Before Star Wars: The Starlost (1973) (1980)

A long time ago on a Canadian TV set (and a few U.S ones) far, far away . . . lost somewhere in a galaxy between Star Trek and Star Wars. . . .

Over 400 years ago, upon the destruction of Earth, humanity launched Earthship Ark, a 50 miles wide by 200 miles long, multi-generational starship consisting of a community of biospheres—each containing a different Earth society. Then, in the year 2790, before the Earth’s orphans could reach their new world at a distant star, an accident sends the ship off course and seals off the biospheres . . . and the survivors are unaware of the others . . . and that they are on a spaceship. . . .

(And if this all sounds a lot like 2008’s Pandorum and 2016’s Passengers, it probably is.)

Robert Kline, a 20th Century Fox television producer, wanted to capture some Star Trek thunder, which was breaking ratings records during its initial, early ‘70s syndicated run. So he approached sci-if scribe Harlan Ellison, who wrote one of Star Trek’s best-remembered episodes, “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

The initial concept of The Starlost—which bears striking resemblances to the “lost moon base” concept of the later, British-produced Space: 1999—was an eight-episode television mini-series to be co-produced with the BBC. When the British broadcaster rejected the pitch, and with no American network keen on the idea, the show’s budget was revamped as a low-budget indie production for syndication. The Canadian CTV network, along with 50 NBC affiliates, bought the idea, which was now expanded to an eighteen-episode arc. And they bought the idea, in part, courtesy of the star power of noted Canadian actor Keir Dullea, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The series also featured later Battlestar Galactica actors Lloyd Bochner and John Colicos, along with Barry Morse from Space: 1999.)

So what could go wrong? Everything that Murphy’s Law and Catch-22 had to offer.

In addition to securing Ellison (who we all know for his infamous lawsuit regarding the “similarities” to James Cameron’s The Terminator to Ellison’s The Outer Limits episodes “The Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”), six-time Hugo Award winner and Analog Magazine editor Ben Bova was hired as the show’s science advisor.

As with screenwriter Martin Amis expressing his dissatisfactions with the changes to Saturn 3 in the pages of his acclaimed 1984 novel, Money: A Suicide Note, Ben Bova expressed his dissatisfactions in the 1975 novel, The Starcrossed, which depicts a noted scientist’s dealings as a science advisor for an awful science fiction television series.

Harlan Ellison, in turn, penned a lengthy diatribe-forward to the novelization of his original pilot script, Phoenix Without Ashes, by Edward Bryant, a script which was revamped (“dumbed down” according to Ellison) as “Voyage of Discovery.”

Then problems arose with the special effects headed by Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running), which resulted in addition budgetary cuts.

So, when you have three of science fiction’s top disciplinarians—Harlan Ellison, Ben Bova and Douglas Trumbull—turn on you, you know you have problems. And Keir Dullea, who’s had his share of career clinkers—and wasn’t shy in expressing his disdain for his past projects, such as the sci-fi Jesus romp, The Next One, and the Futureworld rip-off, Welcome to Blood City—wasn’t a happy camper, either.

And, with that, 20th Century Fox Television saw the writing on the wall and cancelled The Starlost after 16 episodes—and shelved the never-filmed episodes “The Gods That Died” and “People in the Dark.”

Then, somebody by the name of George Lucas came along with a crazy idea of updating Flash Gordon with Douglas Trumbull’s special effects wizardry from 2001: A Space Odyssey. . . .

So, with a renewed interest in science fiction properties, the studio pulled the mothballed The Starlost for rebroadcast in 1978. Then, in the throes of the cable television boom with “Superstations” hungry for product, 20th Century Fox stitched together several episodes into five TV movies, which played as foreign theatrical features, in 1980.

Those feature-length films were:

The Starlost: The Beginning
The first feature created from episodes 1, 2, and 3: “Voyage of Discovery,” “Lazarus from the Mist,” and “The Goddess Calabra.”

The Starlost: The Deception
The second feature created from episodes 9 and 10: “Gallery of Fear” and “Mr. Smith of Manchester.”

The Starlost: The Invasion
The third feature created from episodes 11 and 12: “Astro-Medics” and “The Implant People.”

The Starlost: The Return
The fourth film created from episodes 4 and 14: “The Pisces” and “Farthing’s Comet.”

The Starlost: The Alien Oro
The fifth film created from episodes 7 and 13: “The Alien Oro” and “Return of Oro.”

The remaining of the 16 episodes not utilized in the films was: Ep. 5: “Children of Methuselah”; Ep. 6: “And Only Man Is Vile”: Ep. 8: “Circuit of Death”; and Ep. 15 and 16: “The Beehive” and “Space Precinct.”

During the video store boom of the ‘80s, all 16 episodes were released in a VHS boxed set, while the five feature-length films were released to DVD—each individually, and as a box-set. In 2008 VCI Entertainment reissued the full series to DVD. Early this year, Roku began replaying the episodes.

In the end, a project that was hoped to build on the syndicated enthusiasm for Star Trek, earned not the respect of that show, but appears on critical lists with “The Worst Science Fiction Shows of All Time,” which include Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space and the plastic Star Wars knockoff, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

* * *

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is currently in theatres and was released theatrically on December 20 in the United States.

About the Author: You can read the music and film criticisms of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.

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