A visit to Southfork Ranch

I’ve been visiting a lot of fictional places lately.

Last week, I was in Cleveland, where I visited Ralphie’s house from A Christmas Story. This week, I was in Dallas… and my destination was one I always wanted to visit.

Southfork Ranch.

Yes, the home of the Ewings, the oil-barons of the TV show Dallas. I had watched the show when I was younger, rewatched it with my wife… and I was a fan. Not as big a fan as Twin Peaks or Star Trek, mind you… but I was a fan nonetheless.

I even had the opportunity to meet Larry Hagman, JR himself,  a few years ago. His autographed photo hangs proudly in my man cave along with an autograph of Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie).

Well, the visit to Southfork was a must-do, when I realized I had some extra time to kill this week (I’m in Dallas on business). I spent a couple of hours exploring the Dallas museum, the gift shops, the grounds, and (of course) the house. I was amused by the “delta” between the real world and the show (the producers built sets that don’t really “fit” into the floor plan of the actual Southfork home) and I was impressed by the owner’s attempt to make the house as “authentic” as possible.

The old (and new) show shots exteriors at Southfork, and the new show has taken advantage of the grounds a lot more than the original (they even shot the Mexican hotel room that JR dies in IN Southfork, so JR technically ‘died at home’).

Here’s copious amounts of photos taken as I was geeking out over the whole thing. With all these visits to fake/real locations recently, my perspective on things are getting a little blurred…

 

How to fix Star Trek’s biggest problems

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the direction the latest Star Trek film, Into Darkness took the franchise. I won’t rehash my opinions here so, in summary: “big explosions plus weak characters and story” is not what I watch Star Trek for. I watch and enjoy good Trek because it’s about ideas, the human condition… and it’s about hope.

I’m also very aware that criticism is easy, and creating is hard. I admire the effort that went into the new film, and I can see it was considerable – I just don’t admire the results. But I also think that Star Trek as a franchise has some big problems. Many of the die-hard fans are unhappy and disliked the film. It appears that Into Darkness didn’t bring many new fans to the series, unlike the preceding film. And Star Trek’s respectable but not amazing box office may indicate that the public isn’t buying into the new direction.

So, in the spirit of optimism and in a (very small) attempt to suggest a new course for the franchise, here are my ideas on how to fix Trek’s biggest problems.

Tease the past, don’t revisit it

Enough with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise. Yes, I’m serious… it’s over. Stop it. If you continue to retell episodes of a nearly 50 year old TV show people will (perhaps rightly) view it as a rehash and many will reject it wholesale. Let’s be honest… do we really NEED more stories with these characters? We have had three live-action seasons, one animated season, nine movies, hundreds of novels… to quote a very popular song,  “Let it go.”

Now, I’m not saying that the right person can’t do an AMAZING new story with these characters… I’m questioning if there’s a good reason to do so creatively. And perception is a big issue, too. If you run Star Trek, you want to increase your audience with every new outing… that’s capitalism. More customers = more money. You can’t keep selling the same product to the same customers, and that’s the risk if you stay with the classic crew.

Keep the core of what makes Trek good and leap forward, with a new cast and crew. Have sly references to the past, but don’t wallow in it. Basically, do the same thing the new Doctor Who has done – tip your hat at what has come before, but don’t be limited by it. Another good example of this idea, applied, was Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Galactica remake. They used concepts and the basic premise from the original but didn’t rehash what had gone before. Instead they created new characters, new situations, and went to places the original never dared go.

Too bad we couldn’t get the guy behind the new Galactica to consider coming back to Trek…

Have real alien aliens

I’m tired of seeing aliens who have ridges on their foreheads and body paint. As much as I dislike the movie Avatar, what that did was tell us a story about an alien world where the environment was ACTUALLY ALIEN. Yes, a huge amount of CGI would be needed, but if you are going to make Trek new again, then you need to move away from the look and limitations of a TV show makeup budget. Have alien cultures, alien bodies, and alien minds. Create new cool races that captures the viewers imagination. Don’t just add piercings and think it’s “edgy.”

