There was a science fiction TV show that aired in 1973. It was terrible.
The Starlost started life well. Harlan Ellison, accounted by science fiction literati (sfliterati?) as a genius, conceived the idea for the show. He wrote the pilot script and outlines for several episodes. Ben Bova, no slouch either, was brought in as the science consultant. Ellison left the project in disgust when he saw just how badly the producers were ruining it, just how much they were dumbing it down.
The Starlost was to be an 8-episode miniseries that would air on BBC. BBC passed, so the money that the producers would have spent on it was slashed to nearly nothing. It was sold direct to syndication, eventually airing on CBC and NBC.
The Starlost wasn’t low budget. It was no budget. I would say cheesy cardboard sets marred the production, but the show didn’t even spring for cardboard, much less cheese.
Cardboard sets would have been an improvement. The producers instead built tiny tabletop miniature sets and then blue screened the actors into them. It looked as bad as you imagine. Worse.
The show was shot on videotape. Cheap videotape. Cheap videotape that appeared to have been used and erased a few times. So cheap it would have embarrassed the cheapest of early 70s soap operas.
The acting… Well, there were a couple of quality actors here. But many scenes appear to have only been allowed one or two takes, and then “good enough” got left in. The other actors, the non-quality ones, delivered their lines with the intensity of a 7th-grade book report.
The star was Keir Dullea, who’s not a bad actor. And he had science fiction cred from playing one of the non-HAL characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Stirling Hayden, a fine quality actor if ever there was, and who had also appeared in a Kubrick flick, Dr. Strangelove, appeared in the pilot. He did the best he could, though it appears the director only allowed him one or two takes. Hayden appeared to have read the script. At least, his own lines, if not anyone else’s.
Why do I bring this up? Why do I resurrect this zombie-on-arrival sci-fi TV show?
Because when I see Apple+ making For All Mankind and Foundation, I say it’s time someone dusts off Harlan Ellison’s original idea and scripts for The Starlost and make it in the way it deserved to have been made.
The idea, while not wholly original, is a fascinating one. A gigantic spaceship with different cultures trapped in domes, having forgotten they’re on a spaceship, escaped the destruction of the earth 800 years ago. The human race is on the way to a new star system to eventually begin life again. But something happened 400 years into the journey. The ship is now on a collision course with a star.
One man from a backward agrarian community stumbles into the heart of the spaceship and discovers the truth of his world. He finds the crew dead. There’s no one at the controls and no one who knows how the ship works. He and his companions now travel to various domes to find an answer and save the ship from certain destruction.
The idea of an enclosed world is an old one in science fiction, but the reason it’s been around so long is that it’s a compelling one when well-told. Produced as a big-budget miniseries, The Starlost could be something unique. Or at least good.
Ronald D. Moore is a choice that comes to mind as the producer. He took a cheesy 70s sci-fi show called Battlestar Galactica, reimagined it, and made one of the best television shows ever made.
But if Moore’s not interested, there are plenty of other talented people in the field who have enough name recognition to bring the dollars in.
Is there anyone in Hollywood willing to take the chance?
(By the way, Ellison’s original pilot script was expanded, with his cooperation, into a novelization. I think it’s out of print. My copy has a prized place on my shelf. But there’s also a graphic novel version that’s still available.)