The Starlost

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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Doesn't look 8000 miles long, does it?

One of the legendarily bad television shows, broadcast on CTV in Canada and syndicated in the United States from 1973-1974.

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 the late Harlan Ellison, it was changed into a series and ruined by the producer. For the complete, unvarnished story of what happened to the series, see Ellison's forward to Edward Bryant's novelization of the original script, Phoenix Without Ashes. For a hilarious fictionalized version, see Ben Bova's novel The Starcrossed.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its legendary badness, a Starlost DVD box set was released in 2008.

And if you're morbidly curious about What Might Have Been, a copy of the original Universe Bible can be found here (as of mid-2021).[1]

Tropes used in The Starlost include:
  • After the End
  • The Ageless: The titular "Children of Methuselah" appear to have had immortality applied to them just before pubescence.
  • Angrish: Not in-story, but Ellison's essay describing how thoroughly the producers screwed up the idea he'd offered them uses the marvelous phrase, "'Aaaaarrrgh,' I aaaaarrrghed."
  • The Ark: Earthship ARK.
  • Artificial Gravity
  • City in a Bottle/Country of Hats: The biospheres.
  • Creator Backlash: Almost fifty years later, Harlan Ellison still castigated everyone who ruined the show.
  • Disowned Adaptation: Ellison wrote a miniseries to his usual high standards. What came out at the other end... wasn't. So he put his "warning - this is shit" pseudonym "Cordwainer Bird" on it despite pressure from the producers.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Twice -- once in the past, with the unspecified disaster that destroyed Earth, and once again in the near future with the threatened destruction of the last survivors of Earth.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The ship's crew.
  • Executive Meddling
  • Follow the Leader: The ARK's design is a pretty common one for generation ships in fiction.
  • Generation Ships
  • Limited Wardrobe: Devon, Garth and Rachel almost never changed out of the clothes they were wearing when they left Cypress Corners.
  • Liquid Assets: "The Pisces"
  • Miniseries: The original concept for the show, as noted in the Universe Bible -- it was intended as a "television novel" with a set length of 24 one-hour episodes.
  • Myth Arc: The quest to regain control of the ship.
  • Never Land: The simulated bridge in "Children of Methuselah", populated entirely by children whose aging had been halted at some point before the launch of the Ark.
  • No Immortal Inertia: The crew of the Pisces are subject to something like this once they stop traveling relativistically. No, it doesn't make sense. Remember what show this is.
    • Can't I scream a just a little bit that they missed the whole point of relativity entirely? Thank you. THEY MISSED THE WHOLE POINT OF RELATIVITY ENTIRELY!!!1!!1 AAAAAaAAAuuUUUUggHHH!!11!!1!
  • Planet of Hats: The biospheres, and any other groups encountered outside them.
  • Ramscoop: The ARK's drive system, as described in the Universe Bible, is a classic Bussard ramjet, but no details actually made it into what was broadcast.
  • Really Seven Hundred Years Old: All of the titular "Children of Methuselah".
  • Schizo-Tech: Although the show was canceled long before it could have shown any, the possibility of societies with Schizo-Tech on the Earthship ARK was explicitly allowed for in the Universe Bible:

Each of the individual cultures inside the various environmental domes will, of course, have developed weapons consistent with their own cultures. But here too there should be not-too-subtle differences. For example, you can make a crossbow that will stop an armored personnel carrier out of a truck's leaf spring and some of the connecting rods from the steering System. it's been done, in Biafra.

  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Every writer but Ellison and Bova. 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. (One suspects a couple numbers got swapped somewhere after it left Ellison's hands.) Worse, the domes are repeatedly described as fifty miles across, but as you can see from the image on this page, the domes on the model have diameters about a fifth or sixth of the ship's total length. So either the domes are actually over 2000 km across, or the ship's only about 300 miles (482 km) long. (According to the Universe Bible linked above, written by a real SF author with a clue, the ARK is two hundred miles long.)
    • Similarly, 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.
      • To be charitable, the gravitational effects make it more likely -- if you go near a star then you will be pulled closer to it. If you manage to hit a high fraction of C so time dilation is very high, then the odds go way up since you'll go past a lot more stars. This is, however, being very very very kind.
  • Short Runners
  • So Bad It's Horrible: Normally this is a YMMV trope. Not in this case. The only people who ever said a good thing about this show had a financial interest in getting people to watch it. And not even all of them!
  • Space Amish: The people of Cypress Corners. Literally. They are a Mennonite or pseudo-Mennonite culture.
  • Space Is an Ocean: Implied by the design of the ARK model. There's no reason why the domes all needed to be only on one plane, "flat" relative to the rest of the ship; it would have been more practical (and realistic!) to have them radiating out from the central hull in all directions. (Like, for instance, the Valley Forge from Silent Running.) The final design suggests that the modelmakers were unconsciously assuming gravity would always be "down", and that the domes all need to be pointing upward for a "sun" overhead -- and that the entire ARK would be floating on the surface of "space" like a raft.
  • Tube Travel: "Bounce tubes" connected the different sections of the ARK -- enter one and you are immediately propelled all the way to the far end, as Devon discovers in the first episode.
  • Universe Bible: Written at least in part by SF author Ben Bova, who briefly served as technical adviser to the series, and who later wrote a comic novel about the entire disaster. Available here (in mid-2021).
  • Writer Revolt: After watching the Executive Meddling get started, Ellison bailed on the project and forced the producers to use his "red flag" pseudonym "Cordwainer Bird" for all his credits.
  • You Are Number Six: The "backup bridge crew" of immortal children in the episode "Children of Methuselah" don't have names, only numbers.
  • You Fail Physics Forever: Just about every writer other than Ellison.
    • In character, the crew of "The Pisces", who although they were part of the highly-trained crew of a relativistic spacecraft, were caught flatfooted by time dilation effects that they should not only have anticipated but allowed for.
  1. ATT Admin Looney Toons can vouch that at least part of this document is the real thing. A fan letter he wrote to NBC as a child netted him photocopies of several pages from the Universe Bible; he has checked this document against his memories of those pages and confirmed that they match.