February 6, 2016

Starman, episode 7 "One for the Road"

At a high school in the fictional suburbs of San Leon, California, Starman is nervous about letting Scott go in alone to register as a student, but Scott reveals dancing around missing records and faking info is something he has some experience with.

At the newspaper, the editor is lamenting their lack of a photographer, when in walks Starman, still using the respected name of Paul Forrester to score the job, even though he asks them to keep his name out of the credits. The editor figures there's something shady going on, but doesn't care if it means he gets to have a world-renowned photographer on his paper. Sure enough, Starman's first batch lights a local scandal when they show a politician sleeping through a key meeting.

Starman finds himself teamed with Joe Connell, a bitter old reporter who's been around the block a few too many times and has come to feel jaded and unsurprising about his job. He keeps trying to calm the excitement of Starman, but our hero has none of it as he continues using his lens to catch surprising and emotional angles to local stories, like focusing on the service dog of a blind man killed during a robbery. Unfortunately, his editor ignored the request to go without credit (wanted bragging rights), and it's not long before one of Starman's pictures goes national and falls into the hands of Agents Fox & Wylie.

Against his intentions to lie low and avoid making new ties, Scott starts to thrive in school. His running abilities catch the eye of a coach, who talks Scott into joining the track team. Instead of being rivals, he and local track star Ric Baker become fast friends. He finds himself pursued by Kelly Jordan, a cheerleader intrigued by his seeming shyness. The two begin to date and even hit the big dance together where Starman discos it up as a chaperon, but while Scott's father wants to support his son and give him a stable, happy life, he keeps reminding the boy that they might have to hit the road again like they always do. Especially since he's noticed the national credit and is (rightfully) worried about Fox.

A major race comes up, with Scott now being one of the team's stars and Kelly and Starman cheering him on from the stands. It goes great, with him and Ric in the lead, but rounding a corner, Scott sees Fox and a car full of agents pour into the newspaper building. Cutting out of the race, Scott meets his father and they take off. The briefly run into Joe, who's now reinvigorated as a journalist, but Starman tells the man he's on his own and disappears. At the finish line, Ric wins the race, but is confused about Scott's disappearance, worrying his newfound friend turned chicken. Kelly tears into Ric, refusing to believe it, but Scott never arrives to give her any answers.

Starman and Scott sulk their way down yet another road, until Starman starts ribbing Scott his chances in the race, and the two laugh as they break into a run to the nearest tree.


Last week's episode addressed many of the complaints that I had about Starman through the first quarter of its run; namely a focus (albeit ultimately a specious one) on Jenny Hayden and making George Fox a more integral - and menacing - part of the plot. Heading into "One for the road" my biggest question was "Trend or fluke?". After watching it I suppose the answer is both.

On the plus side, the focus is once again squarely on Paul and Scott and not (so much) on helping some yokel with their [insert banal predicament here]. Though Scott set aside his initial animosity toward his absentee alien Dad rather too quickly for my taste, the show has still done a reasonably good job (aided immensely by the actors themselves and their natural chemistry) of slowly building a bond between the two of them. But for me the elephant in the room has been how easily Scott has adapted to this life on the run. I get that he's half alien, but surely even alien boys like girls and want their MTV. Here we get to see Scott, and Paul/Starman to some extent, get a taste of that. I suppose it's reasonable to assume that finding out his Dad is ALF and getting caught up in the quest to find his Mom would've caused Scott to not realize what he was missing. But given a chance to settle in and be a "normal" kid for once, Scott feels that natural pull that we all felt at his age. The need for friends, especially cute blonde ones. To belong to something. It's exactly the focus we needed here. I wouldn't say the execution is exceptional, but in keeping with the tone of the show, it's sweet.

As usual, the material is lifted by series regulars Hays and Barnes, who - and I know I sound like a broken record. A broken record. A broken... - seem to get better each week. It's just now becoming clear to me that Barnes is really the lead, with the bulk of the relative dramatic weight resting on his scrawny shoulders. Scott might've been a typical annoying, whiny, know-it-all teen in the hands of a lesser actor, but Barnes always manages to make Scott's angst relatable and then offsets it with a ready smile. Hays' role, though perhaps more narrow in its scope and responsibilities, is even more challenging. On the page, Starman has a sliding scale between clueless visitor played for laughs and avuncular alien there with some simple observatory wisdom to frame the week's lesson for Scott (and us). But Hays never allows himself to become a caricature, always bringing an authenticity to this deceptively simple character. Together they make for a likeable duo, even when the material lets them down.

