Yes, this classic show created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had its share of late-'60s, early-'70s schlock, such as military officers whose mini-skirt uniforms included purple wigs. But U.F.O also had strong characters, nuanced plots and extremely cool technology that, in retrospect, was decades ahead of its time.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with U.F.O (and, if so, what the hell is wrong with you?), the series is set in the year 1980, when a global organization called S.H.A.D.O. (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) is waging a secret war against extraterrestrials who are periodically launching attacks on Earth.
S.H.A.D.O. has constructed a multi-layered defense system (portrayed in the opening credit sequence below) consisting of an early warning satellite, a Moon base that launches Interceptor fighters, a high-speed jet launched from a submarine (Skydiver) and ground-based mobile units.
As Michael Peck, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, writes on the blog War Is Boring:
Every science-fiction show likes to boast that it predicted or even inspired future technologies. Star Trek purports to have invented cell phones and DVDs.
It's a rite of passage, a galactic bar mitzvah to prove a show is serious sci-fi instead of just another adventure series with aliens in funny costumes. But UFO was fortunate to arrive just as the Space Age reached its pinnacle and the Digital Age glimmered over the horizon.
Humans were landing on the moon, new technologies such as the Harrier jump jet were entering service and desktop computers would soon be a reality. Gerry Anderson didn't have to invent fantastic technologies like warp drive and tractor beams. They were happening all around him, along with war, riots, the Sexual Revolution and all the other ferment of the 1960s.
His genius was to extrapolate what seemed possible in 1969, and might still be possible today.
The entire article is worth reading in full, but here are some excerpts:
SHADO's Moonbase had three vertical takeoff and landing interceptors [above], housed in hangars deep underground… The interceptors were basically space-flying Harrier jump jets, which in 1969 were just entering service with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and later with the U.S. Marine Corps. In fact, UFO offered glimpses of a 1980s where instead of Devo and Atari, the world enjoyed civilian tiltrotor aircraft.
More than 40 years later, we indeed have the military V-22 tiltrotor and the upcoming F-35B vertical takeoff fighter for the Royal Navy and Marines Corps.
Alas, if only the late Gerry Anderson could have run the Pentagon. In his world, VTOL aircraft don't have a tendency to crash, unlike real Harriers and Ospreys—nor do they devour budgets like the F-35.
Easily the coolest weapon on UFO, Sky One [above] was the backup defense against alien spacecraft that made it past the Moonbase interceptors. It was a stubby delta-wing jet fighter launched from an attack submarine called Skydiver.
Nothing special there; aircraft were launched from surfaced subs as far back as World War I. Except that Sky One was launched from a submerged sub. The aircraft was attached to the bow section of the boat, which would lower its stern and raise its bow so that Sky One would launch at a 45-degree angle.
Shooting a missile from a sub isn't a big deal. Simply pop it out with compressed air or eject it in a capsule and then ignite the engines. But Sky One ignited its rockets while still attached to the sub.
One has to admire the courage of a submarine crew that doesn't mind rocket exhaust slamming into their hull… While 21st-century subs aren't yet launching manned aircraft from underwater, they are successfully launching unmanned ones. With several nations busy developing robotic warplanes, the F-35 and other "fifth-generation" fighters may be the last ones with a human in the cockpit.
It seems inevitable that someday, a fighter — be it manned or unmanned — will someday zoom out of the ocean depths.