Thursday, December 6, 2012

Star Trek Into Darkness Teaser Reaction

I love the Internet on days like this. You see, I knew that there was going to be nine minutes of footage from the new Star Trek film shown before the IMAX release of The Hobbit, and I hoped that we’d also see some kind of trailer released to the web around the same time. I certainly didn’t expect to see anything before then. But when I woke up this morning, the Internet was waiting for me with not only a Star Trek Into Darkness teaser, but also HD screencaps and a shot-by-shot breakdown of said teaser!

In case you haven’t seen the teaser, here it is (I’ve linked to the slightly longer, Japanese-subtitled version). Don’t worry about spoilers; it does a pretty good job showing you stuff without really giving away anything, not even the name of the villain:

If there’s one thing the trailer makes clear, it’s that the film’s villain, whoever he is, is mad about something, he believes the heroes are responsible in some way, and he’s out to get revenge by attacking Earth. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s the same plot device we’ve seen in the last two Star Trek films, and here’s where I worry a little bit.

Although 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis and 2009’s Star Trek were very different movies (i.e. one was a tired, derivative attempt to cash in on the Next Generation franchise one last time, and the other was a fresh, exciting, and genuinely entertaining romp) they each featured a revenge-driven villain who was determined to destroy Earth for reasons that didn’t really make sense. In each film, as the villain announced his Earth-destroying intentions you could almost hear the screenwriters saying to themselves “we’ve got to threaten Earth or the audience won’t be invested”. Now, this is not necessarily a problem if the movie is genuinely entertaining, but it can hurt the film in repeat viewings.

A key reason why The Wrath of Khan is still so highly-regarded three decades after its release is because it makes sense. Khan’s actions are what drive the plot, and because those actions make sense the movie has a high rewatchability value. I’m not saying that’s the only reason why Star Trek II is so good, because it’s not, but if Khan was just your regular poorly-written action movie bad guy whose motivations weren’t believable, that fact would become more and more obvious with each viewing of the film, and eventually it would be defined by its flaws. This happens all the time; when Independence Day came out all anyone could talk about was the action and the special effects; now it’s chiefly remembered for the nonsensical plot device of its heroes hacking into an alien spaceship with an old Macintosh PowerBook.

As of this writing, we really don’t know a lot about Star Trek Into Darkness. Hopefully there’s a well-thought-out plot behind all that action.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Semi-Informed Test Track 2.0 Assessment

As I write this the new Test Track at EPCOT is in soft openings, and lots of fans and professional blogger types have seen it. I would love to give you a firsthand account of the newly-refurbished pavilion, but unfortunately that’s going to have to wait until the next time I make it to Disney World (which at this point looks like it’ll be no earlier than the first half of 2014)

Fortunately for people like me, there’s always the Internet, and there are quite a few videos out there that give a nice overview of the entire Test Track 2.0 experience. Here’s one of them:

Obviously a video is no substitute for being there, so what I have to offer here is really just a semi-informed opinion. I’m sure it’ll evolve after I’ve actually visited the pavilion a few times.

If you’ve ever read this blog before then you know that I’m a hardcore original EPCOT Center man. If people ask me when the best time to visit EPCOT is, I tell them 1989. I absolutely deplore how the park has been cheapened and dumbed-down over the past 18 years. In fact, a big reason why I haven’t written a lot about EPCOT lately is because I haven’t really felt like going there. It had honestly gotten to the point where the park’s offerings weren’t worth the price of admission to me.

Does the new and improved Test Track erase all my misgivings about the horrible way Orlando’s executive leadership runs the place? Not at all. But for the first time since the Spaceship Earth rehab in 2007, there’s actually something new at EPCOT that I want to see.

Now, I’ve heard folks online claim that Test Track’s redo, while certainly a step in the right direction, is not quite worthy of EPCOT Center. Some of them even complain about the use of the old World of Motion logo here and there, saying that it’s just there to mollify the fanboys and make them overlook any problems the pavilion may have. Now, those folks are certainly entitled to their opinions, but I believe that the new Test Track is pretty much exactly what a 21st century EPCOT Center pavilion would look like if the Florida property had enjoyed the benefit of competent executive leadership these past twenty years.

Believe me, no one loved the old EPCOT Center more than me. But the fact is that all the stuff I loved, the Omnimover rides, the futurism, and the hopeful and thought-provoking shows and attractions, simply does not play well with the average parkgoer. The sad truth is that we do not live in a world where most people are eager to have their thoughts provoked and their horizons expanded. We live in a world with Kardashians in it. People who go to Disney World want to go on rides that feature licensed Disney characters, thrills, or dumb humor. And then they want to stand in line to meet Mickey Mouse.

What the people responsible for Test Track 2.0 look to have done is give us something that will simultaneously appeal to the small number of EPCOT Center-loving futurists like me and the dumbed-down, Kardashian-watching thrill-seekers that comprise the majority of your average theme park audience. It’s a compromise they would have had to make even in a perfect world where the purpose of EPCOT Center was never forgotten.

Yes, there are little issues here and there. The exterior loop stands out even more as a horrible design choice now. But the cost of enclosing it would likely have pushed the refurbishment’s price tag above what GM was willing to pay, and we all know that the Disney’s executives were far too busy dumping truckloads of money down the NextGen Black Hole to pay for it themselves. And while I hope that GM’s sponsorship money will guarantee a higher standard of maintenance than we see just about everywhere else on property, most of the people I know do not seem to be optimistic about that. They envision that the pavilion will be a wasteland of dead touchscreens and broken effects in a few months. But there’s no use complaining about that unless it happens, right?

Final sum-up, at least for now: the new Test Track looks good. It’s a real EPCOT Center attraction. Or the closest thing to it that modern audiences will tolerate. And it even managed to give us that TRON aesthetic I’ve been yearning to see in Future World since I first saw TRON:Legacy.

All is not well in EPCOT yet. But it’s better than it once was.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Encounter at Farpoint

“Encounter at Farpoint” is the Phantom Menace of televised Star Trek. What do I mean by that?

Well, when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered with “Encounter at Farpoint” in September 1987, it was the first new Star Trek episode in well over a decade. Sure, we’d been getting a movie every couple of years since 1979. But that just whetted fans’ appetites for more Star Trek. So the idea of a new weekly show helmed by The Great Bird of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry himself, remaking Star Trek as only he knew how, sounded great. It was a lot like the excitement Star Wars fans would feel in the 1990s when they learned that George Lucas would be returning to the franchise to make more movies.

And although Star Trek: The Next Generation would end up being a much bigger creative success than the Star Wars prequels, the opening stanza of each is similar in the sense that it’s a boring, dysfunctional disappointment.

They’re also similar in that two of their main characters dress like a cross between Elton John and a geisha.

farpoint_hd_760 amidala

But I digress.

So, let’s take a look at Star Trek: The Next Generation’s maiden outing, and all the weird little problems it has.

Number 1: The Q Subplot

Believe it or not, the character of Q was actually a late addition to the story. Originally, TNG’s premiere was to have been a regular one-hour episode. Veteran Star Trek writer DC Fontana developed a story where the Enterprise comes to the rescue of a peaceful spaceborne lifeform that’s being held captive and cruelly exploited by an aggressive alien species.

But then someone on the upper end of the food chain decided that Star Trek’s return to television should be a two-hour TV movie “event”. That may have been a good idea, but it presented a problem: the writing team now had another hour to fill. How would they do it? With one of Gene Roddenberry’s favorite Star Trek tropes: humans proving their moral worth to a skeptical godlike being.

As I’ve written in the past, by the mid-80s Gene Roddenberry was the lone resident of an alternate universe where the sole reason for Star Trek’s success was his high-minded “vision” of the future. He seriously believed that audiences would rather watch characters stand around and debate 24th century philosophy than engage in a fun action-adventure story. And that’s basically the reason for Q’s existence: he’s a foil for Captain Picard to speechify at. Because in Gene Roddenberry’s imaginary world, people tuned into Star Trek because they wanted to watch a spandex-clad version of C-SPAN.

Now don’t get me wrong; John de Lancie did an amazing job bringing life to the character. But if you just read the script, Q comes across as a rather one-dimensional and cartoony villain. Only de Lancie’s performance brings a sense of depth and menace to the character.

Nevertheless, the addition of the Q subplot highlights another huge problem with “Farpoint”:

Number 2: The Actions of the Story’s Major Players Make No Sense

Let’s start with Q. The way he goes about things in this story is pretty nonsensical for a super-intelligent omnipotent being.

First, his major issue is that humans are a “dangerous, savage child race” that has no business being out in space. So when does he choose to appear on the bridge of a human-crewed ship to insist that they return to their own solar system? In the 24th century, after they’ve already been out in interstellar space for something like 200 years. That’s like waiting until the early 1700s to demand that the Europeans stay on their side of the Atlantic.

And since his problem is that humans have gone too far out into space, then you think he’d direct his complaints to the humans who are farthest away from Earth. And at the top of the show, Picard voiceovers that the Enterprise is en route to Deneb IV, “beyond which lies the unexplored mass of the galaxy”. But when they get to Deneb IV, the USS Hood that dropped off Riker, Geordi, and the rest of the crew is there in orbit. So shouldn’t Q have appeared on the Hood’s bridge and done his whole “humans are a savage race” schtick with their Captain? It’s almost like Q was aware that the Enterprise was the ship with its own TV show, and he wanted to play to the cameras.

Next we have the Bandi, Deneb IV’s cheerful inhabitants:

farpoint_hd_350

At some point they managed to capture an giant spaceborne sentient jellyfish with shape-shifting powers and force it to transform into a sleekified version of Walt Disney’s Progress City.

farpoint_hd_698Nice, but where are the monorails?

Presumably because their planet is the Star Trek equivalent of a third world country, the Bandi christened their new “city” Farpoint Station and used it to attract outside investment from more affluent species. So far, so good. But who’s the first “investor” they try to attract? The Federation, the one group that would have a problem with them exploiting a poor defenseless creature for selfish gain. Why not try the Klingons or the Ferengi?

And then, when Federation representatives like Picard or Riker meet with the Bandi leader, Groppler Zorn, he arouses their suspicion by acting as shifty and defensive as he possibly can. How did this guy manage to become leader of an entire planet? He couldn’t even manage a Burger King! And speaking of people who aren’t qualified for their jobs:

Number Three: A Lot of the Starfleet Officers Are Idiots

Part of Gene’s “vision of the future” was that humanity would “mature” into a peaceful and wise people. One of the ways that TNG’s characters were supposed to differentiate themselves from backwards 20th century humans (besides their preference for spandex pajamas) was their reaction to things that were different and alien.

Since the Enterprise’s mission was to seek contact with strange new worlds, life forms, and civilizations, it would make sense that it be crewed by people who wouldn’t immediately become fearful or violent when they encountered something alien. And if they found themselves in a tight situation, they’d remain cool, calm, and collected like modern-day astronauts or fighter pilots.

With that in mind, let’s examine how these “evolved” 24th Century Roddenberrians react when, in the episode’s opening minutes, they encounter a new kind of alien:

Q announces his presence by throwing up a giant CGI chain-link fence that impedes the Enterprise’s forward progress:

farpoint_hd_089

Then, he appears on the bridge dressed as an Elizabethan explorer and talks some trash to Picard using more thees and thous than a performer at a Renaissance Fair.

farpoint_hd_113

When some security guards burst onto the bridge with phasers drawn, Q traps them in the turbolift:

farpoint_hd_098

So far-and I can’t stress this point enough-Q has done nothing violent. He’s just stopped the ship from moving and been a jerk to everyone. For his part, Captain Picard certainly doesn’t overreact to the situation. He calmly asks Q what he wants and engages him in debate to learn more about this strange new life form. But the people under his command don’t follow his lead.

First, Lieutentant Redshirt McDeadmeat decides that the best way to react to this trash-talking alien with incredible powers is to try to shoot him. Q responds by going all Mr. Freeze on him:

farpoint_hd_105

Picard is furious, but not at his idiot crewman who tried shoot an alien who hadn’t done anything overtly threatening yet. He’s mad at Q for not letting himself get shot!

So anyway, Q changes costumes a few more times (seriously, he changes clothes more than Queen Amidala. Does he want to put humanity on trial or have a fashion show?) and then disappears, promising to return. Captain Picard decides that since they can’t go forward, they’ll turn the ship around and run away as fast as they can. Unfortunately, Q’s CGI chain-link fence turns into a giant flying Fireball of Doom that pursues them at warp speed.

After Picard decides to separate the saucer to get the children and families out of harm’s way, the command crew transfers to the Battle Bridge. And it is here that we really start to wonder how elite this Enterprise crew really is. Because Lieutenant Tasha Yar, the ship’s security chief, the person responsible for the safety of the Enterprise’s 1000 crewmembers and the officer the Captain relies upon for sound tactical strategy mounts an impassioned plea to get Picard to let her shoot phasers at the Giant Warp Speed Fireball of Doom. As if that would do anything. And a few minutes later during the Q’s courtroom scene she almost gets herself killed when she has a truly hilarious overblown dramatic freakout.

It really makes you wonder what’s going on at Starfleet Headquarters. One imagines that the job of Security Chief on the new Enterprise would be a highly sought-after position. There was probably a big pool of qualified applicants to choose from. So why did Starfleet go with the gun-happy drama queen whose response to anything unexpected is to freak out and try to shoot it? Was it because she looked good in that spandex jumpsuit? Heck, that’s probably why Gene Roddenberry cast Denise Crosby, because it sure wasn’t because of her acting ability. I’m sure she’s a nice lady and all, but acting-wise she’s a female version of Hayden Christensen. Or, you know, just Hayden Christensen.

And then we come to Worf. He doesn’t have much to do in the episode other than be the Token Klingon, an example of Star Trek’s new 24th Century status quo. But there’s this scene two-thirds of the way in where Q appears on the viewscreen to taunt Picard a little bit, and Worf does this:

farpoint_hd_497

Yes, he points a gun at the viewscreen because it’s showing a picture of the bad guy. He’s even stupider than the big Mr. T-looking dude from the Street Fighter movie:

At this point, Picard should just revoke Worf’s phaser privileges. Heck, he shouldn’t even be allowed to eat with a fork. He’s clearly a danger to himself and others. Still, the Stupid Worf moment does give us something to chuckle at, which is nice because it distracts us from:

Number 4: The Ridiculous Amount of Padding

As I mentioned earlier, the TNG pilot was extended from a one-hour to a two-hour show fairly late in the game. Writers Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana had to scramble to extend their existing story to fill the additional hour they’d been given. The problem is that even with the Q plot bolted onto the original story, there still wasn’t enough to fill the time slot. I blame Gene Roddenberry.

Gene Roddenberry spent the 1970s being fawned over by adoring convention audiences who thought he was some kind of visionary creative genius. He also tried to sell a couple TV series during that time, too, most notably Genesis II and The Questor Tapes. But if you examine those projects, you’ll notice that they don’t contain a lot of new ideas. They’re really just talkier, more boring retreads of themes that Star Trek already covered. Then there’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Again, there really isn’t a lot of new material there. It’s just a talkier, more boring version of a plot we’d already seen on the TV series.

In fact, you’d probably have to go back to the 1960s to find a Gene Roddenberry script that wasn’t talky and boring. By 1987 he just didn’t have it anymore. So because he was incapable of coming up with something interesting to fill the additional hour, what we got was padding. Lots of it.

The padding starts with the initial Q encounter. All that really happens is that Q shows off his costume-changing powers while he and Picard have a conversation that goes like this:

Q: Humans are a dangerous, savage child race!

Picard: Are not!

Q: Are too!

Picard: Nuh-uh!

Q: Uh-HUH! And now I’m going to disappear! But we’ll meet again!

Then the Enterprise runs away and Q chases them, so they separate the saucer and then Q spirits Picard and company away to his post-apocalyptic courtroom so he and Picard can have basically the same argument they had at the beginning of the show. This renders everything that happened from Q’s first appearance to the start of the courtroom scene ENTIRELY POINTLESS. It would have been much better from a story perspective to have Q bring Picard and his officers into the courtroom for their first encounter.

An even more egregious example of padding happens after Commander Riker comes aboard. Before Picard will talk to him, he makes Riker sit at the back of the bridge and watch what’s essentially a clip reel of the episode up to this point.

farpoint_hd_400At least Picard could have let him get some popcorn

Usually your cheesy 80s shows waited until later in the season to have a clip show, when money was tight and the writing staff was out of ideas. Working a clip reel into your pilot episode may be a television first.

Hey, remember that whole “mystery of Farpoint Station” you were supposed to be solving? When are you going to get around to that?

I understand that one of the functions of a pilot episode is to introduce the characters and their world. But a well-written pilot would do that while moving the plot forward. In “Encounter At Farpoint”, however, the plot keeps getting put on hold so we can have these little expository scenes. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are nice. But the constant digressions away from the main story to introduce this or that character or piece of technology really end up hurting the episode because we find ourselves constantly waiting for things to get moving.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen until almost three-quarters of the way into the episode. And our characters solve the mystery of Farpoint Station pretty quickly. Which isn’t too surprising, after all Groppler Zorn’s not much smarter than your average Scooby-Doo villain.

farpoint_hd_869“And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those nosy kids in their spandex pajamas!”

It’s certainly better than doing the thing where the solution to the puzzle is blindingly obvious but you need to pad out the episode so you make your characters too stupid to figure it out until there’s only five minutes left. However, it has the unintended side effect of making Q’s promise that the Farpoint mission would be a test of the worthiness of the human race ring a bit hollow.

And those are my problems with “Encounter at Farpoint”, presented in what I hope was at least a semi-coherent manner. Believe it or not, I’ve been trying to write this post since February.

But wait! Haven’t I forgotten something? Don’t I want to make fun of Wesley Crusher? No. No, I don’t. While some of the scenes with him are part of the unnecessary padding I talked about earlier, I actually like Wesley. I’ll talk more about that in a future post.

But for now, I’ve said my piece about “Encounter at Farpoint”. It’s a weird, dysfunctional couple hours of television. And yet, TNG would get worse before it got better.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! And if you didn’t make it this far, then I guess it doesn’t matter that this post doesn’t have a clever ending.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Lucasfilm Announcement Stream-Of-Consciousness Reaction

Tuesday afternoon. Think I’ll check Twitter, see what’s going on.

Hey, look! Somebody tweeted that Disney acquired Lucasfilm! Ha ha! What a hilarious joke! Now other people are tweeting it, too. Hmm, I sure hope they realize it’s not true, otherwise a giant false rumor could get started.

Wait, one of the tweets has a link to a press release. A Disney press release.

Holy crap, it’s true! Disney acquired Lucasfilm. That means they own Star Wars. Disney owns Star Wars.

Disney. Owns. Star Wars.

Wow.

Well, I wonder what this means. Probably nothing. There’s already a Star Wars ride in the parks, after all. And they already sell Star Wars and Indiana Jones merchandise in the parks. Probably all this means is that Disney just gets a piece of all the money Lucasfilm makes. They’re not going to do anything major, I’m sure.

Hey, somebody tweeted that there’s going to be a Star Wars Episode 7 in 2015. Okay now, that’s just stupid. There’s no way that one’s true. In fact, let me read over the press release. There’s just no way Disney’s going to make another-

Sweet Mother of Optimus Prime, they are! They’re making Episode 7! What? WHAT?!

No. No no no no no NO NO! No. Uh-uh. Nyet. No more Star Wars movies! The prequels were bad enough! The last thing we need is more wooden acting, long conversations about politics, and racially insensitive CGI comic-relief Muppets! More of THAT please!

On the other hand, maybe it could be good. I mean, if Lucas isn’t directing, and the people involved are fans of Star Wars it could work. Right?

Holy Mr. T’s Mohawk, I can’t believe this. I must be having some kind of a fever dream. Did somebody spike my Pepsi with a hallucinogen?

Disney owns Star Wars.

There’s going to be more Star Wars movies.

Holy William Shatner’s Toupee.

Holy Wesley Crusher’s Rainbow Sweater.

Look, only 50 people have made the “I guess Leia is a Disney princess now” joke. And every one of them thought it was original and funny. Sometimes I think the Internet is making it where we all think alike. This is probably how the Borg Collective got started.

More Star Wars movies, wow. This was not what I expected when I got out of bed this morning.

Star Wars. Disney. Star Wars is Disney.

Holy Richard Simmons’ Afro.

Holy Superman’s-Red-Underpants-That-He-Doesn’t-Have-Anymore-In-The-New-52-Continuity.

Wow . . . .

Sunday, October 7, 2012

From The Seas to The Living Seas and Beyond

In 1981 visitors to Florida’s Magic Kingdom could stop by the EPCOT Center Preview Center on Main Street and get a preview of the new park by watching the 15-minute film “The Dream Called EPCOT”. For many people, that film was the first they ever heard of The Living Seas. Interestingly, although it described a Living Seas experience that was pretty much exactly what we got, other EPCOT promotional literature promised a much more elaborate adventure that was rooted in earlier concepts for the pavilion.

One of the earliest renderings of the Seas’ aquarium is this one:

Seas_early_concept

It’s certainly a pretty picture, but it’s also a rather fanciful concept that would have been impossible to build with late-1970s technology and would likely prove daunting to 21st century engineers, as well.

A much more reasonable version of the Seas pavilion could be seen in WED’s EPCOT Center concept model from 1978:

Seas_1978

Positioned in the Future World West plot now occupied by The Land, this version of the pavilion featured a rocky-looking exterior with a cavelike main entrance and a glass-roofed aquarium. This would seem to be an exterior view of this cutaway model seen in Richard Beard’s EPCOT Center book:

Seas_model_1970s

It was this version of the Seas pavilion that formed the basis for most official descriptions of the attraction contained therein. And since The Living Seas didn’t open until 1986, these descriptions hung out there for four years after EPCOT Center’s 1982 opening. In the process, they served to set a lot of incorrect expectations for what a visit to The Living Seas would be like.

