The Starlost Compendium

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.

starlost cover

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.


starlost intro

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.


ark concept 1

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.

ark concept 2

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.

ark concept 3

The central core houses the crew and surrounds the engine. The front surface collects and guides the hydrogen atoms to the central opening.

ark concept 4

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.


ark front

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.

ark rear

ark description

Like a reverse umbrella, the extra struts add support during thrust. Just one of the improvements Dan made to the concept.

ark vector drawing

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.

dome elevation

dome cutaway

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.

ark approaching

The ark abandons the empty shell of Earth.


ark interiors

ark details

Ideas for interior details.

ark mission patch

A mission patch for the crew.

head sketches

figure sketches

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.

marker sketches

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.


starlost script page

A sample page from the script.

starlost novel cover

A sketch for the novelisation’s cover.


starlost logo

starlost cast

Keir Dullea, Gaye Rowan and Robin Ward as Devon, Rachel and Garth.

voyage of discovery

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.

calabra photo

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.

goddess calabra

Another episode page.

ark flying away

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.

starlost back cover

Comments

  • What a shame you won’t be going forward with this project Scott. You’ve put a lot into it and it looks great. Is there no possibility to produce it as an “unauthorized” compendium of the series?

    I’ve read much of the Harlan Ellison saga in connection to the series, perhaps it would be interesting to track down some of the other principles and get their side of the story?

    Perhaps this project is merely on hold for now?

    • Thanks for your comments, Eric. As the project was defined, I don’t see it as being able to come to fruition.

      There are a lot of Starlost episode guides out there, and the fan website mentioned in the post has much of the material an unauthorised book could have in it.

      For me though, what makes The Starlost interesting is the original script, series bible and Ellison’s essay on his experiences. The rights for all that material rest with Ellison through his Kilimanjaro Corporation. Ellison has a history of being vigilant when people have appropriated his work without his permission. I have no wish to pirate his work. While IDW has gained rights to produce a comic based on the script, it’s still doubtful he’d agree to a package that included the final show. So there it rests.

      The idea of a generational ship is not a new one. Ellison didn’t invent the concept, he just used it effectively in his work. Ben Bova, following his Starlost experience, set his Exiles trilogy (worth reading) on a generational ship.

      So me using the ship design and other concepts I came up with for some future project is not out of the question. The Starlost Compendium may not ever be published, but it’s a good example of my design thinking and so there’s the blog post.

  • A great representation of what can happen as a script goes to production. Have you seen the first six drafts of the original Star Wars script? Exactly the opposite of what happened here. Those drafts were goofy, almost laughable compared to the gold that would emerge as Star Wars in theatres in 1976. Two contrasting examples of how sometimes the creative process is allowed to work and sometimes it isn’t.

    Would be nice to see Starlost revisited. Maybe Comely can do the GN. :D

    • I’ve heard about the evolution of Star Wars, but haven’t read the scripts. Alas, poor Star Wars peaked early with Empire and never recovered. I’d still support an annual Ewok cull.

      As mentioned above, IDW now has the license to do graphic novels. The first, “Phoenix Without Ashes,” is being published in single-issue form as of this writing. I’ll be picking up a copy once it goes into trade paperback.

  • J.

    Very impressive. I too recall watching The Starlost.

    Lately, I’ve been watching some episodes on YouTube. I did find a copy of Phoenix Without Ashes through an inter-library loan search. I can see why Harlan Ellison was upset at the result. The show could have been so much better.

    I was excited when I learned that the novel was being made in graphic novel form and then I actually saw. I have to say I’m somewhat disappointed. I find the artwork very bland. I can’t help feel that Harlan Ellison has been let down again.

    I have been working on my own design for the Ark which I’m basing on the desription in the novel. Maybe someday I’ll get it done.

    Keep up the incredible work.

  • [...] Dutton worked on the idea of a book “The Starlost Compendium” that you can read about here. [...]

  • --MKrumm--

    Is it true copyrights in Canada and the US expire in 50 years? I’m not sure, but if that’s true, The StarLost would be public domain by 2023. It took Avatar over 10 years before it came into production. Perhaps a producer could get started on the project now for a 2023 major production release?

    • Interesting thought, Mike. Thanks for the comment.

      Alas, copyright in Canada is the author’s death + 50 years (+ 70 in the USA). Mr. Ellison is still kicking and I won’t live that long. :-)

  • I’ve been researching the possibility of producing a reimagined version of The Starlost and correct the many mistakes made in the past. I’ve already discussed the possibility with Ellison’s agent, and Ben Bova had some positive words to say about the project’s possibilities.

    As for the rights, my research has revealed it’s a mixed bag. Apparently, Ellison has dissociated himself completely from the original series, the original Canadian production company, Glen Warren Productions, no longer has any right to the series, and 20th Century Fox still retain some rights to any reimagined series that may be produced.

    I still have to try and contact VCI Entertainment to find out where they got their source material for their DVD release and what rights are attached to it if any.

    If I ever do manage to produce a reimagined version of the series, while your ark design is pretty stunning, I won’t be able to use it because from a scientific perspective, it might not work. The stress exercised on the struts while rotating the ark during a course correction can be enough to tear the whole thing apart.

