Year of Hell? Star Trek: Voyager – The First Year under the Microscope

Star Trek at 50 Voyager Year One

Star Trek at 50. Having celebrated the 50th anniversary of that incredible first season of Star Trek’s Original Series, Jokerside jumps to the television franchise’s fourth incarnation. In the Golden Age of Star Trek, could USS Voyager propel the franchise on to further success in its first year?

This is an updated version of an article originally published in two parts by those kind folks over at Some Kind of Star Trek.

A THOUGHT THIS GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY. DURING THE GOLDEN AGE OF STAR TREK, 1995 MIGHT JUST HAVE BEEN THE GOLDEN YEAR. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) had ended its hugely successful small screen run, but only to leap to the big screen. I a year’s time that crew would find their finest hour against the Borg on 21st century Earth. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9)was shrugging off that most common of franchise issues, a couple of weak seasons, and kicking off its seminal Dominion War story arc. And then there was Star Trek: Voyager.

Unlike previous series, Voyager was designed as a flagship that would sit on franchise owner Viacom’s brand new United Paramount Network. Before that channel morphed into The CW in 2006, Voyager stood as the network’s second longest running series, claiming the allotted seven years that the two proceeding series had and would enjoy. In the heady-mix of 1995, Star Trek fans knew that they had something good, but it was impossible to predict the incredible swerves DS9 would take nor the triumphs and failures of The Next Generation on the big screen over the next few years. If anything was certain, it was that Star Trek: Voyager was embarking on a voyage with a specific mission. To replace TNG as the franchise’s premier ship bound series.

Over two decades on, it’s easy to see the perils and promise of 1995. It was inevitable in those early days that Voyager would make its way home from its catapulting to the far side of the Delta Quadrant. Were Voyager made today, or even a few years later as Enterprise soon discovered, that happy ending might not have been so obvious. When that third Star Trek live action sequel series started on 16 January 1995, it wasn’t evident how impressive the gauntlets that each of its forebears had laid down were. From the moment Voyager met her fate in the Badlands, DS9’s stock started rising. While other Star Trek series had achieved success in their own lifetime, even the first incarnation to begin with, let alone on the big screen viewers of the purposefully awkward DS9 are always just that little more partisan.

Post-Deep Space Nine

“Dismissed. That’s a Starfleet expression for ‘get out’.”

So there’s a vested interest there. There are people who don’t like DS9, just as there are those who don’t take to Star Trek. It’s an awkward series, that certainly didn’t help itself the minute young upstart Commander Sisko was immensely rude to Captain Jean-Luc Picard during the pilot. Yeah, that was an awkward jumping off point. But it was a confrontational, slightly odd move that the show made its speciality. It rewarded regular viewing, becoming a crucial player in the rise of American arc-based television revolution. As with TNG, the first two seasons of that second sequel series were hardly classics. In fact, of all the Star Trek shows, only The Original Series has any claim to have hit the ground running. But at Voyager’s launch, while Deep Space Nine was starting to forge forward with genuine originality that would not only lay the path for Battlestar Galactica and all manner of other arc shows but also inadvertently undo the grip of star ship shows on American TV, Voyager was moving in the opposite direction. While DS9 actively cut a path away from the syndication model that had defined the success of previous series, Voyager stuck resolutely with carrying on the mantle of The Original Series (TOS) and TNG. It may have been built on a large and overarching arc, but it saw no reason why that should change the nature of incident, adventure and monster-of-the-week structure that was there from the first season of TOS. Perversely that wilful glance back sat at odds with the format of the long journey home.

So, about that vested interest. Jokerside completed a leisurely retrospective of that DS9 vintage before its 20th anniversary in 2013. A viewing so leisurely that the Federation could have stumbled across the Dominion and kicked off a war in the same three year timeframe it took to complete all seven series. But that retrospective confirmed my suspicions: Deep Space Nine is an incredible achievement. Despite the many early bumps, it seized its position as the younger, difficult brother of TNG, with cynical and audience grabbing stunts and a flash new non-syndicated competitor and melded them with the strengths of its strong cast to produce something really special. It was real end of the century Star Trek. But also so prescient of the formative of the 21st century. And fresh from that retrospective, Jokerside took on the shortened first series of Star Trek’s New Hope. And of course, that means Jokerside accidentally started watching Star Trek: Voyager. Read more…

1966: Star Trek at 50

1966: Star Trek at 50

It’s 50 years to the day that Star Trek first transported onto NBC at 8:30… In celebration of five decades of the intergalactic pop-culture giant that followed, Jokerside takes a look at that classic first year…

Star Trek: The Original Series

IT WAS THE FIRST SERIES OF STAR TREK THAT SET A CRUCIAL LINK BETWEEN THE SHOW AND TIME. Three instances to be specific, and one of those, City on the Edge of Forever, remains a science-fiction classic. Time travel would return to Trek again and again… But it was just one of the staples of the franchise that came ready-made for exploration in the 29-part season that aired between 1966 and 1967. So much of what would become synonymous with Star Trek was set in those early days, but it’s just as well time travel was present and correct. Because pinning an anniversary on Star Trek could take Spock months of slingshot calculations.

The past

“To boldly go…”

A key date was April 1964 when creator Gene Roddenberry pitched his draft for Star Trek draft to Desilu Productions, run by Lucile Ball and producer of her shows including I love Lucy and at that time The Lucy Show. The concept developed from the adventures of Robert April Captain of the S.S. Yorktown to the first pilot The Cage, centred around Captain Christopher Pike in the form of Jeffrey Hunter. The Cage was commissioned in May 1964, filmed later that year and promptly passed on by NBC. Famously dismissed as “too cerebral” they did see a glimmer of something in the premise. And so, against all expectation they commissioned a second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, which switched control of the Enterprise to William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk. Accepted, series production commenced and Where No Man Has Gone before aired on 22 September 1966. But wait, that’s not right…

Star Trek had a tortuous genesis. The kind Khan Noonien Singh would happily defrost to detonate. In February 1966, four months before production on that second pilot started, when that script was emerging from its own difficult selection process, Desilu almost called time on the embryonic show. Used to half hour productions, they were financially overburdened by their risky new space venture and their other hour-long production, Mission Impossible. It was Head of production Herb Solow who managed to calm things down. Then, when it came to transmission, the running order threw up all sorts of issues for the show’s uncertain network. So, in the event Where No Man Has Gone Before was screened third in the running order, the premiere falling to on 8 September. To make matters slightly more confusing, Star Trek was properly first broadcast on 6 September, 1966 on Canada’s CTV network.

But then, from difficult beginnings… For all its triumph on the big screen, grossing $2.3 billion over 13 films so far, television is the real berth of the good ship Enterprise. And that’s why 8 September is the date. When Star Trek hit its home nation network and began a classic and influential year. All the more idiosyncratic that it couldn’t shake off its unusual production history.

Hitting the ground running

“Out here we’re the only policemen around”

It wasn’t simply that Where No Man Has Gone Before stepped back in the running order. Just about the first third of that first year is jumbled around thanks to the network’s desperate juggling of themes and stories. Looking at the produced episodes, many of which were spilling over schedule thanks to on-set rewrites, they felt their toes chill. There are some dynamic effects from the transmission order as it emerged that Fall. It’s strange to see Uhura’s role reduce then grow again, just as it is for old pal Gary Mitchell to pop up three episodes in, about the same time as the ship’s complement decides to change uniform for a week (a switch back to the heavy crew necks of The Cage uniforms). But it’s not insurmountable. And while that running order makes watching the first series a little more difficult than it should be, as the network’s decisions knock the balance of that first year off, it immediately highlights the rugged survivalism built into the concept. The strength of the conceit and the core characters was there almost instantly, and from its formative days Star Trek was girded for the future.

The show would burn brightly and quickly. Cancelled after a reduced third year, it would be years spent in syndication that developed its true following and proved its enduring appeal, leading to its mild television resurgence in the 1970s, shift to the big screen and proliferation in the 1980s and 1990s. Those glorious days before story arcs, where running order was irrelevant to broadcast. Star Trek took the test with its first episode and proved that optimism is everything. And so it was that when The Man Trap aired on 8 September it easily won its time slot with a 40.6 share of the audience.

What unfolded until 13 April 1967 was a quite incredible 29-part run. There’s barely a dud among the bunch, quite the opposite of the reputation that subsequent Star Trek series would earn for their weak opening years. What’s particularly astonishing is how easily Star Trek managed to reflect contemporary culture, for good and bad, establish a template for talented creators to comment on that contemporary culture and also set so many of the themes, facets and recurring elements that have remained with the show and film series for 50 years. No doubt those will be present and correct when Star Trek Discovery hits in 2017.

