Friday, July 13, 2012

UFO Ep8: A Question Of Priorities

"These things are always a question of priorities." -Commander Ed Straker-

"He had such a fantastic voice. I remember thinking how wonderful it was.... His acting in UFO was just tremendous. He has a great deal of depth." -The late Peter Gordeno on Ed Bishop as Ed Straker in FAB #38-

All aboard! It's FAB FRIDAY people! Welcome to the out of this world exploits of all things by all people enabled by the minds of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.

UFO actor Peter Gordeno reflected on the talent of Ed Bishop, George Sewell and Michael Billington in that aforementioned interview and how their combined talents genuinely elevated the material when it faltered. They lifted a handful of gems into cult classic status. UFO remains one of those early science fiction highlights falling in line behind Star Trek: The Original Series and Lost In Space. There was certainly a great deal to be proud of on the series. Ironically, Gordeno appeared in just six episodes of UFO in his small role as Captain Peter Carlin. A Question Of Priorities would be his last.

While A Question Of Priorities would mark the exciting return of the irresistible Lt. Gay Ellis, played by Gabrielle Drake, and the handsome Captain Peter Carlin, the installment would also mark the final appearance of the Carlin character. Unfortunately his part as the pilot of Sky 1 was ever so brief.

Regarding Gordeno's brief time on the series, Gordeno noted in FAB #38 his limited input had a lot to do with his management. His agent was tentative to the role and feared Gordeno might be "pigeon-holed" thus limiting his availability. Gordeno felt many parts originally intended for him were divided up as a result of his lack of commitment. Michael Billington usurped many of the parts originally intended for him. Legend has it the Billington role at the health farm in Episode 9, Ordeal, was actually intended for Gordeno. Still, Gordeno remembered fondly Gerry Anderson and his patience and understanding with him as an untrained actor. Gordeno was the recipent of a good amount of success at the time as a dancer and listened to his agent's advice. In retrospect, Gordeno wished he had "stood up" to his manager. Gordeno really had high regard for Billington though who really took over for Gordeno in many appreciable respects. Gordeno really respected what the Andersons were achieving with UFO and although he was slated as a leading man for the series along with Ed Bishop it was not to be. That fact is self-evident with his notable appearance opposite Bishop in the series debut, Identified.

In general, Gordeno saw UFO as "first rate" and was never embarrassed by his work on the series. Here are his reflections from FAB #38 roughly thirty years after UFO finished production.

"The whole set-up in the studios was first rate. The stories were great and the effects were just fantastic. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were so clever." He added after seeing the series again just shy of the interview, "It really is impressive visually. I don't think that it was cliched and I don't think that it has really dated. The actors often show great depth and I really don't think that the programme looks 30 years old." Yes, UFO still packs a visual punch with its intelligent tales that grow ever more complex as the series grows.

Gordeno wrapped it up succinctly. "UFO... still stands up to anything done today. It was never tacky or cheap like some science-fiction stuff is. It was just top quality stuff and I'm so proud to have been involved in such a forward-thinking, well made programme." Amen. Top cast, directors, writers, guest stars and top shelf visual effects still puts UFO on a map charting science fiction history. There's little doubt about it and A Question Of Priorities takes us a step closer to the work on the series that really seals the deal.

Turning attention back to Gordeno's opening reflection on actor Ed Bishop, nowhere to date has the series exemplified more so the man's range as an actor and the character of Commander Ed Straker than the latest installment. UFO, Episode 8, A Question Of Priorities shines a light on actor Ed Bishop and a story classic as penned by Tony Barwick.

The entry opens with the unsettling portrait of a woman in jeopardy by a man wearing a nylon mask choking her. The camera rolls back to reveal a the horrific image to be nothing more than a scene being filmed at none other than Harlington-Straker Studios, the front for SHADO and clever artifice for the actual studios UFO was filmed in.

Images reveal Straker spending time with his son offering a new glimpse into a leader's world that had yet to be revealed. En route home, Straker's son, John, plays about in his father's classic brown future vehicle complete with built in telephone and gadgets galore.

The blond haired boy looks like a chip off the old block with that bleached out blond hair. He's the spitting image of a young Straker. Straker arrives home amid variations on the theme to UFO played on an organ that sounds like it might make The Doors' Ray Manzarek proud.

