If you ever wondered why Kier Dullea looked so miffed in BLACK CHRISTMAS it's most likely because a year earlier he was exhausting himself being thrown through space portals in the 13-hour Canadian TV series THE STARLOST!
Split across 4 discs, VCI's DVD offers all 16 episodes of the original series …
Episode 1 ("Voyage of Discovery") begins (as does each subsequent episode) with a deep and earnest voiceover offering an extremely brief overview of the plot - a giant spaceship named The Ark is on a collision course with the sun unless "three young people" can save it.
Then we meet the trio concerned: Devon (Dullea), Rachel (Gay Rowan) and Garth (Robin Ward). They stand on The Ark's control platform looking out of a huge window to the stars outside. Devon exclaims that they may be the first human beings to pass through this part of space in 400 years.
Then we get the obligatory flashback explaining how they got there. This pretty much takes up the whole of episode 1, introducing the trio as members of a religious farming community in a strange, primitive land known as Cyprus Corners.
The land is governed by the elders, who in turn are led by bearded Hittite-alike Jeremiah. His word is law and he likes to preach it at every opportunity to his curiously small gathering.
Among the clan are simple folk Devon and Rachel. The pair are very much in love but their request to be wed is refused by Jeremiah, who takes his orders from a flashing box they all worship and call 'the creator'. The creator deems Devon to be "unsuitable" genetically for Rachel and determines that she must marry burly ironmonger Garth instead.
However, Devon has other plans and, having rumbled Jeremiah as a charlatan who programs 'the creator's commands himself, he flees with Rachel into a forbidden tunnel known as the "Beyond". No-one will pursue the pair into the tunnel, as Jeremiah has convinced the community that certain death awaits on the other side.
No-one, that is, save for Garth.
He enters the tunnel with his crossbow in hand, determined to bring Rachel back so his wedding can take place. Instead, he catches up with the loved up couple and learns that Cyprus Corners is just one biosphere - a self-contained environment - among many, being carried through space on a giant craft called The Ark. Devon explains how the ship's computer, an old bloke on a TV screen, has revealed that a catastrophe on Earth led to the ship's conception with the aim of saving the last of mankind. But there's a problem: the ship has been in deep space for 800 years and 400 years ago, an accident onboard changed it's programmes and set it on a collision course with the sun. Now Devon must find the ship's command bridge to try and save the day.
Rachel and Garth are nice enough to agree to help. And so, their quest begins proper.
In episode 2 ("Lazarus from the Mist"), the trio embark further into the Ark's labyrinthine white corridors in search of life. And answers. An emergency alarm encourages them to locate the ship's medical centre, where all they find are a few corpses and a bit of a miss here and there. Fending off a few hunchbacked mutants, Devon and co make it into the medical centre and learn from the computer bloke that the ship's creators have been cryogenically preserved in there. Perhaps if they can thaw them out, they can help save the Ark?
Predictably, this results in more woes than success.
Episode 3 ("The Goddess Calarra") finds our heroic threesome (still no change of clothes yet - smelly bunch) wandering into another biosphere where they meet a Captain and his group of incredibly camp houseguards. They go gaga when they spy Rachel - "a woman!" - and take her to their leader, the Governor, who is struck by her likeness to the goddess Calarra. He intends to marry Rachel, and detains Devon and Garth in ludicrously luxurious conditions in the meantime.
Episode 4 ("Pisces") rounds off disc 1, with a small craft named the Pisces landing in one of the Ark's docking ports. The small crew, led by the smarmy Galloway, are greeted by Devon and his two friends. Galloway is stunned to hear than in the ten years he's been travelling, the Ark's crew has all but died or mysteriously disappeared. But … can he help?
Well if he could, there'd be little point in discs 2, 3 and 4. As it happens, the remaining three discs present twelve more episodes for Devon, Garth and Rachel to continue their travails in search of a solution to that whole collision course thingy. And an answer to the conundrum of the Ark crew's disappearance would be nice too. Especially seeing as though the old computer bloke seems very choosy with the information he's willing to offer.
Episode 5 ("Children of Methuselah") opens with Devon excitedly spoiling Rachel and Garth's breakfast, claiming to have found the back-up control bridge that they've been seeking. Unfortunately it leads them to a bunch of creepy kids with psychic powers.
In "And Only Man Is Vile", the tale of the Garden of Eden is given a sci-fi spin - there's even an apple left lying around to tempt Garth. Our trio stumble upon an idyllic leisure village "where every prospect pleases", only to discover all is not as it seems.
