Classic Trek: Yeah, It's Good

I am watching the first season of Classic Trek (birthday present!), and I have reached the conclusion that it was a pretty darn good television show.

I've alway viewed Classic Trek fondly as the granddaddy of the Star Trek universe, and I'm a fan of the movies. And there are episodes such as "Space Seed" and "City on the Edge of Forever" that are true classics in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, it is easy for Classic Trek's positives to get lost amid the silly music and blinking lights and the, by our standards, hopeless special effects. So, yes, us geeks like it, but otherwise . . .

That's how I approached my viewing: me and my geek-dom. Upon viewing the first season, I must make a case for the show as truly well-crafted television. I have listed some of my arguments below:


I'll deal with the hard one first. Yes, by our standards, the bouncing ship on a string is a little pathetic, but considering the standards of the day, the special effects weren't too shabby. They are only slightly worse than Lucas' in the first Star Wars (which came along nearly ten years later). Star Trek effects were done on an extremely tight budget (it is hard to imagine, these days, how comparatively poor television used to be, even taking into account that Paramount executives were probably tightwads). The skill of the effects speaks to some very, very dedicated effects personnel.

Additionally, the science-fiction part of the effects is quite forward-thinking. I don't mean the wooshing doors which are just annoying. (As Gene Hackman says in Superman II, "With all this accumulated knowledge, when will these dummies learn to use a door knob?") But the ship's library is very smart (really kids, the Internet didn't exist back then) as is the turbolift (with handholds, which I like better than later designs) and the sickbay med panels (when I went to see my father in the hospital two years ago, we walk around his floor until we found the monitor that was tracking his heart information. Not really all that different!)

Okay, granted, there're a lot of bulbous chirping lights, but as Tom Paris points out on Voyager, garish lights you can snap on and off are a lot more fun than panels you just tap.

Out of all the technology on Star Trek, though, the thing I consider most prescient is the communicator. Sure, they had walkie-talkies back then, but it takes real smarts to imagine something as small as the communicator Roddenberry put into the crew's hands. Not until the last five years did cellphones reach that size.


Classic Trek used every single standard science fiction plot ever invented, and then it reused them. There are the episodes where people age too quickly or too slowly or too weirdly. There are the episodes with evil androids (sorry, Data, although Lore was pretty evil too). There are the episodes with the kid(s) with telekinetic powers. There are the MUST DESTROY UTOPIA episodes. There are time travel episodes and false gods episodes ("Q" anyone?). Star Trek has them all and added a few really stupid ideas, like "Spock's Brain", just for fun.

What surprised me, watching the first season, is how seriously the writers took these ideas. I think in some corner of my mind (based, I imagine, on what I have read about Paramount at the time) I believed the studio never really "got" Star Trek. I must have transferred that information about the studio bosses to the Star Trek writers and assumed the writing was a hackneyed attempt to pretend to be sci-fi.

Well, that may have been the studio's attitude, but the writers themselve made a solid effort to create consistent episodes that work on a science-fiction level. That is, the sci-fi element is threaded through the plot, it isn't just dressing for the plot (which happened in the 1980's; I've written elsewhere about why that doesn't really bother me).


McCoy-Spock-Kirk exchanges are (rightly) touted as good writing. What I hadn't realized was how modern the dialog could get. There are a number of scenes where Kirk and McCoy have exchanges that could show up in Bones (Booth and Bones) or Stargate (Daniel and Jack). In the episode "Mudd's Women," McCoy is going on and on about why Mudd's women are so attractive; Kirk makes a suggestion to which McCoy responds, "Sure, but it wouldn't make my med panel go 'bleep'" at which point Kirk looks at him blankly and says, "I don't know what you mean." Kirk could be Bones saying, "I don't know what that means" to the latest pop culture reference from Booth. It is very funny. (And yes, I do think the sexual innuendo is deliberate, and yes, there is a lot more of it on Classic Trek, and yes, the studio heads probably didn't get it.)


Three Seasons: The first season of Classic Trek appears to be the best. I've rented episodes from season 2 and season 3, and even the best of those seasons ("Turn-about Intruder" and "The Enterprise Incident") don't show the attentiveness I have seen so far in the Season 1 episodes.

Spock-Kirk-McCoy: When I teach Argument/Persuasion to my composition students, I usually describe "Spock" as the logical approach to argument; "Kirk" as the emotional approach; and "McCoy" as the ethical approach. I now think I've been wrong. Kirk has been stereotyped as an "overgrown boyscout": no brains, lots of brawn, action, action, action. And of course, Tim Allen did a magnificent protrayal of this stereotype in Galaxy Quest.

But after watching Season 1, I think Kirk is actually the ethical member of the triumvirate: he is the one who makes decisions based on what is best for humanity or best for his crew (after getting Spock and McCoy's input). It isn't his fault that the writer's change his moral base (ethics needs a moral base) every episode!

I also think Shatner had it in him to be a better actor than he has been treated. I think nowadays with all the money television has, he would have gotten a good coach who could have helped him smooth out some of that start-stop dialog. His sense of comedic timing is impeccable, and his physical acting (other than when he is falling out of chairs) is excellent; he obviously understood how the role was supposed to be played (as did Nimoy with Spock, only apparently Nimoy annoyed people less when he made his demands).

Utopia v. Dystopia: Star Trek often paints itself as a utopia-centered show (and yes, okay, Roddenberry wanted it to be utopian). However, the first season of Classic Trek is much more dystopia-centered than utopia-centered. I believe that Star Trek, ultimately, is a dystopia phenomenom and that its dystopia status is inevitable; in fact, I would argue that all science-fiction writers eventually end up dystopia writers since dystopia provides conflict. However, I will grant that Star Trek tried really, really hard to be utopian in the 1980's.


Stargate to House: Story Arc as a Necessary Evil

I recently reached Season 5 of Stargate. Season 5 is when Daniel Jackson ascends or dies or, at least, leaves the show until he gets a better contract.

I remember hearing about the incident back when it originally happened. My reaction at the time was, "Oh, another actor who thinks he should be the center of the script!" (my apologies, Michael Shanks). Now that I have more investment in the disappearance of Daniel Jackson's character, I went onto the Internet to discover why Michael Shanks took a year off.

I discovered yup, he came back when his agents re-negotiated a better contract, but I'm more interested in the explanations Shanks gave to interviewers at the time: namely that his character had become superfluous since the show was doing this whole conspiracy/a million-military-episodes arc: not much need for a language-guru archaeologist.

Shanks' reasons may have been a contract ploy, but they happen to be accurate. In Season 5, Daniel Jackson basically spends every episode playing straight man to Jack. Which is very funny, but not exactly character-driven or in keeping with the show's original feel.

All this analysis of Stargate is a big lead-in to the following: I find the story arcs of most shows incredibly dull.

Weird segue, huh? But I agree with Michael Shanks' analysis; I too think Stargate morphed from "our fun group visits another interesting planet this week" to "watch next week to see if the good guys took over a particular outpost yet" type of show. I've always found the former approach much more engaging than the latter. "Watch next week to see if the good guys took over a particular outpost yet" is inevitably linked to "what's the big story arc this season?" and as previously stated, story arcs just don't captivate me in the same way a tightly plotted episode does. I was rarely interested in the arcs on Buffy (with one exception--see below). I gave up on Angel because of the story arcs. And I have about as much interest in the "conspiracy" arc of X-Files as I do in the composition of plastic.

Here's what I can't figure out: do most viewers prefer arcs or do viewers put up with them for the sake of the characters?

If you watch how shows unwind, usually the first season is a collection of individual episodes: plot-driven, tight, and non-arc-related. By the time you hit Season 4, however, everything is arc-driven (with the exception of Star Trek, thank goodness). Granted, by this point, the only people watching are die-hard fans; hence, the writing is all about, "Will so-and-so finally do X, Y, or Z in this episode?" The writers assume the viewers have long-term viewing and emotional investment with the show.

And I don't want to. Have investment. I figure I have enough problems with investment issues in my real life; why create more? I like certain characters; I get a huge kick out of Jack and Daniel's relationship on Stargate (and a bigger kick out of the unintentional or intentional homoerotic element that, like it or not, I am SURE attracts a certain number of dare-I-say female fans). I love Mulder and Scully. I am incessantly amused by David Boreanaz's ability on Bones to be completely different from his Angel self while still being David Boreanaz. (And I like the rapid-fire dialog.) But I simply can't go on caring. I don't want to go on caring. It's like American Idol. I was interested when I watched last year, but I can't remember anyone's name now--well, except for Sanjanya, bless him.

There's nothing particularly profound about my disinterest in becoming emotionally attached to television characters or, even, my huge interest in plot-driven episodes (with a touch of character interaction to satisfy my need for subtlety). But my non-profound reactions do bring up the whole issue of "Why do people enjoy . . . " fiction, a particular show in the first place?

Is it the story arc? Is it the characters? Is it the suspense? Is it the need or desire to "connect"? Is it emotional? Intellectual? Logical? Is it about imagination? Are we forced to invest in TV characters (you can't get the created universe without the writers' story arc, darn it!) or do we WANT to invest? Is it all the gadgets? Is it personal--what people get is entirely individual and the story arc is the only way to deliver "whatever it is" to as many people as possible?

My theory is that story arc is the only way to deliver whatever it is people really want: that is, we are looking for something other than the arc, but the arc becomes the vehicle and, like it or not (I say to myself), the arc is the only decent delivery system.

Maybe, just maybe, without the arc, we wouldn't get the wry, self-deprecating yet wholly untrustworthy Garak or the utterly entertaining, self-aware and ambiguous Spike. Maybe, without an arc, I wouldn't appreciate Samantha Carter's practicality (most normal woman character in all television: I kid you not) or Cuddy's snappy comebacks: "Is your yelling designed to scare me because I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be scared of. More yelling? That's not scary. That you're gonna hurt me? That's scary, but I'm pretty sure I can outrun ya."

