Saturday, October 28, 2006

Who Needs Mainstream Media?

Anybody who reads this blog knows I have a love/hate relationship with television and other forms of mass media. At times I'll get disgusted and denounce everything on TV as unadulterated trash that's destroying Western Civilization as we know it, and at others I'll find a show that will attract my interest, spark my imagination, connect with my inner geek, and get me watching faithfully, at least for a while: shows such as Wild, Wild West, Star Trek, The Rockford Files, The X-Files, Lost, and Heroes, for example. One of the fascinating things about the personal computer and internet revolution, however, is the way it gives ordinary people the ability to produce and distribute information, opinion, and entertainment in a way that bypasses the conventional major media outlets.

For example, blogs give almost anybody the ability to become an op-ed columnist without going to work for a magazine or newspaper. I suspect one reason blogs are so popular right now is that many people feel their political views (whether right, left, center, or none of the above) aren't being adequately represented in the mainstream media. Fan fiction or "fanfic" websites such as Trekiverse, The Sugar Quill, and give aspiring short story writers and novelists a way to create new adventures of their favorite fictional characters and distribute their work to a potential audience of millions without going through a major publishing house.

Now some fans are taking all of these emerging technologies one step further by making old radio and TV shows available in digital format, and, even better, producing their own online radio and television shows. Since I'm currently working on a story about The Shadow, one of the heroes of radio's golden age, I've revived my interest in old-time radio and discovered hundreds of old radio shows available through iTunes and individual fan sites. I've also discovered sites such as Pendant Audio where a group of mostly twenty and thirtysomethings with a taste for audio drama are creating new audio adventures in the spirit of the radio shows of old. So far, they've created serial radio adventures featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, James Bond, and Indiana Jones. They've also created Dixie Stenberg and the Brassy Battalion, a tribute to/parody of classic adventure serials such as Captain Midnight, and Star Trek: Defiant, an original adventure in Gene Roddenberry's universe.

Another talented and dedicated group of fans are those over at Star Trek: New Voyages (Hat Tip to Rod Bennett) who are actually creating new episodes of classic Star Trek and making them available for download in Windows Media Player format. The actors (who are also the producers, writers, and directors of these shows) have paid out of their own pockets for props and memorabilia from the original series and have done a remarkable job of recreating the look and feel of classic Trek. They've signed Gene Roddenberry Jr. as a producer for one episode, and several alumni from the original series have made guest appearances, either as new characters, or reprising their original roles.

The weak spot, unfortunately, in both these fan-created audio and video dramas, is the acting. The performances (Ahem. How can I put this delicately?) lack a certain polish and range from truly abysmal to pretty good, depending on the performer's skill and previous acting experience. It's hard to be too critical, however, of people who are obviously having the time of their lives creating these shows and not making a nickel in the process. This is a labor of love for all concerned. Besides, almost anything's better than another episode of Survivor.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hooked on Heroes

While we're on the subject of TV, there's another show I've started watching that looks like it has the makings of an addiction: Heroes (Mondays, 9 PM ET, NBC). I was intrigued by the promos this summer, caught the first episode, and was almost immediately hooked. The show's tag line is "ordinary people discovering extraordinary abilities." Across the globe, a small group of people discover they're not like everybody else—no matter how much they might want to be. It seems each of them has a genetic mutation that gives them superhuman traits:

In New York, a struggling artist and comic book writer, Isaac Mendez, has the ability to predict the future in his paintings. His girlfriend Simone wants to put him in drug rehab again, believing this is just some sort of delusion. She finds herself falling for the handsome young male nurse who is caring for her dying father. The nurse, Peter Petrelli, who is likewise falling for Simone, finds he can fly. The problem? So can Peter's domineering, politically ambitious older brother Nathan who wants something this bizarre hushed up.

In Texas, high school cheerleader Claire Bennett finds she is virtually indestructible. She has a friend videotape her repeated dives off a roof from which she comes up unscathed. She plunges into the heart of a fire to rescue an injured man and emerges without a scratch. She sticks her hand down a working garbage disposal to retrieve her class ring, and her bloody mangled hand reverts to normal in seconds. A fellow student leaves her for dead after a rape attempt and Claire awakens during her own autopsy. As if that weren't bad enough, her adoptive father, a nerdy looking guy with horn-rimmed glasses, is hunting down mutants and has found the videotape.

In Las Vegas, Niki Sanders, struggling single mom and webcam stripper, heavily in debt to the mob, discovers she has a really nasty—maybe even homicidal—alter ego that seems to peep out at her from mirrors and other reflective surfaces. Two mob enforcers, sent to shake Niki down, wind up dead in particularly gruesome fashion, and Niki has no memory of what happened. Her alter ego leads her to a vintage candy apple red T-Bird with another yucky very dead body in the trunk and also leads her to a convenient spot in the desert to bury same. There she finds yet another dead body and a ring linking her thug of an ex-husband to the murders. Her seven-year-old son Micah is a genius who can rebuild a computer's motherboard from scratch.

