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A great book about a great series,
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This review is from: The Complete Book of Gerry Anderson's UFO (Paperback)
I was saddened over Christmas to read of the passing of Gerry Anderson, whose name fronted some stunning programmes I and many generations of children around the world grew up watching.
UFO was Anderson's first foray into live action following a successful run of puppet series and it is only now(having watched the series recently on DVD) that I see the adult quality compared to, say, Thunderbirds. As such I would like to use this opportunity to not only review Chris Bentley's book, but the series as a whole.
I recall UFO initially being shown in the Saturday teatime slot on London Weekend Television in 1971 (it clashed with Dr Who on BBC1 for a while!) To me as a 5 year old it was an action series and the scenes of the interceptors launching or the SHADO Mobiles moving through woodland all seemed very real and made a great impression on me. A number of scenes from certain episodes remained with me for years: the Aliens shooting at SHADO troops from behind trees in a pine forest, a frightened Lieutenant Nina Barry crawling through the ducting of a Skydiver and, most vividly, Paul Foster, after having being kidnapped by the Aliens and fitted with one of their space suits, vomitting green liquid out of his lungs as they removed his helmet.
Episode endings were rarely optimistic: whereas on Thunderbirds, there would be some tomfoolery between the Tracey brothers, a typical episode of UFO concluded with a solemn-looking Ed Straker seated behind his desk, contemplating how much more there was learn in the combat against the Aliens. A couple of episodes - A Question of Priorities and Confetti Check AOK - I find disturbing as they illustrate to what extremes Straker was prepared to go for the sake of his job, the price being his family. SHADO, as a number of episodes showed, was an obsession with Straker.
I first watched repeats of the series more than 15 years later and it was here that I first realised weaknesses. In particular the latter episodes tended to rely on surreal and drug-induced plotlines that were a side step away from the tension and drama of the earlier episodes, surpassing that of even Anderson's puppet series. Also a couple of plotlines stretched credibility somewhat: in The Square Triangle, an Alien intrudes in a house where a couple having an affair are conveniently waiting to kill the woman's husband. And in A Question of Priorities, the Alien takes refuge in the house of a blind woman, thereby removing any shock for her.
Generally, though, the series with it's convincing combination of live and model action was good and is worth a rewatch every few years.
And so to Chris Bentley's book, published in 2003, more than 30 years after the initial screening of UFO, a period in which sci-fi themes and particularly those on the TV landscape have changed dramatically. This could have made the book a purely retrospective tribute to UFO, but the author has brought us up to date with how UFO is received in the digital age.
The book is just short of 180 pages, which is by no means a criticism as UFO lasted only 26 episodes, so does not warrant an encyclopedic reference work worthy of say, Star Trek. The book is by no means too short but is very detailed and thorough (I can't tell if there are any relevant facts overlooked!) Getting Ed Bishop to write the forword must have been the icing on the cake for Mr Bentley. I like the incorporating of suitable episode titles into chapter headings.
Chapter 1 - Close Up opens with Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade - who was responsible for bringing many of Anderson's creations to the small screen - sitting in a darkened screening theatre watching, not the first episode of UFO, but that of it's little known predecessor The Secret Service. This series is very much at the bottom of a list of Anderson's series, though Mr Bentley goes into detail about the film Doppelgänger, which in many ways precursed UFO, notably in featuring bit parts for Ed Bishop and George Sewell - key actors in UFO.
The author does not overlook the input into UFO by other members of Gerry Anderson's staff, in particular visual effects expert Derek Meddings and model designer Mike Trim, both responsible for the various stunning vehicles featured in the series, especially the Interceptor and the SID satellite. Of course, it is hard not to overlook the contribution of Gerry Anderson's wife Sylvia, who virtually single-handedly designed the costumes for the show. I think the word "style" springs to mind when describing the visual content of UFO as a whole and this definately comes across in the final product.
The show's trademark was undoubtedly the model shots which like those of virtually every other Gerry Anderson show, are second to none and are very realistic for the times they were made. For me the illusion is only shattered here, as I saw photos of production staff holding Inteceptors and Skydivers under the glare of studio spotlights! But that's what behind-the-scenes is all about I guess. One gets the impression that there was little or no tension between all involved in the show's production, be they actor, cameraman or director.
The only real stumbling block for UFO came as MGM British Studios closed down and production was halted before resuming at Pinewood. The biographies of the chief actors are thorough enough. Chapter 3 - Exposed takes the form of a dossier detailing the formation of SHADO, the equipment and vehicles it uses and the personnel involved. In comparison to the pre-production section, this is interesting as Ed Bishop, born in Brooklyn. suddenly becomes Ed Straker, born in Boston, Mass. The most detailed chapter is Screened, a guide to all 26 episodes of UFO. Interestingly, here the author provides no rating system or gives a critical analysis of each episode, but instead provides objective plot outlines, information about guest cast ( it is interesting how many of them can be cross-referenced to other shows of the era, in particular The Saint and The Avengers) locations and major equipment seen. The bloopers are (unfortunately) plenty in number, the most common one being the repeating of certain scenes in other episodes.
Judging by the episode orders section, each ITV region at the time was a law unto themselves when it came to programme scheduling of the series. As the author points out, programme schedulers were undecided at the time as to whether UFO was aimed at an adult or a children's audience. This had a knock-on effect on the merchandisers trying to promote the series.
Probably the most interesting chapter of all for me is the final one: Survival which notably gives details of the Dinky Toy models produced during the series intial run. Upon receiving the book in 2007, this was the first part I turned to as I was anxcious to see the Inteceptor once again and, sure enough, there is a small photograph of the model, flanked by those of the SHADO 2 Mobile and Straker's car. Great stuff! There was never a gift I had wished for for Christmas quite as much before or since as the Inteceptor and I have never forgotten the pleasure at 5 1/2 years old of opening it on Christmas morning 1971. I gather there is a book dedicated purely to the models manufactured for Gerry Anderson's programmes which must be quite fascinating.
The author tells us why a second series of UFO was started but never finished and what became of the pre producion work done on it.
Finally, the book concludes with a section about repeat showings of UFO and how the series has now been brushed down, updated and is now available in HD quality for the digital age.
My criticism of this book was pointed out by another reviewer, which is the absence of colour photographs. As illustrated as it is, a book on such a colourful series deserved equally coloured photos. I assume cost was an overriding factor here. All in all though, well done to Chris Bentley and to all who helped put the book together. I think it will go someway towards helping future generations to appreciate the fantastic contribution Gerry Anderson made to the world of TV entertainment.
Gerry Anderson RIP.