Aliens in the mind: the subtle horror element of UFO

This week UFO arrived on the Horror Channel in the UK, and as with many of the television series shown in their weeknight ‘sci-fi zone’ some have asked on the Channel’s various social media outlets “does this really count as horror?” For those unfamiliar with UFO it may seem on first glance like an odd choice for a horror-themed broadcaster, yet fans of the series are well aware that the show’s bright and colourful visuals conceal many dark and sinister themes; from SHADO’s occasional disregard for one person’s life in favour of maintaining their own security, to the personal cost the organisation takes on those who work for it, to the motives of the show’s primary antagonists, the Aliens.

Our first partial glimpse of the Aliens; on the hunt for humans in Identified.

Driven to abduct humans from Earth to harvest their organs to use as transplants to keep their own failing bodies alive, the primary motivations of UFO‘s humanoid Aliens are certainly among the most horrific ever given to any Anderson antagonists, yet much of what makes them so unsettling takes place in our own imaginations rather than on-screen. The first episode of UFO clearly establishes why SHADO’s Alien adversaries are coming to Earth, and yet over the subsequent twenty-five episodes it’s surprising how rarely the show returned to explore that concept further. Examination of the Alien captured in Identified reveals that his heart was taken from the body of Leila Carlin, yet the long list of organ transplants detected by SHADO’s medical computers (”…heart, liver, left lung, thyroid…”) heavily imply that more than one human’s organs were employed in keeping him alive – but (in production order at least) it would be a long time before the series would revisit this side of its central antagonists.

“What did that to his hand?” Stripping fingerprints in The Psychobombs.

Likely due to not knowing exactly where in the schedules the series would be placed, UFO would never be able to visually offer much in the way of gore and guts to support its central concept of the Aliens as organ harvesters. The series does occasionally show blood (more than any other ITC Anderson series) but usually as the result of injuries received in gunfights (the episodes produced at Pinewood tend to show blood more often and more messily than those produced at MGM Borehamwood) and the closest we get to actually seeing any part of a human being’s body removed on screen is when Captain Lauritzen’s left hand is bloodily stripped of its fingerprints in The Psychobombs. Ironically, the show’s bloodiest sequence is instantly revealed to just be a scene in a movie, when Roy the stuntman is ‘gunned down’ in The Responsibility Seat.

Culley plundered for parts in The Sound of Silence.

The Sound of Silence pushes the on-screen gore caused by its Alien quite heavily though, with the body of the hippy Culley being discarded in the woods after (presumably) being scavenged for any suitable organs he contained. The discovery of Culley’s dog in a similar state in an earlier scene (closing on a freeze frame of the dog’s blood on a human hand) suggests that although canine internal organs are most likely of little use to them, the Alien probably had a good look around inside the unfortunate animal anyway just in case. Throughout the story the Alien is only briefly seen in unsettling extreme closeups of his eyes (curiously without a helmet to protect him from Earth’s atmosphere), yet his presence is felt throughout the story. His night-time lurking in the woods and off-screen mutilation of Culley and his dog almost feel like something from a slasher movie, but although it’s eerie to us we know that the Aliens themselves regard their activities as simply necessary to their own survival. It’s another part of what makes them such chilling adversaries at their best; minimal on-screen violence, maximum off-screen implied butchery…yet with no real animosity towards their victims.

“His brain may have been human, but that doesn’t mean his mind was!” Dr. Jackson shatters our past theories in The Cat With Ten Lives.

While many UFO fans look more towards The Cat With Ten Lives as the true ‘start’ of the Pinewood episodes, The Sound of Silence works as something of a soft reaffirmation of the Aliens’ motivations and agenda, and one of the three main questions Straker posed at the conclusion of the first episode; “why do they come?” The Cat With Ten Lives then radically redefines the Aliens and their relationship with the Earth following Doctor Jackson’s autopsy of an Alien who appears to be fully human, albeit with sections of his brain removed by surgery and then inhabited by some kind of disembodied Alien force. The episode also includes an element of tragedy (that in typically downbeat UFO fashion remains unresolved) in Jean Regan, the only character we meet on screen confirmed to have been abducted and taken back to the Aliens’ planet while SHADO was in operation – along with the unborn child inside her. With the new and potentially horrifying angle that the Aliens are in some way a dark reflection of humanity itself, and a reminder that the Aliens are merciless towards even the most innocent of Earth people, the series had new material to play with that would have been wonderful to explore further. Ironically, it also acts as a call-back to one of the show’s scariest scenes from one of its least well-regarded episodes; that of Paul Foster placed within an Alien spacesuit and forcibly converted into a liquid breather in Ordeal.

