Monday, March 10, 2014

The Disney Affinity Clarification

A little housekeeping before I get started with today’s topic: To date, the most-read post on this blog has been The Walt Disney World Ticket Price Inflation, my article on how Walt Disney World ticket prices have changed over time. It contained a lot of charts and numbers, and in an explanatory paragraph at the very beginning of the article I linked to the sources of my information and explained how I arrived at the figures that appeared below. The idea behind this was to allow any reader to verify the figures for themselves if they wished, and to demonstrate that I had not just made everything up.

I’m happy to report that even though I’ve always been prone to math errors, the information in the original version of the article was 99% correct. Unfortunately I did make one mistake, and it was a whopper. I might never have realized it, except that an online article in Bloomberg Businessweek, an actual grown-up organization that presumably employs real journalists, ran an article in which they quoted the passage from my blog post that contained the mistake. A nice person left a comment alerting me to what had happened, and I corrected my post and emailed the Bloomberg reporter to let him know about the mistake. I never heard back, but the article has been corrected, so I guess he got the message.

I have to tell you, I’m very flattered that a reporter for an established business magazine considered me, a random blogger, to be a reliable-enough source that he simply quoted my math without checking it even though I had provided the means to easily do so. Or maybe it makes me weep for the once-proud profession of journalism, I’m not really sure.

And now on to today’s topic: personal branding!

Thanks to social media, anyone can have a platform to broadcast their random neural firings to the entire Internet. With a little forethought, you can sign up for multiple social media services—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.—and create a sort of cross-platform alternate identity for yourself. Social media experts call this a “personal brand”. The thing is, unless you’re already famous nobody is going to care about your personal brand. So what a lot of people do is associate their online persona with a famous, previously-existing brand that people like. For example, Disney.

Just about anyone can start a social media account that focuses mainly on Disney and quickly attract at least a small audience. I found this out by accident; I started with this blog and regular posting on a Disney message board, and now I have over 1,260 Twitter followers and over 200 followers apiece on both Tumblr and Instagram. And—I can’t emphasize this strongly enough—I’m not really trying to attract people. Whereas many bloggers pay careful attention to which of their posts get the most hits, and then tailor future posts along those lines to maximize their pageviews, my creative process goes more like this:

The most popular social media post I ever made is a picture on my Tumblr of Cinderella’s Castle in 1972 that I got from an old family photo album. I just scanned it and posted it without any attempt at witty commentary, and it’s been liked or reblogged over 4100 times. That’s a pretty tiny number in Internet terms, but for me it’s huge because (and I emphasize this) I am not really trying to attract an audience. And it underscores the point I’m making, which is that any social media post associated with a beloved brand will automatically attract some level of attention. It has nothing to do with the person making the post.

But a lot of bloggers are trying to attract and grow an audience. The truth is that this Internet version of attention can be a little seductive. It’s nice to make some kind of social media post and instantly have several likes or retweets or whatever. And since most companies are aware of the power of social media but don’t really understand it, someone who’s really good at attaching their “personal brand” to a corporation may even be seen as a powerful influencer and treated to free stuff by that corporation, in hopes that they can somehow reach a huge audience that the company with its multimillion-dollar advertising budget cannot. But in order to enjoy that level of popularity in the world of Disney-oriented social media you pretty much have to be at the theme parks constantly, posting pictures and tweeting tidbits of “news”, like a sign at Pecos Bill’s getting a new coat of paint. And if you’re at the parks that much it’s hard not to notice how they’re getting continually worse. The fact is that for many years now the American parks—especially the ones in Florida—have been run according to this flowchart:

flowchart

It’s impossible to spend a lot of time at the parks—or participate in the online Disney fan community—without figuring this out. For the average person whose “personal brand” isn’t inextricably linked to the Walt Disney Company, this would completely turn them off the place. “To heck with those dirtbags!” they’d say to themselves. “I’m going to take my vacations elsewhere from now on!”

But what if your entire Internet identity and social media following is predicated on a constant stream of pictures and news Disney theme parks? Then you have a couple options:

  1. Stop going to the parks and run the risk of losing most, if not all, of your social media followers.
  2. Keep going to the parks, ignore the bad things that are happening, and continue posting pretty pictures of Cinderella Castle or the Citrus Swirl you’re having in front of the Tiki Room.

So why am I saying all of this? Well, my online identity is very much associated with Disney. In the past I may have even called myself a “Disney fan”. But, if you’ve followed my postings and tweetings for a little while, you’ll notice that I’ve become progressively more disillusioned and disgusted with the way the Parks and Resorts division of the company is run. The Cut Costs/Raise Prices/Repeat business model has, for me, made the parks a simultaneously unpleasant and expensive place to be. I haven’t set foot on Disney property since 2011 and have no plans to do so in the near or distant future. But I’ve learned something from all this: I was never really a Disney fan at all.

Although I’ve been exposed to Disney entertainment all my life and usually liked it well enough, the first Disney-related thing I really obsessed over was EPCOT Center’s Future World. Why? Because it so perfectly spoke to my preexisting interest in science fiction and futurism. And as Disney’s focus on that kind of thing died away and attractions with that theme were removed forever, my interest in the parks atrophied. Believe me, I would love nothing better than for them to be great again. But the company would need totally new executive leadership and a complete restructuring of the Parks and Resorts division, not to mention an investment of billions upon billions of dollars to reverse the damage from the last 20 years or so, for that to happen.

So I have a choice to make. I can keep writing the same few posts about what’s wrong with Disney World, which would just bore us all to death. Or I can write about other stuff, instead. After all, the little “What is futureprobe?” box at the top of the sidebar says that, in addition to being about EPCOT Center, this blog is also about Star Trek and other optimistic visions of the future. So I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to branch out a little. Don’t worry, I’ll still write about Disney-related things now and then and I’ll continue to talk about the company on Twitter and post pictures of the parks as they once were on my Tumblr. But the focus of this blog will shift.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride. If not, then that’s okay, too. It is, after all, a very big Internet.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Technobabble Kudzu

Let’s play a little game. Guess which TV show this scene is from:

FEDERAL AGENT: Whatcha got?

CRIME LAB TECH: Well, I went through the victim’s laptop, but I didn’t find anything at first. Then I noticed that there were some encrypted files stored away in a hidden partition of RAM.

AGENT: And?

TECH: And our victim knew what the terrorists are planning. They’re going to hack the Internet!

AGENT: Which part?

TECH: All of it.

AGENT: That’s good work. I have to go tell the Director.

Did you guess CSI? NCIS? NCIS: Los Angeles? 24? Criminal Minds? Something from the Law and Order franchise? It could be any of those, couldn’t it? You can find this basic scene (complete with technical lingo written by someone who doesn’t understand computers) in at least one episode of any crime procedural that’s been on the air in the last decade or so.

Now let’s do another one. See if you can guess where this scene comes from:

CAPTAIN: Report!

ENSIGN GREENHORN: We’re trapped in an inverse quantum field distortion! If we don’t get out in five minutes it’ll reduce us to thermolytic particles!

CAPTAIN: Options?

LT. COMMANDER ENGINEER: We could modify the main deflector with an array of phase discriminators, then use them to generate a modulated anti-tachyon pulse that should create an ionic resonance in the event horizon.

CAPTAIN: Like a stockbroker popping a balloon in a winery?

ENGINEER: Exactly! With any luck, the dekyon field modulation should be enough to break us free.

CAPTAIN: Make it so.

Any guesses? Of course it’s one of the Star Treks. It could only be one of the Star Treks. And from that scene it’s pretty easy to see why most of the Star Trek shows are totally inaccessible to all but a tiny core of devoted fans.

You see, even though the crime procedural scene had plenty of nonsensical technobabble, there were still recognizable characters with an easily understandable problem. The Federal Agent character was trying to catch the bad guys, and the Lab Tech gave him some information to help him do that.

But in the Star Trek scene, what exactly is going on? The ship is caught in an “inverse quantum field distortion”? And if they can’t get out they’re going to be “reduced to thermolytic particles”? Is this a bad thing? The characters certainly act like it is, but since the normal human members of the audience don’t know what any of that stuff is we have no way to gauge how bad. It might be excusable if the characters’ problem was based in reality, but it’s not. Basically, they’re ensnared by a 100% made-up phenomenon, and their solution is to use imaginary, 100% made-up technology to do some kind of 100% made-up psuedoscientific thing that will get them out of it. It’s not exciting, it’s not interesting, it’s just boring, boring, BORING!

Amazingly, Star Trek did not start out this way. Originally it was a show on NBC in the late ‘60s, a time before cable TV and Netflix when there were only three TV channels. Every show was designed to appeal to a large audience, because otherwise it simply couldn’t stay on the air. With that in mind, the original Star Trek show “bible”—the guide for writers and directors that outlined the format of the show and gave details about the characters—had this to say about the use of sci-fi technical lingo:

Tell your story about people, not about science and gadgetry. Joe Friday doesn't stop to explain the mechanics of his .38 before he uses it; Kildare never did a monologue about the theory of anesthetics; Matt Dillon never identifies and discusses the breed of his horse before he rides off on it.

How much science fiction terminology do you want?
The less you use, the better. We limit complex terminology as much as possible, use it only where necessary to maintain the flavor of the show and encourage believability. IMPORTANT: The writer must know what he means when he uses science or projected science terminology. A scattergun confusion of meaningless phrases only detracts from believability.

