Another victim of the changing technological winds gives up the ghost
Video killed the radio star; streaming killed the video store.
So it is with Hastings Entertainment. The company has thrown in the towel and is in the throes of its final liquidation sales. Once upon a time, it was a source for books (at that time printed on paper) and music (at that time recorded in the grooves of vinyl platters). Video (at that time magnetically recorded on half-inch tape) and video games (at that time recorded on various types of electronic media) came later.
I found my first Hastings in the late ’70s, early ’80s in Amarillo, Texas. Rock music blared from speakers, the record section was huge, the book section was enticing, the posters on the wall bright with color. Some of the stores were found in those temples of consumerism, the indoor mall, but others could be found in the old-style strip shopping centers or stand-alone buildings.
When I went back to New Mexico, I found Hastings already had invaded, including a couple of stores in Santa Fe. Once the legality of home viewing of Hollywood movies on rental tapes was confirmed, Friday nights became busy places as individuals, couples and whole families came in looking for a weekend’s entertainment possibilities. Sometimes all copies of the movie they wanted were all gone, setting tempers on edge. A waiting game was sometimes played as employees brought in the returns from the drive-up drop-off bin. That paid off only occasionally, but for some customers, always worth the chance.
I worked one summer at one of the SF Hastings stores. I was assigned the Books section (naturally), and found that the chain practiced what I call the “shallow inventory.” This meant only those books that moved fairly quickly were stocked and if they didn’t, they were out. Even so, the sheer number of books was amazing. Once, the entire staff stayed all night doing a “purge” — the managers called it “inventory” — where we pointed a hand-held electronic device at the UPC code (the store pasted its own code over the publisher’s before the book went on the shelf) and if it beeped, the book was pulled. By daybreak, the aisles were jammed with the new rejects, which soon disappeared from the store, probably as fodder for the pulp mills. Or to return as bargain books to be placed on the special shelves. You could get some pretty good books for little money but of course the authors don’t get a cut of sales. Cheap for you, total loss for them.
Stocking the shelves was the Task That Would Not Die. The guys in receiving would cram wheeled carts with the night’s arrivals and they’d be waiting when I reported for work. Morning, noon or night, those damn carts never seemed to empty. Help a customer find a book, go back to shelving the new ones. Clean up the children’s section — another constant task; kids, you know? — go back to shelving books. Make the four thermoses of coffee in the morning, go back to shelving books. Put away the magazines and books left on the chairs where the customers had been reading and drinking coffee like the place was Starbucks (also just getting going), go back to shelving books. It lasted until it was time to play janitor and vacuum around the Books desk, the last task if you were the closer. During the night, some strange magic would be performed and the stocking carts would appear the next day loaded to the point of collapse again.
The only respite came when I was assigned to a cashier slot. I hated that, I’d rather shelve books than cashier. I’m not a people person, so being pleasant to a long line of customers was a real trial. Most of the customers were video renters, and if late charges showed up their accounts, they could get nasty. Gift certificates — not cards then, paper, another sign of antiquity — took special processing. And the soda companies thought it’d be fun to stick coupons for free drinks on the caps of the plastic bottles, creating another pain for cashiers.
Vinyl records were still the main option for music when I started. There was something zen about standing flipping through the eye-catching art on the sleeves. But, technology changes, as it always does, and new gadgets started rolling in. First it was cassette tapes (eight-track tape cartridges had pretty much withered away), then CDs slowly started to proliferate. (Digital audio tapes, DATs, came and went practically unnoticed.) Vinyl is having its last laugh, though, rising from the dead on wings of audiophile preferences.
On the video side, VHS won the war against Betamax, but soon they were succumbing to DVDs. Tech advances add new capabilities, but the disks seem to be the end of physical media. Streaming is the new paradigm for now, as it is for music and video games. Books still cling to printed life against e-books, but Hastings evidently missed the import of all this streaming and electronic downloading and such. So it has to pay the piper, as it were.
One time my friend and I were waiting our turn to get a Saturday night movie when a woman in the next line freaked because she didn’t want her name entered in the store’s computer. That’s Santa Fe, N.M., folks, and that’s not unusual. She asked if there was a video store that didn’t use computers, and, that again being Santa Fe, of course there was.
(That store was called Video Library, and Hastings reportedly opened a second store in SF with the express purpose of running them out of business. Didn’t work; they’re still renting VHS tapes and DVDs and still keeping track of them on file cards filled out with pencil. The locally owned bookstore, Collected Works, also has out-lasted Hastings. The record store, alas, didn’t.)
When Santa Fe raised the minimum wage, Hastings retaliated by closing one store (the one I had worked at, but I’d long since left). That left the one in the DeVargas Mall Center, which needed a viable store badly at the time as malls themselves were being rattled by changes in shopping habits. It wasn’t the only video store in town, but the Friday and Saturday crowds made it seem so.
In their heyday, the stores became nodes for pop culture. Comic books became a staple, and the stores stocked theme merchandise, everything from bobble-head dolls to clothing to posters to kids toys. Some electronics, too; headphones, portable players, that sort of thing. The last time I saw a Hasting store, the shelves were jammed, the music loud, the lights flashing. What they looked like the day before the bankruptcy was announced I don’t know.
The other cultural phenomenon Hasting rode for a while was the rise of the “speculation genres” — science fiction, fantasy, horror — into the mainstream of popular culture. The revolution in special effects in movies made possible by computers helped spark this boom. It was necessary. Harry Potter had jolted popular culture with a huge blast of storytelling magic. Seeing the movie version with the old special effect methods would have made them laughingstocks. Suddenly stories that had been around for years — Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Beowulf — became fodder for the new tech in the new movies. Along with that was the realization that books for children and young adults held some great source material for Hollywood producers eager to get a share of the disposable income the new generations of entertainment-savvy youngsters had rattling in their pockets.
I asked George R.R. Martin during a signing in the DeVargas store why he, having spent time in Hollywood working on TV shows, thought the old, venerable tales like Lord of the Rings had to be made into movies. He gestured around at the store with its mass of merchandise and said something like “it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” Uh, yeah, I said, but beyond money, isn’t just reading books good enough any more? We did agree that visual storytelling pulled in more people to the material than just books could, and perhaps some of them then would turn to the original sources, which was a good thing. Thus was Hasting’s mission defined: To be a conduit for fans to get access to their favorite stories be it videos, CDs, books, video games or music.
(This conversation likely took place around the time of the publication of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Yes, it was possible to have a conversation with George at a signing because not many people showed up that day. Not like now, when such an event would cause eager fans to form a line that would go out the door, up the highway and into the next county. Plus, at that time, he had no desire to make a movie or TV series out of his tale. Ha, ha, ha, how quickly things change, right?.)
I don’t mean to suggest that Hastings was a haven for all that was cool and hip. It was a corporate operation that looked upon all that merchandise with a cold eye for profits, not cultural milestones. The stores looked pretty much the same inside wherever they were. The music playing on the sound system generally was top-forty, with only an occasional foray into something cutting-edge. (And when that happened, it was quite noticeable.) The trailers playing on the monitors above the cashier stations were for that week’s new movies, but if you wanted something more esoteric — small independent, foreign, cult, obscure — your best bet was to hit one of the local video stores. Same with the books. Same with the games. Same with the music.
The shutdown of the chain signifies the end of another American cultural touchstone, like the passing of the malt shops of the ’50s or the malls of the ’70s, and ’80s. And while Gen-Xers and Millennials might look upon this as just another Baby Boomer lamenting the passing of his childhood, it could be worse — this could be about head shops with their psychedelic posters, background sitar music, albums (vinyl, of course) with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix and such filling the racks, all in a haze of incense (and perhaps something, shall we say, more pungent). So count your lucky stars.
So long, Hastings, you were a bright and noisy source for home entertainment and the occasional community hang-out for a while. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to buy some stuff from Amazon.com.
The Spandex brigade begins its annual flight to the movieplex
Once again, the
silly superhero season is upon us.
As the Avengers prepare to battle that Ultron thing (at least in the U.S.; in some markets overseas the battle has already been joined), more superheroes will be coming out of the screens in the movie complexes and the toy stores and the fast-food joints and whatever other merchandising the companies have in store. There will be more this summer, this fall, this winter, next spring and on and on and on until the third for fourth decade of the 21st century probably. Back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s of the last millennium, we had been waiting for flying cars; instead we got flying Spandex-clad superheroes.
