Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Starlost (1973) Harlan Ellison's Canadian Science Fiction Television Cult Oddity

Cordwainer Bird's doomed Canadian science fiction television venture about the inhabitants of a generational survival ark suddenly realizing that their home world is in fact just a chamber in an immense space ship roaming unguided amongst the stars is a pet favorite of mine. Five hundred years have passed since Earth was destroyed, during which generations of the Ark's inhabitants have forgotten where they were and why, the crew long dead and the automated machinery keeping things functioning all on their own as the ship hurtles rudderless towards destruction via collision with a distant star. So far so good. The three principal characters (Keir Dullea with one of the worst space mustaches ever as the often out of breath Devon, pretty Gay Rowan as the fragrant Rachel, and later game show host Robin Ward as the perpetually pissed-off Garth) leave their rural Amish home biosphere to explore the Ark, each episode finding them entering a different area of the ship in a search for the knowledge of how to re-start the Ark's main reactors & get it back on course.

Photo illustration of the large model rig of Earthship Ark viewed from above in a space environment. To give an idea of its proposed scale each domed biosphere is 50 miles wide.

If only it had been that easy. Creator Harlan Ellison disowned the series before filming even started after becoming disgusted by endless production difficulties, severe budget cutbacks, a Canadian television studio unable to cope with a project of such proportions, and outright chicanery on the part of the producers to sell the show as a syndication cheapie after promoting it to him as a high-tech revolutionary approach to television tailor made for his talents. Writer Ben Bova was suckered into being pegged as the series' "scientific advisor" then found himself unable to remove his name from the show's credits when his advice was not followed. Special effects were created using the same technology local television weather reporters employ to stand in front of a map, with the production design limited to re-usable set components, neo-moderne office equipment, bad space art, and lots of green foam padding from apple boxes to make futuristic chair cushions. Feelings were hurt and reputations tarnished in the aftermath, with the final results being both critically dismissed and a ratings non-entity.  

Robin Ward, Gay Rowan and Keir Dullea. They'd all do better.

The show has the look of community access cable programming shot on video by bright college kids studying TV/radio/film but without the charm of classic 1970s era Doctor Who steampunk. Or its writing. Most importantly the series' ultimate form rarely fit the breadth of the ideas being suggested, leaving an awkward watching experience which will likely alienate contemporary viewers & is exactly why I love it; This was one of the most uncommercial television spectacles ever created, unable to even sell the toilet paper and bar soap which would have been advertised during its broadcast because almost nobody watched. Saddest part about it all is that the producers insisted on following a serious tone for the series, and other than a few glimpses of random insight ended up ponderously empty. A total of sixteen episodes were filmed before the series was cancelled without a resolution of its basic story arc. They're still out there, somewhere.

Ad from "The Starlost"'s brief run on NBC. I recall our Syracuse station as showing it on Saturday afternoons and particularly the conflict that created with my father who preferred us watching "Wide World of Sports".

My admiration for the series is nostalgic rather than an empirical evaluation of its form: The show ended up on our local NBC affiliate on Saturday afternoons when my brothers and I were kids, would watch anything we were allowed to and it creeped the living hell out of us. I liked how the spaceship was broken and the idea that every week they went into a new chamber looking for help fixing it, and loved the Douglas Trumbull produced model shots linking the static studio bound storylines. Other than the boxy looking main body of the Ark the only thing I specifically recalled for years was an image of the heroes finding a skeletonized body in a space suit, which at age seven was about the coolest thing I'd seen this side of "Caltiki: The Immortal Monster". And the talking head computer terminal, with its minister-like speaking human face oversized while issuing instructions with sonorous authority. 

We watched every week for a while, calling the show "Earthship Ark" as the spacecraft is identified in the opening monolog, and I stumbled upon it again quite by accident when released on DVD last decade. It's about the dumbest science fiction show ever created yet has a sort of eerie nature about it which I admire, punctuated by overtly haunting electronic music, goofy production design, doses of both 1970s paranoia & psychedelia, and some decent looking women in snug foil space suits. 

I'll take it.

Now THAT is cool.

1) VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY: Dumbed-down low budget television version of Harlan Ellison's "Phoenix Without Ashes" is the only episode story to which he contributed directly and appropriately sets the premise for the rest of the series. Could have been a classic but exists only as a pedestrian introduction to the show. Has a very telling sequence where an enraged mob of Amish townsfolk run around with torches & waving their arms excitedly like something from a Frankenstein movie. A functional demonstration of the lack of finesse in how the series was visualized which would only get worse. Good points do exist; Garth spends most of the episode completely pissed off, Devon is out of breath a lot, Sterling Hayden reprises his Jack D. Ripper character from "Dr. Strangelove" as a grim faced puritan zealot, and there's a funky scene where the heroes find a cheap plastic classroom skeleton in a space suit before tripping out on the stars passing by the wrecked bridge, never having seen stars before. That much I could believe. Also clocks some sort of record on how many different ways one can use the green foam padding from apple crates to make futuristic looking cushions, though the series was just getting started. They'd find more ways to use it. Lots more.

"Voyage of Discovery" on YouTube.

2) LAZARUS FROM THE MIST: Part relaxingly goofy fun about the heroes finding the cellar-dwelling halfwit mutants evolved from the Ark's service technicians in the lower decks, crossed with an overly serious subplot about a terminally ill Ark engineer thawed out from suspended animation to discover that his wife wasn't frozen too. Bummer, but almost worth it to watch the antics of the cellar dwellers, who either kept re-wearing their ancestor's tattered uniforms for 400 years or were a lot older than they looked. Without the medical drama plot device this could have been a good angle on how to address the series as the farce that it was but alas, all subsequent cellar dweller characters were disappointingly normal. Nice happy ending, with plenty of opportunity for Garth to get all pissed off about stuff & Devon to wind up out of breath.

"Lazarus from the Mist" on YouTube.

3) THE GODDESS CALABRA: Somewhat awkward visit to an all-male society where women are worshipped in their absence as goddess figures and Rachel's arrival promises to be their spiritual second coming. Devon has to fight a jousting match to free them all and spends the majority of the episode out of breath, while Garth stands around looking pissed off with little to do. The all-male society is also strange. Lots of tight spandex male unitards, muscular guards in chest revealing v-neck shirts with foil hats, dancing acrobats performing for the evil despot's amusement as he lounges around with a wine flagon eating grapes, and not one openly gay guy amongst the lot? Baloney, with the episode's saving graces being "Star Trek" Klingon actor John Colicos as the maniacal despot who claims Rachel as his own, and "Space: 1999" human actor Barry Morse as the open minded temple priest who had the good sense to forgo the tights. One of my less-preferred episodes from the series, but at least they tried.

"The Goddess Calabra" on YouTube.

4) THE PISCES: Potentially interesting premise ruined by both budget concerns and lapses of logic. The crew of an Ark scout ship returns after being swept up in some temporal anomaly which kept it adrift for most the 400 years since the Ark went off course, only to them it was 10 years due to traveling so near to the speed of light and everyone they knew or loved is long dead. Not a bad start, though credibility is quickly challenged as the crew consists of a strapping guy in his late 30s with two women in their 20s, adrift for ten years in a cozy little space probe, and nobody ended up sleeping together? Baloney, but slightly worth it for the presence of actor Lloyd Bochner from "Point Blank" and "The Six Million Dollar Man" before his acting is sunk by the bizarre "space senility" plot device created to impose time-wasting conflict among the characters. Of happier note is that Garth apparently scores with one of the ladies, or at least appears somewhat less pissed off than usual following their private visit to the space probe after drinking champagne together. Attaboy.

"The Pisces" on YouTube.

