Thoughts on Picard

Spoilers for Picard below.

I was excited as anyone for Picard, a series that served as a sequel to my favorite television series of all time (okay, it’s second to MST3K).

As hopeful as I was for it, I thought Picard was pretty uneven at best and downright bad at its worst.

One thing I realized was that Gene Roddenberry would have *loathed* this show. Not all of Roddenberry’s ideas about the future (e.g., that humanity would have moved beyond grieving) were great, and they certainly weren’t conducive to drama. But I have to say that I’ve quite had my fill of “the Federation isn’t the utopia you think it is” angle since Deep Space Nine introduced it in the ’90s. Every bit of Star Trek media since then has doubled down on this idea, including the reboot films.

I think there’s this sense among some people that the original Star Trek series was birthed in the midst of this period of optimism and big dreams for American society. This probably comes from the space race stuff that was going on at the time. But the show debuted three years after JFK’s assassination, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, at a time when American society was in upheaval. Star Trek offered a chance to see us as our best selves at a time when we weren’t.

I think we need that version of Star Trek again, and we needed the Picard of TNG, the humanist exemplar who represented our best selves. Instead, we got a show where that Picard is mocked, lectured and ridiculed (and sworn at) for those very qualities, and a Federation as incompetent and corrupt as much of our own world’s leaders.

I suspect the producers and writers were concerned today’s audiences would be too cynical to accept the TNG version of Picard, and that he had to be shown as flawed and arrogant and pompous or audiences would never take him or the show seriously. It’s the grimdark take on Star Trek, and it’s not something I’m that interested in.

To be clear, I’m not looking for a fairy tale. I think DS9 did a decent job, for most of its run, with wrestling with the ideas of utopia and its potential problems without dismissing the concept entirely. But similar to what happened to superhero comics in the ’80s and ’90s after Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, the later Star Trek creators became obsessed with the idea of the Federation being flawed. Maybe this is a reflection of American anxieties for the last thirty years, or maybe it’s the libertarianism that has historically run through so much American sci-fi asserting itself over Roddenberry’s utopianism, I don’t know. But I hope the next season of Picard can get back to some of the more hopeful views of our future. I’ve had enough of the post-apocalypse.

And on a less philosophical note, the show was just badly written at times. There were unbelievable coincidences, completely superfluous characters and subplots, and many unearned moments of pathos. It just needs better writing (and to be clear, bringing in Ronald D. Moore is not the answer).

One final note: the whole ludicrous rift-in-space-with-robotic-tentacles was such a ripoff of both the first Hellboy movie and the Mass Effect games that I can’t help but think it was intentional.

A Special Christmas Review: “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”

Original Air Date: December 8, 1974

Wikipedia Page

Synopsis: A sentient teenaged mouse named Albert sends an insulting letter to Santa Claus, causing Santa to spurn the entire town of Junctionville (sentient mice and humans alike). A clockmaker named Joshua Trundel concocts a scheme to build a big clock tower that will play a treacly Christmas song on Christmas Eve to placate St. Nick. The mayor not only signs on to this huge construction project but (presumably) spends a fortune in taxpayer money to get it built within weeks. Albert then breaks the damned clock, but fixes it in time for Santa’s arrival. Santa, pleased by this idolatry, rewards the townspeople with consumer goods they could have bought themselves for about 1% of the cost of building the clock tower. (more…)

Hallowed out

As I hinted at in my first October post, I’m just not feeling the Halloween love this year. Maybe I burned out last year and need a year to recuperate. I’ll keep the Halloween theme, of course, but I’m afraid you’re not going to get daily postings. However, I’m hoping I can manage to pull together something for Christmas.

I had debated whether to post this next tidbit. But for anyone who’s curious, I participated in a faculty reading on Tuesday night at the college I work at, and they put the video up on their website (Quicktime MOV). I’m about half-way in. I appear to have been going for the land-speed record for reading a short story out loud, and I forgot to add, y’know, emotion. So you could say I’m not pleased with my performance. But I suppose it’s all a learning experience–next time will be better.

DG and I have finally started watching Heroes. And it’s great. I don’t want to discuss it here, though, until I’ve caught up.

“I can’t believe…” (puts on sunglasses) “…I’m watching CSI Miami.”

Sunglasses of Justice

It all started with The Soup, the most recent iteration of E!’s Talk Soup. For those who have never seen it, The Soup is a half-hour show that makes fun of everything that happened on television and pop culture that week. Host Joel McHale pokes fun at clips from reality shows, “news” shows like The Insider, and other random TV-related junk.

One of McHale’s favorite gags is to show the latest cold open from CSI: Miami where Horatio Caine, played by David Caruso, inevitably gets off some awkward one-liner right before cutting to Roger Daltrey’s famous scream from “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” McHale often then does an impression of Caruso, including putting on a pair of glasses before cutting to the scream. This never fails to crack me up. (To see a never-ending compilation of Caruso’s cold open one-liners, click here.)

I remember catching an episode of CSI: Miami during the first season and just being bewildered by Caruso’s odd, affected performance. His Horation Caine speaks in slow, measured tones at all times, whether he’s interrogating a suspect or ordering lunch. He talks like he’s explaining something to a four-year-old, and half the time he doesn’t face the person he’s speaking to. It’s one of those performances that is so idiosyncratic that it both works and it’s laughably easy to parody. It’s like a new William Shatner! (Incidentally, I think Caruso would have been perfect for the title role of Constantine. Of course, anyone would have been better than Keanu “Blank Stare” Reeves.)

I tried to watch the original CSI for a while a couple years back, but I never really got into it. Too little characterization, too much suggestion that any and all deviation from a “normal” lifestyle will get you murdered and tossed unceremoniously in a dumpster.

Anyway, after being amused by McHale’s Caruso impression numerous times, I started watching episodes of the show when I caught them on A&E. And lo and behold, I got hooked.

Most of it is due to Caruso’s wacky performance, I’ll admit. The rest of the cast are okay–I like Emily Procter–but Caruso sells that show. It also has a lot more action and characterization that CSI Vegas, and so it seems I’ve found a new show to tape repeats of on the DVR. That’s right–I’m still behind on Battlestar Galactica, I’ve never watched Lost or The Office, but I’m going to watch reruns of CSI: Miami.

On another note, I mentioned a while back that a pitch I’d made to a fairly major magazine had been accepted. Well, the article’s been turned in and should run in the magazine’s September issue. I’ll provide more details once everything has been finalized, but the hard part is over.

Top Ten Cartoons of All Time…EVER.

Since my Saturday morning cartoons post proved so popular, I decided to go ahead and compile a list of my top ten cartoons of all time. This list is unrestrained by timeslot or, I should mention, relative quality. I make no claim as to this list representing what I think are the best cartoons ever made. That list would be quite different. Today’s list is about the cartoons that have made a significant impact on me or my life at some point.

Anyone who knows me at all no doubt can guess #1 right now, but we’re going to start at number ten.

Top Five Saturday Morning Cartoons

I’ve often declared my life’s goal to make every day feel like Saturday morning. If there’s anything that makes me regret the linear direction of space-time and ache for the past as all mortals do, it’s that I can never truly recapture what it feels like to be a young kid on a Saturday morning.

Growing up in the 1980s following the FCC’s deregulation of children’s programming, Saturday morning offered a bevy of options for the child who, having woken at six a.m. to enjoy as much of his school-free day as possible, would down three bowls of sugar-loaded cereal while watching colorful talking animals and consequence-free cartoon violence. True, many of the shows were little more than half-hour advertisements for toys (or candy, or Mr. T). Others were genuinely entertaining. But what Saturday morning cartoons really offered children was a time when television catered just to them. No boring adult dramas or shows they weren’t allowed to watch. Saturday morning TV belonged to kids.

Veronica Mars – “Spit and Eggs”

I’m only about a week behind on this, but the first story arc of the third season of Veronica Mars wrapped up last week, ending the story of the Hearst College rapist in a twist was a bit too much like Scream.

