Archive for the ‘television’ Category

I have an embarrassing confession: I almost never watch television. It’s nothing I decided or planned – it just happened — but it’s probably the most socially awkward thing about me.

Part of my embarrassment is that I am always missing half of what people are talking about. If everyone is watching a popular show, or a notorious commercial is making the rounds, I wouldn’t know. I can only gather indirect hints, because I am unlikely to actually witness what everyone is talking about.

Another part of my embarrassment is that nobody can process the fact that I don’t watch television. Just as people can’t believe that I really don’t drink coffee (which is another faux pas of mine), so they can’t believe that I don’t watch TV. I must have seen something, I’m always being told – everybody’s seen it. Or surely, I must at least watch the news. And what do I mean, we disconnected the cable because we never used it?

Nobody can accept that the average person watches more scheduled television in an evening than I do in half a year. I can tell that most people are humoring me, thinking that I am being perverse or joking, or trying to make some obscure point.

That brings up the greatest reason for my embarrassment: When I do get through to people, they usually assume that I’m being an intellectual snob – one of those people who establish their mental superiority by claiming to disdain TV fare, or a latter day disciple of Neil Postman, who refers to television as “the boob tube” and believes that it makes people stupid.

I wince at being lumped in with these snobs because I find them pretentious, lacking in anything but received taste, and not knowing if a show is bad or good unless someone else tells them.

Besides, I’m hardly one to suggest that only high culture is worth having. I’m no stranger to high culture, and I enjoy parts of it, but I also think that some of it is over-rated and trite. And I mean, I did do my thesis on a science fiction writer. I also believe that the graphic novel is a serious art form. With such opinions, I am far from likely to look down on TV.

Admittedly, I don’t care for commercials. I consider them the enemy of drama, breaking up the mood and twisting the story into unnatural shapes. But that’s hardly a judgment on the quality of the shows. When a season of show comes out on DVD, I frequently buy it.

The truth is, I simply got out of the habit of watching scheduled shows. When I first moved out of my parents’ house, I didn’t have a television, so I filled my evenings in other ways. Later, as a student and an instructor and a freelance consultant, I have kept irregular hours through much of my adult life, often working into the evening rather than relaxing.

As a result, even when I hear of a show that might be worth watching, I almost always forget about it until after its aired. I’m just not used to thinking about television, which is why so often I suddenly find – as now – it’s been eighteen months since I watched a regularly scheduled show.

But don’t imagine that I’m proud of the record, or putting you down if you watch four hours a night.

I’ve just been busy, that’s all.

Read Full Post »

I love science fiction and fantasy. They were the bulk of my reading in childhood, and they are still a sizable chunk of my fiction reading. When I go to a movie, it is almost always science fiction or fantasy. In young adulthood, I even went to conventions, although I was never much into fandom. Yet I have a confession that I will be lucky to make without being flamed and receiving death-threats: I’ve never warmed to Star Trek. I much prefer Doctor Who, that other long-running series.

My distaste for Star Trek began with the original series, and has remained largely unchanged in all the subsequent incarnations and movies. With a few exceptions, the scripts are primitive by print standards, with plots barely a step above the pulps of the 1930s and heavy-handed humor. In later incarnations, the quality of the scripts is sometimes hidden by a quotation or reference, but these are like gingerbread along the roof line of a Victorian house – non-functional decoration that fails to fit into anything around it. Mostly, they seem heavy-handed or gimmicky, such as having Stephen Hawking play himself.

As for the characters, how anyone can believe the pudgy and sententious James Kirk as an action hero or a leader is beyond me. Nor am I enthralled by the one-dimensional Spock, whom I suspect must have suffered regular wedgies outside his locker at the Academy. True, Patrick Stewart deserves credit for delivering the clumsy lines that were dumped upon him with some degree of conviction, but he is the only one of the supernumeraries and re-treads who deserves any respect.

