Archive for December, 2014

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Posted on December 30th, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »


Now, that’s more like it.

Once again, with hindsight, what’s remarkable about Star Trek II is not so much that it set the template for the billion-dollar franchise which followed (although it undoubtedly did), it’s that Paramount was willing to make another movie at all. Actually, on paper that’s not so surprising. The film did make money – around three times what it cost to make – but it was hugely expensive. Disney’s The Black Hole, released the same year cost half what Star Trek The Motion Picture cost and it was Disney’s most expensive movie ever. But the reception from mainstream media and die-hard fans alike had been luke-warm. Did it really make sense to risk another forty million dollars to try again?

Enter TV producer Harve Bennett who confidently told Paramount bosses he could make five movies for the budget of the first one. After a year or two of script development going nowhere and staring down the barrel of a release date, Bennett sent for Nicholas Meyer who compiled a list of the bits-and-pieces people liked from the dozens of Star Trek II draft scripts and sat down to write the final screenplay, stitching all these disparate bits together, before beginning work on directing the movie, days later. These two men, neither of them familiar with Star Trek before they started work, saved the franchise, largely by completely and utterly ignoring the first film.

Meyer knew nothing about spaceships and future technology, but he saw the Enterprise as a sailing ship and Captain Kirk as Captain Horatio Hornblower. Ironically, Gene Roddenberry – who had by now been kicked unceremoniously upstairs – hated the naval paraphernalia and militaristic feel which Meyer gave to the Enterprise, but had himself used Hornblower has a frequent touch-point for the character of Kirk. Generally, Meyer’s reimagining of the Enterprise and Star Fleet through a naval lens works very well to create an impression of a colossal ship, manned by an enormous and active crew. Occasionally, he goes too far, such as when Kirk is literally piped aboard, or when photon torpedoes sit under hatches which have to be manually levered open, but these are tiny and easily-overlooked transgressions.

The whole look-and-feel of the film is vastly improved. The new uniforms strike the perfect balance between the colourful sixties jerseys and something which does actually resemble military garb, as opposed to pyjamas. They would still be in use for Star Trek Generations, a dozen years later. The bridge feels more like a submarine and less like the lobby of a futuristic hotel. The plot has the kind energy and drive so lacking in the first film, and the charm and humour of the characters returns, most noticeably in the early birthday scenes, but also throughout.

Despite – or possibly because of – the script’s mongrel heritage, it’s pretty much iconic scene after iconic scene. Playing into rumours of Spock’s death, Meyer apparently kills him off in the first five minutes as new crew member Lt Saavik struggles with the Kobyashi Maru scenario. Before long, Captain Chekov is facing down Ricardo Montalban’s fearsome Khan Noonien Singh, reincorporated from the original series, but that hardly matters.

Saaviki is also notable for actually making it to the end of the movie, but Paul Winfield as Terrell fulfils the usual role of doomed new cast member – in fact he does double-duty being both revealed as traitor and dying at the half-way point. Few of the rest of the cast get very much to do, but Bones gets a few choice lines and of course Leonard Nimoy gets to play a very real death scene at the end.

There are just a few moments where the film’s joie de vivre shades into smugness. On second viewing, it’s a little hard to understand just why Captain Kirk lets Carol and the rest continue to believe that they are trapped in the Genesis Cave with no hope of rescue, and the gag of the Reliant not bothering to look up or down in the final space battle in the nebula is a little hard to take seriously, but overall, this movie give us the space adventure we had so missed in the first film, and yet manages to be about something at the same time. Themes of age, decay, responsibility and obsession reverberate pleasingly throughout but never upstage the blood-and-thunder action and Montalban of course is an exceptional villain, gleefully chewing on Meyer’s theatrical dialogue.

What adds to the power of the film, and almost certainly secures its crown as the very best of the series, even thirty-odd years later, is that Kirk’s victory is so hard-won and comes at such a terrible cost. Spock’s death is meaningful, poignant and apparently permanent – three things it’s very hard to say about its karaoke re-enactment at the clumsy hands of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and JJ Abrams recently.

Meyer might have cut back on the super-expensive transporter and warp drive effects, but he puts the money on the screen, re-using a few models and even model shots from the first film, and using then cutting-edge computer graphics to show the effect of the Genesis wave – a sequence which would become very familiar not only from its use and reuse in this film and its sequels but also as the iconic images for early eighties CGI in the movies in countless documentaries and behind-the-scenes TV specials.

Of course, as production neared its close, the whole cast and crew began to suspect that they might be on to a winner, and so rather than being the film that would shut the door on Star Trek, there was every chance that it might be only the beginning, and so Nimoy and Bennett hatched a plan to leave just enough of a thread to pull on if Spock needed resurrecting in Star Trek III – should that ever be made. This is done just gracefully enough that it doesn’t spoil the ending, and even that shot of Spock’s coffin on the Genesis Planet which enraged Meyer doesn’t bother me too much.

Pretty much perfect in every way, Star Trek II gave the series a future – without the Great Bird of the Galaxy who would soon turn his ambitions back to TV.

Facts and figures

Released: 4 June 1982
Budget: $11.2m
Box office: $97m
Writers: Harve Bennett, Jack B Sowards, Nicholas Meyer
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Producer: Harve Bennett

So… What did I think of Last Christmas?

Posted on December 26th, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »


“You have your necessary illusions as well. But in your case they involve science. You don’t believe in magic but you believe in machines. So when he explained himself to you, he used your terms of reference. That’s the way a sorcerer behaves.”

Cat’s Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel

Opinions differ wildly about how much the current series of Doctor Who should be viewed as a continuation of what was started by Verity Lambert, William Hartnell et al in 1963 and how much it should be viewed as an entirely new series, like the Ron Moore version of Battlestar Galactica. Clearly this last point of view can only be taken so far, but it can’t be denied that structurally, tonally and in terms of its cultural impact, twenty-first century Doctor Who is a rather different beast than, say, the episodes produced at the end of the 1980s.

One way in which this difference is felt is at Christmas. While Christmas specials were a regular feature of UK TV, the nearest “old” (sorry “classic”) Doctor Who ever got was the misbegotten episode The Feast of Steven in 1965, sitting awkwardly in the middle of the lavishly bloody Daleks Masterplan. From 2005 onwards, however, Doctor Who has been the centrepiece of BBC1’s Christmas Day schedule, and these episodes are particularly tricky for whomever happens to be the show-runner.

Consider the constraints. First, it seems necessary to include Christmassy material. Second, it seems necessary to throw the tone lever away from “dark” and towards “romp”. Lastly, because the episode will have a wider and more diverse audience than usual, there can’t be too much mythology stuff – even when the episode has to introduce a new Doctor (The Christmas Invasion), write out an old one (The End of Time, The Time of the Doctor) or just tease us with the possibility (The Next Doctor).

Russell T Davies generally just threw the kitchen sink at the screen, an approach which sometimes paid off (Voyage of the Damned) and sometimes didn’t (The End of Time) but there’s no doubt that we allow greater leeway at Christmas. Steven Moffat has come at the problem from every conceivable angle. A Christmas Carol literally and avowedly glossed a festive classic, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe tried to do the same with Narnia and then fatally bottle it, The Snowmen attempted to reintroduce a new companion and an old adversary and of course The Time of the Doctor had to write out Matt Smith, and pretty much abandoned all the tinselly trappings after the first ten minutes and the name of the planet.

Now, with the whole series rejuvenated, a new leading man with an appealingly anti-Christmas demeanor, it was with some excitement, but also a little anxiety that I settled down to watch Doctor Who Meets Santa Claus.

What we actually got is on the one hand a mash-up of quite a lot of familiar ideas. Not just the Troughton-esque based-under-siege stuff, also referencing Alien, but also lots of Inception, a fair bit of Total Recall and quite a lot of previous Moffat scripts including Silence in the Library, The Empty Child and Asylum of the Daleks. But on the other hand, the most assured, sleek, uncluttered Christmas episode in years. Maybe since The Christmas Invasion.

The opening with Nick Frost’s genial Santa Claus is charming and funny, with great supporting work from Dan Starkey and Nathan McMullen – but entirely baffling and confounding. The sudden post-titles cut to the Arctic base doesn’t clear up very much, but quickly it becomes obvious what kind of game is being played here.

When the words “dream state” are uttered in a Steven Moffat script, it surely can’t be very long before some serious narrative rug-pulling begins, and its entirely to the credit of this excellent piece of storytelling, that the rug is pulled from under us again and again and yet we are never in any doubt about what the threat actually is. All that’s missing (and I wonder if it was ever considered) is a Back to Reality style episode in which Clara is made to believe that her entire adventure with the Doctor was all an absurd dream. The Doctor’s comparison of his own ludicrous mode of transportation with Santa’s magic reindeer is the nearest we get. Danny Pink returns, still adding very little and that bizarre, pointless double-lie at the end of Death in Heaven is written-out in a quick exchange, rendering it even more unnecessary.

The four members of Arctic Base Nameless are sketched in briefly but are well-differentiated (in the way that, say, the inhabitants of the acid mine in The Rebel Flesh weren’t) with only Michael Troughton not quite registering (why is he the only one not to make it “home”?). And the trick of having not to think of or look at the Mind Crabs is another in Moffat’s line of childhood games made horrific (bringing to mind not only “I’ll give you a pound if you don’t think of pink rats,” but also Douglas Adams’ Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal “A mind-bogglingly stupid creature which assumes that if you can’t see it, then it can’t see you”).

The whole thing clips along very merrily indeed with Shona’s attempts to undermine Santa’s reality (“I got a second sled”) a particular highlight. Moffat also proves himself again to be a master of the show’s meta-narrative with the elderly Clara a perfectly plausible exit for the character, even if neither the make-up department not the actor could quite pull off the transformation.

So, after the derivative A Christmas Carol, the half-baked The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, the impossibly saccharine The Snowmen and the flimsy nonsense of The Time of the Doctor, this is easily my favourite of the Moffat Christmas episodes. It’s easily worth four stars, but I’ll give it four-and-a-half because, well, it is Christmas after all.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Posted on December 15th, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

motion picture 2

I got into watching science fiction in the 1980s, and that was a fallow time for Star Trek. Unlike in America where the adventures of Kirk and Spock were on permanent syndication, in the UK I remember watching a few episodes on BBC2, and I remember reading one or two novels, but I didn’t really grow up with Trek the way some people did. When The Next Generation launched in 1987, I devoured it, and watching those episodes again, spiffed-up on blu-ray, the best of them have scarcely dated at all. What’s shocking is that TNG launched 27 years ago and still looks great, whereas 1966 Star Trek had already begun to look old and creaky after only 21 years when TNG began.

So, my affection for the old crew rests largely on the original films. I was just about old enough to want to go and see The Motion Picture when it first came out. I don’t remember seeing the next two at the cinema but I read and re-read the novelisations and I’m sure I saw The Voyage Home and all the rest on the big screen. There follows brief reviews and historical context based on recent re-watches of the movies on blu-ray.

A quick rant first of all. Buying and rebuying the same material is something I’ve grown accustomed to and made peace with. I’ve bought the James Bond movies four times now (VHS, DVD, remastered DVD, blu-ray) and I don’t rule out buying them again if consumer 4K ever becomes a thing. But it is galling to have had original director Robert Wise recut the first Star Trek film and supervise the creation of new special effects sequences for the DVD, only to learn that this work was only ever done at DVD resolution which means that the blu-ray release has reverted to the theatrical cut. Anyway. Some history…

With hindsight, it seems inevitable that a Star Trek movie franchise would be attempted but what’s remarkable is that it survived this shaky start. Gene Roddenberry, genius though he surely was, seemed incapable of learning from experience. The original pilot of Star Trek back in the middle sixties was rejected by NBC for being “too cerebral”. Roddenberry had pitched “Wagon Train to the stars” and had delivered a philosophical musing on the nature of freedom. He got a second chance and so the good humoured, action-oriented, show we (some of us) came to love was born. Yes, the original series had some strong science fiction elements, and some notable moral stances, but the audience was really there to see Bones tease Spock and for Kirk to hit people with both fists at once. Hurrah! At yet, The Motion Picture seems determined to revert to the style of storytelling which Roddenberry had conclusively proved there was no audience for.

The first Star Trek film had a troubled birth. The success of films like 2001 and Silent Running initially convinced Paramount (who now owned the rights) that a Star Trek movie would be a smash hit, and so they began pre-production but when script development began to hit the weeds, they decided that a new TV series made more sense and so “Star Trek Phase Two” began to gestate, with a few younger actors to round out the cast and to cater for the absent Leonard Nimoy and the expensive William Shatner. And then, with casting complete and sets under construction, the even greater success of Close Encounters and especially Star Wars reconvinced Paramount that the movie idea had been right all along. Nimoy was tempted back into the ears after director Robert Wise was told by his daughter that it wouldn’t be Star Trek without Spock.

Throughout this process, the notion of the Enterprise encountering God refused to go away – an early draft for the movie was called The God Thing and the story concerned a god-like extra-dimensional alien supercomputer and the eventual movie script began life as a Phase Two pilot script called In Thy Image which is basically the movie as released (even including the name “Veejur” corrupted from “Voyager”) but with a damp squib of an ending. And all this despite the fact that the original 1960s series had included countless god-like aliens including but not limited to Charlie X, Gary Mitchell after his encounter with the Galactic Barrier, the Squire of Gothos / Trelane and Gorgan the Friendly Angel. The Enterprise had even previously come across an Earth probe retrofitted by unseen aliens which now murderously sought its creator – Nomad in the episode The Changeling, hence the bitter joke that the first movie should have been called “Where Nomad Has Gone Before”.

Anyway, the whole bridge crew was eventually assembled, an end was found for the Phase Two script and Robert Wise was handed a handsome budget with which to shoot his epic adventure. Watching it now, what is at first immediately apparent is that this belongs neither to the tradition of Star Trek movies (not surprising since no such tradition then existed), nor to the tradition of the Star Trek television series, but rather to the cycle of ponderous, highbrow and above all beige science-fiction movies which Star Wars had only just brought to a decisive end – films like Logan’s Run, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Soylent Green. Very little of the charm and good humour of the original series survives this earnest and plodding encounter, with Spock in particular a shadow of his TV self and Bones given very few lines which are anything other than strictly functional.

Part of this is the need to give new crew-members Decker and Ilia some room to establish themselves. They are the first in a long line of new crew-members introduced at the beginning of a movie who take screen time and lines away from the TV cast, but fail to make it to the end credits because they get unexpectedly killed half-way through / sacrifice themselves at the end / turn out to be working for the bad guys. But Stephen Collins is too stiff and annoying to really register as Decker and Persis Khambatta, although cutting a very striking figure, doesn’t really make much of an impression before her reappearance as a probe, which makes her fate considerably less shocking than it might have been. Compared to Nomad wiping beloved Uhuru’s memory (don’t worry, she got it back) this is weak sauce.

The other problem is that writers and director are both putting the emphasis in all the wrong places. I read and reread the novelisation when I was a kid and so when I rewatched the movie I expected the first Shatner scene to be Kirk negotiating the return of his ship from Star Fleet top brass. Actually, when we first meet Kirk, this scene is already presumed to have happened. Fair enough, by all means start in the middle, but we then have ten minutes of sometimes impressive, but sometimes ropey, model shots to get Kirk and Scotty over to the Enterprise. I’d far rather have five more minutes of my hero standing up for what he believes in than five minutes of dialogue-free effects work, no matter how stately.

In fact the movie seems determined to undermine Kirk at every turn. He doesn’t know how his own ship works, is shown up by subordinates, is helpless before Veejur, is disobeyed by Spock and generally does very little to earn his keep until the very end. A pretty poor return for such a heroic figure, and this is especially noteworthy when so few of the original cast are given anything to do. It even seems to go unnoticed that on the TV show, Sulu and Chekov used to alternate in the same job. Here, both Walter Koenig and George Takei get about half-a-dozen bland lines each and that’s your lot. I hope they got paid properly because this will only have added to their typecasting problems. I’m assured that Nichelle Nichols is in it, but I honestly don’t remember even seeing her. Oh wait, yes I do, because she’s been given a very unflattering Diana Ross “do”.

What is good then? Well, the sets are nice, if beige, although it’s a shame we spend so much of the damn movie on board the Enterprise. “Bottle shows” are an inevitable feature of year-round TV production, where an unusually expensive adventure is paired with a show which uses only the regular cast and standing sets to keep the average price-per-episode within the budget. But on a big budget movie, surely we could stretch our legs a little? And then there are those damn silly uniforms with their navel height buckles-with-no-belts and Dick Tracy style wrist communicators, scrapped like so much else, after this movie.

So, the film retains its reputation for being slow – not only do scenes drag on for ages, but whole sub-plots such as the wormhole are included as very obvious padding. And overall, it does nothing which the TV series couldn’t do in a third the time with better jokes and more colourful décor. The effects work is often top-notch for the time, with a particularly snazzy transporter and warp drive effect – both too expensive to ever use again – and of course we get that wonderful Jerry Goldsmith sig tune for the first time. And if you’re in the mood for something not quite as glacial as 2001 but not quite as mindless as Buck Rogers, then this will fill 132 minutes quite handily. But it doesn’t really have much to do with Star Trek past (save re-using a basic plot) nor does it really set the template for Star Trek’s future. Best thought of as a slightly wonky prototype, this film established the need, but much more work needed to be done on the fit-and-finish before it was ready for mass production. Much better films were to come, and some much worse.

Facts and figures

Released: 7 December 1979
Budget: $46m
Box office: $139m
Writers: Alan Dean Foster, Harold Livingstone
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Gene Roddenberry