February 18th, 2008

Brad @ Burning Man

My Favorite Retro-Future

Many of my friends know that I've been mildly obsessed, for quite some time now, with a one-season TV show whose network lost faith in it and yanked the plug before any of the important questions got answered, one with a talented international cast and a very unique look, with beautiful costuming and art direction unlike any other science fiction that's been put on the screen, big screen or little screen. What, you thought I meant Firefly? Nah. I liked that, thought it was great, am glad I saw it all, and I showed it to a lot of you, yes. But now that it's largely all wrapped up, by a sequel that I admit (in hindsight) was almost as poorly made as V: The Final Battle, I'm pretty much done with it. No, I have a much older one-season-wonder SF TV show obsession, one I only just managed to catch up with completely, one that I think is going to last much longer for me: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's 1969/70 ITV series UFO.

I've had the complete UFO tv series on my Amazon wishlist ever since they came out with it, The Complete UFO Megaset. But the list price used to be much higher, and used copies harder to find; I only finally got a copy of my own during the Christmas season, and only a couple of weeks ago did phierma and cos_x and I finish watching them all in sequence. I literally hadn't seen any of these since the local PBS affiliate briefly ran the series late evenings when I was still a kid back in the mid 1970s, so I was a little nervous about whether or not it would hold up. To my pleasant surprise, seeing it now 30+ years later and as an adult, it holds up even better than I remembered. When you compare it to what our other choices were circa 1969, say the famously awful third season of the original Star Trek, it's nothing less than amazing. But even if you aren't willing to cut it some slack for the fact that TV production values have gotten higher, that TV writers have gotten better at writing convincing dialog, that some TV directors have learned many new tricks since 1969 for affordable ways to make really compelling film, I think this series still has the potential to hook you, for a reason that ought to be near and dear to the heart of any science fiction fan: it asks a really interesting question, and takes the answers to that question very seriously.

The premise is that, just as we remember history, there have been UFO sightings since the mid 1940s, and historical records of everything from unexplained fireballs to "chariots of the gods" that could be UFO sightings back prior to that. But the series starts with some events set in 1969, when a small UFO lands in a heavily wooded northern English park of some kind, and the space-suited pilot gets out and kills two of three picnickers with a strange rifle and kidnaps the third, leaving without a trace ... except for one. For the first time, one of the victims of a UFO attack had been running a home movie camera all through the beginning of the attack, and the alien(s) didn't find it. His film fell into the hands of NATO intelligence, and now NATO has to answer the question "now what do we do?" We have one verified attack by extra-terrestrials on Earth. One tiny attack, yes, but who knows how many attacks go on every year and we don't know, since the UFOs seem to be completely undetectable and the aliens pretty good about sweeping up evidence? So two USAF officers assigned to NATO in England, one of them an ex-astronaut, set out to convince the UN Security Council, in secret sessions, that this could be the reconnaissance phase of a much larger invasion to come. If it is, we're completely outclassed. So our first priority has to be coming up with some way to detect and intercept incoming alien craft, no matter how much it costs. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, despite another alien attack suspiciously targeted at those two officers, they manage to convince ambassadors for all the permanent security council members to commit to just that: a ten-year plan to fund everything it would take to detect and intercept incoming UFOs.

They set up a plausible cover story, one that turned out to be useful in its own regard. To keep the space program from imploding, they faked up evidence of highly valuable mineral resources on the moon, some of which turned out to actually exist. With an investment bubble in space going, the UN's members agreed to accept and fund an International Astrophysical Commission to keep space demilitarized and to intervene whenever various countries' space ventures conflict with each other, including a small military arm called SHADO. Everybody knows it exists, and years after the space bubble burst many people question whether or not the UN should still be in the space "business," whether the IAC and SHADO are worth their multi-billion-dollar budgets. But like any UN agency, it's got bureaucratic momentum on its side.

So everybody in all the worlds' major militaries knows about SHADO, and know they have to cooperate with it, even when they know that for security reasons and diplomatic reasons they'll never be told exactly which country or company any SHADO operation is aimed at or why. Any journalist who covers the UN beat or the space business beat knows that SHADO exists, suspects it's a bureaucratic boondoggle, and might spend some of their time digging to find where all that money goes, having no more luck investigating the fraud and graft they suspect is the explanation for that huge budget than most journalists have investigating fraud and graft at the UN level, and only the most hard-core paranoids think that that's particularly suspicious. The few corporations that are still doing business beyond earth orbit know that they have to take orders from SHADO as the price of doing business, and are openly grateful that SHADO really mostly doesn't care what they're doing as long as it's civilian and stays well away from SHADO's spacecraft and its Moonbase. (And if anybody does get too close, SHADO also has and will use a drug that erases the last 12 to 18 hours' worth of short-term memories. Unless the person has the potential to fill an important job for which SHADO needs to hire right now.)

