The promising but forgotten pilot ‘Earth Star Voyager’ delivers moderately entertaining science fiction content

January 29, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 29, 2016

My illness-induced quest for mindless entertainment extended beyond watching the dire Star Wars Holiday Special. Thanks to the magic of YouTube’s algorithms, I stumbled upon Earth Star Voyager, a three-hour television pilot from 1988 that I believe originally aired under the rubric of an anthology show known either as Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color or The Wonderful World of Disney.

I’m not sure whether the program was first broadcast on ABC, CBS or Disney’s cable channel. What I do know is that at some point, I saw at least part of it, and I remembered it fondly.

The premise is pretty straightforward: In 2088, the powers that be assign 115 mainly young officers and hands to the Earth Star Voyager, a new ship that features the Bowman drive, a cutting-edge propulsion system that can make crewed interstellar flight practical. Because Earth is a toxic, overcrowded dump, humanity is in desperate need of a new home, and a potential site has been found. Earth Star Voyager’s mission is to embark upon the first crewed excursion to another star so it can evaluate the candidate planet firsthand. Because the trip will take decades, the crew will spend nightly sleep periods in suspended animation; the ship also has a nursery to accommodate the children who will be born en route.

But the ship has only just gotten under way before Captain Forbes (Ric Reid) is ejected from an airlock, apparently due to the deliberate malice of an unknown crew member. That leaves the ship in the hands of its untested 21-year-old executive officer, Jonathan Hays (Brian McNamara), and his highly trained but inexperienced command team: Hays’s close friend, the 14-year-old computer specialist and all-around young super-genius Jessie Bienstock (Jason Michas); cocky navigator Huxley Welles (Tom Bresnahan), age 18; the 24-year-old ship’s doctor, Sally Arthur (Julia Montgomery, the female lead from Revenge of the Nerds); and the 22-year-old psychiatrist, Leland Eugene (Bruce Harwood, who went on to become one of The X-Files’s Lone Gunmen).

Although the edges of the solar system and beyond are supposed to be visited rarely or never, Earth Star Voyager finds evidence of a variety of human ships and outposts. One otherwise abandoned station harbors Jake Brown (Duncan Regehr), captain of the Vanguard Explorer, a ship that mysteriously vanished six years previously. Voyager also crosses paths with Expo, the remnants of the last-ever World’s Fair, which was for some reason jettisoned into deep space a long time ago but which, unexpectedly, is home to a number of humans, including several other Vanguard Explorer survivors.

Furthermore, Hays discovers that his ship is being trailed by another vessel that ignores Voyager’s communications and is jamming its sensors. Viewers, but not Voyager, learn relatively early that the shadow is the Triton Corsair, commanded by Admiral Beasley (Peter Donat), the very man who dispatched the crew on its journey to a distant star. But not until the climax of the pilot — or of the last hour; I think the production was typically broken into two or three chunks for broadcast and reruns — do we learn just what devious schemes Beasley has set in motion.

The plan involves the mysterious Outlaw Technology Zone, the wreck (and the digital log) of the Vanguard Explorer, and a cyborg “shell” (Henry Kingi) that Voyager finds aboard the derelict. The shell is moderately interesting, both because it gives Hays and Arthur a chance to demonstrate their benevolent side and because it roughly prefigured the menacing Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“Moderately interesting” is a decent way to sum up Earth Star Voyager; so is “mildly appealing.” McNamara and Regehr make for genial leads, and Michas, who went on to voice characters on a number of animated shows, plays a much more likable and convincing adolescent genius than Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton), his equivalent on Star Trek: TNG.

Generally, the pilot plays like an imitation of the original Star Trek TV series. It’s differentiated mainly by the inexperience and vulnerability of Hays and the rest of his crew and by the much more limited scope of the show’s universe. Here, there is no United Federation of Planets; alien life has never been discovered, and may not exist; humanity has yet to visit a planet outside of our solar system; virtually everything the ship encounters is either an abandoned piece of human technology or completely uncharted (or, sometimes, both).

One senses that Hays and his young crew are more or less making things up as they go along; moreover, one feels that they just might make a calamitous misstep due to their inexperience and naïveté. That was certainly a twist from the original Star Trek, in which the crew of the Enterprise generally projected a sort of relentless confidence, even when facing unprecedented challenges.

The production’s synthesizer-heavy music was written by Lalo Schifrin, the Argentinian composer whose theme for Mission: Impossible is one of the greatest pieces of TV music of all time. That composition is rivaled by Alexander Courage’s theme for the original Star Trek, written a year or so later; sadly, Schifrin’s work here is paint-by-numbers.

Again, that description applies to the direction by James Goldstone and the writing by Ed Spielman. The sets are decent, with the exception of their use of a font that is either Data 70 or a close relative. (This typeface was visual shorthand for Computers! Advanced technology! The future! for a decade or so; unfortunately, it’s ugly and virtually unreadable.) I was tempted to write that the show had some decent computer graphics for its time, but that’s really not true, given that it was produced by the same studio that six years earlier had produced the groundbreaking partly computer-animated movie Tron.

The producers were clearly trying to work on a budget, and while the exterior models are passable, just two or three shots of the title ship seem to have been made. The reused footage becomes overly familiar throughout the pilot.

Part of me is sad that Earth Star Voyager was never picked up as a regular series. On the other hand, the show was made shortly after the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was almost certainly better budgeted. If Voyager had become a series, I suspect that it would have had become an obscurity — less interesting, less innovative and less beloved than Space: 1999, probably about as culturally relevant as Space Academy.

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