It was supposed to be fantastic. It certainly had the pedigree to be one of the greatest Sci-Fi series of all time.
In a time before Star Wars, but after 2001: A Space Odyssey, the entertainment industry, in a rare moment of inspired genius, thought the world was once again ready for the next great Sci-Fi series. Star Trek had been off the air for over three years, and despite the best efforts of its creator, Gene Roddenberry failed to make something that connected with audiences in the same way.
Enter, The Starlost, a television series with the best of intentions.
Before I go any further I should mention nearly everyone involved with the creation of this series has disavowed it with a level of hatred and vitriol rarely seen in anything outside of politics. The legendary creator of the series, Harlan Ellison, took his name off it; the visual effects wizard, Douglas Trumbull, walked away from it; and the scientific advisor, Ben Bova, found his experience so miserable he wrote a comedic novel about his tenure, mockingly entitled, The Starcrossed. The show’s public persona didn’t fare much better. In Sci-Fi lore, The Starlost is often described somewhere between completely forgotten and the worst TV show ever made.
The story of The Starlost’s demise is nearly as entertaining as the show itself. It has cut budgets, a writer’s strike, broken promises, special effects so bad they made 70’s Doctor Who look real, and, of course, a furiously angry and entertaining Harlan Ellison. In addition to Bova’s The Starcrossed novel, Ellison wrote a fantastic essay (Somehow, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore) about the show’s implosion, which should be required reading for any aspiring writer selling a brilliant idea to the Hollywood machine.
So, with all that going against it why even discuss it? Because, it’s brilliant.
Like so many things in Science Fiction, The Starlost was ahead of its time. The concept, in a nutshell, is about the massive spaceship Earthship Ark, two hundred miles long, taking the last of Earth’s civilizations through space to find another habitable planet to start over. Along the way an accident occurs, unbeknownst to the Ark’s inhabitants. The oblivious inhabitants are sealed away in dozens of individual biosphere domes many miles in circumference. More than four hundred years go by causing the inhabitants to seemingly forget they’re even in space. They forget they are on an Ark, they forget their own history, and they don’t know they are heading for a collision course with a star that will vaporize them. What’s worst of all, some of the dome communities think theirs is the only world going. And why wouldn’t they? If you live in an actual bubble, what is there to question? Who would?
Devon, played by the highest profile Sci-Fi Canadian actor of the time that wasn’t William Shatner, Keir Dullea, sporting the mother-of-all Pornstaches, is the defiant member of Cypress Corners, a dome with an Amish type community that seems to be living in the late nineteenth century. When Devon proclaims his love for Rachel, who is promised to marry his friend Garth, he is banished for his insolence. In questioning the judgment of the elders, led in a great guest cameo by the fantastic Sterling Hayden, Devon sealed his own fate. Devon’s defiance leads to his shunning and eventual imprisonment in order to silence him.
After being freed by Garth, Devon embarks on a journey through a forbidden door with Rachel and Garth in tow. They discover the secret of their entire world is one giant lie. In the face of such knowledge Garth implores Devon to return to Cypress Corners and forget about what he found. Garth would rather go back to what he used to know, get married to Rachel, and live a simple life. Devon flatly replies “Never.”
The trio’s adventures find them each week in different parts of the ship, where they discover, wide-eyed, just how out of touch they’ve been. Sometimes they find friends, sometimes they have to fight their way out, but most of all they are racing to save the lives of people who often don’t appreciate it. The inhabitants aren’t nearly as enlightened as Devon, and they aren’t in a hurry to help him steer the ship away from danger.
Although the show became something he loathed, Ellison’s original concept, remains brilliant. Ellison’s original pilot script (not the one filmed) won a Writer’s Guild of America Award in 1974 and was novelized a year later by Edward Bryant with the original title Phoenix Without Ashes. In 2010 IDW Publishing adapted it into a graphic novel with the same title.
In watching the series, it’s impossible not to notice influences on so many other Sci-Fi titles using the “bubble concept”, most notably: M.Night Shymalan’s The Village, The Matrix Franchise, and many tenants of Scientology. Of course, the direct influence from Douglas Trumbull’s own film Silent Running is undeniable, as it seems to use extra footage from his directorial debut (which also featured a ship with biospheres) in The Starlost’s opening titles.
I was struck when watching the show just how much it mirrors the current political situation in the United States. Without drawing direct political comparisons, it’s fair to say depending on what news channel you prefer, one can get completely different realities. It was very easy to see how, even when presented with incontrovertible evidence, people would choose simply not to believe they lived on a ship heading for a crash. If that seems like a stretch, remember a man shot up a pizza place in Washington D.C. because he was certain it was a front for a child sex ring run by Hilary Clinton.
Besides, the last thing people in a bubble want to admit, is that they live in a bubble at all. It’s admitting everything you’ve known is a lie. This notion isn’t exclusive to politics. I watched people, smart people, defend Bill Cosby, not because they doubted his guilt, but because they wanted to hang onto the feeling they had for him before they knew. They loved his fantastic, groundbreaking, TV show, his exceptional comedy albums, and him, they loved him, America’s Dad. But the world doesn’t work like that. You can’t simply unknow something. You can fake it, but once you know what “Soylent Green” is really made of, it’ll never taste the same again. Same goes for SPAM.
In The Starlost, Devon knows, and it’s fun to go with him.
In addition to the aforementioned Sterling Hayden, The Starlost has some notable guest stars including Sci-Fi stalwarts; John Colicos (Battlestar Galactica), Barry Morse (The Outer Limits, Space 1999), and Walter Koenig (Chekov from Star Trek), who did a fun turn as an alien for a couple episodes. The entire 16 episode series is available on DVD with some limited vintage extra features, including a promotional film by the studio including Douglas Trumbull and Keir Dullea.
In order to truly love The Starlost, one has to embrace the things most people hate. One has to love the cheesy special effects, the passive-aggressive computer, played by the brilliantly annoyed William Osler, and one must get past the pornstache.
A remake of this series would be both timely and welcome, especially in a world with so many bubbles.
My suggestion; go back and use Ellison’s original pilot script and get Ben Bova back to help steer the Ark.