Battle Beyond the Stars: A Forgotten Gem

 

Battle Beyond the Stars came out in 1980, riding the coattails of Star Wars.  Every studio was scrambling to find an equivalent franchise after SW hit the movie scene like a nuclear bomb.  Roger Corman, the king of low-budget schlock, slapped together this movie in short order.

The results were . . . surprisingly, not too bad.  Subtle?  Not so much.

Battle is essentially a remake of The Magnificent Seven in space.  Seven was also a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai.  So it’s a remake of a remake.  Which sounds terrible, but the initial premise is still strong and Battle has decent actors and production values.

A wholesome couple and their android.

The setting is the far future planet Akir.  Akir is inhabited by peace-loving space Amish . . . or something.  Anyway, the Akira (a nod to Akira Kurosawa) get a visit from an unpleasant character called Sador.  (Yes, Sador.  A subtle name.)  Sador (John Saxon) packs a giant battleship, an army of mutants and a “stellar converter” that can blow up planets.  Not having an army or experience in fighting, they send out Shad (Richard Thomas) to look for help.  Richard at this point had just come off playing “John-Boy” on The Waltons for five years.  I suspect he was attempting to find any role that would break out of that typecasting.

See? Boobs.

Shad flies off in an intelligent ship with a sarcastic personality named Nell.  And the ship has boobs.  Seriously, the ship is stacked.  Through various encounters, Shad manages to dig up a group of fighters who are willing to defend Akir.

He loves it when a plan comes together.

First is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) who doesn’t bring any weapons except a battle computer, however she is Shad’s love interest.  Second is Space Cowboy.  Yes, his name is Space Cowboy.  Did I mention this film isn’t subtle?  Space Cowboy (George Peppard) doesn’t have much of a ship, but has plenty of ground weapons to fend off troops. 

Typical college life these days.

Nestor, a group-mind of clones, volunteer for the fight because they’re bored with their sameness.  Next comes Gelt (Robert Vaughn), an assassin whose success has made him too many enemies.  All he wants is a place to live peacefully, without watching his back.  Vaughn essentially plays the same character he did in The Magnificent Seven, only with a spaceship. 

Next is Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning) from the race of Valkyries.  She shows up in a tiny, super-fast ship and wants to fight because she comes from a warrior race and loves it.  For you younger folks, Sybil was the go-to sexpot in every B film in the 80s.  She’s wonderful eye candy in this.

She can carry my spear. Rowwr!

Finally we get a lizard alien named Cayman (Morgan Woodward).  Yes, he’s named Cayman.  Just let it go.  Cayman has a massive warship and wants to fight because Sador destroyed his race.  Although unrecognizable in his makeup, you might know Woodward from Cool Hand Luke, and two appearances on the original Star Trek series.

The group of fighters meet Sador in battle and . . . well, you can guess how this goes if you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven. 

I enjoyed the hell out of it as a kid and when I rewatched it recently, it held up pretty well.  It doesn’t hurt that you have real actors and decent special effects (by none other than James Cameron).  The spaceship designs are nifty and John Sayles‘s script is damn solid.

I am eeeevil!

It has since become a bit of a cult favorite among aficionados.  It still pops up from time to time in pop culture references.  If you’ve ever played the classic PC game Master of Orion II, you’ll recognize the “stellar converter” technology reference.

If you like science fiction and have never seen this, I recommend it without reservation.

The whole movie’s available on YouTube.  You’re welcome.

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The Star Fox is Iron Man? A Poul Anderson Great.

The Star Fox (1964) is a favorite novel of mine from the late, great Poul Anderson.  Like a lot of Poul’s novels, there is a political undertone to it.  Poul wrote a lot of Libertarian themed fiction, like several of his contemporaries (such as Heinlein.)  This novel is both political and a precursor to today’s modern military science fiction.  After re-reading it again, however, I also realized that it was a kind of precursor to 2008’s Iron Man movie.

Basic setup is as follows:

It’s a far future space opera setting.  Earth has expanded its domain outward and put out colonies.  During this expansion they’ve come upon a militaristic and expansionist alien empire called the Aleriona.  After an ‘accidental’ attack on the human colony of New Europe, the Aleriona make peace overtones.  Everyone on New Europe is supposedly dead, so the war-wary human government doesn’t push the Aleriona claim to New Europe.

Bow before my awesomeness!

Enter the protagonist Gunnar Heim.  He’s a wealthy industrialist and navy veteran who thinks the peace talks with the Aleriona are a smoke screen for them to consolidate their position.  Then along comes a survivor of New Europe who swears there are still millions of survivors on New Europe.  When he goes to the Earth government, he isn’t believed.  Turns out the government doesn’t want to know of survivors, as it would derail the peace process.

Less military discipline is needed by privateers.

Through clever maneuvering, Gunnar manages to get a Letter of Marque from the French government, who despise the peace talks.  (Yes.  The French want war.  It’s fiction.) Through his massive fortune, Gunnar gets a battleship outfitted and crewed to wage a guerilla war against the Aleriona blockading New Europe.  Most of the book (originally three stories) details Gunnar’s escape from Earth authorities and his journey to acquire, equip and arm his ship, the Fox II to become a raider.  Most of his opposition from the Earth government and the ironically named “World Militants for Peace”.

I’ve read the book several times, but only recently did I get the parallel between it and Iron Man.  In both cases, a wealthy industrialist sees injustice done and takes it upon himself to take up arms against the guilty when his government fails.  The difference being that guilt motivates Tony Stark by the use of his weapons to harm the innocent.  In The Star Fox, Gunnar is motivated because he can see that the Earth government’s pacifism will allow the Aleriona to push Earth until resistance is untenable.  The temporary peace is bought at the cost of millions of innocent colonists.

Don’t let me repulse you.

Both have strong Libertarian undertones and a spirit of individualism which endear them to me.  Might be why I enjoy hearing of the Flying Tigers in pre-WW2 China.  The only sour note is that Poul meant this as his statement on America’s involvement in Vietnam.  Namely, his fear that the communists wouldn’t stop at Vietnam.  In hindsight, maybe not the neatest allegory.  The story in Iron Man is bit tighter and more ideologically ‘pure’.  Plus, it has Robert Downey Jr. playing my favorite comic character of all time.

Still, it’s a solid, enjoyable novel.  Check it out.

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Dahak Series: A Grand Concept

The first of David Weber’s Dahak Series, Mutineers Moon, came out in 1992, preceding his lucrative Honor Harrington books by a year.  The series consists of a mere three books, but they’re not bad.  Tightly written with a grandiose and outrageous idea.  I enjoyed the hell out of them.

In this setting, Earth’s moon isn’t a moon–it’s a ship.  A gigantic, intelligent warship with an AI named “Dahak”.  Dahak is a ship of an ancient galactic empire (The “Fourth Imperium”) and has been orbiting the Earth disguised as a moon for 50,000 years.  It turns out the entire population of Earth are descendants of the crew of Dahak.  An ancient mutiny happened and both the loyal crew and mutineers escaped to Earth, where the outnumbered loyalists were hunted and killed.  The ship was sabotaged and couldn’t stop the mutineers or aid the loyalists.  It took many decades to repair the damage, and by then all the loyalists were dead or unable to contact Dahak.  With conflicting sets of priorities in its last orders, Dahak disguises itself as a moon and waits.  For fifty thousand years.

Wild enough?  There’s more.

The mutineers reduce the surviving loyalists to the Stone Age.  They lose knowledge of their origins and begin the long climb back to civilization.  Essentially, the entire history of mankind comes from cosmic castaways.  The story begins at a near-future point where Lieutenant Commander Colin MacIntyre flies a spacecraft around the moon to map the far side.  When he goes out of radio contact, Dahak sends out remote ships to capture him and fake his death.  Using twisty logic, Dahak declares that the indigenous life of Earth are considered the descendants of the loyalists.  Therefore, he puts Colin in command of the moon-sized ship.

From there it’s discovered that many of the original mutineers are still alive.  After the mutiny, there was a schism between the mutineers.  One group was fine with the status quo and the other regretted the decision.  They’ve been secretly warring with one another throughout human history.  The original mutineers are led by Engineering Chief Anu and the rebels are led by Missile Tech Horus.  Whole mythologies sprung up around the conflict.

Anu’s people dwell beneath Antarctica, protected by a force shield so powerful that it would take Dahak’s main guns to punch through.  This, however would destroy most of the life on Earth.  Ergo, Dahak cannot act.  Colin and the rebels have to figure out how to take them down without Dahak’s direct help.

That’s right people.  We’ve got an Ancient Alien Conspiracy.  Moon sized ships.  Godlike alien infiltrators.  A goddamn Antarctic base!  Oh yeah, baby!

But wait!  There’s more.  The original purpose of Dahak and ships like it was to fight off a fleet of extra-galactic extermination ships.  The fleet periodically reappears every few millennia and destroys all technological civilizations.  And they’re about due to pay another visit. And that’s just the beginning of the story!  The original books were Mutineers Moon, The Armageddon Inheritance and Heirs of Empire.  All of the books are collected in the compilation Empire from the Ashes.

World-smashing ships!  Alien supermen!  Cosmic mysteries!  Invading fleets!  Dead empires!  Ravening beams of force! This is basically a homage to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman books.  I don’t say that as criticism.  Smith would have loved these books.  I know I did.

Weber’s later books become preachy and political.  Not these.  Lean, exciting stuff.  Go pick up a copy and enjoy.