In 1970, Gerry Anderson’s UFO introduced us to Ed Straker – a man who would, and frequently did, sacrifice everything for his mission.
Early science-fiction television, both in the UK and the US, was primarily driven by idea and plot over character. This is not to say that they weren’t well-written- on the contrary, many such as Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass (1953-79) and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-64) are some of the strongest examples of television writing in any genre.
Rather, the emphasis was in traditional sci-fi literature on ideas and how they were transmitted to the viewer or carrying the audience along on a Saturday serial-style adventure, rather than developing characters—even when this did happen in later series such as Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69) those first two elements were still the priority.
This is much the same in series by Gerry Anderson: especially as many were aimed at children, another genre which is perceived to prioritise plot and dynamism over character studies. But as Anderson, creative partner Sylvia and their team moved towards more adult series, they also began to develop a surprisingly complex character to be its star. Perhaps this is because UFO (1970-71) was a particularly adult take on the ‘invasion of the body snatchers’ trope: aliens in 1980 are visiting the Earth in order to harvest human organs for their own use, and organisation SHADO has been set up to counteract the threat and prevent further invasion.
Gerry Anderson defined many childhoods, and in the 1970s… he ruined them too.
Introducing UFO’s Ed Straker
Lead actor Ed Bishop, in a 1982 interview with American magazine Starlog, saw the workings of SHADO as a “fascist organisation with a law unto itself […] anarchic, despotic, but somehow, it was working for the total good.” This would necessitate someone “single-minded – dedicated almost to the point of obsession […] theirs is not a very pleasant job, but they get it done.” Someone for whom there is an underlying, unpalatable current of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few – and frequently, rather than in other franchises’ training exercises. Enter Ed Straker.
Straker has a remarkably fleshed-out backstory for an early 70s British telefantasy character—mostly we learn very little about a character outside of the programme except perhaps them possessing a spouse. This is particularly noticeable in contrast to the key threat of the series, the alien race, who receive little contextualization and whose plans often seem to change episode on episode. They never receive a clear motive like previous Anderson threats such as the Mysterons (Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, 1967-68), instead acting as a way of exploring the tensions between the characters and creating exciting plots.
Throughout the series, this enables us to see Straker’s transformation into the obsessively single-minded character played by Bishop. Straker’s timeline is thus: appointed to the post of Commander-in-Chief of SHADO in 1970-71 by a special committee of the UN (Project Angel), Straker gave up his position as a full colonel in the US Air Force to take the post. Therefore from the beginning, Straker has the weight of the world on his shoulders – the committee assigned to him works across the US, Soviet Union, France, and either East or West Germany.
Straker was previously a command pilot with missile operations experience, gaining a degree in astrophysics and two years experience in lunar research. Although on closer analysis these statuses highlight the disparity between the real world and the science-fiction—almost every character in Gerry Anderson programmes appears to be a colonel, regardless of age—by writing this detailed backstory into the plot, the audience can get to grips with Straker’s unique skills allowing him to be commander, which allow us to be on his side intellectually as well as emotionally in his frequent battles with both aliens and authority.
Straker also gains the position through experiencing his first trauma at the hands of the aliens – a UFO attacks the Rolls-Royce Straker and General Henderson, his proposed leader, are travelling in (the UFO episode ‘Identified’ – S1, Ep1), severely injuring the General and leaving Straker as the only choice for commander. Thus again the audience becomes aware of the extent of Straker’s feeling of duty: chosen by the world, and the only man who can successfully fulfil the required duties.
The Loneliness of Ed Straker
Straker slowly comes to prominence across the series. In his earliest episodes, Straker remains confined to SHADO control, nothing more than a commanding and forceful presence there to deliver orders, along the lines of previous Anderson characters like Jeff Tracy and Colonel White. However, the Andersons then give Ed Bishop something juicy to play in the UFO episode ‘A Question of Priorities’ (S1, Ep5), a title which in itself defines Straker’s central struggle across the series. Here we get our first insight into the emotional Ed Straker, learning of the existence of his ex-wife Mary and son John (who we will see shares an equally unconvincing bleach blonde wig, highlighting the similarities between father and son even at the expense of the budget).
As the tragic events of the episode unfold, we begin to see the sheer sacrifices Straker has made in the defense of the Earth—and these moments are only for the audience. Straker’s colleagues aren’t there to witness him drop his defenses—this would impact his ability as commander; “emotionally compromise” him, in fact. But by becoming privy to these as an audience member, Straker can form a bond with the audience as we share his trauma, and our knowledge of these events informs our response to further episodes. Straker’s difficulties with duty and the emotion these bring make him a more rounded character.
