Science Fiction: Books v. Television v. Movies

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 29, 2016

50 years ago tonight, “The Naked Time,” the fourth episode of Star Trek was shown. “The Naked Time” allowed the actors to chew the scenery, but wasn’t that science fictional. The context of Star Trek was very science fictional, with a spaceship exploring the galaxy, but often the episodes plot’s were centered around mundane conflicts or fantasies. Mostly the show liked allegories over speculation. My assumption then and now, was television and movie science fiction had to appeal to millions, and thus any real science fiction was watered down.

The Naked Now

This will reveal my media snobbery, but I’ve always felt science fiction I read was more advanced than science fiction I watched. That might be less true in 2016, because television has evolved a great deal in fifty years, but I think it’s still true. Because we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek premiering in 1966, I thought it might be fun to look at the other science fiction from that year. Were the 1966 SF novels and short stories more sophisticated than first fifteen episodes of Star Trek? I’m not comparing the quality of storytelling, but examining which science fictional ideas from 1966 was most innovative.

It’s rather ironic that the beautiful film version of Fahrenheit 451 premiered in England just days after Star Trek.  Directed by François Truffaut, Fahrenheit 451 was science fiction attacking a future where people gave up reading for television and comics. Few episodes of any version of Star Trek can compare to that film, but why haven’t we seen celebrations of its 50th anniversary? Why have we seen no public praise for the novels and stories below turning 50? Star Trek was loved by millions, and I’m afraid the science fiction books and magazines of 1966 were read by just thousands at the time.

Fahrenheit 451

We think of Star Trek as classic science fiction, but what most fans love are the characters, and the show’s allegorical content. If you compare it to the science fiction that was being written in 1966, I don’t think Star Trek was innovative, at least in terms of science fictional ideas. It was innovative television. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Star Trek. It was fun, and I’m very nostalgic about it. I’m just trying to put it into context of written science fiction of 1966.

The two Hainish Cycle novels by Ursula K. Le Guin that appeared in 1966, were far more mature science fiction than what Gene Roddenberry was pursing.  Even the two short novels published by the youthful Samuel R. Delany were far more philosophical, and intellectual. And if you compare the two tales of young men named Charlie, “Charlie X” and Flowers for Algernon, you’ll see that Star Trek went for the easy and obvious. And let’s face it, Star Trek just couldn’t take us to the strange alien headspaces that Philip K. Dick, R. A. Lafferty, and Cordwainer Smith could. Nor did it have the style of Roger Zelazny or J. G. Ballard. And it certainly didn’t have the elegant beauty of what Keith Roberts was writing. And it’s a real shame that Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey, Keith Laumer, Gordon R. Dickson, Jack Vance and Fred Saberhagen weren’t writing for Star Trek because they had wonderfully cool ideas for galactic civilizations – although Desilu didn’t have the budget to produce what they imagined.

A great deal of science fiction from the 1960s assumed humans will be part of a galactic civilization in the future. The difference between the famous TV show and what we read was the depth of those assumptions. Star Trek existed between the two most remembered science fiction novels of the 1960s: Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969). Can you imagine Captain Kirk visiting Arrakis or Gethen? What kind of exploration of those societies could a 50 minute TV show give us? Especially, when the plots usually involved Kirk being held hostage, and centering around escape.


Episode Idea
The Man Trap Alien that can shape shift, or telepathically make people think it looks different. Reminds me of “Who Goes There?” (1938) and The Body Snatchers (1954).
Charlie X Human raised by advanced aliens and taught psychic powers, must learn to live with normal humans. Reminds me of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
Where No Man Has Gone Before Two humans acquire god-like powers. Reminds me of Slan (1940).
The Naked Time Disease causes crew to lose their inhibitions.
The Enemy Within Transporter creates two Captain Kirks – one aggressive the other passive.
Mudd’s Women Space age mail-order brides with siren like abilities.
What Are Little Girls Made Of? Robots replace people. Reminds me of Philip K. Dick.
Miri On a mirror-Earth, the crew meet children that have very long childhoods and die when they reach puberty.
Dagger of the Mind About a penal colony and mind control.
The Corbomite Maneuver Advanced alien plays cat and mouse with Enterprise.
The Menagerie, Part I Mr. Spock commits mutiny.
The Menagerie, Part II Mr. Spock takes Enterprise to planet where aliens can control human thoughts.
The Conscience of the King Unmasking a mass murderer. Made me think of Nazi war criminals in hiding.
Balance of Terror The Enemy Below played out with Romulans.
Shore Leave Crew visits a planet where thoughts come true. This was written by Theodore Sturgeon but it felt like something Thorne Smith would have written.



Title Idea
Samuel R. Delany
Linguistics, poetry. Language influences thought and perception. Code breaking an enemy alien language.
Empire Star
Samuel R. Delany
The novel referenced in Babel-17. About simplex, complex and multiplex thinking.
D. F. Jones
A U.S. military supercomputer takes control and allies with a U.S.S.R. supercomputer.
Destination: Void
Frank Herbert
Developing an artificial consciousness, and cloned humans.
Laumer & Brown
Trying to find lost mythic Earth after humans moved to the stars.
Retief’s War
Keith Laumer
Intergalactic diplomatic hijinks and humor.
Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes
Mentally challenge young man artificially evolved into a genius.
Make Room! Make Room
Harry Harrison
A 1966 extrapolation of year 1999, speculated about the horrors of an overpopulated world of 7 billion.
Robert Sheckley
A comedy about a man who vacations across the galaxy by swapping his mind into various alien bodies.
Now Wait for Last Year
Philip K. Dick
Drug causes time travel and addiction during a time of war with aliens.
Planet of Exile
Ursula K. Le Guin
Anthropological study, and racial conflict on a colony planet.
Rocannon’s World
Ursula K. Le Guin
An ethnological mission to another planet. The word ansible, for faster-the-light communication was coined here.
The Crystal World
J. G. Ballard
Apocalyptic novel about life on Earth turning into crystal.
The Eyes of Heisenberg
Frank Herbert
Genetically modified humans, and longevity.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein
An artificial intelligent sentient machine evolved out of a network of computers on the Moon. The AI joins an anti-colonial rebellion against Earth.
The Solarians
Norman Spinrad
Space opera, about a star-drive that can destroy stars.
The Dream Master
Roger Zelazny
Citizens of an overpopulated Earth suffer psychologically and use dream therapy where their therapist enters their dreams.
This Immortal
Roger Zelazny
A devastated Earth is now a tourist destination for alien races to view our ruins.
The Watch Below
James White
Humans are stranded underwater. Think if The Poseidon Adventure had been science fiction.
World of Ptavvs
Larry Niven
Earth and “Belters” in a cold war, with story of ancient alien discoveries, and telepathic amplifiers.


Short Stories

Title Idea
Neutron Star
Larry Niven
Humans and aliens study a neutron star.
Light of Other Days
Bob Shaw
Invents slow glass, where light can take years to pass through, thus capturing scenes from the past.
The Last Castle
Jack Vance
Far future humans battle enslaved aliens
For a Breath I Tarry
Roger Zelazny
After the extinction of mankind, a sentient computer remembers our species
Call Him Lord
Gordon R. Dickson
Aristocrat from galactic empire visits old Earth.
Bookworm, Run!
Vernor Vinge
About an uplifted chimpanzee.
Pavane stories
Keith Roberts
About an alternate history of England where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated and Protestantism failed, and the technology we know never developed.
Day Million
Frederik Pohl
Love affair between two altered humans on what would be the millionth day AD.
In the Temple of Mars
Fred Saberhagen
Humans versus intelligent machines.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers
R. A. Lafferty
Humans visit planet and learn about a strange ontology.
Philip José Farmer
Humans reincarnated in another existence, one that stretches along one immensely long river.
The Ship Who Killed
Anne McCaffrey
Spaceship with a cyborg soul.
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale
Philip K. Dick
Recording false memories.
Under Old Earth
Cordwainer Smith
A visitor to an underground world without laws.
The Age of the Pussyfoot
Frederik Pohl
A man from our time visits the future via suspended animation. He is given a computerized personal assistant.
When I Was Miss Dow
Sonya Dorman
Sexless alien impersonates a woman to understand gender.
You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe
J. G. Ballard
Contemplating geometry and time
The Primary Education of the Camiroi
R. A. Lafferty
About a society where everyone is expected to be an expert.
Behold the Man
Michael Moorcock
Time traveler looks for Jesus.
The Keys to December
Roger Zelazny
Genetic modification.
The Secret Place
Richard McKenna
Science versus myth.



