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.

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.