The Starlost occupies a unique place in sci-fi history as "The worst SF series ever." Well, you have to admit that it's impressive to excel at anything, even if it is at being the worst. But this singular achievement prompts further investigation. Was it really that bad? Was Starlost really a disaster, or should we take a more charitable view?
The series started off with high expectations. Created by Harlan Ellison, an award-winning SF and television writer known for work on both Star Trek and The Outer Limits, produced by Douglas Trumbull (effects producer for 2001: A Space Odyssey and director of Silent Running) and starring Keir Dullea (also of 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as such Canadian films as Black Christmas, Welcome to Blood City and Paperback Hero), the series featured award-winning SF writer and editor Ben Bova as technical consultant. Other notable names were guest-stars John Colicos (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and notable mainstream films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice with Nicholson and Lange), Barry Morse (Space: 1999 and The Fugitive), Sterling Hayden and Walter Koenig (Star Trek) and writers including award-winning SF and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin (Lathe of Heaven) and Shimon Wincelberg (Star Trek and Lost in Space). The Starlost should have been an SF fan's wet dream, drawing as it did on people from the very best SF film, television and literature of the time. Too bad it didn't turn out that way.
For a long time, it was Canada's only bona fide SF series. (Actually, in the 1950s the CBC produced Space Command, a low-budget space opera in the tradition of Tom Corbett and Space Patrol and featuring James Doohan). Conceived in 1972, Starlost was produced in 1973 by the CTV network in Canada for syndication to both that fledgling Canadian network and for American syndication. Although the series was launched with fanfare, its ratings continually declined. Eventually, after 16 episodes had aired, the series was cancelled, leaving eight episodes unproduced.
Series which fail to achieve syndication, which die within a season, generally vanish into obscurity. Starlost was "rescued" from this fate by two things. First, there was no attempt to do a syndication package. Ten episodes were cut into a series of five TV movies, which allowed for continuing low-level exposure on late-night television. The Planet of the Apes television series of around this time got similar treatment. But what really established The Starlost's place in television history was a spectacular hatchet job by Harlan Ellison, who wrote a very public and very personal memoir of his involvement. Without Ellison, Starlost would have probably faded completely away, remembered only in the same terms as other failed series such as Logan's Run and Planet of the Apes.
In addition to his widely read memoir, Ellison won an award for the original script. He also wrote, with Edward Bryant, the novel Phoenix Without Ashes. Ben Bova also got into the act with Starcrossed, an SF novel loosely based on his experiences, as well as other novels using the premise of the series. But while these made their own small contributions to the legend, they didn't really help to create or perpetuate it. Ellison’s penchant for dramatically settling scores conferred a negative immortality as the ‘worst ever.’
It's clear that Starlost didn't start as a Canadian production. At best, looking at all the sources, it seems like the real genesis of the series begins with a Fox TV executive named Robert Kline hooking up with either Doug Trumbull or Keir Dullea. Both men were identified with SF, were reputable as artists and most importantly were bankable, from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey——Dullea as the star, Trumbull as the special effects maven. Trumbull had gone on to produce the less successful but still impressive Silent Running. Dullea was not merely a television actor but a feature film actor; not merely a feature film actor but a star; not merely a film star but an international film star. That's heavy mojo in both cases.
It seems reasonable to assume that one brought the other on board, either directly or simply by allowing the use of his name to convince the other that the project was worthy. It isn't at all clear when either man entered the project, but indirect evidence suggests that one or both preceded Harlan Ellison's involvement.
Harlan Ellison was then brought in by Robert Kline to develop a premise and write the bible. Kline was pitching the series to Harlan as "The Fugitive in space," which implied that he had his actor lined up and that there was at least a basic concept waiting to be fleshed out. Kline told Ellison that the series was to be shot in England, where Dullea was living. Dullea refused to work in the United States, repudiating what he felt was the empty culture of Hollywood. This suggested that at least Dullea and possibly Trumbull had committed to the project before Harlan showed up.
Ellison fleshed out the spare premise of "The Fugitive in space" into The Starlost in a 10-minute free-associating monologue delivered into a tape recorder. This became the foundation of the series, with Ellison to be credited as creator and head writer. Ellison then dragged in Ben Bova as a technical consultant and tried to enlist a group of SF writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Thomas M. Disch and A.E. Van Vogt.
The original plan was to take it to the BBC in some sort of co-production arrangement, but apparently the BBC turned them down. ITV, the big private British network, was overcommitted and already wrestling with its own space opera series: UFO and Space: 1999.
We don't know how the series came to Canada. Ellison recorded it as yet another example of the producers' treachery and perfidy. It seems more likely that the reason was Dullea. The actor/star was apparently make-or-break for the project, and the producers were willing to shoot in England to accommodate him. Dullea had already made several movies in Canada, including Welcome to Blood City and Paperback Hero, and was thought of as a Canadian actor. I was surprised to discover that he wasn't. Although Dullea refused to shoot in the United States, he was quite comfortable working in Canada.
In Canada was CTV, a private network just beginning to look at developing its own programming. To CTV, Starlost must have seemed like a godsend: a project partly funded already by Fox, a marketing plan ready to go, big names in SF, one of whom was simultaneously a big name in Canadian cinema——the closest thing Canada had to a local star. Of course CTV would jump right in.
There were even some advantages for the American backers to committing to Toronto. For one thing, it was a short plane ride to either New York or Los Angeles——a hop and a skip rather than a transcontinental or transoceanic flight. Proximity seemed to offer advantages in terms of access to studio executives, markets, technical crew, actors and writers.
At this point, Norman Klenman was brought in. Klenman was a Hollywood screenwriter originally from Canada; he maintained Canadian citizenship. He wound up writing four episodes and apparently doing heavy rewrites on another four. Klenman also became the de facto script supervisor or editor and was responsible for something like continuity.
Ellison saw the introduction of Klenman as a deliberate betrayal, and in his article portrayed him as a Hollywood hack, an unctous nobody who told Ellison that he didn't "understand this science fiction stuff."
I'm inclined to be more sympathetic to Kline and Klenman on this point than Ellison is. Television productions, by their nature, are fluid mediums, and the structuring of Starlost really does make it seem like Kline was putting it together like a house of cards.
One thing that Kline couldn't have counted on, back when they were looking at London, were the Canadian content requirements. The Canadian government was unwilling to stand by and allow an embryonic film and television industry to be immediately co-opted and colonized like so many other industries. Instead, it enacted content guidelines or requirements for Canadian talent: writers, actors, directors.
"Hollywood Canadians" were a staple in many Canadian productions of the 1970s and 1980s. Basically, you needed Canadian talent, but you also needed trained crew and recognized film actors. Not a lot of either was to be found in Canada. The solution was to look for expatriate Canadians working in LA——actors or writers who were established and working in the American market but who still held Canadian citizenship. Attaching these people to a project guaranteed you a degree of name recognition and production credibility. Obtaining such people were vital to accessing Canadian funding and tax grants for the production.
Selling the whole thing, being able to offer a credible package, seemed to rest on a handful of personal commitments from Dullea, Trumbull and even Ellison (although I am not entirely certain how critical Ellison himself was. To the extent that any writer would be considered crucial, Ellison at this time and place was probably the man). In short, Kline was trying to offer an SF package, and its success or failure to investors or producers depended on his ability to add a collection of big names in the genre.
It's possible that Kline was just another hack film and television producer looking for his big ticket. Then again, that could be said with some degree of justification of Gene Roddenberry or even Joe Straczynski. Alternatively, it might even be that Kline was an SF buff of sorts and that he genuinely wanted to do something impressive in the genre. Or it may simply be that, having found himself in the genre, he made a sincere commitment to look for the best rather than just sign on any old collection of hacks.
Certainly Ellison has strong feelings about Kline and his conduct. But looking objectively at the events of the time, I find it difficult to condemn the man outright. My best guess is that it was an issue of sales. Kline was selling a song, and to make the song credible, he had to build a series of commitments, each one locking into the other, until finally there was a package.
Consider the project as a school of fish that Kline had all persuaded to swim in one direction. One fish swimming away might cause others to lose confidence; too much of a delay might cause some of the fish to lose confidence. If too many fish moved away, then the project failed.
Kline was in an unenviable position because some of the fish came to the table with demands. Dullea wouldn't work in the United States. That was the irresolvable bottom line. Without Dullea or another actor of equivalent stature, the project collapsed. I think it's worth remembering that Dullea was a screen actor and that there was much less overlap back then. For a movie star to go into television was not a step up. So it was important to cater to Dullea. England was a first choice. When England didn't work out, Kline had to scramble to find an acceptable substitute location.
I don't believe Kline ever had the option of waiting. The project simply couldn't sit on ice. Six months or a year later, all the fish would have swum off and the the project would be dead. Kline simply couldn't afford the writers' strike that later occurred, although it looks like Ellison forced him to. The project was always teetering on the edge of collapse: too long a delay, the wrong person pulling out, and the whole thing fell apart.
Kline didn't invent Dullea's idiosyncratic and uncompromising demands not to shoot in the US. He certainly didn't create the writers' strike, or invent the Canadian content rules that he had to contend with. All of these things were just things happening to the project that he had to cope with, and Ellison was simply another damned thing after the others.
I think that Kline was forced into a compromise. Dullea, Ellison and Trumbull were a trinity of names he needed to keep associated with the project at all costs. Canadian content requirements meant he needed to bring in someone like Klenman. He was forced to try to balance Klenman and Ellison while hanging onto Ellison. This may explain a lot of what's going on in Ellison's article: the allegations of bizarre and sneaky maneuvrings that Kline was pulling, attempting to seduce or intimidate or bribe Ellison into completing his work.
I certainly don't condone these actions. But it's clear from reports of Ellison's work on Star Trek and The Outer Limits that he was more than a little bizarre and hard to get along with. He appears to have developed a reputation as a passionate but quirky and cantankerous writer. I'm not inclined to get into "he said/she said" debates, but Ellison has admitted he's not the easiest person to get along with. He's both uncompromising and an idealist, and neither of those qualities is particularly fitting for a project like this where the watchwords were compromise and flexibility.
On the other side of the coin, Ellison's invective may not be entirely unjustified. Bova quit in disgust, as did Trumbull. Dullea seems to have come out of it with a certain amount of frustration and bitterness. It does seem like no one who was involved with the project came away all that happy. The project was filled with strong, prickly personalities whose ambitions far exceeded the reasonable scope of what they could do in what was a marginal production. One by one, they seemed to be poisoned by the endless adjustments and compromises and either backed off or dropped away.
Certainly there was no shortage of compromises demanded by the series. The first problem, and one which dominates any production, was money. Starlost was not a network production; rather, its financing seems to have been a shaky house of cards, partly funded by Fox, CTV, Canadian cultural subsidies and syndication. It remained very much a shoestring production. This can be seen in the decision to shoot with videotape rather than film, and in the visible poverty of the sets and production design. The sets and models are frequently threadbare. In one notable episode a set was dressed with 1970s office furniture straight out of a catalogue.
There were other problems. Video was at the time a largely untried medium, new and not quite perfected, which was perhaps not up to the job it was being asked to do. The production crew and supporting actors, mostly Canadian, were fairly inexperienced and completely unused to a production of this sort.
Added to all this were the rigours of shooting episodic television. A movie is a thing in and of itself. Generally, a movie is not bound to a demanding schedule; rather, at Dullea and Trumbull's levels at least, there is a certain luxury of time. One might take 20 or 30 days for principal photography, weeks for second unit photography, more weeks in editing and post-production. In contrast, television works to a delivery schedule and requires that episodes be shot in a week to 10 days. A film is a project, but a television series is an assembly line. Sixteen episodes of Starlost were the equivalent running time of eight feature films, but were probably produced in less time and with less money than 2001: A Space Odyssey or Silent Running.
Both Dullea and Trumbull were film people and notable as high-strung artists, brilliant and at the top of their fields, but completely unused to the demands of episodic television. There's evidence that Trumbull had some trouble initially with deadlines, since some of the early promotions for Starlost recycled his footage from Silent Running. Trumbull probably had some honest grievances with the medium of videotape, which at this point was still new and largely experimental.
Ultimately, what we had was a chronically underfunded production peopled largely by people who were foreign to the medium. With the exception of Kline, Klenman and Ellison (a wild card himself), practically everyone else——Dullea, Trumbull, Bova and the Canadian production crew——were, in one way or another, fish out of water. Under the circumstances, their problems and grievances were probably inevitable.
Ben Bova, a technical consultant for the series who quit in disgust, wrote a book called Starcrossed in which he described Canada's national animal as the weasel and depicted Toronto as an endless wasteland of grey prefabricated concrete. So we can assume he wasn't a big fan of the Maple Leaf. Interestingly, Bova is quoted in TV North as saying, "What really surprised me is that there was a great deal of national chauvinism on the set. I was a 'Yankee.' For the first time in my life, I heard phrases like 'the flea knows how to live with the elephant.'" So, one can imagine a certain amount of cultural shock.
In fact, there is a thread of, if not Canadian nationalism, then of Canadian sensibility that runs through the series. Many of the episodes and stories seemed to address specifically Canadian issues. Arguably, the production and design style, beyond its obvious poverty, represents something non-American. Even the series premise seems oddly Canadian in its perspective and outlook: a group of autonomous communities loosely tied together, oblivious or indifferent if not downright hostile to each other, drifting along without direction or leadership, heading slowly for a doom that no one seems determined to avoid. Well, if that's not a metaphor for the Canadian experience, for the actual state of Canada, especially Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s under Pearson, then I don't know what is. You couldn't get more Canadian if you stapled Margaret Atwood to W.O. Mitchell and launched them into orbit (wishful thinking there).
Several of the episodes, of course, are decidedly generic. Take "Only Man is Vile," where our trio runs afoul of a pair of mad scientists pursuing some debate over the nature of inherent good and evil. It seems as if it could be a Star Trek or Lost in Space episode. Hardly surprising, since the writer, Shimon Wincelberg, had written for both of these series. Even without Wincelberg, The Starlost was going to be as heavily influenced by Star Trek or Doctor Who as it would be by W.O. Mitchell.
SF has its own conventions and its own themes and ideas. There's an argument to be made that science fiction is a vocabulary for industrial societies. In a world that changes every time we turn around, in a world where our grandparents grew up with horses and we grew up with men walking on the moon, the idea of the present has ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. We are all living in our own future. Hence, SF is a useful canvas for modern industrialized societies to tell their stories, in a countryside at once familiar and removed.
While SF has its own language, it is not a uniquely American offering. Rather, we see SF in every industrialized or semi-industrialized nation. There is no reason that something cannot be SF and uniquely Canadian, or that exploring one set of themes disqualifies it from exploring the other.
Consider the episode "Gallery of Fear," in which our trio are played with by an artificial intelligence, Magnus, which may be malevolent or insane. In the end, Devon, obviously flashing back to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, decides to destroy the AI. No big deal; Captain Kirk was terminating AIs left and right back in his day. Strangely, The Starlost here lacks Star Trek's moral certainty. In Star Trek, destroying a governing artificial intelligence was almost mandatory. It was an obstacle to progress, an intolerable relic of past civilizations, existing without point or purpose.
In Starlost there's more ambiguity. Devon and Rachel must debate with each other over what to do about Magnus, and it's a moral debate which considers Magnus's right to exist. In the end, Devon slowly and grudgingly makes a decision Kirk would have leapt to. But maddeningly, though we've given decisive action, we don't get a moral resolution. At the end, we're left uncertain as to whether Devon's decision was the right one or whether he is a murderer, as the community of surviving artificial intelligences denounce him.
I suggest that this ambiguity may represent a distinctly Canadian approach: a refusal or unwillingness to believe that a good sock to the jaw solves all the world's problems, or that intractable natives need to be gotten rid of for the sake of progress.
The end of the episode has our heroes being accused of murder, being promised vengeance, which clearly rebuts the rightness of the resolution that Devon reached. Kirk walked away having taken swift decisive action, certain that he'd done the right thing. Devon's action is not taken swiftly but after much debate, and there's no certainty for him in the end.
Themes of environmentalism and conservation shows up several times. If space was the final frontier in Star Trek, the Ark in Starlost is a place of finite wealth. In "Mr. Smith of Manchester," unrestrained industrialization has made the environment all but unlivable. In "The Implant People," a similar degradation of the environment is hinted at. In "The Alien Oro," Devon reacts with horror to Oro's dismantling of pieces of the Ark to repair his ship. To Oro the Ark is resources; to Devon, it's a finite home.
This is a theme that returns again in "The Return of Oro" and is expanded upon. Oro continually refers to the Ark as a resource to be acquired for his people. The images that Oro shows of his world are of pristine, unspoiled wilderness, itself an environmental message with its own subtext (stock footage of Canadian wilderness, including a scene depicted on Canadian money of the time). These images turn out to be archive footage of Earth——a lost wilderness, a historical record rather than a live place.
It's true that themes like pollution or the Orwellian state were not unique to Canada. They must be seen as being common to any industrialized society. Whether you are in England or Germany, the United States or Canada, sooner or later you're going to come up against these issues. Each state or population has concerns over pollution and the degradation of its environment. Each people has potential concerns over state oversight and infringement of liberty.
But each nation also expresses its concerns differently. Even in the case of pollution, the issues differ with each nation's concerns. Canadians focused on acid rain, on foreign contamination seeping over our borders; we worried about our lands and resources being taken up or polluted by invaders who had no stake in our country. The Japanese tended to focus on water quality because of their dependence on the fishery. Smog-prone London and L.A. were concerned about air. Nations where farmland and industrial lands were cheek to cheek worried about contamination of foodstuffs.
Even the degree of emphasis changed from culture to culture and over periods of time. The United States, for instance, has never accorded industrial pollution anywhere near the level of concern that Canada has. Nor, for that matter, has it ever seriously questioned the limits to growth. Anti-state-powers paranoia has always reached much deeper into the fabric of their society than ours.
Consider the fear in "Mr. Smith of Manchester"——that the pollution will spread across the border and poison or contaminate the whole Ark——as a reflection of the Canadian perspective on pollution such as acid rain being a cross-border phenomenon.
Generally, Canadian sensibilities tended to be more focused on environmentalism than American ones. This may be due to the fact that many Canadians live in close proximity to American industrial development; we see pollution first-hand sweeping across the border as acid rain, smogs, toxic seepage and polluted waters. It may also be that our environment is comparatively harsher than the Americans', and thus we are more concerned with long-term survival, with preserving it than spending it. Alternatively, this may be a defensive reaction to the fact that ours is primarily a resource economy. Canada's wealth was built on the extraction and sale of our finite natural resources, which raises a subliminal concern about what happens to us when it's all gone. For whatever reason, Canada is a distinctly "greener" place than the United States in terms of not just our wildlife and forests but our attitudes towards environmentalism and conservation.
The United States has defined itself and its mythology is expressed as wide open spaces and frontiers. As I've already noted, in Star Trek, space is the final frontier, and it's treated like that: with prospectors, settlers, explorers, backward natives, swarthy hostiles and even barroom brawls in frontier saloons.
Canada's self-image and concerns seems to express itself in more timid terms. Our environment, like space itself, is conceived as immeasurably vast, implacable, almost overwhelming. It is something that defies conquest. Rather, existence is hard-won, the result of conservation and hard work, delicate networks of contact and communication, farms, homesteads, even towns and cities built as shelters against an empty nature which ruled once and may rule again, much as the vast Ark is a delicate construct in the empty vastness of space in Starlost.
The schizophrenic view that Canadians have of nature as being both vast and implacable and delicate and in need of conservation finds an odd synthesis in The Starlost. The Ark is where they live, its parts in delicate balance, showing wear and tear, but in the end, it's all they have.
A typical episode, like "The Implant People," deals with themes like the usurpation of democracy, of government control over our lives.
These were not issues that one would have to research
literature and culture to come across. Back in the 1970s one could find them on
the covers of magazines and in the pages of newspapers. These were things that
Canadians were talking about and concerned with when the show was being made.
The writers were arguably skimming their inspiration off the froth of pop
culture, which is hardly elegant but is sometimes a much more accurate measure
of what a culture is about than its "significant" works.
In fact, there are numerous instances where Starlost visibly borrows from images or names in popular culture. In ‘Circuits of Death’ the scientist is named ‘Sakharov’ the name of a dissident Soviet nuclear scientist famous at the time. In ‘Farthing’s Comet’ the scientist is named ‘Doctor Linus Farthing’ which is an obvious reference to Nobel Prize winning biochemist Linus Pauling. More, Farthing’s character is a dead ringer for Isaac Asimov, and the core of the episode is an extended spacewalk which drew its inspiration from the space program of the time, rather than Science Fiction. In another episode, ‘Astro-Medics’ the alien spaceship, a metal cylinder with projections, looks suspiciously like a Canadian Anik satellite in use at the time. If popular references this obvious were percolating into the show, then we can readily assume that popular ideas and contemporary issues were being absorbed along with them.
In "The Implant People," the villain Roloff is a bureaucrat who's become the real ruler of the state——a reflection of the mandarins in Ottawa? At the same time, he's a working-class upstart——a reflection of the fears of the class that gave rise to mandarins?
Another Canadian aspect of Starlost might be described as "fear of Americans." Like it or not, the United States will always be a dominating force in Canadian life and thought. This country was founded, more than any other reason, to survive the Americans, to keep from simply being swallowed up, bit by bit. The United States has 10 times our population, and even that effect is magnified by the Canadian population being stretched out on a ribbon along the US border, a few hundred miles wide and thousands of miles long. The United States influence every aspect of our existence.
At least a couple of Starlost episodes deal with this theme. "Mr. Smith of Manchester" represents a portrait of American society. It's a society obsessed with production and guns, a militaristic society with no one to fight. It's a society wrapped up in paranoia, planning a defensive conquest of the Ark and drowning in its own pollution.
Is this really the United States? Consider the time: 1973. The United States was up to its elbows in the Vietnam War. The illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos was an open secret. The CIA was exposed overthrowing governments and plotting assassinations in South America and Africa. The FBI was wiretapping its citizens. The White House was keeping a list of enemies and Richard Nixon was slowly being exposed as the psychopathic liar he was. It was a society whose cities were visibly decaying into sprawling slums of poverty and misery while the well-to-do fled to suburbs. It was a society opening fire on its own university students. It was a relentlessly aggressive militaristic society, obsessed with enemies who were at least half imaginary (Communists under the bed, anyone?) and consumed with the idea of growth at all costs.
Smith's Manchester was a dead-on outsiders' portrait of Nixon's America. More clues come from its presentation. If Manchester had been intended as a parable about the Russians, it would have been easy enough to make it clear. The characters don't have funny foreign-sounding names as Roloff does in "The Implant People" but good old North American names like Smith and Trent. They don't have foreign accents. The lead, Ed Ames, who played Smith, was best known previously as an actor in westerns. There's no effort at all to come across as foreign or alien. Rather, the horror of Manchester is in its down-home quality. And of course, the fear that Manchester would get out is not simply that it would take over, but also that its pollution might contaminate the entire Ark, which distinctly encapsulates Canadian fears.
In hindsight, "Mr. Smith of Manchester" seems such a blatant and subversive piece of anti-American propaganda that one wonders how it got made at all, much less presented to an American marketplace.
If Americans had perceived that they were being skewered, many of them wouldn't have liked it at all. It's possible that the poor reaction that the series got in the US was in part due to a perception by Americans that they were being criticized.
The other big episode which deals with fear of Americans is "The Return of Oro." Here, instead of going to the US, the US, in the form of Oro of Exar, comes to our heroes. Oro's name, the Spanish for "gold," suggests that Oro is about gold; his agenda is commercial. This, by the way, is reflective of some of Oro's dialogue.’ He speaks of the Ark as an immense source of "wealth," of "resources." Oro comes not as a conquerer in European traditions but as a fortune-hunter in American traditions.
The other clue is the name or Oro's people or nation: Exar...or XR, a two-letter name from the back of the alphabet, just like the US. "Exar" or "XR" are the the phonetic renderings; I've seen it spelled "Xar" or "Ixar." In the absence of a script, I don't believe there is a definitive spelling. ‘Oro (Gold) may be a deliberate or unconscious play on the popular American nickname ‘Buck (dollar).
"The Return of Oro" was, of course, the second engagement for Walter Koenig's character. He'd previously been established as a space castaway in "The Alien Oro." Oro returns not as a castaway, but as a representative of XR. He has an offer: He wants to pilot the Ark to his homeworld so his people can harvest its resources. He comes as a saviour, he smiles, he's friendly; he makes a pitch showing home movies of his planet and his good intentions. But in the end, he wants the wealth of the Ark. The climax of the episode is a debate to the death where Oro offers survival and security as a satellite and colony of XR and Devon speaks on behalf of freedom and charting their own course, even if the risk is disaster.
This was actually a very Canadian debate, especially in the early 1970s when Canadian economic nationalism, advocated by people such as Walter Gordon and Mel Hurtig, was at its height. Canada faced a kind of crossroads. It was very much like the question in "The Return of Oro." Canadians were looking at their future and trying to decide if they had one. Was it possible to have an independent Canada, a nation that charted its own course, sought its own destiny? Could we control our own economy, have our own businesses and policies? Could we survive that way? Or should we embrace the security, the easier path, of just being an American colony? Would Canada's resources be owned by Canadians or by Americans?
It was a uniquely Canadian debate. Let's face it: Americans weren't sitting around asking themselves if they wanted Canada for a satellite or not. The Americans had never doubted that they were the masters of their own destiny. They were no one's satellite, in no one's orbit; they acknowledged no gravity but their own. This sort of debate was absolutely foreign to them. Nothing quite like it ever comes up in Star Trek, for instance. Captain Kirk might occasionally encounter gods or superior beings, but they were almost invariably frauds or crippled with weaknesses. At the very worst, they were the real thing but they minded their own damned business. Even the Organians, who prevented a war, had no further influence on the hearts and minds of the Federation. Kirk never needed to worry about the Federation being drawn into Organia's orbit and becoming a satellite society.
Internationally, many countries, including France, Britain and Australia, found themselves complaining of the weight of American power, the omnipresence of Coca-Cola and Mickey Mouse. But these complaints were a distant echo of the situation in Canada, where we lived cheek by jowl with the American behemoth. No major nation in the industrialized world quite confronted the sort of colonial issue with the United States that we were looking at in quite the same way or quite as profoundly as we did.
