Friday, September 30, 2011

UFO Ep6: Conflict

Welcome. It's FAB FRIDAY and all of the latest conflict-filled fun from the make-believe world of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.

The latest science fiction opus is UFO, Episode 6, Conflict. The entry begins with stunning, credible, vintage Gerry Anderson modelling effects in outer space reminiscing of his Anderson's own Doppelganger [1969] dubbed Journey To The Far Side OF The Sun in the USA. Of course, many of the props and even actors [George Sewell, Ed Bishop, Vladek Sheybal] reappeared in UFO [1970-1971] following that film.

A team is sent on a mission to destroy space refuse. A burned out USA space rocket is spotted with a strange alien device attached, but the pilots of the space debris removal mission don't notice.

On Earth, Ed Straker enters S.H.A.D.O. Headquarters. With blond hair, sunglasses and classic Nehru jacket, Straker is the epitome of Sylvia Anderson fashion and looks the complete chic bad ass to boot. Inside, Straker goes toe to toe with a funding chairman, General James L. Henderson, concerning resources for S.H.A.D.O..

Back on Moonbase, Alec Freeman discusses the latest Straker initiative with a colleague - the removal of space junk [be sure to check out a song of the same name, Space Junk, by Wang Chung]. Freeman calls it a "beautification campaign." His friend indicates the International Astrophysical Commission [I.A.C.] handles all hazardous space debris issues. Alec Freeman is concerned about the project because of Henderson.

Back on Earth Straker argues safety over cost for the project with the stubborn Henderson who identifies Straker as a "thorn" in his side. Henderson wants details and statistics indicating his role as a bureaucrat and paper-pusher. Straker hands him his report for consideration before a final decision will be made. Straker is steadfast in his argument demanding protection of his men at any cost exemplifying the fiber of his character. Straker once again proves himself to be a true leader. He is strong, insistent and unflinching in his resolve, but these men clearly dislike one another. Straker is shown the door.

Straker reaches out to Freeman for the Space Clearance report. Thus is the inherent political nature of UFO as it takes us down a road of sometimes dry and unexciting red tape and inaction. It gives us a sense of the political realities that hamper the planet-saving operation that is S.H.A.D.O..

A ship launches back to Earth with the urgent report passing nearby debris where the alien device detaches and pursues the Moonbase vessel. At Moonbase control Paul Foster indicates to Freeman that Straker is expecting Freeman to deliver the report. He won't be happy.

As it turns out, at least Freeman's alive. The decision not to return to Earth winds up a good one as Lunar Module 32 ends up attached to the Alien Limpet UFO. It quietly connects to the hull and begins impacting the flight trajectory of the S.H.A.D.O. vessel. All instruments are useless as a result of the Alien Limpet. Insertion into the Earth atmosphere causes its destruction following a fairly exciting entry sequence. The alien device detaches just moments before the ship's destruction due to the pilot's inability to correct the insertion coordinates and trajectory.

With the report destroyed Straker makes efforts to convince Henderson to give him more time. Henderson grounds all operations pending an investigation of the ship's demise. He calls Straker's operation "an expensive and unworkable luxury."

Back at Harlington-Straker Film Studios, the facade of S.H.A.D.O. Straker informs Miss Ealand of code word "Washington Square." "It means shut down, cancel lunar flights, the virtual isolation of Moonbase," informs Straker disheartened.

Skydiver is notified of Washington Square. Surprisingly through all of this no one mentions what a relief it is Freeman decided not to make that deadly flight. Freeman contacts Straker who believes the crash was a result of "pilot error" on Captain Steve Maddox. This is a little presumptuous for Commander Straker given his faith in his people and in facts, of which he has none.

Foster does not believe Steve Maddox was responsible. He simply cannot believe Maddox would make that error. Further, Maddox reported the unidentified flying object before his death. This information should speak volumes to all involved. At least Foster is paying attention to common sense. Foster requests the electronic log from Maddox' flight.

In a fine human moment, Freeman visits the Leisure Sphere where a game remains unfinished that he and Maddox had begun playing shortly before his death. A short bit later, Freeman finds Foster in a Lunar Module preparing for take off. Foster plans to find out the truth. Foster believes in Maddox and plans to prove the man's exceptionalism as a pilot. He plans on recreating the events leading to the death of his colleague implementing the same variables. Foster is willing to die for the truth. Freeman asks, "what if you don't make it?" Foster matter of factly relays, "Then I don't."

