Monthly Archives: September 2017

“The Classic Legend Begins An All-New Adventure…”

Here’s an addendum to my previous post: It’s the introductory preview that aired just before “Encounter at Farpoint,” the two-hour premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or, as the announcer dude says it, “Starrrrrrrr Trek!”

See what I mean about the ads making this show look action-packed? Let’s just say this impression was… not entirely accurate. The ratio of long-winded speechifying to fisticuffs and/or phaser fire was pretty broad in “Farpoint.” But it’s just as well, since TNG never did do action very well, in my opinion. I don’t know if the cast or directors weren’t comfortable doing action, or if the show’s tone of benign enlightenment simply wasn’t compatible with it, but TNG was always far better in moments of quiet drama than the sorts of shenanigans that Kirk and company often engaged in.

Still… it’s fun to see this little clip again. I think it conveys some of the excitement that swirled around the premiere, which is so very different from the blase’ or outright hostile attitudes with which the new Star Trek: Discovery is being met…


Thirty Years of Making It So

Facebook has been utterly determined this week to make me feel how swiftly time rushes by as we get older. First, it was regurgitating photos from my trip to Massachusetts last year. Then it was photos from my trip to Scotland two years ago. But today the almighty algorithm has decided to pull out the really big guns by showing me every post everyone in the world has been making about the anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted on this date — are you ready for this? — 30 years ago.

Thirty. Years.

Can it possibly so long? That’s an entire generation in its own right, isn’t it? Longer than the span between the debut of the original Star Trek in 1966 and The Next Generation in 1987. Thirty years ago tonight, I had just turned 18. I was a couple weeks into my first quarter as a college freshman, still feeling very much like a little kid as I wandered around the big grown-up campus of the University of Utah. I was commuting to school in a yellow, four-doored Volkswagen Rabbit, and I was dating a cute brunette girl with bright blue eyes, but not seriously. I remember that she pissed me off by calling right in the middle of the two-hour Next Generation premiere; luckily, I was recording it on my trusty VCR so I could catch up later on the bit I lost while I was talking dirty with her on the phone.

I also remember that I wasn’t terribly impressed with TNG at first.The premiere wasn’t nearly as action-packed as the commercials had made it appear, and none of the cast seemed very comfortable with their roles. In fact, Sir Patrick Stewart was so stiff as the new captain that I mistakenly believed for a time that he was a lousy actor. Or perhaps he was just playing a lousy character. They were all lousy characters in those early days, all prone to shouting while delivering lots and lots of expository dialog that moved the plots along, but did little to deepen the characters themselves. There wasn’t much chemistry between the actors either; the warmth and camaraderie that was such a notable feature of the original 1960s Star Trek was sorely lacking.

Speaking of the original series (TOS, to those of us who are “of the Body”), TNG had a weirdly schizoid relationship with its progenitor until well into its second or possibly even third season, which, as a lifelong fan of the original, I found deeply frustrating. On the one hand, TNG seemed desperate to establish its own identity apart from the adventures of the first Starship Enterprise, which was understandable, but it went so far out of the way to avoid mentioning any characters or events from TOS that the omission called attention to itself, even as the show was cannibalizing story ideas from the original. (The second episode, “The Naked Now,” was an almost beat-for-beat remake of the original series segment “The Naked Time,” which was either really gutsy or really stupid considering that TOS was still in reruns at that time, and there was a good chance everyone had seen “The Naked Time” very recently. Not that true Trekkies didn’t have it memorized anyhow.)

TNG was preachy, too. Oh, lord, was it preachy. Star Trek had always delivered social messages along with the space-opera, of course, but rarely so heavy-handedly as TNG was in that first season. It seemed like every single episode included an aside where someone wondered how humanity had survived the barbarous 20th century, or pointed out how much more evolved human beings were in the 24th century. It was tedious and condescending, and frankly, it got to be a little insulting at times.

Hell, I didn’t even like the Enterprise-D at first. (A note for non-Trekkies: the Enterprise flown by Captain Kirk and company carried the registry number NCC-1701; when it was destroyed in one of the feature films, it was replaced by a new Enterprise — actually the same model with a new paint job — and the letter “A” was added to differentiate it from the earlier one: NCC-1701-A. The TNG Enterprise was supposedly the fifth starship of that name, designated NCC-1701-D.) The ship’s proportions looked all wrong to me. The saucer-shaped primary hull was too long and wide compared to the compact lower section, making it appear both top- and nose-heavy, and the ship’s relatively flat side profile suggested to me that it had been stepped on by some cosmic giant and squashed. The interior sets, meanwhile, were downright boring, all beige carpeting and flat lighting, reminiscent of a nice but sterile hotel lobby, right down to the knick-knacks from Pier One.

I was certain the show wouldn’t last beyond its first season.

And yet, it did last, eventually running seven years, spawning four feature films after that, and unquestionably paving the way for the Star Trek franchise to become the cultural juggernaut it was during the ’90s, and is attempting to become again today. I continued to watch despite my early misgivings, although I’m not sure if it was in the hope that the show would improve, or out of morbid curiosity to see just how badly it was going to flame out. Either way, I endured every episode of that shaky first season. My viewing was a bit more sporadic during the second year, but starting with the third, TNG seemed to have found itself at last… and I finally began to consider myself a fan. In the end, I grew to quite like the crew of Enterprise-D and the actors who played them. There are some individual episodes I would hold up as some of the best television of its era, certainly equal to the best of TOS. (For the record, I’m thinking of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1,” “Family,” “The Inner Light,” and “Tapestry.”) I shed a tear when the series ended on the perfect emotional gracenote. And I even developed a soft spot for that strangely flattened starship too, enough that it pissed me off when she was destroyed in the TNG cast’s first big-screen outing, Generations.

Even so, to this day I am baffled by those fans who consider TNG superior to TOS. I know there are even people, both fans and “civilians,” for whom TNG is Star Trek. It’s the show that first comes to mind for these people when they hear the words “Star Trek.” Unapologetic old-school Trekkie that I am, that really grates on me. I suppose I can’t blame younger viewers who grew up with TNG the way I did with TOS, but I know people my age who for some reason champion Picard over Kirk, and that just makes no sense to me. Because while I do like TNG, I love TOS. For me, it’s overall far more dynamic, far more fun, far more meaningful, and frankly far more timeless, in spite of the outdated visual effects and miniskirts. (Note that I said “overall”; you can always cherry-pick specific example to prove or disprove my points.) I’ve recently been rewatching TNG and while it’s nice to revisit it again after quite a few years away — I’ve found it holds up pretty well, and in some cases is better than I remember — I just can’t see myself ever enjoying the show over and over to the point of memorization, the way I still enjoy the 1960s Star Trek. For me, it will forever be the spin-off. That’s a term you don’t hear much anymore; in the modern-day franchise model, something like TNG is thought of as a continuation. But in the old days, it was a spin-off, a derivative. It was a very good derivative, and like I said it did find its own voice eventually… but it was still a derivative.

However, time has a way of veiling just about anything with nostalgia, and when I think back three decades to a September night in 1987 and picture myself sitting on the edge of my chair with the VCR remote in my hand (so I could screen commercials out of my recording), my knees bouncing with anticipation, I can’t help but smile. It was such an outlandish idea back then, a whole new Star Trek with a whole new cast, set 70 years after the first Star Trek. I think the only thing my 18-year-old self would’ve found more unlikely would be more Star Wars movies, or a sequel to Blade Runner










Book Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade's Greatest Movie!Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade’s Greatest Movie! by Bob Balaban
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an in-depth history of the production of the classic Spielberg film, this isn’t it.

Instead, it is exactly what the title promises, a transcription of the diary kept by actor Bob Balaban during the time he spent working on CE3K. While there are some behind-the-scenes tidbits of movie magic — for example, I never knew that the curving mountaintop road where Richard Dreyfuss’ character Roy Neary nearly runs over a young boy in his truck, and then moments later gets his first good look at several UFOs, was in fact built on a soundstage — the book really is just Balaban’s personal experiences on location and on set. Fortunately, he’s an engaging writer, and there is a certain wistful innocence about the the time he’s describing, when it was still very unusual for actors to have to react to objects that wouldn’t exist until the visual-effects teams constructed them months later.

The most charming aspect of the book, however, is the growing friendship between Balaban and his costar, the famed French director and actor Francois Truffaut. Balaban plays Truffaut’s interpreter in the film, and he filled a similar role in real life, helping Truffaut learn his English lines and generally navigate an American film production that was shooting in very American locations. I’ve always had the sense that Truffaut was fundamentally a kind man, and I was pleased that Balaban’s descriptions of him support that impression. One moment in particular stands out to me, when Truffaut befriends some young boys on a Wyoming street corner and passes the time with them tossing pebbles at an old candy bar wrapper, the language barrier between them completely negated by Truffaut’s inherent warmth and openness.

Highly recommended if you’re a fan of the film, or of Truffaut.

View all my reviews


Friday Evening Videos: “Athena”

My lovely Anne took the afternoon off work to spend part of my birthday with me, and after driving up to Salt Lake for an early dinner followed by some shopping and dessert at a French bakery we like, we came home along State Street, the broad thoroughfare that runs the length of the Salt Lake Valley. Generations of young people used to “cruise State” on Friday and Saturday nights, looking for company or trouble, back before the authorities decided there was too much of the latter going on and put a stop to it all. My parents actually met while cruising State, just like something out of American Graffiti, and Anne and I cruised it too when we were young. We still enjoy driving this route when we have the time and don’t want to deal with the white-knuckle pedal-to-the-medal madness of the freeway.

It was a beautiful evening tonight, the skies having been scoured clean by the rain earlier in the day, the golden-hour light as lovely and burnished as I’ve ever seen it. My favorite time of day during my favorite time of year (birthday blues notwithstanding). I didn’t know what could’ve made the moment better. But then suddenly, the satellite radio channel we were listening to dredged up a song I’ve not heard… well, probably since Anne and I used to cruise State: “Athena” by the Who.

The song was the lead single from a 1982 album called It’s Hard, but it didn’t go over very well. It reached only as far as 28 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100  and it did slightly worse in the U.K. Sadly, it was the last hit record for the venerable band, whose history stretches all the way back to the British Invasion. Curiously, the band itself has never seemed to be terribly fond of it; it’s an interesting bit of trivia that they only played it ten times during their ’82 tour, and they haven’t played it live since. Personally, I’ve always liked it. It’s one of those songs whose energy simply and magically makes me happy when I hear it. And listening to it tonight as we rolled down State in the golden-hour light, it sparked off a very specific happy memory:

My old Galaxie came equipped with only an AM radio, so when I was in the mood to listen to something other than static-filled oldies, I’d plant a boombox on the driveline hump right behind the front seats. It wasn’t the most ass-kicking sound, but it worked. I used to hear “Athena” on the radio from time to time in those days, and when there wasn’t any other traffic around and Pete Townsend’s rhythmic guitar was getting to me, I’d start to swerve the big old beast of a car back and forth in time with the song. The power steering was responsive enough I could steer with a single finger on the wheel, and I’d throw back my head and sing along, and it was as if my car was dancing with me. Back when I was young and carefree and happy just to be behind the wheel of my beloved Cruising Vessel on a late-summer evening.

For the record, my birthday this year did not suck.

FYI, there was never an official video made for “Athena.” The visual part of this clip comes from a 1982 concert at Shea Stadium, but somebody has switched out the original sound for the album recording of the song. If you’re curious about the live version, it’s here.



It’s my birthday again.

I’m home, having taken the day off in what seems to be turning into an annual tradition for me. Outside the sky is low and dark, the color of a deep bruise, and a hard rain is threatening. I can hear backup alarms on the heavy machines across the street; they sound  frantic, like they’re trying to beat the oncoming storm as they crush and grind and rearrange the landscape I’ve literally known my entire life. The image strikes me as profound in some way… but perhaps I’m just being a drama queen about notching off another year, same as always.

A million miles goes by in the blink of an eye
And so I cannot try to slow time down
And years are made of sand slipping through my hands
Even faster than the speed of sound

— Mary Chapin Carpenter, “The Dreaming Road”


Music Questions: An Internet Quiz Thingie

It’s been a long time since I ran across one of those questionnaire things that used to comprise so much of the blogosphere. You know, the list of random questions that reveal oddball truths about your tastes and/or personality? I always enjoyed doing those, so when I spotted this one on Facebook earlier today, I couldn’t resist.

And now… random queries that reveal my dubious taste in music!

