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It's a Bird! It's a Plane! No, it's UFO!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (©2006 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine

 

When I was a kid in summer camp, one of the spookiest things that ever happened to me was listening to ghost stories around the camp fire. Suddenly, someone pointed up and whispered, "Hey look! UFOs!" We all craned our heads heavenward and saw two distant orange objects travel parallel to one another, then abruptly turn at right angles and quickly disappear. We were momentarily speechless. When the conversation resumed, the subject changed to flying saucers and alien abductions. And that's when we started getting really scared.

Needless to say, we didn't get much sleep that night. Everyone was afraid we would wake up in space. Decades later, I rationalized what we saw were jets so high that they still reflected the sunset even though the surface below was cloaked in darkness. But that's only a theory devised by an older and more cynical me. I had an entirely different attitude in 1972 when an amazing new series began airing on TV. It was called simply, UFO.

The show's creator/producer was Gerry Anderson, the mastermind behind Saturday morning marionette programs like Supercar, Fireball XL-5, Stringray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet & The Mysterions. Those programs also had sci-fi themes, usually involving super-cars, spaceships, super-subs, supped-up jets, or a combination of all four. The secret headquarters were usually hidden underground or floating on a cloud somewhere, and there was often a corny love interest. The marionettes almost always had unnaturally large heads and big eyes that actually blinked. (That was the eeriest part of the program!) Anyone who saw the hilarious Team America can relate to how weird those marionettes were (although Captain Scarlet and crew were much more realistic than the rest).

Gerry Anderson never intended on making marionette shows. He dreamed of making movies. But he was conned into making a kid's puppet show called Twizzle, and then another called Torchy The Battery Boy, and then, the first ever marionette western, Four Feather Falls. They were all successful in the UK.

Of course, there's a big difference between puppets and marionettes. Puppets fit on the hand, but marionettes are operated by strings. Anderson's marionettes were suspended by wires that could trigger machinery hidden within the marionette. These wires activated the mouth as the actors spoke, achieving perfect synchronization with the dialogue. Anderson dubbed this improvement "Super-marionation."

Anderson went even farther to achieve realism. He worked with special effects experts like Brian Johnson, who in later years created the effects for Aliens. He also worked with Derek Meddings, who did effects for the James Bond films and the first two Superman movies. These experiences and contacts came in very handy in 1972 when Anderson was finally offered the opportunity to produce a live action series. True, it still wasn't the movies, but at least it was a chance to film real humans (and of course, aliens).

The resulting program was terrifying for a ten year old, and yet, hilarious for a modern adult audience. It has come out on DVD and is addictive to watch. How does one describe the indescribable? It's like Austin Powers meets The Wild Wild West... in space! Only 26 episodes were made, and it's tempting to watch them all in a model marionette marathon!

For starters, all the actors are real. It's only the jets, super-subs, space ships and tank-mobiles that use the marionette technology. Critics complained that the actors acted wooden. That's not too surprising, since their boss was, after all, used to directing glorified puppets.

The premise was pretty intriguing. The time is the distant future... meaning, just ten years later, in 1980. Because during the groovy 1970s, it seemed like 1980 would be the dawning of the new age. (Lost In Space, for example, was supposed to take place in 1984!) Everyone wears far out clothing and hip hair cuts, and drives sleek cars. But Earth has a problem. It's being invaded by flying saucers with aliens who abduct our citizens for some unknown purpose. Does Mars need women? Hold on to your antenna, because as the story unfolds, the answer is pretty disturbing!

A super sophisticated counter-invasion force is set up in secret (because the public would go bananas if they were told Earth was under attack by green skinned aliens.) This defense force is called S.H.A.D.O (Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defense Organization). It's led by Ed Straker (Ed. Bishop). He's a no-nonsense guy who barks commands to everyone and pretends to be a film director as his "cover". His second in command is Col. Alec Freeman (George Sewell). This guy had pits all over his face from childhood acne, so logically, he must have assumed all the girls thought he was really hot. He's always making suggestive remarks, putting his hands on the hands of the assistants, or raising his eyebrows as some blond walks down the hall and swings her rear end. (Yeah! Go baby, go!) Where is the EEO when you need them?

