Sci-Fi Storm

Retro Review: The Starlost

by on Apr.10, 2011, under Television, Video/DVD

I just realized I never actually posted my retro review for The Starlost! This show had a very interesting history in its short life, ultimately becoming something of a parody of the genre and television production – or perhaps the epitome of a production that doesn’t “get it”.

Originally, only a handful of episodes were released on video tape, but a couple of years ago the entire series was released on DVD.

First, a basic synopsis:

Three characters, Devon (Keir Dullea), Garth (Robin Ward) and Rachel (Gay Rowan) live in an Amish-like agrarian society called Cypress Corners. There is one bit of technology, however – the voice of the Creator, which dictates who should marry. And although Devon and Rachel love each other, the Creator deems Devon’s genetics unsuitable and says Devon and Garth should marry.

Devon learns the truth about the creator, and escapes through a hatch – where he also discovers a bigger truth – that Cypress Corners is just one part of a giant spaceship, covered in giant biodomes, each of which contains another piece of Earth’s societies, all aboard a generation ship that escaped Earth’s unspecified fate. Everyone appears to have forgotten about the spaceship, and what’s worse – an accident has killed the crew and the ship is on a collision course with a star…Devon convinces Rachel and Garth to go with him to locate the backup bridge and save the ship…

Originally aired in 1973, the show was a CTV (Canada) production and shown in the U.S. in the syndication market. It started off with grand ideas – created by Harlan Ellison for 20th Century Fox with Ben Bova as science consultant and special effects from Douglas Trumbull’s new Magicam system, it was pitched to the BBC as a co-production but the BBC turned it down. It was instead pitched as a syndicated program (which necessitated a lower budget) and sold to stations in the U.S. and the CTV network in Canada. To take advantage of lower production costs, production was also moved to Canada.

Magicam proved to be a failure, however. Using two cameras, one on the cast against a blue screen and another on a model of a set, it was supposed to eliminate the need for full size sets. It wasn’t reliable, however, and they didn’t have the space or budget for full sized sets. They were forced to use partial sets and a lot of the older chromakey system – which was very noticeable.

Harlan Ellison grew disenchanted at the constant budget cuts and changes – he perceived they studio to be “dumbing down” the story, and eventually had his name removed from the production and his alternate name, “Cordwainer Bird”, used – a name he uses on things where he felt he didn’t want to be associated with the results. In the end, Harlan Ellison won a Writers Guild award for the pilot script (called “Phoenix Without Ashes”, not the one that was shot, which was novelized), and the whole production experience was novelized by Ben Bova in The Starcrossed. And now it is a comic series.

The episodes vary greatly in quality. Some were based on outlines from Ellison, others were original stories from writers. Here is a quick rundown:

“Voyage Of Discovery” – The pilot episode, renamed. It opens strangely, with the three main characters staring out of a window in awe, before cutting back to the beginning of how they got there. This “staring in awe” happens a lot…more on that later.

“Lazarus From The Mist” – Devon and Rachel revive an engineer from cryonic suspension while Garth is captured by savage tube dwellers.

“The Goddess Calabra” – The trio encounter a male-only society of Omicron who see Rachel as the embodiment of a goddess. Sci-Fi fans will recognize John Colicos (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek) and Barry Morse (Space: 1999). From a story by Ursula K. Le Guin.

“The Pisces” – the small vessel The Pisces returns to the Ark, having only left 10 years previously (by their time) but surprised to find the crew dead and the Ark off course.

“Children Of Methuselah” – The trio find a backup bridge, but everything is under control there – by children!

“And Only Man is Vile” – In New Eden Leisure Village, life seemed lavish…but is it nothing more than a human lab?

“Circuit Of Death” – Sakharov, in despair for the slow death that awaits the Ark, attempts to hasten it by setting the Ark’s self-destruct system and escape with his daughter about the rocket that contains the Ark’s records. This episode is the one I remember most. It involves characters being “projected” into a microcircuit, to make connections in a giant peg board with IC chips that look like it was a giant computer exhibit from a children’s museum.

“Gallery Of Fear” – Rachel and Garth are hypnotized and begin to see people – friends and relatives. Devon tries to find out why.

“Mr. Smith of Manchester” – An over-industrialized society threatens to pollute themselves to death. The model of the city really looks like a model.

“The Alien Oro” – A mysterious alien is found on the Ark, repairing his ship – but he may want more than that. Walter Koenig (Mr. Chekov, Star Trek) guest stars as Oro, in a gold suit.

“The Astro Medics” – Devon is stricken with radiation sickness, when a medic and his son show up to help.

“The Implant People” – Brain implants are used to control people.

“The Return Of Oro” – Oro is back, and he wants to help the Ark by bringing it to his home planet of Xar. But that might not be as good as it sounds.

“Farthing’s Comet” – A comet is threatening the Ark, but the scientist studying it doesn’t seem to care. This episode could qualify for worst effects ever – the telescope image of the comet looks like someone threw up some chocolate cake.

“Beehive” – Inside a food production center, the giant bees are becoming restless. Perhaps the silliest overall episode.

“Space Precinct” – Garth decides to leave Rachel and Devon and instead join the Ark’s “space cops”.

The Ark itself looks like it was a model built from a kit, and shot close up. At no point do I get the sense that I’m looking at a vast spaceship. And for great big biospheres, it sure feels like it was filmed in small soundstages.

Quaility of the transfer to DVD is great, considering the age of the source material and that it probably wasn’t well kept, although in darker images there is some noticble “screen door” artifacting (at least on my large screen).

However, it also shows the poor production quality (although pretty standard for the time when on a low budget). The chromakey effects were comparable to what was done for Land Of The Lost – you can see very visibly that the characters are composited in. Sometimes the incidental music also sound like it came from LOTL. Other parts of the production also stand out as poor – some commercial breaks were in awkward locations. As I mentioned, there are long periods where the characters just stand around and look, as if they needed to fill time. In some cases they stand there with looks of awe on their faces – as if to convey the wonder of what they are seeing, but it doesn’t look quite so good to us.

Overall, this series ended up just being silly. Although a lot of the plots could have been done well if thought out and kept in line with the whole, individually they actually introduce all sorts of continuity problems, logic errors, and just plain silliness, which gets more prominent towards the later stories. For instance, if there are space cops on the Ark, what have they done for the 400 years since the accident, and why doesn’t anyone ask THEM for help in correcting the Ark’s course?

Frankly, I’d like to see the main concept of this show revisited. At one point Sony had the rights to a feature film based on the original pilot script, but that fell into the development hole and I haven’t heard anything about it since.

Even for all its faults, The Starlost holds a special spot for me in my memories, as my father and I used to watch it together on TV. It was fun to see the program again. Of course, my memories of it were generally better than the reality. 🙂


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