The Starlost, Episode Sixteen: Space Precinct

No, not the Gerry Anderson 1990s cops-in-space series, though I’ve been asked to do that one next by readers who like making me watch bad television so they don’t have to, so I’ll be starting it in October, after a couple of palate-cleanser articles. You were warned.

Meanwhile, on The Starlost, Garth decides to split with the hero trio (now back in their cotton shirts) for no sensible reason (he says they’ve been wandering the Ark for months and achieved nothing, which is fair, but how the whole “we’re all gonna die if we don’t move the Ark” thing will be furthered by him going solo is unclear), and takes a left turn into a whole different subgenre.

Suddenly we not only find that the Ark has some kind of police force (who have apparently been keeping tabs on the trio but doing nothing about it), but that there’s a whole interplanetary federation of humans who are engaging in interplanetary political shenanigans, cold-war espionage, and so on, which this police force are involved with. Meanwhile, Devon and Rachel literally spend the episode in a stalled elevator.

All the usual The Starlost problems are there, too; weirdly flat acting, characters whose motivations and personalities change from minute to minute (first the police chief is begging Garth to join the force, then he’s accusing him of inviegling his way into the force to spy on it), bizarre inconsistencies in how the Ark works and how much danger it’s in (Garth keeps on about how he thinks he can build a life here with the police force, while the rest of us say “until you meet your firey doom, that is”), and velour jumpsuits that must make going to the bathroom a challenge.

And the whole series ends with a sort of a whimper. Devon and Rachel trudge off on their seemingly futile quest, and it’s ambivalent whether or not Garth will rejoin them or stay with the police, suggesting that someone was making a desperate bid to keep the series going by changing the format completely, making it a series about space cops in an interplanetary federation and sidelining the quest story.

A glimpse of what might have been, though I doubt it would have been any better.

But then again the series forgot its USP a while back, turning from a story in which the hero trio visit biospheres with different cultures and different problems into a formula where the hero trio wander into a workplace led by an older man with a female sidekick, get into trouble, and wander out again. At this point it was probably unsaveable, so ending it there is probably merciful, for the characters as much as the audience.

The Starlost, Episode Fifteen: The Beehive

The hero trio find a lab full of apiculturalists (beekeepers to you and me) and before long we’re in not one but two bonkers bee B-movies, as one of the scientists, attempting to communicate with the bees, winds up pissing them off mightily, and then we discover the whole hive is being controlled by four giant telepathic mutant bees who are mind-controlling the leader of the project.

One of the giant mutant telepathic bees is on its coffee break right now.

This really ought to be wonderfully insane, along the lines of one of the more balls-to-the-wall LEXX episodes or possibly a late 1970s Hammer movie, but this is The Starlost, so it’s curiously flat.

There are two good guest star performances (sadly there are four guest stars), and some really appallingly badly researched biology (the scientist who’s trying to communicate with the bees thinks they communicate by humming, for a start, and that’s before we get into the whole impossibility of giant bees), though there’s a nice shoutout to the then-ongoing Washoe experiment when one scientist observes that chimps are good at sign language.

Continuity: the hero trio are wearing brown velour jumpsuit or leisure-suit combos, like “Gallery of Fear”, with no real explanation why, or what they’ve done with their usual outfits. Once again the scientists know about the accident (which is firmly back 200 years in the past again), but don’t seem inclined to try and do anything about it.

The Starlost, Episode Fourteen: Farthing’s Comet

The Ark is being buffeted by some external force, and the hero trio discover that there’s an astronomer on board, the titular Farthing, who has moved the Ark into the path of the titular comet, just so he can observe what they’re like from the inside. So the hero trio are all, “wait, you moved the Ark! Hurrah! Tell us how and we’ll do the same!” and then three-quarters of the episode involves watching them do that, although not enough to get it out of series-motivating peril apparently.

I say “apparently” because this episode seemed more than usually confused about timelines. There seemed to be the implication that Farthing’s comet-chasing was what set the Ark off course, and that the Ark went off course recently, both of which contradict the setup. The episode also featured a lot of what I now think of The Starlost‘s trademark radical personality shifts, with Farthing and his (female, of course, though at least she’s an engineer) assistant seesawing from “the Ark is doomed and there’s nothing we can do about it” to “let’s save everyone with Science!” over and over within a span of minutes.

Farthing demonstrates the importance of accurate labelling.

I don’t know what the record order was, either, but if it was recorded before “The Alien Oro”, it would explain where the hero trio got their spacesuits.

This episode did, surprisingly, have one or two bits of good dialogue, both down to Farthing: “What I say goes, and I say, you go,” and “Can he [Devon] do it?” “I don’t think so, but I got tired of arguing with him.”

The Starlost, Episode Thirteen: The Return of Oro

Oro’s back, suggesting that someone on the team has an Oro fixation. Anyway, he announces that he’s going to save the Ark by shipping it out to his planet, and it only takes the hero trio three-quarters of the episode to work out that Oro’s people want to cannibalize the Ark for its resources and aren’t too bothered about the welfare of humankind.

Tau Zeta, the episode’s real guest star.