5) THE CHILDREN OF METHUSELAH: Our heroes' computer made space sandwich lunchtime is interrupted by an out of breath Devon announcing the discovery of a backup bridge control system manned by children. Whom it turns out were given an anti-aging serum before the Ark had even launched, and with no one else to tell them what to do are still busily working away at simulated course corrections. They are five hundred year old beings in the bodies of children, which should have been interesting except that other than reciting scripted technobabble in serious tones they still behave, look, and sound like kids running around in bizarre Romper Room jumpsuits with big red numbers clumsily sewn on the front. Has a cringe-inducing Freudian slip for dialog when the older of the girls talks about "Inserting a cerebral probe directly into the pleasure center to stimulate the receptors." Oh really? and boy did I want to punch #1 for being such a dick to her, the brat. Still kind of fun, especially when Gath gets all pissed off and the kids put the whammy on to shut him up. Twice.

"The Children of Methuselah" on YouTube.

6) AND ONLY MAN IS VILE: Confusing, downbeat, muddled and plot-heavy episode about the heroes stumbling upon a slightly mad scientist's experiments into human behavior in a seemingly deserted leisure biosphere, only to find themselves being tested by having their lifelong loyalties pitted against each other. Almost works on the level of a 1970s paranoia play, with wooden acting, stilted dialog and bland production elements undermining the viewer's ability to give a damn for very long. Has a good sequence where the always pissed-off Garth manages to cut himself with one of those rounded arrow tips we used for archery in gym class, and Simon Oakland gets to chew the scenery while just sitting behind a video terminal as the first of the show's several mad scientist characters. The chick is kind of cute though, and they had the good sense to show as much skin off as possible by costuming her in a high cut space suit miniskirt for which they have my thanks. But this episode sucks and may likely be when most people who had been watching decided to see what was on "Wide World of Sports", "Lawrence Welk", "Hee-Haw", or Christ maybe even PBS.  Anything.

"And Only Man is Vile" on YouTube.

7) CIRCUIT OF DEATH: One of the better installments of the series both in terms of plotting and execution finds the heroes stumbling upon another slightly mad scientist's gambit to activate the Ark's chintzy looking self destruct mechanism and blast off into space with his daughter in an escape pod to idillic existence like "The Tempest". He manages to bungle it up and the race is on to figure out whether its the blue wire or the red wire they should cut while a digital readout clocks down the seconds until detonation. The father daughter team is also black, and for whatever reason the racial dynamic is completely ignored in favor of making the gal an epileptic prone to seizures for a lesson in tolerance for others. Gee. Has a great scene where Garth gets all pissed off at the computer interface talking head, who tells him to cram it. What's super neat about the episode in a cyberpunk kind of way is the idea of shrinking down the heroes to microscopic size so they can enter the damaged circuit themselves to effect repairs, a feat accomplished by donning foil windbreakers & relaxing in a naugahyde lounge chair. Which is basically the approach we pretended to use for all manner of such activities when we were seven. "Far out."

"Circuit of Death" on YouTube.

8) GALLERY OF FEAR: Another successful episode in terms of plotting & delivery finds the heroes being drawn into a part of the Ark controlled by a sentient computer with a narcissistic personality disorder intent on tricking them into altering its programming so it can take over the entire Ark. To do what? is never really addressed, but in its madness the computer conjures the presence of pin-up actress Angel Tompkins with glistening pink lipstick and bedecked in a snug foil space leotard which is exceptionally delightful to behold as she walks back and forth across the sets. Has a great sequence where the long dead commander of the Ark is summoned as a hologram and regretfully announces that he cannot help them out of their jam because he's not a man, just a collection of data representing whom he was. Sure, some of the low-budget antics work against the overall vibe but if the series had managed a few more installments of such merit 20th Century Fox may have renewed it long enough to let them fix the Ark and go about their way. But no, and for me this chapter serves as the high water mark of the series.

"Gallery of Fear" on YouTube.

