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Forget about "The Twilight Zone" or "Outer Limits" or the classic
"Doctor Who" years with Tom Baker: CTV's THE STARLOST is the creepiest,
most subtly disturbing television show ever made for general audiences.
The background story about how the show came to be reads like a Nazi
War Criminal Tribunal transcript: Harlan Ellison -- not exactly the
most laid back person in first place -- is suckered into helping to
create an epic television show set in the future, with space ships,
laser beams, intergalactic voyage, combining the best talents of the
era (Douglas Trumbull, Ben Bova, "Star Trek"'s alumni of superlative
writers) with state-of-the-art technology, to be filmed in London for a
worldwide audience hungry for creativity that had never been seen
before. The scope would have dwarfed "Star Trek" with an emphasis on
real science, astronomy, physics, engineering and a fearless sense of
speculation about what could be out there in the universe.
Then it all fell apart: The budget was drawn & quartered, the production syndicated, to be made on the cheap in Canada with a production staff of unknowns who were not trained or equipped to handle such a project. The story premise reduced to the lowest common denominator and the talent marginalized by the stupidity of those who only saw it as another way to sell toilet paper, frozen dinners and underarm deodorant. Blatant misrepresentation of intent finally drove Trumbull and Bova from the sets, and finally Ellison announced he'd had enough. Before the first pilot episode was ever taped he'd demanded that his name be removed from the credits lest the producers reap an undeserved bounty off his well-respected propz. Hyped beyond any possible ability to deliver what it boasted, the show premiered in 1973 to abject indifference from thunderstruck audiences who could not fathom what the point of it all was, mixing 3rd rate television production techniques, bizarre illiteracy of both form and content, and bare-bones production values that were put to shame by that which it attempted to mimic.
Without Ellison's guidance the show became a sort of working example of how NOT to approach the science fiction genre, at the same time dumbed down beyond belief and yet defying any sort of accepted formula. Punctuated by bizarre, ultra-cheap quasi-minimal production design, brain dead writing and lunkheaded conceptual inconsistencies, it is a unique, remarkable failure of humanity attempting to do something great and yet stubbing their toe on the wainscoting with each step. It was canned almost immediately with the basic conflict of the last remnants of humanity in search of a new world on a giant, derelict space ark unresolved. They are still out there, somewhere, lost and unable to find their way home due to indifference, greed and incompetence.
And yet what a show it IS in the form of the precious 16 episodes that were made, 10 of which are available now on a DVD box set from Britain. It's the creepiest television show ever made for family audiences, nightmares of it's basic concept of three lost humans moving from compartment to compartment on an unbelievably huge, lumbering, abandoned "Earthship Ark" haunted me for thirty years. Most of it isn't very good in the traditional way of looking at television, but as a kind of kitschy, ambiguous and hopelessly retarded entertainment it's truly one of a kind, for which we should probably be thankful. Harlan may not wish it so but THE STARLOST remains a remarkable example of humanity at their most clueless, with the potential of what could have been eclipsing that which was.
I will let others describe the details of the premise, what interests me about the show is how utterly rudderless, forlorn and misdirected it all feels looking at the remnants 30 years later. If you want a more accurate look at what the show COULD have been, make sure you read the book adaptation of Mr. Ellison's "pilot episode" story, PHOENIX WITHOUT ASHES, which opens with a really eye-opening 20 page account of the hell he went through just to get this much accomplished. By all accounts he is to this day bitter, caustic, and openly hostile about the experience, and I agree that an authorized present day attempt to re-visualize his concept is entirely appropriate. Not a "re-make", since THE STARLOST as it is known today doesn't really officially exist. It was taken away from him and made stupid by those who pulled the strings; The idea is still worthy.
