Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sensor Scan: Reading Rainbow

Talk about Roots all you want, it definitely deserves it. But from my perspective, if you want to get a handle on LeVar Burton's personality, style of acting and overall legacy, there's only one place to look.

It doesn't get commented on anywhere near enough that Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation were on the air at the same time. Having started Reading Rainbow four years before being cast as Geordi La Forge and continuing an additional twelve years after the television voyages of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D came to an end, Star Trek was LeVar's night job, quite literally so in some cases. This makes him somewhat unusual among the Trek pantheon, and also means that between 1987 and 1994 he was arguably one of the busiest, most hardworking people in Hollywood. And consider what that was like for an entire generation that was at the age where they would have been familiar with both shows: Imagine how cool it felt to see one of your childhood heroes in costume onboard the Starship Enterprise on one of the highest rated and most talked about shows of the time.

One has to wonder if there wasn't some element of design in this. Patrick Stewart's later phenomenal acclaim tends to eclipse the historical reality that he was by no means intended to be the main attraction of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the beginning. He was hired because he's a gobsmackingly brilliant thespian, of course, but, just like everyone else on that cast, he was an unknown in the United States and any fame he came to was the *result* of Star Trek: The Next Generation's success, not a cause of it. Well...When I say everyone was an unknown, I mean everyone except LeVar Burton, that is...who *was* already well established thanks to both Roots and a beloved and award-winning children's television programme he hosted. Yes, believe it or not, LeVar Burton was the one bit of celebrity casting Paramount allowed themselves, was wildly more known and popular than any of his co-stars at the time, and was likely somebody who was the main draw for Star Trek: The Next Generation to a lot of people in its early days, be they skeptical OG Trekkers, mainstream audiences, or kids who were fans of Reading Rainbow.

I know he was for me. I was one of those people who came to Star Trek through LeVar Burton, being a big admirer of his other work. In fact, the very first piece of Star Trek merchandise I ever got was the reissued Wave 1 Playmates Geordi La Forge figure. That's not to say there weren't other things that caught my attention about Star Trek: The Next Generation, there definitely were, but LeVar was a *major* contributing factor in my becoming a fan and as a result, when I first started watching, Geordi was the character I focused on almost exclusively. I mean, I liked everyone else just fine: I enjoyed the sense of dignity Patrick Stewart exuded as Captain Picard and I really enjoyed how dynamic and commanding Jonathan Frakes was as Commander Riker. But I'll be honest, a big motivator to sit through the plots of those earliest episodes I saw was watching LeVar Burton run around doing awesome LeVar Burton things in space on a starship. Perhaps this is why I'm inclined to make the claim that Geordi remains the true heart and soul of Star Trek: The Next Generation for me.

Like all of the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters, there is a great deal of LeVar Burton himself in Geordi La Forge, and this only becomes more prevalent and pronounced as the series goes on. But the way this manifests is interesting, because in many ways the LeVar we see on Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually the LeVar of Reading Rainbow. This is worth taking note of, because, as LeVar told Mister Rogers last time, what he does on Reading Rainbow is “play a version of [him]self”. This means we're seeing the same kind of recursive artifice that William Shatner has already dabbled in to some extent and will eventually become famous for: We're watching LeVar Burton the actor playing LeVar Burton the character and host of Reading Rainbow playing Geordi La Forge.

And it's LeVar Burton's persona that is, to me at least, really the most memorable thing about Reading Rainbow. It's fairly trivial to explain how this show worked on a functional level, it's not like with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood where we really did have to do some unpacking: Reading Rainbow is straightforwardly about teaching kids how to read and fostering a lifelong interest in reading, and the way it does this is by drawing parallels between the book of the day and various real world topics, be they about emotions, imagination and different kinds of people like Mister Rogers focused on, or more quantitative things like how objects are made and facts about the natural world. That's not to diminish what it did in the slightest-Reading Rainbow was a tremendously noble television programme and there's no way to legitimately, soberly argue it didn't have an overwhelmingly positive effect on society or touch countless lives for the twenty-three years it was on the air.