    There’s also other things to consider both from a scientific and storyline perspective, but I prefer to keep quiet on those for now since they will be part of a few dramatic scenes in the series. ;)

    And if the project does work out at my end, maybe you’ll get a chance to write a few scripts.

    I with you the best of luck on your future projects.

    • Hi François -

      Thanks for your comments and the info. I’m glad to hear that you’ve been working on a possible relaunch of the series.

      I don’t know if you have copies of VCI’s original Starlost VHS tapes. Those were the re-edited episodes, two to a TV movie. But the more recent DVD release are the original episodes with the commercial break bits. And they’re pretty darn crisp. I’m wondering if they didn’t get their hands on master copies from CTV’s vaults. You’d be in a better position to know than I.

      Thanks for the kind words about the ark design. Yeah, it might not be actually feasible, but that never stopped the Enterprise from being a good vehicle for stories. :-)

      Would love to do scripting. Wouldn’t I need to be a WGC member first?

      Take care -

      Scott

  • Hi Scott,

    My company isn’t a signatory to any of the Guild’s collective agreements, so you don’t need to be a WGC member. But if ever the WGC goes out on strike, I wouldn’t recommend writing anything for anyone during that time otherwise you might be denied membership later on. And if you DO become a WGC member, and my company still isn’t a signatory, you can’t work for me. Those are the Guild’s rules.

    I’ve located the show from *ahem* “alternate sources” ;) , but I’ve yet to purchase the VCI release. If they’re as crisp as you say they are, then definitely they’ve found the master tapes and possibly digitally cleaned them up a bit. It’s just a question of where they found them, who owns the rights to them, and do they own any rights to subsequent versions.

    And the Enterprise, don’t get me started on that hunk of junk!!! :)

  • Sedate Me

    I vaguely remember watching this show as a kid, although I suspect it was in syndicated re-run, because it was far from 1973. CTV stations used to recycle more than a hippie commune (see the re-edited Starlost “movies”) but I think I saw Starlost as 1980s Saturday late morning/early afternoon fare. Sadly, today’s channels just fill such off-peak airtime with half-hour ads. I’d far rather see re-runs of the very worst 60–70s shows ever made.

    I do remember there being technological cock-ups, but for some reason, it just made me think it was originally done live. It did have that “play” feel to it, like a Rod Serling Twilight Zone, only mixed with Star Trek. What I remember most of all was how incredibly fascinating the whole thing was. Here was an enormous ship full of diverse human cultures. They were all inter-connected, but totally oblivious to each other, a great modern metaphor. The ship was drifting through space for centuries with nobody at the helm, another nice modern (atheistic?) metaphor.

    There was just so much potential here. The idea was strong. The cast was strong. (Robin Ward has an incredibly diverse resumé, including a soft-softcore porn show on Super Channel in the mid 80s.) Supposedly, Starlost was a totally botched, half-assed, production where almost everything went wrong. Yet, I bet it still comes off looking not half bad, even today. I can only imagine how great it could have been if everything worked out as planned. It seems to be yet another case of the money men robbing the creative types of their vision.

    I also dug the choice of Amish hippies as protagonists. It was like watching Derek Sanderson In Space only with a lot less booze. (Canadian 70s hockey reference.)

    Finally, I’m not sure exactly what you have in mind, or what you are capable of, but do it anyway and let the chips fall where they may. The important thing is to do it right. The only way the Starlost situation could be made worse would be for it to be ruined the way most re-imagining/remakes of old classics seem intent to take a dump on the original.

  • [...] Dutton worked on the idea of a book The Starlost Compendium; that you can read about here. I think The Starlost would be a cool computer game where you attempt to save the [...]

  • Gin

    I remembered watching this show and had enjoyed it. I also think that it could be redone and probably be more spectacular with today’s technology. I hope they do reconsider a remake – descendants of Rachel and Devon, Garth and … :)

  • Jerrold Schiff

    I have reposted a link to your web site to the Starlost facebook page. On behalf of Starlost devotees, thank you!

  • This would be extremely cool, and to that end I’ll make a rather blunt and potentially offensive suggestion. But this is Harlan Ellison we’re talking about… ;)

    Let’s face it, the man ain’t getting any younger. Like it or not, there’s going to come a time when we mourn his passing, and with it any record of what actually happened on The Starlost.

    My suggestion is that you put it to Ellison that way.

    Tell him you want to write this POSTHUMOUSLY. Anything he tells you now will be locked away in a deep, dark vault. Get it in writing, as a legally-binding NDA. You’ll interview him and put it all away, only to be re-opened on the occasion of his death.

    At that point, nobody who matters will be around to care. Harlan kicks a few people from the grave, what can they do about it?

    Knowing Harlan, kicking somebody from the grave might be his style. ;)

  • Tom McCambley

    Also chiming in to say how much I like your interpretations of Harlan’s unique vision. This show haunts me, I’m watching episodes of it every few months, I think about it as a setting for a RPG almost as often.

    I don’t think I would have such a strong affection for it, if it wasn’t a damn good idea for a modern TV show. I keep thinking that with shows like Stargate SG-1, Battlestar Galactica, and other recently made Canadian sci-fi this demands a second shot. Even if it was only a mini-series or one season, it could be epic.

    Thanks for your work, it’s very much appreciated.

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