Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Vacation Kingdom Idealization

Early on in Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World, the aural masterwork from the author of Passport To Dreams Old and New, you notice that something’s missing. Yes, the Magic Kingdom’s familiar background music is there, including lots of little snippets that could only be heard at the park itself until now, as are the comforting sounds of Magic Kingdom watercraft, the heavy clanking of the WEDway PeopleMover, and even the long-absent percussion of cannon fire from Pirates Of The Caribbean. What’s missing are the people.

I don’t mean there’s a complete absence of human voices. There’s plenty of them, in fact: Jack Wagner’s Monorail narration, faint echoes of Jungle Cruise spiel that occasionally bubble up before being subsumed by the sound of Adventureland’s artificial jungle, and even com chatter in the Space Mountain queue. What you don’t hear is the crowds; that omnipresent dull roar punctuated by an occasional shout or the cry of an exhausted child that’s inescapable in perpetually crowded places like Disney World. I don’t mean to sound like a misanthrope, but other people are the number one obstacle to enjoying your day at the Magic Kingdom or any other theme park. As much as we fantasize about the return of beloved old attractions like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, probably the greatest fantasy of any theme park aficionado is to have the place all to themselves, and Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World allows you to indulge that fantasy.

It’s almost a dreamlike experience; you’re floating from land to land in a peacefully vacant Magic Kingdom, catching fragments of pre-and post-show audio from various attractions as you pass by, occasionally wandering into and out of ride queues. Then you’re on the resort monorail heading toward the Contemporary as Jack Wagner tells you all about the evening entertainment in store for you there, and bam!—suddenly you’re in the Contemporary’s Grand Canyon Concourse and you realize where those crowds that were curiously absent from the Magic Kingdom were the whole time. But it’s not the kind of crowd noise you hear when listening to a park audio track that someone recorded by setting a recording device next to a speaker. It’s carefully blended in to give you the full auditory flavor of the mid-1970s Vacation Kingdom nightlife.

It’s not a stretch to say that “An Evening In The Vacation Kingdom” is the crown jewel of this collection. Pretty much all the Disney audio you can find on the Internet is from the parks. With a little work, even an unsophisticated schlub like me can slap together an iTunes playlist that roughly captures the feeling of walking around the Magic Kingdom or EPCOT Center in the 1980s. But stuff from the resorts, especially the pre-EPCOT Center “Vacation Kingdom” era, is pretty much impossible to find, and even if you could it takes great skill to blend it all together in a way that makes you feel like you’re really experiencing the Seven Seas Lagoon nightlife. I can’t express just how good this track is; even if the rest of the collection was nothing but the Tiki Room: Under New Management in an endless loop, “An Evening In The Vacation Kingdom” would make it all worthwhile. It really is that great.

Something else I love about this collection is how it evokes all the layers the Magic Kingdom experience used to have: the Swan Boats, the steel drum band in Caribbean Plaza, the cannons over the entrance to Pirates, the Mike Fink Keel Boats, and the live entertainment in Tomorrowland. All of these are things that were whittled away over the years to save money (even as ticket price and room rate increases have far exceeded the rate of inflation) and it’s nice to inhabit, even in an aural fashion, a Magic Kingdom where they’re still there.

Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World can be downloaded here: http://passport2dreams.blogspot.com/2014/12/another-musical-souvenir-of-walt-disney.html

Get it now, if you know what’s good for you.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Star Trek Youth Problem

Star Wars movies will always be more popular than the Star Trek films.

I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, what? I thought you were a die-hard Star Trek nerd!” And I am. But since 1979 Paramount Pictures has been trying to do the impossible: cram the arrowhead-shaped peg of Star Trek into Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon-shaped hole. And it just hasn’t worked. It was never going to work.

It’s no secret that the success of Star Wars (and Close Encounters of the Third Kind later in 1977, which proved that there was an ongoing demand for sci-fi films) was the main reason that Star Trek: The Motion Picture got the green light. Now, there are tons of reasons why the first Star Trek film wasn’t a Star Wars-level hit, and most of them revolve around how boring and slow-paced it was. (Full disclosure: I actually like The Motion Picture) But there’s an even bigger reason that Star Trek was never going to be a worthy big-screen competitor to Star Wars. Let’s compare the two movies’ main casts and see if we can spot what it is:

StarWarsBig3

ksm4

Do you see it now? No, it’s not that the Star Trek cast is wearing 1970s space pajamas, or that their “Big 3” are all male (although it doesn’t help). When the first Star Trek film premiered in 1979, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were 48 years old. DeForest Kelley was 59. On the other hand, when Star Wars premiered in 1977 actors Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher were 35, 26, and 21 years old respectively.

The original Star Trek TV series was popular for a lot of reasons, and one of them was that the show positively crackled with youthful energy. Sure, at the end of each episode Captain Kirk was usually able to persuade the antagonists of the week to talk out their differences, but only after an hour of running, jumping, and fisticuffs. By the time it hit theaters in 1979, a full decade had passed since Star Trek’s TV adventures. The actors, who had been been young or middle-aged in the late 60s, were now middle-aged or elderly. Even if The Motion Picture had told a more action-oriented story, it’s hard to believe that the cast could’ve believably pulled it off. (Yes, I know William Shatner did a lot of physical stuff on T.J. Hooker in the 80s, but the sight of Shatner running has always been more hilarious than exciting.) And you could hardly expect the young Star Wars audience that identified so strongly with Luke Skywalker’s youthful yearnings to do the same for Captain Kirk’s midlife angst.

So why didn’t the studio simply reboot Star Trek with a younger cast? Because the show’s hyper-devoted fans who’d spent the past decade fiercely lobbying for its return would’ve revolted. Thirty years later when the Star Trek fanbase was more of a known quantity Paramount was comfortable taking that risk, but not in 1979. Interestingly, before The Motion Picture was greenlit Paramount was going to resurrect Star Trek as a TV show entitled Star Trek: Phase II. The original cast would’ve returned (sans Leonard Nimoy) but they would’ve been augmented by three new young characters: First Officer Decker, the Vulcan Lt. Xon, and the exotic Lt. Ilia. Besides giving the show a much-needed injection of youth, these characters would also be insurance in case William Shatner or any of the original cast became too expensive or left to do other things. But, the return of Nimoy rendered the Xon character unnecessary, and although the Decker and Ilia characters were included in The Motion Picture, the story conveniently disposed of them before the end credits.

With Star Trek II, producer Harve Bennett and writer-director Nicholas Meyer again tried to inject some youth into the cast with the characters of Lt. Saavik and Kirk’s son David. But David was killed off in the next movie, and Kirstie Alley’s failure to return as Saavik dealt a serious blow to that character. She lived through Star Trek III but was never seen again after a brief scene in Star Trek IV.