This week they're complimented by solid turns from guest stars Ami Dolenz, Robert Donner, Henry G. Sanders, Ellen Regan, Terry Burns and Keith Coogan. Dolenz feels so authentic as the girl next door first crush that I almost tried to pass her a note at one point. Donner, whose cynical reporter character acts as the de facto beneficiary of Starman's wisdom this week, makes a nice foil for the latter and turns in the kind of performance you'd expect from a veteran of literally dozens of such TV shows of the era. Sanders, Regan and Burns make the most of their small roles, and we get an early look at Coogan as, of all things, a cross country track star. My initial fears that Coogan's character was going to be a Johnny Lawrence type, bullying new kid Scott and his would be girlfriend, were quickly laid to rest. It would've been a valid plot point, but one too many for this particular episode.

Unfortunately not everything here is sunshine an roses. Fox is back to being a non entity, making his customary entrance at the half way point and then spending the rest of the episode waiting for someone to print out satellite photos for him (no, not kidding) before using a bit of dubious good fortune to show up just in time to be late. Again. The rub is, this is just the sort of episode that needed competent, dogged Fox. Starman and Scott have only just allowed themselves to believe that maybe they can put down roots. Fox of course shows up to remind them that in order to reach enough episodes for syndication they'll need to keep running for another five years, but how much more effective would it have been for the George Fox we saw in "Secrets" to appear and wake them from their daydream?

The continued mishandling of the George Fox character aside, this has now become my favorite episode thus far. By slowing down and letting Starman and Scott be human (so to speak), I gained a new sympathy for them. And when their newfound happiness is disrupted, not only was I heartbroken, it raised the stakes for the story going forward. I get the feeling we may be headed into another Highway to Andromeda stretch, but this time the two do-gooders will be carrying a bit more baggage with them on the road.

Extra thoughts:
  • At the dance, a generic cover of Huey Lewis and the News' "Heart of Rock 'n Roll" is playing at one point. It's decidedly less peppy than the original, yet the kids seem to be dancing to a much faster beat. I'd be curious to know if the original broadcast featured the original version or some other song.
  • Early in the episode, a man is shown raising the American flag in front of the school and he's wearing a Chicago Cubs hat. I point this out because the boys are still clearly on the West coast (we even see a map on Fox's wall at some point with all of their "sightings", placing them up and down the coast). It's not that a guy in California can't be a Cubs fan, it just stuck with me because I was trying to figure out of they were using that hat as a subtle way to tell us they'd moved Eastward.


"I just don't want to spend the rest of my life running."

"If we don't run, you won't have a life."

Here's a fun piece of history, dear readers. This blog originally came about because watching through short-lived genre shows together and chatting about them was something Tony and I did as part of our routine emails (we're nearing a decade of being pen pal besties). We made it through a couple shows and the first few episodes of Automan before we decided, hey, why not make a blog out of it? As of January 22, that was five years ago. Happy Anniversary, Tony!

Anyway, one of those shows we watched together (and one me may still revisit for this site one day) was the nifty The Powers of Matthew Star, in which a pair of aliens, a teen with superpowers and his father-figure guardian, live their lives in a small town, holding jobs and dealing with high school issues while trying to maintain a low profile so as to not gain public attention and draw the eye of the government. You had dating, sports, all the typical stuff you'd expect, mixed with alien superpowers and a threat-of-the-week. For at least half a season, as that show went through a big shakeup partway through.

In this episode, our heroes settle into the suburbs, with Starman having to get a job and a home, and Scott having to go to a regular high school where he deals with friends, a pretty girl who's taken a shine to him, and aspirations of being a track star. The similarities between this episode and the first half of Matthew Star are such that I'll be damned if I didn't do a few double takes from time to time, flashing back to watching that earlier show. Hell, there's a few times Scott walked up to his girlfriend and I kept expecting her to turn around and reveal Amy Steel only to suffer in quiet disappointment. Ah, Amy Steel.......


Sorry, where were we?

Just setting aside the comparison - which I point out with joy, not as a criticism - this is a charming episode. Once again, we're in a new location. We've been on dusty roads, rural cabins, small towns, and the skid row of downtown. Now, we're in the bright and vibrant suburbs of the 80s, where Starman is somehow able to afford an entirely furnished house on a $100 dollar advance, and Scott doesn't need a parent with him when he registers at a new high school. Ok, yeah, these bits strain credibility, but I'm able to wriggle past them enough to delight in the two scenarios.

Scott starts this episode closing himself off from ties and relationships. He doesn't need to learn about how sudden a move can arise as that's been his entire life. Even before he began this journey with his father, he was abandoned by his mother as a child and passed from foster care to foster care to an orphanage. He doesn't have roots, he doesn't make ties. Which is understandable and has been a nice justification for his bitterness at times. Here, he becomes so surrounded by the promise of a comfortable, fruitful life that he can't help but soak it in. A cozy home, fast friends who bond with him over an athletic prowess he finally gets to show to the world, teachers who care, and a girl who won't let him just shrug away without opening up. He finds happiness, he finds contentment. This is the life Scott's never had.

