Story: A young man named Devon finds himself ostracized from his community of Cypress Corners because he dares to defy the Elders. It has been decreed by “the Creator” that Rachel, the woman Devon loves, is to marry another young man, Devon’s childhood friend, Garth. After learning that the Elders have been manipulating the judgements of “the Creator”, Devon is sentenced to death. But he escapes to the hills, where he finds a portal to an extremely perplexing place filled with shiny walls and technology the likes of which he has never seen. He learns that what he thought was the world was merely one of thousands of ecopods that house the remains of the human race. These pods form The Ark, a gigantic ship built to bring a cross-section of humanity to a new world, safe from Earth’s impeding destruction. But Devon also learns that something has gone horribly wrong. Hundreds of years earlier, a disaster struck the Ark, diverting it from its course and sending it instead towards the heart of a star. Devon decides to return to Cypress Corners to find help in saving the Ark and all that remains of the human race. But will they listen?
Review: Phoenix Without Ashes is an adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s original pilot for a television series called The Starlost. In a nutshell, The Starlost was a television series that Harlan was hired to create. After quickly falling into his typically antagonistic relationship with the producers, Harlan left the show, disowning it and publicly declaring his contempt for it. His original script was reworked for the first episode and Harlan later allowed author Edward Bryant to adapt that original script into novel form. But far from serving to highlight why Harlan’s script is superior, it only serves to highlight how little it takes to make Harlan feel that his work has been ruined.
Since Harlan takes twenty pages at the beginning of the book to rant about the production of The Starlost, I feel that, unlike most introductions, this one should be addressed. Basically, “Somehow, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas, Toto” is one, long sob story from Harlan. How he was cheated. How the producers lied to him and manipulated him. Poor Harlan, mistreated yet again by those nasty, heartless suits. Except Harlan himself makes it clear from the get-go that he had no faith in the producers or the project. In his own account of his first meeting, he describes himself as getting up to walk out twice. Yet every time something doesn’t work out, he acts as if it was a shock. He also shows an unwillingness to do the hard work to help the show succeed. He seems to be the kind of guy that when the going gets tough, he cuts and runs. And that’s what he, ultimately, did to The Starlost. For various reasons, he refused to be on hand for the actual production. So why is he surprised when communication proved difficult and the things he thought were settled proved not to be? Television shows are difficult births under the best of conditions. But when the guy with all the ideas seems intent on making things worse (some sort of bizarre love of the self-fulfilling prophesy is my guess) there’s really no chance. I suppose I’d be more sympathetic if I hadn’t read dozens of stories about the difficulties faced by shows like Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and countless others. They all faced horrible problems; not enough money, scripts that weren’t workable, scheduling problems. But they all overcame them because ultimately, their creators cared enough to tough it out. All The Starlost had was a bitter, cynical creator who expected nothing but trouble and failure and never cared enough to devote himself to its success. In the end, this supposed history of the show just serves to feed Harlan’s ego and his self-described condition as the “put-upon” writer. But he comes off as whiny, childish and unable to work with others. Film and television production is a collaborative field and Harlan just doesn’t seem to be cut out for it. When you consider the fact that he thinks his Star Trek episode, City On The Edge Of Forever is a disaster as-filmed, you can understand that to him, it’s either 100% his way or it’s crap. (The animosity between Harlan and Gene Roddenberry over this episode also serves to make an anecdote Harlan relates here, concerning Roddenberry defending him when the Starlost producers called him for help, very difficult to believe.) Want prime Harlan? Try this quote on for size from his post-mortem on the show: “Friends call me when they see The Starlost…, and they tell me how much they like it. I snarl and hang up on them.” I’m sure he does.
But what of this book? Well, Harlan won awards for his original script (just as he did for City) which serves to “prove” that his stuff was better than what made it on screen. Given the fact that scripts were not the kind of thing you could generally sell to the public in those days, it makes sense that he would choose a novel as the vehicle for bringing out the “real” story of the Starlost. Also, given his tendency not to return to previous works, it’s also not surprising that he didn’t do any work on this book except for the introduction. Harlan describes it as “pure Bryant”. That is, this is Bryant’s novel, not his. Yet it is interesting to note that few other authors of novelizations have to share authorship with the original writer. Oh, it may say “based on the original screenplay by such-and-such” (and this one does, too – “Adapted from the award-winning script by Harlan Ellison” it says on the title page), but actual co-authorship to someone who did no work on it and states himself that it’s entirely the work of another? Only Harlan.
As for the book, let’s start at the beginning and talk about the title. “Phoenix Without Ashes”. I’ve seen the show and read the book and I still have no freakin’ idea what Harlan means by that. He loves those wacky, cryptic titles, he does. Harlan makes a lot of noise about how stupid the title of the episode as filmed is. But given the basic nature of the story, Voyage Of Discovery may lack in artistic flair, but it’s a more straightforward title than the one with which this book is saddled.
As for the book itself, the most startling thing is how little it differs from the episode as shot. For all of his blather, the story here is hardly any stronger than what was seen on-screen. Sure, the freedom from the show’s limited budget allows Bryant to describe things impossible to do on a television show of that day. But the heart of the story remains the same. In some ways, the television episode is superior. The character of Abraham, an older man who, like Devon, had defied the Elders, is missing. His existence on the show indicated that not everyone in Cypress Corners was the programmed zombies that the book makes them out to be, and gave the community of Cypress Corners a depth it lacks in the novel. Also, the pacing is quite slow and the book seems to take forever to get going. Of course, since the book came out in the 1970s, there’s also an unnecessary sex scene between Devon and Rachel that is certainly too graphic for television and, frankly, does nothing for the book. It serves only as a distraction, lessening the larger issue of freedom by tying it up with all-too-familiar concept of sexual expression.
Once Devon gets away from his home, we are treated to interminable scenes of him figuring out how to access historical records. We watch him travel from room to room. Certainly some of this is extrapolation on the part of Bryant, trying to flesh out the story into novel length. But a lot of it smacks of what Harlan would call “getting it right”; this need to have things work, regardless of whether they bog down the story or place a barrier between the storyteller and the audience. I have no doubt that this is a fairly accurate representation of Harlan’s original vision.
Ultimately, I think the television episode is better. It certainly has its flaws (cheesy effects, wonky direction, I won’t even start about some of the technobabble – “8,000 miles in character”???), but at least it stands out as a bold attempt at creating something worthwhile. “Phoenix Without Ashes” has all the same basic ideas, but a wishy-washy muddle-headedness to it. The Starlost had great potential, but never had the right people on board to make it happen. “Phoenix Without Ashes” could never be more than “just another sci-fi novel”. “Phoenix Without Ashes” ultimately stands as a testament to the perils of the “my way or the highway” attitude. It usually means a long trip down the road to failure.
Author: Edward Bryant & Harlan Ellison