Thursday, 13 June 2013

Bailey, Bones and Balok - My Trek Through Trek (Part III)

What we’re watching: The Corbomite Maneuver. Episode 11 of Season 1 TOS (Nov. 10, 1966)
A far more fascinating version of Balok.

My Rating Out of 5 Tribbles: 2 1/2 Tribbles who you think are cool when you first meet them but turn out to be Clint Howard in a silver poncho. 

My After Episode Thoughts: “Brilliant premise ruined by an acid fueled reference to the Wizard of Oz”

Pros: Dr. Leonard Fing Bones McCoy is in the house. Kirk’s salad. Spock’s daddy issues. Nuclear Allegory.  Fine early character development. 

Cons: Clint Howard. Ensign Bailey. Cheap, easy ending. Did I mention Clint Howard?

In the last Trek Through Trek, I wrote about how a gripping story can be cheapened by a hasty final act. The Corbomite Maneuver once again demonstrates this. If I were to look at the this episode based on its strides in character development, it is easily a 5 Tribble episode. The iconic crew is finally in place: Sulu takes his seat at the helm, Uhura in all her sexy revolutionary glory sits at communications and hails frequencies and most importantly, my favourite character of all the Star Treks, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy makes his first of many excuses to be on the bridge and not in sickbay. I swear he is the only doctor who seems to rarely want to be involved in medicine. 

Kirk: Captains don't eat no salad.
McCoy: They do if they want to fit into their velour. 
It is a misconception that the original Enterprise crew was held together by the relationship of Spock and Kirk. Some will even claim that it is the interaction of the ensemble that makes this show. I believe it is the trio of Spock, Bones and Kirk that hold this crew together. Spock is coldly logical, Bones is almost pure feeling and Kirk is the instinctual arbiter. Bones is essential to the original Enterprise. Red blooded Humanity runs through him like green blooded logic streams through Spock. McCoy is the moral centre always standing up for the little guy. Sometimes advocating so much that he allows his emotional nature to get in the way of the mission at hand. Bones is the connection we as a 20/21st century audience have with 23rd century issues. His distrust of technology parallels our unease in storm of technologic advance that we deal with everyday. It is only fitting a that a great Western character like DeForest Kelley brings him to life.  Spock is the brain, Bones is the heart and Kirk, well... he has to be the crotch.  The sex as it were. If one examines each Star Trek crew, one can find this dynamic. Apply this triumvirate to TNG: Data is the brain, Picard the heart and Riker the sex. I am sure I can do this with Voyager and DS9 and I will surely apply this when I reach those episodes. 

McCoy’s debut is not the only first in this episode. Just head on over to Memory Alpha if you want to see how many grounds are broken in these 50 minutes. The list is endless. 

Perhaps it is all this establishment that hampers the main trajectory of the episode. 

For the first three acts, Corbomite, has a lot going for it. It is a tale of first contact. The first of many such tales. It points out how fear of the unknown can severely derail future events and relationships. The episode solidifies the adage that first impressions are everything. When that poor greenhorn Ensign Bailey coaxes Kirk into firing phasers at Balok’s Fasarius ship, Kirk sets off a reaction that nearly turns the five year mission into a five minute jaunt.  Events like these have happened in our own history.  For example when Captain Cook first landed on the islands of Hawaii something he did left him dead in the sand. Magellan too. Countless explorers have by accident caused war without them knowing why. When the Zulu first saw the tall ship’s sails on the horizon, they mistook the white tapestry for clouds and thereby thought the pasty men that landed on the their shores arrived from the skies. This belief caused all sorts of repercussions for the history of Southern Africa.  It is not inconceivable that Balok would think that the humans were attempting war when they destroy his explorer buoy. This is a fascinating idea and it gives the episode real teeth. Until the end. 

This is how I feel about the Fourth Act. 
What must it be like to be Ron Howard’s younger brother? How can one ever find a name for oneself if one’s older brother is such an extraordinary young child actor, writer and oscar winning director? It must suck to be Clint Howard. His claim to fame, aside from Austin Powers innuendos, has always been his involvement in Star Trek. He has been involved in three different episodes that span the 60s, 90s and 2000s. Clint’s most iconic moment is probably his portrayal of Balok in this episode. However I don’t think it is because of his stunning performance. Trekdom’s fascination with Clint  is more likely the result the absurdity of his character. Balok is a child, alien, scientist with the voice of a muppet. He might as well have been a puppet like his alter ego. Better yet, if this puppet was the only incarnation we encounter, Balok would be far more fascinating. 

Speaking of fascinating, this episode is the first moment when Spock uses this catchphrase.

I really dislike when a story is full of potential and suspense only for it to be undercut by some extremely odd character choice. Corbomite embodies this disappointment. The whole episode goes to great lengths to set up a brilliant threat to the Enterprise. Only to turn out that the action was a master plan coined by an oddly overdubbed child. I understand that the creatives surely wanted to create a “nothing is what it seems” theme yet it turns the episode into a farce. This is often a reoccurring problem with early Trek. The creatives don’t seem to trust their material. More likely they don’t yet understand what they can do with Star Trek. Hell! This is only the third episode. They come so very close to genius. The Corbomite Maneuver has such a gorgeous message but only ends up being slaughtered for a cooky creature shot and a hip sequence. Perhaps, this is a fan words looking back at the early episodes from a position of enlightenment. Perhaps, I am being to harsh on the episode. Nevertheless it is a shame that beautifully written scenes of Kirk and McCoy are all but forgotten for Space Whimsy. 

P.S. Am I to believe that Bailey became an Ambassador for all of humankind? One moment he was an green ensign and then only a few short hours later he is worthy of inter world diplomacy. What a cheap little ‘explain away ending.’ Thank the stars the show gets better. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Owning Absurdity

Tonight my good friend and I decided to take in a movie. We tossed
The Wolf Pack. See that's a funny picture.
around many ideas of what to see as we had no plans and this has become an almost weekly outing. We the merits of venturing to the latest Shyamalan travesty; After Earth. That was an early veto when it became clear that neither one of us could stomach a foray in to the twisted travesty that surely another Shyamalan piece would be. We ultimately decided to venture into the abyss of a threequel and went to see Hangover III

Both of us, many winters ago, went to see the dark sequel to the original masterpiece and we were fascinated by the prospects of further adventures of the Wolf Pack. We had heard that this new film was dark and quite unforgiving. Some critics had suggested that devoid of humour. When the projector (do they use projectors anymore?) began to roll and the audience was taken by the flashing wallpaper to become distracted from their mouthfuls of popped corn, I was surprised to find a very odd experience. This Hangover rejected the premise of the last two other films and decided to go on a kind of screw ball fantasy journey. This film decided to follow the North By Northwest premise and place its heroes in a state of unknown persecution.

Somehow this is less funny. Hangover III Wolf Pack.
In the past two films, the group was already in a position of play as they had awoken from a night that was forgotten in a drunken (roofie) filled nightmare. The room around them was nothing but a mishmash of evidence from the last night’s escapades.  The Wolves had to become ‘Morning After Sherlocks. This led them on a series of odd adventures and scenarios that not even Hunter S. Thompson could imagine. This was a situation that focused around one of there greatest foils from the last two films played by that brilliant Korean-American comedic force, from CBS’ Community, Ken Jeong. All of these changes to classic narrative of the two last films added a refreshing take on the gritty drug-filled chaos of the last two films. 

The comedy, in the previous two movies came from the hunt to track down the previous night’s goings on. III is focused on the present. This should have worked and nearly did. It ultimately failed.

When walking along the squalid streets of Toronto’s answer to San Francisco’s multicultural hellhole Chinatown, Spadina and Dundas, we, my diminutive but nevertheless brilliant friend and I arrived at the conclusion that it was not the failure in chaotic humour that hurt this movie. Its failure stemmed from the need to instill an unneeded and depressing reality into the film’s world. When the flurry reached a moment of true chaos the film pulled back into the very real reaction. There was always some very real consequence to the absurd action. A character would make an outrageous move then suddenly shocked by realistic results of his action. So the audience followed suit. They could sense a comedic payoff coming but it was suddenly and cruelly slaughtered like a pack of humourless butchered cows. For example, death is hilarious. A child crying out of grief is not. Hell, at one point a character witnesses a death and has an outrageous childlike reaction which is befitting his man/boy status, but then is immediately undercut when he wets his pants. The wetting of the pants should be uproarious but because of his choice to play genuine embarrassment (or the director’s) served to only undercut the comedy and make it not okay to laugh.

In comedy a commedian must embrace the absurdity of the situation and
One, very accurately, can see the dynamic. 
not comment on it. In Michael Caine’s second memoir, which I’m reading like a bat out of hell at current, that old Cockney brings this very point up. When he was shooting with Steve Martin on set of the brilliant film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Michael was forced to play opposite to Steve Martin in his prime. A man who was right the middle of Steve Martin’s epoch of comedic genius. Michael found this insanely difficult so he soon found that he was drowning. Therefore Michael resolved to play everything completely straight. He partnered Steve, sometimes stealing scenes from him, by making no comment on the performance and treating his behavior as being completely normal. What this did for the film was create a relationship that was even more absurd. It was and is an instant of comedic genius. 

Likewise, in the first Hangover film, the Wolf Pack did the same, they did not explain the insanity. They had bigger fish to fry then exposition. Hell there was a baby lying on the plush vomit covered carpet of the Las Vegas bachelor suite! They excepted the absurdity and added. They went with it.

Comedy is ‘owning it.’ Going with it no matter how absurd. Tragedy is fighting against the environment and finding that you can’t win. Comedy is freedom. Tragedy is rules. Freedom is tougher then Rules.  

Monday, 10 June 2013

My trek through Trek (Part II) - Going Where No Man Has Gone Before

This is what crossing forcefields will do to you. 
What we’re watching: Where No Man Has Gone Before- Second Pilot. Episode Three of Season 1 (1966)

My Rating out of 5 Tribbles: 3 1/2 Tribbles...... Who can read your mind. OOOOWEEOOOOWOOO!

A Snapshot of my after episode thoughts: “Kneel before Mitchell!”

Pros: Captain Kirk. A quirky villain. Great space sequence. Mysterious. Vulcan Spock. A great sense of humour

Cons:  A slow and messy 4th act. Self important dialogue. Lack of motivation for Kirk's revenge. 

I conceived of this journey through Star Trek I debated for a long time, 3 or four hours which is a long time for a guy like me, in what order I would tackle the episodes and movies. There are three different ways one can travel through the Trek, canonically,  chronologically by broadcast date and chronologically by production date. Each order poses different problems. If I chose to view canonically I would have to begin with Enterprise, which would mean I would jump into a fresh series for me as I didn’t watch it when it was on TV. I was timid at this because I am not if I will like the show and ultimately abandon my project before it has begun. The broadcast order poses its own problems as it confuses the development of the series. Following that order would make  this episode the third in succession. This position is incorrect as Where No Man Has Gone Before was intended as a second pilot. I ultimately decided to go ahead and view Trekdom in its production order. This order may not be optimal if I want guidance and illumination into the history of the Federation, but it does offer insight into how this world developed. This is a far more interesting order for a young director in training like myself  This will cause a problem when I enter the The Next Generation when the episodes loose canon when watched in production order, but we’ll navigate that Nebulae when and if we cross it for I possess a legendarily short attention span. 

To understand the monumental importance of Where No Man Has Gone Before, one must first ask Lucille Ball. No
Every Trekker owes a debt to Lucy!
kidding here. Fricken Wah Wah Lucy. Without Lucille Ball there would be no Star Trek past the Jeffrey Hunter sweater epic that is The Cage. The story is as follows. After the failure of The Cage, Gene Roddenberry continued to shop around his idea for a Sci-Fi epic. No one was buying, until Lucille Ball, a friend of young Gene, somehow saw the pilot and said in passing to the president of NBC that they should greenlight a second pilot and actually air it to get sample of audiences  reaction. This testing was not done with The Cage which wasn’t broadcast until 1988. Long story short NBC did. Gene under NBC guidance overhauled the show, hired a young Canadian actor cutting his teeth on Sci-Fi on shows like The Twilight Zone to replace Jeffrey Hunter who had returned to his career as a matinee idol and the rest is history. Trekkers love Lucy indeed. 

All right, boring nerd history aside, let’s talk about pilot deux. 

