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Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

A few years ago now I wrote a long and slightly smug thing (no pun intended) about the enormous influence of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness on the development of SF and horror throughout the rest and the 20th century and beyond – or, to put it another way, this is a story which people have ripped off a lot. It occurs to me now that, retentively comprehensive as I tried to be, I still managed to miss an instance of insidious-alien-threat-discovered-buried-in-the-arctic-ice, namely Regeneration, a 2003 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (yeah, I know the show was just called Enterprise at the time, but come on).

I’ve been watching more Trek than usual recently, but I found I’ve been sticking mainly to Next Gen and DS9. The perception certainly is that Voyager and Enterprise mark the point at which the franchise started to run out of ideas and disappeared into a creatively unrewarding fannish grotto. I’m pretty sure I haven’t watched an episode of Voyager in nearly 15 years; I hadn’t watched any Enterprise in over ten, until I decided to give Regeneration another look.

The story starts promisingly enough, with a science team at the North Pole uncovering wreckage of a mysterious alien ship. One of the things about this story is that the discerning viewer is way ahead of all the characters pretty much throughout, but there is still a bit of a frisson when the scientists discover a Borg drone frozen in the ice. (These are the Borg who travelled back in time from the 24th century to the 21st in the movie First Contact, and who’ve been frozen for a hundred years at this point. Does this seem impenetrably convoluted in terms of back-story? If you think so, then I can’t honestly bring myself to argue with you.)

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Well, upon being dug up and defrosted, the Borg initially do what comes naturally to them and assimilate the science team, but then, in a somewhat surprising but plot-enabling move, steal the research team’s starship (a research team at the North Pole have their own starship? Really…?) and flee the solar system. As luck and narrative demands would have it, their course takes them into the Enterprise‘s area, and Captain Archer and his plucky crew are ordered to intercept…

Now, am I going to restrict myself just to talking about this episode or use it to try and figure out if Enterprise as a whole is any good or not? Hmmm. I have to say that my impression is that this is a well-regarded example of a superior Enterprise episode, which – if true – leads me to confidently say that as far as the best TV versions of Trek go, Enterprise is somewhere in the top six.

It all starts very promisingly with a nicely ominous sense of foreboding as the innocent scientists completely underestimate the potential Borg threat, and some long scenes of them examining the mysterious cyborgs and trying to work out just what the hell they are (not a bad way of making the Borg seem fresh again, I suppose). But the problem is that this distorts the story rather, with Archer and the gang not even making an appearance until after the first commercial break and a rather frantic pace afterwards. The plot is almost entirely procedural from this point on. There is, I suppose, the glimmering of a character arc where Archer’s initial desire to rescue the assimilated scientists is replaced by the realisation that the only good Borg is a prejudicially-terminated one, and another one where jolly Dr Phlox gets partially assimilated and has a bit of a gaze into the abyss, but neither of these is what you’d call developed or honestly resolves itself in a properly developed fashion.

And it’s hard not to shake the idea that this story was essentially hobbled from its conception by the requirement not to muck up the established continuity too much. This is primarily achieved in classic Enterprise style by the cunning ploy of the Borg not telling anyone what their name is (what, does this even apply to Phlox, who was briefly a member of the Borg collective consciousness?). But the need to keep the Borg mysterious and unknown limits the ability of the characters to interact with them in a meaningful way.

You could also argue that Regeneration also has the big problem of nearly every other Borg story from the 1990s onward, which is what you do with the Borg in the first place. Their reputation near the top of the pile as Trek antagonists rests on their first couple of appearances, in which they are pretty much the definition of an unstoppable menace. Part of the reason why the Borg are scary, particularly on their debut, is that the regular characters are themselves scared of them. Picard is clearly desperate at the end of the episode, openly admitting to being frightened, and his fear is partly because he has come to understand the nature of the Borg. Archer, on the other hand, never really seems that fussed about what the Borg exactly are and his attitude to them is more a sort of non-descript stoicism.

I suppose treating the Borg as the explicitly terrifying juggernaut of extinction that they started off as was never an option in a story set in the 22nd century and thus required to keep the characters in the dark is to their nature. Again, this kind of defies logic and common sense, as, given the ease with which Borg cubes have been depicted destroying large swathes of Starfleet, one would expect even a small infestation to go through a significantly less-advanced planet like a particularly salty dose of salts, and having the Borg simply run away into deep space rather than attempting to assimilate Earth is a bit out of character for them. But the needs of the story outweigh the needs of consistent characterisation (and isn’t that the definition of melodrama?).

So it’s hard not to be forced to the conclusion that this episode is mainly a result of the dog-whistle appeal of the Borg when it comes to the fanbase, which makes it rather unfortunate that these are the same fans most inclined to be nitpicky about Trek continuity. Shall we do this here…? Oh, I suppose not, suffice to say that there are, to put it mildly, differing indications as to when the Borg and the Federation and/or humanity first became aware each other, and when the Borg first started operating near Federation space, and Regeneration’s worst crime in this department is only to add to the muddle by pushing the date of their first encounter back in time by about 140 years.

