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Posts Tagged ‘Brent Spiner’

Film-making, in the Hollywood mainstream at least, is often a kind of Faustian bargain – on the one hand, you have a writer and/or director, who have a story they really feel has value and deserves to reach the widest possible audience, while on the other there’s the studio who are actually paying for the thing, who want as healthy a return as possible on their investment. Advertising and suchlike tends to focus on the former. Occasionally, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid the impression that a film has only been made for the purposes of raking in the dough.

I think it’s this problem that besets the last couple of ‘original’ Star Trek movies. It would be almost impossible for the makers to argue that these are stories they were burning to tell about these characters, because by this point they’d already made about 180 TV episodes and movies featuring them. It’s not really a cash-in, but it is an example of a reliable product being put out for an established audience. Sound business, probably, but not exactly exciting or likely to thrill mind and spirit in the way that genuine SF is surely supposed to – I think it was Kim Newman who observed that by the late 1990s Star Trek had become the genre equivalent of McDonald’s.

Certainly, the sense of being a movie without a particularly pressing reason to exist is one of the problems afflicting Jonathan Frakes’ Star Trek: Insurrection, originally released in 1998. With the original series crossover movie out of the way, along with the Borg rematch action film, the big question was obviously that of what to do next with the Next Generation crew – and you do get a sense that they never really found a particularly compelling answer to it.

The year is 2375 and the Enterprise is being kept very busy with diplomatic and courier assignments – enough to make Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) lament the loss of their role as explorers (not that they ever seemed to do much of that, even in the TV show). However, a crisis demands his attention when Data (Brent Spiner), who has been assigned to a joint mission with a dubious gang of aliens called the So’na, seemingly goes rogue and starts attacking Federation personnel and their allies.

Investigating, Picard and the others discover a remote, secluded planet, inhabited by the thoroughly peaceful and decent Ba’ku people, who have rejected most of the trappings of technological civilisation. Everyone there is living the rustic idyll, and living it for a very long time, because the unique properties of the planet’s rings vastly boost physical wellbeing and longevity (something which begins to have odd effects on several members of Picard’s staff, too). The So’na have persuaded the Federation to assist them in exploiting this effect for the benefit of the wider galaxy, even if this means forcibly moving the Ba’ku without their consent and rendering their planet a lifeless cinder. Picard, being Picard, naturally has strong views about this sort of thing, but finds himself at odds with Starfleet Command, and compelled by his conscience to take up arms against his own people…

Well, not exactly: people who are allies of his own people, maybe, and allies who are established from the very start to be a very shady bunch. As insurrections go, the insurrection in Star Trek: Insurrection is not the most shocking insurrection in the history of insurrections, and it’s fairly clear the film’s only called Star Trek: Insurrection because Paramount wasn’t keen on titles like Star Trek: Stardust, Star Trek: Forever and Star Trek: Apostasy.

Actually, you can see where the blundering paw of studio interference has had an effect on this movie in a number of places – Paramount’s instinct with the Trek movies, following Star Trek IV at least, always seemed to be to go light whenever possible, in the hope of attracting a wider audience. So it is here, as Picard and the others do all kinds of unexpected and often slightly cringeworthy things: Data turns into an inflatable lifejacket. Riker and Troi hop in the hot tub together so she can shave off his beard. Troi and Dr Crusher discuss their resurgent ‘boobs’ (cringey this may be, but it’s also the only significant contribution Gates McFadden gets to make to the movie). Picard puts a beaded seat cover on his head, sings a Gilbert and Sullivan number, and dances the mambo across his quarters (not all at the same time, thank God). Some of this verges on the silly.

It’s a particular problem because you can see that the script (by Michael Piller, in many ways the principal architect of Star Trek storytelling in the 1990s and early 2000s) is trying to strike a much more thoughtful and mature tone. Of course, the film is ultimately once again about allowing Patrick Stewart to employ his massive gravitas (and, by extension, Picard’s colossal moral authority) by planting himself like a tree in the path of incipient injustice and doing what’s right, and Stewart (naturally) makes it work; he always does. But the film’s mechanism for facilitating this is to present a tarnished, compromised Federation, far from the utopian state it had traditionally been presented as for much of Trek prior to this point.

