In Memory of Leonard Nimoy

03-Mar-15 8:48 PM by
Filed under Fade to Black, Star Trek; Comments Off on In Memory of Leonard Nimoy

It's been hard to come to terms with the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who brought Star Trek's half-Vulcan science officer to life and created a cultural phenomenon that would persist for generations — including within my own family.

My father introduced me to Star Trek when The Next Generation premiered in 1987. At that age, I didn't understand that different people led different lives, and I went to school the next day thinking all my classmates had watched it, too. I spent my recess talking about Star Trek to anyone on the playground who would listen, nonplussed when they weren't as excited as I was. It wasn't until years later that I learned of IDIC — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: that differences are to be not just tolerated, but celebrated. Decades after discovering Star Trek, I've grown deeply curious about those differences, interviewing people every week to learn about their lives and experiences, so that I never again make that same lunchtime assumption I did in second grade.

My earliest memory of Leonard Nimoy was watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture on VHS with my family. When Spock first beams aboard the Enterprise, whereas Kirk and McCoy are happy to see him, Spock is unmoved by seeing his old crewmates. I asked my parents what was wrong with him, and rather than try to explain the alien suppression of emotions, they just said that Spock didn't remember his friends.

But Vulcan's emotions run deep and hot: they feel everything humans do, even more so, which is why they can't allow themselves to be ruled by their feelings, lest they run amok. I was raised in a family that did not celebrate such passions, so, like Spock, I kept mine reined in. I learned the hard way that it's better to embrace one's humanity… something that Spock at times struggled to understand himself.



Spock wasn't the only one with an identity crisis. I'm too young to remember Nimoy's efforts to break typecasting, which may be for the best: while I try to acknowledge actors' lesser-known works, Nimoy was always Spock to me. And unlike some actors who fade from the limelight, Nimoy always seemed to be doing something special, whether it was as silly as a Priceline commercial, as fun as directing Three Men and a Baby as invisible as voicing a Transformers villain or narrating a video game, as meaningless as singing a silly song, or as meaningful as advocating for diversity in body types. While I may've believed Spock had forgotten his friends, it was impossible for us to forget Spock. It felt like Leonard Nimoy would always be there; waking up on Saturday to a world without him was hard.

I never got to meet Leonard Nimoy. The closest opportunity I had was a Boston convention in November 2009, but I was at a Star Wars concert narrated by Anthony Daniels instead. It was a similar venue in which I did finally see Leonard Nimoy, though: he narrated the Boston Pops' "Out of This World" concert this past May. No one in the audience, least of all me, imagined it was Nimoy's last May in his final trip around the sun.

That concert was a homecoming for Nimoy, being born and raised right in the heart of Boston. He often lent his sonorous voice to his hometown, narrating not just the Boston Pops but also the Boston Museum of Science's Omni Mugar theater. As a student and teacher, child and adult, I've been to the MoS many times; Leonard Nimoy is my earliest memory of it.

Now all we have are memories and Nimoy's exhaustive library of art. There have been and will be other Spocks, of course — most notably Zachary Quinto, but also other incarnations across many fan films, and the continuing voyages of the starship Enterprise in novels and other media. But there never will be another Leonard Nimoy.

It's been less than a week, and I miss him already.
The Joy of Tech comic… The Federation remembers

I may not have properly expressed or acknowledged, even to myself, Nimoy's importance. I've been going to Apple conventions my entire life, but it wasn't until 2013 that I attended my first Star Trek convention. But both Apple and Star Trek have been fundamental in informing my outlooks and philosophies.


Celebrities aren't my only heroes, but celebrities can help me get to know my heroes. Star Trek is something I've shared with my father ever since TNG's debut. We've been at the opening night of each of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies. I hesitantly mark our time together by these milestones, knowing that the same COPD that claimed Nimoy now stalks my father. As a friend of mine recently put it, "Time will take all the people I look up to."
Star Trek Into Darkness opening night

Live long and prosper…


But we are fortunate to have had Leonard Nimoy grace us for 83 wonderful years. From wherever he came, he has returned. We salute him and his many contributions to art, science, and humanity. Thank you for so many adventures and missions.


Hailing frequencies closed.


Looking Back at 2014

04-Jan-15 9:01 AM by
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Happy New Year! It's been four years since I took this opportunity to reflect on the past year of movies, so I have some catching up to do!

For about a decade, my moviegoing was stable at 10–16 outings a year. I've never been one for Hulu or Netflix, so anything I didn't catch in theaters, I'd either borrow on DVD from the library or miss entirely. But lately, my habits have changed:

2014 year in review

Not since I was in college have I gone to the movies as often as I did in 2014! What changed? I attribute this uptick to several causes, in order:

  1. This was my first full year living in Boston. I now have easy access to so many theaters that it's easy to hop on a bus or subway and see one after work or on a weekend.
  2. Likewise, I also have easier access to friends who live in Boston, where I went to grad school. Many of them don't have cars but can use public transit to coordinate outings. More invitations to the movies equals more movies.
  3. The Brattle Theatre, a non-profit theater in Harvard Square. It has only one screen and generally shows a different film every day, ranging from classics to indies to regional debuts. I'm a patron of the Brattle, which grants me a dozen free tickets a year. Darned if I'm going to let them go to waste! However, this also means not every movie I saw in 2014 was necessarily a 2014 release, such as Labyrinth and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
  4. RiffTrax Live. The creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000 have kicked up the number of live-streaming comedic commentary events, with four in 2014 alone. I backed two of them via Kickstarter, so of course I was going to see my name up in lights!

Having gone to the theaters so many times, I thought the competition for best films of the year would be stiffer, but the choices are fairly obvious — especially if you like children's films: Frozen (which technically came out in 2013), The Lego Movie (essentially a retelling of The Matrix), and Big Hero 6, which I liken to a cross between How to Train Your Dragon and The Incredibles. All three films were a pure joy, and though there is a place for cinema to be challenging and address dark or difficult subjects, I felt like these movies made moviegoing fun, while featuring believable characters and some plot twists that elevated them above being insubstantial tripe.

I'm not going to make predictions for 2015. The last time I offered predictions, they included promises that I would not be seeing X-Men: First Class or the Footloose remake. I ended up seeing and thoroughly enjoying both! So enjoy whatever the year has to offer. Showbits' official debut was eight years ago this month, and though my energy for blogging has mostly been directed elsewhere, theatergoing is still a big part of my life. I look forward to sharing those experiences with you for years to come!

My first Star Trek convention

03-Jan-14 12:21 PM by
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This past June, I attended my first Star Trek convention.

"WHAT?!" you say. "You've been a Trekkie since TNG debuted in 1987, and you've never attended a con?! What's wrong with you?!"

For one, there hasn't been an abundance of Star Trek conventions in Boston, at least not that I've been aware of. Two, I've traditionally gotten my Star Trek celebrity fix at Super Megafest, where I've had the honor of meeting Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, and Marina Sirtis. Three, I wasn't really sure what a Star Trek convention would consist of. Video game conventions like MAGFest or PAX East have panels, workshops, seminars, and speeches on topics from programming to gamification to gender representation to crowdfunding. I didn't imagine that a Star Trek convention would boast such variety.

But when Creation Entertainment brought to Boston a convention featuring almost the entire Next Generation cast — only Stewart, Frakes, Diana Muldar, and Wil Wheaton would be absent — as well as actors from TOS and DS9 (though none from Voyager, Enterprise, or the new movies), I knew it'd be worth at least the short trek into Beantown.

As it turned out, my expectation of the con agenda's homogeneity was right on the mark. Other than a costume contest, every session was dedicated solely to celebrity Q&A, with almost no preamble, presentation, or even moderation — the actors simply took the stage and immediately turned to the audience for topics. Almost no actor appeared alone, instead being paired with someone with whom they shared screen time, such as Michael Dorn with Suzie Plakson (Worf and K’Ehleyr), Brent Spiner with Gates McFadden (Data and Beverly Crusher), and Rene Auberjonois with Nana Visitor (Odo and Kira Nerys). The questions were fun, ranging from personable ("What was it like working with so-and-so?") to technical ("Why doesn't the Prime Directive apply to a planet's flora as well as its fauna?"). My favorite line was from someone who had done his research, who presented this fact to Dorn: "We watched every episode of TNG, and the number of times the captain took one of Worf's suggestions in seven years was only once!" The audience roared to learn what a pansy our favorite Klingon was.

IMG_3262 The best panel was Saturday night, when Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marinia Sirtis, and Denise Crosby all shared the stage while ostensibly being moderated by William Shatner. From the camaraderie exuded by the crew, it was easy to imagine the show was still on the air, with everyone working together every day and having bonded into a family. At one point when discussing an issue of diversity, Shatner said, "Let's ask our resident black person." Dorn appeared ready to speak as Shatner turned and, pointedly ignoring the Klingon, asked, "LeVar?" Dorn immediately clammed up, got up from his chair, walked to the corner of the stage, folded his arms, and pouted. Only a hug from Burton brought him back to the group. My co-attendee Gene related more anecdotes from this panel in his blog.

