A Pandemic Year of Moviegoing & Star Trek

24-Dec-21 9:30 AM by
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My first pandemic year was spent watching a lot of television — partly because we were all isolating from each other, but also because I needed an unthinking escape from this dark reality we found ourselves in.

The second year of the pandemic is still grim, but we learned to adapt. In San Francisco, I spent $50 for a ticket to the drive-in to watch Mad Max: Fury Road. I hadn't seen this 2015 film before, and even though I had no one else in my car and there were no snacks for sale, the novelty of seeing a movie anywhere other than my own home made the ticket price worth it. (Helluva action film, too.)

Then, in that too-brief window between the arrival of vaccines and the arrival of the delta variant, returning to traditional movie theaters became possible. A friend and I loved Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy, which reminded me of cross between The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and Wreck-It Ralph. Despite being opening weekend, the theater in Boulder, Colorado, was practically deserted; the few other moviegoers were, like us, masked.

Two weeks later in that same theater was a different story when we attended the one-night-only RiffTrax Live: Hobgoblins. This time, the theater was half-full, and half of the patrons were not wearing masks. Even though seating was reserved, we shifted seats several times to stay as far away from others as possible. The anxiety of the situation made it hard

It was while I was in Boston a few months later that RiffTrax hosted the second of this year's live events, Amityville: The Evil Escapes. Being in a bigger city during the delta wave, I opted to skip this one, making it only the second RiffTrax Live event I've missed in the 11-year history of the series.

I nonetheless took my odds on a Monday afternoon matinée of Venom 2, a movie I can now say did not warrant risking a pandemic for. It reinforced that I made the right decision to miss Black Widow, Shang-Chi, The Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home in theaters, though I have since caught Black Widow on Blu Ray from Redbox.

Still, I saw more movies in theaters in 2021 than I did in 2020. And I watched less television — but also more Star Trek than ever before. Between the end of Discovery's third season and the beginning of its fourth was the second season of Lower Decks and the debut of Prodigy. The continuous streak of Trek will continue into 2022 with the rest of Prodigy's first season, the premiere of Strange New Worlds, and the return of Picard. From drama to comedy, live action to animated, and new characters to old, there's something for every Trekkie.

We Trekkies have everything we need — but 'tis the season of giving, so let us return the favor to our favorite captain and ask: Jean-Luc, what do you want for Christmas?

Star Trek IV: The Voyage to Alameda

05-May-21 9:00 AM by
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When I told my friends that I'd arrived in Alameda, California, I got the same question over and over — from Twitter:

To Facebook:

A screenshot of Lon Seidman asking "Can you tel me where I can find the nuclear wessels?"

And text message:

A screenshot of a text message from Andy Affleck, asking "Did you ever find the nuclear vessels?"

This seemingly synchronized flurry was no surprise to me, but others may wonder: why would so many people independently ask such a bizarre question? The answer lies in this scene from the 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

This scene — the fiftieth best moment in science-fiction history, according to Popular Mechanics — follows the crew of the USS Enterprise starship, having traveled from the year 2286 to 1986 San Francisco to rescue two humpback whales. Officers Pavel Chekhov and Nyota Uhura's side mission is to find a nuclear reactor they can use to power their spaceship for their return flight to the future, leading to this legendary comedic scene.

Chekhov and Uhura eventually do find a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at the Naval Air Station Alameda. I would have to follow their footsteps if I wanted to answer my friends' questions. Alas, this naval base closed in 1997, eleven years after the movie and twenty-four years before my arrival.

This Trekkie was nonetheless determined not to waste my time on the very walkable island of Alameda. Near the end of my seven weeks there, I took an extended lunch break, making my way to what is now the Alameda Naval Air Museum. Lo and behold, there docked a nuclear wessel.

Much like the the original film, I took artistic license. Chekhov and Uhura reported that the carrier they found was the nuclear-powered Enterprise — but historical records show that the Enterprise was not in Alameda at that time; the ship shown in the movie is in fact the USS Ranger. Similarly, the ship seen above is the USS Hornet, which, like the Ranger, radiated not a single Joule of nuclear energy.

