Fathers of the Anderson universe (part 2)

Continued from part 1

With the leap to live action television productions following The Secret Service and the greater realism that came with working with human actors also came a pessimistic streak in storytelling that would run throughout the next three Anderson shows – and which extended to their presentation of families and fathers. Gone for good was the single father raising his family alone, and in its place was a new kind of father; one whose work had driven his family away, and which on occasion had the potential to destroy them completely.

UFO’s Commander Ed Straker is initially presented as another tough-as-nails authority figure, but as the series gradually began to explore his history we learned about the events that forged the man he was, beginning with the episode A Question of Priorities. Here we learn for the first time that Straker is divorced, and only has visiting rights with his son Johnny once a month. He clearly tries to make the most of every precious moment with Johnny, with that one day a month being his only true respite from his duties at SHADO HQ, until a tragic accident lands Johnny in hospital. Straker immediately snaps into action to secure the vital medication that will save his life…but thanks to circumstances beyond his control, the shipment arrives too late. The scars of Johnny’s death clearly run very deep, as Straker is tormented by stock footage of his son’s demise in more than one subsequent episode. In the flashback episode Confetti Check A-OK we visit the period of Straker’s life immediately following his wedding day, and see for ourselves the toll that the setting up of SHADO takes on his previously happy relationship with his wife Mary in the events leading up to Johnny’s birth – and in both episodes, part of the tragedy comes from how we the viewers are aware not only of how important Straker’s work is, but just how hard he tries to balance that work with the needs of his family. In Priorities we see what Mary doesn’t; that he had the medication that would have saved Johnny’s life on the way to the hospital until fate intervened to divert it – but ultimately, the best of intentions are nothing against the painful fact of Johnny’s death. In revisiting Straker’s past in Confetti Check we get perhaps the show’s most unintentionally cruel moment – as when we see Straker first set eyes on his baby son, we the audience already know how his short life is going to end.

To a lesser extent the central character of The Protectors, Harry Rule, is cut from similar cloth when it comes to his family backstory. We learn in the first episode of the show that Harry has a son who now lives with his ex-wife Laura, but aside from very occasional mentions we don’t discover much more than that until the episode With a Little Help from My Friends, when Laura arrives at Harry’s apartment looking for help in recovering their kidnapped son – who curiously is also named Johnny (although just credited as ‘boy’ on the end titles). Unlike Straker however, Harry is able to save his Johnny, and in the process we get a few hints of why the Rules broke up that largely re-treads the same ground as Ed and Mary Straker’s divorce. The one key difference is that Laura is largely aware of the nature of her ex-husband’s work (and how dangerous it can be) and has chosen to prioritise the safety of their son over her relationship with her husband. Interestingly, this is the only episode of any Anderson series for which Sylvia Anderson receives sole writing credit.

Both UFO and The Protectors paint fatherhood as a source of regret, frustration and sadness – not at the responsibility itself, but because the father’s work must always take precedence over his relationship with his son. In both cases we see the effect this has had on both their lives by how little time they spend together; in Straker’s case a few hours visiting time each month, and in Rule’s absolutely no contact at all beyond sending the occasional present. While definitely more adult than what had gone before, and certainly dramatically effective, Rule’s screen experiences as a father being almost identical to Straker’s proved that the setup had the potential to quickly become as clichéd as the standard dead mothers of the Supermarionation universe.

Thankfully, a far happier pair of family units were presented in the 1975 pilot film The Day After Tomorrow (or Into Infinity). The Bowen & Masters families manning the crew of the lightship Altares each had a father figure, in the persons of Nick Tate and Brian Blessed. Perhaps in part due to this one-off film being created as a science special for children, the theme of family is a rather strong one throughout the story. Uniquely for an Anderson production, the Bowens are not only a complete family unit but are all equally capable professionals trained to handle the rigours of life in space, while the bond between Captain Harry Masters and his young co-pilot daughter Jane is clearly strongly established by Jane’s overriding concern for her father while he works to repair the ship’s engines. Despite being stuck on a single spacecraft heading on a one-way trip into the void of space, it’s clear that one thing that will keep the Altares crew on course (at least in the short term) is the strength of their bonds as a family.

Space:1999 presented several more tragic relationships between fathers and their children, most notably between Maya and her scientist father Mentor. When we first meet them on the surface of the planet Psychon in the episode The Metamorph it’s clear that Maya’s faith in her father is absolute, to the extent that it blinds her to the fact that he has been lying to her for a very long time about the true nature of his work to restore their dying planet. When finally faced with undeniable proof of his crimes she is clearly devastated to learn not only that a man she idolised could be capable of such cruelty in the name of preserving their home, but that he had been able to deceive her for so long – and although she finds a new life and family on Moonbase Alpha, that discovery clearly affects her ability to trust outsiders in subsequent episodes. Just as Johnny’s death haunted Straker, Maya would be similarly affected by the destruction of the homeworld and (in particular) the death of her father throughout the rest of the series, although she clearly still loved him and saw him as an inspiration despite the atrocities he committed in the name of restoring Psychon. We subsequently learn that when given a choice between fleeing the planet with her brother and the many other Psychons who left before the end, or remaining with Mentor, she chose the latter in order to keep her father from a life of solitude. “Mentor was a great man, and he was my father,” she recalls in The Rules of Luton. “I knew that he could do anything…”

Throughout the 1970s the Anderson shows painted a more realistic if far less appealing picture of the toll a life of danger and adventuring could take on raising and supporting a family, often tragically so. No doubt born both from the shows of this era largely being aimed at a more mature audience than those of the 1960s, and the Andersons’ own well-documented marital problems, we nevertheless still see the father figures of this era struggling against almost impossible odds to do what’s right for their families – but the difference now is that they don’t always succeed. The next Anderson series to feature a father among its cast of characters would see that man’s relationship with his family take on a greater importance to the show than ever before – but that focus wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste…

In the final part of this series, we’ll be examining the roles of fathers in both Space Precinct and New Captain Scarlet

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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