About Me

Rob Pincombe is a prolific television writer, recovering comedian and sometime comic artist/storyboard artist who just wasn't satisfied with a single blog. He writes about sci-fi and fandom at rebelalert.com, Canadian comics at comicanuck.com, and shares thoughts and insights on writing at starkravingadventure.com

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sci-Fi World Tour Stop Three: England and Germany's Star Maidens

Welcome to the rebellion.

Our last two stops took us from the Australian Phoenix 5 series, which battled mightily against its down-under budget, to Germany's mighty entertaining Raumpatrouille, whose budget was so big it only lasted seven episodes.

This time out we find ourselves somewhere in low orbit between Germany and Great Britain as we enjoy a bizarre co-production between these two countries; the wonderfully wonky Star Maidens.

The series opens on the planet Medusa, a world ruled by dayglow, sweatpant and short shorts wearing, sequin and peek-a-boo shirt and mini-skirt modeling, sparkly make-up bedecked, futuristic women. We are indoctrinated into this sparkly society via a video "history program for junior girls"...
A society ruled by women. This perfect condition existed as long ago a thousand orbits, when our planet Medusa belonged to the solar system of Proxima Centauri. These were the golden years of our history. Led by the Grand Council of Women we had created a world of intellect; of leisure and advanced technology where the menial tasks and some of the others (wink wink) were patiently performed by our men.
But it turns out Medusa is not so far away at all. A giant comet striking their planet knocked it out of orbit, sending it spiraling out of its star system and into ours!

The Medusans discover this new solar system houses another inhabitable planet called Earth. Unfortunately...
Earth proved a great disappointment to us. Contrary to all common sense it was controlled by men. typically we found it to be crude, primitive, muddling along in an untidy and disease prone existence.We withdrew and Earth was declared out of bounds to all civilized space travelers.
But one man is not satisfied with the status quo. Adam (Pierre Brice), a menial laborer, tricks his dull-witted pal (a pre-Blake's 7 Gareth Hunt!) into helping him evade the hot pant wearing, female security force and steal a spaceyacht. That's right, a spaceyacht. The boys are soon hot-footing it for Earth and the freedom they hope a male-dominated society will bring them. Of course, being terrified of any woman, even a little girl, makes that a little difficult when they do finally arrive.

Adam and Shem
(former German teen idol and future space pirate)

But the sexy President Clara (played sexily by the sexy Dawn Addams) sends her sexy, tough as nails, Chief Security Controller Octavia (sexy Christiane Kruger), after the fugitives.

With the help and occasional hindrance of the sexy, Supreme Councillor (Judy Geeson as the unsubtly-named, sometimes brainy, sometimes spoiled but always sexy Fulvia) Octavia hops into a flying saucer and heads to Earth, learning about our backward society and the dastardly effects of champagen even as a pair of earthlings are flung back to Medusa to learn about their odd world.

Viewers are then treated to an insightful treatise on male-female relations circa the 1970's....

Wait. That's not it.

Viewers are in for sexy, titillating romp that plays with gender identity and sci-fi tropes. Oops! Wrong again...

Viewers were subjected to a hard to describe mess of a series that is more watchable for it's kitsch value and what it could have been, than for what actually is? BINGO!!

Welcome the beautiful, completely baffling world of Star Maidens!

Banner for Pixis' Star Maiden DVD release with extras
www.animus-web.demon.co.uk 's Alistair McGown.

As someone who has written for a variety of television co-productions, I can say it's a bitch when the two countries have fundamentally different audiences and expectations. It is very difficult to find a middle ground where both are pleased. Sometimes you find that perfect balance and create something truly unique and memorable. And sometimes you don't find that balance and create something memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Which brings us to Star Maidens.

Star Maidens is no classic. It's also not a cult hit in the true sense of the word, because it's hardly been shown outside of Germany since it first aired in 1976-77 ans so has little by way of a loyal, rabid fanbase to keep the flame alive. The series does enjoy some notoriety in Germany, thanks to being re-aired in the late nineties during the rise of specialty channels.

The maiden run in the 70's also included transmission in Holland and briefly, New York, according to the collective memories mined at Alistair McGown's brilliant, and highly informative Star Maidens site.

