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I don’t want to appear to be misjudging the situation, because I suspect that at least one friend of mine already believes that I am biased when it comes to the great opposition of our day – but I have to say that all the omens for Justice League do not lead me to be optimistic. Even a friend and colleague, who is one of the very, very few people I know who actually enjoyed Batman Vs Superman, declared ‘That looks awful’ when we saw the trailer for the new movie on our last cinema trip.

What comfort can one offer to DC at moments like this, except to say that the great wheel turns, even if it sometimes turns slowly. Back in the 70s and 80s it was DC who made successful movies and TV shows, while Marvel languished in the netherworld of trash TV, for the most part. (As recently as the mid-2000s, Marvel were still turning out the likes of the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher and the big-screen Man-Thing.) So you never know.

American trash TV from the 1980s is not normally in my wheelhouse, but I will make an exception for the 1988 TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns. This is partly because this movie is a curious addendum to the Kenneth Johnson-produced Hulk TV show, which is very much not trash TV and a classy piece of work, but also because of the curious way it prefigures exactly the sort of thing with which Marvel Studios have scored such a massive success over the last decade or so. (Kenneth Johnson was not invited back for the Hulk TV movies, towards which he has a rather dismissive attitude.)

To start off with The Incredible Hulk Returns works very hard not to disappoint fans of the original TV show, reusing elements of the original title sequence (although the lettering and so on is now a lurid gamma-green shade). Presumably this is because retained as the writer and director of this opus was Nicholas Corea, a prolific contributor to the series.

Anyway: years have passed since the end of the show. It has been two full years since Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) even turned into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, of course). Adopting a typically impenetrable false identity (currently David Banner is living under the name of David Bannion), our man is working as a technician at an LA-based research institute, where in return for using his scientific genius to build the ‘Gamma Transponder’, a potential source of cheap, clean energy (I really should pen a paper on the history of this trope in superhero movies), he is allowed unfettered access to the labs in the evening, no questions asked. The Gamma Transponder has a second function, of course, which is to dehulkify Banner and let him move in with his lovely and predictably understanding lady friend.

All is set, but Banner’s dehulkification is delayed by the appearance of a figure from Banner’s pre-irradiated days, an old acquaintance named Don Blake (Steve Levitt). Blake is a medical doctor and a somewhat hapless, disreputable figure, and he has a strange tale to tell (perhaps even one of a journey into mystery, but let’s not overdo it). As a life-long fan of all things Viking, Blake jumped at the chance to be expedition doctor on an archaeological trip into the wilds of Scandinavia (was Scandinavia really that wild, even in 1988?), where he discovered an ancient Viking tomb. As any archaeologist would, Blake relates, he broke into the tomb and found a pile of bones and a mysterious war-hammer. No sooner did he pick up the hammer than a mighty Norse warrior appeared out of thin air, calling himself the mighty Thor…

Yeah, we should probably just clarify what’s going on here. ‘Don Blake’ was Thor’s Clark Kent-ish alter ego in the early years of the comic, a doctor with a gammy leg who turned into Thor by bashing things with his magic walking stick (initially it seemed like Blake was a random guy whom fate gifted with the power of Thor, but… well, they retconned this quite a lot as time went by). But in this movie, Blake and Thor (played by Eric Kramer) are entirely separate individuals, though linked in some usefully vague manner. If anything, they kind of resemble Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt from DC’s Justice Society comics, in that Blake is kind of a useless wimp who is obliged to whistle up Thor whenever the plot kicks in.

As it does here. Blake is not happy about the burden of being saddled with this responsibility, given that Thor will only exert his powers in a good cause. ‘It’s the eighties, I don’t even know what a good cause is,’ complains Blake, probably the best line in the movie. Banner assumes Blake is delusional, and so to prove his tale Blake summons up Thor, the shock of which does not do Banner’s blood pressure any good. Thor assumes that Banner’s lab is a bar, for some reason, and starts trashing the place in search of a drink. Banner strenuously objects, the inevitable happens, and we’re all set for the first ever live-action Hulk-Thor barney in media history…

Well, manage your expectations, pilgrim: it was 1988, after all, and once Lou Ferrigno’s body-paint and Thor’s rubber Viking armour had been paid for, there was only a bit left for electrical sparkles on Thor’s hammer and a few broken windows. Even so, everyone throws themselves into the fight enthusiastically enough, and it has a definite goofy charm if you’re prepared to be charitable.

What it doesn’t have is any tonal similarity to the original TV show, and the rest of the movie continues the decline into thick-headed cops-and-robbers nonsense. Someone decides to steal the Gamma Transponder, hiring a tough-talking squash-playing Cajun mercenary (Tim Thomerson, a prolific actor with a dizzyingly diverse, if somewhat variable CV) to do so. Thomerson decides to kidnap Banner’s girlfriend and hold her to ransom in the hope this will get them to hand the thing over. Could it possibly be down to Thor and the Hulk to save the day…?

Apparently The Incredible Hulk Returns was a smash hit on its initial broadcast, which I suppose we can only attribute to the enduring popularity of the original TV show, and the fact that the general standard of genre TV shows at the time was subterraneanly low. Even so, there’s something a bit dispiriting about watching a generally classy act like The Incredible Hulk TV show get quite so comprehensively dumbed-down and sillied-up. Possibly the most depressing thing about the whole extravaganza is the fact that Jack Colvin is dragged back as McGee the reporter – he gets nothing much of significance to do, and rather than the nuanced and rather sympathetic character McGee had become by the end of the original run, here he is largely played for laughs.

Oh well. At least Bill Bixby, who produced the movie through his own company, is as reliable and warm a presence as ever, very recognisably the same character as in the TV show. Banner just can’t resist helping those around him, even Blake and Thor, who spend most of the movie squabbling like a stereotypical married couple. (While we’re touching on – presumably unintended – grace notes of homo-eroticism, there’s also a bizarre scene in which McGee interviews a towel-clad Thor, who’s passing himself off as Banner for somewhat contrived reasons.)

The thing about some of these Hulk TV movies is that they also functioned as back-door pilots for other potential series featuring famous Marvel properties. You can kind of envisage the Thor series that might have spun off from this, basically a version of Automan with more shouting and chain-mail. There’s a scene in which Blake decides to ask Thor important questions about the reason they’ve been manacled together, so to speak, and Thor insists he won’t talk until he has eaten, and drunk, and fought, and generally caroused like a man! So Blake takes him to a biker bar.

Really, though, Thor as he is presented here is a slightly ridiculous man-baby with zero grasp of subtlety, very poor impulse control, and a wholly ridiculous pile of absurdly blond hair atop his bonce. What kind of hero would he really make for the American people? At least they didn’t have Twitter in 1988.

Oh, this is a silly, silly, predictable film, but it’s often very funny (not usually on purpose, I should say), and the sheer enthusiasm of it, plus the positive elements inherited from the Hulk TV show, keep it watchable. You can see why Kenneth Johnson refuses to acknowledge its existence. But look at Marvel now! Try to stay hopeful, DC: sometimes all it takes is the passage of nearly thirty years, a complete change of creative personnel, and the injection of obscene amounts of money. So you never can tell.

 

 

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Well, now, here’s a slightly odd coincidence – just the other day I was writing about the film career of the Hungarian-British director Peter Sasdy, and (in a couple of quite separate venues) about horror films with the disjointed, compelling logic of a bad dream. And then last night I stuck on a random DVD, solely for pleasure, and it turned out to be a bad-dream horror story directed by Peter Sasdy. Either my subconscious mind is rather more on the ball than its conscious equivalent, or a cry of ‘Whoo, spooky!’ is justified.

The tale in question was an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a 1980 anthology series which was very nearly the final gasp of the original incarnation of the legendary British production company. I would never argue that this is either a great TV show or a real example of what makes real Hammer horror movies so special – the TV budget means that the episodes are all set in contemporary times, making it feel somewhat more like an Amicus production, while the desire to sell the show to a US network means the horror and exploitation elements are too often watered down – but quite a few of the famous Hammer names are involved in various capacities, such as Sasdy in this instance.

This episode is entitled Rude Awakening, written by Gerald Savory, and its particular Amicus resemblance is somewhat heightened by the fact it stars that legend amongst British character actors, Denholm Elliott (he had previously played a hack horror writer in The House that Dripped Blood and one of the victims of Tom Baker’s voodoo paintbrush in Vault of Horror, both for Amicus). This is, as far as I’m aware, the only conjunction of Hammer and Denholm Elliott, but the result is one of the series’ more striking episodes.

Elliott plays Norman Shenley, a middle-aged provincial estate-agent whom the actor invests with all the understated seediness he often brought to this kind of part – although calling it understated may be stretching a point, as virtually the first thing we see Norman do is start letching over and groping his secretary, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge). Norman is having an affair with Lolly, of course, although there is the slight problem that his wife (Pat Heywood) refuses to grant him the divorce he so desperately wants.

Anyway: a man named Rayburn (James Laurenson) appears, claiming to be the executor of a will with a large country house to be disposed of. He would quite like Norman to take a look at the place in his professional capacity, and our man cheerfully agrees. His enthusiasm is only slightly dented when the manor turns out to be a half-decrepit, cobweb-festooned old pile, complete with spooky doors that open seemingly by themselves and wall-to-wall suits of armour. But then a disembodied voice berates Norman for the murder of his wife, and the armour creaks into life to exact retribution on the hapless estate agent…

Who wakes up in a panic, rather annoying his wife in the process. It was all just a bad dream, apparently – but so realistic! Norman can’t get over it, talking to his wife about, and Lolly when he goes in to the office. He’s so obsessed with his odd nocturnal experience that Lolly suggests he drive out to see if the country house really exists. Discovering that he still has the map given to him by Rayburn in his pocket (somehow!), Norman finds the house is not there, but a phone box is. He almost dies when the box threatens to combust around him, spying a tramp who resembles Rayburn while doing so, but then enjoys a somewhat torrid interlude with Lolly (still in the phone box)…

Only to wake up yet again, back in bed with his unimpressed missus. One of the bricks you could throw at Rude Awakening is that the structure of the story becomes rather predictable as the episode progresses – Norman wakes up from his latest nightmare, restarts the day in question, only for events to go off at some odd tangent or other, normally resulting in him meeting an outlandish sticky end. The sticky ends get progressively more outlandish in the course of the episode – never mind being assaulted by animated suits of armour, Norman finds himself executed by undead domestic staff, almost killed when the building he’s in is demolished around him, and (most surreal of all) waking up midway through brain surgery to find himself dead on the operating table.

All good fun, if you like weird, not-especially-horrific horror, but the problem is really that it builds the viewer’s expectations of something really spectacularly surreal at the climax of the episode, and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. The conclusion is reasonably clever, though, as is the way the script combines several different story types – Rude Awakening goes for, and pretty much achieves the triple by including elements of a recurring nightmare story, a precognitive dream story, and a can’t-tell-dream-from-reality story. It’s clear from early on that something fishy is afoot – Norman doesn’t seem at all surprised to find a dream artefact in his pocket while he’s supposedly awake, to say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t notice Lolly appearing in a different provocative guise in each new iteration of the story – but the resolution, when it comes, is relatively understated. It may be that it is in fact supposed to be blackly comic – after so many fake demises, Norman ends up assuming he’s asleep, which proves to be a serious mistake – but the script is not quite sharp enough for the results to be particularly amusing.

That said, there is, of course, a masterly performance from Denholm Elliott to enjoy, which is the episode’s main treat. Ineffectual and/or seedy men were really his speciality, usually in a supporting capacity, and he is, it almost goes without saying, on fine form here. He keeps you watching even after it’s become quite clear how the episode’s going to function, even if not where it’s going. And Sasdy has fun with the more surreal elements of the story, which are quite different from the stuff of the relatively grounded feature films he made for Hammer. Rude Awakening probably counts as only a minor item on the CV of both men, but it brings a certain style of surreal British horror to the small screen reasonably effectively.

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‘Star Trek lures you into a false sense of positivity that the world can be a utopia and recent events have proven it cannot.’ – Adam Savage

So, here we go, finally: Star Trek: Discovery is with us at last, not exactly preceded by the positive buzz its makers might have hoped for, but accompanied by the kind of media attention you might expect from the stirring of a genuine pop culture colossus. I don’t agree with the quote above this paragraph, by the way: I disagree with it rather strongly. What the world needs now may indeed be a new series of Star Trek at its best. What I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need is a tidal wave of reviews of the beginning of the new series by rather excitable Trekkies and other interested parties, but hey – can’t have one without the other, I guess.

It feels a bit odd to be writing about an episode of Star Trek without doing the traditional capsule synopsis of the plot, but I rather suspect that would constitute a spoiler given the episode in question is less than 24 hours old as I write. Let us try to be usefully non-specific, for the time being – I cannot guarantee that a few spoilers won’t slip through the net later on, especially if I find myself getting exercised, which may well happen.

Anyway, here we are in the mid-2250s, supposedly about ten years before the start of the original series (yes, yes: we will inevitably come to Discovery’s exact location in the space-time multiverse), all aboard the good ship Shenzhou (er, what?). Oh well – after a spot of teaserage allowing some high production-value location filming, and an insight into the new show’s take on the Prime Directive (apparently, it’s no longer the case that you should never interfere in the affairs of less-advanced species, only that you should never get caught interfering – hmm).

Well, from here we move to a CGI starscape where a Federation comms relay has been mysteriously nobbled, and a strange alien object is discovered nearby. The ship’s adventurous first officer Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) rockets off to investigate, only to discover it is some kind of Klingon cultural artefact, and the bumpy-headed ones (yes, yes, we’ll come to that, too) are close by in force, and spoiling for a fight…

I have to say that, following the last few movies and all I’d heard about Discovery over the last few months, my expectations for it were dialled down to almost-subterranean levels, and so it was rather a surprise to discover (no pun intended) that there were many things about The Vulcan Hello which were genuinely rather delightful – it has the look and feel of Trek much more than I had anticipated, to begin with at least, and Doug Jones’ alien science officer, whose culture’s response to any situation appears to be to run away as fast as possible, promises much. The – oh, dear, here we go – virtue signalling inherent in the casting and characterisation which drew so much scrutiny during early publicity was handled with a much lighter touch than I was expecting, too.

Still, there are a couple of things which make me rather uneasy about Star Trek: Discovery, partly because I’m such an utterly ossified old-school Star Trek fan, partly because I’m fully aware Star Trek is not the be-all and end-all of life, but only a significant reflection of where we are as a culture.

While I was watching and enjoying the bulk of the episode, I found myself repeatedly thinking ‘If only… if only…’ If only they hadn’t made such a big deal about the fact that this was a show set in the main Star Trek universe, ten years prior to the original series. Based on what we see on screen, this is a frankly unsupportable assertion, which seems to me to be calculated merely to shift merchandise and avoid the unpopularity with fans that the Kelvin movies suffer. Do I even have to list some of the ways in which Discovery jibes with the established history of the Trek universe? The uniforms don’t match, the level of technology doesn’t match (the use of long-range holography to communicate doesn’t start showing up in other Trek shows until over a century later, and is hardly common even then), and this is before we even get onto Discovery’s take on the Klingons – props to the writers for the shout-out to the mythology created in The Final Reflection, but if it wasn’t for this and the use of Okrandian Klingon, they would be almost unrecognisable as members of the same species – pretty much the only thing to pass my lips while watching the episode was a cry of ‘That’s not a bat’leth!’

I expect there are perfectly sound commercial reasons for attempting to crowbar Discovery into the main timeline (toys and suchlike ain’t gonna sell themselves), but the decision to set the show in the 2250s is rather baffling one. If they’d simply moved the prime timeline on a hundred years or so and set the new series in the 2490s or whenever, it would have been considerably easier to rationalise all of the incongruities – for instance, the Klingons have shown a certain genetic mutability in the past, so another radical shift in their appearance would have had some kind of precedent. They’d have had to parachute in another classic character instead of Sarek, but no big deal there, surely.

As it is, the only way to make sense of Discovery is to assume we’re off in another alternate timeline (maybe the Kelvin universe, but most likely not). Does this really matter? Well, maybe only if you’re a die-hard Trekkie or fellow traveller, but I still think all this constitutes a misjudgement on the part of the makers of the show – grumpy reactions from the fanbase have apparently already imperilled the production/distribution deal between Netflix and CBS, and created a rather negative buzz around the new show, which I still think could have been avoided fairly easily.

Onto more serious issues, and here we do face the prospect of genuine spoilers, so caveat lector. The thing about The Vulcan Hello is that it builds to a climax about a genuine point of moral principle – that of whether, as a person of good conscience, it is ever permissible to shoot first, starting a fight. The episode’s argument seems to be that yes, this is possible (let us skip over the slightly febrile handling of this in the actual narrative of the episode).

Hmmm. I turn off Star Trek and I turn on the news, where I see an old man and a young man, both of them ridiculous and frightening in equal measure, both of them acting like babies, waving their nuclear devices at each other and indulging in the most ludicrous rhetoric. Is this really a good time for Star Trek, famous for its optimistic vision of the future, to be suggesting that sometimes the wisest thing is for the good guy to shoot first? I would argue not; I would argue very strongly not.

Of course, I write this as someone who has published an essay discussing the fact that the original series came out in support of American involvement in the Vietnam War, so a touch of realpolitik in Star Trek is not without precedent. But even so. This is a frankly slightly disturbing sentiment to find at the heart of a 2017 episode of Star Trek. Who knows, maybe this ideology will be discredited and rejected as the series continues; there are still many episodes to come. But for now, it’s enough to make me slightly concerned. I think the world needs Star Trek, but it needs a Star Trek that shows us how the world could be better, not one that reflects how messed up it currently is. And I hope that’s what this show ultimately turns out to be.

(Yeah, I know there’s a second episode currently available. All in good time, I expect.)

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‘I’ve decided to put that novel idea on ice, I don’t think the maths underpinning the concept work,’ is something you only really hear while hanging around science fiction writers (or people with delusions of being science fiction writers). My writing coach, to whom I said this quite recently, was a bit startled and perhaps a little disappointed, but then they are a literary author and unfamiliar with the peculiar requirements of SF. I wasn’t delighted myself, as it was an idea I really liked, but I couldn’t imagine being able to sell it to a reader if I wasn’t completely convinced of its plausibility myself.

The idea in question was about an encounter between human beings and a very similar alien civilisation, whose main point of difference biologically is that they have three sexes. Many opportunities there for interesting alien world-building, also to see ourselves from a different perspective (I know it sounds a bit like an Ursula le Guin pastiche, but what can I say, if you’re going to rip someone off, make sure it’s someone really good). The problem is that, from a real-world perspective, a three-sex system of reproduction is incredibly inefficient and would almost certainly be out-competed by two-sex or one-sex organisms in the same environment.

(My research into this – still ongoing, Coach, if you’re reading this, so don’t abandon all hope – turned up some curious facts, such as the fact that even a two-sex system is fairly inefficient, but this is offset by the advantages it brings in terms of genetic diversity. Some scientists are still trying to discover why mono-sexual reproduction is not more common on our own planet.)

Well, anyway, having been kicking this idea around for quite a number of years, I have inevitably taken an interest in how other people have handled a similar notion. When multi-gendered aliens do turn up, it’s mainly as ‘colour’ – casual mentions of a particular species having five genders or whatever is basically a flag to indicate just how weird and non-human they are. The instance I’m most familiar with is the Azadian species from Iain Banks’ The Player of Games, who have a male, female, and ‘apex’ gender – this is a marvellous book, but for all that it is about the nature of Azadian society (as compared to the liberal utopia of the Culture), the biology of the inhabitants seems curiously secondary. I’m inclined to conclude the triple-gender arrangement is just a device to obscure (initially, at least) the fact that the Empire of Azad is an allegory for contemporary western civilisation, but I digress.

Speaking of liberal utopias brings us to a take on the triple-gendered aliens idea that actually made it onto TV – Cogenitor, an episode of Enterprise from 2003, written by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman. Some thought seems to have gone into the biological arrangements here, but as usual the focus of the story lies elsewhere.

The Enterprise is surveying a ‘hypergiant’ star when it encounters an exploratory vessel from the planet Vissia. Neither side have any knowledge of the other, but the Vissians are friendly and the two ships link up so they can learn more about each other. It turns out the Vissians are rather more advanced than the Humans (they have had warp drive for a thousand years), but the cultural exchange goes swimmingly, with Captain Archer forming an immediate rapport with his opposite number (the great Andreas Katsulas, in one of his last roles).

However, chief engineer Trip discovers that the Vissians have a third gender – their species is made up of males, females, and ‘cogenitors’. Only about 3% of Vissians are cogenitors, but they are vital to the process of reproduction. There is only one cogenitor on the Vissian ship (their own engineer and his wife are hoping to have a child), but Trip is disturbed by the indifference with which they are treated. The cogenitor (Becky Wahlstrom) doesn’t have a job beyond their role in facilitating procreation, doesn’t have their own property, doesn’t even have a name – it seems to Trip that they are treated worse than Captain Archer’s pet dog. Dr Phlox confirms that the cogenitor is every bit as capable, intellectually, as the other Vissians, which just makes Trip more certain he is witnessing a grave injustice.

This being Star Trek, Trip decides to help the cogenitor actualise themself as a person by teaching them to read and showing them old Earth movies (he starts with The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is not a movie I would personally show an alien only newly-acquainted with human beings, but whatever). And this being Star Trek, within a day the cogenitor has transformed into a bright and charming individual with a real passion for life and a desire to go beyond their traditional cultural role. But the other Vissians are appalled and outraged when they find out what Trip has been up to, leading to the cogenitor requesting asylum on the Enterprise

Enterprise has something of a bad rep as the show that killed off Star Trek’s second TV phase, and to be honest if you choose an episode at random you’ve a good chance of finding one which supports that idea. But some of its stories are strong and interesting, such as this one. This is not to say it is perfect – the dramatic meat of the tale is left to the third act, and in the meantime there is a lot of filler material which could easily have been snipped. This includes (I am somewhat pained to say) most of Andreas Katsulas’ scenes with Scott Bakula, and a very odd moment in which we get to see Lieutenant Reed’s approach to the fine art of courtly love, as he flirts with one of the Vissians – first he gets out his cheeseboard, then he invites her down to look at his phase cannon. One should perhaps not mock, as the not-uncomely alien in question still comes on to him like a rocket.

