Friday, September 08, 2023

Strange Old Worlds

 On September 8, 1966 the first season of the Star Trek series began.  It explored strange new worlds in the galaxy of imagination as well as in television storytelling.  But 57 years later, I wonder if it is truly exploring anything more than its own mythology.  Star Trek today seems more and more to be about itself.

 The new Star Trek shows display excellent writing, acting, directing and visual effects.  It produces entertaining television. The current series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds seems to have tried to recapture that original innocence, with its premise, its stand-alone episodes and that thrilling variation on the original opening with updated imagery. But most episodes seem to explore mostly the styles of presenting the established (if visually updated) Star Trek universe—comedy, horror, mixing animation with live action, musical comedy.  Star Trek now seems to comments on itself more than any outside world, real or imagined, including the self-consciousness of Lower Decks.

 Discovery tried to push the envelope at times, and bravely explores diversity and the internal life of a starship in a different way, though its obsession with feelings feels excessive at times (in my weaker moments I’ve referred to Captain Burnham as Captain Emo.) While season 4 in particular pushed Star Trek forward, even in this series, Star Trek mythology generated lots of story.

 It’s not that these shows lack values or significant content. And it's not that decades and hundreds of Star Trek stories should be ignored. But maybe the emphasis seems different.  Strange new worlds aren't primary.  At best the new shows are about the characters and their relationships and interactions within the canonical Star Trek mythology.  They seem to be less about exploring the previously unknown, or involved with testing our assumptions against what is found out there.  Character-driven drama with technobabble is not all of what Star Trek started out to be.

 Maybe it’s at least partly inevitable.  When Star Trek began, nothing like it had been done on television before.  The series invented its story universe with every episode, and so every episode was exploring the unknown.  Perhaps it’s impossible to get back that innocence.

 For a lot has happened in 57 years.  Back when it began, Star Trek’s content was shaped more directly by generations of science fiction and not quite two decades of television drama.

  Science fiction that followed Jules Verne speculated on new technologies and what might be found on other planets, both imagined from the basis of known fact and science.  The science fiction that followed H.G. Wells used imagined technologies, phenomena and forms of life as metaphors to illuminate aspects of human life. (This is how Margaret Atwood divides it, and it’s a good starting point.)

 Following either progenitor, s/f writers also explored highly speculative science with cosmological and philosophical implications—everything from alternative archeology and anthropology (some of which has turned out to have some basis in fact) to implications of quantum physics and the additions and alterations over the years suggested by new astronomical and sub-atomic data.

Just as the Star Trek series adapted technologies and protocols seen in earlier sci-fi movies and television shows, the stories followed both Verne and Wells in speculating on a possible future while telling metaphorical tales, some of which applied to urgent contemporary social and political questions.

  While some of these stories came from science fiction writers, a great many were created by veteran television writers, sometimes re-purposing plots found everywhere, from ancient drama and classic fiction to TV westerns and Captain Video.  This was television drama, but westerns and other shows also often told morality tales, and so did Star Trek.

 Yet as the first full-hour network drama set in the far future, Star Trek was also open-ended: everything was possible in locations in time and space where no one had gone before. 

 But seeds of the current situation were also sown back then.  Gene Roddenberry believed that for a series with continuing characters set in the strange new worlds of the future, the show had to create and maintain a self-consistent story universe.

  So besides envisioning the basic template of as diverse a crew as he could get away with (or perhaps as diverse as anyone could imagine existing in a few centuries), as well as assembling talented collaborators and working carefully on how the series would look, GR did what Wells and other designers of alternative worlds knew to do: he made rules.  

Every week would bring a new story, but the technologies would have the same capabilities and work the same way week after week.  There was a chain of command aboard the Enterprise, and a set a standard procedures.  As much as possible for a starship warping through the galaxy, the Enterprise was grounded.

 As writers introduced new planets and new aliens, later writers had to honor the basics of those planets and characters if they used them in subsequent stories.  (There were periods of adjustment but once the template was found—for Klingons, say—it remained consistent.) Events in one story might inform later stories, until a kind of backstory was created for the main characters and Star Trek as a whole.

 Some of the “rules” were set forth in the Star Trek Writer’s Guide, which was revised as the series went on (I have before me the third revision: 31 typed and mimeographed pages dated April 17, 1967.)  It provides character background, technology and capabilities.  Believability in action is stressed, but also meaning, the metaphorical layer.

 The rules were needed because each episode had a different writer and director.  That’s also why actors playing the major roles became caretakers of their characters and what they did and how they did it.  Together they created the Star Trek universe.

 That universe expanded with new crews in a new century, beginning with The Next Generation. A rich storytelling universe supported hundreds of stories for five main crews and sets of characters, over nearly 40 years. 

In the meantime, the Star Trek universe generated other stories, principally in a series of novels.  Though officially permitted by whatever entity owned Star Trek at the time, these novels often went their own ways in terms of story and characters.  It was I believe in connection with the novels that the concept of “canon” was first introduced.  “Canon” was meant to denote all the aspects of the “real” Star Trek universe, at first defined as everything in the television and motion picture stories (but not the novels.)

 Canon is an interesting concept, and today it is a powerful one. While the dictionary defines it as a general law or principle, its second definition is a collection of sacred books regarded as genuine.  The Star Trek rules and guidelines (commonly called its Bible), along with that long history of story, had become canon law.

 Those of us raised as Catholics recognize canon law as the fundamentals of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. Violations of canon were serious stuff, heavily sinful.  Canon was zealously guarded by Church hierarchy. Violating canon was heresy, punished by excommunication (an early version of being blocked,unfriended or ghosted—in other words, excluded and exiled.)  Canon today seems to have become a real factor in what stories are told.

 But the hierarchy in charge of Star Trek is not the only arbiter.  Star Trek’s relationship to the corporate entities that made the shows was always complicated. According to GR, he was constantly fighting against corporate control.  That control seems to have become more pronounced at the end of the Berman era.  Today Star Trek is seen as a valuable “franchise,” and the changes in corporate ownership in recent years has been dizzying.  The switch to streaming is still fluid, as evidenced by recent cancellations and the abrupt changes in access to the catalog. 

 But there is another factor strongly in play, with roots in the original series era.  With GR’s connivance, fans organized to write letters demanding that the original series be renewed after the first and second seasons.  After the original series left the air, fans organized Star Trek conventions.  There had been science fiction conventions where some attendees wore costumes, but there had been nothing the size and specific focus of those Star Trek conventions in the 1970s forward.  With the letter campaigns and especially the conventions, the phenomenon of fandom was born—not just for Star Trek, but for everyone.

 Fandom then acquired new tools for expression. Mostly through the bulletin boards on sites devoted to Star Trek, the Internet started to have influence, especially in the final years of Star Trek: Enterprise and the Star Trek: Nemesis feature film.  The negativity on the Internet, together with low ratings and box office failure, ended in the demise of the Rick Berman era in 2005, and the lineage from Gene Roddenberry through Berman was broken.

 By the time of the J.J. Abrams features, social media was prominent.  Abrams and then the creators of Star Trek: Discovery and other television shows paid closer attention to social media, made producers and stars more accessible, and saw conventions as potent promotional opportunities.

 Meanwhile, fandom (which may be defined as a subset of the more diverse universe of Star Trek fans) was becoming more aware of the business side of Star Trek.  Online discussions were at least as likely to be about production costs and box office as possible meanings in Star Trek stories.  Corporate, producers and fandom were growing more aware of each other, and engaging more directly.

 Today fandom is a real force in Star Trek and its storytelling.  In particular, fandom engages in questions of canon.  Variations are closely debated, and though some are accepted, others are condemned. Star Trek canon is not enforced only by a corporate Vatican but by a hyper-informed and vigilant fandom. This process is not all destructive, but it is consequential.  

All these past Star Trek stories, with their basic consistencies and through-lines, form a kind of mythology, and fandom is deeply engaged with that mythology, its familiar characters and events. Thanks to social media and the structures of the entertainment business today, Star Trek producers cannot afford to offend fandom too much.  They depend on fans who operate in social media, and vote by means of streaming subscriptions.  In this context, it’s all fan service.

 Gene Roddenberry respected fans and interacted with them at conventions.  But he was very direct and firm that fans would not dictate Star Trek content.  Today fandom may not write the stories, but it is one factor that may be limiting the storytelling. 

 These seem to me to be the chief factors leading to my impression that today’s Star Trek is less about exploring strange new worlds or ideas and their implications, and more about itself and its own mythology.

 The apparent emphasis on character interaction over situation and ideas may be another important factor. Taken together, the character emphasis and the self-referencing tendency may help to explain my impression that current Star Trek gives much lower priority than in its formative years to really engaging with urgent concerns of today’s world by means of exploring strange new worlds.  In sometimes awkward but sometimes revelatory ways, that’s what the original series and TNG did.  That to a great extent is what inspired Star Trek fans in the first place.

 Today’s Star Trek shows have revisited and expanded on issues that past Star Trek stories explored, for a new audience. They have dealt to some degree with certain implications of technology, though they seem oddly obsessed with cloning.  

But more powerful technology is no longer the chief source of urgent problems, if it ever was. Many of our concerns and our understanding of the world have changed in 57 years.  We are much more aware of the roles of ecological factors and non-human life, as we are faced with the challenges of climate distortion and the imminent possibility of mass extinctions.  We are more aware than ever of the dire consequences of a planet ruled by a few extremely wealthy individuals and corporations, with everyone else scrambling in uncertainty and insecurity. 

 Engaging in such questions as race, the arms race and the nuclear age, cultural differences and such larger questions as a more complex reading of human nature, Star Trek formed its character: the essence, the soul of Star Trek.  The commitment to retain that character by today’s Star Trek creators as well as viewers is heartening.  It was the motivation for many over the years to become devoted Star Trek fans (whether or not they became vocal members of fandom.)  But that commitment loses its power if it becomes the rote of canon.  It has to be actualized.

  Perhaps I’m wrong about the current shows. My perspective is derived from watching Star Trek for all of those 57 years.  That does not make me (in today’s terms) the target demographic, to say the least.  Perhaps newer viewers see the same kinds of explorations, and feel themselves changed by them as we once did.

 But consider this possibility: at its best, Star Trek once engaged with the strange new worlds that illuminate our world—the world that television drama largely refused to examine. These were the urgent public problems and mysteries that most vexed us as viewers. Now Star Trek seems to live in the no-longer-strange old world of its own mythos.  Mythologies can be defining and healthy, generating new stories and insights, but they can also become stultifying and irrelevant, until eventually they consume themselves.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Star Trek: Insurrection (Star Trek IX)

  This is the ninth of a series of essays on the first ten Star Trek features, the Trekalog.

by William Severini Kowinski

Star Trek: Insurrection has become a problematic movie as the ninth in the original ten (or Trekalog) of Star Trek features. Even its title has become troublesome. (There’s no insurrection to overthrow the government in this story.  We now know better what that looks like.) Though I have great affection for this film, I’ve been bothered by its shortcomings, from the first time I saw it in a theatre the week it was released in December 1998. I felt then it could have been a great Star Trek movie, as well as a brave one. In many respects, it dazzled me. I still believe thematically it remains a major evocation of the soul of Star Trek.   

This film, written by Michael Piller from a story by Piller and Rick Berman, and directed by Jonathan Frakes, has its fans.  At the time it opened, critic Gene Siskel said it was the only Star Trek movie he truly enjoyed.  (His TV partner, Roger Ebert, had a different view.) 

 Others have come to value it over the years, or at least elements of it. Jerry Goldsmith’s score—especially the lovely Ba’ku theme—remains one of my favorites, and the acting, the characterizations, the humor gave it an attractive buoyancy.  After many subsequent viewings, I’ve found more that’s annoying but I also retain that initial affection, and admire it even more for its courage.

 The conventional wisdom has become that it is more of a television episode than a movie.  Insofar as I even know what that means, I take the opposite view: I think it tries too hard to be an action movie.  Or more generally, it may simply be that the Star Trek features series started to run out of luck. Many if not most very good feature films have a pretty long history. They may have been conceived five or eight or ten years before they get made.  Even some sequels take years to develop.  But Star Trek movies rolled out at a faster pace—every two or three years.  They typically emerged from assembling bits and pieces of screenplay drafts, often at the last minute, with lots of different imput.  This fortuitously resulted in some excellent films.   Unfortunately that kind of luck doesn’t always appear.

 But before wallowing in the details, the most important element of this movie is the core story, the principles that are at stake.  In special features interviews for the first expanded DVD of this movie, writer Michael Piller said that he wanted to move away from the darker Star Trek (not only the previous feature, Star Trek: First Contact, but the ongoing television stories, particular of Deep Space Nine) and the darker path science fiction had been taking in general in the 1990s, to revive the optimistic spirit and idealistic modeling of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.  “I wanted to do one for Gene,” he said.  So Insurrection pivoted on a moral issue with a real world history, as well as portraying a society that emphasized a different aspect of the soul of Star Trek.

The title sequence—set to that lilting but slightly unconventional Goldsmith theme—depicts a happy, healthy and busy agrarian society with some pre-industrial mechanisms.  But we quickly see hidden observers, Starfleet uniforms and unknown aliens (the Son’a), just before violence disrupts this peaceful day. The android Data has seemingly gone berserk, and has deliberately unmasked the hidden observers.  He also appears to be wounded.

 Meanwhile the Enterprise-E is far away, on yet another minor diplomatic mission (“Does anyone remember when we were explorers?” Captain Picard asks.) After being contacted by an Admiral Dougherty requesting Data’s schematics, and then a brief conversation with the Admiral about Data apparently gone amok, Picard (against the Admiral’s wishes) diverts the Enterprise to the distant planet involved, in an untraveled pocket of the galaxy called the Briar Patch because its environment disrupts starship technologies.

 Maneuvering a shuttle and a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan, Picard and Worf disable Data, and Geordi La Forge learns what went wrong: Data had been attacked and engaged his ethical subprograms.  But why was he attacking the Son’a and Federation personnel—everyone but the Ba’ku on the planet?

 Picard and an Enterprise team beam down to free the unmasked observers Dougherty tells him are hostages. They find instead peaceful, calm and intelligent villagers, treating the “off-worlders” as guests.  Picard soon learns that the Ba’ku are warp-capable but have chosen a life without advanced technology, on this welcoming planet. 

 Picard and the Ba’ku investigate what Data found that got him shot: a holo-ship, programmed to simulate the Ba’ku village.  When several Son’a attack them, Picard realizes what is happening: a conspiracy to transport the Ba’ku onto the holo-ship and abduct them. “You go to sleep one night in the village. Wake up the next morning on this flying holodeck transported en masse.  In a few days, you’re relocated on a similar planet without even realizing it.” But the question remains: why?

 By now some of the Enterprise crew are feeling and acting oddly. Riker and Troi are re-igniting their old romance, Worf is showing signs of going through Klingon puberty, and Picard himself feels a burst of vitality and exuberance.  Having danced his way to a mirror to examine his jawline, he realizes what is happening, and returns to the planet to speak with Anij and the other Ba’ku, who confirm that the “metaphasic radiation,” a quality of the rings around the planet that continuously regenerates genetic structure, is keeping them young and even improves their health.  Just being in orbit around the planet is enough to affect the Enterprise crew. Three centuries earlier, the Ba’ku left a war-torn planet and searched for an isolated haven to establish a peaceful culture, ending up here.

 Picard now realizes that the planned Ba’ku abduction has something to do with the “fountain of youth” effects of the planet’s rings.  He vows to prevent it, and in explaining his reason to Anij, Picard states in plain language the moral core of this story: “Some of the darkest chapters in the history of my world involve the forced relocation of a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a large one.  I’d hoped we had learned from our mistakes, but…it seems that some of us haven’t.”

 Those forced relocations and related behaviors (up to and including genocide) have happened multiple times on every inhabited continent on Earth, from ancient days through our own time in the 21st century.  Many would observe that they are still happening. 

