November 22, 2015

Starman, episode 3 "Fatal Flaw"

Starman and Scott are taking a hot dog break alongside a dirtbike track, where Starman reveals he's been reading up on photography and wants to try putting the cover profession of Paul Forrester to some use. He ultimately ends up with a face and camera full of dirt when he gets too close to the track, but when he spots a rider who wiped out with a broken arm who's about to be hit by a truck, Starman uses his orb to lift the boy to safety. The rider notices, though, and spots Starman as the man drags Scott away and they hit the road.

While arguing in the car - as Scott was about to take his own turn on a bike and he thinks his father is overdoing being a protective parent - the two are almost nailed as a plane comes to a sudden landing on the road in front of them. At the controls, furious about her plane having been under-fueled, is Jessica Bennet, and they're soon joined by the engineer/mechanic of her aeronautics company, Joe Floss. Starman cracked his oil pan swerving his car off the road, so the two promise to tow him in for repairs and give he and Scott a place to stay for the night, all free of charge.

At the Bennet complex, our heroes become embroiled in drama. Jessica's father, Conrad, is catatonic in a wheelchair following a stroke, and she's about to debut a new plane based on his old designs. Joe keeps trying to delay the debut so the plane can be put through all the proper safety tests, but he doesn't know that she's already at the end of a loan extension and her funders are going to pull out if she defaults. Furthermore, Joe and Jessica have always had a hard time expressing their feelings to one another and don't fully realize how much the other loves them, and Joe begins to get increasingly jealous when he sees Starman with Jessica, even though those two don't have any genuine affection. Furthermore, Scott finds himself drawn to the charismatic guidance of Joe and increasingly leaves his own father in the lurch so he can spend time with this surrogate dad, taking late-night motorcycle rides and hopping into the cockpit of the experimental plane.

Two problems arise. First, Fox is quick to pick up the story of what happened to the dirtbiker and it's not long before he's in town, flashing around a picture of Starman. Secondly, through an orbitrary psychic bond Starman forges with the catatonic Conrad, our hero learns there was a miscalculation in the design of the plane, which could lead to fatal problems if it's not corrected before the launch. Sadly, neither Jessica nor Joe will listen to him - she because she knows her father is incapable of speaking such a message, he because he knows Starman knows jack-all about planes - and Jessica hurriedly rolls out a demo flight for investors. For his part, Joe is miffed at this as proper tests still haven't been done, and he tries to get Jessica on the radio, but she's ignoring both him and the control tower as she swoops the plane around.

Sure enough, problems crop up and Jessica seems fated to crash, but Starman has wheeled Conrad out to the field and, revealing his powers to Joe, Starman uses his orb to get info from the old man which allows them to talk Jessica into a safe landing. She doesn't want to believe what happened at first, but Joe backs Starman up, she learns her father is still in there and watching out for her, and she and Joe finally express their love for one another. One last hangup comes in Fox having arrived, but both Joe and Jessica stop his trail cold by denying any knowledge of the man in the picture, as Starman and Scott make their escape through the desert hills on Joe's dirtbike.


If you joined us here last week (and if you didn't, where were you?!), you may recall that I compared episode 2, "Like Father, Like Son", to easy listening music. In retrospect, that may not be one of my better analogies, but in my defense, I was at the tail end of six straight days and nearly 60 hours at work in a stretch that would've tested Job's patience. In short, my brain was like yogurt. But I believe my point was that while "Like Father, Like Son" wasn't bold or daring, it was still blandly satisfying in a Seals & Crofts sort of way. Using the same formula (the Starboys stumbling into the middle of some drama in progress), "Fatal Flaw" makes much better use of the format, giving us higher stakes and fleshing out the relationship between father and son in a more profound way. Let's see how.

