Posts Tagged ‘Television’

The Thinker

Thoughts on Downton Abbey

It’s been forty years since the long running British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs first débuted here in the USA on a rather new and largely unwatched network called PBS. Upstairs, Downstairs would do much to reverse PBS’s image, for it was a classy show with each episode feeling like a movie. For most of us Americans, the series was also a revelation in British culture, with lords and ladies living privileged and opulent lives while a working class of servants obsessively catered to their every need. Like Upstairs, Downstairs the British ITC series Downton Abbey also immerses the viewer in the world of English social class on a large Yorkshire estate in Edwardian England. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, it is a hard series not to like.

Beginning on the Downton Abbey estate shortly after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, this series traces the life of the fictional Lord Grantham, his wife, his three daughters, his cranky mother the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and a crew of servants. Lord Grantham is of course just a title. His real name is Robert Crawley. With his well moneyed American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) who provides the wealth to run the estate and their three daughters Mary, Edith and Sybil, Lord Grantham gets to live the surreal life of an English gentleman. You could not really count yourself a gentleman unless you were so filthy rich that you had nothing to do. It’s a world entirely of leisure and luxury and features being obsessively fussed over a devoted staff managed by the butler Charlie Carson (Jim Carter).

Late to the series as always, I have been playing catch up and have almost finished the first season, consisting of just seven episodes. At first it is hard to understand the appeal of the series. It doesn’t take much viewing though before you realize what the series really is: a fancy and elaborately staged soap opera. Because it deals with earls and ladies, buttoned down people, starched collars and fox hunts it is easy to forget that there is little substance to this series, other than to revel in its characters and the tensions between them. It looks way too fancy to be a soap opera, but that is its essence.

If life is a stage as Shakespeare wrote, Downton Abbey makes a great stage for character actors to strut their stuff. The real world does intrude from time to time on Downton Abbey, but mostly Downton Abbey exists to keep its family isolated from the real world, including that of its servants. It’s a world where your family dinner demands formal dress every night, where invitations arrive by mail on proper stationery and where gentlemen callers flirt politely with Lord Grantham’s daughters. Everyone has a role to play and no one more so than Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). It’s a world where people have jobs that seem surreal and unnecessary. What exactly does a footman do? There is no equivalent here in the United States, but a footman’s job seems to be to keep his gentleman from ever having to lift his finger. It’s a world of suits, white gloves, stovepipe hats, gourmet dining and so much leisure that the Dowager Countess cannot tell weekdays from weekends.

The most interesting parts of Downton Abbey thus are mostly found in the kitchen, the back stoop where the staff smoke cigarettes and in the austere servants’ quarters. It too is a strange hierarchy, overseen by butler Charley Carson and Housekeeper Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and it too has its own strict peculiar social order. Footmen obsess over becoming valet someday, the valet hopes for butler, or even assistant butler. Housemaids aspire to be head housemaid and even an assistant cook someday aspires to be cook. It seems surreal, pointless and ultimately without value, but this is a world that Lord Grantham feels entirely devoted to preserving. To the extent that he works it is to make sure that Downton Abbey always has future generations of Crawleys to be obsessively catered to by an omnipresent staff.

In short, if you are a Lord or a Lady, Downton Abbey is kind of like heaven on earth except there is not much to do. You have staff to do the heavy lifting. They make sure the food is always great, the bed sheets are replaced every day, the fireplaces are well stoked, the chandeliers are immaculately dusted and you only have to lift a hand to have a footman refill your glass with wine.

And yet there is a price. The staff is stiff and surreal, at least until they are behind closed doors when the backbiting can begin in earnest. Lady Mary, the Earl’s eldest daughter, feels trapped in her comfortable web, doesn’t quite want to be there, but doesn’t know what else to do and sure doesn’t want some distant cousin who actually works for a living to inherit the estate. It’s a world where ladies must always be beautiful, chaste and well-mannered. It’s a world where a lady is not allowed to succumb to the charms of a roguish Turkish ambassador, but finds herself human enough to do so anyhow. It means being resentful when Lord Grantham’s army friend is appointed valet to the position long aspired to by one of the footmen.

Ultimately, interest in Downton Abbey is sustained purely from these tensions and conflicts, and it makes for a surprisingly entertaining time for us to observe it all. It is a fun show to watch, but also is an eye opening perspective to a period largely in our past. Living a lavish life made possible through unearned wealth seems so vapid and meaningless. Titles, dowries and inheritances ultimately sap a society of its creative energy. It’s not surprising then that at the end of World War II that Great Britain was bankrupt and its empire destroyed. It happened in part because families like the Crawleys were wasting their lives in unproductive pursuits upholding customs that deserved to die centuries earlier. In places like America this talent would be unleashed for more useful purposes.

 
The Thinker

Sherlock: The reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes

Perhaps Sherlock Holmes was part vampire. It seems that no matter what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did to get rid of him, the public demanded more Sherlock Holmes. So, following a tradition that would be repeated in movies and TV shows too numerous to mention, Sir Arthur was forced to reincarnate him, or at least explain why his certain death at Reichenbach Falls was not quite what it appeared. He had to keep inventing more stories of his famous detective to pay the bills and satisfy his fans, even though he was bored to tears with his character. Even turning him into an opium addict would not cool his readers’ ardor for Holmes.

Sir Arthur eventually met his maker but Holmes proved immortal. Sherlock Holmes books never go out of print. Most of his stories have been made into TV shows; many have been reprised in plays. There is probably no more frequently recurring character in the movies. Most fans would agree that no actor did a more memorable job of portraying Holmes than the late Jeremy Brett, who along with Edward Hardwicke (who sadly died last month) as his sidekick Dr. Watson acted in various BBC Sherlock Holmes series produced between 1984 and 1994. Real aficionados require a complete set of DVDs to enjoy over and over again.

No, you can’t kill Sherlock Holmes, just like you can’t seem to kill a vampire or Star Trek. You can’t kill their reincarnations either. Still, it’s getting harder and more expensive to do period Sherlock Holmes movies. Recreating a late 19th century London is expensive. So perhaps with the death of Edward Hardwicke the timing was right to reimagine Sherlock Holmes cast in modern times instead of the 19th century.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

That’s the premise behind Sherlock, a slim Sherlock Holmes series from the BBC now on its second season which is, in a word, terrific. Its limited availability here across the pond is probably inhibiting more widespread knowledge, as is its very limited “season” (three episodes each in 2010 and 2011). An actor with a name every bit as peculiar as Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, gets to create a modern day Sherlock Holmes at the same address of 221B Baker Street, with the same side kick Dr. Watson and the same landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs). It’s just that it all takes place about a hundred or so years later. This reincarnation and modernization of Sherlock Holmes is strangely and unusually compelling and is in many ways better than the series featuring Jeremy Brett. Freed from its 19th century constraints, and a fifty-something version of Holmes (Cumberbatch is 34) we get a much more fun and in many ways more interesting interpretation of Sherlock Holmes.

And strangely, it all works so very well. Lord of the Rings fans quickly forgave Peter Jackson for casting Frodo with an actor thirty years younger than the character in the books. You will quickly forgive creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for casting Cumberbatch as a younger version of Holmes, putting him in the modern day, and for removing his pipe (although he does wear three nicotine patches to get a similar high). Still, I do see similarities with the last BBC series. Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Holmes is about thirty percent Jeremy Brett. There are times when watching him act that you see a younger Jeremy Brett. Like Brett’s interpretation of Holmes, this is not a detective who can stay for long in a stuffed chair. He is like a panther, constantly in motion, his mind always racing ahead of the rest of us. And he is completely comfortable with technology, with his smartphone ready at hand.

All the characters you have come to know and love are generally around, including his gifted brother Mycroft (who shows up in the first episode) and even the evil Moriarity (who shows up early, in episode three), but also Inspector LeStrade (Rupert Graves). Mrs. Hudson is a whole lot more fun than the dowdy lady who is usually portrayed as well. Perhaps the most welcome change in this recasting is with Dr. Watson, now a fully fleshed out human being played by Martin Freeman. This Dr. Watson is a war veteran too, but of the Afghan war, and navigates through London’s infamous fogs in a mental fog of his own. He’s not quite the starry-eyed intellectual lightweight that Sir Arthur portrays him, but a guy with issues whose life almost through happenstance gets wrapped around Sherlock Holmes. Holmes brings him some measure of the crazy excitement he found in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, this is principally a series about Sherlock Holmes and fans should not be the least bit disappointed by Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the detective. It is every bit as good as Jeremy Brett’s but still distinctive and in many ways much more fun. Holmes’s sexual identity was always suspect. Cumberbatch portrays a Holmes more asexual than sexual; it’s just way down on his list of priorities. Besides, it seems there is no woman out there who can begin to keep up with him. When he is on a case minor matters like eating and sleeping simply recede.

If you have cable TV, there is a good chance you have BBC America as well. If so, check its schedule carefully so you can sample the series. Or throw caution to the wind and order its slim set of DVDs. Even if they can only produce less than a handful of new episodes per season, you will find them worth the wait. Sherlock transcends mere television. Whatever this reincarnation is, it is really, really good. If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t drag yourself out of Edwardian England and enjoy this contemporary version.

 
The Thinker

Review: Horatio Hornblower, Collectors Edition

When like me you don’t watch much TV, you don’t have to be worried about being sucked into the latest TV miniseries. I knew about the Horatio Hornblower miniseries, but because I don’t watch TV I had only caught part of one episode on TV when it originally aired, and that only was because my sister told me about it. It was much more convenient for me, more than a decade after the first episode aired, to sit down and watch all eight episodes in a row over a few days while I convalesced.

Like with most miniseries, there is a mental disconnect between what you read in the books and the miniseries. My mental imagining of Horatio Hornblower was little like Ioan Gruffudd’s portrayal. Director Andrew Grieve’s version of the famous fictional 19th century British naval captain took some getting used to, but overall I very much liked it.

If there is a problem with the miniseries, it is that it covers the least interesting parts of the novels: Hornblower’s career starting as a midshipman through a commander. C.S. Forester actually started with the fifth book and wrote the novels that constituted his early years much later. To put it kindly, I suspect that like me most readers would agree that the latter half of the series was more interesting than the first half. This is in part because a naval captain can have a much more interesting time than a midshipman or lieutenant. The good news is that in the unlikely event that more of these adventures will make it onto film they should only get more interesting. This is because the finest novel in the series is probably the very first written, Beat to Quarters. The TV series ends just as Hornblower is promoted to Post Captain. Moreover, since Gruffudd is aging along with the character, if someone could produce Beat to Quarters, Gruffudd would be just about the perfect age to portray Hornblower, as Gruffudd is 36.

Turning a book into a TV series always involves a number of deviations from the books. If you have read the series a half dozen times like I have you will notice plenty. In spirit, the series is faithful to the series, and perhaps that’s what counts the most. The naval battles were rendered much better than I anticipated, as was life aboard a British naval ship at that time in general. If you watch the DVD extras, you realize the producers actually had to construct a frigate as well as a number of other ships. This is not an easy thing to do these days, as frigate building is something of a lost art. Moreover, constructing 19th century naval vessels is very expensive. So the same ship stands in for a number of ships because to really show the variation of naval ships would have been cost prohibitive. For example, most gun decks were below the main deck, not on the main deck. The ship in the TV series also looks suspiciously new and overly clean, which in fact it was at the time. Although sailors did their best to keep their ships shipshape, in reality most British naval ships of the period were creaky and barnacle encrusted.

Most of the characters are dead on. I particularly like Robert Lindsay as Sir Edward Pellew and Paul McGann as Lieutenant William Bush. Bush is a recurring character in the later novels. He becomes Hornblower’s sturdy and dependable right hand man. As for Gruffudd’s portrayal of Hornblower, his Hornblower shows a streak of friendliness as well as humanity that was absent in the books. In the books, we knew Hornblower felt this way, but he considered it unmanly to actually behave this way. In short, Hornblower becomes likeable, rather than the isolated and removed character portrayed in the books. As Forester made clear, Hornblower was a secret humanitarian (and by today’s standards would be a liberal) but in the British navy of the 19th century where discipline was foremost, it was frankly not allowed. Just as if you were a gay, you kept your humanitarian instincts deep in the closet.

It seems unlikely that more episodes will be made. After sponsoring eight episodes, A&E finally figured out they were too expensive to continue. The good news is that Gruffudd loved playing Hornblower and would be glad to make some more Hornblower movies. Presumably, he needs some underwriters. Sign me up to buy a few shares of any future Hornblower movies. It would be a pleasure as I age to watch Gruffudd act through the best part of the series. All the remaining books deserve to make it to film. Given the constraints of miniseries, they were not the epitome of a Hornblower realization for the screen, but they came close. My hope for a proper Hornblower movie with this cast is likely to remain a fantasy.

If you haven’t seen the series of eight you can always buy the DVD set, of course. By the end of the eighth episode, Duty, like me you might feel crestfallen that there simply are no more episodes to enjoy. The good news is that if you have not read the books, you will have the pleasure of reading them.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Prisoner (AMC Version)

Number Six is back, along with Number Two, and along with many other villagers who have numbers but not names. The Village, which used to be on a mysterious island somewhere, is now in the middle of the desert yet has all the conveniences of modern life. Patrick McGoohan (the original Number Six) unfortunately went to meet his maker earlier this year at the age of 80. In his place is Jim Caviezel, who has starred in a number of prominent movies and actually played Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. This Number Six (or just Six) doesn’t work for the British Secret Service, but for some murky company based in New York City called Summakor. The company spends a lot of time monitoring people. Also, it’s a really good idea not to resign from Summakor unless retiring to a sterile village in the middle of nowhere is your idea of fun.

In the original series, the character playing Number Two usually switched with every episode. In this abbreviated mini-series version of The Prisoner (just six episodes) we have a recurring Number Two played by Sir Ian McKellen. This Number Two does not seem quite as obsessed about Number Six as in the original series. Yet, somehow this Number Six often ends up spending his nights in a clinic where dubious things are done to him largely without his knowledge.

In short, this is not your father’s The Prisoner. Yet of course it is creepy, just in different ways. This village comes complete with families, schools, and even village tours. Rover, the big amorphous weather balloon straight from the id is still around to try to frighten those trying to escape, but for the most part these villagers are too torn up inside from dealing with the surreal life in The Village to do much in the way of escaping. For most of them, the plasticity of The Village is ripping their souls apart.

In many ways, this version of The Prisoner is creepier. Gene therapy was not even in Patrick McGoohan’s wildest nightmares back in 1967, although in both versions we have many really long needles puncturing open flesh. Whatever Summakor is up to, they are good at getting people to forget their past lives, but not so good at making them hide some internal often-inchoate angst.

In many ways, this version is more of a homage to the final episodes of the original The Prisoner, as it operates on a much more metaphorical level. In the original show, you knew The Village was an actual place. In this version, it soon becomes clear that The Village may exist wholly in our minds. Using many flashbacks, we can see that many of the people who populated Six’s life when he lived in New York are also in The Village, although it takes him a long time to understand this.

This Village comes complete with its own underground, in this case a place where you can go to let off some steam, have some illicit sex and engage in activities like congregating with your fellow homosexuals that are not allowed on land. One of the villagers with sexual preference issues is 11-12 (Jamie Campbell Bower), the son of Number Two. His largely comatose mother spends much of six episodes mysteriously in bed in Two’s palatial home.

In this version, Six does try to escape a few times but seems much more engaged in Village life, and even helps spy on his fellow villagers. Mysterious holes open up on the grounds of The Village, sometimes swallowing up villagers. There is love to be found in The Village, but it is hard to know if it is real or genetically induced.

For me the best parts of this miniseries are the flashbacks to New York, particularly with Lucy (Haylee Atwell), a fellow employee of Summakor who has a brief but intense relationship with Six. Over the course of six episodes, Six’s past starts to fill in. For those of you who have seen the original series, in some ways its ending parallels that version, but in some ways not. This village is more a metaphor of modern society, man’s place in it, and the relationship if any between reality and detached consciousness.

Whether you find it better or worse than the original will depend in part on whether you saw the original. In many ways this version, while shorter, is better. In other ways, it is not quite as engaging or as fun. It is a delight to spend six episodes with Sir Ian McKellen because he is such a fine actor, but he is not your classic, obsessive Number Two. Rather he is more like a village caretaker, but why? To find out, watch all six episodes. I have seen all six episodes, all of which may not have yet been broadcast here in the states. I have my ways.

I doubt anyone who sticks with this version will be disappointed. I was not that happy with Jim Caviezel as Number Six, but at least he was more human and emotionally expressive than Patrick McGoohan’s ultra stoic version of Six. Instead, enjoy the minor characters. Ruth Wilson as 313 and Jamie Campbell Bower as 11-12 are particularly excellent.

The only real drawback to this version is that the story felt too rushed. To fully explore this village and its many permutations and eccentricities, they needed a more leisurely seventeen episodes, like the original series. Perhaps there will be a sequel to this miniseries where we get to learn more. Without giving any plot points away, I can say that at the end you will find out there is a new Number Two in charge.

 
The Thinker

Review: Battlestar Galactica (Season One)

The original TV series Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980) was so bad that even someone desperately looking for science fiction on TV like myself could not watch it. It was dreadful! I may have made it through one episode, but one was enough. It was a little more than a painfully cheap Star Wars rip off. I found R2-D2 in Star Wars annoying, but it was positively adorable next to Muffet II, the annoying robotic dog in the original BSG. Lorne Greene played Commander Adama and he made William Shatner look good. The show was also too 70s. From Richard Hatch’s blow dried hair to its token African American Herb Jefferson, Jr., the show leeched the worst of what had come before it. Still, Americans were so desperate for science fiction on television that it somehow managed to hang on for three years before it was mercifully put out of its misery.

