DC Fanboy Nerdvana

These just dropped today:

When Rory from Doctor Who showed up as a Time Master in this trailer, my Whovian daughter said “I have to sit down.” She was verklempt.

And I thought this trailer looked like a pretty respectable take on Supergirl. Certainly better than the Helen Slater movie.

As I’ve said before, I’m a DC fan all the way. I only follow three shows: Arrow, Flash, and Gotham. I’m reluctant to commit to two more, but these just look like loads of fun, and I gotta support the team. With the DC movies in the hands of Zack Snyder and his grittifying filter that makes everything look dark and broody, TV is the only place where DC gets a good treatment.

If you want to catch up on your Rip Hunter, check this out:

ripOh, and … VANDAL SAVAGE! Yeah, like I’m not tuning in for that…

 

Finding That Safe Place in the Imagination, With General Urko and Dinosaurs

On Monday, Kyle Cupp asked his Mindless Monday Question: What toys from your childhood do you most wish you had with you today? Elizabeth Scalia replied with Answering Kyle Cupp With A Plastic Trumpet and a Scream.

I’m  answering with this:

apes

If you recognize this as General Urko from Planet of the Apes, then you are probably a male in his 40s and remember Ape-mania. I don’t know what happened to Urko or the other doll I had (Cornelius/Galen, who was played, of course, by the incomparable Roddy McDowall) but they were treasures. I didn’t even mind Urko’s bright purple tights because he had that cool plastic helmet and gauntlet.

I do still have a few toys from my childhood. These were my favorite:

2015-01-27 14.15.05The army guys belonged to my son, and are provided for scale. It’s the anachronistic collection of dinosaurs (including a caveman and a woolly mammoth, just because) that got the heaviest workout, and which I’ve kept these 40+ years.

The set came with mountains and trees and I’d play out scenes for hour with my own army guys and other random toys and figures. It was part of the grand parade that fired my young imagination: Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Lost World, Ray Harryhausen, King Kong, In Search Of, Twilight Zone, Trek, King Tut, dinosaurs, monsters, all the wild worlds of the 4:30 movie, comics (Swamp Thing, House of Secrets, Creepy, Hulk, Batman, Superman, etc), pulps, and old time radio.

And you know what? I still love it all. As much I enjoy digging deeply into theology and history and great literature, I’ve never lost the bug for the great Burroughs-style works of pure imagination and grand adventure. There’s real beauty in them: the beauty of little boys who grew up to be men with fierce creative talents, but never lost that boyish sense of wonder and adventure.

Is it merely empty nostalgia?

I don’t think so, though I probably wouldn’t recognize it if it was. I see these things for what they were: a way for a sad and lonely kid to flee to a safe place that also fired his imagination. I understand that this safe place, formed in those pivotal childhood years, is built of stone and mortar with foundations laid right on the bedrock of my psyche.

There’s always going to be a place in my mind where Col. Steve Austin is a man barely alive but gentlemen we can rebuild him because we have the technology, where Kirk and Spock and McCoy are beaming down to a planet, where Doug McClure fights dinosaurs and Boris Karloff is a sad and misunderstood monster.

And I’ll still return to that place, like some people return to comfort food or certain music. When I was little, sometimes it was my only safe place. It doesn’t serve that purpose any more, but it’s still somewhere I like–and maybe even need–to visit from time to time.

 

 

Please Don’t Reply To Stupid Facebook Memes

Let’s try this again.

Everything I asked people not to do in the initial post, they did when the post was shared on social media, which is just so much fail I don’t know where to start.

What is WRONG with you people?! Do you even know how to Facebook!?

What is WRONG with you people?! Do you even know how to Facebook!?

So, I’ve deleted the text of the original post and the picture, and now I’m just telling you:

There are Facebook memes that ask you to combine two things like “What was the name of your childhood pet?” and  “What is your favorite food?” to get your hooker name or porn star name or superhero name or whatever. Then they encourage you to publish it to social media.

DON’T DO THIS!

 

Those answers are commonly used for password security questions. The memes are potentially password fishing.

They’re also dumb and offensive.

And here’s something else not to do on Facebook.

Really, you should probably just get off Facebook and read a book-book.

Seriously, don’t make me come over there.

Real Catholic Men Can Play Games

The 40 Year Old Virgin

“You know how I know you’re Catholic?”

A couple weeks back I read something by a priest arguing that Real Catholic Men should not play videogames. The article was pointless and ill-informed, and proved mostly that the author had not one single solitary clue about his subject matter and only the vaguest notion about “videogames” and the people who play them.

