Tag: television

Doctor Who’s “Rose”

Last night (while in the grips of a battle with nausea) I finally got around to watching the first episode of the “new” Doctor Who series. The episode is called “Rose” and it is the episode that kicks things off for the rest of the series. It is only the second Doctor Who episode I’ve ever seen1

“Rose” was a pretty entertaining episode and I enjoyed watching it, but I did not think it was nearly as good as “Blink.” There was one thing about the series that struck me right away, and perhaps long time fans of the series can confirm by perspicacity on this (or tell me that I’m imagining things). Doctor Who is a “dramedy,” a kind of combination of a drama and a comedy. Not only that, the humor in Doctor Who is distinctly Wodehousian.  So many funny things are said with a completely straight face that I could not help but think that if P. G. Wodehouse wrote science fiction, this is what it would be like. This is to the show’s (and the show’s writers’) credit. I think this is a very difficult humor to pull off, but Doctor Who did it successfully in “Rose” and for me, that’s what made it a worthwhile episode to watch. I do not think this type of humor would have succeeded or worked if the show were done in America.

One thing I will say is that unlike some series, I did not feel compelled to immediately watch the next episode. But I think this works in the shows favor, too. As I’ve said before, I prefer “series” over “serials” and the first episode of Doctor Who felt like a series show to me. (I understand that there are multi-episode arcs, but I’m just talking about “Rose” for now.) In any case, I enjoyed the episode and will watch another one when a free time slot comes available in my schedule.

One last thing. I mentioned in the previous post that I was feeling pretty horrible last night and among the horrible things I was feeling was fever dreams. I don’t remember them clearly, but what I do recall of them were all Doctor Who-related.

  1. The first was “Blink” which I watched back in December after many people recommended it as a good introduction to the series.

A final goodbye to television?

The last regular network television show that I deliberately watched was the series finale of Smallville. With that, it seemed, my television watching ground to a halt. Indeed, it has been more than 10 months since I watched TV in anything other than a most trivial way.

While I have often complained about television shows today, this wasn’t one of those deliberate decisions like I have made in the past. Other activities have filled the time that television once occupied and what is currently offered on television simply can’t compete with those other activities. Even shows that I enjoyed watching (like The Big Bang Theory, and Dexter) I gave up. And you know the strange thing? I’ve had no regrets and no desire to return to them.

The other activities of which I speak are things like: hanging out with the family, reading and writing. Given a fixed amount of time in the day, the competition is fierce for what gets my attention. It is pretty clear to me that I enjoy these other things more than I enjoy television, but as someone who used to watch quite a bit of television, I’ve recently wondered if there were specific ways in which I’ve been turned off to television. After some consideration, I can think of several:

  1. It is too passive for me. You sit in front of the television and content is poured into you without your having to take any action. Even for relaxing, I prefer something a little more active, which is why I prefer reading, or writing or playing with the kids. When I truly want to relax, I’ll put on my noise-cancelling headset and play game after game of Solitaire on my iPad, just letting my mind wander.
  2. Television programming is no longer designed for a viewer just looking for 30- to 60- minutes of relaxation. Most dramas out there are no longer “series” but are instead “serials.” The difference: a series is a show that has a related set of characters and background, but in which each episode is self-contained. You can come to the show knowing nothing about it, watch the episode and go on your way. Serials require all of the back story from the first episode going forward. Think of it like this: you can jump into pretty much any episode of Magnum, P.I. or M*A*S*H and understand what is going on without having watched another episode. But try doing that for, say, Lost. I don’t want to have to understand all of the back story. I want a self-contained story that can be told in 30 or 60 minutes. House started out this way in its first season, but quickly diverted onto the serial track.
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My first ever Doctor Who episode: “Blink!”

The back-story, for those who missed it:

A few weeks ago, I noticed a TARDIS parked across the street from my house and managed to capture a picture of it before it vanished. This got signal-boosted and I was bombarded by an incredulous Internet who couldn’t believe a science fiction writer had never seen a Doctor Who episode before. I tried to explain, mildly, that while I am indeed a science fiction writer, I grew up reading science fiction books and stories and never really got into the movies and TV shows. I’ve seen some, of course. I’ve even enjoyed some. But when I’m not writing, I’d rather spend my time reading science fiction than watching it. Still, the Internet is persistent and so I agreed to watch an episode of Doctor Who if the wise fans of the show could agree on a recommendation.

