The Other Great Doorway

Last week we chatted a bit about the books that showed us that SF/F had something to offer that other genres did not.  This past weekend, when Jim and my friends Sue and Hilary Estell came over, we found ourselves extending the discussion to include television programs.

Heading Toward the Final Frontier

Heading Toward the Final Frontier

Although most of these – at least for me – did not have the idea-jolting impact I found in books, they did offer a visual and auditory addition to the story experience that made them compelling in their own unique ways.

Sue, Jim, and I are all of an age that “classic” Star Trek captured our imaginations.  Jim watched it during its original release when he was in high school.  Sue caught it in re-runs when she was in college.  I didn’t catch Star Trek until re-runs and those very sporadically – especially at first.  In fact, for the longest time, I thought there was one episode only, “The Menagerie,” because that was the one I’d see in passing, usually when being chased outside to play on some summer afternoon.

My parents weren’t into having kids watch TV.  Except for the Sunday evening ritual of Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney, I don’t remember watching much TV until was about twelve and started babysitting for other people.  Then, whether with the kids I was babysitting (many of whom seemed glued to televisions) or after the kids had gone to bed, I caught up on my TV viewing.

That’s when I discovered that the show with the “butt-heads,” as we had dubbed the aliens in “The Menagerie,” actually had a whole lot of episodes. I also learned that the “butt-head” story, which had always confused me, had done so because it was a two-part story.  Catching it in fragments, out of order, had created a very surreal viewing experience.

After that, although I never became a “Trekkie,” I was certainly hooked.  I watched every episode more than once or twice or three times.  I read  the James Blish short stories based on the episodes.  Later, at the Smithsonian of all places, I bought a boxed set of the first four “Star Log” stories by Alan Dean Foster.  These were based on the animated Star Trek, which I’d never seen, so they were very exciting – all new Star Trek.  Later, I picked up others in the series.

These were the days before media tie-in novels cluttered bookstore shelves.  Even when tie-ins started appearing, there were only a few that caught my imagination.  The New Voyages collection had some good stories, as I recall, but most of the original novels were missing some intangible quality I found on the screen.  (Later I’d find a couple really good ones, but going into that topic could be its own Wandering!)

I owned two non-fiction Star Trek books –  The World of Star Trek and The Making of Star Trek – but, although I read these through repeatedly, they mostly served to confirm me in a preference that continues to this day.  Even if I love a show, I don’t care about the actors or how special effects were designed.  Although I enjoyed a few anecdotes, especially those about how the set design people created a starship on a shoestring budget, mostly I didn’t want the fourth wall broken – and I still don’t.  Let me keep my illusions and believe that , on some deep level, it’s all real.

I guess because of my willingness to believe the Star Trek universe was “real,” I puzzled over little unexplained details.  Initially, I watched Star Trek on a black and white television.  (For that reason, the joke about “red shirts” meant nothing to me the first time I heard it.)  When I saw the show in color, I tried to work out what each different color of uniform shirt indicated.  (And wondered why engineering and security apparently wore the same color.)  I also wondered what the different lengths of the braid on the cuffs meant.  Remember, these were the days before VCRs or the ability to “pause” and study a screen.  I had to gather my information on the fly!

Stardates were a particular puzzle.  I kept a notepad with the dates mentioned in a given episode, then tried to figure out the order in which the different stories happened.  You can imagine my disappointment when I realized these dates were tossed out at random and were not an indication of continuity.

All of this was great fun and, I think, contributed to my appreciation of the little details that can make or break a story world.

Star Trek was certainly my favorite SF TV show, but those late night babysitting gigs exposed me to a lot I hadn’t caught the first time around.  Mission: Impossible was a favorite (although I was a bit startled to see Spock without his ears and characteristic haircut).  I liked The Six Million Dollar Man, but never got into The Bionic Woman – especially after they introduced the stupid dog.  I could stretch my credulity to believe that a school teacher might get the bionic add-ons, — especially with the threat her very expensive boyfriend might go AWOL if she wasn’t saved –  but a dog?  A kid?

I watched other shows occasionally, but usually those with continuing casts, rather than anthology series like The Twilight Zone.

Sue Estell was a much more voracious viewer.  I asked her what stories grabbed hold of her imagination.  After noting that she couldn’t leave out the impact of the Star Wars movies, she went on to say that she had continued to follow the various Star Trek incarnations, liking Next Generation quite a bit, and finding something to value in most of the others. She then noted a range of programs, stretching to the present day: “The Outer Limits and Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, Battlestar Galactica (both the laughable old one and the edgier new one), V, SeaQuest, Babylon 5, Quantum Leap, StarGate SG1 and Atlantis (I did NOT like StarGate: Universe), Farscape, and more.  I watched just about anything on the SciFi channel in past years (before their programming managers went mad and classified wrestling as SciFi), except for The X-Files, which never drew me in.”

Sue’s “twenty-something” daughter, Hilary, has a viewing history that overlaps her mom’s, then takes off in new directions: “I think Star Trek all around was a starter in sci fi for me too, simply because Mom watched it a lot when I was little and it’s the kind of show I grew up knowing about. I especially remember the original Trek and Next Generation. I didn’t sit down to watch shows with Mom though until later, when I saw Farscape and Stargate SG-1, both of which I really, really enjoyed. Although Stargate started before Farscape, I know I only started watching it in season 3, so I’m pretty sure Farscape was The One that really started everything. (Show-wise at least. I’m in agreement with Mom about the impact Star Wars had on me for watching sci-fi/fantasy). I also watched about two seasons of Stargate Atlantis before losing interest, and then got into Firefly late to the game after I saw reruns on the Sci Fi channel. My most recent choice isn’t actually on the tv really; it’s a web-series called The Guild, which is about 6 gamers trying to cope with real life.”

As for me, when I went to college, my TV viewing pretty much ended for four years, as neither I nor my roommates had televisions.  The one exception was The Muppet Show, which my then boyfriend’s roommates watched with great fidelity.  Even after my undergrad years, when I moved out of the dorms and had a little TV, I didn’t get back into watching in a big way.  However, I did watch some “after school” animated programs.

These were the days when SF/Fantasy was becoming more prevalent, even in the afternoon TV shows.  I really liked Thundercats, at least for the first season.  After it became a hit, characters and stories were altered to provide more merchandizing opportunities.  Sigh…  He Man and the Masters of the Universe and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors were fun, too, although not up to the standard of Thundercats

When I finished grad school and moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, to teach at Lynchburg College, I had cable for the first time in my adult life.  However, even cable was not enough to draw me back into regular television watching.  I remember liking some of Quantum Leap, but I was too busy (this was when I was both teaching college for the first time and trying to break into selling fiction) to spend time watching much television.  Gaming was my chosen break and stress reliever, followed by – thanks to Steve Hogge,  a young man with whom I gamed, and southern fan Diana Bringardner – my first opportunity to watch more than the occasional bit of anime.  (That is another topic, one I touched on in the WW for 3-10-10, “Animated Enthusiasm.”)  These days, anime remains my main viewing choice.

Clearly, visual media is the other great doorway into SF/F.  Nor is there a dividing line between media fans and reading fans.  Both the Estells are voracious readers.  (That’s how I met them.)

What television programs were your favorites?  Which ones can you forgive for their flaws because they showed you places that made you dream richer dreams?  I haven’t really gone into movies here (so many stories, so little time), but feel free to include them!


17 Responses to “The Other Great Doorway”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Jane, as a dedicated Trekker (The proper term for Star Trek fans that for some reason never survived), I was on the floor laughing when you mentioned not getting the red shirt joke. I can only imagine your further confusion when red and gold switched from The Original Series to The Next Generation. Though I gotta say, even now, I’m with you on the whole “security and engineering get the same color?” thought. At least science and medical are still, in each their own way, science. If anything I’d see security getting lumped in with command (which is what gold was, and then red after the change).

    Anyway, Star Trek was the beginning of my sci-fi interest too. I grew up on it. Had the original series on VHS, and caught parts of the others on TV. I think for me the draw was all the tech and science not only made sense, but seemed attainable. In that I mean, I wasn’t left behind so much (where as sometimes I was shaking my head with Jack O’Neil when Carter went off on SG-1). I didn’t (and still don’t given how much has already come to pass) care how much current science said it couldn’t work. It did, they knew why it did, and I was fine with that. Plus the stories had so much more than just the adventure. One episode comes to mind, “The Masterpiece Society”, which teaches treading carefully even when helping along with just the adventure.

    And that’s where TV shows hook me. Babylon 5, Stargate (never saw Universe), Seaquest, Firefly, all good sci-fi shows, but I like the stories as much as the sci-fi action. Babylon 5’s creators knew they needed 5 years to tell the whole story correctly. They did it with a perfect collection of foreshadowing, drama, loss, gain, conflict, and yes, a healthy dose of humor (never stop laughing at Londo and G’kar in the damaged transport tube). These are the things that get them added to my favorites list.

    That or the characters. Today I move heaven and Earth to see “Rookie Blue”, “Chicago Fire”, and “Castle” because I like the characters. I love the richness of them, and the struggles they have to endure. The deep family Castle has is so rare to see in modern TV I’m glued to it! Plus watching him try to survive being the father of a teenage daughter becoming a young woman is often hilarious, as well as thought provoking.

    The funny thing is, I use my creative sponge to take from them all. Star Trek taught me to dream big on tech then make it work, B-5 reminded me the value of fighters and loyalties, Stargate and Chicago Fire speak of strong bonds on the lines, Castle… well okay, that one’s just pure insanity no matter what.

    Then again, is that so bad? I’m sitting here about to dig out my technical manual for the Enterprise D again, and the scary thing is, I actually understand it all!

    • janelindskold Says:

      Nice thoughtful reflections — and especially interesting since I know you’re a lot younger than I am so it’s interesting how similar things caught our attention.

      But I must remind you — back in the days when I was watching Star Trek, most people hadn’t seen it. If you said “Beam me up, Scotty” or any of the other Star Trek jokes that are now part of pop culture, they’d look at you blankly.

      And if anyone had heard of them, they were “Trekkies” not “Trekkers.”

  2. paulgenesse Says:

    Definitely Star Trek for me, and as a little kid the original Battlestar Galactica.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Hmmm. I’ve watched most of the original Star Trek and ST:TNG, but that was about it. Somehow I got out of it, rather than into it, mostly because the further I got into the sciences, the more grating they got.

    I think what really turned the corner for me was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, where the writer (and I can’t remember who it is now, this was decades ago) went to a conference for those wanting to write an ST:TNG script. Admittedly, it was cool that ST:TNG was taking scripts from outsiders, at least occasionally. But what really and truly pissed me off (and still pisses me off) was that, when script writers wanted characters to say something technical, they were supposed to write something like “The techity techity techity tech tech tech the tech, and techity techity techity etc.” And the props department would fill in those blanks right before the shoot.

    At that point, I had a bachelors in science, as did most of my friends, and we were all office temps because there was a recession on and there were no jobs in any of our fields to be had. We would have jumped at $15/hour to fill in those blanks in the script, but the ST:TNG operation cared so little that, not only didn’t they bother to hire an unemployed nerd to help their veracity, they proceeded to insult our intelligence with the random word salad that ST:TNG and its successors became so (in)famous for.

