“Starstruck” (1979)

If you’re reading this right now, there’s a better than 65% chance you’ve seen Rogue One, a “midquel” of sorts that takes place shortly before the events of episode 4 of Star Wars. We’ve barely just begun a revival of the series, with at least two more movies continuing the plot of the original, plus a standalone Han Solo film, plus undoubtedly many more sequels, spinoffs, and tie-ins to come. There’s some grumbling already about oversaturation, but think of it this way: we know the series reached its lowest point a long time ago, early in the game, with the legendary Star Wars Holiday Special. And now, we know that even the rip-offs and “homages” already hit rock bottom, with the 1979 CBS pilot Starstruck.

Starstruck starts with a simple premise–a sitcom set in an environment similar to the Mos Eisley Cantina–and almost immediately becomes something so incomprehensible that it feels like English badly dubbed into Swedish, and then badly dubbed again back into English. It would be charitable to guess that it was a series of sample clips cobbled together and accidentally aired as a single cohesive episode, but considering it was written by playwright Arthur Kopit, whose specialty is weird for the sake of being weird (I direct you to read the baffling Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad), it’s possible that its off-putting incoherence was intentional.

The show is about a family of humans, the McCallisters, who run a space diner/nightclub/hotel sometime during the 22nd century. I know this only because I looked it up online, as the show itself does nothing to establish the setting, who these people are, or how they’re related to each other. There are more than a dozen characters introduced, including aliens, a pair of robots who speak with Irish brogues (because why wouldn’t they?), a beleaguered talent agent, an aspiring lounge singer, a bargain basement Luke Skywalker, a black bartender, and a hit man who appears to be wearing a black shower curtain as a cape, and, if they were given names at all, I couldn’t remember them by the end of the episode. Names aren’t terribly important here, though, as more than half of them are given nothing more to do than stand around and occasionally react to what’s happening around them.

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The opening credits sequence suggests that maybe the McCallisters are time travelers, but nothing comes of it in the show itself. It would explain why everyone is wearing mismatched clothing, with the matriarch (maybe?) looking like Ma Walton, the kids wearing space age jogging suits, and the hero, Ben McCallister (Beeson Carroll), dressed to attend the local Renaissance Pleasure Faire and Faerie Festival. What the show does set up as a potential ongoing story arc is dull, what it doesn’t think needs explaining is perplexing–I initially thought the imitation Luke Skywalker was another member of the McCallister clan, until he and the McCallister daughter have a moment of 100% unearned romantic drama. “I wish you hadn’t come,” she says, while the audience collectively scratches their heads and thinks why not? 

A brief stab at something resembling a plot comes by way of Orthwaite Frodo (Roy Brocksmith), a visitor to the space diner, and the sole memorable character mostly because his name is Orthwaite Frodo. Frodo becomes so enamored by the apple pie the diner serves that he offers to buy the whole business from Ben. Ben, a humble salt of the earth type who, despite the 22nd century setting, talks like a character in a 1950s Western, politely refuses. Unable to take no for answer, Frodo calls for his personal hitman, Wilson, because what else would you name an intergalactic hitman? Wilson tries to assassinate Ben with some sort of floating crystal grenade thing, which Ben deflects with a good old-fashioned, thoroughly 19th century rifle. The episode ends with the aspiring lounge singer serenading the whole diner with “As Time Goes By” (still a standard more than 200 years from now, evidently) while Ben makes goo-goo eyes at her.

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Meanwhile, a canned laugh track is liberally sprinkled over the whole unappealing mess like Bac-Os on a wilted pile of iceberg lettuce.

In giving this some additional thought, despite Arthur Kopit’s propensity for deliberate weirdness (seriously, read Oh Dad, Poor Dad, one of the characters is a laughing piranha), I don’t think anyone involved in the making of Starstruck set out to make it purposely unintelligible. Rather, it reads more as if Kopit wrote scripts for several episodes, which were then run through a shredder and random strips and scraps pasted together as a whole new script. It’s a clip episode for a series that hadn’t aired yet, with far more time devoted to random reaction shots from random characters than developing any of those same characters, so it’s not difficult to see why TV audiences didn’t demand more where that came from.

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As with the previously reviewed The Nerd, what is puzzling is how many people must have looked at the final product (which, let me reiterate, just abruptly ends with a musical performance) and said “Yep, this is good. Not a thing needs to be changed. Take it to the head honchos, this is going to get a three season order.” Mind you, I don’t know that that’s exactly what was said, but I always assume that conversations between people in the entertainment industry often involve the phrase “head honchos.” Beyond that, at least one head honcho had to have viewed this and thought it was ready to be aired in a Saturday night time slot. Granted, it aired in June, which for network TV is like putting out a plate of nachos after your Super Bowl party is over, but the fact that Starstruck was aired at all is still remarkable. But, then again, my lack of understanding of these things might be why I only write about the entertainment industry, rather than work in it.

Original airdate: June 9, 1979

Watch it here

 

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