Right at the top one can tell that this is a different beast then the terrible first pilot. It does not overwhelm with pretension of Jeffrey Hunter and Martian Spock. Instead we are greeted with a comedic battle of wits between the colder more logical Spock and the charismatic Kirk. Snide jokes are being traded back and forth between two friends. Friendship is the core of this episode and indeed every good Star Trek episode hence forth. 

From this point forward the vision of the future is very different. It is cleaner, more sleek
and spartan. This is reflected in the redesign or perhaps clean up the Enterprise set. As the episode progresses it becomes well understood that this is not a cluttered claustrophobic war vessel but a visionary bastion of human exploration. 

You may recall, if you read the last entry, that I in my ineloquent manner I made a big storm of the inefficient women on the bridge. I put the blame in no small manner on psychedelic sexualization of every skirt. The women of this episode’s enterprise are night and day (as far as can be under the moral lens of the 60s). Dr. Elizabeth Dehner is a women of wry humour, with a constant upturned grin that seems to suggest that she is secure with her womanhood and her life. When Gary Mitchell throws some 60s style degradation at her, she easily makes mince meat of the crass helmsmen. You can still see the 60s female role peep through this episode though. When the Enterprise crosses the forcefield, a sleek and suspenseful sequence that evokes thoughts of ancient mariners falling over the edge of the Earth, the young blonde clad Yeoman raises her hand inexplicably to hold onto the strength of male courageous limb.  Even the damsel in distress exists on the bridge of the Enterprise. 

The bridge is populated by many other firsts. George Takei makes his first appearance as Sulu, but is curiously in charge of physics, Jimmy Doohan sits at the helm in his Pseudo-Scottish presence as Scotty and there is even an unnamed man of colour sitting there pushing buttons. Spock stands for the first time in his mainstay location just to camera right of the Captain’s chair. His performance bares more similarities to iconic Spock, yet at one point he yells in a very un-Spock-like manner. Un-Nimoy-Spock-like, for Quinto is all over the place vocally.  It is clear that Nimoy and perhaps Trek itself is still unclear as to the role that this character will play. 

What the creatives of Star Trek are sure of in this episode is the power of discussion. All the characters clearly set out the issue of sudden powers in a human and this conflict is not one centered on the destruction of a threat, but rather the ramifications of evolving before our time. Gary Mitchell is a human who is suddenly given the ability to grasp all the information that his brain can handle and then some. This imagines what happens to humans when they are suddenly offered a surplus of information. Can we handle too much information? A timely question for us now that we have all the thoughts of human kind (and pornography) at the touch of our finger tips. It’s obvious Gary cannot handle this as his mind explodes in a myriad of godlike powers conveyed in some cheesy yet surprisingly effective effects sequences. Most noticeably in  the really good and probably simple telekinetic sequences. 

"You cannot kill me. So let's discuss why."
Where No Man Has Gone Before is not without its flaws. The final act is hampered by self important dialogue that seems to slow the conflict between Kirk, Mitchell and Dehner into a staring contest (at least we get great views of the expensive contact lenses). The final standoff plays as a thought experiment of the evils of an imperfect god, a debate upon the illogic of praying to deities that ask for obedience for no reason and are perhapss political allegories of deflection of human inadequacy on their creations. Namely the gods they pray to. A common anti-religion theme that pops up many times later, even in the feature films. This “climax” takes the teeth out of an otherwise fascinating episode, but manages to satisfyingly convey a timely criticism of human development.

Flaws in an unfocused climax aside, Where No Man Has Gone Before is a grand episode that makes it obvious why this show was able to greenlight three more series. What can be said is the greatest element that adds to the future success of Star Trek, is the addition of William Shatner’s Kirk. Say what you will about the man but he is willing to go for it. Throwing himself convulsing when he wishes and essentially oozing charisma, where Jeffry Hunter oozed nothing but an eel like aura. Certainly Hunter would not throw himself to the floor in flailing turmoil. The Trek trek is on!
"I just don't get green blooded humour." 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

My trek through Trek (Part 1) - Escaping The Cage

What we’re watching: The Cage - Pilot of the Original Series (1964)

Martian Spock and Surly Pike molest some Talosian vibrating
flowers. Notice Pike seems ticked these flowers aren't women.
My Rating out of 5 Tribbles: 2 Very Small and Sickly Tribbles

A Snapshot of my after episode thoughts: “Roger Sterling commands the Enterprise and  proves that sexism and surliness make for a boring journey.”

