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Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

We have previously touched upon the received wisdom of the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered Star Trek films and the extent to which this colours people’s perception of them (presumably it doesn’t apply to the Abrams movies, which are – strictly speaking – 11, 12, and 13 in the series). I think the existence of the ‘curse’ is questionable at best – I completely agree that by far the best films of the lot are even-numbered ones (II and IV for me; your mileage may differ), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the odd numbers are flat-out bad or worse than the less-impressive even-numbered films.

For me, the film that really doesn’t deserve to be tarred with the brush of the curse (I apologise for this somewhat baroque metaphor, by the way) is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984 and directed (following much fun and games between the studio and the director’s representatives) by Leonard Nimoy. Does it reach the same standard as the films on either side of it? Well, no; but, as mentioned, there is space between excellent and mediocre, and it’s this space that the film confidently occupies.

We find ourselves once again in the year 2285, with the damaged starship Enterprise limping home following the climactic events of the previous film. The sense of contentment felt by Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) seems to have faded, and he is troubled by the death of his best friend Spock. His other close friend McCoy is acting erratically, too. Orders from Starfleet Command that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned and that they are not to return to the Genesis Planet, where Spock died, do not help his mood much. The situation becomes acute when he is visited by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), and they deduce that before dying Spock effectively placed his soul into McCoy’s body (which explains his strange behaviour). Kirk finds himself compelled to go against Starfleet orders, steal his own ship, and return to Genesis in search of Spock’s body.

Of course, it isn’t even only as complicated as that – for a Klingon warlord named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) has got wind of the Genesis Project and is heading for the new planet, too, intent on terrorising the Federation science team already on the scene, as well as a revived and rejuvenated Spock…

Star Trek III was written by series producer Harve Bennett, whose work is of course not quite up to the standards of that of Nicholas Meyer (writer of Star Trek II) , but still solid. The main problem with it, once you accept the mystical properties of the Genesis effect (raising the dead) and Vulcan, um, mysticism, is that it’s never made quite clear why Kirk goes back to Genesis, rather than just taking McCoy straight to Vulcan for some kind of psionic detox – not only is he completely unaware Spock has come back to life until after his arrival there, he presumably believes his body has been incinerated (this was the original intent, after all).

That said, the movie barrels along cheerily enough for you not to notice this on the first viewing. The movie has a confidence and swagger that the previous movie didn’t actually possess – Star Trek II was considered the absolutely final roll of the dice for the series (why else would they have killed off the most popular character?), and was produced on a minimal budget, with re-used special effects and most scenes being shot on just one set. Here you do get a sense of people realising that the old dog might have much more life left in it than anyone could have guessed, hence much more lavish special effects and sets throughout.

It also feels rather more comfortable in its identity as a piece of Star Trek, perhaps because Bennett had made an effort to steep himself in a series of which Meyer was never a particular fan. The script is happy to bring back Sarek, a recurring but fairly obscure character from the various TV series, insert a tiny cameo for Grace Lee Whitney, include some Tribbles, mention the pon farr undergone by Vulcans, and so on – although without letting any of these things get in the way of the story.

Perhaps the most obvious result of this desire to take Trek back to its roots is the presence of Klingon antagonists at the heart of the story. We should recall that this is the only major appearance by the Klingons between the end of the original TV series and the beginning of Next Generation, and it’s not surprising that the depiction of them is in something of a state of transition – though still depicted as ruthless, sadistic villains (‘I hope pain is something you enjoy,’ says Kruge, shortly before ordering the execution of a prisoner as a negotiating ploy), they are much more obviously alien (they appear to be stronger and more resilient than humans), and they show signs of the obsession with honour that would define them through the Next Gen and DS9 era. Plus, of course, this film marks the first real appearance of tlhIngan Hol (better known to us tera’nganpu’ as the Klingon language). Inevitably, there are still some oddities – everyone, even Saavik, addresses Kruge as ‘my lord’, which isn’t the case with any other Klingon character in the series, no matter how distinguished they are. That said, Christopher Lloyd’s full-on performance as Kruge certainly demands respect.

As does that of William Shatner, to be honest. Joking about Shatner’s ego, waistline, musical career, hair, and line readings has become so much de rigeur these days that we can sometimes overlook what an effective performer he can be with the right script and appropriate direction. Shatner reports feeling initially uncomfortable being directed by Nimoy, but the final product contains some of his finest moments as Kirk – the ‘Klingon bastards’ scene (usually edited out when this movie turns up on TV nowadays) had the potential to be unintentionally comic, but Shatner and Nimoy turn it into something genuinely affecting.

The one thing about this movie that everyone seems to like is James Horner’s music (he did the previous film as well, of course). Horner’s predilection for, um, paying homage to other people’s tunes in his work has been much commented upon, but he’s far from alone in that, and he makes a huge contribution to the movie – Horner’s music manages to make a spaceship reversing out of a garage feel like a moment of epic high adventure.

As I mentioned, Star Trek II was made with the real expectation that it might be the end of the line for the series. Perhaps as a result of the creative licence that gave them, it turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be the start of a whole new lease of life for the series. The Search for Spock is the first piece of Trek to be made in this new atmosphere of confidence and possibility, and it marks the beginning of a roll which continued for the next two decades. Not to mention being a very entertaining movie in its own right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.)

regen-ent

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.

redshirts_cover

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’.

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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.

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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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