Originally, The Seas was supposed to consist of three main experiences:

  1. A preshow hosted by Poseidon or perhaps Neptune, which led to:
  2. A dark ride in bubble-shaped Omnimovers through a number of set pieces and Animatronics depicting scenes of undersea wonder and peril, culminating in:
  3. The ride vehicles cruising into the pavilion’s massive aquarium through a clear tube leading to an observation area, where visitors would disembark to observe the aquarium and perhaps view educational exhibits.

And although the location and exterior configuration of the Seas changed several times, that basic attraction layout persisted. Another draft of EPCOT Center, likely dating from 1979, shows the Seas pavilion in the Future World East plot that Horizons would eventually occupy:

EPCOT_1979

In this rendering the building looks a little sleeker, and there’s now a blue dome over the aquarium.

By 1980 the Seas had been moved to its final location in Future World’s northwest corner. And it had received another facelift:

Seas_1980

This version of the Seas pavilion had a less organic appearance, and this time the aquarium was covered with a multifaceted golden dome, much like the one that later became Wonders of Life’s defining visual feature.

Giving the aquarium a transparent or semi-transparent roof was certainly visually attractive, but I wonder how practical it would have been. For one thing, it likely would have made it more difficult to control the water temperature. That’s critical because live coral can’t handle much temperature variation. And imagine the noise when the torrential downpour from a tropical storm or Florida afternoon thunderstorm struck that roof!

Finally, the EPCOT Center concept painting from 1981 shows what many people believe to be the final version of The Living Seas pavilion:

Seas_1981_rendering

But is it? Let’s compare this painting of the pavilion to an aerial photo:

Seas_aerial_photo

Notice how the northeast corner of the pavilion in the painting contains an angular extension that’s missing from the pavilion as constructed? Why is that? Well, according to Martin Smith’s Living Seas Ultimate Tribute video the final Seas concept to include the immersive dark ride was, on the outside, very similar to the pavilion we ended up getting. It was just a little bigger in the back to accommodate the ride. Therefore, it’s a good bet that the Living Seas pavilion we see in the 1981 painting is that version.

Of course, by the time that construction began on The Living Seas in 1984 (the year it was originally supposed to have opened) corporate sponsor United Technologies had refused to pay for the dark ride, and a scaled-down version of the pavilion was what began to take shape behind the construction wall. Nevertheless, the Coming Soon sign on the wall featured this concept painting:

SeabaseAlphaExterior

I love this picture. The bubble cars, the impossibly futuristic divers’ suits, and the Honda Civic-sized mini-sub tooling about, it’s great. But it has the same problem as the first piece of concept art we looked at: it depicts a saltwater tank that’s impossibly huge. I realize that this is more a piece of artwork than a technical diagram, but wow! The aquarium in the actual pavilion was the largest ever constructed at that time, but it’s a kiddie pool compared to this! Still, the mini-sub is extremely cool (even if it is too big for the actual aquarium at the Seas) and it’s a shame it didn’t make it to the final version of the pavilion because it definitely had merchandising opportunities, as this Seabase Alpha interior rendering shows:

 SeabaseAlphaInterior“In 2012 I’m gonna sell this thing for a million bucks on eBay!”

This next couple of concept paintings may very well date from the version of the pavilion that featured Seabase Alpha and the bubble-car dark ride. We get a glimpse of the Omnimover unload area here:

Seabase_Alpha_unload

. . and a scene from the ride itself here:

seas_bubble_carsIs it just me, or does the guy on the left look a lot like Lando Calrissian?

These renderings belong to the family of paintings I call “Smiling People Pointing At Things”. But as I mentioned previously, despite the Concept Art People’s happy pointing corporate sponsor United Technologies decided it didn’t want to pay for this awesome ride. So the bubble cars were turned into more garden-variety Omnimovers, and the dark ride was completely scrapped. Now, the SeaCabs would just convey visitors on a short trip past some aquarium windows and into Seabase Alpha.

The attraction flow of the Seas pavilion was therefore changed. Instead of the preshow/dark ride/Seabase combination that we’d been hearing about for four years, we got a preshow/Hydrolator/SeaCab/Seabase combination.

While they didn’t make up for the loss of the dark ride, the Hydrolators were a nice touch. Aside from the interior effects that simulated movement, the Imagineers even added “overflow pools” outside the Hydrolators that bubbled up as the Hydrolators reached the “surface”, as if their upward movement was displacing the water in the submerged elevator shaft.

SeaBase Alpha was impeccably detailed:

Seabase_Alpha

It really felt like an undersea research station you’d see in one of the Star Trek movies from the mid-80s. In fact, if you remove just a very few of the 20th century trappings, it would have served as an ideal filming locale for an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m told that seaQuest DSV actually did film there, but I never watched seaQuest. In fact, the only thing I remember about it was that there was a talking dolphin and that kid from the ridiculous movie that gave birth to the Chuck Norris Facts meme.

The thing that doomed the Seas, in the end, was the modularity of its experiences. I’ll explain: the pavilion only worked if you experienced everything: the preshow film, the Hydrolators, the SeaCabs, and the Seabase. Each individual experience wasn’t terribly immersive, but they all added up to an experience that was nearly as immersive as the proposed dark ride would have been. But when United Technologies failed to renew their sponsorship, the Eisner-Pressler cost-cutting machine swung into operation and walled off the Seacabs. Because of the way the ride was designed, the unload area was just a scant few yards away from the load area, so it was nothing to simply block the whole thing off and funnel everyone from the Hydrolators directly into the Seabase. You could never do something like that to Spaceship Earth; the design of the building just won’t permit it. Just like that, a key piece of The Living Seas experience was gone, and the pavilion now felt incomplete. People began to stay away, maintenance cut back, and the pavilion gained the derisive nickname “The Dead Seas”. Eventually, The Living Seas was shuttered and slated for Pixarification.

I’ve always tried to maintain a balanced view of The Seas With Nemo And His Computer-Generated Friends. After all, since its facelift the Seabase area is absolutely teeming with little kids who are genuinely excited and curious about the marine life swimming around in the tank. However, the pavilion still suffers from United Technologies’ decision not to fund the elaborate dark ride. How? Well, thanks to the pavilion’s modularity (there’s that word again!) the Seacab ride was never demolished, just walled off. So when the Seas got its Nemo refurbishment, the Imagineers took the logical route and simply built a ride around the existing (very short) ride track. The preshow theaters and Hydrolators were ripped out and replaced with . . . an elaborately themed queue. And while it’s really nice-looking, you have to work a lot harder to suspend your disbelief and convince yourself that you’re “really” going beneath the sea.

If, back in the early ‘80s, United Technologies hadn’t been so stingy, we might still have The Seas With Nemo and Friends. But it would be a much more immersive and transportative experience than what we have today because the longer dark ride would still be there.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this exhaustive, long, and rambling look at The Living Seas. If you did, then you absolutely must check out Martin Smith’s Ultimate Tribute To The Living Seas, which was where I got the majority of my information for this post. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Progress City, USA’s (and D23’s) Michael Crawford for helping me get some of my facts straight.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why EPCOT Center?

Well, EPCOT’s 30th anniversary celebration has come and gone. Sadly, I was not able to be there, which really killed me since the chance to be in the park with other people who appreciate it like I do probably won’t come again until the 40th anniversary in 2022. Still, thanks to Twitter I was able to keep abreast of the goings-on, and it certainly looked to be a weekend awash in EPCOT Center nostalgia.

If you’ve only ever experienced the present incarnation of the park, it can be hard to fathom why such nostalgia exists. Why do people get teary-eyed when they hear “One Little Spark” or “Tomorrow’s Child”? And what is with their insane devotion to Horizons, a ride that was torn down over a decade ago? It can be easy to draw the conclusion that we’re unable to let go of our childhoods and wish the park would remain forever frozen in the year 1989. But that’s not it at all.

