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Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Chapman on Star Trek

Space. The New Frontier.

JJ Abrams’s new Star Trek film opened recently to spectacular business and critical acclaim. It’s the first time Trek has intersected with the mainstream since the movie First Contact in 1996 but to do so, it had to reinvent itself. This is not the first time that Star Trek has become new. Over the decades, it’s started again several times, to varying degrees of commercial and artistic success. Often, its creative rebirth has been at the hands of outsiders, fresh perspectives bringing new ideas. Let’s go back to the beginning of the final frontier and have a look at those incarnations, bearing in mind that every generation gets the Star Trek it deserves. Or, to put it more positively, Trek does well not just when it’s in touch with the times, but also when it coincides with moments of optimism.

Forty-five years ago a former motorcycle cop and fighter pilot, Gene Roddenberry, tried to sell NBC on a show he described as ‘Wagon Train to the Stars.’ As pitches go, this one was simple and brilliant. The show was called Star Trek, and NBC turned it down. They deemed that first pilot ‘The Cage’ to be too cerebral. They thought Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, not enough of an action man. They were looking for thrills, adventure, fisticuffs. Roddenberry had given them a relatively sophisticated tale heavily influenced by the then-gold-standard in mainstream sf cinema, Forbidden Planet, which was itself an adaptation of The Tempest. He had also given them the U.S.S. Enterprise, and the character of Spock. It was probably more than they could handle at the time. To their credit, when they turned down his first pilot, they asked him for another. Jeffrey Hunter proved unavailable, so the character was renamed and recast. Enter William Shatner as James T. Kirk. Spock, despite network unease at his alien appearance, remained, now promoted to First Officer. In the pilot, this role had been filled by a woman, which the suits weren’t too keen on, either. That woman, Majel Barrett, married Roddenberry and would go on to voice the ship’s computer in every Trek since, as well as taking on other roles in the show.

In a time of both hope and strife, the five-year mission began, and the classic Trek crew assembled on the bridge of the Enterprise: Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu and Uhura. Chekov would come later, as a result of the popularity of the Monkees – the producers thought a Davy Jones lookalike would help attract a bigger audience. That original Star Trek was full of brash post-Kennedy optimism. Its central relationship was that between Kirk, Spock and Bones. Though produced by Roddenberry, other creative influences made as great a mark on the show, notably Gene Coon and Dorothy Fontana. Star Trek’s best episodes were classics, to name a few: ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, ‘Balance of Terror’, and ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’. However, like all TV shows, Trek was capable of appalling lapses. The episode ‘Spock’s Brain’ is so bad you can tell the actors wished they were elsewhere. By then, Fred Freiberger had taken over as producer and Star Trek went downhill towards cancellation.

Then something unprecedented happened. Star Trek, running in syndication, started to find its audience. Millions who had missed it the first time around, began to turn Trek into a pop phenomenon. The suits realised that they had killed the goose while it was still pregnant with the golden egg. Trek’s first revival was a Filmation cartoon in 1974, starring the voices of most of the live-action cast. Though Roddenberry dismissed it, the animated series is often as good as its parent show, with several episodes out-classing its more grown-up incarnation, and introducing many of the concepts that would be explored later in the franchise, the holodeck being the most obvious example.

Star Trek went fallow for a few years until the studio decided to relaunch the Enterprise for a second five-year mission: Star Trek Phase II. Scripts were written, designs were commissioned, sets and models were built. Roddenberry was back, as were most of the actors. Leonard Nimoy, who had earlier defined the role of Spock, was at that time in the process of distancing himself from the character, having recently put out an autobiography called I Am Not Spock. It’s an interesting read, if slightly barmy. The book works as a dialogue between Nimoy and Spock, and is cod-philosophical, though well-meaning and very 1970s. He would follow it years later with a second volume called I Am Spock, having reconciled his human side with his Vulcan alter-ego. In Phase II, Spock was to be replaced by a young full-Vulcan called Xon.

Then Star Wars hit cinemas, and revolutionised the idea of the space epic. The studio decided that instead of a TV series, they’d make a blockbuster Star Trek film. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, directed by Robert Wise, came out in 1979 (so the new film appears 30 years later). It drew on a script for the abandoned series and bumped it up to movie length. Trying for seriousness, the film ditched the joie de vivre of the original show in favour of Kubrickian coolness. Even though the film’s new Enterprise is the best-looking of all the ships to bear that name, Wise spent too long admiring it. Effects shots dragged. Performances were mannered. It felt like Space: 1999, but with better jumpsuits. To cap it all, The Motion Picture wasn’t even properly finished in time for its release. A story of an augmented space probe’s return in search of its creator – putting Earth in danger – this first big-screen Trek would have worked better as a shorter film, or as a different film. All of the old crew returned, Kirk now promoted to Admiral, with characters from Phase II added temporarily to the story. Interestingly, this film has aged rather better than it should have, Wise having made a superior director’s cut for DVD years later. In 1979, though, critics called it Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture.

Three years later a new producer, Harve Bennett, and a fresh director, Nicholas Meyer, made a bold move and totally overhauled the series. Going back to the original inspiration for Trek, a sort of interstellar Horatio Hornblower, Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, was more or less a great submarine movie in space, crossed with Moby-Dick. Ricardo Montalban played Khan, a wonderfully camp villain out for revenge on Kirk, with whom he had crossed paths in the original show. Set fourteen years after the first film, Trek II had the good sense to allow its characters to age, their mortality being one of the core themes of the story. Kirk finds out he has a son by an old girlfriend, which makes him question his priorities in life. As is by now well-known, Spock dies at the end of this film, which kicks off a loose trilogy. The next movie, The Search for Spock, appeared in 1984, and was a low-key middle-entry that has many great character moments. Kirk and crew endanger their careers by stealing the Enterprise, taking her on a journey to reunite the soul of their fallen comrade with his body. They succeed, but Kirk’s son dies pointlessly, breaking the Admiral's heart almost as much as the loss of Spock, or the destruction of the Enterprise, which Kirk sacrifices to save his crew. After III came IV: The Voyage Home, in 1986.

Our intrepid heroes, now including a revived Spock, return in a Klingon vessel to Earth where they will face court martial. En route, they discover that the planet is being destroyed by another alien probe intent on contacting an indigenous life form: humpback whales. The trouble is, in the 23rd Century, these creatures are extinct. Kirk and company travel back in time to the then-present day, where they find the whales, bring them back to the future, save the world and return to Starfleet’s favour, enjoying plenty of knockabout comedy along the way. Plus Kirk gets to chat up a hot 20th-Century marine biologist. It's better than it sounds, and a gentle lesson in ecology to boot, at a time when Al Gore was still busy inventing the Internet. By the end of the trilogy, Admiral Kirk is 'punished' by being demoted to Captain and given a new ship called Enterprise.

Treks III and IV were helmed deftly by Leonard Nimoy, who went on to have a successful but brief second career as a movie director. For the next film, William Shatner was given the reins. 1989's Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is often cited as the worst Trek movie. Its lame story of finding God at the centre of the galaxy doesn’t help. Neither does the budget, which didn’t allow for the great set-piece finale Shatner had in mind. It all comes across as rather flat and pointless, after the brashness and spirit of the Reagan-era Treks. Also, Uhura does a fan-dance to distract some ugly blokes with guns; Scotty bangs his head on a low beam, with hilarious consequences; and there’s a very daft Spock-baiting singalong around a campfire in Yosemite. Believe me, it’s silly.

In 1991, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country brought Meyer back to the helm in a Cold-War parable of a dying Klingon Empire, falling apart because of its closed society and not helped by a Chernobyl-like disaster. It isn’t difficult to see the parallels in the real world at the time, and VI is a brisk political thriller that is a fitting end to the original-era Star Trek. The actors’ signatures animate at the end, and the film is dedicated to Gene Roddenberry, who had just died.

