Thursday, 19 August 2010

Hollywood Babble On & On #579: When Good Ideas Die Horrible Deaths

Welcome to the show folks...

I was visiting the i09 website when I read that Harlan Ellison's Phoenix Without Ashes was going to be adapted into a comic book by IDW press. And it got me thinking about how sometimes good ideas die terrible deaths, and if it's possible or right to help them live again.

The story of
Phoenix Without Ashes is one of the saddest stories in the history of television that doesn't involve the untimely deaths of child actors. That's because the comic book in question was adapted from the script for the pilot of the disastrous television series Starlost.

This tale of woe began in the early 1970s. A TV producer from 20th Century Fox approached SF legend Harlan Ellison to come up with a new sci-fi TV show. The original concept the producer wanted was something along the lines of
The Fugitive in Space. As usual Ellison had his own idea, and it was a pretty good one.

The premise was that Earth was destroyed, but before it's destruction the entire human race built a massive spaceship to escape the coming cataclysm. This ship's size was measured in the thousands of miles, and comprised dozens of self-sustaining environments enclosed in huge domes and spheres. It's mission: to take humanity to a new home, a voyage that will take centuries.

After a few centuries the spheres develop their own cultures, isolated from each other, and over time they even forget they're on a spaceship. One of these cultures is in a dome called Cypress Corners, which has an Amish-lite lifestyle. A young man named Devon is an outcast from this community for asking
pesky questions, and for getting pissy about his beloved Rachel being forced to marry his frenemy Garth. Devon and Rachel run away from Cypress Corners, pursued by Garth, and make a shocking discovery. Not only do they discover that they're on a spaceship, they learn that the ship's bridge was destroyed, and if someone doesn't get to the back-up bridge and correct the course, the ship and its billions of inhabitants will fly right into a sun.

Sounds like a good premise, doesn't it.

It has a dramatic countdown to save the ship from disaster, it has dozens of isolated biospheres loaded with strange new cultures, or revived old ones, and it's even got the potential for aliens.

It sounds even better when you hear that SF legends A.E. Van Vogt, Frank Herbert, Joanna Russ, Thomas M. Disch, Alexei Panshin, Phillip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin were all hired by Ellison to write scripts or develop stories for the show, and Ben Bova was hired by the producers to be the science and technology consultant. FX legend Douglas Trumbull was an executive producer, and was going to use a new process called the MagiCam to produce radical new special effects.

But it starts to go downhill fast.

First, network support from the BBC or an American channel failed to materialize. A new deal was made to syndicate the show and produce it in Canada in partnership with the CTV Network. The problem is that CTV has no money for such an ambitious production. The budget gets slashed down to whatever change the network boss can find under his couch cushions. Without the money to do it right the MagiCam doesn't work, and is scrapped, replaced with a cheap newsroom chroma-key system.

The scripts and stories from all those legendary writers are dumped, new Canadian writers with no experience, expertise, or involvement in science fiction are brought in as replacements. Everything about the show is dumbed down, even the title of the pilot episode (From: Phoenix Without Ashes to Voyage of Discovery).

Trumbull leaves the show. Ellison leaves the show, and gets his name taken off the production, replacing it with his pen-name Cordwainer Bird. Bova gave advice, but was ignored, and was unable to leave or take his name off the show for contractual reasons. Sixteen episodes were made, Fox saw what a stinking pile the show became in both quality and ratings, and pulled the plug.

Now I can say that I actually remember watching the show when I was about 10 years old. The show had been about 7 or 8 years dead, but it's CTV policy to rerun anything and everything they have until the tape wears out. Even as a kid I accepted it as camp, riddled with bad directing of terrible dialogue, leading to overacting and production values that could have been topped by a high school production of Camelot.

But something compelled me to watch it beyond the simple enjoyment of mocking the cheap little Canadian show. It was Harlan Ellison's original concept that intrigued me. They could have done a season where they navigate the various cultures on their way to the bridge. Then they could have reached the bridge, corrected the course in the second season, and then deal with outside threats appearing as they search for a new home. Then comes the dealing with the different biosphere cultures, and the question of will they get along at their new home, or just bring back old hatreds or grow new ones.

With the right writers and producers, having a passion for the project, and a decent budget, it could have worked.

Which brings me to my point.

Sometimes an idea should be remade. Declare a mulligan, and try again using the material that made the concept so attractive in the first place. Not only dig up the original scripts written by the original 'dream team' of writers, see what can work, what doesn't, and recruit other great writers with a passion for the genre and fresh ideas to join in as well.

Of course, studios don't want to redo failures in the hope of making them successes, they just want to repeat successes, because they think it's some sort of guarantee. It isn't a guarantee, because the fans of the original material can often develop resentment when you don't meet or exceed their expectations. The real key to success is to find a case like Starlost where there was a good concept but poor execution. People are intrigued by the idea, but have low expectations from the original, so they'll be pleasantly surprised, if not blown away, by the quality of the new version.

In a way it's not remaking a show, it's more like resurrecting a show.

I'm available to be the executive producer, I'll do it for whatever Jerry Bruckheimer gets for his shows. ;)

That's my thoughts, what are yours.


  1. That's a brilliant idea. I agree, but only if they hire top science fiction talent from today.

  2. John Waters said it too, Why now remake the BAD movies. Some film or TV show that had a few good ideas but for some reason things went horribly wrong.

    Like Heaven's Gate, it was based on a interesting premise, the not well known Johnston county war. But the ego and revisionist mentality of a Oscar winning director, fueled with ambition and the lack of self discipline and any strict leadership for the EXECS. Took what was to be a 90min 2-8 million movie into a 5 hour 44 million flop that ruined UA.

  3. Pheonix without ashes sounds a little like... what was it called... Battlestar Galactica!

    And I'm not even a BSG fan, just thought that from what you said it struck me as common to what I've read of BSG. So the first and probably biggest hurdle of a remake (or I think you should call it a "fix show" or "fixer") would be to convince people that this is really new and different.

    I do like that the show has a lot of open potential. You could run it for 3 seasons or 10 without getting stale and predictable (or suffering the fate of other shows). Heck I once had an idea for a sci-fi series that could be folded into this property without issue should they decide they need some more writers. Ya'll let that handsome exec producer D know that, ok? ;)

  4. The BSG similarity struck me, as well, which made me sad. Because this idea is obviously older, and had it become a success, it would probably occupy the space that BSG has in sci-fi, and we wouldn't have had to deal with a deplorable show, or its even more deplorable remake - I'm of the opinion that, if you trapped Satan in a DVD player, it would from that point on play nothing but the Battlestar Galactica remake.

  5. Shoot, the story idea dates to 1941, at least.

    "Orphans of the Sky", Robert A. Heinlein. One of his earlier works. Certainly not his best but he is credited by many as inventing the 'generation ship' concept.

    I'm old enough to remember the show in question when it first aired. I DO remember the show in question but can't say if my memories are of the original air dates or of reruns.

    As I recall, I watched it. Can't say if I actually liked it or not. That was a long time ago. I would have been around 10 and we only got three channels at the time. I would be interested in a version that met the specifications that the original was first spec'd out at.

  6. I've wanted to remake this show since I first heard about it in 1978.