Superheroes or superhero-related shows haven’t all been relegated to the summer, television has had a bunch of such shows going on for a while to mixed success. But it’s summer, and that mean big, bombastic movies, and so we’re getting ’em, like ’em or not.
I suppose the big one is Avengers, Age of Ultron. I gather the plot is about Tony Stark screwing up and instead of making a robot mind to aid people instead makes one that decides to just replace them all. Leave it to the movies to tap into our collective angst: Big Important Thinkers such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have been warning us that Artificial Intelligence might be a dangerous thing to be messing with. Yeah, when’s that ever stopped us?
As I’ve said before, I’m not all that charged up by superheroes. The stories just repeat themselves ’cause it’s easier to recycle an old villain that come up with a new one. I will to admit enjoying — and also being a bit surprised — by one or two or three. Captain America: The Winter Soldier mostly; to a lesser extent the first Avengers movie and The Guardians of the Galaxy. The latter two, though, were less interesting because they dealt with some amorphous threat from outer space while Winter Soldier stayed on Earth and dealt with real, imminent threats to privacy and government overreach. That made it more immediate and more topical, a rare thing in superhero movies.
As a tiny counterpoint to the big Marvel release this week, DC has been dropping trailers for its next big film, Batman v. Superman, which has nearly a year to go before we see the whole thing. No, it doesn’t look promising, but at least it does seem to be addressing a big issue from the end of Man of Steel, the wanton destruction of the city and the deaths of thousands. We’ll have to wait to see if it’s just a trailer-tease or if the issue is really addressed, but I like to think that the makers have been pressured to respond by the criticism about that ending. (Evidently the Avengers do sort of mention the destruction that occurred at the end of their first movie, but they’ve also evidently moved their battles overseas. Less of a problem if it’s some foreigner’s city that gets flattened.)
The Batman trailer also illustrates a pet peeve of mine (outside of being, dark, colorless, hopeless and dreary), and that’s how superheroes get a pass on the laws of physics. When Superman started in the comics, he was just a powerful man. He didn’t fly, he just leaped pretty far. Gradually, he gained the ability to fly (along with X-ray vision, super breath, super hearing, etc., etc., etc.) Now he not only flies, he hovers. How the hell does he do that? If science fiction writers tried to do that with their protagonist, they’d be laughed out of the convention unless they had a sound, plausibly scientific explanation. Even fantasy writers have to keep their magic consistent, so if they give the hero hovering ability, it better have a solid root in the general magic realm. So superheroes are neither SF nor fantasy, but a class of genre fiction all their own. Akin to myths, legends and gods — yea, verily I say unto you, superheroes are the new gods for the allegedly rational 21st century.
Despite what Warner Brothers, DC, Marvel and Disney would have you believe, those superheroes aren’t the only ones around. Other comics, other novels, even a couple of movies have explored more rational attempts at explaining superheroes and how they work. However, I’m going to focus on one, a series worth reading because it explores how having super powers can be a curse and how so-called heroes can have feet of clay. That’s the Wild Card series edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. There are several books out and the latest, Lowball, has just been published.
I also lied because I’m going to plug another different take on superheroes, and, yes, it’s my own book, Tyranny of Heroes. (This is my blog and I’ll shill my books if I want to.) My superheroes don’t mess around, they take over the word, they kill their enemies and they make sure everyone on the planet behaves themselves. And, of course, they change history, which is explored by an underground what we would call blogger, except the Internet is closely controlled by the Supers, so our underground writer has to resort to more prosaic methods. (Remember mimeograph machines?)
Information on getting the e-book is available at the right where you see the cover. (And, OK, I’ll admit it, I’m looking for some sales here. I think it’s a good book, and if you agree, please tell your friends. But please give it a try.)
May the legacy of Nimoy and Spock live long and prosper
So the man who spent his life trying to deal with another man who didn’t even exist is gone. That fictional man threatened to engulf and overwhelm the human original, and perhaps it did once or twice.
But the original finally came to terms with the other, and both became admired and loved.
Leonard Nimoy was an actor, playing various parts for TV movies, theater. He was good at his craft, he making himself a solid career.
And then came Mr. Spock. He originated somewhere in the minds of Gene Roddenberry and his writing staff who were putting together a TV series based on the idea of “Wagon Train in space.” The central idea was a starship filled with human beings and perhaps a couple of friendly aliens exploring the galaxy, seeing what’s out there, finding new things, going where no
man one has gone before. And doing it boldly, even if it meant bending rules of grammar.
