A serious look at ‘The Responsibility Seat’
In the Carlton boxed set of UFO dvds, The Responsibility Seat is listed as the tenth episode, and indeed it was the tenth episode to be filmed, with production starting on August 21st 1969. However, the ‘film order’ of UFO was never clearly established and the Century 21 UFO synopsis for ITC has The Responsibility Seat in seventeenth place in the list – as does the Australian boxed set – just after The Computer Affair and Flight Path. The USA set however, has the episode in fourteenth place!
The synopsis states: ‘Identified’ introduces the series and should be transmitted first. ‘Exposed’ introduces Michael Billington as Col. Paul Foster and we recommend it be transmitted before the other 24 episodes if possible.
So, no ‘set’ transmission order apart from those two episodes. No wonder the time-line of UFO is so complicated!
The ITC synopsis for The Responsibility Seat reads as follows:
Colonel Freeman learns that it can be tough in the responsibility seat when he takes over from Commander Straker – and Straker learns that a pretty girl can be dangerous…..
Commander Ed Straker finds that his ‘cover’ responsibilities as a film producer can have some pleasant aspects when a girl reporter named Jo Fraser comes along to interview him. Jo is a very attractive girl; and she soon makes it clear that she finds him attractive as well. Though not too happy at noticing she has a tape recorder in her handbag, Ed doesn’t think there is anything to worry about until later, when he learns that Jo has returned to his office alone for a few moments, ostensibly because she has left her handbag behind.
When his secretary telephones the news agency and discovers that they have never even heard of Jo Fraser, Ed Straker decides to go in search of her, and hands over command of SHADO temporarily to Colonel Freeman.
He eventually finds Jo at a motel, but she tricks him and escapes. He gives chase, and her car crashes. Their mutual attraction deepens, and he feels sympathetic towards her when she admits that she falsely claimed to be an agency reporter; but it was the only way to get in and see him to obtain a freelance article. He invites her back to his apartment. It’s been a long time since he has felt attracted to a girl…..
Meanwhile Alec Freeman is finding that the responsibility seat is a hot seat. It calls for split-second and difficult decisions and his admiration for Straker increases. When a suspected UFO is sighted, he makes a wrong decision; so he is even more worried when he has a serious decision to take over the dangerous movements of a mobile oil rig on the moon.
And Ed Straker is not only discovering that a pretty girl can be as dangerous as a UFO so far as a man’s feelings are concerned, but that Jo Fraser is even more lethal…..
So there you have it. Lots of UST, lots of angst, with Ed Straker being led down the garden path by unscrupulous Jo Fraser after he has fallen for her female wiles and low cut, skimpy mini-dress.
Let’s pause for a moment and take a closer look at the episode. Admittedly it’s not one of my favourites; it’s a bit of a dog’s dinner in some respects – unable to make its mind up whether it wants to be a character driven episode showing us the human side and failings of Straker, or whether it wants to be an all action programme with plenty of hardware and a striking new vehicle in the form of the Sovatek mobile rig out of control and on a path to destroy Moonbase. (And that mobile rig is a fabulous piece of craftsmanship – such a shame that, like the wonderful Aerocopter in Ordeal, we did not see much more of it.)
I don’t intend to focus on the ‘UFO/Moonbase’ aspects of this episode – they are pretty much cut and dried as far as I am concerned and more appropriate for a later article. It’s the complex and often misunderstood relationship between Straker and Jo Fraser that intrigues me.
The premise of the story is pretty simple; a possible security leak in SHADO has to be investigated and Straker, as the person who is partly responsible for the potential danger, takes it upon himself to find the woman concerned and get back a tape recording that threatens to reveal the existence of SHADO as well as his own role as commanding officer.
The episode starts with Straker in command mode – delegating a task to Col Freeman. We have seen this happen before in Exposed (also written by Tony Barwick) when Straker orders Freeman to Moonbase:
Straker: Go to Moonbase Alec. Drill them, flatter them, cajole them, whatever. But get those times down.
