Art Media and Performance

Enjoying Science Fiction of the Seventies: UFO and Space: 1999

By Fred Truyen

While we are stuck in isolation, online video streaming can offer some ways to pass the time. Recently two very interesting shows from the 1970s were posted on Youtube: UFO and Space: 1999. Both are the brainchild of Sylvia and Gerry Anderson, who also signed for the famous marionette animation series The Thunderbirds.

Working relentlessly on science fiction proposals for broadcasters, UFO was their first successful shot at it, with Sylvia Anderson as the artistic mind, also designing the costumes. This mini-series of two seasons was produced on a relatively low budget, but already included quite some elaborate props and designs, such as a complete Moonbase. While definitely in the Sci-Fi genre, and with the main theme of an invasion by Alien Spacecraft, most of the action took place on earth. We are introduced to SHADO, an undercover organisation protecting humankind from alien invaders (comparable to the Man In Black narrative, but without the humour!). SHADO operates under the cover of a film studio, where its headquarters are based underground.

For a series of the Seventies, the vision on the future was rather bold, situating the action in the distant … 1980s! but the nice thing about UFO is that it remains so very ‘seventies’. One of the things that have always attracted me in the Sci-Fi genre, and specifically in Sci-Fi television series: there is not really time available to develop a complete alternative world view, since much of the script centres on a simple one-hour episode plot – so it offers mostly a raw, unpolished view on how people at the time of the creation of the series viewed their world: their fears, expectations and worries. But it is mostly through the details that you can experience – in this case – the Seventies all over: as there is only a superficial layer of fantasy laid over it, it exposes the deep, unconscious and self-evident habits, gestures, social codes, and attitudes that made up an era.

So, of course, the fears can quite easily be identified by the main ingredients of the Cold War: an existential battle of life and death with the alien invader, the threat to humanity, the fears of totalitarian regimes, the technological race for supremacy, and, also typical for many Sci-Fi series of that time, a very militaristic view on society, with heroes who tend to be undisputed “commanders”. UFO does not go so far as Star Trek, where the whole setup is largely copied from life on a US Navy aircraft carrier, but its first seasons certainly amounted nearly to idolatry of the military lifestyle.

But Sylvia Anderson was a very creative mind and it already shows in UFO. There are some special quirks to this series that make it quite charming. Not only did they invent a few futuristic looking vehicles such as the Interceptor (I happened to own a plastic toy version in my youth) and the Skydiver, a combination of submarine and space shuttle launcher, but they also created dress-styling and costuming that sets the series apart. While on earth, a tendency often found in Sci-Fi – to opt for minimalistic, sober, uniform designs (for real diversity in dress code we had to wait for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the Nineties) – strangely, the dresses on the Moonbase in UFO were complete fantasy: for some reason all the girls wore a purple wig, and a sexy kind of tight, indoor astronaut suit, and when off duty, they would wear a miniskirt. Undeniably the director and/or the camera operator can be suspected duly of having an obsession with long women’s legs! The interior design of the Moonbase and Main Command base on earth is very consistent, displaying a stylish functionalism.

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Michael Billington (Col. Paul Foster), Ed Bishop (Commander Edward Straker) and Gabrielle Drake (Lt. Gay Ellis) on Moonbase. (Image copyright ITC entertainment)

As for the characters, we get a typical setting: a strong, decisive Commander Edward Straker (Ed Bishop), sometimes conflicted with the hard choices he must make, but never wavering and with an absurd sense of duty (even prioritising to fend off an alien attack over trying to save his son’s life in episode 5: A question of Priorities). We see the reliable, wise sidekick in Col. Alec Freeman, performed by George Sewell, and a brave, sporty, testosterone-inflated hero in astronaut Col. Paul Foster, interpreted by Michael Billington. Later on, a woman’s role rose to prominence in the guise of Colonel Virginia Lake, brought to life by Wanda Ventham (the mother of Benedict Cumberbatch). And then there were the sexy girls of the Moonbase, featuring a.o. Lt Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake), highlighted in some lengthier, unnecessary stretched scenes off the main script action, such as when she changes dresses in the launch episode (Episode 1: Identified) while a colleague takes a shower.

