Saturday, February 01, 2014

Autopilot, from "Space: 1999" to "UFO"
Frogpants studios has some really outstanding podcasts, including Sword and Laser and Film Sack. I also really love Autopilot, which runs a bit shorter than the aforementioned shows, but is still a nice juicy nugget of audio goodness. It's basically Scott Johnson (Film Sack, Current Geek, etc.) and Tom Merrit (Sword & Laser, Current Geek, etc.) discussing one vintage TV pilot per episode. There's a lot of sci-fi in the mix, but that's understandable considering the interests of the hosts, but they've also done shows like Dragnet and Magnum P.I.. They just finished airing season two, and I've been going crazy listening my way through the episodes which runs the gamut from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the un-aired pilot that you've probably never seen) to Jason of Star Command to Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

After listening to their take on Space: 1999 (1975-77), I was motivated to watch that pilot, and luckily it's on YouTube. As they noted, it holds up pretty well. It's a British take on serious sci-fi and apparently one of the most expensive TV shows ever produced there. In an era of Star Trek re-runs, and not much else, it filled a need in the very sparse landscape of post Star Trek television. It's very talky, and feels a bit like a modern police procedural, but the sets and props are very well-designed and, for the time, pretty convincingly "futuristic" without being goofy. I also like the way that women are just "there" as crew and the story presents this as business as usual. This is not to say that there is no fraternization on this moon base. In later episodes they explore various relationships, but when it comes to work, it's all business.

This is sadly not the case in this show's predecessor, UFO. I'd never watched it as a kid but only seen a few snippets while channel surfing on the occasional weekend. It's telling that I didn't stop to watch a whole episode, because I was hungry for good sci-fi as a pre-teen in the 70s when sci-fi fans in the USA made do with The Six-Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Wonder Woman (and the aforementioned Trek re-runs). I was curious, though, to give it a look after watching the Space: 1999 pilot, and sure enough it's all on YouTube.

It's not good. This is truly a textbook case of a seriously dated piece of TV history. If you're a fan of the ultra-mod aspects of the 1960s, this show is a cornucopia of style elements including furniture, gadgets, clothes, hairstyles, theatrical makeup, and super-hip cars. Princess phones are featured prominently: so mod! Mini-skirts and jumpsuits abound, hair is teased, cigarettes are smoked, sideburns are lavish, and extruded plastic chairs dot the landscape. There's more bright orange than the hunting clothes section at Cabella's, and that's just the interior decorating. All this in itself is not really bad, but it does date the show albeit in a charming way.

What I didn't find charming were things like the jarring groovy pop music score and the overtly sexual attitudes of many of the characters. Maybe it's just an Austin Powers backlash, but the music, even in tense moments, is so groove-a-licious that it really undermines the atmosphere for me. As far as the sexual tone in many of the scenes; I realize this was the "free-love" era and all that, but some of the men in at least this first episode are downright lecherous toward female co-workers. Several scenes introduce female characters with an obvious "toes to hair" look-over by some male, and there is so much sexual innuendo in many of the casual conversations I kept waiting for "Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink." In a few scenes the sleazy guy isn't even needed because the camera's POV does just as well. At one point we're offered shot of a lone woman walking away from the camera...which starts tight on her mini-skirted derriere and slowly pulls back. Later another shapely lady appears in a skin-tight, beige jumpsuit and elicits a typical clich├ęd innuendo from a male co-worker.

Just when you think it can't get any more sleazy, we're whisked off to the moon base where all the women have purple hair and wear tight, silver jumpsuits. At some point one of the women goes off duty and retires to some kind of communal relaxation area. At first I gave points for the very forward concept of a co-educational outpost with men and women working together in a seemingly professional way. I took the points away seconds later when the off-duty woman, whilst speaking to a male crew-member, started doing a Barbarella-style striptease, peeling off her sleeves and leggings accompanied by some downright porn-style music. I can see that the show creators were trying to be very hip and modern, but that's not really the kind of "hard" I'm looking for in my hard sci-fi, if you know what I mean.

Still, it is a fine example of the media climate of the time, and definitely a window on the not-to-distant past. TV sci-fi was still struggling for mainstream credibility, and Star Trek had blazed the trail for more serious sci-fi. Why the UK was so utterly incapable of following suit until much later I have no idea. UFO even has a lead character who keeps pronouncing the acronym "U.F.O" as a word that sounds like "oofoe". He's the only one who does it, and why the director didn't call him on it is beyond me, because the other actors manage to say it correctly. The BBC seemed to have figured things out by 1975 with Space: 1999, but three years later they were back to the usual ticky-tacky BBC TV production design with Blake's 7. It's not terrible, and it's definitely serious sci-fi, but it's a definite step backward.

It took awhile, but at least these days the UK can actually manage serious sci-fi and fantasy TV, and has some really fine programming including the ubiquitous re-boot of Doctor Who. No more tinfoil striptease, please.

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