October 30, 2014

Deep Ice: Darker Days are Drawing Near (Howard Koch’s War of the Worlds)

I’ll Explain Later…

Happy Halloween (eve). It is October 30, 1938. In the past month, Germany has annexed the Sudetenland. The ballet Billy the Kid opened in Chicago. The Yankees win their third consecutive World Series. The Munich Agreement was signed, assuring, as British Prime Minister Neville Chaimberlain announced, “Peace for our time.” Pygmalion opens in movie theaters, based on the George Bernard Shaw stageplay. The film’s screenplay will later be the basis of the musical My Fair Lady.  Christopher Lloyd has just been born. Buddy Ebsen has to give up his role in The Wizard of Oz a week into filming when he narrowly survives a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum powder in his Tin Man makeup. It is otherwise a quiet month for movies; most of the year’s big releases were back in August, though Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes opens in two days. In the past week, Chester Carlson has demonstrated the first xerographic copier — the Xerox machine to you and me. DuPont has officially dubbed their new synthetic polymer “nylon”. Jews with Polish citizenship have been evicted from Germany. The US has outlawed child factory labor and created the first official nationwide minimum wage.

Billboard Magazine exists, but it won’t start producing actual charts until 1940, so the most specific I can tell you is that the most popular songs at the moment are probably “Begin the Beguine” by Artie Shaw and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” by the Andrews Sisters. Or maybe the Sammy Kaye version of “Rosalie”, which I think debuted this week. Presumably, swing is really popular since everybody who’s anybody is denouncing it, including, and I swear I am not making this up, an article dated November 2, titled “Swing Viewed as ‘Musical Hitlerism'; Professor Sees Fans Ripe for Dictator.” Yes. In 1938, literally a week before Kristallnacht, stodgy old people were already comparing things they didn’t like to Hitler. The Nazis go ahead and ban swing by the end of the month anyway, just in case.

In the coming week or so, Seabiscuit will outrun War Admiral at Pimlico, Crystal Bird Faucet will become the representative for the 18th district of Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the first African American Woman to serve as a state legislator. Perl Buck will win the Nobel Prize in literature. LSD will be synthesized for the first time. Freak weather conditions will cause TVs in New York to briefly receive BBC broadcasts. This is novel enough that someone is going to film it, making it the only known surviving footage of pre-war BBC television. Also Kristallnacht is going to happen, because, y’know, Nazis.

Phantom BBC broadcasts aside, television does not really exist per se in any form we’d recognize it, but its specter is already haunting us: last week, the BBC televised its first hockey match, and in New York, John Warde became the second person — the second person in 1938 and also the second person in the history of ever — to have his suicide televised, though lighting conditions, poor reception, and the fact that it was 1938 and Television hadn’t finished being invented yet keep more than a handful of people from seeing it. CRTs are being produced in the tens of thousands despite the fact that there won’t be any proper commercial TV for another year or two in the US. In the US right now, radio is still where it’s at, and will be for a few more years yet. This month marks the premier of The Wonder Show, featuring Lucille Ball. Jack Benny does a send-up of one of those big August movies, Algiers on his show (Algiers, by the way, is the reason that the 1942 film Casablanca didn’t use its maiden name, Everybody Comes to Rick’s). Madeline Carroll guest stars on the Bergen and McCarthy segment of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Doctor Christian‘s October episodes are “Baby on Doorstep” and “Boy loves Girl”, adapted, in accordance with the gimmick of the show, from listener submissions. Jungle Jim has been facing off against “Karnak the Killer” since the beginning of August in a serial that ends next week.

But look, the fact that you’ve stuck with me this long suggests that you’ve got at least a little background in geek-relevant media, so you probably already know what the deal is with radio and October 30, 1938. A young auteur named Orson Welles was still early in his career. Citizen Kane is still three years away. The Third Man is a decade away. The frozen pea commercial and Caesar’s Palace promotional video are thirty years away. Transformers The Movie is almost half a century away. Right now, he’s seventeen episodes in on a series of radio plays CBS commissioned him to direct, performed by Welles and the members of the Mercury Theater. In December, it would be picked up for sponsorship by Campbell’s Soup and would run as The Campbell Playhouse until Welles tired of having to deal with network censorship and decided not to renew his contract in 1940. But here, in October 1938, The Mercury Theater On The Air does the one and only thing you are liable to remember it for if you aren’t an Old Time Radio fan.

No one would have believed, said a different guy named “Wells”, that in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. But apparently people forty years on were more credulous, because when The Mercury Theater on the Air performed the radioplay “Invaders from Mars”, so the story goes, it brought on mass hysteria. Panic in the streets. A man in Washington falls dead from a heart attack as he imagines black smoke and heat rays drawing near. Radio stations across the country besieged by angry mobs demanding answers. Future Tonight Show host Jack Paar shouted down by callers as he attempts to reassure listeners. The FCC threatened to require all broadcasts be pre-approved from now on. Dogs and cats living together.

Or not. Practically everyone who actually researches these things nowadays has conceded that, yes, some people panicked, but no, it wasn’t rioting in the streets or anything. It may be impossible to believe in this day and age of modern journalistic integrity, but it’s just possible that the news media of 1938 may have embellished the extent of the panic. I know, unpossible, right? To actually get as far as a panic over The Mercury Theater on the Air‘s “War of the Worlds”, you’d have to be paying close enough attention to know you should panic, but not enough that you pick up on things like the fact that about five minutes into a broadcast that started at 8 PM, they announce the arrival of the first Martian cylinder at a quarter past nine. Or that Orson Welles’s character walks from Princeton to Times Square in the last third of the broadcast.

Well yeah, you might well say, but isn’t that how panic works? You hear a little bit and your critical reasoning turns off and you run off half-cocked? Besides, it was the thirties and people were really naive back then and assumed that anything you heard on the radio must be true!

Which makes a good narrative, but does it track with your experience of life? Yes, of course things were different in the 1930s, but you know and I know exactly what happens when you see something huge and unexpected and horrible and unprecedented appear on the news one morning. You don’t take to the streets in panic. You do literally nothing else for hours other than watch with rapt attention, silently demanding the world start making sense again. And as to the claim that people in the past would have assumed anything the heard on the radio was true, it was 1938. It’s not like fiction hadn’t been invented yet. I mean, the most popular show of this era starred a ventriloquist’s dummy. I don’t think anyone listening at home thought Charlie McCarthy was actually able to speak all on his own (I have no idea what particular appeal a ventriloquist act would have on the radio over any other kind of entertainment, but there you have it). And before you qualify it by saying that War of the Worlds was framed as a news broadcast — this wasn’t the first time that had happened either. In fact, Orson Welles himself had starred alongside future Bat-Villain Burgess Meredith in The Fall of the City the previous year. Like War of the Worlds, it was framed as a news broadcast, and like War of the Worlds, it told of a civilization quickly being taken over by a mysterious invading force, the major difference being that The Fall of the City is an experimental piece, its dialogue in blank verse, and kind of surreal (The approaching conqueror turns out to be a manifestation of the people’s desire to be subjugated). The actual documented evidence suggests that the reaction of the public consisted mostly of high call-volumes at radio stations and newspapers. That suggests concern, sure, but not panic. Calling the news media and asking them what’s going on is a very rational response to hearing something bizarre and alarming — if it’d happened today, I imagine the reports would be that “#Martians” was trending on Twitter.

Besides, The Mercury Theater on the Air was a minor little cultural-interest program on CBS. At eight O’clock on a Sunday, most everyone was listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy over on the NBC Red Network. Though astute listeners probably find it suspicious that the point in War of the Worlds where the Martians first appear occurs at almost exactly the moment that The Chase and Sandborn Hour took its first commercial break.

On the other hand, there are antecedents. In 1926, Father Ronald Knox did a satirical report of the outbreak of a communist revolution in England as part of his weekly BBC Radio show. The panic was slower-burning though; a big part of what spooked the public was that snowy weather prevented newspaper deliveries the next day, prompting fears that The Times had fallen in battle. The following year, Australian listeners were spooked when Station 5CL opened a season of Thursday night “stunts” one July night with a radio play in the style of a news report about an invasion by an unspecified foreign power. In a kind of beautifully 1920s Austrialian sort of way, the news reports kind of backhandedly impugned the manliness of anyone who fell for it. 5CL continued its stunts that winter (Austrialia, remember? Winter’s in the middle of the year), including, ironically enough, a purported live report of an expedition to Mars, actually launching a small rocket from their station to help sell the illusion to nearby listeners who happened to be looking skyward.

But look, even if there wasn’t actual rioting in the street, some people did get scared, and it behooves us to look into that a bit. The first thing to remember is that radio doesn’t work by the same rules as television. Although the narrative style of TV grew very directly out of radio, at a very fundamental level, they work in almost completely opposite ways. In fact, while I was researching this article, I found an excerpt from a 1940s book on writing for radio which outright says that the techniques of radio writing are utterly inapplicable to TV. But what do I mean when I say that TV and Radio work in opposite ways? The most obvious thing is the lack of visuals, of course. Vision is incredibly central to the human experience. A huge amount of our brains are devoted to processing images. Even people who can’t see are constantly surrounded by a world that demands they interpret — or “view”  — it in visual terms. It infiltrates our language (You see it all the time): to miss a key detail is to overlook it. A general sense of a situation is an overview, and to get one, you take a look at the big picture. To be caught unaware is to be blindsided, which you can avoid if you look out. When you part company with someone, you promise to see you later. You investigate something by looking into it, and when you finally figure out what it’s all about, you might well exclaim, “Oh! I see!” And then you can process that information and use it to draw a conclusion. Heck, I started this paragraph by inviting you to look, and I’m going to end it with another visual allusion. See?

This seems counterintuitive to our purpose, though, doesn’t it? I mean: seeing is believing, right? So why should a radio play be so convincing? The most cliche answer is that, robbed of what is for most of us the chiefest amongst the senses, our desperate brain starts inventing some extra reality all on its own to make up the difference. Which is true, I suppose, but it doesn’t, irm, paint the whole picture. There’s another element of how radio differs from TV that I think is key here, and it’s not one we talk about a lot.

I’ve got one of those surround-sound setup dealies at home. Five small speakers, strategically arranged around the room. This is bizarrely cumbersome: if you don’t have everything adjusted just right, the sound is weird and tinny and sounds like it’s coming from the wrong place. In principle, of course, when you’ve got it all set up properly, you can do neat things with all that 5.1 digital nonsense. But ultimately, this is a very small part of the TV-watching experience, because no matter how you spacialize it, what you really want is for almost all of the sound to seem like it’s coming from the forty-inch rectangle at the front of the room.

Television, especially in the old days before we all got comfortable and complacent about it, is often touted for its ability to bring anything in the world right there into your living room. But that’s not quite true, is it? What television does is not to bring the world into the room, but to shrink it down and put it right outside your room. What we experience on TV is the world as viewed through a window. In the 1930s, a very small window. High definition and big screens and curved screens and 3-D glasses all purport to make the images we see as though they are “really there”, but other than when I’ve stuck my smartphone into a Google Cardboard rig, all those advances haven’t changed the fact that I never have to do more than turn my head about 45 degrees to escape the illusion.

Of all the senses, vision is uniquely spacial: to see something places it in the world in a way none of the other senses do. Vision is the one sense that directly links us to other things out away in the world. Touch and taste require that the thing we wish to sense comes to us, or we go to it. Smell can give us a notion of proximity, but only sometimes, it quickly dulls as it gets bored with each stimulus, and it often lies — the acrid chemical smell of a burnt-out bluetooth transmitter issues more strongly from the second floor vent registers than from the transmitter itself. And sound is very strange: it’s spacial, but only in one dimension. While our binocular vision generates a model of a three dimensional space by stitching together a pair of two-dimensional images, our ears pick up frequency and volume from two directions, and the most you can get out of that is roughly how far to the left or right something is. You can’t tell by sound alone whether something is in front of you, behind you, above, or below without moving your head (Your eyes cheat a little bit, because they also vibrate slightly, allowing them to pick up more information from tiny little perspective shifts. Weirdly, a recent study suggested that the extent to which your brain relies on that extra information is inversely proportional to testosterone levels. Since things like 3D glasses can’t yet accurately model this effect, one strange result is that 3D graphics are more convincing to men than to women, and that difference applies to cis and trans people alike). And even then, sound isn’t directional the way vision is. I can look away from something I don’t want to see. I can’t listen away from something.

I’m getting ahead of myself, but we can stop a moment and reflect that radio has at least the potential to be quite scary just because you can’t close your ears if you get too scared. The actual point I was trying to get to is this: Television shrinks the world down and puts it in a box for you. It lets you see amazing things from all over the world, but it maintains a strict subject/object separation: no matter how fantastic the world is on the screen, it has to stay in that box(And how effective is it when you have something like Ringu, or Poltergeist or the “It’s a Good Life” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, where things can cross the TV boundary to get you? Or for that matter, the Doctor talking to Sally Sparrow via DVD). Radio is almost the exact diametric opposite. Radio comes out of the box. The box is the least interesting thing about radio (Still pretty cool though, if you’ve ever poked around inside an old tube radio). What you see on TV is by definition not in the room with you. What you hear on the radio is. The sounds come out into your space, invade it. Heck, those sounds do not even exist as sound until they leave the radio. Inside they radio, they’re just a pattern of electromagnetism, a vibrating membrane. They’re only turned into sound when the speaker beats on the air outside. Sound surrounds you.

Since this is the first time we’ve talked about adaptations of War of the Worlds, maybe a quick precis is in order. Most everyone knows the general outline of the story, but considerably fewer have actually read it, not least of all because HG Wells’s writing style is pretty dry and impersonal. He’s one of those golden-age Science Fiction writers for whom big ideas are more important than storytelling, and I think that makes his works better in adaptation than in the original (Though there is a touching chapter at the end detailing the protagonist’s search for and ultimate reunion with his wife that for some reason hardly ever makes it into adaptations).

Most people are familiar with 1953 George Pal film, or the 2005 Spielberg film. They, like most adaptations, keep most of the major plot beats, but contort them a lot to give the story stronger characters and pacing. There are basically seven major scenes in the story: the first Martian ship lands and is initially mistaken for a meteorite; the Martians emerge, erect a war machine, and slaughter the first responders; the military responds and is routed by “heat ray” weapons; a suicide attack by Earth’s most formidable weapons of war destroys one war machine; the martians release poisonous black smoke, pretty much terminating the military response; the protagonist holes up in a farmhouse, where he gets a good look at the Martian modus operandi, usually by watching another survivor get eaten during a panic attack; the protagonist meets an artilleryman with delusions about setting himself up as leader of a new society; the Martians all die suddenly from disease. Different adaptations give different emphasis to these parts or introduce a twist — the George Pal movie has the war machine survive unscathed in their equivalent of the Thunderchild scene; Spielberg has the Martian warcraft buried underground ahead of time rather than arriving from Mars with their operators — but they’re usually all there. The basic beats are even pretty much all there in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day; Randy Quaid basically plays the role of the Thunderchild, Area 51 takes the place of the farmhouse, and the invaders are ultimately brought down, after all of man’s devices had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom had put upon the Earth: Jeff Goldblum (I mean, yes, they used a computer virus, and that’s interesting (if nonsensical) in that it is such an obvious “clever twist” on the end of War of the Worlds that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a deliberate homage, but my answer is funnier).

War of the Worlds begins with an opening narration that frames the story in the most awkward of tenses, the present-as-past-in-future-perfect: “In the thirty-ninth year (Of course, technically, 1938 is the Thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century, as 1900 is part of the nineteenth century. But clearly even in 1938 everyone knew that was pointlessly pedantic) of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30, the Crosley service estimated that thirty-two million people were listening in on radios.” We catch the tail-end of a weather report before the announcer hands over to a musical program, which in turn is interrupted by an announcement that an eruption of blue flame on Mars has been sighted by an observatory.

After a bit more back and forth between the announcer and the soothing sounds of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra, we get to meet the man who will eventually become the protagonist of the story, Professor Richard Pierson, an astronomer at Princeton. Howard Koch’s radioplay stays fairly close to the major beats of the original novel, even more than the many later adaptations, but here we get one of the earliest and most influential changes. Wells, of course, rarely bothered with proper names for his characters. The protagonist of the book is described as an essayist, but doesn’t have a name. He seems most closely analogous to Carl Phillips, the reporter who interviews Pierson. In the ’30s, the Intrepid Reporter Hero would have already been a familiar trope. Instead, this version of the story will follow Pierson in its second half. There’s an analogous character to him in the original, the “famous astronomer” Ogilvy, but he’s killed off-screen at the beginning of the invasion. I can’t help but wonder if Professor Pierson is named for Pearson’s, the magazine that originally published War of the Worlds in serial form back in 1897.

Pierson exposits a bit, echoing Ogilvy’s sentiment that the chances of anything coming from Mars are “A thousand to one.” (Admittedly, a thousand times more likely than Ogilvy’s estimate), until they’re interrupted by a telegram, asking Pierson to investigate a suspected meteorite impact in nearby Grover’s Mills. Though Pierson doesn’t plan to investigate until the next morning, Intrepid reporter Carl Philips is summoned to the scene, and presumably gives him a lift. We’ve now pulled out fully an hour ahead of real time in our story; our announcer tells us that the meteor struck at 8:50, and refers to events as late as 9:20. About thirty seconds have passed for the listening audience when Carl and Pierson arrive in Grover’s Mill ten minutes later. Carl kills time by interviewing a yokel. I can’t stress this enough: the first fifteen minutes of this radioplay are really dry. Deliberately dry. This is really the key to selling the whole thing, because that dry, matter-of-fact style is really what sells us on this being a legitimate news report, and whether or not it actually “fools” you, it’s still what makes it effective when the world stops making sense in a few more minutes when Chase and Sanborn goes to commercial.

There is one bit I really like here, though: while describing the crowd around the fallen cylinder, Carl Phillips reports, “One man wants to touch the thing. He’s having an argument with a policeman. The policeman wins.” It’s just a beautiful bit of understatement that very efficiently evokes the idea of what happens and also gives us a real sense of Carl Phillips as a reporter. Frank Readick performs the lines with this really hard-core “detached disinterest” tone that shouts, “We all knew exactly how this was going to end.” Gates McFadden was a bit more fun with it in a 1994 production, conveying a building excitement that she suddenly suppresses on, “The policeman wins,” in a way that you know means, “The policeman just punched that guy in the face, but this is the ’30s, so reporters don’t talk about police brutality.”

The detached disinterest continues even when the Martians actually show up a minute or so later. Listening to it now, with my upbringing on '80s media, it produces a feeling of whiplash and disbelief: the words and the delivery are at odd angles to each other. I don't really have the literacy in 1930s newscasting to say what it would have been like for the original audience. Readick prepared for the part by listening to Herbert Morrison's reports of the Hindenberg disaster (The "Oh the humanity!" bit), but I can't hear the influence personally. I actually think Gates McFadden comes closer to emulating Morrison's "I am suppressing my shock and alarm as best I can because I am a professional," though she cites not Morrison, but Lauren Bacall as the major influence for her performance. The only real hint that Carl Phillips cares about what's going on in Readick's performance comes at how he speeds up and slows down slightly, rushing over bits like the physical description of the Martians, which seems to disgust him, and slowing down as he tries to delay reporting his own inevitable death.
PHILLIPS: Now the whole field's caught fire. The woods, the barns, the gas tanks of automobiles. It's spreading everywhere. It's coming this way. About twenty yards to my right.
Where McFadden finally breaks down at the end in a panic, it's not fear but only sadness I pick up from Readick as he says his last words.

And then we go back to the studio, where an announcer who doesn’t seem to have been listening guesses that there might be a technical problem with their field unit, reads an announcement that the explosions on Mars are probably just volcanoes, then cuts over to a piano interlude. Dwight Schultz does this part in the 1994 production, and I really like that he adds a little “um” at the beginning, like he doesn’t quite believe what’s going on.

We’re treated to some announcements about military preparations, then we get an interview with Professor Pierson, who gives a weirdly technobabble-heavy speech about the heat ray. It’s probably the most Star Trek thing in this play, and I’m doubly impressed that when Leonard Nemoy played the role in ’94, he sounds nothing like Spock even as he’s reading lines that could easily have been written for him. One nice touch: his voice is heavily filtered for this bit to indicate that he’s talking to them via telephone from the farmhouse where he’s holed up.

