19. Space And Pop Culture - Starry Empires and Galactic Journeys

Submitted by sondra on Sun, 09/11/2011 - 12:02pm

Artist’s rendering of an android walking to a pod-sized rocket in a futuristic garage.

by Richard Wallace, Education Department, The Museum of Flight

Science fiction in the 1950s, with its bugeyed monsters and “pod people,” reflected America’s uncertainty and ambivalence about outer space. The two decades that followed reversed that trend. Space travel became an adventure and the universe expanded accordingly. Filmmakers and writers channeled their energies into making space a real place, creating worlds as believable as our own.

“Star Trek,” the most famous space series of all time, debuted on television in 1966. Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the other crewmates of the USS Enterprise explored the vastness of space in search of worlds to discover or save. Along the way, viewers were treated to some interesting aliens with different, nonhuman ways of looking at the universe.

In 1969, film director Stanley Kubrick changed forever how space travel would be visualized on the movie screen. His film “2001: A Space Odyssey” had an epic sweep, a mysterious, compelling story and, for the time, the most realistic space special effects ever put on film. Finally, the literary vision of rotating space stations and spinning planets could be created in brilliant, wide-screen dimensions.

Kubrick’s notion of outer space as a place for self-discovery was thrillingly realized in two of the 1970s’ most inventive movies: George Lucas’ “Star Wars” (1977) and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Lucas created multiple worlds and civilizations that revolved around the ancient, mythical quest of a boy, Luke Skywalker, searching for his father. Lucas’ space battles had terrific energy and wit, and his youthful characters were straightforward, uncomplicated and fun. Lucas would go on to make six Star Wars films that were hugely successful.

Spielberg’s focus was more personal and intimate: how humanity could be improved by interactions with extraterrestrial intelligence. His movie is a story about the power of love and transcendent wonder.

“Alien” (1979), directed by Ridley Scott, played with the flip side of wonder and expansiveness: claustrophobic fear. An alien takes over the body of a space crewmember, and then begins to kill everyone aboard the ship. The special effects are shocking and gory, and the idea of an unstoppable monster foreshadows the terrible onslaught of HIV and AIDS in the coming decade of the 1980s.

Sequels were all the rage in the next 10 years: two Star Wars movies, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi” (1983); a second Alien feature, “Aliens” (1986); and “2010” (1984) considered to be a lackluster continuation of “2001.” Spielberg made the consummate “visitor from another world” film with “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), a truly magical experience.

Androids and cyborgs (a computerized machine with a human skin) are introduced to the moviegoing public in the disturbing films “Blade Runner” (1982) and “The Terminator” (1984).

This wavering line between human and humanlike will become a major theme in cyberpunk and alternative-reality fiction in the 1980s and 1990s as outer worlds become inner worlds.

Although 20th century SF entertainment could be both thought-provoking and witty, the real laughs were to be found not in the United States — notable exceptions being “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984) and “Ghostbusters” (1984) — but on the other shores of the Atlantic: on TV in Great Britain.

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (1981) began as a radio series before moving over to the small screen. On the last day of planet Earth, one man is saved by an alien. Together, they wander the galaxy, meeting all sorts of interesting, outrageous beings.

“Red Dwarf “(1988) takes place on a giant spaceship millions of years in the future, when the human race is no more. The space travelers include a human just awakened from suspended animation, a human-looking hologram, a talking computer and a cat which has evolved into a cat-man with a flamboyant fashion sense. Add to this mix a fussbudget android, and you had a sharp satire that got better and better during its long run.

Rise of the SF Action Figure

Space toys entered a new era with the invention of the figurine known as the action figure. The plastic, poseable doll began its life in 1959 with the Barbie series manufactured by Mattel toys. According to the Web page “A Short History of Action Figures,” Hasbro toys jumped on the bandwagon in 1964 with the creation of G.I. Joe. Very much a boy’s toy, the doll was promoted by Hasbro as an “action figure.” Standing 12 inches high, G.I. Joe was a big success. The action figure kids play with today owes its small size (3 ¾ inches) and design to the Star Wars figures made by Kenner, first released to the public in 1978. In 1984, Hasbro and a Japanese company, Takara, invented the Transformers robots that could change their shape into everyday objects such as cars. The action figures Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles followed in 1987, spurred on by the success of the animated TV series and comic of the same name. Nowadays, any SF or fantasy movie geared to kids usually has an action figure tie-in.

What will the science fiction toy of the future look like? What will be the new stories for our 21st century?

We don’t know. We can only imagine.