What better way to celebrate the show than look at those crucial ingredients. Read more…

Dracula: “Learning from Mis-Stakes” – AD 2015 (Part Two)

Dracula Untold - The Puppet Master Vampire

 

The second part of a look at how the Prince of Darkness is currently faring on screens small and big.  Even while NBC’s primetime Dracula (does Downton) was staked to death, the undead icon still found time to pop up in familiar crypts and unexpected tombs.  Perhaps his most important moment in the 21st century was close at hand: in the heart of Hollywood, dark plans were being written in ancient blood… Dracula Untold.

A Scrape of the Wing

Not the only Drac-on-the-box…

IN THE FIRST PART OF AD2015, NBC’S DRACULA MADE A COMPLICATED STAB AT CREATING A NEW KIND OF DRACULA. Despite that show’s many flaws that, ambition can’t be faulted. The setting and intent were true to the themes of Bram Stoker’s novel, even if it managed to rob itself of many definitive parts of the legend.  Still, that wasn’t the only Drac-on-the-screen. The errant aristocrat had suffered the ignominy of being voiced by Adam Sandler in the 2012 animation Hotel Transylvania. Elsewhere, far from his routes in the Carpathian Mountains, 2013’s Dracula 2012 matched the Prince of Darkness’ tale to Indian folklores.

Dracula doesn’t really have a safe crypt at that network

On television, other incarnations returned from the dead – especially Eddie Izzard’s glorious interpretation of Grandpa Sam Dracula in Bryan Fuller’s 2012 Munsters revival Mockingbird Lane. Darker and more developed than Al Lewis’ 1960s version, his is predatory, homicidal, occasionally revelling in his feral powers and undoubtedly the count with a plan. Amid the violence and dark comedy, there was time to make sure that Grandpa had many of the same undead ‘skills’ Stoker gave him over a hundred years before.

The fact that it was again the NBC network that wavered over Fuller’s direction and decided not to pick-up the series suggests that Dracula doesn’t really have a safe crypt at that network. The silver lining to that incredibly premature cancellation was that Fuller was then free to create marvellous modern horror Hannibal for the network instead; that’s one form of copious blood-letting they obviously don’t mind.

Elsewhere the count took various cameo roles in 2013, including a vivid guest spot for a sadistic Vlad Tepes on Fox’s Da Vinci’s Demons. Just across from that Wales-shot series, the rejuvenated Hammer studios talked about Dracula a bit, but as with Herr Frankenstein, so far haven’t been able to find the fresh approach to the legend they insist on.  All in all, it looked like the future may be a little more modern…. Until that theory was quickly debunked by ABC’s modernised fusion of gothic and romantic horror icons.  2013’s Gothica fell at the pilot stage, although there was to be greater success in that mash-up, Abbot and Costello approach over on cable…

Penny Dreadful (2014 – )

When you’re dealing with the undead there’s no rush

Read more…

Frankenstein: “We Will Need New Material” – AD 2014 (Part One)

Frankenstein AD 2014 Fresh Material

A decade on from the Van Helsing misfire and 20 years on from Kenneth Branagh’s earnestly romantic take, the legacy of Frankenstein is in better health than ever, even if it‘s a little more comfortable in its patchwork…

The Modern Prometheus.  Scientific progress will always play its part in keeping Frankenstein relevant, or rather the human response to it.  While Mary Shelley’s novel may have been a romantic answer to industrialization and even temporary climate change, the raw power of electricity in the early 19th century was revolutionary enough to question how far man could progress if he was able to harness such power.  And when that question’s asked, there’s a short list of comparators.

Frankenstein was published three years prior to Faraday unveiling the electric motor.  196 years on, that Modern Prometheus won’t go away, constantly fuelled by scientific progress.  In the 21st century, whether genetically modifying a crop, cloning stem cells or creating life from three donors, “playing Frankenstein” is a line easily brought to bear. Playing Frankenstein. A great phrase, keeping its fictional and manipulative connotations while posing its own challenge and sanity check.  Frankenstein has been presented in multiple ways over the past two centuries of course, from visionary saviour to arrogant savant, mad man to psychopathic Baron (who’s single-minded determination gifted the above title).  And by constantly maintaining this diversity, it looks as though the Doctor and his creations are faring better than ever in 2014…

In this first check-up, a look at January’s I Frankenstein, two aborted television shows that should have rocked the laboratory and the promise of a big screen revolution in 2015…

I Frankenstein (2014)

…Without Abbot and Costello…

“You go talk to the Gargoyle Queen; I’ll meet you back here in an hour”

So says Dr Frankenstein’s blonde spiritual successor to his original creation just before things kick off.  The creature of I Frankenstein is named Adam by Leonore, that same Queen of the Gargoyles and that’s pretty much all you need to know.

