Monday, March 2, 2015

Mr. Spock Was My Friend

As a kid, I knew that Mr. Spock was a fictional character. I understood that he was portrayed by an actor named Leonard Nimoy, and that Leonard Nimoy was a regular human being with normal ears and normal eyebrows who smiled and laughed and occasionally even got angry, things that Mr. Spock never did.

I never knew Leonard Nimoy. I never even saw him in person. But Mr. Spock was my friend.

I didn’t have a lot of playmates as a kid. And although I spent plenty of time playing with Transformers, Go-Bots, and Star Wars action figures, my favorite thing to do was play Star Trek. The backyard became an alien planet that I, as Captain Kirk, was exploring with an imaginary Mr. Spock. Mr. Spock was almost omnipresent during those years. He was the Hobbes to my Calvin. When my parents dragged me to some social occasion so they could stand around and talk about boring adult stuff with other grownups, I’d pretend that Mr. Spock and I were undercover at some Federation diplomatic function, watching out for Klingons. If my day at school was especially boring or difficult, I’d imagine that my elementary school was a Klingon prison that Spock and I had been thrown into, and during recess we’d make escape plans. (Rescue usually came promptly at 2:30 in the form of a green 1982 Pontiac driven by my mother) Mr. Spock was the ideal companion. He was smart and loyal and his Vulcan Nerve Pinch would’ve been perfect for dispatching bullies if only it (and he) were real. Plus, as his Vulcan characteristics and intellect made him different from those around him, he was not the kind of person who would make fun of you for liking stuff that most people thought was weird.

Eventually I was too old to run around the backyard pretending to be Captain Kirk, and my imaginary Vulcan companion faded away. But Mr. Spock had more to teach me. When I was little, I didn’t understand what his insistence on logic was all about. But as I grew older I began to get it. I understood the value of having my deeply-held personal beliefs rest on a foundation of rationality and logic. I appreciated the value of knowledge, of continuous learning, and of prioritizing the truth you know with your head over the truth you feel with your gut. (To borrow an expression from Stephen Colbert)

What does all this have to do with Leonard Nimoy? After all, Spock is only a character. His most profound sayings (“If there are self-made purgatories, we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s.” “You may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”) were written by someone else. Leonard Nimoy wasn’t Mr. Spock.

Only he was.

No one else could have breathed life into the character the way he did. I firmly believe that if Martin Landau or Lawrence Montaigne had been cast instead, Star Trek would have been canceled after one season and today it would be only a footnote. But more than that, Nimoy understood the importance of Spock. Sure, for a while it may have been an encumbrance to him, but over time he came to embrace the role of unofficial ambassador of this entertainment franchise that means so much to so many. On the other hand, when William Shatner shouted for Star Trek fans to “Get a life!” in his famous SNL sketch, he may have been exaggerating but he wasn’t exactly kidding. You could never imagine Nimoy doing something like that. When he spoke about Star Trek and its fans he was always very thoughtful with no hint of condescension.

There’s been a tremendous outpouring of grief in the wake of Mr. Nimoy’s passing, and I must admit that I feel it to a certain extent. It’s completely illogical; like I said I never met the man or even saw him in person. But I think what made him so special was that on some level he actually was what he appeared to be. I’ve never heard a “bad Nimoy” story where a fan met him under normal circumstances (i.e. not by invading his privacy or bothering him when he clearly wanted to be left alone) and he was a jerk to them. Indeed, there are many, many stories of his kindness and fairness, in both professional and personal situations. For example, the years after Star Trek’s cancellation were lean times for most of the cast, and so he refused to reprise the role of Spock for the animated Star Trek unless George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were brought onboard as well (originally they were going to be excluded to save money). And during the run of the Original Series, Nimoy learned that Nichelle Nichols wasn’t being paid as much as her male castmates and he used his influence to correct the situation.

In the end, Leonard Nimoy may not have been Spock, but he also wasn’t just another superficial, self-involved actor. There was a genuineness about him, and that, I believe, is why he’s mourned by so many.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Vacation Kingdom Idealization

Early on in Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World, the aural masterwork from the author of Passport To Dreams Old and New, you notice that something’s missing. Yes, the Magic Kingdom’s familiar background music is there, including lots of little snippets that could only be heard at the park itself until now, as are the comforting sounds of Magic Kingdom watercraft, the heavy clanking of the WEDway PeopleMover, and even the long-absent percussion of cannon fire from Pirates Of The Caribbean. What’s missing are the people.

I don’t mean there’s a complete absence of human voices. There’s plenty of them, in fact: Jack Wagner’s Monorail narration, faint echoes of Jungle Cruise spiel that occasionally bubble up before being subsumed by the sound of Adventureland’s artificial jungle, and even com chatter in the Space Mountain queue. What you don’t hear is the crowds; that omnipresent dull roar punctuated by an occasional shout or the cry of an exhausted child that’s inescapable in perpetually crowded places like Disney World. I don’t mean to sound like a misanthrope, but other people are the number one obstacle to enjoying your day at the Magic Kingdom or any other theme park. As much as we fantasize about the return of beloved old attractions like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, probably the greatest fantasy of any theme park aficionado is to have the place all to themselves, and Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World allows you to indulge that fantasy.

It’s almost a dreamlike experience; you’re floating from land to land in a peacefully vacant Magic Kingdom, catching fragments of pre-and post-show audio from various attractions as you pass by, occasionally wandering into and out of ride queues. Then you’re on the resort monorail heading toward the Contemporary as Jack Wagner tells you all about the evening entertainment in store for you there, and bam!—suddenly you’re in the Contemporary’s Grand Canyon Concourse and you realize where those crowds that were curiously absent from the Magic Kingdom were the whole time. But it’s not the kind of crowd noise you hear when listening to a park audio track that someone recorded by setting a recording device next to a speaker. It’s carefully blended in to give you the full auditory flavor of the mid-1970s Vacation Kingdom nightlife.

It’s not a stretch to say that “An Evening In The Vacation Kingdom” is the crown jewel of this collection. Pretty much all the Disney audio you can find on the Internet is from the parks. With a little work, even an unsophisticated schlub like me can slap together an iTunes playlist that roughly captures the feeling of walking around the Magic Kingdom or EPCOT Center in the 1980s. But stuff from the resorts, especially the pre-EPCOT Center “Vacation Kingdom” era, is pretty much impossible to find, and even if you could it takes great skill to blend it all together in a way that makes you feel like you’re really experiencing the Seven Seas Lagoon nightlife. I can’t express just how good this track is; even if the rest of the collection was nothing but the Tiki Room: Under New Management in an endless loop, “An Evening In The Vacation Kingdom” would make it all worthwhile. It really is that great.

Something else I love about this collection is how it evokes all the layers the Magic Kingdom experience used to have: the Swan Boats, the steel drum band in Caribbean Plaza, the cannons over the entrance to Pirates, the Mike Fink Keel Boats, and the live entertainment in Tomorrowland. All of these are things that were whittled away over the years to save money (even as ticket price and room rate increases have far exceeded the rate of inflation) and it’s nice to inhabit, even in an aural fashion, a Magic Kingdom where they’re still there.

Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World can be downloaded here:

Get it now, if you know what’s good for you.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Star Trek Youth Problem

Star Wars movies will always be more popular than the Star Trek films.

I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, what? I thought you were a die-hard Star Trek nerd!” And I am. But since 1979 Paramount Pictures has been trying to do the impossible: cram the arrowhead-shaped peg of Star Trek into Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon-shaped hole. And it just hasn’t worked. It was never going to work.

It’s no secret that the success of Star Wars (and Close Encounters of the Third Kind later in 1977, which proved that there was an ongoing demand for sci-fi films) was the main reason that Star Trek: The Motion Picture got the green light. Now, there are tons of reasons why the first Star Trek film wasn’t a Star Wars-level hit, and most of them revolve around how boring and slow-paced it was. (Full disclosure: I actually like The Motion Picture) But there’s an even bigger reason that Star Trek was never going to be a worthy big-screen competitor to Star Wars. Let’s compare the two movies’ main casts and see if we can spot what it is:



Do you see it now? No, it’s not that the Star Trek cast is wearing 1970s space pajamas, or that their “Big 3” are all male (although it doesn’t help). When the first Star Trek film premiered in 1979, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were 48 years old. DeForest Kelley was 59. On the other hand, when Star Wars premiered in 1977 actors Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher were 35, 26, and 21 years old respectively.

The original Star Trek TV series was popular for a lot of reasons, and one of them was that the show positively crackled with youthful energy. Sure, at the end of each episode Captain Kirk was usually able to persuade the antagonists of the week to talk out their differences, but only after an hour of running, jumping, and fisticuffs. By the time it hit theaters in 1979, a full decade had passed since Star Trek’s TV adventures. The actors, who had been been young or middle-aged in the late 60s, were now middle-aged or elderly. Even if The Motion Picture had told a more action-oriented story, it’s hard to believe that the cast could’ve believably pulled it off. (Yes, I know William Shatner did a lot of physical stuff on T.J. Hooker in the 80s, but the sight of Shatner running has always been more hilarious than exciting.) And you could hardly expect the young Star Wars audience that identified so strongly with Luke Skywalker’s youthful yearnings to do the same for Captain Kirk’s midlife angst.

So why didn’t the studio simply reboot Star Trek with a younger cast? Because the show’s hyper-devoted fans who’d spent the past decade fiercely lobbying for its return would’ve revolted. Thirty years later when the Star Trek fanbase was more of a known quantity Paramount was comfortable taking that risk, but not in 1979. Interestingly, before The Motion Picture was greenlit Paramount was going to resurrect Star Trek as a TV show entitled Star Trek: Phase II. The original cast would’ve returned (sans Leonard Nimoy) but they would’ve been augmented by three new young characters: First Officer Decker, the Vulcan Lt. Xon, and the exotic Lt. Ilia. Besides giving the show a much-needed injection of youth, these characters would also be insurance in case William Shatner or any of the original cast became too expensive or left to do other things. But, the return of Nimoy rendered the Xon character unnecessary, and although the Decker and Ilia characters were included in The Motion Picture, the story conveniently disposed of them before the end credits.

With Star Trek II, producer Harve Bennett and writer-director Nicholas Meyer again tried to inject some youth into the cast with the characters of Lt. Saavik and Kirk’s son David. But David was killed off in the next movie, and Kirstie Alley’s failure to return as Saavik dealt a serious blow to that character. She lived through Star Trek III but was never seen again after a brief scene in Star Trek IV.

Meanwhile, the franchise was rebooted for TV. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ensemble cast reflected a Battlestar Galactica-inspired approach. You had the wise, older “Captain” character (Adama/Picard) acting as the father figure to a group of younger characters who did all of the action-adventure stuff. (Apollo, Starbuck, and Boomer in BSG; Riker, Data, LaForge, Yar, et. al. in TNG) There was even a kid to pull in the really young viewers (Boxey in BSG, Wesley Crusher in TNG).

1st_tngcastWhy are they all looking in a slightly different direction?

The Next Generation reinvigorated the franchise and enjoyed seven successful years on TV, but when they made the jump to the movies they ran into the same problem as the Original Series: those characters who were so young in 1987 were now middle-aged. For the first couple films it wasn’t too noticeable. In fact, 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact was the kind of enjoyable action romp that the Original Series movies could never have delivered. But after that the wheels started to come off pretty quickly. In 1998’s Insurrection it was painfully obvious that TNG’s aging cast of TV actors just couldn’t deliver believable action scenes, with the possible exception of Patrick Stewart. And if Insurrection was painful, 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis was excruciating.

Nemesis_weddingIt’s never a good sign when the groom has to wear a wig

Once again, Star Trek was stuck with a cast that had nobody to appeal to young audiences. And after Nemesis tanked harder than a Pauly Shore biopic, Paramount finally pulled the plug.

Producer-director J.J. Abrams eventually came onboard and gave Star Trek a top-down rethink. In addition to fast-paced Star Wars-style action, 2009’s Star Trek featured the youngest cast the franchise ever had.

Star Trek (2008) Directed by: J.J. AbramsStar Trek: The College Years

But this created a whole new problem. Star Wars can justify its young protagonists because they’re either people with some kind of innate power that gives them a special destiny (i.e. Luke or Anakin Skywalker), royalty (Queen Amidala or Princess Leia), or a tremendously skilled person on the fringes of civilized society (Han Solo). It can even give them leadership positions in the Rebel Alliance, because it’s a ragtag organization that needs all the help it can get.

But Star Trek’s protagonists are the senior staff of a spaceship that belongs to a futuristic NASA-Navy hybrid. The idea that those positions would just be given to a handful of twentysomethings who haven’t even graduated from Space College strains credulity way past the breaking point. Rationalizing it by trying to paste a Star Wars-style “heroes’ journey” on top of it is even sillier. The only way to believably incorporate younger characters is to go the Next Generation route and have an older Captain overseeing a group of younger junior officers. But although that approach works great on TV, it’s impossible to do on film because two hours is not enough time to service all the characters in a large ensemble cast.

