One Short of the Alphabet's Collection

Over at Twenty-Sided, Shamus is following a meme which requests a listing of one’s top twenty-five television characters. Since memes depend on us for survival, I thought I’d give it a go as well. One of the things you’re supposed to do is exclude cartoon characters, but Shamus didn’t do that (as he explained) and I’m not going to either. I probably watch more animation nowadays than live-action anyway, so my list will reflect that.

Normally, “giving this some thought” is pretty low on my reasons for posting anything, and is fairly rarely found round these parts. But while thinking about my choices below, I was struck by how many of these characters were folks whose fates I invested emotional stock in; they weren't just attractive people with cool powers. Put perhaps more grammatically, I cared about these people as people, not simply as moving figures on a screen, or dolls performing their role in order to move a scenario forward. That, to me, is the mark of excellent writing, when a character takes on a life independent of what happens on the program that features them. I guess that’s a good case of empathy, when I can see myself sharing the character’s goals. That’s probably the beginning of the urge to write fanfic, I suppose.

That’s not the case with all these people, of course. I mean, damn, who could watch “Lost in Space” and not think, “Just put Dr. Smith in the airlock, please, and be done with him!” Similarly, someone who cares about the success of Cartman’s schemes is probably more than a little disturbed. These characters, and those like them, are here because they make an indelible impression once you see them. (There are some here like that who aren’t evil, like Ed Grimley.) One big criteria is, could I stand watching them, by themselves, for a long time, or would I be incredibly bored? Those who bore me aren’t found below.

Anyway, enough of the endless stream of blather, and on with the show. Except for number one, these folks are in order of when I thought of them. (And I guess number one falls into that category as well.)

1. Spock (Star Trek). My first hero. I always wanted to be Spock, and as an adolescent, I probably was—all awkward around everyone, not sure how to fit in, and mocked because I, thus, did not fit in. Yet feeling that the various cliques and “popular” types were somehow composed of lesser beings. The fact that they couldn’t appreciate me was proof enough.

2. Misaki Kurea (Divergence Eve-Misaki Chronicles). In a way, almost a female Spock, though much more emotional (and clumsier).

3. Lyar Von Ertiana (Divergence Eve-Misaki Chronicles). Definitely a female Spock, though with hidden depths. “Hidden depths” can be a trap; if they’re too far hidden, they don’t enhance the character at all for the viewer. But Lyar has the right level of appeal.

4. AstroBoy (Astroboy, the way back in the sixties version.) I don’t remember much about AstroBoy, except that he could fly and when he walked, his feet made suction-cup sounds. But as a tot growing up, I thought he was the coolest thing ever.

5. Doctor Zachary Smith (Lost in Space). Always imitated (usually by me) and rarely equaled. Pomposity perpetually personified, you bubble-headed booby. I think you have to have reached a certain age to appreciate Dr. Smith—before that, he’s just annoying. Well, he’s annoying still, but in an entertaining way.

6. Eric Cartman (South Park). Evil to a profound degree, but funnier than evil could ever be on its own. His schemes frequently are far too baroque to ever work, but you have to admire his imagination and work-ethic. Probably the most evil person on this list.

7. Mireille Bouquet (Noir). On the surface, she appears to be Alfred Hitchcock’s ideal icy blonde. And she maintains that persona until the final episodes of Noir, when she reveals the depth of feeling of which she is capable. As much as Noir is Kirika’s search for her past, it’s also the story of Mireille coming to terms with her own history.

8. Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers). Imagine him on a desert island with Dr. Smith. The really fascinating thing about Basil is how, when he puts his foot wrong, he not only fails to withdraw it, but drives it in even harder while insisting it was exactly what he planned to do, and blaming everyone else for resultant problems.

9. Guy Caballero (SCTV). SCTV was filled with wonderful characters, and after winnowing them down, I’ve decided to list only three. Guy could read the phone book and it would sound like a devious scheme. Imagine Dr. Smith, Basil Fawlty and Guy stranded on that same island. Wow.

10. Dr. Tongue (SCTV). John Candy’s take on Vincent Price, especially funny when he gets arguing with Woody Tobias Jr. It quickly descends to pre-school level. Would you like to go on to…number 11? (Wee-OO Wee-OO Wee-OO)

11. Ed Grimley (SCTV, Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley). Oh, who couldn’t see that coming, I must say. It’s like, “No way!” and then you do, which is why it’s so important. The only character who’s appeared in two shows.

12. Turanga Leela (Futurama). Also like Spock in that she is (self) defined by her difference from everyone else. A number of Futurama folks could have made the list, but she’s the most memorable for me.

13. Leela (Doctor Who). Among the various Doctors, companions and allies, there are a lot who could be here. Leela was the perfect yin to the Doctor’s yang, and her departure felt like a kick in the gut. No fair! I remember thinking.

14. Davros (Doctor Who). Siminarly, Doctor Who teems with memorable villains. I chose Davros not only for his memorable character, but also because if I did not, my suffering would have been legendary.

15. The Cigarette-Smoking Man (The X-Files). In the first couple of episodes of Lost in Space, Dr. Smith was a pretty evil guy. If he hadn’t become the happy camper we all remember, he’d probably end up becoming CSM. That island’s getting pretty crowded now.

16. Almost everyone (Martian Successor Nadesico). A couple of the bad guys on this show are despicable, but other than them, this show has the most likable cast I’ve ever encountered. Yurika and Akito are the most appealing, but everyone made good company. Even that admiral guy with the Moe Howard haircut was likeable, in a kind of Dr. Smith way.

17. Misato Katsuragi (Neon Genesis Evangelion). The Angels are cool, but they’re more a force of nature than characters. As for the people, they fall into two camps: I hate them (Asuka and Shinji) or I’m indifferent to them (Rei, Ritsuki, most everyone else). The exception is Misato. As I said elsewhere some weeks back, you gotta love a woman whose refrigerator is full of beer and nothing but.

18. Pee-Wee Herman (Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). Okay, I’m starting to reach, here, but he can still be pretty entertaining to watch. It’s also fun to imagine how much he’d irritate the others on my list. Imagine Basil Fawlty confronted by Mr. Herman.

19. Ren Hoek (Ren and Stimpy). It’s hard to choose between him and Stimpson J. Cat, but Ren’s sheer rage pushes him into the lead.

20. Jayne Cobb (Firefly). Easily my favorite character from the show, it distressed me to watch the program begin to neuter him in the latter episodes. Which is one of the reasons I think it was good that it ended when it did. It would have turned into Star Trek: The Next Generation, with every character the exact same character.

21. Beavis and Butt-Head (Beavis and Butt-Head). Included together because they’re almost as smart as half a person, if taken together. I know I shouldn’t like them but they make me laugh. Critic James Bowman has said that they raise stupidity to a zen-like level, and I’m not going to argue. Of all the stupid characters on television, these two have the purest level.

22. David Attenborough (various documentaries). Okay, technically not a character, but he shows up on my TV rather a lot. And he’s always fun to watch. It was either him or Rod Serling. I’m starting to run out of shows.

23. Barney Collier (Mission: Impossible). Barney was the “real-life” person I most wanted to be. It’s been years since I’ve seen the show, but I recall he was the electronics whiz who could make gadgets out of anything. He was way cool.

24. Master Shake (Aqua Teen Hunger Force). Here’s another guy you really can’t like, but he’s the funniest of the Aqua Teens. That makes him mega-funny. Imagine him on that island as well. I’m sure they’d have all killed each other in minutes.

25. Carl Kolchak (Kolchak: The Night Stalker). He’s a real pain-in-the-ass, a description with which he would readily agree, I’m sure. He’s also nosy and confrontational, and seems to have no respect for anyone. Everyone in his world is just a source of information. So he’s perfect as a reporter. His boss (played by Simon Oakland) was also a fun character to watch.

After say, number 10 or so, I really started to run short on characters. I guess that means I don’t watch enough television. And yes, if I’d eliminated animation, I’d still be trying to think of characters and really scratching my head. “How about Star Trek’s Mr. Leslie? Eddie Paskey was pretty cool. There’s also Monk, from that show. Oh, hey, maybe the Chromoite from The Outer Limits. I can probably list some more SCTV or Doctor Who characters. I haven’t listed anyone from Twin Peaks.” And on like that.

As it is, a lot of the folks listed got their places because I just happened to think of them first when I was actively searching for characters. Only a handful of the above people leapt immediately to mind; getting the rest was like a trip back to elementary school, trying to fill the slots on the kickball team. “Oh...all right…I guess we’ll take the fat kid, but you have to have the kid with the glasses.”

I don’t watch a lot of television. There are a lot of highly successful shows that I have never Dallas. Moonlighting. NYPD Blue. The West Wing. All the dozens of cop, lawyer, doctor and hospital shows. If you name a popular, successful television program of the last couple of decades, changes are good I’ve never seen it. I’m not a snob or anything, I’d just rather spend my time doing other things. Like trying to think of twenty-five memorable television characters.


Harry Potter and the Rest Area

I’m over three hundred pages into Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I seem to have spotted something of an issue.

Let me state for the record that I don’t think Ms. Rowling can write a bad sentence. Her gift for characterization, dialogue and the telling detail are unmatched, and reading this book is a nice smooth trip with a lot of fun.

But there doesn’t seem to be much story, here. There’s a lot of plot, but not much story.

Now, those two words—plot and story—may sound like the same thing, but for me, they’re very different. Plot is a blow-by-blow listing of the events that happen during the course of a narrative. Story, on the other hand, is a series of events that amount to a narrative—a beginning, a middle, and an end.

If you’re telling a story about a detective solving a murder mystery, the story part involves finding clues, piecing together the crime, and chasing (and subduing) the villain. All of those things are also part of the plot, but the plot also includes stuff like the detective getting drunk, romancing the beautiful daughter (when she isn’t the murderer), talking to his drunk friends (when they don’t have clues) or going to the horse race or laundromat. These things are all part of the plot, but not of the story.

With a little luck, what I’ve written above makes a bit of sense. If you’ve read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, perhaps it will make a bit more sense if, like me, you’ve only read to page three hundred or so.

In this book (spoilers follow), Harry gets in trouble for using magic in the Muggle world. He goes to a hearing where he might be expelled and forced to give up magic—but nothing comes of this, the hearing is decided in Harry's favor. That counts as plot, not story. Given the amount of effort focused on this hearing, it’s somewhat disturbing to find out it really has no relevance at all. (So far, I add.)

After being attacked, Harry is taken from his usual suburban environs and brought to an old house, where he is protected by the Order of the Phoenix—but we learn nothing about them, other than the names of some members. We’re deliberately kept out of their closed-door meetings. Will these meetings be relevant? Somehow at this stage I kind of doubt it, which means that this is more plot, and not story. Again, there is a lot of work put into these sequences; this isn’t some trivial tossed-off detail, like Harry going to the post office or eating a candy bar.

Once Harry gets back to school, there’s a new teacher there—who seems to be an avatar for the Ministry of Magic, and embodies the Ministry’s agenda for the wizarding world, which is opposed to that of the regular teachers. This is probably part of the story, and not merely plot. At page three hundred out of eight hundred, it’s too early to tell, but it seems to be the only real story element to emerge so far.

Again, I must point out that I remain in awe of Ms. Rowling’s abilities, and it is possible that all these elements will become part of the story, and not just lovingly detailed chunks of distraction.

Ron and Hermione become prefects. So far, plot, not story. Hermione leaves out clothes for the elves. I’m betting this is plot, and not story. (I must pause to give kudos to the makers of the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for eliminating the entire house-elf subplot. What is truly extraordinary is that they did so by bypassing the convoluted nature of the book’s plot, and thereby concentrating on the story.) Harry and Cho seem to be mutually attracted. Other students are introduced. Many people think Harry is a grandstander (it is nicely pointed out that most, if not all of Harry’s adventures were only witnessed by himself or with Ron and Hermione. In fact, some of his most public displays—his knowing of snake language, for example—are the kind that make people suspicious of Harry).

The one really solid revelation I can see in terms of story is this: Harry cannot, under even the most dire of circumstances, keep his stupid mouth shut. While I suppose this is designed to show his passionate, fervid nature, it doesn’t really register a lot of sympathy in this reader. Nearly every time he would stand up to shout at a teacher, my thought wasn’t Right on, Harry, but more like Shut up, you fool.

I’m sure that as the book progresses, a story will emerge, perhaps incorporating most of the first three hundred pages as necessary elements. But for right now, over three hundred pages in, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix seems less like the next chapter in Harry’s saga, and more like a holding pattern, a pause on the way. Something so Ms. Rowling can recharge her creative batteries before continuing, while still deepening our view of the wizarding world.

As noted, that’s how it looks three hundred pages in. (It's instructive that the two major forces of good and evil in the series--Dumbledore and Voldemort--have barely appeared, the latter in fact entirely absent. So far.)

Perhaps the story will kick in soon, at page three hundred and one; but boy, talk about a long overture.


The Beginning of the End

Why do so many well-loved television shows fail to find an audience?

The one I’m thinking of in particular is Futurama. If you’ve seen the show, and especially if you’ve seen several episodes, you know it was funny, imaginative, and well put-together, with a number of interesting characters, clever concepts, and some memorable one-liners. Not to mention the kind of whiz-bang future we all hoped we’d be living in by now.

If you haven’t seen the show, you’re not alone. Fox kept the program going for around four years, largely on the basis of fan demands, without seeing any sort of audience build-up (and subsequent advertising dollars). In the end, they decided they’d had enough and cancelled it.

It’s hard to fault Fox—they’re in the business of making money. Ultimately, they have to go where the money is, and Futurama wasn’t taking them there. It was nice of them to keep the show going as long as they did; a lot of new programs that fail are gone after a season, some after only a few weeks (and some after one or two episodes).

As noted, it was a good show. So why did it fail?

I think the reason is very simple. The opening credits.

Again, if you’ve seen the show, you probably recall the opening credits as a way-cool sequence where the heroes’ spaceship flies rapidly through a joke-filled future city, while this great techno music plays. You’re probably thinking, that opening credits thing rocked, man, what was wrong with that?

Well, I’m glad you asked (ha ha, you fell for it again).

The problem with the opening credits sequence is this: it tells you NOTHING about the show. Oh sure, it tells you it takes place in the future, but honestly I got that from the title, “Futurama,” which you’ll note contains most of the letters needed to make the word “future.”

No, what I’m talking about is that the sequence tells you nothing about who the characters are, what they do, why they’re here, and so on. They don’t even show the characters! (I know what you’re going to say, that if you look carefully at the people whizzing through tubes, you’ll see most of the secondary cast. Bear with me.)

So what’s a first-time viewer supposed to think? Well, I can only relate my own experience as a first-time Futurama viewer. I knew the basic set-up of the series (guy gets frozen for a thousand years, wakes up in 3000 AD), but otherwise pretty much nothing. And the first episode I saw was the one where the delivery crew goes to the desert planet, where the people are all made of water.

Admittedly, not one of their stellar shows, but a fairly serviceable episode. But my overall impression after watching was this: it’s a show about a bunch of jerks who hate each other.

If you’ve seen the show, you know that’s not true—the characters, particularly the main trio of Fry, Leela and Bender, all have genuine affection for each other which, living in a cynical world as they (and we) do, they keep hidden from each other as best they can. That’s part of the drama.

But be that as it may, as a first-time viewer, I didn’t know any of this. Since there are plenty of opportunities to watch jerks who hate each other without even turning on the television, I didn’t feel the need to watch Futurama again. So I didn’t, until the DVD sets became cheap and I bought them, and discovered how good the show is. Or, by that time, was.

I know what else you’re thinking: you should have given it a couple more chances. My answer would be, Why? Life is short, folks. Not every episode has to be a winner, but they should at least not make me think that the show is about jerks who hate each other.

Okay, so given the now established context of the show, the episode in question is a minor one but it’s no longer about jerks who hate each other. The big question here is, how can I, as a first-time viewer, be given the context of the show so that I can enjoy what’s to follow? How can I casually tune in and not have to peer at people whizzing through tubes? (The first time you watch, you’re just taking it in and not looking for details.)

The answer is in the opening credits. If you look over almost every successful television program, and especially their opening credit sequences, you’ll see that these sequences give a pretty full account of the show by themselves. Take, for example, Futurama’s older (and very successful) brother, The Simpsons.

The opening sequence here is just as wordless and music-driven as that of Futurama, but there’s a huge difference: we meet all our characters, behaving in ways that stamp them in terms of the family dynamic. Homer is a dullard, Bart is a brat, and so on. So in the actual episode, when we see Bart acting bratty and Homer unable to deal with it, we’ve already been set up to expect this. The stories can come about in this framework and we can be comfortable in our dramatic assumptions, and not have to be compiling background information while the drama unfolds. We can concentrate on the story and the characters; assimilating the world view has already been done for us. The show actually worked on our behalf before it started.

For a character-driven comedy like The Simpsons (or Futurama) this seems pretty vital to me. So how could a similar opening credit sequence be designed for Futurama? How the heck should I know, I’m not paid hundreds of dollars to design television shows. The first idea I get is to show a quick recap of the freezing sequence, Fry wakes up, is rebuffed by Leela, is offered a cigar by Bender…total crap, yes, but it hints at what is to come. Like I said, no one’s paying me to do this. Someone who is getting paid might have more motivation to be creative.

Most other cartoon shows have gotten the opening credits thing just right, mostly because they are (ostensibly) aimed at children who presumably don’t have the depth of experience to recognize archetypes and thus wouldn't "get" the show right away. The opening for “Batman: The Animated Series” is outstanding—a complete Batman story in one minute flat with no narration, theme song lyrics or any English at all aside from the words “Police” and “Bank.” It sets up the show perfectly, so that even if you’ve never heard of Batman, you’re pretty sure what you’re going to watch will be about.

Of course, everyone’s heard of Batman. Nobody had ever heard of Fry, Leela or Bender before, and let’s not even bring up Zoidberg. Someone had to go to work to introduce those characters to us, and they didn’t. They made a clever and cool opening to the show, but what they made wasn’t an introduction to the show.

And I feel pretty certain that this non-introduction helped to doom the show. Casual viewers aren’t coming to an episode with any experience of the settings and characters. Even superior episodes, like the one where a time-traveling Fry has the opportunity to prevent his freezing in the past, depend on knowing something of who these people are and the meaning such an act would have to him. Otherwise, it’s just random acts, and one event has no more importance than another.

I’ve often thought that one’s first impression is the one that sticks. In order to overcome a bad first impression, both parties have to put effort into it. But before putting effort into it, both parties have to decide to put effort into it, to come to the conclusion that a mistaken impression is one that should be corrected. Futurama’s opening sequence is clever, kinetic and rockin’, but if all it does is (seemingly) present a show about jerks who hate each other, what is its purpose? It ends up being cool for its own sake, but not really reflecting anything other than itself.

It’s like being a total self-centered moron, but wearing a way-cool hat. Nice hat, moron.


