Category Archives: television
Star Trek, of course–what kind of question is that? Actually, if I’m going to write an essay, I should have more to say….
Star Trek, in its original incarnation (which I will henceforth refer to by the standard fan abbreviation TOS for “The Original Series”) began its prime-time network run on NBC in 1966, at which time I was three years old. Its last season ended in 1969, at which time I was six, and about to begin the first grade. I know Mom and Dad watched it, so I no doubt did, as well. I’ve seen every episode multiple times since, and given that, it’s hard to sort out any genuine memories of the series’s original airing.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, TOS was more or less constantly in syndication somewhere on one channel or another. Every time it was available on any of the channels we got, I always watched it. For reasons that are obscure, certain episodes (e.g. “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Piece of the Action”) were in very heavy rotation, whereas others (such as “Errand of Mercy” and the insanely elusive “The Mark of Gideon”) were rarely if ever aired. I made it my goal to watch every one of the original seventy-nine episodes at least once. I set this goal at the age of around twelve or thirteen, and it took into my mid-twenties to complete it, but complete it I did. In the meantime, my involvement with Star Trek was expanding far beyond watching reruns.
Awhile back, I wrote a series on Mystery Science Theater 3000. My main focus was on what I saw as the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool that one could discern in the series. However, I also talked a little bit about how I came to be a fan of the show, and my thoughts on the two hosts, Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson. The previous seasons have been around long enough that I assume everyone has seen them by now, and I won’t be discussing them, anyway.
As MST3K fans are doubtless aware, in April of 2017, the show, after many years off the air, returned with much fanfare and popular acclaim, as well as with new cast. I watched the new season–the 11th–and enjoyed it. It occurred to me that having written previously on MST3K, I should post something about its newest iteration. However, alas, at that time, I had lapsed from regular blogging. Of late, I have got back to at least periodic writing here at the Chequer-Board. I decided, therefore, that it was high time that I should return to MST3K and to write about my thoughts on the revived show.
Spoiler Alert: There will be mild spoilers for Season 11 below.
I’m a likely and yet improbable fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Having been born at the cusp of the Boomer Generation and Generation X, I’m in the target age group. As a male and a science fiction fan, I’m certainly in the target demographic. Despite this, it took me a long time to become an MST3K fan.
I remember running across it a few times in the early 90’s while looking for something to watch. I couldn’t figure out what it even was at first. After watching a few snatches of it, I originally thought it was something like What’s Up, Tiger Lily? This was an early movie by Woody Allen in which he took a standard-issue Japanese spy drama, and dubbed it in English with totally new dialogue that turned it into a farcical spoof about the search for a secret egg salad recipe. I had seen that as a kid and liked it; and when I first saw MST3K, I thought the voices of Joel and the bots were an overdub as in Tiger Lily.
I posed the question, “Could Joel or Mike on MST3K have been a chick?” (to be flip) over here, and answered, “No.” On the way to justifying that answer I looked at the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool. Now let’s bring it back to pop culture and apply it.
I think the host/captive on MST3K is really just a specific example of an archetype that occurs very commonly in pop culture. Two other exemplars are Pee Wee Herman and Weird Al Yankovic. There are others that spring to mind–for example, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley, and Ringo Starr have embodied aspects of the Trickster/Fool persona in movies and music–but the four I’m considering here are the best examples. They are all about the same age and were at their peaks at approximately the same time. More importantly, they all have embodied the archetypes more fully and consistently, and as a bigger part of their public persona, than the other actors and singers mentioned or for that matter than almost anyone else in pop culture. There are also interesting parallels in their careers that I want to look at.
As one important proviso, I want to point out that when I speak of these worthies, I am speaking of their public personas, not their private lives, unless otherwise specified. Thus, I’m not particularly interested in Paul Reubens or Joel Hodgson, but I’m very much interested in Pee Wee Herman and Joel Robinson, their on-screen characters. Mike Nelson and Weird Al used their real names, but I am equally interested in their personas, not in them as individuals.
Last time we looked at the changes in technology related to television in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The sum total of these changes gave us much more control over what we watched. This in turn had effects on the content itself. How did this happen, exactly? Read on.
The first increases in control were cable TV (more different channels serving more niche interests) and home video (VHS). With the first, the content was still provider-driven–you had more channels, but each one decided what it was going to air. The second gave more control–you could watch a video anywhere, anytime–but the content was even more limited. This followed from the mechanism itself.
A VHS tape is relatively large and clunky. It can record up to six hours of material, but at the speed that gives optimal picture quality and resolution, it can store only two hours. This is the perfect length for most movies, but it is not good for TV series. A VHS tape could hold two hour-long episodes (typical for dramas) or four half-hour episodes (as with sitcoms) at optimal resolution. This means that a typical 22 episode season would require eleven tapes for an hour-long drama, or six for a half-hour sitcom. A single season, therefore, would fill up nearly one entire row of a media center stand. For long-running series, one’s available space would fill up rapidly. Sufficiently avid videophiles could tape episodes themselves, but for most of us it’s not worth the effort.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted in my “Decline and Fall of Television” series. In the fourth installment, I had proposed to look individually at the various “junk genres”, as I called them, but ended up posting specifically only on reality television. Upon rereading the posts and thinking about where I want to go with the series, I think I no longer want to examine the junk genres individually. What I wrote regarding bandwidth, junk genres, and reality TV applies, mutatis mutandis, to the other genres. It’s too depressing and boring to have to think about such things as infomercials, anyway, let alone to write about them. I do have three final reflections with which to complete the DAFOTV series, though. In this one I want to look at the technological changes that laid the groundwork for these changes.
In the third installment of this series, I discussed the radical difference in the programming schedule of a typical broadcast day in the 70’s of my youth as opposed to now. In that vein, I want to look more broadly at the differences in the content thus delivered, and in how we watched it. Some content hasn’t changed that much, of course–sports are sports, news is news, and so on. Now there are networks completely dedicated to sports, news, and so on, but the delivery isn’t that much different: baseball in the summer, football in the fall and winter, and so on. The changes I’m interested in are in television drama and comedy series and general entertainment.