Monday, December 05, 2016
50 Years of Star Trek - Plus a Couple of Weeks
When I was a little kid in the late 1970s, there was a lot of science and fiction and fantasy (especially aimed at kids) in pop culture. It wasn't necessarily good, but there was a lot of choice. By the time I was 4 in '78 (and possibly even a little earlier than that, though my memories are a bit spotty going back that far), my parents let me have free reign of the TV on Saturday mornings, throughout the daytime, and even into the early evening if they didn't want to watch something else. There was Starblazers (or Space Battleship Yamato if we're going by the original Japanese name for this anime classic), with the image of the Argo tearing free of the rocky seabed being one of my first clear memories of watching TV. The Superfriends featured prominently among Saturday morning cartoons, and reruns of older superhero-inspired animated shows like Spider-Man and The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure aired throughout the rest of the week. For the afternoons, there was more anime: Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman in Japan; or "G-Force" as we called it, for the name of the feathered team of heroes). In the evenings, we had Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. Oh, and then there was a little thing called Star Wars — not on TV, but deeply ingrained in the zeitgeist. For its part, Star Trek was just another name on the roster of rerun syndication alongside The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, and Bewitched. Even Gilligan's Island had the occasional speculative fiction-heavy episode. So, with its spaceships and aliens and ray guns, of course I watched 'Trek as a little guy. I didn't love it, but it was sf and if it was on and if there was nothing that I liked better, I'd pay attention.
That is, until I saw the episode "A Private Little War." It scared the shit out of me, and after seeing it, I wouldn't go near Trek for a long time. No, it wasn't the Mugato that upset me (Come on, really? A white gorilla suit with a horn? The Horta and the salt vampire were scarier than that!). It was what happened to the hill witch, Nona. Remember how Nona decides her husband, Tyree (the chief of the hill people) is weak, and steals a phaser when she fails to seduce Kirk, and tries to bring it to the Klingon-allied townsfolk to exchange for a position of power? It doesn't work. Instead of welcoming her, or haggling over the price of the new superweapon, the bunch of townsmen Nona encounters decides to gang rape her. Now, this was 1960s television, so the scene wasn't as intense as say Lieutenant Thorne's assault of Boomer in the new Battlestar Galactica episode "Pegasus," but the group of men passing Nona around their circle, grabbing her and forcibly kissing her sends a loud and clear message about what's going to happen. As a little kid watching this on a Saturday afternoon or whenever, I didn't understand the exact implication. I only understood that some bad men were being mean to this lady, that they were pushing her around (and it was already a hard and fast rule for me and my little friends at that age that you absolutely did not push or hit girls), and that they were kissing her and she didn't like it. It didn't matter that Nona herself was a kind of bad guy in the story. Even without understanding the specifics of what the scene was foreshadowing, I knew that what was happening was really, really wrong, and I found it deeply frightening, and I din't want to see any more. I turned the channel and avoided Star Trek like the plague for years.
The only exception would be when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out: I didn't watch the movie (my parents had no interest in Trek or science fiction of any kind, really, so they certainly wouldn't be taking their 5-year-old to that film), but I did pay attention to the trailers on TV. Most of the teaser scenes went over my head, but, despite my wariness of Trek, I was fascinated by the shots of the Enterprise in the orbital dock yard. I still have very clear memories of that part of the TV spots. But I didn't want to see the movie and I still steered clear of the show.
There wasn't even the possibility of easing back into it with the animated Star Trek TV series of the 70s. None of the stations our aerial tower was able to pick up back then ran it. I didn't even know it existed until the late 80s when we'd moved out west and the new house had cable, and even then, toon-Trek was only running dubbed en francaise on a French language station. At that point, it was a moment's curiosity; nothing more.
Fast forward to early 1985 and the golden age of the VCR. My dad came home from work one day with a couple of tapes he'd rented at the local independent video store (in those days, in a small city like Cambridge, Ontario, little indie video stores were the only places you could rent, aside from some of the big department stores like Sears or Eatons or Hudson's Bay, which had movie rental counters in the sections where they sold VHS and Beta machines), including Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Again, my folks had no interest in sf, but they knew my little brother and I liked the stuff, so Dad picked it up thinking we'd enjoy it. Now, as an 11-year-old who'd braved the library ghost scene in Ghostbusters, I was a long way from that 4-or-5-year-old who'd been freaked-out by the depredations of the townspeople of the planet Neural, but I still had to think about whether to break my self-imposed Trek taboo. Since Dad had gone to the trouble of renting it for us, and (call me shallow if you like) since the illustration on the case looked kinda cool, I figured I'd give it a shot. And I loved it. The Enterprise looked detailed and high-tech and cool, and (with its battle scars) looked like it had some history to it. This new ship was a far cry from the bland tubes and flat surfaces and simple switches and fat lights that dominated the 1960s model and sets, which looked like stuff we'd build in our basement out of cardboard appliance boxes. There were palpable emotions running through the scene of Enterprise limping back into Spacedock at the beginning, and excitement as it fled from Excelsior later on (a space chase that was actually funny, with the new flagship sputtering to a stop like an old Model-T). There were the big stakes of David coming to terms with his mistake (and then getting killed), Kirk losing his son, and everyone hoping against hope that they could bring Spock back to life. Let's not forget the ship battles. The destruction of the Enterprise still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. As on-screen spaceship deaths go, it set the bar. Only the destruction of Babylon 5 and the wreck of Serenity are its equals. The final flight of Galactica and its fleet into Sol at the close of the new Battlestar Galactica series failed to have anywhere near the same emotional punch (and the real failure was that it should have!). TSFS also had a whole planet tearing itself apart in spectacular fashion — this wasn't like Star Wars where there was just a flash of light and a world seen from a distance was gone, we got to see Genesis wracked by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions for a third of the movie before it finally blasted itself into interplanetary ruin. But what impressed me most of all was the Klingons. Thanks to the writing, direction, and the acting skills of Christopher Lloyd (in a huge step away from the Reverend Jim I'd watched on Taxi), these Klingons were nothing like their 1960s predecessors. In the old show, the Klingons were scheming, grumpy braggarts. There was nothing really unique about them, certainly nothing alien. They were just assholes. With goatees and Trump-like tans. But these new Klingons felt like a different species. Lloyd really gives the impression that he's thinking in a different way than a human would, along the lines of a different set of values and feelings. They had their own language and a rough, inhuman (while still humanoid) look and manner of dress (all building off the new foundations laid down in the opening act of TMP). And they didn't just make threats: they blew shit up (and choked weird mutant space worms) without a second thought. Commander Kruge even had a creepy pet alligator-wolf to add to his badass appearance. The Trek III Klingons demonstrated that the people behind the films were thinking hard about putting on a good show. I decided that it was time to give Star Trek another chance.
A couple of months later, as my family was moving out to BC, I had the chance to watch The Wrath of Khan. We were staying in a hotel just a couple of days before the flight, and luckily the place had Superchannel, and one night when my parents were out at a farewell party, TWOK aired. Again, I loved it. How could I not? Interstellar high stakes with serious discussion about whether the Federation was doing the right thing by pursuing the Genesis research, Kirk coping with reuniting with a family he'd never known he'd had, Khan going crazy with the need to get revenge for his wife's death, an ongoing slugfest between two huge ships (Reliant's ambush of Enterprise, and the subsequent carnage aboard NCC 1701A still raise the hairs on the back of my neck), and the death of Spock (which still gets me a little weepy). It's not only my favourite Star Trek movie, it's the pinnacle of the franchise, in my opinion.
Not long after, once I was in BC, I started rewatching the original series. There were two reasons behind this. First, because in the mid-late 80s, there wasn't much in the way of science fiction or fantasy programming on TV that was any good and so I was at the mercy of whatever the UHF stations across the border in Washington would air. Second, because the kids at my new school called me "Spock" — their local slang epithet for nerd, geek, or anyone who made and effort to study and enjoyed learning — and I figured I'd better get more familiar with the original source material if they were going to force this crap on me. So, with reruns of Star Trek coming on every weekend, it wasn't long before I'd watched the entire series and decided that for all of its faults (cheap sets, over-the-top acting, and sometimes lack of subtlety), it was pretty good. The crew was diverse, and they were smart enough that their first option in a crisis was to try to reason their way out of it. Regardless of the intent of the bullies at school, I started to wear the nickname "Spock" with pride. Hell, when we had to draw pastel pictures in grade 7 art class, I drew a pretty good likeness of Mr Spock.
While devouring everything sf at the video store, I came across Star Trek: The Motion Picture and finally got to see what those TV spots years before were all about. And it was... well... it was one of those films that once you've seen it, there's no need to watch more than the first 30-45 minutes ever again. I loved the opening act where the Klingons get their asses kicked by V'Ger. Having watched the films out of order, I'd already seen the new style Klingons in TSFS, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of them, hearing more of their language, and watching a trio of their cruisers waste no time unloading on the strange visitor in their space (as opposed to the Klingons of the old series, who probably would have postured and threatened for half an hour before firing their first shot) — only to have things go very wrong for them very quickly. This let us to see the closest thing to Klingon panic we'd get until the opening of The Undiscovered Country. Then there was Kirk's (and the audience's) introduction to the refitted Enterprise in the orbital dockyard. Accompanied by that soaring Jerry Goldsmith music, the unveiling of the ship took my breath away as much as it did Kirk's. Until that scene, I'd never thought of Enterprise as beautiful. But she was. And grand. And there was a grandeur throughout the movie as a whole, both physically, in the portrayal of of the ships (transports pulling into Enterprise's hanger!), space stations, the Vulcan temple, and most especially V'Ger in all its too-big-to-comprehend cloud-shrouded bulk, but also in the characters striving to be bigger than their circumstances, and the overarching theme of transcendence. And for all of that, it was also a film about everything having consequences, from Kirk rushing the launch of the Enterprise, to Decker and Ilia working together again, to Spock's answering the call of an unknown entity (and the call of his old life), to V'Ger's quest to become something more. In some ways, for being so cerebral, TMP was the epitome of Star Trek. But the movie was also deeply tedious. As much as the original Trek was about discussing the big questions and exploring the nature of who we are, there's no denying that action was an equally important part of the overall story. Kirk had to punch someone or order Sulu to fire the phasers every other episode or it just wasn't Trek. Neither V'Ger's route of the Klingons in the opening act, nor the torpedoing of the asteroid, nor the disintegration of Ilia was enough to break up the long bouts of soulful staring or the endless wannabe-2001 plunge through V'Ger's cloud (incidentally, "V'Ger's Cloud" should probably have been the name of a drink at Quark's bar on DS9). TMP is an important part of the Star Trek canon, but it's not the best instalment.
Right around that time, Trek made a resurgence, and there was an avalanche of entries into the franchise. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home got things rolling in '86 when it hit the theatres and, because it was funny, appealed to the general audience enough that for a little while the "Spock" jabs stopped at school. Just for a little while. Double dumb ass on them. If nothing else, this instalment picked up where "The Doomsday Machine" episode of the original series left off in the quest to try to prove that a roll of aluminum foil could be a frightening opponent... and, like its forebear, didn't really succeed. But you had to like the twist at the end where a woman walks out on Kirk for a change.
