Monday, May 20, 2013

Secrets of Star Trek Into Darkness: Section 31

One of the key bit of the story in Star Trek Into Darkness is the militaristic paranoia of Admiral Marcus.  Convinced that war with the Klingons is inevitable, he resorts to cooking all the tools he can imagine, and in the process recruits 20th century superman Khan from cryosleep.  It's the headquarters of Section 31, not some simple Starfleet archives, that Khan destroys in retaliation for the apparent loss of his fellow sleepers.

What's Section 31?  It's the CIA/MI6/Mossad of Starfleet, first introduced in the Deep Space Nine episode "Inquisition" from the fifth season.  Section 31 agent Luther Sloan seeks to recruit Dr. Julian Bashir (who is himself a product of genetic manipulation like Khan; another installment of this informational series could feature the Star Trek history of biogenics).  Bashir is horrified and rejects Sloan's offer, but that's not the end of it.

In the seventh season, in the thick of the Dominion War, Sloan takes no chances and this time forcibly recruits Bashir to manipulate the Romulans (which was a thing DS9 did really well, previously and more memorably in the siring Sisko spotlight "In the Pale Moonlight") in "Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges" (Latin for "in times of war the law falls silent").

Late in the season and in one of the final episodes, "Extreme Measures," Bashir gets the Sloan monkey off his back.

Late in Enterprise, Section 31 is revealed to have had a long history in Starfleet.  Malcolm Reed was always a secretive fellow, but we didn't learn until the fourth season that he'd served with Section 31 early in his career.  This became an issue when the agent known only as Harris shows up in another Klingon crisis (one that solved the smooth forehead/ridged forehead mystery and also involved genetic manipulation that tied directly into Khan's origins, by the way), "Affliction"/"Divergence," and attempts to act like a regular Sloan and force Reed back into service.

A few episodes later, in "Terra Prime"/"Demons" (which also featured, incidentally, actor Peter Weller, just like Into Darkness), Harris pops up again, this time to Reed and the rest of Captain Archer's crew's advantage.  Sometimes even the bad guys can work to your advantage.  And that's exactly what Admiral Marcus thought...

(Incidentally, while I'm dropping knowledge on you, hiding secret fleets was also the subject of the DS9 episode "Defiant," which featured another Star Trek character's double.  Just as there ended up being two Spocks, there are technically two Rikers running around.  Transporter duplicate Thomas Riker defected to the terrorist group the Maquis.  These guys hated the Cardassians, and embarrassed them into admitting they had been amassing something very much like what Marcus had.  This got very awkward when the Cardassians joined with the Romulans for a trip through the wormhole, where the combined fleet was destroyed by the Dominion.  And then the Cardassians joined the Dominion.  In hindsight it sort of makes sense.)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Ever since the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, was released, fans have been negatively comparing every single one even tenuously similar to it.  The entry was a hallmark, saved the franchise after an underwhelming reception to The Motion Picture a few years earlier, filled with action and resonating character work.  It was the first time the adventures of Kirk demanded a sequel, which it got with The Search for Spock, which spent much of its time reflecting on Khan's key moments.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the first time we get a movie that not only deliberately echoes Khan but arguably improves on it.  The big mystery every fan has been attempting to solve since the presence of Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch's villain was announced turns out to be exactly what they long suspected but the filmmakers struggled to deny (much like The Dark Knight Rises last year with Marion Cotillard's Talia disguised as Miranda Tate).  Cumberbatch indeed plays a character named John Harrison, but Harrison is secretly Khan, the genetic superman created sometime in Kirk's past three hundred years earlier (previously but now only roughly our own time), awoken to create havoc once more.

That I'm writing about this directly is because I want to write about what truly energizes Into Darkness.  Many observers said the 2009 reboot Star Trek lacked the social relevance that had previously been one of the defining elements of the franchise.  If that was indeed true, then this new film does everything possible to reverse that.  The 1966-1969 original series famously did everything it could to get around network restrictions concerning the topic of the Vietnam War, and now we're getting the 21st century equivalent.  Make no mistake: Into Darkness is about the Iraq War.

The story is all about trying to decide if the right thing to do really is always the right thing to do.  It begins with Kirk's (Chris Pine) efforts to rescue Spock (Zachary Quinto) from the maw of a volcano, breaking the Star Trek rule known as the prime directive about exposing primitive species to technology years ahead of their development and thus altering the course of their future in the process.  He becomes demoted as a result, subject to serving under Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) all over again.  Pike has always been Kirk's biggest supporter, but even he sees the basic flaw in his character, in that he never stops to question whether he's right.  It's always been assumed that Kirk always is.  Into Darkness is one of those times where we all stop to question whether that is really the case.  Famously in Star Trek: First Contact, we ask the same question of Captain Picard.