What I’m trying to say here is that Star Trek, done properly, is not a billion-dollar film franchise like Star Wars or The Avengers. It’s a TV show. There’s no shame in that. No one’s trying to turn Breaking Bad or The Wire into movies. Sure, a big feature film budget can give us the kind of sci-fi eye candy that Trekkers like me salivate over, but Star Trek is not about eye candy. Like any other good drama, it’s about the characters. And those characters are best served on TV.

Hopefully CBS and Paramount will one day be able to untangle the issues surrounding their shared ownership of the franchise enough to bring Star Trek back to the small screen, where it belongs.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Next Generation Metamorphosis Misstep

I’m not going to lie: when Star Trek Generations was released twenty years ago I was hyped. The geriatric cast of the Original Series had taken their final bow in the excellent Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country three years before, and now it was time to hand the reins to a new, younger cast headed by this fresh-faced youth:


Yes, I believed we were in for a treat. Now, I should point out that I was only 16 years old in 1994, and my powers of criticism had not yet been honed by years of watching and reading Internet critics make fun of things. Although I realized that some episodes and movies were better than others, I basically functioned on the belief that anything with the Star Trek name on it was automatically good. That being said, you might imagine I was confused and disappointed by the decision to pull TNG off the air after its seventh season. But I wasn’t.

You see, even my adolescent powers of observation could tell that the Next Generation writing staff ran out ideas about one season before the show ran out of episodes. You may not remember it, but that last season was pretty painful. Scripts that would’ve been rejected outright just a season or two earlier were now getting made into episodes, like the one where a mutant virus makes the crew de-evolve into animals, or the one where Dr. Crusher resigns her commission to live on a gothic Anne Rice-inspired planet where she has a passionate affair with a green energy wisp. And although the series finale “All Good Things” is widely regarded as one of the best TV series finales ever, fully half its two-hour run time is taken up with meaningless technobabble about anti-time and spatial anomalies and modifying the main deflector to create an inverse tachyon pulse.

So I was glad to see TNG escape the restrictions of a weekly TV show and get the opportunity to tell new and bigger kinds of stories. And you can imagine how excited I was to learn that Captain Kirk would be in the movie! What kind of cool space adventure would Kirk and Picard have together? I was dying to find out, but since there were no Internet spoilers back then (or maybe there were, but the Internet was in its infancy in 1994 and most people still didn’t have access to it) I had to wait until Entertainment Weekly published this photo:


It looked like Captain Picard was out on a horseback ride and he happened to run into Kirk. The picture should’ve made my Bad Movie Spidey Sense tingle, but it didn’t. Honestly, my minutae-obsessed self was way more interested in the fact that the TNG cast would be wearing Deep Space Nine-style uniforms.

Finally, the movie was released and I was able to go see it. I can’t tell you how cool it was to see the Enterprise-D on an actual movie poster:


It was even cooler to see the TNG crew in action on the big screen, to see Data finally get the emotion chip, and to see the awesome saucer crash sequence—one of the last big movie effects sequences to be accomplished without CGI. But I had this weird nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right, that the movie didn’t live up to what it should’ve been. Of course, today we all know why I felt that way: because Star Trek Generations is a piece of crap.

I’m not going to go into all the movie’s flaws here. Other people have already done that far more capably and humorously than I ever could. But I do want to talk about why it’s a piece of crap. What went wrong? There were two main problems.

1. The Script Was A Joke

Generations was written by two of TNG’s best writers: Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore. Back when the show was on the air, seeing a “Written by Brannon Braga” credit during an episode’s opening scene meant that were in for some kind of cool reality-bending sci-fi story. A “Written by Ronald D. Moore” credit meant that the episode was going to be a strong character piece, probably featuring a meaty moral dilemma or 24th century political intrigue. Both separately and as a team, the two were responsible for some of The Next Generation’s finest episodes. So what went wrong with Generations?

First of all, it’s not like they were given carte blanche to come up with whatever story they wanted. Before they even got the job, Star Trek producer Rick Berman and the Paramount executives decided that the next movie should have the following plot points:

  • It should involve The Original Series cast in some way, or at least William Shatner and whoever else would be willing to work for the meager salary involved.
  • The Original Series cast members, or at least Captain Kirk, would interact in some way with The Next Generation crew, but . . .
  • There would be no time travel, because everyone thought it was an overused plot device.

