Monday, March 09, 2015

Guest Post: Rebuttal to Ask JKM: J.J. Trek Haters

By William Johnson

Just by chance, I was bouncing my second child on my knee and flipping through channels and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘Devil’s Due’ came on. A great episode.

Sure, when you think of Captain Picard going up against the devil, the last thing you projected was the examination of centuries old legal contracts or a pretty-Earthy arbitration hearing but hey … TNG made something that sounds mundane on paper really pop. Plus, there were stakes. If Picard lost … okay, I’ll quote ‘lost’ for reasons I’ll explain in a second … If Picard ‘lost’, he’d have to bang this super-hot devil lady for the rest of his life. Once again, this is if he loses!

Anyway, every other human being besides me looks at this adventure and thinks “I know Picard is going to win because this is episodic television” but we kind of put it to the side. An acceptable sacrifice for the suspension of disbelief (and I say every other human being because I would lose on purpose so I can bang hot devil lady so I’d expect Picard too also).

Side bar: because I’ve used bang twice in the last two paragraphs, I am contractually obligated to add ‘brah’ to the end of the next sentence as I am clearly trapped in a 21 year old frat boy’s mind … brah.

You'd lose on purpose too
 And that train of thought got me thinking about TNG as a whole and how we view it compared to more ‘normal’ storytelling.

In ‘Devil’s Due’, we naturally accept the idea that the episode exists in a vacuum. We know episodes continue before and after and we know the conventions of episodic television so we just let it go. 

Frankly, unless you’re a weird pervert like me who likes saucy con-artist devil ladies who can transform into anything, you don’t even really think about it. The tension exists and we accept it.

But ‘Devil’s Due’ also kind of sums up the TNG experience during one exchange between Data and Picard in Picard’s Ready Room. I’ll just summarize from memory because I’m lazy:

Picard: Ah, Mr. Data. I was reviewing history … as one is to do when facing a situation in a perfect world in which nothing like this has ever happened before or since the Federation existed … and I was studying something called the ‘con game’.

Data: Ah yes … Are you stating that you feel hot devil lady …

Picard: Ardra … yes … oh yes …

Data: … Ardra is a ‘con artist’?

Picard: Well done Mr. Data. Yes...

Now, during this scene, Picard says the two words ‘con game’ for about 45 seconds because:

1) he’s never said it before in his entire life and 

2) because we, as an audience, have to accept that these characters are studying something foreign to them but familiar to us.

All joking aside, this brings to mind the idea of archetypes of which both original series characters and TNG characters consist of. They are characters, yes, but they are literally a bunch of traits that are formed by two things:

1)     time

2)     the situations they are put in

Over the time of a series, each actor and small backstory allows some life to be breathed into the characters. But what forms the backbone of the characters is their exposure to elements foreign to them. In a sense, TOS and TNG exist as metaphors: some small, some large and we accept it because from the get go we’ve kind of accepted that these characters aren’t necessarily full-fledged human beings (or other alien races) because they exist as a brick in the story wall.

That’s not to say TOS, TNG, DS9, SVU, CSI: CYBER HOMELAND GALACTICA don’t all have great individual character moments or moments of breadth and dimension. But for the most part, especially in the original two series, it was more about exploring ourselves through broad archetypes being faced with broad, high concept ideas.

This idea, while excellent for television, had a tough time translating to the big screen. The creators of the TNG films had the ridiculous task of trying to please fans of the TV show while bringing in new viewers (which makes it double secret ironic that the two most successful non-JJ films are sequels of sorts to television episodes). You’d think, using the archetype vs. idea or idea vs. idea plot device that a movie would be simple. Hell, it worked for Star Wars.

Well, most of Star Wars...
Now to the core of this whole thing: JJ Trek haters. I had to seriously examine some of what JKM wrote about a month ago in regards to this issue and the TNG films in particular:

Now, please, inform me, what specifically of Gene Roddenberry’s vision or social commentary is present in Generations?  Or Nemesis?  Or First Contact, for that matter? 

