Category Archives: TV

TV Review: Star Trek


I’ve been a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation since it debuted in 1987. I own the series on DVD, I’ve seen every episode many times, and have even written a couple of articles about it. I’ve also watched and loved the subsequent series and movies. But here’s a little-known fact for ya: did you know that there was another Star Trek series before TNG?

I did not grow up as a Star Trek fan. I never watched the show when I was a kid, or even as a young adult. I did watch and enjoy the movies, and so I knew all of the characters from there but other than that, by the time TNG started, here’s what I knew about the original series:

  • “Space… the final frontier.”
  • Captain Kirk was popular with the ladies, particularly those with green skin (Bones’s “what is it with you, anyway?” in ST:IV was classic)
  • The visual effects were not very good
  • The theme song had no words but did have a woman singing “ahhhhhh” over the music
  • I had a vague idea what Tribbles were
  • There was apparently an episode with Khan in it
  • They went where no man had gone before while the TNG crew went where no one had gone before

That’s about it.

Captain KirkSo a while ago I decided to take full advantage of my Netflix subscription. I was going to see what the big deal was and watch every episode of Star Trek. I didn’t binge-watch it; it took me several months to get through all three seasons. Here are my thoughts. In a nutshell, it was OK. It was ground-breaking in some ways, and hopelessly dated in others. Some of the stories were interesting and clever, others were silly and inane. Long story short: I’m glad I watched it, but I doubt I’ll be watching it again.

Good stuff

Let’s start with the positives. Some of the episodes contained some very good storytelling. There were a few really interesting and thought-provoking episodes that reminded me quite a bit of TNG. “A Taste of Armageddon” was a new twist on a war story, “The Paradise Syndrome” showed a different side of Kirk, and “The City on the Edge of Forever” was the quintessential time travel paradox story. William Shatner is often criticized (though sometimes also lauded) for his overacting, but there are a number of some occasions where he is very good. Leonard Nimoy shows that he’s a great actor by keeping a straight face as much as he does.

Having a black woman, an Asian, and a Russian as major and important characters at that time was ground-breaking, so full props to the writers and producers and such for that. There were episodes that dealt with anti-Semitism and racism; in one, Spock explicitly mentioned racial bigotry as “distasteful”. In the late 1960’s, that was a big deal.

I thought the introduction of the Prime Directive was very interesting. The United States is known (rightly or wrongly) as a country that likes to project its own values onto the rest of the world – if “they” don’t think the way “we” think, they’re wrong. Star Trek was on during the war in Vietnam, and many said that Americans had no business being there at all. In contrast, the Federation has a rule that they will not interfere in the affairs of other cultures. For Roddenberry to state this rule and make it the Federation’s top priority (their “prime directive” you might say) was quite the political statement.

For all the hand-to-hand fighting and phasers and photon torpedoes, Kirk and the crew did attempt to solve a lot of problems without violence. We didn’t see “we’re more powerful than you, so you better do things our way”. Weapons were a last resort, most of the time, and there were even times when they were faced with violence but didn’t fight back.

Bad stuff

Now onto the negatives.

Captain Kirk’s vocal style and occasional mid-sentence pauses were a little odd and has become fodder for many. William. Shatner. Impressions. But in general, I barely noticed it. Usually his overacting was no big deal (and as I said above, sometimes he was very good) but other times the overacting was quite a ways over. Leonard Nimoy and George Takei were very good acting-wise, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig were pretty good as well, but I found the acting of DeForest Kelley and James Doohan was just OK.

Despite all of the forward-thinking I mentioned above, the treatment of women on the show was firmly set in 1967. Every woman who was in trouble needed to be saved by a man. Every woman who was an enemy could be swayed by Captain Kirk’s manliness. In a few episodes, Chekov was even more of a horn-dog than Kirk. I shook my head every time a cute yeoman gave Kirk a box to sign and his eyes lingered on her a little too long as she walked away. In one episode, he even made a comment to Spock and McCoy about the yeoman that was a double-entendre which was probably mildly amusing in 1967 but made me uncomfortable.

The visual effects in general were terrible. The beaming of people wasn’t bad for the time and external shots of the Enterprise in space were usually pretty decent, but I laughed whenever someone fired a hand phaser. Great visual effects aren’t mandatory if the story and writing is good but many of these effects were bad enough that they took you out of the story. I realize the show was on a tight budget but every planet they beamed down to looked exactly the same (most were a rocky desert with a red sky), except for the ones that looked like Earth. They even mentioned in one episode how amazing and against the odds it was that this planet looked so much like Earth, while having been to three other such planets in the previous five episodes.

Kirk fights a GornFight scenes were usually pretty bad too. The choreography and stunt doubles were far too obvious and once again, pulled you out of the story. If you’re going to have people fight with swords or knives, at least replace the clicking sounds of the wooden blades hitting each other with metallic sounds. The Vulcan neck pinch is implausible, but I’m willing to suspend that much disbelief. But knocking someone out with a karate chop to the neck is just funny.