We were treated to the standard hand-wringing about man-children, wasting time, how people could be improving themselves rather than engaging in “pointless” activity, and so on. Honestly, the piece could have written itself by dropping almost any cultural artifact–rock music, comic books, TV–into a Disapproval-o-Matic and churning out the same hollow junk.

I want to just point out two of the main problems with these useless critiques: the assumption that playing a computer, mobile, or video game interferes with life, and the idea that it’s somehow unmanly and time-wasting.

Let’s look at the time factor first, and imagine two dialogs with the author, who we’ll call Fr.  Beaman.

A man in his 20s comes to visit Father for counseling. Part of their conversation goes something like this:

MAN: I spend about 12-15 hours a week following professional sports, and another 3-5 on my fantasy sports league and brackets. I also watch about 2 hours of TV a night.

FR. BEAMAN: Ho, ho! How about those (insert local sports team)!

Now let’s imagine a different exchange:

MAN: I spend about 12-15 hours a week playing Civilization V or Titanfall. I don’t really watch TV. I don’t like sports.

FR. BEAMAN: [curls his lip in disgust] And you call yourself a man?

Here’s the thing: I don’t follow sports, at all. Ever. I don’t judge people who do, but I think it is one of the most mind-numbing, pointless activities I can imagine.

If a man spends his leisure time in a complex and deep game world in which he takes an active part, while another man spends the same amount of time watching TV or following football (a fundamentally passive act), the second man is somehow judged to be more “manly” and not “wasting his time.”

This doesn’t follow. There’s nothing less “masculine” about playing World of Warcraft than there is in watching American Idol or Monday Night Football, or even going fishing. It runs afoul of none of the three moral determinants (object, end, and circumstance), and given the complexity of modern electronic gaming, it is not an empty or mindless activity.

Gamers watch far less television than non-gamers. One could even argue that gaming is morally superior to television because it can engage the intellect, stimulate the imagination, and require an element of physical interaction, whereas television renders the individual into a passive receiver.

If you’re a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, sure, I’ll give you extra “Man Points” if that’s important to you, just like I would if you were a soldier, fireman, ironworker, commercial fisherman, or longshoreman.

But if you just follow the Philadelphia Eagles? No. You’re just a guy sitting on a couch watching other men exert themselves for your amusement.

Beyond this, parsing who is a “real man” and who isn’t is a fool’s errand. Masculinity is not a set of things to be checked off a list.

The second criticism is the “you’re wasting your life” bit. We get the usual examples: you could be hiking! Learning a language! Deepening your faith! Helping the needy!

So one precludes the other? Why?

Here’s a partial list of things I have done in my life: camped, fished, sailed, fired a variety of weapons, built things out of wood and metal, painted and sketched, written and published books, learned to play several instruments, traveled to foreign countries, been in a fight, worked on a television series, earned the love of a good woman, made love to said woman, sired children, studied and taught the faith, volunteered thousands of hours, worked with the poor and sick, raised money for a charity, prayed daily, earned two advanced degrees (one of them in Theology), learned a language, raised and cared for a variety of animals, played a team sport, took care of my dying father, run a 6-minute mile, chopped a tree and made a fire, earned an income and supported a family, paid a mortgage, conducted pilgrimages, and earned a reputation in my profession.

Some of these I still do. Some of them I tried and do not enjoy, and thus will not likely do them again. I do not like camping, for example. My wife loves it. We’ve tried to compromise. I can take or leave fishing. I don’t oppose hunting but neither do I enjoy it. I’m not handy. And although my physical problems sometimes limit my ability to get around in the world, I don’t feel this makes me less of a man or my life less full.

Thus, this idea that all men who play games are living withered and incomplete lives is a fantasy. Some men indeed may be letting games interfere with a full life, and that is a problem just like any other disordered attachment. If Father had merely said “Men who overdo the gaming thing need to get out now and then and see the world,” he would have had no complaint from me. An obsession is bad regardless of the object.

But that wasn’t the point being made. Gaming was singled out as something no Catholic man worth his manhood should be doing.

Well, I’m a man, and like many other men my age (46), as well as men both older and younger, I enjoy computer and videogames now and then.

And that’s just fine.

Related

Tech Addiction:Technology & The Synod on the Family

Alienation: Technology & The Synod on the Family

You Should Be Watching “Arrow”

I’ve been enjoying the Marvel movie renaissance as much as the next geek, but I’m a DC guy and proud of it. DC has had renaissance of its own that far exceeds Marvel’s, albeit on the small screen. Thanks to the sure hands of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, they have created the most fully realized adaptations of any comic book characters to date: Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman/Superman Adventures, Batman Beyond, Krypto the Superdog (entertaining and underrated), Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited, as well as a fun Duck Dodgers revival, which had some DC fan-service. (Witness “The Green Loontern.”)

DC animation also gave us Teen Titans, the sorely-missed Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Legion of Superheroes, a slew of feature-length animated films (some of them, like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, superior to almost all the live action fare), and a decentish Green Lantern show. (I didn’t like The Batman at all, however.)

Smallville ran for a decade and was quite good, and now Arrow is filling the gap left by Smallville, including using Luthor Manor for Queen Manor. (Near the end of Smallville‘s run, a pilot was shot for Aquaman but it didn’t get picked up, for the very sound reason that no one gives a crap about Aquaman. The best use anyone has made of him, ever, was John DiMaggio’s voice work in Brave and the Bold. And this.)

I’d argue that DC’s achievement is the more impressive one, since we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of hours of continuity-based entertainment using a format closer to the original medium. Animation certainly fits better with comics than live action, as does the serial storytelling potential of good television. Indeed, I think the Batman animated series is the finest superhero adaptation ever, and Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the best Batman and Joker.

When Smallville went off the air, it left a superhero sized hole in the CW schedule, quickly filled by Green Arrow. The title was shortened to Arrow when the film version of Green Hornet failed and executives decided it was because people hated the word “green.”

Oliver Queen is not anyone’s idea of an A-list superhero, even though DC keeps pretending he is. He’s Batman with a bow in a Robin Hood costume, tricked out with silly accessories like a boxing glove arrow and a sidekick named Speedy.

Despite this, he’s carved out his own niche as DC’s voice of liberal doo-gooderism, which is appropriate because of the whole “Robin Hood” thing. Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil reinvigorated him in the 70s with a strong series of team-ups with Green Lantern, a little long on the preachiness but still entertaining. In recent years, the comics went off the rails a bit, although Kevin Smith did an acceptably decent job with him. Only in the animated series and in Smallville did he really show some potential.

The CW Arrow series messes with the continuity quite a bit, but most of it works pretty well, and it’s giving the character a depth he’s lacked. With the exception of the actress playing Laurel Lance (who’s rather bland), the cast is strong, grounded by an effective performance by Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen.

Since this is the CW, it’s full of too many pretty young faces and soap-opera digressions, and would benefit from the addition of older performers. Smallville had the likes of John Glover, John Schneider, Annette O’Toole, and Terence Stamp to give the proceedings heft among gleaming teeth and blow-dried hair. Arrow has Paul Blackthorne as Detective Lance and … that’s about it, except for rare and brief appearances by Colin Salmon, who seems to have made a career out of doing a lot with small parts. John Barrowman (of Torchwood and Doctor Who) had an important part in Season 1, but he’s not likely to return.

Despite this, the series is turning out good superhero action laced with moral depth. Arrow charges back to Starling City after missing for five years and starts killing the hell out of bad guys, instantly becoming Public Enemy Number 1. Following the loss of a close friend, he vows to kill no more, and struggles to be a better hero for a city in dire need. When Black Canary enters the storyline, we see the trials of people attempting to overcome their sins and find forgiveness, while also fighting for the right.

It’s not a heavy show, and I don’t want to overstate the moral qualities: it’s still 42 minutes of a guy in green leather shooting people with arrows. But amidst the fun it manages to tap some of those deeper elements lurking at the heart of good superhero stories.

For DCers, Season 2 has been rolling out the fan service big time. Season 1 gave us Merlyn (sorta), Felicity Smoak, Huntress, a pre-Deathstroke Slade, a pre-Speedy Roy Harper, Deadshot, and China White. In only 6 episodes, Season 2 has already introduced or named-checked Black Canary, Brother Blood, Amanda Waller (played by a tall, skinny actress; just … no), The League of Assassins, HIVE, Bronze Tiger, Professor Ivo, Ra’s al-Ghul (mispronounced, as usual, “Roz”), and Dollmaker. Roy Harper gradually is becoming a sidekick, and we’re starting to see what drives Slade to become evil. It’s already stronger than the first season: more assured, more tied to DC lore, with characters settling into their performances and excellent supporting turns by Blackthorne, David Ramsey (Diggle, a new character), and Emily Bett Rickards (terrific as a smart, funny Felicity Smoak).

You don’t even need cable to watch it. We cut cable last spring and stream all the episodes on Hulu. I think all of season 1 may be there. I know it’s all on Amazon and Netflix, and well worth catching up. Give it some time. Like any show, it takes a while for writers, actors, and production to settle into a good working groove. If you don’t like superheroes, this won’t change your mind, but if you liked Smallville and want a something a bit less high-school and a little more mature and darker, Arrow is a great choice.

Cutting the Cable: Why to Do It, How to Do It

Last May, we cut cable TV service to the house for the first time in 22 years.