An unexpectedly entertaining addition this week is Tau Zeta, an android that looks for all the world like a human-sized version of one of those 1950s tin toy robots. It’s got the voice of a CBC TV announcer, and the metatextual ability to bleep swearwords. And for some reason it’s knocking about the Ark. A surprisingly useless addition this week is a scruffy old man who appears in the first scene trying to break into a biosphere and is castigated for doing so by Devon, apparently with no regard for the irony this causes. The scruffy man is otherwise completely unnecessary to the plot, but hangs around till the end of the story anyway for some reason. Possibly to give Garth something to do, since he can’t very well fall in love with Tau Zeta (though that might at least have been entertaining).

The end of the episode sees Oro, now a fugitive from his people after failing in his mission (spoiler alert, he loses a debating contest with Devon, which doesn’t say much for his abilities), left to wander the corridors of the Ark. Since he never gets another chance to return, I suppose that makes him a Chekhov’s gun that never got fired.

The Starlost, Episode Twelve: The Implant People

The hero trio find a biosphere governed by a queen who is in thrall to a vizier, who controls the population by means of a brain implant that’s supposed to enhance mental capacity but can also be used to cause immense pain. There’s not much to do bar mount a resistance movement and depose him, though of course he does the usual villainy things like holding Rachel hostage and explaining his plans at length to anyone who’ll listen.

Other highlights include the biosphere’s council forming a resistance cell literally minutes after the vizier dissolves the council and reveals himself (hahaha!!!) as the villain, and the fact that the implants themselves are almost entirely irrelevant to the plot (you could substitute any pain-giving magical object to the same effect), and are also wasted as a plot device. There’s also a child; the saying is that when a series starts doing episodes with children, it’s on shaky ground, but this one started off there so it doesn’t change much.

So obviously the villain.

No entertaining guest stars from Canadian comedy or telefantasy either, more’s the pity, though they seem to have spent some of the costume and set budget.

This is possibly my top candidate for worst episode of the series, because it’s not just awful, it’s awful in a very boring way.

Not-A-Guest Blogging: I Read This Stuff So You Don’t Have To

My article on Badger Books is now up at Galactic Journey, where I’m now a regular staffer rather than a guest blogger! Badger Books, and their main writer Lionel Fanthorpe, are a great example of the sort of things I love to watch/read so you don’t have to: completely awful, and yet with a certain idiosyncratic joy that shines through even the worst novels. Check them out.

The Starlost, Episode Eleven: Astro-Medics

Devon gets injured saving Garth from himself, and thus we learn that the Ark has a biosphere of medical personnel complete with space ambulance. Why we haven’t seen them in earlier episodes where someone’s been injured or fallen ill, like “The Alien Oro” or “Lazarus in the Mist” is never explained, but oh well.

And yes, they know all about the Ark being off course, but they haven’t done anything about it because they’re doctors, not engineers, Jim. Which is ludicrous because 1) plainly not all of them are, the space ambulance crew aren’t for a start, and 2) it’s been centuries, you’d think some of them could retrain in that time.

Anyway, the story rapidly degenerates into a sort of parody of a medical soap, as the Young Handsome Brilliant But Heartless Surgeon could save Devon but is too obsessed with a distress call from an alien spaceship to try, leaving Old Overlooked But Moral Surgeon to step up to the plate. Of course the two reconcile in order to save Devon *and* the aliens.

Bill Kemp. He’s done better things.

One of the highlights of the story is Bill Kemp as the space ambulance captain. Canadians of certain generations might remember him as one of the stalwarts of The Wayne And Shuster Comedy Show (if you don’t, here he is playing the Hockey Hall of Fame Chairman in “The Unholy Goalie”, and as the Postmaster General in the Question Time sketch), and, probably because of his background in comedy, he is able to deliver frankly ludicrous lines with absolute conviction. Also, there’s some colour-blind casting in the ambulance crew, which is nice.

One of the lowlights is the alien makeup. The alien spends most of the story hidden behind a digital effect, and the reveal is supposed to be a “twist”, but, given how bad it looks, they might as well not have bothered.

The Starlost, Episode Ten: Mister Smith of Manchester

Our hero trio are trapped inside a biosphere called Manchester (yes, really), which seems to have no exits. Manchester is run by a strongman dictator, Mister Smith, and we learn that the biosphere was originally supposed to be a factory producing small arms for use on the new homeworld, but, when they escalated to larger weaponry, the rest of the Ark sealed the place off, and it’s now evolved into a paranoid surveillance state preparing for an imaginary war against imaginary enemies. And just when you’re thinking, “okay, so this is a satire of gun culture? And also the military industrial complex?” the story takes a turn into environmentalism, as it turns out all this gun producing is also turning the biosphere toxic.

Manchester has gone downhill lately

This episode definitely suffers from having too many ideas, as well as the usual character inconsistencies, e.g. the hero trio being pinned down in a warehouse by a cohort of armed guards, who then fail to shoot at them for long enough for the hero trio to arm themselves– and don’t get me started on how these supposedly peaceful farmers turn out to be dab hands with automatic weapons. I suppose it’s understandable that the hero trio trust Mister Smith for as long as they do, since it’s already been established that they’re naive and none too bright, but why does the nurse who treats Garth for pollution inhalation trust them enough to give them a huge exposition about how awful Mister Smith is, at some risk to herself? Particularly since this is supposed to be a paranoid society and they’re under suspicion of being spies. The premise doesn’t make much sense either– why have a whole biosphere manufacturing nothing but small arms?– but it’s possible Mister Smith was lying about that, so I give it a slight pass.

I’m trying to find something good to say about this one, but, bar that it passes the Bechdel test, I’m finding it difficult.

A knock-on problem from this episode is that the series’ writers start taking it as the basis for their formula, and from this point on we get a lot of stories where our hero trio stumble across a biosphere of people with a ridiculously narrow specialty, dominated by an alpha male type with a usually-female assistant.

Guest cast to watch out for: The actor playing the bring-out-your-dead man is Canadian comedy stalwart Les Rubie, who had roles in many 1970s/1980s-era episodes of The Wayne and Shuster Comedy Show. Unfortunately, none of the ones currently on YouTube (though you can see him in a non-speaking role in “I Was A TV Addict”), but if you can get your hands on a copy of their Trojan War parody, “The Best Little Warhorse in Troy” (and I wish someone would put that one on YouTube, it’s gloriously daft), he’s playing a Greek soldier named either Ludicrous or Ridiculous, I forget which.

The Starlost, Episode Nine: Gallery of Fear

The hero trio discover an art gallery staffed by a mysterious blonde, who tells them it all belongs to someone called Magnus. The Computer With The Good Beard (he’s so pretty! So pretty! So pretty! <click the link for the explanation>) is strangely reticent as to who Magnus is. Spoiler alert, it turns out we’re in the Rogue Supercomputer Episode. You just knew there was going to be one, what with Keir Dullea and all.

The Computer, and his Good Beard

So, yeah. Magnus was put on the ship to help the original bridge crew, has the power to cast convincing illusions, and tries to persuade the hero trio to remove the restrictions on his actions so that he can “help” them. Not being too bright, they almost fall for it, and would do so if Magnus himself hadn’t, rather stupidly, given them access to a projection of the Ark’s original commander who explains why Magnus was restricted in the first place (but who is otherwise completely useless, and can’t even tell them where the backup bridge is). Devon of course has to destroy Magnus, who manages to resist the temptation to sing “Daisy, Daisy” as he does so.

Continuity: for the last couple of episodes, the hero trio have been wearing the spacesuits they put on to go into the depressurised zone where Oro was, but now they’re back in their peasant smocks.

Also, the guest star’s performance is pretty good, adding more support to my hypothesis that everyone is directing themselves.

The Starlost, Episode Eight (halfway!): Circuit of Death

Richards is a scientist and political activist from a dome where, as the Computer With The Good Beard eventually informs us, there was until recently a functional two-party democracy. Then one of the parties, the “Control Party”, took over, imposed restrictions, declared the other party illegal and arrested its officials, and began running rampant through the environment.

With the dome in irreversible ecological decline, and learning about the Ark’s dire situation, Richards decides that the only thing for it is to flee the Ark in a lifepod with his daughter Valerie (Canadian gen-Xers, say hi to a very young Nerene Virgin, later to play the unforgettable Jodie on children’s edutainment programme Today’s Special), and blow up the Ark itself to give its inhabitants a merciful death.

Unfortunately, all of that’s just interesting backstory which is mostly wasted: the lifepod fails to eject, and Richards is forced to disarm the self-destruct mechanism with the aid of the hero trio. Which involves a kind of miniaturisation process (it gets heavily explained three times) whereby people project tiny versions of themselves into a microchip, and so most of the episode is taken up with Devon and Richards thunking clunkily around the microchip set, while Garth, out of his usual job since Valerie has a boyfriend, mostly sits at the computer finding out the abovementioned backstory, before eventually someone twigs to the fact that it might be a good idea to get him into the microchip as well, because technical guy.

Ten years later, the woman in the centre will be famous for cavorting with a mannequin and a puppet. Here she is with Rachel and Garth.

The ending makes no sense whatsoever. Richards (spoilers!) sacrifices himself to save the Ark, and everybody immediately goes misty-eyed about what a genius and humanitarian he was, and nobody points out the obvious, i.e. he was the one who put the Ark in danger to begin with. Valerie and boyfriend trot happily off back to their biosphere, with no one apparently concerned about the fact that it’s been taken over by Nazis. The whole story about the death of democracy, which I think a lot of us right now would like to hear, just stays as backstory.

To end on a more positive note: all the guest stars this week are Black (we’ve seen a bit of diversity in the Omicron episode, but that’s been it so far), and there’s no plot reason for this, making it colour-blind casting. However, I’m inclined to unkindly suspect that the reason Valerie has a boyfriend rather than being Garth’s love-interest-of-the-week is due to the production team worrying about how an interracial relationship, even a chaste and largely implied one, might play south of the Mason-Dixon Line.