 But the instance Michael Piller said was foremost in his mind when he wrote this script was the removal over several centuries of a series of American Indian peoples, most graphically represented by the Trail of Tears that resulted from what was literally called the Indian Removal Act in 1830.  Cherokee, Seminole and other tribal groups were driven from their communities in the southeast (near where gold was discovered) and forced—including force-marched—thousands of miles to reservations in the West.  Thousands died of starvation and disease along the way, while others perished shortly after their arrival.

 Later, in his confrontation with Admiral Dougherty, Picard asserted that removal “will destroy the Ba’ku, just as cultures have been destroyed in every other forced relocation throughout history.”  Relocation and related oppressions certainly destroyed American Indian cultures that had flourished for many centuries. 

In this confrontation, Dougherty makes the case for kidnapping the Ba’ku.  The Son’a have developed a way to extract the youth-preserving qualities of the planet’s rings but the process would render the planet “uninhabitable for many generations.” They will deploy the huge, eye-catching particles collector, with technology the Federation can't duplicate.   But the planet (oddly, it is never named) is in Federation space, so for this mission the Son’a and the Federation are partners, sanctioned by the Federation Council.

 After Dougherty parries his proposals to delay the procedure for further study of alternatives while the Son’a and Ba’ku share the planet, Picard lays it on the line: “We are betraying the principles upon which the Federation was founded.  It’s an attack upon its very soul.”

 Though there are technical interpretations of how the Prime Directive does or doesn’t apply, Picard is consistent in his assertion about history.  For him, the nuances of “non-interference” are based upon a hard-won founding principle, which in a TNG episode he spelled out to his crew: “We are not invaders.  We are explorers.” 

The distinction is basic, and a huge change. Historically, explorers were the scouts for invaders. Again, we have to look no further than the Americas. Explorers, financed by governments and commercial interests, returned with news of lands to inhabit and resources to plunder and bring back to Europe. Columbus thought the friendly natives might make good slaves.

  When the Federation was founded, it committed to not repeating this history, to respecting the cultures and the lifeforms on planets it explored.  A number of Next Generation stories were about this very subject.

 This is what Starfleet’s Prime Directive is really about.  It is what makes the Federation different, not only in the fictional universe it inhabits, but in our universe as a vision of justice, diversity, and respect for all life.  It is as Picard said, an element of the Federation’s soul, and a major expression of the soul of Star Trek that has inspired so many for generations.

 Dougherty counters: “Jean-Luc, we are only moving six hundred people.” 

 “How many people does it take, Admiral, before it becomes wrong?” Picard replies.  “A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million?  How many people does it take, Admiral?”

 With its swelling music tag, this speech is a popular moment with many Trek fans.  Personally I feel this choice of tone makes Picard sound too pompous and self-righteous—he’s not really asking the question, he’s being indignant.  It’s no wonder that Dougherty dismisses his objections and orders him to another part of the galaxy.  But his point is solid—and controversial.

 Many people, evidently including some members of the cast, see sense and maybe a more persuasive case based on the numbers: Dougherty said that the regenerative properties of the rings’ radiation could benefit billions. Doesn’t helping billions justify moving six hundred people (and probably sacrificing their current perpetual youthfulness, perhaps condemning them to imminent death)?  Don’t the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? 

By positing billions against 600, this script forces a hard look at the core principles.  Doubtless the European invaders thought timber from American forests for sailing ships and other purposes, as well as crops like tobacco, would benefit millions in Europe, and therefore justified getting rid of the cultures of  hundreds or thousands living in those forests and on those lands that were in the way.  Just as they justified the Trail of Tears because gold would help their country’s economy, and therefore more people. 

 Invasion and exploitation always justifies itself on supposed principles, as long as they don’t get in the way of the invader’s gain.  What may look like a sensible calculus is usually a convenient rationalization for greed, based on greater military power and (almost always) assumptions of racial and cultural superiority.  Even the implication that the Federation can do what it wants with this planet because it is in "Federation space," (and apparently the  Ba'ku who live there don't have to be consulted) is a species of imperialism. 

 Picard had allowed himself to be swayed by this calculus before, in the seventh season episode “Journey’s End,” as described in an earlier post.  In that story it was young Wesley Crusher who rebelled against the forced relocation of a group of American Indians.  Perhaps it was this incident, augmented by the youthful idealism and rebelliousness revived by the rings, that reminded Picard so forcefully of the costs of violating this principle—as well as the price of upholding it.   

The rest of the story involves Picard and his core crew—the Magnificent Seven—and their championing of the Ba’ku.  There is a final twist—the discovery that the Son’a and Ba’ku are the same race, the grotesquely aging children against their perpetually youthful parents.  The Son’a’s motives are revealed to include revenge.

 There are also a few scenes involving the Ba’ku culture, particularly two conversations between Picard and Anij, as they grow closer.  In essence, Anij talks about fully inhabiting the present moment, without reviewing the past or planning for the future“You explore the universe,” Anij says to Picard.  “We have discovered that a single moment in time can be a universe in itself, full of powerful forces.  Most people aren’t aware enough of the now to even notice.”

  Here on Earth, mindfully exploring the present moment is a both meditation technique and its intention, developed in Zen and other Buddhist practice, only recently adapted in American and European contexts. A different approach to valuing the present moment was a theme in Star Trek: Generations, where it was a consequence of mortality, rather than a lesson of immorality. 

