The Starlost bonus “episode”: Ben Bova’s The Starcrossed

In the interests of completism, and possibly masochism, I decided it might be worth reading and reviewing Ben Bova’s novel The Starcrossed. This book always comes up when The Starlost is discussed because, as the title suggests, it’s based, albeit loosely, on Bova’s time as technical advisor on the series.

The novel is set at some unstated time in the relatively near future: there are rejuvenation techniques, 3D holographic televisions, and legal marijuana, although pollution and climate change are getting worse (in a near-the-knuckle satire, the city of Los Angeles has taken to dyeing the smog pretty colours and perfuming it to make it more attractive). A television company, hearing of a revolutionary new 3D production technique, decides to make use of it with a blockbuster space opera written by Ron Gabriel, a popular SF writer, which is a sort of mashup between the concept of The Starlost, and Romeo and Juliet (two lovers from feuding clans of space-faring merchants run away together, fleeing from planet to planet with their families in pursuit).

Hijinks inevitably ensue as the production is moved to Canada to save costs: the Canadian production team prove to be hopeless incompetents, a Neanderthal hockey star is cast as the male lead to improve local ratings, the scripts are sourced from a high-school writing competition (something which I’ve heard asserted about the actual Starlost, but I wonder if it isn’t something that Bova made up which bled out into popular perception). Eventually it becomes apparent that the production company is just using the production as a cover for embezzling investor funds, and it all goes, well, south. Bova does, however, give his series the happy ending that The Starlost never had, perhaps a bit of wish-fulfilment, and incidentally invents the deepfake in the process.

Reasonably accurate cover art– most editions are just generic spacescapes.

As a satire of 1970s TV production it’s, well, okay I guess. The portrayal of the Canadian TV industry as small-scale and incompetent seems a bit ironic in hindsight, but then, at the time of The Starlost, it was. The parade of evil Hollywood executives, profiteers, drug-addled directors, prurient censors and ageing stars is entertaining, though not terribly original, and the SF elements are fairly slight but used to good satirical effect.

It doesn’t really provide much insight into The Starlost, however, mostly reading like the author’s rant against television production more generally. Some of it’s plainly not true: For instance a scene where model designers are shown as having no understanding of design or physics, which is certainly not the case for The Starlost‘s actual model team. Although Robin Ward might not be the greatest actor in the world, he’s certainly not a belligerent thug along the lines of “Francois Dulac”, the hockey player in The Starlost, Gay Rowan isn’t an ageing star rejuvenating herself to stay current, and the series never recruited any brilliant but drug-addicted Hollywood directors. Ron Gabriel, the Harlan Ellison-alike character, rings true as an antagonistic figure, but Ellison walked out on the series much faster than his fictional equivalent did. Beyond that the Canadians of the early 1970s were small-scale operators with a lot of anti-American chauvinism, I can’t really see much of the actual production experience in it at all.

Generally, then, I’d say it’s an interesting coda, but not one which really explains much about what actually happened to turn The Starlost from a good idea into the mess it became.

The Starlost, Episode Sixteen: Space Precinct

No, not the Gerry Anderson 1990s cops-in-space series, though I’ve been asked to do that one next by readers who like making me watch bad television so they don’t have to, so I’ll be starting it in October, after a couple of palate-cleanser articles. You were warned.

Meanwhile, on The Starlost, Garth decides to split with the hero trio (now back in their cotton shirts) for no sensible reason (he says they’ve been wandering the Ark for months and achieved nothing, which is fair, but how the whole “we’re all gonna die if we don’t move the Ark” thing will be furthered by him going solo is unclear), and takes a left turn into a whole different subgenre.

Suddenly we not only find that the Ark has some kind of police force (who have apparently been keeping tabs on the trio but doing nothing about it), but that there’s a whole interplanetary federation of humans who are engaging in interplanetary political shenanigans, cold-war espionage, and so on, which this police force are involved with. Meanwhile, Devon and Rachel literally spend the episode in a stalled elevator.

All the usual The Starlost problems are there, too; weirdly flat acting, characters whose motivations and personalities change from minute to minute (first the police chief is begging Garth to join the force, then he’s accusing him of inviegling his way into the force to spy on it), bizarre inconsistencies in how the Ark works and how much danger it’s in (Garth keeps on about how he thinks he can build a life here with the police force, while the rest of us say “until you meet your firey doom, that is”), and velour jumpsuits that must make going to the bathroom a challenge.

And the whole series ends with a sort of a whimper. Devon and Rachel trudge off on their seemingly futile quest, and it’s ambivalent whether or not Garth will rejoin them or stay with the police, suggesting that someone was making a desperate bid to keep the series going by changing the format completely, making it a series about space cops in an interplanetary federation and sidelining the quest story.

A glimpse of what might have been, though I doubt it would have been any better.

But then again the series forgot its USP a while back, turning from a story in which the hero trio visit biospheres with different cultures and different problems into a formula where the hero trio wander into a workplace led by an older man with a female sidekick, get into trouble, and wander out again. At this point it was probably unsaveable, so ending it there is probably merciful, for the characters as much as the audience.

The Starlost, Episode Fifteen: The Beehive

The hero trio find a lab full of apiculturalists (beekeepers to you and me) and before long we’re in not one but two bonkers bee B-movies, as one of the scientists, attempting to communicate with the bees, winds up pissing them off mightily, and then we discover the whole hive is being controlled by four giant telepathic mutant bees who are mind-controlling the leader of the project.