It’s no surprise that I Frankenstein is a graphic novel adaptation, nor that it comes from the same creator as the Underworld series.  Here however, a little disappointingly, the creature is thrust into the eternal and Christian-centric war between demons and gargoyles (the slightly stony Angelic lineage of St Michael).  Vampires and werewolves would have been a step far too much without Abbot and Costello…

As with Underworld, CGI and odd character design is the order of the day in a plot of simply decimated good, morally conflicted scientists, an impossibly empty international city and a broadly realised McGuffin which spells peril for the human race.  Of course, it manages to magic up some Romeo and Juliet moments, haphazard threat and a few digs into Frankenstein’s literary past as well.  Although, amid its cluttered, character-led plot bashing, there’s little reason to care or develop the creature’s relationship with his creator as he follows his strict path of redemption.

Father and Son

The journal changes hand more times than magic cups on Westminster Bridge

The creature is pure antihero.  From the beginning the monster’s journey is defined and justified– apart from a few outbursts – by the unnature of his creation.  The Frankenstein story is broadly present and correct, though covered within the first three minutes of the film.  That the creature is christened Adam suggests at best an oversimplification of the text, at worst a misreading.  This Victor Frankenstein is a “Mad man, terrified by what he created”.   His death may come in the tundra of the north, but the irony of this creature returning his father’s corpse to be buried in the family graveyard is a little lost: “It was more than he deserved”. And as soon as that story’s buried, his creation is immediately thrust into the film’s sub-theological plot.  No wonder he looks so surprised when having just seen his father off…  He’s attacked by descending demons then saved by ascending gargoyles.

No, as might be expected, all subtlety has been deanimated.  The MacGuffin in question is the mythical Diary of Frankenstein – hidden away in a vault while the creature conveniently mans up to a sort-of modern day – the key to the forces of evil discovering immortality. Or perhaps that’s not quite right; to reanimate demons who are surely mildly immortal anyway? They certainly don’t decompose.  In one of the few bits of profound scripting, the Gargoyle Queen prefaces Adam’s sabbatical by labelling him “Written proof that God is no longer the sole creator of man”.  Fortunately, it’s not to his jagged little face.  Sadly, some time away doesn’t improve this monster’s knowledge or ability.  In fact, having the majority of his life spent in the surety that God, angels and demons exist above the world of man can only belittle Frankenstein’s core essence.

But core essence and subtlety isn’t what I Frankenstein’s all about, nor the creature mad old Frankenstein’s only genius.  He can also write the secret of immortal reanimation neatly into a small journal that lasts 200 years.  His creation cannot age, can’t easily be destroyed and possesses supernatural strength.  This is all put down to the 3,000 volts that the diary states brought the creature to life (Volta’s first battery appeared in 1800 electro-fact fans).  All details are laid out in neat writing and sketches for the crème of modern British scientific research to purloin.  Well two of them at least, in much the same way as they might have written down Blue Peter building materials when they popped up briefly onscreen pre-internet.

The journal changes hand more times than magic cups on Westminster Bridge and there’s not even a single mention of a photocopier.  Perhaps, coincidentally, electro-magnetism hasn’t been developed in this time stream.

Body Parts

…This monster could have tried harder in those nightclubs.

Character-wise, we’re a supernaturally long throw from Shelley.  The modern successor to Frankenstein takes the form of blonde and sceptical Dr Wade – effectively Rosamund Pike in Doom – here working for big bad Bill Nighy.  The monster though, for all its lack of authentic physiognomy is rather well done. Aaron Eckhart is fine casting but given little to play with. He’s been hacked up for sure, but typically it’s difficult to portray that he’s “A dozen used parts from eight different corpses”. Perhaps truest in intent, his main scars come from the psychological battle with himself and his creator. Perhaps the weakest part is he didn’t gain any insight into his father before his death.  “He hunted me. I would have killed him too but he froze to death” Adam growls at one point, inadvertently making it sound wonderfully like “haunted”.  This Creature, possessing the long hair of his literary forbear, although not nearly as articulate, is constantly told why he’s so screwed up.  That’s a little mean, especially considering how the fact of his origin proves far more important that the why or hows.  Cue the Bill Nighy master plan: “Niberius has been planning this for centuries, Frankenstein just made it possible”.

When a Faustian pack is suggested at one point, the bride’s promised, adding an interesting tie between the scientist and creation – but really, this monster could have tried harder in those nightclubs. It’s unlikely that a sequel will happen let alone examine those missed opportunities.

