Canadians Stand With You

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In March of 2003, shortly after then prime minister Jean Chretien stood up in the House of Commons and told the world that Canada would not be participating in George W. Bush’s flight of folly that was to be the Iraq War, two members of the opposition, Stephen Harper (the future prime minister) and Stockwell Day wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal under this same title criticizing the government’s stance and suggesting that most Canadians were in fact in favour of Bush’s chest-beating military escapades.  I’m not sure who Messrs. Harper and Day were speaking for, because to this day I’ve never met a single fellow Canadian who would cop to admitting such a thing.  Rather, coast-to-coast we were proud that our PM showed the gravitas to stand up against what would ultimately prove to be an act of lunacy in which thousands of lives were lost and the perpetrators remain free to deliver $20,000 an hour guest lectures at universities the world over.

As the sobering and saddening event of November 8, 2016 settles and a serial liar, philanderer and proudly racist fool prepares to assume the office of President of the United States, this time Canadians do stand with you, our American friends, neighbours and cousins.  We stand with you in your trepidation at what a profoundly unqualified narcissist with little interest in the nuance of governance beyond what benefits his personal brand, prone to fly off the handle at the sight of a nasty tweet, will do with absolute authority over America’s nuclear arsenal and a zombie army of neo-Nazis goosestepping cheerfully wherever dark place he chooses to lead.  Though some might try to preach a tempered optimism, hopeful that the nobility of the office might silence the instincts for demagoguery, this really doesn’t seem like a glass half-full situation.  For the 64 million (and counting) souls who voted for Hillary Clinton, it’s more like the glass was sucked dry, smashed and then stolen from the tuberculosis-ridden orphans to whom it belonged.  It is deeply troubling when the most progressive imaginable outcome is that the hairdo is swiftly impeached and the balance of his presidency is entrusted to his homophobic VP – the empty shell of a man who represents Grover Norquist’s wet dream of an obedient puppet who will sign whatever government-shredding legislation is placed in front of him.  The American press is already trying its damnedest to normalize this bizarre sequence of events, falling back into its traditional deference to power and the fallacious and harmful “both sides” approach – counting, perhaps, on everyone to go to sleep again and be mollified by the off-camera antics of celebrities as America’s experiment in democracy approaches its most critical test:  whether it can survive the machinations of a sociopathic moron.

As Canadians, we watched the election of Barack Obama in 2008 with tremendous joy, thankful that the progressive values we had long held sacred (and boasted about in our non-confrontational Canadian sort of way) had a real chance to take heart and root in the most powerful country on the planet.  That we would finally begin to see some global leadership in worldwide crises like environmental degradation, poverty and war, and that the laissez-faire types running our government at the time would have no choice but to follow where President Obama would lead.  It is perhaps the most liberal of failings to assume that everyone should share our values because we know them to be right; we are equally prone to underestimating how forceful the backlash from the right can be when those things that they consider sacred – whatever our opinions of them – are threatened.  And so it was that after the prolonged drama that was the passage of the Affordable Care Act – a frustrating exercise in incrementalism for a president who wanted a transformational wave – the 2010 midterm elections saw the Republicans take back the House and bring a decisive end to the President’s legislative agenda, to be replaced by fruitless repeal votes and endless (and equally fruitless) investigations.  Progress, sadly, would have to wait.  It remains on a shelf, and now seems fated to be relegated to a back corner of that warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark as every long-slumbering, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal neo-con rises from the morass to assume a place of leadership in the new administration, determined to take the country back to the bad old days of the 1850’s.

When we elected Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister in 2015, we felt as though it was the continuation of a trend that Obama had begun, perhaps the commencement of a new era of this new breed of statesperson:  charismatic, far-thinking, caring.  The sight of the two of them palling around like old schoolmates at the subsequent state dinner was an episode of The West Wing come to life, and one that seemed destined to continue under safely inevitable President-to-be Hillary Clinton.  Like you, we never thought that in a million years would enough swing-state Americans pull the lever for the loudmouthed candidate whose entire campaign seemed a calculated publicity stunt designed to boost bookings at his hotels and golf courses.  He seemed to like the idea of winning, but not necessarily the work of doing the job after that.  We thought that if trends and polls pointed to a win, he would swiftly drop out, spin it as a victory, and go back to leering at his daughter and stiffing contractors.

When he actually won, Canadians gave ourselves a shake because we had seen this before, and we should have known it could happen, and we shouldn’t have been soothing our panic with promising poll numbers.  Because in 2010 the City of Toronto, thought of as one of the most liberal and diverse metropolises in the world, elected as its Mayor a man who had been similarly dismissed in the beginning as a bumbling, boorish oaf with virtually no chance of winning.  In Toronto’s election, the narrative of the entire campaign was Rob Ford:  love him or hate him, he was all you were talking about.  Ford’s message was uncomplicated and aimed directly at anyone who’d ever been upset with their local government about anything – recognizing that voter anger and the desire for change, no matter what that change might be, is perhaps the most powerful force into which any candidate for anything can tap.  The other candidates might have had some decent and progressive ideas, but they failed to articulate exactly what they stood for other than being against Ford and the dire prognostications of what Ford might do in the mayor’s office.  And it wasn’t enough.  Ford won a handsome victory and despite the rollercoaster of his term looked like he was headed for a second before the illness that ultimately claimed his life forced him to drop out of the race in 2014.

In the flashback West Wing episode “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” longshot primary candidate Jed Bartlet chafes at a staffer’s suggestion that he refrain from mentioning his front-running opponent John Hoynes’ name in speeches as it gives him free publicity.  Bartlet argues that not mentioning Hoynes’ name just makes him look like he can’t remember Hoynes’ name.  But in 2016, every Clinton election ad that filtered north of the border did indeed seem to be about her opponent; every terrible thing he had done and the piss poor example he would set as a president and role model.  (I shared a few myself on Twitter.)  Utterly lost in the messaging was what she would do, how she would make things better, that one singular idea that can light a fire in a soul and spread ravenously to others, the idea from which world-changing movements are born.  Instead, with the ratings-hungry media eager to cash in on trainwreck spectacle, the election became Rob Ford redux, and what little time was afforded Hillary Clinton was devoted to the tiresome saga of her emails.  The book The Secret posits the question of why sometimes, in elections, a widely loathed candidate still manages to win, arguing that it is because all thought, energy and attention is focused on him.  Whatever the truth behind the veneer, on the surface he was the dazzling wealthy celebrity with the glamorous supermodel wife and the incomparably lavish lifestyle, the embodiment of “American exceptionalism,” the archetype many Americans feel it’s their divine destiny and right to one day become; the Big Lie of the “haves and soon-to-haves,” and day after day, night after night, he was the full story.

