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.

The Starlost: Introduction and apology (sorrynotsorry)

The Starlost is a 1973 series which is slightly notorious in the history of telefantasy. It starred Keir Dullea, accompanied by such well-known guest stars as John Collicos, Barry Morse and Walter Koenig, was created and developed by Harlan Ellison with Ben Bova as scientific advisor and Doug Trumbull as producer…. And yet, despite all this talent, it was a notorious flop. Ellison took his name off the project (it’s credited to “Cordwainer Bird”), and Bova later wrote a notorious roman-a-clef about his time on the series.

It’s also of note for being a rare example of a pre-1990s Canadian-made SFF television programme (I can’t think of any other beyond the children’s series Read All About It, unless you count cartoons).

Now, I like television, and I have a certain fondness for bad television, particularly of the so-bad-it’s-postmodern variety, so I wanted to check it out. Having discovered that the whole series is available on YouTube, that place where once-forgotten television shows enjoy surprising second lives, I girded my loins and watched the whole thing. Let’s just say it was tough going, even for me.

Starting from next week, I’ll be posting the cleaned-up and edited version of the reviews I posted on Facebook earlier this year, for your edification, enjoyment, and warning.