Posts by Ken Gagne

Sci-fi geek extraordinaire, Ken supports the arts a performer, moderator, and movie-goer. When not appearing on stage or in films such as Fever Pitch, he is a freelance writer, Apple II enthusiast, and Showbits webmaster. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Remembering Carroll Spinney

08-Dec-19 5:41 PM by
Filed under Fade to Black; leave a comment.

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
Filed under Star Trek; leave a comment.

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.

A Christmas aboard the Enterprise NX-01

24-Dec-18 9:30 AM by
Filed under Star Trek; Comments Off on A Christmas aboard the Enterprise NX-01

Merry Christmas from the crew of the Enterprise NX-01 in this video that brought up a lot of memories for me.

Last Christmas, I shared how my mom and I have been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation together. It's the first time she's seen the show, but the umpteenth time for me. The episodic nature of TNG makes it easy to watch any episode in any order that I must've eventually seen this entire series multiple times.

This is in sharp contrast to every Star Trek series that followed, especially Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. All seven seasons of DS9, and the second half of Enterprise, had narrative arcs that made for much better storytelling but less accessibility into the universe. If you didn't start from the beginning or you missed an episode along the way, woe was you. As a result, I've seen these series all the way through only once each.

So when someone close to me started watching Enterprise this year, I was surprised my memories of Enterprise were as vivid as any other series. As she reported back on certain episodes or plots, I found myself remembering exact episode names or even lines of dialogue. We watched the episode "Dear Doctor", which opens with Doctor Phlox flirting with a female crewmember. My memory came back in stages: "Who is that?… Oh, that's Ensign Cutler. What's she doing there?… Oh, she was written as a love interest for Phlox. Why didn't we ever see more of her?… Oh." That's when I remembered actor Kellie Waymire had passed away during the filming of Enterprise, at the young age of 36.

That wasn't my only melancholy experience of Enterprise, nor was it likely the only reason I remember the show so well. My dad got me into Star Trek, and we watched it faithfully from 1987 through 2004. After that, we had only the occasional movie to keep our Trek tradition alive. I didn't know at the time that Enterprise be our last shared television series, but it gave the show a special place in my memory. My only regret is that we never watched the fourth season together — our schedules and relationship didn't align at that point in our lives. When I finally watched it alone years later, I ended in tears, knowing this was the end of something special between me and my father.

When my "Dear Doctor" co-viewer continued on her voyage through Enterprise, I asked if I could join her for the fourth season. Not only do I consider it the finest single season of Trek storytelling ever made, but I wanted to finally share it with someone. Of all the Star Trek that aired from 1987 to 2005, Enterprise was the least-viewed. There aren't many people I can talk to about the events of that season, and I never watched any of its fourth season with anyone. In memory of my father, I wanted to fill that gap in my Trek lore. But watching an entire season with someone is a commitment, and some people have a fear of that; our co-viewing began and ended with "Dear Doctor".

I still have Enterprise on DVD and can watch it anytime — but I won't anytime soon. Until then, I am happy to share The Next Generation with my mom and now Discovery with my Transporter Lock co-host Sabriel. Because that's the way families work: sometimes they shrink, and sometimes you don't get what you want, but there'll always be someone there who loves you and celebrates with you, whatever the generation.

A Star Trek Christmas with family

24-Dec-17 9:30 AM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

It's Christmas Eve, and like many people, I'm spending it with family. And my family? They're spending it with Star Trek.

I have my father to thank for getting me into Star Trek. As a kid, I was a huge nerd: while the other kids were playing baseball and street hockey, I was playing Super Mario Bros. and Dungeons & Dragons. It didn't exactly make me popular, which was hard. It would've helped if my dad had signed me up for karate lessons or Boy Scouts, like all the other kids. Instead, on Monday, September 28, 1987, he sat me down to watch a new television show. It was the sequel to a show he'd watched when he was younger, and he thought we'd enjoy the new one together.

That was the first time I saw Star Trek.

Wow! I'd read fantasy novels, but this was my first exposure to science fiction. It not only expanded my imagination, but it taught me so much. Captain Picard taught me that the way to resolve differences isn't by firing phasers, but through diplomacy. And the android character, Data, taught me that you could be smart and have no social skills and still be a valued member of a team — something I'd never experienced before.

Star Trek was a huge influence, not only on me, but on my relationship with my dad. We watched Star Trek together every week for 18 years. Mom never watched it with us — she was usually doing laundry, and when you have four sons, there's ALWAYS laundry. Star Trek was something unique that Dad and I shared.

In the Star Trek community, April 5 is considered a holiday: First Contact Day. It's on April 5, 2063 — just 46 years from now — that humanity makes first contact with an alien species, when the Vulcan science vessel the T'Plana-Hath detects the warp signature of Zefram Cochrane's test flight of the Phoenix and traces it back to Bozeman, Montana. So, on April 5, 2016, I made the traditional meal of pierogis — Zefram Cochrane's favorite food — and watched the movie Star Trek: First Contact.

Even though the movie has a happy ending, and I'd seen it a dozen times before, this time, when I got to the end, I cried. Inconsolably, I cried — because a month earlier, Dad had passed away… just six months shy of his fiftieth wedding anniversary, and five months before Star Trek Beyond.

When Dad died, I wrote the obituary, I gave the eulogy, and I put together the slideshow that played at the funeral reception. I set it to the orchestral suite from The Next Generation episode "The Inner Light". When Mom heard it, she asked me what that beautiful music was; I said I'd tell her later.

I'd coincidentally ordered the complete The Next Generation series on DVD just before Dad died, and it arrived the day after his funeral. I started spending one night a week at Mom's to keep her company. One night, I said, "Let's watch some TV." I popped in "The Inner Light", and we watched it together. When it was done, I turned to her, tears in my eyes, and she said, "That was great." I was glad she'd enjoyed it; my job was done.

But what happened next, I couldn't've predicted, not in a million light years.

Mom asked, "Do you have any more?"

Yes — I have all seven seasons!!

She said, "Well, if you're going to keep spending one night a week here, let's watch another episode every week."

I could not have been more stunned if she'd shot me with a Romulan disruptor.

I drew up a list of all 178 episodes and trimmed it down to just the ones I thought she'd like — but every now and then, I need to revise. Mom must've been paying attention when Dad and I watched the show 25 years ago, because one night, as I was preparing the next episode, she asked, "Does this one have the Borg?"

The cybernetic organisms that are Captain Picard's greatest foe?! No, I wasn't planning on showing you those, Mom… Do you want to watch them? "Sure!" For every episode we watch, Mom expresses interest in watching two more. She even joined me that summer to see Star Trek Beyond — the movie that Dad never got to see.

I love watching this show with Mom. Sometimes, I glance over at her to make sure she hasn't fallen asleep. And she never has — she's really enjoying this! And she confessed that sometimes she looks over at me. Even if we've made popcorn or some other snack, she sees mine going untouched as I stare raptly at the TV, completely entranced — like I'm a little kid, watching Star Trek for the first time with my dad.

Star Trek has become something unique that Mom and I share — something that none of my brothers have. And it's also a way to keep my Dad's memory alive. When Dad died, I thought I'd lost my Star Trek buddy. I never imagined that my mom would step in to fill that void.

My father has always been and always shall be my friend: he's the one who flew me to the stars. But when our ship lost its captain, it was Mom who took the helm and kept us flying true.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Rogue One is a one-hit wonder

24-Dec-16 9:30 AM by
Filed under Potpourri, Star Wars; 2 comments.

This holiday season marks several milestones, including the first standalone Star Wars movie. Rogue One debuted this month and is set immediately before the events of 1977's Episode IV: A New Hope, answering several of the questions raised by that movie. In many ways, Rogue One defies what we've come to expect from a Star Wars movie: there is no opening scroll, no Jedi, and no hope — this is a dark movie, more akin to a war film, and is inappropriate for children. That's all in stark contrast to the lighter fare of the original trilogy, which resulted in Kenner toys being popular Christmas gifts; I would be astonished and mildly horrified if any of Rogue One's cast were found under the tree this year.

For all those differences, I liked Rogue One. It belongs in the Star Wars universe and shows a different side of it, both establishing and emphasizing the enormity of the Empire and the desperation and necessity of the Rebel Alliance. There are plenty of hooks and tie-ins to A New Hope that longtime fans will appreciate — though I can't imagine that anyone not well-versed in Star Wars lore will even understand this "standalone" film.

To that end, I was surprised and disappointed that Rogue One had no apparent bearing on The Force Awakens. Last year's Episode VII raised many questions, and it seemed reasonable that the next Star Wars film to be released would answer some of those questions. After all, this franchise is now being developed by the studio responsible for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which practically requires you see three movies a year; I expected Disney to give us every reason to see every Star Wars film as well. But ultimately, the characters of Rogue One, while well-written and acted, are forgettable — I walked out of the theater not remembering almost anyone's names.

The story is co-written by John Knoll, Photoshop co-creator and ILM special effects maven. I interviewed Knoll nine years ago about the impact TRON had on the evolution and acceptance of computer-generated special effects. Knoll was already an industry luminary a decade ago, but I had no idea he'd go on to earn a writing credit for such a blockbuster film.

While Rogue One expands the Star Wars universe, it doesn't move it forward: the franchise was fine without it, and it's not required viewing for continued enjoyment of the new trilogy. I saw The Force Awakens twice in theaters and then bought the Blu Ray; by comparison, while I much enjoyed Rogue One and recommend it without hesitation to Star Wars fans, I doubt I'll ever see it again.

