The Sunday Magazine: State of Star Trek 2020

I did overview posts on “Watchmen” and “Star Wars” examining where they are and where I hope they’re going. With the conclusion of Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard It seems like the right time to look at “Star Trek” in the same way.

The Star Trek shows can be categorized as “What If?” or “What’s Next?”. The first category follows plots which generally are prequels or in-between series. Examples are “Enterprise” and the current “Star Trek: Discovery”. The second category follows the continuation of the timeline begun in the original 1966 series. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or “Star Trek: Picard”. Each has its pleasures and its pitfalls. I presume each has its fans since they continue to produce shows in both categories. I’m going to look at the two current incarnations of each.

From the moment it started Star Trek: Discovery was a “What If?” show. Of any of this type of show it has been the one which has happily thrown out the previous Star Trek history, referred to by fans as Canon. It is that rich history that boxes in the writers. They are picking a blank space in a tapestry woven around them. Forced to try and fill that space without being a blot they mostly fail. They can’t help asking questions we know answers to. So interactions with different alien races happens decades before the first contact we saw in previous series. Other plot devices add in technology from later series into shows taking place much earlier.

My biggest problem with these series is they too often seem like something a bunch of fans were talking about in the food court at a Star Trek convention. What if Spock had a hidden sister? What if that sister was the reason the Federation and Klingons were at war? What is she served on a super-secret starship with technology that allowed it to travel faster than warp speed? On and on it goes. The thing that every Star Trek series has done very well is the casting. Every crew they’ve put on the screen has been played by actors who infuse them with the right amount of seriousness to make it believable. When the shows have failed it has been because the writers have given those actors dumb things to do.

Because I enjoy the characters, I’ve had to turn off my criticism of all the nonsense plotting on Discovery. I found that it made it more enjoyable if I just enjoyed the high-level fan fiction for what it was.

My expectations were higher for Star Trek: Picard because it is a “What’s Next?” series. It picks up with Captain Jean-Luc Picard after he has retired from Starfleet to oversee his family vineyard. The writers here are given much more freedom to choose which stories they want to add to. Which parts of Canon do they want to extend? In this case they took one of the running plot threads about synthetic life; as portrayed by the android Commander Data from The Next Generation and the villainous hive mind of the Borg. If Discovery is all about thrills and chills, Picard aims for a more cerebral tone. Asking high minded questions of morality. Which has been a Star Trek staple since the beginning. They also come with easier solutions than in reality, but that is what science fiction does.

The writers chose to surround Picard with a new rag tag non-Starfleet crew. This was a great decision on their part. The nostalgia of seeing Patrick Stewart play Picard again was enough. The previous characters brought back into the plot all made sense. There was plenty of callback to previous story from the TV show and subsequent movies. To credit the writers they made some of those previous episodes be seen with a new eye. Giving new motivations to things we had seen previously. That is when a “What’s Next?” show is at its best. For the most part Picard is one of those.

The future of Star Trek is on the streaming service of CBS. It is also going to continue with Discovery and Picard each working their side of the Star Trek street. I think it allows every fan to find a place where they can ask the question they like best.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Why Sports Matter to Me

I love watching sports. I’ve been fortunate to attend many of the biggest sporting events there are in person. I am now happy to sit with remote in hand flipping between different games. Joni Mitchell warned in “Big Yellow Taxi” that absence makes you wish for what you’ve lost. Right now because of the coronavirus epidemic we have all lost sports. I am finding it to be a bigger void than I expected.

One of the biggest is as a supporter of my favorite teams. The colleges I attended. The cities I’ve lived in. A special sharing with my father. They have made me a fan of teams in every sport. There is the optimism as you head into a new year. Then there is the reality of whether my teams are up to the task of being the best. Or not the best. Sometimes the worst. Throughout it all is the emotion of rooting for a team of players you want to do their best.

Then there are the rivalries. Even though most of my teams are on the downside these days. As an Arsenal Football Club supporter I admire the run the current Liverpool team is on. I really hope for them and their fans they get to finish what has been one of the all-time greatest seasons. Even though I was happy to see them lose a game so they couldn’t match the undefeated Arsenal season of 2003-04. They might be champions, but they won’t be Invincible.

Spring training for my St. Louis Cardinals was showing some promise just as it all shut down. I am hoping there will be baseball this year.

This weekend should have been the opening games of this year’s March Madness. I have no brackets to be busted. No buzzer beaters to say “OMG!” about.

Sports defined the weekend for me, I realize. It was a way I would unwind watching athletes do their things. Now that it has gone, I understand why it matters to me. I know it will make me love it all the more when it eventually returns.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Four Suggestions to CoronaBinge

It looks like most of us are going to be asked to spend a few days at home because of the spread of the Coronavirus. I suspect a lot of us will be searching our streaming services for something that can eat up some of this idle time. I know I will need something to replace the time I usually spend watching March Madness. I’ve seen the funny term for catching up on old series while self-quarantined called CoronaBinge. Here are four series you might not have heard about worth giving a shot.

Letterkenny (Hulu)- A comedy about the small-town life in Canada. In the first show we are introduced to the population of the titular town described as “hicks, Natives, skids, hockey players and Christians”. The show follows two of the “hicks”, Wayne and Katy, who run the local farm stand. The other focus is on two “hockey players”, Reilly and Jonesy. It is broad humor which reminds me of the style of the old British sitcom “Fawlty Towers”. I laugh out loud frequently while watching even though I know I am missing some things Canadians get that I don’t.

Street Food (Netflix)- Ever since I discovered Iron Chef I have been a fan of the food documentary. The streaming services have served up some excellent versions. Street Food is about the making of regional cuisine at the street level. At the same time it tells the story of, mostly women, who used their cooking skills to lift themselves up a couple of notches on their socio-economic ladder. I came for the food, but the stories of perseverance are nourishing to a different part of my soul.

McMillions (HBO)- Have you ever received one of those Monopoly game pieces when you’ve visited McDonalds? Have you ever wondered whether anyone actually collected the necessary pieces to win the million dollars?  I wondered all of that. This docuseries which just ended last week is the story of an FBI agent who wondered if the winners were doing it fraudulently in the late 1990’s. Turns out the answer to that question was yes. The series focuses on the investigation which unearths a memorable set of real-life characters who are so big in personality I found myself forgetting this wasn’t a scripted show. There is supposedly a movie version coming so extra fun can be had imagining which actors should play these characters.

Gravity Falls (Disney+)- If you need an animated series to watch with your kids that has plenty for an adult to enjoy, Gravity Falls is it. When twins Dipper and Mabel Pines are dropped off at their Uncle Stan’s to spend the summer in the seat of Roadkill County, Oregon the ensuing series combines multiple pop culture influences. At its heart is the kids following clues in a mysterious journal they find. Each episode is stuffed with throwaway jokes for every age level. It reminded me of the best of Looney Tunes where the obvious comedy was matched to something a little more subversive. Everyone in the family will probably find something to laugh at, if not for the same reason.

I hope all my readers get through their self-quarantines with only a bad case of cabin fever. Hopefully these four suggestions can ward that off.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Mandalorian

Star Wars holds a special place to me. If you’ve read this column you know that. I have enjoyed the recent movies a lot. To me Star Wars is about good people trying to do the right thing. At its best it is when a couple of plucky outsiders find a way to take down a large target. I’ve always felt the subtext of George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away is that one good person can make a difference.

Which was why as I watched the promotional trailers in advance of the new streaming series “The Mandalorian” I thought this might not be for me. Everyone associated with it had fanned out to conventions and tv interviews to talk about how this was a “grittier” Star Wars. I read, or heard, that as more violent, less white-hat-black hat, with lots of shades of gray.

For almost the entirety of the first episode that seemed like the show we were getting. We were introduced to The Mandalorian as he captures one of his marks for the bounty hunter guild, he is part of. When he comes back to the headquarters of the guild in time-tested fashion, he is given the bounty too difficult for others. He heads out to find his quarry. When he gets to the final scene where he finds what he is looking for; he and the audience share the surprise. Waiting for him is a baby version of the race Yoda belonged to. If you’ve seen memes on your social media with “baby Yoda” this is where it came from. As far as the series is concerned the youngster is called “The Child.

Right there the gritty edgy version of Star Wars snapped back to the good guys versus the bad guys. Over the next seven episodes The Mandalorian protects The Child. The series is classic genre storytelling out of spaghetti westerns. The two men responsible for it are Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni.

There are many callbacks to the westerns of yesterday set in space. The first episode features a futuristic hacienda designed just like the one Clint Eastwood infiltrated in “A Fistful of Dollars”. Episode 2 lifts a piece out of one of the first Star Wars video games. One episode is the old gunslinger versus the new kid. Another is a jailbreak. All of it surrounded by the growing bond between the bounty hunter and the child.

That relationship adds an emotional tug I wasn’t expecting. It has similarities to a graphic novel called “Lone Wolf and Cub” by Frank Miller. In both stories the tough warrior learns there is more to life than just conflict through parenthood.

By the end The Mandalorian has accepted the responsibility for The Child setting the stage for season 2. I am so happy that even a Star Wars with a bounty hunter at its center is still a Star Wars where the good guys win.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Young Sheldon

I have recently realized that most of my television watching does not take place on the original four broadcast networks. When I sit in front of the television now it is to cue up a series on any of the many streaming services. There are only five series I watch on those original networks. One of them is a spinoff which I have come to enjoy as much as the original.

In 2016 as CBS was nearing the end of their top-rated comedy “The Big Bang Theory” they asked show creator Chuck Lorre to create a spinoff focusing on one of the characters, Sheldon Cooper, as a child. Sheldon was the main protagonist of the original series. A genius physicist full of odd perspectives accompanying equally odd personal quirks. As portrayed by actor Jim Parsons, Sheldon was shown to have a heart under his demeanor which was part of what made the show fun to watch.

The new show, “Young Sheldon” uses Mr. Parsons as the voice-over narrator of each episode. It allows for connections back to the original but mostly it gives a character who has trouble showing his emotions an internal voice for the audience. The show is set somewhere in the late 1980’s when Sheldon was 9-years old and beginning high school. The show plays broadly with the theme of a youngster among teenagers. Where the show excels is as a family comedy.

Set in small-town Texas; Sheldon lives with his twin sister, Missy, and older brother Georgie. His mother works at the local church and his father George Sr. is a football coach at the high school. His grandmother lives across the street. The show’s plots usually revolve around Sheldon but as they have become more confident in the ensemble the other members of the family have taken on their own plots. In this current third season there have been a number of episodes where Sheldon was relegated to the background. That is a nod to the writers for broadening out the family instead of making them one-note caricatures.

The young actor playing Sheldon, Iain Armitage, is wonderful. It is very easy to see the adult Sheldon in his performance. One interesting acting choice is Zoe Perry who plays Sheldon’s mother, Mary, is the daughter of the actress who portrayed her, Laurie Metcalf, in The Big Bang Theory. The resemblance is genetic as well as her performance.

There are only a few things left on the broadcast networks for me to watch; Young Sheldon is one of them.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Maggie Rogers

I’m a dinosaur when it comes to finding new music. I miss the days of going to the record/cd store and hearing something playing in the store. I know the modern version of that is watching YouTube. I just have trouble finding those off-beat voices I like among the things I don’t care for. Which is how it wasn’t until she performed on Saturday Night Live, I hadn’t heard of Maggie Rogers.

This was in November of 2018. I would download her album “Heard it in a Past Life” a few months later when it was released in January 2019. Ms. Rogers rise is the new story of musicians finding their way.

Maggie Rogers

She was attending a master class by producer Pharell Williams while she was at NYU. A video of Mr. Willaims response to her singing her song “Alaska” went viral. It opened doors which allowed her to sign a deal to record her own music.

Ms. Rogers has that emotional undercurrent to her voice that draws me to my favorite singer-songwriters. It was what cased Mr. Williams’ reaction and it was what caught me late on a Saturday night through my television.

To her great credit she didn’t run straight into the studio to record. It took over two years before her major label debut. One interesting thing about that is she refined the use of electronic elements within her folk foundation exemplified by “Alaska”.

The song which shows this best is “On + Off”. There is thumping electronic melody over which Ms. rogers lays her folk lyrics. It is the starkest juxtaposition of that. The popular singles; “Light On” and “Fallingwater” do it to a lesser degree. It is what makes her album so interesting because it moves between radio-friendly folk music to something more alternative in composition.

I always look back over my iTunes statistics to see what I’ve listened to the most each year. I was surprised to find “Heard it in a Past Life” in my top 10 for 2019. Like Ms. rogers herself it just snuck up on me.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Not often, there are times where I finish a book where I am shaken and stirred emotionally. I close my iPad down and think “Wow! What did I just read?” The first book I read in 2020 did that to me; “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore.

Liz Moore has been an author I have followed since her debut novel “The Words of Every Song” in 2007. She is part of that damningly inexact genre known as “literary fiction”. I’m not fond of the term because I don’t know what it stands for. Novels written on a higher plane? Or to a higher purpose? Or to do something different with a known genre? It seems critical and praising in the same two words. For perhaps the first time Ms. Moore makes it seem praiseworthy by answering yes to my questions above.

Liz Moore

Long Bright River tells the story of two sisters, Mickey and Kacey, from Philadelphia. Mickey has grown up to become a cop. Kacey has become an addict. Mickey is the narrator of the story. The book moves like a police procedural as Mickey is drawn back to the Kensington neighborhood, she and Kacey grew up in. By moving back and forth in time Mickey tells of their childhood and how they ended up on two different paths. In the current day Kensington there is a serial killer preying on the addict community living in the abandoned buildings of their old neighborhood. Mickey pursues the case because she is worried Kacey could be in danger. As these two divergent paths find their way to intersection is what drives the plot.

Ms. Moore writes a novel which poignantly describes the loss of middle-class urban neighborhoods. Kensington is its own character as you see it in happier days before its tragic present. She writes a novel of the damage of addiction. Mickey and Kacey end up in Kensington under the care of their grandmother because their mother overdosed. In reaction you either become an addict or push it away vehemently. Mickey and Kacey represent that. Finally this is a police procedural. Mickey is following the clues to uncover the serial killer. Just as with any mystery novel I’m trying to figure it out, too. Most times a novel of three such disparate tracks would fall apart under its pretensions. Ms. Moore keeps it all together each piece growing in an unforced way from the other.

By the end Ms. Moore has asked tough questions which have revealing answers. The joy of reading this novel lies in the surprising resolutions of everything.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Theater or Sofa?

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When I first started going to the movies as a young boy in the 1960’s there was nothing better than going to the theater. The smell of popcorn. The beam of the projector onto a giant 70mm screen. Heroes larger than life, literally. I remember reading about celebrities who had a movie theater in their homes. More than having a fancy car, diamonds, or money; having a personal movie theater was how I knew someone was wealthy.

Crest Theater in Sacaramneto, CA

Fifty years later we all have a movie theater in our home. When I look at my big flat screen tv now, it feels as big as the smaller screens which proliferated when theaters were retrofitted into multi-screen showcases. Not only do we have our own widescreen, we have access to libraries of movies. Not every single movie but close. That I can think of an older movie I would like to see and in a matter of minutes it is playing. That is wild.

It has led to a conversation about where a movie should be seen. Whether where it shows first even defines whether it is a movie. With Netflix again having movies in the Best Picture race for the 2020 Oscars it is only going to continue. Both of those movies, “The Irishman” and “A Marriage Story” worked better for me on my television in the dark of my living room. They were character studies which rely on the writing and performances more than the spectacle of it all.

Two of the other movies nominated for Best Picture I wouldn’t have wanted to see on my television the first time. “Ford v Ferrari” was one of the best car racing movies I’ve seen in many years. Part of it was the ability to get cameras into the claustrophobic places of the driver. Simultaneously having them attached to the car to give the feeling of the speed. I would never have gotten that if I wasn’t watching it on a big screen at my theater where I could be immersed in the visuals.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” also is best on a larger screen. It is because of the cinematography of it all. Director Quentin Tarantino has used cinematographer Robert Richardson for all his movies after 2003’s “Kill Bill”. As much as there is a Tarantino style of plot and dialogue, Mr. Richardson supplies the signature look to these movies. Great cinematography does not translate even onto my largest flat screen tv. Only in a movie theater can the feeling of 1969 color and movement be communicated which creates the stage for the rest of the movie to take place in.

