The Complete Series
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Reviewed by Will Harris
he giant earth ship Ark: drifting through deep space over 800 years into the far future. Its passengers: the descendants of the last survivors of the dead planet Earth, locked in separate worlds, headed for destruction unless three young people can save…The Starlost!”
When sitting down to review ‘70s sci-fi television, particularly the series which were done on videotape rather than proper film, you need to adopt the proper mindset -- and it’s a surprisingly difficult mindset to find. First you must embrace the concept of the show you’re watching, and then you must attempt to maintain your appreciation of that concept no matter what cheesy sets, laughable special effects, or thoroughly implausible techno-babble may be thrown your way. Obviously, not every show from this era can stand up to this kind of scrutiny, but “The Starlost” is particularly frustrating because of the amount of potential that was never realized.
The original concept of “The Starlost” came from the mind of Harlan Ellison, whose work for “The Outer Limits” (“Demon with a Glass Hand”) and “Star Trek” (“City on the Edge of Forever”) had already made him into a legend of sci-fi television. Ellison’s vision for the series involved the imminent destruction of Earth, inspiring humanity to build a multi-generational starship with dozens of isolated, self-contained biospheres to house people of different cultures; as decades and centuries pass, new generations of these biospheres arise, some of whom don’t even realize they’re on a starship. Devon (Keir Dullea, best remembered as Dave Bowman in “2001: A Space Odyssey”), a resident of an Amish-like community on the ship, finds his way out of his home area and discovers not only where he is but that the Ark, as it’s called, is on a collision course with a sun. (It turns out that the command section had been destroyed quite some time ago, leaving the Ark with no pilot.)
Great concept. Too bad Ellison’s vision wasn’t fully realized.
If you know much about Harlan Ellison, then you know that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and his experience on “The Starlost” is probably the greatest proof of that, since his name doesn’t even appear on the series as its creator. Instead, he’s credited his preferred nom de plume for the works where he’s embarrassed by the final product: Cordwainer Bird. If you’d like to know what the series would’ve been like had Ellison had his way, then you should pick up a copy of “Phoenix Without Ashes,” a novelization of his original script by author Edward Bryant that opens with an essay by Ellison detailing his trials on the show. Reading this before actually watching “The Starlost: The Complete Series” will provide you with considerable insight into what went wrong. And if that isn’t enough, then check out “The Starcrossed,” a novel by Ben Bova which, though technically fiction, does a surprisingly good job of detailing the author’s horrible (and short-lived) experience as an advisor on the show.
If you haven’t gotten the idea yet, “The Starlost” is not a good show, but it’s just as clear that it started out as one before it was “dumbed down” by executives along the way. Watching the final product, however, is downright depressing. Many of the episodes have interesting sci-fi concepts, such as a biosphere run by children whose aging process has been halted until the ship has been taken to safety (in the end, it turns out that they never would’ve gotten there, since they’ve been unknowingly running a training program for several centuries). Not only is the acting often awful, but the direction is positively leaden. These might’ve been great half-hour episodes, but dragging them out to an hour long makes them into painful experiences. Dullea might be the matinee actor in the cast, but he only comes off slightly better than his co-stars, Gay Rowan and Robin Ward.
There are a few notable exceptions with the acting, the most prominent being “The Goddess Calabra,” which teams up sci-fi legends Barry Morse (“Space: 1999”) and John Colicos (“Star Trek,” the original “Battlestar Galactica”) and offers them a scene where they get to act opposite each other and no one else. It’s a great scene, but it’s a reminder of just how sub-par everyone else in the series is, leading you to suspect that the two gentlemen may have threatened the episode’s director if he dared to suggest how they might play their roles. Sterling Hayden also does a nice job in the series’ first episode, and Lloyd Bochner is enjoyable in what’s arguably the show’s best episode, “The Pisces,” about a scout ship which returns after centuries away but, due to the effects of time, only a few years has passed for its inhabitants. Otherwise, however, there’s not much to recommend about the folks who turn up on the Ark. Yes, that includes you, Walter Koenig. Thank God you had the “Star Trek” films to fall back on, because you didn’t do yourself any favors with your pair of guest spots as Oro the Alien.
If you remember “The Starlost” fondly from your youth, you’ll probably still want to check out this DVD release, if only to refresh your memories. Like “Land of the Lost,” you might even want to defend what you see before you, assuring others that the concept of this show is so much better than the special effects technology of the era that it can only help but look bad as a result.
You will, however, be kidding yourself. “The Starlost” is just one big, depressing missed opportunity.
Special Features: There’s only one, but it’s a fascinating one. A gentleman named Lewis Schoenburn (presumably the director of the same name, though it’s not clarified) found a 16mm reel containing the original seven-minute-long sales pitch for the series that was sent to American television stations. Dullea appears alongside special effects god Douglas Trumball. Yes, he was proud of the show’s effects. How far we’ve come.