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This Is the End, My Friends, and Yet Not the End
March 31, 2021  | By Alex Strachan  | 20 comments

I did not have a TV when I grew up. The family moved from city to city, country to country — a life on the road, constantly on the move. I have vague recollections of Doctor Who playing — in flickering black-and-white — in a tiny room in a tiny house during one early childhood memory, but I don't remember much about it, except that I'm pretty sure that incarnation of the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee and I was terrified of the Daleks. They gave me nightmares for the next several weeks — that much I remember — giant tin cans with a gigantic knob on their tin-can heads that shot death rays. I remember, too, their squeaky, high-pitched voices, all malevolence and evil — "Exterminate! Exterminate!" — and I lost a lot of sleep. I suspect my parents had to call a real doctor at some point.

My next memory of TV was years later. I was 13, I had my own bedroom by then, and my parents decided to gift me a 12-inch black-and-white TV, but no cable.

Cable was expensive in those days — it still is, but back then, it was a luxury. For my family, anyway. I was reduced to over-the-air channels. Welcome to the world of antennas. In a big city, surrounded by concrete towers, that was hopeless. I could only pick up two channels, and neither of them with a picture. Sound only. And a screen of white noise that would clear occasionally, but only enough to reveal a dark shadow against a brighter shadow, with everything tilted at a crazy angle.

I caught an episode of Star Trek, the original, quite by accident. I later learned it was the episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before," a recut version of Star Trek's second pilot episode, the one that convinced NBC to green-light Star Trek as a full series. I could only hear voices — even then, William Shatner's voice stood out — and weird, otherworldly sound effects, and I thought, What the hell?

I couldn't tell what was going on, but what I heard sounded like no story I had ever heard before.

I later watched an episode of Star Trek properly at the house of a friend from school, on a 26-inch Quasar color TV — the TV with "The works in a drawer!" with all the wiring in a panel you could slide in and out like a drawer for repairs — which seemed both cool technology and a nifty TV set on which to watch a sci-fi space opera. The episode was "What Are Little Girls Made Of" from Star Trek's first (and arguably best) season. My friend invited me back the following week for the episode "The Corbomite Maneuver," and I was hooked on Star Trek for life. My friend's dad was an NFL obsessive, and he was happy to have us watch Star Trek on a Sunday in the late morning — Star Trek was in repeats by then, having been cancelled several years earlier — because it meant he had the moral and ethical right to take over the 26-inch Quasar TV for the next six to seven hours, watching Sunday NFL doubleheaders.

That was my early introduction to TV, but Star Trek taught me an invaluable lesson that served me well throughout my many years — 25 of them, to be exact — as a professional TV reviewer for my hometown newspaper and then the national chain that owned that newspaper.

I read an old interview with Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was not himself a TV writer per se; he was a semi-retired police officer from Las Vegas who, depressed by witnessing man's inhumanity to man on a daily basis as part of his job as a cop, quit the job and thought of an idea for a TV show, a western set in outer space— "Wagon Train to the stars" — that would stress the positive aspects of humanity, the idea that we can find a collective hope and do good in the stars. Roddenberry got his 1960s post-Rod Serling morality tale, and NBC got a TV series that they could use to sell color TV sets. (It's hard to remember now, but at the time, the real reason the industry switched from black-and-white to color was that they could charge more for color ads.)

NBC was an early adopter of color, thanks in large part to the long-running western BonanzaStar Trek picked up where Bonanza left off — selling 26-inch Quasar color TVs to middle-class homes across North America, alongside RCA and countless other TV makers.

This was the key part of the interview, though. Roddenberry said the one thing he learned early about pitching a successful TV series was to think of an idea on a Friday, go home for the weekend, and if by Monday morning he could think of at least 24 ideas for episodes based on that, it could work as a series. If he couldn't think of 24 episodes, it was probably doomed to fail.
Star Trek passed his personal test, and NBC agreed.

That's a rule that has often been forgotten in the years and decades since. Even now, as anyone who has followed TV Worth Watching these past many years, there have been scores of terrific ideas for TV shows that had a whiz-bang first few episodes and then ran out of steam. Millions — billions? — of dollars have been wasted on ideas that should never have been green-lighted as TV series, to begin with.

Today, more than half a century later, Star Trek is still going strong as an idea.

The other thing I learned from watching Star Trek at my friend's house those many years ago is that a cool series is one thing, but it's live sports that rules the TV business. Star Trek was wonderful, but it was the NFL that was king of that household. Today, with a pandemic that has forced big-league sports to be played in empty stadiums, sports still keep the TV clock ticking over.

I first signed on with TV Worth Watching five years ago. Though I hardly feel young anymore, I'm one of the relative newcomers to the site. David Bianculli goes way back with me, though: When I first landed the post of TV critic at my old newspaper, after several years in general assignment and, yes, sports, David's Dictionary of Teleliteracy: Television's 500 Biggest Hits was the first reference book I used to fact-check at my new gig. I later learned he was one of the founding members of the TV Critics Association, the professional trade association that represents some 200 writers across the US and Canada who write exclusively about television. We've all heard the jokes from friends, family, and casual strangers: "Oh, so you're a TV critic! There must be a lot to criticize." Hee hee. Anyone and everyone who's ever said that must think they're so clever. They also think they're saying it for the first time, when in fact, to many of the people who actually watch TV and write about it for a living, it's like having to sit through a bad rerun.

Here's the thing about David, though, and it informed what TV Worth Watching has become over the years. He has a deep abiding affection for the medium, but also respect. It's easy to point at Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire or Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's empty vault and complain that it represents the dregs of society. However, David also understood that TV is also Ken Burns and David Simon and Walter Cronkite, or the way the entire world tuned in to see Neil Armstrong's "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." And at the other end of the emotion spectrum, a little more than 30 years later, the 9/11 terror attacks.

I was lucky because not only did TVWW give me a license to write about whatever I wanted to write about — National Geographic and PBS's Frontline and David Attenborough, and countless others — but I knew the readers who have followed TVWW all these years themselves care about the best of what TV has to offer. David has, on more than one occasion, described the readers of this site to me (and many others) as being some of the smartest, best informed, most lively people he ever met during his decades of covering the industry, and that includes the men and women who create and make TV shows in the first place.

I was lucky, too, because my TVWW placeholder, "TV That Matters," coincided with the rise of the streaming services and the new golden age of prestige TV, where Mad Men and Deadwood and those great HBO dramas passed the torch on to Netflix and Amazon and Hulu.

We're living in a wonderful time in TV, where HBO is producing Succession and Watchmen at the same time Netflix is producing The Crown and Black Mirror and The Queen's Gambit.

There is still time for the other stuff, of course. David has lost faith in Survivor, and his interest has waned in The Masked Singer, but I still have a lot of time for Survivor — I find it endlessly fascinating. And it's personal to me; I was one of the first to jump onboard Survivor, and its debut in May 2000 coincided with my halcyon years as a commentator on TV as a social force, for good and bad. I have never tired of Survivor, even though David has. (I do, however, draw the line at Big Brother and The Bachelorette.)

And that's another point about TVWW. It was a place where writers could have differing opinions and argue a strong case both for and against — the classic definition of adult thinking, being able to hold two opposing thoughts in one's head at the same time.

I enjoyed my stay here. TV Worth Watching's daily presence as a website will be missed, but there will still be TV worth watching.

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