The Starlost, Episode Eleven: Astro-Medics

Devon gets injured saving Garth from himself, and thus we learn that the Ark has a biosphere of medical personnel complete with space ambulance. Why we haven’t seen them in earlier episodes where someone’s been injured or fallen ill, like “The Alien Oro” or “Lazarus in the Mist” is never explained, but oh well.

And yes, they know all about the Ark being off course, but they haven’t done anything about it because they’re doctors, not engineers, Jim. Which is ludicrous because 1) plainly not all of them are, the space ambulance crew aren’t for a start, and 2) it’s been centuries, you’d think some of them could retrain in that time.

Anyway, the story rapidly degenerates into a sort of parody of a medical soap, as the Young Handsome Brilliant But Heartless Surgeon could save Devon but is too obsessed with a distress call from an alien spaceship to try, leaving Old Overlooked But Moral Surgeon to step up to the plate. Of course the two reconcile in order to save Devon *and* the aliens.

Bill Kemp. He’s done better things.

One of the highlights of the story is Bill Kemp as the space ambulance captain. Canadians of certain generations might remember him as one of the stalwarts of The Wayne And Shuster Comedy Show (if you don’t, here he is playing the Hockey Hall of Fame Chairman in “The Unholy Goalie”, and as the Postmaster General in the Question Time sketch), and, probably because of his background in comedy, he is able to deliver frankly ludicrous lines with absolute conviction. Also, there’s some colour-blind casting in the ambulance crew, which is nice.

One of the lowlights is the alien makeup. The alien spends most of the story hidden behind a digital effect, and the reveal is supposed to be a “twist”, but, given how bad it looks, they might as well not have bothered.

The Starlost, Episode Nine: Gallery of Fear

The hero trio discover an art gallery staffed by a mysterious blonde, who tells them it all belongs to someone called Magnus. The Computer With The Good Beard (he’s so pretty! So pretty! So pretty! <click the link for the explanation>) is strangely reticent as to who Magnus is. Spoiler alert, it turns out we’re in the Rogue Supercomputer Episode. You just knew there was going to be one, what with Keir Dullea and all.

The Computer, and his Good Beard

So, yeah. Magnus was put on the ship to help the original bridge crew, has the power to cast convincing illusions, and tries to persuade the hero trio to remove the restrictions on his actions so that he can “help” them. Not being too bright, they almost fall for it, and would do so if Magnus himself hadn’t, rather stupidly, given them access to a projection of the Ark’s original commander who explains why Magnus was restricted in the first place (but who is otherwise completely useless, and can’t even tell them where the backup bridge is). Devon of course has to destroy Magnus, who manages to resist the temptation to sing “Daisy, Daisy” as he does so.

Continuity: for the last couple of episodes, the hero trio have been wearing the spacesuits they put on to go into the depressurised zone where Oro was, but now they’re back in their peasant smocks.

Also, the guest star’s performance is pretty good, adding more support to my hypothesis that everyone is directing themselves.

The Starlost, Episode Eight (halfway!): Circuit of Death

Richards is a scientist and political activist from a dome where, as the Computer With The Good Beard eventually informs us, there was until recently a functional two-party democracy. Then one of the parties, the “Control Party”, took over, imposed restrictions, declared the other party illegal and arrested its officials, and began running rampant through the environment.

With the dome in irreversible ecological decline, and learning about the Ark’s dire situation, Richards decides that the only thing for it is to flee the Ark in a lifepod with his daughter Valerie (Canadian gen-Xers, say hi to a very young Nerene Virgin, later to play the unforgettable Jodie on children’s edutainment programme Today’s Special), and blow up the Ark itself to give its inhabitants a merciful death.

Unfortunately, all of that’s just interesting backstory which is mostly wasted: the lifepod fails to eject, and Richards is forced to disarm the self-destruct mechanism with the aid of the hero trio. Which involves a kind of miniaturisation process (it gets heavily explained three times) whereby people project tiny versions of themselves into a microchip, and so most of the episode is taken up with Devon and Richards thunking clunkily around the microchip set, while Garth, out of his usual job since Valerie has a boyfriend, mostly sits at the computer finding out the abovementioned backstory, before eventually someone twigs to the fact that it might be a good idea to get him into the microchip as well, because technical guy.

