Monday, October 27, 2014

The Return of the Starlost

If memory serves, I've brought this up before -- it was hard being an SF fanboy in the seventies. Actually, it was great if you liked to READ science fiction. The genre was enjoying a resurgence, and the market was flooded with daring concepts and breathtaking prose experimentation. Among the leading lights was Harlan Ellison: provocateur, scrappy genius. He had just spearheaded a collection of short stories called Dangerous Visions, where he commisioned work from his colleagues that only had to follow one rule: write something so controversial that no sane publisher would greenlight it. It was successful enough that he brought out a 2nd volume a few years later.

If you weren't in the mood to read, on the other hand, man were you screwed. SF had an audience, that much was clear. Just a few years previous 2001: A Space Oddessey had run to sold-out and admittedly baffled audiences. Star Trek, a show which NBC had canceled but was playing in reruns, was getting better ratings than it had when it was new. But it was still considered a small fan base. And worse, you couldn't just order up costumes and sets off the rack, you had to design and build everything from scratch. It was more expensive than other entertainment and you stood less chance of luring audiences with it. This is a why SF in movies and on TV was almost always disappointing. It promised the parting of the Red Sea and delivered a fish tank bisected by a box lid.

It's for this reason that we were all excited to hear that Douglas Trumbull and a couple of other guys were going to produce a VERY expensive show called The Starlost to premiere in 1973. Trumbull had developed a system called "Magicam" a kind of early motion-control rig which allowed one camera for an actor on a green screen set and another synchronized to follow the same movements on a miniature set. The plan was to get the BBC to co-produce. Finally, quality SF! With that in mind they commissioned Harlon Ellison himself to write the first episode and show bible. With his retainer in hand, Ellison started kicking around ideas.

The show would be set on a vast starship, segmented in biodomes. On it, the survivors of our dead Earth, the last of the human race. But during it's long journey to a new world, there had been a catastrophe.  The starship had gone into emergency mode, locking down all the biodomes into their own  separate  worlds. The people in them, now generations removed from the original travelers, were unaware they were even on a space ship, let alone that there were things outside the domes.

Oh and the ship was on a collision course with a star and no one knew how to pilot it.

The show would follow the adventures of a trio of friends who learned the truth and were going from dome to dome, trying to avert the catastrophe.

In the months leading up to shooting, the producers promised a kind of epic quasi Star Trek, only with the added element of a ticking clock. And they were right on course until they got hit by a few  meteor showers of their own.

1. BBC said no thanks, not interested, thanks for your kind attention.
2. Writer's strike prevented Ellison from putting anything on paper.
3. Once the producers made a new deal to do the show in Canada and contracted for the use of sets, they realized that Magicam only worked about half the time. So they had these tiny sets that they couldn't use and full size sets that weren't really all the big.

They soldiered on. They hired Canadian talent, thus making the show Canadian, which meant the writer's guild had no jurisdiction there. Ellison wrote outlines for the episodes and a pilot, "Phoenix Without Ashes." Once he turned it in the producers revealed that instead of the lavish budget he had written around, the show was to cost the same as a typical hour of Canadian TV. Except that the lion's share of that money was going to star Kier Dullea, fresh from 2001 and sporting an impressive 70's porn 'stache.

You know the expression "talk is cheap?" One thing is for sure, it's a damn sight cheaper than action and special effects. Instead of an epic Star Trek, Starlost is like an Enterprise with a crew of three people, only instead of warping from one planet to another, they walk there. And with lead characters as good-looking, bland and colorless as Canadian entertainment itself.

Ellison was made to rewrite his pilot to accommodate the much lower budget. Between the urging to cut all the pricey elements and the demands to make it "more accessible" to viewers (yes, stupid enough for them) Ellison invoked a clause in the contract to take his name off the show. He is listed in the credits as "Cordwainer Bird".

16 episodes were produced, put into syndication, and pretty much vanished without a trace. The show itself wasn't nearly as interesting as the story behind it. In fact, Ben Bova, a sci-fi novelist and consultant for the hard science on Starlost, put out a thinly veiled roman-a-clef called The Starcrossed  which was, as I recall, pretty darn illuminating.

As illustrative as this tale is, I wouldn't have brought it up except now, on Roku, there is a Starlost channel. You can relive the excitement of growing up in the seventies, desperately wanting something  stimulating to watch, and getting the Starlost instead. I recommend it.


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