In 2003, the SciFi Channel agreed to air an expensive “reimagining” of the show by producer and writer Richard D. Moore. To the extent that I was aware of it, I tuned it out. The bad vibes emitted from the original Battlestar Galactica convinced me the show had to have a jinx on it. I would likely still be unaware that I was wrong had various family members and friends not prodded me to watch this incarnation. A few months back I gave in and bought the first season on DVD. My wife and I have slowly been making our way through it, sometimes resting a few weeks before trying another episode.

Our rests between episodes is to some extent understandable because the BSG universe is an ultra dreary place. In case you are not familiar with the show, Galactica is the warship for a rag tag fleet of interstellar spaceships containing the last remnants of the human race. Unlike the Jews, who had Yahweh in the desert to send them manna from heaven, these humans get nothing but silence from the Gods of Kobol that many of them worship. (Why am I thinking it’s the Gods of COBOL? Do they really worship Grace Hopper?) Rest assured they get nothing but grief from the Cylons, a model of robots that humans created to serve them that got all uppity. The Cylons have evolved to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from humans. One thing is abundantly clear: they want to exterminate the human race right down to our last strand of human DNA. Whenever they find any humans, they send out a vast horde of Cylon raiders to destroy them. Cylons are like roaches in that they seem to be everywhere but often hidden yet never invited in. That they are so hard to tell apart from human beings makes the humans very paranoid, unable to tell friend from foe.

The series starts with a terrific pilot, which is a full-blown movie in its own right. No question about it, it is slick! It is hard to think of it as a pilot because from the first frame it feels like the actors have been playing their parts for years. You can feel the close quarters and almost the smell their perspiration. Lorne Greene died in 1987, so he was unable to reprise his role as Commander Adama, which is just as well. In this incarnation, you get the craggy faced and raspy voice actor Edward James Olmos instead. Thankfully, Olmos is a 1000% better actor than Greene. I won’t mention all the ancillary characters as it is better to explore them for yourself. Most of the names have been retained from the original series but in some cases, some surprising changes were made.

Starbuck for example had a sex change operation and is played with impertinent eloquence by Katee Sackhoff. Boomer, instead of being African American is female and Oriental as well as potentially a Cylon, although she is not certain of it. Captain Apollo (Lee) got a much-needed haircut but still seems a bit too handsome, yet is convincingly played by Jamie Bamber. The best part: the only annoying robots are the Cylons, and most of the Cylons, while being villainous, are at least interestingly evil characters.

The principle Cylon in residence is the foxy and evil Six (Tricia Helfer), who appears only to ship physician research scientist Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis). She exists to taunt him, to tease his high-strung libido and to make him loathe himself by doing things to his species he should not do. They are quite a toxic pair; clearly, she is the dominant, and he is pussy whipped. If you have to loathe a character, Dr. Baltar is easy to loathe, since he is so easily manipulated by Six and not nearly as much fun as Dr. Smith was in Lost in Space. In fact, I was hoping the writers would do us a favor and kill him off. No such luck.

Richard Moore likes to tease his audience as mercilessly as Cylons do humans. If you like intrigue, you will love this incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, because it piles on the layers of mystery so deep it frequently feels suffocating. How is a lowly TV viewer supposed to parse through all the subterfuge? Clearly, those Cylons are way smarter than us humans, so maybe we deserve extinction. Somehow, a diminished set of humans seems to hang on from episode to episode against overwhelming odds thanks to an overextended set of pilots and the smart, fearless leadership of Commander Adama.

While the acting, special effects and writing are typically first rate, there are some oddities about this reimagining. Perhaps because the SciFi Channel wanted to pinch a few extra pennies, it has a very early 21st century feel to it. Obviously, it is cheaper to shoot exterior shots if you can go with today’s architecture, so we get cities on planets like Caprica that look suspiciously like Vancouver. Clothing too looks present day. Civilians like President Laura Roslin prefer to dress like Hillary Clinton. Some aspects are even more antiquated. Galactica is showing its age. Much information spits out of printers. No communicators for this crew. POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) will do just fine. Anyhow, it’s apparently much more secure to be low tech when dealing with those ultra shrewd Cylons.

Nor is it clear how the citizens of this ragtag fleet get their supplies. There seem to be no lack of consumables like printer paper, booze and cigarettes. They sure aren’t making pit stops on Earth, which is lost and half mythical anyhow, and their home world of Caprica is full of Cylon-induced radiation that destroyed all human life (well, almost all).

Battlestar Galactica is space opera, of course, so it is best not to trouble yourself with these details. Have a beer yourself and enjoy the show (if you can use that word with a show that is such an unrelenting downer) for what it is. After a terrific start, the show does sag a bit in the middle of the season. A couple episodes in the first season, like “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” are frankly below subprime. Naturally, like all shows hoping to be renewed, it ends on one of these impossible cliffhangers. This being BSG though it will have more dimensions, layers, shock and perturbations than a Matrix movie.

Anyhow, I’m hooked, so I better go buy Season Two. If you haven’t seen the series, based on its first season it may be depressing stuff, but it is really well done depressing stuff, so go buy it and enjoy.

 
The Thinker

Second Viewing: City on the Edge of Forever

Watching movies and shows online can be both fun and convenient. On Christmas Eve, I watched the British film Cashback streamed live to my desktop computer. Last night I watched classic Star Trek, specifically the episode City on the Edge of Forever from the show’s first season. Many Trekkers insist this was the best episode in the three-year run of the original series and I am inclined to agree. It was ostensibly written by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, but had to be substantially rewritten by staff scriptwriter D. C. Fontana to keep it within the show’s budget and fifty-minute length.

