Friday, September 24, 2010

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

1991 was a special year in franchise lore. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary. Above and beyond the failure of The Final Frontier, fans still had an abundance of affection for a cast they had followed for so many years. It would take a lot more than one bad experience to kill Star Trek again, especially now that five films and a second TV series and crew had been introduced. One final film with the original cast was warranted, and probably demanded, for the occasion, and so was released The Undiscovered Country.

It may seem like an antiquated notion to modern ears, but the Cold War was still a recent subject in 1991, and social allegory had been a common theme in the original series. The closest the films had gotten with this theme had been The Voyage Home, which had ridden a wave of environmental concern to exceptional box office success. Given the recurring presence of Klingons in the films (which had probably done more than any original series appearance to popularize them), it probably wasn’t a huge leap to connect this final film’s story with them and the Cold War’s conclusion. Doing all this was probably enough to create a more successful movie. But for fans, probably the active participation of Nicholas Meyer helped put it over.

As I’ve said before, The Undiscovered Country feels like a continuation of the story begun in the trilogy, and is in a sense therefore a continuation of it (leaving the odd ducks Motion Picture and Final Frontier forever disconnected in still more ways from fan affection). To create a separate and continuing narrative was perhaps the most cinematic as well as successful thing the original crew films accomplished, and helped create the franchise just as much as the appearance of The Next Generation in 1987 and Deep Space Nine in 1993. Even if every episode of every series had been episodic, the creators couldn’t help but bleed a certain amount of continuity, which was far more inevitable because of the work the films did than the existence of the forebear TV show. In a sense, Star Trek, before Star Trek in 2009, had already rebooted itself.

The Undiscovered Country is probably the most fully realized, complete, and fulfilling of the original crew films. Where it lacks the surprise of Wrath of Khan, the scope of Search for Spock, or the fun of Voyage Home, it offers a mature product that hasn’t aged in twenty years, the first time a Star Trek experience could say that. It is as appropriate a final statement from both this crew and their movies as it can be. Fans had long known these characters were timeless. At last one of their adventures feel like it as well.

Some of the guest actors help make it that way. David Warner, as the doomed Klingon chancellor, has one of his signature roles in the franchise. Christopher Plummer is virtually rediscovered thanks to the film. Kim Cattrell, like Kirstie Alley, enters the popular consciousness thanks to Star Trek, only to find her big success with another project. All three performances add to the luster of the final project. Brock Peters returns as Admiral Cartwright, Kurtwood Smith appears as the Federation president, Christian Slater makes a cameo (okay, so if anything dates the movie, it would be the idea that this appearance would be relevant, because his star has fallen considerably since then). A popular supermodel (Iman) costars, even! We also get the first deliberate generational crossover, as Michael Dorn is shone briefly as his own ancestor, defending Kirk and Bones in Klingon court. (Scenes not shone in the original theatrical release also bring us Rene Auberjonois, a few years before he officially joins the family as Odo.)

As with virtually every other film in the series, the passage of time is clearly evoked. That would certainly be another unique element of the films, since it’s hardly routine for films, let alone a film series, to stick with a group of aging actors. Sean Connery was booed out of the Bond films forever when he definitely no longer looked like he did in the 1960s. George Takei finally gets his wish, something that was intended as far back as Wrath of Khan, when Sulu is finally shown as captain of his own ship, the Excelsior (I don’t know if anyone has ever properly made the connections here, but he made his intentions toward this ship pretty clear back in The Voyage Home, after everyone else had already made their continuing resentments from Search for Spock perfectly clear). This was only the beginning of a new Star Trek campaign that would insist a Captain Sulu TV series would work wonderfully, an argument that probably helped give us the Voyager episode “Flashback,” which is set during this film. (Maybe then we might have found out why Sulu liked that ship so much.) That Sulu’s command is a prominent element of the movie probably felt like a reward for Takei’s years of patience, and still stands apart as the only real career progress for any member of that crew.

“Flashback” isn’t even the only episode to evoke the film. A few years later, Enterprise revisited the Klingon penal colony (and court) in “Judgment.” After “Mirror, Mirror,” no single Star Trek adventure has left as much of a lasting impact as The Undiscovered Country. A lot of other films and episodes have served as lucrative launching pads, such as the introductions of Q and the Borg in Next Generation, but without even meaning to, the sixth film has managed to become an instant touchstone. It may be because it was the final original crew movie, and so automatically sticks out in franchise lore. Sulu never did get that series. No film or series ever really revisited Klingon culture in quite that way, expansive as some of them got. I would argue that, far from having exhausted itself, as many fans were arguing by 2005, Star Trek had only scratched the surface, by 1991, by 2001, and even by 2011, even though hundreds of episodes, eleven films, and countless books and comics have explored far and wide the emerging canon. The phenomenon of The Undiscovered Country is an example of that.

I don’t remember when exactly, or how, I first saw it, much like Wrath of Khan, but Undiscovered Country was pretty easy to love, as it has been, apparently, for most fans. Aside from the allegorical implications, it isn’t quite as ambitious as Khan or Voyage Home, the other unabashed successes of the first six films, so its success is more a testament to the fact that sometimes, it does pay to have a lot of history behind a Star Trek, sometimes being good at what you’ve already done is good enough. This was the last time fans allowed the creators to get away with this kind of attitude, or experience, so it’s nice to think of the film in that regard as well. Maybe it was simply that, for a change, Star Trek was merely content to tell a good story, that allowed everyone to get along so well. It wasn’t trying to do or be anything else. With nothing left to lose, the franchise in the hands of a new generation, The Undiscovered Country was like a cruise home.

I usually rank this one pretty near the top of my list when considering the film series as a whole. Even though I have a lot of glowing things to say about some of the others, and even an emerging appreciation for Wrath of Khan, which has suffered in my mind the way The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier have for others, The Undiscovered Country will probably remain that way, a consummate experience that constantly finds new ways to entertain me. You have to love a film that finally has someone ask Kirk what the heck the deal is between him and women. Or that features the hilarious first appearance of someone named “Dax.” Or finally flummoxes Scotty with the basic laws of physics.

I don’t know, go and watch it again yourself. One final piece of endorsement: The Undiscovered Country probably also has the most distinctive and interesting of all the movie titles, as well as the feel of what the original series used to do all the time with its episodes, a trend Deep Space Nine would later continue.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

1989 saw a unique challenge for Star Trek. For the first time in its history, there would be two competing incarnations. Star Trek: The Next Generation was entering its third season, while the original series crew prepared to continue what had suddenly become a popular film series. Where the TV show was entering into new creative heights, infused with emerging voices behind the scenes that would soon take the franchise into startling new directions, the fifth film was undertaken by a combination of players who had never successfully guided Star Trek on their own. Harve Bennett always benefited from his collaborations with Nicholas Meyer, while the director for The Final Frontier, William Shatner, continually struggled against his own ego. Is it really any surprise that the result was, at least until that point, the least successful venture in franchise history?

Perhaps, as a matter of omens, the numbers worked against the movie from the start. 1989 was, after all, two decades removed from the final voyages of the original series, when the sad truth that the network, and perhaps audience, would no longer support it. And as I’ve already suggested, perhaps the fans were never going to be comfortable with the need to split their focus; this was hardly the last time they ended up rejecting one crew for another.

But not to put too fine a point on it: The Final Frontier is hardly a critical success, either. It may, even more than The Motion Picture, be the source of the Odd Number Curse, the theory that as the films go, the odd-numbered movies just aren’t that good (doesn’t help, either, that even-numbered entries Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home were such considerable successes, where none of the others to this point were). Even Gene Roddenberry wanted this one out of the canon, and as a rule, all filmed Star Trek has generally been considered automatic canon, no matter the quality of the material (after all, at the very least “Spock’s Brain” might have been the earliest example of selective experience, wouldn’t it?). Spock’s brother, who was never referenced before, and never referenced again, is a focal point of the story, after all. The dude laughs. He’s got facial hair. He’s a full-Vulcan bastard son of Sarek. And not to mention, again, that fans generally consider it one big dud.

By 1989, I was far enough along in my firsthand Star Trek experiences and memories so that the original TV ads made an impression (Scotty’s ironic statement about knowing the ship like the back of his hand still stands out). Of course, my family was never much for making trips to the cinema. We made a trip to see a re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs once, but until around 1994, it simply wasn’t a habit. I didn’t really see Final Frontier until I began to grow serious about my interest in the franchise, which is to say, well after I was aware of its reputation. It became something of a mission, but also something of a completist’s impulse. It wasn’t a question of whether I would ever watch it, but that I was going to, and so, naturally, I would have to approach it with at least something of a virgin’s perspective.

Which wasn’t too hard, because beyond the reputation, I knew virtually nothing about it, not even that tidbit about Spock’s brother. Would you think differently about that one if you knew they tried to cast Sean Connery in the role? Like the missed opportunity of Eddie Murphy in The Voyage Home, just imagine how different Star Trek would have been had it happened. I’m convinced that it’s Connery’s presence in Highlander that helped spawn that franchise. I know that Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade helps make that one my favorite in that series. This was a period in which a lot of his audience appeal had been lost, but his mere presence still gave off an incredible amount of sheen (and probably helped the starring-role resurgence of the following decade). A detail like Sean Connery as Spock’s brother would have made it instantly memorable, for audiences at the time, and those trying to catch up years later.

Instead there exists only vague impressions about Final Frontier, as if it’s not even worth remembering. The only moments worth remembering, talking about, seem to be those that evoke, as no other entry in the original crew films managed, the old camaraderie between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, the campfire scenes that bracket the main story. The rest of it is that dreaded thing a lot of the Picard films could never quite elude, the feeling that a property that had begun on TV could never quite escape the feeling that it still played like a TV show, some random and not convincingly appropriate film experience.

Therein lies the problem with Star Trek’s curious success, of course. How many other TV properties have managed to continue with the same casts on the big screen? I can think of only two other examples. The Adam West Batman series from the 1960s attempted to strike movie gold while it was still hot, and The X-Files attempted two times to transplant Mulder and Scully to film, and I would argue only ended up weakening their appeal. It still counts as bizarre and unique that William Shatner and Patrick Stewart led casts that had been assembled for television across a series of ten films. The only reason it happened at all was because of the most successful fan campaign in pop culture history, the one that saw The Motion Picture released more than a decade after the original Star Trek series sputtered out after three muddled TV seasons. That Shatner and his cast starred in six films was more a fluke than anything. That Stewart and his starred in four is, in hindsight, probably more than any other film series could have asked.

The Final Frontier, I think, is as much a case study of everyone finally starting to realize how weird Star Trek’s circumstances were as any direct reflection on its own worth. Certainly, anything after The Voyage Home that looked and acted nothing like The Voyage Home would have had a hard time, but Final Frontier had that much greater a problem because all of a sudden, the mere existence of Shatner and his cast acting in another film seemed superfluous, both as something that maybe should never have been, and because Star Trek was now back at what might be thought of as its “real” home.

To complicate all this is the fact that its reputation is not entirely unwarranted. Like The Search for Spock (or, say, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), The Final Frontier attempts to reach beyond the kind of storytelling that is traditionally native to itself. From the opening shot of Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), the brother of Spock, riding across a barren landscape, on a horse no less, to Shatner’s mountain-climbing escapades, it’s all a lot less direct than Star Trek typically is, whether on the small or big screen. Clearly, once again, someone’s been looking at Star Wars, and wondering why they can’t be more like that. But Paradise City is no Mos Eisley. That Romulan chick is no Han Solo. (Okay, so David Warner’s inexplicably undeveloped St. John Talbot would be the Han Solo of this movie, and that pretty much explains all you need to know about that.) Conceptually, The Final Frontier doesn’t fill a lot of its holes.

Yet that’s kind of beside the point. Roddenberry himself had been attempting to do “the god movie” ever since The Motion Picture (or, that is, Phase II). The original series was littered with episodes attempting to address the divine (so much so that I left those entries out of my season recaps entirely). The Final Frontier was, in effect, inevitable. Of course, you might also say, only William Shatner could have made The Final Frontier.

I would not say that statement with sarcasm. Not only with sarcasm, anyway. The idea of it is pretty brilliant, actually, much in keeping with The Voyage Home, and certainly in spirit with The Motion Picture. In fact, you might almost say that The Final Frontier is The Motion Picture, inverted. Instead of following a crew that is in turn following an unknowable entity back to its creator, which turns out to be pretty recognizable, we follow a crew that is headed toward a supposed entity that turns out to be the opposite of unknowable. This is the kind of expansive take on a traditional Star Trek story that Wrath of Khan and Voyage Home were so successful in presenting, but it’s a formula that also misfires, as in the case of The Motion Picture. Treading the fine line of being familiar while being original, trying to evoke a television experience while attempting to be cinematic about it, it’s a combustible proposition.

The Final Frontier ends up being an entirely predictable victim of circumstances.

But since I’m talking so much about it, you can bet I did not, eventually, decide that it was as bad as its reputation suggested. I grew to love it, naturally. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s one of my favorite films, or even one of my favorite Star Trek films, but that I enjoy it, admire it, and am even inspired by it (in a good way).

Part of it may have to do with all those connections I was speaking about, especially the unfortunate associations with The Motion Picture. In addition to every other similarity, there’s the theme of deep emotional pain, which Sybok exploits throughout Final Frontier as shorthand for how he manages to gather such a following around him. He makes it known that he is not a typical Vulcan, that far from suppressing his emotions and following only what seems logical, he embraces emotions and every illogical end that seems to flow from them. Vulcans are only religious in their discipline, but Sybok seems to have taken that idea to a whole new level. It can’t be called blind obsession, either, because he believes with total conviction that he’s right, even about his brother Spock, whom he knew as deeply troubled about the warring Vulcan and human influences in his life, and this is the most subtle thing about The Final Frontier, but Sybok is wrong only in this regard, because he has not had a chance to experience the Spock who has died and come back, who has learned to better integrate the parts of himself that make him such a unique individual. There is no greater representation of Spock in the first ten films than The Final Frontier.

I know, it’s heresy to say that. Maybe it’s Spock’s philosophical conversations with Bones over “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” that help define this (“life is not a dream, doctor”), I don’t know. That God turns out to be just another con artist may either strengthen or weaken the film’s impact. I think it’s exploring the idea at all, to let it soak in for an entire film, like allowing Spock, for the first time, to be comfortable with himself, even against a considerable challenge, that gives the film its unexpected heft. To have Spock suddenly have a brother is an immediate and handy way, another version of shorthand, to give the story a little added incentive, a little more overall weight. It may also be another way to undermine everything, especially if fans aren’t buying any of it, and if Star Trek then does its best to pretend The Final Frontier never happened. That’d be why it’s dangerous to walk the episodic line, in a franchise that periodically tries to walk away from it, in a film series that tries to differentiate itself from a prior or concurrent incarnation.

Whether or not you take the film seriously, anyway, clearly there are some pretty big things to think about when considering The Final Frontier.

Recently, when preparing to write this particular article, I put the movie on and listened to it mostly as a background soundtrack, and I think it’s never come off better, that when freed from a lot of the questionable visual choices, it comes off a lot better. You can imagine what it might have been with a little more experience and funding behind the camera. (You can just look at the Klingons in the movie, and watch a Next Generation episode from the same era, and notice how choices deliberately made didn’t really help matters, either.)

But The Final Frontier probably isn’t, in the end, as bad as you were led to believe. If it’s a failure, then it’s one of those noble and spectacular failures, one you can’t help but admire (if you want to). All things considered, I don’t believe, at the very least, that it deserves to be blackballed from memory, franchise lore, or canon, much less. It’s a movie of big ideas, with a lot of memorable pieces stitched together for a serviceable whole. As Kirk insists late in the film, “I need my pain.” Star Trek needs something like The Final Frontier, too.

As a concluding note, I can’t overlook the score from Jerry Goldsmith, the first one he contributed to a Star Trek movie since The Motion Picture, and the last until First Contact. Maybe it’s appropriate that once again, many of the themes he developed here would resurface later. If the soundtrack sounds familiar, then maybe that’s your way into The Final Frontier.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek is always at its best when it is deliberately crowd-pleasing, as evidenced by all the episodes in the original series that continue to be warmly remembered to this day: “The Naked Time,” “Shore Leave,” “The Trouble with Tribbles.” So it’s no surprise that the original cast met its greatest film success in the time travel romp The Voyage Home.

Released and set mostly in 1986, what is ostensibly the conclusion of a movie trilogy actually allows for many of the classic elements of the TV run to return in full prominence, from the social awareness of the plot to an adventure plot that allows viewers to enjoy themselves unabashedly as they come along for the ride. Star Trek had and would bury itself in heavy narratives thick with pathos and solemn proceedings, but this crowd-pleaser was content to swim with whales named after two Hollywood legends (no, not “Kirk and Spock”).

