Terrible Things

The Starlost — Cordwainer Bird

The Starlost  Intro

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.

 ~oOo~

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:

But the series adds up into a dreary nothing, not even amusing in its wretchedness.

Reviews of each individual episode may be found here:

Starlost Reviews 1: Voyage of Discovery

Starlost Reviews 2: “Lazarus from the Mist”

Starlost Reviews 3: “The Goddess Calabra”

Starlost Reviews 4: “The Pisces”

Starlost Reviews 5: “Children of Methuselah”

Starlost Reviews 6: “And Only Man is Vile”

Starlost Reviews 7: “Circuit of Death”

Starlost Reviews 8: “Gallery of Death”

Starlost Reviews 9: “Mr. Smith of Manchester”

Starlost Reviews 10: The Alien Oro

Starlost Reviews 11: “The Astro Medics”

Starlost Reviews 12: “The Implant People

Starlost Reviews 13: “The Return of Oro”

Starlost Reviews 14: “Farthing’s Comet”

Starlost Reviews 15: “The Beehive”

Starlost Reviews 16: “Space Precinct”

The Starlost is available here (YouTube). You have been warned.


Comments

  • John

    I remember reading about the show in either Cinefastastiqe or StarLog, and they were talking about the radically new SFX where a motion controlled camera would film the actors in front of a green screen and at the same time, another camera with a macro lens would match moves in a miniature set. Sounded great... then I saw the series and it was... yeah.

    Years later, I ran a game where I used the Starlost as the setup, and even used the show's plots as written. My players thought I was nuts, until I sent them a link to the Youtube playlist. They were amazed that I managed to make those plots better!

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  • Dwight Williams

    I think this was one of the ways by which I was introduced to the genre. That I coped , however poorly, with the experience...well, I don't think I'll delve into why.

    And this is a premise that would indeed benefit from all the things you refer to being improved upon...and add in hardcore serialization.

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  • Ross Presser

    So, ten years later, are you feeling the impulse to watch this again?

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  • RJ Johnson

    I was abot 11 when this came on the air and it made me wonder why Space:1999 couldn't keep running.

    For a much better investment of your time and and energy, go read Ben Bova's delightful "The Starcrossed" which lightly files the serial numbers off of the story of the production of this mess and turns it into a science fiction novel.

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  • DemetriosX

    IIRC, Harlan put a lot of the blame on the requirement that a certain percentage of the writers had to be Canadian. That meant grabbing any available warm body and not necessarily anyone who knew anything about science fiction.

    I was also going to mention "The Starcrossed", but could have sworn it was by Harry Harrison. I must have mixed it up with "The Technicolor Time Machine" which I read about the same time.

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