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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

One Giant Leap backwards for Mankind

I recently put aside my dislike of the modern Disney company and bought the Walt Disney Treasures - Tomorrowland Disney in Space and Beyond collection (still easy to find and cheap despite being out of print.) For anyone who is a fan of atom age science or animation, this collection is essential. This collection, consisting mostly of episodes of "Walt Disney Presents" from the mid to late 50s, is extremely smart and fascinating. It's a nifty picture of how close science back then was to what we know today, as well as some of the ways they were off the mark as well (the "Our Friend the Atom" show is especially naive, a fact made all the more potent by the fact that I coincidentally watched it on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.)

As I was watching these shows, a few things struck me. Disney really went all out for these programs. As someone who used to really be into NASA and the space program, I recognized many of the scientists they featured in the program. These weren't just puny pundits, these were the bleeding edge scientists of the day, delivering what was then the most accurate information we knew about space travel in a way that was absolutely riveting (even in the bits I knew were outdated.)

I have a really hard time imagining today's family gathering around the television set on a Sunday night for almost an hour of hard science, no matter how entertainingly it was packaged. Yet, it would seem that fifty years ago, people did just that. Don't get me wrong, these shows are fun to watch, but they also deliver some pretty serious science. And despite the use of animation to illustrate some points (and despite the Disney name,) never once do these shows talk down to the audience. I can't imagine modern television actually trying to bring people up rather than talking them down.

I was also really stunned by the special effects and animated sequences they created to show their best guess at the time of how space exploration would work. I've seen a ton of sci-fi from the era and these programs equal some of the best of the time. In fact, I think only George Pal (War of the Worlds, Destination Moon) did better and watching these shows really makes me wish Disney had produced an outer space movie in the 50s as it would have been fantastic. In fact, several of these shows were released theatrically as featurettes.

As mentioned in Leonard Maltin's introductions, these effects and animation didn't come cheap. It's impressive to think that a studio would spend that kind of money for what was essentially an educational program just because the head of the studio felt it was important for the public to understand these concepts. These days we have programming created as cheaply as possible, by committee for the lowest common denominator, resulting in things such as endless variations on "reality" TV. I can't see anyone green lighting such elaborate shows as these now.

I'm not trying to say modern trash TV doesn't have a place. It does. It just makes me sad that there isn't much of an alternative to it anymore. Sure, you can watch the "bug channel" or the "Hitler channel," if you have cable. Even many of those shows seem to be thrown together on the cheap to fill time rather than having a clear vision behind them.

To see something like this pass for mainstream television entertainment fifty years ago and contrast it with what passes as mainstream modern television entertainment today is just a shocking contrast. Even if we consider these shows "family" entertainment and we try to compare apples to apples, I don't even know what passes for family entertainment these days. America's Funniest Home Videos? Nothing like ball to the groin jokes for the whole family.

Of course, the flip side to this, and the popular excuse whenever people mention the death of intelligent, quality programming, is the old "we're just giving the people what they want" defense. Given, I doubt you could put something on the air today like the sequence explaining evolution in the "Mars and Beyond" episode without some people complaining and threatening boycotts, so maybe there is something to that.* Still, I think it's a "chicken and egg" scenario at best.

I'm glad this collection exists, not just because I sincerely enjoy these old shows, but also because I think they show how far we've advanced scientifically as well as how we've taken a big step backwards as a society. Well, at least as a TV watching society, anyway.

* It really makes me sad to have written that sentence. I never thought I'd live in an age were people wish to roll back scientific discovery and where willful ignorance is celebrated as a virtue, yet here I am.

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