Month: May 2014

Batman at 75: Dark Knights, Lite Knights & the Time of the Bat

Batman (alone) cartoon

It’s the time of the bat, haven’t you heard?  Although Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece turns 25 next month, no patient of Arkham Asylum can forget that it’s the leading character’s 75th birthday this month.  As he reaches that milestone it’s clear that the character’s in greater shape than ever.  How things have changed for the awkward outsider of comic book adaptation…

NEXT MONTH IS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE RELEASE OF TIM BURTON’S BATMAN.  That film stands in the same short field as Jaws and Star Wars, creating a new wave of blockbuster movie-making.  That was when summer movies came out in June, not May and men were bats.  It’s worth nothing that Batman came it came only 14 years after Jaws and just six years after The Return of the Jedi.  It’s been a long 25 years of blockbusters since Jack Nicholson’s Joker laughed his last.

Infinitely more important is this month’s anniversary:  75 years since Bob Kane unleashed Batman into popular culture.  Yes, I know:  it’s unbelievable that Warner Brothers scheduled one month out from the Golden anniversary in 1989, but back then the reign of the comic film was a long way off.

In context, Tim Burton’s Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series was pulled from the schedules.  In part, that enjoyably hokum show resigned batman to a camp scrapheap for some time.  It was the earnest work undertaken by comic creators such as Neal Adams and editor-in-excelsis Denny O’Neil that confronted that overpowering softening of Batman and created the chameleon of comics that we know today.  The result of their and others’ exemplary 1970s work were characters such as Ra’s al Ghul – a villain who has and remains at the core of modern Batman films and animated series.

Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series

While good work was being undertaken on the printed page. Warner’s caped screen antics fell onto the super powered box office potential of Superman, ably filling the gap between 1978 and 1987, although not quite avoiding a dive into his own camp dreariness at the end.

Enduring Bat

Since 1989 though, Batman has barely been away from the screens, even if Joel Schumacher’s laughably credible third sequel Batman and Robin kept the Knight away for eight years.  Still, he clung on by the Batarang to the small screen.  From the incredibly influential Batman: The Animated Series, through Batman Beyond, Justice League (a commendably continuous animated universe under the guidance of Bruce Timm) and onto the current CGI trinket Beware the Batman (alongside countless spin-off movies).  Special mention must go to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a wonderfully referential and good natured show that showcased a host of DC characters in three seasons between 2008 and 2011.  I’ve written at length about the quality of intention behind that show, but it could escape falling slightly foul of those intervening years between Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Of course Nolan’s universe was a not an easy fit for a cartoon, even though earlier series The Batman gave a half stab at the young Batman theory and Gotham Knight, prequel to The Dark Knight added a Matrix-style universe expansion.  As a result The Brave and the Bold proved once again, that a light knight will always bring a reaction.  I fear that show will be wrongly dismissed as frippery in the canon, but Beware the Batman makes a brave stab at obliterating it.

Beware the CGI

The Brave and the Bold proved again that a light knight will always bring a reaction…

Beware the Batman is an intriguing concept.  While the CGI is as hard to warm to as ever, it’s an interesting expansion in the fast evolving Bat-universe.  The ex-spy, glabrous Alfred signals the direction of Sean Pertwee’s upcoming ex-spy guardian in television series Gotham.  It’s a far cry from the classic pencil moustached Alfred of legend, Michael Gough’s four film stint and (presumably/hopefully) Jeremy Iron’s next big screen iteration.  Michael Caine of course, falls peerlessly in the middle.

While a character – and Outsider – with her own comic legacy, Katana still takes the role of a Robin here.  It’s really with its foes that Beware the Batman stakes its claim.  A series-long arc of villainy steers well clear of the well established rogues’ gallery – well, mostly.  Catwoman is missing, replaced with Magpie.  Arkham Asylum has less of a presence, Blackgate Prison more.  Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Anarky makes a welcome (re)appearance while the main fodder is supplied by the rather better known League of Assassins.  That brings Lady Shiva, though here she’s not addressed as one of Batman’s early mentors, and inevitably, Ra’s himself.  Ever since I first came across the long-lived, beardily eerie eco-terrorist I’ve been hooked – I’m not surprised that he forms a major part of both this and the Nolan trilogy.

Perhaps most interesting in this new animated series is the appearance of Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Mr Toad (the latterly brilliantly voiced by Udo Kier I was delighted to see).  Yes, those fiends are rather differently presented than in their 2008 comic debut, but once again, the inclusion of Wind in the Willows shows just how well Gotham takes to being the land of fiction…

The glut of Batman in the last 25 years signals and creates one thing: confidence.  Warners didn’t seem put off by the relatively minor haul of 2005’s Batman Begins and that, er, wildcard Joker and patience proved astute when the sequel, the stand-out example of Batman on film, crossed $1 billion.

With Nolan, things changed.  While the comic scene has increased yet further, only Marvel has remained strong enough among blockbuster producers not to mine at least some of the perceived ‘dark realism’ of the Dark Knight trilogy.

Party like it’s 1989

That is and ever will be the Batmobile

True, Tim Burton’s Batman started a mini craze in 1989, but that was for blockbusters as Indiana Jones took a false-retirement.  A prime example of its impact being felt five years later was Russell Mulcahy’s extraordinary homage, The Shadow in 1994.  That example showed how definitively brilliant some part of Batman were.  It’s the late Anton Furst’s delectable production design meeting Tim Burton’s singularly artistic vision and bold casting that made that legend.Batman - and Robin

With this week’s reveal of Zack Snyder’s new Batmobile, it’s no surprise that immediate thoughts turn to Anton Furst’s superior 1989 design,

just as the late 2000s had everyone wishing that the Tumbler would develop that same sleek aesthetic.  That is and ever will be the Batmobile.  And Batman versus Superman’s design seems to acknowledge that debt.

It’s undeniable that Burton’s Batman made that one crucial mistake: giving Batman ultimate revenge for the death of his parents, credit for which screenwriter Sam Hamm lays with Burton.  That redemption set the franchise up for a fall, not to provide Joel Schumacher any excuses.  It meant that in the three successive films, no matter who wore the cowl, Bruce Wayne had to retread and uncover further trauma in his earlier tragedy.  Last decade Nolan got it right. Well, apart from that ending, but let’s just call that an Inception moment.

 

The Comics are Coming

Comic book movies cannot and will not ever over-saturate

Since that film kicked off Batman on the big screen (really, it did), he hasn’t left us.  But his is a celluloid history often slightly removed from comic book trends.   It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t Sam Raimi’s very successful Spiderman trilogy that kicked off the comic film boom in 2002, nor Bryan Singer’s stable if under-powered X-Men two years before.  That honour belongs to Stephen Norrington’s Blade in 1998.  A well made but under-sold film of the titular Marvel character, it opened up the box office for the super-powered assault we see today.  And crucially, just to futilely banish those same suggestions made each year: comic book movies cannot and will not ever reach over-saturation.

And Wesley Snipes’ Blade sliced into cinemas just one year after Batman and Robin had supposedly stopped the comic trend cold. Mr Freeze cold.  But although Batman wasn’t there during those early years of Marvel taking a foothold through three different studios, Warners were still simmering in their bat cave.

At the turn of the century Miles Millar and Alfred Gough III pitched an idea for a young Bruce Wayne television series, but Warners dismissed it, eager to pursue the Dark Knight’s more lucrative career on the big screen.  That series morphed into the incredibly successful Smallville.  It wasn’t that Superman wasn’t box office property, but it seemed that Nic Cage’s pay-or-play contract for Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Returns had burnt them a little more than Batman ever could.  Either that or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was really far worse than Batman and Robin.  Well…

Traits of the Batmen

The Dark Knight’s one simple appeal keeps him relevant

Nonetheless, Smallville’s 10 seasons happened because Warners’ aspirations for Batman on film signalled a brand conflict.  14 years later, it couldn’t be more different.  We live in a universe of multiple batmen.  New animated series are lined up to reboot the last when their natural lives conclude.  Gotham will bring us classic villains before they’d even heard of Arkham and Jim Gordon before he grew a moustache.  And at the flicks, Ben Affleck’s Batman takes on the Man of Steel in what must be one of 2016’s big hitters.  And that’s not even including the wildly successful Arkham videogame series, it’s Lego counterpart and the Caped Crusader’s constant appearances in the well produced line of DC Universe Animated Original Movies.

So why the increasing multiplicty?  Well, you can read why Batman’s a fascinating character, if not quite with the potential of Superman, here.  But some clear indicators lie in his key traits.  There’s the inherent darkness, the Jekyll and Hyde, the fact he’s the world’s greatest detective and most dangerous human (modern adaptations suggest that the great detective’s morphing more into Batman than the other way around). There’s the fact that he’s mortal, he’s a playboy, he has the greatest rogues’ gallery in comics, many representing a psychological disorder or primal instinct.  He’s a bat, that atavistic and distinctive symbol conjuring up vampires, darkness, base fear… He’s the protector, the winged guardian angel who overcomes all odds…

But really it’s the Dark Knight’s one simple appeal that keeps him relevant – it’s that alluring 101 to psychological damage that stands him alone as a character who can carry this off.  Batman exists in multiple guises at the same time because that is what the character is.  When he doesn’t, he’s diminished.  Not even Warren Ellis did that in Planetary…  But his guardian’s increasingly realise it.  And in each and every guise, the Dark Knight stands watch over the ultimate fictional city.  That once and maybe never were New York, Gotham.

