Forgotten TV: The Starlost

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A lot of reviewers choose to bury The Starlost but I’m here to praise it. And I’m here to do so in celebration of the most unexpected iteration of futuristic television viewing I can imagine — The Starlost Roku channel (though the show is also available on DVD for you old technologists out there).

You got it. A whole Roku channel devoted to streaming the 16-episode show over and over and over for the enjoyment of those few of us who saw it when it first aired and thought it was bizarrely brilliant.

The Canadian television series is largely known as being a high-profile disaster — not a financial one, but a creative one, thanks to the loud mouth of legendary science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who created it. Ellison had a bad break-up with the show’s producers (after writing the first episode), and he began to cry artistic compromise, brandishing the finished product as just south of loathsome.

The show — run in Canada in 1973, followed by a late-night stint in the United States on NBC — has been mostly an obscurity since. In that time, it gained a reputation for being a lifeless, cheap piece of junk, a laughable disaster deserving ridicule. Does it deserve that legacy? I don’t think so. Cheap, sure, if you compare it to Battlestar Galactica. Junk? You ever seen Buck Rogers in the 25thCentury? Lifeless? You ever see Man From Atlantis?

The set-up is inspired. The show begins in a weird Amish/hillbilly community called Cyprus Corners, where Devon (Keir Dullea) finds himself on the wrong side of the town elders when the girl he loves, Rachel (Gay Rowan), is promised to his friend Garth (Robin Ward).

Rebellious and shunned, Devon makes his way to a site of local worship — a dark cave protected by a massive steel door. He manages to get past the door and discovers that his world is merely one biosphere of 53 onboard a giant spaceship called the Ark, which was launched from Earth 500 years before. It is now without a crew and hurtling toward a sun. Eventually, Devon, Rachel and Garth all find themselves wandering the ship, moving from biosphere to biosphere in an attempt to find someone with the ability to correct the doomed course.

This journey sometimes results in stories that are pretty intriguing — check out “The Goddess Calabra,” which has Rachel captive as the only woman capable of breeding in a biosphere ruled by cryptic religion, or “Gallery of Fear,” which has the trio stumble upon an art gallery where their memories become part of the installation. Other times, the story can be admittedly a bit silly — witness “The Beehive,” in which the travelers discover a biosphere of giant bees. It’s hardly ever boring though.

The show is realized via clunky but sincere performances and sets that look good but suffer thanks to the use of video, which adds little ambiance to the surroundings — scenes are often just way too well lit. The production is comparable to British science fiction of the same era — often it looks better than Doctor Who. Does anyone else care to admit that?

The Starlost seems less like a professional television production and more like a spirited public-access show, but that’s really part of the charm. Slick production values often mask old ideas and this shows’ ’70s contemporaries — the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Man from Atlantis — only drive that point home. The Starlost, by contrast, was a low-end maverick among standard television fare. If it doesn’t quite match an episode of the new Battlestar Galactica, it certainly beats every episode of the original one, and that’s the comparison that counts.

Admittedly, The Starlost is not for everyone, but I found it to be every bit as eccentric and diverting and exciting as it was to me as an 9-year-old. If shallowness is the biggest scourge of much of today’s TV science fiction then The Starlost stands up very well.

This channel is a great bit of video archaeology, and it may well set a standard for future versions of other great, ignored shows. A Prisoner of Cell Block H Roku channel, anyone?

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