I just finished watching all sixteen episodes of The Starlost, a Canadian-produced science fiction series that attracted such talent as Harlan Ellison, Ben Bova, and Douglas Trumbull (who all left or disowned the project before the first episode aired). I never had the chance to watch a complete episode when it was syndicated in the United States in the 70s, managing only to catch bits and pieces on one of the channels our antenna managed to pull in when the atmosphere cooperated (remember, this was before cable).
I loved the premise – a multi-generational space ark fleeing a destroyed Earth with biospheres containing the remnants of humanity that have managed to loose contact with one another due to an unexplained accident that destroyed most of the crew. Three individuals – Devon, Rachael, and Garth – leave the biosphere of Cypress Corners, discover the ark’s history, discover that it is on a collision course with a sun, and decide to find someone, somewhere who will help them save the ark and all its inhabitants.
While the concept is interesting (You can read the show’s “bible”, created by Ellison and Bova here), the implementation leaves much to be desired. The show was extremely low-budget, perhaps on the level of a student film (I now know of a hundred and one ways to use that green nubby packing foam for set decoration). Technical problems with an experimental Magicam process forced them to use blue screen to get around their lack of studio space, resulting in the biospheres onscreen being reduced to badly shot tabletop dioramas with limited depth of field and characters wandering through the same sets, redressed with green foam, endlessly, using props I could have bought at Sears or Jamesway (a personal pet peeve of mine). A majority of the acting was amateurish and telegraphed with very few good moments (Keir Dullea, John Colicos, Barry Morse, and some other guest stars were okay, though Dullea seemed to have his liberal, righteous intensity dial turned a bit too high in most scenes).
There were some interesting ideas scattered here and there – an art gallery that responds to individual “psycho-emotional vibrations” of the viewer to create persistent works of art, a disillusioned technician attempting to destroy the Ark to forestall the slow decline into biosphere destruction – but the subsequent writing failed to deliver on its promises and the drama was non-existent. Even the worst episode of Star Trek, whatever series you choose, was way better than the any Starlost episode.
I knew the series wasn’t going to live up to my teenage expectations. I’ve read Ellison’s preface, “Somehow, I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas, Toto” in “Phoenix Without Ashes”, Edward Bryant’s novelization of the pilot script, where Ellison documents his trials and tribulations with the production. io9 has a post from 2008 – Is The Starlost The Worst Science Fiction Series Ever Made? I guess when I found out the DVDs were available on Netflix, I just had to “geek up” and watch it so I could say I’d seen it, filing it away with my lightsaber replica and my blueprints for the Enterprise and the Enterprise D.
IDW Publishing adapted the pilot script into a four issue comic book mini-series which was also released as a graphic novel. Scott Dutton worked on the idea of a book “The Starlost Compendium” that you can read about here. I think “The Starlost” would be a cool computer game where you attempt to save the ark from its destruction, with different episodes written by different game designers in different formats – side scrolling platformer, first person shooter, text adventure, simulation, etc. Of course, I’d buy it.