Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Encounter at Farpoint (September 26, 1987)

Although by no stretch one of the best installments of the series’ seven year run, the inaugural episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation gets the job done.  

Whether it does so in style or not, perhaps, is the key question.

“Encounter at Farpoint” introduces the new characters and their world (and affectionately) reminds the audience of Star Trek history. It also offers at least two marvelous images that remain impressive and resonant, even thirty years later.  Sadly, some of the performances in the episode are straight up terrible.

But let's pause a minute and gaze at historical context. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in the year 1987, at a high-point in Trek's history and popularity. Star Trek: IV: The Voyage Home (1986) had won accolades and treasure at the box office the year before, and it felt like a good time to bring the series back to television. Paramount brought Gene Roddenberry -- who had been sidelined from the movies -- back to the fold to work his magic a second time.

Instead of airing on a major network, however, Star Trek: The Next Generation went where original series like The Starlost (1973) and Space: 1999 (1975-1977) had gone before, choosing to create its own ad-hoc network of local affiliates; known as syndication. The move made abundant sense, Star Trek's popularity had skyrocketed in the early 1970's in reruns, in syndication, so airing original episodes of the new series in the same markets made good business sense.

The behind-the-scenes squabbles on Star Trek: The Next Generation are, at this point, legendary, and the series didn't really find its footing for the first two seasons. This was also a time of cast-upheaval, as actors and their characters came and left. In the first season, the Enterprise-D had a revolving door of a half-dozen chief engineers.

A close focus on the first season episodes of this particular series actually point out something relevant in today's world: the utter bull-shittery of fans complaining about Star Trek: Discovery (2017). 

As a thought experiment, watch the first nine episodes of Discovery, and then the first nine episodes of Next Generation. And then tell me again -- with a straight face -- how Discovery is a bad show, and Next Generation is a classic.

The Next Generation became a classic, only because fans gave it time to prove itself. Some of today's fans aren't giving Discovery the same opportunity. This is funny, since Discovery is already better, at episode nine, than Next Generation was at the same juncture.

But let's leave comparisons aside for the moment and continue with a little in-universe background on The Next Generation.  The story is set in the 24th century, just about one hundred years after the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and the original starship Enterprise.

In this century, the Klingons are (sometimes uneasy) allies of the Federation, the Romulans have gone quiet in their own space, and a new enemy looms. This new enemy is known as the Ferengi.

Technology and terminology have both changed since the days of Kirk and Spock as well.

Communicators are now...jewelry. Comm-badges in the shape of the Starfleet delta are worn on all uniforms. Starships are also outfitted with recreational holodecks, and carry families aboard them. Landing parties are a thing of the past; now known as "away teams."

As “Encounter at Farpoint” begins, the new Galaxy Class U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) investigates the mystery of planet Deneb IV.  The primitive people there have apparently constructed a new base precisely to Starfleet specifications, but how they did so remains unknown. 

While the crew investigates, it must also deal with an interfering, all-powerful alien being called “Q” (John De Lancie), who puts Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) on trial for the “crimes of humanity.”

This episode, directed by Corey Allen, opens with a textbook perfect visual.  Captain Jean Luc Picard steps out from the shadows, and we get our first good look at the regal commanding officer who will soon step “out” of Captain Kirk’s shadow.   

At the same time as we watch the figure transition from silhouette to light, we hear the pleasing, authoritative cadences of Picard's voice.  They exude command and control, discipline and power. 

It’s quite an entrance, and a good example of Stewart’s ability to hold the camera and rivet one’s attention.  Picard is quite a commanding figure indeed, and the specifics of his on-screen introduction remain positively iconic.  

No one should doubt that casting a bald, British, middle-aged Shakespearean actor in the role of a (French) starship commander was risky in 1987.  

But from virtually image one of the series, Stewart shows that he’s got the chops, and the screen presence to pull it off.

A captain in the shadows...

..a hero emerges in the light.

Later in the episode, there is another visual that always thrills me.  Captain Picard welcomes Wesley Crusher (Will Wheaton) to the bridge of the Enterprise for the first time, and Allen’s camera adopts a first person subjective angle or P.O.V.  

In other words, the audience takes up the position of Crusher’s “eyes,” looking out across the command bridge for the first time.  Enticingly, Captain Picard enters the frame and asks Wesley -- and by extension, the audience -- if he’d like to try out the center seat, the captain’s chair.

This is an invitation one of us would resist, I suspect.  

In fact, many of us in 1987 had dreamed of just such a thing; of living inside the Star Trek world of optimism, brotherhood, and peace, and charting our own starship’s course for adventure and knowledge. 

It’s wonderful that, without it seeming like a cheap gimmick, the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation  pays heed to this deepest wish.  It’s a lovely visual touch, and one aimed right at Trekkers who had grown up with the franchise and come to respect Star Trek's philosophy.

"Try it out."  Every Star Trek fan's dream come true.
Another pitch-perfect moment occurs about half-way through “Encounter at Farpoint” when Lt. Data (Brent Spiner) escorts an aged Admiral McCoy (DeForest Kelley) through the corridors of the new Enterprise.  

The elderly Bones -- a dear, old friend with whom so many adventures have been shared -- reminds the android to treat the starship like a “lady” and that “she’ll always bring you home.”   This scene explicitly reminds the viewers of Star Trek’s heritage and history, and does so in a fashion that is funny and respectful.  

This scene represents a promise to the fans too. The new show is going to treat the franchise like a lady as well, this moment seems to promise. In other words, the dream is in good hands…

Treat her like a lady, and the Enterprise will always bring you home.
Also commendable in “Encounter at Farpoint” is the ultimate message of Farpoint and the Bandi, denizens of Deneb IV.  

They are so desperate to achieve their goal (support within the Federation) that they cut corners and hurt living, sentient beings to achieve success they aren't ready or equipped for.  

In other words, the ends justify the means, in their eyes. In the year of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and the age of rampant Yuppie-ism in America, this is a powerful message to convey; that getting there fast (but badly) is wrong, is less important than patience and morality.  It’s a great -- and indeed, remarkable -- philosophical foundation for The Next Generation to build upon.

Unfortunately, some of that valuable message gets buried in the Q subplot, which seems to eat up most of the time in the premiere story.  

This is unfortunate, because we have seen many aliens like the Q before in Star Trek history (in episodes such as “Squire of Gothos,”) and the Bandi story might have been much more interesting and dramatic if better developed.  I like "Q" as much of the next Trekker, but he tends to suck all the air out of the room.  

If he is present, he becomes the story, in other words.

Sadly, some of the performances here are not the best. The actors still had a lot of growing to do in their roles. Tasha Yar's defense of Starfleet, while impassioned, is embarrassing. It also smacks a bit of indoctrination. She tells people at the court that they should get down on their knees to worship what Starfleet is.  I respect Starfleet tremendously, but people should bow down to it? Is that really the Starfleet ethos?

I love Jonathan Frakes, but he is ramrod straight in posture, and absolutely wooden in delivery, here.

But of all the new cast members featured in "Encounter at Farpoint," Marina Sirtis likely fares worst as Counselor Troi.  The actress has been very blunt about assessing her performance in this episode, and I commend her for her honesty.  She shouldn’t feel bad, however, because clearly she grows in the role, and today Troi is beloved by fans for good reason. 

But in “Encounter at Farpoint,”  Troi looks like a “space cheerleader” and acts like an emotional basket case.  At every development of the story, Sirtis over-emotes as Troi, suggesting a dangerous personal instability.  She cries, she gasps, she grimaces…she’s way over-the-top. 

And the dialogue doesn’t help the actress out a lick.  

After Q freezes a crewman on the bridge and the audience clearly registers that he is frozen, Troi runs up to him and declares, dumb-founded “He’s frozen!”  In other words, she’s declaring the obvious, and thus comes across as stupid...again playing into the space cheerleader cliché.

Unfortunately, Troi's character became famous -- or rather, infamous -- during the first season for sating the obvious.

Also, Troi’s continual over-emoting robs the episode of some of its genuine, nuanced pathos. The climactic moment when the two space creatures are rejoined over Deneb IV stands quite well on its own without Troi offering emotional play-by-play about “great joy and gratitude.”  

Again, this is not personal. This isn’t Marina Sirtis’s fault. Her dialogue once more belabors the obvious, and puts a fine point on information that doesn’t need to be repeated, or spoken aloud

Looking back, “Encounter at Farpoint” is a strange mixture of boldness and timidity.  

It is bold in the way that it critiques 1980''s America, with Q appearing as Colonel Oliver North, essentially, and mocking unprincipled right wing "patriotism." Yet it is timid in the very concept that underlines Q: a Star Trek “God” rerun.   

In Star Trek, man is always being tested, it seems...

Similarly, "Encounter at Farpoint" is bold in the way it attempts to move the Star Trek mythos forward with new characters, yet timid in the way many new characters seem like Mr. Spock, only dissected into multiple pieces.

Consider Spock's pieces, in new beings: Data (outsider), Troi (with special powers of the mind) and Riker (as first officer) all seem like little slices of the half-Vulcan character.  About all you can say here, again,  is that each character grows into a full-fledged and unique individual over time.

Of all the new supporting characters, I feel that Dr. Crusher comes off the best in "Encounter at Farpoint."  

She’s not a crusty-McCoy doctor, but a bit prickly and edgy nonetheless.  I like her snarky put-down to Riker when she accuses him of ingratiating himself with the Captain, and then her eminently rational turnaround when she realizes he’s actually got a point. The message is plain: she’s not interested in shipboard politics, but knows when it’s time to do her job. I wish she had been written this way more often: as someone in firm command over her department and areas of expertise, but boasting a no-nonsense attitude when it comes to her interactions with others.

I remember after “Encounter at Farpoint” first aired, the response from my friends at high school was extraordinarily negative.  

Everyone hated it!  

I remember that one exceptionally bright (and dear) friend noted that too many of the new characters seemed to boast super powers (meaning Geordi’s vision, Troi’s psychic empathy and Data’s strength), and that everyone looked like they were dressed as superheroes.  He had a point.  You can argue the validity of having an indestructible android, a telepathic counselor and a helmsman with extraordinary vision, one-at-a-time, but taken in toto as a command crew -- and without knowing how these qualities would play out over a series -- it does seem a little like overkill.  

Isn't this supposed to be a show about the human adventure?

In the case of this series, however, patience paid off, and The Next Generation’s characters found their way, growing more likable, unique, and human over the span of several seasons.  “Encounter at Farpoint” may not be great, but overall it’s a decent shakedown cruise, especially for the iconic introduction of Picard, the affectionate ode to Trekdom (in the form of that POV shot on the bridge), and the promise of respectful care-taking of a proud history and legacy (represented by Dr. McCoy's admonition to treat The Enterprise -- and Star Trek -- like a lady.)

Next week, it's rehash time: "The Naked Now"  

Monday, November 20, 2017

Memory Bank: WWOR TV and Thanksgiving Monsters

When I was growing up in the New Jersey burbs during the seventies and early eighties there was a great Thanksgiving Day tradition that I’d like to share with you today, on the eve of the holiday in 2015. 

Every year, WOR Channel 9 would broadcast King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) on Turkey Day.

Then, on Friday, the same station would host a Godzilla marathon consisting of such films as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971) and many others. Some years, if memory serves, War of the Gargantuas (1968) also played.

I remember showering and dressing early on those Thanksgiving Days, so I could be lodged near the TV when the Kong movies started.  

Meanwhile, my Mom and Dad would be busy in the kitchen preparing a great meal of turkey, stuffing, baked carrots with cinnamon, and home-made biscuits. The house would fill with the delectable aromas of the feast, and even downstairs -- while glued to WOR-TV -- I could feel my appetite for dinner building.

