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Hmmm: I seem to have run out of Star Trek films to write about. If only there was more Trek of some kind, not necessarily movies, that I could occasionally cast an eye over… wait a minute!

Ah, God bless Netflix. They may not have all the movies (at least they didn’t, last time I checked), but they do have all the TV episodes, which will extend to include Discovery, when it eventually arrives in our quadrant of the galaxy. To be perfectly honest this is (if you’ll pardon the expression) the best of all worlds, from my point of view, as while there are individual episodes of all the Berman-era series that I like very much, the prospect of expending money and space on buying all of them on DVD makes me quail a bit – in the latter couple of shows, certainly, there’s just a bit too much filler I can’t honestly imagine myself watching again more than once, at most.

Still, Next Gen and Deep Space Nine, when they were in their groove, offered up consistently good and interesting stories on pretty much a weekly basis. Picking an episode more-or-less at random, I ended up watching I, Borg, written by Rene Echevarria, one I hadn’t seen since its first BBC transmission back in 1995 (if memory serves, and it usually does). This is from the back end of Next Gen‘s fifth season, when the show was routinely smashing it with great confidence, and while you can perhaps take issue with some elements of the conception of the episode, its execution is strong.

The Enterprise is (for once) doing some exploring in an uncharted system when the ship picks up a signal from a crashed ship on an icy moon. Following the unwritten code of the spaceways, Captain Picard sends down an away team to minister to any survivors who may have come through the crash, but things take a somewhat unexpected turn when the wreck has an ominously cube-shaped aesthetic, and the sole survivor is, indeed, a young Borg drone (Jonathan Del Arco)…

Almost at once, things don’t follow the usual pattern: a sign of the dread the Borg inspire in even our well-adjusted Starfleet heroes. Picard’s initial instinct is to leave the drone to die, on the grounds that it would be insanely dangerous to bring it onto the ship, and pointless to give succour to an implacably deadly enemy of civilisation as they know it. Dr Crusher takes a different view and refuses to leave without at least stabilising the injured Borg. Picard eventually relents and allows the Borg onto the ship, under tight security – but, it is implied, this is because he is already brewing up a plan to use it as a weapon against the Borg Collective as a whole. Infecting the drone with (effectively) malware and then allowing it to rejoin the Collective should result in the disintegration of the Borg hive-mind, and remove the Federation’s single greatest enemy.

It’s interesting that Picard seems to have ginned up this somewhat uncharacteristic plan off his own bat – it’s never explicitly stated that Starfleet Command or anyone at the Federation has signed off on it. Just how much initiative is Picard granted? He is, after all, contemplating instigating genocide. But is it genocide? The Borg are neither a discrete species nor a genuine culture as it is routinely understood. Does this, or their inherent hostility to non-Borg, justify what Picard is planning?

Well, needless to say, some of the crew have doubts, too, especially Crusher and Geordi, who are tasked with studying the drone and preparing the Borg-toppling computer virus. Of necessity kept isolated from the Collective, the drone begins to show signs of emotional distress and other behaviour not usually associated with the Borg, even adopting a personal name, Hugh. In short, the drone is rapidly becoming an individual being. Can Picard’s plan still be justified?

If you’re going to have a serious problem with I, Borg, then it’s probably because this is the episode which starts to dispel the deadly mystique of the Borg as a genuinely terrifying and unstoppable force. This is only the third Borg episode, and prior to this they are notable for the sheer terror they inspire in the regular characters and everyone else in the Federation, and their capacity to wreak utter havoc with less advanced species. This is the episode which begins to humanise them a bit (for want of a better word), indicating that they are not all irretrievably bad or hostile, and opening the door for the eventual appearance of a regular Borg character a few years later. I doubt it would have been possible to maintain the Borg as the implacable menace of their initial appearances over a large number of episodes, but still: perhaps better hardly to use them at all than to water them down as happens from this point on.

By this point in time, Next Gen was usually very much a character-based show – while watching an episode, you can normally say ‘This is a Riker story’ or ‘This is a Worf story’ – and one slightly odd thing about I, Borg is that it’s not immediately clear who the focus is on. In fact, it seems to have something of a split focus, which is quite rare. Much of the story concerns Geordi’s burgeoning friendship with Hugh – well, it kind of makes sense, as Geordi’s best friend is also a synthetic life form, and he’s a bit cybernetic himself – and this proceeds in the kind of way you would expect, though it’s well-played by both performers.

What’s more interesting, and probably the best element of the episode, is the reaction of not only Picard but also Guinan to the presence of the Borg (Guinan, it’s implied, only hears about the drone’s arrival second or third hand, which leads one to wonder how much the ship’s civilian contingent are aware of the peril Picard routinely takes them into). Usually, Picard is a man of impeccable moral judgement; he always says and does the right thing. Usually, Guinan is carefully non-judgemental, and only offers good advice to the rest of the crew. And yet in this episode, the memory of their experiences with the Borg lead them to behave very differently. Guinan initially criticises the captain for not leaving the Borg to die, and is hostile to Geordi’s suggestion it is changing. Picard’s attitude is very similar, brusquely telling Geordi to ‘unattach’ himself from the drone.

The heart of the episode is a scene in which Picard interrogates Hugh – Hugh recognises Picard as his Borg persona, Locutus, which the captain adopts (rather chillingly). As Locutus, Picard argues in favour of the assimilation of the Enterprise and its crew, and it’s Hugh who rejects this and resists the idea. Hugh’s rejection of the Borg philosophy is what convinces Picard of his individuality, and the wrongness of the virus plan.

Which leads us to the slightly peculiar ending of the episode, in which Hugh goes back to the Borg Collective, mainly to ensure they don’t hunt down and destroy the Enterprise in the course of retrieving him. But Picard has hopes that Hugh’s sense of individuality will cascade throughout the hive-mind and fundamentally affect the nature of the Borg.

Now, I agree that introducing a hostile pathogen into an entity to utterly destroy it is morally questionable, especially when you use an unwitting sentient creature as your vector of infection. However, I’m not at all sure that this suddenly becomes acceptable when your hostile pathogen is an alien pattern of thought – in this case, the liberal humanistic outlook which is at the heart of Trek‘s philosophy. Does Picard honestly think this concept is going to have pleasant effects on the utterly monolithic and hive-minded Borg Collective? He’s basically still carrying out the same plan, it’s just that his weapon is now philosophical rather than technological in nature. The end result will surely be the same. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Star Trek‘s devotion to liberal humanism is so absolute that the writers find it literally inconceivable that it could in any way be considered in a negative light.

Normally, I would tend to agree, but the episode has made such a fuss about the moral basis of Picard’s actions that this does strike me as a little dubious. I suppose you could argue that Picard’s get-out is that he’s only respecting Hugh’s desires as an individual, and the introduction of the lethal individuality-meme into the Collective is happening naturally and incidentally, rather than as a result of premeditated action by the Enterprise crew. But I still think he’s on unusually thin ice, morally speaking. As I say, an episode with some pleasingly complex and thought-provoking stuff going on under the surface, from a series near the top of its game.

 

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The people at Modiphius, makers of the latest Star Trek role-playing game, could be forgiven a slight case of nervousness at the moment. Licenses for these big-name properties don’t come cheap, and they have clearly put a lot of time and effort into the new game. One suspects they may not have been anticipating the underwhelming response to Star Trek Beyond and the general lack of buzz around the golden anniversary of Trek. In terms of the franchise’s future, a lot may be riding on the success of Discovery (perhaps a bit worryingly). There are already plenty of reasons to wish for a renaissance in Star Trek‘s fortunes and quality – the fact this would help the chances of a game which has clearly been something of a labour of love is just one more.

I’ve been playing Trek RPGs since the late 1980s – mainly in the form of the original FASA game and its associated starship combat system. Fond of them though I am, the FASA rules were, to the modern eye, very clunky and war-gamey, and failed to address some of the inherent problems in trying to simulate the Trek experience in an RPG: namely, everyone wanted to play a Vulcan, as the racial component of character creation was rather unbalanced, and the issue of the guy playing the captain turning into a despot (or junior characters being wildly insubordinate) was basically left for the GM to deal with.

Star Trek Adventures is a much slicker and more modern game that makes a decent attempt at addressing these kinds of issues. There is much to like about it, a little that I am slightly dubious about, and a few things that I think are just a bit odd. First amongst the oddities is the way that the game is clearly being marketed as a (for want of a better word) universal Star Trek RPG, with the option for games set in the 22nd, 23rd, or 24th centuries (or, to put it another way, the Archer, Kirk, and Picard eras).

Well, to some extent this is true, but the rulebook makes it clear quite early on that the default setting for the game is the year 2371 (the Enterprise-D is about to go on its final mission, the crew of Deep Space Nine are engaged in their cold war with the Dominion, and the Voyager is preparing for its ill-fated mission to the Badlands). The rationale for this is that there are plenty of options for adventure here, with other ships being called upon to fill in for the lost Enterprise, etc, but it’s hard to shake the impression that this decision was largely made for licensing reasons.

The Trek rights situation is rather complex, but basically this game was licensed by the holders of the rights to the TV shows rather than the movies, and so the game’s ability to include material from big-screen Trek seems to be very limited. The art primarily features Picard-era characters (judging by the uniforms), with a few pictures of people in Kirk-era gear, but there’s no sign of the red tunics from the Harve Bennett/Nick Meyer films or the dark uniforms introduced in First Contact. Events from some of the movies are touched upon, but only very occasionally; there’s no mention of the Abrams timeline at all (so it’s not all bad news).

The people writing this game really seem to know their lore and be dedicated to providing a proper Star Trek experience for players, so it’s very unlikely that this was an entirely voluntary choice – and, to be fair, I get the sense that Picard-era Trek is still the most popular with the fanbase, and so many people will be looking to play in this era, in which case the late-24th century default setting shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

On the other hand, if your game’s setting moves away from about 2370, there’s a sense in which the options the game presents you start to become limited. Several of the PC racial options are designated ‘Next Generation era only’, while there are no ‘original series era only’ choices. It’s most noticeable when it comes to the Federation ship classes presented as player options. Of the nine ships in the book, the Akira, Constellation, Defiant, Galaxy, Intrepid and Nova classes are obviously Next Gen only, while the Miranda and Excelsior classes bridge the original cast movies and the Next Gen era. The only original series ship offered is the Constitution class (to be fair, there aren’t any other canon ship classes from this period). There are no stats for the NX-class starship at all, despite Archer-era play still supposedly being an option. Also absent are stats for the refitted Enterprise, and the Sovereign-class – both of which are essentially movie-only designs.

This feels odd and perhaps a little irritating more than anything else, because the basic rules lend themselves equally well to recreating all periods of Trek. Any differences will most likely be ones of emphasis and style, and this is touched on to about the degree you’d expect in a core book – there’s a brief section on how the final frontier was a bit wilder in Kirk’s time (the late 2260s) and how ships operated more independently of Starfleet, but not much when it comes to creating period-authentic scenarios, for instance.

(I’m not sure this isn’t a big misjudgement, given the 2260s are arguably the most iconic Trek setting, especially for gamers who aren’t Trekkies. The idea of being off in unexplored space encountering strange new worlds (etc) may well be rather more appealing to some game groups than (say) getting heavily involved in pre-Dominion War faction politics, especially if they’re not familiar with DS9. Plus, you get to fight it out with the Klingons with a totally clear conscience, seeing as they’re definitely all bad guys at that point in history.)

The rules themselves are admirably simple, to start with at least, with a roll-some-d20s-and-beat-this-number mechanic. Target numbers vary from 8 to 16, depending on a characters competence (they are based on Attribute + Discipline) with extra successes being generated if you roll well or have an applicable focus (basically, a skill specialisation). The six disciplines each relate to one of the branches of Starfleet and are left admirably vague – the ‘security’ discipline covers everything from interrogating a prisoner to getting into a phaser battle. Characters also have a bunch of talents which can help them in various ways, too.

There’s also the seemingly-obligatory narrative system, which in this game deals with Momentum and Threat: characters can convert extra successes into something called Momentum, which is a group resource characters can spend to buy extra d20s, do more damage, get more information from the GM, and so on. Threat is basically the same but is a GM resource to make life harder for the players; it does require the GM to be on the honour system and not sneakily introduce complications (etc) if they don’t have any Threat to spend. (PCs generate Threat in a number of ways – by avoiding lethal injuries, or by using certain pieces of equipment, for instance phaser rifles or photon torpedoes.)

So far so good, but I’m a little dubious about some of the advanced rules the book presents, in which some situations are handled using ‘extended tasks’ with a new set of terminology – the book starts going on about ‘Work Tracks’, ‘Breakthroughs’, and ‘Magnitude’, and even if all this is strictly necessary for a good game experience, I’m not sure the more abstruse elements of the rules are explained sufficiently. At least the book makes it clear they are only advanced options.

The core rules encourage the GM to ensure there are a number of routes to solving any crisis the characters end up in – ‘Red, Blue, and Gold solutions’ – and there are some nice rules for using the scientific method in true Trek-style. Inevitably, though, there’s a combat system, and it’s, well, okay. One of the striking things about the FASA game was how spectacularly deadly ranged weapons were – this is a very modern game, in that PCs will have to be quite determined or very unlucky to die. It’s theoretically possible to take a bat’leth in the face from an enraged Klingon and walk away without a scratch – the same is true of a shot from a disruptor rifle, or indeed anything else. (Here the game theoretically requires the use of proprietary dice, but it’s much easier to work around this than it is with, for example, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars game.)

The system seems likely to work much better when it comes to starship combat (although, as with many of the rules systems, the wise GM will spend time preparing cheat sheets first detailing just what the various options are for the different bridge positions), mainly because many Trek ship battles are basically slugging matches that take a long time to resolve. I anticipate that major battles will feature a lot of battering away at the opposition’s shields, desperate redistribution of the power network, captains yelling orders at their crew, systems being knocked offline, and so on. Although there is also a somewhat streamlined system for when you just want to blow up a Klingon bird-of-prey without a lot of messing about.

Hmm, you may be wondering, but what’s the ship’s counsellor doing during these epic starship battles? Just sitting there yelling ‘Captain, I sense hostility’? (If your game group even contains someone interested in playing the counsellor, your players are better adjusted than any I’ve ever met.) And, for that matter, what’s the tactical officer doing while everyone’s trying to cure the Valargian plague and tend to its victims?

Well, one fairly bold idea Star Trek Adventures really runs with is the idea of troupe-style play, where everyone runs one main character and has access to a group of minor characters who can be activated as the situation demands it. So, if you really want to be faithful to the TNG vibe and leave the captain on the ship all the time, you can: the guy who runs the captain can play a redshirt or an away team specialist for a while, and if something kicks off on the ship while the away team is, um, away, everyone else can play the bridge crew understudies. These supporting characters can even develop and advance if they recur from one scenario to the next. Given this is basically what happened to Worf and O’Brien on the TV show, this feels ‘right’, and hopefully players will embrace it (it also helps ameliorate the psycho captain problem, as most people will get to be senior officer at least part of the time).

Character generation is rather pleasing, though purists will probably object that Vulcans have been left underpowered in the name of game balance – they have the same attribute limits as Humans, which is hardly what the canon suggests. There isn’t the greatest selection of races, but there are guidelines for creating your own, along with unique characters. (Starship creation is similar to PC creation, and it’s quite easy to homebrew your own stats for the NX, or the Sovereign class, or the Ambassador class, or any of the wacky old FASA ships.) You can even randomly create your character for the most part, which is a lovely retro touch – though this does create the possibility of a PC group consisting of four science officers and a helmsman, which could lead to some curious game experiences.

The core book does not include stats for any named canon characters, which is perhaps a little regrettable as they would at least provide examples of Values (a narrative-based character element). The closest we get, weirdly enough, is a stat block for the planet-killing robot vessel from The Doomsday Machine. (There are generic stat blocks for the major adversarial races – no Gorn, alas – and their ships. They don’t quite come out and say Borg cubes can only be destroyed by a plot device, but it’s a near thing.)

Time and again, looking through this book, I was struck by the writers’ obvious and genuine love of Star Trek, both in terms of the lore – details as obscure as the registration numbers of mentioned vessels are correct – and the look and feel of the game. There’s even a roll-your-own-alien-race-of-the-week table, along with a similar one for randomly creating strange new worlds and new civilisations.

I suppose the downside of this, when coupled to the fact the game is clearly aimed at existing Trekkies, is that some of the background material assumes familiarity with the universe. A few fewer knowing in-universe documents would have made room for, say, an actual timeline of the Trek universe, detailing what went on and when. But this is a minor quibble – even Wikipedia has one of those these days.

I only have the PDF of Star Trek Adventures, but I am sufficiently impressed with it to be seriously considering acquiring the physical book and pitching it to my current group as something to consider when our current Star Wars game reaches a natural break point. The art is great, the look of the thing is very authentic (although nearly 400 pages of white-on-black LCARS text may lead to eyestrain), and really the only other negative I can think of to say about it is that the starter adventure looks a bit weak. Whether we ever get the ambitious range of quadrant- and section-specific sourcebooks Modiphius have announced, let alone era- or race-specific ones (you just know the Klingon lobby will be demanding this), is still up in the air, but I hope this game does well, because the world could always use more classic Star Trek, and classic Star Trek seems to be baked into the essence of this game. An impressive take on a tough property to get right.

 

 

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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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Further extracts from The Lacklustre Film Blogger’s Guide to Behaving Badly at the Cinema:

June 10th, in the Earth Year 1997 – your correspondent and a bloke called Pete are leaving Huddersfield’s premier fleapit cinema, having just watched Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element.

‘I really don’t know what to make of that,’ I said. ‘That was either one of the greatest, most imaginative films I’ve ever seen, or a massive load of poo.’

Pete considered this for about a quarter of a second. ‘Poo,’ he said.

I gave his answer equally careful appraisal. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said.

Earlier Today – and, despite my experience a couple of decades ago, I make it to the front of the queue for Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular.

‘Hello. One for Valerian and the Unnecessarily Long Title, please.’

I have to hand it to the serving minions at the city centre multiplex, they’re getting quite used to this sort of thing, and I got my ticket with barely a raised eyebrow. I note that even the exhibitors agree with me on the name thing, for on the ticket it’s just called Valerian.

The full title is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and it is based on the long-running French SF comic strip Valerian and Laureline. As you might therefore expect, this is a distinctly pulp-SF influenced movie, all served up with the restraint, self-awareness, and iron narrative control that are the hallmarks of a Luc Besson movie (NB: irony is present).

The movie is set in the kind of universe where you expect everyone to have ‘Space’ in front of their job titles just to make it absolutely clear what’s going on. After some prefatory goings-on, we meet Space Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Space Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are space government security agents. They are initially engaged in retrieving an extremely endangered space animal from the clutches of space gangsters in a very peculiar market, surrounded by space tourists, and things become a little awkward when Valerian gets his arm stuck in another dimension.

All this resolved, the duo head off to Alpha Station, which is basically the International Space Station, shoved off into deep space when it became too big and unwieldy (look, just go with it). Now it is the titular hub of galactic diplomacy and commerce, but a mysterious force is threatening to destroy it. Space Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), Valerian and Laureline’s space boss, has summoned them (and the space animal) as he thinks it may help in resolving the crisis. But before they can get anywhere, the meeting of top space brass comes under attack from mysterious aliens…

I feel I should go on record and reiterate that I am genuinely a fan of Luc Besson and his uniquely uninhibited style of film-making – whatever else you can say about the Besson canon, the movies themselves are rarely dull. That said, my experiences watching The Fifth Element, together with the fact that Valerian (I’m not typing that whole title every time) has already been declared a box ofice bomb in the States, did lead me to lower my expectations in this particular case. Was this justified? Well…

Actually, for the first few minutes I had real hopes that the States had got it wrong, for the opening sequence of Valerian is very nearly magical: Bowie plays on the soundtrack, and Besson moves from the manned space missions of the 1970s into a lavishly imagined future depicting the human race spreading out into the galaxy and befriending alien races. It’s rare to come across something so unashamedly optimistic in modern SF, and it’s quite charming.

However, from here we go to the alien CGI planet of Mul, where androgynous aliens do peculiar alien things while conversing in an alien language. All of this eventually turns out to be relevant to the plot, but while you’re watching it, it just seems like a lot of rather smug CGI aliens prancing about endlessly, and all that goodwill rapidly drains away.

The introduction of our two heroes doesn’t help much, and here I feel we must digress momentarily to issues of casting: Valerian appears to have been written as a loveable, wisecracking rogue, someone who on the face of things is a slightly dubious character, but who’s really a reliable and principled hero when the chips are down. The part is really crying out for someone like Guy Pearce – perhaps I’m thinking of him because his performance from the 2012 Besson movie Lockout would have been note-perfect here – or another actor who can do that effortless, tough guy charisma. Instead, they have cast Dane DeHaan, a capable actor but one whose most distinctive quality is that he always gives the impression he’s in dire need of a nice hot meal and a long lie down.

On the other hand, one of the notable things about Valerian is that it reveals Cara Delevingne to be a rather engaging screen presence – she shows every sign of being able to act a bit, unlike many other MTAs, and (obviously) the camera seems very fond of her, especially when she’s working with the right hair and costume people. Just goes to show you shouldn’t judge anyone on the strength of their contribution to Suicide Squad, I guess, and given she’s at least as integral to the action as DeHaan’s character, I wonder why the whole movie isn’t called Valerian and Laureline? Hey ho.

That said, DeHaan and Delevingne are not noticeably gifted with chemistry when they’re sharing the screen, which is a problem as many of their scenes revolve around Valerian’s somewhat febrile eagerness to take their relationship to the next level, and her problematic reluctance (I guess rank has lost some of its privileges in the future). Lack of chemistry, a shortage of snap in the supposedly snappy dialogue, and the fact that the two experienced space security agents seem to be characterised as snarky Millennials meant that it took me a long time to warm up to the duo.

In the end, what successes the film has are largely down to its visual imagination – this is a vast, whimsical galaxy that isn’t obviously derived from any single source, although there are obviously touches of the stellar conflict franchise, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sprinkled across it. It all looks very lavish and vibrant, even in 2D, but if you have an issue with endless CGI characters and backgrounds this is not the movie for you. There is lots of creative imagery and some inventively silly high-tech weaponry on display.

How much you enjoy Valerian will probably boil down to your ability to just lie back and enjoy the look and feel of the thing, while ignoring the many and serious issues with the plot and scripting. I’ve been assimilating every book on story structure I can lay my grubby little protuberances on recently, so perhaps I’m over-sensitive to this kind of thing, but given Luc Besson is credited with writing nearly fifty movies, Valerian is strikingly shoddy and haphazard in the script department. The plot is about trying to stop the destruction of an imaginary place we don’t know much about by an abstract force, the hero seems more concerned with his love life than any weightier concerns, and there are vast rambling detours away from the main plot – a major, lengthy sequence featuring Ethan Hawke as a space pimp and Rihanna as a shape-shifting space pole dancer could be totally excised without materially affecting the actual story of the film.

People have a go at the stellar conflict prequel movies for focusing on CGI and spectacle over actually having a coherent narrative, but only at their very worst are they quite as self-indulgent and lacking in focus as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Now, I like this kind of sci-fi (I’m on record as preferring the prequel trilogy to the recent Disney-Abrams stellar conflict offering), but even so I find it quite hard to say anything especially positive about Valerian beyond vaguely praising its incidental imagination, and of course Cara Delevingne’s hair. I’m not sure any audience will be quite captivated by the film’s impressive visuals sufficiently to overlook its serious shortcomings in the storytelling department.

 

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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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After some reflection, I am going to do something I generally try to avoid, and slap a general ‘Spoiler Alert‘ on these reviews of the Big Finish Survivors audio plays. These are, as I’ve said before, comparatively new pieces of work, unlike the 40-year-old TV show on which they’re based, and there are probably people out there who’d be interested in them who aren’t familiar with the details of the plots yet. Yet it’s quite difficult to write about them without going into at least a little detail concerning the stories and characters. So, be warned: key revelations lie ahead.

The most obvious difference between the first couple of stories on the initial boxed set and the concluding pair (with which we shall concern ourselves today) is that Revelation and Exodus were largely about new characters, with only a comparatively small cameo from Lucy Fleming as Jenny. Episodes three and four (for this does ultimately resolve itself into a single story, albeit a slightly rambling one) feel very different, mainly because they’re largely focused on Jenny and Greg (played, of course, by Fleming and Ian McCulloch). We even get a bookending sequence with a cameo from Carolyn Seymour as Abby.

As Andrew Smith’s Judges begins, we have jumped forward from somewhere in the middle of the first TV episode, The Fourth Horseman, to around the end of episode twelve, Something of Value, and Greg and Jenny are heading to the south-east of England in search of much-needed supplies for the community at the Grange. Abby is dead set against this, of course, but it’s not like Greg to pay much attention to her, is it?

On the outskirts of London they meet another party of survivors looking to get out of the city, led by Phil, a former policeman. Could they be new recruits for the Grange community? Before they can find out, however, they encounter a patrol from the enclave led by former lecturer Gillison, and are taken in for questioning.

By now the listener is well aware that Gillison is a prime example of that prominent Survivors archetype, the small man turned post-apocalyptic despot, but none of the other characters know his capacity for ruthlessness – yet. Gillison quite reasonably clocks that Greg is an extremely handy and resourceful fellow to have about, and ropes him into a plan to survey the area using helicopters from Heathrow and make contact with any other communities they may find. But is that really what he’s up to?

On first listening, my response to Judges was heavily coloured by the simple fact that it has McCulloch and Fleming in it, playing Greg and Jenny again after all these years. As I’ve already said, the recreation of the characters is almost uncanny – it takes no effort at all to imagine Greg’s parka and that little cap he used to wear, even if he probably wouldn’t actually be wearing them (the episode is set in early summer). The script captures the characters superbly – Jenny is perhaps a touch stronger than she was at this point on TV, but that’s no bad thing.

The bulk of the story inevitably recalls Lights of London a little, in that it deals with an encounter with an urban settlement under the control of suspect leadership. Once again, no bad thing, but on reflection you do wonder what’s going on with the whole helicopter plan, given it’s eventually established that Gillison has a paranoid hostility towards any other group of survivors. Presumably he just wants to know where they are so he can move against them later. There’s also a very slight loose end, in that Smith wheels on some shotgun (more likely rifle)-toting raiders at one point, simply to service the plot.

Andrew Smith started his career as the youngest-ever writer on Doctor Who, responsible for the really-not-too-bad-at-all story Full Circle in 1980 (also its equally really-not-too-bad-at-all novelisation a couple of years later), but then decided to pack in writing for a successful career in the police (he has since retired from the fuzz and become something of a Big Finish regular). You get a sense of this background in the scenes with Phil, the ex-copper who still feels a sense of social responsibility even though society is in ruins. At one point there’s a genuinely interesting discussion of what it means to talk about law and order in a post-apocalyptic world, and it’s clearly the work of someone who has devoted serious thought to the concept of justice, as well as one who’s spent serious time at the business end of law enforcement. Unfortunately it doesn’t really inform the plot, which eventually turns out to be a mixture of drama and action-adventure about Gillison being a despotic control freak.

Episode four is John Dorney’s Esther, which continues along the same lines: Gillison is refusing to let Greg and Jenny (or indeed anyone else) leave, fearing they will come back with reinforcements and try to unseat him. The atmosphere in the community is growing more and more fraught as Gillison becomes more openly autocratic and authoritarian. Can our heroes make it out alive in time to get back to the Grange for the final episode of the first TV season?

It sounds like I’m suggesting that Greg and Jenny’s script immunity is the biggest problem in creating drama in Esther, which is not actually the case – you’re interested in the fates of the new characters, too, and they have no such guarantee of survival. The main issue with Esther is that it ultimately turns out to be a bit, well, melodramatic.

If there’s an ongoing theme throughout this first audio series, it’s that of the gradual transformation of Gillison from a slightly irritating polytechnic lecturer to a totally unhinged tyrant. And, largely as a result of the last episode, I’d say this doesn’t really work, because Gillison goes just too mad too quickly for it to feel credible – it’s happening more because the plot requires it than for any other reason. This is particularly awkward because Dorney makes a point of including flashbacks to his pre-plague life in an attempt to explain just why he has turned out in this way. It’s these flashbacks, by the way, that provide the sole pretext for titling the episode Esther – the theme of naming the episodes after books of the Bible is fair enough, but they have to stretch with this one, and it inevitably ends up feeling a little bit contrived as a result.

It’s well-played by all concerned, and you can never find much fault with Big Finish’s sound design, but in the end I would have to say that this is a set which starts off strongly but wobbles significantly towards the end. There are still more than enough strengths here to make me want to stick with this range, however.

 

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In the late 1970s and early 1980s you couldn’t move for hot young directors having a go at making SF and fantasy movies – George Lucas made the first of his stellar conflict movies, Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paul Schrader made Cat People, John Milius made Conan the Barbarian, and Ridley Scott made Alien. Now some of these were a bit (or more than a bit) derivative, or adaptations of works in other media, but hardly any of them were straight remakes of earlier films. Perhaps this was because most films in this genre prior to only a few years prior to that point had been a little simplistic, not offering much potential to work with.

The exception, in both respects, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, originally directed by Don Siegel in 1956 and remade by Philip Kaufman in 1978. Kaufman was later involved in the early stages of scripting Raiders of the Lost Ark, while this is (of course) one of the great immortal bankers of SF and horror cinema, with Jack Finney’s novel spawning four big-screen adaptations so far – the 1956, 1978, and 1993 movies all have their supporters, but on the other hand the 2007 film (retitled simply The Invasion and starring Nicole Kidman) was such a critical and popular failure that we may be waiting a good few years for another remake.

Kaufman’s take on Body Snatchers gets to the nub of the issue more quickly than most, opening with a sequence on a bleak alien world where strange, amorphous life-forms cluster and ripple, releasing tiny spores. We follow the spores as they drift through space, finally landing on Earth in the city of San Francisco. Here they colonise, or perhaps parasitise, the local plant life, producing tiny flowered pods.

One of the people so attracted to these new arrivals that they take them home is Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), a researcher with the city government. However, this proves to be a mistake, as very soon her boyfriend, previously laid-back and hedonistic, becomes inexplicably cold and stern. Understandably confused, Elizabeth tells her friend Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), a public health inspector for the city. All Bennell can do, at first, is suggest she see a pop-psychiatrist friend of his (a rare non-Vulcan big-screen appearance for Leonard Nimoy).

But the weird phenomena seem to be spreading: casual acquaintances also report the sensation that friends and loved ones have been mysteriously replaced by imposters. Matthew and Elizabeth encounter an apparently-deranged man who warns them that ‘They’re here! You’re next!’ (this is Kevin McCarthy, reprising his role from the end of the original film – Don Siegel also makes a cameo appearance). And two of Bennell’s friends (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) discover something grotesquely resembling a half-formed human body – something that gradually seems to become more human as time passes.

Bennell and his friends realise that all the stories of mysterious imposters are not hallucinations – something from out of deep space has come to Earth, and is replacing human beings with emotionless duplicates that emerge from the pods. But can they persuade the authorities of the truth? And – even more disturbingly – who can they trust? The pod people are everywhere…

As I mentioned, this seems to be one of those endlessly flexible stories that each new generation of film-makers seems to be capable of taking on and reinterpreting (even if the film-makers of the 2000s made a bit of a hash of it). The original small-town setting, with its Red Scare subtext, is gracefully transformed into an equally resonant piece about big city angst and dysfunctional society.

Living in cities is stripping people of their empathy and emotion anyway, or so the film seems to suggest, and we are spending all our lives surrounded by strangers. Is it any wonder if people start to get a bit paranoid? The signs of an ongoing alien invasion are almost completely masked by the usual neuroses of urbanites. It’s never really made clear at what point Leonard Nimoy’s character is replaced by his duplicate, so it’s entirely possible his initial certainty that everyone’s concerns about the ‘imposters’ are misplaced is sincere. Of course, the flip side is that watching the movie you do become rather concerned that, if something like this were to actually happen, it does seem like it would be virtually unstoppable. This makes the film even creepier.

And it is a very creepy film. You can, of course, suggest that the film’s paranoia, and the byzantine uselessness of the government (it’s implied the pods may already have struck here), are both elements of a post-Watergate commentary on American society, but this also works superbly well as a horror movie in its own right – a subtle one, of course, very dependent on a superbly-evoked atmosphere of low-key unease. The unsettling discordant soundtrack is superb. Despite being second-cousin to a zombie film, the movie is relatively light on visual shocks and gore for most of its duration, although there is one very jarring moment when the characters encounter the product of a botched duplication, in the form of a dog with a human head. As well as being well-played, the film is superbly paced and highly intelligent – quite apart from its in-jokey references to Velikovsky (whose theories on the influence of cosmic events on human history seem very apposite), it’s the only movie I know that name-checks Olaf Stapledon’s criminally obscure Star-Maker.

Great though the 1956 movie is, it does seem very dated now, whereas Kaufman’s version still stands up extremely well – quite an achievement when you consider that it manages to incorporate virtually every key story beat of the original film, while arguably fixing a few flaws in the story (the mystery of what happens to the original people after their duplication is explained), along with completely changing the setting and subtext of the film. But then that’s the essential magic of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – we seem to be hard-wired for this kind of creeping paranoia. Do this story right and no matter where or when you set it, it provides a slow slide into nightmare like few others.

 

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