Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Boldly Going

So, anyway dear blog reader, you might not beaware of this but once upon a time, back I dare say before many of you were even born, there was an American television series called Star Trek. It ran for three seasons and seventy nine episodes (including many very good ones, though also a handful of really bad ones) in the late nineteen sixties. Although it soon acquired a small but very loyal and vocal fanbase, it was constantly on the verge on cancellation during its run, never achieved much more than a respectable sized-audience in the country in which it was made, won very few industry awards and ended, without much fanfare, in the summer of 1969.

It then, somehow, acquired a literal life of its own, transcending its humble populist-SF origins as a simple morality tale (a kind of superior Cowboys-and-Indians-in-space, if you like), with fixed moral certainties and absolutes to become, well ... pretty much what it is today. Something that exists far beyond the boundaries of its genre, its era and, even, the lifetimes of many of the people who made it. It doesn't matter whether you're a 'fan' of the show, per se you'll still be aware of it. Trek's chalk circle is so wide that it doesn't require boundaries in the accepted sense. It doesn't even, really, matter if you profess an extreme distaste for the show and its flaws; its sometimes wooden acting, pat and clichéd characterisation and situations, its recurring plot motifs, odd examples of trite and corny dialogue, simplistic moralising and one or two toupées. And, let's be honest, there are people do exactly that. Fact is, if you're over the age of twenty five and under the age of fifty five then you will probably have spent a decent portion of your formative years watching the show and, even if you didn't, you will be able to name most of the regular characters without even thinking about it too hard. One can't say that about many forty year old TV shows.

Star Trek spawned ten movies, an animated series and four spin-off TV shows, some of them very good indeed (Deep Space 9, The Next Generation) and some of them ... not (the other two). It was the first TV production about which the word 'franchise' was used. What it is now is a multi-billion dollar industry that, even though it hasn't, currently, got a show in production, still earns more per year in merchandising and licensing than most of those that are, put together. But, what to do with a franchise without a current product? Back to basics?

Now there are some people who will tell you, forcefully, that in drama 'you never, ever, ever, not never, press the reset button.' Strictly speaking, that's not true. You can - it's been done very well before in a number of different texts - but it has to be done intelligently and, most importantly, with a great love for the template. That's one of the main reasons why, for example, Russell Davies' Doctor Who revival has been such an enormous critical, commercial and - perhaps most important of all - cultural success. Because most people watching it (not fans necessarily, just normal viewers) implicitly appear to understand that this is something which is being made by people who really care about the legacy that they are the most current chapter of. Which brings us to JJ Abrams' Star Trek.

I was worried, I'll say that up front. I thought it was going to be a case of 'let's play interesting intertextual games with some genuine icons and see what happens.' There was a clever episode of CSI recently which, beautifully, parodied exactly this idea - of someone remaking a Star Trek-like TV show in a brutally harsh, dark, paranoid post-9/11 way - just as Trek universe veteran Ron Moore did with Battlestar Galactica. That remake actually worked very well, mainly because of the quality of scripts and the acting but, also - sorry to piss-off any 1970s BSGers here - because, frankly, nobody much cared about having once cherished memories of a hokey old piece of cheese like BSG messed-with. But, Trek is different somehow. On all sorts of levels. Whether you're a Grade A 'I've got a working transporter in my shower unit and my tricorder has five settings' Trekkie, or a more casual fan there's still a lot of genuine affection tied to Captain Kirk and co and, in many people, it runs very deep. If someone and their gang are your big brothers and sisters when you're seven, it's sometimes hard to let go.

So, with expectations high(ish) but a bit of trembling going on in the pants department, I watched Star Trek today. And ... yeah, it was all right actually. Possibly not, quite, the unsurpassed masterpiece that some (no doubt very relieved) reviews have described it as but it's clearly an entertaining couple of hours. It's a brash movie, told with pace and energy; in places it's very funny, quite dramatic, somewhat portentous (in a nice way), endearingly bonkers and at times surprisingly thoughtful. Just like the original was, in fact. Except for Spock's Brain of course. And, possibly that dreadful one where Jim Kirk got transported into the body of a woman. What Abrams has done is pretty much what Russell did with Doctor Who - put the fun and the sense of adventure back in and remind you why you were such a fan in the first place. 'Energize,' in other words.

Plus points: Chris Pine manages to play a Captain Kirk with a few hints of Bill Shatner's vanity and sarcasm (and sex drive ... although, not once does his shirt get ripped in the entire movie which I thought was total gyp, frankly). But, at the same time, he neatly avoids an imitation of The Shat's over-mannered idea of dramatic acting. Which I think was jolly good move on everyone's part.