Meanwhile, the franchise was rebooted for TV. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ensemble cast reflected a Battlestar Galactica-inspired approach. You had the wise, older “Captain” character (Adama/Picard) acting as the father figure to a group of younger characters who did all of the action-adventure stuff. (Apollo, Starbuck, and Boomer in BSG; Riker, Data, LaForge, Yar, et. al. in TNG) There was even a kid to pull in the really young viewers (Boxey in BSG, Wesley Crusher in TNG).

1st_tngcastWhy are they all looking in a slightly different direction?

The Next Generation reinvigorated the franchise and enjoyed seven successful years on TV, but when they made the jump to the movies they ran into the same problem as the Original Series: those characters who were so young in 1987 were now middle-aged. For the first couple films it wasn’t too noticeable. In fact, 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact was the kind of enjoyable action romp that the Original Series movies could never have delivered. But after that the wheels started to come off pretty quickly. In 1998’s Insurrection it was painfully obvious that TNG’s aging cast of TV actors just couldn’t deliver believable action scenes, with the possible exception of Patrick Stewart. And if Insurrection was painful, 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis was excruciating.

Nemesis_weddingIt’s never a good sign when the groom has to wear a wig

Once again, Star Trek was stuck with a cast that had nobody to appeal to young audiences. And after Nemesis tanked harder than a Pauly Shore biopic, Paramount finally pulled the plug.

Producer-director J.J. Abrams eventually came onboard and gave Star Trek a top-down rethink. In addition to fast-paced Star Wars-style action, 2009’s Star Trek featured the youngest cast the franchise ever had.

Star Trek (2008) Directed by: J.J. AbramsStar Trek: The College Years

But this created a whole new problem. Star Wars can justify its young protagonists because they’re either people with some kind of innate power that gives them a special destiny (i.e. Luke or Anakin Skywalker), royalty (Queen Amidala or Princess Leia), or a tremendously skilled person on the fringes of civilized society (Han Solo). It can even give them leadership positions in the Rebel Alliance, because it’s a ragtag organization that needs all the help it can get.

But Star Trek’s protagonists are the senior staff of a spaceship that belongs to a futuristic NASA-Navy hybrid. The idea that those positions would just be given to a handful of twentysomethings who haven’t even graduated from Space College strains credulity way past the breaking point. Rationalizing it by trying to paste a Star Wars-style “heroes’ journey” on top of it is even sillier. The only way to believably incorporate younger characters is to go the Next Generation route and have an older Captain overseeing a group of younger junior officers. But although that approach works great on TV, it’s impossible to do on film because two hours is not enough time to service all the characters in a large ensemble cast.

What I’m trying to say here is that Star Trek, done properly, is not a billion-dollar film franchise like Star Wars or The Avengers. It’s a TV show. There’s no shame in that. No one’s trying to turn Breaking Bad or The Wire into movies. Sure, a big feature film budget can give us the kind of sci-fi eye candy that Trekkers like me salivate over, but Star Trek is not about eye candy. Like any other good drama, it’s about the characters. And those characters are best served on TV.

Hopefully CBS and Paramount will one day be able to untangle the issues surrounding their shared ownership of the franchise enough to bring Star Trek back to the small screen, where it belongs.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Next Generation Metamorphosis Misstep

I’m not going to lie: when Star Trek Generations was released twenty years ago I was hyped. The geriatric cast of the Original Series had taken their final bow in the excellent Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country three years before, and now it was time to hand the reins to a new, younger cast headed by this fresh-faced youth:

picard_generations_hqpb

Yes, I believed we were in for a treat. Now, I should point out that I was only 16 years old in 1994, and my powers of criticism had not yet been honed by years of watching and reading Internet critics make fun of things. Although I realized that some episodes and movies were better than others, I basically functioned on the belief that anything with the Star Trek name on it was automatically good. That being said, you might imagine I was confused and disappointed by the decision to pull TNG off the air after its seventh season. But I wasn’t.

You see, even my adolescent powers of observation could tell that the Next Generation writing staff ran out ideas about one season before the show ran out of episodes. You may not remember it, but that last season was pretty painful. Scripts that would’ve been rejected outright just a season or two earlier were now getting made into episodes, like the one where a mutant virus makes the crew de-evolve into animals, or the one where Dr. Crusher resigns her commission to live on a gothic Anne Rice-inspired planet where she has a passionate affair with a green energy wisp. And although the series finale “All Good Things” is widely regarded as one of the best TV series finales ever, fully half its two-hour run time is taken up with meaningless technobabble about anti-time and spatial anomalies and modifying the main deflector to create an inverse tachyon pulse.

So I was glad to see TNG escape the restrictions of a weekly TV show and get the opportunity to tell new and bigger kinds of stories. And you can imagine how excited I was to learn that Captain Kirk would be in the movie! What kind of cool space adventure would Kirk and Picard have together? I was dying to find out, but since there were no Internet spoilers back then (or maybe there were, but the Internet was in its infancy in 1994 and most people still didn’t have access to it) I had to wait until Entertainment Weekly published this photo:

Picard_kirk_horses

It looked like Captain Picard was out on a horseback ride and he happened to run into Kirk. The picture should’ve made my Bad Movie Spidey Sense tingle, but it didn’t. Honestly, my minutae-obsessed self was way more interested in the fact that the TNG cast would be wearing Deep Space Nine-style uniforms.

Finally, the movie was released and I was able to go see it. I can’t tell you how cool it was to see the Enterprise-D on an actual movie poster:

Generations_OneSheet

It was even cooler to see the TNG crew in action on the big screen, to see Data finally get the emotion chip, and to see the awesome saucer crash sequence—one of the last big movie effects sequences to be accomplished without CGI. But I had this weird nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right, that the movie didn’t live up to what it should’ve been. Of course, today we all know why I felt that way: because Star Trek Generations is a piece of crap.

I’m not going to go into all the movie’s flaws here. Other people have already done that far more capably and humorously than I ever could. But I do want to talk about why it’s a piece of crap. What went wrong? There were two main problems.

1. The Script Was A Joke
Generations was written by two of TNG’s best writers: Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore. Back when the show was on the air, seeing a “Written by Brannon Braga” credit during an episode’s opening scene meant that were in for some kind of cool reality-bending sci-fi story. A “Written by Ronald D. Moore” credit meant that the episode was going to be a strong character piece, probably featuring a meaty moral dilemma or 24th century political intrigue. Both separately and as a team, the two were responsible for some of The Next Generation’s finest episodes. So what went wrong with Generations?

