It’s 1980. Men wear comfortable button-up jumpsuits, cars have gull-wing doors, aquanauts wear string vests, and women on the moon sport fetching purple wigs. This is the future as imagined by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson in their ground-breaking 1969/70 live-action science-fiction series UFO which finally – finally – arrives on Blu-ray looking as if it was made yesterday morning. You really don’t need us to tell you that UFO is bloody fabulous, and in glorious, pin-sharp high-definition it looks bigger and better than ever.
In many ways UFO was ‘the one that got away’ in the formidable Gerry Anderson canon. Misunderstood and underappreciated at the time, its reputation has blossomed across the decades as it’s been discovered by increasingly-appreciative audiences captivated by Derek Meddings’ still-glorious special effects, its inventive storylines and, we’re big enough fans to admit it, its occasional po-faced earnestness. This is the story of Earth in the far distant future (well, it probably seemed that way in 1969) under discrete attack by a desperate alien race from a distant, dying world. A top secret defence organisation named SHSADO – Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation – is set up and armed with an armada of space interceptors (launched from a Moonbase facility), submarines and ground-tanks to protect the Earth from these surreptitious invaders. SHADO is commanded by Ed Straker (Bishop), he of the infamous bleached-blond hairpiece, who by day poses as the head of a British film studio (in reality Elstree Studios, its exterior now home to BBC TV’s Holby City) beneath which lies SHADO’s futuristic nerve centre. Across twenty-six colourful episodes the men, women and machines of SHADO (and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart) battle to stay ahead of the game as Earth’s frontline defence against the aliens who, for some reason, tend to come to Earth one whirling-dervish spaceship at a time.
UFO is undoubtedly charmingly-dated – as any story which attempts to posit a near-future world is bound to several decades after the event. There’s a stiffness in both the scripts and performances in many of the early episodes (which inevitably led to contemporary critics making snide cheapjack gags comparing the acting to the marionettes of the Andersons’ 1960s shows) and in truth there’s little depth to any of the lead characters with the notable exception of Ed Bishop’s Straker. Here’s a man who is driven and determined to the point of obsession, sacrificing everything in his life – his marriage, his son (in the heart-breaking ‘A Question of Priorities’) and even, perhaps, his humanity – in pursuit of his absolute dedication to his post as SHADO’s head honcho. We’re years away from the idea of TV shows with ‘story arcs’ but a handful of early UFO instalments tackle head-on the bald consequences of the single-minded obsession which has turned Straker into a cold, distant and hard-edged loner who seems more machine than man.
There’s little light and shade in UFO; many of the stories seem ponderous by today’s standards and if there’s any humour (and there’s not much) it’s creaky and laboured. But UFO is really all about those extraordinary visuals, the thunderingly-exciting Barry Gray signature music and thrilling title sequence and an overarching scenario which can’t help but captivate and enthral enough to make even the odd seriously tedious episode like ‘Conflict’ and ‘Destruction’ worth struggling through. The first seventeen episodes were filmed at MGMN’s Borehamwood Studios but the series relocated to Pinewood after a five-month break following Borehamwood’s closure and the final nine episodes are slicker, faster-paced and even more imaginative (with some new theories postulated about the nature and physiology of the aliens and a greater subtlety in their invasion schemes) but are much more action-orientated and appear to have ditched any attempt at character development in favour of increased spectacle and a few more punch-ups.
Network have absolutely done UFO proud with this sensational new Blu-ray boxset. The episodes have been beautifully restored and they look jaw-droppingly sensational, and with a new 5.1 sound mix available they sound pretty damned good too. There’s also a slew of new bonus material. With the majority of the key behind-the-scenes and front-of-camera players no longer with us, Gerry’s son Jamie has crafted a charming, if slightly overlong, documentary, ‘From Earth to the Moon’ in which many of the show’s surviving semi-regulars (including Wanda Ventham and Ayshea Brough) and one-off guest stars share their memories of working on the series. Archive interviews, raw film material and two commentaries carried over from the previous DVD releases of the series and a frankly astonishing 600-plus page book on the making of UFO by TV historian Andrew Pixley round out a genuinely comprehensive release which finally and definitively does justice to one of the best British TV science-fiction shows of all time. It’s Gerry Anderson’s true crowning glory and you absolutely need it in your life and on your shelf.
Special Features: Documentaries / Audio commentaries / Film material / Archive audio and video material / Image galleries / Souvenir book
UFO – THE COMPLETE SERIES / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: ED BISHOP, GEORGE SEWELL, MICHAEL BILLINGTON, WANDA VENTHAM, PETER GORDENO / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW