Friday, November 23, 2018

The Starlost: The Complete Series

by G. Jack Urso


The giant Earthship Ark — man’s greatest and final achievement out of control, drifting through deep space over 800 years into the far future. Its passengers, descendants of the last survivors of the dead planet Earth, locked in separate worlds, their destination long forgotten, heading for destruction unless three young people can save the Starlost!                 
                                                                      — Opening Narration to The Starlost

The Starlost is a 16-episode Canadian science-fiction television series that aired from 1973 to 1974 in both Canada and the United States. The series is usually derided as among the worst sci-fi series ever produced, and while that accusation is mired in a lot of hyperbole, the show, nevertheless, is an example of a good idea with lots of promise and fine actors that was penny-pinched by producers with little knowledge of science-fiction, or writing in general. Series creator and awarded-winning bestselling sci-fi author Harlan Ellison disliked the series so much, he disowned it before the first episode aired and was credited under the pseudonym “Cordwainer Bird.” The complete series is available below from a dedicated Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel.

The series was intended to be a co-production of the BBC and 20th Century Fox for prime-time viewing with the hope it would be shot in London. Unfortunately, the BBC declined; however, the Canadian CTV television network joined in, though with less funding, and the series broadcast in Canada and syndicated in the United States to a total of 48 stations. Because of the loss of the BBC's potential investment, the budget was much smaller as were the Toronto studios the series was eventually filmed in. Both restrictions contributed to the general dissatisfaction from Ellison and his departure from the series.

How many episodes Ellison developed story ideas for is not quite certain from the information available. The pitch film (below), likely produced by the late Spring/early Summer of 1973, features footage from Trumbull's Silent Running (1972) and promoted the use of the ill-fated Magicam system (more about that later). Some details are different, such as Dullea's character's name being Victor Rann (spelling of the last name unsure) instead of Devon. Notably, Ellison is referred to by his real name rather than Cordwainer Bird, the name he used as his series credit (indicating his dislike) after leaving the production in September 1973. The film also indicates Ellison would be contributing six scripts, but which those were are unclear. He authored the story for the first episode, "Voyage of Discovery," but the Internet Movie Database credits him with contributing to every episode as “creator,” including the episode "The Goddess Calabra" based on a story by Ursula K. Le Guin (The Lathe of Heaven, see separate article on Aeolus 13 Umbra). Consequently, the writing credits listed below reflect those indicated on the episode credits themselves, or as otherwise noted.

Background

The series originated in February 1973 when a 20th Century Fox television producer, Robert Kline, asked Ellison to develop a prime time science fiction TV series of eight episodes, which he would then pitch to the BBC as a co-production. Ellison was cold to the idea of limited-run series, but Kline persisted and Ellison eventually tossed out the idea for what would become The Starlost. While Ellison was certainly a creative genius, Douglas Trumball, who would co-executive produce the series, explored a similar idea of a biosphere ship in 1972’s Silent Running, so one wonders if Ellison wasn't just spinning off that idea to some degree.

Earthship Ark model.
Sci-fi author Ben Bova served as science advisor and, much to his dismay at working with producers who had such little concern for technical accuracy, left after the first episode aired. He later used the experience as the basis for his novel The Starcrossed.

The per episode production budget in 1973 for The Starlost was approximately US$100,000, or about US$569,560 in 2018. This was a little bit less than what an average episode of Star Trek: The Original Series cost in 1966 when the same US$100,000 equals approximately US$780,409 in 2018, so the same amount of money bought more in 1966 than it did in 1973. To put it in better perspective, the per episode budget for the live-action Saturday morning children’s series Jason of Star Command (see separate article on Aeolus 13 Umbra) produced a few years later in 1978 by the notoriously cheap Filmation, was US$200,000, or approximately US$773,454 in 2018. The Starlost's budget should have been about US$50,000 more in 1973 dollars to compensate for inflation and keep it on par with other sci-fi shows of the era.
(left to right): Garth, Devon, and Rachel look at a star rising above the massive 
Earthship Ark for the first time from the ruined main bridge.
Synopsis

The series takes place on the immense Earthship Ark, containing the last remnants of the planet Earth, in the year 2790. The Ark is approximately 200 miles (320 km) long and 50 miles (80 km) wide and home to dozens of self-contained biospheres, each containing a unique culture, totaling about three million people. An accident four hundred years in their past isolated the biospheres from each other and set the vessel on a direct course for an eventual collision with a star.

The not very helpful computer.
The lead in the series is Keir Dullea, who played Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dullea plays Devon, a farmer in an agricultural Amish-like community in one of the biospheres. The action in the series begins when Devon's love interest Rachel (Gay Rowen) is betrothed to another man, Garth (Robin Ward). This causes Devon to begin questioning the authorities, their way of life, and mysterious aspects of their existence, such as why the sun moves as it does, where the water comes from, and what lies beyond the door marked, “Beyond is Death.” Chased by the villagers, Devon makes his escape from the biosphere and discovers that he is on the Earthship Ark and that it is headed into a star. In order to save the ship, and the biospheres, Devon must find the backup bridge and restart the main engines. Unfortunately, the ship’s main computer is damaged and not always useful. Further, there seems to be no records of where the backup bridge is after 400 years, so with help from Rachel and a wary Garth, the trio begins a journey of exploration and danger.

Making the protagonists agricultural workers unfamiliar with technology at first seems like a nice trick to present a logical scenario for the inevitable long expository common to sci-fi. Indeed, Devon, Rachel, and Garth are stand-ins for the viewers and their need for information about the Ark mirrors or own, so at first this seems like a convenient literary device. Nevertheless, it quickly becomes apparent that this often results in such plot holes as Devon, a farmer from a technically backwards society, frequently operating technology far outside his primitive skill set. After viewing the series, it may have been better for at least one of the three protagonists to be from a more technologically advanced biosphere.

Special Effects

For sci-fi fans of the 1970s, the special effects of The Starlost are somewhat on par with Blake’s 7 and Dr. Who of the same time period. Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970-1973) and Space: 1999 (1975-1977) show clearly superior effects work, as do the live-action Saturday morning series Space Academy (1977) and Jason of Star Command (1978-1979) (click on links for reviews of the aforementioned series on Aeolus 13 Umbra). While the shots of Earthship Ark are impressive and the modeling detailed, they lack movement due to the limitations of the technology. The lighting is poor, the backgrounds are dull, and star fields almost virtually absent. Consequently, for a show that takes place in outer space, very little is seen of it.

Part of the pitch of The Starlost to Ellison, as detailed in his essay “Somehow, I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas, Toto,” in the preface to the novelization of Ellison’s script for the pilot episode by Edward Bryant (Phoenix Without Ashes), was that video, rather than film, would allow for high production values at a lower cost. Not only were the promised superior special effects not forthcoming, but the use of video tape rather than film further cheapened the look of an already financially-strapped venture. The results were not what were anticipated by either the actors or the TV stations who syndicated the series.

As previously noted, director/producer Douglas Trumbull released the film Silent Running in 1972 featuring a similar vessel with biospheres. Trumbull touted his Magicam system as a way to allow actors to move inside an effects shot and provide a heightened sense of realism. An example is provided in the pitch film, but Magicam, still in its early development, was a troubled and problematic system that was eventually abandoned for the series. As Trumbull’s effects ability is amply demonstrated in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner, the technical problems with The Starlost were not with him, but with the production companies 20th Century-Fox Television, CTV Television Network, and Glen Warren Productions, who quite literally nickel-and-dimed the series into an early death.

The video effects, despite some occasional creative applications, are generally just random functions from an early video effects generator board. I am somewhat familiar with the technology from interning at a public access television station in the early 1980s. If that was all they could afford, it was a penny-pinching production indeed.

The studio they filmed in was so small even shots of long corridors were difficult. In the first episode, "Voyage of Discovery,"  a simple shot of a long corridor (at the 41:40 time mark) needed a blue screen effect to accomplish the shot. In the scene, Dullea and Rowen are recorded on tape looking towards the camera. Then, Ward is recorded on the other side of the corridor looking at a blue screen, upon which the footage of Dullea and Rowen is later inserted over in post-production. It seems like a complicated and expensive fix to accommodate an inferior studio they had to use because of budgetary limitations. Another technique to show long corridors was to have a full-scale photo-realistic painting simply mounted to one side of a doorway. On a 70s-era 19 inch, or smaller, color cathode-ray tube TV, the effect probably wasn’t very noticeable; however, on today’s high-definition TVs it is clearly visible.

The Pisces scout ship makes a pass below the Earthship Ark. The difference in quality 
between the two vessels in this shot is even greater on high-definition television.
Other than the impressive Earthship Ark, the other spaceships that do make the occasional appearance, such as the Astro-Medic ship or Pisces scout ship, look hastily conceived, or, in the case of Oro's flying saucer, just outright ridiculous. When the buildings inside the biospheres are shown, as in "Mr. Smith of Manchester," they look more like children’s toys just repainted and thrown together. Matte paintings would have been the better choice for such scenes and it is curious why they are not used.

The use of matte shots, where scenery is painted on glass with an area left clear for previously shot footage to be played through, allows for actors to move through various fanciful locations without the cost involved in creating such sets. Curiously, this technique is not really utilized (likely for budgetary reasons) despite having had been used in sci-fi movies for decades prior to The Starlost, and their use could have provided a sense of space in a series where much of the action takes place inside a room of some sort, apart from a very few exceptions, such as Devon’s EVA in the episode "Farthing's Comet." The Magicam system was meant to replace, or at least supplement, this process, but it proved to be an unreliable alternative at the time of the series.

Castaways

Keir Dullea is an accomplished actor and was well-known even before his role in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gay Rowen and Robin Ward keep pace with Dullea, and Ward’s Garth makes for a good foil to Dullea’s Devon. The guest stars feature an array of talented character actors who have appeared in various sci-fi series of the era and later, including John Colicos, Commander Kor, Star Trek: The Original Series and Deep Space Nine and Baltor in Battlestar Galactica (1978); Barry Morse, Prof. Victor Bergman, Space: 1999; Lloyd Bochner, Commandant Leiter, Battlestar Galactica (1978) episodes “Baltar's Escape” and “Greetings from Earth”; Simon Oakland, Kolchak: The Night Stalker; Donnelly Rhodes, Dr. Cottle, Battlestar Galactica (2004); and Walter Koenig, Ensign Chekov, Star Trek: The Original Series, and Alfred Bester in Babylon 5. Indeed, the actors often, with some exceptions, generally rise above the material they’re given to work with, but it is seldom enough to move an episode into the “must-see” category.

Conclusions

In the end, The Starlost frequently leaves the viewer unsatisfied. Despite an intriguing premise, too often the phrase “If only they had done things differently,” comes to mind. That happens in even the best of series at times, but with The Starlost it is more the rule than the exception. That's not to say there aren't a few good episodes, but there are distracting inconsistencies. Devon, Rachel, and Garth, despite being from a primitive agricultural community become pretty adept at using highly advanced technology. Despite meeting an array of people on the Ark, including medical staff, security officers, scientists, artificially intelligent computers, and the various biosphere residents, few seem particularly concerned that the ship is headed straight into a star. A scout ship travels 10 years at near light-speed, but the crew seems ignorant of the time dilation effect which results in them being over 400 years out of time. Although the Ark is highly technically advanced and automated, the one robot seen (in the episode "The Return of Oro") looks like an antiquated relic from a 1930s Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers film serial.

The anti-war and environmental themes, questioning authority, and the concept of three young people who come from an agricultural, communal society to try and save the Earth are very 1970s sorts of ideas, so the series in some ways typifies the era in which it was produced. The use of video tape, video board effects generators, and early computers provides a point of research for TV and film production historians, but more as oddities and as examples of what not to do.

If you enjoy 1970s sci-fi, or just want to see what all the controversy is about, at least some episodes of The Starlost are worth checking out, such as "Voyage of Discovery," "The Alien Oro," and "Circuit of Death." Indeed, these episodes are the only ones I can recall after first watching the series back in 1973. If I can remember even those few episodes from a long-forgotten series I haven’t seen in 45 years, there must be something pretty good about it after all . . . or something awfully, if not gloriously, bad.


The Starlost: The Complete Series
Descriptions by G. Jack Urso. Click on the links below to view the episodes
on the Aeolus 13 Umbra Starlost TV YouTube channel!
Cast  (left to right): Keir Dullea (Devon), Gay Rowen (Rachel),  Robin Ward (Garth).
Opening Credits and Closing Credits Themes.
Episode 1: "Voyage of Discovery" | Original Airdate: September 22, 1973 | Writer: Harlan Ellison (as Cordwainer Bird) (story), Norman Klenman (teleplay)
Devon, a young man from a small agricultural community, accidently finds out his world is actually part of an immense spacecraft, the Earthship Ark, comprised of dozens of huge biodomes, and on a collision course with a star! Condemned by his people when he shares this knowledge, Devon escapes with his friends Rachel and Garth to try and save the ship and the last remnants of the dead planet Earth. Guest Star: Sterling Hayden (The Godfather).