Freeman: Nice assignment. Where do I get my stick?
Straker: No Alec. That would be my way. I’m sending you because you’re the right man for the job.
In fact Freeman is shown to be an excellent second-in-command in all his other episodes –most notably in Sub-smash and Kill Straker! where he demonstrates his loyalty and concern both for Straker and the organisation.
In The Responsibility Seat, however, he comes across as rather inexperienced, a man who is ill-at-ease behind the desk and who lacks the strength needed to command. But that also goes for Miss Ealand and Straker himself, who comes across as out of his depth in a couple of places. This is one of the reasons why I feel this episode takes place early in the timeline, certainly after Exposed but before Survival.
Paul Foster is finding his feet as Moonbase Commander, Freeman has not had the chance to settle into the role of second-in-command and Ford calls Straker ‘Commander’ on the office intercom. Miss Ealand is also still learning the ropes – I doubt if later on she would have let anyone into Straker’s office so easily. All these facts point to the ‘newness’ and possible inexperience of the staff.
Having given Alec the job of informing Moonbase that the roster has to be changed, Straker then attempts to ‘fob’ Freeman off with the other unpleasant task that has to be done – that of being interviewed by a reporter from the Global Press Agency, a ‘Joe Fraser’. However when Straker –reluctantly – meets Fraser, he discovers that ‘Mr Fraser’ is in fact Josephine, an attractive woman who is clearly out to impress him and to whom he seems to respond with far more attention than perhaps an ordinary press reporter deserves. Fair enough.
And yet if you watch closely enough there are enough clues to make a thoughtful viewer stop and reconsider. Is Straker really such an innocent that he will fall for the charms of any female who happens to catch him unawares? I think not.
Let’s take it from that first moment when he realises that Fraser is a woman – when he sees the mint green knee high boots and the mini-dress.
There is a definite moment of caution, a wary look in his eyes as he reassesses the situation and understands that she deliberately misled both him and Miss Ealand. And his first reaction? A very definite and disapproving ‘Hmm.’ But he is a consummate actor, used to playing the part of film studio head and he quickly puts on his ‘Studio’ face, the smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, his head tilted as if he is listening intently to every word, but all the while we know that he is merely play-acting.
But this performance does not last for long. He sees the tape recorder Jo Fraser has tried to conceal in her handbag and there is a subtle change in his expression, as subtle that a casual viewer might not actually see it. A look of distrust. Here is a woman who has already lied once. A woman who might stop at nothing to get the interview she wants.
And then she says: ‘I think first impressions are so important.’
Straker replies: ‘I think so to.’ And it is obvious what his impression is: here is a woman who is not to be trusted.
THAT is the first ‘crunch’ moment, the point at which this episode moves into darker territory. Look at the body language, the way he leans back, distancing himself, the desk a solid barrier between them. Watch his face at that moment. Disgust? Or perhaps disdain. Come on – Straker is Military Intelligence, he knows about honey traps and spies. And Tony Barwick, the writer of this episode, wrote Court Martial which involves industrial espionage. Please don’t expect me to believe that Ed Straker actually trusts this woman. If anything, after his own failed marriage (by the time the events in The Responsibility Seat occur, he is no longer wearing his wedding ring) he is more likely to be wary of any involvement with a woman.
Straker is a man who has been burned once by a relationship gone wrong and it is highly unlikely he would open up to a stranger, especially one who has made a deliberate and calculated effort to deceive him. And if we assume, rightly or wrongly, that this episode occurs early in SHADO’s operations, then John Straker is still alive and somehow I cannot imagine Ed Straker (who was deliberately played as asexual by Ed Bishop) taking a woman to his house simply for sex.
