Saturday, September 29, 2007

Captain's Log: TNG is 20, the Doctor is Who?

It was twenty years ago today, more or less, and Star Trek was reborn. As I remember the mood of the time, people were worried that the new Trek was (1) not going to be as good or as Trek as the original series, (2) it was going to be too new, and therefore unrecognizable as Trek, and yet (3) not new enough, and so repeating some of the lamer elements of the original series.

I still intend to write in detail about that first 2-hour episode, "Encounter at Farpoint," as it contributes to the Trek take on history, and the soul of Star Trek. But a few notes now on how it addressed these fears/expectations...

Roddenberry and company had to walk a fine line: they had to be reassuring, they had to respond to specific dissatisfactions, and they had to thrill us all over again for the first time. And, just about miraculously, they did.

The reassurance came immediately: with the same framework of the "Space--the final frontier" opening, and with the music: a slightly more upbeat version of the theme to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was the one thing about that movie that almost everybody loved. They reassured us also that they were going to be as forward-looking as Star Trek was in the 60s by giving us state of the art visuals, and quality of design. Not to mention the "where no one has gone before."

It's been pretty much forgotten now, but at the time people were getting tired of the original series in syndication, and talking about how dated it looked. So it was important for TNG to move forward, and yet... That sense that it was still Star Trek was partly why several of the first season stories (notably the second, "The Naked Now") were similar to the original series, or even close copies. "Updating" Star Trek was part of what people wanted.

The Farpoint story was reassuringly Trek--and as the authors of Deep Space and Sacred Time pointed out, all the pilot or opening episodes of Trek series' had to do with humans meeting a more powerful civilization, and distinguishing themselves in some way. Yet this story also advanced the Star Trek mythology and gave a clearer sense of its purpose. And a few episodes later, with "Where No One Has Gone Before," what would be the unique Next Generation character started to emerge.

And of course the most obvious and potent link to the original series happened close to midway through "Farpoint" in a very brief scene that still has the power to give you chills: Doctor McCoy meets Data. McCoy's lines weren't all that great, but Dee Kelley's delivery was perfect..."She's a good ship, and she's got the right name. You remember that, boy. You treat her like a lady, and she'll always bring you home." The music came in at just the right moment, and Star Trek was reborn.

Doctor Who?

Here in North America, we are one episode from the end of the 3rd season of the new Doctor Who. We've had two eps of this final three-parter. The first, "Utopia" saw the return of Captain Jack and a wonderful performance by the eminent actor, Derek Jacobi. (No wonder Patrick Stewart is pining to be in the series.) It saw the re-emergence of another nemesis from the "classic" Doctor series, the Master--himself a very powerful Time Lord.

As has become characteristic of the new series, elements of several (if not all) previous episodes this year return in a different way, or are shown to be related. In this case, the Master had escaped the Time War by doing what we saw the Doctor do, become fully human--with his Time Lordness confined in an old pocket watch. At this point Jacobi becomes the actor (John Simm) and character (Harold Saxon) we saw early this year. He steals the TARDIS, leaving our intrepid trio hanging on the cliff of the end of time. Very scary stuff.

The next episode, the one I've just watched, "The Sound of Drums" was even scarier. But it also ticked me off, a lot. First of all, I hate the Sci-Fi Channel. Not only do they slice up these episodes with many minutes of multiple commercials, one more inane than the last, and tart the screen up with floating images and advertisements--which destroys the narrative flow and suspense (and drives me nuts fast-forwarding through all that nonsense since I refuse to be subjected to it live), but this time they actually broke up an ongoing scene. At just an arbitrary moment, when the Doctor paused to take a breath.

So I'm already in kind of a bad mood, half in the story and half out, and a number of details took me out a little farther. The Master gets control of the population by feeding them some kind of subliminal message through their cell phones--hello? Did he get the idea from watching last season's story in the alternate universe, where the mastermind of the Cybermen used Ipod/Bluetooth earpieces? Which also included the phone network?

And why does every advanced species--the Vulcans, the Time Lords--have to wear such ridiculous outfits? If they're so smart, why can't they figure out how nonfunctional, uncomfortable and silly-looking they are?

But what really cheeses me off is the Master. He's supposed to be sort of crazy, so he acts like a madcap jokester. Just like a certain Time Lord we used to know--the Doctor, as played by Tom Baker. And to make absolutely sure we get this resemblance, when the Master is about to destroy Earth, he's seen offering someone a jelly baby out of a paper sack. It's so totally identified with Tom Baker that it is unmistakable.

The question is Why? Why, in what seems to be their most successful season of what now is clearly a successful reboot of the series, do they find it necessary to dis the most beloved of the classic Doctors? The one that David Tennant, among others working on this series, grew up on? Are they trying to equate Tom Baker's Doctor with the Master? Who is supposed to be Who? I am not amused.

So next week it looks like we get to see Rose--sorry, I mean Martha--save the day when the Doctor can't. And she'll go off with Captain Jack to their new series, which I'll never see, not having the wads of cash necessary to afford BBC America, which incidentally is a big disappointment. I saw it when I visited my sister, and it seemed to be filled with the prototypes for all the crappy sitcoms, so-called "dramas" and game shows we've got on American commercial TV, only with worse looking people and the same commercials repeated endlessly.

All of this of course is not preventing me from queuing up for the third season of the new Who on DVD from Netflix. But it's sure making me grumpy now.

Log Updates

As I already mentioned, Patrick Stewart told an interviewer last week that he's a big Doctor Who fan and is "deeply dismayed" not to have been invited to be in it. No doubt sincere, it still qualifies as publicity for his upcoming role as the father of Hamlet, who is played by David Tennant, as outlined here last time. Our Patrick is also getting raves for his current Macbeth (also see last time.)

In another Captain's Log followup, you may have noted that the terrible political oppression in Myanmar, formerly Burma, where thousands of Buddhist monks marched in opposition to the despotic government, and were violently attacked. The situation was condemned by world leaders including President Bush at the UN. But if you're a regular reader here, you may remember that this summer, the lone voice calling attention to all this belonged to Star Trek's Walter Koenig.


David K. M. Klaus said...

Having seen "The Sound of Drums" via YouTube, I can tell you that SciFi Channel also cut content for time in at least two places: one of the political endorsements on the Saxon website was cut in its entirety, and Jack's reaction remark to Martha's strained look in response to the Doctor's offhand comparison of the perception filters to unrequited love is missing.

Captain Future said...

I saw reference to Jack's remark somewhere, and thought I'd just missed it. Maybe YouTube is the way to go until the DVDs are available. Thanks!