November 1, 2015

Starman, episode 1 "The Return"

In Chicago, photographer Paul Forrester is awoken after a night with a beautiful model by his editor, Liz Baynes, bursting into his hotel to tell him he's going to miss his flight to Nicaragua. These two have a complicated relationship, having once been lovers, but now being combative business partners as she lays into him over his plans to swing by the erupting Mount Hawthorne first to snatch some pics before leaving the country. He swipes some cash from her purse, ducks a punch (a routine gesture to them now), and rushes out the door. Sure enough, he arrives at the volcano and the helicopter he hired gets caught in a plume.

In an orphanage, teenager Scott Hayden Jr. dreams of the time his adopted parents drove off a cliffside road while he was begging them for information about his birth parents and the small metal orb which was left to him. Scott wakes up screaming, a nightly routine, and the other orphans chew him out before the supervisor, Mrs. Markham, tells them to go back to sleep. Scott fishes the orb out of his dresser. As he drifts again to sleep, it begins to glow in his hand.

An alien ship arrives on Earth, again releasing the discorporeal form of the Starman. After viewing Scott in a graveyard the next day, mourning those adoptive parents, the force swings to Mount Hawthorn, where it finds the crashed helicopter on a snowcap, the dead body of Paul sprawled alongside it. The force hones in on Paul's blood, and a new copy of his body emerges from the snow. The Starman is reborn. He takes the clothes off the dead man and, accidentally snapping some pictures, takes Paul's camera, too. Seeing that the pilot is still alive, Starman carries him down the mountain.

Starman follows a signal to the orphanage, where he finds Scott and the boy's orb. Before he can tell the boy anything, Starman is thrown out by Mrs. Markham, but the boy catches up to him and says to meet in the park later. Following a key in his pocket, Starman finds the hotel, where the staff is shocked to see him as the public search for Paul had been called off by now. Liz is in Paul's room packing his things, and when Starman arrives, she's shocked, unable to understand his behavior and decking him when he doesn't routinely duck. Laying him down, she orders him some Dutch apple pie and takes the film from his camera. Developing it later, Liz sees both Paul and the pilot in shots of the crash scene, and wonders who the third person was who photographed them.

At the capital, FSA intelligence agent George Fox is begging his General superior to follow up on examining Jenny Hayden's son. The General begrudgingly sets him loose.

At the park, Starman is mesmerized by a Doo-Wop group before he meets Scott and asks about Jenny, but the boy hasn't seen her since he was three and he demands to know who Starman is. "I'm your father," he says, taking an identical orb out of his pocket. Scott flips, refusing to believe this, even when the orbs start to glow. Scott drops his and runs. Starman pursues, neither noticing an intrigued Liz who watches after, picking up the dropped orb.

Liz shows up at the orphanage to talk to someone in charge, coming across Fox and his goons as they're pouring through files. After ducking his questions, Liz leaves, but he's suspicious and orders her tailed. When he's confronted by Mrs. Markham about betraying her children's confidentiality, he tears into her and demands full compliance. She shies away, but tucks a piece of mail meant for Scott into her pocket. Confronting Scott, she tells him what she knows and slips him the package: a cassette from the lawyer of Jenny Hayden. On it, Jenny tells her son the truth.

Pouring through microfiche, Liz finds a story about Fox related to an "alien" conspiracy coverup from 14 years ago. Taking "Paul" out to dinner, she notices how perfect his teeth have become, and that he's suddenly unable to hold even small amounts of liquor. Dragging him back to his hotel room and stripping off his shirt, she's shocked to see scars which should be on his body are missing. Finally putting the truth together, she heads straight to Fox's surveillance truck and offers a deal: the alien in exchange for the story as an exclusive, and him leaving the boy alone. Fox doesn't bite.

The next morning, Liz helps Starman come down from a hangover. She reveals she knows the truth, and they talk about their past loves - he with Jenny, she with Paul - and the complexities of human relationships, as well as this return visit being something Starman won't have another chance at should he be forced to leave again. They get a call from Scott and meet him at a park, Starman listening to the cassette by holding it to his ear without a player. This doesn't go unnoticed by Fox's watching men. Scott says he's ready to make a run for it, slip away from the government agents and try to find his mother. When Starman hesitates, Scott storms off. Liz gives Starman what support she can, returning the orb she found, and Starman returns it to Scott, vowing that they'll find Jenny. Together.

