Thursday, February 26, 2009

Making it up as you go

Sorry for the dearth of new entries lately, but sometimes that's the way it goes. Creativity does not, unfortunately, work on a schedule; the ability to write good stuff on a consistent schedule is what separates professional writers from amateur hacks like me.

The TV shows I grew up with stayed scruplously away from anything resembling a continuing narrative. If a character got married, or died, or had any kind of life-changing event that would seriously alter the show's status quo, it would always get reset-buttoned out of existence and things would proceed as though nothing had happened. As my generation matured, though, we began to demand more sophisticated fare, and thus we got shows like Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, and later Lost, Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica, that made heavy use of character arcs and continuing storylines.

As Battlestar Galactica draws to a close, a lot of fans are complaining that Ron Moore and the writing staff are making things up as they go. This was a criticism that I remember hearing during Deep Space Nine's final season, and although I don't watch Lost, I've heard people making the same complaint about that show. Apparently, these fans believe that the show's creator should map out all of the story and character arcs in advance, before anything is filmed, and then stick to his original plan no matter what. That's hardly feasible. Although the idea behind a new TV show may be the brainchild of one person, once it's picked up and goes into regular production it gains a whole team of writers, each with their own ideas and opinions that will inevitably shape the show. Also, it's a lot easier to set up story points than it is to deliver the payoff.

Think back to one of the earliest examples of this that people my age remember: The Empire Strikes Back. Think of all the awesome pieces of setup in that movie: the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke's father, Yoda's cryptic reference to "the other", the inevitable attempt to rescue Han from Jabba The Hutt; all of it left us screaming for more. When it came time for all that stuff to be resolved, of course, we got Return of the Jedi, and a lot of people were disappointed to learn that "the other" was Leia and she was Luke's sister, to say nothing about the Ewoks or that most of the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes consisted of the Emperor sitting and talking while Luke stood there and looked conflicted. And although we've spent the last twenty-odd years complaining about it, I've never seen anyone put forward any better ideas. There was just no way to satisfactorily pay off the story elements that Empire set up.

Which brings me to Battlestar Galactica. Throughout it's run, BSG has been setting up all kinds of interesting story points and promising to pay them off at a later time: the Cylons' plan, Roslin's visions, Starbuck's destiny, the quest for Earth, and the future role of Athena and Helo's daughter Hera. In Season Three, a new mystery was added: the identities of the Final Five Cylon models. The last few minutes of that season's finale are amazing: the mysterious power outage that affects every ship in the fleet simultaneously and is seemingly orchestrated by a higher power, the revelation of Tigh, Tory, Anders and the Chief as Cylons after they're drawn together by strains of "All Along The Watchtower", and of course the return of Starbuck, followed by the dramatic pull-back-out-of-the-galaxy-then-zoom-back-in-to-reveal-Earth shot which shows us that the Fleet is fairly close to Earth. Like The Empire Strikes Back, there was just no way to pay off all that stuff to everyone's satisfaction. Ron Moore and company tried, though, and now that we're two weeks away from the finale's first installment, people are complaining that the writers are making it up as they go along. I wonder, would the story be more palatable if Ron Moore made it all up in 2003 when he wrote the miniseries?

Everyone's entitled to their opinion, of course, and I've read some very thoughtful critiques of the last few episodes. For example, why did "Deadlock" give us scene after scene of Adama wordlessly watching the work crews fix up the Galactica with Cylon spackle, but relegate important information like the disposition of Galactica's mutineers (they're on the prison ship, BTW) to the Ron Moore podcast? Did anyone even watch the episode after they cut it together? And you can't tell me that the piano players' true identity in "Someone To Watch Over Me" was a surprise. Most of us guessed it before the opening credits. Still, when BSG is finally over, I firmly believe that, although we may gripe about how certain things were handled, no one will be able to offer up any substantially better ideas.

So sit back and enjoy the ride. Because whether it was all made up at the beginning, or just made up as we went along, in the end it's all made up anyway.

Friday, February 6, 2009

How educational was EPCOT?

It's widely believed that the EPCOT Center of the 1980s and early 90s was a more educational place than the Epcot of today. But was it really? Let's compare the pavilions of EPCOT Center with today's lowercase Epcot and see. Of course, it should be noted that what follows is purely my own opinion.

Spaceship Earth: To be fair, I haven't had the chance to ride Spaceship Earth since the Siemens rehab. However, I've watched a little ride video, and I've listened to the entire audio track on Subsonic Radio a few times. In my opinion, the new ride has a lighter tone and is less scholarly than the communications-themed experience that preceded it. Is it actually less educational? It's a tough call. It seems to me, though, that the old ride contained more historical facts than the new one.