Demonology 101

One of my favorite quotes (and I wish I could both remember it and attribute it properly) goes something like, “The smartest thing the Devil ever did was to convince man that he [Satan] doesn’t exist.” It’s been brought up in films here and there (the last time I remember hearing it, Rod Steiger said it to Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days). Usually, the thought is dismissed as naïve, since the Devil is still very much with us, according to the speaker.

My own religious beliefs aren’t really concrete enough to confirm or deny this, but I do wonder: if the Devil were to walk about in our society, would he take the form of a red-skinned man with horns and a tail? Or a sinister man in black, hidden in shadows, offering dreams for a soul?

I guess I mean, would he be that obvious? In the Middle Ages, the answer would be yes because that was both what people feared back then, and what they expected from demons. The world was largely an unexplored, unknown place then, and to any theoretical peasant anything could exist anywhere. You might recall people thought Hell was in the center of the earth, so certainly a demon, while unexpected (and unwelcome), would have a familiar appearance. He would be looked upon as ordinary (for a demon).

Here, in the early days of the twenty-first century, societal beliefs have changed quite radically from the Mediaeval Era. In large part, this is due to our advance in communication technology. In the Middle Ages, events in a town a few miles away might be unknown to another village for days or weeks. Back then, the world was a vast place, and no one (given an ordinary life-span) could know everything there was to know about it, or see everything there was to see.

Now, we can know what’s happening on the other side of the earth in seconds. We’re pretty sure that the earth is just a mass of rock and lava with a (non-supernatural) core at the center. Nowadays, we think we see and know most of what’s here on the earth. Things shouldn’t surprise us.

With this kind of knowledge, we can say that red-skinned men with horns and a tail simply do not appear on the planet. We’re familiar with such an image, of course, but it might seem a bit outdated to us. While we might fear such a creature, should he appear before us, our first reaction might be, are you kidding?

We can say that now, but back then? As noted, a typical peasant of the Mediaeval Age would find this appearance completely in accordance with accepted belief and would act accordingly.

So the question might be, if the Devil is still around, why haven’t we seen him? Perhaps we have. Perhaps the Devil has adapted himself to our perceptions. After all, he’s the one who wants something from us (our souls), so he has the motivation. Can he change his “appearance” so that modern eyes might perceive him accordingly? An old Ray Milland film, Alias Nick Beal, presents a Devil who looks like a normal person; only his sinister aspect makes him Devilish. Audiences in 1949 (when the film was made) would not have accepted a red-skinned man with horns who smelled of sulphur. So the producers created an image which audiences of the day would find acceptable. If Hollywood could change the Devil to suit, why couldn’t Satan himself?

Might he, in fact, do away with appearance all together, since most visual representations have already been played out for our media age? Even Nick Beal was recognizable in 1949. Can’t use that one anymore, we’ve assimilated that into our folklore.

Suppose, then, that Satan decided that appearing to us and offering us our heart’s desire in exchange for our souls is an outdated method. Everyone would suspect an offer like that made to us, since we’ve seen it take place in movies, not to mention cartoons, comic books, sitcoms, and so on.

What does the Devil do then? I’m sure that he’s not going to say, “Oh, they’re all on to me, I guess I’ll just retire and leave mankind alone from now on. Maybe now I’ll have some time to fix the shed.” Or you know, whatever Satan might do in retirement.

Now, what does Satan really want? I have no idea, really, but consider for a moment. Yes, he would like all our souls. Why? Not really for the souls themselves, since he just throws them on the fire. I think he wants them so that God can’t have them. If he can tempt souls away from us, he gains against God. It’s that eternal contest thing between God and his former second-in-command.

Okay. Given that we’re too savvy to fall for the old “Seven years of success and then I take your soul” bit, and given that Satan still wants our souls…as previously asked, what should he do now?

He wants our souls. How can he get them without appearing in a cloud of sulphur and asking us to sign a contract?

How about instead of asking for our souls, he just possesses them? (I know what you’re thinking, he wants us to give them up voluntarily. That has to be part of the contest between him and God. Well, we’ll get to that in a moment.)

I’m sure we’ll be here all day if we try to define what does and what does not constitute demonic possession. What if we say it’s inexplicable behavior that doesn’t benefit one’s fellow man and/or glorify God? (This would seem to cover both the modern and Mediaeval viewpoints. And don’t get the wrong idea about me.)

Doesn’t that sound like obsession?

It’s an inexplicable behavior that consumes all one’s spare time and benefits neither one’s fellow man nor offers praise to God. Sounds pretty close to me.

We can pretty much look at people who are obsessed with counting ceiling tiles or washing their hand and say, They’re obsessed. Perhaps they’re actually possessed, as well. It would be just like Satan to use something that appears harmless on the surface to cause trouble. That’s how he got all those souls in the past, too…because the offer seemed harmless. Hm, I can be the world’s greatest violinist in exchange for my soul? Well, I don’t believe in souls, so it’s win-win for me! Then he finds out that without a soul, he no longer has any interest in playing the violin. Whoops! That’s classic Satan.

Maybe Satan is alive and well and working quite nicely through our civilization. I don’t really know. My own religious convictions are too vague. Am I saying that people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder ought to be exorcised? No. This is all just theory, just a chance to speculate. As Towelie himself says, I have no idea what’s going on. And I don’t really think people are going to Hell for washing their hands.

But, given what I’ve outlined above, we’ve seen how Satan can adapt himself to our modern culture so he’s able to move among us smoothly and without problems. With a little change in methods and appearance (since we store information, we catch on) he can keep going while we chuckle at the idea of a man with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.

It sounds pretty clever, actually. And one has to ask, is Satan alone in these methods? Are there other beings out there that might adopt this sort of adaptation, for their own ends? One imagines angels use this method as well, to inspire someone to eliminate world hunger or something like that.

And perhaps other beings, other independent concepts, use this method simply to continue their own existence. Lovecraft wrote often about Cthulhu manifesting himself through the dreams of the sensitive. Maybe he wasn’t far wrong.

Don’t you wonder why it is that Star Trek (as an example) seems to grip people tightly by the brain? Even now, in the Fall of 2005 with the latest series cancelled and no movies in production, there are still people out there so obsessed (a ha) by Star Trek that they seem to live and breathe it? Perhaps that guy you know who’s a total Star Trek nerd didn’t get that way completely by accident. I don’t think someone named Asmodeus appeared on his couch and started going, “Who hoo! Fire them phasers, Picard!” and that was it for your friend. But clearly something in the concept took hold in his mind and is still there.

What if that something is some sort of personification of Star Trek? Star Trek as an independent entity of some kind? They crew were always running into things like that. What if Gene Roddenberry didn’t invent Star Trek back in the mid-60’s, but instead he discovered it? Or perhaps it discovered him.

Is there a “demon” (for lack of a better term) that embodies not death, pestilence or famine, but Star Trek?

It’s a good question, I think. And it makes me wonder how many of our various obsessions (a ha) actually come from an inherent interest in the material at hand. How many of them are actual entities in and of themselves, who feed by creating various stages of mania in our minds? What makes a person see the same movie over and over? Or buy all the books by a particular author, or study the battles of the Civil War? Why does someone collect soda bottle caps or Buddy Holly paraphernalia? Let’s not even go into Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter and Batman. Not to mention football, video games, fashion, rock & roll, sex and so on. Religion and politics seem particularly ripe for the obsessively-minded. Way too ripe, in fact. Let’s skip over them.

Why (in the case of many of these people) never dare question the worth of their…obsession? Do we perhaps sense that there is some greater protecting body behind the person? My own political views seem perfectly rational and logical to me, while those who believe otherwise seem irrational and illogical. I’m sure everyone feels the same way. If I were to say, though, that anyone who believes X must be under the control of something outside themselves, then that entity would cause persons who do believe in X to start thinking I’m crazy and make them click to some other webpage. So you can’t win in this kind of argument.

(Just to note parenthetically, memes and phobias might also be under this sort of system, though I tend to think memes are human-generated and phobias can be the result of some trauma.)

How many of you have hobbies that, in the cold light of logic, you’d be hard-pressed to explain? I can think of several of my own, myself…. Even now, I’m nagged by the idea that I should make this essay better, clearer, more meaningful. Why?

Why, indeed. In the words of the Firesign Theatre, "Your brain may not be the boss."

Happy Halloween, everyone.


You Knew I was Going to Say That

Cullen Waters is trying to work up a framework for how fiction uses psychic abilities, specifically the effect of these abilities on the characters and the situation. (The ability in question is the power to foretell the future). I think he's done excellent work, and has clearly put a lot of thought into this, but I'm afraid the way my mind works, I tend to see where the system breaks down. (Not intentionally, honest.) So, in the comments, helpful little me had to mention Philip K. Dick, who wrote rather a lot of stories with protagonists (and antagonists) who were psychic in varying degrees; these stories tend to fall outside Mr. Water’s categories. (I’m just no fun at all, aren’t I.)

Which I guess brings me to my greater problem: I’m not really crazy about categories. Everyone uses them all the time (human beings are sorting creatures, after all) but the only real use I get from them is when I go into a book, record or movie store. Hey, where’s the science fiction section? Where’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn? Got any new Bunuel movies in here? Unfortunately, as categories come into play, one finds more and more exceptions to those categories, thus creating more categories, as Mr. Waters is discovering. In a record store not far from where I live, they don’t have an “Alternative” section, but they do have a “Cajun” one and just started an “Alt. Country” one. Why one and not the other?

Category systems can be useful in a general way, and I do like the ingenious methods people use when concocting them; but I generally find they're either too rigid to encompass most variations (thus spawning more and more subcategories, see above), or too loose to be useful. (“There are two types of music—good music, and bad music.”) Rackmounting creative work into a grid can be a useful guide for the uninitiated, or a way to look over a wide body of works, but I honestly don't think they're all that useful as systems. (See above, how I’m no fun and everything.)

The problem with most artistic endeavors, whether storytelling or painting or composing, is that there is usually a great deal in them that is instinctive rather than systematic. I doubt very much that someone starts with a concept and constructs a story around it...or at least, I doubt that the resultant story is any good. (Note: I’m not talking about thinking up a great ending line, and working toward that. I’m talking about someone who says, “I’ll write a story illustrating some great injustice! Now all I need are characters and a plot.”)

Most of my own creative endeavors (the only ones I'm familiar with) don't start with much in the way of calculation; they tend to be images or ideas that create a resonance in my mind, a resonance that really can't be put into words. They tend to appeal more to the senses or emotional states rather than to reason, though all can work hand in hand to bring the concept to fruition. As the concept matures into a project, I never look toward existing schools or frameworks to see where I'm fitting in, or, so that I can steer the work so it will fit in somewhere.

As I say, I enjoy reading about such systems, and I admire the thought and work put into them. I doubt anyone proposing one would seriously say that creative works have to flow along their guidelines. They’re more critical tools than creative guides. I imagine.

In fact, I can see a distinct danger if you use these guidelines for creating. I’ve got a friend (no, I really do) who would write down movie-making wisdom on 3x5 cards. I used to jokingly call them his Understanding Movies Bubble Gum Cards. Based on what I see coming out of Hollywood, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an official set you can buy, and that most film-makers use them religiously when crafting their products. We gotta have a tragic scene from the guy’s childhood, only shot all MTV style. The girl has to say, “I know…I think I’ve always known.” The bad guy has to have a henchman he can rant to, and he has to be defeated from his own hubris. The songs over the closing credits should start with a rockin’ tune, followed by a soft ballad, then another rocker.

It would sure explain a lot, eh? Well, that’s a rant for another time, another place. The point is, I don’t think you can create art by planning along a line. You have to use a curve, perhaps even several curves. The mind and heart aren’t segmented. They’re not even separate entities.

None of what I say here will prevent me from presenting my own systems and expounding upon them, of course; I’m as human as any of you are, despite my chitinous exoskeleton and the fact that I breath ammonia. But I use these systems like bookshelves, really; they're there to organize thoughts, and lots of things can be stored on them, and they’re a way of looking over the completeness of a collection. But the objects on the shelves are not the shelves themselves. The shelves just make them easier to find. And easier to replace.


Systems of Romance

Recently, I implied in a review I wrote elsewhere, that Macintosh fans are crazy.

Well, I was recently told that this might have been an overstatement. (Understatement, more likely. Ow! Hey, I wrote it like you said!)

But let me tell you this. I've owned and used a lot of computers. DOS, CP/M, Windows, UNIX, Macintosh, EPOC, PowerPC, Linux, Windows 2000, Windows XP, and so on.

And every single one of them has let me down.

If you're a fan of the Macintosh, well, I'm sorry to hear that. Operating systems shouldn't have fans. That's putting your shoes on before you put on your pants.

But let me say this, before you light your torches again. I don't have anything against the Mac. It's made by concientious engineers for a conscientious group of consumers. Everyone talks about its high standards. Great. To me, it's no better or worse than any other computer.

Let me repeat that: it's no better or worse than any other computer.

I've owned lots of computers, as previously noted, and they've all let me down. They've locked up when I needed them to NOT lock up. They lost data. They refused to run programs. They betrayed me. My brilliance needed to be saved, and they said, "Ha ha ha, three hours of lost data is funny to us!"

(I learned the important lesson (early on) that you always save your data, and you always back it up. You should only learn this once, no matter what computer you prefer.)

Well, I'm sure you're saying, you probably didn't do it right. You did it wrong. And that's what you got, for doing it wrong.

Well, my answer is, I did it wrong?

I did it wrong?

Can you HEAR what you're SAYING? I did it wrong? I didn't fit in with the computer's idea of what I SHOULD be doing?

I did it wrong?

Oh....kay. I see. Me, the flawed flesh machine, didn't follow the instructions of the perfect brain.

Does it sound silly yet?

Let me repeat this: the Macintosh is no better or worse than any other computer.

Before you start talking about icons or ease of use or fewer crashes, let me add these thoughts.

It's not the computer you use.

It's the use to which you put your computer.

NEVER forget that.

Hey, it's easier for you to manipulate graphics on the Mac? Go for it. It's easier to set up networking on Windows? Rock and roll. Linux gives you more control over device drivers? Keep on rocking.

There's no such thing as the perfect computer. In fact, these operating system wars are simply a distraction from the main issue: computers aren't good enough.

I'm going to say that again. Computers aren't good enough.

We spend way too much time doing what the computer wants, failing, and suffering for our failures. And the computers spend way too little time doing what WE want. We're slaves to their limitations. You thought Bender, from Futurama, was an aberration? Ha, ha, ha, we're all Bender's slaves now. He'd like that.

For those of you who are big Mac, Linux, Windows, DOS or UNIX fans--never mind. What you're reading--it's just bad wiring in the brain! I've been told what I want from computers, and why I should want it--obviously, if I can't see this, it's an INTERFACE problem! (In other words, humans are stupid.)

Some of the rest of you may be looking at your computers and, I hope, wondering. Don't we seem to be spending a lot of time working on our computers, and not doing our work, using computers? Why do we all look at a new piece of software, look at the system requirements, and wonder why our computers aren't good enough for it? We're being judged, now. We've been found wanting. We need more video ram and we need to patch everything too. We need to spend hours and hours trying to persuade our computers to cooperate.

Those of you using Macs may go ahead and furl your cape imperiously around your shoulders, and mutter "Fools!" while looking pained. While you're at it, admit that you've lost data because your Mac thought (at some point) you looked silly and locked up on you.

If you've never had a computer problem, God bless you my son. I'm sure it happens. A good friend of mine had a Packard Bell PC, never gave a single iota of trouble for years. Not a bit until it was gracefully retired. The next computer had a few things to say about that.

We spend far too much time doing what computers want us to do. And, I think, computers spend far too little doing what we ask of them. They, in fact, have managed to change the ground rules. We want something and it doesn't happen--we're the idiots. We didn't patch our systems. We didn't upgrade our drivers. Oh, what fools we were, and now our saintly computers are offended! Woe unto us.

Woe unto almost all of us.

Run-time error, alas.


...but is it Art?

Cullen Waters writes intelligently and well on a variety of topics, largely dealing with writing, creativity, the arts and culture in general. It's an honor to be mentioned--twice!--on his blog.

And as turnabout is cheaper than a six pack, I'd like to present some thoughts on art that were sparked by a couple of his drawings (the guy's a talented illustrator as well). Both are reflections (if not actual illustrations) from a concept of his called "Fear Adventure."

The first, seen here, shows a green hand reaching for a girl who is (apparently) unaware that there's anything behind her.

The second, seen here, shows a bemused frog sitting on a sword.

In both cases, what we're presented with are parts of a narrative; there are clearly events that occurred before what is portrayed in the respective images. The first seems to be in the midst of events, while the second, in contrast, appears to be the end result of some adventure.

While the first image sparks a series of questions, the second is an answer. The mystery here may be, how did this "person" become a frog? But that's about the only question that's there, other than, perhaps, what happens next? Ultimately, it's an "after the fact" question. Things have already happened, and we're too late to see them.

The second image creates its own story, and the possibilities (to emply the old cliche) are endless. The image sparks a series of questions, such as, what is going on? Is the green hand a menace, a friend, or a warning voice? Does the young girl know about the hand? Would a green hand, here in this world, be considered "normal" or not? Are we in Kansas still, or elsewhere? What happens next?

While I think both are great, compelling illustrations, I must admit I prefer to the first to the second. Not because of any techical issues, but because the first sparks all those questions.

Which brings up another question. What do I like about the artwork that I like? Why do I like some pictures more than others, and why do I like some not at all?

My first impulse is to say it has to do with storytelling. The images I tend to like seem to be part of a nararrative. (Where in the course of the narative they sit seems to be a definite sticking point.)

Not everything has to appear to be part of a story, but it should appear to be part of a greater continuity. There should be some connection with something outside the elements of the image itself, even if that connection must be imagined.

Nowadays, this kind of art is usually sneered at as "illustration" rather than art, since the expression of the artist is subordinate to the presentation of the idea. Starting with Manet and coming to full flower with the Impressionists (and beyond), artists worked to convey how they actually saw the world, rather than illustrate narratives. With the advent of expressionism and surrealism, artists sought to explain their emotional states. (Personally, with the advent of abstract expressionism, the artists lost me. It became--to me--completely personal to the artist, with no room to communicate.)

With the appearance of pop art, and with the advent of the age of communication and the media-superstar, artists began to portray things not as an intrinsic concept, but so that the artist's superiority to the modern world could be conveyed. We've come full circle, to the other side of the mirror, where illustration of the world is a means of expressing the artist's emotional state--to the point where there's no attempt to acknowledge a viewer at all.

I only keep up sporadically with the art world these days. But the idea of an artist communicating with anyone other than himself has pretty much disappeared nowaways. It's all what the artist had for breakfast and his cell phone bill is too high and the guy I liked didn't win the election. In a sense, modern artists have been blogging far longer than any of us.

What we like, or don't like about art probably depends on where we stand in terms of the work in question. Are we only the creator? Are we only the viewer? Or are we the viewer, but holding an equal measure in the creation of the work? Does the work need us to complete it?

...and is it art?

(PS: Naturally, it took me so long to write this, that there's now a third illustration at Welton Cares Presents...)