Old Gems: Starman (1986-1987)

He's not Jeff Bridges but he is an alien

Robert Hays as Starman

Back when I wrote about The Invaders, I mentioned the genre of the “fixing-up wanderer” that was popular in the 60s and 70s:

Whether it was The Immortal, Branded, Coronet Blue, The Fugitive, The Incredible Hulk, Kung Fu or any of the others, the format was essentially the same and designed to allow shows to be broadcast in any order during syndication, re-runs, etc, without anyone getting lost: a man (it was always a man) would travel from town to town, doing his best to evade some horrible authority or person chasing after them; he’d try to stay low profile, but sooner or later, he’d discover some drama in the town that needed fixing. The situation would get fixed and the hero would move on to another town for the next episode, typically without anything happening that would change the overall show format (unless it was the first or last episode of a season).

Now the genre didn’t die out altogether in the 80s. Occasionally, it would resurface, sometimes mutated through intermingling with another genre. In the case of Starman, we have the marriage of “fixing-up wanderer” with the movie tie-in.

Back in 1984, Starman was a lovely little John Carpenter movie that starred Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. Bridges played an alien who comes to Earth after intercepting the Voyager 2 space probe and its invitation to visit to us. He takes the form of Karen Allen’s dead husband and they go on a road trip together so that Bridges can get a lift home from another bunch of aliens.

Along the way, Bridges’ alien learns all about humans and their ways – including emotions and this Earth-thing we call love – and at the final instance reveals that Allen is now pregnant with a child who will be hers and both his and her late husband’s. When the child grows up, he will be a teacher to humanity. And it’s all very tear-jerking and lovely:

So that’s 1984, driving around in a late 70s Mustang, coming to Earth thanks to a space probe launched in 1977. Everyone got it?

Right, let’s fast forward a couple of years to 1986 and ABC wants to adapt the movie into a TV series. Rather than start from scratch, the show also fast forwards 15 years into the future… to 1986. So everything in the movie apparently happened in 1971 or earlier.

Huh. Okay. How’s that work exactly?

Anyway, that minor logistical issue aside, the story is that the Starman’s son is now 15 but has been abandoned by his mother (now played by Buck Rogers in the 25th Century‘s Erin Gray – yes, the producers couldn’t afford any of the original cast) to foster parents who have just died. Realising his son is in trouble, the Starman comes to Earth and assumes the form of another dead human – this time dead photojournalist Paul Forrester, played by Airplane!‘s Robert Hays. Together, he and Starman Jr travel together around the country, fixing people’s problems while they search for Erin Gray – all while being chased by the same federal agent, now played by Michael Cavanaugh, who gave the Starman such problems in the movie.

Here are the titles – I have to confess it’s slightly new to me, too, since I only saw a dubbed version in French while I was on holiday there. As with most dubbed shows of the era, it seemed better when it wasn’t in English:

Developed by Mike Gray, who wrote The China Syndrome and went on to become a producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Starman didn’t exactly tread new ground. Pretty much everything in the show followed the movie or the “fixing-up wanderer” genre to a tee. Hays learns about humanity. He has a small silvery ball (rather than a collection) that he can hold in the palm of his hand to do weird alien tricks; son Scott also gets a ball and has to learn how to use it, while teaching his dad about this Earth thing called family. And shaving. And Shakespeare. And artichokes. And things like that. None of that ‘teacher to humanity’ rubbish.

Along the way they meet parents who have kidnapped their kids, cougars, pilots with financial problems, and pregnant aristocrats, while slightly malevolent government agent Cavanaugh chases them, resulting in scenes of mild peril. Towards the end of the first season, they do eventually find Erin Gray, who’s become an artist, but because that would effectively have ended the show or at the very least increased the number of series regulars by one, off they went wandering again afterwards.

The show lasted all of 22 episodes, the final episode ended the show irrelevantly and inconclusively in typical 80s “social issue” – and indeed Starman – style (cf season 3 of Airwolf):

Once again the “new kid” in school, Scott comes up against a trio of bullies while Paul presents two people with the opportunity to change their lives: a disillusioned teacher and a man who has yet to face his illiteracy

While not exactly a classic of television and with Hays going more for the comic than Bridges, it is fondly remembered with Starman fan clubs still in existence. None in the UK, of course, since it never aired here, as far as I know. But I thought I’d share anyway.

Trivia time
Mysteriously, Hays went on to become the voice of Iron Man in the animated series of the same name, while his ‘son’, CD Barnes, went on to play Spider-Man. And of course Bridges was in the movie, Iron Man. So what’s going on there then?


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.