So who was this “Spock” guy anyway, and why did women, including my mother, take to him so readily? Half-human, half-alien, utterly in control of his emotions, always looking for the logical answers to everything, imperturbable yet a master of a musical instrument, a bit mysterious. Almost cold, sometimes, always ready to reject your argument with a twitch of an eyebrow.
He may be alien, but those character traits are ones we humans would like to have. Able to set aside emotional baggage, be able to see things without prejudice, utterly competent at what task he takes on, stoic in the face of danger, strong without being over-intimidating , quiet and reserved. It took Vulcans a long time to achieve balance of emotion, of intellect and control, so it gave us hope that human could at least in move in that direction and achieve at least a little of that.
It didn’t always work, of course. Spock had a partial excuse in his partial human origins, but even full-blooded Vulcans sometimes slipped. What logic is there in marrying a human female? None, yet Sarek still fell in love with Amanda and produced a son that seemed at war with himself sometimes. That son carried this battle with him always, it helped define him, and it made for some great story-telling. Spock sometimes showed us more about being human than many of the human characters in drama.
And Nimoy inhabited the role. Despite the kind-of cheesy make-up (TV-show budgets being what they were) with the slanted eyebrows, pointy ears and a greenish pallor, Spock became as real as any fictional character ever has, allowing us to project our desires, our admiration, our hopes onto him. And while Nimoy has many other accomplishments, when you talk SF, Spock is now as central as ray guns, robots or alien invasions.
With his death, there’s been talk about honoring him and Spock with an announcement of another iteration of Star Trek. That might not be a good idea. The optimism of the ’60s has faded and now everything has gone dark (as seen in the re-boot movies). The mission of the Enterprise crew was to explore, find new things, not constantly get into battle with them. It didn’t always work; the Romulans and the Klingons didn’t like having humans around, but while conflict flared up occasionally, it didn’t become the sole reason for the series. Sometimes the Klingons and Romulans even helped solve the puzzle and prevent disaster. That’s not gonna happen in any new series. It’ll be constant conflict with some alien species or another, battle after battle, war upon war, because that’s the way we view the universe now.
A more fitting tribute to the legacies of both Nimoy and Spock would be to continue to learn, to understand, to deal with the universe and the future. That means continuing to send robotic spacecraft to explore the Solar System, it means continuing to develop launch capability whether public or private, it means continuing plans to send humans to the other planets as the beginning of the exploration of the galaxy, where perhaps a real Spock-like alien awaits our arrival.
And it also means continuing to try and understand and deal with problems at home, from global warming to vaccines to our origins to overpopulation to epidemics. Spock indeed would be very, very disappointed if we failed in this. Enough to make him turn away and wash his hands of us forever, perhaps.
No, a better way would be something like this:
You’re heading to Mars to begin your new job at the Mars Biological and Life Sciences Institute at Goddard City. It’s been a long trip out from Earth, so you’ll need to acclimate from ship-gravity and time. You’ll stop at Spock City on Nimoy Station, a hollowed-out asteroid moved to Mars orbit. A short stay and you’re ready for your Mars adventure.
A small step, but still bold, eh?
Lego my childhood; or, unleash the dog of history
Popular culture in the United States is like that mythical worm that eats its own tail.
An Ouroboros it’s called, a self-devouring beast that could eat itself right out of existence. That last foot or so, where the mouth swallows the head, must be a bear.
U.S. pop culture, though, likely won’t have that problem because it’ll just keep finding new stuff to devour over and over again to eternity.
What brought all this talk about ouroboroses (ouroborosi?) was two movies both animated and both based on child-like nostalgia. Childhood, you mean, don’t you? Not necessarily. Child-like is a better description, in my view.
The first is The Lego Movie, and at least the creators didn’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending it’s not a long commercial. (Yes, it is. If it’s not, then where are the other toys? In the Pixar Toy Story series, toys from different manufacturers appear in speaking roles. In this movie, it’s Legos and only Legos.) Generations of children around the world have grown up with Legos, so the marketing is already three-quarters done. Through the years, the company hasn’t sat on its laurels, it’s adapted its product for whatever popular culture meme is in force at any given time. A long way from the humble carved-wood toys it started out with, and if you don’t believe it, look at the CGI movie the company made about itself and how its founders took Mr. McGuire’s advice and went into plastics.
