Thursday, November 21, 2019

20 Years Ago: Sleepy Hollow (1999)



After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of Mars Attacks! (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in 1999 with the triumphant Sleepy Hollow, a dark fairy tale powered by the pervasive millennial angst of the era.

Although the picture is set in the year 1799 rather than two centuries later, Sleepy Hollow nonetheless obsesses on roiling concerns regarding the future.  Would it belong to science or to superstition, knowledge or mysticism? Would the future bring only a new dark age (Y2K) or the beginnings of paradise on Earth?

Widely recognized as an example of "gorgeous filmmaking," (Rolling Stone), Sleepy Hollow was lauded upon release for its lush production values and colorful, autumnal imagery.  Stephanie Zacharek at Salon, for instance, aptly termed the film a "visual seduction."

That's an excellent description, and a fine way of getting a good handle on the film's persuasive charm, for Sleepy Hollow is both egregiously violent (heads DO roll) and a throwback to a less graphic era in horror history.  It is dynamic and colorful in presentation and yet also strangely wistful, innocent and elegiac about the world it creates: the last spell perhaps, before science truly erases magic from existence

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow opens with a droll visual joke that, in some fashion, very ably exemplifies the film's nature. Perhaps this joke is one that only the longtime horror movie enthusiast will fully understand.  As the film commences, what appears to be very fake-looking red blood drips down upon a parchment. This fluid is soon revealed instead to be hot wax, used merely to seal an important letter. Yet for a fleeting -- and wonderful -- moment, the horror audience may believe it has actually returned to the wonderful and bygone world of Hammer Studios since the hot wax resembles that trademark Hammer-styled “fake” blood.

The joke is not only an example of inside baseball, so-to-speak, but an indicator that Burton has fashioned his entire 1999 film as an homage to the output of Hammer. As Michael Atkinson and Laurel Shifrin write in Flickipedia, the director “continues his unique, idiosyncratic, and very personal career project: to re-experience and revivify the toy chest of pop-culture effluvia that sustained him – and many of us – through our ‘Nam era childhoods.” (Chicago Review Press, 2007, page 21.) 

Or, as Wesley Morris wrote in The San Francisco Examiner: "what Burton does perhaps better than even Steven Spielberg: transport you to a nook in your childhood, be it around a summer campfire or smack in front of a TV set on a Saturday afternoon."

In the visual language of a Hammer Studios film then, the impressive Sleepy Hollow asks its audience to contemplate the nature of life on Heaven and Earth.  Is science the key to understanding it? Or is there room, yet, for magic in this world?  In scenes both lyrical and poetic (particularly those involving Lisa Marie as Ichabod's mother), Burton's Sleepy Hollow seeks the answer.

Less deliberately oddball than some of Burton's earlier works but nonetheless highly-stylized from a visual standpoint, Sleepy Hollow thus emerges as one of the top "tier" films in the director's canon; a bedtime story that maintains, even today, the kind of timeless, classic qualities of the best ghost stories.

"It is truth, but truth is not always appearance."


The rational, scientific constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent by his superior (Christopher Lee) to the Dutch farming community of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of grisly murders allegedly caused by a spectral avenger called the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken). 

When he arrives, Crane begins to uncover evidence of witchcraft in the Van Tassel family, even as he grows close to Baltus Van Tassel’s (Michael Gambon) daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci).  The specter of witchcraft strikes a chord with the cowardly Ichabod, however, as Crane's mother (Marie) was also witch.

As the mystery of Sleepy Hollow deepens, Crane wonders if someone is summoning a dark, malevolent spirit for monetary gain, and if so, who it could be.  He realizes that to learn that answer, Crane must not depend on science alone, but open himself to the possibilities suggested by his mother; the possibilities of magic.

"The millennium is almost upon us..."


Although based very loosely on the 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1783-1859), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow serves instead as a dedicated tribute to the output of Hammer Studios, England’s pre-eminent exporter of horror during the late 1950s and 1960s.

Not only does this film feature familiar horror actors from the Hammer stable, including Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, it is also, like the works of that studio, largely set-bound, and it embodies a similar, heavy sense of Gothic romanticism.

In other words, Sleepy Hollow drips with atmosphere, depicts strange supernatural rituals, and generates extreme emotions in its dramatis personae and audience, namely terror. Writing in Entertainment Design, production designer John Calhoun reported that, from the outset of production on Sleepy Hollow, director Burton reported how he desired to “evoke the Hammer Film style,” one that was notably “artifice-heavy.” ("Headless in Sleepy Hollow," November 1999, page 38.)

Accordingly, the autumnal woods surrounding the town of Sleepy Hollow evoke Hammer’s visual tradition, dominated by fog, mist and craggy, ancient-seeming trees that could come to life at any moment.  Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote persuasively of the film's canvas: "Using a color palette more often associated with stories of the gulag, "Sleepy Hollow" creates a landscape so daunting that even a large tree bleeds."  Indeed, the artificial forest seems to reflect the very spirit of the film, of a world brought to life by the competing forces of science (the artifice of the production design) and magic (the special effects visualizations of the Hessian.)

Crane has put his faith in technology and reason, and believes that “to detect the guilty” science is the best tool.   He disdains the fact that he seems to be the only one "who can see that to solve crimes, we must use our brains, assisted by reason, using up-to-date scientific techniques."

That battle between the two ways (rational science and irrational mysticism) is the real thematic terrain of the film.

Almost immediately, Crane’s strategy is tested, and he encounters a world of very real superstition and witchcraft. Crane rejects these principles at first, in part because his Mother was a witch (a good witch…) and he lost her in a painful, violent manner to a society which condemns such practitioners. Looking at Crane’s dream sequences involving his mother, they pointedly contrast with the soot-and-industrial look of New York featured in the beginning of the film. The “cherry-blossom-filled reveries” (Interiors: "Here's Your Head, What's Your Hurry?" December 1999, page 62) suggest a world beyond reason and natural sciences; one more fully alive than what is depicted in the bleeding forest around the town.   The forest there appears so autumnal and brown, I would submit, because magic and witchcraft are disappearing from the world: it is their final autumn before Ichabod's way will dominate the human race.  Even the (ostensibly happy) end of the film reinforces this idea, with the arrival of Katrina and Ichabod in "modern" New York...a realm of science.

Interestingly, Sleepy Hollow does-- at least partially --  seem to view the loss of magic and the victory of science as a loss for mankind.

Though whip smart, knowledgeable and clever, Ichabod suppresses his own “natural gift,” the one handed down to him by his mother: his capacity for belief in something greater than the resources and wonders of man’s mind. In this sense, one might gaze at Sleepy Hollow as a tale of one man’s spiritual, even religious, awakening. Crane comes to see that he can't depend on science alone, but also must understand the rules of magic; on his instinctive sense of wonder. 

And like many a Tim Burton hero, The Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow is another outcast, but in this case, one who fits explicitly into the movie's dialogue about nature vs. super-nature.  The  Hessian is doomed to walk the Earth at the behest of an evil mistress, and Sleepy Hollow involves the freeing of this spirit and outcast.  Thus the Hessian serves as almost a mirror for Crane.  The Headless Horseman is a man who exists in a purely supernatural (rather than scientific) state and must be put to rest; to the clinical, empirical state of death, upon which his release hinges.  His release rests in science, or release from the supernatural, in other words  Together, Crane and the Hessian make an interesting duo.  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.

Uniquely, Ichabod's journey may also be a reflection of how cinema (particular the horror cinema) had grown cold and clinical in the 1990s.  This was the era of 1,001 police procedural horrors, roughly (The Silence of the Lambs, Jennifer 8, Se7en, Kiss the Girls, Resurrection, Copycat, The Bone Collector, etc.) and such films reduced the great act of "monster"-hunting to a science, a forensic science. 

Ichabod is clearly in the mold of such CSI-styled investigators (nay a progenitor of their mold...) and yet in the end it is not forensics that saves the day in Sleepy Hollow...it is the investigator's natural gift, his ability to countenance magic.  One might easily see this conceit as Burton's embedded critique of the increasingly stale take on horror at the turn of the millennium.  With its beautiful fairy tale forests and deliberate Hammer Studio artifice, Sleepy Hollow seems a deliberate and almost elegiac throwback to an era of imagination and theatricality instead of gritty psychological realism.

