After returning from exile as punishment for sacrelige, Devon returns to the rustic farming community of which he is a member, still bitter that he will not be permitted to marry a woman named Rachel. Devon demands a second opinion, and so the town’s preacher asks the computer system – a device which gives him direct access to his Creator, and which he refuses to question or second-guess – and it once again declares Devon an unfit genetic match for Rachel, regardless of her feelings for him. Devon refuses to stop his attempts to interrupt the impending marriage of Rachel and Garth, and is cast out from his community again. But when Devon learns that the “voice of the Creator” is actually programmed by the preacher himself, a new decree is issue: Devon must be purged from the gene pool. He ventures into a remote cave with a torch-and-pitchfork-toting mob hot on his heels – and a metallic hatch closes behind him. Devon discovers himself in an enormous chamber filled with technology the likes of which he has never seen. He stumbles across a talking console which reveals to him the truth about this place: his village is part of an agrarian biosphere, one of many biospheres clustered together to form an enormous spacefaring vessel called Earthship Ark. Constructed between the Earth and the moon and launched after a catastrophe in the year 2285, Earthship Ark’s sealed biospheres contained a representative sampling of Earth’s flora, fauna and cultures, carrying them away from their dead homeworld and seeking a solar system around a class G star, capable of supporting life.
But Devon doesn’t even know what space is, the people in his biosphere dome having reverted to a more primitive way of life (and yet one that acknowledges the prefabricated boundaries of the world, computer equipment, and other anachronisms). The machine tells him that 100 years into Earthship Ark’s multi-generational flight, an unspecified accident occurred, and the command module containing the Ark’s bridge, from which its flight was guided, was damaged; the bridge has not been heard from in over 400 years. Devon returns to his village with this knowledge, but he is branded a heretic and is sentenced to be stoned to death. Garth breaks Devon out of his prison cell on the condition that Devon should leave and not come back, but instead, Devon does the one thing that he knows will reveal the truth to the rest of his neighbors: he takes Rachel through the hatch into the Ark’s infrastructure. Only Garth is brave enough to step through, and he does so armed with a crossbow, intending to bring Rachel back by force if necessary. The three of them make their way to the bridge, finding it littered with the skeletons of the Ark’s crew. And blazing through the enormous windows in the distance ahead, they see a class G star – suitable for settling the Ark’s precious cargo of life if it has habitable planets – but there’s just one problem: the Ark is locked on a collision course for that star…and no one left alive knows how to alter that course.
Season 1 Regular Cast: Keir Dullea (Devon), Gay Rowan (Rachel), Robin Ward (Garth)
Guest Cast: Sterling Hayden (Jeremiah), George Sperdakos (Jubal), Gillie Fenwick (Old Abraham), William Osler (The Computer), Sean Sullivan (Rachel’s Father), Aileen Seaton (Rachel’s Mother), Jim Barron (Garth’s Father), Kay Hawtrey (Garth’s Mother), Scott Fisher (Small Boy)
Notes: The concept for The Starlost was credited to series creator “Cordwainer Bird”, a well-known pseudonym for renowned SF writer Harlan Ellison, who frequently used this nom de plume to signal to his fan following that his writing had been tampered with by producers. (At one point Ellison campaigned to have his famous Star Trek script, City On The Edge Of Forever, credited to Cordwainer Bird, and claims that Gene Roddenberry threatened to smear his name in Hollywood if he did so; afterward, Ellison included contractual provisions to have his work credited to Cordwainer Bird, and he triggered that clause on The Starlost.) The producers at Canada’s CTV network obviously had the relatively-recent 2001: a space odyssey on the brain, as Keir Dullea (2001‘s David Bowman) and 2001 special effects maestro Douglas Trumbull both worked on The Starlost.
LogBook entry & review by Earl Green
Review: The Starlost is much-maligned by just about everyone – people who have seen it (and plenty of people who haven’t seen it but keep on passing along what they’ve heard about it), people who were involved in the making of it, and even the show’s creator, who has disavowed it as a total disaster. While Harlan Ellison’s opinion of The Starlost, as produced, must be accorded some weight, I’m always one to root for the underdog and try to point out its good points. I feel that, at the very least, the pilot episode of The Starlost has taken an unfair beating down through the years. It’s become a kind of received “conventional wisdom” that The Starlost sucks – period. But it doesn’t.
Among Ellison’s complaints were that the production values were watered down, as well as the value of his ideas (though, in my opinion, Mr. Ellison seems to make that allegation a lot, while still taking the check to the bank afterward). The Starlost was shot on videotape in a Toronto television studio, frequently using blue-screen technology that had just turned the corner from being an experimental technique to something that was just about reliable enough to do TV weather reports. As cheap as that sounds today, it winds up looking like a BBC production from around the same era – think Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who, something which is usually accorded much more respect by genre viewers. The Starlost was really no worse off than its British counterpart in that respect.
The real core of The Starlost which has wound up being buried in the decades of criticism is the conceptual brilliance of its premise. By distancing himself from this show, Harlan Ellison may have given his legion of fans more grist for the mill, but he’s also downplayed one of the all-time great SFTV pilots. If you watch the pilot episode of The Starlost, and nothing else, just sit down for a moment and think about what stories could be told on that basis. That’s really the litmus test for a great concept, and The Starlost – at the premise level – is one of the most brilliant things anyone’s ever even tried to produce. With its biodome settings, you can shoot just about anywhere on location, and you’re still on the ship. That leaves you with almost an infinite number of potential locations and characters with which to populate them. There’s not much more you could ask for as a jumping-off point – the basic premise of The Starlost is up there with the original Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone – any of the greats.
While the show as made by CTV may not have lived up to its full potential, there’s enough promise in the show’s pilot episode to make it seem as though Ellison’s lost dream project deserves another go. Why he hasn’t tried to revive it is anyone’s guess. Ellison is great at coming up with great material, then stomping his feet and throwing tantrums when whoever he’s generating the material for wants it revised for whatever reason. The moment his words are changed, it seems like he’s outta there – except, of course, that it’s not that simple: he keeps bitching about it for years, like Hollywood’s version of the insufferable office gossip. The Starlost should be revived in a more modern form, with more modern resources – and maybe then it could take its place alongside the greats of science fiction storytelling on TV.