Nuclear vessels may have been the star of Star Trek IV's most famous scene, but while Chekhov and Uhura prowled around Alameda, Captain Kirk and company explored other areas of San Francisco.

After Alameda, I spent six weeks in San Francisco's Outer Sunset neighborhood. Just like the fate of Earth in Star Trek IV, I knew my time was short: if I wanted to make the most of my stay in the Bay Area, I had to act swiftly. So one Saturday, I called my old college friend Ping and asked if he wanted to join me on a walking tour of downtown San Francisco. Our knowledge of Star Trek lore, combined with the websites IMDb and The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, led us to a short stretch of road where three different scenes were shot, where Ping graciously served as our photographer.

Each scene presented unique challenges. Whereas Kirk was nearly run over by a taxi driver, I had no desire to be vehicularly threatened. I stepped out into the street only far enough to glare menacingly at motorists as they passed by at a safe distance.

This alley was one that Ping had walked by several times over the years without recognizing it. Understandably so: in the movie, the most notable element is the billboard for Pacific Bell Yellow Pages, which would be anachronistic to discover now.

The "nuclear wessels" scene was the most difficult to recreate. In the intervening years, a portion of nearby Joe DiMaggio Playground had made way for the North Beach Library branch, changing the flow of foot traffic and the available camera angles. That didn't stop us from shooting our own version of the scene.

I enjoyed not only bringing one of my favorite Star Trek movies to life, but doing so with a good friend whom I hadn't seen in a decade. Whereas my geeky interests were uncommon in grade school and high school, I sometimes forget they didn't make me an outlier in college, where I was surrounded by scientists and engineers like Ping. When I thanked him for humoring me with this walking tour, saying there's no one else I could do this with, he laughed, echoing the sentiment: "Ken, there's no one else I could do this with!"

Sometimes, The Voyage Home is about the friends you make along the way.

(This post originally appeared on Roadbits)

Take care of yourself for Christmas 2020

24-Dec-20 9:30 AM by
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A lot of our fiction hasn't caught up to this reality: the few new television shows and movies that have been released tend to exist in the past or in some alternative reality where there is no coronavirus. There are exceptions, such as NBC series Superstore or the horror movie Host, though this sensitive topic hits so close to home that how it's handled in media can be hit or miss.

Yet sometimes, this denial of reality can be just what we need. Some marketing firms release commercials and advertisements that aren't really about the product come across more as short films. Apple's Frankenstein ad, now four years old, is a good example:

But for media created in a time of pandemic, I find myself watching and rewatching this season's "Take Care of Yourself":

There is so much emotion captured in these wordless two minutes. The glory of days gone: The frustration of lost agency — something my own father struggled with. The self-consciousness of trying and failing in public. The inspiration of the next generation. The self-sacrifice to do something for someone else. And choosing to live in the present, not the past.

I myself am missing my family this holiday. As a digital nomad, I was on the road in 2019, too — but at least then I found distant family to celebrate Christmas with. This year, I've been welcomed into the home of a family that is not my own. It still leaves me wistful for simpler times when everyone could be together.

By depicting an unrestricted family gathering, this commercial plants itself firmly not in the reality of 2020. Yet for some reason, it's something that I needed. Maybe it's because I have neither grandparents nor children, making its abstract lesson more noticeable than the setting or context. Or maybe it's the inspiration that if we work hard enough, we as a society can endure and accomplish anything — including surviving this pandemic.

Whatever comes after the pandemic won't be a return to "normalcy" as we've known it. But this Christmas isn't cancelled any more than last year's was or next year's is. Each year will be different, and if we can find the strength and motivation to adapt, then that itself is something to celebrate.

Televisions shows for the pandemic

12-Aug-20 12:00 PM by
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I grew up watching a lot of television: from Family Ties and Growing Pains to Cheers and Night Court; from Frasier and Home Improvement to Days of Our Lives and Nick at Nite. At some level, I knew it was too much, even going so far as to pen a (hypo)critical editorial for my school newspaper about our society's obsession with television.