For the most part, the people who wrote for the Original Series followed these guidelines. And since that show launched a multibillion-dollar entertainment franchise that we’re still talking about today, they were obviously doing something right. So what happened? How did Star Trek’s spinoffs get taken over by technobabble? The first culprit is:

1. The Fans

From the very beginning, Gene Roddenberry and his production team set out to make serious science fiction, not a goofy kiddie show like Lost In Space. One of the ways they went about this was to make sure that Star Trek’s futuristic technology was depicted as believably and consistently as possible. Star Trek was the first televised science fiction to even attempt this, and as a result it attracted a lot of fans from technical, scientific, and engineering fields.

marinerv_oct67_controlNASA Mission Control technicians in 1967 wearing Spock ears. Source: Trekcore

Some of these fans didn’t just see these technical details for what they were: necessary window-dressing to make the Star Trek universe feel like a real place. These details were, in themselves, the main reason they watched the show. I’m not saying they were enjoying Star Trek wrong; part of the show’s genius is that it can be enjoyed simultaneously by different people on different levels. But I believe that their passion for the technical details for Star Trek affected how the spinoffs were produced.

These more technically-minded fans peppered Gene Roddenberry (and sometimes even James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty) with technical questions about the Enterprise and how it worked, both in person and through letters. And they were quick to point out any mistakes and inconsistencies. So when work started on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1986, the production staff was keenly aware that their work was going to be endlessly scrutinized and freeze-framed, and any little mistake that might be made in the rush of television production would be instantly noticed. So if there was a throwaway line of dialogue referring to the main Hydroponics Lab on Deck 25, then that piece of information had to be preserved and added to some kind of a knowledge base so a future writer wouldn’t mess up and mention the main Hydroponics Lab being located on Deck 11. (Actually, the writers didn’t really need to know this information; the scripts would usually be checked by a continuity person who would correct any little details.)

To help the production staff keep up with all the technical information that had been established in previous episodes and thus help maintain Star Trek’s famed internal consistency, Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda took it upon themselves to draft a series of memos which were eventually collected into a document called the Writers Technical Manual. (Early in TNG’s fifth season, the Manual was expanded and sold commercially by Pocket Books) It was full of information about how the warp drive, the transporters, and the holodecks “really” worked. Now, I’m not criticizing Sternbach and Okuda here. I think they’re awesome, and the fact that they Queen of England hasn’t knighted them is one of the great injustices of our time. But a lot of that stuff they established in the Technical Manual just served to bog the show down.

For example, in the sixth-season episode “Second Chances” we meet a transporter-created duplicate of Will Riker. Something similar happened in the Original Series episode “The Enemy Within” and the technical explanation was basically “a guy beamed up with some weird alien ore on his clothes and it made the transporter start duplicating stuff”. But on TNG we had to sit through a wordy, complex explanation involving annular confinement beams, pattern buffers, distortion fields, and phase differentials. Why? Because the transporter was no longer the “black box” it had been on the Original Series. The Technical Manual explained its inner workings in great detail, and therefore those details had to be present in the obligatory “where Riker’s duplicate came from” scene. Because the fans would notice if they weren’t. Another problem was:

2. The Star Trek: The Next Generation Plot Formula

Every episodic TV series has a basic plot formula that it follows probably 85% of the time. Gene Roddenberry didn’t want his characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation constantly shooting or punching their way out of problems. They also weren’t allowed to have normal human personality flaws (only Worf could do that, because he was a Klingon). So how do you write for an alleged action-adventure show that doesn’t revolve around the characters getting into conflicts with villains or each other? Enter the Technobabble Mystery Plot.

The way the Technobabble Mystery Plot worked was, a Weird Thing would happen that threatened the ship or crew, and our characters would have to figure out why the Weird Thing was happening and how to escape from it or make it stop. Of course, the “Weird Thing Happening” plot device is a staple of science fiction, and was used to great effect on The Twilight Zone. But on that show, it was used to expose hidden flaws in the characters and examine the human condition. And the Weird Thing was almost never explained. That wouldn’t work on Star Trek, since it was about a group of explorers whose whole reason for being out in space was to seek out and analyze strange stuff. And so there was always a technobabble-filled scene where Data or Geordi figured out the scientific explanation for the Weird Thing and explained it to everyone else. Then we got more technobabble as they devised a plan to resolve the problem caused by the Weird Thing, followed by even more technobabble as they implemented the plan.

The frequent use of this plot formula served to divorce Star Trek even more from reality and make it less relatable to casual fans. You see, when a writer came up with a Weird Thing that he/she wanted to happen, like the crew de-evolving into animals, getting turned into children, or frozen in time, the technical and science consultants had to come up with a “scientific” way of making that happen. Only there is no scientific way that most of that stuff could happen, so the consultants had to make up some technobabble that sounded scientific. This technobabble would then become part of the show’s official continuity. Over time, this led to “Star Trek science” becoming an almost totally separate thing from real science.

Fortunately, The Next Generation had an excellent writing staff, (starting in Season Three, anyway) one of the best ever assembled, and they were mostly able to keep the scripts fresh and accessible, at least until the show’s last couple seasons. Deep Space Nine avoided the technobabble trap as well as any 1990s Star Trek production could, thanks to showrunner Ira Steven Behr, the excellent writers, and the fact that the studio largely ignored it. The third spinoff, Voyager, was not so lucky. Partially because it inherited the some of the most technobabble-prone writers from TNG, like Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky. But mainly because of:

3. Rick Berman

When Gene Roddenberry became too ill to oversee TNG, producer Rick Berman took over Executive Producer duties after winning a power struggle with Gene’s lawyer. Unlike Gene, Berman was not a creative person. His talents lay in getting TV shows produced on time and under budget; he had no creative vision for Star Trek or anything else. At first, this was okay. Starting with the third season of TNG, head writer Michael Piller was mostly responsible for the creative side of things, and in addition to being a major factor in TNG’s success he also co-created Deep Space Nine and Voyager. But then Piller left the franchise very early in Voyager’s run and Berman assumed a bigger role in the creative direction of the show.

