The Past is a Different Planet: Star Maidens Revisited

SM1 copy

The history of sci-fi on British television is littered with oddities, but few come odder than the 1975 ITV series Star Maidens.  Co-produced by a Scottish investment company and a German TV network, Star Maidens was filmed in Slough with a mixed cast of German, English and Scottish actors and its 13 episodes ran on ITV in the UK from 1st September to 1st December 1976. It tells the story of the technologically advanced planet Medusa, where women rule and mean are treated as menial slaves. Their society is thrown into disorder when a pair of rebellious males steal a spacecraft and flee the planet Medusa, crash landing on Earth, where the roles are perceived as being reversed. A crew of female overlords pursue them to Earth and much campy fun ensues.

The idea of a planet ruled by women is an old chestnut in sci-fi. When Doctor Who rejected the Dick Sharples’ script for The Prison in Space in 1969, the concept was a little bit old-hat; by 1975, it was almost a museum piece! That’s not to say that such an idea can’t make important points about women’s liberation – a hot topic in the mid-70s – but unfortunately Star Maidens does not. Its case isn’t helped by the fact that the women of Medusa assert their dominance whilst mainly wearing hot-pants and leotards. All of the writers on Star Maidens were men and, whilst they make the odd stab at presenting women’s lib issues, they never really come across as anything more than half-hearted. The militant feminists seen in the episode The Perfect Couple are presented as fussy, spectacle-wearing spinsters; the common ‘comedy’ shorthand for such characters in the day.

Star Maidens (German title: Die Mädchen aus dem Weltraum) was created by Eric Paice (from an idea by Jost Graf von Hardenberg) with other scripts being written by Doctor Who stalwarts John Lucarotti and Ian Stuart Black, with two episodes by German scriptwriter Otto Strang. The series is quite schizoid in tone and both Lucarotti and Black seem to have a different concept of what it’s all about to Paice. Although the over-arching feeling is not dissimilar to the 1980 Two Ronnies sketch serial The Worm That Turned, the tone veers alarmingly from comedy to adventure. John Lucarotti seems to prefer playing up the comedy elements, while Ian Stuart Black definitely prefers the sci-fi, giving us some of the series best episodes, including the creepy Creatures of the Mind, in which ancient computers abandoned in the Medusan archives start to go a little bit crazy. Eric Paice is somewhere between the two, though most of his episodes are those set on Earth, which are generally less entertaining than those set on Medusa.

To sci-fi fans today, the biggest name in this is Gareth Thomas, three years away from his break-through role as revolutionary Roj Blake in the BBC’s Blake’s 7. His character of Shem, one of the two escaped male slaves, is a real wet blanket and isn’t given much to do; even in the episode Hideout, where he falls in love with an earth woman, he spends most of his time cooking and cleaning for her. He plays it admirably straight, but it’s hard to believe this is the same actor that 9 years later would deliver a tour de force in Morgan’s Boy. Judy Geeson, a big name at the time, plays Supreme Councillor Fulvia, a high-up official on Medusa, whose slave Adam (French actor Pierre Brice) accompanies Shem in fleeing from slavery. Fulvia pursues the two men to Earth with her fellow Councillor Octavia, played by Christiane Krüger, the daughter of well-known German screen actor Hardy Krüger.

On Earth, they encounter Dr. Liz Becker, played by Lisa Harrow and Dr. Rudi Schmidt, played by German movie hunk Christian Quadflieg; the two of them end up going to Medusa while Fulvia, Adam and Shem remain on Earth and much fish-out-of-water hilarity ensues. To be honest, a lot of the actors in Star Maidens are wasted in this nonsense; Gareth Thomas is given a part where he mostly gets to look anxious and run away and Christiane Krüger gives it her all in a thankless role, saving a great many scenes from questionable writing. How the German actors come across in the English language version is largely dependent on whether they are dubbed or not. Christiane Krüger, though she has a pronounced accent, speaks her own lines in English and so her performance comes across as very good, whereas Christian Quadflieg and Pierre Brice (yes, I know he’s French, don’t write in) are dubbed, so they always come across as a bit flat. Such was always the problem with these ‘Euro-pudding’ co-productions.

Star Maidens filmed at Bray Studios in Slough at the same time as season two of Space: 1999 and it shared the designer Keith Wilson with the more auspicious series. A lot of props and sets were on loan from the Gerry Anderson show, making Star Maidens look a lot more expensive than it might otherwise have done. Despite its small budget, the model effects were very impressive, though sparingly used and often repeated throughout the series. I say that Star Maidens was cheap in comparison to Space: 1999, but it still cost more than the BBC would have used on the first series of Blake’s 7; so the fact that Blake’s 7 is well remembered and Star Maidens is not is completely down to the latter’s weak concept and scripts. The series had good writers and directors (among them Hammer veteran Freddie Francis) but its initial concept was flawed and difficult to spin into anything remotely dramatic.

These days, Star Maidens is thought of as a camp classic; that’s a label that is often attached quite unfairly to series from the 70s, but few can argue that in the case of Star Maidens it’s pretty accurate. It’s got a lot to do with the Disco-era costuming, the over-the-top acting and the funky musical score, but there’s little you could do with the series to save it, to be perfectly frank. At best, Star Maidens is like a low-rent Space: 1999, at worst it’s just one chorus of Yakkety Sax away from The Benny Hill Show. Is it entertaining? Yeah, in a kitschy sort of way, it is. Is it offensive? Hmm, I’m sure if you took it too seriously, there’s a lot in Star Maidens that could be taken as wildly – albeit unintentionally – sexist; but hey, why would you take it seriously? This is a piece of silly, harmless entertainment from a time long gone. L.P. Hartley famously said: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,’ and if Star Maidens is anything to go by, you could definitely change that to ‘the past is a different planet.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s