Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Quality TV and Battlestar Galactica

It is a cliche that with the exciting new changes to television - more paths, lower costs, more channels - there will be a leap to higher quality TV. Yet I am doubtful that Hollywood is poised to leap....

By the time I was leaving elementary school several changes had been made to the TV world. Each change had resulted in a journalist writing in the newspaper TV section that a new level of quality broadcasting was imminent. I recall cynically telling my teacher for grades six and seven, Mr. Macintyre, that the latest claim would be as bogus as the others had been. Not that we used the slang "bogus" back then. Nor did we have the words to say, "Entertainment reporters are just blowing smoke." Mr. Macintyre once told us, sheepishly, that studies showed that people who watched cultural shows did not buy as many of the products advertised on commercials. This was before PBS.

(Twilight zone)

It was years earlier, during the days of black and white television, that Rod Serling had addressed the quality issue. In our day Serling is best known for creating The Twilight Zone and then writing some of the early scripts. Of course he also did voice overs; he appeared on camera beginning with the second season. As you know, Serling used the cover of "merely science fiction" to tackle controversial issues such as equal rights for Blacks. In his own day Serling was known for his award-winning teleplays, such as Requiem for a Heavyweight. Back then, for a brief spell, it was possible to give prominence to a screenwriter's name, as we do today for playwrights. Serling said that teleplays could not approach the quality of stage plays as long as the shows depended on sponsors because the sponsors would never risk controversy.

It's been years since I heard, "Lassie is brought to you by Campbell's Soup." I suppose the sponsor obstacle has since fallen, as have other obstacles, until one might think today that only the "ratings" obstacle remains. One would be wrong. As Shakespeare would say, "The fault is not with our stars but within ourselves."

When we undertake to go out to the cinema we undertake to be vulnerable to "the agony and the ecstasy." But at home we play it safe. There, as the cathode tube glows, we may stir the soup on the stove, pet the dog, and glance at the newspaper headlines... all the while determined not be vulnerable. Instead we pretend the action is safely in our living room. If, perchance, a Shakespeare-style show played we would maintain our safety by having a relief valve of commercial breaks and by never, come to think of it, having any hushed thoughtful intermission between acts.

There was a brief time when society allowed television to be creative, a time when society felt permission for change: the 1960's. When recently the A&E channel was advertising, "TV too good for TV" many of the A&E shows, such as The Avengers, were from that time. A friend tells me the channel has since dropped all their A programming to stick with only the E.

(Post 9/11)

Society certainly felt a shock wave pass through on 9/11. After that day, networks broadcast comfort reruns; shows that could be thought frivolous, such as awards shows, were postponed for weeks. Remember? Sales of gentle Enya albums rose. A man said that America had lost her innocence.

Previously a wit had said that America was the only nation that could keep losing her innocence and then regaining it. I suppose now if Americans are to fully regain their innocence it will be only after they feel fully safe that conventional "civil war" terrorists, such as the British IRA, no longer share the planet with newfangled "global reach" ones, such as the Pakistani Muslims who cross international borders into India.

A show that reflects post 9/11 is Battlestar Galactica. It's so different... I am reminded of one time years ago, during a docudrama about Albert Speer, when I read aloud a full screen of text, reading it to the kitchen worker on the couch next to me. I had guessed the text would swiftly vanish. It did. She said, "Thank you, Sean." The incident has stayed with me not just because she had no ego problems with being read to (unlike the males I knew then) but because I have never since seen a TV show that so overestimated the reading speed of the average American. Not until now.


The first thing I noticed about Battlestar Galactica was that the orienting text on the screen, such as "City of Caprica" was small and did not linger. The next thing I noticed was that acronyms, such as "an FTL ship," were used in dialogue without being "spelled out" in full or explained. Would a senior citizen I knew, who happily watched Star Trek, "get" such acronyms? For folks like her, remember, the "teleportation chamber" was simplified into a "transporter room." Obviously the producer of Galactica, Ronald Moore, hasn't marketed to the lowest common denominator. Moore has risked letting the audience stretch intellectually... and emotionally.

The average viewer, while stirring his soup, probably couldn't bear a show where an Israeli prime minister, for the sake of peace, allows a child he has met to die by an imminent Hezbollah rocket attack. Yet on Galactica the schoolteacher/Madam President must consider doing such a thing. It's awfully tense... but great drama. Then the battlestar commander, Adama, must consider whether to blast a "possibly" hi-jacked passenger liner heading for headquarters. And Adama's sensitive son, Lee, is the one with his finger on the trigger.

I don't see a European-style "lack of innocence" in Battlestar Galactica. No, I see an ennobling determination to face reality. I don't think the rest of bogus TV land will ever aspire to such dramatic quality.

Sean Crawford

still hearing a lady pilot's outraged cry, "We are at war!"

2006-2008 Calgary
Footnote: At a college  level Jeopardy show, they failed this $800 question: (link)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Radio Silence

I was at a retreat this weekend. I couldn't even begin to summarize any of the seminars, I can only write of Stacey Li's surprise...

...It was time to celebrate "the miracle and magic of our spirit." Time for us at our weekly public speaking club, Miracles, to pool our money and take off for a weekend retreat. Instead of our usual little speeches we would have ample time to put on seminars and workshops for each other. We could unleash our inner teacher... Going up the open Queen Elizabeth II highway past cattle and silos, then along a couple of range roads past forests and fields, we at last arrived at a place formerly called River Island, now called Talking Trees.

We car pooled. No trunk space, this time, for bringing the karaoke machine. People's gear included a Tibetan singing bowl, chimes, yoga mats and meditation CDs. For electricity there was a generator by night and solar panels by day. No running water in the cabins. No showers. Nice outhouses...We had a wonderful time.

Next door, in "big sky" Montana, they only introduced highway speed limits about ten years ago. Here on the great plains we like to race along. I have heard that in big cities you may drive for a hour in slow crowded traffic. Out here we wizz north at 110 kilometers per hour... for an hour and half to get to our retreat on the Red Deer river.

Stacey Li came along Saturday morning, driving alone. Here is the thing: She used to live in Victoria near someone famous, Ekhart Tolle. He had advised her to enjoy the driving without having other things to distract her... (My friend John Duban said that some people remove themselves with a wall of sound.) ...So Stacey tried driving for a little while under radio silence. No ipod. No CDs. Nothing but her gently humming engine and tires. In fact, to her surprise, she ended up driving the entire way there without electronic noise. And she loved it! She told us she "noticed so much more." She felt more connected, more mindful of the farms and fields and undulating land. For her the retreat started at the city limits.

I believed her. Partly because we had car pooled up there without the stereo on. And mostly because I too have felt serenity. Here in the city I usually arrive home with my radio on normal/loud. But as I park I dial the volume way down; if the power switch is separate from volume I gladly kill it. Next morning, when I fire up the ignition, I resist the crutch of automatically reaching for that power switch. With my old rattletrap car I had desperately needed a daily radio silence in order to stay acquainted with my car's many noises.

These days I need daily silence to stay acquainted with... something deep. As John might say, "In the silence is the All." Many times I'd commute almost to work before wondering, "So, what's the weather for today—hey, I've had the radio off all this time." So I'd flick on the radio but then I'd arrive at work before the forecast could come on. To me this sudden "hey—" was queer but if I tried to share my amusement then I'd see furrowed brows. It bothered people.

So I guess most folks are driving with crutches... while people like Stacey have found freedom.

Sean Crawford

Southern Alberta,

Spring 2008

~I wouldn't do justice, in this short essay, if I tried to explain the seminars. Trying to summarize a good seminar is as silly as trying to condense a classic essay or stage play. ...Hearing how people in cyber space believe in having short attention spans just makes me hiss like Gollum!...

~Princeton Lau, a computer guy, e-mails me that he too drives without the radio on, both in the city and on the highway up to Edmonton; he thanked me for putting it in words.

~If I feel hollow after I turn off the radio (or after any activity) then I know my true motivation had not been music but something else, probably avoidance.

~After talking to a couple of people I think I should say that in my high school a girl and I were each living alone. We each flipped on the radio as soon as we entered our empty abode. Had we been drivers then of course we would have used our car radio a lot.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Internet, Sans Memories

There was an old lady,
Lived under a hill,
And if she’s not dead,
She lives there still!
Junior Classics

Back in the good old days, when I was a child, my life was improved: Someone wrote a first person nonfiction article, about a man with a diver’s helmet, published in the Junior Classics Shelf of Books. The “shelf” held ten volumes; I think they were published just after the war, as one of the stories was about a B-17 limping home. (Oh, those brave men … oh, those dear boys) One day, middle-aged and passing through the rocky mountain town of Golden, I found a few of those volumes. I picked one up and glanced at that old childhood article about exploring the silent world, and I realized: “Hey, I know this name!” It was James Ramsey Ullman (1907-1971).

My grade five teacher, Mr. Thompson, read to us Ullman’s story about a young alpine guide, Banner in the Sky. Years later, it was during my Outward Bound course that I heard Ullman’s Americans on Everest read aloud in the dusk, across a campfire. It’s a small world: in another time zone, in another decade, that reader was to be my college outdoor pursuits teacher, Alan Derbyshire. Across the flames Alan read to us of the summit team being benighted, sitting through subzero temperatures, waiting for the sun. (They lived) Both of those readings have stayed with me, warming my heart, but neither has changed my life as did as Ullman’s account of exploring under the sea.

According to my childish erroneous memory… before I was born, before the invention of self contained underwater breathing apparatus, Ullman entrusted his life to the principle of the diving bell: air will compress upward, and finally become too dense to allow the water to go any higher. (I guess every boy has tried putting Kleenex in a glass upside down in the water) But instead of being within a diving bell, Ullman had just a helmet. No watertight canvass diver’s suit, just a helmet. The water came near his chin. I remember he found how fish would swim closer if, instead of standing stiff like a man, he would sway with the currents as the seaweed did. Back in those days, of course, there was no such thing as a store-bought underwater camera. How was he to retain images of that amazing world beneath the sea? Easy: He would turn his head away, and if he could not picture the scene, he would turn back his head and try again. This trick has improved my life.

To this day I have retained “memories,” what the French call “souvenirs,” of treasured moments. Another version of Ullman’s trick, for works of nonfiction, is to look away from a page and try to imagine how I would explain it…

Down the years I watched as vacuum tubes gave way to transistors, which in turn gave way to solid state. Computer programmers gave way to software developers. And now I have high speed Internet, in a new plastic world, far away from solid diving bells and steel propeller bombers, a world where supposedly we have a better chance to avoid war, if only because, with the Internet, we can acquire more wisdom from having more information. A better chance for peace, eh? I remain skeptical.

Peace? Can we hope to be wiser than our grandparents, who tried and failed? I’m tired of people surfing with their mouse, click, click, click, skipping like stones over the surface, as if the world beneath the pages is forever silent to them. Knowledge won’t become wisdom if you won’t look deeper, won’t look up from the page to reflect.

Do clickers have any memory? Any attention span? I just don't know… I think if they turn their heads away then, after a little while, they don’t even know what they just clicked on. What did you learn today? In the morning it's "click click click;" in the evening it's "I don't know." Regretfully, I fear that someday, in my golden years, the only “classic” pages on the web from back in 2011 will be from pages that have been scanned in from real paper.

One of my favorite blog-essayists is a software developer named Stevey. In one of the last pieces he ever did, in July of 2010, he mentions Reddit, a well-known geek site where pages are voted on to have rankings. Perhaps he was being ironic in Blogger Finger when he wrote:
“Another perspective I’ve gained is that I now actually agree with everyone who complained that my blog posts were too long. Reddit has ruined my attention span for online material. There seems to be no such thing as too frequent, but there’s definitely such thing as too long. So I’ll be better about that.”
… I suppose it’s a good thing, overall, that Stevey is conscious of what’s happened to him.

Less conscious are those people like me, from the post-war generation, unaware why we find it hard to read the classic novels our parents liked. According to best selling novelist Rita Mae Brown, people of the TV generation keep expecting a change every so often, just as they would expect to pause for commercial breaks.