Bring back the moral issues, but with subtlety

Good Trek always provoked viewers, making them consider the right or wrong about particular issues. Religion, class structures, terrorism, genocide, what it meant to be human… Have moral issues be part of the fabric of Trek, just don’t be heavy handed about it. Viewers don’t want to be preached to, and if you do that you’ll turn off viewers. It’s a fine balance, and one that Trek hasn’t always made… But it’s still worth striving for.

Kill the prime directive 

Imagine a Star Trek universe where crews actively interfered with other cultures, trying to enforce their worldview on alien worlds. Again, sounds like the original Star Trek, right? Well, the idea of the Prime Directive (invented in the original series, but beat to death in subsequent shows) kills that opportunity for drama and prevents good stories from being told. Kirk ignored it, and the creators of new Star Trek should ignore it to.

You can even have stories about how the Federation USED to have the Prime Directive, and then Something Happened to make them abandon it. An “interventionist” Starfleet? Like I said, it opens up opportunities for some interesting stories.

Be bold (and be on cable)

Have gay characters on the show, portray evil in stark terms, show non-traditional families – Star Trek can and should explore more of that “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” It’s easy to be risk-averse, but that way results in weak characters and melodrama. Sometimes, telling a good story means some risk-taking.

We have seen some incredibly bold storytelling on shows like True Detective and Breaking Bad – Do some of that. Break new ground and expand the universe of Star Trek in new ways. Example: Discuss how the economy works in the future. Is it a true utopia or is there an underclass we have never seen before? Shake up expectations and conventions.

Telling quality stories in bold new ways will bring new viewers to Trek. That probably means that any new Star Trek should be on cable. You don’t have to have monster ratings to be a successful cable show, and you are able to have more creative freedom, the type of freedom that makes for great drama and exciting television.

Stop trying to be sexy

Stop having women be sex objects – have them be smart beautiful women. They don’t have to be in charge of the ship, they just have to be good well-rounded characters. As progressive Trek has been over the years, so many of the female characters were thin and mainly there for set decorating. Change that, and stop trying to titilate the audience. Just tell good stories, and let the characters play their part.

Hire futurists and technologists

Reimagine the future of Star Trek. Look at where technology trends are going and extrapolate them. Wearable computers, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics… Don’t be limited by the past (somewhat archaic) views of the future that has come in previous Trek. Show us a really cool new future.

Hire SF and fantasy writers

The original Star Trek series hired a LOT of SF and fantasy writers. It should do that again. Imagine a Neil Gaimen or Neal Stephenson writing scripts for a new Trek series. Or someone like Stephen King. Heck, just hire John Scalzi or a half-season run.

No offense to the current writers of Trek, but I think that Trek needs some new ideas, and SF authors are chock full of them.

Bring back wonder and hope

Finally, Star Trek needs to make us widen our eyes in wonder. Show us amazing things, truly alien worlds and new civilizations. The success of Avatar shows just how big a movie can be if it presents such a world to viewers. Don’t just showcase huge vistas of destruction – present us with beauty and awe. Make us want to GO THERE – which is what makes Star Trek so important. It has inspired generations of viewers to become scientists, engineers and astronauts… Because Trek showed a future where we didn’t destroy ourselves, where we reached out and started exploring the dark unknown.

Trek should continue to inspire the next generation. And it can do it by seeking out new frontiers, tell new stories… and boldly go where Trek has never gone before.

That way lies the future.

How will Mad Men end?

