Monday, November 9, 2015

The Clarke Continuity Harmonization

All fictional works—books, movies, TV shows, etc.—are products of their time. This is especially noticeable with science fiction. The greatest science fiction movie ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is not really about people in the year 2001. It’s about people of the 1960s in a fictional 2001. Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote three more Odyssey novels, none of which were entirely consistent with each other. In the Foreword to 2061: Odyssey Three, he explained the inconsistencies:

“Just as 2010: Odyssey Two was not a direct sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, so this book is not a linear sequel to 2010. They must all be considered as variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe. Developments since 1964 make total consistency impossible, as the later stories incorporate discoveries and events that had not even taken place when the earlier books were written.”

Obviously, Sir Arthur was not one to cling to the “canon” established by his previous work if it made no sense to do so. And yet his books remained consistently popular. He could hardly go out in public without excited fans throwing their undergarments at him.

arthurcclarkeCan you blame them?

So why do Star Trek fans throw hissy fits over that universe’s “canon”? Now don’t get me wrong, Star Trek is awesome and I love it. Well, most of it. I never much cared for Voyager and Enterprise. But as much as I disliked Enterprise I always felt sorry for its writers because they were trying to do a show that appealed to 21st century audiences in a post-9/11 world while also functioning as a believable prequel to a show from the 1960s that had this in it:


And there’s no way to do that. So every time Enterprise contradicted the Original Series, a certain contingent of the fanbase threw a tantrum, especially when the show’s producers insisted that whatever they’d just done was perfectly in continuity with the Original Series provided you did a set of mental gymnastics to make it fit. And I suppose I could understand their anger if not for the fact that these same folks had already shown themselves perfectly willing to do the same kind of mental gymnastics to make certain parts of the Original Series consistent with itself, not to mention the spinoff shows and movies.

What I’m trying to say is that at a certain point in Star Trek’s history it made sense to try to pretend that all the episodes and movies were part of the same continuity, but that time has now passed. Star Trek has gotten too big and too old. The franchise will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2016. And if you take into account that the first Star Trek pilot was produced in 1964 then it’s really 50 years old already. When Superman celebrated his 50th anniversary in 1988, was DC Comics trying to pretend that every Superman story published since 1938 was part of the same unbroken continuity? No! They stopped trying to do that in the ‘60s, and that was back when the comics were full of pants-crappingly insane stuff like this:


Just the other day, we got the big announcement that a new Star Trek series will premiere in January 2017. As of this writing, we know absolutely nothing about the new show, and the blandly-worded CBS press release offers few clues.

But I can be sure of one thing: CBS is not making this show for the hardcore fans with heads full of five decades of Star Trek minutiae. There aren’t enough of us to justify the expense. Whatever form the new Star Trek takes, it’s going to be designed to appeal to a wide audience in the 21st century. This will be a new thing for Star Trek on television, (yes, Enterprise ended in 2005, but for all practical purposes it functioned like a 1990s TV show, a fact that contributed to its early demise) and it’s bound to anger some long-time fans when it inevitably contradicts this or that decades-old piece of Trek continuity in favor of more modern or accessible storytelling.

Instead of regarding the 50-year-long Star Trek canon as inviolable holy scripture, I think we should take the Arthur C. Clarke approach and view the various iterations of Star Trek as variations on a theme, part of the great Star Trek multiverse. There’s something out there for everybody.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The EPCOT Center Boredom Realization

I finally got it the other day.

Conventional wisdom says that EPCOT Center was too dry, scholarly, and boring for your average vacationer, especially those of the non-adult variety. And I never completely understood how anyone who’s not an idiot could think this. Oh, I understand how a kid could be bored by World Showcase. I remember being bored out of my skull in 1984 when my parents dragged 6-year-old me past all the amazingly awesome stuff in Future World so my mom could engage in the thrilling World Showcase activity of looking at things in shops. But from that first trip in 1984 until I became a surly teenager in the early 90s, I considered Future World to be maybe the one place on the planet where it was impossible to be bored. I wanted to live there.

