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Old July 10th, 2013, 03:00 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is offline
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Triumph and Tragedy (1980-81)

“Punch my time card, boss! We’re going on a looong skiing trip in the Middle East this weekend!”

Robin Williams, upon leaving the set of The Richard Pryor Show, on the evening of December 5, 1980

1980 was an extraordinarily eventful year – so much so, it was indeed most fortunate that it had 366 days instead of the usual 365. [1] As was the case with each successive quadrennial, it marked the US Presidential election, along with the games of both the Summer and the Winter Olympiads. The regular season programming often had to yield to these “special” concerns, which displeased those were neither into sports, nor politics. Others, no doubt, were ecstatic. CBS, which had been the last-place network for a number of years by this point, was definitely part of the latter group. Because the network had been struggling to stay afloat for so long, heads were rolling, and those fronting the new regime in place at the network were in agreement only that they needed a steady infusion of cash to be able to compete with ABC and NBC going forward. Fortunately, they had a valuable asset which could be traded for such an infusion. In fact, CBS had something that Lucille Ball, the proprietor of Desilu Productions, had coveted for a very long time – and, indeed, had never really wanted to give up in the first place. But her then-husband, Desi Arnaz, had wanted to build an empire, and being able to afford to purchase the remains of RKO back in 1957, they needed the seed money which could only be raised by selling what was, at the time, by far their most valuable assets: the syndication rights to I Love Lucy. [2] They had thus been the property of CBS ever since. And though her dream vision from Carole Lombard had given her inspiration to remain in charge of Desilu, and she had genuinely learned to love running the place in the years since she had very nearly sold it to Gulf+Western, Ball needed her own personal stake, a driving ambition. She found it in resolving bring Lucy back home, sooner or later. At last, she saw a golden opportunity, which she promptly seized.

Ball decided to invite Arnaz to purchase the rights to I Love Lucy back with her – for it had always been their show, not just hers – but Arnaz reckoned that, had Desilu managed to retain the rights to I Love Lucy, she would have owned 100% of the show once she had bought out his share of the studio in 1962 – not to mention that, ultimately, his rights would devolve onto their children together, just as Desilu itself would, and that splitting the ownership of the show would only be delaying the inevitable anyway. Certainly, for tax purposes, having Desilu own 100% of the rights to I Love Lucy would also keep Arnaz from having to pay exorbitant income taxes on his share of the syndication revenues – and the same would hold true, after a fashion, for their children as well. [3] What clinched the decision by Ball to have Desilu buy the rights in their entirety was Arnaz gently reminding his ex-wife that their son, Desi, could well find himself divorced from his own wife, Patty Duke. [4] Ball had never cared for her daughter-in-law, and the thought of her directly owning one-eighth of their show – that was enough for her to waive any further objections on the matter. Later, she would reflect that her silver-tongued and fiendishly clever ex-husband still always knew what to say and how to say it. Oddly enough, it was under the auspices of Arnaz that all of the other Desilu shows made in the 1950s had been sold to CBS (in 1960); as a result, the network made several counter-offers to Desilu which constituted “package deals”, asking for a few million more in exchange for some nearly-forgotten one-time stablemate to I Love Lucy. [5] None of these shows, however, had shared its singular staying power, and Ball was happy to let CBS keep them.

CBS agreed to sell the syndication rights to I Love Lucy back to Desilu for a generous sum, which was to be paid in instalments over several years (or rather, seasons), and for transferring the right-of-first-refusal agreement back from ABC once that particular deal expired. [6] Fred Silverman was rather vocally displeased at this, but neither Herbert F. Solow nor Brandon Tartikoff were particularly fond of the head of programming at the Alphabet Network, whose tremendous success (including, once upon a time, at CBS itself) had clearly gone to his head (“You’d think he’d been the lead on Star Trek,” as Solow had quipped). As another condition of the deal with CBS, Ball was obliged to produce and headline a 30th Anniversary Special for I Love Lucy – the silver anniversary special in 1976 had gone over so well, and the network was desperate enough for ratings that they hoped very much for lightning to strike twice. It would air on October 15, 1981 (a Thursday) – effective on that very same day, at 11:00 PM Pacific (the end of primetime in the United States), the rights to the show would revert back to Desilu Productions, ending nearly a quarter-century sojourn away from the welcoming bosom of the studio which had produced it. Having buried the hatchet with her ex-husband, Ball invited Desi Arnaz to participate in the special, just as in 1976 – with Vivian Vance passing away in 1979, they were the two survivors from the core quartet. Supporting cast members were also invited; it was decided to give their recollections (and those of the surviving producers and crew) greater prominence than had been the case for the previous special. (A memorial segment for Vance was also planned.) Ball was delighted that her show would be coming back to her studio, crowing that her triumph had made her feel thirty years younger; she decided to give all her staff, at all her facilities, the following day (Friday, October 16th) off work, so that she could throw a lavish celebratory party to which everyone who had ever worked at Desilu – past and present – would be invited.

But as far as present-day offerings by the studio were concerned, Deep Space became the third Gene Roddenberry series (in four attempts – even he tended to downplay his underwhelming early-1970s flop Re-Genesis [7]) to reach the Top 30, doing so (like The Questor Tapes) in its inaugural season. The generic title belied the very strong Western-style themes in the program, even more obvious than those of Star Trek. It served as a tenuous connection to the “House that Paladin Built” era at Desilu even as old warhorses such as Rock Around the Clock and Three’s Company continued to keep the locomotive running at the studio. Although Deep Space shared a setting with Star Trek, it was in essence a very different program – the Systems Commonwealth which governed the “core sectors” of the galaxy (those nearest to Earth, naturally) did not exercise even nominal control of the far-flung region in which Eagle’s Nest Station (properly Commonwealth Outpost Iota) was based, explicitly describing it as spatius nullius – no-man’s space – in an early episode. For this reason, Eagle’s Nest was established primarily for trade and commerce purposes; Commander William Boone, the Commonwealth Space Forces officer who was in charge of the station, functioned more as a Marshal in a town on the Wild West than as the leader of a naval base. [8] Most action on the station was set in the Market Quarter, particularly at the main watering-hole there, run by a quirky alien who was actually called Quirk (“you hum-mins couldn’t pronounce my real name”, was a common catchphrase of his). Quirk was portrayed by a puppet (operated by Frank Oz, using a combination of his voices for Bert and Grover, both from Sesame Street), and despite this functioned very much as an unwitting straight-man to the many alien traders (akin to Harry Mudd or Cyrano Jones from Star Trek) who found themselves hocking their wares at the station. [9] Many of the natives who lived on the Planet which the station orbited were common Western types, right down to the mature woman who owned the watering hole, and enjoyed sexual tension with Commander Boone. Hilariously, she quite resembled a female Spock (dark hair, green-ish hue to her skin, with pointed elfin ears), as did other natives of Planet. However, personality-wise, she and her kind were much closer to Scotty: boisterous and unpretentious. Deep Space frequently ventured down to Planet for various reasons, as Kirk’s Rock made for a singularly convenient shooting location; when towns were needed, the Desilu Forty Acres backlot in Culver City (whose Western fašades had stood for decades) was used instead. It was an excellent way to make productive use of that very expensive property.

The Richard Pryor Show had entered its fourth season with no expectation that it would be coming down from the tremendous highs (in more ways than one) that it had enjoyed in the waning years of the 1970s. However, it was an established fact that megahit variety shows tended to lose their lustre after a mere couple of seasons at the top; so it had been with Laugh-In, and so it was with Flip Wilson, both of which had also aired on NBC. Pryor was the first to outlast the exception that proved this rule – The Carol Burnett Show on CBS – but now it had competition from programming which was attracting even more buzz: Texas. The “Who Shot T.R.?” cliffhanger was the hot topic of the 1980 summer hiatus. Even Pryor was forced to acknowledge this through the series of “Who Shot Robin” sketches that featured in the season opener. All of these “starred” the show’s breakout performer, Robin Williams, as his own corpse, slumped over in a chair and – for the one and only time in the history of the series – totally silent. Pryor played the police detective who was investigating his murder, making inquiries of the long-suffering supporting players so as to determine their motives. And sure enough, in each sketch, one-by-one, every member of the Pryor repertory delivered impassioned, lengthy monologues about the many times that Williams had upstaged them, or stepped on one of their punchlines with one (more often several) of his own, or completely ruined the flow of a scene by interjecting with his stream-of-consciousness ramblings… the complaints were myriad, and seemingly endless. This episode quickly became the most infamous in the show’s history; it was plainly obvious that the rantings of the various “suspects” were firmly grounded in truth. Naturally, it was eventually revealed that everyone in the supporting cast was the culprit, each using a different murder weapon (in a reference to the popular board game, Clue). This “shocking revelation”, with Pryor playing detective and exposing each of the culprits in turn, stood in for his usual closing monologue; as he bid his audience good night, Williams attempted to rouse from his “death” and launch into his usual manic persona, but the rest of the cast physically restrained him from doing so.