In case you have not seen the episode, at the start of the show NCC-1701 (a.k.a. the U.S.S. Enterprise) finds itself in the midst of a space-time disturbance. It jolts the ship; the usual sparks fly out of the navigator’s console and knocks out poor Lieutenant Sulu. Dr. McCoy (“Bones”) rushes to the bridge to give Sulu a small dose of “cordrazine”. When the ship is rocked again by another space-time disturbance McCoy accidentally injects the rest into himself, which turns him into a paranoid schizophrenic. He manages to elude security and beam himself down to the planet they are orbiting, which is at the center of the space-time disturbance. There on the planet a mysterious structure called The Guardian acts as a portal to human history. Dr. McCoy, still in a cordrazine paranoia high, jumps through the portal and back in time to New York City during the Great Depression.

It is not a good idea to disturb time because McCoy apparently does something to cause their present reality to disappear. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock end up going back to the same time to try to prevent McCoy from doing whatever he did to change history. This is a tall order because there is no guarantee they can find him.

I will not give out too much more of the plot on the off chance you have not seen the episode. While I watched it online on Netflix, there are other places online you can watch it, some for free. One place is cbs.com, which is more than a bit ironic since it first ran forty years ago on NBC.

I was ten when the show first ran in 1967. For some bizarre reason my parents considered Star Trek too adult for us godly devout Catholics (perhaps it was the miniskirts the women wore), so it was off our list of approved shows. I did not actually see it until the early 1970s when it was broadcast in abbreviated form on an independent TV channel in Orlando. As I was living in Daytona Beach, this meant poor image quality and many Ronco ads. Watching it online though was a pleasure, because I could see it in full color and in higher definition than the 435 lines available to TV viewers back in the 1960s. It was like watching it projected in a movie theater. It made quite a difference.

Star Trek is of course a fantasy about the future, but to me it was a blast into my distantly remote past when I was only ten years old, we were up to our hips in Vietnam and prominent people like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were being gunned down. As much as Gene Roddenberry tried to hide it in its 23rd century frame, the show espoused the values of those times. Back then, the network censors were pretty ruthless. Kirk’s line at the end of the episode, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” considered shocking at the time, was lucky to make it past the network censors.

Women may have worn miniskirts in the U.S.S. Enterprise but there are oddities in the shows that today’s National Organization for Women would find sexist. When time stops, for example, Lt. Uhura says (rather unconvincingly), “Captain, I’m afraid.” It was perfectly reasonable back in the 1960s for a woman, even a Star Fleet officer like Uhura to revert to wallflower when the situation got too heavy. The same was not true for Kirk or Spock. It was time to raise the shields of masculinity and exude some testosterone.

For the 1960s, Star Trek was high primetime cinema. However, the pressures of putting out twenty-six episodes a year as well as keeping to a strict budget frequently strained the quality of the show. City on the Edge of Forever is an excellent episode for classic Star Trek, yet if compared to most shows of its successor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, it would rank maybe in the middle. In the 1960s, TV was not considered to be art, but entertainment. Occasional series like The Twilight Zone showed what the medium was capable of. With the constraints on time and budget the show was under, putting out good episodes every week was impossible. Unlike the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation was syndicated. This allowed for bigger budgets, higher production values and better actors. Watching the original Star Trek series forty years later, the lack of quality, even for the better shows, is glaring.

Still, if you can rewind your mental clock back four decades you can appreciate that City on the Edge of Forever as a really good episode. New York City in the Great Depression was portrayed on a back lot of Desilu Studios, but the scenes were quite convincingly rendered. William Shatner’s ego is kept in check by director Joseph Pevney, who probably not coincidentally directed many of the show’s better episodes. Joan Collins plays the kind-hearted social worker Edith Keeler and renders a surprisingly fine performance. Some of the dialog comes across as rather strange and the music is at times too suggestive of how you are supposed to feel, but the episode is a great blend of fun, drama and science fiction. Actually, the best performance in the episode is given by the late DeForest Kelley (McCoy). It is consistently well acted, well directed and well written. The essence of Ellison’s fascinating and tragic plot is retained and convincingly rendered.

What a pity that network executives were so niggardly with prime time shows back in the 1960s. Star Trek was obviously an innovative idea for a TV series, given its long and successful franchise. Given the relative paucity of its production values (which were considered high for the time) the original series, when it was good in episodes like this one, demonstrated what the original series could have been had it been given the time and the money necessary. Star Trek’s true glory was destined to show up in future incarnations of the show.

 
The Thinker

A favorite Christmas show

There are plenty of memorable Christmas movies and shows to enjoy this time of year. Each attempts to capture the spirit of the season that is largely absent. One of my favorites is not from a movie or a made for Christmas cartoon, but from the first season of the TV show The West Wing. The episode, “In Excelsis Deo”, was written by the series creator Alan Sorkin and Rick Cleveland.

I hate it when a show is so good that it makes you cry. Damn it, this episode made me cry, but in a good way.

If you are not familiar with The West Wing, the withdrawn and acerbic Toby Zeigler (played by Richard Schiff) is White House Communications Director. Toby also happens to be a Jew. As Christmas closes in, he gets a call from the D.C. police. A homeless man died on a park bench on The Mall. Toby’s business card was found in the coat. Toby had donated the coat the man wore to Goodwill.

The man who died turns out to be a Korean War veteran who was wounded in action. For reasons that seem to puzzle Toby, he feels compelled to make sure this homeless man he never knew receives a proper burial at Arlington Cemetery.

This episode was voted the best of the long running series by the viewers of IMDB.com, and it won probably for this last scene. This YouTube excerpt contains the key scenes from this episode. Grab a tissue or a handkerchief and prepare to feel the true spirit of Christmas. Moreover, perhaps you can do what I did today, and drop off a bag full of clothes for donation. Due to the poor economy, the number of homeless is rapidly increasing. We hit a high of 27 degrees here in the Washington D.C. area today.

Happy holidays to everyone, regardless of your faith or lack thereof.

 
The Thinker

At least I know my news sources are biased

I do not watch much television. But when I do and I am in the mood for news, I am not watching Fox News. This is understandable, principally because I might accidentally have to watch this guy (or as John McCain might say, “That one!”) who is so obnoxious he is capable of giving me a bad case of indigestion inside of thirty seconds.

