What is The Starlost?
Besides Canadians, perhaps fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey may be the only core group aware of this series’ existence, since Keir Dullea was the only name associated with this home-grown tale of a giant Noah’s Ark originally designed to take sealed domes of various human cultures to an Earth-like planet after the home orb became a polluted mess.
Oh, and the series happened to be created by noted sci-fi author and occasional screenwriter Harlan Ellison (The Oscar, TV's Logan's Run), and featured special effects by Douglas Trumbull (2001). Trumbull’s name is still on the show’s credits, but when Ellison’s concept was dumbed down because of budgetary cutbacks, the author used the name Cordwainer Bird as a signal to his fans and critics that The Starlost was a travesty of his vision. That, in essence, marked the beginning of what’s regarded by some as the worst sci-fi show ever made.
The characters in Ellison’s original script for the pilot episode were expanded from two leads to three: instead of a Quaker-like rebel named Vic who flees the repressive world of Cypress Corners with his childhood sweetheart Rachel, Vic became Devon the farmer, chased from dome through dome by Garth the blacksmith, his loyal friend, but also the man designated by the elders to marry Devon’s love, Rachel the hausfrau, because Devon was deemed unfit by his peers.
This Logan’s Run variation of an ex-buddy tracking down a pair of lovers was given the added twist of the three eventually becoming allies (episode 2 onwards) when they discover the giant ark is on a collision course with a star; bedside rivalries are neutered as the trio move from dome to dome in the hope of encountering someone with the knowledge of saving the ark’s ignorant inhabitants.
The adventures seemed limitless – each dome literally yielded a new culture and conflicts aggravated by Team Quaker’s need to learn societal and technological concepts previously unknown – but when Ellison left the project and writers with little or no background in sci-fi took over the scripts (genre author Ben Bova is still credited as a consultant, although his involvement, along with Trumbull, also ended early), The Starlost devolved into a pale, often talky and weak attempt to dramatize present-day social issues, much in the way Star Trek (1966-1969) played with racial, religious, and cultural conflicts using aliens.
When Things Go Very Wrong
A key indication of The Starlost writers’ desire to exploit the Star Trek legacy is the guest starring of Walter Koenig (Star Trek’s Chekov), who played a selfish alien named Oro, determined to rebuild his spaceship for trip home with brainy assistant Idona, played by Alexandra Bastedo, from ITC’s The Champion (1968-1969).
Idona was also an attempt to give third wheel Garth something to do, since most of his scenes tended to have him agree/disagree with Devon, and carry a crossbow with an apparently limitless supply of arrows. For the next episodes, Garth later returned to his third wheel status until the series’ final episode, “Space Precinct,” where Devon and Rachel were literally put out of commission in a locked elevator, gasping for air.
Co-starring with Diane Dewey (from TVO’s goofy educational series Write On!) as a techie named, uh, Tek, Garth is bizarrely invited to join a team of inter-galactic police, and after a preposterously abbreviated passage of time, he’s given tasks the ex-blacksmith clearly has no knowledge of, and no business touching with his brawny hands: law enforcement, inter-galactic relations, and actually asked by a high council member whether he suspects his boss might be a mole.
The writers’ attempt to maintain Garth’s legitimacy within The Starlost cosmos reached its zenith of hilarity here, but it’s equally laughable in “The Alien Oro,” in which he seduces Idona from snotty Oro by using his blacksmith skills to hammer out, reshape, and rebuilt complex computer components. There’s an actual montage where Garth bashes metal over an amber pilot light, and Idona is romantically emboldened by his determination to apply his obsolete skills in her tech-savvy world.
The knowledge gap between the Team Quaker and the ark’s generally evolved cultures was supposed to narrow as the team learns new things from new people, and early episodes have them fumbling and discovering in fairly believable ways, like Devon realizing that if he sits in a chair in an information kiosk, a huge video screen nearby will turn on the ark’s interactive computer – represented by the bearded, stentorian visage and robotic movements of William Osler.
Devon remains the anchor of evolving knowledge among the trio, but it’s clear that near the end of the series’ abbreviated run of sixteen episodes, almost any rough idea was hammered hastily into a full episode. The nadir – “Space Precinct” excepted – is “The Beehive,” where Devon helps ‘scientific’ bee keepers protect themselves from giant mutants (blue-screened, educational footage) determined to exterminate their human masters.
The episode’s near incoherence stems from clunky dialogue, and scenes that make no sense: for example, when the jumpsuit of a stung victim is unzipped, there’s a mass of bees – and then the shock is never referred to again.
Also integral to this campy mess are mis-matched performance styles: Keir Dullea is always in Earnest Acting Mode, trying to convince the other actors and viewers he really knows a lot about mutant, mind-controlling bees; William Hutt (yes, one of Canada’s most esteemed stage actors) is quite awesome in his theatricality as a protective, bonkers bee keeper, sympathetic to the mutant insects; and Antoinette Bower (Larry Cohen’s The Invaders, and the “Catspaw” episode of Star Trek) mostly shrieks pseudo-scientific dialogue, and dons the biggest orange afro ever conceived for TV.
Rachel is the love interest who was obviously designed to restart some friction between Garth and Devon in later episodes, but instead of any sexual tension among the trio, it’s more Garth still annoyed that he lost his promised wife to farmer boy Devon, and his ongoing frustration in never getting a lasting squeeze of his own (or maybe that’s actor Robin Ward channelling his own frustrations in being stuck in a lame role).
From point A to Z, Rachel remains a pretty hippy chick who obediently follows Devon, and when she expresses her own contrary opinion, she’s always wrong, and endangers the group – like siding with Oro on his second return to the ark in that character’s two-episode arc, “The Return of Oro.”
Wearing a ridiculously puffy gold jumpsuit and Go-Go boots, and flying through space in a bulbous, tinny octagon, the character of Oro and his accoutrements were ideal samplings of how Starlost had little money to create believable sets and costumes.
The ‘futuristic” costumes usually have a big seventies ring attached to a long zipper, and although Team Quaker are supposed to wear their ever-unblemished period attire, in “Children of Methuselah,” they just appear at the episode's head in full Starlost uniforms for no reason whatsoever.
The spacesuit costumes are equally amusing, because the helmets just sit on the wearer’s shoulder (there’s no zipper, latch or buttons), and the ear cones are perforated so the actors can breathe. (In “Space Precinct,” when Devon and Rachel remove their helmets, you can see a mic taped to the inside.)
Most of the sets are made of nippled packing foam, plexiglass and thin wood, and wall hangings include spiral patterns (some seemingly made of strings and nails). Toronto’s now-dead McLaughlin Planetarium, however, supplied the space photographs used in some of the background plates and wall hangings.
“Circuit of Death” is also indicative of the chunks of sets that were marginally redressed from episode to episode; some new paint, new section names, different objects glued onto the walls, and voila! We’re in a different part of the ship!
Of course, all the furniture was futuristic seventies (the same office and leisure chairs are used even in the spaceships), the circuit boards resembled clipboards syudded with hunks of cut translucent plastic, and everyone was always pressing five or ten ‘panel’ buttons to infer a sense of technological advancements since 1973.
Just as amusing are the convex portal panels on which people must press buttons, wait for the flickering lights, and proceed as the doors drone open (a great sound effect). In the pilot episode, the device was fed a mini-cassette tape by Sterling Hayden when he attempts to convince the town (about 15 people) that Devon is a rebel unfit to marry Rachel.
The ark’s interior colours, through, are quite soothing, and foam nipples aside, the overall ship design is striking, particularly the canted cluster of domes pinned together and hung around the ark by long corridors or “bounce tubes,” where travellers are shot through at rapid speeds.
The ship’s exterior makes regular appearances in every episode, but mostly as filler footage when stories don’t involve a ship docking or a cutaway to a commercial break. Unfortunately it’s the same video footage that has the camera swimming up and down and around the ark, with video noise sometimes present in the master footage.
The show’s title music as well as original score cuts are actually quite memorable. Cheesy, for sure, with those high-pitched Moog notes supported by orchestra, but it’s a style that was also used by some of the members of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.
