Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Week: Final Post

And so Star Trek Week comes to an end.  It flew by!

I hope you enjoyed re-visiting this durable franchise with me, and I appreciate all your great comments and thought on all things Trek.  I'll be curious to read all your thoughts regarding Star Trek: Into Darkness in the coming days, weeks, and months.

I will be reviewing the film bright and early on Tuesday morning, May 21st.  Don't forget to check it out.  (Hint: I loved it.)

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "Yesteryear" (September 15, 1973)

The blockbuster J.J. Abrams' Star Trek film (2009) is not the first (or only...) Trek installment over the years to alter the franchise time line in some fashion (or, more accurately, create a separate or alternate time line). In fact, this kind of temporal tweaking was occurring in the series as early as 1973. September 15, 1973, to be precise.

That's the air date of story-editor D.C. Fontana's heart-felt episode, "Yesteryear." 

It's the second episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series broadcast on CBS in most U.S. cities, and -- not entirely unlike the popular Abrams' film - it was heavily Spock-centric in nature.

"My ideas were these," Fontana told me in an interview for Filmfax in 2001: "Can we see Vulcan? What kind of story can I tell there? And can I involve Spock?" 

In answering those questions, Fontana created what is undeniably the most popular episode of the animated series, and one that is also regarded as "canon" by most Star Trek fans.

"Yesteryear" opens at the planet of the Guardian of Forever (as seen in "City on the Edge of Forever.") A group of Federation scientists stand watch at the mysterious time portal as Kirk and Spock return from a visit to Orion's past.

However, something strange has occurred in their absence. The scientists don't appear to remember Spock at all. A baffled Captain Kirk hails the Enterprise, and Scotty has no memory of the half-Vulcan science-officer either. "Something appears to have changed in the time line as we know it," Spock suggests.

Indeed, this is an accurate supposition, and the first officer of the starship Enterprise in this "new" time line is now an Andorian, Mr. Thelin. Upon returning to the starship, Spock also learns that in this universe, he died at age seven, during a dangerous Vulcan rite of "maturity" called the Kahs-wan. 

Equally as troubling, Spock's death at a young age caused the dissolution of Sarek and Amanda's marriage, and Amanda was subsequently killed in a shuttle accident on her way home to Earth.

Again, I thought reflexively of the new Star Trek film, which also makes Amanda a casualty in an alternate time line.

Kirk and Spock soon realize that, in their original timeline, Spock must have actually traveled back in Vulcan history and saved his younger self from dying on Vulcan's Forge during the Kahs-wan, a ritual involving 10 days in the desert without food, water, or weapons. However, when the Federation scientists "replayed" that part of Vulcan history (some twenty-to-thirty years prior...), Spock was unavailable -- in Orion's past with Kirk -- and therefore unable to return to Vulcan and save his younger self.

In hopes of restoring himself and the timeline, Spock masquerades as Sarek's (Mark Lenard's) cousin "Selik," and returns to Vulcan in the past, near the city of ShiKahr.

There, he comes to the assistance of his younger self as the seven-year old Spock and his pet sehlat, I-Chaya, are attacked by a Vulcan dragon called a le-matya. Fans of Godzilla will recognize the roar of the le-matya as being that of their favorite Toho monster...

Unfortunately, I-Chaya is poisoned by the dragon and young Spock seeks help from a local healer, braving Vulcan's Forge and thereby passing the Vulcan rite of adulthood. For his beloved pet, however, it is too late, and the healer offers Spock a choice. The sehlat's life can be prolonged for a time -- but the animal will feel terrible pain, or the healer can release the beloved pet from all his suffering...and end his life now.

Young Spock makes the decision to end his pet's suffering, and in doing so decides that the path of his own life will follow in the Vulcan way: logic and the total repression of all emotion.

When elder Spock returns to the present on the Planet of the Guardian of Forever, he informs a waiting Kirk that the timeline has indeed been altered (or a new one created...). "One small thing was changed...a pet died," Spock informs his Captain. "Times change..." he concludes later, and in a way, that could be a tag-line for the new Star Trek too.

"Yesteryear" has always been one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series, in part because of the difficult but valuable message about pets, and caring for pets. When young Spock asks whether it is right to mourn the loss of his pet, his older self notes with compassion that "every life comes to an end when the time demands it," and thus there is no need to be sad about it. 

What is sad, Spock insists, is a life that has not been lived well.

Frankly, I'm amazed that a pet's (on-screen...) death made it past the censors and onto network television, on Saturday mornings, no less, in the 1970s. Filmation's Lou Scheimer, producer of the Star Trek cartoon, told me in an interview in 2001 that "a pet's death had never been done on a children's program, and it was touching and provocative. Dorothy was instrumental in making it so creative."

When I interviewed Fontana, she told me that there was indeed a "worry about the death of the sehlat," but that "Gene Roddenberry told the networks" that she -- Fontana -- would "take care of it," in a way that acceptable. It was a story, that Fontana put "so much" of herself into...and it certainly shows, even today. If you've ever lost a beloved pet, or worse, had to make the choice of life for death for a beloved pet, you will find yourself quite moved by the last act of "Yesteryear."

Watching this episode again last night brought me right back to a terrible Thursday in April 2003, and the death of my first cat, Lulu. Our doctor offered us a similar choice: a short-term respite (through a difficult blood transfusion), or a merciful "passing" right there...and thus an end to suffering. We chose the latter option and it was -- and remains -- devastating, but I've always believed we made the right choice for her; the same choice Spock makes for his pet in this Star Trek episode. Perhaps Vulcans and humans are quite alike after all...

Another intriguing aspect of "Yesteryear," especially in light of the 2009 film, is a scene involving young Spock being bullied by other Vulcan children about his human half. Although in the cartoon (again, a Saturday morning show...) nobody calls Amanda "a whore," the insults are still pretty harsh. 

One child tells Spock that Sarek brought shame to Vulcan by marrying a human. Another informs Spock that he can never be a "real Vulcan." This scene -- with different costumes and sets -- is played out almost exactly in the Abrams film. (And indeed, it was a moment mentioned in passing by Amanda as early as the Fontana live-action episode "Journey to Babel.")

Another reason to admire "Yesteryear" is the scope of the story. Before Abrams' film, this cartoon segment probably represented the best view of Vulcan we were afforded in Trek history. In "Yesteryear," we see the interior of Sarek and Amanda's home, the deserts of Vulcan's Forge, and a futuristic metropolis (not to mention some hover cars). These things were possible only because of animation...a live-action series of 1973 could simply never have afforded so many varied sets, props or locations.

In light of the 2009 chapter of the Star Trek story, "Yesteryear" looks even more fascinating than ever. In it, we see how a time line is changed permanently (if only in regards to a pet's destiny...), get more than a passing glimpse of modern Vulcan, and once more delve into the difficult choices Spock made in childhood: the selection between Vulcan or human philosophy. 

All in all, this may be Star Trek: The Animated Series' finest hour.

Next week: "One of Our Planets is Missing."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "Beyond the Farthest Star" (September 8, 1973)

In 1973, Filmation presented Star Trek: The Animated Series, one of the lesser-celebrated but no less worthwhile jewels in the Star Trek crown.

Filmation's Lou Scheimer had Gene Roddenberry on board as an executive consultant, and Dorothy Fontana served as the series story editor. The entire cast, save for Walter Koenig (Chekov), returned to provide the voices for their characters, the crew of the original starship Enterprise.

The first episode, "Beyond the Farthest Star" (by Samuel A. Peeples; directed by Hal Sutherland), starts routinely with the opening credits, a nice, if rough approximation or re-creation of the live-action series credits. Only with "starring the voices of" as the legend, rather than simply "starring." 

As the half-hour opening installment begins, the Enterprise is cruising on the "outer fringe" of the galaxy en route to "Quasar M-17," when a strange "radio emission" is intercepted by the crew. A sudden increase of gravity (or "hyper-gravity") drags the Federation starship off course, and it promptly falls into the gravity well of a dead star. The Enterprise manages an orbital insertion in the nick of time, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) soon detects a strange alien starship also trapped in orbit. He determines that it has been locked there, trapped, on the magnitude of "300 million years."

An investigation of the ship (which boasts a biological, organic design; presaging many 1970s productions such as Alien [1979]), reveals that aliens destroyed their own vessel because they had accidentally taken on a malevolent, formless life form who was seeking escape...into the heart of the galaxy. This creature, a "magnetic organism without mass," makes it back to the Enterprise with the landing party, and begins to run wild there. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) seemingly chooses suicide and certain destruction rather than freeing this evil life form from its ages-old captivity...

As you can tell from this brief synopsis, there are many familiar elements here; or rather, some elements that would one day become familiar to Trek-dom. 

From the original series, we have an age-old, formless entity of pure evil, like Redjac in "The Wolf in the Fold." And future Treks, including Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, would also involve an alien entity hoping to escape a planetary prison via a starship. 

Like Star Trek efforts including "Where No Man Has Gone Before," Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Next Gen's "The Nth Degree," a definable landmark in the galaxy is visited by the Federation in this story; here the outer rim; (in other cases, it's the edge of the galaxy or the center of the galaxy). 

So, generally, how does Star Trek: The Animated Series compare to original Trek? It is clearly designed for children (it is a Saturday morning series, after all), but to utilize a common phrase, it is "light years" ahead of other Saturday morning fare from the same decade. On Star Trek -- as early as this first episode -- one detects the ideas at work. The Animated Series is not so much simplified as streamlined. And, it's immensely entertaining.

But anyway, Filmation has done a remarkable job of recreating the original Enterprise interiors, costumes and production design. In this episode, there are several nice insert shots of classic Federation hardware such as tricorders and communicators...and they look just right. The transporter console is familiar too, and the bridge looks great. The level of fidelity is more than's astonishing.

What's different? Well, interestingly, you can already detect how Gene Roddenberry was incorporating new and fascinating ideas into the franchise; updating the Trek universe. For instance, a pan across the bridge of the Enterprise reveals a second turbo lift (to the left of the view screen; to the right of Engineering). We would next see a second turbo lift on the bridge next in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Satisfying the curiosity of many, this episode also reveals for the first time some of the details of what specifically Spock sees inside the "blue glow" of his library computer viewer. At one point it's just a sine wave, signifying the "heart beat" of the alien, but it's still a neat glimpse. .

What's changed? Well, first and foremost, there's an alien navigator, the three-armed Mr. Arex, sitting in Mr. Chekov's spot. He's a little bit gimmicky for my taste (three arms; three legs), but at least he isn't designed and executed to be a joke.

More genuinely fascinating, Federation technology has been updated. It now includes "life support belts" which eliminate the need for space suits in inhospitable environments. I like this idea a great deal, and think it's both inventive and keeping in the spirit of the original Trek's vision of the future. It seems that personal force fields generated by small belts is not only a nice cheap expedient (like the transporter...) for getting into and out of weird environments, but I kind of think the belts tart up the uniforms nicely. To me, Star Trek isn't truly about the hard days of early space travel (leave that to another favorite, Space:1999, please...), but rather the era wherein man has tamed technology and it is easy, simple-to-use and -- again -- streamlined. 

Perhaps life support belts aren't inherently dramatic (like space suits); but then again neither is the transporter. A shuttle launching and landing is much more interesting, isn't it? That's okay, though, belts and transporters feel "Trekkish," and get us into environments where otherwise it would be hard to go.

Uniquely, the bridge is now equipped with an "automatic bridge defense system," a turret that lowers from the bridge ceiling in times of danger and can target any object in the room with a phaser array. Although this turret is hijacked by the evil alien in "Beyond the Farthest Star," it perhaps should have stayed in the live-action franchise. I got tired in The Next Generation (in episodes like "The High Ground" and "Best of Both Worlds") of watching Lt. Worf leap over a furniture barrier between his station and Captain Picard when confronted with unfriendly interlopers on the command deck. Any alien could apparently just beam onto the bridge and punch crewmen or hijack them off the ship.  An automatic defense system might have actually come in handy. An intruder beams in - zap 'em! It's easier on the legs than jumping hurdles.

Another change: We see Engineering, and it looks familiar enough, save for the new "engineering core." That's different terminology than we've been accustomed to on Star Trek. It's really just a giant glowing hatch in the Engineering deck floor, ostensibly leading down into the anti-matter/matter reactor.

"Beyond the Farthest Star" is a colorful episode, and an advantage of animation is that alien spaceship designs and planets are not restricted by live-action budgetary constraints. Here, the alien ship is organic in design, consisting of individual cells or pods that have been "burst open," (again, think Alien...). The scale of this alien ship is something that couldn't be accomplished back in the day of the original Trek; and the landing party's tour of the derelict reminded me a little of the Krell tour in Forbidden Planet.

"Beyond the Farthest Star" isn't a favorite fan installment of the animated series, but it gets the job done, and is overall very impressive. Watching this episode now, it's clear that Star Treks would have benefited from incorporating more, not less of this series.

Series Primer: Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 - 1974)

In 1973, Filmation Studios, the animation house responsible for popular Saturday morning cartoons such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Fantastic Voyage, joined forces with the Great Bird of the Galaxy, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, to continue the Star Trek mythos.   Together, these two powerhouses of the genre produced a program that, even today, remains one of the most imaginative installments in Star Trek's long history: The Animated Series (1973-1974).

"It was 1972 or 1973, and I thought it would be a great time to do an animated Star Trek,"  Lou Scheimer, then-president of Filmation, told me in an interview in the year 2000.  "Gene loved the idea, but there had been some problems between Roddenberry, Paramount and NBC, and basically, they weren't speaking to each other."

The root of the problem was simple: creative control.  "In those days, it was difficult to deal with networks on Saturday morning shows without them getting involved creatively," Scheimer explains.

But, according to series director Hal Sutherland, a veteran animator who oversaw more than 20 episodes of Star Trek: The Animated SeriesRoddenberry emerged victorious and nabbed "carte blanche" creative control of Star Trek's first TV resurrection.

With the issue of creative control settled, Roddenberry manned the helm of his new starship and recruited a first officer in Dorothy Fontana, author of many of the live-action Trek's most popular episodes (including "Journey to Babel"). 

Serving as series associate producer and story editor, Fontana initially expressed some reservations about animation, because it "is usually for children, and there are certain stories you can't tell."  She also felt, however, that animation offered the potential to visit places never envisioned by live-action Trek.  All kinds of "new life forms and new civilizations" could appear cheaply, without the limitation of building expensive sets or applying costly make-up.

Despite animation's potential, budget was an immediate problem.  The production had woefully little money to spend, and that meant there had to be cuts in the cast.  Accordingly, the crew of the Starship Enterprise was downsized.  Though William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Jimmy Doohan and Majel Barrett Roddenberry all returned to the bridge, there was one casualty (and he didn't even wear a red shirt.)

"There was only so much money to spend and we couldn't afford everybody," Fontana recounted to me.  The axe fell on Walter Koenig, whose character, Lt. Pavel Chekov, was eliminated from the format.  "We said to Walter, you're not forgotten," Fontana explains, and the actor was hired to pen an episode of the first season instead ("The Infinite Vulcan").

