Features from Previous Issues


Detail: An ash-blonde woman stands in what could be a warehouse, an antique shop or the back rooms of a movie studio. Maybe a fairground or circus. She holds a rifle at her hip in an uncertain attitude, but not the uncertainty of unfamiliarity, the look on her face tells us different. The woman, attractive, even glamorous, is around thirty. The phrase ‘ice queen’ springs to mind. She looks offstage left with a concentration born of adrenaline and a wired self possession. She wears a purple silk blouse, unbuttoned to the point of indecency, revealing a lightly freckled upper chest. Clearly a girl who knows her own attractiveness . . . and yet, disturbingly, amongst the weird, bloodstained detritus surrounding her we notice another woman, lying prostrate to her right. This woman is also dressed in purple but with bare legs. Is this her victim? Or perhaps her future self? On second glance the mysterious party of the second part proves to be a mannequin, but as Colonel Virginia Lake of SHADO, for it is she, has come to accept in the last few minutes, nothing is as it seems and nothing is impossible.

If I can compare The Long Sleep to Once Upon A Time in The Prisoner, then Timelash is the Fall Out of UFO. An episode which draws together some dominant themes of sixties sci-fi (time travel, alien invasion, the hidden base etc.) and reworks them into the most kinetic, stylish and weird story in Anderson’s underrated live action masterpiece.

I came to watch Timelash somewhat late, having missed it during the original run and, inexplicably, on consecutive (rare) repeats. Our temporal vectors finally meshed when I picked up the second UFO DVD box set a couple of years ago and decided to re-watch the entire series instead of just skipping to the unseen bits. Having long been assured by Vincent Law and his cohorts that the last three episodes were pretty far out, I was in a high state of anticipation when I reached the end of Reflections in the Water knowing that next week I would finally get to see something I’d waited thirty years for.

From the opening scene I knew I was in for something special. Seeing Straker in berserker mode, trashing SHADO Control and shrugging Paul Foster off like a minor irritation was jaw-dropping and, frankly, what we’d always hoped to see. His eventual subjugation leaves the viewer aching to discover what has turned the icy Ed into a Viking warrior. Not only would this be a fascinating prologue by itself, but we are shown Colonel Lake unconscious, perhaps dead, lying on a roof with the débris of guns and drugs around her. Straker is clearly implicated, but how?

1. Stop the world.
The prospect of the series’ imminent cancellation seems to have had the same effect on UFO’s writers as the parallel Damocles’ sword had when hanging over Patrick McGoohan in the last days of The Prisoner. Episodes became whimsical and yet manic. If we look at some late storylines from each series we can draw the following parallels:
Mindbender/Living in Harmony: the protagonist fights against a reality created in his mind by his enemy.
The Long Sleep/ Once Upon A Time: The story of someone’s life recounted like a story in psychological flashback.
Timelash/ Fall Out: The Prisoner/ Ed Straker descends into the underworld to confront the unseen enemy and in doing so, the normal course of things is turned upside down.

Threat of cancellation had obviously provided the impetus to think outside the box, and when the writing team looked at ways to make the series more obviously contemporary, they first thought, rather predictably, of drugs, then of post-modern alienation and a Manchurian Candidate style questioning of identity. Thirdly, there is a definite move toward a spy or secret agent atmosphere introduced, and a sexy girl with a brain as well as a gun (It had to happen some day, even in the Anderson universe!). The pairing of Straker and Lake as (effectively) field agents could have been the basis for a second series. Indeed, their initial scene together where they head back to SHADO HQ in Straker’s Bond-like sportscar could be the beginning of any number of late sixties fantasy shows, but alas, it was not to be. That these characters would have eventually been presented as an Avengers or X Files style couple is in little doubt. They are shown to be closer than was first supposed in the final scene of the series and there was a ready made romantic triangle set up with Foster to appeal to the Mills and Boon demographic. The alternate scheme was apparently to extend the scope of Moonbase and introduce ideas which were later converted to form the basis of Space:1999, but such a strategy would be only half the story, the more earthbound Ed would still need his own character development. In any case, Foster would never have agreed to wear those beige flares . . .

2. Down the rabbit hole.
The premise of Timelash, for those of you unlucky enough not to have seen it, is that in a last-ditch effort to destroy SHADO the aliens have empowered one of their human dupes with the astonishing ability to control time within a limited radius. This disgruntled SHADO operative, played with evil glee by Patrick Allen, is out to get his revenge for petty or imagined slights meted out to him by Straker et al over the years. Sexual jealousy seems to be a strong motivating factor as he makes specific reference to Ed’s popularity with the female staff (despite the fact that Ed is a complete loser when it comes to women). This point is underscored by an unreadable look Colonel Lake gives to Straker’s back at this moment. Are we meant to assume she secretly longs for him? Or equally likely ‘you’ve go to be kidding!’. Anyway, surely Paul Foster would have been a better target for a crime passionel? It seems fairly obvious from this half-second stage direction that in the never made series two we could expect poor old Ed to finally get lucky with the ice queen.