Perhaps, without a story arc, I wouldn't look forward to Jack's unflappability or General Hammond's stoicness. I certainly wouldn't learn that Teal'c likes vibrating hotel beds! And perhaps, without the story arc, I couldn't appreciate all the fun details (so smart to move Wilson's office next to House's) and other such touches, such as ending and beginning Season 1 of House with Mick Jagger's "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and the final pay-off of Sarah and Grissom (which I realize is over, but I stopped watching CSI 2 seasons ago).

Maybe, just maybe, the story arc is a necessary evil.
A few arcs I admire:

Buffy, Season 2 is the smartest story arc ever created: it combines a fundamental/classic plot (boy dumps girl) with a supernatural/mythic twist.

The House arcs are always very, very good. However, when I borrow the seasons from the library, I never watch the arcs, just the individual "cases."

On Star Trek, I've always liked the Borg arcs. However, I've never cared for the Cardaissan arcs. I LIKE the Cardaissans: great bad guys. But the arcs are very military/very spy-capture-torture stuff. To be clear, I have no ethical problems with military/spy-capture-torture television/films, just no interest (my apologies, all Bond fans).

The amazing show Dead Like Me is a continuous story arc. It isn't soap operatic, but both seasons together are like watching one long story. It is also unbelievably good: the writers/producers could give Whedon a run for his money. The show is smart, insightful, human, funny, and has Mandy Patinkin, the stunning Britt McKillip, and an excellent heroine (Ellen Muth).

Buffy & Riley, Buffy & Spike

I'm currently watching Buffy: Season 5 (just finished disc 5). Based on the travesties of Seasons 6 & 7, I'd forgotten that Season 5 is actually, well, pretty good.

It doesn't have as many classic episodes as the other seasons. Despite its weaknesses, Season 4 has at least three classics: "Pangs," "Something Blue," and "Hush" (oh, and "Superstar"). Season 5 really only has one: "The Body." I like "Intervention" personally, but I don't think it has that quality, the quality that makes one remember an episode for itself, rather than the story arc it belonged to.

Having said that, I do think Season 5 is well-written. It has a consistency about it that Season 4 lacks (and I'm not even going to get into Seasons 6 & 7!). If I remember correctly, there was a strong chance Buffy would be cancelled after Season 5, and the writers made a real effort to create a big, Buffy-worthy send-off.

Which brings us to the handling of Buffy & Riley. I was very impressed by the break-up writing for Buffy & Riley. Compared to the break-up writing for Anya and Xander--okay, I said I wouldn't get into the last two seasons. In any case, Buffy & Riley are handled extremely well. I found their break-up entirely believable and, even, inevitable.

To be clear, I am not one who loathed Riley. I am also not one who takes sides on the Buffy & Angel v. Buffy & Spike debate (except to say, I think Buffy & Spike were handled very badly in . . . OKAY, I WON'T mention the last two seasons). I actually quite like Riley. But he and Buffy would never have worked and even though Buffy went running after him, I think it's just as well Riley missed her.

Riley needs to be needed. Now, to an extent, we all need to be needed re: Xander's "comfortadore." But Riley doesn't just need to be needed in a Maslow's heirarchy kind of way, Riley needs to be needed in a "define me" way.

That is, Riley needs someone to tell him how to be needed; for another type of gal, that would work fine, but Buffy, for all her self-reliance, is not into managing her relationships. And her relationship with Spike points the distinction.

Spike is the ultimate romantic; even when he was William, his relationships with all women (including, we later learn, his mother) are founded on emotional highs. This isn't the same thing as chivalry by the way--that's Angel's gig. But Spike defines moments around him in terms of desire, lustful, affectionate, and fanciful. This makes Spike easier to control than Angelus (bad Angel) since Spike is willing to sacrific dreams of revenge for good onion rings. This also makes Spike (and I quote him), "Love's bitch," but, and herein lies the lesson, this is Spike's nature.

Spike isn't waiting for someone to define him. He's already defined. When he decides to love Buffy or rather when he decides that loving Buffy is inevitable, he goes at loving her (or stalking her) with all of himself. He doesn't wait around for Buffy's signals. He doesn't even wait around to see if she approves, and her lack of approval doesn't alter Spike's fundamental personality in the slightest.

Riley, however, needs the signals. He needs to be given definitions after which he is fine. This is one reason Riley becomes much more interesting once he re-enters the military. The military gives him definition. Now, there's an "every authoritarian institution is bad" theme going on in the last three seasons of Buffy which, other than being rather adolescent, also crippled a number of possible plot lines; I don't think the military MADE Riley want definitions; I think Riley is attracted to institutions that give him definition. There's nothing bad about that, and I respect Riley for recognizing it and going off to a life that will ultimately give him more comfort than Buffy can.

This brings us to why I think the Buffy-Spike relationship had much greater potential than, ultimately, it was given. In the last two seasons, the writers gave rather facile excuses for not promoting the Buffy-Spike relationship such as, "But Spike is evil." Yeah, sure, but the show had a regrettable tendency (repeated at the end of Angel) to pick and choose when exactly to remember characters' evil sides. I maintain that Spike's quest for morality gives rise to much more difficult questions of free-will, goodness and evil than, perhaps, even Buffy writers could handle.

In any case, I don't rest my defense of Buffy-Spike on the quality of Spike's evil. I rest it on the level of comfort Buffy feels around Spike. I think this is the key to the relationship; I think, to an extent, it is the key to every workable relationship (on television and off it). From the beginning, Buffy has no problem talking to Spike, and Spike has little difficulty comprehending Buffy. They speak the same language. To an extent, they even think the same. Until Spike starts stalking Buffy, she keeps her home open to him. She yells at him and then asks him to watch her family. She stops by his crypt at every opportunity.

I'm not saying that Buffy is secretly in love with Spike. She isn't in Season 5; I'm not sure she ever is. But she feels comfortable around Spike. Spike is sure enough of his own personality to take Buffy as she is. In Season 1, Buffy says to Giles (concerning one-episode-boyfriend-Owen), "Five minutes in my world, and he would get himself killed." Buffy finds no comfort in people who need her for what she can give them, whether the "what" is excitement or definition. Instead, Buffy finds comfort in people who love her but don't need her and go on being themselves (Giles, Willow, Angel, Xander, and Spike: interestingly enough, this means that Buffy finds comfort in people who may, ultimately, leave. If she had told Riley she needed him, he would have stayed; she told Angel she needed him, and he still left--thus the risks of loving people who have their own definitions and agendas).

I believe this desire for comfort outweighs all other types of love. Lust comes and goes. Affection is a long-term investment. Comfort is what people truly seek: to feel comfortable, feel like one can relax. In some Maslow's heirarchy way, this is the kind of love everyone is seeking: this person gets me, this person talks my language, understands what I'm trying to say. And really, what Buffy needs isn't someone who needs her to need him but someone who gets her and doesn't fall to pieces as a result.

High School Xander

I've been rewatching the second season of Buffy. Like many people, I've seen plenty of Buffy; I've developed opinions regarding Angel, Spike, Willow, Giles, Buffy, each season, the excellence of Principal Snider, the humor of Joss Whedon, yadda yadda yadda.

However, other than a very decided opinion on the stupidity of Xander's non-marriage to Anya (the writers' fault, not the characters), I haven't spent much time thinking about early Xander or High School Xander.

Watching Season 2, I've come to appreciate all over again how well-written and funny the show is. I've also come to appreciate Xander's character and, naturally, Nicholas Brendon's portrayal of Xander.

Joss Whedon has said somewhere that Xander is basically "Joss in high school," only (quoth Joss, not me) much better looking. Nicholas Brendon isn't really my type (I prefer rugged actors like Robin Sachs of Ethan Rayne's fame). Still, he is cute, and yet, and here is where we get to Nicholas Brendon's awesome acting, he manages to sell the whole I'm-a-geeky-unpopular-kid-who-uses-humor-as-a-defense-mechanism persona.

When you consider how much Seasons 1-3 of Buffy rely on faux high schoolers, the success of those seasons is remarkable. I believe in the teenness of Willow, Buffy, and Xander in a way I never believe in the teenness of Smallville's cast. Nicholas Brendon's acting is part of the reason. He captured the essence of 16-year-old guy; he used whatever background/memory/experience/observation he had to give us the mannerisms and emotional responses of a male teenager.

To return to Xander the character, the success of Xander the character rests, I believe, on Xander's humanness. Xander is fundamentally good, but he isn't heroic-rush-to-the-rescue-and-look-soulful good. He's just average guy good, real life good. Even in "Inca Mummy Girl" where he gets to play the romantic hero, he does it in a very human, 16-year-old boy way. He shares Ho Hos! He tells silly jokes! He takes Inca Mummy Girl to a dance!

Xander is the guy who is brave in spite of being freaked. He is the guy who does the right thing eventually. One of the most mature/human things Xander ever says is after he returns from his hyena/pack phase. To Giles he says: "Shoot me. Stuff me. Mount me." Yeah, he was being a jerk. It's over. He'd rather not remember. And he's never going there again.

Xander's one flaw is a tendency to hector. But again, this tendency makes him human. It isn't so over the top that you start to detest him; it isn't so understated to make Xander too good to be true. I hold Xander more responsible than Willow for the whole Xander-Willow fiasco (Season 3). Yes, yes, I know that in general terms, they are equally to blame, but Xander has a tendency to take a situation and run with it. It's a type of me-me reaction that accompanies hectoring. It's, well, it's so 16-year-old guy.

And yet, this is also the Xander who buys Cordelia's dress without telling anyone. He always protects Willow (watch the show carefully to see how often Xander puts Willow before everyone else). Also, as I've stated elsewhere, I believe Xander is the only one who really understands how lonely Buffy really is (here Xander stands in for Joss).

Lastly, Xander is just funny; Nicholas Brendon has excellent comedic timing. In my favorite episode of Season 2 "I Only Have Eyes For You," Willow makes scapulars for everyone. Xander responds by saying, "And what are we going to do when we find the spirit, Will? Flip it?"

Ohmigosh, I'm laughing so hard, I can barely write.