I didn’t mind Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek movies. His semi-playful verbal sparring with Spock was amusing, and I liked him even more in the reboot movies (Karl Urban). But in the series, it seemed over the top – nothing Spock did was good enough for McCoy and he was more hostile in many cases than I thought the situation warranted. Despite the anti-racism messages of some episodes, Dr. McCoy’s continual talking about Spock’s ears and making comments like “are you out of your Vulcan mind?” made McCoy look like an old-time southern racist. After watching the series, I ended up liking Spock more and McCoy less.

 

Episodes

I’d have to watch all of the episodes again at least once to come up with actual favourites, but here are some episodes I enjoyed: Miri, Space Seed, A Taste of Armageddon, This Side of Paradise, The Devil in the Dark (the Horta was the most hilariously terrible alien but the story was good), City on the Edge of Forever, Journey to Babel, Elaan of Troyius, All Our Yesterdays, Turnabout Intruder.

Episodes I didn’t like:

  • Amok Time. Spock must mate or die. This is so critical that he hijacks the Enterprise and once Kirk finds out what’s going on, he risks his career and his own life to save his friend’s life. First off, it makes no sense that a species would evolve that way, but whatever. As soon as they arrive on Vulcan, Spock’s symptoms disappear. For the rest of the episode, even when fighting Kirk, he seems in no danger of dying. In the end, he doesn’t mate and doesn’t die. And everything that happens in the ceremony is as far from logical as you can get (the bride is allowed to choose someone who must fight the groom to the death?) but the Vulcans are OK with it. That is explained away by the Vulcans saying “yeah, this part of Vulcan culture isn’t all that logical but hey.” Almost every part of that episode made me think “Oh come ON.”
  • Assignment: Earth was supposed to be a pilot for a spinoff series that never happened. I thought it was terrible.
  • Is There in Truth No Beauty? – an alien so ugly it drives humans insane? Come ON.
  • Spock’s Brain – Come ON.
  • There were a couple of time travel episodes where they explained it away with “Captain’s Log: We’ve travelled back in time…” as if this is something they can do at will.

I realize I’m comparing this fifty-year-old show that had a small budget and crew and didn’t gain huge popularity until a decade after it was cancelled with newer series with much bigger budgets. TNG was thirty years ago but had the highest budget of any TV show at the time. So it’s possible that my expectations are too high and I’m being unfair. In fact, I’m sure that’s the case.

Like I said, I likely won’t be watching it again. However, if you grew up watching it, I can certainly understand how this show would hold a special place in the your heart.

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Ten things I hate about Star Trek: The Next Generation


I posted recently about how TNG is my all-time favourite TV show. They say you don’t know something well enough if there aren’t a few things you hate about it. I think the quote I heard was originally referring to programming languages, but it probably applies to lots of things. Here are some pet peeves about TNG, in no particular order.

I’ve excluded the one that bugs everybody: how every species looks like humans with different ears or a modified nose or forehead. That’s explained by the episode The Chase: an ancient humanoid species seeded the galaxy with their own DNA and so many species started off the same and evolved slightly differently over time. Obviously.

Note that some of these apply to other Star Trek shows, like Deep Space Nine or Voyager, and the movies as well. #1 even occurred in the very first episode of Star Trek: Discovery.

1. Radiation sickness

They seem to treat radiation like something that builds up in your body, with no ill effects, for some predetermined (and precise) period of time and then suddenly kills you. Doctor Crusher or the computer will call out “four minutes until fatal radiation exposure”, but everyone is perfectly fine. In reality, of course, it’s gradual and nobody can predict with that level of accuracy when the dosage becomes fatal. But if you’re four minutes away from lethal exposure, you should already be very sick. At least in Discovery, the person did actually get sick, but on one episode of TNG, the entire crew were minutes away from lethal radiation exposure, then managed to get away from the radiation source in time, and nobody got sick.

2. Data and the computer don’t interface well

In a few episodes, Commander Data sits down at a keyboard and types impossibly fast, or audibly tells the computer to do something. Why? Surely wireless technology in the 24th century is good enough that he can communicate with the main computer much faster than any tactile or vocal interface.

Tell me again why our ship's counsellor has a seat on the bridge

3. Infinite power

Everything that can be done electronically is done electronically. You don’t push a door open, you either walk up to it and it opens, or if it’s a private door (i.e. to someone’s quarters), you press a button and it opens. You don’t flip a switch to turn lights on, you tell the computer to do it. In Star Trek: First Contact, Lily notices that the big window she’s looking through has no glass and Picard tells her it’s a force field. Why wouldn’t you use glass (or clear plastic or “transpari-steel” or whatever) rather than require constant power just to keep the room from depressurizing? (I guess there was a retractable cover which would likely be closed most of the time, but still.) I would hate to be in that room if there was a power failure.