First of all, it’s not like they were given carte blanche to come up with whatever story they wanted. Before they even got the job, Star Trek producer Rick Berman and the Paramount executives decided that the next movie should have the following plot points:
  • It should involve The Original Series cast in some way, or at least William Shatner and whoever else would be willing to work for the meager salary involved.
  • The Original Series cast members, or at least Captain Kirk, would interact in some way with The Next Generation crew, but . . .
  • There would be no time travel, because everyone thought it was an overused plot device.
But that wasn’t all. Because if William Shatner was going to be in the movie, he demanded to have a scene where he got to ride his horse. And Patrick Stewart insisted on having some kind of meaty emotional storyline for Captain Picard. So now Braga and Moore were handed the following list of disparate elements:
  • Kirk and maybe some other members of the original cast meeting up with The Next Generation cast, but without time travel
  • Captain Kirk on a horse
  • Picard having heavy emotional drama, allowing Patrick Stewart to show off his Shakespearean acting skills.
. . . and told to shoehorn all of them into the first movie screenplay they’d ever written. All while juggling their regular duties as staff members on TNG. And they even ended up drawing the plum assignment of writing TNG’s two-hour finale. They had to frantically alternate between working on Generations and “All Good Things”, and they’ve admitted in interviews that they sometimes got the scripts confused during that hectic period.

With all that was going on, it’s no wonder that Generations’ story didn’t make any sense! But if blockbuster films of the last decade or so have taught us anything, it’s that filmmakers can always distract audiences from a script’s Death Star-sized plot holes with lots of special effects and fast-paced action sequences. Unfortunately for Generations, that wasn’t an option because of:

2. Paramount’s Broken Star Trek Business Model
The first Star Trek film in 1979 was made on a budget of about $40 million. That’s about $127 million adjusted for inflation, which puts in in the modestly-priced summer blockbuster range. But when that movie failed to be the Star Wars-slaying megahit that Paramount was hoping for, they decided that any future Trek film would have to be significantly cheaper. Star Trek II was actually made by the studio’s TV division for $11.2 million, or about $26.6 million in today’s dollars. That’s the budget for a romantic comedy, not a space adventure. But it was a hit, and Paramount decided that they’d found their Star Trek budgetary sweet spot. Henceforth, Star Trek movies would be strictly low-to-medium budget productions.

This worked pretty well during the 1980s because of simple supply and demand. You see, Star Trek fans had been watching the same 78 Original Series reruns since the show ended in 1969. There was an incredible amount of pent-up demand for new material, so the release of a new movie every two to three years was a big event. Fans flocked to see it over and over again. And thanks to technological advancement, the special effects on even a low-budget 1980s movie were light years better than anything the TV series could have done in the ‘60s.

But by the time Generations rolled around in 1994 things had changed. The onetime scarcity of new Star Trek had turned into an abundant surplus. In fact, Generations had a pretty limited time in the spotlight; the big mystery of Odo’s origins had just been solved a month-and-a-half before on Deep Space Nine’s third season premiere, and about a month-and-a-half after Generations was released the fourth TV spinoff, Voyager, had its premiere. And while budgets on the TV shows might’ve been limited, they certainly weren’t miniscule. In fact, the VFX staff did an excellent job putting out near movie-quality special effects on a TV budget. So in order to make Generations feel really cinematic, Paramount would have to spend some serious money to make sure it didn’t just look like an episode of the show projected onto a movie screen.

They did not.

Instead they stuck to their same old business model, and Generations was given a tiny $35 million budget (which works out to about $54.1 million in today’s money). We’re still in romantic comedy territory here. The cost savings were realized by using the same sets, costumes, props, and spaceship models from the TV series. They were even too cheap to pay for a movie director, instead hiring David Carson from their stable of Star Trek TV directors. Things were so bad that, not only did they recycle the effects shot of the Klingon ship exploding from Star Trek VI, but they even reused one of the stock Enterprise flybys from the TV show! The fact that they could even try to get away with that shows what a tiny, almost nonexistent gap there was between what a big-budget TV show and a low-budget movie could do, special effects-wise.

My point is that because Generations was made on basically a television budget and overseen by a television producer and a television director using television actors on television sets acting out a script written by television writers and then scored by a television composer it was exceedingly television-y. Simply releasing it in theaters didn’t make it cinematic. And although it got decent reviews and did pretty good business, the one thing that you kept hearing over and over again was that it seemed like a two-hour episode instead of a movie. It was a criticism that would be repeated for all the TNG films. And although at the time I viewed it as a recourse of snobbish critics who imagined that Star Trek was the nothing more than the nerdy purview of greasy 40-year-old virgins living in their mother’s basement, it was actually pretty accurate.

All of that being said, I do recommend watching this movie. Specifically, I recommend the DVD edition with Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore’s excellent commentary. You see, between the badness of Generations, the horrible formulaic crapstorm of Voyager, and the sheer incompetence of Enterprise, I spent several years believing that Brannon Braga was a high-functioning idiot boy whose only talent was sucking up to his boss. So I was very surprised to listen to the commentary and hear a very funny, self-aware guy named Brannon Braga candidly admit all the problems with the movie and even point out some inconsistencies I’d never noticed.

You see, in my teens and early twenties I assumed that if a movie or TV show was bad, it was because the director, writer, or producer was an idiot. And while that’s certainly true at times . . .


 . . . very often there are other things going on behind the scenes that the creative people have no control over, things that are never revealed until years later.

So while Star Trek Generations is a maddeningly unsatisfying movie that I can't sit through without howling in frustration at how stupid it is, it did manage to teach me a valuable lesson. Not about how time is the fire in which we burn, but that even good people sometimes make bad movies.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Totally Unrealistic EPCOT Center Restoration Idea

People say to me “Hey Dave, you talk all the time about how the people in charge of Disney World are complete idiots who make the wrong decision every single time, especially where EPCOT is concerned, but what would YOU do differently? Huh?”

Okay, actually that’s a lie. No one ever says that. I don’t follow any of the strident Everything-Disney-Does-Is-The-Best-Thing-Ever crowd on Twitter and they don’t follow me, so most of what I say just fades into the electronic aether. I just needed a way to introduce the premise of this article, which is basically what I would do if I had a completely free hand to remake EPCOT as I see fit. In a future article in this series, I’ll tell you what I would do if I could fly to Mars on a giant winged hedgehog.

I think what EPCOT really needs—in fact, what the entire Disney enterprise needs—is to be run by a visionary George Lucas-type person. I don’t much care for the Star Wars prequels. But I massively respect how Lucas, secure in the knowledge that the films would make tons of money no matter what, carried out his own creative vision and gave exactly zero craps what anybody else thought. “Hey, wait a minute!” you might be saying. “Disney should give people what they want!”

No. No, they definitely should not, especially where EPCOT is concerned. People shouldn’t be given what they want, they should be given what they ought to have. Why do I say that? Let’s consider an example. Think back to the mid-2000s, when the rumors first started to swirl that Apple was developing a mobile phone. The Great Internet Speculatron started churning out renderings of what this rumored mobile phone might look like, and all of them looked like Apple-ified versions of existing devices:

PredictediPhone

iPhone_slider

The phone that Steve Jobs unveiled in early 2007 was nothing like the vast majority of people had imagined. Simply listening to what people wanted would not have resulted in such a revolutionary device as the original iPhone because most people had no idea that such a device was even possible.