A great figure in the Batman story, Darwyn Cooke’s 75th anniversary animated tribute get’s it about right, with a fitting and good spoonful of other pop culture to go with it.  As that shows, Batman’s in very good health this 75th birthday and as more and more share the Mantle of the Bat, it’s certain that he’s going to be with us a good while yet.

Now, time for a Batrospective…

Marvel: Phase 2 – One of our Tanks is Missing

Oron Man The Winter Soldier
Tony Stark iron Man

The Winter Soldier is coming…

Spoilers aplenty in a look at cinematic Marvel mid-way through its second phase.

AS CAPTAIN AMERICA ENDS HIS SECOND TOUR OF DUTY ON THE BIG SCREEN, IT’S CLEAR THAT THE REIGN OF MARVEL WILL LAST A LONG TIME YET.  Having ridden high in charts and critical approval, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has secured over $680 million for the House of Mouse/Ideas at time of writing.  That’s far in excess of its rather cool pre-Disney predecessor, but it’s hardly a stealthy Hydra take-over.  The Winter Soldier comes in the middle of Marvel’s cinematic Phase 2: The second stage of the cinematic wonder of the modern age that’s constantly exceeded expectations as it’s risen from the gamma irradiated shell of The Avengers like a… well, never mind…

As the greatest motion picture phenomenon of recent times, it’s hard to recall the early years of this millennium when Marvel endured constant financial woe as Captain America ushers in August’s unknown quantities: The Guardians of the Galaxy.

If this new, fully Disney wave of Marvel films pushes any word it’s ‘sophistication’

How quaint and prosaic The Avengers looks now.  In Phase 2, only Thor failed to grasp the complicated cross-fire of ‘the laws of sequel’ – a fact its $644 million haul hides nicely.  On the whole Marvel has risen to the challenge with all the properties coming back louder, sharper, less in awe of their creative roots, brasher, higher budget and reasonably, far more economic with it.  If this new, fully Disney wave of Marvel films pushes any word it’s ‘sophistication’.  And that’s less reflective of shrewd business acumen on Disney’s part than their belief in consolidating brands.  With Phase 2 and 3 likely not only to bring out of contract franchise heavy weights like Downey Jr back into the fold but also introduce the likes of Robert Redford and Michael Douglas, there’s no doubt Disney’s presence has oiled some tricky wheels.  Downey Jr’s return for more than Avengers 2 and 3 is a must…

The Military PhaseTank meets Incredible hulk

A year ago, prior to Phase 1’s beginning, I watched all the Marvel films (in film-chronological order of course).  Here’s the proof!

The one thing that struck me about Phase 1 was how incredibly militarily-led it is.  The Hulk needs a tank to smash, Stark needs weapons to develop…  The armed forces are one heavy and consistent element.  The funny thing is that in spite of General Ross’ best efforts, the military had never ranked highly in my impression of Marvel before.  I signed off that long and four-colour day with the start of Phase 2.  And what a start.

Multiplicity

Marvel Studios looked as though they could recreate the unbelievably prolific zeitgeist of the 1960s

Iron Man 3 sits atop the franchise, an incredibly enjoyable and satisfying piece of film-making that has set the bar of incredibly high for Edgar Wright’s Phase opening Ant Man in 2015.  That second sequel took almost as much as its two prequels combined.  Even the mildly disappointing, drearily samey Thor: The Dark World took almost $200 million more than its predecessor.  But with the mid-way point that catches up with Captain America, there’s more than greys, mystery and cliff-hangers; there’s the undiscovered country of an untested and unfamiliar property in the realm of consistent half billion films.  But then the modern Marvel reign begun with, if not quite the unfamiliar, the little known.  Iron Man dwarfed the near-released Hulk (always a paler shade of green on the big screen) and set a trend for surprise that cinematic Marvel should never, ever forget.  As unlikely as it seemed, Marvel Studios looked as though they could recreate the unbelievably prolific zeitgeist of Lee, Kirby, Ditko and co in the 1960s…  Well, until they were shrewdly swallowed up by Disney.  As much as Marvel wears the amalgam of its cinematic universe as an iron suit, it’s that overarching connectivity that’s crucial.

Galactic Storm

Incredible Hulk meets TankIn 2014, Guardians has set down a confident space gauntlet with its brash teaser trailer.  The style’s not a massive surprise considering the overall Marvel approach, the original property and director James Gunn’s CV.  It’s aping of The Usual Suspects – especially considering its near release to Bryan Singer’s X Men: Days of Future Past shouts confidence and its musical recall to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs cuts an interesting ‘70s/’90s vibe. The casting is satisfyingly leftfield, with two box office heavyweights supplying larynxes alone.  Reilly and Serafinowicz add some left-field lightness, although he less said about that trailer sign-off the better.

Winter has come

It looks like Guardians will be a far cry from Captain America’s second dry rollercoaster.  Robbed of the Second World War setting its main nods came in Philadelphia Experiment style poignancy.  Just scraping through on the make-up, Peggy Carter’s role seemed more about the potential spin-off series than as balance to the return of Bucky Barnes or any potential (comic-inspired) romance between Cap and her niece, the fleeting Sharon Carter in The Winter Soldier.

Cap’s second outing left some dry in the cinema but nonetheless managed to wow the critics to a praise just sat between Iron Man 3 and Thor 2.  And that’s just about right.

Aside from Carter, so many elements seemed  far too bolted on for what prides itself as a cohesive universe.  Toby Jones’ return was canonically fair enough but lacked some necessary anchor without any significant World War II flash backs.  There were neat lines (yes, the internet’s “helpful”) but even some witty understatement came up short against Whedon’s one-liners and baseball cards in The Avengers.

Nods to other films were frequent.  The excellently executed hijack reconnaissance kicked the film off like an espionage thriller classic while reintroducing and showcasing the impressive skills of the superheroes, and master spies, in SHIELD’s ranks.  With cracks appearing early, the film doesn’t let up on references as it powers on.

The film ends in pure Independence Day territory

For the first half of the film, cloudless, large, blue skies dominate frames in the Triskelion, a stark blank canvas that all the players are exposed against.  Unveiling that kind of conspiracy in bright daylight is a tricky thing to pull off, but it works.  Unfortunately, early Mission: Impossible allusions grow when the old ‘hero turned rogue’ line is wheeled out.  It’s a hackneyed plot device no matter the plot requirement.  It takes many pages from the M:I text book, especially the latter two entries that strongly follow the clean-cut, cash-cow JJ Abrams method.  Add in the double-crossing elder statesman and you’re dredging up all manner of films from Judge Dredd to Minority Report.  By the end, after an epic vista hinted at by the Inception-like score, the film ends in pure Independence Day territory.  The ‘spaceship’ take down’, where the individual craft have to be boarded separately and sabotaged is videogame plotting, not film.  That’s no slight, it just hints at the demands of a mechanic beyond simple, strong storytelling.

The Winter Soldier, for all its confident staging and well-drilled, hard-hitting set-pieces, contained huge and unforgivable gaps in between its references.  The comparison to Iron Man is unflattering.

Admittedly The Winter Soldier brings us the third dose of a monumentally dull character.  The super-serum did not generate charisma and an automatic weakness against Stark.  Such a noble lack of magnetism is no bad thing, just ask Superman, but means the script and plot have to work harder.  While The Avengers utilised each member’s opposition well (in life outlook, politics and ability – drawing on long held comic tradition), Black Widow doesn’t quite get mean enough in The Winter Soldier.

There’s plenty to be mined from Cap’s new indoctrination into SHIELD, but the organisation is disbanded far too soon to dig into it.  Of course, the whole plot paves the way for a Civil War storyline in about two Avengers time but it doesn’t play to any of Cap’s strengths bar the ‘living embodiment of good’ facet.  Indeed, the most fun Cap has takes place in the opening scene as he laps the soon to soar again Falcon.  So, what can you do with the the ultimate goody two-shoes (see about the other one here)?

An out and out dinosaur fascist

Millar had a simple approach in The Ultimates, the comic series that has played inspiration for much of Marvel’s cinematic forays: make him an out and out dinosaur fascist.  “Surrender? Does this A stand for France” yells Cap at a Nazi Chitauri in a pivotal scene of the first volume.  Such playful, and doleful caricaturing couldn’t wash on the big screen of course – there’s no room for that political speculation in this post-HYDRA world.  All the while, Stark can still play rampant with the personal and double-professional.

A full-on satire on super-costumery

And onto Cap’s Rhodes, the new Bucky.  Falcon is well, if conveniently realised.  The unforgivable part is the wing suit.  Inexplicably left in his care, it works like a dream, as does his exit from post-combat trauma.  Compared to his fellow iron-comparator, the evolution of the Iron Man suit (and combat stress) was used beautifully in Iron Man 3.  By the end, director Shane Black not only had his preference of keeping Downey Jr out of the suit and in a  buddy-cop duo, not only introduced the Hulk-Buster armour, but provided a full-on satire on super-costumery at the same time.  The Winter Soldier showed huge gaps in logic and set-up, understandable if it’s taking on an impossibly large and far-reaching) conspiracy.  Instead, its strength came in unravelling. And it was mighty good at that.

Hulk smash puny Tank - Pantone 348 (Angry)

Disassemble

The Mandarin is the real masterstroke

Increasingly it’s clear how bereft Iron Man 2 is in the Marvel cinematic universe. Robbed of the originality and surprise its simple forbear had, IM2‘s obsession with sewing SHIELD into the franchise and assembling the Avengers was a mistake, no matter how much a guilty pleasure the glimpse of that “that shield” was .

