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 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 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.

The Starlost Episode Seven: The Alien Oro

.Walter Koenig turns up (hooray) as an alien, Oro, whose ship has crashed into the Ark. Enterprisingly, he starts cannibalising the environment he’s landed in for parts, and recruits one of the locals as an assistant. She is, of course, a beautiful woman named Idona, and Garth, whose job it is to fall for whichever woman is guest-starring, obliges.

The tension, such as it is, comes from the fact that Idona has a terminal disease which Oro’s people can cure, but she has to leave with Oro if she wants to live, meaning she’s got to choose between life and Garth, as it were. Some tension also comes from Devon being (understandably) a bit irked at someone coming along and treating the Ark as raw materials, and not even volunteering to help fix it in return.

It’s Chekhov’s Guest Star!

I say “such as it is” because this is an incredibly tension-free episode. There’s about fifteen minutes’ worth of plot, a couple of contrived attempts at peril, and otherwise it’s just people talking flatly at each other. We again get character swings, in this case Oro spending 90% of the episode saying he won’t fix the Ark because frankly it’s not his problem (harsh but true), and then, five minutes before the end, saying he wished he could have helped and he’ll ask his people once he gets home.

Once again we find out that women in Cypress Corners cook and sew and bake bread and that’s about it. This is the third time we’ve been told that– and since Rachel has encountered women with more technical roles since then, you’d think she’d be less surprised to find one.

Fun fact for non-Francophiles: the name of Idona’s home biosphere, where the men all die before the age of 18 and the only adults are women, is “Igreque”, which is the French word for “Y”.

The Starlost, Episode Six: And Only Man is Vile

Our hero trio come to New Eden, apparently deserted but for a single young woman, Lisa, who is traumatized into speechlessness. She rapidly recovers and starts manipulating the trio, setting them against each other. Unbeknownst to them, they have wandered into a social experiment run by two scientists: Dr Asgard, an Ayn Rand type who thinks humans are basically selfish, and Dr Diana, who thinks they’re basically compassionate.

Diana and Asgard: spot the sensitive one.

The whole thing plays out rather like a multi-way cross between Blake’s 7: Duel, Star Trek: The Empath and any given episode of The Prisoner, and as such it’s actually not too bad, for The Starlost values of “not too bad” of course. Of course Dr Diana’s view eventually triumphs as the hero trio demonstrate that their love for each other is transcendent and self-sacrificing, but we do actually get a little time to explore Garth’s ambivalent feelings about being the third wheel to Devon and Rachel’s romance, and there’s a suggestion that Rachel’s puritanical upbringing means she’s a little suspicious of men in general, even ones she likes, which wouldn’t be too surprising.

Drawbacks: the message is iterated over and over in declamatory speeches between Asgard and Diana, to the point where I was groaning every time the story cut away to them. Also, while we do actually get an older woman with agency in this story in the form of Dr Diana, the gender politics are still mighty sketchy: of course it’s the Woman Scientist who is all about Compassion and Love, and the Delilah trope with Lisa is more than a little misogynous.

The Starlost Episode Five: Children of Metheuselah

Devon finds what he thinks might be the auxilliary bridge, but it turns out to be staffed entirely by preternaturally intelligent, adult-acting children who can stun you with their brains. Straight away Rachel develops a simper and her voice rises an octave, because Women Like Children, and the children all gravitate to her, because Children Like Women. Ulgh.

The leader of the children is a teenager who rubbishes the hero trio’s story because the accident hasn’t shown on their screens and the computer gives them no evidence of it, but he’s scared enough to stage a show trial and attempt to get them executed (well, Garth and Devon, anyway, because Rachel Is A Woman and Children Like Women). Of course (SPOILERS) it turns out this is a training facility, and the reason why there’s no evidence of the accident is that they’re just running simulated drills. Once the hero trio demonstrates this to the kids, the old order collapses.

How many things are wrong with this story? Let’s count them…

This is an episode with a lot more wrong with it than just planklike acting from the entire cast and the whole Rachel as Mum thing. The children have apparently been given some kind of anti-aging treatment that has held them at their current ages for over 500 years: so if Earth technology could do that, why bother with a generation ship? The children’s ability to stun people with their brains is presented early on with a fanfare, but by the end of the episode they’ve forgotten about it. While it makes sense to have children training up to be bridge crew, shouldn’t there be some external monitoring, and why are they isolated from the rest of the ship? Etc.

There’s a very good scene where Rachel, upset by the children’s apparent inability to play, tries to teach them Blind Man’s Bluff, but is shocked to tears when the kids really don’t get the point of the game, or indeed play in general, and would much rather put on a VR helmet. It’s one point in the story where the kids really do seem genuinely eerie and alien, like they should. However, two scenes later and they’ve all spontaneously started playing and enjoying Blind Man’s Bluff, with no indication of why they changed their minds. That rather sums this episode up really.