Although episode-based, there is an underlying main plot to the whole story expressing a rather more modern fear about the future: the fear of soulless, computer-like beings ruling the world, where humans are just used and controlled. The pieces of this reality come together in the final episode (Episode 26: The Long Sleep).

Watching this series can be specifically interesting from a cultural studies point of view in the ways gender relations are encoded in the non-action scenes. Attractive women seem to wander across the camera viewpoint at random as a kind of background decor. There is also the rather direct way in which Paul Foster and Alec Freeman start courting women. Social rituals that might be felt today as quite grotesque, were probably perceived on the contrary as subtle innuendos by the contemporary audience. In one episode, Colonel Foster gets drunk in a very typical seventies party with the tunes of the Beatles’ “Get Back”. The relations between the main male characters, the steadfast and ever-serious Commander Straker and the maverick, daring, and intrepid Colonel Paul Foster, are elaborated in depth in two pivotal episodes where both men challenge each other (Episode 2: Exposed and Episode 7: Kill Straker). This classic scene of showing off who’s “the boss” recalls some of David Attenborough’s nature documentaries on competing male animals. A narrative spun over a few episodes highlights how Commander Straker cannot marry his duty with his family life, with tragic consequences (Episode 5: A Question of Priorities). But it would be unjust to accuse Sylvia Anderson for stereotyping, when on the contrary she did add complexity to the characters she developed, which contributed to the success of the series. It is more today’s nearly 50-year distance which lays bare a quite different social society. The end result was very good TV, highly appreciated in its time, and with still quite an active, nostalgic fan base.

Their second endeavour, Space: 1999 was by all criteria a major step up. It was a co-production of ITC Entertainment with the Italian national broadcaster RAI. Not only was there a sizeable budget increase, a choice was made to hire two American actors (Barbara Bain, portraying Dr. Helena Russel, and Martin Landau, taking the role of Alpha Moonbase Commander John Koenig) to be at the centre of the narrative. The lead dynamics between these two main characters defines the series, and their acting talent carries much of the tension. And, as UFO showings proved that the Moonbase episodes were the most popular, the action was completely transposed in Space. Actually the Moonbase became, once the moon broke out of Earth’s orbit due to a nuclear waste disaster, the epicentre of the galaxy and the subsequent journey through space. The leading theme would become the often fruitless quest for a new home planet, never giving up hope and testing the resolve of the about 300 survivors on Moonbase Alpa.

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The fanciful dresses of the Moonbase staff in UFO were swapped for Star Trek-style uniforms. For me, it is rather funny to watch since my father actually had similar pyjamas and since his general posture resembled very much that of the Commander Koenig, I cannot escape the feeling of seeing my father in the midst of interstellar action … in his pyjamas! Anyway this series was on all levels a better production, that could easily match Star Trek in quality, but circulated much less in audiences across the world.

To continue the plot, which seems very much visionary: due to the mishandlings of quite incompetent, even evil politicians, a badly controlled nuclear waste dump on the moon exploded, pushing the moon out of orbit, and into an interstellar voyage, in which the cast explores a multitude of new worlds in their quest for a new home. Contact with earth is lost, but it is assumed the fate of the earthlings is dire. From UFO, the series inherits the Moonbase, but introduces a new space shuttle, the Eagle, which also became a much sought-after toy in the late seventies and early eighties! And yes, I confess I owned one. The lead characters are assisted again by a more daring astronaut, Alan Carter, played by Nick Tate, who sometimes challenges Koenig’s authority. Another important role is for Barry Morse, who plays scientific advisor Victor Bergman. This series has more commonality with the original Star Trek series than UFO. It contains much more elaborate philosophical dialogues (often featuring Victor Bergman), and has the same adventurous space discovery theme as Star Trek, rather than the very dark, earth-centered alien invasion theme of UFO.

Unfortunately the show ended after two seasons, due to the marriage of Garry and Sylvia Anderson going sour. Certainly a shame, because this British-Italian TV series really could compete with the best and most popular Sci-Fi series of their time.

Given the volatile nature of videos on Youtube, I will not provide direct URL’s but just search for “UFO tv series” and “Space: 1999”. There are Wikipedia articles on both series, the Andersons, and the different actors about whom you might want to read.

Enjoy!