But the real problem for me is the military gloss and doctrine of American liberal expansionism that runs through all the series, despite some recent efforts at revisionism. For all the change of costumes, the Star Trek universe has not progressed far beyond the John F. Kennedy era in which it was conceived: The rest of the world (or the universe) needs fixing, and Americans (or humans) are just the ones to do so – for everyone’s own good, of course, but with a firm hand if necessary. This connection is so close that the first series even had an episode in which Kirk encountered a post-holocaust duplicate of the United States, which he helped to put on track by reciting the American Declaration of Independence. Much of the time, Star Trek is all too ponderously self-important for me to take seriously for a moment.

But Doctor Who – that series is everything that Star Trek is not. Even limited as it was by being a TV serial for children for much of its run, Doctor Who has consistently shown more imagination than anything on Star Trek. Whoever invented the silly yet frightening Daleks was a borderline genius – they are frightening even to adults precisely because they are silly. As for the fact that The Doctor periodically regenerates into someone entirely different, that may have been a plot element introduced to explain the change in actors, but it’s an ingenious example of turning a liability into an asset.

Yes, Doctor Who has had its share of weak scripts and poor production values. But what has been surprising is how often, despite the cheap sets, the scripts have managed to be interesting, thoughtful, and even provocative. That is especially true of the modern revival under the direction of Russell T. Davies, which has maintained a level of excellence unparalleled in science fiction TV, and often turned the storyline into a critique of the series itself. But before everything else, Doctor Who has always been about character – not just about the anarchic and eccentric Doctor himself, but about those around him as well. It’s a subtlety that Star Trek’s producers rarely understand.

I have sometimes heard people suggest that Doctor Who captures the spirit of post-empire England, compared to Star Trek‘s echoes of the jingoistic American Empire. I suspect that may be true, but, whatever its origins, the spirit of Doctor Who is far more appealing than Star Trek‘s.

For me, the difference was captured in one episode a couple of decades ago when his arch-enemy The Master invited him to assist in conquering the galaxy. “But I don’t want to conquer the galaxy,” The Doctor replied (or something very similar). “I just want to see it.”

Essentially, Doctor Who is a humanistic view of the cosmos. And while in Star Trek, The Prime Directive seems like a marketing gloss on an essentially militaristic outlook, The Doctor’s ethos suffers from no such contradiction, being consistent all the way through. It is an ethos of loyalty, of being engaged, and of trying despite trauma and odds. Always, it is a story of individuals against bureaucrats and hierarchy — a story that Star Trek could only match if it was about a group of aliens resisting the encroachment of The Federation.

But, just to keep this mix from being too grim, there is always a flamboyant self-mockery in the central figure, from the recorder of the Patrick Troughton Doctor to the scarf of Tom Baker and the verbal free association of David Tennant. Brooding, mecurial, and brilliant, The Doctor in all his incarnations has a complexity that Kirk, Spock, Picard and the others can never match, for all their detailed back stories.

No, give me Doctor Who over Star Trek any day. For me, Star Trek is just cardboard characters moving dully against a rote background. I’ll watch it occasionally, but I have less and less time for it as I grow older. But Doctor Who fires my imagination, remaining fresh where Star Trek long ago went stale.

Read Full Post »

I never did write about my experience two weeks ago taking about GNU/ Linux in the TV studio. Partly, that’s because I was waiting until my article on the subject appeared on Linux.com. However, I also suspect that I did poorly, being out of practice with public speaking and flustered by the technical difficulties that emerged just before my spot. That’s not easy to admit, yet I have to admit that if I’m going to write about what happened.

Still, it was an interesting experience. The show was Lab with Leo, a tech program that appears in Canada and Australia. It’s shot on a permanent set designed for the purpose in an office building in one of the rougher areas in Vancouver. Strangely, the set isn’t totally sound-proofed, which occasionally causes trouble when people pass by in the hallway.

One thing that fascinates me about the experience is the way that film involves the creation of an artificial reality. Viewers only see certain parts of the set – they don’t see the area reserved for the cameras, or the technical crew in their glass walled offices on one side of the set. And, at one point, while the camera was focusing on the host of the show and a guest, besides the two or three members of the camera crew, another half dozen people were watching silently off-camera, not five meters from what was being filmed.