This was bad because, as I mentioned, Rick Berman had no creative vision. He just wanted to keep his employer’s golden Star Trek goose alive. And the only way he knew to make sure Star Trek would be successful in the future was to stick to whatever had seemed to work in the past. Thus, Voyager pretty much restricted itself to two things that had worked on The Next Generation: Technobabble Mystery Plots and the Borg. But I’m not saying it ran those things into the ground, I’m saying it ran them way down into the ground, broke through the crust, and went down into the mantle. It got to the point where if all the technobabble were subtracted from an average episode, it would shrink to a five-minute skit. I’m not saying it was all Rick Berman’s fault; Voyager’s writing staff was basically comprised of TNG second-and-third-stringers. But even TNG’s top writers couldn’t have worked under Rick Berman’s restrictions that had nothing to do with making good TV and everything to do with protecting his own hindquarters.

One of those top writers, Ronald D. Moore (who went on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica) worked on Voyager very briefly after Deep Space Nine went off the air, and he left in disgust after only two episodes. After the dust from his departure settled, he gave an interview in which he had this to say about the technobabble kudzu that had taken over Star Trek:

"How many space anomalies of the week can you really stomach? How many time paradoxes can you do? When I was studying [VOYAGER], getting ready to work on it, I was watching the episodes, and the technobabble was just enervating; it was just soul sapping. Vast chunks of scenes would go by, and I had no idea what was going on. I write this stuff; I live this stuff. I do know the difference between the shields and the deflectors, and the ODN conduits and plasma tubes. If I can’t tell what’s going on, I know the audience has no idea what’s going on. Everyone will say the same thing. From the top down, you bring up this point, and everybody will say, ‘I am the biggest opponent of techno-babble. I hate technobabble. I am the one who is always saying, less technobabble.’ They all say that. None of them do it. I’ve always felt that you never impress the audience. The audience doesn’t sit there and go, ‘[Wow], they know science. That is really cool. Look how they figured that out. Hey Edna! Come here. You want to see how Chakotay is going to figure this out. He’s onto this thing with the quantum tech particles; it’s really interesting. I don’t know how he is going to do it, but he is going to reroute something. Oh my God, he found the anti-protons!’ Who cares? Nobody watches STAR TREK for those scenes. The actors hate those scenes; the directors hate those scenes; and the writers hate those scenes. But it’s the easiest card to go to. It’s a lot easier to tech your way out of a situation than to really think your way out of a situation, or make it dramatic, or make the characters go through some kind of decision or crisis. It’s a lot easier if you can just plant one of them at a console and start banging on the thing, and flash some Okudagrams, and then come up with the magic solution that is going to make all this week’s problems go away."-Source: Lcarscom.net

J.J. Abrams did a lot of things wrong when he rebooted Star Trek in 2009. But one thing he did absolutely right was reduce the technobabble. There’s almost none. Yes, the dire situations the characters get into are mostly contrived, illogical, and ripped off from earlier Star Treks. But, to Abrams’ and his team’s credit, the solution to their problem is never to push buttons while shouting technobabble, it’s always to do something active, kinetic, and pretty easily understandable. And as much as hardcore fans complain about how his movies get the technical details “wrong”, those movies have been the two biggest-grossing ones in the series, which means that Star Trek won’t take a financial hit if it ignores them.

So as much as I complain about the ridiculous amounts of technobabble that filled most of the Rick-Berman produced Star Trek shows and movies, it did serve a purpose: it showed future stewards of Star Trek what not to do. Whatever happens with Star Trek in the future, I’m willing to bet that its days of substituting technobabble for good dramatic writing are in the past.

At least I hope they are.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Star Wars Canon Kerfuffle

Recently, news began to circulate that Disney had tasked Leland Chee and Pablo Hidalgo-the Lucasfilm employees who serve as the keepers of the Star Wars canon-to simplify and redefine that canon, meaning that a lot of the stuff in the licensed novels, comics, and video games would presumably cease to be part of the “official” Star Wars universe. Predictably, the Internet reacted to this as though it actually mattered. Well, guess what? It doesn’t.

I realize this may seem shocking. A sci-fi geek saying that the canon of a fictional universe doesn’t matter is a bit like a Supreme Court justice saying that the Constitution doesn’t need all those amendments. To illustrate where I’m coming from here, let’s take a look at the other most famous science fiction franchise: Star Trek.

