Saturday, May 12, 2012

Poetry in Motion: The Ark II gallery

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Flies (September 11, 1976)

“For millions of years, Earth was fertile and rich. Then pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th Century. Only a handful of scientists remain, men who have vowed to re-build what has been destroyed. This is their achievement: Ark II, a mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge manned by a highly trained crew of young people. Their mission: to bring the hope of a new future to mankind.”

-          Voice-over narration for Ark II (1976)

With Jason of Star Command’s second season behind us, I’ve decided to feature the one-season, post-apocalyptic Filmation series Ark II as the subject of our next Saturday morning cult-tv series retrospective.  I actually started blogging the series once before, way back in December of 2006, but stopped after a few episodes.  Rather than resume where I left off, I’ve decided to simply begin again on the assumption that I’m a better writer now, and have more worthwhile observations to offer.  I hope I’m correct.

Ark II aired on Saturday mornings beginning September 11, 1976 and ran for fifteen 22-minute episodes. Like many science fiction TV efforts of the time, it was rather determinedly a “civilization of the week” program; meaning that each week, the diverse protagonists traveled (usually by a ground vehicle; sometimes on foot…) to a new and strange civilization.

Basically, it was Star Trek all over again, only without the U.S.S. Enterprise and outer space as useful backdrops.  With some variation, the format was seen in The Starlost (1973), Planet of the Apes (1974), Logan’s Run (1977) The Fantastic Journey (1977) and in the 1980s program Otherworld, to name a few examples. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry himself had attempted to take the civilization of the week formula to new heights with Genesis II and Planet Earth, two made-for-tv movie/backdoor series pilots from the early 1970s.

Although airing during America’s optimistic bicentennial year, Ark II was set in the new Dark Ages of 25th century, and focused on a large, impressive, high-tech tank-like vehicle, the Ark II, which traversed the wasteland in order to aid the survivors of an environmental disaster. In a hold-over from the popular youth movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ark II’s crew is described in each week’s opening narration as a “highly trained crew of young people.”

Specifically, the crew of Ark II consisted of the bearded Captain Jonah (Terry Lester), scientist Ruth (Jean Marie Hon), and young scholar Samuel (Jose Flores).  In a weird, unpsoken acknowledgment of Planet of the Apes’ continuing popularity, these young humans also traveled with a talking chimpanzee named Adam who could play chess and drive the Ark in a pinch.   

You may have noticed that all the crew names listed above arise from Judaism, and thus carry resonances beyond the obvious.  In the Hebrew Bible, Jonah was a “truth seeker,” which is a term you might use for the stalwart captain of Ark II.  Ruth was the name for a “companion,” in the same text, and Samuel was a man on the cusp of two eras, the last Hebrew judge and the first prophet.  Similarly, on Ark II, the young Samuel is a child of the Dark Age who will also live in the period of the New Enlightenment, or recovery. As for the ape, he is named for Adam, the first human male. 

The name “ark,” of course, calls up imagery of Noah’s Ark, the craft that repopulated the Earth after a disaster, the Great Flood.    

The first episode of Ark II is entitled “The Flies.” Written by Martin Roth and directed by Ted Post, it finds Captain Jonah recording his log entry numbered 1444. The Ark is patrolling Sector 83, Area 12, investigating a gang called “The Flies” that is responsible for “serious infringements on the rights of the others.” The assignment: bring “discipline” and “reason” into their lives.  The name “The Flies” conjures images of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1954), which also concerned a society of children.

Unfortunately for Jonah, the Flies – an interracial gang of youngsters – are entirely loyal to their leader, a rapscallion named Fagan and a scoundrel played by the one-and-only Jonathan Harris, Lost in Space’s Dr. Smith. Fagan is named after Charles Dickens’ famous Oliver Twist character Fagin, a “receiver of stolen goods” and man who encourages a life of crime in children, turning them into thieves.  In Ark II’s “The Flies,” Fagin and his group of thieves discover ancient poison gas canisters, ones that are still functional.

After capturing Jonah, Fagan takes the poison gas cylinders (and a gas mask to protect himself), and heads to the HQ of a local warlord Brack (Malachi Throne), who lives in the “the Village of the Lords,” actually the Ape City set from the live-action Planet of the Apes TV series and films. Fagan believes he has found “the ultimate weapon,” and attempts to wrest control of the warlords from Brack. Brack beats Fagan at his own game, however, and captures the Flies, forcing Fagan to forfeit his leadership

Ruth, Samuel and Adam save Jonah and free Fagon and the Flies from warlord subjugation.  They also retrieve and dismantle all the dangerous gas canisters without ever resorting to violence. Instead, they neutralize the gas and change it into nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

Finally, the episode ends with a moral statement from Jonah: “weapons man creates to use against others can easily be turned against himself.”

Although the series I nearly forty years old the look and production design of Ark II remains admirable.   The main cast, for instance, wears skin-tight and attractive space-age uniforms with computerized belts and cuffs (replete with wrist communicators). One can see how this design influenced later Star Trek outings, including The Motion Picture (1979).  Also the exterior, post-apocalyptic set design is kind of interesting: a mix of the Old West, Vikings, and the aforementioned Planet of the Apes. Interestingly, Ark II presages the barbarity and chaos of The Road Warrior (1981) on a TV budget and within TV restrictions.

The Ark II itself, built by the Brubaker Group, remains a remarkable piece of hardware, a life-size, operational vehicle. It looks thoroughly convincing….especially in motion. In the series, this high tech truck is equipped with a protective force field.  The Ark II also billets a smaller exploratory vehicle, the fast-moving roamer.

I find it fascinating that Ted Post directed this premiere episode of Ark II.  A veteran director of The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller, his movie career had taken off in the early 1970s with Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force (1973).  Given this impressive CV, it’s odd that, by 1976, Post was helming Saturday morning television.  He does a good job handling the actors and action in “The Flies,” and of introducing all of the various tech, from the Ark itself, to the roamer, to Jonah’s rocket pack (which looks identical to one used on Lost in Space years earlier.)

Next week on Ark II: “The Slaves.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Can one bad concept, executed poorly, scuttle an entire movie?

That's the primary question to ask regarding the seventh feature film to boast the Star Trek name, 1994's Generations.

As Trekkers no doubt recall, Generations offers the irresistible lure of combining two generations of franchise characters and two exceedingly popular casts.  The film's prologue is set in the 23rd century days of Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and crew (in this case meaning Scotty and Chekov), while the movie proper is set some seventy-eight years later, in the era of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his stalwart crew (Riker, Data, Worf, LaForge, Crusher, and Troi).  The film's climax stirs the ingredients together and brings forth both Kirk and Picard to double-team the film's nefarious villain, Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell).

This sounds like a slam dunk formula for space adventure success, no? 

It is, perhaps, until you consider the mechanism by which the two generations are combined.  While all Star Trek films feature flaws of one type or another, Generations endures seismic contortions to bring together two captains from disparate eras, in the process creating a narrative sinkhole from which little emerges unscathed. 

That sinkhole is called "The Nexus" or "the energy ribbon," and the script -- in true TNG techno-babble fashion -- generically describes the outer space phenomenon as a "conflux of temporal energy" that passes through our galaxy every thirty-eight years or so. 

Alas, the Nexus is perhaps the most inconsistent plot device to feature prominently in a Star Trek film, thus causing many more problems than it solves. And because it plays such an important role in the film, logical questions about it are not easily side-stepped or avoided.

In addition, the screenplay by Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga feels schizophrenic.  The book-end scenes involving Captain Kirk  are filled with wit, nostalgia, pathos, and real humor, but the middle sections of the film are slow, tedious and lugubrious. Brent Spiner's delightful Data is transformed into a clown and a coward by the addition of an emotion chip, and the script badly mishandles the noble Captain Picard too, making him seem emotionally unstable and a sexist prude.  As a feature film introduction to these beloved franchise characters, Generations serves both heroes poorly.

Yet despite such problems, Star Trek: Generations features many memorable and enjoyable moments. The exciting prologue reveals the inaugural flight of the U.S.S. Enterprise B,  and there's also an impressive action scene involving a saucer separation and planetary crash.  Generations also presents a laudable thematic leitmotif about mortality.  It's not what we leave behind that's important, establishes Captain Picard, but "how we've lived" that matters.  Picard, Kirk and Soran -- in various ways -- all embody this search for meaning in life. 

In terms of its cinematic appeal, Generations re-uses the familiar TV sets, but cinematographer John Alonzo does a brilliant and beautiful job of up-fitting them for the silver screen.  The cinematic lighting of these familiar sets lends a beautiful and affecting sense of melancholy to the dramatic proceedings.  Some scenes are literally bathed in apricot sunlight, as though a golden age is burning out, coming to a rapid end.  This too fits both the movie's narrative (which witnesses an end to Enterprise-D) and the thematic drive, which suggests that "time is the fire in which we burn."

I've re-watched the first five seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the last year or so as part of my continuing retrospective of the series, and discovered a new appreciation for the I didn't expect to find, but did.  Yet love The Next Generation or hate it, Generations is not a high point in the franchise, rather a testament to the difficulty of moving beloved characters from one format to another.

The New York Times' Peter Nichols noted that Generations is "flabby and impenetrable in places, but it has enough pomp, spectacle and high-tech small talk to keep the franchise afloat."  I largely agree with the reviewer in terms of the movies flaws and strengths.  Generations really is flabby  (feeling overlong and confusing) and impenetrable (largely because of the Nexus), but the film is also, often, quite spectacular in visualization.  

"A quick run around the block..."

In the 23rd century, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Captain Scott (James Doohan) and Commander Chekov (Walter Koenig) board the U.S.S. Enterprise-B for its maiden voyage, a short sojourn around the solar system. 

Unfortunately, two El-Aurian ships carrying refugees to Earth have become caught in "The Ribbon" -- a dangerous space phenomenon -- and require rescue.  The Enterprise, under Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck) is not prepared to meet the challenge, but Kirk and his team step in.  Several El-Aurians are rescued, including Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) and Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell) but during the rescue attempt, Captain Kirk is lost and presumed dead.

Seventy-eight years later, the crew of the Enterprise-D celebrates the promotion of Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn).  Even as Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) receives grave news regarding his family on Earth, the android Data (Brent Spiner) attempts to become "more human" by installing and activating his emotion chip.

The Enterprise receives a distress call from a nearby Federation facility, and discovers that it has fallen under attack, apparently by Romulans.  A lone survivor is Dr. Soran, who is now working on a powerful Trilithium device -- a weapon that can destroy stars -- to shift the path of the Ribbon.

As Picard learns, Dr. Soran actually wishes to return to the Ribbon, so that he can enter into an alternate dimension called "The Nexus," a world of fantasy and bliss where his family still exists.  Allied with Klingon renegades Lursa and B'etor, Soran hopes to destroy the sun in the Veridian system even though it means the deaths of millions of intelligent life forms, and thus rendezvous with his loved ones.

Picard attempts to stop Dr. Soran on a desolate planet surface while Riker battles the Klingons in orbit.  After Picard enters the Nexus, he realizes he must enlist the help of the legendary Captain Kirk...

"Time is the fire in which we burn..."
Star Trek: Generation's problems begin with the concept of the Nexus.  It is a ribbon of energy that travels the galaxy.  If you happen to be touched by the Nexus, you are transported to an alternate reality without time in which your thoughts dictate reality.

The Nexus/ribbon is incredibly intriguing in concept, and I've always appreciated outer space mystery films that deal with altered realities, such as Solaris.  Indeed, you get the sense that this kind of depth is precisely what Generations was aiming for.

The problem is that the rules governing the Nexus are inconsistent.  Follow the logic with me:  According to Guinan (Whoopi Goldbeg), you can't go to the Nexus.  The Nexus must come to you.  This is why the film's villain, Soran, is using Trilithium, a quantum inhibitor, to destroy stars.  The accordant changes in gravity in the aftermath of the star's destruction offer the opportunity to re-direct the ribbon to a planet where Soran is waiting.  There, he can be absorbed by the Nexus and returned to his family.

Yet, at the beginning of the film, Captain Kirk is absorbed into the Nexus (and assumed dead by the rest of the galaxy) after the Enterprise-B enters the Ribbon.  So in this case, you can go into the Nexus.  You can get to it by ship, directly contradicting Guinan's spoken testimony and Soran's belief that there's "no other way" to get inside the Nexus. 

As has been asked by many fans on many discussion boards, why can't Soran merely fly a ship, or a thruster suit into the Ribbon, just the way the Enterprise B flew into the Ribbon?  If, for a moment, I were to buy this whole "it has to come to you" deal, why not park a spaceship in front of the Ribbon, turn off your engines, and let it just happen.  Same thing with a thruster suit. 

Bluntly stated, there is no need for Soran's over-complicated plan to put millions of lives in danger by destroying stars.  It's all a false threat and a contrivance. The film demonstrates, through Kirk's disappearance, that you can go to the Nexus, and that it doesn't have to come to you.  Are we supposed to believe Guinan and Soran, or our own lying eyes?

The next inconsistency arises over the use to which the Nexus is put.  Apparently, since the Nexus can shape reality according to thought, those trapped in the Nexus can choose to leave it any time, and return to any point in the timeline.

In the film, Picard solicits the aid of Captain Kirk and opts to return to the point five minutes before Veridian III is destroyed, to stop Soran.  Why would he choose this particular time, and not a day earlier, in Ten Forward, when he first meets Soran aboard the Enterprise?  Worf's security men could thus arrest Soran, and two star systems would survive.  There would be no casualties, either.  The Enterprise wouldn't get destroyed. End of story.  Why would any person in his right mind -- let alone an incredibly intelligent starship captain -- choose to return to a point  in time wherein Soran already holds all the cards, and the die is cast, as they say?