EPCOT Center aimed not only to entertain, but also to inspire and educate. And it did an excellent job. For those of us who experienced the unique inspirational power of EPCOT Center as children, it profoundly affected us for the better. It left a positive imprint that’s stayed with us for the rest of our lives. And although most of us went through our snotty teenage phase where we considered things we’d enjoyed in our prepubescent years to be lame and uncool, when it was time to face the world as adults it was inevitable that we’d return to EPCOT looking for that same spark of inspiration. And boy, did we not find it.

It’s not that we expected EPCOT to never change. In fact, change was a big part of the original EPCOT Center experience. Especially in Future World, things were supposed to constantly change as the years went by and technology advanced. Of course, keeping what was essentially a giant-sized Tomorrowland on the cutting edge of technology was probably an impossible task, especially after the corporate sponsorships began to thin out. So some kind of re-focusing of Future World in a way that deemphasized technology was always inevitable. But as long as the park retained its focus on inspiration and education, I don’t think anyone would have had a problem with that.

Unfortunately, most of the changes made to EPCOT in the last eighteen years served to strip it of that inspirational quality. Also mostly gone is the experience of walking into a huge pavilion and experiencing a ride or show that transports you to another time and place. Most of the more recent EPCOT attractions seem to be designed to provide a certain minimum level of entertainment while funneling people into a gift shop, all while being cheap to operate.

So, when those of us who remember what EPCOT Center used to be say that we wish Horizons or World of Motion or Journey Into Imagination were still around, what we’re really saying is that we miss going to EPCOT to be inspired and transported to other places and times. That’s what made EPCOT Center so special. And that’s why we miss it so much.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The EPCOT30 Discontinuity Overanalysis

Corporations with long histories like Disney are usually myopically focused on the present. While they’re more than happy to use past successes to promote themselves, their image of the past is always very much a hazy, soft-focus picture that completely omits any of the company’s mistakes or failures. The continuing narrative they present about themselves in their advertising is that, while the past was glorious, the company’s present set of offerings is the best it’s ever been, and that there’s no better time than now to give them a whole bunch of your money.

Disney’s occasional theme park anniversary celebrations are a prime example of this. You can expect an anniversary celebration at Florida’s Magic Kingdom, for example, to include lots of talk about how many generations of children the park has entertained and maybe even some clever nods to old attractions that wouldn’t appeal to modern audiences, like If You Had Wings or The Mickey Mouse Revue. But there will usually be no acknowledgement of offerings like the Mike Fink Keel Boats that were removed just to cut costs, because that would be too much like admitting a mistake. And if there’s one thing that large corporations and third world dictatorships have in common, it’s an aggressive whitewashing of the past to eliminate anything that has the slightest potential to be unflattering.

Disney has been doing this for a long time. Heck, they spent most of the 1980s insisting that the Walt Disney World Resort was the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that Walt wanted to build in Florida, and that EPCOT Center was built exactly according to Walt’s vision. The trend has only accelerated since they became a multinational corporate behemoth, and it presents a special problem for EPCOT.

By any objective standard of measurement, EPCOT was way better before 1994. It offered more and higher-quality attractions, better food, and better shops with a greater variety of merchandise. More than any other property in the Disney empire, EPCOT has been diminished by eighteen years of mismanagement and a cynical philosophy that says it’s okay to save money by eliminating nice things because customers are too stupid to know the difference between filet mignon and a dirt sandwich.

Which is why the distinct EPCOT Center flavor of EPCOT’s 30th anniversary celebration is so surprising. Take a look at this piece of official artwork:

EPCOT30

Notice anything strange about it? There’s nothing of present-day EPCOT there. It’s the same story with the anniversary merchandise; except for the execrable sight of Duffy in a Figment sweater and a strange-looking Mickey Vinylmation, all the 30th anniversary items are EPCOT Center-related. And from the information that’s been released, it appears that the special anniversary events focus entirely on pre-1994 EPCOT Center. Most of these theme park anniversaries focus on the present and ignore the past; this one is essentially ignoring the present. It’s certainly tempting to look at all this and see it as a tacit admission by Disney that they’ve botched the last eighteen years.

As I often say around here, I’m not a Disney insider, just a guy with opinions. But I read stuff written by people who do have inside information, and they’re all unanimous in pointing out how mistaken it is to attribute a singular corporate intent to everything that happens under the Disney umbrella. What we outsiders often think of as one monolithic Disney Corporation is actually a huge sprawling thing full of numerous competing factions and fiefdoms.

My own uninformed opinion is that the EPCOT30 celebration is the work of a pro-EPCOT Center faction. The fact that they seemingly are being left alone to do what they want (as long as they stay under budget, I imagine) suggests to me that they really aren’t on the executives’ radar. It’s kind of like how the creative staff of Deep Space Nine was able to get away with taking all kinds of interesting risks because the Paramount executives were ignoring them to focus on Star Trek: Voyager and the film franchise. So I’m certainly not taking this year’s EPCOT Center lovefest as a sign that Disney’s executive decision-makers have decided to start investing the money to reverse all their EPCOT-related mistakes of the past two decades.

But I’m hopeful that the EPCOT30 celebration brings in a ton of money and gives the pro-EPCOT faction within the company some more ammo to make the case for a little more reinvestment in what was once the crown jewel of theme parks.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The EPCOT Logo Futurization Flub

The original EPCOT Center logo was great; futuristic and memorable:

epcotlogo

However, that didn’t mean it should never change. After all, EPCOT itself was supposed to constantly change, always adding new things and updating existing ones. So Disney’s decision in the mid-1990s to change the park’s logo was not necessarily a bad one. Unfortunately, the mid-1990s were not a good time for visual design. This was, after all, the period where Batman’s costume acquired rubber nipples and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors played in ridiculous-looking uniforms with jagged pinstripes and a cartoon dinosaur in the center of the chest. So maybe it was inevitable that EPCOT’s new logo would be bad. But at least the person who designed the nippled Batsuit was trying. Whoever designed the current EPCOT logo . . . well, just look at it:

Epcot_logo_present

It looks like something a clueless management trainee came up with in 1995 about five minutes after they discovered the Microsoft Works clip art gallery. It’s not just a bad design, it’s a lazy design. At best, it inspired indifference. I’m not privy to Disney’s sales figures, but I can’t imagine that merchandise featuring the present logo was ever a big hit. And these days, you can hardly find it. Almost all the EPCOT t-shirts on sale in the park are of the retro variety, which to me is a tacit admission that the current logo is less popular than the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Last week on Twitter I said I could come up with a better logo just by typing the acronym “EPCOT” in an appropriately futuristic font. So I went to dafont.com, loaded up on some fonts from their Techno section, and came up with these alternate EPCOT logos:

vandiana-platin

Font: Vandiana Platin. I like this one because it’s basically a sleeker version of the typeface used in the original EPCOT logo. Even better, the park’s signage could also be rendered in this font (or a slightly narrower variant) and it would still be readable.

excelerate

Font: Excelerate. We have to keep in mind that EPCOT’s logo was updated in the 90s, and the predominant design sensibility then was less about making things sleek and minimal and more about making them look “kewl”. Although this one isn’t my favorite by any means, I think it’s something that could realistically have come out of that decade.

phatboy_slim

Font: Phatboy Slim. Another generically techno-looking typeface.

metro-df

Font: Metro-DF. The more I look at this one, the more I like it. I think one thing the designer/clip art selector of the present EPCOT logo was trying to do was represent the World Showcase and Future World in one design. This one does a good job of accomplishing that, I think, because it’s a little less futuristic than the other fonts we’ve seen so far.

prototype

Font: Prototype (the freeware equivalent of World Bold) Or they could have just rendered the “new” EPCOT logo in the font that’s been used on most of the Entrance Plaza and Future World signage since 1982. Even after all these years, it still looks pretty good.

And there you have it: five better-looking alternatives to the present EPCOT logo, created by simply typing the acronym “EPCOT” in a better font. Hopefully one day soon the current design will go the way of the Astuter Computer Revue, and a 21st-century version of the original logo will take its place.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Reality Rule

Last week when the five-year-old Cars Land-in-Florida rumor was resurrected by the Great Internet Speculatron, I got to thinking about the nature of reality.

I realize that sentence may raise some questions, like what does Cars Land have to do with the nature of reality? Also, what kind of chemicals are in the water where I am? So let me explain. For the last few years those of us who care about such things had resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no Cars Land in Florida anytime soon, if ever, and that Disney’s Hollywood Studios would remain pretty much the same for the foreseeable future.

And then somebody on a message board who is generally believed to have inside information said that Disney was bringing Cars Land to Hollywood Studios. Some people loved the idea and some hated it, but for both groups Cars Land at the Studios was real. They were already picturing themselves walking down the Streets of America and seeing off in the distance a Radiator Springs Racers sign and those angled rocks from where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn.

KirkGornThe only difference is that the Cars Land rocks are more orange


And as things began to cool down with more rumors that maybe John Lasseter was against the idea and the realization that Disney’s thick-headed Orlando executives would rather surgically remove their own spleens than spend money on anything that’s not a DVC resort, plus the simple fact that even if Cars Land was approved it’d be several years before it opened, the orangey-colored rocks and Route 66 trappings began to fade from our mental picture of the end of the Streets of America. The Lights, Motors, Action stadium stood there again, just as it always had in reality.

This whole thing reminds me of the early years of EPCOT Center, and the excitement surrounding the World Showcase's most prominent "coming attraction", the Equatorial Africa pavilion. The definitive EPCOT Center tome, Richard Beard’s Walt Disney’s EPCOT: Creating The New World of Tomorrow, devoted a whole chapter to it, with a fairly detailed breakdown of the shows and experiences the pavilion would offer. Equatorial Africa was prominently featured as a coming EPCOT attraction in the park’s early years. Alex Haley even appeared on the EPCOT Center opening-day TV special in 1982 to talk about it, and his segment ended with him and Danny Kaye promising to visit the new pavilion together.

My point is that for a couple years there in the early 1980s, the Equatorial Africa pavilion was real. Buildings had been designed, shows had been written, concept art had been widely released, and there was a big sign on the expansion plot between China and Germany promising that Equatorial Africa was coming soon. How many people stopped and imagined that, on their next trip to Florida, the African pavilion would occupy that empty space?  And you can be sure that if today’s Internet had existed then, there would have been long debates about the new pavilion: whether it had too many attractions or not enough attractions or whether there should be a Mount Kilimanjaro coaster or flume ride to give the area some thrills. But all of those announcements, promises, imaginings and pieces of concept art were rendered moot when Equatorial Africa was cancelled and we were forced to face the fact that it was never real at all.

Over the years, Disney has announced a lot more projects that never advanced past the concept art stage: things like WESTCot, Port Disney, and Disney’s America. Other projects were drastically scaled down: only half the original Animal Kingdom concept actually got built, and the sweeping Project Gemini that would have remade EPCOT’s Future World ended up consisting solely of Soarin’. Perhaps you think this would make Disney fans adopt a “wait and see” attitude about any new rumors or announcements.

Don’t be silly.

The truth is that almost anything, be it an unsubstantiated rumor from someone who claims to have connections or a piece of concept art released on the official Disney Parks blog, is enough to whip the Disney fanbase into a frenzy of fiercely opposing viewpoints. Take Avatar Land, which is slated to open at Animal Kingdom at some point in the current century, unless it doesn’t. All that was announced was that there would be an Avatar Land at Animal Kingdom. That’s all. No concept art, no description of possible attractions, nothing. But that complete lack of data didn’t stop people from taking to the Internet to declare that Avatar Land would either be the best thing since penicillin or the worst thing since Rob Schneider’s career, and accuse the people who disagreed with them as being no better than the cowards who stood by and let Hitler overrun Czechoslovakia.

Now, the Disney fan community isn’t the only one that engages in this ridiculous behavior pattern. Right now there’s a segment of the online Superman fan community who has already decided that it hates the new movie Man of Steel, even though they haven’t seen it yet because it won’t be released until Summer 2013.

So, I’ve made a decision. By the power vested in me as a person who says things on the Internet, I hereby declare Kiri-kin-tha’s First Law of Metaphysics to be in effect online:

Nothing unreal exists, and no arguments about nonexistent things are allowed.

So, a Florida Cars Land? It doesn’t exist right now. It’s not real. So stop arguing about it. Avatar Land? It’s even less real than the Floridian Cars Land. No arguing about that either. If either of these projects actually gets off the ground and are actually built and opened, then they will be real and you can argue about them.

Okay, I’m going to get off my soapbox now. Later I’ll be back with a post about EPCOT’s logo, and as the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation gets closer I’ll have something about that.

Happy Internetting!

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Radiator Springs Backlash Brouhaha

On October 17, 2007, the construction of a Cars Land for Disney California Adventure in Anaheim was formally announced. About ten minutes later the Great Internet Speculatron generated the rumor that Cars Land would be cloned for Walt Disney World in Florida, and would likely replace the Lights, Motors, Action stunt show and maybe part of the Backlot Tour at the Hollywood Studios park. For its part, Disney was pretty much silent about the idea, but that didn’t stop people on message boards from exhaustively debating the merits and the drawbacks of an East Coast Cars Land, all before ground had even been broken on the original West Coast version.

Just as the Internet had begun to tire of this debate, Cars Land opened in California to instant popularity, which was not really a surprise inasmuch as California Adventure had pretty much been the Phantom Menace of Disney theme parks before this. And predictably, the Great East Coast Cars Land Debate was resurrected-this time with a twist: a message board personage whose claim to be a Disney insider was believed by other people on the message board said that Disney was definitely, for sure, bringing Cars Land to Florida. And the Internet totally took this guy’s word for it. My Twitter feed blew up with some people expressing joy that Cars Land was coming to Florida and others complaining that cloning a uniquely-California Adventure experience for Hollywood Studios would diminish both parks.

What’s my opinion? Honestly, I’m not sure I even have an opinion on a recently-resurrected five-year-old rumor about a hypothetical thing that may possibly happen at some point in the future, unless it doesn’t. However, I think we can all agree that Cars Land is a nice thing. And if, in the future, all the various competing interests within the Disney Corporation find it in themselves to replace the mostly sad and pathetic back half of Hollywood Studios with a nice thing like Cars Land, then I would certainly be in favor of it. I have a similar opinion about Animal Kingdom’s Avatar Land, which I understand is slated to open at some point in the 21st century.

What of the notion that this would somehow ruin the artistic uniqueness and sanctity of Hollywood Studios and California Adventure? Honestly, the artistic uniqueness and sanctity of Hollywood Studios and California Adventure is not really something I care about. I appreciate the Studios because it’s home to some genuinely cool things that wouldn’t fit into the Magic Kingdom or EPCOT. But I’m not emotionally invested in the purity of its theme.