9) MR. SMITH OF MANCHESTER: More misguided 1970s paranoia as our heroes find themselves accused of being spies by the crazed, violence-obsessed governor of a biosphere society focused on the production of war goods. You'd think 800 years into the future we'd be using something other than submachine guns or tanks to confront aggression, and the episode has a nasty tone to it which never lightens up after an electronic waterboarding session which understandably leaves Devon out of breath. Except of course for the scene where a bit character wheels his body cart by chanting "Bring out your dead". Too bad Monty Python sent that idea up a year later, providing the series' biggest unintentional retconned laugh. But three cheers for guest star Ed Ames' foxy receptionist space babe, again clad in a thigh-revealing futuristic miniskirt uniform & providing the episode's three or four moments of genuine interest just by walking across the set. Too bad they couldn't come up with more for her to do.

"Mr. Smith of Manchester" on YouTube.

10) THE ALIEN ORO: Misfit "Star Trek" actor Walter "Chekov" Koenig guest stars as a gold lame glitter suited, Go-Go booted, pug-faced alien menace whose scout ship manages to crash into the hundreds-plus mile long space Ark during a scouting mission. You'd think he'd have seen it in time, but at least he had Euro Horror hottie Alexandra Bastedo on board to stand around during the episode looking sexy in her form-fitting foil space suit. Or her somewhat formal space gown costume with the dress slit up to the hip. Or her more sensible work dress costume with the plunging neckline. Good God she's hot, even managing to charm the perpetually pissed-off Garth before actually speaking a word to him. Though the writers made an unforgivable mistake by copping her with a sudden obscure medical condition for plot drama before the two can manage to get themselves laid. Could have been enjoyable but the droll soap opera dynamic chosen flattens whatever intrigue may have been generated. And poor Garth … I'd be all pissed off after missing out on that too.

"The Alien Oro" on YouTube.

11) THE ASTRO MEDICS: The likely low point of the series with more hospital room medical drama as Devon manages to crack his noggin in a hydraulic door and the perpetually pissed-off Garth has to to call in the Ark's medical rescue services for help or he'll kick their asses. Lots of hand-wringing and standing around talking about dire medical crisis in comforting voices with very little for our three heroes to do, yet plenty of time for an obnoxious sub-plot about the rift between a son and father doctor pair exacerbated by the arrival of snuffling, groveling aliens never seen in person whom the son chooses to save over Devon. Or what EVER, with bizarre futuristic doctors costumes, kind of a leggy head nurse, and the presence of character actor Michael Zenon from 1977's "Rituals" in a bit role adding moderate interest for nerds like myself who are addicted to this kind of crap. We watch it, suffer, and say nothing, grateful to have anything else to watch other than sports.

"The Astro Medics" on YouTube.

12) THE IMPLANT PEOPLE: Unpleasant and boring episode about another biosphere meglomaniac who has enslaved the inhabitants of his society by conning them into having brain frequency implants installed. He carries a swagger stick along with a handy little box featuring a settings dial, and upon flipping a switch the supporting cast writhe about on the floor in agony as he laughs. What fun, and probably when my dad said enough & changed the station for good. Our heroes get involved after a young urchin steals Garth's crossbow, making him even more pissed off than usual, then find themselves caught up in a 1984-inspired story about an underground political revolt to unseat the maniac from power. Less is more and this installment manages only to be slightly disturbing with a low entertainment factor while having far too much plot going on. The action is all set in static rooms or the underground tunnels making the proceedings claustrophobic and unimaginative looking. The psycho is OK and I actually kind of like the kid, but what's up with all the ridiculous looking arte-modern framed pictures on the walls? Looks like they'd just raided a dentists office.

"The Implant People" on YouTube.

13) THE RETURN OF ORO: The show's producers pulled out all the stops for this one, an extravaganza / opus of science fiction soap opera and low impact character comedy which even has a big goofy looking robot with the voice of a foxy schoolteacher, and doesn't apologize for any of it. Walter "Chekov" Koenig dons the gold lame suit & Go-Go boots again as the meddling Oro, whose return without the delicious Alexandra Bastedo pisses Garth right off. Canadian independent movie icon Henry Beckman guest stars as a scavenger roaming the Ark looking for useful stuff to steal, and the producers finally demonstrated they had a sense of humor with some interesting gags involving censored speech, stun guns, and Walter Koenig's image as a science fiction celebrity. At one point he is armed with what appears to be a paper towel dispenser and the poor slob still plays it straight, which makes it even funnier. A farce from start to finish with those responsible seemingly aware of what a mess this show really was and therefore one of the more enjoyable episodes of the lot. Even if it's all pretty silly.