This was one of the most popular and crucial debates of that time period. From it arose a real movement to try and preserve or take back Canadian society and economy. On the business side of things, there were a number of moves, like creating PetroCanada as a national energy company and restricting or controlling foreign investment and takeovers through the Foreign Investment Review Agency.
On the social side, there was a concerted effort to lay foundations for a viable Canadian film and television industry. The national debate would give rise to the tax shelter film boom, which would create a Canadian film industry almost overnight. It also spurred cultural funding agencies, everything from the Canada Council to Telefilm. A major part of the Canadian nationalist movement resided in culture, and the attempt to support or even create uniquely Canadian cultural industries.
In short, it's absolutely impossible that the people making Starlost in Canada——those writing it, acting in it, producing it——could have been unaware of this national debate. Hell, in a very real sense, these people and the nascent film and television industry they represented even had a personal stake in it. We know from Ben Bova that not only were they aware and involved, but they had strong, even chauvinistic opinions. They were inevitably in the centre of the cultural storm.
The language of the debate, inspired by a space program that was still putting people on the moon, was laced with space opera. People talked in terms of being an American "satellite," of Canada being in the American "orbit," of the "gravity" or "gravitational force" of the American society and economy. It's a small step rather than a giant leap to transpose the whole thing onto an SF palette.
"The Return of Oro," then, wasn't just about XR taking the Ark for its own purposes. It was really a debate over the heart and soul of the Canadian nation; a debate as to whether to become a satellite or colony, to be drawn into the Exar orbit and lose their identity or try to be masters of their own destiny, even if that conclusion does not seem clearly drawn from Canadian nationalist debates. There is, frankly, no parallel in American culture. It must be seen as unique. One of the final episodes of Starlost, then, is one about identity, and this debate over identity seems framed in uniquely Canadian terms.
The Canadian overtones of the series pose a challenging problem. Obviously, the concepts weren't originally created by Canadians, created in Canada, or even created with Canada in mind. Ellison, Bova, Trumbull and Kline aren't Canucks by any stretch of the imagination. Yet the series does seem to resonate to the Canadian experience. Why is this? How could this be?
Perhaps the resonance, on some level, led to the series being adopted by Canadians. On the one hand, this seems ridiculous. CTV was looking for a programming opportunity. If The Starlost package had arrived as a celebrity golf sitcom rather than an SF series, they would have gone with it. And they'd have gone with any kind of SF or adventure premise, if that had been offered. The series more or less fell into our laps after being passed on by both the US and Britain.
On the other hand, it didn't fly in the United States. The American backers were never more than lukewarm to the series concept (or else, Dullea or no Dullea, it would have been made in the US), and certainly American audiences never got into it. The British apparently turned it down flat. Obviously, there were commercial and political reasons for the lack of interest of prospective British and American partners. But I'm willing to speculate that one of the reasons The Starlost wasn't produced in these countries was that the series' premise was alien to their national mythologies.
The pivotal American space operas of the 1960s and 1970s were about their mythology as a frontier. Star Trek said it explicitly when it called space "the final frontier" and when Gene Roddenberry called it "Wagon Train to the stars." Lost in Space is simply a pioneer drama——Little House on the Prairie done stupid. Even the quest series that bore a resemblance to Starlost, such as Logan's Run, Planet of the Apes or Roddenberry's failed Genesis II/Planet Earth series pilots, were more about the frontier. Unlike Starlost, these unknown communities and strange new worlds weren't seen as tied together but existed as separate continents or islands, waiting to be discovered.
On the other side of the ocean, Britain's principal SF reflected its perception of itself as an island nation, apart and solitary, whether in Doctor Who, Space: 1999, or other Gerry Anderson productions. The approaches differed. The early Gerry Anderson shows were optimistic excursions, the island dealing with a variety of foreigners, but confident of its place in the world. In Space: 1999 it was an island in hostile seas to reflect the bleaker times of the 1970. But still, Moonbase Alpha was a kind of island.
Starlost doesn't relate to either of these national themes, but that doesn't necessarily leave us with Canada as the only default. Several other countries had live film and television establishments. The Italians, for instance, were making waves with their spaghetti westerns and even helped co-produce the second year of Space: 1999. With the British, the Germans co-produced a 1970s series called Star Maidens. Even the French might have been players.
On the other side of the hemisphere, Japan had experimented with co-productions with the US and had produced viable SF movies and TV series. Even Australia might have been a potential candidate to produce a series.
Arguably The Starlost wound up in Canada as a result of a series of coincidences and opportunities, but also partly because it resonated with Canadians in a way that it didn't with the British, the Americans or other nationalities. Sitting here in our collection of autonomous provinces, loosely bound, oblivous and hostile to each other, drifting along without apparent direction or leadership, on a possible course to destruction, in danger of becoming an American satellite, we'd look at the Starlost people and we could relate.
The notion of three rustics leaving their isolated backwoods countryside to seek out the centre where power and control lies seems vaguely reminiscent of the classic Canadian movie Going Down the Road by Don Shebib, in which a trio of Maritimers head for central Canada. It's also reminiscent of the quest for sanctuary in Logan's Run or any number of endless Fugitive-type films and TV series. The notion of a hero or even a trio who go on a quest certainly precedes Going Down the Road by a few thousand years. And yet, reading Ellison's bible for The Starlost, we find that the character of Garth was originally to be the hunter. He was going to be a dramatic element, like Urko in the Planet of the Apes series, Francis in Logan's Run, or Gerard in The Fugitive [Javert in Les Miséérables]: always pursuing, usually one step behind, a constant danger, a reluctant ally.