Picard absolutely learns personal lessons in those films (not to long for the life he can’t have, not to forget that all people have the capacity for evil, and that there is no profit in revenge, respectively).  

I’m not talking about that, however. I’m discussing ideas that have a pro-social currency in the larger national dialogue.  That is a core precept of Star Trek, and you can't find it in the Next Gen movies.

Rather plainly -- like or hate the message itself -- Star Trek Into Darkness is the first Star Trek movie, quite possibly, since the Glasnost entry The Undiscovered Country (1991) to carry a relevant societal message. 

It might therefore be considered, rightly, a restoration of Gene Roddenberry’s vision, not an abandonment of it.

Now, JKM and I have a rather tortured history when it comes to Star Trek. 

Now, even though he is editing this article for me, I am going to tell the truth. JKM is a {REDACTED} {REDACTED} {REDACTED} of Jean-Luc Picard and {REDACTED} {REDACTED} {REDACTED} {REDACTED} {REDACTED} {REDACTED} {REDACTED}.

Plus, he slept with my wife. But we are still friends.

Regardless of all that has happened between us, I agree with his take on JJ Haters but slightly disagree on the above statements he made. 

For one, I think Star Trek’s taken-at-face-value reputation as a deliverer of relevant social commentary is over-rated. While I view Star Trek as a morality play or a fable, I still think the effect is personal. Something like The Undiscovered Country is an example of an exception, not the rule.

Star Trek is most definitely a franchise that exists for the purpose of saying something meaningful but I think the perceived scope is out of whack, especially when people talk about Roddenberry’s vision. 

Because some of the works of Star Trek went beyond a people-speaking-in-a-conference room level of discussion regarding ideology (a lot of Trek’s societal message is between multiple characters sitting together on a couch, in a conference room or trapped in the holodeck discussing how they view the universe), people sometimes inflate its purpose.

To me, Roddenberry’s vision was a lot more subtle. To me, most of Trek’s most stunning adventures are personal and the existence of a national dialogue went beyond current events but deep into our souls. It is very relevant for Star Trek Into Darkness to discuss a post-9/11 world and for The Undiscovered Country to discuss the fall of the Soviet Union because when those films respectively came out, those were big issues.

However, what makes Trek timeless to me is the emotions and conditions … the national dialogue of the mind and soul, if you will … that exist through any time period through human history. Trek, at least to me, spoke out to me at that level. Which is why I tend to not really buy into the JJ Trek stuff. I don’t want to get into that at the moment because I wasn’t asked to discuss that and you’ll never get me to stop (Plus, I can’t use big words JKM uses, like Glasnost. What the hell does that mean anyway)?

But I am here, with this perception in mind, to defend the TNG films. As JKM said, TNG had a lot of personal journeys that occurred. And his point, not quoted above, about how sometimes Trek had to ‘dumb’ itself down for ratings (more color, action, etc) is very, very true. Think the extraordinary saucer crash in Generations or the goofy ATV ride in Nemesis in which goofy gargoyle creatures shoot bullets at Picard.

So, before I continue my defense, let’s go ahead and get the really stupid shit out of the way because, I know, the comments section will be like ‘yeah, but Riker does the thing with the thing’. I know. Not everything is perfect. Let’s get it out of the way.




NOT stupid. I like it. Shut up.

Okay???!!! We got it out of the way now. There are some pretty dumb ass moments in the TNG movies. But, putting those aside, let’s look at these movies with a new eye.

Taking my concept of the more subtle Trek world view, each Trek film offers some pretty powerful messages.

Star Trek Generations

As writers of the film, Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga will tell you they introduced far too many themes in Generations (if only Braga could admit he introduced too many themes … and ideas … and himself … to story meetings for Voyager). But when you have to shoehorn Kirk and his ideals into a film that seems rooted in The Next Generation, you end up with a mixed bag.

Generations has three major themes going at once:

1) Picard and his family
2) Soren has his thirst for an escape from his troubles
3) Kirk and his desire to make a difference.

*yes, I’m considering Data’s emotion chip a subplot with tangential connections to the main themes

Of the three, #3 felt the schlockiest. I always felt that the writers wanted to sum Kirk up into a stereotype and ret-conned some back-story for him to service both the plot and some of what the writers were trying to say.

And, as for #2, I felt the concept was underused. Soren has a great speech in the middle of the film but, for the most part, his desires and his deadly addiction are played more to move the plot along (again) than to actually examine anything. So I’ll fault the film there and agree with the naysayers.

However, issue #1 is a powerful concept because, like I said about Trek as a whole, the concept of family … of generations … goes beyond just moving Picard and the script from A to B but it also runs through almost every aspect of Star Trek itself as presented in that two hour running time. In quick summary: Picard loses his brother and nephew … the last heirs to the Picard name … in a fire. Picard examines his life: proud of his choices yet haunted by them as well.

This very specific concept of Picard becoming the last of his family line exists in the realm of the fictional film’s plot itself. But Generations functions as a second series’ finale for a television show that ended only a few months before its release as well. The idea of time and character’s lives ending and, in the case of moving on to further generations (DS9, VOY, etc) exists in a meta-way outside the film. But even that has layers. The concept of a historic franchise expanding and growing (while pieces of it die) is a portion of this theme. And all this is relegated to just Star Trek the franchise.

Like any great teaching moment in TNG, and continuing with my idea that Trek is more of an internal and timeless entity, Generations represents the very Roddenberry idea of mankind’s journey into the unknown, a more metaphysical and philosophical idea than a ‘message’.

Nothing else is quite like the final frontier than the eternally mysterious lifespan we all lead. We know the beginning and we know the end … but what happens in-between?

What Generations attempts to do … and mostly succeeds in doing… is showing how our essence as a human being with a soul is made up of experience, and the concept that the final destination is death. It is what we do with the time between that matters and, in a sense, allowing the fantasy to come to you (like The Nexus) instead of making your own fantasy (or missing out on making it) is what makes us who we are.

Roddenberry’s original idea was for a Wagon Train to the Stars. And while many Western tropes existed in Trek, most specifically the frontiers of space (just like those who explored the frontiers of the West and encountered new ideologies and different cultures), the concept went beyond the physical. Generations explores the frontiers of the mind and soul and, even without a statement on our nation per se, says a lot about general society. In other words: a true representation of Roddenberry’s vision.

From a purely film aspect, a lot of arguments state that Generations plays out like a bigger-budgeted two parter of the television series. I can’t think of a better compliment. Questions of morality and philosophy played out on a large scale with incredible action sequences.

From a technical standpoint, the Enterprise-D sets and costumes were made for a television screen, size wise. So when it came time to shoot the film, a lot of camera tricks and slight costume redesigns had to be done to accommodate the larger screen format.

Director David Carson’s smartest move was to hire John A. Alonzo as cinematographer (Oscar nominated director of photography for Chinatown). I dare you to find a more stunningly shot film in the Trek film oeuvre then Generations … and all because of actual limitations. Check out these differences between the boob tube and the silver screen.

But that’s why they destroyed the ship (sadly) because of the continual technical problems the sets would present in future films.

Besides the actual physical filming, the Enterprise-D model proved to be equally cinematic when presented in full CG. It was an awkward ship to shoot but that was what made it unique: it looked completely different from six or seven different angles. Added with seven years of television, the Enterprise-D was like a home: something the Enterprise-E could only pretend to be.

So on that physical examination alone, Generations is as close to the Roddenberry vision of his future … and his show … as the four movies would get.

Star Trek: First Contact

Arguably the most successful of the TNG films, First Contact is a sequel to not only a two part episode of the series but of a concept introduced and common knowledge to those who watched the show: the Borg. 

How did the most successful of the TNG films succeed by being based so completely on internal continuity?

Even though Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga, who returned to write this one, introduced almost as many themes and subplots as Generations, they were all connected together and flowed freely. And despite the connection to existing continuity, the writers were able to seamlessly write expository dialogue to explain that which was unknown to viewers new to Trek AND introduce ideas that are inherently Roddenberry and inherently Trek.

The theme of the film is actually a more personalized version of the theme running through Star Trek II-IV: the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few or the one. In Treks II-IV, the stakes were a lot higher (it seems) but those films personify the Roddenberry theory I support. So does First Contact. You have three main plots converging on this one theory:

1)     Picard’s quest for revenge against those that hurt him most … or the Moby Dick plot

2)     Data’s desire to be human and his seduction by the Borg Queen … or the Pinocchio and/or Jesus plot.

3)     Zefram Cochrane’s true desire to make money rather than usher in a new era of peace … or the … uh … James Cromwell plot

All three of these idea culminate in life changing moments for the characters. Picard learns his revenge, which has now traversed time, puts the ideals he loves at risk, not to mention the people. He decides he’d rather die for the ideals he’s always lived for and be stranded in the past than let his personal desire for vengeance literally cause a scorched earth.

Data eventually resists his temptations and fights for his friends/ideals as well.

And, of course, with Riker and Geordi chirping in his ear, spreading the good word of the Great Bird, Cochrane realizes his inner Spider-Man, that with great power comes great responsibility. The reluctant hero accepts his role and, in a reverse of Picard and Data, rejects his former selfish ideals.

Picard’s storyline … the main portion of the film … proves its timelessness by referencing Moby Dick directly. Moby Dick, written in the 19th century, isn’t necessarily a timely depiction of the then-current society or its ills. The prevalent themes are those of man’s internal struggle and those who fall victim to their own tragic flaws. Before Moby Dick, centuries back, these ideas existed in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Shakespeare’s heroes, like Othello and Hamlet (though less ambiguous than Captain Ahab and more ambiguous than Captain Picard), had tragic flaws that led to their downfall.

Being Roddenberry’s Trek, Picard doesn’t go so far as to be destroyed by his near-tragic flaw … and that is the point. Trek’s ideals exist to show the consequences of actions we, as humans, should be better than our temptations. Data’s arc is amplified by his desire to be the ideal human. His lessons are to not only conquer his temptations but also learn how humans should be. Add Cochrane’s change of heart and you get a nice, clean resolution to a dramatic problem with lessons thrown in. Timeless lessons that will continue through many different political administrations and changes of societal ideologies.

Plus robot sex.. Yeah brah!

Star Trek: Insurrection

Well, we’ve come to this. The moment where I will lose readers or gain them. Insurrection. Even though the film is written by a different person than the previous two films (Michael Piller with additional story elements by Rick Berman), some of the same ideas from First Contact carry over. Though Picard and Co. ‘break the rules’ (their insurrection/rebellion is entirely justified without any ambiguity or moral confusion), they fight for their ideals.

The film’s biggest problem is tone. Even if we were dealing with exactly the same plot as First Contact, Insurrection’s soft approach to most of the ideas lessens its impact.

It can be admitted that Insurrection is goofy and silly. And as a result, truly complex and dark ideas that came out of First Contact could have been amplified here for all involved. Take Geordi’s vision returning? What if he decided: I can’t go back to being blind? I have to defend the evil Admiral’s plan? Or what if Riker’s rediscovered love for Troi led to him rethinking his career path and he decided to leave Starfleet? What if Worf’s puberty and Crusher’s boobs getting bigger … ok, never mind.

Insurrection allows the moral ambiguity to be shouldered by the made-up-just-for-this-movie’s villains. The writer’s absolutely miss the dramatic tension available by using the temptations of a Fountain of Youth could have on our main characters. And in the end, that’s okay that it didn’t.

We just saw Picard and Data go through their darkest moments and TNG was not always doom and gloom … sometimes it was bright, fresh and funny. Insurrection’s jokes fall flat sometimes (though I found many portions of it charming) and it pushes its luck with the cutesy moments but it still has something to say in a broad way. But by reverting the tension to a villain and a village we don’t really care about, the message loses impact. But it is still there … buried.

Plus, if it doesn't get a little dusty in your viewing room when this scene comes on, you have no soul. *Sniff*

Star Trek: Nemesis

I find Nemesis an interesting film for what could have been. The idea that I think was meant to happen was this: what happens if the same exact person was born and bred in a different environment.

Would any of the good come out, or would only the bad rise to the top?

Because, even though he doesn’t looking anything like Picard at all, Shinzon IS Picard. He is a clone of Picard but instead of being raised amongst vineyards and lovably gruff brothers, Shinzon was a slave and ‘cannon fodder’ for wars he had nothing to do with.

Another concept I think the film tried to show was that Picard and Shinzon succeeded with pure force of will. Picard was a fierce competitor and made virtually all his dreams and accomplishments to come true being a good person. Shinzon did the same, using his charisma, strength and allegiances to escape his slavery and rule an empire.

This idea was also attempted with Data. What if Data wasn’t a perfectly made android with aspirations and a built-in moral code?

All nice ideas. Just really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really poorly executed.

None of those ideas actually come across very well … they exist, in the film’s ether … but they kind of lay there in wait, waiting for a day that will not come: the day they become fully realized concepts shown visually.

Instead, we get some really random shit: truck driving, mental rape scenes, a Jonathan Frakes love scene (*shudder*), singing (worse than Insurrection) and that ironic moment when a really good director makes a cameo in a film directed by a shitty director.

So you got me there. Nemesis has approximately 18 minutes of good stuff. The problem is the movie is at least 120 minutes long. And while the ideas above are nice concepts, they aren’t necessarily ideals on any level. I think of Dark Helmet from Space Balls when I see Shinzon:

Tom Hardy and Patrick Stewart have three really good scenes together while Picard and Riker have a beautiful moment at the end, but that’s about it (I did kind of like Shinzon getting impaled … that was pretty intense). No real ideals, Roddenberry or otherwise, presented nor attempted though they could have been.

Three out of four ain’t bad, right?

So there. That’s my defense. I’m sure, in the end, you’ll all realize John Kenneth Muir is a genius and I am a goofy moron but hopefully I shed some light on the TNG films for you and you can enjoy them a little bit more.

(John's note: I want to thank Will again for contributing this post, and urge readers to check out his blog, The Paxton Configuration)


  1. You know I'm not a hater of J.J. I really don't have a lot of time for hate. But to be honest, I'm not a particularly big fan of his Star Trek films. I rather enjoyed Lost, but the Star Trek films are nice and big and entertaining but ultimately they leave me disinterested in repeat viewings in the way ST and ST:TNG or any Star Trek series left me wanting to return.

    Will, and I hope you know what Glasnost means (kidding, I know you have a wicked sense of humor), but I really think you hit on something that, for me, really hit home. It's the emotional core and the relationships and the human experience rather than the big issues that make Star Trek so timeless and can span the generations.

    This is what appeals to me most.

    And films have the disadvantage in this way. JKM explained the issues inherent to getting a film greenlit well by the way, which may explain why I'm not even a huge fan of any of the Star Trek films. Like John said, the shows can make mistakes and get a second chance.

    But yes, some of the very reasons you rebut some of John's commentary are things I can easily identify with. I definitely do not love the Trek films in general and the new ones leave me a little cold. That's fine. But I don't hate them.

    I enjoyed your deep analysis of the Trek film verse. God knows the man behind Security Immaturity knows his Star Trek and knows it well.

    Again, loved John's deep analysis followed by your thoughtful and humored piece here.

    Take care and behave.

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