Sunday, January 06, 2013

Cult-TV Blogging: The Starlost: "Mr. Smith of Manchester" (November 24, 1973)

This week’s episode of The Starlost (1973 – 1974) is called “Mr. Smith of Manchester,” and it’s the first biosphere “civilization of the week” that we’ve encountered in a while, probably since the same-sex civilization of “The Goddess Calabra” fairly early in the catalog. 

Other recent Starlost episodes have instead focused on the (bizarre…) infrastructure of the Earth Ship Ark and a few individuals manipulating it.  These stories have been set at a school (“Children of Methuselah”), a dome dedicated to psychological research (“And Only Man is Vile,”) at the ship’s self-destruct circuitry (“Circuit of Death”) and even a weird Avant-garde art gallery (“Gallery of Fear.”)

The civilization this week is a dictatorship run by the tyrannical Mr. Smith (Ed Ames).  His biosphere is a toxic, polluted, industrial disaster, and of course, pollution was one of the driving social issues of 1970s science fiction television and film, featured in productions as diverse as  Z.P.G. (1972) and Empire of the Ants (1977)   

Here, factories (rendered in none-too-convincing miniature…) constantly spew smoke into the atmosphere.  The air is so toxic that exposure for even a limited time can cause pulmonary arrest, and wandering sentries collect the bodies of the dead.

Devon (Keir Dullea), Rachel (Gay Rowan) and Garth (Robin Ward) find a secret entrance and exit to Manchester, a gateway that Mr. Smith covets because he has been building a vast army to conquer the other biospheres.  Devon and the others dare not share the information, lest the other domes suffer, and they align themselves with a personality named Trent (Pat Galloway), who warns them of Smith’s totalitarian excesses.  

This aspect of the episode doesn’t quite work, and it’s tough to see how Devon, Garth and Rachel befriend Trent so quickly.  They suddenly devote themselves to saving her life and ensuring her safety when, frankly, they hardly know her. 

Still, it’s nice to see that these main characters have the capacity to care for another person and another person’s plight, given that many episodes merely concern survival or escaping from an enemy.

Additionally, one must wonder at some of elements of this story-line. Late in the tale, Garth, Devon and Rachel pick up automatic weapons and engage in a gunfight with Mr. Smith and his troops.  How do these Amish-like gentle-folk from Cypress Corners know how to fight with advanced weaponry?  And even if they could operate such machinery, would they be any good?  Could they really battle trained soldiers to a stand-still?

Garth, I might believe as a capable marksman given that he always carries about his crossbow.  But until a few months ago, story-time, I would assume that Devon and Rachel have no training with weapons of any kind, and certainly not advanced weaponry.  Perhaps more importantly, how do peaceful, gentle individuals like Devon and Rachel feel about taking up arms?  The episode never tells us.

Another issue worthy of discussion is the episode’s resolution.  Devon, Garth and Rachel manage, by luck, to locate the secret door iris that allows them to escape from Mr. Smith’s industrial nightmare.  But since they found it so easily, it follows that Smith could do the same, and thus imperil the entire ark.

I don’t want to be too negative however, about “Mr. Smith of Manchester” because as far as The Starlost episodes are concerned, this one moves at a quicker clip, features more action, and allows its characters to fight for a cause other than their own.  While the episode is not great -- or really, frankly that good -- all these touches suggest a step in the right direction.

Next week, Walter Koenig guests on The Starlost as “The Alien Oro.”


  1. Anonymous2:01 PM

    John thia episode reveals that had the series had the right writer-producer in charge it could have been much more that it was.


  2. Anonymous3:33 PM

    This episode raises a lot of other questions. Where does this enclosed dome get all the resources to manufacture those arms? Who is the market for the arms? How can a leader remain in power if seemingly everyone is secretly against him?

    I thought this was the most boring ep yet. The smoke stack factories seemed to be more evocative of the 19th century than a spacecraft of the future.