Friday, September 28, 2012

Let Me Tell You a Little Story About a Man Named Jeb

The Beverly Hillbillies premiered 50 years ago today. Critics hated it but the audience loved it.

The premise was simple - a depression-era farm family meets the modern world. While the Clampett family was an exaggeration, rural people were still living without power or running water in 1962. I once met a woman my age who remembered getting power and running water and who had never been to an indoor movie theater as of 1978 (she had been to drive-ins).

The Clampetts' cultural references were all from the 1920s and 1930. They were from a world of silent movies and kerosene lamps and folk remedies. There politics were from the Civil War.

Most of the plots revolved around misunderstandings between the Clampett family and the outside world. Often the Clampetts turned to cousin Jethro (the only member of the family to graduate the 6th grade). Jethro was pretty dumb.

The show was a huge hit. It was in the top twenty for most of its run and could expect audiences of up to 60 million. Today a show is a runaway hit if 15 million people watch it.

It spawned two similar shows. Petticoat Junction took place in a rural hotel run by a widow and her three daughters. That was followed by Green Acers in which a New York lawyer and his glamorous wife moved to a run-down farm in the same valley as Petticoat Junction.

The shows still had decent ratings when they were cancelled. CBS worried that its shows appealed to too rural an audience and wanted to attract a more urban following.

The premise of the Beverly Hillbillies could never work today. Modern life has reached everywhere. A few years ago I got gas at a remote gas station/general store and heard the clerks arguing about the relative download speed of DLS and cable. Third Rock from the Sun is about as close as we can get to a modern version.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation +25

Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 25 this week. Inconceivable (to borrow a word from something else which turned 25 this week)!

The original Star Trek had mediocre ratings and was cancelled after three seasons. It didn't become a world-wide phenomenon until it was syndicated.

There was talk of reviving the original series for years. They did make a Saturday morning cartoon version which featured some of science fiction's best writers. They went through multiple scripts for movies but these were judged "not big enough". It wasn't until Star Wars set box office records that Paramount got serious about making a movie version followed by several sequels.

Originally the studio wanted to do both movies and a TV series with the same cast. Eventually reality set in and they split Star Trek into two franchises - the original cast in feature-length films and an all-new cast on TV.

Gene Roddenberry had one condition for a new series - it had to be syndicated instead of broadcast on a network. He did not want to fight network executives again. Fortunately, the FCC had recently changed its rules on the number of stations in a market. Suddenly there was a market for prime-time, syndicated programming that could match broadcast TV for production values.

The original show had a racially diverse, multinational cast plus one alien. The new one was even more diverse and multinational plus two aliens, and an android (and a kid).

Unfortunately, the first season was a dud. Roddenberry pushed non-violent conflict resolution in every episode. There was no saving the universe from invading space-bacteria or evil clouds. Roddenberry's health forced him to leave the show part-way into the second season. This may or may not have had a direct affect but the quality of the episodes improved a great deal during the second season. The first season was mainly duds. Ideas such as the planet of barely-dressed joggers or the planet with dominant women might sound good on paper but looked dumb on the screen. The second season had a couple of the show's most memorable episodes like the one where Data got in over his head playing Sherlock Holmes on the Holodeck.

Roddenberry's gamble on syndication paid off. The show was able to experiment in ways that the original never could. In one episode the entire crew regressed into primitive creatures. In another a library ship merged with the Enterprise and the ship began transforming into a temple. Captain Picard linked with a satellite from a long-dead civilization and experienced the adult life of one of its individuals.

Eventually the original cast grew old and the new cast took over the movies. This turned out poorly with only one good movie out of four tries.

The days of syndication ended with the establishment of new networks. The last two Star Trek-inspired shows were on Paramount's channel rather than being syndicated and could not match the excitement of the original Trek or ST:TNG.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Hobbit at 75

The Hobbit came out 75 years ago today. By coincidence, tomorrow (September 22) is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo.

Tolkien wrote a lot but it was mainly for his own enjoyment. Paper was expensive (this was the Depression which affected people world-wide) so he wrote on anything that came to hand including the back of test papers (and sometimes the front).

Some of his writing was part of his life-long project to create an entirely new mythology. Like real myths, it would have different voices, some high and some detailed. As an in-joke, he threw in a few references to this mythology in the Hobbit, mainly the names and owners of the pair of swords they found in a troll-stash. The over-sized dagger that Bilbo took as a sword was not important enough for a name so Bilbo called it "Sting".

When Tolkien finished the Hobbit he realized that he had something worthy of publication so he submitted it. It turned out to be popular and the publisher asked for more. Tolkien only had a few other pieces suitable for publication. The War of the Silmarils was not what the publisher was looking for so Tolkien fleshed out a few short stories.

