Monday, 19 January 2015

Starwars owes a lot to Gerry & Sylvia Anderson

As a kid I grew up on Gerry Anderson's scifi TV programs. I think I saw the pilot for Thunderbirds (that would be 1965, so aged 4) where some kind of vehicle is rescued from a volcano/hot/burning hole before the occupants were incinerated. Thunderbirds was a part of our family time together, where we'd all eat Sunday lunch and watch that week's episode sat round the table after church. We also lapped up Captain Scarlet and Stingray, though these were a little less significant.

A quick peruse of Youtube will tell you that the 1960s was an era of scifi movie-making unparalleled since, undoubtedly driven by the space race and a desire for mankind to aspire to greater things after the devastation of the previous 2 wars. Technology was going to set people free and the good guys would eventually beat the bad guys. Some of the films/series were utterly terrible (Solarnauts is painful to watch) although others that are available (like Logan's run) we absorbed as Saturday evening entertainment in my teenage years.

But I digress.

Gerry Anderson never really wanted to work in 'Supermarionation' as they called the puppets, but did it until he could get a budget that would allow human actors. His first series using real people is the subject of this post.

The British series UFO was filmed in 1969 and 1970: there's a lot of detail on the UFO wiki page. Apparently the first episode was shown in September 1970 in the UK - I would have been 9 at that time, and I've no idea whether I saw it then or not, though it very quickly became a staple of Saturday morning children's TV viewing. Chris doesn't remember the series at all, so I suspect I DID see those early episodes. As the wiki will tell you, it was far from being a series aimed at children, with quite adult themes, seriously sexy women and considerably less scifi happening compared to Thunderbirds. Having said that, the effects were really outstanding for the time and budget, and far less wobbly than the Thunderbirds stuff.

The entire series is available on Youtube, so over Christmas this year I just went ahead and downloaded the lot, to re-live a little childhood. 26 40min episodes (once you skip the music and outro). Quality at 360p isn't exactly stunning, but it's probably just as detailed as it ever was on the tiny TV screens everyone had in those days.

There were several things I recognised as having heard or seen elsewhere, but most striking is the theme and incidental music, which borrows very heavily from early James Bond films. It's a little more sophisticated, a little less twangy, but the roots are un-missable. I also realised that this way of producing tension through rhythm was a part of my early guitar playing too.

Much more subtle, I was seeing again things that had appeared on the big screen in my young adulthood. The Skydiver pilot in his cockpit would look perfectly in place with the X-wing pilots of Starwars, and although I've not yet done a side-by-side comparison, I reckon the helmet designs were borrowed heavily for George Lucas' film.

Is that it?

In episode 16 (Kill Straker) Ed Bishop rolling around in his pyjamas and dressing gown suddenly BECOMES Luke Skywalker - the resemblance is uncanny, if temporary - and it makes me wonder if Lucas saw his hero's appearance in this series, whether he realised it or not.

Then there's something about the vehicles, the acting, the sets and accessories that reminds me of the first Star Wars film, before they got polished and the budgets grew. No-one does anything in isolation, and in an area as reliant on the imagination as scifi, cross-fertilisation of ideas is inevitable and Gerry Anderson was a founding father of scifi on the small screen.

UFO only managed 2 seasons.

There were plans to build bigger sets, have more personnel etc, but the series aged fairly quickly and didn't get funded for a 3rd season. Some of the new sets had been built already, and rather than waste them, they were used for a new series - Space 1999 - that also only ran for a couple of years. This time it wasn't budget issues that killed it, but instead Sylvia and Gerry fell out in a major way, and the show needed them both.

I have mixed feelings about downloading all these programs, not least for copyright reasons although my parents paid for the right to watch them first time round through their license fees, but also because of the sheer amount of watching time required. Having said that, I'm also in the process of downloading the Space 1999 series, and there's a LOT more of them! There's also the Buck Rogers series that never made it to the UK from which the 1980 film Flash borrowed heavily, all camp acting, devious bad guys and oriental-style emperors.

Don't blame me if you start watching and end up wasting time you don't have!

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