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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek -- For a long time it seemed we had lost Star Trek in a slow leaching off of what made the original 1966 series special. From the high points of its second life (Wrath of Khan; the TNG episodes Best of Both Worlds Parts One and Two) it was all an agonizingly slow downward spiral. The series finale of TNG was a great, emotionally satisfying tribute to the unlikely success of the first sequel series, but instead of leading into a brilliant new movie era featuring Picard and company, it was the last real gasp of creative honesty in the 1990s for "the franchise."

Generations had an awesome opening 15 minutes followed by tedium, bad writing and the worst mistake in Trek history, the ham-fisted death of James T. Kirk. Not that Kirk necessarily shouldn't have died on-screen, but the unconscionably bad writing of his death scene (and the even worse writing of the earlier draft, available for viewing on the Generations DVD) should have been a signal to all involved that they had traveled far down the wrong road and needed to rethink the entire journey.

Despite that, director Jonathan Frakes managed to make the next cinematic outing, First Contact, into a fun adventure movie that demonstrated moments of genuine wit and human insight (mostly in the Cochrane storyline; the Picard-as-Ahab metaphor is as heavy-handed and tedious as any Roddenberry conceit one could name). The less said about Insurrection and especially Nemesis, the better. The latter was literally the worst Star Trek entertainment ever produced, with less creative spark and more embarrassing moments than the worst of the Gold Key comic book series. And like Generations, it goes not boldly but wrong-headedly down the same stupid path of creative immolation by killing off Data, probably Roddenberry's last great contribution to Star Trek entire.

And oh, the other sequel series; Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise all have something to offer despite their enormous flaws (Colm Meaney's acting, the Holographic Doctor and all of Season Four, respectively), but compared to the '66 and '87 iterations of Trek, they demonstrate the slow death of an idea. In 1964, when Roddenberry conceived the series that would be refined and redefined by the other writers brought in (Fontana, Ellison, and dozens more), the series was about exploring both space and what it means to be human and alive. By the time Voyager launched, Star Trek had literally become a series about Star Trek. Enterprise grew a pair in its final season, but by then the fact that the franchise had been in the wrong hands for many years was crystal clear. Berman, Pillar, and the rest were the bad guys as far as I was concerned. They had taken away Star Trek and replaced it with a very poor substitute.

And now J.J. Abrams and company have given it back.

I don't remember how Roger Ebert justified his 2.5 star review, and I don't care enough to go look and grab a link. You're good with the Google and I trust you to know if you need to see for yourself. But for me, the new Star Trek is 3.5 to 4 stars of greatness from beginning to end. It has everything I love about the '66 series, from laughs and melodrama to the costumes and pageantry of Starfleet as a vision of the best humanity (and other races) have to offer.

Is it perfect? No. The performances of the actors playing Sulu, Chekov and (yes) Scotty all wander over territory ranging from cipher to parody, even if their individual charms still won me over. Does the plot make sense? Is the science sound? Probably not. Is that really Spock, though, being played by Zachary Quinto? Is Chris Pine really Kirk? Hell, is Bruce Greenwood really Captain Christopher Pike? Yes, yes, and much to my amazement, yes.

Is it too shiny? Yes, the lens flares are a distraction and will look as goofy in ten years as the ones in Ellis and Hitch's Authority comics do now. But the passion with which this story is told, and the little character moments that pepper it throughout, feel more true to the essence of what the original series accomplished than any moment of Trek since The Wrath of Khan first reminded us that Star Trek was fucking loaded with the potential for great storytelling, hammy actors and bad special effects be damned.

Leonard Nimoy's first scene as Spock is astonishingly well-acted, drawing upon the actor's 45 years of experience playing the character. Quinto makes Spock his own, but at no time does the new version feel discordant with Nimoy's lifetime of contributions to the canon. The moment when Spock materializes on the transporter pad and realizes what he has lost on Vulcan is one of the most powerful in the character's history, twisting some of the most beloved moments of the original series into a new form and setting the character on a new path. And it never feels like anything other than honestly-won drama that works on every level.

Chris Pine completely inhabits the ideal of Kirk as a character and as a legend-in-training. He doesn't feel like a Luke Skywalker-type Hero with One of a Thousand Faces, but rather he comes across powerfully as a new, divergent path for the character Shatner portrayed for decades, struggling to get where we know he belongs, on the bridge of that ship. And Pike is a special case for me: I have been obsessed with the original pilot's captain (and actor Jeffrey Hunter's performance) for over thirty years. The first time I saw The Menagerie (the episode that wove footage from the original, Kirkless pilot with a new Kirk/Spock story), I was fascinated by the idea that the ship had had another captain before Kirk, and even more riveted by the question of what the series could have been like with Pike, not Kirk, at the helm. Bruce Greenwood does an amazing job of making Pike his own, and having a new story on film involving this great, semi-lost Trek character feels to me something very much like a gift.

The movie throbs. It shines and sparkles and shakes with energy and movement. It propels you through its story and leaves you so, so ready for more Star Trek. Personally, I want to see more of the world Nimoy's Spock comes to this movie from (see the IDW comic book prequel Countdown for a hint), but if all we ever get is more of this new type of Star Trek, I'll be very happy. It's a brave new canvas Abrams and company have created, and Trek hasn't felt so filled with potential since Spock's coffin landed on the Genesis Planet all those years ago. For the first time in a long time I am asking the essential storytelling question, what happens next?

I can't wait to find out.

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Blogger Nik said...

Great review, Alan!

10 May, 2009 16:56  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Thanks a lot, Nik!

10 May, 2009 17:27  
Blogger The Estate of Tim O'Neil said...

I'm surprised you don't hold DS9 in higher esteem. A lot of folks think highly of the series - myself included - for more than just Colm Meaney's (admittedly very good!) acting.

11 May, 2009 15:51  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

There are parts of DS9 I liked a lot, but the end of the series really soured me on it as a whole. I thought it was very unsatisfying, probably the worst final Trek episode of any of the series.

That said, I didn't name my daughter Kira by accident...


11 May, 2009 15:54  
Blogger Bubba said...

Been debating whether to comment, ADD, but I have to say that I don't understand your particular gripes about DS9.

Full disclosure, DS9 is, by far, my favorite Star Trek series and my favorite TV series in the 90's. (Second place goes to The Original Series and My So-Called Life, respectively.)

I would put the "death of the idea" of Star Trek squarely on the shoulders of Voyager, Enterprise, and the last two TNG movies: Insurrection was barely worth a two-part episode, and Nemesis was a very poorly executed rehash of older movies, especially Wrath of Khan.

It didn't have stellar ratings but it has since remained a fan favorite because Deep Space Nine breathed new life into the franchise by avoiding old tropes. Where all other series were ship-based explorations of a "planet of the week," DS9 explored the long-term consequences of interaction with a few major civilizations. Where crew harmony was elsewhere emphasized to the detriment of drama -- particularly on TNG, and Voyager except for its annual Maquis mutiny -- DS9 explicitly involved different agendas and viewpoints between Starfleet, Bajoran militia, and the Cardassian and Ferengi on the station. When, elsewhere, problems were solved in an hour with either technobabble or a simplistic speech, DS9 made clear that, often, there are no solutions, only tradeoffs -- with "In the Pale Moonlight" being one of the darkest but most compelling hours the franchise has ever produced.

Voyager, to me, was so much wasted potential: Farscape largely was what Voyager could have been, but instead of a series that did more than pay occasional lip service to the long-term effects of being "lost in space" among new species and threats, we had an episodic retread of TNG that resurrected old ideas, whether they made sense or didn't: the Borg being an example of the former, Q being an example of the latter.

Enterprise was in trouble from the start: a franchise premised on the maxim "to boldly go" shouldn't go back to a prequel series where -- unlike, say, Star Wars -- the known outcome isn't tragic. Even to introduce a ship called Enterprise before the one helmed by Pike and Kirk showed the producers' lack of respect for established continuity, to say nothing of the problems with tone that arise from having a theme song written by the woman who wrote, "I Don' Want to Miss a Thing" and "Un-Break My Heart."

There has been some good Trek books being published, especially the DS9 "relaunch" that has continued the story, though new books in that line isn't being published nearly as frequently as they used to. But for my money, Deep Space Nine's sixth season is the peak of Star Trek on television, and arguably any Star Trek on film.

22 May, 2009 11:39  
Blogger Bubba said...

About your specific complains, I definitely think that the series finale wasn't perfect, but it deserves some credit for its ambitious scope, it DID successfully conclude the Dominion War arc with a victory that was made pyrrhic in terms of Cardassian casualties -- a bittersweet note that only DS9 would try, and that only Andrew Robinson (Garak) could have deliver:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGHSP-2heukFrom the last song at Vic's, to the farewells among the crewmembers, to the last long shot pulling away from the station, the episode hit a lot of the right notes -- the only glaring exception being Jadzia's absence from Worf's montage, the result of Terry Farrell's obstinancy after her leaving the show. The series gave the audience a chance to actually say goodbye.

It wasn't a perfect finale, but I don't see how one could possibly prefer Voyager's finale. The series ended the moment the ship got home, when some of the most interesting questions were what would happen after that, and the response that it's the journey not the destination is lame because there was no real tension, moral dilemma, or actual costs to their return other than the death of an alternative-future Janeway. On DS9, Cardassia's in flames and Sisko is with the prophets, but Voyager's "Endgame" is actually explicit in letting the crew "have its cake and eat it too."

Even the dig against Colm Meaney, I don't understand. I thought he was a fine actor in an ensemble cast that was (Terry Farrell excluded) entirely made of Shakespearean actors, and I thought O'Brien worked very well especially with Bashir and Worf.

There are things to gripe about. The Ferengi-focused episodes could be VERY bad. The Mirror Universe episodes got consistently worse as they went along. And there could have been a better balance between episodic television and serialization, particularly in the tone of some stand-alone episodes that seemed to forget the backdrop of galactic war.

But never in a million years would I have put Meaney's acting in even a top ten list of issues with the show.

22 May, 2009 11:41  
Blogger Bubba said...

Finally, about the new Star Trek movie, I liked it a lot: it was much better than I feared that it would be, which puts it in the same category as Transformers. It's a good movie, if not a great film, if you can see the difference: as far as reboots go, it's no Batman Begins / The Dark Knight, and as far as Trek movies it's no Wrath of Khan. But it wasn't as disheartening as the last Indiana Jones movie, and it's probably as good a "first" movie for a recent franchise as the last Iron Man movie.

To stop comparing it to other movies, I think the tone of the movie was right and avoided a lot of pitfalls: it was fun rather than emo, pessimistic, earnest, or campy. And I think the writers and actors did a great job capturing the roles of the classic characters and giving them each something to do on-screen. Urban's McCoy was especially good, I thought, and I hate the marketing has such an emphasis on Uhura rather than the third crucial part of the TOS triumvirate.

I think the special effects were sometimes needlessly busy (you're absolutely right about the lens flares), and the movie was arguably too frenetic in its pace, but it was easy enough to keep up.

The story's structure -- where what we see is an alternate timeline, rather than a reboot -- might prove problematic in the long run for longtime fans who might not have a reason to invest as heavily, in terms of time and emotion, in this timeline as they did the "prime" timeline. It might also cause all sorts of continuity errors: all the changes must be attributable to the attack on the Kelvin in 2233 and everything afterwards, and it might be tough to ensure that future stories stay within those borders: it might change the relationship, for instance, between the Federation and Ferengi -- including date of first contact -- but it can't change their ancient history.

More than that is the philosophical implications of the story.

(SPOILERS AHEAD)I've heard complaints about the fact that "Spock Prime" didn't try to correct the timeline, even to save his own planet: it's a heck of a change from the usual attempt to correct the timeline from time-travel shenanigans ("City on the Edge of Forever") or avoiding making substantial changes to begin with.

The only explanation is "destiny," which Spock Prime briefly mentioned after his REALLY improbable encounters with young Kirk and then young Scotty. Spock Prime must have thought the alternate timeline was the work of some outside guiding force, an idea that fits far better with Star Wars and the Force -- or even DS9 and the wormhole aliens who exist outside of time -- and it's something that I think ought to be explored. There's not only a lot of story potential, there's a gaping hole in plausibility without a nod to "destiny" of some kind.


All that said, we pretty much agree that the new movie's very much worth watching.

PS - You might want to check out the Criminal blog for the first sightings of the next arc.

22 May, 2009 12:14  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...


My comment about Colm Meaney was hardly a dig, I was saying he was the best thing about the series. :-)


22 May, 2009 13:14  
Blogger Bubba said...

OH. I see:

And oh, the other sequel series; Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise all have something to offer despite their enormous flaws (Colm Meaney's acting, the Holographic Doctor and all of Season Four, respectively)...Meaney and Robert Picardo were examples of "something to offer" rather than "enormous flaws."

That makes sense, then. :)

22 May, 2009 16:47  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Wow, I see how you didn't get what I meant, though. That could have been written better! Egad.

22 May, 2009 16:48  

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