Sunday, February 10, 2013

Cult-TV Blogging: The Starlost: "Farthing's Comet" (December 22, 1973)

Although the competition for the title (particularly from “And Only Man is Vile”) is fierce, “Farthing’s Comet” may just qualify as the very worst episode of The Starlost I've reviewed so far.

Now just pause and let that idea sink in for a moment.  

“Farthing’s Comet” is the worst episode of The Starlost, at least thus far, and there are only two weeks to go.  I make this distinction because, again, the writers and producers of the series seem to have forgotten its very premise, make no explanation for the characters’ behavior and knowledge, and simply stonewall and obfuscate in one important instance, utterly failing to explain a critical plot-point.

In “Farthing’s Comet,” Devon (Keir Dullea), Garth (Robin Ward) and Rachel (Gay Rowan) are buffeted when asteroids begin to strike the Earth Ship Ark.  The control sphere directs them to an astronomical dome, where Dr. Linus Farthing (Edward Andrews) reports that the ship is on an imminent collision course with a comet.  

Farthing and his associate, Dr. McBride (Linda Sorensen) can do nothing to stop the collision course, or avert the other collision course (the one with a Class G Solar Star).  But Devon and his friends refuse to give up.  Garth pilots a spaceship to the Ark exterior and a damaged thruster unit.  And under McBride and Farthing’s direction, Devon repairs it.  The re-activated thruster moves the Ark out of harm’s way, and all is well.

If you’ve been following my reviews of The Starlost, you can detect from the synopsis above that some things are seriously wrong here.

For the record, allow me to enumerate them:

Garth, Devon and Rachel are space Quakers, essentially, from an agrarian community called Cypress Falls.  We have seen no indication that they have been trained in any high-tech skills.  

Yet in this episode, Garth successfully launches, maneuvers, and docks a small spaceship around the Ark’s outer skin.  Similarly, Devon, though under direction, is able to repair advanced circuitry, and maneuver safely about on a dangerous spacewalk.  Zero-gravity training, as it turns out, is apparently a core Mennonite skill.

Regarding the characters' sudden competency, it’s as though the makers of the series have forgotten (again...) that these folks come from a place of ignorance (but curiosity), not a place of technical know-how.  I wouldn’t rate it as a problem for the heroes to evidence these new skills if some verbal notation had been made that they were in training, or running simulations at that school we saw back in the episode “Children of Methuselah.”  With no notation, however, it’s just baffling and unconvincing that these interstellar Amish folks can find their way around state-of-the-art technology.

Secondly, McBride and Farthing discuss the fact that she designed the space suit that Devon wears.  How is this possible?  This episode occurs over four hundred years after the accident that crippled the Ark.  How are these two original denizens of the Ark even still alive?  If McBride and Farthing and  were in suspended animation, the episode should make a note of that fact.  If instead they took the “immortality” pill mentioned in “Children of Methuselah,” the episode should make note of that too.  Instead, this episode just progresses as though it is completely normal for Devon and his friends to find two original Ark crew-members in a nearby dome, even though half-a-millennia has passed since the Ark's construction.

Thirdly, Farthing and McBridge have given up on the idea that the Ark’s course can be changed to avert the collision with the class G Solar star.  Yet, knowing that the ship is doomed, they continue to conduct research on the nearby comet.  Why? What good is that scientific information regarding comets if the Ark, and everyone aboard with access to that information, is going to be destroyed?

This one gets worse.  Much worse.  Farthing reports at one point that that the Ark’s course cannot be changed. A little later, however, he admits that he changed the Ark’s course, putting it in line with the comet and endangering the ship.  So he is indeed able to adjust the ship’s course.    Presumably, the only thing stopping him from saving the Ark from the collision with the star, then, is the fact that the reactors are down. Right?

And yet, in this episode, Devon, Garth and Rachel fly out in their spaceship and repair that reactor, so the Ark can be saved, and the collision with the comet averted.  If the collision with the comet could be averted, as it is in this episode, why not the collision with the star?  Wouldn’t one course setting (away from both comet and star?) suffice in terms of setting a safe trajectory?

I am a patient person, and I hope a patient critic too, but this episode of The Starlost is absolutely maddening.  It attributes knowledge to characters who shouldn’t have that knowledge, forgets the history/continuity/background of the series, and does creative somersaults to avoid the obvious conclusion that Farthing can save the Ark from the collision with the star.

One little bright spot to report: This episode features some great footage of the Earth Ship Ark miniature, a vast, highly-detailed model.  It appears in McBride's control room, and is really amazing to behold.

Next week: “The Beehive.”


  1. Anonymous2:58 PM

    John you are so right about “Farthing’s Comet”. It is frustrating when the writers ignore the history/continuity/background of the series. As a young boy in '73 a remember seeing the model of the Earth ship Ark up close made me want to find a model kit or build one.


    1. Hi SGB,

      Frustrating is the right word. I love the concept of The Starlost, and I do enjoy many episodes. But jeez, sometimes it's just like nobody was paying attention at all.

      That said, I would love a model kit of the Earthship Ark!

  2. Anonymous11:38 AM

    The points you make could have been explained by a few simple lines of dialog. If the writer had included Devon, Garth, and Rachel stating that they've spent considerable time studing the Ark, spaceflight, and engines via the ship's talking computer, it would have made their technical knowledge more believable. By now, they've seen too much to be simple space quakers anymore.

    The bickering between the two guest stars would have been tolerable if we actually knew them. A story such as "The Return of Oro" definately benifitted from a previous ep's backstory. Having an old pro such as Edward Andrews in the role helped.

    From the episodes I've seen, the series doesn't deserve the label of "the worst sci-fi series ever" often given to it. One book, back in the 80's, described Space:1999 as the worst sci-fi show ever. If I were to listen to that advice, I would have missed a grand show (well, the first season at least). This show isn't a forgotten gem. It is an earnest, modestly enjoyable show. It's kind of sad to see characters set up to return (Oro) in expectation of a second season that never came.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      I agree with you completely. One line from Devon or Garth or Rachel about training would have made the episode entirely more believable.

      I also agree with you about the bickering between the two guest characters. It felt like padding.

      I would have been all for a second season of The Starlost with Oro on board, by the way.

      I make no claim that Starlost is the worst series of all time. But some episodes are downright terrible; just as some episodes have been rather enjoyable.


  3. A variation of the Space Ark ship was seen in an interesting ecological movie called "Silent Running". That movie was infinitely better than this one in that the life in the biosphere's was actually believable. I believe that movie was seen around 1973. I have the vinyl record of its music, pressed on transparent green vinyl, representing the Green Earth.


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