On a bus to Phoenix, Starman shoots awake from a nightmare, and Scott explains to him the mysterious mechanics of dreams. They're headed to a photo assignment Liz lined up for "Paul Forrester" so they can get some extra cash, and arriving at their hotel, Starman is recognized by the friendly staff, who also kindly hand him a $260 bill for a bar tab left behind by Paul during his last stay. While in the lobby, Jake Lawton, a howling man in a business suit, rushes over and wraps Starman in a huge hug. Seems he and Paul worked in Vietnam together, he as a journalist, Paul as a photographer. They haven't seen each other in a decade, and Paul apparently never responded to his letters, but Jake buys him a drink and invites him home for dinner that night, then excuses himself as he has a business meeting with a Japanese client for his current importing business.
After nursing off the booze, Starman asks Scott about the Japanese man having bowed and his confusion over the variety of ways in which humans greet one another. Scott tells him to just see what other people do and follow suit. I won't mention ever instance, but this becomes a recurring bit. Arriving at Jake's place for dinner, Starman does his best to keep up with the man's exuberant war stories, but the man is constantly being barbed by his bitter wife, Kathy. Retiring to his study, Jake shows Starman a manuscript he wrote about their war time, one he never finished after his business hit big and he was able to settle into the life of luxury he and his wife always dreamed of. Excusing himself to take a business call, as Jake leaves the room, in comes Kathy, who instantly rushes up to Starman and gives him a kiss. It seems she and Paul had been carrying on an affair behind Jake's back, meeting up as recently as just a few months ago. She ducks back out as Jake returns, and as Starman is heading out for the evening, Jake begs his old buddy to meet him at his office the next day. Needless to say, when he returns to the hotel room, Starman has many questions for Scott.
The next day, Paul heads checks into an office for a photography assignment, where as secretary with past dealings with Paul slaps him in the face. Thinking it's a greeting, Starman slaps her back. After working out some confusion, Paul heads out to ancient ruins built around a cave system, where homeless squatters have set up their own community. They're not the most welcoming of people and, bitter that Paul stood them up after they first hired him three months ago to tell the world about their lives, they chase Scott and he off with guns. Starman wants to return later, tough. On top of this being a potentially great story, it's a side of humanity he's deeply interested in exploring.
Back at the hotel, Kathy bursts into Starman's room and into his arms, then grows angry and suspicious when she hears someone in the shower. Out comes Scott, and Kathy is floored to learn "Paul" has a son and demands to know what's been going on these last few months. Without getting into the full truth of it, Starman opens up about the journey to track down Jenny, and Kathy opens up about how her marriage has fallen apart as Jake drifted away from being the exciting and passionate writer she married.
Starman keeps his appointment to visit Jake, swinging by the man's office and learning a bit more about how Jake is importing circuitry from Asian for government tech. Something about this has Jake deeply apprehensive, and he wants "Paul" to promise to look after Kathy should anything happen to him. He pulls a gun on Starman, the very gun he used to save Paul in the war, but a pull of the trigger reveals it to now be a cigarette lighter, a memento he's kept of their friendship. Returning home and confronting Kathy, she tears into Jake over how adrift he's become, and all the things he doesn't know about his best buddy (i.e. Scott). Wandering into his office, Jake fishes out the manuscript.
Starman heads back out to the squatter town, where they leave him be as he drifts among them, capturing the struggle of their daily lives with his camera. When he leaves, he finds Jake outside. He heard Paul was here, and never knew such a community was living outside of view. He's suddenly had a lot on his mind, and hands Starman the manuscript, asking him to read it. He returns to the hotel and does so, sharing with Scott all he's learned about The 'Nam and his continued confusion over the existence of war.
At their home, Kathy is delighted to find Jake pecking away at his old manuscript again. As they start to hash things out and pull together, he suddenly gets a call that a man from the government is at his office. Flipping out and telling his secretary to stall the man and hold off on shipping units from Korea. Kathy is distraught and drives off. He doesn't know that the government man is Agent Fox, who's not buying any of the secretary's delays.
At the squatter village, the representatives are stunned when they see Starman's photos and that their story will be told. Jake arrives, saying he needs to leave, but Starman shows him the photos and says they could use a piece by a great writer to go with them. Kathy appears, rekindling with her husband, now seeing again the man she once married.
As they head out, Jake gives the gun to Starman as a gift, but it's unfortunately seen by Fox and the local cops on the other side of the valley, and they start ordering Starman to release his hostages. Jake is surprised the government isn't there for him, but tells Starman to play along, to use he and Kathy as a way to get away. Fox is delighted to finally be face-to-face with Starman, especially when one of the cops recognizes the gun as a harmless prop, but Starman uses his orb to make it seemingly fire a warning shot. He, Scott, Jake, and Kathy all hope in Jake's convertible and drive away. Starman using the orb to blow the tires of every cop car. Starman left the gun behind and a raging Fox picks it up only to find it's indeed just a lighter.
