Sunday, June 5, 2011

Once Upon A Time... WTF?

Classical music is one of those things that, until now, I have simultaneously not been interested in but recognized that someday I probably would be. Last week, I headed over to the library and borrowed some CD's, intending to make up for years of indifference and see what I've been missing.

Even if you don't care about classical music, you've almost certainly been exposed to a lot of it just through movies and TV. At the very least, you've heard it in popular movies as a lazy shorthand for stuffy elite opulence. Whenever there's a string quartet playing, you can bet there's a bored pretty rich girl who's about to be spirited away by the charming working-class hero to a way funner party drinking moonshine down by the river.

Anyway, the first piece on the disc I borrowed is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, better known to pop culture as Creepy Frankenstein Organ Music.

I'm still unclear on how any given piece of music, absent lyrics, can be "about" something. But I've always felt like this piece was about either the creation or the destruction of the world. That's because it was the theme music to a certain educational cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid.

I'm a bit of an anxious guy, and I was certainly an anxious kid. My childhood memories are of one apocalyptic neurosis after another. In grade four, during Fire Prevention Week, the psychopaths at the local fire department came to our school and showed us a film on fire safety that included a series of horrifying images of people who had died in house fires. Not just anonymous charred corpses on a coroner's table. I mean images of people where they were found, in context, all pathos and horror--real people whose tragedies were burned into your mind with shrieking Psycho strings. A half-naked man inches from the window, his upper body burned beyond recognition, who awoke too late and tried and almost succeeded in crawling out of a burning house in the dead of night. A woman, roasted in the fetal position, wrapped in towels in the bathtub where she tried to hide from the flames.

For years thereafter, I worried about spontaneous combustion, soaking matchbooks before throwing them out; even today I'll turn back halfway to work to make sure I've turned off the stove.

Rest assured, dear firemen, you've made your point.

Later there would be fear of fire of a more primal sort. In one year was the accidental shooting down of a Korean Airlines passenger jet by a Russian warplane, TV specials like The Day After and documentaries If You Love This Planet--this last shown to us by our spikey-haired peace activist teacher, who had determined that the most effective way to prevent nuclear holocaust was to scare the living shit out of seventh graders.

But throughout those years, extinction and immolation--my own and that of the world--were never far from my mind. And as far as I can tell it started with Bach's Toccata, and an educational cartoon called Once Upon A Time... Man.

TV Ontario in the early 1980's had a whole raft of educational and/or foreign kids' shows running for several hours after dinner. This parade of odd, not-quite-cool, but strangely gripping programs defined my early winter evenings for a few crucial years. A reading show with talking shoes, followed by Doctor Who (the old, crusty, un-hip version.) Then an epic French puppet series about a singing bear with a magic whistle stuck in his throat, travelling the world in pursuit of a kidnapped rat. And, finally, Once Upon A Time... Man.

OUATM follows a group of humans throughout human history, the same characters in more-or-less similar roles in different time periods, from the paleolithic through to the mid-twentieth century. I only dimly remember the show itself, but the opening credit sequence, Bach and all, has been lodged in my mind ever since.

Cold space condenses into the solar system. A fish in a stream becomes an amphibian, which crawls out of the water and becomes a lizard. The lizard becomes a monkey, then an ape, who picks up a spear and becomes an australopithecine. Ape-man to cave-man to Neolithic Man; Babylon to Egypt to Greece to Rome, the medieval to the Renaissance to the industrial to the modern; stagecoach to steam train to automobile to jet plane to, finally, a rocket ship, launched into the same starry sky from which it all emerged.

I am enthralled; the doors to my eight-year-old mind have just been pried open to an epic of geologic time, from the beginning of it all to the boundless future, brought to you by friendly and relatable cartoon characters.

But, wait. There's one more bit, tacked on to the end.

A man's face, terrified. Pull out. He is running towards a rocket ship, waiting on its launch pad. A dozen more follow, running for their lives. They board the rocket and blast off into space, moments before.... Earth explodes!

Cut to tonight's episode, which is about, I dunno, Egyptians or whatever. The eight-year-old, who has been given every reason to treat this entire sequence as factual, isn't exactly paying attention at this point. Hey, whoa, back up--what was that last part?