The episode not only sees the return of the lovely Gabrielle Drake as Lt. Gay Ellis, but introduces UFO fans to the gorgeous Suzanne Neve, as the ex-wife of John Straker, now remarried as Mary Rutland to Steven Rutland, played by Philip Madoc [Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius; cameo as Commander Anton Gorski in Space:1999 pilot Breakaway and replaced by Martin Landau's Commander John Koenig]. Madoc would appear again as a different character in UFO, Episode 20, Destruction.

I can only imagine the subject of divorce might have seemed particularly new to television in 1970. Though divorce rates were clearly on the rise it was still considered fairly taboo by many. The discomfort of that trend and the general discomfort of facing a former loved one with apparently strained relations and the involvement of a new partner can be felt here. This is a fairly moving and authentic scene that does touch a nerve. And this is just the beginning of A Question Of Priorities.

This touching and clearly emotional exchange is quickly followed by perhaps one of the most traumatic moments in Gerry Anderson television history. For a program bursting and seemingly colorized as an invitation to children this had to be something of an evening shocker [see Additional Commentary]. This horrifying event merely compounds an already strained connection.

The stunning scene is followed by the haunting ring of a British ambulance rushing John to the hospital. It all plays out very well and is particularly unnerving. Mary accompanies her fallen child. Ed follows closely behind.

Inside the hospital, the waiting game is played with deadly seriousness as both Straker and his ex-wife sit and suffer in near silence. The deafening quiet is only broken by the ring of a phone. Mary sits with her husband, Steven, just feet away smoking of course. The unfortunate union is awkward indeed. The silence is interrupted by a visiting nurse who informs them that their son is "as well as can be expected." The fact not a single string instrument or score of any kind accompanies the scene makes it all the more powerful and resonant.

Meanwhile on Moonbase, Colonel Alec Freeman continues to monitor the incoming UFOs. Moonbase reports to SHADO control via Lt. Ellis the UFOs are coming in hot. Carlin and Sky 1 launch to intercept the inbound UFO. Speaking of Sky 1, the set of UFO even had a full-on mock-up of the Sky 1 cockpit to give the impression of genuine flight as stage hands literally, physically rocked the set piece with Gordeno in it. It's worth noting, I've been a bit harsh on Mike Trim's work on the Interceptors early in my coverage, but, as I've said before, I've always loved those SHADO mobiles and the Skydiver is winning me over now too.

At the hospital a doctor informs Straker and Mary Rutland of the boy's status pointing out he is allergic to certain anti-biotics. There is a known alternative in the United States, but will need to be rushed to London. Straker, a connected man with some degree of influence, indicates he will take care of it. No one is sure how, only that Straker has the ability to do it and after all, as he puts it, "he's still my son." Much is hanging in the balance. Staker's communication device beeps informing him he must go and underlining to Mary that he "always had to leave." It's pretty clear there's some tension between them and that Mary has always questioned his priorities. Straker contacts Miss Ealand, an underrated and undeniably smoking hot secretary who could give 007's Miss Moneypenny a run for her money, to have the SHADO New York office transport the drug for his son.

A UFO crashes off the coast of Western Ireland but why? Straker arrives at SHADO control and is updated by Miss Ealand. Using the code word "Straker" and voiceprint recognition his office recedes underground. Freeman updates Straker regarding the crashed UFO but doesn't expect there will be much left of it. Straker is curt in his responses and noticeably distracted literally with the weight of the world on his mind. It's understandable, but Freeman is unaware despite his intuition. Freeman probes Straker regarding his state of mind, but Straker indicates he's fine. Straker contacts New York and demands an immediate take off. Many of the actions in play underscore the man that is Ed Straker.

This is a rather affecting moment whereby Straker's normally tough exterior and outward armor is seemingly pierced when it comes to his family and the discovery of a fact that seems to highlight or accentuate the seeming imbalance in his life. The tricky balance of favoring his command over dedication to his son as a father is an interesting one to analyze, because it is delicate and Straker is tormented by his efforts throughout A Question of Priorities. Nothing comes easy in this one.

The fact his son bears the name of a different man is painful to Straker as a man and father. It's a positively brutal position and none of us would envy. No matter how powerful Straker is as a leader it is painfully obvious there is a sense of powerlessness concerning his situation. There is a sense of emptiness in his eyes. It's truly gut-wrenching stuff.

