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Monday, November 19, 2007

WHAT A LONG, STRANGE TREK IT'S BEEN

There's some good news about the Writers' Guild of America strike, or at least it will be good news for some people. The anticipated effects of the strike on daytime television will not be quite as bad as feared, at least not on ABC. It's been reported that All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital are all written up through February and will be able to continue shooting new episodes unhindered while networks and studios are in negotiation with the Guild. So, while I don't necessarily know what's going to happen with NBC's The Days of Our Lives and the soaps of CBS, at least at ABC the shows will go on for most of the winter.

Meanwhile, this past Tuesday, I spent the evening at the cinema, where I treated myself to a theatrical showing of the 1966 Star Trek episode "The Menagerie". This release, apparently, is a promotion for the remastered television airings of the 1960s Trek series that have been running since last season. (And you haven't lived till you've seen the truly awesome job they did with the episode "The Doomsday Machine" in particular, which I just watched for the second time this evening.) The big-screen presentation of Gene Roddenberry's masterpiece, which won Star Trek one of its three Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation (the other two were for "City on the Edge of Forever" and "All Good Things..."), was truly fun to watch. The story, which happens to be my very favorite episode of the 60s show, was fun to see blown up to that size, and it still holds up after all these years. It was also nice to see the preamble to the episodes, a behind-the-scenes mini-documentary anchored by Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, Gene's son, and featuring spot interviews with some of the production staff including Michael and Denise Okuda. I happen to have been very briefly, casually acquainted with the Okudas. During my Screenwriting Internship with the TV series Star Trek Voyager, I got to sit in on production meetings with them, and I also spent part of an afternoon visiting the Deep Space Nine Art Department, where I had a personal chat with Michael. If I haven't mentioned this little adventure before, it's something that I was going to get round to sooner or later. It's such an unusually interesting part of my life, and such a long and detailed and involved story, that I can't really tell you about it in just one Blog. I'll have to set aside several entries at some time in the future to elaborate on the whole thing. I observed and learned some very interesting things during those six weeks at Paramount looking at a Star Trek series from the inside, and I can't really do justice to all that right now. Which is one reason I guess you're going to have to keep visiting The Quantum Blog...

However, here's what I'll call the first in a series of J.A. FLUDD FACTOIDS for you. I make it a custom to applaud or cheer Gene Roddenberry's name in the credits of any Star Trek production. When I was first seriously learning about Star Trek, what it is and what it means (and I am NOT someone to whom you want to say that Star Trek is just a TV show or a lot of movies), I respected Kirk, admired Spock, and had a chaste crush on Uhura (see the "October 1987" post of The Quantum Blog)--but the one I wanted to be was THE CREATOR, the Great Bird of the Galaxy, the visionary from whose mind it all sprang: Gene Roddenberry. In fact, the first thing I did upon arriving in LA for my Internship was to find Gene's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, kneel before it, and trace the letters of his name with my fingertip.

And here's some background about "The Menagerie" that some of you may or may not have known. "The Menagerie" is the story of Spock's self-appointed mission of mercy on behalf of his former Captain, Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter). Pike, a great hero, rescued a group of Starfleet Cadets from a reactor accident and took a massive dose of Delta rays that reduced him to a burned and nearly lifeless husk of a man. Trapped in a vegetated body and kept alive in a life-support chair, unable to speak, Pike was doomed to an existence of misery. But Spock knew a way to release Pike from his suffering--at the risk of his career and his life--by returning him to the forbidden planet of Talos IV, which the Enterprise had once visited. Pike's experience on Talos IV was the reason why the Federation had declared the planet off-limits on pain of the death penalty itself--but a combination of logic and compassion that only a Vulcan would understand drove Spock to hijack the Enterprise and return his ex-Captain to that planet of illusion-casting telepaths, and the woman Pike had left there. Anyway, "The Menagerie" is a two-parter consisting of a framing sequence dealing with Spock's apparent mutiny and court martial. For his defense, he shows the transmitted record of Pike's Talos IV adventure, which is in fact the re-edited footage of the original Star Trek pilot episode, "The Cage".

The making of "The Cage" and how it was received is one of the great TV legends. Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced the original Trek pilot with the backing of Desilu Studios. (The original owner and one of the initial champions of Star Trek was none other than Lucille Ball herself--another reason, if any be needed, to love Lucy!) CBS saw "The Cage" and liked it--but passed on it, deeming it "too cerebral" and over the heads of its audience! They wanted a science fiction show, but they wanted something that they thought the lowbrow rubes in TV Land would find easier to understand. (Seriously, the only reason CBS kept the original Twilight Zone for five years was that it was created and written by Rod Serling and it lent them an air of prestige!) So they passed on Star Trek and went with Lost in Space. No lie! However, CBS was also sufficiently impressed with the content and detail of the show that they commissioned a second pilot, which had never been done. The second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," which was just as intelligent as "The Cage" but more of a space Western with good old All-American violence in it, was what sold the show--not to CBS, but to NBC. Would you believe that one of the notes that Gene got for the production of the second pilot was to "lose the guy with the ears"? Yep, the network brass was afraid that Spock's "satanic" look would scare the simple folk in Peoria, or some such thing. But Gene insisted that a show set in the space-traveling future ought to have an alien in the regular cast, so Spock stayed. Good call, Gene!

In the meantime, Gene lost his leading man. The story has it that Jeffrey Hunter's wife considered her husband a serious actor and thought this science fiction rubbish was beneath him, so Jeffrey gave up playing Captain Pike (and lost out on the chance to build one of popular culture's greatest legends), clearing the way for William Shatner to beam aboard as Captain James T. Kirk. (And I'll always wonder what Star Trek would have been like with Hunter's Christopher Pike as the lead--he was a seriously hot guy and made an excellent hero.)

Anyway, the recast, retooled Star Trek debuted on NBC and settled into a weekly time slot. However, "The Cage" was the most expensive TV pilot ever to be produced at that time, and Desilu wanted to recover its investment in the show. So Gene came up with a way to give them their money's worth. That was "The Menagerie," an elegant and engrossing two-parter about reality versus illusion and whether it's better to live in a real world or one of the imagination. (Frankly, I'll take imagination. Put me on the next ship to Talos IV, please!) And as I immersed myself in Star Trek over the years, "The Menagerie" became my favorite episode.

That was when Star Trek was just one TV series, cut short of its "five-year mission" with just 79 episodes. Now, of course, there's a lot more of Trek to love, and every series offers an episode I can point to as a favorite. Which is as good a cue as any for a list!

THE BEST OF STAR TREK ANIMATED: "The Slaver Weapon". You may or may not consider the animated Star Trek to be canonical; that is, on the official record. (Gene, before he died, expressed his view that animated Trek was not to be taken as canonical except for the episode "Yesteryear," whose account of Spock's boyhood is corroborated in the live episodes "Journey to Babel" and "Unification I and II".) However, some very good stuff was done in those shows, the most unique of which was the only Kirk-less voyage of "Classic Trek". In "The Slaver Weapon," science fiction writer Larry Niven adapts his "Known Space" books and stories into the Star Trek universe, pitting Spock, Uhura, and Sulu against the warlike, feline Kzinti for possession of a Slaver Stasis Box. This relic of a tyrannical alien civilization that once ruled the galaxy contains a weapon so powerful, so terrifying, that it can tilt the balance of power in the galaxy. The original Star Trek prided itself on using writing talent from the world of science fiction literature, a tradition that this episode continues.

