Sunday, October 17, 2010

#4 - "Starship Traveller" by Steve Jackson (1983)

This was actually the first Fighting Fantasy book I ever got, I might've been maybe 6 at the time. I vaguely remember my mother trying to read it to me before getting fed up with the dice rolls and letting me work it out for myself. (Pause a moment to consider this hinge in my life where I might instead have been given a tiny set of golf clubs or TOMY's "My First Cancer Research Laboratory" and sigh for what could have been). My memories on the matter are shaky but I'm pretty sure that despite numerous play-throughs my cheating little ass never won it, for reasons that will become apparent.

The cover depicts three stalwart crewmen from the Traveller locked in gladiatorial combat with a "Man-Slayer Robot", a scene from the book that I didn't experience on my play through. There are several details about this illustration that baffled me as a kid, and they yield no more readily to the bludgeoning of my adult mind. Take homeboy with with the blue cut-off top for example - his left arm's been amputated at the elbow. And it's not like the Man-Slayer chopped it off just now either, that there's a stump, cleanly healed. Weird detail. Or the third fellow, lying on the ground hugging Lt. Blue's trackie bottoms - his eyes are glowing red? -- yessir we definitely playing a sci-fi book this time out, 'cos that shit right there is some space-type shit.

Also in evidence here is the Illustrator's Bane, AKA the irrational fear of drawing feet.

Lt. Blue's left foot is obscured by an unnaturally thick cloud of space dust, while his right is, um, behind a spiky thing (what is that thing?) Warrant Officer Red-Eyes doesn't have any feet since his lower body is presumably stuffed into the same car-boot as homeboy's forearm. But the Grand Prize for Foot Avoidance has to go to the feller in red, whose legs seems to just be evaporating from the knees down.

But on the other hand, there's always the U.S. cover:

So crap, and yet, they have feet.


In one of several departures from the standard format, this book doesn't have a Background section. But basically the concept of this book is that you are the captain of the Starship Enterprise, the pride of Starfleet -- uh, sorry I mean: the Starship Traveller, the pride of - erm - "AstroNavy". Yeah, this book wears its Star Trek influences very much on its sleeve and I don't doubt that Steve Jackson would've just gone whole hog and bootlegged it as a Star Trek adventure were it not for the fear of Gene Roddenberry’s legal hit squad.

A rare "posse shot" of Gene Roddenberry's lawyers

Rolling Up My Team

Steve Jackson got tinkering again and came up with a bunch of different rules for various science-fictiony scenarios such as have a spaceship fight or shooting lasers at HUMANOIDS. You have to roll up stats not only for yourself but also for your ship and several members of your crew, who can accompany you on missions and get themselves killed. Here's what I rolled:

The Starship Traveller

(This was irrelevant since I never got into any ship-to-ship combat).


Science Officer

Medical Officer

Engineering Officer

Security Chief

Guard 1
Guard 2  

First thing you notice about this crew is that everybody's more competent than the captain, kind of a space Dilbert scenario. I think of the Captain as just this Mr. Magoo-ass dude with a father-in-law high up in the admiralty at AstroNavy. “Guard 2” on the other hand is proof that sometimes, cream sinks to the bottom. Guard 2 spends most his work-day rushing about frantically opening doors and stacking up mattresses every time the Captain steps onto a stray roller-skate. He is like Hong Kong Phooey’s cat. “Long-suffering” doesn't begin to describe it for Guard 2.

The Adventure
The adventure begins with our Captain, the nonce, driving the starship into a black hole (or being “sucked through the appalling nightmare of the Seltsian Void”, if you prefer)

See the black hole? It's the black bit. Don't drive into that bit.
But, instead of being ripped apart by tidal forces in a rapidly cascading sequence of ever more delicate dismemberments, everyone just staggers from one side of the bridge to the other for a while before blacking out.

The crew awakens, with bleary eyes and thick tongues, to the sight of strange constellations glaring through the portholes. “WTF THIS SHIT IS NOT ON OUR SPACE MAPS” the Navigation Officer announces unconvincingly, and after some chin-stroking the Science Officer concludes that you must have wound up in a parallel universe... might as well take a gander at some solar systems nearby. There’s one straight ahead, one to the port, and one to the starboard – yes, despite the great three-dimensional void of trackless space, the Starship Traveller is in fact situated at one of the classic mainstays of Fighting Fantasy – a T-junction. Deciding between destinations - say, visiting a green star versus a blue star - is Starship's spin on the left-or-right, live-or-die direction-choosing action we expect from Fighting Fantasy. What's a little bit neat about Starship is that that each celestial encounter plays out as its own little self-contained challenge, rather like episodes of a TV show (albeit one that gets cancelled midway through the first season) - accordingly, I have written up my experience of the book as a phoney episode guide (just bear with me on this concept okay).

