Archive for December, 2021

Trekaday #000: The Cage

Posted on December 28th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

I hadn’t planned to watch The Cage on the basis that it wasn’t shown on TV (well, all right, it was as part of a celebration of Trek during the TNG era) and because I was going to see most of it in The Menagerie anyway but a bout of COVID has left me with extra time on my hands, so – as it was included on my Blu-ray box set – I popped it on.

Doctor Who fans, whose knowledge of the show in the 1960s is at the mercy of the random quirks of the BBC archive and overseas sales policies, can look at Star Trek with a certain degree of envy. Everything exists, all shot on 35mm film and able to be cleaned up and look fantastic (until we get to Deep Space Nine anyway). But we almost don’t have The Cage for the stupidest of reasons.

The two-part story The Menagerie was a desperate manoeuvre during Season One which enabled the Star Trek production team to magic up two whole episodes with the bare minimum of extra writing and filming. Kirk, Spock and co. sit around and watch Star Trek’s original pilot while a thin court-room drama unfolds. Shades of Trial of a Time Lord but that was on purpose.

To make this happen, Gene Roddenberry handed over the only known existing colour print of the pilot assuming that the editing team would make a duplicate and return the print to him. In fact the editing team assumed that they had been given a duplicate and merrily began hacking it up with scissors in order to assemble The Menagerie. When the pilot was finally released on video and shown on TV, the now-missing sections had to be patched from a black-and-white workprint.

Then – hurrah! – the negative trims turned up in a warehouse somewhere (or most of them did) and so now we can watch the pilot in all its glory. You can even watch it with early 2000s CGI spaceships if you want.

The story behind the story has been told often enough. Roddenberry sold the studio a space western – Wagon Train to the Stars – and then delivered a cerebral mini-movie with almost no action and a female second-in-command. This was Roddenberry’s girlfriend Majel Barrett and depending on who you ask, the studio couldn’t bear the idea of a woman on the bridge, or that’s what Roddenberry told her to spare her feelings, when actually they savaged her performance.

There’s a lot to like here. The crew works together very well – one of the pleasures of Trek is seeing a group of professionals problem-solving as a team – and the problem is a knotty one: once they know they can’t trust their senses, how do they know if they’re ever making progress? And the script doesn’t tease us for very long. Almost as soon as the crew has met the “colonists”, we zoom out to see the Talosians watching Star Trek. Not long after that, the illusion melts (very convincingly) away and Captain Pike knows what we know.

The ground-breaking effects look great, especially considering that this is before even 2001: A Space Odyssey had hit cinemas, so Forbidden Planet was the high watermark of moving-image science fiction (and there’s quite a big chunk of Forbidden Planet here). The Talosians, with diminutive and heavily made-up women playing the parts, but dubbed by male actors, look and sound completely original and their attitudes to the crew are fascinating.

But if the plot and the guest performances are all working, what’s wrong? A few things aren’t quite as we remember them. Spock orders that the Enterprise proceed at “time warp factor four”, he isn’t the emotionless Vulcan we remember, and he has a silly haircut and fluffy eyebrows. Reports are faxed to the bridge (I think paper was nixed from the second pilot onwards), the guns are called “lasers” and the communicators are very chunky. Also, the uniforms aren’t quite the ones we remember, although I rather like the grey-blue away jackets worn over the colourful pullovers – more functional and more interesting to look at than the plain velour jerseys we’d get next time.

But it’s the characters that don’t work. I rather like Majel Barrett as “Number One” and it’s refreshing to see a female second-in-command, but even after Captain Pike lampshades her sex, audiences couldn’t get on board with a bossy woman, so when the show is re-tooled the Enterprise becomes the boys club we’re familiar with. Number One’s emotionless cool was transferred to Spock instead. Variations on this character crop up again later in the form of Seven of Nine, T’Pol and (sort of) the Borg Queen. Leonard Nimoy becomes the only actor to survive to the second pilot (although Barrett is slipped in as recurring character Nurse Chapel in a blonde wig).

