I’m not going to lie. Before today, I’d never seen an episode of UFO. I know, I know. I’m sorry. These things happen. Time to make amends. So I sat down with Steffanie (the missus and also a sci-fi fan) and hit play on the UFO episode “Kill Straker!”
I’m confused by the opening shot. Something’s going on with a lady’s eye. Only her skin is teal. Or maybe aquamarine. Periwinkle? Is she an alien? Will we find out more about her? Before I can think of any more questions, the opening credits begin—an incredible visual onslaught set to funky late sixties music. The cuts were so fast, I barely registered what I was seeing:
Close-ups of people looking serious
A computer screen
Men in string vests!
A truck in the forest
Lots more UFOs
We’re about ninety seconds in—I have no idea what’s going on, but this show looks cool as hell.
“Do you think this is set in 1980?” I ask.
“I think the opening credits need to come with a seizure warning,” says Steffanie, rubbing her eyes.
Once we’re past the first few minutes, I can see we’re in familiar Gerry and Sylvia Anderson territory. Insanely cool global organization trying to protect Earth (e.g., Thunderbirds)? Check! Mysterious and unseen aliens (Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons)? Check! Cool acronym (BIG RAT in Joe 90, BISHOP in The Secret Service)? Check! Awesome spaceships and/or cars (Supercar, Fireball XL5, and of course, Thunderbird 2)? Check!
Judging from this episode alone, the setup of UFO is most similar to Captain Scarlet. In fact, at the start of the episode, everyone was so emotionless and their clothes so perfect (nary a crease to be seen) that at times I almost fooled myself into thinking I was watching a Supermarionation show.
It’s clear, however, UFO is aiming at a more adult audience than Anderson’s earlier shows. While there is action, much of the episode plays out like a boardroom drama with lots of men talking and smoking. (I guess I’m not used to seeing so much smoking in shows anymore: just how many plastic-tipped cigarillos does Straker go through in this episode?) The episode’s themes are dark, even compared to those of Captain Scarlet (which is itself a pretty dark show). The scene where Foster and his copilot, Craig, start repeating “Kill Straker!” is creepy. The segment showing Craig’s suicide mission to destroy Moonbase is horrific. Finally, the way Straker “cures” Foster is… well, I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it’s hella messed up.
“Kill Straker!” fits in well with other glossy ITC productions of the time such as The Saint or The Prisoner. It looks great. It’s high-energy, gripping, and entertaining. At the same time, it does succumb to many of the same tropes you see in telefantasy of the sixties or seventies.
When Foster throws a cup of water over a computer terminal, shutting down almost all systems on Moonbase, I was reminded of the Prisoner episode “The General” where Number Six makes a computer blow up just by asking it a question. I was reminded, too, of the Doctor Who serial “The Ice Warriors” and its simplistic presentation of computers. This simply isn’t how computers function and smacks of lazy writing. That said, maybe I’m being overly crucial: it’s probably better viewed as a shorthand way of setting up one of the episode’s strongest set pieces: the first confrontation between Straker and Foster. It’s this scene that got me hooked on the show.
Another trope is the cod psychology used by Straker to cure Foster. Straker locking himself in a shooting range with Foster does make for a high-tension conclusion, and it’s brilliantly played by Ed Bishop and Michael Billington. By the end of the scene, however, I’m far from convinced Foster is cured. Straker’s approach is more likely to have screwed Foster up permanently than cure him. This is a variation on the old “Talk Your Enemy to Death” or “Break Your Enemy by Talking” trope. It’s seldom convincing—think, for example, of Azal’s death at the end of the Doctor Who story “The Dæmons.” It rarely convinces audiences, and while the implementation here is better than most, it’s still not great.
I don’t mean to sound negative—there’s a great deal to love in “Kill Straker!” George Sewell is fantastic as the hard-talking Freeman. He gets the best line in the show when he confronts Henderson about meeting him behind Straker’s back:
Freeman: I’m wondering about the way you asked me here.
Henderson: You mean my request that you should tell no one about your visit?
Freeman: I mean the fact that I was asked not to tell Commander Straker.
Henderson: And did you?
Freeman: First chance I got.
Steffanie was taken with the presentation of the aliens. “It reminds me of Ernest Cline’s Armada,” she said. “Just like the aliens there, the humans know nothing about them except that they’re a threat. People don’t understand the aliens. Sometimes they’re there; sometimes they’re not. Also, there’s an Earth Defense Force on the Moon like in UFO.”
The aliens and the almost existential threat they present to humanity are fascinating aspects of the show. We were both interested to know if “Kill Straker!” is an atypical episode which features almost no appearance by the aliens or whether this type of attack is par for the course and the aliens appear frequently. Does the show follow the same route as the revived Battlestar Galactica where some episodes featured Cylons, but many focused rather on the humans and how they dealt with the situation?
This alien threat alone would be enough to keep us watching, but the attention to detail is wonderful too. Steffanie commented on how it’s casually presented that rival nations are now cooperating with each other in SHADO, notably Russia and the USA, deep in the Cold War at the time of UFO’s making. Look at the scene where Straker and Freeman talk to Foster on Moonbase—there are labels for “American Meal” and “Russian Meal” behind him. Other cool details include how pilots get into their interceptors and Straker’s sense of style and hair (although Steffanie did ask, “Why does he look like a priest?”).
By the time the episode ends, we’re both into the show. A bit dated, maybe, but nonetheless great fun. Then the credits roll. I’m used to shows where the closing credits give a sense of closure or reassurance. Not so here. Instead, menacing music plays while the camera slowly pans away from Earth. By the end, I am terrified.
Even so, I’ll be back for more.
 Cline’s 2015 follow up to his first novel, Ready Player One (2011).
© 2019 Richard Peevers, Featured in Chromakey Issue 1: Winter 2019
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If you’d like to read more reviews like this, including articles on television series like Altered Carbon, Lost In Space, A Very British Coup, The Starlost and more, why not pick up a copy of the debut issue of Chromakey, now on sale through the Pencil Tip Publishing store on Lulu.com. Issue 1 is available worldwide and printed via POD (print on demand). Lulu ships worldwide, orders placed in the UK will ship from the UK, while U.S. orders ship from the U.S, Canadian orders ship from Canada and Australian/New Zealand orders ship from Australia.