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Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

‘I’ve decided to put that novel idea on ice, I don’t think the maths underpinning the concept work,’ is something you only really hear while hanging around science fiction writers (or people with delusions of being science fiction writers). My writing coach, to whom I said this quite recently, was a bit startled and perhaps a little disappointed, but then they are a literary author and unfamiliar with the peculiar requirements of SF. I wasn’t delighted myself, as it was an idea I really liked, but I couldn’t imagine being able to sell it to a reader if I wasn’t completely convinced of its plausibility myself.

The idea in question was about an encounter between human beings and a very similar alien civilisation, whose main point of difference biologically is that they have three sexes. Many opportunities there for interesting alien world-building, also to see ourselves from a different perspective (I know it sounds a bit like an Ursula le Guin pastiche, but what can I say, if you’re going to rip someone off, make sure it’s someone really good). The problem is that, from a real-world perspective, a three-sex system of reproduction is incredibly inefficient and would almost certainly be out-competed by two-sex or one-sex organisms in the same environment.

(My research into this – still ongoing, Coach, if you’re reading this, so don’t abandon all hope – turned up some curious facts, such as the fact that even a two-sex system is fairly inefficient, but this is offset by the advantages it brings in terms of genetic diversity. Some scientists are still trying to discover why mono-sexual reproduction is not more common on our own planet.)

Well, anyway, having been kicking this idea around for quite a number of years, I have inevitably taken an interest in how other people have handled a similar notion. When multi-gendered aliens do turn up, it’s mainly as ‘colour’ – casual mentions of a particular species having five genders or whatever is basically a flag to indicate just how weird and non-human they are. The instance I’m most familiar with is the Azadian species from Iain Banks’ The Player of Games, who have a male, female, and ‘apex’ gender – this is a marvellous book, but for all that it is about the nature of Azadian society (as compared to the liberal utopia of the Culture), the biology of the inhabitants seems curiously secondary. I’m inclined to conclude the triple-gender arrangement is just a device to obscure (initially, at least) the fact that the Empire of Azad is an allegory for contemporary western civilisation, but I digress.

Speaking of liberal utopias brings us to a take on the triple-gendered aliens idea that actually made it onto TV – Cogenitor, an episode of Enterprise from 2003, written by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman. Some thought seems to have gone into the biological arrangements here, but as usual the focus of the story lies elsewhere.

The Enterprise is surveying a ‘hypergiant’ star when it encounters an exploratory vessel from the planet Vissia. Neither side have any knowledge of the other, but the Vissians are friendly and the two ships link up so they can learn more about each other. It turns out the Vissians are rather more advanced than the Humans (they have had warp drive for a thousand years), but the cultural exchange goes swimmingly, with Captain Archer forming an immediate rapport with his opposite number (the great Andreas Katsulas, in one of his last roles).

However, chief engineer Trip discovers that the Vissians have a third gender – their species is made up of males, females, and ‘cogenitors’. Only about 3% of Vissians are cogenitors, but they are vital to the process of reproduction. There is only one cogenitor on the Vissian ship (their own engineer and his wife are hoping to have a child), but Trip is disturbed by the indifference with which they are treated. The cogenitor (Becky Wahlstrom) doesn’t have a job beyond their role in facilitating procreation, doesn’t have their own property, doesn’t even have a name – it seems to Trip that they are treated worse than Captain Archer’s pet dog. Dr Phlox confirms that the cogenitor is every bit as capable, intellectually, as the other Vissians, which just makes Trip more certain he is witnessing a grave injustice.

This being Star Trek, Trip decides to help the cogenitor actualise themself as a person by teaching them to read and showing them old Earth movies (he starts with The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is not a movie I would personally show an alien only newly-acquainted with human beings, but whatever). And this being Star Trek, within a day the cogenitor has transformed into a bright and charming individual with a real passion for life and a desire to go beyond their traditional cultural role. But the other Vissians are appalled and outraged when they find out what Trip has been up to, leading to the cogenitor requesting asylum on the Enterprise

Enterprise has something of a bad rep as the show that killed off Star Trek’s second TV phase, and to be honest if you choose an episode at random you’ve a good chance of finding one which supports that idea. But some of its stories are strong and interesting, such as this one. This is not to say it is perfect – the dramatic meat of the tale is left to the third act, and in the meantime there is a lot of filler material which could easily have been snipped. This includes (I am somewhat pained to say) most of Andreas Katsulas’ scenes with Scott Bakula, and a very odd moment in which we get to see Lieutenant Reed’s approach to the fine art of courtly love, as he flirts with one of the Vissians – first he gets out his cheeseboard, then he invites her down to look at his phase cannon. One should perhaps not mock, as the not-uncomely alien in question still comes on to him like a rocket.

Seriously, though, if you’ve got Andreas Katsulas in your cast, why not give him more to do? I suppose you could argue that he is playing an important role, which is to demonstrate the potential for a positive relationship between Earth and Vissia, which in the end is (we presume) badly compromised by Trip’s interference in Vissian society and its consequences.

The episode isn’t in any real sense about the unusual biological arrangements of the Vissians, but about Trip and his decision. Here we find two of the great drivers of Berman-era Trek set in opposition to each other, to useful dramatic effect. There is the liberal humanistic idea that all sentient creatures have the same right to live a fulfilling, self-determined life, a right which is denied to the Vissian cogenitors – it’s made clear that the other Vissians are not actively cruel or callous, they just treat the cogenitors as non-people (quite how plausible this is, is another question, but that’s beyond the scope of this episode). And on the other hand there is cultural relativism, raised to the level of a moral imperative.

Another Starfleet officer might have known better than Trip, but the thing that enables this story to happen is the fact it is set before the adoption of the Prime Directive, which forbids interference in the internal affairs of other societies. This story has, by Trek standards, a very downbeat, even tragic conclusion, and you could certainly argue that if Trip had minded his own business and left well alone, things would have gone much better. Everyone else in the story – Archer, Phlox, T’Pol (at her least endearing this week) – encourages Trip not to sit in judgement on the whole of Vissian culture, or at least not to get personally involved.

And yet there’s a sense in which the episode isn’t quite playing fair here – we learn virtually nothing about the Vissians in the course of the episode, beyond their curious reproductive arrangements and the fact their hot young women are suckers for cheese and phase cannon. But we do see that, by human standards, they treat their cogenitors extremely poorly. There may be sound social and biological reasons for this, but if so they are left unrevealed. What is revealed (courtesy of an endearing performance from Wahlstrom) is the potential for the cogenitors to lead much more satisfying and fulfilling lives than they currently do.

By any normal, humane standard, then, Trip’s decision to help the cogenitor seems absolutely morally justifiable. And yet his sole eventual reward is, one imagines, immense guilt, even if we disregard a severe rollicking from Captain Archer. Either the episode is suggesting the appropriate perspective is one of almost superhuman detachment and absolute moral relativism (somewhat at odds with Trek’s standard liberal humanism), or the message of the story is that sometimes, there is no correct option, and whatever you do, bad things will be the consequence. The former is unrealistic and hard to swallow, the latter all-too-believable but unusually pessimistic for Trek. Either way, this is an impressive, thought-provoking episode.

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Received wisdom, even amongst some of the people who actually worked on the show, is that a voyage into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is likely to be painful and unrewarding: almost a textbook case of time not well spent. ‘Almost unwatchable’ is one of the kinder comments concerning the first season or so, and the consensus seems to be that if the show had been running on a network, rather than in first-run syndication, it would not have been given the time to find its feet in the very impressive way that it ultimately did.

But, hey, I like to live dangerously – and there is something about these early shows, a slightly goofy sense of adventure reminiscent of the original series that gets lost as the programme becomes more stately and cerebral. And while you are really on a hiding to nothing trying to argue that any of these shows are truly outstanding TV, you do come across the odd episode which is interesting enough to be cut some slack.

So, then: Symbiosis, from the back end of season 1, story by Robert Lewin, script by (as was usual at this point) a whole mob of people. Still quite early days on the Enterprise-D – Geordi is still flying the ship, they’re not quite sure what to do with Worf, Riker’s chin is still exposed to the elements, and Tasha’s life expectancy can be measured in days (this was actually the last episode to be filmed featuring her as a regular character, which is why Denise Crosby waves goodbye to the camera at the end of Tasha’s final scene). The Enterprise is doing something important and astronomical when it picks up a distress call from a small freighter in danger of crashing into one of the two inhabited planets of the local system. The peculiar uselessness of the freighter’s crew means the vessel is lost, but four survivors and the cargo (a mysterious barrel) are saved.

A reunion of the supporting cast of Star Trek II appears to have been in progress on the stricken ship, as materialising on the pad are Judson Scott, as one of a pair of smug aliens in shiny clothes, and Merritt Butrick, as one of a pair of sweaty aliens in shabby clothes. What’s going on is this: the smug aliens come from the planet Brekkia (much more Brekky than most planets), where their whole society is dedicated to producing the drug felicium (which is what’s in the barrel). The sweaty aliens come from the planet Ornara, where everyone carries a terrible incurable disease and needs regular doses of felicium in order to function at all. In return for medical supplies, the Ornarans supply the Brekkians with all their material requirements – an arrangement which allows one side to live, and the other to live well, to paraphrase an unexpectedly elegant line of dialogue. The question is now one of who the felicium belongs to, given that the payment was destroyed along with the freighter – one side says it is desperately needed, but the other refuses to just give it away.

However, the olfactory rodent detection sensor on Dr Crusher’s tricorder starts to register, mainly because she can’t find any trace of disease in the Ornaran visitors, despite their clear physical discomfort and claims that they are infected. The penny (or the Federation equivalent) drops when the Ornarans are allowed a dose of the medicine as a goodwill gesture, and instantly subside into a doped-up stupor. There is no plague – not any more, anyway. The Ornaran dependency on felicium – and thus the entire basis of both societies and their relationship – is simply because it is a massively addictive narcotic. Picard and the others have stumbled into a case of drug-dealing on an interplanetary scale…

(Before we get onto the rest of it, many people stick the boot into this episode for a number of different reasons, but no-one seems to have noticed the strangeness of the set-up which the plot demands – the Ornarans are heading home with their load of felicium, which is fair enough. But why are they bringing two Brekkians back with them, along with – apparently – whatever they paid for the drugs with? The fact that the payment is destroyed with the freighter is a plot point.)

As I say, the thing about many of these early TNG episodes is that it’s relatively easy to imagine them, or a close version of them, appearing in a fourth or fifth season of the original series. This one is no exception – although the lumberingly heavy-handed allegory (hell, it’s not even an allegory, it’s an episode which is explicitly about narcotic addiction and drug dealing) and a few incidental plot details (both the Brekkians and  Ornarans can generate shocks like an electric eel) inevitably mean the 60s episode you’re reminded of most is Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, not exactly 60s Trek‘s finest hour or so. People say the Federation is a post-scarcity economy; well, not as far as subtlety is concerned, much of the time.

(Possibly the most egregious element of the episode is a scene in which Wesley wonders aloud how anyone could let themselves get addicted to drugs, and receives a kind but stern lecture from Tasha on the subject, rather in the style of a Very Special Episode of a kids’ cartoon. This was apparently crowbarred in by writer and executive producer Maurice Hurley – the other writers didn’t want it there, the director didn’t want it, the actors were begging not to have to perform it. It is a bit like a lead weight that drags the rest of the episode down. If I were the kind of person who gave star ratings, I would knock a star off just for this one scene.)

On the other hand, Symbiosis is also very much influenced by how the Roddenberry vision had developed over the years since the 1960s. The drug-dealing situation is the backdrop to the episode, but the central conflict is all about the lofty moral principles of the Federation, specifically (of course) the Prime Directive not to interfere in the internal workings of other societies. What’s going on is clearly a case of parasitic exploitation – the Brekkians are fully aware of what they’re doing – and you would imagine that were Kirk in the captain’s seat they would have found a way for him to resolve the situation with a fist-fight and quite probably a ripped shirt.

But, of course, it’s not Kirk in command but Picard, and first-season Picard at that. The writers simply haven’t figured out how to make best use of Patrick Stewart at this point, and Picard is not the thoughtful and subtle figure of immense moral authority he would eventually become, but more a starchy apparatchik whose remarkable qualities we’re told about more often than shown. You wait and wait for the moment where Picard will unleash a scathing condemnation on the Brekkians, making it quite clear how morally bankrupt and reprehensible their civilisation is, but it never comes. If Kirk’s motto could have been ‘Risk is our business’, then Picard’s – this week, at least – is ‘my hands are tied’. He can’t tell the Ornarans they’re being duped (and doped). He can’t stop the Brekkians from selling them the drug. He can’t allow Dr Crusher’s plan to give the planet of the junkies a synthetic drug to help wean them off the felicium. It really sucks to be Picard on a week like this one.

Some people watching this episode come away with the impression that its central theme is simply ‘drugs are bad and drug dealers are horrible’. The episode certainly does express this sentiment – grindingly – but it’s also got a strange message about how doing the right thing can often leave a bad taste in your mouth. Picard comes up with a kind-of solution to the situation – he withdraws an offer to help maintain the Ornaran space fleet, meaning their ships will soon break down, ending the drug trade, and guaranteeing agonising Cold Turkey for the entire population of Ornara – but the implication is that, even if he hadn’t done this, the Federation would have won some kind of moral victory simply by resisting the urge to intervene. Is it really the case that preserving the Federation’s lofty principles is worth condemning an entire planet’s population to excruciating withdrawal symptoms, and the possible collapse of their society? Picard seems quite sure that it is, even though he admits that they may never learn the consequences of their actions (another ship may not be in this sector for decades).

Star Trek, in all its incarnations, is generally a show with a degree of moral sophistication to it, but this is one of those occasions which makes you wonder quite where Gene Roddenberry’s head was at. The Prime Directive is a dandy plot device for ramping up the conflict quotient in a story and complicating the lives of people with, after all, vast resources backing them up. But does it really stand up as an absolute moral imperative? This is the kind of episode which gives you pause, as far as that goes. Unfortunately the sheer crushing obviousness of the drug addiction plot largely eclipses the moral aspect of this particular story. You could never call Symbiosis a great episode, but digging into it at least provides food for thought.

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The 23rd century used to be a very different place. I am old enough to remember when the Star Trek films were very new and rather exciting additions to the world created by the original TV show, a world which was enthusiastically studied and extrapolated upon by a generation of fans throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. At that point, Star Trek really belonged to its fans, and they happily seized upon every little point of lore and casual reference as they expanded the universe of the show.

The lack of any prospect of new Trek gave this project a freedom to innovate and go beyond the limitations of the TV show – not necessarily by dragging it into a mature readers ghetto of gratuitous sexual content and other graphic material (although there was certainly an element of this), but by treating the show like the serious SF it had always aspired to be. In the 1990s, certainly, Star Trek became the McDonald’s of science fiction, omni-present, reliable, safe, samey. But some of the early books from the 1980s are much more like the real stuff: they’re SF set in the Star Trek universe, rather than simply TV tie-in books.

Time moves on, of course, and while some of these books have lasted reasonably well, others have fallen foul of subsequent developments in the TV and movie canon. Looking at these books now is an undeniably odd experience – they often still have that authentic Trek feel to them, despite the fact that they are frequently totally at odds with the ‘real’ history of Trek.

This is particularly noticeable with The Final Reflection, a novel by John M Ford. This book was originally published in 1984, the same year that Star Trek III was released. One of the noteworthy things about Star Trek III is the fact that it’s the first movie that deals in-depth with the Klingons as we have come to know them today – although their presentation in the film is not exactly in depth, the ‘standard’ Klingon make-up debuts here, along with the familiar Bird-of-Prey ship design, and of course Marc Okrand’s Klingon language. Other writers, most significantly Ronald Moore, would take these things as a starting point and go on to develop the Klingon culture in much more detail.

The thing is, however, that John M Ford was there first, creating his own vision of how Klingon society functioned, and doing so with the approach of a fan rather than a professional. The makers of Star Trek did not explain the radical difference in appearance between the Klingons of the original TV show and those in later versions until the mid 2000s, but fans of the show had come up with their own explanation decades earlier – not being as adverse to genetic manipulation as their Federation rivals, the Klingons had re-engineered themselves into a number of different sub-species, some of which (the lumpy-headed ones) were more pureblooded, while the fusions (the ones more closely resembling human actors in face paint) had been created for the purposes of interaction with other species. This and many other things form the fabric of the story of The Final Reflection.

The story itself is partly a coming-of-age novel, partly a political thriller. There is a very brief frame story set aboard the Enterprise some time after the end of the TV show, but most of the novel takes the form of a story set nearly half a century earlier (TV characters are referred to or implied to appear). Krenn, an orphaned young Klingon, finds himself adopted into the house of a senior strategist, joins the Imperial Navy, distinguishes himself in border skirmishes with the Romulans, and soon rises to become captain of his own ship, no mean feat given the omnipresence of both rivals and Klingon Security.

This leads to him being given a singular mission: to travel to Earth and collect Emanuel Tagore, the first ambassador from the Federation to the Klingon homeworld. To say there are political tensions and factional disagreements on both sides regarding this is an understatement. Is Krenn’s mission even intended to succeed? Could it just be intended to provide a pretext for the war which some in both the Federation and the Klingon Empire seem to desperately want?

The Final Reflection is written with considerable elegance and skill, Ford skating through some potentially tricky areas (involved descriptions of space battles) with impressive deftness. I would have to say that the different sections of the story don’t quite tie together to form a thematically satisfying whole – the early chapters’ desire to provide an insider’s perspective on life in the Klingon Empire don’t really have a direct connection to the more involved plot of the rest of the book.

On the other hand, I imagine that many people reading this book will just be wanting to read about Klingons being Klingons, and Ford does not disappoint, expanding on the (actually really tiny amount of) information from the original series and The Motion Picture to create a rich and coherent culture. Ford’s Klingons have their own naming conventions, their own set of idioms (the seat of Klingon emotions is apparently the liver, not the heart), and their own pop icons – apparently the most popular entertainment franchise in the Empire is the suspiciously familiar-sounding Battlecruiser Vengeance, a long-running series about the exploits of a Navy cruiser and its senior officers. Central to all of this is the notion of ‘the Perpetual Game’, the idea – fundamental to their culture – that all Klingons are involved in an unending struggle for success and glory. The Final Reflection takes its name for a term from klin zha, essentially Klingon chess, which is a motif throughout the book (needless to say, rules for playing klin zha – though presumably not the most prestigious version using live pieces – are available on the Internet).

Most of this is created out of whole cloth, but somehow it all feels ‘right’ and convincing – for original series Klingons, anyway. Reading the book does remind you of just how much of what we learned about the Klingons in those initial episodes has been quietly erased from history – you can argue that references to Klingon slave camps are just hearsay based on faulty intelligence (in one episode a Klingon character seems equally convinced that the Federation practices slavery too), but we do see Klingons using personal torture devices on-screen, and the brutal methods employed by Kor in Errand of Mercy seem to be institutional, not just an example of one psychopath in a position of power. Certainly The Final Reflection acknowledges the existence of slave races within the Empire, and the paranoid, vicious nature of Klingon society (Vulcans travelling within the Empire, for instance, must consent to having the telepathic centres of their brains excised). One of the few criticisms I’d make of Ford’s world-building is that his Klingons do come across as, well, rather more Romanesque than the Romulans themselves, with their adoptions and slave-holdings and gladiatorial games. It’s difficult to think of an alternative set of cultural reference points, though.

Fascinating and thorough as this mostly is, virtually none of it meshes with the details of Klingon culture established since, mainly in Berman-era Trek (let’s not even get started on the Klingons of Discovery). The canon Klingons are almost wholly different – the inconsistencies in their appearance have an alternative explanation, and their biology is hugely different too – Ford’s Klingons mature and age more rapidly than humans, with sixty counting as a very ripe old age, whereas one of the biologically peculiar things about canon Klingons is that while they do grow to adulthood at a highly accelerated rate, compared to humans anyway (Worf’s son Alexander is conceived in 2365 and only ten years later is serving as weapons officer on a warship), they remain healthy and capable for a very long time (Kang, Kor, and Koloth are all senior officers in the late 2260s and are still around and active, albeit a bit elderly, a full century later).

The same goes for the Klingon language developed by Ford (he names the Klingon homeworld Klinzhai, by the way), which seems to be completely different from the entity unleashed upon the world by Marc Okrand. Okrandian Klingon translates the word ’empire’ as wo’, for example, whereas Fordian Klingon opts for komerex or kemerex (literally ‘that which lives and expands‘, thus providing another window into the Klingon mindset). It says something about the lasting impact of Ford’s book on the perception of the Klingons amongst a certain type of truly dedicated fan that even today you can find websites for a Klingon fan group calling itself Khemerex Klinzhai.

The thing about Ford’s Klingons is that they are subtle and nuanced and oddly ambiguous in a way which canon Klingons aren’t, really: canon Klingon society is basically just a red-lit room with a bunch of guys shouting ‘Honourrrrrrrr!’ and head-butting each other – easy to get a handle on for an hour-long TV show, I suppose, but probably less interesting as the protagonists of a genuine novel.

But then again, as I say, the influence of this book has been huge and enduring, although not always very obvious. One of Krenn’s more unexpected traits is his great fondness for fruit juice of different types, which is apparently not unusual amongst Klingons – this must surely be the source for Worf’s well-known love of prune juice. And, by one of those strange coincidences, literally hours after finishing The Final Reflection, I came across The Hidden Universe Travel Guide to the Klingon Empire, a – for want of a better word – spoof travel handbook for anyone planning a holiday in Klingon space. It’s all very much in line with Berman-era canon, but odd little things jump out at you – the Klingon star is named Klinzhai, for instance. The guidebook recommends visiting a klin zha parlour in the First City of Qo’noS. There is a box-out describing the enduring appeal of the Battlecruiser Vengeance franchise, and an advert for a Vengeance theme park ride. And page 94 is dedicated to a sidebar entitled ‘Appreciating The Final Reflection’, which tells of how a Federation anthropologist named J.M. Ford wrote his famous novel while living undercover in the Empire, basing it on historical events.

Not many three-decade-old tie-in novels are still well-regarded enough to get this sort of shout-out, especially ones which have no claim whatsoever to even apocryphal canonicity. Yet it seems entirely appropriate in this case – you can’t honestly claim that John M Ford wrote the book on Klingons – at least, not any more. But he did write a book on Klingons, and one which is still influential and entertaining today. Practically essential reading for the serious student of all things Klingon; a fine SF novel for everyone else.

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With the release of Star Trek: Discovery only a few weeks away, my impression is that much of Trek fandom, far from being in a state of happy anticipation, is basically on Yellow Alert, hoping for the best, but fearing that… well, apparently the new show is essentially from the same place as the JJ Abrams movies – enough said, probably. (I almost get the impression that some people are more excited about The Orville than an ‘official’ piece of Star Trek.) One of the things most responsible for this general uneasiness is the new show’s take on the Klingons, particularly their appearance. After viewing one of the trailers, my comment to a friend was ‘What the hell have they done to the Klingons?!?’, to which his response was ‘How do you know they’re Klingons?’ (the dialogue gave it away – although well-versed in Trek, his grasp of tlhIngan Hol is even shakier than my own). The fact that a seasoned Trekkie didn’t recognise Discovery‘s Klingons as Klingons really kind of says it all.

Not that there haven’t been radical reimaginings of Klingons in the past, of course, make-up techniques and budgets having developed somewhat in the last fifty years. The original Klingon characters are basically just dudes in blackface makeup and droopy false moustaches, while The Motion Picture features a style of Klingon never quite seen elsewhere. From 1984 until the end of Berman-era Trek in 2005, things become a lot more consistent, of course. The shifts in makeup even get addressed in the text of the episodes themselves – there’s some lantern-hanging for comic effect in Trials and Tribble-Ations, where Worf, in all his lumpy-headed glory, gets to meet some ‘original’ Klingons, and then a sincere attempt to explain the various inconsistencies towards the end of Enterprise.

It’s telling, however, that when 90s Star Trek reintroduced Klingon characters from 60s episodes, they just updated the make-up without making any reference to the fact that they’d done so. My understanding is that consideration was given to simply retaining the original look, but the decision was that this might be confusing to the general audience.

The episode in question is Blood Oath (written by Peter Allan Fields), from the second season of Deep Space Nine. At this point in its history, DS9 is still essentially an episodic programme, with the Dominion yet to make its presence felt, and this installment is distinctive mainly because of a premise guaranteed to excite the truly devoted, while not meaning a huge amount to the general viewer.

Anyway, the story gets underway with a rowdy, if somewhat geriatric Klingon, causing trouble in Quark’s bar. This turns out to be Kor (John Colicos), last seen in Errand of Mercy from the first season of the original series. Kor has let himself go a bit since his glory days on Organia, rather to the disgust of his old friend Koloth (William Campbell), last seen in the flesh in The Trouble with Tribbles, from the second season of the original series – Koloth refuses to bail him out.

News of this unusual grip of elderly Klingons (‘grip’ is the collective noun for Klingons, apparently) reaches the senior staff of the station – those of them actually appearing in the episode, anyway. It turns out that Science Officer Dax was friends with both Kor and Koloth in her previous incarnation, and that they have come here in preparation for the fulfilment of an oath of vengeance taken decades earlier. All this has happened at the behest of a third old Klingon, Kang (Michael Ansara), last seen in Day of the Dove, from the third season of the original series.

However, Kang got to know Dax nearly a century earlier (the implication, if you do the sums, seems to be that this happened before the peace talks of Star Trek VI), and is unaware Dax is now an MTA. Kang releases Dax from the obligation to help them kill a Klingon renegade responsible for the deaths of the three Klingons’ eldest children on the grounds that she is not really the same person. But Dax is not sure she wants to be released…

Now, I like Deep Space Nine nearly as much as I like the original series, and so I really want to like this conjunction of the two of them: the whole idea seems to have been ‘let’s get the three most famous original Klingons back!’ – but having got them back, the episode struggles a bit to find worthy things for them to do. Now, Michael Ansara as Kang is very nearly as authentically Klingon as Michael Dorn, while the relish with which John Colicos attacks his lines as a newly Falstaffian Kor is also extremely good value. William Campbell gets swallowed up by his makeup and hair, though, and perhaps suffers from having less to do than the others (though this was also really the case in his original appearance, too).

Beyond the performances, though, the bulk of the episode is taken up with Dax wondering if she wants to go and help kill the bad guy, and then trying to persuade the others to let her come with them. And the scent of pre-mixed filler is all over this stuff – of course she does. Of course they will. I’m reluctant to say this is the fault of Terry Farrell (who plays Dax) as an actor – your level of expertise is really immaterial when it comes to dealing with a script which fails to really dig down into its subject and give it any depth or genuine emotion.

This is, in the end, a story about someone who sets off on a quest to kill someone – the oath of the title is an oath of vengeance, after all. It goes without saying that this is against the ethos of Starfleet and the Federation, and you might expect, firstly, that Dax would do a bit of histrionic soul-searching in the classic Trek style, and, secondly, that her colleagues and commanding officer would have something to say about it too. The episode makes a vague gesture in the direction of both these things, but in the end it doesn’t really do anything interesting with them.

I suppose in the end this episode is a dictum victim – the dictum in question being that of Trek writing luminary Michael Piller, who decreed midway through TNG that every episode would focus on one of the regulars and be about that character in some way, rather than being (say) a plot-driven action-adventure. Whatever you think of this in general, it’s surely a terrible basis for an episode the sine qua non of which is bringing back three classic characters for a tale of old warriors facing their last battle. All the stuff with Dax gets in the way of Kang, Kor, and Koloth getting good scenes, and it means the concluding action sequences feel rather underdeveloped too. The writer throws in a twist, but it’s a bizarre and somewhat illogical one – Kang is knowingly leading the other two to their deaths, believing they have no real chance of ever killing their target, and reasoning that any kind of demise in battle is better than simply fading away. Really? That’s a very defeatist attitude for a veteran Klingon commander.

And I wonder if the decision to stick the boys in the standard Klingon make-up wasn’t a mistake. For one thing, it makes at least one of them virtually unrecognisable from their original appearance, and for another, while the story is clearly gunning for a Three Musketeers or Seven Samurai kind of vibe, the Klingon wigs, on top of all the leather gear, gives it more of the feel of a geriatric hair-metal band reunion tour. On one level I suppose it sort of is. In the end, it is pleasant to see these characters again after all this time – and better episodes for John Colicos follow. But on this occasion, the strength of the material doesn’t come close to the potential of the concept.

 

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The main difference between a sequel and a spin-off is that while the former can get away with just being more of the same, the latter is obliged to pull off the difficult trick of creating a distinct new identity for itself while still being recognisably the same thing as its progenitor. Perhaps this is why Next Gen was the most successful of the successor Star Trek series, because it could just get on with being a sequel. I’m not saying the differences between the original show and Next Gen are only cosmetic, because this clearly isn’t the case: but Next Gen was able to gradually evolve its own look and feel and ethos over a number of years, whereas DS9 and the others had to do something different right from the start in order to justify their existence.

And perhaps this is why the successor series, as they went on, increasingly struggled, because it’s not at all clear that some of their premises retained quite the same magic as the notion of going out into the galaxy and discovering its wonders, while at the same time presenting a pretty well-defined conception of what human beings could be like at their best. Next Gen is essentially about the citizens of utopia and how they deal with various personal and moral problems which life throws at them. DS9 is about what it means to be a citizen of utopia when that paradise is presented with an existential threat – how do you cope? What are you prepared to do to protect it? And Voyager is about…

Well, here’s the thing. On one level the premise of Voyager is very straightforward – the ship is stuck on the wrong side of the galaxy and trying to get home. Which is fair enough, and fairly generative in terms of ideas for action-adventure jeopardy type plots. But it doesn’t have the same philosophical potential as that of the previous shows. If the show had focused more on the notion of what it would mean to be a citizen of utopia who finds themselves expelled from that world, having to make do amongst the barbarians, then I think it would have been much more engaging. As it is, the series touches on some aspects of this only in passing, and others barely at all.

There’s a further problem with the Voyager format which is thrown into sharp relief by the first season episode Eye of the Needle, written by Jeri Taylor. As you might expect, this is still early days for the crew, who have only been stuck in the Delta Quadrant for a couple of months at this point. Hopes of a swift return home are raised when Ensign Kim discovers what seems to be a wormhole, which could offer them a shortcut back to Federation space.

However, it turns out to be a rather feeble and elderly wormhole, barely big enough to stick a probe down, but they do so anyway. The probe promptly gets stuck half-way through, which would be even more annoying were it not for the fact that someone on the other side seems to be scanning the wormhole too – and the data indicates they are doing so from the Alpha Quadrant…

Well, step by step Captain Janeway and the crew establish a connection with whoever’s on the other side – signal codes at first, then a voice communication, then video, and then finally an actual transporter link. There is a bit of a sticky moment when it is revealed that the ship on the other side is a Romulan vessel engaged in classified activities, but the Romulan commander (Vaughn Armstrong) turns out to be a good egg and proves sympathetic to the crew’s situation. Could this finally prove to be their route home?

Well, the problem with the episode (and arguably with any similar episode of Voyager) isn’t just that the answer to this question is ‘of course it isn’t’, but that it’s ‘of course it isn’t, and everybody watching knows that from the start’. It’s the same problem with any series predicated on a bunch of people being stuck in a situation they’d rather not be in – almost inevitably, there are going to be numerous episodes about them trying to get out of their pickle, and equally inevitably, they’re never going to succeed in extricating themselves. In some ways Voyager is more akin to a show like Space: 1999 than the original Star Trek or Next Gen – Kirk and Picard were where they wanted to be, doing something they loved, not trapped in an odyssey of misery and frustration (which is what the prevailing mood on Voyager would more likely have been).

As a result the big question in the viewer’s mind while watching Eye of the Needle is not ‘could they possibly get home this week?’ but ‘What trick are the writers going to pull to stop them getting home this week?’ Now, to be fair, the twist employed by Jeri Taylor is not a bad one – it transpires that the wormhole is a shortcut through time as well as space, and transporting through it will mean travelling back twenty years to 2351 – but the episode arguably misses a trick in the way this possibility is blandly dismissed by Janeway and the crew, with barely a peep of dissent from anyone involved. ‘Too much damage to the timeline,’ Janeway decrees, which may be the case, but you would have expected someone to try and find a way round this. Why not transport home and then have yourselves put into stasis or cryo for twenty years? We know the technology’s there, we’ve seen it in multiple other episodes. But nope. The Captain has spoken and everyone acquiesces.

Of course, there’s also the issue of the Romulans and the Federation not actually being on speaking terms in 2351 – it’s established in early Next Gen that the Star Empire was in the middle of one of its isolationist phases at this point in time – but on the other hand you can see why they used a Romulan in this episode: it requires a member of one of the major races, but also one with a slightly adversarial relationship to the Federation. As ever, when you need a nondescript big-name adversarial race in Trek, it’s the Romulans who get called up. (There is at least a hint of the events of this episode having some kind of consequence – much later we learn that the Romulans have always been very interested in the fate of Voyager, perhaps suggesting they had some foreknowledge of what would befall the ship.)

But this stuff is by the by. The problem with the episode is that the issue of ‘what’s going to stop them getting home?’ is pretty much the sole point of dramatic tension in it, and that’s part of the meta-narrative, not the story of the episode itself. There are, I suppose, some nice character moments built in along the way, but – especially once you know the twist – the episode feels underpowered as a piece of drama. There’s a ticking clock but not much tension and scarcely any jeopardy.

Squeezed in alongside all the stuff with the wormhole and the Romulan is a B-plot about the holographic Doctor’s status aboard the ship and his occasionally fraught relations with the rest of the crew – apart from Kes, they’re all just treating him as a hologram. Which is kind of understandable, given that he is a hologram, but even so, we are already aware of what a lovable curmudgeon he has become. Which just leads one to wonder – what exactly are these holo-engineers up to? As with the various other Federation miracle machines, they are doing astounding things without even seeming to realise it. Holodeck technology is apparently at the point where it can create sentient, self-aware life by accident (cf. those TNG episodes with Professor Moriarty), and yet they go about sticking EMHs on their ships with no-one even seeming to consider the possibility that the holo-doctors could be more than mindless functionaries. Too big an issue for one episode to address, of course. Even the cap scene for this plotline rings resoundingly false with hindsight – ‘I want a name!’ says the Doctor, which is written and played like a key moment in his development as a character. He never actually gets one, of course. But at least you can imagine him getting one at some point, which is more than you can say for the possibility of Voyager getting home any time prior to the series’ last episode. This is a show about a lost ship. Episodes about the ship maybe-getting un-lost are on a hiding to nothing unless they can find considerably more in the way of actual character drama than this one does.

 

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It is one of those curious and perhaps somewhat cherishable paradoxes that probably the most alien society depicted in any depth on Star Trek is that of the Federation itself, the one to which the vast majority of the various series’ human characters belong. When you think about it, this isn’t so surprising, given that the various other cultures are intended to illuminate less enlightened aspects of human nature as it exists today, while the Federation represents the Roddenberry ideal of an evolved humanity.

The Federation is a difficult concept to get your head around, in some ways. One thing that both admirers and critics of Star Trek have seized upon is the fact that the Federation, according to several of its more prominent citizens, does not use money. Critics conclude that the franchise is therefore a puff-piece for a spurious and imaginary socialist utopia. Supporters sometimes take a different view: and the most cogent explication of these that I’ve read is Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia.

Saadia does not attempt to explain how the economies of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant function in the year 2370. This is probably quite wise, as – just between you and me – I don’t think there is much sense to be made of this. Saadia takes the ‘we don’t use money’ position, as stated by Captain Kirk (amongst others), at face value, and ignores the multitude of occasions where people casually talk about buying a boat, or selling a house, or paying for someone else’s dinner, or have a purchase charged to their account, or whatever. He assumes that the Federation, if not some of the other quadrant powers, is effectively infinitely wealthy, with its inhabitants living in a post-scarcity utopia, operating a reputation-based prestige economy. This arguably doesn’t match up with what is shown or implied on screen, and begs numerous questions about how and why the Federation engages in trading relationships with the other polities of the 24th century, but it’s one of the central planks of Saadia’s thesis: which is that Star Trek depicts a situation which could be achieved here on real-world Earth in the foreseeable future.

As always with this kind of The (Academic Discipline) of (Popular Franchise) title, the question is one how much it’s actually about the Academic Discipline and how much it’s just a grab for the cash of fans of the Popular Franchise. Pleasingly, Trekonomics combines impressive intellectual heft with a deep and loving knowledge of Star Trek – Saadia obviously knows his stuff in both departments, and Trekkies who check this book out will come away with a greatly expanded knowledge of theoretical concepts such as doux-commerce and the tragedy of the commons, while economists will gain an equally practical grounding in topics as diverse as the galactic warp-speed limitation crisis of 2371 and the legal status of authors who are holographic AIs in the closing years of the same decade.

This is more of a collection of essays than a book with a single coherent argument – there are opening chapters discussing topics such as the (apparent) absence of money from the Federation, the fact that everyone nevertheless seems to be working very hard for no apparent material reward, and the manner in which the Federation’s economy seems to be built around the principle that access to the replicator (a make-virtually-anything-out-of-virtually-thin-air machine) is available to all citizens at all times (money, the great metaphorical all-purpose conversion technology, has been superseded by the replicator, an actual all-purpose matter conversion technology).

From here the book moves on to touch on such topics as the limitations of natural resources, the management of common goods, and the place of Star Trek in the lineage of utopian science fiction (the Strugatsky brothers get a name check, as does Iain Banks for his wonderful Culture stories, but Saadia argues that Trek’s main inspiration was the SF of Isaac Asimov – a curious idea, given Trek features robots and the like less than arguably any other well-known SF franchise, but one which actually seems to be sound. Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to a look at Star Trek’s great economic adventurers, the Ferengi, and finally a discussion of what the genuine chances are of a Trek-like economic settlement being reached in the real world.

And it is, for the most part, a fascinating read. Apart from the fact that Saadia interprets the various ‘we don’t use money’ quotes to suit his argument, there are a few places where his suggestions seem a little bit overcooked – he suggests that the faction most similar to the Federation in Star Trek are the Borg, which seems a bit counter-intuitive. Admittedly the Borg definitely don’t use cash, but on the other cyber-prosthesis they are certainly consumers (even if it’s not in a strictly economic sense). His assertion that Deep Space Nine is on some level the story of the development and enlightenment of Ferengi society is also a bit much to swallow – although I have to say I am one of those people who finds many of the Ferengi-centric episodes of the series a bit wearisome. (For what it’s worth, I think the thematic core of Deep Space Nine is the issue of how to retain your enlightened principles when surrounded by people who don’t share them and are willing to exploit you for having them – which does have an economic angle to it, just not one which the show ever really dwelt on. How would a predatory merchant like a Ferengi really deal with a potential customer who was (effectively) infinitely wealthy?)

Set against this, however, are a range of fascinating insights into Trek, both in terms of canon and theory, which make the book well worth reading even if you’re just not that into economic philosophy. Saadia draws the reasonable and pertinent conclusion that the miraculous replicator, source of the Federation’s immense material abundance, was not invented until some point in the (largely uncharted) decades between the end of the original cast movies and the beginning of TNG, which therefore means that the cashless economy (if you believe in it) came first (the most famous instance of a ‘we don’t have money’ line comes from a Kirk who hails from about the year 2285). He also suggests that it’s the material abundance enabled by the replicator which is responsible for the transformation in human behaviour by the time of the series set in the 2360s and 2370s – the reason why most of the characters from these shows are somehow not quite as vital and engaging as the original crew (according to Manu Saadia, anyway) is that by the 2360s everyone has gone a bit Spock – freed from economic concerns and pressures, they have fewer recognisably human drives and motivations.

Whether or not you agree with the author’s take on Trek, this is stimulating stuff, if you have the right kind of brain; certainly it made me want to revisit several of the episodes he examines (and also regret the fact the various shows didn’t find a way of exploring these issues in a more coherent and systematic way). If the future of Star Trek is in doubt at the moment (and we must admit that this is perhaps the case), then it’s because many people seem to have lost the capacity to be optimistic: there is no place for utopianism in a world where Trump and Putin are in power, runs the argument. Well, I’d say exactly the opposite, and I suspect that Manu Saadia would, too: his conclusion is that the paradise-like Federation depicted in the TV shows is not a fantasy enabled by improbable machines like the replicator, but the result of concrete social, political, and economic choices on the part of its people. The same choices are available to us now. He doesn’t suggest this will be an easy path – quite the opposite – but that the option at least exists. Is the book’s argument convincing? Well, perhaps not completely, but I think it makes more than enough points to qualify as worthy of consideration. One of the best books of its kind that I have read, and certainly one of the most relevant to the real world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Writing about the same movie more than once is something that I hardly ever do, but taking a retrospective look at Stuart Baird’s Star Trek: Nemesis feels almost obligatory, given I’ve written about nearly all the proper Trek films in the last couple of months. There’s also the fact that when the film came out, no-one actually realised that it was a watershed moment in the history of the series. So here we go.

The review of Nemesis from its original release is here.

Well, looking again at my opinion from Stardate 5.1.2003, there’s not much there that I actually disagree with, although I am a little embarrassed not to have figured out that the reason the TNG mob kept making movies for so long was because they were much more popular than the people off the other TV shows. If anything I think I was a little too kind to a movie which has got some serious problems.

It’s not actually a problem per se, but looking at Nemesis again now, there’s something about it that places the film very firmly in the zeitgeist of its time – some of the other movies which queued up to crush this one at the box office were Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day, and The Two Towers, and there is something curiously baroque and fantastical about the production designs here – it almost feels like the Enterprise is travelling to Mordor rather than Romulus, with the Orc-like Remans much more prominent than the traditional Romulans who appear (the Romulans finally get a major role in a Trek movie and it’s a duffer like this).

Before we get to the heart of darkness, though, the movie has an unexpectedly light tone, with the various goings on at the reception and Worf’s entirely understandable concerns about attending a nudist wedding. The whole buggy chase sequence does not appear to serve much of a purpose, either (and is it my imagination, or doesn’t there appear to be serious violation of the Prime Directive going on here?). More than this, the presence of the chase is emblematic of the movie’s choice to favour action-movie elements over plot and character – a large number of character scenes were cut from the film (the internet means they are now freely available to view), which may be why it feels so lacking in warmth and texture.

Then it all gets rather dark and perhaps just a bit overwrought. As mentioned, the subtext about Picard and Data’s clones is both laboured and obvious, and I find myself obliged to wonder what the point of the sequence where Shinzon violates Counsellor Troi’s mind is. Did Stuart Baird get off on this sort of thing? (A second sequence along the same lines was also cut from the film.) The interminable and rather unimaginative space battle which makes up most of the final act of the film also looks more like a mistake than ever. Script, direction, and design all feel like the work of people who are only passingly familiar with Star Trek.

But my main thought is that this is a film which is totally unaware of its main significance, that significance being that it really would prove to be the nemesis of the film series (in its original incarnation, anyway). While it ostensibly features the parting of the ways for the senior staff of the Enterprise-E, you get the sense that it would be easy enough to get them all back together one way or another (Worf has already been reassigned to the Enterprise from his posting as ambassador to Qo’NoS, after all), and apparently another film was planned. (This may be why the climax of the film packs so little emotional punch, despite featuring the death of a hugely popular character.)

Of course, it was not to be, and as it turned out this proved to be not just the last appearance of the Next Generation characters, but our final canonical glimpse of life at the end of the 2370s – an appropriately hopeful one, given this is Star Trek, with the prospect of a genuine rapprochement between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire (I am inclined to disregard the suggestion of Romulus’ destruction a few years later in the same way I tend to ignore everything else introduced in the Abrams movies’ timeline). Long-term Trek producer and custodian Rick Berman seemed to be set in prequel mode from this point on – after a fifth TNG movie was canned, his next idea involved a trilogy of films set in the 22nd century (concurrently with parts of Star Trek: Enterprise, though with new characters), concerning the Earth-Romulus War referred to in the original TV show. This never got past the very early stages of development, with Paramount opting to summon up the dark power of the dreaded Abrams instead.

And so, in terms of the movie actually released to cinemas, our last glimpse of the future of Star Trek is oddly appropriate: the Enterprise in spacedock for a refit, missing a few key crewmembers, shown in a special effects shot that goes on perhaps just a bit too long while Jerry Goldsmith’s music plays over the top. Isn’t that where we came in, back in 1979? There may be a sense of the films unintentionally closing the circle, but it would be wonderful if one day we could visit the 2390s or 2420s and see what the Federation and its neighbours are like, generations after Picard and his contemporaries. Anything is possible, and if Star Trek is about one thing, it’s about being hopeful for the future.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Film-making, in the Hollywood mainstream at least, is often a kind of Faustian bargain – on the one hand, you have a writer and/or director, who have a story they really feel has value and deserves to reach the widest possible audience, while on the other there’s the studio who are actually paying for the thing, who want as healthy a return as possible on their investment. Advertising and suchlike tends to focus on the former. Occasionally, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid the impression that a film has only been made for the purposes of raking in the dough.

I think it’s this problem that besets the last couple of ‘original’ Star Trek movies. It would be almost impossible for the makers to argue that these are stories they were burning to tell about these characters, because by this point they’d already made about 180 TV episodes and movies featuring them. It’s not really a cash-in, but it is an example of a reliable product being put out for an established audience. Sound business, probably, but not exactly exciting or likely to thrill mind and spirit in the way that genuine SF is surely supposed to – I think it was Kim Newman who observed that by the late 1990s Star Trek had become the genre equivalent of McDonald’s.

Certainly, the sense of being a movie without a particularly pressing reason to exist is one of the problems afflicting Jonathan Frakes’ Star Trek: Insurrection, originally released in 1998. With the original series crossover movie out of the way, along with the Borg rematch action film, the big question was obviously that of what to do next with the Next Generation crew – and you do get a sense that they never really found a particularly compelling answer to it.

The year is 2375 and the Enterprise is being kept very busy with diplomatic and courier assignments – enough to make Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) lament the loss of their role as explorers (not that they ever seemed to do much of that, even in the TV show). However, a crisis demands his attention when Data (Brent Spiner), who has been assigned to a joint mission with a dubious gang of aliens called the So’na, seemingly goes rogue and starts attacking Federation personnel and their allies.

Investigating, Picard and the others discover a remote, secluded planet, inhabited by the thoroughly peaceful and decent Ba’ku people, who have rejected most of the trappings of technological civilisation. Everyone there is living the rustic idyll, and living it for a very long time, because the unique properties of the planet’s rings vastly boost physical wellbeing and longevity (something which begins to have odd effects on several members of Picard’s staff, too). The So’na have persuaded the Federation to assist them in exploiting this effect for the benefit of the wider galaxy, even if this means forcibly moving the Ba’ku without their consent and rendering their planet a lifeless cinder. Picard, being Picard, naturally has strong views about this sort of thing, but finds himself at odds with Starfleet Command, and compelled by his conscience to take up arms against his own people…

Well, not exactly: people who are allies of his own people, maybe, and allies who are established from the very start to be a very shady bunch. As insurrections go, the insurrection in Star Trek: Insurrection is not the most shocking insurrection in the history of insurrections, and it’s fairly clear the film’s only called Star Trek: Insurrection because Paramount wasn’t keen on titles like Star Trek: Stardust, Star Trek: Forever and Star Trek: Apostasy.

Actually, you can see where the blundering paw of studio interference has had an effect on this movie in a number of places – Paramount’s instinct with the Trek movies, following Star Trek IV at least, always seemed to be to go light whenever possible, in the hope of attracting a wider audience. So it is here, as Picard and the others do all kinds of unexpected and often slightly cringeworthy things: Data turns into an inflatable lifejacket. Riker and Troi hop in the hot tub together so she can shave off his beard. Troi and Dr Crusher discuss their resurgent ‘boobs’ (cringey this may be, but it’s also the only significant contribution Gates McFadden gets to make to the movie). Picard puts a beaded seat cover on his head, sings a Gilbert and Sullivan number, and dances the mambo across his quarters (not all at the same time, thank God). Some of this verges on the silly.

It’s a particular problem because you can see that the script (by Michael Piller, in many ways the principal architect of Star Trek storytelling in the 1990s and early 2000s) is trying to strike a much more thoughtful and mature tone. Of course, the film is ultimately once again about allowing Patrick Stewart to employ his massive gravitas (and, by extension, Picard’s colossal moral authority) by planting himself like a tree in the path of incipient injustice and doing what’s right, and Stewart (naturally) makes it work; he always does. But the film’s mechanism for facilitating this is to present a tarnished, compromised Federation, far from the utopian state it had traditionally been presented as for much of Trek prior to this point.

This is an interesting idea and does allow the film to plug into some of what had been going on in other bits of the franchise in the preceding couple of years – following various maulings in the war with the Dominion in DS9, and the Borg invasion in the previous movie, it’s kind of logical for the Federation to be on the back foot and losing touch with its ideals (apparently, the suggestion is that this movie is set concurrently with the final episode of DS9, hence the mention of peace negotiations with the Dominion – Worf just turns up like he never left, of course).

And it is nice to have another Trek movie focusing a little more on big moral themes and philosophical ideas, because this is a crucial element of the TV show that often never makes it into the movies in one piece. There isn’t the greatest of depth to it on this occasion – the Ba’ku are blandly, tediously nice, while the So’na are very obviously bad guys – but at least it’s there.

In fact, the film seems to have made a real effort to be thoroughgoingly nice in pretty much every department. Jonathan Frakes works very hard to fill the opening sequence with lyrical, pastoral imagery, which works well, but it establishes a tone which really lingers throughout the film. Even once Picard launches his ‘insurrection’, everything remains surprisingly mild and good-natured, there isn’t a sharp edge or genuinely tough decision in sight.

Still, it is solidly plotted and structured, and the inevitable action-movie climax is competently assembled (Piller takes no chances and makes sure the script favours Picard, Data, and Worf, the most popular characters). The thing is that, by the end, we are really back where we started, nothing has really changed (except maybe that we have become reacquainted with Riker’s chin): no-one has had a life-altering experience, everyone is ready for next week’s episode. You would have to be hyper-critical to say that Star Trek: Insurrection is an actively bad movie, but it’s not really stretching things too much to say that it frequently doesn’t feel much like an actual movie at all.

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