Friday, August 10, 2007
Strange New Worlds 10
Our book today is “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Volume 10,” edited by Dean Wesley Smith (with an assist from Paula Block), and it stands as a monument to faith, obsession, hope, and the weirding-ways of bottomless geekdom. Because the ‘Strange New World’ series - now unbelievably in its tenth year - is brought to you by the fans themselves, stories written about every manifestation of Star Trek throughout its forty-year history.
Those manifestations will define you, and your friends. It’s the essential question of ur-geekdom: which Star Trek is your favorite?
There’s the Old Guard, those of us who remember deciding to watch this new show on television, back when there were only three networks and most new shows were absolutely forgettable tripe (those of you who are TV-snobs and think this still applies to TV as a whole should manage to look at some of those old shows - today’s TV is effortlessly, handily more sophisticated than anything back then). We watched, and we were very pleased, and we wrote letters (these were parchment documents placed in paper envelopes and stamped with postage sufficient to ensure their passage to their intended recipient - just google it) to the network, something they’d never seen before. We saw, and suddenly we believed, and for us ever afterwards ‘Star Trek’ would mean Captain Kirk, Mister Spock, Doctor McCoy ... Scotty, Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura, and of course the Enterprise herself, NCC 1701 (“No bloody A, B, C, or D,” as Scotty says in one of the most affecting scenes in all of Star Trek)(a free Star Trek book - quiet, Kevin - to the first of you bloodthirsty little ewoks to identify the scene).
That cast, and of course those original episodes From the great height of our scientific advancement, it’s easy to mock some aspects of those early shows, but it’s important to remember that at the time, those advancements were the stuff of myth. A computer that can run an entire starship (or dilithium mining facility, for that matter)? Totally non-invasive medical imaging? Doors that open automatically at your approach? Hand-held communication devices you just flip open and use? In 1966, these things were unthinkable except as science fiction, and to find them as built-in components of a new show, things not seen as marvels in themselves but as backdrop details for broader dramas was a little revelation.
And those dramas, most of them in the original series, are exceptional stuff. Oh, we know there are howlers, horrible embarrassments, stuff that’s parodied to this day. And William Shatner as Captain Kirk is parodied even more, entirely unjustly in our opinion here at Stevereads; Shatner is a skilled actor, and some of his best early work can be found, openly and unapologetically, in ‘Star Trek.’ What later, too-cool-for-school Trek fans need to remember is that the great demographic pod of their new varieties, ‘Next Generation,’ ‘Deep Space Nine,’ ‘Voyager’ and even ‘Enterprise,’ all manifested in the same epoch, relatively ‘modern’ times. The original series was birthed in an entirely different world, a world where households (ten percent of them in America, that is) had one huge TV and no others, one phone mounted on the wall (usually, and very awkwardly in the case of teenagers, in the kitchen), and no computer or any thought of computers - they were something egghead scientists at Cal Tech tended, things as big as airplane engines, things that would obviously never have any application in private homes. Also a world of race-hatred and everyday sexism.
Into this world, one so radically different from the roughly in-common world joining all other versions of Star Trek, came this new show in which all this futuristic technology is neither magical (Gene Roddenberry went to great lengths to make sure all these gizmos were portrayed consistently from episode to episode) nor perfect (it’s startling, when rewatching those classic episodes, to see how often characters are griping about the miracles in their midst), and in which not only is racial diversity a background commonplace, but in which more strong, three-dimensional women appear in three short years than any other show in the history of TV. There’s Areel Shaw, Jim Kirk’s former lover and legal eagle; the strong-willed Elaan of Troyus, imperious and yet nobody’s fool; there’s the steel-willed T’Pring, Spock’s ultra-Vulcan former fiancee; there’s Nurse Christine Chapel, never portrayed as anything but a partner to Dr. McCoy; there’s gentle, intelligent Amanda, who has the unenviable job of being Mr. Spock’s human mother; and of course before all, there’s our glorious Uhura, the voice of the Enterprise, a woman effortlessly holding her own in ‘the Enterprise Seven,’ Uhura, who was always about so much more than ‘hailing frequencies.’
It was, in short, a marvel, right there on the TV every week, for much too short a time. It produced drek, yes, but in only three years it also managed to produce what still remain the best Star Trek episodes of the entire series. The political intrigues of ‘Journey to Babel,’ the sheer alien-ness of ‘Amok Time,’ the psychological tension of ‘Balance of Terror,’ the compelling drama of ‘The Doomsday Machine,’ the note-perfect comedy of ‘The Trouble with Tribbles,’ ‘Tomorrow is Yesterday,’ and ‘I, Mudd,’ and of course most of all, the heart-wrenching brilliance of ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ ... these episodes, all the more amazingly considering the entire world separating them from all their more modern counterparts, all the more amazingly considering they have about a buck-fifty for a special effects budget, are some of the very best all of Star Trek has to offer.