Another example: the third Star Trek spinoff, Deep Space Nine. Prior to that show, the only Star Trek anyone had ever seen was about a group of Starfleet officers flying around the galaxy in a starship. DS9 was totally different, and shortly after it hit the airwaves people were complaining that it was set on a space station that didn’t go anywhere and that it’s characters were not all nobly heroic and didn’t always get along with each other. In short, they were unhappy that it wasn’t like the previous Star Treks they were used to. A direct result of that criticism was the creation of Star Trek: Voyager, a show that hewed closely to the established Star Trek formula and took absolutely no chances. Over a decade after both shows ended their 7-year runs, DS9’s popularity is actually rising thanks to its complex characters, well-plotted storylines, and prescient tackling of post-9/11 issues, and Voyager is generally regarded as an empty piece of fluff by everyone apart from a tiny and fiercely-devoted fanbase.

Bottom line: if you do nothing but chase after the ethereal magic unicorn of What The People Want, you’re doomed to mushy mediocrity. It’s much better to have a clear creative vision and stick to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t bend to people’s tastes when you have to (the way Disney did in the mid-80s when Mickey & friends began making appearances in Future World wearing their silver spacesuits) but you can do it within the framework of your vision. That way your creative endeavor doesn’t devolve into an unfocused mess.

So, all of that being said, here is what I would do with EPCOT. First, I would fix Future World. There would be no more empty pavilion space. Wonders of Life would return in a modernized form. Innoventions would again become CommuniCore and would get exhibits to fill all that empty space. And the refurbished and updated Journey Into Imagination pavilion would bring back the upstairs ImageWorks. New pavilions would be built in the expansion pads. (A new, updated Horizons would definitely be one of those) And every pavilion would be reworked to conform to EPCOT’s original vision: education, entertainment, and inspiration. There would be no pavilions devoted to cartoon characters. (So The Seas with Nemo and his Computer-Generated Friends would become The Living Seas once more) And then, once Future World had been updated and expanded so you could spend a whole day exploring it, I would close World Showcase.

No, not permanently. It’s just really hard to massively rework an area when you have customers walking around in it. One of World Showcase’s big problems has always been its lack of rides. So it would get one. Specifically, the World Cruise. You may recognize the World Cruise as a piece of the sadly-abandoned WestCOT Center concept that was progressively scaled down and chipped away until it became Disney’s California Adventure. WestCOT’s version of the World Showcase was called The Four Corners of the World, and was devoted to different regions rather than individual countries. The World Cruise (also called The River of Time) would’ve been a dark ride that flowed beneath the area with a stop in each “corner” of the world plus a fifth stop in Future World. In between stops, there would be show scenes devoted to whatever themed area the ride was passing under.

Imagine something like that for EPCOT’s World Showcase. True, it couldn’t be done exactly the same way. For one thing, it couldn’t flow beneath the World Showcase without razing the existing buildings, building the World Cruise at ground level, then rebuilding the World Showcase on top of it, the way the Magic Kingdom is built on top of the Utilidors. The most logical thing would probably be to have the World Cruise run behind the existing World Showcase. Also, you couldn’t have a stop in every World Showcase pavilion, especially since part of my plan would be to use every expansion plot. Maybe there would be a stop in every third country. Some of the pavilions might have rides of their own, but each one would at least have a show. And of course there’d be the normal assortment of shops and restaurants. But, like Future World there would be no shows or attractions devoted to Disney films or licensed characters. That means no character dining. EPCOT is not the place for that stuff.

Finally, after the big EPCOT restoration was completely done, there’d be a dedication ceremony officially renaming the park EPCOT Center.

One of the things that the original EPCOT Center did really wonderfully was to use the Disney brand name as a springboard, not a straitjacket. It took the chance of being more adult and educational, of not having any attractions devoted to licensed characters. It took those chances because the people behind it knew that the Disney brand name gave them an automatic audience. People would come just to see the new Disney thing, and once they were in the park, even though it was nothing like the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center’s designers bet that they’d like what they saw. And they were correct. Yes, some people complained that there were no character meals or roller coasters and they were offended that Disney would dare expose them to educational content on their vacation. But a lot of people liked EPCOT Center very much. It’s not like the place was a ghost town while the Magic Kingdom was packed. EPCOT Center was legitimately popular. The only reason the place depends on the Flower & Garden and Food & Wine festivals to support it today is because of two decades of executive ineptitude.

Obviously, all of this is just pie-in-the-sky fantasy on my part. Disney apologists on the Internet are fond of pointing out that it is a business, and therefore cannot afford to spend any of the billions of dollars it rakes in per year making improvements to its theme parks, even though doing so is a proven way to make even more money. And from what I’ve heard the Orlando arm of Disney’s theme park division is a dysfunctional miasma of incompetence and petty office politics that couldn’t muster the collective will to open an umbrella if it was raining. So I have zero confidence that anything positive will happen at EPCOT ever again. I wish I didn’t have to be so pessimistic, but that’s where the facts lead me.

But maybe, at some point in the future, if Disney is led by a strong creative person with the courage to put forward a creative vision and carry it out without being paralyzed by what people might think, things could turn around.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Maelstrom Desecration Response

If you have the Internet and use it to keep up with Disney-related things, then you know that this past Friday afternoon the official Disney Parks blog finally confirmed a months-old rumor; that the Norway pavilion’s Maelstrom ride will be converted to a Frozen-themed attraction.

One thing I love about Twitter is that it allows us to react to things in real time before we’ve really had a chance to think them over. Then we can scurry over to our blogs and write up a more thoughtful reaction, then go back to Twitter and tell everyone to check out our blog. It’s a circle of some kind.

CircleOLife“Hey, Internet! Here’s this thing I wrote!”

The first thing I tweeted in response to the news was this:

Picard_doublefacepalm

Then I tweeted this:

And finally I tweeted this:

And that’s pretty much where I am today. Putting a Fantasyland dark ride into EPCOT is a terrible idea, but at this point it doesn’t matter because almost everyone who really appreciated what EPCOT Center stood for doesn’t go to the park anymore. I realize that last sentence may be a bit controversial, so let me elucidate.

The generally accepted way to create a successful theme park is to take a bunch of preexisting intellectual properties that people like and build a bunch of rides, shows, shops, and restaurants devoted to them. As time goes on and your company churns out new pieces of intellectual property (or acquires them from other, more creative companies) you replace old rides and shows devoted to things that are no longer popular with new rides and shows devoted to your popular new stuff. EPCOT Center was something totally different. It was built around, not intellectual properties, but ideas like futurism and the joy of experiencing different cultures. People came to EPCOT for one of two reasons:

  1. Because they already enjoyed Disney’s other offerings and wanted to check out this latest one.
  2. Because they had a preexisting interest in one of the topics presented at EPCOT. Maybe they were especially interested in ocean life or wanted to eat at a Moroccan restaurant.