I can relate, because when I was in college I took a “creative movement” class. Although our class offered the same credits as any other class, we needed more classroom hours per week. We were serious. However, we still lacked the time to choreograph pieces of any length. And so for several years afterwards, whenever I saw “real dances” on stage I kept expecting/wanting them to end… Admittedly, part of my problem with seeing long dances was my old inability to digest sweet beauty, a problem I would also have when reading the classics… Thank God the performing arts developed my attention span, for my problem with taking in beauty would have been unsolvable without sustained attention.

As for my everyday reading tastes, after finishing a best-selling volume of nonfiction, I like to turn my head away for six months. Then look again. Besides being re-entertained, the main benefit is to allow a few “take away” lessons to truly sink in; the lesser benefit is to have enough space for a critical, calm look at a book the public is so excited about…

For me, a way to understand Internet surfers is to picture a ship, after a three-hour tour, washed aground on an uncharted desert isle. Remember? The ship’s name, Minnow, was a satire, according to wikipedia. Minnow was the television executive who deplored how TV was a “vast wasteland.” (The fault, dear Gilligan, is not within our executives but within ourselves)

It’s nice to be able to look at wikipedia, nice to have access to the internet, but if I “channel flip” through web sites too fast, if I won’t read anything longer than a few hundred words, and, most importantly, if I won’t pause to reflect... then in the end I will be just another television zombie, sans brains; in the end, sans memories, I will have created my own Internet wasteland.

I refuse to take that easy way out. Back in my childhood I read works by people who met the challenges of mountains, deep seas and difficult books. I hope I can learn, someday, both to read, and to write, as well as they did.

Sean Crawford
Praying for peace
August, 2011


~My childish memory is weak on science, (that helmet) and Ullman may have writ the piece before or after.

~Out of principle I no longer do links but I have made one for Stevey. He has two essay sites and it would be a pity if a reader's web search found only his most recent site.

~No longer do links? In the working world, of course, I save people precious seconds, such as by leaving my telephone number in a message to a person who already has my phone number on his Rolodex. But at the same time, in the real world, I don't see people as being quite so busy.
As explained in previous essays, (Most recently in March, 2011, Done and Learned) making links for volunteers who are reading for their leisure, and not for their business, can all too easily become casting pearls before swine.  

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Readers Enjoy Battlestar Galactica

One of the nice things about the dark show Battlestar Galactica (BSG) is that it lessens my loneliness. In a time when most people see the world through a lens of television instead of books, the makers of BSG are surely like me: avid readers. How rare for Hollywood. New York Times best-selling author Rita Mae Brown, another avid reader, reports her frustration at "creative" Hollywood meetings. Everyone makes their references... in terms of other movies! They read not books nor stage plays, neither do they know the world.

Strange—you would think that anyone responsible for millions of dollars would take the time to get some book learning—perhaps they wish to fit in with rich blond hotel-owning peers.

Writer Donald Hamilton, in his grim Matt Helm spy series, spoke for a lot of us: Helm mostly works on American soil.  Like me, Helm has days of feeling alienated and frustrated. An experienced war veteran, Helm finds himself saddled with horrified bungling young partners, always liberals, bungling because their philosophies and actions come from watching TV. Furthermore, Helm's boss, one of the most dangerous men in the world, has a Winston Churchill-like distaste for imprecision or destruction of the English language. Me too. (A courtroom observer may be uninterested; the judge must be disinterested.) As with BSG, I found the Helm series lessened my sense of isolation: Like Helm, I too sometimes wonder what planet liberals come from. I guess liberals spend fewer man-hours reading than they do watching TV.

Helm grew up on a practical ranch; I grew up far from any boob tube city folk. Our shack had a chimney (for coal and wood) but no TV antenna. When Dad built his tar-shingled house over in the next field, using his veteran's allowance, he made sure of one thing: every blessed room had a stout overhead light. He valued reading. I never had to frown and try to keep my book in the light of a lampshade; I never had to drag a table lamp over until my elbow threatened ruin. Now that I'm grown up enough to "waste" money on American hotels I find they are just like American living rooms: designed to encourage TV over reading.

(Fiat lux)

Yesterday a Filipino told me that, like me, she was really struck by the absence of light over here. Back home even cheap hotels have overhead light. My only answer for her was that a Canadian lady once told me that being forced to use lamps "felt elegant." Go figure.