One of the best examples of this is the holodeck. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to spend time in one of these, and they serve a useful purpose in many episodes. I don’t even have a problem with their recreational uses. And if you’re stuck for subject matter, you can write a whole episode around it. But they described a holodeck as something that not only uses force fields and holograms to simulate things but in some cases also converts energy directly to matter. This would require an unbelievable amount of energy. You know, E=mc2 and all that, right? In some episodes (more so on Star Trek: Voyager but on TNG as well), the ship is low on power but the holodecks are still working. Those should be the first things to get shut down if you’re rationing power.

Speaking of the holodeck, I have some questions on how it works. People can walk on the holodeck for long periods of time, and they explain it by saying that the holodeck adjusts the force fields to make them work like treadmills so people feel like they’re constantly walking. But what if two people walk in different directions? Say Troi and Riker enter the holodeck and simulate a football field. Troi walks to one end zone and Riker the other. How does the holodeck make each look smaller to the other when they’re not actually 100 yards apart? If Troi shouts at the top of her voice, how does the holodeck make it so that Riker – who is physically separated from her by at most the width of the room – hears her as if she were 100 yards away? There have been episodes where someone walks into the holodeck looking for someone and shouts their name several times to try and find them. Knowing the actual size of the room they’re in, how is that possible?

4. The transporter

There have been a few episodes where someone’s DNA was modified, usually through a transporter accident, and the person experienced immediate changes. Even worse, they later used the transporter to restore their DNA and solve the problem. In one case, they used the transporter to restore Dr. Pulaski to an earlier version of herself after exposure to a virus or something caused premature aging. She was totally fine afterwards. DNA is a molecule that resides within each and every cell of any living being. Yes, it’s responsible for determining many of your characteristics from height and hair colour to how susceptible you are to various diseases. But it’s not something you can tweak with immediate effects. And if they could use the transporter to “beam” Dr. Pulaski younger, why would anyone ever age – or suffer any disease at all? They could just use the transporter to revert them back to before they had the disease.

5. Data and the crew don’t interface well

In the first season of TNG, Data seems like a naïve but very smart child. He knows facts and can calculate things but doesn’t know much about human behaviour. Over the next few years, he learns a lot and becomes less awkward. But as of season one, he’s already been in Starfleet for over twenty years. Does it make sense that after that long, he’s still that naïve? Does it makes sense that he learns more about people in the next 3-4 years than he had in the previous 20? After two decades in Starfleet, he still thinks “how long until we reach the starbase?” requires an answer including fractions of a second?

6. Nebulae

In a number of episodes, the Enterprise enters a nebula, which is a large cloud of interstellar dust. Each nebula has a distinct border and once inside, sensors and visibility are somewhat blocked (completely, partially, or not at all, depending on what the plot requires), similar to a plane flying through a cloud. In reality, a nebula is indeed a cloud of dust but in astronomical terms, “dust” is pretty much anything bigger than a molecule. Large collections of dust, usually thousands or millions of light-years wide, can be seen from great distances because of the way the particles affect the light passing through them, but up close, they’re nothing like a cloud. You could be in the middle of a nebula and not know it. They aren’t anywhere near as thick and soupy as portrayed in the Star Trek universe.

7. Gravity

Note: This isn’t specific to TNG by any stretch. It shows up in just about every other sci-fi movie and show as well – Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, etc.

All of the planets and ships (even the non-human ships) the crew visits have exactly the same gravity. Even the smallest shuttlecraft have artificial gravity generators. The artificial gravity generators never fail (except in Star Trek VI) – even when life support is failing and everyone is struggling for breath, artificial gravity is still working perfectly. I totally understand why they do this – filming anything with a different level of gravity would be difficult, expensive, or both – but it’s still a bit predictable.

8. Measurements of time and distance

Language is similar to the gravity issue: every species speaks English. On TNG, that’s mostly explained away by the universal translator, which also never fails. But every species also uses Earth-specific units for time and distance. A light-year is a measure of distance based on how long it takes Earth to go around its sun. A parsec is also Earth-specific, as are measurements of time like days and hours. Why would Romulans or Ferengi use them? Sometimes an alien refers to “one of your hours” or “an Earth day” or something but they never say “you have one of our shmlergs to respond”, leaving the Enterprise crew to find out how long a shmlerg is. However, Klingons have used a unit of distance called, I believe, a “kellicam”.

9. Alien species and stereotypes

The Ferengi are described as a greedy species who are only interested in acquiring wealth. The Klingons are only concerned with honour and being a warrior. Betazoids are telepathic and are usually the peacemakers and diplomats. But how did any of these species advance to where they are without having a wide range of individuals? The Klingons have cloaking technology and warp drive, so there must be Klingon scientists and engineers. But if there is no honour in dying of old age even after having been a warrior all your life (a warrior must die in battle), how is there honour in studying warp field theory? How does the Ferengi chain of command function if it’s widely known that every officer can be bought (and according to their culture, should be able to be bought)  for the right amount of profit?

10. Drama

People can just tap their badges and talk to anyone, but sometimes they’re not very helpful. Riker calls Picard from engineering or cargo bay 2 or wherever because something odd is happening. Picard asks what’s going on and Riker just says “I think you should see this for yourself”. Picard says “on my way” and heads down, not having the slightest idea what he’s in for. He can’t think about the situation on the way down or even know whether he needs to go down at all. His real answer should be “drop the dramatics and Just tell me what the hell is happening.”

Make it so


This past week was the thirtieth anniversary of the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which probably takes the prize as my favourite TV series of all time (sorry Firefly). I was in first-year university at the time (wow, does that ever make me feel old), and it was a big deal for us; the TV room on the North E floor of Village Two was quite full as we were all introduced to Captain Picard, Riker, Data, Geordi, and the rest of the gang. I remember not liking the shape of the Enterprise at first: the saucer was far too big. After a while though, I got used to it and now it’s the quintessential spaceship.

I was never a big Star Trek (the original series) guy, and to this day I have only seen a few episodes. I did like the movies though, so I was excited about the debut of TNG. Thinking back, it was a big part of my university years. Throughout my time at Waterloo, TNG was must-see TV as often as it was on. My roommates and I would watch it every night at dinner; one benefit of it being in syndication from the get-go was that you could see reruns several times a day if you looked, even only a couple of years into the show’s run. I worked for Microsoft in Redmond, Washington for four months, and a bunch of us got together on Sunday nights to watch TNG.

The gang

After I graduated, I worked at Corel in Ottawa for a year, and one of my co-workers had one of them thar newfangled satellite dishes. I don’t know how it’s done now, but at the time the networks would broadcast shows over satellite in advance (on Thursday, if memory serves) to the local stations, who would record it and then re-broadcast it later (Sunday night). My co-worker would record it from the satellite and then on Friday at lunch, we’d watch it in one of the big presentation rooms at Corel. This was before big-screen TVs, but we had a “video wall” which consisted of 25 TVs in a 5×5 array, and they all collectively acted like a single screen. It was then that I really discovered the background ship noise during the show – the presentation room also had a “bass cannon”, which was a huge horizontal cylindrical subwoofer which must have been six feet long. This was also my first exposure to surround sound, and because we had the special satellite feed, there was a sound check track at the beginning. But it wasn’t just beeps or some guy talking to separate the channels: they had gotten Michael Dorn to do it in his Worf voice. Imagine Worf’s deep silky smooth voice saying: “THIS is the left channel. THIS is the right channel. Center. And surround.” At the time, “surround” was a single channel which had not yet been split into left and right. I guess this was 4.1 surround.

When the series ended in 1994, I was at the University of Western Ontario doing my master’s degree. Gail and I watched the series finale (and a few other episodes) at the Grad Club in Middlesex College.

TNG was the first series I knew of to appear on DVD, and I bought every season as it was released – at about $100-120 per season. I’ve gone through all seven seasons several times, and my kids have been through at least twice as well.

At the time, I’m sure I thought every episode was awesome but it wasn’t until I had seen lots of reruns that I started to recognize the really good ones from the not-so-good ones. Honestly, a number of episodes in the first season really weren’t very good, but the quality picked up in season two. Dr. Pulaski replaced Dr. Crusher in the second season; I wasn’t a fan of Dr. Pulaski and it turned out neither was anyone else.

Season three is when the series really started to get good, and the the next four seasons were excellent. The characters had been fleshed out enough that there were very few occasions when one of the main characters would do or say something that made us think “that’s out of character”. The stories were usually well thought out and many episodes had two storylines: one technical and one personal. The technical stories were sometimes solved through “techno-babble” (aha, they reversed the polarity of the dilithium matrix and reconfigured the main deflector to send a neutrino pulse. Good thinking) but the personal ones never were. I thought the quality began to go downhill a bit in season seven, so perhaps they ended the series at just the right time.

The EnterpriseMy favourite episodes by season:

  1. 11001001 (the one with the Bynars), Where No One Has Gone Before
  2. Loud as a Whisper, Peak Performance, The Royale, The Measure of a Man
  3. The Enemy, The Vengeance Factor, The Survivors, Captain’s Holiday, Yesterday’s Enterprise, The Offspring, The Best of Both Worlds
  4. Remember Me, Future Imperfect, Clues, Redemption
  5. Darmok, Disaster, Conundrum, Cause and Effect (very clever), I Borg, Time’s Arrow, The Inner Light
  6. Rascals, Chain of Command, Ship in a Bottle, Tapestry, Starship Mine, Frame of Mind, Timescape, Descent
  7. Gambit, Parallels, All Good Things…

The Inner Light is regarded by many as one of the best TNG episodes, and I must concur. The story was thought-provoking and rather sad, and Patrick Stewart was outstanding. I still tear up a little at the end when Picard realizes the purpose of the probe they’re launching.

The series was followed by four TNG-cast movies, which oddly followed the same pattern as the previous six original-cast movies: the even-numbered ones were much better than the odd-numbered ones. Generations wasn’t bad but had some big plot holes. First Contact was excellent. Insurrection… I barely remember. Nemesis was pretty good and featured a young Tom Hardy (Bane without the bulk) as the bad guy.

There were a few things I didn’t like about the show, but I think I’ll leave that for another article. For now, I’ll just stick with “It’s the best show ever” and leave it at that. If you haven’t watched the episodes I listed above, you should head over to Netflix and check them out. Make it so.

I am a Whovian, like my children before me


It’s official – I am now a Whovian. I’m pretty new at this – the ink is still wet on my Whovian card – but I am now recording and watching Doctor Who weekly with my family.

A couple of years ago, we visited my mother-in-law. Gail’s brother Stephen was watching Doctor Who, so the boys started watching as well. I was kind of half paying attention but couldn’t keep up with the story. The boys were hooked though, and Stephen gave them a DVD with a bunch of episodes that he had… um… acquired somehow. They couldn’t get enough and started borrowing DVDs from the library and recording the show whenever it was on. They weren’t that thrilled with the older episodes but starting from the Ninth Doctor, they watched everything. Gail and I watched with them here and there and slowly we began to figure out who these people were and who the enemies were, though we didn’t get all the inside jokes that the boys laughed at. (Example: we were watching an episode recently when someone said that he didn’t have a cat because he wasn’t a “cat person”. The Doctor (David Tennant) said, “No, I’ve met cat people and you’re nothing like them.” A throwaway line if you don’t get it but a clever in-joke for those that do. Note that I didn’t get it but the boys did.)

Part of the reason I couldn’t really get into the show was that I couldn’t get past the Daleks, easily the least frightening or intimidating enemy in all of science fiction. Perhaps they were scary in the early 60’s but compared to Darth Vader and the Borg and the Cylons, the Daleks just didn’t seem all that scary so any time I saw them in an episode, I was a little put off. That said, there was an episode called Asylum of the Daleks which was excellent.

Last year, there was a 50th anniversary special called The Day of the Doctor, which featured both Matt Smith and David Tennant, both of whom I really liked. The boys were looking forward to watching it on TV, so as a surprise we took them to the theatre to see it. We all enjoyed it and I started watching a little more after that, and then we went again to the theatre to watch Peter Capaldi’s first episode as The Doctor. I have yet to form a real opinion on him since we’re only three or four episodes into his first season, but I like him so far. He’s similar to Matt Smith in that he’s a little frenetic and almost hyper, but he seems to be a little more, well rude is probably the best word for it. But he’s rude in a good way, if that’s possible.

I’m not sure what’s drawing me the most about this series:

  • the fascinating character of the Doctor, who can be funny, annoying, charming, obnoxious, brilliant, and naive almost at the same time, or…
  • the very clever writing of the show. It’s not surprising that the lead writer and producer, Steven Moffat, is the same guy that writes and produces the equally clever Sherlock. The second Doctor Who episode of this season, entitled “Listen”, was brilliantly written, complete with one of the most surprising “aha!” moments on TV in recent memory. Or possibly, it’s…
  • the fact that Clara is the most stunningly beautiful woman on TV, possibly the world, and maybe even all of time and space. Never before have I watched a show and missed some crucial plot point because I was too busy just looking at someone’s face. She’s just… wow.

Jenna Coleman

Decoded: Brad Meltzer’s Decoded


Recently we happened upon a TV show called Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, which was about Fort Knox and what may or may not be inside it. The idea of the show was to take a critical look at Fort Knox, visit it, and talk to people involved to see if they could figure out what’s inside. They investigated rumours that all the gold that was originally in the vault is now gone, but they maintain the security to make people think it’s still filled with gold because otherwise chaos would erupt. The show was certainly entertaining, and we all enjoyed it.

It turns out that this is a series which just began its second season. Each week they investigate something different, and we’ve watched three or four of them now. As a skeptic, I was excited by this. Perhaps this would be TV’s first show to investigate these kinds of rumours and urban legends from a truly skeptical point of view – a TV version of the Skeptoid podcast. There have been other shows that claimed to investigate these types of things, but they generally sensationalized what they were investigating and ignored the scientific method. I’ve seen a number of shows that start by assuming rumours to be true and then decide that because they failed to disprove them, they must be true. That’s not how it works. A prime example is a show called Ancient Aliens, which Ryan and I watched a few weeks ago. I will have to get to that one in another article, which means I’ll have to watch the show again. It may be difficult to write through the fits of laughter I will undoubtedly have at what they called “evidence”.

Brad Meltzer is an author who writes political thrillers as well as comic books. I had never heard of him until this show – or didn’t think I had. A couple of weeks after we first watched the show, my son was looking over our “bookshelf of books we hope to read someday if we ever find some free time” and found a book of his called The Tenth Justice. I don’t even know where it came from. Anyway, Meltzer only appears in the show in front of a green screen showing weird symbols (including the phrase “U83R L33T H4X3RS”) and on the phone. He has a team of three investigators (a lawyer, a historian, and an engineer) who do the real work, travelling around the country (and across the globe – they were in Germany in one episode) visiting places, doing research, and interviewing people.

They do manage to find people who were really involved in the things they’re investigating. When talking about Edgar Allen Poe’s connection to the Declaration of Independence, they talked to a distant relative of Poe’s. They talked to General George Patton’s granddaughter as well as descendants of both Billy the Kid and the man who killed him, Pat Garrett. They talked to the national head of the KKK (and you could see the discomfort on their faces as they interviewed him). They talked to someone who’s actually been inside the vault at Fort Knox, or at least claimed to have been. They talked to the last living person who helped carve Mount Rushmore. But sometimes their interview choices are less useful, like the head of some fringe conspiracy theory group. One time they interviewed the bartender at a bar near Fort Knox, and another patron happened to overhear and offered up his own theories.

In one or two episodes, I found that Meltzer seemed to be sensationalizing a bit – he’d say something like “We’ve learned that x happened” when we’d learned nothing of the sort. We’d heard someone say that X happened, or we’ve perhaps surmised it, but he seemed to jump to “learned” a little too quickly for my liking. But most of the time, they do a pretty good job of ignoring the rumours and meaningless “evidence” and taking the anecdotal evidence with the appropriate grain of salt. I was impressed that after investigating the death of General George Patton (there have been theories that he was murdered ever since he died in a car accident in 1945), one of the crew basically stated the null hypothesis – that unless we have compelling evidence proving otherwise, we must assume that the accident that killed Patton was just an accident.

Unfortunately, they don’t always find what they set out to find. This is not a failing of the show; sometimes the required information is just not available. We still don’t know what’s inside Fort Knox. We still don’t know where the original Declaration of Independence is. We still don’t know whether Billy the Kid was actually killed by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner. But some things do seem to have been dug up. For example, General George Patton died in a car accident, but the soldier who was at fault in the accident was never charged and there was no autopsy. This led conspiracy theorists to suspect that he was murdered, and some nutcases extremists even suspected it was done at the command of Dwight Eisenhower. But after the investigation, it was discovered that Patton himself ordered that the man at fault not be court martialled, and that his wife requested that there be no autopsy. The cynic in me wonders if these things were truly “discovered” by Meltzer’s team and weren’t previously known, or if they just set up the episode to make it look like they’d discovered it.

My kids and I are enjoying Decoded, so we’ve set up the PVR to record new episodes. The boys also like to listen to Skeptoid, which I encourage. I’m happy to play my part in raising the next generation of critical thinkers. Unfortunately, the History channel won’t let us watch episodes from season 1 online, though it does give a helpful link so that I can buy them from iTunes. It’d be nice if History would get with the times and let us watch past episodes online like many other channels and networks do. Hey Brad Meltzer – decode that.

The Plot of Every Episode of Criminal Minds


Criminal Minds is a cop show police procedural drama that deals with the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) of the FBI, and how they profile and catch serial killers. It’s well-written, interesting, action-packed, and has a great cast. During the 2010-2011 TV season, it was the tenth-highest rated primetime show – and if you consider just the dramas (removing American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and football), it’s number 4 behind NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, and The Mentalist. Gail loves this show and I enjoy it as well, but some episodes seem a little formulaic. If you’ve never seen it, fear not – here is a plot summary of the majority of episodes thus far:CriminalMinds 

Opening: We meet the psycho killer (usually a man) and his most recent victim (usually a woman). The victim is killed and the body dumped.

Cut to someone finding the body and the subsequent police investigation. Hey, this killing is similar to that one last week, and that other one three weeks ago. We better call in the FBI.

Opening credits.

Fade in on a small airplane in flight. Someone, usually Hotch or Rossi, does a voice-over of a meaningful quotation. It’s a little-known fact that Thomas Gibson, who plays Hotch, is contractually forbidden from smiling on Criminal Minds – he’s been really grumpy since Dharma left. Joe Mantegna (Rossi) is the older veteran who frequently gives advice to his younger colleagues. He doesn’t seem old enough to be grandfatherly, but he’s at least friendly – he replaced Inigo Montoya Mandy Patinkin after a couple of seasons because it was decided that having two actors who weren’t allowed to smile was a total downer for the audience.

After the quotation, we cut to the plane’s interior, where the members of the BAU are examining how the victims were abducted and the locations of the body dumps. I’m always impressed at how they can talk about whatever town they’re going to like they’ve lived there all their lives. They can look at a map and know what the locals call each part of the town, and whether a particular section of town is industrial or residential or new or old or rich or poor. They talk about the “unsub” (short for unidentified subject) and what’s making him do these terrible things based on who he’s selected as his victims and how they are abducted, tortured, killed, and disposed of.

Cut back to another person who is vaguely similar to the first victim we saw – usually in looks, occasionally in some other way like occupation. We see the killer stalking and eventually abducting her.

The BAU has arrived at the crime scene and is finding all sorts of clues that the local police missed. Police across the country must hate this show, since they are frequently portrayed as well-meaning and willing to help but not very effective on their own. The team adjourns to a meeting room in the local police station, where they find links between the victims with the help of über-hacker Penelope Garcia. If you ever watch NCIS, Garcia is the Abby of this show – both are sweet, extroverted women with mad haxor skillz and an outlandish wardrobe. Abby loves all her co-workers like family while Garcia is flirty with the men and never talks to the women. Garcia seems to be just a hacker, while Abby is a general forensic scientist with advanced knowledge of other things like chemistry, molecular biology, and weapons. Just like all other computer forensic people on TV, Garcia types queries in English and never uses a mouse. She can instantly cross-reference things in any database in the world, with vague references like “look for someone with an unfinished degree in American literature, who owns a gray or silver Honda sedan, and whose mother died of lung cancer in the mid-90’s.”

After another glimpse of the killer and his next victim, we have a big meeting with all the local police officers and the BAU team. The team explains the profile to the cops, telling them what kind of person they are looking for, and giving hints as to what kinds of behaviours they might see. “We’re looking for a white male, 40-45, probably tall, say 6’2″ to 6’4”. He’s confident but not very friendly; not the life of the party, but not a loner either. He may work as a welder or in construction. When eating an Oreo, he doesn’t pull it apart and scrape the filling off with his teeth. [“What a psycho” says one of the cops.] His victims are tall dark-haired left-handed women 25-30 with glasses. He meets them at Citibank – they start to talk when she borrows his pen.”

Back to the killer. We get a little bit of insight in to how he thinks or why he’s doing this, usually a flashback to his childhood as he remembers something his mother / father / teacher / caregiver did or didn’t do, or some traumatic event like when his brother died in a bizarre gardening accident.

The team splits up. Some go to interview people associated with the crime – hotel managers, store owners, taxi drivers – while some stay behind and continue analyzing the existing evidence. Some of the people interviewed are quite obviously innocent, but at least one matches the profile and seems shifty. Another major clue is found – a link between the victims or crimes that wasn’t noticed before. The suspect pool gets pared down, but they still don’t have a name.

Another cut to the unsub and his victim. His torture is almost done and she realizes she’s likely going to die soon.

At this point, Derek calls Garcia again asking for more information, and she flirts shamelessly with him, usually on speakerphone. Strangely, none of the other team members is uncomfortable about listening to this, even though her version of “flirting” might get her fired from most jobs that don’t involve phone sex. Someone on the team has has just discovered some little tidbit and when Garcia adds that to her query, she finds the unsub’s name. He’s either someone they have already talked to (but not the shifty guy), or he works or used to work at the same place as someone they’ve already talked to. Another query and Garcia finds his address. They go there. He’s not home.

Now that they know the killer’s identity, they try to figure out where he might be holding his next victim. The killer, who usually doesn’t know his identity has been discovered, sticks to his MO thus making him easier to find. He’s generally holed up in the house he grew up in, or a cottage or business left to him by a dead relative, or an abandoned building near where he used to work, before he was fired a few weeks ago. Eventually Derek searches the house with his gun drawn, showing off his sculpted muscles. Hey Derek, you’re obviously an XL, so you really should stop buying those L sized T-shirts.

After a standoff with Derek and/or Hotch, the killer is cornered and usually arrested. Unless: he’s not just a killer, he’s a sadistic torturer and general whack-job, in which case he’s killed. Unless: he’s a sadistic torturer and general whack-job who gets under the skin of someone on the BAU team, in which case he’s arrested and will escape from custody in a future episode.

Regardless of what happens to the killer, the abducted person survives and after another meaningful quotation, the team flies home.

So there you go – six seasons of Criminal Minds in one handy place. You’re welcome.

Postscript: When this article was mostly done, I decided to watch an episode of Criminal Minds from beginning to end while paying attention to what I’d written, just to confirm the order of events and such. We didn’t have any recorded, so I started looking through the PVR guide for upcoming episodes. For two weeks I looked for one that might match my “summary”, but I couldn’t find one. “Nope, that’s a season finale with a cliffhanger, that’s an episode focussed solely on Reid, that’s one where one or more members of the BAU are themselves kidnapped, that’s one where they know who the killer is from the start, …” Here I am with an article on how formulaic this show is, and then I couldn’t find an episode that matched the formula. More irony for you.

The Guild


While listening to Wil Wheaton’s podcast a few months ago, he played an interview he did with Felicia Day, creator, writer, and star of The Guild, a web comedy series (a TV show but only available on the web). I had never heard of The Guild, but Wil did a number of guest appearances on it and kept talking about how great it was, so I thought I’d give it a try. The Guild is undoubtedly one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, on or off TV. The writing is brilliant, the characters are hilarious, and there are even shocking plot twists and cliffhanger moments that make you look forward to Tuesdays. Each episode is only 6-8 minutes long, and a new episode is released every Tuesday. A “season” lasts for about 12 weeks and season four just finished last week. I started watching The Guild when I was off work, so I managed to catch up with all of seasons 1 through 3 in a couple of days, and during season 4 I tried to watch it every Tuesday night.

The Guild is about a group of six people who play some kind of online game, similar to World of Warcraft (which I’ve never played). Note that you don’t need to know anything about gaming (I don’t) to enjoy the show. The game has taken over their lives and they even use each other’s game character names when talking in real life. In fact, of the six of them, I only know the real name of one of them – Clara, because her character name is also Clara. Oh wait, Bladezz’s name is Simon but even his sister calls him Bladezz. The other characters (except Tink, I believe) have had their real names mentioned, but only a couple of times. The main six characters are part of a guild known as The Knights of Good, meaning that they play together as a group and fight against other guilds. The guild members are:

  • Codex is the main character, played by Felicia Day. She’s a single woman who’s very insecure and always concerned with what the other guild members think of her.
  • Zaboo is a young man of Indian descent who is good with computers but has no social skills whatsoever. (When he moves in with Vork, Vork tells him, “Men only shower together when there’s more than one shower.”) He lived with his very controlling mother until season 3 when he moved in with Vork.
  • Vork is a 40-something balding guy who is extremely cheap and follows rules to the letter. He’s the leader of the guild.
  • Tinkerballa (known as Tink) is a bit of a mystery. I believe she’s a med or pre-med student, though her personal life is pretty much off-limits to the other guild members. I don’t think they even know her real name. Tink is beautiful and not only is she well aware of this, she uses it to her advantage whenever possible.
  • Clara is a stay-at-home mother of three (or two, depending on the season – one seems to have vanished) very young children, who she routinely ignores while playing the game. Her husband, George aka Mr. Wiggly (named after…. um, never mind) once joined the guild temporarily but was completely inept at the game.
  • Bladezz is a high school student who works at a local burger joint, “Cheesybeards”. Bladezz is always making off-colour sexual comments and was described in a recent episode as “skeevey”. Good word.

The Axis of Anarchy is another guild that the Knights of Good are constantly battling with. Their leader is Fawkes, who has a strange love/hate relationship with Codex. Fawkes always has this little “I’m smarter than you but I suppose I can bring myself down to your level” smirk on his face when he’s talking to someone. Fawkes is played by Wil Wheaton, who does a great job of playing an evil yet oddly charming douchebag.

When I first started watching it, I assumed that it was done as a web series because it wasn’t good enough to be picked up by one of the big networks. Because you know, the sitcoms that are shown on the big networks are all really good. cough $#*! My Dad Says cough But it looks as “professional” as any network sitcom, the actors are all really good, and as I said before it’s very funny. If it were a network show, they’d have to expand it to 22 minutes per episode, and tripling the length of each episode would likely water it down too much. Having a “live studio audience” watching the taping of each episode would not make the show any better, and God help Felicia Day if she were to add a laugh-track.

Being an internet-based show aimed at geeks, it is a little surprising that the website for The Guild is so confusing. If I were to design it, I’d have a page for each season and links to each episode in that season all in one place, so it’s easy to find episodes. There is a blog that has a page for each episode, but that bumps you off to Bing where the episodes are hosted. Once you’re there it’s not easy to find other episodes – the “related videos” on the right seems to be a random assortment of episodes from all the seasons. One page I went to (season 4 episode 10) had a link to season 4 episode 5 instead so I had to start poking around until I found the right episode. From the time I started looking to the time I was actually watching the right episode was at least five minutes – should be a matter of seconds.

But being an internet-based show aimed at geeks, it is not particularly surprising that there is a fan podcast for The Guild. It’s called Knights of the Guild and features a guy named Kenny who is a member of the crew, though he hasn’t mentioned (in the few podcasts I’ve listened to) exactly what he does. After every episode, he does a “companioncast” during which he interviews many cast and crew members and talks about that episode. This is recorded right after the episode was filmed, which is months before it actually airs. Most of these interviews are pretty interesting, though some are kind of Chris Farley-esque. “Remember when happened? That was soooooo funny” isn’t much of an interview question. It does seem a little weird to have a 90+ minute podcast about a 7-minute episode, but whatever, it’s fun.

I suppose The Guild is not for everybody, but I think a lot of internet geeks like myself (I have a blog, I use twitter, and I use terms like “epic FAIL”) would love it. As I said, you don’t need to be a gamer (or even a geek) to like the show, but if you’re a gamer or a geek, give it a try at watchtheguild.com.