily resolved within a decade or so, and it feels rather as if they just wanted to get it out of the way. The actor who played him, Harry Baird, was unhappy with the episode-by-episode contract he was employed under, unlike more central characters, and left the series, so it’s possible that external racism is a factor there. There is in fact quite a high cast turnover and this could be part of that, but there are reasons why this isn’t obvious which I’ll come to in a bit. There’s also Lieutenant Ayshea Johnson, whose ethnicity I’m not sure about, played by the singer Ayshea Brough.
A second unrelated bit of facility is that it’s mentioned that lunar mining has already exhausted resources and therefore that it doesn’t happen any more, an observation which seems to be contradicted by the presence of a Russian mining company there. I can’t pinpoint any more, but I get the impression that there’s a strong tendency to play down certain external issues in an unconvincing way just to prevent them interfering with the storylines, although the racism and mining ones are the only two I can think of off-hand.
The idea of craft and aliens deteriorating in Earth’s atmosphere is interesting and not entirely scientifically implausible, although I think it was probably done in order to avoid using too many actors and allowing models which were supposed to be underwater to be used, which had already been done a lot in ‘Stingray’ and ‘Thunderbirds’. This is in fact the case for extraterrestrial materials such as lunar regolith, because it has formed in the absence of oxygen or water and tends to react with them, and whereas there is no issue with water, it makes sense that life forms who evolved on a planet without oxygen would also have this issue, which could extend to the materials used in their technology. Even so, the aliens do seem to breathe oxygen. Perhaps the issue is that their life-extension medicine involves preventing the formation of free radicals and oxidation apart from respiration, which renders their substance more reactive to oxygen.
The oddest thing about the aliens is that they seem to be so close to being human that they can be made entirely out of human tissue and can accept donated human organs, possibly even without tissue-typing. For this reason, the suggestion that they are in fact energy beings works quite well, and perhaps that they are animating human, and in one case feline, bodies, but the problem then arises of how they got their original bodies and why having longer life spans and sterility is even an issue for them. I think this is just not well-thought through, and probably doesn’t bear close examination because that was never intended, but it can be difficult to ignore at times.
There is a major issue with episode order. Whereas the first episode works well as an introduction, continuity is inconsistent and the series was actually shown in various different orders according to the region, it being an ITV series. Rather than describing it in detail here, I refer you to this page. This variation in order gives different episodes a different feel. The idea that the aliens are non-corporeal is introduced quite late in the series in one viewing order but near the beginning in another when that could be a big revelation. Two episodes have somewhat similar plots and each could be considered a repetition of the other. Straker’s son is killed off in an episode which may influence his character development if other episodes are viewed later but if seen earlier it makes him seem callous already.
The postmodern elements are probably accidental. The fact that Straker is also a film producer makes it possible to foreground the fact that it’s a TV series, but also means that the equipment and settings can sometimes employ the real studio and props as what they actually are. It may reflect Gerry Anderson’s own wish-fulfilment that he was not in fact a film-maker but a secret agent protecting Earth from alien invaders. In a fairly early episode in most orders, a psychic sends the studio a screenplay depicting the situation as it really is in-universe, making it effectively a script for a previous episode, which constitutes a security breach. This aspect of the show becomes most evident in ‘Mindbender’, which to my mind is also the most ‘Prisoner’-like story, where the aliens force Straker to hallucinate that he’s merely an actor in a SF TV show and the other characters are referred to by the real actors’ names, except for Straker himself whose actor has the same first name. The same is incidentally true of Ayshea Johnson but she doesn’t seem to be mentioned by name. There are also incidents such as a character standing in front of back projection, which is also used to create realism in the show, and another where an extra resembling Straker is shot, which is initially shown as real but immediately revealed as fictitious. Although not too much should be made of all this, it adds an interesting dimension and is reminiscent of ‘Prisoner’, as I’ve said. The two shows also share many actors.