The “Who Shot Robin” sketch would take on a whole, much darker meaning after filming on The Richard Pryor Show had ended for the Christmas hiatus on December 5, 1980 (a Friday). In celebration of another job well done, Pryor and Williams headed to their favourite haunt, the Medina nightclub in Century City, to pursue a weekend-long bender in the private backrooms. Two would enter the glittering, Arabian Nights-style fašade that night, but only one would leave. Robin Williams died of a cocaine overdose early in the morning of December 8, 1980; the funeral was held shortly before Christmas, with a visibly shaken Pryor delivering the eulogy. [10] The first episode back of The Richard Pryor Show (in January of 1981, after the holidays had ended) was a clip show, in which Pryor would introduce the various best-of sketches which starred Williams. The show continued through to the end of the season rather in the manner of a chicken whose head had been cut off. For the first time, the supporting players were asked to carry sketches; Pryor, who had been devastated by the death of his friend and fellow binger, drastically reduced his active involvement in the program. The bravura ratings for the Robin Williams tribute show (the second-highest rated telecast of the 1980-81 season) were barely enough to keep Pryor in the Top 10 for the season; NBC renewed it for a fifth, which would be the last in which Pryor himself was contractually bound to appear, and demanded that a replacement for Williams be found for September.

It was no surprise that commentators would regard 1980 as the year that the variety genre had “died” once and for all, both figuratively with the Carlin disaster in March, and then literally with Robin Williams in December. The Muppet Show continued into 1981, but it had already been planned to end at the conclusion of that season, and these harbingers of death only served to reinforce creator, producer, and star Jim Henson’s decision. Lucille Ball herself was the final guest star of The Muppet Show, appearing in the series finale. Throughout the duration of the program, “Miss Ball” had often been referred to (though usually not by name) as the “boss lady” or owner of the Muppet Playhouse (named in reference to the famous “Desilu Playhouse” at which I Love Lucy was originally filmed). The conceit of the episode involved Ball being furious that she had never been invited to perform as a guest of The Muppet Show, which allowed the Muppets to send up her original assessment of the kind of show that Henson had pitched to her studio, all those years ago. “But Miss Ball,” Kermit the Frog had protested, “We’d heard you were a perfectionist, and didn’t want anything to do with crazy madcap unrehearsed variety shenanigans.” It also allowed for Ball to send up both her own modern image as a hypercompetent professional, and the classic image of her old “Lucy” character, simultaneously. The episode, naturally, ended with the Muppet Playhouse in a wreck, and Ball livid to the point of incomprehensible babbling. Kermit, meanwhile, pledged to take his show on the road, instead. It was the third-highest-rated telecast of the 1980-81 season, surprising even Henson and Ball with its success.