The theme variations were actually quite clever, and included a very eerie piece with low piano chords and high flutes, as well as tender variation for soft, pensive woodwinds. Produced by an amorphous entity called Score Productions, the composers mostly focused on TV themes and ads, but not unlike The Invaders (or for that matter Roger Corman’s ashcan version of The Fantastic Four), just a handful of cues were recorded for the production, and chopped up and tracked over every scene, so each episode bore zero new music material – making for a grating experience.
Part of the production’s economical looks and sounds allegedly stemmed from the show’s German financier walking away from the project, leaving U.S. studio Fox and Canada’s CTV network forging ahead, and effects producer Trumbull deciding to shoot the series on videotape, using blue screen chroma-keying process (dubbed Magicam) that placed actors onto model sets and drawn background plates.
In fairness, it wasn’t a bad idea; today it looks cheesy and obvious, but the sets were designed to integrate blue screen backgrounds and objects, and perhaps from an archival stance, it looks pretty intriguing. The problem is, even as a child, one knew something about The Starlost was ‘off.’
In plain language, it always looked cheap.
One could argue Kenneth Johnson’s V (1983), made a decade later for NBC (the same American network that aired Starlost), has also aged badly. The once-cutting edge optical effects are grainy and clumsy, and many shots – still mattes, as well as moving ships – look cheap. The difference is Johnson’s Holocaust parable was part camp, part drama, and the acting style was much more uniform.
Spot the Canuck, and Vestiges of Grand Themes
The dullness of the Starlost tales, coupled with amateur, film, and theatre-trained thespians uttering bad dialogue was and remains hypnotic. It’s a subjective thing, of course, but for some who grew up on the show’s reruns, there remains a fascination with this clumsy mess.
Part of the fun for Canadians is spotting native talent (those who stayed local, and those who ventured to Hollywood), as well as familiar American actors: Sterling Hayden (just as hairy and weird as in Winter Kills) appears in the pilot episode as a duplicitous elder; veteran character Edward Andrews portrays an eccentric astrophysicist in “Farthing’s Comet”; and Star Trek’s Walter Koenig in the Oro diptych.
Simon Oakland (Psycho, the Kolchak TV movies and original Night Stalker series) also popped up in a silver jumpsuit and gilded makeup as an alien who lures wandering humans into a game designed to fracture human relations. Titled “And Only Man Is Vile,” that episode has decisive shades of Star Trek – well, really any episode where Kirk’s team is teased into internecine combat, or convincing warring tribes to live in peace – but it’s unique on a local level for guest starring Trudy Young (TV’s Razzle Dazzle, and the St. Bernard show George) as the evil Lethe, a fiendish seductress who tricks Garth into hating Devon; and for Jeanne Beker (City TV’s Fashion Television and original Much Music) in an unbilled role as one of the affected citizens who mob Devon.
Local talent poised for, or already enjoying broader fame included John Colicos (the original Battlestar: Galactica) as a Caesarean leader of an all-male society challenged by monkish religious zealot Barry Morse (Space: 1999) in the goofy “The Goddess Calabra”; Lloyd Bochner (Dynasty) appearing as a charming space commander who returns to the ark after an inexplicably long time-lapse; and Stephen Young (TV’s Judd for the Defense, and “The Return of Bigfoot” episode of Kenneth Johnson’s The Bionic Woman) in "Astro-Medics," where Devon spends most of the episode conked out on a hospital bed.
The shadow of Star Trek often hung over the episodes, but The Starlost producers’ efforts to explore social issues were generally very, very clumsy. “Children of Methuselah,” where the wandering trio are arrested by a society of uniformed kids, had strong shades of “Miri,” the cult episode where Kirk was kidnapped by a group of refugee kids; as well as “And the Children Shall Lead,” which had children, initially controlled by an evil alien, learning to be kids again, laughing and playing games among each other.
“The Implant People” tried to reach the rafters of Shakespearean gravitas by having an Iago-like figure named Roloff (Danger Bay’s Donnely Rhodes) seduce and coerce the queen into having her cabinet cranially plugged with pain-inducing implants.