I was going to crow about it then, with an “Oh look at me, how unworldly I am” kind of post, but then I realized that a summer without cable really isn’t that big a deal, and decided to wait to see how it all worked out.

We’re not huge consumers of television, which is why we could make the cut in the first place. I only ever really follow a couple things at a time, and those I always record in order to time-shift and skip the commercials. I prefer either to watch old movies, or TV shows once they complete their run and leave a giant heap of episodes for binge consumption. (We spent a couple years on the entire Wheedonverse.)

We’re doing this now with Breaking Bad via Netflix, which means a few months after everyone stops talking about it, I’ll be all like, “Oh, so that’s what that was all about, yo.” It kind of puts me out of sync with the culture, but it’s not like a neurotic, work-at-home, borderline-agoraphobic writer spends a lot of time standing around the water cooler talking about Jesse and Heisenberg.

The kids have never just “watched TV,” so it’s no problem for them either. The idea of one of them coming home, flopping on the couch, and flipping on the TV to channel surf until they find something is about as likely as one of them strolling into the kitchen, popping a beer, and saying, “Yo Tom, whaddup?!” When they do watch (on weekends only) it’s always been DVD or streaming. My son doesn’t care about it at all, and would rather game.

That’s why we made the choice to save about $600 a year and make a statement against having cultural sewage pumped into our house by people who hate us.

So how’s it working, now that the few things we watch are back and running?

It’s working just fine, and depending upon your viewing habits, you can do the same thing.

It’s certainly not for everyone. My mother–who lives by Fox news–could never do it, and I believe it would be difficult for people who watch a lot of sports or reality shows. Since I’ve never even seen a complete football game or more than 5 minutes of American Idol, this means nothing to me. Currently, the only new things I follow are Person of Interest, Arrow, and Once Upon a Time, and I just added Agents of SHIELD. And I can get all of those by means other than cable.

There’s a benefit to doing it this way: it makes your consumption of entertainment more intentional. You’re not simply “seeing what’s on tonight.” You’re choosing if, when, and what to watch; you’re watching it; then you’re stopping and going off to do something else, like a take a walk, play cards with the kids, pray, or read a book.

There are a few ways to do this. We opted for a combination of computer, Hulu, and Netflix. For $8 a month, Hulu catches most everything we need, with the exception of CBS (for Person of Interest). It also adds the entire Criterion Collection of DVDs (!) as well as a good selection of foreign shows, anime, and other bits and bobs. Got a craving for Korean soap operas or vampire district attorney shows? Hulu’s got you covered. The one problem is commercials: there are fewer of them, but they can’t be skipped, which means I’m watching more commercials now that I did when I recorded live shows.

Netflix (also $8 a month) fills in the other gaps with plenty of stuff I’ve never seen before, like movies, cartoons for the kids, Supernatural, Breaking Bad, Warehouse 13, and a complete IV drip of sweet sweet Star Treky goodness. I also get Amazon Student Prime (primarily for the shipping), which adds a few items not found on Netflix.

For the things not carried on a service, I just run the PC through the TV using an audio-in to the receiver and a cable straight to the TV. (Most laptops have HDMI or VGA output cables.) Network sites usually keep a couple of complete current episodes online for streaming, and these look just find patched through to the TV.

A lot of people are opting for Google Chromecast instead of the computer linkup, and I just ordered one to see if it’s more convenient.

I also added this $10 HomeWorx HDTV Digital Flat Antenna, which picks up all the networks plus some other odds and ends, in case the zombie apocalypse breaks out and I want to follow it live. We have yet to use it for anything.

Total cost for Netflix and Hulu? $16 a month. Total annual savings? Over $400.

Are we watching less TV? Not really. It’s about what we watched last year, only we’re not paying as much.

Is there anything we’re actually missing? Well, there’s Food Network and … yeah, that’s it. And, honestly, we’re fine without it. It had become the All Guy Fieri All The Time Network, and no one needs that.

I have nothing against TV. Serial storytelling is one of my favorite narrative forms, so I like the expansive opportunities possible on TV, along with the more ambitious quality of the material and better writing in the post-Sopranos/Lost era.

Are we in a new golden age of TV writing? I’ll tell you in ten years. With few exceptions (Dick Van Dyke, Addams Family, Seinfeld), I loathe sitcoms with a deep and abiding passion, so I can’t speak to those intelligently. Reality shows are vile, with the exception of some workplace shows (Dirty Jobs, Pawn Stars, American Pickers).