Title Idea
Fantastic Voyage Raquel Welch is made small enough to travel in tiny submarine inside a human body.
Fahrenheit 451 About a near future where books are banned, and society wants people to watch large flat-screen TVs or read comic books instead.
Seconds A rich middle-age man buys rejuvenation and attempts to be young again living with bohemians.
One Million Years B.C. Raquel Welch is cavewoman back when humans lived among the dinosaurs. (Not joking)

Is it surprising how many stories involved intelligent computers? In 1966, mainframe computers were common, but few people interacted with them. AI was a concept them emerged in the 1950s, and science fiction had grabbed it. Most of science fiction before the 1950s dealt with exploring the solar system. The idea of interstellar travel and galactic civilizations boomed in the 1950s, so by the 1960s writers were refining those ideas. Writers blended AI with spaceships. And sociology, anthropology, and psychology was embraced. Stories about human colonized worlds and aliens became richer. Much of the science fiction we read in the 21st century is based on science fictional ideas first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. What’s really evolved since then is the art of storytelling. We exist in a Baroque period of science fiction, where novels are gigantic, and often multi-part, but still exploring the same ideas science fiction fans first encountered in 1966.


Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage”

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 22, 2016

“The Cage” was the first pilot for Star Trek, made in 1964-65. Wikipedia has an excellent history and plot summary, so I won’t repeat it. I’m sure most fans remember this proto Star Trek with Mr. Spock as the only main character from the regular series. The sets, special effects, costumes, models, gadgets, were are all much more primitive than what we see in later episodes. However, the story is exactly the kind of story Star Trek was known for, and was later recycled into the two-part episode “The Menagerie.”

spock smiles the-cage

What I discovered watching “The Cage” a half-century after seeing “The Man Trap” on 9/8/66, is a different impression of Star Trek. I was never a fanatical fan, but I loved the original series, and watched all the later series as they came out. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Star Trek as Sci-Fi Lite. Quite often television and movies make science fictional ideas look silly, and all too often I criticized Star Trek for not being scientific. In recent decades I found it almost impossible to sit through the old shows because I lost the patience for 20th century television. But something in me changed recently, when I began watching the old shows as a way of understanding myself as I was fifty years ago.

For some reason, I got into a headspace where Star Trek worked again. I was able to forget the limitations of 1960s television production, my skepticism about scientific plausibility, the silliness of plotting, and enjoyed the show as its creators intended. This time around I discovered Roddenberry was less into science fiction than I remembered.

As I watch each episode with my friend Annie, I’m actually looking forward to seeing Star Trek again. We’re playing the series in order the episodes were broadcast in 1966-69 using Netflix streaming. Annie and I were both born in 1951, and we watched the show when it first came out, me in Mississippi and Florida, and she in New Mexico. This time traveling is bringing back memories of discovering science fiction, first in television and movies in the 1950s, and then in books in the early 1960s. Star Trek actually repackages all the common science fictional ideas of the times. We like to think of Star Trek as being an original television series, and it was, but sometimes it was The Beatles, but quite often it was The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, The Monkees had some great tunes, but they were manufactured hits. What fascinates me now is how Roddenberry repacked 1950s science fiction for his 1960s philosophy.

Gene Roddenberry never had the science fiction originality of science fiction writers of the 1950s. I don’t think he was even a big fan of the genre before discovering Star Trek fans in the 1970s. Except for a few episodes written by science fiction writers, Star Trek wasn’t contemporary with 1960s written science fiction. The New Wave in science fiction hit just before the series premiered. Watching these old shows again in the 21st century lets me see them differently from how they appeared in 1966. This time around, I’m focusing on the history of science fiction, and the ideas science fiction were exploring at that time.

Watching these shows again, I realized that Star Trek was less about science fiction, and more about allegory. Roddenberry was using science fiction to express his political beliefs. For those who didn’t live through 1964-1966, these were exciting years intellectually. Science fiction is the main ingredient in Star Trek, but there’s many other ingredients as well, including 1950s television, Civil Rights, feminism, anti-war, Pop Art, the Counter Culture, and so on. Each screenwriter brought something different, and Roddenberry squeezed all of it into allegories.

The Allegorical View


The words Talos and Talosians sound close to theology and theologians. In “The Cage” the Talosians have god-like powers. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist, and “The Cage” seems less about aliens from outer space, and more about beings from heaven. The show is about how theologians keep us imprisoned by our thoughts and the promise of heaven. Throughout the episode, the Talosians struggle to convince Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) to accept their fantasies for reality, tempting him with a beautiful woman, Vina (Susan Oliver). They want Pike and Vina to play Adam and Eve, and repopulate their planet. To be their servants, their hands in the physical world. It’s very Biblical.

