The Starlost was a television series that aired primarily on NBC in the U.S. and CTV in Canada during 1973. Created by Harlan Ellison – with technical details on the ship by Ben Bova – it was an early foray into Canadian-American co-production and syndication release. Special effects genius Douglas Trumbull was also on board with a new process using miniature sets and camera effects to dramatically reduce the costs of producing movie-quality science fiction on a television budget.
Things fell apart early on, with Ellison leaving the show shortly after finishing the show’s bible and the pilot script “Phoenix Without Ashes.” By Ellison’s account, the show’s producers didn’t know what they were doing and bungled things so badly he refused to participate further. Nor did he allow them to attach his name to the final product. As a result, his mocking pen name – Cordwainer Bird – was used. The pilot as he wrote it never aired. Instead, it was rewritten (poorly) by another writer and aired as “Voyage of Discovery.”
Ellison shared his Starlost experience in “Somehow, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas, Toto,” a preface to Edward Bryant‘s novelisation of Ellison’s original script, and it’s a direct and harsh look at the creative process.
The script for “Phoenix Without Ashes” was collected later in the science fiction anthology Faster Than Light, edited by Jack Dann & George Zebrowski. It shows The Starlost as a solid idea with all the pieces that are needed for the limited series Ellison envisioned.
What is unfortunate is that the kind of television production The Starlost was intended to be – co-production in two countries, syndicated, limited run – was in its infancy, and the business framework to deliver a successful result didn’t exist yet. So Ellison was like an advance scout who was cut down by a machine gun nest hidden in the woods. It happens to a lot of our guys. Usually our best guys, because they have the courage and ability to see beyond what is our current reality and find something new to work with. And the world doesn’t often reward those that step out of line.
So it’s understandable that Ellison didn’t want to talk about The Starlost anymore. He did it. It hurt. He moved on.
However, the day after I posted the original version of this piece, a friend found an online article about IDW adapting the script into comic form. Kudos to IDW. They’re a good publisher with a proven track record of handling licenses well and the resources to bring quality products to the marketplace. It’s encouraging that people will be able to see the material as it was intended, and that Ellison thought the time was right to allow it to happen.
I first saw The Starlost on CTV when I was 8. I didn’t see all the episodes, and by the time I became an adult, it was dimly remembered. The internet changed that and after having my memory jogged, I discovered the previously-mentioned novelisation and anthology through a website devoted to the series. It also collected the series bible, many other pieces and photos, and pointed me to videotapes of the episodes released by VCI.
Finding that material and understanding what Ellison and his creative partners had originally envisioned the project to be was very interesting to me. As I moved through my own career, seeing some projects come to fruition smoothly, while some were destroyed by poor or petty thinking out of my control, gave Ellison’s experiences increasing resonance for me.
The story of the making – and unmaking – of The Starlost is worthy of a book all its own. Working on it off and on over the past few years, I eventually had most of a pretty good package. Taking the available source materials, I came up with concepts for the Ark based on Ben Bova’s notes. Ideas for costumes and sets came from the descriptions in the series bible and script and would have led into storyboards for an illustrated script and illustrations for the novelisation. On the other side, “what could have been” was to be contrasted with a complete episode guide and photos from all the produced episodes.
The opening page of Ellison’s experiences. Using a simple two-column layout and understated typography puts the attention on the words. Heads set in Futura, body in Bembo. Tabs keep the reader oriented to where they are in the book.
The remnants of humanity leave the Earth behind after a disaster. Travelling in a generational ship of domes, each housing a different group or culture, is where the story of The Starlost takes place. The domes could be clustered like grapes (as described in the bible), but after reading Bova’s description of collecting hydrogen to power the ship’s reactors, I thought about using the design principle of ‘form follows function,’ and moved on from these beginning sketches.
The satellite dish was the real-world shape that formed the basic design. With the arms radiating outwards, terminating with manœuvring engines at their tips, the domes would be supported between the arms.
The central core houses the crew and surrounds the engine. The front surface collects and guides the hydrogen atoms to the central opening.
Each dome is 50 miles across, so we’re looking at a huge structure that would need to be mined from all of the dying Earth’s remaining resources, and perhaps the Moon as well.
Award-winning illustrator Dan O’Driscoll was brought in to take my sketches and turn them into something more tangible. He did a fantastic job, adding his own engineering ideas and details.
Like a reverse umbrella, the extra struts add support during thrust. Just one of the improvements Dan made to the concept.
In this piece by me, the structure of the domes is explored. A network of tubes runs underneath each dome. Called ‘bounce tubes,’ they carry all the raw materials, waste, power, and provide transportation between the domes. They’re important to the mechanics of storytelling in Starlost because our heroes travel from dome to dome to try to solve the mystery of the ship some hundreds of years after it leaves Earth.
My idea was to make the domes double sided. It increases the scope and achievement of the Ark, and while Ellison only saw a mini series, it’s an idea that could be played out over a number of seasons. More domes, more possibilities.
Dan’s version of the domes. The front-facing domes have a generator atop them. This would create a ‘solid’ electromagnetic field that would capture the hydrogen. Bova also discusses satellites that would fly out to extend the electromagnetic field. These could be housed in the manœuvring engines when not in use.
The ark abandons the empty shell of Earth.
Ideas for interior details.
A mission patch for the crew.
Crew and character sketches. The crew (when still alive) would not have interacted regularly with the people in the domes, some of which had not chosen a modern lifestyle.
Case in point, the main characters come from an Amish-like community called Cypress Corners. Severe, austere and technologically 19th century, it’s a stifling society that the main protagonist, Devon, longs to break free from.
A sample page from the script.
A sketch for the novelisation’s cover.
Keir Dullea, Gaye Rowan and Robin Ward as Devon, Rachel and Garth.
VCI released a well-made DVD set of all the episodes and screen captures from those are combined with cast & crew credits and an episode synopsis.
There was a press kit made with stills. I’m still kicking myself for missing the only complete one I’ve ever seen on eBay earlier this year. As it is, I have a couple of the photos and other pieces I’ve found on the net.
Another episode page.
The Ark continues on to meet its destiny.
In the past couple of years, I’ve taken a much more pragmatic view of the projects that I’ve been working on. Doing The Starlost Compendium presents some pretty big challenges to getting it released as a commercial venture. First and foremost was Ellison’s unwillingness to talk about the subject. At one point, I idealistically thought I might be able to overcome that with a complete package (if you build it, they will come), but that’s not how the world works.
Every time I geared up to do the illustration work – a multi-month project – I hesitated. Eventually, I realised that my effort was better spent working on my own stuff, rather than a long shot that depended upon unlikely outside approval.
The other consideration was that I wanted to include both the source material and the final product as a complete picture of how a project can go completely off the rails. That’s an important thing to document for fellow creatives as they try to bring their own ideas to life.
And there’s the tangled knot. Ellison would not want his name associated with the produced show, and CTVglobemedia would most likely not look kindly upon Ellison’s blunt criticisms of its past practices (through production company Glen-Warren that it eventually absorbed).
Add to that agents, licensing, lawyers, who distributes it and who gets what and how much, and I came to the conclusion the project was dead on arrival, because unlike IDW I’m an unknown in the marketplace. I would have produced the compendium as an ebook with the idea of selling it through my own ecommerce solution with an appropriate cut to Ellison. These days, Ellison sells ebooks through his agent’s solution, and IDW is a known commercial venture with the apparatus to handle licensed material in a way that would give Ellison and his representatives confidence.
It’s too bad. I enjoyed working on it. It would have been a good book. It would still make a good show.