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DIRECTED BY: James Gatward, Wolfgang Storch, Freddie Francis, Hans Heinrich
FEATURING:, Lisa Harrow, Gareth Thomas, Pierre Brice, Christian Quadflieg, Christiane Krüger, Derek Farr
PLOT: A rogue planet governed by a fiercely matriarchal society drifts close to Earth; when two men escape to our planet in search of freedom, the ruling women give chase, resulting in a clash of cultures.
COMMENTS: The greatest moment in every episode of Star Maidens occurs 10 seconds in: right after a couple establishing shots of a futuristic milieu, the show’s reductive title comes zooming on to the screen, accompanied by a glorious 70s variety show fanfare. This magical moment perfectly captures the spirit of the series as a whole: a glimmer of intrigue and potential, immediately suffused by cheese.
The show is the product of a collaboration between Scottish and German TV producers, with a nearly even Anglo-Teutonic split of creative forces (best captured in the utterly brilliant credit “Created by Eric Paice from an idea by Jost Graf von Hardenberg”). The result is schizophrenic in tone. After a tense premiere in which two oppressed men flee their female-dominant society seeking asylum on Earth, we seem poised to act out a battle of the sexes on a planetary scale. It never turns out that way, though. The show has the attention span of a toddler, taking no time to develop its characters, abandoning situations as quickly as they’ve been introduced, and completely resetting the rules with each episode. So to expect any kind of look at the role of women in society, serious or satirical, is a fool’s errand.
To be frank, everyone in the show is pretty dumb. The freedom-seeking men stumble into situations, then immediately flee. Earth scientists are casually indifferent to the dangers of new technologies and civilizations, and promptly get taken hostage. Officials from the hovering-somewhere-nearby planet of Medusa refuse to even consider the sociological implications of encountering a way of life so unlike their own and blunder onto a new planet like the British into India, only with less cultural sensitivity.
There’s an argument to be made that today’s television is too heavily serialized, but Star Maidens goes so far in the other direction as to nearly be an anthology show. Nothing learned ever seems to carry over from one episode to the next. If a character is punished and denigrated for his insubordination in one episode, you can be sure all will be forgotten in the next. There are absolutely no stakes for characters who find themselves on a new world, and they are quickly assimilated into whatever job that week’s episode holds for them. And all this ties back to the ostensible theme of the show. What should we think of this looking-glass world where women dominate? An improvement? A disaster? Well, ya ain’t gonna find out here. The women of Medusa are haughty and impertinent, but it’s hard to blame them in the face of the ineffectual and inflexible men of Earth. The two worlds just sort of bump up against each other, but no one ever takes even a moment to acknowledge the momentousness of what’s going on. It’s like a Cold War drama that’s all about negotiating fruit deliveries.
One of the few interesting twists comes in a mid-season episode called “Perfect Couple,” in which haughty Medusan socialite Fulvia and her chafing domestic Adam move into a suburban cottage in an attempt to acquire an Earth lifestyle. Not surprisingly, they’re terrible at it, failing both at adapting to life on Earth and reversing their ingrained gender roles. The show hints at the comedy of manners it could have been, but it’s a one-off trip. After a while, “Star Maidens” seems to forget the germ of its idea and starts churning out some passable hardcore science fiction, like an environmental parable about the Medusan government refusing to acknowledge a growing climate catastrophe for which they are responsible, or a tight little horror show about the forgotten computers who take on the roles of haunting spirits. But the show has neither the patience nor the interest to stay in any one place for long. Consider the finale, in which the Medusans are rendered nearly impotent in the face of a new alien enemy–who will be quickly dispatched thanks to some quick human thinking, no consequences, moving on. The show refuses to be what it’s so clearly about, so it ends up not being about anything at all.
If you argue that it’s churlish to critique a 1970s British TV show for being insufficiently attentive to the themes of feminism and misogyny, I’d agree with you—if the show hadn’t brought the idea up first. That thought experiment is the whole reason we’re here, and they could barely keep it up past the first episode. In fact, Star Maidens is so laden down by its era and its premise that it really has nowhere to go. As a curiosity, it sits comfortably alongside other British science fiction shows with small cults like “UFO,” “Star Cops” or it’s studio mate “Space: 1999”; and it’s frankly amazing that “Star Maidens,” like those other shows, hasn’t shown up as an audio revival on Big Finish. But the show we have is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is, and that’s a shame, because there is something in there. At least there’s a kickin’ theme song.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s an attempt at sexy humorous sci-fi with a satirical edge. Whether intentional or not, seeing the show today it comes across as amazingly and delightfully camp… Judy Geeson as Fulvia and German actress Christiane Krüger as Octavia both get to wear bizarre makeup and outlandish clothes and to look rather glamorous in a very very 1970s sort of way… delightfully excessive visually and it’s silly, outrageous, amusing and generally a great deal of fun.” – Cult TV Lounge