Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Starlost

I want to start by recommending the book "Stalking the Nightmare" by Harlan Ellison. It's a collection of short stories and essays that includes "Somehow, I Don't Think We're In Kansas, Toto", the essay that first introduced me to one of the worst produced great ideas I know of.

"Star Trek" was over, "Doctor Who" had a decade behind it, and TV studios around the world started to realize there was a market for science fiction. Several more good shows had come out, but none from Canada. They wanted to do something about that so they asked a science fiction writer, Harlan Ellison, to come pitch some ideas. He had several that they didn't like, but he finally came up with a winner.

Picture a space ship that has a passing similarity to a cluster of grapes. In each grape is a self contained biosphere. Each has a small population, but the area of the grape is big enough to sustain a different sample of a unique Earth culture. You can start to see how this would be a huge fucking ship. 1000 miles according to the initial description.

Some time back it was discovered that Earth was doomed. Well, the people were. And the other animals. The plants, too. But the Earth itself would be fine. But people had time to build a ship to take them to another planet. But this was a generation ship. Nobody who started the trip would see the end, but their great, great grandchildren might.

100 years or so into the trip it was discovered that disasters like round numbers and something mysterious happened to cripple the ship. Each grape sealed itself to protect the inhabitants. Most of the people in the main common area of the ship died. The ship drifted off course and went on through space uninterrupted. Eventually we'd find out what the disaster was, but not for a few seasons.

500 years later the inhabitants of the grapes, or at least the Amish grape, have forgotten Earth except perhaps as a myth. The world was apparently made as an area 50 miles across with a metal ceiling. They once had a computer that dictated who married who so their limited gene pool wouldn't collapse on itself, but it broke down. Now they have a rather dictatorial version of an Amish society. Their leader insists the computer still works and makes up order they have to follow or else. But this one girl is ordered to marry guy A when she really loves guy B. That's about when guy B finds a hatchway that leads to the rest of the ship. He takes the girl and runs. The Amish leaders order guy A to follow them and bring her back.

They soon find out that the ship is doomed. It's going to plunge into a star. But they have no idea how to fix it or pilot the ship. Remember, shirt buttons are an advanced technology to these three, let alone computer buttons. Sure, that's a horribly Amish stereotype, but how many Amish readers do you think this or any other blog has?

Right, sorry, doomed ship. So there was a multi-season storyline where they had to explore the ship and learn what they could and see if there was anyone who knew something useful. Season one was supposed to end with a big reveal of either the bridge or the engines, I forget. And they were to find out they needed to find whichever of those two they weren't currently in. Sorry, Mario, but the Princess is in another castle. Alas, the network started building the season ending set first and wouldn't listen to Harlan when he said they weren't anywhere close to ready for that.

The good sci-fi shows had the cast encountering new worlds and new civilizations in almost every episode. So besides the big storyline "Starlost" would have been largely episodic in that with each episode they could open another grape that would contain some variation of an Earth culture with centuries of change and evolution to it. Star Trek with less make-up and less impossible tech.

Some episodes would have guy A chasing guy B and the girl. Some episodes would be about meeting strange warped versions of the cultures we're familiar with. Some would have them fighting with the ship's computer. Some would have them leaving the ship to check out the damage.

They also planned to bring in some big name science fiction writers to write some episodes. Sure, Neil Gaiman's episode of "Babylon 5" might be the least Babylon 5ish of the whole series, but it was still good. I'm looking forward to his "Doctor Who" episode this season as well as Steven King's episode of "The Walking Dead" next season. I'd love to have seen Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke writing for TV.

This being the country's, let alone the network's, first attempt at television sci-fi they messed up a lot of things. Still, the legend and Ellison's description of the disaster have kept this show's name around for 38 years. It even got the show released on DVD a couple of years back. You should go to Brandy's Husband's "block" and read his review of the DVD. [link]

And, hey, John Scalzi, now that you've got that "Stargate: Universe" experience (and contacts) under you're belt you wanna try tackling this? Please!?

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