Our guests, usually my grandparents and aunts and uncles, would arrive sometime in the early afternoon, around 1:00 pm and I would socialize with them, and then sneak back to the family room for more King Kong.  Sometimes my uncle Larry, a horror fan after a fashion, would join me.

Then the meal and dessert -- a chocolate cream pie and a pumpkin pie -- would be served, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company over the delicious food.  After an appropriate interval of visiting and socializing, I’d high-tail it once more back down the stairs to watch more of the movies.

I’m certain my description of Thanksgiving makes it sound weird and anti-social, but you must remember that in the seventies, there were no VCRs (let alone DVRs or movie streaming), which meant that if you wanted to see a movie like King Kong, you had to seize your moment, or else wait for another year.

I believe it took me the better part of four Thanksgivings to see all of King Kong, and then not even in chronological order.  I actually saw the entirety of Son of Kong first, perhaps because it was often scheduled between our early afternoon dinner and dessert course.

This tradition of King Kong Thanksgiving and Godzilla Black Friday continued over a long period at my house -- the better part of a decade -- so much so that I still irrevocably associate the Holiday season with WOR Channel 9 and its monster movie broadcasts.  

I still remember, a bit guiltily, forcing my parents to watch the seventies Godzilla movies on Fridays, while we ate Thanksgiving leftovers in the family room.  My folks liked the King Kong movies, but when it came to Japanese monster movies, they weren’t exactly big fans..

Anyway, if you decide to spend the holiday with giant monsters, make sure to bring the pumpkin pie...and Happy Thanksgiving.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Thumbs-Up

The “thumbs up” sign is a gesture of approval or satisfaction, at least in the United States of America. In some other countries and regions, however, the thumbs up is actually an insulting expressin, a gesture we reserve, here, for the middle finger. This is true in some areas of South America, Iran, Afghanistan, and Italy, for instance.

In cult-TV history, however, the thumbs-up sign has often been a funny sign of assent and agreement, but the gesture is also a trademark of two particular historic programs, in particular.

Happy Days (1974-1984), a nostalgic program about the 1950’s, introduced the character of the Fonz -- or Fonzie (Henry Winkler) -- who was the coolest person in existence. The Fonz wore a leather jacket, drove a motorcycle, jumped a shark, and indicated approval with his ubiquitous thumbs-up gesture. The Fonz became such a pop culture icon that his “thumbs up” image was seen on T-shirts, trading cards and other collectibles.

The other TV series to make frequent use of the “thumbs up” gesture, of course, is At the Movies (1982-86), which featured film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert giving their (often dueling) opinions of current movie releases.

A thumb’s up sign was also seen in the opening credits, each week, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989 – 1999) during the Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) era. Joel appeared in his red-jump suit and hard-hat, “cleaning up the place” (Gizmonic Institute), and giving his assent to the camera with the thumbs-up.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Thumbs Up!

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "A Piece of the Action."

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Space:1999

Identified by Hugh: Happy Days

Identified by Hugh: MST3K

Identified y Hugh: Twin Peaks.

Identified by Hugh: The Simpsons

Identified by Lonestarr357: The Animaniacs

Identified by Hugh: Mr. Bean

Identified by Hugh: The X-Files

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Identified by Hugh: Supernatural

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "The Crystallites" (September 13, 1975)

Barney (Chuck McCann), Junior (Bob Denver), and Honk (Patty Mahoney) run out of water on an alien planet.  Junior and Honk go out in a rover to find some of the much-needed liquid, but find colored alien coconuts instead. The milk inside tastes like chocolate.

Though Barney refuses to taste the milk until it is tasted, Junior shows no such restraint. After drinking the liquid, he transforms into a hairy green monster every time he sneezes.

Meanwhile, Trentor -- the leader of the Crystallites (John Carradine) -- spies on the stranded Earthlings and decides that they could be useful. In particular, he wants to transform Junior into a Crystallite, after making him king.  

The only downside is that Junior will be made of glass. And, well, that his role as monarch lasts only a day.

