Thursday, September 30, 2010

ST Top 10 Redux – Why No Love For “TNG”?

So let’s talk about “TNG.” With the benefit of history and the context of so much other content (notably the recent reboot), we can ask the question: why is there so little love for the franchise’s best installment? Only about half the episodes for “The Original Series” are watchable, and only about half of those are truly great – so just about 15 to 20 remarkable episodes. Season 3 of “TNG” alone has that many fantastic episodes. (Now you’re going to ask me to compile a list. I will. Eventually. Probably tomorrow.)

I think someone designed this after watching "Superman"...

Regardless of this fact, people are endlessly nostalgic about “TOS” and somewhat aloof toward “TNG.” While the explanation for the former is simple, the latter is more complicated.

People love “TOS” because the movies were so good. Those movies that boiled down the essence of the show and told their own story were beloved (2, 3, 4), while those that were most like “TOS” were despised (1, 5). “ST6” is well thought of, but it’s not really about “TOS” – it’s really a “TNG” movie with the original cast. (Given how poorly No. 5 did at the box office, No. 6 would likely not have been made were “TNG” not so popular at the time.)

Moreover, per our discussion that Star Trek fans don’t really like William Shatner, they adore Patrick Stewart.

This is my friend Olivia in New York ... with Patrick Stewart. (Sigh.)

He brought unforeseen gravitas to the franchise, and was even voted the "Sexiest Man on Television" by TV Guide in 1992. Plus he embiggened his nerd street cred with his cromulent performance in the X-Men franchise, and he has always been humble about his relationship to “TNG.” He once said:

“The fact is all of those years in Royal Shakespeare Company -- playing all those kings, emperors, princes and tragic heroes -- were nothing but preparation for sitting in the captain's chair of the Enterprise.”

Stewart infused his love of Shakespeare into the Picard character. He’s said he appreciates having introduced so many Trek fans to the Bard, and is grateful there’s always a contingent of (non-uniform wearing) Trek fans to support him at his plays.

I didn’t realize it until yesterday, but General Chang in “Undiscovered Country” is intended to be a Klingon Picard: he’s bald, speaks with an English accent, and quotes Shakespeare. They needed a Klingon rival for Kirk who wasn’t pure evil (like Kruge) or totally mindless (like Klaa), so who did they use as their model? The other captain of the Enterprise. (Note: Chang's name is also one letter away from "change," because that's what the movie is about -- changing from a Cold War to no war, and from one generation to the next.)

OK so then why is there so little nostalgia for “TNG”? (I have pondered this greatly given that “TNG” is the only part of my childhood for which I am nostalgic.) The people who are nostalgic for “TOS” didn’t see it when it first aired 45 years ago. The easy answer is because the “TNG” movies were so bad – and that is certainly true, but it’s more than that. The other easy answer is that the market was over-saturated by three inferior spin-offs – and that’s mostly true (certainly where “Voyager” is concerned), but “Enterprise” was explicitly intended as a nostalgia piece for “TOS” – with all its Vulcans and Andorians and Tellarites – not as a continuation of “TNG.”

Shran was an old-school alien with a new-school look.

The more complicated answer, and ultimately most comprehensive one, is that “TNG’s” legacy was a victim of its creator: Gene Roddenberry. Returning to yesterday’s post, this can be summarized by reviewing the following:
a) A money-less economy because of “technology unchained”
b) Homogenous heroes that are never in conflict with each other
c) Starfleet is not a military organization and too much space politics
d) Goop-on-the-forehead aliens
e) Total religious secularization
So the problem with these three points is that they robbed the show of drama. You couldn’t have any conflict related to a lack of resources, because no one “needed” money (though it was then never explained how society operated or how humans bartered with species that did use money) and their technology (replicators, holodecks) could solve so many problems so effortlessly. The lack of appropriate militarization made it difficult to do action pieces. On “TNG,” ever week we met a new alien only different from last week’s by the design of make-up on his forehead – in “TOS” you either looked like a human or you were a damn Gorn. And the secularization left everyone thinking that Roddenberry’s utopia was one in which religious people were not welcome: so much for all that tolerant embrace of humanities differences!

Then the most salient point – main characters who never disagree with each other – removed another source of potential conflict and therefore storytelling. There wasn't a lot of this kind of scene in "TNG":

And the main reason that “TNG” generates so little nostalgia is its influence on these four points. EVERY science fiction show about a spaceship since “TNG” has defined itself by defying these resoundingly unsuccessful, yet integral, aspects of an otherwise successful experiment, as we’ll see tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

ST Top 10 Redux – Coon Hunting

So maybe I went a little bit overboard on both content and time-dedicated to the “Top 10” of Star Trek project … I was “rewarded” in terms of interest in the project. My blog counter went up about 250 during the “countdown” – more than 10 percent of the total hits since I started the counter a year ago. Turns out nerds use the Internet.

Now while I need to move on to pointlessly bashing “Glee” or making whatever political comments I don’t send to Utah Policy, I want to end on one item in terms of the “legacy” issue I mentioned several times in previous posts. Some of this will be summation, but most of it I formulated (or learned) as I was writing/researching the “Top 10.”

Star Trek does not owe its success to Gene Roddenberry.

Okay yes it does, but not really. While Roddenberry may have built the ship, a lot of other people deserve the credit for taking it to warp speed. The creative person behind so much of what became signature Star Trek concepts was not Roddenberry, but Gene Coon. Because he died in 1973, he wasn’t around to contribute to the movies or “TNG,” so he gets mostly forgotten, but Coon created

a) Klingons
b) Khan
c) Zefram Cochrane
d) The Prime Directive
e) The horta
f) The Gorn
g) Tribbles (with David Gerrold)
h) The term “United Federation of Planets”

Moreover, the high-point of the franchise – movies 2, 3, 4 and 6 – had virtually no input from Roddenberry. The movie he had the most to do with creatively was “The Motion Picture,” which was lame and boring but financially viable. Paramount realized that they had a good product, but not a great leader. So they tapped outsiders Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett to do “Wrath of Khan,” and then they – with Leonard Nimony – became the guiding force of the movies.

Roddenberry harrumphed his way through this, and his consolation prize was total control over the spin-off in 1987. While he created the characters for “Next Generation,” Roddenberry is also responsible for a lot of the truly lame stuff in the series. That first season, that’s virtually unwatchable? Yeah, guess who was in charge for those. “TNG” didn’t really start to get good until Roddenberry let go of the reins. And though he’s been denounced by Trek fans for years, Rick Berman was the driving force behind its most excellent work. He became executive producer at season 3, hired Ron Moore and Mike Piller, and the show went to warp factor 11.