I don’t remember playing with Legos when I was a kid. I did have some plastic brick-like things with the holes and tabs, but they were all red with some longer white pieces. They might have been Legos, but it’s more likely they were some off-brand. My main construction set was the wooden Tinkertoys. A couple of my friends had Erector Sets, made of metal and you had screws and bolts to piece the thing together. So when are the Tinkertoy and/or Erector Set movies coming out? Not soon, evidently; a Lego sequel already has been approved. Money talks, and Lego is there to collect.
The movie itself has been a big seller, and deservedly so because it’s actually good. It’s flashy and humorous for the kids and satirical and metaphorical for the adults. It suffers from the same thing that nearly every American animated film suffers from: action crammed in for the sake of action. Afraid of losing their younger audience, the makers put in speedy chases and complicated fight scenes while the adults are forced to sit through it until the next plot development. Fortunately, it has voice actors such as Morgan Freeman, who seems to be having a ball sending up the Wise Old Man cliché.
The movie also has an interesting take on what Legos actually are for. On one hand, you’ve got those who build under strict real-world rules, erecting buildings and skyscrapers, regular cities with streets and traffic. On the other hand are those who are more free-form in their creations. This idea sifts through the entire movie as the Lord Business tries to lock down everything and everyone in its place. An adult who wants a nice, tidy, realistic city. The less strict, a child, say, has the Millennium Falcon come out of nowhere to help the good guys. Why not? To him, there’s nothing wrong with mashing pop culture together.
The movie also wants to suggest that conformity is a dead end and life needs spontaneity to advance. This is illustrated by the reluctant (and, admittedly, clueless) hero, a construction worker who spends his days following the rules and going to work as a member of as team and who must leave it all behind to fulfill his destiny. But he can’t do that alone; he needs help. So he trades one team for another. Granted, the methods of the second team are unorthodox, but he still is a cog in a larger wheel. So, has the lone hero really turned his back on conformity?
The Lego Movie, despite its name, wasn’t made with actual Lego pieces being manipulated frame-by-frame. A daunting task, that would be, but man, think of what it would look like! Instead, it’s CGI, a cop-out. Computers make everything too easy any more.
The other nostalgic movie uses the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show of the ’60s as its source. This I do remember; coming home from school and turning on the TV to cartoon shows on the local stations (before the time was taken over by network talk shows, infomercials and soaps). Rocky and Bullwinkle was done in what’s called limited animation. That form was popular because it was cheap and the channels were filled with Quick-Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, all execrable examples. Rocky and Bullwinkle had style, though, more imagination and great writing with wit and intelligence.
Besides the adventures of the titular characters, the show also had various short segments, such as “Fractured Fairy Tales” that pretty much destroyed the fairy tales we’d learned when we were younger. “Peabody’s Improbable History” featured a dog who had a time machine he’d use to teach his boy, Sherman, a lesson in history. They’d find things weren’t happening they way they were supposed to, so Peabody would have to take action to set things aright. And to set up the show-ending pun.
Why a dog? Who knows, but we can imagine Ted Key, the show’s developer, saying to himself, “Well, every boy needs a dog, so why shouldn’t a dog have a boy?” Just a silly thing to make the segment that much more off-beat, to poke a finger in the eye of convention. (Ted Key, by the way, also drew and wrote the one-panel cartoon Hazel that appeared in a weekly magazine for many years. Talk about a broad field of interest.)
Now jump ahead fifty years or so to a conversation that begins with something like “Hey, you know what would be neat? A movie about Peabody the time-traveling dog and his kid, what’s-his-name, Grant, McClellan—what? Oh, yeah! Sherman!” So Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a big, CGI, 3-D animated movie is born. And, being a Hollywood movie, we must have a back story. In the Key cartoon, we didn’t care how a dog came to own a boy, it was the show’s set-up, it didn’t matter. But I suppose a 92-minute movie needs it all explained.
