Sunday, April 01, 2007

Ear Serial

Back when I was a very young child, I used to watch old Tarzan movies on television. Bear in mind that I lived in a rural area with 4 channels available from the nearest city (Pittsburgh) and one of them couldn't reach our location. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy watching those old black and white Johnny Weismuller movies. Children don't exactly have the highest standards when it comes to entertainment. I'm guessing that's part of the reason parents give them rattles and play peek-a-boo with them as infants.

The Tarzan series starring Mr. Weismuller ran from the early 30's to the late 40's. I'm guessing that the zeitgeist changed or the story lost it's novelty at that point and people lost interest in the series. By today's standards, the "movies" that were made in these types of series would be considered lower quality than most modern television series. However, they do have one thing in common with a lot of modern T.V. shows, particularly those which are in the sci-fi or fantasy genre. That is, they have their own "universe" where things operate differently than they do in the real world and they have strong characters which the viewer comes to know and love (or hate). Regular viewers often come to have expectations of how these characters will behave and can be disillusioned (or angered) when those characters act outside the box.

Because modern film-making is so much more sophisticated and writing for television is so much better than movie serials back in the early days of movies, it's easy to think that what we are viewing today is light years ahead of the old Tarzan series type of entertainment. At it's core, it's really the same basic formula which hooks people in. Create an exotic universe which operates by certain rules to create limits the viewer understands and the characters act within then add a balance of easily-identifiable characters with a central "hero" character.

The main difference is that the sophistication of the audience has been boosted by massive exposure to a variety of education and entertainment sources such that we're not willing to buy the notion of a man raised by apes and living in the jungle without a whopping dollop of cynicism and a feeling that the concept is overdone and trite by now. We now need to find our alternate universes some place where we can suspend our disbelief in a way which we can accept intellectually or in which we can find greater novelty. Enter the Star Trek universe (or Stargate, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Lost, Harry Potter or your fictional series of choice). While we might like to think our tastes are more sophisticated than those who watched corny old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials but we're little different. We're mainly just more easily bored.


Due to my 3-channel limitation, I never watched the original Star Trek much as a child and rarely as an adult until DVDs made it easier to access. That means the charm the characters and stories hold is still there for me. When I'm in the mood for some light entertainment and running around the apartment cleaning or cooking, I sometimes listen to a Star Trek audio book. I've still got ancient cassettes of books like "Spock's World" lying around somewhere. Recently, I listened to "Ashes of Eden" which is read by William Shatner. All of the original cast who narrate books on tape do quite a good job of it and Mr. Shatner is no exception. They inhabit each of the voices well (including the female ones) and get thoroughly into the spirit of the story as one might expect.

The story of "Ashes of Eden" is rather shockingly similar to "Star Trek: Insurrection" (the Next Generation movie) and I wonder if its coincidence or if the general framework of the book was pinched for the movie. Fortunately, "Ashes of Eden" as a story plays better than "Insurrection" did because the characters behave in a more credibly-motivated fashion. I won't spoil more of it than that in case any readers are interested in the book or audio except to say that the door to pushing the reset button on Kirk's death at the end of "Star Trek: Generations" is opened at the end of the story, as one might expect Mr. Shatner to do in case he ever wants to play an aging Kirk again.

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