Reading Rainbow “Behind the Scenes of Star Trek: TNG” (part 1 of 3)
In my endless search for obscure film and video of particular (and peculiar) interest to regular site visitors, I came upon this little gem: An episode of the PBS series Reading Rainbow from 1988, where host LeVar Burton takes his viewers (from what I can recall, mostly retarded schoolchildren) behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. No-brainer, right? Star Trek + Kitschy ’80s = Agony Booth Gold. Texas T. Am I right?
Funny thing, though. This peek behind the scenes of TNG isn’t terribly insightful or exciting. In fact, it looks like the Reading Rainbow crew simply threw darts at a calendar, then went down to the set and filmed whatever happened to be going on that day. So, obviously, we’re not going to find out how they did the saucer separation trick, or how they made that guy’s head explode in “Conspiracy”, or anything else cool that happened in the first season of TNG.
But in some way (some very slight, miniscule way), that makes this peek into the inner workings of TNG more interesting. Since they were limited to showing the making of a very short (and very unremarkable) scene, most likely we’re seeing what life was like 95% of the time for the TNG cast and crew. I would guess that the vast majority of the time, working on Star Trek: The Next Generation was just like any other job. Sure, a job with nice perks and some great and weird stories to tell at parties, but as this episode shows, some days were probably more punch in, punch out than others.
So yeah, in some small way, this look at TNG is interesting, but in a much larger way, it’s not interesting at all. There’s a glimmer of fun here and there, but I really wish the Reading Rainbow producers had tried a little harder when it came to scheduling and planning this thing. However, just so you don’t immediately go surfing off to some other site, I should point out that there are a few things here worth reading about. Just not that many.
I’m sure most visitors to this site have fond childhood memories of Reading Rainbow. Especially its unbelievably cheesy theme song: Butterfly in the skyyyy… I can fly twice as hiiiigh… Take a look! It’s in a book! A reading rainboowwwww! Personally, I know several people who are quite proud of knowing the entire theme song by heart.
The series began airing on PBS in 1983, and stayed on the air all the way up until… 2005? Yep, they’ve been making new episodes all this time. Who knew? Frankly, the concepts of “Reading Rainbow” and “2005” just do not compute for me.
I would say the show is still airing to this day, but sorry kids, it looks like the future of Reading Rainbow is in doubt. PBS has been in a pretty tough financial situation for a while now, and at the moment, nobody knows for sure if there’s enough funding for more new episodes of Reading Rainbow. Man, who knew all this stuff was going on at PBS?
I guess people finally got tired of spending fifty bucks for that stupid Roy Orbison tribute special every time there’s a membership drive. Seriously, have you seen this? My local PBS station airs it fifteen times a month, and it’s got appearances by Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello. Let me tell you, you have never seen this many famous musicians looking this bored. I mean, at one point Costello even resorts to playing piano with his elbows.
But I digress. Since its very first season, Reading Rainbow has been hosted by actor, director, writer and producer LeVar Burton. He’s most famous for playing Geordi LaForge, of course, but before that he’d already made a pretty good name for himself (and even snagged an Emmy nomination) for playing Kunta Kinte in Roots. In fact, when I first heard LeVar was cast on TNG, I was surprised they picked someone that well-known, and for a supporting role, no less. (Fun fact! The 1979 sequel to Roots was called Roots: The Next Generations. Coincidence? I think not. Not only that, but Ben Vereen, who played Kunta Kinte’s grandson in Roots: TNG, played Geordi LaForge’s dad on Star Trek: TNG. Although, I think that’s more evidence of there being only 35 successful black actors in show business than any grand conspiracy.)
Well, LeVar has taken that “supporting role” all the way to the bank, not only for seven seasons of TNG and four TNG feature films, but also by becoming one of Star Trek’s most prolific directors. All totaled, he’s directed 28 episodes of TNG, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. This includes some really great episodes, as well as some really shitty episodes, but that’s par for the course when you’re a Trek director. He even wrote his own sci-fi novel, Aftermath. On top of all that, he’s won a couple of Emmys (Daytime Emmys, but still). So all he has to do now is record an album with Ben Folds, and he’ll have precisely the same career as William Shatner.
