By: Ian Fryer (writer)
A Fanderson Convention seems a strange affair without the presence of the late, great Ed Bishop. Although the man himself isn’t available, we can still dedicate part of our convention book to him with a look at an aspect of the endlessly fascinating character he created along with the producers and writers of UFO. Ian Fryer examines Ed Straker’s complex and revealing relationships with women. Over the course of 26 episodes Ed Straker took a journey from being portrayed as the stereo-typical hard-ass boss, as seen tearing a strip off Keith Ford for breaking security protocols, to tortured Byronic hero and man of action. Aside from scripts such as Timelash giving him the opportunity to run around firing sub-machine guns, key to this transformation is what we learn along the way about Straker’s relationships with women. The producers appear to have quickly worked out that Ed Bishop was the best actor they had and that Straker was a character with a lot of potential. Their response was to set a bomb off in his private life. The death of John, Ed and Mary’s son, is the central event around which Ed Straker’s emotional life revolves. What seems to have really scarred him inside though, is the breakdown of his marriage, a victim of misunderstanding and of his sudden and unexpected elevation to Commander of SHADO. The Straker we see in flashback with Mary is a different person to the one we are used to in the rest of the series. This Straker is fun, slightly shy and deeply in love. That person was already being buried under work and responsibility when divorce and bereavement threw the last few handfuls of earth on the grave. Now he lives with the knowledge that life can be altered in terrible ways by accident and error. Little wonder that he feels such empathy for the families of UFO victims who have had their loved ones torn from their lives with no warning.
The Guy the Girls Admire
To a large extent SHADO is Ed Straker and vice versa – an utterly committed organisation created in his image and what General Henderson describes as the monkey on Straker’s back – dedication. Foisted on him by accident, SHADO became a cuckoo in the nest crowding out every other part of his life until his home is just an empty shell – a place to sleep. Occasionally though, we see hints that another Ed Straker is trapped underneath the one that keeps the world safe. The traitor Turner in Timelash sees only the outer shell Straker presents to the world, goading his boss with increasingly childish taunts which occasionally have an interesting effect: ‘Big deal Straker. The guy the girls admire.’ We learn from his brief, surprised reaction that he is quite unaware that his status as a brooding, tragic hero makes him extremely attractive to the ladies. Jealous of his power and authority, Turner prods Straker further: ‘Things always come easy to you, don’t they, Straker,’ and then : ‘I know you Commander. The big man in charge of the world.’ Turner, his mind unravelling before our ears, obviously doesn’t know Straker at all and has not the first idea what his level of responsibility costs. Straker knows full well he is not in charge of the world, that very little has come easy to him and that the world keeps reminding him of these facts.
The Things We Never Say
The replacement of Alec Freeman with Virginia Lake changes the chemistry of the SHADO command in important ways. Straker is isolated by the unique nature of his job and by his dedication to it. Freeman was both a colleague and an old friend and his absence leaves the Commander as an ever more aloof, distant figure. Straker is at time s extremely cold towards Colonel Lake and sometimes she is quite hurt and annoyed by his manner ( there is a very good example in Reflections in the Water). Unlike Paul Foster, whom we learn in The Man who Came Back has a romantic past with Lake, Straker has put a barrier between himself and any possible romantic entanglements, particularly at work. The nearest we see to Straker forging a close relationship with a female SHADO member officer is with Nina Barry, whom he knew from before SHADO was even formed. His relationship with her is complicated and dealt with in various degrees of detail in several episodes ( Confetti Check A-OK, Kill Straker! and Sub-Smash). Mary Straker is under the impression that something is going on between them, if only from the reports of the private detective hired by her mother. Although the detective has misread the nature of their clandestine meetings, perhaps Mary has seen them together at some official function and detected a spark between them. From Kill Straker! We learn that Straker and Barry ( who have known each other for a good ten years at this point) have a friendlier relationship than we’d previously witnessed, and that Ed seems to know her father. Sub-Smash sees Nina and Ed at their closest, forced into intimacy by being trapped in a crippled submarine. Their final scene in Skydiver, trapped together with oxygen running out and the boat apparently breaking up, forces an acknowledgement of their bond from Barry: ‘’If it had to be anyone…. I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad it’s you.’ Skydiver being blown off the seabed interrupts further discussion, but Straker himself raises the subject later in hospital: Straker: ‘Well Nina, we were pretty close in there.’ Barry: ‘Yes. If there was anything I said which… well….’ Straker: ‘Or didn’t say? It’s what life’s all about, I guess. The things we never say.’ The nature of the relationship between Barry and Straker must forever remain unsaid, even between themselves. They are two close colleagues operating under military discipline, which for Straker prevents any possibility of them becoming truly close.
