This series compels Judge Jim Thomas to throw things at his TV, thus making it a WMD—Weapon of Media Destruction.
It's been called the worst science fiction series ever made…
Harlan Ellison pitched The Starlost to Robert Kline, an NBC producer, who shopped the project around, finally selling it to Canada's CTV. Problems surfaced immediately, one of which was a Writer's Guild strike that prevented Ellison from overseeing the pre-production. When he finally made it to Toronto, he was aghast at the changes made in the show. After several months attempting to salvage at least some of his initial dream, he quit his story editor position and even had his name removed from the show, replacing it with his pseudonym, "Cordwainer Bird." Executive producer Douglas Trumbull and scientific advisor Ben Bova quit shortly thereafter. The show met with poor ratings and was cancelled after only a few episodes were aired; in total, 16 episodes were produced.
A show that bombs so spectacularly in the ratings usually fades into oblivion, but some funny things happened:
• Ellison's original pilot script, "Phoenix Without Ashes," won the 1974 Writers Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay—Episodic Television.
• Edward Bryant's adaptation (authorized by Ellison) of the original script featured an Ellison introduction that recounted his experiences with the show. (A slightly expanded version of that intro is included in Ellison's 1982 collection, Stalking the Nightmare.)
• In 1975, Ben Bova wrote The Starcrossed, a satirical novel loosely based on his experiences on the show.
• In the early 80s, CTV packaged a set of The Starlost "movies" that combined two different episodes and sold them to U.S. markets for late-night broadcast.
As a result, like a particularly fetid carcass finally risen from the depths, The Starlost: Complete Series arrives courtesy (?) of VCI Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Faced with a planet-threatening catastrophe, Earth launched the Ark—a spacecraft carrying hundreds thousands of people in hundreds of giant biospheres—in search of a new world. To protect the diversity of the planet, each dome houses a different culture. The ship set out in 2285, but a hundred years later, a war broke out between several biodomes; in the aftermath, the domes are sealed off. Generations come and go. With no communications with the other biodomes, the descendants of the original passengers forget that they are on a spaceship, thinking their (admittedly large) section of the ship is the extent of the world.
In 2790, Devon (Keir Dullea, 2001: A Space Odyssey), an outcast member of an agrarian society (think Amish), flees through a forbidden door and stumbles into the ship's service tunnels. Making his way to a computer room, he learns not only the truth about the ship, but also that the crew has vanished. That last is particularly troubling—the ship's course will take it directly into a star in five or six years, and Garth has no idea how to steer the ship. He and his beloved Rachel (Gay Rowan, S.O.B.) and his friend Garth (Robin Ward, The Hurricane) must travel throughout the other biospheres, trying to convince the inhabitants of the danger and searching for knowledge that will let them save the Starlost.
The set has all 16 episodes on four discs:
• "Voyage of Discovery" (described above)
• "Lazarus From the Mist": The trio investigate an emergency signal that leads them to the forbidden Dome of the Dead.
• "The Goddess Calabra": The trio investigate a dome populated entirely by men. Rachel is mistaken for their goddess, Calabra. Guest stars: John Colicos (Star Trek) and Barry Morse (Space: 1999).
• "The Pisces": The gang is awakened by the arrival of the Pisces, a ship launched from the Ark ten years ago to search for settling places for the Ark's population. Guest star: Lloyd Bochner (The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear).
• "Children of Methuselah": Devon finds the backup bridge. The gang is shocked to find a group of children operating the complex navigational consoles.
• "And Only Man is Vile": The trio are used as guinea pigs to test a scientist's theories about human nature. Guest star: Simon Oakland (The Sand Pebbles)
• "Circuit of Death": An electronics engineer, despairing of the slow death which he believes in store for all inhabitants of the Ark, activates the self-destruct system. When his planned escape route fails, Sakharov, with Devon and Garth's help, attempts to stop the self-destruct. Since all the mechanisms are in micro circuits, they must be projected—via electronic astral projection or something—into the circuits.
• "Gallery of Fear": The gang discovers the realm of Magnus, the most sophisticated computer ever made.
• "Mr. Smith of Manchester": The gang is lured into a dome where the inhabitants are trapped in a highly industrialized society which is choking itself to death on its own pollution.
• "The Alien Oro": The trio meet Oro (Walter Koenig, Star Trek), an alien from the planet Xar who has been living on the Ark for several years.
• "The Astro Medics": Devon ventures into a quarantine area and is stricken by radiation sickness. A nearby shuttle clinic rescues him, but must decide whether to perform a risky operation to save Devon or respond to an urgent distress call from an alien vessel.
• "The Implant People": Our gang trio happen on a dome inhabited by people ruled via electronic brain implants.