But that wasn’t all. Because if William Shatner was going to be in the movie, he demanded to have a scene where he got to ride his horse. And Patrick Stewart insisted on having some kind of meaty emotional storyline for Captain Picard. So now Braga and Moore were handed the following list of disparate elements:

  • Kirk and maybe some other members of the original cast meeting up with The Next Generation cast, but without time travel
  • Captain Kirk on a horse
  • Picard having heavy emotional drama, allowing Patrick Stewart to show off his Shakespearean acting skills.

. . . and told to shoehorn all of them into the first movie screenplay they’d ever written. All while juggling their regular duties as staff members on TNG. And they even ended up drawing the plum assignment of writing TNG’s two-hour finale. They had to frantically alternate between working on Generations and “All Good Things”, and they’ve admitted in interviews that they sometimes got the scripts confused during that hectic period.

With all that was going on, it’s no wonder that Generations’ story didn’t make any sense! But if blockbuster films of the last decade or so have taught us anything, it’s that filmmakers can always distract audiences from a script’s Death Star-sized plot holes with lots of special effects and fast-paced action sequences. Unfortunately for Generations, that wasn’t an option because of:

2. Paramount’s Broken Star Trek Business Model

The first Star Trek film in 1979 was made on a budget of about $40 million. That’s about $127 million adjusted for inflation, which puts in in the modestly-priced summer blockbuster range. But when that movie failed to be the Star Wars-slaying megahit that Paramount was hoping for, they decided that any future Trek film would have to be significantly cheaper. Star Trek II was actually made by the studio’s TV division for $11.2 million, or about $26.6 million in today’s dollars. That’s the budget for a romantic comedy, not a space adventure. But it was a hit, and Paramount decided that they’d found their Star Trek budgetary sweet spot. Henceforth, Star Trek movies would be strictly low-to-medium budgeted productions only.

This worked pretty well during the 1980s, and a big reason for that was simple supply and demand. You see, Star Trek fans had been watching the same 78 Original Series reruns since the show ended in 1969. There was an incredible amount of pent-up demand for new material, so the release of a new movie every two to three years was a big event. Fans flocked to see it over and over again. And thanks to technological advancement, the special effects on even a low-budget 1980s movie were light years better than anything the TV series could have done in the ‘60s.

But by the time Generations rolled around in 1994 things had changed. The onetime scarcity of new Star Trek had turned into an abundant surplus. In fact, Generations had a pretty limited time in the spotlight; the big mystery of Odo’s origins had just been solved a month-and-a-half before on Deep Space Nine’s third season premiere, and about a month-and-a-half after Generations was released the fourth TV spinoff, Voyager, had its premiere. And while budgets on the TV shows might’ve been limited, they certainly weren’t miniscule. In fact, the VFX staff did an excellent job putting out near movie-quality special effects on a TV budget. So in order to make Generations feel really cinematic, Paramount would have to spend some serious money to make sure it didn’t just look like an episode of the show projected onto a movie screen.

They did not.

Instead they stuck to their same old business model, and Generations was given a tiny $35 million budget (which works out to about $54.1 million in today’s money). We’re still in romantic comedy territory here. The cost savings were realized by using the same sets, costumes, props, and spaceship models from the TV series. They were even too cheap to pay for a movie director, instead hiring David Carson from their stable of Star Trek TV directors. Things were so bad that, not only did they recycle the effects shot of the Klingon ship exploding from Star Trek VI, but they even reused one of the stock Enterprise flybys from the TV show! The fact that they could even try to get away with that shows what a tiny, almost nonexistent gap there was between what a big-budget TV show and a low-budget movie could do, special effects-wise.

My point is that because Generations was made on basically a television budget and overseen by a television producer and a television director using television actors on television sets acting out a script written by television writers and then scored by a television composer it was exceedingly television-y. Simply releasing it in theaters didn’t make it cinematic. And although it got decent reviews and did pretty good business, the one thing that you kept hearing over and over again was that it seemed like a two-hour episode instead of a movie. It was a criticism that would be repeated for all the TNG films. And although at the time I viewed it as a recourse of snobbish critics who imagined that Star Trek was the nothing more than the nerdy purview of greasy 40-year-old virgins living in their mother’s basement, it was actually pretty accurate.