After the release of the first Star Trek film in 1979, there was an explosion of officially licensed Star Trek novels, comics, roleplaying sourcebooks, and technical manuals. All of these things purported to define parts of the Star Trek universe that had never been seen on screen. But there was no official Star Trek Canon Policy from Paramount that explicitly said whether or not these things were a part of the “real” Star Trek universe. As long as the various licensed novels, comics, and other books didn’t try to make any wholesale changes to the Star Trek universe or directly contradict what had been seen on screen, they were free to do what they wanted. The result was a wonderful run of creativity. Novels like The Final Reflection, The Romulan Way, The Entropy Effect, and Strangers From The Sky really pushed the limits of what Star Trek could be and became bestsellers in the process.

Meanwhile, the people making the films mostly ignored the licensed material and did their own thing. Some of the pictures from the Star Fleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph showed up as display graphics on the Enterprise bridge set, but that was as far as it went. So what happened to Star Trek without an Official Canon Policy? Chaos? Panic in the streets? Dogs and cats living together? Nope. Star Trek fans happily read their novels, comics, and technical manuals while waiting for the next movie to come out, and if that movie contradicted something they’d read in a piece of licensed fiction, they just rolled with it. Meanwhile, Star Trek’s popularity continued to grow. In fact, it was so successful that Paramount decided to create a new spinoff TV show to premiere in the fall of 1987 and guess who they hired to produce it?

gene_roddenberryNo, it’s not John Lassetter’s dad

Right around the time Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, Gene Roddenberry used his newfound authority over the franchise to impose Star Trek’s first-ever official canon policy. (Roddenberry was effectively fired by Paramount after the poor performance of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His return as showrunner for The Next Generation was the first time he’d had any control over Star Trek since 1979) Under Roddenberry’s decree, only live-action onscreen Star Trek productions could ever be considered “canon”. Everything else-the animated series, the novels, the various tech manuals and roleplaying sourcebooks-was not considered “real” Star Trek. Now, it’s one thing for the creator and executive producer of a TV show to impose guidelines on his writers. It’s part of his job, in fact. And Gene’s canon policy pretty much just codified what the guys who worked on the film series had been doing all along. But Roddenberry’s authority also extended to all licensed products, like novels and comic books, and here’s where it caused a problem.

You see, explosion of creativity in the Star Trek novels of the early-to-mid-1980s led to a deepening and enrichment of Star Trek lore. It also led to Gene Roddenberry getting questions at conventions about when various popular characters and elements from these novels might make it into onscreen productions. And this irked him. Ever since he started doing convention appearances in the 1970s, Roddenberry had been downplaying the contributions to the original Star Trek TV series by people like Gene Coon or D.C. Fontana and promoting the idea that he was the sole creator of Star Trek and all the good ideas came from him, and him alone. But it was harder for him to downplay the contributions of an author like Diane Duane when her name was on the books where those contributions appeared. And he really hated it when Duane was referred to as “creator of the Rihannsu”. In Gene Roddenberry’s mind, he was the One True God of Star Trek, and to call someone else the “creator” of some Star Trek-related thing was blasphemy.

My point here is that Roddenberry didn’t just impose an Official Star Trek Canon Policy to serve as a guideline for writers on his show. He did it to expunge from the Star Trek universe those elements that other people had created without his input. It was his way of hiking his leg and marking his territory, and it was ultimately counter-intuitive and bad for the franchise. Many of the best authors were driven away by the restrictive decrees that were enforced-often in the most dictatorial and counter-intuitive way imaginable- by Roddenberry’s manservant, Richard Arnold. (Do a Google search if you’re interested in the particulars) Sure, a few good books managed to make it through the canon minefield (Doctor’s Orders by Diane Duane, for example) but overall the quality of Star Trek novels took a sharp dive in the late 1980s and didn’t recover for about a decade.

Not only that, but the canon policy meant that this was a “real” part of Paramount Pictures’ most valuable tentpole franchise:

gorgon

As was this:

nightinsickbay_562

But not these:

 Romulan Way

  StrangersFromTheSkyOrigCover 

It would have been best if the studio had stayed away from trying to define and maintain an official Star Trek canon. The arrangement that prevailed throughout most of the 1980s, where the movie people did their own movie-specific thing, the novel people did their own book-specific thing, and the comics people did their own comics-specific thing, was perfectly fine.

And this is the same path I believe the folks in charge of Star Wars should take, as well. Rather than inserting themselves into silly debates about the “real” nature of a fictional universe, they should simply have smart, dedicated people in charge of the movies, TV shows, books, comics, video games, and so on, and let them do the best work they can in their chosen medium. The fans will pick and choose what they like and what they don’t.

Isn’t that what entertainment is all about?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Shaving Mr. Banks

When I went to see Saving Mr. Banks on New Years Day, I didn’t know what to expect. Oh, I knew what the movie was about. But I didn’t know if I’d enjoy it. For one thing, the Internet Preemptive Movie Outrage Machine had been making angry noises about this film for months, even before it had finished principal photography. And since the Disney corporation routinely treats its founder like just another licensed character (one wonders if the vacuous social media drones who run the Disney Parks Blog even know that Walt Disney was a real person) the idea that the film would depict Walt as a saintly, one-dimensional figure was a very real concern.

mrbanksOkay, I Photoshopped Chris Hansen in there. But otherwise, this is an actual piece of marketing for the film.