Zach Quinto, on the other hand, is fabulous as a conflicted, slightly damaged but still easily recognisable Mr Spock. It must have been so hard for the kid having Leonard Nimoy hanging around on set most of the time. If he found that intimidating, he doesn't show it and brings a subtlety to scenes which require him to merely raise an eyebrow or say 'fascinating' in a way that is both familiar but also avoids groans or sniggers from the audience. He manages it. And, he gets to kiss the girl too which, for a guy with pointy ears, suggests there's hope for all of us.

Elsewhere - in a very good ensemble cast - most of the characterisation is nicely done with many an over-familiar trait given a novel (and, in some cases, a decidedly post-modern) kick up the naughties: This is particularly true of Karl Urban's McCoy. Urban mixes some of the home-spun good ol' boy wisdom and dry cynicism of DeForest Kelley's performance (he even gets to say 'Damn it, Jim, I'm a doctor not a physicist!' at one point) with a slightly wan melancholy that is rather appealing.

Despite not appearing until nearly three-quarters of the way through, Simon Pegg threatens to steal the entire movie with a genuinely lovely little turn as a mockingly irreverent Scotty. He gets most of the movie's best lines and has such fun being thoroughly put-upon over his engine's capabilities and wrapping his tonsils around the words 'Dilithium Crystals' that you just can't help but get swept along with the sheer delightful ludicrousness of this particular part of the plot.

Actually, my favourite among the supporting actors is probably Anton Yelchin who plays Chekov with an almost Asperger's-like glee as an awkward, geeky, spotty teenage genius. Then again, I always did have a soft spot for Chekov in the original. I used to imagine him, in another life, murderously sweeping through the villages of the Urals as an armed-to-the-teeth blood-soaked Cossak warlord. Ah hell, it's what fan-fiction was invented for, surely? That and slash. I imagine there's quite a bit of that going down online at the moment (and trust me when I tell you, I haven't looked) after one particularly quasi-homoerotic sequence involving the two leads on the Romulan warship. And as for those early scenes of Kirk in his biker leathers ... oh, don't go there.

One can complain about the tweaking of established continuity, of course - although, the use of the reset button did, at least, give a perfectly rational explanation for most of the minor changes to Trek history. (I guess the death of Amanda some years prior to Journey To Babel was the biggest amendment in this regard but there are a few others.) As well as, of course, a reason why all the characters look a bit different now and why their, soon to begin five/ten/fifteen/whatever year mission will have new things happening within it. 'You never push the reset button.' Well, stuff it, they did. And I reckon they pulled it off. Others may disagree but at least they will have one of the Hollywood's finest movie credits to give them a quiet chuckle when nobody's looking: 'Cody Klop (Vulcan Bully #3).' Bless.

Of course, not everybody's happy with it - you'd kind of expect that with Star Trek fans. It's satire, just in case you were wondering. Look it up in the dictionary, it's somewhere between 'sarcasm' and 'syhpilis.' These guys, on the other hand, seem to be well-satisfied.

In other news, at last somebody talks some sense about the MP expenses scandal. Of course it is Stephen Fry, so you'd expect nothing less. Go on, Steve, you give 'em both barrels mate.

In the season (and, possibly series) finale of Dollhouse we got a clever wrapping up of most of the main storylines, some happy endings (well, one anyway) but a load of new potential roads to be travelled and stories to be told ... if Fox hold their water and go with a second season. It's not going to happen, of course. Under three million people watched the episode on Friday night. Just to put that into some perspective, that's approximately half of the average audience for Firefly, the last Joss Whedon series to get cancelled by Fox just as it was getting interesting. I like Dollhouse a lot, I think it's been a brave and just a bit dangerous experiment in asking the audience to use their brains. That was always going to be a gamble in today's increasingly dumbed-down network programming. But, seemingly, the public doesn't want that and, much as one might like to force them to, there does reach a point where banging one's head against a brick wall ceases to be a positive statement about not giving in and starts to become simply painful. And, possibly, a first sign of brain damage. And lastly, House ended its run with another superb episode that concluded with a triple whammy of surprises and with love in the air as Chase and Cameron got married. That Cameron, eh? Tying the knot to her Aussie toyboy on the very same day that I saw her give birth to James T Kirk. I'll bet that's twenty four hours she won't forget in a hurry.

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