I really don’t mean to Monday morning quarterback; it certainly doesn’t ease the pain of what happened on November 8th.  I offer it only as a caveat for what comes next, because others will look to copy the model of Rob Ford and the walking comb-over in years to come – and we need a solid strategy to defeat them.  Already here in Canada we have a candidate for the leadership of our Conservative Party praising the U.S. election results and saying that we need some of that bad mojo to spread up here – to which I and I think a majority of Canadians respond with a unified gag reflex.  But we don’t dare write this person off or pretend that such views can’t possibly take a toehold and mutate into something larger and much uglier.  When people are desperate, they will latch on to whomever is selling the easiest solution in the loudest voice, and it’s dangerous to dismiss such people as suckers.  As progressives and liberals we need to do better at selling our ideas instead of just defining ourselves in opposition to the heinous garbage the other guys are rolling out.  We need to go into those reddest of red states (and bluest of blue provinces – the red/blue thing is flipped up here) and start the conversation with the most unfriendly of audiences and not stop it until we’ve won hearts and minds.  The cheaper, easier alternative, shoring up the base and waiting for demographic evolution to take care of business, is an errand for fools.

There’s no sense in applying the comforting coat of sugar, my American friends:  you have some hard times ahead.  The monsters you thought you’d driven under the bed over the last eight years are slithering back out to sink their greedy teeth into you, and this time they won’t be the slightest bit subtle about it.  But the good news is that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, and your “small group” outnumbers this gang of robber baron cretins by about 320 million.  The world remembers when your collective effort allowed humanity to walk on the moon; surely you can do it again, after all, there’s even more of you now.  President Obama himself said that progress rarely moves in a straight line.  So don’t let your country slip back into the Dark Ages without a fight.  Don’t let the media normalize this caricature of a man who is about to become your president.  Speak out.  Organize boycotts.  Take to the streets and to the barricades.  Don’t be lulled into complacency by reality shows and celebrity catfights for one precious second.  Raise your voices, sing your songs and spread your words far and wide every chance you get, and you will win the real battle to make America great again.

And know that on this side of the border, Canadians stand with you.

Elegy for the 2016 Season

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So… I guess we didn’t know the way out.  Or, we did, and we just couldn’t find it this time.

Baseball has no denouements.  For a sport often criticized for its length and occasionally languid pace, individual games and entire seasons can end in a slice of time scarcely more measurable than the duration of a blink:  the snap of a glove closing over a futile pop-up, a batted ball striking a plastic seat perched over the left-field fence.  A cord is cut, and abruptly it’s celebrations for one team and quiet exits through the clubhouse for the other.  There is no window in which to become comfortable with the notion of either, but plenty of time for deep contemplation to follow, once the lights have been dimmed and the crowds have gone home, and the weeks roll on into November and questions of trades and free agency and the long wait until spring training of a new year.

The lesson from the 2016 American League Championship Series is to be careful what you wish for.  As the Blue Jays were sweeping away the hated Texas Rangers, Cleveland was doing the same to the Boston Red Sox despite a pitching staff absent its two best starters, and every statistic in the book prescribed that the Jays would have a much better chance of beating Cleveland than going up against David Ortiz et al once more.  But Boston, like Toronto, was a team dependent on its offense, and Cleveland’s hurlers were stepping up and shutting that offense down.  Toronto had gone through a horrendous patch in September when they hadn’t been able to hit much of anything, and were making late callup opposition 4th & 5th starters they’d never faced before look like Cy Young and Sandy Koufax.  Perhaps we were fooling ourselves into the idea that those doldrums that had seemed to vanish in the week leading up to the playoffs couldn’t return.  The way our guys were demolishing Texas’ aces made a march to the World Series feel inevitable, the prospect of perhaps dueling the Cubs at Wrigley Field for the big trophy simply mouth-watering.  Surely, Cleveland’s compromised hurlers would be yet another easily crushed stepping stone.  Our guys even had better-than-average numbers against the fearsome reliever Andrew Miller from his days with the Yankees.

How wrong we were.

There have perhaps been few playoff teams as evenly matched as Cleveland and Toronto, and in the final analysis, Cleveland simply played better.  They deserve every congratulations for their victory – even if such kudos have to be offered through clenched teeth.

Perhaps because there are no denouements in baseball, it’s easy to become too focused on what we lost in that final disappointing game rather than what we shared in the 170 games that preceded it.  2016 gave us plenty of wonderful baseball memories to store away in the vault of highlight reels for fans to trade “where were you when” stories about.  The playoffs alone have given us Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off wild card 3-run home run, and Josh Donaldson’s ALDS Game 3 walk-off face-plant into the plate.  Those can be happily added to the hallowed echelons reserved for “Touch ’em all, Joe,” Dave Stieb’s no-hitter and the greatest bat flip of all time.  Ultimately no one will have much cause to rue the hopelessness of the ALCS, much as few reminisce about last year’s.  We’ll take our victories where we can find them, and contemplate how neither the Orioles, the Red Sox or any of the teams that did not even touch the postseason will have any such memories of 2016 going forward.  For these are the moments that keep you invested in a team, keep you holding on to the unlimited promise of the next season, and the season after that.

There is of course a degree of melancholy in the end of 2016 for the Toronto Blue Jays in that it represents the potential end of the road for two of its most iconic players, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion:  men who shuffled into town with sparse fanfare and lower expectations and developed, under the hopeful eyes of millions Canadian fans, into two of baseball’s elite.  Few want to see them go, as their departure would represent the closing of a door on a singular time in Toronto baseball.  The reality of the business aspect of the sport foretells that they probably will.  At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate, one could make the case that they have had several years and chances to get it done, as it were, and have not.  Indeed, their respective offensive output was sorely lacking over these past five games when it mattered most, and hits from them alone in a key moment here and there might have changed the outcome completely.

Without meaning any disrespect to the two, maybe it is finally time to let someone else step up.