Don’t have nightmares; Foster drowning in Ordeal.

Unfortunately, having spent two episodes successfully re-establishing the Aliens and their motives, the series then disappointingly reverts to presenting them as largely unseen and often remote figures for the rest of its run, employing one-episode-only powers and influencing or controlling human beings to act as their agents – mostly in direct attacks against SHADO. One possible exception to this could have been their underwater dome in Reflections in the Water, as the replicas of SHADO personnel seen within could potentially have been surgically altered human beings – or similarly disguised Aliens. More baffling still were the episodes in which they appeared to be plotting activities that would have decimated if not outright exterminated the human race, as with the bomb planted in The Long Sleep or their attempts to destroy a naval vessel carrying enough toxic gas to “wipe out every living thing on this planet” in Destruction. A devastating attack that could have crippled the human race’s capability to defend against a mass Alien invasion (and thus allow them to safeguard their supply of replacement organs long-term) is one thing, but total genocide of the human race would seem to run contrary to everything we had learned up to that point.

The first UFO novelisation received a more lurid title when published in the USA.

However, as with Doctor Who’s Cybermen, the Aliens of UFO could never really be shown carrying out on screen the bodily mutilations that were their modus operandi, leaving much of their true horror to our imaginations. Instead, they were most often positioned as more generic antagonists; intruders to be captured, destroyed, or chased through the woods, with little consideration given to the established reason of why they were coming here in the first place. Seeing terrified characters on the run from machine gun-toting Aliens in episodes like Identified or The Square Triangle offers the viewer a few good scares – but we should never forget that the scarier thing is if they take you alive. If UFO were re-made today, and were its Aliens to be given the same motives for their visits to Earth, we would almost certainly see the organ-harvesting side of their operations in graphic detail. Star Trek Voyager occasionally offered such moments of visceral horror with the Vidiians, a race afflicted by a disease that ravaged their bodies and forced them to seek out replacement body parts from other species, yet they too ran up against the constraints of what is acceptable to show on a network television series – but times have changed, and the sensibilities of broadcasters and audiences have changed with them. We could now see the Aliens harvesting organs from their human victims in full graphic detail – but does that mean we should?

Mother-to-be Jean Regan is abducted in The Cat With Ten Lives.

Much of what makes UFO‘s Aliens work so well is precisely because we don’t see on screen the actual grim process of their organ harvesting, and that we have so many questions surrounding it; what were the terrible circumstances that led to life on their world becoming so desperate that they were forced to begin harvesting people from Earth? How long has this been going on for? Are there potentially abducted human beings alive and in captivity on the Alien home planet? How accurate was Doctor Jackson’s conjecture that most of the Aliens we encountered were abducted human beings altered and inhabited by a non-corporeal life form? With no answers, and no real way to fully explore the potential of these (and other) questions, our imaginations must fill in many of the blank spaces. Jean Regan is a good example of this; we don’t know what happened to her or her unborn child after their abduction, but we know it would have been horrific in the extreme – just like the fates of the countless others we know that the Aliens abducted from Earth over the years to be used as fodder for transplant surgery, to say nothing of the emotional trauma suffered by the family and friends of those taken.

The fact that UFO so rarely truly touched on the organ harvesting side of its Aliens and yet they are so well remembered for doing just that says a lot about how effectively the show presented both them and the various mysteries surrounding them. Sometimes it is much more scary to have questions with no answers, alongside a clearly established motive for your antagonists that is both terrifying and tragic at the same time. By keeping the Aliens’ organ harvesting to a minimum on-screen it allowed our imaginations to fill in the gaps regarding what could be happening off-screen, creating something far more horrible than could ever have been (realistically) broadcast on screen back in 1970 – and allowing the few moments of genuine gore to be all the more shocking. It may have been somewhat overshadowed at times amid the exciting action and character drama, but the subtle element of horror surrounding the Aliens remained an integral element of UFO from the first episode to its last.

Written by
Chris Dale

Writer, editor & voice actor on Big Finish's Doctor Who, Terrahawks, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet audio ranges. Host of the Randomiser on the Gerry Anderson Podcast.

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