The other members of the regular cast don’t really register. There’s a young ginger kid who didn’t even get a name as far as I can recall, a perky Yeoman who keeps being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s a crusty doctor who exists principally to shine a light on Captain Pike’s character. As the lead character of the show, he’s genuinely fascinating. Jeffrey Hunter plays him with a fiery intensity and he even seems to have an arc of sorts – at the start of the episode, he’s haunted by an away mission that went wrong and is beginning to buckle under the weight of command responsibility.

What he isn’t, however, is fun. I really don’t imagine very many viewers would be tuning in week-after-week, in 1966, to spend more time with this sourpuss. Hunter does exactly what’s asked of him – including bawling out Perky Yeoman for no reason – and the camera loves his freakishly angular handsomeness, but the sense of a family unit, which Roddenberry and co would carefully contrive and/or happily stumble into, is fatally missing. We get the sense that Spock and Number One are rescuing their clinically depressed Captain out of a weary sense of duty, rather than a passionate need to save a beloved comrade. In fact, apart from Pike’s various outbursts from his titular confinement, the rest of the crew barely breaks a sweat. In the series, Spock’s calm in the face of a crisis is the exception – here it’s the norm, which lends proceedings a dry and tepid air. It’s this I think, more than the exotic concepts in the plotting, which gave this 60 minutes of film its often-repeated tag of “cerebral”.

So – we didn’t lose a masterpiece when the studio rejected this pilot. Hunter may be a better actor than Shatner, but Pike would never have been able to carry the series, and while we can only imagine that Perky Yeoman and Mister Ginge would have been given more to do in future episodes, they completely fail to register here. Crusty Doctor is a good idea for a character but he doesn’t jump off the screen, and while I’m sad about Number One, her absence created the Vulcan mythology which built the series, so it’s hard to get too cut up about it.

Okay, that’s the first go. Who’s ready for the first episode to be actually transmitted? We begin on New Year’s Day with The Man Trap.

Star Trek and me

Posted on December 15th, 2021 in Culture | 1 Comment »

“I’m sorry Tom, I couldn’t remember if it was Star Trek or Star Wars.”

“It’s okay, Steve. I’m not angry, just disappointed. And more in myself than in you.”

Steve is from Syria and (COVID-permitting) he’s been living with us for around four years now. I showed him his first episode of Doctor Who, his first episode of Fawlty Towers, and two episodes of Columbo. I showed him The Wizard of Oz, I showed him Singin’ in the Rain and I showed him Star Wars. It’s fun for me to see these classics through someone else’s eyes and he now knows what people mean when they say “We’re not in Kansas anymore” or “May the force be with you.”

Star Trek slipped through the cracks slightly. I’ve always been interested in Trek, as a general student of pop culture and telefantasy, but I’m by no means a completist. As well as Target Doctor Who novels, I got a couple of James Blish Star Trek books second-hand when I was about ten years old. These were collections of short-story length renderings of classic episodes, so when I think of City on the Edge of Forever or The Trouble with Tribbles or Amok Time I’m far more likely to think of these prose versions and I couldn’t swear that I’ve ever even seen the TV originals (although I definitely did see some episodes repeated on BBC2 in the 1980s).

The original cast movies were my kind of thing, and again the novelisations of the first three were all on my bookcase. I also remember the outcry about the perceived poor quality of the fifth instalment. By this time, The Next Generation was on TV and that’s “my” Trek. I rented the VHS episodes as they were slowly released, I attempted to tape them all off the TV when they were repeated. I bought the restored Blu-rays and was astonished at how much better they looked when scanned from the original 35mm film (seriously, they look they were shot yesterday, it’s incredible).

I watched much of DS9, admiring the serialised storytelling but getting frustrated if I missed episodes. I was thrilled when Voyager started up and dismayed at how dull many of the episodes were. I lost track of Enterprise and then everything went away.

Berman-Trek having concluded, Abrams-Trek eventually arrived. The first movie works, kinda, but it’s not the Trek I remember. The second is genuinely appalling. The third also works, kinda, but by then the second movie had expunged any remaining goodwill. Meanwhile, however, Trek was coming back to TV. Picard is a bit slow and creaky (much like its leading man, ho ho) but not without interest. Discovery is a bit too keen to show you how iconoclastic it’s prepared to be (and far, far too interested in subtitled Klingons in season one) but the cast has grown on me. I haven’t seen any of Short Treks or Prodigy but I love Lower Decks which is cheeky, funny, knowing, heartfelt and exciting in precisely equal measure. It’s fantastic. (We’ll leave discussion of The Orville to another day.)