For those who have never heard of Veronica Mars, it’s probably my favorite show on television right now (yes, even more than Battlestar Galactica, which is a better show but not quite as fun). The show stars Kristen Bell as the eponymous hero, who in the first season of the show is a junior in college attempting to solve the murder of her best friend while dealing with her new status as a social outcast among the rich jerks of her southern California high school. Her gumshoe tendencies come from her private investigator father, Keith, played to perfection by Enrico Colantoni (Elliot the photographer from Just Shoot Me).

It’s now the third season and Veronica is a freshman at the fictional Hearst College, meaning we’ve got a at least four seasons before Veronica Mars becomes just another show about a private investigator. The writers have taken the intriguing approach of skipping one major story arc in favour of three smaller arcs over the course of the season. I suspect this was at least partially to make the show more accessible to new viewers, with three separate jumping-on points at the beginning of each arc. The show’s on break right now and returns in January, so if you’re one of those people who’s able to watch a show without going back and watching the earlier seasons on DVD (sadly, I’m not), then this would be a great time to hop on the Veronica bandwagon.

The Amazing Screw-On Head

The Amazing Screw-On Head was a one-shot comic book by Mike Mignola. Published in 2002, it went on to win an Eisner award for Best Humor Publication. Mignola’s idea with Screw-On Head was that his Hellboy stories never quite turned out as bizarre and weird on paper as they did in his head. ASOH was his attempt to depict a Mignola story in its purest, unadultered form.

Sunday night cartoons

Last night was quite a night for new Fox cartoons–we got a new Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad. I remarked to DG that I’m beginning to come around to liking Simpsons a bit more than Family Guy again, if only because Seth MacFarlane &. Co. have become a bit too dependent on cutaways and pop culture references.

I never quite understood the difference that loading up a show with pop culture references made until recently, when I was reading about Spongebob Squarepants and how that show’s appeal to both children and adults lies in its simple (if bizarre) storylines that rely on situation, story, and character for laughs, rather than obvious satire or references to William Shatner singing “Rocket Man.” A show like Fairly Odd Parents, on the other hand, relies heavily on pop culture jokes.

And that’s largely the difference between The Simpsons and Family Guy, though The Simpsons has certainly spread its share of pop culture references over the years. However, even after more than ten years of syndication, The Simpsons isn’t at all dated, whereas the clock is already ticking on the first season or two of Family Guy. Fifty years from now, scholars will be examining The Simpsons to find out about the beliefs and values of 1990s and early twenty-first century America, while Family Guy will probably be fairly oblique to all but the most specialized academics.

That said, the most memorable bit I saw last night was during Family Guy, when Herbert—the elderly pedophile who’s always after Chris—challenges a haunted tree (long story) and battles it in Lord of the Rings-fashion. The best moment is when Herbert is falling down the chasm and grabs his walker in mid-air, just like Gandalf plucking his sword during the beginning of The Two Towers. That’s the sort of thing that keeps me watching the show. And as DG pointed out, the Family Guy skit that got me to laugh the hardest wasn’t a pop culture reference (the “barf-o-rama” in the episode “8 Simple Rules for Buying My Teenage Daughter”). In terms of getting me to laugh out loud, Family Guy is definitely the winner.

One thing that’s surprised me is how American Dad has improved from its first season. Initially I didn’t find it funny at all. In the first few episodes, it was clearly an outlet for MacFarlane’s rage against both the political and cultural conservatism of the country, and that sort of satire just wasn’t working. That’s been toned down in recent episodes and the writers have been letting the characters grow a bit, even throwing in a few good gags here and there. It’s not nearly as reliant upon pop cultural references as Family Guy (perhaps a conscious decision on the producers’ part), which I think helps distinguish it from that show. Oddly, American Dad is more of a show about family function and dysfunction than Family Guy.

Of course, I have to wonder how long Fox will allow three cartoon shows to dominate its Sunday night programming block. All I do know is that DG and I always find something else to do from 8:30-9. Maybe they should bring back Futurama

Speaking of American Dad and Family Guy, this is pretty fun.

Where no one has blogged before

Lately I’ve been watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation on G4. Why a channel ostensibly devoted to videogames is running three hours of Star Trek each weeknight is beyond me, but I’ll take it.

