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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Canadian TV > The Starlost (1973/Science Fiction/Canadian TV/VCI Entertainment DVD)

The Starlost (1973/Science Fiction/Canadian TV/VCI Entertainment DVD)


Picture: C     Sound: C+     Extras: C-     Episodes: B



Between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek, the market for intelligent Science Fiction television was at a high in the late 1960s, running into later the next decade.  Many attempts were made in several TV markets to create the next great show and hope for a big hit.  The British had Dr. Who on the upswing and the debut of the underrated U.F.O., while the U.S. Networks found Trek a huge syndicated hit and saw everything from Saturday morning children’s shows hit big (like Space Academy) to two TV versions of Planet Of The Apes (one live-action, one animated) and much more between the oceans.  But they were not alone, as Canadian TV had its own entry into all this and the result was an impressive series called The Starlost.


Like Star Trek, it would be an hour-long show and controversial writer Harlan Ellison hoped it would be a major vehicle for his work, so he backed it, as did a 2001 reunion in producer Douglas Trumbull and star Keir Dullea.  The show would be a sort of expansion of the impressive directorial debut of Trumbull in his underrated 1972 film Silent Running (reviewed elsewhere on this site) though not a spin-off or sequel in any way.


It begins in a strange variant of a very old religious town, but with technology that is anachronistic to what that unadvanced civilization should have.  One man (Dullea) begins to question the whole society when the woman he loves is promised to someone by prearrangement and he is targeted by the elders that be led by an angry old man (a very effective Sterling Hayden) who gets his instructions from a computer.  When that is exposed as a trick recording device, the rebellious young man flees and discovers to his shock that his whole life has been a lie and his place of birth is really part of a much larger spaceship called “The Ark” (made of interconnected geodesic domes similar to those appearing in Silent Running) that the rich, powerful and advanced built to transport all of earth’s knowledge and history as a living version of all of it.  That means each dome has a different self-contained world.  Too bad the Ark is on its way to an unavoidable collision!


The young man joins up with two other wonderers (Gay Rowan and Robin Ward) using an advanced computer entity “host” (William Osler) who talks to people via a video screen in what is a “computer generated” version of a man.  The voice is a combination of friendly and creepy, adding to the dense atmosphere of the show which is dark, nihilistic and very effective.


So the show had a great set-up that should have sustained it for several seasons, but Ellison (once again) did not like the direction the show and his writing were being adapted, so he had his name dropped from the whole thing.  However, the show still remained interesting and holds up incredibly well on its 35th Anniversary.  Dullea (with a mustache) pulls off a very different performance than his Dave Bowman in 2001 and the show is shot completely on analog NTSC videotape, with the twist being a heavy use of the analog super-imposition Magicam system.  The result are heavy uses of virtual reality (including as actual reality) set-ups not unlike the first version of Land Of The Lost or portions of Dr. Who (especially the Tom Baker episodes) of the time.  Though it has some similarities with Ark II, but where this has a giant ship leaving earth, the Ark from that show (reviewed elsewhere on this site) has all of its knowledge in one giant vehicle trying to renew the earth.


However, in part possibly because it is not a U.S. taped production, the idea of death and the end looming in each show is actually closer to two British classics we love: Sapphire & Steel and the early seasons of Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected.  Like the latter, this show benefits from an impressive series of guest stars in the episodes that include:


1)     Voyage Of Discovery (guest stars Sterling Hayden)

2)     Lazarus From The Mist (guest stars Frank Converse & Doug McGrath)

3)     The Goddess Calabra (guest stars John Colicos & Barry Morse)

4)     The Pisces (guest stars Lloyd Bochner)

5)     Children Of Methuselah (guest stars David Tyrrell & Susan Stacey)

6)     And Only Man Is Vile (guest stars Simon Oakland, Trudy Young & Tim Whelan)

7)     Circuit Of Death (guest stars Percy Rodrigues)

8)     Gallery Of Fear (guest stars Angel Tompkins)

9)     Mr. Smith Of Manchester (guest stars Ed Ames & Pat Galloway)

10)  The Alien Oro (guest stars Walter Koenig & Alexandra Bastedo)

11)  Astromedics (guest stars Stephen Young)

12)  The Implant People (guest stars Donnelly Rhodes & Pat Collins)

13)  The Return Of Oro (guest stars Walter Koenig & Henry Beckman)

14)  Farthings Comet (guest stars Edward Andrews & Linda Sorensen)

15)  The Beehive (guest stars William Hutt & Antoinette Bower)

16)  Space Precinct (guest stars Ivor Barry, Nuala Fitzgerald, Richard Alden and Diana Dewey)



The show never totally resolves its crisis before getting cancelled, while the final show seems like a pilot for either a spinoff or an altered continuation of this show.  Too bad, because this is some of the smartest TV Science Fiction you have never seen and the actors give some fine performances including Rhodes (from Soap, in Episode 12) as one of the darkest villains in all of Sci-Fi TV, Oakland (from Kolchak: The Night Stalker, in Episode 6) as an effective intellectual antagonist and everyone giving noticeably exceptional effort in their work here because they all believed this show was something special.  They were correct.


20th Century-Fox was smart enough to pick up the show in the U.S. and they did their best to sell it, but it was just too smart and ahead of its time, plus syndication of new shows had not settled yet.  A few years later when all the big networks rejected it, Space: 1999 would shock the industry by setting new records for a new show in syndication.  The Starlost (along with U.F.O.) helped make that possible and thanks to VCI can be rediscovered for the groundbreaking gem it is.  Just imagine with all the blockbusters with digital video effects overkill had stories that were about something and you begin to get the idea.



The 1.33 X 1 image may be soft, but is from very good tape materials for an NTSC Canadian production and exhibits the same aliasing flaws we have seen with other such Canadian TV shows from all the DVD companies.  It also has consistent color and a unique look that helps offset its detail issues and image noise, while the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is about as clean as you could expect from a show of this time period.  Extras include a vintage promo pitch film to sell the show what Ellison was still on board and a trailer for John Carpenter’s Dark Star, which VCI plans for Blu-ray soon and already has on DVD as reviewed elsewhere on this site.  Too bad we don’t get a documentary on show and where the makers are now.  Serious fans need to get his set immediately!



For more, try these links:


Silent Running



2001: A Space Odyssey



Ark II



Sapphire & Steel




-   Nicholas Sheffo


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