It's also the life Starman has never been able to give to Scott, and a life he knows they'll have to abandon at any moment, even as Starman himself starts settling in. He's also pursued by a woman, one of Scott's teachers, in some lovely scenes that include Robert Hays in shades doing some of his old Airplane disco moves. At his job, even photographing seemingly menial subjects about town, he finds the unique angle to every shot he takes which sheds light on hidden truths or give an emotional weight to something others would overlook. The bond he forges with Joe, the bitter old washed-up reporter, is touching. Joe's seen it all, and sees the world as lacking in any further potential surprises. And yet here's a guy, seemingly fresh at the gig despite Paul Forrester's reputation, who keeps finding ways to make it all seem meaningful and important again. That's nice.

Unfortunately, there are two major fumbles this episode pulls which did knock it down a few notches in my book. The first is that, after the great rise of his threat in the last episode, Agents Fox & Wylie are right back to being bungling nobodies who have to repeatedly beg their superiors just to get a few minutes of computer time. There's no strikeforce, no force of any sort. Just them running about with barely an ability to print data let along catch our heroes.

The second, which sincerely infuriated me that it was an issue, is that, after everything they've been through in even just six short episodes, Starman and Scott would in any way think it's a good idea to register at anything, be it a school or a job, under the names Paul Forrester and Scott Hayden. No. No no no no no. This is fugitive rule 101: YOU STOP USING YOUR REAL NAME. Or real-ish name, in Starman's case. Yes, Paul's reputation is what scores Starman a job, but that's still too much of a red flag name for him to ever want to use it again. Hell, it should have fired up all sorts of red flags for the paper themselves as they process their new employee. Starman even states that Paul's name is too much of a risk when it goes on the credit of a national newspaper, and yet he's the one who used it in the first play. And as for Scott, you don't get to just walk into a high school and become a student without paperwork being filed and processed, and you know damn well Scott Hayden is also a name the government has flagged. And you want to talk about how inept Fox is, even with all of the red flags this should be waving around, he still only stumbles across the photo credit by complete chance.

This is a good show, a show I'm enjoying, but this continuing aspect is just plain poor writing and poor construction for a narrative of this type. I'm really hoping this is an angle the series will actually address and deal with at some point, hopefully soon. I'm not confident it will (see also: half our Showcases), but I look forward to finding out.

Overall, it is still an enjoyable episode. I love the cheesy dance scene, Scott's lovable awkwardness in dating, the scene with the blind man's dog, all of the track team stuff, including the short cut that ultimately saves Scott and Starman. It is a really nice episode, and a nice reminder of many elements I dug from Matthew Star, albeit spun in a more realistic way. Amidst everything, Matthew and his guardian Shep got to keep their home and their lives, and when the government caught up with them, they became special agents officially helping to fight crime. Such will never be the case if Fox catches up to them. Here, Scott never even gets to say goodbye to Kelly and his new friends. He sees Fox, and then he's gone from the race, his friends now left with an open void of questions where this person used to be. He was there, and then he was gone, and even as Kelly fiercely defends Scott against those who claim he ran away, you know that's a belief that won't take long to falter in her, too.

I do like this episode, it's just the aspects they fumble are ones which are becoming all too regular a complaint in this series, and fundamental errors like that are almost always what sink shows like this after just one season, even when the show is otherwise great.


NoelCT said...

I was wondering about the location of this episode too, Tony, so I watched really close the second time around. The newspaper is called the San Leon Courier, which made me wonder if it was the fishing town of San Leon, Texas (which this looks nothing like), but when the photo of the politician goes national, the caption in the paper says "in San Leon, California". So they are still running the length of that state. There is no actual San Leon, California, just a San Leon Apartment Villa in Irvine, California. So it's a fictional placeholder. Another thing I found amusing was how they'd partially obscure the signs of locations with convenient palm trees. Like how Starman and Joe get drinks at ----ULIAN'S, or how Scott goes to [OBSCURED] UNION HIGH SCHOOL.

Tony Williams said...

Bringin' the knowledge! I did notice the [OBSCURED]Union High School and figured that it likely wasn't due to poor faming.

So they're definitely still in California, but what's curious is that along with the Cubs hat in this episode, I spied a guy wearing St. Louis Cardinals hat in the episode that follows. Again, these are venerable franchises with nationwide followings, but St. Louis is in the general regional vicinity of Chicago and would lead you to wonder if they were trying to use these visual cues to tell us where we are. But of course given the premise of the episode, there's no doubt it's set on the West coast. Just wondering why their wardrobe department couldn't scrounge up a Dodgers or Padres hat.

And happy anniversary to you too, buddy! Leave it to you to remember and for me to be completely unaware.