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Vanilla Sci-Fi

There's always vanilla. That's not just the title of an obscure George Romero movie from the early 1970s, it's also a philosophy of life, and one that is quite relevant today. Of course, vanilla is the blandest of ice cream flavors. On cake or over apple pie, it's delicious. With chocolate syrup and strawberries draped over a dollop, it's nothing short of wonderful. But a la mode? Well let's just say it lacks the full body of more colorful ice cream flavors, like rum raisin or chocolate peanut butter. But, until a few months ago, I didn't understand just how important vanilla really is, how safe it feels and tastes, not just in terms of desserts, but also regarding science fiction movies and TV shows.

As a reviewer of film and television, someone forever interested in the genre, I prefer to believe that I favor the bold, the ambitious. That I appreciate that which is daring and exciting over that which is bland, average and tasteless. I always prefer mint chocolate chip or the rocky road to vanilla. You know what I mean—provocative movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the original Solaris (1972), and Planet of the Apes (not the remake…). These are the confections I thought I hungered for the most. They're thick and spicy, garnished in flavorful ambiguity and rich double-meanings.

But, in times of personal and collective crisis, who can deny that vanilla is actually a tasty and welcome treat? I can't, that's for sure. For instance, right now, one of my beloved cats is suffering from renal insufficiency, I'm renovating my kitchen, I have two book deadlines looming, and the world is going crazy. Then there's the war on terror, the stock market disaster, the Enron collapse, and, just the other day came the wonderful news that a giant asteroid could very well strike the Earth in seventeen years. In other words, life has seemed a little hairy of late. Yet all these various and sundry crises have led me to an epiphany. I like vanilla.

In my spare time, what entertainment have I found myself popping in the DVD player or VCR? Not chocolate chip mint, thank you. Nor rocky road, please. No, I've been going straight for the vanilla. Now, to be blunt, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) was never one of my favorite movies. It doesn't meet any objective or intellectual criteria for being considered a "quality" or good film. It was listlessly directed by George Lucas, overloaded with C.G.I. special effects that were too cartoony for my taste and badly acted by Jake Lloyd. Worse, it was downright boring. And yet, it's like a bowl of smooth vanilla, reassuring in pure its happiness and total blandness. In its own derivative way, the movie goes down easy, resurrecting the safe, protected feeling of childhood often associated with Star Wars. If it doesn't equal the original trilogy in quality, no doubt it's the next best thing for a jaded Generation X'er, and I'm embarrassed to reveal just how many times I've gone back to this movie and watched it, feeling secure and happy in the repetition.

What else is vanilla? Star Trek Voyager (1995-2001). Yes, the last Star Trek series, the one about a starship hurled across the galaxy and lost in the distant Delta Quadrant, ran for seven long years and I mostly dismissed it after the first five seasons. I liked all the actors (especially Kate Mulgrew), but the stories seemed too safe, the characters too cooperative, the mission too bland. The premise concerned isolation but the crew always seemed so damn happy and safe. Well, you guessed it, these days I'm catching up on Star Trek Voyager episodes and enjoying them completely. The very thing I once so loudly and publicly disdained, the program's "play it safe" attitude is now something that I totally appreciate. The stalwart Captain Janeway exudes the comforting authority of a protective mama, simultaneously stern and nurturing. And, despite the "uprooted" feel of Voyager, lost in space, those old Star Trek virtues are here in spades: loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, courage, exploration, you name it. Plus, the production values are pretty damn good, the stories at least satisfactory (most of the time…) and most importantly, when the show is on I'm not challenged to think, worry or speculate about any aspect of my life that seems terribly troubling.

I don't think I'm the only one undergoing this rediscovery of vanilla. The 2001-2002 TV season was really an exercise in creamy soft-serve. Along came Smallville on the WB, the American-as-apple pie story of young Superman. Set in the heartland with good looking, hardy, corn-fed teenagers as stars, the series has not yet risen to the complexity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or other favorites (like Farscape), but boy is it pleasantly bland. It casts a spell of utter self-satisfaction with its overly familiar stories and unchallenging, almost juvenile drama. Ditto Enterprise, the latest Star Trek to live up to the wholesome franchise's family image. Both of these shows were very successful this season, I suspect, because the nation has been in the mood for vanilla since September 11 and the attacks in New York City and on the Pentagon.

And what became of the mint chocolate chip and rocky road productions this year? The long-lived X-Files (1993-2002), whose stock in trade was uncertainty, conspiracy and shifting loyalties, was unceremoniously cancelled. Dark Angel (2000-2002), James Cameron's gloomy adventure about a future of economic hardship, set in a Third-World America, was terminated with extreme prejudice. The amusing The Tick, which took superheroes and mocked their wholesome world, was axed by Fox after just eight episodes.

Interestingly, the movie that had the biggest opening weekend ever was this year's Spider-Man, another cynicism-free adventure like Smallville, concerning good young Americans facing maturity (and responsibility…) with courage and character. Over and over again this year, our nation selected vanilla over chocolate chip mint and I can't say I really blame them. Even the Academy Awards rewarded vanilla. Ron Howard (the walking, talking embodiment of wholesome American vanilla, straight from Mayberry and Happy Days…) won the award for best director.

Lest there be any mistake, I'm not making fun of the vanilla movement in entertainment. I think it's 100% understandable, and I've clearly developed a taste for it. But, I wonder, will future generations look back at such generic, feel-good productions as Smallville and Enterprise as we laughingly look back at the 1950s Adventures of Superman or Leave it to Beaver? Will our current retreat to comfort food and familiar values, even in our entertainment, be the fodder for laughter in the future? Perhaps, but frankly, I don't care.

For now, vanilla is my favorite flavor. After all, simple pleasures are pleasures nonetheless.


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