Liz spots Fox moving in with his agents and leads father and son into making a break for it. The cassette is lost, but Starman uses his orb to hijack a monorail train and our heroes get away. When they stop, Liz shoves some cash in Starman's pocket, gives him a huge kiss, and says they can call any time they need help. As they take off, Fox arrives, fuming at a gloating Liz. At least he has the cassette as evidence! Giving it a listen, all that's on it is the voice of Starman singing Doo-Wop.

On a road outside of town, Scott starts teaching his father how to hitchhike as they begin their quest.


I mentioned last week that I had never watched Starman the movie, but I was certainly familiar with it. That there was a spin-off TV series came as a complete surprise to me, though. I see faces that I recognize here, but they're from other projects. Robert Hays, primarily - okay, only - from the Airplane films, and Christopher Daniel Barnes from The Brady Bunch movies. That pigeonholes them, at least in my mind, as comedic actors, so I'm very interested to see how they handle roles that are presumably more dramatic.

Having now watched the movie, I can see the potential for it as a weekly series. The alien returns to Earth to connect with his son and reveal his secret destiny. Along the way, the alien struggles to fit in and the two use their abilities to help others they encounter. It's a well worn, but time tested formula, but what puzzles me is why they'd turn Starman into a series when all signs point to it having been, at best, a disappointment at the box office. Perhaps some network exec was banking on the potential of the property to translate into a weekly TV format, regardless if people were familiar with the movie. Or maybe he or she was just snorting lots of coke (it was the 80s, remember). Let's find out.

My first blush impression is that Starman is more or less exactly the show I thought it would be. The tone, pacing, and performances are straight out of 80s genre TV 101. That's not a criticism, just an observation. It so completely transports me back to TV from that moment in time that I half expected to hear my Mom ask me if I've finished my homework. But, like the movie, it's not drowning in 80s pop culture. There's no use of pop music (or replacement music, as those rights are expensive, often forcing songs to be replaced by a generic synth track in releases like this), the fashion isn't overtly 80s, nor is the lingo. It's the... attitude that's 80s here, and I feel right at home.

Like Bridges' performance in the movie, it took a while for me to warm to Hays' take on Starman. At first it feels like the effort of a lesser actor, but as the episode went along, I began to realize that Hays was doing something different with the role, playing up Starman's naivete and curiosity where Bridges seemed to focus more on Starman adjusting to his body and surroundings. Natural choices for both actors, as the character is at two very different points. At times, Hays' take is played for comedic effect, but I can see it taking on an important dramatic role as the series goes along. Christopher Daniel Barnes has a few moments of "young actors syndrome", where passion is favored over subtlety, but he's got a really nice screen presence, and he and Hays already feel right together.

The two key supporting actors both do fine jobs as well. Michael Cavanaugh's take on George Fox comes off like a decentish man who thinks he doing the right thing in his pursuit of this alien, and that really gives the character a nice and very welcome bit of shading. As Noel and I have discovered with short-lived shows like this, there are often tweaks and changes made along the way in an effort to "right" the ship, so I won't be at all surprised if Fox eventually morphs into a traditional villain, or is perhaps saddled with a more nefarious sidekick or boss. But I have to say, my favorite character and actor in this first episode is Mimi Kuzyk as Liz Baynes. She really gets a nice arc here and I'm profoundly disappointed when it turns out she isn't going to be hitting the road with the boys. Liz really acts as a nice buffer between the two leads, and sincerely I hope she turns up again at some point.

This first episode doesn't rely on much f/x wizardry, and most of what we get is simply recycled shots from the movie. The chopper scenes of Paul closing in on the "raging" volcano are less than convincing, however. The stock footage of the volcano contrasts with the rest of the scene, and the close-ups in the cockpit were quite obviously filmed while the chopper was on the ground. Thankfully, the episode doesn't attempt anything else ambitious from a technical perspective. Other than the use of the silver ball thingie/deus ex machina, I don't see this being an f/x driven show, and that should help it to appear less "dated". Also helping in that regard are the very nice picture and sound quality of this DVD release. There are no special features here, and I can't imagine they made any effort to clean it up, but it I have to say, Starman looks much better than many comparable DVD releases I've seen.