    There’s something about a SF show with a such a total contempt for science that riles me to this day. I don’t think they’ve ever realized that there’s a subtle but critical difference between science nerds goofing around, and clueless people making up crap that they think sounds good. People on the outside (e.g. most of Hollywood) may not be able to tell the difference, but people on the inside certainly can. Considering that science insiders are often passionate people who are willing to work on a project for not very much if they think its heart and brain are in the right place, it’s to that series’ eternal discredit that they’ve never bothered to ask the fans (or anyone else) to help them get stuff right.

    Anyway, long rant, but that’s my feeling about Star Trek now. Call me grumpy if you wish. The other thing I don’t understand is why Trekkers don’t make pilgrimages to Vasquez Rocks and Malibu Creek State Park, and why they don’t regard black mustard as the most successful life form in the galaxy. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then perhaps you don’t know as much about the series as you think you do.

    • Nicholas Wells Says:

      The first two are no doubt their favorite “Alien” planets. Just as Stargate used a lot of I think it was New Zealand and Canada. The mustard, you got me on that one. I’ll look it up next chance I get.

      And don’t worry. As I work on my own sci-fi, I try to make the science at least believable, if not mostly accurate. You can only do so much since modern science has so many problems with FTL travel.

      • Heteromeles Says:

        Hi Nicholas, it does help if you study scenes from those alien planets….

        As for the rest, it’s not just about believability, it’s about things like internal consistency, or in a bigger sense, respect for the world they’re building, even if it’s cockeyed. To me, Star Trek always seemed contemptuous, both of our reality and its own. It’s not a problem that’s unique to Star Trek, but it became quite grating over time. Nowadays, I’m afraid it’s become a bit of a hallmark for the whole world.

  4. sleepcompass Says:

    Growing up in the midst of the Cold War, the impact of watching a program with a Russian, Japanese and a black woman in positions of power, cannot be underestimated.
    Growing up with alcoholic parents, the sliver of hope that there could be different worlds and lifestyles literally kept me sane. And Vulcans? Besides being smart and sexy (I was 12. Trust me, it shaped me)a race that didn’t use violence as recourse? Kirk was it for me, trusting his instincts and passions and surrounding himself with sometimes smarter people.
    Outside of that, I loved Farscape and X-Files, especially for one big reason no one touches on. The relationship between the male and female main characters. The women were smart, capable and kick-ass and treated with respect and admiration by the males. And love. Didn’t anyone else out there watch Nick and Nora Charles?

  5. Peter Says:

    Being Canadian and growing up in the pre-cable days when of the three (!) TV stations our antenna could pick up reasonably reliably one of them was a public channel (TVO – think “PBS except without the c/o/m/m/e/r/c/i/a/l begging-for-donations breaks”) that carried a lot of British imports, my early genre leaned heavily Rightpondian – Gerry Anderson shows (especially UFO, and later Space: 1999), The Tomorrow People, Sapphire and Steel (brilliant stuff), and, of course, Doctor Who (the One True Doctor era – Jon Pertwee – natch). Later on the Richard Carpenter Robin Hood (aka Robin of Sherwood), which in common with Sapphire and Steel demonstrated that you could do genre TV really well with a special effects budget that wouldn’t buy a fast-food lunch as long as you had good writing and acting (a lesson that a lot of the higher-budget shows this side of the pond have yet to learn, sadly).

  6. Chad Merkley Says:

    I remember a lot of Saturday morning cartoons from the 80’s that had some strong anime influences–Voltron was one of my favorites. My parents claim I saw Return of the Jedi in a movie theater during it’s original release, but I would have been about 4 years old. When I got older, I watched as much Star Trek:TNG as I could, and later on, Stargate. I never really got into X-Files, Buffy, Firefly, or Dr. Who.

    Currently, I hardly ever watch fiction on TV. I actually don’t even have a TV in my apartment right now. I’d rather read or watch documentaries (the PBS website has a huge collection of stuff available for streaming).

  7. Alan Robson Says:

    Perhaps I can contribute a UK perspective again, just as I did with the books. A BBC television series that I never saw (because my parents thought I was too young) was profoundly influential in the 1950s. “Quatermass and the Pit” was so popular that pub landlords complained that people stayed home in droves to watch it, thus ruining their trade. It seemed the BBC had a bit of a soft spot for science fiction and so when “Dr Who” appeared on the screens in the early 1960s I was immediately enthralled. Despite the creaky sets and even creakier story lines and the apalling acting of the doctor himself, glaring fiercely at the camera and trying desperately to remember what his next line was, I just loved it. And so did my mum.

    The daleks were scary and children hid behind the sofa so they could watch the programme in safety. All except for my friend James. He found the daleks so scary that the back of the sofa was not safe enough for him. He had a large cardboard box that he hid inside. It had a small hole poked in it and he always hid in his box and watched Dr Who through the peep hole. He felt totally safe — everybody knows that daleks can’t get inside cardboard boxes.

    Later, “Blake’s Seven” was must see (Bing, bong, Avon calling) and of course the magnificent Gerry Anderson puppet shows (“Fireball XL5”, “Thunderbirds” etc). All these were much more inluential on me than “Star Trek” ever was. I mildly enjoyed “Star Trek”, but it came much later in life for me so again, it wasn’t that influential on my tastes.


    • Peter Says:

      Well, really – cardboard boxes are unnecessary. Just need to watch the show from the top of the stairs and you’re Dalek-immune.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      I should note that I’ve seen bits of Quatermass and the Pit online, so if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s still hope.

  8. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for all the interesting insights. Really, I must find out more about Daleks…

  9. Paul Says:

    Alan, it might interest you to know (you probably do) that, on this side of the pond, Hammer Films adapted all four BBC Quatermass serials into movies. “The Quatermass Experiment” became “The Creeping Unknown,” “Quatermass II” became “Enemy from Space,” and “Quatermass and the Pit” became “Twenty Million Years to Earth” (probably the best adaptation). I think the last Quatermass serial was movie-ized, too, but I never saw that one. The first two were pretty good B-movies, the third actually thought-provoking.
    My SF viewing on TV goes back to the hoary old “Science Fiction Theater,” where the stories were barely SF; the anthology shows like “Outer Limits” and “Thriller” and “Twilight Zone,” and then, of course, came “Star Trek.”

  10. Louis Robinson Says:

    You mostly – except for Alan – make me feel _sooo_ old 😉

    I picked up Star Trek about halfway through the first season, and it’s demise lead directly to the demise of the TV: Star Trek was gone. Bonanza was gone. Dragnet was gone. Hogan’s Heroes was gone. Rowan & Martin might as well have been by then. There was nothing worth watching on TV, so I dismantled it for the parts. It was B&W, btw, so I never did realise that ‘He’s dead, Jim!’ went well with red. [There still isn’t anything worth watching, for that matter, although skating and curling should be starting back up in a matter of weeks]

    I watched Star Trek, however, because it was SF – at that point I’d already been reading SF/F for years – although not as good as it might have been. I certainly enjoyed it, but there was nowhere for it to take me. It was the mention of Thundercats that brought to mind the shows that may have started me off: Thunderbirds and Fireball XL5. They weren’t, as far as that goes, the greatest SF, but I was young enough then not to notice. Unfortunately, that also meant that the Doctor came on after bedtime, so I was barely aware of him.

  11. Other Jane Says:

    Scot LOVED Fireball XL5 as a youngster. I’ve never heard of anyone else that watched it. He was in high school when Star Trek was first on…and it was very influential. He still watches it and knows all the episodes.

    I didn’t really watch that much TV as a kid. (Though I too watched the Muppets in college.)

    We watch a good bit of TV now as we prefer series to most movies. Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, Eureka, Game of Thrones, and Dr. Who are a few of our favorites. We recently watched Babylon 5. I had avoided it for years because of the gaudy costumes and funky hairstyles. Once I got past the look and got to know the characters, I found it was a very good story. All of these, and the non-SF series, we enjoy tend to have long story arcs and great characters.

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