A word first on your over-arching mission in the book - during your journey you find yourself collecting factoids about black holes. Though I don't think anyone really announces it, the crew of the Traveller seem to have a common understanding that the first order of business is to find another likely looking black hole and steer down its throat. The victory paragraph can only be reached by adding two numbers, one representing a black hole location and the other representing the date you decide to fly through it (along the way you also pick up useless facts like the recommended speed of approach for the black hole just so Steve Jackson can make you feel like a tit for writing it down). So during your visits to alien cultures you are often given the chance to rummage among their astronomical charts for dubious black hole trivia.

"Starship Traveller" Episode Guide 

Episode 1 - "What Price, Freedom?"
First aired March 9, 1983
Synopsis: The Traveller away team visits a world without laws, whose citizens obey only their whims, and where all public decisions are made through slow and painfully won consensus. In the dramatic highlight of the episode, the team are attacked by some violence-loving locals and the Captain is nearly beaten to death before Guard 2 can subdue the attackers. Ultimately, the crew of Traveller depart with new knowledge of the strange new universe in which they find themselves (and facts about black holes).

Episode 2 - "Unquiet Spirits"
First aired March 16, 1983
Synopsis: The Traveller orbits a world in ruins. Exploring the surface, the away team experience alarming visions and seemingly spectral visitations and attacks. As a brief comic interlude in an otherwise dark episode, the Captain stumbles while backing away from the imagined shade of his disapproving father-in-law and gets his hand caught in a jam jar. Ultimately it is revealed that the world is still contaminated with a weaponized hallucinogen used in the last days of an apocalyptic war. But the jam jar turns out to be real. 

Episode 3 - "Live Long... and Despair"
First aired March 23, 1983
Synopsis: The away team beams down to Culematter, a dystopian world where the otherwise immortal inhabitants are subject to the depredations of quota-driven death squads called the "Population Controllers". The away team soon run afoul of Population Controllers and are taken to an extermination centre.

This handsome lad shows up for just long enough to explain the plot before Population Controllers burst into the room and ventilate his thorax. 
While trying to contact the ship, the Science Officer inadvertently discovers that the inhabitants of Culematter can be paralyzed by certain broadcast frequencies from his communicator, allowing the away team to make their escape. In a final twist that confused audiences, the Captain accidentally removes the head of a Culematter native while trying to steal its helmet, revealing nothing but a mass of wires and circuitry within.

Episode 4 - "Blame It On The Rain"
First aired March 30, 1983
Synopsis: The away team explores Cliba, a world suffering from endless rainstorms. The primitive people of Cliba worshop an entity they call "the Rain Lord" to whom they attribute the disastrous rains. Travelling to the Rain Lord's castle, the team discover not a god but an alien castaway from a more materially advanced culture who has used weather control technology to establish himself as a despot. However the dial on his weather machine has gone bung and it is now set to permanent torrential rain - the Traveller's Science Officer gives it a heavy slap and all is resolved.
Note: The explanation of the Rain Lord's weather control given in this episode provoked numerous letters of complaint to the TV Guide from meteorologists and other concerned parties.

Episode 5 - "Do We Not Die"
First aired April 6, 1983
Synopsis: Mysterious deaths occur on-ship following a visit to an crash-landed ship that was broadcasting a distress signal. The deaths are traced back to a contagious "poison" brought back with the away team and further deaths are averted through good quarantine practice. 

Episode 6 - "Free Parking"
First aired April 13, 1983
Synopsis: The Traveller is intercepted in deep space by a warship of the Ganzig Confederation, a reptilian species. Acquiescing without a fight, the Captain permits the Traveller to be escorted to a starbase. The Captain meets the Starbase Commander and they have a polite discussion, while the crew of Traveller take some time to relax. Meanwhile, through a porthole in the background of one scene, the Ganzig warship is shown leaving the starbase without further explanation. At the conclusion of the episode the Traveller continues on its way unchallenged.
Note: Known as "The Episode Where Nothing Happened", "Free Parking" is popularly thought to have prompted the sudden cancellation of the series which was enacted before any further episodes could be shown. However this network decision should be seen against a backdrop of lacklustre ratings that had been consistently falling since Starship Traveller's debut.

Failure and Death

Though Starship Traveller failed to attract a broad audience, there was a hardcore group of fans who were appalled by its abrupt termination and campaigned hard to have it put back on air. After more than a year of complaints and petitions, the network approved production of a single episode to resolve the show's dangling storyline. The producers hurriedly re-united those of the show's original scriptwriters not yet debilitated by alcohol poisoning, and pulled together a group of hastily cast stand-ins along with the few members of the original cast who were not already committed under contract for live appearances in chain restaurants. While many key members of the original production crew were able to return, one important element was missing - the model of the Starship Traveller itself, which had gone missing in the interim (the dark gray blanket that was dangled behind it to represent the interstellar void was still in storage, as were numerous Christmas tree ornaments). The ultimate fate of the original Traveller model remains a matter of some speculation and fake mock-ups are still known to appear for sale on e-Bay every couple of years or so, masquerading as the genuine article.

The original 1983 Starship Traveller

The hasty replacement used for new exterior shots in the '84 Christmas special, a bowl.
From this position of disadvantage and against an aggressive deadline, the producers' frantic labours to provide a satisfactory conclusion to the grossly truncated Traveller saga resulted in the now notorious "Starship Traveller 1984 Christmas Special".

