Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Star Trek VI: 25 Years Of The Undiscovered Country

            Star Trek stood by itself 30 years ago. There was only one Star Trek,with one cast of characters. Then a year later, Star Trek: The Next Generation came along. During seasons 4 and 5 of that show,Star Trek as a whole celebrated its 25th anniversary.1991 was also the year where I went to my Star Trek convention-the only one my area ever put on,met actress Nichelle Nichols and got a chance to go to the theaters to see my second Star Trek movie on the big screen. That movie was Star Trek VI:The Undiscovered Country. Whats interesting about today is that this movie itself is now currently experiencing its own 25th anniversary.

                The Undiscovered Country was announced amid a rumor mill that I'd heard play out at a local comic store called The Wizards Den.  One thing that was known about the film was that it was going to be the final film to feature the entirety of the original Star Trek cast. Another story (which thankfully turned out to be total rumor) was that the entire original crew of the Enterprise would be killed off in the film. As with most Star Trek films made after 1984,the films production had an air of secrecy. There were a few things I did now based on info included in the Star Trek 25th anniversary special.

                  Those two realities of the film were that The Undiscovered Country would involve Klingon's. And that it would be a who dunnit. That turned out to be something of an understatement. The story involves a reluctant James T Kirk (and the crew of the Enterprise) being accused of attacking a Klingon vessel (and murdering Chancellor Gorkon,who was on board) at the dawn of peace negotiations following due to a disaster crippling the Klingon's energy resources. Solving this mystery unravels a conspiracy within both the Federation and Klingon empires by those who'd stand to lose from such a peace between the two societies.

                   Star Trek has always functioned best as sci fi social allegory paralleling current events on Earth within its universe. The Undiscovered Country's plot about a Klingon energy production facility called Praxis exploding and the need for a mutually beneficial peace paralleled the relationship between America and the Perestroika era USSR following the Chernobyl disaster. Director Nicholas Meyer had a big role in this element of the story. Using the character of General Chang (played by Christopher Plummer),he inserted his love of Shakespeare by including elements of The Bard's Hamlet into the story. That includes the title of the film itself.

                      One thing that enhances the films story is the memorable characters. Even ones who were only to appear in the film. A young Kim Cattrall appears as the Vulcan Lieutenant Valeris. Her interactions with Spock and the crew during their investigation of the Klingon/Federation conspiracy make her so endearing and memorable,one might be sad she winds up the villain of the piece. Still though,a villain of some complexity. Same goes for Christopher Plummer as the pompous General Chang. Iman makes an appearance as the clever and treacherous shape shifter Martia. Who actually provides Kirk with an interesting (if brief) prison love scene on the icy penal colony of Rura Penthe.

                        James Kirk himself is a major plot point during this film. Spock volunteers him for a mission to meet Chancellor Gorkon's ship as an escort to a peace conference. The humorous send up is Spock quoting the Vulcan proverb that says "only Nixon could go to China". Kirk is presented as a man who distrusts Klingon's due to the death of his son. The behavior of the racially diverse crew members of the Enterprise during an awkward state dinner with the Klingon's  indicates that,while humanity has solved its own issues with bigotry,that they would still need to take time to deal with alien races with very different values and cultural traits than humanity.

                         Michael Dorn,who portrayed Worf in Star Trek The Next Generation also appeared in the film as his characters grandfather. This character was an attorney pressed into service to defend Kirk and Dr.McCoy during their murder trial on the Klingon home world of Kronos,which actually gets its official name in this movie. Also,this is also the first Star Trek to feature any characters dealing with problems associated with zero gravity. After the attack on Gorkon's ship,the gravity is knocked out. And this provides an opportunity to set up the assassination plot that characterizes the film.