One recalls how important Dave Winfield was to the Blue Jays’ World Series win in 1992 and how his departure in the off-season would have seemed at the time to be fatal to the chances of a repeat, but the arrival and subsequent performance of Paul Molitor the following year rendered that conversation swiftly moot.  If the Jays’ front office doesn’t want to pony up to keep Joey Bats and the Ed-wing, who’s to say they might not find somebody better – a Paul Molitor for 2017?  We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility.  Recall the hew and cry when Toronto passed up its chance to retain the forbiddingly expensive David Price and signed a cheaper, under-the-radar J.A. Happ instead.  After Happ’s 20-win season and Price’s year of scuffling with Boston, no one regrets that decision.

Bautista and Encarnacion may leave, but the team they built together and the fans they inspired will still be here – jerseys and all.  For that, we’ll always be grateful.  Perhaps we’ll welcome them back again one day in honorary Blue Jays uniforms, to throw out the first pitch or flip the bat and walk the parrot in a 50th anniversary game in 2026 as their names rightfully join the Level of Excellence.  They’ve earned it, and no one can ever deprive them of the history they’ve made in Toronto.

In the first Golden Era of Toronto Baseball, the Blue Jays had to lose four sets of ALCS appearances (with a few non-playoff seasons in between) before they were finally able to advance and take it all.  As we bear witness to the Second Golden Era, we might want to reassure ourselves with the same thought.  There is no reason why we can’t find ourselves back here same time next year, the holes in the boat patched, two years’ worth of playoff experience under our belts, a better, ingrained approach against shutdown pitching.  After decades in the wilderness, the Toronto Blue Jays have regained the most important thing it is to be in this sport:  the status of a contender.  Contenders pack the stands night after night, fashion the most gripping of games and have the best players in the league salivating to come join the party.  That might be a more satisfying, long-term victory than the fleeting glitter of a 2016 World Series trophy, and in a sport without denouements, an ending that can linger for years to come.

Thank you to every one of the Toronto Blue Jays for a terrific season.  See you in the spring.

We’ve Been Down Here Before, and We Know the Way Out

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If one was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays imagining the course of the 2016 American League Championship Series, the most ideal situation would not necessarily be rolling into Game 3 down two and needing to win four of the next five to move on to the big finale.  The Cleveland Indians are sitting far more comfortably after their first two victories and five straight so far in their 2016 postseason.  They can afford to absolutely tank the next few games confident that even in the Blue Jays’ most optimal outcome, this series will be decided on Cleveland’s home turf of Progressive Field by the end of this week, with a legion of red-clad fans on their feet for every strike hurled against an opposing batter.

No, not really what you want to see as a Toronto player or a fan, especially given the doses of playoff magic we’ve been treated to thus far:  Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run in the wild card, Josh Donaldson’s faceplant walk-off slide into home in the ALDS.  We want more of that to keep us sustained over the long winter to come.  It’s crunch time now, backs against the wall, the importance of every at bat magnified by expectant eyes and television cameras.  And yet, there is perhaps no team with as much potential to reverse this perilous course and claw its way back to a triumphant finale.  Because this isn’t last year, when you had an essentially virgin playoff roster flailing to find its way against the more experienced and more clutch Kansas City Royals.  And the losses to Cleveland thus far have contained more than a few silver linings to keep the faith going (as indeed, I had to be reminded of by my better half through more than a few grimaces and obscenities as I watched Game 2 slip away).

The consensus among sportswriters was that these were going to be low-scoring games as the pitching on both sides is elite.  No argument there.  But for one bad pitch each from Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, these two games have entirely different outcomes.  Bummer if you’re a Jays fan looking for a crucial win, obviously, but reassuring to know that we won’t likely be treated to a reprise of last year’s horrifying Game 4, when Toronto’s pitchers might as well have been tossing underhand tennis balls to Kansas City.  Lost perhaps in the talk of the Blue Jays’ inability to scratch out hits with men in scoring position or indeed do anything but whiff against Cleveland’s Andrew Miller is the fact that those two errant home run balls have represented the sum total of Cleveland’s ability to score over these past two games.  Estrada and Happ were largely lights out except for those couple of forgivable mistakes (which would have been meaningless had their offense supported them in the manner to which they became accustomed in the ALDS).

We didn’t need to use our bullpen in Game 1, but in Game 2, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna combined to silence Cleveland’s lineup over three innings as effectively as Miller, even if they weren’t doing it in as flashy a manner – a zero on the scoreboard is a zero, whether it’s by strikeouts or groundouts.  And because Estrada was so solid in Game 1, those are the only two of our relievers that Cleveland has had to face.  Jason Grilli, Brett Cecil, Francisco Liriano, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera are all rested and ready to go when needed, and Cleveland doesn’t have much experience facing any of them.  It is true that Osuna had begun to struggle a bit in the closing days of September, but when you recall that it was against AL East teams who’d seen him umpteen times throughout the season, it’s not surprising at all – and he’s been able to recoup his mojo quite handily in October against guys who haven’t had to face him in months.

On the Cleveland bullpen side, manager Terry Francona has relied exclusively on Miller and closer Cody Allen, who have combined to render the Blue Jays’ bats impotent.  The danger with this approach is that the more times the Jays face Miller, the better they’ll be able to read what’s coming – and because Miller has thrown multiple innings each outing, everyone down the lineup has had a chance to see him.  As good as Miller is, he’s not immortal, and he’s going to make a mistake at some point – or worse, become predictable.  One of the most satisfying moments of last season’s drive was watching Dioner Navarro rip an “unhittable” Miller pitch into the Yankee Stadium seats, and something similar is inevitable during the course of this long series (the hand-wringing likely to result for Francona, along the lines of Buck Showalter’s criticism for not using Zach Britton in the wild card game, is amusing to contemplate).

I and a few others wondered if the long layoff between the sweep of Texas in the ALDS and the start of the ALCS might lead to the Blue Jays losing the crucial edge that had served them so handily starting with the final two games of the regular season at Fenway.  When hitting is so much a matter of precision timing, any disruption in routine can trend it south, and while the Jays certainly used their well-earned downtime to continue training and practicing, lazy drills in an empty stadium simply don’t have the electricity needed to keep that edge sharp.  Sinking into a must-win situation, however, does, and with Marcus Stroman coming to the mound tonight as he did for the wild card game, the ingredients have been assembled for a repeat breakout that will both knock Cleveland back on its heels and put our guys smack back in it.