The highest-rated telecast of the season, naturally, was the resolution to cliffhanger which posed the famous question: “Who Shot T.R.?”. In addition, had the bullet killed him? Audiences had to wait to find out for much longer than anticipated; the 1980 SAG strike delayed the start of the season, as did salary negotiations with series star Larry Hagman, who played the T.R. so named in the famous question. During that time, reruns scored terrific ratings, and older episodes had time to air overseas, which turned Texas into a worldwide sensation. By the time the question was met with an answer in October, the whole world was watching. As it turned out, the shooter did not kill T.R. Walsh, though the show’s producers strongly considered making the assassination attempt succeed when Hagman held out for a massive raise – which he deemed commensurate with his newfound appeal. The man who pulled the trigger was revealed to have been Rusty Bartlett, the paramour of T.R.’s own wife, Sue Ellen, in a fit of jealousy (earlier in the previous season, he had staged his disappearance to throw the scent off his trail). [11] Bartlett, upon finally being fingered as the verdict, was promptly arrested and sent to jail on the charge of attempted murder; however, the long-suffering Sue Ellen, moved by her adulterer’s would-be act of “heroism”, filed for divorce from her husband, demanding half his fortune in what would emerge as a long and convoluted trial – the writers openly admitted to having been inspired by the proceedings of the “Trial of the Century”, though with the obvious twist that the couple at the centre of this trial, rather than presenting a united front, were in fact creating the drama by becoming schismatic. [12] This was revealed in the episode “
Who Shot T.R.?”, which received spectacular ratings – however, they fell just short of the threshold attained by Roots and then Star Trek: The Next Voyage in the late-1970s. [13] Still, the message was clear: variety had experienced its last hurrah as a genre, and the primetime soap opera made its first, triumphant thrust into the heart of popular culture. Imitators quickly entered development, often on the backs of proven hitmakers such as Aaron Spelling, producer of The Alley Cats.

What remained of variety programming as a genre was forced to evolve with the times, and oddly one of the pioneers in this field hailed from Canada, a country known for being several years behind the United States when it came to cultural trends (most infamously with the cheaply-made Trouble with Tracy sitcom in the early 1970s, which was in turn based on quarter-century-old radio scripts). However, in this case, there was a cross-border connection which may have served to invigorate the mostly-Canadian cast and crew, through Second City. In fact, the show took its name from this connection: Second City Television, or SCTV. This variety show had the conceit of depicting the daily, locally-produced programming schedule of a small-town television station (the titular SCTV) in “Melonville”, in the time-honoured lets-put-on-a-show tradition.

SCTV began its run on the small Canadian network, Global (ironically, based only in Ontario at the time). The cast consisted mostly of Canadian Second City veterans (mined from either Toronto or as far afield as the Chicago branch). Headlining the SCTV cast was Dan Aykroyd, a gifted character actor and impressionist, who bought the house down with his Hubert Humphrey and, later, his Ronald Reagan (despite being filmed in Canada by a mostly Canadian cast and crew, Melonville was seen as an Anytown, U.S.A.). However, Aykroyd’s prominence was not nearly as overwhelming as that of Williams on Pryor. The cast (all of whom were also writers) were egalitarian in their assignment of roles – many of them played important “townspeople” in Melonville, and all did impressions of celebrities or characters on other television series. The other cast members included John Candy, Jim Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Gilda Radner (the only American in the cast, though a veteran of Second City Toronto). [14] Initially just half-an-hour long, it became an hour-long show in its third season of 1979-80. [15] The reason for this was clear: SCTV had become a smash in Canada – and, surprisingly, a cult hit in the United States. The content was more sophisticated than most sketch comedy on American television, but simultaneously very “clean” – sex, violence, and profanity were virtually nonexistent. In the 1970s style (which had extended to the stage as well as to the small screen), emphasis was placed firmly on mining the humour from the characters and their situations. It became to American audiences in the later part of the decade what Monty Python’s Flying Circus had been in the earlier part (and several Pythons gave SCTV their ringing endorsement – including Eric Idle, who even appeared in an episode), though PBS did not air it. SCTV was destined for a larger audience…

1980 marked not only the quadrennial for politics and sports, but also the quinquennial contract negotiations with Johnny Carson – who wanted to work for one hour instead of ninety minutes. The problem was that NBC was doing rather better than they had been in 1975, and so was the competition – ABC was doing well enough that their lackluster late-night lineup could be conveniently ignored, and Merv Griffin was one of the very few bright spots for CBS in this era. NBC agreed to raise Carson’s salary, and end the “Best of Carson” broadcasts of Saturday night, along with additional days off (Carson wanted 30% of his schedule off work; the network insisted on 25%). The problem then became how to fill that Saturday 11:30 slot? Dick Ebersol, an NBC programming executive, suggested creating a new show, but higher-ups preferred the cheaper alternative of buying an existing one. SCTV was popular with “hip” audiences, and PBS continued to do well on Monty Python reruns (not to mention those of The Final Frontier – like SCTV, a Canadian-made series). The show would begin airing on the Peacock Network in a 90-minute format starting in the 1981-82 season – its fifth overall. [16]