Starship Traveller '84 Christmas Special 
First aired December 21, 1984
Synopsis: The episode opens at a Christmas dinner in the mess hall of the Traveller. The Captain - now plainly wearing a girdle beneath his uniform - proposes a toast to the diginity of the humankind as embodied by the Christmas spirit, and to absent friends - in the process briefing the audience on the various crew members who have been sold into slavery, died by standing too close to volcanoes et cetera in various adventures assumed to have happened since the last broadcast episode, "Free Parking".

The mood around the dinner table is glum as the parallel universe substitutes for turkey and glazed ham are convincing neither in appearance nor taste. Talk turns homesick, and as the space brandy flows, mutinous and dark. Guard 1 speaks first against their Captain, pointing at him with a hyperspace turkey drumstick, and soon other voices chime in on his many disastrous decisions and the toll these have taken in lives. Stammering, the Captain is only able to salvage the situation by announcing that he has determined the co-ordinates of a black hole that he is "99% sure" will transport the Traveller back to their home universe.
The remainder of the episode depicts the various moments of emotional conflict and closure as the crew conduct their preparations to travel through the black hole with a tenuous and brittle optimism, including a sub-plot in which Guard 2 attempts to puzzle through the Captain's astro-navigational calculations in a spreadsheet. Some of these scenes were passably well-written but audiences were confused by the many substitutions of new actors into old roles, as evidence by the title of one critic's review - "Who Are These People And Why Are They Kissing".

Ernest Borgnine Jr., who stood in for the iconic "Science Officer" character in the ill-received '84 Special, was given no lines and was not even listed in the credits. 

Tension ramps up as the command crew strap themselves into their seats on the bridge and commit the course into the heart of the black hole. Well wishes are murmured out like farewells as the whine of straining machinery increases to a shriek. Suddenly, Guard 2 bursts into the room, wild-eyed, and delivers the now famous line "Wait, there's been a mistake in the rounding", abruptly cut off by the sound of an explosion and fourteen seconds of dead air. Finally, the credits roll over footage of the remorseless void (i.e., a dark gray blanket) as a tinny, reverbed version of Bing Crosby's "I'll Be Home For Christmas" plays to fade.

The Starship Traveller 1984 Christmas Special is generally regarded to be the most depressing Christmas Special ever.


So obviously there aren't any magically animated SKELETONS in space. Nor are there any barely obscured genitalia as per Forest of Doom (unless I was misidentifying the anatomy of various aliens). The only things I noticed that was worth counting were interpretive dancers.

There were 4 of those.
Final Thoughts

Starship Traveller really is an odd one out among the early Fighting Fantasy books. There were a few things I liked - the greater sense of interactions between characters - the fun ideas underlying some of the "episodes", and their comparative depth considered against the short encounters in the preceding three books - the fact that in several cases, when presented with a problem I could deduce the likely outcomes of my options based on logic and common sense and select accordingly (compare this with the baffling item-choices in Citadel - should I give the GANJEES a tub of ointment or a spider in a jar? What?) 

But the adventure felt a bit unsatisfactory overall, which mainly arises from the annoying victory conditions. My depiction of the "final episode" is not far off how it plays out in the book - after a while the crew will simply demand that you fly into a black hole, and if you refuse they begin committing suicide (!) - surely if the Bounty mutineers could tolerate life on Pitcairn Island, the crew of Traveller can stand having a whole new universe to explore? Coupled with that is the sheer difficulty of getting the numbers for the "good" black hole you have to fly through and then guessing the right combination of time and place out of the various possibilities - replays ad nauseum would be required to legitimately win this one I suspect. 

Anyway, I'll see you in a few weeks' time for the next exciting installment - City of Thieves - which, hearteningly, features a SKELETON right there on the cover.


  1. yeah! city of thieves! Not only is the main adversary a skeleton, his last name is BONE!

  2. should have known better than read this in the library. lol. you'll get me kicked out! lol

  3. from pedant corner: it's the blue dude's left foot behind the dust, and his right behind the spiky thing. He's crossing his legs, interpretive-dancer style.

  4. good point

    i have erased my disgraceful error

  5. So the guy on the cover with cat grooming glove is an android then?

  6. Love the blog. Looking forward to City of Thieves. As you say, its good for skeletons.

  7. thanks commenter slloyd14, encouragement always appreciated

    i am partway through writing up City of Thieves at the moment, so, not too far off

  8. Hey Murray, really enjoying the blog. Sweet nostalgia (I used to do the 6 finger page hold and reroll starting stats until they were to my satisfaction...). Funny and entertaining - keep it up! This blog got linked on a Final Fantasy "group" thread on offtopic where the forum communally decides what to do for each choice and the gamesmaster displays the pages and does the combat. A good laugh!

  9. shit i better hurrup and finish off city of thieves huh

  10. Your blog is so funny. I love/d FF. Please write something for 2014! :-D

  11. I love your reviews and playthroughts. Your wit takes it far beyond just a review and playthrough.

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