The auditorium in which these panels were held, part of the Hynes Convention Center, was massive, seating thousands of people. Although some seats were better than others, there was never concern about not getting into a panel, unlike the massively overcrowded Super Megafest.

As fun as these hour-long sessions were, I preferred the one-on-one interaction offered by autograph sessions, no matter how brief. I got to tell Michael Dorn that I had backed his failed Kickstarter project for the movie Through the Fire. He reflected that fans can be rabidly loyal, but only within a genre, as he found when trying to crowdfund his romantic comedy. I was going to tell Gates McFadden that I'm a fan of her photography with her Beverly Crusher action figure, but she beat me to it when she saw me pick up her business card advertising exactly that exploit, telling me I should check it out. I told LeVar Burton how much I enjoyed the PBS music remix of Reading Rainbow. There was surprisingly no line for Denise Crosby, who was an absolute sweetheart. I reflected how surprised I was that they actually killed off her Lois & Clark character — "Denise Crosby always comes back!" I insisted. When I asked her to make the autograph out to Ken, she said, "A name I know well — my husband's name is Ken." I quipped, "You have excellent taste." She actually had to put down the pen for a moment while she laughed.

All of the above happened on Saturday, and I would've had my fill then, except that the DS9 actors I wanted to meet were attending Sunday only. After a power outage delayed opening of the convention hall that morning, I got in to meet Nana Visitor. I thanked her for portraying the strong yet nuanced female character of Kira. She demurred, "That's just the way she was written." Still, I thanked her for bringing the character to life, though I neglected to suggest how different the show would've been with Michelle Forbes. I also commented how surprised I was to see Visitor appear on the news not for her acting work, but as a person on the street affected by Hurricane Sandy. She laughed, acknowledging that of course she'd be caught on TV without any makeup on!

I got Visitor's autograph twice: once for myself, and once for a friend's daughter (who I described as my niece), who had just started watching DS9 as her introduction to Trek. Visitor asked how old my niece is, and I guessed (correctly!) eight, which gave her pause — DS9 is pretty dark for such a young person to be watching. But it's how old I was when I started with TNG, and we all have to start somewhere!

Next in line was Rene Auberjonois, who earlier in the day had been selling simple line drawings of Odo's bucket in exchange for a donation to Doctors Without Borders — a worthy cause, but I wanted the standard 8"x11" autographed glossy. When he started signing my photo, I asked him to make it out to my first name. "Well, Ken," he hesitated, "here's the deal: I'm personalizing autographs only if you make a $5 donation to Doctors Without Borders." Given that I'd spent almost all my money on other autographs and had already spent $25 to get this far in Auberjonois's line, I felt a bit ambushed. Had this surcharge been advertised sooner, or if the autograph had been $5 less, I might not have been so caught off-guard. Fortunately, when I emptied my wallet on the table, showing him the only $4 I had, he accepted that donation. I made up the difference and then some when I got home, as again, it's a great cause, and I admire Auberjonois for lending his celebrity status to it — I just thought the delivery could've been better.

STcreat13_10 The last treat of the weekend were the photograph opportunities, which are sold separately from the autograph sessions. If you want to drop a ton of money very quickly, autographs and photographs are the way to go. Photographs ranged from $80 (William Shatner) to $40 (almost everyone else), and autographs were $90 (Shatner again) to $20 (Suzie Plakson). Not rich enough for your blood? A single photo with Shatner and the entire TNG panel he moderated was $379 — oof! The saving grace is that these prices are valid for one or two guests in the same photo, and my cohort Gene invited me to share the stage with (and expense of) LeVar Burton and George Takei. I appreciated his generous offer and graciously accepted!

I enjoyed my first Star Trek convention, but although I can imagine many other sessions and topics it could offer, I'm hardpressed to imagine that this con's 2014 return to Boston will be much different from the 2013 event. I'd like to eventually collect autographs from the entire TNG cast — I'm currently missing only Wil Wheaton and Diana Muldar, and their attendance would lure me back. I'd also like to meet more actors from the three post-DS9 shows, as well as some of the shows' directors, producers, and writers. The Boston con featured Morgan Gendel, author of award-winning TNG episode "The Inner Light", but how about getting Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, Manny Coto, or Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens?

