June 25, 2013

I Refuse to Use Qapla' as the Title

K'mpec Practices His Fiddle

I’ve had a little trouble deciding which episode I want to cover next.  I even tried a random number generator to pick an episode at random.  When that proved to be too nerdy even for someone who talks about Star Trek on the internet, I thought I should focus on a whole story arc.

That’s why over the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the Klingon Civil War, its buildup, its fallout, and the effect it had on the Klingon Empire throughout the franchise.  This will give me a chance to talk about several related shows in TNG, while also getting to cover episodes of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise.  

So, join me later this week when we kick off Klingon Civil War Month!

June 21, 2013

Encounter at Farpoint Part II

Second Star to the Right, and Straight on 'Til Morning
Doctor McCoy gave the new series its sendoff in at the end of part I.  Gene Roddenberry didn’t expect DeForest Kelley to agree to appear when he asked the TOS veteran to appear, but in doing so, Kelley passed the torch to TNG and implicitly gave it his blessing.  

Part II opens with the Enterprise orbiting the Bandi world in tandem with USS Hood, the Excelsior-class starship that presumably carried Bones to his inspection, and is now carrying him away.  Excelsior-class vessels were the behemoths of the original cast’s day.  Excelsior, herself was annoyingly modern in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock--an irritating new golden boy that had the gall to presume it could replace the tried-and-true Enterprise.  Now, in orbit alongside the Enterprise-D nearly 80 later, it is clear that the Excelsiors are the aging workhorse of the Starfleet, and the Galaxy-class are the ships that will carry Trek into the future.  

The Hood breaks orbit, setting sail for parts unknown; leaving Enterprise to handle the Farpoint conundrum on its own.  It’s a touching visual, really; the Hood, a stand-in for the USS Excelsior, herself, seems to be giving its blessing to the new series just as Bones had.  

Picard ruins it with his message, “Bon voyage, mon ami.”  I might have opened fire.  

Was Patrick Stewart cast to play a Frenchman specifically to piss off actual French people. . .and certain Canadians?  We meet members of his family, and with the exception of his mother--who was a memory brought to live via negative space wedgie--every one of them speaks in an English accent.  Picard’s mother, incidentally, is also the only one who doesn’t appear to have been a member of the Khmer Rouge.  

Thankfully, Q appears to put an end to Picard’s douchebaggery. Setting a 24 hour time limit to solve the mystery of Farpoint Station or be summarily judged guilty.  

The episode gives us a lot of great glimpses at the kind of leader that Picard will become.  For all of the first, and much of the second seasons, Captain Picard is not quite the tolerant father figure to the crew that he’ll become.  First season Picard was irritable, curmudgeonly, and often downright unlikeable.  After Riker successfully reconnected with the saucer section manually-a maneuver that the mere idea of caused the bridge crew to shit a collective brick--Picard somehow made his ‘well done’ sound like ‘eat shit and die.’ 

He does, however, manage to foreshadow the master diplomat reputation that he will eventually earn.  When Q chides him for being dilatory, Picard tries to subtly set the terms of the test Q gave him:  “If the purpose of this is to test humans, your honor, we must proceed in our own way.”  It’s a subtle enough attempt that might have worked, had he not been trying to negotiate with a nigh-omniscient being.  He also shows his confidence in Mr. Worf’s potential, even after he nearly tried to shoot an image on the viewscreen, which. . .what the fuck, Worf?

"If we're going be damned, let's be damned for what we really are." 
--Jean-Luc Picard

It is at this point that Riker and Troi’s are reintroduced to each other after Riker left her on Betazed.  The resemblance of Will Riker and Deanna Troi’s relationship to that of Will Decker and Ilia from Star Trek The Motion Picture is obvious.  Riker and Decker were ambitious, young Starfleet officers, both fell in love with a local during a shore assignment. Both women had mental powers of some kind, and both Riker and Decker left without saying goodbye (I like to imagine that there was a pregnancy and livid parents involved in each case) only to be reunited years later aboard Enterprise.  I have no idea why TNG felt the need to recreate the Decker/Ilia dynamic, but I really don’t care enough about ether romance to research the matter.

Riker collects Data on the holodeck in a scene that really only really serves to give us some backstory for Data and establish the holodeck’s theme of trying to kill people.  With the away team assembled, the exploration of Farpoint can begin.  Councilor Troy is actually relevant to the plot for once, when she senses the first clue of what Farpoint Station is.  While exploring the tunnels below the structure, she feels the pain and despair of something.  She’s still vague enough to be annoying, but, credit where it’s due.  