Another of the great ironies in the film series is that the basic plot of The Voyage Home is another rehash of The Motion Picture, just as Wrath of Khan had been in other ways: a deadly probe threatens all life on Earth, and only Kirk can stop it. This time, however, none of the drama is wrung from the characters, instead coming from their reactions as events unfold, allowing them to enjoy themselves for the first time on the big screen, completely without reservation.

Kirk has no personal stakes in this one, for a change. He does have to answer for the controversial decisions he’s been making, and is flying around in a Klingon ship, but he never seems troubled by any of it. He’s light-hearted enough to engage in a playful (read: platonic) relationship with contemporary marine biologist Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks, who would one day join Motion Picture alum Stephen Collins on TV with 7th Heaven), and shoot a bunch of witty banter with Spock (“did a little too much LDS”) around her. It’s the first time he’s truly been able to have fun in decades!

Spock, meanwhile, who has been suffering for one reason or another through his human/Vulcan dichotomy throughout each of the previous films, finally seems to find an appropriate balance, learning all about “colorful metaphors” (and inappropriately using them) and even mind-melding with lumpy, non-humanoid creature for the first time since “Devil in the Dark” for a little conversation that reveals new perspectives. He actually seems at home walking around in a ceremonial robe (and improvised headband) in San Francisco. He is not a fish out of water.

Scotty and Chekov make some lasting impressions during the movie as well, whether seeking transparent aluminum or “nuclear wessels,” which is hardly a surprise, given that the inner circle of three usually maintained in this crew regularly opened to admit these two. Sulu even gets to foreshadow the command George Takei had been anticipating since Wrath of Khan (even though the timing he got seemed completely reasonable to me, since the character hardly ever actually distinguished himself) when the Excelsior they sabotaged in Search for Spock is referenced as the crew’s possible replacement ship after they all get back home. I’m sure Uhura does something memorable as well, but I’m not really recalling it at this time.

None of this would matter a whole lot if there was a dramatic culture clash that made our characters the object of deliberate jokes rather than seamless visitors occasionally stumbling into jams. But none of it turns out to be things they can’t handle, whether an unruly bus passenger playing his boom box too loud (nothing a Vulcan Nerve Pinch can’t handle) or a trip to the hospital (which turns out to be a piece of cake). Even Gillian’s involvement and dawning awareness of the scope of this escapade progresses naturally, without a lot of needless fuss. Kirk’s charm can be thanked for that.

This was introduced to me as the big success of the films, and I became aware of it shortly after it was released. (Being six at the time of its release was still too soon to have been a natural first-hand impression.) Sometimes, having a positive opinion before an actual experience isn’t so bad (while conversely, I suspect a lot of Trek, as well as other things, has suffered from negative opinions floating around for no good reason). It allows you to sit back and enjoy what is unerringly an entertaining experience, following beat by beat the things you were already aware of (which is a little of how I first saw Star Trek: First Contact, having already heard a breathless account from a friend at school). In that sense, I don’t really put much stock in the idea of spoilers. You can read a novelization and still not anticipate the full impact of the same events brought vividly to life. There’s a certain thrill seeing a Bird of Prey flying about our familiar skies, whether scooping beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, or setting down in a park, even while cloaked.

(Just as an aside, Voyage Home did a lot of great work with cloaking technology, too.)

We get the debut of Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters, who would later portray Sisko’s dad in Deep Space Nine), a comparatively minor and undeveloped character, but who would help serve as some of the backbone of the conspiracy in The Undiscovered Country, as well as the Klingon played by John Schuck, who helps to link the events of Search for Spock with the aforementioned sixth film, in which he also appears. We get the first appearance of a Federation president, another appearance from Sarek, even cameos from Saavik and Amanda, Spock’s mom, plus the debut of a new Enterprise.

Either as a fan or a general filmgoer, The Voyage Home is a pleasure, a welcome diversion from the kind of story just about every other Star Trek movie has explored, in mood and scope. It doesn’t hurt to have seen the two previous films (and serves as a definite reward if you do), but you can easily enjoy it on its own, and in that sense serves as another satisfyingly complete experience, though in a far different way than Search for Spock.

If you want to experience the best possible representation of the original series in film form, you can’t possibly top Voyage Home.

It’s not really hard to see how the success of this one prompted Paramount to finally launch a second TV series, about a decade after it gave up on the idea originally. What’s a little more difficult to understand, though certainly beneficial to Gene Roddenberry and his last chance to run a Star Trek, is that this new show shared nothing in common with this audience pleaser.

Now, just imagine…A Star Trek series that transports a crew from the future to our present, for the entire duration of the show. Talk about a concept…

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

The movie in the entire film series that I think has always gotten the shaft, and for no discernable reason, other than coming between the ones fans (Wrath of Khan) and general audiences (The Voyage Home) really love, the middle part of the original crew trilogy that can be too easily dismissed as merely utilitarian. My argument is that it’s so much more than that. It may be, pound for pound, the most completely satisfying Star Trek movie.

Released in 1984, urged on by its predecessor and by that decade’s fascination in recreating the Star Wars experience in as many ways as possible (something that would doom many franchises by its end, including the Ghostbusters, Superman, and even Mad Max), The Search for Spock was perhaps the only movie the fans absolutely demanded, given that Spock had been killed off in the closing moments of Wrath of Khan, which had to reshape its ending to allow for a little more hope, which the new film had to then extrapolate and dramatize. It’s the only piece of franchise history that you absolutely can’t see on its own to fully appreciate (and then, maybe that’s a little of why its reputation suffers, because fans are at once fiercely protective of what they love, and yet strangely averse to be apologetic, lest their interest come off as weak), even though the key moments and plot points are presented again, to maintain at least the semblance of a closed loop.

And yet this creates a sense of urgency throughout the movie, a need to finish something the fans are now expecting, in as interesting a way as possible, and indeed, many obstacles are placed in front of Kirk, from a Starfleet completely unsympathetic to his need for redemption (because for him, the last film amounted to something of a tangible defeat), Klingons who seek to exploit the planet and its secrets that provide the hope Kirk needs, and the unexpected deterioration of that planet. You might even say that the Genesis device is better represented in this film than the other, reaching its full potential, both for good and otherwise, making Wrath of Khan more a prelude than superior product to Search for Spock. It’s almost less important that our famous Vulcan is dead than his unlikely new relationship to the device’s implications.

Indeed, Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis, looking and acting different than Kirstie Alley) is another example of this heightened atmosphere. Instead of supporting our established characters in activities that never really concern her, she takes the Chekov role from Wrath of Khan, amping it up, and is engaging in her own adventure, which is interrupted both by circumstances and the villain of the movie. She’s accompanied by David Marcus, who is similarly free to pursue his own interests, for the first time allowed to run his own experiments, unencumbered by family concerns (mostly).

But what truly sets the film apart, and is something that has probably be overlooked by most fans, is that this is the first time the new Klingons introduced in The Motion Picture take center stage. Without Search for Spock, The Undiscovered Country would be unlikely (and considerably less personably compelling), or the work four subsequent TV shows accomplished after it.

One of the most blatantly unfair charges against the movie revolves around the principal Klingon, Kruge, who has the distinction of being portrayed by Christopher Lloyd, who is still to this day known as a comedic actor. Viewers refused to accept him in a dramatic role, and critics were equally confused, because they expect genre properties to have built-in devices so that everyone knows the proceedings aren’t being taken too seriously (the only known exception to this rule is the extreme reverence everyone seemed to embrace Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy with). Lloyd should have been comic relief. And yet, he clearly wasn’t. He took the role quite seriously, and is still to this day probably the closest Star Trek has come to portraying, as a central figure of a story, an ordinary Klingon warrior, dedicated to duty, his pet, and the empire.

Perhaps tellingly, he makes for a more satisfying villain than Khan, too, at least for the filmmakers. After all, he does get to engage Kirk in the only hand-to-hand combat our hero actually gets to do (with a significant figure) in the Star Trek films before he finally dies in such a struggle, which had been so common in the original series, with whole episodes sometimes built around this tendency. For much of the film, Kruge is as removed from Kirk as Khan was, but in the end that fight can no longer be resisted, especially since the Klingon does what the genetic superman couldn’t bring himself to do despite all his bluster: he made it personal. Khan had two generations of Marcus to threaten, Kruge had one, and could have killed Spock, personally. You can imagine what was going on in the writing room when these scenes were conceived. I would argue that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing, even if fans would come to think of their efforts as just another confirmation of the emerging Odd Number Curse.

I would submit that the ending of Wrath of Khan is strengthened by its repetition in Search for Spock, that it takes on mythic proportions when reiterated between Kirk and Sarek (Mark Lenard, making his first appearance in the films, and another reasons why I love this one) and Kirk and Spock himself, not to mention the creepy (and at times amusing) revelation that McCoy got stuck with Spock’s soul, which makes an ironic and compelling connection between normally lightly antagonistic friends. In fact, one of my favorite scenes is when DeForest Kelley pulls off his best impression of Leonard Nimoy, in the shadows, the first time we see Bones in the movie. Kirk is already on edge, far more depressed than in the two previous films (which amounts to an escalation that few could have anticipated when they consider The Motion Picture even for the tenth time). In that sense, because maybe people really just want to see our hero happy and carefree for a change, it’s better to look elsewhere for a cherished movie memory.

But as a single experience, even with a lot of loose ends dangling, plots left over and picked up by later films and series, Search for Spock presents a heck of an experience, perhaps the most complete story and character arc for Kirk. It’s a full adventure, blows up a beloved ship, elicits really emotion from William Shatner, and closes the loop opened in the first film, bringing us back to Vulcan for another dramatic ceremony, except this one we’re more than happy to see to conclusion.

All of this isn’t to say it’s my favorite one. I think it lacks a lot of punch, that it does seem a little too inevitable in its beats (Curtis is such a departure from Alley that she seems to hardly exist at all, at least in the role of Saavik, and David becomes an afterthought, only to be killed off, with the audience expected to care for him based on the previous film alone). The rest of the familiar characters have a few things to do so they can get to the Genesis planet, but they’re all forgotten by the time they get there. There’s a lot to sacrifice so that this story as conceived can happen, much like Wrath of Khan, even though what we’re given works so well in its most important elements.

Perhaps the most successful piece of the film is the absence of Nimoy (except behind the camera, where he proves a deft hand as director) until absolutely needed, a move calculated for maximum impact. Just as Kirk is beginning to wonder if he’s sacrificed everything just to lose it all, Spock finally offers a glimmer of recognition. His friend is back.

But Search for Spock is an exercise in proving that an old friend was never really gone. In many ways, this was the true beginning of a whole new era.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Whatever else The Motion Picture had been, it was a relative failure, one that disappointed fans and general audiences, but it was success enough to have demanded a sequel, and so work was quickly begun to figure out how exactly to follow it up. Even that was proving difficult, however, until Nicholas Meyer sauntered in and changed everything. When the finished product was delivered to theaters in 1982, Star Trek had delivered the word, and the word was “good.”

Gene Roddenberry, who had fought so hard to retain his role as the frontrunner of his creation, was cast aside once again, this time by Harve Bennett, but without Meyer, it’s doubtful that anyone today would remember Bennett’s name. But it’s Khan (Ricardo Montalban) who truly makes his mark in this film, his first appearance since “Space Seed,” as the only man alive capable of matching wits with Jim Kirk. To do it, he must affect a resurrection of his own, creeping from the wreckage of the planet he was condemned to when he first attempted revenge on a galaxy that had rebuffed his efforts to rule it, twice.

The great irony of Wrath of Khan is that, as far as the character of Kirk is concerned, it is much the same movie as The Motion Picture. Again our lead character is reflecting on a life that seems to have passed him by, and only extreme circumstances are able to rouse him from his despondency. The difference this time is that he is engaged directly and personally, first by an enemy both he and the audience knows, and then by the revelation that he has a son, a direct consequence of what had always been implied but never acknowledged, that Kirk is a cad. Yet even in that he is shown with a greater sense of responsibility than was evident in the earlier film. In essence, Wrath of Khan is a story of personal redemption through unimaginable tragedy.

But audiences have long embraced the film, if not in rebuke of The Motion Picture, then as something far more familiar and engaging, not to mention better resembling the popular success of the Star Wars films at that time still one away from completing their trilogy. (One might even cynically suggest that the character of David Marcus, portrayed by blond-haired Merritt Butrick, was inspired by Luke Skywalker, who had just learned of his own controversial parentage.)

Wrath of Khan, until the wide success of Star Trek last year (and even then it’s debatable), has been considered the measuring stick of every film in the franchise, the source of unfavorable comparisons in almost every regard.

Yet I have had a long and tortured relationship with it. Maybe it’s because in 1982, I was two years old, and that even when I saw the Star Trek films, I found The Motion Picture and The Search for Spock more memorable, The Voyage Home more famous (it did gross more). In fact, I don’t even remember the first time I saw it. You could say its reputation is my first memory, and that’s a long road to cross. I became more annoyed by all the insistence of its brilliance than anything. You could say for me, Wrath of Khan was like literature being taught by any teacher who cares more about their lecture plans than actually getting their point across. It spoils the class and a love for literature. For me, Wrath of Khan stood like an albatross in the annals of Star Trek lore.

So I kept at it. The first thing I noticed when I began my efforts was that Khan behaved more like a spoiled idiot than a genius, a survivor with a huge ego but nothing to back it up. I had never seen “Space Seed” (or it had likewise sank into the obscure regions of my memory), so I had nothing of the warm feelings to recall upon seeing this epic villain again. All I had was my impression of him. It wasn’t a fault of Montalban. No, he was suitably impressive. But there was no depth in the writing of his character. It was all broad strokes (which is what I still struggle with when I consider There Will Be Blood, the closest analogy to Wrath of Khan that I can think of), and none of it added up.

Yet the sacrifice his threat necessitates loses nothing from this. One way or another, Spock’s death is staged in appropriately iconic circumstances, the final moments with Kirk, saying goodbye, the utter poetic brilliance of it. My mother, who helped introduce me to Star Trek, having watched the original series when it aired the first time around, probably thinks only about this film as the one where Spock dies. She’s an emotional viewer, and this scene works, probably just as well if you’ve never seen Star Trek before. In that sense, Wrath of Khan clearly and easily earns a place in cinema history, franchise lore.

Yet clearly this is just rather grim icing on the cake for most fans, who revere everything about the film, as if it’s somehow become sacred material (as the thing that revived an unabashed interest in Star Trek, it probably is). How is that possible, I dare ask?

Khan’s obsession with vengeance, his blind need to hurt Kirk as Kirk hurt him, speaks far beyond the confines of the story. It’s a primal event, the kind a good story can always build around, amplify into something greater and more significant than it actually is. It’s not really about Khan at all, but as a figurehead, he’s unavoidable, and therefore entirely perfect.

The fact that Khan and Kirk never directly confront each other might as well be a subliminal message that this is essentially true, that Khan himself is not all that necessary, but rather what he brings about, a rallying point.

A far more significant character is introduced in the film, Saavik (Kirstie Alley), the first regular Vulcan addition to the franchise since Sarek, who serves almost to link the old and the new, as Star Trek had been attempting to do since everyone realized there was still a chance it could be salvaged. Like a new incarnation of Xon, she’s someone that could be adopted by this crew, a surrogate Spock, the next generation, a sign of fresh life that felt entirely welcome. While Saavik herself wouldn’t last much longer than two additional films (and be the first major character to be recast in franchise lore), she was a major if understated symbol of what Wrath of Khan accomplished.

Eventually I came to accept this film as the entertaining, engaging story it is. Though I will probably never consider it the standard-bearer of the movies, I can see how it might have seemed like it at the time. From a perspective that saw the franchise develop firsthand, it’s like the second coming of the original series, just when it seemed like that was no longer possible, even though Star Trek had finally staged its comeback. Without it, there might never have been another film, or another series; with it, everything else must necessarily be refracted through its lens, even if that vision might in time become distorted.

Perhaps that was a small price to pay. Wrath of Khan achieved the impossible. It pushed the franchise to the next level.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Contrary to popular belief, Star Trek did not enter the movie business simply because of the success of Star Wars in 1977 (with apocryphal accounts suggesting Paramount more or less remarking, “What’ve we got like that?”). Gene Roddenberry, the fans, and even the studio that had seen the original series apparently run its course after three seasons in 1969 were looking for ways to revive it throughout the 1970s, including the relatively obscure but still famous Phase II attempt to launch a new TV series, which led directly to what audiences finally saw at the end of 1979.

It might have come as a little bit of a surprise to insiders who knew how much Gene had been getting marginalized in the final year of his own show that he was once again the driving force of Star Trek in this new incarnation, though a number of collaborators, as he himself had always welcomed, had been suggesting and inspiring new twists in the fallow years. The story for The Motion Picture came from what had been intended to be the two-hour pilot of Phase Two (which itself, its possibilities, does fit the mold of that popular belief already stated). You can’t imagine the lengths some had gone to in developing concepts large enough to push Star Trek back into production, and how none of them was considered to fit the bill, even though to this day, many fans would no doubt be more interested in those than what they ultimately got. What becomes ironic about The Motion Picture is that Gene apparently got exactly what he wanted, but in a manner that few of the fans could understand even then.

