Monday, September 13, 2010

Beginnings: Children of the Dogstar

In 1984, I was ten.

In New Zealand, the Muldoon era came to a close, and David Lange took over as Prime Minister in a Labour government. We signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

At the movies we were watching Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, and Billy T James in "Came a Hot Friday" (bruhuhu, choice bro).

We were listening to Netherworld Dancing Toys, DD Smash, Herbs, The Mockers, Splitz Enz, The Narcs, The Chills, and "Poi E" was huge.  It was the year of Michael Jackson's Thriller, we loved Wham, Cyndi Lauper, Queen, U2, New Wave, and Frankie told us to Relax.

On TV, we were watching The Young Ones, The Cosby Show, Miami Vice, Magnum PI.

And New Zealand's own "Children of the Dogstar".

Space was a big thing for kids coming of age in the 80s. In 1984, the Space Shuttles had been in operation for two years: in this year, Discovery made it's maiden voyage, and Challenger made it's 10th on which the first untethered space walk took place. Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to make a space walk. The Olympics took place in Los Angeles, with a performer arriving by jet pack at the opening ceremony.

My brother had a telescope and was taking an interest in astronomy (he didn't follow through). I don't know why I didn't - I think it was because I was determined to NOT do what he did. Ahh sibling rivalry, stupid me.

It wasn't until 1989 that I truly developed my full blown love for specfic, so in 1984 I was in denial that I liked Science Fiction - wasn't it for boys, with all that maths and rockets and Ghostbusters? (don't cross the streams!) Ahh socialization, how thee have thwarted.

But back in 1984 I liked this little gem of a TV show, proudly kiwi made. I was so pleased to recently find it available on DVD.

Written by Ken Catran (who wrote the teleplay for Under The Mountain), Dogstar tells the story of twelve year old Gretchen (Sarah Dunn) on holiday at her aunt and uncle's farm. Keen on science and astronomy, Gretchen takes an interest in a strange artefact called the Brass Daisy attached to the barn. Along with friend Ronny (Jeison Wallace) and Bevis (Hamish Bartle), the bird-watching son of a land developer, they discover a mysterious space probe under tapu in the swamp, and thwart the machinations of local scoundrels intent on draining the swamp.

Dogstar was only six 30-minute episodes long, but even twenty-six years later it holds up well. The special effects are rather hokey - of an underfunded-BBC-Doctor-Who quality - and the synth-pop music rather cheesy. However, the story telling is incredibly solid, it incorporates Maori language and myths, the child actors are earnest and unfettered by Hollywood sensibilities, it's a great snapshot in time of rural New Zealand, and the sound effects are particularly creepy and scene setting.

Much like 1981's "Under the Mountain" (which I will cover in another blog post this week), Dogstar embraces New Zealand's refreshing approach to dystopian SF. The children save the day, but at the expense of clashing culture and lost scientific knowledge.

To put Dogstar into an historical and cultural perspective, on rewatching the show now I see that it echoed many sentiments of the 80s about Maori urban drift (lost language, whanau and culture), female coming of age (Gretchen was interested in science, eschewed dresses) and fears of the scientific unknown.

The Space Shuttle era of the 80s was an exciting time - Gretchen had a model of a Shuttle, and talked frequently about wanting to be a space explorer. But much like Cold War SF and the Alien Panic (Roswell) of the 50s and 60s, SF of the 80s questioned a clash of culture and science. While Cold War SF was more about inner space cultural problems, 80s SF took the fast moving forward Shuttle era and tried to apply more philosophical questions.

Sagan's "Contact" questioned spirituality's association with space and science; Mad Max and Blade Runner looked at dystopian crime; ET turned the "violent alien invaders" trope on it's head; Gibson's "Neuromancer", the TV show "Max Headroom" and movies like Tron and Short Circuit questioned the predominance of computer technology; Back To The Future and New Zealand's own "The Quiet Earth" posited questions about environmentalism and consumerism.

Dogstar reflects an impatience at wanting to break our earthly bonds, but being denied that by powers beyond our control. Perhaps this is an allegory for government and financial control. It is definitely an unsubtle dig at the impatience of youth and I feel it borders on a little ageist in that respect - Gretchen's uncle eventually acquiesces to her greater knowledge with good humour but "Come back down to earth" is a phrase Gretchen's aunty uses often (it was a phrase I heard often at the time too).

New Zealand TV shows like Dogstar and Under The Mountain re-evaluated the role of family and culture versus the fast paced economic lifestyles (Yuppies, rise of the corporate worker), scientific breakthroughs (the new space era, computers), and moral and health issues (AIDS, drugs, female empowerment, homosexuality, race). Dogstar had a city kid being re-introduced to a rural lifestyle, while in Under The Mountain rural kids were deposited in a city setting. In Maurice Gee's other children's spec 80s favourite "The Halfmen of O" (another I will blog about this week) it was a mix of the two - city kid having to find common ground with a rural kid.

Part of Growing Up Kiwi was to experience the opposite culture, visiting family on the farm or in the city during the school holidays. I certainly did my fair share of visiting cousins in the city (yeah, Nelson is the big smoke compared to Blenheim, I tell ya!), and also visiting rellies on a farm. In these three stories, extended family is emphasized as a way to remind us not to let go of our past, and what it has taught us, even as we move forward.

For a child of the 80s, Dogstar (and Gee's stories) all had the virtue of cultural and familial shorthand, and a connection absent from big American blockbuster SF. We might recognize something of ourselves in Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia, but the Dogstar's adolescents told our Growing Up tales in a most unique, kiwi way.

This post is part of New Zealand SpecFic Blogging Week, September 13th to 19th 2010. Introduce yourself to more great New Zealand specfic and writers.


  1. I remember this! Well, not the show, but the novelisation - I think I spent at least a month of violin lessons sneaking my way through that book. Bad decision, having orchestra class in a library. I definitely want to get hold of the DVD now, though.

  2. Great review! I just rented out the dvd having remembered watching this as a child in the 1980's. It really does stand up well and is indeed a unique snapshot of rural life in New Zealand. I seem to recall watching it on TV in about 1987 when I would have been 9 years old. It's interesting to see it as an adult and the various themes you describe.