The TV series The Starlost ran from late September 1973 to early January 1974, about three and a half months and sixteen episodes too long.
– James Nicoll, 'Terrible Things'
In the 21st Century, international viewers of science fiction on television and streaming video have become accustomed to Canadian productions. They are often of superior quality, with solid production values and top-notch acting. Travelers, a time-travel saga, offers unique intellectual challenges to the viewer. The Expanse, a realistic depiction of a future in which humanity is spread across the solar system, features new ethnicities. The denizens of the asteroid belt even speak a form of creole that can be picked up by the audience. True, viewers have learned to recognise certain lakes and mountains in Vancouver as part of 'outer space stock footage,' but that goes with the territory.
In the early 1970s, however, things were much different. There were few Canadian science fiction writers available to script television series. So when an enterprising production company from California showed up with big plans and very little clue, the result was less than satisfying. The 1981 edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes The Starlost (accurately) as 'dire'. But how in the world did a series based on an award-winning pilot script by a respected author, with special effects by an acclaimed specialist and a renowned expert as science advisor, starring an actor famous for his science fiction work, go so utterly wrong? And what did the ghastly product look like? It's an interesting tale.
Six months of my life were spent in creating a dream the shape and sound and color of which had never been seen on television. The dream was called The Starlost, and between February and September of 1973 I watched it being steadily turned into a nightmare.
– Harlan Ellison, Phoenix Without Ashes
The way Harlan Ellison tells it, the nightmare began with a call from producer Robert Kline. Kline was interested in brokering a science fiction series with the BBC, to be filmed in London. He wanted Ellison to write the pilot and the series 'bible', a guide to the rules of the series' universe. Ellison was interested, but had reservations. 'I ran through half a dozen ideas for series that would be considered primitive ideas in the literary world of sf,' he writes. 'Kline found each of them too complex.'
Finally, the producer jumped at an idea: an ark in space, 1,000 miles long1, containing the survivors of Earth's destruction. After hundreds of years in space, many of those living in the domes don't even realise that they're on a spaceship. A small group of people figure out where they are, and that they're adrift in space, in imminent danger of crashing into a star. The series is supposed to depict their attempt to avert catastrophe by uniting the dome inhabitants in a co-operative effort to save their habitat from certain destruction.
It was supposed to be a parable, you see.
The producer agreed to sell this idea, but when he returned, the science fiction writer discovered that the series was now to be made by CTV in Toronto, Canada, a place where Ellison did not particularly want to go. Worse, there was now a writers' strike in progress in the US, and Ellison was on the board of directors of the Writers' Guild, which was behind the strike.
Ellison told the producers to wait for their script and bible. They didn't want to because time is money. There were negotiations, threats, and sneaky attempts to hire what Ellison calls a 'scab bible writer'. When Ellison located the writer in the hotel room where the producers had hidden him, he explained the situation, and the writer, too, went on strike.
Eventually, Ellison reluctantly went to Toronto and wrote the script. The producers rewrote it. Outraged, Ellison invoked a clause in his contract that permitted him to appear under a pseudonym of his own choosing. This is why every episode of The Starlost has a title card reading, 'Created by Cordwainer Bird.' The producers were furious, but outwitted this time.
'Cordwainer Bird' is partially a tribute to writer Paul MA Linebarger's nom de plume of Cordwainer Smith. A cordwainer is a shoemaker. Linebarger used to the name to indicate the workmanlike nature of the pulp writing profession: Ellison used this particular pseudonym for his works when he felt they had been mutilated by television industry rewrites – his personal version of Alan Smithee. He compared this kind of writing to making shoes for birds. (He might also have been 'giving them the bird,' as well they knew.)
The Starlost continued as a CTV production with Canadian writers and actors. Renowned science fiction editor Ben Bova, the 'science advisor', had quit in disgust after failing to convince those in charge that a 'radiation virus' was not a thing, nor was 'space senility', and that the phrase 'solar star' was a tautology. Nevertheless, Ben Bova's name appeared in the credits, to his chagrin.
Douglas Trumbull, the special effects expert known for 2001: A Space Odyssey and the visionary television film Silent Running, fared equally badly with The Starlost. His attempt to develop a 'Magicam' which would allow actors to be projected into cinematically impressive landscapes was a daring idea in those pre-CGI days. We are sad to report that the Magicam failed to work. They had to use plain old blue screens. And the sets were cramped, which led to awkward fight scenes. What else could go wrong? A look at the 16 episodes in question may give us a clue.
Megalomania and Miniskirts: The 70s Looks Ahead
A science fiction story has to have an interior logic... Break that logic, dumb it up, and the whole thing falls apart like Watergate testimony.
– Harlan Ellison, Phoenix Without Ashes
Here is a brief rundown of the voyage of the Earth ark.
|Episode 1: Voyage of Discovery||Devon (Keir Dullea, star of 2001: A Space Odyssey), Garth (Robin Ward), and Rachel (Gay Rowan) escape their home in Cypress Corners, an agrarian community of what TV Tropes astutely calls 'Space Amish'. It turns out the elders were lying about Rachel's needing to marry blacksmith Garth. (They've been reprogramming the electronic 'oracle'.) They were lying about more than that: everybody's on a giant ark and it's going to crash into a sun (okay, a 'solar star') unless these three people can figure out what to do. After all, the command crew are dried-up 400-year-old skeletons. It's a bit of a drawback that the most sophisticated weapon they have is Garth's homemade crossbow. But they enjoy a challenge.|
Additional Note: In this episode, we meet the 'Sphere Projector' computer played by William Osler. (He's also the narrator.) The Sphere Projector is a round screen that lights up when people sit down in front of it. Whereupon the bespectacled AI intones, 'May. I. Be. Of. ... Assistance?' This is possibly the most irritating FAQ ever invented, outdoing even the animated paperclip in its potential to madden the user. The Sphere Projector glitches – a lot.
|Episode 2: Lazarus from the Mist||The team have no idea how to save the ship, so they wake up a scientist (Frank Converse) from cryonic suspension. Unfortunately, he has no idea, either, and is now continuing to die from 'radiation virus' since they revived him. They put him back to sleep and proceed to rescue Garth from the maintenance crew, who have degenerated into a primitive clan that speaks pidgin English. No further progress is made except that they deliver the barbarian tribe to an unused habitat flowing with milk and honey – or at least, sporting conveniently ripe apples.|
Additional Note: This is supposed to be the Far Future, but in reality, we're in 1973. So our heroes inhabit a world full of trapezoidal doorways with asymmetric sliding doors. Many of the women wear miniskirts or 'hot pants', everyone's hair is vintage, and boots are often of the platform variety. The favoured colour scheme is orange and lime green. They must have got a bargain on lime-green foam rubber – it's everywhere, from magic anti-gravity mats to mattresses and seat cushions.
|Episode 3: The Goddess Calabra||In the sphere-world Omicron, there are no women. Obviously, Rachel is immediately mistaken for the Goddess Calabra and duly worshipped. This is amusing to us, but not to her boyfriend Devon. The Governor (John Colicos2) and the priest Shaliff (Barry Morse3) quarrel over the Governor's proposal to marry the goddess. All is eventually sorted, but no progress is made and we've had to look at a lot of very cheap Roman-style helmets.|
|Episode 4: The Pisces||Commander Garroway (Lloyd Bochner) and his two-woman crew return in their scout ship from what, to them, was a ten-year voyage at light speed. The voyage can't have been any fun for the women because Commander Garroway strikes the viewer as a sexual harassment case waiting to happen. While he hits on Rachel, the rest of the cast figure out that the Pisces has been gone for 400 years. Of course, they have no clue how to repair the ark. Worse, they're suffering from incipient 'space senility'. To cure it, they have to go back into light speed, which Garroway seems to think will turn back time. They give us a headache, and we are glad when they leave.|
Additional Note: This episode demonstrates a common feature of weapons and weaponised tech in the Starlost universe. Pointing any of this at a character invariably causes a bad case of Overacting, followed by unconsciousness.