Now, a lot of people have excoriated this movie because it pays fast and loose with the facts, especially as they relate to P.L. Travers. But didn’t we know that was going to happen? Haven’t we realized by now that “based on a true story” is Hollywood-speak for “95% dramatic embellishment”? Even if you didn’t know anything about P.L. Travers before seeing this movie, you can probably guess that the viewing of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins neither magically resolved her daddy issues (and that those daddy issues were the invention of a Hollywood screenwriter) nor restored her creative mojo. And if you were surprised that a movie distributed by the Disney corporation chose to softpedal the real P.L. Travers’ dislike for their Mary Poppins film, then I imagine you’re also shocked when a Michael Bay movie contains explosions.

For me the real surprise of this movie was its treatment of Walt Disney. A lot of people worried that Tom Hanks would just play him like, well, a mustachioed Tom Hanks. They really should have given the guy more credit. After all, actors who only play a thinly-disguised version of themselves don’t win multiple Best Actor Oscars. But the fact that Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks gives a good performance is not what’s surprising here. It’s that Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t give us the whitewashed portrayal of Walt Disney that many people feared. He’s a genial presence, sure, but he can also be a bit manipulative and even devious. I was genuinely surprised that a company as pathologically dishonest about almost everything relating to itself as Disney is would allow its founder to be portrayed that three-dimensionally.

Also, I loved the movie’s depiction of the Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland in the early 1960s. I don’t have any facts to back this up, but I believe that current CEO Bob Iger would like people to draw parallels between Walt and himself because both men acquired other people’s intellectual property for use by the Disney company. But for me, Saving Mr. Banks was a reminder of why the Walt Disney Company’s golden age has come and gone: the company has gotten too big, and there is no Walt. During Disney’s 1960s heyday, the company was small enough that it was possible for everything it did to reflect the creative vision of one person. Today’s Walt Disney Company is just too large for any one person to be intimately involved in everything it does. And even if that wasn’t the case, people like Walt come along only once in a generation. This generation’s Walt Disney, whoever he or she might be, is probably at the helm of their own company, not working at an ossified multinational behemoth like Disney or Microsoft.

In the end, Saving Mr. Banks reminded me that Disney became a beloved worldwide institution because of the guy it’s named after. In the absence of someone like that, any company-even one with competent management-would flounder creatively. The Walt Disney Company’s “golden age” of the 1950s and 60s was a unique time that will never come again. And even as brick-and-mortar products of that period, like Disneyland, are altered beyond recognition by clueless corporate decision-making, films like Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and The Love Bug endure unchanged, giving us a crystal-clear snapshot of a modern Renaissance as it recedes farther and farther into the past.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Tony Baxter Main Street Window Significance

Recently longtime Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter was honored with his own window on Disneyland’s Main Street.

baxterswindowTom Staggs’ smile is about as convincing as Marv Albert’s toupee

This is a very big deal. Tony Baxter’s contributions to the Disney theme parks are akin to those of Curt Swan to the Superman mythos or Tinker Hatfield to Nike; hugely important, but largely unknown outside the fan community. So it’s great to see him getting public recognition in the form of his very own window on Main Street in Walt’s own park. There’s scarcely a higher honor that the company can bestow on an employee. It’s tempting to look at this as the company (and its executives) formally recognizing and even celebrating the accomplishments of one of the finest Imagineers ever. But make no mistake: what looked like a “thank you for your years of service” ceremony was actually the company’s way of putting Mr. Baxter out to pasture.

Tony Baxter, you see, was a relic from the old days when Disney actually cared about the quality of its offerings. I’m not saying that back in The Good Old Days the company was a nonprofit charity that would never dirty its hands with money. Heck, plenty of people accused Walt Disney of crass commercialism during his lifetime. But Walt imbued his company with a sense of passion for the things it worked on. They didn’t simply make, for example, a movie about Cinderella or a theme park attraction with singing Animatronic birds because a financial analysis said those things would be profitable. They made them because they liked them. There was a visible commitment to quality in everything with the Disney name on it, and that’s perhaps the main reason why Disney is one of the world’s most-loved brands. But that passion and commitment to quality that Walt and the first-generation Imagineers passed on to people like Tony Baxter just isn’t shared by the company’s executive leadership anymore. I’m not just saying that because I’m still grumpy that they tore down Horizons. It’s a demonstrable fact.

Take that piece of news last week that CEO Bob Iger is insisting upon a Summer 2015 release date for the next Star Wars film despite the fact that 2014 is less than two months away and the movie is still in pre-pre-production, with no cast and not even a completed script. It’s virtually guaranteed that the film is going to be a rush job at this point, and it’s really hard to make sure a movie is good when you’re just scrambling to get it out on time. Logically, if Mr. Iger genuinely enjoyed Star Wars and had a firm commitment to making sure that anything with Disney’s name on it was as good as it could possibly be, he’d agree to postpone the film’s release to 2016. Whatever money this decision cost Disney would surely be recouped when J.J. Abrams and friends delivered a finely-tuned Star Wars film for 2016 that didn’t have to share the spotlight with Avengers 2 and the Superman/Batman movie in 2015. But instead he’s sticking to his guns and demanding a summer 2015 release. Why? For two reasons:

  1. Star Wars movies always make a lot of money regardless of how good or bad they are.
  2. 2015 is Bob Iger’s last year as CEO.