Leaving the Bubble
Josephine Frazer in The Responsibility Seat gets under Straker’s guard by posing as a reporter interviewing him in his film studio executive persona. When Freeman asks what she was like, he initially can’t even bring himself to say that she’s attractive. This was the tenth episode produced, when the show’s portrayal of Straker was in a state of flux. It had become clear that Ed Bishop the actor and Ed Straker the character were wasted stuck behind his office desk. A Question of Priorities gave us some background to the character, which was expanded upon later in Confetti Check A-OK, but The Responsibility Seat was the first episode in which the idea of him as a romantic figure is raised. Since the idea of Ed Straker with a happy family life is not something we were ever likely to see in UFO, we can guess things are likely to go wrong. In fact, it’s a mystery what the logical Straker sees in Frazer in the first place (OK, it’s not that hard – mini dress and big knockers) since she proves almost from their first meeting to be untrustworthy. Perhaps we can see Straker’s actions as the result of him leaving the bubble of SHADO and experiencing sunlight and fresh air for a change. He even takes Frazer to his place, though one imagines that he sees so little of his own home (‘It’s a place to sleep’) that it’s hardly a security risk. We see how Straker is interested in Frazer by the way he allows her to know some details of his personal life, or lack of same: ‘Ever since my divorce I’ve kept myself pretty much to myself. You know how it is.’ Ed is obviously extremely nervous and reticent about starting something, but seems to recognise a kindred spirit in Frazer. In some ways she is a female version of himself (intelligent, driven, determined) who hasn’t had the same opportunities in life, so has turned – we later discover – to crime. One can imagine that Straker wouldn’t be back on the dating scene any time soon as his fragile confidence in this area is shattered by the realisation that he represents merely a financial target to Frazer.
The Jar by the Door
The Long Sleep has always been a controversial episode in the UFO canon, held back to late night slots during the series original UK transmission due to its depiction of casual drug use. the quickly dated hippie trappings of the episode detract from what is the true heart of the story: a tragic coda to the saga of Ed Straker’s collapsed marriage and the death of his son. Fittingly in the series final episode, the two strands of Ed Straker’s unhappy personal life meet with shattering results for his psyche. This is UFO at its most subtle. It is obvious from the actions of Virginia Lake and Paul Foster that that they know just how much this case affects Straker, but the episode is never specific as to why. The audience is required to do some of the work to discover just why Catherine Fraser’s fate so gets under Straker’s skin. Remember Catherine is knocked down by Straker’s car while she is escaping from aliens. This is seen as a flashback, happening before the events of A Question of Priorities, which means that by the time Catherine wakes up more than ten years later, Ed Straker knows how the incident feels both from the point of view of the victim’s family as well as that of the driver. We are given an acting master class by Ed Bishop at the beginning of the episode, as we see his good mood crumble to despair in unsparing close up when Colonel Lake informs him that the case has become active once more. Not normally the most stylish of directors, Jeremy Summers trusts his leading man to carry the scene and his instincts pay off with one of UFO’s most memorable sequences. When it transpires that Catherine is apparently alive and well, there is hope in Straker’s heart once more- he couldn’t save his own son, but perhaps this time there might be a happy ending. Of course happy endings are at a premium in UFO, and Catherine dies a horrible, bizarre death due to the aliens’ actions. Straker is crushed, more emotionally vulnerable than he is seen at any time after the death of his son. We know that this is not just another case to be filed away and half-forgotten by the time the next episode rolls around. For a while, the wall Ed Straker has constructed between his inner torment and ‘the face he keeps in a jar by the door’ (to quote The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby) has crumbled. Leaving the hospital he stops briefly by Colonel Lake, but can’t find any words because sometimes there simply aren’t any. Lake still feels the need to be with Straker and offer whatever comfort she can by her mere presence.
A Man Alone?
It’s interesting to note the change in Straker’s taste in women during the series as opposed to before he became commander of SHADO. Mary Straker comes across as one of nature’s homebodies and somewhat naïve, though Straker himself is a more emotionally open figure before his divorce. Although hardly a doormat, Mary is a totally different personality to the sexy and feisty Jo Frazer and the efficient Moonbase commander Nina Barry. He also seems to have gone off blondes, which doesn’t help Virginia Lake’s chances. The tragedy of Ed Straker’s life is that his calling as head of SHADO has closed off all avenues of emotional release. The lesson of Confetti Check A-OK is that the hard-ass Straker we are introduced to in Identified is just the outer shell. This is the only aspect of his personality that he dares allow to show on a regular basis. In order to operate as ‘SHADO’s most valuable piece of manpower’ to quote General Henderson in Timelash, he has no alternative. The future for Straker after The Long Sleep, might not be quite as bleak as one may fear. As we have discovered during 26 episodes of UFO, he is a committed, driven individual, utterly dedicated to his job. But he always remains aware of the emotional needs of others, even when denying his own. When he learns of the birth of Lt. Grey’s twins in Confetti Check A-OK, Straker is reminded of unhappy times in his own past. His reaction is not one of a bitter, unhappy man: instead he orders Grey on an immediate week’s furlough to do his bit towards ensuring that Grey doesn’t make the same mistakes he did. Behind the drive and dedication is a complex, emotional human being who happens to have the most important job on the planet. Such a man cannot remain alone forever.
Cmdr. Straker and Catherine Frazer