In Tokyo, Hiro Nakamura, a geeky office worker with a passion for science fiction and comic books, discovers he can bend the space time continuum by the force of his will and teleport himself anywhere in the world. He teleports to New York approximately five weeks in the future and finds an Isaac Mendez comic book that describes his adventures. He also finds Isaac has been brutally murdered and gets a glimpse of a future cataclysm that will completely destroy New York—unless he can prevent it.

In Los Angeles, thoroughly average cop Matt Parkman, who failed the test for detective three times, learns he can hear other people's thoughts. Using this new talent, he finds a little girl who has been hiding out in her home after her parents were brutally murdered. He also learns there is a particularly vicious serial killer on the loose named Sylar who is also a mutant and can't be killed by conventional means. Sylar's modus operandi, or M. O. in cop lingo, is to freeze his victims, saw the tops of their heads off, and remove their brains. Blecch!

Meanwhile, a young geneticist, Mohinder Suresh, comes from India to New York trying to make sense of all of this and investigate the death of his father who died under mysterious circumstances while also tracking the mutants. Agents of the man with the horn-rimmed glasses track Mohinder and nearly kill him, but he is rescued by a beautiful young woman who claims to be his father's next door neighbor. In his father's apartment, they find a message on the answering machine—a conversation between Mohinder's father and Sylar the mutant serial killer. Stay tuned.

Think of this show as X-Men meets the X-Files. Mohinder, as the man of science trying to figure this all out is a bit like Professor Xavier, and the guy with the horn-rimmed glasses is this show's equivalent of the Cigarette Smoking Man. NBC is clearly banking on the geek-appeal of this show, trying to reach the folks who love comics and sci-fi. The promos brag about the internet buzz this show is already creating. The official website has downloadable graphic novels, areas for fan fiction ("fanfic" in internet parlance), and a section for fan art. There's already considerable discussion on the show's message boards about whether the cute next door neighbor is actually working for the bad guys.

Some of this smacks of manufactured enthusiasm (or in Noam Chomsky's famous phrase, manufactured consent) that may backfire on NBC in the long run. For a show to have true geek-appeal, the buzz the show generates has to be spontaneous. If the perception arises that all the enthusiasm for a TV show or a film is being artificially created by the suits at the network or the studio without any real excitement from the audience, the project will die horribly. Remember The Wild, Wild West movie? Or, for that matter, The Da Vinci Code? Both movies were heavily promoted, but once the word got out that they were lousy movies, they simply bombed. No amount of hype could save them. If the stories and characters of Heroes remain interesting, the show will prosper. If not, it won't be worth saving.

The show has some problems. During the pilot episode, Mohinder lectures his genetics class on the evolutionary advantages of the cockroach: it can survive adverse conditions for long periods without food, water, or even a head. He then says, "If God creates in his own image, then I suggest to you that God is a cockroach." Later when Mohinder moves into his late father's shabby New York apartment, we see a tight closeup of him stomping a cockroach. What exactly is being implied here? That modern science is stomping on God? That God should be stomped on? I'm not sure. While there's not too much onscreen violence, there's too much blood, guts, and gore afterwards. Sylar's method of killing his victims is particularly grisly; unnecessarily so. The writers can make him scary without making him disgusting.

Nevertheless, I'll keep watching, at least for awhile. But now to bed.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Lost in Lost

"Franz Kafka, call your office."

That was my first thought after watching the season premiere and first regular episode of Lost recently. Lost started off as part jungle adventure, part Star Trek-like plea for racial and ethnic harmony, and part philosophical/theological meditation on issues such as sin and redemption and the role of divine providence, blind fate, and random chance. Lately, however, the show seems to have veered off into this uber-creepy, super-paranoid territory. I watched Season 1 pretty faithfully, and missed much of Season 2 for one reason or another, but this seems to be the upshot:

In season 2 we learned the hatch that Locke and Boone discovered at the end of Season 1 leads down to a vast underground complex housing a vast underground, computerized, electromagnetic something-or-other that plays havoc with navigational equipment and was responsible for all the castaways being marooned on the island: the survivors of Flight 815; Danielle the crazy French scientist; Desmond, the British soldier turned round-the-world sailor; and Mr. Eko, the African warlord/drug smuggler turned faux priest. From the looks of the computers used to run the whatever-it-is, all this stuff was built in the '70s by some outfit called "The Dharma Initiative." Who they are, and why they built all this, we still don't know.

