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UFO lands on UK Blu-ray

Monday, 14 November 2016 00:00 Written by 

The day has finally arrived, and those who have pre-ordered UFO, the first live-action television series from the creators of Thunderbirds, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, are beginning to find the first UK Blu-ray release of the entire run of episodes popping through their letterboxes. The popularity of the show has even caught out Network Distributing as the first print run has sold out, and more are being rushed through to production as we speak. Network’s attention to detail has certainly been a key reason for this – a landmark series in so many ways, the restoration work on UFO is absolutely awe-inspiring, and new for this UK release. Not a film scratch in sight, not a blemish to make you twitch. In these days of Netflix, you can guarantee those who have purchased will be seduced into ‘binge viewing’ like never before.

UFO arrives on UK Blu-ray - and demand is huge

The sensibilities of the series rightly receives a ‘12’ certificate from the BBFC. At the time of first broadcast back in 1970, the ITV network was bemused that the puppet makers had come up with such an adult series. Watching the show now definitely benefits from original production order (for the majority of the run), as we see the characters and situations progress and evolve. Some faces might not stay with us for long, but it makes the show more credible for doing so. What we have here is pure television gold, serious in aspect but bright and colourful in terms of the world view we witness. And all this with the option of listening with a brand new and house-quaking 5.1 surround sound audio track!

The series begins with a flying saucer assault ten years before where the bulk of the episodes are set. Post opening credits, we jump forward to 1980. Here we are introduced to Ed Straker (actor Ed Bishop, who had been a voice artist – Captain Blue – on Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and had a supporting role in the Andersons’ live action movie “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun”, aka “Doppelganger”). As is the case with much of “Identified”, the show’s opening instalment, much of the time is taken in establishing the then-future world we find ourselves in. Indeed, one could have expected Basil Exposition of the “Austin Powers” franchise to come into shot at any moment.

Hidden beneath a working film studio is SHADO – the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation. Our leading man has the cover of being the boss of film producers Harlington Straker, stopping any questions as to why he would be on the premises. As is established in the premiere story, they exist in secret to combat the threat of an alien invasion, not wishing to bring mass panic to the world’s population.

Across a million miles of space, a dying race travel to abduct humans, in order to repair their own failing bodies. Their way of living has made them sterile, and so they continue to survive only thanks to the harvesting. Human organ transplants were a topical subject at the time, and this chilling take on how it might be used in future rings scarily ever truer today. Witness the decline in male sperm counts worldwide in our 21st Century – there’s definitely another story here, thanks to the benefit of hindsight.

For those who like their hardware alongside the human (and alien) stories which unfold during the series, we are served well with incredible designs of craft for land, sea, air and space. There are no limits to where we are taken on planet Earth and beyond, and if this was not a television series, all of them would be seen as design classics.

Creating the bedrock for the production is the music from Anderson stalwart Barry Gray. From the spirited open credits theme with Hammond organ, through funky basslines for the launch of interceptors, the brass which punctuates the separation of Sky 1 from Skydiver, and through into the mysterious otherworldliness of the throbbing of the closing credits wall-of-sound, this is an absolute tour-de-force of memorable hooks and melodies. Yes, of course it’s the 1960s speaking to what the 1980s could sound like, but in many respects it spoke of the ‘new romantic’ movement which was the actual soundtrack of the era it looked to predict.

Andrea Allen as Moonbase Operative Carol Miller (3 episodes) - she was also a Nurse in A Question of PrioritiesAlso of note is the number of familiar faces who guest-star in the series. Look out for George Cole, Stuart Damon, Steven Berkoff, Andrea Allen, Penny Spencer, Jean Marsh, Philip Madoc, Lois Maxwell, Windsor Davies, John Levene, Adrienne Corri, John Stratton, Alexis Kanner, Conrad Phillips, Derren Nesbitt, James Cosmo, Tracy Reed, Tessa Wyatt, Paul Maxwell, Mike Pratt, Patrick Mower, Suzan Farmer, Patrick Allen, Jack Hedley, Philip Latham, Neil McCallum, Tom Adams, Alexander Davion, Charles Tingwell, Richard Vernon and Stephanie Beacham.

Aside from the episodes themselves, putting the format into perspective, and exhaustively documenting the layers of technical problems, interference and ‘actor issues’ that the production team had to fight against is all covered in the accompanying 620-page book by noted TV historian Andrew Pixley. The same height and width as a Blu-ray case, it’s the depth of 35mm which will keep you engaged.

Andrew notes the potential to scupper the entire extra-terrestrial-focused series of the Condon report, issued by a physicist, Edward Condon of the University of Colorado, who analysed the American military’s “Project Blue Book” findings on alleged UFO sightings (see page 66 of Andrew’s book for the reference if/when you get a copy of this Blu-ray set).

