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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Does Anyone Really Care About Star Trek Anymore? -- That's the question posed by Tom Spurgeon, and although he may have asked it rhetorically, as part of his review of a new Star Trek spin-off comic book by John Byrne, my answer is yes, and I have some thoughts on the subject.

I was born in 1966, the same year Star Trek debuted on NBC; I debuted in January, the show came along in September, so in a way I am older than Captain Kirk. Of course, the show had been in the works for a couple years before it was ready for public consumption, a failed pilot being produced in 1964 with Captain Pike instead of Captain Kirk, and I've always been fascinated with the question of what the show might have been like had Jeffrey Hunter had the lead instead of William Shatner. Sure, Spock was a goof in that original pilot ("The Cage"), but Hunter's Pike was a darker and more intense character in that one episode than Kirk generally got over 40 years of episodes and movies. Even Kirk's death in 1993's Generations movie failed to muster up the sort of darkness and drama that an event like the death of James Tiberius Kirk should have inspired. Co-screenwriter and Battlestar Galactica prime mover Ron Moore even admitted as much in a recent interview.

So, I was born the same year as Star Trek, as I was saying, but obviously that means I didn't catch it in its first go-round on the tee-vee. No, it was in syndicated reruns in the early 1970s that it probably caught my eye, maybe or maybe not as a result of seeing the Saturday morning animated series, also called Star Trek. Some people don't consider the animated version canon, but you know what? If it's called Star Trek, is produced by Gene Roddenberry and stars William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan and Nichelle Nichols, it's goddamned Star Trek, goofy aliens or not.

My mom and I shared our love for Star Trek -- she had watched it from the beginning, and she definitely watched it at her end. In the early 1990s, when she was sinking into the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease, I had a friend who worked at a video store who would sell me the then-new VHS releases of Star Trek episodes at cost, I think five or six bucks per tape. As I made my way through acquiring the series on VHS, my mom got curious about the tapes I was bringing home in stacks of three or four at a time, and she watched Star Trek again like it was something she had never seen. The disease had wiped out her memories of the show, but she was still sharp enough to appreciate its humour and sharp social commentary, and watching her watch those episodes in what I know now was the beginning of her end is one of my fondest, most bittersweet memories. Those tapes gave her endless hours of genuine pleasure, even as she slowly slipped away. If for nothing else, I'll always hold the original Star Trek in high regard for allowing her those many hours of entertainment.

When The Next Generation came along in 1987, I was dubious that Roddenberry and company could recapture lightning in a bottle. We'd had The Wrath of Khan in theaters by then, and that movie was really what recharged "the franchise" (a loathsome term) enough to justify trying another TV show a few years later. TNG's pilot was mostly uninspiring to me; I didn't care for the lack of conflict between the characters (a Roddenberry conceit), as conflict between the three leads was much of what made the original series and the best of the movies hum. Hell, the conflict between Kirk, Spock and McCoy was the best part of even the worst of the movies, The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier, the latter being Shatner's doomed-from-the-start attempt at writing and directing a Star Trek movie. You tried, but, She's dead, Jim.

The Next Generation got good after its unformed and meandering first season. Diana Muldaur replaced Gates McFadden as the ship's doctor, and she immediately added tension to the mix. A lot of people didn't care for her Doctor Pulaski, but I liked the way she mixed in with the rest of the cast. On the other hand, when she was unceremoniously ditched and Dr. Crusher came back, I was glad to see her, too. Probably for the same reason I never liked Babylon 5's first commander until he was fired after the first season then came back later and stirred everything up in some of the best episodes of the series. It's that whole Joseph Campbell thing about going out into the wilderness and coming back with the power to grant boons, I think.

But yeah, the Borg came in during season two of TNG and their Hellraiser-stylings and eerie, hive-mind coldness was too frigging cool for primetime TV. Apparently it was too cool for Star Trek, too, because after their initial appearance in the episode "Q-Who" and the amazing two-part, season bridging "Best of Both Worlds," the Borg were never again used well on The Next Generation. The were either Edward Scissorhands in the stupid episode about the li'l boy Borg, or playing second fiddle to Data's evil twin Lore. Ugh. But they started with great potential.

By the time the series folded in 1993 to make way for the TNG cast to move to movies, I was sorry to see them go off the small screen. I might even have teared up a little during "All Good Things," the series finale. The double-length episode was a powerhouse demonstration of Patrick Stewart's acting and appeal, and if the time-bending plot swallowed its own tail ultimately, Stewart and John DeLancie as Q totally sold me on it. It's one of the few TNG episodes I rewatch again with any regularity.

Here things get crazy with spin-offs and movies and action figures and all kinds of crap -- TNG on film only made it through four movies before crashing and burning. The first two, Generations and First Contact, were both okay-to-good, but the last two, Insurrection and especially the atrocious Nemesis, were not well-received. I recently re-watched Insurrection on TV and realized it would have made an acceptable episode of the TV series, but as a movie it was a failure. Just not big enough. Nemesis had a cool title and that was it. If it had been about the scientific Nemesis theory, it might have been cool. I was also disappointed that no one but me thought it would have been neat to have a Trek movie in theaters the first year of the new millennium, called, of course, Star Trek: 2001. Come on, that would have been great!

Well, probably not, but only because the people entrusted to Star Trek's stewardship after Gene Roddenberry left seemed hell-bent on botching the job the longer they had it. Despite good episodes now and then, overall in retrospect I have no use at all for Voyager or Deep Space Nine, and by the time Enterprise debuted on the short-lived UPN network it was designed to support, I had mostly given up. I don't think I watched one entire episode of Enterprise the entire four years it was on.

Which is funny, because this past February, on Valentine's Day, in fact, my family received as a gift a 42-inch HDTV. And I added some HD channels to our cable package. And on one of them, HDNet, they were showing reruns of Enterprise. And I found to my genuine shock that I mostly dug the show a whole lot.

Sure, Scott Bakula is wooden and ham-fisted as an actor, but so is William Shatner, and I found that I could accept his Captain Archer and even enjoy many of his performances. And I genuinely loved the performances of Jolene Blalock as T'Pol and Connor Trinneer as the ship's engineer. He was obviously modeled on Dr. McCoy with his southern accent and no-bullshit approach, but Blalock's T'Pol was as complex a character as Star Trek ever delivered, eventually going far, far further afield of Vulcan logic and traditions than Spock did in all the years he was on TV and in the movies. HDNet recently suspended their telecast of the series, leaving me high and dry near the end of the excellent third-season Xindi storyline, but thankfully in the internet era, as Spock was fond of saying, "there are always...possibilities." So I'll finish the show soon. My verdict is already in, though -- Enterprise was imperfect, but after the original series and TNG, its my favourite of all Star Trek series, and that kind of amazes me, but it captured the sense of mystery and adventure in outer space very well, the ship and the sets were great, and a lot of good acting (I also really liked John Billingsley and Linda Park) was to be found in many episodes.

Now we stand on the precipice of a new, next generation in Star Trek. J.J. Abrams is working on a new movie scheduled for release in May of 2009. Abrams is the producer of Lost, a show I have run hot and cold on but currently am pretty much in love with, and I am hopeful that the new movie will at the very least be one last good Star Trek movie, if not the revival of the concept in the public consciousness. I'm with whatever faction there is that wishes they'd found a place for Shatner in it, mostly because, hey, he's still around and he deserves on last shot at the chance to inspire, as Captain Kirk did for me at his best. He taught me there's no such thing as the no-win scenario, a lesson I took to heart and have believed in, at my best moments, ever since. And also because we've already lost DeForest Kelley and James Doohan, and I am blindsided to think we'll never, ever have Star Trek with them in it again. It makes me sad and makes me feel old.

So, I hope Abrams and crew turn out something great, and I think there's a better than 50/50 chance of that happening. Nimoy's Trek instincts have almost always been right on, and he's on-board for the movie and its story, and that has to be a good indicator.

Note to Tom Spurgeon: I wrote this all in one sitting, with the only research needed being how to spell "Trinneer," so I guess my answer to your question is, yes, I still care about Star Trek. Here's to hoping the people now responsible for its future do, too.

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Blogger Nick said...

I remember reading an interview with Ronald D. Moore talking about his experiences with on Star Trek, specifically on Deep Space Nine (which is highly regarded by fans) and his attempt at developing Voyager. What he originally envisioned was actually almost identical to what Battlestar Galactica turned into where the Voyager would carry battle scars from one episode to the next and struggles would not only come from unknown alien threats but also the struggle for food and water. He left the show very early as none of those basic stranded priorities were given any relevance. It sounds like a lack of vision on the part of Rick Berman is what is hurting the franchise.

26 June, 2008 14:45  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Hopefully they've wised up enough not to let anyone who ran Star Trek in the past couple decades anywhere near it from here on out...

26 June, 2008 14:59  
Blogger The Middleman said...

Like you I discovered Star Trek: Enterprise long after it was cancelled and was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. Your two favorite characters Tucker and T'Pol were also my favorites as well. Next to the original series, this is the best. It is a shame that CBS cancelled it before their complete story could be told. I do hope it comes back in some form or another to finish out its plot.

27 June, 2008 11:58  

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