Honk and Barney escape from the Crystallites, and make Junior sneeze so that he can stop the attack of the Crystallites.

The second episode of the Sid and Marty Krofft live-action Saturday morning series The Far Out Space Nuts (1975) follows very closely the format of the first episode, “It’s All in Your Mind.”

Last week, it was a computer, G.A.L. that wanted to capture and absorb Junior. This week, it is an alien Crystallite, played by the legendary John Carradine, who has a malevolent plan for the clumsy Junior.  

In both cases, the alien leader has exactly three followers, who fly around on a hover device, and chase our heroic “space nuts.”

In this case, the Crystallites are also armed with transparent glass rods that can crystallize all living matter.  And the aforementioned hovercraft resembles giant salt and pepper shakers.

This episode also establishes that the space nuts have no weapons. When tasked with defending themselves, they resort to a tennis racquet, a beach ball, and a fly swatter.  Not very effective.  But these items create a secondary problem (and one that was frequently seen on Lost in Space [1965-1968]). 

What exactly are these items doing on a spaceship where there are weight limits, and space is at a premium? What’s the function, after all, of one tennis racquet, and a beach ball?

John Carradine is our villain of the week, and he acquits himself well, especially considering his silver costume and glitter make-up. Carradine makes for an effective bad guy, but it is sad to see an actor of his stature and reputation relegated to a cheap Saturday morning series, and a guest part like this one.

Finally, this episode is not as creepy as last week's installment, because the villainous minions "ham" up their act, slipping, and sliding, and exaggerating their zombie-like stomp to comic proportions.

Next week: “The Robots of Pod.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Trial of the Super Friends" (October 7, 1978)

The Super Friends defend a new energy source called “Liquid Light,” but the Legion of Doom soon steals it. In truth, the Legion has a far more insidious plan.

It uses its agent to capture the super devices of the Justice League, including Wonder Woman’s lasso, Green Lantern’s power ring, and the utility belts belonging to Batman and Robin.  The Super Friends are rendered powerless and transported to the HQ of the Legion of Doom.

There, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Caped Crusaders are put on trial and found guilty of defending justice. They are sentenced to fight android duplicates of themselves; but ones armed with their devices.

The heroes of the Justice League get a “taste of their own medicine” in “Trial of the Super Friends.” Deprived of their devices, they are forced to understand what it is like to be hunted by those who possess them.

This episode of Challenge of the Super Friends (1978) reveals more information about the Legion of Doom. For example, the members operate by their own set of laws, of what you might call “anti-justice.” In their eyes, the Super Friends are the criminals. 

Actually, their laws are pretty, well... Libertarian. They seem to object to the heroes on the specific basis that the heroes interfere in their plans to do whatever they desire.  Amusingly, the oath in this anti-legal system is “So help me, Grod.”  That’s pretty funny.

Secondly, we see that the Legion HQ has an operating transporter device that can beam people from one location to another. As with other devices, the series’ writers only remember this device sporadically, when a particular narrative requires it.

As usual, logic is not a strong suit. At one point, Green Lantern is without his power ring. That ring is creating an impenetrable green force field. But Green Lantern just reaches through it, and grabs it. Is this because he controls all green powers, even without the ring?  If that’s the case, why bother to steal the ring anyway?

Repetitive dialogue watch: This week, Cheetah gets the constantly repeated line, “That’s what you think.” She addresses it, in this case, to Wonder Woman.  Later, Superman repeats “That’s what you think” to Black Manta.

This line is constantly and tiresomely repeated, and, as we have seen, totally interchangeable. It’s a playground level taunt for first graders, used by protagonists and antagonists alike.

Robin’s exclamation this week is pretty amusing “Holy Mistrials!

Next week: “Monolith of Evil.”

Friday, November 17, 2017

JLA Week: Justice League (2017) Trailer

JLA Week: Smallville: "Justice" (January 18, 2007)

In “Justice,” Clark Kent (Tom Welling) is still busy rounding up Kryptonian criminals who have escaped from the Phantom Zone.  But when his old friend, Bart Allen (Kyle Gallner) -- the fastest man alive -- happens into Kansas, Clark is suspicious that something is up.