Watching the show has reminded me just how much of a Star Trek fan (aka geek) I was as a kid. I never watched the original show, but my father was a huge fan of it, so when TNG came around, he got me watching it. And thus was born an adolescent love that lasted for many years.

I watched the show pretty religiously until around the sixth season, when my burgeoning social life in elementary and high school drew my interests in other directions. But from 1988 to 1992, I was really into Star Trek. This was expressed primarily in my reading many of the tie-in novels, especially those written by Peter David. (If I ever make it as a writer, I’ll owe a debt to David’s Star Trek novels.) I also played Star Trek during recess with a childhood friend, Chris, who vaguely resembled a blond Spock and was given to using two taped-together batteries as a phaser. I was usually the commanding officer (I continually promoted myself over time until I became the “Starfleet Commander”) whereas Chris was always my second banana. While I was always fighting some enemy ship or setting the self-destruct on our own vessel, Chris was happy to pretend we were on an alien planet examining some exotic life-form. The most amusing thing I recall from those days (if anything can be more amusing than the entire situation) was that my “character” eventually developed the ability to morph into the Alien (from the Alien movies) at will, much like the Incredible Hulk.

Eventually, Chris moved away and I lost interest in Star Trek, though I did catch the last episode of TNG, and I always made sure to see the films when they came out.

As a kid, I enjoyed a lot of the more superficial aspects of ST:TNG: the starships, the weird aliens, the Borg, Data, and whatnot. But watching it now—especially in the current political environment—I’m drawn in by how incredibly optimistic the show is. Everyone on the show is so understanding, so respectful of one another. There’s not much shouting and hardly any conflict among the main characters. Realistic? Hard to say. Four centuries is a long time to try and get it right. But realistic or not, it’s certainly optimistic.

TNG took a lot of flack for its optimism in later years. Ronald D. Moore, the man behind the revamped Battlestar Galactica, cut his teeth on the various Star Trek shows, and judging from BSG, I have to wonder whether he felt smothered by the feel-good nature of TNG. Certainly when he got his hands on Deep Space Nine he set to work darkening the tone and creating conflict among the characters.

I’ve long stated that American pop culture seems to have a nostalgia cycle of about twenty years, and if that’s true, TNG nostalgia should be coming up pretty soon. And watching the reruns on G4, I think it might happen. That optimism is immensely refreshing, and a stark contrast to BSG, which tends to augment our cultural anxiety through its paranoid and depressing storylines. More than any other Star Trek series (including the original), TNG emphasized the potential of the human species to grow and evolve, to move beyond our petty conflicts and respect one another. It was about exploration of both the galaxy and—to use a hoary expression—the human condition.

It’s interesting that TNG aired just before the boom of the mid-to-late nineties. Then, during the boom, the other Star Trek shows—Deep Space Nine in particular—became darker and more action-oriented. Like TNG, they were just slightly ahead of the cultural milieu.

Given the near-self-destruction of the Star Wars franchise, I think Star Trek has the potential for a good nostalgic boost and renewed cultural cache. It’s a great time to rediscover the show; it’s been out of the public eye for some time, and the recent films have been box office failures with storylines that were quite different in style and tone than the television series anyway. Yes, TNG is a bit stiff at times—fans of the original series sometimes referred to it as a “talk show in space”—but the ideas are still interesting and the characters are like old, familiar friends.

My father was a very big fan of the original series, and to this day it’s a little weird for me to watch it because he picked up so many of Shatner’s mannerisms (no, not the odd speech patterns—mostly facial expressions, particularly the wry humorous ones). While I don’t seem to have picked up any of Captain Picard’s mannerisms (unfortunately, mine seem to have come entirely from a youthful fondness for the early work of Jim Carrey), I certainly looked up the man, and would happily share a drink with him any day—no doubt a stiff, British drink (despite his ostensible French heritage), followed by slightly awkward conversation and eventually an unspoken, respectful, but obvious dismissal from the good captain, who has determined I am an odd fellow and would probably have ended up in the blue uniform instead of red.

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