Pros: Talosians are cool. Yeoman Colt is stunning and perhaps one of the most beautiful woment to stand on the bridge of the Enterprise. Majel Barrett has more then three lines and doesn’t hit on Picard once.

Cons:  Jeffrey Hunter. Emotional Spock. Creepy rapist Doctor.   

Recently I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness. This experience caused me great distress. Not only was it a shoddy film, it also did not resemble a Star Trek movie beyond having the same characters (and vaguely at that). I resolved then in the cacophony of explosions and Cumberbatch diphthongs to rewatch all of Star Trek from the beginning to the end. I intend to watch from the Pilot, right through the films, Next Gen, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise. Enterprise will be most interesting as much to this Trekker’s shame, I never watched it when it was on the air. I intend to put my finger on what  the soul of Trek is. Tonight, I began my journey into the rich galaxy of the Federatio with a review of The Cage. I also remembered that I had a blog (that I rarely use because of some unpleasantness) and I thought I’d keep a journal record of this trek. (Ok. I’ll attempt to cut down on my usage of the word Trek. Trek. Trek.) 

It is alienating to go back and look at The Cage knowing all that we do now about the Federation universe. Not only is the Enterprise populated by strangers, Spock, perhaps the protagonist of Star Trek as a whole, is unlike Spock. Aside from the Vulcan pointy ears, Spock is petty much unfamiliar. He even cracks a smile at one point. It is amazing how uninteresting Nimoy is in the pilot. He seems like a young school boy actor whose energy is flying all over the screen.  On the other, what Spock became in the later episodes is embodied by Majel Barett’s Number One. She instead is the cold logical advisor. Alas, there also something disjointed in her character. The soul of the Enterprise is missing. That soul is the Captain. 

The role of “the Captain” has always been integral to Star Trek. Much like Doctor Who’s Companion, the Captain is the human character the audience can draw in on to help them navigate through the absurdity that is high Sci-Fi. Hunter’s Christopher Pike fails in  almost every regard to do this. He lacks any form of humor; the one joke he cracks at the end to the Doctor, is frighteningly disgusting.  As a commander he seems lost and more interested in selfish pursuits of pleasure. The first goal he declares is that he wants to quit! The majesty of the universe is to be guided by a man who has lost his passion for adventure. When he first descends to the Talosian surface it seems like this is a job requirement, not an expedition for knowledge and after all happening of this episode he begrudgingly returns to the bridge. 

Pike and his harem of women. 
Ok. I am sure you are saying “Julian you are wasting your breath harping on about  characters.” You are right, but I found myself feeling disconnected to the plot as frankly I did not care if Pike made it back to the Enterprise or not. 

The most striking thing I take away from the episode is the inherent sexism. I forgot that at the beginning of this widely ahead of its time show, it was a bastion of orchestrated 60s moralism in space. Yes, there are at least two women in the main crew, and this is ahead of its time. But the yeoman   character is largely the classic airhead women of sixties television.  Number One, a women of power, does not make a single decision for herself as commander, which would not make her a women of much power. All decisions are made for by the smiling Mr. Spock or the nameless male yeoman is the blondest guy I have ever seen and I am pretty blonde. It is amazing how timid The Cage is compared to the episodes that followed. It’s a miracle the show ever made it past the Pilot. 

I have knowingly not delved into the themes and philosophies of this episode because I will engage with those again when I reach The Menagerie episodes later in the first the season. These episodes present the same ideas with far more thought and investigation then The Cage ever throws a blue Talosian flower at.

Sports Fans what can we say about The Cage? It is a good thing Jeffrey Hunter thought Trek was beneath him and returned to a very short film career. He is unlikable and a dinosaur. His leering at the female characters would have stunted any of the political commentary of the later episodes. It is a great thing that Roddenberry was able to creep out of the overbearing fists of network executives and produce the genius that is only episodes away. The Cage should remain where it is, at the beginning and stuck behind a forcefield under the Talosian surface. 
The Brains of the Organization. (See what I did there?)