What are you Doing, Dave? – The Starlost [TV Show]

The Starlost

Created by Harlan Ellison
Broadcast in 1973 – 74
One season – 16 episodes
Available on Roku and Youtube

The giant Earthship Ark — man’s greatest and final achievement  out of control, drifting through deep space over 800 years into the far future. Its passengers, descendants of the last survivors of the dead planet Earth, locked in separate worlds, their destination, long forgotten, heading for destruction unless three young people can save the Starlost!    

 

The Starlost was a short-lived low-budget Canadian science fiction television show about three young individuals trying to save their home; an out-of-control generational spacecraft called the Earthship Ark. The show premiered in the fall of 1973 and ran for one season—16 episodes.  It featured Kier Dullea as Devon, a disillusioned but straightforward farmer from an agricultural society. Kier Dullea, best known for his role as astronaut David Bowman in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and its 1984 sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, is unrecognizable in this role with long hair and a bushy mustache. Along with his love interest Rachael, played by Gay Rowan, and his friend Garth, played by Robin Ward, the three wander the Ark, attempting to save it from a collision with a distant star.

Keir Dullea: Left “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Right “The Starlost”

The show begins with episode one, “Voyage of Discovery.” Devon is a disillusioned but straightforward farmer from an agricultural society called Cypress Corners, modeled after the Amish. He denied the right to marry Rachael by the “The Voice of The Creator,” a disembodied voice the community obeys without question. Rachael is betrothed to Devon’s friend Garth, a blacksmith. Devon discovers the voice is just one of the elders of Cypress Corners using ancient technology to control the community. When Devon exposes the truth, he is imprisoned and sentenced to death. Garth aids Devon in escaping. Devon, confined to his environment, finds a door of the ancients at the boundary of his world. On the door, the word “Beyond is Death” is painted. At the door, he also encounters Abraham, an older disillusioned exile like himself. Abraham has a key that he found many years ago but was too scared to use it. He gives the key to Devon, who opens the door into the Earthship Ark and ventures forth.

Devon wanders through the tubes of the Ark until he discovers an information station, a swiveling bucket chair in front of a large circular screen perched on a pedestal of controls. Upon touching the chair, an image of a bearded man wearing spectacles in an orange shirt magical appears in the circle and speaks to him in a monotone, “Can I be of assistance?”.  This is Mu Lambda 165, an AI program designed to dispense general information. From Mu Lambda 165, Devon learns all about the Ark’s current fatal trajectory, an accident that happed one hundred years after the Ark launched, which killed the crew, the other biospheres, and the Ark’s purpose. Astonished, Devon returns to Cypress Corners with his newly found knowledge and convinces Rachael to leave with him. Garth follows shortly after to bring Rachael back. Eventually, Devon reconciles with Garth, and the trio agrees to work together to put the Ark back on course.

Devon with Mu Lambda 165

The Earthship Ark is the home of the remaining population of the planet Earth. With the inevitable destruction of the Earth foreseen, a great ship was constructed so humankind could continue elsewhere. The giant vessel is said to be 50 miles wide by 200 miles long. It features the main hull running the ship’s length with perpendicular tubes jutting out to hundreds of self-contained biospheres. Each biosphere is supposedly 50 miles in diameter;, taking a person three days to cross. The ship’s model used in the opening credits doesn’t come close to the size suggested in the show, only showing 37 biospheres.

The Ark’s interior uses a minimal approach; clean white walls with geometrical reliefs for texture. One design feature, used in multiple capacities, is a space-aged-looking, egg-crate, green contoured packing foam. It’s first used as a circular transportation pad, which Devon steps upon when he first enters the tube from escaping Cypress Corners. It lifts an individual a few inches off the ground upon stepping on it before launching them down the corridor, with legs and arms flapping like the Greatest American Hero for those not used it. This simple green packing material is used repeatedly throughout the series, as doormats, texture for walls, seat cushions, and mattresses. One could argue it’s the show’s fourth star.

