Gerry Anderson’s UFO = culture shock

Gerry Anderson (1929–2012) was Britain’s version of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Anderson’s TV sci fi is just as iconic as anything Roddenberry ever made. In the 1960s, Anderson became famous for making futuristic TV shows such as Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.

The big difference between the two men is that many of Anderson’s most well known productions starred animated puppets. However, Anderson also used real life actors on occasion. His live action shows include Space 1999 and UFO, made in 1975–1976 and 1970–1971 respectively.

I’ve seen some of Space 1999 and know that it’s good. So, I decided to put off watching it and start with UFO. This series is set in early 1980s Britain and tells the story of a secret government organisation engaged in fighting off aliens. The aliens are coming to Earth to kidnap people and harvest their organs for transplant.

I had some difficulty settling into the first episode because of the characters’ costumes. The female staff at a base on the Moon wear identical purple wigs, shiny silver mini-dresses with shiny silver ankle boots, and silver catsuits. They also have very heavy make up around their eyes. I was so busy wondering why they were dressed like that I didn’t listen to anything they said.

On Earth, the characters’ clothes are a more reasonable prediction of future fashions. The men wear collarless suit jackets buttoned up at the front. Clothing for men and women is very tight fitting.

I’m finding it difficult to watch 1970s and 1980s science fiction TV without looking for cultural differences between our time and the time of production. As L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

The 1970s and 1980s are close enough to us to still be responsible for many people’s attitudes and memories. I can’t help thinking of people I know who were adults in those decades and wondering, did all that seem normal to you? And even, does it still seem normal to you?

My impression of the first episode of UFO is that it was probably made with straight male viewers in mind. The women’s Moonbase costumes might as well have had “something for the dads” written all over them.

The last new science fiction TV show I watched was Star Trek: Discovery season four. At the time, I complained mightily about the counselling-session style dialogue. However, with its fully individualised female characters, Discovery is a stark contrast to episode 1 of UFO.

I’m sure there’s lots to admire about UFO so I’ll keep going with it. I’ll put my reaction to episode 1 down to culture shock.

The past was different, that’s what makes history so interesting. We’re a lucky generation because television gives us an in-depth insight into 20th-century history. It really is as good as reading a classic novel to find out about the 19th century.

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