A huge ship appears and begins to fire on the Bandi city near the station, but carefully avoids shelling Farpoint itself.  Picard breaks the first rule of kidnapping, never tell a room full of people you’re about to kidnap someone, destroying any hope he had of plausible deniability by specifically calling the act illegal.  He’s saved the felony charge by the other ship, however, when it abducts Groppler Zorn before he does.

Enterprise’s away team beams over to the alien vessel--a move that seems risky as sensor signals only bounce off of the ship’s hull--to find that Zorn is being tortured in some kind of energy field.  I personally couldn’t give a shit, but Riker decides to shut the field down by firing phasers at it. . .which, again, seems kind of risky.  

Picard realizes that the ship is actually a space-born life form and that its pissed at the Bandi for abducting its mate and only feeding it enough energy to survive and fabricate goods for the Bandi, but not to escape.  Riker is shocked that the life form, bubbled a space jelly in the extended universe, is naturally able to convert energy into specific patterns of matter like their transporters do, but admits "It has to be conceivable that somewhere in this galaxy there could exist creatures able to convert energy into matter."   Wow, that would be amazing; nobody’s ever seen anything like that before...

...Uhh, those guys don’t count.

Enterprise uses its phasers to feed the entity, which frees itself and joins its mate in orbit for some sweet jellyfish lovin’.  Good for them. 

Q leaves, but warns that he may be back some day, and the Enterprise leaves to carry on the mission of her predecessors. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation starts out its journey with an episode that was, frankly, pretty mediocre.  The episode has shadows of what the series will become, but Encounter at Farpoint’s better aspects simply don’t make up for its weird pacing, poor performances, and lackluster plot.  After the dregs of the first season, and a second season that had some great episodes surrounded by, well, more dregs, it will go on to become one of the great science fiction TV series of all time.  The actors become comfortable with their characters, scripts become better-and-better, and Wesley is put on a buss; allowing the show to blossom into something nearly as relevant and beloved the first series.  

The Good:
  • The music is outstanding in both episodes.  Its really amazing how much tension can be generated with excellent scoring.  
  • John di Lancie as Q.  Q’s motives are ambiguous, and don’t really make sense at face value.  I think that there's a very good reason for this, which I'll talk about in future.
The Bad:
  • Same as Part I, with the exception of Lt. Yar, who manages to make herself useful this time around.

The Verdict:
  • Must See

©2013 AHoden or The Special Needs Group. Screen captures and TNG publicity photos property of their owners.

June 18, 2013

Looking at the Ships of Star Trek

And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by.
Herman Melville John Masefield  

Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to NBC as ‘Wagon Train to the stars.’  After Star Trek the Motion Picture, Paramount took direct control of the franchise’s film outings away from Roddenberry and gave creative control to Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer--and given the success of Wrath of Khan as both in the box office and as a triumph of storytelling, it was a change that very likely saved Trek.

Meyer, who had never really watched Star Trek, familiarized himself with The Original Series, enjoying the show’s use of what he described as gunboat diplomacy.  Inspired by this, he shifted away from the tone of the first movie; re-imagining Trek not as Wagon Train in space, but as space-borne Horatio Hornblower.  .

Enterprise didn’t physically change in any apparent way between Star Trek The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, but with Bennett and Meyer now imposing naval customs and parlance, along with Starfleet uniforms that had a distinctly military look to them, the USS Enterprise felt more like a warship than it ever had before.  Wether or not this was a good thing is a matter of debate; Gene Roddenberry hated the new tone, but many fans, myself included, feel that the changes brought a much-needed implication of purpose and cohesion to the ship and crew that that Motion Picture was lacking.  I bring this up to demonstrate that the USS Enterprise has gone through something that sometimes eludes actual, living people in Trek: character development.

The USS Enterprise is as much a character in Star Trek as any living crew member of in the franchise, and just like every other character, their personality was subject to change.  Perhaps this is part of fans become as attached the the ship as any of the characters who call their ship home, and we love them just as much as the crew does.  If you disagree, ask yourself what affected you more in The Search for Spock: David Marcus’ murder, or Enterprise self-destructing and burning up as it crashed through the Genesis Planet’s atmosphere.  

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, being a show that was meant to show the hard work that goes into rebuilding the Planet of the Week after starships like Enterprise leave.  It was a bold experiment in storytelling for Trek.  Making the primary setting for a show a Cardassin-built space station, rankled many fans.  The premise seemed to fly in the face of Star Trek’s spirit of adventure through peaceful exploration.  In the early seasons of Deep Space Nine, the only ‘Trekking‘ that was done was aboard the tiny, fungible, often anonymous ‘runabouts.’  