All of that being said, I do recommend watching this movie. Specifically, I recommend the DVD edition with Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore’s excellent commentary. You see, between the badness of Generations, the horrible formulaic crapstorm of Voyager, and the sheer incompetence of Enterprise, I spent several years believing that Brannon Braga was a high-functioning idiot boy whose only talent was sucking up to his boss. So I was very surprised to listen to the commentary and hear a very funny, self-aware guy named Brannon Braga candidly admit all the problems with the movie and even point out some that I’d never noticed. (Like how everybody on the Enterprise has pictures of space scenes hanging on the wall of their quarters)

You see, in my teens and early twenties I assumed that if a movie or TV show was bad, it was because the director, writer, or producer was an idiot who was bad at their job. And while that’s certainly true at times (like the Joel Schumacher Batman films) very often there are other things going on behind the scenes that the creative people have no control over, things that are never revealed until years later.

So while Star Trek Generations is a maddeningly unsatisfying movie that I’m simply unable to sit through without howling in frustration at how stupid it is, it did manage to teach me a valuable lesson. Not about how time is the fire in which we burn, but that even good people sometimes make bad movies.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Totally Unrealistic EPCOT Center Restoration Idea

People say to me “Hey Dave, you talk all the time about how the people in charge of Disney World are complete idiots who make the wrong decision every single time, especially where EPCOT is concerned, but what would YOU do differently? Huh?”

Okay, actually that’s a lie. No one ever says that. I don’t follow any of the strident Everything-Disney-Does-Is-The-Best-Thing-Ever crowd on Twitter and they don’t follow me, so most of what I say just fades into the electronic aether. I just needed a way to introduce the premise of this article, which is basically what I would do if I had a completely free hand to remake EPCOT as I see fit. In a future article in this series, I’ll tell you what I would do if I could fly to Mars on a giant winged hedgehog.

I think what EPCOT really needs—in fact, what the entire Disney enterprise needs—is to be run by a visionary George Lucas-type person. I don’t much care for the Star Wars prequels. But I massively respect how Lucas, secure in the knowledge that the films would make tons of money no matter what, carried out his own creative vision and gave exactly zero craps what anybody else thought. “Hey, wait a minute!” you might be saying. “Disney should give people what they want!”

No. No, they definitely should not, especially where EPCOT is concerned. People shouldn’t be given what they want, they should be given what they ought to have. Why do I say that? Let’s consider an example. Think back to the mid-2000s, when the rumors first started to swirl that Apple was developing a mobile phone. The Great Internet Speculatron started churning out renderings of what this rumored mobile phone might look like, and all of them looked like Apple-ified versions of existing devices:



The phone that Steve Jobs unveiled in early 2007 was nothing like the vast majority of people had imagined. Simply listening to what people wanted would not have resulted in such a revolutionary device as the original iPhone because most people had no idea that such a device was even possible.

Another example: the third Star Trek spinoff, Deep Space Nine. Prior to that show, the only Star Trek anyone had ever seen was about a group of Starfleet officers flying around the galaxy in a starship. DS9 was totally different, and shortly after it hit the airwaves people were complaining that it was set on a space station that didn’t go anywhere and that it’s characters were not all nobly heroic and didn’t always get along with each other. In short, they were unhappy that it wasn’t like the previous Star Treks they were used to. A direct result of that criticism was the creation of Star Trek: Voyager, a show that hewed closely to the established Star Trek formula and took absolutely no chances. Over a decade after both shows ended their 7-year runs, DS9’s popularity is actually rising thanks to its complex characters, well-plotted storylines, and prescient tackling of post-9/11 issues, and Voyager is generally regarded as an empty piece of fluff by everyone apart from a tiny and fiercely-devoted fanbase.

Bottom line: if you do nothing but chase after the ethereal magic unicorn of What The People Want, you’re doomed to mushy mediocrity. It’s much better to have a clear creative vision and stick to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t bend to people’s tastes when you have to (the way Disney did in the mid-80s when Mickey & friends began making appearances in Future World wearing their silver spacesuits) but you can do it within the framework of your vision. That way your creative endeavor doesn’t devolve into an unfocused mess.

So, all of that being said, here is what I would do with EPCOT. First, I would fix Future World. There would be no more empty pavilion space. Wonders of Life would return in a modernized form. Innoventions would again become CommuniCore and would get exhibits to fill all that empty space. And the refurbished and updated Journey Into Imagination pavilion would bring back the upstairs ImageWorks. New pavilions would be built in the expansion pads. (A new, updated Horizons would definitely be one of those) And every pavilion would be reworked to conform to EPCOT’s original vision: education, entertainment, and inspiration. There would be no pavilions devoted to cartoon characters. (So The Seas with Nemo and his Computer-Generated Friends would become The Living Seas once more) And then, once Future World had been updated and expanded so you could spend a whole day exploring it, I would close World Showcase.