Seriously, though, if you’ve got Andreas Katsulas in your cast, why not give him more to do? I suppose you could argue that he is playing an important role, which is to demonstrate the potential for a positive relationship between Earth and Vissia, which in the end is (we presume) badly compromised by Trip’s interference in Vissian society and its consequences.

The episode isn’t in any real sense about the unusual biological arrangements of the Vissians, but about Trip and his decision. Here we find two of the great drivers of Berman-era Trek set in opposition to each other, to useful dramatic effect. There is the liberal humanistic idea that all sentient creatures have the same right to live a fulfilling, self-determined life, a right which is denied to the Vissian cogenitors – it’s made clear that the other Vissians are not actively cruel or callous, they just treat the cogenitors as non-people (quite how plausible this is, is another question, but that’s beyond the scope of this episode). And on the other hand there is cultural relativism, raised to the level of a moral imperative.

Another Starfleet officer might have known better than Trip, but the thing that enables this story to happen is the fact it is set before the adoption of the Prime Directive, which forbids interference in the internal affairs of other societies. This story has, by Trek standards, a very downbeat, even tragic conclusion, and you could certainly argue that if Trip had minded his own business and left well alone, things would have gone much better. Everyone else in the story – Archer, Phlox, T’Pol (at her least endearing this week) – encourages Trip not to sit in judgement on the whole of Vissian culture, or at least not to get personally involved.

And yet there’s a sense in which the episode isn’t quite playing fair here – we learn virtually nothing about the Vissians in the course of the episode, beyond their curious reproductive arrangements and the fact their hot young women are suckers for cheese and phase cannon. But we do see that, by human standards, they treat their cogenitors extremely poorly. There may be sound social and biological reasons for this, but if so they are left unrevealed. What is revealed (courtesy of an endearing performance from Wahlstrom) is the potential for the cogenitors to lead much more satisfying and fulfilling lives than they currently do.

By any normal, humane standard, then, Trip’s decision to help the cogenitor seems absolutely morally justifiable. And yet his sole eventual reward is, one imagines, immense guilt, even if we disregard a severe rollicking from Captain Archer. Either the episode is suggesting the appropriate perspective is one of almost superhuman detachment and absolute moral relativism (somewhat at odds with Trek’s standard liberal humanism), or the message of the story is that sometimes, there is no correct option, and whatever you do, bad things will be the consequence. The former is unrealistic and hard to swallow, the latter all-too-believable but unusually pessimistic for Trek. Either way, this is an impressive, thought-provoking episode.

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Received wisdom, even amongst some of the people who actually worked on the show, is that a voyage into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is likely to be painful and unrewarding: almost a textbook case of time not well spent. ‘Almost unwatchable’ is one of the kinder comments concerning the first season or so, and the consensus seems to be that if the show had been running on a network, rather than in first-run syndication, it would not have been given the time to find its feet in the very impressive way that it ultimately did.

But, hey, I like to live dangerously – and there is something about these early shows, a slightly goofy sense of adventure reminiscent of the original series that gets lost as the programme becomes more stately and cerebral. And while you are really on a hiding to nothing trying to argue that any of these shows are truly outstanding TV, you do come across the odd episode which is interesting enough to be cut some slack.

So, then: Symbiosis, from the back end of season 1, story by Robert Lewin, script by (as was usual at this point) a whole mob of people. Still quite early days on the Enterprise-D – Geordi is still flying the ship, they’re not quite sure what to do with Worf, Riker’s chin is still exposed to the elements, and Tasha’s life expectancy can be measured in days (this was actually the last episode to be filmed featuring her as a regular character, which is why Denise Crosby waves goodbye to the camera at the end of Tasha’s final scene). The Enterprise is doing something important and astronomical when it picks up a distress call from a small freighter in danger of crashing into one of the two inhabited planets of the local system. The peculiar uselessness of the freighter’s crew means the vessel is lost, but four survivors and the cargo (a mysterious barrel) are saved.

A reunion of the supporting cast of Star Trek II appears to have been in progress on the stricken ship, as materialising on the pad are Judson Scott, as one of a pair of smug aliens in shiny clothes, and Merritt Butrick, as one of a pair of sweaty aliens in shabby clothes. What’s going on is this: the smug aliens come from the planet Brekkia (much more Brekky than most planets), where their whole society is dedicated to producing the drug felicium (which is what’s in the barrel). The sweaty aliens come from the planet Ornara, where everyone carries a terrible incurable disease and needs regular doses of felicium in order to function at all. In return for medical supplies, the Ornarans supply the Brekkians with all their material requirements – an arrangement which allows one side to live, and the other to live well, to paraphrase an unexpectedly elegant line of dialogue. The question is now one of who the felicium belongs to, given that the payment was destroyed along with the freighter – one side says it is desperately needed, but the other refuses to just give it away.

However, the olfactory rodent detection sensor on Dr Crusher’s tricorder starts to register, mainly because she can’t find any trace of disease in the Ornaran visitors, despite their clear physical discomfort and claims that they are infected. The penny (or the Federation equivalent) drops when the Ornarans are allowed a dose of the medicine as a goodwill gesture, and instantly subside into a doped-up stupor. There is no plague – not any more, anyway. The Ornaran dependency on felicium – and thus the entire basis of both societies and their relationship – is simply because it is a massively addictive narcotic. Picard and the others have stumbled into a case of drug-dealing on an interplanetary scale…

(Before we get onto the rest of it, many people stick the boot into this episode for a number of different reasons, but no-one seems to have noticed the strangeness of the set-up which the plot demands – the Ornarans are heading home with their load of felicium, which is fair enough. But why are they bringing two Brekkians back with them, along with – apparently – whatever they paid for the drugs with? The fact that the payment is destroyed with the freighter is a plot point.)

As I say, the thing about many of these early TNG episodes is that it’s relatively easy to imagine them, or a close version of them, appearing in a fourth or fifth season of the original series. This one is no exception – although the lumberingly heavy-handed allegory (hell, it’s not even an allegory, it’s an episode which is explicitly about narcotic addiction and drug dealing) and a few incidental plot details (both the Brekkians and  Ornarans can generate shocks like an electric eel) inevitably mean the 60s episode you’re reminded of most is Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, not exactly 60s Trek‘s finest hour or so. People say the Federation is a post-scarcity economy; well, not as far as subtlety is concerned, much of the time.

(Possibly the most egregious element of the episode is a scene in which Wesley wonders aloud how anyone could let themselves get addicted to drugs, and receives a kind but stern lecture from Tasha on the subject, rather in the style of a Very Special Episode of a kids’ cartoon. This was apparently crowbarred in by writer and executive producer Maurice Hurley – the other writers didn’t want it there, the director didn’t want it, the actors were begging not to have to perform it. It is a bit like a lead weight that drags the rest of the episode down. If I were the kind of person who gave star ratings, I would knock a star off just for this one scene.)

On the other hand, Symbiosis is also very much influenced by how the Roddenberry vision had developed over the years since the 1960s. The drug-dealing situation is the backdrop to the episode, but the central conflict is all about the lofty moral principles of the Federation, specifically (of course) the Prime Directive not to interfere in the internal workings of other societies. What’s going on is clearly a case of parasitic exploitation – the Brekkians are fully aware of what they’re doing – and you would imagine that were Kirk in the captain’s seat they would have found a way for him to resolve the situation with a fist-fight and quite probably a ripped shirt.

But, of course, it’s not Kirk in command but Picard, and first-season Picard at that. The writers simply haven’t figured out how to make best use of Patrick Stewart at this point, and Picard is not the thoughtful and subtle figure of immense moral authority he would eventually become, but more a starchy apparatchik whose remarkable qualities we’re told about more often than shown. You wait and wait for the moment where Picard will unleash a scathing condemnation on the Brekkians, making it quite clear how morally bankrupt and reprehensible their civilisation is, but it never comes. If Kirk’s motto could have been ‘Risk is our business’, then Picard’s – this week, at least – is ‘my hands are tied’. He can’t tell the Ornarans they’re being duped (and doped). He can’t stop the Brekkians from selling them the drug. He can’t allow Dr Crusher’s plan to give the planet of the junkies a synthetic drug to help wean them off the felicium. It really sucks to be Picard on a week like this one.

Some people watching this episode come away with the impression that its central theme is simply ‘drugs are bad and drug dealers are horrible’. The episode certainly does express this sentiment – grindingly – but it’s also got a strange message about how doing the right thing can often leave a bad taste in your mouth. Picard comes up with a kind-of solution to the situation – he withdraws an offer to help maintain the Ornaran space fleet, meaning their ships will soon break down, ending the drug trade, and guaranteeing agonising Cold Turkey for the entire population of Ornara – but the implication is that, even if he hadn’t done this, the Federation would have won some kind of moral victory simply by resisting the urge to intervene. Is it really the case that preserving the Federation’s lofty principles is worth condemning an entire planet’s population to excruciating withdrawal symptoms, and the possible collapse of their society? Picard seems quite sure that it is, even though he admits that they may never learn the consequences of their actions (another ship may not be in this sector for decades).

Star Trek, in all its incarnations, is generally a show with a degree of moral sophistication to it, but this is one of those occasions which makes you wonder quite where Gene Roddenberry’s head was at. The Prime Directive is a dandy plot device for ramping up the conflict quotient in a story and complicating the lives of people with, after all, vast resources backing them up. But does it really stand up as an absolute moral imperative? This is the kind of episode which gives you pause, as far as that goes. Unfortunately the sheer crushing obviousness of the drug addiction plot largely eclipses the moral aspect of this particular story. You could never call Symbiosis a great episode, but digging into it at least provides food for thought.

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With the release of Star Trek: Discovery only a few weeks away, my impression is that much of Trek fandom, far from being in a state of happy anticipation, is basically on Yellow Alert, hoping for the best, but fearing that… well, apparently the new show is essentially from the same place as the JJ Abrams movies – enough said, probably. (I almost get the impression that some people are more excited about The Orville than an ‘official’ piece of Star Trek.) One of the things most responsible for this general uneasiness is the new show’s take on the Klingons, particularly their appearance. After viewing one of the trailers, my comment to a friend was ‘What the hell have they done to the Klingons?!?’, to which his response was ‘How do you know they’re Klingons?’ (the dialogue gave it away – although well-versed in Trek, his grasp of tlhIngan Hol is even shakier than my own). The fact that a seasoned Trekkie didn’t recognise Discovery‘s Klingons as Klingons really kind of says it all.

Not that there haven’t been radical reimaginings of Klingons in the past, of course, make-up techniques and budgets having developed somewhat in the last fifty years. The original Klingon characters are basically just dudes in blackface makeup and droopy false moustaches, while The Motion Picture features a style of Klingon never quite seen elsewhere. From 1984 until the end of Berman-era Trek in 2005, things become a lot more consistent, of course. The shifts in makeup even get addressed in the text of the episodes themselves – there’s some lantern-hanging for comic effect in Trials and Tribble-Ations, where Worf, in all his lumpy-headed glory, gets to meet some ‘original’ Klingons, and then a sincere attempt to explain the various inconsistencies towards the end of Enterprise.

It’s telling, however, that when 90s Star Trek reintroduced Klingon characters from 60s episodes, they just updated the make-up without making any reference to the fact that they’d done so. My understanding is that consideration was given to simply retaining the original look, but the decision was that this might be confusing to the general audience.

The episode in question is Blood Oath (written by Peter Allan Fields), from the second season of Deep Space Nine. At this point in its history, DS9 is still essentially an episodic programme, with the Dominion yet to make its presence felt, and this installment is distinctive mainly because of a premise guaranteed to excite the truly devoted, while not meaning a huge amount to the general viewer.

Anyway, the story gets underway with a rowdy, if somewhat geriatric Klingon, causing trouble in Quark’s bar. This turns out to be Kor (John Colicos), last seen in Errand of Mercy from the first season of the original series. Kor has let himself go a bit since his glory days on Organia, rather to the disgust of his old friend Koloth (William Campbell), last seen in the flesh in The Trouble with Tribbles, from the second season of the original series – Koloth refuses to bail him out.

News of this unusual grip of elderly Klingons (‘grip’ is the collective noun for Klingons, apparently) reaches the senior staff of the station – those of them actually appearing in the episode, anyway. It turns out that Science Officer Dax was friends with both Kor and Koloth in her previous incarnation, and that they have come here in preparation for the fulfilment of an oath of vengeance taken decades earlier. All this has happened at the behest of a third old Klingon, Kang (Michael Ansara), last seen in Day of the Dove, from the third season of the original series.

However, Kang got to know Dax nearly a century earlier (the implication, if you do the sums, seems to be that this happened before the peace talks of Star Trek VI), and is unaware Dax is now an MTA. Kang releases Dax from the obligation to help them kill a Klingon renegade responsible for the deaths of the three Klingons’ eldest children on the grounds that she is not really the same person. But Dax is not sure she wants to be released…

Now, I like Deep Space Nine nearly as much as I like the original series, and so I really want to like this conjunction of the two of them: the whole idea seems to have been ‘let’s get the three most famous original Klingons back!’ – but having got them back, the episode struggles a bit to find worthy things for them to do. Now, Michael Ansara as Kang is very nearly as authentically Klingon as Michael Dorn, while the relish with which John Colicos attacks his lines as a newly Falstaffian Kor is also extremely good value. William Campbell gets swallowed up by his makeup and hair, though, and perhaps suffers from having less to do than the others (though this was also really the case in his original appearance, too).

Beyond the performances, though, the bulk of the episode is taken up with Dax wondering if she wants to go and help kill the bad guy, and then trying to persuade the others to let her come with them. And the scent of pre-mixed filler is all over this stuff – of course she does. Of course they will. I’m reluctant to say this is the fault of Terry Farrell (who plays Dax) as an actor – your level of expertise is really immaterial when it comes to dealing with a script which fails to really dig down into its subject and give it any depth or genuine emotion.

This is, in the end, a story about someone who sets off on a quest to kill someone – the oath of the title is an oath of vengeance, after all. It goes without saying that this is against the ethos of Starfleet and the Federation, and you might expect, firstly, that Dax would do a bit of histrionic soul-searching in the classic Trek style, and, secondly, that her colleagues and commanding officer would have something to say about it too. The episode makes a vague gesture in the direction of both these things, but in the end it doesn’t really do anything interesting with them.

I suppose in the end this episode is a dictum victim – the dictum in question being that of Trek writing luminary Michael Piller, who decreed midway through TNG that every episode would focus on one of the regulars and be about that character in some way, rather than being (say) a plot-driven action-adventure. Whatever you think of this in general, it’s surely a terrible basis for an episode the sine qua non of which is bringing back three classic characters for a tale of old warriors facing their last battle. All the stuff with Dax gets in the way of Kang, Kor, and Koloth getting good scenes, and it means the concluding action sequences feel rather underdeveloped too. The writer throws in a twist, but it’s a bizarre and somewhat illogical one – Kang is knowingly leading the other two to their deaths, believing they have no real chance of ever killing their target, and reasoning that any kind of demise in battle is better than simply fading away. Really? That’s a very defeatist attitude for a veteran Klingon commander.

And I wonder if the decision to stick the boys in the standard Klingon make-up wasn’t a mistake. For one thing, it makes at least one of them virtually unrecognisable from their original appearance, and for another, while the story is clearly gunning for a Three Musketeers or Seven Samurai kind of vibe, the Klingon wigs, on top of all the leather gear, gives it more of the feel of a geriatric hair-metal band reunion tour. On one level I suppose it sort of is. In the end, it is pleasant to see these characters again after all this time – and better episodes for John Colicos follow. But on this occasion, the strength of the material doesn’t come close to the potential of the concept.

 

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The main difference between a sequel and a spin-off is that while the former can get away with just being more of the same, the latter is obliged to pull off the difficult trick of creating a distinct new identity for itself while still being recognisably the same thing as its progenitor. Perhaps this is why Next Gen was the most successful of the successor Star Trek series, because it could just get on with being a sequel. I’m not saying the differences between the original show and Next Gen are only cosmetic, because this clearly isn’t the case: but Next Gen was able to gradually evolve its own look and feel and ethos over a number of years, whereas DS9 and the others had to do something different right from the start in order to justify their existence.

And perhaps this is why the successor series, as they went on, increasingly struggled, because it’s not at all clear that some of their premises retained quite the same magic as the notion of going out into the galaxy and discovering its wonders, while at the same time presenting a pretty well-defined conception of what human beings could be like at their best. Next Gen is essentially about the citizens of utopia and how they deal with various personal and moral problems which life throws at them. DS9 is about what it means to be a citizen of utopia when that paradise is presented with an existential threat – how do you cope? What are you prepared to do to protect it? And Voyager is about…

Well, here’s the thing. On one level the premise of Voyager is very straightforward – the ship is stuck on the wrong side of the galaxy and trying to get home. Which is fair enough, and fairly generative in terms of ideas for action-adventure jeopardy type plots. But it doesn’t have the same philosophical potential as that of the previous shows. If the show had focused more on the notion of what it would mean to be a citizen of utopia who finds themselves expelled from that world, having to make do amongst the barbarians, then I think it would have been much more engaging. As it is, the series touches on some aspects of this only in passing, and others barely at all.

There’s a further problem with the Voyager format which is thrown into sharp relief by the first season episode Eye of the Needle, written by Jeri Taylor. As you might expect, this is still early days for the crew, who have only been stuck in the Delta Quadrant for a couple of months at this point. Hopes of a swift return home are raised when Ensign Kim discovers what seems to be a wormhole, which could offer them a shortcut back to Federation space.

However, it turns out to be a rather feeble and elderly wormhole, barely big enough to stick a probe down, but they do so anyway. The probe promptly gets stuck half-way through, which would be even more annoying were it not for the fact that someone on the other side seems to be scanning the wormhole too – and the data indicates they are doing so from the Alpha Quadrant…

Well, step by step Captain Janeway and the crew establish a connection with whoever’s on the other side – signal codes at first, then a voice communication, then video, and then finally an actual transporter link. There is a bit of a sticky moment when it is revealed that the ship on the other side is a Romulan vessel engaged in classified activities, but the Romulan commander (Vaughn Armstrong) turns out to be a good egg and proves sympathetic to the crew’s situation. Could this finally prove to be their route home?

Well, the problem with the episode (and arguably with any similar episode of Voyager) isn’t just that the answer to this question is ‘of course it isn’t’, but that it’s ‘of course it isn’t, and everybody watching knows that from the start’. It’s the same problem with any series predicated on a bunch of people being stuck in a situation they’d rather not be in – almost inevitably, there are going to be numerous episodes about them trying to get out of their pickle, and equally inevitably, they’re never going to succeed in extricating themselves. In some ways Voyager is more akin to a show like Space: 1999 than the original Star Trek or Next Gen – Kirk and Picard were where they wanted to be, doing something they loved, not trapped in an odyssey of misery and frustration (which is what the prevailing mood on Voyager would more likely have been).

As a result the big question in the viewer’s mind while watching Eye of the Needle is not ‘could they possibly get home this week?’ but ‘What trick are the writers going to pull to stop them getting home this week?’ Now, to be fair, the twist employed by Jeri Taylor is not a bad one – it transpires that the wormhole is a shortcut through time as well as space, and transporting through it will mean travelling back twenty years to 2351 – but the episode arguably misses a trick in the way this possibility is blandly dismissed by Janeway and the crew, with barely a peep of dissent from anyone involved. ‘Too much damage to the timeline,’ Janeway decrees, which may be the case, but you would have expected someone to try and find a way round this. Why not transport home and then have yourselves put into stasis or cryo for twenty years? We know the technology’s there, we’ve seen it in multiple other episodes. But nope. The Captain has spoken and everyone acquiesces.

Of course, there’s also the issue of the Romulans and the Federation not actually being on speaking terms in 2351 – it’s established in early Next Gen that the Star Empire was in the middle of one of its isolationist phases at this point in time – but on the other hand you can see why they used a Romulan in this episode: it requires a member of one of the major races, but also one with a slightly adversarial relationship to the Federation. As ever, when you need a nondescript big-name adversarial race in Trek, it’s the Romulans who get called up. (There is at least a hint of the events of this episode having some kind of consequence – much later we learn that the Romulans have always been very interested in the fate of Voyager, perhaps suggesting they had some foreknowledge of what would befall the ship.)

But this stuff is by the by. The problem with the episode is that the issue of ‘what’s going to stop them getting home?’ is pretty much the sole point of dramatic tension in it, and that’s part of the meta-narrative, not the story of the episode itself. There are, I suppose, some nice character moments built in along the way, but – especially once you know the twist – the episode feels underpowered as a piece of drama. There’s a ticking clock but not much tension and scarcely any jeopardy.

Squeezed in alongside all the stuff with the wormhole and the Romulan is a B-plot about the holographic Doctor’s status aboard the ship and his occasionally fraught relations with the rest of the crew – apart from Kes, they’re all just treating him as a hologram. Which is kind of understandable, given that he is a hologram, but even so, we are already aware of what a lovable curmudgeon he has become. Which just leads one to wonder – what exactly are these holo-engineers up to? As with the various other Federation miracle machines, they are doing astounding things without even seeming to realise it. Holodeck technology is apparently at the point where it can create sentient, self-aware life by accident (cf. those TNG episodes with Professor Moriarty), and yet they go about sticking EMHs on their ships with no-one even seeming to consider the possibility that the holo-doctors could be more than mindless functionaries. Too big an issue for one episode to address, of course. Even the cap scene for this plotline rings resoundingly false with hindsight – ‘I want a name!’ says the Doctor, which is written and played like a key moment in his development as a character. He never actually gets one, of course. But at least you can imagine him getting one at some point, which is more than you can say for the possibility of Voyager getting home any time prior to the series’ last episode. This is a show about a lost ship. Episodes about the ship maybe-getting un-lost are on a hiding to nothing unless they can find considerably more in the way of actual character drama than this one does.

 

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