It’s been the story of the Toronto Blue Jays 2016 season.  They may look lost from time to time, but they’re never finished.  To paraphrase Leo McGarry, we’ve been down here before, and we know the way out.  It was punctuated, you may recall, by a particularly notorious flip of the bat.

That’s the hope, anyhow, as the playoffs are not notorious for providing a wealth of second chances, and a loss tonight could result in a lot of early obituaries for Toronto’s season.  But it’s not as though the Blue Jays are being pounded into the dirt by a far superior team with no hope of recovery.  The narrative has been simply that of one evenly matched team edging out the other by the narrowest of margins.  That trend isn’t sustainable, and even though Cleveland’s offense is probably due to break out, one can’t see that happening under the blazing lights and deafening roars of the Rogers Centre.  The odds have most definitely turned in our favor.

Former Jays utility player Munenori Kawasaki had a delightful quote last year about how his team would make its run:  “Don’t thinking! Don’t don’t thinking. Just swing! Just catc…uh throw! Just catch. Don’t think everybody. Just win!”  I can’t think of any better advice to my team than that.

Just win.  You know how.

You’ve done it before.

Clash of the (Mild-Mannered) Titans

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It’s hard to believe it’s only been four days since the Blue Jays walked off the Texas Rangers to earn their second straight trip to the American League Championship Series.  The collective nerves of Toronto fans certainly merited a break, even if they won’t truly stop jangling until we see our guys clutching a champagne-soaked World Series trophy – or the undesired alternative.  With a little over three hours to Corey Kluber’s first pitch of Game 1, those stomach-dwelling butterflies are beginning to flap their dreaded wings once more.  Even though by all rights we have much more reason to be more confident about our prospects in this series than we did one year ago, watching our guys take the field at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.  Our squad is experienced, battle-hardened and eager to conclude unfinished business, to propel the entire nation into a final showdown with either the Dodgers or the Cubs.

We got a taste of this last year, and how we are ever starving for it now.

I’m not the only one who isn’t terribly upset that we’re not facing the Boston Red Sox again.  With the major league schedule calibrated to ensure that teams play the majority of their games against division rivals, it felt like Toronto was suiting up against those guys every week, and honestly, it was getting a bit wearying, especially given the excessive media spotlight on David Ortiz’s final season.  Now that he is done and the Sox, swept efficiently to the curb by Cleveland, are looking to 2017, we don’t have to worry about Craig Kimbrel’s silly bent-over pitching stance, or Mookie Betts’ arrogant plate sneer, or Dustin Pedroia’s goofy stretchy-face, or John Farrell’s brooding dugout mug, or Fenway’s home-run stealing Green Monster, or any of those infuriating quirks spoiling the mood one last time.  So long guys, see ya in April.

We can finally have – as the hashtag says – our moment.

Tonight, Marco Estrada goes up against Corey Kluber.  I was at the game on July 3rd when the Jays hammered Kluber and his compatriots so badly, to the tune of 17-1, that manager Terry Francona was forced to have his catcher pitch the last few innings.  Cleveland’s starting rotation has been thinned by season-ending injuries and the current plan is for Game 4 to be a “bullpen game,” with no qualified starter available to take the mound.

Toronto’s starters are another matter.  Collectively, they are the best in the league.  While neither J.A. Happ nor Aaron Sanchez were in their fighting form in the ALDS, they have had more games than not during the season when they pitched like aces, and stand every chance to do so again.  Along with Marcus Stroman, whom nobody wanted to start the wild card game, and who fed off those doubts to throw the game of his life.  As long as our guys keep hitting and running the bases like they have been, we have every chance to move on.

It feels like we deserve to move on.

Not that it will be easy.  Both teams are undefeated in the postseason this year, and one of those streaks will end tonight.  Despite a compromised pitching staff, Cleveland managed to hold the run-happy Red Sox at bay in three straight.  They’re no pushovers, not by a long shot.  They deserve to be here as much as we do.  And if they manage to secure a World Series berth, no one will be able to say it wasn’t earned.

What gives me the most hope is that during the playoffs and even those last two games against Boston that secured home field advantage for the wild card, the Jays are playing the kind of baseball that the Royals used to defeat them last year – manufacturing runs from tiny hits, running hard, taking extra chances that pay off huge.  Josh Donaldson’s walkoff dash on Sunday night was taken right from the same playbook that saw Lorenzo Cain score the winning run from first base in last year’s Game 6.  That’s the kind of high-risk ball that can push a good team into the realm of greatness – when it works, of course.  Combined with the rate at which the balls are flying out of the respective yards, the Blue Jays enter this series as favorites, and not just in the minds of their fans.

It’s a relief as well that we are playing against a team with which we really don’t have much of a history; there are no simmering grudges over past slights that require setting right.  Our guys don’t hate their guys, nor vice versa.  (No one in Cleveland has a memory long enough to warrant burning effigies of Dave Stieb over his 1990 no-hitter.)  Respective blood should remain at a gentle simmer rather than a roiling boil.  Two sets of titans are fated for a most civilized showdown.  Our guys, and theirs, can just go out and play great ball night after night and enjoy doing it, to the benefit of every single fan.  The game, and not individual egos, will assume its proper place at the center of the stage.

Could it all go wrong again?  Certainly.  Baseball’s entire outcome can turn on a single bad play.  Ask Rougned Odor.  You just have to make sure you make fewer bad plays than the other guys.

But more than last year, the Blue Jays have shown that hard work and dedication can pay off.  They won’t lie down and throw any of these games away.  They will fight and scratch and claw and battle to the last out to try to bring a championship north of the border again.  And really, that’s all you can ask from any team to whom you throw your support, no matter the result.

Oh, screw that good sportsmanship horse puckey.

I want them to win, dammit.

GO JAYS GO!!!!

The Miracles of October

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September seems like such a long time ago.

The stale taste of those doldrums lingered far too long; a miasma of blown leads, impotent offense, the fist-clenching frustration of watching the ubiquitous Boston Red Sox explode into an 11-game winning streak reminding us of who we were at this same time last year, the team everyone expected us to be again.