This first episode has a few minor stumbles, some of which are simply indicative of the era in which it was made, but it does a solid job of setting the board and putting the pieces in motion. As with the movie, I like the characters and I'm invested in the stakes. Speaking of which, if you plan on watching along with us, I absolutely recommend watching the movie first. The premise isn't exactly advanced calculus, but the pilot doesn't make much of an effort to walk you through the events of the movie in any great detail. With the movie fresh in your mind, not only will you get your bearings faster, you'll appreciate the subtle nods sprinkled throughout.

(additional stills)


I did know a few things about this series going in, both from having caught a couple episodes during reruns in the 90s, and while researching the movie for Masters of Carpentry. I knew the Starman returned, this time portrayed by Robert Hayes. I knew he was accompanied by his son, now a teenager, and that they were looking for Jenny, the government once again on their tail. Yeah, that's pretty much what we get here, but I was impressed things weren't quite as straight-forward as I figured they would be.

Let's start with Scott Jr. I figured he'd be with his mom and they'd be separated in the pilot. Nope, she's been gone from his life since he was 3, the family she left him with died in a horrific car accident he miraculously survived, and now he wakes up screaming night after night in an orphanage. Yeah, he does have the stink-eyed portrayal of many a stereotypically written angsty teenager on tv, but you can't exactly say his sarcasm and bitterness is unjustified when he's got so much mystery and a double tragedy like that stacked against him. He's got every reason to have a hard time swallowing the sudden appearance of a dad he knows to be dead, and a story he's never heard tell of before. The surprise tape in the mail from Jenny is a bit much, but I understand them needing some kind of a device to get Scott on Starman's side. What I want to know is, was this a letter ("from a lawyer" in a thread I hope they explore in an upcoming episode) something that's been sitting there unopened for a while, or did it just recently arrive? I wonder if we'll ever find out. All this said, Christopher Barnes is not particularly great in the role, instead feeling like an unfortunate predecessor of Edward Furlong in T2. He's got a great voice, though, so I'm not surprised to see he had a great vocal career. Dude was the 90s Spider-Man! Holy crap!

On the Starman side, I figured he'd just show up as Scott Sr. again, but I'm not surprised they didn't go that route as, thinking about it, why would he when that body's long gone by now. We instead get him finding the crash of a fresh body and slipping into that man's life, which is rolled over understandably quickly as a one-shot, though it would have been interesting to explore it for a while. Hays isn't bad as Starman. He can mug for the camera a bit much on occasion, and I do miss certain nuances of Jeff Bridge's portrayal, especially that bird-like quality, but I like the childish, wide-eyed sincerity of Hays, and how he's still surprised by little things like Doo-Wop music, elevator buttons, and the onset of drunkenness. I could see this shtick getting old pretty quick, but I'm still curious to see how it'll play out from week to week. And I like that they minimize his alien powers, just using it for the cute scene of him listening to the cassette tape and using his orb on the train. It would have been nice to give him a limited supply like in the movie, as that would be interesting to explore in a serialized format. Instead, it's just a single sonic screwdriver which doesn't burn out after each use. I also quite enjoy his rebirth, and how they set most that complicated sequence off screen and just have him rise from beneath the snow. Very well done.

Guest star Mimi Kuzyk does a great job as Liz Baines, and I like how they play her struggle to deal with Paul's death, first as she comes to grips over how she feels about the man himself, then her realization that he really is gone and that she's talking to an alien wearing a copy of him. Her initial sell-out to the government feels like a very natural part of this, before her horror and fear are quelched by learning more about Starman and why he's here. I'm honestly a bit disappointed that it seems like she won't continue to play a part in the show, as she could have made for a very nice member of the lead cast.

As an antagonist, George Fox seems too understaffed and flustered to be more of a threat than an annoyance, but he's well played by Michael Cavanaugh, with his need for control and authority constantly undercut by a skeevy desperation as he'll stop at nothing to get his hand on this alien and prove he was right all those years ago. What's missing here is a counterpart. We need someone on Starman's side, someone like Charles Martin Smith's character in the film, to show the angel and devil debates going on in the government instead of just having it be pure antagonism. And again, he just doesn't come off all that threatening yet and I can't see myself worrying too much what will happen whenever he shows up from week to week.