Actually, Into Darkness is a lot like First Contact, which itself was a lot like Wrath of Khan.  Picard in this instance, however, might find a better parallel in Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), the war-hungry instigator who draws the parallels to Iraq.  In Star Trek terms, Iraq is the Klingons, the alien species who are just as identifiable to the franchise as Spock's Vulcans.  Marcus uses Khan for the same reasons it might be said that both generations of President Bush wanted to deal with Saddam Hussein, because that was a problem the United States created in the first place, and they felt it was necessary to finally deal with it.  The second Bush, the argument further goes, really went to Iraq to finish what his father started.  Some of that can be found in Oliver Stone's W., if you'd like another cinematic exploration.

Do you really have to worry about any of that?  Do you have to think about all those nasty politics that have been so divisive in our culture for at least the last decade?  Not if you don't want to.  Star Trek previously explored this territory, the post-9/11 landscape (Khan is also a terrorist who attacks London early in the film), in the Star Trek: Enterprise Xindi arc, and the nature of war in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Dominion arc.  Yet Klingons have been a reliable menace for decades.  Admiral Marcus calls them a foe Starfleet is destined to clash with, and indeed fans know that to be true.  The sixth movie, The Undiscovered Country, is all about finally confronting that reality, an assassination thriller about the heavy cost of peace.

There's plenty of action, plenty of humor, and if you want to see this Khan ham it up, there's even a scene for that impulse.  Yet some of the best moments echo the best moments of Wrath of Khan, and that may be what the most devoted fans take away from Into Darkness.  The fan backlash to Superman Returns six years ago accused it of being too derivative of the Christopher Reeve movies that preceded it.  There's a small risk of a similar feeling falling on Into Darkness, but it's alleviated by all those moving parts around it, keeping events lively and engaging.  It's relevant to viewers on just about every level.  This is no one-trick pony.  There's little risk that any one element will be the one that defines it.

The bottom line is, like the best movies, there will be a different interpretation to engage every viewer.  Filmmakers love to try and please all the demographics of age and sex, but Star Trek Into Darkness is the rare movie that will cross over any one version of its events, a common experience that speaks to the very heart of the spirit its franchise has always represented.  Someone else said that it boldly goes where other Star Treks have gone before.  That is an incredibly positive interpretation, and perhaps the best thing that could be said about it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Star Trek: The Next Generation 3x17 "Sins of the Father"


Simply put, "Sins of the Father" could easily be known as the true legacy of the third season.  On the one hand, it's easy to acknowledge the importance of "The Best of Both Worlds," and on the other, an entire mythology and basically an entire series stems from "Sins."

This is the episode that at last allows Next Generation to expand on the existence of Klingons within its framework.  Yes, Worf has been there from the beginning, and yet until this point he was a lot like the Spock of this series, the alien who is alienated from his own culture but nonetheless is a perfect representative of it.  Until the J.J. Abrams movie, Spock didn't have a lot of material that went into much depth about his conflicts with other Vulcans (aside from his own father).  Worf gets that in spades in "Sins."

Part of his backstory was that Worf was orphaned when he was very young, so that he was raised by humans.  His parents were killed during the Klingon/Romulan conflicts that served as the backstory of the entire series (and were a prominent feature of "Yesterday's Enterprise" a few episodes earlier).  Of course, early in the series its creators preferred to focus on new aliens rather than established ones.  This is why we got the Ferengi, and why it was so complicated to explain their own history with Picard and Starfleet in general.  When the Klingons showed up at all, it was mostly to make Worf uncomfortable, or give Riker a chance to showcase his particular skills outside the shadow of his captain.  The Romulans showed up at the end of the first season, but pretty much continued the behavior they'd apparently been maintaining in the recent past.  Then the third season brought them back to prominence again, showed how complicated it can be when they're involved.

When they're involved with Klingons, it's complicated indeed.  In the original series, they were apparent allies.  It's only reasonable to assume that eventually one of them decided their interests were better served alone, and thus they went to war against each other.  Worf is the most famous victim of this conflict, and "Sins" demonstrates how that is a fact that only gets worse in time.

The episode is a deep immersion into Klingon culture and politics.  We meet both Kurn and Duras in the process.  Kurn is Worf's brother.  The episode begins as Kurn serves the same function aboard the Enterprise that Riker did a season earlier aboard a Klingon ship in "A Matter of Honor."  Worf doesn't know he has a brother.  This part of the episode is fairly similar to other material in the season.  It's when the truth is revealed that things truly become interesting.  Suddenly it's no longer just another episode.  It's all about Worf, the backstory, everything.  Picard even gets a chance to expand on his diplomatic abilities, the thing that truly differentiates him from Kirk.  When he gets his hands dirty, it's in the service of getting out and walking around, not shooting or brawling.  He seeks out missing pieces of the puzzle, not just telling people that they were wrong to believe this or that.