No, not permanently. It’s just really hard to massively rework an area when you have customers walking around in it. One of World Showcase’s big problems has always been its lack of rides. So it would get one. Specifically, the World Cruise. You may recognize the World Cruise as a piece of the sadly-abandoned WestCOT Center concept that was progressively scaled down and chipped away until it became Disney’s California Adventure. WestCOT’s version of the World Showcase was called The Four Corners of the World, and was devoted to different regions rather than individual countries. The World Cruise (also called The River of Time) would’ve been a dark ride that flowed beneath the area with a stop in each “corner” of the world plus a fifth stop in Future World. In between stops, there would be show scenes devoted to whatever themed area the ride was passing under.

Imagine something like that for EPCOT’s World Showcase. True, it couldn’t be done exactly the same way. For one thing, it couldn’t flow beneath the World Showcase without razing the existing buildings, building the World Cruise at ground level, then rebuilding the World Showcase on top of it, the way the Magic Kingdom is built on top of the Utilidors. The most logical thing would probably be to have the World Cruise run behind the existing World Showcase. Also, you couldn’t have a stop in every World Showcase pavilion, especially since part of my plan would be to use every expansion plot. Maybe there would be a stop in every third country. Some of the pavilions might have rides of their own, but each one would at least have a show. And of course there’d be the normal assortment of shops and restaurants. But, like Future World there would be no shows or attractions devoted to Disney films or licensed characters. That means no character dining. EPCOT is not the place for that stuff.

Finally, after the big EPCOT restoration was completely done, there’d be a dedication ceremony officially renaming the park EPCOT Center.

One of the things that the original EPCOT Center did really wonderfully was to use the Disney brand name as a springboard, not a straitjacket. It took the chance of being more adult and educational, of not having any attractions devoted to licensed characters. It took those chances because the people behind it knew that the Disney brand name gave them an automatic audience. People would come just to see the new Disney thing, and once they were in the park, even though it was nothing like the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center’s designers bet that they’d like what they saw. And they were correct. Yes, some people complained that there were no character meals or roller coasters and they were offended that Disney would dare expose them to educational content on their vacation. But a lot of people liked EPCOT Center very much. It’s not like the place was a ghost town while the Magic Kingdom was packed. EPCOT Center was legitimately popular. The only reason the place depends on the Flower & Garden and Food & Wine festivals to support it today is because of two decades of executive ineptitude.

Obviously, all of this is just pie-in-the-sky fantasy on my part. Disney apologists on the Internet are fond of pointing out that it is a business, and therefore cannot afford to spend any of the billions of dollars it rakes in per year making improvements to its theme parks, even though doing so is a proven way to make even more money. And from what I’ve heard the Orlando arm of Disney’s theme park division is a dysfunctional miasma of incompetence and petty office politics that couldn’t muster the collective will to open an umbrella if it was raining. So I have zero confidence that anything positive will happen at EPCOT ever again. I wish I didn’t have to be so pessimistic, but that’s where the facts lead me.

But maybe, at some point in the future, if Disney is led by a strong creative person with the courage to put forward a creative vision and carry it out without being paralyzed by what people might think, things could turn around.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Maelstrom Desecration Response

If you have the Internet and use it to keep up with Disney-related things, then you know that this past Friday afternoon the official Disney Parks blog finally confirmed a months-old rumor; that the Norway pavilion’s Maelstrom ride will be converted to a Frozen-themed attraction.

One thing I love about Twitter is that it allows us to react to things in real time before we’ve really had a chance to think them over. Then we can scurry over to our blogs and write up a more thoughtful reaction, then go back to Twitter and tell everyone to check out our blog. It’s a circle of some kind.

CircleOLife“Hey, Internet! Here’s this thing I wrote!”

The first thing I tweeted in response to the news was this:


Then I tweeted this:

And finally I tweeted this:

And that’s pretty much where I am today. Putting a Fantasyland dark ride into EPCOT is a terrible idea, but at this point it doesn’t matter because almost everyone who really appreciated what EPCOT Center stood for doesn’t go to the park anymore. I realize that last sentence may be a bit controversial, so let me elucidate.