Now some of the damage was undone in later seasons, but while Coon’s “TOS” first-season legacy reads like a hall of fame speech, Roddenberry’s “TNG” first-season legacy is like an FBI most wanted list. These include:
a) Counselor Troi’s “pedantic psychobabble” and constant space-PMS (quickly done away with)
b) Data’s “witless exploration of humanity” (Create a daughter? Yes. Learn about comedy on the holodeck? No.)
c) Wesley saves the day (though now Wil Wheaton is a hero to nerds)
d) Q (the first-season Q episodes are awful)
e) Ferengi as the legitimate adversaries (the “new Klingons”)
f) The holodeck

Now these are just details. But the biggest problems were intrinsic to the show’s premise:
a) A money-less economy because of “technology unchained”
b) Homogenous heroes that are never in conflict with each other
c) Starfleet is not a military organization and too much space politics
d) Goop-on-the-forehead aliens
e) Total religious secularization
Now one of my key issues is the fact that “TNG” has virtually no legacy – despite the fact that it (and more affordable, realistic-looking special effects) ushered in a veritable Renaissance of TV sci-fi and fantasy shows. And I think Roddenberry’s influence is responsible for this. Though Berman and others were able to work around some of Roddenberry’s constraints, they were duty-bound to pretty much keep a lot of the problems he created, as we'll discuss tomorrow.
But in short, we can summarize that if Gene Roddenberry had enjoyed as much editorial control as George Lucas had with the prequels, the "TOS" movies would have all looked like No. 1 and the "TNG" run would have looked like No. 2.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Top 10 run down...

OK so the Top 10 were, in order:

10 - The reboot
9 - First Contact
8 - Star Trek 6
7 - Unification
6 - Start of the Dominion War
5 - Galaxy Quest
4 - Voyage Home
3 - Search for Spock
2 - Best of Both Worlds
1 - Wrath of Khan

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No. 5 (a surprise!) and No. 10 (also a surprise, albeit it less of one)

So continuing on from the last entry, let's explore the topic Trek fans don't really like William Shatner. This is typified in the universal dislike of "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," which the Shat directed and help wrote -- so it's really the only occasion where we can separate the man (Shat) from the myth (Kirk).

This leads us to No. 5 on our list:

There is speculation about "what killed Star Trek" -- was it the "TNG" films? Was it "Voyager" or "Enterprise"? Or was it simply fatigue from over saturation? Well it may have been all of these, but I think the real culprit was "Galaxy Quest" -- a deconstructionist Star Trek movie that tells an action/adventure that surpasses so much of its inspiration. "GQ" pays loving tribute to not just the series, but the fandom experience (which is ultimately more meaningful because that's the part fans are involved in personally: the hero worship, the conventions, the fixation on minutiae, the shipping).

Now the casual viewer looks at "GQ" and says "Oh, they're making fun of Trek!" Hogwash. This is a love-letter to Star Trek fans that Rick Berman couldn't have written on Valentine's Day if St. Valentine were helping him with a multi-phasic, anti-matter-powered love-letter writing replicator. (I recently amended the Wikipedia entry "References to Star Trek" for the film.)

The fans are the biggest heroes of the show, as my brother Mark has pointed out to me:

1) the redshirt (Guy) who loves the show and doesn't fall victim to its most pointed cliche (being redshirted)

2) the nerdy kids help save the day at the end

3) the aliens who adore the "historical documents" end up leading the ship on its own voyages

Just watch this clip:

If anyone is mocked in this movie it is William Shatner. And in this film he is not only mocked but he is redeemed. For the only time in the history of Star Trek William Shatner becomes as magnificent as James Kirk. (There's video of Shatner interviewing Allen here.)

Now again I want to stress that Trek fans, and myself included, don't hate Shatner. And truly we don't really dislike him. But there is some resentment and maybe even some discontent. Everything he has he owes to Star Trek, but he probably won't admit that. Compare this to the fans' feelings for Leonard Nimoy, who is as magnificent as Spock. Remember, Nimoy was a guiding creative force behind Star Treks 3, 4, and 6 -- and it was his idea to kill Spock at the end of "TWOK." And Nimoy's crossover with "TNG" ("Unification") was spectacular, while Shatner's crossover with "TNG" ("Generations") was the (wait for it) "worst episode ever."

Watch this video, where Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan) essentially baits the four actors to make fun of their fans, and Nimoy goes out of his way to say how great they are while the others make wisecracks.

Notice that there's no figure in "GQ" that lampoons Leonard Nimoy -- the Alan Rickman character is meant to be an exaggerated Patrick Stewart, and his alien character -- with chants of strength of cries of vengeance -- is far more Klingon than Vulcan.

The success of the franchise is due to the personal, professional, and creative involvement of Leonard Nimoy and his success portraying the series' best character.

Which leads us to No. 10:

Now I've already said a lot on the reboot (my review: here), so I'm not going to say a lot more about it now, and if you want a really thorough exploration of the "ST11" -- both its successes (of which there are many) and its shortcomings (of which there are only a few) -- watch the the recent Mr. Plinkett review:

But I will talk about the reboot in the context of the two ideas I've presented here: "Galaxy Quest" and Nimoy.

First: "Galaxy Quest" is such an important part of the Trek legacy that J.J. Abrams said "How do you watch Galaxy Quest and then go make a Star Trek movie?" His answer? Copy them!

The reboot pays loving homage to the Trek franchise -- including completely gratuitous references to Jonathan Archer as a nod to "Enterprise" and Cardassians as a nod to "DS9." And while they used a lot of names and images from Trek lore, the filmmakers allowed themselves to make their own story, just like in "Galaxy Quest." Qapla!

Second: The casting of Leonard Nimoy to "pass the torch" (or better said, "relight the torch") is I believe the main reason the film succeeded. Fans wanted to see Nimoy come back. They did not want to see Shatner come back. Bringing Spock back in a movie about Romulans also connects the film to "TNG," and answers the question "What happened to Spock on Romulus?" in a way we were teased with whenever someone said "cowboy diplomacy," and were totally shortchanged on with "Nemesis."

Moreover, while Zachary Quintos does an excellent job modeling Nimoy's Spock, Christopher Pine goes out of his way to not sound like William Shatner. Had Pine spoken in Shatner's trademark staccato cadence, people would have rolled their eyes. Jim Kirk is more beloved than William Shatner, while Leonard Nimoy is as equally loved as Spock.

Now I may be over-selling the reboot, because we haven't had time to see what its legacy effect will be. If it manages to revitalize interest in the franchise, gets people going to conventions again, and generates successful sequels, then I'll feel justified leaving it in my top 10. For now, I think it deserves a spot here for two important reasons. This is the only installment of the franchise, besides "The Voyage Home" and the very height of "TNG," that has been both

1) financially viable with a larger, non-sci-fi crowd, and
2) not despised by legions of Star Trek fans.

That last one may not sound like much, but it is. Because in the final equation, the only thing that Star Trek fans enjoy more than loving Star Trek is hating Star Trek.

Monday, September 20, 2010

And the final entrants are...

So it's taken more than a week to pack all these in, and today we're going to close the loop, as we go into the numbers 5 and 10 on our list. But first, before we get into it, let me disclose one film that isn't on this -- or probably any -- top Trek list.

"Star Trek V: The Final Frontier"

"ST5" was the first film from the original series released concomitant with "TNG," and - unlike "ST6" - no effort at all was made to synergize the production with the TV show. "ST5" is generally seen as a low-point in the franchise, if not the absolute lowest. It is widely regarded as non-canonical, Gene Roddenberry - the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself - considering it "apocryphal at best." Elements such as Spock just suddenly having a half-brother seemed out of place, and people have tried to sweep it under the rug.

