Thursday, January 19, 2017

Invasion UFO

By Jerry Chandler

It was the 1970s, and British television icon Gerry Anderson (he of Captain Scarlet and Space: 1999 fame) introduced the world to his vision of Earth fighting a desperate war against an alien invasion in the far future of 1980. The show, called simply enough, UFO, had everything the young and young at heart viewers could possibly want. There were UFOs, aliens, high tech combat vehicles for the Earth’s defense forces, a covert military organization, a moon base, and girls with purple hair.

Unfortunately, what it didn’t have was reliably solid writing and directing. The 26 episodes were wildly uneven with some dragging badly from what felt like stretching a 20-minute idea into 45 minutes of program and others feeling like they were just plain old poorly written. However, when an episode worked it really worked. A number of episodes, sadly not the majority of them, were done well enough that they still stand up fairly well even today. While the overall uneven quality of the series brought about its end before its story was finished, the better episodes allowed it a new life in a different form. They made a sort of movie out of them. They chopped up several episodes, spliced bits and pieces together, added a really funky theme on top if the existing score, and packaged the end result as Invasion UFO for international distribution.

In 1974 ITC Entertainment (whose intro/logo music for their productions should be familiar to any listeners of The White RocketPodcast) took large sections of the episodes Identified, The Computer Affair, and Reflections in Water as well as a few smaller segments and flashback scenes from E.S.P., The Man Who Came Back, and Confetti Check A-O.K. and merged them into one complete and surprisingly coherent story. It even created something the original series lacked- an actual ending for the invasion storyline. While it was released in Germany shortly after it was put together, it wasn’t until 1980 that it saw a release in the US. This was largely thanks to the new, growing, content hungry cable industry and superstations like WGN, WOR, and WTBS.

The story for Invasion UFO was as follows: An unsuspecting world is coming out of the 1960s and moving into the 1970s as an alien race has turned their attention on us. The early UFO attacks are quick and clean, going largely unnoticed by the general population. All they leave in their wake is destruction and mutilated bodies. But they are being noticed. A secret emergency meeting with various representatives from around the world is called to address the growing threat of alien invasion. However, the convoy delivering General Henderson to the meeting is attacked by a UFO. This leaves his Jr. Officer Ed Straker- played by Ed Bishop, the one human being who may have looked more like a marionette than the actual marionettes used in the typical Gerry Anderson production -to pitch S.H.A.D.O. (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) to the world leaders. The meeting is a success, and the secret organization approved. The one caveat being that it will take them ten long years to build the organization to full strength.

The story jumps ten years forward to 1980, and we see S.H.A.D.O. as an up and running organization. The first mission we see showcases a wide range of what they’ve been building over the last decade. We get to see a supersonic transport jet, the moon base launching interceptor ships, an A.I. watchdog satellite, and a submarine that launches a fighter jet. This also gives us a first look at the aliens, and a captured alien ends up confirming a dark secret that the people in charge of S.H.A.D.O. have suspected for some time. From there the encounters grow in number and scale leading to a final battle with the fate of the Earth hanging in the balance. 

The husband and wife team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had spent the better part of a decade making a name for themselves with their Supermarionation shows, so the one thing a show like UFO was going to have in spades was quality miniature work. This allowed them to be a little more ambitious with some story concepts on the show, and that gave them some great stuff to work with in the streamlined Invasion UFO.

Invasion UFO was my first introduction to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO, and I think it’s probably the best way to be introduced to it. By taking large segments from three of the better written episodes, they were able to make a solid story with multiple plotlines running in and out of the main narrative they created out of the old. But that was really just the icing on the cake to many of my friends and me back in the day. The enjoyable story certainly made it watchable, but by our perspectives the thing that made it awesome was the vehicles. Chief among them for many people was Skydiver.

Yup, in a show/movie filled with UFOs, supersonic jets, and space launched interceptor fighters, the vehicle that a lot of people geeked out over was a submarine that launched its nose section as a plane. That’s not to say the other vehicles didn’t have their rabid fans and weren’t loved. They were all cool, but Skydiver just seemed to be the thing that got most people’s geek up to geek out.

That may be because, despite Invasion UFO’s darker moments, it was a fun TV movie to watch. It was fun, old school science fiction invasion storytelling with more than a dash of daring-do thrown in, and there was something about Skydiver that captured that feeling of fun perfectly. Whether it was sliding into the pilot’s seat, the funky music that played as Sky was launching, or the fact that it was featured so prominently in the dogfights, or all of the above plus more, Skydiver was just one of the coolest science fiction vehicles of its era. 

But every vehicle in and everything about Invasion UFO was perfect for grabbing the imagination of the young and the young at heart and taking it for a cheesy but fun science fiction thrill ride. While it and the show it was put together from have seen a lesser cult following growing over the years, it has a legacy that lived on with fandom in a different form. The Andersons were going to revisit UFO by starting a series following the crew of the moon base after a catastrophic event occurs on the moon. This idea was changed to an original concept that we would all later know as Space: 1999.

Invasion UFO wasn’t perfect, but it was fun, and it would be a worthy addition to anyone’s video library. Unfortunately, the movie edit is only available as a non-digital format on European formatted DVDs and Blu-Ray disks. It can be purchased on Amazon video and other similar services. There’s also a horrible quality rip from an old VHS tape floating around on YouTube. The DVD sets for the series UFO can be found as both used and new items through sellers like Amazon.

Dawn on an era

Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the ESO Pro: The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.

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