Somehow, this concept of Garth vanished and he became one of the trio. This blew a lot of opportunities for dramatic tension and arguably wasted the character, since as one of the group he didn't have a lot to do most of the time. There's an evolution here which is hard to account for or explain in formal dramatic terms. Certainly it seems alien to American drama. But we can assume that Dullea, Ward and others were familiar with Going Down the Road, so perhaps they were influenced by it, even if only on a subconscious level.
Canadian film and literature is not replete with hunters and the hunted. Our mythology lacks gunslingers and sheriffs, lone wolves; rather, it's filled with people who cling together as they struggle through the wilderness.
Another source of the Canadian-ness of the series was its limitations. Down in LA in 1967, Captain Kirk got into rousing fistfights, crewmen died, beautiful women flounced around half-naked, and someone got laid——guaranteed——in every episode. In contrast, The Starlost, five years later in Toronto, was much tamer.
Sex? In the 10 episodes of the movie compilations, there was only one genuine babe, the secretary in "Mr. Smith of Manchester," and she didn't do anything. There was no romantic chemistry between any of the leads. The occasional star-crossed romance that was suggested, as in "Pisces" or "The Alien Oro," was so tepid as to make no impact at all.
Violence? That did a little better. There were brief, badly staged fistfights in "The Implant People." In "Mr. Smith of Manchester," a gun is fired. Threats were made in both Oro episodes, but compared to American or even British programming of the time, which featured a major battle in literally every episode, The Starlost was remarkably placid.
Why? I think part of this was that The Starlost was coming from a different technical culture than Star Trek.
Look at it this way. Where did American television get its ideas? Where did they get their writers, directors, cinematographers, stuntmen, fight choreographers, cameramen and technical people?
From the movies. This is hardly rocket science. American television emerged mostly in LA, the same place that American film had grown up. When American television was taking root, producing its own dramas and comedies, it was drawing on the collective technical skill, people, visual and aesthetic traditions developed over some 40 years of movie-making at every level, on a massive scale. In many ways, American television simply tried to be American movies on a smaller screen.
For the most part, a Canadian film and television industry barely existed. In 1973, the feature film production of the entire country was perhaps three films. That's three low-budget minor films, compared to something like 200 or more coming out of the United States. (One of the Canadian films, The Neptune Factor, was the most expensive and, for many years, the highest-grossing Canadian film. This undersea SF adventure can still occasionally be seen on the Space Channel.)
Of course, the National Film Board of Canada was notable for producing documentaries and shorts. On the television side of the coin, there was the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, which did some children's programming such as Romper Room; a game show or two, such as Front Page Challenge; news programs; documentaries; a lot of hockey; Wayne and Schuster comedy specials; the occasional dramatic one-off; and a couple of half-hour series such The King of Kensington and The Beachcombers.
Harlan Ellison writes, and Norman Klenman confirms, that there were no scriptwriters in Canada. The good script people, Klenman among them, who were Canadians were all down in LA. Why? Because there wasn't enough of an industry in Canada to support them. There wasn't a solid base of sitcoms and dramas to support writers, directors, cinematographers, effects people, the whole infrastructure of skilled technical people that you need to pull off a polished action/adventure show such as Star Trek or even a generic program such as Mannix. There were skilled people in Canada, of course, but being a cameraman on a game show such as Front Page Challenge was a very different thing from being a cameraman on The Starlost.
So, if The Starlost wasn't drawing on the same kinds of technical and talent bedrock as Star Trek, where were its traditions coming from?
American television grew out of American film and the decades upon decades of accumulated skill and experience that went into film. Canadian and British television sprang from a different source: the stage. If Canada didn't have a well-established film tradition, it did have a very well-established stage tradition including a vaudeville circuit. Canada maintained a small but lively theatrical community. Every major city had a theatre, and even small towns had performing halls for live entertainment. There was a major Shakespearean festival at Stratford.
It was a theatrical tradition that was hardly large by any means. I suspect most Canadians were too busy watching hockey to even notice it. But it was there, a part of the country's culture, and integrated enough into Canadian society that it would perform the works of Canadian writers.
If you were in Canada and hiring actors, pretty much everyone you would get was going to be theatrically rather than cinema-trained. The same thing with local directors, writers, lighting people, set designers, prop-masters, make-up artists, etc. Everyone was oriented to working real-time on fixed stages with static lighting.
This actually shows in the stuff that was appearing on television. Most of the CBC's dramatic specials were adaptations of stage plays, often shot as if they were on stage, with minimal sets, basic lighting, and few changes. There wasn't a lot of money in the CBC budget for drama in the first place, and not a lot of experience with the format, so adopting a theatrical style was both cheaper and easier than a more cinematic style.
American cinematographers and stuntmen had 40 years of westerns under their belts in creating exciting and convincing fistfights. The Canadian production crew, being basically from the stage and non-dramatic television, had none of that. As a result, we have an extremely badly staged fight in "The Implant People." Well, if they simply weren't good at it, perhaps it was best that they stayed away from that sort of thing.
The British had a more sophisticated film industry, with numerous films made as far back as the 1930s. But the British film industry was born facing an extremely well-established theatrical culture. Throughout its film history, for most British actors, film was just something you did, while real acting took place on the stage. British film, for much of its history, was shaped by the conventions and ideas of theatrical tradition. British television, when it came along, took its cues from the stage, rather than film.