So then ... why was it even made?

The answer, of course, is that the Shat hit the fan. William Shatner was extended "favored nation status" by Paramount, because his participation was so vital to the franchise. He demanded the director's chair and they just had to say yes, or risk his not participating at all.

This is why it was made; this is also why people hate it.

You see, "ST5" really isn't that bad. Some elements of it are actually fantastic, and fit perfectly in the theme and style of both "The Original Series" and the greater Star Trek mythos, such as:

  • The scenes in Yosemite National Park are all fantastic: Kirk climbing a mountain "because it's there," Spock roasting "marshmelons," McCoy using Kentucky bourbon to flavor his chili and telling Kirk "You know, you really piss me off, Jim," and Sulu and Chekov getting lost hiking.
  • The "planet of galactic peace" is a rare and delightful piece of sarcasm in Trek lore. The Romulans, Klingons, and Federation have established this project to show how they can work together and it all fails because none of them really want to work together. Contrary to Trek's typically egocentric presentation of "the human condition," the human ambassador is an alcoholic, chain-smoking pessimist, and the only one who cares about the planet of misfits is the Romulan.
  • The assault on "Paradise City" is good action, with a great set and nice effects on the night-time phaser shots. Uhura's fan-dance to trick the guards is one of the best moments the character ever got.
  • Humor. Spock's line: "Please, captain. Not in front of the Klingons" - is vintage Trek. Or when Kirk is chewing out Spock for not shooting Sybok and Bones volunteers, "You want me to hold him for you, Jim?" There's also a line I love where the Admiral says "This is an emergency -- we need Jim Kirk!" and Kirk mutters under his breath "Oh please."
  • The "secret pain" business. See Sybok brainwashes people by using the Vulcan mind-meld to erase the memories of their greatest, unspoken sufferings. This is actually very similar to what Roddenberry wanted to do with the episode "The Naked Time," where the crew experiences intoxicating effects and they reveal their inner character. His goal with this, early on in the show, was to demonstrate what was inside these people who otherwise keep everything locked up. He felt this was such a good way to provide character exposition that he did a sequel to it in the second episode of "TNG" - "The Naked Now." The only problem with the "secret pain" notion is that we don't really get to see what everyone experiences. We see it with McCoy and Spock, but that's it! What is Chekov's secret pain? Or Uhura's? Or KIRK'S for that matter? (Though that one's not so vital, because I think he came to terms with his "secret pain" in "ST2.)
Of course these all get ignored because the climax to the movie is somewhat heavy-handed and weird: The business with the "God" entity. It felt out of place for everyone along the religious spectrum.

Now even though the presentation could have been a bit more polished, I don't understand why people object to the "God" creature at the end of the movie. Star Trek, particularly "TOS", is FULL of God-like entities. Here are a few of them:
And this is just off the top of my head -- I didn't do research on this because I'm sure there's even more.

SO if Star Trek is full of god-like beings, how was this climax at all out of place in the Trek mythos? It actually seems to fit really well. After all, what could be more Star Trek than the idea that Captain Kirk not only finds God, but he beats him up? That's pure Trek right there! Kirk had already beat up Trelane, Gary Mitchell, and Apollo during the series.

People complain about the "God" story, but the true reason they hate "ST5" is because of one simple, undeniable fact of Star Trek:

Trek fans don't like William Shatner, and this was his pet-project about himself.

Now Trek fans don't hate Shatner, and as one guy in a "TNG" episode said, "I have many friends who don't like me." But they resent him. They resent him for lampooning himself, and by extension them. They resent him for not taking ownership of Trek as the reason for his fame. And most importantly they resent him for being a jerk to his co-stars (notably George Takei).

Furthermore, Trek fans have never identified with Shatner/Kirk -- a dashing, handsome, aggressive leader who wins himself a new girlfriend every week. Who do you think Trek fans identify with more: that guy or the outcast scientist who has sex once every seven years?

And the answer to that question, is why I've ranked the last two movies on our list... (cliffhanger!)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

No. 1 ... on Day 7?

OK you knew this was coming: No. 1 is "Wrath of Khan," but what else would it possibly be?

Among Trek fans, "TWOK" is the uncontested king of the heap (and among non-Trek fans it's still regarded as a fine piece of cinema) -- I'm going to recap it quickly because everyone knows the drill already:

1) Best villain. Montalban chews the genetically superior scenery. Every Trek villian is billed as "the best one since Khan..." and it's never true
2) Best Kirk. Director Nicholas Meyer forced William Shatner to do his scenes over and over so he'd be too tired for his typical bombastic schtick.
3) Death of Spock. "It was a helluva thing when Spock died..." - George Costanza

And speaking of "Seinfeld" references:

"TWOK" successfully works the "same but different" angle that I've mentioned. It's the same, in that its a sequel to a "TOS" episode, but it's different in that the look and feel are more like a submarine movie than a sci-fi movie. It's also different in that Kirk, the man who's always "cheated death and patted [himself] on the back for his ingenuity" finally has to deal with defeat: he's getting old, he fails to see himself walking into a trap, he disregards orders and people die because of it, he's confronted with the son he never knew and the "life that could have been, but wasn't," and his best friend dies. We'd never seen this from Kirk before, and seeing him more human also made him more heroic.

Fill in the hyperbole -- this is the benchmark for Trek. Here's the director describing his masterpiece:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Day 6, No. 6 ... and heresy!

We’re through about 60 percent of the list here, and those familiar with the franchise have probably already figured out which movies I’m not going to include, speculation turns to the various series. There have been only 11 movies, but there have been 40 two-parters, and many more multiple story arcs. Which of these will make the Whitleypedia cut?

I’m going to reveal now that nothing from “Voyager” met the cut. I do not feel bad about this. Nothing from “Enterprise” is on the list either. I feel slightly worse about this.

The challenge of an ongoing franchise like Star Trek is the demand from the fans for something that is both the same and different at the same time. This is remarkably difficult to pull off, particularly given the precise memories of Star Trek fans. “TNG” made conscious efforts to be the same as its predecessor in key areas while radically different in others. For example, the basic premise is identical: a ship named Enterprise explores the galaxy boldly, encountering dilemmas that serve as thinly veiled commentary on social issues of the day, particularly as seen through the eyes of a tangentially human “mascot” (Data instead of Spock).

But key details of “TNG” were significant departures from “TOS,” such as

1) The presence of families and children on the ship, including a teenage main character
2) A more mature, dispassionate captain (who was also not an American)
3) Protocol that the captain should not lead dangerous away missions
4) An absence of Vulcans
5) Klingons are our friends now, and one serves among us
6) A security chief who didn’t die every episode
7) An onboard therapist

In brief, I believe all of these changes worked well, except No. 7. The idea of a “ship’s counselor” was a great one, and Marina Sirtis has oodles of charm (yes, I have seen her at a convention), but they never used her character as well as they could have as a therapist. If you don’t think a therapy session can help the drama of a show, you need to watch “The Sopranos.” But the problem is when Guinan was introduced in the second season, she became the defacto counselor and got all the good scenes that could have been Troi’s.

But largely the “TNG” experiment was a success. However, as the franchise progressed, the challenge to be the same but different increased. This was the fundamental problem of “VOY.” It’s fundamental character dynamic (a non-Starfleet crew working with a Starfleet crew) was basically a less-effective copy of “Deep Space Nine,” and its signature characters (Janeway, Neelix, The Doctor/Seven of Nine) were basically less-effective copies of those on “TNG” (Picard, Guinan, Data). At its best “VOY” was watered-down version of its progenitors; at its worst it was a sci-fi “Gilligan’s Island.”

“Enterprise” suffered unavoidably from the “same but different” conundrum, although it turned into a much better show than anyone gave it credit – mainly because everyone had stopped watching. Despite the show’s selling points (heavy intertextuality, strong story arcs, Linda Park’s midriff), it didn’t capture people’s hearts like “Firefly,” nor their minds like “Battlestar Galactica.”

SO having said all that, let me make the second-most heretical statement I’ll make in this series:

My favorite Star Trek is “Deep Space Nine.”

“DS9” mastered the art of delivering the “same but different.” It kept true to its roots of Roddenberry’s peaceful vision of the future without feeling like a Hallmark Card the way “TNG” sometimes did. They could do stories that were “about something” without coming off as heavy handed as “TOS” did. Their action-heavy episodes didn’t sacrifice character or story, and they pulled off extended story arcs with a large supporting cast in a way “Babylon 5” could only dream.

Also, I appreciated that on “DS9” people had relationships rather than interstellar one-night stands. Through the whole series, Captain Sisko only sleeps with two women – his wife (who died) and his second wife. He and several other characters also had children they were raising rather than just shooting through space as carefree bachelor(ette)s. Distinct characters, Quark and Garak in particular, allowed for different kinds of stories than we’d seen before but that still fit into nicely into the Star Trek mythos.

Then the question is which “DS9” two-parter to feature. Most of the show’s actual two-parters weren’t that notable (“The Marquis,” that “we have to ruin paradise to save it!” one), but its ongoing storylines were innovative and well done. So, having said that, the “DS9” episode on my list is the eight-parter that started the Dominion War, which is No. 6 on my list.

The “same but different” factor for all of “DS9,” and this sequence particularly, was off the space-charts. Each of the three Dominion races was a super-charged version of a previous Star Trek villain: the Jem’Hadar were tougher than Klingons, the Vorta were more cunning than Romulans, and the changelings were more insidious than the Borg. By making the villain archtypes similar we felt we were in familiar space, but by making them different we didn’t feel like our legacy was being flouted. Klingons were Kirk’s bad guys, the Borg were Picard’s bad guys. This is another reason “VOY” failed – they co-opted “TNG’s” signature villains in a way that trivialized some of the best installments in the franchise.

My favorite episode of this was “Rocks and Shoals,” where the Defiant and a bunch of Jem’Hadar are marooned on a planet and have a fight to the death. There’s a scene where the crew is debating the ethics of wiping out their enemies and Sisko says something beautifully Republican: “In the choice between them and us, there is no them.” They never would have said that on “TNG.”

Sunday, September 12, 2010

No. 3 is No. 3 ... (Day 5 though)

There has, historically, been the saying that ODD-NUMBERED Star Trek movies are bad, but even-numbered ones are good. This long-standing notion was discarded with the last two films: "Nemesis" (No. 10 -- a stinker) and the reboot (No. 11 -- a winner).

However, I always struggled with the odd/even paradigm because of the No. 3 on our countdown -- "Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock."

Now there are some key reasons why "TSFS" might not make the cut in some people's minds, and I understand them. The film is not without its shortcomings, which include:

1) Positioning.
"TSFS" is sandwiched between the two best films in the franchise: "Wrath of Khan" and "Voyage Home." Often times the second installment in a trilogy feels weak compared to its bookends (the writers of the Lord of the Rings films called "Two Towers" their "neglected child"), and in this case, virtually any movie would struggle to compare to "TWOK" and "TVH."

2) Production values.
"TSFS" has some pretty weak production values, with some less than impressive effects shots. (No. 4's budget was 50% higher than No. 3.) The scenes on the Genesis Planet look corny, the space cantina scene is no Mos Eisley, and a lot of the costumes have a distinctly "It came from the 80s" vibe.

3) Saavik.
Yeah, I'm gonna complain about this now. Kirstie Alley was terrific as Spock's protege, and it was a disappointment that she didn't return for the character's two subsequent outings (because the studio offered her _less_ money, even though she was a bigger star now). While the replacement actress, Robin Curtis, was fine -- and good enough to come back as another Vulcan in two "TNG" episodes -- but it would have helped the film the original could have continued.

Now, having said those things, I still like "TSFS," and I place it higher than "TVH." And the reason I do this is because, when it comes to the "legacy" criteria of my countdown, nothing beats "TSFS." Ahem:

1) Klingons.
So Klingons are the signature alien race of Star Trek (yes, they even edge out Vulcans), and "TSFS" is where the Klingon model was finalized. "TSFS" gave us:

a) The look. Klingons did appear with head ridges in "The Motion Picture," (see right) but those guys looked more like Calibos from "Clash of the Titans" than what we would come to know as Klingons. Kruge (see below) and his crew sported the head ridges, hair, and armor as the first standardized "new" Klingons.

b) The language. The real Klingon language you may have heard jokes about on "Family Guy" or wherever was created for this film by Marc Okrand. And since the franchise has shown off its Klingon-speaking chops whenever anyone would listen. Moreover, "TSFS" introduces the signature Klingon word - qapla! - which is translated as "success" when Kruge uses it, though I think idiomatically it should be translated as "victory."

c) The ship. After the Enterprise itself, no Star Trek ship is as instantly recognizable as the Klingon "bird of prey," which was first created for "TSFS." Actually, arguably this ship is ubiquitous than the Enterprise because it has appeared in virtually every iteration of the franchise ("TOS" films, "TNG," "TNG" films, "DS9," "VOY," "ENT") while no individual version of the Enterprise has.

d) Etcetera etcetera. "TSFS" also featured the first appearance the Klingon "daktag" knife and targ (wolf-like dog), and established the Klingons as warriors more like samurai than as a metaphor for the Soviet Union.

Now, in his autobiography, "I Am Spock," Leonard Nimoy says that the bad guys for this film were supposed to be Romulans, and he changed it to Klingons. Had that been left unchanged, I think Romulans would have become the signature race of the franchise, not Klingons.

2) Spirit.

"My God, Bones. What have I done?"
"What you had to do. What you always do. Turn death into a fighting chance to live."

- Kirk and McCoy, as the fiery Enterprise plummets
"Search of Spock" has left a lasting imprint on the spirit of Star Trek, and unconsciously or not, future iterations all followed its model: the focus on the small group of friends whose personal bond is more important than their careers, the emphasis on individual sacrifice and a de-emphasis on their advanced technology (as demonstrated by the destruction of the Enterprise to save Spock and the flippant disregard for the Excelsior). Some of these themes were certainly extant in the series previously, but "TSFS" perfected them.