Okay, so maybe you have to be an English teacher to think the transposition of the words scapular and spatula is just hilarious, but my point is, the joke works to a large extent because Nicholas Brendon makes it work. It's one of those word jokes that are easily lost until you've watched a movie a couple of dozen times (like the "Moby Dick" joke in Finding Nemo--yep, really, it's there). There's lots of those jokes in Buffy, and the ability of Whedon's cast to deliver said jokes deadpan is a huge part, I believe, of Buffy's success.

So kudos once again to the first three seasons of Buffy and extra kudos to Nicholas Brendon's Xander.

Why Didn't Anyone Tell Me About Columbo?

I grew up without a television set; nevertheless, I was aware of shows like The Brady Bunch, not to mention The Addams Family, and, later, Family Ties, Cosby, and Soap. I watched them on friends' televisions, my grandparents' television, and the occasional television that we rented. Yet somehow, I missed Columbo.

I'd heard about Columbo, of course, but for all I knew it was one of those odd 70's shows where people stand around in yellow and orange kitchens, having pointless conversations accompanied by incredibly boring camera work. (Guy one talks. Guy two talks. Guy one talks. Guy two talks. Pan of kitchen. Guy one talks.)

But Season 4 of Diagnosis Murder isn't available yet, so in desperation, I ordered Columbo over Netflix.

I love it! Yeah, it is more or less the same plot over and over and over, but sometimes, it gets downright clever. The camera work isn't that bad. The acting can be quite good. Peter Falk is adorable. The clothes (now that the 70's have come back) are surprisingly modern. The timing is excellent. And the whole thing is so very relaxing.

I should state here that I enjoy television that doesn't demand too much investment. There's this idea in our culture, which I have addressed elsewhere, that if something doesn't MAKE ONE THINK or MAKE ONE FEEL, that thing must be shallow and a waste of time. But I'm a huge advocate for the well-made piece of entertainment. It doesn't have to much me THINK and FEEL; it just has to satisfy my entertainment needs.

I'm also a big believer that anything can be judged to a standard, but that it should be judged to an appropriate standard. There's no point comparing Columbo to War & Peace, but it is perfectly okay to compare it to, say, Diagnosis Murder and other murder mystery shows.

In fact, the producers of Diagnosis Murder were producers on Columbo: they use the same approach, which is to tell the audience the identity of the murderer right off the bat. I actually like this approach. I was never one to try to guess the murderer anyway. I'm more interested in the detection process, how the murderer will be caught (which is probably why I like forensic type shows). The payoff is that the writers can make the murderer as cunning as possible; they don't have to drop incredibly obvious clues. The one catch with Monk is that Monk's brilliant observations are really, well, the sort of thing police do catch. However, in the interests of playing fair, the show can't make the clues too obscure (the audience can't be too surprised when the murderer is revealed). The downside is that obvious clues pit the audience against the detective: why can't he figure it out faster than us? But Columbo (and Diagnosis Murder) avoid this.

And of course Peter Falk, like Tony Shalhoub, makes a great detective. He is smart, tenacious, and unflappable. And he has all the required tics and idiosyncrises. I have mixed feelings about idiosyncrises. The detective has to have them to make him/her memorable: a detective like Monk is all about his idiosyncrises. However, the idiosyncrises can get distracting. I personally prefer sarcastic Monk to totally freaking-out Monk (although the Alice Cooper episode with freaking-out Monk is worth the freaking-out).

Likewise, I prefer subtle Columbo to bombastic Columbo. In the pilot, Falk played Columbo as low key and tough. When the murderer said (they always say this), "You just won't give up, will you?" Falk ducked his head and gave this slow, private smile. It was utterly charming and very subtle.

Yet in the next few episodes, Falk was all over the place. It was almost as if the director said, "Hey, they love Columbo's idiosyncrises. Give us more!" so he did. I was very disappointed.

Now he's settled down to somewhere between the two, which I can handle. In any case, Falk reminds me of Leslie Jordan (completely different personality type): short men who can walk into a scene and completely steal it.

This isn't the same thing as Dustin Hoffman stealing a scene because he acts well; Falk (and Jordan) can do it through good-old fashioned radiating charisma. It's a remarkable thing to see. Part of it, I think, is that something that Charles Grodin, Craig T. Nelson (I've been watching Coach episodes lately), Richard Dean Anderson, and Thomas Haden Church all have: the ability to make you laugh by lifting an eyebrow or just looking blank. It's something about the way their faces are constructed. (By the way, Thomas Haden Church is totally underappreciated for his excellent comedic talents. He is the master of the deadpan.)

Closing tangent: I've noticed all the above examples are men; this is nothing against the excellent comedic abilities of, say, Dawn French (Vicar), Emma Chambers (Vicar), Jane Leeves (Frasier) and Melissa Peterman (Reba). However, after a brief glance through IMDb's top comedy movies, I'm forced to the conclusion that women are not called on to play the "straight man" very often.

The one exception I could think of is Gillian Anderson, who does it very well. There's an X-Files episode where Mulder and Scully go to a town where, due to some astrology thing, everyone's personalities are accentuated to the nth degree (turning the teen flirts of the high school into man-seducing psychopaths: it's a kind of Buffy meets Amityville Horror deal). Mulder gets even more obnoxious than usual, and Scully minds it much, much more than usual. There's this ongoing fight about the car, and how Scully never gets to drive, and about how far she has to pull up the seat (Gillian Anderson is only slightly taller than me at 5'3" and David Duchovny is over 6'). It's totally hilarious, but it's all played straight. Great stuff.

Back to Columbo: if you want to veg (and yes, in my world, vegging IS okay), check out Columbo: non-demanding, tons and tons of fun.

Blathering On About House

These are the dog-days when I correct papers and then correct more paper and then correct more papers. I'm home much of the time and in the interests of being fair (to the students and to myself), I take breaks and watch shows.

Lately, I watched the first season of House. I noticed a few things that interested me. One of the main things I noticed was how thoroughly fleshed out the show was right from day one. I've formed the conclusion that when a producer/director has a vision--a particular way he/she desires a show to unwind--it has a tremendous impact on the quality of the show.

If, on the other hand, the show is like the technology/consulting firm I worked at which couldn't make up its mind WHY it had merged, then all you've got is a bunch of characters, a cool set, and a few ideas.

The next thing I noticed was that Wilson lies A LOT. I didn't realize this the first season because, gosh darn it, Wilson is so nice. But in his gosh-shucks way, he lies all the time. And yet House puts up with him, and I think House puts up with him because Wilson lying makes life interesting and because Wilson isn't wrong or stupid with his lies. House tends to associate himself with people who will expose him, and Wilson does that. He just does it by lying.

The third thing I noticed was that Chase is actually very, very funny. There's a scene where House decides to actually visit a patient. Foreman and Cameron are all "Wow, he's going to see a patient!" But Chase says, "I don't know who I am anymore" in this dead-pan way. It is very funny. He is also more amused by House than the others. I think this was smart writing. On the one hand, it made Chase less sycophantic than House sometimes paints him. On the first hand, it makes Chase's betrayal of House that much more awful. And yet comprehensible. And House takes it (and gives Chase grief for the rest of his life).

Moving on, I must mention Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes which I have also watched recently. It's Christmas time (not Holiday time--this is my blog; it's Christmas time), and every Christmas, I watch, "The Blue Carbuncle" from the Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett.

And I appreciated all over again how wonderful that series is. The thing that makes it so incredibly wonderful is that the directors allow the culture to exist without making big, "DID YOU NOTICE HOW CHAUVINIST THEY ARE? DID YOU NOTICE HOW IMPERIALIST THEY ARE?" comments.

In the episode following "The Blue Carbuncle," "The Copper Beeches" a young governess is offered a position by an extremely odd man. She is offered the position through an agency, and the woman who runs the agency pressures her into accepting what is clearly a bizarre/predatorial situation. The woman really should protect the young governess, but she doesn't. You feel the load of being an independent female employee in the early 20th century. But yet--and this is important--nobody comments on it. The director doesn't make a huge point of it. Sherlock Holmes and Watson never mentioned it. They take the assumptions of the culture for granted.

And yet the scene's treatment is too marked to be accidental. You feel that the director cared enough to be honest without being made preachy or nervous by Conan Doyle's material.

I feel the same way about the 1980s Miss Marple movies versus the recent Miss Marple movies, which I loathe. The 1980s versions present Christie's world intact, honestly. The recent versions put their own agenda and badly written scripts before Agatha Christie's vision.

In the novel turned movie A Murder Is Announced, for example, two older women live together. They are friends. Agatha Christie never comments on the relationship. It wasn't unusual in that day and age. It didn't come hung about with possible labels and possible inferences.

In fact, it didn't necessarily mean anything sexual at all. And it didn't necessarily not. It was an age when people were allowed a great deal more freedom with their sexual orientation than they are now. Really! (The very lack of speculation meant that Cary Grant, for instance, didn't have to declare himself. Thank goodness because I don't think Cary Grant would have known how to declare himself. He would have gone to therapy instead, and thereby, destroyed the very sexual ambiguity that made him such a fantastic actor in the first place.)

But in the recent Murder Is Announced, the two women aren't "friends" or roommates. They are lovers, and Miss Marple gets to make some very sanctimonious, very modern speeches about being true to oneself.

Now, get this: in the book and in the movies, one of the women is killed. In the 1980s version, the devastation and anger of the survivor is superb. It strikes you right to your heart's core. It's REAL.

But in the recent version, ho hum, another bad day for lesbians everywhere.

Ironic, huh?

To bring this back to House, I think Shore is trying to do the "no judgment, just showing people and life" thing. Not completely--hey, it is an American show--but to an extent. Which is rather unusual. More power to him!

Getting Snarky About Anti-Television Rhetoric

I'm rereading Kathleen Rooney's Reading With Oprah, a book that I read about the time I wrote my thesis and which I found enormously helpful. Rooney creates a scholarly and surprisingly objective response to the OBC phenomenon and its fall-out. In general, the book is an attempt to understand the patterns of high and low culture in America or, rather, the perception of high and low culture in America (I think the latter is more probable than the former, personally, since my experience is that most people read/watch whatever they want. Unfortunately, I think Rooney may have been influenced in her writing by the academic tendency to define problems into being and then be shocked--shocked!--that such problems exist).