But it does mean that I, someone who already loved reading and didn't need any extra incentive to pick up a book, was likely not the target demographic of this show and that for me the big draw was LeVar Burton himself, because LeVar is an unbelievably charming, charismatic and inspiring stage presence. He practically bubbles over with enthusiasm and finely honed, targeted energy every time he's onscreen, and that turns out to be precisely what Reading Rainbow needs. After all, if your whole goal is to inspire kids and get them excited about reading, you want to not only emphasize how much it opens you eyes to the rest of the world, but you want to make it seem as cool as possible, and LeVar Burton is very, very cool.

Where Mister Rogers was the embodiment of gentle kindness and inquisitiveness and felt like the kind of person you could spend an afternoon just sitting together and talking with, LeVar felt like a fun travelling companion who could take you on all kinds of amazing adventures all over the world. Mister Rogers took you on trips too, but he always took care to remain a deliberately low-key presence-LeVar makes constant asides to the audience, has a very easygoing and jokey sense of humour and positions himself as an intermediary between us and the people he interviews. Where Mister Rogers signed off each episode with the reassuring promises that he'll “be back tomorrow!”, LeVar told us with a wink and a smile “I'll see ya next time”. Neither Mister Rogers nor LeVar Burton were paternalistic figures, but LeVar did, I think, play a very different sort of friend: No more or less approachable, but perhaps a bit more casual and outgoing.

And that of course is the mark of a truly brilliant teacher: Someone who recognises themselves as an equal of their students and isn't afraid to admit it. Both Mister Rogers and LeVar Burton did, and if it sometimes wasn't always clear on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood thanks to minor misconceptions in recent years, it definitely was on Reading Rainbow. It also helps that LeVar's passion for books and promoting literacy is so clearly palpable: It allows him to articulate the joys of reading through incredibly stirring and poetic speeches he somehow managed to deliver at least twice an episode. It's hard not to get excited and inspired just watching him with enthusiasm that infectious. It's the combined effect of those two elements is the heart of Reading Rainbow to me: LeVar brought the same enthusiasm he had for reading to travelling, and through that managed to convey a truly breathtaking sense of giddy wonder at the world.

There's an atmosphere I associate with this show a lot too: It always gives me a very sunny, summery feeling, and that makes me very happy. The original version of the theme song sets the mood from the start, putting you in a relaxed groove with that minimalist synthesizer beat playing as the butterfly flies over those children reading on the steps outside their house on the street corner. This is the kind of feeling you get on early summer afternoons when you're outside looking into the day in front of you, dreaming of what might be and what you might do. On Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the music compliments and accentuates the show, like an old-fashioned film score played live in a real orchestra pit (and indeed, it was recorded live). On Reading Rainbow, the music *defines* the show and generates a mindspace all its own, and that's as clear a signature of the Long 1980s as anything else we've looked at. How fitting that a song this dreamy open a show meant to nurture the imagination. It's perfect meditative trance music, and I openly use an instrumental remix of it to inspire me and help shape my mental and emotional states of being even to this day.

I am expected, of course, to talk about the episode where LeVar takes us behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Because of Nerd Culture, it's retroactively become the most iconic episode of the series, and it is a very good one, especially from a Star Trek perspective (you can find it as a special feature on the Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 2 Blu-ray box set or on iTunes if you've not seen it-It's called “The Bionic Bunny Show”, after the book of the same name). Though incorporating shots from multiple first season episodes, it was primarily filmed in tandem with “Symbiosis”, which also doubled as Denise Crosby's last episode as a regular, so man, that must have been one hell of a crazy week on set.

LeVar talks about how TV shows are filmed, likening it to an elabourate form of make believe that people do for a living. For Star Trek fans, this episode is a goldmine because LeVar shows us stuff about the making of The Next Generation you simply can't see anywhere else, like how the Enterprise model was filmed at Industrial Light and Magic (Reading Rainbow also gets major props from me here for focusing on the VFX shots for “The Last Outpost” and “11001001”, two episodes that rank at the top of Star Trek: The Next Generation's most evocative, imaginative and emotionally stirring images for me). We even get a rare interview with VFX supervisor Rob Legato, who shows us how the team did composite images on VHS and how the the transporter was glitter water that they would stir with a spoon, film, and then overlaid with some postproduction filters. It's fascinating.