Then a newer, bigger, uglier, heavily pixelated Enterprise D lumbered onto the TV screens for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Looking back, the first season is nearly unwatchable (with the exception of a couple of episodes like "Conspiracy" or "Skin of Evil," or anything with Q that might otherwise have been terrible but was tolerable because of John de Lancie's deliciously intentional, unapologetic, balls-to-the-wall moustache twirling combined with childish mockery of the crew), but I and all of my fanboy friends were glued to it because there still wasn't much in the way of sf TV shows at that point (sure, the War of the Worlds TV series would launch in a year, but that had limited appeal). Over time, it got better, but it remained a niche show followed only by a few other geeks in my junior high and high school. By the time it started to find its stride somewhere in season 2, the stories were getting better and were starting to draw people in (Especially with "The Best of Both Worlds" 2-parter cliffhanger bridging seasons 3 and 4 — no-one could forget Picard being assimilated by the Borg. In fact, I remember a local news story at the time profiling a man who was dying of some disease, who said that one of his regrets was that he wouldn't live to see the second part/premier episode of season 4 — that's sf entering the zeitgeist!) but as good as some of the stories were becoming, I'd read enough science fiction by that point that nothing on the show was particularly new. Ultimately, I think the real value of Next Gen was proving that spinoffs of Star Trek were not only possible, but that they could (occasionally) out-do the original. It paved the way for other, better TV spinoffs.
This was also the time when I started reading the Star Trek novels. They were kind of like cotton candy I'd snack on, on the side, while devouring other, more intellectually nutritious, science fiction and fantasy. But let's give credit where credit is due: some of them were fun! Vonda N. McIntyre's novelizations of TWOK and TSFS were pretty entertaining, and among the media tie-ins, I enjoyed Diane Carey's Final Frontier (a story about Kirk's father joining a mission aboard the brand new Enterprise in the Romulan neutral zone), Margaret Wander Bonanno's Strangers from the Sky (about a secret Vulcan-Human first contact on Earth), and Diane Duane's Spock's World (which had a wonderful line to the effect of "Vulcan didn't have a moon, it had a nightmare"). With the exception of the movie novelizations, the media tie-ins had no place in the official Trek universe continuity, but let's face it, the various franchise movies and TV series played so fast and loose with continuity, the concept was more or less irrelevant.
But even as TV was taking the Trek universe 80 years into the future with different crews and new challenges, the movies kept throwing the aging original cast into the interstellar meat grinder again and again. And, at this point, a pattern began to emerge: every other Trek movie was a complete disaster. TMP was flawed, but II through IV were pretty good. The Final Frontier (under Shatner's direction) in '88, was like a "marsh melon" that had fallen off its stick and rolled in a pile of fresh dog crap. Things got back on track in '91 with The Undiscovered Country, which kicked all kinds of ass. Some really great performances, especially between Nimoy and Kim Cattrall, and Christopher Plummer bestrode that flick like a god. His performance during the trial scene especially was a work of genius ("Don't wait for the translation! Just answer the question!" is still one of my favourite lines of the entire franchise). But things took a nosedive again in Generations. The old series-Next Gen crossover had only one redeeming scene: Kirk's first death (okay, "disappearance" if you want to get technical) aboard Enterprise B. The great hero finally succumbs to something he's seen (and sometimes caused) again and again, but has never touched him until this point: a redshirt death — a quick, almost anonymous and at-the-time unlamented death in the line of duty, just trying to keep the ship running so the captain can steer her to safety, with no posturing or grand last words. And then the flick got down to the serious business of sucking. First Contact, on the other hand, was a solid, exciting story, with some good performances by the Next Gen cast, and some excellent supporting moments by Alice Krige as the Borg queen ("Watch your future's end."), Alfre Woodard as Lily, the intended co-pilot of the Phoenix ("You broke your little ships."), and James Cromwell as a drunken anti-hero version of human warp speed pioneer Zefram Cochrane ("I built this ship so I could retire to some tropical island... filled with... naked women. THAT'S Zefram Cochrane. THAT'S his vision. That other guy you keep talking about, this historical figure? I never met him."). Even if this Cochran doesn't entirely square with the guy Kirk met in the original series (again, that old fast-and-loose approach to continuity in the Trek universe), it's great to watch his character develop through the story. Insurrection? Part of the low patch again. Then onto Nemesis, which had its ups and downs, but certainly wasn't a bad film. I just wish the Next Gen instalments could have ended on a higher note.
Meanwhile, in the TV world, there was Deep Space Nine. The show was unique (for the franchise) in a number of ways: the lead character, Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko was African-American; a family man who brought his son, Jake, with him; he was dealing with the loss of his wife; contrary to the usual Star Trek lead, he (initially) didn't really want the job, and certainly wasn't comfortable for a long time with being the Bajoran messiah. DS9's pilot was also interesting because it bucked the usual "one big happy family" feeling that Trek tended to foster within Starfleet, with Sisko doing little to mask his grudge against Picard for the death of his wife, Jennifer, during the battle of Wolf359 against the Borg — led by Locutus/Picard. The show was also different from the rest of the franchise because of its frequent meditations on religion and how it interacts with a modern, scientific society and different cultures with different beliefs. Other Trek series touched on religion in episodes every now and again, but in DS9 it was a regular fact of life that had to be dealt with because of the beliefs of the local Bajoran society, and especially the station's Bajoran first officer, Kira Nerys. While there were badguys of the week, the show differed from the others in that one of its regular themes was living under the threat of a known enemy — the Cardassians — and dealing with the personal and societal effects of that race's previous conquest of Bajor. Last but not least, DS9 was set on a space station. It didn't go anywhere, so, initially, adventure had to come to it. Until the Klingon and Dominion wars, that is, when things really got interesting. Despite suffering from the usual rocky first season that seems mandatory for Trek shows, in many ways DS9 was the best and most mature of the Star Trek series. There were deeper explorations of the characters, darker moral challenges and murkier motivations, and, for the back half of the series, the prolonged study of the brutality of war and the difficulty of overcoming existing prejudices and old ways of doing things. In part, the credit for this higher quality of the show goes to the writers, actors, and directors who crafted it episode by episode. But that alone wasn't enough. What made DS9 so good was that it was pushed: It was in direct competition with Babylon 5, another show about life aboard a frontier space station beset by all manner of political intrigues and threats from out of the darkness. And Babylon 5 was a better show. Despite having a lower budget, B5 was better written (smarter, funnier, sadder, more frightening, more prescient, and, in its portrayal of its characters and their highs and lows, more real), more mature, and had a complex and complete overarching series plot. DS9 may have had the Trek legacy and popularity behind it, but it constantly had to work to be the best it could be to stay respectable in the eyes of fans who had another option. And while it didn't quite match up to B5, DS9 became one hell of a good show that I enjoyed throughout my university and broadcast school years, and much of it is worth rewatching ("The Way of the Warrior", "Trials and Tribble-ations", "By Inferno's Light", "Far Beyond the Stars", and "In the Pale Moonlight" being my favourites). The only thing that really bothered me was the series finale, where Sisko leaves his family — with his new wife, Cassidy, pregnant — to go off with the wormhole aliens and become a god. Now, if time doesn't have any real meaning to the "Prophets", why was it so imperative for Sisko to go with them right away? When they make their demand of him, his response should have been something like "Time is meaningless to you, so you can sit tight for about 17 or 18 years while I support my wife through the rest of her pregnancy and childbirth, and raise my kid to an age where she/he can deal with dad moving out for a while." But no. He makes a token resistance and then goes along with their illogical demand. Hear that sound? It was the ball getting dropped. But that wasn't enough to ruin my overall enjoyment of the series.
Round about this time, my friend David introduced me to Star Fleet Battles. With this table-top strategy game, we weren't limited to watching the occasional ship-to-ship or fleet battle on DS9; we could stage them ourselves! Gathered around the hex board with our other buddies, JP and Jim, we'd spend afternoons or evenings over the summer breaks in university slugging it out between the Federation, Klingons and all manner of other major and minor interstellar powers. I usually chose to play the Gorn, since "The Arena" was one of my favourite old series episodes (maybe it was because the Gorn reminded me a little of Godzilla, who I've loved ever since I was a little guy) and more often than not took their dreadnought into battle. And, more often than not, I got my scaly reptilian ass handed to me. The Gorn dreadnought was a solid capital ship, with lots of power, an impressive phaser suite, a nice complement of shuttles (I used them as fighters), and those big nasty plasma torpedoes. But it was slow, and those plasma torpedoes took far too long to arm and fire, and they were treated like missiles or drones and so took forever to track their targets around the board (unlike photon torpedoes or disrupters, which were treated like energy weapons and hit or missed their targets instantly — a section the rules I still think is completely unfair, and not just because the rule worked against me). My opponents would usually just outrun the plasma torps, and, because the other guys enjoyed playing Klingons, lob drones (each with their own nasty weapons packages) at me until I was a charred hulk adrift in space. Still, the game was a lot of fun, especially with those guys, and I miss those days.
The mid-90s also saw the launch of the new series: Star Trek: Voyager. Focussing on the adventures of a Federation scout ship lost in the Delta quadrant during the Next Gen era, the show differed somewhat from the usual franchise formula. Led by a female captain, the crew was a hybrid of Starfleet personnel and Maquis raiders (freedom fighters by their own assertion, though rebels and possibly terrorists from their actions in some episodes of DS9), along with others picked up from around the quadrant along the way. And while the crew of Voyager did explore many strange new worlds, the show's focus was on their efforts to get home to the Alpha quadrant, trying to avoid threats like the Kazon, Hirogen (ripoffs of the hunters from Predator), and the Borg along the way. The first season was, in keeping with the Next Gen Trek pattern, weak, but the show did improve. While it did have some great episodes, like the two-parter "Year of Hell", "Prophecy" and "Endgame", the writing rarely reached the level of maturity and intelligence that DS9 did.
By 2001, Paramount was at it again, winding the clock back and giving us the prequel series Enterprise. This addition to the franchise (about a starship sent out by Earth in the years before the Federation to explore the galaxy — without the Vulcans holding them back... much — and try to make new friends) has taken heat over the years for being the weakest series. While I can't say that I loved it, I'll give STE credit for bucking the the franchise trend and starting out with a strong first season. Season 2 started to decline though, and by season 3, I'd dropped it. I finally punched it up on Netflix a couple of months ago to go back and watch a few key episodes of the final seasons.
Then came the reboot movie series. Eeesh. All style and no substance. Not even Star Trek, really. I'll give JJ Abrams credit for the first one, Star Trek, because it was fun, despite its stupidity. The opening battle where the Kelvin is destroyed is both exciting and touching. And, as much as constructing the Enterprise in a corn field in the middle of Iowa made no sense (except perhaps as an argument that the entire reboot series is nothing but a hallucination of Ray Kinsella as he has a complete mental breakdown after the supposed events of Field of Dreams, probably due to some exotic fungus on his corn), it's a beautiful image on-screen. But the plot's dumb and the lead characters are strident idiots who spend more time arguing with each other like that drunken-resentful-middle-aged-couple-on-the-downslope-of-a-marriage-that-you-try-to-avoid-at-a-party than they do actually trying to figure out a way out of their predicament or discuss what's at stake. And that's what's at the heart of real Star Trek stories: an examination of issues. There may be aliens and fighting and explosions and redshirt deaths and even some laughs, but Star Trek has always been about talking about different sides of important issues. And Abrams' follies had none of that. That's why they're not 'Trek.
Into Darkness was even worse: a brain-dead, self-indulgent mockery of The Wrath of Khan. We only saw it in the theatre because my wife is a Cumberbatch fangirl. I vowed I would never do it again — not if Paramount was serving up any more Abrams-style reboots, anyway. So we took a pass on Beyond this past summer. I may watch it when it comes on Netflix just for the sake of saying I've seen the reboot farce all the way through, but from what I've heard from friends who did see it, I'm in no hurry.
Now, looking ahead to 2017, there's a new TV series on the way: Star Trek: Discovery. I haven't really been following the gossip about the show, and while I have to say the design for the new ship looks like the bastard child of a Constitution class heavy cruiser and a Klingon D7 battlecruiser, I'm willing to give it a chance. After all, Star Trek has always been there, and even if it falters sometimes, it eventually comes back around again, usually with pretty good results. May it continue to boldly go...