Friday, September 22, 2023

50 Years Ago Today: The Starlost: "Voyage of Discovery"

The Starlost (1973 – 1974) premiered fifty years ago today! 

The series commences in a pastoral "biosphere" numbered AG-3 on a vast generational ship called Earthship Ark, and 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. And although there are signs of advanced technology all about the dome, including a computer interface which their leader, Jeremiah (Sterling Hayden) calls "The Creator,” the people mostly ignore these oddities and live a life of primitive religious asceticism.  The “Creator” determines who can marry, and when they can marry.  It establishes and enforces draconian laws.

Also -- and critically -- none of the simple denizens of Cypress Corners are aware that they live aboard a spaceship in flight. The doorway to another ship compartment -- a long connecting corridor to another dome and another society -- is sealed off and decorated with fearsome graffiti which reads: "Beyond is Death." 

Jeremiah (Sterling Hayden), leader of the sect, has also stated that he who goes beyond the door "abandons all hope...never to return," equating the "outside" of Cypress Corners with a Biblical Hell.  It is, in his words, a “bottomless pit.”  In Cypress Corners, knowledge equates to “evil.”

Our hero is a young and inquisitive man from Cypress Corners named Devon (Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey). He is an orphan, a "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 (or "pledged") -- against her will -- to the local blacksmith, Garth (Robin Ward), a man of few words and great strength.  But Devon doesn't understand why this is so, and he begins to ask forbidden questions about the nature of things.

"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 before it spins out of control. 

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 or 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 many Earth cultures (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 which could support human life. 

Unfortunately, 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. 

In the pilot’s most impressive visual sequence, 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 and 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 claustrophobic, which makes for some dull moments. Additionally, the lighting tends towards the garish and the overdone in a few scenes, especially the ones featuring Abraham and a bright red hue, which may symbolize "the hell" beyond the Cypress Corners hatch, but which is hardly nuanced.

Also, the three lead characters -- Dullea, Rowan and Ward -- are likable enough, but not particularly memorable or distinctive. I very much appreciate 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 everything...), but this very premise also runs the risk of making the characters appear dull-witted, rather than merely inexperienced or naive.

Logan’s Run: The Series (1977) features characters that are very similar in some sense: naïfs who, outside of their own culture, have very limited knowledge and understanding.  Writers tend to have a difficult time with this character premise, because heroes, inevitably, must use intelligence and cunning to outwit opponents, especially those possessing superior technology.  It’s hard for simpletons from an “agrarian, ethnic” community to succeed on such terms.

Speaking bluntly, the production values here are at the level of a Blake's 7 or Dr. Who from the early 1970s.  Thus you must watch The Starlost in the frame of mind that nearly forty years have passed since it was produced.  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 another sci-fi show. So it is an original and fun idea, but like so much of The Starlost, poorly executed in terms of visuals (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.  I mentioned it above.  Near the climax of this pilot, Devon and his mates find the destroyed bridge of Earthship Ark, and walk amidst the ruins and detritus, where they find the skeleton of a crew member. 

There is a beautifully constructed shot of the characters looking out through the gigantic bridge windows or view port...gazing upon the impressive miles-long length of Earthship Ark. 

This is the kind of shot Star Trek could neither have afforded nor 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 waits.  

This is 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, perhaps.

Also, it’s impossible not to gaze at “Voyage of Discovery” in terms of our enlightened age of globalism.   The denizens of Earthship Ark find themselves in danger because they have prized societal identities and local traditions over communal knowledge, scientific advances, and the cross-pollination of ideas.  But by fearing cross-cultural contamination, the people in the domes risk absolute annihilation.  The question becomes, is it better to hew to parochial tradition, or reach out for new ideas and new facts.  

The answer is plain. "Separate ecologies," in the terminology of the program, are ultimately dead ends, places where learning and evolution come to a standstill.

In terms of storytelling, “Voyage of Discovery,” perhaps because it is first out the gate, is one of the stronger tales.  A strong conflict emerges between Devon, a thinker and questioner, and Jeremiah, the establishment figure who thrives by hiding the truth and restricting knowledge.   I love the idea of a religious cult living on a spaceship and transforming a doorway to the “outer” ship a gateway to Hell.  In so many ways, organized religion always seeks to control independent thinking, and the door with the legend “Beyond is Death” is a function of that control.

There are certainly elements to criticize in “Voyage of Discovery,” from the slow-pace and claustrophobic shots, to the weak special effects. And yet, as the first chapter of the saga, it is not without charm and thematic heft.  Later episodes don't work nearly as well.

1 comment:

  1. Your usual excellent analysis, John.

    "Voyage of Discovery" was a promise rarely kept. ("The Pieces" is one of the show's better efforts.)

    When CTV ran promos for the series, I was a little disappointed: "Video."

    Now I appreciate NBC's initiative of producing The Starlost on videotape, as it opened up the scope and allowed for all-but-free chroma key compositing. By the way, this former 'opticals' guy differs with you on one thing: Star Trek could have produced a shot/composite such as the one you note as being noteworthy ― it is a beautiful shot. Trek's use of bluescreen/optical photography would have been much more expensive, but technically, no problem. A few episodes popped people into backgrounds. What the chroma key process allowed for was a lot of matting.

    Starlost designer Jack McAdam sketched out his modular concepts for me when I interviewed him, and he explained his reasoning for that approach. As Keith Wilson did on Space: 1999, this method allowed for multiple set configurations by rearranging those modules. (While certainly a money-saving technique, the downside is the viewer thinking: "There're those walls again.") McAdam and crew did some fine work. Actually, the instrument panels on SL were much better than those of Space (Year One).

    In my research on this NBC/CTV production I learned a lot of interesting bits. Sterling Hayden was a bit of a character, apparently. John Colicos told me, when I asked him if it were true that he got a good rap in the noggin from Keir Dullea during that combat scene in "The Goddess Calabra", a fine episode of SL: "It's true." With a chuckle, "I still feel it from time to time."

    The interesting element of "Voyage" is the notion of leaving one's environment for something different, less restrictive, and dull. George Lucas has talked a lot about this idea, and it's an important pinning in his first three feature films: "The door is open. All you have to do is walk through it."

    It's a little simplistic, perhaps, but if there's an 'exit door' there....


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