After the interview is over, he offers to walk her to her car. Politeness? Something more? I suspect that he is suspicious of Jo Fraser and wants to find out more about her, even maybe wants to ensure that she goes straight to her car and does not hang around the studio. If so he is, again, at fault. He should have waited until she drove away. But hindsight is 20/20 vision and instead he leaves her and sets off to walk round the studio. (Shades of Exposed there and his remarks to Alec that he needed to be seen in the studios more often)
The small scene where we are made to think that Straker has been shot by a gunman is a quirky addition and in some respects could be perceived as nothing more than a time-filler added to give some tension to what is a fairly pedestrian episode so far. It appears to do little to enhance the episode but it does emphasise the dual role that Ed Straker plays and his vulnerability as SHADO Commander. It was interesting to see Straker’s ‘film studio’ persona there – all smiles and enthusiasm – which disappears once he is away from the film crew and actors.
Meanwhile, Jo is showing her true colours and sneaking back into Straker’s studio office to retrieve her handbag together with its tape recording. At this point I expected Miss Ealand to have stopped her, but the office door is open and Jo waltzes in, takes a quick look around and waltzes out again before anyone can prevent her. Another pointer to this being an early on in SHADO’s operations.
When Straker returns, he is more than a little perturbed by the news that Fraser went into his office unaccompanied, and there is a nicely lit and well directed scene where he operates the Voice Print Identification system and the room descends, casting a reddish shadow over his face as we are watching. An ominous moment, dark and forbidding as if showing Straker’s own murky thoughts as he runs through the conversation with Miss Fraser.
‘I think first impressions are so important.’
‘You tape record the interview and take notes?’
Remember his expression as he realises that ‘Joe’ Fraser has tricked him? The look of wariness? He prowls the office, on edge and clearly more than a little worried about Miss Fraser, but it is not until he is in the safety of his ‘real’ office that we see the real extent of his emotions. He leans forward, elbows on his desk, hands clenched together in a tight grip. ‘How could I have been so stupid?’ and then slams his fist on the Perspex surface not once, but twice.
It is interesting to note his answer to Freeman’s question – ‘What was she like?’
‘Intelligent, attractive and a possible security leak.’
A dangerous combination. We all know how ruthless SHADO security can be. And that is the focal point of Straker’s following actions: Jo Fraser is a security leak and he will do whatever it takes to protect SHADO. We have seen an example of this before in Exposed when he orders Carlin to fire on the UFO despite the proximity of the XV104 aircraft flown by test pilot Paul Foster and later in Court Martial – filmed after The Responsibility Seat – when he tells Jane Grant that he will fire the acoustic gun if she does not sign the affidavit. There is no doubt that he can be, and will be, utterly ruthless when necessary.
Straker is also reluctant to hand the task over to Freeman, despite his earlier efforts to get Alec to do the less pleasant jobs! It was his mistake and therefore his duty to get the tape back. A case of making sure the job gets done properly? Who knows?
There is a rather poignant moment when Straker hands over the reins to Freeman. The responsibility seat, with all that it entails. Remember the scene in CCA-OK with Henderson saying words to the effect of ‘needing an understanding wife.’? And now think of what that responsibility seat has cost Ed Straker. His marriage, his wife, his home. Even if this is an early episode Straker is no longer married to Mary, in fact she is probably remarried by now.
Yes, John is still alive but think how hard it must have been, working for SHADO all those long empty years, all the while watching his son grow up and not being part of his life. Bloodymindedness? No. More like a deliberate sacrificing of his own happiness in order to ensure the safety of the world. Also, it’s worth noting the way he adjusts the placing of items on his desk before he hands over to Alec. That slight readjustment of the cigars and the phones. Nothing much, but enough to reinforce the idea that Straker is a control freak. A man who needs to be in charge.
Interspersed between the scenes of Straker catching up with Jo Fraser scenes are the more ‘technical’ scenes involving Alec Freeman valiantly doing his best to keep things running smoothly in SHADO, with the false alarm of the weather balloon and then the crisis on Moonbase with the runaway rig.
It would, in my opinion, have been more effective to have had only one ‘sub-plot’ – showing far more of the incident with the Sovatek incident and possible Moonbase emergency evacuation procedures as well as letting the viewers see Paul Foster settling into his role as Moonbase Commander.
