UFOwatch: Identified and Computer Affair

No, we haven’t started hiding in sheds at night poring over flickering screens in the hope of seeing a blip which might mean an unidentified flying object is nearby and wants to take us away to probe. We’re talking about UFO, the series that brought Gerry Anderson from puppetry into live action as the 1960s became the 1970s. Each week an episode of the series will be reviewed here and before you ask we’re sticking to the episode order on the DVD – which apparently is the order in which they were made- that was issued about a decade ago. There are doubts as to what the true running order was supposed to be, but let’s not bother about that. Instead let’s wallow in the world of 1980 as envisaged by people in 1969. To kick off we have the first two episodes. Are you ready to wear a purple wig, smoke a cigarette every other minute and never smile? Well then, you’re ready for UFO...
written by Gerry Anderson, Sylvia Anderson, Tony Barwick  / directed by Gerry Anderson
In 1980,ten years after the top secret organisation SHADO was established to combat the threat of UFOs, a neutronic device has been developed that will allow them to identify approaching craft long before they reach the Earth. When a UFO attacks the plane transporting the device is downed it provides a startling new revelation.
Watching 1980 as envisaged in 1969 whilst in 2013 is an odd experience. No doubt the plastic furniture, pop star clothing and tunics looked futuristic 43 years ago but now they look extremely 1970s. However what surprises about this opening episode is how hard as nails it is. The surface sheen, model sequences and plethora of potential toys suggest a show aimed at the under 10s but `Identified` opens with a murder complete with blood and closes with Commander Straker waxing philosophically on where the Universe begins and ends. In between the series’ central conceit turns out to be quite horrific- the aliens are coming here to harvest human organs. Add in the 70s touches, funky music, cigarettes aplenty, gratuitous shots of girl’s backsides and the fact that Straker never breaks into a smile and you have a most unusual package. It’s all a very long way from Tracy Island.

Gerry Anderson’s reputation lay in his puppet adventures but he longed for recognition in more conventional drama and though Space 1999 is better known, it is UFO that comes closest to that ideal. This episode sets out its stall with busy intent seeming at times like a compilation of about three episodes. The prologue is brief and bloody barely establishing who we are seeing. This continues throughout; while we are introduced to the various bases, vehicles and aircraft, the people in them are given less focus. It is perhaps this that has caused some to say Anderson’s live action series casts may as well be puppets. This is unfair because there is some light and shade though one aspect becomes apparent and that is the show’s approach to women
About half way through we do meet Col Virginia Lake who has designed the neutronic device; she is sitting down, presumably under the weight of her hair lacquer and instead of putting down the flirty advances of Alec Freeman, she just joins in! “I think your equipment is fabulous” says Freeman. “I see you are familiar” she says later- pause- “with my equipment”. It could almost be Carry On. Elsewhere, the Moon base is run by women- but they are dressed in silver foil micro skirts and have purple hair. Why they need to have purple hair is a mystery- perhaps a future episode will explain? Why for that matter do the crew of the submarine wear string vests? Anyway, although they are in charge or have invented things these female characters do seem to have far less character than the two main men in the show.

Commander Straker seems to be quite humourless as demonstrated by his put down of an operative who makes a mistake. This scene- never balanced by anything displaying another side of him- makes the commander seem like the sort of leader people secretly moan about! The script is trying to underscore the seriousness of the threat but viewers presumably need to like at least some of the main characters. That said, Ed Bishop does serious American like few actors can. It is Alec Freeman who emerges as the most human. He may chat  up every female he meets, he may smoke and drink (and you suspect if this had been on later swear) to his heart’s content but he is at least someone not completely defined by his job. Scenes with Freeman are lighter and a welcome break from the protocol that defines much of the episode.

"Do you fancy a pint, Reg?"

It is an unexpected development to discover the aliens’ true intent so soon. The gruesome premise may be treated with barely a flicker by Straker but for the viewer it is a dark twist that starts to put real distance between this and Andersons’ previous work. While there are still plenty of excellent model shots and action, the heart of the episode remains far more mature than you’d expect. The aliens are “driven by survival” we are told while Starker’s parting shot is to muse about the size of the Universe. A promising start suggesting that if the regular characters can thaw a little they will be a worthy counterpoint to the stark concept.
Computer Affair
written byTony Barwick / directed by Dave Lane

After an Interceptor is destroyed during a UFO attack, a psychological investigation is launched to find out what happened. Meanwhile, the UFO lands on Earth and SHADO is scrambled to try and find it.
Commander Straker knows what happened- he just wants to know why it happened. He says so twice and we know how he feels. Somewhere in this bitty episode the theme of decision making and how it is affected by personal issues looms. The idea that computers can make better decisions than people is floated. A psychologist in a horrible yellow tunic looks smug. Yet none of this amounts to very much and for an organisation with such serious intent SHADO is made to look like it has no concept of how to handle a crisis, whether it is a threat or a personal issue.

So it seems Lt Ellis is in a relationship with pilot Lt Bradley- and why not, they are both the same rank and the Earth is a long way away. As we learned last week (or 8 episodes ago if you follow the transmission order), she takes her clothes of in a jumpy montage. Anyhow because of this she orders his Interceptor onto a new course to avoid the approaching UFO condemning another pilot to be destroyed.

She is not impressed by his hat
Hang on, isn’t this 1980? Or so they keep flashing on screen subliminally,  Didn’t anyone think that Interceptor pilots might be allowed a little leeway in such an event to take their own course of action under fire? And why is the Moonbase radar so rubbish that three of them miss it anyway? If I were Straker I’d be asking these kinds of questions but instead he gets a bee in his bonnet over the idea that the couple might fancy each other. Not that either actor looks as if they do. Still, we at least learn that Ellis’ hair is not, after all, purple but normal coloured which presumably means part of actual uniform for Moonbase is to don identical purple wigs? I found this issue much more interesting than the psychobabble we see in the investigation.

Matters perk up when we get outdoors in pursuit of the downed UFO with a shoot out that works well. The standard of model work mixed with location filming is generally high. Lt Ellis duly sends Bradley into danger and he captures the alien. Back at base, we witness a peculiar scene where Straker seems to want to torture the prisoner but when he does, the latter dies only for Freeman to resign and then change his mind when he remembers the automatic whiskey dispenser Straker has in his office! Tony Barwick’s script is patchy at best, the sparse, terse dialogue never really making much of the scenario and the featured characters struggling to emote anything that hints at the issues they are supposedly involved in.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, the running order - that old chestnut! The problem with the production order/DVD order is that you get to see two episodes one after the other where they capture an alien and try and interrogate him. Not a weekly ocurrence on UFO! I think 'Identified' suffers in the same way as many of Anderson's pilot episodes, namely that he wants to show us everything and everyone and then tries to string a story around all that. If you last as far as 'Exposed', that would have made a better intro to the series. I think some of the earlier episodes (like 'Computer Affair') suffer a little from weak direction but it does improve when they find their feet and Straker gets more airtime.