Sunday, March 29, 2009

All Those Years Ago

The year was 1991. Or maybe 1990. One of our new fan clubs, the United Whovians of Tucson, had done a panel at TusCon, and afterward someone came up to me with a tractor feed printout of messages about Doctor Who. They were off a Usenet newsgroup. I got friends to explain about the Internet, but at the time it didn't seem all that easy for a non-techie to cope with. Months laters a Leaper (Quantum Leap fan) mentioned a "neat service" called Prodigy in a letter to me, sort of like CompuServe only cheaper. John got me the Prodigy software for Christmas. Somewhere in there, a Whovian named Tom ran a local bbs (online bulletin board service) for our club, where we could chat online with each other - but only if Tom had the server up and running at the time.

But Prodigy was national, maybe international. It belonged to Sears, believe it or not. My new modem connected to it over the phone every night at a blistering 2400 baud, and showed short messages on a monochrome screen. There was no long term storage, and posts would drop off the service in 3 to 8 days or so, depending on how busy that particular message board was. The original software had no copy or paste functions and no uploading or downloading. Obviously there were no photos, just text. Eventually a third party app came along for my Mac SE that enabled me to finally save messages or paste in canned text, such as info on our other club, Project Quantum Leap, and my FAQ, Common Questions About Quantum Leap. Email cost 25 cents per message, and did not initially go beyond the confines of Prodigy itself.

Oddly enough, I don't remember following Doctor Who on the P* boards. My main interests there were QL (which appeared just above the "RUSH" section of the TV-radio boards; it took me a while to learn that Rush was a person's first name, and about half an hour after that to learn that I opposed everything he stood for) and HG, or H2G2, or, to give it its full name, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

HG was the really fun area on Prodigy in those days. The service did not allow screen names, aliases or handles, but the HG "froods" merrily adopted handles in the texts of their postings, becoming characters, creatures and even objects from the Hitchhiker's book, radio show, tv series, LPs, audio tapes and printed bath towel. Sara G. was the Cricket Ball, Jim R. was the Voice of the Book, Sarah K. was Lord the Cat, Lesley H. was the Dolphins, and so on. We also had an Arthur and a Zaphod, of course. As for me, I bucked the trend and did my best to change my handle with every single posting, based on the concept that I, like the Universe in Douglas Adams' books, was bizarrely inexplicable. Or something. Going off-topic was against the rules, but such was the zany nature of the HG board that we sometimes made a point of being as off-topic as possible, in the funniest possible way.

I also entrusted my Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book, already signed by one of the HG actors, to one of the froods so he could get Douglas Adams to sign it for me at a public appearance. I never got the book back, and I no longer remember who the irresponsible frood was who failed to return it.

Twenty years ago, we were interviewing actors like John Levene in L.A.

It was all a very long time ago. A year later, Prodigy raised its rates without improving its service much, and everyone started migrating to the new killer app, America Online. In my offline life, I was editing fanzines for both the Doctor Who and Quantum Leap clubs, and making a few trips to Los Angeles each year for conventions, interviews with actors and writers, and to buy scripts and photos. I met some of the online people, including Julie B., at an early Quantum Leap screening for fans, and subsequently at three conventions held in metro L.A. But Quantum Leap was canceled in 1993. I eventually passed on the editing of The Observer to Sharon Major, and of TARDIS Time Lore to several successors before the Doctor Who club folded in 2000, five years before the show returned to television.

It's been months since I've watched a Quantum Leap episode, although I have the complete run on both DVD and videotape. A Doctor Who DVD, on the other hand, is currently on pause in the next room. The first actor I ever interviewed that played the Doctor, Jon Pertwee, has been dead for a while now. I probably haven't seen Julie B. in person in over a decade, although we're in frequent touch online. And of course, the landscape of the Internet itself is utterly different now, except in some of its essential purposes: communication, to the world and peer to peer.

The reason I'm waxing all nostalgic and wistful tonight about the days of Prodigy and those early cons is that two things happened today that brought home how long ago it was, this wonderful, technologically backward, utterly irreproducible era of my life.

First, I got a friend request today on Facebook from Lesley H. It took me about 30 seconds to place the name. Seventeen years ago, she was a teenager on the HG boards, better known as the Dolphins. Plural. Now she's a lawyer. She was as weirded out about me calling her Dolphins as I was that she's a lawyer.

Twenty years ago this weekend,
I turned on the tv and saw this scene.

Second, I got email tonight from Julie, conveying greetings from an actor I interviewed repeatedly for The Observer. Richard Herd is one of those working actors that you see everywhere but may not know by name. He was Captain Galaxy and Ziggy the Miner on Quantum Leap, George's boss on Seinfeld, an Admiral and a Klingon on various series of Star Trek, and so on. I like him a lot. Richard and I exchanged greetings tonight through the kind auspices of Julie, who is at the first Quantum Leap convention in a decade or so. It's the 20th anniversary convention, in fact. Twenty years ago this weekend, the show premiered on NBC, and took over a good chunk of my life for several years.

I didn't even remember about the anniversary, or that the convention was this weekend, until Julie emailed me tonight. Now I wish desperately I was there, seeing those fans and friends again, the actors, writers and directors I interviewed nearly 20 years ago, and the wonderful land of Hollywood where the con is taking place. But I can't. Just can't. Having been unemployed all this time, I'd be selfish and mad to spend money on that now. But I want it, at least as badly as I wanted to go to Gallifrey One last month and meet one of the producers of the revived version of Doctor Who.

Ah, well. At least I have a color screen to type this on, and copy and paste, and this posting won't age off some not-quite-internet sometime next week. And an email to Julie won't cost me 25 cents. I guess it will have to do.



Astaryth said...

OMG! Prodigy! I remember discovering Prodigy... then AOL... then some service that let me have access to the WWW before Podigy and AOL were allowing it. For a while I had Net24 (I think it was--unlimited internet for $24 a month LOL!) for the WWW, Prodigy for the BBs (mainly a tarot and a Pern one), and AOL for chats and stuff.

I remember having some program (I had some form of Windows) that put the BBs on Prodigy into threaded lists in oldest to newest. AND you could download/upload from it. If I remember right I was paying a per hour fee for Podigy at that time?

good memories of my first dips into cyberspace. In fact, my nickname I use -everywhere- now came from the Pern BB board on Prodigy. Astaryth was the name of my first dragon!

Penny said...

My gosh! I remember Prodigy, but was living in Mexico at the time, so no internet (did we call it that back then?) for me. I'm sure John (Scalzi, my kid) had it. My first venture to email and the like was in 1994 I think and cost a flat fee plus a per-minute rate. It was something like $1 an hour to connect plus a minute rate to the city. I like it much better now. Just started watching Dr Who about 2 years ago. Can't get enough. Quantum Leap was not available where I was, but I watched it hungrily when I visited the U.S. Thanks for the trip down memory lane . . . Penny

Anonymous said...

I also have to thank you for the trip down memory lane! 25 cents to send an e-mail, can you imagine?

And thank you for reminding me just how much fun we really did have on those HG boards. And here we are, still in touch, half my lifetime later! Life is wonderful in such ways.


DesLily said...

I am vague on Prodigy but you sure sparked old convention memories!! It's sad when a happy time in your life is over or fades you wonder if it ever was there... and then you remember something and smile and wish you were there once again.