Jake and Kathy give Starman and Scott their car and wish them luck as our heroes head out down another highway.
In a rare display of prescience, I made this comment in our previous post...
Another untapped resource remains Starman's Paul Forrester alias. This is a supposedly famous photographer who was thought dead and is now on the lam with a young boy. It would be interesting to see some repercussions from Forrester's life spill over into Starman and Scott's. For instance, wouldn't it be great if Forrester had a child that suddenly came into the picture? Or an enemy made from his days in journalism. There's still plenty of time left for these things to develop, but the series seems to be settling into a comfortable formula at this point.
Well, apparently the producers were somehow listening from 1986 (maybe they used those little glowy ball thingies), because this week it finally happens. No, Paul doesn't have a kid or an old enemy show up, but instead he quite conveniently runs across his supposed oldest and dearest friend in a motel bar. The episode, though not very good (just to get it out of the way), does open the door to some interesting possibilities while also begging a few tough questions we haven't really considered - at least out loud - before.
First, let me just talk about the episode in general. Though it contains a few random spots of humor that make me chuckle (Paul/Starman getting slapped by a presumed jilted lover, only to return the favor, mistaking it for some sort of greeting), overall, this is the worst episode of the series thus far. The story is bland, with odd subplots, unsatisfying and somewhat confusing red herrings (Jake's mysterious work problems, presumably tied to Fox poking around) that never amount to much or have the desired payoff. With the ultimate goal of the episode seemingly being to nudge Jake Lawton (a charming turn by Cliff Potts in an otherwise thankless role) back into writing, the show has never been more Highway To Heaven than it is here. When I was asking for Paul's life to carry over into Starman and Scott's, this kind of soapy melodrama certainly isn't what I had in mind.
More interesting to me than the episode itself are the questions it raises. Some of them I'd considered before, but now feel compelled to ask aloud. 1.) So is Paul Forrester a fugitive or not? I thought we were lead to believe that Fox had an APB out on the guy as far back as the second episode, and yet he's (technically Starman, but you know what I mean) still roaming around freely, checking into hotels under his own name and taking photo gigs. I get that it's 1986 and not 2016, and there aren't cameras and digital networks everywhere, but you'd think employers, business associates, friends, and hotels with access to his credit information would be aware that he's wanted by the government. 2.) The Lawton's are headed for Guantanamo, right? I mean, they clearly just aided and abetted a very illegal alien who fired a gun (albeit in the air) near a group of officers and government agents, and then damaged their cars so they couldn't pursue them as they fled. Yet there they are at the end of the episode, giggling like they just outran a mall cop as they give said alien fugitive their friggin' car. All of these people who keep helping Starman and Scott escape just stand there giving raspberries to Fox when he should be hauling their asses in. What gives? 3.) Where is Fox's oversight? In the pilot, he gets the bare minimum he needs to follow-up his crazy theory, but it seemed implied that, in order to continue, he'd need to get some results or evidence. Thus far, he's gotten two things: jack and squat. We need to see him being hounded by his superiors to get results and then see that pressure manifest itself in some desperation on his part. At this point, Fox is nothing more than Mrs. Ochmonek (look it up) in an off-the-rack suit.
Hopefully, this is the start of integrating the baggage from Paul Forrester's life into that of Starman and Scott's. There are a host of untapped possibilities here. I just hope the next time it's more interesting than this mush.
There's so much about this episode that I love. First and foremost is Starman actually stepping into the shoes of his stolen identity of Paul Forrester beyond just using it for a cover. They mentioned a couple installments back that he'd begun teaching himself how to use Paul's camera, and here we see it in use as he goes on assignment, exploring the squatter village among the ancient ruins and using the lens through which he can further witness and explore the realities of our messy world, in both its hardships and its hopes. This is a great angle to explore, and while it was a little awkwardly staged, I love Starman working his way through the caves, snapping photo after photo, and handing them over with a simple, "It's what I saw." An alien not only viewing humanity, but now becoming the lens through which humanity will see itself is a magnificent theme, and I really, really hope we get to see more of it.
I also love that Liz hasn't just been feeding our duo checks, but that she's been giving "Paul" work in the form of his usual assignments, and that he's settling into making a living day-by-day, with all the counting cash and worrying about debt that implies. Unfortunately, I think this is where they've again shot themselves in the foot with the character of Fox. Really, Starman should have dropped the Paul Forrester identity by now, because it's so thoroughly flagged in databases that there's nowhere he can go where Fox isn't on a plane and hitching a ride with a local cop the moment Paul's name is written down somewhere. As magnificent as this episode is, it's at odds with the series because this is something our heroes should be well beyond doing just as a matter of safety. Starman being recognized as Paul and this spiraling out of it as a consequence, that's great and would make a lot of sense, but as the episode is, he comes there as Paul, on an official assignment for Paul, to a hotel booked under Paul's name with staff who recognize him on sight as Paul. That it would take the entire length of the episode, several days worth of time, for Fox to catch them is really quite ludicrous.