|Episode 5: Children of Methuselah||The team have been looking for the 'backup bridge', and they think they've found it. Alas, this is only a schoolroom running training simulations. The 400-year-old schoolchildren (they don't age, don't ask) are downright creepy. As soon as the truth is revealed, they go happily off to play, so all is well. Except that we still don't know how to save the ark.|
|Episode 6: And Only Man Is Vile||Dr Asgard (Simon Oakland) is only one in a series of mad scientists aboard the ark. In fact, the ark seems to be overbooked on mad scientists. This one tries to prove that humans are hopelessly violent and mistrustful. Of course, his experiment is rigged. In spite of this, Devon, Garth and Rachel overcome the doctor's bogus challenges and move on.|
|Episode 7: Circuit of Death||On to the next mad scientist. Dr Richards (Percy Rodrigues) and his daughter are trying to blow up the ark, ostensibly to save everyone from the agony of a slow death. Our heroes prevent this, naturally. At least this biosphere increases the ark's ethnic diversity, as both actors representing the dome are Black. We are also treated to a very funny game of human Lego, as the actors are forced to project themselves inside a circuit in order to reroute some tiny wires.|
|Episode 8: Gallery of Death (These titles are not getting any more original.)||The heroes stumble upon a gallery full of bad pop art with a sexy holographic curator. The gallery turns out to be a front for Magnus, a megalomaniacal rogue AI with mind-reading capabilities. Lest Magnus take over the ark, and eventually the universe, Devon applies the solution that reminds us of the one used in 2001. He rips out all the plastic computer cards in Magnus' innards. To our disappointment, Magnus expires quietly, not even deigning to sing 'Daisy, Daisy'. Other rogue computers threateningly announce that they have Devon's number.|
|Episode 9: Mr Smith of Manchester||Another power-mad type, Mr Smith the arms dealer, is played by Ed Ames – a famous baritone who, unfortunately, does no singing in this episode4. Instead, Mr Smith attempts to break out of the quarantine into which his biosphere has been placed, with the intention of starting wars throughout the ark. He is prevented.|
|Episode 10: The Alien Oro||The Alien Oro turns out to be Walter Koenig5, and he's a real villain. For no explained reason, he and every other alien in this series speak English, as do all the ark people, most of whom have Canadian accents. Having crashed into the ark and damaged it, Oro proceeds to cannibalise it for parts to repair his ship. However, he redeems himself by wanting to return an ailing lady friend to her home. The heroes let him go on his way in spite of his refusal to lift a finger to help them right the ship's course. We will see him again, unfortunately.|
|Episode 11: The Astro Medics||It turns out that there are doctors on board the ark. Unfortunately, they are television doctors: far more interested in looking good in front of their colleagues to worry much about the patients. Garth needs a life-saving operation, but all the ambitious young doctor can think about is rushing to save some aliens so that he can make medical history. In the end, both are saved. It turns out the reptilian aliens never knew they had to set their thermostats.|
|Episode 12: The Implant People||A small boy steals Garth's crossbow, the one he carries around for effect but never fires. Following the kid involves the heroes in a struggle with yet another out-of-control power broker. This one is misusing the local mad scientist's implant technology to enslave the population. As these people are exceedingly dull, the heroes move on after saving the day.|
|Episode 13: The Return of Oro||He's back, and up to no good. Oro tries to convince Devon, Garth and Rachel to help him move the ark to his planet, which he claims is a beautiful paradise. They discover that all Oro is planning is a salvage operation and that he's after their reactors. Once this plan is foiled, Oro's superiors sabotage his personal spacecraft, so that he is stranded on the ark. He wanders off, intent on no good, but the series doesn't last long enough for him to get up to any.|
|Episode 14: Farthing's Comet||Farthing is another mad scientist, this one played by character actor Edward Andrews, who specialised in pettifogging bureaucrats. Farthing has no time to try and save the ark: he's too busy steering it into the middle of a comet in order to be the first person to record certain data. You can steer this thing? exclaim our heroes, and manage to extricate the ark from certain doom inside the comet (barely). The question arises: have they now redirected the ark so that it won't hit the 'solar star'? Nobody asks this question. Nobody answers this question. But there are two more episodes of this epic, and in them, nobody suggests the ark is in danger, either. So there we are.|
|Episode 15: The Beehive||This episode should receive the award for worst use of stock footage. Also for most poorly-designed beekeeping helmets. It is not known whether Ben Bova tried to tell them how bees communicate – through the 'waggle dance' – but the mad scientist du jour insists they're using telepathy. Telepathy allows the giant mutant bees (about four feet long, apparently) to control the mad scientist as well as the 'little bees'. Fortunately, the scientist's wife (Antoinette Bower in a giant fuzzy wig) recalls that the bees will become sluggish at about 50° Fahrenheit (the ark isn't metric, remember?). Disaster is averted, barely.|
|Episode 16: Space Precinct||The end is finally near. In this episode, we discover that the ark has an active police department. (Where were they when Oro tried to steal the ark? Or when Smith tried to break out? These police are useless.) While Devon and Rachel spend the entire episode gasping for air in a decompressed elevator, Garth is invited to become a policeman. He spends the whole episode trying to figure out who's preventing the police spacecraft from going to the rescue of a nearby star system. This episode has caused fans (who must number in single digits) to clamour for a spinoff series involving Garth as a space detective. For our part, we are relieved it's all over.|
What Became of Them All?
Harlan Ellison received the Writers Guild of America Award for Most Outstanding Film/TV Screenplay for his original screenplay, Phoenix Without Ashes. His third win, and it's a blind submission, so take that. He spilled the beans on the whole Starlost story in his introduction to the novelisation written by Ed Bryant.
Ben Bova was so annoyed by Starlost that he wrote his own story: The Starcrossed. It's a satirical roman à clef about a technical effects man trying to realise a 3D science fiction series.
After all that we've said, you still want to see this series? It's your funeral. You are more than welcome to feast your eyes on this Youtube playlist.