Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Star Trek Retrospective II: 1987-1992

New Kids in Town
Paramount had been toying with the idea of bringing Trek back to the small screen for several years at this point, always ending in awry, but in the Year of Charles's Birth this second series finally came to fruition. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) was unveiled to audiences deeply skeptical of any attempt at filling the original crew's shoes, skepticism not unlike that faced by Connery's two replacements upon exiting the Bond role. Were Shatner & Nimoy Star Trek or was the tale bigger than them? Thanks mainly to resident God Among Men Patrick Stewart, the latter was true.

Skepticism aside, TNG was a ratings - albeit not critical - success right out of the gate and in fact pioneered a whole generation of syndication-only TV shows of dubious quality such as Hercules, Xena, the allegedly decent Babylon 5, et al which followed. Differences from the original series included a more "enlightened" crew with less in-drama (aka less characterization), an updated ship and a Shakespearean-trained Captain. The early years are laughably cheesy, like TOS but without the charm and the final two seasons derail again, but there's a stretch in the middle there of truly great television. TNG could be a bit sterile at times and certainly hasn't aged well, but its reputation and popularity are well deserved.

Best Episodes:
- "The Inner Light" (Picard is zapped by an alien probe from a long-dead civilization and given a lifetime of one of its scientist's memories)
- "Tapestry" (Picard "dies", goes to heaven, finds out the Almighty is actually pesky omnipotent Q. Q offers Picard a chance to relive his life without regrets, Picard regrets the decision to do so)
- "Cause & Effect" (the Enterprise is caught in a timeloop that keeps ending in its destruction, the crew must figure out how to plant clues for their next 'round' to escape the space-time-whatsit-loopy-doopy)
- "Chain of Command Pt. 2" (Picard is captured by the Cardassians and tortured. features Stewart's classic "THEH AH FOUR LIGHTS!" line)
- "Measure of a Man" (a douchey scientist wants to disect Data against his will, arguing that Data is a robot & has no rights. Data is put on trial to prove that he is in fact alive and deserves the same rights as everyone else)
- "Darmok" (An alien captain w/severe language barrier strands himself & Picard on a planet with a nasty monster, hoping that the male-bonding experience will help their civilizations figure out how to communicate)
- "All Good Things..." (the pitch-perfect series finale, Q puts humanity on trial for being a "dangerous, savage child race," Picard must prove him wrong)

How it ends:
"Five card stud, nothing wild, and the sky's the limit."

Shatner Gets to Direct, Fail Ensues
Meanwhile over on the movie lot, a fifth Trek film is put in the works:

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1988) - After Nimoy got to direct films 3 & 4, Shatner demanded the same chance. Armed with an ambitious story about a renegade Vulcan on a quest to literally find the Almighty, who apparently lives in a part of the Mohave Desert at the center of the galaxy, Shatner set to work. All manner of production problems ranging from budget cuts to a visual fx company that had quite noticeably no idea what they were doing fell upon him, resulting in a so-bad-it's-brilliant monstrosity. The plot is thin and riddled with holes, the look cheap, the dialogue bad... Scotty bonks his head & we're supposed to laugh... this is one of the stupidest, worst movies in the series. Still though, that character driven charm that makes the original gang so special is very much present. It's a fun train wreck to watch.

Best Line:
"K'pagh pagh pagh, KEGH GINAB!" - Klingon Captain

How it ends:
"Row row row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream."

Gorbachev to the Rescue
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) - An aging Enterprise is dispatched on a not-so-subtle Cold War allegory mission to escort the Klingon Chancellor to Earth for peace negotiations. Thanks to a recent catalismic disaster (Chernobyl?), among other problems, the Klingon Empire has decided it can no longer afford hostility with the Federation and wants to make ammends. Kirk hates the Klingons and the Klingons hate him, but he accepts the mission anyway. Chaos on an epic scale ensues when the Chancellor is assassinated, seemingly by Kirk.

With its dark, intelligent edge and relevant story, this could have been greater than Khan. Unfortunately some wild mischaracterizations from a suddenly alcoholic Chekov, an annoyingly angry Scotty (how do you make Scotty annoying?) and a racist Uhura (borderline heresy considering the significance her character has to the African American acting community) drag things down a notch or two or three. Still, the ideas & commentary are great and it's certainly the most far-reaching cinematic story Trek had tackled to this point. I respect it more than I enjoy it.

Best Line:
"LET THEM DIE" - Kirk, in full Shatner glory

How it ends:
A well-earned ride into the sunset. This is the last time we see the original crew together.

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