Later he began working on a sequel but got stuck on the opening, what became the "Long Expected Party". He knew that his main character was going to have a big party then go off on another adventure but he dithered around on who the character would be and why he was going. Would Bilbo have another adventure, possibly returning with a wife? Would they vanish and their son Bingo go off in search of them? Would Bingo run through his inheritance and go off looking for his own fortune? How did the ring the Bilbo picked up figure into things? It took Tolkien more than twenty years to figure all of this out.

Tolkien had an interesting take on heroes. They were all fine and good but they didn't necessarily accomplish anything. In the Hobbit, Bilbo goes from being extra baggage to the De facto leader of the expedition. He misses the big battles. When he finally returns home he barely tells anyone about his adventures.

Frodo and Sam have similar paths. Frodo goes because he has to. he is accompanied by three other hobbits because they will not desert him. Frodo does not perform any great feats. Most of his quest is boring, grinding, and dangerous. While Pippen and Merry get to see the Ents conquer Isengard, Frodo is wading through swamps. Merry helps kill a Nazgul, Pippen kills a troll. Frodo blends in with the orks. Even at the end, he can't bring himself to destroy the ring. It happens by accident.

By the time he returns, Frodo is ruined and will never be happy in Middle Earth. In contrast, all of his surviving companions become leaders of some kind (Strider becomes king, Sam becomes Mayor, etc.).

Even in the Silmarillion, the high elves struggle against Morgoth for ages without success. The two long stories, Beren and Luthien and Tuor end badly. Beren weds Luthien but their lives together are short. Tuor is a great hero but his choices bring ruin to everyone who befriends him. Morgoth is only defeated by divine intervention in which the elves play no part.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were not really written with an ending in mind. The journey was the important thing. They were written for the joy of reading. That is why neither book ends abruptly. It is not enough that the One Ring has been destroyed. All the loose ends need to be wrapped up.

The first movie of three will be out this December. From the cast, it looks like Peter Jackson decided to concentrate on the heroics rather than the ordinary things that Tolkien loved. We will see how well the book survives the translation.

Revolution (the series)

I watched the pilot for Revolution this week. The premise is that electricity stops working. The series starts fifteen years later. I'm not going to review the series so much as I am going to quibble about the background.

In the pilot we see the last few minutes of modern civilization. Someone runs into his house and tells his wife to start collecting water. That "it's all going to go off and it isn't going to come back on!" A minute later we see lights going out.

From a hint that is dropped at the end of the pilot, he must have been the cause. The blackout starts at his house and works its way out. We also see airplanes falling from the sky. They don't crash, they spiral down as if they had no momentum when they lost power.

Cut fifteen years and all the messy stuff. A voice-over tells us that a lot of people died and we find out from context that there are now several small pocket states run by militias.

The show was heavily influenced by the Hunger Games down to one of the leads who looks like and has a similar leather jacket to Katness. She also uses a bow (a fancy backwards crossbow).

The last fifteen years have not been all that hard on people. The ones we see all look good. Their clothes are brand new machine-knit. One of them is even overweight.

There are a lot of guns, bows, crossbows, and bladed weapons. This is realistic. Currently there are at least 100 million guns in circulation. Kill off a large portion of the population and you are going to have a lot of guns available for the survivors. Ammunition would be a bigger problem but there are plenty of rounds in existence.

Where are the steam engines? I know that physics changed but they couldn't have changed that much. Thermal expansion and electrical conduction are very different phenomena. I can accept something interfering with electricity but not electricity and thermal expansion. Diesel motors should also work. The physics are similar between guns and diesel - both are oxidation that causes an explosive expansion.

At the end of the episode we see that a hand-held device can override the effect and allow electronics to work. This raises a lot of questions on its own. The person who uses it is in communications with someone else through computers. If the effect is local then how do they communicate? Are radio waves unaffected allowing for long-range wireless communications?

Earlier someone justifies not turning the power back on. He doesn't want to give one of the militias an advantage. Whatever his reasoning, it can't be as bad as he reasoning behind turning the power off in the first place. That would have killed billions of people world-wide.

This show has some of the same people behind it that Lost did and Lost only had a nodding acquaintance with science. Revolution does not look to be any better grounded.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

iPhone 5 Surprises

Wired proclaims: The iPhone 5 Is Completely Amazing and Utterly Boring. A column at ZDNet complained about Apple's missing Reality Distortion Field. Basically, the new iPhone did not have any surprises. Most of the details had already been leaked.

What I have yet to see commented on is the importance of the new screen. It is not only larger, it changes the proportions from 4:3 to 16:9.

One of the big advantages that Apple had was that developers only had to develop for limited specifications and that apps for one platform would still work on others. Yes, the iPad is bigger and the iPhone 4 has a "retina display" but apps written for the earlier iPhone still worked on the newer ones without change.

Apple changed that with the new proportions. Now, older apps everything written to date) will be for the wrong proportions and all new apps will have to support two proportions.

