Ellison: The Starlost (1973-74) | featured image

White Jumpsuits, Catsuited Babes, Pornstaches, and Other Joys of ’70s Sci-Fi Television

As the idealism of the ‘60s congealed into the malaise of the ‘70s, TV offered small bands of forlorn humans in tight suits, roaming the stars. These are the “the starlost shows”.

The Starlost
Harlan Ellison
Bell Media | 20th Century-Fox

The ‘70s were no golden age of television, and that includes sci-fi: from the cancellation of Star Trek (1969) to the debut of Quantum Leap and Alien Nation (both 1989), US TV was a sci-fi graveyard. The only hits starred crime-fighting superheroes: The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and The Incredible Hulk. (Note that these high-concept shows have defied revival: 2007’s short-lived Bionic Woman draws as much from Joss Whedon and Alias as from the original ABC series, while the Hulk movies are based on the comic books, not the 1978-1982 CBS series.)

By the ‘70s, most Americans owned TV sets and began to anticipate their nightly fix. Since few people owned VCRs or (home) video games, regular TV watchers were a captive audience. In turn, the industry took a shotgun approach: big and broad. If you’re unfamiliar, you can get a feel for ‘70s-‘80s TV via such spoofs as The Naked Gun films, Anchorman, and Starsky and Hutch (also the web-only Heat Vision and Jack).

In this environment, sci-fi programming posed particular problems. TV executives of the time didn’t know about or respect the genre, and instead of appealing to readers of the self-touted “literature of ideas”, they assumed futuristic series had to appeal to families, including young children. Also, TV dramas avoided serialized stories, but if sci-fi isn’t about change, what’s the point? (Star Trek dodged this problem by visiting a different planet every week.)

As the idealism of the ‘60s congealed into the malaise of the ‘70s, TV offered us small bands of forlorn humans roaming the stars. We’ll call these “the starlost shows”. Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980) retains the best profile, for various reasons; most importantly, it led to the redemption of the starlost subgenre in the form of the cable re-visioning of 2004-2009.

The Battlestar Galactica remake is to the original series as Shakespeare’s history plays are to his source material, Holinshed’s Chronicles: it capitalizes on the many implied themes and plot threads of the original. The cable Galactica also completes the long-interrupted quest for the lost, 13th tribe of mankind and “a shining planet known as Earth.”

Battlestar Galactica was also primed for remaking by and enduring affection for the show that had brought the spectacle and fun of Star Wars into living rooms. The 1978 version had also gained underdog status from being sabotaged by its own network — after a first season of erratic scheduling, it was still popular enough to return as the re-tooled, mid-season show Galactica 1980 — and from unfair charges that it was a rip-off of George Lucas’s 1977 blockbuster.

Of course, Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space (1965-1968) is the most juvenile of the starlost series, although its first season offers some shivers and gravitas, in Bergmanesque black-and-white. Then, in the cultural gloaming of the early ‘70s came one of the most obscure space series, made in Canada on a micro-budget: The Starlost (1973). The brainchild of the prolific Harlan Ellison, The Starlost was supposed to break the curse on sci-fi TV. It didn’t, as creative ambitions ran up against an immature television industry, but the wreckage is fascinating. (All 16 episodes are available on DVD.)

The temperamental Ellison disowned the end product, so the credits read “Created by Cordwainer Bird”. His original, award-winning script survives as the novel Phoenix without Ashes (1975), co-written by Edward Bryant (a graphic novel followed in 2010). In his famous introduction, “Somehow, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas, Toto”, Ellison details the misconduct and incompetence that ruined his creation. His screed will be familiar to anyone who’s read Hollywood exposes, especially Ellison’s (he also made enemies writing for the

‘60s Star Trek and the 80s-era Twilight Zone, before finding some measure of TV peace consulting for Babylon 5 in the ‘90s).

The scriptwriting for The Starlost is wildly uneven, and it’s one of the tackiest looking shows ever, despite the involvement of Douglas Trumbull, a star of pre-CGI special effects (2001: A Space Odyssey, and the self-directed Silent Running and Brainstorm). Innovative effects were supposed to compensate for the low budget and the shot-on-video look, but Trumbull’s Magicam system failed, and the production resorted to the Chromakey effects used for TV news. At this date, the lousy effects might be endearing, and even the know-it-all “Sphere Projector” hologram grows on you, like a vaguely creepy high-school teacher. “Can I help you?”