The announcer receives confirmation of Carl Phillips’s death immediately after the interview, and finally lets the dispassionate newscaster facade drop. From here on, we’ll be listening to panicked people try to keep doing their jobs anyway. A captain in the state militia reports as the military mounts a counter-attack, only to be routed when the first tripod war machine emerges from the spacecraft. News starts coming faster as more tripods emerge across the country and refugees flee in terror. The big “action scene” of the radioplay happens when the station airs a “live” feed from the 22nd field artillery. The artillery is able to damage one tripod, but all they get for their efforts is a face-full of black smoke. Setting aside the framing device of the news broadcast for a while, we start cutting directly between military broadcasts: a bomber out of Bayonne reports in as his plane, along with seven others, is shot down by heat rays, then to air traffic control, who confirms the bomber’s demise but reveals that his suicide run had destroyed a single tripod. An operator in Newark cuts in to announce the city’s evacuation in the face of encroaching black smoke. The operators at stations 2X2L and 8X3R try to exchange information, but 8X3R falls ominously silent.

We return to the radio announcer one last time. Resigned to his fate, he reports on attempts to evacuate New York City. It's a tired, broken man who gives his final report: "They're running towards the East River. Thousands of them. Dropping in like rats. Now the smoke's spreading faster. It's reached Times Square. People trying to run away from it, but it's no use. They're falling like flies. Now the smoke's crossing Sixth Avenue... Fifth Avenue... one hundred yards away... It's fifty feet," and then we actually hear his body slump over as he too is overcome.
2X2L calling CQ... 2X2L calling CQ... New York? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone...
Which would be chilling enough on its own, but we return one last time to 2X2L.

One of the things my dad told me when I was younger and trying to understand the alleged panic was that back then — this was about a decade before my dad was born, but it’s about the right vintage for his siblings — radio was kind of hit-or-miss. I mentioned before how British TV got picked up in New York. Sometimes, when the weather did the right things or your tuner did the wrong things, or the vacuum tubes weren’t all screwed in tight, you’d sometimes pick up stray signals on your radio. It wouldn’t have been unbelievable in 1938 for a listener to imagine that, in the confusion of war, military or government broadcasts had drifted into the commercial frequencies.

I don’t know that such a thing would explain why, after they paused for station identification (and repeating that this was an original dramatization), the mode of the narrative shifts completely. The last act of The War of the Worlds is a traditional narrative, told in the first person and styled as the diary of Professor Pierson as he makes his way from a farmhouse in Grover’s Mill to Times Square. This first segment is a strange transition as the professor rambles philosophically: “My wife, my colleagues, my students, my books, my observatory, my–. my world… where are they? Did they ever exist? Am I Richard Pierson? What day is it? Do days exist without calendars? Does time pass when there are no human hands left to wind the clocks?” The farmhouse scene is greatly simplified here; there’s no equivalent character to the curate (A clergyman the protagonist holes up with and eventually kills or incapacitates when his bout of hysterics threaten to reveal their location), nor much detail about what the Martians have set themselves to doing now that humanity has fallen. There is no red weed in this version, and the most we learn of what use the Martians make of conquered humans is Pierson’s ominous warning that, “I have seen the Martians… Feed.”

He makes his way to Newark, where he's accosted by my favorite character, the artilleryman. The artilleryman really prefigures the doomsday prepper in a lot of ways. He's presumably a survivor of the 22nd Artillery, and he initially orders Pierson out of "his country", but the two stop and exchange information for a bit. The artilleryman's got a grandiose plan for the survival of the human race. He means to go to ground, excavating an underground empire where humanity can be preserved until they've built up their forces enough to wage a covert insurrection against the Martians.
STRANGER: I've got it all figured out. We'll live underground. I've been thinking about the sewers. Under New York are miles and miles of 'em. The main ones are big enough for anybody. Then there's cellars, vaults, underground storerooms, railway tunnels, subways. You begin to see, eh? And we'll get a bunch of strong men together. No weak ones; that rubbish, out.
Very romantic and all, but something sinister quickly peaks its head out underneath.

That’s the core of the character. He holds most of humanity in contempt, and what he sees in the destruction of civilization at the hands of the Martians is an opportunity — a chance to get rid of the great throng of mankind — the folks Ayn Rand would call “takers” or “parasites”. A modern internet libertarian might call them “sheeple”, and the artilleryman even likens them to cattle, suggesting that before long, the Martians will start herding the human survivors as livestock. Only “strong men” would survive in the new world order — and, of course, it goes without saying that he would be one one of those “strong men”.

We’re early in the history of this particular kind of dystopian fantasy, but this archetype is going to become so universal in this genre. The grizzled survivalist who despises the weakness of humanity and sees the zombie horde as purging the world of the unworthy: all those crass consumerist sheep he’s always despised are now zombies, so it’s FINALLY okay to do what he always secretly wanted to do and kill them. Or the protagonist in most Christian End Times stories, who maybe, yeah, acknowledges that the whole “seven years of plagues, four horsemen of the apocalypse, and a charismatic UN Secretary General with glowing eyes,” thing might well suck, but isn’t it just glorious that those sinners are finally going to get the hellfire and damnation they deserve? Or the local strong-man who’s given himself a title like “Governor” or “General” and set himself up as the fief of the local fortified town. Or scientist who wants to withhold the cure for the encroaching pandemic, because, really, the world could do with a few million fewer mouths to feed as long as we make sure the worthy all get inoculated.

My first metric for whether or not I’m going to enjoy a piece of dystopian literature is how it treats this archetype. A lot of times, they’re the hero. The one who Saw it Coming and is Strong Enough to Do What Must Be Done. Who aren’t blinded by silly notions like equality or helping other people.  I don’t usually like those versions of the story. Or if I do, I tend to like it subversively.

Welles passes the test, though. The artilleryman eventually muses on the possibility of his insurrectionists seizing control of a war machine.
STRANGER: Gee, imagine having one of them lovely things with its heat ray wide and free! We'd turn it on Martians! We'd turn it on men! We'd bring everybody down to their knees! You, and me, and a few more of us, we'd own the world!

And Pierson walks away. He’s not willing to live in the artilleryman’s world. Welles’s Pierson delivers his goodbye with understated contempt. Nemoy does it with tired disappointment.

Strangely, Welles handles this a lot better than Wells: in the original book, the artilleryman elaborates on his plans at greater length and is more forthright about it, “No singers or mashers,” he says, and “Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” And the nameless protagonist is swayed, “dominated”, he says, by the “tone of assurance and courage he assumed.” Okay. That’s fair. I don’t object to the artilleryman archetype being persuasive. But what troubles me is how they part. The narrator spends a day working with the artilleryman, and comes to see, “the gulf between his dreams and his powers,” quickly growing to despise the would-be dictator for his laziness, even feeling like a “traitor” for playing cards and smoking a cigar when the artilleryman insists on a break from work. He quits the artilleryman’s company not because he disagrees with the idea of his plan, but because the artilleryman has revealed himself to be one of those “useless and cumbersome” sorts who “ought to die”.

My distaste for that rendering of the scene is compounded by the fact that the society the artilleryman proposes isn’t too far afield from the “Air Dictatorship” Wells proposes as a future world government in The Shape of Things to Come. His “Air Dictatorship” is a benevolent one — you can tell because when they decide to execute you, you can opt to take a painless poison pill rather than being shot — that isn’t per se the perfect system of governance, but which he sees as a necessary transitional phase to a proper utopia before the dictators are bloodlessly deposed and sent off to live in honorable retirement. (By a weird and wacky coincidence, Wells predicts his Air Dictatorship to rule from around 1980 to 2059, which is a reasonable estimate of the years in which I am liable to be alive.)

So yeah. Wells didn’t object to the artilleryman’s plan. He objected to the useless parasite fancying himself one of the chosen elite. It’s ironic in a way that Wells seems to have stumbled onto a  fundamental truth that undermines the Artilleryman’s Fantasy (as I like to call it) without noticing it: the very fact that one views the world in those terms, where the great bulk of mankind are parasites fit only for slaughter or slavery at the hands of the benevolent Randian Super-Men is in and of itself strong evidence against being fit for that hypothetical elite class.

But Richard Pierson passes the test even if H.G. Wells didn’t, and quickly moves on to New York City, where the story ends as we all knew it would, when he finds dormant tripods in Central Park, their pilots dead on the ground, being pecked apart by birds. “Later,” he explains, framing the narration as his final diary entry, made the following April, “When their bodies were examined in the laboratories, it was found that they were killed by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared. Slain, after all man’s defenses had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this Earth.” He strays back into the philosophical, musing on the question of whether humanity will now spread out into the universe, or be vanquished by some future invasion.

So were people fooled? Does this sound like a narrative that would fool people? I’m going to say, unhelpfully, both “no” and “yes”. The War of the Worlds panic is something of an urban legend. I don’t just mean that the stories of people panicking are false or exaggerated; The Mercury Theater on the Air‘s “War of the Worlds” has aspects of an urban legend inside itself. Almost any urban legend falls apart on a factual level when you examine it. Someone would notice if thousands of children each year were kidnapped for ritual sacrifice. She couldn’t possibly have written a poem about the car crash if she died in it. The UN can pass non-binding resolutions that do not have any real force of law, and can only do that much if none of the big powerful countries object; they can not exercise sovereignty over and against the will of the US government. As a publicly traded corporation, how Proctor and Gamble uses its profits are a matter of public record; if they were tithing to the church of Satan, it would be in their shareholders’ statement. And Ernie is permanently five years old; he is not in a sexual relationship with Bert.

It’s less than true and more than false to say that people believe these things. It’s closer to true to say that they choose to accept them as though they were true. One idea I’ve found myself returning to a lot is this: not all lies are intended to deceive. Some are intended as an invitation. That is how urban legends work. That is how political muckraking works. That is how professional wrestling works. That is how War of the Worlds worked. No one is “fooled” into believing that the UN is coming for your guns or the president of the United States was able to conceal the fact that he wasn’t eligible, or that Wrestlemania isn’t scripted, or that the Church of Satan is using your pharmaceutical money to fund child sacrifice. No, people are being invited to go live in a world where that’s true. But there has to be something in it for them. Usually, it’s the monsters. I mean, if I live in a world full of child-murdering satanists, then the fact that I am not a child-murdering satanist puts me ahead of the game — in fact, I’m downright heroic because I am bold enough to stand up and decry satanic child-murder. If I lived in a world free of such monsters, I might start worrying that the fact that I live more comfortably than 90% of the human race, thanks in no small part to my lifestyle being subsidized by sweatshop labor overseas makes me a bad person.

That’s awfully venial, but there’s less venial reasons to want there to be monsters. If Satanic Child-Murderers or Kitten-Burners or Sasquatch or Slenderman are real, and they’re out there, I can be vigilant about them. And if they’re not out there, but I choose to act as though they are anyway, then I can still be vigilant about them but there’s no actual risk to me. And being able to worry about Satanic Child-Murderers, Kitten Burners, Proctor and Gamble, and the President’s Birth Certificate — mysterious otherworldly forces I can’t do anything about and am never going to encounter anyway — means I don’t have time to worry about global warming and income inequality and the collapse of the power grid because SERIOUSLY BGE, this is getting to be a twice-a-month thing now — things I’m not sure I can do anything about but I am liable to encounter anyway.

So what was “in it” for the audience that they might choose to “be fooled” by War of the Worlds? Well, first and most simply, it’s Halloween. In a 1940 interview, Orson Welles called it, “The same kind of excitement we extract from a practical joke in which someone puts a sheet over their head and says “boo!” I don’t think that anybody believes that individual is a ghost, but we do scream and yell and rush down the hall. And that’s just about what happened.” People were looking to be scared; that’s the fun of it, it’s how Halloween works. But I think there’s something more than that — some specific reason that this play was so effective.

The past is haunted by the future. A constant litany of little specters of the future trying to happen until they finally do happen and thereby cease to be the future. Halloween’s a better time than most for these little specters to pop up, and that’s what happened here. What ghost haunted that 1938 broadcast? Orson Welles hinted at it right at the beginning:

It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up.

The war scare was over. It was October 30, 1938, and people were feeling optimistic, because a month ago, it sure did look like Europe was going to get itself into another world war, but now, the scare was over.

Ten days later, Kristallnacht happens, because Nazis.

The past is haunted by the future. We are less than one year from the formal beginning of World War II. We’re not out of the Great Depression yet. At this time and in this place, being scared of invaders from Mars is better than being scared by invaders from Nazi Germany. A faceless horde that sweeps in and there’s nothing we can do about it, where we are only be saved by divine intervention is preferable to this wretched indeterminate state where we actually could take action: intervene for the Nazis, intervene against the Nazis; keep the hell out of it. And we can all agree which side we’re on against the Martians: in 1938, you had a surprisingly even split among Americans over which side we should throw our lot in with should it come to war (Not even really, but sitting here in 2014, it is pretty shocking and pretty scandalous that the percentage of Americans who reckoned that if it came to blows, we should side with that short fellow with the Charlie Chaplain moustache was nonzero).

That Orson Welles quote above? The one about ghosts and Halloween? That’s from a little historical curiosity: an interview in San Antonio when a local radio host lucked into finding out that Orson Welles and H.G. Wells were in town at the same time. Wells, though disparaging the younger man for his superfluous second ‘E’, was magnanimous enough to plug the then-upcoming Citizen Kane, and they had this little exchange:

WELLS: You aren’t serious in America yet. You haven’t the war right under your chins, and the consequence is that you can still play with ideas of terror and conflict.

HOST: Do you think that’s good or bad?

WELLS: It’s the natural thing to do until you’re right up against it.

WELLES:  Until it ceases to be a game.

WELLS: When it ceases to be a game.

In 1938, we could still play with ideas of terror and conflict. We could make it a game. Let’s all pretend the Sunday night cultural program on the Columbia Service is real. Because in 1938, we really did know — perhaps not on a conscious level, but on some level — that there really were monsters out there poised to invade. It was easier to live with if they’d been actual Martians.

So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian; it’s Halloween.

(For further reading, check out the links below the fold…)

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October 27, 2014

Programming Note

So here’s the deal. I actually have a Captain Power post all queued up and ready to go. For reals.

But as it turns out, Halloween is happening this week. So I was thinking that instead of doing that post today, I’d like to do a special Halloween post instead. And since I’m doing a special Halloween post, I’m going to do it on Halloween October 30. For reasons.

And because this is pretty much the fastest I am capable of writing, I am going to move Article Day to Wednesday for a bit after that to give me a chance to build the buffer back up.  So check this space on November 5 for my analysis of “Gemini and Counting”, and stay tuned this Thursday for a special Halloween Treat.

See you then…

October 20, 2014

The Voice of the Resistance: I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses (Probe)

Let us skip ahead a bit in time. I have no particular grand overriding reason for this beyond the fact that I feel like it and mentioning “Whackets” last time reminded me of something. You know that thing you have in shows sometimes where you’ve got one character who’s a kind of an intellectual weirdo, possibly a high-functioning sociopath or even someone with a spectrum disorder, and they’ve got a partner who is (at least in an academic sense) not as smart but is able to act like a normal decent human being, and They Fight Crime? It’s not exactly an unusual trope — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle kinda made it the default way to write crimefighting duos back in the 19th century. Holmes and Watson. Poirot and Hastings. KITT and Michael Knight.

Some time around the turn of the ’90s, though, it seems like one particular configuration became really popular — popular enough that I’m kind of surprised I can’t find a TVTropes page about it. I’m specifically talking about the Mulder-n-Scully combination: a smart but weird and offputting man and a more traditional, socially-ept woman.

You see this pattern repeat a bunch of times over the following decades: Abby and Connor on Primeval; Linley and Havers in The Inspector Linley Mysteries; Jane and Rachel in The Mentalist; Grissom and Catherine (or Sarah. Whichever) in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; Johnathan and Maddy, Carla or Joey in Jonathan Creek, Castle and Beckett in Castle; Monk and Natalie in Monk; Jacob/Ian and Rachel in Eleventh Hour; and probably the most recent and obvious example: Sherlock and Joan Watson from Elementary. (By the way, is it just me or are a lot of these examples British? Is this a thing British people particularly like?)

There’s a lot of variability in the way the roles are played, but the setup boils down to “Holmes and Watson, only Watson is (shocking twist music) a girl!“. The stereotype is for The Watson to be kind of stupid, thanks largely to the flanderization Nigel Bruce took the character through over the course of his long career as sidekick to Basil Rathbone. But plenty of instances of the trope avoid that, drawing from the canonical Watson instead: obviously, Mulder and Scully are both hypercompetent professionals, but due to the world they live in, her job for the first five seasons or so is pretty much “to always be wrong, except in the clever subversion episodes.”  The real constants seem to be that the male character is a “defective” genius, and the female character is “normal” — by which I mean “not a genius”, though she could still be entirely competent in her field. Indeed, one of the more common variations is for the female character to be, say, a police officer, fully competent at being a police officer (while her counterpart lacks, say, the discipline for it), just lacking the special gift that makes the “real hero” worth keeping around. (In this regard, the female Lestrade of Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century might count too.) It’s absolutely a sexist trope, drawing on the whole mythology of women being “closer to earth” and men “closer to heaven”, with the male genius needing, in essence, a woman to keep him from floating off on flights of fancy, while, naturally the woman would be more socially ept and more possessed of “common sense”. It’s a shame, too, since it seems pretty clear to me that where the trope comes from is a genuine attempt to be more egalitarian, taking the traditional “Holmes and Watson” or “Man Friday” setup and making it less of a sausage party (The rather noisome thought occurs to me that this too may be a bit problematic, as I imagine some of these started out by someone wanting to do Holmes and Watson but suddenly worrying that it might be “a bit gay”) by swapping one of the men for a woman. But of course, it’s only ever the “Watson” who is a candidate for gender-swapping. The only example I can think of that goes the other way is Bones, and then she’s surrounded by a team of also-insufferable genius lab rats.

What seems a little strange to me is the difficulty I’m having thinking of older examples. You could maybe stretch The Avengers or Adam Adamant Lives! to fit, but neither Adam nor Steed really fit the “defective genius” mold. You could maybe stretch Sapphire and Steel to fit, but Steel doesn’t really fit the “genius” mold and Sapphire only fits the “normal” role by comparison to Steel. And maybe you could fit Doctor Who into this mold, but the dynamics are a lot different there. Also, that last little litany of examples really hammers home just how British this trope is. In fact, I can only think of one really unambiguous example predating the ’80s: Encyclopedia Brown. And he didn’t get his own show until 1989.

I don’t rightly know what kicked it off. The earliest TV example that’s a real solid match I can remember is a backdoor pilot made-for-TV-movie called The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which aired (checks IMDB) Well holy crap. 1987. The nexus of all realities strikes again. In this adaptation, Margaret Colin, who has been in lots of things none of which I have seen, plays Jane Watson, the great-granddaughter of the Ur-Sidekick. She inherits some of her ancestor’s belongings, leading her to the cryonically preserved Sherlock Holmes (Played here by Michael Pennington, who has also been in a bunch of things I’ve never seen, but also played “The guy Vader says ‘The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am,’ to in Return of the Jedi), who’d placed himself in suspended animation after Moriarty’s brother infected him with the bubonic plague using the exact same trick that Holmes had easily seen through in The Adventure of the Dying Detective. Modern antibiotics sort the problem out easily enough, leaving Holmes to travel to the US with Watson to solve a particularly tricky case based on deduction, since he apparently doesn’t remember that it’s the exact same plot as The Sign of Four. Also, there’s a really funny scene where Holmes tries to update his knowledge of the world by visiting a bookstore without giving Jane a chance to explain what an “Adult Bookstore” is. And they go to London Bridge in Lake Havasu. Also, little bit of trivia: Margaret Colin guested in an episode of Elementary‘s second season.

Unless you count those times Basil Rathbone’s Holmes fought the Nazis, I think that was actually the first time someone did a literal “Sherlock Holmes in the modern day.” (It is not, oddly enough, the first female Watson; there’s two separate, unrelated movies from the ’70s which both revolve around a modern man suffering from the delusion that he is Holmes under the care of a female psychiatrist named Watson). I mean, the actual literal Sherlock Holmes rather than “A modern crime-solving duo clearly based on Holmes.” This is the original Sherlock and the original Elementary. And since the setup is “The canon Holmes is resurrected many years later by a gender-flipped descendant of a a canon character to solve crimes lifted pretty directly from the canon, though Holmes doesn’t recognize this despite the assumption that the canon stories also all happened,” rather than just the modern day being his natural time and place, it’s even moreso the original Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (Though, in a weird move for a children’s cartoon, their Holmes was not frozen, but dead; Lestrade uses 22nd century nanotechnology to reanimate and restore youth to his well-preserved corpse centuries after he’d died of old age. The fact that the police can cure death is never brought up again.). That said, this was “Sherlock Holmes collides with the audience’s actual world” in a way that neither Sherlock nor Elementary are: the “present day” Sherlock occupies is one in which Sherlock Holmes exists as a character. It’s “our world” (or at least, the world where the Literary Agent Hypothesis is true, and Doyle was really just the “editor” for a real Watson) in that if a tall man in a deerstalker cap with a calibash pipe introduced himself as “Sherlock Holmes”, everyone would assume he was a cosplayer — and indeed, Holmes uses the pseudonym “Siegerson” when dealing with strangers, realizing that no one would believe him if he used his real name (Whereas only a Holmesian would tick to something being up if a tall, thin guy who’s good at sleuthing called himself “Siegerson”).

The pilot never went to series, which isn’t too surprising (What is surprising: they did pretty much the exact same movie again in 1993’s 1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns). It was good enough for a TV movie, sure, but the idea wasn’t quite baked enough to keep going for more than a week. There’s too much of an inherent problem in having Sherlock be both the world’s greatest detective and also a fish-out-of-water who has to stop and marvel at things like electric lightbulbs and pornography if you stretch it out past about ninety minutes. If Holmes remains a kind of “funny foreigner” archetype who doesn’t understand the world he lives in, it undermines his intelligence: the whole thing becomes a succession of “Oh yeah? If he’s so smart why doesn’t he know what a digital watch is?” jokes. Alternatively, if he acclimatizes himself to his surroundings, he ceases to feel authentically Holmsean, so why bother with the whole reanimation nonsense instead of just creating a new Holmes-like character? Besides, Michael Pennington is, again, a perfectly good actor, but I don’t think he has the charisma to carry the series — at least not this series. He’s playing your classic-style Sherlock, in the deerstalker-n-calibash tradition that originated with William Gilette in 1899. But Jeremy Brett had already been doing his more book-authentic “straight” version that for a few years now, and frankly, once you’ve watched Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, there is really nothing new anyone is going to bring to the role until Robert Downey Jr. Robert Downy Jr.s the character up a few notches in 2009. With its Watson as a capable private detective in her own right, the setup is within spitting distance of trying to be Remmington Steele: a competent female detective, despite being good at her job, can’t quite cut it on her own without that little something extra that only a man can provide. That setup has some nasty implications in it. Remmington Steele works around this because the details of its setup make it a critique of the problem rather than simply embracing it: Laura Holt invents Steele as a public face for her agency because society won’t accept a woman in the role of a detective. He is her judgment on her culture’s gender roles: you won’t hire a good detective because she hasn’t got a penis? Fine. Here’s a vacuous moron with testicles. Hire him instead. (It’s a little interesting to me that this is almost exactly the same premise of the Holmes parody Without a Clue, with “respectable physician” in place of “woman”) The joke just doesn’t work as well here. They get it right by making Jane Watson a competent detective in her own right, but for this whole “Defective Genius Man / Effective Babysitter Woman” thing to work, they need to move away from the model of “She needs him because a woman isn’t good enough on her own,” to the model of “He needs her because his genius isn’t worth much if he can’t function in society.”

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this article.  It is March 7, 1988. Divine and Robert “Bob” Livingston die. Star Trek The Next Generation is on week 2 of a two week break. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future ended on a cliffhanger which I will get to in time. We are in the back nine of the nexus of all realities, but we have hit upon a key moment in musical history, because some time between last Friday and this Friday, George Michael’s “Father Figure” will be unseated from the top spot on the BIllboard Hot 100 in favor of a little ditty by a fellow named Rick Astley, making YouTube as we know it possible.

This week’s episode of MacGyver is “The Negotiator”, a story in which a woman murders a dog to prove to the audience that she’s evil (This is a thing in TV. Villains and natural disasters will go out of their way to avoid killing dogs or babies, so showing a villain actually deliberately kill a dog is a shorthand to signal that someone is utterly irredeemable and isn’t going to pull any of that “Lady villain has a change of heart because the male hero is so studly,” bullshit). Immediately afterward, a new show premiers.

Friends since junior high, William Link and Richard Levinson had a long history of successful collaboration in the mystery genre. They’d created Columbo, Mannix, Ellery Queen, Murder She Wrote, and a pile of television movies. Levinson had unexpectedly died almost exactly a year earlier, so for this one, Link teamed up with Isaac Asimov.

Depending on how versed you are with his work, you might find that a strange pairing, but it’s not. Golden-Age Science Fiction and Whodunnit-style Mystery aren’t really all that different as genres: they both rely heavily on very clever and intricate set-ups, they tend to prioritize world-building over plot and character, they both tend to build toward a big reveal at the end, and they both tend to be judged good if the reveal is something the audience could have anticipated but didn’t, such as “The butler did it” or “It was Earth all along”. When they’re good, writing these kinds of stories is a bit like building a theme park, essentially a matter of setting up an enjoyable ride and then inviting the audience to come along with you (people like Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon are supremely good at this). But Science Fiction and Mystery both suffer from the tendency, when they’re done inexpertly, to rapidly devolve into the writer waging a one-sided competition against the reader, waiting to jump out and yell, “Gotcha!” as they reveal that they’re so much cleverer than the audience, and haven’t they earned a cookie and a gold star? You see this with the kind of mystery writers being mocked in the movie Murder By Death, or, say, season 7 of Doctor Who (Except that one, oddly, kept oscillating between screaming “Look how clever I am!” and “Silly nerd! You keep expecting it to make sense? Clearly you’re just supposed to turn off your higher reasoning and just enjoy the cheap emotional manipulation!”).

More to the point, Isaac Asimov wrote mysteries. On balance, I personally prefer his mysteries to his science fiction. For example, his “Black Widowers” series revolves around a cadre of men who meet once a month for dinner, and have taken to playing amateur detectives as they try (and fail) to solve a problem posed by a guest attendee, until the correct solution is inevitably deduced by their steadfast butler, a man described as being so pathologically honest that he is hypersensitive to deception. The stories read very much like Encyclopedia Brown stories if Sobol had been as good a writer as Isaac Asimov.

PROBEThe two of them came up with a show that was a kind of science-themed Whodunnit, using the “Defective Genius / Babysitter” model, a model which, as close as I can tell, they invented. That show was Probe.

Parker Stevenson, winner of the Katee Sackhoff Award For Successfully Growing Out of Looking Like Dirk BenedictYoung Parker Stevenson, plays Austin James, a reclusive eccentric genius, who founded the Random-hi-tech-stuff company “Serendip” but detests actually getting involved in its goings on. For reasons I can’t quite understand, the company doesn’t like their reclusive genius letting them do pretty much whatever they like except when he occasionally gifts them with a profitable new invention. I mean, I think it has something to do with them not wanting to pay the bills for the many projects he never brings to fruition, but no one ever comes out and says this in a way that doesn’t sound short-sighted and cartoonishly evil. To reign Austin in, Serendip foists a secretary on him, Mickey Castle, played by Ashley Crow (Who, in another ironic twist, would later guest on The Mentalist, another one of these shows about a reclusive weirdo genius and his female babysitter). They fight crime!

I mean, that’s about the size of it. Austin either happens into a mystery or Mickey nudges him onto it. Austin uses his superior knowledge of science science-flavored TV bullshit to solve the mystery, while Mickey does a lot of being wrong, being ditzy, suspecting ghosts, or saying, “What is it Doctor Austin?”

It probably sounds a bit CSI, and it is, but it’s even more The X-Files, bordering on Scooby-Doo Where Are You? with just a touch of MacGyver. We’re not talking about Austin and Mickey taking on your traditional serial killers here: Austin and Mickey face off against homicidal computers, faked alien invasions, and a killer who uses holography in his crimes. The modern show it reminds me of most is Eleventh Hour, which similarly had its detective/babysitter duo investigate crimes based around TV-superscience such as human cloning, cryonics, and weather control.

Austin James. And SandEleventh Hour is perhaps a bit less whimsical. They’re going for a more “Ripped from Gizmodo headlines” sort of deal, where they take actual headline-making science, and just present it as being slightly better by delivering a thing which real-world scientists genuinely think they might soon accomplish, and just handwaving away practical rather than theoretical unsolved problems. So in Eleventh Hour, you have a rogue geneticist who’s found a practical way to do human cloning — we’ve been cloning animals since at least the fifties, and really by the time the show aired, the technical impediments to human cloning had been mostly solved (The actual genius thing their mad scientist had done is actually fallacious; she’d “solved” the problem of clones made from adult donors being born “genetically old”, that is, with the shortened telomeres of the donor rather than the longer ones of a newborn. But clones aren’t born with short telomeres; that was just popular unfounded speculation when Dolly the Sheep, cloned from a 7-year-old, died at 6 rather than at the more sheep-normal 12. But there was no evidence that early senescence was involved; she died of a common sheep cancer at the age that cancer usually kills sheep.).  In Probe, by contrast, you’ve got an orangutan with artificially-boosted intelligence who murders an animal-rights advocate (She didn’t want those PETA folks shutting down her cushy gig) because her sense of conflict-resolution came entirely from watching Westerns, and then frames herself because her knowledge of criminal justice came entirely from cop shows (Since we all know, the person who seems obviously to have done it in the first five minutes is always innocent). You laugh, but it’s like 2/3 of the way to being the plot of The Murders at the Rue Morgue.

If we imagine “science-flavored mystery” as existing along a spectrum, at one end, we can put a show like Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, a fun little teen series from around the turn of the century which is basically what you’d get if you took leftover Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or more likely, the animated spin-off they’d talked about making at one point) scripts, crossed out “magic” and pencilled in “science”: a boarding school is built on top of a hellmouth wormhole, and shenanigans ensue, which the heroes pretend are fully explicable as being due to Science! and which they solve using their own greater Science!, such as “a computer virus makes the species-jump to infect buildings,” or “If you don’t feel like people notice you, your quantum state changes causing you to stop interacting with light, thus turning invisible (Yes! It literally is the same plot as an episode of Buffy).” At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got stuff like CSI and MacGyver: approximately real-world situations being solved by real applications of real scientific principles, it’s just that putting those principles into practice works a whole lot better (and faster, and more visually appealing) than they would in the real world: PCR DNA amplification is a real thing that really works, it’s just a lot slower in the real world. Luminol is a real thing that really works in the real world, it’s just not as visually impressive and you need a lot more control of the ambient lighting. And you really can make thermite from rust and aluminum shavings, but scraping a rusty bicycle with your Swiss Army Knife is not a feasible way to do it (Though I wonder if I could start a fire with my magnesium pencil sharpener…). Eleventh Hour is up near the CSI end. Something like The X-Files is down toward the Blake Holsey end (Its more science-flavored episodes at least, like the one about the man whose body was made entirely of cancer, thus ending the short run where fans all referred to the guy who would later be known as the “Cigarette-Smoking Man” as “Cancer Man”).

Probe falls somewhere in the middle. The first episode, retroactively titled, “Computer Logic” pits Austin against a mainframe that’s been placed in charge of public utilities. The computer’s developed an intelligence, as mainframes sometimes did in the ’80s, but rather than wanting to take over the world or anything like that, it just wants to maximize shareholder value by murdering pensioners, the disabled, and anyone else whose continued survival doesn’t meet its threshold for being a positive contributor to society. That’s a really beautifully ’80s science fiction concept and all, but we’ve probably moved past “Modern-day Holmes and Watson fight crimes with science” as this show’s high concept. Though we do get to see Parker Stevenson take a fireaxe to a computer while shouting “Sing Daisy!” There’s actually a vaguely similar episode of Eleventh Hour, but instead of an AI mainframe, the culprit is a child prodigy who’s killing off under-performing classmates to bring up test scores.

RobotIn the second episode, “Untouched by Human Hands”, Austin has to investigate a death when he can’t get to the body due to radiation from a proton decay experiment gone wrong. This is kind of a blast from the past: the setup is very “Ripped from the cover of Popular Science.” The equivalent would be if someone did an episode of, say, the Mentalist, where someone is murdered by someone sabotaging a Higgs Boson experiment. Proton Decay was an exciting area of research back in the ’80s. Like the Higgs, it’s one of those things which the popular theories of how the universe works predict, but which had never been observed. Unlike the Higgs, it still hasn’t been observed, and the evidence suggests that the universe isn’t old enough for a proton to have actually decayed yet. The big twist comes up when Austin uses his Sherlock Holmes skills to determine that the murdered man isn’t who he appears to be. The alleged victim does turn out to be dead, though, murdered by his accomplice: a lab robot. He’d intended to fake his own death by having the robot kill a hobo, but then foolishly triggered the murder-program while making his escape. Then Austin gets the definition of a palindromic prime wrong. He gets it so wrong that he claims prime numbers are divisible by 11 (Palindromic numbers which aren’t prime are divisible by 11. Except for 11, which is palindromic, prime, and divisible by 11).

Episode 3, “Black Cats Don’t Walk Under Ladders, Do They?” is, on the surface, the B-plot from Metal Gear Solid: a series of murders are carried out using deadly bacteria that have been genetically modified to attack a specific victim, with a B-plot about the power of suggestion. Then we get “Metamorphic Anthropoidic Prototype Over You,” which is the one about the killer ape, and “Now You See It”, the one about holograms — someone looking to ruin Austin’s company fakes deadly elevator malfunctions using holograms to lure people into empty elevator shafts. Unfortunately, this show is no Star Trek the Next Generation: the “hologram” effect is a pretty amazingly cheap split-screen shot. HologramI mean, technically, I guess it may actually look a bit more “realistic” by virtue of the lack of visual swirlies and suchlike, the same way that the ’70s live-action Spider-Man looked more realistically like a dude wearing a home-made spandex costume. Except right at the end where Mickey’s hand passes through a holographic file box and comes out the other side about ten feet closer to the camera than it entered.

Episode 6, “Plan 10 From Outer Space,” is practically a Scooby-Doo homage. An eccentric writer reveals that his novels have all been coauthored by an alien visitor, who has now turned violent, and promptly murders him. Austin determines that the “alien” is actually ball lightning caused by the presence of a large chunk of meteoric iron under the house, coupled with the writer’s presumed schizophrenia. For his next trick, he manages to trigger a ball-lightning strike, during which he tricks the real murderer into a confession using a slide projector. There’s a variation on the urban legend about a murder victim’s eyes retaining the murderer’s image, as Austin’s set-up is a farce based on the claim that the victim’s electrocution could cause sunglass lenses to act like film.

For my money, the best episode of the series is its last, the reason we’re talking about it today: “Quit-It” pits Austin and Mickey against a small community whose denizens have turned into Stepford Smilers and have become strangely subservient to their delinquent children.

This episode is one of my strongest early memories of major plot misdirect in a show like this. As the title suggests, Mickey and Austin spend most of the episode working from the theory that the culprit is a smoking cessation aid. The twist comes near the end when Austin analyzes the “Quit-It” pill and finds it to be a placebo. The actual mind-control vector is subliminal messages hidden in the cassettes being played on the Hi-Fi’s in nearly every scene. It turns out that the smarmy ad exec dad in town had lucked onto discovering a method of embedding ultra-powerful, ultra-precise subliminal messages, only to fall victim to his own creation when the neighborhood’s many delinquent children discovered the equipment and started recording messages of their own. You can see now why “Whackets” put it in my mind. I think it was the two of them happening within a few months of each other that burned this pair of episodes into my memory. “Whackets” and “Quit-It” are the episodes of their respective programs that I remember the best, and concept of subliminal mind control is something I worked into a half-dozen short stories I wrote over the next few years. Austin produces a counter-message, freeing the town, then uses one last message to induce everyone to forget the whole thing, lest this technology be exploited again.

Unfortunately, Austin may have turned his subliminal signal up too high: the show vanished without a trace six weeks after its premier. It’s so vanished that I couldn’t even find any fansites whose web design didn’t scream late 90s (A few had dates later than that, but it’s hard to deny the evidence of the <marquee> tag) and were full of broken geocities links.  It’s not really hard to see why. It was up against The Cosby Show for one, which either shows a great deal of faith by the network, or that they’d already given up. The theme music is almost painful. I can’t find a name for it, so I don’t know if it’s an original composition; it sounds classical, (but then so does the theme from Knight Rider, if you ignore the synth), but performed on a Cassio keyboard during a long, long, long, long, long, long collage of black and white photos that young Parker Stevensons and Ashley Crowes have been airbrushed into. And, to be completely honest, I have an easier time buying Parker Stevenson as a lifeguarding lawyer than as a super-genius.

But that’s all superficial. Really, the show is just much better on paper than in practice. I love this concept. I love it every bit as much as I would love it twenty years later when they called it Eleventh Hour. But this wasn’t the right way to do it. There are a few problems here. First, half the plots in seven episodes involve Austin begrudgingly stepping in to help his own company out of a jam. There’s a pleasant old-timey “Wealthy Self-Made Man who Loathes Actually Being Involved in Business” vibe to Austin’s backstory — the sort of “rich guy slumming it” routine that used to be a popular adventurer backstory. It’s more than a little problematic, but if you can bracket it, there’s a well fleshed-out tradition to enjoy dating back to its origins in the “Victorian Gentleman Adventurer” archetype. But to a great extent, Probe wants to be not just “Holmes and Watson in the 80s”, but “Columbo with superscience” — with Austin clearly drawing from Columbo’s “Clever weirdo whose eccentric behavior exasperates criminals into revealing mistakes.” That’s a setup that just works better when you juxtapose the upper-class criminals with the working-class detective. When the plots compel Austin to leverage his role as the president of Serendip Inc., it becomes difficult to bracket the fact that Austin is, essentially, a rich white guy protecting what’s his in those stories.

Really, they just don’t hit the sweet-spot for the “Defective Genus and Normal Babysitter” trope. Austin isn’t defective enough and Mickey isn’t normal enough. Austin’s described as an eccentric, misanthropic introvert. But in practice, he’s more of a smug asshole. It takes very little effort to get him involved in things and his social awkwardness boils down pretty much entirely to “He’s pathologically unable to let any chance to show off his superior intellect or insult someone else’s inferior intellect.” The setup notwithstanding, there’s no clear reason why Austin needs a babysitter; yes, he’s weird. He sleeps in a cabinet (A habit he’d developed as a child because he wanted a sensory deprivation tank). He makes silly gadgets. But it’s not clear who his behavior inconveniences or how exactly Mickey is supposed to make things better.

And conversely, Mickey isn’t “normal”; she’s almost serenely clueless. Her basic purpose here is strictly to be wrong. All the time. I mean, there’s a few attempts to have her be the one who pulls Austin back on his flights of fancy, but the show always qualifies this by throwing out the suggestion that Mickey was in fact just falling victim to some of Austin’s obfuscating weirdness: he’ll turn around at the end and insist it had all been a clever ruse, either to trick the villain of the week, or, in some cases, purely to shame her. That’s ugly enough in itself, but when you couple it with the fact that she’s basically playing Nigel Bruce at his worst (Bruce played Watson quite a lot, and sometimes he does play a compelling and/or canon-accurate Watson, but at other times, he’s basically responsible for the until-recently-universal notion of Watson as a complete moron), only cast as a “ditzy secretary”, it’s just painful. Her purpose is to be pretty and provide sexual tension and to make Austin look smarter by virtue of her being profoundly, profoundly stupid. I want to like her. I almost like her. But the person I actually like is a sort of imaginary “meta-Mickey”: one who’s engaging in a bit of obfuscating stupidity of her own, and is actually subtly manipulating Austin this whole time. Unfortunately, there’s no actual evidence for that interpretation based on the handful of episodes we got.

I don't know if this show could have been made to work here in the nexus. Maybe it's just too early to pull it off. But Probe feels to me like it's within spitting distance of The X-Files. Maybe, just maybe, they could have pulled it off. But not without some tweaking. Austin needs to be more, well, defective. When Austin James deigns to come down off his cloud and walk among the common man, he's fine. A jerk, yes, but able to easily dominate the world of mere mortals. It's all a bit Adam Adamant Lives!
In case you're not familiar, Adam Adamant Lives! was what Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert did with themselves after creating Doctor Who. It's about an Edwardian superspy who gets himself frozen for sixty years, waking up in the swinging sixties, whereupon he resumes his duties as a super-spy, foiling your standard James Bond-style plots with a small amount of "help" from his mundane, kidnapping-prone, mod secretary, and lots more help from his superlative skills at murdering people with his bare hands. Yes! It pretty much exactly is Austin Powers except serious and with the '60s at the wrong end of the story. Except that Adam doesn't do the "fish out of water who learns to appreciate that the modern day is better," thing; he spends the entire series convinced that the '60s suck and his time was much better. It's like 90% a very straight 1960s Spy-Fi Thriller in the mold of The Avengers or Danger Man -- with perhaps even more a bit of similarity to Star Trek's backdoor pilot "Assignment: Earth", only with just a small hit of psychedelia to make the whole thing that much weirder. Season 1 is available on DVD, but the final season, sadly, is mostly lost due to the use of an archival system developed when a time traveler suggested they store it on Amazon's color tablet system and the 1960s BBC misunderstood what was meant by "Kindle Fire".
, with brilliance replacing a penchant for violence. But to the extent that Adam Adamant Lives! succeeded, it succeeded because it juxtaposed the superhuman Adam with a highly stylized, sort of camped-up version of the 1960s; it wasn't trying to be a serious drama set in a recognizably real world: it was trying to be psychedelic spy-fi.

That approach doesn’t really work for Probe, which wants to play by the rules of crime drama rather than spy-fi: it may have AI supercomputers and enhanced apes, but it’s still a world that works by our world’s rules, where people kill people for love or money or anger, not one where supervillains want to take over the world by turning parliament into plant monsters. Adam was a man who was extraordinary in one direction in a world that was extraordinary in the other. Austin is just an extraordinary man in a mundane world. He needed to be vulnerable. The closest we get is in “Plan 10″, when Mickey deduces that he’d been terrified at being placed on a Mall Santa’s lap as a small child — a throwaway moment that’s gone in a flash and never followed up on. No, for this show to work, he needs an actual overt flaw. Make that (alleged, not demonstrated) introversion into a pathology. Give him social anxiety disorder. Make him actually need Mickey because he can’t handle stressful human interactions. Make it Mickey’s job to cover for him and jump on grenades for him. That can be the character arc for these two: rather than the clumsily forced sexual tension, which three episodes in has already extended to “Austin covertly sabotages her dates out of petty jealousy,” focus on their professional relationship: Austin starts off uncomfortable around her and resentful of her presence; Mickey interprets his anxiety as him being an asshole. But very quickly we get to a point where Austin has to proactively ask her for help. Then, later, as their relationship progresses, we show Mickey increasingly anticipating his needs and knowing when to interpose herself to “rescue” him, but leaving room for Austin to occasionally surprise her by unexpectedly being able to handle a tense social situation — only to reveal that he’s learning to cope because he has the security of trusting her to have his back.

The other half of this of course, is that we’d need a more competent Mickey. Drop the whole bit about her being credulous and assuming aliens (“Plan 10″), psychic powers (“Black Cats”) and pod people (“Quit-It”) are at work. Don’t conflate “Has no scientific background” with “Is an idiot”. Make her confident and competent: she doesn’t understand the science, but she doesn’t care; it’s not her field. She doesn’t engage in speculation about the science in the crime. What she knows is people. I’d even say that Austin should be wrong for the first half of the episode. He only sees the science, and it leads him astray because he’s applying it without understanding the context. He can sort out the what and the how, but only when Mickey provides the why (and, I hope it goes without saying, she does this because she understands human psychology, not because of “womanly intuition” or something.) The setup of her being a secretary hired by Serendip to reign him in doesn’t really work either. One of Elementary‘s cleverer innovations is to introduce Joan Watson as Sherlock’s “sober companion”, hired to help him recover from his drug addiction. It gives her a reason to be there that amounts to more than “She’s his sidekick.” I don’t know what would work for Probe. I abstractly like the setup of her being, say, a private detective, but that’s a bit fished out. Having her be his therapist works well with the dynamic I’ve described, but I don’t know how you’d set it up. Maybe Austin has a panic attack at a shareholder meeting and she’s forced on him to keep the investors happy. I don’t even know if that is a thing that can happen, but this is a show with murderous super-apes after all.

I think it could work. Because it has worked. Just not yet. The nexus is haunted. Like so many of the things we’ve encountered here, Probe is like a ghost sent back from the future. Austin James and Mickey Castle are like half-formed specters of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. This show could have been something. Some people blamed its failure on an audience that wasn’t ready for the kind of intellectual, attention-required storytelling that Probe was doing. I don’t know if the audience was ready to watch Probe in 1988, but I’m pretty sure the Hollywood TV industry wasn’t ready to make it.

October 13, 2014

The Voice of the Resistance: Channel Z’s Nothing But Static All Day. Time to Open Your Windows. (Max Headroom)

(Once again, I mean to meander meaninglessly through my ancient television memories. You have been warned)

As with last week, I don’t really have much to say about this topic. That’s one of the disadvantages when it’s 2014 and you’ve decided to talk about something nostalgic that isn’t as ridiculously obscure as Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. You know how I complained about the fight scenes in the first six episodes of Captain Power, how they felt like they were only there out of contractual obligation (Which, after all, they were. Got to sell those toys after all)? That’s kinda how I feel about this.

But I’ve spent years now writing about science fiction television in 1987. Omitting this one would be like talking about the greatest train wrecks of history and neglecting the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami rail disaster. Or like trying to talk about the worst cars ever made and forgetting the Pinto. Or like talking about the greatest train wrecks of history and neglecting Katherine Heigl’s career. It’d be borderline incompetent to talk about television in the Fall 1987-Spring 1988 Nexus of all Realities without mentioning Max Headroom.

Max HeadroomThe history of the character is almost over-documented; I can find a lot of material, but it’s contradictory. All sources agree, for example, that Max’s debut was in the 1986 British telefilm Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. Or perhaps it’s called Max Headroom: The Original Story. Or maybe just Max Headroom.  In any case, it aired on April 4, 1985, and based on its success — everyone agrees on this — it was spun off into The Max Headroom Show, which first aired two weeks earlier, on March 22, 1985, at least according to Wikipedia. This was a music video show, with linking bits featuring Max as a parody of a late night talk show host, The talk show host bits were expanded for the follow-up, The Max Talking Headroom Show, which was made for either Channel 4 in the UK or Cinemax in the US, or maybe that didn’t happen until 1988; sources are conflicted. A Christmas special, Max Headroom’s Giant Christmas Turkey was part of that series. Or maybe part of the previous series. Or maybe a stand-alone special between the two or after both of them, and it aired on either Christmas or Boxing Day in 1986 or 1987 or 1988 or all three. In 1986, Cinemax aired an extended version of the TV movie, padded out with an extra half-hour, mostly of Max riffing. By 1987, the US market had fully appreciated the commercial power of Matt Frewer in a latex mask, and remade the British film as the pilot episode of Max Headroom. Or possibly this was the one called Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. Or maybe that was just a tagline. And maybe The Max Talking Headroom Show was a follow-up to that. Confused? Good.

To put things very, very simply, Max Headroom is quite possibly the single most ’80s thing in the whole of the ’80s. I mean, sure, there are things more iconic of the ’80s, and there are things that more accurately capture the look and feel of the ’80s. But if you took the whole of the ’80s, and pureed it, and rendered it down over low heat like some good leaf lard, the slurry you produced would congeal into the plastic Kryten-face of M-m-m-m-max Headroom. It’s a hyperbolic caricature of everything that made the ’80s what they were: that particular brand of cynicism that knew the end was coming any day now is reflected in the dystopian setting; ’80s counterculture’s angst about the increasing power of corporations is the overarching theme of all the series’s episode plots. And Max himself is the epitome of the ’80s obsession with artifice and performativity: a character who is himself pure performance: a character without an actor, very deliberately played as all the most “fake” attributes of a TV talk show host. Max also reflects the last remnants of the 80s belief in The Future: the idea that it was just “twenty minutes into the future” before we’d be able to upload a person’s mind into a computer and more-or-less recreate him as a latex-coated head or grow fetuses into babies in labs using the same technology we had, in 1987, only recently perfected as a means of growing raw meat and vegetables into a delicious pot roast.

Max Headroom comes from a dystopian near-future (Probably around 2006) ruled by vast, impersonal megacorporations run by the Japanese, where governments have become mere puppets of the major media conglomerates, where the poor are forced to dress like 1970s punk rockers and popular entertainment has degenerated into perverse bloodsports. See what I meant about it being the most ’80s thing in the ’80s? Also, you can smoke literally everywhere. Max’s backstory is that he’s a flawed AI reconstruction of ace reporter Edison Carter, made by his corporate masters in anticipation of having to off him because he Knew Too Much — specifically, that the network’s new high-speed commercials (the origin of our now-somehow-cromulent word “blipvert”) occasionally caused some viewers to explode. Max took his name from the overhead clearance sign Carter had seen immediately before a near-fatal motorcycle crash.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Max Headroom is the origin of pretty much everything in the public consciousness about Cyberpunk that didn’t come from Blade Runner. Emphasis on the “punk”. Max’s world is one of tremendous disparity: there’s a neat, clean, whiz-bang neat-o high-tech future full of 80s hair and shoulder pads and neon for the rich, while everyone else is left scrounging in the world’s many scrap heaps, unable to afford education (now only available via pay-per-view) or sleeves for their leather shirts, or even hair on the right or left sides of their head. They’re represented on the show primarily via “Blank Reg”, played by W. Morgan Sheppard, one of only three actors retained from the original telefilm (The other two are Matt Frewer as Edison/Max and Amanda Pays as Theora Jones, his “controller”, basically a combination of researcher, technical director and line producer). Reg runs the pirate station “Big Time Television”. One of the major differences between the original film and the series is that in the film, Max gets dumped in the trash almost immediately and spends the rest of the movie with Reg — Big Time being designed as an analogue to Channel 4, framing it as a plucky underdog compared to the Big Powerful Corporate Networks. Max and Edison never meet in this version — Max is essentially a side-show to the actual plot, making occasionally-relevant riffs, but not interacting with other characters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the version made for one of the US’s three major networks, Max and Edison become partners, with the network holding their nose and accepting Max’s anti-establishment antics because he brings in the viewers, and besides, the network itself isn’t really bad — they’d totally choose to not-be-evil if it weren’t for their responsibility to the shareholders and the advertisers.

Max Headroom became a cultural phenomenon, appearing in parodies, commercials, music videos. But for my money, the character from Max Headroom that had the most lasting influence wasn’t Max, but the series antagonist Ned Grossberg. Grossberg is basically the archetype for corrupt corporate villains in a science fiction setting. It would be easy enough to say that Ned Grossberg is just a Made-for-TV Gordon Gekko, but as Wall Street didn’t premier until December, 1987, it’s actually the other way around: Gordon Gekko is a Silver-Screen upgrade of Ned Grossberg, down to the slicked-back hair. He’s very much a 1980s-style Bond Villain: I’d even say that the Grossberg/Gekko archetype pretty much is Ernst Stavro Blofield reimagined with ’80s trappings. He’s the sort of guy who’d be mildly offended if you suggested that murdering someone should perhaps not be your first choice for how to deal with, say, being outbid on eBay. We meet him in the first episode pushing this excitingly lethal new advertising method and ordering the murder of his star reporter. He’s ousted from his position as president of Network 23 when this comes to light (In the film version, Edison simply threatens him with violence until he confesses on camera; in the series, Max is able to replay the incriminating evidence from Edison’s memory live on network TV), but returns later in the series to interfere with an election. The election doesn’t go his way, but it’s not clear whether this was his plan all along: he scuttles his own candidate in order to create a power vacuum that lets him take control of Network 66. He turns up again in the last episode to air, “Baby GroBags”, masterminding a plot to, ahem, kidnap newborns with a genetic predisposition toward intelligence to star in a “Baby Geniuses” series. Because Grossberg can just do stuff like that.

Pretty much everyone other than Carter and Theora are flat-out evil in the British version — their Grossberg is more of a thug than a corporate power-player. Bryce, the technical genius who creates Max, proposes the idea because he wants to kill Edison, and thinks the AI could be used to cover his disappearance (Hence Max’s fate for the rest of the movie: when it becomes clear this plan won’t work, they simply ditch him), and he’s sociopathically callous about the lethal side-effects of Blipverts. The American Bryce creates Max in the hopes of saving Carter: he’s trying to read the injured Carter’s memories, as Grossberg would spare the high-rated reporter if it turns out that he hadn’t seen anything too incriminating. Rather than being the brains of the operation, as in the TV movie, he’s more Grossberg’s misguided pawn, who, despite being a bit of an asshole, tends to do the right thing when he’s forced to think about the impact of his actions. The British version is very much “Evil Adric”, the American version, “Douchier Wesley Crusher”. Part of this, I’m sure, is the difference between American and British culture when it comes to humor, satire, and unlikeable characters, but on the other hand, they were shooting for a weekly series. There wasn’t really any way forward for Bryce and Max as recurring villain and comic relief, but there was as Edison’s sidekicks. Correspondingly, you can’t really imagine Edison continuing to work as a hard-hitting reporter for Ned Grossberg, so at the end of Blipverts, he’s voted out of power in favor of Ben Cheviot in a scene which is basically the same as the end of Robocop, only with less defenestration (I’m serious. The end of Robocop is “Robocop exposes the chairman of the board for his supervillany, and the board votes him out in favor of the Old Guy with Old Timey Business Values about doing the right thing instead of murdering the poor for profit, thus releasing Robocop from his contractual obligation to Never Enforce The Law Against a Board Member. So he tosses him out the window”). The “Old Man” represents a kindlier more old-fashioned sort of Robber Baron. He’s still beholden to ratings and advertisers, but you get the feeling that he’s got those Old Timey Values, and that he wants to win by producing a better product, contrasted with Grossberg, who would really prefer to produce no product at all and just obtain ratings from, let’s say, sacrificing orphans to Mammon.

In the context of the meander through 1987 I’ve been taking, we’re somewhere in the month of December. And that means that it’s been a couple of weeks since Max Headroom was cancelled. The last episode to air was “Whackets”, which I remember very well, because it introduced me to the idea of subliminal mind control. The basic outline of the episode is that an execrable game show gains a disturbingly dedicated following, which is eventually traced to a subliminal embed. There’s a particular image that’s stuck in my mind for years, of Bill Maher (Yeah. He’s the guest star in this episode) brainwashing a police officer through a video-watch so he can off him. ABC pulled the series, halting production on several scripted episodes, including one by George RR Martin. The remaining episodes would be dumped the next spring.

If Max was the cultural phenomenon that we all seem to recall him being, what went wrong? I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising. While Max was ostensibly a veejay on Channel 4, stateside he was more known for his New Coke commercials, and, even if the words “New Coke” don’t send you running for the hills, “Let’s adapt this commercial into a TV series,” is not an idea with an exactly sterling track record (cough The Mommies cough Cavemen). And on top of that, the British Max Headroom film came out in 1985. Two years is kind of a long time to milk what is, for all the Eightiesness of it, basically a viral internet meme trying to work out what the words “viral internet meme” mean, since it’s 1987.

But more than that: in what possible reality did anyone think that this show was the ideal vehicle for Max Headroom?  Don’t get me wrong: this is an awesome show. Think about the two parenthetical examples in the last paragraph though: the Geico Cavemen got a sitcom. The Reynolds Wrap Mommies got a sitcom. Max Headroom got an action-thriller-drama. What? People still remember Max Headroom even today. They remember him as a comic character, with his mildly subversive witticisms and snarky commentary and characteristic verbal tics. They do not remember him from a hard-hitting thriller in a dystopian world. Heck, Max Headroom isn’t the star of Max Headroom: Edison is. In fact, if you forget the hype and the marketing and the surrounding cultural context, the capsule summary of Max Headroom should be, “In a corporate-dominated dystopian future, a hard-hitting investigative journalist tries to expose corporate corruption and protect the lower classes from exploitation.” (And the thought occurs to me, he’s probably one of the best journalists in all of speculative fiction. Your Lois Lanes and your Carl Kolchaks and your Sabrina Spellmans and your Sarah Jane Smiths tend to spend more time covering up big stories than actually reporting on them) The fact that he’s got a comedy AI twin brother isn’t what the show is about: it’s the twist — there’s only a handful of episodes where Max’s nature is relevant to the plot, and only, as far as I know, three where it’s specifically relevant that he’s an AI copy of Edison (Blipverts, Neurostim, and Dream Thieves). At the conceptual level, the fact that Edison’s sidekick is a computer based on his own subconscious is something on the level of “But they’re black” or “They fight crime!”

Max Headroom feels almost like a character out of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, but the world he inhabits is reminds me more of Judge Dredd. In fact, aside from the fact that crime is met by police apathy rather than disproportionate force, you could almost convince yourself that the unnamed city (It’s London in the British version, but even there, you’d only know that if you didn’t blink when a map flashes up on a monitor) was Megacity One, and that if Edison ever left its confines, he’d find himself in the Cursed Earth. It’s an awesome show, a mind-blowing show. What in the world is this doing being the backdrop to Max Headroom? It doesn’t make sense for this wisecracking, ’80s pop-culture referencing transhuman Coke mascott to be in this show, and it certainly doesn’t make sense for him to be headlining.

Or does it? If you’ve been paying attention, you probably already know the answer. As I said, Max Headroom is the single most ’80s thing in the entire 1980s. So maybe I should let you in on the subtext for a second: the ’80s were wrong. I love the ’80s, but they were wrong. They didn’t make any sense. We feared corporate power, but at the same time shouted how greed was good. We camped up everything we could get their hands on, but were so incredibly backward about gay rights that they consciously avoided doing anything to curb the spread of AIDS in the hopes it would, as epidemics (never ever) do, limit itself to killing “those people”. We made a left-coast Hollywood-type into the anthropomorphic representation of the abstract concept of conservatism. We were sure the world was going to end any day now and we were cool with that. I mean, come on: we made a post-apocalyptic science fiction series whose central conceit was based around a protracted rape metaphor, for kids. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the ’80s gave us a post-apocalyptic series about library science). So to go back a few paragraphs, “In what possible reality did anyone think that this show was the ideal vehicle for Max Headroom?” Shrug. It was the ’80s. You could do things like that in the ’80s. Things were weird back then. So the real fate of Max Headroom is likely explained better like this: Life imitates art. Max Headroom, like Max Headroom, was put on the air by a massive corporation in spite of its strongly anti-corp leanings on the assumption that it was worth taking one on the nose in exchange for those sweet, delicious ratings. But unlike Max Headroom, Max Headroom may or may not have done well enough to remain afloat all else being equal, but it never provided the ratings it needed to make ABC overlook them talking smack about how evil and corrupt TV networks are.

You know, every once in a while, someone or other will speculate on whether or not it would be possible to reboot Max for the modern day — obviously the ’80s trappings wouldn’t work, but surely the commentary about corporate greed and the decline of television would be just as relevant today — perhaps moreso. But I don’t know. I think that if you changed Max enough that it addressed the concerns of a world that isn’t all wrapped up in its obsession with performativity and artifice, you’d have changed so much that it would no longer make sense to reuse anything identifiable from the original show. It’s absolutely key to the whole point of Max Headroom that Max himself is a creation of the very thing the show is on the whole suspicious of: a fake image for a fake and image-obsessed world. In that sense, Max is a bit of an ’80s Frankenstein (Adam Frankenstein, not Victor. He’s got every right to his dad’s surname, and denying it to him is tacitly allying yourself with the creator who rejected him): a homunculus who rises up to expose and condemn his creators’ moral failings. Max Headroom isn’t something that follows as a logical product of today’s television industry projected “twenty minutes into the future”, so he wouldn’t work on that level today. If you wanted to take that concept and modernize it, you’d probably have to do something about a social media darling who develops a social conscience. Wait. Crap. Did I just explain why Selfie is a 21st century adaptation of Max Headroom?

Besides, no network would pick it up. It’d be cheaper to just make a Reality Show instead.

A coincidental final note. On Max Headroom, Jeffrey Tambor played Murray, Edison’s producer. As I was writing this article Jeffrey Tambor guested on The Colbert Report to talk about his new show, Transparent, which I guess is kinda in my queue, but as I’m still on TV shows from 1987, don’t hold your breath. Tambor plays, going by his description, Wikipedia, and some ads, a woman who, late in life, decides to stop performing the gender she’d been presumptively assigned at birth, and create a new self to present to the world that matches her own perception of herself.

I can’t seem to go more than a few paragraphs talking about how, in the ’80s, we lived our lives as a performance. Pop your collar. Spike your hair. Get a mohawk. Get a mullet. Get yourself a pair of wayfarers. Pad your shoulders. Roll your cuffs. Choose from any of these five colorful Breakfast Club characters to be. And then the ’90s hit and, like a teenager who’d just read The Catcher in the Rye, we declared everyone a bunch of phonies and determined ourselves to get Real and Authentic and Sincere. In the here and now, some twenty-seven years after Jeffrey Tambor played a supporting role in a weird sci-fi drama based around a Coke mascott, I think maybe we’re just starting to get that who you are, the person you present to the world, is always a performance. You can play the role that society tells you to play, or you can play the role that fits. You can create the character you want to be in your story, or you can let the world create it for you. When someone tells you that the role — the identity — that you create for yourself is fake and the one society creates for you is real, be cautious. They’re probably trying to sell you something.

October 6, 2014

The Voice of the Resistance: Would you like to swing on a star? (Out of this World)

(The following article is largely a stream-of-consciousness ramble where I complain like a grumpy old man about what’s wrong with television these days in ways which are occasionally self-contradictory. You have been warned)

It is December 5, 1987. Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth, a song which to my mind is pretty much the iconic piece of late ’80s female pop, unseats (I’ve Had) The Time of my Life in thnumber one spot on the Billboard charts. The rest of the Top 10 consists of Sting, George Michael, Richard Marx, Debbie Gibson, Whitesnake, Whitney Houston, Jody Watley, and REM, who are going to be bumped off next week by George Harrison. Connie Sellica is on the cover of TV Guide, along with a headline asking if it’s reasonable to expect TV news to issue corrections when they get important facts wrong, because it’s still the ’80s, and we haven’t yet decided that the answer is “Nope. Not even if they do it on purpose.” In prime time, there’s a repeat of The Twilight Zone‘s adaptation of “Button, Button”. They change the ending, and I think their ending is a lot better. Richard Matheson disagrees, but what would he know, he’s just the writer. That story is also the basis of the 2009 movie The Box, which mangles the whole thing into an international conspiracy action-thriller.

In the backwoods of syndication, Out of this World has its last episode before the winter break. It’s a show I’ve mentioned before, one of that cluster of late ’80s high-concept sitcoms. I don’t have a huge amount to say about it really, but I am shamelessly padding out a buffer of spare stories to run so that I can pretend I am working to some kind of a schedule for the benefit of the six or seven people who read this blog on a regular basis. I feel like I watched a lot of TV as a child, but I’ll be damned if I can remember much of it. This is kind of doubly strange because I can remember re-encountering a lot of shows from my youth later and being surprised by how little I remembered. I remember remembering that I had forgotten. Meta enough for you?

When I started watching, for instance, Knight Rider reruns on USA around 1995, it quickly became clear to me that I basically remembered nothing at all about that show from my youth other than the fact that it had existed (I very distinctly remember, at 16, being absolutely sure of the details of one particular episode which turned out to be a pastiche of random plot elements and lines of dialogue from “Soul Survivor”, “KITT vs KARR”, “Knight of the Juggernaut”, “Lost Knight”, and “Junkard Dog”). I remember the details of it better now, thirty years after it first aired than I did twenty years ago.

And this little cluster, ALF, Small Wonder, Out of this World and the rest, by 1995, there’s just nothing in my recollection about them, and we’re talking about less than five years here. That’s about the same length of time as I’ve been married. Poking back at one’s childhood memories can be distressing. The memory cheats, as some dead asshole used to say. Much of what you think you remember is fabricated. You forget a lot, but even more than that, you’re a different person now than you were then, and like a botched OS upgrade, not all of the old software is compatible.

I keep bringing up 1995 because 1995 is in one sense where “me” started. Plainly not in the literal, physical sense, of course. But in 1995, I got my driver’s license, and I had proper internet access for the first time and started doing things like posting in online forums like USENET and The Dominion (The once thriving user community for the network now known as SyFy, back when it didn’t suck.) and buying seven year old clearance VHS tapes. This was the first time I really existed — peripherally at this point — in the domain of “grown-up” rather than “child”. The “me” that exists now, the one that pretty much popped into existence on December 12, 2011, is very much a descendant of 1995-me, much more recognizably so than of the “me” that opened his eyes in the living room, in his pajamas, some time very late in 1982 and was suddenly surprised to discover his own existence as a continuous conscious entity with extension in space and time who maintained an identity from one moment to the next, and had no idea what any of that meant, but all the same instantly recognized that something very important had just happened, even if he’d never be able to explain it. The 1995 version of me would be able to explain that, because when the 1995 version of me was four years old, he took a Modernism class.

The thing that led me, eventually, to remember that Out of this World had existed, some time in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and subsequently track down an incomplete set of bootlegs, was its theme song. Out of this World‘s opening theme is an adaptation of “Swinging on a Star”, a song which I most often see credited to Sinatra, but was first recorded by Bing Crosby, though pretty much every major crooner of the era has done a cover. Appropriately, there’s a corresponding level of confusion about who did this cover; I’ve seen it attributed to David Lee Roth and/or Van Halen (probably by people who looked it up, saw who wrote it, but stopped reading at “Van H” before going on to “eusen”), and, unsurprisingly, Sinatra. The show itself isn’t much help here; the only music credit is music director Kevin Kiner, who in the intervening years worked his way up through shows like Super Force and Carnosaur 3 and Walker Texas Ranger, to the point where now he’s a properly renowned soundtrack composer doing stuff like Star Wars: The Clone Wars and CSI: Miami and is way too famous for a guy like me to pester with an email asking him who sang the Bing Crosby cover for a sitcom he worked on twenty-five years ago for the sake of a stream-of-consciousness-y blog post that’s being written largely as filler and purely for the benefit of the tens of readers I get. (But, like, Mr. Kiner, if you happen to be googling yourself one day and see this and remember who it was, feel free to leave a comment).

A few years ago, in some context or other,  I heard Tony Bennet’s cover of “Swinging on a Star”, and was surprised that I didn’t recognize the lyrics: the verses of the song offer cute caricatures of the limitations of various animals, proposed as an alternative to the potential of humanity. The version I remembered, on the other hand, was told from the point of view of some higher form of life, waxing affectionately about the pastoral simplicity of the “plain as can be” humans. The proper song evolved out of an admonition from Bing to one of his children, specifically, “By the way, if you hate to go to school, you may grow up to be a mule”, and ending with the suggestion, “You can be better than you are: you could be swingin’ on a star.” My remembered version instead suggests, “If you take my advice for what it’s worth, you could be happy here on Earth.”  So I did a little poking and managed to sort out the name of this obscure old first-run-syndication sitcom from a year that increasingly strikes me as the nexus of all realities.

First-run syndicated sit-com. There’s a phrase you never hear any more. Heck, “first-run syndication” isn’t a phrase you hear much any more. The nexus of all realities, the fall 1987-spring 1988 broadcast television season, may have been its high point. Bizarre as it may seem now, in 1987, there were something like 245 independent television stations in the United States. I’m talking about television stations which weren’t part of any of the broadcast television networks — not ABC, not NBC, and not CBS. And for the first time, also not FOX: this was the inaugural season for FOX as a prime time television network, and that’s really the reason that first-run syndication would never be as big again as it is here in the nexus.

When I was a child, we were lucky, in that with a fair wind, we could pick up 13 broadcast stations (admittedly, not all at the same time). If the wind was south-southeast, we got the Baltimore channels, WMAR-2 (NBC), WBAL-11 (CBS) and WJZ-13 (ABC) (If you are about to tell me I got the network affiliations wrong, Baltimore did a “network shuffle” in the 90s, with the big three moving over one. This was characterized in the media as hopelessly confusing and possibly a sign that the end times were upon us), along with the unaffiliated channels WKJL-24, WNUV-54 and WBFF-45, as well as the Annapolis PBS station, WMPT-22. If atmospheric conditions were more favorable over central Maryland than over the bay, our channels were WRC-4 (NBC), WJLA-7 (ABC) and WUSA-9 (CBS), with WTTG-5 and WDCA-20 as independents and the DC-area PBS affiliate WETA-26. There was also an independent channel on WFTY-50, but I think we only actually got that one during hurricanes.

It was a wild and free time for a while. WKJL was ostensibly a Christian-themed network, but for a span of a year or two, just before the nexus, they padded out their lineup with a couple of hours of black-and-white reruns: The Twilight Zone, The Honeymooners, and Laurel & Hardy shorts. This was my introduction to all three of them, and one of my fond early childhood memories is reclining with my dad in his bedroom, staring intently at an ancient thirteen-inch TV with the wire coat hanger pinned behind the UHF leads, watching Rod Serling or Jackie Gleason or Oliver Hardy as he drifted off to sleep. By the time the nexus hit, WKJL had been sold to the Home Shopping Network, WBFF and WTTG were owned by Fox, and WDCA and WNUV had developed a loose affiliation with Paramount that would eventually evolve into UPN.

In 1987, it was novel and slightly risible that some Australian upstart would have the uppityness to declare itself a fourth network. Heck, the old timers were still making jokes that challenged the legitimacy of ABC. By the late 90s, there would be UPN and the WB and later the CW, and later still “MyNetworkTV”, which I only know exists because I had to look up channel 50’s callsign, because I joined the TiVoLution back in 2003 and have not watched broadcast TV in about a decade. But in 1987, there were a lot of channels that needed to buy their programs one at a time — and for that matter, there were a fair number of hours in the day when the networks weren’t responsible for local programming.  You had TV shows — successful ones — that weren’t affiliated with one particular network, that didn’t air in every viewing area, that didn’t even air at the same time across the country. Captain Power was one. Star Trek the Next Generation was one. Even weirder, network sitcoms frequently eked out a few declining years in syndication: Silver Spoons, Webster, Too Close for Comfort, WKRP in Cincinatti, Charles in Charge, Punky Brewster and many other shows which you have not heard of but which I fondly remember as… having… existed….

This stopped happening in the ’90s, near as I can tell. The only ones I could find dating later than 1993 were Saved By the Bell – style Teen Comedies. First-run syndication remained the dominant model for sci-fi and fantasy adventure series through the 90s, but that too petered out as cable got bolder and anything worth watching got gobbled up by Sci-Fi and Spike. Even children’s programming, which was pretty much 100% syndication, declined greatly as kid-oriented cable channels became more popular, leaving broadcast to a profitable future showing talk shows and infomercials. These days, first-run syndication is pretty much down to gameshows and the somehow-even-less-good unscripted “reality” shows.

Why did syndicated sitcoms go away? Beyond the general decline of first-run syndication, sitcoms in general have also been in a bit of a slump for years. I think probably Seinfeld and Friends had a lot to do with it. Suddenly, the requirement for a sitcom stopped being “Show about a family, probably in suburban California, with a mouthy kid and an interesting quirk, such as ‘Working Mom/Stay at home dad’, ‘Wealthy and successful African Americans’, ‘Green Card Marriage’, or ‘Alien houseguest with a dong-shaped nose’,” and started being “Let’s hire a well-known performer, preferably a stand-up comedian, with an enjoyable quirk and basically have him play himself.” And that required more of an investment than you could make without network backing. Meanwhile, the visual and storytelling style of TV evolved and merged with that of film, and that called for a more “naturalistic” frame, doing stuff like shooting on film and having big sets and no studio audiences and one camera that moved around with the actors, and that was a problem for sitcoms in two ways: first, the sitcom thrives, even revels in artifice. Sitcoms are fundamentally a construction of cliches, catchphrases, stock setups, stock reveals: they are in a certain sense a kind of comedy ballet. And ballet is many things, but “natural” isn’t any of them. Sitcoms are part of the theatrical heritage of TV that wasn’t inherited by film: the format is an evolution of comedy sketches from variety shows — literally in some cases: The Honeymooners (from The Jackie Gleason Show), Mama’s Family (from The Carol Burnett Show), and even The Simpsons (from The Tracy Ullman Show), and that heritage is a big part of what was jettisoned to make TV work more like film. More to the point, the biggest sell for sitcoms, to broadcasters at least, has always been that they are exceedingly cheap. But you start requiring a big star and film stock and a steadicam and actual writers instead of a Cards Against Humanity deck and an electric card shuffler, and the economics just don’t work out.

Also, as successful as Seinfeld and Friends were, about ten minutes after they ended, we all woke up and realized that they were utterly loathsome shows about utterly loathsome people and could we go back to the mouthy kids (So far as I know — and admittedly, the only sitcom I’ve watched in years is The Big Bang Theory, and even then I mostly just glower at how mean-spirited and unfunny it is between the occasional clever punchline — sitcoms don’t do Mouthy Kids much any more. The majority of them look to follow the Friends model of following a group of childless or infant’d twentysomethings, and even the ones that do have children in them push them to the background in favor of adults-who-act-like-children. Even the “and-a-half-man” seems like he fills a very different role in the show than, say, Wesley Owens or Mike Seaver or Alex P. Keaton) and phallic aliens please.

But let’s get back to business. The high concept of Out of this World is that on her thirteenth birthday, Typical Suburban California Teenager Evie Ethel Garland learns that the reason that she hasn’t seen her father Troy since she was an infant is not, as she’d been told, that he’s a government agent on a deep-cover mission abroad, but rather that he’s an alien from the planet Antareus, who was recalled shortly after she was born to fight and or mediate in a space war. Hijinks ensue. Now that she’s hit menarche, she gets to be let in on the family secret, which comes with a cuboid glass sculpture that lets her summon the voice of Burt Reynolds and the first of several magical alien powers that start out rigorously defined but get sort of vague and lacksidasical as the series progr– you know what? Let me simplify this for you: It’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It just is. Like, half the episode plots are the same.

Sabrina Spellman was a character created in the 1960s for Archie comics. Yes, that Archie. The one who teamed up with The Punisher. She’d already been adapted for TV in the 1970s in the Filmation mildly-animated series Sabrina and the Groovy Ghoulies, which had roughly the same plot as Duckula, but the canonical version of her backstory is the one used by the 1996 ABC sitcom: Sabrina, born to a human mother and a witch father learns on her sixteenth birthday that she, like the aunts who’ve raised her, possesses magical abilities. And a talking cat. It was probably the best work Melissa Joan Hart has ever done (though possibly not as important to the history of children’s television as Clarissa Explains it All, which I’m told is very good, but was on at an inconvenient time slot for me, and probably proved female-led tween comedy was commercially viable, thus creating the universe in which the existence of Miley Cyrus was possible), unless you are a masochist and prefer Melissa and Joey.  The series would follow Sabrina over the course of seven seasons and a network hop as she learned to use her abilities and deal with life’s challenges in both the mortal and supernatural worlds.

Only not really; the one moral lesson of this series turns out to be “Don’t use your supernatural powers for anything ever.” Learning this takes Sabrina approximately one hundred and sixty episodes of spells backfiring, misfiring, having unexpected side-effects, or working to spec but being morally wrong because it impinges on someone’s free will or makes life too easy or undermines the premise of the show. She finally does get it late in the show’s final season, whereupon the moral, realizing the gig is up, promptly changes to “Don’t deny your true nature,” in order that she can continue being wrong for the remaining three episodes as she tries to not use magic to solve her problems.

I was only vaguely aware of Sabrina for most of its run, but some time prior to its last season, I discovered that Soleil Moon Frye had joined the cast and took an interest largely because its mid-morning basic cable rerun was the only show that my TiVo considered worthy of recording during the hour between when I watched the previous night’s The Daily Show and when I got home from my grad school database class. I found the early seasons fairly tedious, but on balance, it was a nice enough show, a bit like Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, but with the reactionary fantasy elements downplayed — there was still that nasty element of “Young Woman has to hide the fact that she is powerful and hypercapable in order to avoid spooking the squares,” that you see in pretty much every show with a magically empowered female protagonist, but it was comparatively downplayed, largely because Sabrina so frequently interacted with other magical characters and because the ensemble cast was predominantly female. Even better: though the cast was predominantly female, the majority of stories weren’t specifically coded as female-narratives — Sabrina’s typical life-challenges were things like learning to drive, getting and holding a job, balancing competing responsibilities, making amends after accidentally injuring Santa Claus, or discovering the magical secret hidden in her family tree; love triangles, make-up and mean girls, while present, didn’t dominate the narrative.

So the areas where I found Sabrina grating weren’t its gender politics, but its hamfisted morality. Sabrina’s driving test is administered by an unfair proctor who orders her to park in a space visibly smaller than her car, so she uses magic to enlarge the space: moral failure, prompting karmic revenge when she immediately crashes her car since she isn’t really qualified to drive it as she doesn’t know how to… violate the basic principles of geometry without using magic. To fully qualify as a witch, Sabrina must determine her “family secret”. Cue a season of her constantly being berated for her stupidity and laziness for not having solved it yet. Except that the family secret can only be revealed by solving a rebus, which is given to her one image at a time, with all the important words left till the very end, meaning that it would be, again, literally impossible to solve it from the clues she has until the very last episode of the arc. The one time she actually does try to take initiative to sort it out herself ahead of time, it turns out that’s cheating too since it counts as using outside help.

And then there’s Harvey. Sabrina’s boyfriend for the first four seasons is written out for half of season five with the explanation that they’d broken up off-screen after he finally learned of her true nature in the fourth season finale. His character arc for the remainder of the series is, roughly, that Harvey now has to be the butt-monkey in order to achieve karmic redemption for the breakup — he’s only ever characterized as having been scared, or shallow, or bigoted or whatever. Never once does anyone suggest that his motivations in the breakup might have had something to do with the realization that his girlfriend had been lying to him for years, occasionally placing him in mortal danger, rewriting his personality to her whims, physically mutilating him, and then erasing his memory to maintain the charade. Because, y’know, that’s no big deal.

Harvey gets the girl in the end, of course he does; that’s TV-law: when a man has paid his dues, he gets the girl, just like Ross Geller and Steve Urkel and a hundred other sitcom protagonists I want to punch. This in itself is saved from being abhorrent by the fact that, aside from the outcome, Harvey doesn’t follow the That Guy archetype: he doesn’t stalk, doesn’t passive-aggressively pursue, doesn’t get turned down time and again but keep persisting. He doesn’t do anything but try to be a genuine friend, and when he does acknowledge his continuing feelings for Sabrina, he leaves rather than become That Guy. But just to complicate things, the show’s morality goes all over the place as it comes to a close: after years of being told, week-after-week, not to use magic to solve her problems, Sabrina decides to give up magic for good, only to learn that her magic is part of who she is and it’s wrong to hide from that. In the series finale, as she prepares to marry this season’s love interest, she predictably runs to magic for a solution to what seems to be an ordinary case of pre-wedding jitters, and finds that the magic stones representing her and her betrothed’s respective souls don’t properly interlock. What follows is a two-parter hammering home the long-standing series moral about how she shouldn’t rely on magic to solve mortal problems and should follow her heart and do the thing she wants to do and not listen to magic rocks, so… She decides to run off with Harvey (whose magic soul rock of course interlocks perfectly with hers, IYKWIM) instead. So… I guess the moral is “Actually, magic rocks know how you really feel and you should yield to their judgment.” Blecch.

But I have now spend most of four thousand words of an article about Out of this World talking about shows that aren’t Out of this World. This article’s gone a bit pear-shaped. The hamfisted moral dimension of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is the area in which the show is most different from Out of this World. Out of this World is very big on silly walks and one-liners, and not so much on the Aesop. Actually, that’s saying too much. OotW is fairly normal for sitcoms of its period about delivering heavy-handed life lessons, usually some variation on “Don’t go jumping to conclusions based on having partially overheard one side of someone else’s conversation (ie. “The moral of every single episode of Three’s Company“),” just not so much on the Space Whale [Space Whale Aesop: A heavyhanded TV show moral which, while abstractly a valid moral lesson, relies so heavily on overtly fantastical elements to establish its moral parameters that the moral point fails to have a clearly applicable analogue to real-world behavior, such as, "Don't eat the larvae of sentient beings or they will get angry and eat your children," "Don't vat-grow an alien-human hybrid in order to have sex with it," "Don't reanimate the dead," or "Don't torture space whales."] side of it. When Evie uses her magic alien powers to win a music competition… She’s allowed to win and reap the rewards. When she stops time to give someone unpleasant their comeuppance, they are come-uppened and the whole thing does not backfire on her for the sin of not just passively accepting the unfairness of the status quo. You’d occasionally have Troy deliver a Full House-style moral to Evie at the end when she called him on the cube for the tag, but as often as not, any moral weight would be undercut by the cultural differences between Antareus and Earth (ie. “The cheap joke where Troy’s advice to Evie would only be applicable in a methane atmosphere.”).