Then, my junior year of college, I spent a half-semester in Australia, divorced of my viewing habits. When I returned to the States, my parents bequeathed to me exactly what I had asked of them: a dozen VHS tapes with every show I had missed. Overwhelmed by this backlog, I realized I had two decisions: I could frantically catch up and resume my unhealthy relationship with television; or I could wipe the slate clean and walk away. I chose the latter.

This was before streaming services existed, and by the time they were invented, I'd already filled that hole in my life with community theater, podcasts, and freelancing. As a result, I've watched hardly any television in the last twenty years — though there have been a few exceptions. I binged Buffy the Vampire Slayer each time a new season came out on DVD. Growing up reading DC Comics, I've made time to watch The Flash, again on DVD. And Star Trek was something I always shared with my dad; accordingly, the first streaming service I ever paid for was CBS All Access, so I had material with which to launch and co-host the podcast Transporter Lock. But other shows that captured the popular zeitgeist — 24, Lost, CSI, Boston Legal, King of Queens, Sopranos, Breaking Bad, House, Scrubs, The Office, The Walking Dead, Westworld, Game of Thrones — remained outside my realm of knowledge. Television just wasn't something I made time for.

Then the pandemic made time for me.

Six weeks in Madison, Wisconsin, followed by seven weeks in Havre, Montana — all while cut off from my usual social circle and almost all my friends across the country — left me with an unprecedented degree of downtime. I filled some of it with productive new projects, but more than usual, I needed an escape from the stress of the world.

These six new-to-me series have helped me cope during these difficult times. Five of them have concluded their runs, making them easy to binge.

The Good Place

I love Kristen Bell as much as much as Kristen Bell loves sloths. In this show's first episode, she wakes up in the afterlife, having died a horrible person — but, through a case of mistaken identity, she nonetheless finds herself in "The Good Place", architected by Ted Danson (Cheers). What follows is surreal hilarity and sharp dialogue steeped in visual nuance that you'll miss if you blink.

Wikipedia classifies The Good Place into four genres: comedy; fantasy; philosophical fiction; and dystopia. It is absolutely unlike anything I have ever seen. Its fourth and final season concluded this past January.

The Orville

The Orville premiered the same time as Star Trek: Discovery, produced by and starring Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy. Given this pedigree, the show was marketed as a parody of Star Trek, which didn't appeal to me.

But when I finally tuned in, I found it more thoughtful and engaging than I expected, and more akin to traditional Star Trek than anything CBS and Paramount are currently producing. I love the serialized shows Discovery and Picard, but the episodic nature of The Orville is a welcome balance. Its surprising takes on gender identity and original twists on black holes, time travel, and other science-fiction staples make for a great show — and that's even before you add all the Star Trek alumni among the regular cast and guest stars.


Galavant is a medieval musical comedy series that I've wanted to see ever since it first aired in 2014. A veteran myself of such stage performances as Once Upon a Mattress, I loved the idea of a diverse cast of knights, squires, and and princesses interrupting their heroic quests to suddenly burst into song. The show is very self-aware, filled with anachronisms and fourth-wall-breaking humor reminiscent of Mel Brooks classics Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Blazing Saddles. Alas, Galavant lasted only two seasons.


Ever since seeing the first Back to the Future 35 years ago this week, I've been fascinated by time travel and all its inconsistent temporal mechanics, from the butterfly effect to divergent timelines and causality loops. So when the 2016 series Timeless debuted, it immediately landed on my radar.

Superficially, the show is somewhat formulaic: the bad guys go back in time to kill someone famous, and the good guys follow to stop them. But the larger framework is a centuries-old secret organization with Nazi-like tendencies, with morsels of this conspiracy doled out just often enough to keep me hooked. The tension of our entire history being rewritten was balanced by some clever humor and meaningful character growth.

The show lasted only two seasons before being cancelled on a cliffhanger. But six months later, NBC allowed the producers to wrap up all the loose ends with a special two-hour series finale which, while rushed in parts, was nonetheless satisfying. Thank goodness — I don't think I could've handled another The Sarah Connor Chronicles, another two-season time-travel show that also ended on a cliffhanger.

TRON Uprising

Thirteen years ago this week, I interviewed John Knoll of Industrial Light & Magic about TRON's impact on Hollywood special effects. I may have been projecting a bit: this 1982 Disney movie about Jeff Bridges being pulled into a digital world populated by anthropomorphic programs undoubtedly influenced by love affair with personal computers.

I'd wanted to see the movie's animated sequel, TRON Uprising, ever since it debuted in 2012 — but it was never released to home video; I've had to suffice with listening to the Daft Punk-inspired soundtrack.

Now, finally, the show is available on Disney+, and it was worth the wait. TRON Uprising features an all-star cast including Elijah Wood, Bruce Boxleitner, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reubens, and Mandy Moore, as well as stunning cinematography and choreography. There were multiple sequences I rewatched simply because I'd never seen anything like it before.

As someone who dug Batman Beyond, I was here for this show about a young upstart growing into his hero's mantle. Alas, TRON Uprising was cancelled after two seasons.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Oh, how I wish shows like this existed when I was a kid. Technically, it did: She-Ra was a 1985 spin-off of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. But those series were variety shows of physical altercations meant as marketing ploys for the corresponding action figures.

This modern Netflix reboot, about superpowered heroines coming together to defend their land and fulfill an ancient prophecy, is so much more. As Mey Rude wrote:

By modeling good communication and emotional intelligence, She-Ra shows its audience that talking about emotions is the best way to solve problems… She-Ra shows us that a variety of physical intimacies are healthy and good for kids of all genders together.… The series teaches us to find power in ourselves, believe in the good in people, and value our chosen family.

While watching She-Ra as a kid would not have made me any less straight or cisgender than I am, it would've been so validating to have role models who are allowed to be emotionally vulnerable, even (and especially) when it means defying gender stereotypes.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power concluded its fifth and final season this spring.

I didn't become a nomad so I could have more time to watch TV. One reason I did become a digital nomad was to identify what habits were personal and which were environmental. Do I do something because it brings me joy? Or because I'm accustomed to it, and my surroundings make it easy to do?

Visiting Australia was my first experience with disconnecting and self-discovery, when I learned that television is not something I need in my life. To that end, I'm not looking to start more series, lest I fall back into my teenage habits.

But right now, the above six shows' reassurances that there can be happy endings and brighter futures are welcome company.

What shows have you discovered — or rediscovered — during the pandemic, and what do you love about them? Leave a comment with your own vicarious tales!

(This post originally appeared on Roadbits)

WordPress: The Final Frontier

05-Apr-20 10:48 AM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

I work for WordPress VIP, a completely distributed company: all its employees work remotely. The isolation we often feel is even more pronounced in these isolated times caused by COVID-19, calling for unprecedented measures to ensure team morale.

Last Wednesday was my turn to host our team's weekly video call — and it was April Fool's… so I decided to treat my colleagues to a special opening.

(OKR = Objectives and Key Results; TAM = Technical Account Manager; DIO = Deal Is Official)

The idea came when a co-worker suggested we coordinate cosplay and Zoom virtual backgrounds for a Star Trek-themed conference call.

The next morning, as we prepared for the call, I began feeling inspired. I hopped into Final Cut Pro X and whipped together the above intro in about a half-hour, with another twenty minutes fine-tuning it. Assets included the opening credit sequence; an instrumental version of the opening theme song (which omits Stewart's narration), which then segues into the show's actual theme (which includes the sound effects); footage of the Enterprise D docking at a starbase; and the Crillee Bold Italic font.

If I'd had more time, I would've liked to replace the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" title with "WordPress: The VIP Generation"; I even had the Federation font ready for the occasion. But that sort of title is not a stock option in FCPX, and I had only an hour before the meeting in which to produce the entire video, so I went with the minimum viable product.

Despite that shortcoming, the intro was a big hit with my co-workers! It set a positive mood on a day when one was really needed, with the accompanying text chat including lots of "omg" and "LOL" and "holy ****". I'm glad to work for a company that enjoys such geeking out and appreciates it when their teammates do so — one co-worker even said, "This is like distilled essence of Ken."

On this First Contact Day, may we all live long and and prosper to better times!

(The video is shared here with permission of my team lead and all others who are named in the video.)

Picard Will Make It So

24-Dec-19 9:30 AM by
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This holiday season, Star Trek is in a lull: except for the occasional Short Trek (and accompanying podcast episode of Transporter Lock), there's been nothing new for us to watch since the second season of Discovery ended in April.

But next year will be a very different story. Not only is Discovery coming back for a third season — one set further into the future of Star Trek's timeline than we've ever seen — but Patrick Stewart will return to the role of Jean-Luc Picard in his own series. A trailer that debuted while I was at KansasFest 2019, where we watched it on a projector. Several of my fellow geeks can attest to the three times I screamed — see if you can spot them:

Television has changed significantly since The Next Generation went off the air in 1994. Whereas Deep Space Nine pioneered serialized storytelling, nowadays it is commonplace and even the default. Picard's new adventures won't be neatly bottled episodes that end with a weekly reset button; we should expect his journeys to continuously progress, going where he's never gone before and then some.

But it's not just television that's changed; it's also Trek itself. Picard was captain of the last crew assembled by Gene Roddenberry himself, who believed that humanity has resolved its inner conflicts by the 24th century. The inhabitants of the Enterprise D largely got along, inviting viewers to join their spacefaring family. Two years after Roddenberry passed away in 1991, Deep Space Nine debuted, introducing a station crew that was distrustful, conflicted, lustful, and mysterious.

Which universe will Picard find himself in? From the trailer, not all is well within and without the Federation. Whereas our science fiction in general and Trek in particular was once largely optimistic, as seen in TNG, now it is more dystopian, as often seen in DS9 and even Discovery. Can a retired captain and a new crew hope to make a difference?

We have months in which to ponder that question before Picard debuts in 2020. In the meantime, we can look to our own present, set aside our worries for the future, and enjoy the holiday season. It's what Captain Picard would want.

Remembering Carroll Spinney

08-Dec-19 5:41 PM by
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Six years ago, I was having a very bad week. I'd just been dumped, and my first Moth story was an unmitigated disaster — one of the most humiliating moments of my life. Feeling rejected and worthless, I wanted to crawl into a hole and stay there.

But I had tickets to a local convention, so I dragged myself out of the house to the event. The celebrities who were giving autographs that day ranged from old television actors to comic book artists to former pro wrestlers. As I walked the show floor, I was surprised to see Carroll Spinney.

You may not know Spinney's name, but you know his roles: I'd grown up watching him play both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on over 4,400 episodes of Sesame Street. I'd met Spinney once before, at this same convention a few years earlier; I'd already gotten his autograph. But that previous time, there had been a question that I was too nervous to ask him. I never thought I'd get another chance — and here he was.

So I got in line, waited, and finally it was my turn. As he signed another photograph for me, we chatted. I told him that I'd backed the Kickstarter for the documentary about him, I Am Big Bird, which at that time hadn't yet been released. He'd seen some early cuts, and we were both very excited for the final product.

Finally, he handed me the photograph and looked at me expectantly. The conversation was over, and he was waiting for me to move on. If I was ever going to ask him, I had to do it now.

I took a deep breath. "Mr. Spinney," I began, "I hate to put you on the spot like this, but… Could I give you a hug?"

His already gentle grin grew even wider. "Well, sure! That'd be fine. Come around the table," he said, standing up to receive me. Relieved, I wrapped my arms around him, saying, "Thank you, Big Bird."

That day didn't make my struggles go away. But I left that convention feeling like it was going to be okay, because I wasn't alone. There are always going to be people who don't understand or support what you're trying to do. But we can choose to instead focus on the heroes and the helpers who will always be there with a hug when we need it.

Big Bird once said, "Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself."

Thank you, Big Bird. For everything.

Carroll Spinney

Carroll Spinney (Dec 26, 1933 – Dec 8, 2019)

Reuniting The Next Generation's cast

28-Sep-19 9:35 AM by
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Thirty-two years ago today, my dad and I watched the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation. So I thought today would be a good day to die get the gang back together — not in the upcoming Picard series, but in my dining room.

Across years of attending E3, Super Megafest, and Star Trek conventions, I've had the good fortune to meet castmembers from every Star Trek series. Each gave me a moment of their time with conversations I'll always remember for the insight into their off-screen personalities: Jonathan Frakes is goofy and gracious; Brent Spiner is witty and wily; Denise Crosby is open and kind. These moments came as they autographed eight-by-ten glossies, which became my touchstones for these celebrities who brought to life characters that molded my upbringing and creativity.

I eventually moved into an apartment where I could display these mementos.

Of my collection, only one franchise was nearly complete: The Next Generation. And of that, only one actor was missing: Wil Wheaton.

Wheaton was the keynote speaker at the first Penny Arcade Expo East, held every year in Boston. It is also the only PAX East whose keynote speech I missed, and that weekend didn't present another opportunity to corner young Wesley Crusher.

The next possible encounter didn't come until almost a decade later, when I booked passage on the JoCo Cruise, an annual cruise of nerd celebrities: actors, sci-fi authors, podcast hosts, and comic artists. Wil Wheaton was one of the guests in 2017, so I came prepared with both one of his books and a headshot I'd bought on eBay.

On JoCo Cruise, celebrities are treated like fellow passengers, and we're asked not to stalk or harass them. Still, I felt I could acknowledge Wheaton's celebrity while still being respectful. For example, I was reading Wheaton's book by the pool when he happened to walk by, and I asked for his signature, which he graciously provided — completely natural.

That moment was happenstance, though — for the headshot, I had to be more deliberate, as I couldn't just "happen" to be walking around with his photo. On Pajama Day (I was dressed in my DS9/Voyager medical jammies), I again hung out by the pool, this time with his photo. I saw Wheaton playing a board game with friends, which I didn't want to interrupt; then, without pause, he dove into lunch with his family, which was another private moment. When he was finished eating, that was my chance.

I approached him with the photo and a Sharpie marker and asked for his autograph — which, like his castmates, he graciously provided. It somehow came up that I'm from Leominster, hometown of R.A. Salvatore, who I was surprised to learn is a friend of Wheaton's! Wheaton credited Salvatore as being a mentor during his transition from actor to writer.

I also told Wheaton that his was the last autograph I needed to complete my TNG collection. He signed it appropriately.

Wil Wheaton's autographed headshot

To Ken: Quest Complete. -Wil Wheaton

Unlike the $20–80 I'd spent for each of his castmates' autographs at conventions, Wheaton's only cost me a cruise. But it was worth it.

That was two-and-a-half years ago, and in all that time, I've never framed and displayed Wheaton's autograph. On my dining room wall, except for a few scattered superheroes and Star Wars characters on the far end, the headshots were grouped by Star Trek series, with the same franchise in each column. I didn't know how to rearrange it to make room for young Mr. Crusher. Some friends recommended I get a ladder and add an entirely new row, filling it in with non-Trek actors in my collection, but that seemed overwhelming.

But this week, I'm moving out of my apartment, and I'll no longer have room for any such displays. Today, the anniversary of TNG's debut, was my last chance to reunite Wesley with his Enterprise family.

So as all the other headshots came down, one went up.

All TNG autographed headshots together

The TNG crew is always together in my heart, and I can revisit their adventures anytime with a DVD. But today, I tied together all those personal experiences, scattered across all the years. As with all my Star Trek encounters, this was a fleeting moment, but a happy one, and one that I'll take with me in all my travels.