The people who loved EPCOT Center but still come to the park anyway belong to that first group. If you asked one of them, they’d probably tell you they’re a Disney fan. Understand I’m not criticizing these people. I’m just pointing out that they’re there. They keep coming to the park because the nostalgic feelings it gives them and their affinity for most things Disney allows them to enjoy themselves there. And that’s totally cool.

I belong to the second group. Yeah, I grew up with various Disney-related entertainment, but it didn’t inspire me or capture my imagination the way other things did. I loved EPCOT Center because of my preexisting interest in science and futuristic technology. When EPCOT moved away from those things and it became clear to me that the people in charge of the park did not care about them anymore, my interest in it declined accordingly. The fact that today’s lowercase Epcot occupies the same physical space and has a bunch of buildings that outwardly resemble those EPCOT Center pavilions I once loved is not enough to make a visit there enjoyable for me.

Now let’s talk about World Showcase for a bit. When I was a kid, I had no use for the place. Sure, part of this is because like most kids I was a cultural Philistine and World Showcase was too adult-oriented for me to appreciate yet. But Future World dealt with some pretty advanced topics, too, and it was my favorite place on the whole planet. The difference between the two was that Future World had rides and World Showcase didn’t. That wasn’t by design. There were always supposed to be more rides; a Rhine River Cruise in Germany, some kind of gondola ride in Italy, and unbuilt pavilions like Spain, Venezuela, and the Soviet Union were also supposed to contain rides. But for various reasons the plans for each of these fell through. As a result, World Showcase has always been kind of dysfunctional. Adding the Norway pavilion with Maelstrom in 1989 was absolutely a step in the right direction. Changing this fanciful but mostly reality-based tribute to Norway into a showcase for a cartoon just because that cartoon did Avengers-level business at the box office is a massive step in the wrong direction.

At this point you might say “Dave, I see where you’re coming from. Disney should using one of those empty World Showcase expansion pads for their Frozen ride!” If this is your opinion, let me respond thusly:

A trait that all the very best EPCOT attractions shared was their refusal to talk down to the audience. They managed to handle complex grown-up topics in ways that were entertaining but also assumed that you had a brain. What message does plopping a Frozen ride into the Norway pavilion send? This: “Hey audience, there’s no way the country of Norway could possibly interest you because all you care about is stuffing your face with mass-market entertainment! So here’s another helping of that!” Putting a Fantasyland ride into World Showcase goes against everything that World Showcase is supposed to be.

I’ve heard some people argue that it’s okay because Frozen was a good movie that they personally enjoyed. Those people are missing the point. The Emperor’s New Groove was a good movie that I enjoyed, but that doesn’t mean that the Yzma’s Secret Lab Roller Coaster belongs in the Mexico pavilion.

There have been some efforts to get Disney to reverse their decision by using the hashtag #SaveMaelstrom, apparently because if you can get a hashtag trending on Twitter it somehow bends the fabric of the space-time continuum and makes the thing you’re trying to accomplish magically happen. These efforts are not going to work any more than the hashtag #LessExplosionsAndSexismPlease would move Michael Bay to completely change his style of filmmaking. The people who ran the Walt Disney Company when EPCOT Center was being designed and built are not there anymore, and the people in charge now have absolutely no allegiance to their ideas or set of values. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. No social media campaign can induce the leadership of a Fortune 100 company to fundamentally change the way they do things. Heck, as of this writing it hasn’t even been able to shame NFL commissioner Roger Goodell into resigning for looking the other way when the people in his employ violently beat women and children.

Now, after saying all of that I have to admit that while I’m opposed to the Frozen Maelstrom replacement, I’m not too worked up about it. It’s like if the Peruvian government started selling billboard space on the buildings at Machu Picchu; it’s a horrible, crass decision and I don’t like it, but it doesn’t directly affect my life in any way.

[A clever concluding sentence goes here]

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Star Trek Movie Development Derailment

It’s been said that nobody sets out to make a bad movie.

sharknadoWell, almost nobody

For example, William Shatner once set out to make a Star Trek movie that would be a sweeping epic, combining high adventure with a profound spiritual journey for the characters. And we ended up with Star Trek V.

tvh_advance

The Final Frontier’s failure was almost guaranteed from the beginning, though, because the story was built around an inherently bad idea: the Enterprise crew setting out to physically locate God. Sure, there were a lot of other problems with the production: a writers’ strike, budget cuts, etc. But you can pretty much draw a straight line from the bad idea at the beginning of the creative process to the cinematic cow pie that came out the end. However, some bad movies start out as fairly good ideas. Or at least ideas that sound good at first. For example, Star Trek: Insurrection.

A very important piece of tie-in merchandise for Insurrection was to have been a book, penned by screenwriter Michael Piller, that detailed the entire creative process behind the film, from initial idea to finished screenplay. Had Insurrection been successful the book would have been a splendid commercial for it. But when the movie sputtered like a wet firecracker the studio decided that they’d rather not publish its post-mortem. So Piller’s book went unpublished. However, the manuscript surfaced online a while back, and I was able to read it before it was pulled. Here, then, is a condensed summary of the various forms Insurrection’s story took from concept to finished script. It’s a fascinating look at how Hollywood can turn a guaranteed crowd-pleaser into a dirt sandwich.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Spock Search Recollection

Thirty years and a few weeks ago, I saw the most important movie of my life. You see, I’ve been a huge Star Trek fan pretty much since birth. But during my early-1980s childhood, the world was much different. There were no Internet streaming services or Blu-Ray players to allow you to watch the show whenever you wanted in glorious high definition. And although selected episodes were available on VHS as early as 1980, my family didn’t have access to a VCR. Heck, I didn’t even know what a VCR was until 1985 or so. All we had, in fact, was a 15-inch black-and-white TV set with a pair of rabbit-ear antennae perched atop it. When we watched the show weeknights at 6PM on WAWS Channel 30 out of Jacksonville, Florida, it looked something like this:

TrekBW1

And let me remind you that until 1987, there was only one show called “Star Trek”. There was only one Captain and crew of a single USS Enterprise. During my early childhood, of course, I had no idea how long ago the show had been on the air, how many episodes there were, or even the fact that there were movies. My only inkling that additional Star Trek stories existed beyond the confines of television were occasional glimpses of odd-looking early novels in the Waldenbooks at our local mall:

IshmaelThis book was a crossover with the early-1960s comedy-Western series Here Come The Brides. I am not making this up.

So you can imagine how surprised and excited I was 30 years ago, in early June 1984, when my parents said that we were going to the mall see a Star Trek movie (in those days, movie theaters were commonly located in malls). While we were waiting to get in, I gazed up in wonder at the first movie poster I can clearly remember:

tsfs_onesheet

Now, since I’d had no idea that Star Trek movies even existed before that day, I had some questions. Why were they searching for Spock? How did he get lost? I recognized the Enterprise in the upper-left corner of the poster, and I imagined that the unfamiliar-looking spaceship at the lower-right was a shuttlecraft the crew was using to look for Spock. I was going into this movie totally blind, with no idea what to expect. Once it started, I didn’t know what the heck was going on. Spock was dead? Kirk had a son? And who was this Saavik person? Probably 90% of the plot sailed right over my 6-year-old-head.