Still, by the end he’s come to terms with his lot and continues along the selfless path that has earned him a demon-shocking soul.  Yes, by the end he is Batman. Sorry, no, He Frankenstein.

On a side note, the title – among its many other references to I Claudius, I Robot, er, Disney’s I-Man etc – was almost shared with the second Hammer Frankenstein film in 1958. That film, ultimately titled The Revenge of Frankenstein and featuring the late Francis Matthews who sadly passed away this week, proved to be a chilling and excellently produced addition to the franchise. It was always unlikely that its almost-namesake would be so lucky.

Frank I cu

Stitches in time (2012 – 2014)

…Frankenstein lives on in a far more thematically just way…

It’s worth noting the almost-Frankensteins; those Doctors whom, in a parallel universe, are furthering the scientific mastermind’s agenda on television.  Here they fell quickly with little chance of resurrection.  First was the quickly dismissed Gothica on ABC.  Albeit modern day, it saw a mashing of horror icons including Tom Ellis as a Victor Frankenstein, a hospital lead desperate to bring his dead daughter Anna back to life… Possibly with the help of ex Grace van Helsing.  Also dragging Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll into the mix, it was dashed at pilot stage.

As forming gothic leagues seems to be the done thing, it’s no surprise that networks looked to their back catalogue.  Bryan Fuller’s Mockingbird Lane an update of 1960s classic The Munsters and its spin-offs did see its pilot air in Halloween 2012, but proved too complex an entity for the NBC network to commission.

A natural extension of Bryan Fuller’s excellent Pushing Daisies, the pilot was also directed and produced by Bryan Singer. That’s a great deal of talented Bryans for your buck.

Fuller’s dialogue is typically witty, picking out the heritage and black humour of suburbia as reverentially as you might expect.  NBC seems to have struggled with the simplistic dark sitcom leanings amid the peak of True Blood, and it’s true that the pilot doesn’t quite project the weight of story-wealth that it should. What it does have is some wise casting and scintillating banter, especially thanks to Eddie Izzard’s Grandpa. A far more malicious and less scatter-brained scientific trickster than the originals, he’s properly the Frankenstein here, pragmatically rejuvenating his son-in-law, not through any means necessary as much as the Munster way.  Jerry O’Connell’s rather unorthodox Herman Munster is similarly changed.  The sly, familiar silhouette joke at his introduction makes way for the creature who just “loves too hard”.  In comparison to the fellas, the female characters Lily and Marilyn seem hardly changed.

If picked up, Frankenstein would certainly be more prevalent this year in suggestion alone, but its sad and quick demise has undoubtedly allowed Frankenstein to live on in a far more thematically just way.  Bryan Fuller moved on to develop the former surgeon, psychiatrist and psychopath just intrigued by what will happen… Hannibal Lecter.  Pumped full of the Frankenstein themes, it’s certainly one of the best things on television at the moment.

Elsewhere, there’s always the resurgent Hammer studios.  With winning new material and fresh adaptations it looks as though Steven Thompson’s Quatermass reboot will be the first jewel plundered from their back catalogue.  As befits Hammer, the production house is always on a lookout for a way to present a fresh return for the Baron though…   While waiting for that spark of inspiration it’s over to another British outfit for the next big screen outing…

Frankenstein (2015)

“Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s Monster. And I’m looking for my creator” – Magneto, X-Men: First Class

No, X-Men aside, Frankenstein will next return in a more direct, but not necessarily faithful way.  The upcoming film adaptation from Paul McGuigan is perhaps the most interesting Frankenstein property around. Fresh from his startling and stylish hand in bringing Sherlock back to the masses, he’s a gifted powerhouse director who promises something quite different.  Details are scarce so far, but during its recent and current filming some images have come to light.

James McAvoy takes the role of Frankenstein and it’s well documented that classic film assistant Igor will be not only present, but intriguingly a key focus of the film.  Portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, early images show a dapper, long-haired version who’s not at first glance the Igor of popular culture.  As what appears to be the third prong of a moral piece, Moriarty Andrew Scott takes the role of the film’s  ‘religious head’.  It’s clear there are many dynamics at play here, just as there should be in a Frankenstein adaptation worth its copper.  The recent delay from January to October 2015 can only bode well considering I Frankenstein’s fate this past January.

With over a year until Frankenstein soars on the big screen again, it’s down to the Idiot’s Lantern to carry it on…

And on that note, time to dim the electric lanterns and blow out the candles on tonight’s experiments.  Coming soon, the concluding part of Frankenstein 2014 AD will herald a trip to possibly Frankenstein’s finest hour this year…  Penny Dreadful

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