Stopping time is her major power, by the way. And in a diagetic way, not like how Zach Morris could call a time-out to have an aside with the audience. In fact, I probably should have lead with that, because half of you would have known what show I’ve been talking about if I’d started out with “It’s the one about the girl who could stop time.” She gains other abilities as the show goes on, primarily “conjure non-plot-breaking objects out of thin air,” and one time she gave herself a sex-change, but stopping time remains the one people remember. Out of this World was in most respects, a simpler kind of show than Sabrina. Evie had a smaller repertoire of powers, and the alien world, unlike Sabrina’s Other Realm, was only present via Troy’s phone calls. Accordingly, while almost every episode of Sabrina juxtaposed mortal-world teenage struggles and tribulations with Sabrina’s unique difficulties as a supernatural being, Out of this World more often stayed closer to earth, only making a point of Evie’s alien-specific challenges on occasion. Most of the time, the extent to which her alien heritage was relevant to the unfolding of an episode amounted to “At a critical moment, she stops time so that she can discreetly disabuse her mother or uncle of a key misconception before it leads to an awkward social situation.”

Relatedly, while the laugh track disagrees with me here, the actual humor in the show is not hugely situational. I suppose it’s a bit amusing when they freeze-frame an obligatory vase mid-fall, and presumably someone still finds humor in “Fat uncle Beano desires romance despite the fact that he is fat and named ‘Beano’, and we all know people like that do not merit love,” but much more of the comedy comes in the form of, as I said before, one-liners and silly walks. The funnier bits of Out of this World are Evie’s snappy retorts. Sure, they feel very performative: it’s not how real people talk, and real teenagers aren’t that clever. But Maureen Flannigan has surprisingly good comedic timing and delivery for such a young actress. She strikes me as being very much like an ’80s version of Kristen Bell. It doesn’t seem like she’s gotten the prominence her work merits since OotW; her most prominent post-Evie role was as a girlfriend on 7th Heaven.

The “funny walks” are provided by the rest of the cast, primarily Buzz Belmondo as “Buzz”, and later Peter Pitofsky as “Peter” (A lot of Tony Danza-ing in this show. Evie’s mother, Donna, is played by Donna Pescow). They both play these weird cloudcuccolander-types who are just sort of there, not usually integrated into the plot of the episode at all, but just turning up to do a brief physical comedy sketch for no clear reason based around slapstick and pratfalls, structured quite a lot like a Mr. Bean sketch done on the cheap. Buzz is also doing a Funny Foreigner schtick, like Cousin Balki turned up to eleven. I’m struggling to remember if this was a “thing” in late ’80s sitcoms, and I’m coming up blank. Sure, the “wacky neighbor” archetype is one of the most Arch of the Arch Sitcom Tropes, but I’m hard-pressed to think of one so obviously and shamelessly tacked-on as Buzz. It’s almost like he’s actually just visiting from another show that’s taking place down the street or something.

Another thing that’s slightly weird about Out of this World is that all the male characters — every single one of them — is really goofy. Sure, it’s a sitcom, so you expect people to be a bit on the goofy side, but this is 1987, well before the standard “mode” of male characters in comedy became “Mentally handicapped sexually precocious toddler.” You expect some silliness, but also at least one “straight man”, and you expect there to be a “dad”-archetype who sits the kids down at the end of the episode and explains the moral to them while the simulated orchestra plays something sappy — I mean, it’s 1987, Full House has literally just premiered. Instead, our male characters are Buzz, Peter, Uncle Beano (Really, just saying his name should tell you everything you need to know about Uncle Beano), and a character played by veteran western actor Doug McClure (you might remember him from such things as being half of the inspiration for Phil Hartman’s “Troy McClure” character on The Simpsons), who’s called “Kyle Applegate”, but is pretty much just Doug McClure — a veteran western actor whose star has long-since waned, who got himself a vanity job as mayor of a small town out of a desperate need to feel important, despite the fact that he’s dangerously unqualified to govern so much as an ant farm. Did I mention the cast is very very male? There’s a lot of recurring characters of both genders, but Evie and her mother are the only female regulars. That’s not too surprising: Hollywood wasn’t great at creating female characters outside of a few narrowly defined types back then (a fact which is easily proven by noticing that Hollywood isn’t great at it now, despite having gotten consistently better over the past quarter-century), but it’s strange to see it in a show where all the men are goofy, while the women are the more serious characters. I’m not used to seeing women as the moral authorities in a comedy show of this era except in the female-dominated shows. The sitcoms I can recall where a woman is the sole (You had, of course, lots of shows in the “Mom and Dad are both responsible adults” vein, of course) “responsible adult”-type character tend to have between zero and one male regulars. I mean, contrast with Second Chance from a couple of weeks ago, where the idea of a single mother being the “responsible adult” ensuring a teenager’s evolution into an upstanding and moral adult was treated as something that required literal divine intervention to fix. There is never any implication that Kyle, Beano or Buzz are anything even remotely like surrogate fathers for Evie, nor is it ever seriously entertained that she might need one. On the contrary, Evie is consistently more mature and more moral than any character on the show other than her mother.

In all, it’s a weird and funny little show. The ’90s are going to see the face of sitcoms change dramatically, but I think you can see little hints of new trends emerging here: while it still follows a variation on the “classic” sitcom setup, it’s drawing a lot of its humor from “weirdo with a funny schtick” characters, much more than you typically did in an ’80s sitcom. It leaned heavily on “Male characters are hopeless buffoons rather than competent leaders” years before Home Improvement and The Simpsons would elevate that model to be the new standard (The Simpsons, I note, has already premiered by now in its Variety-Show-Sketch form, but at this stage, Homer’s buffoonishness hasn’t become the character’s defining trait yet).

I know I started out promising this would be a pointless ramble, but I think I may yet find a point to get to in all of this, and it’s why I meandered off for half of this article to talk about a different show altogether. If there’s one point I’ve tried to hammer home in this series, at least since I’ve been back from hiatus, it’s that the past is very much a different country, and TV Past is an even more different one. In 1987, DL Wood had an idea for (At least, I assume he did. There’s a weird credit to him as “Based on a format by,” which I have otherwise only ever seen on game shows. I am guessing it means the same thing as “Original concept by”) a show about a cute blonde teenager who inherited weird powers from her non-human father. Nine years later, Nell Scovell came up with more or less the exact same idea. But despite the fact that the two shows have the same brief, a lot of the same episode plots, an a large number of similar characters (Though Sabrina starts out much more venial and ends up much more socially conscious, her temperament and sense of humor are very similar to Evie’s; Harvey’s personality is very close to Evie’s off-and-on boyfriend Chris; and there’s a lot in Zelda and Hilda that can be compared to Donna and Beano, and Salem often fills the same narrative role as Troy), the shows are very different stylistically. Out of this World is a lot more straightforward and a lot less anvilicious about its morality. Sabrina is more — I’m not sure about my word choice here — holistic. All the parts of the show just go together better in Sabrina. Nearly every episode features Sabrina dealing with one issue in her mortal life, and one issue in her secret life, and the meat of the episode is about the interplay between those issues. Even as many of the same events happen in Out of this World, the show is hardly ever about that tension. Sabrina hardly ever feels like we’ve just put the show on hold for three minutes so the audience can enjoy a short slapstick sketch about how those hilarious Europeans take the directions on the bottle too literally and get stuck all day in an infinite lather-rinse-repeat loop, and its plots usually only require the non-humans to act like non-humans.

Hm… All the parts not quite fitting together. Where have we heard that before? When I dove back into the shows of my childhood, it finally became clear to me just how much TV had changed in the late ’90s and early aughts. It’s easy to dismiss older shows as being simply “bad” or “unrealistic” or “cheesy”, but ultimately, they’re just products of a different set of values and expectations. No one goes to see Shakespeare and complains about the iambic pentameter, and 1980s sitcoms are hardly Shakespeare, but the point, I think, still stands. See, for us twenty-first century folks, it seems natural to think of films and television as two peas in a pod. But that’s a modern invention. Film and TV developed during the same time period, but their evolution was largely separate. Both are descended from a common ancestor, the stage, but neither is really derived from the other. Film grew directly out of the “high” theatrical tradition, with its big spectacles and classical storytelling, and larger-than-life actors. Television’s evolution was less direct: TV grew out of radio drama, and radio drama, to a large extent, grew out of the “low” theater: vaudeville. Traveling variety shows. Stand-up. Pantomime. Punch and Judy. Morality plays. These weren’t traditions trying to make a mimetic experience designed to bring about catharsis through the application of spectacle to a situation the audience identifies with. These were traditions based on delivering an audience experience by presenting a new arrangement of familiar tropes and stock characters. Audience engagement was generated not by presenting a character recognizable as real, but through repetition: the “funny foreigner”, the “mouthy kid”, the “sassy black woman”, the “emotionally distant father”, these don’t have to be characters we recognize from real life; it’s enough that we recognize them from the other TV shows we’ve been watching for our entire lives.

But something happened around the turn of the century: the plates shifted and a land bridge opened up between the continents, and the once-separated populations of Filmasia and Televisonica started to interbreed. And in the grim darkness of the ’90s, when we’d culturally turned our backs on the performativeness of the ’80s and obsessed with proving how “genuine” and “sincere” and “authentic” we were, those Method Acting genes of the film world had a clear evolutionary advantage over the catchphrase-spewing artifice of television. The narrative and visual style of film and TV converged: modern TV is basically “Movies in long-format with a smaller budget.”  And yeah. it’s good. I wouldn’t trade the narrative style of CSI for Hill Street Blues, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer for She-Wolf of London. But something was lost. And sometimes I miss it.

Final note: In 2012, Maureen Flannigan teamed up with other former child stars such as Brice Beckham, Josie Davis, and a bunch of people from shows I didn’t watch to speak out against former child-star and born-again-evolution-denying-evangelical-“movie”-star Kirk Cameron’s statements opposing gay rights, under the banner “CCOKC” (Child Celebrities Opposing Kirk Cameron), in a FunnyOrDie sketch which kind of hilariously degenerates into a bunch of former child celebrities making obscene hand gestures, until she accidentally stops time while trying to mime frottage. It is absolutely hilarious, especially if you missed the first title card and couldn’t remember who she was until time stops:

October 2, 2014
September 29, 2014

The Only Choice We’re Given is How Many Megatons (Captain Power: Flame Street)

It is the last two days of November, 1987. Three Men and a Baby and Planes, Trains and Automobiles have recently opened in the theaters. Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes dethrone Billy Idol with (I’ve Had) The Time of my Life from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Dougie Poynter of McFly is born.

HavenFor both of this season’s Science Fiction Events, this is the last week of 1987. Star Trek the Next Generation and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future will be on break until January. Trek opts to go out with “Haven”, a mostly unremarkable episode based around Troi being strongarmed into an arranged marriage, because this is the enlightened 24th century, not the backward, amoral, greedy, pig-fucking twentieth century, and a Starfleet Officer would totally promise his infant daughter in marriage to someone, and she’d be expected to fulfill that obligation decades later when her dad was dead and she was an officer herself, and she’d just go along with it and the only reason they end up not getting hitched after all is just because the guy backs out due to a prophetic vision and decides he would literally (by “literally”, I mean “literally”. This episode’s resolution is that he beams himself over to a plague-infested ship to help care for the survivors) rather contract the space-plague than marry a Season 1 TNG character. Also, technically, this is the best Season 1 performances by Wil Wheaton and Michael Dorn, because they aren’t in this episode.

Captain Power, on the other hand, goes on hiatus with “Flame Street”. It’s the one About The Internet. But, of course, it’s 1987, so saying that it’s “about the internet” is about as accurate as saying Le Voyage dans la Lune is about the Apollo mission. But it’s about cyberspace, and that means, rather tragically, that we are going to have to talk about cyberpunk.

You may have gotten the impression from my posts, particularly since returning from hiatus, that I rather like the 80s. The truth is more complicated than that, and it wasn’t always true anyway. While I think of myself as being squarely “from the ’80s”, My memories of the ’80s are the memories of a small child, and my properly formative years were during the ’90s, so for a lot of the ’90s and a lot of the ’00s, I was working from an internalized very ’90s view of the ’80s which said, Gordon Gecko“The Eighties were terrible. We were always at the brink of nuclear war, no one gave a damn about the damage we were doing to the environment, we idolized wall street bankers who sought to trickle down golden showers on the proles, there was an AIDS crisis going on and the official government position was ‘Ignore it because it’s only killing those people,’ and everyone had mullets. Mullets!”

It’s only with distance, and with the Bush II era to compare it with that I came to appreciate the ’80s. Y’see, the 1980s were a strange mix of optimism and pessimism (while the 1990s were exactly the opposite). As I’ve said many times before, nothing that happened in the 1980s makes a lick of sense except in light of the understanding that everyone was fairly sure we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust any day now. And this understanding had sort of grown up through the ’60s and ’70s after we’d spent the fifties in denial of it, so that by the ’80s, we’d reached the Kubler-Ross stage of acceptance. So on the one hand, yes, there was that nagging belief that any day now, President Reagan would make good on his offhand jokes and start the end of the world. But as we’d all accepted that and come to terms with it, there was a tremendous sense of liberation that came with it. Okay, sure, we were all going to die, but, for good or for ill, that meant we didn’t need to hold back. Go ahead, eat an extra desert. Build a car out of stainless steel. Sell junk bonds. Snort a line of coke. Have anonymous, unprotected, premarital sex. Get a mullet. The world’s going to end well before you’re ever called to account for it.

And then the ’90s came, and the Evil Soviet Empire crumbled, and everyone shouted, “Yay! We’re all going to live,” and then, “Shit. That means I’m going to have to pay the bill, aren’t I?” And we spent the next decade basically trying to prove to anyone who would listen how mature we were now, with our flannel and our angsty music, and recycling, and our only ever liking things “ironically”, and our always having to be subversive and postmodern, and our “not running the economy into the ground much”, which made us feel good about ourselves and how we weren’t all shallow and self-destructive like those ’80s guys.

It all fell apart, of course. We repealed Glass-Stegall, elected George Bush, watched two planes crash into the New York Skyline, and basically got ourselves everything that sucked about the ’80s with none of the hairstyles. (We got iPods too, though, so it wasn’t a total wash).

But the angsty ’90s weren’t the only ’90s, and the ’90s weren’t a wasteland: there was another ’90s where, emboldened by the fact that mankind had collectively sorted out how to avoid nuking itself out of existence, we actually thought maybe we could sort out major problems like pollution and poverty and inequality (This too didn’t last). And you could be all postmodern and subversive, even angsty if you wanted. So too, there was more than one ’80s. Alongside the devil-may-care ’80s of glam and big hair and primary colors, there was another ’80s. An ’80s that saw itself being forced to pay for the sins of the old men who carved up the world back at Yalta. That ’80s was pissed.

It’s kind of strange to be talking about Punk here in 1987. Punk’s real heyday had come and gone by 1987 — its influence lived on in Post-Punk and Pop Punk and Neo-Punk and Emo and.. Well pretty much everything worthwhile about modern music. But as a specific identifiable movement with certain tropes and trappings, Punk is really more of a ’70s phenomenon. But you wouldn’t know that if your memories of the ’80s came primarily from post-apocalyptic children’s shows. There is a pervasive idea through ’80s eschatology that the apocalyptic future will be full of Punk Rockers. Blank RegIf it’s an anarchic dystopia, they’re the bad guys, rapacious street gangs looking to assault and rob more photogenic survivors. If it’s a totalitarian dystopia, they’re more likely to be sympathetic — characters who look scary but turn out to be allies in the cause of bringing down The Man. Punk was, even on its most superficial levels, kind of apocalyptic to begin with, and I imagine that using some of the iconography of Punk in the Mad Max series did quite a lot to make it one of the major indicators of dystopianism in film.

But even as Punk Rock evolved, moved on, and waned in its original form in the real world, it remained a dominant signifier in mass media dystopianism. I think by the late ’80s, Punk had simply been around long enough that the people who made mass market media had finally heard of it and finally thought Middle America would find it “edgy” but not too scary. And Punk was especially dominant in Cyberpunk. Which you’d think was obvious, but it’s not really; the “punk” in Cyberpunk wasn’t originally specifically related to the Punk Rock movement — it was analogous to it, but cyberpunk’s literary trappings are much closer to noir and more heavily influenced by the culture of the far east. More mirrorshades than mohawks. I don’t know if the entanglement between Punk and Cyberpunk was a simple matter of film and TV producers not caring to learn the distinction, or if there was other cross-polination, but by the time Max Headroom got his own series (A series which is surprisingly disjoint from Captain Power; though both had their entire runs in 1987 and 1988, only three episodes of Max Headroom overlap the span of time between the broadcast of Power‘s first and last episodes.), it was pretty standard for the “urban misfit” class in anything cyberpunk to be depicted as very specifically 1970s punk rockers.

Which more or less brings us to “Flame Street”, an episode that, much like “The Ferryman”, is simple and well-structured, and hangs together mostly on important character moments rather than plot. Tech CityCap and company have come to “Tech City”, which is kind of a cross between Tokyo’s Akihabara district and the Kowloon Walled City. Only this is Captain Power, so it’s populated entirely by white people dressed like punk rockers (Seriously, about a quarter of Toronto’s population is of Asian descent. Would it have killed them to cast an Asian actor for this one? Pretty much the one unbreakable trope about 80s cyberpunk is the assumption that folks from the pacific rim were going to be running things, especially anything to do with technology, in the grimdark cyber-future.). It’s enough to make you wonder if they’ve accidentally wandered onto a Max Headroom set. The Captain’s Log entry at the beginning tries to make sense of this place by explaining that Dread allows it to exist because of the technology they provide. It seems like a pretty thin excuse, especially as it’s clear that Overmind’s capabilities are superior to anything in Tech City. Also, Tech City is kind of a dumb name (“Flame Street” is better, but I don’t think the name is actually used for anything in the episode).

Cap and company have come here undercover in order to, ahem, surf the web for information about the Styx phase of Project New Order. One of the big things about the web, of course, is that you have to physically go to it in person. And stick your head in it. They dress as monks and wander through the streets of Tech City, chanting as they try to be discrete in this techno-dystopia. By pretending to be ascetics. Their cunning disguise fails to hide them from the attention of "Zone Boy", who is basically Luther from The Warriors with a mohawk.
Brock JohnsonIt would not be strictly accurate to call Brock Johnson (fabulous name, by the way. I can just imagine Tom Servo going off on a long riff about an actor named Brock Johnson) "convincing" or "compelling" in this role; he's not a realistic depiction of punk, a realistic depiction of addiction, a realistic depiction of sociopathy, or a realistic depiction of humanity, really. But at the same time, his performance is spot-on: the nihilistic punk sociopath is very much a stock character in dystopian fiction, and so is the cyberpunk nonsensical-technobabble-addict, and he's right on-target for those archetypes, modulo the fact that he only uses language you can get away with in a seven-thirty time slot. Unlike a lot of the guest cast in Captain Power, Johnson's long resume is full of things I've actually seen or at least heard of, such as Viper, MANTIS, MacGyver, Seven Days, First Wave, Supernatural, The Listener, and most recently, Pompeii. It appears that he's got something of a natural talent for this kind of stock character, since his filmography reveals that he's most often credited in his TV work as Unnamed Punk, Unnamed Thug or Unnamed Junkie. Except in the one role I actually distinctly remember him from, a guest spot on So Weird where he played a bee that had turned into a gas station attendant (He helps the heroes solve the Traveling Salesman problem. God, I loved that show).
He's a violent sociopath and a junkie, addicted to "Neuro-charge," a suitably cyberpunk pseudo-drug which seems to consist of getting minor brain damage via uploading something unsavory via one's obligatory cyberpunk direct-wired-network-connection-to-the-brain. Which we are meant to believe is an expensive hobby, and not something you can do by, say, jamming a nine volt battery into the hole in your head. I mock because I care -- while this is all very silly and unrealistic, it's still perfectly in keeping with the tradition of cyberpunk, at least on screen (In print too, though to a lesser extent).

Eager for work, Zone Boy agrees to lead them to “Mindsinger”, who they’re seeking in order to access the “cyberweb”, and also because, this being a cyberpunk episode, they have a certain quota of characters with eXtreme!!! 31337 hack3r names which would sound really cool as your AOL screen name, except that it was already taken so you have to be Minds1nger586 instead. Mindsinger is apparently the most 31337 of the 31337, able to hook customers up with, “any sensation you want”. Our heroes are also shocked, shocked when Zone Boy casually drops the fact that Mindsinger is female. Because who could possibly imagine that in the 22nd century a girl would be an expert at computers? Everyone knows that ovaries physically preclude the ability to interact with electronics. Except maybe for piloting a wormhole-traversing shuttle or operating super-powered bio-armor.