"The Return of Oro" on YouTube.

14) FARTHING'S COMET: Dirt poor budgetary limits and clumsy visual effects sink the show's big "space ships being fixed by space men in space" episode. Another egoistical scientist puts the Ark in harm's way in a personal bid for glory at the close study of a comet (which he also modestly names after himself, what a guy). The Ark is damaged by debris from its tail -- d'oh -- and our three heroes have to don foil suits with fish tank helmets to go outside and repair it. With the worst of the series' ultra klutzy visual effects turning Devon's bid to figure out if its the blue wire or the red wire into a stultifying mess of low-tech bluescreened craparoni. The flaw is not just a suspension of disbelief issue, watching the episode unfold is like coaxing your favorite turtle to win in a turtle race. You know the damn thing isn't listening but you urge it on anyway, and when its over everybody sort of wins. Which is another way of saying that this series was doomed before they actors even set foot onstage, but they carried on anyway and you can't help but admire even the worst of the results.

"Farthing's Comet" on YouTube.

15) BEEHIVE: One of the most absurd chapters of the entire venture is also one of the more memorable -- Our heroes wind up trapped in another deranged scientist's surprisingly successful experiment to breed honey bees the size of Volkswagon vans & finds them communicating with him. They telepathically possess the scientist and he starts to aid their scheme to turn the entire Ark into a giant honeycomb, while Garth gets all pissed off about being unable to kick anyone's ass over it. Bizarre costuming, weirdo color schemes, disturbing macro-lens bee footage and stranger than usual music transform the events into a sort of cartoon vision with viewers aligning themselves with either the bees or the people. I pick the bees, they didn't ask for what was happening to them. Harlan Ellison referred to this as a "Giant Ant Episode" when speaking disparagingly of the series after parting ways with the producers. Only thing is people remember crap like giant ants or talking bees and it remains a fan favorite in spite of his contempt.  Sorry!

"Beehive" on YouTube.

16) SPACE PRECINCT: Perhaps the strangest episode of the lot reportedly hints at what the producers had in mind as a reboot of the show for season two had it been renewed by 20th Century Fox. They didn't bite, and this was how the series ended -- Garth finally gets pissed off enough to tell Devon to go stuff it, splits to go back home and finds himself first detained by then recruited to work for the Ark's Space Police, who are costumed even more strangely than the Astro Medics. A meaningless subplot about the other two heroes trapped in an elevator (??) distracts from scenes where the sneering, evil, hot little Ark police space babe technician parades around onscreen in a miniskirt uniform, which would have made for fine television by itself; Give that gal a series of her own. Thrown in is an even more meaningless subplot about an alien invasion which has nothing to do with the fate of the Ark padding out the nonsense to full episode length. Complete with an annoying "launch window" plot device which lasts about fifteen seconds after being discussed endlessly for the duration of the episode. Strangest of all is how watchable it still managed to be, hypnotically bad and a messy conclusion as the show was abruptly cancelled. They're still out there, you see ...

"Space Precinct" on YouTube.

In a bid to reclaim some lasting syndication potential the show was later edited into six two hour "movie" versions each featuring two of the episodes combined together. That didn't work either, though the show did find a cult status of some sort on home video and now DVD. Entertainment company VCI has the sixteen episodes on a DVD box set that's worth a rental from Netflix. Or just watch along from YouTube using the links above. You may even find yourself ordering the set from using this link here. Once caught by the series' scant charms you'll watch it again sometime, I wager.

Or click here for the definitive Starlost fan page including the fascinating story of the enormous main model rig of the Earthship Ark.

And click here to visit Harlan Ellison's Webderland, his official authorized presence on the net, and word has it he read this over to favorable response. Megacheers, Sir!

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