On the whole, 1970s television isn’t known for its timelessness in most genres. Bushy mustaches and sideburns, funky guitar licks, and clothing that was generally on the unflattering side usually lowered the bar before subjects such as bad scripting, poor acting and limited effects budgets even enter the equation.
Science fiction of course is one genre that usually succeeds or falls on the believability of its effects if not the actors’ abilities to make believable that which is under-whelming visually. That said the original Star Trek is a prime example of extremely limited effects being more than offset by a cast dynamic that integrated a level of believability beyond the rubber masks and wigs. The flip side of this, arguably, can be witnessed in later efforts like Buck Rogers and Galactica 1980; in which effects actually outshone the premise and acting.
So what does any of this have to do with the Starlost you ask? Simply this: Broadcast initially in 1973 in Canada and syndicated to local networks in the United States at the same time, SL finds itself cemented firmly in between the titles mentioned above. So even going in it’s safe to expect limited effects abilities, wonky outfits and a whole lot of facial hair but it’s the negativity surrounding this short-lived series that seems to be its notoriety first and foremost.
In the event that you have no clue as to the drama surrounding this space drama, allow me to briefly recap. The series began back in early 1973 when a 20th Century Fox television producer approached speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison to develop an idea for a science fiction TV series to essentially fill in the void left by Star Trek’s disappearance from airwaves. What would end up becoming The Starlost was actually a result of budget cuts and rough negotiations with networks in effort to get something off the ground. As such, rather than slipping into US syndication as had been hoped, the show was run on a station by station basis; essentially meaning local affiliates of major networks decided whether or not they would pick the show up and slip it into their lineup.
Even without the security of national syndication, The Starlost was picked up by 48 stations in the United States and earned a spot on Canada’s CTV network.
Problems began literally on the ground level with everything from technical production difficulties to Harlan Ellison’s decision to disown the whole project before the first episode even aired (invoking a clause in his contract to force the producers to use his pen name Cordwainer Bird in the credits).
20th Century Fox, which had been responsible for some executive production funding, went out and grabbed Ben Bova to be brought on as science advisor when Ellison bailed out. Frustrated that his advice too was being ignored, he watched the first show when it aired and quit as well.
Fox, shaken by horrible ratings, decided not to pick up options after only 16 of the original 23-epiosdes were produced and that’s where the saga comes to an end.
I mentioned briefly that technical issues played a part in the undoing of the series as well and should explain these. The show was actually a bit too ambitious for its own good in deciding to buck the trend of shooting on film, instead deciding to film the shows on video tape with the goal being to use motion controlled cameras and blue screens for the actors to combine miniature sets with the humans to create a sense of massive scale no physical sets could match.
In hindsight, the idea really wasn’t too far off the composite techniques filmmakers use today in creating motion pictures (often with fully digital sets superimposed upon blue or green screens), the trouble is that the technology did not work as reliably as anticipated back in 1973. In the end simple blue screen effects were used to combine the actors with miniaturized sets but studio space that had been rented was too allow for any fancy photography techniques. In the end partial sets were built, but the lack of space forced static camera shots and the finalized work shows definite “halos” around the performers, a constant reminder of their having been superimposed over the backgrounds.
So, in case these past paragraphs don’t reveal the gravity of the situation, The Starlost is a science fiction program known for its epic failures every step of the way more than any contributions to the genre. It’s a shame too when one stops to consider what the show actually presents.
Set in the year 2790, the Starlost is a tale of three people (two guys and girl) from a sort of technology laced Amish culture who begin to question the rigid belief systems of their elders. Their defiance results in their discovering that what they perceived as their whole world is in fact a single self contained biosphere, one of hundreds in fact, within a massive self-sustaining spacecraft built by humans some 505 years earlier to escape their dying world/ seek a planet suitable for colonization.
Interestingly, some time in the past the overseers of the massive ship (scientists and crew) were wiped out by radiation exposure and the un-operated ship itself is on a collision course with a Class-G star similar to our own sun. The biosphere domes, because of their seclusion, have each developed their own societies and belief systems throughout the ages, all having lost touch with the reality of the situation at hand. Individuals inhabiting the complex tunnel systems between domes have been reduced to savagery, many having developed mutations due to radiation exposure.
The structure is absolutely brilliant with abundant potential for intriguing story arcs as the trio makes discoveries about the ship and contact with cultures previously isolated in biospheres. To that end, the show works. The limitations of the effects and the behind-the-scenes drama can easily be overlooked in the interest of an incredibly well crafted plot.
The show does suffer from periodic pacing bogs, amateurish scripting and less than subtle background music mixing but it’s by no means unwatchable. In fact viewers with patience for the technical shortcomings will most certainly be rewarded with moments of brilliance.
VCI has, in their 4-disc release of the complete collection, digitally remastered all sixteen 50-minute episodes and includes the "presentation reel" created for potential broadcasters at the time. Additionally the full color insert is loaded with information on the airdates of each episode and even includes a lengthy introspective on the unfortunate events surrounding the production of the show.
In all, space science fiction buffs would be wise to give this collection a closer look. It’s easy to focus on the negative here, just as critics surely did in the show’s broadcast run, but the fact is there is definitely potential layered within the muddled delivery. Considering the circumstances surrounding its production, not only is it impressive that the show was ever made at all, but perhaps even more so that VCI has given it the DVD treatment that it deserves.
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