In Season 2 we also learned that there's a second group of Flight 815 survivors who apparently have their own agenda. Or is there in reality a third group that's manipulating everyone? Members of this third group kidnapped Michael and his son Walt and forced Michael to spy on Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayyid, et al. Michael murdered two of the second group when his spying was discovered. Jack, Kate, and Sawyer went to find Michael and get to the bottom of all of this but promptly got themselves captured by this mysterious third group. In return for their cooperation, Michael and Walt were placed on a boat and given a compass bearing that they were told would lead to rescue. Meanwhile, Locke, Eko, and Desmond tried to destroy the gianormous, computer-powered, electromagnetic thingamabob.

Now at the beginning of Season 3, it appears that this third group was on the island all along, and the crash of Flight 815 was deliberately induced by their super-duper whatchamajigger. Jack wakes up in a cell in an enormous underground--nay, underwater--complex (Must be one big frickin' island!) being interrogated by a lovely but cold-hearted woman named Juliet. She has a full dossier on him. How did she find out all this stuff and why? What does she want to know? Meanwhile, Sawyer and Kate are being held above ground in cages that look as though they were originally built for animals. Sawyer can get "fish biscuits" only if he works levers in the correct sequence, and gets an electric shock if he does not. Kate is treated to a lavish breakfast with the leader of this third group (Henry?), but she refuses any of it when he refuses to release Jack and Sawyer. He promises her "the next two weeks will be very unpleasant." At the end of last week's episode, Henry reveals that he and his group have been in contact with the outside world all along and offers Jack a Faustian bargain: if Jack will cooperate with him, Henry will release him and allow him to go home. Will Jack take the deal? Stay tuned.

Now you see why I'm confused? I suppose part of it is my own fault for missing some episodes, but Sheez, Louise! J. J. Abrams & Co. could make things a teensy bit clearer, ya know. Will somebody please explain what the funk is going on with this show?

Operation Hope

I just returned from two hours of soliciting donations for Operation Hope, the annual effort by the Knights of Columbus to raise money for organizations that assist people with mental retardation. It's a small and simple way I can help someone in need, The money Knights raise goes to Special Olympics and other state and local organizations dedicated to ensuring that citizens with mental retardation have the best and most productive lives possible. If you see somebody in your community wearing the K of C logo or a bright red and yellow smock, please consider making a small donation. Every little bit helps, and you'll get a Tootsie Roll in the bargain! Such a deal!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

My Kind of Exercise Program!

OK Go - Here It Goes Again

Wanted to see what this looked like on my blog. I can now post video to my blog! All the cool kids are doing it!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Great Minds Think Alike!

In a recent post, I commented on the outrageous piece of liturgical music abuse that is "Let There Be Peace on Earth." Seems I'm not the only one who feels this way. Via Pes, a commenter at the New Liturgical Movement blog comes the following:

Let there be chant on earth,
and let it begin with me.
Let there be chanted Mass,
the Mass that was meant to be.

With God as our Father,
singers all are we,
Let me chant with my brothers,
in pure monophony.

Let chant begin with me,
let this be the moment now.
With every Mass I sing,
let this be my solemn vow,

To pray each moment and sing each moment
of Mass, liturgically.
Let there be chant on Earth,
and let it begin with me!
Pes | 10.03.06 | #

No, wait a sec:

With God as our Father,
singers all are we,
Let me chant with my brothers,
at every liturgy.

To pray each moment and sing each moment
in pure monophony...
Let there be chant on Earth,
and let it begin with me!

That's better.

HT: Matthew at Shrine of the Holy Whapping

Well, Here's a Shocker! (Not)

Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit, reports on the Muslim reaction to Pope Benedict's Regensburg speech:

At least 99% of those who protested have not even read the speech as yet. Yesterday [Sept. 29] I took part in a broadcast on Iranian television with two imams, a Palestinian Sunni and an Iranian Shiite. They all told me they had read the speech in Arabic two days after it was given. But this was not true: the translation into Arabic was prepared only eight days later, by a friend who put it on his private site. When I tried to explain the meaning of the entire text, they kept quoting the famous phrase of Manuel II Paleologus, like a script.

What I find most disturbing about that quote is perhaps not the fact that so many Muslims haven't actually read the speech. I have the general impression that general levels of literacy and access to accurate, unbiased, uncensored information are much lower in the Muslim world than in the West. What bothers me is that the imams (i. e., religious leaders, i. e., people who should be better educated and better informed) would claim to have read the speech in Arabic when they couldn't possibly have read the official text. That means either (a) they relied on unofficial, inaccurate translations, or (b) they lied. The whole "Islam is a religion of peace" line is more than a little suspect, and now it looks like some imams aren't much on truthfulness either.

Hat Tip:Amy Welborn