Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: The Starlost (1973)

The Starlost
Debut: September 22, 1973
Created by: Cordwainer Bird (Harlan Ellison)
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gay Rowan, Robin Ward
Synopsis: A group of young people discover their small world is just one habitat of many in a vast generation starship. They must travel to the ship's bridge in order to find the controls to save it from destruction.

Trey: The Starlost is a Canadian series which was syndicated in the U.S. It ran from 1973-1974 for just 16 episodes. It had an auspicious beginning. The concept was created by Harlan Ellison, Ben Bova was signed on as science advisor, and special effects were to do done with a system created by Doug Turnbull. Unfortunately, nothing came off as planned. 

Jason: Even with the knowledge that Harlan Ellison opted to remove his name from this production and go with his pseudonym of disapproval, I had some hope that it would retain enough of the original vision to be of interest. I was also intrigued by the series' long form serial format, something rare in TV science fiction. As it turns out, it was indeed interesting, but sadly not as a hidden gem of quality entertainment!

I was held spellbound throughout my viewing and couldn't help but to squirm with discomfort and sympathize with Ellison as his efforts met with a terrible fate! 

Trey: Sad but true.

Jason: Ellison, a true giant in the field of public airing of grievances, holds forth on the topic in an hour long interview available on YouTube that is considerably more entertaining than this episode. 

Trey: I will say, while I have read that Ellison complains about the story here and there, having read his script, the production is, in synopsis, reasonably faithful (given the restrictions of low budget TV) to his vision. It is in the realization of those words as a television production where it fails.

Jason: The tone is set for in the cold open, in which the principals stare in awe at their Ark after happening upon their first set of windows that provide an exterior view. The camera lingers on the faces of the actors as they gape, minds blown to tiny bits by the revelation. And when I say lingers, I mean lingers! On and on they gape until the credits sequence rolls. Keir (2001) Dullea, cast at least in part due to his SF credentials, gapes with the best of them, but to near-risible effect here. 

Trey: This seen was one Ellison had a problem with. He felt putting this reveal of the spaceship at the beginning was a bad move, and I tend to agree. But we soon move to where Ellison's script starts in Amish-like society of Cypress Corners.

Jason: Yes, and there's guest star Sterling Hayden, whose astonishing biographical notes on Wikipedia are worth a look, is a standout as Elder Ezekiel, but even his performance shows telltale signs of rushed production, sloppy editing, or both. 

The most exciting action sequences in the episode involved Dullea fleeing from an angry swarm of Space Mennonites, all at a leisurely jog due to the tiny sets. 

Trey: Yeah the whole thing feels stagey--really, worse that stagey, more like local theater company production. Some of this came to pass due to the failure of the fancy Magicam system they had planned to employ for the special effects. When that didn't work, they were stuck with a production space too small to build sets and had to resort to blue screening everything. And the chroma key technology of the era is of course not the digital sets we know of today.

Jason: The effects are decidedly unspecial. But beyond that, questionable choices seem to have been made! The information dispensing computer system on the Ark was notable for its eccentric take on a user interface! Surely Ellison envisioned something slightly different?

Trey: In the script, the information dispensing computer is not free of eccentricity and the silliness of pointing to this numbered record or that is still present, but it's more elaborate and so comes off on the page as much less comedy relief.

Jason: All told, I'm sad to report that for this viewer, the abundant promise of what could have been a historic advance in adult science fiction TV entertainment was instead a hash of unfulfilled ambition. 

Trey: I'll dissent mildly. It is indeed cheap and a disappointing product. However, if one comes to it with say 70s Dr. Who production in mind--well, it's even cheaper than that, but I think slope is much gentler, and I think it is possible to appreciate Ellison's script and concept, which I think is pretty good and could be the basis of a good series today.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails