Forget about “The Twilight Zone” or “Outer Limits” or the classic “Doctor Who” years with Tom Baker: CTV’s THE STARLOST is the creepiest, most subtly disturbing television show ever made for general audiences. The background story about how the show came to be reads like a Nazi War Criminal Tribunal transcript: Harlan Ellison — not exactly the most laid back person in first place — is suckered into helping to create an epic television show set in the future, with space ships, laser beams, intergalactic voyage, combining the best talents of the era (Douglas Trumbull, Ben Bova, “Star Trek”‘s alumni of superlative writers) with state-of-the-art technology, to be filmed in London for a worldwide audience hungry for creativity that had never been seen before. The scope would have dwarfed “Star Trek” with an emphasis on real science, astronomy, physics, engineering and a fearless sense of speculation about what could be out there in the universe.
Then it all fell apart: The budget was drawn & quartered, the production syndicated, to be made on the cheap in Canada with a production staff of unknowns who were not trained or equipped to handle such a project. The story premise reduced to the lowest common denominator and the talent marginalized by the stupidity of those who only saw it as another way to sell toilet paper, frozen dinners and underarm deodorant. Blatant misrepresentation of intent finally drove Trumbull and Bova from the sets, and finally Ellison announced he’d had enough. Before the first pilot episode was ever taped he’d demanded that his name be removed from the credits lest the producers reap an undeserved bounty off his well-respected propz. Hyped beyond any possible ability to deliver what it boasted, the show premiered in 1973 to abject indifference from thunderstruck audiences who could not fathom what the point of it all was, mixing 3rd rate television production techniques, bizarre illiteracy of both form and content, and bare-bones production values that were put to shame by that which it attempted to mimic.
Without Ellison’s guidance the show became a sort of working example of how NOT to approach the science fiction genre, at the same time dumbed down beyond belief and yet defying any sort of accepted formula. Punctuated by bizarre, ultra-cheap quasi-minimal production design, brain dead writing and lunkheaded conceptual inconsistencies, it is a unique, remarkable failure of humanity attempting to do something great and yet stubbing their toe on the wainscoting with each step. It was canned almost immediately with the basic conflict of the last remnants of humanity in search of a new world on a giant, derelict space ark unresolved. They are still out there, somewhere, lost and unable to find their way home due to indifference, greed and incompetence.
And yet what a show it IS in the form of the precious 16 episodes that were made, 10 of which are available now on a DVD box set from Britain. It’s the creepiest television show ever made for family audiences, nightmares of it’s basic concept of three lost humans moving from compartment to compartment on an unbelievably huge, lumbering, abandoned “Earthship Ark” haunted me for thirty years. Most of it isn’t very good in the traditional way of looking at television, but as a kind of kitschy, ambiguous and hopelessly retarded entertainment it’s truly one of a kind, for which we should probably be thankful. Harlan may not wish it so but THE STARLOST remains a remarkable example of humanity at their most clueless, with the potential of what could have been eclipsing that which was.
I will let others describe the details of the premise, what interests me about the show is how utterly rudderless, forlorn and misdirected it all feels looking at the remnants 30 years later. If you want a more accurate look at what the show COULD have been, make sure you read the book adaptation of Mr. Ellison’s “pilot episode” story, PHOENIX WITHOUT ASHES, which opens with a really eye-opening 20 page account of the hell he went through just to get this much accomplished. By all accounts he is to this day bitter, caustic, and openly hostile about the experience, and I agree that an authorized present day attempt to re-visualize his concept is entirely appropriate. Not a “re-make”, since THE STARLOST as it is known today doesn’t really officially exist. It was taken away from him and made stupid by those who pulled the strings; The idea is still worthy.
None of which, by the way, is meant to denigrate the efforts of those who stuck around & gave it the good old college try. It’s not their fault. They did their best and just happened to come up empty, though some of what survives to this day is remarkable: The principal leads (Kier Dullea, Gay Rowan, the perpetually gruff Robin Ward, and William Oster as the endlessly helpful computer “host”) were very well cast and gave their all, and the guest appearances by some of the best & brightest of the day (the late Lloyd Bochner, a misplaced Walter Koenig, “Space: 1999″‘s Barry Morse, priceless Ed Ames, and John Colicos who even makes the word vegetable sound like a Shakespeare sonnet) are wonderful. Trumbull’s special effects don’t come across well on the small screen but are entirely practical given Bova’s scientific guidance. Superficially the show resembles “Doctor Who” though far, far less profound as realized.
If it had been made right by honest visionaries who were interested in amounting to more than the sum of their parts it could have gone on for three or four seasons at least, perhaps even fulfilling Ellison’s proposed story arc of the three heroes eventually repairing the ark and setting it on it’s way again. Yet as an unfinished sketch of that idea it exists like a half remembered dream, haunting because of it’s fleeting nature rather than hampered by never having been finished.