Straker is also a frequently lonely figure, isolated by his responsibilities: apart from one clumsily handled fumble with reporter Jo Fraser (Jane Merrow) in UFO episode ‘The Responsibility Seat’ (S1, Ep25), the majority of the romance is handled by younger co-star Michael Billington (Paul Foster), or occasionally George Sewell’s Alec Freeman.
As Chris Dale writes in his excellent analysis of Straker for the Gerry Anderson website:
Ed Straker is a man of interesting contradictions. He lives comfortably, yet regards his home as nothing more than “a place to sleep”. He appears to be tee-total, although moments in episodes like ‘Computer Affair’ and ‘E.S.P.’ would suggest some flexibility to that claim. He has an escape route from his office at SHADO HQ that would seemingly only allow enough time for one person to use it (i.e. himself), yet insists on being the last man off the stricken Skydiver in the episode ‘Sub-Smash’. He is a former air force pilot and astronaut, despite believing himself to suffer from claustrophobia. His cover of film producer seems to alternate between a source of frustration and enjoyment in equal measure.
Straker is also rarely seen interacting with co-workers outside of work, despite getting on well (and clearly caring about) the majority of the main cast—even when he does socialize, as when on the golf course with Foster in the UFO episode ‘Destruction’ (S1, Ep9) there is an ulterior motive, and he is fully prepared to lose friends such as Craig Collins or Foster when under alien control (‘The Man Who Came Back’ and ‘Kill Straker!’, respectively). Collins even trained as an astronaut with Straker, and this close relationship seems to at first blind Straker to his true intentions which are noticed by other personnel such as Foster and Virginia Lake (Wanda Ventham)—until Collins takes Straker out to repair SID, and reveals that he is under orders to kill him via the aliens. Thus Straker’s friendships seem to emotionally compromise him and distract him from threat, offering a further reason for why he keeps his colleagues at arm’s length.
His colleagues’ perspectives on Straker are perhaps most clearly articulated in Robert Miall’s novelization of the series, UFO-2 (1971), which takes Alec Freeman as its central character. He is possibly the closest to Straker throughout the series, and still, he sees him as:
“[Not] A man to smile easily at the best of times,” having “steely, fanatical devotion to SHADO’s cause” who is “austere,” bowing down to “the great god SHADO” with a “competent, unyielding face.” Essentially, not someone particularly inclined to after-work drinks.
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Ed Straker’s Disintegrating Personal Life
We also learn of Straker’s intentions for the future: in the UFO episode ‘Timelash’ (S1, Ep21), it’s revealed that Straker has secreted a rocket launcher in SHADO HQ that only he has access to, also containing an escape shaft to the studio complex above. Combined together, Straker would appear neither to shirk duty nor flee in cowardice: instead, he would continue the fight solo elsewhere, regardless of what happened to his colleagues. Straker has so enshrined his duty into the literal building he works in, his own personal fight against the aliens taking on an element of ‘sheer bloody-mindedness’ beyond that of his colleagues.
Straker’s marriage is shown as having the biggest impact on his personality. Be it for script inconsistency or psychological realism, our first chronological view of Straker in 1970 (‘Identified’ – S1, Ep1) as a serious young man is contrasted by his appearance, only a few months later, as a relaxed and happy newlywed in the UFO episode ‘Confetti Check A-O.K.!’ (S1, Ep22) Straker is here convinced he can balance his personal life with setting up SHADO: a reality that the audience already knows won’t come to pass.
Throughout the episode, we learn why. SHADO begins to take a toll on his marriage: as he’ll later keep secrets from his colleagues out of duty, so he is unable to tell Mary his actual work due to her life being at risk from SHADO security. As a result, her mother believes he is cheating on her, and to protect the Earth Straker must continue the deception, holding meetings at the house of Project Angel operative Ayshea Johnson to protect military secrets. When Mary confronts Straker with this, she becomes hysterical, causing Straker to slap her and for her to fall down the stairs—something he seems instantly guilty about. ‘Confetti Check A-O.K.!’ also implies that this separation took place over five years – 1972 to 1977 – a minor detail that suggests a protracted and painful divorce. Curiously, UFO is only ever specific about dates when they refer to the intricacies of Straker’s personal life – reemphasizing his comparative depth as a character within the series.
Again, Straker and the audience are the only ones throughout this episode to hold the burden of knowledge, and we share his growing melancholy despite the upcoming birth of his son, and an increased understanding of his isolation when he and Mary separate by the end of the episode.