None of which, by the way, is meant to denigrate the efforts of those who stuck around & gave it the good old college try. It's not their fault. They did their best and just happened to come up empty, though some of what survives to this day is remarkable: The principal leads (Kier Dullea, Gay Rowan, the perpetually gruff Robin Ward, and William Oster as the endlessly helpful computer "host") were very well cast and gave their all, and the guest appearances by some of the best & brightest of the day (the late Lloyd Bochner, a misplaced Walter Koenig, "Space: 1999"'s Barry Morse, priceless Ed Ames, and John Colicos who even makes the word vegetable sound like a Shakespeare sonnet) are wonderful. Trumbull's special effects don't come across well on the small screen but are entirely practical given Bova's scientific guidance. Superficially the show resembles "Doctor Who" though far, far less profound as realized.
If it had been made right by honest visionaries who were interested in amounting to more than the sum of their parts it could have gone on for three or four seasons at least, perhaps even fulfilling Ellison's proposed story arc of the three heroes eventually repairing the ark and setting it on it's way again. Yet as an unfinished sketch of that idea it exists like a half remembered dream, haunting because of it's fleeting nature rather than hampered by never having been finished.
8/10. In spite of everything, 8/10.
The Starlost had the potential to be a classic science fiction series as it was created by the superb writer Harlan Ellison. The premise was intriguing: earth is abandoned by the humans that have poisoned it in various ways. A great spaceship arc is constructed and a series of domes house various cultures. At some point in their journey an accident occurs killing the crew, the domes are sealed off, and in time the different societies within them come to believe only in their own world and are unaware they are part of a massive starship.3 individuals from a dome with an agrarian community discover the truth, along with the fact that the ark is on a collision course with a g-class star.The series revolved around their attempts to save the ark. unfortunately Ellison came into conflict with the producers & writes extensively about this in an intro into the book based on the series, Phoenix Without Ashes.The fact that the show had a shoestring budget did not help either.This would be a wonderful premise to revive with Ellison on board, and the state-of-the-art special effects now available.
After many years of not being able to see this program, but only being
able to hear the scathing opinions of others about it, in particular
those of the series' originator, noted SF writer Harlan Ellison, I was
anxious to actually see it for myself.
And when I finally did...? Well, I actually enjoyed the 10 or so episodes I could see. Yes, the production values were very small, but shows like 'Land of the Lost' or 'Doctor Who' (which Ellison has said he actually likes) have made very enjoyable, watchable programs on similar budgets. Frankly, an interesting story is the first requirement, and trivia like sets and special effects are, at best, secondary. Castigating the show for a low budget is easy. But the shows I saw were primarily enjoyable, and I liked watching them even with particular flaws here or there or a less enjoyable episode now and again.
How much of this reputation for the show is of people simply jumping on Ellison's bandwagon? He has famously trashed the series, and has every right to whatever feelings he has on the subject. But his opinion is formed on the basis of what he originally wanted, and the experiences he had while working on the project (which, as much as they are known, are simply HIS versions of events). What effect could that whole experience have had on his opinion of the show? And why should his opinion have any effect on mine, formed simply on the basis of the program itself? I wonder how many people have formed their perspective of the series based on Ellison's recounting of events and his own view of the series. How much of Ellison's opinion has built those of others? Does it have its flaws? Most certainly, sizable ones. And it is certainly a low-budget production with poor episodes. But is it the worst show of all time, as many people seem to see it? I don't think so. It is, in many ways, enjoyable.
Of course I was only 8 years old at the time. But in retrospect, the
storylines, weird synthesizer music and general atmoshphere were
creepy. Yes it had super-cheap production values but what could you expect
from Canadian TV in the early 70s? The highest budgeted entertainment of
day would have been Hockey Night in Canada or the Irish Rovers Show
(remember that one?).
The Starlost is a giant Ark ship hurtling through space on a collision course with a star. The earth has long since been destroyed and the ark ship itself was crippled by a meteor collision several generations into it's long journey. The technical people are dead. What is left are multitudes of biospheres, each with different sub-cultures of human "tribes", all cut-off from one another. These descendents of the original travellers have lost all knowledge of their journey and history. None of them even know they are on a space ship. Their biosphere is simply their home. You have to admit there is something mythic about that premise. I thought it was a nifty idea.