Then the network closed down the show, and fans lamented the loss. They were stunned at first, but in short order they began organizing, conventioning, fanzining, and, through it all, writing their own ‘Star Trek.’
Long, long before the first volume of ‘Strange New Worlds,’ there were two precious, lovingly produced mass market paperbacks edited by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath, featuring carefully selected fan fiction and titled ‘New Voyages’ and then ‘New Voyages 2.’ For Star Trek fans, those two volumes were an intensely personal find of gold, treasured and re-read through all the lean years in which there was no talk of a new TV series and no thought of a multi-million dollar movie, much less a whole series of them.
Then, a long time later, came ‘The Next Generation.’ It came with grumblings (Shatner said he was OK with the show but “I just wish they wouldn’t call it Star Trek” - which is a Hell of a ‘but,’ when you stop to think about it), but it came: a new Enterprise, her adventures set seventy years later than the Kirk/Spock era. The large jump in years had a practical reason behind it (the original cast members were still alive and very well able to play their characters, and they - and maybe Gene Roddenberry too - would have wanted a very good reason why they shouldn’t) but also a psychological one, perhaps a little smug: to emphasize the huge gap of time between the original series (about which, by this point, all the smart set had the perception to be embarrassed).
The new series was awful enough to warrant Captain Kirk’s coy disapproval. The first two years - the same length of time the original show needed to produce a baker’s dozen great episodes - are painfully embarrassing to watch; stupid scripts, awkwardly over-earnest acting, and worst of all, a choking aura of bland sanctimony (something the original show never even approached) that took on physical form in Patrick Stewart’s slumming portrayal of Captain Picard. Here we had a bureaucrat in the place last occupied by a hero. Instead of an inspiring leader whose people faced death and demigods out of loyalty to him, we had a bossy taskmaster whose people spend most of their time swapping out plasma relays, whatever the Hell that is. Outwardly, the cast appears to be the same collection of easy gimmicks as the original show boasted - but only outwardly. The difference lay in the details: the original cast very quickly outgrew their demographic reasons for being. Not so the new cast, where the one note the characters were created to strike is the only thing they do for two long, dreary seasons.
Even when the show began to find some kind of purpose, it did so haphazardly. There were glimmers of potential here and there, but overall everything was still flat souffle to watch. For a show that lasted seven seasons, this Star Trek left behind a remarkably small roster of good episodes and virtually no excellent ones. Yes, Tasha Yar dies, and that was unprecedented for Star Trek - but the episode itself was disposable garbage, and that’s how Yar was treated (seasons later, she was brought back in an alternate-timeline episode that was one of the series’ shining high points). Q and the Borg were introduced to provide a continuing thread of menace, but they quickly lured the writers into box canyons. Q’s caprice and omnipotence made him reek of desperation, and the minute the Borg assimilated Captain Picard and then (after he was rescued) he was allowed to return to command of the Federation’s flagship, the entire show lost a gaping chunk of its credibility.
Of course you can’t be on the air for seven seasons and not hit paydirt every so often; the Next Generation has the occasional bright spot here and there. Picard is forced to live out the whole length of another man’s life, and Stewart rises to the occasion; we’re treated to a glimpse of Picard’s home life and his domineering brother (masterfully played by Jeremy Kemp), and again Stewart rises to the occasion. And then there’s the entire series’ best episode, ‘Darmok,’ in which the mighty Paul Winifield plays an alien captain from a race who communicate only through references to their own literary history. Picard eventually breaks this code and very movingly recounts the tale of Gilgamesh just as his counterpart dies, and the whole episode works wonderfully.
Still, the series as a whole was one long snooze-fest, which makes its status as the most popular Star Trek of them all doubly mystifying, and yet it’s certainly the case. Ask virtually anybody familiar with Star Trek, and like a procession of Borg drones they’ll trot out the same hypnotized lines: that the Next Generation is better acted, that it’s better scripted, that Patrick Stewart is a great actor, that one-note parodies like Q and Data are compelling characters. etc, etc. It’s no use telling them they don’t know what the sprock they’re talking about - and it’s no use pointing out that for most of them, the Next Generation coincided with their adolescence, that their dismissal of all other types of Star Trek are based on nostalgia, not on actually watching any of those other types.