• "The Return of Oro": Oro (Koenig) returns to pilot the Ark to his home planet, where it will be stripped for resources.
• "Farthing's Comet": A spacewalk is undertaken when a comet threatens the Ark.
• "Beehive": Rachel, Garth, and Devon are trapped inside a giant food production center.
• "Space Precinct": Garth plays detective when some visiting space cops stop by.
If you see this title on a store shelf, not only should you not buy it, you should not buy any adjacent title on the off chance that osmosis allowed this set to contaminate others with its utter suckage. The writers didn't have any experience in television writing or science fiction; furthermore, the story editor hired after Ellison ran screaming into the night didn't know anything about science fiction. The results are predictably painful. Even though the entire series is predicated on the fact that the inhabitants do not know they're on a ship, damn near everyone they run into knows all about it. The ship is heading towards a "solar star." As opposed to what, a lunar star? A habitable planet is located in a nebula. The main characters—who come from a primitive agrarian society—immediately become masters of advanced technology. "The Alien Oro" has Garth—a blacksmith—using welding gear. OK, I'll give you that one; his blacksmith background might give him an affinity for slightly more advanced metalworking technology. Maybe. But in "Farthing's Comet" Garth pilots a spacepod so that Devon—a farmer, mind you—can go on a spacewalk to—wait for it—fix a nuclear reactor. The sad thing is, some of the episodes, such as "The Pisces," had some good ideas—in this case, a ship returns after a ten-year mission to discover that because of relativistic time dilation, over four hundred years has passed, and everyone they knew is long dead. Good idea! But the execution falls flat on its face: The Pisces crew all suffer from "space senility" as a result of time dilation, and must return to relativistic speeds in order to survive. Actually, that one worked out well, as I started riffing on Ren & Stimpy's "Space Madness," and spent the rest of the episode imagining Lloyd Bochner raving, "Oh my lovely ice cream bar…How I love to lick your creamy center…No you don't! You can't take it from me now! I've had this ice cream bar since I was a child. People…always trying to take it from me…why…won't they leave me…ALONE!!!" In this job, sometimes you have to make your own fun.
The cumulative effect of such sloppy writing effectively undermines the entire series. Our Gang regularly encounters such incredible technology—human miniaturization, artificial intelligence, etc.—that it is inconceivable that no one can get the ship back on course. Hell, after they destroy Magnus, the greatest computer ever, they are confronted by another sentient computer who tells them that not only that there are other sentient computers on the Ark, but that they have a support group, and that the gang is now on their shit list for offing Magnus.
Then there's the acting. The principals do OK, but given the characters' background, they tend to be more reactive than proactive, making all three rather bland. The guest stars are another matter. For the show to qualify for government subsidies, almost all of the cast and crew had to be Canadian. But at that time, the better actors in Canada went to Hollywood; the rest mainly did theater work in Canada, and it was from this group that most of the supporting players were chosen. These theater-trained actors are clearly out of their element in the fast-paced realm of a series, turning in stilted, tepid performances. The Canadians who did return from Hollywood for a guest turn, such as Lloyd Bochner or John Colicos, do good work, but that becomes a double-edged sword, as it highlights the deficiencies of the other supporting players (see the other Pisces crew members. Better yet, don't). The acting improves in the later episodes, but by then the damage to your cerebral cortex has already been done.
Special effects were done with MagiCam, an early form of video blue screen technology. It's used fairly extensively, and is pretty cheesy by our standards. It would not have been particularly groundbreaking in the '70s, either, but it would have been passable back then—if the writing and acting had been better. Video is marginal. Let's face it—there's only so much you can do with thirty-five-year old videotape. In well-lit scenes, the images are clear enough, but shadows turn into visual black holes from which no detail can escape. Keir Dullea has prominent cheekbones and brow; when he's lit from the side, the side of his face that's in shadow resembles a death's head. There's some flaring with lights, but again, that's the video. Sound is OK, though a touch on the tinny side.
There are two extras—one is a 7 minute sales pitch made for network affiliates, notable because most of the footage is from Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running and because it touts Ellison's participation as a major selling point. The other extra is, inexplicably, a trailer for the science fiction classic Dark Star.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Counsel for the defense was last seen whimpering and sucking his thumb in a corner.
Note to self: When Harlan Ellison calls something an abomination, take him at his word.
Guilty. So very, very guilty.
The court's initial inclination is sentence the defendant to eternity on the Ark, with nothing to watch but this wretched series; however, that might be considered cruel and unusual punishment.
So on weekends, the defendant can watch Galactica 1980.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• 7-minute "Pitch Reel"
Review content copyright © 2008 Jim Thomas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.