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Posts Tagged ‘Gene Roddenberry’

It was late in the Earth Year 1979 (or possibly early 1980) and my father announced that he was taking me to the cinema. This was unusual enough to be noteworthy, but to my father’s credit, most of the films I remember him taking me to without my having to ask were generally pretty good – the first couple of Christopher Reeve Superman movies, for instance. On this occasion, I remember hanging around outside a Blackpool seafront cinema for a bit on a rainy day (there may have been a queue), and then taking our seats to enjoy the latest movie by Robert Wise, a man who I have since come to regard as one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. The good news was that Wise was helming a lavish and ambitious epic SF movie. The bad news was that it eventually turned out to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I found the movie somewhat baffling, but my father’s dissatisfaction was both palpable and loud. Ever since that day, TMP has had a toxic reputation in our house for being long, slow, boring, and dry, and it’s a view I suppose I automatically stuck with myself for many years. Not that we were alone, of course: I suspect the received wisdom that ‘odd numbered Trek films are no good’ is largely the result of TMP‘s perceived flaws.

Of course, the movie has picked up its defenders in the meanwhile – ‘much to enjoy,’ says the Encyclopedia of SF, noting that the subsequent movies are a ‘sentimental mishmash’ whose popularity is ‘mystifying’. Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think that if you look more closely at TMP you can see most of its problems arise from a clash between very different agendas and creative sensibilities. Is to understand really to forgive? I’ve never been completely convinced, but it can’t hurt.

Two and a half years have passed since the return of the Enterprise from its original mission (or so it is strongly implied). Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to the Admiralty, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has gone into retreat and is attempting to join the Vulcan Logic Club, McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has retired from Starfleet, Scotty (Jimmy Doohan) has been busy rebuilding the ship, and so on. Then an alien object of incredible power appears, on a direct course for Earth – despite the Federation becoming aware of it while it’s still on the other side of the Klingon border, the only ship that can be scrambled to intercept it is the Enterprise, which suggests to me that Starfleet need to start building a lot more vessels.

Well, Kirk decides to lead the mission himself, royally ticking off the Enterprise‘s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and gets the old gang back together for this crucially important mission. Can they rediscover that old chemistry before the whole planet is toast?

The first thing to be said about TMP is that it was, after all, directed by Robert Wise, he of The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story fame, and he really does seem to have been trying to make a proper SF movie. The movie has a scope and a willingness to visually innovate that you don’t really find in the rest of the series, and there are some wonderful sequences – the opening battle between the alien probe and the Klingons being one of them, although I do recall being thrown by this at the time – while this sequence played a huge role in reimagining the Klingons for the 1980s and beyond, it’s only in retrospect that we are aware of this.

Of course, Wise’s own ambition, coupled to the unorthodox way in which this film was made, trips him up just as often. The special effects sequences for this movie were completed heart-stoppingly late and could not be re-edited or modified in any way before being inserted into the final print, and the result is sequences like Kirk’s trip to the Enterprise in spacedock via a cargo pod: this takes nearly five minutes, with no dialogue, just long, slow shots of the Enterprise, Kirk looking lovingly at it, the pod slowly flying past the Enterprise a bit more, Scotty looking with indulgent fondness at Kirk, more long, slow, shots of the Enterprise… the music is not too bad, but you inevitably start huffing and looking at your watch. Elsewhere, like many other ‘serious’ 70s films, the yardstick is obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, with journeys into the heart of the alien probe obviously designed to recall the star gate sequence from Kubrick’s film.

On the other hand, you wonder how much of the pseudo-mysticism and laborious philosophy in this movie has been put there by its producer and co-writer, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry by this point was keen to be viewed as some kind of visionary thinker as well as a TV and movie writer-producer, and this is perhaps why, every time he got his hands on Star Trek after the cancellation of the original TV show, he was very keen to impose his vision of the future on it, in an unadulterated form. So much of the life and lightness and wit of the TV series came from the work of writers like DC Fontana and Gene L Coon; you can draw a fairly solid line from The Cage (Roddenberry’s original pilot for the show) to TMP and then on to early episodes of Next Generation – none of these are light and zippy entertainment, all of them feature main characters who (initially at least) are best described as ‘stolid’, and the first two take place largely in shades of grey and brown – one wonders if the maroon command uniforms in Next Generation are only there to suggest continuity with the similar hues on display in the movies around that time.

These days it is well-known that TMP was, for part of its tortuous development process, intended to be the introductory episode of a TV series to be entitled Star Trek: Phase II, in which Kirk and a mixture of old and new characters (not including Spock) would set off on a series of new adventures. If you ask me, many of the problems with TMP become much more comprehensible if you consider that this was originally intended to be a TV pilot rather than a feature film.

For one thing, the key characters of the movie are not really recognisable – Kirk starts off driven and chilly, and only very gradually starts to warm up and become a sympathetic hero as Spock and McCoy slot into place around him. Spock himself is distant and conflicted for most of the movie. Only at the end of the story, in the concluding tag scene on the bridge, do the trio seem to have rediscovered the chemistry which made them so magical in the TV show. This would make perfect sense in the pilot for a new weekly TV show – the story shows them getting back together and remembering who they are, preparatory to further adventures in the rest of the series – but in a one-off movie, not having characters more identifiable from the original show is a serious misjudgement. Needless to say, Decker and new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) were also intended to be regulars in Phase II; Roddenberry appears to have been very attached to these characters and their relationship, seeing as he gave them the lightest of reworkings and stuck them in Next Generation under the new names of Riker and Troi.

Much of the creative DNA of The Motion Picture comes from its origins as a TV pilot, while the cinematic ambition of Robert Wise is a competing, rival influence. (I suppose we must also mention the way in which the movie recycles plots and ideas from TV series episodes, too, particularly The Changeling, though this is probably more an issue for your hard-core Trekkies than the average viewer.) No wonder it is a bit of a mess in may ways. Parts of it feel like the lavish, thoughtful movie it was clearly intended to be; other parts of it feel like a bad TV show. The main difficulty is that very little of it actually feels like original Star Trek, and that’s an immense problem for this kind of movie.

 

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Received wisdom, of course, is that it’s during the third season of the original Star Trek that the wheels really come off the enterprise (pun intended); but there’s also an argument that it’s during the back end of the second season that the problems start to show up. Innovation is replaced by repetition, which in turn becomes routine and then formula and cliché. All quite true, I will happily admit, and yet some of these very-nearly-reviled late second season episodes are amongst my favourites – guilty pleasures, perhaps, but still definitely pleasures.

Bread and Circuses is one of these. It’s the one where they go to the planet of the Romans, in accordance with Gene Roddenberry’s belief that visiting alternate Earths was a core element of the series. Unsurprisingly, Roddenberry (the Gene who created Star Trek) is one of the credited writers, along with Mr L. Coon (the Gene who really made it sing), which may explain why there are quite a few elements of this episode which do feel a bit familiar. The visit to the planet of the Romans is inevitably a little reminiscent of the visit to the planet of the Nazis (Patterns of Force, from earlier in the season), while central to the plot is the presence of a corrupted former Starfleet member in violation of his oath of non-interference (again, this distinctly recalls Roddenberry’s own The Omega Glory from just a couple of weeks earlier).

The plot, if you need reminding, goes like this. Having come across the wreckage of a ship which has been missing for years, the Enterprise traces it back to an inhabited planet with a technological civilisation roughly akin to that of Earth in the mid 20th century. It’s another one of those parallel Earths which are liberally sprinkled through the original series, which the crew blithely take in their stride, citing Hodgkin’s Principle of Parallel Planetary Development. Well, fair enough; good enough for Spock, good enough for me. However, on this world, the Roman Empire never fell and still rules – slavery is an institution and gladiatorial fights are broadcast on network TV. Alarmed to see that members of the missing ship’s crew have been forced to fight as gladiators, Kirk beams down with Spock and McCoy to see if there are any survivors still around – only to discover his old friend Captain Merik (William Smithers) has become part of the Imperial elite, and is determined that word of this planet’s existence will not be taken back to the Federation…

Original series Trek is dotted with episodes that get remembered for one particular moment or image – the one with the pizza monster, the one with the space hippies, the one with the bamboo cannon, I could go on and on. Bread and Circuses is, probably, the one with the televised gladiator fight (or possibly the one with the bizarre religious tag scene, which we shall duly come to), but there are other things about it I’m very fond of.

Of course, those gladiator fight scenes themselves, with their canned audience responses and the centurion snarling ‘Bring this network’s ratings down and we’ll do a number on you!’ is, obviously, meant satirically, and it’s satire with teeth when you consider Star Trek‘s own issues with network viewing figures at the time. The audience is practically beaten about the head by lines to the effect that this planet is in many ways incredibly similar to then-contemporary America, so this hardly qualifies as the most subtle subtext – there’s still something wonderfully understated about William Shatner’s delivery of the line ‘I’ve heard [20th century TV] was somewhat similar.’

Then again, by this point all the regulars know their characters inside out, so we get such cherishable moments as McCoy and Spock bickering even during a fight to the death, the later pay-off to this, and Scotty getting to play hard man while left in charge of the ship. Perhaps best of all is Kirk’s own super-coolness when forced to watch his friends in the arena – one of the themes of the episode is the difference between Kirk – a paragon, of course, of the improved humanity which Roddenberry believed so passionately in – and the flawed and failed Merik. Claudius expects Kirk to be just as weak, to crumble as his friends are threatened. ‘You find these games frightening, revolting,’ taunts the Proconsul. ‘Proconsul…’ Kirk permits himself a quiet smile. ‘In some parts of the galaxy I have seen forms of entertainment which make this look like a folk dance.’ Even if Kirk is just playing poker, he’s doing it masterfully.

(And there is, of course, the moment – becoming something of an institution by this point – where he gets some private alone-time with one of the local girls. One American pro-fan made a bold attempt to de-canonise Star Trek V by suggesting the whole movie is a piece of fanfic made by the inhabitants of this planet many years later, led by the son of Kirk who resulted from this brief liaison. I suppose I’ve heard nuttier ideas.)

One aspect of the episode which is very, very Roddenberry, and not really touched upon much when Bread and Circuses is discussed, is that it is essentially about personal principles and honour. As we are repeatedly told, the Enterprise is quite capable of laying waste to the Roman planet – whatever perils Kirk and the others face arise solely from their dedication to the principle of the Prime Directive and their duty to the other members of the crew. This being Star Trek, naturally they stick to their principles even in extremis, and in doing so inspire Merik to regain a little of his own honour by assisting them in their escape.

And it is just an escape: unlike their visits to the planet of the Nazis or the planet of the gangsters from earlier in the season, things on Romanworld are left more or less unchanged by the end of the Enterprise crew’s visit. (This is one of those rare occasions where the Prime Directive is actually respected, full stop, no quibbling.) It should be a slightly downbeat ending, but it isn’t, and that’s of course due to the rather hokey revelation that the Sun worshippers they’ve been hanging out with all episode are actually Son (of God) worshippers – good job they stressed the (utterly implausible) fact that the Romans speak contemporary English, or this gag would be dead in the water.

You know, I’m prepared to bet that when and if Star Trek: Discovery appears on our screens, it’s not going to include scenes where members of the supposedly humanistic and (at best) agnostic Federation sit around marvelling at the explicit influence of the Christian God over interplanetary affairs. (Kirk almost seems ready to beam back down and start handing out tracts outside railway stations.) There are few things that drive home the cultural shift from Judaeo-Christian dominance to humanistic pluralism quite as powerfully as the fact that this scene, which seems so peculiar to a 21st century audience, probably felt quite unexceptional to many people watching it in 1968.

So there is, in the end, a weird clash of moralities going on in this episode – on the one hand, the studied moral relativism of the Federation, as embodied in the Prime Directive, where it is totally wrong to assume any single ethical perspective has primacy. And on the other, the will of God, which seems to be pretty much the same across the galaxy. (Actually, if we assume the existence of God, as the episode clearly does, it goes a long way towards explaining just why there are so many identical planets where people speak English in the galaxy – things don’t have to make scientifically rational sense in a theistic universe.) I expect this gives many people a good reason to dislike Bread and Circuses, but, to be honest, the rest of the episode is so strong in the particular virtues of Star Trek that the theological craziness just makes me like it a bit more.

 

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