CBS, meanwhile, still did not see any improvements – in fact, as proof that they had hit a nadir, one of their last dependable hits, Rhoda, had fallen out of the Top 30 during this season, and was cancelled at the end of it. This was largely because of Valerie Harper, the show’s star, having made a woefully ill-timed demand for a bump in salary herself; the highest-paid person, let alone woman, on television until Larry Hagman had stolen her thunder. Tentative discussions about a Rhoda spinoff ultimately went nowhere, with network executives sensing that the planned Brenda series (about Rhoda’s younger sister, a single thirty-something living in 1980s New York) would be nothing more than a Mary Tyler Moore warmed over. More to the point was who would be producing the show, and in fact who produced Rhoda: Paramount Television. All three networks were extremely wary about ordering more shows from a studio which stood a more than reasonable chance of entering into bankruptcy. For once, television was bucking the trend by proving remarkably stable amidst the great upheaval within the entertainment industry, and far beyond it. This stability would not last, but it was curiously refreshing.

Texas had emerged as the #1 show on the air, in another major boon for ABC; despite reclaiming the top spot, however, their overall position declined from the previous season, with “only” seven slots in the Top 10, and sixteen – a bare majority – in the Top 30 overall. NBC, for their part, had improved their position considerably, scoring two Top 10 hits and eleven – more than their fair share – in the Top 30. CBS, meanwhile, maintained a mere three shows in the Top 30, their lowest-ever proportion; fortunately for the individuals at that network, the eventfulness of 1980 ensured the continued success of 60 Minutes, which remained firmly ensconced in the Top 10. [17]

Though the federal court system, and audiences in general, seemed to be deserting Paramount, that studio continued to enjoy empathy – or perhaps pity – from within the industry, allowing Taxi Drivers to win the Outstanding Comedy Series award. However, John Ritter on Three’s Company won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, his first-ever win in any category, even though his show was an established hit. As the enthusiasm over the Jessica/Benson romance on Soap had ebbed (and the storyline itself had ended when Jessica was possessed by the spirit of a vengeful ghost whose burial ground was disturbed), neither Katharine Helmond nor Robert Guillaume repeated in their respective categories; Cathryn Damon, also of Soap, and Howard Hesseman of WMTM in Cincinnati, another overlooked, underloved Paramount Television mainstay, won instead (though Helmond and Guillaume didn’t seem too disappointed). [18] The Muppet Show surprisingly edged out The Richard Pryor Show for the Outstanding Variety Series Emmy, with Lucille Ball winning her fifth Emmy as a performer (in the category Outstanding Performance in a Variety Series or Special); Robin Williams received a posthumous special award, accepted by his close friend Richard Pryor, in addition to his leading the In Memoriam segment. Without a doubt, it was a time for reflection…

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[1] Of course, that extra day – February 29, 1980 (a Friday) – was the single most eventful day of them all.

[2] The rights to I Love Lucy were sold by Desilu to CBS for $4 million in 1957 dollars – which is $12.5 million in 1981 dollars, and $33.3 million today. Desilu then purchased RKO from General Tire that same year for $6 million ($18.75 million in 1981, and $50 million today) – yes, even back then, the rights to I Love Lucy were worth two-thirds of one of the Big Five Golden Age movie studios (which, granted, had been through the ringer thanks to Howard Hughes – basically the Kirk Kerkorian of his day – but still).

[3] Corporations are taxed directly on income generated by their assets prior to the payment of dividends (which is why they are drawn from retained earnings, also called earnings after taxes). Depending on the jurisdiction, income from dividends (classified as property income, as it is derived from the ownership of stocks, or shares in a corporation) is taxed differently (usually at a lower rate, or with a partial credit applied against it, as the income has already been taxed) than direct property income.

[4] Duke was already twice-divorced when she married Desi Arnaz ITTL; she would also divorce her OTL third husband, John Astin, in 1985, before remarrying (for good, at least as of this writing). The first marriage of Desi Arnaz, Jr., IOTL (to Linda Purl, of all people) also ended in divorce, before he too remarried (which has also lasted to this day).

