In 1984, Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen starred in a beautiful film called Starman. Set in 1972 and having the requisite government chasers out to capture the alien visitor, it was also a commentary on being human. In the film, the alien starman (Bridges) has taken on the likeness of Jenny Hayden’s (Allen) deceased husband. As their time together progresses (for Jenny has become committed to helping him make a meeting with his home ship) we see in the starman the best of what humanity can be. He comes to care for Jenny and, before he leaves, gifts her with the one thing she couldn’t have with her deceased husband… a child. He asks only that Jenny tell the baby of his father, and where he was from. Jenny promises. The starman, near death, manages to meet up with his ship and escape the government’s clutches. And we, the viewers, are left to believe Jenny goes on with her life, embracing her tiny secret that will make her a mother… end of story. Until 1986, when Starman premiered on ABC as a television series.
Being a parent is a daunting task at times. I’ve occasionally heard young couples state: “we are waiting until we’re ready to have kids.” Ha! They will wait a very long time!!! There is no book… no manual… no one that can truly prepare us for the role of being a parent. You may read all the books out there about parenting skills, but even so, it is a “learn as you go” task. I am a firm believer in that… perhaps that is why so many of us that were the eldest child in a family feel like we had it the hardest! We were experiments!!! By the time our siblings came along, our parents had the whole “parent” thing mastered. Well, sort of… but imagine, if you will — what that role would feel like to someone who has never been a parent, yet has a teenage son (with all the angst that comes with that age) and no clue how a parent should behave or respond. This is the fate awaiting our Starman upon his return to Earth.
Fourteen years have passed since the Starman’s previous visit to Earth. This time, his visit has one purpose — to find his son and Jenny. We learn that Jenny is missing and has been for some time. Her son, Scott, has lived in the foster system, but is back at the orphanage because of the deaths of his most recent foster parents in a car accident; an accident that Scott walked away from. Now Scott wants to find his mother, but all he has of her is the silver orb she left him with. Unbeknownst to him, it is his strong emotions that bring the orb to “life” and calls the Starman back to Earth.
Paul Forrester (Robert Hays), a world-renowned prize-winning freelance photographer, is killed in a helicopter accident high in the mountains, just as the Starman arrives on Earth. Needing a deceased body from which to take the DNA necessary to create a human form, the Starman takes on the identity of Paul and sets out on his search. Upon finding his son, Scott (Christopher Daniel Barnes), Paul/Starman learns that his “family” has been separated for some time.
Initially, Scott does not believe Paul is his father… not until he sees Paul use a silver orb… and Paul doesn’t realize that Scott has some of his father’s alien abilities until he later witnesses Scott also using an orb, the one the Starman had left with Jenny so she could tell their child about his father. An orb that can be a device for protection, healing, communication, and guidance.
Scott is not initially happy with this reunion; where was his “father” when he truly needed him while growing up? But it doesn’t take him long to realize that Paul/Starman is unfamiliar with Earth’s teenage wiles, and he tricks Paul into helping him try to locate Jenny. Unfortunately, like his first visit, this search is plagued by Agent George Fox (Michael Cavanaugh), the government official who believes that Paul and Scott are dangerous and wants to capture, examine, and, most likely, kill them. But this series wasn’t really about the chase….
“ABC bought a show from us that we like, and they said, ‘We like it too, go try it’… We wanted to do small, optimistic human stories. We wanted Starman’s innocence about the world to affect the folks with whom he comes in contact.”
–Executive producers Jim Hirsch and Jim Henderson, on the kind of series they wanted to create.
What was remarkable about Starman was that it was an hour-long drama suitable for family viewing. It incorporated numerous “wholesome” values into its story elements. These included, but certainly weren’t limited to, a terrific and warm relationship between a father and a son; problem-solving based on honest communication instead of argument; attitudes based on fairness and a lack of sexism, racism, or age discrimination; emotional drama instead of violence and car chases; and above all, a hopeful outlook on the future, humanity, and the planet as a whole.