Since the next Star Wars is guaranteed to be a financial success regardless of its quality, and Iger won’t be able to take full credit for that success if it happens in 2016, Episode 7’s release will not be postponed no matter how grotesquely behind schedule it is. It could get to the point where there’s no time to do anything other than have J.J. Abrams and a production assistant act the movie out with action figures and make lightsaber noises with their mouths, and Iger would refuse to budge. Short-term profit and political things like who gets credit for what are infinitely more important to today’s Disney executives than putting out a quality product.

My point is that there is no longer any place in today’s Walt Disney Company for people who do things the way Tony Baxter and the first-generation Imagineers who mentored him did. It’s very telling that the newest, most technologically advanced theme park attractions in Florida belong to Universal Studios, a Disney competitor. Meanwhile, the newest thing at Walt Disney World (aside from the annual price increases, of course) is a crowd management/data mining system that makes vacation planning more difficult and attraction lines longer. Tony Baxter was a troublesome reminder of a time when it was heresy to suggest closing a ride or skimping on maintenance to increase profits at an already-profitable theme park. And now he’s gone.

Yes, he has a window on Main Street, along with Walt Disney and the artists and Imagineers who helped him transform “Disney” from some guy’s last name into beloved symbol of childhood innocence and human progress. And just like them, he has no share in directing the company. There are still good people there, of course, and maybe one day they’ll get their names in Main Street windows, too. Meanwhile the marketers, finance guys, and ex-TV weathermen at the helm of today’s Walt Disney Company will continue to slowly run it aground.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Star Trek Action Figure Deficiency

The merits of Star Trek and Star Wars have been debated by their respective fanbases since the beginning of time. Not many people know this, but the famous prehistoric cave paintings in France are actually an ancient debate about which was “better”, Star Trek or Star Wars. Of course, thanks to the Internet we can now engage in these kinds of trivial debates without having to leave our house to commit cave graffiti. But one thing that I think everyone can agree on is that Star Wars has the better toys.

Like most kids in the 1980s, my toy chest contained lots of things from Kenner’s original Star Wars action figure line. It was really a toy industry game-changer. There was an action figure for nearly every character and background alien in the movies. Each figure came with one or two accessories, and their hands were sculpted in such a way that most figures could hold most of the accessories that came with other figures. Even better, the toy line also included almost every vehicle that appeared in the films (and a few that didn’t) and the fairly uniform size of the action figures meant that any figure could fit in any vehicle. The characters and vehicles were as faithful to the film versions as was possible with late ‘70s-to-early-1980s manufacturing methods, and the toys were a blast to play with.

KennerMFThis kid seems strangely okay with being trapped in a featureless orange void without his lower body.

Naturally, other toy companies scrambled to copy Kenner’s winning formula, often by making toys for the various sci-fi movies and TV shows that studios began releasing in the late ‘70s to capitalize on the success of Star Wars. For example: Star Trek licensee Mego.

The now-defunct toymaker Mego must have have thanked their lucky stars in 1978 when Paramount Pictures announced a big-budget Star Trek film. After all, they had passed on the Star Wars license before that movie was released (their executives reportedly said that Mego couldn’t be bothered to make toys for every sci-fi B-movie that came along) and Star Trek had a highly enthusiastic fanbase that would buy just about anything with with the Star Trek name on it.

spockhelmetCase in point

Yes, Mego’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture action figure line was as close to a guaranteed success as you could get. The only way it could fail is if the toys were lame or the movie was boring. Of course, what happened was that it failed because the toys were lame and the movie was boring. First, let’s look at the toys themselves. The entire action figure line consisted of a respectable 12 figures: 6 members of the Enterprise crew and 6 aliens, including a Klingon.

TMP_figurelineupImage from cooltoyreview.com

Unfortunately, the alien characters were only widely available in Canada and Europe. This meant that if kids in the US were sufficiently excited by Star Trek: The Motion Picture to want to play with its toys, only the six “good guy” figures were available to them. Even worse, none of the characters came with any accessories (by which I mean plastic weapons). Also, there weren’t any vehicles available, partially because Mego didn’t know what it was doing and partially because the Star Trek movie didn’t have Star Wars’ assortment of landspeeders and fighter craft. There was an Enterprise bridge playset, but it was nothing but a piece of cheap vacuform plastic with stickers on it. Basically all you could do was have the characters do was stand around and talk to each other. Just like in the movie!