Where the original series had been characterized by an almost Errol Flynn-like spirit, embodied by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, this new movie represented everything as if captured from the perspective of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, which was itself ironic, because Nimoy was the lone holdout from the Phase II reunion, having felt, in some way, betrayed by the lack of recognition for the popularity of the Vulcan he had made iconic. There was also some sense that The Motion Picture felt less like Star Wars than 2001: A Space Odyssey, a sprawling, cerebral narrative that felt cold and uninviting. Then again, for others, it sometimes seemed to be a little too reverent to what had been done before, too distant to truly enjoy what it was accomplishing.

But for Gene, it was a definite sign of what he had wanted to do, which if rebuffed by Wrath of Khan, would be vindicated with The Next Generation, when he finally got his second television series, featuring many of the same templates for the characters he’d hoped to add to the canon. Will Decker (Stephen Collins) became Will Riker, Ilia (Persis Khambatta) became Deanna Troi, and Xon became Data. Of the three, only the new Vulcan was truly sacrificed, though the actor who had been hired to portray him, David Gautreaux, did have a bit part in The Motion Picture (personally, I think it would have been nice to eventually give him a significant part, once the franchise blossomed into lasting success, as an acknowledgment for his part in its history). (It is also worth noting that the distinctive Jerry Goldsmith fanfare developed for the film became the theme for The Next Generation, and another clear connection between the two projects.)

Far from the embarrassment many have taken to considering it over the years, I’ve long been fascinated by The Motion Picture. I confess to never having seen 2001 perhaps the biggest gap in my cinema experience), so I have no idea if, having seen that, its Star Trek equivalent does seem a little redundant in comparison. But as a storytelling style, The Motion Picture is still to this day entirely unique, what I term a stark and emotionally compelling adventure.

The passage of time, more than anything, is what’s really on display here, what might be lost from one moment to the next, when one refuses to accept what has also been gained. Kirk is no longer captain of the Enterprise. He isn’t even the most powerful figure in his own world anymore, which was what the impression of the series had always been. Even if he manages to convince an implacable admiral to have things his way, he still has to answer to someone. A once-proudly independent individual now has others invading his ability to do as he pleases. Could you imagine Kirk clearing his every gambit by Starfleet Command in the original series? Here he constantly meddles with the command of his supposed successor, Will Decker, until finally there’s no choice left but to let him have his way, but even then, it’s no longer his choice, but the imposing presence of the thing called V’Ger.

Spock, too, is separated from the Vulcan fans had grow to love. He has undergone cultural ceremonies meant to finally purge himself of the pesky human behaviors he had long criticized, as if he has willfully moved on from the old days (almost a metaphorical representation of Nimoy’s maneuvering). Only McCoy (DeForest Kelley), of the central characters, seems to have remained much the same, a cranky officer in the best of times, but like the others, strangely incapable of favorably serving in his custom role as trusted consultant.

Decker and Ilia inhabit their own level of the story, keeping mostly to themselves, which serves the movie and the franchise just fine when it leads to their effective elimination from further adventures. Scotty (James Doohan) serves as the most visible of the remaining familiar cast, as he had in the original series, and is the first of them to develop a new look, adding what would become a signature mustache.

Speaking of looks, the uniforms and even the ship receive a considerable overhaul (not to mention the debut of the new Klingon forehead), something else that was no doubt completely unexpected by fans who had been waiting a decade to see Star Trek again. The uniforms in particular, the first change in the new muted art direction for something that had resembled in so many ways the vibrant attitudes of the 1960s, were quickly rejected and replaced, never to be seen again. Is it much of a surprise for me to say that I liked them? Like the rest of the film, they fit the grim grandeur, the sense of responsibility, which perhaps more than anything else was what might have been going through the mind of James Kirk in the midst of this journey. It was a sobering reflection on the days that were gone and would never be seen again. The only way to truly recapture it, in the end, was to completely reinvent the wheel. And that didn’t happen until 2009, exactly two decades later.

That much of the film is a visual experience is almost a implicit acknowledgment that, if the characters themselves had changed, Star Trek hadn’t. For once, something proved to be far bigger than any of them had seen before, or could truly grasp, and in that sense, it’s exactly what a Star Trek film should have been in 1979. It forced each of them to take stock of their lives, and determine whether their choices had been as beneficial as they once believed. It might be worth noting that Kirk didn’t regularly command a starship again until The Final Frontier, ten years later, everything preceding that an indirect continuation of his search for a new purpose.

I continually challenge others to take another look at The Motion Picture, but among the most fundamental opinions within franchise lore, chief among them is that it’s a boring failure, even though its existence did, happily, resurrect Star Trek. It was also the beginning of a film series that continues to this day, one of the most enduring ever in cinema history. For that much, it’s not hard to take pride in it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Star Trek: Enterprise Season Four

The fall of 2004 marked the dawn of a whole new era in genre programming, with the debut of Lost, which, at least temporarily, opened the floodgates to networks becoming receptive to wild ideas, bold concepts, and big stories. But wide audiences weren’t flocking to sci-fi, at least not in the traditional sense, at least not outside of cable (where niche fans were gobbling up Stargate and Battlestar Galactica with renewed vigor), and certainly not to Star Trek, which was now seen as a relic. And the only victim left was Enterprise, which had just completed one of the most ambitious franchise seasons ever. The fourth season would be one last-ditch effort to win fans, if not audiences, over again.

4x1 “Storm Front, Part I”
As the first assault, this one was calculated not only to wrap up the Temporal Cold War arc in play since the pilot, but basically to wipe the slate clean, a big story to let fans know that things would really be changing. After a season with the Xindi, the series would once again be recreating itself, and to do so this time would require a massive effort to convince everyone that this time, there would be no mistaking how relevant to the series itself it would be. I’m not saying this to criticize the Xindi season, because unquestionably I consider it the achievement of the series, but for viewers who just kept leaving (as they did during the acclaimed Dominion War arc of Deep Space Nine, which came to define that series) who were looking for one last reason to stay. Because Star Trek fans really were looking for reasons like that, even if they continually got and rebuffed them (weird situation I still will never be able to completely begin to answer - bottom line, Star Trek itself could never be what they ultimately found they were currently looking for). So to conclude something like the Temporal Cold War, which had been a recurring if not entirely focused arc since the beginning, was a decision that basically said, We know you don’t really like this, so give us a moment and we can finally just move on. But as convoluted as it seemed to finish it during WWII, I still contend to this day “Storm Front” did a lot more than it seemed to. Whether it was the intention of the writers or not, the alien manipulating events stands for me as the answer to the riddle of Future Guy, who was the man behind the curtain of the whole thing, and this is as good an explanation for why he would never become directly involved, that everything was really just a lot of people fighting from temporal fronts that basically didn’t really have as much power as they would like others to think. And so someone stranded in his own past, powerless to do a whole lot, sounds like exactly the kind of dilemma Future Guy could have gotten himself in, repeatedly, like Annorax from “Year of Hell.” That in itself, completely fascinating to me, and maybe that’s why it worked for me, exactly as this arc was always presented. I filled in the blanks. But a lot of fans wanted all of it pretty literally and deliberately spelled out. Well, that’s Enterprise in a nutshell, and why this season did what it did, and why, once again, it seemed like “too little, too late.”

4x2 “Storm Front, Part II”
The other big deal about this first multi-part story of the season was that it was also the last appearances of Daniels and Silik, two of the defining recurring characters of the series, with John Fleck, thanks to story circumstances, getting to show his human face for a change. That both characters are dead by the end of the story is pretty accurate as a metaphor, too.

4x3 “Home”
Viewers still waiting patiently for that fresh start might as well consider this the season premiere, because it’s here that everyone really gets a chance to breathe, for the first time since “Azati Prime,” really. Like “Damage” and “The Forgotten” before it (and “Family,” from Next Generation), this is a full-on reflection episode, with Archer getting into full Janeway mode (circa “Night”), questioning every decision he’s made since his mission began, crying on the shoulder, basically, of Erika Hernandez (Ada Maris), which is ironic, because Hernandez happens to represent the future, the next deep space captain, a symbol of his success, no matter what he may be feeling at the moment. The episode also takes a good long reflection on the relationship between Trip and T’Pol, with another of the great endings in franchise lore, as Trip finally realizes how much he cares for the Vulcan, at the worst possible moment. Easily one of my favorite episodes of the series, surpassing the two previous examples of this story from the third season, and setting up the rest of the season, which is another irony, because it’s a rare standalone episode in a season full of multi-part stories. Again, I have to emphasize the worth of an episode like this to a greater appreciation for the series itself, because this is exactly the kind of depth no one ever gave it credit for, even though it had as much of it as any other Star Trek, if not at times more, because this is exactly what fans were clamoring for at the time, because they claimed it was completely absent. The creators actually were listening, and giving the fans exactly what they wanted. But some people just are never satisfied. I know from this kind of frustration. But sometimes obstinance is misplaced, and good things are lost, unappreciated, because of it.

