Personal blog - and temporary home page until new website is finished - of writer, editor and graphic artist Christopher Mills


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

DVD Review: The Starlost

Like many other things in my life, I first discovered the existence of The Starlost through the pages of Starlog magazine in the mid-70's. I learned there that it had been a short-lived 1973 television series created by Harlan Ellison, who, dissatisfied by the final product, had chosen to use his pen name of "Cordwainer Bird" in the credits.

I also knew that Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, played the lead role of Devon, a young Amish man who discovers that his small world of Cypress Corners is actually an artificial biosphere, one of many that make up the Earthship Ark – a vast multi-generation spacecraft. Venturing beyond his own artificial world, he discovers that a cataclysmic accident several hundred years before killed the command crew of the Ark, and it is now crippled and off-course, heading directly toward a star. With his friends Rachel and Garth, Devon searches the Ark for some way to correct the ship's course, or for someone knowledgeable enough save it and the millions of people isolated in their own biospheres – most of whom are unaware that they are on a spaceship at all.

And that was about it.

In the late 80's I came across a paperback copy of Phoenix Without Ashes, Edward Bryant's novelization of Ellison's original pilot script for the series. The introduction to the book – by Ellison himself – detailed the series' troubled production and the reasons for the acclaimed author's unhappiness with the show. The novel was pretty good, and piqued my interest, but as the series had only run for 16 episodes and was virtually unseen in syndication, I figured I'd never see the show. Which disappointed me, because I love 70's sci-fi television, no matter how bad its reputation.

Well, considering all the obscurities that have been dug up and released on DVD in the last decade, I should have guessed that somebody would put it on digital disc eventually, and sure enough, the folks at VCI Entertainment have done just that. All 16 episodes of the Canadian-produced show are now available on a compact, 4-disc set.

Produced on a very small budget, the show was shot on videotape and featured modular sets that could be disassembled and reassembled in different configurations to suggest new sections of the vast Earthship Ark. There was also extensive use of chromakey (bluescreen), which enabled the production team to drop the actors "into" miniature sets, which saved even more money. Too bad most of the miniatures were pretty unconvincing.

The videotape filming, sets and costumes give the series a look similar to Doctor Who episodes of the same vintage, but The Starlost doesn't have the same charismatic characters or ambitious storylines and unbridled imagination of Who. In fact, it's pretty mundane all around.

The stories started out okay – if overly cliched – but soon devolved into silliness, with the sort of ludicrous faux science that was common in the era's sci-fi TV. And that's a real shame since some decent guest stars appeared on the show, including familiar genre faces John Colicos (the original Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek), Barry Morse (Space: 1999), Simon Oakland (Kolchak: The Night Stalker), and Walter Koenig (Star Trek, Babylon 5).

Still, I found myself growing somewhat fond of Devon, Garth (Robin Ward) and Rachel (Gay Rowan), and I thought that some of the episodes were pretty entertaining.

Nonetheless, I can completely understand why Ellison disowned the show, and why noted science fiction writer Ben Bova was embarrassed to be credited as the series' "science advisor" – he was completely ignored by the producers, but they kept his name in the credits for the publicity value. Same with special effects ace Douglas Trumball (2001, Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), who quit the show before the first episode was shot, but remained credited as a producer for the entire run.

VCI's DVD set includes all 16 episodes on 4 discs, packed into one standard-sized case. The transfers are sharp and clean, but as noted above, the show was shot on videotape, so the picture quality is far from perfect, with some minor video "noise" and some bleeding colors. It's probably better than it looked on TV in '73, though. The only extra is a presentation reel used to pitch the syndicated series to independent stations before production, hosted by Dullea and Trumball. In this short film, the series is verbally described by Dullea, accompanied by stock effects shots from Trumball's then-recent feature, Silent Running.

The Starlost is a classic missed opportunity – with Ellison, Bova and Trumball aboard, it should have been something remarkable, and revolutionary. Unfortunately, the realities of independent television production, and the bad judgment of the producers resulted instead in an artistic and commercial misfire, interesting only to die hard fans of 70's genre television like myself.

If you consider yourself such a fan, then VCI's set is worth checking out.

8 comments:

Cunningham said...

Chris --

Your experience in discovering STARLOST and mine is virtually identical. I have been catching several episodes on YouTube, but look forward to grabbing this DVD set and reliving the horror...

Okay that was probably a bit too cheeky even for me.

I have written elsewhere that this show needs a serious reboot to bring it into the same creative headspace as BATTLESTAR GALACTICA...

If wishes were fishes...

Christopher Mills said...

Yeah, I've also thought that THE STARLOST was ripe for a modern re-invention along the lines of GALACTICA and DOCTOR WHO...

Ian Sokoliwski said...

Heh.

Having endured it the first time through (being Canadian and all), this show does not need a reboot. Some shows deserve the lack of recognition they receive, and this is about twelve of them right here :D

...although now I've got this sick fascination with it, wanting to see it for the first time in, oh, almost thirty years (it was rerun on Canadian TV for a LOT of years!). I should just YouTube it, and that'll kill any desire to see any more of it :D

Cunningham said...

Ian - I think that's the whole point of the idea of a reboot:

Go back to the core concept and rethink the story so that it's consistent and logical within the confines of its drama. STARLOST was a great concept - both the award-winning script and the novelization "prove" that...it was just never fully "realized."

Ian Sokoliwski said...

Oh, I see what you are saying. And I'd agree except that it would also end up drawing unneeded attention to the original series.

NO, no, it's true, there is a really good idea down there in that series. Buried really deep.

Really, really deep.

Cunningham said...

Hahahahahahahaha...

I didn't say it wouldn't take a firehose to clean it up...

Okay, some bulldozers too.

Cheers!

Jon said...

I heard about this show a couple years ago in relation to J.J. Abrams' LOST season one. If memory serves correct, the message board speculation was that the "hatch" might lead to another biosphere. Boy, were they wrong.

El Vox said...

Yeah, I've been curious about this one too after a friend loaned me his copy to read. He knew I was an Ellison fan, and so it was natural I'd have had interest in the TV series. I see where Netfilx has it so I put it in the queue. I've seen some bad SF, and some I can stand, others I can't. I'm with you though, I don't know why they didn't at least strive for something along the line of Dr Who (and that goes for any low budget things these days).

Recently I caught the Pixar Wall E while visiting my brother in Dallas, amazing little film, sure made a kid of me.