He’s right. 

Bart is now working in secret with Oliver Queen/Green Arrow (Justin Hartley), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Alan Ritchson), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Lee Thompson Young) to help stop Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), and his secret “33.1” program, which involves the capture and exploitation of those with unusual abilities. His plan seems to to create an army of "super freaks."

On his mission to learn more, Bart walks into a trap at the Luthorcorp Ridge Facility, and Clark attempts to rescue him, unaware that the same facility is refining the meteor rocks that are deadly to him. 

Fortunately, Oliver’s “Justice” league comes to the rescue, and destroys the facility.

This sixth season episode of Smallville (2001 – 2011) written and directed by Steve DeKnight, sets up the Justice League for future appearances on this long-lived superhero series. Indeed, the league would return with new members (like Black Canary) throughout the remainder of the program’s run.

We live now in an age when superheroes on film and TV are not shy at all about appearing on-screen in comic-book uniforms. Smallville emerges from the age immediately preceding that one (post X-Men 2000]) when this was not the case. There was some embarrassment, apparently, on the part of producers about the comic-book costumes. Accordingly, the Justice League featured here is not seen in uniform, but rather in colorful “hoodies” and designer eye wear.  

The Flash -- here called Impulse -- wears a red hoodie, for example. Green Arrow wears a green one.  In a nod to the character’s appearance in The Super Friends, Arthur Curry’s Aquaman in Smallville is seen in an orange shirt.  

It’s not a perfect solution, for certain, and today – post-Avengers [2012], the hoodies seem silly and unnecessary, when we could have seen the characters in their classic uniforms instead.

So how does “Justice” hold up today? 

Well, again, one must consider the historical context. Smallville arose from a TV era that gave us two brilliant genre series: The X-Files (1993-2002), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003). In those series, audiences saw monsters-of-the-week, and also a strong post-modern, or “meta” sensibility.  

The same is true for Smallville.  

Especially notable in this episode is the latter quality.  Oliver jokes that he wants to give his league something with the name “Justice” in it. Similarly, Clark notes he boasts some “pretty amazing friends,” which seems like a reference to the Super Friends version of the Justice League.  The whole episode is quippy and tongue-in-cheek, and yet effective dramatically in one very real sense.

What is that sense? 

Well, Smallville ran for a very long time, and had a very “slow burn” approach to its story arcs.  “Justice” is worthwhile because Victor, Arthur, Bart, and Oliver, of course, have all had special episodes devoted to their back-stories and abilities by this point. "Justice" is not their first appearance, but rather their first appearance together. Accordingly, there is a sense of history about each of the league members that we would not have had, if the series had not assiduously devoted time and energy to establishing their characters individually. That history pays off here.

And yes, the episode is a bit cheesy.   

I won’t write, as one character quips, that “disappointment abounds,” but clearly this is the Justice League on a live-action TV budget. The team’s most dramatic moment finds the group -- walking in slow-motion-photography -- in the foreground of a shot, as Lex’s facility explodes in the background.  The effects don’t hold up particularly well today, and the moment doesn’t make  any sense anyway. 

Oliver is still human, rather than meta-human, right? Wouldn’t he want to move quickly away from a fireball?  

Actually, the same thing holds true for Clark, since we know meteor rocks are on the premises, and would make for very dangerous shrapnel in an explosion of the size we witness.  But now, instead, we get a cool-for-cool’s sake moment.

The other disappointment, of course, is that Justice League as featured here lacks two of the most famous and notable members: Batman and Wonder Woman. Come to think of it, this Justice League, at this juncture, is all-male.

Still, I was a big fan of Smallville over the years, in part for the investment that Welling and Rosenbaum clearly put into their starring roles. 

So when “Justice” aired for the first time -- a decade ago -- I was thrilled to see the Justice League come together in live action.