27/02/2013

UFOwatch: A Question of Priorities

A Question of Priorities
written by Tony Barwick / directed by David Lane

When his young son is seriously injured, Straker faces a dilemma as a potential alien landing occurs at the same time. Somehow he must use SHADO’s resources to deal with both problems- but which has priority?
You have to applaud the ambition of this episode which introduces a more mature, human side to the storytelling leaving the hardware to provide the backdrop rather than drive the plot. Till now Straker has seemed an austere character obsessed with logic and his job to the exclusion of all else. Seeing him taking his young son on a tour of the film studios, having fun, is quite a revelation especially in the light of what will happen later. It is a delightfully normal sequence to discover in the midst of the usual stuff. Inevitably perhaps, matters will cloud over in what proves to be the strongest episode of the series yet.


"Doesn't anyone like the red chairs?"
  
From the start family issues are at the forefront of the plot; it is only because Straker’s ex-wife refuses to let him in the house that the boy ends up running into the road only to be knocked down by a car. It is a shocking everyday life sort of accident quite removed from the usual high tech hi jinks. Normally you’d expect a last minute, skin of the teeth dash to get the vital medicine Straker’s son needs to him in the nick of time. You’d expect a happy ending with the boy’s eyes opening albeit one in which his ex-wife shouts that she never wants to see him again as she goes off with her new husband played as if he is a villain by a surly Philip Madoc. This is not what happens, though Madoc seems to think he’s on another show altogether as he glowers in the background.  When we get to the final scene and it is clear the boy has died, it is a genuine shock. At the same time it seems more realistic- how many times have we seen miracle recoveries in sci-fi shows with the injured party right as rain a week later?

There is a lot to recommend this episode. Director David Lane’s carefree opening contrasts with the silent looks and worries that pervade later scenes. For once the series’ sparse dialogue works in its favour even if the bright red chairs in the surprisingly quiet hospital waiting room don’t. We learn a lot about Straker and why his marriage ended through the simplest of lines, almost like you would in a song. People might say its clich√©d and in some ways it is a surface reading of a broken relationship but nonetheless it has happened to someone with whom viewers would now feel familiar.

Ed Bishop carries the narrative well, never resorting to anything but faraway looks but you can tell the hurt inside. It is also a strong point that he does not tell his work colleagues anything of it leaving them puzzled that he is even more distant than usual. Straker’s isolation comes from there being nobody he feels he can confide in as if the subterfuge of the job has invaded his entire life. The last scene is as much symbolic as literal. There is also a good performance from George Sewell as Alex senses something is up but isn’t quite enough of a friend to find out what so he goes out for a steak anyway which is very Alex!

Lane imbues the sequences in the old lady’s cottage with a surreal quality.  The alien does not harm her only stopping her if she tries to use the phone or leave and it is a good idea for her questions to be picked up in the signal that the alien is using to contact SHADO. The visitor seems to be some kind of benign alien though we never learn his motive but the fact he is ultimately killed by his own people only adds to the air of gloom. It does leave you wanting to know more as to what he was up to though as he says precisely nothing.

Confidently delivered, this surprisingly downbeat episode shows we’ve come a long way since the flippant fripperies and launch pads of the opening story.

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