Ten years later, the woman in the centre will be famous for cavorting with a mannequin and a puppet. Here she is with Rachel and Garth.

The ending makes no sense whatsoever. Richards (spoilers!) sacrifices himself to save the Ark, and everybody immediately goes misty-eyed about what a genius and humanitarian he was, and nobody points out the obvious, i.e. he was the one who put the Ark in danger to begin with. Valerie and boyfriend trot happily off back to their biosphere, with no one apparently concerned about the fact that it’s been taken over by Nazis. The whole story about the death of democracy, which I think a lot of us right now would like to hear, just stays as backstory.

To end on a more positive note: all the guest stars this week are Black (we’ve seen a bit of diversity in the Omicron episode, but that’s been it so far), and there’s no plot reason for this, making it colour-blind casting. However, I’m inclined to unkindly suspect that the reason Valerie has a boyfriend rather than being Garth’s love-interest-of-the-week is due to the production team worrying about how an interracial relationship, even a chaste and largely implied one, might play south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The Starlost Episode Seven: The Alien Oro

.Walter Koenig turns up (hooray) as an alien, Oro, whose ship has crashed into the Ark. Enterprisingly, he starts cannibalising the environment he’s landed in for parts, and recruits one of the locals as an assistant. She is, of course, a beautiful woman named Idona, and Garth, whose job it is to fall for whichever woman is guest-starring, obliges.

The tension, such as it is, comes from the fact that Idona has a terminal disease which Oro’s people can cure, but she has to leave with Oro if she wants to live, meaning she’s got to choose between life and Garth, as it were. Some tension also comes from Devon being (understandably) a bit irked at someone coming along and treating the Ark as raw materials, and not even volunteering to help fix it in return.

It’s Chekhov’s Guest Star!

I say “such as it is” because this is an incredibly tension-free episode. There’s about fifteen minutes’ worth of plot, a couple of contrived attempts at peril, and otherwise it’s just people talking flatly at each other. We again get character swings, in this case Oro spending 90% of the episode saying he won’t fix the Ark because frankly it’s not his problem (harsh but true), and then, five minutes before the end, saying he wished he could have helped and he’ll ask his people once he gets home.

Once again we find out that women in Cypress Corners cook and sew and bake bread and that’s about it. This is the third time we’ve been told that– and since Rachel has encountered women with more technical roles since then, you’d think she’d be less surprised to find one.

Fun fact for non-Francophiles: the name of Idona’s home biosphere, where the men all die before the age of 18 and the only adults are women, is “Igreque”, which is the French word for “Y”.

The Starlost, Episode Six: And Only Man is Vile

Our hero trio come to New Eden, apparently deserted but for a single young woman, Lisa, who is traumatized into speechlessness. She rapidly recovers and starts manipulating the trio, setting them against each other. Unbeknownst to them, they have wandered into a social experiment run by two scientists: Dr Asgard, an Ayn Rand type who thinks humans are basically selfish, and Dr Diana, who thinks they’re basically compassionate.

Diana and Asgard: spot the sensitive one.

The whole thing plays out rather like a multi-way cross between Blake’s 7: Duel, Star Trek: The Empath and any given episode of The Prisoner, and as such it’s actually not too bad, for The Starlost values of “not too bad” of course. Of course Dr Diana’s view eventually triumphs as the hero trio demonstrate that their love for each other is transcendent and self-sacrificing, but we do actually get a little time to explore Garth’s ambivalent feelings about being the third wheel to Devon and Rachel’s romance, and there’s a suggestion that Rachel’s puritanical upbringing means she’s a little suspicious of men in general, even ones she likes, which wouldn’t be too surprising.

Drawbacks: the message is iterated over and over in declamatory speeches between Asgard and Diana, to the point where I was groaning every time the story cut away to them. Also, while we do actually get an older woman with agency in this story in the form of Dr Diana, the gender politics are still mighty sketchy: of course it’s the Woman Scientist who is all about Compassion and Love, and the Delilah trope with Lisa is more than a little misogynous.

The Starlost Episode Five: Children of Metheuselah

Devon finds what he thinks might be the auxilliary bridge, but it turns out to be staffed entirely by preternaturally intelligent, adult-acting children who can stun you with their brains. Straight away Rachel develops a simper and her voice rises an octave, because Women Like Children, and the children all gravitate to her, because Children Like Women. Ulgh.