In the UFO episode ‘A Question of Priorities’ (S1, Ep5) we learn that Straker can only see his son one day a month and that when visiting Mary wants nothing to do with him. Not only that, but on one of these visits, John gets into a tragic accident. After an argument between himself and Mary, Straker is not allowed to say goodbye to his son, so John runs out into the road. He is then hit by a car, witnessed by his parents, and the fault is implicitly Straker’s. Requiring a special product from the United States due to his allergies to antibiotics, Straker orders a SHADAIR airplane to transport the drug over to the United Kingdom to save his son. Alec Freeman diverts the plane without knowing its purpose to complete a SHADO operation, and John is unable to be saved. Straker does everything he can to save his son’s life, but only the audience knows it. By placing this episode in broadcast order before ‘Confetti Check A-O.K.!’, the pathos of Straker’s situation is highlighted further, and the episode order firmly sells the crumbling relationship and the toll it takes on Straker mentally.
Surprisingly for the time, there are also episodes where Straker is forced to confront memories of his past (‘Sub-Smash’ and ‘Mindbender’). Although likely included for monetary reasons (there’s a reason clip shows were such a mainstay of schedules), reminding the audience of his personal trauma shows that Straker is still affected by his previous actions.
The UFO episode ‘Mindbender’ (S1, Ep16) takes this sense of loss one step further, as under a delusion created by a hallucinogenic Alien rock Straker even loses possession of his trauma, as he becomes convinced he is an actor in a science fiction show. His son’s death and the breakdown of his marriage are just ‘a great episode’, meaning that everything (and everyone) sacrificed in the pursuit of the aliens have been meaningless. Unlike other metatelevisual moments throughout the 1960s—Gurney Slade’s discovery of but ultimate imprisonment within the confines of light entertainment (The Strange World of Gurney Slade, 1961), or the Prisoner becoming trapped within the Village wherever he goes in ‘Fallout’ (The Prisoner, 1967-68) – there is an added emotional dimension to Straker’s torment, which has been built into the series through flashback and contrast.
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SHADO on the Soul
UFO shows one final trauma for Ed Straker. In the UFO episode ‘The Long Sleep’ (S1, Ep23), we learn that Straker knocked down a young woman fleeing from a UFO incident: thus experiencing vehicular trauma from both sides of the steering wheel. When she comes out of her coma, Straker adopts a caring, fatherly attitude towards her—he feels a sense of duty towards her, despite there having been no way of avoiding the collision. But of course, she is also lost in the course of the episode, and again as a casualty of the alien war.
Her original injury caused by running from the death of her boyfriend Tim (Christian Roberts) in a UFO experience, Tim is discovered to be alive and under alien control. Tim visits her in the hospital, injecting her with a drug to discover the location of an alien bomb’s priming device, which she accidentally hid before slipping into the coma. Later in the episode, Straker then decides to inject her with the same drug so they can discover the hiding place and get there before Tim, thus potentially saving thousands of lives. Although the doctor warns him of the risks to her, Straker’s duty again prioritizes the greater good over someone he cares for.
Catherine is lost in the process, and the episode (the final broadcast of the series run) ends with Straker rendered silent. He walks away into the grounds of the hospital, gaze lingering on where he and Catherine (Tessa Wyatt) discussed her future. Virginia Lake is beside him, but once again only Straker and the audience are truly aware of the cost of Catherine’s death and its interaction with his mission. How many more people is Ed Straker going to lose?
We never see any of Ed Straker, or SHADO, post-‘The Long Sleep’, as the series was eventually canceled and reworked into Space: 1999. Chris Dale conjectures that although Straker would never leave SHADO, having put so much of himself physically and mentally into the organization, his overwhelming commitment to it would result in ‘severe mental and physical burnout’, perhaps demonstrated in those last three episodes which push Straker to the brink emotionally, physically and psychologically. However, the fact that we see such a shift in this character: from cold commander to broken man, emphasized by the detail put into his backstory and the way in which this is conveyed to the audience, make Straker nearly unique in the world of British telefantasy until this point.
Perhaps not until Blake’s 7 (1978-81) would another character emerge whose past has warped him, forcing a cynicism and fanaticism that pushes him beyond the point of no return. But Ed Straker and the masterly performance of Ed Bishop lay the groundwork, creating the most psychologically deep performance in the entire Gerry Anderson canon.
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Issy Flower is a freelance writer and actor. When not trying to complete fifteen different projects, she can be found on Twitter @IssyFlower