Starlog Log #9

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I chose not to read the Starlog archives in any particular order—I thought it’d be more interesting to jump around to different years and understand the changes to the magazine and the fandom more gradually. I generally use the default option of ordering the individual files by views, which also gives me insight into which issues people reading the archives are interested in. Of course, early issues and especially early coverage of The Big Stuff dominate the early goings, with special anniversary issues (at one point a yearly thing for the magazine, which must have been exhausting) and the odd entry from later in the run (the second most-viewed has The Mask and The Shadow share a cover, the first and last time those two movies will ever be spoken of in the same breath) dropping in between, which only means that my fellow archive diggers are interested in the older historical artifacts, especially when they’re about things they know (not as many people reading when its Nightflyer or Brainstorm on the cover—or Suburban Commando, or Time Trax…) When it was an era of big movies (like Star Wars or Alien) or big TV shows (like Star Trek: The Next Generation), it’s pretty understandable that many are interested in seeing just how people reacted to those things when they were entirely new.

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I think, aside from some of the final issues from around 2009, the first issues from after the nineties (and thus past the nostalgia point…for now) that appear on the list are the December 2001 and January 2002 issues (to be clear to anyone who doesn’t remember how periodicals work, cover dates are usually a month or two ahead, so both of them are autumn 2001 issues), and based on the above hypothesis they are there because they have Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings on the cover (on both, in fact, with Monsters, Inc.), both of which revolutionized fantasy film in the same way Star Wars had done with science fiction in 1977, and both within a month of each other. There’s no understating just how influential these movies are, and, for good and ill, they are what have defined big-budget film making (and maybe even film making in general) in all the years since then. Fantasy worlds became even more popular, gigantic CG battles became the standard, pre-planned series also became a standard (although in the case of these movies, at least they were based on book series that already existed), and the tone and the colour of movies warped along with them.

The end of the nineties and the early two-thousands (that’s what I’m calling them, I don’t care what you call them) is a really interesting thing to think back on in terms of entertainment industry excess, with movies in particular going to strange places—Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park became the new model of blockbuster in the early nineties (replacing the overcooked practical effects that defined many eighties movies with meticulous-in-theory CGI), only for that model to tank itself by the end of the decade with disappointments like the ’98 Godzilla; the new hotness (to quote a movie from the two-thousands era) showed up not long after in The Matrix, a movie I haven’t read any Starlog coverage of (although it should be interesting to see if they saw its popularity coming), which brought stylishness and choreography to the big SF movie fold, and that in turn led to two years of fumbling and oddness as the big studios tried to replicate or surpass The Matrix while still clinging onto the old model (Wild Wild West was also in 1999, as was The Mummy.) The summers of 2000 and 2001 are fascinating to look at in hindsight, because you can see all the avenues being chased and all the signals of change to come, and you kind of wonder just who it was who thought Battlefield Earth would succeed (I imagine not everyone in that production was a Scientologist)—you can almost see the eventual takeover by the high-fantasy duo later on as people being relieved that they no longer had to put up with the likes of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes or The Mummy Returns.

That’s the industry-focused reading of why people might be interested in those issues (or why those movies were so successful)—but there’s another important thing to remember about the context of that time, which shows up primarily in the closing editorial column (Liner Notes, which is really more promotion than editorial) in both of them: these were the first post-9/11 editions of Starlog. One of the Liner Notes columns contains the “Where I was” story, as the editor explains that he was interviewing the Pixar crew in San Francisco at the time; the second begins a column about Christmas gifts with a short and weary introduction that recognizes that maybe people aren’t going to be that enthused about that stuff. An interesting dichotomy becomes evident: there may have been short references here and there throughout those issues, while the rest of the magazine seemed to try to keep up the image of business as usual, with articles about Dark Angel and Earth: Final Conflict and, most importantly, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I can imagine running a publication about sometimes very silly and intentionally inconsequential stuff can feel a little odd when real life events become so all-encompassing (and Starlog’s responsiveness to the news had often been relegated to the odd editorial and things mentioned by activist SF writers in interviews), but at the same time, maybe they felt they had something important to contribute to the lives of everyday people—maybe reading an interview with Shatner and Nimoy and seeing colourful ads for Gundam action figures is just the comforting things they needed. I’ve never been a fan of pure escapism as the primary goal of fantasy, but I can’t deny that escapism has its place, and that it can help people get through tough periods—maybe that desire for escape encouraged people to flock to big fantasy films at the end of that year, bolstering their already inevitable popularity. I’m sure Starlog felt the same way about themselves, too, and that by sticking to their coverage, they were in their own way helping out the readers who may have been scared and confused, and needed something they could rely on within the images and ideas of different worlds.

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