I’m an obsessive Mad Man fan. I’ve been there from the beginning and very quickly fell in love with the world and the characters Matthew Weiner (and company) has so brilliantly brought to life. In less than a month, we will see the beginning of the end for Mad Men, as AMC starts broadcasting the last season (unfortunately split over two years). What will happen to Don Draper, as well as Peggy, Joan, Roger, and the rest of the cast of characters? The old Chinese proverb “May you live in interesting times” comes to mind as I consider where the show has been ad is heading… and I have a few theories on the latter. Read on…

California bound

The first video clip promoting the new season has Don walking out of an airplane. Here it is:

Where is he going? What is he doing? I think he’s landing in – and moving to – California (a subplot last year dwelt with agencies heading West). After all, he doesn’t have a job at SCDP any more. My theory is that he’s looking to start a new agency. With him in charge. Probably called (simply enough) “Draper.” He’ll need money to do it, so he’ll call on some contacts… Roger, probably, as well as potentially other surprises from his past.

If he does get the backing, who will staff this agency? My theory is he’ll get the band back together… mostly the women. He’ll need Peggy to be his creative director, partially because he can read the tea leaves and sees how big the feminist movement is becoming, but mostly because… well, he needs her. She’s a huge part of his life, and I think he may finally understand that now. And he’ll recruit Joan for similar reasons (I think soon learn that she’ll have ample reasons to leave New York and start fresh in the new season). Other members, like Pete Campbell, may come along for the ride as well… Because Don is a very charismatic man who can sell ice to Eskimos.

If I’m right then, unfortunately, many of the characters we have grown to love will stay with SCDP… and so many of them will not be on the show in its final season. Don’t think that Weiner wouldn’t write off major characters, because he’s done it before. And changing the location to California also has some cost-savings measures – and cutting the number of cast members is a major one. And AMC has a history of aggressive cost-cutting on their shows…

Nixon, Vietnam and the decline of male power

When will the new series take place? I’m thinking it will be 1970 to 1974. The show HAS to end around or just after the events of Watergate, because that ground is too fertile to ignore. That the show will highlight the debate over the Vietnam war is a given if this is the case as well. I can see Nixon’s resignation being a big story point that could be a major part of the show’s end game. His resignation will reflect how the power of men – men like Don Draper – have their limits, and may have had their day.

The show has always had a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) subtext around how men and women’s roles are changing… in the beginning of the series men worked, and women took care of the house and the kids. By 1970 to 1972 that will be upended by the societal change brought by the Age of Aquarius. Peggy will bring a very loud voice to this. If we don’t see her burning her bra before the series is over, I’ll be surprised.

In fact I’m almost 100% certain that one of the last scenes that we will ever see will be Peggy quitting Draper’s agency, because she will finally reach the point that she realizes that she doesn’t need Don… or any man, for that matter. In a way, I think we will look back and see Mad Men as being as much about Peggy’s journey as it was about Don’s. And, speaking of Don’s journey…

The falling man (AKA Don Draper)

Here’s my big theory: I think that Matthew Weiner is take the “Paradise Lost” route with Don, and the “falling man” in the credits will be revealed to us to be Draper – as Lucifer. No, he’s not going to LITERALLY fall from a skyscraper… he fell from Heaven, to rule in Hell (AKA California). He will be In Charge, which is where he has wanted to be all along… but in the end, that quest for power will leave him empty inside. He will forever be Don Draper… a hollow man who never ever really existed. Empty power, and no one to share it with.

In many ways, I see Don’s journey being very similar to Michael Corleone… When we left Michael at the end of The Godfather, Part II he was dead inside because he gave up everything to save everything. Don will end the same way, smoking a cigarette in an empty room, sitting on his couch with dead eyes and a vacant soul.

And the camera backs away and we see him, in profile, from behind… An image we’ve seen before.

Could I be wrong? Could it have a happy ending? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Mad Men is about manipulation and broken people, and one key subtext is about how we buy moments, things and people to try and make us less broken. There’s no way that it will end with “and they all lived happily ever after.”

The worse advice I’ve ever heard about Doctor Who

“Watch it from the beginning.”

That’s the recommendation that I heard from a Who fan (or “Whovian”, as some of them prefer) who was talking to someone who was interested in the show but had never seen an episode.