There are also a great deal of really clever and subtle postmodern cinematography tricks the Reading Rainbow team pulled off here: LeVar spends a lot of time on the bridge and engineering sets, and while he always takes care to point out that they're precisely that, sets, these scenes are still *shot* in every bit as cinematic a fashion as they are on Star Trek: The Next Generation: They even have all the little lighting composite shots worked in. For a behind the scenes episode, Reading Rainbow is surprisingly coy about showing us what the soundstage looked like raw.

What we get then, is something that's as much an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation about Reading Rainbow as it is the other way around (or perhaps it's a case of Reading Rainbow somehow “invading” Star Trek: The Next Generation and thus distorting both narratives), but yet is completely unafraid to point out its own artificiality. This is same kind of overblown, chaotic recursion Animaniacs gets praise for, and Reading Rainbow pulled it off five years before Tom Ruegger and his team did. And then, just to top it off, after spending a full thirty minutes explaining how Star Trek: The Next Generation is just a TV show and showing us how it's made, LeVar beams down just like he does on the show normally even after showing us quite clearly how the transporter effects are done.

(And by the way, while you can't see it on the Blu-ray release, I have to say the Star Trek: The Next Generation-esque remix of the Reading Rainbow theme that closes this episode is utterly charming and endearing and makes me grin like an idiot. It's the absolute perfect microcosm of the weird, fun sense of mash-up and mixing that characterizes this episode. It should have been The Next Generation's actual theme song.)

That said, and I know this is going to come as a complete shock, but this was never the most memorable episode of Reading Rainbow for me. It was definitely one of them and it was great fun to see the two shows crossover, of course, but given the stature they both had at the time it was kinda expected that it would happen eventually. I personally have just as vivid memories of, for example, the Humphrey: The Lost Whale episode, which was set on Cape Cod, a place of which I know quite intimately and is very special to me, and dealt with a subject that's I care a lot about: The ocean and marine life. I was also a huge fan of the coral reef episode, for the same reasons. I really enjoyed it any time the show talked about animals in general, like in the Duncan and Dolores episode set at the San Diego Zoo (I also just really, really like San Diego, especially 1980s San Diego). Other memories that stick out in my mind were the books Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, Abiyoyo, Caps for Sale, If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, the book Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express and the accompanying episode, where LeVar took an overnight train ride with us and “Tar Beach”, an episode about inner city rooftops and that used The Drifters' “Up on the Roof” as a reoccurring musical motif.

But the main reason the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode may not be my favourite is that I actually think LeVar makes a minor, but troubling, intellectual misstep with it. There was a very divisive and utterly unnecessary war in the Long 1980s between television and books of which the bloodiest and most violent battles were fought on children's television. The standard opinion was that kids watch too much TV and that we had to drive the point home to them that books were objectively better than television because you have to use your imagination, whereas television supposedly spoon-feeds everything to you and is inherently mindless. This message was, of course, hilariously ironic and counterproductive because it was in fact being delivered through the medium of children's television.

Now, I have problems with television as a medium that I'm going to elabourate more on as we go through the 1980s, but this isn't one of them and I've always felt it was an intellectually hollow argument that assumed kids had zero visual literacy. Obviously television, just like all forms of media and art in general, is capable of inspiring our imaginations. Just think about how many times you've tried to think ahead of a showrunner to guess the Big Reveal in the season finale of a modern arc-based character drama, or the incalculable amount of reparative and transformative fanfiction that exists for something like, oh, I don't know, Star Trek, for example. No artistic medium is mindless if it inspires you to imagine, dream, think or create. Mister Rogers knew this, and even despite his misgivings felt television had a tremendous potential to bring people together and communicate.

(And hey, Mister Rogers was also a fan of Night of the Living Dead and Donkey Kong, so as far as I'm concerned this round goes to our favourite neighbour.)

But, this was the 1980s and Reading Rainbow had to take a stand, and you can probably guess which side it picked. Though LeVar never out and out says books are better than TV in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, he *does* say on more than one occasion that books are special and closes by saying “when you read a good book, you're the producer, the director, the actor, even the special effects magician. You bring the book to life, in your imagination”. He compares this to watching a TV show made by “experts” who “do the work for you”, and the way he emphasizes his parts of speech, he sounds like he's comparing it unfavorably to the experience of reading a book, and that does sort of leave a bad taste in my mouth. The episode doesn't quite manage to shoot itself completely in the foot, but it ends on a more sour note than it really needed to.

