Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Doctor Who" and the Daleks

“Doctor Who,” the British sci-fi show that is one of the longest running programs in the history of television, returns Saturday night on BBC America. After airing continuously from 1963-89, the BBC revived the show in 2005 to high ratings and critical acclaim.  With the main character’s ability to regenerate into a new body, 11 actors have played the time-traveling Time Lord over the last half-century.  The season premiere will revolve around the Daleks, a race of murderous robots that have been the Doctor’s archenemy since the show’s outset.

Premiering in Great Britain on the BBC on November 23, 1963, the first episode, entitled, “An Unearthly Child,” aired a day after the assassination of President Kennedy.   The Daleks made their first appearance in the second episode (or serial to the British), entitled “The Daleks.”  With their cry of “Exterminate,” the robot villains were bent on destroying all other races and assuming what they saw as their rightful place as the supreme beings in the universe.

From their earliest days, it was clear that the Nazis and World War II represented a major influence on the portrayal of the Daleks.  Recalling the German bombing of England, known as the “Blitz,” Terry Nation, the writer who invented the Daleks, remembered “As a child I grew up when bombs were dropping and men were trying to kill me.” (Daily Mail, May 1, 2011).

The link became explicit during the 1975 episode, “Genesis of the Daleks,” considered by many the best serial of the old show.  In “Genesis,” the leaders of Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home planet, ask him to return to the Dalek home world to prevent their creation or to ensure that they develop in a more peaceful direction.  The Doctor, now in his fourth incarnation, finds a society much like Nazi Germany and discovers Davros, the scientist who is in the midst of creating the Daleks.  Like many Nazi scientists, he is consumed by eugenics ideas and wants the Daleks to emerge as the leaders of the galaxy.

Unable to convince Davros of the errors of his path, the Doctor develops the ability to destroy the Daleks.  When faced with carrying out this plan, though, he hesitates.  In the most memorable scene in the program’s history, the Doctor famously asks, “Do I have the right?”  Despite the urging of longtime companion Sarah Jane Smith to kill the Daleks and prevent future suffering, he refuses to do so, saying that would make him no better than the Daleks. (See video clip below) 

The scene is very well-acted by Tom Baker and the show reached unparalleled popularity in Britain during his seven seasons playing the character from 1974-81.  During this era, PBS began to air reruns of “Doctor Who,” and the program garnered a cult following in the United States

Interestingly, the Daleks only appear twice during the program’s heyday, first in “Genesis” and then in “Destiny of the Daleks” (1979). They returned again in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” (1984) with Peter Davison, the actor who succeeded Baker, playing the character.  Regretting his decision not to destroy the Daleks in “Genesis,” the Doctor tries to bring himself to murder Davros in cold blood, but is unable to because of his code.

The moral ambiguity of these two scenes and the performances of Baker and Davison heavily influence the current show, especially David Tenant, an actor who was a huge fan of the old program and played the 10th Doctor.  Tenant, who popularized the new show during his stint from 2006 to 2010, even referred to Davison as “my Doctor” in a special they filmed for charity.

Though some fans had difficulty accepting a new Doctor after Baker left, the original show plummeted after Davison moved on after three seasons in 1984.  The writing became extremely weak and the BBC canceled the show, ending its 26-year run in 1989, with the Daleks last appearing in the penultimate season.  Given the program’s global fan base, there was frequent discussion of reviving the show.  FOX aired a pilot for a new American version of the show in 1996, but it received poor ratings and was not picked up.

Under the more traditional auspices of the BBC, the show returned in 2005 to greater success.  Part of the premise of the new program was that the Daleks had been killed off in the cataclysmic Time War, but sure enough, they returned.  In the second Dalek serial of the new show, “Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways,” the Doctor discovers that the machines had developed a concept of blasphemy, evolving from an allegory for the Nazis to an allegory for religious extremists like Al Qaeda.

Unlike the original program, which was more known for its campy plots and weak special effects, the new “Doctor Who” has won plaudits from critics and fans alike.  Older than “Star Trek,” the program will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.  From the beginning, the Daleks have been essential to its success and it is unlikely they will be exterminated anytime soon.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong's Death and the Decline of the Space Program

Neal Armstrong’s death, following the limited celebration of the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight in February, reveals a significant change in American ambitions.  The space program, once an important source of national pride and influence on television and film, has faded in relevance while NASA is rapidly headed toward obscurity.