Rhodes plays his role straight and with complete relish for the character’s sliminess, making the clumsiness of the writing and plotting even more amusing. See, if Roloff would just kill people, he’d be the king, but that would be too simple, so the writers added a group of rebels (about four) and a scruffy ragamuffin named Jandy.
In “The Goddess Calabra” (from a story by genre author Ursula K. Le Guin), we have a grape-munching John Colicos devouring the stage as though he’s at Stratford, and extras dressed in seventies mini-togas performing a weird aerobics dance. The episode’s finale has Dullea battling Colicos in the single worst choreographed combat scene on TV. (It’s not that it’s just poorly covered by the cameras, but that the actors get breathless and sweaty from clumsy weapon taps and slow physical reactions.)
A similar effort to showcase a disrupted society occurred in “Lazarus from the Mist,” where American TV actor Frank Converse (Larry Cohen’s Coronet Blue, N.Y.P.D., Movin’ On) is awoken from a medical coma while a band of violence-hungry goons attempt to break into the suspended animation bunker.
The menacing group is led by Doug McGrath (the dumb beat cop in the original Black Christmas), a veteran character actor who goes heavy on the ham in portraying his character as a derelict figure in a purplish workman’s outfit spouting poor grammar.
“Mr. Smith of Manchester” dealt with an evil leader (smooth-talking Ed Ames) who’s kept his people in a constant state of fear of outsiders, purely for the benefit of earning dividends from a huge arms production industry he controls. Those he deems traitorous are ousted into the polluted environment of the factory lands, where they will die from toxic fumes and smoldering goo.
The talkiness endemic to the series is boosted in this episode by a rare shootout, although it makes no sense that Team Quaker would know how to shoot automatic weapons so well. The basic tale of a leader using fear to keep his people in line while lining his pockets is still topical and political, since one feels an anti-war commentary at work that also extends to the present-day American military machine.
(In his website, Dennis Valdron has extensively written on the show’s ‘Canadian’ stance. His lengthy essay is worth checking out – see links at the end - for his analysis of political commentary in select episodes.)
The lack of physical violence - an integral ingredient in American TV - is particularly notable in “The Return of Oro,” where the smug alien returns from planet Exzar to claim the Ark as salvage material.
After commandeering the Ark’s wise-cracking, robotic steward (a guy in a box being dragged off-camera), Oro tries to convince Team Quaker of the benefits in coming to his home planet, but when the robot turns on him, both Oro and Devon are ‘arrested,’ placed in separate purple tubes, and forced to compete in a life-threatening debate.
They actually engage in a real-time point/counterpoint on ‘why my idea is better’ to avoid being ejected into space via the garbage chute. Bloodless and ponderous, each ‘combatant’ is allowed a specified time to argue, and while the ultimate resolution is obvious, it’s also a lame tactic to keep Oro around for a future (and unrealized) Devon vs. Oro episode.
“Circuit of Death” was kind of intriguing for the hook of having two characters – Devon, and an idealistic engineer named Sakharov Richards (stately Percy Rodriguez, who appeared in the Star Trek episode “Court Martial”) digitally shrunk into miniatures so they can undo the self-destruct sequence Richards’ had turned on with his bodacious daughter Valerie (Night Heat’s Nerene Virgin).
In terms of outright camp, the best episode is “Gallery of Fear,” which has the trio discovering a backup super computer named Magnus that wants to take over the ark. This over-acted, blithering silliness guest stars ex-model Angel Tompkins, whom the producers outfitted in the tightest, shortest, most provocative short-shorts ever – and the director made damn sure to include a number of butt shots.
Tomkins had a very sporadic film and TV career (her best-known A-list film is probably Michael Ritchie’s Prime Cut, and the 1974 Z-sleaze favourite, Howard Avedis’ The Teacher), and she over-enunciates every word because she’s supposed to be a kind of evil fembot Magnus uses to trick Team Quaker into believing Magnus is A-O.K.
In the bulk of the series' episodes, Devon is the team’s moral compass, anchor, and magnet, but he’s also pompous, arrogant, and portrayed with such intense sincerity one wonders if Keir Dullea chose such a grating portrayal because, by losing himself in the character, he might survive getting through a series he knew was going downhill fast.
