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. Continue reading “Year of Hell? Star Trek: Voyager – The First Year under the Microscope”
If you enjoyed reading this, please share with the world!?
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 classicfirst 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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…
If you enjoyed reading this, please share with the world!?
As sequel Star Trek into Darkness rides high in the charts – and eventually zooms into America – a look at the other ‘second’ Star Trek films
IT’S ALMOST CRUEL THAT THE NEW STAR TREK FILM, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS IS OPENING IN AMERICA ONE WEEK AFTER THE UK AND A FEW OTHER LUCKY COUNTRIES. Possibly the most hyped Star Trek film in the franchise’s 12 film career – the film has created anticipation as much as it seems to have been shaped by it. You can read into that as you will if you’ve seen it – but no spoilers here.
A few months ago I took a look at the possible identity of the new film’s villain, John Harrison, not at all seriously. But I also highlighted the importance and legacy the on Star Trek of the ‘Number Two’. That’s not just in Trek lore but also apparently in the boardrooms of phaser twitching execs as well. Two hangs heavy over Star Trek history and with good reason.
The anticipation for the new film owes a lot to the series’ history – and uniquely that ‘history’ includes two previous ‘second films’. Not only is Into Darkness the third ‘second’ film in the franchise, but both of its predecessors are rightly regarded as Star Trek classics. The pressure was very much engaged as soion as 2009’s Star Trek was a success.
1982’s The Wrath of Khan (TWOK), remains the pick of the 12 film bunch. It’s a tightly wound film, propelled by relationships and tension which improves with every viewing. As the second big screen voyage of the Original Series crew, upon its release it set box office records and makes assembling Star Trek films look effortless. Kirk’s struggle with Khan, the genetically enhanced and time-displaced despot quickly spread its influence far and wide, sinking into popular culture like few other pieces of science fiction – from Kill Bill to Family Guy.
Beaming forward 14 years, Star Trek: First Contact (FC) entered a whole new world. Entering a vastly different film environment, riddled with the CGI that TWOK had pioneered, it was time for a new ship and a new crew. The Next Generation had arguably delivered the success that The Original Series had failed to. Generating vast quantities of money over seven series, spawning another three spin-offs and contributing some of the best television moments of all time (the superb Best of Both Worlds), its crew had inevitably moved on to the big screen in 1994. That first film, Generations, is a bit of an anomaly, including as it does a starring role and rather unfortunate farewell for Captain James T Kirk. However, it must stand as the first Next Generation film, with 1996’s FC hurling them full throttle into a fight with their most definitive nemesis, the Borg for the sequel. Having already set a high benchmark on the small screen with those villains, the challenge was again a difficult inevitability. However, with phasers blazing, FC was the most action packed Star Trek film since TWOK, and really hasn’t been challenged until Into Darkness.
In 47 years, with Star Trek’s version of ‘regeneration’, it’s no surprise to find the reboots making their way to the big screen. What’s interesting is not so much the long ruminated, but ultimately false, theory of even Star Trek films being better than their odd brothers – but that the second instalments of each sub-franchise are always so damned good.
As Star Trek Into Darkness proves however, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The shadow of TWOK hangs so heavily over the franchise that references bordering on riffs and remakes can seem essential to guarantee success. TWOK will always be the benchmark, no matter the crew or century involved. FC certainly held TWOK in high regard, with many common links filtering through the two films.
The Code of Two
Both films share a theme of retribution as their heart and in both cases, this links back to events in their earlier television incarnations. Both feature ships as plot devices and highlight the military implications of space exploration and Starfleet itself. Both, in their own way, are bloody well made films as well – from relatively young and inexperienced directors. TWOK was Nick Meyer’s second film as a director and FC was Jonathan Frakes’ first – although both had been involved behind the camera in various capacities before. Both films also carry a supreme confidence… But despite the many similarities, most interest lies in their differences.
Star Trek: Second Contact
Following the bloated Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a superbly realised film, but one that missed the inherent comedy of Star Trek – TWOK got a lot of decisions right. By moving the action forward 15 years, TWOK not only matched the comparative age of its actors but built the acknowledgement – or ignorance of – aging in as a crucial part of the narrative. TWOK works along the heavy lines of consequence, age and foreshadowing. Of many significant contributions to the Star trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru test is one of TWOK’s masterstrokes. It allows for a brilliant opening where most of familiar Enterprise crew are annihilated and then proceeds to link and weaves through the film as an exploration of Kirk and counterpoint to the main plot. Commander Saavik becomes one of the franchise’s most effective guest characters, perhaps all the better because she is Vulcan. Her main role is to constantly pester Kirk about how he beat the test until, when it appears all is lost, he finally reveals his secret. He doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario. Cue Act III.
By its end TWOK had revealed itself as a full-blown submarine film. The increased military feel of Starfleet had been well realised throughout, with sharp and effective new uniforms and strict procedures about the only think that’s allowed to linger on screen. The final act is pure war film, where the cat and mouse game between the USS Reliant and USS Enterprise that may just as well be acted out in the North Sea in 1941. Part of the finale’s effectiveness is the brilliant special effect work provided by ILM, the George Lucas owned company wisely brought on after its Star Wars revolution. Perhaps the main reason for the film’s effectiveness is its most astonishing one: For all the wrath, history, hatred and battling, Khan and Kirk never meet. Not many films have proved to be as powerful, effective or influential under those circumstances.