And then there’s Untitled Star Trek Project. Some of the minds behind Flight Through Entirety (a long-running Australian podcast which watched the whole of Doctor Who from 1963 and is currently up to Matt Smith) have started a commentary podcast where they watch a “randomly” chosen episode of Star Trek each week. But their Trek knowledge is far deeper and broader than mine.

I really need to start from the beginning.

So, a little spreadsheeting later, here’s what I discovered. If I watch Star Trek in transmission order, at the rate of one episode a day, treating feature length episodes later split into two for syndication as one episode, and each movie as one episode, and not counting The Cage at all (most of it I will see anyway as The Menagerie), and I start on New Year’s Day 2022, then I will be watching the final episode of Enterprise on Christmas Day 2023.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

Compiling this spreadsheet threw up a few points of interest. There are only 79 original series episodes, so I’ll burn through all of those in the first three months, and the 20 episodes of the animated series will take only another three weeks. Then in mid-April it will be four movies in a row, and we’re on to Next Gen. These are the episodes I know best, not least because I watched them all on Blu-ray during 2012-2015 as the discs were released (I actually stalled half-way through Season 7). But except for a couple of movies, it will be all TNG all the time until September 2022 when DS9 starts up and then they will roughly alternate. And once TNG finishes, DS9 will interleave with Voyager between December 2022 and July 2023.

I could have sworn that the same thing happened with Voyager and Enterprise, but no. DS9 finished its original run on 2 June 1999 and then Voyager was the only Trek show on TV until it finished in May 2001, Enterprise beginning in September of the same year. So for me, the final set of episodes will be the four seasons of Archer and co, which I will watch between 19 September 2023 and Christmas Day (interrupted only by Nemesis). And then what?

Well, first of all I have to stick to this, which is far from guaranteed. I will post a Tweet about each episode with the hashtag #trekaday. Searching for this revealed an account @trekaday which attempted the same feat in 2012 and stalled after 16 episodes, so currently my goal is to get beyond The Galileo Seven. There will be round-up blog posts every week or so.

Assuming I do stay the course, who knows how much more Trek will have been generated in the interim, so for the moment I’m leaving it open as to whether I continue in the same vein with the Abrams movies and the Kurtzman stuff or whether I close the book on this project.

Mr Scott. One to beam up.

“Flux” – Doctor Who’s longest ever story?

Posted on December 6th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

Was this the longest story ever?

Well, this brings up a lot of complicated questions, like what do you mean by “longest”? And “story”? And “ever”?

There are various candidates for long Doctor Who stories and opinions differ about what counts as a single story and what doesn’t. If behind-the-scenes production details are key to you, then you might well count The Trial of a Time Lord as four separate stories since that was how it was planned and made. But if you put more stock behind how episodes are presented, than that 1986 season was presented as one story in 14 episodes – until its home video release. You might also consider whether all episodes of a “story” have to be broadcast consecutively. You might even consider the whole of the 16th season to be one long story (“The Key to Time”) since it begins with the Doctor being sent on a quest to locate the pieces of the Key and ends with all six pieces found.

In order to help you make up your own minds, here’s a handy checklist of long Doctor Who stories and where they land on these various criteria. Amuse your friends, annoy your relatives etc.

The Daleks Masterplan (October 1965 – January 1966)

  • Number of episodes: 13
  • Slot length: 25 minutes
  • Rough running time: 13 x 25 = 325 minutes = 5 hours and 25 minutes.
  • One on-screen story title: No, as was standard practice for the era, each episode has its own title
  • Episodes shown consecutively: No, the stand-alone episode without the regular cast “Mission to the Unknown” was shown first, then the four part story “The Myth Makers”, then the remaining 12 episodes of “The Daleks Masterplan”. So you can count this as 12 episodes, instead of 13 if you want, with a total running time of 5 hours.
  • Same writer and director throughout: Terry Nation wrote episodes 0-5 and 7 (counting Mission to the Unknown as episode 0) and Dennis Spooner wrote the rest. Derek Martinus directed Mission to the Unknown and Douglas Camfield directed the remaining 12 episodes.
  • Made as one production: episodes were rehearsed and recorded one a week, as was standard practice for the era.
  • Novelisation / home video: Novelised in two volumes, Mission to the Unknown and The Mutation of Time. The three existing episodes have been released as on DVD.
  • Production code(s): T/A for Mission to the Unknown, V for the remaining episodes.

The War Games (April – June 1969)

  • Number of episodes: 10
  • Slot length: 25 minutes
  • Rough running time: 250 minutes = 4 hours and ten minutes
  • One on-screen story title: Yes
  • Episodes shown consecutively: Yes
  • Same writer and director throughout: Yes
  • Made as one production: episodes were rehearsed and recorded one a week, as was standard practice for the era.
  • Novelisation / home video: Novelised in one volume. Released on a double VHS and a double DVD under the single title The War Games.
  • Production code(s): ZZ

The Key to Time (September 1978 – February 1979)

  • Number of episodes: 26
  • Slot length: 25 minutes
  • Rough running time: 650 minutes = 10 hours and 50 minutes
  • One on-screen story title: No, there are six stories of four episodes each, except the last which is in six episodes
  • Episodes shown consecutively: Yes
  • Same writer and director throughout: No, each story has its own writer and director, although Robert Holmes writes two and David Fisher writes two, while Michael Hayes directs two.
  • Made as one production: Each of the six stories was made as a separate production.
  • Novelisation / home video: Each story was novelised separately. All six stories were released as separate VHS editions. The whole season was released as a DVD box set.
  • Production code(s): Each of the six stories has its own production code from 5A to 5F.

The Trial of a Time Lord (September – December 1986)

  • Number of episodes: 14
  • Slot length: 25 minutes, but episode 14 was given 30.
  • Rough running time: 355 minutes = 5 hours and 55 minutes
  • One on-screen story title: Yes, episodes are only identified as “The Trial of a Time Lord, part X”
  • Episodes shown consecutively: Yes
  • Same writer and director throughout: No, five episodes are written by Robert Holmes, four by Philip Martin and five by Pip and Jane Baker. Four episodes were directed by Nicholas Mallet, four by Ron Jones and six by Chris Clough.
  • Made as one production: Made as four productions, even though parts 9-12 and parts 13-14 share a production code (all work on parts 13-14 was completed first, then work on parts 9-12 began, even though they shared sets and actors). They were later novelised and released on home video as four separate stories.
  • Novelisation / home video: Novelised in four volumes. Released as three VHS box set, as a DVD box set and as a Blu-Ray season box set.
  • Production code(s): 7A, 7B and 7C.

Flux (October – December 2021)

  • Number of episodes: 6
  • Slot length: 50-60 minutes
  • Rough running time: 325 minutes = 5 hours and 25 minutes
  • One on-screen story title: Yes and no. Each episode is given the overall title “Flux” as well as a chapter number and an individual title.
  • Episodes shown consecutively: Yes
  • Same writer and director throughout: Chris Chibnall wrote all six episodes and shares credit with Maxine Alderton on episode four. Jamie Magnus Stone directed three episodes and Azhur Saleem the other three
  • Made as one production: Made in two production blocks, one for each director.
  • Novelisation / home video: Released as a season box set on DVD and Blu-ray.
  • Production code(s): N/A

Calculating run-times discounting opening and closing credits and episode recaps is left as an exercise for the reader.

So… what did I think of The Vanquishers?

Posted on December 5th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

We’ve seen plenty of promising set-ups undone by poorly-thought-out finales during modern Doctor Who, of course. Almost none of Steven Moffat’s final episodes live up to the promise of the penultimate instalments – with the apotheosis of this trend being Heaven Sent / Hell Bent, one half of which is a total triumph of the television arts, the other half of which is wildly undisciplined, often makes very little sense and doesn’t earn any of the emotional beats it strains for.

This was rather different. The previous five episodes had been so poor in execution that it was scarcely possible for the final chapter to redeem them – but the concept of the season as a whole was also completely wrong-headed. When reviewing Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, I noted that the Doctor spends some time early in the episode acquiring a temporary gang to surround himself with – behaviour so peculiar he is forced to comment on it, in the hope that that will make it seem more understandable (it doesn’t). It’s scarcely a surprise that when the end of the story comes, each of these people has a skill-set which exactly meets a need which the plot presents the team with. It’s a version of James Bond using each gadget he’s given by Q exactly once. It’s basically a set-up and payoff, if you squint, but ideally you need not to notice that the set-ups are being set-up at the time.

It’s the same here, but with the volume turned up to eleven, the jump-cutting gone bananas and the technobabble so thick you could eat it  with a spoon (or a quantum neutrino artron spoon, I suppose). I could, and I suppose I will, make a list of things which didn’t make any sense, but honestly, what was the point of any of this? It’s not an epic battle for the safety of the universe in any meaningful way, none of the characters get a chance to register and the whole thing is littered with cargo-cult drama.

Let’s define that term for a moment. In the 1940s, westerners landed planes full of amazing cargo on remote islands and then buggered off again. The islanders, hopeful that more planes would visit, recreated the landing strip, lights and so on, turned into a religious ritual. They copied the form of what they had seen without understanding its function or purpose.

We’ve seen this since early in Series 11. Chris Chibnall dimly recalls that the Doctor doesn’t like guns, so he has her resort to non-artillery forms of fatal despatch, or condemns her foes to the torture of a long slow death rather than a quick painless one – while trumpeting her superior morality. She walks up to weeping angels, taunting them by blinking, because Chris Chibnall dimly recalls that blinking is a bad thing to do near an angel, but he’s forgotten why. And here, he dimly recalls that having a sympathetic character die at the end gives the audience a rush of emotion, but Jericho’s death is pointless and stupid and meaningless.

So, because the story ends with the Earth intact, friendly characters restored to their right time and place, and the threat of the Flux withdrawn, we get a feeling of satisfaction. But the entire edifice collapses under the weight of a moment’s introspection, there are no emotional beats that feel earned or worthwhile and the tactic of starting the story off with a flurry of different characters and locations didn’t remotely pay off, because most of them stand around doing nothing during the climax – fairly standard for this writer but particularly galling when so much effort has been expended to set them all up. While the contrived neatness of the Dinosaurs on a Spaceship gang feels first draft, forced, laboured – at least it is contrived. This is just excess for the sake of excess.

Okay, if you can bear it, let’s go through some of the things that didn’t work, didn’t make sense or left me confused. Let’s start by noticing – as I didn’t in my review of last week’s episode – that among a series of easily-dismissed cliffhangers, the shocking end of episode four turned out not merely to be undone almost instantly, not merely to be yet another seemingly-fatal-event-revealed-as-taxi-service-to-the-next-bit-of-plot, but in fact the angels delivering the Doctor to the precise place and person that she had been seeking at the start of chapter one. <PITCH MEETING>Oh very convenient psychopathic killers!</PITCH MEETING>

The “previously on…” montage seemed to blend into the beginning of the episode proper, which is cut so rapidly that it gave the whole episode a previously on… energy (a device employed for real by The Good Fight recently, but here just the result of trying to pack too much into 60 minutes).

What will Swarm and Azure do now they have the Doctor in their grasp? Well, they will split her through time enabling her to be exactly wherever she needs to be in order to foil their plans. The rest of their time together is spent portentously announcing the same kind of gibberish we’ve been hearing since Fugitive of the Judoon until they obediently commit suicide and let the Doctor go. Nothing that happens in this part of the plot matters at all. There are a couple of lines about the Flux not being quite as bad because of some Oodling around, but honestly, it doesn’t make a difference. The Flux (and the Flux part two) have had such wildly inconsistent destructive powers that it scarcely matters if the Ood turns the volume down a bit – or up a bit, or anything.

The Sontaran takeover of an Earth surrounded by a shield of Lupari ships continues not to have any reality whatsoever. If it was happening, presumably it would look a lot like what we already saw in episode two. In which case, why did we spend an entire episode establishing how easily-defeatable the Sontarans are, before revealing them as the season’s Big Bad? Their plan just about makes sense, but it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone overmuch, and at the end of the day, when it’s used against them, it’s just a light show.

You can’t say the same about the Williamson tunnels which allow visitors to travel to other worlds and other times. Williamson dug the tunnels to connect these different portals he had discovered, which is a neat trick given that he must have excavated first in order to have seen these portals. He then did more digging because he thought that yet more tunnels would give humanity somewhere to hide from the end of the world. The thought of making a shelter somewhere further from the destructive power of these portals did not occur to him, it seems. And lo – he was mocked for his foolishness, despite the fact that all he had to do was walk unbelievers into one of these portals and they would have seen with their own eyes he was telling the truth. He is dismissed from the narrative, having served his purpose, which was… nothing I can easily recall. Nothing about the tunnels solves the problem of the Flux or does anything other than muddle an already complicated narrative and provide a feeble justification for people meeting up who have no business being re-united. This is Chibnall’s habit of “I need this character to be here, so now they are,” taken to ludicrous extremes.

On which subject, having three Doctors knocking around does at least give the central character some agency, but at the cost of stopping anyone else from having anything to do. Yas and Dan come off worst, as usual. As far as I can recall, neither of them does anything other than gawp for the entire run-time. Kate Stewart from 2017 procures a TARDIS abandoned in 1967 and delivers it to the Doctor in 1904 by means not disclosed and then takes Vinder’s moment of triumph away from him by pointing a second, redundant gun at The Grand Serpent – and now she’s done for the day too.

Ah yes, The Grand Serpent. It’s passably amusing I suppose that the Doctor takes the piss out of his silly name, even if this is this week’s script taking the piss out of how poor last week’s script was, but again, The Grand Serpent doesn’t really have a role to play here either. Everything the Sontarans are doing they could have done without him, and evidently they could have done it all with or without UNIT in place to defend the Earth. But they’re made to look and sound ridiculous by having a stupid obsession with candy bars, so that’s nice.

There probably are explanations as to what Jericho and Claire are doing on the Sontaran ship, what the Sontarans think they are doing, why they wanted them to do it, and what happened as a result, but I didn’t pick them up. The Doctor’s sacrifice of Jericho would have been pretty hard to take if his death was the only way in which the threat could be neutralised. It’s kind of nauseating here, since it amounts only to – oops, butterfingers.

What’s far, far harder to take is that every single one of the six billion Lupari have been murdered to protect the Earth. At the end of the episode, as everyone congratulates themselves on a job well done, Karvanista doesn’t seem any more than mildly peeved at this slaughter. Remember, he began the episode fully intent on killing the Doctor and Yas because she had dared to ask him about the Division. Now she’s responsible (in part) for the wholesale massacre of his entire race, every single person he ever knew or loved, a grudging respect seems to have formed between them. What must really grind his gears is that he can fly every single one of those six billion Lupari ships on his own by remote control. So really all of his friends, colleagues, family and associates could have stayed safe at home. <PITCH MEETING>Whoops! Whoopsie!</PITCH MEETING>

I could go on, but honestly it’s too tiring. This exhausting series has been characterised by juxtaposition over dramatic action, whirling pixels over personal jeopardy, confusion over mystery and a total unwillingness to grapple with the ideas the story has presented. When Yas and the Doctor have their heartfelt chat at the end, it almost – for an instant – feels as if, at the eleventh hour, Flux might be about to give us something with some kind of meaning, even a cargo cult version of it. But no, comedy Dan is here to ruin the moment. Phew. Hurrah for comedy Dan.

There will be time to put the Chibnall/Whittaker era in its proper context soon. When we get to November 2023, we’ll be able to see not just how we got here, but also where we went. For now, it remains inconceivable to me that a writer this incapable of basic characterisation, cause-and-effect plotting or sayable dialogue should have been put in charge of the BBC’s flagship show, and equally inconceivable that he thought himself at all capable of handling a story this vast and sprawling.

I haven’t given stars for any of these episodes. With the previous two seasons, I think I was probably a bit too generous, as early optimism forced me to tack on extra points for “just being Doctor Who” or somesuch. That optimism now having evaporated, I think I would probably take a whole star off pretty much everything after The Woman Who Fell to Earth because even the best instalments are labouring under the weight of terrible series-wide decisions. With these episodes, I guess Sontarans on Horseback is worth two out of five, and Oh Look It’s the Angels Again might struggle up to three. The rest are all zeroes across the board, because they never actually cohere into stories.

What a fucking shame.