Straker contacts Foster and wants him to turn around. Foster informs him he's gone too far. Straker agrees, "much too far." He's not happy with Foster. With six minutes until entry here comes the Alien Limpet. Freeman gives the entry angle coordinates. Of course as Foster pilots along we get a kind of amusing, pre-requisite, spooky UFO theme music. It's the kind of accompaniment one might have experienced watching Bobby Brady scare his sisters on The Brady Bunch.

The device attaches to the hull once again. Foster plummets into Earth's atmosphere. The g-forces ripple against his skin. It reminisces of Roger Moore's 007 in a scene from Moonraker [1979]. Alot of people suspected Michael Billington would have made a fine James Bond. The Alien Limpet detaches, but Foster manages the craft and stays alive. Straker's tough commander shines in this line. "But don't let my delight at your survival blind you to the fact that we have a few matters to discuss."

Foster docks the Lunar Module in UFO's makeshift red Thunderbird 2-like aircraft. This may be the best looking mechanical design on the series next to the S.H.A.D.O. Mobile tanks.

Foster reports to the I.A.C.. Straker and Foster have it out with Henderson. Here's a great little moment when tempers flare following political niceties.

Henderson is an ass though and deduces inaccurately that Straker ordered the Foster flight to acquire information and evidence for his space junk removal program. Still, no one is linking the space junk and with the actual "alien interference" as Straker calls it. It would appear funding is required for something. Henderson threatens Straker that he'll be unemployed following the commission meeting. Straker exits with briefcase. He'll be there to make his case. Foster and Straker also depart with their stunning Nehru suits. Foster's maroon look is particularly striking. It's all very Duran Duran long before Duran Duran. I so want one. Foster's outfit was also worn in Episode 4, Exposed. Of course, that's what all the ladies wanted. Since last entry, Survival, one can only assume Commander Mark Bradley has been relegated and designated back to Lt. following the discovery that Foster was alive.

In a rather sobering conversation in the car, a concerned Foster wonders if Straker's position is in genuine jeopardy. These are certainly stark political realities posed inside the world of UFO. As someone who prides himself on principles I do love this simple, brief exchange between friends.

There is real heart, discipline and a sense of justice that Michael Billington delivers there. Ed Bishop counters beautifully with his grounded response that the facts sometimes aren't enough. How Michael Billington could be so self-critical of his work on UFO really comes as a surprise as each episode appears to counter those claims with evidence of genuinely quality work [See Survival].

Straker and Foster return to S.H.A.D.O. Headquarters where Foster implores they mustn't just sit around. Straker responds, "I've solved quite a few problems by just sitting around as you call it Colonel. I suggest you try it yourself sometime." Isn't that true?

Straker and Foster deduct the Alien Limpet is hiding inside the debris fields. Based on the path Foster took back to Earth they conclude the location to be four possibilities. It hides like Boba Fett's Slave 1 among the refuse of space. Credit goes to Paul Foster for making the connection between the Alien Limpit and the space junk.

Straker contacts Freeman. He wants the three Interceptors [there are only three that protect Moonbase] to destroy all four "pieces of space junk." I'm not sure how this will be accomplished with three Interceptors. Moonbase will be undefended, but these are the tough decisions Straker must make. Meanwhile, Straker has a plan and informs Foster to report to Henderson with the Interceptors plan. Foster says Henderson will go berserk and hopes Straker knows what he's doing. The master tactician is at work once again.

Straker informs Miss Ealand to defer any calls from General Henderson, but if he arrives escort him to his office. When Henderson finally barges into the upper level of Harlington-Straker Film Studios Straker is conducting film business with a scriptwriter or director. Henderson attempts to bark at Straker, but Straker quickly flips open a cigar box forcing Henderson to perform a voice identification check. Henderson is livid that Moonbase remains defenseless. Straker had his reasons. Henderson submits he should start packing. The I.A.C. will not be pleased.

Unprotected, Moonbase spots an object incoming on Moonbase's location. Straker indicates the UFO is headed straight for S.H.A.D.O. Headquarters. Straker orders a complete shutdown - total radio silence. Hearing everything come to a grinding halt and utter silence is a nice touch in the entry. The silence gives the moment real power. The silence is deafening.