I grew up with a jumbled basement, sans attic. A book lay face up called D-Day 6th of June 1944. A date I can't forget. (Dad landed on the 16th.) Brochures on civil defense lay in a cupboard. I learned that one should put furniture against the walls and windows, and that basement cement would block rays better than a wooden wall. Of course I read novels about atomic attack, such as a Reader's Digest condensed 1954 book Tomorrow! by Philip Wylie, a tale of two towns and their volunteer civil defense preparations. I read stories of life among the ruins. To this day I can't look at a city real estate map, with concentric circles showing the distance to downtown, without thinking of radii of destruction and ground zero.

One year, as an adult in the 1980s, I lived in a boarding house with two young men. They watched a television special movie, The Day After. The men were amazed, simply amazed, to see that atomic war was that bad. I almost bared my canines to snarl, "Where were you in sixty-two?" But I didn't. Those young men had never traveled to '62 or anywhere else. Not via books. Only TV was real.

Years later various men and women who saw Saving Private Ryan told me they had no idea, none, that war was so bad. Again I manfully restrained myself. 'Think positive,' I told myself; 'bless the innocent civilians,' I said. After all, on the idiot box, war was small elite teams with minimal casualties. Real cool. Maybe someone would be wounded in the right shoulder. My father knew better. He knew war was not cool. Not like on Hollywood.

In my big brother's room I once found a signet edition of Robert Heinlein's Revolt in 2100. (Recently I bought that same yellowing edition just for the cover art.) In the story, published in 1948, the U.S. is under a theocracy. The future regime varies from historical oppressions only in the details. Unlike sharia law, all the stonings are impromptu, ...instead of Taliban patroling the sidewalk to whip transgressors, there are secret police. The hero joins the underground. Soon he is considered for work as an assassin, but unfortunately, psyco-aptitude tests are clear: He has an even chance of being caught on his first time out. The real assassins have a kill ratio of "three point seven accomplished missions" before being stopped. They carry cyanide... Is this too grim?

A few years later I read that for tank destroyers in WWII the kill ratio was... three panzers before being killed themselves. One of my fellow writers was with the TD's. He received four bronze stars. I'm grateful he made it back. These sorts of statistics never make it to Hollywood. Non-democracies make life grim for all of us, but at least I can try to learn about them. Like agent Matt Helm I try to be facing life, by reading books, and not always be escaping into television.

(Bronze stars)

And so I am grateful for a little line in Battlestar Galactica. Picture the colonies's best athletes: They had been training in remote hills when the Cylons killed everybody else. So the players begin armed resistance. Eventualy they are found by a lady pilot from the Galactica. A famous team captain gives the pilot his report. I was touched: it turns out the vast majority of athletes they started out with are dead... For Hollywood, that is a rare moment of reality. But BSG has many such moments.

On the first episode of BSG I thought of Matt Helm: I saw how the old executive officer, a war veteran, is hated by the innocent young training crew. Then war—an attack. Suddenly the Galactica is losing air—the old XO slams the airtight door and dogs it shut: trapping and killing the crew on the other side. Now the horrified people really hate him! I stood up, "Yes!" And all this being shown not in a big tragic movie but in a mere TV show.

The makers of BSG read enough to know things. They know that a freedom loving pro-abortionist can change her mind when the world changes... They understand that legalities matter. They know, surely from reading, that a pilot officer carries a side arm merely because it fits in the cockpit; an army officer carries a dinky little pistol for a different reason. Near the end of season three, gentle old Adama figuratively puts his pistol to the head of a young woman beloved to him, and to we viewers, and says, his tears held back, that he will kill her if that is what it takes to ensure that all future orders, no matter how unwanted, will always be instantly carried out... This echoes a young officer in the episode Fragged, and seasoned officers on the Battlestar Pegasus. It ain't pretty, but then again, truth does have a special beauty. War is not like TV...

(Eternal present)

I suppose "watching TV and never reading" is the secret to being an irresponsible liberal: staying in a bubble of now-time. Never weaving together a personal sense of world history. Focusing on a TV-like eternal present without consequences .... And if such a person gives loud narrow-eyed opinions then conservative people holding library cards will back away and be silent; then he can tell himself that smart conservatives don't matter, don't count, and shouldn't even be around us liberals...