No, when I am feeling in the mood for propaganda masquerading as news, I do what many of us godless liberals do these days. I turn on MSNBC. In particular, I tune in to watch Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. I do learn a few things watching Keith and Rachel, but most of it I have already read online. I am really tuning in to Keith and Rachel more for entertainment than for news. I tune in because I am a politically active creature. Watching articulate people on TV like Keith and Rachel makes me feel less alone. Like most people, I like to listen to people who tell me what I want to hear.

Yet, I am not deluded. Neither Keith nor Rachel is stupid enough to claim they are fair and balanced. Keith Olbermann is a nicer version of Bill O’Reilly in that he can be scornful of politicians yet has enough civility not to berate any guests who do not agree with him. Rachel Maddow on the other hand is snarky but nice. She has her politics down cold and is both quirky and fun. She projects none of the intellectual anger that Keith dishes out on a regular basis.

As for MSNBC’s news coverage, there is little question that it has a liberal tinge to it. You can see it from the tone of its coverage, who tends to get the most airtime and who does not. Likely, MSNBC’s strategy is to be a liberal-lite news source. It is hoping to be on top of the changing demographics of the political class, which is moving rather rapidly from conservative toward liberal. Unlike Fox News, however, as necessary it can draw on various personalities on NBC News. This gives it some credibility.

What amazes me though is that Fox News viewers (at least those I have encountered) seem to actually believe that Fox News is, as it laughingly claims, “Fair and Balanced”. Not only is this objectively false, its owner Rupert Murdoch agrees. For all their claims of objectivity, it has been well documented that the Fox News division makes sure that its reporters and anchors push the conservative message of the day. Clearly though either its managers suffer from cognitive dissonance or they are comfortable with lying because publicly they continue to insist they are “fair and balanced”. It is practically the trademark for the Fox News Channel.

I decided of course not to watch Fox News because their bias was so outrageous. Take today’s outrage. Since Sunday morning, Fox News has repeated 122 times a fraudulent claim about Senator Obama’s position on coal. Fox News continues to spread a false story that the San Francisco Chronicle concealed a damning eleven-month-old recording of Obama. The nonexistent recording supposedly said that Obama has plans to bankrupt the coal industry once he is president. Even today, Senator McCain was spewing these lies on the campaign trail. Fox News, which obviously wants to see him elected, just keeps repeating these lies, even though they have been thoroughly debunked. CNN gave it 18 mentions over the same period. MSNBC gave it eight mentions. To the extent that this should have been a story, a truly fair and balanced news organization should have simply stated that the story was undeniably false.

Fox News spreads these lies so frequently that you can pretty much count on at least one prominent lie of the day every day, which will be endlessly repeated. By doing so of course, it helps spread the false meme among its community of predominantly very conservative viewers. Therefore, in reality when Fox News calls itself “Fair and Balanced”, it is about as fair and balanced as Pravda (which is Russian for “Truth”) which, of course, was nothing but propaganda rag for the Communist Party.

Here is the truth: Fox News is more balanced that Pravda but only in the sense that given that we have a free press you can only push propaganda so far. Unlike Pravda, at least Fox News will interview those who do not agree with them. They may, like Bill O’Reilly, use the opportunity to pummel their guests with degrading personal attacks. That is hardly fair and balanced. However, it does provide red meat for its viewers, which in turn ensures a loyal audience and helps keep Fox News profitable. They cannot afford to have their viewers checking out the competition.

What really amazes me though is that Fox News viewers I have spoken to say with a straight face it is the only news channel they trust. If you take the time and try to show them the overwhelming evidence that Fox News is systematically and relentlessly biased then they go into denial mode. It’s the only channel that is telling the truth, they will tell me with passion in their voices. All those other news channels are full of liberals pushing a great left wing conspiracy!

MSNBC may have a left leaning bias but one thing is clear: Fox News is the only cable news source that is overtly and proactively biased. I just wish they could come clean with their viewers. There is nothing inherently wrong with a cable news network having a bias, just be up front about it. In Great Britain, you can get your news slanted the way you like it from all sorts of incredibly biased left and right leaning newspapers. The Guardian, for example, is unquestionably a left leaning newspaper, since they rarely let a day go by without a story berating the Bush Administration. Of course, many of our nation’s newspapers tend to lean in certain directions too. The Wall Street Journal is never going to endorse a Democrat for president. The New York Times is unlikely to endorse a Republican for president either. That is why it was genuinely news when recently The Chicago Tribune endorsed Barack Obama for president. They had never endorsed a Democrat for president before. I wasn’t watching Fox News, but I bet their anchors were spinning the line that the Trib only endorsed Obama because he lives in Chicago.

So pick your biased news source if it gives you comfort. It makes me feel better to unwind in the evening with a little Keith and Rachel. Just please spare me your certainty that you are watching Fox News (or MSNBC for that matter) because you are looking for objectivity. If you want objectivity, you are not going to find it on either channel (although CNN comes the closest). Your best bet is to watch a number of news channels. Then maybe you can honestly say that you at least examined the issues of the day from many sides.

“You decide,” Fox News so often places on its screen. If Fox News is the only news channel you are watching, are you really deciding? Or are you letting them decide for you?

 
The Thinker

A bundle of confusion

If you own a horse, you have to let it run regularly. If you own a sports car, you should take it on a racetrack occasionally for the pleasure of being smashed into your seat while you accelerate. Similarly, if you have a high definition television (HDTV), you do not buy it to watch interlaced analog TV signals with only 473 lines of resolution. You want content that will make you appreciate the fact you just spent $699 on a high definition TV.