Anyway, Kurn very quickly becomes a key figure of the entire franchise.  He's the version of Worf who remained among his own kind.  Yet they're not really so different.  Kurn only makes a handful of appearances, but he quickly becomes what Gene Roddenberry would have called a beloved character.  As much as Worf himself, Kurn helps inform the depths of the episode, when Duras attempts to hide his own shame by saying it was Worf's father Mogh who betrayed the Klingons at Khitomer to the Romulans, the very place of his death.  Better to slander the dead.  Kurn has been hiding his true identity.  Picard quickly realizes that Worf will not only represent himself but the entire Federation.

All of this pulls us out entirely from the usually episodic material of the series.  The series plays at it again a few times, but arguably could very easily have completely changed its format to accommodate this revelation.  Deep Space Nine did in fact do this on a regular basis, and eventually embraced Klingons more fully than Next Generation ever did, and even after acquiring Worf didn't stop at him to do this.

Duras later returns and becomes far more infamous.  It can be argued that the narrative of Next Generation could be said to belong to a number of different characters.  Worf could very easily be one of them.  When he murders Duras, or temporarily resigns from Starfleet to help fight the Klingon Civil War, these moments again shatter the format, and if it weren't for the Borg, everyone would think of this grand Klingon saga when they think of Next Generation.  Yet even the series lost track of this.  By the end it had become an afterthought.  Those pesky Duras Sisters?  It's like they aren't even related to such a notorious figure.

"Sins of the Father" turns his own people deliberately against Worf, who accepts dishonor, the very thing Klingons abhor, and then returns to Starfleet, where he effectively hides and doesn't really think about any of it except for the periodic occasions where it's too obvious to ignore.  Perhaps this is just as well.  A moody Worf can be depressing.  This is the rare Star Trek character who actually considered suicide, after all (Neelix and O'Brien would be two others).  It could still have reshaped the series without going that dark.  Instead the Borg delivered the memories everyone has.  Sure, most people will call "Sins" a standout, and in a lot of ways it was a permanent game-changer.  It went where Star Trek had never gone before.  Yet it could so easily have done much more.

Maybe I'm just trying to envision a reality where Kurn was around more often...

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Tony Todd

Memory Alpha summary.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Star Trek: The Next Generation 3x16 "The Offspring"


Like an echo of "The Measure of a Man," one of the defining episodes of the second season and the young series as a whole to that point, "The Offspring" explores the concept of the rights of an artificial lifeform.  This time we're considering the daughter/creation of Data rather than Data himself.

Data is of course the son/creation of Noonian Soong.  I think I would be more interested in that episode, that semi-sequel, in which we see a tad more of Soong than simply his fatherly latterday relationship, and more of what he thinks of Data and how he dealt with the prejudices of others as they faced the reality of having an incredibly human android running around.  (There were nods here and there to that, but I always had the sense that Data's would be another story that could easily carry its own series, or perhaps movie reboot.  As a plus, Brent Spiner could still easily portray Soong.)

Still, I'm here to talk about Lal.  Although in hindsight this is perhaps not the greatest story to tell in a single episode rather than arc (just imagine what Deep Space Nine would have done with it), it's still notable (and in fact might be said to be a kind of basis for a similar Voyager episode, "Latent Image," a classic that sees The Doctor struggling with the very thing that eventually ends Lal's existence).  As a continuation of "Measure," it's worth noting, too.  Most Data episodes about Data himself and the legacy of his creator were about Lore, Data's evil twin (the way that sounds only makes it sound bad).  The last odd thing I'll say is that it's weird that Data apparently gave up making babies (as it were) after this experience, especially after everything the characters talk about in the episode, and his own yearning to keep his kind around should anything happen to him (which would make Star Trek Nemesis and B-4 far better in context than most fans have been willing to admit).

Anyway, so obviously there's plenty to recommend about "The Offspring," even if it's basically a springboard for a lot of nitpicking.  But it's far less creepy than anything Harry Mudd was doing in the original series.

On top of everything else, Starfleet is still obsessed with exploiting the unique breakthroughs that allow Data and Lal to exist.  It's worth wondering why that is, if even in the future devoid of monetary motivation an organization the size of Starfleet thinks that space exploration would be so much easier with the fallible human element.  What's up with that?  By the time of the Emergency Medical Hologram, it's still trying to exploit this concept.  Sure, it's probably a metaphor about our own times and trying to deny basis human rights to a given minority, but it's certainly a shift from the ideals of Gene Roddenberry.  But then again, Spock was always running into subtle bigotry as well.  Is it just a given that we'll never be able to shake that impulse?

Although now that I've thought about it, DS9 did do this episode, and it was better.  It's called "The Begotten."  Watch that and "Latent Image," and that'll be the true worth of this one, its own legacy.

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Whoopi Goldberg

Memory Alpha summary.

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