Oct 14, 2020
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), a recap (part 2 of 6)
NOTE: This article is a work in progress.
Please check back soon for more installments!
Last time: Sador of the Malmori showed up in his hammer (time!) ship to threaten the Akira and their peaceful way of life. With him coming back in seven days, it’s up to wide-eyed farm boy Shad to take the only working starship (Nell) off-planet to rustle up some help. His first step is to find the weapon master Hephaestus on a remote station.
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After parking Nell, Shad steals on board the station, where the corridors are dimly lit by light strips in the walls. We then cut to some sort of lab where a woman in white is inappropriately touching an android.
I don’t care if the robot looks like he’s enjoying it—that’s a total ethical violation there. It turns out the woman is actually repairing the robot, and while she does so, she slips a music block into his chest and he starts to sing some trippy music… that in a strange way reminds me of the diva song from The Fifth Element. Shad’s still walking and it’s not clear if he’s hearing the music because it’s still in the background during his scenes. Then again, he didn’t jerk in shock or anything, so I’m assuming he’s not hearing it. A transport of some sort rolls on up to him, so he assumes it was sent for him and hops on board. Suddenly, metal rings pin down his wrists and wrap around his neck.
I’m sure those are just safety features to make sure he doesn’t fall off. He’s transported to the woman’s lab, and she doesn’t seem surprised at all by Shad showing up. She asks who sent him and what he’s come for. Shad can’t speak and she assumes it’s an “audio malfunction” and proceeds to shove her sci-fi spot welder in his neck. Shad’s able to spit out that he’s not an android. I love how this scene plays out; the woman initially sounds businesslike, almost hostile as if she’s dealing with some intruder on her station with this sinister vehicle Shad-napping our hero to bring him to her. And it turns out it’s just a wacky misunderstanding, because the woman stares in shock at Shad and says “You’re warm!” Shad says of course he is and asks if she’s ever seen an “organic” before. The woman says no, except for her “dad” Dr. Hephaestus; everyone else on the station is an android.
This shocks Shad, but he hasn’t got time to wonder about that now because he’s on a quest for firearms. The young lady drives Shad to another part of the station and says her dad isn’t the man he was when he once ran with Zed, Shad’s mentor. But Shad’s not worried about that as long as Hephaestus ponies up the boom sticks. The girl drops Shad off outside of her dad’s inner sanctum. Shad goes in and sees…
Damn, he’s gone all Christopher Pike! I don’t think I want to know what the tubes at the bottom are for. Hephaestus is being played by the incomparable Sam Jaffe, whose credits include The Day the Earth Stood Still. And while he can’t match Jeff Corey’s resume in terms of length, Sam was literally born about the same time motion pictures were invented. Hephaestus welcomes Shad and tells him he heard the conversation between him and his girl in the corridor, so there’s no need for Corman to drop two more minutes of exposition on us. Roger’s obviously economical with time as well as money.
Shad asks if Hephaestus will help, and Heph talks about how he’s seen wars big and small all across “the galaxies”, and that Akir getting caught in the middle is pretty much the natural order of things. He then tells Shad he’s got “plans” for the young man, and says how empty this big ol’ station is and how it should be full of people. He notes that Shad’s met his daughter, and to our hero’s credit he picks up right away there’s a shotgun wedding in his immediate future. Heph’s daughter does some eavesdropping of her own and she’s pretty pissed off that her dad’s gone and picked out a groom for her. Shad asks Heph if his daughter has been consulted about this, but Dad-bot’s response is to have two androids cart the kid off to “Nanelia’s room” where he’ll have lots of time to think about it. Well, to Corman’s credit, I don’t recall this scene in Seven Samurai.
Heph’s daughter Nanelia comes back to her lab to find a bound-up Shad. He says he doesn’t have time for this and asks, “Don’t you have enough toys?” Damn, they sure could get away with a lot in PG films back then. Back with Hephaestus, he tells “Saunders”, a bespectacled android with the universe’s largest pocket protector…
…to prepare the conjugal suite. Considering how Heph can hear everything on the station, I’m starting to suspect his motives. But he tells the android that there will be kids here soon, and everything will be wonderful and Saunders just agrees with everything the boss says. Can’t you just put an ad out in the space classifieds or something that you’ve got rooms to let or something?
Back in Nanelia’s room, Shad tells her what a great place his planet is, and how even the grass changes color with the seasons. He tries to describe wind to her but even he can tell comparing it to the ventilation system is a weak analogy. And speaking of analogies, he talks about the Huddites, a species that doesn’t develop an immune system until age five, when in a special ceremony they tear at their plastic shell to touch their parents for the first time. He explains that even though a lot of Huddites die, they still fight to free themselves, to really live. And… well, damn, I thought this movie was supposed to be pure cheese, but Richard Thomas does an effective job playing an earnest young man who would rather use words to win a conflict than arms. Nanelia’s pet android points out how scary it is out there, but Shad has already convinced her. She orders her android into the “captor grid”. The android points out this will make the grid short circuit but she tells him to go, and the way Shad shrug when the android looks to him for help is priceless. The android steps towards the door and pink ray beams shoot out. He’s caught…
…and both grid and android short out. The door opens and Shad tries to convince Nanelia to come with him; she’s got some mad electronic skills and they could use her help. But Nanelia says she can’t leave her father and Shad realizes he can’t waste any more time trying to talk her into coming along. He says, “It’s your life… such as it is,” and grabs his ray gun from the robot and makes a run for it, leaving Nanelia behind in her lab, regret evident on her face. Hey, Shad can’t save them all.
