UFO had one of the largest regular and semi-regular casts of any Anderson series, but only one character appeared in all twenty-six episodes of the show. Throughout the run of UFO, Ed Bishop’s starring role as Commander Ed Straker was the glue that held the series together – but the character’s eventual prominence and importance to the series was quite different from where he started.
For much of the show’s earliest episodes Straker remains almost permanently confined to SHADO Control, barking orders at unfortunate subordinates with only occasional trips “up top” to the Harlington-Straker studio lot. Although a strong, commanding (and occasionally ruthless) presence throughout these stories it isn’t until the episode A Question of Priorities that Ed Bishop is given something really interesting to play, as we first learn of the existence of his divorced wife Mary and their son John. The episode’s tragic events present the character in a new light, as we begin to get some idea of the enormous sacrifices that Straker has had to make in order to keep the SHADO organization functioning efficiently. There are several moments in the episode where the character drops his defences and his true human feelings are on full display…except none of his colleagues are there to witness it. However, we the viewers are, and by allowing us to see the true extent of his trauma the character was able to form a bond with the audience in a way none of the others quite were.
From this episode onwards the character of Straker was given more to do and increasingly pushed towards the centre of the stories. Although this was a gradual process (with most of the action still being carried by Colonel Foster) the writers began to recognize and respond to what Ed Bishop brought to the character, particularly the very human frailties he normally successfully kept hidden from those around him. At first this side of the character wasn’t always explored as successfully as perhaps it might have been (the development of his brief attachment to reporter Jo Fraser in The Responsibility Seat is rather clumsily handled), but as Straker began to receive more and more focus it became clear that the tragic lonely figure we saw in Priorities had been damaged long before the events of that episode. Having finally been given an understanding of what brought about the character’s seemingly cold almost heartless exterior in previous instalments viewers were eager to learn more, and surprisingly for an episodic series of the late 1960s/early 1970s they would eventually get to see the full story of his past.
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. He also isn’t above keeping secrets from his closest SHADO colleagues; Alec Freeman never learns about Johnny’s death in A Question of Priorities, while in Timelash Colonel Lake is amazed to discover Straker has secreted a rocket launcher in SHADO HQ that only he has access to (and which also contains an escape elevator to the studio complex). These final two revelations point to the notion that if the Aliens ever succeeded in directly attacking and crippling SHADO HQ Straker would have an immediate escape route to continue the fight elsewhere, but would never have given up that fight until the bitter end. As he himself commented regarding the rocket launcher, “it’s that old bloody-mindedness. It built this planet!”
Our earliest chronological view of the character is of Colonel Ed Straker in the opening 1970 portion of Identified, just prior to the car crash caused by the Aliens. Here we see a serious young man more consistent with the 1980s Commander Straker than the person we see when we return to the same time period for Confetti Check A-OK. Although these events can only occur a few months after the car crash, the newlywed Ed Straker we see during this period is relaxed, carefree, and happy, thoroughly convinced that he will be able to balance his personal life with the enormous challenge of selling and establishing the SHADO organization. Over the course of the story however we begin to see the development of the steely Commander Straker we know, as the setting up of SHADO begins to take its inevitable toll on his marriage. We know why he has to commit so much time to this project, and how much he longs to tell his new wife Mary what he’s actually doing despite the risk to her life from SHADO security, yet he has no way out of the impossible situation he has found himself in without sacrificing either his work or his family. As we watch the months pass a sadness has fallen over him in private moments that even the impending birth of his son seems unable to lift, and ultimately John Straker’s parents essentially separate on the day he is born.
Although we do not get to see the events immediately following Johnny’s birth we already knew from A Question of Priorities that Straker and Mary were divorced soon after he was born, with Mary being awarded custody of their son. Straker only has visiting rights one day per month, and when he does visit Mary clearly wants almost nothing to do with him. Johnny’s subsequent tragic accident, culminating in Mary’s broken-hearted “I never want to see you again!” is essentially the final nail in the coffin of their relationship – but she will never be able to know that Straker really did do everything he could to save his son’s life. That Ed Bishop and Suzanne Neve played the frosty post-divorce relationship between Straker and Mary in Priorities months before returning to play the happiness of them as newlyweds in Confetti Check says much for the skill of both performers, and there isn’t a scene where both are on screen together that isn’t fascinating to watch.