Well, not everything. Mr. Peabody doesn’t explain why Mr. Peabody is the only talking dog in the movie, but it does explain why he was forced to educate himself and make his own way in the world: nobody wants to own a smart-alec dog. Fair enough, but he knows so much he becomes insufferable. It would have been nice if just once he could step aside and say to his guests, “You know, I’ve studied many things, but I was never able to squeeze in bartending lessons. Perhaps you’d like to take a shot at mixing us drinks. ‘Take as shot,’ get it?”
And we now know how Sherman became his son: An abandoned baby found in a cardboard box in an alley, already wearing round glasses. Not such a stretch, actually (except for the glasses). And, of course, there are complications. A boy with a dog father isn’t exactly going to be popular at school. Enter Penny Peterson, bully, who goads Sherman into biting her. (At least she’s not the popular-girl-stereotype bully; she’s a bully because she thinks she’s the smartest girl in school. A smart girl, who wants to be smart. At least there’s some eye-poking going on here.) This brings the evil family services agent in to threaten to take Sherman away ’cause, you know, dogs aren’t fit to be fathers to human boys.
Mr. Peabody has Penny and her parents over for dinner in an attempt to fix things. He tells Sherman not to tell Penny about the WABAC machine, so of course he does. Hijinks ensue. The past is as a messed-up place as it was in the ’60s, and Mr. Peabody is hard-pressed to fix the things that Sherman and Penny have screwed up. We meet historical characters, and they all seem to be a gregarious lot. Da Vinci especially, who owes a great debt to Mr. Peabody for getting the Mona Lisa to smile. (See what I mean about Peabody? He can do no wrong, even when he’s the butt of the joke.) And then it all threatens to collapse as the past is crashing into the present and Mr. Peabody—and Sherman, who has by now gained confidence with the help of Penny—try to send everyone back to their respective whens and correct the time stream. Well, mostly. Touches of 21st century culture went back with each historical figure, suggesting that the present Sherman & Peabody tried to fix isn’t really. But perhaps that’s for a sequel.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman as a computer-animated movie looks generally fine, the backgrounds are lavish, the time-warp stuff is dazzling. However, it does suffer from crammed action (see above). And while it was nice the animators stayed with Key’s character designs, they went too far. Those kids would never be able to support those heads on those scrawny necks. Key could get away with it because his Sherman hardly moved, but a three-dimensional child running, jumping, falling and spinning needs muscles and bones in his neck.
Other parts of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show have been plucked out and turned into modern movies, but the less said about them the better. Fortunately, Mr. Peabody and Sherman rises well above those and is an entertaining movie. Still, though, the question of why arises. Both this movie and The Lego Movie suggest there are no new ideas in Hollywood, that the past, our childhoods, are going to be scraped clean and everything run through the technological improvements again and again. Look at comic superhero movies—icons from the past made into film after film, and then rebooted for a new generation before the old generation even has a chance to age much. The recent awful Lone Ranger movie is a sign of this self-devouring trend. Pixar is going to make a third Cars film, a second Incredibles film, and is working on a second Finding Nemo film. And now we hear of plans to make 3-D movie with the characters from the comic strip Peanuts. It just doesn’t stop.
Nostalgia is a nice thing, and remembering the past is important. But we also need to think about the future, we need to see new ideas, not constant rehashing of the old. It’s hard, really hard, to present something totally new; just look at what happened to The Iron Giant. But everything was new once; even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A hundred and fourteen years ago it was new, but you have to start somewhere.
Or, as Mr. Peabody might say, sometime.
The new ‘Cosmos’ has been a bit remolded to fit the times
Cal Sagan made the word famous in the first iteration of Cosmos, a TV show that explored well, “everything that is, or was, or ever shall be.” That’s biting off a lot to chew. Sagan pulled it off in 1981 with an erudite, intelligent, fascinating and informative 15-week series on PBS. Sagan was one of the most well-known scientific spokesmen and the show propelled him to celebrity status. His was subtitles “A Personal Journey.”
Now the series has been revamped in 2014 with this generation’s most well-known scientific spokesman, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. New discoveries in the intervening 33 years certainly call for such a move. Even though the subtitle of the new series is the more bombastic “A Spacetime Odyessy,” the producers still have to be careful not to step on, belittle or demean Sagan’s legacy yet continue the quest of explaining scientific process and discovery to the general public.