The writing and acting on the show were acceptable. It’s not the greatest, but it’s certainly not the worse (Space 1999, I’m looking at you). The quality of the show is on par with other science-fiction shows of the time. The minimal set design, small cast, and camera work are reminiscent of episodes of Doctor Who from that era. The common elements of the sets are used over and over again.

Each episode featured a guest star; this was an attempt to make the show stand out amongst the competition. I recognize only a few of the guest stars. John Colicos made an appearance along with Barry Morse in episode three. John Colicos is best known for his portrayal of Kor from the Star Trek franchise and Count Baltar from Battlestar Galactica (Classic), while Barry Morse is best known for Lt. Philip Gerard from the 1960s t.v. show and movie the Fugitive and Victor Bergman from Space 1999. But there was one guest star that was unmistakable and very recognizable, Walter Koenig. Walter Koenig is, of course, best known for his role as Pavel Chekov from the Star Trek Franchise. Walter Koenig appears twice on the show as Oro, an alien who became temporarily stranded on the Ark, then left and returned to take control of the Ark for his planet in another episode.

From left to right: John Colicos, Barry Morse, & Walter Koenig

Out of the sixteen episodes, none stand out as special enough to lift for a roleplaying session. Instead, little bits and pieces within I found interesting. All of the biospheres and inhabitants were far more advanced than Cypress Corners. Some inhabitants already knew of the doomed course of the Ark and gave up trying to change its course long ago. An episode where the trio discovers crew members in cryogenic hibernation is interesting. They thaw out one crew member, the first on the list, with the hope of them having the knowledge to change the ship’s course, only to discover the reason why the crew member was in cryogenic hibernation in the first place.

In episode eight, we get an insight into how electronic circuits are repaired on the Ark. Devon, Garth, and the show’s guest star must repair an electrical circuit in a control panel, or the Ark will self-destruct. They do this by mentally entering the circuit board—an astral projection of sorts. Their seated unconscious bodies are just feet away, dressed in a special outfit that allows their essence to miniaturize and constitute inside the circuitry so they can walk around and manipulate the circuit’s components of the control board. This does not alleviate the dangers of electrocution. If their miniature bodies complete a circuit, they suffer the same consequences as normal. In the show, the guest star explains the repair process to Devon and Garth as a form of telekinesis. As mentioned above, the green transport mat and information console are also worthy of use within a game.

The inhabitants of the various biospheres were self-absorbed. They only cared for themselves even if they knew other biospheres existed. One of the biospheres, ruled by a warmongering dictator, forced its inhabitants to produce weapons of war even though there was no enemy to attack. Their society created two classes of people: elites who lived in a sealed city away from the pollution of the weapons factory and the working class who lived in that toxic environment. Another biosphere held the future of the Ark—a group of children trained to fly the ship. The children were genetically altered to not age and have existed since the Ark’s launch. They were kept in a highly secured biosphere which the trio broke into. Along with their ability to no longer age, the children also had mental powers to inflict pain.

One of the most humorous elements in the show for me occurred in episode two, the episode the trio thawed out an original crew member. The crew member had a message waiting for them on the computer. When they attempted to retrieve it from Mu Lambda 165, they were required first to present their ID number then repeat a verbal captcha security code given by Mu Lambda 165 that was incredibly long. I felt like I was watching a game of Paranoia RPG.

Would I recommend others watch The Starlost? No. It’s not that entertaining or imaginative to cherry-pick—I fell asleep once or twice while watching it. It was fun watching a show about a generational ship. I wonder if James M. Ward, author of Metamorphasis Alpha roleplaying game, ever viewed the show or was influenced by it. There is a novelization of the original pilot episode, “Phoenix Without Ashes,” as it was originally written, not what ended up airing, which won author Harlan Jay Ellison a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay. Perhaps the book is better than the show. The show can be found on Youtube, or if you have a Roku device, Roku has a special “The Starlost” channel with all the episodes. Watching on Youtube is the easier of the two. The Ruko channel is hard to navigate and contains commercials. The Starlost is not a great science-fiction show, but at least it isn’t the worst, even if it falls on the list of the worst to exist.

~Stephen Pennisi

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Never heard of Starlost before today! Learn something new every day.

    Liked by 1 person

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