Later Anij demonstrates the ability to slow time down, or at least the perception of time. (Making the water drops visible as they fall, or the hummingbird’s visible wings may remind some viewers of effects of a certain herb, and of spending seeming hours watching smoke curl under a lamp.)  The Ba’ku insights may suggest the value that can be derived from different “alien” cultures, even small and isolated ones, like Tibet (though forms of Buddhism are prominent in many Asian countries.)  Perhaps what the Ba’ku have to teach would be more valuable than what the rings of their planet can offer.

 Though our own (often small) Native cultures were crushed before many of their profound insights were known or understood, some of those cultures made deep impressions on the dominant culture, and that continues to happen. For instance, the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederation of tribes existed democratically, probably for longer than the United States has so far. Contacts with Founding Fathers and others, some scholars say, meaningfully influenced the idea and structure of the United States.  In turn, it influences the United Federation of Planets, though the Haudenosaunee had a different Prime Directive than Starfleet: In every decision, consider the impact on the seventh generation to come. (For us, seven generations takes us into the 23rd century.) 

.M. Dillard’s novelization, published to coincide with the movie’s initial release, was based on a slightly earlier version of the script, but differs in plot details mostly in a different ending, in which Ru’afo escapes the collector but plunges into the rings, speedily becoming younger and younger until he disappears.  Apparently this was changed during shooting when that ending didn’t seem to be working.  The actual ending is disappointing: Picard and the villain climbing and fighting against a ticking clock to get to a control panel replicates the Generations climax and there are similar scenes in First Contact, while the blue background (meant to be the rings outside?) screams unfinished visual effect.

 The Son’a’s appearance is different in the novelization—not the wrinkled wraiths we see on the screen but with surgically thin baby smooth skin, and ostentatiously adorned in robes and jewels. Perhaps this was too close to a Hollywood reality.  Apart from their skin stretching salon, just about the only remnant of the Son’a’s conspicuous love of luxury is the incongruous sofa that is Ru’afo’s command chair on the bridge of his ship. (In the film, the Son’a have two alien slave races: the Ellora, who look like Vegas showgirls in body paint, and the Tarlac, who resemble the aliens in Buckaroo Banzai.)

 Apart from some Harlequin romance level descriptions, Dillard does elaborate on motives and intentions.  The duck-blind observation of the Ba’ku, in her interpretation, was itself always a ruse, to mask the secret of what the Son’a and Admiral Dougherty were up to. It takes an extra step to realize this from the actual movie, for the only hint I got was the implication of Dougherty saying the Ba’ku originally came from elsewhere in space (and hence weren’t covered by the Prime Directive), suggesting he mus have known they weren’t a pre-warp society that required secrecy to study. 

 Towards the end, when Admiral Dougherty learns the true relationship of the Son’a and Ba’ku, Dillard has him realizing that Ru’afo was primarily seeking revenge, and that he never intended to share the youth-giving technology or its fruits with the Federation.  Similarly, Picard has a flash of recognition as he confronts Ru’afo on the collector: just as he had been driven by vengeance against the Borg in the events depicted in Star Trek: First Contact, so Ru’afo was obsessed with revenge against the Ba’ku who had rejected and exiled him. Even though revenge seems the default motivation for Star Trek movie villains, this movie might have benefited from such clarifying moments.

 Dillard also elaborates earlier on Picard’s thoughts from his initial confrontation with Dougherty.  He reasons that the Federation would probably need no more than a few years to figure out a better way to benefit from the cellular regeneration effects of the rings, and that the Son’a were rushing things for reasons of their own.  He doubts that the full and true plan had ever been presented to the Federation Council.  Clearer indications of Dougherty’s and Picard’s suspicions and realizations in the movie (perhaps as Dillard developed them) might have added texture and interest to the movie’s story, making it more of the unraveling of a mystery.

 I don’t want to belabor what I experienced as flaws in the film.  Every film has flaws, but some are serious enough—or there is an accumulation of them—to weaken the credibility and flow of the movie, or to engender confusion and raise questions, all of which are harmful when they take the viewer out of the story.  My disappointments are no doubt heightened by my conclusion that this could have been the best of the TNG features.

My first impression that this was a movie that just missed being really good was based on what seemed to be a confusing rhythm, a sense that, despite some slow scenes and comic moments, it just rushed on, with no rhythm but momentum.  I felt it needed more pace; it needs to breathe.  It’s not as if running time was a problem—this was the shortest of all Star Trek features.   

I felt this most acutely on first view in the cut from Geordi’s viewing of a sunrise—the first time in his life he’d seen one with normal vision, due to the planet’s regeneration effect.  In his original commentary to First Contact, director Jonathan Frakes noted the temptation to cut off a scene too quickly just to keep the movie moving.  The quick cut from the sunrise and Geordi’s eyes to an overview of orbiting ships was jarring, and to me trivialized what could have been a more powerful moment.  

 I was also taken out of the flow by elements of the story that didn't seem credible, like the simpleminded plan to relocate the Ba’ku (they weren’t going to notice they were no longer on their planet, with its hills and sky?) or Data and the others in their invisibility suits tromping around supposedly undetected, as if the Ba’ku had no other sense but sight.

 I was always uneasy with the portrayal of the Ba’ku, though the actors rescued it for me.  Subsequent viewings suggest why they seem less credible than symbolic: their gracefully styled but rigidly earth-tone clothing, their uniformly pristine village buildings-- more elegant versions of a Phoenix suburb (as Marina Sirtis suggests in a recent commentary) and (as Jonathan Frakes notes) their unbroken whiteness. 

