Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reaping the fruits of the 21st century

When I rode Horizons during my childhood visits to EPCOT in the '80s, I remember being entranced by the idea of space colonies, undersea cities, and flying cars becoming ubiquitous by the time I was 30. Of course, we didn't get any of that stuff, but we did get something else that no one at the time could have imagined: a worldwide computer network through which once can actually buy their own piece of that imagined 21st century, by which I mean one of the ride vehicles from the Horizons pavilion:

I'm not making this up. This very ride vehicle is available for sale at the Mouse Surplus store on eBay. The speakers inside the vehicle are rigged to play the Horizons soundtrack while you sit inside. Oh, and it'll run you a little over $10,000 when all's said and done. But if you throw in the Authentic Red Monorail Door for $2,750 and the Universe of Energy Light-Up Sign for $1,500, it means that for under $15,000, you can give your home decor that Defunct Disney Attraction look it's been missing.

Of course, if your place is small like mine, then you may have to make some sacrifices. For example, you might not have room in your living area for both a sofa and a Horizons ride vehicle, so the sofa will have to go. And your bedroom will probably be unworkably crowded with both your bed and the Universe of Energy sign shoved in there, so you'll have to get rid of your bed and sleep on the floor. And if you can't hang the Monorail door on one of your walls because your spouse stubbornly insists upon using that space for stuff like family pictures, then you'll probably have to just install the Monorail door in place of your current front door. Of course, since your front door is rectangular, and the Monorail door is shaped more like a hexagon, it may do a somewhat less than ideal job of sealing out the outdoor environment. But when you think about it, those are small sacrifices to make in order to own pieces of the 21st century we dreamed of but never got.

I'm not sure I'm kidding about that.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Why I prefer Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica

Notice that the title of this post is not "Why Star Trek is better than Battlestar Galactica". I'm not an ill-tempered Internet fanboy who believes his opinions are the only correct ones. I'm just going to tell you what my personal preference is; your mileage may vary.

Despite the space travel element, the two franchises could not be more different. Star Trek has survived for over forty years, through good times and bad. It's told some truly great stories, lots of mediocre ones (see Voyager, entire run of), and even a few that are just plain awful, but almost all of its episodes and movies are united by Gene Roddenberry's idea of a future in which mankind has moved beyond its baser instincts. You could never imagine Captain Kirk or Captain Picard torturing an enemy for information, even in a "ticking time bomb" scenario, or executing an hostile alien, like a Klingon or Romulan, without a trial simply because they were a Klingon or Romulan. In one of Star Trek's more critically acclaimed episodes, Deep Space Nine's "In The Pale Moonlight", Captain Sisko's decision to resort to unethical, even illegal, means to turn the Dominion War in the Federation's favor clearly plagues his conscience. Even as he looks back on what he's done, and insists "I can live with it", the clear subtext is that he can't.

On the other hand, Battlestar Galactica's heroes don't behave like idealized 24th century humans, they behave like regular 21st century humans who haven't yet figured out how to get out of tight spots without selling out their most cherished beliefs. They claim to have morals, and yet they don't hesitate to engage in torture if the situation seems to call for it. President Roslin routinely airlocks Cylons without one shred of hesitation or remorse. And in the third season episode "Dirty Hands", Admiral Adama is prepared to execute Chief Tyrol's wife and baby son to end a strike of overworked menial laborers. Can you imagine any Star Trek Captain threatening the innocent family of an officer who disobeyed orders? For that matter, can you imagine that kind of behavior from a military commander in today's world, outside of places like North Korea or Zimbabwe? The human-Cylon conflict in Battlestar Galactica isn't good guys vs. bad guys; it's two equally amoral factions slugging it out in a mud pit. If Star Trek depicts humans as we ought to be, Battlestar Galactica depicts us as we truly are, and it's not pretty.

To be sure, there are things I like about BSG. I like the un-choreographed, documentary look of the special effects shots. I appreciate how the effects of 50,000 people being crammed onto a few spaceships for an extended period of time are realistically explored. BSG is well-shot, well-directed, and superbly acted, and I really wish I could enjoy it. In the end, though, it just doesn't give you any heroes to root for.

Star Trek has endured for forty years largely because its optimistic vision of the future inspired people. Kids have grown up to become doctors, engineers, scientists, and even astronauts because they grew up watching characters like Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty. Decades from now, will we be saying the same of BSG? Sure, someone may say Colonel Tigh inspired them to be an alcoholic, but that's not really the same thing.

Normally when I hear people comparing Star Trek and BSG, they're snidely asserting that BSG's grim-n'-gritty approach makes it automatically superior to the more optimistic Star Trek. It reminds me of the way high school jocks make fun of the "nerdy" kids who concentrate on their studies, not realizing that in a few years those same "nerds" will likely be their bosses. I guess I'm one of the nerds. If I want to watch something grim and depressing, there are four 24-hour news channels to choose from. Otherwise, I'll be watching Star Trek.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Of towers and fake rocks

When Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom was constructed in Florida, it boasted one improvement over its California predecessor: a complex of tunnels that ran beneath the park, enabling the moving of people and equipment, garbage collection, and other essential park business to be carried on out of the guests' view, lest anything spoil their illusion. There's an old story that says Walt got the idea one day at Disneyland when he saw a Frontierland cowboy walking through Tomorrowland, thus piercing its futuristic "bubble". Theming is something at which Disney has historically been very good.

Which brings me to Tomorrowland. There have been many Internet postings complaining that the 1994 refurbishment of Tomorrowland into some sort of Flash Gordon spaceport amounts to an abandonment of the future. This isn't one of them. Ultimately, whether a person prefers the pre-1994 Tomorrowland with its sleek, minimalist design sensibility rooted in the 1960s, or the new version with it's deliberately retro-1930s/1940s/1950s stylings really depends on their own individual taste. However, I encourage you to take a look at the picture below and tell me which element(s) don't quite belong:

Could it be the GIANT FAKE ROCKS? What exactly was Disney thinking here? How do the rocks fit in with the whirlygigs and the radiator fins and the neon lights? They're as out-of-place in Tomorrowland as, well, a Frontierland cowboy. Compare the rocks with what used to be there before the 1994 rehab:

Now, I understand why the towers were taken down. They clashed with the retro-50s design aesthetic the Imagineers were going for, and they would have competed with the fancy-schmancy Tomorrowland sign that arcs over the entrance. But were the ridiculously fake rocks the best replacements Disney could conjure up? They have a distinctly Warner Brothers cartoon look, as if they're the divider between Duck Dodgers In The 25 1/2 Century Land and Road Runner and Coyote Land. And the thing is, they aren't a Magic Kingdom-only abberation. California's Disneyland has them, too:

Clearly the fake rocks are an intended part of the design. What's the story behind this? Did Eisner have some kind of faux boulder fetish? Were a bunch of fake rocks fabricated for a planned Thunder Mountain expansion, then dumped in front of Tomorrowland when the project was canceled? What's really ridiculous is that Disney Imagineers are masters of making things look real. If Eisner wanted rocks, it wouldn't have been that hard for them to whip up something that looked like rocks instead of Looney Tunes come to life.

Or, if they really wanted to save money, they could have taken a cue from Tokyo Disneyland . . .

. . .and simply given the towers a new paint job. Would they still have clashed with the Flash Gordon radiator fins and neon lights? Sure, but not as much as the rocks.