June 2008

A few months ago on Sakeriver there was a discussion about the best SF TV series. I submitted the following which I’m reproducing here because I’m lazy:

Talking about the best SF series is fun and all, but I personally much more enjoy talking about the worst of SF (we’ll limit ourselves to TV series for now). I’m sure that well-known turds like Voyager or Excalibur will be mentioned, but due to nostalgia I’m somewhat partial to 80’s TV shows. Here are some examples:

Just the name of this show alone is distateful…

The Invisible Woman
I think it was a TV special and not a full series, so it may not technically qualify.

Misfits of Science
Notable for including Courtney Cox long before her Friends fame.

The Ghost Busters
Not what you’re thinking. This is long before the movie Ghostbusters. This was a children’s live-action show in 75-76. Columbia actually licensed the name from Filmation to make the movie. The movie was so popular that Filmation then came back and tried to cash in with the horrible cartoon Ghostbusters (some of you may remember this one). Columbia was none too happy about that since they had made the franchise a hit, so they hit back with The Real Ghostbusters, which is probably the one you think of when you think of a Ghostbusters cartoon. However this one sucked too, since the actors in the movie raised a lot of stink about their likenesses in the TV show, so they ended up being drawn differently, Lorenzo Music (who also did the voice of Garfield) got replaced with Dave Coulier for Peter Vankeman’s voice, etc. Slimer was changed from a gluttonous villian to an extremelly annoying slapstick sidekick, and then later usurped the actual main characters not unlike how Fonzie usurped Happy Days, Urkel would usurp Family Matters, and Elmo would usurp all of Sesame Street a decade later. But I digress.

Small Wonder
Ugh. I don’t think I need to say much about this show.

Not Quite Human (go to 3:20, this is all I could find)
Coasting off of his (relative) success from The Boy Who Could Fly, Jay Underwood starred in this made-for TV movie back in 1987. Co-starring a phoned-in performance by Alan Thicke as Chip’s father, he must have needed an extra paycheck in between seasons of Growing Pains or something. They actually made a couple of sequels for this, Not Quite Human II and Still Not Quite Human.

Out of This World
Not to be confused with the video game that had no relation, this was a crappy Saturday afternoon sitcom cut from the same mold as Small Wonder (and started around the same time, it ran from 87-91). The girl has a human mother and alien father, and her father grants her the ability to stop time at will. Instead of doing the logical thing anyone with this power would do (i.e. steal anything you want, take over the world, be a totall bad-*ss, etc.), she generally used it just to get out of stupid farcical situations that seemed straight out of Saved by the Bell.

No list of horrible Sci-Fi shows would be complete without some Super Sentai series and their derivatives. Instead of focusing on the well-known Power Rangers (which are certainly worthy of inclusion on this list), I’d like to introduce some of the less well-known copycats and spinoffs.

VR Troopers
This show, like Power Rangers, was produced by taking the action suit scenes from a Japanese Super Sentai show and re-shooting all the other scenes with new actors. What made this different though, is that they actually combined three different Japanese shows: Super Machine Man Metalder, Dimensional Warrior Spielban, and Space Sheriff Shaider. This of course produced a convoluted and unintentionally hilarious plot (Fans of Robotech and Voltron are knowingly nodding their heads here).

Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad
Yes, that really is the name of the show. Another Tokusatsu adaptation like Power Rangers and VR Troopers (and Big Bad Beetle Borgs, but I don’t even want to mention them…), this one actually had lower production values than the others, if you can believe it. Notable for the supporting cast role of Troy Slaten who would later go on to play Jerry Steiner in Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.

My favorite of all though, has to be…
Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills
Instead of licensing inexpensive footage from a post-run Japanese TV show, this show was actually 100% original, as far as it wasn’t a complete rip-off of Power Rangers and its derivatives. But as you might surmise by the name of the show alone, it was really, really bad. How it survived for 40 episodes I’ll never figure out, because my brother and I would laugh our way through Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad because it was so horrible, but TTAFFBH wasn’t even very watchable to make fun of. I do remember one episode where Zsa Zsa Gabor had a cameo, though (the heroes were sent to an alternate universe where Zsa Zsa had just been elected Governor of California or something to that effect). There was another humorous episode where they broke the monster-a-day format. In this episode, the big evil boss left for a while and left his lieutenant in charge. The lieutenant, wanting to prove himself by defeating the heroes, keeps on sending monster after monster after monster instead of just giving up for the day after the first one is defeated. The heroes get overwhelmed and are about to be defeated when the big evil boss comes back, recalls the monsters, and berates his lieutenant for not ‘doing it correctly’ by not following the monster-a-day formula. Years later it reminded me of Dr. Evil talking with his son Scott in Austin Powers about being defeated because of following standard bad-guy clichés.

Anyone else got some really bad SF TV shows, preferably with videos so that all can enjoy in the campy badness?

I ran across this page that is an outline for a lecture given by a professor of statistics at Berkeley. The title of his talk is “The top ten things that math probability says about the real world”, but he just glosses over six of them and spends the majority of his lecture discussing the last four. Still, all of the points are valid and important, in fact a lot of his lecture covers subjects that are pet peeves of mine. But the one that never ceases to amaze me is is the title of my post: people are predictably irrational in actions involving uncertainty.

Take for example the opening scene in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where they are flipping the coin. Rosencratz (or is it Guildenstern?) gets heads something like 92 times in a row. Now assuming a fair coin, the odds of that are laughably improbable: 2^{-92}=2.019\times 10^{-28} . You’d have a millions of times better chance of winning the lottery than achieving this feat. In fact, given a lottery that has a one in one billion chance of winning, you’d have a better chance of winning said lottery 3 times in a row then you would of getting 92 heads in a row on a fair coin.

Proof: \left(1\times 10^{-9}\right)^3=1\times 10^{-27}>2.019\times 10^{-28}.

But that’s not what’s important here. The issue in question is what people will predict the next coin flip to be. If they see the large number of successive identical coin flips, and you then ask them what the probability of the next flip also being heads is, they will usually give one of two answers: 1) It is most likely to be heads, because the coin is obviously ‘on a roll’ of heads. 2) It is most likely to be tails, because it’s had so many heads in a row that there is a ‘negative balance’ of tails that needs to be met. This is despite any and all assurances that the coin is perfectly fair. So the real answer is of course, 0.5 probability of heads, and 0.5 probability of tails. This is always true, no matter what the previous record of instances may be. The thing that many people fail to realize is this:

In any simple game of pure chance, every turn/round/instance is completely independent of previous turns, and and every single turn has the exact same probability every time. This is how casinos make the majority of their money.

So why are most people so predictably irrational in such situations? Obviously I’m not a psychologist (or other such similar profession, but see this slide from the end of the lecture), but I think it has to do with the fact that as humans, we almost never have to make judgments in situations where the outcome is truly random. Such situations have only arisen quite recently in human history with the advent of gambling. And even then there is only a subset of gambling games that are purely random (like craps or roulette, assuming they are truly fair) while many have a combination of chance and skill (card games fall into this category) and some are flat out not fair (slot machines).

In most everything that we deal with in daily life, even when there are events that seem random when we we observe them, they are almost never random. For example, take my daily bus commute. Even though the bus has a regularly scheduled time to arrive, from my perspective it appears random within a time frame of +/- 10 minutes. Also how long it take to arrive at school or home also appears to be random, with a total time of anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on traffic. But in reality, both when the bus comes and how long it takes to arrive at my destination are not random at all. The problem is that the number of variables that go into determining these two times are so vast and unpredictable that the end result may as well seem to be random when it isn’t.

Back to my former point though, I think we as humans tend to find pattern and correlation in many things (even when they don’t exist) because finding correlations and patterns is extremely useful. Such thought processes have fueled man’s scientific progress, and help humans navigate the dangerous minefield of social interaction. It has its downsides though. People losing lots of money in gambling is obvious, but also things like finding pictures of Mary or Jesus in just about anything, or the existence of most every pseudoscience out there (numerology, cryptozoology, paranormal phenomena, etc.).

My wife pointed out a very interesting article to me this morning about the Taishō Emperor, who was the emperor of Japan from 1912 to 1926. Specifically, the Imperial Household Agency released some of the official records from his reign. What makes the releasing of the documents news-worthy is that it is the first time the Imperial Household has ever admitted the mental and physical deficiencies of the Taishō Emperor. I couldn’t find the article at all anywhere in English (no surprise, the various Japanese news outlets seem to be very selective about what news they release to the ‘rest’ of the world), so I’ll give a quick translation.

大正天皇 「実録」3度目公開 病状の深刻化記す。
Newly released documents reveal health problems of the Taishō Emperor.

On the 4th of this month, the Imperial Household Agency released reproductions of official Imperial records from the Taishō Emperor that contained details about the Taishō Emperor’s health. The released records cover a period of 2~3 years from July of 1921 until the burial of the Emperor at Tamaryo. In addition to the Emperor’s worsening condition, the documents also revealed that due to those conditions in 1921 Crown Prince Hirohito (later Showa Emperor) was placed as Regent on the Imperial throne.

The complete records contain a total of 85 volumes, of which the 9 volumes from number 77 to 85 have been released. According to the Agency, of the 160,000 characters contained in the released records, about 2% have been removed because it contained ‘personal information’. Including those just released, now all the records from the Taishō Emperor’s enthronement until his death have been released, leaving 47 more volumes covering the Emperor’s birth until his enthronement that have yet to be released.

The released documents contain the following statements that detail the Emperor’s health problems around the time that Crown Prince Hirohito was inaugurated as the regent (note from Derek: these direct quotations are really hard for me to translate, because of the archaic style used in the official record, sorry if they’re not up to snuff): “His majesty’s speech impediment has become slightly worse since the the 3rd year of his reign (1915)、and recently his posture has shifted forward with a tendency to lean over.” “His majesty is developing pronounced memory problems.” The volumes also contain an account of the Taishō Emperor donating 10 million yen to victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when the Emperor was residing in the city of Nikko in Tochigi prefecture at the time.

The released volumes contain accounts of the Emperor’s condition and important political and diplomatic matters during the Emperor’s reign. The Imperial Household Department began compiling the official records in 1927 after the death of the Taishō Emperor, and were completed in December of 1937.