The writing explored numerous social and environmental issues of the day, particularly literacy, endangered species, and the care of the indigent and disabled; topics still of relevancy today. The humor in the show came not from crude insults and one-upsmanship, but from an affectionate look at the interrelationships of parents and teens. The emphasis was on integrity, compassion, courtesy, responsibility, forgiveness, trust, friendship, and the courage to change one’s life for the better. Tell me, where in today’s television programs will you find the same?
“One of the best examples of this in the show is a scene when Starman is walking along the beach with Scott, and turns to his son and asks, ‘How am I doing — as a father?’ The boy is stunned (as was I!), and that pretty well sums up the kind of father Starman is. Another scene has Scott turning to his dad and putting his arm around his dad’s shoulders, and saying, ‘How long do you think you would last without me to take care of you?’ I can recall no other single dad role model on TV that was as powerful. Too bad all father/son relationships, or any relationship for that matter, couldn’t be the same. Each needed the other, and each enriched the other in immeasurable ways. And that’s what father-son relationships should be all about.”
–Fervent fan Chuck S. from the website http://www.tvdads.com, on the relationship of father and son.
From the moment Paul/Starman first meets Scott, it is obvious he hasn’t a clue how to be a father. In fact, in many ways, Paul is a child himself. He is learning about his new and different environment. He is learning about life, in particular, human mores and behaviors. Following his initial meeting with Scott, he comes upon a group of men, talking in a park about their teenagers. Overhearing the conversation, Paul blithely joins the group, his attention rapt, absorbing all that is said. At one point, he utters “I want to know about teenagers!” to which he’s asked “You got one?” Paul replies swiftly to the affirmative, and is asked “You understand him?” He replies simply “No”, to which he’s told “There you go… nobody understands them; they’re from another planet!” And so the first of many lessons begins. Later, in a conversation with reporter friend Liz Baines (Mimi Kuzyk), Paul admits “I want to help him, but don’t know how.”
Yet our alien should not feel so unqualified for the role of “dad”… many parents don’t always know how to help their children either! I repeat — children do not come with a complete set of directions for the parents. At the end of the first episode, Liz finally clues Paul in to the challenge he is facing. “Takes time to raise a kid approximately 21 years, and you’ve already blown 14 of them,” she tells Paul as they watch Scott walk off to start the search for Jenny. Paul replies, “I’m not from here… I don’t know how to be a father.” Liz assures him that “Nobody does. You just do your best and take your chances.” Still unsure of his father, Scott confronts him on how long Starman will stick around this time, to which Paul responds with Liz’s wise words about how long it takes to raise a kid….
Many times, the role of “parent” was reversed for Paul and Scott, for here we had a 14 year-old boy teaching his alien father about life on Earth. The issues of honesty and trust crops up often in Starman. It is Scott who teaches Paul about honesty (especially when it regards others wanting something from you!) In the episode Like Father, Like Son, Paul and Scott help a mother and her teen daughter, offering to provide them lodging for a night. In his childlike innocence, Paul tells the mother that “You and I can take the big bed and the two kids can bunk together.” Scott must rescue his erstwhile father from this major social error by lamely pointing out that his dad was “just kidding.” Later, Scott and Paul are talking and Scott admits that he doesn’t feel he can “count on” Paul. Unfamiliar with some of our language, Paul asks Scott to define what he means by “count on”, to which Scott tells him “To trust to do something asked of you to do.” Paul feels certain they should trust one another, but Scott is still hesitant. It takes a close encounter with a cougar for Scott to realize he truly is a part of the Starman, like it or not. This particular episode really drove home the angst Scott was carrying around as the child of an absent father and a missing mom. But a connection does start forming between the two, creating a moment that’s both special and ordinary at the same time:
Paul: “Scott, you called me dad!”
Scott: “Yeah, well, it was meant to get your attention… don’t fall apart.”
Ideally, every parent wants (or should want) the best for their child… be that an education, a place to call home, friends, family, security… and every child wants to stretch their wings and fly on their own. And these universal themes were explored by the writers in subsequent episodes. Scott and Paul/Starman, throughout the series short life, depicted a strong, respectful relationship. It was a connection that explored not only what the father believed his son needed, but what Paul/Starman needed as well. Their journey together on the search for Jenny created a bond nothing could break. Did they ever find her? Why should I tell? In the process of trying to complete their family, they found each other….