That is how much we paid for our HDTV. It is an Olevia 37 inch HDTV that comes with more ports and options than we will ever use. Our TV room is small but despite its relatively modest screen size, it still seems enormous to us. The TV it is replacing worked perfectly fine. It is now sitting in our basement queued for a likely donation. While only about seven years old, it was doomed soon after it was bought. The FCC declared that on February 19, 2009 TVs like ours will be obsolete unless we buy a conversion box. Even if we did our picture quality would not have been improved. Neighbors would laugh at us for being so 20th century.

Both our cable provider (Cox Communications) and our phone company (Verizon) have spent years tempting us with their all-digital services. We have our Internet and cable TV service with Cox and an old-fashioned POTS line with Verizon. On a typical month, I pay Cox $93 and Verizon $32. Both Cox and Verizon have been luring us with bundled services. If we bundled all our communications needs with them, we were told, we could save some money.

Verizon has its fiber optic FiOS service. In addition to providing high-speed Internet access, you can also receive a lot of other content, including their version of movies on demand. Cox offers essentially these same services for roughly the same price. How do I know? Well, it is hard to tell. Masters of voodoo marketing are putting together their sales brochures. They excel in obfuscation. Yet they refuse to leave me alone. Roughly once a week I get a solicitation from each company. Typically, they come in the mail, but now and then, they also come attached to my door handle. Verizon has lately been very uppity, sending salespersons to my door to pitch their FiOS service. That was one strike against them; I hate door-to-door salespersons and by implication any company that would send me one. Moreover, I have an unlisted phone number. You would think Verizon would take this as a signal not to call me. You would be wrong. They have given me several calls pitching FiOS. Cox at least has neither knocked on my door nor solicited me over the telephone.

Now that we are HDTV owners it was time to consider their various offerings. As we soon discovered, analog TV on a HDTV looks ridiculous. Either much of the screen is black or if your TV is fancy like ours is, you can put it in a zoom mode. The screen fills up, but suddenly the picture looks fuzzy.

Both Verizon and Cox had mid-tier bundled service packages for $99.99 a month that combined telephone, digital TV and Internet service. At $99.99 a month, either looked like a good deal. Either deal appeared to be about $25 less than we were currently paying. The question became which one to choose? Which was better?

Naturally, both providers claimed they had a superior network, superior content and lower prices. Both though delight in obfuscating the consumer’s real costs. It is almost impossible to determine what you are actually buying and how much the service will cost you. I spent a couple hours on Verizon’s site trying to pick through the details of their bundles. Eventually I gave up. There is probably no way to know for sure without hiring a lawyer to decipher the fine print. Verizon though did have three strikes against them. First, they annoyed me by having salespersons knock on my door and call me unsolicited on the phone. Second, was their stance on network neutrality. Third and probably most importantly, like with their cell phone service if you select one of their bundles they want to lock you in for a couple years. I mean for such a steal as they are giving you they have to make up the difference somehow! I am old fashioned enough to think that if their service is that great it will be obvious to me, so I should not have to be locked into it.

Cox Communications had a few strikes against them too. About a year ago, I inquired about one of their bundles. I asked many questions and I did not like what I heard. I politely said no thanks, not at this time. A few days later one of their digital receivers arrived on my doorstep. That raised my dander. A phone call confirmed that I had not subscribed to their bundle. However, I still had to take an hour out of my life to return the box they sent me. They would not pick it up.

Nevertheless, between their latest brochure, reading their web site and a long conversation on the phone with their sales office, I was able to get a sense of what my bundle would actually cost me. Still, the devil is in the details. Did their $99.99 a month bundle include the rental cost of their digital receiver? Negatory. That was $4.50 a month, so the bundle was really $104.49. Did it include any HD channels? No except for the local HD broadcast signals. However, they did offer 31 HD channels. If I wanted them on top of our digital cable, they were $1.44 a month. What is this free digital tier that comes with the bundle? Apparently, the ones listed in the brochure were incorrect, but I could get the equivalent of their Variety Tier. This is what my wife wanted because she wants to see the latest Torchwood episodes on BBC America. Would there be an installation charge? Not if I install the digital receiver myself. They have to come out to the house to install the telephone interface, but there is no charge for that. Can I get extended local long distance like I have with Verizon? In other words, can I call my father who lives across the Potomac River toll free? No, but you can call the District of Columbia for free. Oh, and to get the bundle you have to choose Cox as your local long distance, long distance and international provider. Long distance rates are fifteen cents a minute, or more than three times what I pay Pioneer Telephone, my current long distance provider. However, this is not much of an issue since we hardly ever call long distance. We do email instead. Moreover, to maintain my unpublished telephone number I have to cough up another $1.71 a month. All totaled with taxes my $99.99 a month bundle would cost me $123.09. Hey, but at least I will only have to cut one check.

In short, I may save a few bucks a month but I will not be supplementing my retirement income with their fabulous bundled savings. On the plus side, we will no longer be stuck with analog TV signals. Digital signals will no longer be interlaced. The picture on these channels will not make them much bigger, but will make the picture smoother. Their 31 HD channels are expected to double soon and there will be no extra fee. We will get channels we do not get now, but that does not mean we are likely to watch them. In addition, as best I can tell I am not locked into a two-year contract.

In fact, the differences between Cox and Verizon are rather marginal, but I chose to go with Cox for these reasons. I may end up regretting my choice. Their eight-hour battery will keep my landline working during a power outage, but what if the outage lasts nine hours? While many of our TV channels will soon be in HD, I am still not sure I will watch any more TV. I largely gave up TV years ago. On the other hand, our daughter will be pleased.

Our next purchase will probably be a Bluetooth compatible DVD player. Apparently, regular DVDs are not good enough for a modern HDTV, which means that we will want to buy some of our favorite DVDs again so we can have a more proper theatrical experience.

Well, someone has to pull this country out of recession.

 
The Thinker

A West Wing Retrospective

It has taken me about eighteen months, but I finally made it through all 156 episodes and seven seasons of The West Wing. As I mentioned in my review of the first season back in April 2006, I never bothered to watch the show when it was broadcast. Indeed, when I popped the first DVD of the show into my DVD player the final episode was being filmed. Freed from the innumerable commercials and the necessity of watching it (or at least taping it) at inconvenient times, I was free to view it from a different perspective.