4x4 “Borderland”
Modern fans often accuse Star Trek of looting from one of their favorite memories, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and whether or not they’re always accurate is kind of beside the point. But to suggest that it’s always bad to resemble success is another of those perverse behaviors indigenous to fan culture, which is always looking for signs of weakness. Maybe it was a mistake for Enterprise to begin its glorious quest for redemption by being the first franchise incarnation to directly tap into Wrath of Khan for inspiration, simply for this fact. I don’t know. But once again, I apparently was against the grain in liking the idea, which sees the concept of genetically-enhanced specimens, referred to here as Augments brought back for the first time since “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?” in Deep Space Nine, but at a time when calling it controversial in the story doesn’t even begin to cover it. And at the heart of it is an entirely different origin story, with Brent Spiner returning to Star Trek as Arik Soong, the ancestor of the man who created Data. Alec Newman, who made a big for genre immortality in the Dune TV movies, gets to follow in the footsteps of Ricardo Montalban, portraying Malik, the leader of this band of Augments. Also features the first appearance of the Orions in the season. Being the second aliens (after Vulcans) to have been created and leave a significant impact in original series, it was only natural for Orions to feature prominently, finally, in Enterprise.

4x5 “Cold Station 12”
The second act of this story is memorable for me in that Jeremy Lucas, Phlox’s medical colleague, friend, and pen pal, is finally seen, and played by franchise veteran Richard Riehle, making this his welcome, defining role (I always appreciated how the lifespan of Star Trek kept giving actors this kind of opportunity, to say nothing of the scores of individuals who made careers behind the scenes helping to make all of it a cohesive project for decades).

4x6 “The Augments”
Concluding the arc and foreshadowing later developments in the season, the Augments stir some big problems with the Klingons. By the end of it, Soong is thinking of abandoning his work in genetics…in favor of work with robotics!

4x7 “The Forge”
One of the frequent complaints about Enterprise was that its version of Vulcans seemed a lot more emotional than other, very famous examples in the franchise, which certainly must have come like another cardinal sin. So the third multi-part story of the season looked to see why that might possibly have been, finally settling on another famous Vulcan, Surak, and how his teachings and cultural impact might have been working at the time. Kara Zediker assumes the role of T’Pau, a venerated elder when last seen in “Amok Time,” but here a scrappy outsider looking to bring her people back from the edge of political quagmire and back to logical correctness. Robert Foxworth, so memorable in Deep Space Nine in two episodes, makes a return to Star Trek for the proceedings. To help continue to theme of transition in the season, Admiral Forrest is killed off in a terrorist attack, marking the end of another major element of the early seasons (though not the last appearance).

4x8 “The Awakening”
Archer and T’Pol get into the nitty-gritty of the arc in this episode (which, technically speaking, features the first appearance of T’Pau), while the Andorians get into the season picture for the first time.

4x9 “Kir’Shara”
The concluding act sees the best material for both Shran and Soval of the series, as the two engage in a battle of wills that both characters have sort of been waiting for since their debuts, so it’s only natural that it’s between them that they finally find it.

4x10 “Daedalus”
The transporter episode that the creators were probably dying to do since the start, prompted perhaps by the expectations of the fans, but also tying perfectly into both the original Year One aspirations and the new intentions to more properly sync up with the feeling of the original series. And it doesn’t get much more deliberate than the hapless famous visitor who gets into a whole heap of trouble. Yet because a lot of other franchise incarnations did similar stories, it probably seemed less fresh and necessary than it actually was, especially for this particular series. Hapless famous folks and errant gods were the backbone of Gene Roddenberry’s interests in the original series, and much of what I left out in my recaps for it involves these stories.

4x11 “Observer Effect”
This was another such story, but unlike “Daedalus,” it was actually a story Enterprise had already told plenty of times already, except this time, it was with Organians, a known commodity.

4x12 “Babel One”
In a season of multi-part stories, had the series continued, this would probably have become known as the most important one, since it not only involves a lot of important groundwork for Archer’s ability to mediate between eventual founding members of the Federation, but is the first (and ultimately last) major Romulan arc. Tellarites, after “Bounty,” have their most significant Enterprise appearance in this opening act, while Shran pops up again (his increasing presence would have led to a possible ongoing status in the aborted fifth season). Brian Thompson makes another franchise appearance, for the duration of this arc, as the lead Romulan attempting to create a little interstellar war, something that had been hinted at in “Kir’Shara.”

4x13 “United”
The secondary (but apparent primary) purpose of the arc takes center stage as Archer finds himself trying to convince cooler heads to prevail when Shran takes it personally when a Tellarite attack leads to the death of his partner.

4x14 “The Aenar”
After four seasons, we finally get a close look at Andorian culture, a visit to the home world and the revelation of a sub-species (the title folks) even more grossly affected by all that cold weather (why else did you think they were blue, just because it looked cool?), while the first real right between Starfleet and the Romulans finally occurs. With the most famous piece of history from this era looming, the Romulan War, one might have imagined Enterprise, had it run the standard seven seasons, would have come to more closely resemble Deep Space Nine, but this story ends up being the only chance to see what it might have looked like, with the Xindi season ending up like an example of everything it would have never been able to do.

4x15 “Affliction”
For twenty years, Star Trek fans got to wonder just how Klingons went from smooth-headed (original series) to bumpy-headed (The Motion Picture), which was made all the more confusing when they showed up in “Broken Bow” with the modified look. This two-part story finally gave them the answer (though it got about the same reaction as the second Star Wars trilogy, which finally showed just how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader), tying into the events of the Augments trilogy earlier in the season. Intrigued by what they saw, the Klingons thought they could take genetic modification and make a better warrior, with Phlox kidnapped to help the process. As another layer, Trip has decided he can no longer serve on the same ship as T’Pol, at least not without being tortured by unrequited love, so he transfers to the Columbia, commanded by Erika Hernandez. His temporary replacement as chief engineer, Kelby (Derek Magyer), debuts as the final recurring officer of the series. And you’re craving a third layer? Apparently Reed previously worked for Section 31, the shadowy organization previously featured in Deep Space Nine, and Harris (Eric Pierpont, returning once again to Star Trek, and gaining his own signature character at last) would like to have him back. Could you possibly ask for more ambition from the season?

4x16 “Divergence”
As Reed struggles with his conscience, Phlox struggles to aid the Klingons in the unexpected consequences of their new program, and Trip has to make a little emergency repair on his old ship, in the most harrowing circumstances possible. If any story in the season seemed designed to attract as much attention from fans as possible, this one was definitely it, which also demonstrated that the altered version of the attempt to attract the new kind of viewers Star Trek could no longer ignore, it was really working, and being done in much the same way as the third season, if only those viewers could be induced to care. But for a series already in its fourth season, with all the necessary material for why anyone should care about it done when no one cared, even with material that didn’t need knowledge of an entire franchise (but it definitely would not have hurt), it was probably asking too much. Clearly, this was the point where Star Trek was forced to acknowledge that it was a lost cause to rescue this phase of the franchise.

4x17 “Bound”
The big Orion episode, completely inverts everything that fans might have assumed about the species. Might even have been appreciated, if it hadn’t been interpreted as one more attempt by the series to attract attention by juvenile means (it should be noted for the record that no matter how many times material for T’Pol was generated to strengthen her as a character, many viewers were given just as many impressions that she was there to be the babe, even after Seven of Nine the apparent and most blatant attempt to make a series regular fit that role, even though sexuality was a constant feature of Star Trek from the very beginning; it just wasn’t something “serious fans” wanted to think about).

4x18 “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I”
Like the Klingon arc, this multi-part story was jam-packed with goodies for fans. The Mirror Universe, a famous element of both the original series and Deep Space Nine, returns (with uniquely-fashioned opening credits as a fantastic touch), with an origin once again recalling Star Trek: First Contact, while a lost ship from “The Tholian Web” is revisited, and oh yes, the Gorn are seen for the first time “Arena” (another of the show’s attempts to give modern viewers completely digital aliens, something the franchise had been toying with since Species 8472, but really only became a staple with the Xindi-Aquatics and -Insectoids; this time, however, with a known commodity in play, fans were less pleased with the results, though they seemed fine with the Tholians, seen for the first time). Anyway, we also see Forrest again!