Dullea had previously made some interesting films – Frank Perry’s cult film David and Lisa (1962), Otto Preminger’s chilling Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – but over the next few years his work tended to included a lot of TV, and the occasional indie/exploitation film, notably Cy Endfield’s idiotic De Sade (1969), Sergio Sollima’s Devil in the Brain / Il Diavolo nel cervello (1972), and Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero (1973), although he also achieved some immortality as the bonkers avant garde composer with the bad pageboy mop-top in Bob Clark’s seminal slasher Black Christmas (1974).
Starlost was a clear attempt to parlay his 2001 fame to an international audience, and there’s no shame in that because the series was based around the intriguing premise of a doomed ship and three hippies trying to avoid oblivion.
The ecology themes of Trumbull’s own directorial effort, Silent Running (1972) were far less apparent in Starlost, but the concept of sealed samples of valuable DNA (ours) was in line with the former film’s focus on a hippy caretaker determined to preserve the domed plants propelled through space in a similarly designed Noah’s ark.
The doomsday scenario was perhaps an idea producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson picked up for their own Space: 1999 series (1975-1977) – the Earth’s moon is knocked into a lengthy space drift and regularly threatened by aliens and looming collisions – but whereas Starlost was clearly aimed at adults (the series had way too much chatter for younger audiences), Space: 1999 followed the Andersons’ established formula of a kid-friend TV series with great effects meant to sell toys.
Both series had simple, attention-grabbing hooks, but they both failed because the writing, storylines, and attempts to overhaul characters stunk. Either series could easily be remade today, but without the kind of solid writing that’s made the new Battlestar Galactica a huge hit, they’d flop again.
A Train Wreck in Slo-Mo
Like Space: 1999 (or for that matter, Painkiller Jane), The Starlost is, for some, a fascinating train wreck to watch because it’s clear the production was struggling to deliver drama when the money was tight, the talent pool was variable, and the demands to write (primarily) for the American market meant there had to be some action element, although series writers tended to focus on dialogue; the decision to aim for a more cerebral sci-fi series is noble, but one also suspects the chatter was a means to avoid any elaborate production details because there wasn’t enough cash or sets for a grand action scene (or two) for each episode.
That’s clear in the gunfight scene in “Mr. Smith of Manchester,” which combined full-size and miniature models blue-screened around the actors. There’s also the spacewalking scenes in “The Pisces,” where Devon repairs a nuclear reactor while Garth and Rachel pilot a ship. Yes, Team Quaker is actually engaged in an impromptu EVA mission, except most of the shots are close-ups of Devon by a ship wall, Garth seated in the craft’s pilot chair, and Rachel looking worried for the entire scene’s duration.
Sometimes it’s fun to watch the cast struggle with badly drawn scenes, and other times it’s just really, really sad, particularly when a character actor like Simon Oakland is all silvery in his shiny jumpsuit, or British thespian Ivor Barry uses his beautifully modulated voice to convince us Garth is indeed a prime candidate for law enforcement in “Space Precinct.”
If Dullea stayed deeply in character, his co-stars were kind of stuck with their weak roles that rarely offered them any character-building arcs, but then neither actor was really very strong. Robin Ward had a sharp voice and imposing physical stature, but those assets were the primary qualities other filmmakers exploited during the actor’s modest career in TV and voice work.
(What’s amusing is how Ward and actress Nerene Virgin both maintained professional relationships with broadcaster CTV, hosting shows in later years, with Ward doing a short stint as a weatherman/entertainment reporter.)
Gay Rowan’s output was ultimately very sparse; whether that’s due to The Starlost or her seriously limited acting skills is moot, since she chose to leave film and TV after 1983, although it is interesting to note she appeared in U-Turn / The Girl in Blue (1973), a little-seen drama that also had Robin Ward, Diane Dewey, and William Osler in the cast. (Osler also appeared with Trudy Young in Jim Henson’s 1969 TV special The Cube.)
End of the Line
After its syndicated run, The Starlost, at least in Canada, was perpetually aired by CTV in the afternoons, influencing/traumatizing children for a generation or two, until it pretty much disappeared. The series allegedly made it to VHS, but its best-known incarnations are the five TV movies edited down from ten episodes that made the rounds on TV in the U.S. and abroad, as well as DVDs in Europe.