The disposable nature of runabouts could never hope to earn the love of fans like a starship could, so the writers did everything they could to give Deep Space Nine more personality than the starships that came before it.  The starships Enterprise were homes to the crews worked aboard them.  They were places of comfort and warmth for the show’s heros.  Deep Space Nine, however, was dirty, dangerous, dilapidated, and often seemed to be consciously working against its staff.  But by the third season, Sisko admits that he has begun “Thinking of [the] Cardassian monstrosity as home.”   Even after the Defiant was introduced, the once imposing station had earned its place in the hearts of the its staff, its civilian inhabitants, and the fans.  DS9’s character arc was cemented in A Time to Stand, when the Federation personnel were forced to bug out.  Sisko is so moved, he gives his best MacArthur impersonation and vows that he will return.  

Its not unusual for vehicles to hold special significance.  They tend to be the tools that make a sci-fi story’s premise possible.  Often, they not only the characters’ means of conveyance, but also their homes.  Sometimes, they are sentient, living entities like the TARDIS, or they might be machines so machines so advanced that they may as well be alive. The Doctor loves the TARDIS--sometimes to an uncomfortable degree--but he can function without it, and he has done in several multi-story arcs.  

Trek, however, doesn’t do as well without its starships.  Star Trek I, II, III, VI, and Generations, all highlight how useless Captain Kirk feels when he isn’t on the bridge of the Enterprise; and episodes of each of the television series have dealt with regulars who feel the very same feelings of restless, aimless malaise whenever they’re separated from the ship they call home.  While this certainly isn’t unique to Star Trek, the franchise, for better or for worse, likes to crank that separation anxiety way higher than other works do.  Why that is, we’ll discuss in the conclusion of Farpoint, and again when we cover The Battle

In the meantime, if you haven’t seen already, check out Ships of the Line by Margret Clark and Doug Drexler is the source of the gorgeous image above.  It’s an amazing book full of breathtaking scenes of the ships of Star Trek from the creators of equally impressive Star Trek: Ships of the Line calendars.  Honestly, I couldn’t recommend it more. 

©2013 AHoden or The Special Needs Group. Screen captures and TNG publicity photos property of their owners.

June 14, 2013

Encounter at Farpoint Part I

Origional airdate: Week of September 28, 1987
Directed by: Corey Alen
Written by: D.C. Fonatna and Gene Roddenberry 

Welcome aboard the brand new Galaxy-class USS Enterprise-D

As much as the TARDIS of Doctor Who fame, ships in Trek are characters in their own right. Kirk’s Enterprise was a radical departure from the usual spaceship designs seen in 1960s science fiction, but compared to it’s Galaxy-class namesake, she looked like a splay-legged cart horse. That’s not an insult--OK, it’s a little insulting, I’m sure Scotty would beat my ass if he herd me saying that, but I have nothing but love for the classic Enterprise.  Kirk and company were on the frontier--cowboys forging into the unknown--and their ship’s simple, no nonsense, utilitarian design reflected that fact.  Enterprise-D, is an entirely different animal: Refined, elegant, and huge--42 decks tall and measuring around 643 meters long with eight times the volume of her Constitution-class predecessor, Enterprise-D is a skyscraper in space.   

The episode begins with a beautiful establishing shot of our newest Enterprise, where we’re first introduced to Jean-Luc Picard, who dictates his first captain’s log of the series as he tours his ship.   This is also when we’re introduced to Picard pensively staring out a window--get used to it, because that’ll be happening a lot over the series.  

For now, it’s an excellent and loving introduction to what will be the characters’ home for the next eight years (I plan to discuss the Enterprise and the importance of starships to Trek lore in a little more detail in a supplemental entry later next week).   The problem with Picard’s log entry is that it foreshadows a problem this episode: they don’t have nearly enough show to fill the episode’s running time. The episode tries to cover this up with what is frankly blatant padding, but it only contributes to the uneven pacing of the episode.  

We also meet Lt. Commander Data, who will develop into one of the most interesting characters in all of Trek, with a character arc that arguably rivals Mr. Spock for most beloved in franchise.  Now, however, the episode uses him as a target for a chunky stream of explosive exposition.  I do not posses the rhetorical skills necessary to illustrate the true awkwardness of this plot dump, so I’ll just let it speak for itself--and keep in mind that this is the first exchange of dialogue in the entire series:

Picard: You will agree, Data, that Starfleet’s orders are difficult.

Data Difficult?  Simply solve the mystery of Farpoint Station.

Picard: Hmm, as simple as that.  

Troy: Farpoint Station.  Even the name sounds mysterious.

