Category Archives: pop culture
This is the very much belated first installment in my series on sequels and repetition in pop culture. In the brief essay on the index page for this series, I said:
My basic thesis, which I’ll be examining in posts to come is this: Repetition, in the form of series, serials, remakes, and quotation of various tropes is at one and the same time the most characteristic feature of modern pop culture (all genres) and also the sign of its decadence and creative decline.
In order to do that, I’ll need to lay a bit of background, starting with this post.
In his classic book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton makes this interesting observation:
The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.
The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.
This rings true. As humans, we love repetition. As Chesterton notes, “Do it again!” is indeed the refrain, the battle cry of the young child. We adults, having “sinned and grown old”, are not nearly as capable of infinite repetition without being wearied. Still, even adults like things that are familiar and reliable. Few enough things in life are, so it is small wonder that we cling to those things the we perceive as being so. I think this is a big factor in human material and intellectual culture. Nature is as it is, and is all to mutable for our taste. When we build a building or paint a picture or sculpt statues or spin tales, we are trying, by our art, to make something permanent out of the impermanence of the cosmos we find ourselves in. Aristotle noted that poetry (by which he could be taken as meaning more or less what we call “fiction”) is more philosophical than history (“nonfiction”) because while history tells us only what happened, poetry tells us what could happen or might happen or ought to happen. In short, it gives us lasting structure in an ephemeral world.
After forty-one years and counting of the Star Wars franchise, which has brought us ten movies, seven television series, and God knows how many books, comics, works-in-progress, and various other media artifacts, I still maintain that the pinnacle of them all was the second movie (Episode V), The Empire Strikes Back. I will take that statement as self-evident 🙂 and thus I don’t intend to make that argument here. Rather, I recently wrote a post about space in which I mentioned time dilation in The Empire Strikes Back, and said that that would be material for another post. This is that post.
I watched The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980, the summer after my junior year in high school. It was long-anticipated, and as I’ve mentioned before, some loud-mouthed acquaintances, having read the book before the movie came out, spoiled the big reveal about Darth Vader being Luke’s father. Despite this, I found I enjoyed the movie enormously, more even than I had the first. I think this is a good demonstration of an argument made by the Plaid Adder, a blogger I follow. She says that if a reveal is properly done, then a spoiler–finding out about it ahead of time–doesn’t, in fact, spoil the show. This was definitely the case with me and Empire.
Anyway, I don’t know when I got to thinking about the specific issue I want to discuss today, but it gradually presented itself to me over the course of a few years. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time I watched the movie for the first time; but I think I had the matter articulated by the time I was in college. To make it clear just what I’m talking about, let’s have a quick recap of the relevant events of the movie.
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.
This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion. There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind. It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.
Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots. I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged. I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov. Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references). Certainly, Asimov knew better. The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created. It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us. The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.
The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right. This leads to the topic I want to talk about here: What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy? That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you–Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”
Sometimes I feel that way about Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan, for those of my readers who may be too young to know of him, was probably the greatest and most familiar science popularizer of the last century. He was especially visible throughout the 1970’s, which was a partial inspiration of this series, of which this is the long-delayed first post. Sagan was more than just a 70’s icon, though. I think he is a symbol of a bygone–and in some ways, better–time.
Carl Sagan had an M.S. in physics and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics. At various times, he worked closely with NASA (he conceived the idea for the plaque placed on the space probes Pioneer10 and Pioneer 11) , had Top Secret clearance at the U.S. Air Force and Secret clearance with NASA, was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, published research on the atmosphere of Venus, and researched the possibility of extraterrestrial life. For nearly the last thirty years of his life, he was associated with Cornell University. Beyond his professional and scientific accomplishments, substantial as they were, Sagan was best known for his extraordinary effectiveness in bringing science to the masses through all the available media of the day: print (magazines, newspapers, and books), film, and TV. Had he survived to today (he died, tragically, of complications related to myelodysplasia at the age of sixty-two in 1996), I don’t doubt he would have had a substantial social media presence.
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.
Awhile back I wrote four posts on the series Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’ve recently decided to writer another post, and more may follow in the future. Therefore, I’ve decided to make an index page to get them all together in one place. Enjoy!
Update: A Facebook friend has reported that I misremembered the Hitchhiker’s guide, writing “Not My Problem” field for “Somebody Else’s Problem” field. Due corrections have been made! I have left the title intact, though, for the sake of the alliteration….
In the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as fans well know, the setting is the fictional Southern California city of Sunnydale. Sunnydale just happens to be located on top of the literal gates of Hell–the Hellmouth, as it’s called in the show. Because of this, Sunnydale is chock full of vampires, demons, and monsters of various sorts. The ongoing joke in the series is that everyone in the city is completely oblivious to all of this, attributing supernatural events, murders, and general mayhem to anything but their real causes. The explanation given by Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, is that most people subconsciously block out anything that conflicts with their picture of ordinary reality. They literally can’t see the weirdness.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (consisting actually of five volumes by Douglas Adams and one by Eoin Colfer), there is mention made (in Life, the Universe, and Everything, I believe) of the SEP field. It is explained that invisibility is extremely difficult to produce. Therefore, if someone wants to hide something (in the novel, an invading spaceship), it’s easier to use the Somebody Else’s Problem–SEP–field. Humans have a natural propensity not to want to get involved with anything that is “somebody else’s problem”. The SEP field amplifies this natural tendency, so that while the object to be hidden is perfectly visible and in the open, no one actually notices it.
My contention is that most people who read the Bible are much like the people of Sunnydale; or to change similes, they read the Bible as if under the influence of an SEP field.