The mise-en-scene for this unlikely revengers tragedy is, as mentioned earlier, an eerie studio back lot. In both this episode and in Mindbender the shadow, or double, of SHADO - the Harlington Straker film Studio, becomes a symbol which is far more than the sum of its parts. The studio in both these episodes represents a kind of Wonderland with Wanda Ventham as a glammed-up Alice, Ed Bishop as the White Knight and Patrick Allen as the time-obsessed White Rabbit. It is a symbol of the unconscious made real, hence the outlandish props we see being wheeled around in the case of Mindbender or lying derelict but maleficent in Timelash. The terrifying nature of Allen’s powers turn the episode into a waking nightmare for Straker and Lake. One memorable scene in which Bishop and Allen chase each other round the studio in miniature sports cars designed for children (reminiscent of The Prisoner’s Mini Mokes) takes them through a warehouse containing giant replicas of the Lewis Chess pieces, clearly a Jefferson Airplanesque Alice reference, but the brilliant highlight of their chase comes when Ed, thinking he’s cornered his prey at last, is utterly dumbfounded when Patrick Allen shouts, with the zest of the damned ‘I think I’ll just play that back!’ and promptly rewinds time so he can escape, and then does it some more just for kicks.

Outside of the world of ITC the best comparison for the atmosphere conjured by this extraordinary episode is that of The Twilight Zone. It calls to mind any number of those desolate and deserted midwestern towns forever to be inhabited by astronauts who find themselves off course, trapped, or questioning their reality. UFO at this late stage in its history was trying to find a way forward and realised that taking the action away from Moonbase/ SHADO was the way to do it. A good example of this is in the final episode, The Long Sleep, where Ed and the rest of the regular team merely provide a framing device for the real story. It seems to me that had UFO taken the last episodes as a template for a future series then success and a degree of longevity would have been assured. Alas, UFO’s long running battle against poor scheduling eventually achieved what the aliens could not.

3. Big man Straker.
The real meat of Timelash lies in the conflict set up between Straker, Lake and a seemingly all-powerful enemy gifted with almost supernatural powers. As was often the case in fantasy shows of this time the heroes are armed with science against alien ‘magic’. In this case both Straker and Lake take a drug to combat the effects of time slowing down - the inverse of the effects of drugs in the popular imagination and a foreshadowing of hallucinogenic ‘mind expanding’ substances being replaced by speed and heroin during the seventies. The willingness of Colonel Lake to resort to such drastic measures is a clue to her superior character development, one can hardly imagine Nina or Joan Harrington shooting up to save SHADO! The show’s portrayal of drug use in a fairly positive light in both this and the final episode is redolent of sixties idealism, but certainly not typical. Even the notorious Jason King would shy away from that series-killing faux-pas.

Though aided by a scientific talisman, Ed Straker’s descent into the underworld achieves its power by pitting his tenacious resolve against all manner of distortions of reality. The episode states the facts about him as clearly as possible: his willpower is stretched to the limit against seemingly insuperable odds which threaten the balance of nature. For ‘nature’ read ‘Ed’s mind’. He is the ultimate control freak and has to roll back the alien tide of encroaching chaos. The overturning of natural laws is quite mind boggling in Timelash, the uncanny atmosphere is expertly deployed by such tried and tested plot devices as the unseen voice, the traitor in our midst and quite literally, the race against time. But it remains memorable for the depiction of a man’s struggle against godlike power in a world where home has suddenly ceased to be home (literally unheimlich) and precisely anything could happen in the next half hour. It surely can’t have failed to cross Straker’s mind that with that kind of power he could even bring his son back from the dead? One has to look to Doctor Who’s Celestial Toymaker character to find a similar nemesis to Patrick Allen’s Turner, but a rather more obvious precedent for the initial twenty five minutes of the story can be found in an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a character in frozen time is stalked round a military base by another who is immune to that strange temporal anomaly.

In shows roughly contemporary with UFO, time travel is portrayed somewhat differently. The Doctor with his magical blue box can bend time to his will but in a benevolent way, in The Avengers the whole thing was revealed to be an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Peter Bowles, (remarkably absent from UFO). In Timelash the subject is for once treated in a serious and rather chilling manner. The bad dream element is reinforced by the incipient menace of the studio’s inert inhabitants and fixtures, like an evil doll’s house. Even the mysterious presence of Grant Morrison’s Hand Of Glory is prefigured in the form of the statue with five fingers lingering in the warehouse. (For other examples of this time-warping artefact see The Invisibles, Doctor Who, Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, The Wicker Man and others).

The dénouement of the story fittingly takes us back in a televisual time loop to the beginning of the episode but this time around the viewers understand everything, even though the SHADO staff do not. It can be seen as a comment on the medium of the moving image and its illusory ability to play with temporal structure - especially in these days of recordable media, we can all be Patrick Allen . . . I think I’ll just play that back! 

Fletcher Klimowski