The two types to branch off from the Next Generation were Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Deep Space Nine was the elder and the more problematic, since for the first time it took as its setting not an itinerant spaceship but a static space station in orbit over a non-Federation world called Bajor.
The premise had potential, and not just because its basics were entirely new. Into the mix was added the extremely talented character actor Avery Brooks as a Starfleet commander who refreshingly hated Captain Picard specifically because he’d once been co-opted by the Borg and cost lots of Federation lives, including our new commander Benjamin Sisko’s wife. This hapless officer is given command of a space station in orbit over Bajor, a station only recently evacuated by the ultra-badguy Cardassians (and more importantly, a station sitting right alongside a ‘wormhole’ to a neighboring quadrant of the galaxy). Sisko in the first episode is a very appealing fish out of water, a single dad trying to care for his young son while also adapting to the wild frontier ways of the station, Deep Space Nine. The station is ruled by three very different beings: a strident, strong-willed female Bajoran lieutenant, an alien, shape-shifting chief of security, and a scheming, devious, sniveling Ferengi shopkeep called Quark, immortally portrayed by the great Armin Shimmerman.
There are great dramatic possibilities here, and Deep Space Nine at first largely squanders them. Some of the acting is quite good, but the show flops around aimlessly until its writers cook up the mother of all plotlines: a full-blown invasion by a warlike civilization called the Dominion, coming through the wormhole in a seemingly unstoppable armada.
The reason this is a killer plotline is simple: once the writers get cooking, they’re able to paint a vast, very satisfying picture, a genuine piece of multi-chaptered science fiction, in which, eventually, a long-held dream of every Star Trek fan is beautifully realized: the Federation, the Romulans, and the Klingons united against a common foe.
The second half of the series is therefore an odd but pleasing alteration between small-scale very funny episodes (most driven by Quark, although the instant-classic episode ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’ fires on all cylinders with only his peripheral involvement) and grand-scale episodes painting the present-history of the Federation itself in a way that neither previous series did or could do (although the original series certainly tried, in episodes like ‘Balance of Terror’ and ‘The Ultimate Computer’). The dichotomy could be jarring at times, but even so: the series yielded up dozens of entirely first-rate episodes that reward re-viewings.
Hard on the heels of ‘Deep Space Nine’ came what is almost certainly the most despised Star Trek variant of them all: ‘Voyager.’ There are many theories as to exactly WHY ‘Voyager’ is so despised, but most of them boil down to one thing: Neelix. That is, the character Neelix, as portrayed by the talented actor Ethan Phillips. When we meet him in the series’ first episode, he’s a happy-go-lucky freebooter in the far corner of the galaxy to which the starship Voyager is hurled by a mysterious near-omnipotent alien. But once that fabulous, totally assured premiere episode is over and Neelix is installed as a regular - as the ship’s cook, no less - some alien bug crawls up the collective ass of fandom and just sticks there, irritating the hell out of everybody for the rest of the run of the series.
This is why ‘Voyager’ needs its own special angel - because Star Trek fandom, usually an elastically forgiving society, largely has a bug up its collective ass about a show that was actually quite good. ‘Voyager’ boasts three things no other version of Star Trek can: first, the best theme song and opening sequence, a mini-symphonic epic like nothing else in Star Trek, second, the most compelling backstory: a lone Starfleet vessel, trapped on the other edge of the galaxy from their homes and families, just trying to get back, and third - and for any of you card-carrying fanboys out there, this is gonna sting a little - the best Starfleet captain of them all.
It’s not that big a claim, when you think about it. Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard is a cup of cold tea in deceptively elegant china. Avery Brooks’ Captain Sisko is a weirdly stilted and utterly unbelievable. And, as we’ll see, Scott Bakula’s Captain Archer presents no serious challenge. No, the only challenge here is William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, and this hurts us as much as it hurts any of you: Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway is simply the best, most fully-realized, most dramatically satisfying portrayal of a Starship Captain we currently have.
It’s not just that Mulgrew is the best actor to get a shot at the distinction - Shatner could be a fine actor in the 60s (and, in one of life’s little grace notes, he rediscovered this ability in the 90s), and Stewart, the only other serious contender, never took his part seriously enough to qualify.
Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway faces the worst nightmare of any Starfleet captain: charged with the safety of her crew, but in utterly uncharted waters, facing the unknown every day. Mulgrew does a superb job of hewing a path between a totally obsessed Ahab, intent on getting her crew home, and a Starfleet explorer lost in a totally unexplored part of the galaxy, with new wonders and new species around every nebula. This acting task is made considerably easier by the fact that Mulgrew has the best comic timing of anybody in the role except perhaps Shatner. Her extended performance as Captain Janeway, across seven seasons of distinctly uneven episodes, consistently shimmers with a style and wit that more than one observer likened to Katharine Hepburn. There are many episodes made watchable only by Mulgrew’s performance.
But there were 40 or so episodes that are watchable for lots more than that, ‘Voyager’ became notorious among Star Trek fanboys for adding the beautiful (and talented, though in this case that was decidedly beside the point) Jeri Ryan as a huge-boobed Borg convert called Seven of Nine, but exploitative trick or not, Seven’s gradual and often reluctant journey back to her humanity prompted more than a few first-rate episodes.
Like ‘Deep Space Nine,’ ‘Voyager’ had the luxury of living out its contracted seven full seasons, and like its sister show, it indulged in a series climax. In the case of ‘Deep Space Nine,’ the climax was the victory of the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans over the Dominion (with one very predictable sacrifice in order to make it happen). With ‘Voyager,’ of course, the climax was for Captain Janeway to bring her ship home. The final episode is a masterpiece of the whole series and one of the finest acting performances Mulgrew ever did.
Fireworks, celebrations, homecomings, and then ... silence. Where could the franchise go from here, asked innumerable virgins in their mothers’ basements? In answer to that question, the Paramount powers that be decided: backwards. And so we come to the last of the Star Trek incarnations, ‘Enterprise.’
‘Enterprise’ the cursed. ‘Enterprise,’ which was cancelled after only four seasons, prompting newspaper articles wondering what happened to this once unstoppable franchise juggernaut. ‘Enterprise’ which by its very definition couldn't play for interesting stakes - viewers knew the ship would never be destroyed; they knew Starfleet and the Federation would eventually become established and flourish; they knew that all the familiar technology - the communicators, the transporter, the phasers, would all end up working just fine. The show’s writers gamely got around a lot of this, for instance by mining ‘firsts’ as often as humanly possible - first nerve pinch! first phaser cannon! first Klingons, Andorians, Orions, Ferengi, Romulans, and of course Borg! And there was a certain charm to the cast, from Scott Bakula as the rough-hewn Captain Archer (a performance that got steadily better with every season, amply aided by the cheery presence of the Captain’s beagle) to the richly reserved Vulcan T’Pol of Jolene Blaylock (like Tim Russ’ Tuvok in ‘Voyager,’ T’Pol is a Vulcan who actually acts like a Vulcan, unlike the famous Mr. Spock, who was prone to rather hysterical fits of emotion in the original series), and especially to the ship’s wise and surprisingly ‘cool’ doctor, played by talented character actor John Billingsley.
‘Enterprise’ wasn’t hated by the fans (the show’s rock-song opening theme was, but not the show itself), not the way ‘Voyager’ was hated, but neither was it loved by them in sufficient numbers to keep it alive, and so, after four seasons of on the whole very good episodes, the show was cancelled, just as the original show was cancelled. And there was silence again.
That silence continues to this day - although there are promising hints abounding about the next movie in the franchise, TV - Star Trek’s true home and natural environment - has gone without its mainstay since ‘Enterprise’ went off the air. We here at Stevereads find this deplorable, especially when such drek as ‘Stargate’ and ‘Stargate: Atlantis’ (shows which owe 100 percent everything of what they are to the Star Trek template) enjoy such long lives. And we propose a solution: a new hourlong weekly series, featuring a background character mentioned in ‘The Next Generation,’ ‘Deep Space Nine,’ and ‘Voyager’ but never seen - Captain DeSoto. Set the new series squarely in the Picard/Janeway/Sisko time period, populate the new ship’s bridge with seven or eight really good characters (and two really good boobs), and commence telling us stories again about the bright shining future that awaits us all. Our suggestion for who to play Captain DeSoto: Jimmy Smits. A Vulcan played by Jon Foster would be a good idea too.
And what about ‘Strange New Worlds 10,’ the book that started this whole little discussion in the first place?
Well, it largely stinks. The story awarded first prize, a soppy, cliche-ridden piece about the woman Spock’s aged father marries once Amanda dies, is one of the worst in the whole book, but it’s got lots of company. The best story in the anthology, ‘Universal Chord’ by Carolyn Winifred, is a delightful account of staid, conservative T’Pol taking in a rock concert and hanging out with the band.
But even though this particular anthology stinks, we here at Stevereads welcome it - because the world needs all the Star Trek it can get.