My response to people who claim that EPCOT Center’s Future World was boring for kids has always been to point out that I loved it when I was a kid and a lot of other people loved it when they were kids, and the only kids who did not love it were probably the children of anti-intellectual pig-brained morons who think Africa is a country and “science” is a four-letter word. (I don’t mean they think “science” is a curse word. I mean they spell it with four letters.)

And then the other day I was listening to the excellent Living Seas audio collection from When I was a kid I loved The Living Seas. It was still under construction on my first EPCOT trip, but shortly after that my grandfather bought me the definitive EPCOT Center book Walt Disney’s EPCOT: Creating The New World of Tomorrow and I spent the next two years poring over its description of the future Living Seas pavilion. I gazed at the pictures of concept art and the cutaway model of the pavilion and tried to imagine what it would be like.



Of course, much of what the book promised—most notably a Poseidon-narrated dark ride in bubble-shaped Omnimovers—did not materialize. But I didn’t care (or necessarily even realize this) on my first visit the year The Living Seas opened. SeaBase Alpha looked like an underwater Starbase straight out of the Star Trek movies, and I totally believed that I was actually submerged in a giant saltwater aquarium. (The EPCOT Center book said that the Seabase would be located in the center of the tank, and the finished pavilion did a good job of maintaining this illusion)

But there was not a lot to do at The Living Seas. Unlike later Eisner-era attractions like Body Wars or Alien Encounter where visitors are cast in the role of people taking a routine tour of a futuristic facility when something goes horribly wrong, The Living Seas cast visitors as people taking a routine tour of a futuristic underwater research station when something suddenly does not go horribly wrong, and really no unexpected events happen at all. I realized this as I listened to the audio cue that played in the preshow holding area. While ethereal underwatery music played, a competent professional voice explained that guests could file into a theater for a briefing before their journey to SeaBase Alpha or bypass the briefing and head directly for the Hydrolators if they so desired. I always thought of this as a neat piece of atmosphere that reinforced the idea of actually visiting an underwater base in a Star Trek-like future.

But as I approach middle age I have lots of friends with kids. All of these kids are really awesome, intelligent, and inquisitive human beings. And as I imagined myself standing in The Living Seas’ preshow holding area listening to that competent professional voice go on about how you could either go to the briefing or not go to the briefing I suddenly got a vision of one of those intelligent and inquisitive kids going “Mo-ooom! This is so BORING!”

And I got it.

Briefings are not a fun activity for the under-20 crowd. Actually, not really for the over-20 crowd either. “Hey kids! Let’s go to a briefing!” is never something you will hear a parent say on vacation, or probably any other time, unless that parent is under the influence of powerful medication.

Now, I know that The Living Seas was a product of the pre-smartphone, pre-Game Boy era where the cutting edge in interactive queue design was having stuff in the queue to look at while you waited. And SeaBase Alpha was really supposed to be the post-show after a really cool dark ride in bubble-shaped Omnimovers until United Technologies got all stingy with their sponsorship money. But the fact is that a lot of stuff in Future World during the EPCOT Center era really was a little too dry and stentorian for kids whose imaginary friend was not Mr. Spock (i.e. kids who were not me).

Sure, those things were balanced out by Journey Into Imagination, World of Motion, Horizons, and the interactive CommuniCore exhibits that most kids found wonderfully entertaining and inspiring. But in a place like Disney World that’s marketed as a wall-to-wall entertainment paradise, being suddenly confronted by the non-dinosaur portions of the original Universe of Energy (which operated under the woefully mistaken assumption that anything projected on a giant movie screen is automatically entertaining) can be a little jarring for a kid. And now I understand that.

So, to all the people who complained that the cherished EPCOT Center of my childhood was too boring for kids to enjoy, I apologize saying that you’re all pig-brained morons.

The actual figure is around 52%.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Lost Story of Tomorrowland

Some of my favorite science fiction uses futuristic technology, alien races, and fantastical settings to tell compelling stories about the human condition. And Tomorrowland should have been one of those stories. Sure, it’s got a worthy message (Optimism is good! Morbid fascination with dystopias and apocalyptic fiction is bad!) but there’s a much more complex and interesting message there hiding just beneath the surface.