You see, although Paramount probably wanted Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be a rollicking Star Wars-like adventure, under Gene Roddenberry’s influence it turned out to be a glacially-paced exploration of the human condition. Also, unlike the younger cast of Star Wars, Star Trek’s group of middle-aged TV actors probably weren’t up for a lot of running and jumping anyway. This made for an intelligent film, but to a kid it was about as exciting as C-SPAN. Even if the Star Trek: The Motion Picture toy line had been handled by a company that knew what it was doing it still probably wouldn’t have sold well.

Fast forward to 1987. With the end of the Star Wars trilogy three years before, the Kenner toy line had dwindled away. Star Trek, however, was just getting started with the premiere of a brand-new TV series. As a kid, I was incredibly excited for Star Trek: The Next Generation. As part of the marketing blitz that accompanied the new show, Cheerios ran a promotion where you could enter a contest for the chance to appear as an extra in an episode. (Check out this amazing article on Trekcore for more info about the Cheerios promotion) 75,000 runners-up received a small plastic Enterprise as a consolation prize, and it came with this promotional flyer for a new toy line from Galoob:

galoob_flyer2Image from Trekcore.com

According to the flyer, Galoob had all kinds of great things in store for us. Action figures! A bridge playset with animated viewscreen images and a transporter room playset with some kind of cool effect to make your figures seem to disappear! And there was more to come!

Sure enough, just a few months later Galoob’s Star Trek action figures started to appear in stores. Wave 1 included all the characters mentioned on the promotional flyer:

picard1riker1data1

geordi1yar1worf1

Photos from Dork Dimension

And they were the only ones we ever saw. There was an extremely limited second wave that included two background aliens from a forgettable first-season episode, a Ferengi, and Q in his Queen Amidala makeup, but they were impossible to find. There was also a die-cast Enterprise with detachable saucer section that was very nice and widely available, but the only two vehicles released for the action figures were a Starfleet shuttle and an apocryphal Ferengi Fighter. (This great article on Trekcore has pictures and background info on them) I don’t know how widely-available they were, but I never saw them in any of the stores in my area and to this day I’ve never seen one in person. By the time that Star Trek: The Next Generation started to get good in its third season, the Galoob toy line was dead.

So what happened? Sure, you can point to problems with the toys themselves (making the figures unable to hold accessories by having a phaser molded into one hand and the other molded into a closed fist was a problem) the utter lack of marketing the line received (there were, as far as I know, absolutely no TV commercials or magazine advertisements for it) or the fact that some of its’ best items were either very rare or never went into production at all:

galoob_bridge_playset

This Enterprise bridge playset appeared in a dealer’s catalog, but was never produced. (Image from the forums on megocollector.com)

But there was another, more basic reason for the failure of the Star Trek toys of the 1980s. If you look at the successful toy lines from that period, like Star Wars, Transformers, G.I. JOE, or He-Man, they have one thing in common: they’re centered on a narrative of “hero” and “villain” characters locked in a never-ending battle. Star Trek was always more complex than that, even in the Original Series days where Captain Kirk got into at least one hilariously choreographed fight per episode. Even the really great Star Trek productions of the ‘80s like The Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home just don’t easily fit into the “good guys shooting at bad guys” format that made for good toys aimed 5-to-10-year-old boys.

Also, Star Trek: The Next Generation was simply not a very good show for its first two seasons. Gene Roddenberry was adamant that it reflect his utopian 24th century ideals, so there would be little or none of the crowd-pleasing action (fistfights, etc.) that shows like Knight Rider or The A-Team featured. Just to be clear, I think Roddenberry’s aversion to violence-as-entertainment was laudable. But it didn’t help that the show was often a talky, preachy bore with cringe-inducing dialogue and flimsy plots. One can imagine how thrilled the people at Galoob were to get the Star Trek license, as well as their growing horror as the show’s disastrous first season unfolded. I think the only thing that saved the show from cancellation those first two years was that the cancellation of the Original Series had come to be seen as perhaps the greatest blunder in television history and no executive wanted to be seen making it a second time.

Having missed out on the 1980s action figure boom, Star Trek would have to wait until the 1990s to have a successful line of toys. But why did the Playmates line of the ‘90s succeed where the Mego and Galoob lines of the ‘80s failed? Timing had something to do with it, since the Playmates line came at a time when Star Trek was experiencing unprecedented mainstream popularity. But I think the collecting craze of the 1990s was the main reason. Before the ‘90s, toys were simply children's’ playthings. But when the public noticed that old baseball cards, comic books, and other items aimed at children were worth thousands of dollars, there was a run on modern-day collectibles with the expectation that they, too, would be valuable in the future. Of course this didn’t pan out, since the reason a Babe Ruth baseball card or a copy of Action Comics #1 is so valuable is because it’s exceedingly rare and the comic books, sports cards, and action figures produced in the 90s are not.

In the end, I guess Star Trek and Star Wars are something of a trade-off. Star Wars inspires better toys that people in my age group have fond childhood memories of. But Star Trek has inspired people to become scientists, engineers, and doctors. This didn’t necessarily make for good action figures, but I think it’s a tradeoff that most people associated with Star Trek’s various incarnations are glad to have made.