Worldbuilding: what UFO – yeah, THAT UFO – teaches writers

Does anybody remember UFO? Gerry Anderson’s first live-action sci-fi series, made around 1970 and set in a modish ‘1980’. A romp of a tale with mysterious green-skinned aliens, a talking satellite named SID, spandex-clad moon women with purple wigs and a heroic alien-fighting commander named Ed Straker.

When I was 8, I used to get Commander Straker haircuts. Not because I asked, but because that’s what the local barber thought was ‘in’ for fair-haired kids.

It’s been released on DVD. I caught up with a few episodes recently and was pleasantly surprised. Barry Gray’s end credit theme, a haunting Ondes Martinot electronic realisation, is not to be missed..But three things particularly impressed me on re-view – with, I think, lessons for writers. One was the way Anderson looked to a world free of bigotry – but not in the ‘future perfect’ Roddenberry sense. Anderson gave it a twist. In his ‘1980’, everybody had truly equal opportunities. But the targets of old biases knew bigotry hadn’t truly gone.Today we have maybe reached that practical point in places. And just as Anderson imagined, the bias remains. Was Anderson prescient? No. But he understood a lot about the human condition. Lesson #1 for writers. Make it believeable by understanding the human condition.

The special effects by Derek Meddings were just fantastic. This was w-a-a-a-a-ay pre-CGI. They didn’t even chroma-key. It was all done with models, backdrops and meticulous attention to detail. And they stand up today. Largely, I think, because of that attention to detail, and the fact that the scenes were being filmed live, not composited from models on blue-screen. Lesson #2 for writers. Attention to detail works.

What impressed me most was the story telling. An object lesson for any writer. The scenario was hokey – Battle of Britain with moon women taking the place of Hugh Dowding’s WAAF’s, coupled with Earth scenes usually set somewhere in southern England near the secret base, despite the world-wide scale of the threat. That could have been awful. But it wasn’t. Anderson came up with stories that – by TV standards of 1970 – tackled edgy themes. Work-life balance; racism; sexism; family values; how people crumble under stress; and how people react when put in the hot seat.

These are universal human experiences that still speak to us today. And that’s what made the series so good. The audience didn’t worry about the contradictory Anderson motifs of extreme secrecy juxtaposed against colossal engineering achievements, the often stilted dialogue and the overstated stage acting styles of 1960s TV. (“Did anyone order a LARGE HAM?”)  Today that same human story aspect allows us to get over the excruciating set and costume designs – up-to-the-minute 60’s mod that’s dated faster than last week’s cheese sandwiches. Disbelief is well suspended in UFO, and it’s done through the human story. Lesson #3 for writers. Story counts – and it has to be about people.

Not bad lessons from a show that was mis-scheduled on Brit TV – mistaken for another Anderson kiddy model-and-explosion show – and canned after the first season.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

8 comments on “Worldbuilding: what UFO – yeah, THAT UFO – teaches writers

  1. ljclayton says:

    I bet no one ever asked for that haircut.

  2. Shauna says:

    wow, those are some great lessons. :)

    I’ve never actually seen the series, but I think I need to find myself a copy!

  3. Bev Robitai says:

    I remember watching UFO! All Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s productions were meticulous and they created a whole new way of doing special effects. I can’t remember specifics of the stories but I know they were entertaining and satisfying to watch. And Ed Straker was hot!

  4. Nobody had seen anything like the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson shows before…or since. They split, fractiously, during “Space 1999″. Apparently Anderson (now over 80) is remaking “Thunderbirds” in CGI. One of the first things I ever remember watching on TV was “Thunderbirds”.

  5. I have not thought about that show in years. I don’t remember a lot about it other than I watched religiously.

    • I did too, when I could – it wasn’t really a kids’ show and I was 8 or 9 when it showed in NZ. At that age I entirely missed the deeper content – but the special effects were always neat. The DVD set has a great recent commentary by Anderson about just how good those effects were – he was clearly really proud of what they achieved back then.

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