Tag Archives: Star Trek

Star Trek: A bite of the Apple

When I reviewed the first season of Star Trek I mentioned that I could spot many of the tropes the show would run into the ground in later seasons. While I’ll cover most of that in the review of S2 after I wrap it up, I’ll focus on one episode, The Apple, as an example of how not to do it.

The Enterprise is checking out a beautiful, newly discovered planet that looks like a garden of Eden. Until a flowering plant launches thorns at one of the red shirts and kills him. Another gets blasted by an unstable, explosive stone. A third is killed by disintegrating lightning — seriously, it’s almost like a self-parody of the red shirts trope. And now a force on the planet is now draining energy from the Enterprise.

In contrast to the environment, the inhabitants of the planet are peaceful, gentle souls; when Kirk strikes one of them for spying on the away team, the guy is so shocked he cries. The population makes up a small village that serves as votaries to the god Vaal, who lives in a cave with a dragon/serpent mouth. Spock figures out that Vaal is a supercomputer buried deep in the planet with the cave as an access point. Vaal keeps his acolytes in ageless perfect health and prelapsarian innocence, with no children or sex (though one young couple starts to figure it out from watching Chekhov and a yeoman make out); this being the era when married couples on TV were shown sleeping in twin beds, the efforts to tackle the topic are painfully euphemistic.

McCoy and Spock debate the merits of this system: the inhabitants are comfortable, cared for and healthy but they’re little better than Vaal’s slaves. Spock argues they’re content and should be left alone; McCoy advocates for freeing them from the shackles they don’t know they’re wearing (I’ll come back to this topic in another post). But as often happens with the Prime Directive, it’s a moot point: Vaal’s out to destroy the intruders so they have to destroy him first. Eventually by cutting off his food supply (the rocks, though that isn’t clear) and blasting him with phasers, the burn the computer out. The natives will have the chance to develop as a culture naturally and having babies instead of being preserved in amber, though a dubious Spock compares this afterwards to casting Adam and Eve out of the garden. Kirk points out that out of everyone on the ship, Spock looks the most like Satan … and we end.

This was the second world-controlling computer (more will follow the Enterprise encountered after Return of the Archons but there we got enough backstory to make sense of things: Landru, the great leader, programmed the computer to carry on after he was gone and keep society from breaking down (if you haven’t seen the episode, suffice to say things didn’t work as planned). Here I have no idea where Vaal came from; did the village’s ancestors build it and the computer took over? There’s no indication other than Vaal they’ve ever been that advanced. Why is the planet so full of booby-traps? Is it naturally deadly, because the villagers don’t seem to find it so, or is it set up by Vaal, in which case why? Does it see that many visitors? And if one of the natives falls on the exploding rocks or triggers a thorn-flower, do they then have sex to restore the population? The Enterprise crew brings that up but in all the hemming and hawing about discussing S-E-X, they never get an answer. Maybe because an answer would probably require the innocent natives having had sex.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, “cool worldbuilding” is not something that makes me want to grab a book and read it. But if you’re building a world, it does have to make sense. If I have questions afterwards they should be in the category of “I want to see more!” not “how the heck can that make sense?” The Apple, unfortunately, falls into the second category.

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Have you heard of this show Star Trek? It’s really good!

A little over a year ago, I started Netflixing Star Trek from the beginning. Having finally finished the first season, I’ve got to say it’s a really good show. Of course I knew that already, but I’m not sure I appreciated it the same way. When the original series was in syndication, I watched it endlessly, over and over, and ever since then it’s been a part of me, much as Sherlock Holmes and comic books are. In a sense I took the show for granted. Now, though, I’m more impressed. And this is probably the first time I’ve caught the episodes in the order they aired and with no syndicated cuts.