Episode 2: "Lazarus from the Mist" | Original Airdate: September 29, 1973 | Writers: Doug Hall, Don Wallace
Devolved descendants of the Ark’s security forces capture Garth. Meanwhile Devon and Rachel discover some of the ship's engineers in suspended animation and revive one of them to help them repair the Ark. Note: The entire action takes place mainly on two sets which creates a claustrophobic feeling, a periodic issue with the cash-strapped series.

Episode 3: "The Goddess Calabra" | Original Airdate: October 6, 1973 | Writers: Ursula K. Le Guin (story), Martin Lager (teleplay)
Devon, Rachel, and Garth discover the Omicron biosphere where only men live. The governor decides to marry Rachel who resembles a goddess the men worship. Guest Star: John Colicos (Commander Kor, Star Trek: The Original Series and Deep Space Nine; Baltor, Battlestar Galactica (1978); and Barry Morse Prof. Victor Bergman, Space: 1999). Note: The costuming is cartoonish and anachronistic for a future society. The final fight between Colicos’ and Dullea’s characters is poorly choreographed and shot.

Episode 4: "The Pisces" | Original Airdate: October 13, 1973 | Writer: Norman Klenman
A scout ship from the Ark returns after a ten-year voyage travelling near the speed of light, but while only ten-years have passed for the crew, over four hundred years have passed on the Ark due to the time dilation effect. Guest star: Lloyd Bochner (Commandant Leiter, Battlestar Galactica (1978) episodes “Baltar's Escape” and “Greetings from Earth”). Note: This episode is largely a talkfest and it seems incongruous for scientists in the year 2790 to be ignorant of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as it applies to the time dilation effect.

Episode 5: "Children of Methuselah" | Original Airdate: October 20, 1973 | Writers: Jonah Royston, George Ghent 
Devon, Rachel, and Garth find what may be the backup bridge, but it’s manned by a group of immortal children with psychic powers who believe they have been navigating the Ark for hundreds of years — or have they? Note: It is not convincingly explained why the adults abandoned the children and it seems to be more of a last-minute afterthought to resolve a plot hole. Additionally, the child actors performances wildly vary and are less convincing than the children’s performances in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “And the Children Shall Lead,” for example.

Episode 6: "And Only Man Is Vile" | Original Airdate: October 27, 1973 | Writer: Shimon Wincelberg
Leisure Village, a biosphere with deceptively peaceful scenery, turns out to be an experiment in creating a superior breed of savage humans through survival of the fittest. Guest Star: Simon Oakland (Kolchak: The Night Stalker).

Episode 7: "The Alien Oro" | Original Airdate: November 3, 1973 | Writers: Mort Forer, Marian Waldman 
An alien, Oro, who crashed into the Earthship Ark, has been gathering parts from the giant spacecraft to repair his ship and return home. Garth, however, falls for a woman with Oro who must leave the Ark with the alien if she is to live. Guest Star: Walter Koenig (Ensign Chekov, Star Trek: The Original Series; Alfred Bester, Babylon 5).

Episode 8: "Circuit of Death" | Original Airdate: November 10, 1973 | Writer: Norman Klenman
An angry, bitter man, Dr. Richards, sets the Ark to self-destruct and tries to escape with his daughter; however, when his escape ship is unable to leave, he and Devon must undergo a dangerous process to shrink themselves to microscopic size in order to deactivate the self-destruct and save the Ark and his daughter. Guest Star: Percy Rodrigues (Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Court Martial”). Note: Despite being heavy in expository elements, and dubious scientific technobabble, this episode is regarded as one of the most watchable efforts.

Episode 9: "Gallery of Fear" | Original Airdate: November 17, 1973 | Writers: Alf Harris (as Alfred Harris), and George Ghent 
Magnus, an artificially intelligent sociopathic computer, tries to trick Devon, Rachel, and Garth into helping complete his programming so he has complete autonomy and control. Keir Dullea (2001, A Space Odyssey), however, has some prior experience with psycho A.I. computers that he puts to use in this episode. Note: Magnus’ sexy, but illusionary, servant woman has abilities that seem to have not been well-thought out (she can hand out drinks, but can’t press buttons), and Devon, Rachel, and Garth, seem to keep falling for Magnus’ tricks even though they know he is trying to deceive them.