One way to update is with modern production techniques to create whiz-bang visuals and special effects. The new Cosmos started on the same seashore as the old one and borrowed the spaceship of the mind idea to explore the universe. Sagan started his from the outside — billions of light years away — and traveled in to Earth. Tyson goes the other way, starting here and moving outward. That turns out to be more effective, because Tyson can mention all the planets of the solar system where Sagan couldn’t get Venus and Mercury on-screen because he stopped at the third rock from the sun. Tyson also has more information about what the planets looked like, so his planetary system looks cooler. Of course, in Sagan’s day, Pluto was considered a planet (and at that time was inside the orbit of Neptune) where Tyson simply mentioned something vague about other objects in the system past Neptune, including Pluto. Nothing about the demotion of Pluto from planet status and his role in doing that, but perhaps he’ll go into more detail in a later episode.
Tyson’s version follows the trail blazed by Sagan’s to the point of him saying some of the same words as Sagan in some cases. This shown particularly in the segment of the life of the universe shown as a calendar year to show how all of human recorded history can fit into the last ten seconds or so of the year. Almost word-for-word at the end.
The two men diverge on their choices for early scientific heroes to illustrate how thinkers in ancient times blazed a path for later generations. Sagan went with Eratosthenes, who deduced the size of the Earth my measuring the shadows of sticks stuck in the ground. Tyson chose Giordano Bruno, a 12th century monk who suggested the sun was the center of the universe, not the Earth. He was eventually burned at the stake for suggesting that. Eratosthenes was a scientist, Sagan points out, where Bruno wasn’t because he didn’t have facts to back him up, says Tyson.
This choice of “hero” illustrates best the differences between the two shows. Sagan is more of a dreamer, Tyson more prosaic. Sagan spoke in poetry — “We are the way for the cosmos to know itself” — where Tyson’s style is more lecture. Both men say “starstuff,” but when Sagan says it, it’s just that more lyrical. Nothing wrong with that, but Tyson should let himself wax poetic once or twice. Wouldn’t hurt his image that much.
Sagan’s ethereal music — such as the show’s theme, Movement 3, “Symphony to the Powers B” from the album Heaven and Hell by the electronic artist Vangelis — has been replaced by the tedious orchestrations that mark scores of modern films such as Star Trek or Star Wars. Perhaps this isn’t surprising because a main backer of the new series is Seth MacFarlane, a potty-mouthed producer of potty-mouthed TV and movies who is wont to “borrow” from other creators. The credits also list Brannon Braga, who was on the staff for Star Trek: The Next Generation. This also perhaps explains why Tyson’s spaceship of the imagination resembles Boba Fett’s spacecraft from Star Wars. In flight, it resembles a coffin. (Update, April 10: I finally figured out what it does resemble: a sarcophagus. And it gives me the creeps every time I see it sliding through the cosmos.) In one scene, as the ship flew low over a rocky world, I expected a giant space worm to rise out of a hole and snap at the spacecraft. Given the show’s personnel, and the fact that it’s on commercial TV, I keep anticipating pop-culture references, like the U.S.S. Enterprise visiting a new world or the Millennium Falcon zipping by a distant galaxy.
The original show was based on the BBC model of documentary series where the host would visit the places under discussion and dramatize the stories of the historical figures under discussion. But the new show has commercials, which squeezes the time, so it looks like Tyson will spend most of his time in his spacecraft or standing on a beach or a meadow. And the dramatizations will be animated the way the Bruno story was. Perhaps that saves money, but with all the commercials, you’d think they’d have enough to spare. But, this is the modern world, and in this world everything mus make s money for someone somewhere. Altruism is so ’70s.
The most affecting part is Tyson’s telling use about a visit to Sagan when Tyson was a teen. That’s Sagan, all right, taking time to talk to a kid about the wonders of science, and in this case, it certainly paid off. Tyson points out that this is another process in how science works — a teacher passes information to a student, who uses it to carry research further, then he becomes a teacher and passes what he found out to the next student. And on and on. A nice touch, but we must hope the series doesn’t become too much of a paean to Sagan.
It’s good to have science and rational thought on TV, especially network TV. The first show was interesting and Tyson’s no-nonsense style is engaging and the eye candy was compelling. Plus, if Tyson continues to take an occasional jab at conventional thinking, that could only be a good thing.
Update: paragraph added 10 March ’cause I left it out of the original version.