And it was the most awesome filmgoing experience of my life. I mean it; Star Trek III: The Search For Spock completely blew me away.

A large part of that was the visuals. Remember, the vast majority of my Star Trek viewing experience had been on a little black-and-white TV. It was a huge treat just to see the show in color when I visited my grandparents. I was used to the Enterprise looking like this:

EnterpriseBW1

And now it looked like this:

TSFS_Enterprise1

I was used to a starship bridge that looked like this:

BridgeBW

But now it looked like this:

TSFS_bridge

Even the Excelsior bridge set—which by today’s standards looks like something a low-budget fan film would be embarrassed to have—was just about the most hi-tech looking thing I’d ever seen.

TSFS_excelsiorFor some reason, Starfleet’s newest flagship was controlled from inside a 23rd-century Radio Shack

On the TV show, the rare glimpse of a space station looked like this:

K7BW

But Star Trek III showed me a space station that looked like this:

TSFS_Spacedock

I was used to Klingons that looked like this:

KlingonBW

But now they looked like this:

TSFS_Klingons

Even though I only saw the movie a couple times, Star Trek III’s late 70s/early 80s futurist aesthetic was burned onto my brain. The huge impression it made on me was only reinforced when I visited EPCOT Center for the first time a few months later. As I’ve written before, EPCOT’s Future World shared that same late 70s/early 80s futurist aesthetic, and to see it fully realized in three dimensions was an amazing experience and was a huge reason why I became so obsessed with the place. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that The Search For Spock is the reason this blog exists. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you look at it.

But it wasn’t only the visuals. The Search For Spock was the biggest, most unique Star Trek story I’d ever seen. The TV episodes followed a predictable pattern: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would beam down to a planet, the natives would capture them and take away their phasers and communicators, and eventually they’d escape captivity and get their stuff back, while solving whatever societal ill affected the planet. Kirk would give the aliens a speech about freedom, then the landing party would beam up and the Enterprise would fly off into the end credits.

But movie started in the middle of a story already in progress. Some bad stuff had gone down, and Spock was dead. In order to set things right, Kirk and the remaining crew zoomed from Earth to the Genesis Planet, and then to Vulcan. Compared to the television episodes I was used to, The Search For Spock was a sprawling epic! It really expanded my idea of what Star Trek could be. It also turned me on to the existence of the film series. After all, if there was a Star Trek III, then there must’ve been a Star Trek II and a Star Trek I, right? Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see those earlier films until many years later (my parents maintained that The Wrath of Khan was too violent for children and that The Motion Picture was too boring) but the movie left me eagerly anticipating Star Trek IV, and I was not disappointed when The Voyage Home premiered two years later.

I didn’t become aware of the “odd-numbered curse” (the idea that all the even-numbered films are all good and the odd-numbered ones are all bad) until I got onto the Internet in the mid-‘90s. And even though it’s obvious today that Star Trek III was a medium-budget film trying to pass as a blockbuster, it remains one of my favorites. It’s not as groundbreaking as The Wrath of Khan or a rollicking caper like The Voyage Home, but its heart and the way it remains true to the characters will always make it one of my favorite Star Trek stories of all time.

By the way, you should really check out Vonda McIntyre’s novelization. (Available used on Amazon or electronically in the iBooks store) It fleshes out characters like Captain Esteban of the Grissom that came across as rather cartoonish and one-dimensional onscreen and has a touching subplot for Carol Marcus, who was completely absent from this and all future films.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Disneyland-Superman Replication

The grand opening of Disneyland in the summer 1955 was a huge event that sent ripples through the pop culture of the day. For example, the story that appeared in Action Comics #210 from late 1955.

These days comics are mostly aimed at an adult male audience, but in the 1950s they were strictly kid stuff. In fact, thanks to the Fredrick Wertham-inspired moral panic in the early 50s, comic publishers went out of their way to make their publications as square, nonthreatening, and kid-friendly as possible. (They still managed to make them totally psychotic and weird, but we’ll get to that later) And since kids were excited about Walt Disney’s new theme park, it was perhaps inevitable that DC’s writers would come up with a story about their flagship character getting a theme park of his own: Superman Land!

1

The plot of the story is pretty simple: Clark, Lois, and Jimmy are assigned to cover the grand opening of Superman Land, and Clark keeps slipping away to change into Superman and help out with the park’s various opening-day problems. All the while, a disguised Lex Luthor is lurking about thinking menacing thoughts like “Everyone thinks Superman is invincible, but I’ll change their minds soon enough!” and “I’ll stop Superman permanently! And I’m going to do it tonight, with what I’ve got in this box!”

Superman Land has a lot of similarities to Disneyland. It’s like the writers glanced at a map of Disneyland and adapted some of its attractions to fit the Superman theme. For example, Disneyland had Rocket To The Moon, and Superman Land had the Rocket to Krypton:

3

This one is actually amazingly prescient. It’s basically an Eisenhower-era Star Tours 2. By the way, you may notice that the Kryptonians in that last panel are flying around like Superman. That’s because the writers hadn’t established that Superman’s powers came from Earth’s yellow sun. Supposedly everyone on Krypton had super powers. This idea was abandoned a short time later because the writers realized that it was hard to explained why they all died if they could have just flown away when Krypton exploded.

From here, though, Superman Land veers from the eerily prescient into the deeply weird and criminally negligent. For example, you know how Disneyland has the Frontierland shooting gallery? Well, Superman Land has a shooting gallery, too! Why, you ask? So park visitors can experience Superman’s invulnerablity for themselves by shooting at a steel Superman dummy. With real guns. Loaded with live ammo. Obviously, we’re in an NRA fever dream. And what’s even more funny/disturbing is that, in one of Superman Land’s many opening-day mishaps, the steel Superman dummy’s delivery is late. So guess how Superman handles it?

6a

Yes! He stands in for the the dummy, and the people firing live ammo at him never even notice! It’s one thing to have a theme park attraction where guests can pick up a loaded firearm and go to town, it’s something else when those guests can’t even tell the difference between a steel dummy and a real person.

But the ability to distinguish between a live human and an inanimate object is a common failing in this world. Later on, Clark needs to sneak away from Lois and Jimmy to deal with a problem at the post office as Superman. (Yes, the park has a Superman-themed post office. Don’t ask why.) How does he manage it? By plopping a Clark Kent dummy onto the most awkward-looking merry-go-round ever, helping at the post office, then replacing the dummy with himself before the ride is over:

8a

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that investigative reporter Lois Lane couldn’t tell the difference between Clark and a wax statue. After all, this is a universe where a pair of glasses is an impenetrable disguise. But the weirdest thing is the merry-go-round itself. Whose idea was it to have a ride that requires people—mostly children—to mount a replica of a large spandex-clad man like they were one half of the Ambiguously Gay Duo? That’s pretty edgy for 1955. Then again, the Batman comics of the same era had Bruce Wayne and young Dick Grayson sleeping in the same bed and showering together, so what do I know?

batman-robin-whaaaThis is not Photoshopped. It actually appeared in a comic marketed to children.