Doing something with the Borg in Enterprise was probably a fairly obvious idea, but obvious ideas are not always necessarily good ones. Possibly if the story had been differently structured, with the Enterprise central to the story throughout and some of the Thing references trimmed, it might have meant there was more of an engaging story and that character arc for Archer might actually have worked. But I’m not entirely sure – the most engaging part of the story-as-broadcast is Phlox’s plight as the Borg slowly assimilate him, and yet even this is resolved in the most perfunctory manner, as he comes up with a cure with the greatest of ease. The story neither grips nor rewards, it just sort of trundles past. I must confess this is the first time I’ve watched an episode of Enterprise with my critical subroutines engaged since the pilot, but I have to say I still remember it being better than this. I’m just not sure I’m willing to make the time investment involved in finding out for sure.

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Captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise gets his shirt off. A lot. Websites exist chronicling just how often the audience is treated to the sight of his exposed abdomen. People openly speculate as to just why it is that the captain’s shirt is of such poor quality that it tears so easily in so many episodes. Stepping back from the fiction for a moment, the captain-gets-his-shirt-off/torn bit is so notable that they do a gag about it in Galaxy Quest. (They also do a gag about it in Star Trek Beyond, but I’m tempted to suggest we restrict ourselves to the better class of Star Trek movie. Like Galaxy Quest.)

And it’s a decent gag, though perhaps a bit weary now from overuse. The same is probably true of the other done-to-death original series of Star Trek gag, which is the one about the fact that when Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a new guy from security beam down to a planet at the start of an episode, the security guy should have his will and life insurance sorted out, because his life expectancy would probably make an actuary blanch. (The best example I can think of is at the start of Friday’s Child, a (and this is perhaps significant) pretty poor episode of Trek.)

Now, you wouldn’t write a whole novel based around the idea that Kirk’s shirt gets ripped a lot (although as – and perhaps I’m assuming too much here – a fairly sane person, constant reader, you probably wouldn’t write a Star Trek-related novel of any kind). But someone has written a novel about the fact that the guys in the red shirts get killed at a frankly alarming rate, and… I still can’t quite believe it… it won the Hugo. The book is (duh) Redshirts, and it was written by John Scalzi.

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The novel focuses on a bunch of new lower-decks crew members aboard the United Universe starship Intrepid, who very gradually become aware that the world they live in is, to put it mildly, statistically and scientifically unlikely. Why do most of the experienced crew spent much of their time hiding from the senior staff? Why is so much of the ship’s scientific research literally meaningless technobabble? How is it that ship’s navigator Kerensky can be beaten virtually to death every week and make a miraculous recovery time after time? And just why do they keep sending a navigator down on scientific survey missions anyway?

Well, you’re probably ahead of me on this one, but the protagonists eventually figure out that they are minor characters on a rather crappy TV space opera show, and their primary role is to die meaningless and slightly stupid deaths in order to serve the demands of the plot. The question, of course, is what on earth they can do about this not insignificant problem…

It’s to Scalzi’s credit that he takes what sounds very much like a one-joke conceit and spins it into a decent-length novel without it feeling too strained, although in order to do so occasionally feels like a bit of a stretch (the fictional characters in the book are not completely fictional in terms of the TV show, they exist in a genuine future which is warped, via inexplicable means, by the activities of TV writers in a parallel timeline). Do I even need to mention that this is a deeply recursive, very meta book? At one point even the characters start talking about how recursive and meta everything is, and you can’t get much more meta-recursive than that.

The book’s relationship with genuine Star Trek is a slightly peculiar one. Scalzi makes the joke in the acknowledgements that the book’s TV show is not remotely based on Stargate Universe (on which he apparently was consultant for a bit), but actual, proper, genuine Star Trek is explicitly name checked in the text of the novel itself, as someone figures out the only ship in the history of the universe with casualty rates like the Intrepid is the (explicitly fictional) Enterprise. It’s impossible not to conclude that the crappy TV show messing up the protagonists’ lives is an extremely thinly-veiled piss-take on Star Trek itself.