While the dream of having a movie theater in my home has mostly been achieved. It means the majority of movie watching takes place on my sofa. There are still movies which require a trip to the theater to see them as big as you can. For now it seems like a good place for movies to be.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Root Beer

I am not a soda drinker. I prefer iced tea, lemonade, or water as my cold beverages. If I do drink a soda, I usually order root beer. I grew up on the same ones those of my generation did, Hires, A&W, or Dad’s. The reason I liked it best was it wasn’t as bland as the other sodas. Root beer had some depth to it. We now live in an age where even the simplest foods are made in extraordinary ways. Root beer has not escaped that. There are small batches of root beer brewed at most beer microbreweries. There are also different kinds of places where all they do is small-batch root beers. I had the opportunity to learn more about the soda. I ended up thinking it has a lot to do with many of the same things perfume deals with.

Root beer was originally made by the Native Americans from sassafras roots. In those days it was used as a medicine or flavoring as it came in a thick syrup form. Sometime in the mid-19th century someone got the good idea to add it to soda water. Modern root beer was born. It would have its coming out when Hires Root Beer made its debut at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Pittsburgh. It would spread in popularity from there.

The similarity to perfumery comes in 1960 when the main ingredient of sassafras, safrole, was found to cause liver damage in high concentrations in lab animals. The FDA would ban it. Just as happened with oakmoss in the chypre perfumes; chemists created a sassafras extract without safrole. Then those who made root beer had to decide how to put back the flavor of the safrole. They would have to create a sassafras flavor accord.

Brewers have used the following ingredients to achieve that: licorice, birch, spruce, dandelion, allspice, cinnamon, clove, or mint. Doesn’t that sound like a fabulous perfume? When in the hands of a skilled brewer you get root beer.

When I drink this version of root beer I get a bit of that original medicinal quality the original syrup had. The smaller batch versions are so rich they are like the wine of soda. I enjoy trying to pick out the flavors as much as I do trying to understand a new perfume.

If you want to try this style of root beer Virgil’s is sold in small four-packs nationally. I would suggest going to your best local microbrewery. I have found the majority of them also bottle their own root beer with the same creativity that goes into their beer.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Witcher

I spent too much time over the Holidays binge watching various things. Because I was on Netflix, a lot, I kept getting recommendations for this new series “The Witcher”. I was familiar with the characters because I played the video game of the same name a few years ago. I kind of knew it was based on books, but I never sought them out. I finally gave into the Netflix nudging and started watching. Only one episode. Which turned into watching all eight. It was like eating epic fantasy junk food. I couldn’t stop until the bowl was empty.

The Witcher is that kind of fantasy which verges on bring bad but knows how to wink at you to know its not trying to be great. It reminds me of the syndicated series of “Hercules” and “Xena, Warrior Princess”. Or if you need a deeper cut the Arnold Schwarzenegger “Conan the Barbarian” films. None of these take their material so seriously while keeping it fun. That is what “The Witcher” does.

The titular hero is Geralt of Rivia played by Henry Cavill. Geralt travels around as a bounty hunter of mystical creatures who threaten villages and kingdoms. He gets paid by the townsfolk to kill the offending beast. He is a “mutant” which makes him not part of the society of anyplace, so he is cursed to move around.

The stories in the books also revolve around two other characters sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg and Princess Ciri of Cintra. The clever trick the writers use is we see each character in their earliest days in the early episodes. It is only about halfway through we realize we are watching three separate timelines from many different decades. The entire first season is towards bringing all three of these characters to the same place at the same time.

This kind of storytelling allows for time jumps which have fun payoffs. The one which is funniest is when Geralt picks up a bard, Jaskier, who follows him. By the end of the episode Jaskier has written a song about Geralt, “Toss a Coin to your Witcher”. When they meet again ten years later the song has helped create a mythology around Geralt. The choice of three timelines moving in parallel makes for a new way to tell an origin story.

As I mentioned there is a video game based on this world. It was amusing to see each fight scene as a level in the video game as they tend to have that quality to them.

If you need some goofy fantasy fun queue up “The Witcher”. One warning you will be singing “Toss a Coin to your Witcher” once you hear it.

Mark Behnke