To prove they're not all sexists, there's also Lt. Gay Ellis (Gabrille Drake). No, she's not "gay" gay, because she secretly loves the first black man on the moon. This is where the audience gets its civil rights message and is reminded just how advanced we've become in the 1980s. She also does a strip tease in the very first episode, right in front of her staff! But alas, it turns out she was behind a one way mirror when she disrobed, so the staff will never really know what kind of woman lurks beneath the aluminum colored patent-leather space skirt.

She also wears a purple wig, just like all the other women on "Moonbase". Why? Who knows. But it conjures up creepy comparisons to the same type of warped fashions used in A Clockwork Orange.

The bizarre clothing is just one of the funny aspects of the show. Captain Peter Karlin (Peter Gordeno) was a popular English singer and he played the super-sub captain. Whenever an UFO makes it to Earth, he-- the captain of the ship-- abandons the sub and slides into the nose-cone. He then blasts off into the sky and pilots the amphibious fighter jet. (I guess the rest of the crew goofs-off or has a party while he's gone.) Their uniforms are absolutely hysterical. The tops are all fish nets (Get it? Submarine + Ocean = Fish nets?) Nobody wears any undershirts so we get teased with plenty of skin. Even the women wear the see-through fish net tops, but they might have some sort of bikini on underneath. It's flesh colored, so audiences can never be quite sure!

Besides the flying sub, there are also space ship interceptors dispatched from Moonbase to torpedo the UFOs on their way to Earth. They are alerted by SID (Space Intruder Detector) a computerized satellite that talks and warns us whenever an uninvited space guest is enroute. (Don't ask why the aliens never blow up SID. They plot against nearly everything else except the one thing that would have blinded our defenses.)

And those aliens. They're green alright, but only because they breath green liquid to help them survive traveling at twelve times the speed of light. The dye stains their skin green. They also wear hard contact lens to protect their eyes, but they are otherwise human in every other way. In fact, we discover to our horror, that the reason they are here is because they are sterile and dying. They need humans for organ transplants, so they can live hundreds of years! (And you thought Predator was ruthless.)

So among this odd blend of gruesome horror and unintentional humor, the entire series unfolds. The DVD reissue is well worth viewing, and equally enjoyable is the card series produced by Cards, Inc. Despite being two years old, this series is pretty tough to find in the USA (like the TV series, it was made in the UK). There's 100 cards in the basic set. It's divided up into ten character cards, three complex (S.H.A.D.O, Moonbase, SID) cards, seven vehicle cards (the spaceships and such), and the remaining 78 profile all 26 episodes of the series (plus a title card and checklist).

In addition to the base set, there's a 100 foil card parallel set. There's also a nine card "Future Fashions" sub set. (Gerry took pride in his ridiculous fashions, and he crows about them in the commentary section of the DVD. His wife designed them so you could say he had little choice but to brag about them.)

The checklist claims there are nine different autograph cards, including Gerry Anderson, Ed Bishop, Michael Billington (who played Col. Paul Foster, a test pilot who tries to expose-- but ends up joining-- S.H.A.D.O.), Stuart Myres (an Alien), Shane Rimmer (Bill Johnson-- whoever that was), Wanda Ventham (she played Virginia Lake, a S.H.A.D.O. technical specialist that Col. Alec Freeman sexually harassed, but she ended up sleeping with Col. Paul Foster instead. She is eventually promoted to-- you guessed it-- a Col. You go girl!)

Be aware that there's an autograph that only came with the album (250 made) signed by Mike Trim, one of the designers and model makers.

There's also two costume cards, including one with part of Commander Ed Straker's unisex jumpsuit. (What a stud.) Finally, there's also a "dual costume & Autograph card".

If you liked the UFO TV series, you'll also enjoy the cards. And if you haven't seen either, you owe it to yourself to at least check them out. After UFO, Anderson went on to produce Space 1999, but that series lacked much of the humor and horror that made UFO so unique. For fans of the weird and wild, UFO was definitely out of this world.

 

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