Friday, August 08, 2008

Captain's Log: Good News on New Trek, Dr. Who's Big Finish

Most of the gab about the new Star Trek movie gives me the same feelings: could be good, could be bad, gives me hope, gives me the willies. For instance, this story at Trek Today, referring to the "Batman Returns-style reboot" (which if that's what it is could threaten a Star Trek war) and quotes director J.J. Abrams: "The whole point was to try to make this movie for fans of movies, not fans of 'Star Trek' necessarily," said Abrams. "It was an opportunity to take what I think has been a maligned world and treat it in a way that felt genuinely thrilling."

BUT "We've made sure we're serving the people who are completely enamored with 'Star Trek'," he explained. "But at the same time, this film is so unlike what you expect, so unlike the 'Star Trek' you've seen. I can tell you that the idea of the universe of 'Star Trek' has never been given this kind of treatment."

Well, it might be true that it's completely different--then again, it's what Rick Berman said before Nemesis and Enterprise. But how different do we really want it to be? So much of Star Trek depends on how it's handled, and despite being "maligned," there are aspects of its style that are as essential as its content.

But in the end, it's all adjectives--none of this tells us anything, really. But I did read one comment that gave me real hope--and that constitutes what I consider very good news. It came in an interview Leonard Nimoy gave to Trek, and I don't know if anyone else noticed this part of it. While describing the upcoming movie as an adventure story, Nimoy did explain what he understood to be its theme:

"I would say if there is one major driving emotional force to it, it has to do with the concept of revenge and the damage that the desire for revenge can cause.

And I have always been interested in that as a concern. I think that we have seen in our time, various political factions, various political leaders, various political peoples want to get revenge for what they feel has been an unjust attack and the cycle goes around and around and it doesn’t stop. Somebody has to say "lets quit this, we are just destroying each other." So I think, if anything, I come away from this movie with that concept."

Now that's a Star Trek movie concept! It fits perfectly with the kind of thinking and the values that Star Trek has most consistently represented, and it is at the same time a bold alternative to the conventional take of the time, both in the "real world" of politics and nations, and in the stories responding to the times we most often see in films and television, and even some Star Trek novels.

Because for at least the past 7 years, revenge has been In, big time. An understandable reaction quickly becomes over-reaction, and suddenly we're taking vengeance on people who didn't do anything to us. In the U.S., the mood has been so toxic that a lot of people aren't even bothering to dispute that their calls for capital punishment is anything other than vengeance.

In his book The Future of the Self, Walter Truett Anderson wrote, "I used to watch Star Trek reruns with my son, and I often mused, as I followed those stirring adventures in outer space, that although we have brilliant powers of imagination regarding technological and even political changes, we seem to wax wimpy when it comes to imagining any fundamental psychological changes. There on the screen were all those gallant men and women of the far-distant future, acting in pretty much the same way as the characters in World War II movies."

I'd differ with Anderson to a degree--the original series and original cast movies as well as Next Generation did at times attempt to show that a better future depends not only on better technology, but on becoming better people. And I'd add that a TV or film story can only move so far away in a few ways from audience expectations or the characters become unbelievable, and audiences can't identify with them. And point out that Star Trek allegories were often about the present, and secondarily about the future.

But his point is valid to the extent that a lot of Star Trek, like other science fiction set in the future, does not think beyond current and past stereotypes of behavior and motivation, especially as represented in stories. Cold War psychology was often presented as future psychology in Star Trek, and I'd argue that Deep Space Nine was quite often indistinguishable from a World War II movie, except with bumps and better tech.

Of course, however bold it may be in today's atmosphere to suggest that revenge is self-destructive, it isn't exactly evidence of psychology beyond present human capability. It's not only been preached and dramatized for centuries, but this insight is at the heart of some elaborate behavior in other primate species. It is as it has always been, a matter of emphasis. It is in us to be better, and we need only the vision and the courage (and the cultural support) to make it so.

So I am encouraged by Leonard Nimoy's suggestion that this theme is the emotional center of the upcoming Star Trek movie. I hope it is a strong theme. With all the special effects available to a big budget movie, the temptation is strong to concentrate on war movie thrills. I would hate to see Star Trek die that way.

Journey's End

No longer the title only of one of my favorite Next Generation episodes, but now "Journey's End" is the apt title of the final story of the new Doctor Who fourth season, which played on the U.S. Sci-Fi channel recently. (Apparently this year saw ratings for the series grow by almost a quarter.) It ended a trilogy of episodes, and as the title promises, it pretty much ended the entire four year journey so far.

For the series, it marked the last episodes of several main producers, and even though Exec Producer Russell T. Davis remains to engineer the transition to the Stephen Moffat era in the four stories next season (the Christmas Special, and three other specials), it effectively ends his creative reign.

For fans, the final stories return just about every major character of the past four years: Rose, Captain Jack, Sarah Jane, Martha as well as this year's companion, Donna, and other characters from the spin-offs, Torchwood and Sarah Jane Mysteries. Mickey, Rose's mother. Even K-9! All in an adventure that saw the return of the Daleks and the first appearance in the new series of Davros. (Davros' appearance and accent reminded me that I heard years ago that George Lucas based several characters on those in Doctor Who. I see a lot of the Emperor in Davros.)

I watched the first of this last trilogy, "Turn Left" (the now traditional yearly ep without much of the Doctor in it) recorded from Sci-Fi Channel, but with the return of Rose and Bad Wolf, I wasn't going to wait around several weeks for the rest of the story. So I watched the last two eps, "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End" the same night, on YouTube. Then watched them again on TV. And "Journey's End" again on YouTube with the commentary. I'm not obsessed, no, not at all, not one bit. Weeelll, maybe a tiny bit. Little tiny bit.

In most ways that matter, it was a fitting conclusion. Davis handled the sci-fi elements beautifully, and if there were holes in the elaborate conceptual underpinning, I didn't notice them, yet. Tennant was brilliant, as he has been all season, and Catherine Tate did some astonishing work as Donna Noble, especially in that last episode. My quibble would be that in order to get everybody else in, there wasn't much time to hone in on any of them. Rose had her big scenes, but she also was standing around a lot.

The payoff for the audience was in the bliss of seeing them all at the TARDIS controls together, and the emotional roller coaster ride of Rose coming to something like a happy ending. But Donna's bitter fate, and the Doctor's essential loneliness, kept the edge of melancholy and the longing that, let's face it, keeps viewers coming back for more. There was substance of a paradoxical sort (the peace-loving Doctor changing companions into warriors; but also the warrior in the doctor humanized by compassionate companions.)

I suspect the BBC is going to make enough money on the DVDs for this season (did I see somewhere that they might offer a bargain pack of that final trilogy?) to keep them busy counting it all through the missing episodes next year.

As for David Tennant, he's in all the specials next year and no announcement has been made about the future beyond that. People may be coming around to my view that he will do one more year at least. I really want to see what Moffat will do with him, and I'll bet he's intrigued, too.

In any case, David Tennant and Patrick Stewart are doing Hamlet on stage in England now, and the entire run is sold out. The reviews have been mostly positive. Here's another interview with P.S. that deals with Trek as well as Hamlet.

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