Then there are the missed opportunities, including a clearer sense (perhaps from a single point of view, like Picard’s) of the contrast between the trivial hurry of the Enterprise greeting a new Federation member, and the slower, fuller life on the planet, absent phaser fire. Another is the assertion that deploying the collector would destroy life on the planet for generations, implying for more than its people.  So even if the Ba’ku were removed, all other planetary life would be destroyed, an act of geocide that would have been a major concern in a TNG episode. (And if Ru’aflo didn’t misspeak when he said “everything in this sector will be dead or dying," on more than one planet.)

 I get the impression now that not everybody making this movie was on the same page, contributing to  a lack of clarity and pace that can prevent viewers from just riding along on a voyage, with its ups and downs, sidetracks and problems solved together.  Confusion and disagreement about the core issues probably also contributed.  Even in the third season of Picard, Captain Shaw’s erroneous if funny description of this movie’s events, particularly that it was Picard who violated the Prime Directive, suggests this confusion, as well as how the story might be whispered about at the time so that the Federation saves face.) 

Yet a lot of the pieces are there: the exodus from the village, the Enterprise space battle, the transporter and holoship trickery on the Son'a, the hummingbirds.  Some fans reacted against the humor, and the change in characterizations.  I enjoyed all of that. (Sure, Data in the haystack was sappy and forced, but so goofy that isolated it remains an awkward highlight.) The Enterprise crew didn’t need an alien virus to get a little silly, as in The Naked Now/Time—just an infusion of youth.  It’s fun watching these actors do humor, and do it well. In this (as well as other respects) it reminded me of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when the Kirk Enterprise crew loosened up.  It also turns out to be a kind of preview to aspects of the TNG characters as they appear in Picard season 3. 

 If the viewer gets swept past the incongruities, then the buoyancy and the scenery in this movie combine for a bright ride. There are plenty of incidents, a fine romance for Captain Picard and Anij (though their kiss got cut entirely) and along with the main cast there are solid performances by F. Murray Abraham (Ru’afo), Anthony Zerbe (Admiral Dougherty) and Donna Murphy (Anij) as well as Gregg Henry (Son’a Gallatin),Daniel Hugh Kelly (Ba’ku Sojef) and a very young Michael Welch (Ba’ku child Artim.)  

 Director Frakes had approached First Contact’s Enterprise scenes as a horror story, using some traditional horror movie moves.  Those scenes were dark—often literally. Everyone—from Paramount to Rick Berman to Patrick Stewart, credited for the first time as a producer, wanted something lighter for this film.  So this time Frakes directed an action adventure out in the bright daylight, like a western. That final shot of the seven Enterprise officers all lined up, capped the reference to The Magnificent Seven heroes defending a helpless village. 

 The CGI is now a little outdated (this was the first Trek film to use it exclusively) but the Briar Patch is visually stunning, and the action scenes are fun.  Despite its reputation, this movie didn’t do so badly at the box office, either.  It’s too bad that it couldn’t more seamlessly bring together its moral center, the story and the mood, as did its model predecessor, The Voyage Home. 

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Picard3: Many Happy Returns

The final season of Star Trek: Picard has been widely and deservedly praised as a triumph.  It certainly seemed to be the most self-assured of the three seasons.  Producer, writer and director Terry Matalas infused this new form of the 10 episode series with elements of the old movie serials, complete with cliffhanger endings.  But he also provided a couple of episodes that ended in temporary resolution, so the audience could catch its breath. This series had some pacing—difficult in a (roughly) ten hour movie chopped up into ten pieces a week apart.  Matalas pulls together all the strands of the story in a finale that is complete and satisfying.  (It is described beautifully, for example, by Jim Moorhouse at Trekcore.)

 I still maintain that despite intentions to aim this series towards adults, it’s inevitably going to get younger viewers, f-bombs and all.  Still, while several moments of violence were shocking, they were within conventional bounds and unlikely to be traumatic.

 Matalas said his goal was to provide the Next Generation characters with the send-off that their last feature didn’t give them—partly because they didn’t know it was their last feature.  That was Star Trek Nemesis in 2002, written by John Logan, who impressed the cast with his fanboy knowledge of Star Trek, and directed by Stuart Baird who impressed them with his willful ignorance.  Logan apparently had a thing for Counselor Troi, with unfortunate results.  This time, Matalas focused on Doctor Crusher, in a very different way and with much better effect.

 Gates McFadden has been a real soldier for Star Trek, gamely decorating the movies with little to do, while thoughtfully articulating the Star Trek ethos whenever asked. If you believe a little scene in Jeff Greenwald’s book Future Perfect in which Brannon Braga dismisses her phone message suggestion for First Contact, she didn’t get a lot of respect from the higher ups.  Yet elsewhere in that book she’s very articulate about the core—the soul—of Star Trek.  She seems to have been an underused resource, and it’s great to see her character given so much substance and power in this series.

 All the acting is outstanding in this third series, in general and within this context: actors who haven’t played the character in 20 years finding the differences they can play that still work within the characters they established, and first-time actors, especially Ed Speelers, creating convincing characters that fit.  Jonathan Frakes, who hasn’t acted much in recent years, comes across relaxed and genuine as a seasoned, sassier Riker.


 Brent Spiner has tour de force moments as the new Data, while Patrick Stewart, Jeri Ryan and Michelle Hurd of the Picard cast from prior seasons have exceptional moments as well. Scenes between Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden, and between Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis, are rightly lauded for their economy and power. 

It was great to hear the voices of Majel Roddenberry and Walter Koenig in Star Trek again, as well as classic Star Trek musical themes, and—well, there’s a YouTube video that shows emotional fan response to the bridge crew on the Enterprise-D—the (next to) final big reveal that the series managed to keep a surprise. 

Much has been made of the “conflict” between these familiar characters as they were introduced in this series, as different from the past when they didn’t conflict.  It’s worth going a little deeper into that.

 For not all “conflict” is the same. In a drama (especially melodrama), conflict among characters usually means real opposition and intent to do harm, with at least one character driven by suspicion, ambition, envy, jealousy, vengeance, desire, fear etc.; racial/ethnic/gender/class hostility or just personal animosity.  These characters often engage in deceit, intimidation, subterfuge and scheming against others, if not overt violence. Characters actively or passively do harm through manipulation, bullying, subversion, or any number of other destructive behaviors, often driven by unexamined and unconscious forces.

  None of that applies to the TNG characters in these episodes, even though they made different choices responding to different experiences over the years of their separation, and even if during the episodes they engage in disagreements that they may not have actively pursued before (or then again, they may have). 

The kinds of conflict seen in Picard were seen in the TNG series, including marital or other relationship troubles (though perhaps not so often among the senior officers.)  Wherever conflicts at the level of problems occurred, they were solved the same way: through recognizing them and talking them out.  That happens again in this year of Picard.

 The Roddenberry-mandated lack of the first kinds of conflict among the main characters in Star Trek was meaningful: it said that in the future, a diverse group of individuals will have achieved the degree of self-awareness to step back from their own emotions and see their actions or feelings from a different perspective, and they will have the concepts and vocabulary to engage in solving these problems.  And by the 24th century, they will have a ship’s counselor to help them through these processes. (If there was no conflict between or within members of the crew, the counselor would be unnecessary.)

 For example, one of the major conflicts of Star Trek: First Contact was Captain Picard’s obsession with hurting the Borg that distorted his judgment and behavior.  It was internal conflict, but it took a literary parallel to give him the perspective to see it. But he did see it, and changed.

 What’s necessary for these conflicts to be resolved is self-respect and respecting others.  From the original series onward, the evident fact that people on Star Trek treated each other with respect was one element that attracted fans who did not see people respecting them or each other in their real lives. As Dave Marinaccio discovered when he was researching his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek, this revelation actually changed lives.

 The TNG characters had a long history of respecting each other so that they trusted each other absolutely, and that made it possible for problems arising from divergent choices to be resolved in Picard. (Parenthetically, had these characters not respected each other for seven years, I wonder if the actors playing them would have become as close for as long as they did?)

 There was another reason for Star Trek characters to treat each other with respect in the Roddenberry canon: they needed to work together in service of a larger whole: the ship, Starfleet, the Federation and ultimately all life in the galaxy.  Even aboard a ship of exploration and peace, the Enterprise crew had to guide their actions according to the integrity of others and the welfare of the whole.  That was their sworn priority.

 And this isn’t just a matter of math, of the needs of the many.  It’s about defining and then defending the whole and its integrity—that which ultimately we are part of.  In the fictional 23rd and 24th and 25th centuries of starships and life among the stars, it is the galaxy.  For us in the 21st century it is the Earth.  We have the power to help heal the Earth we have unknowingly been destroying.  But now we know, even though the harm still goes on, and we know it is self-destruction.  At the same time, we learn something new every day from science or other branches of knowledge that it is the integrity of the whole that supports us.  Addressing the global threat needs to be our priority.

 The final episode of Picard3 had moments of adventure movie ebullience: the reaction to Doctor Crusher’s sharpshooting, Data using the Force to find the Borg target.  But it was brilliant also in showing the price these characters were willing to pay to defend the whole.

 Ever since the filmmakers of the 70s became old enough to be parents (and to get divorced), defending the family became the unquestioned prime motivation in movies, including science fiction. Several major villains in Star Trek movies were avenging the deaths of their wives.  Yet Counselor Troi had to decide to sacrifice her husband, Doctor Crusher her son. Picard’s journey had taken him unexpectedly to find completion as a father, and he was willing to sacrifice himself for that, but not at the cost of the whole. 

Saving the galaxy may be a kind of Star Trek cliché (“I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim,” said Nexus Kirk in Generations,) a kind of cosmic MacGuffin.  But slowing things down to suggest the real costs and consequences re-centers Star Trek on an element of what it is about and why it was different. 

 At the same time, the story in this third series suggests consequences of the Federation’s questionable past decisions, specifically from the DS9 and Voyager eras.  This series confirmed that (as portrayed in post-9/11 Star Trek novels) the Federation engaged in torture. I was glad to hear Picard say that the Dominion War was a "travesty." The consequences depicted here have their real world counterparts in the modern history of terrorism and war, as elsewhere in history.  Even in the 90s, as the Star Trek saga started to sprawl, its stories driven not by those who had seen war but who had seen a lot of war movies, it began to lose focus.  The overwhelmingly positive response to this season suggests that the TOS and particularly the TNG era are still the heart and soul of Star Trek.

That Star Trek deals with our contemporary issues doesn't mean it replicates the contemporary world in one-to-one correspondences.  Quite the opposite: it shows consequences, and it offers alternatives.  Star Trek similarly can comment on war and conflict by illustrating the skills of peace and conflict resolution.

