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.

Where to Buy Management Lessons From Game of Thrones

This is the management textbook you never knew you wanted, but now you know you have to have it. The hardback has a scary academic price tag, but the paperback has a nice friendly RRP of £20/$30 or equivalent.

Amazon UK link here

Amazon US link here

Buy direct from publisher here

Unfortunately Bookshop.org doesn’t seem to have it, so if you want to buy direct from your local bookshop (and please do) you’ll have to communicate with them directly: the ISBN is 978 1 83910 528 9.

Not sure if you want to buy it or not? Here’s a sample chapter to whet your appetite.

Not that sort of appetite.

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.

I’m in Foundation again!

I’m deeply honoured to have an article comparing “Doctor Who: The Mutants” and Nigel Kneale’s “The Stone Tape” in the 50th anniversary issue of Foundation, the oldest science fiction studies journal! In due course it will be available online, but if you can’t wait (and/or want to support the Science Fiction Foundation’s activities), you can get your copy by joining here.