The premise of “The Starlost” was as promising as could be. Earthship Ark, a gigantic spacecraft housing dozens of communities, races and cultures in separate biospheres, was en route to settlement on a distant star. One hundred years into the voyage, an accident drives the Ark off course toward certain collision with a sun light years away. Each biosphere is sealed off from the other, with no communication system linking everyone. Three hundred-plus years later Dullea's character, a shunned resident of biosphere Cypress Corners, stumbles into a portion of the ship that contains the true nature of its mission and information about the accident. It fell to Dullea and two comrades from Cypress Corners to get the Ark back on course before the sun destroyed them all.
With people like Ellison and Trumbull aboard, the storytelling could have gone in many versatile directions, whether exploring different biospheres and relating them to present-day issues in allegory form, or connecting with outside forces impacting the Ark, whether civilizations on other universes or unnatural phenomena. Trumbull anticipated “The Starlost” as a platform for innovative special effects through Magicam, a two-camera process where characters could realistically move through Imax-like backgrounds.
The end result never came close to fulfilling any of the premise's promises. Chalk it all up to execution --cheap production values via videotape on small Canadian soundstages; hokey-looking visual effects deployed when Magicam didn't work out; scripts (largely from writers with no science fiction background) that were formulaic instead of thoughtful, and Ellison severing ties when he saw his creation getting dumb and dumber. At its debut, “The Starlost” was slammed by TV and science-fiction critics alike, then cancelled in early 1974 after 16 episodes.
YouTube has now posted all 16 episodes, plus the presentation pitch tape Trumbull and Dullea made for stations in early 1973. The tape is a super find because it is the only demonstration on record of Magicam and what could have done to enhance “The Starlost.”
After watching the tape, that first episode (“Voyage of Discovery,” the much-reworked teleplay of Ellison-written “Phoenix Without Ashes,” a Writers' Guild of America screenplay winner in original form, given out post-cancellation) and bits of others, here's what came to mind. Now that we're in an era of plentiful quality scripted TV, with a bounty of creative and cutting-edge talent producing it, “The Starlost” could have an outstanding second chance at greatness, 42 years after blowing the first one.
There’s that wonderful premise at the core, and there now exist a variety of tools to powerfully execute it. Consider what computer-generated effects, green screen, HDTV and ultra HD technology, virtual reality, minicams, microcams, GoPro, drone cameras, 360-degree visuals and other visual magic could bring to the table, overseen by the kind of talent working in TV today. There are plenty of networks and streamers like Syfy, HBO, Showtime, TNT, Starz, Epix, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, etc. with the level of willpower and resources to set “The Starlost” in motion again.
Here's my first request this new year of the TV powers that be: Connect with Ellison (now in his 80s), invite him to pull “Phoenix Without Ashes” and his “Starlost” bible out of mothballs, bring visionary series creators/producers to his table, and get “Earthship Ark” back on course.
Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!
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