To be fair, the entire 2016 season seems like a long time ago.  The prevailing wisdom was that the unfulfilled promise of the otherwise magical 2015 run of the Toronto Blue Jays, thwarted at the last mile by the eventual champion Kansas City Royals, was mere dress rehearsal for greater destinies ahead.  The same core was back, the pitching had (ostensibly) been fortified, and it was merely a matter of sitting back and watching home runs fly out of stadiums on a cakewalk back to glory.

The baseball gods are never inclined to make things that easy.

There was a point in 2015 where you just expected the Jays to go out and win every game, and even in the ones they lost, they made it close.  But for much of this season, the 2016 squad felt like shells of their former selves; well-meaning guys who in the end just couldn’t get it done, and let their obvious frustrations play across squinting faces at each crushing swing and miss.  When a string of bad games plunged the Blue Jays permanently out of first place just as the kids they’d inspired were shuffling back to school, a colleague of mine sent me a quick email:  “Looks like we won’t be troubled by October baseball this year.”

I wasn’t disinclined to agree with him, nor was most of baseball.  There were too many more exciting stories for which to write tantalizing opening paragraphs:  the Chicago Cubs possibly smashing the infamous Goat Curse, the Giants reasserting their even-year playoff dominance, David Ortiz closing his storied career with a World Series ring on his finger.  As late as the last week of September the Blue Jays were yesterday’s news.  Move along folks, nothing more to see here.

For Blue Jays fans, it was as if an entire fabled era was stumbling to a whimpering close.  The image of a saddened Edwin Encarnacion, free agency and greener pastures looming, lingering in the dugout after a shattering shutout loss to the Baltimore Orioles and gazing one last time out at the stadium in which he worried he’d never get to trot his parrot again, epitomized what everyone was feeling.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

It couldn’t end like this.

The Blue Jays stumbled into Fenway Park largely written off by the entire sport.  The Red Sox had clinched the AL East a few days earlier (thanks to a Blue Jays loss) but were playing for home field advantage in the playoffs, so they weren’t inclined to make things any easier.  Nor did they, taking the first game in typical Red Sox fashion – and mirroring the Jays’ struggles in April – as Ortiz secured the win with a two-run blast off Brett Cecil.  Veteran political campaigners call it “the stench of death” – a creeping, settling dread that the end is certain no matter how much time remains on the clock.  These are the hardest moments to be a fan, of any team.

But.

The game has nine innings and the season has 162 games, and a quote from Vanilla Sky looms large:  every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around.

In Game 161, Kevin Pillar’s bat came to life.  In Game 162, Aaron Sanchez no-hit the hardest slugging team in the major leagues for seven innings.  And the grind during the regular season against the home-run happy Baltimore Orioles ensured that the Blue Jays had a winning record against them and thus would have home field advantage for the crucial do-or-die wild card game – at the loudest, most raucous ballpark in the majors (remember when Dave Winfield had to beg for more noise?)

You all know what happened next.

Victories are sweet but temporary, and as soon as the champagne and beer dried off the plastic strung over the clubhouse, the next challenge awaited.  A rematch with the hated Texas Rangers, they of the year-long festering butthurts over getting bat-flipped to the golf courses in 2015, who had initiated the brawl in May that had left Jose Bautista with a bruised face from Rougned Odor’s fist.  Still looking to settle the score, the Rangers had cruised to first place in the weak AL West division and the best overall record in the league and hadn’t had to play meaningful baseball in weeks.  But they were hungry.  By all stats they were in a better position.  The Blue Jays were banged up and their relief corps was in trouble again:  seventh-inning shutdown expert Joaquin Benoit was out with a torn calf muscle sustained in a stupid brawl against the Yankees, lightning-armed eighth-inning setup man Jason Grilli was suddenly tossing wiffle balls, and indispensable closer Roberto Osuna had departed the wild card game with a strained shoulder.

Most sportswriters were favoring the Rangers in four.

The game is played by nine men at a time, but each individual contest usually has one hero.  In Game 1 it was Marco Estrada, befuddling the Rangers with his changeup and blanking them into the ninth as a long-dormant Jays offense piled up 10 runs.  In Game 2 it was Roberto Osuna, with “NO PANIC” written on his shoes, quieting the last two innings and securing a squeaker of a 5-3 victory and sending the Jays home with only one game left to win (yet still with question marks as reliable leadoff man Devon Travis was held out with a bone bruise and Francisco Liriano took a terrifying, mild concussion-inducing shot to the back of the head off Carlos Gomez’s bat).  Game 3 seemed like it was fated to belong to Aaron Sanchez again.  That’s how the baseball gods would want it, right?

The Rangers, however, were not going to fold up and go quietly, and they hammered Sanchez for 6 runs, two of them coming on a home run from the hated Rougned Odor, the last coming on a Mitch Moreland double that was two inches from being another rally-ending diving catch from Kevin Pillar.

Sphincters clenched across Canada.

Even though we knew there would be a Game 4 to right the ship should this one collapse, watching the lead slip away was gutting.  We’d been in that position last year, and we rallied from a two game deficit to claim three straight and advance.  We knew Texas was aching to do the same, seemingly lacking only the inspiration of a close, hard-fought win to reignite the competitive spirit that had notched them 95 victories.

To the bullpens then.

The Jays tied the game at 6 apiece as Texas reliever Keone Kela threw the ball past catcher Jonathan Lucroy with the bases loaded, allowing Troy Tulowitzki to trot in from third.  But Nomar Mazara robbed Ezequiel Carrera of a bases-clearing double, and then on came Matt Bush, the 99 mph fireballer who had ignited the entire May mess by drilling Jose Bautista in his last at bat.  Inspired by Encarnacion’s wild card walk off, Jay after Jay hoping to be this game’s savior kept swinging through Bush’s heat, leading once again to extra innings.  Manager John Gibbons gambled twice in as many games with Roberto Osuna’s arm, keeping him on the mound for two innings and recognizing that if the Jays couldn’t win it in the bottom half, his best relievers were done, and it would be left to the less reliable second tier to try to hold the dangerous Rangers at bay.  Bush came back out for a third straight inning and kept firing in unhittable strikes.

Until Josh Donaldson finally connected and hurtled into second.

