Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek Memories

Well, I'm going to see the new Star Trek movie this evening and I've been thinking about my favorite episodes of all the various incarnations on TV. It's not always easy to come up with only one or two episodes, but sometimes it's a stretch to find even one, depending on the series.

I generally watch Star Trek specials no matter what channel they may be on or if I've seen them previously. In fact, I just watched about the 25th anniversary special that was originally made to promote "The Undiscovered Country" just last night. In it Shatner and Nimoy talk about how the fans now call themselves Trekkers instead of Trekkies. I don't know. I'm pretty sure I never thought of myself as a Trekker. Don't know about you but that seems almost pretentious.

Anyway, on the off chance that one or two of you out there are not versed in the lingo, let me provide a few definitions. When I say TOS, I mean Star Trek- The Original Series, as in that campy classic with the above mentioned Shatner and Nimoy. Then there is TNG or Star Trek- The Next Generation. DS9 is Star Trek- Deep Space Nine. Voyager and Enterprise don't have nifty abbreviations. Or if they do, I don't know them or care to use them.

From TOS, I'd have to say the "The Cage" and "Mirror, Mirror" are my favorites. "The Cage", otherwise known as the pilot that never was, has no Kirk, no Bones, Majel Barret as Number One and a subtly different Spock. Tied to this episode is "The Menagerie" Parts 1 & 2 that see Spock trying to return his former Captain from "The Cage" to that same planet. Since "The Menagerie" is really just an extended recap of "The Cage" I don't count it. What I like about this episode, besides the recasting, is the interaction between Pike and the Talosians and the extremes that he has to go to convince them to let him go. It has eloquent things to say about freedom and humanity. The major character interactions are about as well defined as a pilot can hope to expect though it doesn't really work as a pilot since it fails to adequately introduce the supporting cast. We get glimpses of them but nothing about who they are. I can see why NBC chose not to run it as a pilot.

"Mirror, Mirror" is all about the dark side of ourselves. In this parallel universe, the Federation is an Empire and officers advance through assassination. By this time, early in season two, the characters have been firmly established and its deeply satisfying to see them with new personas and motivations to explore. With the added bonus of Federation v Empire to throw a little social commentary into the mix.

TOS gets spoken of a lot for this ability to blend current events and social problems into the series; from Kim Darby's "Miri" exploring the teen counterculture where all adults are the enemy to "The Omega Glory" and "Patterns of Force" that explore our recent political history to "Plato's Stepchildren" with the famous interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura. TOS was a product of its times and it used those stresses and problems as fodder for its writers. Which, after all, is what drama is supposed to do.

While I only vaguely remember watching TOS as a child and mostly saw that series through the ever popular reruns, TNG was my Star Trek. It is my favorite series and picking only one or two episodes is nearly impossible, but there are two that come close. "The Measure of a Man" and "The Inner Light".

"The Measure of a Man" takes on the big question. What makes us human. That is poses this in the guise of determining whether or not Data is sentient is no mistake. In both TOS and TNG, the non-human bridge crew members Spock and Data serve as a mirror to humanity. Spock is the logical, rational being who has eschewed anger and emotionalism and serves to show us both the weakness of our essential human nature and its strength. Data, in his endless search to become human, shows us all our foibles and quirks and how they sometimes are our masters. In "The Measure of a Man" Picard faces the dilemma of turning over his android officer to StarFleet for experimentation. His eloquent defense of his friend is high drama. No less important is Riker's reluctant yet devastating advocation. Forced into the adversarial role, Riker finds what seems to be incontrovertible proof that Data is a machine. Still its Picard's assertion that it is StarFleet's goal to seek new life and what better example than Data that wins the day.

"The Inner Light" is really a solo piece for Patrick Stewart and it is simply amazing. It's one of those episodes that makes me tear up every time I watch it even though I know what's going to happen. Picard spends a lifetime on another planet, complete with family and friends and a dying planet. All in a single day. Even though the technology that allows this to happen is transitory, Picard is changed. It's one of the things about TOS that I love. The lives of the crew members are drawn out completely. And we get to see artifacts from that life in the background as the series progresses. It brings a sense of verisimilitude to see Riker's trombone or Picard's flute or Data's paintings in their quarters and know they were used to further the story and aren't some random prop.

There are so many episodes that I like from TNG. Anything with Q. One, there's John De Lancie who is simply fantastic. Two, they are some of the funniest and yet subtly revealing episodes in the series. "Ship in a Bottle" and numerous other holodeck-based episodes (though not all) provided plenty of variety. And every single season finale cliffhanger was well-crafted and intentionally maddening, a sure guarantee that at least one episode of the new season would be watched. In my opinion, of all the series TNG is the best- the best written, the best acted- the whole nine yards.