Don't get me wrong, kudos where they're due: it's clear that Mindsinger's gender is supposed to be a feminist nod, showing the audience that yes, girls can too enter STEM fields. As long as there's an apocalypse to destroy all existing social constructs.

There's a long tradition in fiction, mass-media fiction in particular, of the desire to portray progressive, enlightened ideals being harshly undermined by a nasty streak of essentialism. Science Fiction and Sitcoms tend to be the worst offenders, and I think it's for a common reason. Sitcom humor trades very heavily -- sometimes exclusively -- on reductive stereotypes: the source of most laughs is either "Watch these people behave in a manner stereotypical of their gender/race/class. Isn't that silly!" or "Watch these people behave in a manner opposed to the stereotype of their gender/race/class. Isn't that unexpected!" These jokes are very often critical of the existing stereotypes (Probably the most popular style of sitcom joke over the last few decades is a variation on "Man behaves in a way stereotypical of Middle America's notions of manliness, and this causes bad things to happen because that view of manliness is toxic"), but they still can't help but reinforce them. The joke is only funny if, at some level, the audience will get on-board with you that there's something inherently wrong with a technolgically-adept woman, or a stay-at-home dad, or an interracial marriage.

Science Fiction too has a long history of trading heavily on reductive stereotypes: with the heavy emphasis on allegory, on high concept, and on worldbuilding, traditional Science Fiction isn't big on characters -- the purpose of a character in science fiction is often to act as an avatar in an exploration of the question "How would the introduction of this high concept into the world affect mankind?" -- so a man in such a story is not simply "a man", but is "Man" in the abstract, and contrariwise, any given woman is liable to be intended as "the avatar of the abstract concept of womanhood": their traits and foibles are not personal quirks, but indicative of the essential character of their respective genders. But although it happens to characters across the gamut of sex and race, it has a greater impact when it's done to a less privileged group: a white man becomes "Abstract avatar of the common human condition among all homosapiens;" a woman becomes "Abstract avatar of humans with ovaries, as distinguished from the normal sort of human," and besides, the tendency to turn "a woman" into "Abstract womanhood" is already common outside of genre fiction to a far greater extent than the same kind of abstraction for men.

If you believe that gender essentialism and feminism are fundamentally incompatible, you're going to have problem with the fact that in shows like this one, they may well show you women who are fully equal matches for the men, but they always always frame it as something exceptional: the remarkable case of an individual who has risen above the constraints of her genitals, or else they frame it as a reconstruction of essentialist stereotypes (that is, a declaration that yes, the stereotypes are true, but the female stereotypes should be the good ones and the male stereotypes the bad ones): the "mama bears" who gain superpowers from protective maternal instincts or valkyries who can dominate men because boobies and because men are barely-sentient troglodytes(You may have a gut reaction of "But that's not misogynistic! If anything, it's misandrist!" That reaction is understandable, but wrong. Historically, "Men are barely-sentient troglodytes who can't be expected to control themselves," is invariably the preamble to "Whereas women are pure and good and must remain unsullied. Therefore the liberty of women must be heavily restricted for their own protection, since it's obviously unreasonable to expect men to control themselves." It's the second most popular historical justification for the oppression of women, coming in just behind "Women are basically an advanced form of livestock," and has been growing in popularity now that you can only rarely get away with referring to women as "Penis houses".)  -- that's basically the problem with Joss Whedon when he's at his worst, and Stephen Moffat when he's at his best. And if you don't believe that gender essentialism and feminism are fundamentally incompatible, you're just wrong. So shut up. (PS: You may well think that this long aside, independent of its merits, is a disproportionate reaction to one throwaway line of dialogue. You are right, but women are so absent in this show that if I want to talk about the problems with this show's gender politics, I have to take what I can get.)

But the reactions from our main characters undermine this more than once as they struggle to believe that a mere woman could possibly have the technological might to deliver what they need.

MindsingerMindsinger (Which would be kind of a femmy name for a dude in such a superficially punk rock dystopia, now that I think of it) has wildly asymmetric hair, wears a sort of pvc cage, and provides access to the ribald pleasures the Cyber Web offers. Cap leases some time in the web from her, along with access to data that leaked out of the minds of Dread soldiers she's sold her services to for "two hundred stads a minute." The basic gist here seems to be that Mindsinger is running a combination cyber-brothel and internet cafe, and Cap is going to go in there to look up Project New Order on Wikipedia. As you would expect, this being cyberpunk, once he starts his "run", any attempt to forcibly disconnect him from the outside would leave him "zero EEG", because that totally makes sense and isn't just ludicrous bullshit to keep the plot running which not only would no one ever design a system to do, but which no one could possibly ever design a system to do (he said, fully expecting to be mocked in 2034 when the RIAA gains the right to DMCA bits of your brain if they catch you thinking about music).

Unfortunately, Zone Boy has “pross”ed the identities of our heroes, and promptly calls Lord Dread from a payphonePayphone, which exists in the post-apocalyptic 22nd century, to rat them out in exchange for some Neuro-Charge. Dread promises an additional unlimited amount of neurocharge if he can prevent Cap from leaving until Blastarr gets there.

Virtual RealityThe Cyber Web is basically a Laser Tag Arena your mind gets sent to via Video Toaster effects, where you can summon Video Toaster-rendered icons to you in order to learn things. Overmind finds it trivial to hack into the web, and just as Cap has found the icon for Styx, Dread shows up to shoot at him. Dread explains that Overmind has increased the sensory feedback such that if Cap dies here, the psychosomatic shock would kill him for real — which is the closest I think I’ve ever heard to a reasonable explanation of how that whole “If you die in the game, you die for real” thing that always accompanies cyberspace plots could possibly work, a full decade before the vaguer “Your mind makes it real” crap from The Matrix. Cap attempts to fight back, but finds himself outclassed because, as Dread explains, Cap’s fundamental unwillingness to take a human life prevents him from using the force of his will to construct an effective weapon against Dread in cyberspace. Which I think is a clever enough explanation, except for the way it overlooks how three episodes ago, Cap reflexively tried to shoot Lord Dread in the face at point-blank range.

Out in reality, the bad guys show up. Hawk and the gang power on and fight them, attempting to hold them off until Cap can be safely removed from cyberspace. Zone Boy holds Mindsinger at gunpoint to prevent her from freeing Cap once she realizes the danger he’s in from Dread. I have no idea why this would be necessary though, since we’ve already established that Cap can’t be freed from the outside without killing him. He justifies his actions on the basis that Lord Dread has promised, so close as I can tell, to lobotomize him: he says he’s being given a “Permanent checkout. One-way ticket to nirvana; no brain, no pain.” Which is beautifully nihilistic. I love the idea that in a world like this, there are “drug” addicts who are looking for a kind of total self-annihilation to escape their lives. I just wish it wasn’t all so vague. Based on how he’s described it, the thing he’s seeking could be delivered much more easily with a power drill and a nine-volt, and he could skip all this nonsense with Bio-Dreads and 31337 hackers and all that noise. The implication seems to be that “neuro-charge” is some kind of digital signal that has to be purchased at great cost, which Dread can manufacture in unlimited amounts, and which can’t be stored and replayed. It’s not out of line with the sort of weirdness you see in cyberpunk, but in context, bits of it undermine bits of the Captain Power story around it, and bits of the Captain Power story undermine the cyberpunk. If Lord Dread can easily hack the cyber web and produce “neuro-charge” at will, it’s hard to imagine what resources Tech City has to offer him (This would be better if we saw more of what goes on in Tech City; as it is, the only things we know about it fall squarely into the domain of what Dread can already do “in house”).

Inside, Dread forces Cap to conjure up an image of the Power Base and demands to know its location. Then, we start to get really dark and complex, especially for a kids’ show, as Dread tries gaslighting Cap, suggesting that he might have already found and destroyed the Power Base, but messed with Cap’s mind so much that he’s forgotten. Dread claims that, using the power of cyberspace, he can make Cap doubt his own sanity, which is a nice and heavy concept, and I just wish they’d been a bit less vague about that, since we’re not left with any sense of what it entails. We know Dread can’t read Cap’s mind, so presumably what he’s talking about is forcing the Captain to live through simulated experiences that torture him into submission, but all we see of it is the scene at the Power Base, where it’s implied that Cap is already close to breaking. Zombie DadDread shows Cap the image of the rest of the gang, their battered bodies dropped limply to the ground by mechs, declaring, “You can not save your friends any more than you could save your father,” and summons up an image of a ghoulish Bruce Grey, looking like he’s been drowned.

This, however, turns out to be a bad move for Dread, as Power rallies. Overmind asserts that Cap’s will is too strong, and suggests Dread get on with the murderin’. A restored Bruce Grey gives a little speech about the indomitably of the human spirit and dictator-shames Dread for his actions. Cap and Dread fight in earnest, using what looks like those retractable sci-fi lances from Andromeda, as Cap asserts his willpower and forces them to be composited over stock footage of the Volcania fly-by and condemns Dread’s vision of a Brave New World. In a callback to “A Fire in the Dark”, Dread pleads that this wasteland is only a transitional phase, and will be justified by the techno-utopia he means to build. Cap counters that no utopia could justify this, and he’s backed up by surprising visitor.

Dread vs DreadThe unmutilated and unmodified image of Lyman Taggart appears unto them to agree with Cap and accuse his counterpart of having given up too much of his humanity. It’s deliberately vague whether this manifestation is generated by Cap, or is a figment of Dread’s conscience. Lord Dread has a go at shooting his former self, but when that doesn’t work, he just does one of those big “No!” shouts and fades away. Cap gets an opening to return to the real world and deck Zone Boy when the rest of the gang creates an EMP pulse that temporarily disables all technology in the immediate area (I think. We actually see that he’s still in cyberspace afterward and kinda wills himself out).

Cap leaves VR

This is what I imagine the Body Debit scene with Zaphod on the Frogstar would have looked like if they’d done a second season of the BBC Hitch-Hiker’s Guide series

As per usual, the team decides to be sporting about it and not cut up Blastarr into a billion pieces and spread them to the four corners of the earth while he’s out cold from a “Total power failure”, instead going to comfort Cap, who’s visibly shaken from his experience. I have no idea why. In principle, I guess it was that whole, “I can make you doubt your very sanity” thing, but in practice, Dread only has the advantage for about a minute; the rest of the time, Cap’s dominating the hell out of him — undermining his very raison d’etre. Hawk Comforts John But Cap shakily tells Hawk that Dread was in the cyberweb, and Hawk instantly jumps to Shipping-levels of comfort, stroking Cap’s shoulder and telling him that it wasn’t real. I suppose he’s referring to the bit where Cap saw the others dead, but Hawk wouldn’t know about that part, so it’s like he’s saying that Dread wasn’t real, which is dumb, because Dread obviously is real, and his influence in the web was real too, even if he wasn’t physically present.

We end on Volcania, where Overmind is berating Dread for letting Cap get away with the Styx information instead of just killing him when he had the chance. A shell-shocked Dread just sort of absently mutters about how Project New Order must succeed. Surprisingly, there’s no ultimate closure on Zone Boy. We can thank our lucky stars for that, since this setup has historically always led to them doing a scene where the traitorous human gets his just deserts by being digitized, and by now you all know how I feel about Retributive Digitization. The way the were setting it up in this episode, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest if at the end Zone Boy had demanded Dread pay the promised neuro-charge, having held up his end of the deal, only for Dread to dispatch him in some suitably unsavory way, like a lethal download or something. Or perhaps they’d have Mindsinger set up some ironic punishment for him, locking him in the cyber-web experiencing some kind of permanent torture. Y’know, for kids. But instead, Zone Boy ends this episode half-conscious on the floor in Mindsinger’s basement. I hope this was on purpose, and they didn’t just cut the scene of his horiffic karmic punishment for time.

It doesn’t feel like a whole lot happens in this episode. If you take out my long digressions on punk, cyberpunk, and gender essentialism, this article isn’t any longer than the one on “Pariah”. And yet, it feels like a really well-paced episode. It comes and goes quickly, leaning on a small number of pretty dense scenes. We do have the obligatory fight scenes, but the one between Cap and Dread actually feels like character catharsis rather than contractual obligation, and the one with the rest of the team is at least split up by the cuts back into cyberspace.

It’s simultaneously trivial and impossible to complain about the cyberpunk elements. Trivial in that pretty much everything technological that happens in this episode is bullshit, but impossible in that it is pretty much the exact same bullshit that any 1980s TV or film interpretation of Cyberpunk was going to fall into: If you die in cyberspace you die for real; the internet is only accessible by going to a secret elite hacker den; there are electronic drugs that can’t be replicated; accessing the internet involves going into a virtual reality world that looks like a laser tag arena; people will have computers that plug into their brains; I’ve seen it all before. In fact, this may be the closest that Captain Power has ever come to actually doing the genre they were shooting for: they aimed for cyberpunk and they hit cyberpunk.

It’s not a perfect fit, though; there are some parts of the plot that seem to be working against each other. Mindsinger kinda forgets which show she’s in and cautions Cap against getting too close to mainframes because of the brain-destroying countermeasures they deploy, which is total “the world is run by supergiant evil corporations” cyberpunk, in a world without supergiant evil corporations, where the “cyberweb” can not possibly extend beyond this one city (and its unlikely direct T3 line to Volcania. I mean, it’s not like it actually makes any sense at all for the “cyber web” to be any kind of inter-system network. It would make more sense for it to be a single isolated system owned and operated by Mindsinger, that holds the information Cap wants because she recorded it off of her other customers. But what would be the point of warning about mainframes, and how did Overmind hack it?) And Dread’s three-stage plan has three stages that actively work against each other: Zone Boy is sent to keep Mindsinger from pulling Cap out when we’ve already established that she can’t, but he at no point tries to actually kill Cap himself; he’s just keeping him from escaping until Blastarr gets there to kill Cap in person — Blastarr is actively trying in the fight scene to draw the rest of the team away so he can go in there and off Power. But meanwhile, Dread can apparently kill Cap any time he likes using Cyber, and just chooses not to because he wants to taunt him instead, which would of course be interrupted if Cap were so impolite as to get murdered.

Bruce GrayBut it more than makes up for these sins with its character moments. Team Power doesn’t get a huge amount of dialogue, but it’s all pointful: their battlefield banter isn’t one-liners this time, but actual strategizing and working together. Under torture, Cap expresses more emotions in this episode than in the entire rest of the series. And much like in “A Fire in the Dark”, we get an intense look at Dread’s inner turmoil: Cap pretty much exposition-bombs us that under all that metal, there’s a part of Dread still capable of seeing that what he’s done and what he’s doing is wrong — yes, he’s a true believer in the glory of The Machine, but he’s not quite sure that the world he’s making is really the utopia of his vision, or whether it’s worth the cost.

Heck, even Bruce Grey is on the stick here. There’s not really anything to Zombie Dad, but when he gives his little speech to Dread about how he can’t kill a dream, he speaks with passion and fury and hope and disdain and pity, and it’s nothing like his performance as Mentor. And he finally gets to use his damned hands. You can tell he’s been dying to do this, and he makes big broad sweeps with his arms for the whole speech and it would be lovely, except that it’s framed so that you can’t actually see his arms, just his excited fingertips bobbing in and out of the corner of the frame.

Captain Power is done for 1987, but this was a good one to go out on. Next time we travel twenty minutes into the future, it’ll be… Less far in the past. See you in 1988.

September 22, 2014

The Voice of the Resistance: Time Keeps On Slippin’ (Second Chance)

It’s November 22 or 23, 1987. Billy Idol’s cover of “Mony Mony” has unseated Tiffany on the Billboard chart. A pirate television signal in Chicago, IL interrupts the local public television station’s broadcast of reruns of a British Science Fiction show I used to like, to show a few minutes of obscenity from a man in a Max Headroom costume. On the other side of the pond, said show turns 24 with the first part of “Dragonfire”, introducing Sophie Aldred as Ace, the last of the classic-series companions. “Hell Week”, my all-time favorite episode of MacGyver, airs. Star Trek the Next Generation airs “Hide and Q”, the first step in the evolution of John DeLancie’s character from “Otherworldly existential threat” to “Picard’s wacky omnipotent uncle”, as he’d describe himself at a con I attended years later. Captain Power airs one of its better episodes, “Wardogs”.

Oh dear. We’ve done that one already. This is one of the dangers of talking about a show that was filmed in one order, written in another, aired in a third and put on DVD in a fourth, especially when you don’t plan the whole thing out ahead of time. Well okay then. You know what we’re going to do? Since it’s Doctor Who‘s birthday, let’s celebrate by hopping back in time a bit, to talk about something kinda weird that’s going on in the next universe over. It could not possibly be more disappointing than Day of the Doctor.

It’s some time near the end of 1979. M, the Eagles, the Commodores, Styx and Rupert Holmes are duking it out in the charts. Ronald Reagan has announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Ayatollah Khomeini takes over Iran and declares the US the “Great Satan”. Robert Guillaume’s character from Soap, Benson DuBois, gets his own show, Benson, following his exploits as the only sane man in the staff of the scatterbrained governor of an unspecified midwestern state that looks like suburban California. Seven seasons will see him rise through the ranks from head of household affairs to state budget director, to lieutenant governor, ending with his bid at the governorship. It’s widely understood that if the series had continued, Benson would lose to his friend and incumbant Gene Gatling, but be appointed to fill an open seat in the Senate, I’m guessing because they wanted to title an episode “Mr. DuBois Goes to Washington.”

We seem to have gone back too far. This isn’t right; I’m only a baby at this point; this just doesn’t work as part of my television history. What are we doing here?

Ah. There it is. Benson is known for his trademark snark, and here in one of the early episodes, he drives home a point by comparing someone unfavorably to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. A handful of years later, between three and five, a little boy in Maryland is going to catch a rerun of this one, and it’s going to be the first time he’s ever heard that name. Let’s see if we can get back on track and hop forward again…

It’s July 29, 2011. LMFAO is in control of the charts with “Party Rock Anthem”. US courts uphold the patentability of DNA. We’re in the thick of a series of uprisings in Africa and the middle east collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring”, and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi dies.

Wait, that’s not right either. It’s too soon for that. What’s going on here? Something is very wrong. History has come off the rails. We seem to be in several places at once. Start again.

It’s September 26, 1987. Whitney Houston tops the charts with “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”. Over the next two days, Captain Power will air “The Abyss”, and then any chance of that promo narrator being right about it being “The Science Fiction Event of the Year” will be cut down when “Encounter at Farpoint” airs.

But it’s also 2011. How can this be? Where are we? I see pearly gates. That ain’t good. We are at the threshhold of the afterlife — a place I always knew I must come to if I was going to talk about Captain Power. But I didn’t expect it so soon. We aren’t in heaven yet, though, nor in hell. Not as above, not so below. No, we’re just in the antechamber. And here is St. Peter. A figure perhaps more comforting to middle America in 1987 than Anubis, but reduced to the same role: he will weigh your heart against a feather, and determine your ultimate fate. A vapid but kind and caring beauty queen steps onto the pedestal. It glows gold she is sent up to paradise. Colonel Gaddafi steps up and the pedestal glows again, red this time. His fate is less pleasant: to live out the final experiences of a suicide bomber every two minutes for the rest of time. St. Peter beckons; it is your turn.

The mind is its own place, Milton said, and can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell. Which is a weirdly observant thing for a Calvinist to say, but there you go. St. Peter has a problem. He doesn’t know what to do with you. His pedestal has turned blue. Somewhere else, in the 1987 around us, the video game console wars are ascendant, and their influence has intruded here as well. A thousand years of subtle nuance and theology went into the western conception of how the worth of a human soul is judged, but here, at the 2011 that exists in the eye of this storm, all that is discarded in favor of a point system: this afterlife may have unambiguously Christian trappings, but they’re only skin-deep: Gaddafi was condemned specifically (and explicitly) for his use of bombs against civilians; his choice of religion doesn’t enter into it. Do good things, acquire Blessing Points, do bad things, acquire Damnation Points. If your BP exceeds your DP, the light turns gold and you go to heaven. If your DP exceeds your BP, the light turns red and you burn.

But the light has turned blue. HP=DP. Does not compute. Abort, Retry, Fail. What is St. Peter to do with us? What does one do in a video game if you reach the end of the level without enough points to achieve a victory condition? Try again.