Speaking of Star Trek, perhaps owing to LeVar's connection to that franchise's futurism, Reading Rainbow has commendably managed to remain on the cutting edge of technology. Though the series itself was canceled in 2006 due to having its funding cut by the No Child Left Behind Act, LeVar acquired the rights and spent the next six years thinking of ways to bring the concept back somehow, and eventually, in 2011, Reading Rainbow finally returned as an interactive tablet app to be met with wild acclaim. LeVar is one of the first people I've seen to notice that television is a dying medium these days, practically dead already for the newest generation of digital native children, and I think he's right here. The way we think of entertainment is in the process of changing, and I really think things like longform scripted dramas (at least network-supported ones) and even linear nonfiction documentaries will soon be a thing of the past.

You can already see it in the modern television climate which, apart from a few odd stragglers and the runaway hit genre fiction and drama shows that everybody watches (and you all know what they are) is a homogenous sludge of identikit reality TV shows and police procedurals, because that's the only thing that garners any kind of worthwhile viewership numbers anymore. The first casualties have already happened, and it's the children's television programming like, well, the original Reading Rainbow: PBS Kids these days is a desert, the few people desperately clinging on to the medium either kept afloat through the grandfather principle or rapidly finding themselves in an echo chamber with other children's television nerds. Somewhat ironically, this means Reading Rainbow is the sole survivor of its kind, because it learned to adapt with the times and the changing media climate.

LeVar is absolutely right: Television is not the way to reach people anymore. It's perhaps appropriate that something so emblematic of, iconic from and embodying the best elements of the Long 1980s would revive them in a time when we need them again the most of all.

It's perhaps worth mentioning that as of this writing, Reading Rainbow is in the middle of a large-scale Kickstarter to fund its expansion to a platform-agnostic web model and to create a specialized classroom version of its system for underprivileged schools. Considering it raised its initial $1,000,000 goal in eleven hours and then doubled it the next day, it likely doesn't need a signal boost, least of all from me, but here it is anyway.


  1. Awesome thanks again Josh! Vaka Rangi has broadened my horizons again. Obviously I read about reading Rainbow i the Roots post, but really I knew nothing about it being a British viewer. It gives a whole new perspective on LeVar Burton that I never had before.

    1. I worry I may have undersold Reading Rainbow here: it really was a dreadfully important TV show for me and I have a lot of really tender and fond memories of it. And it doesn't just shape, it defines the way I think of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

      I highly recommend checking it out if you can (like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood it's on iTunes, at least in the US: It's worth it for LeVar alone and I think you in particular would get a real kick out of it.

  2. I don't think that you have undersold it's meaning to you, I can really feel it. And this ties in very nicely with the Roots post. It can be hard I guess to see what people think when the comments are low, but this is a high quality post so don't be disheartened.

    Again I can't find Reading Rainbow on my UK Amazon, and iTunes is proving to be a problem too. Must be as I am UK based? Ah well. I will continue hunting!

  3. Ah, Reading Rainbow. An absolutely stellar show and a huge part of my childhood, though like you I was already completely convinced of the value of reading, so it was definitely more about LeVar Burton for me. He was just so much fun, so energetic and fascinating.

    And that definitely carried into the way he played Geordi. I've always felt Geordi is in many ways the soul of the Next Gen crew, much as McCoy was the soul of the TOS crew, only better because he wasn't constantly making racist jabs at the Designated Outsider.

    1. "I've always felt Geordi is in many ways the soul of the Next Gen crew, much as McCoy was the soul of the TOS crew, only better because he wasn't constantly making racist jabs at the Designated Outsider."

      I agree: You might enjoy the direction I'm heading with the TNG coverage :-)

    2. only better because he wasn't constantly making racist jabs at the Designated Outsider

      Just once, I'd have loved to see Spock file an EEOC complaint against Bones for all the incredibly blatant racial slurs