Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek Retrospective IV: 2001-2008

Prequel Fail
With Voyager's run ending on a ratings down note, merchandise sales nosediving, the most recent movie (Insurrection) a box office fizzle and Trek's reputation rightfully ruined, the producers were keenly aware that whatever followed Voyager's finale in mid-2001 had to be something hip and awesome... something that gave Trek a fresh start and would court a new generation of fans with its cool factor (sound familiar?) Thus UPN replaced the dorky, ill-received Voyager with Enterprise (later awkwardly retitled Star Trek: Enterprise), a prequel series set a hundred years before TOS with the goal of accomplishing what JJ Abrams eventually did: reboot Trek for the young generation. As the mere existence of JJ Abrams' movie proves, this first try was not so hot.

For all its superficial attempts at being different (a soft-rock opening theme instead of Jerry Goldsmith, "hull plating" instead of shields, etc), the early two seasons of Enterprise were *exactly* the same as Voyager. Same production staff, same writing staff, same dated "early 90's filmed with 00's cameras" look and feel, same tired formulaic plots, and nary a cool factor in sight. It tried so hard at first, the first handful of episodes aren't too shabby, but by the time season 2 rolls around you can just feel the energy zap from the screen with what is probably the single worst, lamest clump of 20-odd episodes Trek has ever produced. This same creative team had been working on TNG, Voyager, two of the movies and now this for almost two decades. It was time to give up. Or was it?

One Last Chance
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) - They certainly pulled out all the stops here. A longer-than-usual gap between movies, an A-list celebrity screenwriter (John Logan, writer of Gladiator & Sweeney Todd), an Oscar-winning action editor for a director, a bigger budget... with the television arm of the franchise seemingly crippled, this movie was the last real chance to make Star Trek cool again, at least in the immediate future. And that's where the trouble begins. The creative team in charge had (past five years of Trek case in point) no friggin clue what "cool" meant anymore.

If Nemesis's deep problems could be boiled down to any one cause, it's that the filmmakers were making the movie they thought fans wanted to see, as opposed to you know, actually making a good movie, which is ironically what the fans actually wanted. At an almost regular interval, a moment or shot in Nemesis comes along where you can just feel the director/writer/whoever going "ooh, they'll love this!" But it's always just so, SO painfully lame. Any time they're presented with a good or bad cinematic choice, they make the bad one, thinking its what we want to see, but it isn't! We just want a good story that sends the TNG cast out with style, dangit. At one point during the climactic battle, Picard rams the Enterprise into the enemy ship with very little explanation or result. Why does he do this? Where's the strategy? Contrast this with any of the like three similar rammings in Battlestar Galactica, the difference in quality is obvious. Earlier in the film, Picard & his team explore a planet using a dune buggy. The reason: "ooh they'll love a car chase!" But no, all this does is make the non-fans snicker mockingly during the trailer at their lame attempt to be cool, and all the fans roll their eyes because they're aware of any of a dozen reasons why this scene shouldn't be happening.

Anyways, enough with my Trekkie rant. The verdict: I have seen all of the previous 9 movies, even the worst ones, at least a dozen times. The first time I saw Nemesis in the theater was the only time I have seen it from beginning to end. It is so painfully unwatchable, it's the only Star Trek film I've never been inspired to revisit and I don't think six years will change my or anyone else's view of it. Making a paltry $40-odd million at the box office, this would be the last in the series of films that began over twenty years prior with TMP.

Best Line: (it's hard to find one, but)
"You have the bridge, Mr. Troi." - Picard, mocking Riker for recently marrying Troi.

How it ends:
New lines of work or retirement for all involved.

Too Little Too Late: Enterprise Season 4
The TV franchise adrift, the movies tanked... solution = try salvaging what was left of Enterprise. Midway through it's third season, the executive producers and writers who'd been on staff since at least Voyager "voluntarily" took a back seat to fresh blood, and wow what a difference it made. Starting with the episode "Azati Prime," the hapless show that made even Voyager seem nifty was suddenly sort of, but only sort of awesome. The characters became more rounded, the dialogue sharper and the plotlines less predictable. By the start of Season 4 when the new producers took over entirely, the entire feel of the show had changed. It was suddenly competent. By the time season 4 had ended, it was clear this was Trek's best (and only legitimately good) season since the end of DS9. There are some great stories here that actually do the origins-job a prequel is supposed to do, in particular a Vulcan-centric 3 parter, an episode about Khan's genetically engineerede relatives and a Mirror Universe tale.

Unfortunately, as good as this season was, saving the show required more than "good," if it was possible at all by this point. The ratings never recovered and Enterprise became the only Trek series since the original to be cancelled prematurely. At least it went out with dignity though, actual series finale episode aside.

Random Tidbit: In the new movie, when Scotty says he killed "Admiral Archer's poor beagle", that's a reference/making fun of this show. Enterprise's captain is a Cpt. Archer, and he has a pet beagle named Porthos. So Scotty killed Porthos! (tear)

Best Episodes (all from the last season & a half):
- "Similitude" (Tucker is mortally wounded, but Dr Phlox gets the idea to clone him via stem cell and harvest the clone's organs. naturally the clone objects. a relevant, well written and classic Star Trek story)
- "Cold Station 12" (Khan's cousins wreck havoc, plot is nothing special, it's just surprisingly well made)
- "In a Mirror, Darkly" (the origins of the Evil Mirror Universe from TOS)
- "Damage" (while the Enterprise is dead in the water from the prior episode, T'Pol confronts a drug addiction)

How it ends:
Really stupidly. But the second-to-last episode - the finale-in-spirit, is terrific.

The Great Trek Drought of the Late 2000's
For the first time since the 70's there was no new Star Trek in regular production. Rumors flew around about a new movie in the works but coming so soon after Nemesis's failure, this seemed unlikely. Rick Berman, Trek exec producer since 1990, said Paramount had approached him about a new prequel film centering around the Romulan Wars, or something, and indeed a full script had been written by the author of Band of Brothers. Nothing ever came of it and the rumor mills grew ever more silent. Us Trekkies, as exhausted as the general public was after so much usually crappy oversaturation, felt that perhaps, after 40 years, the end had finally come. Star Trek had run its course, and it was time to let a new love take its place. Farscape, Stargate, Firefly, BSG... they all tried, but none could really capture lightning in a bottle quite the same way.

Then we woke up one morning, and saw something like this headline on CNN:


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