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The Wayback Machine: The Starlost (1973)

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Posted by: Byron Brewer, Managing Editor
created 05/03/2013 - 2:37pm, updated 05/03/2013 - 2:48pm

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We’ve been thinking about a sci-fi concept that was first raised in an early 1970s syndicated TV show, so I thought we would set the Wayback Machine for 1973 and … The Starlost!

The Starlost was a Canadian-produced series devised by vaunted author Harlan Ellison and broadcast on CTVin Canadaand syndicated to local stations in the U.S.(including here in Kentucky, even!). The show's setting was a huge generational colony spacecraft called The Ark, which had gone off-course. Many of the descendants of the original crew and colonists are unaware that they are even aboard a ship. The series experienced a number of production difficulties, and Ellison ended up disowning it before the first episode even aired!

Discovering that the destruction of the Earth will happen in the future, humanity builds a multi-generational starship which was around 50 miles wide and 200 miles long. The ship contains dozens of isolated biospheres, each miles across and housing people of different cultures. Early in the voyage (cue grim music), an unexplained disaster struck with The Ark suffering damage and the command crew killed. The Ark had some kind of automatic damage control and disaster systems which sealed off each biosphere and kept the inhabitants alive, even though the command crew had died off.

Centuries later, a young man, Devon(Keir Dillea), a resident of Cypress Corners, a biosphere with an Amish-like culture, discovers that his world is far larger and more mysterious than he had realized. Considered an outcast because of his questioning of the way things are, especially his refusal to accept the arranged marriage of Rachel (Gay Rowan), the girl Devon loves and who loves him and his friend Garth (Robin Ward), Devon inadvertently finds his way into the service areas of the ship and uncovers its fate by accessing a computer data station that explains the purpose of The Ark and hints at its problems.

Devonthen returns to Cypress Corners to tell his fellow biosphere-dwellers about what he has learned, but is put on trial for heresy and condemned to death. Helped to escape on the night before his execution by Garth, Devon convinces Rachel and Garth to come with him and after making their way to the bridge they have found that it had been damaged and its control systems made in-operative, the crew killed (a few skeletal bodies are lying there) and The Ark is on a collision course with a Class G star similar to Earth’s sun.

Devon, Rachel and Garth realize the only hope to save The Ark and the colonists onboard is to find the backup bridge and reactivate the navigation and propulsion systems. Occasionally, they are aided by The Ark’s partially-functioning computer systems portrayed by William Osler.

The scenario drew on themes common to science fiction. It also had obvious potential for an interesting, developing story Ark– oops, arc -- as the trio made more discoveries about the ship and contacted cultures previously isolated in other biospheres.

20th Century Fox was involved in the project with Douglas Trumbull as executive producer. Sci-fi writer and editor Ben Bova was brought in as science advisor.

On March 31, 1974, Ellison received a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay for the original script (the pilot script as originally written, not the version that was filmed). A novelization of this script by Edward Bryant, Phoenix Without Ashes, was published in 1975; this contained a lengthy foreword by Ellison describing what had gone on in production. In 2010, the novel was adapted in comic book form by IDW Publishing.

It sounds like it would make for a long-term compelling show with elements of both space and soap opera to please a diverse audience, eh? Too bad it was never appreciated for what it was.

 

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