New Year’s Resolutions

People generally make three types of New Years Resolutions:
– Social (“I’m not going to spend Friday nights marathoning Supernatural again this year”)
– Moral (“I’m going to be a better person”)
– Health (“I’m going to start going to the gym”)

The health resolutions pretty much always fall into one of two categories
– Begin a new habit (going to the gym, eating healthier, etc)
– Ceasing a bad habit (stop smoking, stop eating junk food, etc)

The dangers, however, with setting New Years Resolutions is that most people set incredibly vague goals.  When people talk about getting healthier, they’ll decide “I’m going to start eating better” or “I’m going to start going to the gym”.  Okay, cool.  That’s great.

Define ‘eating better’.

If I switch from eating pizza every night to hamburgers, is that eating better?  What if I trade that pizza for salads exclusively?  Does that mean cutting a meal, or eating six small meals instead of three big ones?  Does that mean less red meat or no meat at all?  Technically, just eating a plain doughnut instead of a chocolate-filled one is already eating better.

And define ‘going to the gym’.  Are you going to start doing cardio or lifting weights?  Are you going to take dance classes or attending power lifting seminars?  Are you going to train like a bodybuilder or a strongman?  Are you going to go to the gym three times a week or six times a week?

The trick to setting achievable goals is that they need to be specific.  Set too vague of a goal and you’ll never achieve it, no matter how much progress you make.  There is no diet upon this earth that cannot be made more healthy somehow.  And it doesn’t matter how many times you go to the gym, there will be a training protocol that will necessitate going even more.

To quote the incomparable Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there”.

If you want to set New Years Resolutions, that’s great.  Go for it.  But set something specific and manageable.
Instead of ‘I’m going to eat healthy’, go with ‘I’m going to follow this specific diet (whatever diet it might be)’.
Instead of ‘I’m going to start going to the gym’, go with ‘I’m going to go to the gym three times a week’ or ‘I’m going to follow this specific program’.  I can even make a few suggestions.

If you want to be ambitious and totally overhaul your life, or make powerful changes, that’s fine too.   But make sure you break it down into small steps that you can manage.  Instead of ‘I’m going to quit smoking’, go with ‘I’m going to cut back on my smoking one cigarette at a time until I stop entirely’ (if you smoke 12 cigarettes a day, cut back to 11 cigarettes for January, 10 cigarettes in February, 9 in March, etc etc).  Instead of ‘I’m going to eat health’ or even ‘I’m going to follow this specific diet’, go with ‘I’m going to follow this specific diet for breakfast only in January, then add lunch in March, dinner in May, etc).

A definitive goal and manageable steps make absolutely any ambition achievable with time.  Don’t try to change your life in one go, on one day.  Even if you take only one step a week towards your goals, that’s over fifty steps by the end of one year.

So Happy New Year! 🙂

Girls Toys

About a week ago, this happened.  Paul Dini, the man responsible for some of the best cartoons and animated series in the past two decades, talked with Kevin Smith about why Cartoon Network canceled some of their shows.  In the interview (which is well worth listening to in its entirety), Dini states “[TV execs] do not want girls watching this show” because “girls won’t buy toys”.  The crux of his belief for why his – and many other popular shows – were canceled is because the female viewing audience had grown too high for the TV execs to tolerate.  The reason why female viewers was bad was attribute to girls’ disinterest in toys.

This is troubling for almost more reasons than I can count, but I want to tackle at least a few of these reasons today.  Since this is such a staggeringly awful world view, I want to throw out a few topics to discuss at another time.  For starters, let’s just dismiss sexism.  Is this a sexist view of things?  Abso-goddamn-lutely.  It is blatant, rank sexism to assume that girls in a large enough demographic to be an economic force won’t be interested in the merchandise for a show they enjoy.  It is blatant sexism to just assume by virtue of their gender that girls simply will not have any interest in the toys of a show they clearly love a great deal.
I won’t be addressing that aspect of things – the sexism – because A) oh my god, there it is, it’s RIGHT THERE and B) there are plenty of other people online and in the media who already doing an excellent job addressing that.  Since I feel like that corner of this topic is being adequately (and deservedly) addressed, I want to take a few other lesser but still important points to task.

The justification for the cancellation of these shows is just the absolute laziest excuse for creative corruptness ever.  The preconceived insistence that an existing audience will not buy pre-made merchandise and therefore the audience must be disbanded is as patently selfish as it is short-sighted.  It is putting your work ahead of the fans; it is insisting the fans buy what you make, not for you to make what the fans want to buy.  It is professional laziness of the most deplorable sort.

First off, there is not one great success story in marketing and business that doesn’t involve reaching an unexpected demographic.  From Nike’s realization that ‘women like sports too, maybe we should make women’s sneakers as well’ to the success of the Wii (and its ‘non-gamer’-friendly games), every marketing professional wants to be the one that bridges some kind of a gap and reaches out to a previously untapped demographic.
There’s a legend in marketing and advertising about how GI Joes came into being.  The story goes that Merrill Hassenfeld (of Hassenfeld Brothers, aka Hasbro) entered into a bet with his wife that he could not sell ‘dolls to boys’.  At the time (the 1960s), it was conventional wisdom that boys did not play with dolls, so Hasbro simply rechristened them ‘action figures’.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that ‘action figures’ have been one of the single biggest driving forces in children’s entertainment ever since.
Finding yourself with a demographic you didn’t expect (much like Cartoon Network did with a whole cadre of their shows) isn’t a problem: it’s an outstanding success!  That isn’t a failure; it’s a dream come true!  Refusal to see that is refusal to understand even the most basic elements of marketing and merchandising success.

Secondly, if the show’s success hinges on the selling of toys, then the goal is to sell toys.  You cannot refuse to sell toys.  If you have an interested demographic (and they did, based on the viewership numbers), they WILL buy merchandise connected to their favorite shows…if they think said merchandise is worthwhile.  So if they aren’t buying merchandise that’s being made, the problem isn’t with the audience; it’s with the merchandise.  They are obviously fans of the franchise and a century of capitalism has proven that they will spend money on what they like.  Maybe the reason the action figures weren’t moving isn’t because girls don’t like action figures; it’s because the action figures were shoddy or overpriced.

And lastly, there is a larger issue at play here: the purpose of TV shows is not to ‘sell merchandise’.  That may seem like a strange thing to say, coming from a die-hard Transformers fan, but the truth is that TV shows that are just commercials for the toys rarely – if ever – last more than one season.
TV shows that are closely connected to merchandise exist to generate interest in the franchise and there is a distinct difference between generating interesting a franchise and shilling toys.  The show cannot exist solely as a commercial for the toys.  It must be able to stand on its own rights and virtues as an independent (though connected) artistic venture.  To make the shows fundamentally subservient to a different art form (toys, in this case) is to thoroughly undercut if not completely undermine the medium.
What this means is that cancelling the show because the toys weren’t selling – or worse, because there was fear the toys might not sell – is the work of artistic cowardice.  The idea that the show has no reason to exist except to move merchandise is artistically bankrupt, and it destroys whatever possible credibility the show and the network might want to retain.

In this day and age, memories are long.  Firefly’s been off the air for well over a decade, and yet it continues to be a topic of discussion at conventions and on forums, keeping pace with long-enduring franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek.  Forgotten kids shows are no different. The Mysterious Cities of Gold has been off the air for three decades and yet there was a new video game released for it on Steam.
Shows connected to enduring franchises, like those Cartoon Network just canceled which are connected to DC Comics, will be long remembered indeed.  And those who remember the heartbreak of their favorite shows being canceled will remember this when Cartoon Network tries to woo them back with future shows.  This short-sightedness – rooted in blatant and deplorable sexism – that girls simply won’t buy the toys already made for these shows is as troubling as it is fundamentally wrong.

Fifty Years of Who

It seems there are two types of people in this world: people who know nothing about Dr Who, and fans of Dr Who.  There seem to be very few people who know anything about the show and don’t care for it.  Most people seem, once they get a taste, to be incapable of getting enough.  That’s been the case for me, to be sure.  Once I’d gotten a full-on dose of the Doctor’s magic – to see a pacifist action hero traveling the universe and all of time, just to see the beauty of life and experience the wonders of all there is to see – I couldn’t get enough.

Now, to be fair, I wouldn’t say I’ve been ignorant of Dr Who, but it’s never really been a show that registered on my radar until very recently.  As the fandom for the show has grown to staggering levels, I’ve noticed and acknowledged it, but I’ve never gotten around to watching it seriously. However, with the hoopla over The Day of the Doctor, I tuned in and found myself quite enthralled.  Having seen maybe a total of six episodes prior to this (not including the ill-fated 1996 American TV movie which stared Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor; a film I watched with great delight), I was galvanized to see more.

Strangely, though, it isn’t more of the current Doctors that I want to see.

I’ve enjoyed Christopher Eccleston’s career for years, so impressed was I with his performance in 28 Days Later.  It’s no surprise then that the few episodes I’ve seen of his 9th Doctor really appeal to me.  David Tennant and Matt Smith’s respective characterizations are also really intriguing.  But I’ve found it’s the 2nd and 4th Doctors are who I’m most keen to see more of.

Doctor Who dates back to 1963, a full three years before Star Trek would appear.  In black & white, it starred two humans in the company of an alien in the guise of an older gentleman.  The 1st Doctor is often a shock to fans of the modern versions, being so radically different.  It really is the 2nd Doctor and on where modern fans can see the beginnings of the heritage they so enjoy.

The 2nd Doctor (played by Patrick Troughton) and the 4th Doctor (played by Tom Baker), are much more of the comedic figures in the early years of the series.  They tended to rely on personality and cleverness, as opposed to rote intellect or even action bravado (like their intervening 3rd Doctor played by Jon Pertwee).  This gave the two remarkable flavor and distinctive characters.

But more than just the Doctors, the shows during this time have a very unique feel to them.  Being low-budget sci-fi (in the case of the 2nd Doctor, VERY low budget), there are often a lot of concessions regarding special effects, costuming, and sets.  At first glance, this sounds like it would make for poor sci-fi, but one might argue that it can make for the best sci-fi.

Kevin Flanagan once said “It’s when you face limitations that you see innovation”.  Though he was speaking about video games, I think it holds true with many other forms of art (and perhaps all realms of life, to be honest).  Sci-fi is certainly no exception.  When you cannot rely on special effects, sets, and so on, to dazzle the audience, you are left with story and characters to do it.  And so it is in the presence of ‘cheap sci-fi’ that we can see some truly impressive and fun stories.

Additionally, watching the 2nd and 4th Doctors is like a time-capsule for television.  It’s incredibly intriguing to see where British TV was at this time, to see what it looked like, what some of the social mores were, what was acceptable and what was not.  Even simple things like the use of different cameras for indoor and outdoor shooting says so much.  Seeing these older episodes is like visiting grandparents and hearing compelling stories of days past, something only children would balk at because there aren’t enough dazzling lights.

The more and more I watch of these older episodes, the more and more they frame the modern episodes for me.  They inform the current show – from the production to the performances by the actors.  And they give key insight into where this culture was at this time in its TV life.  And, devoid of the trappings of CGI and modern imaging, they are full of cleverness and wit needed to convey outlandish and yet compelling tales.

If you get the chance, I encourage you to check them out.  Eccelston, Tennant, and Smith are great, but if you take a step back in time, you’ll be astounded and delighted beyond what you might imagine.

Tabula Rosa Playset

It’s the holidays.  While that means many things to many people, one thing it means for me – as a person easily mistaken for an adult who has three nephews and a niece – it means toy-shopping for Christmas morning.  So off to the toy store I went.

I strolled through the aisles, looking for toys I thought fit the bill for the children whom I know and love so well (translation: I was trying to find the exact figures that are on their lists).  And all three of my nephews are into the Lego action figure lines: Chima, Hero Factory, etc.  And in the Lego aisle I noticed a lack of, well, Legos.

Don’t get me wrong, there were Marvel Superhero Legos and DC Superhero Legos and Lord of the Ring Legos, plus the aforementioned action hero lines.  But there weren’t any classic Lego playsets, not like the ones I recall from my childhood.  And this bothered me, though I couldn’t put my finger on it.  It’s not because I’m anti-licensing or anything.  Nor did I think the old playsets of yore were in anyway superior to these sets; at least, not exactly.

It wasn’t until I watched a recent Duplo ad (Legos for infants) that it clicked for me.  The ad contained no original playsets.  It was all Disney/Pixar/Nickelodeon characters made out of Duplo or playing on vehicles/locations made from Duplo.  No original characters.

Before I get onto my old-man tirade, shaking my cane at these newfangled modern toys, let me be clear: I love franchise toys.  I love Transformers, GI Joe, Power Rangers, etc.  I think they’re great toys and I think they’re very useful and wonderful tools to help fire a child’s imagination.

The problem with franchise toys is that they’re known quantities.  Everybody knows who Optimus Prime is, what he sounds like, what he does, what he’s like.  So when you get an Optimus Prime action figure, you are getting a defined character, in a defined story.  No matter how wonderful the mythos of said character is, it is still ultimately a limiting element.  You’re getting a picture with which you will be coloring inside the lines.  Not a bad thing in and of itself, but children need more than just that.

What made Lego standout from many of the other toys of my childhood was there were no defined characters, no defined stories, and really not even any defined elements to it.  When you opened the bag and put the vehicle or set together, you had no idea who this person was or what was happening, where the story was set or what was going on.  YOU had to come up with all of that.  YOU had to create the settings, YOU had to create the characters and motivations, all of it.  YOU were able to project your own stories onto the Legos.  You weren’t creating stories in someone else’s universe; you were creating your own stories in your own universes.  You were drawing your own picture.

I lament that there are not more toys where you can do that.

Well, I should amend that.  Barbie is still that way.  While Barbie (the toyline) is largely concerned with clothes and accessories (and ‘boys’ toys, don’t pretend you aren’t too: battle-damage figures that are identical except for different paintjobs? Figures that come with 19 swords and 32 guns so you can mix and match?  Come on, you are’t fooling anyone), there isn’t that much of a definitive character to Barbie.  While the occasional DVD movies and whatnot always paint Barbie as generically kind and universally admirable, the character herself is always distinctive to each setting and story: a princess is a far cry from a ballerina or a doctor or an adventurer.  And moreover, it’s left to the one playing with Barbie to define who she is and what she’s doing.  The ability to project onto Barbie is one of the line’s greatest strengths by far.

When knockoff toys were more prevalent – He-Man and GI Joes were the most common when I was a kid – kids were faced with toys that were sometimes to cool too get rid of or just relegate to backup goon, but who didn’t fit into the established canon created by the cartoons.  Faced with this challenge, they would have to create names, personalities, etc.  They would have to decide if this was a good guy or bad guy, competent or incapable; it was all up to them.  In many ways, this would be the ideal ‘next step’ for kids who are used to playing with franchise/licensed toys – to be given figures that aren’t part of the established canon but whom they have to be fit into the story.  This is how their imaginations are taken to the next level.

But ideally, toys without characters and stories, but still compelling and dynamic would be best.  Legos always fit that role perfectly.  The beautiful but tragically short-lived Stikfas toyline was probably the best the toy world’s seen in recent years.  And not as a dismissal, but there’s always Barbie.

Toys are not meant to capture children’s imaginations; they’re meant to set them free.  Children should not be constrained to the characters, stories, and worlds of what is on TV or found in video games.  A common and accessible mythos is invaluable, no doubt.  And franchise toys do a lot of good for kids and offer them a lot.  But children need access to toys with a blank slate, toys that they can project onto so as to cultivate their own imaginations and to broaden their creative vocabulary.