THE BEST STAR TREK MOVIE: The Wrath of Khan. The Star Trek film series began with a big-screen version of what was meant to be the pilot for the unproduced Star Trek Phase II series, "In Thy Image". Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a cosmically awesome and ambitious story about the search for meaning and value in life and the relationship between man and God--but coming immediately in the wake of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it didn't meet a lot of people's expectations. (In fact, it was a little too much in love with its own special effects, which had a way of bringing the story to a screeching halt.) The Trek movie that people really wanted to see was the second one, The Wrath of Khan. This is, of course, a sequel to the TV episode "Space Seed" in which our crew must once again battle Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban), the tyrant from Earth's Eugenics Wars. The Wrath of Khan, in addition to being a crowd-pleasing shoot-'em-up in space, is another elegantly constructed story about the cyclic nature of life, from birth to youth to age to death to new life. Every situation in the film is about things going in circles, and in Kirk's case, about things from your past catching up with you: not just the return of Khan, but the discovery that one of his countless dalliances has produced a son who can't stand him! (The big surprise is that David, played by the late Merritt Buttrick, is the only known Kirk love-child!) And, of course, Khan is also famous for the climactic sacrifice of Spock, who lays down his life to save Kirk and the ship--one of the most heart-rending plot points in film history. Remember my ex-classmate Sven from the "October 1987" post? The first time I saw The Wrath of Khan, I saw it with him, Karl, and Logan. Afterwards, I was mulling over the incredible story we had just witnessed and said to Sven, "Do you realize what we've just seen?" And do you know that dullard actually replied to me, "Yeah...a movie." God, but I used to associate with such human driftwood! I wish I could have taken a phaser to that clod!

THE BEST OF THE NEXT GENERATION: "The Best of Both Worlds". When I think of the TV cliffhangers that have kept me squirming for entire summers, I remember Mary Hartman's nervous breakdown (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), Jessica Tate's murder conviction and the Announcer telling us that either Corinne, Chester, Benson, Jodie, or Burt really killed Peter Campbell (Soap), the shooting of JR (Dallas)--and the transformation of Jean Luc Picard into Locutus of Borg! I agonized over this one in particular; as the first true Star Trek cliffhanger, it just struck closest to home. Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), who stood for everything that was good and right in the galaxy, had been suborned into the service of the most powerful, relentless, and terrifying enemy the Federation ever faced, and had become the mortal enemy of all sentient life. Promotion posters from Paramount screamed, "Save Earth from Picard!" Locutus was after Earth, Starfleet, and everyone! No one was safe--not the Vulcans, not the Klingons, not the Romulans! We were all doomed--unless Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), forced to battle his own Captain, could somehow pull it out of the fire! How could Will do it? Would Jean Luc be saved or would Will be forced to destroy him? And what could possibly repel the evil Borg? Trekkers the world over look to "The Best of Both Worlds," which closed the third season and opened the fourth, as Next Generation's masterpiece, and so it was.

THE BEST OF DEEP SPACE NINE: "Far Beyond the Stars". And when I think of the Trek episodes that make me proud to be a Trekker, this one shoots to the top of the list. Produced for African-American History Month, "Far Beyond the Stars" is one of the few times that Star Trek--whose United Federation of Planets is a Utopia without prejudice or poverty--has been able to look racism squarely in the eye. They did it by having the creatures of the Bajoran Wormhole--a.k.a. The Prophets--cause Captain Ben Sisko (Avery Brooks, whom I met on my last day at Paramount) to live a portion of the life of Benny Russell, a terrestrial science fiction writer in the 1950s. As Benny, Sisko experiences racial hatred and inequality as it existed on 20th Century Earth. Benny has written a story about a 24th Century space station and its black Captain, which the magazine he works for refuses to publish, to Benny's frustration. All of the regular and recurring Deep Space Nine players take on terrestrial, 20th Century parts for this story, which looks at Benny's situation from every angle--and climaxes in his complete mental collapse when his craven editor (Rene Auberjonois, stepping out of the character of Odo) approves the story only to have the publisher pulp the whole issue! This is one of the most poignant and heartbreaking, but also life-affirming, stories you'll ever see--life-affirming because while Benny's fate is tragic, we know that humanity in the Star Trek universe ultimately learns better and becomes what it ought to be, and earns its way to the stars. This is one of the finest hours of television it's ever been my honor to watch.