This spirit is summed up in the closing lines:

"What you seek has not been done since ages past, and then only in legend. Your request is not logical."
"Forgive me, T'Lar. My logic is uncertain where my son is concerned."
- T'Lar and Sarek, on the request of fal-tor-pan for Spock
The only way Sarek can express his love for his son is to say "my logic is uncertain." Then the echo to Spock's speech about the "needs of the many" at the end of the film is equally tender:

"My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me."
"You would have done the same for me."
"Why would you do this?"
"Because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many."
- Spock and Kirk
3) Humor.

"TSFS" includes some of the best one-liners in Star Trek, such as:

"That green-blooded son of a bitch! It's his revenge for all the arguments he lost."

- McCoy, on realizing he is suffering from a Vulcan mind-meld
"Keeping you busy?"
"Don't get smart, tiny."
- Sulu and Security Guard

"Don't call me tiny."

- Sulu, after knocking out a security guard who called him "tiny"
"Sorry about your crew. But as we say on Earth, c'est la vie."
- Kirk, to Kruge
"I do not deserve to live."
"Fine, I'll kill you later."
- Maltz and Kirk
"Nice of you to tell me in advance."
"That's what you get for missing staff meetings, Doctor. Gentlemen, your work today has been outstanding. I intend to recommend you all for promotion... in whatever fleet we end up serving."
-McCoy and Kirk
And "TSFS" includes my favorite line in all of Star Trek:

"How many fingers do I have up?" (Makes a Vulcan hand salute)
"That's not very damn funny."
- Kirk and McCoy, in McCoy's cell

There are some other highpoints of "TSFS" -- like Uhura's "Mr. Adventure" scene, the hijacking of the Enterprise, and the connection between "TOS" episodes "Amok Time" and "Journey to Babel" and the "ENT" "Forge" trilogy. Despite some of its shortcomings, it's a worthy successor to "Wrath of Khan" and a linchpin part of the trilogy that gave the original crew such a lofty reputation while laying the foundation for "TNG" and all that came after.

Also, "TSFS" is the favorite movie of Kramer on "Seinfeld," as featured in the episode "The Foundation." (Jerry's favorite is "TWOK.") Video here and below.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Day 4 ... No. 4 ... Film 4 ...

So I've talked a lot about "TOS" passing the space-torch to "TNG," and before I leave that point, I need to talk a little bit more about its genesis:

"TNG" premiered in September 1987 under the nervous premise "Could lightning strike twice?" Paramount was not sure they could pull off a sequel to a show that'd been off the air for 18 years, and only has a small (but loyal) fan base. Remember, the film franchise started by basically picking up George Lucas's slop in the post-"Star Wars" sci-fi frenzy of the late 70s. What could similarly give the Trek franchise enough confidence to risk a second weekly series with a mass audience?

The answer to that is No. 4 on my list: "Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home."

Now let me preface this by saying that I don't particularly like "ST4." I don't think it fits well within the canon. Yes, I know that the time "slingshot" effect had been used three times before in "The Original Series," but I still don't time travel stories, because they completely destroy dramatic tension. (William Shatner actually says the same thing in the DVD commentary to "ST4.") Because if you can travel through time, then when you screw something up, you can say:
  • Hey, did that Klingon kill your son, Kirk? Let's go back in time and save him!
  • Hey, did that super-human madman kill a bunch of scientists and steal the Genesis Device? Let's go back in time and fix that!
  • Hey, did that redshirt get killed because he didn't duck in time? Let's go back in time and save him!
Moreover, this sets up the precedent that time-travel is really easy . Kirk pulls it off here in a half hour, in a substandard alien vessel that lacks the Enterprise's superior database OR a full crew complement, and with a science officer whose brain is Swiss cheese. This is not technically a plot hole, the way the time travel aspect in "First Contact" is, but taken outside of the context of this story, it empowers the characters too much. This is why the effect was never used again.

See, I'm of two minds where the "legacy" aspect of "ST4" is concerned, because on the one-hand:

a) Released in 1986, "ST4" was, unadjusted for inflation, the most successful installment of the film franchise until the reboot. This movie is the one that was most successful with a mass audience because it's easy to understand and it uses a lot of humor. Without the success of "ST4," studio executives probably would not have been confident enough to start a sequel TV show less than a year later, which also had the broadest mass appeal of any Trek series. And without "TNG," the franchise would have disappeared 20 years ago.

b) The events in "ST4" had virtually no effect on subsequent movies or TV shows, unlike movies 2, 3, and 6. As said earlier, no one ever uses the slingshot effect again, no one ever talks about whales or the probe, and Gillian never reappeared anywhere. The only reference ever made to "ST4" is a line in "ST6" where the head of Starfleet says to the President of the Federation "Those men [Kirk and McCoy] have literally saved this planet," and frankly at that moment he could have also been talking about when they saved it from V'Ger. For the franchise's most successful installment, it's bizarre that they never tried to return to it. (Note: there's an episode of "Enterprise" where they passingly quote a Vulcan philosopher mentioned in "ST4" -- but that's about it.)

You might point out that "ST4" established that Starfleet Headquarters (and the Academy) are located in San Francisco, a point that's heavily referenced in many subsequent episodes. However, this was actually established in "The Motion Picture," not "ST4." So you would, in fact, be wrong.

Now the exception to my point b) would be the reboot, which includes "ST4" as one of its four prime influences (the other three are "Wrath of Khan," "Journey to Babel," and "Unification.") The first act of 2009's "Star Trek: The Star Trek" takes its cues from "ST4," showing a Vulcan training scene reminiscent of the one in "ST4" and showing that Kirk was, indeed, from Iowa (which "ST4" established).

So I'm torn on "ST4," but because of its pivotal role in advancing the franchise, it has to be on the list. Moreover, it's ridiculously well made, with a great screenplay, believable special effects on the whales, a fun soundtrack, and humor. "ST4" is also pure science-fiction -- there's no villain, no fighting, and a phaser is fired ONLY ONCE: when Kirk locks the doctors in the closet.

The best part of the film is the way they share the action. Yes, Kirk and Spock are the stars, but because there was no villain, the filmmakers had more time to show attention to the other seven members of the crew, who all enjoy more screen-time and character-moments than ever. These include:
  • Scotty "burying himself" in the part of the plastics engineer (OK wait, this is also where they introduce the term "transparent aluminum," a phrase that would be used subsequently).
  • Sulu flying a helicopter and saying "San Francisco ... I was born there."
  • Chekov, a Russian, facing off against an Naval officer while innocently unaware of Cold War politics. (Note: "ST4" also continues the trend of Chekov's tendency to get screwed.) This movie is also where the term "nuclear wessels" was coined.
  • McCoy mocking 20th Century medicine ("the g--d--- Spanish Inquisition").
  • Uhura didn't get a lot (nothing to compete with "Mr. Adventure" in "ST3" or the fandance in "ST5," but she is the one who isolates whale song at the beginning.

