Sunday, September 30, 2012

Doctor's Checkup

Like the Doctor himself, I experienced  Doctor Who in a non-linear way.

I tried the first episode of the relaunched Doctor Who way back when it first aired in the US, and I absolutely detested it. I did not care for Christopher Eccleston at all, I found the plot to be unappealing, and I did not care for the episode's pacing and structure. That's why I didn't continue with it. But since friends of mine whose tastes I respect had many good things to say about the series, I gave it another try, starting with the sixth season.

Yes, that's a Matt Smith season. That means I skipped the entirety of David Tennant's run on Doctor Who, and even missed the introduction of Amy Pond and other characters, leaping right into the River Song saga and the death of the Doctor.

I absolutely loved it. Matt Smith is remarkable as the Doctor, Karen Gillan is engaging as Amy Pond, Arthur Darvill is likeable as Rory Williams, and I've always found Alex Kingston fascinating since her early days on ER, so I was predisposed to enjoy her tenure as River Song. I was hooked.

After that, I watched most of the fifth season in a semi-random order (thanks, BBCA reruns!), interspersed with David Tennant episodes. He, too, was a likeable Doctor, although I found myself enjoying Matt Smith much more.

The seventh season is the first that I have watched as it unfolded, so for the first time I'm seeing the current exploits of the Doctor in much the same order as the rest of my friends. I've enjoyed the addition of Rory's Dad to the mix, but I haven't felt like the series was really going anywhere this season. Perhaps I'm spoiled by the fact that the sixth season seemed to be building to a dramatic conclusion that was preplanned before the first episode began, but this season has seemed to be the television equivalent of treading water. They knew that Amy and Rory were leaving, they had to get us to that point, but for the most part they did nothing other than create episodes that reminded us what a good team the Doctor, Amy, and Rory made.

I would have had no problem with Amy and Rory had they remained a part of the show, but once it was decided they were going, I was ready for them to go so that we could move on to the next phase of the Doctor's experiences. In some ways, the heavy emphasis on those characters has actually limited the scripts and has taken attention away from the Doctor himself, so I'm glad that it's timem for something new.

I would be even happier if I knew that this was the last Weeping Angels episode. I loved the concept when it was first introduced, thought it was overplayed after that, but was totally bored with them by the time this episode began; my lack of appreciation for them was made even worse by the fact that (as with the Daleks in the first episode of this season) they gained new abilities that were never hinted in earlier appearances. It creates the feeling that Stephen Moffatt is just winging it as he's going along, tossing in whatever will advance his plot with no consideration of what has come before.

So now Amy and Rory are gone (although like every other Doctor Who fan who watches the show regularly, I thought of a dozen different ways they could return), the first half of season seven is complete, and we're ready to get to the point where we should have been at the beginning of the season: a new companion for the Doctor, complete with new challenges and new shared experiences. Let's get on with it, then...

The Circle Game

Like almost everyone who grew up in the 1960s, I bought a lot of records over the years. You know, the flat vinyl discs with grooves in them... the things that used turntables with tonearms and needles... records. And like many, I never got rid of the bulk of my records after I replaced them with CDs--not because I was trying to save them, but because there was no market for vinyl records at the time, and I just couldn't bring myself to throw them away unless they were so badly scratched and scuffed that I saw no value at all in them.

Last week, I found my old Pioneer turntable, which is still working just fine; the stylus, however, was quite worn down from heavy use. So I decided to replace the stylus, which turned out to cost only about $15. I then dug through my albums, looking for the perfect "test LP" to see how the turntable sounded; I settled on my copy of Abbey Road, the original copy that I got back in 1969; it has some scratches (the largest of which I can credit to my sister Kimberly, who decided to sneak my album into her room and listen to it on her clunky designed-for-a-six-year-old record player... and when it skipped, she solved the problem by putting a quarter or two on top of the tonearm, which somehow led to her making a nice popping scratch at the end of "Come Together." I've gotten my money's worth out of haranguing her over that for more than forty years since, of course.), but it was still pretty much playable.

Now this is the album that I listened to over and over again in my room; it became the background music for a period of intense Edgar Rice Burroughs reading in late 1969/early 1970, so I've come to associate that album with Pellucidar and Venus and Mars and the savannahs of Africa. I put the album on the platter, turned everything on, then dropped the tonearm onto the surface of the vinyl; while the background noise of well-played vinyl was there, it was actually much quieter than I anticipated. And the music--well, it sounded as rich and resonant as I had remembered from my teenage years, if not moreso.

I'm not a vinyl snob, and I still love CDs and MP3s and AACs and FLAC files and all the rest--but I can confirm that there was a noticeable difference in sound between the vinyl copy of Abbey Road and the CD. There is a presence that is different with vinyl. Some insist it's better, more lifelike; I don't know that I'm ready to go that far yet, but I will say that the difference in sound harkened back much more closely to what I grew up with.

While the 30-year-old Pioneer turntable worked just fine, I ultimately decided to upgrade to an Audio-Technica that was on sale through Amazon. My old Pioneer required dedicated phono inputs, which my Onkyo amplifier doesn't have; as a result, I was having to use a separate pre-amp, and I decided I'd do better to move the old turntable into the basement of Lansdowne, while I'd get a new turntable with its own built-in preamp to use with the Onkyo at Marchmont (yes, I'm still insisting on naming the two houses--if you're trying to find an easy mnemonic way to keep up with which is the original house and which is the second house, just remember that they're in alphabetical order, so Marchmont is the name I've given the second house in memory of the home where I grew up). If anything, the new turntable sounded even better--the platter wasn't as heavy, but the cartridge is probably an improvement on the one I have.

