The received wisdom on The Starlost, a Canadian sci-fi series produced in 1973, is that it is not merely bad, but likely the WORST genre TV series ever broadcast (or in this case, ever forgotten...).
At first glance, it is easy to understand why this effort has acquired such a terrible reputation. It is undeniably a low-budget show. Each hour-long episode cost approximately $100,000 to make...meaning that it cost in 1973 considerably less than what the average episode of Star Trek had cost in 1966.
Furthermore, writer Harlan Ellison, creator of The Starlost, disowned his own genre series and is credited on the program under the alternate name "Cordwainer Bird." Although Ellison won a Writer's Guild of America award for his original pilot script (before it was altered by producers), the experience of toiling on The Starlost left a bad taste in his mouth, and the acclaimed author wrote about the (bad) experience in detail in an afterword to Phoenix Without Ashes. Science advisor Ben Bova (another big name name in the genre...), has similarly disowned the Toronto-lensed series, and even satirized his experience working on it (in a novel called The Starcrossed).
The behind-the-scenes problems on The Starlost are also the stuff of legend for the knowledgeable sci-fi TV fan. Special effects genius and talented director Douglas Trumball (of Silent Running, Brainstorm, etc.) served as an executive producer and contracted to create the special effects for the space series in the early - and experimental - age of the medium of videotape. The original intention had been to shoot The Starlost entirely on videotape utilizing a revolutionary effects integration process known as "Magicam." This untested technology would have allowed actors to interact with miniature sets and locations in a fashion that was neither limited nor static; not entirely unlike the Introvision projection process spearheaded in the early 1980s and deployed in films such as Outland (1981) and Darkman (1990).
However, in 1973, Magicam was still undependable, it rarely worked, and the harried, under-the-gun team crafting The Starlost was forced to abandon it all together. Instead, the team - lacking adequate studio space in which to shoot their outer space epic - resorted to old-fashioned chroma key or "blue screens" (in this case, utilizing sets that consisted entirely of blue curtains). Unfortunately, chroma key required a static background, which meant that the would-be grand shots featuring the futuristic panoramas and vistas were boring, rather than illuminating or fantastic. The dependence on such shots for even basic settings (like the oft-seen "bounce" corridor) resulted in a dramatic program that sometimes seemed quite slow and even boring from a visual standpoint.
And then - the sure-fire kiss of death - a rumor was spread in the burgeoning American genre press (and repeated in the Pioneer book The Best of Science Fiction Television ) that a writer's strike during production of The Starlost had resulted in high school students - high school students for god's sake! - writing the last few episodes of the series. (One of which included the popular 1970s tropes - killer bees.)
I noted at the beginning of this retrospective that it is "received" wisdom that The Starlost is the worst science fiction series ever made. But if you've read a few of my books or visit this blog regularly, you'll know I'm no admirer of received wisdom. Why? Because you must wonder: where - precisely - are you "receiving" it from? And more trenchantly - does that person (or organization) have an agenda in transmitting that wisdom?
Considering that question, there is another side to the story of The Starlost. For instance, in Canada (where The Starlost played on the CTV network), the series drew exceptionally strong reviews. The Toronto Star's Jack Miller, writing on September 15 of 1973 said the following (concerning the pilot "Voyage of Discovery"): "From a deceptively slow and somber opening scene, it inched quietly into a spectacle that, in depth of plot and sincerity of acting and staging, was a world ahead of Star Trek, television's last big effort at the one literary form which has always (until now) defied the small screen's efforts to transfer its sense of wonder from the printed page to a visual image. To phrase it more simply - this is the best science-fiction series ever to come to television by a country mile (or should we say a light year?)"
Two days later, critic Joan Irwin of The Montreal Star echoed similar sentiments: "The Starlost shows every sign of inheriting the mantle of the phenomenally successful Star Trek which is now in its umpteenth rerun and has just become an animated Saturday morning series as well."
Is this merely Canadian pride speaking, or did The Starlost boast some merit as a dramatic program? Let's dig deeper...
As established in Mark Phillips and Frank Garcia's authoritative and (addictive...) reference book from McFarland, Science Fiction Television Series (page 386), The Starlost quickly proved the second highest-rated series in Canada (right behind the American program, Ironside) Another interesting fact the authors point out: The Starlost (which lasted just 16 episodes) was on the bubble for renewal with NBC in America, which aired the show on 40 of its affiliate stations. The series producer, William Davidson, reported (in the Phillips/Garcia text, page 387) that the "initial reaction in Los Angeles, New York and other U.S. cities was excellent." Ultimately NBC canceled the series -- but not because of low ratings (which is what is indicated in the series' Wikipedia entry...) -- but because 20th Century Fox could not continue the show without the financing of NBC. So although The Starlost is virtually forgotten today...it did have a sizable and devoted audience in both the States and Canada during its broadcast. Hmmm.