The leader of the children is a teenager who rubbishes the hero trio’s story because the accident hasn’t shown on their screens and the computer gives them no evidence of it, but he’s scared enough to stage a show trial and attempt to get them executed (well, Garth and Devon, anyway, because Rachel Is A Woman and Children Like Women). Of course (SPOILERS) it turns out this is a training facility, and the reason why there’s no evidence of the accident is that they’re just running simulated drills. Once the hero trio demonstrates this to the kids, the old order collapses.

How many things are wrong with this story? Let’s count them…

This is an episode with a lot more wrong with it than just planklike acting from the entire cast and the whole Rachel as Mum thing. The children have apparently been given some kind of anti-aging treatment that has held them at their current ages for over 500 years: so if Earth technology could do that, why bother with a generation ship? The children’s ability to stun people with their brains is presented early on with a fanfare, but by the end of the episode they’ve forgotten about it. While it makes sense to have children training up to be bridge crew, shouldn’t there be some external monitoring, and why are they isolated from the rest of the ship? Etc.

There’s a very good scene where Rachel, upset by the children’s apparent inability to play, tries to teach them Blind Man’s Bluff, but is shocked to tears when the kids really don’t get the point of the game, or indeed play in general, and would much rather put on a VR helmet. It’s one point in the story where the kids really do seem genuinely eerie and alien, like they should. However, two scenes later and they’ve all spontaneously started playing and enjoying Blind Man’s Bluff, with no indication of why they changed their minds. That rather sums this episode up really.

The Starlost Episode Four: The Pisces

A pre-accident space vessel, the titular Pisces, returns to the Ark; the crew think they’ve only been away for ten years, but of course they’ve actually been away for four hundred. This apparently causes a known condition called “space senility” where your mind deteriorates rapidly, unless you go back out to space and remain a guest star rather than become a regular character.

Please observe their effective social distancing.

This is presumably the explanation for why the Pisces‘ crew exhibit wild swings in attention and personality. The captain, Garaway, goes from saying he absolutely has to get back to his family, to taking the hero trio up for a little jaunt in the spaceship to check out the Ark’s engines, to insisting they have to get back right now because he has to see his family. Garth and Teal, a young lady who plays her role like a five-year-old in a strop, fall in love with each other, but only for a single scene, and the only way you can tell is because they both literally say “I love you” to each other at some point during it. The crew have bouts of narcolepsy for the first third of the story, then this is seemingly forgotten about for the rest of it. The two female crew members suddenly decide, in the middle of a lovely dinner with champagne and fruit, to take off and fly back to Earth, taking everyone else hostage. Nope, thinking about it, even “space senility” doesn’t cover the inconsistencies. As well as failing to explain why the hero trio are still apparently incapable of exhibiting any emotion at all.

Also, while I can believe that the Pisces’ crew might be a little bit in denial over what’s happened to them, it takes them far too long to, you know, ask the ship’s computer, something Devon figured out in five minutes despite being a primitive. It also seems like nobody’s read any of the SF about time dilation, or cracked a popular book on Einstein’s theory of relativity.

In other news, turns out our hero trio have never seen or heard of sheep. Which makes one wonder what they do for protein in Cypress Corners.

The Starlost Episode Three: The Goddess Calabra

Our trio come to the society of Omicron, a name which seems more on the nose in 2022 than it presumably did in 1972, and there, good heavens, they encounter actual acting. John Colicos and Barry Morse are guest starring, and they show up the regular cast something rotten as they deliver a masterclass in how to do space melodrama.

Omicron is an all-male society, which loses its collective mind at the sight of Rachel. This was the premise of one of my favourite episodes of LEXX, but sadly this is The Starlost, so instead of throwing a joyous life-affirming bisexual sex party, they want her to marry John Colicos.

The script is also at pains to assure us there’s nothing remotely gay about Omicron, well, apart from John Colicos watching lithe and handsome young men perform aerobics displays, but there’s nothing gay about that at all, no, no.

This story actually has a narrative heart, namely a power struggle between charismatic strong-man leader John Colicos, and Barry Morse as a seemingly feeble peacenik high priest who is nonetheless rather cleverly finding ways of undermining him. Including manipulating him into fighting a duel over Rachel with Devon, who wins (through the power of his plot armour), and the society winds up taking an unexpected turn.