Episode 7 is "Circuit of Death". This introduces us to Valerie and her father, who have escaped from the ruins of another biosphere called Alpha 5 and break into the Ark's circuit room to set the self-destruct program. Can Devon and co react to the ship's alarm in time to stop things from going ka-boom!?
"Gallery of Fear" offers a glamorous blonde who, for no good reason, owns a gallery of paintings and statues on the ship. She tells our trio that she thrives on the fear of others, and so they indulge her for the next thirty minutes.
Episode 9 ("Mr Smith from Manchester") sees our heroes captured by militants and branded as spies. Nice attire for Mr Smith's army, it has to be said - very fetching blue uniforms on the ladies …
Episode 10 ("The Alien Oro") allows a dorky bloke in a yellow spacesuit (Walter Koenig) to dock on the Ark and cause problems.
"Astromedics" details the plight of Rachel and Garth as they try to get medical attention for Devon, following his collapse after exposure to a loud whistling noise in a 'Sonic Chamber'. Utter tosh - I know, I know.
"The Implant People" starts with a little boy stealing Garth's trusty crossbow while he sleeps. Garth wakes and gives chase, happening upon a group of frightened folk with huge wart-like growths on their faces. Yup, it's the implant people. Can they help save the Ark? Can anyone?!
Episode 13 (Christ!) is "The Return of Oro". Enough said!
Episode 14 ("Farthing's Comet") sees the ship come under attack from an unknown assailant. Predictably, the computer bloke can't help, other than tell Devon that he must find the Ark's chief astronomer - Dr Linus Farthing - who will know what to do. And so, another guest star role is catered for.
In "The Beehive", the threesome responds to an SOS call from elsewhere on the ship. Upon their arrival they discover a sociological unit who are being terrorised by their own bees. It seems that something has made the little buzzers angry. I was tempted to say you can't make this stuff up - but someone did!
Episode 16 is "Space Precinct", and is the final instalment. Do they save the Ark? Are all loose ends tied? Who gets Rachel? I'm not saying!
Filmed in 1973, this bargain basement 'epic' is a triumph of cardboard backdrops and flimsy, wobbling sets that would've made Ed Wood proud. The micro budget is never more evident that when Devon first enters the Ark, and his shadow can blatantly be seen moving against the photographed backdrop. Although it never uses such a device, it frequently looks like this is the worst bluescreen FX ever.
Elsewhere there's clumsily staged fistfights, brilliantly bad superimposed laser shots and computers that look like 70s toys such as "Simon Says" and "Fabulous Fred".
Dullea looks slightly embarrassed by the whole affair, while Rowan appears bemused throughout. Ward begins by stifling laughs but looks decidedly put-out in the later episodes. By the beginning of episode 16, you can see it on Ward's face - he's totally fed up!
With it's gleefully cheap look, garish colours and potato sack-style clothing, THE STARLOST looks desperately dated and old-fashioned. Even down to the pantomime-style theatrics of the guest villains each episode.
But that's its charm. It's terrible, wearing its laughable set designs like an albatross around its neck and it's tatty "FX" (I use the term loosely) like an anvil chained to its ankle. Performances are virtually telephoned in by most concerned and the script - filled with ham-fisted religious nods - is pure gobbledy-gook. It's impossible not to fall into.
And over the course of 13 hours, there's plenty to fall into. What it all ultimately means is anyone's guess but it does quietly absorb the viewer over time. And, unless it was the lager taking effect, Rachel does get more attractive as the series progresses …
The series is presented in it's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and looks like an old TV show. Shot on video, there's some colour bleeding and a range of sharp and soft imagery. The opening episode fares the worst, with later instalments improving slightly.
The English mono audio track is a clear and clean affair, with consistent audible levels throughout.
Each disc has the same animated main menu page, along with identical animated sub-menus allowing you to either choose an individual episode or "Play All" (there are four episodes per disc).
The only extras on offer are tucked away on disc 4:
A 7-minute showcase reel aimed at selling the series to US TV stations, entitled "The Starlost Sales Pitch Promo". A text disclaimer at the start warns of the ropy quality of this 16mm reel, and they're not kidding. It's very worn and soft. Still, it's an interesting artefact that cleverly avoids showing potential buyers any overly cheap footage by sticking Dullea in the foreground to talk half-heartedly about the series' significance.
Finally, there's a 90-second trailer for DARK STAR.
So … Britain had "Blake's 7", America gave us "Star Trek" and the Canadians … well, they did their bit with the ridiculous, cheap, garish and quasi-religious THE STARLOST. And here it is in all its hare-brained, laugh-out-loud bad (in a good way) glory.
Although it may not realise it, THE STARLOST is funnier than "Red Dwarf" ever was. Book a free weekend and enjoy …
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by VCI Entertainment|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|