Other stuff I enjoy are the callbacks to Dutch apple pie, the hitchhiker ending, the stern lady at the orphanage turning out to have a bit more good in her (would have been nice to explore some of the other kids, alas), the return of the alien POV shots, the donut guy ranting about teenagers, the staging of the scene where Starman and Liz almost miss each other at their first meeting. Overall, it's a solid pilot. It's nothing great, a little clunky in construction at times, but it's a perfectly fine continuation of the story and is well played for the most part. It passes the ultimate test of a pilot in that I definitely do want to tune in again next week. Yeah, I'm sure it won't take long to settle into your basic The Fugitive/The Incredible Hulk formula, but we'll see when we get there.


Tony Williams said...

Yeah, Fox as merely a true believer reluctantly backed by a seemingly disinterested government isn't sufficiently threatening. I'd prefer there be an unscrupulous, hell-bent superior and an agent who becomes increasingly uncomfortable with what he's asked to do in pursuit of Starman and Star...kid.

Like I said, I fully expect this dynamic to be tweaked at some point. Though I do like that Fox isn't a mustache twirling baddie, that lack of menace is a clear weakness that I think the network would address coming out of the mid season break.

Ray said...

Great review on the first episode. You really went in to complete detail on the entire episode. Tony I am glad you pointed out the comedic effect that Robert Hays portrayed. It was quite strange for me to see him playing the role of Starman at first, especially being so used to Jeff Bridges excedllent casting in the movie. I kept seeing Hays as his character from Airplane,) which I was a big fan of also) but then Bridges really made me laugh a lot in the movie with his naivety of Earthly customs. It's nice that you got to see this on a decent quality on DVD, hence the last time I watched it several years ago was on You Tube as I mentioned previously. I may have to consider getting the DVD now.

Tony Williams said...

Yeah, Hays would not seem like the natural choice for the role based on his resume, but--at least in the pilot--he brings a nice, childlike quality as well as a sensitivity that should play well once he and Starkid begin to form their relationship.

I've tried to avoid spoilers in general, but I did see that Hays also directed a few episodes as well.

The picture quality of the DVD set is very nice for a show from that era. No subtitles or language tracks, which is pretty standard, and no chapter select or bonus features either, but strictly from a presentation perspective it's as good or better than that of some of the more ballyhooed shows we've done. I recently re-watched a couple of episodes of Street Hawk and I think the picture quality here blows it away.

NoelCT said...


What's funny about Fox is that he reminds me a lot of what the government agent pursuing them was like in the super early screenplay I brought up during the podcast, before they rethought that dynamic and brought in the scientist. Thankfully, this doesn't also have Starman turning a toy gun into a real life death ray and blowing choppers out of the sky. :)


I will add some caution about the dvds. These are print-on-demand DVD-R discs, and I don't know if it's an issue with where MGM went for manufacturing or what, but I've had a hard time getting the very first disc to play at times, and I've seen numerous reviews on Amazon of some sets having discs that are outright unplayable or blank. Someone dropped a ball here. Hopefully, given the on-demand nature, it was an issue they could tweak along the way, but it's not exactly something they have a recall available for.

Tony Williams said...

Thankfully, this doesn't also have Starman turning a toy gun into a real life death ray and blowing choppers out of the sky.

Yet, Noel. Yet.

Thanks for clearing up the DVD issue. I've had zero trouble playing mine so far, but I've only tried disc 1. In general DVD-R discs have played well in my BluRay player. Given that the labels were peeling off when I got it, I'm reasonably certain the Vyrtor set was POD, and it always played fine; content not withstanding.

Ray said...

Noel, thanks for the caution about the DVDs possible poor quality. I managed to get a hold of a really good quality copy, and it is MUCH better than what I watched on You Tube several years ago.

Tony, I know exactly what you mean about Starman not using a death ray gun. Those kind of sci-fis really don't appeal to me either. You can rest assure that this show is pretty much down to Earth, literally that is.