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Posts Tagged ‘mysto-cobblers’

As you grow older and wiser, you kind of reach a point where you believe that you will never find yourself intentionally sitting down to watch Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ever again. But clearly this moment has not quite yet arrived. Look at that, two sentences in and I’m already putting the boot into the movie – but then few movies seem to be quite as eminently bootable as Star Trek V. Certainly, the first time you see it, it doesn’t just come across as a bad film, it seems almost bafflingly, inexplicably bad.

I remember my own first contact with Star Trek V. It was the Earth Year 1989 and this was the first Trek film I went to see with friends rather than family. It was the Monday afternoon showing on the first day of the Autumn half-term break. Three or four months had gone by since the film’s US release (believe it or not, this was extremely common at the time, young ones), and yet I seem to recall very few plot details had crossed the Atlantic – I don’t even recall having seen a trailer. So we settled down in the cinema, only marginally distracted by the presence some seats along and a row back of a girl I had been trying to impress for some weeks (the smallest member of our party was despatched to offer popcorn and other sweeties as propitiatory gifts until she told us to stop it). Well, the movie rolled, our excitement fizzled away, and at the end, subdued, we separated and wandered off into the rush-hour traffic in search of our buses. Possibly my most vivid memory of the whole afternoon is of something that happened at the bus stop: a somewhat frazzled-looking father was there with his bemused young son (telltale signs, I now realise, of recent exposure to Star Trek V). My ears pricked up as I heard their conversation.

(Plaintive incomprehension.) ‘Daddy, I don’t understand. I thought God was supposed to be a goodie?’

(A terrible weariness.) ‘Well, yes, but that wasn’t God, was it? Because God wouldn’t have tried to kill Captain Kirk.’

There are obviously things wrong with Star Trek V, but it is perhaps its contribution to the field of theology which makes it such a problematic film. Certainly its start is, well, not too bad. We open on the wasteland planet of Nimbus III, in the Neutral Zone between the major space powers, where everyone seems to be having a fairly miserable time. Fertile soil for interstellar cult leader, Vulcan revolutionary, and previously unmentioned long-lost brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) to gather a following, then. Sybok takes over Nimbus III and captures the ambassadors posted there.

Well, for once it isn’t quite the case that Starfleet doesn’t have any other ships in the area, but the admiralty reach the conclusion that a fully-functional ship with an experienced crew is not what the situation requires. A ship which is falling to bits, crewed by new and untested personnel, is a much better bet, just as long as the ship is commanded by James T Kirk! (You can tell that William Shatner wrote the story for this film himself, can’t you?) Shore leave is cancelled and the Enterprise warps off to Nimbus III in an attempt to get there ahead of some angry Klingons.

Well, Sybok proves a tricky fish to land, and succeeds in swaying the Enterprise crew to his cause. He reveals his true intent – he has had a vision of the fabled planet of Seanconnery (well, not quite, but the in-joke becomes blatant once you’re aware of it), at the heart of the galaxy, where resides the infinite wisdom of the Almighty and perhaps even God Himself…

The problems with Star Trek V surely started with the lawyers, back in the 1960s. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy struck a deal where they had a ‘favoured nation’ clause inserted into their Star Trek contracts, basically meaning that whenever Shatner got a pay rise or a bigger trailer, Nimoy automatically got one as well, and vice versa. So, when Nimoy was given the opportunity to direct a Star Trek movie, the producers were legally obligated to give Shatner a go, too, regardless of whether they thought it was in any way a good idea or not. It is safe to say that not everyone on the production was overjoyed at the news – George Takei’s response, on hearing the tidings, was a cry of ‘Oh, God! What are we going to do?!?’ (although to be fair he apparently found the experience of being directed by the Shat less gruelling than expected).

A lot of what’s wrong with Star Trek V boils down to Shatner’s original vision of the Enterprise going in search of God and having various encounters with spiritual beings – it seems like everyone he spoke to about this told him in no uncertain terms that this was a terrible premise for a movie, hence its slight modification in the final version (Shatner still seems pretty insistent that if he’d been permitted to make his original idea, rather than a film compromised by studio demands, budget requirements, fractious co-stars, and so on, it would have been much better – you have to admire the guy’s cojones, if nothing else).

So we can blame Shatner for the flawed central premise of the movie (and also for the casting the great David Warner and then giving him virtually nothing to do), but in the interests of fairness we should also consider the fact that culpability also lies with other people. If you look at the history of the Star Trek film franchise, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that Paramount Pictures viewed the series solely in terms of its money-making potential, with most of their decisions intended to maximise box office while reducing costs.

That policy really starts to bite here – this is a notably cheap-looking film with flat cinematography, and painfully primitive special effects – ILM were booked up doing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II that year, forcing the production to engage a cheaper effects house. The climax had to be completely reshot when the initial monster suit just didn’t work. And, perhaps more insidiously, Paramount concluded that the huge take of Star Trek IV was down to it being full of jokes, with the result that this film is, too, regardless of whether they’re tonally appropriate or in character – hence the utter, wince-inducing wrongness of those scenes where Scotty knocks himself out by walking into a bulkhead, Sulu and Chekov get lost on a hiking trip, and Uhura does a fan dance (the main troika emerge more or less unscathed, and director Shatner ensures actor Shatner’s gravitas remains uncompromised throughout).

But, what the hell, it’s not as if Shatner gets everything wrong – for one thing, he hires Jerry Goldsmith to do the soundtrack, so that’s pretty good. There’s a new take on the Klingon music, and the main theme from The Motion Picture returns (although this may have been a branding decision, given The Next Generation had been running for a year or two when this film came out). And, the character scenes with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy together do work – much better than most of those in The Motion Picture, if we’re honest.

Nevertheless, few films are as actively loathed as this one – never mind the movie’s impressive haul at the Golden Raspberry Awards, Gene Roddenberry himself announced parts of it had to be considered ‘apocryphal’, and at least one officially-licensed book has announced these events never actually happened (what we are seeing is an in-universe film made by aliens from the Roman planet in Bread and Circuses, which is why the characterisations are a bit off, not to mention some of the laws of physics). Perhaps it just reflects our somewhat ambiguous attitude towards Shatner himself these days.

Given the combination of 1989’s heavyweight summer release schedule (Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, License to Kill, Lethal Weapon 2, amongst others) and the fact that Star Trek was back on TV, Star Trek V would have to have been something pretty special in order to cut through and achieve the same kind of success as previous entries. If it is special, then that’s not in a good way, but you can’t lay all the blame on William Shatner. A good-sized chunk of it, maybe. But not all of it.

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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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Dear Jane,

Yet another of these increasingly infrequent collections of snarky comments about New BSG: I seem to be getting through about a season every six weeks, appreciably slower than was the case with Star Trek and Babylon 5 (to draw the most obvious parallels). This is not to say that I am finding the series to be irksome, or watching it to be a chore, but I do find myself increasingly sympathetic to the season-3-went-off-the-deep-end opinion which  I have read so widely.

The good news, for me, was that the series was no longer so obviously just a load of Bush-regime political allegory. The bad news was that it didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be instead: the odd good episode crept through, but there was an awful lot of soap opera-ish filler and mysto-cobblers.

This time’s runners and riders, with commentary:

The Eye of Jupiter: what did I tell you? Mysto-cobblers (the stuff with the temple and so on) and soap opera (Apollo and Starbuck’s thing). Thank God the series still has Edward James Olmos, who has enough presence to give a sequence like the cliffhanger here actual tension. Intellectually we know that nothing and no-one is going to get nuked, but Olmos still manages to sell it somehow. Good work that man.

Rapture: Certainly a contender for ‘least accurately titled episode in history’, based on my response to it. Soapy nonsense with the underused Dee and Starbuck in the (apparently) only slightly wrecked Raptor, mysto-nonsense with Doc Baltar and Xena-Cylon. Presumably Lucy Lawless didn’t want to sign on for the duration which is why they write all the Xena-Cylons out after this episode. Shame.

Taking A Break From All Your Worries: This is the Doc Baltar-psychodrama episode, isn’t it? To be honest most of this bunch just sort of blur together in my head as the writers seem to be scrabbling to find stuff to fill space until the season finale. The Doc Baltar-psychodrama stuff is passable but I could’ve really done without yet more on the Starbuck-Apollo-Dee-Sam relationship. No-one ever listens to me, not even people in the past.

The Woman King: Hmmm, I was initially put in mind of the Babylon 5 episodes Believers and Confessions and Lamentations (doctor must come to terms with differing belief systems and there’s a plague! episodes respectively) but this didn’t turn out to be either of those. Reasonably engaging as a Helo episode, mainly because he seems like a decent guy who’s had a raw deal from the scriptwriters (a whole season stuck on Cylon-occupied Caprica, and so on. Hopefully I will never have to type the words C****-o******* C****** ever again).

A Day in the Life: I had to think hard to work out which one this is. It’s the one where Chiefy and Cally get stuck in the airlock, isn’t it? It’s not quite as bad as the someone-gets-stuck-in-the-lift episode of Deep Space Nine, but it’s getting there. Snoozy snoozy filler.

Dirty Hands: Finally an episode which genuinely interested me and which I really enjoyed, mainly because there’s no soapy character stuff and no mysto-cobblers either, just an attempt to look at the actual ramifications of these people’s situation and how it would impact on them both personally and as a society. Reminded me of the ‘dock workers go on strike’ episode of Babylon 5, in a good way, the only really bum note being Doc Baltar’s ludicrous Yorkshire accent during his scene with Chiefy.

Maelstrom: Now, regular readers aware of which character on this show I find particularly annoying may be expecting me to have done my happy dance at this point – but, truth be told, I already knew full well that when your writers are losing the plot, death is usually only a temporary inconvenience. I mean, this episode isn’t badly done considering it’s about a character who really winds me up, and at least there’s the funny anecdote about Edward James Olmos ad libbing smashing the ship at the end and not realising it was only rented from the prop suppliers. Oh, those actors!

Try as I might I can't find a picture of Starbuck actually exploding. So this will have to do.

Try as I might I can’t find a picture of Starbuck actually exploding. So this will have to do.

The Son Also Rises: Hey, classy pun. Of course, the prospect of a few Starbuck-free episodes is offset by the inevitability of an episode where everyone goes on and on about how wonderful she apparently was. This one is at least enlivened by the pieces for the end-of-season slowly starting to grind into place and the presence of Mark Sheppard. Now, I like Mark Sheppard, but here I was somewhat thrown by another dodgy accent: does his character hail from the obscure colony of Leprekon? Hum.

Crossroads: You can’t beat a good courtroom drama for some cheap and easy dramatic beats, even if you always knew deep down that Doc Baltar wasn’t going out the airlock. Oh, I don’t know: engaging enough, I suppose, even if the whole proceedings felt like they had a bodged-together quality – an artificial climax rather than a natural one. And then we come to the big revelations at the end. Am I supposed to conclude that Bob Dylan is a Cylon? If Bob Dylan is not the Imperious Leader after all, and what we are dealing with instead is a strange example of convergent songwriting (having seen all those Trek episodes about parallel Earths I’m prepared to go with this), why are the pantheistic colonists writing songs based on the monotheistic Book of Isaiah? There is a huge amount here which is suspect, perhaps even bordering on the preposterous in places, and that’s before we even get to you-know-who reappearing at the end. Plotwise, at this point the series looks like it’s at the point of just coming totally unravelled, and I’m fascinated to see if they can hold it together remotely credibly for another season.

 

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