There are many good holiday movies in theaters this season, of which Rogue One is but one. But even Star Wars can get into the Christmas spirit, as seen by our favorite Wookie singing one of his favorite carols:

That's our obligatory Christmas Eve video — but there's still one more occasion to mark: this month is Showbits' tenth anniversary. It was ten years ago, on December 15, 2006, that the site launched, reviving a message board I'd previously operated on the Syndicomm Online commercial service. It was a member of that board, Peter Watson, who encouraged me to reimagine the bulletin board as a Web 2.0 blog. I chose the WordPress CMS with which to do so — a decision that has profoundly impacted my professional development and career.

While I may no longer blog often on Showbits, WordPress remains a tool I use daily to promote causes I'm passionate about. My thanks to Peter, who remains my friend to this day, for setting me down this path.

Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, and holiday season to all!

The Wishgranter

10-Sep-16 10:30 AM by
Filed under Films; Comments Off on The Wishgranter

Happy birthday to a special someone! May all your wishes come true.

Unboxing Star Trek: The Original Series

08-Sep-16 1:00 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of Star Trek, when "The Man Trap", premiered. CBS and Paramount are celebrating the occasion with the release of Star Trek — 50th Anniversary TV and Movie Collection, a set that includes all of the original crew's television, cinematic, and animated adventures, including the first time The Animated Series (TAS) has appeared on Blu Ray.

I already have all the movies on Blu Ray and TAS on standard DVD, so I went with the less expensive and redundant option of purchasing just TOS on Blu Ray in the "Epik Pack", released just this past June. It's not the first Star Trek box set I've added to my library this year: This past April, I purchased Star Trek: The Next Generation's Blu Ray box set. But in the space between buying and watching the TNG set, I unboxed it.

Unboxing is a strange, voyeuristic genre of YouTube video that I don't entirely understand the appeal of — but for my first unboxing of a DVD, I was happy to go all-out, green-screening myself onto the bridge of the Enterprise NCC-1701D while wearing loose-fitting Starfleet pajamas, courtesy Showbits contributor GeneD.

I couldn't unbox TNG and not TOS, so here is my less special effects-laden opening of that set:

I bought this set in time for the release of Star Trek Beyond, which my mom wanted to see in theaters, despite not being familiar with the TOS characters. As quickly as I could, I brought her up to speed with viewings of just two episodes: "Journey to Babel", which introduced Spock's father Sarek; and "The Trouble With Tribbles", which is not only a fun episode but also one that will later tie into Deep Space Nine, should we ever get that far.

Given time, I would've shown her even more TOS episodes — "Space Seed", "Mirror, Mirror", "City on the Edge of Forever" — as well as some of the movies — The Wrath of Khan; The Search fo Spock, The Voyage Home. But time between this box set's release and Star Trek Beyond's was short, so I added only Star Trek (2009) to our viewing schedule.

The Original Series is unique in being the only live-action Star Trek I've not seen every episode of. For example, I'd never seen "Journey to Babel" and was impressed how much of Spock's lore I recognized from the 2009 movie — I didn't realize just how respectful the scriptwriters and director were to the source material. My mom prefers TNG, but it was fun to watch some TOS with her, especially since TNG can't give us the experience of both of us seeing something for the first time.

Still, now that we have this set in hand (and unboxed!), perhaps we'll sneak in some classic episodes every now and then — especially so as to better familiarize ourselves with the era of Star Trek Discovery.

Star Trek at Seattle's EMP Museum

08-Sep-16 9:00 AM by
Filed under Star Trek; Comments Off on Star Trek at Seattle's EMP Museum

Today is the day Star Trek turns fifty years old. On September 8, 1966 — more than a decade before I was born — Gene Roddenberry launched his "Wagon Train to the stars", forever changing the landscape of television, film, science fiction, and the human imagination.

I'm not doing anything in particular to celebrate this specific day, nor have I gathered with other Trekkies to do so: I didn't attend last month's Las Vegas convention or even last week's New York convention. But it has nonetheless been a Trekful year, with multiple viewings of Star Trek Beyond, rediscovering The Next Generation with my mom, and news of the imminent launch of Star Trek Discovery.

But perhaps the most poignant Star Trek experience I had this year was my July visit to Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds at Seattle's EMP Museum. Founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the Experience Music Project Museum temporarily exhibited more than a hundred artifacts from throughout the Star Trek universe: costumes, uniforms, weapons, sets, ships, and more. It was powerful to see touchstones and artifacts from so many memorable episodes and stories made real, removed from their 2D narratives and brought to 3D life. Although I couldn't touch any of them, it nonetheless made me feel closer to both the show and my dad, who introduced me to Star Trek in 1987.

The EMP website doesn't specify how long the exhibit will be running, but I encourage any and all Trekkies to enjoy it while they can — it's the next best thing to the Star Trek Experience that ran at the Las Vegas Hilton 1998–2008. In the meantime, please enjoy my photos from the exhibit.

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