Tag Archives: SF on TV

Out the airlock

Fred K. informs us that The Starlost, one of the great non-success stories of 1970s television, has been exhumed for DVD release next month. Maybe there are people so addled by nostalgia that they’ll spend forty bucks on any piece of cheese they remember from their childhoods, but my most vivid memory of the thing is the acute, soul-shriveling embarrassment I experienced when I hyped my father into watching the first episode with me because the series had been created by Harlan Ellison, whose stories I had been reading voraciously for a couple of years. It was gonna be good. Of course, it turned out to be baaad, and not in the Sweet Sweetback way, and my father walked off convinced that his only son and heir had been dropped on his head a few times in the Hackensack Hospital maternity ward. Be that as it may, The Starlost festered for several more episodes, but I only got fleeting glimpses of it during the early Sunday evening channel-flipping that happened whenever 60 Minutes was delayed by a football game.

(Those of you from the pre-remote, pre-cable era will remember this ritual: “Has 60 Minutes started yet? Click-click-click-click-click. “Not yet.” “Arrggh. Click-click-click-click.” Repeat as necessary or until channel selector dial falls off the TV set or melts, whichever comes first. So many wonderful memories come cascading back from the mere mention of The Starlost.)

So why am I filing this post under “The Writing Life” instead of a more obviously appropriate category — say, “Nostalgia for Alzheimer patients”? Because The Starlost had been conceived by Ellison as a gold-standard series, the first real shot at getting actual science fiction onto the tube instead of the watered down approximations we’d seen with Star Trek or Lost in Space. You can get glimmerings of why this was not allowed to happen in this summary, or by tracking down a copy of Phoenix Without Ashes, Ed Bryant’s novelization of the original Ellison script for the first episode, with an introduction by Ellison detailing all the ways he was double-crossed, hoodwinked, undercut and bamboozled by the producer, and how a series that was going to harness top-flight SF talent was undone by minds even smaller than the screen the show would fill. If you watch one of the YouTube clips from the show, keep your eyes peeled for the “Cordwainer Bird” credits — Ellison’s patented, contractually mandated fuck-you to the whole misbegotten project.

A cautionary tale for those who want to get into the scriptwriting game. At least Ellison has been able to dine out on the story of how it all happened. Most scriptwriters don’t even get that much satisfaction.

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