My dearest wish is for Disney to give top priority and a huge budget to the goal of making EPCOT’s Future World awesome again. Until that happens, it’s really hard for me to get all worked up about anything that comes out of the Great Internet Speculatron.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Magic Kingdom Movie Marathon

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Magic Kingdom lately. Maybe it’s because the first phase of the Fantasyland expansion is due to open soon. Or maybe it’s because I recently calculated that a one-day trip to Walt Disney World for my wife and I would cost us around $370, and the Magic Kingdom is currently the only park on property worth that kind of money.

Whatever the reason, I got to thinking about which movies in the Disney catalog best capture the essence of the different lands of the Magic Kingdom. And after some deliberation, I came up with a list. Now, there are five Magic Kingdom parks around the world (and Shanghai will make six) and no two are exactly alike. But each of them includes, in some form, Main Street, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. That’s why I’ve restricted my movie choices to those areas, and not selected, for example, a Liberty Square movie or a Critter Country movie. So, let’s kick off the Magic Kingdom Movie Marathon with my pick for the quintessential Main Street movie:

HappiestMillionaire

Yes, it’s The Happiest Millionaire. Although it’s set about a decade after the turn-of-the-century period that Main Street is supposed to depict, it still captures that area’s early-20th century exuberance. Some of its music can even be heard as part of the Main Street background loop.

Next up, the Adventureland movie:

SwissFamilyRobinson

Swiss Family Robinson. Not only is it one of my favorite films of all time, it’s got all the elements of Adventureland except Dole Whips: the jungle, the treehouse, and even pirates. Plus, it’s got that whole the-tropics-as-seen-through-the-lens-of-19th century Europeans thing going on. In fact, the only thing I don’t like about this movie is how Francis is the single most annoying film character not named Jar-Jar Binks or Chris Tucker. His obtuse stupidity is always endangering the family, and in real life a tiger would have eaten him ten minutes after they landed on the island.

Now we come to Frontierland. There’s really only one choice here:

DavyCrockett

What, you were expecting The Apple Dumpling Gang? Davy Crockett is the reason why Frontierland took up one-third of Disneyland’s acreage when it opened in 1955.  Fess Parker’s version of the character was the Optimus Prime of the 1950s.

It was a little tough to choose a quintessential Fantasyland film, but I finally went with this one:

Cinderella

Really, I suppose you could have picked any of the “princess films” of Walt’s era, but I went with Cinderella because it’s the most polished and its songs are the most memorable. Also, Cinderella’s Castle at Florida’s Magic Kingdom has been used as the template for the castles in Tokyo and Paris.

And now we come to Tomorrowland, and the only film on this list that is not older than I am:

meet_the_robinsons

It was not a big hit, nor is it viewed as a classic like the other films listed here. But Meet The Robinsons is the perfect Tomorrowland movie, and not just because we get a glimpse of Space Mountain and the StarJets, but because it positively oozes optimism about the future, which is pretty rare in movies these days.

So those are my picks for the Disney movies that best represent the lands that make up the Magic Kingdom, but wait! There’s one more thing. Every day at the Magic Kingdom is topped off by a nighttime spectacular; a show that combines visual spectacle with a grand musical soundtrack. And so, the last entry in our Magic Kingdom movie marathon is quite properly . . .

fantasia

Thanks for reading, and if you have your own ideas about what Disney films best capture the sprit of Main Street, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, or Tomorrowland, please discuss them in the comments!

Monday, August 13, 2012

In Which I Am On A Podcast

Last week I got to do something completely new to me when the WEDWay Radio guys invited me on their weekly companion show, WEDWay NOW. Although I was excited about my first-ever appearance on a podcast, I was also pretty nervous, because I am a lifelong stutterer and podcasts are an audio-only medium. Also, the WEDWay shows always sound very polished and professional, and when they have a guest it’s always a knowledgeable, accomplished member of the Disney fan community, as opposed to some random dude with a blog.

So I was happy to be on the show, but inwardly I was pretty sure it would go over about as well as that time Joe Piscopo was on Star Trek.

piscopo_data_failYes, this is actually happened

So how did it go? Well, Matt and Nate are very gracious hosts, every bit as friendly and personable off the air as they are on the air, and when the recording was finished I was cautiously optimistic that I’d done an okay job. Here’s the link to the show. The parts where people other than me are talking are really excellent. And if you ever wondered 1. what kind of weirdo could write a blog like this, and 2. why I write instead of podcast, well, there’s your answer.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The EPCOT Show Building Dichotomy

The latest post at Passport to Dreams Old and New explores the various techniques used at the Disney parks to hide (or divert your attention from) the boxy, warehouse-like show buildings that house most attractions. The article mostly focused on the Magic Kingdom (with a small foray into Animal Kingdom), so naturally I started thinking about EPCOT.

In the World Showcase Disney’s show building concealment techniques are in full effect. It’s necessary, because they’re trying to create the illusion that a piece of each the featured countries has been plopped down alongside an artificial lake in Florida.

Future World is a different story. Its buildings are basically permanent Worlds’ Fair pavilions. If you look at the original pavilions (and here I mean the ones that were either already built or finalized before Michael Eisner took over in 1984. So by this definition, The Living Seas is an original pavilion, but Wonders of Life is not) they don’t really consist of a façade tacked onto a plain boxy building. Pavilions like Horizons and World of Motion looked almost as futuristic from the back as they did from the front. There’s still a little bit of visual trickery going on-The Land is not really built into the side of a grassy hill that extends from the Seas to Imagination, that “hill” is there to hide some functional areas of behind and between those buildings-but it’s fairly minimal. A ride on the old Skyway in the Magic Kingdom would quickly expose Fantasyland as nothing more than some rather plain-looking buildings with attractive facades on them, but Future World always looked just as futuristic from the Monorail track as it did at ground level.

Mission:Space completely broke this paradigm. It’s a more conventional show building with a fancy façade on the front. But the one that a lot of EPCOT aficionados have a problem with is the Soarin’ building. Maybe you’ve seen it:

soarin_show_building 

Doesn’t really jump out at you? How about now?

soarin_2

Most people don’t even notice it, but it’s been said once you see the Soarin’ show building you can’t forget it’s there. I’m not sure I agree with that. Maybe it’s because I don’t often find my gaze drawn to the Canada pavilion when I’m in the World Showcase, but most of the time the Soarin’ show building is pretty much invisible to me unless I actively look for it. That’s pretty impressive, considering that it’s really too big to hide. Covering it with rockwork or something like that would draw even more attention to it, but in the end simply painting it blue seems to make it blend into the air around it.

Interestingly, the plans for the abandoned Project Gemini (the early-2000s proposal to overhaul Future World) would have placed Soarin’ on the north side of The Land pavilion, next to The Seas. Of course, that would have involved a more drastic interior overhaul of The Land than we ended up getting. Would that have been preferable? Or would there complaints be about how Soarin’ ruined the skyline of Future World had it been placed on the north side of The Land instead of the south? (Answer: of course there would be complaints, this is the Internet.)

If you really want to get a good look at some of EPCOT’s invisible areas, take the Undiscovered Future World tour. You’ll be surprised at just how well Future World’s landscape hides the park’s backstage areas.