A few films and one Phase on, The Winter Soldier manages to take SHIELD apart far more skilfully than Iron Man 2 put it together.  That’s underlined by Gary Shandling’s rather wasted cameo in both.

While The Winter Soldier looked to recent successes and 70s intrigue while Iron Man 3 was focussed on the 1980s. While both the films looked at soldier technology to provide an opposition (one more Goth than the other), both used the comfort of the sequel to turn to recent comic book runs.  It’s a welcome development, but overall, that Mandarin twist (real or not) is the real masterstroke.

Dropped SHIELD

So, SHIELD is no more and the middling television spin-off looks like a ruse of great craft.  We still have Fury of course, now rogue himself and a little more perforated.   However, considering their own demise, how much neater if the antagonists had not been HYDRA but simply an opposing faction of SHIELD.  Too heated, too institution-baiting?  Sometimes the films can’t touch the comic’s ambitions and that’s the power of the printed page.

Summer Steel

Iron Man 3 may be one of the greatest 80s action films of all time.

Away from SHIELD and the Avengers (perhaps its real strength), Phase 2-opening Iron Man 3 remains the film to dethrone.

That film was more than another Downey Jr show, as crucial he was to its success.  Shane Black seemed a risk but if he was, he was a necessary one.  That Black’s CV is replete with that first script sale of Lethal Weapon, the excellent Downey Jr-starring Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and his infamous script notes is good enough – you need to inject a film franchise built on the left-field with an edgy risk  and the result was the fifth highest grossing film of all time.

It could well have been Axel Foley…

Yes, it turned out that Black was exactly the guy.  John Favreau did an excellent job with the first Iron Man, but the second instalment stalled badly.  After the franchise created its own HYDRA so early on, Joss Whedon and Shane Black brought us gloriously and insanely well cast films, with crafted plot twists and great slabs of nostalgia.  Iron Man 3 is so nostalgic it may well be one of the greatest 80s action films of all time.  It wasn’t just the Black and Downey Jr re-match, it was that strong blending of 80s sensibility with the greatest current trend.  Iron Man 3’s littered with it.  Of course it’s most blatant in the  Riggs and Murtaugh buddy ending as sans-suits Stark and Rhodes take on the villain with gun in hands.  But there’s also the gratuitously silly villains’ lair scene.  Before the Mandarin is un-, or perhaps, re-masked, it could well have been Axel Foley striding around the villa, knocking out the sunglass wearing/machine gun toting sentries one at a time.  Utterly superb.  I can only hope that Stark put a banana in a few car exhausts as well.

The finale, similar to 2010’s The A-Team’s port-side knock-out, received a bashing on release but it wasn’t a question of money.  New York, San Francisco and Washington can be pulverised again and again film, but Man of Steel showed how one building may as well be a cargo pod.  Here the real emphasis was on suite of suits itself.  The Iron man films have captured the evolving suits well, each a facet of Stark’s life.  From the fleeting Hulk-Buster to the current version, triangle or circular arc, the empty suit is a motif every bit as powerful as the Batman/Bruce Wayne/ Mask/real dynamic that Batman films have been playing with for many years.

Turning Points

Bringing the loose association and gravity of the actors’ past roles

All the Phase 2 films have showed the well of resource and imagination that Marvel has to draw on for its movies; over five decades worth.  But it was Iron Man 3 and Cap 2 that really ran with it, both picking up direct, if highly modified, storylines.  Considering the links, it’s surprising how loosely some Marvel themes are set up – or perhaps it’s a neat homage to the 60s mentality that signalled the House of Idea’s most fertile time.  There’s also a real sense that Marvel want to strongly establish their films in the history of celluloid.  Casting the likes of Redford and Douglas helps, bringing the loose association and gravity of their past roles.  Like Watchmen, Douglas’ announcement as Hank Pym suggests that he’s very much passing the mantle of the atom on to Ant Mna – unless he’s a previous Giant Man, or Yellow Jacket…  The real question is: who gets the Wasp?

Divergent Futures

Accelerated or expected ‘twists’ of potential

Before the franchise goes intergalactic once again, The Winter Soldier’s biggest contribution may not be the dissolution of SHIELD but its clear design on the 21st century.  Here was its own Iron Man 2 moment – after all, which Marvel film can risk standing still?  In a scene a little too tell not show, the real pattern for future  films was laid down. It’s a hook with a nicely sinister overtone, whether HYDRA succeeded or not (they couldn’t have wiped out all the potential…). Von Strucker’s closing cameo shows that the next century had been unlocked by their prophecy of potential.  It was almost distracting to hear Stephen Strange get a mention, not that Cap blinked at it.  If Strange already exists, he may well not be ‘active’ (met the Ancient One) and yet destined to become the Sorcerer Supreme.  Similarly the twins look to dodge the mutant bullet.  There are potentially no mutants in the marvel universes, simply accelerated or expected ‘twists’ of potential.