‘UFO’ is the Andersons’ first live-action TV series, but it follows directly on from their first live-action SF feature film ‘Doppelgänger’ and uses many of the same props, including some vehicles. It’s possible to spot these in both with a little concentration. This is the point at which I can’t talk about this connection without revealing a major spoiler for ‘Journey To The Dark Side Of The Sun’/’Doppelgänger’. The surviving astronaut discovers that the Counter-Earth is an exact mirror image of our own planet, including backwards writing and reverse handedness, and this also means that all the vehicles drive on the opposite sides of the road and have steering wheels on the reverse sides. Consequently, the cars which ‘UFO’ inherited from ‘Doppelgänger’ have reversed steering wheels for British vehicles, and it becmes a little difficult to work out if this is a genuine attempt to predict a future Britain where everyone drives on the right or a practical consequence of re-using props. It also allows one to presume that the action of the series isn’t occurring within cis lunar space at all but on or around the Counter-Earth, except of course that the text is still the same way round. Another thing I can’t tell about ‘Doppelgänger’ is whether the second half of the film is simply physically flipped or all the actors are attempting to reverse their handedness and there are reflected props. I suspect the former, but this then suggests that the vehicles were not manufactured as mirror-images, so it’s all a bit confusing, except that many of the Earth scenes are set in Portugal, where driving is on the right. Having said all that, it also appears that at the time some people expected Britain to adopt driving on the other side of the road during the 1970s. The difficulty of doing so is sometimes apparent in the film when a motorist is shown negotiating a junction, which would also be a real world practical problem were this to be done. The likelihood is that they genuinely expected Britain to switch to right hand traffic because the government considered the idea in the late ’60s but rejected it because of the extensive infrastructure changes which would have to be made in this country, as opposed to the more sparsely populated Sweden which had done it a couple of years previously. Without a Channel link of some kind, there was no contact between British and overseas traffic, unlike in other countries which have switched from one side to the other. Flashbacks in the series show driving on the left as recently as 1974, in Picadilly Circus, and some vehicles are still right hand drive.
Straker’s car, of which the above is a Dinky model because of rights issues with screenshots, is quite iconic of the series. It was built on a Ford chassis with a racing car manufacturer responsible for the fibreglass body, and was one of two models. To me it looks like a Citroën. It was portrayed as automatic in the series but was in fact manual transmission with a concealed gearbox, and fumes tended to leak into the interior. It only drove very slowly and shots of it moving fast were achieved by speeding up the film. It had gull wing doors which were operated manually out of shot, and I’ve looked for reflections in the windows but haven’t seen any stage hands. Ed Bishop was actually banned from driving before the series was produced, so most of the time if not all it’s driven by an extra. I’ve heard from one source that it’s supposed to use a gas turbine engine in-universe, which I presume is hydrogen-powered. There is a deleted scene of it being fuelled which would have revealed more. Straker’s colleague Colonel Paul Foster had a lilac version of the same vehicle. One of these, possibly Foster’s, was bought by Dave Lee Travis in 1975 and he later sold it to a porn studio. It still survives and has been renovated and brought back into service, but there are legal problems with driving it on public roads nowadays. Presumably it lacks functional gull-wing doors. In 1970, this probably looked like the wave of the future and there are advantages to them such as ease of stowing luggage and increased visibility for the driver, but they can leak at the hinge and have to be less dense than standard car doors, which can make them more vulnerable to damage during side-impacts.
Many cars are depicted as having car phones. Straker’s car phone is not hands-free and he uses it while driving, but some other phones use a speakerphone instead and therefore are. There are also car-sized ambulances, and whereas I’m aware these have existed for some time I don’t recall them from the twentieth century. Maybe I’m wrong. However, there are no paramedics, only ambulance drivers. It always seems strange that it took so long for society to get round to the concept of the paramedic.
Getting back to the ‘phones, a number of innovations are shown which are now realised. The trimphone is very widespread. There is only one depiction of a rotary dial ‘phone in the ’80s, and it’s in an old person’s dwelling in County Galway. Office ‘phones are often cordless. There are also greyscale videophones, which are however not noticeably delayed when communicating between Earth and Moonbase despite the distance. Videophones were about to come into service as the series was being made. There’s also videoconferencing.
On the subject of office equipment, there seems to be something like a desktop computer with a keyboard, which however seems to have no display or other output. I presume these are word processors and telexes. The keys are in a 14×4 squarely-oriented grid and resemble those of a calculator or the Pet 2001. Although one of these devices becomes important in a court case, it isn’t clear whether they’re standard. The props concerned can also be seen in the next TV21 SF TV series, ‘Space: 1999’. As for computers, these are largely the same as they were in 1969, with tape drives, punched paper tape and pinfeed paper. They are, however, also able to print monochrome photographs from tape and seem to have some kind of natural language processing.
In the area of pharmaceuticals, sleeping pills are very common, but I think this arises from their popularity during the ’60s. They are not at all problematised. There are also amnestics, routinely administered to people who become aware of SHADO’s operations and possibly also alien activity, and truth drugs, which are however dangerous.
