Do We Really Need an Amazing Stories TV Reboot?

Amazing Stories
was a science fiction magazine that began publication in 1926. No, strike that. It was not a science fiction magazine, it was the science fiction magazine, as in, the first of its kind. It was founded by Hugo Gernsback, who coined the term “science fiction.” (Originally, “scientific fiction” and then the unhappy portmanteau “scientifiction,” before settling on the solid, if somewhat limiting, term “science fiction.”) Gernsback’s name was imortalized in the “Hugo Awards,” given annually to the best science fiction of the year.

Amazing Stories was the first magazine dedicated to science fiction, but others soon followed, and the sad truth is, once Astounding and later Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction appeared on the scene, Amazing Stories got left behind. It ceased to be the premier SF magazine as soon as it ceased to be the only SF magazine. There were occasional periods when it reached a respectable level of quality; sadly, there were other times when it was regarded in the field as a joke or embarrassment. Nevertheless, over eighty years, most of the biggest names in science fiction appeared in the pages of Amazing: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Murray Leinster, Jack Williamson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Doc Smith, Edmond Hamilton, Fritz Leiber, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Randall Garrett, I could go on and on.

For two years in the 1980s, Steven Spielberg produced an Amazing Stories TV series, an anthology show in the vein of Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. It was…not very good. It got mediocre ratings and was quickly cancelled. Now comes the news that Apple is paying big bucks to reboot Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. I can only conclude that Apple has more unused cash lying around than it has brains.

The original series was highly anticipated when it was first announced because Spielberg was, if anything, hotter then than now, having just come off Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The ABC TV network made a highly unusual 2-year commitment to the show, sight unseen, mostly on the strength of Spielberg’s reputation. And brother, did he let them down. They ran the two years they had already committed themselves to, then unceremoniously dropped the project as soon as they could. I don’t recall many tears shed when Amazing Stories went off the air.

The production values of the show were quite good—you expect nothing less from Steven Spielberg—but the stories were disappointing. Which seems strange. You would think, with (at the time) sixty years’ worth of story inventory from the magazine, hundreds and hundreds of stories from some of the greatest SF writers of all time (admittedly, not their best work, but still), Spielberg could have pulled out 48 good stories for a two-year TV run.

But in fact, he didn’t even try. Amazing Stories, the TV series, purchased the name from Amazing Stories, the magazine, but that was all they took. In a colossal act of arrogance that staggered me in 1985 and still staggers me today, almost every story the show produced came from Spielberg himself. The man literally sat down at a typewriter one afternoon and cranked out 48 one-page story treatments. These were handed out to other writers to develop into scripts, and that was how Amazing Stories was born.

This was presented to the news media at the time as evidence of Spielberg’s genius, but really. One guy sitting in front of a typewriters and brainstorming can’t possibly come up with 40 story ideas, every one of which was better than anything that ever appeared in the magazine. But Spielberg somehow convinced himself that he could. I suppose he believed too much of his own hype.

I can’t help noticing that even the news article I linked to above dances around the topic of whether the original Amazing Stories was actually worth watching. It wasn’t. A good story can still shine through, even in a mediocre production, but a mediocre story is never going to be compelling, not even if Steven Spielberg produces it.

Other than as a case study in the creative dangers of an inflated ego, Amazing Stories has nothing left to offer. Better to create something original, and let this unhappy experiment rest in peace.

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