But the Disney theme park experience is about more than just rides. Disneyland had the Main Street Cinema, and Superman Land has its own cinema that plays (what else?) Superman cartoons.

6b

And what’s a theme park without gift shops selling themed merchandise?

6cWhy do I get the feeling that Superman’s Health-Food-In-A-Can is not a big seller?

And finally, just like Disneyland has a nighttime fireworks show, Superman Land would have its own pyrotechnic spectacular. But where Disney fireworks are charming, whimsical shows about wishes, dreams, and licensed characters, Superman Land’s fireworks are psychotically insane:

10a

Remember, in the universe where these stories take place, Krypton was a real planet, and its explosion extinguished billions of lives and wiped out an entire civilization. And every night, Superman Land is going to re-create this tragic cataclysm for cheering crowds! It’s like reenacting the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at a theme park called Japan Land, or reenacting the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents at Batman Land. And don’t get me started on how they plan on using pre-Sputnik technology to launch a rocket into space as part of the show every night. How did they get the FAA to sign off on this? It’s like this comic was written by alien creatures playacting as humans with no understanding of actual human behavior or emotions.

Tommy-WiseauIn other words, this guy.

Compared to Superman Land, the Disneyland of 1955 may seem like a pretty dull place. There’s no nightly rocket launches, no 3-D space simulator, no real guns in the Frontierland Shooting Gallery, no place to pick up a can of Superman Health Food, and the carousel only gives you the opportunity to mount plain old boring horses and not tights-wearing flying muscle-men.

But—and you can call me old-fashioned—I still think I prefer Disneyland.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Habst and the Disney Saboteurs

I rarely read reviews of things before I experience them. More often I watch or read the movie, TV show, book, or whatever and then I read the reviews to see if I agree with them. I think it’s got something to do with left-handed people doing everything backwards. My point is that this is not going to be one of those spoiler-free reviews that dances around major plot points and only speaks in generalities. If that’s not the kind of review you want to read, pull the handle and bail out. Otherwise, join me after the jump.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Expanded Universe Overreaction

Sometime last week, in a secret bunker deep beneath Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas pressed a big red button labeled EXPANDED UNIVERSE SELF DESTRUCT as Disney CEO Bob Iger looked on approvingly. All around the world, Star Wars fans cried out in terror as all their Expanded Universe novels, comics, video games, and action figures vanished in a puff of smoke.

Wait, that is what happened, right? Because otherwise all the Internet outrage about Lucasfilm “nuking” the Expanded Universe would be kind of silly. You know what, why don’t I just read the official announcement so I don’t jump to any conclusions. Hang on, this should only take a few minutes:

Lucasfilm’s official announcement on the Expanded Universe.

I realize that a large portion of the Internet can hardly be bothered to read a sentence fragment superimposed over an amusing picture of a cat before taking to their online commenting forum of choice to vent their extreme anger and outrage. So let me explain in as few words as possible what the announcement basically means:

The Expanded Universe is cool, but the new movies are going to do their own thing.

No rational person would have a problem with this.

After all, back when the Expanded Universe really got going in 1991 with Timothy Zahn’s novel Heir To The Empire, Star Wars was pretty much dead. George Lucas had moved on to other things, like rolling around in giant piles of money, and the Star Wars universe was an abandoned sandbox full of cool toys that nobody was playing with. The success of Zahn’s “Thrawn trilogy” opened the floodgates for a whole series of novels, comics, and video games all set in the same continuity. Some of it was good, but a whole lot of it was crap, as pointed out by veteran Internet comedian Lore Sj√∂berg:

Does anyone really believe that J.J. Abrams or the folks at Disney would allow their new movies to be bogged down by 25 years of largely awful continuity? Not only is a lot of it just plain bad, it’s also terribly convoluted and downright weird. Over the years, as story has built upon story, the Expanded Universe has drifted farther and farther away from that classic Star Wars “flavor” and kind of become its own thing. And, whereas a casual Star Wars fan could pick up one of Timothy Zahn’s early Star Wars novels and instantly enjoy it, the newer stuff is totally incomprehensible unless you’re versed on a quarter-century of earlier novels, comics, and even video games.

Of course, some folks on the Internet don’t see it that way. One comment I read (either on Twitter or the comments section of an article on the subject, I can’t remember which) sternly reproved Lucasfilm for not “remaining true to the source material” the way Marvel films do. Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: the Expanded Universe stuff is not source material. The characters in the Marvel films first appeared in comics. Star Wars began as a series of movies. The six Star Wars movies are the source material here. All the other licensed fiction, be it novels, comics, or video games is just ancillary stuff based on that source material.

I’m sure that the premiere of Episode 7 in 2015 will give all us People of the Internet plenty of legitimate things to complain about. But the decision to cut things like Lord Heathrir, Darth Vader’s magic glove, Bendorion the Jedi Hutt, or Wilford Brimley’s character from that one made-for-TV Ewoks movie out of the official Star Wars universe? That’s cause for celebration.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Disney Affinity Clarification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

flowchart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Technobabble Kudzu

Let’s play a little game. Guess which TV show this scene is from:
LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER: Whatcha got?
CRIME LAB TECH: Well, I took the suspect's laptop and I hacked into the BIOS by pinging an IP address with bundles of irregularly sliced RAM.
OFFICER: And?
TECH: And I found out where the bad guys are hiding! They're in that abandoned warehouse on the 34th street dock!
OFFICER: Good work. Let's get ready to roll!
Did you guess CSI? One of the NCISes? 24? Criminal Minds? Something from the Law and Order franchise? It could be any of those, couldn’t it? You can find this basic scene (complete with technical lingo written by someone who doesn’t understand computers) in at least one episode of any crime procedural that’s been on the air in the last decade or so.
Now let’s do another one. See if you can guess where this scene comes from:
CAPTAIN: Report!
ENSIGN GREENHORN: We’re trapped in an inverse quantum field distortion! If we don’t get out in five minutes it’ll reduce us to thermolytic particles!
CAPTAIN: Options?
LT. COMMANDER ENGINEER: We could modify the main deflector with an array of phase discriminators, then use them to generate a modulated anti-tachyon pulse that should create an ionic resonance in the event horizon.
CAPTAIN: Like a stockbroker popping a balloon in a winery?
ENGINEER: Exactly! With any luck, the dekyon field modulation should be enough to break us free.
CAPTAIN: Make it so.
Any guesses? Of course it’s one of the Star Treks. It could only be one of the Star Treks. And from that scene it’s pretty easy to see why most of the Star Trek shows are totally inaccessible to all but a tiny core of devoted fans.