So...where is the truth of The Starlost? Let's go back to the pilot -- the text itself -- "Voyage of Discovery" and take a a closer look. The series commences in a "biosphere" numbered AG-3 on a vast generational ship called Earthship Ark (which is described as "an organic cluster of domes linked to each other.") This "biosphere" is known as Cypress Corners by its inhabitants, human beings who eschew technology and live in an "ethnic agrarian community." Essentially, the people of Cypress Corners are Mennonites or Amish. Although there are signs of advanced technology all about, including a computer interface which their leader, Jeremiah (Sterling Hayden) calls "The Creator", the people mostly ignore these oddities and live a life of religious asceticism. Also - and critically - none of the denizens of Cypress Corners are aware that they live aboard a spaceship. The doorway to another ship compartment (a long connecting corridor to another dome and another society...) is sealed off and decorated with graffiti which reads: "Beyond is Death." Jeremiah, leader of the sect, has also said that he who goes beyond the door "abandons all hope...never to return," equating the "outside" of Cypress Corners with a Biblical Hell.
Our hero is a young and inquisitive man of Cypress Corners named Devon (Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey). He is a parent-less "Ward of the Elders." He has no station, no craft, no inheritance and no land, and thus has not been permitted to marry the love of his life, beautiful Rachel (Gay Rowan). Instead, she has been betrothed (r "pledged") - against her will - to the local blacksmith, Garth (Robin Ward). But Devon doesn't understand why this is so, and he begins to ask forbidden questions. "Where does the water come from?" He asks Jeremiah. "Why does the sun move through the sky the way it does?" "Why must we not ask questions?"
"Questioning is blasphemy," answers old Jeremiah, hoping to stamp down an insurrection. When Devon learns that Jeremiah himself programs the voice of the computer, the "creator" to do his oppressive bidding, he attempts to warn the people of Cypress Corners about the fraud being perpetrated against them in the name of God. For his troubles, Devon is sentenced to death by Jeremiah...a death by crushing stones (and Rachel is ordered to cast the first stone...). However, Devon escapes captivity with Garth's help, and flees to the edge of the territory, where an old, banished "fool" named Abraham holds the key to his escape.
At the doorway to Hell, Devon must make a choice: future or past; truth of ignorance. He escapes Cypress Corners and abruptly finds himself in a technologically-advanced corridor leading to other domes (and other cultures). He soon finds a library computer ("programmed for general information") that informs him of the truth.
And here is the truth that Jeremiah willfully denies: In 2285 AD, the Earth was threatened by a global catastrophe that would destroy all human life. Panic and riots ensued, but the "preservable" elements of the culture (and roughly three million people) were placed aboard Earthship Ark to seed another world. These travelers were locked in "separate ecologies" (like Cypress Corners) so they could not interfere with another and lose their special or unique cultural nature (presumably to the dangers of assimilation). The Ark's destination was a distant planet orbiting a Class G star...one which could support human life. The problem, as Devon learns - was that an accident occurred 100 years into the flight from Earth, and the Ark is now on a collision course with that Class G. Star. It is 2790, and all that remains of humanity (Earthship Ark) hurtles towards blindly towards total destruction.
Aware of the truth, Devon returns to Cypress Corners to liberate Rachel. The lovers escape, but are pursued by Garth, who also loves Rachel and refuses to give her up. The three refugees then discover the ruined bridge of the ark...and see the massive, dangerous star looming in the black void of space. Now it is up to these three "young people" to find the controls that can avoid the deadly collision. This is the journey that makes up the remainder of the series, as the three naive, inexperienced refugees from religious oppression encounter strange futuristic cultures in the various domes or "biospheres" of Earthship Ark.
Screening "Voyage of Discovery" today, one can sense both the promises and the pitfalls of this unique and oft-maligned genre series from the disco decade. On the negative side, several sequences are indeed terribly static (and inexplicably claustrophobic...) which makes for some dull moments. Additionally, the lighting tends to the garish and the overdone in a few scenes (especially the ones featuring Abraham and a bright red hue, which may be meant to indicate "the hell" beyond the Cypress Corners hatch, but which is too much).
Also, the three leads - Dullea, Rowan and Ward - are likable but not particularly memorable or distinctive. I very much like the idea of three protagonists who know nothing about their situation setting out on a "voyage of discovery," because it is so different from Star Trek (where the Starfleet officers know so much...), but this very premise also runs the risk of making the characters appear dull-witted, rather than merely inexperienced or naive.