In general, the book makes some valid points, and I recommend it; however, half-way through, Rooney finds it necessary to explain to the reader why she thinks OBC failed in its objectives (before Oprah herself cancelled the televised version of the club). It is here that Rooney's argument falls to pieces, and it falls to pieces because Rooney doesn't understand television.

Rooney claims that the problem with OBC (which in general, she is very generous towards) was the format--i.e., no matter how good the books, the format of television would have produced a flattening effect whereby interesting/well-rounded novels were reduced to a few applicable labels.

I read that and thought, Has Rooney never attended a graduate-level class? Or a non-televised bookclub, for that matter? Girl, I hate to mention it, but that's par for the humanities course. (Interestingly enough, the bookclub I now attend, which is composed mainly of ladies from my church, is far less reductive [to borrow Rooney's term] than most bookclubs, which just proves that reading and analyzing scriptures all your life has its payoffs).

Now, granted, Rooney has a point. I've never been a fan of the packaged-this-is-your-life approach to literature but my dislike of this approach extends beyond Oprah. I have argued many times--in my thesis and elsewhere--that if you want an in-depth, passionate discussion about a piece of art, go to the fans (book and television). However, in order to bolster her argument, Rooney proceeds to make the extremely reductive argument that television is, by its very nature, stulifying and simplistic.

"[A]t this point," she writes, "one must do more than announce that TV flattens the complexity of things (which you'd have to be a fool to deny that it does) and leave it at that" (my emphasis).

Well, I guess I'm a fool, but I'm a fool who knows a lot more about television than Rooney does. (She goes on to produce several run-of-the-mill arguments: television is aimed at the lowest common denominator; it infantilizes viewers; it destroys the imagination: all this because of its commercial nature . . . Since up till this point in her book, Rooney displays a passing appreciation for the commercial nature of publishing houses, her sudden dislike of commercialized art sounds a little, uh, choosy.)

In any case, for someone who tries very, very hard throughout the beginning portions of her book to be a non-snob (although her dislike of genre fiction kind of gives her away), this "television is simplistic" argument kicks Rooney way off her egalitarian pedestal.

And it is impossibly stupid. The issue is not "Is television complex?" or "How can television be complex if it makes money!?" the issue is "TELEVISION ISN'T BOOKS!"

The latter statement would have given Rooney enough ammunition. If she had said, "The two mediums are incompatible: the kind of well-roundedness achieved by literature is not the well-roundedness aimed for by television," that is perfectly sane and defendable. There was no need for her to decide that television in its entirety is simplistic, etc. etc.

Such arguments are easy to refute: books flatten reality all the time. Reproduced dialog and in-depth descriptions as well as plots encapsulated in 500 pages are all contrivances and not how things occur in real life. At least with television, you have a constant stream of sensory perception (sight, sound) while with books, all you have is words on the page which don't make your imagination work at all . . . .

And on and on and on.

Since I like both books and television, I won't bother. The point is, however, that if the standards of one medium are held against the other, both will appear flat, overly stylized, and fake. It is frankly stupid to look at television as a failed reproduction of what literature (the true art!) is attempting to do, just as it is pointless to look at novels as a failed reproduction of something that television is attempting to do. (And while we are at it, why not bring poetry into the mix? Wheelbarrows in the rain: how reductionist is that! Oh, wait, maybe poetry shouldn't be held to this particular standard . . .)

And can we please get over the whole "television speaks to the lowest common denominator" argument? Seriously, has Rooney EVER watched the Simpsons?

I've been rewatching CSI: Season I and have been amazed, all over again, at how well-written the first few seasons are. I'm always impressed by seamlessness (one reason Tolkien impresses me): people who write well enough to make it look easy. (I think good art always looks easy from the outside. Bad art appears clunky and mannered and "look at me"!) I'm not just referring to the repartee on CSI but to the ordering of the scenes, the use of external, visual clues to move the plot forward, and the strong characterization of minor characters like Hodges, Ecklie, the coroners, and Greg.

Not to mention the acting, the editing, the directing, and a myriad other choices made by the producers.

"Ah, yes, Kate," my peers in college used to say, "but you are searching for those things; you are intellectually trained to look for them."

Sure, and I'm also intellectually trained to look for nuances in War & Peace, which doesn't alter the fact that is possible to read War & Peace purely for the plot and come away with no particularly in-depth reaction than, hey, a bunch of people died and a bunch of people got married.

The first point being that the things I notice in CSI are there to be noticed, which means that the writers are as smart as me (and much, much better at streamlining texts). In fact, if you watch a lot of television, you begin to realize how well-grounded the writers are in their culture. Television writers insert popular culture, film, and show-based references throughout their scripts on a constant basis. It's a little unnerving after a while. (All these writers holding private conversations with each other through their scripts!)

If the people who dislike television are incapable of seeing those things, well, hmmm, could it be that from television's point of view, they are untrained and uneducated? Well, well, that sure does change the stakes, doesn't it?

The second point: If a thing is made with intelligence, one can find intelligence there, and television is very, very, very intelligent.

Take, for example, my favorite episode of House, the last episode of season 1.* In one episode, you have three plot lines running simultaneously plus an overarcing plot line, which is House's issue with his ex-girlfriend. On top of that, you have the introduction of several temporary characters (the students in the class) who, for the purposes of the plot, must make an instantaneous impression on the viewer. *[NOTE: It is, in fact, the second to last episode coupled with the last scene of the final episode; if you watch the two consecutively, the final scene of the final episode, where you hear "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones, is the pay-off for the previous episode.]

And we haven't even mentioned the fact that the writers manage to use House's staff plus Wilson (on top of all those extra characters) to develop various plot points.

Oh, yeah, and then there's the backflashes. And the editing (which is always excellent with House), the acting, the lighting, the dialog, and the camera shots.

And lastly, the music, which is excellent, especially in that particular episode.

And all of it is seamless and self-contained; the set-up is paid-off (at several levels). The episode never jars; it never comes across as clunky. Television can. This episode doesn't. It is truly artistic. Again, one definition of good art could be art-that-makes-you-notice-all-the-hard-work-the-writer-did-and-instead-of-letting-you-enjoy-the-creation-calls-attention-to-itself-on-a-constant-basis. That would not be my definition, but then I don't read the same kinds of books that Rooney does. (In all fairness, Rooney might agree with me, although she does prefer books that "put [readers] through the paces of moral awareness, affiliation, and disaffiliation . . . they encourage us . .. to grapple with ideas and situations different from our own," all of which I find frankly tiresome. I don't, by the way, consider myself to be a lowest common denominator.)

To return to House: this intelligent, sophisticated, multi-layered episode is simplistic? Based on the lowest common denominator? According to whom? By what standard? Because it prevents people from (to quote one of Rooney's experts) "being able to imagine any social order different from the established one"? Does any novel do this? Does any good novel do this? Does any oevure beyond the purileness of Ayn Rand attempt to do this?

Again, the complexity is there. That doesn't mean people go looking for it (although a lot of fans do). By the same token, people don't necessarily go looking for complexity in Jane Eyre, Shakespeare, Catcher in the Rye, or Moby Dick (one of my favorite Lois Lowry passages is from her YA book Taking Care of Terrific: in the book, the narrator's housekeeper is reading Moby Dick which she imagines rather like a cruise with whales, a cruise where Gregory Peck just might show up. The narrator decides that the problem with the world is that most people have lost the capacity to believe that "Gregory Peck might be along.")

When Rooney claims "[Its pervasiveness] is what makes TV's anti-imagination effect so frightening: no one is safe," she means the absence of the kind of imagination she and her experts utilize and applaud. Television provides plenty of imagination, just not the same kind of imagination as one gets from books. But I suppose that concept is just a tad too complex for book-readers to understand.

CSI Characterization

I recently rewatched CSI: Las Vegas, Season 2. I was able to get the entire box set through my local library (plug for local libraries!) and subsequently watched all 24+ episodes over two weeks.

Watching the entire season reminded me why I liked the show so much when it first came out. (It isn't that I dislike the show now; the fact that I rarely watch CSI: Las Vegas these days has more to do with the fact that the only channel I get clearly is Fox, and I don't want to fuss with manipulating the antennae back and forth. And yes, cable is one of those things I refuse to get.)

What has struck me watching Season 2 is how on-target the Las Vegas characterizations were right from the begining. CSI: Las Vegas is one of the few shows I watch where I like every single one of the scoobies, and their characters function correctly in every single episode.

Now, I want to be clear here. CSI, like Law & Order, is not a DEEP and PROFOUND show. Both shows are very plot-oriented, and the plot is thirty minutes of action to twenty minutes of visuals; there simply isn't space for insightful characterizations. Characterization rests almost entirely on tone of voice and body language. One reason I admire Chris Noth from Law & Order so much is that he does so much with so little. I don't mean he overacts, but he adds these little smiles and grimaces and eye-rollings to his scenes that give him depth even though the depth is largely superficial.

This type of characterization reminds me of the Iliad and the Odyssey where people are constantly characterized by their most remarkable features: gray-eyed Athena, wise-guy Odysseus, lammo Achilles, etc. This is characterization at its most basic: just keep reminding the audience what THIS character is supposed to be.

So, on CSI: Las Vegas, Warwick is the rock (and resident holder of all sex appeal), Nick is the damsel in distress, Kat is the beauty with brains, Grissom is the cool geek, Sarah is the troubled, feminist youth, and Greggo is the CSI wannabe, who, if the show wasn't strictly heterosexual, would be paired with Nick. (The writers used this undercurrent effectively, by the way, when they made Greg's reaction to Nick in Season 2 pure and simple hero worship. It is done unabashedly, and it works well as a counterbalance to the crazy cable guy who also wants to emulate Nick. And it's a nice change to have complicated emotions OTHER than sexual interest displayed on the television screen.)