Shad gets back to Nell and backs her out of the station, and darn it, I’m now getting Star Trek III vibes of when Kirk steals the Enterprise. This is even though the music doesn’t sound at all like Horner’s work from Star Trek III. Meanwhile, Nanelia makes a decision. She grabs a space suitcase and heads out, and considering it was already packed, I’m now wondering how many time’s she’s considered ditching this joint but never had the nerve. She reaches some sort of cockpit, powers up the ship, and blasts outta there.
Soon she catches up to Shad, who’s bummed that her ship doesn’t have any weapons. She explains she brought an “analyzer” that could help them work out attack and defense strategies. Okay, so it wasn’t a space suitcase and she was inspired to bail solely due to Shad’s super persuasiveness. Nell wants to interface with the analyzer to see if she can pick up some new tricks and Nanelia wonders who that voice belongs to. Shad explains it’s “just Nell” and he’ll introduce her later, and in the meantime, Nanelia should wait for him in the “Lambda Zone”. Gee, I wonder if when guys like Rick Berman and Ron Moore were crafting the mythology of modern Star Trek, maybe they bogarted an idea or two from Master Roger here when coming up with stuff like the “Alpha Quadrant”?
Meanwhile, what’s been up with our villain, Sador? He left quite suddenly earlier because he had another engagement. It turns out he’s a busy tyrant and he’s got lots of peoples to oppress. His minion says their emissary has returned from Omatiel and he hands over a pouch.
It seems the Omatiel turned the emissary into powder. Damn, who was the emissary? Billy Barty? Sador is not amused and he orders the place obliterated.
Back with Shad and Nell, he’s now wondering if Nanelia will be safe crossing the Lambda Zone, but Nell figures that it, like most other places has become a bit tamer. I know we’ve got less than two hours to tell this story, but I do wonder about the politics of this universe. Shad notes Nanelia is a “very interesting form” and that reminds me of what Sador’s minion said about the Omatiel: that they “are a proud form”. I guess because they’re dealing with aliens of potentially indefinable genders and natures, “form” became this wide-ranging general term to denote individuals or even entire peoples. It’s a nice little bit of world building. But before Shad can talk about what part of Nanelia’s form is very interesting, Nell tells him there’s action starboard: a ship is under attack.
The vessel is being pursued by several smaller ships who are wearing down its deflector screens. Nell says they’re probably going to board it and loot it. The pilot identifies himself as “Space Cowboy”…
…and he’s sending out an SOS. Judging by the cigarette in George Peppard’s hand, and based on his ’70s series Banacek and The A-Team from the ’80s, I have to wonder if being allowed to smoke on set was always part of George’s contracts.
Shad wonders if they can help and Nell points out the only way is to start shootin’. Shad balks, because he’s never taken a life before. Nell then points out that the Varda says you can take life to save it. So I guess the Akira are a peaceful people, but not full-blown Space Quakers. Shad is convinced and takes his seat; he lines up the shot but refuses to shoot the enemy from behind. Nell takes over and takes the shot, obliterating the attacking ship, much to Shad’s horror. Shad paraphrases the first law of robotics about artificial life not being able to kill organics, but Nell says that’s a “stupid rule”. And Nell just suddenly became scarier and more badass at the same time. But hey, now at least Shad doesn’t have to worry about shooting from behind anymore, because the alien ships turn on them. He manages to blow them all away and he’s legit overwhelmed by the fact he’s taken life for the first time.
Later, Space Cowboy’s ship links up with Nell and he comes on board, and we find out our new friend is a space trucker who spends most of his time on long hauls watching old westerns. So…Space Trucker’s pretty much a futuristic LARPer. He admits he’s been in quite a few battles over the years, but when he hears the kid is fighting Sador he talks about how the guy has never lost a fight and he never quits. He tells Shad’s he’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of winning; Shad has no clue what a snowball is. The kid knows all about the mating rituals of plastic-coated aliens and he’s never heard of snow? Now it makes me wonder if he made the Huttites up just to smooth talk Nanelia into letting him go.
But before he can ask Space Cowboy to elaborate, the alarm goes off: Nell informs them Sador has arrived. Wait, so Omatiel is in the same neighborhood as this fight? That’s… convenient. The front end of the hammerhead ship opens up, Shad says grimly that it’s the stellar converter. A beam of light stabs out and hits Omatiel, and the planet…
…becomes a star. Okay, that was actually pretty cool.
Space Cowboy turns to Shad and says the Omatiel were his customers, and asks Shad if he can use the boatload of munitions he’s hauling, because he hasn’t got the fuel to take them back home. They’re hand weapons, but the Akira are gonna need ‘em. Shad’s grateful, but he points out his people won’t know how to use them. Cowboy’s not surprised. Shad says they’ll need someone to show them how to use them and Cowboy finds his logic sound. Shad then points out they did save Space Cowboy’s life. Space Cowboy wryly smiles and agrees the least he can do is set up their ground defenses. And so, the one becomes three.
Next time: More beings of violence are recruited, and more familiar faces spotted.