Speaking bluntly, the production values here are at the level of a Blake's 7 or Dr. Who from the early 1970s. So you have to watch The Starlost in the frame of mind that thirty-five years have passed since it was produced. Thus it isn't going to wow you in terms of visuals, even if you are open to admiring the pre-CGI ingenuity (as I am). The series is plainly far below the visual bar established by Space:1999 (which was shot concurrently in Great Britain). In particular, the scenes involving a "bounce corridor" - an anti-gravity device that hurtles wayward travelers from one dome to another - are unintentionally comic as the actors flip through the air (obviously strung up on wires), growing or diminishing in size not by moving, but via the camera's movement, zooming in or zooming out. However - and this is important - I've never, ever in all my years, seen this concept (the bounce corridor) used in any other sci-fi show. So it is an original and fun idea, but like so much of The Starlost, poorly executed (and a result of limited budget and limited time.)
However, fair is fair -- there is one scene in which the visuals of "Voyage of Discovery" absolutely excel. Near the climax of this pilot, Devon and his mates find the destroyed bridge of Earthship Ark, and walk amongst the ruins and detritus (where they find a skeleton of a crew member). There is a beautifully constructed shot of the characters looking out through the gigantic bridge windows...gazing upon the impressive miles-long length of Earthship Ark. This is the kind of shot Star Trek could not have pulled off circa 1966-1969 and is quite beautifully vetted here. It is done with chroma key/blue screen in the manner of Land of the Lost (1975), yet still epic in presentation. By 1970s standards, of course.
Thematically, "Voyage of Discovery" has something vital to say about life here on Earth, and I enjoyed how the metaphor (or subtext) was created and carried out. On Earthship Ark, all the various cultures exist in self-contained, isolated "bubbles," consumed with their own internal lives and rules, while the world (in this case, the generational ark...) heads towards total annihilation. The Elders of Cypress Corners are so consumed with maintaining their rigid control (which they maintain with a fraudulent God Vision) that they are blind to their "real" situation, to the disaster that awaits beyond. That's a powerful comment on life on Earth. We wage wars, we fight over ideology and religion...but meanwhile, what becomes of the Earth itself? There's an environmental and human message in The Starlost that - in the Age of Global Climate Change - feels even more relevant today.
The Starlost is undeniably a mixed bag. Some of it is absolutely fascinating (and worth a visit), and some of it is plainly...an egregious failure. The writing vacillates from good to awful (though "Voyage of Discovery" is pretty strong on the writing front...). Another plus: there are good guest performances from the likes of John Colicos, Walter Koenig and Barry Morse. I also think it is hard to deny that there is a good, strong human story in the pilot, namely the "heroic journey" of Devon as he grows up and fights all of society for the love of his life. In toto, The Starlost is never less than interesting, even if it ultimately fails to live up to the potential of its premise and pilot.
But the worst show ever made? I'm sensitive to these claims, because two years later, the very same media critics and science fiction writers in the protean press made the same claim of Space:1999. It wasn't true there either. What was true - and what remains true - is that neither The Starlost nor Space:1999 share much in common with the yardstick by which they were measured: namely (the wonderful) and highly popular Star Trek. They are valuable, unique and interesting visions in their own right, but many of the people who complained about both programs had a vested interest in their failure; in the return of Star Trek. That's clearly the agenda I see in the received wisdom: destroy the reputation of the competition so the King of sci-fi TV can come back. I'll never forget reading Starlog in the mid-1970s and reading Star Trek cast members and Star Trek writers ruthlessly criticizing Space:1999 and thinking - that's a conflict of interest, isn't it? I mean, why was Starlog even asking Nichelle Nichols or William Shatner their criticisms of Space:1999?
So yeah, The Starlost isn't great by any means...but it is - at times - thoughtful speculative drama. I can certainly understand why Ellison and Bova dislike it so vehemently: they saw what it might have been, and had to navigate the behind-the-scenes troubles. I'm sure it was a...difficult (and unpleasant) experience. But seriously, if you were watching science fiction television in the 1970s and enjoyed Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run and The Fantastic Journey...this series is just about in the same class. You can confirm that judgment (don't blindly accept my conclusion either...) by ordering the DVD of the five Starlost movies (episodes strung together for American syndication in the 1980s). You'll see loads of potential..and lots of unfortunate moments...but overall, you might actually enjoy this "voyage of discovery."
Again, it just seems to me that The Starlost's biggest sins are twofold: One it was cheaply-made on the fly, and two - it tended to be talky and slow rather than fast-paced and action-oriented. But I wonder if the latter wasn't merely the result of the former.