Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"I don't need to be lectured by you. I was out saving the galaxy when your grandfather was in diapers. Besides which, I think the galaxy owes me one."

- Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Pop Art: Jigsaw Puzzle Edition

Friday, June 17, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #134: Doctor Who: "The Ark in Space" (1975)

Although it is actually the second serial of the program's twelfth season, an argument might well be made that the Tom Baker Era of Doctor Who truly kicks off in "The Ark in Space," a four part serial that first aired on the BBC in late January and early February of 1975.

The fourth actor to portray the famous time traveling "Doctor," Tom Baker followed on directly from the John Pertwee years,  a span wherein -- for a substantial stretch of time -- the renegade Time Lord from Gallifrey was trapped on 20th century Earth, unable to explore the universe.

That travel ban had been lifted previous to Baker's arrival, but "The Ark in Space" represents the fourth Doctor's first foray away from terra firma; and a harrowing one at that. "The Ark in Space" is also an early and prominent example of producer Philip Hinchcliffe's new template for the long-lived series, one that involved a dramatic shift towards more overt horror territory. 

Indeed, seasons 12 through 15 of Doctor Who --which still represents a kind of golden age for the classic series -- presented one outer space  horror-themed serial after another, with titles such as "Terror of the Zygons," "Planet of Evil," "The Pyramids of Mars," "The Brain of Morbius," "The Seeds of Doom," "The Masque of Mandragora," "The Hand of Fear, "The Face of Evil," "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," "The Horror of Fang Rock," and "Image of the Fendahl." 

In these tales, the universe itself seemed to take on a new, distinctly mysterious and dark aura.

"The Ark in Space" expertly sets that terrifying tone, and does so from the inaugural shot; a point-of-view perspective shot that reveals some kind of green-slime-covered monster attacking a sleeping human inside a suspended-animation chamber.  

Aboard the T.A.R.D.I.S., Doctor and his two companions, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) set down near the site of the attack, on a seemingly abandoned "artificial satellite," the space station called Nerva. 

The station is an example of "30th century construction," and the time/space travelers quickly discover that Nerva is also a "cryogenic repository" warehousing the survivors of the human race.  These poor souls have been asleep for some 5,000 years, following solar flares which devastated the surface of Earth.  Now, the "entire human race" awaits "a trumpet blast," to wake up, start over again, and re-populate the healed planet.

In an early portion of the first episode, the Doctor delivers a stirring speech about mankind and the species' possibilities, and his words bear repeating: "What an inventive, invincible species! It's only been a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable.  Indomitable."

However, those future pioneers of Earth now have a big problem.  An alien race called the Wirrn that the Doctor likens to "galactic wood worms" has infested the station.  The Wirrn swarm once lived in the Andromeda Galaxy but their "Old Lands" were seized by space faring human beings, and the giant bugs have been looking for a new home ever since.  Not to mention revenge.

The Wirrn plan to utilize the sleeping human race on Nerva as their primary food source, and more.  When they digest life forms, the Wirrn also absorb the knowledge of all such life, and so plan to become a "technological species" within one generation.

As his wont, the Doctor has once more stumbled into an inter-species battle for survival, and must pick a side for which to fight.  Given the quotation regarding mankind above, it's not too difficult to guess where his loyalties fall.  

But one delightful element of  "The Ark in Space" is that it isn't simply a serial about man vs. alien, or the Doctor racing to the rescue; much like the proverbial Time Traveler negotiating the breach between the Eloi and the Morlock.

On the contrary, this Doctor Who serial comments on an intriguing trend in the 20th century workplace that began in the 1970s and probably reached its peak in the mid-1990s. 

In this tale by Robert Holmes, the future humans in suspended animation are all workers with very specific assignments.  They are specialists, able to perform with great talent their assigned duties, and only their assigned duties.  They are advanced technologically, quite bright, and yet also rigid.   One woman named Vira (Wendy Williams) is a physician; the man named Noah is a leader, and so on. 

But beyond their specialties, these examples of future man are lost; diffident and vulnerable.  In real life, the debate was whether or not workers would be more productive simply doing one task, or multi-tasking.  In the Recession of the early-to-mid 1990s, the trend towards specialization largely faded out and multi-tasking -- the performance of multiple tasks by one person -- carried the day.   With layoffs and an epidemic of "down-sizing" (a new term in the 1990s) workers had to prove their flexibility and worth to companies looking to cut and slash.

"The Ark in Space" debates this issue, in the process considering every shade of each argument.  Vira is designated a physician, but when Noah, the team leader, is absorbed by the Wirrn, she must step up to the plate and take command.  It is not her nature, it's not her "job description," but fate has made these arrangements for her. She will either grow...or fail.

The Wirrn represent a strong contrast to the trend of specialization in the work place: they gain knowledge easily, through biological absorption and can pick up new talents, skills and data without re-education or any personal learning whatsoever.  They need only to...consume talented individuals to grow and fatten and prosper.  Because they are an insect culture, the Wirrn are also a hive mind.  And another word for that, of course, is "corporate entity."  So make any comparisons you wish there, between business executives and parasitic insects.

The more closely one studies "The Ark in Space," the more fully this debate about specialization in the human animal bubbles through to the surface.  In Part Four of the serial, for instance, Sarah Janes Smith -- a reporter by trade -- leaves her comfort zone behind in more ways than one by transporting an electronic cable through an egregiously tight vent shaft.  Like Vira, who becomes a sturdy and dependable commanding officer, Sarah adapts to the needs of the environment instead of sticking to one particular skill set.  Rather than specialize herself into oblivion, she grows and changes.  Again, this is gazed upon as an extemely valuable trait.

Yet there's a yang to this yin, as well.  An engineer named Rogan ultimately saves the day by releasing the docking clamps on a space shuttle containing the Wirrn.  Before he does so, Rogan tellingly informs the Doctor "This is my job," with the emphasis on the descriptor "my."  He meets his destiny by fulfilling the task he was trained to do.  He considers that task an oath, as we can see from his self-sacrifice. 

Similarly, Noah retains enough of his humanity to also fulfill his a leader.  In this case, he saves the humans by deceiving the Wirrn into space; to the outside hull of the station. 

Uniquely, Noah has not only fulfilled his compact with the humans, he has also, in a very strange way "led" the Wirrn as well.  Right off a cliff, so-to-speak. It's illuminating to consider that the humans and the Wirrns are both, at times in this four-part serial, led by one man: Noah.  This means, I suppose that once a leader, always a leader, regardless of the species one commands.  Once more, the idea being explored in "The Ark in Space" is training or career preparation as destiny. 

"The Ark in Space" diagrams the debate between specialization and multi-tasking quite fully, without ever lecturing or becoming pedantic.  The end point seems to be not that one approach is worlds better than the other, but only that flexibility and expertise are the keys to survival in any Darwinian struggle for survival.  The humans (and the Doctor) do adapt, and fight back against the Wirrn.  The same cannot be said for the bugs.

The Wirrn continue to live by their biological life cycle (eat, absorb, lay eggs, then start again) and in the end that's simply not enough to make them the dominant species. Possessed of a corporate mentality, they cannot, apparently, resist from following Noah (their metaphorical CEO, I suppose...), into disaster. There must be learning and adaptation for survival, this serial implies.

In terms of context, "The Ark in Space" is also fascinating because it reveals Dr. Who, along with Space:1999 (also premiering in 1975) at the spearhead of the movement to re-define space adventuring in darker, more grotesque terms than in previous TV efforts. 

In the late 1960s, Star Trek had beautifully and colorfully presented the idea of the United Nations in Space, with Cold War enemies such as the Klingons and the Federation, and each unaligned planet representing an island across a cosmic ocean, to either join the Federation, or team up with the enemy.  By the late 1970s, the paradigm shifted.  Space, in 1999 and the Hinchcliffe years of Who, no longer existed simply as an extended metaphor for East/West relations here on Earth. 

And at the end of the decade, of course, Ridley Scott's brilliant film Alien (1979) took the concept of outer space horror about as far as it could possibly go, with the riveting, gorgeously visualized tale of a "perfect" (and perfectly hostile) alien parasite.

If one were to gaze at episodes of Space:1999 such as "Dragon's Domain" (with an alien octopus inhabiting a derelict space ship...) and "End of Eternity" (featuring a malevolent alien kicked out an airlock, when there's no way to kill him), as well as "The Ark in Space," which posits a parasite co-opting human bodies for the furtherance of its life-cycle, the "seeds" of Alien are quite evident.  

Today, one scene in "Ark in Space" forecasts Alien especially closely.  Sarah Jane goes into that tight vent shaft, wearing a head set "two-way radio," while in another chamber crewmen monitor her progress going from "juncture" to "juncture." 

At one point, Sarah encounters the Wirrn, but they are (safely) on the other side of a vent grille.  In Alien, of course, Captain Dallas goes into the Nostromo's air duct, also wearing such a head set, and is monitored closely by Lambert and Parker, moving from "junction" to "junction."  He comes to a much unhappier end, than Sarah-Jane.

The point of this comparison is not to declare in any way, shape or form that Alien ripped off this TV show or that TV show, only that there was clearly something in the water in the 1970s, so-to-speak, moving space adventure in the direction of more dark, paranoid, chaotic imaginings. 

Perhaps it was the Energy Crisis that made all the difference: a global race for resources during a period of scarcity and market manipulation.  In many of these dramas, from "The Ark in Space" to "Dragon's Domain" to Alien, it is man himself who becomes the ultimate resource for otherworldly beings; to be used up, and rather maliciously so.

"The Ark in Space" sets the dark, ominous tone for much of Tom Baker's early tenure, and so there's a chilling, unsettling atmosphere to the entire enterpise.  In this story, man is dislodged from his home on Earth and sleeping in the ultimate "dark" -- outer space itself.  And worse, there really are hungry monsters under the bed, just waiting to get us. 

"The Ark in Space" exploits this universal fear well, despite a not-very convincing Wirrn monster costume, and succeeds in being suspenseful largely because it is well-written.  The Doctor goes on at length about the idea of being "digested" and "absorbed" by the Wirrn, and his colorful descriptions are more than enough to give those with a strong imagination a lingering case of the creeps.

By 1975, Doctor Who had been around for more than a decade.  But "The Ark in Space" is worth highlighting today in a cult-tv flashback because it nearly feels like a pilot for a new series; a purposeful and efficacious re-direction of Who from its more action-oriented, earthbound, James-Bond-like Pertwee phase towards more ominous imaginings about outer space, and man's possible future role in that mysterious and unsafe realm.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #133: Get Smart: "The Impossible Mission" (1968)

Would you believe...that more than forty years later, Get Smart (1965 - 1970) is still pretty damned funny?

This classic TV series from creators Buck Henry and Mel Brooks arrived on American television (first NBC, then CBS) at the height of the James Bond/secret agent craze of the mid-1960s. 

On television, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible ruled the air-waves, and Get Smart was a response to the fad, a situation comedy about the world's dopiest spy: Agent 86, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) of CONTROL.

Max's job was to battle the evil forces of K.A.O.S., and he did so with his partner, the beautiful and highly capable Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), plus the latest and strangest gadgets imaginable, including the ubiquitous shoe phone.  

Max's put-upon boss was The Chief (Edward Platt), and Smart also occasionally teamed with Agent 13 (Dave Ketchum), an undercover expert who would hide in the most unusual places -- including filing cabinets and tree trunks -- and Hymie (Dick Gautier), a kindly robot who had escaped from K.A.O.S. control.

To my generation, the oft-repeated gags on Get Smart have become legendary, particularly the shoe phone, and The Cone of Silence.  The latter, as you may recall, was a top-secret device to promote security and secrecy, but which never operated as it was intended.  

Don Adam's catchphrases, many of which originated on an earlier program, The Bill Dana Show (1963 - 1965) are also well known even today: 

"Sorry about that, chief," "Would you believe...," "I asked you not to tell me that!" and, of course,  "missed it by that much..."

My favorite of Max's catchphrases, however is the one that he used frequently to cover his own profound ignorance. 

Whenever Max was confronted with a new and deadly K.A.O.S. gambit, he would feign prior knowledge of it and quip, "Of course, the old poison needle in the phonograph trick," or "the old biplane hidden in the haystack trick."

Get Smart's "The Impossible Mission," which first aired on September 21, 1968, also showcases one of Get Smart's must entertaining proclivities: to parody elements of (then) popular entertainment.  Over the course of the program's five year duration, Smart battled a villain called Dr. Yes, for instance, joined up with bikers in "The Mild One," satirized Britain's The Avengers ("Run, Robot Run,") and so on.  Here, as the title makes plain, Mission: Impossible gets mercilessly riffed.

As the episode commences, Maxwell Smart visits a bus depot to receive his orders from a tape recorder hidden in a locker.  The Chief's recorded voice informs him that his mission is to recover an equation for "Helmunitis" -- a disease that can cause the extinction of the human race -- before "The Leader," a K.A.O.S. mastermind, can acquire it. 

