The Joy Of Cheese And Stars

I just read, somewhere or other, that DC had some kind of Starman show in the works at some point.

This really made me think.

If you’re of my approximate vintage, then you remember certain things very vividly: the disappointments of the Electric Company and then the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man, dim and distant images of the 60’s FF cartoon or the groovy Moongirls of U.F.O., Star Trek reruns on a Sunday in between the endless damn golf tournaments, Spider-Man and Rocket Robin Hood psychotically sharing the “Dementia 5” storyline, the strangely-satisfying Dr. Strange pilot, The Tomorrow People, The Greatest American Hero, the Rock Hudson Martian Chronicles…

What I’m trying to say is, it was kind of a desert. Punctuated by the odd looming mesa of well-intentioned cheese.

But, it all had a certain messed-up charm. In fact, in some ways it did things better than they’re done in our current, hipper, techier, more enlightened times…and I say that having just watched the FF cartoon with the freakin’ IMPOSSIBLE MAN!!! So you know it must be true. But, why? Well, for one thing, there was an unwavering focus on the wish-fulfillment aspect that we don’t see as much today. Remember, this is in the days when special effects were both primitive, and expensive, so there was a type of glamour about them perhaps not dissimilar from the early glamour of the fantasy story, the science fiction story, the superhero story itself with its lousy newsprint texture and its four basic colours. In other words, it was not the thrilling absorption, immersion, submersion into a richly-detailed and painstakingly-realized other universe that almost lived and breathed all by itself, but rather it was all about the desire to believe it so, even though the props were obviously cardboard and the boulders were obviously styrofoam, and the spaceships and the supermen were obviously dangling from piano wire instead of flying, and nothing was very convincing in an absolute sense, but instead all made out of obviously-mundane odds and ends that you had to look past. The glamour of theatre, and not movies, you could call it: because it’s the active skill of the actors at pretending, that the more primitive nature of old-timey special effects throws into sharper focus, that helps the audience pretend better too. Oh, and sure: that’s all arguable. I mean it isn’t like the props and the costumes and the effects (even, in the case of radio, sound effects) aren’t good for anything at all, and I’ll happily admit that when I was younger I was positively pining away for some decently-convincing special effects, that looked like the stuff that was going on in my head. You young whippersnappers don’t know how good you’ve got it, seriously: Star Wars changed my life, for God’s sake, it was like a radio-play magically made visible…

But let’s not argue about that now, let’s argue about that tomorrow. Right now, let’s get back to my point about all this, which is that the wish-fulfillment element was abnormally strong in these primitive and somewhat-stagey productions of my youth. Naturally: after all, can you imagine staging a theatrical production of Spider-Man? What would you do? How would you get the idea of the superpowers across, with just the acting? Because without the powers you haven’t got too much, you haven’t exactly got Death Of A Salesman, you know…and without a character who is deeply moved by the bizarre science-fictional change that has taken place in his life, you’ve got even less than that. No knock on Tobey Macguire, who is excellent and was in a much better adaptation, but Nicholas Hammond had to sweat to sell that Spider-Man stuff, because with the level of technological support he had, he might as well have been on a bare stage. Might have been better off that way, in fact. So, if you see, he couldn’t have his Peter Parker adapt to what the hell had happened to him too quickly. The audience couldn’t really see it…or rather, when they saw it they had to grunt and strain to believe it…and so (the point I am slowly fighting my way towards) the powers were very, very important, in a what’s-my-motivation type of way.

As they’re very, very important to kids who like to read about superheroes: pick up some early Superman strips, and see for yourself that the powers are everything, they are the wish-fulfillment, and without them there is no wish-fulfillment. Look at that man, he’s a bullet, a locomotive, a skyscraper, he’s telephone lines and artillery fire and steel! And that is weird! Look, everywhere no one can ever go, he goes there, like an ultimate fantasy of being a grown-up and having a job, but without the need to change or compromise. And in this way, Superman is youth itself, because who but a kid dreams of doing the things Superman does? Gee, I hope I’ve made you think about that movie “Big” just now, I really do…but even if I haven’t, I hope you’ll agree with me that just as the character is really in the design (there’s a reason Shakespeare made Proteus inconstant and Valentine true, you know, instead of the other way around…), the design is really in the powers, so one way or another the powers have to be shown; and they have to be more than shown, they have to be front-and-centre.

I was talking about Starman, I’ll remind you.

One sec.

Look at that Greatest American Hero show (good God Robert Culp looks like he’s having a blast in that, doesn’t he?), as you probably remember that whole show is about how William Katt can’t figure out how to turn his super-powers on, because he doesn’t have the manual for them. Or, look at the Spider-Man cartoon, where just like in the comic Spider-Man can basically do any silly thing he has to, but just so long as it’s in a spidery way. Dr. Strange doesn’t want the power that the lousy sets and effects conceal; the Tomorrow People have to learn to control the power that has changed who they are forever, and alienated them from the hedgerows and the Fairy liquid; Nicholas Hammond has to try to live up to his powers; David Bruce Banner (one assumes the “Bruce” — did they fix that, in the movie?) is trying to escape his powers. It’s the acting that does it. The acting, about the powers.