My favorite TV remains US/UK spy shows from the 60s (The Avengers, The Saint, Danger Man, Prisoner, Man from UNCLE, Mission: Impossible, Wild Wild West, and so on), British mysteries (Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Morse, Lewis, and so on), classic Trek, anthology shows (Twilight Zone, Thriller, Night Gallery, Outer Limits), and interminably long BBC literary adaptations (I get offended if someone tries to do Dickens in fewer than six hours). And, of course, Columbo. I think the writing, production, and acting on Lost, Fringe, Breaking Bad, and others has been phenomenal, but only time will tell if those truly hold up.

I always get slightly irritated when someone sniffs and says, “I don’t watch TV.” It’s a pose. You may not like watching all that much TV–I don’t–but as a medium it’s capable of great artistry, no less so than cinema or theater. And it can do things neither of those format can do: it can take its time, build characters and relationships, and expand on themes and narrative in more depth. At its best, TV can be like a Dickens novel, full of people and incidents woven together in elaborate and interesting ways.

That so much of it is terrible is rather the beside the point: literature, music, film, games, and drama are equally subject to Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of anything is crap”). Streaming media allows you to watch the good stuff while keeping the junk out of your house.

We’re becoming a more intentional culture. There may be fallout from that, as boutique tastes render cultural touchstones like Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey less common, but the internet will likely bridge that gap. We won’t all be gathering around our TVs at the same time to watch the finale of MASH, and though something is lost as that age passes into history, something new will replace it.

Humans have a need not just for story, but for a shared storytelling experience: for the communal aspect of people experiencing drama together, even if the “together” is only by social media. The internet is reshaping the experience of television just as it is reshaping so many other aspects of life. What form it will take, only time will tell.

The Technophobic Traditionalism of “The Prisoner”

I started showing my daughter Patrick McGoohan’s classic surrealist spy show The Prisoner last night, and she had a lot of questions (as does everyone who watches) about the symbols and meaning.

This kind of thing is hotly debated, and has been since the original series ended its run with a cryptic ending that left everyone in a rage at McGoohan. I never really understood the confusion over the ending. It’s saying that an army of functionaries and bureaucrats and villains do the legwork to keep us in chains, but the number 1 enemy is ourselves.

The idea of freedom and slavery was only one of the themes running through The Prisoner. The other was a rage at progress, technology, endless war and its profiteers (both political and economic), and mindless consumerism.

The themes only really come into focus when you understand McGoohan’s sense of traditionalism and devout Catholicism.

Legend has it that he turned down the role of James Bond on moral grounds, disliking its excessive sex, violence, and cynicism. It’s notable that John Drake, his character in Danger Man (aka Secret Agent), does not bed women and does not carry a gun. He wins by his wits and by being a more honorable man than his enemy.

This is key since Number 6, The Prisoner, is John Drake. McGoohan denied this, but the parallels are inescapable, and the famous resignation scene which begins each episode of The Prisoner is as much McGoohan’s resignation from a crappy Danger Man contract with producer Lew Grade as it is the resignation of John Drake from the agency.

The item my daughter fixed on was the pennyfarthing bike, the main symbol of the show. It’s seen throughout the first episode, sometimes appearing in strange places that put it in the way. Number 6 passes behind it in a couple of scenes, as though trying to keep it between himself and the forces arrayed against him.

McGoohan was cut from the same cloth as Tolkien, seeing progress–particularly technological progress–as ultimately destructive of our essential humanity, and our God-given freedom. The design of The Village (a real place) is a combination of the quaintly English and strikingly Romanesque, suggesting an idyllic location meant to lull its captives into a sense of security.

But humming below the surface is a sinister, high-tech system of surveillance and control, where classical statues conceal cameras and all doors open and close by themselves. It’s all a facade for a totalitarian apparatus that seeks to dehumanize us, and ultimately bend us to its will. 

In this setting, the large, awkward bicycle is at once strange, oddly beautiful, and a reminder of a simpler time. It symbolizes resistance to progress, and a desire to hold on to some piece of the past, no matter how seemingly absurd.

The forces that use it as their symbol probably just meant it to seem quaint, but they missed the power of symbols. It provides a kind of grounding in the past for Number 6. (Its shape also forms the number “6,” like the salute people give in the village.) Even the car Number 6 drives is a throwback. Although the Lotus 7 was produced starting in the 1950s, it was based on a design ideal that valued simplicity and classical style.

Thus, the bicycle and the line of classical statues of the title card remind us of roots that go deeper than the latest fads and gadgets, which can only turn against us in the end.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s McGoohan himself, in one of the very rare interviews he ever gave (with Warner Troyer for Canadian TV in 1977) on the meaning of The Prisoner.

McGoohan: I think we’re progressing too fast. I think that we should pull back and consolidate the things that we’ve discovered.