And it’s not like the advice was to start with the first episode of “nuWho”, the Christopher Eccleston episode “Rose”… No, it was to go back to the VERY FIRST EPISODE, “An Unearthly Child” and watch DECADES worth of episodes.

Sorry… but no. Horrible idea.

Now some “old school” fans may be reading this and going, “Hey, what’s your problem with ‘classic’ Who?” That’s not my problem with the recommendation. My issue is one of quantity, not quality.

If you want to introduce someone to a fifty-year old show, do NOT insist in the “completist” perspective. That is a LOT of time to invest in ANYTHING. If you were going to recommend learning something – like how to play an instrument, or pilot an airplane – that’s something you want to invest a lot of time in.

Not in watching a TV show. ANY TV show – even one as good as Doctor Who.

The better advice would be to recommend key “gateway” episodes for someone to watch, and this should include episodes from both classic and new Who. Use the rule of three – maybe two modern and one classic. And then, if they like it, recommend they watch an first series of one Doctor… The one you like.

And for God’s sake, don’t start them with Trial of a Time Lord.

Nostalgia is a tender trap

I’m a pop culture whore. There’s so much that our industrial entertainment complex has come up with that I enjoy – Star Trek, Doctor Who, Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Prisoner, Breaking Bad… dozens and dozens of great shows and films that have brought me joy over the years (heck, I even wrote a book about one of them).

I have revisited quite a few of my favorites over the years, rewatching films and TV episodes many times. Too many times, actually. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched the original Star Wars, as well as Psycho, Star Trek II, and several other of my favorite films. And don’t get me started on the time I’ve spent revisiting TV episodes – the mind reels. I’ve probably watched the Star Trek episode Spock’s Brain more times than I’ve dined with my mother and father-in-law.

I’m not proud of that fact.

Well, I’ve made a decision. Maybe it’s driven by the stark acknowledgement that I probably have less days ahead of me than the ones I’ve lived. Or maybe it’s because I’ve become fatigued from all the (self-imposed) nostalgia.

I’m done revisiting the past.

That’s it. No more rewatches. My favorite shows and movies will remain a happy memory. I loved Homicide: Life on the Streets when it came out twenty years ago – but after watching those dozens of episodes, many times more than once, I have no interest in revisiting it. Same for Breaking Bad, which just finished its run, or Mad Men, which is getting close to its end. Same for the work of Spielberg, and Welles, and Hitchcock. And so many more.

Instead of revisiting old favorites I’m instead seeking out new films, shows and content to delight and excite me. And it doesn’t even have to be “new” – just new to me (hence my Neglected Cinema series, though there’s some rewatches in there – so I can’t quit cold turkey).

Life’s too short to watch the same episode of Star Trek ten times.

As a content consumer, I am walking away from revisiting the past as much as possible, because, in addition to the reasons I stated above, I’ve learned that nostalgia is a tender trap – it makes you blind to the great undiscovered things that are staring you straight in the face. While I’m not quite as down on nostalgia as this author is, I can see his point.

 

And nostalgia can trap the creators of content as well as the consumers of it.

There was a huge amount of coverage and excitement this past month at the rumor that Twin Peaks, one of my favorite shows, was returning in one form or another. As much as I’d love to see new Peaks, I also want something ELSE from the great creative minds of David Lynch and Mark Frost. And that’s exactly what’s happening – David has his experimental albums and art, and Mark has his great new Paladin Prophesy book series.

Mark and David, I know there’s some level of desire to “scratch that itch” and revisit that world… don’t. Move on, move forward. It’s over. Let it be. Enjoy it. Celebrate it. Look back with fondness, but the past is the past.

Be grateful for it, but don’t follow the old muses. Listen to the new ones.

 

So, that’s my belated new years resolution, and one I think all consumers of pop culture would commit to. Experience new things. Walk away from the remix culture. Seek out new cool content. Break out of your comfort zone.

Enjoy yourself.