Four years earlier, Roddenberry and Paramount had revived the show on television. With a largely unknown cast crewing a newer, bigger Enterprise, Star Trek: The Next Generation made its bow in syndication, nobody holding out much hope that it would go beyond one season. The cast was headed by veteran English actor Patrick Stewart as Picard, the French captain with the English accent. Stewart once said that all his time sitting on the throne of England at the RSC was merely a rehearsal for the captain’s chair of the Enterprise. Also of note was Brent Spiner as Data, originally your standard-issue android-who-wants-to-be-human, but whose character would gain depth over the years. TNG got off to a slow start that clearly showed Roddenberry’s influence. Its first season seemed to have the production values and story sense of the parent show, which is to say it would have worked in the sixties but twenty years on looked a bit dodgy.

TNG improved with age, however. With Roddenberry’s death in 1991 Rick Berman took over. By the third season the scripts and characters had simply got better, until The Next Generation became appointment viewing, overtaking its predecessor creatively, if not in historical cultural significance. TNG showcased the writing of such talents as Ron Moore, Ira Steven Behr, Brannon Braga and Michael Piller, and it defined television space opera for the nineties. Great episodes included ‘The Inner Light,’ a meditative fable in which Picard lives an entire alternative lifetime in minutes; ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ in which the crew battle the Borg (in a plot and cliffhanger ripped directly from Blake's 7); and ‘Chain of Command’, which saw Picard captured and tortured by alien nasties called Cardassians.

The Next Generation lasted seven seasons, until 2004. It was a massive hit and the studio wanted another. Deep Space Nine arrived in 2003 and is arguably the finest Trek show. Set on a space station at the mouth of a stable wormhole near the post-occupation planet Bajor, DS9 took risks the other Treks didn’t dare. Many of the best writers from TNG moved over to the show which, again, had a shaky first season but which by the end had become a rich and powerful epic of war and religious politics. The ensemble cast was excellent, with Avery Brooks playing the widowed Starfleet Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko; Nana Visitor as the former terrorist/freedom fighter Kira Nerys; and René Auberjonois as the shape-shifter constable Odo. The writing team was headed by Ira Behr, given a free hand more or less as other producers concentrated on the next Trek show, Voyager. Notably, Ron Moore helped create a deep and rich culture for the Klingons. DS9 lasted seven seasons and went out on a high.

In the movies, Original Series and Next Generation characters featured in the transitional Generations, with Kirk and Picard joining forces to stop a villain destroying a planet. So far, so dull. Malcolm McDowell played the bad guy perfunctorily. The film is memorable chiefly for the crashing of the Enterprise on a planet’s surface, as well as the underwhelming death of Kirk, who is crushed by a bridge. The ironic comment of the time was ‘Bridge on the Captain.’ It would seem that the writers, Ron Moore and Brannon Braga, were hamstrung by the need to include too many ‘must-have’ elements in this film, rather than trusting the story. Or maybe they were just TV writers trying to do a feature, and learning on the job. Their TNG finalé, ‘All Good Things’, is rightly regarded as an exemplary lesson in how to end a show. They made up for Generations with the following film, directed by Jonathan Frakes, who also played Riker. Star Trek: First Contact was a fun adventure, the best Next Gen film, in which the crew of the Enterprise must travel back in time to stop an alien menace from destroying the Earth. Notice the pattern yet? The Borg, who stole everything they know (except costume design) from Doctor Who’s Cybermen, were a formidable villain – singular because they’re effectively one consciousness. James Cromwell played Cochrane, the inventor of Warp Drive, with irascible charm. The other actors were mostly on form – Stewart in particular found praise for his performance as an intellectual action man who listens to Berlioz and suffers from post-traumatic stress. Alice Krige was good as a creepy Borg Queen. Brent Spiner had fun with his portrayal of Data. Alfre Woodard did well as Lily Sloane. The film looked great, the Earth was saved and first contact was, indeed, made. Oh and Roy Orbison’s music survives into the next century, which is nice.

In deliberate contrast, the eighth Star Trek film, Insurrection, went low-key again. Written by Michael Piller as ‘the first Star Trek date movie,’ it was a pleasant, touchy-feely Trek about plastic surgery and ethnic cleansing ­­– good in parts and gentle on the brain, but it didn’t set the box-office alight.

On television, Star Trek: Voyager debuted in 1995 and was headed by Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway. It replayed the hackneyed story of a starship far from home trying to avoid peril on the long journey back. The reset button predominated on this show, as no matter how beaten up the ship became during an episode, it was usually pristine at the beginning of the next. There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of shuttlecraft, and many plots and characters were recycled from earlier shows. Ron Moore, who had long since left Trek, later developed the critically embraced Battlestar Galactica, in which the ship got very beaten-up indeed.

In the movies, Star Trek Nemesis in 2002 reverted to the old themes of an alien menace threatening the Federation, with the Enterprise crew out to stop him. A treasured crewmember, Data, gives his life to save the captain, as in Khan with Spock twenty years earlier, but this time, the film undercuts the suspense by having the character’s replacement – an identical android body – arrive on the ship early on. We also learn that the Klingon Worf doesn’t like Irving Berlin. Nemesis is an example of how Star Trek repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, the third time as boredom. It bombed at the box office and the movie series was put on hiatus.

As Voyager ended, yet another new show began. Enterprise was the first Star Trek to do what Abrams’s movie has done so successfully, and return to the roots of the Final Frontier. Featuring Scott Bakula as Captain Jonathan Archer – originally intended to be called Jeffrey – Enterprise attempted to be Star Trek’s version of The Right Stuff. The first crew of the first Enterprise – never mentioned before by the original crew of the original ‘first’ Enterprise – this show rewrote Trek history in a way that didn’t go down well with fans, and didn’t engage the general public. Its first main villains, the ‘Suliban’ – guess the influence – weren’t much cop. However, like some of its predecessors, Enterprise gradually developed into an interesting series. Its third season took the form of one long story arc in which Earth is attacked by an alien menace in a manner intended to recall 9/11. Captain Archer takes the ship in search of the bad guys in order to destroy their weapon. Of course, they have to meet some ‘Space Nazis’ along the way, and kick some Suliban butt. It’s all part of a ‘Temporal Cold War’ plot that doesn’t quite come off. The real improvement came half way through its four-season run when Rick Berman and Brannon Braga brought in a new writer, Manny Coto, whose excellent Showtime series Odyssey 5, was unjustly cancelled after one season. Coto, who had grown up with Star Trek, swiftly helped the other two refocus Enterprise. In a fourth series of generally excellent episodes, Enterprise finally found its feet. Then it was cancelled, but not before a real stinker of a final episode, which gets just about everything wrong. This, after the disappointment of Nemesis, was the last we would hear of Star Trek for a while.

Much like Russell T Davies’s reinvention of Doctor Who, JJ Abrams’s new movie Star Trek ditches the old while preserving it. He and his writers have managed to start fresh while keeping contiguous with what’s ‘gone before,’ even though the film recycles many plot elements from past shows and movies in the franchise. There’s nothing original about the villain or the plot, except what it does to the Trek universe, which is quite bracing. One Alderaan-echoing incident sets out Abrams’s stall. This is a new Trek universe in which anything can happen. The film looks gorgeous, the tone is brash, the pace is breakneck. It’s Star Trek: The Fast-Motion Picture. The new cast more than do justice to the material and to the roles, even though you suspect that in reality Starfleet wouldn’t let a bunch of kids crew its very new and very expensive flagship in case they’d crash into something. Chris Pine nails it (and a green Starfleet cadet) as Kirk. Zachary Quinto is uncannily perfect as Spock. Karl Urban is faithful and new at the same time, as crochety old McCoy. Simon Pegg is witty and fun as Scotty. Nimoy as Spock works fine in his torch-passing cameo. Uhura, after a strong introduction, is relegated to the role of receptionist. Just like the sixties, then. This film is mostly about Spock and Kirk and their bromance, which is fine, but it would be a good move for Abrams to give Uhura more to do next time, since she's pivotal to events here but gets sidelined. The ship’s first captain, in this movie, is Christopher Pike, so in a sense we’re back to where Star Trek began in the original 1964 pilot. While the film itself lacks depth and has nothing to say about the world in which we live, it’s one hell of an entertaining ride. Abrams and company have succeeded well in making Star Trek vibrant and engaging again. Now let’s see what they do next with this new universe.

Patrick Chapman is an Irish poet, screenwriter, novelist, short-story writer, and science fiction expert. He was written for Eyewear on several occasions, recently on Dr. Who.
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