Audience Question: Mr. McGoohan, when you began “The Prisoner,” you began it in a decade in which a lot of people were used to secret agents. You very neatly saw the next decade coming. I thing you saw Watergate; the enemy within as opposed to the enemy without. I don’t know if you can answer this, but if you were going to do the series again and you had to look aged to the 80’s and you were thinking in terms of what you see as being the real enemy, not the storybook enemy but the enemy that’s really going to hassle us. If you were going to look into the 80’s now, what would you look to?

McGoohan: I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself, and that goes with oneself, a two-handed pair with oneself and progress. I think we’re gonna take good care of this planet shortly. They’re making bigger and better bombs, faster planes, and all this stuff one day, I hate to say it, there’s never been a weapon created yet on the face of the Earth that hadn’t been used and that thing is gonna be used unless…I don’t know how we’re gonna stop it, not it’s too late, I think.

Audience Question: Do you think maybe there’s going to be a strong popular reaction against “Progress” in the future?

McGoohan: No, because we’re run by the Pentagon, we’re run by Madison Avenue, we’re run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don’t revolt we’ll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche.

Audience Question: We tend to view the threat, the Village there, as sort of a thing as something external like Madison Avenue, the media. How responsible are we for accepting this? Where do we become involved in being “unfree”?

McGoohan: Buying the product, to excess. As long as we go out and buy stuff, we’re at their mercy. We’re at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed.

Audience Question: Did you regard the Village as an external thing or as something that we carry around with us all the time?

McGoohan: It was meant to be both. The external was the symbol, but it’s within us all I think, don’t you? This surrealist aspect; we all live in a little Village.

Troyer: Do we?

McGoohan: Your village may be different from other people’s villages, but we are all prisoners.

Troyer: Well, I know who the idiot is in mine.

McGoohan: Yes, Number One – same as me.

Every piece of modern technology is arrayed against Number 6 or betrays him in the end, from the surveillance equipment that records (and has been recording, for his entire life) his every move, to the high-tech watch that leads him into a trap. In the pilot episode, he tries to make an escape in a helicopter, only to have the controls wrested away by an invisible force. After struggling to regain control, he gives up, gradually realizing that he will not be able to use to tools of the enemy to escape. His only weapons are those given to him by God: his will and his intellect. (Around the 20 minute mark in the interview linked above McGoohan discusses some of the religious aspects of the show, acknowledging importance of faith to Number 6.

“Progress” is a difficult thing to rail against, because certainly some progress (antibiotics, the computer on which I’m writing this, equality under the law) can be useful and good, while other progress (the sexual revolution, advances in military technology, mass marketing) is not. The “progress” that The Prisoner rails against is progress as progress, and for the sake of progress, most succinctly captured in words by Michael Crichton: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Progress, in The Prisoner, is a trap. It doesn’t have to be. We can serve or be served by technology. The moral of The Prisoner is that we, as people born free, should have a choice.

Streamageddon: Your Netflix Queue Just Got Shorter

Mayday is Doomsday for lovers of classic films on Netflix.

Today, the Warner/MGM library of classic films–the stuff I actually watch–vanished from the service. My queue was 49 films lighter this morning, and I’m feeling a little grumpy about it, particularly since I was preparing to cut my cable TV at the end of May.

Those classics films are appearing on the new Warner Archive Instant service: a premium streaming service that launched last month for $10 a month, and so far has slightly over 200 titles. Warner told Salon that WAI had nothing to do with the Netlfix loss of the library:

A spokesperson for Warner Bros. insists that the launch of Warner Archive Instant is not responsible for the removal of films from Netflix’s streaming service. Joris Evers of Netflix writes in to say that Netflix often licenses movies on an exclusive basis and sometimes chooses not to renew less watched titles. He also notes that many of the movies expiring at midnight were part of a deal Netflix had with Epix.

I can see that. Netflix is known for two things: a) creating a ground-breaking movie delivery service, and b) screwing it up.

But WAI isn’t exactly a brilliant idea, either. The Warner service is just another part of the weird studio branding attempts, like creating massive Blu-Ray box sets of movies that have nothing in common other than the Warner label. No one sits down and says, “Hey, honey, wanna watch a Warner movie tonight?” No one other than film buffs would even be able to tell you which stars were with which studios at which points in history.

And I was just getting pretty happy about the way entertainment delivery was developing, with streaming services replacing discs and cable. I don’t need 500 channels. I don’t sit down to “watch TV,” flicking around until I find something slightly less stupid than the offerings on the other 499 stations. If I feel like watching something particular (say, an old movie or an episode of Person of Interest), I sit down and watch it until it’s over, and then I stop and get on with my life. Not a single thing passes in front of my eyeballs that isn’t on disc, DVR, or streaming.