A certain BSG episode about civilian resistance "is almost unwatchable" said a friend. I agreed. I am reminded of that French-made documentary that exposed French WWII resistance, The Sorrow and the Pity. By interviewing witnesses it achieved great power, going unseen in France for ten years although you could watch it here. I saw it only once, with all my brothers, on a black and white TV with rabbit ears. The documentary, probably unseen by lovers of TV daytime soap operas, was my first exposure to irony, or counterpoint, or whatever you call it, because at the end of that horrible show a man appears on camera to say he will sing a happy song. He ends the show singing!...

Today I'm amazed, and grateful, that BSG has tackled such subjects as the sorrow of resistance and the pity of human suicide bombers. The producers and writers are not afraid to read, not afraid to tell.

As one of the older seasoned actors, Edward James Olmos, said, "You will never see another program like this again in your lifetime."

Sean Crawford
wishing for someone to say,
"Let me tell you about this book I'm reading!"

~ Commander Adama is no Captain Kirk: at the start of the mini-series he is being retired because he is not good enough to make admiral; his old XO is not good enough to make captain.

~Ms Brown's harsh observations of Hollywood are in her book Starting From Scratch: A Different kind of Writer's Manual.

~A good explaination of "infotainment" is in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Battlestar Galactica is Post 9/11

Battlestar Galactica (BSG) is "The best show on television" says Newsday, while the Globe and Mail reports that what BSG does is tackle current issues such as 9/11. It is, it does. What strikes me is how different the show is from The Original Series (TOS) of the late 1970s, post Vietnam. If TV reflects society, then society sure has changed. We can no longer turn away from life.

The old show was happy and shiny, even "campy." The new is as dark as night with a lot of the two words that win wars: "Yes, Sir." In BSG people take their situation very seriously: "The war is over. We lost."

Nobody said that on the post Vietnam show. For nobody back then was truly saying, "We lost." No introspection. Even idealists would say in their hearts "the army" lost. The army merely called the war a "conflict." The schoolteacher's ROM resource base, ERIC, did not add "Vietnam war" until 1983. The viewers who watched longhaired casual people on a Battlestar were viewers turning away from responsibility, away from war, religion and politics.

Religion? The viewers of TOS sang, "Imagine there's no heaven." In BSG both the humans and the Cylon robots have a religion. After the Cylon sneak attack the surviving humans hold a church service, not a funeral, with bodies laid out in rows front. Here the survivors, atheists and devout alike, take great comfort ...I have read that after 9/11 the "latte democrats" struggled over people needing a religious ceremony.

Politics? The very word gave viewers of TOS a "yuck" face. They imagined a community life devoid of "politics." They knew who Nixon was but not who their own alderman or senator was. They couldn't imagine that in the 21st Century there would be states where people don't just talk and filibuster. No, they swing heavy clubs and they form militias. In BSG there is a clear sense that a healthy society requires a Constitution and legalities to hold back the chaos that results when groups oppose the community with their own agenda.

The viewers of TOS seemed to lack this sense. They couldn't think that extremist combatants, opposed to politics, could launch giant rockets and cross-border attacks without civilian permission. (Hezbollah in Lebanon)

Civilians in TOS were mere background, "a rag tag fleet." In BSG a schoolteacher is sworn in as president and commander-in-chief. While staying with the civil fleet she doesn't blindly oppose her soldiers for being "establishment" and "baby killers." Not like people in the 1970s. I think of her as a one-person board of directors: being there to cooperate and guide as well as lead. In a democracy, so do we all.

War? Societies change; a squadron leader changes. At first he ends his briefing to Galactica pilots by saying, "Be careful out there." Then, in private, his best friend gives him hell. "'Be careful?' You're supposed to say, 'good hunting!'...We are at war!"

Soon after 9/11 I realized we could not turn back the clock. But I never imagined a show like Battlestar Galactica ...

Sean Crawford
August 2011
~I archived two more essays in August on BSG, also see October and January 2012.
~Citizenship After 9/11 was posted in September 2012.