Inspecting the carcass of a disastrous series is part of the fun, although one has to be a fan of this kind of fromage, if not be a Canadian with a sense of humour about what was regarded as an ambitious production for a country whose original TV shows tended to emphasize nature and animals.
Those elements are what many producers marketed overseas, so it’s no surprise shows like The Littlest Hobo (notably the 1979-1985 reincarnation), George (1972-1973), Adventures in Rainbow Country (1970-1971), or The Forest Rangers (1963-1965) not only play everywhere, but were among the first shows shoved into time slots when Canada’s first specialty Pay TV stations (Showcase being a prime example) debuted.
So why did it take American label VCI to release this Canadian show? Probably economics and neglect, in terms of CTV not wanting to have their name attached to a renowned dud. VCI’s recent foray into cult TV series makes sense that Starlost falls into their realm, but the fact the series actually exists on DVD is a miracle – Canadian shows, particularly those from the sixties and seventies, are rarely re-broadcast now and just don’t make it to home video (although if you click on some of the linked titles, you’ll be guided to some samples archived on YouTube – a venue that may well become the only place we can watch vintage material native labels and networks have no plans to release whatsoever).
VCI’s source materials are actually pretty decent; the video masters were probably quite fragile, and required some painstaking cleaning, if not playback to a digital medium, since not all video stock from the seventies has lasted. The images are a bit soft and sometimes show a bit of video noise, but that’s the nature of early colour tube cameras; just take a peek at the colour episodes of Dark Shadows to see a nascent technology going through growing pains.
The sound mixes are standard mono, and unlike the Canadian broadcast versions bearing the CTV and Glen Warren headers and logos, each episode is capped by a silent Fox logo.
The lead-ins and lead-outs from ad breaks are intact, as are the pathetic ‘coming attractions’ trailers that were sloppily edited from the final edits. Conveying little plot information, these generally incoherent teasers were dropped after the first few episodes.
The only qualms with VCI’s set is the lack of, well, CanCon comments; besides a detailed interview with Norman Klenman in the booklet, there are no cast or crew interviews, nor archived print ephemera covering how the series was pre-sold and publicized prior to the financial cuts. There’s a rare promo short that has Dullea and Trumbull talking about the wonders of the show – thematic and technological – which integrates footage and music from Trumbull's Silent Running.
Those wanting some of those missed extras should check out a fan site –see the links below - but missed opportunities aside, it’s a miracle this unfortunate production finally gets its chance on DVD.
Whether you laugh or cover your eyes in embarrassment, this cultural artifact is a victory of sorts for the creative team that tried to make do with pungent lemons. If you think The Starlost was a career killer, however, think again.
The show’s regular writers included story editor Norman Klenman (an American screenwriter who had also written an episode of The Invaders), one-timer George Ghent, and veteran Martin Leger, whose prior TV work included Adventures in Rainbow Country (1969), and co-writing The Shape of Things to Come (1979), a dreadful adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel shot at Ontario Place, and directed by Starlost alumnus George McCowan.
McCowan’s background was episodic American shows (although he did direct material for the eighties War of the Worlds series), whereas Joseph Scanlan directed a huge number of TV episodes for shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, the eighties versions of The Outer Limits, and War of the Worlds.
Harvey Hart, who also directed separate material for the original Star Trek and Judd for the Defense series is perhaps best-known for the cult shocker The Pyx (1973), as well as a string of Columbo TV movies made during the seventies, and the excellent TV mini-series East of Eden (1981).
Harlan Ellison’s original script for the pilot, “Phoenix Without Ashes,” actually won a Writer’s Guild Award for Outstanding Teleplay of the Year, but the author, alongside colleague Ben Bova, were not happy in the way a high pedigree show became a mess. Both enjoyed a bit of revenge years later when Ellison’s award-winning script was published in the 1982 anthology Faster Than Light, and Bova poured his memories from the sour experience into the novel The Starcrossed, a novel about a science advisor stuck on an ineptly run sci-fi series.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan