Monday, August 06, 2007

Hosted by Stephen Hawking

A few days ago, Wil Wheaton griped on his blog about all that's wrong with television today -- how shows can be killed before they even have a chance to develop a following.

He was, in particular, speaking of ABC's new anthology Masters of Science Fiction -- where they take short stories written by, get this, masters of science fiction, and adapt them into hour-long episodes.

ABC's new anthology, which airs at 10:00 on Saturdays. I think. (I have TiVo.) In any event, it airs at some awful hour destined to kill it.

I watched this past weekeend's episode, and rather liked it. It reminded me very strongly of the 90s version of The Outer Limits (with good reason; Sam Egan was involved in both shows).

Anyhow, that's just background. What I want to talk about is one of the comments on Wil's post.

Viewers of The Outer Limits (original and 90s) will recall that a "Control" voice gave an intro and a closing to each episode -- rather like The Twilight Zone.

In Masters of Science Fiction, the narrator is Professor Stephen Hawking -- which I think is awesome. Of course, I was also tickled pink when he appeared on The Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation. It proves that even geniuses watch TV. ;-)

In any event, the comment in question was that the poster thought it was "cute" that Stephen Hawking's "voice box" narrated the show.

For my non-nerdy visitors, Stephen Hawking has ALS (Lou Gherig's disease) and speaks with a voice synthesizer he controls with (I think) his thumb.

I immediately felt uncomfortable with the post, for two reasons. One -- if some other science genius (say, Carl Sagan if he were still alive) narrated it, I doubt it would be considered "cute." But when Stephen Hawking does so, it's "cute."

Two -- it's not his "voice box" narrating -- it's Stephen Hawking. His "voice box" doesn't mysteriously compose messages to speak -- Professor Hawking does so (painstakingly, laboriously). To say that his "voice box" narrated is to imply that it was not Professor Hawking narrating, but some nifty computer gadget.

The thing is, the only difference between Professor Hawking's voice and mine is that he composes his thoughts, which are spoken electronically. I compose my thoughts, and a variety of body parts work together to speak them organically.

That's the only difference -- his thoughts go from brain to electronics, while mine go from brain to muscle.

I might be reading too much into one comment, but I don't think so. I think it speaks to society's still very pervasive prejudice against people with disabilities -- people with severe disabilities in particular. I think it also speaks to the common misconception that severe physical disability must -- must -- always correlate to severe intellectual disability.

There's a perception that alternate modes of communication are worth less. Therefore, Stephen Hawking's narration is "cute," where Albert Einstein's could have been "unnecessary" or "trite," I find it difficult to believe that it would have been called "cute."

People use alternative communication all the time. They text, email, blog, IM, picture-message...they might even gesture insistently at the sink if they need to wash down that peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

But when all those other means of communication are not accompanied by speech, people's perceptions immediately change.

And that's a shame.

A few weeks ago was the anniversary of the ADA, and comments like this, which point to a (perhaps more silent) pervasive prejudice that still exists regarding people with disabilities, just show how much farther we have to go.

Edit: For what it's worth, Wil's right. It's ridiculous that shows can be killed before they even have a chance to develop a following. If X-Files premiered today, it'd never have lasted a month. And that's sad. Maybe that Alien Nation movie wasn't so wrong when they had a show cancelled 10 minutes into it.

1 comment:

zep said...

I think the other person referring to the narration as 'cute' is probably calling it that because you don't really know for sure that it is Stephen Hawking doing the narration; the same electronics are avaialble to many people (search for MC Hawking), so you can't really trust your ears to identify the narrator as Stephen Hawking.