Friday, June 17, 2016

Now I've Seen Everything: Star Trek

Lord knows how many times I've seen each episode of The Original Series of "Star Trek," but I believe it approaches the Sagan-ian concept of "billyuns and billyuns." 

But, I'll state this up-front: "Star Trek: The Movie Series" is only somewhat similar to "Star Trek: The Television Series." Whereas TOS was the crew dealing with a space phenomenon or political crisis or moral quandary, The Movie Series was an extended soap opera that just happened to coincide with space phenomena, usually man-made or man-manipulated. Also, the TV series had exotic species that challenged the encroachment of the United Federation of Planets into their sectors of the Galaxy (you could call them "NIMU's"—"Not In My Universe"). And, because budgets were limited, there were no recurring protagonists constantly challenging the Trekkers. It fell to The Movie Series, after the second film, to start employing a "Bad Guy" to keep the cast focused on the ground rather than the stars  If what they were seeking on their five-year mission were "Bad Guys," they might as well have stayed on Earth.

If the TV series expanded horizons, the movie series compressed it, somewhat, choosing instead to focus on megalomania, rather than dark matter of another sort.

If the infinity of Space is not enough for screen-writers, then what's a Heaven for?

Sulu, prepare for time-slingshot.

I: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, 1979) The success of Star Wars in 1977 scuttled the prospects of a second "Star Trek" series (but without a reluctant Spock and only possibly with Kirk) that Paramount was hoping to release as a syndicated show (that experiment held off until "ST:TNG" in 1987), and upgraded as a Major Motion Picture. Series creator Gene Roddenberry, had tried to launch a film with the title "The God Thing" years earlier (it was rejected, as was a Philip Kaufman project "Planet of the Titans"), re-purposed the script for the new series pilot episode, only to have to re-purpose again for the proposed film. It was a last minute decision,* and with no director--all this with a drop-dead delivery date that was already established and would not move. The chronometers were running.

Veteran director
Robert Wise, not unfamiliar with big movies and sci-fi, stepped in and started wrestling the bag of Rigelian cats: getting reluctant "Spock" Leonard Nimoy to commit to it, and whatever Nimoy got, contractually, Shatner had to have, too. Neither of them liked the script, which Roddenberry kept changing to no one's satisfaction. Writer Harold Livingston was hired to make changes, which Roddenberry would re-write, which Livingston would re-re-write. Pretty soon, the writers were not talking to each other and actively working against each other. Petulance on and off-screen was the order of the day, but Wise managed to get the filming done, only to find that the sfx group hired to do the extravagant effects was still in R&D mode. They were "jettisoned", and Paramount reached very deep into their pockets to secure the two most prominent effects men working at the time: John Dykstra (who'd supervised Star Wars) and Douglas Trumbull (who'd done the same for Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The two whizzes took half a film apiece and began the tedious work of doing all the effects, while composer Jerry Goldsmith began composing an epic score for scenes he couldn't see.
They made the deadline. But barely. Audiences watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture opening weekend probably didn't realize when they saw a splice in the first reel that it had only been made, physically into each reel that week, and "shipped wet" as they say. There were no screenings of Star Trek: The Motion Picture before its debut.
What they would have found was a strangely starchy movie that displayed dazzling effects (that went on for a bit too long), a dry-as-dust screenplay, one of William Shatner's most self-centered performances (and that's saying something), and an odd off-kilter rhythm that had no momentum...and felt like nobody had watched it all the way through.
Because no one had. Wise would barely mention the film later in his career, revisiting it only to tighten, and switch-out new digital effects for what didn't work the first time around. There was some improvement, but not much. Although Star Trek: The Motion Picture is closer to its roots than the other films in the series, it's dramatically inert, with long sections of "space-sightseer" scenes gazing at ships and phenomenon. Jerry Goldsmith's music does what it can to goose up the energy (and does—it became synonymous with "Star Trek"), but TMP is bloodless, as drained of color and imagination as the neutral colored jump-suits the crew was shoe-horned into.
The original crew slimmed down and happy to be working again.

II: The Wrath of Khan
Nicholas Meyer, 1982) The first "Star Trek" movie did fine at the box-office, but was deemed a disaster by the Paramount brass, who were expecting revenues along the lines of Star Wars. Roddenberry was demoted to "Consultant" status, plans for a follow-up (there were no plans for a continuing series) green-lit only on the condition that it could be done cheaply and with a tighter reign over the entire Enterprise. The solution was a television exec, Harve Bennett, who slashed budgets, prepped a television crew to film and scoured the Original series for some kind of story. He found it in the Eugenics War episode, "Space Seed," guest starring Ricardo Montalban as rebel leader Khan Noonien Singh, who led a devastating Civil War on Earth and was exiled with his remaining followers to space in suspended animationMontalban was enthusiastic, but worried he might play it too much like his then-current television role of Mr. Roarke on "Fantasy Island." The cast was brought back, even Nimoy—with the enticement of having a great death scene, the leak of which created a howl of protests among "Trekkies."

To direct,
acquired a writer-in-need-of-a-director's-gig, and Nicholas Meyer, best-selling author of "The Seven Percent Solution" and writer-director of the H.G. Wells-Meets-Jack the Ripper yarn Time After Time, filled the bill admirably, even heroically, despite the fact that, like Bennett, he'd never watched an episode in his life. Meyer refined a script from a handful of screenplays "with some good ideas," to breathe more life into the characters and make the story personal. The result was a coming-of-age movie of sorts for Captain Kirk (William Shatner), as he suffers through a less-than-celebratory birthday and must confront a series of past regrets.

the blood-and-thunder comes from the Clash of Ego's between Khan and Kirk, both driven by revenge and hatred. The two actors have rarely been better: Montalban, quietly disturbing and hissing like a snake, and Shatner, blustery and over-the-top, but able to milk scenes less-checked actors might let slip by. The rivalry is palpable, despite the fact that the two actors never appear on the same stage, or act against each other—a technical challenge that nobody seems to notice, given the impressive results on the screen.

The Wrath of Khan—retitled from "
The Vengeance of Khan" as a courtesy to George Lucas who was shooting "The Revenge of the Jedi" (sic) at the time—became a huge hit with Trekkies and general audiences and plans were immediately put in place to create a follow-up.

Ricardo Montalban as a now-Ahab-like Khan
(does that make Shatner's Kirk his white whale? Rude).

III: The Search for Spock (Leonard Nimoy, 1984) The problem for the sequel was...Spock was dead at the end of STII. And it was a really good death scene—audiences responded to it. But, seeing the success the movie had with preview audiences, Bennett (over Meyer's objections) constructed a coda that held out hope that Spock might still be alive in the photon-sarcophagus lying on the second film's newly-minted Genesis planet. And as bait to the recalcitrant Nimoy, Bennett held out the chance to direct the third "Star Trek" film. Nimoy heartily agreed, the novice director having two advantages—he knew "Star Trek" and he wouldn't have to appear until the end of the filmThe results were a bit stodgy, but Nimoy proved to have a good pointed ear for dialog, and was generous in spreading the story around through the acting company—everybody got a good "bit" in the film, which was more of a re-visitation of the Wrath of Khan and dismantling the story infra-structure that it built. By the end of III, things were a lot simpler in the "Star Trek" universe, though not necessarily for the better. III was a bit of a re-hash, continuing the soap story-line from II, and not invoking the sense of wonder and exploration that was the hallmark of the series. "Star Trek" took a small step down on this one. But it would leap forward warp-speed.
Kirk sacrifices the Enterprise to save Spock

IV: The Voyage Home (Leonard Nimoy, 1986) Okay, Spock's alive, the stolen Enterprise destroyed and the mutinous crew under Admiral Kirk is being hunted by Starfleet. What to do? Turn themselves in. But when they get back to Earth, the planet is under attack by....a big black tube. The crew puzzles out that the thing is looking for whales, long ago extinct, and so to save the Earth, the Enterprise goes back in time to bring back humpback whales and assuage

Sounds dumb.
But it works like gang-busters. The script—a collaboration between Bennett and Nicholas Meyer (Meyer did the funny time-travel section) has a grand time making the Enterprise crew fish out of water in the backwards 1980's, satirizing current society, and letting the actors make the most of the comedy. Nimoy's directing is clean and stays out of the way. And he keeps the movie fun and gee-whiz all the way through. Audiences responded with enthusiasm, making The Voyage Home the most profitable of the "Star Trek" movies. Paramount had their franchise, and was beginning production of a follow-up series with Roddenberry for syndication. What could...possibly go wrong?

The re-united crew in 1980's San Francisco:
fish out of water looking for whales

V: The Final Frontier (William Shatner, 1989) It seemed only natural that if Leonard Nimoy was given a chance to direct a "Star Trek" movie, that William Shatner be given the opportunity as well. Quid pro quo. Which is Andorian for "Let's turn the asylum over to the craziest inmate!"

The script tries for the breeziness of IV
and comes away seeming juvenile in tone, and as the actors were at this point in their 50's, it seemed sadly giddy and embarrassing. The other actors are given demeaning jokes to pull off—navigators Sulu and Chekhov get lost in the woods, and Engineer Scott knocks himself out walking into a support beam. Shatner's recently demoted Captain Kirk has no such problems, but has such brio that he eventually debates "God;" "Why would 'God' need a star-ship?" Why, indeed? Everything about this exercise is sub-par—the script, the performers, the sets, the un-special effects (there were some nice experiments in color, however). This one entry nearly scuttled the franchise (producer Bennett, given a cameo in this film, was petitioning jettisoning the old crew and starting afresh with a "Starfleet Academy" idea—hold that thought), so Paramount beat a hasty retreat to a fall-back position.

Spock's half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) communes with a starship-seeking God

VI: The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer,1991) The studio asked Nimoy to spear-head one last "Trek" with the original crew—Nimoy had parlayed his "Trek" success with directing two other major studio movies, Three Men and a Baby and The Good Mother, one a huge success, the other a controversial downer (probably unfairly--I haven't seen it). Nimoy was savvy enough—and humble enough—to tread the rocky shoals of warp-speed ego's and planet-sized demands of the franchise, and bring back Nicholas Meyer to helm it. "Why Would God Want a Starship?" was the crux of V. "Only Nixon Could Go to China" was the basis of VI: where Captain Kirk is the one man in the Universe to broker a peace between a suspicious Federation of Planets and the traditional heavies, the KlingonsMeyer's smartest move was to separate Kirk (the attention-needy Shatner) and Dr. McCoy (the late DeForest Kelley) from the rest of the cast so that everyone is given moments to shine—even Sulu (George Takei) is given his own command. Plus, the movie series gets its strongest guest star in Christopher Plummer, delightedly chewing the futuristic scenery. ILM is back to bring the FX back to top-shelf. And some minor screen-time is given to Kirk and Spock musing about their own usefulness. In fact, Paramount had already developed plans to ditch this crew and begin producing films featuring the very popular "Next Generation" cast.
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"
The Klingons meet the Enterprise crew

No, they didn't change the uniforms for the movies—that would come with the next movie.
The crew was just playing around on the holodeck (which could accommodate a
tall ship, apparently)
VII: Generations (David Carson, 1994) A clean slate, sort of, but not completely erased. Producer Harve Bennett was gone. TNG producer Rick Berman was "in." Nimoy and Meyer moved on. But on the heels of the production of the "Next Generation" series finale, came the first "Next Generation" movie.** And it is a classy affair (Time Magazine put it on their cover!). Cameos by Scotty (the late James Doohan) and Chekhov (Walter Koenig) to start things off, accompany a prologue of old Captain Kirk (William Shatner) as reluctant witness to the launch of the newly designed Enterprise-B. This introduces a cosmic thread/Nexus that destroys things but grants the destroyed their heart's desire....

Eh? Say that, again...slowly.

Dr. Soren (
Malcolm McDowell...really good at playing pathetically manic, or is that maniacally pathetic?) is a scientist teaming with ex-pat Klingons to capture the Nexus and make it his own private Valhalla, no matter how many civilizations are wiped out in space-time (as if anything could stop it!)

The Enterprise-D, helmed by
Captain Jean-Luc Picard (the cerebral, invaluable Patrick Stewart) must out-wit Soren, but Picard is caught in the Nexus (and before you can say "Didn't I see this in the original series episode "This Side of Paradise?" and we must all live in our own private Purgatories) he is whisked off to his heart's desire, which would appear to be a stable family life with a perpetual Dickensian Christmas. He's shaken out of it by handy crewman-living-outside-the-plot-device Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) to take things back to reality, back in time, and stop Soren. Fortunately, Captain Kirk's fantasy is right next door to Picard's (it involves a rustic farm, horses, and chopping pre-scored wood-blocks) and the two Captains agree to team up against the Bad Doctor.

Shatner gets his dream come true—Kirk dies, is resurrected and dies a second time, heroically on-camera in the same movie (Stick it, Nimoy!)—
the Enterprise gets destroyed (there's a harrowingly great sequence of the saucer section crash-landing on a planet). Generations points out the flaws in trying to shoe-horn "The Next Generation" crew into the "Star Trek" movie format: just as the Original Series was about ideas and Cosmic Concepts and the movies about Relationships and Action, "The Next Generation" cerebralness doesn't translate well when dumbed down to action set-pieces. The TNG actors were better at knitting their brows than duking it out. Plus, the actors were all pretty mature when the movies started, so having them run around dodging phaser blasts seems lame. Still, Generations seemed to break the curse of the even-numbered "Trek's" being good, and the odd ones being bad—as over-simplified as that summary is.

Soran (McDowell) challenged by two hair-challenged Captains (Stewart, Shatner)

VIII: First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996) The first totally "Next Generation" movie is still an exercise in nostalgia. The villains (and by this time, the movies are supposed to have moustache-twirling villains) are the Borg—a neat little concept from the TNG series, an assimilating marauder-race, part human/part machine, interdependent on a hive-mind. Except the writers, Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, take it a bit too literally, giving the Borg a "Queen" (which nullifies part of the Borg "specialness" and gives them an instant weakness). The just-commissioned Enterprise-E must go back in time (again?!) to stop the Borg from undoing the key Earth event that established the United Federation of PlanetsZephram Cochrane's first test-flight of the the Phoenix using warp-technology, which, in turn led to the first contact Earth had with an alien species. And just as Nimoy got his chance to direct, The next generation's second-in-command, Jonathan Frakes, who'd directed some of the more intricate TNG episodes, directed First Contact with a fine balance between drama, horror and comedy. First Contact would prove to be the best of the "Next Generation" films, filling in a lot of "Trek" back-story, while having fun de-bunking myths, and giving the entire cast something to do while also finding room to guest-star James Cromwell, Alfre Woodard and Alice Krige (and two quick cameo's from cast-members of the "Trek" series "Voyager"). Ambitious in scope and epic in execution, First Contact would prove to be a tough act to follow.

Captain Picard has flashbacks that has flashbacks after his encounter with The Borg
Better go back in time to fix it.

IX: Insurrection (Jonathan Frakes, 1998) More in line with traditional "Next Generation" storylines, Insurrection feels like a bit of a re-tread. 
The story concerns a "Fountain of Youth" planet that one of those slimy Federation diplomats (Anthony Zerbe) is trying to requisition in trade negotiations with a youth-obsessed bad guy, Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham). It's up to Picard and co. to help the planet's citizens and go against Starfleet's imperialist wishes. Frakes again directs and he's just as assured, but the script (by TNG stalwart Michael Piller) is sub-par and ends with another Picard-dukes-it-out sequence, which is never a good idea. Plus, it's not a good idea to have a "Fountain of Youth" planet when the crew is noticeably aging—including the supposedly unageable android Data (Brent Spiner). Try as they might to make it interesting, it just isn't, as it falls into formula by the last reel. 

A weak entry, it was chalked up to the "odd/even" phenomena and plans were made for another movie
Skin-stretching serves as a metaphor for stretching the plot

X: Nemesis (Stuart Baird, 2002) John Logan, Academy award winning writer of Gladiator *** wrote the script for Nemesis (with a lot of input from Brent Spiner), which has the crew fighting renegade Romulans (which have suddenly grown a parallel race of bat-like humanoids personified by the impressive Ron Perlman) led by the supposed clone of Captain Picard himself (Tom Hardy). Why this should matter is never made clear, but motivation and character are all a bit murky in this installment which doesn't seem to gel at all. Picard's actions at the end are inexplicable and Data sacrifices himself for the good of the ship. Everyone mourns. So sad....

But...he's an android. He's a robot. It seems a bit silly, like feeling bad for your beloved Chrysler when you have to tow it to the junkyard.
Besides, Spiner hedged his bets with a spare-parts version which has conveniently been providedIt seems very much like a transitional "Trek" story—Riker and Troy (Marina Sirtis) are married and he gets his own command. Wedding bells are breaking up that old crew of mine. But some sequences feel cheap and unplanned and director Stuart Baird (who is a hell of a good editor) is a bit out of his depth tying it all together. Box office results for this one were far below expectations, and the voyages stopped at X. Inspiration seemed to have dried up, given a universe of possibilities. Paramount, having trouble maintaining anything franchiseably dependable, desperately needed something to cold-start the warp engines.

Captain Picard confronts his clone (a young Tom Hardy)
"Are you kidding? I'm going to break Batman's back in a few years."

Whither "Star Trek?" Well, ST II-ST VI producer Harve Bennett long ago had the idea of firing all the original actors and re-starting the franchise from scratch at Starfleet Academy. Unused ideas in Hollywood have a long shelf-life. With the deaths of DeForest Kelly, James Doohan and Majel Barrett, it seemed the time was right to re-boot the franchise ala "Batman" and James Bond, with fresh blood. When Paramount decided to revive its former money-making franchise, they blew the dust off that filed concept with a familiar trope of the series: "Star Trek" went back in time once again...this time, to save itself.
XI: Star Trek (JJ Abrams, 2009) One of my oldest friends—a dedicated life-long Trekker—came out of the Abrams re-boot saying "This is the way it should have been all along." That is one ringing endorsement. And quite true. With an infusion of fresh blood and a very large budget—and an entire established Universe to play with—the filmmakers behind the simply titled Star Trek recreated the Trek bible from scratch, mixing it with the "lived-in" messy sensibility of the "Star Wars" series. Throw in some inspired casting, and you have something of a time-bending miracle.

This is a different Universe and you can blame Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy again) for it. In his attempts to help the Romulans, he ends up causing a planetary disaster with a black hole, which manages to suck in a Romulan mining vessel with a very pissed-off Captain, Nero (Eric Bana), and the vessel containing Spock, as well. But, that Romulan ship arrives early just enough to cause a disaster that kills the father (Chris Hemsworthof James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), creating an alternate reality. By the end of the movie, there are two Spocks (Zachary Quinto and Nimoy), although Vulcan has been destroyed, and Kirk has been awarded the Enterprise command, despite a semi-contentious relationship with the leading crew.

"New kids on the bridge"
After decades of "Star Trek" movies that seemed bottled up and limited in scope— despite the cosmic playing field—Star Trek 2.0 seemed like a breath of fresh air, almost liberating, because it destroyed a lot of limiting tropes (hate to admit it, but "Star trek" needed fewer Vulcans), brought in a less-established (but extraordinarily capable) cast whose egos didn't need to be assuaged...yet. The characters were edgier, recognizable as the characters but in the process of forming the ones we were familiar with. So, Kirk has authority issues and Spock struggles with his emotions (and has a girlfriend), Scotty is not just a tech-geek, Sulu is a bad-ass, and Zoe Saldana, who promptly became ubiquitous after this film. Gosh, even Chekhov seems legitimately Russian. And Karl Urban feels like Deforest Kelley's son, only crustier, which is perfect.

After years where the "Star Trek" films seemed to shrink as their casts got older, and the chances-taking got less, this film felt like the free-wheeling first season of the series, where everybody was learning their way, on and off-screen. For the first time since the last century, the sky seemed the limit.

Unless, of course, it crashed to earth.
The young James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) motorcycles to his destiny.

XII: Into Darkness (JJ Abrams, 2012) It seemed the intent of Abrams' second "Trek" was to fix one of the major continuity flaws in the series timeline.

According to lore, the Eugenics War that created the conqueror Khan Noonien Singh occurred between 1992 and 1996 (I didn't hear about it on CNN—maybe due to all the Trump coverage), but with this version of the story, the timeline is a bit more diffuse and the resulting Into Darkness gene-splices the plots of "Space Seed," Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country (super-human Khan and a secret Federation conspiracy against the Klingons) all in one story (what, they couldn't fit in any whales?).

That being said, the result is a surprising disappointment. Oh, it's competent enough, and breezy in the style of the first—and the film benefits from terrific performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Weller—but the re-hashing of old plots (from the Star Trek movie series, yet) feels like a cheat when perpetrated a little too early after so fresh a start as the first film.

Bear in mind, it is all well-executed—maybe a bit too frenetically, with a last act of Khan and Spock duking it out, all-grimacy and grunting on air-barges as they hurtle over the streets of San Francisco. But, the basis of all the arm-waving and sturm-und-drang is recycled material that feels the same, doesn't do anything new, and all the passion in the world can't replace innovation. Instead of exploring "Undiscovered Country," they're going over a well-plowed field. And the one thing they have is a lot of ruts. With all that potential, it was far too early to back-track through nostalgia, however integrated the story became. At the end, Kirk and Spock are closer together in understanding each other, and the Enterprise is sent on a five year mission of exploration "to seek out new life-forms and new civilizations."

But, it needs to go—and boldly—where no Trek has gone before. 
Spock sacrifices himself in Wrath of Khan; Kirk sacrifices himself in Into Darkness.
Both get better, but Spock took two movies to get there. Kirk just needed a Khan-transfusion.

XIII: Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin, 2017) It's 966**** days into the Enterprise's five year mission and the day to day mission "to seek out new life-forms and new civilizations" has become (to quote Kirk's Captain's Log) "episodic," and the crew of the starship is starting to fray from the constant close quarters. For Kirk, it's become less of what he signed up for—he's thinking of applying for a Vice-Admiralty position and letting Spock take over the ship. But, being sent out to investigate a distress signal from an escape pod in a nearby nebula should make him reconsider the benefits of a dull command. Once, the adrift passenger is taken aboard, she directs them to where her ship crashed, and the Enterprise is attacked and fairly dismantled by thousands of ships, the crew making use of their own escape pods to abandon ship and crash on the planet Attamid. The leader of the attack, Krall (Idris Elba, sadly underutilized) has been searching for a bio-weapon called the Abronath that the Enterprise seems to possess. The rest of the adventure is how Kirk and crew find each other and with the help of another outcast, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) and another crashed Federation starship from a century before (hmmm), they can defeat Krall from using the Abronath against the Federation. Who, what, why, and how are all revealed in what seems like a rather disparate scenario written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung—Pegg in the film Spaced has the line: "... as sure as day follows night, sure as eggs is eggs, sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek is shit." 

It's not a bad entry at all, just a sophomoric one that could have used a bit of tweaking and shoring up in the script department. And one gets the impression that some radical editing was done at the last minute as the story-telling is a bit uneven and sloppy. Still, it does have the flavor of an old Star Trek script back when things were episodic. 

And, at the end, they build another ship.

Star Trek Beyond opens in the States July 22nd.

* Harlan Ellison on Tom Snyder's old "Tomorrow" Show told a great anecdote about he and Roddenberry going up to Studio head Michael Eisner, who was rejecting story ideas about time-travel, Adam and Eve, dinosaurs ("It's gotta be bigger!" he'd always say). Ellison went into a spiel about a story where The Enterprise finds God. No—really finds God. Eisner paused. "Not big enough."

** Indeed, Generations began filming the week after the series wrapped, with only a week-end break.

*** Which, if I remember Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe correctly, went into production without a complete script!

**** "Star Trek" premiered on the NBC Network in 9/1966, making the film released during the franchise's 50th Anniversary.

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