You see, even though the crime procedural scene had plenty of nonsensical technobabble, there were still recognizable character types with an easily understandable problem that could plausibly exist in the real world. The Law Enforcement Officer was trying to catch some criminals, and the Lab Tech gave him some information to help with that. But what the heck is going on in the Star Trek scene? The character types and situation are familiar enough to sci-fi fans, but to the average viewer it's nigh-incomprehensible. And here's a fun tidbit from Television Writing 101: if your show makes no sense to 85% of the viewing public, you have a problem.

Strangely enough, Star Trek didn't start out this way. Originally it was a show on NBC in the late ‘60s, a time before cable TV and Netflix when there were only three TV channels. Every show was designed to appeal to a large audience, because otherwise it simply couldn’t stay on the air. With that in mind, the original Star Trek show “bible”—the guide for writers and directors that outlined the format of the show and gave details about the characters—had this to say about the use of sci-fi technical lingo:
Tell your story about people, not about science and gadgetry. Joe Friday doesn't stop to explain the mechanics of his .38 before he uses it; Kildare never did a monologue about the theory of anesthetics; Matt Dillon never identifies and discusses the breed of his horse before he rides off on it.
How much science fiction terminology do you want?The less you use, the better. We limit complex terminology as much as possible, use it only where necessary to maintain the flavor of the show and encourage believability. IMPORTANT: The writer must know what he means when he uses science or projected science terminology. A scattergun confusion of meaningless phrases only detracts from believability.
For the most part, the people who wrote for the Original Series followed these guidelines. And since that show launched a multibillion-dollar entertainment franchise that we’re still talking about today, they were obviously doing something right. So what happened? How did Star Trek’s spinoffs get taken over by technobabble? The first culprit is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way the Technobabble Mystery Plot worked was, a Weird Thing would happen that threatened the ship or crew, and our characters would have to figure out why the Weird Thing was happening and how to escape from it or make it stop. Of course, the “Weird Thing Happening” plot device is a staple of science fiction, and was used to great effect on The Twilight Zone. But on that show, it was used to expose hidden flaws in the characters and examine the human condition. And the Weird Thing was almost never explained. You can't get away with that on Star Trek. Imagine this scene:

CAPTAIN PICARD: Give me analysis of this weird thing that's happening.
GEORDI: Beats me.
DATA: No idea.
PICARD: Aren't you at least going to try to figure it out?
GEORDI: Huh?
DATA: Aren't we going to what now?

Since our Star Trek characters' whole reason for being out in space is to seek out and analyze strange stuff, that wouldn't exactly work. And so there was always a technobabble-filled scene where Data or Geordi figured out the scientific explanation for the Weird Thing and explained it to everyone else using a Space PowerPoint presentation. Then we got more technobabble as they devised a plan to resolve the problem caused by the Weird Thing, and even more technobabble (often shouted while the characters frantically tapped on control panels) as the plan was implemented.

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

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

3. Rick Berman
When Gene Roddenberry became too ill to oversee TNG, producer Rick Berman took over Executive Producer duties after winning a power struggle with Gene’s lawyer. Unlike Gene, Berman was not a creative person. His talents lay in getting TV shows produced on time and under budget. At first, this was okay. Starting with the third season of TNG, head writer Michael Piller was mostly responsible for the creative side of things, and in addition to being a major factor in TNG’s success he also co-created Deep Space Nine and Voyager. But then Piller left the franchise very early in Voyager’s run and Berman assumed the prime role in the creative direction of the show.

Unfortunately for Berman, Voyager was the flagship show for Paramount's new TV network: UPN. He was under incredible pressure to make the show a hit. And the only way he knew to do that was to stick to whatever had seemed to work in the past without understanding why it had worked. (Although to be fair, he did push back against UPN's suggestion that contempary boy bands should play in the mess hall on Enterprise) Thus, Voyager pretty much restricted itself to two things that had worked on The Next Generation: Technobabble Mystery Plots and the Borg. But I’m not saying it ran those things into the ground, I’m saying it ran them way down into the ground, broke through the crust, and went down into the mantle. It got to the point where if all the technobabble were subtracted from an average episode, it would shrink to a five-minute skit. Not all of this was all Rick Berman’s fault; for one thing, he did the very best he could with the creative abilities he had. Also, Star Trek is not easy to write for. It's hard enough to assemble one Star Trek writing staff, and Voyager was the second of two Trek series that were in production at the same time. Its writing staff was basically comprised of TNG second-and-third-stringers.

One of Star Trek's top writers, Ronald D. Moore (who went on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica) worked on Voyager very briefly after Deep Space Nine went off the air, and he left in disgust after only two episodes. After the dust from his departure settled, he gave an interview in which he had this to say about the technobabble kudzu that had taken over Star Trek:
"How many space anomalies of the week can you really stomach? How many time paradoxes can you do? When I was studying [VOYAGER], getting ready to work on it, I was watching the episodes, and the technobabble was just enervating; it was just soul sapping. Vast chunks of scenes would go by, and I had no idea what was going on. I write this stuff; I live this stuff. I do know the difference between the shields and the deflectors, and the ODN conduits and plasma tubes. If I can’t tell what’s going on, I know the audience has no idea what’s going on. Everyone will say the same thing. From the top down, you bring up this point, and everybody will say, ‘I am the biggest opponent of techno-babble. I hate technobabble. I am the one who is always saying, less technobabble.’ They all say that. None of them do it. I’ve always felt that you never impress the audience. The audience doesn’t sit there and go, ‘[Wow], they know science. That is really cool. Look how they figured that out. Hey Edna! Come here. You want to see how Chakotay is going to figure this out. He’s onto this thing with the quantum tech particles; it’s really interesting. I don’t know how he is going to do it, but he is going to reroute something. Oh my God, he found the anti-protons!’ Who cares? Nobody watches STAR TREK for those scenes. The actors hate those scenes; the directors hate those scenes; and the writers hate those scenes. But it’s the easiest card to go to. It’s a lot easier to tech your way out of a situation than to really think your way out of a situation, or make it dramatic, or make the characters go through some kind of decision or crisis. It’s a lot easier if you can just plant one of them at a console and start banging on the thing, and flash some Okudagrams, and then come up with the magic solution that is going to make all this week’s problems go away."-Source: Lcarscom.net
J.J. Abrams did a lot of things wrong when he rebooted Star Trek in 2009. But one thing he did absolutely right was reduce the technobabble. There’s almost none. Yes, the dire situations the characters get into are mostly contrived, illogical, and ripped off from earlier Star Treks. But, to Abrams’ and his team’s credit, the solution to their problem is never to push buttons while shouting technobabble, it’s always to do something active, kinetic, and pretty easily understandable. And as much as hardcore fans complain about how his movies get the technical details “wrong”, those movies have been the biggest-grossing ones in the series, which means that Star Trek won’t take a financial hit if it ignores them.

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

At least I hope they are.