Universe of Energy: Among those of us who remember the first version of this pavilion, there's the widespread perception that Disney dumped the respectable, serious original show in favor of a lighthearted and airheaded Ellen Degeneres vehicle that's too busy dropping 1990s pop culture references to convey any information. So I went back and watched some videos of the original show so I could compare them. And honestly, they both convey pretty much the same information, although the original show goes into a lot more detail about oil exploration. Whether you prefer the scholarly and serious presentation of the original show, or the 1990s flavor of the current incarnation is a matter of personal preference.

Wonders of Life: This pavilion used to be an interesting EPCOT destination featuring shows and exhibits about health and the human body. Now it's an empty shell.

Horizons/Mission:Space: Anyone who reads this blog knows how I feel about Horizons. It was absolutely my favorite theme park attraction of all time. If I had the power of Q, I would rebuild Horizons, convert the second-floor VIP lounge into an apartment, and live there. Nevertheless, Mission:Space is more educational. Why? Well, even though it's nowhere near the triumph of Disney Imagineering that Horizons was, and in fact it makes people sick, it realistically demonstrates why not everyone is cut out to be an astronaut. Horizons was more fun. Mission:Space is more educational. I don't like it, but it's the truth.

World of Motion/Test Track: Although it is fondly remembered, no one would accuse World of Motion of historical accuracy. How many kids got off that ride believing that the wheel was introduced to mankind after an Egyptian Pharaoh picked the round model over square and triangular versions? To be fair, though, the post-show area had some educational value. Test Track has a narrower focus, simulating an automobile testing ground instead of telling the story of human transportation, but it does try to educate riders about the testing process that new car models are put through before they go to market. I wish it explained why GM's cars are so unreliable compared to Honda and Toyota if they really go through all these tests, but I guess that story doesn't have as much entertainment value as the testing process itself. Comparing the old and new rides is a bit of an apples-and-oranges proposition, but I'd have to give the nod to Test Track here.

Journey Into Imagination/Journey Into YOUR Imagination with Figment and Eric Idle: The Imagination pavilion was never meant to be educational in the slightest. It was simply supposed to be a fun, whimisical trip that reminded visitors of the potential of their own imaginations. I've written at length on this before, of course, but in brief the old ride was charming, the newest one is a sad joke, but neither had any educational value (unless you count the present-day post-show area that "educates" you about some of Kodak's more banal services.) The Captain EO movie might have been educational had it been retitled "People You Should Never Allow Near Your Children".

The Land: Although the boat ride portion of the pavilion has changed very little since the pavilion opened, the change from a live guide to a recorded narration track during the greenhouse sequence was an improvement, as everyone now gets the same information. The biggest change at The Land, of course, was the replacement of the Kitchen Kabaret/Food Rocks show with Soarin'. Although Soarin' is definitely the superior experience, it's one of the biggest examples of the "generic Disney-Park-ification" of EPCOT. Soarin' makes The Land one of EPCOT's most popular destinations, but the place was more educational without it.

The Living Seas/The Seas With Nemo and Friends: I've written about the Seas pavilion before. As I said then, my favorite version of the pavilion is WED's amazing original concept that United Technologies was too stingy to fund. The attraction that opened in 1986 was perfectly serviceable, however, and it did a good job educating us on the amazing variety of living things in our oceans. Unfortunately, people today aren't wowed as easily as they were in 1986, when the line to get into The Living Seas stretched almost to the monorail track. For better or for worse, Disney decided it was the ocean's fault. Since actual sea life wasn't sufficiently entertaining, the whole place got a Pixar makeover, complete with digital characters from Finding Nemo that seem to float inside the aquarium (which is still the world's second-largest man-made underwater environment.) I haven't had the chance to examine all the exhibits inside the refurbished Seabase, but from what I can tell the Seas pavilion isn't as much about turning guests' on to the wonders to be found beneath the ocean as it is about entertaining preschoolers.

CommuniCore/Innoventions: The old CommuniCore had more exhibits that tied into Future World pavilions, but it also had lots of cheesy gimmicks (anyone remember the Astuter Computer Revue?) Innoventions plays more like a sales pitch for different corporate sponsors, but such things have a long history at Disney. Still, Innoventions does convey actual information, even if it's not very entertaining. Overall, CommuniCore wins out. It had a teachers' resource center, and there was just more of it. CommuniCore took up two buildings; Innoventions only takes up one.

So, was the old EPCOT Center really more educational than today's Epcot? Yes, but not as much as you might think. The main difference was that it cared about educating visitors in a way that today's Epcot really doesn't.