Episode 10: "Mr. Smith of Manchester" | Original Airdate:  November 24, 1973 | Writers: Arthur Heinemann, Norman Klenman 
The tyrannical ruler of a highly-industrialized polluted biosphere dedicated to making weapons tries to convince Devon, Rachel, and Garth to show him, and his army, the way out. Guest Star: Ed Ames (Mingo, Daniel Boone). Note: The biosphere’s buildings look little more than a children’s playset filmed by high school students.

Episode 11: "Astro-Medics" | Original Airdate: December 1, 1973 | Writers: Paul Schneider, Martin Lager 
Devon is injured and Rachel calls for help, which arrives in the form of a medical ship orbiting the Ark; however, an alien ship requesting assistance forces the medical staff to decide whether to continuing helping Devon or leave him and assist the aliens. Note: Despite knowing of the Ark’s trajectory into a star, the medical staff seems little concerned about it.

Episode 12: "The Implant People" | Original Airdate: December 8, 1973 | Writers: Helen French, Martin Lager, John Meredyth Lucas (uncredited), Allen Spraggett (uncredited)
Devon, Rachel, and Garth are taken captive in a biosphere where the workers are controlled by implants and the lower classes starved. With the leader unaware of what is happening, her assistant plots to take over. Guest Star: Donnelly Rhodes (Dr. Cottle, Battlestar Galactica (2004)). Note: Shot in about five indoor sets, the episode as a claustrophobic feeling and the brief shot of the biosphere’s buildings look like various parts of a children’s playset cobbled together.

Episode 13: "The Return of Oro" | Original Airdate: December 15, 1973 | Writer: Alex C. James
Oro the alien revisits Earthship Ark with promises to repair the ship and bring them to his home world of Exar, but is he telling the truth? Of course not, and the episode ends with Oro being abandoned by his people, stranded on Earthship Ark, and on the run from the Ark’s security forces. Guest Star: Walter Koenig (Ensign Chekov, Star Trek: The Original Series; Alfred Bester, Babylon 5). Note: The robot, Tau Zeta, has completely useless arms and looks like a refugee from a 1930’s Buck Rogers serial.

Episode 14: "Farthing's Comet" | Original Airdate: December 22, 1973 | Writer: Douglas Hall
A scientist alters the Ark's course to pass through a comet's tail so he can study it; Devon must make an EVA to rewire a panel so the service reactors can be fired again; cometary debris damages the biospheres. Guest Star: Edward Andrews (The Twilight Zone episodes “Third from the Sun” and “You Drive”). Note: Why in the year 2790 do people need to wear 1950’s style black horn-rimmed glasses? Additionally, Devon, for a farmer, seems to be particularly well-adept at Extravehicular Activity (EVA) and piloting a small craft despite never having piloted a vessel before.

Episode 15:  "The Beehive" | Original Airdate: December 29, 1973 | Writer: Norman Klenman
GIANT MUTANT MIND-CONTROLLING BEES! ‘Nuff said.

Episode 16: "Space Precinct" | Original Airdate: January 5, 1974 | Writer: Martin Lager
Garth is recruited by the Inter-Ark police to help put an end to an interplanetary war, but gets framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Note: Despite being the Inter-Ark police, they show no concern over Oro the alien running around on the Ark or the fact the ship is headed straight for a star.

Episode 17: "God That Died” | Original Airdate: Unproduced | Writer: Unknown

Episode 18: “People in the Dark” | Original Airdate: Unproduced | Writer: Unknown

Note: The Starlog Photo Guidebook TV Episode Guides Volume 1 (1981) and the Internet Movie Database list "God That Died” and “People in the Dark” as the unproduced episodes 17 and 18, respectively. Additionally, in the late 1980s, five “movies” comprised of editing together two episodes each were released for broadcast on cable television. These include:

The Starlost: The Beginning ("Voyage of Discovery" and "The Goddess Calabra"
The Starlost: The Return ("The Pisces" and "Farthing's Comet")
The Starlost: Deception  ("Mr. Smith of Manchester" and "Gallery of Fear"
The Starlost: The Alien Oro ("The Alien Oro" and "The Return of Oro"
The Starlost: The Invasion ("Astro-Medics" and "The Implant People")