4x19 “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II”
The great twist of this act is that it becomes a Hoshi story, as her mirror counterpart outsmarts everyone and proclaims herself Empress in the surprise ending. Also, Gregory Itzin makes a final franchise appearance.

4x20 “Demons”
In the final multi-part story, which many considered, or would like to have seen as, the true series finale, Peter Weller stars as John Frederick Paxton, who represents not only ties to franchise lore, but also the first reminder since the conflict between Archer and Vulcans that humans themselves weren’t exactly ready to start up the Federation. Harris returns, and Mayweather receives the most attention he’s gotten since the second season in a subplot with an old girlfriend caught up in the middle of this crisis.

4x21 “Terra Prime”
Every other element on this concluding act might as well not exist, because for me it’s really the last exploration of the relationship between Trip and T’Pol, who help advance the cause of the future Federation as Paxton unwittingly proves it’s possible for humans and Vulcans to procreate. But the real impact of this comes from Conner Trinneer’s best acting in the series, as he mourns the death of the controversial offspring that ties everything together, a sort of belated sequel-in-spirit to “Similitude.”

4x22 “These Are the Voyages…”
Part of the uproar (the only true instance of passion from the audience during the entire run of Enterprise) over this series finale was that it robbed the cast of its last spotlight, a funny thing to complain about, since hardly anyone ever admitted to even liking it. But not only did I fail to understand what the big problem was, I reveled in this hour, from the tie-in to a favorite Next Generation episode (“The Pegasus”) to how it tacitly acknowledges that, basically, this became Trip’s show, not Archer’s (almost as if in echo of how Spock became more popular than Kirk). What the creators must have been thinking, as many fans began wondering, isn’t that hard to figure out. They knew that this was the final opportunity for this phase of the franchise to express itself, that they wouldn’t be making anymore movies, that this was the last of the four TV shows to run under this regime. So it had a lot of things to acknowledge, and three of the most generous actors from this generation, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, and Brent Spiner (making a voice cameo), all of whom were past series regulars who either reprised their famous roles or variations on them in later incarnations, host the occasion, putting Archer and his crew in a definite historic context, and giving everyone a last chance at a final word, including Shran. Confined to a single hour, it worked extremely well for what it had to do, conclude a series three seasons earlier than what had become the average.

This was the longest of all the recaps (I don’t anticipate any of the films warranting as much space), and probably adds to the idea that I’ve been remarkably indulgent, especially for a lot of Star Treks that were apparent failures, especially the one that finally caused Paramount itself (long and apparently the only entity on the planet ignorant of the fact) to realize a fresh start was needed with the franchise, but I don’t aim to apologize. It was a pretty deliberate move on my part, to spend a lot of time with incarnations that by most accounts didn’t deserve a cursory look, much less an expansive one. I set about the Fan Companion because it was exactly that, a perspective from someone who happened to be a fan of the entire franchise (but not completely so, despite how it might have seemed).

Enterprise for me was so much more than Series V, as it was originally known amidst fan speculations when announced by the studio. It wasn’t just another Star Trek, just as Voyager wasn’t, and Deep Space Nine. I never approached a Star Trek with the expectation and the need to enjoy it, but that’s how I ended up watching each new incarnation. Just as the creators kept learning as they went along, most clearly when revamping Next Generation starting with the third season, which made the next decade and a half of the franchise possible, I watched and saw how the storytelling became a little more sophisticated, a little more nuanced, as the seasons went by. While for some it’s a bit inconceivable to call anything past Jean-Luc Picard, himself a study in advanced sophistication (that was the natural gift of Patrick Stewart), by such terms, I could see Star Trek develop a better and truer idea of itself, of its potential. The franchise always aimed to be more than an episodic adventure. It’s why Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were so memorable in the first place. They weren’t just random people going off on random adventures, but characters populated in stories with an incredible amount of heart, passion, and purpose. In the 1960s, it was necessary to tell these stories a certain way, and with very little faith in this enterprise, the work that was accomplished in three seasons was astonishing. And that it got new opportunities to expand, was beyond reason. That’s what fans should have been reflecting on, maybe, not constantly henpecking. Star Trek became a cash cow, but it never sold out. New incarnations only expanded its horizons, again and again pushing against perceived limitations. When Q said, you’re a pesky thing that’s not worthy of what you’ve been given, it was the creators challenging their fans, who ironically decided to side with Q on that one.

And yet by the end, when “These Are the Voyages…” ended with Kirk, Picard, and Archer reciting the famous mission statement of the franchise, it still somehow rang true.

And to this day, that mission is still continuing.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Star Trek: Enterprise Season Three

“The Expanse” had already prepared fans for what they could expect in the fall of 2003, when Enterprise would take Star Trek for its most sustained serialized storytelling ever, an entire season of a single arc. Deep Space Nine had done direct stretches of six and ten hours, sure, and famously had the most involved writing in franchise history, but this was going to be more ambitious still. Would it be enough to win back the interest of viewers?

3x1 “The Xindi”
The season premiere actually began modestly. Archer and crew barely had any contact with the eponymous foes, actually. Their scenes might have been mistaken for outtakes from a Malon episode from Voyager (and that’s basically what most people seemed to take away from it). But there were a lot of introductions all the same. Xindi Council members played by Rick Worthy, Tucker Smallwood, and Scott MacDonald (Dolim, the only name out of the bunch that would be used regularly, though the others might be called Jannal and Mallora, respectively). Randy Oglesby also debuts as Degra, the builder of the weapon that must be prevented from reaching Earth. Considering that these are the first Xindi seen, and they’re all important ones, this is less than a slow start than a slow build, especially for Degra, who would become one of the signature recurring characters of the series, through the work of a single season. Additionally, Steven Culp (who had, a little less than a year ago, been left out of the final cut of Star Trek Nemesis as the new first officer under Captain Picard) shows up as the lead MACO, Major Hayes, representing the big change of the ship, the presence of military personnel, a first for Star Trek. Daniel Dae Kim appears as another of these commandos, but really, the lack of material he sees in this role leads directly into the biggest role of his life the following season. Don’t make me tell you what that it.

3x2 “Anomaly”
The big discovery of this episode is the first encounter with the mysterious spheres that are scattered throughout the region. It’s the first sign that there’s much more to this arc than simple investigation and confrontation. Like the original Temporal Cold War stories in the early seasons, there’s a lot more going on than is apparent, and it’s this kind of textured storytelling that helps distinguish Enterprise, regardless of whether or not fans appreciate it.

3x4 “Rajiin”
One of the early revisits with the Xindi Council is also a rather patented Star Trek excuse to have some pretty girl scamper around. But like Voyager learned, even the old tricks seemed like magnified sins when the fans were looking for excuses to revolt.

3x5 “Impulse”
Here’s another important piece of the puzzle, another piece of layering, as we learn what kind of dangers exist for T’Pol to stick around this region for too long. Two words: Zombie Vulcans! And that’s pretty much what this one amounts to, and this one, at least, proved to be pretty broadly entertaining, something that was important to the ark but also worked pretty well episodically.

3x6 “Exile”
Where there’s Hoshi, there’s anxiety, so even when she stumbles into an unexpected way of contributing her unique skills to the mission, it proves complicated, when her unique mind attracts a lonely alien with information but a need for leverage. Don’t worry, though. It’s not the last time she gets into this kind of trouble this season.

3x7 “The Shipment”
Here’s when I really started to get into the season, however, when the subtleties really started to come through. Star Trek was always at its best, in any incarnation, when it delved into this territory, dating back to “Balance of Terror.” But I might argue that part of what frustrated fans…was that they liked it a little more clear-cut. They liked to know exactly who the villains were, and they really liked to know who exactly the hero was. When you started out with someone like Kirk, who became something of a folk hero, who and what else were you really going to want? They hated Kirk in The Motion Picture, when his foe was his own doubt. But they loved him in Wrath of Khan, when he tangled with an unmistakable villain. They didn’t care for Deep Space Nine, which had this kind of storytelling all over the place. And they hated the Voyager version of the Borg, which couldn’t leave the most clearly black and white foils alone. Well, here was when Enterprise took what was supposed to be the consummate antagonist of a whole season, and made it sympathetic. It was fantastically brilliant, and pushed the season to its truest and best work.