[5] The terms of the second deal were that all shows which premiered in the 1950s and had ended their run by 1960. This meant that shows which were currently running at the time (such as The Untouchables, which had premiered in 1959) would remain the property of Desilu Productions. However, the direct follow-up to I Love Lucy, which became known as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and ran from 1957 to 1960, was sold to CBS under these terms; That Wacky Redhead is indeed buying these monthly specials (13 in all) back, on top of the 180 aired episodes of I Love Lucy. The potential future inflows from these episodes are much lower, but That Wacky Redhead is a completionist.

[6] As noted, adjusting for inflation, the original $4 million purchase price would be worth $12.5 million in 1981; That Wacky Redhead offers CBS considerably more than that (even in terms of present value on the instalment payments) for the rights back – about enough to fund an entire half-hour program singlehandedly – in what is known internally at Desilu as the “Make Your Own Lucy” stipend. Under normal circumstances, the eight-figure sum offered by Desilu to CBS would be extraordinary – were it not dwarfed by the nine-figure bond which Paramount was obliged to pay Lucasfilm (as part of the ten-figure Billion-Dollar Verdict). This helps to keep the deal relatively low-profile.

[7] If you recall, Re-Genesis ran from 1972 to 1974 ITTL, though that beats OTL, in which Genesis II (as it was known) never got beyond the pilot movie stage.

[8] The name “William Boone” was used IOTL in the Earth: Final Conflict series, conceived by Roddenberry (and developed by his widow, from his notes)

[9] In terms of appearance, imagine Quirk resembling a character from an OTL Star Trek series with a very similar name, only in Muppet form.

[10] Williams obviously remains with us to this very day IOTL; instead, John Lennon died on this date. ITTL, on the other hand, he did not.

[11] The character of Bartlett is based on the OTL character of Dusty Farlow, who filled the same role on Dallas, but did not shoot J.R. (that was his mistress, Kristin).

[12] The divorce storyline happened later on IOTL, under different circumstances.

[13] The episode which contains the reveal scores a 52.9 rating and a 74 share, slightly lower than the 53.3 rating and 76 share enjoyed by the equivalent OTL episode, “Who Done It?”, due to the wider variety of programming available to American audiences at this juncture ITTL (for reasons which will be explored in coming updates).

[14] Aykroyd and Radner, of course, were among the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players on Saturday Night Live, a show that does not exist ITTL. They are subbed in for Harold Ramis and Dave Thomas within the original cast, with the overall balance of SCTV compared to how it is IOTL obviously being a matter of personal taste.

[15] IOTL, at this time, the show did indeed go from half-an-hour to an hour-long… alongside other changes, such as filming moving from Toronto to Edmonton, and broadcasting from Global to CBC. Neither of these two latter changes happen ITTL, because SCTV is more successful earlier on, thus tying it more firmly to Global.

[16] Just as SCTV Network 90 began running on NBC in the same season – though only the fourth, not the fifth, overall IOTL.

[17] IOTL, ABC had ten shows in the Top 30, and two in the Top 10; NBC had six shows in the Top 30, and just one (Little House on the Prairie) in the Top 10; CBS had fourteen shows in the Top 30, seven of which were in the Top 10, including Dallas (as opposed to Texas, which airs on ABC ITTL).

[18] Yes, Taxi won for Outstanding Comedy Series IOTL, though Judd Hirsch (and not John Ritter) won for Outstanding Lead Actor. Outstanding Variety Series (or rather, Program) went to a one-time special (Lily: Sold Out, which starred Lily Tomlin), though The Muppet Show was nominated. Isabel Sanford won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for The Jeffersons, and Danny DeVito won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Taxi.

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Yes, Robin Williams unfortunately could not overcome his cocaine addiction ITTL, and he paid the ultimate price. I commend Williams for managing to overcome his demons IOTL (which he did partly by learning from the example set by his close friend, John Belushi, who died young due to drug abuse), and attempt to impart no particular message in marking him for an early death beyond noting his high-risk behaviours, and recognizing that this period, IOTL, was lousing with celebrity deaths (and near-misses).

After all, and as I have said many times now, I never said I was writing a utopia!
__________________
The Turtledove Award-Winning That Wacky Redhead: Big Dreams Have Big Consequences!

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Last edited by Brainbin; July 12th, 2013 at 08:05 PM..
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