Friday, 11 May 2018

UFO - ordering the episodes

Following on from the previous article (which you should go and read if you haven't already – it explains a lot of the background to this) I thought I would lay out my preferred viewing order for UFO. It's probably also worth reading my article about the episode order of Space: 1999, which also covers a lot of the issues around the sequencing of film series.

I don't feel that re-ordering UFO is as complex a task as Space: 1999, but there are nevertheless some interesting anomalies that need to be addressed. One thing to note from the start is that the series was filmed in two distinct production blocks: after the first seventeen episodes were completed, filming was suspended for several months while the production relocated to a different studio. As a result of the enforced break, there were a number of cast changes, and also quite a few stylistic differences with what had gone before. Although the show is generally regarded as a single season, I personally feel that the two blocks are so distinct as to regard them as two different seasons.

As with Space: 1999, the default position in fandom these days is to go with production order. This is how the DVDs are arranged – with one exception which we'll come to shortly. For the first block, the production order is as follows:

1.  Identified
2.  Computer Affair
3.  Flight Path
4.  Survival
5.  Exposed
6.  Conflict
7.  The Dalotek Affair
8.  A Question of Priorities
9.  Ordeal
10. The Responsibility Seat
11. The Square Triangle
12. Court Martial
13. Close Up
14. Confetti Check A-O.K.
15. E.S.P.
16. Kill Straker!
17. Sub-Smash

On the DVDs, this order is maintained except for reversing the sequence of Survival and Exposed for “continuity reasons”: Exposed introduces the character of Paul Foster, whereas in Survival he's already a fully-fledged officer in command of the Moonbase. What happened was this: the Andersons had originally cast the Italian actor Franco De Rosa as the Moonbase Commander, but sacked him after a couple of days of filming – apparently because of his “ego and temperament”. Whether that just meant he was a prima donna pain in the arse on the set, and thus holding up the tight shooting schedule of a tv series – or if it's a polite way of saying he couldn't act for toffee – I really couldn't say. It's interesting to note though that De Rosa had also appeared in the Andersons' feature film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, as did many of the subsequent cast members of UFO. He's listed pretty high up the cast list (above both George Sewell and Ed Bishop!) and yet speaks one line and appears for about thirty seconds. He was supposed to the focus of a major subplot that got deleted from the movie – we'll never know why, I guess, but he really doesn't have a good record in Anderson productions. There's probably a lesson there not to just cast someone based on their pretty boy looks alone!

Well anyway, De Rosa was out and that left a hole in the production. With the first several scripts already completed and itching to get into the studio, there was no time to pause production and recast. They managed to cover this for the first few episodes by promoting Gabrielle Drake's character up from a humble Space Tracker to Moonbase Commander, inadvertently making the series more progressive for its time that it was actually intended to be. But the fourth episode was intended to be a sci-fi version of Hell in the Pacific, with the Moonbase Commander stranded on the Moon's surface after a mission goes wrong, and forced to work with an equally stranded alien to survive. It was felt to be an unsuitable role for a female character (so I guess progressiveness only goes so far!) – and the solution was to write in a different male character to take on the more macho functions that had been envisaged for De Rosa. By now, they've had time to cast new actor Michael Billington, and Survival can get straight into the studio with the name Paul Foster hastily scribbled onto the script.

The problem is, Foster isn't just a background Interceptor pilot, he's destined to be a major character, and since he wasn't featured in the opening episode, the producers decide he needs to have his own specific introductory episode. The answer is to pull forward an upcoming script about an investigative journalist who gets too close to the heart of the SHADO set-up and has to be dealt with; give it a few tweaks so that Foster becomes the lead character, a test pilot who witnesses a UFO incident, investigates what's going on, and eventually gets the chance to join SHADO. The hasty rewrite perhaps explains why the title Exposed, which would have been appropriate to the investigative journalist storyline, doesn't make a lot of sense any more.

Well, that explains why Exposed needs to be viewed out of production order – but I still find the simple reversal of episodes 4 and 5 unsatisfactory. Exposed ends with Foster about to start his SHADO training. Even if he's being fast-tracked through the process under Straker's sponsorship, you'd think that some time ought to elapse before he's ready to take charge of Moonbase. The obvious answer is to move Exposed back to be the second episode – since it's specifically designed to be viewed out of sequence, why not go the whole hog? Then Foster is introduced to the series as soon as possible, and is plausibly absent for the next couple of episodes. During that absence, we also get to establish the character of Lieutenant Ellis as Moonbase Commander before she's unceremoniously replaced by Foster for a few episodes. (I'll talk a bit more about that later.) There's even a scene in Exposed where Straker, concerned about slow interception times, tells Freeman to make inspections of Moonbase to improve their efficiency – something we actually see him doing in Computer Affair.