3x8 “Twilight”
At once a patented Star Trek reboot glimpse of the future (perfected, it may be argued, in “The Visitor” from Deep Space Nine, and “Timeless” from Voyager), and also a study of how important, once again, Archer really is, whether to the mission of the series from the start, or this season specifically. And it’s a terrific glimpse into the depth of T’Pol as well, without ever really drawing attention to it, just a study of her unerring patience, which goes far beyond simple Vulcan logic and sense of duty. And to tease the climax of the arc is a pretty neat trick, too. If “The Shipment” elevates the season, then “Twilight” encapsulates it, and just maybe, exceeds it.

3x9 “North Star”
The only way to follow up entries like that is to circle back to pure Star Trek, which in this case is an improbable visit to a world, right in the middle of all this, that is straight out of the Wild West. And even this gets put right into the context of what’s really important. It’s not hard to imagine what the writing room was like breaking episodes like this, especially for a couple of creators like Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, who were constantly criticized as basically the reason this phase of the franchise came to such an ignominious end. Yet, after Deep Space Nine, you could hardly find any other efforts to capture the essence of what Star Trek had been from the start, not simply aping it (as Enterprise was repeatedly accused of doing) but making it (arguably, and heretically) better than it ever was. I’m not saying that “North Star” is a classic, but like much of the franchise in this period, it was hardly as bad as suggested.

3x10 “Similitude”
Another reason for an episode like “North Star” would be that the creators knew better than the viewers just how dark everything would really become. And this intentional contrast, again, was hardly new in Star Trek. You try doing episodes like “The Shipment,” “Twilight,” and “Similitude” back to back to back, especially with the knowledge of how most of the rest of the episodes to come would hit. “Similitude” was my favorite from this season, and the fact that it revolved around Trip certainly didn’t hurt. Like “Twilight,” it took a step out of ordinary circumstances but imperiling the life of the chief engineer, to the point where a clone is created to provide necessary material to save him. But this clone becomes another Tuvix, someone the crew really doesn’t just want to say goodbye to. It’s a defining, perhaps the defining, episode for Trip, and again draws out from Archer how important keeping the right pieces in place really is. As great as Conner Trinneer is, Scott Bakula conveys a considerable amount of gravity, as he’s forced to make some of his toughest moral calls in the series. Knowing the history between Archer and Trip, as sparingly as it was actually used, adds another layer to everything, too.

3x11 “Carpenter Street”
Daniels pops up as we again are told about the historic consequences of getting things wrong, with a trip to the past (our present, though this isn’t really emphasized, possibly because there’s very little time, and only one hour, to tell this time travel story), and another franchise appearance for Leland Orser, for whom this episode basically serves as something of a thank-you, his version of Vaughn Armstrong finally getting to play a human.

3x12 “Chosen Realm”
This would be the episode that seemed drawn directly from the original series, but it’s more important as another look at the spheres, and the first time Star Trek had done religion directly since Deep Space Nine.

3x13 “Proving Ground”
What might be seen as a convenient excuse (and a somewhat flimsy and unlikely one at that) to bring Shran into the season instead turns into another, perhaps the best of how little the Andorian fits into the typical mold for a beloved recurring character. If anything, this one makes it that much more difficult for fans to have any positive feelings for him, and yet, it’s not just a ploy to demonstrate again how hard it was to form the alliances that would lead to the Federation, but how strong a character Shran really was, how much integrity he was allowed to have, thanks to the trust Jeffrey Combs had already engendered with fans. No other actor could have pulled this performance off.

3x14 “Stratagem”
Like “The Shipment,” like “Twilight,” like “Similitude,” this was an extremely important hour, the one that took an established Xindi, Degra, and turned him into a regular and intriguing presence, as Archer attempts to trick him into betraying his people. The idea of the episode was as much a stratagem as anything else, just an incredibly clever idea that took everything to a still greater level. As I suggested in my ‘Deep Space Nine’ recaps, while I adored that series and all it did for advancing the cause of serialized storytelling in Star Trek, what its extended arcs really lost was a sense of what individual entries were really meant to accomplish, to give them separate and deliberate identities. But what some of the more episodic episodes did on a regular basis, Enterprise learned volumes from, and drew on to accomplish the best hours of its full season arc.

3x15 “Harbinger”
This was the breather episode that pretty much sat back and let viewers and the crew absorb everything that had been going on. Not surprisingly, a lot of the long-simmering threads, which in themselves were never going to cover entire hours, had their biggest spotlights here. Reed’s professional rivalry with Hayes, or the romantic overtones of the complex therapy sessions between T’Pol and Trip (who lost his sister in the original Xindi attack), or sphere builders, who were shortly to emerge, but were seen here and “The Expanse” already, long before their presence would add yet another overt layer to the arc.

3x16 “Doctor’s Orders”
Given that much of what Enterprise did was similar to what Voyager had done for seven seasons, it’s not a surprise that some episodes would overlap pretty obviously, and so as Seven had before him, Phlox attempts to run the ship on his own, and fight his sense of isolation right to the end of it. Given that there was no other reason for the spotlight to fall on him in this particular season, it was as good an episode as any for the good doctor.

3x17 “Hatchery”
Almost the ironic version of “Twilight” and “Similitude,” Archer does an extreme dive into an episodic dilemma, being transformed into the mother figure for some Xindi-Insectoids (ten metaphorical bucks if you can name the other Xindi species). As the only spotlight for that particular species, why not embrace it for what it is?

3x18 “Azati Prime”
Besides, what follows is the season’s version of the Deep Space Nine serialized arcs, beginning here, as Archer apparently reaches his destiny when he sacrifices himself so that the Xindi weapon can be stopped. But since we’re not all that close to the season finale…

3x19 “Damage”
An episode that recalls events from earlier in the season, and anticipates those yet to come, while also being one that simply allows Star Trek to sit back and reflect on a bloody battle just endured. Casey Biggs, familiar as the ill-fated Cardassian Damar, makes an appearance. The Sphere Builders, as we’ll now call them, officially make their entrance.

3x20 “The Forgotten”
While Archer continues the work begun in “Stratagem” by convincing Degra to help his crew stop the Xindi weapon, the effects of “Damage” continue, as those who have fallen so far are given their due.

3x21 “E2”
If the midst of this run, another episode that recalls Star Trek templates, as an alternate version of the crew, its descendents thrown into the past and matching up with their counterparts. Another opportunity to watch Jolene Blalock demonstrate her considerable acting credentials.

3x22 “The Council”
With that entry out of the way, we’re back in the thick of it, with Degra and Archer attempting to sway the rest of the Xindi Council, basically making this a sequel to the season premiere, that episode that seemed like such a random waste of time. More Sphere Builders are seen, too, adding to our knowledge of just what is really going on.

3x23 “Countdown”
Otherwise known as Hoshi’s second big opportunity to get into a lot of trouble thanks to her unique credentials, as Dolim leads to Xindi opposition to the sudden willingness to cooperate with Archer, and contradict the wishes of the Sphere Builders.

3x24 “Zero Hour”
The big finale. You know what happens here. Archer saves the day. Obviously. And yet, the wheels always spinning, he apparently doesn’t get to celebrate, but not in the way it seems: he’s thrown into the past, WWII where an alien peers down at him, along with the Nazis…

Like a lot of Star Trek from around 1994 onward (the point where everyone was finally supposed to embrace the franchise, but instead found lots of excuses to love just about anything else, including: The X-Files, Babylon 5, Xena, Farscape, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate), this breakthrough season came with bad timing. Battlestar Galactica had grabbed all the genre buzz with the first act of the bold revisioning spearheaded by Ronald D. Moore (name sound familiar?), leaving very little for Enterprise, no matter what it did creatively.

To be fair, it didn’t seem like this arc said a whole lot, one way or the other, about what the series had initially set out to do, and even barely a tangential relation to the Temporal Cold War, though I would hardly argue that the Xindi, who had never been heard about before, and therefore would never been seen again, meant little, or were another version of Enterprise telling an irrelevant version of Star Trek history. Rather, all that being said, it was a greater argument for the challenges and chances for heroics that the series had promised from the start, and without resorting to known concepts like the Romulan War. Like the Denobulans, the Xindi ultimately represented a complicated if unknown basis for the Federation, which after all was never really defined in its membership, just as turning back to relatively obscure species like Andorians, Tellarites, and Tholians helped flesh out the foundation.

The incredible work, and amount and quality of it, done for the season should have been a watershed moment for the franchise, but for many, it was “too little, too late,” another oversimplified excuse for fans who were all too ready to wash their hands of a franchise that had failed in all of its ambitions, as indulgent as the studio had been for a complete decade by then, “ready for a break.”

Was it the right call, to ignore the third season of Enterprise? Well, maybe the fourth season held some answers…
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