It is possible that the loss of his son and Mary’s insistence that he stay away for good caused Straker to decide against getting too close to anybody ever again, his ill-judged one-day involvement with Jo Fraser not withstanding. Although he gets on well with characters like Virginia Lake, Paul Foster, Doug Jackson and particularly Alec Freeman he is rarely seen socialising outside of work, and even a trip to the golf course with Foster in Destruction has an ulterior motive. Regardless of how close he is to someone he is now fully prepared to face the possibility of losing them, as with the Alien-controlled Craig Collins in The Man Who Came Back or Paul Foster in Kill Straker!. Although ultimately revealed to be only an act, his murderous tirade to Paul Foster on the shooting range in the latter episode includes several lines of dialogue relating to the “ten years of sweat and sacrifice” he’s put into SHADO that more than likely came direct from the heart.
Despite both the episodic nature of the series and the tendency of broadcasters to show episodes in seemingly random order, we did occasionally see how these events continued to torment Straker. Both Sub-Smash and Mindbender features moments where Straker is forced to confront memories of his past, in the form of clips from previous episodes. While no doubt a cost-effective way to pad out the episodes they appear in these clips of both Mary and John effectively show that Straker is still haunted by thoughts of those he has lost, and he carries the pain of those losses very close to the surface.
In The Long Sleep, we learn about one final incident of Ed Straker’s past; that he himself was the driver of a car that knocked down a young woman fleeing from the scene of a UFO incident in 1970. It retrospectively adds another layer of tragedy to the events of A Question of Priorities to discover that he has experienced such a harrowing situation not once but twice, and from both sides of the steering wheel. This perhaps goes someway to explaining his almost fatherly attitude towards her throughout the rest of the story, as upon learning her parents are now dead he is prepared to offer any help he can – but whatever he had in mind never comes to be. Catherine’s fate at the end of the episode reduces him to total silence and our final sight of Commander Ed Straker is of him walking away into the grounds of the hospital, glancing a look at the bench where he and she had discussed her past and future. Although Virginia Lake is beside him, Ed Straker has rarely looked so alone.
If viewed in production order then the final episodes of UFO do indeed put Straker through a mental and physical wringer unlike anything we had seen before. The events of Timelash see him trapped in a moment of time fighting to save SHADO HQ from destruction, an ordeal which leaves him almost catatonic following a drug-fuelled chase around the studio complex once time is restored. When questioned by Virginia Lake about the dangers of the X50 drug he uses to combat the effects of the timefreeze, Straker’s response – “I made my choice a long time ago” – once again indicates that he is fully prepared to do whatever is necessary to stop the Aliens, even at the cost of his own life. In Mindbender, the hallucinogenic power of the Alien rock has much the same effect as Straker once again goes on the rampage, all the while presented with the delusion that he is an actor in a science fiction show. For a man who has sacrificed so much to be confronted with the idea that his reality is nothing more than a television series, with his son’s death just “a great episode”, is another very revealing element of the character; the thought that everything he has lost and sacrificed doesn’t really mean anything is almost more than he can take.
Sadly, we know nothing of how Ed Straker’s life continued after the events of The Long Sleep. It’s hard to imagine he would ever choose to leave SHADO after having given so much of himself to establishing and maintaining it, but it’s even harder to believe that he could have continued to along the path he was on without risking severe mental and physical burnout. Indeed, some could argue that we were beginning to see the first stages of that in the show’s final three episodes.
Whatever the ultimate fate of Ed Straker his triumphs, failures, successes and heartbreak have kept UFO fans engaged for more than half a century, and the character is one of the main reasons they have kept coming back to enjoy the twenty-six episodes of the television series that produced him. Thanks to the standout central performance of Ed Bishop and the writers who recognized both his ability and the potential of the role he played, Commander Ed Straker enjoyed character development that is unequalled anywhere else in the Anderson universe – and perhaps even anywhere else in the world of British cult television.
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