The series follows the adventures of 3 inhabitants, Devin, Rachel and Garth, who escape their biosphere, slowly find out the truth of the Ark, and travel from dome to dome.
I remember catching a few reruns of The Starlost in the early 80s and it was still as good (relatively speaking) as I remembered it. The use of those super-cheesy chroma effects did add a certain other-worldliness to the production that is hard to describe. It was as if it was so bad that it was actually effective (or almost). Certainly if this was redone today with a bunch of flashy, overblown, modern cgi, all the spookiness and creepyness of the original series would be diminished.
I think the reason why this series actually worked for me is because it had that "Space 1999" theme of being disconnected, alienated and lost, while scrambling like mad to get back to "somewhere" more connected. There is something metaphysical and tragic about that set-up which I guess appeals to introspective individuals.
I also liked the way that almost every episode ended on a down note, with the trio jumping to yet another Dome filled with raving madmen of one sort or the other.
Anyway, too bad this series seems to have disappeared. It would have been cool to watch a few episodes again. But I guess the original videotape that it was shot on has since decayed! :)
Like all of Harlan Ellison's writing, the original concept is
Take dozens of disparate cultures (Amish, old Chinese, Futuristic, etc.) and isolate them in self-supporting domes 100 miles in diameter. The domes represent the various cultures of Earth, and are intended to be planted onto a new planet because Earth is dying out. Each culture is just one part of a huge spacecraft on a multi-generational sublight trip to another star system.
Now comes the problem. During the voyage, something breaks down on the steering mechanism and the ship veers off course. The people in the domes forget they're on a starship.
Hundreds of years later, an Amish child is hoeing in the fields and accidentally strikes the door-opening mechanism, and he finds his way into a hallway which connects the domes! He can't explain what he's found to his fellow Amish because they have no A Priori experience with something like this.
Added to which, the ship is now on course for a black hole! Somehow, a way must be found to awaken the various cultures, teach them about the nature of reality, and save the ship.
Done properly, this could have been an amazing show! Regrettably, the TV executives decided (as TV people often do) that "audiences are basically stupid" so they dumbed it down, gave the computer an artificial personality (that sounded like a telephone operator on quaaludes) and basically ran the show into the ground.
Harlan Ellison changed his name on the credits and bailed out, refusing to compromise his integrity. Bravo for him!!!
I was in my my 20's when I saw the pilot episode in 1973 - a story
about an Amish-style community, some of whose young inhabitants defy
their elders then stumble upon a portal into a much bigger world. The
reactionary little town turns out to be just one pod in a gigantic
spaceship, built to save samples of the Earth's populations - a Noah's
Ark to transport humans to another world when the Earth is threatened
with extinction. The concept was completely unique and though I only
saw only a few episodes the memories stayed with me over the years. I
finally acquired the entire series (16 episodes) on DVD last week and
watched it end-to-end.
I still find Harlan Ellison's concept intriguing, and that's what kept me watching a series that's been so maligned the bad press alone probably scares off most viewers. It's cheesy 1970's TV, all right, with the actors plopped down in the middle of colorful and completely artificial-looking chroma-key sets and all the buildings in the various life pods look like 18-inch-high models sitting on tables, but still I wanted to see what our 3 intrepid heroes Devin, Rachel and Garth would find in their efforts to save the giant ship.
Often the show looked like it was made for kids (each pod seemed to contain an evil dictator, who ruled over an "empire" consisting of about a dozen people), but I hung in there, all the time wondering what might have been with good writing and state-of-the-art technology. "The Starlost" still seems like a concept worth doing right - maybe even on the big screen.