I can’t see Marvel be happy running without mutants.

For external reasons, it was important to get the Scarlet Witch and her speedy brother in before Fox’s Marvel X-Films latched onto Quicksilver.  Whether mutant or brought to ‘potential’, the final shot makes it clear that little in the Marvel universe will change.  That closing, chilling sight of a deranged Scarlet Witch left no doubt that the story is heading every bit the way the comics did prior to House of M, mutants or no.  And I can’t see Marvel be happy running without mutants.

Matrix-style thread of choice and destiny now runs through Marvel like a candle wick and it’s welcome. Iron Man showed you don’t always need to call on The Avengers, Thor opened up space while Captain America left all bets either very wide open or unbelievably constrained.  The Marvel cinematic universe is built on risk and long may that continue.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Replicated Comfort Food

ST: TNG's Commander Data smoking a USS Voyager

ST: TNG's Commander Data smoking a USS Voyager

In search of comfort TV, I recently stumbled onto three episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation fondly remembered for different reasons. Then I decided to pick them apart. 

SOME WEEKS AGO, I NEEDED SOME COMFORT TELEVISION. A FILM WOULDN’T DO: IT HAD TO BE TV. BUT WHERE TO START?

Well, it wasn’t going to be ‘period’ unless my synapses were so slackened I could tolerate an ITV two hour abridging. Soaps and serial drama were out, The Crystal Maze counted as period, so genre it was. That in itself is a big pool and fraught with difficulties.

Frankly, Doctor Who’s generally too long or too annoying (that’s how much I adore it), anything American, post-X-files, is too arc-filled. Cumulatively great, but you can rarely choose one episode of American TV series from the last 20 years without it being damaged by its decapitation from an overall arc or, well, shit.

One of the few exceptions is ratings smashing Star Trek. Only twice did Star Trek wander into immersive, deeply plotted arcs (the conclusion of Deep Space Nine and the third season of Enterprise). That was partly why, after a few light years worth of continuous episodes, Star Trek was rather beleaguered by the time the early 2000s saw it meet a sorry end on the small screen. So long leading the way, it was always going to be pure volume and ‘reset button’ arrogance that did it in (and to some minds, JJ Abrams).

Of course, it’s easy to ignore a wealth of other TV series signed off by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in that search for real comfort television (Andromeda, Andromeda and Andromeda). Even so, it was a short stumble back through the time-vortex and various quadrants before I fell upon Star Trek: The Next Generation and I knew that was the place to be.

Yes, another and definitive piece of the Star Trek universe that will never happen thanks to 2009’s reboot. We’re now left with just two films and Enterprise in the chrono-canon – who would have thought? Guinan probably. And fortunately she hasn’t told home entertainment or Netflix.

Star Trek: We’re now left with just two films and Enterprise in the chrono-canon

ST:TNG offers something different to everything else however, most easily encapsulated as brilliance. As much as there’s varying levels of merit in the subsequent Star Trek series (well, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise from the final scenes of the second season anyway), ST:TNG really is the franchise’s crowning achievement. It overcame a rocky start after several aborted launches of its own Genesis device to reboot and reignite, a failed 1960s programme that was quickly fading on the big screen. Had development come a year later perhaps The Final Frontier would have altered Paramount’s patience far more than television networks’ infamous disdain for the property when it was pitched.

One of the pinnacles of first-run syndication, within seven seasons the show was supposedly generating over $1billion a year. An inevitable conclusion was, thanks to Trek’s lineage and crucial financials, an accelerated push to the crew of the Enterprise-D onto the big screen.

Why was it so successful? The idea was great, but took a painful few seasons to work. The crew was superb but struggled walking the line between the new and old. The shoddy uniforms and The Original Series remakes shine enough light on the difficulties posed by 1980s visionaries like Michael Piller joining the show less than a year after significant TOS alumni D. C. Fontana and Gene Roddenberry had scripted for the first season. It was troubled, but that only highlighted its killer arsenal: the fine casting. Spiner, Frakes, Stewart…  All of them – they quite simply make the show.

It was Piller’s seminal Season Three cliff-hanger that cemented the franchise and secured the franchise’s future. It can’t be said enough: The first part of The Best of Both World’s is not only one of Trek’s finest hours, but television’s. That the conclusion, which American audience’s famously had to wait three months for, is not a total let-down is almost as impressive.

It’s no surprise then, that the three comfort episodes I chose came after that Borg-bar was set.

Classics such as Season Five’s The Inner Light had to be dismissed; this was all about youthful nostalgia.

Unfortunately, that nostalgia coincides with an undeniable fact. These three episodes cover all three story-writers of Star Trek: Generations. That doesn’t provide any redemption for that film, if anything it exposes some of what went horribly wrong with this crew’s first cinematic outing.  Rather I’ll hide behind the fact that those same three crafted the impeccable First Contact.