Elsewhere Carlin surveys the ocean crash site. Nearby, an old woman and her parrot are disturbed by a nighttime visitor. The woman goes to the door to find the presence of a humanoid. She apologizes that she cannot see the alien because she is blind. Can you imagine an old woman answering the door at night to strange sounds in today? Talk about optimistic science fiction. I guess. To compound the unbelievable she allows the stranger into her home. She pleads kindly that the stranger not touch her bird. What about her own welfare? I mean shoot. Seriously?! But, it was 1970 and hot off the heels of peace and love. Though the whole sequence today plays a bit weird with the blind woman showing surprising restraint in the face of potentially terrifying stranger. Her response is an indignant, "What's that noise? What are you doing? Why don't you go away? Why don't you leave my house?" Weird stuff indeed. She has let the man in her home while she sits in a rocking chair by the fire.

Straker determines the transport has lifted off with the required shipment. Freeman pays Straker another visit. With a sense of helplessness and perhaps failure on his mind Straker stews over his inability to set things right with his son and his ex-wife. This is magnified when Freeman tells him to go home. "What home?," asks Straker. Freeman and Straker begin making deductions as to why the crashed UFO passed by Moonbase but never decelerated when approaching Earth. Straker gets Freeman thinking when he suggests the second UFO that veered away may have taken a shot at the first UFO. Inspired, Straker heads off and indicates he's "going home." John Straker is the symbol of home within Straker. It's illustrative of a man that is much more than merely the icy commander of SHADO Control.

Straker contacts Mary and indicates everything will be fine for John, but it's clear Mary is indeed fragile and has little faith in her ex-husband. The fact she seemingly still cares for him makes it all the more painful for her to believe in him. This is another particularly good scene that illuminates the relationship between Ed and Mary.

Will Straker's assurance be just another false promise to his once beloved wife and son? Clearly Ed Straker is on a crash course with destiny. Will a man forever in control, making decisions and making choices that affect the planet be forced to choose? Will his priorities come down to one child, his own?

Freeman intercepts audio from the old woman with their SHADO control monitoring equipment as it scans for alien transmitters. Ireland is the location. The alien has set up a transmitter from the old woman's home. As SHADO zeroes in Straker cancels his planned departure to see his son clearly demonstrating where his priorities remain. Freeman asks where the nearest transporter is located. Yes, there's one headed for England over the Atlantic from New York.

Off the coast of Ireland, Carlin does a little scuba diving to determine the downed UFO was indeed fired upon by something. There is some real depth and scope to the interior of the Skydiver and its sense of space also seems to speak to the proper dimensions of the underwater craft quite effectively.

At the hospital, John's life hangs in the balance. Back at SHADO control it's relatively clear that the weight of the world and his son is on the mind of Straker. Freeman and Straker continue to deduct the whereabouts of the alien intruder and why it is he is transmitting. Straker discovers that Freeman has inadvertently diverted the transporter to Ireland. Straker is filled with a look of horror, but he says nothing, speaking to the priorities of a SHADO control commander. Straker sits in silence. Will he seal his son's fate by remaining silent? It's an interesting twist because the order to divert the transporter was given by Freeman and not Straker.

At the hospital Mary waits patiently for the drug's arrival. Meanwhile, Straker paces smoking cigars. Straker phones the hospital to speak with Mary, but Steven Rutland picks up. Straker is pained to inform him that there has been a "delay" on the drug. He delivers the news with a visible degree of guilt in his decision/indecision. Straker wishes to speak with Mary and "explain." One gets the sense that Straker is out of explanations. "Important!? What can be more important than your own son's life!?"

Straker sits alone in near isolation as if personifying the lonely life of a SHADO commander.

The transporter unloads Mobile units in Ireland and Straker demands the transporter be back in the air in minutes. "These things are always a question of priorities," he tells Freeman who asks Straker if something important was happening, still ignorant to the fate of Straker's son. It speaks to the strict, confidential nature of Straker's life. Straker will not allow his personal matters to influence the perception of his leadership. Straker will not seek solace or empathy.

At John's bedside Mary cries. At the cottage, Mobile 1 has moved into position awaiting orders. Straker believes the alien may be a defector. Back at Moonbase the second UFO is spotted and Interceptors are launched. The Interceptors are unsuccessful in their mission. Their front-loaded single missiles can't quite cut the mustard. The UFO is en route to Earth. Sky 1 is launched to intercept.