Interestingly, however, Hollywood never really had a stage tradition of its own. It was a factory town, and the factory made movies. Stage actors or technical people tended to slip some influence in, but they were coming from New York or even London. So they never had the kind of influence in far-off California that they had in England. Hollywood movies evolved on their own, taking various influences, but genuinely becoming their own creatures.
The result, however, is that Canadian and British television dramas such as The Starlost tended to be more formal than their American counterparts. They tended to be talkier, more thoughtful and slow-paced, with more emphasis on acting and characters, less on action. Characters tended to be more interesting, more unique and less stereotyped. On the other hand, they tended to be less active. The staging tended to be simpler and economical, with minimal special effects or action scenes. The acting tended to be more deliberate and less spontaneous. Even the rhythms was different.
Does this make British or Canadian television naturally inferior to its American counterpart? Not necessarily. British television has produced some spectacular offerings, through which its stage origins show through clearly: I, Claudius and even Fawlty Towers are justly regarded as classics. On the SF side, the Quatermass serials, Doctor Who and Blake's 7 are clearly stage-born, and just as clearly enduring genre works.
Interestingly, the advertising and video boxes for The Starlost compilation movies go out of their way to mention Doctor Who and Star Trek, clearly recognizing a similarity in style and format.
But if the Canadian style tended to resemble the British in being more theatrical rather than cinematic, it was clearly less sophisticated. At the time that the Canadians were trying to syndicate The Starlost to American markets, the British were doing the same thing much more successfully with Space: 1999, a far more polished and cinematic series, as much a child of cinema as of the stage.
Unfortunately for The Starlost, it was being marketed primarily to an American audience that had grown up and was used to the cinematic Hollywood style. Its more sedate and cerebral theatrical origins and style was pretty much lost on an audience acclimated to the thrills and chills of Star Trek.
Another factor we have to consider is that the standards existing at the time for Canadian television were much more restrictive. Ontario, the Canadian province where Starlost was shot, is still famous for its prudish and pedantic censors. There is a deeply conservative, perhaps even timid, thread within Toronto's cultural mainstream. This is a place that banned internationally acclaimed films such as The Tin Drum well into the 1980s, and in the 1990s seized paintings from art galleries and put them on trial in the Eli Langer case.
So right from the starting gate, the community standards were profoundly prudish with regard to sex, and only a little less so when it came to violence.
Television content and standards of acceptability were defined by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission and guided or further defined by the CBC.
CTV at the time was a chain of private television stations that had just begun to invest resources in programming. The Starlost was its first attempt at a dramatic series. In a climate as conservative as Toronto's, CTV probably had no intention of rocking the boat, of going out and taking risks. This was a major effort, and a lot was riding on it. So we weren't going to see a lot of adult sexual content or situations, or, if that was present, it was going to be played in a very subdued fashion. Violence was going to be used sparingly. Part of this, of course, may have been a hidden sensibility that SF was actually children's programming. In a sense, perhaps they were taking a leaf from Doctor Who rather than Star Trek.
The creators of Starlost were trying to create something for the American market. Their goal was a kind of simulated Americana. Well, they clearly failed in doing that. Later Canadian productions such as Night Heat and Street Legal would come much closer and be much more successful in creating a product indistinguishable from their American peers. Is this a better or worse thing?
The Starlost was a cruder production, less American in look and feel, but doesn't this suggest it was more naturally or inherently Canadian? Was it simple crudity, or was it the traces, however young and poorly developed, of a distinctive style and sensibility? Which gives one pause to think. Obviously, if the producers of Starlost could have emulated the American model perfectly, they would have. There's no question about that. They were trying to create a product for the American market, not create an artifact of Canadian culture. But culture is an expression of who you are. It's something that should happen naturally, as opposed to simply being a deliberate construct. Nobody should sit at a desk and say "This is Canada," any more than they should say "This is America" or "This is Britain."
You can't create culture like that; you can merely try to define it. You create culture by creating it, and you recognize it when different creators keep coming up with the same themes and ideas.
If the product is not recognizably or identifiably American, then what is it? I think that the answer, by default, has to be "Canadian." The creators were Canadians, coming from Canadian sensibilities, history and traditions. The same forces that shaped us in turn shaped The Starlost. We are defined as much by our limitations, our boundaries, as by our accomplishments and aspirations. And The Starlost, for better or worse, was defined in turn by those same boundaries and limitations.
Starlost certainly didn't start off life as a Canadian concept, and a lot of the key people——Ellison, Kline, Trumbull and Bova——had nothing to do with Canada. Dullea, perhaps, is a Canadian in spirit if not nationality. But Dullea's co-stars were Canadians, as was scriptwriter Klenman, as were several of the writers and directors, as were the CTV producers. The production took place here, and much of that production style seems informed by a developing Canadian sensibility: stage-driven, resembling the BBC, poverty-bound but quite distinct from Hollywood television. Many of the stories it told resonated to Canadian sensibilities in ways that were completely inscrutable if not outright repellent to American audiences, and overall, the premise and sensibility betrays a Canadian outlook.
The Starlost is infamous as the worst SF series ever, perhaps because the Americans who judged it never really understood it. Ellison did it a favour. Without his attack, it would have probably faded away. That, together with the repackaging of the series into five movies, probably gave it the legs to find a place in SF history.
It came here, and if it didn't start out as ours, it certainly finished as a legendary if unrespected piece of Canadian culture. And what is more Canadian than getting no respect or recognition?
I, for one, am proud of it