The symbolism of this first show is rather striking. Humans reject god, leaving a rundown Eden to escape into space. Vina stays home, trapped in god’s delusion, disfigured by god’s image of what she should be. Rewatch “The Cage” and think allegory rather than science fiction. Think about the last temptation of Christ.

The Science Fiction


The warp drive was one of Star Trek’s most famous science fictional ideas, and it evolved over time. Science fiction has come up with many ideas about traveling faster than light. Ultimately, they’re all gimmicks to further the plot. In Star Trek, interstellar travel takes about as much time to get between the stars as ocean liners traveling between the continents did in the 1960s. In Star Wars, interstellar travel is faster than jet travel between countries in the 1970s. Science fiction seldom deals with the reality that interstellar travel, which will probably take centuries, if we’re lucky.

The transporter was another “invention” of Star Trek,  even though matter transporters had existed in science fiction before 1966. The story that’s always told, is the producers of Star Trek couldn’t afford using a shuttle craft, so they came up with the transporter to save on production costs. That’s fine, but there is a huge logic hole in their design. Why does it take a machine to send people, but not another machine to receive people? If they could grab people off a planet, why didn’t Scotty just beam Kirk from the bridge to the planet? Why did they always have to go to the transporter room to beam down, but didn’t need a machine to beam up. Think of the jokes Scotty could have played on Kirk, beaming him to a different Yeoman’s bedroom every night after he had gone to sleep.

Also, how many exabytes of data are required to describe a human in transporter logic? And the transporter appears to beam people faster than light. Does that require warping space? And how are people decoded at a distance without a machine?

The aliens in Star Trek often had super-powers, or even god-like powers. The Talosians could create perfect delusions in humans. The first regular episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” the creature was called a shape shifter, but obviously that was incorrect, because it appeared in one scene to several men, looking different to each. It evidently had the same power as the Talosians. But think about what such a power means. First it means faster-than-light data communication between two minds, with very massive amounts of data transferred. And with multiple humans, means multitasking at a tremendous rate.

Our minds can create very realistic, vivid hallucinations, but only when our senses are turned off. Like when we’re asleep and dreaming, or in a sensory deprivation tank, or we’ve taken some powerful drugs. Even then, the details of hallucinations are never even close to details of how we experience reality processed through our senses. Creating perfect illusions is impossible. This is only a gimmick for the allegory.

I don’t know why, but most “advanced” aliens are always given PSI-powers in science fiction. These super-powers are always very similar to the powers we attribute to gods. There’s no scientific reasons to think such powers exist in us, or aliens. Quite often in Star Trek, Kirk and crew meet aliens with such god-like powers. In each case Kirk is required to outthink such beings, and he does, although often with silly gimmicks. I get the feeling Roddenberry hated authority, religion, and any kind of mind control, and many of his science fiction stories reflect this in allegory. Often Roddenberry is much closer to The Twilight Zone than Astounding/Analog. But then again, maybe I need to revisit 1950s/1960s science fiction to see if it was more allegorical than science fiction.

To me, real science fiction was always about preparing us to go to the stars. Fans think that’s true of Star Trek. I’m not so sure, at least for the original series. My hunch is Roddenberry didn’t get the science fiction religion until after Star Trek:TOS. As I watch the shows, I’m wondering if the fans didn’t read the pro-space theology into the original series. I’ll see as we watch.


Buying a 65” TV in 2016 and Avoiding Smart TVs

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 27, 2016

I’ve been rethinking HDTVs. Buying a TV should be simple – but it’s not. There’s too much technology to compare, too many standards, too great of a price range, and too many options to consider. Psychologically, it’s hard to think about spending $3,000 for a TV set, when I can remember being a teen in 1964 wishing I could buy a Ford Mustang. Back then, the Mustang had a list price of $2,368. Then, and now, a big color TV is about 1/10th the price of a car. It hurts to spend that much.

I’ve been wanting a new 65” HDTV. My old 56” DLP Samsung is ten years old and the picture is only good when it’s dark outside. I’m on my third replacement lamp.  I’ve been shopping for a new, slightly larger, much brighter, 4K HDR HDTV. When I pick out all the technical features I want, I end up lusting after a 65” Samsung SUHDTV that runs $2999 at Best Buy. More than I want to spend. Best Buy also has a 65” Vizio E65U-D3 for $999. What does shelling out $2,000 more actually get me?