About Nick being the damsel in distress--for those of you who have watched Buffy, Willow was usually the damsel de jure in early episodes when she was always being captured and, subsequently, rescued. Whedon was quite unapologetic about it--it didn't make Willow weak, and she was so darn good at evoking sympathy with her big, soulful eyes.

Nick doesn't look soulful, but he is the character that the others consistently rescue. I love this. It is such perfect casting. Just as being rescued didn't make Willow weak, being rescued doesn't make Nick unmanly. He is THE nice guy on the show, the good guy, the Xander of CSI. Kat or Sarah could never be the damsels de jure because CBS cares a lot more about feminist strictures than Whedon (until the end of Buffy, that is). By making Nick--the guy we all like--the rescuee, the rescuers can still do all the work, and we don't think any less of Nick for the result.

As for Grissom, I really admire William Petersen. I have a feeling that the integrity of CSI:LV has been perserved as much as it has been (in the face of CSI: Miami) due to Petersen's efforts (he is a producer on the show). He never tried to make Grissom a sex magnet which wouldn't have worked anyway because William Petersen is stocky middle-aged guy to his very core. In any case, Grissom as sex magnet isn't necessary; the storyline between him and Sarah was foreshadowed early on when Grissom was still weird bug guy. Sarah being Sarah, the attraction between them is entirely believable. Sex magnet or not, Grissom's character holds the show together, much in the way I think Michael Moriarty held Law & Order together for four seasons. (I just can't adjust to Waterson--nothing against the actor; it just isn't the same.)

As for Kat and Sarah--they are very pretty women, but unlike the women on the other CSIs, they come across as naturally pretty. For example, Kat is a model-beautiful woman, but she is aging, and she looks it, and her character knows it. And Sarah looks like every single pretty hippie college student I've ever seen in my life. They don't seem excessively glammed up, and if they are a little camera-ready, well, pretty people can work in law enforcment.

Altogether, CSI: LV's characterizations have a patina of reality that CSI: Miami doesn't have (but then I don't think CSI: Miami really cares. I don't know what CSI: NY thinks it is doing. I love Gary Sinise, but the show is Boring with a capital B. I have high hopes for Fox's New Amsterdam, by the way).

Coupled with the characters' patina of reality is a truly odd kilter that, again, I put down to William Petersen. When Grissom starts rambling on about bugs or Maslow's heirarchy or other bits of unexpected trivia, he steps into the presence of those other odd but great detectives--Sherlock, Monk, House--television hits classic territory and survives.

Respectless Television

I've been thinking about the last episode of the last season of Bones for awhile now. It bothers me so much, I have to write about it.

In the episode, a mother is dying from AIDS. She believes she will no longer be able to care for her mentally retarded daughter. So she kills her. At the end of the episode, Bones goes to prison and tells the mother, "I understand--your motive was love" or words to that effect.

At that moment, I lost all respect for the writers of the show. Which upset me, since up to that point, I'd considered Bones one of the better written shows on television. But there are a few things I can't stand, and I'm afraid the above plot (as well as Bones' reaction to the above plot) is one of them.

I'm not a politically correct kind of person. If I was, I would have referred to the daughter as "a young person with mental disabilities." Having made that disclaimer, it astonishes me how morally purblind television can be about "children with disabilities."

Let's take a look at Booth and Bones' reaction to a child with "normal" abilities. An ambitious mother encourages her "normal" nine-year-old daughter to compete in beauty pageants--veneering her teeth, buying her a corset. Booth and Bones are appalled, and rightly so. The crazy, ambitious mother argues that her daughter LOVES competing; why should the mother withhold something so fun? I've heard non-fictional mothers make this kind of argument on Dr. Phil and wanted to smack them. When I was nine, my idea of fun was dumping two pounds of sugar on my Cheerios; that doesn't mean it was a good idea.

Anyway, Booth and Bones are appalled and angry and snotty to the crazy, ambitious mother. And they don't change their minds when it turns out that beauty pageant pressure was largely to blame for the girl's death. (By the way, the scene in that episode where Bones teaches anthropological heirarchies, with pictures of skeletons, to pre-adolescent girls is great.)

We turn now to the last episode of the season: the primary caregiver of a mentally retarded daughter decides to kill her daughter. So the mother is a sicko. She decides to commit murder because her daughter couldn't possibly have any kind of life without the mother around, which makes her an egotistical sicko. She believes there is no other way to help the daughter. Murder is a probable and plausible solution to this woman. Which makes her an egotistical, sociopathic sicko.

This is love? This is any sane person's definition of love?

Granted, the kid would probably have been stuck in a state-run institution and granted state-run institutions don't have the best reputation. If I remember correctly, I believe there was a chance the kid would be put into the care of a rather nasty individual. And that's all very bad. But let's look at this another way.

The caregiver of a boy with "normal" abilities is going to die. The seven-year-old boy will be put into foster care. The caregiver decides--out of "love"--to kill the child to spare him from the horrible foster care system.

Okay, now, doesn't that make you want to barf?

So, why is it different when the kid is mentally retarded? Why is it okay to poison and/or push mentally retarded kids onto railway tracks (same plot: Cold Case episode)? Because mentally retarded kids couldn't possibly have or want to live like everyone else? Because their desires can't be easily assertained, so the primary care giver must know best? Because mentally retarded kids never recover from the deaths of primary caregivers? Because death is better for mentally retarded kids than institutional living or even life under rotten conditions? Could it be that the writers believe mental retardation is worse than death and the only thing that makes it okay is the wonderful caregiver?

Politically incorrect questions, and House can ask them because he is honestly trying to understand the underlying moral reasoning to people's behavior. But the Bones' writers weren't trying to understand any underlying moral standard when Bones got all compassionate with the egotistical, morally-depraved mother: they were just falling back on a fictional cliche that is too superficial and stupid to be believed.

What will they do next season? Have a mentally retarded child molested by a pedophile, and then have Bones go to the prison and tell the pedophile, "Oh, yes, I understand--you did it out of love"? You can bet Bones wouldn't say that about a pedophile of a "normal" child. But I suppose the comparison isn't fair. After all, in the hands of the right writer, murder can be made to look as sweet and innocuous and heart-wrenching as sending a kid off to day camp. I wonder if Susan Smith's kids feel the same way under all that lake water?

Great Dogs

I'm not really into animal movies. See my post "Animals That Talk" about why. But I have a soft spot for two TV animals: Eddie from Frasier and Diefenbaker from Due South. In both cases, the dog is used to illustrate character and actually makes sense within the context of the show.

Eddie is Martin's dog. He is also one of the most expressive animals I've ever seen on the screen. I've developed quite a partiality for Frasier. What I like the most is that both Frasier's point of view and Martin's point of view occupy the same space. Although both the intellectual, snobby son and the down-to-earth cop father are played off each other, I never feel--as I do with Everybody Loves Raymond--that they are played at the expense of each other. No one is the bad guy.

Martin, played by John Mahoney, is a great character, and he has a great dog. The dog is used as a plot device and as a joke device. Again, the dog (it is actually two dogs over the 11 seasons) is very talented. He reminds me of The Thin Man dog: Asta.

Like Asta, Eddie and Diefenbaker are constantly on the set. I suppose dogs are easier to handle than kids, but I alway roll my eyes when television mothers have kids and then the kids MAGICALLY disappear for the next, oh, six or seven years. Of course, one isn't supposed to *gasp* mention Murphy Brown, but, well, Dan Quayle was right there, wasn't he? The kid showed up something like 12 times in ten years. Easy to be a single mom under those conditions.

Eddie and Diefenbaker, on the other hand, are constantly at hand. Eddie has to be walked. Diefenbacker rides around in the back of Ray's car. With Diefenbaker especially this is impressive since, unlike Eddie, he is often filmed outside. The directors never forget to include him in shots. I watched an episode recently where the car was driving away. It was likely driven by stunt men, and I figured, "They don't need to include Diefenbaker. They could just say that he was lying down." But no, just as the car turned the corner, Diefenbaker's head popped up. That is cool.

Diefenbaker is also used to illustrate character. He is a deaf wolf who was brought to the non-wilds of Chicago by his Canadian Mountie master, Fraser (played by Paul Gross). Fraser talks to Diefenbaker all the time, responding to Diefenbaker's presumed comments. There's an ongoing joke that Diefenbaker saved Fraser's life once and now he makes Fraser "pay and pay and pay."

Diefenbaker is not as cuddly as Eddie; after all, he's a wolf. But this also serves to elucidate the varying characters of the dogs' two masters. Martin is friendly, old-fashioned, protective of his dog and his sons (no matter how exasperated). Fraser, the Mountie, is kind but also somewhat reserved and aloof. At the end of the first season, there is a heart-rending scene where Fraser believes he must shoot Diefenbaker because Diefenbaker has become a menace to society. Paul Gross doesn't have Fraser cry or even rage. He does a series of confused double takes which are more painful to watch than any great emotion. So he loves Diefenbaker, but he isn't going to smother him in kisses.

And the dog--I don't think it is really a wolf although later the show implies that he is a mixed breed (maybe dog and wolf experts complained)--trots along with Ray and Fraser with interest but without any "all over you" ebulliance. Eventually, you start to believe Fraser's assessment of his own dog!

I also have to give kudos to Newbie's stuffed dog in Scrubs. There is one episode where J.D. keeps moving the dog to scare Elliot. For some reason, it makes me laugh like crazy.

For more great animal TV, check out Creature Comforts, the British version. It is hilarious! And very off-kilter.


Cox, Becker & House

So I guess I have a thing for bad-tempered doctors with hearts of gold.

Cox (from Scrubs), Becker (from Becker) and House (from, uh, House) all, sort of, fit the above description. But they are different in rather interesting ways. Cox and Becker, for instance, are much more functional than House and not just because of his leg. They have a greater ability to interact with others and, in Cox's case, are much more medically fallible.

In fact, Cox is the most realistic of the three. He is a very good doctor but, as far as I know (I've just started watching the show), not a genius. Becker isn't a genius either, but Becker sets himself apart by willingly staying in the Bronx when he could, with his credentials, make more money elsewhere.