We see Straker driving his car, and there is another repetition of the motif: ‘I think first impressions are so important.’ The scene in Jo Fraser’s ‘apartment/motel room’ (there is an inference that she is staying at the Grenville Motel, but the building is called Windermere House) is well directed, with Jo looking suitably horrified as she clobbers Straker over the head with a vase and then runs for it only for a rather tense car chase to ensue and ending with Jo’s Porsche coming off the road.
Straker rescues Jo from her car and takes her for a drink, asking: ‘Why did you do it?’
Watch his body language there: tense, arms folded, sitting back, no hint of real interest in her as a person. He wants answers, and he gets them. The folded arms are a real indication of his unease, his need to protect himself – or is it SHADO he is protecting? After all Straker is SHADO in many respects.
‘It’s a dirty world. Sometimes you have to cut a few corners.’ A resentful and somewhat vindictive reply, her face twisted with envy.
‘Intelligent, attractive and a possible security leak.’
The words echoing again in his mind before he invites her back for dinner. This is no sexual attraction, this is work. The need to make sure she is not a serious threat to SHADO. Everything after this point is more or less planned out: leaving the wine in the car so that he has a chance to ask Miss Ealand to do a security check on Miss Fraser, setting the scene so that Jo is relaxed and suspects nothing, while he waits for the call back with the results of the G6.
And there he is, acting again, the smile not quite reaching his eyes, the quick change from serious SHADO Commander to ‘interested’ film executive. And another question here. If Straker was willing to risk all and let Jo Fraser into his bedroom then why did he also feel the need to instigate a G6? He clearly had serious concerns about her background.
Watch his eyes as she gets up and walks round the room, the way he stares at her, the tension in his body as if he is forcing himself to be friendly, and – a clever touch here – the cause of all this playacting and deviousness there on the sofa beside him; the handbag with its concealed tape recorder, reminding us of the real reason for such out-of-character behaviour.
Then she sits down again and let’s look at what his body is saying: his legs not towards her, no attempt to move closer, as if he is distancing himself from her, from who she might be. And he does not twist his torso to meet hers, instead his body is facing forward.
He leans across, one hand brushing a stray lock of hair from Jo’s forehead, his other hand reaching over to her thigh and then kisses her. The kiss, I believe, was added at the last minute to the filming. Whether it was or not is irrelevant though. It is a kiss, an implication of more than just a superficial attraction between the two characters.
But is it? If we accept the words of Ed Bishop, and we look at all the evidence so far, that kiss means nothing. It is Straker using all those acting skills we saw earlier in this episode to fool Jo Fraser into thinking she was safe, while he waited for Miss Ealand to call back with the details of Miss Fraser’s history. He was nobody’s fool.
There is no need to go into the sordid details of Miss Jo Fraser and her purpose in seeking out Ed Straker. He throws her out without any further ado. No need to call SHADO security – she was no real threat to the organisation, nothing more than an opportunist blackmailer looking to catch him in a compromising position. But I believe that, had she posed a real threat she would not have been so fortunate. And THAT would have been a very interesting addition to the story.
A difficult episode to review in some respects. Too many seemingly unrelated incidents, too many red herrings. It’s only by paying very close attention and listening and moreover believing Ed Bishop when he says that he played Ed Straker as ‘asexual’, that the truth is finally revealed.
‘Intelligent, attractive and a possible security leak.’
And of course:
’I think first impressions are so important.’
And finally. A couple of questions for the OCD fans among us.
- What happened to the third UFO, the one that was thought to have entered Earth’s atmosphere?
- How did Jo Fraser leave Straker’s house? Her car was in a ditch somewhere – possibly miles away – and I can’t imagine Straker being willing to give her a lift anywhere!
The SHADOpedia page for The Responsibility Seat can be found here
A further article about Ed Straker’s sexuality can be found here.