Everything — the makeup on people’s faces, the star’s bonhomie, the opening sequence in which the star walks down a hallway and stops to talk to a cast member who is seated where a receptionist might, the moving around the various pieces of the set to soften the fact that the show is mostly talking heads – is calculated to create the illusion of something that doesn’t quite exist, at least in the form that viewers might imagine.

I thought the whole process neatly symbolized by the contrast between the pristine set and the cluttered office and prop rooms from which you entered it. The office and prop rooms were what you might see in any office, especially in high-tech. By contrast, the set looks like a workshop, slightly rough around the edges, where the concerned star fields questions from viewers and wanders around from guest to guest and interacting with the cast.

I’m not a Puritan who wants to close the theaters. Still, I’m an academic by training, and a journalist by career choice, and both those professions are based on the assumption of objective truth and tghat the effort to find it is worthwhile. So, while I enjoyed the experience, even while feeling I didn’t hold up my own end as well as I might, I find that whether I only make one appearance or am asked back a matter of less importance than I thought.

Being asked back would be flattering, and I would probably do it. Yet, at the same time (and at the risk of sounding as though I’m indulging in sour grapes), if I’m not asked back, I won’t be unduly bothered, either. As a member of the audience, I’m perfectly happy accepting the illusion that the show – like any other – tries to create. I’m just not sure that, temperamentally, I’m suited to creating such illusions regularly. Illusions, in the end, don’t interest me nearly as much as ferreting out truths.

Besides, if I did do as badly as I think, I can’t complain. I’ve been doing so well lately that a failure to keep me humble may not be so bad an idea. I learned a lot, and got an article from the afternoon that might help others, so what more can I ask?

Read Full Post »

My television debut occurred at the age of 6, when I was poster boy for the local March of Dimes campaign. My only qualification was being at a speech therapist when no one who was deaf happened to be (my problem was a difficulty pronouncing a hard “k”, and the experience left me with a precise way of talking that many people mistake for an English accent). The experience brought only brief fame and no fortune, and was memorable mainly for the reaction a few weeks later, when my older brother looked up and exclaimed, “Bruce is on the television!” and my mother replied, “Well, tell him to get off it.”

My only other experience with TV was as an extra in a crowd scene for a locally shot movie with my wife and sister-in-law. At the time, it was an easy if tedious $80, and I never did learn if we were visible in any shots. In fact, now that I think, I can’t even remember the name of the movie.

One way or the other, though, I’m about to increase my TV experience. Next week, I’m scheduled to appear on the Lab with Leo cable show to talk about the GNU/Linux desktop for five or six minutes. The reccomendation came through Free Geek Vancouver, one of whose coordinators is scheduled to appear on another couple of segments.

Like many people, I have the idea that I appear overweight and gauche on film. And I know that I often talk too fast or mutter. I could get away with these tendencies when teaching but I suspect that idiosyncrancies are less forgiving on TV. I would very much like to solicit the opinion of someone with some experience on TV, but I’m not on speaking terms any more with the only person who might be worth consulting.

Instead, I’m on my own, doing my best to approach my adult debut in the spirit of adventure, not in the least self-important, but curious about the experience.

Already, it’s proving interesting. The show has a list of colors not to wear: No blacks and browns, because they blend into the set, no white shirt because either my torso or face will suffer from the contrast. No shorts, either, because the show might be shown in winter time, and would look out of season if I did. The color restrictions alone has me mentally thumbing through my closet in a way that I rarely do.

I also have to write in advance an outline of what I am going to discuss, along with any biographical information or any web sites that might illustrate my stint.

Visions of failure nibble at the edges of my self confidence, but I keep telling myself: one way or the other, it’s going to be an interesting experience. But “interesting” is such a neutral word: Proving a natural and coming across as an idiot could both be described with it. Unsurprisingly, I find myself apprehensive and anticipatory at the same time.

So why go through with it? All I can do is answer in the time-honored way, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I wonder if I’ll feel the same way after the spot is shot?

Read Full Post »