Every Star Trek fan should attend at least one convention in her or his life. I can now say that I've attended mine!

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A Cappella Star Trek

22-Feb-11 4:39 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

As an undergraduate, I was a happy member of the school's Glee Club, the second oldest collegiate men's choir in the United States. Yet, unsatisfied with this brotherhood of song, I annually set my sights on the elite subset that formed the a cappella group, as it was their performances that drew both the applause and the ladies. Alas, whether it was my vocal quality or my lack of suavity, I never made the cut.

Perhaps I was auditioning for the wrong group, as I recently became aware of Hi-Fidelity, who performed at the 2006 Harmony Sweepstakes competition. I've often attended the preliminary rounds of this annual competition and have observed that the best groups have either plenty of personality or a gimmick. Hi-Fidelity had both, performing a pair of original, Star Trek-themed songs — in character, no less!

These comic stylings are courtesy tenor Craig Ewing, lead Dan Jordan, bass Martin Fredstrom, and baritone Gregg Bernhard. Together as Hi-Fidelity, they accrued an eclectic geek portfolio in the past decade, even providing the vocals for an incongruously violent Xbox video game commercial. Alas, their Web site has not been updated since their Pan Pacific Championship 2008 win.

Now, where's my pitch pipe …

A Visit to Where Everybody Knows Your Name

29-Oct-10 3:10 PM by
Filed under Potpourri, Television; 3 comments.

The comedic television show Cheers left a legacy of not just 28 Emmy Awards but also of a place "where everybody knows your name": a simple bar in Boston, populated by a variety of memorable characters and their antics. When founding cast member Shelley Long first stepped foot on the show's set, she found herself transported to a bar she'd visited in Boston. Sure enough, the faux bar was modeled after an actual one: the Bull & Finch at 84 Beacon Street, on the north border of the Boston Common.

The pub rechristened itself Cheers in 2001, to capitalize on the success of the show. Its owner opened another location in nearby Faneuil Hall, built to closely resemble the television's set, as most Bostonians know by now that the original Bull & Finch has a dramatically different layout from its more popular fictional sibling. Fortunately, my guests for lunch were not like most Bostonians: with four Cheers fans from Melbourne, Australia, and my Missourian girlfriend who'd never seen the show, I figured the pub would be a good place for a quick bite to eat en route to the airport.

Cheers Boston

This sign, seen at the opening of every episode of Cheers, greets visitors to the former Bull & Finch.

We arrived around 12:30 PM on a beautiful Saturday in early October, expecting a long wait for a table at this busy tourist destination. Buzzer in hand, we milled about the top of the stairs that led to the rathskeller, taking turns posing in front of the exterior used in the show's opening shot. After only 15 minutes — half the time the maitre'd had estimated — we were directed to make our way to the rear of the restaurant to the "Back Room." My traveling companions had several unwieldy suitcases with them that made this navigation a chore, but though they surprised our server, she quickly collected herself and showed us to a staff room where the bags could be left while we ate.

Like the layout, the bar's atmosphere was also unique from that of the show. Our corner booth had intimate lighting, but the noisy atmosphere of other diners close enough to touch and several widescreen televisions sometimes made it difficult to be heard. The room was decorated with local mementos, referencing everything from pilgrims to Celtics but with few appearances by Sam Malone, Coach, or its other televised employees.

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Beantown Is Geektown

02-Nov-09 2:22 PM by
Filed under Potpourri, Star Trek, Star Wars; 4 comments.

The passing of Halloween means the holidays are nearly upon us — but if you're a geek in Boston, then there are far more significant festivities headed your way. The biggest and best celebrities of science fiction will be coming to Massachusetts for three different events this month:

• On Saturday, November 14th, the touring "Star Wars In Concert" comes to the TD Garden for both a 3:00 PM matinee and an 8:00 PM performance. The concert is described as "John Williams' breathtaking score from the epic Star Wars saga … performed by a live symphony orchestra and chorus, accompanied by a stunning video montage on an enormous LED screen." Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) has been narrating this concert, though it's unclear if that's only at specific venues. Us Bostonians are no stranger to hearing Mr. Williams' soundtracks performed live, as the composer is also the director emeritus of the renowned Boston Pops Orchestra and often serves as guest conductor, but a dedicated concert to this particular score is a rare treat. Tickets are $32.50, $52.50, or $72.50, plus applicable taxes and fees.

• That same weekend is the New England Fan Experience (NEFX) sci-fi convention. Star Trek headliners include Bostonian Leonard Nimoy (Spock Prime) as well as John de Lancie (Q), though the former will be available only on Saturday, competing with the aforementioned Star Wars concert. Online tickets (via a Web site that is remarkably reminiscent of a GeoCities page) are available through November 6th for $45 each, or for $50 at the door.

• NEFX 2009 is held a week earlier than in 2008, avoiding the conflict that occurred last year with the annual Super Megafest, traditionally held the weekend before Thanksgiving. That means this year, you can attend NEFX one week and Super Megafest the next! The latter is held in Framingham, less than a half-hour west of Boston. The expo — which features an unusual amalgam of sci-fi actors, comic book artists, TV show stars, and pro wrestlers — will this year present Brent Spiner (Star Trek's Data), Ray Park (Star Wars' Darth Maul and, more recently, G.I. Joe's Snake Eyes), and James Marsters (Buffy's Spike). In addition to signings, each star also has a half-hour Q&A session, though the schedule is unknowable prior to the event: an email from its coordinator informed me, "No, panels will not be posted on the site. Most celebs will do Q&A sessions both days. However sat is probably the better day to see more Q&A sessions." Last year I happened to show up just in time to see Jonathan Frakes; otherwise I would've been out of luck. The actual show floor is quite small but packs a lot into it. Tickets for the entire November 21-22 weekend are only $20.

Though the two conventions offer cheaper admittance than the orchestral concert, they also have the most potential to drain your allowance, based on how many celebrity autographs you want to go home with; typical fees range from $20 to $50 or more per signing. This will be my third Super Megafest, and I usually budget $100 for at least three autographs.

If you'll be attending either the Star Wars matinee or the Super Megafest, be sure to say hello to Showbits!

The Science of Cinema

26-Feb-09 3:36 PM by
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While hosting some out-of-town friends last weekend, I tried to get us into the Boston Museum of Science's IMAX theater. It was sold out, which isn't all that great a shame — the movie we were going to see, Roving Mars, has been on DVD for almost two years anyway. But it did remind me that I'd previously downloaded an episode of the MoS podcast titled "Inventing the Movies" (iTunes), which is also the name a book by Scott Kirsner, who is interviewed in this podcast.

This 23-minute episode covers the same topic as that book: the inventors and technologies that have shaped Hollywood in the last century. I was intrigued by this insider's perspective on the effect various innovations have had on the industry. If you're of a younger generation, it may be unfathomable that the lack of VCRs and DVD players meant that movies used to be seen in theaters and nowhere else — once they were gone, they were gone. But Mr. Kirsner's book eschews that consumer impact to look instead at how movie studios viewed such developments as threats. For example, Thomas Edison discouraged the invention of a projector, preferring his kinetoscope, which allowed silent movies to be seen through a hole in a box, creating a solitary and unshared experience. Later, silent movies were seen as a quiet respite from the busy world that "talkies" would disrupt. Often, it was competition from other markets that urged Hollywood to accept change: Technicolor (named in 1915 for its inventor's alma mater, MIT) was not widely adopted until seen as a response to the widespread adoption of black-and-white television.

The threat of progress extends to more recent times as well. I was a Blockbuster Video employee at the advent of DVDs, which had massive ramifications for the industry. You may not remember that movies used to become available for consumer purchase 3-6 months after they were released to rental outlets. Back then, each VHS tape would initially retail for more than $100, which only commercial entities could afford, before being lowered to a more reasonable mass market price. Once movies moved from tape to disc, their reproduction became much cheaper, allowing for simultaneous release to both rental and consumer venues and eliminating the window of exclusivity formerly the domain of companies like Blockbuster.

What changes chafe today's film industry? Digital cameras and projectors have spotty adoption records, but neither significantly changes the movie-viewing experience. The most volatile aspect of movies appears to be in the delivery mechanism. YouTube, Hulu, and the like are, within and without copyright, bringing chunks of video to your computer; Netflix and the Microsoft Xbox bring feature-length content right to your television; and, in a less technical manner, Red Box adds cheap rentals to your grocery list.

The podcast packs much information into a short period, encompassing not only the founding moments mentioned above but also more recent milestones, such as TRON (which I've already written about extensively and the sequel to which I am eagerly anticipating) and Terminator 2. This teaser has moved the book to my short list. The complete history of Hollywood is, of course, yet to be written, as technology will never stop progressing to meet (and create) new needs. Where do you see movies going?