The alien packs up his transmitter equipment and exits the blind woman's home. In an open field, the alien is shot and apparently killed by the incoming UFO, which in turn is shot and destroyed by Sky 1. It seems the intentions of the alien humanoid remain unclear.

When the final crushing minutes arrive Straker returns to the hospital to an emotionally distraught Mary who is simply and understandably inconsolable. Straker is too late. His decision to put a global initiative first failed his son. Further, the question of priorities also failed to excavate any real, legitimate, new information from the alien who is also killed. The decision not only cost his agency an intelligence failure but the loss of his son's life is an even greater cost. This decision by Straker reveals much about the man that is the tough-as-nails leader of SHADO. He is clearly a man not without emotion nor without love for his son, but his committment to an interplanetary war has indeed cost him his family, life as he once knew it and now the one thing he truly loved, his son. The question of Straker's priority is indeed painfully answered. The final moments of A Question Of Priorities is all the more shocking in that it is a dramatic, severe, very unhappy ending to a series that had children turned into TV in 1970. The bright flourescent color of the future was indeed deceiving to fans of this fairly substantive science fiction series. A Question Of Priorities is one of its character-centric and shining moments. Pulling off that ending could not have been an easy sell, because it's a real stunner. If John had survived, it would have indeed undercut the substance of the episode and the consequences associated with such difficult priorities for Straker. It's safe to say Lane and Barwick made the right call. Placing the character in that light was a courageous decision and one that is unbearable to imagine.

The loss of a child has certainly been dealt with time in memoriam in television, but rarely so tragically or with such courage as it is handled here in UFO. Honestly, people can say what they want about Gerry Anderson and his UFO as inconsequential or insubstantial, but A Question Of Priorities deals with a very delicate issue more candidly and more honestly than most with an extraordinary, but believable, set of circumstances within the context of the series.

Most moments of loss on this scale are handled with an almost cursory, inauthentic approach lacking the bravery needed to take the character and viewer into more deeply emotional and even scarring territory. Some of the most recent examples that underscore the power of our relationships with a child can be seen in Stargate SG-1, Season One, Episode 7, Cold Lazarus and understanding Colonel Jack O'Neill's sense of loss and internalized grief. Stargate SG-1, Season One, Episode 15, Singularity offers another impressive child-centric tale. If others come to mind please share them here and enlighten us.

Minor quibbles regarding the alien make-up or motivations aside, A Question Of Priorities is powerfully dramatic and eventful. The aliens are clearly intelligent despite their inability to communicate. A Question Of Priorities may not be perfect, but it does delve into the Straker character in ways yet explored on UFO and takes major risks for a program in 1970. There's a great depth on display in the deceivingly bright 1970s world of Anderson science fiction. Director David Lane returns for a smashingly solid third outing following his work on Episode 2, Computer Affair and Episode 5, Exposed. Lane not only takes us up close into Straker's world via a splendid script by Tony Barwick, but does so through a series of fine close-ups particularly through Neve and Bishop. He demonstrates a great many emotions through his camera work and A Question Of Priorities largely succeeds on this basis coupled with one of Barwick's unforgettably best UFO renderings and that's a fact without question.

A Question Of Priorities: A-. Writer: Tony Barwick. Director: David Lane.

Additional commentary: Inspired by a reading of the Gerry Anderson biography, What Made Thunderbirds Go! The Authorized Biography Of Gerry Anderson by Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn [p.197-198] and the Fanderson UFO Documentary on DVD, A Question Of Priorities demanded further investigation. The episode is a riveting piece of dramatic entertainment and offers up the epitome of the catch-22 or double bind. Ed Straker is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Two scenarios unfold before his very eyes and the question of his priorities reveals that the commander of SHADO and the father of one will be a villain one way or another. A catch-22 or double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma whereby a variable [an individual] is faced with two or more conflicting options whereby one option negates the other. In essence, the successful response to one option results in a failed response to the other. The person will fail, err, be unsuccessful or the villain regardless of the response. The double bind forces near paralysis. Save the planet or save your son in this case.

Rarely does television present such a bold scenario and in 1970 it was considered a major break from format as revealed by Gerry Anderson. It was indeed a strikingly bold maneuver.