Like the other two, Cox is aware of his own personality flaws (in the episode last night--these are reruns--he tells Newbie, "You want to be me? I don't even want to be me.") Unlike Becker, who isn't always aware of his effect on others, Cox--like House--can deliberately changed his behavior to produce an outcome, such as the episode where he provokes Kelso into taking back rounds--for Kelso's own good.

And Cox has an ex-wife girlfriend and a son and an intern who adores him.

Becker does eventually get a decent girlfriend--played by the very talented Nancy Travis. Like Cox, his personality, while not entirely environmentally induced, is strongly influenced by past unhappiness: multiple divorces, a bad childhood (that's Cox), etc. I'm not saying the writers use that material as an excuse for Cox and Becker's behavior, but it is important to understand their backgrounds in terms of the distinction between Becker & Cox and House.

With House, the producers (who I am now going to refer to as David Shore since Shore is the only one I know [from Due South, another great show]) are doing something rather difficult. House really isn't supposed to be a doctor with a heart of gold. House is really supposed to be a jerk. A complicated jerk but a jerk. The environmental complications--his leg, his lost girlfriend--do not fully explain him. I realize "The Jerk" was supposed to elucidate this, but I thought it was much better elucidated in the episode with the carpet stain. Yes, House plays games, but Shore wanted to make it clear, through that episode, that there's a real part to this guy that can't stand inconsistencies in his environment. It isn't supposed to be this weird thing that House goes through every now and again. It is supposed to BE House. All the stuff he does and says isn't a "front" or bad temper or a coping mechanism or disillusionment (which Cox, for example, portrays very well) but the guy himself. (Although House does have a stinky dad.)

And once you accept that basically House is NOT someone you would really want to spend time with, it gets a lot easier to spend time with him. He manipulates and plays games with people NOT because secretly he is trying to help them be better people (yuck) but because he really can't stand not to know why people do what they do. Other people create chaos, and he doesn't want chaos even though he believes in chaos. He MUST dig out Wilson's secrets. He MUST find out what is wrong with his patients. He MUST know.

Which makes him difficult to be around but a great diagnostician.

What makes all three of the doctors interesting to watch is that all three of them act the role of "fool"--not "fool" in the Ben Stiller sense but fool in the old Shakespearean/King Lear sense. They say things other people don't admit/want to hear. (I must include Cox's ex-wife girlfriend here, especially the episode where she keeps trying out lines like, "I'm not wholly myself when Cox isn't with me" and then saying, "No, it doesn't sound like me, does it?")

Now, I've got a big dose of Jane Austen in me--I believe in appropriate conversation for appropriate venues, but that didn't stop Jane Austen skewering people in her letters to Cassandra. It doesn't really work for effective day-to-day living; it is much better to accept other people's fallibilities and forgive and all that.

But it makes GREAT television.

My Guess: The Next American Idol

I confess, I watched American Idol this season. I'm being apologetic NOT because I think people should be apologetic about watching television but because I'm usually down on "reality" TV. I don't want reality TV to take the place of good, old-fashioned non-reality TV--like Buffy and such. (CSI is more or less "reality" TV with non-reality characters, much like Law & Order, which is a lot like watching your local news, only more interesting.)

However, I did watch American Idol this season, mostly to listen to Simon's comments and to read Television Without Pity's summations. In any case, I've been surprised at how nobody (that I've read so far) has caught on to why Melinda got dropped.

Melinda was/is phenomenal. She's a true professional. And that's why she didn't win. American Idol is very American in that at some fundamental level we think we're watching, LIVE, an Horatio Alger book. Horatio Alger wrote a bunch of books back in the 19th century about poor boys making good. They were probably all poor white boys but they were plucky and intrepid and made money and moved into the middle class. (Unlike Jeffrey Archer characters, they remained pleasant people and didn't try to kill each other or other people.) And much has been written about how influential this idea is in the American psyche.

Well, yeah. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, no matter what grad-school tries to tell you. And it does explain American Idol. Melinda didn't need anyone's help to "make good." She was already a professional with style. American Idol did give her more confidence but other than that, her leap up the rung isn't quite as far as it will be for . . . Jordin.

Yup, that's my guess. I like Blake, and I think Blake is a very, very gifted young man. But, first, I agree with Joe R. from Television Without Pity that first place really won't do Blake any favors. Secondly, it will Jordin; it will make Jordin's life (I'll pause here and say that for the sake of Jordin's future happiness, I hope that isn't true in the long-term, but I'm sure it will be true in the short-term.) Jordin is not a professional (as far as I know). She's a high schooler with a powerful set of lungs who is the same age as the show. Ha Ha Ha. (I've been reading too much TWP, and I'm beginning to adopt the style. She's not, of course.) The point is, the voting audience can make a difference with Jordin's life, in a way they really couldn't in Melinda's. Based on descriptions of Melinda's graceful farewell (I never watch the result shows; I draw the line at that much substancelessness), I would say that the 29-year-old was kind of sick of the whole thing and ready to walk away. Which is lovely really. But if you're a voter on the show, you're going to want to vote in the person who cares to win. And the person who cares the most, I think, is Jordin.

Critiquing the Critiquers

I maintain in my thesis that the only people really talking about the arts--as in created works meant for audience consumption--are fans. Academe seems vaguely embarrassed, as intellectuals so often are, by the whole thought of people actually liking--as in enjoying, as in willingly partaking of without complaint--television or popular books. There seems to be this general idea, which one encounters initially amongst teenagers, that anything REALLY popular must be simply dreadful--as in filled with conservative, pro-establishment, capitalistic statements. Unfortunately, this leads many academics who want to explore popular culture to create unbelievably convoluted justifications for doing so. I recently read a book about romance novels by a professor who evidently enjoys said novels; however, she spent several chapters-worth arguing that just because a novel ends in marriage doesn't mean it is anti-feminist; the marriage actually represents a new beginning and a new state of society, etc. etc. She's right, but it would be so much easier if she'd just said, "I'm sorry you detractors think marriage stinks. I don't. Get over it."

Basically, to return to my thesis, I argue that while fans occasionally get caught up in this kind of foolishness, they are principally fans. That is, while they make hurumph noises about the media industry and all the greedy corporations, they are mostly interested in the WORK.

And this is enormously refreshing.

Take for instance, Jacob and Joe R. who critique American Idol for Television Without Pity. I confess, I watch American Idol now mostly so I can read the critiques. They vary considerably from week to week. Jacob is more poetic but less grammar conscious (lots and lots of run-on sentences). He also swears a lot more, so if that sort of thing bothers you, don't read him. Joe R. swears less and is more pithy. In general, although they both utilize sarcasm like a sledgehammar and are more than a little self-aware, making references to their own status as viewers as well as to other shows (academics call this "intertextuality" which means, well, making references to other shows), they do talk about THE SHOW. They talk about how well Ryan Seacreast did that night. They talk about the singers. They talk about the judges. They reference the audience's reactions. They dissect what the Idols wore. They make fun of the Idols' commercials.

Like any kind of in-depth, relentless dissection, it gets a bit tedious after awhile, but then so do academic treatises and said treatises get tedious much faster. And Joe R. and Jacob, without tying themselves into convoluted knots, take themselves much less seriously than your average popular culture academic.

And they often reach heights of perception and poetry. Regarding Sanjaya's release? dismissal? Joe R. writes, "When the time comes [for Sanjaya's last song], Sanjaya changes a lyric to 'Let's give 'em something to talk about, other than hair!' Man, that's so...he is very, very seventeen, is he not? That whole attitude of 'Let me try to deflect your criticism of me by wearing my hair in outlandish and frightening ways, but don't talk about me and mind your own business!'? Very seventeen. As if to prove my point, seventeen-year-old Jordin loves it. Even Simon has to give it a smirk. Hey, he's someone else's problem now."

And Jacob wrote the following concerning a young woman who, during try-outs, wanted to win approval from her mother. I happened to see this particular tryout, and I completely agree with Jacob's assessment.
[This] is really upsetting, for some reason, to watch. I think it has to do with the anger. She's kind of a goober, this girl, and the 'TV pretty' speech is one of the few times she focuses on anything, and it's so sad because she's totally cute, with a strange deep duckly voice and dorky ways, and it just gets worse. 'Um, it did hurt a little, but [my mother is] coming around and supporting me a little bit.' [After the audition, which she bombs] Ryan Seacrest is this close to crying . . . and it's a strange little collage of things that shouldn't make you cry, like Ryan and Taylor Hicks and this weird girl, adding up to something pretty bleak, emotion-wise. I still don't think I've nailed it down exactly, but I think it's the sincerity of her, and the anger . . . and the complete lack of talent, and the fact that the four judges don't get it, but Ryan totally gets it, so there's a whole inside the room/outside the room issue, and no way to protect her.
Uh-huh. And again, all this analysis is coming about because these two guys watch THE SHOW and comment on THE SHOW and have opinions about THE SHOW. They do use their insights to jump off onto other topics, particularly Jacob who knows more about music in his pinky finger than I do in my whole life ever (I'm with Joe R. on this one who writes, "All this time I felt like a fraud because I was recapping this music show, and I have terrible taste in music, but now? I realize that I'm the perfect person to recap this show because everyone on here has terrible taste in music, too! It's like a weight has been lifted."). But principally, the two critiquers are concerned with THE SHOW--whether it is good or bad; what they don't like about it; what they like about it; what works; what falls flat, etc. etc. And I think, really, this is what academics don't get, humanities academics particularly who are SUPPOSED to care about literature and poetry and character development and such: you can't write about stuff, really write about stuff, that you don't love, and you can't love it if you're attaching "imperialistic-ideological-the-underpinnings-of-liminal-culture-ooh-are-we-supposed-to-like-this?-how-class/race/sex-conscious is it?" labels to it.

Which is why, in the long run, television and the fans will win.


Through the Stargate

A long time ago, when Saturday night actually had shows on that I liked, I watched quite a lot of Stargate. I lost interest after awhile. Probably the show became a saga and sagas usually bore me. But I've started rewatching the show through Netflix. It doesn't have the same enthrallment factor for me as Star Trek or Law & Order or X-Files, but there are some definite pluses.