In the movie this message was totally obscured, mostly because Damon Lindelof couldn’t write a good story even if he were bitten by a radioactive copy of the complete works of Shakespeare. But let’s take a look.

The backstory for Tomorrowland (most of which is conveyed in YouTube videos hidden throughout the movie’s official site) is that a secretive organization called Plus Ultra discovered a pristine alternate dimension and built the futuristic megalopolis of Tomorrowland there so all the inventors and dreamers of the world would have a place free from politics, corruption, bureaucracy, and presumably nationalism to pursue their passions and realize the full potential of the human race.

Maybe this idea sounds familiar:


Yes, it’s basically a more fantastical version of Walt Disney’s original EPCOT concept. Walt’s idea was that existing cities were too messed up to fix, so instead he’d build his city of tomorrow from the ground up on a pristine piece of Florida swampland.

In-universe you could argue that Walt got the idea from his Plus Ultra brethren, maybe after plans to open Tomorrowland up to everyone were mysteriously scrapped. But even in reality the ideas clearly share the same basic principle: that all the messed-up stuff in the world is the fault of non-inventor/dreamer types, and if only the inventor/dreamers could remove themselves from those peoples’ influence, they could do awesome things.

This principle is something that everyone in the movie accepts without question. But when we finally arrive in Tomorrowland near the end of the film, something has gone horribly wrong. Like the NASA launch platform at the beginning of the movie, Tomorrowland’s spaceport is dilapidated and empty. In fact, the whole place seems empty except for Nix and a handful of his armed Animatronic goons. The similarity between Tomorrowland and the real world is staggering. Even though it’s been closed off from the outside world more tightly than North Korea, it’s clearly infected by the same pessimism and lack of drive to do anything extraordinary that Nix accuses the outside world of.

What does this mean? That the Sphere O’ Bad Vibes that’s supposedly the cause of all the outside world’s problems is affecting Tomorrowland, too? Or that all this happened because Nix was a bad egg? Only a bad writer would take such an obviously easy way out.

No, the story should have forced our protagonists to confront the fact that Plus Ultra’s founding principle is utterly wrong, their grand experiment a failure. Corruption, politics, violence, and cynicism aren’t the symptoms of a disease that a certain special segment of humanity is somehow immune to. They’re a trap that everyone can fall into, even inventors and dreamers. Isolating yourself from the rest of the planet isn’t enough to inoculate you; it may even accelerate the problem. Everyone has to work to keep the forces of cynicism at bay in themselves. But if cynicism is contagious, then optimism can be, too.

The lesson our characters should have learned is that Tomorrowland isn’t a place you escape to, it’s something you make wherever you happen to be. The movie shouldn’t have ended with a bunch of robot children setting out to bring people to Tomorrowland, but with them setting out to bring Tomorrowland to the people.



Monday, May 25, 2015

Thoughts on Tomorrowland

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the movie Tomorrowland. If you’re trying to avoid them, pull the handle and bail out now.


Okay, now that the people who throw Internet tantrums over spoilers are gone, we can talk about the movie.

Like everything, Tomorrowland is a product. But who’s it for? I mean, there’s a reason why the toy aisle at Wal-Mart has lots of Iron Man action figures but no Antonin Scalias: the demographic of “kids who thrill to the exploits of Supreme Court justices” is small enough to be nonexistent. So who makes a movie for people who are are nostalgic for 1960s Space Age retro-futurism? How does a company like Disney (whose Parks & Resorts division pinches pennies by refusing to crank up the AC in Walt Disney World’s show buildings during Florida’s hot and humid summers) decide to spend millions of dollars on something like that?

Don’t tell me it’s to create some kind of brand synergy with their theme parks; for well over a decade the Tomorrowlands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom have been neglected, thematically incoherent dumping grounds for mismatched attractions based on films like Lilo & Stitch, Monsters Inc., and Toy Story and there’s no indication that’ll change in the near or distant future. And it’s a well-known fact that studios are reluctant to spend big summer blockbuster bucks on anything that’s not a sequel, remake, or adaptation of a comic book or a YA dystopia novel.