Picard: It’s hardly simple, Data, to negotiate an agreement for Starfleet to use the base while at the same time snoop around.

Data: Inquiry: The word, ‘Snoop?’

Picard: Data, how can you be programed as a virtual encyclopedia of human information without knowing a simple word like snoop?

This is also where we’re introduced to Data’s theme for most of the first season: Data is an irritating, android attaboy.  Picard gives a brief explanation of the word ‘snoop,’ and Data, just to prove just how smart he is--presumably to the audience, but possibly also to Picard--ejaculates nine synonyms back at him.  Data’s stupid robot tricks will be toned down after the first season or two, but until that happens, you’ll be forgiven for hoping the show’s going to feature some sort of 24th Century version of BattleBots...which actually, sounds like it would be awesome!

Picard noted that Enterprise is understaffed in several key positions, which brings up  a question that’s been bugging me: Why the hell does Starfleet insist on launching ships before they’re ready?  Seriously, let’s go down the list:

  • Star Trek the Motion Picture’s refit Enterprise was launched in such an unready state, it somehow gave space-time a colonoscopy.  It’s tempting to give this one a pass.  There was a crisis, and Enterprise was the best choice to stop that big. . .cloud. . .with a yeast infection. . .and there was a hot, bald robot that. . .what the hell was that movie about?  
  • We had The Final Frontier, where the movie shows us other ships in space dock, but Starfleet sends an Enterprise to handle a dangerous hostage situation on the edge of both Klingon and Romulan space, despite the fact that the ship was so FUBAR, the decks aren’t even in the right order.  
  • In Generations, the Enterprise-B was sent on a test run without a medical staff.  Or photon torpedos.  Or a tractor beam.  Also, the toilets weren’t actually hooked up to anything yet; when flushed, their contents just splattered on the next deck below.  
  • The Defiant was assigned to Sisko, even though her engines had an unfortunate tendency to tear the ship in half...though this may have just been to torture Chief O'Brien, which is Starfleet's standard operating procedure. 
  • NX-01 was launched weeks before it was ready so it’s captain could prove his dick was bigger than a Vulcan’s.  I’m willing to give this one a pass, as well; a good hunk of the first season was spent showing why launching early was a really, really bad idea that almost got everyone killed a couple of times.  Also, laughably, disastrously bad decisions was the unintentional motif of the first three seasons of Enterprise.  

Q Rocking USMC Service 'A's
Q shows up and completely steals the show with his cheesy but somehow terrifying hamminess.  Q was a last-minute change to the story, added as an extra storyline to satisfy Paramount’s request that Encounter at Farpoint be a double-length episode.  It is, at least to me, fairly obvious that Q was added as an afterthought.  The crew members who were waiting to be picked up at Farpoint Station had already suspected that there was something bizarre going on, and had taken it upon themselves to investigate.  In all likelihood, they would have been able solve the ‘mystery of Farpoint Station’ without Q’s interference, so there’s no real reason that he needs to be in this episode.

This doesn't matter, though, because in an episode brimming with terrible performances from the regulars, John di Lancie’s plays Q as an irreverent trickster who just happens to be crap-your-pants intimidating when he needs to be.  He shows up on the bridge dressed first as a 16th century explorer speaking antiquated English, then as a US Marine spouting mockingly paranoid nonsense about beating the ‘commies’--incidentally, Picard shows that he has yet to develop a sense of irony when he calls to the US Marine service dress uniform a costume while wearing red spandex pajamas--and finally as a soldier from what Picard describes as Earth’s post atomic horror.  Even through the silliness of this sequence, you can sense a cold, deadly edge hidden just under the surface of Q’s personality.  His appearance added a sense of menace that would have mad the episode a fairly sub-par alien-of-the-week mystery without. 

Future Soldiers Get To Wear Sequins 
Let me also say that I like this future solder’s costume.  It seems believable that the march toward stronger, lighter military body armor would eventually lead to something that might resemble the sort of battle dress padding that Q’s wearing.  

Picard tries to outwit Q with a saucer separation, a procedure which was originally intended to be a regular feature on TNG, allowing the civilians and families to stay behind as when the rest of the ship went charging into danger.  His plan is to run from Q at maximum warp, and distract him with a spread of photon torpedos; giving the saucer and the nonessential personnel therein the opportunity to flee while Picard faces Q in the ship’s battle section.  Saucer separation has been hinted at in Star Trek since TOS.  In The Apple, Kirk gave Scotty a semi-cryptic order to dump the nacelles--probably meaning both the secondary hull and the actual warp nacelles--but non-canon sources once the ship was separated, it the two hulls couldn’t be rejoined.  