At one point in the film, it is noted that Crane is actually "bewitched by reason," and that comment perfectly captures the film's questioning spirit, the idea that science and belief must walk hand-in-hand in the human equation.  And so even though Katrina fears that Crane possesses no heart (only a mind), the same cannot be said for this lush, gorgeous, Tim Burton film...undeniably one of his finest.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

25 Years Ago: Gerry Anderson's Space Precinct (1994 - 1995)


Just a season after Steven Bocho and ABC-TV brought extreme grittiness (not to mention four-letter words and bare behinds...) to televised cop dramas with the popular NYPD Blue (1993 - 2005), veteran British producer Gerry Anderson premiered his own unique take on the cop genre: the futuristic adventure, Space Precinct. 

This one-of-a-kind science fiction TV series from the nineties had roots going all the back to a never-aired pilot film -- Space Police --  in 1986. Covered in Starlog Magazine at the time, the drama starred Shane Rimmer as an Earth cop named Brogan working in a very, very  alien environment.  

By 1994, when the concept finally went to weekly series, American actor Ted Shackelford (Knots Landing) assumed the role of Officer Patrick Brogan, a family man  and  officer working in the 88th Precinct in Demeter City, on the distant planet called Altor. 

The suburbs.
And -- in an eerie repeat of what occurred with Space: 1999 in 1975 -- absolutely no one knew what to make of the new Anderson drama. 

Specifically, Space Precinct aired sporadically in syndication across the United States, often at 3:00 in the morning.  It hardly dented the pop-culture bubble.

Apparently, many station programmers weren't certain if  Space Precinct  was an adult drama, a kid's series, or something else entirely. The adult narratives about drugs ("black crystal") and sex suggested the former. The fanciful alien make-up design and cops-and-robbers-styled action indicated the latter.  

Frankly, no one had ever seen anything quite like it. 

From "The Snake," a booby-trapped Omega Tanker.

In brief, I'll state this: if nothing else, Space Precinct is truly a fascinating historical artifact.  

This is so because the Anderson venture is one of the last sci-fi TV programs to rely almost entirely on miniatures and models rather than CGI in terms of depicting alien space ships and environments. 

Much of the episodic action of Space Precinct occurs in a colossal Blade Runner (1982)-styled future metropolis rendered completely in miniature, and often with impressive results.   

Across the episode catalog, audiences see the waterfront ("near the anti-gravity processors"), parking decks ("Protect and Serve"), mom-and-pop shops ("Enforcer"), the spires of the Hotel Nirvana ("Protect and Serve"), futuristic crack-houses ("Double Duty") and other facets of the metropolis.

The program's ubiquitous flying cars, or "hoppers," are also small, meticulously-detailed models -- moved about on wires -- and there are some really terrific craft designs highlighted in Space Precinct.  

Standard issue police cruiser.
The futuristic apartment complex/space station that orbits the planet is absolutely gorgeous, for instance, and the standard-issue police cruiser -- a multi-engined, fighter-type affair -- is the utilitarian but fun workhorse of the series' action.

Commendably, the miniatures are even used to buttress the series' pervasive and droll sense of humor.  In an episode called "Double Duty," an impressive space colossus appears in space over the orbiting precinct house, and is the punch-line to a very funny joke about an alien race seeking its lost queen.

In another episode, there's a whimsical little pizza-delivery hopper that gets pulped during a chase. And in yet another show ("Body and Soul"), the miniature work evokes a kind of anxiety or terror.  An impressive space derelict -- covered in space dust -- is discovered crashed on the pitted surface of Merlin's Asteroid. 

The big drawback to this old-school special effects approach is simply that the ships/vehicles don't always look entirely convincing while in motion over  atmospheric Demeter City.  Sometime, it is all too clear you're  watching highly-detailed miniatures. In the best shots, the Space Precinct visuals really do pass muster, 25 years later.

Interestingly, the space-bound chase scenes -- which don't have to deal with rain, fog and other atmospherics of city-life -- are still uniformly excellent today.  In keeping with the cops and robbers, daily-life-in-space milieu of the show, these chase scenes, on occasion, even feature the futuristic equivalent of "driver's side air bags" -- inflatable ejection pods used in the event of an accident.  Again, the intent of such devices seems to be to evoke bemusement or humor.

Anderson-quality pyrotechnics.
Also, well in keeping with the Gerry Anderson legacy and tradition, every episode of Space Precinct features at least one gigantic, incredibly impressive explosion. 

In "Protect and Serve," a futuristic parking deck gets totaled in glorious, fiery fashion; in "Body and Soul" a prototype derelict spaceship self-destructs after a tense countdown..  In "The Snake," a mad bomber detonates a space freighter in the interstellar void, and so on.

Perhaps even more importantly than the miniature effects, the alien creature designs of the series forecast the fascinating approach of Farscape (1999-2003); namely the incorporation of puppets into the mix so that the featured aliens truly seem like aliens...and not just like lightly-retouched humans with rubber ridges on their foreheads or noses.  It's a revolutionary approach that differentiates it from its contemporaries in America (namely TNG and DS9).

Now, Farscape really and truly mastered this method of creating memorable alien creatures.  Space Precinct made the same valiant attempt about five years earlier, but not on such a flamboyant and wholly successful scale. 

That said, the aliens featured in this series -- largely a rogue's gallery of cosmic criminals -- are a pretty fascinating and entertaining bunch.  After a few episodes, you don't really consciously process the fact that you are actually watching animatronic puppets.  Therefore the creature designs -- while initially startling and a little too whimsical for my taste -- ultimately prove effective.

In terms of behind-the-scenes personnel, Gerry Anderson -- as always -- assembled a top flight crew.  Here, the late, great cinematographer Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi [1983], Octopussy [1983], Lifeforce [1985], Runaway Train [1985] and A Fish Called Wanda [1988]) shoots several episodes.

Amongst the directors helming individual episodes are such vets as John Glen (The Living Daylights [1987], Licence to Kill [1989]) and Sidney Hayers (Circus of Horrors [1960].   Their expertise is needed and well-deployed, especially because some of the sets (interior and exterior) seem cramped and even impractical for shooting.

Writers on Space Precinct include Marc Scott Zicree, and J. Larry Carroll. Zicree's stories, in particular, are very enjoyable, and successfully transmit the jaunty, almost tongue-in-cheek vibe of the series.  For example, Zicree laces his efforts with little in-jokes and tributes to other famous genre programs. In  Zicree's "Enforcer" there's a joke about a "bruise the size of a horta's egg," and a passing reference to a crime called a  "1701 in progress."  

As you'll recognize, these are both fun and knowing Star Trek references.


"It's a Whole New World"

The sun sets over Demeter City, on the planet Altor
Set in the year 2040, Space Precinct follows the busy happenings in Demeter City's 88th precinct, an orbital space station and headquarters for the planet Altor's multi-racial police force.

Twenty-year NYPD veteran Patrick Brogan (Shackelford) has recently transferred to the 88th from Earth, and is slowly adjusting to life on this strange alien planet.  He has brought along his wife Sally (Nancy Paul), his son, Matt, and his daughter Liz.  Together they live on another space station, the "suburb" orbiting the city-planet "downtown."

At the precinct house, humans, Tarns and Creons work together to police the dangerous city below, which is named for the Greek Goddess Demeter, who -- appropriately -- held power over "the law" and controlled "the cycle of life and death." 

Officer Castle (Bendix) and Officer Took -- a Tarn -- interview two witnesses.
For easy reference, the Tarns seen here are sort of "Yoda Heads," three-eyed aliens with telepathic/telekinetic abilities and elfin ears. 

By contrast, the Creons are the bug-eyed "E.T. Heads," and seem more like the (Irish?) working-class folk of Demeter City. Captain Podly, a man who pulled himself up "from the street" by his bootstraps, is a Creon.

Brogan's human partner in the precinct is the hot-blooded Jack Haldane (Rob Youngblood), a younger officer who shares a flirtatious/adversarial relationship with the gorgeous Officer Janet Castle (Simone Bendix). 

Right off the bat -- in terms of appearance and behavior -- long-time science fiction TV fans will find the banter and relationship between Haldane and Castle highly reminiscent of the Tony Verdeschi/Maya relationship on the second season of Space: 1999.  But strangely, the imitation is okay.  The characterizations on the show are not deep in any meaningful sense, and the scenes between these would-be lovers add another fun, romantic element to the proceedings.

In each episode of Space Precinct, Brogan, Haldane and Castle go up against criminals in Demeter City, and Space Precinct lovingly and faithfully resurrects every cliche of the cop genre and then updates each for the future milieu. 

Two Creon police officers bracket the station robot, "Slo-Mo."
In other words, various episodes involve corporate malfeasance ("Body and Soul,") drug dealers ("Double Duty") blackmailing bombers ("The Snake"), con men running protection rackets ("Enforcer") and the ever-popular witness protection and stakeout ("Protect and Serve.") 

But, commendably, the writers do their darnedest to marry these cop genre cliches to solid science fiction concepts. 

One of the finest episodes, "Body and Soul," turns the bitter hologram replica of a Howard Hughes-type tycoon into a murdering monster with a God Complex, for instance. Another show, "Body Double" uses an Alien-like xenomorph as a mob-land assassin.

Space Precinct also relies heavily on tried-and-true cop cliches for the depiction of its main characters.  There's the occasionally wrong-headed superior (the aforementioned Captain Podly) and the cop-with-the-traumatic past (on the bomb squad, no less...), Janet Castle.  And Brogan, of course, is overworked, even to the point where he can't take time to enjoy a candle-light dinner with his lovely wife.

Writing plainly, I can't argue that this sci-fi series is particularly deep, but in a way it reminds me -- in a positive light -- of the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which was essentially James Bond in Space (or Mission: Impossible in Space). 

Haldane (Youngblood), Aleesha, and Brogan (Shackelford)
As was the case there, here you get exactly what you pay for: a cop show set on another planet, with every story adapting the conventions of the cop genre to the weird, futuristic setting

Two elements of the series render Space Precinct enjoyable.  The first is the sense of pace: the series is downright frenetic and action-packed.  It never stays put too long in any given scene, so you don't have time to linger on the elements that don't work (largely the human performances and some risible dialogue).  

Secondly, if you watch several episodes of Space Precinct back-to-back you will quickly glean a feeling for the program's quirky sense of humor.   In the aforementioned "Body and Soul," for instance, there's a talking elevator that quotes Samuel Johnson (!).  In "Double Duty", there's the great joke with the bag lady from "Megalon 7" (there's your Godzilla reference...), and it features a special effects punch-line that left me cackling. 

In point of  fact, some episodes of Space Precinct even do offer a kind of elegant story structure.  For example, "Double Duty" is all about the assumptions that people make on a day-to-day basis.  Those assumptions are all perfectly reasonable, but nonetheless wrong.  In police work, such closely-held assumptions can be dangerous, even deadly.

All three storylines -- A, B, and C -- in the episode transmit this idea.  At home, Brogan is worried that his son, Matt, is hanging out with the "wrong crowd." 

An alien-esque assassin.
On the job, the "Bag Lady" wanders into the station and tells fanciful stories about how she is actually an alien queen. 

And finally, Haldane romances a beautiful, green-haired (!) witness who is mysteriously at the scene of every crime.  In each of these tales, we arrive -- along with the characters -- at the wrong conclusion.  It's a kind of charming, fun story, in its own strange, distinctly Space Precinct-ish way.

So, sixteen years later, how is Space Precinct?  Well, it's kind of a gas.  I can't argue that it is consistently or even occasionally deep or meaningful.   But on the other hand, it's never boring, frequently funny and rather enjoyable.   In other words, the series is entertaining. 

Again, my feeling about science fiction series is that they don't all have to be the same.  Today, series don't need to be judged against the yardstick of Star Trek anymore.

Space Precinct is a truly weird hybrid, drawing its manic, silly energy in equal parts from cop dramas like Fort Apache: the Bronx (1981) and TV series such as Star Trek, plus the amazing -- if perhaps antiquated -- special effects tradition of the Gerry Anderson canon.

If this description sounds appealing to you, book passage for Demeter City, and make sure your tongue is tucked firmly in cheek...and your expectations are stowed safely in check.

Monday, November 18, 2019

25 Years Ago: Star Trek: Generations (1994)


Can one bad concept, executed poorly, scuttle an entire movie?  That was a question I asked myself 25 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A quick run around the block..."



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

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

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

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

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

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

"Time is the fire in which we burn..."



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



I also must acknowledge that Moore and Braga have done an admirable job weaving together some of the thematic, human elements of this particular tale.  In one way or another, Kirk, Picard and Soran all grapple with their mortality, and their legacy in Generations.  For Kirk, he’s done nothing in the Nexus that matters, and to him a life without meaning is not worth living.   It is better of him to die having achieved something important.   

Picard, meanwhile, has never devoted his considerable energies to family, and now he wonders if upon his death, he’ll be remembered at all, or if the Picard name will be consigned to dead (rather than living…) history.  And Soran, of course, wants to escape the bounds of mortality and live forever with his loved ones in the nexus.  His legacy is to be remembered here, in reality, as a monster.  Each one of these characters must contend with life and death in Generations, and a viewer can see how that thread affects each of them.  Again, I’ve been tough with the writers here, but in having three primary characters grapple with aging and mortality, Generations certainly aspires to be Star Trek at its best.  The film has something meaningful and true to convey to all of us.  How do we look at the passing of time?  Are our lives burning up as the days and hours pass? Or are we building up a legacy that will inspire those who come after us?

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

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Buck Rogers: "Buck's Duel to the Death"


In "Buck's Duel to the Death," Buck (Gil Gerard) is enlisted to save the planet Katar from its sadistic despot, The Traybor (William Smith).  

The Traybor regularly captures the eligible young women in the populace to serve in his harem, and murders the people's warriors for sport. The Traybor is considered invincible, even by the leader of the people, Darius (Keith Andes).  Darius's own daughter, Maya (Heidi Bohay) has even been captured by the Traybor.

An ancient legend of Katar involves the 500 year old man, the "Rochon," who can destroy the Traybor.  The people of the planet believe that Buck is the living embodiment of that legend.  

Reluctantly at first, Buck works with the people to stop the Traybor.  He realizes a twentieth century advance (electricity) holds the key to stopping the warlord once and for all.


A vast improvement over "Space Rockers," "Buck's Duel to the Death" is a fun, action-packed episode of this 1970's space opera.  It treads on some cliches already featured on the series, namely that Buck is the one and only person in the galaxy who can solve a particular problem. It also possesses some intriguing allusions to other sci-fi series of the era.


For example, an episode of Space:1999 - Year Two is called "The Taybor" features some intriguing similarities in character names. That 1999 episode involves an alien who abducts Moonbase Alpha's resident alien, Maya (Catherine Schell).  Here, Buck faces an adversary similarly named "The Traybor," and that adversary captures a young woman named...Maya.  

The episode culminates with the one-two punch of a well-edited and expensive-looking laser fire fight in a hangar bay, and Buck's inspiring speech to the people of Katar.  Ironically, the fight is better than the speech.  Gerard's delivery to the people, over a planet-wide transmission, is joyless, emotionless, and suggests that the actor was pretty much miserable at this point in the series run. This is better material than he has had in a while, but Gerard sleepwalks through the speech.  

Again, watching the series today it is impossible not to register the disconnect between the character and the actor.  The character is supposed to glib and fun-loving (Burt Reynolds in Space!), but Gerard is serious, even grim in the role, especially in the latter-half of the season. The second season, which is widely despised by fans, features a more serious Buck, and one in more in tune with Gerard's persona and gravitas. 


Despite the lackluster speech of inspiration, "Buck's Duel to the Death" is a lot of fun, with space harems, alien warlords, and Buck's ingenious last-minute plan to reflect the Traybor's built-in energy generator (using Twiki to conduct electricity).  It's a fun, fast-paced show, and, in contrast to "Space Rockers," one that doesn't make the regular viewer cringe in embarrassment.

For those keeping track of props re-used from Battlestar Galactica, "Buck's Duel to the Death" has a doozy -- the Galactica shuttle live-action set/prop. It would also re-appear in the second season story "Journey to Oasis," as a Searcher shuttle.

Next week: Season One comes to an end with a two-parter, "Flight of the War Witch."

20 Years Ago: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of  Mars Attacks!  (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in...