Now, as much respect as LeVar deserves, I can’t help but sometimes be disturbed by his rather forced Reading Rainbow persona. Well, a lot of times, actually. As most of you know, every episode features a creepy, wide-eyed LeVar speaking as slowly as he possibly can. I mean, at the same time he was taping Reading Rainbow, he was delivering rapid-fire dialogue about plasma conduits and antimatter phase injectors, but whenever you see him on this show, suddenly he sounds like he’s on a highly potent cocktail of both stupid and happy pills.
This was probably the inspiration for an urban legend (or at least, something I heard in college) that the main reason LeVar was so excited by books on Reading Rainbow was because he was doing a lot of cocaine at the time. For the record, there’s absolutely no truth to that rumor, but if there were, that would make this PSA the peak of irony.
Amazingly, this particular episode of Reading Rainbow still airs regularly. If you’re looking for it, the title of it is “The Bionic Bunny Show”. All I had to do to get my own copy was to look at the schedule, see when it would be showing next, and set my VCR. It’s just that simple! You can do it too! And readin’ can be fun! It can take you places you never been! (By the way, do you think Mr. T was trying to bite off LeVar’s act in the “Mr. T’s Tale” segment of his Be Somebody video?)
Now, obviously, as a single guy in his thirties with no children (that I know of), I haven’t seen an episode of Reading Rainbow in about twenty years. So you can imagine my shock upon viewing the tape and discovering they had completely updated their cheesy opening credits. Gone is the rough-edged, hand-drawn animation (thankfully, still preserved several times over on YouTube) and in its place, a snazzy new intro that utilizes (gasp!) computer graphics.
Here, LeVar Burton, dressed sensibly in jeans and a button-up short sleeve shirt, stands on the set of Tom Petty’s video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. A star with a rainbow trail circles him (unfortunately making this look like one of NBC’s “More You Know” spots gone bad). The star magically deposits a big velvet-bound volume into LeVar’s hands. One wonders if this is the same book read in the opening scene of Hudson Hawk.
We fly inside the animated book for more animation, as the rainbow-shitting star travels through arched windows, letting books drop from the sky like US propaganda leaflets on Kabul. Little kids are green-screened into the animation, and they look on in wonder as tiny hot air balloons float up from the floor, and tiny violins ascend, and musical notes dance all around them. New from Fisher-Price, it’s My First Acid Trip!
Meanwhile, the cheapo keyboard tune has been completely replaced by, my gosh, a genuine band, striking a laid back, almost jazzy groove on the song. Reportedly, the theme is now being sung by legendary recording artist Chaka Khan. (I used the phrase “legendary recording artist Chaka Khan” because it makes me feel like Don Cornelius.) I can’t confirm it’s really Chaka, mainly because it sounds nothing like her, but it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. On a related note, I’m hoping some personal tragedy befalls Chaka Khan one day. Not because I bear her any ill will, but because I really want to be able to write her a letter that says, “I feel for you, feel for you, feel for you.”
Still in the crazy Lucasesque CGI green-screen environments here, a little girl looks through a telescope and sees LeVar. Oh no, she’s stalking him! She’s going to tie him up and force him to read to her all night long. He gives her a sweeping “come on, kids!” gesture, and the opening credits wind up with LeVar and his own personal set of “kids” gathered around a giant animated book. Man, I hope someday I, too, can have my own set of multiethnic “kids” that follow me around and obey my every whim. This is like the Cult of Personality: Grade School Edition. It’s like the Hitler Youth, only with more reading and less genocide.
Chaka Khan adds a little “Reading Rainbow, oooo-hoooo” freestyle on the end there. Hey now, don’t get creative, Chaka. That’s what books are for!
Fade to the actual episode, which surely didn’t have those ostentatious opening credits when it originally aired. It begins with a clip from a TNG episode, with the Enterprise D cruising through space, while we hear the opening fanfare of the theme song. Interestingly, they’re using a version of the theme without Patrick Stewart’s opening speech.
Cut to the bridge of the Enterprise, obviously shot on video, and in comes LeVar, wearing a stiff cotton work shirt and jeans. “Hiii-iii,” he says loudly, “Welllcome to the Starship Ent – Er – Prise!” See what I mean? Retarded schoolchildren. He tells all you people in TV land that you’ve probably seen him as Geordi LaForge, “the ship’s navigator!”
“But now,” he slowly says, “Let me show you something I’ll bet you haven’t seen before!” Deanna Troi doing something of vital importance? Riker keeping his crotch out of Wesley’s face? Picard in a thong?