And there's more. When Picard and Kirk return from the Nexus, they are very quickly outmatched.  In short order, it appears that one of them will have to sacrifice their life on a rickety bridge atop a hill to stop Soran from destroying the star. Thus, I submit, Kirk and Picard should have put their heads together for about five seconds and determined to let Soran win, and permit the Nexus to take them again.  Why?  They're losing.

They can go back into the Nexus, leave again, pick another time to return to the real universe, and make a second, hopefully better-planned run at Soran.  The Nexus, in fact, offers the possibility of infinite do-overs.  It seems criminal to lose Kirk permanently in this story, when the Nexus allows characters to rewrite time again and again.  I have a difficult time believing that the two best Captains in Starfleet history couldn't engineer a solution, together, that would spare both their lives and save the universe, given the Nexus's unique temporal properties. 

In short, never has a gimmick in a Star Trek movie been quite so...gimmicky. The Nexus is a black hole of plot contrivance that sucks away all the good will the film generates.  And it's not like that good will is that abundant in the first place, in part because of the film's sour and off-key depiction of the hero.

The Measure of a Man: The depiction of Captain Picard in Generations.

What I appreciate so much about Captain Picard is that his character was conceived as a man and as a captain very different from Captain Kirk.  We didn't need an imitator...we needed a successor with his own style, approach and personality.  That's  precisely what the writers and Patrick Stewart gave us in the TV series.  That fact established, Captain Picard as he was in the series is not an easy fit for a Star Trek movie.  He is introspective, occasionally morose, emotionally detached from his crew, and not at all the standard action hero type.

In the series, Picard was always much more effective as a traveling diplomat and mediator than as a starship commander in combat situations.  He surrendered the Enterprise in two of the first four episodes of the series ("Encounter at Farpoint" and "The Last Outpost"), and got his clock cleaned by an eighty year-old, broken-down starship in a war game scenario against Riker in "Peak Performance."

But Picard's admirable intellectual and diplomatic qualities don't really get audiences behind the character in a bigger film setting.  When a Klingon Bird of Prey de-cloaks off the port bow of the Enterprise, Picard's response here is simply a befuddled "what?!"  He can't even conceive of the possibility that a Klingon ship could be lurking nearby.  He thus appears unimaginative.  Just compare Picard's confused, ineffective response in Generations with Kirk's decisive reaction to a cloaked Klingon Bird of Prey in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984).  Kirk spots the ship before it de-cloaks, and gets in the first licks with photon torpedoes.  Is competence in the center seat too much to expect of Picard?

In Generations, Picard is also handily defeated in hand-to-hand combat with Soran. He fails to stop the scientist's dastardly plan, and must resort to cajoling Kirk back into action.  Then, Kirk fights Soran and ultimately dies trying to reach a remote control (yes, a remote control).  So not only does Picard fail against Soran once, but the second time around he also gets a Starfleet legend killed because he can't handle himself in a fist-fight.   Remember, he's supposed to be the film's hero, and again, the portrayal isn't very flattering.

To top it all off, when at film's conclusion Riker notes that he never had the chance to captain the Enterprise, Captain Picard says, essentially, "don't worry...we'll get another one!"  (Really: "I doubt this will be the last starship to carry the name Enterprise).  Again, contrast Kirk's feelings of guilt and remorse over the destruction of his beloved starship in The Search for Spock with Picard's nonchalant, off-handed response in Generations. The impression is that Picard couldn't give a damn that the Enterprise is destroyed. He's lost ships before (the Stargazer), has done so again, and well, he certainly appears confident he'll get another shot at command, I guess.  The script provides Picard not one word of regret that the Federation flagship has been destroyed.  And he doesn't tell a soul, either, at least on screen, of Captain Kirk's noble sacrifice.

Then, bafflingly, after the moving death of Kirk and the destruction of the Enterprise, the film stops for an emotional scene in which Data cries after discovering that his cat, Spot, still lives.  I wonder why the film could not have stopped, long enough, to feature a memorial service for Captain James T. Kirk, with a moving eulogy delivered by Jean-Luc Picard.  Picard is a man more of words than action, and such a moment would have played to his strengths as a character; his intellect, his ability to contextualize a situation in terms of history and philosophy.   If we get tears and sadness over a cat, why not tears and sadness over a legendary starship commander's sacrifice?

I maintain that the reason so many fans hunger for the return of William Shatner as Kirk today is because Generations failed so spectacularly to bring adequate closure to the character.  He dies in virtual anonymity -- as if he were never there -- on a distant, unheard of planet.  Had Picard eulogized him in a formal service, describing how he had "made a more time," the fans would have felt that their hero had been treated with at least some decorum and respect.  His life could have been contextualized and rendered meaningful.

I'm still not through complaining about how Picard is treated in this film, either.  Early on, he is given the news that his brother and nephew have died, and indeed, how awful.  We get a long dialogue scene wherein he weeps and discusses at length the end of "the Picard line."  This is why we see a Star Trek movie, right?  To watch a character weep in his quarters over the death of family members.  Is Picard so hopeless at interpersonal relationships that he's given no thought to the idea that he could still have a child?  And isn't it rather selfish to be worrying about the end of the family line when his sister-in-law has lost something a lot less abstract, namely her husband and son?  Something about this whole scene is way off, in terms of Picard's character.  He comes off as inappropriately concerned with himself.

And then the final straw is Picard's Nexus fantasy.  Here, he visits a nineteenth century world, where a prim and proper Victorian woman -- one we've never seen before -- is his wife.  She wears a traditionally frilly 19th century dress and pretty bows and ribbons in her hair, and she dutifully dotes on Picard and his brood of children.  So, we are meant to believe that this brilliant man of the 24th century secretly longs for a demure woman of the 19th century; one to keep his home clean and raise his kids,  You wouldn't know that he was such a traditionalist from his previous attraction to the rogue, Vash, or from his relationship with Lt. Commander Nella Darren (Wendy Hughes) in "Lessons."  Do the writers here remember the episode "Family," wherein Picard was defined as the brother who looked to the stars and the future, while his brother was the conservative traditionalist who looked to the past?

In the choice of fantasy mates for him, Generations transforms Picard -- the intellectual renaissance man of the future -- into someone who appears sexist to us, now, living here in the 21st century.  It's a ridiculous choice of fantasy for the character, and one that suggests the writers -- after writing for him for so many years -- have no absolutely no idea who he is.  The woman in Picard's fantasy should have been a woman that he respected: Dr. Crusher.  She is a match for him in terms of intellect, opinion and physicality. Why wouldn't Picard imagine her as his dream woman, particularly after the events of "Attached?" More importantly, why wouldn't the writers think of Beverly Crusher, now that they were now longer constrained by the "no change" edicts of a weekly series, where you must keep everyone available for future dalliances with sexy guest stars?   Frankly, in this Generations scene Picard comes off as infinitely more sexist than Captain Kirk ever did.  Kirk may want to screw every woman that moves, but Picard apparently desires a chaste doormat for a life partner.  Again, it doesn't ring true of the man we'd known for seven years and over a hundred adventures.

I also submit that Data is done a grave disservice in the film, begging for his life from Soran, and cackling like a madman.  His belief that his "growth as an artificial life form has reached an impasse" is an interesting element on which to hang a story, but making the android a court jester and sniveling coward hardly does the character a service.    What's the point?  That to be human is to be an obnoxious, smug jerk?

Again, this judgment is not a reflection on Brent Spiner or on the character of Data as seen in the TV series overall; just a comment on the quality of writing and decision-making that informs Generations.  

"You know, if Spock were here, he'd say that I was an irrational, illogical human being by taking on a mission like that. Sounds like fun!" 

I haven’t pulled many punches here regarding Star Trek: Generations.  The film doesn’t work in terms of science fiction premise, in terms of internal consistency and logic, or in terms of the main characters, primarily Picard.  But, the film does succeed on at least two other  specific fronts: spectacle and commentary on human nature.

It’s funny that Trek fans dislike Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) when, in many ways it felt true to the almost tongue-in-cheek spirit of the original series.  But that film also committed the cardinal sin of being very poor in terms of special effects presentation.  By contrast, Generations doesn’t really capture the spirit of The Next Generation, but proves absolutely thrilling in terms of visual presentation.  The section of the film devoted to the Klingon gambit to destroy the Enterprise is absolutely enthralling, and as jaunty, fun and engaging as any moment in the movie canon.  Furthermore, the separation of the saucer section and subsequent crash on the planet surface is rendered in breathtaking and tense terms.  These moments capture the Star Trek spirit beautifully, particularly Data’s unexpected expletive (“Oh shit…”) as the sequence begins.  A sustained set-piece, the crash of the Enterprise is something that fans have desired to see dramatized for years, and Generations doesn’t disappoint.

William Shatner and Patrick Stewart also prove delightful together in the film.  It really is great to see these two men stand shoulder-to-shoulder, working together and playing off one another.  I only wish the script didn't have to go through so many contortions of believability and logic to bring Picard to Kirk.  People can criticize Shatner's acting all they like, but I find his final moments in the role -- his acceptance of death -- immensely moving.  

I also must acknowledge that Moore and Braga have done an admirable job weaving together some of the thematic, human elements of this particular tale.  In one way or another, Kirk, Picard and Soran all grapple with their mortality, and their legacy in Generations.  For Kirk, he’s done nothing in the Nexus that matters, and to him a life without meaning is not worth living.   It is better of him to die having achieved something important.   Picard, meanwhile, has never devoted his considerable energies to family, and now he wonders if upon his death, he’ll be remembered at all, or if the Picard name will be consigned to dead (rather than living…) history.  And Soran, of course, wants to escape the bounds of mortality and live forever with his loved ones in the nexus.  His legacy is to be remembered here, in reality, as a monster.  Each one of these characters must contend with life and death in Generations, and a viewer can see how that thread affects each of them.  Again, I’ve been tough with the writers here, but in having three primary characters grapple with aging and mortality, Generations certainly aspires to be Star Trek at its best.  The film has something meaningful and true to convey to all of us.  How do we look at the passing of time?  Are our lives burning up as the days and hours pass? Or are we building up a legacy that will inspire those who come after us?

So Generations is visually gorgeous (perhaps second only to The Motion Picture in terms of cinematic appeal) and certainly, it hopes to be more than just another movie chapter in Trek history.  Yet the film stumbles over Kirk’s legacy. How can we know that Kirk’s life meant something important if Picard doesn’t share his sacrifice with his own crew and contextualize his sacrifice for us? Generations also trips over Picard’s character, making him seem selfish, incompetent, and sexist.  And the contrived nature of the Nexus damages the film’s sense of credibility and logic almost beyond measure.  The concept is confusing and confused, and Generation suffers mightily for it.  As I noted above, the film feels schizophrenic, lunging from a weeping Picard to a psychotically-humorous Data, and back again.

I am now and shall always be a Star Trek fan.  But Generations is not the franchise’s finest hour, and in fact, I rank it very near the bottom of the movie pantheon despite the occasional moments of tremendous spectacle and the worthwhile message regarding mortality. Good thing First Contact (1996) came next.

Movie Trailer: Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived. After all Number One, we're only mortal."

- Star Trek: Generations (1994). 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Best and Worst Moms in Cult-TV History

Cult-television has a thing or two to say about moms, and as Mother’s Day approaches this weekend, it seems a good time to recall the best and the worst of the pantheon. 

In terms of figuring out which is which, we can define a good mother as one who brings up her children with care and attention, who loves unconditionally, and who places highly in her life the needs and desires of her sons or daughters. She does so with a careful eye that the child grow up neither selfish nor indulged, but rather healthy, and a productive, a contributing member of society.

The Worst:

6. Lwaxana Troi (Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987 – 1994]).  The late Majel Barrett Roddenberry often called the ebullient Lwaxana “Auntie Mame” in space, and unlike many other moms on this list, the Betazoid Ambassador to the Federation isn’t actually evil.  But man, she sure is difficult to deal with. 

Every time Lwaxana boards the Enterprise, she flirts openly, aggressively, and embarrassingly with Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart)…her daughter Deanna’s boss, essentially.  Worse, Mrs. Troi is personally hurtful to Deanna (Marina Sirtis), diminishing her adult daughter as “Little One” and constantly blaming her for not having a husband, or for ruining things with Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes).   

Lwaxana Troi is also egotistical and elitist, constantly referring to her noble heritage as “Holder of the Scared Chalice of Rixx,” and “heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed"   In Star Trek's enlightened future, she is also cavalierly thoughtless to her put-upon servant, Mr. Homm.  Troi even thinks that speaking (rather than communicating telepathically…) is for lower life forms, including humans.

Sure, Lwaxana isn’t evil, but she absolutely makes her daughter’s life miserable every time she sets foot aboard ship, either arranging an unwanted marriage (“Haven”) for Troi or demanding adherence to (annoying…) Betazoid customs.   Lwaxana is a domineering and annoying mother.   You may love her, but being around her is hell.  Certainly, Counselor Troi turned out well, but seeing her mother, you wonder how, precisely, that happened...

5. Endora (Bewitched [1964 – 1972]). Endora (Agnes Moorehead) is a mother-in-law who is, literally, a witch.  Furious that her beloved daughter Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) has married a mere mortal, Darrin (Dick  York/Dick Sergeant), Endora constantly second-guesses and criticizes her adult daughter’s choices.  Like Lwaxana Troi, she can't quite see her child as an adult.

Endora always refuses to acknowledge Darrin by name, and mocks him with cruel nick-names all the time, such as “Durwood.”  Endora also casts cruel spells on her son-and-law, and hates all mortals, reveling in their humiliation at her hands.  

Again, the mighty witch Endora might not, technically, be evil, but she clearly doesn’t respect or support her daughter’s ability to make her own choices, or find her own way to happiness.  For Endora, it's her way or the highway.

4. Henrietta Walker (The Twilight Zone [1959 – 1964). In the memorable episode “Young Man’s Fancy,” a mama’s boy named Alex Walker (Alex Nicol) has just married a beautiful long-suffering woman, Virginia (Phyllis Thaxter) after twelve years of making her wait for him. On their honeymoon, he takes her to…his dead mother’s house to reminiscence about the good old days with dear old mum, Henriettea (Helen Brown).  Virginia wants to sell the house and get started on a new life…not to mention get busy with her new husband, but Alex just can’t stop thinking about how great his Mother was.  

In no time, Henrietta – from beyond the grave – stakes a claim on her adult son's life.  Instead of allowing him to move on and have a life and family of his own, Henrietta tightens her maniacal grip and actively competes with Virginia for the man’s affections.  By episode’s end, Alex has physically reverted to his twelve year-old self, and his new wife abandons the house at a run, never to return.  Momma Henrietta is victorious, and her son is now permanently infantilized.  As a mother, she cares more about control and dominating her child then ensuring that he is happy.  How selfish.

3. Eleanor Dupres (V [1983]).  Mike Donovan’s (Marc Singer) mom, Eleanor (Neva Patterson) is a real barracuda.  In both V and V: The Final Battle (1984), she proves her infinite flexibility by always switching to the top dog at the right moment, whether that top dog is wealthy industrial Arthur Dupres, or Steven, a fascist lizard from outer space.  

A happy collaborator, Eleanor is concerned primarily with her status among the 1 percent.  She is rich and powerful and wishes to stay rich and powerful.  To achieve that goal, Eleanor would turn in her grandson, Sean, to the Visitors and even attempt to shoot her own son, Mike. 

Eleanor gets her comeuppance when her shift in loyalties comes too fast, and the Visitor Steven witnesses her selling him out to the resistance.  He kills this evil, collaborating, lizard-loving Mom, and it's a fair bet that her son won't miss her one bit.

2. Xhalax Sun (Farscape [1999 – 2004]).  Aeryn Sun’s (Claudia Black) mother, Xhalax Sun (Linda Cropper) once showed her young daughter an inkling of kindness by going to the child by night and confessing to her that she was conceived out of love, not by Peacekeeper edict.  But when Xhalax's act of decency was discovered, the officer was given an unenviable choice: kill her lover, or kill her child. Xhalax killed her lover and soon became an expert assassin.  From that day forward, she grew cruel, bitter and devoid of warmth.

In Farscape, Xhalax tracks her fugitive daughter across the Uncharted Territories as part of a retrieval squad sent to capture Talyn, Moya’s child.  When Xhalax learns that Aeryn named the baby leviathan after her dead father, the officer chides her daughter for displaying sentimentality and weakness.

Throughout her appearances on Farscape, Xhalax shows a complete disregard for Aeryn’s well-being or happiness.  Xhalax views Aeryn as a “traitor” and tells her that she has not “wasted one microt” thinking of her.  A mother who has gotten used to doing what expedient, not what is right, it is clear that Xhalax would kill her own child to perform her given tasks.  Although Xhalax and Aeryn have a sort of final reckoning that clears the air, it happens right as Xhalax is about to die, and therefore she has nothing to lose in showing warmth to her only child.

1. Irina Derevko (Alias [2001 – 2005]). Lena Olin portrayed the deliciously and horribly evil Irina Derevko, mother of spy Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) throughout Alias’s run, starting in the second season.   Irina faked her own death while Sydney was six, so she could return home to the Soviet Union.  Years later, she pretended to be Sydney’s ally, playing on the young woman’s need to emotional “know” something about her mother, formerly known as Laura Bristow.  In truth, however, Irina was manipulating her daughter, and secretly working with Arvin Sloane and Sark to retrieve Rambaldi artifacts around the globe. 

Late in Alias’s run, Irina actually hired a hit man to killer her daughter, and in “Maternal Instinct” told Sydney that she only had a child with Jack Bristow because the KGB ordered her to do so.  In the series finale, Sydney and Irina engaged in brutal fisticuffs over the last Rambaldi artifact.  Irina chose the artifact over her own daughter, and died for that choice when a glass roof collapsed and she fell to her doom.   And yes, any mother who would choose a material thing over her own child is a pretty terrible one indeed.

The Best:

5. Amanda Grayson (Star Trek [1966 – 1969]).  Mr. Spock’s mother, Amanda (Jane Wyatt), was a school teacher on Earth, and faced the unenviable task of raising her half-human son on cold, logical Vulcan.  There, Spock was teased relentlessly for his human heritage, but Amanda, despite Vulcan edict, was able to show her son love, and in the process reveal what it means to be human.  

To be a good mother (or father), in part, is to sacrifice, and Amanda knowingly permitted her son to grow up as a Vulcan, even though he could never tell her he loved her, or otherwise outwardly return her emotional devotion.  Imagine raising a child and never hearing those words, "I love you."  And then remember that it is for your son’s own good as he attempts to determine and cement his own identity in a world that does not accept him.  Amanda puts her son's well-being first, and at considerable cost to herself.

4. Devon Adair (Earth 2 [1994 – 1995]  Devon Adair’s  (Deborah Farentino) son Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman) is dying of a fatal disease called “The Syndrome” as Earth 2 commences.  He is eight years old, and those who suffer from the rare disease don’t live, generally, past nine.  Accordingly, Devon leaves behind her life, Earth itself, and the comforts of civilization and technology to get her son to a planet, G889, some 22 light years away.  There, in a natural environment, Ulysses can thrive and beat the “Syndrome,” but it means living a pioneer life-style on an entirely alien and often inhospitable world.

Again, an important quality evidenced by a good mother is sacrifice.  Devon changes her entire life to assure that her son has a shot to live his.  Devon Adair is a strong leader, a brilliant woman, and a great mother to boot. 

3. Joyce Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997 – 2003]).   Perhaps the hardest thing to do as a mother (or father) is to love your child unconditionally, even if they don’t turn out how you had hoped.  But a good parent can put aside personal hopes and expectations, and accept a child, unconditionally, for who he or she is.  

That is the battle that Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland) fights and eventually wins in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She learns that her daughter is “The Chosen One,” a slayer, and doomed, essentially, to a short life, and one of constant mortal danger.  Joyce is good-intentioned but in denial about her daughter throughout the first two seasons of the program.  She doesn’t want to “see” what Buffy really is, at least until, in “Becoming,” when Buffy tells her to open her eyes.

After that -- and to her everlasting credit -- Joyce adapts and attempts to accept Buffy for who she is and what she does.  Joyce doesn’t always succeed, as is the case wherein she creates M.O.O. (Mothers Opposed to the Occult), but she nonetheless boasts a critical capacity of any parent: the ability to adapt as per “conditions on the ground,” so-to-speak.  In short order, Joyce becomes a force of stability in Buffy’s life, until her untimely passing.  She supports Buffy and attempts to give Buffy as normal a life as possible, and that's night easy since the family lives on the Hellmouth.

2. Martha Kent (Smallville [2001 – 2011]). Martha (Annette O’Toole) is the kind, warm and loving mother of Clark Kent (Tom Welling), her adopted son from Krypton.  Early in Smallville Martha bites the bullet keeps the Kent family afloat financially -- when the farm can no longer support it – by working extra jobs.  Later, after Jonathan’s death, Martha continues to protect her son by running for and being elected the junior senator from Kansas.  In the halls of the Senate, Martha helps to quash the fascist VRA (Vigilante Registration Act) and even adopts her own alias, as the mysterious “Red Queen,” to further protect her imperiled son from the powerful forces allied against him.

Martha is the perfect example of a mother who changes her approach as her child’s needs change.  She is a warm and loving care-giver when he is a child, but as he grows into an adult, she assumes different roles in his life to help see that he achieve his destiny as Superman. 

1. Sarah Connor (The Sarah Connor Chronicles [2008 – 2009]). Imagine that, as a mother, you have just a few years – not even two decades – to train and prepare your son for his destined role as the savior of the human race.  This job makes you not only the mother of a child, but the mother of the future human race in a way.

And then, on top of your role as mentor to your son, imagine you must protect his existence every day in the face of time-traveling, indestructible, relentless cyborgs.  Now you, yourself, must become a warrior, to see that your son achieves his fate.  As a single mom, there's no father to share the burden.

If all that’s not enough, consider what it would be like to undertake these critical tasks while grappling with the possibility that you may be dying of cancer, and that you might not live long enough to impart to your child all the knowledge and wisdom he needs to become that savior.

Welcome to Sarah Connor’s (Lena Headey) world.  Sometimes Sarah is as harsh, and as relentless as the terminators she faces so frequently, but there is no better fighter to have at your side than this committed (and heavily-armed…) mom.