What follows is a number of random thoughts and observations on the series.

Overall, the acting was superb. As in any series lasting seven years, there were uneven moments. I would like to assign a best actor to the series but I cannot. It is a dead even three-way tie between John Spencer (Chief of Staff Leo McGarry), Richard Schiff (Communications Director Toby Ziegler) and Allison Janney (Press Secretary, and subsequent Chief of Staff C.J. Cregg). What is true of all the actors though is that from the beginning their performances were measured and consistent.

A few characters and subplots did grate on me. The unstated sexual tension between Donna Moss and Josh Lyman annoyed me more than intrigued me. For much of the show I found Donna Moss (played by Janel Maloney) annoying. The same was true with Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) who was perhaps not quite buttoned down enough to be anyone’s Deputy Chief of Staff. I will say though that he was dead on with his portrayal of an overly caffeinated, sleep deprived, Type A Washingtonian. Nor was I terribly impressed by Dulé Hill (Charlie Young, President Bartlett’s personal aide). Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) struck me as miscast from the start. Unfortunately, his replacement Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) annoyed me even more. At least there was some chemistry in the Josh/Donna relationship. The “chemistry” between Will Bailey and National Security Advisor Kate Harper (Mary McCormack) near the end of the show simply was not there.

As for how well the show portrayed the actual West Wing, while I have never worked in the White House, I have worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I also worked in a few headquarters buildings so I have had infrequent and occasionally regular access to senior staff at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense. I know political types. Overall, I think series creator Aaron Sorkin was eerily accurate in his portrayal of the Washington culture and Washington politicians in general. I suspect they are not that different from many Hollywood producers. However, I am sure the real West Wing is far more complex than this series let on. For one thing, there are a lot more deputy, assistant and special assistants for every senior official than the story writers can show. This is understandable because even with a show with classy production values it is impossible to render the level of bureaucracy that actually exists.

Another thing the show does well is convey just how smart many in politics actually are. We tend to think of Washington as full of inept buffoons. Sorry to bust your balloon, but this is not typically the case. Granted there are politicians, including many in Congress, who are little more intelligent than a fruit fly. At the staff level though, whether they are political or not, people are uniformly incredibly bright and perceptive. If it seems otherwise it is because working around the bureaucratic kudzu of Washington is not for the faint of heart. It has developed over two hundred years and has its own culture that will continue no matter how much the Ross Perots of the world complain. I am no fan of Republicans, but I can say that the same is true regardless of party. In fact, arguably Republicans are much more effective at governing than Democrats. That does not mean what they are trying to do for the country is necessarily in its best interest. I am more than a bit astonished, for example, that President Bush, as bungling as he has been and as low as his poll ratings are, can still whiplash the Congress on national security issues and the Democrats fall sheepishly in line. Republicans know how to exercise power through intimidation.

The West Wing of course is fictional, and portrays an almost idealized progressive administration. Administrations like the Bartlett Administration never happen in reality. Perhaps the closest was the Roosevelt Administration. I think the series creators modeled Bartlett as a mixture of Roosevelt and Kennedy. Even the Republicans on the show are hard to hate. In some episodes in the middle of the series, a Republican congress tries to bring down Leo McGarry (chief of staff) for various sins related to being an alcoholic. Yet one prominent Republican staffer has the guts to stop the hearings when it clearly is about to go over the line. In real life, a Republican congress would have given Leo McGarry the equivalent of a public lynching. In addition, near the end of the series a libertarian conservative senator (Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda) wins the Republican nomination. I am tempted to say this would never happen in real life, but current Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani comes close. We will see if he actually is nominated. Anyhow, Arnold Vinick is one of the few Republicans who I might actually be tempted to vote for.

Mostly The West Wing is a classy show, of the sort that is increasingly rare on television. It may be the last of its kind on network TV. Overall, the writing, directing and acting were excellent. The show can be loosely organized into two parts. The first three seasons document the first term of the Bartlett Administration. This is “classic” West Wing before some of the established characters like Rob Lowe decided to move elsewhere. The second half of The West Wing feels transitional. Much of the last two seasons involve the waning days of the Bartlett Administration and the presidential campaign to replace him. Much of the continuity from the classic show was gone by this point. Near the end of the show, there are hardly any of the established characters left in the White House but Janney and Martin Sheen (who played the president). Still, the rough and tough world of running a presidential campaign is quite well portrayed, in a rather idealized way, of course. The series creators do their best to close the many hanging plot lines and relationships. It largely succeeds. The Donna Moss/Josh Lyman tension appears to be resolved. C.J. Cregg appears to be finally won over by the aggressive Washington Post reporter Danny Concannon. Democratic Party nominee Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) of course has to win the presidential election, but just by a hair. In addition, President Bartlett, despite some misgivings, pardons Toby Ziegler for disclosing that the military had a space shuttle.

The best of the show was probably its first two seasons. The fifth season was notably its worst, yet was far better than I anticipated. The last season often seemed a chaotic mess, but campaigns are typically this way. The series concluded in proper Hollywood style with all the loose ends wrapped up neatly. Alas, if only administrations actually worked that way.

Overall, my eighteen month adventure into The West Wing was worthy of my time, attention and money. My thanks go to my brother Tom, who hooked me with the first season, and supplied the last three seasons.

Some part of me wishes they had just kept The West Wing going with the fictional Santos Administration. The sets were already there, and many of the characters would have stayed on. Mostly though I am glad they had the good sense to end it after seven years. Their ratings were poor anyhow. Like After M*A*S*H which tried to keep actors employed when M*A*S*H finally ended, any subsequent version of The West Wing would likely be a poor imitation of the original and quickly canceled. Moreover, while the original had many blemishes, the blemishes are easy to overlook. Fortunately, excellence was typically what we viewers got.

I perhaps will go through the whole series again some day in more detail. Meanwhile, I ache for a Bartlett Administration in real life. Maybe someday we will be worthy of one.

 

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