First, the premise makes slightly more sense than Star Trek. In science-fiction terms, of course. The only aliens are nasty, bad snake things (although more aliens are implied). Everyone else is human. No weird foreheads. No strange ridges. No elongated earlobes. Of course, it is highly doubtful that, absent a universal translator, they would all be able to understand each other. Language evolves, and a bunch of ancient Greeks, ripped away from their original culture, aren't going to speak anything that sounds even like modern Greek, let alone English. But, as E. Nesbit says in The Story of the Amulet, "I think I must have explained to you before how it was that the children were always able to understand the language of any place they might happen to be in, and to be themselves understood. If not, I have no time to explain it now."

Secondly, Stargate is darn good storytelling. There's a rather startling lack of theme. SG-1 goes to a planet. Bad guys are there. SG-1 outwits them. SG-1 goes home. And in the meantime, the audience gets a little bit of mythology and anthropology and lots of statues and stuff. In fact, it is really more fantasy with sci-fi trappings than anything else.

Thirdly, it is a military operation! Thank goodness for a military operation that doesn't pretend to be anything else. Earth is trying to find a way to defeat the bad guys and get allies; there's a notable lack of diplomatic speechifying. And, well, let's face it, fatigues are sexy. Guns are sexy. And those little earpieces that secret agents always wear are super sexy.

Of course, the team breaks protocol about every three seconds. It would be nice to watch a show where the team didn't break a thousand rules in order to go back for that one person or one friend or one artifact, consequently jeopardizing their lives, their mission, Earth and the entire human race. But still, it is nice that there is some structure/heirarchy to the whole operation. (Although I must say that the "President" is a stunningly understanding man who agrees with General Hammond to a truly extraordinary extent.)

Fourthly, they kept the same characters as in the movie. I really admired them for this. There seems to be a (largely American) idea that if you don't have the same actors, you have to create a whole new back story. Timothy Hutton's Nero Wolfe series proves that viewers are fully capable of separating actors from characters and can accept the same actor in different roles or different actors in the same role. It's all fiction. So, I like the fact that in Stargate, Daniel is still Daniel and Jack is still Jack even if they aren't James Spader and Kurt Russell.

Along the same lines, the team is a likable team. This is very, very important to these kinds of shows. I happen to get a huge kick out of Richard Dean Anderson (who I much prefer as Jack rather than MacGyver). He reminds me of Charles Parker from Dorothy Sayer's Peter Wimsey mystery series; they have the same laid-back "ohhh-kay then" kind of attitude. It's a refreshing change from angsty, furrowed-browed heroes (although Jack O'Neill has plenty of furrowing stuff in his past). On top of all that, Andersen is willing to do just about anything. Shortly into the first season, he plays both a caveman and a 90-year-old. In both cases, there's no self-consciousness. You can always tell. Self-conscious actors make the viewer uncomfortable. Andersen doesn't seem to care what the writers throw at him (this was one thing I always liked about Jonathan Frakes).

Plus I like Daniel and Carter. And I really like Teal'c. I think Christopher Judge is a whole bunch of fun as well as a very handsome guy. I admire him for unabashedly acting in Stargate kinds of shows (rather like Kevin Conroy--Batman--who I also really admire; I like it when actors find their range and stick to it).

Another Jane Eyre--Hooray!

I'm a big Jane Eyre fan. I like 19th century novels, and I like happy endings (which many 19th century novels don't have), so Jane Eyre gives me all I want.

The latest Jane Eyre series is another British production, starring Toby Stephens (as Rochester) and Ruth Wilson (as Jane). The casting is odd but effective. As with Timothy Dalton, the classical description of Mr. Rochester is sacrificed for the sake of very, very good acting.

This means that we ignore the fact that Toby Stephens is a very handsome guy as well as an extremely youthful one. The ages are nearly right (Stephens is currently 37; Ruth Wilson is 25), but it is hard to remember this, just as I can never believe that Zelah Clark and Timothy Dalton (from the 1983 Jane Eyre series) are twenty years apart (they aren't; they're ten years apart). Like many casting choices, Jane and Rochester are a problematic pair--neither are roles you want to sacrifice to novices, no matter how appropriate in appearance.

However, as a relative novice, Ruth Wilson does a splendid job, and I place her up there with Zelah Clark. In fact, in some ways, I think she captures Jane's youthful fascination with Rochester better than Clark.

The 2006 series does a number of other things right, including the selection of material and the use of flashbacks. First, it is carefully, and faithfully, cut to a specific theme. This is the only way to handle those huge 19th century novels where a billion different ideas are presented at once (the plot of Jane Eyre is deceptively straightforward; there's a lot of meat on them bones). The series writers chose a rather modern theme--the search for affection by a young woman starved of any true affection for most of her life--and yet one in keeping with the book. Too often, historical scriptwriters choose modern themes that do not in any way resonant with their non-modern material. Jane Eyre being what it is, and Bronte being what she was, this particular modern theme in no way jars with the material or the setting.

My personal feeling is that the main theme of Jane Eyre is more closely achieved by the 1983 version; it is a theme echoed in Richardson and Austen (however much Bronte would have disliked the comparison): integrity means that one relies on one's own judgment. Jane doesn't run from Rochester because she's a prude; she runs from Rochester because she will not sacrifice her judgment even to her own desires. This is a pretty powerful concept and always modern.

Having said that, I don't mind other approaches so long as those approaches play fair, which the 2006 series does. The modernness of the theme does not detract from the basic non-modernness of Jane Eyre. She is not a 21st century girl, no matter how much her struggles touch her 21st century audience. For example, one of the movie (not television) Jane Eyres has Jane and Helen acting like a couple of wise-cracking junior high students. It makes me wince every time I watch it. (And yes, I do watch it even though it makes me wince.)

To be fair, the Jane and Helen section (Lowood School) is difficult to cast and to script. I was impressed by the use of flashbacks in the 2006 series, and I thought the writers should have used more of them--that is, skip the childhood/Lowood scenes and start with Jane's arrival at Thornfield. However, the childhood/Lowood scenes are necessary; we learn about Jane's passionate nature (later tightly controlled), her treatment by the Reeds (foretelling later contact with the family), her friendship with Helen, her training at Lowood School--all important scenes which help explain Jane's character and motivations. It's just they are so very tedious. I've honestly never seen a presentation of Jane's childhood that didn't either bore me or make me laugh it was so unlikely. The 2006 series has the merit, at least, of being quick.

More on the childhood/Lowood section: one huge problem is that we 21st century Americans have a hard time understanding why a respectable and independent headmistress, Miss Temple, would kowtow to someone like Brocklehurst, so most versions eliminate the headmistress completely, giving the whole school section a rather lopsided, episodic feel. Unfortunately, if she is left in, the section runs the risk of being turned into a dissertation on feminism, which really isn't its point. The Lowood section, like the final section, is more about religion than anything else.

In regards to the final section, with St. John Rivers & company, the 2006 series (thankfully) leaves it in. A great many of the themes in Jane Eyre come to a head in the final section. The casting of St. John (pronounced "Sijin," which for some reason strikes me as so elegant; I never tire of hearing it) is fascinating, partly because the choice once again reflects theme. The 1983 series cast the exceedingly tall, exceedingly blond and exceedingly stern Andrew Bicknell while the 2006 series cast the dark, short, tightly wound Andrew Buchan. Both versions work. The 1983 series emphasizes St. John's domination of Jane; the 2006 series emphasizes St. John's repressed nature (and yes, that is "repressed" in the Freudian sense). Since both domination and repression are factors in St. John's personality, both interpretations work.

All in all, the 2006 series is worth viewing--more than once, if you're me. I like the ending best of all the versions, including the 1983 version. It doesn't leave you quite as bereft (happy ending, okay, now everybody go home), and you get to see the kind of woman Jane Eyre becomes, surrounded by family, friends, and a great deal of affection.

Thoughts of Kate Rewind

I don't know if anyone remembers the (short-lived) show Century City, but here's what I wrote about it at the time:

I watched Century City this week, and it's pretty bad.

As in bleeech.

I usually stay away from law firm shows, mostly because I find them boring as in "this is less interesting than my job." [At the time I wrote this review, I was working at a law firm as a legal secretary.] Law firm shows are basically soap operas with court room scenes.

The exceptions have been Law & Order and The Guardian, the latter mostly because why pass up an opportunity to watch Simon Baker do anything? but The Guardian went soap two seasons ago, and I gave it up. [The Guardian is now off the air; I really did like it for its first couple of seasons; Dabney Coleman played the father--he also played the father in the Tom Hanks' movie You've Got Mail--and I thought the father-son dynamic was well-played. The downside was that the father-son dynamic was basically two emotionally stunted men trying to relate to each other, which meant lots of dead-end conversations, which I found amusing--rather like watching lots and lots of Spock & Sarek--but apparently, the powers-that-be decided the relationship needed more DRAMA. That's when the show went soap.]

[Back to Century City.]

However, the idea of Century City is so very cool, I thought I'd give it a try. It's set about sixty years in the future, and the legal debates are over things like human clones, etc. etc. Very cool and moreover, an interesting juxtaposition between sci-fi and contemporary culture, since sixty years isn't that long but long enough.

It was possibly the dumbest show I've seen on TV in a long time, and yes, I am including My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé (which had some interesting sidelights on human nature). Century City was mind-numbing in its stupidity. The "hero"-—the brash, young lawyer who is going to save the world—-was so annoying, I wanted to dropkick him through the plate glass window, and if it had been an Angel episode, he would have been. It makes me appreciate that however bad the shows I like get, there's bad and then there's REALLY bad.

The brash, young lawyer ends the trial sequence with this big, emotional argument that is completely groundless legally and instead of, well, dropkicking him through the court room's plate glass window, the judge lets him go on and on and on at the jury. His argument? It’s okay to break the law in this one case because it's, you know, really, really, really important.

So much for the law. I'd like to see my lawyer try that one in court: "Yes, he smashed into her car, resulting in permanent bodily impairment of 75%, but in this case, he really, really, really didn't mean it, so you should let him off."

