NPR’s Morning Edition on the 50th anniversary of The Electric Company, which ran on PBS from 1971 to 1977 and was absolutely formative for me in childhood. Things I knew: it was focused on reading and had Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno in it. Things I did not know: it was written by some of the best comedy writers in the business and it was specifically targeted at kids with reading difficulties. That combo wasn’t necessarily successful. “The Electric Company‘s target audience was elementary school students who were too old for Sesame Street but still needed help learning to read. […] Given that the target audience was kids who were falling behind, [show researcher Barbara] Fowles believes much of the material was over their heads. ‘It was often hard to get the writers to sort of dial it back, to convince them that they were little children,’ she remembers.”
When Amazon announced, in late 2017, that it would be producing a multi-season television series prequel to The Lord of the Rings, there was a lot of speculation as to what ground a prequel series would cover. Some speculated that it would focus on Aragorn in his youth, engaged in knight-errantry in the service of Rohan and Gondor. I held out hopes for stories set earlier in the Third Age: the rise of the Witch-king, the fall of Arnor, the Kinslaying, and various other disasters and tragedies would make fertile material for a TV series, I thought.
Earlier this year, Amazon revealed its true intentions with a map—a map of Middle-earth that was subtly different from the map found in The Lord of the Rings. Gondor and Mordor were not labelled. And the lost island of Númenor, which fell into the sea thousands of years before Bilbo and Frodo, was present at the southwest edge of the map.
“Welcome to the Second Age,” Amazon tweeted. Hold on—was Amazon planning on covering the forging of the Rings of Power and the Downfall of Númenor?
Babylon 5, the groundbreaking science fiction series that ran from 1994 to 1998, will finally be available to watch via a streaming service. As show creator J. Michael Straczynski noted yesterday, it will be coming to Prime Video next month.
It generally hasn’t been available on streaming services; our only option has been to buy the DVD box sets, more on which in a moment. Will the show eventually be available on Blu-Ray? The answer: probably not. It’s a victim of the television production practices of its era: live action sequences were shot on film, but visual effects were composited digitally in standard definition. Older shows were completely done on film, later shows on HD video: sf series of the mid-nineties, I remember reading somewhere, are at real risk of falling down the memory hole because they’re barely watchable today.
But it’s even worse with Babylon 5. As this page points out, the show was produced in the 4:3 aspect ratio, but when it was rebroadcast on Sci-Fi, and then again for its DVD release, it was converted to 16:9. This posed no problems for the live action sequences, but the 4:3 480p effects shots were cropped to 16:9 360p. On a standard definition set this isn’t much of a problem, but when you use an upconverting Blu-Ray player to play that DVD on a big 1080p set, those effects shots are done at one-third the TV’s resolution. The live-action shots without effects still look fine; the effects shots and the composited shots look terrible.
That won’t change with streaming, I’m afraid.
Redoing those effects sequences would be prohibitively expensive. It was done for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it cost a boatload and failed to sell in the hoped-for numbers. As a result it won’t ever be done for Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Babylon 5 is great—if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat—but compared to Star Trek it’s a niche interest, so I figured it wouldn’t ever happen.
Except Straczynski has gone and thrown a wrench into things today, saying that while the 16:9 versions can’t be upgraded to HD, they provided Warners with 4:3 master negatives on film (he says the CG effects were output to film at 2K)—and those, he says, could be converted to HD. All it would take, he says, is for Warner to strike a new print and for Amazon to digitize it. It sounds a bit too good to be true: it conflicts with other sources that say that the effects were generated and composited in SD, and why have those sources not been contradicted before? Why only mention it now?
I’d like to hold my breath, but I’m not sure I ought to.
Check out this bootleg upload of The Ronnie and Nancy Show, a Spitting Image special broadcast in January 1987. We’ve come full circle: NBC making fun of the befuddled and bewildered occupant of the White House—though Reagan’s vibe was more amiable dotard than raging toddler. For all of Trump’s complaints about Saturday Night Live, this Spitting Image special was an order of magnitude more savage about Reagan—and it ran in prime time.
Of course, jokes about a dunderheaded president getting us all killed are a bit too on the nose right now.
I’m not in the least nostalgic for the Eighties, even if I grew up in them. The fact that the Eighties are making something of a comeback, at least politically speaking—the U.S. president’s mindset seems permanently stuck in the Eighties, the Quebec premier seems nostalgic for the days of the Meech Lake Accord—is not, in my books, a good thing.
So William Shatner thinks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek should be celebrated with a musical or variety show. Over at io9, Charlie Jane Anders gets behind the idea, and points to an old Mad magazine feature imagining the same.
It’s not that strange an idea. For one thing, it’s not like Star Trek is completely hostile to the idea of doing musical numbers.