This is an interesting idea and does allow the film to plug into some of what had been going on in other bits of the franchise in the preceding couple of years – following various maulings in the war with the Dominion in DS9, and the Borg invasion in the previous movie, it’s kind of logical for the Federation to be on the back foot and losing touch with its ideals (apparently, the suggestion is that this movie is set concurrently with the final episode of DS9, hence the mention of peace negotiations with the Dominion – Worf just turns up like he never left, of course).

And it is nice to have another Trek movie focusing a little more on big moral themes and philosophical ideas, because this is a crucial element of the TV show that often never makes it into the movies in one piece. There isn’t the greatest of depth to it on this occasion – the Ba’ku are blandly, tediously nice, while the So’na are very obviously bad guys – but at least it’s there.

In fact, the film seems to have made a real effort to be thoroughgoingly nice in pretty much every department. Jonathan Frakes works very hard to fill the opening sequence with lyrical, pastoral imagery, which works well, but it establishes a tone which really lingers throughout the film. Even once Picard launches his ‘insurrection’, everything remains surprisingly mild and good-natured, there isn’t a sharp edge or genuinely tough decision in sight.

Still, it is solidly plotted and structured, and the inevitable action-movie climax is competently assembled (Piller takes no chances and makes sure the script favours Picard, Data, and Worf, the most popular characters). The thing is that, by the end, we are really back where we started, nothing has really changed (except maybe that we have become reacquainted with Riker’s chin): no-one has had a life-altering experience, everyone is ready for next week’s episode. You would have to be hyper-critical to say that Star Trek: Insurrection is an actively bad movie, but it’s not really stretching things too much to say that it frequently doesn’t feel much like an actual movie at all.

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Something notable happened to the perception of SF and fantasy in the UK in the middle of the 1980s: when I was very young, SF programmes like Star Trek were on in prime time on one of the main channels – this is the main reason why original Trek acquired its cultural traction in the UK. On the BBC at least, there seemed to be relatively little stigma attached to the science fiction genre prior to the late 80s – the network produced Survivors, Blake’s 7, and Star Cops all in the preceding ten years or so.

After this, however, the BBC largely stopped making SF, and the imported programmes that it did broadcast usually turned up on its minority network in an early-evening slot. This happened to re-runs of The Invaders and the Gerry Anderson programmes throughout the 1990s, and also to every episode of Star Trek the BBC has broadcast since about 1986. (The Beeb has never had the rights to Enterprise, but at one point in 1997 they were showing Voyager on Sundays, Next Generation on Wednesdays, Deep Space Nine on Thursdays, and the original series on Fridays.)

As you can see, in the UK all Star Trek was treated equally – as disposable cult-fodder – and so we never got the sense that some iterations of the show might be more popular or successful than others. Certainly, I was a little surprised last year to discover that most general-audience histories of the franchise focus primarily on the original series and TNG, treating the last three shows as being rather obscure and only of minority interest. Still, at least it explains why there was never serious talk of doing DS9 or Voyager movies, and also the slightly odd, semi-detached relationship between the Next Gen movies and the TV shows that were in production simultaneously with them.

This is most noticeable in Star Trek: First Contact, directed by Jonathan Frakes and released in 1996, when there were two other TV series running which were ostensibly set contemporaneously with the movie. I remember going to see this movie on its opening night with a group of other people, some of whom knew their Trek, some of whom didn’t, and I seem to recall we all had a pretty good time: we concluded it worked well as both a Trek film and an SF action movie. These days – well, sitting down and watching the movie more thoughtfully, I’m inclined to be just a little more critical.

I suppose some of this is simply down to my unreasonable fondness for sprawling fictional universes and my expectation that they try to stay coherent and plausible, on their own terms at least. Certainly there are very sound real-world reasons why the Enterprise has retained the virtually the exact same senior staff for nine years, but from an in-universe perspective one is forced to wonder why the Federation flagship is crewed by people whose careers seem to have ground to a halt. (At least Worf (Michael Dorn) seems to be getting on with his life, although this does require the movie to ‘spring’ him from Deep Space Nine in rather the same way the rest of the A-Team were frequently required to extract Murdock from a mental hospital.)

In the same way, the opening of the movie does feel a little peculiar. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the gang are safely ensconced aboard the shiny new Enterprise-E, when alarming news comes in of a new attack by the Borg (an implacable cyborg menace to civilisation as we know it, who may or may not be knock-offs of the Cybermen from Doctor Who). Picard has history with the Borg, which forms the basis of his arc in the movie – but this also means Starfleet consider him a bit suspect, so the ship is packed off to the Neutral Zone in case the Romulans try to take advantage of the havoc wreaked by the Borg incursion.

Quite apart from the very rum decision-making on the part of the Admiralty – if Picard is considered likely to go fuzzy round the edges in a pressure situation, what is he doing commanding the flagship of the fleet? – and the fact that this bit of script is obviously just here to give the captain a big hero moment where he decides to disobey orders and go to the aid of the fleet, doesn’t the Federation have more pressing concerns than the Romulans at this point in time? Pointedly not mentioned at all is the ongoing cold war between the Federation and the Dominion, which was the basis of DS9 episodes around this time. Which in turn leads one to wonder what the Enterprise-E was doing throughout the Dominion War. It is almost as if the movies and TV shows operated in slightly parallel universes, rather in the same way as Marvel’s movies and TV shows do at the moment.

Well, anyway. Picard and the Enterprise, along with the rest of the fleet, manage to destroy the invading Borg cube by cunningly, um, shooting at it a lot, but not before it disgorges a Borg sphere (big on geometrical designs, these Borg) which promptly disappears back in time. Realising the Borg are planning on conquering Earth in the past (no respecters of temporal integrity, either), it’s up to Picard and the others to follow them and save history.

They find the Borg have gone back to 2063 and are trying to avert Earth’s first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation (hence the title), which was triggered by the first flight of Zefram Cochrane’s prototype warp-drive ship. (Cochrane is played by James Cromwell, at the time most famous as the dancing farmer from Babe.) Fixing the prototype and getting a reluctant Cochrane to stay off the sauce long enough to fulfil his destiny is tricky enough, but somehow the Borg have managed to infiltrate the Enterprise, and the crew also have to battle to stop them from taking over the ship…

We shall skip over the nagging questions of why it is that the Borg don’t just travel back to 2063 near their home planet and make the whole journey to Earth in the past, thus avoiding Starfleet’s response entirely, and the convenient way in which they establish a foothold on the Enterprise so easily, and think about more general matters. You can kind of see the thinking that went into the general shape of this movie – I think everyone assumed that with the original series crossover movie done and dusted, the next one would concern itself with Round Two between the Enterprise and the Borg, while after the success of Star Trek IV and many other time-travel episodes of Trek, it’s understandable that the studio should want a film built around that sort of premise.

But having said that, this is (as far as I can remember) pretty much unique in being a mass-audience SF movie in which characters time-travel from one made-up future world to another (as opposed to something recognisable as the present day, or a point in history). This is not necessarily a terrible choice, but it is a peculiar one – I’m reminded of the current discussion of ‘incorrect’ song writing. If the concept has any validity, then I would suggest that Star Trek: First Contact has touches of incorrect scriptwriting about it. (Earlier drafts of the story went by the title Star Trek: Renaissance and saw the Borg going back in time to assimilate Leonardo da Vinci in 15th century Italy, but this more ‘correct’ idea was apparently vetoed by Patrick Stewart, who refused to wear tights in a movie.)

Once you get past the byzantine complexities of Star Trek continuity and the slight oddness of the premise, this is an undeniably solid movie, and certainly the best of the Next Gen films. Alien invasion movies were back in fashion in 1996, most notably in the form of the all-conquering Independence Day, and this is very much in tune with the zeitgeist even if it can’t quite match Roland Emmerich’s epic roller-coaster for thrills, scale, or sheer entertainment value – something of that slightly staid and worthy Next Gen sensibility persists throughout.

Then again, the moves away from the Hollywood SF movie formula do provide some of the film’s most memorable moments. The business on Earth with Cochrane provides a good-natured change of pace when set against the rather grimmer goings-on on the ship, the obscurely kinky scenes between Data (Brent Spiner) and the Queen of the Borg (Alice Krige) are distractingly odd, and all the various space battles and ray gun fights are well-mounted. But the heft of the film comes from Patrick Stewart, and Picard’s struggle to overcome his own rage and desire for vengeance against the Borg. The moments you remember are Picard ferociously tommy-gunning Borg drones while howling in fury, accusing Worf of cowardice for not being willing to fight to the death, lashing out in anger when confronted by his own irrationality and helplessness. All credit due to Patrick Stewart, of course (and also to Michael Dorn, whose ability to create memorable character moments from the slightest material is almost miraculous) – but this is also interesting in the wider context of Star Trek as a whole.

Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the future of humanity, inasmuch as it became a defining feature of the Star Trek he was involved in during the final years of his life, was that human beings were somehow perfectible, and that the people of the Federation had moved on beyond their recognisable human hang-ups. Writers on TNG came to call this notion ‘the Roddenberry box’ as it limited the possibilities of interpersonal drama so much – any script built around the idea of conflict between the regulars got spiked, for example. And yet First Contact seems to be commenting on this idea in a manner which I’m not at all sure the Great Bird would have been happy with – never mind the fact that Picard has clearly been left significantly damaged by his previous experiences with the Borg, the film presents Cochrane, architect of the bright future which the Federation will come to exemplify, as a rather ambiguous character – overly fond of a drink, motivated by self-interest, unwilling to face up to responsibility. Is the whole notion of perfectible humanity built on rather shaky foundations? The movie is wise enough not to go too far with this.

It adds a welcome, if subtle piece of heft to what is otherwise much more of a straightforward action movie than most of the other good Star Trek films. The tendency of Star Trek films to turn into action movies has been bewailed by others in the past, not just me, but if you’re going to turn Star Trek into an action movie it should at least be a good one, with some interesting ideas and strong characterisation still somewhere in the mix. Judged by this standard, First Contact is certainly a success, if not quite up to the standard of the very best films in the franchise.

 

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‘Classic Star Trek was that slightly rough girl who is a touch unrefined, dripping with sex appeal… and you end up wanting more. TNG was that more subdued, shy, refined girl… but innate passion and chemistry just isn’t there, and the entire experience feels a tad unrewarding.’ – Glen C Oliver, quoted in The Fifty Year Mission

‘My favourite bit was when Malcolm McDowell nutted Captain Slaphead.’ – Tony Parsons, Newsnight Review

Watching Star Trek: Generations in the UK was a slightly odd experience, simply due to the different ways in which film and TV operated back in those distant days of 1995. Nowadays, popular American TV shows arrive in the UK either simultaneously with their US transmission, or at most a couple of months later, but twenty years ago being a Star Trek watcher without a satellite subscription was a gruelling ordeal (I suppose you could say it was an exercise in character-building, but then that seemed to be other people’s rationale for every lousy experience I had in the 90s). There was, for instance, a two year gap between the transmission of the first and second episodes of series four, a period demanding strict spoiler management if you also read SF magazines. The cinema release of Generations in the US followed the conclusion of Next Gen‘s final season (after a decent interval, anyway). When it arrived in the UK shortly afterwards, we still had over a year of first-run TNG still to go, so it all felt a bit odd and a little premature.

(Still, it could have been worse: the first X-Files movie likewise appeared shortly after its US release, thus completely screwing up the intricate meta-plot for those of us who were a year behind due to only having access to the BBC broadcasts.)

Oh well. At least the movie itself seemed to pass the time fairly agreeably – at the time, anyway. Things get underway with the inaugural cruise of the Enterprise-B in 2293, overseen by Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and a couple of his old buddies, who are clearly not as retired as it was implied they were about to become at the end of Star Trek VI. Things go a bit amiss when the Enterprise encounters refugee ships caught in a mysterious energy ribbon, and Kirk apparently sacrifices himself to save the day and allow some of the refugees to be saved.

Before you can say ‘hang on, if the Federation was rescuing refugees from a Borg assimilation back in Kirk’s day, how come no-one had ever heard of them when the Enterprise met their first cube in second-season Next Gen?’, we find ourselves 78 years later aboard the Enterprise commanded by Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). The ship receives a distress signal from a research outpost which has been attacked by the Romulans, and one of the survivors turns out to be Dr Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell), whom we have previously met as one of refugees (he’s one of those conveniently long-lived kinds of alien). Investigations are hampered by Picard being distracted by bad news from home, and Data (Brent Spiner) deciding to instal a chip which gives him emotions, and by Soran turning out to be a bad ‘un.

Yes, Soran teams up with some renegade Klingons, kidnaps the ship’s regular whipping boy LaForge (LeVar Burton), and zooms off to execute his nefarious plan of blowing up various stars. But why? Well, it turns out the mysterious energy-ribbon is either a gateway to heaven, or basically intergalactic crack, or simply one of those metaphorical Trek plot devices, and Soran is keen to get back into it, and blowing up stars will help with this (it’s complicated). In order to put a stop to all this, Picard finds himself obliged to team up with Kirk, who has been stuck in the timeless world of the ribbon since the start of the movie. But can victory come without great sacrifices?

As I suggested, while David Carson’s movie seemed fairly satisfying on its first release, these days it just feels slightly off in all kinds of ways. It’s not that it’s totally without good things – the chief of these being Malcolm MacDowell, who is clearly having a whale of a time chewing up the scenery (I seem to recall him volunteering to come back and kill off the rest of regular cast in subsequent movies), but the vibrant cinematography also does a great job of making the film look very different from the TV series which was such a recent memory when it came out.

The problem, I think, is that the film plays it safe when it should be doing something new and surprising, and innovates when what we really want is something familiar. Doing a movie where the original crew and the Next Gen mob meet up was arguably too much of a no-brainer to be advisable, and yet here it is, albeit in a rather limited form. It doesn’t really help that the TNG writers don’t seem to have much feel for the original crew, or that the script was clearly written for different characters to perform – Scotty finds himself spouting all kinds of scientific bafflegab and Chekov ends up in charge of sickbay, and it’s hard to think of a way they could have made it more obvious that it was supposed to be Spock and McCoy in these scenes.

I suppose I should also mention that Kirk doesn’t really feel like Kirk in this film, despite Shatner’s best attempts to give him some of the old swagger and fire. The theme of the film requires Kirk to be a somewhat regretful, diminished figure, looking back on an unfulfilled life, and this doesn’t quite ring true somehow – yet the Generations take on the character seems to have acquired some traction, having a lot in common with the Kirk who appears in the ‘autobiography’ which came out a couple of years ago. It’s Kirk, but not as we know him, and perhaps this is why his death at the end of the film doesn’t have anything like the impact it should – it’s also the case that it feels like the writers are dotting an i, rather than concluding this character’s story. (Maybe they should have kept Shatner’s ‘bridge on the captain’ ad lib.)

Writing about the very first Star Trek movie, I mentioned its similarities with early TNG, and the crucial mistake it made by not presenting the characters in a way that was recognisable from the TV show. Certainly the movie assumes the audience will have a certain degree of familiarity with the TV show – recurring villains the Duras sisters show up, for instance – and the whole thing is to some extent plotted and structured like a big-budget episode of the series. But they also come up with a story where Picard starts crying like a baby and Data can’t stop laughing like an idiot, and neither of these are things which I really want to see in a TNG movie (or indeed in any form of TNG). That said, at least they get interesting things to do, which isn’t the case for everyone in the cast – some of the junior members of the crew just seem to be there to meet contractual obligations, and even in these minor roles their performances radiate that comforting MDF quality we have come to expect.

I suppose I also have a problem with a couple of faults which recur throughout the TNG movies: whether or not they actually have a planned economy in the 24th century is the subject of fierce debate, but it seems certain beyond doubt that they have totally run out of subtlety. Like many of the TV episodes, they take a theme or a piece of subtext and then belabour you with it at quite extraordinary length, in the form of characters making long speeches or engaging in lengthy discussions about it. Yes, the film is about mortality and growing older. This is clear by about ten minutes in. And yet they keep on and on and on about it, without ever actually managing to say anything surprising or especially subtle about it, until the plot crashes into the assumption that, because Star Trek is ostensibly SF, a Star Trek movie should resolve like most modern SF blockbusters (i.e., with an action sequence). Hence the concluding scenes of three men in late middle age clambering around on some rocks.

I’ve never really been anything like as fond of the TNG movies as I was the original series movies from the 80s. Maybe it’s because I saw those early films when I was younger, or maybe it’s because I’m generally much fonder of the 60s TV series than I am of TNG. But I also think it’s the case that the TNG films feel constrained, somehow, obliged both to stay true to the ethos of the TNG TV series and respect the integrity of the rest of the Trek brand. They just don’t feel especially cinematic, and if a film doesn’t feel cinematic, what’s the point of it? This film includes lavish bigger-than-TV moments (the bit on the sailing ship) and supposedly significant developments (the business with Data’s chip, the destruction of the Enterprise-D), but ultimately it doesn’t really feel like anything other than a carefully-assembled brand extension.

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