Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy - The Soul of Star Trek

I have been lost in contemplation after this morning's news that Leonard Nimoy passed away. From his recent emergency hospital visit, the signs were there that this might not be far off, but it was still quite shocking. I'm not sure how long it will take to truly process this, but one thing I quickly realized was the Nimoy was the soul of Star Trek.

Leonard and his son Adam, from a blooper reel

I guess to make sense of that I'd better first explain a few things. Gene Roddenberry had a unique vision of the future. It is one where racial and gender barriers are dissolved and humanity lives at peace with the other species in the Federation. This is best shown in the series by the Vulcan IDIC emblem. It stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Roddenberry strove for this from the first pilot, filmed over 50 years ago. He cast a woman first officer and an alien science officer. While he was not able to keep the woman first officer, science fiction made keeping the alien an achievable task. So Spock stayed on.

Through the series, the character of Spock challenged viewers with his alien attitudes and logical outlook. He was a constant comment on humanity and Roddenberry's vision of our future. But in all the banter between characters, the differences between Vulcan and Human were never a cause for discrimination. A Vulcan stood in for all the differences in our own society that Roddenberry did not dare comment on, but since Spock was alien, he could, and in the way he wanted.

So while Roddenberry was the creator and dubbed the Great Bird of the Galaxy, it was Spock and the actor who portrayed him that were really the soul of Star Trek. The superior quality of the two movies he directed and had a hand in writing really speak to how in tune with Star Trek Nimoy was.

So today, with his passing, Star Trek has lost its soul. But he is not gone. He lives on in all the performances he gave, all the scenes he directed, all the lines he wrote or altered. Leonard Nimoy, the soul of Star Trek is gone, but Spock Lives.

And I just wanted to close with a message of condolence to his family and close friends. Especially to his wife Susan, daughter Julie, and son Adam, as well as his castmates, Bill, George, Nichelle, and Walter. Although Spock rarely smiled, Leonard had a very nice smile that was often captured when the cameras were not rolling. He will be greatly missed.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The McCoy and McGann Years - An Overview

The Classic Era ended with the shortest serving Doctors. While Davison, Baker, and McCoy each served for roughly 3 years each, the series ran for less and less time. From 1970 through 1985 (Colin Baker's first full season) the series roughly 26 half hour episodes or the equivalent in 13 45 minute episodes (if you edit pretty much any of the classic 4 parters into one movie, they usually run 90 minutes). However, during the Classic Era's last 4 seasons, it got dropped to 14 25 minute episodes. So while Sylvester McCoy has more stories, Colin Baker has more screen time, making each of the last three Doctors of the Classic Era successively the shortest serving Doctor. It was shortly followed by the 1996 TV Movie (alternatively titled The Enemy Within) which was the only screen appearance by Paul McGann who reigns as the shortest serving Doctor (I'm ignoring the War Doctor in all this as that would get entirely too complicated).

However, it also created a unique situation where both Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann are the longest serving Doctors. Sylvester McCoy first graced our screens in September 1987 and last appeared in March 1996. Paul McGann first appeared in March 1996 and wasn't technically replaced until March 2005 and didn't regenerate until November 2013. Stretching until 2013 is a bit much since that is the tenure of 3 other Doctors, but just going from the first appearance of their incarnation to the first appearance of the next incarnation puts McCoy at just under 9 years and McGann right at 9 years making them the two longest serving Doctors. And during that time, McGann was doing canon audio adventures.

So let's take a look at two of the shortest yet longest Doctors. I've included Dimensions in Time, Shada, and Night of the Doctor for the sake of completeness.

Time and the Rani - The Tardis is attacked and the Doctor is injured and regenerated. That might have been a bad enough start, but the Rani then gives him amnesia and pretends to be Mel. The Rani is up to another of her crazy plans and the Doctor must first see through her ruse and then stop her. It has some very good points, but it is overall a weak story.

Paradise Towers - This is the first spooky episode. An deranged architect haunts his last creation and seeks to kill everyone so that it is left pristine. There are some moments typical of the 7th Doctor's era that are kind of silly, but the danger seems real and the characters are good.

Delta and the Bannermen - A romp in the 50's including aliens and the CIA. Some parts of the story are a bit silly and somethings happen without much reason, but overall a fun story.

Dragonfire - The low point of the first season. The baddie never feels dangerous. It is nice to see Glitz again and the introduction of Ace is interesting. The young girl is a poignant sub plot that is really good, but the rest of the story just kind of fails. It features one of the most innovative and interesting alien robots of the entire series.

Remembrance of the Daleks - To celebrate 25 years, the Doctor ends up in London in late November 1963. Not only that, but Totters Lane and Coal Hill School are featured settings and the first touch of the Cartmel Masterplan appears - the Hand of Omega. It is a very good story. One of the best of the 7th Doctor's Era. The homages to the beginning are not heavy handed and really work. The Hand of Omega is probably the only weak point, but it provides a way for the Doctor to defeat his greatest enemy in an exciting way.

The Happiness Patrol - This had the potential to be a really bad story. In fact, in my mind it was. But on viewing it anew things came into focus and I really enjoyed it. The Harmonica player's scenes were the key. That really made me look close and see that this episode was very well written and the idea was very intriguing.

Silver Nemesis - Probably my favorite of the 7th Doctor's episodes. It is a second 25th Anniversary story and takes place in November 1988 and the first episode aired on the 25th Anniversary on November 23, 1988. It is another Cartmel Masterplan story, but this time it is more believable. Lady Painforth was a delightfully evil character and so obviously self deluded that it was fun to watch. But she had secrets that she only hinted at and she, the Fourth Reich Nazis, and the Cybermen played off each other with the Doctor brilliantly playing them all. I never tire of this one.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - This story started out bad. The first two episodes probably could have been edited together for a 3 part story and given some extra time for Silver Nemesis. But after two episodes of evil and seemingly murderous clowns, we start to get to the heart of the story and it turns itself around and the Doctor gets a truly great adversary.

Battlefield - Another great. We find out that the Doctor will be Merlin at some future point in time. But Arthur, Morgaine, and the entire Arthurian legends are revealed to be people from another dimension. Arthur is dead in a ship under the lake. Morgaine tries to obliterate him at last and grieves when she learns of his passing. We get to see the current UNIT Brigadier, the return of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (along with his wife which makes the later casting of Jemma Redgrave a masterwork of visual continuity), and the casting of Jean Marsh as Morgaine brings two stars of the epic The Daleks' Masterplan back 24 years later. The special effects are a bit of a distraction, but the story is well written and well done. Another favorite.

Ghost Light - This begins a trio of stories that has long had me disliking the character of Ace. The stories are too Ace centric, but on this viewing, I didn't find that such a bad thing. The Doctor takes Ace back to a mansion in Perivale that she torched when she was younger to find the source of the evil she felt. It was an ancient survey of Earth that has gotten derailed and the Doctor manages to derail the danger by setting some of the inmates free. Except for the Ace subplot, this was a story of gothic darkness worthy of the early Tom Baker years.

The Curse of Fenric - I didn't used to like this episode, but this time I really loved it. I think I was too focused on how this story is Ace related. This time, the heart of the story came through and this is one of the 7th Doctor's best stories.

Survival - It is sad that the series had to end with this as the last episode. The worst Master story every. Anthony Ainley did a fantastic job, but the story around the Master lacked... a lot.

Dimensions In Time - Ah, the lame 30th Anniversary special, aired in 2 parts. The shortcomings of this story relate to the hurried nature of the production, the short running time, and the merger with Eastenders. It has good potential and given a good script and a descent running time, it would have been fantastic. As it stands, it is more a fun romp through the living Doctors and their companions and it includes the only interaction of the 6th Doctor with the Brigadier, making both character and actor the only one to interact with each incarnation. The Brigadier met the First Doctor in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors and Nicholas Courtney guested in The Daleks' Masterplan with William Hartnell. Everyone was looking good and even Tom Baker participated.

The Enemy Within - As a follow up to the Classic Series, this story had some flaws. When you compare it to the New Series, some of those flaws drop away. It features the Doctor's first kiss with a companion and a statement from both the Doctor and the Master that the Doctor his half human. That has never been touched on again. The story itself is Master centric and is the best Master story in years - probably since the Fifth Doctor's era. Eric Roberts does a good job, but nowhere near as good as some of the other actors to hold the role. Still, a well done effort. Bad ratings in the US kept it from being picked up as a series. That was bad at the time, but considering how it came back later, that may have been a blessing in disguise.

Shada - This story was written for Tom Baker. It was partially made, but production stopped because of a strike and was never finished. Several different releases of it have appeared, from an early fan attempt with the script text from the missing scenes to Tom Baker narrating the missing action, to Ian Levine's attempt to animate the rest (which got leaked but appears it won't be released because Tom Baker wasn't involved even though all the other living principle actors were). This is a different take. The premise is that because of the footage used in The Five Doctors, the events never happened so the Doctor goes to Gallifrey, where Romana II is the President, and cons her and K-9 into going back to find out what Professor Chronotis wanted. It follows the original script with Paul McGann proving that he was a strong Doctor able to pull off a classic story. It was animated in a primitive fashion, but is very enjoyable to watch. The story is brilliant and it was fun to see it completed for the first time in this way. Makes me wish Ian Levine could get Tom Baker to do his lines and get and official BBC release.

The Night of the Doctor - One of the most delightful surprises served up for the 50th Anniversary. This little vignette reveals that the Time War has begun but the Doctor is trying to stay out of it. A worthy effort, but the Sisterhood of Karn convinces him the the innocents of the universe need him to act, so he accepts their potion to direct his regeneration. The Doctor exits and the Warrior enters (aka the War Doctor)

As I have run through most of the John Nathan-Turner years, I have noticed a steady drop off of production values. The writing, music, directing, and special effects went from the solid years of Peter Davison in a downward spiral. I have no issue with the way each of the actors portrayed the Doctor, but the show definitely suffered. It then sprung back with the 1996 movie, laying the seeds for the 2005 revival.

Watching now it is quite easy to see why the show faded. Just what is behind the causes of that can be disputed. Some lay the blame on the BBC itself, some on John Nathan-Turner. Between the cancelled season in the middle of Colin Baker's Era and the lost Season 27 and beyond, and the poor production quality, the show just wasn't what it was. There are some magnificent stories that were told and all four of these Doctors, 5, 6, 7, and 8, have gotten to show another side of their era in the Big Finish audio stories. These additional stories often rival the televised stories and they really fill in a lot that was missing.

We almost had a chance to see what McGann could do, but hearing it is nearly as good. The popularity of The Night of the Doctor really shows what an important place his Doctor has in the series. It is really the end of the Classic Era and a transition to the new.

Now, I may have had a few complaints about the last 8 seasons of the Classic era, but they are full of enjoyable moments and enjoyable characters. Even the worst of the stories are still quite good compared to other franchises even if they don't hold up as well as other seasons.

My viewing now jumps to The Eleventh Hour from 2010. I'm watching all the Doctors where I haven't see every episode at least twice. I could write these reviews for John Pertwee, Tom Baker, Christopher Eccleston, and David Tennant era from my head (and for completeness I might go ahead and do just that, we'll see), but there were far too many stories from William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Matt Smith that I felt they deserved a separate viewing. The order has been a bit enlightening in many ways.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Star Trek at 50 - Beyond Shatner, Nimoy, & Kelley

As Star Trek begins hitting its 50 year milestones (which will culminate in the 50th Anniversary of the airing of the first episode on September 8, 2016), it seems like a good time to look at where Star Trek is today.

50 years ago, The Cage was in the can and the 11 foot model of the Enterprise had been delivered. Today we have three concurrent productions of Star Trek. Oddly enough for a franchise that started with a series that lasted only 3 years before launching a series of films, and spawning four other series with unique characters, today's Star Trek has ignored all of that. We aren't revisiting Picard, Sisko, Janeway, or Archer; it is Kirk that features in all the current productions.

Probably the most widely known are the feature films with Chris Pine playing Kirk. While they have been wildly popular, most fans of the original series have not appreciated the writing. I find the cast to be expertly chosen and they act the parts well, but the two movies they have done so far were created by people who were not fans of the original series and don't seem to understand it at all. They are more action adventure and less substance.

The other production is actually a pair. Star Trek: New Voyages and Star Trek: Phase II share virtually everything, but there are some major differences, including who plays Kirk. New Voyages is a continuation of the series. It has seen the return of Walter Koenig, George Takei, D.C. Fontana, and David Gerrold, as well as others. James Cawley both produces and stars and Kirk. Partway through production they decided to take a different approach. Before Star Trek arrived on the big screen in 1979, it was destined to return to the small screen in Star Trek: Phase II. Several scrips were written, sets were built, and work began on redesigning the ship. In the end all that got scrapped, but now Cawley and his production team are picking up a lot of those pieces. They have done two of the stories and the Enterprise has received a partial refit. Also Cawley has stepped down as actor to concentrate on production and Brian Gross has taken over the role of Kirk.

This production has been around a while. It started out with fairly low production values and has gradually increased. It has also had quite a variety in actors and features Scotty with a mustache. The writing and acting has been stellar. A far better offering that what the two movies by J.J. Abrams gave us. Chris Pine may be a fine actor, but his acting can't overcome the bad writing and questionable production choices.

The third production has been different from the beginning. Vic Mignogna has been associated both with the New Voyages/Phase II production as a director and guest star, and with Starship Farragut (where he first appeared as Kirk). Mignogna and the producers of Starship Farragut joined together to create Star Trek Continues. Starting with the vignettes, the production has striven to match the original series. The first was a remake of the last original series episode, Turnabout Intruder. While not an exact shot for shot remake, it shows how close they are trying to get. In my opinion they nailed it. Mignogna stars as Kirk, with the usual complement including Grant Imahara of Mythbusters fame as Sulu and Chris Doohan filling his father's shoes as Scotty. In the three released episodes, they have had Michael Forrest reprise his role as Apollo, Lou Ferrigno as an Orion slave trader, and Eric Grey as a Starfleet Officer. The production values match the original series and it is endorsed by Rod Roddenberry, son of Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett. Colin Baker is slated to guest star in their fourth episode.

For fans of the original series, Star Trek Continues is as close as you will get to that long dreamed of fourth season. Star Trek: New Voyages/Phase II is not more than a step behind. Every story out of both those productions IS Star Trek where the movies missed their mark. All three productions have new stories in the works. Episode 4 of Star Trek Continues has been filmed and episode 5 is in production. Star Trek: Phase II (as it will be know from here out) has three episodes in production at various stages. The film series is now in different hands, with Simon Pegg (Scotty) writing the third film (who happens to be friends with Chris Doohan). It gives hope the films might recover from the disaster that was Star Trek Into Darkness. What it does promise is an exciting 50th Anniversary for 2016. There will be plenty of new Star Trek and it will all feature Kirk and crew, even if the actors aren't the same. Each of these productions does the characters justice (well, we hope the new movie will succeed where the other two failed) and is a tribute to the vision Gene Roddenberry had.