THE BEST OF VOYAGER: "Distant Origin". I have a very personal attachment to this story. Although its subject matter would have made it my favorite episode no matter what, "Distant Origin" happens by coincidence to be the episode they were working on when I arrived at Voyager. As a confirmed, science-loving secular humanist, I love this story. I think it is truly brilliant! "Distant Origin" should have been called "Inherit the Solar Wind". It is the story of the Voths--a proud and powerful civilization of reptiles who evolved from dinosaurs who became intelligent and escaped Earth before the killer asteroid hit! (One day in Voyager co-creator Jeri Taylor's office--which was once Gene Roddenberry's office--I was sitting in on a writer's meeting when some people from the Makeup department came in with an actor in a prototype for the Voth makeup design; thus I may have been the first fan to see the Voths.) The Voths migrated to the remote Delta Quadrant of the galaxy and grew to see themselves as the born and destined rulers of that quadrant. So, when this pesky little starship named Voyager came tooling by, full of creatures with genetic markers similar to those of the Voths, which confirmed an heretical theory about the Voths' true origins, the leadership of the Voths felt more than a little threatened. What ensued was nothing less than the dinosaur version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, with Chakotay (Robert Beltran) defending "the Distant Origin Theory" and the lives of everyone aboard Voyager, and the fate of our crew on the line! This was just so delightful; I think Gene would have loved it as much as I did!

THE BEST OF ENTERPRISE: "In a Mirror Darkly". Much as I liked the final Star Trek series, I truly wish the whole thing had been like the fourth season, which was when Enterprise finally became what it was supposed to be: a prequel to the original Star Trek. Most of the best stuff in this show, in my opinion, falls in the last year. If the whole series had been like season 4, Enterprise might have run for seven seasons the way Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager did. Nevertheless, the most inventive episode of Enterprise was this two-parter, set entirely in the corrupt Mirror Universe introduced in the 60s episode "Mirror, Mirror," which recurred in several episodes of Deep Space Nine. The Mirror Universe is fun for viewers because in it, all of the Star Trek values are thrown out the airlock, and all of the characters become darkly twisted versions of their familiar selves. (Or the rotten ones become good and compassionate.) "In a Mirror Darkly" shows us how truly bad to the bone the Mirror Universe is, with the tyranny and evil of the Terran Empire going all the way back to first contact with the Vulcans--in which Zefrem Cochrane (James Cromwell) shoots the Vulcan who first sets foot on Earth! The episode that follows takes us to the early days of the Empire and a struggle for control of the technology of the starship Defiant, which has become displaced from the "regular" Trek universe because of the spatial anomalies in the episode "The Tholian Web". The corrupt, scheming, and pathologically insecure Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) of the Mirror Universe wants the power of the Defiant, which will enable him to seize the entire Empire for himself. Archer must negotiate a labyrinth of intrigue, violence, and betrayal (including the torture of a Tholian by a sadistic Dr. Phlox [John Billingsley] and a battle with a CGI-rendered Gorn) before reaping what he only thinks is his final victory. The surprise ending only goes to prove how truly twisted a place the Mirror Universe is. One of the neatest things about these two episodes is that they have their own special opening title, which replaces the truly stupid opening that marred the rest of the series. The stupidity of opening a Star Trek series with a pop-music tune that sounded as if it belonged on AM radio or one of the teenage dramas of the former WB Network was truly insulting and galling, and a disservice to the classy Star Trek legacy. "In a Mirror Darkly" is the only Enterprise episode for which I don't hit the mute or change the channel during the title.

Anyone who thought Star Trek was gone for good after Enterprise ended, doesn't know Star Trek. I thought the franchise needed a rest (remember, between the end of the first series and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there was a good ten-year gap filled only briefly by Star Trek Animated), but Paramount had other ideas. Next Christmas, we're going to have another prequel to the original series, this one a theatrical film apparently dealing with the Enterprise changing hands from Captain Pike to a younger Kirk--and with all of the original players recast with new stars! I'm taking a wait-and-see stance on this, though I'm impressed with the enthusiasm with which it's already being received. (Original Trek players including Nichelle Nichols and Leonard Nimoy have given the production their unqualified blessing.) The thing that fans have been saying since they saved the 1960s series from cancellation--twice--is as true today as it was then: STAR TREK LIVES!

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