❉ Quatermass meets Benny Hill in the unique Battle Of The Sexes series.
The scenario of a society where women rule and men struggle in chains literal or metaphorical has held a long appeal for would-be satirists – and, one suspects, a few closet submissives – among creators of telefantasy for many years. From Dick Sharples’s rejected Doctor Who tale of The Prison In Space, to the whip-wielding female sadists of Tom Clegg’s Space: 1999 episode ‘Devil’s Planet’, through to the cheerily male chauvinist shenanigans of Ronnie Barker’s The Worm That Turned, scriptwriters seemed awfully keen on the comedy potential of men acting and even dressing like stereotypical housewives and coldly-vicious female security forces who inevitably seem chosen for their physical attractiveness and willingness to strut about in the most skimpily-impractical uniforms that a feverishly-panting costume designer can dream up.
When German producer Jost Graf von Hardenberg, previously best-known for a softcore sex comedy Penelope Pulls It Off, dreamt up his tale of interplanetary gender struggle in 1975, all looked set for the proposed series to become no more than another round of cheap laughs about men in frocks mixed with wank fantasies of aloof, beautiful women exercising control in crop tops and PVC mini-skirts. And, on a cursory examination, that appeared to be what was eventually created. However, on more careful appraisal, the resulting series – Star Maidens – emerges as a more thoughtful, and ultimately even-handed, affair. Rather than saying ‘men are better than women’ or ‘women are better than men’, it finally, and laudably, concluded that both sides have their strengths and their weaknesses, and that the best way for a society to flourish is for both sides to proceed in friendship and equality.
It was just rather a shame that the series tried to make this point in such a ham-fisted, at times stereotypical, manner.
The premise of the story is easy to sum up. A rogue planet, Medusa, ruled by a technologically-advanced matriarchy, enters contemporary Earth’s solar system. Two malcontent male slaves escape to Earth, believing it to be a promised land of freedom, and their female rulers promptly take two Earth scientists hostage on Medusa, planning to use them as bargaining chips to reclaim their men. High jinks ensue.
How it was realised was bewildering, awkward and fascinating. Episodes cut back and forth between drab 1970s Britain in all of its shabby egg-and-chips grottiness and Medusa, sleek, futuristic, and multi-coloured. The core cast was composed of British, French and German actors and actresses. Some writers treated their episodes with grim, down and dirty SF seriousness, while others revelled in turning theirs into wacky comedy capers with as much kinkiness as a mid-1970s family show could get away with. The result is part Quatermass, part Benny Hill, with all of the pleasures and pains that such a chimera could be expected to provide.
For me, two episodes in particular – ‘Test For Love’ and ‘The Perfect Couple’ – sum up the series’ whole well-meaning but incompetent handling of the battle of the sexes. The former implies that the typical Medusan woman, despite being in charge, really wants a big, muscly, Fabio-maned man to come along and sweep her roughly into bed, while the latter presents us with Women’s Libbers who, unlike the Medusans, just can’t get it right, and furthermore depicts them unflatteringly as stereotypical man-hating lesbians who can’t even handle a gun properly, even as the episode shows us how a New Man may achieve more success in living happily with women than any macho brute. As I said, the heart does generally seem to be in the right place, but the mind appears hopelessly confused and not-quite-able to discard the clichés of gender portrayal – another episode even makes a plot point out of how useless women are at driving.
However, in other episodes the series is intelligent and even far-sighted. ‘What Have They Done To The Rain?’ is an effective tale of environmental awareness before such things became common currency in television and film SF, while ‘Creatures Of The Mind’ is an affecting tale of artificial intelligence and sentience. We even get the occasional well-played character piece such as ‘Hideout’, centred around the burgeoning romance between Medusan escapee Shem and an Earth girl.
In general, in fact, the series shows more promise the further that it progresses. After the rather repetitive run-around of the earlier instalments, the second half of the run gives us generally better, more thoughtful yarns, and the episodes ‘The End Of Time’ and the series closer ‘The Enemy’ finally get the balance right – the former having Earth scientist Professor Evans save the Medusan President Clara from a seemingly incurable terminal illness, the latter having the other Medusan refugee Adam use his handy spaceship-piloting skills to help his female superiors achieve victory over an ancient Medusan enemy, while potentially setting up a second series which never happened.
Both episodes, in their clumsy but well-meaning ways, state that Earth and Medusa – and men and women – can only really survive and develop if they work with each other in amity and as equals – surely the whole point of the saga – but, placed as they are in an unwieldy clump towards the end of the run, it seems likely that many viewers had tuned out long before this conclusion was reached.
Which is a very real pity. The message, however obvious, was a good one, and one that arguably still needs to be made today as the battle for the sexes continues to concentrate on scoring points over the opposition, rather than reaching a peaceful and ultimately more productive ceasefire. Maybe this generation needs a Star Maidens of its own – but hopefully, one with a more carefully-integrated and considered take on the overall moral to the story. It probably won’t happen, but it’s certainly pleasing to think about.
❉The complete series of Star Maidens was released as a 2 DVD set by Simply Media on 17th April, 2017, and is available now, RRP: £19.99.