Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rerun: THE STARLOST (1973)

(This is a re-post of an article originally posted in November of 2009.)

Like many other things in my life, I first discovered the existence of The Starlost through the pages of Starlog magazine in the mid-70's. I learned there that it had been a short-lived 1973 television series created by Harlan Ellison, who, dissatisfied by the final product, had chosen to use his pen name of "Cordwainer Bird" in the credits.

I also knew that Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, played the lead role of Devon, a young Amish man who discovers that his small world of Cypress Corners is actually an artificial biosphere, one of many that make up the Earthship Ark – a vast multi-generation spacecraft. Venturing beyond his own artificial world, he discovers that a cataclysmic accident several hundred years before killed the command crew of the Ark, and it is now crippled and off-course, heading directly toward a star. With his friends Rachel (Gay Rowan) and Garth (Robin Ward), Devon searches the Ark for some way to correct the ship's course, or for someone knowledgeable enough save it and the millions of people isolated in their own biospheres – most of whom are unaware that they are on a spaceship at all.

And that was about it.

In the late 80's I came across a paperback copy of Phoenix Without Ashes, Edward Bryant's novelization of Ellison's original pilot script for the series. The introduction to the book – by Ellison himself – detailed the series' troubled production and the reasons for the acclaimed author's unhappiness with the show. The novel was pretty good, and piqued my interest, but as the series had only run for 16 episodes and was virtually unseen in syndication, I figured I'd never see the show. Which disappointed me, because I love 70's sci-fi television, no matter how bad its reputation.

Well, considering all the obscurities that have been dug up and released on DVD in the last decade, I should have guessed that somebody would put it on digital disc eventually, and sure enough, the folks at VCI Entertainment have done just that. All 16 episodes of the Canadian-produced show are now available on a compact, 4-disc set.

Produced on a very small budget, the show was shot on videotape and featured modular sets that could be disassembled and reassembled in different configurations to suggest new sections of the vast Earthship Ark. There was also extensive use of chromakey (bluescreen), which enabled the production team to drop the actors "into" miniature sets, which saved even more money. Too bad most of the miniatures were pretty unconvincing.

The videotape filming, sets and costumes give the series a look similar to Doctor Who episodes of the same vintage, but The Starlost doesn't have the same charismatic characters or ambitious storylines and unbridled imagination of Who. In fact, it's pretty mundane all around.

The stories started out okay – if overly cliched – but soon devolved into silliness, with the sort of ludicrous faux science that was common in the era's sci-fi TV. And that's a real shame since some decent guest stars appeared on the show, including familiar genre faces John Colicos (the original Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek), Barry Morse (Space: 1999), Simon Oakland (Kolchak: The Night Stalker), and Walter Koenig (Star Trek, Babylon 5).

Still, I found myself growing somewhat fond of Devon, Garth and Rachel, and I thought that most of the episodes were - at least - entertaining.

Nonetheless, I can completely understand why Ellison disowned the show, and why noted science fiction writer Ben Bova was embarrassed to be credited as the series' "science advisor" – he was completely ignored by the producers, but they kept his name in the credits for the publicity value. Same with special effects ace Douglas Trumbull (2001, Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), who quit the show before the first episode was shot, but remained credited as a producer for the entire run.

VCI's DVD set includes all 16 episodes on 4 discs, packed into one standard-sized case. The transfers are sharp and clean, but as noted above, the show was shot on videotape, so the picture quality is far from perfect, with some minor video "noise" and some bleeding colors. It's probably better than it looked on TV in '73, though. The only extra is a presentation reel used to pitch the syndicated series to independent stations before production, hosted by Dullea and Trumbull. In this short film, the series is verbally described by Dullea, accompanied by stock effects shots from Trumbull's then-recent feature, Silent Running.

The Starlost is a classic missed opportunity – with Ellison, Bova and Trumbull aboard, it should have been something remarkable, and revolutionary. Unfortunately, the realities of independent television production, and the bad judgment of the producers resulted instead in an artistic and commercial misfire, interesting only to die hard fans of 70's genre television like myself.

If you consider yourself such a fan, then VCI's set is worth checking out. Buy it from Amazon here: The Starlost - The Complete Series


  1. I remember this one from my childhood. I always remembered it as being very cool because of the idea of the ARK like ship heading for the sun. When I was in my teens they started re-running it on cable and I was amazed at how crappy it looked in reality as opposed to how spectacular it was in my mind. I added so many elements that didn't exist. It was one of the first times I realized how great my imagination was.

  2. It would have been more interesting to have watched something a bit more akin to how Ellison thought it should have gone. I enjoy Ellison's writing, but not always his remarks or taste, that said though, I do have trouble with the concept of a ark or space station traveling in space, and nobody ever bumping into the edge or wall of the ship?? Seems odd to me. Neat concept though.

  3. I too remember this from my adolesence, and while it had its drawbacks (even noticeable to me at the time), I LOVED the concept. A few years back, I read the novel and found a terrific website devoted to the show, but with money being what it is these days, I've had to keep putting off getting the DVDs. One of these days, though...

  4. Full marks to VCI for putting the series out. It's one of those shows that entertains despite it's reputation & the germ of it's idea remains intriguing. The model of the Ark is pretty cool, with interesting details that are hard to see on screen with the way it was filmed.I'l always remember the theme music too, being 70's cool and wanting to see more of the secrets that the idea of the show contained. The website has behind the scenes pics of many of the models and miniature sets. these photos show much more detail to them or models that never had the chance to be seen. Still worth a look as something different and really an idea that could still be done again.

  5. This was a haunting tv show that took me years to find. I was 4 when this first came out and remember the theme music just freaked the crap outta me. I also remember the vastness of the ship and all those sections waiting to be explored. It wasn't until the late 1980s that I finally figured out what the show was called and now own the complete series...I watch the entire thing every it.