The initial concept was that, faced by the destruction of Earth, a multigeneration starship had been built. The ship contained dozens of self-contained biospheres, miles across; each one containing people from a different culture. Early in the voyage, disaster struck, and the command section, with its crew, was destroyed. Centuries later, the story opens with a young man in the Amish biosphere making a discovery that the world is far larger and mysterious than he had realised: he finds his way into the service areas of the ship, and discovers its history. The ship is now only a few years from its destination: the (lost) alternate command bridge needs to be found, somewhere on the vast ship, and preparations made for arrival.
The scenario drew on common themes in science fiction; it had the obvious potential for an interesting, developing storyline as more discoveries were made about the ship, and other, previously isolated cultures contacted in other biospheres. Twentieth Century Fox were interested in the project, Douglas Trumbull was to be the executive producer; Keir Dullea was contracted to play the lead role. The science fiction writer and editor Ben Bova was signed up as science advisor.
Problems began when Fox were unable to sell the show to the networks, and decided to do it in syndication. With the show not being in prime time, Fox started trying to find ways of cutting the budget, moving production to Toronto - there was also a writers' strike in the US at that time, which did not help. Most of the Toronto production team had never done television drama. As the filming went on, Ellison grew increasingly disenchanted with the progressive "dumbing down" of the story, budget cuts, and crucial details changed.
By the end of production, he had invoked a clause in his writers' contract to force the producers to use his alternate registered writer's name of "Cordwainer Bird" on the end credits: this was a signal to anyone who knew him to show how disgusted he was with the whole business.
The show aired, to uniformly bad reviews. Sixteen episodes had been made, but NBC decided not to pick up the options for the remainder of the series after seeing how badly it was doing in the ratings. Bova, having got increasingly frustrated as his advice was ignored, saw the first show when it was broadcast, and immediately quit. He asked the producers to take his name off the credits of all the shows, but unfortunately did not have a clause like Ellison's in his contract, so his name remained on the credits.
On 31 March, 1974, Ellison received a Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay for the original script. A novelisation of this script by Edward Bryant, Phoenix Without Ashes, was published in 1975; this contained a lengthy afterword by Ellison describing what had gone on in production.
Ben Bova, in an editorial in Analog Science Fiction (June 1974), and in interviews in fanzines made it clear how disgruntled he had been as science advisor, and in 1975 published a novel entitled The Starcrossed, depicting a scientist taken on as a science advisor for a (terrible) science fiction series.
In this context, the announcement some years later, by the producer of Babylon 5, that Ellison was going to be the advisor for that series was an indication to science fiction fans that, for once, there would be a serious attempt to do science fiction properly on television. (Ellison was listed on the credits for ''Babylon 5 as himself, rather than Cordwainer Bird).
Episodes of the original series were rebroadcast in 1980.