At the end of the message, The Chief dutifully informs Max that the tape recording will self-destruct in five seconds. 

But six seconds later, there is a massive explosion that destroys several lockers. 

Yet the tape recorder is still whole and undamaged,  and it begins to loudly replay the secret message over and over again. 

At a loss, Max stomps on the recorder, to no avail.  Then he bashes it with a stick.  Then, giving up, Max attempts to tuck the still-yammering tape recorder under his jacket and leave the depot unnoticed...

After Max assembles his team, rejecting Alfred E. Newman, Tiny Tim, and the Mona Lisa as prospective candidates (another great riff on another trademark Mission: Impossible scene), he learns from an informant (Jamie Farr) that the equation he seeks will be transmitted over live TV during a nighttime special featuring a band called Herb Talbot and the Tijuana Tin. 

Using a self-playing "computer trumpet," Max infiltrates the musical act, even as 99 joins the show as a chorus singer.  All of the chorus, incidentally, is dressed as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

Soon, Max and 99 are discovered, and the Leader attempts to kill them.  The duo escapes in Little Tramp costumes, and Get Smart suddenly indulges in a lively, fast-motion salute to silent film comedy tradition. 

Before "The Impossible Mission" ends, Max proposes marriage to the love of his life, 99.  They then foil the Leader's plans together and defeat him by using "The old double door deception trick," which is actually pretty nifty, though I doubt Daniel Craig will be using it any time soon.

Finally Max offers a thoughtful requiem for the Leader.  "If only he had used his music for niceness instead of evil."

Yes Max, if only....

Watching Get Smart in 2011, it came as a shock to me just how much contemporary self-reflexive comedies such as The Simpsons or South Park owe this particular series. 

Get Smart confidently bounces from pop-culture allusion to pop-culture allusion with a sly, ingenious sense of fun that is widely emulated.  The gags come at lightning fast speed too, so that even if there's one that can't stick a landing, you're onto the next funny joke before you know it.  The many silly catchphrases serve as our point of identification or foundation in a free-wheeling format that bends and stretches, but never breaks

Yet even with a commendably fast pace and Adams rat-a-tat, staccato delivery (called "glicking," officially), Get Smart remains endearing because Adams and Feldon share a lot of chemistry.  Max fancies himself the world's most suave and debonair secret agent, and 99's tolerant, long suffering reply is universally, "Oh Max..."   Max and 99 (and Adams and Feldon in the respective roles) make for a charming, fun-to-watch couple.

I didn't see the 2008 Get Smart film so I can't comment knowledgeably on it, but I grew up with this version of the material and  so was pleasantly surprised, on recent viewing to see that it has grown up with me, as well.  Get Smart is still fresh and still funny.

So yes, I'm watching Get Smart with my son Joel...and loving it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) is widely championed as the finest of the Star Trek films featuring the original TV series cast, and for a multitude of good reasons. 

Yet, in many substantial ways, 1991's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, also directed by Nicholas Meyer, actively competes for that title too. 

The sturdy foundations of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are many.  First and foremost, the film features a strong literary bent that adds a new and even poetic sense of realism to Gene Roddenberry's far-flung, Utopian future.  Revolving around death and re-birth both personal and cosmic (vis-a-vis the Genesis Device), The Wrath of Khan never fails to prove deeply affecting.  And, of course, the film is endlessly exciting, a tense technological space duel between two evenly-matched opponents and starships.

While never a shallow copy of Khan (like 2002's Nemesis...) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country attempts a similarly ambitious alchemy.  This sixth film in the franchise grounds its tale of interstellar rapprochement in the Western literary canon (this time the oeuvre of William Shakespeare), as well as in current 1990s-world affairs, namely glasnost. Or as Leonard Nimoy called it, "the Wall coming down in space."  

The Undiscovered Country also reveals beloved Star Trek characters grappling with old age, and more specifically a hardening of their perceptions and sensibilities about the universe, a kind of metaphorical "death."   These aren't the idealistic, energetic young space adventurers we first met in 1966.  They have grown jaded, and more than a little cynical over the long decades.  As Captain Kirk notes to Spock in the movie, "I'm really tired," and you can detect that exhaustion in his carriage and in his gait.

But also -- with Star Trek's trademark sense of optimism about the future-- this sixth Trek film sends these aging  icons out to pasture in glorious, heroic, even transcendent terms.  They fly off into the proverbial sunset both literally and metaphorically.

Notably, Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country also obsesses on issues such as prejudice, death and "change," all while preparing franchise fans for the inevitable fact that "all things end."  These issues are woven into the very fabric of the film through the literate screenplay, the darker-than-usual, Gustav Holst-inspired musical score by Cliff Eidelman, and director of photography Hiro Narita's autumnal -- and then wintry -- visuals. 

Such qualities make the sixth Star Trek film a very good movie, but the film also functions ably as great Star Trek, re-visiting core (and sometimes very funny) concepts of the franchise one last time, and even bridging the gap between Trek Classic and The Next Generation.

An important factor in terms of critical appreciation for this final Trek movie also involves visual flourish.  On this front, The Undiscovered Country is undeniably the most confidently realized of all the Trek films, reveling in dramatic camera spins, suspense-heightening cross-cutting, and other tools of a formalist's quiver. 

In colorful, pulse-pounding fashion, the film emerges not just as a glorified TV episode then, but as a proper cinematic farewell to the most beloved and charming space heroes of a generation.

"Guess who's coming to dinner."

While cataloguing gaseous anomalies in Beta Quadrant, the U.S.S. Excelsior under Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) encounters a "subspace shock wave" of dramatic proportions. 

It originates from Praxis, a Klingon moon that serves as the Empire's "key energy production facility."

This event quickly reverberates in galactic politics.  The accident at Praxis, caused by "over mining and insufficient safety precautions," inspires the Gorkon Initiative, a move by the Chancellor of the High Council (David Warner) to seek peace with the Federation.  This peace, incidentally, will involve the dismantling of Starfleet star bases and outposts along the Klingon/Federation "Neutral Zone."

Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) volunteers Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the U.S.S. Enterprise as the peace initiative's "first olive branch."  Just three months shy of "standing down," Kirk is to escort Gorkon's vessel through Federation space to Earth, for a summit with the President of the United Federation of Planets. 

The idea of peace with the Klingons does not sit well, however, with several Starfleet officers, including Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters) and Kirk himself.  While Cartwright terms Klingons the "alien trash" of the galaxy, Kirk -- still bitter over the Klingons' murder of his son, David Marcus -- believes that Klingons can't be trusted.  He knows that there is an historic opportunity for peace, but wonders "how on Earth" history can get past people like him.

After an awkward state dinner between the Klingon delegation and the Enterprise staff, the peace process goes awry when it appears that Kirk's starship opens fire on the Klingon battle cruiser. 

The alien ship loses gravity, and in the ensuing chaos Chancellor Gorkon is assassinated by two helmeted hit men wearing Starfleet uniforms and gravity boots.  While attempting to ascertain what has occurred, Kirk and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are arrested by Gorkon's chief of staff, General Chang (Christopher Plummer) and held for trial.

Aboard the Enterprise, Spock and his Vulcan protege, Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall) attempt to clear Kirk's name and solve the mystery of Gorkon's assassination, even as Kirk and McCoy are found guilty of conspiracy and transported to Rura Penthe, a dilithium mine and penal facility deep inside the Klingon frontier, often referred to as "the alien's graveyard."

Kirk and McCoy contend with an alien "chameloid," Martia (Iman) on Rura Penthe as Spock and the Enterprise crew determine that a new Klingon weapon -- a Klingon Bird of Prey that can fire while cloaked -- was utilized to frame Kirk and the Enterprise.  It seems Klingons, Romulans and Starfleet officers are conspiring together to destroy the peace process, and maintain the current political status quo.

With the help of Captain Sulu and the Excelsior, Kirk and the Enterprise crew set out one last, grave mission: to stop the next assassination attempt, this one directed at the UFP President.

Unfortunately, there's a traitor in their midst...

"So...this is goodbye"
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country virtually obsesses on the idea of things ending; on the notion of inevitable change and the various human responses to such change.

This leitmotif is encoded right there in the film's sub-title: The Undiscovered Country. 

In Meyer's film, Gorkon defines Shakespeare's descriptor (Hamlet, Act III, Scene I) as being a reference to "the future."  

In fact, as we remember from Hamlet, "the Undiscovered Country" is a direct reference to death

I first saw this film while attending university, and my Shakespeare professor had fits over what he detected as the film's grievous mistake regarding this famous passage.  But it isn't actually a mistake, I submit.  Rather, the debate about "the Undiscovered Country" is part of the film's tapestry about two diverse cultures coming together without sacrificing each's sense of identity.  In "the original Klingon" version of Shakespeare, as the film makes plain, "the Undiscovered Country" may very well be the future.

So Star Trek projects an "Undiscovered Country" that is both death and the future.  In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the main characters -- good and bad -- battle over the direction of a future that few of them will actually live to experience (Spock is an exception, of course, given his extended Vulcan life-span).

In other words, this is a film which is both an "end" (a metaphorical death) for the beloved dramatis personae of Star Trek, and a bridge to a distant future as it is projected in the TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, set decades beyond Kirk's time.  Both realms, both destinations, are a mystery.

Given this backdrop, allusions to death, endings, and time's passage dominate Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  For instance, Chang quotes from Henry IV when he leaves the Enterprise:  "Have we not heard the chimes at midnight?" 

Again this quote re-contextualizes Shakespeare in terms well outside the Bard's original meaning.  Here, Chang is noting the lateness of the hour.  He departs the starship after a long night of drinking Romulan ale, but the hour is also late for Gorkon, and for peace.  In just moments, an assassination attempt which Chang orchestrates will be launched.  Chang is "marking" this anticipatory time with his quip to Kirk, and again, it portends death, change and endings.

In a scene set in Spock's quarters early in the film, Lt. Valeris studies a painting: a representation of the Biblical "expulsion from Paradise."  When Valeris asks Spock why he keeps this work of art in his quarters, he replies that the painting serves as "a reminder" to him "that all things end."  

Coming so early in the film -- one widely advertised as the final voyage of the starship Enterprise -- this discussion is of great significance too.  Here is Spock -- a character many of us grew up with -- accepting, his own mortality and the change of the status quo.  He soon tells Valeris that this journey represents his final voyage aboard the Enterprise as a member of his crew. 

The universe shall unfold as it should.  All things live and all things die.  All things end

 Even Star Trek.

Spock's acceptance and "faith" in a universe of change is contrasted strongly in the film with Kirk's stubborn refusal to brace change.  The good Captain admits in the film that he is "terrified" of change, of a world with "no neutral zone," where the Klingons are allies. It is almost easier, like Chang, to believe in the concept of "no peace in our time" than to accept the possibility of something new...and unknown.

Importantly, Gorkon is also an example of Spock's approach.  He begs Kirk, on his death bed, not to let matters "end this way."  Again, it's clear from the screenplay's obsessive language about endings that a chapter of history is closing and the future is up for grabs.

When such "death" or "ending" centric dialogue is coupled with visuals such as a doppelganger of Kirk being disintegrated (on Rura Penthe), one begins to detect how deeply this Star Trek movie treads into the territory of "the future."  Spock even asks, at one point, if both he and Kirk have grown "so old, so inflexible" that they have "outlived their usefulness."

His comment is a wonderfully wry one, reminding us that these beloved characters are people, not flawless Demi-Gods.  They make mistakes, they stumble, and they don't always do the right thing.  It's the most human portrayal -- apologies to Mr. Spock -- of the characters in any of the feature films.

And that humanity even extends to expressions of prejudice, as The Undiscovered Country ably notes.

In addition to Cartwright's description of the Klingons as alien trash, Kirk terms them "animals," and admonishes Spock to "let them die."  Chekov quips "Guess who's coming to dinner," a direct reference to director Stanley Kramer's 1967 film about race relations in America. 

In the same vein, Scotty argues that Klingons "don't place the same value on life as we do," creating a separate category for his enemies. 

These are repellent remarks, and yet they make a powerful point. Even heroic characters such as Kirk, Chekov and Scotty boast a blind spot when it comes to their opinion of "an enemy. " Can you truly begrudge Kirk his prejudice towards the Klingons, given his personal loss? 

We might not like or laud Kirk's attitude, but nor can we deny that it certainly makes sense from his perspective, and knowing his history.  The crew of the Enterprise has spent a lifetime battling the Klingons tooth-and-nail (and phasers and photons) and now, in a heartbeat, that life is over, and the Klingons are supposed to be friends and allies.  What does that sudden change do to their life's work, to their legacy?

As Kirk notes disapprovingly of his own behavior near film's end, he "got used to" the idea of hating Klingons.  It's easy to fall into a bad pattern like that, especially when you're unhappy.  And that, in some way, is how prejudice is born.

And this is one reason why I so much admire the original Star Trek, and this particular film.  The filmmakers have permitted the beloved franchise characters their own individual, politically incorrect viewpoints.  Why?  So Kirk and the others can learn through experience that their perceptions are dead wrong.  The Klingons are proud and can continue "being proud."  And they can do so without being the villains or "alien trash" of the galaxy. 

Later Star Treks, particularly The Next Generation took a different and far less dramatic, far less chancy tack.  There, the Enterprise crew became above such human flaws as prejudice, and so would meet and endlessly lecture less-advanced aliens about how they must live up to Federation ideals of equality, etc. 

The difference here involves how a storyteller chooses to construct a tale.  Either with the characters stagnant and therefore dull, having already learned everything they need to know, or with the characters in a constant state of flux and growth, learning and making mistakes as they go.

As Kirk once noted, "we learn by doing," and that expression is reflected in the storytelling of the original series and, occasionally, in the feature films.  It's more realistic, and more true to life, I submit, than TNG's direction.

I much prefer the Undiscovered Country approach, which permits the Star Trek characters both their foibles and an opportunity -- when confronted with a mirror -- to outgrow those foibles.  

My only wish on this front is that the makers of the Undiscovered Country had been able to more fully realize their original vision.  For instance, they wanted Saavik to be the traitor in the film.  The late Gene Roddenberry scuttled that idea, hence the creation of Valeris.  This substitution robs the final Star Trek film of what could have been one of the most powerful moments in franchise history.  It would have been a genuine shock to learn Saavik was a conspirator and that jaw-dropping moment would have electrified the movie. 

Ostensibly, Saavik would have hated the Klingons for the same reason that Kirk did: she was there on the Genesis Planet when they murdered his son.  She saw it.  She witnessed it all.  Kirk and Saavik both lost David, but only one of them would grow and come to take away a lesson about prejudice.  That would have a been a powerful side-by-side comparison, and the ultimate lesson about bigotry. If Kirk could past his resentment, why then, could not Saavik?  This is a missed opportunity on a cosmic scale.

As it stands, The Undiscovered Country never exactly makes a case for why Valeris should fear peace with the Klingons.  Kim Cattrall is engaging as the character, but there's no audience connection, no history to Valeris, and so it isn't a surprise that the "guest star" in this film is a bad apple.

It' a shame that in this case, some of Star Trek's greatest defenders and advocates couldn't see the larger picture.  That prejudice is universal...affecting even the most enlightened of us.  And also, optimistically, that prejudice can be overcome by facing change and the future head on. 

And if you don't think this is still a very big issue in America right now, you haven't been paying attention to the national discourse.

"There is an old Vulcan proverb: Only Nixon could go to China."

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is great Star Trek for so many reasons. 

First, it lives up to Star Trek's history in that it serves primarily, as a morality play.  It tells the story of a Captain Kirk who first stands in the way of history, and then, ultimately nudges it in the right direction by overcoming his own prejudice and personal shortcomings.

Secondly Star Trek uses a timely metaphor to dramatize that tale, namely the ending of the Cold War.  In the film, doomed Praxis, the key energy production facility, tracks as Chernobyl, the nuclear power plant that suffered a terrifying meltdown.  Gorkon tracks as Gorbachev, a man who took a chance on peace to save his people.  And Kirk is very much the conservative hawk (the Reagan or Nixon) who, in the end, unexpectedly finds himself the greatest warrior for peace. 

Now, regular readers of this blog are well aware that I am no Reagan fan.  But I also deeply admire the fact that the man grappled with reality, changed his mind, and grew.  Reagan began his tenure as President calling Russia "The Evil Empire," joked that "bombing begins in five minutes" on an open mic and erroneously claimed that a sub's nuclear missiles could be recalled after launch.  But by the end of his second term, he was Gorbachev's committed partner for world peace. Reagan walked back from the precipice and from his own, hawkish views of "winnable" nuclear war, as well.  It wasn't easy for him, and it wasn't painless.  His right flank savaged him, accusing him of giving up the nuclear store.  But Reagan fought for peace anyway, because he believed in the cause.   If that's not something to compliment one of my least favorite modern Presidents on, I don't know what is.

Going further, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country also refers to another Reagan era issue: the Iran-Contra Scandal.  Here, a rogue Colonel named West -- think of Colonel Oliver North -- conspires with intergalactic (international) enemies for an illegal policy.   Even Valeris's denial of involvement, "I do not remember," harks back to North's frequent invocation before Congress that he could "not recall" details of the alleged wrongdoing.

In addition to being timely, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country also ably serves the larger franchise (which at the time only included TNG and the movies) by providing the connective tissue between generations. 

In this film, we meet Lt. Worf's ancestor, Kirk's lawyer, also played by Michael Dorn.  And the writers of the film knowingly set the peace conference at Khitomer, a planet referred to in such TNG episodes as "Heart of Glory."  Beyond those small continuity touches, the film finally shows us the ambitious  last "piece" of Kirk's era: the turbulent story of how the Klingons and the Federation learned to begin trusting one another.

On a much more amusing note, Star Trek VI seems hell bent on recycling one last time many beloved tropes of the classic series.  Kirk gets to kiss a  very sexy (but weird) alien woman, Iman's Martia.  He is forced into hand-to-hand combat with an alien twice his size on Rura Penthe.  And, of course, James Tiberius even gets to face off against a doppelganger, as he did in series segments such as "Whom Gods Destroy" and "The Enemy Within." 

Then there are the submarine movie cliches the movie adopts for its final battle, as the equivalent of a German U boat (an invisible Bird of Prey) repeatedly strikes a surface vessel, the Enterprise.  We saw this idea originally in "Balance of Terror," but The Undiscovered Country outdoes even that remarkable episode in terms of spectacular effects and suspense.

And suspense is important, especially when we talk of a movie concerned with endings.  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier certainly had their moments, but overall they were also jokey, almost flabby affairs.   There wasn't much tension in those stories.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country corrects that deficit in spades.  It jauntily plays with the very idea that this is Kirk's last mission, and so every event, every battle, takes on a new importance.  These characters aren't coming back for another movie, so we wonder throughout the film...are they going to die

Have these characters "outlived their usefulness" not just to the Federation, but to the entertainment franchise itself?  This uncertainty, when combined with Meyers' dynamic cross-cutting, the mad pans, and the dazzling camera spins, makes for a highly suspenseful adventure, perfectly pitched.

"Second star to the right, and straight on till morning...

Everything comes together in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country's valedictory scene. 

Bones reminds the crew that it isn't against the law "to have feelings," and Spock expresses his feelings of disdain for Starfleet rather strongly:

 "If I were human, my response would be...go to hell.  If I were human," he says, at news of the Enterprise's de-commissioning.

And then Kirk gives his final order from the center seat.  "Second star to the right, and straight on till morning," an allusion from Peter Pan that concerns not death, or ending...but perpetual youth and immortality. 

The inference is that in overcoming his prejudice regarding the Klingons, Kirk has restored his own soul, his own youth and his own innocence.

And more so, that the Enterprise crew --- especially to those who love her -- shall remain forever young in our hearts, even as it sails into retirement and the history books.  That sense of youth is evident in the crew's ability here to change, grow, and surprise us even after twenty five years of going "where no man...where no one...has gone before."

"Second star to the right, and straight on till morning," is the perfect way to bid farewell to these characters.  As they contemplate the end of their journeys (a Never Never Land of its own), they do so not with cynicism and prejudice, but with hope, vigor and indeed, a charming, even awe-inspiring innocence.

So as you experience that final, lump-in-your-throat goodbye -- as the original starship Enterprise flies off into the sunset and our cherished  memories -- I challenge you to deny that, indeed, the franchise saved the best movie for last.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Mirror

Identified by Brian: The Twilight Zone: "The Mirror."

Left unidentified: Thriller: "The Hungry Glass"

Identified by Brian: Lost in Space: "The Magic Mirror."

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: "The Squire of Gothos."

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: "The Tholian Web."

Left unidentified: Survivors: "The Fourth Horseman"

Identified by Brian: Space:1999: "Seed of Destruction"

Identified by Brian: The Fantastic Journey: "Funhouse"

Identified by Brian: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Ardala's Return"

Identified by Brian: Dr. Who "Snakedance"

Identified by Nicholas Galvante: Friday the 13th: The Series: "Doorway to Hell."

Identified by Brian: Twin Peaks (Episode 29).

Identified by Brian: The X-Files: "Dreamland"

Identified by Meredith: Dr. Who: "The Girl in the Fireplace"

Identified by Dr. Howad Margolin: Smallville: "Transference."