Tune in Tonight: "Starman"
The common thread in failed movie to TV adaptations is that they’re completely unnecessary. Unlike M*A*S*H*, which provided a bottomless plot well to dip from, the films with unsuccessful TV spinoffs all told complete stories, with not a single loose end. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off concluded with Ferris having a successful day off, Cameron growing a backbone, and Ed Rooney rendered a broken, defeated shell of a man. Dirty Dancing closed with Baby’s father quietly accepting his teenage daughter’s relationship with Johnny Castle, even though Johnny is a goyische who’s at least a decade older than her. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 9 to 5, and Animal House all took the extra step of providing on-screen text explaining what became of the characters after their stories ended. Everything was neatly wrapped up, nothing more needed to be said. It was a bit arrogant to assume that audiences would demand to hear more about them, played by different, lesser actors and often existing in an alternate universe that suggests the events in their original movies never occurred, and, unsurprisingly, each spinoff died fast, unloved and unwatched.
1986’s Starman, which managed to survive one whole season, suffered both from being unnecessary, and being based on a movie that was hardly a cultural phenomenon in the first place. A touching but otherwise unremarkable sci-fi romance, the original Starman was only a modest box office hit, remembered today mostly as a cable staple of the mid 80s, and probably the least John Carpenter-esque movie John Carpenter ever made. The movie ended with benevolent alien Jeff Bridges returning to his home planet, but not before impregnating co-star Karen Allen with a half-alien/half-human son. Bridges tells Allen the boy will grow up to be a teacher, and gives her an energy sphere to pass on to him later. It’s doubtful that audiences clamored to know what would happen to the baby, but even if they did, the movie clearly spells it out: he will grow up to become a teacher, and instinctively know what to do with the energy sphere gifted to him. Again, no loose ends, everything is fully explained.
Nevertheless, someone thought there was still an interesting story to be told about what happens to the baby before he grows up and that’s how we ended up with Starman: the TV Series. Taking place fifteen years after the events of the movie, Jeff Bridges, who plays the alien with a charming, child-like sense of wonder, has been replaced with Robert Hays, who plays the alien as mildly brain damaged. Rather than taking the form of Karen Allen’s late husband, in this the alien takes the form of Paul Forrester, a daredevil ladies’ man photographer who dies in a helicopter crash. While not entirely discounting the events of the movie, the show does play a little fast and loose with them. Starman-as-Paul occasionally makes references to his previous visit to Earth, yet most of the humor in the show comes from him wandering around in wide-eyed bafflement, as though it’s the first time he’s been there. Also, it does away with a major dramatic plot point of the movie, in that if Starman doesn’t return to his home planet within three days after his arrival, he’ll die. Here, he has all the time in the world to comically goggle at the marvel of miniature doughnuts.
Though in the movie Starman declares that he will never return to Earth, the show drops that as well, having him come back so he can meet his son, Scott, now a sullen teenager. Scott (C.B. Barnes), inexplicably abandoned by his mother, has recently lost his adoptive parents in a car crash, and is now living in an orphanage. The show suggests that Starman has been watching over Scott for an indefinite period; why he doesn’t show up sooner and spare him the tragedy of losing the only family he knows is unclear, and, frankly, seems like kind of a dick move.
Not surprisingly, Scott doesn’t believe Starman’s story at first, until a conveniently timed cassette tape from Scott’s long-lost mother neatly explaining everything arrives in the mail, and convinces him otherwise. He also finds out that Agent Fox (Michael Cavanaugh), a government UFO investigator who’s been obsessively searching for Starman since his last visit, is closing in on them, with the single-mindedness (and predatory grin) of a great white shark. Scott asks Starman to help find his mother, and the two of them hit the road together, helping people with their personal problems as Starman learns what it means to be “human.”
Unlike the previously reviewed Ferris Bueller, Starman isn’t aggressively bad. It isn’t anything, really, other than a bland adventure show where most of the jokes come from Starman taking everything people say to him literally (i.e. Scott saying “I’m all ears” eliciting a puzzled stare from Starman, as if he’s wondering why Scott is not, in fact, made entirely of ears). If nothing else, it’s a softer, gentler The Incredible Hulk, right down to the nemesis who relentlessly chases Starman all over the country, convinced, despite ever mounting evidence to the contrary, that he’s a danger to society and must be stopped. There’s even an episode where, like David Banner, the selfless, now near-Christlike Starman saves Agent Fox’s life, even though his death would makes things considerably easier for everyone involved.
It’s also a family drama, with the B-plot in many episodes focusing on Scott struggling with his resentment over Starman not being around for the first half of his life, even though “I’m an alien” is a way better excuse for that than “I went out for a pack of cigarettes.” Not surprisingly, the show quickly moves away from its source material–after a certain point they might as well have called it Spacedad and tried to pass it off as an original story. Either way, it couldn’t sustain itself past the first season, but it certainly did better than other movie to TV spinoffs released during the same time period. Sure, that’s a bit like bragging that you got a D when everyone else sitting around you in class got an F, but it’s still something.
Original airdate: September 19, 1986