Steve Jobs always insisted that they had hit the proper proportions and that everyone else got it wrong. I guess this proves otherwise.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Wired has ten reasons that there will never be an Aquaman movie. I can shorten that list to one reason - he's lame.

He is so lame that I never really followed him. I know a bit about the character but not much. Most of what I know comes from covers, a few episodes of The Justice League, and the Wired article. The only time I ever bought any issues was when there was a three-issue backup staring Deadman written and drawn by Neil Adams.

The character was a rip-off of the Sub-Mariner. Both were mixed-race surface-dweller/aquatic hybrids who could breath under water. The Sub-Mariner got massive strength and tiny wings on his ankles that allowed him to fly and swim very fast. The Golden-age Aquaman had most of these abilities. The Silver-age Aquaman could talk to sea creatures.

The Silver-age Aquaman was little more than an aquatic version of Green Lantern. Where Green Lantern created objects with his power ring, Aquaman called up exotic sea creatures.

Like many DC heroes, Aquaman had a sidekick - Aqualad.

Eventually Aquaman became king of an undersea kingdom (just like the Sub-Mariner) and married a hot redhead (which was highly unusual for superheroes).

The character has been through multiple reboots and version. At one point he grew long hair and a beard. He lost a hand and has worn various attachments since then. The number of different attempts to make him interesting show how lame the character actually is.

The most recent version I have seen was in the animated Brave and Bold. In that, Aquaman is a self-absorbed king who likes to quote from his own autobiography. This was probably a parody of his actual status as a lame second-rate hero.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The Musketeers

Ovation showed the Four Musketeers last night. This is the second part of a mid-1970s adaptation of the classic novel.

I read the novel sometime in my early teens. I think it was my mother's copy but I'm not sure. It was one of several old books that just sort of appeared on the book shelf of my closet. This edition was split into two books. Both had red covers and I think it took me a minute to figure out which was the first volume. Anyway, I loved it and read it quickly.

This was the first movie adaptation I had seen and it remains the most true to the novel. The writer, George MacDonald Frazier and the director, Richard Lester, were obviously fans of the original material. A few relationships are simplified. For example, in the book the headsman had a complicated relationship with Milady but in the movie he is just a tradesman for hire.

Originally it was filmed as one very long movie but the producers decided to divide it into two movies thus doubling profits (without paying the stars anything additional). The movies divide right at about the same place as the edition I first read.

The movies are amazing for the amount of historic detail. I was admiring the drinking glasses last night. Historic costuming in the 1970s hit a high point. Before then, costumers took great liberties, especially in Technicolor productions. More recent productions tend to simplify the 1620s styles. I once heard someone from the SCA complain that Milady always wore white and that white was associated with widows in the 17th century. Guess what? She inherited her title (Milady D'Winter) from her late husband. The carriages are notable. They are accurate down to the leather straps that were used before springs.

D'Artagnan is an acrobat, jumping from windows and swinging from clotheslines.

William Hobbs, one of the great fight choreographers of all time, gave each of the characters a distinctive style.
D'Artagnan is an acrobat, jumping from windows and swinging from clotheslines (although by the final duel he is tired and out of breath). Athos is a brawler. Porthos tends to lose his sword and fights with whatever is at hand. Aramis is the most technically proficient.

There are a few problems and anachronisms. Apparently they could not find any working wheellock pistols. This is an early flintlock that uses a wheel to strike sparks rather than a flint. Real ones are cocked with a spanner (wrench) which only takes 3/4 turn. The ones in the movie are cranked several times and never fired. Athos leaves the spanner on one while threatening Milady.

The pistols that are used are all 18th century flintlocks. Milady also had a 19th century caplock derringer.

Musketeers carry matchlock muskets. The movie had some built for the production. I used to have one from the movie (UPS lost it). They were based on period illustrations but had some flaws. The barrels were three pieces.

A matchlock is pretty forgiving about how fine the power is that you prime it with but the movie used extremely fine powder. When they fire you can see the priming powder start to burn before the gun goes off. That only happens with very fine powder.

One lasting influence from this movie is the eyepatch. This is not from the novel. Apparently they gave one to Christopher Lee's character to make him more menacing. Since then the three major remakes have all had a similar character with an eyepatch. Often this character also tries to match Lee's deep, menacing voice.

Since the 1970s version, there have been three new releases (plus a couple of versions of the Man in the Iron Mask and a couple of sequels staring Michael York).

In 1993, Disney decided to trash the 17th century. They released their own version of the Three Musketeers (taking place in 1627), Pocahontas (Jamestown, 1607) and the Scarlet Letter (1690s), all with major plot changes.

There was a 2001 version called The Musketeer which featured Kung Fu-style wire work fight scenes.

Last year a steampunk (lacepunk?) version sunk like a deflated airship. It was the most amusing and the closest of the three to the source material.