If "Fatal Flaw" did nothing else right (and it did), the inclusion of Joe would've been more than enough to make it a satisfying episode. Joe is the perfect catalyst for the Scott/Starman relationship at this stage. Scott still hasn't completely warmed to his alien Father, and after a lifetime presumably spent without a strong male role model, it's not hard to imagine a kid like him getting swept off his feet by a cool Mr. Everything like Joe. My only concern was how they would handle the inevitable moment where Starman is able to show Scott that there's more to being "cool" than flying planes and riding motorcycles. Would they feel the need to tear Joe down to build Starman up? Thankfully the answer is no. I think the approach they took, where Scott sees the value of his Father's own unique gifts, is the better way to go. Maybe there would be some value in seeing Joe fall, teaching Scott (and us) about the dangers of hero worship and putting people up on a pedestal, but I prefer to simply see Scott learn to appreciate his Father's unique talents. Speaking of which, Hays is at his best in this episode, particularly in the scenes with Conrad Bennett. With almost nothing to play off of, he's able to convey so much with just his face. My initial trepidation with Hays has long since vanished. I don't know that he's Daniel Day Lewis, but he's a solid actor, and he has a clear handle on how he wants to play this character. One that works quite well for this series.

To say the stakes are higher here than in "Like Father, Like Son" is an understatement. Not only are the fate and fortunes of an entire company on the line, it ultimately becomes a matter of life and death. There's also an interesting story, with the boys stepping into a situation in progress that feels real. Or, at least, possible. This world that they briefly occupy feels lived in, with implied history and loose threads. Yes, this is still 80s TV with all that entails, but it all feels much more organic - authentic - than last week's more contrived scenario.

I've talked a bit about Joe, but not about the actor who plays him. Sam Melville epitomizes what works about "Fatal Flaw", because he too feels authentic, and he charmed me in much the same way he did Scott. I knew I recognized Melville from somewhere, and after a little digging, I found out where. He played the character Mace Taggart on a particularly memorable episode of Airwolf ("HX-1"). By the way, if you've never watched Airwolf, do so NOW. In my research, I was sad to learn that Sam Melville died only a few short years after this episode aired. Also good is Patricia McPherson, who I instantly recognized as Bonnie, K.I.T.T.'s mechanic from Knight Rider. An early childhood crush, she shows here that she can do than tighten bolts and fend off the advances of David Hasselhoff.

Not faring as well is poor Agent Fox. He doesn't show up until half way into the episode, and after brief scene interviewing a witness to Starman's hand wavery, he has nothing else to do but show up a few minutes late once again. Despite this episode working exceptionally well, this waste of the Fox character remains a flaw, and while not a fatal one at this point (see what I did there?), it's one I hope the series fixes as it goes along. At some point, he is going to need to be consequential as a character, and dammit, I just want more Cavanaugh.

But that's a minor complaint in what is otherwise a very solid episode. Mixing humor and drama with an interesting story and characters I care about, "Fatal Flaw" is anything but.


We're definitely settling into formula territory with this show as things take on an almost leisurely tone. This episode has dirtbikes and out-of-control airplanes, but they're more a backdrop and don't drive much action. Yeah, Fox is still on our heroes' tails, but he's so ineffectual that he's spoon-feeding ice cream to a teenager and has so little backup support that he has to bum rides from locals instead of having his own car. There's no threat to this episode, no driving atmosphere to backup Starman's need to keep moving so he and Scott aren't caught. Heck, Fox could have caught up with the two face-to-face, and I doubt anything would have happened as a result beyond him sneerily smiling some barks at them and Starman orbitrarily dropping Fox's pants around his ankles as Scott makes a wisecrack and Robert Hays shoots up his left eyebrow. I'm not really annoyed by it yet, but this could potentially become a problem if the central drive of the show doesn't start to bring with it some actual weight. As soon as Fox found out Starman might be in this town, there should be black vans and suspicious looking types trying to lurk in ways that don't reveal their ear pieces, but we get none of that.

