Canada’s Tomorrow That Never Was

Our shining sci-fi failure.

It’s  Marshall McLuhan’s centenary this year, and there have been many discussions in the media of his more famous ideas, like the global village, Spaceship Earth, and those irritating conjoined twins, Medium and Message. I’d like to revisit a less famous McLuhan idea that has always struck me as important. He observed that “art, at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” One of my favourite illustrations of McLuhan’s idea is what has been called both the most anticipated and pedigreed science fiction TV series of all time, and the worst science fiction TV series of all time. I’m talking about Canada’s very own SF TV show: The Starlost.

starlost

In 1973, the controversial SF writer Harlan Ellison was determined to make an SF TV show he could be proud of. Ellison developed his concept for The Starlost, an anthology series based around a doomed intergenerational space colony, and it was pitched to the BBC by 20th Century Fox producers. The show’s structure, he felt, would be flexible enough to allow truly talented authors to tell their stories with integrity through the medium of television. He planned to write for and story-edit the series, and would commission original stories from the leading lights of SF at the time: A.E. van Vogt, Frank Herbert, Joanna Russ, Thomas M. Disch, Alexei Panshin, and Philip K. Dick. Ellison would push these writers to supply their freakiest story ideas to him, and he would then adapt these ideas to fit within the overall story arc of the series.

The BBC didn’t bite, and so the show’s producers turned to Canada, where they got a deal with CTV. While Ellison’s dream-team of SF writers was American, the episodes themselves would, according to Ellison, now be written by “the best Canadian scenarists to be found.” The series was to be shot at the CFTO–Glen Warren studios in Toronto, one of “the best studios, the best facilities,” with, according to an insert in the Toronto Star, “the best techniques in the world.” Two young Canadian actors (Gay Rowan and Robin Ward) were cast as supporting leads alongside the main star, the American actor Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame. Ben Bova, the noted science fiction writer, was hired to make sure the series didn’t violate basic rules of physics or biology in its quest to entertain. The stories told in the series were to be unbound by budget considerations because the special effects would be masterminded by Douglas Trumbull, the wizard behind effects on such films as 2001, Silent Running and The Andromeda Strain. His newly-designed Magicam videotaping system would allow live action to be transposed onto miniature sets.In the words of Ellison, Trumbull’s techniques would make “whatever you envision spring to life.”

If The Starlost sounds like an SF nerd’s dream today, imagine how it sounded then. And it was Canadian! All of which leads to the obvious question: Why have you never heard of it? Well, I didn’t say it was an SF nerd’s dream come true.

The first sign of trouble came before the show even started production.  Ellison, an infamous hothead, was miffed that the show’s funding was tied to its fulfillment of “Canadian content” rules, which meant having to employ a Canadian—and therefore largely inexperienced—production crew. That was bad enough, but he became livid when he realized that the Canadian writers and producers he was forced to work with were inexperienced both in crafting episodic American television and with science fiction as a genre. “I was not about to spend the rest of my natural life in a motel in Toronto, rewriting other people’s words,” he later wrote in a scathing essay. After several angry exchanges with the show’s executive and associate producers, amidst charges and counter-charges of fraud, calumny, and deceit blasting back and forth like raygun fire, Ellison, the volatile creator and senior story editor, simply walked out of the airlock. Into the vacuum with him went the promised stable of SF writers and the guiding vision of the show. “In the hands of the inept, the untalented, the venal, and the corrupt,” wrote Ellison, “The Starlost became a veritable Mt. Everest of cow flop.”

Adding to the inexperience of the writers, the producers’ battles with Ellison, and Ellison’s premature adieu, was the failure of Doug Trumbull’s Magicam system. It simply didn’t work. And because the entire production budget was based on the phenomenal savings this videotaping system was supposed to deliver, many corners had to be cut thereafter if the series was to make it to the small screen. Many, many corners.

The series was shot “static” on videotape against chroma-key backgrounds, giving it the unfortunate appearance of a local TV weather report. Associate producer Ed Richardson remembers the level of improvisation the production budget required: “The scenes of Keir [Dullea] floating around in space were accomplished by putting Keir in a black chair against a blue screen and moving the chair around with little rods…The meteors were little pieces of Styrofoam that we threw past the camera’s lens.” Actor Robin Ward, who candidly admitted that “as an actor who was doing theatre in Canada, I would have accepted a series called Pharmacists in Space,” relates a similar story of low-tech mishaps: “We were all wired-up to fly in space. After the other [actors] took off, it was my turn. Unfortunately, I’m top-heavy. I turned over and flew upside down. They wound up leaving that in.”

Ben Bova, the science consultant, grew increasingly bemused as the red lines he drew under scientific impossibilities or gaffes in the scripts were disregarded. He later admitted that, “I was paid rather handsomely as a consultant, and praised by everybody…and my advice was totally ignored.”

The Starlost was on a collision course with disaster. After sixteen episodes, the series was cancelled. Never one to leave a gloat unrelished, Harlan Ellison wrote what became the epitaph for the unfortunate project. “The shows were so disgracefully inept,” he wrote, “so badly acted, uniformly directed with the plunging breakneck pace of a quadruple amputee crossing a busy intersection, based in confusion and plotted on the level of a McGuffy’s primer, that when the show was cancelled after sixteen weeks, there were viewers who never knew it was missing.”

