“Good science fiction movies have been around almost as long as movies have,” wrote Starlog’s editor-in-chief David Houston in the first ever issue of Starlog. “But only in recent years – perhaps dating from the landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey – have SF films gained any widespread measure of respectability.”
It’s incredible to think that, when that first issue appeared in August 1976, science fiction movies – and mainstream cinema as a whole – was less than 12 months from a huge and unexpected change. Because along with 2001, it would be Star Wars that would affect the thinking of film producers and filmmakers for years to come, and in turn greatly affect the perception of sci-fi as a bankable genre.
Originally conceived as a magazine dedicated solely to Star Trek, before expanding its focus due to the high cost of Paramount’s royalties, Starlog established itself in the midst of a science fiction renaissance. Flick through the first ever issue, and you’ll find previews of future classics such as Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and Logan’s Run, and iffy misfires, such as The Food Of The Gods (based on HG Wells’ novel) and the expensive disaster flop Meteor.
The issue also documents the two rival production companies racing to create a remake of King Kong (the Dino De Laurentiis remake over at Paramount ultimately won), and there’s a detailed retrospective of Star Trek, written just as the property was on the cusp of being revived for the big screen on the back of its huge fan following.
From the very beginning, Starlog managed to secure access to some excellent writers and actors. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are interviewed in that first issue, while Isaac Asimov writes about the unique experience of visiting Star Trek fan conventions. Ed Naha, who would later become a noted novelist and screenwriter, was an early staff writer.
Starlog’s first few issues betrayed none of the difficulties the magazine’s founders, Kerry O’Quinn and Norman Jacobs, had in getting the publication off the ground. “Star Trek is dead!” one distributor said of the magazine, turning it down flat.
“We staggered back to our office and set about gathering newspaper clippings and other proof that would support our position that there was indeed a large science fiction audience ‘out there'” wrote O’Quinn in Starlog’s 24th issue. “Don’t forget, this was spring of 1976, and Star Wars was still a year in the future.”
Yet, with a relatively small team of six staff, Starlog made it to American newsstands and survived that difficult first year with remarkable ease – and when Star Wars became a hit, Starlog found itself in the perfect position to expand its audience.
For more than 30 years, Starlog continued to trace the changing fortunes of the sci-fi movie landscape, with the same mix of eclectic writers, features and candid interviews. But then a slump hit the magazine market in the early 2000s, and Starlog‘s publishing company filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Its sister publication, Fangoria, survived a change of publishers, but Starlog did not – its final issue appeared in April 2009.
Despite Starlog’s sad end, the legacy of its writers and publishers has been preserved. At archive.org, issues one to 224 (dated March 1996) are available legally and for free – and in this format, they provide a veritable goldmine of nostalgia and information.
Pick an issue at random, and you’ll find something unexpected and wonderful. Issue 115, for example, carries an in-depth interview with Jenette Goldestein, then fresh from her role in Aliens. There’s an interview with Christopher Reeve, which took place just 10 days before the ill-fated Superman IV: The Quest For Peace went in to production.
It’s this aspect of Starlog‘s film coverage that makes it so wonderful, in fact: it’s one thing to look back on a movie (either favourably or not, depending on your point of view), but it’s quite another to get the true measure of how a film was either anticipated or received at the time. By looking at issue 64 of Starlog, for example, we get an impression of just how appalled critics generally were by John Carpenter’s The Thing (a topic we covered in more detail in January). We sense Ivan Reitman’s optimism on the set of Ghostbusters in issue 85, just months before it would become a gigantic hit. Reitman also talks about handing over the reins of a proposed Batman movie to Joe Dante (a film which wouldn’t ultimately materialise until 1989, with Tim Burton at the helm), and his excitement at adapting The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, another film that wouldn’t ultimately get off the ground until many years later.
In an earlier issue, Michael Ironside talks about his experiences on the set of Reitman’s Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone (he had his hand set alight by a pyrotechnic stunt), while in still another issue, Malcolm McDowell talks about overcoming his fear of flying in order to play a villain in a helicopter in Blue Thunder.
It’s the freshness of anecdotes like these that make Starlog such a valuable artefact – stories and opinions change over time, so it’s fascinating to be able to go back and read about our favourite films when they were still being made, or only just released.
The internet may allow us to readily find film information with a search term or two, but Starlog contains a wealth of sci-fi movie information, all presented in a style and level of detail you simply won’t find anywhere else. Issue 12, for example, reminds us that Christopher Lee starred in a little-seen 1977 science fiction film called Starship Invasions, a Canadian production company’s attempt to cash in on the sudden explosion of Star Wars. There’s a three-page article devoted to the production, which shows Christopher Lee walking along holding some unidentifiable “wrist weapon”, his entire body (including his head) clad in an odd, skin-tight outfit.
Lee would probably prefer to forget about this film, but thanks to Starlog, its B-movie brilliance has been preserved for future generations.
Thanks to Simon Meade for telling us about Archive.org‘s collection.
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