Back to Starman.

How great would this show have been, for that time?

How does the Cosmic Rod work, and what does it do? Nobody really knows. How do you turn it on? It’s an open question. Do you just, like, hold it, or do you have to push buttons and flick levers?

It’s a total mystery.

Now, here’s what I’m saying, finally: I miss that concentration on acting to the powers that was such a big part of seeing the comics translated to the screen in my younger days, and I’d like to see it make a resurgence, because there’s some not-inconsiderable sense of wonder in it. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t possibly be happier with Spider-Man 2, and I suppose Smallville does address what I’m talking about to some degree as well…but we could still have a bit more of that wish-fulfillment element in there, and I wouldn’t complain if we had a lot more. Starman – especially the Jack Knight Starman – would be perfect. I would watch that show week in and week out for ten years. “How does it work?” “Damn it, I told you, I don’t know how it works! I don’t even think Dad knows how it works!” “Well, then…if you don’t know how it works, how do you make it work?” “I don’t know! It just…kind of does!

Admittedly, I’m no James Robinson. But how good would that show be. Rack my brain as I might, I just can’t think of a better live-action TV adaptation of a DC property than the story of Jack Knight, Starman: like the series it came from, it would be a perfect union of the old way of doing things, and the new way.

So where is it?

Oh, I almost wish I’d never heard of it…

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12 responses to “The Joy Of Cheese And Stars

  1. I missed a few of the things you mentioned, but saw others. Don’t forget ‘Super Friends’, especially the one year they had ‘Challenge of the Super Friends’. Great at the time; hasn’t aged well.

    You know the one thing that struck me about the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man? The web-swinging. Because Spider-Man swings from webs like this (hold hands above head, wave them around), but real people, which includes Hammond, swing from webs like this (hold fists one above the other in front of chest). So does that make the show more realistic or less realistic?

    Have you been watching Heroes? There’s a lot of acting-to-the-powers in that, especially in the character of Peter Petrelli. Hiro, too, I guess, and some others.

    And the other thing I’m reminded of is my favourite moment from ‘The Incredibles’. It’s the part where Dash, the little boy who has known for years that he has superspeed, but has never been really allowed to cut loose with it, is running through a jungle from a bunch of thugs in hoversaucers. He accidentally runs out over the ocean, and looks down to discover that he’s *running on water*! And then, my favourite part, he gives a quick delighted laugh, and then *really* puts on the jets.

  2. When you mentioned Spider-Man, Rocket Robin Hood, and Dementia 5 you blew my mind.

    And overall, this ties in nicely with something I’d been mulling over due to a discussion at my blog, the nature of superheroes as metaphor and the people who just simply don’t get that. This thought isn’t fully formed…but I don’t think of the superhero as just wish-fulfillment or an infantile drive for omnipotence, though it can be both those things. It’s something broader and deeper than that in the human condition. Don’t we all feel as if we never got the instruction manual? Doesn’t everyone have that sense of a big hidden secret, something vast and awesome just out of reach, and if only we could get beyond our own limitations we could remember that thing we all used to know but forgot for some reason.

    It’s common to think of this as a childish or adolescent thought, but maybe that’s just because back then was the time we let ourselves feel it most strongly; it gets buried under our daily routines and earning a living and raising a family. But it’s always there — among other things, this is the craving religion tries to satisfy. And all these television shows you mention are about that idea. If we were wrestling with it, trying to use this untapped potential and be more than whatever we are, where are the cues as to how we should go about it? Where do we see other people struggling to make it work? Well, it’s in stuff like this.

    Me, I’d settle for being to turn this kind of weird rambling thought into something coherent…

  3. Matthew: more realistic, but in a bad way. Well, is realism the goal? Imagine the Adam West Batman without the campiness…

    RAB: strongly agree! I’d love to see a post on this!

    And: AHAHAHAHAHAHA! Also, did you know that Carole Pope was once an animator for Rocket Robin Hood?

  4. …Damn it, now I can’t stop thinking about how Starman makes the Cosmic Rod work, and I’m coming up with all kinds of geeky explanations for it…

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  7. I’m kinda surprised that never saw the light of day; Jack Knight was an ordinary guy with an extraordinary weapon, nothing more and nothing less…and nine times out of ten when TV adapts a superhero property, they do it with the character in street clothes, or modified to where the costume looks like street clothes. Witness Smallville. They wouldn’t have to do that with Jack. Plus all the family history, and the Opal City stuff…it’s extraordinarily ordinary. It would have been perfect.

    Oh well, I guess it’s all for the best- Fox probably would have aired it, and it would have been axed after five episodes.

  8. Oh, and as someone who was in the age group it was intended for when it originally aired, and despised it even then, it completely mystifies me how anyone can say they enjoyed those black holes in animation history, Super Friends and all its misbegotten spinoffs, except in a mocking way. And that’s annoying too.

    I’m a complicated fella sometimes, I guess.

  9. For all that I agree with Johnny here, I’ve got to confess that Super Friends did do one thing amazingly well: it cemented the idea of what Superman’s voice would probably sound like, in my head.

    Oh, the shame!

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