Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Starlost

Recently, I found myself thinking about The Starlost for no particular reason. In case you're not familiar with it, The Starlost was a Canadian produced science fiction series that was first aired back in 1973. More correctly, it was a really bad Canadian produced science fiction series that was first aired back in 1973.

The concept was promising enough, if not completely original. Earth had perished in some unnamed galactic disaster, but not before the last survivors managed to build a giant interstellar spaceship dubbed "The Ark" whose purpose was to take several samplings of the Earth's population to distant worlds where they would try to begin anew.

The Ark consisted of several large domes, known as "biospheres", that were interconnected by tubes but, at the same time, isolated from each other. Each biosphere represented one of Earth's indiginous populations.

Unfortunately, a few hundred years into her journey, the Ark suffered yet another unnamed disaster which killed her entire crew and set her on a collison course with a distant star. None of the surviving populations in the biospheres were aware of this catastrophe and, in fact, as the generations passed, most forgot that they were even aboard a spaceship.

The series began in one of these biospheres, known as Cypress Corners, an agrarian, Amish-like society with no idea of their true situation and fate. One particular member of this society, a young rebel known as Devon, accidentally discovers the truth of his situation after being exiled by the Elders and threatened with death. So he takes Rachel, the woman he loves and whom the Elders refuse to allow him to marry, and Garth, whom Rachel was supposed to marry and who isn't entirely fond of Devon, and the three set about finding some way of avoiding the Ark's apparent fate.

Devon was played by Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame. The story concept was penned by celebrated science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, and was produced by Douglas Trumbull, who served as effects producer for 2001: A Space Odyssey. With that kind of pedigree behind it, how could it miss, right?

One word. Budget. Or, rather, lack thereof. That and it was produced in Canada, by a bunch of people who had no concept of how to successfully produce a weekly science fiction series. Quite simply stated, the effects and production values behind The Starlost were so sub-standard, they made the original 1960's Star Trek series look like Blade Runner. We're talking sets that were built using furniture taken straight out of a 1970's office furniture catalog. We're talking blue screen effects so poorly done that you could clearly see the dark outlines around the actors. We're talking background music that sounded like it was produced on a Commodore 64. Aside from Dullea, we're talking mostly B-grade actors who seem to think that they're on a stage rather than in front of a camera. Special mention goes to Robin Ward, who played Garth; an actor so wooden he'd make an oak tree jealous! An initial run of 24 episodes were planned, but the series was cancelled after only 16.

I recall watching a few episodes back when the series was first aired. In spite of its flaws, I liked it. For one thing, I always had a soft spot for sci fi of any kind, which made me more forgiving than most. Also, the show did have its charms. One that stands out most clearly in my memory is the goofy sphere projectors that would inform and enlighten Devon. They consisted of a chair positioned in front of a round CRT-style screen. Simply sitting in the chair, or even touching it, caused a very strange-looking bespectacled, bearded face to appear on the screen, which intoned the words "Can I be of ... (dramatic pause) ... assistance?" Devon would question the man on the screen and he would answer Devon's questions as best he could.

The mannerisms of the face on the sphere projector were truly amusing. It would stare intently at Devon and sometimes smile condescendingly when he asked a particularly simpleton question, such as "what is a universe?" If Devon asked a question that required a moment's thought (or, rather, data retrieval from the memory banks, I suppose), the face would pause and blink its eyes or intersperse its answers with "hmmm's". It was truly amusing to watch. Unfortunately, a part of me always suspected that it wasn't meant to be amusing.

In spite of it's appalling badness (and I don't mean that in the Michael Jackson sense of the word), I remember The Starlost fondly. Don't ask me why. It's a hard thing to explain. Part of it has to do with my natural weakness for nostalgia. Aside from that, though, The Starlost had potential. Although the execution was mishandled, the concept was quite good. Watching the show, one can't help but see the glimmer of unrealized promise from time to time. The story concepts were generally good. I don't recall any "Spock's Brain" type episodes. Also, the show's atmosphere was somewhat chilling in that the Ark seemed such an empty, forlorn place, almost like a ghost ship drifting through the cosmos. This may have been partially unintentional and owing to the paucity of sets and cast, but it somehow worked given the show's premise. I can't help thinking that if The Starlost were remade today, given modern technology and a proper budget, it might just be great.


Martin said...

I agree that Robin Ward's character was kind of wooden, but that might have been more a product of the scripts and production values than of the actor himself. I say that because in my college days, I used to watch this game show on which Robin Ward was the host. I can't remember the show's title, and it doesn't really matter, because - like The Starlost - it was a cheap production that I'm sure hardly anyone remembers. But I got a kick out of Ward because of his off-the-cuff antics and often self-depracating remarks. Sometimes he would mention his acting credits, wincing as he did so. Once he paused and stared into the camera with this forlorn look, and said "you know, I once dreamed of being an actor." Ha ha.

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E.J. Westlake said...

This is an old post, but I'm watching The Starlost anew after being a fellow fan back in the 70s. I loved it then, but I think I was about 8 or 9 years old. Fun to be watching it again. I noticed that Robin Ward is still doing stage acting. Probably a much better venue for him. And Kier Dullea seems to want to look at the camera occasionally and say: "Really?"

VegasBartender said...

I loved the show, I wished it had lived past 1 season. It brings me back to a time when I was young and space show could get away with anything if they talked smart. Now I am older and I understand the gibberish that they were trying to feed us. LOL It is still an awesome show.