Hmmm, well. It’s not the most flattering depiction, nor is it (I would say) an especially fair one. The Redshirt Trope (as I suppose we should call it) obviously exists, and is certainly at its most visible in some of Star Trek‘s less impressive episodes – there’s Friday’s Child, as mentioned, plus also The Apple , in which an alien planet turns into a virtual shooting gallery for anyone in a scarlet sweater. There’s a fairly clear instance in The Omega Glory, too, which is on in front of me as I type – although I must confess to a sneaking fondness for this particular episode. (Is it worth mentioning the numerous episodes in which guys in blue and yellow shirts also meet sticky, plot-advancing demises?) But the thing is that the better episodes are not propelled along by casual slaughter – you won’t find any dead redshirts in Amok Time, or Doomsday Machine, or Trouble With Tribbles. Plus, very occasionally, you get an incidental crewmember death which is neither meaningless nor stupid – there’s Lt. Newlywed from Balance of Terror, not to mention Yeoman Scared from The Deadly Years. (Although I suppose there’s the question of whether these really count as ‘incidental’ deaths, given they’re significant. Recursiveness beckons again…)

Am I not getting just a bit too defensive about a book which, ultimately, appears to be at least somewhat knowledgeable and affectionate when it comes to Star Trek? (Especially when I am obviously not a Trekkie myself.) Mmm, well. The thing is that the portrayal of the show-within-the-book is wholly negative – even the characters making it admit it’s a cheap, incoherent piece of hackwork – with no mention of the many virtues or laudable things about real-life Trek. There’s a suggestion that Scalzi admits that making this kind of action-adventure genre show almost demands occasionally hokey writing in order to function at all, but not much more than this.

There’s an odd and presumably unintentional way in which Redshirts even shows up how well-written Trek is, in some respects at least. One of the things which writers on the show – during the Berman era, at least – complain about most bitterly was the difficulty of writing 24th century dialogue that sounds natural without being absurdly contemporary in tone. Good Trek dialogue has a slightly stylised quality to it, something classic, somewhat exaggerated. Having the characters just talk like regular people would somehow be ridiculous. The thing is that the characters in Redshirts do just talk like young people from the 2010s. It makes the achievement of creating characters like Picard and Sisko and the rest all the more impressive.

At various points in the book characters talk about Gawker (a popular if slightly disreputable US website, your honour) – there is eventually a time travel element to the story – and it seems to me that all the main characters talk and act like the millennial types you find hanging around on a site like io9 (a Gawker affiliate) – they’re bright, snarky, terribly aware of genre conventions and all that sort of narrative metajargon, and for all their talk about their lives being significant they treat everything with a distinctly ironic level of detachment. They drop the F-bomb and talk about oral sex virtually non-stop, too, which may mean they have a lot in common with Gene Roddenberry (I’m not sure, depends on which stories you believe), but they’re not really recognisable as being in any way akin to actual Star Trek characters.

I can see why Redshirts has proven so popular, if this is the audience which has adopted it – it’s a bright, snarky, knowing, media-literate book, which bright, snarky, knowing, media-literate people which are understandably going to enjoy. But it just seemed to me to be second-order science fiction at best, which it doesn’t strike me as being that difficult to write.  It is clever and inventive, but I found it rather lacking in warmth and depth – despite a concluding and slightly wrong-footing attempt at giving it all some emotional significance and heft. It may just be that I was expecting an affectionate and knowing Star Trek parody, and despite appearances this is not that book. It’s just a little difficult to work out what it actually is.

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Well, I’ve been a bit poorly recently, and – as you would – I took to my bed with Netflix and ended up watching a bunch of William Shatner movies. Not the Trek ones from the 80s and early 90s, as you might expect, but rather more diverse fare. A friend of mine recommended I try to get hold of White Comanche, a 1968 paella western in which the great man plays good-and-evil twins, but for some inexplicable reason Netflix has decided not to lay out on the rights to this movie (and it’s not on YouTube either). But you can’t have everything.

What Netflix does have is a couple of documentaries Shat (as I fondly think of him) wrote and directed, The Captains (from 2011) and Chaos on the Bridge (from 2015). You may be able to discern a bit of a common theme here, for it appears that Shat, like his castmates, has come to terms with the fact that – regardless of his achievements as a singer, novelist, horse breeder, and guest murderer on Columbo – it is Star Trek for which he will inevitably be remembered.

There is perhaps a certain oddity to Chaos on the Bridge, in that it largely concerns an iteration of Star Trek with which Shatner himself was not directly involved: the formative years of Star Trek: The Next Generation (henceforth Next Gen, to save my aching fingers). This was the first of the comeback TV shows, starting in 1987, also known to the general population as ‘the one with that bald English guy’.

chaos_on_the_bridge_animated

As all but Next Gen‘s most rabid fans will admit, the first couple of seasons are tough viewing (‘almost unwatchable’ in the words of Ronald Moore, a later participant in the franchise and also the creator of New BSG and Outlander). I myself stuck with it when it eventually turned up on the BBC in 1990 because, well, it was Star Trek, wasn’t it, and there wasn’t any other new SF being made at the time. (I do think the total lack of any competition was a significant factor in Next Gen‘s survival and eventual success. Given that TV is hardly short of SF and fantasy shows nowadays, expectations for Star Trek: Discovery – coming next year – will obviously be significantly higher, and that show may well be in for a rough ride on all fronts.)

Watching Chaos on the Bridge I was kind of struck by the odd notion that while Star Trek may have been created by Gene Roddenberry, its ultimate success was in many ways despite him. A possibly heretical idea in Trekkie circles, but if you look at the dodgiest, stodgiest, least sexy bits of Trek made in Roddenberry’s lifetime, many of them occurred when the Great Bird was at his most hands-on as a producer. There’s an argument to be made that by the time of the late 80s, Roddenberry was more interested in being recognised as a humanist visionary than in actually making good TV, but there are enough horror stories in circulation about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on Next Gen to suggest that there was a definitely clay-like texture to the great man’s feet.

In terms of actual Roddenberry-bashing, the documentary’s contributors are relatively circumspect – no sign of the ‘goddamned lying, hypocritical, deceiving, thieving, son of a bitch… bullying bastard’ which was writer David Gerrold’s considered opinion in a recent book on Trek‘s production history. Most of the opprobrium is instead directed at the shadowy figure of one Leonard Maizlish, Roddenberry’s lawyer, who took up residence on the show and actually started rewriting the scripts despite having zero experience (this contributed significantly to Dorothy Fontana’s decision to leave the show). Interviewees fondly recall imagining pushing Maizlish out of second storey windows, and so on.

The decision just to cover the early, troubled years of the production is a curious one, mainly because it deprives the narrative of a proper conclusion. Doing the full seven years, over the course of which Next Gen found its identity as a much more consistent and impressive show, would have made for a rather different (and longer) film. It couldn’t just be that Shat only wanted to shine a light on a troubled version of Star Trek in which he had no personal involvement or responsibility? Surely not. Anyway, the film has enough life and inventiveness about it to make up for the fact that there’s probably not much here its target audience doesn’t already know about.

And so to The Captains, an arguably poorly-titled documentary from 2011 in which Shat tracks down his successors as lead actors on Trek and interviews them mano a mano (or mano a womano in the case of Kate Mulgrew from Voyager) about their lives and experiences. I say ‘poorly-titled’ as it is not really about the captains as a group, or indeed as individuals, but mainly creates a suitable venue for everyone involved to talk about Shat, whether directly or indirectly. Shat himself (note to self: awkward phrasing, think about possible alternative) is clearly in his element, and one is ineluctably reminded of Nick Meyer’s assessment of him as ‘all vanity, no ego’.

Various lesser stars from the Trek constellation make appearances – Nana Visitor, Robert Picardo, Jonathan Frakes – along with a fairly substantial interview with Christopher Plummer, there because a) he was the Shakespeare-loving Klingon villain of Star Trek VI and b) he was a mate of Shat’s way back. But the most arresting stuff is the set-piece interviews with the other actors. (The Netflix version of the film, by the way, appears to have been edited down a bit, removing the unauthorised footage of Leonard Nimoy which was the cause of the final estrangement between him and Shatner.)

Shat buzzes around between the different coasts of the US and even over to Oxford to talk to Sir Patrick (apparently ignoring the Keep Off The Grass signs at Christchurch College in one shocking sequence), and it’s fair to say that some of these discussions are more interesting than others. Patrick Stewart is always good value, but some of the other chats can get a bit earnest and are really memorable only for the little stunts Shat contrives: hiding in a cardboard box while waiting for Kate Mulgrew, singing show-tunes on horseback with Scott Bakula, arm-wrestling Chris Pine on the sidewalk outside Paramount Studios, and so on. Most of them are pretty much as you’d expect, with the real exception being Avery Brooks, whose consciousness still appears to be spending some of its time in the Gamma Quadrant. There’s some singing here, too, and at one point Shat asks Brooks if he’s ever thought about life after death, with the one-time Emissary responding by playing the piano and laughing to himself. It is quite magnetic to watch, somehow.

siskirk

In a way you can’t help thinking that this would have been a more revealing film if it had been directed by somebody else. Some of the most interesting footage is of Shat appearing at a Trek convention in Vegas and interacting with the fans – ‘a rapturous reception’ and ‘eating out of the palm of his hand’ don’t begin to do justice to how this goes down – and very briefly we see a glimpse of a Shatner who isn’t a tongue-in-cheek self-promoter, but someone rather more thoughtful and human. But then it inevitably occurs to one that we’re just seeing this because Shat let it go past in the editing process, so is it the ‘real’ him?

In the end this is probably more of interest to Shat-watchers than Trekkies generally, but such is its occasional weirdness I can imagine it finding something of an audience amongst people who enjoy watching really, really odd vanity projects, as well. What I suppose it comes down to, ultimately, is that there are two kinds of people in the world – people who can’t get enough of William Shatner and all his works, and the sane ones. The former group at least are well served here.

 

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It occurs to me that there was nothing on the blog to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Trek, but then – other than a few small mentions in the news – it didn’t seem like that big a deal generally. The latest movie doesn’t appear to have made much of a splash (and I’m tempted to add ‘not without reason’), the only UK TV channel to do anything to mark the occasion was CBS Action, and all they managed to scrape together were some documentaries from about ten years ago.

Hey ho. At least news about the new series, Star Trek: Discovery, is starting to trickle out, although breath-holding is not an advisable procedure, Captain, as the show has already been pushed back to early next Summer. News that the show will focus on a ‘minority female’ protagonist is hardly a surprise; the revelation that the programme will a) be set in the proper Star Trek timeline and b) occur about ten years prior to the original series and explore an event from the mythos, probably is. Not, apparently, the Romulan War, the dates are wrong anyway, so what could it be? If that ‘ten years’ reference is accurate it cuts the possibilities down quite significantly.

Well, anyway, my expectations are under strict management (this is the twitchy, burnt-out state to which the likes of Moffat and Abrams have reduced me), but one hopeful sign is the presence as writer and producer of Nicholas Meyer. Whenever Star Trek is spoken of, the name accompanying it most closely is that of Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, and this is only right and proper, but at the same time it was not Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek which became a popular and critical success in the 1980s and gave the franchise its second great lease of life, but that of Meyer, who wrote and directed Star Trek II, for many people (including myself) the best of the Trek movies and a high point of the franchise generally.

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I just recently finished Meyer’s memoir of his career up until 2009, The View from the Bridge, and a curious but definitely entertaining read it is. One of the things Meyer comments on is the attitude of the original Trek crew to the series – how they variously came to terms with the fact that, one way or another, this was the thing they will forever be associated with. Meyer doesn’t seem to consciously think of himself as being in the same situation, but then he goes and organises his book into three sections entitled ‘Pre Trek’, ‘Trek’, and ‘Post Trek’ – one senses his tongue may be ever so slightly in his cheek, but even so.

One senses very little animus towards the series from Meyer, anyway, even though there are many other interesting lines on his CV, some of which the book deals with in some detail – his Sherlock Holmes pastiches, which were hugely successful in the mid 70s, the steampunk time travel movie Time After Time, which isn’t nearly well-known enough nowadays, and various other productions (some of which I hadn’t realised he’d been involved with). Objectively, perhaps the most significant thing Meyer has ever done was the TV movie The Day After, which presented the effects of a nuclear strike on the USA in such sufficiently dismal manner as to make Ronald Reagan start thinking in terms of arms limitations treaties rather than Mutually Assured Destruction. Just think – we might all have ended up as clouds of radioactive vapour, were it not for Nicholas Meyer. And he wrote that scene where William Shatner shouts ‘KHAAAAAAAAAAN!’ I don’t know about you, but I would kill for a CV with either of those achievements on it, let alone both.

This is a professional memoir rather than a personal one, and so Meyer’s domestic situation only gets referred to when it impacted on his career (or vice versa). One commentator thought that the book comes across as ‘slightly grumpy’, but I can’t say I really found this to be the case. He comes across as a guy who knows his own mind, and not really one with the greatest tolerance for idiots, but not really congenitally irascible.

For a book which is mostly likely to get read by people with a greater-than-average interest in Star Trek, I’m not sure there are many great revelations to be discovered: William Shatner ‘liked to be the first man through the door’ (an interesting euphemism), and was ‘no ego, all vanity’ (something I struggled to understand until it occurred to me I could imagine people saying the same about me). The (in Trek circles) famous anecdote about how Star Trek II came to be written in less than a fortnight is retold, along with various other old favourites plus a few I hadn’t encountered before: Ricardo Montalban started work on the film by bellowing all his lines at the top of his voice, and when Meyer tentatively suggested there might be something to be gained from a more moderate approach, the star’s response was ‘Ah, you are going to direct me? Good!’

Much of the non-Trek stuff is just as interesting, although for a book which opens with Meyer reflecting on the intrinsic decency of the majority of the people he has met in Hollywood, there’s an awful lot of material about arguments with the studio and friendships disintegrating under pressure. The only real omission, if you ask me, is any reference to the fact that Meyer apparently did some uncredited work on the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies – the fact that there were script difficulties explains a lot about this movie, if you ask me – presumably because he was friends with Pierce Brosnan and related by marriage to the director. But no mention whatsoever here, which is curious and a bit of a shame.

If one were to take anything away from this book, it would probably concern the dangers of over-familiarity and over-reverentiality. A running theme is Meyer’s near-total lack of awareness of Star Trek prior to starting work on his first movie – ‘the TV show with the guy with the pointy ears’ is his not-especially-shorthand for it – with the obvious conclusion that this served the franchise better than dogmatic fidelity to Roddenberry’s own vision (in its 70s and 80s version at least). Then again, you could probably argue that Meyer’s influence on Star Trek didn’t really extend beyond the Kirk-era movies, and was of variable significance even then: his scripts are all about characters and their choices, they don’t have the reliance on techno-bibble or the slightly laboured sense of This Is Our Theme you get later in the franchise.

It will be interesting to see just how indicative the appointment of Nicholas Meyer proves to be, when it comes to the direction of the new Trek. Personally I think the series could use a bit more zest and wit and Hornblower right now. The expectations bar may have crept up a few microns.

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There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a SF and/or fantasy franchise to tear.

-Rudyard Kipling (almost)

The sleeping colossus of the genre stirs once more, and an uneasy stirring it is too (if you ask me). For, yea, it is Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, marking the 50th anniversary of the dearly loved series. Those who were less than delighted with JJ Abrams’ crack at Trek and overjoyed when he pushed off to finally make the Star Wars movie he’d clearly actually wanted to do all along could perhaps have been forgiven a brief mutter of ‘Oh no, not again’ when the director’s chair for this landmark was given to the gentleman responsible for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, along with several other films in that series. Was this to be a worthy and respectful tribute to one of the most successful media franchises of all time? Or just Star Trek: Qo’NoS Heist, or something of that ilk?

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Well, the movie opens with the Enterprise three years into its five year mission (i.e. at around the point the original show finally got canned). Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is restless and considering his position, possibly because he’s not allowed to wear nearly as many hats in this film as the last one. Mr Spock (Zachary Quinto) also has issues nibbling away at him, but being Spock doesn’t really talk about them much.

Shortly arriving at the Federation outpost of Yorktown (presumably a reference to Gene Roddenberry’s original pitch for the series back in 1964, when the ship was named the Yorktown, not the Enterprise), Kirk is given the mission of penetrating a nearby nebula (NB: probably not something you’d describe as a nebula if you were an actual astronomer, but I digress) and rescuing the crew of a crashed ship. Off they pop, confidently enough, but of course things never go smoothly for the Enterprise crew and they find a fleet of hostile aliens waiting for them under the command of the malevolent Krall (Idris Elba, who like many actors before him struggles a bit under heavy prosthetics). Krall, for reasons which a) constitute a plot spoiler and b) don’t really stand up to much in the way of scrutiny anyway, is determined to destroy the Federation using one of those alien superweapons which can be conveniently disassembled into portable bits, and the final bit he needs is somewhere on the Enterprise

In the movie’s first big set piece sequence, the alien fleet swats the Enterprise out of space with distressing ease, setting up the middle act of the film, in which the various crew have different adventures on Krall’s home planet before coming together again to do battle with him at the end. And I suppose this is a solid enough structure for what is a competently assembled SF action-adventure movie, if a bit hard to tell what’s going on at some points but what do you expect these days, fun for all the family with some not-bad jokes along the way (credit due, I suppose, to scriptwriters Doug Jung, whose only previous work I am aware of was the movie Confidence, and me ol’ mucker Simon Pegg, who does double duty as Scotty as in the last two movies).

And yet, and yet… In interviews about the film Pegg talked about the studio’s concerns with regard to it, and what particularly caught my attention was his revelation that ‘the studio was worried that it might have been a little bit too Star Trek-y’. The studio producing a Star Trek movie, concerned that their Star Trek movie might have been too Star Trek-y? What kind of Bizarro World (or, if you will, Mirror Universe) have we accidentally slipped into?

Well, I imagine the studio people will be quite relieved, for I doubt anyone will consider Star Trek Beyond to be too Star Trek-y. For those of us who do like Star Trek to be Star Trek-y, however, and can’t see the point of making Star Trek if it’s not going to be Star Trek-y, there will be the problem of how to come to terms with a Star Trek film that is (in various ways) quite Star Wars-y (again) but particularly (in some other ways) very Guardians of the Galaxy-y. The humour in this film isn’t a million miles away from that in the Marvel movie, the plot is to some degree similar, and its use of music in particular seems very much drawn from James Gunn’s film.

In short, for those of us who’ve (fairly) faithfully stuck with Star Trek since the late 70s, if not earlier, what’s on screen here has very little of the look and feel of the franchise in any of its previous incarnations. Yorktown bears no resemblence to any Starbase we’ve seen before, instead looking more like the space station from Elysium or a screen realisation of one of Iain Banks’ Culture Orbitals. There were claims that the script here would ‘deconstruct’ the whole premise of Star Trek and wrestle with the whole basis of the Federation and Starfleet’s mission statement. I saw no sign of that – instead there’s just a bad guy who’s gone a bit mad and wants to smash stuff up – not many shades of grey or opportunities for moral inquiry there.

The film-makers seem to be under the impression that the essence of Star Trek is limited entirely to the seven most prominent characters of the original TV series and their interactions with each other, and I suppose on these terms the film is something of a success: Quinto and Karl Urban are highly effective in replicating the Spock-McCoy chemistry and banter, but you never really forget that this is just a very accomplished act of homage or replication: karaoke Star Trek, which only works because it’s drawing on the work of other people long ago. All of the bits of the film which managed to genuinely move me were the ones drawing heavily on my affection for the old show and the old movies – how can you not feel a pang at seeing the Enterprise ripped apart? How can you not be moved when a picture of Leonard Nimoy as Spock appears, or one of the entire original cast? The fact remains that they feel weirdly out of place here, though.

The film makes a kind of stab at acknowledging Star Trek‘s heritage by inserting various references to things like the Xindi and Romulan Wars of the 22nd century, and including an old starship of a design that anyone who remembers Star Trek: Enterprise will find rather familiar. But even here I’m not completely sure the continuity hangs together, and it is kind of bizarre that the key acknowledgement made is to Enterprise, the version of Star Trek that got the franchise cancelled again after 18 years on TV.

Maybe it’s just me, but as I’ve said before, the joy and magic of Star Trek doesn’t lie in one particular set of characters, not even Kirk, Spock, and company – the great achievement of Trek is the sheer size and scope of its universe. Star Trek isn’t just the original Enterprise on its five year mission – it’s the Genesis Device, and Sulu captaining the Excelsior, and the battle against the Borg at Wolf 359, and Worf’s discommendation, and the Q Continuum, and the Dominion War, and even (God help us) the Kazon-Ogla and the Temporal Cold War and…

Needless to say none of these things are alluded to in Star Trek Beyond, but more importantly it doesn’t feel like any of them could even happen in the same universe in which this film is set. Star Wars is rock’n’roll, Star Trek is classical music – so goes the shorthand. This film feels more like hip hop, but even so, that’s still not the same thing.

Does any of this matter? To the wider audience and the suits at the studio, I suppose not: people will have a good time and the film will likely turn a tidy profit (a further offering bringing back Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk is already in the pipeline). If you don’t especially like or care that much about Star Trek this is a jolly blockbuster which will not challenge you too much. But if you do love Star Trek – all of the first 40 years of it, not just the original series and early movies – I can’t imagine it will do much for you, for it seems to me that it’s just using the name-recognition factor of the brand to promote a rather generic space adventure movie.

I am probably the worst person to give this movie an objective review. A rather dismal trend has developed over the last few years where all the things I used to love have taken on strange new forms which I find it hard to summon up much affection for: Moffat Doctor Who, Disney Star Wars, the last couple of James Bond films and Abrams Star Trek. So it may very well just be me unable to accept that the world has changed. But what can I say? When you come to love something as a child, then that love has a purity and intensity that never completely goes away, no matter how old you grow. So I will just say this: is this a competently made contemporary SF adventure with moments of warmth and charm? Yes, absolutely. Is it a worthy tribute to fifty years of Star Trek? Um, no, not at all – but in a sense there was never any reason to expect it would be. Return to your slumber, colossus.

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There they stand, on the cover, forever joined at the hip (not that they yet know it, probably) – a couple of jobbing actors who’ve hit onto a good thing, as far as they know, icons in the making for the rest of us. Together, just as they’re always going to be together, in some ephemeral but fundamentally important way. And always with us, of course.

Leonard cover

The UK channel showing Star Trek has just clicked over onto yet another re-run of the series – the very first episode about someone with the powers of a god behaving like a tool is running as I type – and once you get past the inevitable whiplash of going from Freiberger to Roddenberry episodes, it seems, well, perfectly reasonable. Why stop? It takes around three months to show the whole run, and I can quite happily watch the good episodes four times a year each. It’s modern folklore, modern mythology. No wonder people keep writing books about it.

It’s entirely understanding that the passing of Leonard Nimoy last year should have occasioned at least one appraisal and appreciation of the great man’s work. You could argue that Nimoy/Spock was at the heart of the series’ appeal – both the actor and his Vulcan alter ego were clearly intelligent, dignified, erudite and compassionate figures – complex, too, of course. That Nimoy went on to direct and exec-produce several of the movie series’ most respectable instalments, and at one point was invited to produce what eventually became TNG, was hardly surprising, and perhaps even – and I can’t promise this is the last time this word will pop up – logical. People took Nimoy seriously, which is more than you can honestly say for William Shatner, who long ago seemed to settle into a comfortable bubble of self-parody. When Nimoy directed a Trek movie, he was flown to the USSR to receive awards for services to conservation. When Shatner directed a Trek movie, it was denounced by the creator of the show as ‘apocryphal’ and he received a brace of Golden Raspberry awards.

And yet here we are, with Shatner’s pseudo-memoir Leonard: My Fifty Year Friendship With A Remarkable Man. The book is clearly heartfelt and written with deep affection on Shatner’s part, and yet you can’t help wondering – Nimoy himself wrote two volumes of autobiography (entitled I Am Not Spock, and then, shockingly, I Am Spock – one wonders if the only thing preventing the third volume was the lack of a good title), so does the world really need another account of his life, even from someone as close to him as Shatner was?

Despite its subtitle, which promises real insights into the duo’s occasionally-fraught relationship, this is much more about Nimoy’s life than anything else – discovering acting, doing his apprenticeship in dodgy movies and TV shows, then Trek, and everything that ultimately accompanied it. It’s an interesting and feel-good story, because Nimoy ultimately comes across as an admirable and impressive man. But every now and then we get a quick update on what Shatner was up to at the same time in his own life, or a mention of a tangentially-related moment – a relatively lengthy section on Nimoy’s career in fine-art photography is accompanied with an anecdote about Shatner getting a gig as a celebrity photographer for Playboy, which I would say is pushing it a bit, relevancy-wise. (Likewise, enormous kudos to Shatner for including a whole section on Nimoy’s immortal rendition of The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins, but he remains mysteriously silent on the topic of his own musical career.)

You don’t really begrudge Shatner these little indulgences, because you could argue the whole book is admittedly an indulgence, albeit a poignant one. And very occasionally something psychologically illuminating slips past the editor – Shatner reveals that his reaction to learning that Nimoy was to direct Star Trek III was one of delight, not because this was a great opportunity for his friend, or because there was a prospect of a great movie in-the-making, but because under the slightly peculiar terms of the contracts Nimoy and Shatner had negotiated, this meant he would be guaranteed the right to direct a future movie (contrast this with George Takei’s reported reaction when he learned Shatner would be writing and directing Star Trek V: ‘Oh my God! What are we going to do?’).

I suspect there’s a lot here that the hardened Trekkie will already be familiar with (even I’ve already heard some of the anecdotes which Shatner trots out – there’s one about Spock’s bicycle which I suspect is Trek‘s equivalent of The Eyepatch Story from Doctor Who). Not, I suspect, that this will stop them snapping it up. You can’t honestly fault Shatner’s intentions, because this does seem like a sincere attempt to pay tribute to his friend. But at the same time, you can’t quite shake the impression that the subtext of the book is, on some level ‘Leonard Nimoy was a wonderful, intelligent man with great taste and judgement – AND HE REALLY LIKED ME’. You can’t help noticing he’s at least as prominent on the cover as Nimoy, either.

(I make no apologies for the Trekkie bent this blog has taken recently, as it seems some people will have me pegged as a Trekkie no matter what I do. We had a group photo at work the other day, illustrating how native and non-native speaking teachers can work as a (fairly) seamless unit, and I – slightly facetiously – suggested we all come in the national dress of our own countries to make it clear which was which. ‘What exactly is Klingon national dress?’ was the response I received. Oh, ylDoghQo’!)

William Shatner’s ego is likewise in no danger in David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek, which I also picked up recently (if you must know, the excerpts from it in Marcus Berkmann’s Set Phasers to Stun intrigued me enough to get a copy – one thing leads to another, and all). Published in 1984, just as Star Trek III was coming out, this is probably more of historical interest now than anything else. Like an ILM special effect slingshotting around the sun and travelling back in time, this book transports us back to a pre-internet, pre-TNG world, where Shatner is still a respected, serious actor and Gerrold can claim to be recording ‘how the Star Trek story turned out’. 34 years, ten movies and over 400 more TV episodes later, you can’t help but smile at the assumption.

wostgerrold

That said, most of the book was written a bit earlier, during Trek‘s first sojourn in the wilderness, in an even earlier age. We live in such an information-saturated epoch now that even those of us who were around in the 70s and 80s are prone to forget just what a treasure it was when a new behind-the-scenes book about a favourite TV show or movie came out. Gerrold certainly doles out his nuggets of behind-the-scenes gold with the air of someone revealing matters of great value and import, and to be honest, his writing style is slightly heavy going, almost verging on the patronising (he uses one footnote just to explain what the word quadrant means).

That said, his analysis of Star Trek‘s various strengths and weaknesses is interesting and astute (it’s curious to find the conclusion that the series ultimately had more failures than successes in a book of this type), and his assessment of Trekkie fandom is interesting and balanced. (Another surprise is the inclusion of a section on the ‘slash’ phenomenon, about which Gerrold is primly disapproving.) Some of the material about the original series feels a bit familiar even to me, but from a modern perspective his look at the origins of the early films is distinctly curious – apparently the final script of Star Trek II only emerged after producer Harve Bennett locked himself away with a typewriter and all the previous drafts. One is forced to conclude that this is only here for legal reasons, to preserve the illusion that Nicholas Meyer didn’t write the script (which of course he did) – Meyer doesn’t get a script credit for the same reason.

Leonard is, ultimately, written in the confessional/emotional mode, while The World of Star Trek‘s style is much more educational/promotional, and it’s curious to see how the two books deal with some of the same anecdotes and facts (which they inevitably do). To be honest, neither of them is quite as much fun as Set Phasers to Stun – all these books are motivated by love of their subject, but two of them are reverential while one of them is rather more relaxed. Still, I suspect all of them have something to offer the target audience.

 

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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.

phasers

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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