Adjusting to the world of animation was a difficult task for some
 Star Trek veterans, even after the casting issues were resolved. Sutherland describes the dilemma.  "Filmation was extremely busy and Roddenberry never knew when to quit. At one point on the first episode, we had just three days to start production and meet our deadline, and Gene kept pushing for improvements.  I finally said, 'Gene, we're locked into the deadline, we've got to do this!'  To his credit, he stepped back and said 'okay, we're done.'"

The schedule remained tight, however, and Filmation labored to produce a quality 
Star Trek.  "I had an office at Filmation,"  Fontana describes, "and I was in the same building where the animation was done. Unlike many companies, they didn't farm out their work to foreign countries. Everything was done in-house, and the artists and recording studio were all together."

This closeness resulted in a complicated but orderly process of episode assembly.  Scheimer outlines the routine:.  "Dorothy and her writers wrote the scripts, Gene would offer his input, and then it was story-boarded."

Next, as Sutherland relates, the director took the reins. "After reading the script, I'd create instructions for the animators, working from storyboards.  More often than not, I'd work well into the night, sometimes at my office, sometimes in my dining room at 3:00 am."

From there, 
Trek's cast beamed in.  "People are surprised that you record the actors' voices before you start animating,"  Scheimer notes.   "Everyone thinks the voices are added later, but the animator wouldn't know how to do it.  He needs to hear the voices before he knows what the emotion is. So we'd record the voices from the storyboards, which are basically illustrated bibles.  Then we'd do the full animation."

And painstaking animation it was too, at least by Scheimer's estimation.  "Everything was done by hand,"  he emphasizes.  "There were no computer graphics, and we did a lot of stock scenes of the characters walking and talking. We re-utilized that material in different settings and different combinations."

But if recreating the physical universe of
 Star Trek proved a hardship, working with the experienced cast was a dream.  "De [Kelley] was one of the sweetest human beings I ever met, and Jimmy [Doohan] was highly versatile," remembers Scheimer.  "Jimmy worked with Filmation again on Jason of Star Command. On Star Trek, Jimmy and Majel [Roddenberry] did a lot of voices for us."

The late Majel Roddenberry, for one, enjoyed her transformation into 
Star Trek's weird and wild animated characters. "It's like seeing a caricature of yourself,"  she related to me during a telephone interview in 2000 for Cinescape. In addition to resurrecting Nurse Christine Chapel, the actress gave voice to the new alien crew-member, Lt. M'Ress, and more than a dozen other guest roles.   "I was the wind, the trees, a mountaintop, and anything that spoke," she laughs.

And what was it like conveying emotions, personality and character with only your voice as a tool? "It was very imaginative. You almost couldn't give a bad performance."

Yet even as 
Star Trek was lovingly resurrected behind the closed doors at Filmation, word about the series was leaking out and fan response was surprisingly hostile.   "Lou [Scheimer] took a hit from the fans," Sutherland confides. "They had no concept of the agony or effort that went into that show."

Remembering an unpleasant confrontation with a fan at a convention, Scheimer just laughs it off.  "Let's just say the fans were very...concerned."

But concern quickly morphed into enthusiasm when footage of 
Star Trek: The Animated Series was finally unveiled on the convention circuit  "I went to the World Science Fiction Con in Toronto,"  Fontana recollects, "and I had a reel of the opening, of the Enterprise flyby.  There were skeptics, but when we ran the reel, the fans cheered.  From that little clip, they realized it was really going to be Star Trek. It was a triumphant moment after months of hearing it wouldn't be any good."

In fact, fans were so enthusiastic,their excitement actually became a security problem for Filmation. "We had Trekkie invaders at the studio all the time," Sutherland remarks. "Trekkies showed up pretending to be fire inspectors or janitors, and we'd discover them searching through our waste baskets."

Such enthusiasm was an understandable reaction, however, since animated 
Trek often went where no Trek had gone before, even boldly touring a Vulcan metropolis in "Yesteryear."  "I had wanted to see Vulcan in 'Journey to Babel' with a matte shot, but it got cut out," Fontana explains.  "So I went back to the description from that script and said 'let's do this now.'  I wanted to see a city with parkways and trees, with growing things, and with unique spires. And we achieved that with animation."

"Yesteryear" also referenced the popular live-action episode "City on the Edge of Forever" (by Harlan Ellison), by showcasing a journey through the Guardian of Forever time portal. On this occasion, time travel robbed the beloved Mr. Spock of his very existence, leaving a puzzled science officer to correct the corrupted time line. In order to repair his reality, Spock returned home to his planet, Vulcan, to confront a boyhood version of himself. Along the way, Spock's beloved pet Sehlat was destined to lose his life.  Shockingly, "Yesteryear" broke a long-standing TV taboo by depicting the death of a pet.  Scheimer thought it was a beautiful and courageous decision.  "A pet's death had never been done on a children's program, and it was touching and provocative. Dorothy was instrumental in making it so creative."

Another episode, "The Time Trap," by Joyce Perry, reflected the politics of the day, specifically
 detente.   "I had this idea that a Klingon ship and the Enterprise would get trapped in a Sargasso Sea of space and be forced to cooperate to escape,"  she describes the memorable tale.  Perry's only problem was getting the former enemies out of the crisis.  "I remember telling Gene this bizarre notion that two ships could combine engines and became more powerful as one than they were separately. I explained it with a straight face, but was afraid he might laugh me out of his office. Instead, he was quiet for about 30 seconds, then said,'that's pretty good, do it!'   And, in the finest Trek tradition, a story about cooperation was forged.

Writer Larry Brody contributed another interesting tale to the animated Star Trek, "The Magicks of Megas-Tu."  In this adventure, the Enterprise crew traveled to an alternate universe and encountered Lucifer.  The author had initially wanted Kirk and company to encounter God instead, but the network quickly shot down that provocative notion.

"I was producer of a series called 
Police Story and it often showcased the home lives of cops.  Anytime we had a cop and his wife in bed together, holding one another, and we had to take it out. The network would not allow married people to be in bed together. On the other hand, if the episode was about a cop and a mistress having sex in bed together, it was perfectly okay to show, as long as if, by the end, they broke up to show that having sex wasn't right.  If you can show immoral sex instead of moral sex on TV, you can also show Satan instead of God on Star Trek, I guess."

Even though Brody's original concept did not survive network interference, he was happy with the creative process behind-the-scenes.  "I did the story a couple of times and I asked Dorothy to see the final draft. She said 'Gene's rewriting it, but it has nothing to do with you. He always does rewrites.' But the story wasn't changed, and if there were clever jokes, they remained in. The changes mostly involved dialogue."

Star Trek: The Animated Series was very well-received, even winning an Emmy Award, the production team had a difficult time keeping up with the demand to produce new episodes. More than anything else, the rigorous schedule may have been the cause of the series' demise after 2 seasons and twenty-two episodes.

"In animation, they order a set number to begin with, like 16, and that's your first year," Fontana explains.  "If you're going to do more, it is in increments of six, and then they rerun the liver out of the earlier episodes. That's because of the time lag. Animation takes longer than live-action, and you have to write a year ahead."

Still, Scheimer is adamant that the Saturday morning series could have lived long and prospered had it been given just a little tender loving care from parent network NBC.  "If it aired today with the same ratings it would be considered a whopping hit. But little kids didn't watch it. They weren't our audiences.  I always hoped it would air at night. But 
Star Trek was difficult because it had limited budgets, loads of story, and several characters to juggle in 22 minutes."

"Majel Roddenberry seconds the opinion that re-framing
 Star Trek in animated form -- within the hectic confines of television production -- was problematic.  "We wanted characters on the order of Disney rather than what we got, but the show featured some of the best stories of any Star Trek series."

Brody, who later produced HBO's 
Spawn and The Silver Surfer cartoons, isn't shy with his praise for the 1970s animated enterprise. "It was a grown-up show that talked about important topics without compromise. I appreciate that because I work in animation now and it's not that way. Today, Saturday morning programs are infomercials for toys."

Fontana concurs.  "There is this tendency to put down animated work as kid's stuff, but you have to consider the artistry that went into it; not just the writer, but the actors who made themselves available. And the artists who drew the show were really good..."

Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Week: Ranking The Star Trek Movies

I am out seeing Star Trek: Into Darkness at the very moment this tally posts, so that new movie will not be included in the roster below, but here is my (no doubt controversial…) ranking of all the Star Trek films, best to worst.

Tier One (Meaning Classic, or Great)

1.      Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

2.      Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

3.      Star Trek: The Motion  Picture (1979)

Tier Two (Meaning good)

4.      Star Trek (2009)

5.      Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

6.      Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

7.      Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Tier Three (Meaning, not-so-good, and sometimes downright awful)

8.      Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

9.      Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

10.  Star Trek: Generations (1994)

11.  Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Star Trek Week: Star Trek (2009)

(Re-post from 2009).

Long story not so short: Star Trek is in good hands.

Different hands, to be certain. But good hands nonetheless.

The J.J. Abrams big-budget film accomplishes the very mission many industry insiders and long-time Star Trek fans had judged impossible just half-a-decade ago, during the Berman Era doldrums of Nemesis and the TV series, Enterprise. It actually welcomes new fans -- and general audiences -- into the Trek fold with a well-dramatized, beautifully-cast, emotionally resonant tale of Kirk and Spock's youthful beginnings.

This movie is that rarest of birds, a blockbuster summer movie that lives up to the hype. It is fast, fun, and frenetic, the very qualities you would desire and seek in an epic space saga.

Penned by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the new movie genuflects appropriately to Star Trek''s storied tradition with the presence of the franchise's elder statesman, Leonard Nimoy in a significant role. Simultaneously, however, the movie adopts a warp speed trajectory straight for the unknown, essentially re-booting the franchise and the beloved core characters with new and therefore unpredictable destinies

Call this delicate and dangerous dance The Abrams Maneuver: a deft strategy that permits this cinematic enterprise to operate on two levels at once, appealing both to the hardcore aficionados on the basis of knowledge and nostalgia, and to the unconverted masses on the basis of the new cast's pure charm, the dazzling visualizations, and some rock 'em, sock 'em action scenes...the likes of which previous Treks could never have imagined, let alone afforded to execute.

This radical Abrams Maneuver -- creating an alternate timeline while maintaining the beloved characters and core spirit of Trek -- was no doubt deemed necessary because, to utilize a metaphor from author David Gerrold in his Encounter at Farpoint novelization of 1987, commanding the U.S.S. Enterprise has become rather like "making love in a fish bowl." Everyone has an opinion of your performance, and there isn't much room to maneuver.

Ditto for the franchise itself.

In other words, forty-five long years of accumulated continuity, arcane rules, and byzantine history had effectively hobbled creativity (and more importantly, spontaneity...) to the point where Star Trek had dropped out of warp and was suffering from a terminal case of "replicative fading" (a cloning disease named in the Next Gen episode "Up The Long Ladder").

The new Star Trek of 2009 has injected much-needed youth, vigor, inspiration, and spontaneity into the franchise's faltering heart beat. The era of all Starfleet officers getting along, not eating red meat, wasting time on the holodeck, and endlessly sitting around discussing tertiary domains of subspace and reversing the polarity of the deflector array is -- at long last, history.

Instead, the characters we see on screen in J.J. Abrams' Trek are recognizably human once more, just as they were in the landmark, classic Original Series. These men and women fumble, get drunk, weep, fall in love, make impulsive mistakes, and -- in the finest tradition of Star Trek -- do their ingenious, inventive best for a cause greater than mere self-interest.

The Future Begins

The new Star Trek depicts the story of a very angry Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) who -- after the destruction of Romulus in a cosmic disaster (a supernova) -- inadvertently travels back in time 130 years and sets out to destroy the young Federation, starting with charter members Vulcan and Earth.

Nero's accidental temporal journey brings him back to the year (and moment, actually...) of Jim Kirk's birth aboard the Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin.

When Kirk's heroic father is killed aboard the Kelvin, events diverge from the "prime" time line we remember from the Original Series. Without a father to guide him, Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up to become aimless and rebellious, the "mid-west's only genius level repeat offender," as Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) calls him. Kirk's story is cross-cut effectively with the development of the young half-Vulcan, Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is torn between his human and alien natures. 

Both men are brilliant, but both are also incomplete...

Eventually Kirk and Spock find their way to the Enterprise bridge and -- despite their vastly-different natures -- battle Nero for the survival of the Federation. Another visitor from the future, elderly Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) helps to nudge fate back in the right direction, doing everything in his power to bring the hot-headed young Kirk and the repressed, logical Spock to an awareness that they need one another to be successful, to be complete. This is where the script works at its symbolic best. Kirk, lacking a father, needs the advice of a tempering, prudent man like Spock. And Spock, now absent his human mother, requires the inspiration and human unpredictability of the tenacious Kirk.
I have considerable reservations about many specific elements of this Star Trek story (which I will explain below, in detail), but as is the case for many Star Trek episodes and films of years past, the movie is ultimately more than the sum of its individual (and sometimes faulty...) parts.

Overall, this Star Trek is emotionally satisfying and affecting (particularly Elder Spock's heartfelt, nostalgic send-off to the Enterprise). And the new cast seamlessly takes over from the Original Series cast, and the performers are all so likable that you feel a surge of good will towards them.

So yes, lightning has been captured in a bottle again: there's a familiar joie de vivre about and among this group of performers that frankly hasn't existed in Star Trek since The Undiscovered Country's send-off in 1991. This chemistry, this joy, glosses over many of the movie's significant problems. Just as in the old days, you're swept away by the colorful, well-drawn characters and their extraordinary travails, even if the individual journey raises a few questions.

This is Not Your Father's Star Trek?

The new Star Trek movie currently boasts a 96% percent critical "approval" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is practically unheard of. And indeed, I approve of it, even if I think such a high-rating is wildly inflated.

However, it isn't nitpicking to point out that major elements of the Orci/Kurtzman script are, quite frankly, a mess. I'm not talking about specific lines of dialogue or even character motivations...but rather breathtaking gaps of situation logic that you could fly a space armada through.

First and foremost, let us discuss the nature of Nero's weapon of choice, the red matter. It can generate huge, destructive black holes in space. Fine, I accept that. I can even accept that starships can safely travel through said black holes and move back and forward through time. No problem.

But why must Nero go to all the trouble of dropping red matter into the core of a planet like Vulcan or Earth with that lovely but not terribly-effective drill device?

The drill not only wastes time and is highly ineffective as we see in the movie's finale, but it is also...entirely unnecessary. Just eject that little red matter blob in orbit, Nero, and planetary destruction will surely ensue.

Black holes are so powerful that nothing, not even light can escape their crushing force. So even if you dropped a black hole near our moon, we'd be in some deep  distress.  Putting the red matter at the Earth's core, or Vulcan's core, just seems like gilding the lily to me.

And actually, I'm a bit concerned that at the end of the film, a black hole has been formed relatively close to Earth (in our solar system, if I'm not mistaken). That's...uh...asking for trouble. (We know this too, because McCoy gives a very convincing lecture, early in the film, about the hazards of space flight under even normal conditions.)

And also, it begs belief that a 24th century Romulan can't just up-fit photon torpedoes with the red matter and blast away at Earth or Vulcan from a safe distance, rather than going to all the trouble of deploying that unwieldy drill and being tethered to it. 

Basically, the red matter threat is inconsistent and poorly-thought out. It is made to seem so all-powerful that it can destroy planets and cause time travel(!), but if that were indeed the case, you wouldn't have to delicately send particles down that drill's esophagus to a planet core, right?

That's not even the worst offense, however.

During his mind-meld with Kirk, Ambassador Spock notes that the safety of the "galaxy" was threatened by "a supernova." Huh? A supernova is dangerous a solar system. Maybe two solar systems, tops, on a really bad day. But an entire galaxy? I don't think so. The Enterprise escaped from a supernova by going to warp speed in "All Our Yesterdays" and the galaxy was never imperiled, just the local star group.

This is another classic mistake, and what I find ironic (and yet oddly poetic...) about it is that derisive Star Trek fans have ridiculed series like Battlestar Galactica (original) and Space:1999 for forty years based on the fact that those series occasionally made such basic errors in astronomical nomenclature (confusing solar systems and galaxies.) At most, a supernova could have threatened Romulus. But it's a novice mistake to indicate it could do harm to a galaxy. This is science fiction, and again, some flights of fancy are permissible, expected and desired. But so basic an error in science (about something we already know about), is troubling indeed.

Another novice mistake: Spock actually sees Vulcan implode from the night sky of Delta Vega (a world now oddly transformed into an ice planet, though it was just kind "Where No Man Has Gone Before.") Just think about this for a minute. Would we be able to see in our night sky a planetary implosion in another solar system? Of course not.

Spock isn't even using binoculars when he sees the catastrophe! Rather, Vulcan is apparently no further away from Delta Vega than we are from our moon. Before you suggest Delta Vega must actually be a Vulcan is established in Star Trek lore that Vulcan has no moons. Additionally, Star Trek lore establishes that Delta Vega is near the edge of the galaxy, and so remote a planet that Starfleet only visits the lithium-cracking station there once every quarter century. So how did Delta Vega move to within eye-shot of Vulcan?

Orci and Kurtzman's "re-boot" (set off by Nero's arrival) didn't change planetary orbits or positions. There's no way Spock could watch Vulcan's destruction from Delta Vega. Again, you suspect that these writers don't really understand the vast distance involved in outer space....that every planet isn't merely a stone's throw from another. The writers could have saved themselves a lot of heartache if they hadn't named this planet Delta Vega, which already boasts an established nature, geography, and location in Star Trek history.

These days, especially with J.J.'s terse advice to "purists" to "stay home" and not see the movie, it's convenient and easy to deride criticism like mine as coming from an anal-retentive fanatic who lives in his parent's basement and catalogs crew member serial numbers.

On the contrary, I'm merely extrapolating from the ground rules the writers have established. Their screenplay makes it explicit that the time-scape has changed as a result of Nero's intervention. Unless Nero is moving planets, or has changed the nature of "supernovas," "black holes" and other such objects (like planets...) these changes are inconsistent and impossible. 

Plainly, they're sloppy, easily-avoided mistakes.

However, my admiration for past Star Trek doesn't preclude me from stating the obvious here: this isn't the first time in history Star Trek has made stupid technical or plot blunders.

In The Wrath of Khan, U.S.S. Reliant visits the wrong planet by accident, and ends up finding the evil Khan. (Oh, you wanted Ceti Alpha 6! Sorry!) And in Generations, the Nexus threat is every bit as ridiculous and inconsistent as the Red Matter is here. I mean, if Soran wanted to get inside the Nexus Ribbon, why didn't he just steal a thruster suit and fly in all by himself (instead of, say, destroying an ENTIRE planet and killing billions of people)? And Star Trek VI tells us Excelsior is carrying equipment to catalog gaseous anomalies, but in the film's last act, the Enteprise is miraculously carrying the same equipment for the same mission! Convenient!

So see, I really am being objective here. The new Star Trek makes the same dumb errors that the old Star Treks often did. That doesn't make the mistakes excusable in either scenario. All instances represent...sloppy writing. But by the same token, these mistakes certainly don't disqualify the films from being good, either.

Unfortunately, this new Star Trek doesn't inherit a more noble quality of the original: a sense of the universal human condition

In previous Star Treks, the scripts always remembered Earth history and great literature, often drawing parallels between events of the 24th century and our long recorded past as a species. Khan quoted Melville in Wrath of Khan. Chang quoted Shakespeare (in the original Klingon...) in Undiscovered Country. Spock even quoted John Masefield ("All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by") in the much-maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. These moments in the franchise were not elitist; were not simple affectations for the intelligentsia. They represented an explicit connection to the past that reminded viewers that no matter how far we travel into the final frontier...we take our history and legacy along with us.

By contrast, this new Star Trek pulls all of its vital quotations from Star Trek history (even Spock's Sherlock Holmes quote from The Undiscovered Country...which isn't attributed here), instead of from the wide, majestic history of human literature and myth. As a result, an important Trek idea is all but lost here. The film refers to franchise history and legacy, but nothing outside it, which makes it feel a bit insular and dumbed-down.

Also, I must wonder why we couldn't have seen a five minute scene (or hell, a one minute scene...) involving Kirk in a history class at Starfleet Academy, listening to some instructor report about the peaceful, pioneering spirit of Starfleet. Or IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) for that matter.

Or even how the troubled Earth outgrew its "infancy" and had matured to join an interstellar community. Something -- even a token mention -- would have sufficed to remind us that Star Trek is about a future for mankind of growth and evolution.

Again, some people may state that my complaint is nitpicking, but the essence of Star Trek is optimism, the hope for a better tomorrow, and the belief that we can outgrow our violent infancy to achieve amazing things. This Star Trek has its moments of optimism, to be certain. I enjoyed seeing a man of Middle Eastern descent, Captain Robau (Faran Tahir), command a starship, for instance. 

But again, I believe that if we'd had one little, tiny moment in which Kirk was in class -- kind of being an arrogant prick while an instructor discussed Starfleet philosophy -- his spontaneous idea to assist Nero and the Narada at the film's climax would have been more dramatically resonant. We would have known, as viewers, that the philosophy of Starfleet had "sunk in." That Kirk had embraced it.

The destruction of the planet Vulcan is another sticking point, honestly. I understand why it was considered necessary from a structural and dramatic standpoint. The destruction of Vulcan dramatically establishes the seriousness of the red matter/Nero threat, and it also "shocks and awes" the audience into realizing that the future in this alternate universe is indeed going to be rather different from the voyages we are already familiar with. 

But still...six billion Vulcans die in the incident. And make no mistake, Vulcan too has been a symbol of optimism and brotherhood in Star Trek for almost fifty years. The Vulcans on Star Trek are equals to humans (and Earth) in importance, even though they are so very different from us in their nature. Indeed, their differences show us up a bit. As Amanda declares in "Journey to Babel," the Vulcan way is "better" than ours. The Vulcans were the living embodiment of pacificist beliefs; of diversity; of the creed that we need not be carried away by violence or anger or any other primitive human emotion. 

Now, in this universe, they are reduced to an asterisk in history.

From a practical standpoint, the destruction of Vulcan and the genocide of the Vulcan race also seemingly closes off as many story avenues as it opens up for future writers. Now there shall be no Kolinahr ritual for Spock (and importantly, no failure of the Kolinahr); there shall be no Mount Seleya and "Fal Tor Pan," and no "Amok Time" return to Vulcan for Spock's Pon Farr. 

More importantly, every time Bones decides to say "are you out of your Vulcan mind" or quip about "green blooded hobgoblins" in future Treks, isn't he going to feel at least a sliver of shame, given that, in Spock's own words, the Vulcans are now an endangered species? The fact that six billion Vulcans are dead sort of takes the air out of McCoy's insults. Spock can just turn to him and say, "It is unfortunate, doctor, you find genocide a source of comedy." That ought to shut Bones up.

The loss of Vulcan to the Star Trek universe carries grave dramatic repercussions, and I'm not entirely convinced that the shock and awe in this particular story was worth the destruction of so major and rich a source of lore and mythology in Star Trek canon. 

When you couple the destruction of Vulcan with the writers' stated desire to destroy the Enterprise in this movie as well, you start to wonder about their emotional maturity and stability. You know, guys Khan just wanted to take over the Enterprise in "Space Seed" and he was pretty damn threatening. Janice Lester switched bodies with Kirk, and that was pretty scary in "Turnabout Intruder." One episode, saw the crew face a personal apocalypse when they began to age rapidly ("The Deadly Years.") A little more cleverness would be welcome here; not necessarily more grand gestures like destroying whole planets.

I can't write here, in my capacity as an honest, objective reviewer, that all these flaws -- the inconsistent red matter threat, the technical inaccuracies, the lack of several important Star Trek ingredients -- don't matter. Indeed, they do matter, very much. The most difficult part for me is that all of these problems could have been rectified with just one more polish of the script.

On the other hand, I can also tell you that I sat through five of the most dreadful, brain-dead theatrical trailers I've ever seen in my life, waiting for Star Trek to start (for Year One, GI Joe, Night at the Museum 2, Inglorious Basterds, and Transformers 2, respectively). I'm afraid my IQ dropped several points just being exposed to them. If that's the state of the competition, and of movie making in 2009, then Star Trek even without Shakespeare is still...Shakespeare.

You've no doubt read several other reviews of Star Trek by now, in which new cast members are alternately lauded or derided (some people like Karl Urban, some don't; some people approve of Chris Pine; others not so much, etc.) I thought everybody did a terrific job. This is a talented bunch, and I'm ready to see this fantastic cast engage in a sequel. Down to a person, I found this new crew impressive and charismatic.

Who Was That Pointy Eared Bastard?

Okay, I've shared with you -- at some length, actually -- my reservations about this bold new Star Trek. I haven't pulled my punches, either.

Now, I want to write about the reasons Star Trek is still a good film.

First, I must praise the writers. Overall, they have done a fine job of incorporating myriad elements of Star Trek lore both famous and obscure, and blending them all into a strong and cohesive narrative.

Here you will find mentions of figures like Admiral Komack and Admiral Archer. Here you will witness Kirk's mythic third go at the Kobayashi Maru "no win scenario" test, and Spock's much-discussed but never-seen confrontation at the Vulcan Science Academy. Amanda spoke of other boys teasing Spock in "Journey to Babel," and again, we get to see for ourselves the bullying in live-action here. And It's not just the obvious stuff the script gets right, like Kirk bedding down a green Orion Slave Girl. Instead, I believe the writers did a fine, thorough job of extrapolating from Trek history some interesting and unique twists. I very much liked, for example, their origin for the nickname "Bones."

Another case in point: Uhura. In this film, Spock and Uhura share a romantic relationship, and though some people complained about it, I felt this was easily a relationship that could have blossomed between those characters (and I found it much more believable in nature than the Scotty/Uhura romance of Star Trek V, for instance).

To buttress this belief, I go back to three specific instances in which Spock and Uhura shared something more than mere "official" business in The Original Series. In "The Man Trap," Uhura and Spock bantered about Vulcan and the lack of moons, as well as Uhura's boredom with constantly opening hailing frequencies. In "Charlie X," Uhura teased Spock with a flirtatious song (in which she commented on his devil ears and devil eyes...). And, in some other episode that I can't remember now (Is it "Who Mourns for Adonais?"), Spock revealed a special confidence and tenderness towards Uhura in a tense moment, noting that if anybody could accomplish something difficult, she could.

Given such interactions in the Original Series, a romance between Spock and Uhura is not that much of a jump. And, in fact, it's delightful. 

You see, this is where Orci and Kurtzman are cleverer than the hacks who wrote the recent Star Trek movies: they don't just blindly rinse and repeat old chestnuts hoping to elicit the same reflexive responses (Spock died in Star Trek II, so Data should die in Star Trek: Nemesis, etc.). On the contrary, it's clear they've pondered Star Trek lore  and considered, in Spock's words, that there are always...possibilities. This film dwells and revels in those possibilities. What if Spock and Uhura got together? What if Chekov wasn't just a young apprentice to Spock, but a genius in his own right? What if the seeds of Scotty's weight problem began with his hunger on Delta Vega? (Kidding about that last one...).

Also, I believe a very strong case could be made that, overall, Star Trek as a franchise is really and truly the story of Mr. Spock and his life-time journey towards enlightenment. Spock began life as a derided outsider in two worlds. On the original five year mission, he found a place of acceptance and friendship on the Enterprise, but still longed to prove himself as a Vulcan. After his encounter with V'Ger, Spock came to a point of new understanding, an epiphany that logic was "not enough" and that without emotions, people can be "barren," and "cold." By the time of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, he had gone far enough to realize that logic was the "beginning of wisdom, not the end."

What I find amazing (and touching...) about the new Star Trek is that Orci and Kurtzman have given us Spock's final chapter at the same time they have provided us his first chapter, thus wackily making their one-of-a-kind film a prequel and a sequel simultaneously. Miraculously, they pull it off too, with Spock confiding in his younger self that in the future he should just do..."what feels right."

Indeed, I can see plainly why Leonard Nimoy returned for Star Trek for this opportunity. Ambassador Spock serves an important role in the story, and his long journey towards "complete person-hood" (with nudges from a fella named Jim Kirk...) reaches a logical conclusion and destination. I found it shocking and sad how wavering and weak Nimoy's voice has grown, but I nonetheless felt all his scenes granted the film a real sense of heart. To see Old Spock sending off the Enterprise on its maiden voyage was, well...overwhelming to me

 I also loved the fact that Spock gets to put into words what his friendship with Jim Kirk has meant to his life. I could not imagine a better ending for Leonard Nimoy's Spock than this one. This aspect of the film is superb.

I also rather enjoyed the fact that this Star Trek found time for a few trademark goofy moments, such as Kirk's "inflated" hands (an allergic reaction to a vaccination) and Scotty's watery ride through an engineering tube. Goofy humor has been part and parcel of Star Trek since the very beginning; since episodes like "I Mudd," "A Piece of the Action" and "The Trouble with Tribbles." I liked that this Star Trek felt confident enough to get silly. It's a good signal that the makers of the movie understand just how multi-faceted the franchise can be.

Finally, I loved that the fate of the galaxy and the future -- as usual -- seemed to depend entirely on Kirk getting Spock emotionally riled up at the right (or wrong...) moment. Again, that's very true to the series and its history (think "This Side of Paradise") but not so similar to what came before that it feels hackneyed. I could go on and on about the fun moments I enjoyed here: the pit-bull nature of Kirk (never surrender, never say die), the moment Sulu forgot an important launch procedure, the portentous first view of the gorgeous new Enterprise in space...etc.

Again, I feel strongly that the overall joyful aura of the film outweighs the specific and numerous deficits.

His Pattern Indicates Two-Dimensional Thinking

Last thing: Do you remember how in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock informed Kirk that Khan's battle strategy indicated "two-dimensional thinking?"

Alas, the same could be said of the Star Trek franchise's approach to depicting space battles over the years. How come the Enterprise always encountered Klingon Birds of Prey right-side up? How did various ships know which way they should position themselves to align with other traveling ships? Why did they always come at each other face to face, like lumbering elephants, or jousting knights?

Well, J.J. Abrams gets that problematic trope out of the way in this film's first scene, showing us, for perhaps the first time in Star Trek history, a legitimately three-dimensional playing field, one in which starships approach, retreat ,and combat one another using the full-scope of the interplanetary arena. This is an arena where Abrams has improved the franchise with his aesthetic approach, and it's fair in my review to note that fact.

Even better (and compensating for some of the script's scientific errors), Abrams remembers that there is no sound in space and occasionally adopts a perspective outside the hulls of the warring vessels. He lets the sound go silent (save for the roaring, martial soundtrack...) and we achieve a strange sense of distance from the attack; standing back and marveling at the epic quality of the scene. It's inspiring, actually, and lends credence to the opinion that this is one of the best visualized Star Trek yet forged.

And I guess, at long last, that brings me back to my opening point. 

Star Trek is in good hands. J.J. Abrams, Orci and Kurtz seem to have recognized the very qualities that Star Trek requires to "live long and prosper" at this particular juncture in pop culture history. Those qualities are: (in random order): vigor, excitement spontaneity, camaraderie, humor, and a sense of fun...all writ large. This Trek movie is not without significant flaws, but all in all, it's quite a proper shakedown.

Star Trek Week: Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

A “generation’s final journey” begins in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), the film that finally took the crown of “worst” (and lowest grossing…) Star Trek film away from The Final Frontier (1989). 

And much like that fifth franchise film, Nemesis is a movie that saw some severe post-production cuts and tinkering.  Fifty-minutes have been excised from the Stuart Baird film, and many fans to this day feel that those missing fifty minutes could make a huge difference in terms of the film’s quality, not to mention reception.

The theatrical release of Nemesis, however, fails to please for a variety of reasons. 

First, the film veers wildly from irrelevant fan service (pleasing the base demographic) to head-scratching discontinuities within the existing Star Trek universe.  The film ping-pongs between these disparate poles, and, roughly, pleases almost no demographic whatsoever. 

On top of that enormous deficit, the film’s photography is relentlessly, woefully dark.  And I don’t mean the film’s tone, either.  I refer to the underwhelming, uninspiring visual palette.  We go from one dimly-lit chamber to another, to another, ad infinitum -- even aboard the Enterprise -- and the result is a subconscious feeling of fatigue, or even emotional oppression. 

The familiar story-beats from The Wrath of Khan don’t help Nemesis succeed, either.  Been there, done that.

Here, another deadly villain who is a mirror image of our hero (literally, this time…) attempts to use a weapon of mass destruction.  In stopping this terrorist, a beloved Enterprise crew member is killed…and the seeds are planted for an emotional resurrection.

Overall, Star Trek: Nemesis feels, well, worn-out and exhausted.  And this impression arises despite the herculean efforts of lead actor Patrick Stewart, who connects with the Picard character again on a very human, almost world-weary level.  He delivers a fine, thoughtful performance, in Nemesis – one of his finest, actually -- and he almost succeeds in anchoring the movie.

Following the wedding ceremony of Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) on Earth, the Enterprise-E crew heads to outer space to ferry the happy couple to Betazed.  En route, however, “positronic” readings are discovered on the world of Kolarus III, near the Romulan Neutral Zone.

Upon investigation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Data (Brent Spiner) and Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) discover a disassembled android prototype on the planet, a dead ringer for Data.  The android’s name is B-4 (Brent Spiner), and he is a less-sophisticated machine, but one that Data nonetheless accepts immediately as a brother.

After leaving Kolarus III, the Enterprise is re-routed by orders from Admiral Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). A coup has occurred on the planet Romulus, and a mysterious new leader, Shinzon (Tom Hardy) has swept away the old government with the help of his loyal Reman shock-troopers.  Now, Shinzon apparently desires peace…

Upon meeting Shinzon, Picard learns that he is human…and a clone of Picard, one originally designed for espionage.  He was created some years earlier to infiltrate Starfleet Command and replace the real Picard, but the plot was abandoned and Shinzon was consigned to the Dilithium Mines on Remus.  Now, an angry, revenge-driven Shinzon has delivered his vengeance upon Romulus, and Earth is next in line for the same treatment.

To that end, Shinzon has developed a powerful “Thalaron” weapon which can decimate living cells on a colossal scale, and even render a planet lifeless. 

A grim Picard commits the Enterprise to a battle against Shinzon’s super vessel, the Scimitar, but in the process must put his own life on the line, as well as the life of one of his dearest friends…

Before I enumerate this film’s flaws, I should comment on its virtues.  Because, hating to the contrary, they do exist.  

First, Nemesis stands virtually alone among the Next Generation films in the way that it confronts time’s inevitable passage. 

One persistent glory of the feature films featuring the original cast members is that they acknowledge the reality for the characters’ mortality.  

People age.  

They grow old, they grow apart, and they move on with their lives.  Chekov changed jobs for The Motion Picture (1979), took a posting on Reliant in The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Sulu assumed command of the Excelsior in The Undiscovered Country, for example.  The universe didn’t remain static, like a TV show...which hopes never to end.

Nemesis works really hard to get to the same place of “reality” for the characters, and should be commended for the attempt. 

The film’s opening wedding scene -- while generally horrendous in terms of dialogue, tone, editing and overall execution -- reminds us that we have known these characters for fifteen years, and that the times are indeed changing.  Riker and Troi are finally getting married, and Riker is headed off to command the Titan…after a decade-and-a-half serving in Picard's shadow.  Data is moving up to the role of first officer.  Worf is just visiting (conveniently, again…).

Secondly, Nemesis ambitiously attempts to shed “TV thinking” by allowing its characters to experience -- how shall I say this? -- sexual impulses.  Here, there is a scene involving Riker and Troi in bed, making love.  I certainly appreciate the scene in concept, revealing a more grown-up side to the characters, but again, bad execution scuttles a move towards character realism.  For one thing, Jonathan Frakes is in no shape to do a love scene at this point in his career, and for another the fact that the scene ends in a weird rape/dream ruins the intent of showing normal love and sex in the future.  What should have been a good character moment become, instead, icky and sort of embarrassing.

Much of Nemesis plays like this, like a good idea gone horribly south in the vetting, and the result is a remarkably schizophrenic film of a few ambitious highs and many incredible lows. 

The film’s first action scene is a prime example of the latter.  Captain Picard, Data and Worf visit the planet surface of Kolarus III and immediately go out driving the harsh terrain in not-at-all-advanced-looking vehicle called the Argo.  It looks like a kitted up dune buggy, and runs on…wheels.  

Fucking wheels?

Certainly, by the 24th century, cars would be out-of-fashion, and wheels wouldn’t be employed when a hover-craft would so, so this vehicle looks and feels terribly out-of-place in terms of the franchise continuity and history.

Secondly, we already know from Star Trek history (“A Piece of the Action”) and Star Trek: The Next Generation history (“The Big Goodbye”) that automobiles are relics of another, bygone age.  In fact, in the aforementioned TNG episode, Worf can’t even pronounce the word “automobile” correctly.  

The result is that the Argo sticks out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, the Starfleet officers tool around in their new…car, and end up fighting the inexplicably hostile life-forms of Kolarus III, a pre-warp planet.  

Disregarding the Prime Directive entirely, Picard, Data and Worf utilize their advanced phaser technology to fight back, and also deploy their advanced shuttle craft.  The scene evokes the Road Warrior (1982) in a kind of bad way, but primarily raises so many questions.  Why does Picard ignore the Prime Directive? Why are the inhabitants hostile to our heroes? If Data can scan for positronic life signs, why can’t he also scan for the aliens ahead of time, and avoid contact with them?  Why can't the Enterprise just beam everyone (and all the tech...) up quickly, and minimize the interference? 

This whole interlude exists in Nemesis for only one contrived reason, to introduce B4.  

Yet it is never explained in the film how Shinzon found the android, or why he chose to drop him off on a hostile planet for Picard to find, or even why he felt the need to dissect B4 into his component parts.  

If Shinzon had wanted to bring the Enterprise and Picard to Romulus for peace negotiations, he would have had to merely request Picard and his ship.  He is now a recognized Head of State, after all.  He can pretty much negotiate with anyone he chooses.  Instead, the excuse seems to be that Picard was in the area (Kolarus III), and thus the closest ship available for peace talks.  It’s all terribly trite and poorly-written, and worse, unnecessarily trite and poorly-written.

The terminally-conflicted Nemesis continues in this vein.  It reveals a young bald Captain Picard, when the TV series established that he was not yet bald when he entered Starfleet (“Tapestry.”)   

It makes another Data-type android a major plot-point, but doesn’t once bring up Lore (“Datalore,” “Brothers,” “Descent.”)

It is set on 24th century Romulus, but doesn't make even a passing comment about Amabassador Spock and his unification movement, which we remember from the series.

At one point in the narrative Data also mentions that he feels "nothing," and yet no notation is made of his emotion chip, which enables this android character to feel emotions, and which played a crucial role in Generations (1994) and First Contact (1996), and even got a passing mention in Insurrection (1998).   so has Data elected not to use it anymore?  Was it destroyed?  A major character issue is just dropped like a hot potato.

All these inconsistencies contrast mightily with moments of extreme “fan service” in Nemesis, such as the appearance of Spot, Data's cat, a mention of a Kirk Maneuver, a nod to Enterprise’s Captain Archer, and so forth.  The film simply can’t decide if it wants to break free of franchise history or wallow relentlessly in it, a fact which likely validates J.J. Abrams’ alternate universe approach to the new films starting in 2009.

As for Shinzon, he is an interesting enough villain, thanks mostly to the efforts of a very young (but also very impressive) Tom Hardy.  Unfortunately, the film’s conceit that Shinzon is actually a younger version of Picard simply doesn’t work.  It doesn't past muster in terms of our lying eyes.  

In the scene during which Picard and Shinzon meet for the first time, there is no psychic shock as Shinzon makes his revelation of identity.  Even with prosthetics and a bald head, Hardy does not resemble Patrick Stewart very much. The gulf between years is simply too great to bridge with our eyes, and so the visuals can’t inform us that Picard and Shinzon are indeed one-and-the-same person.  Thus one of the major beats of the movie simply doesn’t work successfully.

Shinzon’s motives don’t bear close examination, either.

I can understand why he would seek revenge against the Romulans, of course.  They created him for their own purposes, and then they enslaved him.  He is their “son,” their Frankenstein monster, essentially.

But why should Shinzon lash out at the Federation in general, and the Earth in particular?  What grudge do his Reman soldiers have against Earth?  The Viceroy (Ron Perlman) is constantly pushing Shinzon to attack Earth.  What the hell?

Because these questions are not answered, or adequately addressed for that matter, the film’s central threat falls flat.  It’s fine that Shinzon is dying of an illness and needs Picard’s blood to survive, but that point doesn’t explain the character’s desire to destroy Earth.

These are all considerable problems, but the film’s desire to repeat, almost verbatim, the story beats of Wrath of Khan diminishes the final product even more.  Insurrection took the same route.  Shinzon gets the jump on Picard, like Khan did with Kirk, and then Data helps Picard get the jump on Shinzon (as Spock did in TWOK).  Then, there’s the final battle of starships, with use of a WMD at stake, and – finally – the death of a major character.  Here, Data dies, but not before transferring his katra -- I mean “data engrams” -- to the conveniently-located B4.

I know plenty of people love The Next Generation, and rightly so, but it is absolutely the wrong approach to shoehorn the people and places of TNG into the mold established by the Original Series and its characters. 

The interactions are different, the storytelling-modes are different, and the feelings we have about each crew are also different.  The reason most of The Next Generation movies are not very strong is that the producers and writers keep trying to make TNG characters as jaunty, colorful and funny as the Original Series characters, and the fact of the matter is…they never were.  They were different, and had other strengths worth featuring.  Picard’s thoughtfulness is certainly one of them, and it is too Stewart’s credit that he still projects that intelligence and thoughtfulness…even in as lame a vehicle as Nemesis. 

To ape Wrath of Khan is bad enough, but to do it badly, and with a short attention span, is worse.  

In 1982, fans had to wait for two whole years for Spock’s return in The Search for Spock.  There was no instant gratification at all in that case.  By the end of Nemesis, B4 is already whistling Irving Berlin tunes, and there is no doubt that Data lives.  This short-period of mourning manages to take away from Data’s noble sacrifice.  We have a replacement right here, for the beloved crew member who died...

Nemesis’s intellectual terrain involves “family.”  Data is connected with a brother (or double), B4, that is untrustworthy.  This journey is reflected in Picard’s experience with Shinzon, a clone and brother/son figure. 

The point, showcased via Data’s sacrifice is that sometimes the brothers and sisters we choose (siblings like Riker, La Forge, Worf, Crusher, and Troi) become more important or significant to us than those boasting a biological connection.  

This is a strong idea, and one that augments the relationships between the crew.  Yet the idea fails somewhat because the film’s form doesn’t reflect the narrative's conclusions about the brothers and sisters "you chose.".  Nemesis focuses on Picard and Data to the exclusion of almost all other characters.  Though Troi gets a larger role than usual here, Riker, Worf, Crusher, and La Forge all feel like after-thoughts.  A chubby, Shatner-esque Riker battling the Viceroy mano-e-mano is hardly a substitute for meaningful time spent with the character.

I should also add that Nemesis is very 2002, either by design or happenstance.  The film was released in November 2002 just as George Bush 2 (the sequel) and his administration were making their big marketing push to invade Iraq and take down the regime of Saddam Hussein.  The reason behind that invasion of Iraq (which ultimately came four months later…) was Hussein’s (believed) possession of WMD. The plot line of Nemesis reflects this reality because it is the tale of the Enterprise battling a tyrant who has just such horrible weapons in his possession, and the will to use them.   

Of course, reality and fiction differ rather drastically. Saddam Hussein actually had no such weapons, whereas Shinzon clearly did.  Picard made the right choice to commit resources to destroy him.  Unlike real life, movies can tread in absolute certainties, and it’s easy to pick out the bad guys and the right "battle" to undertake.  This movie reflects none of the complexity of the real life issue.  

I wish there were more positive things to write about Star Trek: Nemesis, but it is abundantly a case of the echo (Nemesis) over the real voice (The Wrath of Khan), to roughly-quote Shinzon.  I’m all for a new release of the film featuring the excised footage, and restoring some moments that would have made the Next Generation’s last voyage a bit more successful.

I hasten to add, it would have been truly horrible to end the original cast films after the failure of The Final FrontierThe Undiscovered Country righted the franchise ship, and gave that beloved crew a proper send-off.  

Today, the Next Generation crew is arguably just as beloved as the original crew, and it deserves a proper send-off too. Nemesis just isn’t that movie.  

Not by half-a-galaxy.