This is another way in which the film's invisible, but strong, legacy can be felt: "TNG," DS9," and "VOY" all featured ensemble casts rather than following the "TOS" model of focusing on just a couple main characters. This is another reason why "TNG" was so successful and popular is that they were following the model set by "ST4," even if no one ever followed its details. "ENT" would return to the "TOS" standard of only three truly main characters, but even then Hoshi Sato got way more character development than Uhura ever did.

She also has an awesome mid-riff.

So "ST4" -- mass appeal, humor, ensemble cast, spawned "TNG." Some would insist that it should be higher, but I will argue that the No. 3 spot should be reserved for .... (cliff hanger!)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Star Trek Week ... day 3

OK so yesterday I quoted the Wikipedia page that said "Best of Both Worlds," my No. 2, was the sign that "TNG" had come into its own and was no longer in the shadow of its predecessor. This statement is true. "BoBW" came out at the midpoint of "Trek"'s apex, 1989 - 1991, starting half way through "TNG" seasons 3 and culminating with Numbers 7 and 8 on our countdown: "Unification" and "Star Trek 6." (Part 1 of "Unificiation" available below.)

These two installments signaled the passing of the proverbial space torch from "TOS" to "TNG" with Leonard Nimoy appearing as Spock in two episodes of "TNG" and Michael Dorn appearing as Worf's grandfather in "ST6." They dovetailed together, spaced just a month apart from each other, with Spock teasing the audience about Captain Kirk's then-unknown fate in "Unification." From the script:

SPOCK Perhaps you are aware that I played a small role in the first overture to peace with the Klingons...

PICARD History is aware of the role you played, Ambassador.

Not entirely. It was I who asked Kirk to lead that peace mission. And I who had to accept the responsibility for the consequences to him and his crew. Quite simply, I am unwilling to risk anyone's life but my own on this occasion. I would ask you to respect my wishes and leave.

What did this mean? Was Kirk going to die in "ST6"? Of course, he didn't -- he flew off into the sunset. "ST6" was a glorious way to end a mission that had extended 20 years past the mere 5 promised. The trailer for "ST6" captures the highlights of the original crew's voyages, and gave every Trek fan a lump in his throat: (The voice work is Christopher Plummer, and he was the bad guy in "ST6," the music is from "Search for Spock.")

Magnificent way to send them off, with a montage of a classic moments. I wish they could have done something so classy for the "TNG" crew.

Part of my criteria for this list has been the legacy aspect of the episodes/movies highlighted: how well do they honor long-standing themes in the Star Trek universe and/or how well do they start these themes? These two installments beautifully do both, which is why "Generations" was so pointless. The torch had already been passed.

The scenes with Spock and Picard were more compelling than any of the Kirk/Picard stuff in "Generations." I think the reason that the scenes work so well is because

  1. Stewart and Nimoy are in the same league as actors (Shatner is not, though he's better than he gets credit).
  2. Picard and Spock can interact more meaningfully because of pre-existing relationships: Picard with Sarek and Spock with Kirk. Picard is the only man alive who a) can tell Spock that his father loved him (because of the mind-meld), and b) Spock can talk to with nostalgia. My favorite line in episode is where a very tired Spock says "Walk with me, Picard" -- you can hear the tenderness for Kirk that he can only express to a fellow captain of the Enterprise.
  3. I never felt that Picard would have grown up idolizing Kirk, and that there would be some great moment with the two of them. (The guy on "TNG" who was always talking about Kirk was Riker, who would have been the much better partner for a Kirk story.)
  4. Spock and Picard are more similar (as Spock says, "There's an almost Vulcan quality to the man") in personality, but they're different in their function, making the interplay between the two more dynamic. Everyone was excited to see the scenes with Data and Spock, because they were the non-human "counterparts" in each show, but they didn't have any of the poignancy or drama as the Picard/Spock stuff. (Wait, not that I'm implying there's any Picard/Spock stuff...)

Moreover, "ST6" and "Unification" prove one of my theories of Star Trek -- the main character isn't Kirk, it's Spock. Demonstrably, the best sign of this fact is the 2009 reboot, which was successful because they picked Nimoy and not Shatner to join them. Note also, in terms of legacy, that the only "TNG" episode referenced in the reboot was "Unification."

Spock is also the driving figure of "ST6." He's the one who essentially manipulates Kirk into undertaking the mission with the Klingons, he's the one who rescues Kirk, he figures out who's responsible for the treachery. Kirk just gets swept up in the action. Kirk has more of an arc -- he goes from "never trusting Klingons" -- to overcoming his prejudice (continuing his character thread from "TSFS"), so I guess he's the protagonist, but only in the same way Frodo is the protagonist of "Lord of the Rings" (while Gandalf runs the show).

Now of course I also need to mention Worf in this, because he had to be the one from "TNG" to reach back to "TOS." Worf (technically his grandfather) is Kirk and McCoy's lawyer -- so we have a Klingon trying to save Captain Kirk. This is another sign that "TNG" had overtaken "TOS" -- we were more accustomed to Klingons being our allies than we were to them being our adversaries. ("DS9" would make the Klingons bad guys again, but it didn't last long because it didn't feel right anymore.)

Returning to the pointlessness of "Generations." If there was a character from "TNG" who would have fit well with Kirk from the movies, and the arc he completes in "ST6" -- overcoming his prejudice against Klingons -- IT WAS WORF. For Kirk to team up with a Klingon would have been more meaningful than teaming up with Picard. The Kirk and Worf characters would have presented a more dramatic element despite the fact (and in truth because of the fact) that they did not have corresponding positions on their respective ships.

Some of the allegory in "ST6" is a little dated at this point (Klingons = Russians, Gorkon = Gorbachev, Praxis = Chernobyl), but it still works, and its production values, for a Star Trek movie are second only to "First Contact" (and probably the reboot). And as far as a way to send off a crew, it's never been matched.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Star Trek Top 10 Part 2 ... Number 2!

I was pleasantly surprised by feedback on yesterday's post and hope everyone can stay with me through the list. Most of these entries will be a lot shorter than that one, but to elaborate: The problem with the "TNG" movies is that none of them really had any point, any real story to them.
  • The premise of "Generations" was "Hey, uh, we should do one with Kirk and Picard, right?"
  • The premise of "First Contact" was "Hey, people like the Borg right? We should put that on the big screen!"
  • Then "Insurrection" was "Hey remember how 'Search for Spock' and 'Wrath of Khan' were pretty grim, and then they did a light one about whales that everyone loved? Let's do a light one!"
  • Then "Nemesis" was "Dude, I don't care any more ... how about we just throw them in a dune buggy? and just end it."
See, there was no real story, there was no "so what" to them. For "First Contact" they knew the Borg plot was thin, so they added the interesting story on the planet, but apart from that, the whole franchise is listless and compares terribly to their own earlier work. There was also no sense of building. All of the "TOS" movies build off their antecedents (except possibly No. 5) to create a series rather than just an isolated string of vignettes.