CNET claims the Vizio P-series ($1,999) has one of the best pictures around, and the cheaper M-series ($1,499) is almost as good. However, Vizio’s new design at first turned me off. They don’t come with a tuner or smart TV features. Instead they supply an android tablet to stream shows. My first impression – that’s a stupid idea. Then I saw the genius of their madness. They’re designing televisions for how people use them. Most kids love streaming content. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I stream most of my shows from a Roku 3, and I by-pass the built-in tuner of my existing set because I have a TiVo Roamio, with four tuners.

vizio M

A flash of understanding came to me. All I want from a HDTV is for it to be a monitor. I don’t care about smart TV features, 3D, curved screens, speakers, fancy options, zillions of inputs/outputs, or most of the other gimmicks. I don’t need a tuner. All I need is a screen, a cord for power, and one HDMI 2.0a HDCP 2.2 input. Just like a computer monitor. Maybe a Ethernet jack to update the firmware, but there might be a route around that too. And Vizio, I don’t want your tablet, which pushes me towards your E-series, but I prefer the tech specs on the P & M series. (It’s a shame the E-series isn’t just a M-series without a tablet.)

I have a component system. A/V receiver with multiple HDMI inputs and one HDMI output, Roku, Blu-ray and TiVo. All the intelligence I need are in those devices. The TV needs no smarts. I know there are people who buy a smart TV to do everything, but I’m not one of them. I prefer an external Roku. I considered TCL’s new Roku TV, but it doesn’t support HDR, and I’m not sure it’s built-in Roku can be upgraded. If the Roku released an upgrade to the Roku 4, or comes out with the Roku 5, that supports the emerging HDR standards, Dolby Vision or HDR 10, or the Ultra HD Premium standard, I can just buy a new Roku box.

All I want is a screen that’s fantastic, with full screen back lighting, instead of edge lighting. HDR is more important than 4K, but I want 4K to be ready for the future. The Vizio M-series would be great, if it didn’t come with that stupid Android tablet. Why pay extra for a mediocre tablet? I’ve already got an iPhone 6s Plus and a Nexus 7. I don’t think I’d ever stream from a tablet anyway. I bought a Chromecast a couple years ago and never used it. The Roku does all the web streaming I want, and the TiVo covers over-the-air broadcasting.

Right now I’m hung up on “full-array local dimming” and the E-series has 12 zones, the M-series 64 zones, and the P-series 128. The price difference at Best Buy is $999, $1,499, $1,999. The M and P have a VA panel, which CNET prefers, but they don’t know what kind of panel the E-series has. The M-series comes with a 720p tablet, and the P-series a 1080p tablet, meaning I’m spending hundreds for something I won’t use.

This makes me completely rethink HDTVs. Fancier sets want to replace Roku/FIre/Apple TV boxes, and even A/V receivers. They want to be our only device – and that makes sense for some people. But I prefer Roku over WebOS or Tizen. People have 4K content now because of Roku 4. I’m realizing it’s the Roku box that’s #1. It just needs the perfect display. I’m even rethinking my TiVo.

The TiVo lets me record over-the-air shows. But I mostly record the nightly news, some PBS documentaries, and old movies and TV shows from the 1950s. There are other sources for that content. I could jettison the TiVo and outside antenna and simplify my setup even more. However, I want to keep the Denon receiver and 5.1 speaker system. I play Spotify music, via the Roku, into the Denon, and it sounds fantastic. So the Roku provides both great video and great music. Plus I use it with The Great Courses Plus for lectures and learning.

When I take things apart like this, I realize I only want an HDTV set to be a monitor for the Roku. I was leaning towards the Samsung because it has a breakout box for all its connections. But the Denon A/V receiver does that.

I have to wonder if smart TV features will go the way of 3D. On the other hand, some people have always liked all-in-one combo units, like stereos with turntable, CD, tape drive, receivers housed in one case, or TVs with built in VHS/DVD players. I’ve always liked stereo component systems where I can upgrade each feature separately.


Television for the 55-Plus Folks

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 2, 2016

Talking with my old buddy Connell last night, I commented that everyone today has very different tastes in music. Out of 432 songs on my favorite Spotify playlist, I might share a unique handful with each of my friends. Back in the 1960s, when we were young boomers, we all watched the same three TV networks, listened to the same AM top-40 radio stations, often bought the same albums, went to the same rock concerts and movies, and pretty much shared the same pop culture. Living in the shiny future of the 21st century, pop culture has exploded. Everyone has gone off to do their own thing—usually tuning out with earphones and a personal screen—and won’t VR be even more isolating? I feel little pop culture kinship anymore.


I wonder if cord cutters, the retired ones, aren’t all sitting in our darkened rooms, by ourselves at night, watching the same TV shows? We’ve reduced our TV universe to a few local broadcast networks again. Going from 200+ channels to a handful might be a socially unifying trend. How many of us are watching Antenna TV, Grit TV, Movies!, Decades, GetTV or MeTV?

I cut the cable cord years ago. I planned to watch Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services instead. What’s weird is I spend more time now watching broadcast TV. What goes around, comes around. I own a Tivo Roamio, which allows me to record over-the-air TV—and zip past the commercials. When I do see the commercials, most are targeted to my demographic, the 55-plus crowd. At any random moment of the day, a quick flip by all the channels will mainly reveal commercials. To get folks to watch those commercials they use old shows and movies as bait. I guess they know what we’re biting.


If I didn’t have the Tivo, I couldn’t handle that. I hate commercials. Yet, I’ve got to admit they’ve got my number, because these networks broadcast content that appeals to me, and I assume, to my fellow baby boomer cord cutters. I hardly ever watch the major networks anymore. Their primetime shows aren’t geared to my tastes. Mostly I watch PBS. However, when I’m not watching public television, I love the local channels that show old movies, and to a lesser degree, the old television shows. Especially content created in the 1950s and 1960s, when I grew up. Is broadcast TV curated for us baby boomers? Or do young people like retro-TV? After we get on social security, and our fixed incomes become cable-unfriendly, lots of us go back to over-the-air television reception. Evidently, marketing gurus have discovered old episodes of Peter Gunn, Perry Mason and The Twilight Zone sell adult diapers, self-catheters, Consumer Cellular phone, prostate pills, unbreakable reading glasses, and other doodads for the 55-plus-set better than reruns of Cheers or The Mary Tyler Moore Show . I have 4-5 channels where I can watch the same shows I watched when I lived with my parents. Decades later, in the 1980s we chanted, “I want my M-TV.” Now I sing, “I want my GetTV.” (My city doesn’t have it yet.) There’s a tremendous number of broadcast networks, but no city gets them all. But as each city gets more of them, won’t there be less demand for cable?

     movies tv logogettvlogo

How many over-55 cord cutters are watching these networks? By reducing the the number of networks we watch, do we bring ourselves closer? Will there ever be a time again when people share the same pop culture? Sometimes I think I could cut out all TV but one network – PBS. Are public television lovers my chosen peeps?

I cancelled my subscription of Netflix discs because I just let the discs sit around for weeks. I have Netflix streaming, but I don’t watch it much, mostly for documentaries. I also have Amazon Prime which I use to watch new television shows and movies when I have company. When I’m by myself, which is most of the time, I mainly watch documentaries on PBS or old westerns. I spice things up now and then by trying an ancient TV show, or an old film, in particular, a 1960s comedy, or a 1940s film noir. When I have friends over, we watch new TV shows like Mr. Robot, Humans, Fargo, The Knick, Man in the High Castle, Mad Dogs, etc. I do like modern scripted TV, especially if the show is one story told in 10-13 episodes. But I save those shows for when I have company and we can share. It’s great to have new shows to talk about. Solitary watching is different. I guess my comfort TV is old stuff.

I realize I have multiple personalities. I have my main personality that watches TV by myself, and a different personality for each of my friends. I almost never listen to music with friends anymore. I guess group listening to albums stopped when we quit smoking pot back in the 1970s. I wonder if medical marijuana for old folks is bringing back album parties? I do read books with friends, sometimes, because of book clubs. And I usually go to plays and art shows with friends. When I think about it, I spend a lot of time enjoying various art forms alone. Back in my K-12 years, that wasn’t so. You’d watch TV with your family, and then go to school the next day and discuss the shows with your friends. Our world was smaller, but it was closer. I guess in a couple decades when I move into a retirement home, I’ll be back watching TV together with a new family.

With over sixty years experience watching TV, I’ve gone though many phases of TV culture. I wonder as I get older if I’ll want to rewatch 1970s TV, and then 1980s TV, and if I live long enough 1990s TV. Do people get nostalgic for their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties? In the future, will baby boomers crave Must See TV and want to watch old episodes of Seinfeld, Mad About You, and ER? Right now I can’t even make myself watch old Star Trek series which I once loved. Will, I change in the future and crave them again? Or will nostalgia always keep me trapped in 1956-1965 TV-land?


I’m Switching From NBC Nightly News To PBS NewsHour

James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 3, 2015

I’ve been a faithful follower of NBC Nightly News for decades now. But last night’s report, with the entire show covering the mass shooting in San Bernardino, convinced me I’m not being well informed by my news source. Mass shootings are horrible, but they can’t be the only news. Neither can storms, fires, earthquakes, floods and other natural catastrophes. Nor can crime, war and politics dominate our awareness of what’s going on around the world. The NBC Nightly News has become so obsessed by sensational stories that I feel they are the only news events happening in the world each day.

NBC Nightly News

I learned far more about the San Bernardino shootings this morning by five minutes of reading The New York Times, than the 30 minutes spent watching The NBC Nightly News. Last night’s time was wasted on speculation, or watching police carefully inspect a SUV, shown from a camera above the scene. Sometimes we get the news too fast. Watching it as it happens might be exciting, but it’s often deceptive, and full of incorrect information. Network news gives us a 20 minute summary of world events, but are those stories the best ones to spend my 20 minutes of news watching? I could cover more stories by reading.

I’ve routinely watched The NBC Nightly News because it was slickly produced and I like Lester Holt and the NBC reporters. Last night I was particularly disappointed by not hearing about the climate change summit in Paris. It should be big news if more world leaders met there than anytime ever before in history. What happened in San Bernardino was horrible, and an important news story, but the climate conference deals with the fate of the world. Does NBC assume we’re not interested, or think it’s too subtle for us to understand? Or that mass shooters scare us more than a worldwide universal threat?

For now I’ve deleted The NBC Nightly News from my TiVo and added The PBS NewsHour. In the past I’ve tried to switch to just getting my news online, but for some reason I enjoy how television conveniently packages the news. So I’ll try PBS for a while. In the long run, I might need to give up on television. I’ve always avoided local news because I find it so damn depressing, but I’m wondering if I wouldn’t be better citizen if I took more interest in my own city. Then just read about the rest of the world on the Internet.

This brings up two interesting questions. First, how much time should we spend each day on the news? We all need to be well informed citizens, so how much daily time does staying informed take? Second, which topics are the most important to follow? A surprising amount of reporting are on topics that are forgettable. For example, what do we learn about the world from film clips of forest fires? Quite often NBC spends a nightly ten minutes on forest fires, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, but they are so common that all forest fire reports look the same. And why are all the stories about fighting fires. Why not stories about managing forests to prevent fires, or how people rebuild after fires, or where do all the wild animals go in a fire? Political reporting is becoming monotonous too, usually just telling us what stupid thing Donald Trump said today.

When I think about it, I wonder if the news is packaged to pander to a specific psychological addiction in us. It’s become entertainment, not education. I’ve watched PBS NewsHour off and on, but it takes more time to consume. Let’s see if I feel better informed.

Essay #985 – Table of Contents

How TV Shows Defines Us

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yesterday The Hollywood Reporter came out with Hollywood’s 100 Favorite TV Shows where they conducted a poll asking people to vote for their single all-time favorite TV show. My immediate answer was Breaking Bad, which came in at #2. I was familiar with most of these shows, and had faithfully followed many of them, but only six were ones I wished I owned as complete series on Blu-ray (and would want to watch again). The other five were The Twilight Zone (#17), Friday Night Lights (#38), Downton Abbey (#44), Freaks and Geeks (#50), Star Trek: The Next Generation (#55) and Battlestar Galactica (#95).

Balllestar Gallactica Last Supper

Now that’s an odd combination. But I have to assume it’s a kind of fingerprint, one that identifies my personality. Ten or twenty years ago I probably would have listed several sitcoms among my favorites. I hardly ever watch sitcoms anymore. Have I lost my sense of humor? This summer my favorite shows were Humans and Mr. Robot, both of which I bought. I’ve already seen Humans twice, and I’m watching Mr. Robot again with a second set of friends. Shows not on the Hollywood Reporter list that I’d add to my collection would be Northern Exposure, Shameless, Big Love and The Outer Limits. My all-time favorite television show has been NOVA – but they don’t seem to want nonfiction.

The common theme of my TV shows is science fiction, yet my most love series is about a meth maker. In terms of self-reflection I’d have to say I grew up like the geeks in Freaks and Geeks. That’s probably my 2nd all-time favorite, and I’d say my third is Friday Night Lights or Big Love, which is weird because I hate football and I’m not religious. And why would anyone identify with the people in Shameless?

For most television, and I’ve been a very avid watcher since 1955, I can only watch a series once. Of the shows I’ve listed here, I’ve already watched twice, or plan to. I’m not sure I can watch Star Trek: The Next Generation again, but I keep hoping I can. I have such fond memories of that show, but whenever I try, I discover it’s still too soon. I’m already ready to watch Breaking Bad and Freaks and Geeks for a third time through. However, since I know my tastes have already changed several times over my lifetime, I wonder if I will still love any of these shows in my seventies or eighties?

My guess is we all respond to a certain kind of storytelling, and the shows we love resonate with that inner narrative we use to see the world. By that measure, my preferred shows have one consistent trait, they are all about oddballs and oddities. I’ve never been a team player, and I’m fascinated by people living on the edge of normal. My guess the person I become in my eighties will love recent shows, and he will have forgotten all these older ones. I listed The Twilight Zone and The Other Limits because they are anthologies that still work for me, but only barely.

One reason I loved Mr. Robot this summer was because it was complicated and contemporary. If you graph shows by complexity, you’d see that shows of the past were simple, and we’re moving towards ever increasing sophistication in storytelling. If my cognitive functions hold up as I age, I think I’ll always prefer richer storytelling. And I worry about my friends who have become so nostalgic for simpler storytelling.

I used to love Gilligan’s Island in the sixties but now when I catch it flipping through the channels I wonder if I was brain damaged as a kid. In fact, nostalgia drives me to try to watch many of my favorite shows from the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s always a painful experience I can’t endure for more than a few minutes. How come I changed?

We all grew up with television, and I think our favorite television shows are touchstones for some of our best memories. I often think of people I used to know by the shows I watched with them. When I think of my mother and father, I remember the shows they loved, and figured those shows are a way to understand who they were. When I talk with my sister, we mainly discuss the television we’re watching. When I meet new people, I often relate best to those people who talk about shows I like too. I’m convinced that television shows are much better indicators of personality traits than astrological signs. I know that’s not scientific, but doesn’t it just feel right?


Are Historical Movies An Insult to History?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 14, 2015

Last night I watched Belle Starr, an old 1941 western with Gene Tierney and Randolph Scott. I didn’t know anything about Belle Starr before the movie, other than her famous name. So after the show I looked her up on Wikipedia. The movie was complete bullshit. Now this is a particularly bad example to ask this question: Should we avoid movies that claim to be based on history?


In the past year I’ve seen films about Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and J. M. W. Turner. All three films won awards and received much critical praise. In each case I felt like I was looking at detailed recreations of the past. Yet, when I read “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” by Christian Caryl, I was troubled that I might have gotten a very wrong impression about Alan Turing. I now wonder about my history lessons on Hawking and Turner. Watching those films let me feel I was getting to know those men. Now the more I read, the more I doubt, the more I feel confused, and even misled.

Movies make a far greater impact on our brains than reading black and white words on paper. Even documentaries can give the wrong impression, so we must be extra cautious with historical fiction. Should we assume any fictional account of history is only fiction? That’s really hard for me to do. I can’t turn off my sense that I’m learning history when I’m watching a film, or reading a historical novel. If I know some of its real, then all of it feels real, especially if the storytelling is good. Fiction can be very convincing.

We have all kinds of ways of learning about history. History books, journals and courses are the most respected sources, but there is also museums, paintings, photographs, archival film, newsreels, sound recordings, transcribed interviews, letters, diaries and even archeological artifacts. If you’ve ever seen a Ken Burns documentary, you know how powerful such evidence can be. Yet, when we watch a movie, it feels like we’re reliving history. It’s very hard not to let Hollywood teach us about the past.


I must wonder, did The Imitation Game treat Alan Turing fairly? Would Alan Turing have been flattered to see himself on the big screen as a cinematic hero? In a way, it was vindication for being mistreated in life. In another way, it was an insult, because they still got him wrong. I’m pretty sure the real Belle Starr would have laughed her ass off at seeing Gene Tierney’s version of herself. Stephen Hawking has been very kind in his praise for The Theory of Everything, saying it was broadly true, and at times it felt like he was seeing himself on the screen. However, Slate magazine compares film and history in “How Accurate Is The Theory of Everything?” and again, I’m disappointed by how I’ve been tricked. How disconcerting must it be for a real person to compare what they see on the big screen to real memories?

Our approach to history has always been fast and loose. Often shows on The History Channel are an abomination. Remember, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the quote, “When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.” Of course, that’s the movie’s side of things. Quite often when I see clips from Fox News, I get the feeling their sense of reality was learned from Ronald Reagan’s screenplay tinted view of history. We often remember the facts the way we need them remembered.

I’m starting to wonder if I should avoid any film or television show that claims to be based on truth, because movies are so powerful, that once I see them, that’s how I see history.