Despite its mixed paternity and ignoble end, the saga of The Starlost is, for me, a quintessentially Canadian story, for better and worse. Our national character is a speculation on the future, and our SF visions tend toward the utopian. One of the first Canadian science fiction novels, Tisab Ting, or, The Electrical Kiss (1896), was set in twentieth century Montreal and featured an interracial couple. Marshall McLuhan, the man whose achievements we celebrate this year, was born on the Prairies. After visiting Edmonton, where he grew up, you can make a day of it and head south to see the giant replica of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise built as a roadside attraction in Vulcan, Alberta. We have even tried to argue that the ideology of Gene Roddenberry’s franchise has a distinctly maple flavor. In the early nineteen-nineties, there was a grassroots campaign for Paramount Studios to name one of the Star Trek: TNG spaceships the “U.S.S. Pearson” after Lester B. Pearson. His development of “noninterference” as a guiding principle for United Nations peacekeeping forces in 1956 clearly foreshadowed the “Prime Directive” of the United Federation of Planets.

On the darker edge of the future, there is The Last Canadian (1974), a book by newspaperman William Heine. It is a post-apocalyptic tale of a plague wiping out almost the entire North American population except for one man who’d had the foresight to relocate to the far north of Canada.  He was an American by birth, but his Canadian citizenship papers arrived in the mail as the plague struck, so he was—say this out loud—“the last Canadian!”

In many ways, Canada was (and still is) a place founded on a belief in the future.

Of course, our national reach towards the future often exceeds our grasp. Tisab Ting, or, The Electrical Kiss is a truly dreadful and racist book. The Last Canadian (no Mrs. Dalloway itself, mind you) was adapted into an appallingly bad direct-to-video movie called The Patriot (1998), relocated from the Canadian north to Montana, and starred—please don’t say this out loud—Steven Seagal. Paramount Studios never listened to the “U.S.S. Pearson” campaigners, and so our very own starship never left space-dock. Some people lament that Marshall McLuhan is now best remembered for a walk-on appearance in the movie Annie Hall rather than for any of his ideas about hot and cool culture.

Yet despite these setbacks and snubs, Canada is still, as far as I’m concerned, a truly science fictional nation. This is where McLuhan’s DEW line analogy comes in handy. While The Starlost project is thought of (when it’s thought of at all) as “the worst science fiction TV show of all time,” it can also be seen as an apt metaphor about Canada and its place in the future. When you consider the story arc of the series, it’s apparent that Harlan Ellison had, quite by accident, come up with a concept that resonated uniquely in a Canadian context. According to the show’s “bible” (a reference manual for scriptwriters) the “Earthship Ark,” built in anticipation of an earthly cataclysm in 2790 AD, was designed to transport 500,000 people in communities housed in discrete biospheres across space to populate a new planet. But there was a disaster, the piloting crew was killed, and the Ark drifted aimlessly through space for five hundred years. After the accident, one fansite explains, “the airlocks connecting the ship’s domes that housed the last survivors of the dead planet, Earth, were sealed. Cut off from the outside world, many communities simply forgot that they were on a spacecraft. They accepted that their world was fifty miles in diameter and the sky was metal.”

The series was to follow three young protagonists, Garth, Devon, and Rachel, who escape from one of the biospheres, an “almost one-for-one re-creation of an early 1800s Amish or Menonite [sic] community.” These three country bumpkins explore the Ark, discover its looming destruction, and fight to unite the isolated communities to save the ship. Unless control of the ship can be regained, humanity is doomed to die a second time.

As Ellison described the overall concept in the series’ bible, The Starlost “is the long story of three young people discovering their world, and their place in it. It is also a study of many different cultures in conflict with each other… one hundred tiny nations of strangers, no two alike, bound outward toward new life or extinction.” This central idea has, I think, a particular national resonance because as a Canadian kid growing up in the nineteen-seventies, the conceit made complete sense; certainly more so than the “Wagon Train In Space” conceit that made Star Trek seem so American—and by extension, so alien.

But the primary narrative of The Starlost is a story any Canadian nationalist in the sixties and seventies might recognize, with its themes of many solitudes, youthful idealism, multicultural divisions, and the central riddle that Northrop Frye posed as ours, namely, “Where is here?” I can easily imagine The Starlost’s central premise appearing in an early Paul Thompson/Theatre Passe Muraille play or in a mid-career novel by Margaret Atwood.

The significance of The Starlost is greater than Ellison’s epitaph may suggest. The series tapped into Canada’s dream of the future, as well as its anxiety about that future. As an SF nerd glued to the TV in the seventies, I felt its promise and mourned its spectacular failure. As I watched and grew, I became used to seeing the ghosts of Canada’s future on the TV screen, what the American-Canadian futurist William Gibson has called “the architecture of broken dreams” reminding us of the “Tomorrow That Never Was.” I once watched an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica series in 1979 which featured the derelict buildings of Montreal’s Expo ’67 I’d visited three years before. Much later, I caught a brief glimpse of what I knew were the Toronto City Hall buildings featured in a montage seen through the Iconian Gate in a Star Trek: TNG episode.

The Starlost has also had a fascinating afterlife, Ellison’s grave-thumping notwithstanding. There have been Starlost character portraits, redesigns and blueprints of the Ark, a comic book version of the original Ellison pilot episode, and even a Toronto sketch comedy troupe doing a Starlost skit in 2010, that, the troupe admitted, “most of the audience didn’t get.”  Perhaps most touching is an online campaign set up in 2008, remake the series. The dream of the future that this campaign hopes to renew says much about our Starlost Tomorrow That Never Was: “we’ll rescue The Starlost from its Canadian made catastrophe, and correct the mistakes of the past.”

Yes, our country may be a likeable also-ran in the race to the future. But doesn’t this unfulfilled optimism also tell us something important about Canada as a nation? Idealistic, hopeful, ahead of its time, perhaps, but also compromised in some tragic way?  Maybe if those crazy Canadian dreamers ever succeed in re-launching The Starlost franchise, they’ll change the name of the Ark’s Host Computer from Mulander 165 to McLuhan. A nerd can dream, can’t he?
– Rob Appleford

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