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Starlog Cover Circle Blues

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You can’t tell a book by its cover, the whole adage goes. That’s particularly true of Starlog where the articles, interviews, photos and cartoons inside the magazine (or "book" in publishing jargon) were (I believe) of a higher, consistent quality than the covers, so frequently compromised by factors beyond my control as Editor. In a previous post, I revealed Strange Starlog Cover Stories (re: issues #1, #3, #114, #130, #135, #138, #147, #162, #175, #291). Let’s round up more.

Issue #173 (on sale November 1991) inaugurated the "Worlds of Star Trek" idea, encircling DeForest Kelley, Jonathan Frakes and Teri Garr (of TOS "Assignment Earth" unsold pilot). This unusual three-ring circus template was an effort to "equate" three different interviews in similar sized spaces and thus create a larger, saleable cover story. Next Gen guest Carel Struycken (pictured as his Addams Family alter-ego, Lurch) deadpans from the corner cover photo box, adding a fourth Trek celeb to the menu.

We recycled this idea 16 months later as #189 circled up the The Animated Series, Next Gen and DS9 casts (one story per show inside). "New Worlds of Star Trek: From Animation to Syndication!" is a fine coverline, somewhat diminished due to Art Director W.R. Mohalley’s decision, in designing the cover, to split it in two. When I couldn’t point to a place on the cover where all nine words might appear together, they remained as they were.

Since it seemed to work, we did it again in December 1993. This time, we offered "Worlds of Science Fiction" (DS9 comics, seaQuest, Lost in Space), I think this cover (#198) was the best-looking of the three. It may not have sold magazines, though, because when I later broached the idea of doing a fourth three-ring-circus type cover, Publisher Norman Jacobs said, "No, let’s not run it into the ground." How strange, that was usually our company specialty.

Let’s skip back a decade earlier. A rare Christopher Lloyd interview fronts Starlog #82 (a second Lloyd chat later appeared in #193). Lloyd’s a Great Character Actor (the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, two Addams Family movies, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, etc.), but elusive off-screen, seemingly uneasy in his own skin. Starlog Assistant Publisher Milburn Smith knew Lloyd long before his breakout role as Taxi’s Reverend Jim. A veteran writer-editor (Look Magazine, etc.) and ex-paperback editor (Belmont Tower Books), Smith was also a part-time playwright. One of his plays, workshopped off-Broadway in the early ’70s, featured Lloyd (who sometimes bummed a ride home with Smith from rehearsals). Smith was delighted at the prospect of giving his shy old pal a Starlog cover.

This was my idea—although I was then (in spring 1984) only Starlog’s Managing Editor. On the side, I was serving as Editor of Starlog Group’s two Paramount-licensed Star Trek III publications. In harvesting photos for them, I came across this moody shot of Lloyd almost unrecognizable as Captain Kruge, (SPOILER ALERT!) the nasty Klingon responsible for Kirk’s son’s death. And I recommended it as a Starlog cover to Editor Howard Zimmerman, who concurred.

At that time, Zimmerman and I separately wrote sets of coverlines for each issue, subject of a group discussion (refereed by Smith) where we chose the strongest one (one from Column HZ, one from Column McD) or created all-new contenders. Our main line here ("The Klingons Return to Sabotage The Search for Spock") is more informational than sensational. We could have done better. Amid the too many (11!) coverlines, there’s a puzzling omission. We were so pleased to picture Lloyd on the cover, yet we didn’t bother to mention his name anywhere thereon!

Unbelievably, this was our onlyTrek III Starlog cover. Issue #83 hosted Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And #84, out in June alongside Trek III’s premiere, was Starlog’s Eighth Anniversary, triggering our traditional multiple-image Anniversary cover (which I thought bollixed up summer movie coverage annually) and the self-congratulatory Anniversary salute section. Eventually, we terminated such traditions.

Our second Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home cover came with #116, two months after the film’s November 30, 1986 launch (and #114, cover-featuring director-star Leonard Nimoy). Looks nice, eh? I’m still blue about it. The original cover idea: "The Women of Star Trek IV" (which may be sexist now, but didn’t seem so decades ago) with photos of Nichelle Nichols, Catherine Hicks, Robin Curtis, Majel Barrett Roddenberry and Grace Lee Whitney (all interviewed inside) and quotes from each. However, Publisher Jacobs vetoed that plan. He believed SF fans were more interested in hardware; that’s why, per company lore, Starlog #17 (with Battlestar Galactica hurtling at the reader) sold so well. Trek IV introduced a brand-new Enterprise (NCC-1701-A) so that had to be the cover, Jacobs insisted, not a bunch of faces. Well, who can argue with that? Now Starlog’s Editor, I did, but nonetheless I lost, because, you know, Jacobs (co)-owned the company.

The unlikely compromise was to promote Nichols to the corner photo box and combine the two cover concepts: big, beautiful, new starship with provocative actress quotes above. The end result looks nice enough but remains unsatisfying (we had no time to add a piece on the new Enterprise inside). And the quote excerpted from the Curtis interview—chosen, I confess, by me—wouldn’t seem out of place on the National Enquirer: "I want Saavik to bear Spock’s child." That kind of headline still captures attention today.

Issue #124 heralds Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fall 1987 debut with our very first Next Gen cover. In my memory, it’s a moody, blue-light cast shot, better looking than its cold reality (as I study it today): a grainy photo haunted by first season anomalies (beardless William Riker, initial Worf makeup, Deanna Troi’s bad hair days, early costumes, Tasha Yar). The issue’s most intriguing coverline is: "Special Feature: The episode that saved Star Trek." It refers to "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the second TOS pilot which sold the series and therefore spawned this whole saga. Inside, there’s a trio of "No Man" interviews: writer Samuel A. Peeples, director James Goldstone and guest star Gary (2001: A Space Odyssey) Lockwood.

And now a fairy tale! "The Laws of Unintended Consequences." Once upon a time, The Princess Bride was intended (by me) as Starlog #125’s cover after—and this didn’t happen very often—I saw it far in advance of release. And loved it! How best to sell the publishers on giving it a cover? I asked studio publicists to arrange a special afternoon screening just for Jacobs, Smith and Associate Publisher Rita Eisenstein in NYC and sent them off to see The Princess Bride. And guess what? All three hated, loathed and despised it! Yes, they did. It was forbidden as a cover. I was not pleased.

Other Unintended Consequences? I never again arranged advance screening access for publishers when a cover was on the line. The Running Man was upgraded to the #125 cover slot, creating a vacancy. Man was a box office hit whereas Bride not so much. Maybe the publishers were right after all? Inconceivable! Today, of course, one picture’s forgotten; the other’s a beloved classic, often quoted by its fans. Fairy tale over!

That’s why just two months after its premiere, Next Gen is back, filling that vacancy and emerging as our default cover subject (whenever something else fell through, 1987-94). "Secrets of Star Trek: The Next Generation" sounds promising as a coverline, but it’s just hype; inside #126, we don’t especially reveal any secrets (sorry). LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner are featured in another moody photo (and not as famous here in December 1987 as they’ll be later, they’re identified via cover caption near Marina’s shoulder) although there’s only a Sirtis interview inside (provocative quote: "I’m not the new Spock").

"William Shatner’s new enterprise Star Trek V" looms large (amid the blue) on issue #144, out in June 1989. This is actually the 13th Anniversary Edition, but I had managed to suspend that yearly multiple-image cover format monopoly for #120 (Star Wars’ 10th Anniversary) and then kill it forever (so that Willow soloed on #132’s cover). Here’s the puzzling thing: We didn’t I.D. Christopher Lloyd five years previously (on #82), but here The Final Frontier’s director-star gets identified in both coverline and caption. Because, apparently, you know, otherwise...you might not know (SPOILER ALERT!) it’s Bill Shatner.

Another Captain, another cover: #186 (out December 1992) unwraps a "Holiday Exclusive: Patrick Stewart speaks of starships & Scrooge." It’s timed, naturally, to Stewart’s one-man stage show tour de force performing Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and everyone else from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I saw Stewart in this Broadway engagement, and he was simply astonishing. Should he ever again tour Carol in your neighborhood, see it!

This, the only stage production to ever grace Starlog’s cover, seemed a risky choice at the time. Broadway was local turf to us (then a dozen blocks away from Starlog’s offices; years later, we actually moved into the heart of Times Square, complete with a Broadway theater next door). Would the wider science fiction universe care? Perhaps. Again, too many coverlines and, also, we give things away! Eisenstein arranged numerous contests and here got Playmate Toys to offer free Trek stuff. So, we had to plaster that pitch on this cover. Maybe it even sold magazines.

After all, that was the goal: to persuade new and casual readers to pick up the book and look beyond the cover. All that coverline clutter is there to hook you. Inside, I’ve always felt, there were enough diverse features to satisfy your interest. But, how to round you up to begin with? In 1996, Publisher Jacobs had an enticing, more expensive concept, derived from gimmick-happy paperbacks where die-cut circles (and other shapes) engraved into a front cover offered a partial glimpse inside to a second cover underneath (a painting/photo seen in its full glory when the book’s opened). Why not do that on a magazine? So, cue Starlog #233 and the soon-to-premiere Star Trek: First Contact.

Well, I had my heart set on a Borg for that cut-out cover circle. We had published Borg pix from Next Gen before, even cover-featured Picard/Locutus of Borg on Starlog #159. I called our longtime Paramount publicity contact Tom Phillips and requested a movie Borg portrait for the cover. He forwarded my request for approval by the Trek Powers That Be. And They (Who Must Not Be Named) promptly waited days and days until time had almost run out—and then, on Thursday, denied it. No Borg for you! It was too early for such a photo release (they said), too late to change our cover set-up. So, as you can see, we substituted Stewart and director-star Frakes. Mohalley sent the cover to the printer the very last moment possible, Friday, 5 p.m. I had signed off on the final cover Friday morning and departed that autumn afternoon to fly to an out-of-state convention. At Newark Airport, I picked up USA Today—and saw a First Contact Borg photo therein, in print. I was not pleased.


Had Paramount provided the very same Borg shot as late as that Friday morning, we could have used it, and had a better, Borgier #233 cover. And why not service the image to Starlog? Our printing schedule ensured that USA Today (a far more important media outlet than Starlog) would still publish the photo first, an entire month before issue #233 hit newsstands. Non-exclusive use of that same shot woulda been fine with me.

Unintended Consequences! I was overseas in November when First Contact screened for the press. When I got back, I was still so bloody annoyed by that Borg photo SNAFU, I simply didn’t bother to see the movie. For years! Inconceivable? No, just a strange but true cover story.

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David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.

 


Copyright 2015 David McDonnell

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