In desperation, Ellison called in fellow prose author (and science booster) Ben Bova, but all three big names soon quit, disgusted by the various “suits” running the show. Like Ellison, Bova needed to vent; he wrote the roman a clef The Starcrossed, as well as commenting in forums such as Analog, the magazine he edited. Remarkably, it seems likely that this obscure, half-season series permanently soured relations between (American) science fiction authors and series television.

Perhaps inevitably, the show isn’t as bad as most people claim (even Ellison admitted he only watched the first episode). The pilot follows Ellison’s plot closely enough: in the far future Earth becomes uninhabitable, so a multi-generational Ark is built to carry people and supplies to a new planetary home. As the series begins (and in imitation of prose versions of the premise, especially the works of Robert Heinlein), most of the current passengers have no idea they’re in a huge spaceship, let alone a damaged one on a collision course with a star.

The Ark’s best hope comes in three castoffs from the fundamentalist “dome” (town), Cypress Corners, led in the pilot by Sterling Hayden, who clearly never phoned in a performance. Keir Dullea (like Trumbull, of 2001) plays the iconoclast Devon. Sentenced to death, Devon flees with the angelic Rachel (Gay Rowan), Juliet to his Romeo. They’re joined by stout Garth (Robin Ward), the third side of a love triangle that is hardly mentioned again. A child could watch this series and remain ignorant of sex. This deletion is most bizarre in “The Pisces”, in which two catsuited babes and their well-preserved male captain return from a long space voyage, evincing nothing but mutual respect.

All of the Starlost Shows Concern the Origin of a Culture

The Starlost is very ‘70s in style: attractive people in white, futuristic jumpsuits; ecological threats; wandering young protagonists who are wiser than their elders. Even when Ark residents know their craft is in danger, they don’t seem to care, which surely symbolizes our own lack of a global consciousness in the face of various globe-threatening issues. Unfortunately, this key theme is rarely foregrounded by the writers.

After the pilot, there’s only one great episode. With Richard Nixon still president, the series gave us “Mr. Smith of Manchester”, a leader so paranoid he justifies oppression and torture, while fouling most of his dome with pollution from weapons factories. This disturbing parable was written by journeyman Arthur Heinemann, who also folded moral issues into teleplays for The U.S. Steel Hour, Little House on the Prairie, and ABC’s Afterschool Specials. “Mr. Smith of Manchester” is easily the most adult, violent, and uncompromising episode of The Starlost, and better testimony to missed chances even than the informed fulminating of Messrs. Ellison and Bova.

Other segments lack nerve, compromising for the kiddie market. Ursula K. le Guin originated “The Goddess Calabra”, set in an all-male dome dominated by an autocrat (John Colicos) and a prelate (Barry Morse). It’s a pleasure to see these two mid-century hams warily circle Rachel, who is so different from their usual fare: the command performance of a homoerotic dance troupe. Sadly, the episode tenses up, and sexual orientation is irrelevant to the story.

“Only Man is Vile” is based on a verse by the well-traveled English clergyman and hymn-writer, Reginald Heber. In 1819, Heber described Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as a place “Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.” In The Starlost, the racist is an alien scientist who believes humans are savages. Unfortunately, most of the wit is in the title, and Garth’s offer of self-sacrifice obviates any challenge to the colonial mindset.

Is this series bad-good? Probably not, though there’s much to mock: the sets are improvised and wobbly, with the frequent use of formed foam (probably packing material) for rugs, wall hangings, etc. Go ahead and place bets on Keir Dullea trimming his ‘70s-vintage pornstache, but co-star Robin Ward never loses his ridiculous wig.

The closest The Starlost comes to self-spoof is in “The Beehive”, about experimentally supersized bees. Story Editor Norman Klenman (otherwise known for variety shows, including Steve Allen’s) knew the series was cancelled when he banged out this script over a weekend, and he strains against formula, but the scary scenes are telegraphed (they couldn’t afford shadowy lighting), and there are only a few in-jokes, as when the Renfield-like mad scientist brags that his bees “could snap a human thorax without stopping for breath.”