So now I've dug out a few more of my old albums--Iron Butterfly's Ball, Stephen Stills' first album, Klaatu, Badfinger's Ass, Donovan's Open Roads, Crosby Stills & Nash, Derek & the Dominoes' Layla--and rediscovered the Old Ways. I actually listened to albums all the way through, in order, one side at time, just like I used to, and I found the experience enjoyable in its own way. The usual digital options of randomization are gone, so I rediscovered the significance of track order all over again.

I think that's one reason why I tended to like almost every song on an album from those years. I didn't listen to them randomly, I didn't transfer my favorites to a playlist and abandon the reste--I listened to the entire album repeatedly, and I grew to know every song, both individually and as a part of an artistically planned listening experience. Artists and producers put a great deal of time into deciding on song order for many albums, assuming that we'd actually listen to them in that order. The cassette deck of the early 1970s began giving us the freedom to create randomly-ordered "mix tapes" of our favorite tracks, but it wasn't until the CD player that randomization really flourished (remember the 100-disc and 200-disc carousel players of the 1980s?). By the time of the iPod, random had become the preferred order for listening, and the concept of a planned album was all but forgotten. With vinyl,however, it lives on.

And yes, there were several more memory flashbacks as I listened to old album favorites, culminating with a playback of the Who's "See Me Feel Me" from the Woodstock soundtrack that momentarily transported me back to the living room of my childhood home in the original Marchmont, where I thrilled to that track played loudly on my parents' console stereo system, which positively rattled the floor with its rich bass notes.

Those of you who didn't grow up with vinyl probably think of this as nothing more than an old guy's nostalgia, but it really is more than that, I believe. It's a return to musical listening as a more planned, more controlled experience--and the enjoyment of a means of sound reproduction that has its flaws, certainly, but also its own unique sonic qualities.

We always assume that new is better, and it was only natural in the computer era to assume that digital would be a marked improvement over the vagaries of analog reproduction.Sometimes the old ways have their own qualities that can't be surpassed...

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Past in Bits and Pieces

Today, I spent about three hours sorting through some books that haven't been unboxed in more than a decade—and in some cases, in more than two decades. A few weeks ago, I purchased some new bookshelves a few weeks back, and spent the first two weeks reorganizing the shelves. One room was devoted entirely to comics-related books (which meant that I was able to get my Marvel Masterworks, DC Archives, and Showcase Presents volumes in order at last); another room was devoted to some of my favorite authors, including Stephen King, Robert A. Heinlein, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Manly Wade Wellman, Michael Bishop, F. Paul Wilson, Frank Belknap Long, as Robert E. Bloch, as well as my Arkham House and Donald M. Grant collections. That freed up enough shelf space in the basement that I was able to unpack books that had been stored away for years due to lack of room.

Part of the fun of unpacking long-stored boxes is the excitement of the rediscovered. I found many books that I presumed I had jettisoned when I sold off the majority of my science fiction and fantasy books in the early 1990s. My John Brunner books, my Philip K. Dick collection, my Peter Saxon novels with those stunning Jeff Jones covers, my original Ace Fafhrd & Gray Mouser books from the 1960s, my Nevada Jim Westerns by Marshall McCoy with their stunning Jim Bama covers... they are all on the shelves now, and I suspect I'll spend more time revisiting some of those books in weeks to come.

I also unboxed the few hundred vinyl albums I had chosen to keep when I purged most of my vinyl collection in 2002. One of the first albums I found was the eponymous first album by Frijid Pink. If you've ever heard of the group at all, it's probably because of their powerful, hook-laden version of "House of the Rising Sun," which was their biggest single. But what I remember is that this was the first gift that Susan ever gave me, back in the spring of 1970. While I knew I had saved the album for that reason (even though I also have it on DVD), until today I had no idea where it had been stored away.

The most bittersweet discovery, though, came when I opened up a box that contained several games (Trivial Pursuit, Boggle, and Scrabble, among others). There, on the very top of all the games, was a gift tag that for some reason had been saved when all the wrapping paper was discarded. And written in a clear, bold hand in the Flair felt-tip pens that were so ubiquitous at my parents house was "Happy Birthday, Cliff--We Love You--Mom & Dad."

I have to admit I was taken aback when I first saw it. The tag, sitting there on top, was a gift in itself; I didn't realize I had saved it, but I have often regretted taking all those gift tags for granted in all those years when Mom and Dad were healthy and we were all confident that life held so many more birthday celebrations for all of us. I don't make a big deal out of birthdays, and never expect anyone to make a big deal out of mine. When Dad died back in August of 2007, less than two weeks before my birthday, I remember saying to Susan, "The only people who ever truly celebrated my birth every year that I've been alive are no longer here." It sounds selfish, I'm sure, but that's the way we are sometimes, I guess.

Since then, my birthday is always remembered by Susan, and by my Aunt Jean, who never fails to send me a card. Sometimes I hear from a few friends and family, most times I don't. It's not a big thing; life always gives us all more to do than we have time to do it in, and there's not even enough time for all of the important things. But this note moved me in a way that I can't really understand; I may not have found it exactly on my birthday, but it was as if Mom and Dad had somehow found a way to let me know one more time that they continued to celebrate my birth every year, even if they couldn't be here with me.

I stared at the note for a couple of minutes, and tried unsuccessfully to recall what gift it had accompanied. Why did I save it? Did I even intend to? It didn't matter; the note became the gift, because in the end, the only thing that any of us really want is to know that we were remembered, that we mattered, that someone thought the world was a little bit better for another year because we had been a part of it.