In an admittedly cool moment, he squeezes between the two navigation consoles, and the camera follows him to the front of the bridge, where there’s nothing but a nondescript brick studio wall, and lights and ladders and all the assorted junk that ends up backstage on a TV show. “None of this,” he slowly declares, “ever appears in an episode of the show!” No kidding? Come on, LeVar. I’m sure even the retarded kids knew that much.
He says, however, that all this equipment makes TNG possible, just like every other show you see on TV: “What you see on screen just isn’t the whole story!” Especially if you’re watching The Apprentice, where two-hour boardroom sessions are mutilated down to thirty-second infomercials for incoherence. So sign up for the live feeds today!
This is LeVar’s transition to talking about the book featured on today’s episode, titled The Bionic Bunny Show. He holds it up, and the cover shows a cartoon rabbit on a cartoon TV screen, and LeVar explains the book is all about the behind the scenes stuff that goes into making “a TV show about an ordinary rabbit… who becomes a super hero!“
So, here comes the presentation of the book itself. For those who haven’t seen Reading Rainbow, in general these are done by showing illustrations from the book, while somebody reads the book in voiceover (almost always, the reader would be a celebrity, like Bill Cosby or Jason Robards or Matthew Broderick or Thomas Pynchon. Sorry, forget about that last one. I was thinking of Gravity’s Rainbow). As the narrator speaks, the illustrations are occasionally animated in a very crude and rudimentary fashion. Yes, even more rudimentary than the animated series, if you can believe that.
I won’t bore you with the details of The Bionic Bunny Show. But for those wondering, the celebrity guest narrator this time is Gene Klavan, a New York radio personality back in the ’60s and ’70s. His radio show had dozens of characters, almost all of whom were voiced by Klavan himself, with names like Trevor Traffic and Ms. Wes Chester. I guess in those pre-Stern days, that was pretty innovative stuff. (I’m also pretty sure Klavan was the inspiration for Joey Mack, Jimmy Fallon’s obnoxious radio deejay SNL sketch character, the one who did all the different voices of his “staff “.)
So, in this book, there’s kind of a show within a show going on. Cartoon animals work on a TV series about a costumed lapine crimefighter named the Bionic Bunny, who battles the forces of anthropomorphic evil. Why is it that in children’s books, all the animals of the forest happily work together? I mean, I’m pretty sure some members of the crew are a lot higher up on the food chain than others. Now, a book about TV crew members who go to work and routinely eat each other? That I would read.
But here, everyone gets along, and the announcer is a cat (I think), and the cameraman is a fox, and the animals playing criminals are rats—yes, actual rats. I bet you anything rats are like the Latino actors of this book’s reality, and all they get to play are crooks, drug dealers, and gang members. Naturally, when Klavan voices the rodent criminals, he gives them Brooklyn accents. It’s the same vocal stereotype heard on Mister T, but at least in this case Klavan is actually from New York. Speaking of which, the plot of this book is also far superior to most Mister T episodes.
Blah blah blah. The “show” continues. More wacky voices. It appears the phrase “cook their goose” means the same thing in a reality populated by intelligent, bipedal farm animals. That’s interesting. While the “show” is being filmed, various bloopers and foibles cause the director (who I think is a mole?) to repeatedly call cut.
And then the Bionic Bunny sets up—what else—a “rat trap”to catch the crooks. It appears his cunning plan is to inflate giant cat balloons. Don’t ask. Still, all of this ends up making way more sense than the criminal’s plans in “Mystery of the Golden Medallion”.
So, it’s a wrap, and then the rabbit “actor” takes off his Bionic Bunny costume and heads home. Man, this is all just way too meta for me. The rabbit actor has no actual muscles, and they’re all built in to the costume. So in that respect, he’s a lot like George Clooney. He goes home to his family, and he has trouble opening a jar. But then his baby son opens it. So, I guess that means he’s impotent. The end! Buh dah dah!
Something you might find interesting—though probably not—is that the Bionic Bunny was created by Marc Brown, who later went on to create the animated PBS series Arthur. As a result, the Bionic Bunny got retconned into the Arthur universe, and is now one of the TV shows watched by the Arthur characters. Again, this is all way too meta for a Reading Rainbow episode, so let’s just move on.