Worf takes the opportunity to tell the audience something we already figured out ten minutes ago: that he’s a Klingon.  This is handled through a clunky burst of exposition, that really should have been better spent pointing out the frankly amazing fact that a Starfleet captain is giving command of a Federation starship to a Klingon.  Remember, as far as the audience knew, the Empire and the Federation were still entangled in cold war.  Worf taking command should have been given more weight to illustrate just how different this show was going to be.  It was an opportunity to underline that the universe had changed drastically in between the TOS era and TNG.  Instead, the scene just serves to remind us what Klingons look like.  

I Think Gene Roddenberry Might Have
Had a Strange Fascination with Dwarves
The courtroom scene that follows is another delightful demonstration of Q being terrifying.   At one point, after promising that he would be a fair judge of humanity, he orders more future-solders to kill Picard, Data, and Yar should Picard not plead guilty to humanity’s crimes.  The scene is a masterwork of suspense, leading into an act break, which legitimately leaves you on edge through the commercials.  

Picard enters a provisional guilty plea, and we’ll see this dynamic between the two through many of their future meetings.  Picard will, again and again throughout the series be forced to humble himself before Q, and admit that without Q’s help, he won’t survive.  There might be an answer to the open question about Q’s motives in the two’s behavior, which I’ll touch on in a future discussion, but for now, it simply sets up the dilemma of Farpoint Station.  

That done, we close out the episode with a touching send-off by TOS’s DeForest Kelley as the 137 year old Admiral Bones McCoy, who’s conversation with Data as they slowly amble down a corridor is among to most heartwarming in Star Trek history:

Bones: Well, this is a new ship, but she’s got the right name.  Now, you remember that, you hear?  You treat her like a lady and she’ll always bring you home.

The Good:
  • There are two black guys on the bridge, and neither of them were killed.
  • Chief O’Brien.  Fuckin’ Chief Miles Edward O’Brien. 
  • The introduction of Q. 
  • This discussion:
McCoy: I don’t see any points on your ears, boy, but you sound like a Vulcan. 
Data: No, sir, I am an android.
McCoy: Huh.  Almost as bad.
    • It’s great to known that even into the 24th century, Dr. McCoy will still be a racist old drunk!  
The Bad: 
  • The Bandi.  The entire species looks like depressed Raggedy Andy dolls sewn together by forced child labor in a country where the Communist government feels that  color is too decadent.  
  • The acting.  The show had the basic characterization down, but that’s about it.  Even the better actors among the group didn’t have much to work with; everyone else...frankly it would take until midseason two before most everyone else became comfortable in their roles.  Eventually, TNG will have one of the better ensemble cast on television when they grow into their roles.  
  • Natasha Yar.  She somehow managed to out-useless Councilor Troy for most the episode.  

The Verdict:
  • Must see.  This episodes sets up the entire series, and despite its flaws, it is too important. 

©2013 AHoden or The Special Needs Group. Screen captures and TNG publicity photos property of their owners.

June 5, 2013

Make it So

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Star Trek.  I mean that, I was obsessed in a borderline unhealthy way.  I planned my Sundays around the episode of The Original Series rerun that my local Fox affiliate would air.  Every weeknight at ten, the same station (Fox really didn’t have a lot going on in the early nineties), would air a ten o’clock episode of The Next Generation.  It was these broadcasts--airing one hour after my bed time at that age--that are probably responsible for my complete inability to fall asleep at a reasonable hour to this very day.  

I honestly don’t know what it was about the show, or rather, the entire franchise, that I found so appealing.  All I remember for sure is that if you were unlucky enough to cross my path at age nine, there was a good chance that you would be waylaid by my complete obsession with the USS Enterprise and her crew.  

That’s not to say that I won’t still totally waste your time by talking endlessly about a franchise that hasn’t made any new material for television for--Good Lord, has it really been eight years?  

For now, I’d like to focus on The Next Generation, starting with Encounter at Farpoint and then skipping around throughout the series--possibly including episodes of other series if they should be tied into what we cover in any interesting ways.  Should anyone want me to look at a specific episode, movie, or specific theme, I’ll be more than happy to take requests.  

I don’t want to call these reviews, though.  I won’t necessarily be focusing on how individual shows or story lines stand on  as works of fiction, but more how they stand up as individual contributions of to the universe and its mythology.  I might not even focus on an individual episode.

So, let’s see if we can figure out how and why Star Trek touched us--well, mostly me, ‘cuz I’m the one writing this crap--and what that means about us.   

So, let’s begin with Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1, Episode 1&2 Encounter at Farpoint.