UPDATE:

I thought I’d go into a little more detail about the landscape of Future World West and exactly what it conceals. I’m sure you’re familiar with the 1981 EPCOT Center concept painting that appears in the Richard Beard EPCOT Center book. Let’s zoom in on Future World West:

FWEast_concept

See all the greenery where the backstage areas should be? The reality, of course, is not as attractive:

FW_West_Aerial

Yep, most of what’s back there is rather paved and treeless. But let’s take a closer look at the “hill” that appears, from ground level, to come right up to front wall of The Land.

LandBirdsEye

As you can see, the “hill” isn’t a hill at all, it’s a few truckloads of earth that was put there to hide the wall that conceals the utilitarian backstage area that’s really in front of the pavilion. See that overhang near the reddish-colored pavement? If you were to walk out the double doors near the Soarin’-area restrooms, that’s where you’d be. (NOTE: Unless you’re on an authorized backstage tour, do not actually do this.)

Another interesting illusion in Future World West concerns the true size of the Imagination pavilion. From ground level, it’s obvious that the pavilion is pretty big, but it’s easy to think that the back side of the pavilion is pretty close to the back side of the glass pyramids. In fact, the Imagination pavilion is much humongouser than most people think. (I don’t care what my spell check says, if “Nighttastic” is a word, then so is “humongouser ”) Take a look:

Imagination_birdseye

It’s easy to look at that picture and conclude that the original Omnimover ride was much longer than it actually was, and that the current attraction is therefore an even bigger travesty. And while I rarely pass up a chance to crack on the Dr. Nigel Channing snore-fest, accuracy demands that I point out that the entire interior volume of the Imagination pavilion was never completely devoted to attractions. There’s quite a sizable backstage area there, including a maintenance bay for the ride vehicles and a sterilizing facility for 3-D glasses. Also, notice the circular structure at the bottom of the picture; it’s the Canada CircleVision theater. Yes, the southern end of Future World and the northern end of the World Showcase are much closer together than most people think; the layout of the park basically makes you take the long way around to travel between them.

Well, what I intended to be a small update has turned into enough material for a whole other post! Thanks for reading and for your comments!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Roddenberry’s Box

Note: After writing the screenplay for Star Trek: Insurrection-the ninth film in the series-the late Michael Piller prepared a manuscript for a book that detailed the film’s creative process. That book, entitled Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft, was never published because Paramount blocked its publication. It was briefly posted to Trekcore.com in 2010, but it was taken down at the Piller family’s request. Fortunately, I was able to download a copy for myself. It left me with a lot of interesting thoughts, and they’ll form the basis for my next several posts. Oh, and since I don’t want to go against the wishes of the Piller family-or their lawyers-I will not be posting the book for download.

One of the worst things that can happen to a creative person is for them to become a huge success, because that success tends to insulate them from criticism. The poster child for this is George Lucas, but another interesting example is Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

As I’ve written before, Gene Roddenberry spent a lot of time in the 1970s addressing adoring convention audiences who believed he was some kind of visionary prophet because he’d been partially responsible for a TV show they enjoyed. Unfortunately, Roddenberry believed it, too, and it started to drive him crazy. Like the folks who inhabit the lunatic fringe of the Star Trek fanbase, Gene stopped thinking of Trek as just a television show and started to believe that the imaginary future it depicted was real. By the time he got to work on The Next Generation in the mid-80s, he was a permanent resident of Crazytown, USA. He’d make pronouncements about the 24th century as though it were a real place he had visited. “In the 24th century, no one goes hungry and you never lose your socks in the dryer,” was the kind of thing you’d hear him say on a disturbingly regular basis.

You know, as insane as George Lucas has become, you never get the feeling that he thinks Star Wars is real or anything. He openly admits that he’s doing what he thinks is cool, and he doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks. But with Star Trek, you hear a lot about “Roddenberry’s vision”, especially when the people who took control of the franchise after he died are explaining why spinoffs like Voyager and Enterprise were less fun than getting a root canal from Captain Hook. “We were just trying to stay true to Gene Roddenberry’s vision”, they’ll say. And from some of the stuff Gene Roddenberry said from the 1970s onward, you get the impression that he really thought he’d seen a vision of the future and it was his mission in life to faithfully translate it to the television screen, even if it did not result in what your or I would call entertainment.

A key part of Roddenberry’s vision was the idea that 24th century humans would have none of the foibles or personality flaws that people have had throughout recorded history. Only aliens would be allowed to have human failings. If a human character-especially a member of Starfleet-ever acted shifty, selfish, or even argumentative, it was a sure sign he was under the control of an alien brain worm.

Michael Piller called Gene’s rules of 24th century human behavior “Roddenberry’s Box” and he ran up against it on the very first episode he worked on as head of The Next Generation’s writing staff early in the show’s third year. A young aspiring writer named Ronald D. Moore (yes, the very same guy who went on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica) submitted a story called “The Bonding” where the mother of a young boy is killed on an away team mission and the boy bonds with a holodeck re-creation of her. Roddenberry flatly rejected it. “This doesn’t work” he insisted. “In the 24th century, no one grieves. Death is accepted as a part of life.”

In the end, Piller was able to save the story by reworking it so that benevolent aliens re-created an image of the boy’s dead mother and Captain Picard got to give them the “Death is a part of life” speech. “The Bonding” turned out to be a solid entry in the Star Trek canon. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t point out that later in the season there was an episode called “Hollow Pursuits” where a new crewman escapes into holodeck fantasies to deal with his social anxiety disorder, and our series regulars react to this by making fun of him behind his back like high-school jocks snickering at the awkward new kid. Strangely, there’s no record that Roddenberry had any problem with that script. So, according to Roddenberry’s Rules of Evolved 24th Century Conduct, grieving over your dead mother is not acceptable, but making fun of people who get nervous in social situations is perfectly all right. The future is easy!

Still, Mr. Piller began to view Roddenberry’s Box as a positive thing, believing that it prevented writers from falling back on familiar storytelling devices and forced them to be original. Also, he reasoned that Star Trek had been staying within Roddenberry’s Box since the 1960s and had proven to be successful, so obviously Gene was doing something right. Each of these lines of reasoning, I believe, is fatally flawed.

First of all, the huge run of success that prompted Paramount to bring Star Trek:The Next Generation into existence in the first place all happened before Roddenberry’s Box was even a thing. Watch the Original Series, which was produced before throngs of adoring fans convinced Roddenberry that he was a Visionary Prophet Who Could Do No Wrong. The regulars are all virtuous and generally free of the worst human flaws like bigotry or greed, but they’re not perfect.

And the most successful films that came out before The Next Generation went into production were the Harve Bennett-produced Star Treks II, III, and IV over which Roddenberry had no control whatever. In fact, Gene often complained vociferously about how Bennett and his team failed to depict the idyllic 23rd century future he envisioned. The control that Gene did exert over the first film was seen as a big reason why it turned out to be a talky and ponderous bore, and the word in the Star Trek fan community is that Paramount tapped him to create The Next Generation only after Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy turned them down.

Secondly, there are no truly “original” stories. Humans have been writing fiction for thousands of years, and virtually every story that can be told has been told in some form. In some ways, writing fiction is like reaching into a big bag of Legos and building something new out of the preexisting pieces you find there. This is especially true when you’re writing for an established franchise like Star Trek. All Roddenberry’s Box did was take away the various types of human conflict that writers have been using for millennia as the building blocks of drama. To replace them, Star Trek’s writers were forced to come up with new, inferior building blocks that mostly involved technobabble and increasingly ludicrous sci-fi scenarios.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some of those ludicrous scenarios and technobabble, and the fun that results when entertainment executives completely misunderstand their audience. Stay tuned!