They say we write the books or create the websites we want to see and Alistair's obsessive need to know more about a show with little to no fanbase has resulted in a treasure trove of information. Here's McGown's explanation:
There's not really an organised fan cult around Star Maidens, just me and a few other nutters as far as I'm aware. But maybe there's this occasional nagging thought at the back of your mind... 'That was brilliant wasn't it? It must have been? Wasn't it a bit... well, pervy?'.

...What was it then...? Ludicrous, ambitious, confused, infuriating, cack-handed, staggering, limited, inventive, cheap, hilarious, camp, sexy, lurid fun. Some of the time.
How can you not want to see more after reading that? What about after seeing costumes like the ready to rumble (or at least play beach volleyball) Security uniforms?

At first I thought they were gym or sauna attendants with a handy towel on their belt. But it turns out they wear a single glove on their belts for an undisclosed reason. Perhaps it's so they don't have to actually touch sweaty male skin when they womanhandle degenerate, x and y chromosomed reprobates. in keeping with their subordinate, eye candy role, Medusan mens' fashion tend toward shiny, billowy, blouse-like shirts with geometric, peek-a-boo holes cut out of key areas.

Catherine Bujold's Star Maidens site is also a wonder of collected info. A huge fan of Space: 1999 and Star Maidens design, Bujold has build a site a beautiful as it is informative. Much of the information shared cam e from one of these two sites. The show began in imaginations of Jost von Hardenberg and Co., WIR Frankfurt. Principle players in the company, Graf and Graefin Von Hardenberg, who's main claim to fame other than Star Maidens seems to be erotic films like Penelope Pulls It Off and Schwedischer Sommerwind (Swedish Summer Wind), a Lady Chatterley film.

You're getting excited about the possibilities now, aren't you? Read on as McGown tries to define Star Maidens this way:
Star Maidens is a hotch potch (sic) of ideas and influences - a series of conflicting dichotomies never resolved over its brief run: male sexual fantasy v feminist gender politics, comedy farce v straight science fiction, German humour v British humour and so on. Thus it was never likely to find an audience in the UK except among five year old kids waiting between seasons of Space:1999 (depending where you lived in the UK!)
Sooo good!

Von Hardenberg took its tongue in cheek sex farce to England's Portman Productions, but producer/director James Gatward (Elephant Boy, Castaways) seems to have tried to take the Series in a more serious sci-fi direction to compete with Gerry Anderson's popular Space:1999 series. (Interestingly, in the Aug. 28 - Sept. 3 issue of the Scottish edition of TV Guide found here, Ian Warner, identified as the owner of the company making the series, plays up the humour aspect).

Star Maidens comes by its Space: 1999 comparison honestly. In addition to the celestial body ripped from its orbit plot device (originated in Flash Gordon), both shows shared the services of production designer Keith Wilson, who brought a large number of his AP Films/Century 21 crew to help with the show. The similarity in the sets is striking with similar motifs varied mostly by a differing colour palettes (Space Maiden's grey and violet vs. Space: 1999's beige and orange sets )

The duplicate cockpits of Moonbase Alpha's
Eagle Interceptor and Star Maidens' Nemesis.

And duplicate sets as well. Looks like casual, space jumpsuits
are in style for the working class on both Medusa and
aboard Moonbase Alpha.

Without a character to provide context this set would
equally at home on both Space: 1999 or Star
This one happens to be for Star Maidens.

In terms of wardrobe, Space: 1999's beige and brown utilitarian, functional style is slightly different in approach to Space Maidens' bold colours and unlikely designs for costumes, but they still fit comfortably into each other's world. It's quite possible Wilson reused a great deal of material from the first season of Space: 1999 to overcome Star Maiden's limited budget. In each case, Wardrobe supervisor Dulcie Midwinter is another link between the two shows, though I don't know how much she contributed to the actual designs.

Care to play doctor with the Star Maiden's
medical robot
or Space: 1999's Maya?

Though Star Maidens had few aliens other titular heroes, Designer Keith Wilson's medical robot is a lovely creation. It's a combination of familiar human elements combined with make-up and appliances that adds the same sense of grace and elegance that made Space: 1999's Mya so memorable. in fact, the hairstyles and glitteyr make-up favoured by the Medusan women can be seen to be the blueprint for Maya's appearance in Space: 1999's still to come second season.