Good actors and bad CSO.

Which just goes to show that in the hands of the right performers, this series could be not half bad. My theory is that the director was mostly leaving the actors to themselves, the two junior members of the hero trio were taking their cues from Keir Dullea’s monotonous performance, and the guest stars were either underplaying it, as in most episodes, or thinking, “screw it, let’s milk this to the hilt,” as Colicos and Morse are clearly doing here. With hindsight, this is quite possibly my favourite episode of The Starlost, inasmuch as terms such as “favourite” apply in this case.

This episode was “based on a story by Ursula K. Le Guin,” who went on to write some other things.

The Starlost Episode Two: Lazarus From The Mist

Looking for the cryogenic suspension facility so as to revive someone who can help them, the hero trio are set upon by a band of aggressive tribespeople. “I’ll be all right!” shouts Garth as the other two escape to safety leaving him facing the enemy horde, and indeed they believe him, it’s a full six minutes and fifty seconds before Devon says “…and we’ve got to get help for Garth.”

Anyway, the A plot is that Devon and Rachel manage to revive an engineer, only to find that 1) he’s the wrong kind of engineer, and 2) the reason he’s in suspension is because he was exposed to a “radiation virus” (how very 1973) and has two hours to live. Again, this is an interesting enough idea which could have been quite powerful in the right hands, but this is underplayed so awkwardly that there’s no emotional heft to what ought to have been a quite tragicomic situation. At least he manages to infodump a lot about the ship and what they need to do next.

LEXX might have got away with this.

The B plot is, of course, the tribespeople, who are dressed in the rags of crew uniforms, are apparently descended from surviving security personnel, and are the sort of thing LEXX would have been able to get away with. There’s two ways you can go with this sort of setup, and, to its credit, The Starlost goes with the optimistic version (befriending the tribespeople and helping them find a home in an abandoned dome). We’re never going to see them again, of course, but it’s just as well.

The Starlost Episode One: The Beginning

Yes, that’s really what it’s called. There’s an alternate title, “Voyage of Discovery”, but that’s similarly meaningless.

Keir Dullea is a young man with a gigantic moustache in the Amish-type religious peasant community of Cypress Corners. For some reason he’s named “Devon” although everyone else, bar his friend and love-rival Garth, has an Old Testament name. The initial setup is interesting enough: Devon has been forbidden from marrying the woman he loves, Rachel, because the match has been deemed genetically undesirable, and the Word of God that the people obey appears to be coming from a supercomputer. In an even more interesting twist, Devon later discovers that it isn’t even that: the community elders record the divine pronouncements on micro cassettes and the computer is nothing more than a playback machine. Devon of course rebels and is cast out of the community only to discover— surprise!— that they are all on a generation ship, that there are thousands of other communities on there, and that the ship is off course and going to collide with a nearby “solar star” (tautological as that sounds), since the bridge crew are all dead and the bridge in ruins. There’s a supercomputer on the ship, played by a man with an excellent beard, but of course it has a lot of plot-convenient gaps in its memory. Devon, Garth and Rachel must now embark on a quest to save the ship and humanity and et cetera.

As a story, it’s not too bad. It’s a bit obvious (will Devon rebel, or will we spend sixteen episodes watching him raise barns and plough fields?) but then a lot of setup episodes are. The production values are pretty good for 1973, even if the CSO sequences haven’t aged well. I actually quite liked the uneasy relationship with technology in the Amish-type community: you expect the twist to be that the elders all know God is a computer, but the further twist that the computer doesn’t work and the elders are actually doing a different technological hack, was cleverer.

The main problems so far have to do with production decisions, dialogue, and performances. It would have been much more effective to shoot the early sequences on location (Black Creek Pioneer Village, not too far from the studio, had been running since 1960), which would have made the contrast with the spaceship sets more dramatic and given the whole thing a real sense of a ship big enough that people can live in it for generations.

Inadvertently hilarious face

As for the script, oh dear. The dialogue was mostly stilted pronouncements along the lines of “why must we obey the word of God?”, and the actors all spoke it with forced-sounding emotion, as if everyone was reading off cue cards. There’s barely a moment of naturalistic acting in the story. Also, the face Keir Dullea pulls when Devon accidentally sets off an inter-ship transporter and is hurled up the corridor is inadvertently hilarious.