What was recommended was a show from Season 3 called “Blink” which I purchased from the iTunes store that very day, but which I didn’t have a chance to watch until yesterday. Well, dear Internet and Doctor Who fans, I’ve now watched the episode you recommended and I have a few comments to make on the experience, if you’ll indulge me.

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The Universe: Season 1

I finished watching Season 1 of the History Channel series The Universe a few days ago and I enjoyed it for the most part. The episodes were interesting and the computer graphics helped to illustrate concepts that might not otherwise be clear to a layperson. As a popular program on science, it does a good job. I think my favorite part of the show was seeing all of the scientists interviewed in each episode. I think there is a lot of value to hear about astronomy and physics and biology and chemistry from the people who actually do it and the scientists interviewed (some of them quite famous) seemed genuinely enthusiastic.

If I had one criticism of the show, it was that there was too much anthropomorphism in the writing. Galaxies were waging violent battles with one another. Black holes were swallowing matter as if they were living being with a consciousness. Ever present gravity always seemed to be “lurking” like some hidden beast, just out of sight. I understand the need for dramatics in a show on science, but it has been my experience that astronomy and astrophysics is exciting in its own right. It doesn’t need to be puffed up into something with humanlike characteristics. Toning down the writing in parts of the show might make it feel a bit more natural.

That said, the show is currently in its fifth season so it must be doing something right. At the time of this writing (last night) I am about to watch the first episode of the 18-episode second season.

And there is another positive side-effect of the show, from a science fiction writer’s perspective: from the first fourteen episodes, I got one solid story idea.

Yes, I will be watching HBOs Game Of Thrones

I’ve had a few people ask, knowing that I am not really a fan of fantasy, but also knowing that I think HBO does good series. My DVR is programmed to record the Game of Thrones (which I keep wanting to read as Crown of Thorns for some reason), but I cannot yet say whether I’ll watch it in realtime or not, especially since I start my new scheduled tomorrow. More than likely I will watch tonight’s episode when it airs, and watch the rest on DVR. I never read the books (although I met Martin once, briefly, when he was signing books at the now-extinct Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks, CA) so I will have to be careful to avoid spoilers.

You hear that people? NO SPOILERS!

ETA: Of course, the Yankees are the ESPN Sunday night game tonight at 8pm EDT so anything goes, I suppose.

I have discovered the Universe

I’m talking, of course, about the History Channel series that apparently started in 2007. I bought the first season and watched the first episode, about the Sun last night before bed and it was fantastic. I enjoyed it so much that I was a little sad that there were only 14 episodes. But then I discovered that there are 5 seasons and somewhere between 60-70 episodes. This makes me very happy and you can bet I will have more to say on the program once I’ve seen more of it.


Television’s death knell (for me)

Life is gradually squeezing television out of the picture and as Smallville raps up its final season, I may no longer have a reason, patience, or time to watch TV. Yes, I know that I’ve said this before. But there are some differences between then and now:

  1. I was single then. I have a family now.
  2. I had proactively decided to quit TV then. Circumstances have made TV mostly obsolete now.
  3. There simply isn’t time in the day.

There are TV shows that I enjoy, Smallville being among them. I also like The Big Bang Theory, Blue Bloods, and most of the HBO series like Boardwalk Empire, and Big Love. My DVR faithfully records these shows for me. But what I have found over the last several weeks is that I have had no desire to head downstairs to watch one of these recorded shows. Every time it occurs to me to do so, I think: do I really want to spent 40 minutes watching TV, or use that time to play with my little boy; or if he’s already asleep: read more from the current Astounding. Or write. Or take care of things around the house. This is saying a lot, especially since I still haven’t watched the newest episode of Smallville, and it’s been a week. I’m 2 weeks behind on Big Love and I’ve lost count on all the other shows that are recorded.

Some of it is schedule: where would I fit this into my day?

Another problem is that the Little Man like to watch his shows, stuff from the Disney Channel like the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse; or stuff from Nick like Sponge Bob. Or he’ll watch Cars DVDs. Or Elmo. The sounds from all of these shows, heard repeatedly, is like some kind of Chinese water torture. It makes me seek out quiet, and look forward to the moment when the TV can be turned off.

I don’t know if this trend away from television will continue–it certainly didn’t last time around. But like I said, the circumstances are different this time. I really do want to see the final episodes of Smallville. The other shows I care about a lot less. Given the choice of activities on any given day, television has pretty much fallen off the radar.

A world without television

I have this romanticized notion of what the world might be like without television.  Part of this comes my reading of the Golden Age of science fiction, which is generally agreed to have taken place from 1939-1949 or so.  Part of it comes from when my Grandpa used to talk about what it was like growing up in New York City without television.  When I was younger, of course, I couldn’t dream of such a thing.  Now, the more television I watch, the more I try to imagine how the world would be different without it.

Let me be clear:  this is not meant as a diatribe against television, nor is it to say that all television is crap.  Theodore Sturgeon said 90% of science fiction is crud.  I think Sturgeon’s Law applies to any medium, including television.  But there is the other 10% that is worthwhile, and without the crud, we likely wouldn’t have the gems.  It is for these gems that I have a difficult time giving up on television entirely–something that I would really like to do.  I’ve never been a visually inclined person, nor a willingly passive receptacle.  Reading a book generally gives me much more enjoyment than watching television, or going to see a motion picture.  Nevertheless, there are television shows I’ve watched that have had a strong impact on me: M*A*S*H, NYPD Blue, and The West Wing to name a few.

Even so, more and more I find myself imagining how the world would be different without television.  Intuitively, I feel like it would be a better place, but I can’t really support this.  My imagination fails at the task.  I once tried to write a story about it and couldn’t do it.  I finally decided it was because given our technological developments and our natural progression, television is inevitable.  Still, I am envious–even jealous–of those people who lived in a world without television.

In such a world, the things I loved thrived.  Science fiction boomed during the 1940s and even into the 1950s when television was a new an unproven medium.  A youngster’s raw material came from books and magazines, and often these were science fiction books and magazines, or their first cousins, comic books.  Coming home from work, one didn’t have to wonder if there was anything to watch.  There was no anxiety over the next episode of American Idol, or the final season of LOST.  Of course, there was radio, but that was almost as participatory as reading.  With the rise of television in the 1950s came a decline in reading, in particular the short fiction markets.  Television was easier entertainment.  For one thing, you didn’t even have to know how to read!

Today, there is so much television and it is so tightly bound to our daily lives, that we have to play catch-up.  The DVR has replaced and improved upon the VCR.  We can now watch shows at our leisure.  We probably record much more than we used to, and many of us have backlogs of show to watch, to fill those nights of reruns.  I can remember the days before the Internet.  The Internet really took off in 1994 and it has changed our lives in a clear and dramatic way.  I sometimes long for those days before I found myself constantly checking email; and then blogs; and then Facebook and Twitter.  But I was never part of the generation before television.

Television seems to add a level of stress and anxiety that was absent in the pre-television days.  That’s not to say that stress and anxiety did not exist in the days after the stock market crash of 1929 or the dark days before World War II.  But television added a new kind of stress: to be in the know, you have to keep up with the programming.  There are social pressures that were absent in the days before television.  Perhaps some of those pressures existed in radio days, but the stations and programming are limited.  Today, I have access to something like 700 channels.  Sometimes I don’t even know where to begin.

If television didn’t exist, I feel like I might get more done.  I might spend more time with the family, engaged in activities that don’t involve staring passively at a screen.  I might read or write more.  I know there are people out there who eschew television completely, but their will power exceeds mine.  And besides, there are some things that I like about it.  But there are also things I really hate about it.

Television has evolved into a medium whose sole purpose is to sell products.  Advertising has taken over.  Even television news is merely a vehicle for selling products to the kind of people who would buy them.  As a mass media, it takes the path of least resistance and expense, which means it tends to dumb down its programming to the lowest common denominator.  Newspaper articles tend to do this, too, these days. But like television, newspapers are using copy to sell products.  Books, I think, are different.

Most books don’t contain blatant advertising.  Oh, sure, I own Ace paperbacks from the 1970s with cigarette ads stuck in the center.  But those are the exceptions.  Books tend not to have as wide an audience as television, but they are not "broadcast", they are, more often than not, "narrowcast".  We call this narrowcasting, "genre".  Because books don’t attempt to reach the widest possible audiences, they don’t have to be dumbed down.  Because the content is paid for by the readers, not advertisers, there is no undue influence of advertising (at least that I can see).  There is no noise and light pollution that comes from watching television.  (Ah, what would it be like to look out the window and not see scores of windows glowing in electric-blue light?)  I can’t sit in a room with a television running and read a book.  My attention and ability to multitask in such an environment is limited.  But I can sit in a room with others, when all are quietly reading.

Maybe the world would be better without television.  We have farmed off a lot of our information to television.  Would we be better informed citizens if television did not exist?  Certainly newspapers, or the Internet equivalents would have to be of better quality than they are now (and perhaps they wouldn’t be dying off).  Would we be a more literate society?  Would we be able to engage in public debate in a more meaningful way if every time we had something to say, we didn’t have to fuse our position down to soundbites made ubiquitous by television?Would we have better control of our spending if we weren’t bombarded by 20 minutes worth of unnecessary products for every hour of television we watched?  I can recall even as a youngster watching Saturday morning cartoons, saying to my parents, "I want that!  I want that!" to every toy I saw advertised.  ("I want, I want, I want!" I can hear my folks’ voice echoing in return even now.)

There is an argument to be made for television pushing boundaries–race, sex, sexual orientation–to a wide audience that might not otherwise be reached by books.  (Think "after-school" specials.)  These arguments are certainly not to be denied.  All in the Family led the pack in this respect.

Perhaps it is simply that television is too big.  In most instances, I’m left feeling empty in a way that does not occur when I read a book, even a bad one.  For one thing, with books, in most cases, it is still possible to engage the author.  Write an author a letter (or send them an email) telling them how you enjoyed their book, or how you disagree with something, and chances are you’ll get a response from the author.  That is not true of television.  Often times we don’t know who the writers are, simply because writers of television programs are not highlighted in the way a writer of a book is.  Then, too, because it is a mass-medium, the actors, directors, and producers get so much mail they probably have no ability to respond in a meaningful way.  I don’t know about other genres, but I know that within the world of written science fiction, there seems to be an open dialog between most readers and writers.  There are conventions that serve this very purpose.

I realize that I am in the minority on this.  I realize that what I am doing is nothing more than casting back a nostalgic eye, seeing greener pastures behind me.  Television is here to stay and is constantly evolving.  Most of what comes out of it is crap, but there will always be gems among the junk.  But I can’t help looking back and wondering: are we really better off?  And more than anything else, wondering what it would be like living in 2010 with all our modern conveniences–except television.  It’s not a fair game, I realize that.  But I dream of it nonetheless.

Reclaiming lost time

I’ve nearly convinced myself of a way to reclaim lost time that I’ve been complaining about lately. I’m not 100% certain I can go through with it yet, and it is with some degree of trepidation that I make the decision, but I have nearly decided and so I might as well spell it out here.

I’m going to give up regular TV.

This doesn’t mean I’m getting rid of my television sets, although I have considered that to some extent because once I give up TV, I really have no need for a TV set. It is actually more practical than it sounds for several reasons:

First, I currently watch 8 show a week, totally in the neighborhood of 10 hours of television (if you don’t count commercials). I didn’t have a TV, I would not be able to watch those shows in the same way, and I would spend more time on things like reading and writing.

Second, most (but not all) of the shows that I do watch are available for download online and if I wanted to see them, I could watch them online either via the network website, or by downloading episodes through the iTunes store. I could also simply buy the season on DVD once the season is over and watch the show that way, too.

Third, I can watch DVD movies on either of my computers and have no need for either a DVD player or a television to watch them.

TV has gotten to be a time sync, even with TiVo, and I’m not sure that I am disciplined enough to avoid coming home and vegging on the cough in front of the television for a few hours when I could be doing something like reading or writing. It is, however, a tough decision. There would be shows that I miss, particularly shows on HBO. Then again there are the baseball games that I will miss, and perhaps other things of interest. But as it is, I’m not much of a TV browser and I stick to those few shows that I enjoy, so maybe this isn’t a big deal.

Furthermore, I know people who have done this and are happier because of it.

Finally, we all have a limited supply of time to do those things that we want to do each day. We have to prioritize. I enjoy my daily workouts, and I’d like to be able to read and write more than I am currently able to do. Sacrificing television, removing it from the equation would help me to focus on those things that I give higher priority.

This isn’t a rash decision, I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time now, but it is a tough decision nonetheless. In any event, I don’t plan on making a final decision until after the current television season is over, sometime in May. But I am leaning towards getting rid of TV for a while. Stay tuned…