“First, there’s the fact that our time slot was changed five times. And we were up against hit shows every time: Miami Vice, Falcon Crest, Dallas, Cosby, you name it. Not to mention our time — 10:00 at night? That was ridiculous. Then we were pre-empted several times. No one ever knew when the heck to watch us. That’s what frustrated so many of these people… Starman was a really good show. It said something we all believe in. It became part of us. Ratings and reviews don’t mean anything to me. If people enjoy it, that’s important.”
–Christopher Daniel Barnes, Starlog Magazine, 1989
Few viewers even got the honest chance to find Starman in the first place, even though many of those that did became fervent fans. Reviews were unkind (and unfair, based on a limited preview instead of actual episodes), and the idea of the show being “science fiction” [gasp!] discouraged many likely viewers from even trying it. Typically for a misunderstood series, the promotion for it was inept at best, and the 22 episodes aired in six different time slots, facing off against major hit shows that had strong, established followings. The ratings suffered, obviously, and in May 1987, Starman was canceled.
ROBERT HAYS (Starman/Paul Forrester) came on the television scene in the mid-1970s, playing guest roles on various programs. He hit his stride in the industry though, with the movie Airplane. Known as a prankster on the set of Starman, he once claimed that he and Paul Forrester/Starman, in one way, were alike…”He has a childlike innocence. I’m childlike anyway, so I don’t have to worry about that…I just have to take my jaded side and make that innocent…” Although an actor, director and producer, nowadays Hays can be found tinkering around his “…California home, raising his son Jake, surfing and taking care of my best girl, my dog.”
CHRISTOPHER DANIEL BARNES (Scott Hayden) has had a varied career over the years, from voice-over work as Peter Parker/Spiderman in the animated TV series and Prince Eric in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, to playing Greg Brady in the Brady Bunch movies. Also known professionally as C.D. Barnes or C.B. Barnes, Christopher recently started a Doctoral program.
MICHAEL CAVANAUGH (Agent George Fox) is a versatile and accomplished character actor with innumerable series appearances to his credit, including: The X-Files, Bones, The West Wing, and a regular role in the short-lived 1991 revival of Dark Shadows. Also an accomplished vocalist, he has appeared on Broadway. Michael continues to work in the industry and recently appeared in FlashForward as the Chairman of the SETI project, apparently still searching for aliens.
ERIN GRAY (Jenny Hayden) has been best known for two major television roles – Kate from Silver Spoons, and Colonel Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. She has continued to appear in other series over the years, and was a recurring character on The Profiler. Today, Erin and her husband work at producing Tai Chi and Chi Kung videos; Erin teaches Tai Chi as well. For years she has been a spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and serves as a board member for Haven House, the oldest battered women’s shelter in the U.S.
The series is currently not available on commercial DVD, but if you want to make your voices heard, you can visit the “Spotlight Starman International” fan site or log in to tvshowsondvd.com and vote for the show. There are, of course, bootleg copies of the series available, if you wish to go that route, or you can view all the episodes online at YouTube.
Society likes to compartmentalize…to assign labels and make judgments about things. Starman did nothing of the kind. Our alien visitor was truly innocent and it is through his eyes that we saw the best of our world, along with its flaws, as he and Scott made their journey together. As I’ve said before, being a parent is not an easy job…it’s an adventure. A wild ride where the parents and children hang on together and experience the highs and lows that life brings. There is no perfect plan for being a parent; it is all “by guess ’n’ by golly”. All we can hope for is a solid, loving, open, honest relationship with our offspring. Perhaps we all need to take a lesson from Starman…
22 aired episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: September 19, 1986
Last aired episode: May 2, 1987
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? No. In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific time it aired regularly, as it was bounced all over the place.
See you at the reruns!
JoAnn G. Morlan
(Thank you, JoAnn, for covering this one for me. This obviously needed a parental touch, and you’re much more qualified than I could ever be in that regard. Starman is a show well worthy of that perspective. –Tim R.)