Maybe that's why the spinoffs were so disappointing. I had high hopes for DS9, especially when Michael Dorn's Worf was added to the cast. Unfortunately, the writers' decision to undo the Worf-Troi relationship was a disappointment. It had some good points. New species like the Trill. Bringing the Ferengi into a more prominent role. Quark was really always good for a laugh and occasionally did the right thing, for a price. I had high hopes that Avery Brooks was going to be an outstanding addition to the Captain's chair but ultimately his character was disappointing. My favorite episode from this series is "The Forsaken" and its really the subplot that's the best part. Lwaxana Troi falls in love with Odo and then eventually gets trapped with him in an elevator. Long enough that Odo has to return to liquid state. Lwaxana is always an amusing character who though she appears frivolous on the surface can step up when pushed. This episode is no exception. Even though her flirtation with Odo is never revisited her simple and expedient solution to Odo's problem saves the day. In reviewing the episode list for this posting, I realized that DS9 was relying too heavily on certain themes: Ferengi greed, Bajoran mysticism and they used parallel universe stories three times and time travel an astonishing 7 times. Scattershot and never quite managing to create a cohesive story, DS9 was a serious disappointment.

Voyager was similarly viewed with high hopes. We had a woman in the chair for once, a premise that allowed for any number of new species and encounters far outside of Federation space and the odd changes in "history" that DS9 represented. (And Star Trek has a history and back story that tries to be consistent. DS9, starting with Worf's arrival and the consequent rewriting of TNG history, showed a serious lack of respect and continuity.) The first season was very rough for Voyager and probably doomed the series, but there were bright moments. When Voyager brought in the Borg, things got interesting, especially through the character Seven of Nine. The best episode, I think, is "Collective". It deals with adolescent Borg who were left behind after their cube malfunctioned. Seven negotiates with them after they take crew members hostage and eventually they join the Voyager crew. Nearly every episode that has Seven dealing with her lost humanity is worth watching. In this one, she gets to create her own family, in essence, and help them to re-assimilate into a world outside the Borg.

The last television incarnation for the Star Trek franchise was Enterprise, set at the dawn of StarFleet as humanity ventured out into the galaxy. After two disappointing series, this one seemed destined to failure. It had a rocky start and I think that many Trekkies were worn out with the franchise and more interested in the film versions. I know I was. But I have watched this one in reruns and discovered that it had far more merit to it than I had previously thought. I especially enjoyed the two part episode "In A Mirror, Darkly". A take on the alternate universe story from TOS where the Federation is replaced by an Empire ("Mirror, Mirror") it deviates from the usual alternate history story line format. It is a stand alone episode, a mini-series within the series if you will, complete with its different theme song and opening montage. Perhaps the single most startling instance in this two-parter occurs in the opening minute of the first episode. It is a digital recreation of the scene from "First Contact" (a TNG film) where Zefram Cochrane meets the Vulcans. Instead of greeting them with a handshake, he shoots them. The effect is completely seamless and extremely well done. The episode then continues with the "new opening montage" and takes off from there. It's a great episode with many of the same advantages as the original TOS episode that ends with a twist. I was sorry to see this series end early. I think they were finally coming into their own when Paramount pulled the plug.

As far as the films go, there's two that stand out in my mind: "Wrath of Khan" and "First Contact". They are the best written films of the two film series with vibrant characters, tension and humor. Who can forget the extravagant, larger-than-life figure of Noonien Singh so masterfully portrayed by Ricardo Montalban or Spock's sacrifice in "Wrath of Khan"? "First Contact" introduces us the Father of Warp Drive, Zefram Cochrane, who turns out to not quite be what the crew expected. Not to mention the Borg Queen played by Alice Krige with a wonderful combination of sexuality and evil. Plus we get to hear Patrick Stewart quote Melville. What's not to love?

At its best, Star Trek in all its incarnations has striven to show a future were the human race manages to put aside their differences and create something worthwhile. It's a future full of hope and promise and one entirely worth striving for. At the same time, they've used humor and drama to show us the darker sides of ourselves. Sometimes they've done a better job than at others but on a whole there's a reason that Star Trek has legions of fans. There is something for everyone. If you get a little lesson in civics or philosophy with your action, all the better. It's what science fiction does best.

1 comment:

skyewriter said...

We're going to see the movie this afternoon... so excited.

I completely agree with your very thorough review of the series and movies. Last night, First Contact was on, I could only stay awake for part of it.

I have to admit, I really liked Insurrection, too. The humor in that was great and I liked that Picard, for once, wasn't the wisest person in every scene... it was good to see his softer side, too. I think it may have been the first TNG film directed by Jonathan Frakes (but am not sure).

Can't wait to read your review of the "new" movie.