Though ridiculous, “The Beehive” doubles as an anxious critique of the dominant social trend of the day, feminism. The giant queen bee wants to rule the Ark, and while “Dr. Heather” (Antoinette Bowers) isn’t evil, her huge orange Afro suggests a pro-bee radical. Many of The Starlost episodes portray women and men as equals, but these relationships are usually clouded by resentments, even betrayals. (Make what you will of the androgynous names of the cast: Keir, Gay, and Robin.) In all of these starlost series, marriage is rare, so perhaps the planetary cataclysm that inevitably triggers the narrative represents feminism, or rights-movements in general, the social equivalent of a massive earthquake.

The most controversial of the starlost series is also the most underrated, the late Gerry Anderson’s live-action opus, Space: 1999 (1975-1977). After years of producing Thunderbirds and other Supermarionation puppet series, Anderson had assembled an expert team, including his wife and co-producer Sylvia, composer Barry Gray, and effects experts Brian Johnson (another 2001 vet) and Reg Hill. In the late ‘60s, the Andersons graduated to live-action.

Gerry Anderson always aimed at the mass market, but his live-action work is more European than is usually acknowledged. His stand-alone feature, the existential Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, was released in Europe as Doppelganger, and is reminiscent of the East German studio DEFA’s sci-fi features, such as The Silent Star. European filmmakers saw no reason not to mix futurism with brooding character drama (Tarkovsky), social satire (Godard), or fairy-tale plotting (Karel Zeman). Mario Bava and other Italian filmmakers surely helped inspire U.F.O., Anderson’s candy-colored answer to ABC’s The Invaders (1967-69).

U.F.O. and Space: 1999 got the same ambivalent reception: good ratings, nervous financers, and a long delay after Season 1. Indeed, the planned Season 2 of U.F.O. morphed into Space: 1999. At this point, Anderson and company renewed their liberal attitude to genre boundaries; this proved to be a fateful decision.

Space: 1999 had huge shoes to fill, being the first high-profile outer-space show since Star Trek, then wildly popular in syndication (as were repeats of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits). The timing was doubly bad, as Space: 1999 was produced before the success of Star Wars mapped the zeitgeist. Finally, despite American lead actors (Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, coming off their success on Mission: Impossible) and an unprecedented budget, Space: 1999 failed to secure a network deal in the US, causing a lack of prestige and erratic scheduling.

Space: 1999 (1975-1977) clearly aimed to be TV’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with spectacular visuals, an eclectic soundtrack, varied pacing, and mystical plotlines. It also played to kids; after all, Gerry Anderson was used to profits from toys and comic books. It’s an uneasy mix, but most Space: 1999 stories track well. And whereas outer-space series always trumpet their supposed differences from Gene Roddenberry’s rosy Star Trek vision, Space: 1999 really is different, a downbeat show about stricken characters trying to survive until they find a new home.

Like The Starlost, Space: 1999 was long heckled for its ‘70s inflections, but at this point the mustaches, bellbottoms, and disco beats are just another shade of retro. Season 1 is available in a fine Blu-ray set, a crucial upgrade. Made in the golden age of practical effects, the show is stunning, not only the starkly beautiful space scenes, but also the sets and lighting. Some of the best Season 1 episodes bear comparison to later sci-fi movies: “Voyager’s Return” (Star Trek—The Motion Picture), “Death’s Other Dominion” (Aeon Flux), “Dragon’s Domain” (Alien), “The Testament of Arkadia” (Prometheus).

The show’s haters have their points: most episodes are marred by clunky dialogue, and the writers show little interest in exploring the regular characters. The cast is capable, but Landau and Bain are so wooden that it’s a problem even in this spacey context. Years later, Gerry Anderson said he expected that the people of the future would be more logical (for example, racism is historical in his series), but it makes more sense to assume the Alphans have P.T.S.D.

Since the 1975 debut, the biggest complaint has been that the show makes no sense, ignores scientific fact. This isn’t quite true, although the Andersons miscalculated badly by not stating more loudly that the Moon speeds through the cosmos not just because of a massive explosion, but also because of a simultaneous space/time warp. Similarly, only attentive fans understood (or cared) about the “Mysterious Unknown Force” (never so-called on screen), presumably superior aliens, watching over for the Alphans.