One thing that troubled me was the simple lack of logic, even on the show's own terms. The premise of the series was that it was up to 3 young people to save the giant starship, who's control section and crew were long ago destroyed, putting the ship on a collision course with a star. If a way could be found to correct said course you'd think all would be well and the series could be concluded, right? Not so fast! In episode 14, 2 scientists help Devin, Rachel and Garth fix the reactor(s), enabling the Starlost to avoid its most imminent danger, a comet. At this crucial juncture, with the ability to change course at hand, does anyone, (scientists, heroes, producers or writers) say "hey, while we're avoiding the comet, let's just reset the course so we won't be heading for the star any more and SAVE THE SHIP?" Not with a contractual obligation to produce 2 more episodes they don't, so the series plods on through 2 more episodes then stops dead. I wonder if anyone realized they might have simply repodered the episodes to make #14 the last one and use it to wrap up the series.
To sum up, you may find this series campy fun, in spite of all its shortcomings - I did, but I had to make a lot of allowances ...... and swallow a lot of cheese.
OK, so everyone thinks the production values were terrible, then why
after 35 years, does this series still exist as clear as a bell in my
mind? It was amazingly thought out and the possibilities for plots were
infinite like any good sci-fi series. Of particular interest were the
"bounce tubes". A travel method that involved jumping into a tunnel
that had no gravity and being sucked to the other end. I couldn't wait
for each time the characters did that! The show was filled with "wow"
moments like the view of the destroyed command center, and the view out
the the window at the incredible length of the ship. Note: The ship in
this series was recycled a few years later as the ship in the movie,
I desperately hope that there is a television producer out there that is looking for an idea to remake. With modern computer animation and a cast of a few talented young stars this could easily be the Star Trek of the new century.
IF the shot had used film instead of video tape, IF the supporting cast around Keir Dullea could act, and IF there had been some better scripts. The show had three good episodes; the first: "Voyage to Discovery", the second: "Lazarus frim the Mist", and one of the last "Farthins Comet". In all there were only 17 produced before the plug was yanked in the winter of 1973. I remeber how much I liked the show, and had it had a little more money spent on its prouction it might have lasted a bit longer. As it was shot on video tape, which degrades over time, I doubt any of the shows still exist. If they indeed still exist it would be great to see it on the Sci-Fi channel. I thought The Ark (the spaceship) was totally cool, and believable from the concept of the show. I read on the website devoted to the show that some one is trying to restore the Ark studio model back to as it originally existed!
Harlan Ellison's first and only attempt to create a science fiction
television series, The Starlost was doomed to failure almost from the
Ellison had his name removed from the series when the producers decided
make a number of knuckleheaded decisions about the show and its
It's too bad as the series premise itself would make a fascinating weekly series or movie. Science fiction author Ben Bova wrote a parody of the situation that occurred to Ellison with a novel (I believe it's now out of print)entitled Starcrossed.
You know, I was just sleeping and having a dream about a huge
generational spaceship, with separate hanging living complexes, which
carries most of the population of Earth away to a distant world. Then I
realized, I'd seen this concept before on TV, when I was a kid.
Reaching through my own memory banks to the distant past, I could only
come up with the words: "lost", "ark", and "Walter Koenig" (Chekov from
Star Trek). Did the search for Koenig through IMDb, and sure enough
found this entry. If I had instead done a search for "lost" and "ark",
I'd have probably ended up in "Raiders of The Lost Ark", so it's a good
thing I didn't do that search. :-)
Wow, now that I'm looking at the list of stars of this show, I am surprised by how many of them are well-known. Walter Koenig was just a guest star on it. I didn't realize that one of the stars was Keir Dullea, Dave from 2001: A Space Oddessy. Also Robin Ward, I remember he used to be a weatherman or something later on. Ah, ancient Canadian memories.
Koenig seems to have a knack for memorable guest appearances on sci-fi shows. He also had a memorable turn as Bester on Babylon 5.
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