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Posts Tagged ‘Set Phasers to Stun: 50 Years of Star Trek’

At the cinema the other day I finally came across the trailer for Star Trek Beyond (I have been routinely referring to it as Star Trek Up The Khyber or Star Trek Beyond A Joke for some time now, so you may get some sense as to the modesty of my expectations), in all its Beastie Boys-playing, motorcycle-jumping, everyone in constant jeopardy-being absurdity, and even though I knew what to expect I felt a tiny sliver of my soul shrivel up and turn to ashes at the sight of it. Just another sign of the terrible pop cultural malaise of our times, if you ask me: Star Trek doesn’t really feel like Star Trek any more, James Bond doesn’t feel like James Bond, Star Wars doesn’t feel like Star Wars (actually, it isn’t, as friends are bored of hearing me say), and (most especially) Doctor Who doesn’t feel like Doctor Who. (It has been put to me that I am far too much of a purist in these matters. To which my response is, obviously: no I’m not.)

Oh well, if nothing else, it reminded me of the fact that – as I have said in the past – while Star Trek may not own my heart, it has a perfectly valid claim to one of my lungs. No-one has the capacity to hate Star Trek more than its own fans, in the same way that no-one is more critical of a poorly-performing sports team than its own supporters – the emotions and the dedication are more intense in every way. Anthropologically, I’m sure that the major fandoms are functionally very similar to the great religions – they all have their articles of faith, their canons, their subdivisions, splinter groups, and heresies. It’s all a question of devotion.

And it’s articulated quite well in Set Phasers to Stun: 50 Years of Star Trek, a look at the franchise in its entirety by Marcus Berkmann, writer, journalist, and semi-professional Fifteen-to-One contestant. (Berkmann’s credentials as one of the faithful are already known to those of us who remember his stint as a columnist for DWB twenty years ago, although I notice this doesn’t appear in his author biog.) With (as the title suggests) Trek‘s golden anniversary looming, I would predict a lot of this sort of thing before the end of the year (my own contribution is in ATB Publishing’s Outside In Boldly Goes – not sure whether this counts as full disclosure, a cheap plug, or both), and Berkmann has made the quite sensible decision to pitch his book at a general audience, presumably reasoning that the dedicated fanbase will likely pick it up anyway, while a more specialist tome would struggle to attract casual readers.

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The result is, essentially, a narrative history and appreciation of Star Trek in all its many incarnations, starting with Gene Roddenberry deciding it would be a good idea to create his own new TV show, and concluding with CBS All Action deciding it would be a good idea to recreate someone else’s old TV show (Berkmann is generous in his assessment of Roddenberry’s role in the creation of the original series, but the sheer weight of circumstantial evidence does paint a picture of a rather unpleasant character). As mentioned, this is a book more for the general reader, and the narrative is paced to reflect that – so the genesis of the original series and its various travails (network indifference, behind-the-scenes tensions, Fred Freiberger) are dealt with in considerable detail, as are the origins of the early movies, but as the franchise continues the focus pulls out to present a more general view, with Voyager and Enterprise receiving only the most general of overviews. (Occasionally he goes off on a tangent and delivers a quick appreciation of Space: 1999, Galaxy Quest, or the new Battlestar Galactica, and these may in fact get more attention than either of the most recent shows.)

(To be fair to him, Berkmann does say some very complimentary things about Deep Space Nine, which to my mind is the crowning achievement of what I suppose we must currently call mid-period Trek, but he makes the reasonable point that it does mark the moment at which the franchise left the cultural mainstream and took up residence in the cult ghetto.)

And I have to say that it’s all rather winningly done, extremely readable, highly informative, and often very funny indeed. I am, as you may have guessed, fairly well-versed in matters of Trek, but this is such a thorough and comprehensive telling of much of the story that I still feel like I learned a lot: and Berkmann retells some of the old stories, such as the extraordinary shenanigans surrounding the writing of the script for Wrath of Khan, so well that it’s no chore to go through them again. Berkmann has a very engaging prose style, although the general tone of the book – glib, ironic, amused – may not be to everyone’s taste (yes, yes: pot-kettle interface approaching).

His analysis of the episodes, too, is quite interesting, although inevitably tastes vary: he is very critical of Who Mourns For Adonis? and The Omega Glory, two episodes I personally find I can watch over and over again without feeling much in the way of fatigue, although on the other hand we (mostly) agree as to what the greatest treasures of the Trek canon are. Some of his more general observations chime very strongly with me too, unfashionable though they may be – I was particularly tickled by his crack that if Voyager were to be made today, Tom Paris, the only white male human amongst the principal characters, ‘would probably only have one leg’.

One common occurence when dedicated fans find themselves writing about the object of their devotion for a general audience is that they seem to feel obliged to establish their credentials as a ‘regular person’ – ‘hey, I’m one of you, I don’t take this stuff too seriously’ (when it’s fairly clear that they really do). Hence, from my own bailiwick, the notorious ‘any old **** with an Equity card’ gag which took Mark Gatiss so firmly off the Christmas card lists of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Things kick off in a similar vein here, with the author at pains to make it clear he’s not really a Trekkie himself (yeah, right), variously describing dedicated fans as ‘odd’ and ‘deranged’. Beyond this, Berkmann is really quite breathtakingly rude about certain of the Trek regulars – hilariously, but even so. ‘God knows what the food is like on Vulcan, but he appears to have eaten all of it,’ is his comment on Scotty/Jimmy Doohan putting on a fairly substantial amount of weight between Star Treks III and IV, while TNG should appeal to tree-lovers, we are told, because it features Jonathan Frakes, ‘who is about the same size and shape and apparently made of wood’.

In the end, though, the overall tone of the book is deeply appreciative, even loving. (When it comes things which are beloved in quite this way, even the mickey-taking is really a sign of love. Even the hate is a sign of love.) And I find myself to be quite on the same page as Berkmann when it comes to the current state of Star Trek, under the grim hand of JJ Abrams and his associates. Never mind what he says of the Freiberger episodes: Into Darkness is a ‘travesty’ that ‘MAKES NO SENSE’ (Berkmann’s caps). Again and again, this chimes with me, I know these feelings – Doctor Who stories like Meglos and Timelash are horrific duffers, but I hope and expect to watch them a few more times before I am absorbed into the great Matrix in the sky, whereas you would have to pay me a very substantial amount of money to watch most of Peter Capaldi’s episodes again.

Which leads me to wonder about the state of Star Trek today. Looking back on it, you could argue that the franchise underwent a surprisingly swift resurrection – rather less than five years passed between the end of Enterprise and the dawn of the Age of Abrams – but it’s whether you consider the recent movies to be a glorious reinvention of the concept or just cack-handed attempts to milk a well-known brand name made by people with no essential understanding of what makes great Star Trek so special. Were Star Trek‘s wilderness years surprisingly brief, or are we still, actually, in the middle of them? I suspect the incoming TV series, which it saddens me to realise I am probably quite unlikely to see, will help to provide some resolution. In the meantime, the series remains beloved, and I would say deservedly so, and Set Phasers to Stun does an excellent job of reminding you why this should be. A book as engaging, informative, and funny as this is a credit to any TV or film series.

 

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