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

Thomas Foster

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

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

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).

From the cultural gloaming of the early ‘70s came one of the most obscure space series, made in Canada on a micro-budget: The Starlost
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, armed and ready

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.

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