Space: 1999 argues that science is overrated and that, like the characters, we must be open to intuition, mystery, faith, and humility. In his companion book Exploring Space: 1999 (1997, McFarland), John Kenneth Muir writes that the “essence and driving concept behind Space: 1999 is that space is a mystery. Sometimes it is frightening and sometimes it is wondrous” (page 47). This is “a world where humans often make mistakes, where mysteries are intentionally left unanswered” (page 4).

Ironically, science supports this view, and the best science fiction series since then can be called quantum-sci-fi. Three of them are latter-day starlost shows: Red Dwarf (British, 1988-1999) is the sitcom treatment; Star Trek: Voyager takes Starfleet down a peg, with the crew literally fighting to stay human; Farscape offers a perverse universe, in both senses of that word. As for the show that matched Space: 1999 for gloomy confusion: nine years wasn’t enough time for The X-Files to wrap up its plot lines, evidence of a cynicism that extends well off-screen.

Outer space makes a powerful metaphor of existentialism, but it was a tough sell on mid-century TV: The Martian Chronicles (1980) is a solid miniseries from Ray Bradbury’s story-cycle, but it was widely panned. Also in 1980, the TV-movie of The Lathe of Heaven was well-received, but PBS rarely returned to s.f., and the movie was impossible to see for decades.

In contrast, theatrical releases have been accepted, not just the arty 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1971), and Contact (1997), but even occasional B-movies such as It Came from Outer Space (1953). Both Farscape and Battlestar Galactica were hits for the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), but it wasn’t until Lost (2004-2010, ABC) that genre-bending existentialism succeeded on a major network.

In the first season of Space: 1999, the writers indulged their pessimism and existentialism, making frequent use of alternate timelines, delusions, and conflicted characters long before Star Trek did so. It’s a rejoinder to Star Trek from post-imperial British, as cursed exiles meet aliens that are distracted and snobby, if not hostile and vengeful. In contrast to Captain Kirk’s hell-for-leather heroics, in about a half-dozen Season 1 episodes the Alphans are saved only by their passivity; e.g., with the Moon on a “Collision Course”, Commander Koenig does nothing, because an alien old lady telepathically told him that everything will be OK.

And what can we say about “The Troubled Spirit”, in which a heavily-accented Italian (some of the budget came from Italy) uses a séance to contact plants, triggering a violent battle with his evil future-self, all set to a maddening sitar soundtrack. If you’re not rolling your eyes, it might be one of the coolest things you’ll see.

Season 2 adds Catherine Schell as a shape-shifter, and it’s more colorful and action-oriented, but the tone and quality are roughly comparable to the first year, despite the cries of purists. The best Season 2 episodes include the time-traveling “Journey to Where”; the twist-filled story of a “Devil’s Planet” ruled by whip-wielding beauties; and “New Adam, New Eve”, one of several series episodes that toy with the idea that human life is not unique to Earth. Season 2 is not yet available on Blu-ray, but it’s out on DVD.

The idea of human colonies in outer space appealed to the ‘70s-era love for the paranormal, and specifically for “ancient astronauts”. All of the starlost shows concern the origin of a culture; to date, only Battlestar Galactica has officially completed its story. In 1999, two Space: 1999 veterans, writer Johnny Byrne and actress Zienia Merton, helped some fans produce Message From Moonbase Alpha. This six-minute short uses clips from the series, as Alphan Sandra Benes sends a message telling Earth that the castaways may have finally found a new home. (It’s viewable online, and is also part of the DVD “Megaset” of the entire series.)

Space: 1999 is an influential series, with a number of its plots reworked as later Star Trek episodes. Considering that fundamentalist Trekkies helped kill off this series, it’s ironic that the first Star Trek theatrical release, 1979’s Star Trek —The Motion Picture, resembles Space: 1999 much more than it resembles the classic, ‘60s-era Star Trek. If you focus on the ruefulness, the mysticism, the gray-and-white palette, and the classical score, well, you’re essentially watching a theatrical version of Space: 1999.

Devon meets the Sphere Projector in The Starlost