And so, those episodes:


The first of these came immediately after Piller’s cliffhanging revelation: Star Trek could be everything. Unfortunately that also meant that new-found confidence was matched with some budget clawing. Aside from immediate follow-up ‘Family’, most of the first half of Season Four was a thematic arc around friends and family.

STTNG Thought cut

Brothers, Season Four

Or… The One Where Data Takes Over 

This is all rather more Greek myth and Dickens’ Two Cities than the simple metaphors represented by Abdul Abulbul Amir

Of course, Brothers is an episode of two-halves – and three performances for Brent Spiner. From my first viewing I remember Data’s excellent Enterprise hijacking, the android-heavy plot, a rather ticked off Picard, the (rather gratuitously shoe-horned) Abdul Abulbul Amir and a horrible homicide.

Yes, for the all the light aims of that season, Brothers had everything, ruined only by three quite major problems. Alright, they may be problems that manage not to ruin enjoyment of a damn fine story (rather surprisingly) from the pen of exec Rick Berman (the original JJ to many), but imagine if they weren’t there?

First, the Bridge evacuation scene. Several times, Data completely ignores Riker and Picard before sitting stock-still as the ‘breathing’ crew evacuate the bridge. The bridge crew of the Star Fleet’s flagship are awfully slow here (Life support cut? Oxygen streaming out? No reason? Alright then). There isn’t long to scream at the screen though. This was all about (riskily) making the crew we know so well look like completely useless idiots. And Data’s subsequent escape (to a foliage-heavy planet seemingly birthed by the Genesis device), all the way to Worf’s sluggish reactions, is superb.

Second is the third act ‘twist’. The structure doesn’t help, and it’s simply more noticeable after an epic pause in planet-side proceedings. One android operation to be exact. With no ‘other android’ around, it’s clear that Lore’s on the table rather than Data. Again, this is marginally saved by the tragic patricide and the other rhyme that goes with it. Spiner’s brilliant here in the hermetically sealed world of Trek acting. That he’s rather hammy as both Lore and the brothers’ creator Noonian Soong isn’t bad at all. I think it was something in the prosthetics. Tony Todd hit the same level in DS9’s excellent The Visitor and even Patrick Stewart couldn’t resist tugging his own beard in All Good Things. Here Spiner balances three distinct characters of which Soong is the most over-used and Lore under-powered.  It’s not hurt by heavy-handedness though, far from it.  In the story, with Lore’s final act of deceit made possible by the forgiveness of the father, this is all rather more Greek myth and Dickens’ Two Cities than a two archetypal metaphors represented by Abdul Abulbul Amir.

The third problem is a little trickier to overcome: legacy. There’s no sense in Riker’s response at the end. Data has proved himself incredibly dangerous, Star Fleet intelligence (albeit, or not, before Section 31) woefully inadequate. The Federation had all sorts of scrapes with artificial intelligence before, not to mention augmented technology, and here was Khan’s relative hijacking the flagship of the Fleet by proxy. That should have had red light bulbs flashing across alpha and beta quadrants.

Sadly, worse was to come. Brothers led indirectly to Descent.  The next time we meet Lore, the most disappointing Borg story has the unstoppable foe confused in the unflattering surroundings of bright sunlight and tundra. Add into the mix every section of Star Trek: Generations featuring the emotion chip and Brothers’ legacy looks increasingly risible. Not for the first time, many thanks to First Contact for dealing with both Borg and emotion chip correctly.

At the end at least, there’s a brilliant and rather melancholy ambiguity. Which of the droids is Skavar and which Abdul Abulbul Amir? I think it’s the transporting echo of that song that stuck in my mind most. Only Lore would have the electronic gonads to sing while transporting.

Relics, Season Six

Or… The One Where Scotty Doesn’t Know the Ship Like the Back of his Hand

Satire on TNG’s treatment of engineering, but with room for poignancy…

Further delves into the past came in Season Six, a season that kicked off with Mark Twain (Time’s Arrow) before bringing in Trek stalwart David Warner for possibly his finest ever Star Trek role (Chain of Command), solved galactic genetics (The Chase) and put Picard in a TOS film uniform (at the same time giving Q appealing again, Tapestry). Relics can be easily overlooked, coming a season after ST:TNG’s real homage: the Spock starring two-parter Unification. But really, it’s another little gem from Ronald D Moore.

Scotty is the real strength here.  He doesn’t bring the baggage of Spock, Kirk or even McCoy’s appearances in the new phase. Successfully embellished by the films (perhaps the real stand-out in The Final Frontier) Relics took the same line as the rebooted films. Scotty is a comic genius as much as an engineering genius.

