Archive for April, 2022

Trekaday 021: Where No One Has Gone Before, Lonely Among Us, Justice, The Battle, Hide and Q

Posted on April 24th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S01E06 Where No One Has Gone Before (4 out of 5 stars) brings us another new chief engineer. Kosinski is that reliable character – the cocksure overbearing scientific maverick (most recently seen in Discovery in the form of Tarka) and this neatly hides the true nature of The Traveller. It’s a good bit of character building that Riker doesn’t take any of his shit and it further conceals what’s really going on. Shooting the Enterprise millions of light years off course is a suitably apocalyptic problem for the crew to solve, and a device which will also be returned to in future episodes as well as being the premise for a future series. There’s some wonderful imagery here too – Picard opening the turbo-lift onto empty space is incredible – even if much of the rest of the running time is taken up with what feel like off-the-rack hallucinations. Still, I remember thinking at the time that there really was promise here – not that I think I would have given up watching, but this story left me newly hopeful. Kosinski, speaking technical gibberish, claims to have applied the functions “asymptomatically” instead of “asymptotically” which may be gobbledegook too far. And the need for the whole crew to think happy thoughts for the magic to work is a bit sugary. Wesley saves the ship count = 2.

TNG S01E07 Lonely Among Us (3.5 out of 5 stars). The Enterprise plays host to two squabbling alien races – but before long, there’s a mysterious blue glow-y thing on the view screen. Jack of all trades Geordi is showing Worf a thing or two about sensor arrays. It’s all very sedate and tepid compared to the high-octane teasers of TOS. Finally, Worf is zapped by something – which would mean more if he’d had more than three lines in the last four stories. Sensing that he’s not the character anyone’s invested in, the zappy thing jumps ship to Dr Crusher, who behaves so oddly that nobody could fail to notice that something was badly wrong. Captain Picard fails to notice that anything is wrong. Data gets to do the Spock “I believe I said that” gag, and it’s wildly unfunny. A reference to Sherlock Holmes provides a thread to pull on which will reap great dividends in later, better episodes, but this is routine stuff on the whole. The climax in which the intelligence inside Picard negotiates with the senior officers is very striking, but it’s a long time coming. Once more, the transporter functions as a death-proofing body back-up.

TNG S01E08 Justice (3 out of 5 stars). “Nice planet.” Two words which just might have persuaded Michael Dorn to stick around. At the time, aged barely 15, I can remember being so impressed with the message of this episode – there can be no justice without exceptions – that I attempted to pass it off as my own (and was immediately found out). Decades later I see this as trying awfully hard to wring a moral dilemma out of a pretty thin and contrived situation, but at this stage it’s still very refreshing to see a television sci-fi series reaching for something complex and nuanced, even if its grasp isn’t quite there yet. Alas, the ending is perfunctory to the point of stupidity. Wesley doesn’t save the ship, in fact he endangers it and himself.

TNG S01E09 The Battle (4 out of 5 stars). The Ferengi are back, and not quite as idiotic as last time – they are also a bit more like their eventual selves – albeit more malicious and less purely profit-oriented. We fill in some of Picard’s backstory aboard the Stargazer, including “the Picard manoeuvre” and Patrick Stewart gets to show more of what he can do, although the trade-off for that is that for the second time in three episodes, Picard gets possessed by an alien force. Data is starting to ascend in prominence, but the production team still has next-to-no interest in Crusher, Worf, LaForge, Yar or Troi, all of whom go through the same dull motions every episode. Even Riker only gets screen time by sheer force of being second in command, but his interactions with the Ferengi first officer are excellent. Wesley saves the ship count = 3.

TNG S01E10 Hide and Q (2 out of 5 stars) Dropping Troi off before the story starts helps conceal the fact that a) she’s never given any character or relationship stuff and b) she should be able to solve any and all plots involving deception. Any way, the dreadful title gives away that Q is back and transporting an assortment of regulars to planet Sound Stage, minus Yar who is spirited off to a “penalty box”. Poor Tasha Yar. The story meanders its way to The Temptation of Riker, but since I never believed for a second that Riker would be tempted in any way, and since Picard’s blithe acceptance of the test completely gives away the ending, even this not-uninteresting idea falls flat. And making a dead child the motivating force to initially change his mind about Q’s offer is just ick.

Stray thoughts

  • These episodes do look fantastic. It’s TNG’s immense good fortune to go into production at the precise moment that it was possible to produced great-looking episodes of science fiction on a television budget but before the CGI revolution, which means that all these model shots on 35mm film can be cleaned up to Blu-ray resolution – wait till we get to DS9, yikes.
  • Like everyone says, these early scripts are often pretty weak, but the world-building is exemplary, and the cast does a lot of heavy lifting. Data hasn’t really started coming into his own yet, but Stewart (of course), Frakes, Burton and – dammit – Crosby pop off the screen and often find much more to play than is on the page.
  • It also takes a while for everyone to find their station. Yar is where Worf should be, Worf and LaForge take it in turns sitting next to Data. O’Brien is sometimes mentioned even if he doesn’t appear.
  • This is very clearly a case-of-the-week show, in an era where serialisation was just beginning to be taken seriously by shows like St Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues (but before Murder One and Babylon 5 introduced the idea of a television novel). But serialised threads do crop up, and from very early on – even if most of them surround the precocious adventures of Boy Genius Wesley Crusher.

Trekaday 020: Encounter at Farpoint, The Naked Now, Code of Honor, The Last Outpost

Posted on April 19th, 2022 in Culture | 1 Comment »

TNG S01E01-2 Encounter at Farpoint (3 out of 5 stars). Star Trek had gone to the big screen and it wasn’t coming back. Television sci-fi had had its day with expensive series like Manimal, Automan and Battlestar Galactica surviving a season or two and then being cancelled. But Gene Roddenberry didn’t give up. Having been turfed off the movies by Harve Bennett and unable to get a new series started, he returned to the show that had made his name, and got Paramount to sign on to produce a new television incarnation of Star Trek. At the time, the idea of a new version of the show without Kirk and Spock sounded like madness. Shatner and Nimoy were what people wanted, but Roddenberry was convinced that the concept was bigger than the actors, and he designed a new series set 70 years on from the original show.

What Paramount failed to secure was a network. Desilu had backed Roddenberry and co. when NBC had little idea what they had on their hands, but when it wasn’t pulling in the ratings, they killed it off. They turned down the new show too – and so did every other network. American television isn’t quite like UK television where (in the analogue age, at least), most channels were served by centralised stations which transmitted the same content across the country. But in the US, the system was more like the old ITV regions we used to have, only more so. The big networks programmed new shows in prime time, and local stations would receive and pass on those episodes, but then they were free to fill the remaining hours with whatever they wanted – and that usually meant re-runs of old shows (“in syndication”) or local programming.

Without a network to support it, Paramount decided to bankroll the new series on its own and stitch together a national network by doing dozens of individual syndication deals. This “first run syndication” approach was almost unheard of, but Paramount had a big bargaining chip to bring to the table: take the new Star Trek if you want to keep re-running the old Star Trek. It worked and in 1987 Encounter at Farpoint debuted on screens across America.

As with The Man Trap it’s kind of amazing how much they got right first time. So much of this works – the new uniforms are great (and would get better), the com-badges are perfect, the new ship looks gorgeous, and that captain is a baller. Even the cut-and-shut theme music works a treat (although I remember for some people it took a bit of getting used to). We’ve moved completely away from the Nicholas Meyer Das Boot aesthetic to a bridge which looks more like the lobby of a four-star hotel and the captain’s chair is now flanked by a second officer and – for some reason – a ship’s counselor. In fact, there’s a definite attempt here to get away from the things that the old show was parodied for: the captain doesn’t beam down at the head of every away mission, there’s an attempt at least to cut down on the number of red-shirt deaths, and since we don’t have the budget for big space battles, the emphasis is on kindness, diplomacy and strong sci-fi concepts.

This is also more of an ensemble show, so let’s run down the regular cast – a total complement of nine, ten if you include O’Brien – which is a lot especially compared to the old show which, as noted, was a central trio plus some largely interchangeable hangers-on. Patrick Stewart is inspired casting as the captain, grounding every moment of what is sometimes a wobbly first episode with complete conviction, and sonorously intoning the lightly-rewritten opening monologue with delicacy and gravitas. His “I don’t like children” stuff is weak but he makes it work – just about. Riker and Troi are an obvious riff on Decker and Ilia from The Motion Picture, with Betazoid standing in for Deltan. And they aren’t the only old flames on board – if a thing’s worth doing… Marina Sirtis looks a fright in her 80s mini-skirt and thigh-high boots and is working so hard to hide her East-end Greek accent she’s almost comatose. Brent Spiner as Data is harder to pin down at this stage. Here, he comes across as little more than Diet Coke Spock and silly things like the gaps in his vocabulary strain credulity – although he and Stewart develop some easy chemistry early on. Michael Dorn as Worf will need to bide his time. His makeup looks wrong here, and he gets almost no lines. Denise Crosby is very appealing and she makes the most of her big speech during the trial, hardly ever giving away that she knows the script is heavily overwritten. And of course, the new show is barely six minutes old before we meet a quixotic alien with godlike powers (even Picard refers to it as “the same old story”), but in the expert hands of John de Lancie, this overfamiliar idea is freshened up considerably.

It’s not until we cut to Farpoint Station, a third of the way through the run-time, that we meet Riker and the Crushers. Jonathan Frakes is warm and charming but will take time to find any depth to the character. The friction between Riker and Picard is the best character stuff in the whole episode, even if it doesn’t lay any useful groundwork for future installments. Gates McFadden, as usual, gets nothing to do (except pay for some cloth in this money-free century). Wil Wheaton is a disaster both in concept and in execution as Boy Genius Wesley Crusher (sorry Wil). Last to show (most of) his face is Levar Burton as Geordi La Forge, who similarly gets little to do here, although even without his eyes, his appeal as an actor is easy to identify. The biggest problem this show has is that everyone is desperately professional all of the time. We can look forward to seeing them cheerfully playing poker together, but it will be a fairly long time coming. In this episode they’re written mainly as just positions, with glimmers of personality coming from the actors (mainly Stewart, Burton and – of all people – Crosby). It’s a credit to the strength and confidence of the episode that even the brief appearance of Admiral McCoy, blessing proceedings with his latex-covered presence, can’t manage to upstage the new characters.

Here we also return (but not for long) to the idea that Star Trek is a series about exploring the unknown – Deneb IV is at the farthest limit of known Federation space. Don’t worry, before long we’ll be ferrying around diplomats and charting stellar anomalies. And we join this story with both Picard and Riker new to the Enterprise, and each other, a move which manages to strike a good balance between the need to get the adventure going with the need to establish this new world and these new characters. 1960s television shows were generally based around a single hero or a small core of characters. 1980s television shows tended to have larger ensembles and to base individual episodes around different members. The Next Generation is going to take a while to figure out which model works best for it – but in the meantime, it doesn’t have a network which can decide to take it off the air on a whim. If one local station drops it, Paramount can find another serving the same area who will take it. Thus, this often uncertain series gets the time it needs to find its feet.

As to the episode itself, the Q/trial plot feels recycled and more of a mechanism to deliver background about the century and the crew than to tell its own story – and yet it carries much more drama and jeopardy than the far more original and interesting Farpoint Station strand which often comes across as tepid. The saucer separation sequence feels like the same kind of narrative busywork we suffered through in the first half of The Motion Picture – lots of “action” but no consequences. It also sets up countless future encounters which would have benefited from this trick, but with no time or production budget to do it again.

Even in ninety minutes, this episode is trying to achieve an awful lot, which makes the stilted pacing doubly disappointing. If you can overlook that, then as an introduction to the world of the 24th century, it’s quite effective, and there are some noteworthy flourishes in the production design and direction, even if overall it doesn’t entirely work as a self-contained slice of episodic television. The closing titles scroll up the screen. That seems completely unfamiliar. Something to do with this being cut into two 45 minute episodes after its premiere?

One other change for this series was that red became the uniform colour for command instead of gold. I’ve heard it said that gold didn’t suit Patrick Stewart, whatever that means. My personal belief is that for the last three movies we’d got used to seeing the captain in red and so that’s what we got here.

Right, strap in. One motive for this project was a desire to re-watch Deep Space Nine from the beginning. But there are six whole seasons of TNG to get through before then, all of which I saw on first transmission, and all of which I re-watched when the Blu-rays were released. I remember there being some very good stuff, but not much of that is in the next fifty episodes, so let’s not fall at any of these fences…

TNG S01E03 The Naked Now (3.5 out of 5 stars) Even the title gives away which story this is – a sexed-up, navel-baring, underboob-showing, fully-functional reprise of The Naked Time, underlined by the fact that researching what happened on Kirk’s ship is key to helping this crew solve the puzzle. Once again, the (slightly odd) thinking seems to be: let’s get to know our new cast of characters by having them act completely out of character. It doesn’t bode especially well for the new crew that more or less the first thing they do is beam aboard a ship which they suspect of having suffered an explosive decompression without any spacesuits or other survival gear. But they survive and make it back on board where there are no quarantine regulations in place. And before long, all bets are off.

But this does work as a self-contained episode, and it is nice to see this ultra-professional, just-the-facts-sir, team letting their hair down and, yes, it does shine a light into who they are beneath the spandex. It’s a good episode for Data, who will quickly become one of the leading lights of the show and even Crusher gets somewhere near centre-stage as befits a medical emergency plot. Meanwhile, Yar disappears once she’s done deflowering Data and Worf may as well not have been in this one. The race-against-time climax is effective, but it’s a pity that the best thing this new series can think to do in its second-ever episode is a Karaoke version of one of its progenitor’s best-remembered stories. Thank heavens Harry Mudd and/or a plague of Tribbles aren’t heading this way any time soon. Chief Engineer this week is a cross looking blonde lady who packs a “sonic driver”. Wesley saves the ship count = 1.

TNG S01E04 Code of Honor (1 out of 5 stars) Oh fucking hell. I said of some TOS episodes that I didn’t remember seeing any Berman-era stories about alien civilisations which were patterned after Earth history. I’d evidently scrubbed this out of my memory, and with good reason. While (some of) its intentions are noble, the sight of half-naked African Americans playing primitive tribes who can’t believe that a woman could be head of security is horrifying now and must have raised eyebrows then. Among a great deal of nonsense, Dr Crusher segues from a tense conversation about the dire consequences of the mission failing, and the need to get Yar back safely to make a cheerful bargain about getting her son back on the bridge. Later, Data tries out a playground joke on Geordi which would be toe-curlingly embarrassing if it didn’t come as a welcome relief to all the flat-out racism on display. It all builds to a limp re-staging of Amok Time, without any of the interest inherent in probing into Vulcan customs.

This is another Yar-centric episode and although the character is used as little more than a McGuffin for the most part, Denise Crosby is great – such a fucking shame she didn’t ride out the rough years along with the others. At this stage it’s Michael Dorn who is being serially underused, not her. I don’t think he’s in this episode at all – maybe he looked at the costumes the guest cast were being made to wear and phoned in sick. In these early outings, the captain’s chair has various pop-up flaps and doohickeys. I don’t remember these and I would bet good money they were phased out because they kept breaking.

TNG S01E05 The Last Outpost (2.5 out of 5 stars) With the Klingons now Federation allies, the new series will need new antagonists, and here they come – the evil capitalists in a post-money society. Mentioned once or twice in earlier episodes, the Ferengi make a pretty poor showing here in their first on-screen appearance, giggling and cackling like pantomime villains. It’s almost impossible to believe that that one of them is Armin Shimerman, Quark himself, setting the standard by which further Ferengi will be judged. Instead of Rules of Aquisition, these Ferengi have hand-me-down codes of honour which seem more suited to Klingons or Romulans. Another fine Star Trek tradition is the planet exterior shot on a soundstage which makes its TNG debut here, a move which adds to the overall shoddy nature of this episode. Also of scant interest is the laboured reveal of the real reason behind the Mexican stand-off, which requires sit-com farce levels of double talk from Picard when negotiating with the Ferengi whom he believes to have the upper hand. Yet again, the Enterprise crew is put on trial but this axe-twirling dervish has none of John de Lancie’s class. Data’s finger puzzle is the source of zero laughs.

So… what did I think of the thing with the Sea Devils?

Posted on April 18th, 2022 in Culture | 2 Comments »

I don’t have the energy anymore. I’m sure there’s a detailed, beat-by-beat exploration of this story which no doubt I could write and probably would if I were a bit more motivated, but I am not going to do that today. Instead, please accept these disjointed ramblings and let’s hope for better things to come.

A statue either appears out of thin air, or is just regarded with astonishment by a pirate chick who kills a dude and then releases a thing from the statue. The TARDIS arrives in the wrong place. This is possibly due to some space/time/magnet/gravity thing. Everybody delivers some exposition and then Yas and the Doctor wander off to the TARDIS, to give Dan time to wander off. They make a short jump to the past, secure in the knowledge that they can definitely come straight back, despite the space/time/magnet/gravity thing which makes it impossible to steer the TARDIS. The TARDIS gets swallowed by the Myrka, which is cool. The TARDIS materialises underwater, which is cool. The Doctor delivers a stern rebuke against killing, and then hands Dan a light sabre which he uses to murder all the Sea Devils with a single blow. Someone offers to blow themselves up for the Doctor, which is a self-homage to the end of The Master Shows The Doctor His PowerPoint Presentation or whatever it was called.

Then, because Chris has been reading the forums (never read the forums) and he’s found out that some people want the Doctor and Yasmin to become a couple, he has a scene in which the Time Lord cracks on to the novice policewoman, and then is all like “JK I’m on me own.” This of course takes place during a suitable break in the action because Character Development And Plot Advancement Are Two Very Separate Things Never To Be Confused. Any nuance that might have been developed from this situation is firmly erased, but then so is any complexity regarding the morality of having jolly adventures with pirates or the notion that the Sea Devils have a right to their planet. (“Slight wrinkle there,” says the Doctor and then never refers to the issue ever again.) The Sea Devils’ plan is to cover the planet in water, because two thirds of its surface being covered and the oceans being miles deep in places just isn’t enough room. Great, now we can just kill ’em all without compunction.

This is all shot in such a way as to never look remotely nautical or remotely Asian, edited in such a way that it’s barely possible to tell who is where or what is going on, and acted in the now-standard Blue Peter style. At the end, everyone is friends again, the son warmly embracing the woman who slaughtered his father for being near a statue. Even by the very low standards set by the last three seasons, this was thin, amateurish, will-this-do gibberish, with too much dialogue given to a Sea Devil whose lips don’t move, bizarrely empty ships for COVID reasons, and a supporting cast who do little more than provide a running commentary on whatever is happening in front of them (“He’s forcing them off to die in the water.”) like the world’s shittest magician.

Make it stop. Please, just make it stop.

But – hey! – Ace and Tegan are back.


Trekaday 019: The Motion Picture, The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home

Posted on April 15th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

Star Trek The Motion Picture (3 out of 5 stars). It wasn’t just Star Trek which went off the air in the early 1970s. Fantasy-based sitcoms like BewitchedI Dream of Jeannie and The Munsters had run their course. Irwin Allen’s science-fiction adventure serials like The Land of Giants and Time Tunnel had finished. American television was dominated by domestic sitcoms, glossy crime capers and nostalgia. Movies were enjoying a new resurgence of gritty violence as censorship collapsed. Spaceships and aliens were at the top of nobody’s agenda.

Desilu was bought by Gulf + Western before Star Trek finished its original run. Thus, the rights to Roddenberry’s creation now lay with Paramount, who considered trying to bring it back as a movie in the 1970s and then as a TV show, tentatively titled “Star Trek Phase II”. One key question was whether or not William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley would return. The assumption during the planning of Phase II seems to have been that Shatner would do the first few episodes, Nimoy probably wouldn’t appear at all, and Kelley could be used if he was available. The others were making most of their livings at Star Trek conventions and could probably be relied upon to show up for almost anything. And then, Star Wars hit and everything changed.

A lot of the legacy of this confusing time shows up in the film which eventually emerged – Star Trek The Motion Picture directed by Robert Wise, which shunts Kirk off into the role of admiral, making him a stranger on the bridge of his own ship, and giving far more screen time to new cast members Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta than to our familiar crew – which makes some sort of sense when you look at the film as a pilot for a new TV series, except that Decker and Ilia’s chief plot responsibility is to be killed off at the end. Kirk’s journey away from and back to the captain’s chair never pays off in any meaningful way, and McCoy gets almost nothing to do except grouse about Spock. Nimoy, who almost wasn’t in the film at all, gets something close to an arc, largely thanks to a scene at the very beginning which asks him to choose between Vulcan and Star Fleet, but really this is the story of Decker and V’Ger which is very odd for the film which brought Captain Kirk to the big screen. Worse, the conflict between Decker and Kirk isn’t resolved. It’s just busy-work to keep our attention during the first half of the film, using up the first hour which is how long it takes to get the Enterprise to the cloud. Pretty much as soon as Ilia is converted into a probe, Decker gets off Kirk’s back and becomes just another officer. He at least does better than Sulu, Chekov and Uhura, all of whom are never given any lines beyond the purely functional.

Contributing to the disjointed feeling is the enormous amount of time in the second act devoted to uncovering Ilia’s memories from within the probe. While this makes perfect sense as a thing for the Enterprise crew to attempt, and it threatens to develop some of the characters (but not the ones we care about from the TV show) nothing ever comes of it, as once Kirk and co. make it on board V’Ger they solve the mystery entirely without recourse to anything the probe told them or they told it. The same could almost be said of Spock’s journey into V’Ger, although that at least is developing his arc, as begun in the opening minutes of the film, and it does provide some of the clues which Kirk needs, but really everything hinges on the discovery that V’Ger = Voyager – a nifty reveal, to be sure, but one which renders an awful lot of the preceding material moot.

All of this sounds like I’m giving it a bit of a kicking, but watching it again, after seeing 102 episodes of the television show, much of it does work. That score is completely iconic (the second of three genuinely great pieces of Star Trek music and we don’t have to wait long for number three), it does have a scope and a breadth which some other big-screen entries in the series sorely lack, and Shatner and Nimoy are as good as ever. It also isn’t half as long as you remember at 133 minutes including titles. That’s positively svelte compared to lumbering Nolan, Villeneuve or even Russo Bros epics. And the story is big enough to earn its place on the silver screen, even if (as I noted along the way) a lot of it is culled from bits-and-pieces of television episodes.

What doesn’t work? The pacing is off, the uniforms are drab, the supporting cast barely register and it feels stiff and cerebral in the way that The Cage did (and Where No Man Has Gone Before didn’t). Roddenberry, Wise, Livingston and co. were so at pains to avoid it being goofy, they forgot to make it fun. But in the context of Silent RunningsClose Encounters of the Third Kind, or even ET, and as an alternative to the brash and cheerful slaughter of Star Wars, this successfully carves out a place in the starry heavens for a more thoughtful kind of storytelling, even if a large part of its legacy turns out to be making it clear to the next creative team what not to do.

NB: I watched the theatrical version on Blu-ray. Maddeningly, when Robert Wise re-edited it in 2001 to improve the pacing and fix up some of the visual effects, the work was only ever done at DVD resolution. Even more maddeningly, the recently-announced 4K directors cut won’t be available on home media until September.

For another take on this movie, see here.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (5 out of 5 stars). How do you solve a problem like The Motion Picture? Pretend it never happened. Gone are the sub-2001 beige corridors and philosophical conundrums. Gone are the shapeless uniforms and interminable spaceship porn effects sequences. In comes adventure, fun, and a swaggering joie-de-vivre that somehow meshes perfectly with a story which is about age, sacrifice, obsolescence and failure. The sheer number of classic concepts and images packed into this one movie is nothing short of astonishing – the Genesis device, the Kobyashi Maru, Kirk’s son, mind-controlling eels, that wonderful score – the list goes on and on.

Once again, most of the regular cast get very little to do. Even Bones is side-lined in favour of Kirk and Spock. Chekov comes off best, although grumpy fans noted that that Walter Koenig was not in the first season which included the episode Space Seed to which this story is a sequel. But who can be grumpy when we’re having this much fun – until that heartbreakingly perfect ending. “Franchise… out of danger?” It is now, lads. How amazing that producer Harve Bennett and writer/director Nicholas Meyer, neither of whom had seen a frame of Star Trek before starting work on this film, turned out to understand it far better than the man who created it, whose only role this time around was firing off absurd memos, all of which Bennett ignored.

For another take on this movie, see here.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (3.5 out of 5 stars). How do you follow Wrath of Khan? Well, you kinda undo its most celebrated and emotional story beat. But given that, and given this film’s ruthless efficiency (Kirk takes Enterprise to Genesis, battles Klingons, takes Spock to Vulcan, roll credits), heavy death toll (Kirk’s career, Kirk’s son and the Enterprise as well as a bunch of badguys), this does what it sets out to do, and does it with a certain amount of charm and grace. The theft of the Enterprise from space-dock, as well as being the most crowd-pleasing moment of the film, is also the first time we see the Star Trek regulars working together as a team. In the TV series, they come-and-go at random. In the first two movies, they rarely get anything to do or say which isn’t strictly related to the ordinary operation of the ship. Here, they’re a gang, coming together to help a friend in need.

In place of the extraordinary Ricardo Montalban as Khan, here we have Christopher Lloyd as Kruge. It’s a testament to the amazing quality of the second film, that this one manages to get Christopher Lloyd as the chief villain and it looks like a downgrade. Also a new face is Robin Curtis, providing a more straightforwardly grown up and less bratty (but also less appealingly vulnerable) Lt Saavik. The change in actor has prompted some fans to speculate that “Lt Saavik” is a code name passed on from Vulcan-to-Vulcan but this is not considered canon.

Standing between two classics, this won’t be many people’s favourite, but even if you do subscribe to the notion that the evens are gold and the odds are trash, this is handily the best of the odds and works especially well as a bridge between the swashbuckling Khan and the lightweight Voyage Home, speaking of which…

For another take on this movie, see here.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (4 out of 5 stars). I dunno, maybe I was in the mood for some Star Trek and this really doesn’t feel like it. The beginning and the end (written by Harve Bennett, who got sole writing credit on III) are largely functional, just tying up loose ends from either the previous film or the middle of this one. The contemporary section, written by Meyer, feels like any other eighties fish-out-of-water American comedy and the relentlessly generic Leonard Rosenman score and flat direction from Nimoy only add to this feeling. Again, after a film which focuses on the regulars, we get a new face eating up more than her fair share of screentime – Catherine Hicks as Gillian Taylor – but her relationship with Kirk does work, and this film is the only one to actually use the regulars as an ensemble, even if that does mean that McCoy ends up playing straight man to Scotty and Chekov becomes little more than a McGuffin in need of rescuing.

Some of the humour works – Kirk and Spock talking over each other about Italian food, the famous punk on the bus – but some of it left me cold this time around – Spock’s inability to master swearing, Scotty talking to the computer mouse, Chekov bleating about “noocular wessels”. And yet it’s hard to deny the charm of this film and its cheerful refusal to take itself too seriously. God, what a long way we’ve come since V’Ger.

For what feels like the third part of a tight trilogy, not all the continuity is top-notch. The bridge of the Klingon ship looks almost nothing like the ersatz throne room seen in the previous film. I’ll have wait until The Final Frontier to confirm whether or not we ever again see the gleaming white JJ Abrams-style Enterprise A bridge which ends the film. I also believe that this is the beginning of “there’s no money in the future.” Kirk pawns the antique glasses McCoy gave him in order to get cash, commenting “they’re still using money,” and yet as recently as the first act of the previous film, Bones was in a dive bar, haggling over the price of passage on a ship.

For another take on this movie, see here.


Trekaday 018: The Pirates of Orion, Bem, The Practical Joker, Albatross, How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth, The Counter-Clock Incident

Posted on April 11th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TAS S02E01 The Pirates of Orion (2.5 out of 5 stars) opens with a disease sweeping the ship that is now under control and is said to be no worse than pneumonia. God, when was this written? Only after Spock collapses does McCoy determine that the pathogen is fatal to Vulcans. Did nobody think of self-isolation? This is a McCoy-centric episode but he does little but exposit. The pirates feel fresh but their motivation is woolly – if the Orion captain was determined to destroy both ships, why bother beaming down with the drug? And the pacing is sluggish. “You’ve already made up your mind.” “Yes but the episode is two minutes short so we’d better sit around the conference table discussing it for a bit longer.” No major changes for season two, including no extra music so they keep using the same three cues over and over again which is driving me slightly crazy.

TAS S02E02 Bem (3 out of 5 stars) is the name of the exotic alien observer on-board the ship for a first contact mission. He talks like Yoda and his body parts can float around independently in a way which looks more like magic and less like science-fiction. The saurian aliens are good fun too, but I wish Kirk wouldn’t keep calling them “aborigines”. The pacing here is sluggish in the extreme. Stately shots of the Enterprise crawling across the frame. Long conversations which repeat information we already know – including Kirk’s middle name which is repeated three times.

TAS S02E03 The Practical Joker (1 out of 5 stars). No sooner are the titles off the screen than the Romulans are firing on the Enterprise, but they duck through an energy field and suddenly everything is fine and the crew are celebrating with a slap-up meal, complete with trick glasses and wonky forks. The dialogue is full of clichés this week, both Trek clichés and pre-existing ones (“discretion is the better part of valour”, “I’m going to get to the bottom of this”, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”, “Method to this madness.”). On the whole a series of unimaginative practical jokes do not make for an engaging episode. This episode does give us our first look at the Rec Room, later to  become the holodeck on TNG, but this is lazy, tiresome stuff. The plot is resolved because Romulans fear disgrace more than death. Sure, let’s go with that.

TAS S02E04 Albatross (3.5 out of 5 stars) More plague. This time, McCoy has wiped out a whole planet with a dangerous vaccine. It’s a little known fact that this episode was the early work of Joe Rogan. As if this wasn’t all problematic enough, the virus causes a change in skin colour. But, in the end, the truth is exactly what we thought it would be. McCoy is a goodie after all. Again, the plotting is woolly. McCoy, who cured the plague, didn’t tell anyone how to cure it because medical knowledge is not to be shared. On the other hand, this McCoy almost sounds like the character from the live action show (although Kirk is still just a cipher and Spock only an exposition machine).

TAS S02E05 How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth (4 out of 5 stars). In a hugely imaginative turn, the Enterprise tackles a mysterious alien probe which presents as a giant glowing cloud thing. Even more mysterious is the presence of a Mr Walking Bear at Sulu’s station. And, wouldn’t ya know it, the one day Walking Bear is on the bridge, a ship appears which takes a form he can recognise. In a familiar move, the probe zaps key crew members and takes them on board. Kirk, Bones and co figure out in minutes what defeated the intelligence of different civilisations over countless generations. It all builds to another pair of familiar tropes – the gilded cage and the pacifist Federation – but thoughtfully presented and the characters glimmer through here and there. Unaccountably, this decent but fairly routine episode won itself an Emmy.

TAS S02E06 The Counter-Clock Incident (2.5 out of 5 stars) The televised adventures of Kirk, Spock, Bones and co conclude with this reverse re-run of The Deadly Years which features the key crew members regressing to childhood. Robert April was one of the names considered for the character who became Christopher Pike. This episode ret-cons that to make someone of that name the first captain of the Enterprise. I really object to the ludicrous speeds given here, including a mysterious object said to be travelling at warp 36, and once more the transporter functions as a biological reset switch, but I do appreciate the wild alternate universe time-travel fantasy as the kind of story which maybe only this incarnation of Star Trek could have attempted.

Final thoughts

  • Obviously done on a shoestring, the limited animation, often flat line-readings, and endlessly recycled music cues do a lot to obscure some occasionally quite decent scripting, but the short run times sap character details as well as providing less time for stories to build in complexity.
  • Very little in these episodes is referred to again, so they end up sitting a somewhat outside the framework of the series as a whole. Roddenberry would claim they were and were not canon as the mood struck him.
  • Average episode score for The Animated Series is 2.95, slightly better than Season Three of TOS, but behind TOS as a whole. Stand-out episodes include The Slaver Weapon, The Infinite Vulcan, The Magicks of Megas-Tu but nothing here is a nailed-on classic. Worst episodes include the idiotic The Practical Joker and the deeply unfunny Mudd’s Passion.

Trekaday 017: The Time Trap, The Ambergris Element, The Slaver Weapon, The Eye of the Beholder, The Jihad

Posted on April 5th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TAS S01E12 The Time Trap (2 out of 5 stars) brings us to the Bermuda Triangle in space, whereupon the ship’s sensors immediately go berserk (so how is that this region of the galaxy has never been properly investigated before now?). Seeing a lot of new ship designs is fun for trainspotters but doesn’t make for riveting drama. Similarly, there are lots of alien races but they’re all just sitting around a conference room and talking for much of the running time. The subterfuge with the Klingons just falls flat in this medium and there’s an awful lot of padding – including the crew pausing to watch a floor show before they attempt to make their escape. For once, they can’t get the actor when they bring back a familiar face, so Doohan plays Kor instead of John Colicos. Nichelle Nichols’s versatility is also stretched to breaking point.

TAS S01E13 The Ambergris Element (3.5 out of 5 stars) is set on a water planet – again, not easy to do in live action, but easy in limited animation – and lo! before long, the landing party’s submersible is flung across the screen by a many-tentacled monster. And then a mysterious force makes Kirk and Spock go all fishy – which screams “reset button”. Fish-Kirk and Fish-Spock happily chatting away to McCoy from inside their aquarium, with only an optical ripple suggesting their watery fate, suggests that nobody is really thinking this one through. It remains ridiculous rather than shocking, and again, Shatner’s flat line readings a lot of the drama out, but the alien environment is worth an extra star. The planet is called Argo, like Jason’s ship, but I don’t know why.

TAS S01E14 The Slaver Weapon (4.5 out of 5 stars) was written by Larry Niven no less and brings us a snazzy redesign for the Enterprise shuttle craft. This Kirk-less episode revolves around a stasis box, in which time stands still, and features some uncharacteristically poor judgement from Spock who remonstrates himself for pursuing his curiosity. TOS sexism is given a tiny wrinkle here. The alien Kzinti will underestimate human females which might give Uhura the upper hand – but nothing really comes of this. That said, this features a novel location, exotic aliens (appearance and culture) strong focus on just three characters, has high stakes and is decently paced with some really strong science-fiction concepts. It all escalates nicely into a destabilising super weapon, hand to hand combat and an intelligent war computer. Probably the highlight of the series, and one that it wasn’t possible for Shatner to ruin. It’s also, I believe, the only episode of TAS which features a character’s death

TAS S01E15 The Eye of the Beholder (3 out of 5 stars) begins with familiar stuff – the crew investigating a missing research team – and continues to even more familiar stuff – they are in an artificial paradise which turns out to be an alien zoo. As noted, the characters have been ironed flat in these episodes and Spock is usually reduced to a single joke in which he recites a paragraph of gibberish from a Thesaurus, another character says “Do you mean XYZ?” and he replies “I believe that is what I said.” It’s a ten-year-old’s version of the character. So, if this feels like Star Trek in a way that the sillier animated episodes don’t, that’s largely because most of it is patchworked together from elements of live action episodes.

TAS S01E16 The Jihad (2.5 out of 5 stars). The title alone is enough to elicit from me a cry of “Yikes” but this turns into a secret quest to find a magical tchotchke with random assortment of fantasy characters. The polar opposite of the previous episode, this feels like a generic Saturday morning cartoon rather than Star Trek but at least it doesn’t feel like a rerun. In fact, it’s so unlike Star Trek that the foxy chick is cracking on to Kirk who politely rebuffs her advances.