Some of Keith Wilson's designs for the show can be seen here and his website (www.keithwilson.com) has many examples of his extensive film and television work.

Space1999.net has a lovely portfolio of his work here. they also have an informative interview about his work on the show here.

As a boy hitting puberty in the late seventies, I'd like thank Mr. Wilson and Mr. Anderson for fashions like these!

No one messes with Medusan Security.
But what's with the gloves?

Is that a nurse's uniform or bandages?

You can defend my planet from
UFO invasion anytime!

Futuristic figure skaters?

In the future bathing that fit are considered unhip.
And speaking of hips...

Despite the eye candy, the show is mess of conflicting ideas, jumbled scripting and pedestrain direction. But there are other things to admire besides the scenery. The soundtrack by German band leader Barry Lipman is uniformly groovy. Gareth Hunt as a childlike manservant who thought this whole 'escape thing' would be a fun little joyride, shows little of the crusading spirit he would soon bring to bear as the rebel leader in Britain's still populat Blake's 7 series. Yet his "owner" Flavia dotes on him like a pet and there is a hint that they share a deeper relationship.

In the Prisoner series, a giant bubble was a way to
prevent escape. In Star Maidens, its a very unlikely
and awkward route to freedom.

Gareth Hunt in the later role would make
him famous, Blake of Blake's 7.

Star Maidens hammers you over the head with the central role reversal theme and yet they don't carry it out to its natural conclusions. How does Medusan Society work. Not only are the women outfitted inappropriately for their jobs, but there is a class of woman who actually do meial labour as well as the men. How does that work? Perhaps, since we only ever see upper class, extremely attractive woman and their literal manservants, they eliminate anyone old or ugly (shades of Logan's Run).

Questions like this abound and remain unanswered for the most part. Star Maidens rarely explores its central conceit, and certainly never traverses new ground but some of the ideas do stand out.

Fulvia and Octavia utilizing a 'nightmare cannon" so Shem and Adam see their faces everywhere is neat idea with some filmic impact. At one point Octavia hooks earth girl Liz up to a 'Sexometer' to find out why she's not attracted to Medusan men (shades of Barbarella and Duran Duran). Liz imagines various animals in place of the hunky bodybuilder visuals Octavia plays and destroys the machine. At one point, earth scientist Rudi finds Medusa's poisonous rain is eroding the support structures of their city but naturally, President Clara and Octavia refuse to listen to a man's theory. In one late episode, the President lies near death and most of the people of the planet are "sympathy dying". A spine-tingling concept but the story veers away from it at the end.

Have I mentioned I dig the Security outfits?

Most modern reviews of the series single out two episodes as particularly praiseworthy and each seem to represent the extremes of what the series tried to be; one is a comedy on gender roles while the other is harder science fiction oriented tale. Episode Seven, "The Perfect Couple" finally plays with the comedic power of the show's premise. Fulvia shacks up with Adam and plays breadwinner while possibly closeted-lesbian, feminists steal Medusan technology to further their cause. Episode Eleven, "Creatures of the Mind" is played as straight science fiction. Liz is trapped in the planet's computer archives with whispering, ghostly voices who turn out to be robots programmed for emotion who need a companion to ease their loneliness.

To offer a feel for the series, here is a terrific Youtube remix that sums up Star Maiden's first episode to a moody, techno soundtrack.

Again, I can't recommend highly enough the two most phenomenal sites for Star Maidens info highly enough:

Alistair McGown's Star Maidens site is so good he provided most of the extras for the German DVD release of the series. Check out his analysis of Medusa's fashions on his Fashion Pages.

And fellow Canuck Catherine Bujold's love of all things Space:1999 and Star Maiden's spurred her to create this terrific website and convert her entire house into a stylin' Moonbase Alpha!

You can find modern reviews of the series here, here and here.

Coming up next, we'll be taking a few detours before continuing our Sci-Fi World Tour.

But after cleansing our palette with the schizoid German-English co-production Star Maidens, I think you're ready to discover how the same books by Poland's most famous science fiction author, Stanislaw Lem, inspired completely different outings from our Hungarian friends.

Get ready for the wonder that is Pirx!


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