The Rangers were not inclined to let Encarnacion repeat his triumph, so they gave him a free pass to first.  Jose Bautista came to the plate, but was deprived of a storybook victory against the guy who’d plunked him by instead striking out.  So it would be left to Russell Martin, who hadn’t had a hit so far in the postseason until sending a solo blast over the wall in the first.  Martin was baffled by Bush, floundering into a quick 0-2 count before battling back, smartly letting balls go by and fouling off strikes to get him into 3-2 and Texas hungering for a ground ball double play.  Donaldson danced off second, Encarnacion waited calmly at first.

The pitch came.  Martin swung, and there it went, bouncing perfectly to shortstop Elvis Andrus, who relayed it to Rougned Odor at second to get Edwin, before relaying it to Mitch Moreland at first.

Double play.

Right?

But Odor’s throw bounced off the dirt and dragged Moreland off the bag.  Martin was safe.  And meanwhile, no one had noticed that Donaldson was running hard for home, risking the game on a desperate charge on a wonky hip.  Moreland threw to catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who let the ball bounce out of his glove as he wheeled to tag the sliding Donaldson.

Safe.

Ballgame.

Rangers manager Jeff Banister needlessly delayed the celebration by asking for a review of Encarnacion’s slide at second, hoping that he might have broken the grating “Chase Utley Rule” by interfering with Odor’s throw.  Had the New York office reversed the call, the stadium would have exploded and made the embarrassing can toss at an Orioles outfielder in the wild card look like a child’s tea party.  But Encarnacion’s slide was perfectly legal, and the Blue Jays walked off in triumph.  On to the ALCS for a second year in a row, a postseason sweep for the first time ever, and a six-game winning streak putting the wind at their backs.  From September slumps to October accomplishments.  From yesterday’s news to prohibitive favorites, unfinished business awaiting starting Friday in either Boston or Cleveland.

Someone more learned than myself said that baseball is stretches of disappointment punctuated by small miracles, and the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays have achieved a string of miracles in the last few weeks that have suddenly made them the most exciting team in baseball.  Yet they aren’t really miracles; they are the product of a team that has fought and clutched and grinded through abject humiliations to forge a formidable adversary for anyone who suits up against them.  From starting pitching to hitting to defense to the relief corps, every man in the blue and white is firing on all cylinders.  Each win has been earned.  Last year there were too many weak links, and the newness of the postseason experience let nerves undermine the consistent effort needed to close the deal against the Royals.

It feels different this time.  As if we’re finally riding a tide that no wall can break.  As if our team is absolutely stacked with heroes-in-waiting, as if each game is a chance to see another miracle.

This is the unfinished story of 2016, the story that those eager to crown other teams without letting the actual games play out first are missing.  Okay, fine, the Cubs have been great and they’re a hundred years overdue, but inevitability is tedious to watch.  And the Red Sox have simply worn out their welcome by making every single game a retirement ceremony for David Ortiz.  There’s nothing left to write about there, while north of the border, an ignored, discounted, marginalized gang of baseballers has been bringing excitement back to the sport every single night.

And we simply can’t wait to see what’s next.

The Last Days of the Philosopher King

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Wednesday night, as the final game of the Blue Jays-Mariners series rolled into the bottom of the 12th inning with both teams deadlocked at 1, and with the Blue Jays’ bullpen depleted of relievers, manager John Gibbons turned to an unlikely savior:  knuckleball starter R.A. Dickey.  Thinking presumably that should the game drag out into another exhausting 19-inning affair like the Canada Day grind against Cleveland, it would be wise to have someone on the mound who could chew through however many outs would be required before the slumbering offense could kick itself into gear.  It was not to be, however, and after having been let down by a couple of errors by the defense, Dickey shambled off with the walk-off loss, with only 1/3 of an inning pitched as Seattle took it 2-1.  With the possibility of the postseason still not entirely solid enough for Toronto fans’ liking, and Dickey unlikely to make the roster regardless, opinions both amateur and professional flew that this ignominious outing might very well be Dickey’s last in a Blue Jays uniform.  With Dickey turning 42 this winter and hitting free agency, it might even be the last time he steps onto a mound.  A career of struggle, crowning achievement and then the failure to repeat impossible expectations might be, in the end, fated to fade away rather than burn out.

Baseball is full of guys like that.  Few if any get a year-long (and let’s admit it – increasingly tiresome) farewell tour like David Ortiz is getting, coupled with his team’s seemingly unstoppable late-season pennant drive.  The ranks of baseballers are divided much like the circles in Dante’s Inferno, with a shining echelon for those who are anointed legends, and everyone else falling into their respective dark circles of almosts and never-weres.  There’s probably a guy wiping down the bar in your local watering hole who had twelve at bats in The Show back in the 80’s or 90’s.  There’s others who move on from middling careers as players to mediocre retirements as coaches, availing the youngsters of today of their decades of inexperience.  There are the sorts who flew too close to the sun on borrowed wings of wax:  Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, latterly Alex Rodriguez.  And there are the men like R.A. Dickey, the workhorses who will quietly close out a long career with beautiful memories of The Year It All Went Right and the lingering question of How It Never Was Again.

In how he approaches the game both on the field and before the TV cameras, Dickey seems like a throwback to a gentleman’s era of baseball that probably never existed except in fantasies colored by repeat viewings of The Natural.  As a knuckleball pitcher the fraternity he inhabits is a small one; as an erudite former English major given to extemporizing beyond the typical pre-fab soundbites about team efforts, that group is even smaller.  His steadiness of manner whether winning or losing is a remarkable contrast to the unpredictability of the knuckleball, a flabbergastingly peculiar pitch that can see him blast through opposing lineups through nine full innings or have him shrugging his way to an early exit to the dugout as that very same pitch sails once again into the outfield bleachers.  Chance always seems to play much more strongly into Dickey’s starts – even though statistically it’s likely no different than any of your standard four-seam hurlers – and too often fans have started to wring their hands the instant someone slaps one of Dickey’s pitches up the middle for a base hit.  Regardless of whether it’s a good night or a bad night, Dickey is hopeful, out there doing his best, and refusing to succumb to petulance if things don’t go his way – just as he won’t take a boastful curtain call if they do.  It isn’t who he is.  When you see players in their early 20’s – who probably can’t spell half the words that roll easily off Dickey’s tongue – sneering in the batters’ box as they lean in against him, you see how far removed Dickey is from where the game is going.