The Cold War provided the impetus for the space race.  Glenn’s triumphant voyage came after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space in 1957 with Sputnik as well as the first man into space when Yuri Gagarin made an orbital flight in 1961.   The race continued as the United States beat the Russians to the moon when Armstrong landed the Eagle at Tranquility Base on July 20,1969.

During NASA’s heyday in the 1960s, astronauts were hailed as national icons, receiving tickertape parades down New York City’s Canyon of Heroes, as Glenn did in 1962 and Armstrong and the other Apollo 11 astronauts did in 1969.  The space race gave credence in science fiction as “Star Trek” premiered on television in 1966, with “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes” opening in theatres in 1968.  Even a silly sitcom like “I Dream of Jeannie” (1965-70) took place at Cape Canaveral where Larry Hagman’s bumbling character, Major Anthony Nelson, worked as an astronaut. 

After the moon landing, many NASA scientists like Werner Von Braun imagined moon bases by 1980 with trips to Mars to follow.  Indeed, Disney World’s “Flight to the Moon” became obsolete in “Tomorrowland” and was replaced by “Mission to Mars” in 1975.  With the moon race won, however, budgetary pressures led to the scrapping of the final three moon missions in favor of Skylab, a short-lived American space station.  Further travel to the stars was then shelved in favor of the more cost-effective space shuttle, which could be reused. 

While Americans gradually lost interest in space, the still-fresh memory of the program remained important into the 1970s and early 80s.  Science fiction reached new heights with the incredible success of the “Star Wars” trilogy from 1977-83 and the consequent revival of “Star Trek.”  “The Right Stuff,” (1983), with its heroic portrayal of the original Mercury astronauts, fueled talk of a presidential run for John Glenn, then a U.S. Senator from Ohio.  Despite the Hollywood treatment, Glenn’s 1984 campaign barely got off the ground and former Vice-President Walter Mondale and a then-unknown Gary Hart trounced him in the Democratic primaries.

Starting with the maiden voyage of Columbia in 1981, the space shuttle program produced important scientific gains like the Hubble Telescope, but missions to low Earth orbit could not inspire the national imagination in the same way a voyage to the moon did. Over time, Americans began to only pay serious attention to NASA when there were tragedies, like the 1986 Challenger explosion.  That disaster brought about national mourning, in part because it was the first time astronauts had been lost in flight, but also because the space program was still a key part of American identity.  Witness the far less emotional reaction a generation later to the 2003 Columbia disaster.  Only the gimmick of sending the 77 year-old Glenn back into space on Discovery in 1998 drew significant media attention for a success.

The decline of blockbuster science fiction reflected this to some degree.  The biggest movie franchises of the last decade did not occur in space but were earth-bound fantasies such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” While I enjoyed these films immensely, they were largely backward looking, particularly LOTR, which seemed to glorify a rural, feudal past.

Though both President Bushes proposed returning to the moon, President Obama canceled the mission in favor of largely privatizing the program with the intent of eventually launching a manned mission to an asteroid.  Though Armstrong and other astronauts opposed scrapping a return to the moon, public support for space travel remains low in light of today’s budget deficits.  The nation also seems to have lost the passion for space exploration and this dynamic seems unlikely to change anytime soon. As some have speculated, it may take a challenge from another foreign power like China to inspire a revitalized space program.   

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Evolution of the Political Convention

As the broadcast networks continue to scale back television coverage of the upcoming political conventions, it is interesting to reflect on how these meetings have evolved.  Once central to determining presidential nominees, few major decisions are made at the conventions these days.  Still, the quadrennial rituals remain a vital part of how a presidential candidate and his party present themselves to the country.

Inspired by the example of the Constitutional Convention, the short-lived Anti-Mason party held the first political convention in 1831.  The Democrats followed suit in 1832, with delegates nominating Martin Van Buren as President Andrew Jackson 's VP.  The Republicans, which only emerged as a party in the anti-slavery ferment of the 1850s, conducted their first convention in 1856, making John C. Fremont its first standard bearer.

In the days before primaries and caucuses constrained the votes of delegates, conventions frequently held multiple roll call ballots to determine the outcome, as party bosses wheeled and dealt in the “smoke-filled” rooms of the era.  After a party record 36 ballots in 1880, the Republicans nominated James Garfield.  Never to be outdone in the realm of party divisions, the Democrats required a whopping 103 ballots to choose John W. Davis as their candidate in 1924 (wonder why he lost!).