One of the giant mutant telepathic bees is on its coffee break right now.

This really ought to be wonderfully insane, along the lines of one of the more balls-to-the-wall LEXX episodes or possibly a late 1970s Hammer movie, but this is The Starlost, so it’s curiously flat.

There are two good guest star performances (sadly there are four guest stars), and some really appallingly badly researched biology (the scientist who’s trying to communicate with the bees thinks they communicate by humming, for a start, and that’s before we get into the whole impossibility of giant bees), though there’s a nice shoutout to the then-ongoing Washoe experiment when one scientist observes that chimps are good at sign language.

Continuity: the hero trio are wearing brown velour jumpsuit or leisure-suit combos, like “Gallery of Fear”, with no real explanation why, or what they’ve done with their usual outfits. Once again the scientists know about the accident (which is firmly back 200 years in the past again), but don’t seem inclined to try and do anything about it.

The Starlost, Episode Fourteen: Farthing’s Comet

The Ark is being buffeted by some external force, and the hero trio discover that there’s an astronomer on board, the titular Farthing, who has moved the Ark into the path of the titular comet, just so he can observe what they’re like from the inside. So the hero trio are all, “wait, you moved the Ark! Hurrah! Tell us how and we’ll do the same!” and then three-quarters of the episode involves watching them do that, although not enough to get it out of series-motivating peril apparently.

I say “apparently” because this episode seemed more than usually confused about timelines. There seemed to be the implication that Farthing’s comet-chasing was what set the Ark off course, and that the Ark went off course recently, both of which contradict the setup. The episode also featured a lot of what I now think of The Starlost‘s trademark radical personality shifts, with Farthing and his (female, of course, though at least she’s an engineer) assistant seesawing from “the Ark is doomed and there’s nothing we can do about it” to “let’s save everyone with Science!” over and over within a span of minutes.

Farthing demonstrates the importance of accurate labelling.

I don’t know what the record order was, either, but if it was recorded before “The Alien Oro”, it would explain where the hero trio got their spacesuits.

This episode did, surprisingly, have one or two bits of good dialogue, both down to Farthing: “What I say goes, and I say, you go,” and “Can he [Devon] do it?” “I don’t think so, but I got tired of arguing with him.”

Story time!

New month, new school term, and not one but two new stories for you to read for free!

Big exciting news today: I have *two* stories out, both available to read for free online! The first is in Clarkesworld (which has the most awesome cover this month), it’s called “The Slow Deaths of Automobiles”, and it’s a story about growing up, moving on and saying goodbye– with self-driving cars.

The second story is in Luna Station Quarterly and it’s a(n early) Christmas story, of sorts, a British folk-horror inspired exploration of the true meaning of Misrule.

Enjoy both stories and please support the publications!

The Starlost, Episode Thirteen: The Return of Oro

Oro’s back, suggesting that someone on the team has an Oro fixation. Anyway, he announces that he’s going to save the Ark by shipping it out to his planet, and it only takes the hero trio three-quarters of the episode to work out that Oro’s people want to cannibalize the Ark for its resources and aren’t too bothered about the welfare of humankind.

Tau Zeta, the episode’s real guest star.

An unexpectedly entertaining addition this week is Tau Zeta, an android that looks for all the world like a human-sized version of one of those 1950s tin toy robots. It’s got the voice of a CBC TV announcer, and the metatextual ability to bleep swearwords. And for some reason it’s knocking about the Ark. A surprisingly useless addition this week is a scruffy old man who appears in the first scene trying to break into a biosphere and is castigated for doing so by Devon, apparently with no regard for the irony this causes. The scruffy man is otherwise completely unnecessary to the plot, but hangs around till the end of the story anyway for some reason. Possibly to give Garth something to do, since he can’t very well fall in love with Tau Zeta (though that might at least have been entertaining).

The end of the episode sees Oro, now a fugitive from his people after failing in his mission (spoiler alert, he loses a debating contest with Devon, which doesn’t say much for his abilities), left to wander the corridors of the Ark. Since he never gets another chance to return, I suppose that makes him a Chekhov’s gun that never got fired.

Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: The Quiz!

The wonderful people at my university have made up a “Which Game of Thrones Leader Are You?” quiz to promote my book Management Lessons in Game of Thrones! Go on, take it– we don’t send any data back to evil corporations! 

In case you’re wondering, I got Tyrion.

https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/about-us/news/how-game-of-thrones-leaders-can-teach-us-a-thing-or-two-about-management/

The Starlost, Episode Twelve: The Implant People

The hero trio find a biosphere governed by a queen who is in thrall to a vizier, who controls the population by means of a brain implant that’s supposed to enhance mental capacity but can also be used to cause immense pain. There’s not much to do bar mount a resistance movement and depose him, though of course he does the usual villainy things like holding Rachel hostage and explaining his plans at length to anyone who’ll listen.

Other highlights include the biosphere’s council forming a resistance cell literally minutes after the vizier dissolves the council and reveals himself (hahaha!!!) as the villain, and the fact that the implants themselves are almost entirely irrelevant to the plot (you could substitute any pain-giving magical object to the same effect), and are also wasted as a plot device. There’s also a child; the saying is that when a series starts doing episodes with children, it’s on shaky ground, but this one started off there so it doesn’t change much.

So obviously the villain.

No entertaining guest stars from Canadian comedy or telefantasy either, more’s the pity, though they seem to have spent some of the costume and set budget.

This is possibly my top candidate for worst episode of the series, because it’s not just awful, it’s awful in a very boring way.