That era of “let’s see what’s on TV tonight” is over, and I’m glad to see the back of it. It was mostly a time-wasting, mind-dulling swamp. The only benefit it ever provided was a sort of shared cultural consciousness. You knew the next morning that everyone had watched MASH or the latest installment of Shogun the night before, and everyone could talk about it. It was the same thing during the Golden Age of radio. People describe walking down a city street on a summer night and being able to listen to the entire Edgar Bergen show as the sound drifted through one open window after another. Everyone was glued to the same station at the same time.

Of course, that was entertainment a family could enjoy together. I enjoy Walking Dead just fine, but it’s not something you gather the whole family for, unless you’re the Manson Family.

This atomization of entertainment isn’t a bad thing, though. I used to have to search out the quirky things I loved–silent and classic film, foreign films, old horror movies–sometimes paying $50 for a crummy VHS tape, as I had to for Murnau’s Nosferatu. Now, it’s all at the tips of my fingers for a pittance.

In order for that to really work, however, the streaming services need to get it together and make good deals to build strong libraries. No one wants to manage and pay for 5 or 6 services: that’s sending the whole technology in the wrong direction.

NOTE: Posts are going to be short and scattered as I finish my semester and take finals. Should be back on schedule soon. 

The State of Games

As I mentioned last week, late summer tends to be The Busy Season in long-lead media, since we’re working on our Christmas issues, which traditionally are larger. Ours contains our annual game awards and buyer’s guide. so I’ve been deep in the gaming world for a while now, looking at the whole range of mobile, video, and computer games and trying to find the little diamonds worth noting. This means that I face the same problem that any Catholic media critic faces: I’m exposed to a pretty steady stream of culture-rot. It doesn’t bother me, but it’s important to step back and look at just what’s being pumped into the culture by this important new medium.

Honestly, most of it isn’t that bad, as long as you look at things in context and understand that games are not just for kids. Once a game gets an M-Rating, it’s usually pretty safe to assume it has the same content as an R-rated movie, and usually a “hard” R, often well on its way to an NC-17. There is an “AO” (“Adults Only) rating beyond the M, but like the old X-rating, it’s never used because stores won’t carry the games. For more details, you can refer to my primers on understanding modern video games: “Videogames and the Family” and “Choosing the Rights Games For Your Kids.”

Not much has changed since I posted those a few months ago. There’s a tendency to push the content envelope, not always in a good way. This year, The Darkness II was one of the most obscene, excessive, and casually blasphemous things I’ve ever seen.  It was also brilliantly designed, well scripted, and even touching at moments. The Call of Duty series remains hugely popular among gamers both young old, but it’s become unnecessarily violent for a military shooter that was once teen-friendly. Games like Max Payne 3 show how extremely mature content can be handled in a creative way, but you just have to remember: not for kids. Parents need to get that through their heads. If you won’t sit your 14-year-old down in front of the latest Quentin Tarantino movie, then he shouldn’t be spending a whole lot of time on Modern Warfare 3.

In The Darkness II, you can kill enemies using a hell-spawned imp, who then urinates on his victims.

Parents need to keep in mind that this is a medium, just like TV and movies. It’s for everyone, with the same diversity of content. It’s the same as TV, which goes from Sesame Street to The Walking Dead, or film, which goes from Brave to Ingloureous Basterds.  The new generation of Gens-Ys and Millennials don’t see this as kids stuff. They were raised on games and often prefer them to television. TV, after all is, passive. Games are interactive.  (Except for Doctor Who, my teenage son doesn’t watch any TV at all: his entertainment is games.) Plus, the most popular games usually have a strong multiplayer element, meaning they’re social as well.

The creative aspect of gaming is still in it’s DW Griffith phase. We have yet to find our Orson Welles. But we will, and the format right now is populated by the same range of creative approaches that characterize movies: big studio projects for a mass audience, B-listers, small art house items, wholesome family entertainment, plucky independents, and weird and wonderful individual visions. It’s all out there, but like every other thing you let in your house, you need to be a discriminating consumer.

State of the Industry

Video and computer games are not in a happy place right now. Once thought to be recession-proof, the videogame industry has been rocked by plummeting sales over the past year. The numbers have been terrible since the beginning of the year, with sales off by about 25% from 2011. Compared to the same months in 2011, January 2012 saw a 37% drop, February: 24%, March: 26%, and so on, straight down the line.

When you add in aging hardware systems, aggressive competition from mobile platforms, a creativity deficit that’s causing developers to coast along on the successes of aging franchises, and a simple shortage of interesting titles, and you have bleak picture.

This will not be a permanent thing, but it’s pointless to blow sunshine at a point when the news is quite bleak. With the entire gaming landscape undergoing a radical shift into unknown territory, 2012 could best be characterizing as a lull between what was and what might be.

Here are some of the big issues of the last year.

Mobile

Apps are still going strong, and even gaining strength due to the ever-expanding installed base of mobile and tablet users. The big news has been the aggressive entry of big companies like EA into the microtransaction world of “free” mobile gaming, which is netting huge profits and causing a seismic shift in the way they do business.

Amazing Alex (iOS/Android) challenges you to solve increasingly complex puzzles by making Rube Goldberg devices

On the flipside, all of this seems to be accompanied by a bit of a creative lull from developers. Up until this year game-makers were hitting wildly innovative designs out of the park on a regular basis, with small, quirky, wonderful little games creating new forms of entertainment we’d never before imaged. Now mobile, too, has settled into a comfy niche of big franchises (Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Where’s the Water, Temple Run) and fremium games. We’re simply not seeing the same outpouring of creativity we did in the beginning, which is probably to be expected with a new format.

Mobile remains the most family-friendly platform for content, with very few games even rising to the equivalent of a “Teen” rating.  The most popular titles are puzzle-type games and social games. The puzzlers don’t have any content issues at all. As for the social game, just remember that it’s possible for kids to inadvertently connect to total strangers in some games. Most publishers limit the interactions so that no real problems arise, but it’s always a good idea to check out just what they’re doing. Draw Something is a cute little version of Pictionary, in which people draw clues to words. Unfortunately, some people (particularly in the PC version) must think every word can be guessed by drawing a giant penis. So … caveat emptor.

“Free” to Play

The mobile gaming world is thriving thanks to another new passion of the big publishers: free to play. Once thought to be the last stage in the life of online games no one wanted to pay for any more, free to play is being considered one possible savior of PC gaming. I covered this in more depth last week.

The Future of Consoles

All eyes are on Nintendo as they roll out their new Wii U, which we covered last month and which includes an innovative new tablet controller. Nintendo is getting most of the blame for the steep drop in game sales. Just like subprime mortgages and inflated real-estate prices created a housing bubble, so did the “Wii-effect” of drawing non-gamers into the gaming world create a “Wii bubble.” Wii scaled such heights that it had a longer way to fall, and when new and interesting titles started to slow, the resulting 50% sales drop dragged the entire industry down with it. Wii made a lot of new gamers, but they weren’t really in it for the long haul.

Nintendo’s new handheld also failed to build a strong US audience, proving that mobile handsets have permanently realigned the handheld gaming landscape, and not in Nintendo’s favor. Despite putting out a decent piece of hardware and some truly exceptional games, Nintendo just isn’t offering a compelling reason to own the 3DS.

Thus, everyone is holding their breath and waiting to see what the Wii U does. Can it repeat the success of the Wii? Since a rising tiding lifts all boats, the hope is that a Wii U success could kick off an industry-wide sales surge and set the stage for new consoles from Microsoft and Sony in the upcoming years. We should know by January.

Eugene Polley, RIP

When I was young, my parents had convincing stories of youthful hardship: long walks to school, hauling coal for 25 cents a ton, the deprivations of the Depression, World War II, and so on.

My stories of the average Gen X childhood are considerably less impressive (although my son remains fascinated by the dangers of lawn darts). I’m reduced to saying things like “We actually had to get up to change the TV station!”

The man who ended that long national nightmare has changed his last channel. Eugene Polley, inventor of the TV remote control, has passed away at the age of 91. An employee of Zenith Electronics from 1935 until 1982, he invented the Flash-Matic in 1955. The device was basically an elaborate flashlight that turned a TV on and off and changed the channels by triggering photo cells in the corners of the screen. It didn’t work on sunny days, and was soon replaced by model that used sound, but it was the precursor to the infrared changers in use today.

From the LA Times.

Polley was born Nov. 29, 1915, in Chicago to a mother who was shunned by her well-to-do family because of her relationship with his father, a “ne’er do well” bootlegger, Polley’s son said.

His parents separated when Polley was a boy and his mother, Vera Wachowski, struggled to get by on her own. Polley, who demonstrated a remarkable mechanical aptitude from an early age, found a job as a parts clerk for Zenith Radio Corp. in 1935.

From the stockroom, he rose through Zenith’s engineering department, holding positions including product engineer and assistant division chief for the mechanical engineering group. Over the years his inventions earned 18 U.S. patents, and he worked on devices including push-button radios for automobiles, according to Zenith.

Adler, who before his death acknowledged that Polley did not get enough credit for the remote control, considered the remote control one of his lesser inventions.

Polley had no such misgivings about the importance of the remote.

“This is the greatest thing since the wheel,” he told the Tribune upon [inventor Robert] Adler’s death in 2007. “We did something for humanity.”