Mass media raised the conventions’ profile, with the 1924 conventions the first to be heard on radio.  Breaking with the tradition of the nominee not attending the convention, Franklin Roosevelt delivered the first acceptance speech at the height of the Great Depression in 1932.

Though radio boosted the gatherings, the arrival of television raised the conventions’ exposure to another level in the 1950s.  While only a few homes had TVs in 1948, by 1952 more and more American households could watch the ritual at home.  In an era when the three networks ruled, the conventions provided the only viewing option during their four-day reign and between 1/3 and ½ of viewers watched part of the ’52 gatherings (Morris and Francia, p. 3).  Over the next two decades, NBC and CBS featured gavel-to-gavel coverage, making David Brinkley, Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite major stars.

Millions watched the two parties sort out their divisions.  In 1952, both parties engaged in nomination battles, with Ohio Senator Robert Taft and General Dwight D. Eisenhower fighting it out for the GOP and Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson doing the same for the Democrats, with Ike and Stevenson emerging victorious.  Stevenson needed three ballots to defeat Kefauver, the last time more than one ballot was required for a nominee.  After being nominated again in 1956, Stevenson allowed the convention delegates to choose his vice-president, with Kefauver edging out a young Massachusetts senator by the name of John F.  Kennedy.  Though JFK lost, he used the public attention from the ’56 convention to launch a successful campaign for the presidency in 1960.

During the turbulent 1960s, the schisms in American society played out at the conventions.  Moderate and conservative Republicans fought at the 1964 GOP gathering in San Francisco, with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s triumph a sign of the rising power of the right wing of the Republican Party. That same year, audiences watched Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer tell the credentials committee at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City of the brutal repression she experienced trying to register to vote in the Magnolia State, only to have President Lyndon Johnson announced a press conference to steal the spotlight from her.  Of course, the ultimate battle came over Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, as anti-war protesters fought with the local police outside the hall while Vice-President Hubert Humphrey received the nomination inside.  The images of police beating the protesters doomed Humphrey’s chances in the fall and paved the way for changes in the nominating process.

While Progressive activists created the first primaries in the early 20th century, only a small number of states held them and few delegates were determined through this mechanism.  After the Chicago debacle, the Democrats established the McGovern-Fraser commission, which implemented reforms that expanded the power of primary voters at the expense of the party bosses.  In 1972, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, a candidate with little support from the establishment, won the nomination through the primaries.  As a result, party nominees started to be determined well before the summer conventions.

Drained of their old drama, conventions became much more stage-managed affairs with the parties leaving little to chance.  In light of this predictability as well as declining ratings, the major networks began to reduce their airtime, abandoning gavel-to-gavel coverage by 1980 (Karabell, p. 3).  This year, the big three broadcast networks will only show three hours of live coverage.  Most coverage has migrated to the cable networks and now, to the Internet.

Nevertheless, the conventions maintain a key role in the process because they offer a platform for the candidates greater than any besides the presidential debates.  The audiences for Barack Obama and John McCain’s acceptance speeches in 2008 were greater than the viewership for the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremonies or the Oscars (NYT, September 6, 2008).

And it is not just the major candidates that can benefit from the conventions. Inspiring speeches by then-national unknowns such as Mario Cuomo in 1984 and Obama in 2004 launched their careers into the stratosphere.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the keynote speakers for the Republicans and Democrats this year, respectively, are hoping for a similar moment in the spotlight.

Though they are not what they were from the 1830s to the 1960s, the political conventions remain an important ritual in our democracy.  Mitt Romney hopes to generate enough of a “bounce” from the festivities to overcome Obama’s lead in the polls.  Nowadays, though, if you want to watch something else, I’m sure “The Real Housewives” is showing on another station.

Alan Brinkley, “The Taming of the Political Convention,” in Liberalism and its Discontents (Cambridge, 1998)

Peter Francia and Jonathan Morris, “From Network News to Cable Coverage: The Evolution of Television Coverage of Political Conventions” Paper for Presentation at State of Parties Conference, Akron, Ohio, October 2005

Zachary Karabell, “The Rise and Fall of the Televised Political Convention,” Discussion Paper, The Joan Shorenstein Center, Harvard University, October 1998