See and that's why "TOS" is better loved than "TNG," even though "TNG" is irrefutably the better show -- the "TOS" films were fantastically better than the series, while "TNG" suffered from the reverse. The "TNG" movies just can't hold up to the average episode of the show, therefore they left everyone feeling worn out while the "TOS" films made everyone feel fulfilled to have been friends with these characters for so long.

So on that note, let's talk about a "TNG" installment that knew exactly what it was doing, the achievement "First Contact" was trying to emulate: "The Best of Both Worlds." I put it at No. 2 on my list.

This is the episode that really put "TNG" on the star-map. From its Wiki entry...
"Many fans and critics regard them as the best episodes of the Star Trek saga, having achieved an almost cinematic level of story and scope. With this episode, and with its embarkation upon an unprecedented fourth season, The Next Generation was considered to have finally emerged from the shadow of its predecessor. It won Emmy Awards for "Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series" and "Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Drama Series" and was nominated for two others: "Outstanding Visual Effects for a Series" and "Outstanding Art Direction for a Series." It appeared in TV Guide's 100 Most Memorable Moments in TV History feature in its July 1, 1995 edition, and also in another issue on the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time."
Not a lot more I can add, except that I also think this episode is why I became a hard core Trek fan as a kid. I watched this as a cock-eyed 12 year old and was just breathtaken. My brother, Mark, saw the first part just a few weeks before he left on his mission and had to wait TWO years to see the conclusion. I distinctly remember him shouting at the television when he saw the "To be continued..."

Incidentally, I made some edits to the Wiki page on Sunday, adding the "Legacy" section.

Given the popularity of the episode, it has been revisited several times in the Star Trek franchise. The subsequent episode, Family, detailed Picard's struggle to cope with his captivity and assimilation. The Borg conflict is referenced in episodes later that season: in The Wounded, Captain Benjamin Maxwell tells Riker that "we all owe you" for defeating the Borg, while in The Drumhead Admiral Norah Satie interrogates Picard about his assimilation to try to humiliate him. Picard's desire for vengeance against the Borg is also a theme of the film Star Trek: First Contact, with flashbacks depicting his capture.
While viewers saw only the aftermath of the Battle of Wolf 359 in the episode, Star Trek fans would see scenes of the actual battle three years later in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The series' protagonist, Benjamin Sisko, had served as executive officer aboard the USS Saratoga, which was lost in the battle along with Sisko's wife. In the episode The Die Is Cast, when a group of Cardassian and Romulan ships are destroyed by the Dominion, Sisko compares the massacre to Wolf 359.

I don't have much more to add, certainly not the level of analysis that I had with yesterday's, but I will say that the further significance of this episode was cementing Patrick Stewart as the show's protagonist. Previously, it had really been Riker -- he got more of the girls, he got more one-liners, and he led the away teams. I understand, from a simulationist standpoint, why you wouldn't have the most important guy on the ship going into harm's way every week, but from a narrativist standpoint, it doesn't help to cut out the most important guy on the show like that.

Having said that, "BoBW" is a Riker vehicle -- the whole episode is about how he's always hid behind Picard to avoid getting a command of his own, and then now he has no choice but to be in command because Picard's gone. But Stewart's masterful performance both as Picard and Locutus really jolted that, as the series focus' quickly shifted from Riker to Picard. Influencing this, perhaps more than "BoBW" itself was the show's aftermath, "Family," which "has been named in a number of polls and surveys as one of the two most popular and best episodes of the entire Next Generation series, along with the episode 'The Inner Light.'" These two episodes, plus my personal favorite "Tapestry" (I even have a signed copy of the script from Ronald D. Moore), all feature Picard to the virtual exclusion of every other major character.

Stewart was just too good of an actor to not be the protagonist. Ironically Stewart's gravitas was one of the things that ruined the "TNG" movie franchise, as Stewart demanded constant action scenes for his character, whom he somehow forgot was not - technically - Bruce Willis. From the Memory Alpha article on "Insurrection":

"I said three things: One was, I thought that Picard's involvement in the action line of First Contact had been very successful and I wanted to continue that. My feeling was that the captain should be in the thick of things. You've got to have the captain in jeopardy. Then I talked about perhaps trying to find a lighter tone for this film, I wanted to see our heroes having fun. And the last thing I suggested was that we should develop a romantic storyline that went a little further than the one that I had with Alfre Woodard in the last film. That was a fairly competitive relationship, which ultimately became respectful and fond towards the end - but it was just too late."

This is the kind of role he should play -- cerebral, not swinging around making action movie cliches.

So there's nothing wrong with a lighter tone, that's why "The Voyage Home" and "Trouble With Tribbles" are so popular, but here Stewart is demanding sex and violence for his character, which were not what made his character so distinct and therefore compelling. Jean-luc Picard was a bald British man playing a pacifistic French man who quotes Shakespeare, constantly adjusts his shirt, and calls his first officer a synonym for peeing.

Star Trek Top 10...

So around this time of year I get a lot of emails and sexts demanding that I blog even _more_ about Star Trek (since I'm not quite nerdy enough on a good day), because - as everyone knows - September 8 is the anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Trek on NBC in 1966.

So this year I'm going to try to pull off a "Star Trek Week" on Whitleypedia, expostulating the 10 best movies in the franchise. Ten best, you say? But there were only 11 films, and several of them were bad. Ah, Gentle Reader, I'm going to include along with that every two-parter from the various series -- that gives us a pretty big sample size over the show's 44 year run.

I'm basing this ranking on a complicated set of criteria, but the main one is the movie or two-parter's legacy: how well did this fit in the Trek canon, honoring the tradition that lead up to it and inspiring subsequent installments.

I don't want to do a traditional "countdown," especially since obviously "Wrath of Khan" is going to be No. 1. So instead I'll just count out according to my own will and pleasure. This time, I'll start with No. 9 -- "Star Trek: First Contact."

Now there's a lot of fan-boy praise for this film, which might make some bristle at ranking it so lowly on the list. But there's also a lot of fan-boy criticism of "First Contact," such as from the inimitable Mr. Plinkett:

So adding my own observations to those in the Plinkett review, here are the problems with "First Contact":

1) The entire story makes no sense. So the Borg travel through time to prevent the Federation from ever happening -- to prevent first contact with the Vulcans, right? The obvious problems with that are

  • If the Borg can travel through time, why wouldn't they have done it before invading Earth and having gotten destroyed by star ships?
  • The Borg exist to assimilate technology. Why would they assimilate a primitive species? Isn't it in their interest to let this civilization develop new technologies and assimilate that? Why would they be interested in this primitive world? Out of spite?
2) The presence of the Borg Queen makes even less sense. Everything we'd heard about the Borg up until then was that they were a collective -- no individuals at all. The reason they assimilated Picard in "Best of Both Worlds" was because they idea of a leader was something new to them. Also, if there is a Queen, why would she be on this vessel? And why would she wear lipstick?

