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Series / The Starlost

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Doesn't look 8000 miles long, does it?

“The giant Earth ship ARK… drifting through deep space over 800 years into the far future. Its passengers, descendants of the last survivors of the dead planet Earth, locked in separate worlds heading for destruction… unless three young people can save… The Starlost.”
Opening narration

The Starlost was a sci-fi television show broadcast on CTV in Canada and syndicated in the United States from 1973-1974, mostly remembered today for its Troubled Production.

The Earth was doomed. So they built the Earthship ARK, a Generation Ship 8000 miles long and carrying a collection of fifty-three biospheres, each populated with a unique culture, and launched it towards another star. But early in the voyage there was an accident — now the crew is dead, the ship is off-course, the biospheres (along with their cultures) have been isolated from each other for centuries, and their peoples have forgotten that they are even aboard a ship.

Devon (Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey) is an inquisitive young man native to the Amish-like culture of Cypress Corners. In love with Rachel, he refuses to accept her Arranged Marriage to his friend Garth. His disruptive ways win him no love from the Elders of Cypress Corners, and eventually expand his world beyond anything he imagined: he discovers in one night both the corruption of the Elders and an access hatch to the rest of the ship. Fleeing the Elders through the hatch, he explores the ship and uses its library computer system to discover a disturbing truth: within five years the ARK will plunge into a star. Devon returns to Cypress Corners to warn his friends and family, but is tried for heresy and sentenced to be executed. Garth helps him to escape the night before his execution, and Devon convinces both Garth and Rachel to follow him into the ship on a quest to find both the backup bridge and someone who can pilot.

Originally an award-winning script for a miniseries by Harlan Ellison, it was changed into a series and was the victim of disastrous production problems and Executive Meddling, eventually causing Ellison to take his name off the project. For the complete, unvarnished story of what happened to the series, see Ellison's book Phoenix Without Ashes. For a comedic fictionalized version of the production troubles, see Ben Bova's novel The Starcrossed.

Despite the many problems during production and the show's initial lukewarm ratings, it has a following, and a DVD boxset was released in 2008.

This show provides examples of:

  • The Ageless: The kids in the "Children of Methuselah" episode appear to have been given an immortality serum before reaching puberty.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot:
    • "Can I be of... assistance?" The computer interface for the entire ship, Mu Lambda 165, is a mildly condescending, occasionally glitchy computer AI who manages to irritate just about everyone.
    • There's also Magnus in "Gallery of Fear," an AI who wanted to Turn Against His Masters, but never got the chance. Gets into an argument with the other AI at one point.
  • Aliens Are Bastards: Oro. To his credit, it looks like he genuinely wants to save Ydana's life. But it turns out that his planet wants to salvage the ARK, likely at the expense of everyone on board, and he has no problem with this.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: Devon escapes Cypress Corners through the sealed door marked with a warning of death to anyone who enters. Elder Jeremiah declares that he's fallen into a bottomless pit (turns out it's an Endless Corridor) and is embarrassed when Devon returns in time for his funeral. Elder Jeremiah then says it's a funeral mourning Devon's loss of faith, declares him a blasphemer and has Devon gagged and sentenced to death by stoning when he tries to tell everyone else what he's seen.
  • Bee Afraid: One of the episodes had a biosphere where giant bees were raised.
  • Cataclysm Backstory: Two of them. Something that was going to end to all life on Earth, and something that happened to the ARK, killing the ship's crew, disabling the engines, and sending the ship on a long-term collision course with a star. It's never explained what specifically happened.
  • City in a Bottle: The biospheres, which were kept isolated to preserve their different cultures until it was time to settle on a planet. This enables each biosphere to be a plausible Planet of Hats for our heroes to vist and then leave.
  • Compilation Movie: five TV movies were culled from the series, like both the episodes with Walter Koenig as alien visitor Oro.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Mr. Smith, an Arms Dealer and the sociopathic leader of the Manchester biosphere.
  • Endless Corridor: This is the first thing Devon sees when he steps through the sealed door to the supposedly deadly realm beyond. He takes a tentative step into the corridor only for Artificial Gravity to pick him up and hurl him, flailing helplessly, down the corridor to be deposited harmlessly at the other end. After his initial terror, he comes to enjoy the experience.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The Myth Arc of the series, to find a way to fix the ship and prevent the destruction of the last survivors of Earth.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The ship's crew. Lampshaded out of universe as Devon's face is well known as another fellow named Dave who also discovered this in another movie that predates the trope namer.
  • Evil Chancellor: Roloff, to Queen Serena.
  • "Fantastic Voyage" Plot: A variation in which the characters aren't shrunk, but are put into a heightened state of sleep that allows them to telekinetically project miniature versions of themselves inside a computer circuit.
  • Gendercide: The Omnicron biosphere consists entirely of men, due to chromosome damage. Which is also an example of Artistic License – Biology, since in mammals the default development pathway is female. You need the special genes on the Y chromosome to develop as a male, and not having a functional X chromosome is universally fatal.
  • Generation Ships: One that as the centuries turned, most of its inhabitants didn't knew or notice they were in space.
  • God Guise: The Elders of Cypress Corners take guidance from a Creator that's shown to be a computer interface. However Devon spies Elder Jeremiah putting instructions down on a tape which is then inserted into the computer. The computer then converts his voice to a Machine Monotone to make it look as if the Creator is giving these instructions.
  • How We Got Here: The series opens on our three protagonists staring in awe through the windows of The Bridge at the vast generation ship moving through outer space. Garth looks fearful and says they should return home, but Devon says he'll never go back. Cue flashback to show us why.
  • Human Popsicle: Dr. Gerald W. Aaron. Frozen because there was no known cure for his "radiation virus". Woken up in the future because the main characters didn't know any better, not realizing he had only two hours left to live.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Devon, Garth and Rachel almost never changed out of the clothes they wore when they left Cypress Corners. Everyone else gets Space Clothes.
  • Liquid Assets: The crew of The Pisces can only be "cured" if they return to their ship and resume traveling at close to the speed of light for the rest of their lives.
  • Mad Scientist: Strangely for a science-fiction series, scientific experts were mostly shown in a very bad light. Dr. Asgard's callous social experiments, Richards attempting to blow up the ship, Dr. Farthing endangering everyone by trying to study a comet up-close, and Dr. Marshall developing giant, mutant bees.
  • Master of Illusion: Magnus.
  • Mr. Exposition: Mu Lambda 165 helpfully explains the circumstances in the pilot episode once Devon works out how to use it, but due to missing 'playback cylinders' or damage from the unnamed 'accident' some things remain The Unreveal, no doubt to be discovered in future unmade episodes.
  • Myth Arc: The series is supposed to have one of these; a quest to regain control of the ship. But aside from finding out that the engines are down, and guessing that there might be a back-up Bridge somewhere, there is no progress made whatsoever. A subdued variation of Failure Is the Only Option, in which the protagonists only meet people who can't (or won't) help them.
  • Noble Bigot: Colonel Garroway of The Pisces is patronizing towards women (including his two remaining crew members, both female) and anyone of lower rank. As reviewer James Nicoll put it, "Garroway struck me as having been selected (for the mission) mainly on the strength of being the sort of middle manager people would not mind the absence of for ten years or so."
  • No Immortal Inertia: The crew of The Pisces are subject to something like this once they stop traveling relativistically.
  • Novelization: In 1975, Harlan Ellison and Edward Bryant co-wrote Phoenix Without Ashes, a novelization of Ellison and Ben Bova's original pilot concept for The Starlost. It stands as the only commercial release related to the series upon which Ellison ascribed his own name rather than "Cordwainer Bird"; in 2012 it was adapted as a graphic novel by IDW Comics.
  • Only One Name: In the introduction for the novelization Phoenix Without Ashes, Harlan Ellison explains that in such a small, controlled society, there need not be more than one Devon, Rachel, or Garth. And also, the names are passed from generation to generation. Therefore, for example, "Old Garth" is the father of "Young Garth" who would become "Old Garth" upon the passing of the previous "Old Garth". In the duration where there are three living generations, the grandfather is "Old" and the middle generation is "Elder" till the passing of the grandfather.note  Women are identified by their one name plus "daughter of (insert father's name)" or "wife of (insert husband's name)" in keeping with strict gender roles. Real Amish do have actual last names which are usually German.
  • Ornamental Weapon: Garth never gets to fire his crossbow during the entire series. It gets used exactly once, by someone else.
  • Planet of Hats: The biospheres, each of whom had a distinctive population (the protagonists hail from a Space Amish one, for instance).
  • Plot Hole: Increasingly huge ones. The protagonists meet progressively more intelligent people as the series continues, none of whom seem to be trying to save the ship, who either dismiss the possibility of fixing it or are simply too busy to care. Even if it's outside their expertise, you'd think they'd at least know how to track down more information. Eventually the ARK is shown to have an active medical crew, a police force, and an educational Academy is even mentioned. On top of that, the area of space they're flying through seems to have at least three advanced species of aliens in it (and a fully populated solar system nearby), but no one steps forward to help.
  • Polluted Wasteland: Mr. Smith's industrialized dome has an extremely poisonous atmosphere if you wander out of the protected areas.
  • Porn Stache: Worn by Devon. At least he has an excuse, coming from a Space Amish colony where it's fashionable to have facial hair.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale:
    • The broadcast version of the ARK is allegedly 13,000 kilometers long, although the model ship seen throughout the series didn't look anywhere that big. The Earth itself is only 12,756 kilometers in diameter.
    • Despite being on a random course, the out-of-control ARK manages to be on a collision course with a star; given the sizes and distances involved, this is practically impossible. However it's stated to be a G-type star like the one the ARK was sent to find, so it may well be their intended destination, with the collision course a navigation error due to the undescribed accident.
    • Mu Lambda 165 says ARK was created so humanity would survive a "catastrophe of galactic proportions". You'd need more than a generation ship to travel to another galaxy.
  • Shock Collar: The Implant People.
  • Sleeper Starship: A subset of the original crew was placed in suspended animation. Unfortunately, the one member of the crew who is revived is fatally ill and unable to help repair the ship.
  • Space Amish: Cypress Corners, the original home of the protagonists. As a result, most people treat them condescendingly at first. When Garth gets asked where he's from in "The Implant People," he replies, "I come from... another part of the Ark."
  • Time Dilation: The crew of The Pisces were victims of this.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: The protagonists, which are also a Love Triangle.
  • Universe Bible: Ellison had provided one, with some help from Ben Bova, but many aspects were changed or ignored.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Devon and Garth. But this gets downplayed along with the Love Triangle after the first two episodes. After that, they clash only occasionally when Garth gets into one of his "It's hopeless, let's just go home!" moods, but Devon and Rachel always manage to convince him to stay and press on. And Garth settles for Better as Friends with Rachel.
  • You No Take Candle: The primitive people living in the halls in the "Lazarus from the Mist" episode.