Starlog Log #8

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Success came to SF when it broadened itself—or, to be more accurate, when SF ideas were being draped over more broad-minded formulas, high adventures and comedies and horror stories. These combinations (and many others) had existed for as long as SF has, of course, but for whatever reason they didn’t really become the centre of the whole enterprise until the beginning of the blockbuster film era, when Star Wars, Alien, Superman and the like came and made space stuff mainstream in a way it never had been before. With a ton of money to throw around, you can have all the crazy stuff onscreen you could ever want, married to plots and characters that a general audience can get a grip on—compared to earlier of the seventies, when SF was mostly inscrutable, heady enterprises where action and romance were a rarity, and what was there was usually delivered in way that was either cheap or bizarre and off-putting. All those things made those movies feel closer to actual SF literature (although they still ended up being more clumsy than profound, generally), but maybe that was the lesson the movie business had to learn—the key to making SF a financial viability is to make it look as little like established SF as possible. In the following decades, most, if not all, of the most films that made it big that were “SF” were usually followed by a hyphen—Back to the Future is mostly a comedy, after all, as is Ghostbusters, and something like Robocop is primarily an action movie (although it’s also a comedy…man, is there anything Robocop CAN’T do?) Spielberg didn’t even want to call Close Encounters of the Third Kind SF, and in the case of E.T this may have played a part in the decision to focus the movie’s publicity entirely on mainstream media while leaving genre publications like Starlog out (which led to month after month of consternation in Starlog’s editorials in 1982.)

The funny thing about all that is that SF, and SF fandom specifically, has often shown itself to be quite persnickety about genre labels, and in literary SF the need to constantly define what is what and where the lines are drawn continues to this day (leading to, for example, the creation of the “hard” and “soft” science fiction labels.) Whether Star Wars is even science fiction, or if it’s just high fantasy with space travel, is the tip of the esoteric iceberg—SF fandom has spent so much time seemingly as an outcast from mainstream entertainment that they constantly need to remind themselves and others what they are and what they are not, what makes them different and “special.” A film or TV show can be graded not just on whether it’s a good film or TV show, but whether it’s that and also good science fiction; it’s the begrudging acceptance that the popular entertainment version of SF has to be one of those genre hybrids, while still putting the specific (and sometimes arcane) demands of the genre at the forefront. Starlog is full of these evaluations, on the conceptual validity and consistency, in their published reviews by genre veterans, but especially in their letters sections in the months following a big release. You’ll rarely find a moderate assessment among them.

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This broadening of genre definitions likely served as a true test to the devoted, who craved validation and a never-ending stream of product, but had calcified ideas about what the genre was. This was especially important to a magazine like Starlog, which had those SF partisans as their base, but needed to expand outside of it as well. What should and shouldn’t be covered by their magazine? Your Star stuff makes obvious sense, whether they be Trek or Wars (or Crash, if you’re particularly starved for content), and there was a whole slew of titles involving space or magic that could make sense (from adventures like Dragonslayer to more small-scale dramas like Cocoon), and Indiana Jones movies have enough pulpiness and supernatural thrills to fit the bill—James Bond, who made the cover multiple times and had many articles devoted to the series, is probably the limit case that separates fantastical movies from pure action/adventure (they didn’t cover something like Die Hard or Commando, as far as I know.) But when you start going down the list, you begin to find more of those aforementioned hybrid movies, and you start to ask questions—is Romancing the Stone appropriate material for the magazine? Do special effects make Harry and the Hendersons or Death Becomes Her feel apiece with Predator or Alien 3? In an interview, Dan Aykroyd questioned questioned whether his infamously terrible film Nothing But Trouble belonged in Starlog, but what makes that movie any less appropriate than Splash, which received pretty widespread coverage in the magazine? In the end, why wouldn’t they cover as many bases as possible? They got a magazine to sell here.

If you know the history of literature, you know that those sorts of genre demarcations weren’t particularly common until the advent of targeted marketing, and so even in though the age of the blockbuster movie is peak targeted marketing, it still found a way to make fantasy palatable to the widest possible audience once again. Plus, Starlog talking about movies that exist outside the standard SF mould serves an important function of connecting the fandom with the rest of the world (somewhat similar to what the magazine is doing when it connects SF to real science); what they’re saying is “yes, Star Trek is all well and good, but what’s happening elsewhere?” Covering this eclectic line-up serves an economic purpose, of course, but given the magazine’s cheer-leading for the genre, there’s also a feeling of ambassadorship, that by accepting a more mainstream style co-opting the images and ideas of SF, you can get more people interested in SF. Similarly, the news roundups in almost every single issue includes one or more tiny blurbs announcing an actor or director famous for some SF thing joining a non-SF movie or show, and those feel like nothing more than noting the travails of “one of the team”, even if it’s relationship to the magazine’s purpose is entirely tangential—still, it gets readers to look outside Starlog’s usual fare. I doubt SF would have become as mainstream as it did, and has, if these concessions weren’t made, and the fans feeling like their favourite genre is being invaded or bastardized restricted to the odd letter to the editor, where no one important gets hurt or annoyed.

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