In Game Four of the ALDS in Texas last year, Dickey was lifted after 4 and 2/3 innings of solid work in favor of David Price.  Gibbons’ rationale at the time was that Price was simply a better matchup against Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo who had been something of a menace to the Jays throughout the series.  The Jays held on to take the game, but because MLB rules state that a starter has to go 5 full innings to qualify in the scoring, Dickey didn’t receive his coveted first post-season win.  Sitting next to Price in the post-game press conference, Dickey opined that no competitor wants to be taken out in a situation like that, but that ultimately it was what was best for the team.  (Price earned the official win after notching an inning and a half.)  Refusing to take reporters’ feud-inducing bait, he moved on quickly and revealed his penchant for trivia, noting with a twinkle in his eye that it was the first time one Cy Young winner had been replaced by another in a post-season game.  It was the gentle Southern humility of a man who knows the game is bigger than any single player, and certainly much bigger than himself.

The level of abuse flung at R.A. Dickey by people who should be cheering for him is sad.  Plenty of fans are ready to concede the game as soon as he is penciled in to start it.  They’re equally disdainful of the weak-hitting Josh Thole, Dickey’s personal catcher and an expert at containing the knuckleball, for needing to occupy a roster spot so Russell Martin can have occasional days off.  Much of it has nothing to do with Dickey (or Thole by extension) at all.  After his phenomenal 2012 season with the Mets in which Dickey captured the Cy Young, won 20 games and struck out 230 batters, he, Thole and another catcher were traded to Toronto for a package of players which included a young prospect named Noah Syndergaard.  Syndergaard, or “Thor,” has grown into one of baseball’s premier starters, while Dickey has never been able to equal, let alone eclipse the magnificence of 2012.  Some fans continue to rue this deal as the singular worst in franchise history, as if somehow magically undoing it would result in three retroactive World Series titles – setting aside of course the airplane hangar’s worth of terrible starting pitchers that flowed through and out of the ranks of the Jays roster during that time who certainly didn’t help matters.  Which guy endured, through those agonizing summer months in half-empty stadiums as playoff hopes drifted away early, and kept heading out there every five days to do what he did best, while the others were traded away and forgotten?

Pitcher is the most stressful job in baseball, bar none.  A position player can strike out three times with guys on base and still be considered to have had a good night if his fourth at-bat is a three-run blast into the seats.  But a pitcher goes out there knowing the game can hinge on him making a single mistake.  One meaty fastball too near the center of the plate to one David Ortiz and all is abruptly lost.  Pitchers can even lose games through no fault of their own, as befell Dickey on Wednesday night.  Two grounders and a fly should have been a three-up, three-down inning, but a tired defense and an aching Josh Donaldson booted the game into the loss column, Dickey’s 15th on the year and an unwanted career record.  It was all too reminiscent of what happened with Mark Buehrle last year about this time:  Buehrle was two innings short of hitting the 200-inning plateau for the fifteenth straight year in his career, and Gibbons let him start on two days’ rest against the Tampa Bay Rays in an inconsequential game – presumably he’d let Buehrle throw the needed two and then turn it over to the September call-ups in the bullpen.  But shoddy defense let what should have been a routine first turn into seven unearned runs for the Rays, and Gibbons had to pull Buehrle before he could record a third out – with the TV cameras cutting repeatedly to Buehrle’s mortified wife cringing in the stands.  Buehrle was left off the playoff roster and hasn’t pitched since, and a guy who once threw one of only 23 perfect games in MLB history deserved better than to have his career sputter to an end like that.  As cool September winds begin to blow across baseball diamonds, we can sadly see R.A. Dickey walking a similar path.

The peculiarities of baseball can perhaps explain why on the same team in the same year, you can have one guy who gets enough run support to achieve 20 wins (J.A. Happ) and another who can throw decent games and get absolutely nothing back from his hitters.  Witness Dickey’s August 15th outing against the Yankees, in which he held them to a single run across five innings, striking out six, and still lost the game when Toronto couldn’t notch a single run.  (You can also have the weird outing against the White Sox when Dickey gave up four home runs and still won the game, thanks to the Jays scoring 10 to the Sox’s 8.)  Arguably, Happ’s career year could have easily belonged to Dickey.  Is it that the Blue Jays just don’t feel as inclined to win when Dickey is on the mound?  Hardly, but that won’t stop the fans and the opinion-makers from shaking their heads, and, should this really be the last days in uniform for him, judging Dickey’s tenure as a Blue Jay to be a failure.

When Mark Buehrle was left off the 2015 playoff roster in favor of the shinier late additions that were David Price and Marcus Stroman, it had to have been an additional kick in the teeth, especially as the Blue Jays would not have made the playoffs at all without Buehrle’s 15 wins that year.  The same can be said in 2016 about R.A. Dickey – that the Blue Jays don’t get where they are without him, regardless of what you may think of his overall performance when plucking each game out of its season-long context.  With Dickey, the Blue Jays’ rotation has boasted remarkable endurance, with only 7 different guys starting games (including two spot starts from the since-traded Drew Hutchison), and apart from a few days off here and there for Marco Estrada and his wonky back, not one has gone down to injuries, or been demoted to recapture his groove.  In his four years with the Blue Jays, Dickey hasn’t been on the DL once, and the fact that he is still pitching and winning games in his 40’s when bucks ten years younger are blowing out their arms, says a lot about his commitment to the idea of a career in baseball, not just a couple of bright years and lucrative endorsement deals.  He probably knew as he donned the blue and white for the first time after his trade that he’d never be as good again as he was in 2012, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try, that he couldn’t make an important contribution, or that he didn’t see himself as an important piece in this phase of the history of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Which he has been.  There can be no argument.  As great as Roy Halladay was, he never pitched the Jays into the playoffs.  R.A. Dickey has helped do it at least once, and unless the Jays completely tank the next 10 games, probably twice.  For a four-year stint with the team, that works out to a .500 average.  Not too bad.

