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.

LEXX 3.08: The Key

Stan wants to feed the twin planets to the LEXX, and before you can say “hang on, this is a thirteen-episode season, there’s no way he can go through with that,” Xev apparently decides she’s going to relieve him of the key to the LEXX, since it seems it can transfer during orgasm as well as on the death of the possessor (would have been interesting if they’d known about that in Season Two).

Initially I thought this was another dragged-out filler episode, but five minutes before the ending there’s a twist that retrospectively justifies the slow build up and makes you want to watch it again with the knowledge of what’s actually going on. It’s also definitely one of those episodes where “unbelievably clever” and “unbelievably offensive” overlap on so many levels.

LEXX 3.04: Boomtown

And before you can say “Didn’t Russell T. Davies write a story by that name?” I can answer, “LEXX beat him to the punch by eight years”. Also, even though there’s at least once instance of LEXX doing a story which anticipates a RTD one surprisingly well, this one has nothing in common with the Doctor Who episode bar the name.

Anyway, this one does have more of a plot than last episode. Civil war breaks out on Fire as Duke squares off against Prince, and we learn that everyone in the Light Universe has a Dark Universe double, yes, even Kai. Meanwhile, on Water, the crew of the LEXX have sex with the locals in various ways and combinations. I’d say this one was entertainingly bonkers, in all senses of the word.

Also: shoutout to Bunny, who will be one of the few reasons to watch Season 4.

LEXX 3.02: May

I’d expected the series to play with parallel storylines– Stan and Xev on Fire, Kai and 790 on Water– for longer, but Kai finds a damsel in distress, the titular May, and before you can say “that makes sense in the context of developing parallel narratives, Prince as a love-interest for Xev and May for Kai,” Kai is off Water and meeting up with the others pretty fast, so that’s the end of that.

We don’t actually learn a lot about Water, and certainly it’s unclear which, if any, of the narratives the characters spin about it are true (May, apparently the Water equivalent of Prince, is no less manipulative). We do learn that Prince can regenerate, and possibly May can too. Kai definitely gets all the lines this episode, but Xev seems to have developed a terminal case of naivete, apparently falling in love with Prince despite him being clearly dodgy AF. I should say, though, that I’m really being won over by Xenia Seeberg’s performance as Xev; she slithers about like a lizard and sniffs people and things in a credibly non-human way.

Finally, the crew of the LEXX appear to have abandoned their mission to roam the universe trying to get laid, presumably because they’ve got enough opportunities where they are.

LEXX 3.1: Fire And Water

And before you can say, “isn’t LEXX’s third season the point where they find the right series length, and the right balance between mind-twisting space opera and occasionally tasteless body horror?” we’re back! The opener to this leaner, shorter season is an amusing riff on the Sleeping Beauty legend, as the LEXX crew have been drifting in cryogenic suspension for millennia, only to be wakened by a Prince– arguably handsome, depending on how you feel about a young Nigel Bennett. Personally I think Bennett is one of the most watchable actors of his generation, but I also watched “Fire and Water” suffering some whiplash from having recently seen Bennett as the police chief with the Dreadful Unspeakable Secret Life on Murdoch Mysteries.

The setup for the season, the war between the desert planet Fire and ocean planet Water, are well set up and the crew get separated off to their destinations nicely; there’s the usual body-horror grotesquery, rather toned down from the telemovies, but much in line with what we saw in Season Two.

Overall the only thing wrong with this one is that it was rather heavily padded out with flashbacks to explain a setup which was clear from five minutes’ worth of expository dialogue.

LEXX 2.12: “Norb”

The LEXX pick up Norb, the child who escaped the hillbilly clans in episode 2.8, drifting in space, and before you can say “it’s been a while since they touched base with the Mantrid storyline,” he turns out to be an undead Trojan horse for Mantrid’s self-replicating autonomous zombie arms.

This story has some great moments of genuine horror, with the sense of strangeness reinforced by the fact that, 790’s usual protestations of love for Xev aside, this is a completely sex-free episode. On the downside, they again have more episode than plot, and while the effects are again on the upward curve there’s some rather obvious repetition of footage.

LEXX 2.11: “Nook”

The LEXX discovers an all-male monastic society who reproduce by cloning and have never seen a woman in real life, and before you can say “party’s at Xev’s place!” it is. A generally cheerful, life-affirming, sex-positive and even queer-positive story (Stan initially rebuffs the advances of one of the monks, but eventually decides, Chuck Tingle fashion, that love is love), with an interesting philosophical twist (the monks are the guardians of all the knowledge in the universe, but only one of them’s allowed to actually know what it is– and he’s the one who disapproves of all this sexual hedonism). I also liked the implication that Stan is getting over the trauma of his previous same-sex encounters and is at least theoretically capable of forming a positive relationship with a man. The CGI backgrounds are outstanding, but Kai seems to be bizarrely in angry mode, and also strangely insistent that only heterosexual sex can lead to reproduction, which is surprising since at least three of the people he shares a ship with weren’t created through it.