As I noted in a presentation I have given several times on facts behind screen fiction, Condon published these findings in January 1969, but he had already established that he wasn’t objective via comments he had made some considerable time before. Condon’s committee had begun its work in October 1966, but in January 1967 he had gone on record as having dismissed the study of UFOs as “nonsense”. In fact, in April 1968, J Edward Rausch (Indiana) urged the American Congress to take over the study, challenging its objectivity. And also with this in mind, in July 1968 the House Committee on Space and Aeronautics was urged by scientific experts to back a United Nations ‘clearing house of UFO information’, which never came to pass.

Meanwhile, in October 1968, Lew Grade commissioned the UFO series from Gerry Anderson, with the first pilot script being delivered in December of that year.

So, it was a little depressing when Condon released his analysis the following month, declaring “nothing has come from the study of UFOs over the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge”. Now, just read that conclusion back for a moment. It actually does NOT say whether UFOs are real or not. In response, experts sacked from the study challenge Condon’s findings (The Times, 11 January 1969), including one David R Saunders, who detailed the cover-up in his book published later the same year – “UFOs? Yes! Where the Condon committee went wrong”.

Now, it would be a long-shot to suggest that the timing of the report, and its findings, may have been in response to knowing a big fictional TV series on the subject was brewing ‘across the pond’ in the UK. However, as Andrew notes on page 92, in April 1969, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Roy Jenkins did something ridiculous for business and exports (as an intriguing aside, Jenkins went on to become one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who set up the diversionary Social Democratic Party (SDP) – there to ensure the Liberal Party did not make significant in-roads into the political duopoly of the time between Conservative and Labour, which in the early 1980s was a possibility).

Jenkins decided to replace the TV advertisement duty on ITV’s commercials. He would instead tax the turnover of the franchises within the ITV network, including Lew’s ATV (and consequently ITC, the filmed series production arm, making so much from exports). As such, production of 35mm-originated shows would become much, much more expensive due to the extra tax burden, leaving operators with the dilemma of producing shows more cheaply, or the less viable route of significantly increasing costs of slots to advertisers.

Luckily for us, Lew held his ground and continued in 35mm with shows in production, including UFO. However, in the years that immediately followed, the likes of ITC productions Jason King, The Adventurer and The Protectors would find themselves shot in 16mm to reduce outgoings. Now, the timing on all this could be seen as just a coincidence, nothing at all to do with a series being made which might be far too close to the truth.

However, Jenkins doing this at such a time, which may have pole-axed the chances of an American sale for UFO if 16mm had been opted for (and would have meant this Blu-ray release wouldn’t have been so impressive) can be seen by financial analysts as completely counter-productive. If you reduce foreign sales, you reduce revenue for companies and tax for governments alike, and jeopardise future productions. It’s not the act of a rational Chancellor.

The book details the changes in cast members (and why), and the unhelpful ‘notes’ which would be a staple of ITC America’s interference in UFO as well as various other shows (including in particular Space: 1999, but that’s another story). Those both in front of and behind the camera are given due credit, and we even get to know who all the Moonbase girls were over the course of the 26 episodes (there are far more of them than you are likely to recall). The source material is copiously referenced as we go along, which leaves you in little doubt as to who said what and when. This is probably a better option than referencing everything via footnotes – mainly as such notes would have probably have been another half a book on their own!

It would be unfair on the rest of the cast to note this as being Ed Bishop’s series, but he was the only one of the cast to appear in all the episodes, opening credits notwithstanding. According to IMDB, the runner-up was Dolores Mantez as Nina Barry (23 of the 26 segments), with Michael Billington’s Paul Foster on 21 (despite only coming to the series after three episodes had been completed). Those originally designed to be the co-stars actually were even less prominent - George Sewell as Alec Freeman (17 episodes), and Gabrielle Drake as Gay Ellis (11 episodes). Gary Myers, the original Milk Tray man, managed 10 episodes as Lew Waterman, a role which saw him as both an Interceptor Pilot and a Skydiver Captain.

UFO - Network do us all proud with this excellent Blu-ray box setThe other benefit is that the episodes are put on the Blu-rays in production order, save for swapping “Exposed” (Billington’s character’s debut) which was filmed after “Survival” (as the script was a reworking of one originally designed for another character than Foster, which was ready to go into production at that point). Using this order gives the series a far more even feeling of progression, adding to the richness of back story and plotting which was instilled into the episodes. It's not perfect, but it's the least contentious of options.

Unlike a lot of television SF of the time, the character of Straker was multi-dimensional, having to deal with the likes of a former spouse, a female reporter using seduction as leverage, and the tragic death of his own son. Anyone who says UFO was a kids’ show really needs to stay in more… and watch the bloody series!

There are plenty of new features on this set, many produced and directed by Gerry’s son, Jamie Anderson, including a new documentary which is an hour and a half long. Save for using a couple of short clips of archive interviews from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the material is all-new and features those who have rarely featured in previous documentaries, and are still around to give their reminiscences – including Wanda Ventham (who, trivia fans will know, is the mother of Benedict Cumberbatch), Jeremy Wilkin, Ayshea Brough, Georgina Moon, Michael Jayston, Susan Jameson, David Collings, Jane Merrow, Deborah Grant, Shane Rimmer and Matt Zimmerman. Zimmerman also narrates the tongue-in-cheek SHADO new recruits briefing segment.

One bit of these new interviews which I have an issue with is that there seems to have been a change of thought - and tone - to some of these filming sessions during production. By this, I mean that the original concept looked to adopt the style where those interviewing are never heard, which means that the narrative runs from one interviewee to another, and where necessary you get one of the subjects to effectively ask themselves a question and then answer it. What happens instead is we hear a muffled question, comment or response from the interviewer, and sometimes this means the application of subtitles to the pictures so we are sure of what has been said. I can understand that this gives a more fun approach to proceedings, including the unexpected remarks, but if that seems to be the way things are going, then do it that way, and ensure your interviewer also has a microphone on them too!

Another aspect which caused me to twitch was the several times that interviewees were allowed to look less than knowledgeable, when it would have been easy just to have reshot a question with the feeding of a more informed answer. It might be more ‘staged’, but it’s less embarrassing for all concerned, including the viewer!

The temptation is resisted to splurge too much of what has previously been available about UFO as extras on previous releases, or as separate titles, onto this Blu-ray set - after all, many will not have been filmed in High Definition, although there are no excuses for commentaries done for non-UK releases. While this means in some respects this release cannot be seen as definitive, it does bring a lot of new material to the table which makes the set an essential purchase.

All this and literally thousands of images makes for an intensive experience, including dedicated picture sets for EVERY episode (180 for opening episode “Identified” alone), rare collectables (577 of them!), behind-the-scenes shots (134 images), and 184 images from the Gerry Anderson Archive, featuring ‘screen test’ shots, which include Joanna Lumley amongst their number. Yes, the Moonbase Girl that got away!

A quick recap of these special features, then:

  • “From Earth to the Moon” (89 mins) - a new feature-length documentary with interviews, archive video, audio and stills, produced and directed by Jamie Anderson - many of which have never been seen or heard before.
  • “The Women of UFO” (31 mins) – new documentary discussing the improving sexual equality depicted in UFO and the role of science fiction in striving for that change
  • “Identified: SHADO New Recruits Briefing” (17 mins) - a newly created SHADO briefing film narrated by Matt Zimmerman
  • Exclusive 620 page book on the making of UFO by archive television historian Andrew Pixley, with a cover which pays homage to the tie-in paperbacks of the early 1970s.
  • Dolby 5.1 audio mix as well as existing as-transmitted mono audio
  • Film material, including textless episode title backgrounds, textless end titles, stock footage, TV spots, extra footage for “Identified” and “Exposed”, unused footage from “Timelash” and “The Long Sleep”, Italian trailers;
  • Audio commentaries: “Identified” with Gerry Anderson and “Sub-Smash” with Ed Bishop;
  • SID Computer Voice Session with Mel Oxley, and audio outtakes for these sessions and “Kill Straker!”
  • Archive Ed Bishop audio interview from 1996;
  • “Tomorrow Today: Future Fashions” archive feature with Sylvia Anderson;
  • Extensive image galleries.

As UFO is my favourite series, obviously you know I am going to suggest you really need to own this collection. However, I can say this without any possibility of being challenged on this being a necessary addition to your own archives. Everything herein really does have that feeling of being contemporary, even if its vision of the future is now dated, but still charming nonetheless. This is an alternative universe where ladies on the Moon really did need purple wigs, and every car worth owning had gull-wing doors. Everything has its own realism, the stories are very adult, and the characters are real even if the world around them is fantastic.

This is the future those of us who recall that era all wanted. Even if it did mean that the forces of evil were far more easily defined than what we have to cope with in our own modern day.

UFO – The Complete Series on Blu-ray is out now from Network Distributing. The six disc set has a ‘12’ certificate, a running time of 1,300 mins approx, and a RRP of £89.99, or get it for less at         


Last modified on Tuesday, 15 November 2016 13:08