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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

How many lives before game over?

Published: March 10, 2006
Section: Arts, Etc.

How many near-death experiences can a man have in a lifetime? If youre a non-fictional person like you, then perhaps maybe 12.7 give or take 13. Though if youre like me, you can rack up something on the order of 47. One for the time you had to undergo minor oral surgery involving a mild coma-inducing opiate, another for the time you gave blood involving what certainly felt like a mild coma-inducing opiate given that both lapses into unconsciousness felt pretty much the same, and the other 45 for the time you were driving in a car with a transmission jerking like a bucking bronco with latent Parkinsons disease while a passing cement truck sprayed congealed cement sludge on your windshield and your power windows were broken.

47 near-death experiences may seem like a lot to absorb in one short lifetime, but thats nothing compared to the non-fictional person I saw on TV on a Delta Song flight on the Discovery Channel on a program called Untold Stories of the ER, which does nothing but tell stories about the ER, which makes sense. This man had a condition called Somethingreallyscientificsounding, which means that the nerve regulating his heartbeat was located too close to his esophagus. In normal people, when this nerve experiences a drastic drop in body temperature, as when you run around Siberia in nothing but your underwear and a pair of gloves, the heartbeat stops for the evolutionarily advantageous reason that you should just die already because its so cold.

In this man, however, since his nerve was too close to his esophagus, whenever he drinks a cup of cold water, his heart stops. Sure, it restarts after the area warms up again a few seconds later, but technically, he pretty much dies every day. On the show, the doctors were having a lot of fun with this patient, and he didnt seem to mind. After all, his heart had been stopping after every glass of cold water, so whats the big deal if he dies a few more times? Theyd give him a glass of cold water, hed take three sips, flatline, and the doctors would watch him in awe until, about 20 seconds later, his heart would restart and hed be fine.

Hey Jerry! You gotta see this! one doctor would call out to another on the show, assuming the other doctors name was Jerry.

Yeah, what is it? Jerry would ask.

OK, take a sip, the non-Jerry doctor would say to the patient. And this would go on until the whole room was full of doctors giddy with delight over this man who could, on demand, provide a real-life near-death experience for everyone in the room.

While watching this show, I suddenly came upon a very fundamental axiom of successful television programming. That is, in order for a show to be successful, it has to suck its audience in with a healthy dose of near-death experiences that it can keep going back to again and again and again. For Untold Stories of the ER, this feat wasnt so hard to orchestrate since the show is entirely true untold told stories, and they were in the ER, which by definition means that everything is a near-death experience. So all the producers of the show had to do was dramatize them and you have a great show.

For fictional shows, though, the going gets tougher. Its hard to make up a real, believable near-death experience that you can stick in every episode, let alone the several near-death experiences that you need to squish in that one hour of programming to keep the audience sweaty and excited enough to buy the body heat-activated deodorant the television-sponsoring companies in the commercials are trying to sell them.

This is when I realized how ingenious the Star Trek franchise really was. The producers of Star Trek and its sister shows Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: The Next Generation After That, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Please, Please Stop it Already, and Star Trek: For the Love of God I cant Take this Anymore Either Turn off the TV or Gouge out my Eyeballs, were so ingenious because they could believably fabricate any near-death experience they wanted while at the same time bypassing the usual requirement of explaining to the audience whats actually going on and why everyone on the crew is seriously about to die in five seconds.

The dialogues, as I remember them, went sort of like this:

DATA: Captain, the antimatter injectors seem to be in quantum flux due to the tachion theta radiation being emitted from the cloaked Klingon ship, which, if adjusted to a field modulation of .052 percent, could reverberate in the warp core and cause everyone in the crew to morph into superintelligent evil monkeys and then die in five seconds.


DATA: Aye, captain.

Nobody watching this show really had any idea WHY everyone was about to die, but the producers were smart enough to realize that the bulk of their audience was guys, a stock of human that likes to pretend that they understand everything about tachion theta radiation reverberating in a warp core at a modulation of .052 percent, even though they dont. As a result, they werent usually bothered by the fact that they couldnt tell you anything about the plot, and as long as they got their near-death experience, they were sweaty, excited, happy, and more than willing to buy truckloads of body heat-activated deodorant.

And after a good episode of Star Trek, who wouldnt be sweaty and excited? I think I need a nice refreshing drink of cold water.