After that brief intro set contemporarily in 1969, the rest of the series was set 10 years in the future, starting in 1980, when SHADO finally developed a breakthrough technology involving faster-than-light detection gear that lets them see nearly all UFOs as they enter the solar system in time to intercept them more than half of them before they reach Earth, even though their budget only barely stretched as far as three single-missile moon-based interceptor spacecraft. They catch nearly all of the remainder with a small fleet of (extremely cool-looking) covert submarine aircraft carriers spread across the north Atlantic and the north Pacific. So now, after ten years and billions of dollars, they can finally document just how much danger Earth has been in all this time. And how much of a threat are the aliens? They send one to three ships, every one to four months. Each of those ships kills and/or kidnaps two to three people, apparently for medical and/or scientific purposes. Over the course of the first roughly year of the program, the size of the "invasion" never wavers. And now SHADO has an even bigger problem, one that almost no other SF TV series has thought to address: would the world's governments still think it was worth untold billions of dollars a year and the risk of however many lives on a still-risky space program to prevent maybe a dozen deaths a year? Do we actually have to care that we're being invaded? Or would we be better off spending that money to help people who got burned in the space investment bubble, not to mention all the people who didn't even get that much benefit out of it?

The series asks an even more interesting question than that, too, and this is the one that I was referring to at the beginning of this. All of SHADO, counting their direct civilian supervisor at the UN, amounts to fewer than a thousand people, probably no more than a couple of hundred. They're the only ones who know that Earth is under attack. As part of their ongoing cover story, SHADO has manipulated public opinion to convince the public that the very idea of an inter-stellar invasion force is pathologically silly. So none of those couple of hundred people can tell anybody else where they work for a living, what they do for a living, or why what they're doing matters ... not even when some of them end up dead. Not their friends, not their neighbors, not their own families. OK, we've seen this before. But what Gerry and Sylvia Anderson did better than anybody else, I think, it show you what working at a place like that for 10 years does to you, what kind of weird insular and incestuous culture develops under those conditions, what a hothouse it turns into when the only people you can really talk to are a couple of hundred co-workers. A couple of hundred co-workers who are constantly computer monitored by a spooky and unpopular top-notch Soviet bloc psychiatrist with his computerized psych exams, looking for any sign that you're going to lose it and/or that you'll become a security risk. A place where they can not possibly simply fire you, and where nobody has yet had the guts to find out what Commander Straker would do if you tried to quit. Three or four of the best episodes have no actual alien attacks in them; the whole drama of those three episodes relates to the rather more intense human drama of working at a place like SHADO.

Which is, of course, part of what doomed the show, since what ITV was clearly looking for, when they gave Gerry Anderson the money for his first ever live-action TV show, was "Thunderbirds versus the Flying Saucers." There turns out to be another historical quirk that worked against them: Kirk Kerkorian, the notorious first of the corporate raiders to specialize in taking over profitable companies and looting them of all assets not nailed down for himself and his friends before leaving those companies bankrupt and walking away from their debts, aquired the film studio where UFO was being shot and shut it down in mid season. By the time they got back up to speed at a new studio, they'd lost a third of their actors, including the number two guy and the number one woman on the series. The episodes that come after that break look just as good, and some of them are even a little better written, and they wrap up some of the questions asked early in the series. But sadly, the loss of some of their best actors did the series no favors.

If you've never seen this one, track it down. No, 1980 didn't turn out exactly the way the Andersons thought it would. They did better than most, showing a world where most of the upper middle class and above have car phones, a world where the Cold War is still going on but has reached a level of detente where nobody worries about it much any more, a world where a lot of professional people think the problems of race and gender discrimination have been solved but are then surprised that even some of the most successful black and female officers and business people don't agree. You can let yourself get distracted by the fact that actual 1980 fashion wasn't nearly as glamorous as Sylvia Anderson's designs, by the fact that the tech looks wrong, and by the chronic problem of so much SF TV of just not even caring about the physics of interstellar war and outer space dogfighting. (Particularly in British SF TV, outer space is a remarkably tiny place.) If you look past that, if you simply accept that a world that didn't give up on space travel in the early 1970s might have actually looked more glamorous than the world we got, and look at the series the way I do at this remove, as an alternate history piece? I'd stack it up against any SF ever filmed. Ever. I wish more people knew it well.