The next major issue I have is with Confetti Check A-O.K. It's a flashback episode showing the early days of setting up SHADO and the disintegration of Straker's marriage. Now in a modern arc-based show, you might have a reason for featuring a flashback episode so late in the season, in that it might be the pay-off to unexplained character behaviours earlier in the show. In UFO, it's simply the case that the producers thought A Question of Priorities worked really well, and wanted to explore more of the background to Straker's character. Due to the episodic nature of an ITC film series, neither episode particularly depends on the other. You can watch A Question of Priorities as a self-contained piece, since all the information you need is there in the episode – likewise, Confetti Check A-O.K. can be viewed on its own. But viewing the two episodes as a pair does deepen one's emotional involvement in the story of either. As to which way round they should be seen – well, as I've said, there's no particular revelatory reason for placing Confetti Check later on. I personally feel that seeing it earlier in the series gives more emotional depth to A Question of Priorities, as we already know what Straker has been through to get to that point. It's an individual preference, but I would drop Confetti Check back to the fourth slot. (It also helps to pad out the “Foster in training” gap.)

These are the two big changes I would make. Otherwise the production order is broadly sensible, though I would make a few minor tweaks here and there to aid the flow of the narrative. One of the notable things about the show is its large semi-regular cast of SHADO operatives. Not everyone is in every episode, but that helps to sell the idea of a large military organization, where people could be on leave or re-assigned (or even, we might be left to imagine, killed during an off-screen mission). Occasionally, a character fills a different position to his regular assignment, usually a temporary secondment as a mission specialist – such as when Gay Ellis and Mark Bradley take part in Freeman's ground mission in Computer Affair; Lieutenant Masters works on the long-range camera probe in Close Up; or Nina Barry is assigned to the Skydiver mission in Sub-Smash. The only character who gets permanently re-assigned to a new role is Lew Waterman, initially an Interceptor pilot, and later promoted to Captain of Skydiver. And yet, after his first two episodes in charge of the submarine, he suddenly reappears as an astronaut in The Square Triangle – I suspect because stock footage of an interception was used. Now, I'm perfectly happy with characters changing jobs during the series, but I find it jarring to see Waterman yo-yoing back and forth. The simple solution here is to shuffle The Square Triangle up slightly to place it before Ordeal.

Paul Foster is the exception to this pattern, as he bounces around through different roles depending on the episode. I see Foster as being utilized by Straker in a troubleshooter role, being sent into the most complex and dangerous situations as the “man on the ground”. So, for instance, in Ordeal he's stationed aboard Skydiver because it's Lew Waterman's first tour as Captain, and Foster is there to oversee the transition in command. He also replaces Gay Ellis as commander of Moonbase for several episodes – although Ellis comes back in later episodes, which is not something that usually happens. As it's a film series, we don't get any explanation within the narrative for why Foster has replaced her – (I've discussed the real world reasons earlier) – one of the novelizations suggests that Ellis has contracted a cold whilst on leave, and is thus forbidden from space travel, which is as good an explanation as any. Later, in The Responsibility Seat, Foster is doing another tour on Moonbase whilst Gay Ellis remains in command. A little narrative oddity occurs between E.S.P. and Kill Straker! The former ends with Foster preparing to depart for a tour on Moonbase, and the latter opens with him on his way back to Earth, the tour concluded. So to help smooth the narrative flow, I'd move The Responsibility Seat between these two episodes, creating a little arc for Foster's second Moonbase tour.

Going back to those three episodes where Foster is Moonbase Commander, it's interesting to note that The Dalotek Affair is done as a flashback – Foster recounting to Freeman events that happened “six months ago”. To sell this better, I would move Flight Path (a Foster-free episode) between Conflict and The Dalotek Affair. This would suggest that Foster has been on leave following his stint on Moonbase, and is meeting up with Freeman prior to resuming his duties.

So, with those adjustments, we're left with an order like this:

1.  Identified
2.  Exposed
3.  Computer Affair
4.  Confetti Check A-O.K.
5.  Survival 
6.  Conflict
7.  Flight Path
8.  The Dalotek Affair
9.  A Question of Priorities
10. The Square Triangle
11. Ordeal
12. Court Martial
13. Close Up
14. E.S.P.
15. The Responsibility Seat
16. Kill Straker!
17. Sub-Smash

The second block is going to take a lot more work. Several cast members have left, most notably George Sewell and Gabrielle Drake – and the producers also decided to streamline the series, eliminating many of the semi-regular characters. This does unfortunately mean that there are a few more instances of characters incongruously popping up in different operational roles (I guess because there are fewer actors to go round) – and this isn't something that can be smoothed away quite so easily with an episode reshuffle. The production order is as follows:

18. The Sound of Silence
19. The Cat with Ten Lives
20. Destruction
21. The Man Who Came Back
22. The Psychobombs
23. Reflections in the Water
24. Timelash
25. Mindbender
26. The Long Sleep

I certainly find it disconcerting to have the two most bizarre episodes, Timelash and Mindbender back-to-back like that – you'd really want to spread that much weirdness out more.

