Starlog Log #6


I’ve read enough of Starlog to have seen two decade transitions—from the seventies to the eighties and from the eighties to the nineties, and with them came a number of changes to the world of SF fandom, though it usually took a few years for people to notice. That tends to be the way we view these sort of cultural eras retroactively: the trends (or stereotypes) that define those decades take a few years to really make their mark, and the first few years resemble the previous decade more often than not.

For the seventies/eighties line, the last few years before the new decade had sort of set the template for the early eighties, with Star Wars and Alien and Close Encounters still dominating the film world, capping off the New Hollywood era, and while the established favourites like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and even Jim Henson remained in the spotlight, a number of new names were showing up quite frequently as the new new genre makers of note—Ridley Scott, but John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Tobe Hooper, and others had all established themselves at the end previous decade and strode into the new one with even more major projects. The number of SF films had increased tremendously (necessitating those review-centric issues I’ve mentioned before), and their visual sophistication grew with it, meaning that the cheap coattail-hangers (Battle Beyond the Stars! Saturn 3!) were much easier to spot; but it also spelled the final end for the weird, often misguided but usually ambitious SF films of the seventies (Zardoz! The Man Who Fell To Earth!), with Paddy Chayefsky/Ken Russell’s Altered States as the last hurrah—for good or bad, that type of fantasy had been replaced with another, one with a greater capacity for big budget spectacle. 1982 saw the release of both E.T. And Blade Runner, two films that would further define the decade’s films even if they were on polar opposite ends of the financial success spectrum; but the real shift didn’t happen until after Return of the Jedi was released, and in the post-Star Wars world (back when there could be a post-Star Wars world) you immediately got Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Back to the Future, Terminator (most made by new players who usually started their careers working for the old guard like Roger Corman and often had the support of hotshots like Spielberg) alongside lesser films like Dreamscape to fill the void. People wanted big special effects, fully visualized worlds, action and adventure, and a little humour and humanity in these movies, and so everything coming out of Hollywood got bigger, especially the box office returns by the end of the decade (and even longstanding series like Star Trek would be affected.) This was the cornucopia that Starlog had hyped since Star Wars, the promised age of endless fantasy film (TV still sucked, so it was barely worth a mention.)

Aside from a ceaseless cascade of news and rumours, how did this change the coverage in the magazine? Special effects sure looked a lot different from a behind-the-scenes perspective—with increasingly complicated and expensive processes being used, the days of people building props and filming stop-motion in their garages seemed at an end, replaced with the vast warehouses full of animatronics and highly-detailed models that looked utterly impossible; Ray Harryhausen retired, and the likes of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston and Phil Tippett took his place on movies with budgets that absolutely dwarfed their predecessors. The articles on movies like Tron, Dragonslayer, and others were long and detailed, and made it seem like you could put ANYTHING on the screen then, far surpassing all but the biggest projects from the previous decade—it just took untold man hours by large teams of trained professionals using highly expensive materials. I’m sure that there were still plenty of kids dreaming of getting into the art form, but the norm of how a SF movie looked and how it was made had shifted so radically by then that it often appeared readily out of the grasp of most—not that they minded, because they just got more awesome-looking movies to watch.


The vast array of film projects in this era also inevitably led to a high number of failures, with projects announced and not released until after years of turmoil (if you were lucky), or the retroactively delightful/sad articles about movies that you know ended up financial disappointments—you probably wouldn’t know reading their extensive coverage of them that Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing both floundered, and those are movies that have been put on a pedestal in years since, but since articles in Starlog are written at about the same critical level no matter what the subject matter is, even more iffy propositions were given a similar seal of approval. We now know what a boondoggle a movie like Dune was, or how Tron didn’t end up connecting with people, but hopes were high regardless—particularly sad was the eighties career of Tobe Hooper, who ended up directing two SF money losers in a row with Lifeforce and then the remake of Invaders From Mars (of the three big fifties remakes, playing off a nostalgia that resided in the filmmakers but maybe not the audiences of the eighties, only Cronenberg’s The Fly succeeded in its own time), marring a promising career (and establishing Cannon Films as something to watch, if only for the schadenfreude.) Reading the Starlog interviews with the people involved in those movies, you always get the idea that they never see it coming, and why would they? They were supposed to be in a movie gold rush.

The blockbuster model had become so entrenched by the time the next decade rolled in, it took a few years for another shift in the style of film to take place—that is, when computers effects finally took over. Aside from that (I’m sure I’ll see more interesting coverage of that as I dig further into the nineties issues), the final years of the eighties finally saw another major innovation: SF television that people enjoyed AND was successful. It really is sometimes hard to fathom that before Star Trek: The Next Generation, anything particularly fantastical on TV that wasn’t Mork & Mindy was a hard bargain, and the pages of the magazine are littered with the corpses of the few shows that tried (even the new attempt at The Twilight Zone in the mid-80s, which had the participation of Harlan Ellison, Wes Craven, and a pre-megasuccess George R.R. Martin among others, ended in turmoil) after Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers flamed out. Suddenly, Star Trek came back, was even more successful than before (likely thanks to cannily selling it to first-run syndication), and it was possible to have a show with effects that worked—even if most of the follow-ups never reached the same heights, you could have something like Beauty and the Beast show up for three seasons and create a rabid fan base arguing in the letter columns, which was certainly not happening all that often in the early eighties. Similar to the Star Wars back at the tail end of the seventies, TNG opened up an entire medium to the genre, and the expansion of SF into the mainstream was further cemented—I imagine a magazine like Starlog probably couldn’t be happier, blessed with more productions and more fans to hype up, well into the strange days (and Strange Days‘) of the nineties.