UFO might just be the grooviest television show ever produced. As in groov·y (/ˈgro͞ovē/), adj: so obviously a product of the sixties that it hurts. See: Country Joe and the Fish, Laugh-In, quaaludes. Though it technically debuted in 1970, the show so embodies the swingin' (as in swinger) sixties stereotypes that if you pulled this baby up on the old Jumbotron and told me it was something along the lines of Austin Powers: Moonfaker (by the way, if they ever make a fourth Austin Powers movie and they don't call it Thunderballs, I'm not seeing it), I would almost believe you. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
So, yes, this show is ripe with kitsch. There are funny hairdos and silly sets and go-go boots and nehru jackets. At one point, a male character actually assures a female character, “I think your equipment is fabulous.” As is more or less par for the course with this sort of thing (don't worry about it, Trekkies), the acting is wooden, the special effects are the bad kind of special, and the plot is... well, actually kind of cool. There’s this organization called SHADO and they’re defending Earth from Alien invaders who are trying to harvest human organs on the down low. Stop the presses! That rules. Is there anything better than a good organ harvesting?
Probably in an effort to distance UFO from the kiddie shows these guys made before, the organ harvesting ain’t all! UFO could get deceptively dark. There are several forums out there featuring people reminiscing about haunting episodes12. It even breached the three Ds of dramatic TV (a thing I just made up): death, divorce, and drugs. Which is impressive, as long as when they tackled drugs it isn't like that episode of The Fresh Prince when Carlton takes speed pills by accident and almost dances his life away (an episode which, the Internet tells me, is called “Just Say Yo.” You can't make that up. I mean, I guess somebody had to...). Anyway.
It may not be a coincidence that the acting in UFO is wooden, considering that the pair behind the show were also the creative team responsible for Thunderbirds3, which, of course, starred a full cast of marionettes (nailed it4). That's right, UFO is another classic foray into science fiction by Gerry and Sylvia “Lady Penelope” Anderson. To some (read: British) crowds, those names may mean as much as those of any other sci-fi titan – mostly on the strength of Thunderbirds, which was a smashing success -- but the husband and wife Anderson were also responsible for gems like Space: 1999, Fireball XL5, and the previously featured Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In 2009, sci-fi expert Dr. Mark Bould even named Mr. Anderson one of the Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction along with titans like Isaac Asimov and Neal Stephenson, so it's time to get familiar5. He's kind of a big deal, as they have finally stopped saying.
An aspiring architect, Gerry Anderson got his start as a photographer after discovering his allergy to plaster. I don’t know enough about architecture to fully grasp the plaster connection, but I’m going to take a website called Fanderson’s (oof) word for it. From architecture, he eventually worked his way over to film production. He bounced around from studio to studio, working a gamut of behind-the-camera roles in both film and television. After a two year stint in the service, Anderson went on to co-found what would be the first of many iterations of his own studio.
Along the way, he met and married a film studio secretary named Sylvia Thamm. She wouldn’t remain a secretary long -- soon after their marriage, The Andersons and a colleague founded AP Films. Sylvia was a large part of their success. She was essentially the creative director and had a large part in casting, scripting, and, most famously, voicing many shows.
One might assume that the man whose most famous projects are children's puppet shows was a passionate puppeteer, but you know what they say about assuming. When approached by BBC rival ITV to produce a children’s puppet series called The Adventures of Twizzle, he and Sylvia fell into it. The Sun reported in 2007: “My aim in doing this was to persuade the directors to think, ‘Why is this man wasting his talent with puppets? We should give him some live action work to do.6’” As Anderson would be quick to point out, his plan backfired.
Despite his distaste for the medium, the “supermarionation” shows of Anderson’s Century 21 Productions (née AP Films) were hugely successful. Poor Gerry? Well, I’m sure the mattress stuffed with that Thunderbirds money kept him comfortable at night, but the proof is in the pudding that his desire to work with life-size, flesh-and-bone actors was no flight of fancy. In 1969, the Andersons made their first foray into live action and feature length film with Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. UFO, which re-used most of the actors and props from that film, followed soon after.
After watching, if you don’t have the urge to go out and join the SHADO fan club (you won’t have to look online for very long if you do), think of UFO as a trial run. Their arguably more significant Space: 1999 (on account of it starring Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from Mission: Impossible -- you actually might have heard of it before) was initially conceived as UFO’s second season (obviously they were big on recycling). But UFO has plenty to offer on its own.
I was eager to mock it, but the more I looked into the Andersons, the easier it was to forget the inexplicable purple wigs, the inexplicable sparkly bikinis, and the general inexplicability of the whole thing in general. It’s not just any dated British sci-fi series, it’s the Andersons’ dated British sci-fi series. As such, it’s in good company; it’s part of a canon. They're auteurs! It must be noted that the Anderson marriage only lasted thirteen years, but you know what I’m going to write next: their work will last much longer than that.
3 You know, Thunderbirds! As in, Thunderbirds Are Go! Alright, if you’re my age you might know it from re-runs but truth be told you probably just know it as the inspiration for Team America: World Police.
4 It came to my attention after the fact that Sylvia Anderson actually called out critics of their live action stuff for making “wooden” jokes, but I’m leaving this in anyway.
5 Bould, Mark. Fifty key figures in science fiction. London New York: Routledge, 2010.