(However, a little sly commentary on our society is also part of the Trek tradition--and I wonder if there wasn't some of that in the ability of the Borg to turn the young into zombies by connecting them to a central control--maybe like a viral technology we already know, via the phones everyone bows to and holds up to their faces all the time?  And that they needed the old people with their skepticism, individuality and old technology?  Nothing that blatant, of course.)

 Critics (including some writers for Trek) complained that the Roddenberry rules concerning conflict and human nature aren’t realistic, perhaps forgetting that Star Trek posits faster than light travel to meet up with dozens of alien civilizations comprised of people who look like us with some added facial appliances, and are so similar that we can exchange recipes and interbreed. 

 Is all that more realistic than people using skills, heart and consciousness to solve problems? This is science fiction—a believable branch of fantasy, wonder tales, allegory and myth that operates on a different level to open minds to new possibilities—such as what a more hopeful future might necessarily look like. 

 At this, no Star Trek has done better than The Next Generation.  Picard3 was less conceptual than character-driven, but it supported the Star Trek vision through these characters, and especially through the continuity as well as the changes in the characters with history enacted over scores of stories and hundreds of hours.  Revisiting these characters as they are decades later, with their history, was unique.  So far...

Sunday, December 11, 2022

R.I.P. 2022 Star Trek Family


Star Trek lost one of its brightest stars in 2022.  I wrote about Nichelle Nichols here.

In a stellar career, British actor David Warner appeared on screen in two Star Trek movies (notably as Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI) and one memorable episode of TNG.  He also appeared in a 2013 episode of Doctor Who, and as a voice actor, played roles in various Star Trek, Doctor Who (playing the Doctor) and Star Wars audio productions and games, and numerous other franchise, as well as other science fiction (especially playing Jack the Ripper in Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time) and dramatic roles.  He was an accomplished stage actor, and his 1965 Hamlet is still considered the definitive Hamlet of his generation.  

Sally Kellerman was a guest star in the second Star Trek pilot, which then became an episode in its first season, "Where No Man Has Gone Before."  She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film M*A*S*H.

Kirstie Alley played Vulcan Lt. Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  She had an Emmy-winning career on television as well as roles in feature films.

Louise Fletcher played Bajoran religious leader Kai Winn Adani in a number of later episodes of Deep Space Nine.  She won an Academy Award for her performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and was nominated for two Emmy awards for her work in the TV series Picket Fences. 

Prominent movie actor and award-winning stage actor Paul Sorvino appeared in a 7th season episode of TNG, "Homeward" as Worf's brother Nikolai.

At the age of 104, Marsha Hunt was the oldest of the Star Trek actors to pass away in 2022.  After a Hollywood career beginning in the late 1930s, and a period sidelined by the Hollywood Blacklist in the 1950s, she appeared in one episode of TNG, "Too Short A Season."   

Douglas Trumbull was a pioneer genius in visual effects, adding Star Trek: The Motion Picture to his innovative work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and many more.  He also directed movies, including the cult classic Silent Running.

Harold Livingston was the credited screenwriter for ST: TMP.  He had previously worked on the Star Trek: Phase Two series that was never made, in favor of the Motion Picture. Tony Dow, famous for portraying Wally Cleaver on TV, directed an episode of DS9.  Esteemed science fiction writer Greg Bear wrote a series of Star Trek novels.  Among his many novels is the s/f classic Darwin's Radio.  Veteran and multiple Emmy Award-winning director Marvin Chomsky directed a Star Trek episode.  Although he never acted in Star Trek, Ray Boyle appeared in the 1952 movie serial Zombies of the Stratosphere with Leonard Nimoy.  His many subsequent TV roles included parts in Captain Video and numerous westerns.  He was 98.

Kathyrn Hayes as "The Empath" TOS 
Among the actors and others from the Star Trek family who died in 2022: Brad William Henke, Tim McCormack, Ralph Maurer, Eric Whitmore, Laurel Goodwin, Kirk Bailey, Michael Ryan, Kathyrn Hayes, Valora Noland, Estelle Harris, Nehemiah Persoff, James Bama, David Birney, Neal Adams, Michael G. Hagerty, Marvin Hicks, Robert Brown, Fabio Passaro, Leslie Jordan, Andrew Prine, William Knight, John Aniston, Maggie Thrett,


Pamela Kosh TNG
Pamela Kosh, Gary Bullock, Kenneth Welsh, George Perez, Jack Kehler, Gregory Jein, Michael Braveheart, Leon Harris, Webster Whitney, Walter Soo Hoo, Dorothy Duden, Mary Mara, Mike Reynolds, Gregory Itzin, Neil Vipond, Gene Le Bell, Wayne Grace, Amanda Mackey Johnson, visual effects artist Richard Miller.

Bernard Cribbins with David Tenant

The Doctor Who family lost veteran and much beloved comic actor Bernard Cribbins, who had a featured role opposite David Tenant and Catherine Tate in series 4 and the Tenant specials, recently voted by fans as the best season of revived (21st century) Doctor Who.  Cribbins apparently reprised the part for next year's 60th anniversary season, though it's not known if his performance will appear.  He was 93.

Other members of the Doctor Who family who died in 2022 included writer Henry Lincoln (the last surviving writer of the 1960s seasons), designer Spencer Chapman, and BBC vision mixer Shirley Coward who devised the original regeneration effect.  Also actors David Warner (who not only appeared in a Matt Smith TV episode but played the Doctor in audio dramas), Jeremy Young, Ann Davies, Sonny Caldinez, June Brown, Lynda Baron, Jane Sherwin and Stewart Bevan. 

May they rest in peace.  Their work lives on.