It is April 9, 2011. The US congress narrowly avoids a government shutdown with a temporary agreement to fund the government for a bit longer. This is pretty much how the country limps along until 2013, when they finally fail to keep the god damned country running for several weeks. Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” is unseated in the charts by Katy Perry’s “ET”. This is pretty much how the country limps along until the middle of May. In a bar in Ellicott City, twenty-several teams are in a tight competition for Trivia Bowl XXVIII. Very few points separate the top-ranked teams, and we’re nearing the end of the game. One question could make or break a team here. The category is television. Give either of the two names of the 1987 show which was Matthew Perry’s first leading role as a regular cast member in a sitcom. I remember. No one else does. The team is awfully good at this game, and those eight points are enough to break the logjam among the top four and ensure that no one can catch us. We take home the trophy.

The answer I gave, because I wasn’t sure of the other one, was Boys Will Be Boys, a bog-standard sitcom about a teenage boy, his mildly delinquent friends, and his family. It was okay, nothing noteworthy, except that Matthew Perry played a guy named “Chazz,” which was a thing that could happen in 1987. It died a merciful death within a year. But Boys Will Be Boys wasn’t where the show started, and it’s not what sucked us back and forth from 1979 to 2011, then back to 1987. Because Boys Will Be Boys was what the show became after a heavy retool. When the show first aired, on September 26, 1987, it wasn’t Boys Will Be Boys, but Second Chance. It was still about a teenage boy and his mildly delinquent friends, but it wasn’t just about that.

2011 seems to be the crux here. We have been to it twice now, but the two are strangely different; April and July are separated by more than the two months they usually get. The premature death of Colonel Gaddafi I can understand; in April, the cards were already on the table. But here in July, there are hovercars, and hover-freeways. And people are impressed by furniture made of wood. John Travolta is on the fifty dollar bill. And business attire is a blue Nehru-inspired polyester suit that wouldn’t look out of place in either Star Trek the Next Generation or Captain Power. With blue slippers.

We are back in July, in the first scene of the first episode of Second Chance, and after sending Miss America and Colonel Gaddafi to their respective fates St. Peter’s next guest is a man who looks a lot like Mitt Romney, who has just died by crashing his hovercar on the Santa Monica Hover-Freeway while wearing a blue Nehru-inspired polyester suit. This is Charles Russell, and he sets off the blue light. Not good enough for heaven, not bad enough for hell. The karmic equivalent, St. Peter explains, of the music of Barry Mantilow.

Charles Russell is therefore transported to Venice, California, September 26, 1987, to become a lodger at the home of his struggling mother, where he can act as a father figure to his own past self, then incomprehensibly using the nickname “Chazz”, in order to steer himself onto a slightly more virtuous course. This mostly takes the form of painfully unfunny jokes like Chazz claiming he “Wouldn’t be caught dead” in a blue polyester Nehru-inspired suit, and President Travolta being on the fifty. Chazz, along with his friends Nerdy Eugene and 50s Greaser “The Booch” (Because it’s the 80s and you can apparently be named “The Booch”) has been driven to petty larceny in an attempt to forestall the pending foreclosure on their home.

Fortunately for Chazz, his older self is the attendant at the convenience store they attempt to rob, and talks them out of it, which is, as I said, fortunate for Chazz, but apparently doesn’t cut it with St. Peter, as he “changed the circumstances” rather than teaching his younger self the difference between right and wrong. This comes as a great disappointment to Charles, who, having spent a day in the 1980s, is now understandably very eager to get on with being dead. So Charles is ordered to remain in 1987 for as long as it takes to teach his younger self to make sound moral decisions.

Which is apparently four months. It is November 28, 1987. Almost back where we started. Where everything went off the rails. Edmondton beats Tortonto in the Grey Cup. Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medly knock Billy Idol out of the top spot on the Hot 100 “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”. Episode 9 of Second Chance airs, and the show goes on hiatus for the Christmas holiday season, which, this being 1987, has the decency not to start until after Thanksgiving. If I’ve got my years right, this is one of my favorite childhood Christmases. But don’t get comfy; we’re not staying.

It is January 16, 1988. We’ve hopped over “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, “Faith”, and “So Emotional” to find George Harrison at the top of the charts with his cover of “Got My Mind Set On You”, a song with a catchy enough tune, but which only had about thirty words in it when James Ray sang it back in 1962, and Harrison leaves one of the verses out. (The missing lines, in case you’re wondering, are “Everywhere I go, you know / Bad luck follows me / Every time I fall in love / I’m left in misery”). All this hopping around in time has broken something. History has changed. Second Chance returns to the air, but things have changed. Now, it’s called Boys Will Be Boys and is about the continuing exploits of Chazz, Eugene and The Booch — with no time traveling dead future-selves.

This is basically the weirdest damned thing I have ever heard of. It’s like if for the second season of The Incredible Hulk, they’d fired Lou Ferrigno and said, “Y’know what? Let’s just make it a drama about David Banner going back to work as a scientist and never mention the period of his life when he occasionally turned green.”

It didn’t save the show. Of course it didn’t. The problem with Second Chance wasn’t its outlandish premise. It was the fact that it wasn’t very good. Matthew Perry is basically just charisma and one-liners, the jokes are predictable and forced, and they decided to include a character called “The Booch”. And for some reason, half the cast have very forced-sounding Brooklyn accents. I can’t tell you with any certainty, because this week I am a time traveler and am dropping anachronism bombs everywhere, whether it was especially bad compared to other sitcoms of the time. It’s clearly trying too hard, but remember, one of the places we are today is 1987, and TV hasn’t adopted the pseudo-naturalistic frame it has in 2014: we expect our sitcoms to be broad caricatures, trading on one-liners and catchphrases: “Did I do that?”; “Of course not, Cousin, don’t be re-dick-a-loose”; “I HEAR you!”; “Don’t have a cow, man”; “Whatchu Talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

What I can tell you is that over the past few years, I have gone back and re-watched big chunks of Benson, One Day at a Time, The Facts of Life, Punky Brewster, Out of this World, The Torkelsons, and a handful of other sitcoms. And they’re all still funny. The first three of those at least have some serious problems that are really grating today: Benson is clearly trading on the joke “He’s black, but he’s more competent than the white people!”; The Facts of Life is clearly trading on the joke, “They’re girls but they think they’re people!”; One Day at a Time keeps playing, “Their landlord is really REALLY rapey” for laughs. But they’re all still properly funny. Out of this World is a little bit harder to watch. Its humor is all one-liners and funny walks. It’s clever enough that it’s still enjoyable, though, and it doesn’t have the same kind of problematic concept at the core of its premise the way those (otherwise better) shows do; yes, it occasionally has elements of gender essentialism, and it’s got a whole tanker truck full of fat-shaming, but it’s much more “This is the way TV works in this imperfect world we live in” and not “The fundamental idea of our show is based around reinforcing an ugly stereotype.”

Second Chance is not as good Out of this World; the jokes aren’t as good, the characters aren’t as good, and like shows that are far its superior, it’s got a baked-in problematic premise: the implication that single mothers don’t cut it and a boy needs a Real True Father Figure, even if it’s his own temporally-displaced ghost-self (Act 2 is basically the characters shouting at the camera that Chazz has been driven to amorality specifically and entirely because his estranged father won’t pay child support). And this show isn’t good enough for me to forgive that. The Facts of Life is funny enough for me to bracket (not overlook) the gender essentialism; Second Chance is not.

They probably shouldn’t have played it for laughs. If you wanted to do a show about a guy sent back in time to put right what once went wrong, who is assisted in his journey by someone only he can see and hear, you probably want to make it a drama. And get Scott Bakula.

It is October 20, 2011. Adele, who had unseated Katy Perry back in May, has returned to the top Billboard position by unseating Maroon 5 with “Someone Like You”. The two have been duking it out since September. In Libya, Colonel Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi dies. Again. In Baltimore, a man who recently helped his friends win a trivia bowl gets the first season of Benson from Netflix. Huh. That’s funny. There’s a reference to Gaddafi. Weird how the more things change, the more they stay the same. I thought this was supposed to be the future. I want my hovercar.

Did I do it, Al? Is history back on the right track?

I think so, Sam. Ziggy’s saying that the Arab Spring happened the right way, and Miss America didn’t die in 2011. On the down-side, it looks like you set flying cars back about twenty years. And for some reason, an episode of Captain Power ended up in the wrong place on the DVD.

All that just by retooling a sitcom? How about Matt? Did his career ever recover?

He made out great. Ziggy says he goes on to star in one of the biggest sitcoms of the ’90s. Oh. That show kept the Nice Guy character archetype alive for another century. Can’t have it all I guess.

It is July 12, 2014. Iggy Azalea is on top of the charts with “Fancy”, a song I don’t like, but I can at least respect the craftsmanship. I’m about three quarters of the way through writing this article. I am almost certainly writing it months in advance since I know chronologically, it falls another four or five articles down and I’m not even finished with The Mirror in Darkness yet, but I wanted to get it written down before I forgot. I pull out my tablet and check NewsBlur. I’m following a handful of blogs that have, like my own Captain Power articles since the hiatus, adopted (ie. “stole”) some stylistic conventions from Philip Sandifer’s Tardis Eruditorium, a blog I no longer follow because something happened in my head and now I find its subject matter sends me into a recursive obsessive bad-head-place. A cat named Frezno has posted to The Nintendo Project Resumed (A successor to Sandifer’s now-defunct Nintendo Project) about Metroid. Crap. He’s doing the whole “Bouncing around to different time zones” thing, and he’s obviously beaten me to it. I’m going to have to write a whole extra paragraph at the end to acknowledge that so that no one thinks I’m ripping him off.

Oh Boy…

September 15, 2014

And you should win prizes for watching (Not quite Captain Power: The Rose of Yesterday)

A brief intermission. Between “The Intruder” and the next episode, there was originally meant to be an episode called “The Rose of Yesterday”. That episode, along with one called “The Room”, were dropped when the episode count was cut during production. What I know about “The Room” is pretty vague; it was to involve Cap passing himself off as a refugee, faking a vague European accent and inappropriately asking his buddy Mark about his sex life before declaring that everyone betray him and that he’s fed up with this world.

“The Rose of Yesterday”, on the other hand, has the following capsule summary: “Lord Dread orders the destruction of all books. The Power team scramble to save all literary artifacts. Tank meets a librarian.” I am SO DISAPPOINTED this one got dropped. I mean, sure, yes, okay, that’s a massive tonal shift from the surrounding episodes. But to have such a straightforward kids’ show plot? I wish we could have one good, solid, traditional kid’s show episode. It would put everything in perspective. Besides, Post-Apocalyptic Library? Holy crap, Captain Power collides with Tomes and Talismans. I can’t even begin to codify how fucking awesome that would be. Mentor doing database searches for the Universal Being? Miss Bookheart explaining to Tank that Melville Dewey invented his decimal system to help people find things in a library? Hawk’s facial expression as he plants his underwear somewhere to attract a horse? Cap asking if biographies are a kind of fiction? Pure unbridled awesome. I would happily trade away “Pariah”, “The Intruder” and “The Mirror in Darkness” for “The Rose of Yesterday”.

And since it doesn’t exist, let’s talk about something else for a while.

So, a while ago, I said that sitcoms with outlandish elements to their premise were a sort of specifically late-80s-early-90s thing. This isn’t so much “true” as “nonsense I came to believe because of confirmation bias”.  As it turns out, late-80s-early-90s is basically just when I was most aware of sitcoms, and thus most likely to notice.

The phenomenon I’m talking about excludes “Situation Comedies in a traditionally Science Fiction setting”, so things like Red Dwarf, Quark, and Homeboys in Outer Space don’t count (Not that I don’t find them fascinating, just a less specifically 80s trope); I’m specifically talking about “Contemporary domestic sitcom whose premise includes one major fantastical element.” As far as I know, the earliest example is 1953’s sitcom adaptation of Topper, which is kinda sorta like a more Eisenhower-era version of Beetlejuice if the Michael Keaton character hadn’t been in it. The seminal early example is probably 1961’s Mr. Ed (Which is the one with the talking horse, which if you aren’t familiar with it, then you are so TV-illiterate that it’s unlikely anything I say in these articles will mean anything to you. I don’t even mean that as an insult; there’s no shame in not having wasted your life learning trivia about the history of TV, but we’re kind of in the deep end of the pool here for someone who isn’t familiar with water), then you’ve got 1963’s My Favorite Martian, where Ray Walston plays the quirky alien houseguest (Think ALF but with Ray Walston with a TV antenna on his head instead of a penis-nosed furry. Also, for the kids out there, a “TV Antenna” is a pair of telescoping wire rods that used to stick up out of the back of televisions.) to Bill Bixby. The 60s also gave us the infamous Jerry Van Dyke vehicle My Mother The Car, about Jerry Van Dyke’s infamous vehicle, and The Smothers Brothers Show, an early vehicle for future-variety-show hosts Tom and Dick Smothers, wherein straight-man Dick struggles to help his deceased brother Tom earn his wings as an angel, The Second Hundred Years, about a 19th century prospector who gets Buck Rogers’d into the 1960s, and My Living Doll, where a psychiatrist struggles to teach a military android to be a “proper” woman, adhering to proper 60s gender roles land being obedient, subservient and submissive to men. So there’s that.

The big seminal ones from the mid-60s, of course, are Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, which are basically the same show only the former is a lot cleverer than the latter, about, respectively, a witch and a djinn who marry ordinary suburban men and have to avoid spooking the squares with their superpowers.

The ’70s gave us The Girl With Something Extra, which was just about ESP and not, as the title would lead you to expect, a shockingly early and misguided attempt to depict transgender people in mass media, Bewitched‘s short-lived spinoff Tabitha, and the ur-example of the 1980s-flavor, Mork and Mindy, which is another show about a Typical American Person who has a permanent houseguest from another planet, the houseguest this time being Robin Williams, [A joke has been deleted here in deference to the recent passing of the troubled but extremely talented comedian]. There was also a short-lived contemporary show about a guardian angel called Out of the Blue.

But the 80s is obviously where my knowledge of TV stops being hearsay and starts being first-hand. So when I was talking about a particular movement in “Sitcoms with Outlandish Elements to their Premise”, I was talking, really, about a particular little cluster of shows:

  • Small Wonder (1985-1989), about a Typical Suburban Family with a robot daughter
  • ALF (1986-1990), about a Typical Suburban Family with an alien houseguest. Who is a cat-eating muppet. Also, the last survivor of a destroyed homeworld. For Laughs! Also, dude’s nose is really phallic. Said family mostly just complains about him, never once expressing any sympathy for his loss, any respect for his dietary requirements, and refusing to even call him by his real name, Kunta Kinte Gordon, instead only ever calling him by his slave name, “Alf”.
  • The Charmings (1987-1988), which I described last time this came up, about Snow White, the prince, their kids, the witch, the magic mirror, and one dwarf moving to suburban 1980s California.
  • They Came From Outer Space (1990-1991): Alien teenagers go on a road trip in California to pick up chicks.
  • Out of this World (1987-1991): About a typical suburban California teenage girl who is half alien and can stop time.
  • Hi Honey, I’m Home (1991-1992): About a typical suburban California family whose next door neighbors are Witness Relocated characters from a 1950s Leave It To Beaver-style sitcom. Who have to use a device called a “Turnerizer” to transform themselves from their natural Black-and-White state.
  • Harry and the Hendersons (1991-1993): Adaptation of the 1987 film about a typical suburban family with a houseguest who is a Sasquatch.
  • Dinosaurs (1991-1994): A traditional sitcom where all the characters are animatronic dinosaurs.
  • Herman’s Head (1991-1994): A work-com told from the point of view of a sort of Greek chorus personifying the title character’s four dominant personality traits.
  • Woops! (1992): About the six survivors of a global thermonuclear accident. For laughs!

There’s another little cluster in the late 90s, with Third Rock from the Sun, Sabrina, Meego, and the like, but after that, I think the balkanization of television started to become an active force against this sort of thing — all the post-2000 examples I can think of aired on The Disney Channel (Speaking of The Disney Channel, one I left off that list as a marginal case: Kids Incorporated (1984-1992): a show about a tween pop band that dealt with things like bullying, graffiti, after-school jobs, aliens, robots, and time travel.), unless you count the Geico Cavemen, about which the less said, the better. Another factor you got, moving into the late 90s, is that shows like The X-Files and later Buffy the Vampire Slayer laid the groundwork for a renaissance of high-concept hour-long action/adventure/drama, and caused a resurgence of what we’d more comfortably call “proper” speculative fiction. By 1999, if you wanted to do a show about Ordinary Teenagers Who Are Also Aliens, you had options other than doing a sitcom about an Ordinary Family in Suburban California With Permanent Houseguests From Alpha Centauri; you could make Roswell instead.

This sort of show fascinates me enough that they’ve stuck in my head for decades despite the fact that most of them were failures and few of them have been rerun since I hit puberty. A big part of the reason is that it’s so rare to see a TV show incorporate Science Fiction or Fantasy elements without becoming just straight-up Sci-Fi/Fantasy. See, only a few years ago, I finally came to understand that “Science Fiction” is not actually a genre (More accurately, there is a “genre” which is properly called “Science Fiction”, but that genre is a subset of the thing we generally refer to as the genre of “Science Fiction”); look at how other genres work: mystery; romance; action; adventure. Those genres work differently than “Science Fiction.” When a story is a “mystery” it is obliged to be about a mystery; there has to be a thing which is unsolved at the beginning, and the story has to follow the process of solving. Mysteries gotta be mysterious; a mystery that isn’t mysterious fails at being mystery. A comedy that isn’t comical fails at being comedy. You can’t make an action show about two people having a quiet discussion over cucumber sandwiches and tea (Which is why my Knight Rider fanfics always ended up sucking). But Science Fiction doesn’t work that way. There is absolutely no level of lack-of-“Science” that will cause a piece of Science Fiction to stop being Science Fiction. Science Fiction is less of a genre and more of a set of tropes and motifs — it’s something more akin to a desktop theme. It sets how the buttons look and what color the UI is, but it doesn’t actually specify what applications you’re running. (Science Fiction is not the only genre that is like this. See also “Western”).  And yet, most of the time, the inclusion of a science fiction element exerts a kind of irresistible marketing gravity that “marks” the whole thing as going on the shelf with Orson Scott Card and Ray Bradbury.

I mean, think about this: the following shows are generally considered “Science Fiction”:

  • Star Trek
  • Quantum Leap
  • Red Dwarf
  • The Twilight Zone
  • First Wave

And these are not:

  • MacGyver
  • The A-Team
  • Monty Python’s Flying Circus
  • Tales from the Darkside
  • The Fugitive

How is it that we can seriously say that Red Dwarf is more similar to Star Trek than it is to Monty Python? Or that two shows which are about men walking the earth to try to avenge the murder of their wives while on the run from the law which has falsely accused them are fundamentally different because in one of them, the real killers are aliens and in the other, the real killer is just a dude with a prosthetic arm? And what do we do with something like Knight Rider? There’s no sensible categorization of shows that makes Knight Rider more like Doctor Who than Airwolf, except that Knight Rider has a talking car.

So I’m very interested in these things which somehow managed to avoid genre-gravity and remain in orbit around “Normal ordinary mainstream non-genre sitcom about a typical suburban family, probably in California” despite having alien houseguests or supernatural creatures, or robots. How did that happen? How did formula-obsessed Hollywood allow it?  And is there something about the period from 1985 to 1992 that made these things more likely to make it to air, or is it just that the ones from earlier are too obscure for my googling to turn up? Why did audiences give four years (Which is, I believe, the legal definition of “A successful run”) to Evie Garland, VICI, and Gordon Schumway? How did The Charmings get a second season, when Captain Power didn’t?

This was all meant to segue into something, but I see now that I’ve just about hit two thousand words, so hold that thought.

September 9, 2014

Gluconeogenesis

Scene: int. Family Room, day. DYLAN and DADDY are playing. DYLAN finishes some candy he had asked for on the pretext that his toy alligator wanted some.

DYLAN: Oh no! I forgot to give some candy to my friend alligator!

DADDY: That’s okay. I know. Since he’s a toy alligator, maybe he’d like pretend candy. Maybe you could make him some candy in your kitchen.

DYLAN: (incredulous) You don’t make candy in a kitchen!

DADDY: Sure you do! Where do you think candy comes from?

DYLAN: (condescending) It comes from the Easter Bunny. On Easter, the Easter Bunny bring it to our house.

DADDY: (laughing) Okay. But where do you think the Easter Bunny gets it?

DYLAN: (as though DADDY is very dim) From his easter basket.