A Question Of Priorities was indeed generously risky television so much so Anderson revealed he would be restrained from making such a character-centric plea again like this one in the future despite initially being asked to infuse the series with greater character components. Anderson drew upon his own vast experience as a television writer/ creator/ producer and the split loyalties between the demands of television and the demands of family to influence the work of his good friend scriptwriter Tony Barwick and director David Lane who handled the responsibility seat here "with considerable poignancy." Anderson was no stranger to the double bind scenario. If A Question Of Priorities seems emotionally genuine it's because Anderson drew from his own charged life and the episode is infused with that reality making it a story that people, however sensitive the material, could easily identify with.

Working long hours Anderson reflected on striking the difficult balance. "It wasn't a case of me never seeing my child, but like any businessman, you never see as much of your children as you'd like to. Life is simply not perfect." Anderson was reminded of remarks by one Lord Thomson where the man hoped one day his children would find it in their hearts to forgive him for being so busy. Anderson could relate to that sentiment.

So it comes as no surprise that this Straker-centric entry would not only be one of Gerry Anderson's favorites, but also Ed Bishop's personal favorite of the series.

Again, sadly, Abe Mandell and ITC were down on the possibility of episodes that were this emotionally real with regard to character and Anderson was advised against such material in the future.

"A Question Of Priorities proved unpopular with Abe Mandell, who accused Gerry of trying to move away from science fiction into the field of soap opera. Gerry had no choice but to comply with the New York office, and no further scripts of this type were commissioned." That's a shame too, because like some of the best character-based stories of Battlestar Galactica new and classic or Stargate SG-1, this particular moment in science fiction places UFO high atop the character-based story stratosphere where the genre marries to human drama to brilliant effect. At least for one shining moment UFO had created one of the unquestionable best.


le0pard13 said...

Another excellent look at this series, SFF. Man, do I love the color scheme and saturation your screen caps gather in about it. Well done.

jdigriz said...

Though I do acknowledge its greatness, this is one ep I can't rewatch. Knowing what's coming at the end fills me with a kind of dread. Thanks for the great insights on this episode SFF.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Cheers L13! Tku.

Jdigriz - that's a great point from a sheer emotional perspective.

This episode is a remarkably difficult viewing experience.

There is never a light moment in it. It indeed fills us with "dread." It never takes its foot off the pedal. It is a heavy, but genuine and true experience but not for the faint of heart.

Perhaps you've hit something on the head here. Some of the best films or episodes I've seen that have had this kind of affect are not films I would quickly rush off to see again.

Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman, a beautiful film, comes to mind. I had difficulty revisiting Saving Private Ryan for a long time.

A Question Of Priorities is positively successful on this level. It does not invite you back but leaves you absolutely aching for all of the characters involved particularly Straker and his ex-wife Mary Rutland. Brutal satuff and a great point. You inspired me to type a bit too much I suppose. Thank you. Sff

John Kenneth Muir said...


An excellent look back at an extraordinary segment of UFO, and a prime reason why the Gerry Anderson series deserves honors as one of the great ones in the pantheon.

Between strongly "human" entries like "A Question of Priorities" and a "Confetti Check A-OK" and mind-blowers such as "Time Lash" and "Mindbender," the series really offered some extraordinary installments.

You say it so well:

"The loss of a child has certainly been dealt with time in memoriam in television, but rarely so tragically or with such courage as it is handled here in UFO. Honestly, people can say what they want about Gerry Anderson and his UFO as inconsequential or insubstantial, but A Question Of Priorities deals with a very delicate issue more candidly and more honestly than most with an extraordinary, but believable, set of circumstances within the context of the series."

Yes, this episode is absolutely heartbreaking. And without resorting to histrionics or mock heroics, it puts Straker in that unenviable situation of having to choose between the survival of the planet and the survival of his biological son. What misery.

I love how emotional the episode is without feeling over-the-top or like it's trying to manipulate the viewer. The story is brilliantly vetted, and brilliantly performed by Bishop. I sympathize with jidgriz, who acknowledges the "greatness" of this segment, but finds it difficult to re-watch.

Great retrospective, my friend.

best wishes,

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks for the additional commentary here John.

"What misery" is right. Excruciating stuff.

I concur with you and Jdigriz... just an awful experience and certainly not for the faint of heart. A rewatch is nearly impossible.

I suppose that just goes to show you how successful the entry was. As you said, no "histrionics." It's raw and for that reason the viewer feels Straker's emotional position and empathizes with the pain of Mary Rutland. Truly hardcore.

I think it ranks among the series TOP 5.

Thank you again for your thoughts John. SFF