In Straker's office, Henderson demands Foster relieve Straker of his duty, but the young UFO operative proves both his medal and his loyalty to his colleague and superior. Straker dissects the plans of the aliens and their intentions not to leave Moonbase open to attack, but to ultimately attack S.H.A.D.O. Headquarters and its top secret underground facility. This would be its ultimate target. Henderson prays that Straker is wrong and that the UFO is not headed their way. Straker tells Henderson he has time to leave. But they wait. And we wait and we wonder what Straker has in mind. Completely off my radar and here comes Skydiver and Captain Peter Carlin. Carlin delivers the kill shot. Carlin reports the UFO destroyed and instead of Hollywood-styled elation and joy celebrated across the complex in cliche fashion we simply hear the ticking of computers and electronics. It's business as usual and another steely day of resolve for the men and women of S.H.A.D.O.. The moment really magnifies the life and death struggle on UFO and how their lives actually hang in the balance and their mission is endlessly dangerous. It points to the fact they must keep their eyes on the prize and their nose to the grindstone.

Straker tells Foster to prepare the report for Henderson. Henderson actually apologizes. The final minutes are sobering and offer an unexpected handling of events, which makes the conclusion all the more satisfying. Henderson would remain a recurring character and his confrontational, combative style would be, as the title suggests, a source of conflict for Straker and the UFO team.

This is an episode with a real weight to the roles of Straker, Foster and Freeman. The actors bring some fine, understated performances to their work. Conflict offers real evidence that the actors were anything but substitutes for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's puppets, an accusation often levied upon the live action series. Such leveled criticisms were wholly unfair and the more you invest in UFO the more you understand the frustration of its leading proponent actor Ed Bishop who felt UFO was something much more.

There was a real chemistry between the triumvirate of UFO channeling a bit of the William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly magic from Star Trek: The Original Series. Authors Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn discuss an element of that collaboration in What Made Thunderbirds Go! The Official Biography Of Gerry Anderson. Regarding the coupling of George Sewell and Ed Bishop, "Gerry hoped to recapture the on-screen chemistry he had noted when the actors had shared an important scene in Doppelganger." Apart from some fine thespian turns those gents are fairly sharp dressed men to boot. They can do Nehru better than Jawaharlal Nehru did in India.

Conflict: C. Writer: Ruric Powell. Director: Ken Turner.

Actor Footnote: Grant Taylor [1917-1971]. English born. General James L. Henderson. Taylor would enjoy a recurring role on the UFO series he remembered fondly. He first briefly appeared in Identified. His final appearance would be Mindbender. He graced nine episodes of UFO. He passed away of cancer following UFO in 1971.

Harlington-Straker Film Studios Set Footnote: "From the start Gerry realized that UFO would present a serious financial problem. 'Science fiction sets are notoriously expensive to produce,' he says, 'and I knew that to make high-quality sets for 26 episodes would be financially prohibitive. Rather than compromise on the quality of the sets, I decided to put the organization's headquarters beneath a film studio. This was the first major science fiction set - the only other one was the moonbase. These were used for the entire series. Most of the other sets, such as people's homes or offices, would be no more expensive than conventional sets. We were careful to shoot the exterior scenes in the countryside, where there's nothing to give away the date, and in and around the MGM studio and, later, Pinewood. This way, I hope I was able to maintain a high standard while keeping within the constraints of the budget.'" Authors Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn added, "Gerry spent a day or two filming the exterior and lobby of ATV Elstree at Eldon Avenue in Borehamwood. The building doubled as Harlington-Straker Studios, and the footage was reused in many subsequent episodes." This of course continued even after UFO moved its shooting schedule exclusively to Pinewood Studios following its departure from Borehamwood with Episode 22, The Psychobombs.


jdigriz said...

Great review. For anyone who would call this series "campy" sci-fi, has never seen this episode. Love Straker's nod of the head to sit Foster down. As an adult watching this series I loved as a kid, I can really appreciate the quality of work the main actors brought to their roles.

SFF said...

Thank you.

Isn't that the truth jdigriz?

This isn't camp. People can be thrown off by the colorful wigs etc. but, heck, Star Trek was colorful too and both shows still take on ideas and concepts that are more significant than the campy moments of those latter Lost In Space episodes.

Conflict is deep in governmental beauracracy to boot. That's not camp. That's no joke. Wigs and tights aside, UFO plays it pretty straight.

Thanks for your thoughts.