The generally accepted way to create a successful theme park is to take a bunch of preexisting intellectual properties that people like and build a bunch of rides, shows, shops, and restaurants devoted to them. As time goes on and your company churns out new pieces of intellectual property (or acquires them from other, more creative companies) you replace old rides and shows devoted to things that are no longer popular with new rides and shows devoted to your popular new stuff. EPCOT Center was something totally different. It was built around, not intellectual properties, but ideas like futurism and the joy of experiencing different cultures. People came to EPCOT for one of two reasons:

  1. Because they already enjoyed Disney’s other offerings and wanted to check out this latest one.
  2. Because they had a preexisting interest in one of the topics presented at EPCOT. Maybe they were especially interested in ocean life or wanted to eat at a Moroccan restaurant.

The people who loved EPCOT Center but still come to the park anyway belong to that first group. If you asked one of them, they’d probably tell you they’re a Disney fan. Understand I’m not criticizing these people. I’m just pointing out that they’re there. They keep coming to the park because the nostalgic feelings it gives them and their affinity for most things Disney allows them to enjoy themselves there. And that’s totally cool.

I belong to the second group. Yeah, I grew up with various Disney-related entertainment, but it didn’t inspire me or capture my imagination the way other things did. I loved EPCOT Center because of my preexisting interest in science and futuristic technology. When EPCOT moved away from those things and it became clear to me that the people in charge of the park did not care about them anymore, my interest in it declined accordingly. The fact that today’s lowercase Epcot occupies the same physical space and has a bunch of buildings that outwardly resemble those EPCOT Center pavilions I once loved is not enough to make a visit there enjoyable for me.

Now let’s talk about World Showcase for a bit. When I was a kid, I had no use for the place. Sure, part of this is because like most kids I was a cultural Philistine and World Showcase was too adult-oriented for me to appreciate yet. But Future World dealt with some pretty advanced topics, too, and it was my favorite place on the whole planet. The difference between the two was that Future World had rides and World Showcase didn’t. That wasn’t by design. There were always supposed to be more rides; a Rhine River Cruise in Germany, some kind of gondola ride in Italy, and unbuilt pavilions like Spain, Venezuela, and the Soviet Union were also supposed to contain rides. But for various reasons the plans for each of these fell through. As a result, World Showcase has always been kind of dysfunctional. Adding the Norway pavilion with Maelstrom in 1989 was absolutely a step in the right direction. Changing this fanciful but mostly reality-based tribute to Norway into a showcase for a cartoon just because that cartoon did Avengers-level business at the box office is a massive step in the wrong direction.

At this point you might say “Dave, I see where you’re coming from. Disney should using one of those empty World Showcase expansion pads for their Frozen ride!” If this is your opinion, let me respond thusly:

A trait that all the very best EPCOT attractions shared was their refusal to talk down to the audience. They managed to handle complex grown-up topics in ways that were entertaining but also assumed that you had a brain. What message does plopping a Frozen ride into the Norway pavilion send? This: “Hey audience, there’s no way the country of Norway could possibly interest you because all you care about is stuffing your face with mass-market entertainment! So here’s another helping of that!” Putting a Fantasyland ride into World Showcase goes against everything that World Showcase is supposed to be.

I’ve heard some people argue that it’s okay because Frozen was a good movie that they personally enjoyed. Those people are missing the point. The Emperor’s New Groove was a good movie that I enjoyed, but that doesn’t mean that the Yzma’s Secret Lab Roller Coaster belongs in the Mexico pavilion.

There have been some efforts to get Disney to reverse their decision by using the hashtag #SaveMaelstrom, apparently because if you can get a hashtag trending on Twitter it somehow bends the fabric of the space-time continuum and makes the thing you’re trying to accomplish magically happen. These efforts are not going to work any more than the hashtag #LessExplosionsAndSexismPlease would move Michael Bay to completely change his style of filmmaking. The people who ran the Walt Disney Company when EPCOT Center was being designed and built are not there anymore, and the people in charge now have absolutely no allegiance to their ideas or set of values. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. No social media campaign can induce the leadership of a Fortune 100 company to fundamentally change the way they do things. Heck, as of this writing it hasn’t even been able to shame NFL commissioner Roger Goodell into resigning for looking the other way when the people in his employ violently beat women and children.

Now, after saying all of that I have to admit that while I’m opposed to the Frozen Maelstrom replacement, I’m not too worked up about it. It’s like if the Peruvian government started selling billboard space on the buildings at Machu Picchu; it’s a horrible, crass decision and I don’t like it, but it doesn’t directly affect my life in any way.

[A clever concluding sentence goes here]