The Sound of Silence, with its minimal cast and relatively straightforward (for UFO) alien abduction plot, serves as a nice transitional episode between the blocks – you'd certainly notice the absence of Alec Freeman, but it's not as bad as having a new second-in-command already in post without an introduction. (We'll save that for the next episode.)

The second block's most obvious cast change is that Virginia Lake, the scientist who designed SHADO's tracking system way back in the first episode, is now filling the Freeman role. Meanwhile, the absence of Lieutenant Ellis sees Nina Barry promoted into the role of Moonbase Commander. But there's one episode which seems to be based on a completely different format, and that's The Man Who Came Back. In this episode, the second-in-command role is filled by the character of Colonel Grey, much more obvious as a straight replacement for Freeman; and Virginia Lake is serving as Moonbase Commander, and seems to have been in the role for a while. She also has a relationship with Paul Foster – himself on another Moonbase tour – although given that this is never mentioned again, and the two continue working together in future episodes without any animosity, we can probably assume it was brief and ended amicably.

Because of these differences, I'd actually suggest this episode should be moved right after The Sound of Silence. So, in this narrative, Virginia Lake is initially assigned to be Moonbase Commander as replacement for Lieutenant Ellis – my thinking is that she might be overseeing a major upgrade to the tracking systems, which is her area of expertise after all – and Colonel Grey is most definitely replacing Freeman. It's only after the events of this episode that Grey – presumably – moves to a different role; Virginia (once her Moonbase tour is complete) takes over the second-in-command position; and Nina Barry is permanently promoted to command of Moonbase. It certainly feels a more natural progression than having established characters jumping back and forth through assignments. (As a side note, I will note that Nina does seem to be serving as Moonbase Commander in The Sound of Silence, but it's easy enough to assume she's just filling in until the new permanent Commander arrives.)

Timelash features Straker picking Virginia Lake up from the airport upon her return from Moonbase – and they talk about it as if it's a new experience for her. So in keeping with the narrative structure I've suggested above, I think this episode needs to be placed right after The Man Who Came Back. In effect, it means we get two episodes with Virginia before she officially takes up that second-in-command role. I also think that The Psychobombs should be seen next – it may just be me, but I always feel that Virginia's reaction to Straker's single-mindedness indicates that she's still getting used to seeing his command style at close quarters. So I would place those three episodes between The Sound of Silence and The Cat with Ten Lives to form an arc reintroducing Virginia Lake to the series.

(I would be remiss if I didn't point out the flaw in this scheme. In The Cat with Ten Lives and The Man Who Came Back, Straker has a temporary replacement secretary, Miss Holland. There's a scene in The Cat with Ten Lives clearly intended to introduce the character, where Straker thanks her for standing in – and indeed, his regular secretary Miss Ealand later returns. In my re-ordering, we unfortunately meet Miss Holland in The Man Who Came Back, then we get Miss Ealand back in Timelash, then we have Miss Holland again in The Cat with Ten Lives and only here does Straker acknowledge her. It is a little jarring, but I consider it the lesser of two evils compared to trying to smooth Virginia Lake's reintroduction to the series – and creating a more plausible narrative for the major characters. There it is. There's no reason why Straker shouldn't have a relief secretary from time to time, and maybe Miss Holland had been there a while in The Man Who Came Back – but only recently returned for a second stint in The Cat with Ten Lives.)

The other change I'd suggest is to move Mindbender slightly earlier, and the reason for this goes back to that same problem of character continuity from the first block. Lew Waterman is briefly seen as Captain of Skydiver in Mindbender, through the use of stock footage once again – whereas we establish a new (unnamed) Captain in Destruction, played by David Warbeck. There's a little bonus though: we've now spread out Timelash, Mindbender (and indeed The Long Sleep) – the most “trippy” episodes.

So, we're left with this sequence:

18. The Sound of Silence
19. The Man Who Came Back
20. Timelash
21. The Psychobombs
22. The Cat with Ten Lives
23. Mindbender
24. Destruction
25. Reflections in the Water
26. The Long Sleep

Alternatively, you could reverse the last two episodes. I like to give to give myself the choice, depending on my mood at the time, between concluding the series with a bleak, downbeat character piece (The Long Sleep) or with a large-scale battle against massed UFOs (Reflections in the Water). Of course neither is a proper conclusion in the narrative sense, because this is an ITC film series – the story just goes on forever...