Costume was Sylvia Anderson’s responsibility and there is clear gender division. Men’s business suit jackets are less open and have more buttons than morning suits, and can be burgundy in colour as well as other subdued hues. Concealed zips are also used, with O-ring zip pulls, as popularised by Mary Quant I think. These are also common on women’s clothes, probably more than men. There are questionable clothing choices in women’s uniforms, with beige jumpsuits on Earth and a complicated figure-hugging two layered silvery arrangement for women at Moonbase. In the first episode there’s a gratuitous clothing change into a miniskirt for a tea break! That said, I was impressed by a woman giving a presentation in that outfit and still being taken seriously by her colleagues. Calf-length boots are common, also pinafore dresses and a lime and pink low cut dress on one freelance journalist. There is also a much reused red leather lace up minidress, which is definitely aimed at heterosexual male viewers. Older men still wear morning suits. Interestingly, in a flashback to the early ’70s one character is shown in a poncho, which shows I think that even then they knew that would be a flash in the pan. Men wear eyeliner, although it isn’t clear whether this is a stage makeup thing or supposed to be a change in male grooming and presentation.
The model work is all, unsurprisingly, very good, which is what you’d expect from the Andersons. Although I was very young at the time, I didn’t perceive any kind of disjunction between live action, as it were, and the model-based scenes, and I suspect this would’ve been true even of adult viewers at the time. Figures in the model scenes are not puppets, and most of the time this is fine as they’re only seen very briefly, but on one occasion diver puppets are seen using propulsion units without moving their legs, which is an odd decision considering how easy it would’ve been to show that. The UFOs themselves look like lemon squeezers and their scale is unclear. Moonbase looks like a series of footballs connected by corridors. It launches Interceptors:
I used to own one of these. At the time, since I’d never seen the series in colour I assumed it to be accurate but in fact they were white in the programme and it was a marketing decision to make them green because it was thought that would appeal more to children. There’s a photo of me at my brother’s christening in 1973 holding it, and I used to get to sleep at night by imagining my bed was a UFO interceptor, which on reflection doesn’t sound very calming at all. They look very phallic to me now, and the toy would fire the missile, making it a potential projectile weapon which probably wouldn’t be allowed today. From an in-universe perspective, the missiles were deployed the wrong way round. The atmospheric planes could probably fire about twenty missiles but the space-based interceptors only had one missile each. This seems to have been a plot device to allow flying saucers to reach Earth’s atmosphere.
Another personal element for me is present in the episode ‘Confetti Check A-OK’, which is the only episode I could actually remember from the time although I clearly did watch at least re-runs. This is about the breakup of Straker’s marriage, which results from him spending too much time at work but not having security clearance to tell his wife what he’s doing. My mother could very much relate to Mary Straker, because she felt she was in the same position with my father, which is why I found it so memorable. His marriage ends when he slaps her and causes her to give birth, which is quite ambiguous because although it was usual to portray men hitting women when they were having “hysterics”, and goodness only knows how that could possibly work, Straker’s doing so actually precipitates the end of their marriage. Later on, in ‘A Question Of Priorities’, their son John is seriously injured by a car and Straker pulls strings to get a new antibiotic delivered from America in one of SHADO’s planes, but it gets diverted to Ireland to deal with an alien threat there and John dies. There’s a lot of this personal stuff. He also almost has a relationship with a journalist, who turns out to be fake and trying to get information out of him.
A few famous faces turn up from time to time. George Cole appears as a man being held to ransom by threats to his wife to reveal information about SHADO, and Christopher Timothy briefly appears in one episode. Tessa Wyatt, from ‘Robin’s Nest’, appears in the episode ‘The Long Sleep’ as a woman who has been in a coma for a decade. This was delayed because it dealt with recreational drugs.
Most Anderson productions only had one season because he and Lou Grade were attempting to repeat their success with the American market they’d had with ‘Fireball XL-5’. Although this never happened again, it meant they moved on very fast and it wasn’t about the series being cancelled so much as attempts to learn from and improve each time, which in general they do seem to have done. However, there was a perfunctory attempt to produce a second series of ‘UFO’ which an expanded Moonbase set in the ’90s, where it was even considered that Earth would be destroyed. This would be rethought and become ‘Space: 1999’, which had two series plus an intervening educational film using the similar props and actors called ‘Into Infinity’. However, as I say, ‘UFO’ only ran for one series of twenty-six episodes. It’s surprisingly grown up but it does reflect the values of the time. It’s worth a watch though.