‘There’s a Staaaaaar Maaaaaan waiting in the sky…’ Somebody take the karaoke mic away from Tony.
The Star Men is a puzzle box of a story, harking back to the likes of The Original Series Star Trek and Space:1999 as well as to early Eighties Who, to give us what feels on the surface like a fairly standard alien invasion story.
It isn’t that. Even on that surface level, this is an alien invasion story that’s far above average, and, should you have a checklist of ‘Stuff I’d Like To See In An Alien Invasion Story,’ chances are The Star Men would tick off every item over the course of two hours.
The ultimate alien invasion story then?
The story takes us to the edge of human galactic expansion, where we’ve been gazing in wonder at the intergalactic void between us and the next galaxies along, and setting up a research base to seek the answers to all sorts of questions, not least how to get across to those neighbour-galaxies which are in reality a freak of a long distance away. The research base of Gallius Ultima is fairly typical Star Trek fodder, everyone working together to further human understanding in both scientific and pseudo-spiritual ways. In fact, it’s rather more Next Generation than Original Series, as we focus on the base’s leader, an almost-diplomat by the name of Kala Tace, on her more gung-ho security chief, General Fell, and on Tace’s high-irritation-potential daughter and child prodigy, Autumn.
But writer Andrew Smith is better than any such twee comparisons to Trek of any stripe make The Star Men sound. He wastes no time at all setting up the premise of actual adventure here – Gallius Ultima has developed the first ship that can leap between the galaxies, the Johannes Kepler, and twanged it off into neighbour-galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud.
And now it’s back.
Clue number one – it’s not back for a big party of peace, love and understanding between the peoples of different galaxies.
Clue number two – it’s not back with what could really be called a living crew.
Clue number three – it is back with an infestation of creepy red space-coral.
Oh, and also, it’s going to crash into the base and kill everyone. Have a nice day now! From the moment when events collide – the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan arriving on the base ostensibly so Adric can brush up on his spatial geometry and ideally not kill them the next time he tries to pilot the Tardis, and the Johannes Kepler screaming back into normal space and heading towards the base at a gazillion miles per hour – we’re off to the races. What did the Kepler encounter in the Large Magellanic Cloud? Is there any way of stopping a humungo-spaceship, travelling at near light speed from killing everyone? If there is, what happened to the Kepler’s crew? What’s the creepy red space-coral all about? Is Adric destined to die a virgin? (Yes, you read that right). Questions upon questions power Smith’s story along, and also give a good enough excuse to split up the Tardis team, as the Doctor and Tegan join forces with General Fell and head for the Cloud on the Kepler’s sister ship, the Carl Sagan, a ship and most of a crew tooled up like Starship Troopers on a killing spree, ready to kick the butt of whoever they find, while Adric and Nyssa stay on the base with the Tace family to investigate the creepy red space-coral and its potential portals to an entirely different universe. In other words, two separate strands of storytelling open up, as in the days of the epic Hartnells, and both have different approaches to dealing with that core question – what did the Johannes Kepler find in the Large Magellanic Cloud?
Spoiler Alert – it found the Star Men. Which in a way is slightly ironic, because the Star Men are really not from round here. Also, if they invite you to dinner, don’t go. But what Smith gives us in the Star Men is one of those gloriously surreal and utterly up-themselves invading species, who see all the rest of us as lesser than themselves, to the point at which most of the time they don’t realise we’re talking to them, we’re so ‘beneath’ their nature and their notice. It’s always fun when you have an arrogant super-species to deal with; like the Daleks and the Cybermen, it means you can wholeheartedly invest in trying to give them a good kicking, because a) it’s hard, and b) they ruddy well deserve it.
The Star Men have a somewhat intimate relationship with the creepy red space-coral, which is a very neat way of tying both sections of the story together, and also suggests ways in which the good kicking they deserve can be administered – this is more a classically logical, getting a move on story than one that stretches the credibility and boggles the brain. Nevertheless, the victory of the Star Men over first one galaxy and then ultimately the universe (Smith gives them the potential to conquer that far afield, and you can tell the Doctor’s nervous about them, because he even name-checks the Daleks as a species who won’t take kindly to the Star Men’s enslavement) is dependent on logistics, and more specifically on the shifting of Some Stuff from A to at least A3 if not exactly to B. That means the ultimate race against the Star Men’s conquest becomes a question of shutting a very particular stable door before, not after, the horse has bolted. Such races are always good for introducing some third act tension, and The Star Men is no exception to that rule, Nyssa and Tegan being trapped in the Star Men’s ‘stable’ and racing to do whatever’s necessary to shut its door. You’ll catch yourself holding your breath to see if they make it.
It’s not strictly, exclusively true that if you want a good Adric story, you have to go to the man who first made him seem like he might be a palatable companion on TV, but it is true that if you put Andrew Smith in charge of an Adric story, better things happen for the character than you’ve much of a right to expect. Adric’s really strong in this one, from learning how to pilot the Tardis to saving everybody’s lives by the Power of Maths, and beyond. He’s also quite comically slow on the uptake when somebody fancies him, in that adorable, infuriating geeky way that will be familiar to many listening – and indeed the partners of many listening - which here helps to make him seem rather more likeable than much in the TV show ever did. Tegan too, while not exactly gung-ho, is pretty have-a-go when it comes to standing up to the Star Men and their inevitable invasion. Nyssa was frequently the forgotten child on screen, the good girl who did as the Doctor told her, and so often missed out on, or acted to neutralise, the drama between her shipmates. Here, she’s more than that, getting her scientific teeth stuck into the coral problem and coping admirably when things take a turn for the surreal, but it would be overstating it to say this is Nyssa’s story.
That seems deliberate, because as well as being a cracking alien invasion story from the early Davison era, The Star Men is something else a bit special – it’s gently omenic of Earthshock, the story that marked Adric’s death. There’s nothing overt or overplayed, but the themes are similar – an all or nothing battle, with Adric bringing the maths to save everyone against an implacable conquering foe. Troopers who take the battle to the enemy, and for the most part don’t survive. And a death so sudden and out of nowhere while standing up to the threat that it quite takes your breath away for a handful of heartbeats, and makes you wonder at the sometime darkness in Doctor Who. Without overcomplicating or spoilering you, when the Doctor in Time-Flight says ‘Adric’s life wasn’t wasted, he died saving others. This is what Adric wanted,’ he might now be thinking of this adventure when you watch it again, just as much as he is of Full Circle, also written by Smith.
The Star Men is an audio story that will richly repay a couple of listens, even if it’s not an obvious instant must-have. In the depth of characterisation Smith gets into the Tardis team, the Tace family and other inhabitants of Gallius Ultima, and in the creation of a great new species of arrogant alien invaders with interesting abilities and weaknesses in the Star Men themselves, if it’s not the ultimate alien invasion story, it’s nearly that, while at the same time getting you close enough to the characters to invest and to care what happens to them. Pick it up and get immersed in Smith’s fast, deep adventure story today.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk