Peter (hujhax) wrote,

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... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  DIY Hydroponic Gardens
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Star Trek: The Original Series (season one)

DIY Hydroponic Gardens: How to Design and Build an Inexpensive System for Growing Plants in Water by Tyler Baras
This is "Farmer Tyler" Baras's 2018 book that talks readers through how to build a dozen basic hydroponic systems.

I am still looking for the One True Resource for indoor hydroponic systems — something that explains the overall science, gives you a good grasp of the engineering involved, lays out the troubleshooting when every possible thing goes wrong, and does it all in a way that's entertaining and engaging.  So far, I've found dozens of web sites that all seem a little bit geocities.

DIY Hydroponic Gardens falls short of that holy grail, but it's perfectly decent.  It gives you a fine overall grasp of how hydroponics works.  It does a great job of explaining everything at a beginner-ish enough level, instead of immediately yammering about how your grommets are the wrong pH for your chipped coca substrate or some such gibberish.  It reads like a really good wikipedia page on "how to build a simple grow-op".

Amusingly, it occasionally falls into the problem that every 'normal' gardening book hits sooner or later: "this advice is useless for Austin".  Every outdoor hydroponic setup advises on how to keep things warm (ha!) during cold snaps, but no word on (say) how to keep your standing water from turning into a thriving mosquito farm.  And there are lots of DIY parts that I found myself wincing at — yes, I can *build* a giant wooden box, but I could buy a giant wooden box, and it would be less expensive and less likely to lead to disappointment and injury.

Still, the detailed, step-by-step walkthroughs of how to do the builds, with everything short of Wile E. Coyote-style schematics, are very helpful.  Even if you never build any of these designs, you come away with a much stronger understanding of what you're looking for — if you're going to buy a prefab product, you know what features you want and what might go wrong with it.  And I'm sure people who are handy-er than I am could successfully build their gardens from the detailed designs.

Star Trek: The Original Series (season one)
This is the 2009 remaster (higher resolution, better special effects) of the classic 1966 show that kicked off the whole Star Trek franchise.

In season one, Star Trek is not a good show, but it might be a great one.¹

Star Trek is over fifty years old now.  And television drama is kind of an odd thing.  You can watch a movie from decades ago and enjoy it.  You can read a novel from hundreds of years ago and have a fine time.  You can watch a play from thousands of years ago and connect to it perfectly.

But television is weird.  And TV drama is especially weird.  You can watch old TV *comedies* and, while it might be problematic in places, or the humor might age badly, you 'get' the basic structure of a sitcom, even if it's an old sitcom.

But dramas have aged... oddly.  When you watch a TV drama from the '60s, it's just *astounding* how slow it feels.  For starters, an hourlong drama has some 52 minutes after the commercials are removed — and it uses that time languidly.  You get long opening and closing credits.  You get long stretches in between events — Star Trek has four acts and a teaser, so usually you're going about fifteen minutes without an 'act out' — some big pre-commercial-break cliffhanger.

Old TV dramas treat their audiences like they're constantly being interrupted and distracted.²  The start of every act always reminds the audience where we left off and what the story was.  If a scene ends with a detective saying, "I'll drive to the warehouse and check it out," then we'll cut to the detective getting into a car, then stock footage of the freeway, then the detective getting out of the car, then an exterior shot of the warehouse, then the detective opening the warehouse door.  At every point, the narrative is gentle and slow, to the point that it's hard to watch at 1x speed — your brain, conditioned by today's concise, eventful storytelling, keeps saying, "Yes, okay, I get it, you can move ahead now."

And it's so repetitive.  If a fight scene has one punch, it might as well have five.  If someone's walking into a cave, we'll see three or four shots of them entering sections of cave.  Arguments loop in place.

At the same time, the look of old shows is... oddly simple.  These days³, we may not be in a Golden Age of Television any more, but we're certainly still thriving in the Golden Age of Television Cinematography.  We're awash in shows that look like goddamn Terrence Malick films, and the ones that don't, are doing so because they're making very specific, deliberate choices with their visual style.  Simple example: The Office looks like The Office.  It doesn't look like shows that are not The Office.  And those choices it makes are strongly in service of the tone and style of that particular story.

Obviously, we can all make fun of the special effects in Star Trek — though frankly the CGI effects in the *remastered* edition are a gold standard for special editions.  The CGI Enterprise looks like a very, very well-designed and well-shot 1960s model, and countless scenes are filled with subtle tweaks to (say) improve backgrounds or clean up display screens.  With most of the new effects, you don't even notice they're there — instead, the shot seems 'better' in a way you can't put your finger on.

But apart from the effects, they shot Star Trek in a very "aim a camera at a stage play" style.  There is no "deep background" in Star Trek — because it was viewed on a screen with the resolution of, say, this paragraph — anybody twenty feet from the camera is a vague blob.  For that same reason, most conversations are alternating close-ups.  More broadly, how a scene is shot rarely *means* anything in and of itself — instead the cinematography gets out of the way so that blocking and acting can do the work.  Recall that the heyday of "broadcast plays" was also in living memory, and TV was still in many ways designed to be a radio play with pictures added on — i.e., one should be able to perfectly understand the show just from the audio track.

And in contrast to that Office example, Star Trek looks like... pretty much all the other dramas of its day.  It's almost off-putting to watch now — many shows are bad, these days, but very few of them look *boring*.

All of this is to say, Star Trek, because it's a very old TV drama, starts at a considerable disadvantage.

But then, there are certain *advantages* to being so old.  The slack plotting means that there is plenty of time for each story to breathe.  Specifically in Star Trek, this means plenty of time to talk.  If they discover something novel or mysterious, the crew — ideally, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy — kick back and chat about possible implications or explanations.  At its best, it gives the show a pensive feel — more 'golden age of science fiction' than 'action show with spaceships'.  They get better at this as the season goes on, much to the show's benefit.  (More about that in a bit.)

Star Trek also has an almost gleeful lack of genre.  Yes, it's science fiction, and yes it's in space, but beyond that: no rules.  Star Trek can nimbly leap from "submarine warfare" to "Shakespearean murder mystery" to "courtroom drama" in a way that even Star Trek: The Next Generation (in many ways this show's clone) didn't equal.  I guess nobody told Gene Roddenberry that an episode of your show should cover material that *only* your show can do.  And honestly, that sort of scattershot variety made perfect sense to its contemporary audience, for whom the great anthology dramas of the 1950s were still in living memory, and for whom "season-long narrative arcs" were still thirty years in the future.

There are other ways it's aged badly — things that have nothing to do with the history of television.  The show was progressive for its time, but obviously it can be cringey to watch now.  Yes, nearly everyone in charge is white.  Most of the women seem to be secretaries of some sort, always handing off clipboards for Kirk to sign.  And yes, the show does some wildly sexist things — for instance, the otherwise-excellent "Space Seed" stumbles in having the whole plot hinge on a female crewman falling instantly in love with Khan and betraying the ship — though it's fascinating to see how the "wildly womanizing Kirk" trope just isn't there in season one.  He has former romantic partners.  His manner of 'seduction' seems to be "treat women respectfully and take an interest in them".  So, y'know, chill, nerds.

It's also got the curse unique to old sci-fi: if an old sci-fi story is successful, it loses its capacity to surprise a modern audience.  For instance, the twists of old Twilight Zone episodes always leave us pitying these poor, blinkered characters who didn't see it coming — because both the style of twist in these shows, and often the particular twists they use, are now embedded in modern culture.  So it is with these early Treks — all the godlike entities, all the time-travel stories, all the weird culty hiveminds, they've all been used and reused so much in sci-fi shows since that they feel cliché right out of the box.

And finally, TV writing as a whole has gotten stronger since the days of ST:TOS — if you're watching The Witcher, you're watching this generation's Xena, but the depth of the world-building and the quality of the dialog is leagues ahead of where we were.  Star Trek just isn't good at the nuts and bolts of plot building.

For example, in "Space Seed", the whole story comes down to a fight between Khan and Kirk.  (It's kind of silly, how often a Trek episode comes down to an awkward fistfight.)  Put on your writer-hat: how should that fight get resolved? How should Kirk win?  Ideally, it should get resolved with a plot element that was set up earlier in the show.  Failing that, it should happen because of something Kirk learned or gained over the story.  Failing that, it should happen because of some trait inherent Kirk we know and love.

The answer: none of these!  Kirk happens to grab on to a engineering-room thingmabob and hit Khan with it.

And this isn't just picking on "Space Seed" (generally an excellent episode) — throughout the season, it's very, very rare that Trek sets up a plot element and pays it off.  Honestly, you can count the instances on one hand: the electrical closet in "Dagger of the Mind", the silicon nodules in "Devil in the Dark", the Denevian flying into the sun in "Operation: Annihilate!" and... that's really about it.

Also, the show doesn't do heightening particularly well.  Modern shows, especially genre shows, are great at taking a normal situation and heightening the danger, or sending the story in a surprising direction.  Consider the Firefly episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds", where one of the act-outs is the discovery that Saffron is not who we thought she was, and has just incapacitated the captain.  There's a sense of "oh, I misjudged what this story was about", but also "oh, we are suddenly in much much more danger than I thought".

These lurching moments of "oh god no"... Star Trek does *do* them, technically.  But you rarely *feel* them.  The increases in danger feel slight.  Often, the act-out is timed wrong; instead of introducing a new danger and/or complication, they recapitulate something the audience already knows.  So: the away team gets trapped by a godlike entity, they talk about being trapped for a few minutes, and *then* the closing line is "we're trapped!"  And while the soundtrack does the heavy lifting, trumpeting "SEE, 𝕋ℍ𝕀𝕊 𝕀𝕊 𝔻𝔸ℕ𝔾𝔼ℝ𝕆𝕌𝕊" you're thinking, "uh, yeah, okay, we knew that."  After twenty episodes or so, they get better at this, but even towards the end of the season, they rarely raise the stakes in a way that really grabs you.

So they're failing at the basic nuts and bolts of TV storytelling — possibly because those nuts and bolts aren't so well-developed yet.  Remember, we're still 20 years out from discovering season arcs are a thing, and most of television is cranking out hyper-repetitive Westerns.

And yet... even in this clumsy first season, Star Trek still might be great.  I'm sure part of this is hindsight bias — ah, this was the start of a giant franchise that will likely outlive all of us, so we look for promise in these early episodes.  But you can see something promising here.

First, the best episodes of season one are phenomenal.  I would put "The Menagerie", "Space Seed", and "The City on the Edge of Forever" up against anything in ST:TOS.  They're riveting and exciting to watch.

Second, over the season, they home in on their McCoy-Spock-Kirk dynamic.  By the time we're seventeen (!) episodes in, the best part of a given episode is probably just the three of them shooting the shit — either spitballing theories about the weird thing they just saw, or gently mocking each other at the end of an episode, nominally musing about what lesson they'd learned from their adventure.  They are so clearly drawn, and so sharply different from each other, that the conflicts happen naturally, about everything — but their mutual affection is clear, so it doesn't feel like vapid 90s-sitcom badinage.

Third, the world-building really is something.  The "scattershot genre" approach lets the show gleefully fill out lots of different parts of the Trek-verse — here is the legal system, here are the Klingons, here is a war crime Kirk barely escaped from, here's Harcount Fenton Mudd — in a way that's much harder for a show that, say, is a group of cops solving a quirky murder every week.

And finally, and most importantly, the show's optimism is already baked in.  You can argue that it's dated and uninformed in a lot of ways — for non-American viewers, their adventures can look like so much blundering imperialism, and that's a valid take.  But in spite of its failings, it has such a clear point of view that you can see building a whole franchise around it.  You inherently know what, say, a courtroom drama would be like, thematically, in the world of Star Trek.

Again, most of season one is bad.  And given that season one has *twenty-nine* episodes, and each episode is over 50 minutes, that comprises a considerable amount of bad.  But you see a good set of relationships, you see a solid world, and you see what they're trying to say.  They've got a foundation.  All the pieces are there for great work, and on a few episodes, they deliver on that promise.

But man, is it a slog on balance.  If you're curious about season 1 of ST:TOS, check out any number of "best episodes of season 1" listicles.  You can see what was good here and skip the time-wasters.

For next week: no backlog!  What a relief.  I'm watching the third season of Parks and Recreation.  I'm reading so you want to talk about race and a quite challenging Spanish-language sci-fi book; on The Great Courses I'm listening to their massive audiocourse about the American Civil War.

¹ I first used this line
when reviewing Tron, but I think it applies equally here.
² This is deliberate, and has to do with the earliest audiences for the medium.
³ Or at least "these days, before the virus destroyed the TV industry".
⁴ Kudos to Kevin Miller for pointing this out to me.
⁵ I think "The Menagerie" is the only notable season-one exception to this, as far as 'twists and turns' goes.
Tags: media update, weekly
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