Still, it’s not about forgotten baggage; Scotty’s legacy is positively overlooked.  Perhaps in the fields of engineering, mastering modesty is as important as tachyon field dynamics. Picard’s just after a shot with him, La Forge’s a little too busy and Data seems totally oblivious. It’s all rather refreshing from start to finish, held together by James Doohan’s usual affable presence. Sure, Doohan’s accent slips as often as ever and it’s a standard out of place set-up.

The booze has changed, as has tech, Klingons are running around – and so he finds solace on a Holodeck reproduction of the original (1701, that is) Enterprise bridge (where he exposes Picard’s old-school alcohol appreciation).

What’s great about the episode is the strong science-fiction background and the marvellous hook and future that carries for Scotty. The hypothetical megastructure at the heart of the plot was indeed postulated in the 1960s by Freeman Dyson. The rather sad fate of the abandoned sphere in this episode, though physically fascinating, no doubt added to its originator’s continual wish that it hadn’t been named after him (last stated in 2013 I believe).

In the fields of engineering, mastering modesty is as important as tachyon field dynamics

While preposterous that Scotty was marked off MIA so many years ago (the struggle to explore strange new worlds long hampered next gen Star Trek), the re-introduction is wonderful. It sums up Scotty-style engineering prowess while making a statement on ST:TNG’s dry treatment of engineering. After all, this was show that didn’t really feature a head engineer in its first season! The result is a satire, but one with room for a certain poignancy. That opening teleportation can’t help but reference the haunting beam-malfunction of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

And then at the end, the really desperate attempt to get into this writer’s affections. The core crew of the Enterprise happily dispatch Scotty off into the unknown galaxy in the Enterprise’s Shuttlecraft Goddard (I like to think named after this writer and not Robert Goddard, creator of the world’s first liquid-fuelled rocket). Scotty’s one of the franchise’s great survivors and more and more, that looks like a rather wonderful if unorthodox send-off. All the more so as he had the wonderful sense to forget or feel rather optimistic about the events of Star Trek: Generations.

Timescape, Season Six

Or… The one that kick-started Star Trek: Voyager

SFX smacked into your face until your left nacelle burnt out…

Both the hardest and easiest choice here. I’d so far ridden through family and nostalgia and Timescape was pure indulgence (bar a nod to the director, none other than Adam Nimoy). That indulgence is perhaps slightly hypocritical as it came to define everything I despised in the franchise, or am I being too unkind?

Timescape’s an anomaly in a very localised segment of space; my head. I remember in the early 1990s being wowed by the science-fiction. Blown away, like a human beating a Nausicaan at dom-jot. In hindsight, bubbles of time are no different to meteors, but saddled with fantastic, for the time, special effects, ambiguous scenes of real danger and some surprising twists it had me wound up.

Another big factor was that it featured Romulans and came one episode before the Borg were ruined (Descent). I’ve always had a soft spot for Romulans even though they popped up in ST:TNG (more than I remember) with their purple shoulder-pads and bizarrely retained Roman legacy.  Not only Vulcans that get angry, but angry Vulcans with fantastic ships – especially when stuck in combat with the Galaxy Class Enterprise.

I remembered all that, but also the irresistibility of the episode’s technobabble. Timescape was not so much about good science-fiction, or even faction, basis – but one that took a word, a load of sfx money and smacked it into your face until your left nacelle burnt out. It’s rather spooky all round, one of ST:TNG’s better attempts at a haunted house in space.

But for all the good stuff, that’s alive and well, here was a significant step forward all the technobabble and minutiae of space-time that would dog the franchise from that point on. It was Star Trek: Voyager that bore the brunt of course, inheriting Braga as an exec without quite the same depth of cast while Deep Space Nine looked towards war and explored the effect on characters in spiritual, family and military guises.

The cast of ST:TNG showed that much of the show’s material could be elevated and Timescape’s a good example. I’d long forgotten the opening scenes, a good 10 minutes building with a simple emphasis on characterisation. Picard, La Forge, Data and Troi (now in professional garb), all too rarely stuck around a table having a laugh about their recent conference. That table is surely one reason for them taking a Runabout (the runabout laughabout – one of Deep Space Nine’s larger contributions to the franchise…) and it works wonderfully.

Rather than padding, although that can never be ruled out, it helps build-up to the inevitable plot onslaught that follows. The loss of Geordi (presumably cured at the end!?) is stronger than the static shot of Dr Crusher mid-disrupter attack as a result.  In fact, this episode has one of the best 10 Little Indians-style build-ups of the whole series.  And then there was…  A trans-dimensional creche.  Yes, shame they went with the space babies once again.

Despite the lazy plot device, there’s a lot going on here and it just about hangs together. It’s unfortunate that the franchise couldn’t retain the same balance. For the real reason behind that I’d have to fall back on the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. “[sighs] It’s going to take… a little time to explain, Number One”.

Next on Jokerside does Star Trek: My problem with the Star Trek reboot…

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