So it’s a minor miracle this movie even exists. And I wanted so badly to love it. The trailers for Tomorrowland promised an optimistic romp through a Syd Mead-designed future world that’s irresistibly appealing to nostalgic retro-futurists like me. Unfortunately, the film was scripted by Damon Lindelof, the patron saint of overly complicated mystery-box plots that never fully deliver on all the cool things they promise.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to like about this movie. I think it’s great that the main protagonist, Casey, is female but no big deal is ever made of this, as if a girl who’s into science and technology is an abnormal thing. No one remarks that she should ditch her interest in science and technology to try out for the cheerleading squad and try to attract boys. She’s just a young person who dreams of a better future, and her gender is completely irrelevant to the story. That’s something we could stand to see more of in our summer blockbusters. And I loved, loved, loved the Syd Mead-designed futuristic metropolis.

But there are problems. The viral marketing spins an elaborate tale of a secretive organization called Plus Ultra who built the film’s Tomorrowland in a idyllic alternate dimension. But the movie only takes the time to give us a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Cliff Notes version of this elaborate backstory, so if you didn’t do your homework by visiting and watching the explanatory YouTube videos hidden around the site you have no hope of fully understanding what’s going on.

And what is going on? Basically a young “chosen one” has to save everybody from a spherical world-destroying machine.

StarWarsI can’t remember where I’ve seen that before

But that’s not my real problem with this movie. My problem is that it sets up this amazing possibility-rich premise and almost totally wastes it. The film’s titular Tomorrowland is a gleaming futuristic city in an alternate dimension, allegedly founded so that the best and brightest of Earth’s inventors and dreamers will have a place where they can pursue their passions free of the politics, corruption, and bad vibes of the outside world. In our early glimpses of Tomorrowland, both in 1964 when young Frank Walker stumbles onto it and again during Casey’s pin-induced vision, it certainly seems to live up to its promise. But later in the film when our protagonists find their way back to Tomorrowland something has obviously gone horribly wrong. The once-bustling spaceport is now vacant and dilapidated. (You know, like Epcot’s Future World) And except for Hugh Laurie’s Nix and his handful of armed enforcers, the place is eerily empty. It’s like Pyongyang. What happened? It seems obvious that removing themselves from the outside world was not enough to insulate this dreamers’ utopia from politics and corruption after all, but was that through a failure of Tomorrowland’s founding vision, or was there some kind of hostile takeover? Never addressed.

Another sticking point is the whole purpose of Tomorrowland. Near the middle of the film George Clooney’s character, Frank, tells us that at one point Tomorrowland was supposed to open its doors to the outside world, ostensibly to share its technological wonders. But then Nix went into Full Supervillain Mode and put the kibosh on those plans. So after Nix is defeated and Frank and Casey are in charge, what do they do? Open up Tomorrowland so the whole world can have jetpacks, hover-trains, and chocolate milkshakes that give you eternal youth? Nope! They create a mini-army of robot children with adorable British accents and send them out into the world to find “dreamers” and lead them to Tomorrowland. That’s great for them, but what about the rest of the world? Casey spends the whole movie wanting to make the world a better place; don’t you think that removing all the optimistic dreamers to an alternate dimension would have kind of the opposite effect? It’s an ending that seems cute and inspiring, but when you think about it for five seconds it’s obviously full of holes.

In other words, a typical Damon Lindelof story. You’d think that a professional writer would actually try to learn from his mistakes and hone his skills, but Lindelof seems content to go the Michael Bay route and do the same dumb things on every single movie.

The premise behind Tomorrowland would make an excellent science fiction novel. Probably even a great movie if someone other than Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, or Alex Kurtzman wrote the script. Leonard Kinsey’s Habst and the Disney Saboteurs actually had a similar premise, and even though it devoted an entire subplot to its title character’s constipation that story’s virtual Progress City was much better thought-out. Even if it did inadvertently make the uploaded consciousness of Walt Disney into the lord of the afterlife.

Bottom line: see Tomorrowland for the fantastic visuals and about 10 minutes of the soaring hopeful retro-futurism you crave. Just don’t think about it too hard.

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.