Friday, May 16, 2008

The Starcrossed (book)

by Ben Bova

The Starcrossed In 1973, some TV producers decided to create a science fiction series and actually went about it the right way. They hired Harlan Ellison to write the treatment.  Ellison has written scripts for some of the best SF on TV (The Outer Limits, Star Trek, The New Twilight Zone, Babylon 5) and certainly he could come up with something exciting.

And he came up with The Starlost.

The trouble was, the producers didn't trust the material and knew nothing about SF, so once production began, everything fell apart.  Ellison's concept (which even he admitted was cliched, even though the producers thought it was brilliant and original) was watered down, and the show's cheap production values were blatantly apparent.  Ellison washed his hands of the project (changing his credit to "Cordwainer Bird") and has trashed it in print even since.  The show lasted for 16 episodes -- all syndicated -- before dying a lingering death.

And he is right.  The show was dull and plodding, introducing the well-worn concept of a generation ship as though it was the newest concept under the stars.

But this isn't about The Starlost.  It's about a book that is the one thing that made the series worthwhile (if not worth watching):  The Starcrossed by Ben Bova.

Bova was in on the disaster from the start, hired as technical consultant.  He's primarily known as a hard SF writer, but strayed into comic territory as he wrote something very unusual in science fiction:  A roman a clef.

The Starcrossed is the story of the production of The Starlost. In the book, Bill Oxnard (who is clearly Bova himself) is the technical advisor of a 21st century TV show based on Romeo and Juliet (hence, The Starcrossed), developing a new form of 3D TV. Becoming involved, he is treated to the antics and wild behavior of the main character, Ron Gabriel.

Gabriel is blatantly based on Harlan Ellison. If you're not familiar with him, he is a legend in the science fiction world. And that's not hyperbole: there are jokes that go around SF conventions that substitute Harlan's name for the original punchline. He is a larger than life character who revels in attention, and can be nasty and funny at the same time.  If you know about Harlan, you'll love this book.

Bova was friends with Ellison, so he's not treated unkindly, but he is a cyclone going through the madness of the TV production. I don't know how much of the book was true, but the outlines are there, and Gabriel is always fun to read about. It certainly captures the flavor of a bad TV production team who drives their head writer crazy with their cluelessness.

This was quite a departure for Bova, best known for his hard science books. But the result is a funny satire of the insanity of TV.

1 comment:

Randy Wilharm said...

Excellent description... I've got to go
look for this book as I am in the process of watching all 16 episodes of THE STARLOST and am very interested in behind-the-scenes matters...Thanks for writing it!