Star Trek: The Wrath of Picard
In contrast, FC chose to abandon subtlety for all out action chuck-in-the-replicator action. Not attempting to ape TWOK’s submarine claustrophobia for long, FC quickly descends into an all out assault film. Within the first 15 minutes, the crew of the Enterprise has reformed, a new ship introduced, a Borg Cube engaged and defeated and time travel to the Earth’s past undertaken. It rarely comes up for breath, propelled both by a fantastically villainous race done justice and also an unapologetic ethos of chucking everything at the screen that Star Trek fans have ever wanted. I recall seeing it in on release in 1996 and having to constantly higher the bar under an onslaught of brilliant set pieces. Just when I was marvelling at the time-travel, danger-uninhibited Holodeck and phaser rifle assault missions, they went and raised the ante yet further with an upside down space walk. Then again with a ship-wide evacuation. Subsequent viewings (many) have put a strain on the coherence of the breakneck pace, but it still endures as a very well realised film.
Perhaps most interesting is the way the Borg are expanded. A continuing topic in this blog seems to be the necessity of expanding antagonists, but also the inherent dangers in doing so. Assimilating the big screen, the Borg had an effective upgrade in the make-up department. It was also the first time we could see wholesale assimilation and Frakes and co had many inspirations to draw on. Body-horror is a necessary part of the Borg impact and in FC it is very much put to the fore. Not only that, the expansion to include a Queen figure is a bold concession to horror in design and dialogue.
While the two pronged neck injecting of Borg virus makes it clear that assimilation is akin to vampirism, the Queen’s dialogue moves quickly from biblical to Hellraiser Cenobite. The dark body horror stylings of the race can’t help break that association. In many ways, this is teenage Clive Barker but a precedent for trek horror combined with action was set by TWOK, itself a violent and occasionally sadistic film.
“From Hell’s Heart…”
The broad difference between TWOK and FC however, comes from motivation. While FC draws on rage that comes from a frankly understandable human feeling of frustration and helplessness, it is siphoned into Picard. His is a single-minded and cold vendetta for most part, albeit one that we had already seen the roots of in The Next Generation two-parter The Best of Both Worlds. That vengeance triggers most of the character points in the film – whether driving a wedge between Picard and Worf’s relationship or providing an injustice for random guest star Lily to fight against. Along with the rather flat Pinocchio and friendship messages Data carries, this rather crude characterisation is perhaps the film’s only downfall.
In contrast, TWOK carries many intricate lines of development, with emotion hanging on every beat. The Father-son sub-plot may be its weakest, but lines of friendship and consequence run through every scene until the tragic finale. A fairly simple plot allows room for themes to layer on each other. There’s also space for what may be the definitive Kirk, Spock and McCoy clash. TWOK allows its themes to breathe, while FC never does.
Another contrast comes in the root of the films’ plots. TWOK is effectively a sequel to the Original Series episode Space Seed, with vengeance mainly springing from events in the interim that we have not directly seen. In fact, it was retconned into Star Trek history, and very well done it was too. The vengeance in FC however,is based on events and fear that we have experience of. While in 1982 we truly watched the wrath of Khan, in 1996 we witnessed the wrath of Picard.
“We Fall Back…”
Interestingly, both films choose to hang their main themes on literature, and perhaps because of TWOK’s success, they share one source of inspiration.
TWOK works two main strands into its story. While Kirk is presented with Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities on his birthday, Chekov stumbles on Khan’s ship the SS Botany Bay where the rogue has for years been feasting on not only Moby Dick, but Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s ParadiseLost among others. The themes of A Tale of Two Cities become crucial not only at the film’s climax but also as a central tenet of Trek from that point forward: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Also, what better reflection on the continuing voyages of the Enterprise than that book’s opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.
Of course, Moby Dick has the most significant impact on the film. In his rage, focussed through super-intelligence, Khan appears simultaneously obliviousness, and almost perfect in the self-analysis of his own obsession. The result is a chilling disconnect. Montalban must have chewed through hundreds of copies of the novel. He quotes and paraphrases Moby Dick constantly, while filling the gaps with barbed nonsense lines like “Let them eat static” and moments of scripting genius such as a certain influential Klingon proverb… Despite its rather full on approach – Khan may as well hijack the USS Analogy – those literary roots are neatly woven into the story. It’s a trait common to many Meyer scripts, and he would successfully repeat the trick, although with less impact, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
That literary super-allusion was the main carry-through to FC, where Lily’s correct, albeit lucky, comparison of Picard to Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab is the moment that The Next Generation Captain’s growing obsession is broken. Quote-wise, its effect is not as pronounced; plot-wise its impact it is far more significant. Star Trek is about many things. From western, to frontier exploration, to comedy, to adventure… But those atavistic ideas of the mythical and powerful beast that creates and feeds obsession and those associated dark places of humanity that man must go are also fair game. In fact, it’s essential. Where No Man has Gone Before is also where man has always ended up going.
In some ways it was impossible for the current third ‘second’ Star Trek film to go anywhere but to Into Darkness. At least commercially, that’s the place that works for Star Trek films – especially when they’re even-numbered. If anyone has any problem with the direction the latest film has taken it well be worth remembering TWOK and FC and asking whether there was really any other choice. Parallel universe or not, there are beats and themes that, quotes notwithstanding, certain Star Trek films just have to follow.
To paraphrase what might be the first novel of the Twentieth Century, in respect of one of that century’s most enduring fiction properties: these too have been some of the dark places of the universe.
Find the Tweetnotes of both films Storified here – concessions should be made for a far too conscientious autocorrect… Messrs Khan, Borg and Mellville have been informed.
If you enjoyed reading this, please share with the world!?