They also used up something like fifteen of their ideas in one episode.

It's a failure waiting to be dropkicked into TVland's oblivion bag. [And it was!]

Unless this is par for the course on legal-eagle shows, and I just missed it up until now. If so, they're hideous! Ban them all!

[And, regarding my final statement, I don't appear to be wrong. Crime shows in general seem to do okay, but legal shows have a hard time treading the line between Boston Legal-what-do-we-care-we're-just-having-fun-besides-where-else-would-ex-Star-Trek-actors-go?-dom and accuracy. Perhaps because real law is kind of tedious and kind of dull and kind of mind-numbing and kind of goes on for hours and hours before anything remotely fascinating happens. This is also true of forensics, but, as the one CSI episode points out, you can always cut the time it takes to do a lab test to make it look more exciting. The end result IS still accurate. But if you try to cut a lawyer's argument to make it more exciting, you cut all the times the other lawyer said, "Objection! Objection!" while filing annoying documents with the judge, and the end result isn't accurate at all, at all.]

And More X-Files

A while back, I wrote out my theory of At Least One. That theory applies to my current ideas regarding X-Files. It is necessary to remember, at this point, that I have not seen all the X-Files seasons nor have I ever read any of the fan theories. Basically, I have no idea whether my ideas are something that everyone else in the X-Files universe already knows. Probably.

My idea is that at least one person (me) thinks Skinner is head-over-heels-fall-down and-faint-in-love with Scully. And I'm willing to bet that at least one person (not me) thinks Skinner and Scully should have ended up together.

What is so fascinating to me about Skinner and Scully is that, taking the Whedon model (Angel, Spike) into consideration, Skinner ought to be the romantic hero; that is, the guy who sacrifices himself for the woman and puts the woman first and never thinks of anything else (which is how Skinner always comes across to me when he is around Scully) should be the one who ends up winning her heart.

But he doesn't. She ends up with Mulder, which is, of course, what we all expected but is also unexpected. And I think the reason for the unexpectedness is Duchovny's rendering of Mulder.

Mulder does sacrifice himself for Scully. But he plays him as rather remote. Scully, however logical and scientific, is clearly (I think) enamoured with Mulder by the time of the movie (being enamoured never stops her doing her job, however), but Mulder always seems to be holding Scully off with huge "Back off!" signs. He cannot live without her, and his enemies know that. But at the same time, he will never commit, never get close, never (really) admit any need for Scully. Even when Duchovny is given such lines, he almost always plays them "off."* I don't know if this is Chris Carter. I suspect not. I suspect it is Duchovny.

And I think this is fairly clever. The point, for me, of the Mulder-Scully relationship is that the final "I love you! I love you!" confrontation is unnecessary because they have already been living a "marriage" for most of the seasons. Their relationship is the relationship of people who are so far gone in terms of intimacy with another human being, Mulder's "Back off!" signs are completely pointless. Which will not, of course, stop Mulder from putting them up. And Scully is willing to put up with Mulder putting them up. Which consequently gives the relationship more edge, more reality, than most romantic TV relationships.*

To return to Skinner, I like his character, and I love that he does turn into moody, obsessed guy whenever Scully shows up and that Scully (as far as I know) and Mulder (as far as I know) seem completely unaware of this aspect of his character. But I'm really glad Scully kisses him in the boat episode. The guy should get something for his trouble!

*My favorite indication of this "offness" coupled with reality is in "Memento Mori" when Scully tells Mulder that she has cancer and instead of getting maudlin, he says, "I refuse to accept that." I LOVE that line: "I refuse to accept that." Somehow, it makes Mulder so much more real and passionate than the usual romantic hero and yet, at the same time, gives you a sense of Mulder's remoteness. Mind you, that sort of inaccessibility is great to watch on the screen, but not so great to fall for in real life.

Voyage(r) Over

I started watching Star Trek: Voyager, starting with its pilot, two years ago on April 8, 2004 (no, I didn't memorize the date; I looked it up on Netflix). This Saturday, I finished the saga (meaning I can now start all over again!). Following are my overall reactions to the show and my specific reactions to the finale.

Overall, I think the show is the most consistent of the Star Treks in terms of writing. It has few "classics" on the order of "The City on the Edge of Forever" (from Star Trek: Original) or "Sarek" (from Star Trek: Next Generation), but the overall writing is consistently high and seems to entail much more thought than many Next Generation episodes. I have compared Next Generation episodes to old, old stories being told in a science-fiction setting--hence, the mythic and implausible, if delightful, nature of Next Gen plots. Voyager's episodes are more about character interactions or "what ifs" (for instance, what if we contacted a planet that underwent its entire history while we watched).

Of course, the problem with such stories is that while it is possible to lay out a myth in under sixty minutes, it is very difficult to do the same thing with a character or what-if plotline. Voyager episodes tend to aim for complexity, bringing up all the variables and problems of an issue, and then, oops, only got ten minutes left, falling back on a deus ex machina after all. Consequently, as I have often maintained, Star Trek: Voyager has some of the best 2-parters in all of Star Trek history, since in the 2-parters, the writers can work out all the variables and problems without the easy short-cut. ("The Killing Game" is a great example.)

Now, one solution to the deus ex machina resolution is the Babylon 5 approach where you have endlessly complicated and ongoing plot lines. But that sort of thing makes me tired, so I'm glad that, overall, Voyager avoided it.

On the other hand, as Eugene points out, "[O]n Voyager, a few episodes after supposedly going through a . . . cataclysmic confrontation, it's like somebody's rich uncle showed up with a platoon of lawyers, handed out wads of cash, hauled the vehicles off to the body shop, and made the accident 'go away.' Presto chango. The next day you'd hardly known it happened. A good day's work for the insurance company, but bad day for storytelling." This is, I agree, one of the weirdest things about Voyager. One of the best 2-parters is "Year of Hell" (with the multi-talented Kurtwood Smith--That 70's Show). It is a very dark, very gripping episode which explores the problem of time manipulation. Kurtwood Smith's character keeps trying to change single events in the past, hoping that each single event will change his own time period back to the way he wants it. It doesn't work, of course--each change alters the universe in various ways, but he can never recreate the exact conditions he is hoping for. It's a great episode: Kurtwood Smith's character is very much the flawed Ahab beloved by Star Trek writers; as a by-product of "Ahab's" choices, Voyager is caught up in these (mostly negative) alterations and is practically destroyed.

And then, oops, our two hours are almost up, so someone flicks a switch and Voyager is back to its usual self, all clean and new and pretty again.

Now, granted "Year of Hell" was one of those back-to-the-future-we-can-pretend-it-didn't-happen episodes, but the new and improved Voyager shows up even after battle-intensive shows that don't involve time-manipulation. And I always wonder, "Who are the planets that keep repairing this ship?" and "Will they send the bill to Starfleet?"

I think Voyager could have afforded to look a *little* damaged--one of the things I like about Deep Space Nine is O'Brian's constant struggle to keep the station from exploding, especially as he stumbles across Cardassian booby-traps (a great Deep Space Nine episode is when a Cardassian booby-trap goes off, Gul Dukat shows up to gloat and then can't leave the station.)

On to Voyager's finale--when I first saw the finale, I was disappointed. I thought the beginning was very smart (start with the end!) but the end of the episode has none of the gentle sentimentality of "All Good Things" (Next Generation). (I demand sentimentality at certain times.) I also remembered the episode as a cop-out. I don't mind time-manipulation episodes for fun, but I hate having the denouement, the final achievement, rely on time-manipulation.

After seeing the finale again, I have to qualify my initial reactions (to a point). First of all, time travel is an ongoing theme of Voyager (what with the Federation "Timeship" chasing them all 7 seasons). Also, the Borg was Voyager's primary enemy (and such a useful one!). And Janeway's regret over stranding her crew in the Delta Quadrant is, while not a recurring theme, a returning issue (meaning, it crops up when the writers want it to). The finale dealt with all these things. It also dealt with what I think is the true theme of the show: Voyager retains its standards even though it is far from home. Yes, yes, in practical human terms it seems highly unlikely that the ship would retain its crew or its culture. But this is the mythic aspect of the show, and, I think, one of its strengths. Janeway has to hold her crew together and hold them to an ideal without any backup (i.e. Starfleet breathing down her neck). There's an X-Files "The truth is out there" religious element to the whole thing, and it makes for a great theme.

And I think Janeway, as acted by Kate Mulgrew, plays up to this theme very well. The underlying problem, of course, is that while it's fine for God to expect everyone to hold themselves to a standard, it's much less fine when a flawed human does it, and people tend to resent the flawed human in spades. By necessity, Janeway's command style was more in line with the demi-god nature of Star Trek's Original captains than with the administrative, diplomatic nature of Next Generation's captains. Yet I also thought it within character for Janeway's older self to regret the choices she had made. And I thought it within character for her younger self to stick to the rightness of those decisions.

But I sure wish the writers had emphasized all this. The idea--that it isn't worth getting home unless Voyager can get home with integrity--is there in the finale, but it is bypassed rather quickly for the sake of all the other stuff. And the other stuff isn't even the Borg! The finale focuses a lot on the Voyager crew in the future. I would have preferred more emphasis on the Voyager crew after they got home (the second time): Does 7 go see her aunt? Do Tom and B'Elanna maintain their relationship? Does the Doctor really decide to go with 'Joe' as his final name choice? More than anything, though, I would have liked them to focus on the problem of "What is more important? Getting home or how we get there?" I realize that some resolution was needed, but I kind of wish the episode had ended with Janeway making the same decision that had stranded Voyager in the Delta Quadrant in the first place--that is, I wish she had opted for the "Hey, if it takes us sixteen year, it takes us sixteen more years!" option. Thematically, I think that would have been great. It would have underscored the show's repeated claim (shown through the Doctor and 7-of-9) that life, despite suffering and risk, is worth being lived.

As I continue to mull the show over (and begin watching it again), I will probably have more blog posts. For now, as the good Doctor would say, "I must say there's nothing like the vacuum of space for preserving a handsome corpse."