The TV series The Starlost ran from late September 1973 to early January 1974, about three and a half months and sixteen episodes too long. Originally created by Harlan Ellison, the writers were Harlan Ellison (as Cordwainer Bird), George Ghent, Norman Klenman, and Martin Lager, while the episodes were directed by Harvey Hart, Martin Lager, George McCowan, Leo Orenstein, Ed Richardson, and Joseph L. Scanlan. The series starred Keir Dullea, Gay Rowan, and Robin Ward.
The series is a credit to none of them.
Devon (Keir Dullea) is blindly in love with Rachel (Gay Rowan), whom the elders of Cyprus Corners have decreed must marry surly blacksmith Garth (Robin Ward). The elders do not tolerate dissent. Devon is forced to flee the only world he has ever known through a door on other side of which may lie certain doom.
To Devon’s enormous surprise, Cyprus Corners is not the whole of the world. It is merely one of a great number of habitats. The revelations do not stop there.
The ark was launched centuries before to escape the destruction of the Earth. A mishap killed the command crew. In the years since that happened, nobody has stepped up to take control of the ship. This is very bad, because as a helpful AI informs Devon, the ship is aimed directly at a star and will surely be destroyed if nothing is done to redirect it.
Devon’s first instinct is to share what he has learned. The elders order his execution. With Garth’s help, Devon flees Cyprus Corners for good, taking both Rachel and Garth with him. Somewhere within the vast ark, Devon hopes to find the key to saving the ship from certain doom.
Centuries have permitted the various habitats to diverge in interesting ways. Each week brings a new habitat, each one of which could contain someone or something that could permit the craft to be redirected from impending collision. With hundreds of habitats to search, the quest could take a very long time.
Each episode takes place in one habitat; each habitat is administered by some group so totally focused on their own goals that they have done nothing to save the ship on which they live. Often (but not always) this is because, like Cyprus Corners, they are unaware of the ark as a whole. There are groups who do know that they inhabit an ark, groups who have the right skillset to do something useful. But there’s always a compelling reason not to act. Quite often this reason is “scientists are jerks.”
The Starlost was a Canadian production, beneficiary of grants intended to encourage the development of Canadian arts. It isn’t the worst Canadian TV show ever, because that is a very competitive field. It might not even be the worst Canadian science fiction show. It is, however, comprehensively terrible. The scripts were dreadful, the sets cheap, the special effects unimpressive, and the acting unconvincing.
None of this was Harlan Ellison’s fault. His derivative concept could have been the seed of a perfectly acceptable television show. Given the generally dismal standards of the day, it would not have been hard to produce something superior to shows like Salvage One, Ark II, the Questor Tapes, Jason of Star Command, or Quark. Somehow the people behind The Starlost managed to screw the pooch. Or perhaps I should say “jump the shark,” but that might imply that the series started out OK and took a wrong turn.
It’s hard to say what exactly went wrong, although it cannot have helped that the script writers didn’t seem familiar with science fiction or much concerned with plausibility or consistency. In fact, although nobody seems to note the fact, the ark may have been inadvertently saved from collision with the target star in episode 14, “Farthing’s Comet,” when an ambitious scientist redirects the ark directly towards a comet and certain doom. But he does it for Science!
It’s also not due to a lack of acting talent: in addition to respected actor Keir Dullea, the show featured the following guest stars (list lifted from Wikipedia), all of whom I hope were experiencing the lowest point of their careers. It would be sad to think that it ever got worse for them:
Sterling Hayden as Jeremiah
Frank Converse as Dr. Gerald W. Aaron
John Colicos as Governor
Barry Morse as Shaliff
Lloyd Bochner as Colonel M. P. Garroway
Diana Barrington as Captain Janice
Simon Oakland as Dr. Asgard
Percy Rodriguez as I. A. Richards
Angel Tompkins as Daphne
Ed Ames as President Mr. Smith
Alexandra Bastedo as Egreck 419B2 Idona
Walter Koenig as Oro of planet Xar
Antoinette Bower as Dr. Heather Marshall
But the series adds up into a dreary nothing, not even amusing in its wretchedness.
Reviews of each individual episode may be found here:
The Starlost is available here (YouTube). You have been warned.