Review: Star Child

The usual criticism of sequels is that they have a less than noble reason for existing: namely, cashing in on the popularity of the original, rather than having a genuine artistic statement to make.

Douglas Stewart wrote Saturday’s Warrior in 1973 and may have been surprised himself at how popular that play became within LDS culture.   Star Child is Stewart’s “sequel” to Saturday’s Warrior, written both as a musical and novel in 1981 (with the music by Gaye Beeson, replacing Lex de Azevedo).  Star Child shares a lot of the same musical and narrative elements as its predecessor, although never achieved anywhere near the same popularity.

A DVD version of Star Child, professionally filmed from a live stage performance in 1999, is currently available on Netflix and other outlets.  (Unlike the Millennial Edition DVD of Saturday’s Warrior, this DVD is literally just a recorded version of a stage performance, with no additional movie-like production elements).   Is this a sequel worth the time of fans of the original?   Or just a weaker follow-up attempting to cash in on a popular original property?

My verdict:  like most sequels, it falls short of the original, and certainly won’t attract anyone who disliked Saturday’s Warrior in the first place.  It’s still theologically shallow and dramatically cheesy, and — worst of all — the music is noticably weaker.  Still, there are some interesting story elements that expand upon the simple ideas in the first — showing some growth from Stewart as a writer — and enough good vibes overall that those who liked the original may like this one as well.

Let’s look at the details.  [Some plot spoilers, for anyone who cares]

As with Saturday’s Warrior, Star Child begins in the pre-existence as privileged spirits prepare for their earth life.  Chuck and Marie are two spirits with a committed relationship set to continue on Earth.  (They already have two other spirits assigned to them as children.)  Chuck has a best friend named Larry who is also ready to receive his earthly body when he hears at the last minute he’s bound for a non-LDS family in Russia rather than his original family.  Chuck promises him he’ll make sure he finds the gospel on Earth and receives all the blessings available to him.

Later on Earth, Chuck has grown up apart from the LDS Church (his exact circumstances are unclear:  family pressure to be more righteous is mentioned, implying he grew up LDS but is now merely inactive; however, when the other characters share the gospel with him they start from the most basic principles which appear to be completely new to him — unlikely if he had grown up in an active LDS family).

He and Marie know each other well and they both recognize the “spark” between them from before birth.  However, Marie is hesitant to commit to marriage to someone who is unable to take her to the temple, no matter her inner conviction that they are meant to be together.

Returning from the first film are former elders Wally Kestler and Harold Greene who have come to BYU looking for wives, and who befriend Chuck to solve his “female problem”.  Also in the mix are Marie’s two friends Betty Jo and Mitzi, both of whom have only one concern in life: finding a guy and getting married.  (This would probably be very sexist if it weren’t for the fact that all the male characters are solely concerned with getting married as well.  Actually, it’s still sexist.)   The Earth segments are supposedly set at BYU, but no one in the play does anything resembling school work nor expresses any kind of future ambition involving careers or other goals in life other than marriage.

Kestler falls for Marie but recognizes her emotional hang-up with Chuck.  His plan:  use his “fearlessly extraordinary” missionary skills to convert Chuck then sent him on a mission and get him “out of circulation” while he woos Marie on his own.

Yes, that plan makes about as much sense as it sounds — since (a) Chuck would have to wait a year after baptism to serve a mission anyway, and (b) Marie’s only obstacle to marrying Chuck is his spirituality, so his conversion would almost certainly result in her waiting for him throughout his mission rather than choosing Kestler instead.  (If Kestler really wanted Marie for himself, he should have been actively pushing Chuck away from the Church, but anyway…)

As you might expect, Chuck ends up becoming an active member, then going on a mission to Russia and converting his eternal friend Larry.  Meanwhile the other male characters pair off with the female characters in the expected pairings.

The music — the high point of Saturday’s Warrior — isn’t as good this time around.  Gaye Beeson’s songs mix a variety of music styles to keep things interesting like in the original, but none of these songs are memorable — after viewing the DVD, I can’t remember a single one.  Doug Stewart’s lyrics are more preachy and on-the-nose this time around, and strains a few times with awkward lyrics (one song attempts to rhyme, in sequence, “road” and “told”, “plan” and “sin”, “crowd” and “abound”.  If finding lyrics that fit together elegantly is that difficult, at that point it may be time to scrap the entire song and start over.)

Chuck and Marie are the most interesting characters in the play, and the plot element of Marie having to decide whether she’s willing to reject the man she loves for a higher principle is a more applicable theme to modern LDS than the original’s “zero-population vs. large families” theme.  The “Star Child” idea speaks to one’s eternal potential and becoming all we can be — again, a generally applicable idea that will have greater resonance for LDS in any decade.

Outside of the two leads, however, the supporting characters are poor.  Kestler is an obnoxious jerk who plays it for laughs on occasion, but mostly ends up being…just obnoxious.  Worst of all, he’s not called on his arrogant, annoying attitude at any point during the play, either;  at the end he gets a girl he doesn’t deserve without changing or doing anything to earn her love.   Greene just follows him around as his side-kick without doing much.

Betty Jo is very poorly written; she alternates between grovelling embarrassingly at the feet of potential husbands (“I can cook!  I can sew!  I want children!”) but then is called to act as the voice of reason for Marie when she discusses her struggles with Chuck.

(Confusingly, Betty Jo shares a story where she was engaged previously and broke it off because he didn’t meet her standards.  What standards?  She proclaims proudly in the pre-existence her standards are “if he’s male and if he moves”.)

It’s a strange paradox, as if Betty Jo was originally two different characters that got combined together in rewrites somewhere along the way.  She ends up falling for Kestler for absolutely no reason (even though she knows he is a jerk), and then martyrs herself in pitiful fashion to help him attract Marie.   As with Kestler, the play sets up some kind of arc for (a) her to realize she needs more self-respect and reject Kestler as unbecoming of a match, and/or (b) Kestler becoming a better person to prove himself worthy of Betty Jo’s affection.  Neither happens.  (This is made worse by the fact Betty Jo is played by a good friend of mine from BYU, Jennifer C. Ballif, who deserved a better character than this.)

Mitzi is the “plain” girl who, like other female spirits in the Saturday’s Warrior universe, says her ONLY concern in life is being pretty and attracting a man.  (Naturally, like most “plain” girls in plays or film, she’s played by an actress who is actually pretty, just with glasses and frumpy clothes.)  Later, she ends up with Greene who has a nice line about how she was always pretty to him, but then she suddenly becomes “pretty” (no glasses, different hairstyle) such that the other characters don’t recognize her at first and are stunned by her sudden change.  (Doesn’t that invalidate Greene’s compliment and undercut the message of the film?  She couldn’t look exactly the same as she did before and still be judged a worthy wife?)

Don’t look to either Saturday’s Warrior or Star Child for positive female messages or role models, in other words.  (There’s a line near the end about the value of women being “intelligence and a strong testimony”…which would mean more if even one scene in either Star Child or its predecessor showed intelligence in women being valued by anyone.)

Star Child has the same focus on the pre-existence as Saturday’s Warrior and thus a lot of the same doctrinal problems (which I won’t rehash here) including pre-arranged families and soul-mates.  Still, there are some interesting narrative elements in Star Child that show some progression from the original.

In my Saturday’s Warrior analysis, I complained about the pre-existence sections blithely skipping over the welfare of spirits who weren’t being sent to privileged Mormon families.  In one scene, a spirit was hurried into position with the phrase, “Hurry, if you don’t make this slot, the next one’s in Siberia.”

What about the spirit who did get sent to Siberia, I asked?   Star Child addresses that question, by actually sending Larry to Siberia to grow up in a non-LDS family, seemingly apart from the gospel blessings his spirit is due.  The reason given in the play is that Larry’s family “needs his help” and he’s willing to be sent anywhere he’s needed.  Obviously, this doesn’t really answer the question of how spirits are assigned from one location to another with vastly disparate blessings and surroundings, especially since Larry is a golden investigator and joins the Church immediately upon meeting the missionaries.  (What about the millions of Russians who aren’t members?  They were less special in the pre-existence, evidently?)   As you might expect,  Star Child ends up appealing to LDS pride that LDS spirits are just inherently more blessed than others from before birth, although it still gets a little credit for broadening its horizons to consider the state of spirits in other countries.

Chuck and Marie’s story has an interesting twist as well.  Like the equivalent couple from Saturday’s Warrior (Todd and Julie), Chuck and Marie are seemingly destined to be together from the pre-existence (with two kids already assigned), but are separated due to circumstances and Chuck’s inactivity.  In the original, the predestined couple was fated to be together in the end without anything standing in their way (and with the implication that no one other than their assigned “soul mate” would ever suffice for their future happiness).  Chuck does end up converting in Star Child and serving his mission (converting Larry in the process), but then contracts a disease and ends up coming home early.  We suspect this is just one last trial before he recovers and marries Marie (a narrative trick so we don’t have to wait two years in play time for them to be together).  However, Doug Stewart throws a curve ball here, as no miracle comes to save Chuck;  he has one last tear-filled conversation with Marie before passing away in her arms.

That’s not how things were supposed to work, was it?  Marie (and their two unborn kids) are left to ask this very question and wonder what lies ahead.  Chuck tells them that the important thing isn’t who they have for their earthly parents, but only that they remember they are children of their Heavenly Parents.  We get a hint that Larry and Marie will end up together, which is fine — things don’t always work out the way we think.

What’s this?  Complexity?  Nuance?   In the Saturday’s Warrior series?  In this aspect, Star Child takes a virtual 180 from the Saturday’s Warrior view, with pre-existent arrangements not being as important or binding as originally thought.  (One wonders, if the future isn’t as certain as the pre-existence scenes made things seem, why would The Powers That Be bother “pre-arranging” two children for Chuck and Marie ahead of time?)

Obviously, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how Star Child’s theology fits within real world circumstances (or even within standard LDS doctrine on the Plan of Salvation) — as with Saturday’s Warrior, Star Child should not be taken as anywhere near doctrinally accurate by any viewer.  However, the recognition that family arrangements and personal circumstances can’t possibly be as simple as the first film implied is the one element of the play that adds more depth than the original.

Granted, this is only on a comparative basis;  Star Child is still just as cheesy and shallow as the original, just a little less so.  (Hey, it’s progress…) Neither film will be considered a deep look at spiritual or theological principles.   Unfortunately the poor characterizations and sub-par music limit the impact of these promising narrative elements.  If you’re a fan of the original, then you will probably enjoy Star Child as much as any other film sequel — for others, it’s strictly unnecessary.

My Grades:

C for the music

B for Chuck and Marie’s story

D for all the other characters

C+ for the slightly better narrative and doctrinal ideas

  • Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, July 8, 2011 | Dawning of a Brighter Day()

  • Trent Bowen

    I too think that those grades are quite generous. I am actually all about cheesy LDS stage plays, I have seen them all. “It’s a Miracle”, “My Turn on Earth”, “Saturday’s Warrior” This one bothers me because it really did not have anything substantial to it. The Elder Kessler did not even look a thing like the Elder Kessler in “Saturday’s Warior” The other musicals are cheesy but this one hurts. The questionable doctrine in the others has some basis in scripture, the Star Child that the spirits in the pre-existence gush over, has no scriptural reference, it almost felt like they were worshiping some iconic symbol. Totally lame! The musicians are talented, however, nothing memorable, If you are into cheesy Mormon cinema like me this one will actually be painful to watch and is not part of my collection.