                           In the end,I view this as one of the original Star Trek films that got everything completely right. It had memorable side characters,plenty of what the late DeForest Kelly referred to as "Star Trek moments" relating to its type of humor,very magisterial action sequences filled with manic Shakespeare quotations and (most importantly to me,anyway) some of the best and most topical senses of social commentary in a Star Trek film. At the end of the day,its about the contrivances some will create in the face of their fears of change. And that comes together to make this one of Star Trek's finest theatrical moments.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Star Trek-First Contact: A 20th Anniversary Perspective

        Star Trek-First Contact celebrated its 20th anniversary one week ago today. It was a film that had a great deal riding on it. It would be the first motion picture to fully showcase the characters from Star Trek-The Next Generation. Not only that,but the events of the previous movie Star Trek-Generations necessitated the design of a brand new Starship Enterprise. Specifically NCC-1701-E. The movie's creators Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga (at the time working primarily on UPN's Star Trek-Voyager) also decided that the plot of the film should focus around the TNG era of Star Trek's most frightening nemesis: the Borg. 

The plot of the movie dealt with the new Enterprise E and its grew travelling back in time when a Borg vessel used a time vortex to assimilate humanity in its past-following an invasion of Earth that Starfleet had thwarted. The Borg had gone back to stop first contact,humanity's initial contact with an extraterrestrial species,the Vulcan's,following the first faster then light speed interstellar voyage by Zefram Cochrane. Through some interference on the part of the Enterprises's crew,the Borg's attempts to stop first contact are successfully stopped. And Cochrane,though initially reluctant,does make his warp flight before the Enterprise crew return to their now restored timeline.

All of the events that led up to the Star Trek universe had been the topic of many commercially released novels and fan fiction about the show prior to this movie. The character of Zefram Cochrane was even introduced in the original Star Trek TV episode "Metamorphosis". James Cromwell portrayed the role of Cochrane in this film. He is the catalyst for the movie's events. Not only that,but he was also the central element of the movies most enduring theme: what motivates idolatry. The crew of the Enterprise view Cochrane as a heroic figure from their time period. Cochrane himself is a damaged cynic who views his first warp speed flight as a chance to make his personal fortune.

One excellent character in the film is the wise and calculated astro physicist Lily Sloane,portrayed by Alfre Woodard. Her level head and no nonsense manner balance out the extreme actions of Captain Jean Luc Picard in the film. And that's a good lead in to my personal observations of the film. When First Contact's trailers were first shown on television in the summer of 1996,they came across as disappointing and unappealing. In fact,there was a long period where I had absolutely no interest in seeing the movie. My parents convinced me to give it a chance. After seeing it,my opinion was downgraded. However,time has given far more clarity to those angry and disappointed thoughts.

First Contact was actually one of the TNG era casts most successful films from a strictly commercial standpoint. However,the weakness I observed in the film is best summed up by what BBC film critic Emily Carlisle said of the film at the time. And that was that it was a more action and less character focused film than the majority of Star Trek movies. Even objectively,I'd have to look at the mid 1990's to try to explain some of this. At this point,the subersive and underground "mean people" culture of the 1980's had come into the mainstream of pop culture. In this highly sarcastic culture,Star Trek was often snidely referred to as a retro (even campy) joke from an idealistic past.

Star Trek in general was experiencing its 30th anniversary the year First Contact came out. And I was deeply involved in the literature about the writing and development of this film. Its creators made no bones about wanting to create a film for a more modern (and presumably less cerebral) audience. So in the film,the Borg are more overtly hostile and horror movie zombie like in nature. Also,Jean Luc Picard is almost totally out of character as a vengeful character acting more like Rambo,with an enormous dose of PTSD. Not to mention jokes about the normally gentle Counselor Troi getting drunk simply to curry favor with Zefram Cochrane.

As with any film,its all a matter of taste. I personally felt it represent the beginning of Star Trek's downfall. And still do now. A good part of that has to do that its action/catch phrase based nature essentially laid the groundwork for J.J. Abrams' modern day Star Trek reboots. So if someone loves Star Trek for its wit,characters and futuristic social commentary,this film really offers little for such an audience. If one views Star Trek as action driven sci fi in need of cultural updates to suit changing trends,this movie might just be for you. With Star Trek just about to reemerge from its 11 year slumber on TV in May of 2017,First Contact may eventually come to be seen a bit differently.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Star Trek's Golden Anniversary: Boldly Going To A Future Where No One Has Gone Before

Tomorrow will be a very special day for admirers of Star Trek. It'll be the 50th anniversary of the original series of the show first airing on NBC. There has been some vital Trek related events this year. The first was the third edition of the still controversial reboot movie series staring Chris Pine called Star Trek Beyond-which as of this writing I have yet to see. Even more exciting is the announcement of the first Star Trek TV series in over a decade to be premiere early in 2017. Trek alumni Bryan Fuller and Nicholas Meyer will be prominently involved in its writing as well.

Personally, I don't think there's much to say about Star Trek that isn't well known to many. Especially in the post 9/11 world,much of which has been devoid of any new Star Trek on TV,the shows ability to entertain and enlighten with vital science fiction concepts and a socially progressive message is actually becoming a lot more seriously understood than it was in my own personal generation. So to celebrate Star Trek's 50th anniversary,I'm going to run down the pros and cons about Star Trek's production and impact on society. It will be rather subjective. But you may still find some universal truths in it too.

Trek Pros:
*Seeing racial equality and understanding as a strength. This point was brought up by YouTube columnist Steve Shives on his list video about Star Trek. Its also somewhat ironic that another YouTube user I'm aware of pointed out the need for Star Trek in current society without realizing it. And all by this person stating that racial diversity was actually a huge weakness.

*Star Trek has provided us with many unique scientific concepts. It practically invented the cell phone,the smart phone and the internet tablet. Not to mention the ideas of tricorder's,phasers,
holodecks and food replicators all being studied as possible future technologies. Have to wonder when humanity will be able to handle the invention of Isaac Asimov's positronic brain that Data had in Star Trek The Next Generation.

*During times when the positive social changes of the 1960's were being challenged by regressive and theocratic politics,Star Trek remained in existence in some form to remind its viewers not to give into cynicism. That the future could be hopeful,productive,full of new adventures and even humor.

Trek Cons:
*Taking Star Trek out of syndication. After the negative personal experience Gene Roddenberry had the original Star Trek series,the following two spin offs The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were sent straight to syndication. And became very successful. The next spin off Voyager launched the now defunct UPN (United Paramount Network).

That series popularity faltered some. After the failure of its followup prequel Enterprise in 2005,the series ended and took UPN with it. There has not been another Star Trek spin off on TV since. With much of the upcoming new series set to air on CBS's new streaming channel All Access,one can only hope the people in charge will soon learn the lesson from the terrible mistake of making Star Trek exclusive to a specific network.

*Star Trek being considered cheesy. I was in adolescence in the 1990's. So this part may be the most subjective. As early as the mid 80s,stand up and skit comedy began depicting some of the acting and low budget effects of the original Star Trek. This often led to Star Trek being seen as "wonderful cheese" or some other such thing,even within its own fandom. Luckily after the demise of the prequel series Enterprise,this attitude began to change. And most people began to realize how significant Star Trek was socially and to the world of technology.

*Star Trek post 9/11. Realize this was already hinted at. But while its true any long running TV show (including spin offs) needs its breaks to keep from growing stale,Star Trek's decade off TV after 2005 was a gaping loss. When reality was dominated by reminders that many of the 60's social changes in race,sex and politics were not yet fully resolved,I personally cannot think of a time when something such as Star Trek,with its implicit social commentary,was more needed.

So there's the basic pros and cons to Star Trek. They don't apply that much to the actual content of the show. But more so to how Star Trek has been presented at different times. Its a happy decision to see that Star Trek has such a strong,positive and above all more well rounded understanding with people today. Even the satire of it is more affectionate so it seems. Now as it is about to return to the small screen,Star Trek can harness its great cultural power and influence to help humanity boldly going to the future it really could use to go to.

Steve Shive's YouTube Video '5 Awesome Things About Star Trek'