That said, I do still enjoy the main plot here. No, there isn't much to it, and it again lacks its own looming threat as the main conflict is just the result of nobody talking to one another and taking a minute to listen. Joe doesn't want to tell Jessica how he feels about her, so he keeps huffing away like a teenager every time she's with Starman. Jessica doesn't want to tell Joe about the defaulting loans, so he doesn't have any incentive to not take his time putting the aircraft through its paces. This is an episode where so much would have been settled with them just hashing it out, but it gets by through them both being brash alpha types who always feel they have something to prove. That, and nobody's capable of listening to poor old Conrad, which does make for a nice use of Starman as his powers suddenly give him a piece of knowledge everybody knows he should be incapable of, thus they don't listen to him. It's not particularly meaty, but it is livelier that the typical stock filler it could have been, and it is bolstered by some nice performances. It's a shame Kenneth Tobey, one of my old favorites, doesn't get to do much beyond stare sadly with his watery gaze, but as least he has a nice presence to him, and the scenes between he and Hays have a surprising weight. Patricia McPherson and Sam Melville are so charismatic and quietly captivating that I could have sat through an entire short-lived show about their characters, loving each other while always at odds as he builds the planes and she flies them. I'm sad to see Melville died just three years after this of a sudden heart attack. Definitely a tragic loss of a gifted character actor.

And Joe also gets a great thread when it comes to Scott. I love how fatherhood continues to be a driving theme of the show, and how Starman begins to feel jealousy and confusion as his son begins to glom onto this other man as a surrogate father figure. What I love about Joe is that he likes the kid, but he sees what's going on and doesn't want to overstep any bounds. He's always asking about Scott's dad and for the dad's permission, and always makes sure to keep some distance from Scott no matter how close they get. And for Scott, this is a nice build on his own issues with getting attached to his father. They're growing closer, but Starman is still a stranger in his life, someone unpredictable, unfamiliar, and I think Scott is getting tired of always being the one protecting and guiding his father instead of being young and needing someone to guide him. Also, motorcycles are cool and his dad won't let him ride a motorcycle. On Starman's part, I like that he doesn't now what's going on here, that jealousy is a new sensation for him and he doesn't understand how, in his attempts to be responsible and look out for his boy, he's driving the kid to look for another wing to be taken under. He hasn't found that balance with teens where they need to be guided while simultaneously feeling like they have some degree of freedom and choice. Joe gets this, hence the problems. And this thread is carried further as Jessica is dealing with her own father, and the expectations and legacy that she feels she's been left with, and how she'd love to have his guidance, but can't reach him and even feels he's gotten to a point where he's completely gone from her. Thus, her strong reaction of rejection when she feels Starman has bridged a gap in a way that's unavailable to her.

Starman gets some good use out of his powers in this episode, and I like that it climaxes on him making the choice to reveal them in order to save Jessica's life. It's a simple solution, but it's locked inside a mind only he has access to. There's also some more great Robert Hays bits like explaining he's fully aware of what's in a hot dog and that it doesn't include actual dogs, or finally taking his own fumbling ride on a motorcycle, or trying to actually make some practical use of his cover profession as a photographer, or even the great bit with Jessica as he walks up without a shirt and doesn't quite grasp the function of her nightgown. This is a well played scene that, in a typical show, would have become flirty and left us hanging with the possibility of romance. In Fugitive or Incredible Hulk, that's exactly what we'd have gotten. Again, this show is about fatherhood, and him wanting to connect with the wayward mother of his child, so Starman doesn't want that, and it's instead a charmingly innocent moment that feeds into Joe's plot about jealousy.

It's a good episode, and I continue to be impressed with the character writing on this show, but it is also maybe a bit too quiet. I don't have a problem with them wanting to focus more on light studies and easy philosophizing, but both the film and the pilot managed to do that while still having a genuine threat that gave the story a drive. We need more drive. Fox isn't cutting it alone in his present form.

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