  1. A song you like with a color in the title: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” by Willie Nelson
  2. A song you like with a number in the title: “Mambo No. 5” by Lou Bega
  3. A song that reminds you of summertime: “Dance the Night Away” by Van Halen
  4. A song that reminds you of someone you would rather forget about: “Cat Scratch Fever” by Ted Nugent
  5. A song that needs to be played LOUD!: “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC
  6. A song that makes you want to dance: “Dancing with Myself” by Billy Idol
  7. A song to drive to: “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” by John Mellencamp
  8. A song about drugs or alcohol: “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” by George Thorogood
  9. A song that makes you happy: “Dancing Queen” by ABBA
  10. A song that makes you sad: “In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley
  11. A song you never get tired of: “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield
  12. A song from your preteen years: “Xanadu” by Olivia Newton John
  13. One of your favorite ’80s songs: “Safety Dance” by Men in Hats
  14. A song you would love played at your wedding: “A Love Song (from a Different Point of View)” by Jimmy Buffett  (Go ahead, look it up!)
  15. A song that’s actually a cover of another artist: “Crimson and Clover” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (original artist: Tommy James and the Shondells)
  16. A favorite classical piece: “Spring” by Antonio Vivaldi (a bit of a banal choice, maybe, but my knowledge of classical is limited… and “Spring” just makes me happy. So there.)
  17. A song you would sing a duet with on karaoke: “I Got You, Babe” by Sonny and Cher
  18. A song from the year you were born: “Proud Mary” by Credence Clearwater Revival
  19. A song that makes you think about life: “Human Touch” by Bruce Springsteen
  20. A favorite song that has many meanings to you: “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey (Don’t laugh. I love that one more with every passing year.)
  21. A favorite song with a person’s name in the title: “Kristina” by Rick Springfield
  22. A song that moves you forward: I’m not quite sure what this one is asking… “moves me forward?” I guess I did find a lot of solace in Jimmy Buffett’s “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” during a dark time once.
  23. A song that you think everybody should listen to: “Imagine” by John Lennon
  24. A song by a band you wish was still together: “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin
  25. A song by an artist no longer living: “I Drove All Night” by Roy Orbison
  26. A song that makes you want to fall in love: “Then He Kissed Me” by the Crystals
  27. A song that breaks your heart: “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt
  28. A song by an artist with a voice you love: “In Your Room” by the Bangles (Susanna Hoffs on lead vocals)
  29. A song you remember from your childhood: “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver
  30. A song that reminds you of yourself: “Beautiful Loser” by Bob Seger (Don’t worry, that’s not as self-loathing as it sounds! The dichotomous lyrics illustrating a person’s contradictory desires simply resonate with me… )

And now back to your regularly scheduled Internet programming.


Friday Evening Videos: “September Gurls”

And suddenly it’s September, Labor Day weekend, which in my mind always marks the end of summer, even if the calendar says we have another 22 days. Already the mornings are growing cooler, the kids have gone back to school, and the light has a different slant in the afternoons.

I’m so ambivalent about this time of year, i.e., September running through early November. I love the weather — there’s no finer time for top-down driving than Indian summer, in my book — and that quality of light I mentioned is like having golden hour all day long. But in counterpoint to the sense of well-being brought on by mellow afternoons and brisk nights, I always start feeling a vague restlessness around Labor Day, a sense that I ought to be… someplace else. I guess I’ve never entirely gotten over the routine of heading back to school myself, even though I’ve been done with college since 1992. There’s also a stab of melancholy in this emotional mixtape, no doubt brought on by my impending birthday and its reminder of mortality, the stark truth that we’re only given a finite number of summers and I’ve just burned off another one. At least I can say I accomplished something with this one, i.e., successfully pulling off my 30-year high school reunion.

This week’s song selection nicely captures my current bittersweet mood, and it even includes the name of our new month in the title: “September Gurls” by The Bangles. It wasn’t a hit for them, but it’s always been one of my favorite cuts from their album Different Light.

Although Susanna Hoffs would become the face and voice most people associate with The Bangles — something that generated a lot of friction within the group and ultimately led to their breakup in 1988 — singing duties were always evenly divided among all four Bangles on their albums. Bass player Michael Steele takes the lead on this track, a cover of a 1974 song by a power-pop group called Big Star, who are better known today for their influence on other musicians than for any of their own music. (It’s worth noting, however, that you probably do know a Big Star song, even if you don’t realize it. A reworked and drastically shortened version of their tune “In the Street” became the infectious theme song for the TV sitcom That ’70s Show; sadly, though, it wasn’t Big Star’s recording that you heard every week. The song was redone by Todd Griffin for the show’s first season, and then by Cheap Trick for the rest of its run.)

Michael Steele, originally known as Micki Steele during her brief tenure with The Runaways, appeared on three Bangles albums during the band’s peak years. When The Bangles reformed in 1998, Steele was the last holdout, and while she did write and record three songs for a new album, her contributions stood out as having a distinctly different tone and sound from the rest of the material. Various conflicts around the subject of touring followed, and she again parted ways with the other Bangles in 2005, leaving Hoffs and sisters Debbi and Vicki Peterson to continue working as a trio.

Since it was never released as a single, “September Gurls” never received a proper music video. This clip is from a concert the group gave at Syria Mosque Arena in Pittsburgh on December 13, 1986; the show was broadcast by MTV.

And with that… happy Labor Day, kids. Hope you can all enjoy a three-day weekend.