It’s not a perfect show. Crew members in miniskirts. Offhand casual sexism. Having a black woman and an Japanese-American on the bridge was groundbreaking then, but it’s a pretty white cast now (though it pleases me that they do show crewmembers of color rather than making Uhura and Sulu the only nonwhite faces). Kirk, Spock and McCoy are sharply defined, but the other characters much less so. But as I pointed out at the link, we have Charlie X with its toxic-masculine villain and Kirk doesn’t put up with him. He doesn’t tolerate bigotry against Spock in Balance of Terror and I agree with The Mary Sue that he wouldn’t tolerate it against Uhura either.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like as a kid watching the show when it was new. I’d watch almost any show SF show on the air because there were so few of them. Here was one that was a full-on space adventure, with tons of SF concepts (transporters, ray guns, warp speed, alien life) but unlike the space operas of the 1950s, it was played seriously. Many of the episodes use classic SF tropes: This Side of Paradise resembles Invasion of the Body Snatchers while Operation: Annihilate is more like Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. The Devil in the Dark gives us a misunderstood alien; Arena reworks a Fredric Brown short story; Errand of Mercy, which introduced the Klingons, resembles John W. Campbell’s Twilight (it’s also incredibly funny. Knowing what godlike powers the Organians have, seeing Kirk and Kor treat them as helpless sheeple is hysterical). Harlan Ellison’s Hugo-winning City on the Edge of Forever is first-rate.Watching the series in order is interesting because I can see it develop. We have Spock referring to having human ancestors before they settled on a human parent. Uhura flirting with Spock. The introduction of the Romulans (Balance of Terror, which draws on WW II movie tropes) and then the Klingons. The first appearance of Roger Carmel as Harry Mudd; while he only made one more appearance, his roguish conniving has led to countless fanfic and authorized fic appearances (and plans to use him in Next Generation only to have Carmel pass away first).

And while countless people think the show’s essence is “Captain Kirk has sex with hot space chicks” (something I’ll discuss next week), the romantic/sex focus of the show this season is very much on Lost Love. McCoy meets a lost love in the first episode, Man Trap. Nurse Chapel meets hers in What Are Little Girls Made Of? Kirk encounters former lovers in Court-Martial and Shore Leave (a delightful episode written by SF master Theodore Sturgeon). Even Spock turns out to have a former not-quite-lover in This Side of Paradise.

On the downside, I can also see the tropes the show would run into the ground over the following two seasons. The alt.Earth setting (Miri). The computer-controlled culture that has to be liberated (Return of the Archons). The godlike entity that captures the cast (Squire of Gothos — though Errand of Mercy fits that category too).

Still, overall the show only had one truly wretched episode, The Alternative Factor. Didn’t like it as a kid. Hasn’t improved any. That’s a good batting average.

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A phantom, a fiend, a comet and a captain: media watched this week.

Due to the current quarantine crisis, Andrew Lloyd Webber has begun streaming his musicals on YouTube, free. Last weekend it was THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and as I’ve never seen it on stage, I watched it Sunday morning. Suffice to say, this West End production — the 25th anniversary special — lived up to what I thought it would be (though I thought the chandelier collapse would be more spectacular, nor was Erik’s scarred face). Looks great, good performances and in the equivalent of a post-credits scene they brought out Sarah Brightman (the original Christine) and several past Phantoms including the original, Michael Crawford, all of whom then sang (not Crawford — I’m guessing it’s the vocal strain he’s had to deal with over the years). A real pleasure. “You alone can make my song take flight/It’s over now, the music of the night!”

DESPICABLE ME (2010) is a very oddball animated entry in the genre of Sudden Fatherhood films (which includes Three Men and a Baby, Kenny Rogers’ Sixpack and the TV series Family Affair). Protagonist Gru (Steve Carrell is the kind of diabolical master criminal who’d give a toddler a balloon, then pop it for kicks; as part of his elaborate scheme to steal the moon, he has to adopt three orphan girls, only to discover, inevitably, that they’re exactly what he needed in his lonely life (well, sort of lonely — he has weird minions who eventually got their own spinoff). A part of me wanted to dismiss this as sappy cornball fluff, but it won me over so I guess it’s good sappy cornball fluff. “The physical appearance of the ‘please’ makes no difference.”

I loved NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984) when I saw it in theaters, and I had much the same reaction watching on BluRay (though I’m way too old to crush on Catherine Mary Stewart as I did originally. She and Kelli Maroney play Valley Girl sisters (that California subculture turned up a lot in TV and movies back then) who are among the few survivors when a comet’s tail reduces most of humanity to dust, while transforming those partly exposed into zombies. Fortunately the sisters are Army brats who can fight, shoot and not loose their cool; but even allied with average guy Robert Beltran, can they survive the zombies and Mary Woronov’s sinister scientific cabal?

Writer/director Thom Eberhardt says on one of the commentary tracks that after seeing the movie Valley Girls he wanted to write a movie using that subculture, and combined it with his fondness for “empty city” SF films such as Target: Earth. The results are a blast, not least because it’s an end-of-the-world movie centered around two capable young women instead of the male lead (though making the last good man on Earth Latino was novel too). And while there’s a lot of humor, the movie manages to get the humor/horror balance right. This was my birthday present from TYG and I’m very grateful. “The legal drinking age is now 10 — but you will need ID.”

Using a First Month Free offer I got to stream the first season of CBS’ PICARD, which brings back Patrick Stewart as Captain (okay, now admiral) Picard. Years ago he quit Starfleet when it refused to support his plans to rescue and resettle Romulans facing death when their sun went nova (“Resigning was my backup plan.”). Now a the death of a mysterious woman possibly tied to the late Commander Data convinces Picard to get back in the game and back into space, accompanied by an inevitably scruffy rag-tag crew. Meanwhile, the dead woman’s exact double is working with XBs (Ex Borg) on a deactivated Borg cube in Romulan space. What’s the connection? And why are Romulans so hostile to all forms of artificial intelligence?

The show has some plot holes but Stewart’s tremendous presence anchors it and the supporting cast are excellent, particularly Alison Pill as an AI expert. There are several familiar faces from Next Generation (and one other series), and the show uses them effectively. I don’t know if I’ll pay to stream S2, but maybe … “If you find a way out of this, they should call it the Picard Maneuver — wait, that’s already a thing, isn’t it?”

Alison Pill also appears as another computer whiz in the much less interesting show Devs. I posted a detailed review at Atomic Junkshop.

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The women of early Star Trek

A few weeks back I started doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: rewatch the original Star Trek series. It was very much a part of my teen years as I watched episodes over and over in syndication, but it’s been years since I caught any of the episodes, except in passing when TYG was rewatching them. When I began, I discovered Netflix’s run includes the original pilot episode The Cage preceding the first episode, Man Trap. The difference between them was interesting.

Gene Roddenberry has rightfully taken crap for a vision of the future in which women, even though qualified to serve on a space ship, are primarily eye candy. The Cage is a step up from that. The ship’s first officer, Number One (Majel Barrett) is competent; Captain Pike’s female yeoman, Colt (Laurel Goodwin) is much more tomboyish in demeanor than ST: OS’ Yeoman Rand; the show emphasizes that having a female yeoman on the bridge is a novel thing.

The show does make it clear that the woman are attracted to Pike, so who knows how they’d have been written if the original pilot went to series. But having a woman as first officer, and clearly competent, is still striking, particularly in that era.

A little too striking for the network, which told Rodenberry to either dump Number One or get rid of Spock; he opted to keep Spock, believing viewers needed to see an alien on board. Colt got replaced by Rand.

The opening episodes of the regular series do feel much more sexist. Yeoman Rand is mostly there to be pretty and smile and run errands (watching as a teenager, I thought “yeoman” must be something like a valet). Uhura flirts quite a bit with Spock. It’s disappointing to compare.

But then we get to the second episode, Charlie X. This gives the Enterprise it’s first encounter with a cosmically powerful foe, a teenage boy raised by disembodied intelligences who taught him their ability to transform matter. It’s apparently a limitless power, and Charlie’s a teenager, full of raging hormones and completely unused to dealing with other humans. He reacts viciously to slights or hurts and winds up a lot like Billy Mumy’s demigod on It’s a Good Life.

He also looks like the embodiment of the #metoo villain. Once he meets Yeoman Rand she’s all he can think about, and he can’t tolerate being told no. She tries introducing Charlie to a girl his own age; he treats the girl like dirt. His feelings, his needs, are all that he cares about; he thinks he loves Yeoman Rand but she’s just a means to an end, the end being his own satisfaction.

Watching in my teens, I knew he was out of line, but I saw him mostly as a tragic figure, screwed up by his own lack of experience dealing with people. Now I see him as much creepier.

I don’t think I’ll have more to say about the series until I finish S1, but you never know.

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Star Trek transported my week away!

More specifically, my new Screen Rant on embarrassing roles of Star Trek actors. Like William Shatner (above) as an alcoholic priest in The Horror at 37,000 Feet.

The embarrassment isn’t necessarily that they did a dreadful job. Although Brent Spiner (above) did not cover himself with glory in Rent Control. To say nothing of his mustache. It’s simply that the production as a whole was dreadful. Roxann Dawson didn’t make a memorable impression in the nursing drama Nightingales but it’s not like that show gave her much to work with (or anyone else).

It was fun to do, but because there are so many actors and so many potential entries, I ran it up to 25 items. That’s a lot of writing, and it took up way more time than usual. So basically my accomplishments this week were that piece, my usual array of Leaf articles, and a couple of thousand words of Southern Discomfort.

But that said, it was fun, and I think I did a great job. So go check it out.

And the Leaf project I’ve been working on apparently wraps up this week (something new may be coming down the pike in July or August) — there’s no more articles in the queue. I knew that was coming, but I figured it would be a couple more weeks. That’s an extra 10 hours a week the rest of the month to do my own writing stuff, whoot! I shall put it to good use.

So not much else to say. On the personal front, a foundation-repair job (nothing critical, just shoring up some potential weaknesses) began this week, though it won’t finish until Monday (weather permitting).

Oh, and despite Verizon confirming in writing that they’d closed a fake account someone took out in my name (and didn’t pay for), I got a call today from a debt collector today. I offered to send them the Verizon email: oh, sorry, they don’t have an email address! And they can’t contact Verizon! Yeah, right. So I hung up. I’ll deal with them if they call back. I’m not entirely surprised — I’ve read plenty of accounts of people who resolved debts, but some data entered online, somewhere, kept it alive. Sometimes even within companies like Verizon. And the penalties for error are few.

A sour note to end the week on, but I’m still looking forward to next week.

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Cooks, confederates and Kirk: Movies viewed (#SFWApro)

THE MATING SEASON (1951) is a comedy that deserves to be much better known. Thelma Ritter is a restaurateur, whose son John Lund is a low-ranking executive; after Lund meets aristocratic Gene Tierney he hides his blue-collar origins from her so when Ritter shows up at their apartment, Tierney assumes she’s the new cook. Hilarity (and a sharp skewering of social pretension) really does ensue. Worth looking for (poster courtesy of the Movie Poster Shop, all rights remain with current holder). “You’re on her side already—and she’d be on yours if she’d been lucky enough to be born an orphan.”

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After the god-awful Star Trek: Into Darkness, I probably wouldn’t have caught STAR TREK BEYOND (2016) if TYG hadn’t wanted to. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by the story of deranged alien Idris Elba (wearing the kind of stiff alien mask that would have looked familiar back in the days of the original series) crashing the Enterprise on his isolated world so that he can steal the Ultimate Weapon Kirk unwittingly possesses and thereby destroy the Federation (“Unity of all races is an illusion.”). The crew’s character arcs include Kirk wondering about the point of his long-range mission and Spock breaking up with Uhura. A good actioner that has more of the Trek spirit than the first two films did. Elba, however, has too stock a role to show off his talent. “There’s no absolute direction out there—all you have is yourself, your crew and your ship.”

JAPANESE SUMMER: Double Suicide (1967) has a lot in common with arty Western films of the era, opening with a string of bizarre visuals involving a horny young woman and a brooding deserter, then winding up in an underground bunker for strange conversations with a clique of possible gangsters and a suicidal high-schooler, then finishing in a confrontation with a Mad Sniper. According to the Criterion Films website, the director wanted this to be meaningless at the literal level and he certainly succeeded, but success doesn’t make it watchable. Given the mad shooter and the emphasis on the summer heat, the logical double bill would be Summer of Sam. “If he kills me he has to watch me—then I see myself reflected in his eyes.”

Long before The Free State of Jones became a Matthew McConaghey movie, the story was fictionalized as TAP ROOTS (1948), which transforms hardscrabble farmer Newt Knight into the kind of wealthy planter (Ward Bond) the real-life Knight Company despised. Bond’s plan to turn Jones County into a fortress for Southern Unionists to defy the Confederacy just serves as the backdrop of a Gone With the Wind knockoff wherein headstrong belle Susan Hayward must choose between an idealist cavalryman and womanizing newspaper publisher Van Heflin who signs on with Bond’s crusade (instead of the War Between the States it’s the War Between Confederates). Too stock to get any mileage out of the premise, though it would double-bill well with Jimmy Stewart’s Southern refusenik in Shenandoah. Boris Karloff plays Bond’s Native American buddy (believe it or not, the second Native American role he’s played that I know of). “If you look behind those curtains you’ll be questioning my veracity.”

 

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Star Trek—or is it Time Trek? Time-travel movies (#SFWApro)

MV5BMjEzOTk1ODU1Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODEwNDI4OA@@._V1_SX214_AL_I’d forgotten how good STAR TREK IV: The Voyage Home (1986) actually was until I rewatched it. An alien probe (in some ways the weakest bit—it could as easily be V’ger from the first film) begins destroying Earth in its quest for contact with now-extinct humpback whales, forcing the Enterprise crew (flying a Klingon ship due to losing the Enterprise in the previous film) to travel back to the present to bring back a pair of humpbacks). Winning, entertaining and it handles the anachronism jokes well. Unfortunately the rebirth of the Enterprise obviously packs less punch now than it did. With Catherine Hicks as a cetacean expert. All rights to poster with current holder“Can you direct me to the naval base in Alameida? It’s where they keep the nuclear weapons.”

STAR TREK (2009) has a time-traveling Romulan’s attempt to kill Spock create a divergent timeline in which Kirk is a reckless brawler strongly inclined to disrespect authority (from what we know of Kirk’s early years, in the original timeline he was a serious, very focused student), Vulcan blows up and Scottie (Simon Pegg) is stuck at an isolated base with no hope of proving his theories of how to teleport people across space. Entertaining, but I think I agree with a friend of mine that JJ Abrams doesn’t really get Star Trek as anything other than a space opera story (certainly Into Darkness was a mess).

STAR WRECK: In the Pirkinning (2005) was the first full-length film in a long-running Finnish series of Trek parodies. Taking off from the previous film’s parody of First Contact (I haven’t seen that film yet, though I will soon), it has Captain Pirk and his crew (including Dwarf, Info and the Russian Fukov) still stuck in the past until they manipulate the Russian president into building them a spaceship to conquer the world (unsurprisingly Stupid Russians is apparently comic gold in Finland). With the world conquered, Pirk then takes his crew into an alternate universe where they battle a counterpart of Babylon 5. Not without some fun moments, but too much of the humor relies on giving characters parody names (that only gets you so far) and while I like Babylon 5 it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I didn’t always remember what they were parodying (a common problem for parody) “It is my right to make speeches and nobody will deny me!”

THE RIDE (2003) is the kind of film that slipped through the cracks of several time-travel website as it’s a primarily a surfing film in which the protagonist drowns, wakes up in 1911, suffers the usual anachronistic confusion, meets the usual Pretty Girl (who turns out to be the sister of the Hawaiian who introduced surfing to the world) and of course learns valuable life lessons. I don’t think I’d have liked this even if I were into surfing, and the Pretty Girl’s double turning up at the end is even less likely a romance than usual (would you want to date someone who used to sleep with your great-grandmother?). “You’re too young to reminisce.”

FREEJACK (1992) is a really bad adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s imaginative Immortality Inc., a mindless action film that could have dropped the time-travel angle completely. Emilio Estevez plays a race-car driver pulled 18 years into the future to become the host for Anthony Hopkins’ (phoning it in as a corporate mogul) brain transplant (because in 1992, the environment is so pure that bodies are better!), going on the run from thuggish bodysnatcher Mick Jagger and trying to find old lover Rene Russo (who does a good job subtly aging in her body language). Amanda Plummer steals several scenes as a pottymouth nun and Jonathan Banks gives a nice cold-fish performance as Hopkins’ scheming flunky. “Applause? You couldn’t get the clap if you were in a whorehouse.”

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I’m spoiling everything, be warned. Star Trek: Into Darkness

I liked JJ Abrams first ST movie. I was primed for STAR TREK: Into Darkness. I was disappointed. Not all the way through, but by the end it had tanked. And it only gets worse when I think about it.
First, the plot: Kirk gets caught violating the Prime Directive (which apparently bans even averting planetary destruction) and reduced to First Office under Christopher Pike. When Benedict Cumberpatch arranges a terrorist attack on a records facility, the Captains and first officers gather for a confab and Kirk realizes this is standard operating procedure—and sure enough Cumberpatch strikes again. Pike dies, Kirk’s first action saves most of the others and Kirk’s back in charge of the Enterprise. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) reveals the killer is hiding on the Klingon homeworld and sends the Enterprise to nuke him with photon torpedoes.
After Spock convinces Kirk they should bring him in for trial (infuriating one conservative), an away team goes down, gets almost killed by the Klingons until saved by Cumberpatch. He reveals himself to be Khan (yep the Khan) and surrenders to prevent firing the torpedoes—which it turns out contain his fellow genengineered superhumans in cryo.
Khan reveals Marcus thawed him out of cold sleep in the belief humanity had gotten too soft and a race of sociopaths could win the inevitable war Marcus hoped to provoke with the Klingons. Oh, and Marcus has built a dreadnought class starship, which now attacks the Enterprise. Khan and Kirk team up against Marcus (helped by his daughter Carol), then Khan turns on Kirk to free his people (after which he’ll begin a mass genocide against ordinary humans). In a role reversal of Wrath of Khan, Kirk dies restarting the Enterprise engines, Spock screams “KHAAAAAN” and then goes to hunt down Khan, who having failed to get his people back, plans to smash the dreadnought into Starfleet HQ. Bones discovers Khan’s healing-factor blood can revive Kirk, Spock captures Khan (who goes back into cold sleep with the others) and a resurrected Kirk warns us against militarism.
The minor problem in this is a shit-ton of plot-holes. Why does Khan hide out on the Klingon world? How is the Klingons are oblivious to federation starships on the very edge of contested space? How come Starfleet doesn’t notice starships dueling inside the solar system?
A bigger problem is the decision to remake Wrath of Khan at all.The whole point of launching a new timeline is to do something different: I had no problem with the use of Khan per se, but the blatant knocking off of key plot points from WoK was incredibly annoying, rather than amusing. And pointless: I could seriously contemplate Spock dying in the original (there was, after all, no guarantee we’d get an ST III) but Kirk in the new series? No way. And alt.Spock’s pain after two movies with Kirk pales compares to Kirk watching Spock die after they’ve known each other 20 years (plus Spock’s death in WoK tied into the theme of Kirk finally accepting Kobashi Maru—that sometimes he couldn’t save everyone).
And then there’s Cumberpatch. Fans have legitimately complained about taking a nonwhite guy (judging from the name) played by a Mexican actor and turning him into a white guy (there’s also complaints that Dr. Marcus has gone from the woman who built the Genesis device to the woman who gives us an underwear shot). It’s a valid point, but I admit I was more annoyed by his performance. He sneers, he talks down to people and that’s about it. Even when he talks about saving his people, there’s no real warmth. It’s not a very interesting performance (certainly less fun than Montalban’s swaggering ubermensch).
And while it’s a minor point by comparison, referencing the original Eugenics Wars was a bad idea. Because in this timeline they still took place in the 20th century and in case you haven’t noticed, that didn’t happen. That totally dragged me out of the film.
Maybe some people are right and in this series, all the even-numbered ones will suck.

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