There's ways around this, that Fox could have had his authority undercut, so it's not just a matter of finding Starman, but convincing others to take the man into custody. You could also have Liz use the power of the press to stave off government persecution of an active journalist. There's so many things they could do here, but they don't, so it never pulls together. I see this episode was written by Leon Tokatyan who, among hours of gritty drama for numerous cops and legal shows, was the developer and head writer of the spinoff series Lou Grant. He brings an impressive amount of humanity and powerful drama to his script, but I'm wondering if it ran into issues once it hit the story editors, and it's that which is responsible for the unevenness and inconsistencies.
Though to be fair, the central A-plot melodrama also isn't all that gripping. Starman being pulled into Paul's life through an old buddy, and learning about Paul's history as both a Vietnam vet and drunken womanizer, that's excellent stuff, as is the sudden twist that "Paul" was still in the midst of an affair with that old friend's wife. The main problem is that I just don't find Jake and Kathy Lawton all that interesting as characters, and it doesn't help that they're played with an air of yuppie snobbishness that I find grating. Sure, there's meaty stuff in there in terms of Kathy's affair being the result of dissatisfaction with the deterioration of her husband, as he's drifted away from his passion of writing as he's focussed all his attention on his import business. But I just don't care. There's literally nothing more to Kathy than that, and so much of Jake's plot is tied to a seemingly illegal deal that has him terrified of authorities and looking to go off the grid, yet it's never actually explained what's going on. And his sudden interest in the squatter village both goes and comes from nowhere. And we're supposed to see his fire to write renewed, but he's still frustratedly tossing pages in the trash. And the whole business of the cigarette lighter pistol was such stagey bullshit that I was pretty much lost by the last few minutes. I mean, why didn't the cops gun Starman down the moment he fired in the air (not that I support such actions, but let's look at what's sadly become typical police tactics these days)? How do the heroes in any way get away in the end, in an easily traceable car that'll be flagged within the hour? How do Jake and Kathy just walk away scot free as they happily wave us away? None of this should work!
And yet, there's still so much I love. Robert Hays and Chris Barnes continue to bond beautifully as Starman and Scott. I love little bits like Starman scolding his son for looking at dirty mags instead of doing homework (Starman knows about homeschooling!), or taking what advice he can from his son before setting out to do some things on his own. The lady with her "baby" dog and the valet trying to take Starman's bag. The bits about the greetings is especially nice as Starman fumbles his way through when to shake a hand, or bow, or clap someone on the back. Then there's the slap, where a woman who had a past encounter with Paul slaps Starman, and thinking it's a greeting, he slaps her back. It's an awful thing, maybe a bit much, but I do like how they're playing it, as there's a growing look on Starman's face as he realizes he's done something very wrong, and context behind the initiating act steadily builds as he finds himself slapped by other women, not only leading him to a paranoia of saying hello, but another glimpse into the darker side of Paul Forrester's personality and the horde of women he's left in his wake. I still don't know that it's worth it (would be better to play it off a dude slugging him), but it is an interesting bit.
We also get some more glimpses of powers in that, as with the movie, he still doesn't always need the orb to manipulate electronics, turning devices on and off or changing the channel on a tv. I didn't mention it in the last episode's post, but it had a nice little moment where he was able to unscrew a mirror from the wall just by touching the screws with his fingers. These are great little ways of showing casual abilities he has without making it anything too big or uber-powerful. As for the orb, somehow making the altered gun fire an actual bullet doesn't make a lick of sense (maybe making a bang and a muzzle flash, but we see it fully fire a round), but I do like him blowing out the tires of the police cars.
Though again, he's just turned Paul Forrester into an open criminal before law enforcement instead of just being a flagged person of interest for the government wants to keep tabs on. This ultimately helps Fox and his case more than it hurts him, and should create a buttload of problems down the road. And yet I don't know that it will, as this is still the era of television where that's not a thing. And yet yet (double yet!) we have seen elements of serialization, where the heroes open each story largely in the same situation they closed the last one. They had a car, they lose a car, they need bus fare, they come in on a bus. Someone on staff is paying attention to how the pieces are fitting together, so hopefully the show will only grow as it goes along. And hopefully we'll get a better face-to-face down the road between Starman and Fox, because this one was about as underwhelming as everything involving Fox to date.
In the end, this is a frustrating episode. There's a lot that I love, but a lot that's underwhelming and confusing. You can tell where the focus was, and that someone put a lot of thought into the elements that deeply interested them. Sadly, they did so by overlooking the parts that didn't, and left some rather key elements under explored and unexplained. Not to a point that turns me again the episode, as the highs are so extremely high as to make dull melodrama and sloppy mechanics all the worthwhile, but it is still a ding against this series really living up to the potential it could achieve. That said, we're only five episodes in. I was worried I'd already be burning out on formula by this point, but I'm not. I'm still just as charged to see what we'll be in store for next time as I was after the pilot. If they can build on that, excellent. I'd love to see it. If all they can manage to do is maintain, I'll still take it. That still makes for a darn good show.