3) The Borg are themselves dumb villains. The Borg were fantastic in small doses - no more than one episode per season on "Next Gen," but in large doses they just get ridiculous. One is because they're shown as so powerful that it's inconceivable that they wouldn't conquer the Enterprise immediately once they show up en masse, and two is because they are - as Lily describes them in the film - "cyborg zombies." The Borg are just zombies. They walk slow; are pale and deathly looking; when they kill you, you become a zombie; and they want to eat your brains (not technically true). This is a zombie movie in space. That's why they had to add the Borg Queen, because otherwise there would have been nothing to do in the third act of the film.

  • See the thing with the Borg, is that if they're not zombies, then they're a Doctor Who villian -- the Cybermen, who were only cool for being lame. (And there's an episode where the Brigadier tells the Doctor, "We've even got gold-covered bullets in case of you-know-what!" I loved that episode.)
4) The movie retcons the Borg. So the thing with the Borg is that they're, as Q says, "the ultimate user" -- "not a he, not a she" -- and otherwise expresses that they have no personality, no humanity, they exist only for technology. This is obviously capturing the zeitgeist of the late 80s where people were afraid that technology would consume their lives to the point that they had no lives (such as staying up late to write a blog post about a 14-year-old movie on a blog no one will read).

  • When Picard tells a drone,"We mean you no harm. Do you understand me?" Q mocks him with, "'Understand you'? You're nothing to him."Okay but then in this movie the Borg's whole deal is that people matter to them, they want to add their "biological and technological distinctiveness to our own." Now, I could accept it if this were, like, a new thing that the Borg were doing, but even then why would they wait until now, after centuries of living as mindless parts in a machine, start assimilating people? Also, everything about the Borg in "Voyager" (see below) follows this trend, ignoring Q's initial description of the Borg in one of the series' best episodes.
  • The thing about when Q says something, is he's "all-knowing, all-seeing," so when you change things that he says, it subtracts somewhat.

There are some other points to nit-pick, but those are the big ones. So, now, moving on to the good things about the film:

1) Best soundtrack in a Star Trek movie.

This is the only music CD I have in my car. It's majestic. It's almost as good as a "Star Wars" movie's soundtrack. Not only is the main title terrific for this, but they final gave the Klingon theme to Worf in a couple scenes. And they play "Magic Carpet Ride."

2) Zefram Cochrane. One of the problems with Star Trek movies is that there are so many characters in the cast that the films frequently feel crowded. This film had several supporting characters (and cameos) and none of them feel lost: James Cromwell makes an otherwise forgettable throwaway character from "The Original Series" vibrant and fun. They also avoid the sci-fi cliche of having to go to some lengths to persuade him to join their mission. They just explain everything (off camera) and he says "why not?" Beautiful. When I was watching the film I braced myself for the extended, tiresome exposition and debate, and they just flipped the page. Nice. Which brings me to point 3:

3) Pleasantly surprises for the viewer. So the first time watching the film, you assume it will just be a knock-off of "Best of Both Worlds," with some kind of plot that culminates in a big space battle. But then it isn't. They get the space battle out of the way within about five minutes, and then the movie starts. There are some movies that, after you see the trailer, you no longer need to see the movie. "FC" doesn't fall victim to that. Even though it came out in 1996, the film's special effect have held up remarkably.

4) The film is beautifully directed. Jonathan Frakes (Riker) directed this and did a fantastic job. Not only does he juggle the many different characters and locations, but he strings everything together cogently and effectively. It's almost (though not quite as good) as "Terminator 2" in terms of balancing just the right amount of action, then exposition, then action, then character development, then action, then plot twist, etc.

  • Best evidence of that is how he films the Borg cube in that scene above. Note: it is very difficult to make an evil space ship look evil without looking like a sad rip-off of the opening scene to "Episode IV." The cube is shot vertically, to make it look like a tall, scary building, rather than lengthwise, so the comparison is never made. Brilliant.
5) The "who's your daddy" effect. Here's the thing about Star Trek ... without question, "Next Generation" is the best series. There. Is. No. Question. None of the other series had a lead as strong as Patrick Stewart -- and I said strong, not kitchy, which is why Stewart beats out Shatner, even though Kirk would be more fun to see a baseball game with than Picard. None of the other series produced episodes of the quality of "Best of Both Worlds" or "Tapestry" or "Yesterday's Enterprise." None! There's more nostalgia for "The Original Series," because the characters are so lovable and because they ended on a supremely high note, with dignity and class (except for the three that came back for "Generations"), rather than starting their film franchise on a supremely low note (like "Generations"). "First Contact" makes a concerted effort to incorporate elements from all the installments of Star Trek to show that this is a shared universe, rather than just theirs, while profoundly showing "who's your daddy."

  • Deep Space Nine. The film pays homage to "DS9" with Worf leading the Defiant into battle. Riker makes a wisecrack about how it's a "tough little ship" (which is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the episode of "DS9" where Thomas Riker hijacked the Defiant).
  • Voyager. The film sweetly has cameos for two "VOY" actors - Robert Picardo playing a version of the EMH and Ethan Phillips playing a character one-gazillion times less pointless than Neelix: a night club host. There's even a bit where Beverly makes an utterly pointless reference to the Delta Quadrant, just to tell the audience -- "Hey! There's also this show 'Voyager'! And we're not ashamed of the association!"
  • Original Series. The entire culmination and surprise ending (though you could kind of guess who it was going to be) of the Vulcans' first contact with humans is a loving homage to "TOS." "TNG" surreptitiously avoided use of Vulcan characters to avoid the obvious comparisons with Spock, but "TNG" reverently acknowledges, at the climax of its best film, that it got to where it was only by standing on the shoulders of the giant who came before: "TOS."
which brings me to

6) Legacy. This is why I place "First Contact" so highly, even though the story - as I said - makes no sense. Everything that came after "First Contact" has tried to duplicate it. You have two storylines - the Borg on the ship and Zefram Cochrane in Montana.

  • After this movie was released, "Voyager" completely shifted gears to emulate the a) storyline, relying more heavily on the Borg and introducing Seven of Nine. (I don't know if this was for the best, since they took the worst threat ever and made them the monster of the week, but it was probably better than what was going on with the show otherwise.)
  • The entire show of "Enterprise," which got far worse than it deserved and went before its time, was based on the b) storyline with Cochrane, which is ultimately the much better part of the picture. (Note that all my complaints are about the a) storyline.) James Cromwell appeared in several episodes, the characters make constant reference to him, and there's even footage of the Phoenix in the show's opening credits. The cold open to the episode "In A Mirror, Darkly" is just lifted from "First Contact."
  • “First Contact” also features a beautiful piece of Trek legacy – both in canon and in fandom – Lily compares Picard to Ahab from “Moby Dick,” which Picard proceeds to quote, chapter and verse. Lily confesses “I never read it,” echoing the fact that most Trek fans know the story, not because they’ve read the book, but because Khan quoted it in “TWOK.”

So despite the fact that the story made no sense, and the Borg had lost relevance as villains after "Best of Both Worlds" (heck, even in "I, Borg," they weren't the bad guys, prejudice against Borg was the bad guy in that one), "First Contact" is still terrific. It's also the only watchable "TNG" film.

Number 9: "First Contact"


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