The storybook ending you want to see is R.A. Dickey throwing a no-hitter to clinch Game 7 of the World Series.  What you’ll likely see instead is a quiet, deeply thoughtful man saying his farewells and retreating down the corridor out of the clubhouse for the last time, and plenty of post-mortems about how it was never as good as it could have been.  Perhaps that is a fair assessment – statistics, after all, are incapable of lying.  Statistics are far less capable of measuring the worth of introspection versus showboating, of lingering philosophy versus momentary flash.  There is something more deeply satisfying to the spirit in watching a contemplative veteran like R.A. Dickey grind out a hard, well-earned win than in witnessing a monosyllabic high school draftee paid a metric ton of money to smugly crush one home run after another.  A victory for the humble man is a triumph that can be shared; a victory for the arrogant is savored by the arrogant man alone.

R.A. Dickey is a vanishing breed of old-time ballplayer, with a sense of the history of the game that you simply don’t see reflected in the eyes of the younger guys coming up in his wake.  He is no less a competitor, and has no lesser will to win, but he seems to remember, more than the others do, that this is fundamentally a game of little boys in sandlots transformed into an entertainment for the masses played by overpaid adults tracing its lineage to the arenas of ancient Rome.  Whatever else R.A. Dickey wants from his baseball career, it is ultimately to leave the game better than he found it.  When #43 hangs up his cleats, that perspective will be lost, and it will be a loss for the Toronto Blue Jays that will be lamented, even as fresher and stronger arms trickle in after him.  One does hope that we get another chance to cheer for him as he takes the mound, and that in these last days of baseball’s philosopher-king, he gets the send-off that he’s earned – even if, like the man himself, it is a quiet one.

A Jersey By Any Other Name

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I’m not the swiftest guy for recognizing trends, especially as they pertain to sports.  Purists might argue that I’m unfashionably late to the party, and no true Scotsman when it comes to speaking about baseball and the Toronto Blue Jays.  I might counter with a hipster retort that I established my bona fides before many of these folks were even born, that I can describe the precise ass-numbing feel of a field-level aluminum blue Exhibition Stadium seat and the sights, sounds and smells in early 80’s late September in visceral, soul-stroking detail, but admittedly, I titled my first piece of modern-day baseball writing All Aboard the Bandwagon, so contend with that contradiction if you will.

But there is one particular thing I’ve grown very aware and very weary of in these latter days regarding team jerseys.  Specifically this:  that it is considered in circles of sports fandom a pitiable faux pas for a fan to wear a professional jersey with his own name stitched on the back.  “Lame” is the first adjective that usually gets attached to it.  Plenty of sports writers both professional and amateur enjoy dropping in sneering little digs against self-named jerseys like it’s some kind of shibboleth for the hallowed learned ones, pretenders need not apply.  Even the athletes themselves get in on the scorn:  Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets made a video in which (among other things) he condoned mocking it.

Far be it from anyone, I think, to dictate how any individual should be permitted to express their fondness for a particular sports franchise – barring unhinged, singular, stalker-like obsession – but let’s parse this a little.

Jerseys are massive business, the leading source of every team’s merchandise revenue, and demand for them is largely inelastic, especially if your guys are consistently winning.  Tune into any ballgame and the stands are an ocean of home team colors rising and rippling like a stormy Atlantic with every successfully batted ball, every welcome trot across the plate.  Only 25 guys at a time will enjoy the privilege of wearing those jerseys for the purpose for which they were designed, but this shouldn’t stop the 50,000+ people watching them from wanting to be connected to the action, from feeling that but for a few twists of fate (and lack of athletic ability) it might be themselves standing on that mound, or squaring up in the batter’s box with the emotions of millions of people pinned on the outcome of their swing at the incoming curve.  Not a fan has yet drawn breath who never, at any point in their lives, imagined they were out there on that field.  And the odds of actually getting to do so are lottery-like in their impossibility.  So we settle then, for donning the uniform in expression of solidarity with the fortunate few.  It lets us be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Not that this is a cheap option.  A basic MLB-quality Blue Jays jersey can set you back $250 and change, with customization driving the cost even higher.  For most fans this isn’t going to be a purchase they’re going to treat casually.  It might have to be a once-in-a-lifetime deal, unless one falls victim to an unfortunate mustard mishap during the seventh-inning stretch.  So the choice of what to stitch on the back requires careful consideration.  The most common option is to request the number and name of your favorite current player, but this can present a quandary should he abruptly be traded or otherwise fall from that esteemed plateau we reserve for our athletic heroes.  How many Jays fans still relish wearing Brett Lawrie jerseys as he flails with the failing White Sox while the guy they traded him for two years ago establishes himself as arguably one of the premier players to ever wear the Blue Jays uniform?  How many folks rushed to purchase a David Price jersey for his two-month run in Toronto in 2015 and now cringe at the sight of him leading the Red Sox biting at the Jays’ heels for first in the AL East?  And how many out there thought twice about slipping on their old Jose Reyes jersey again after his domestic violence bust?

If Edwin Encarnacion is trotting his home run parrot for the Boston Red Sox next year as is widely rumored and feared, will the sea of Toronto fans who now wear his #10 still be as enthused to do so, especially when those jacks are jacking up the score against us?  Players are transitory – so is the nature of professional baseball as ultimately a business – but the team endures.

Five years from now, most of the Blue Jays we are cheering for today and whose names and numbers we wear with pride will be gone; traded, retired or otherwise sent packing.  Some will depart embittered for richer pastures, others will conclude their Toronto careers with naught but fond memories.  But the fans will still be here.  Stamping your own name on the jersey is to ensure its life beyond any possible expiration date, beyond unexpected trades and multi-million-dollar free agent contracts.  It’s to declare that your loyalty to your team is absolute, and can’t be bought by a Scott Boras type who’s secured you a king’s ransom to smash dingers somewhere else.  You’re here for the long haul, and you won’t be embarrassed to sport that jersey when your chosen guys suffer the inevitable down year and linger in the basement racking up a hundred hair-tearing losses in half-empty stadiums shaking with catcalls and flung empty beer cans.

The esteemed Mr. Syndergaard’s comment seems to suggest that some if not many of the players themselves don’t like fans wearing self-named jerseys either.  Maybe they believe that some rando in the stands hasn’t earned it the way they have, through bruising slogs in the minors to that coveted, fabled call up to The Show.  But it would seem the height of ego to assume that the fan is wearing it because he somehow equates himself with the greatness of the professional player, that he is trying to hint that he is just as good as they are.

At every home game, the Blue Jays hold a small ceremony in which they present a customized jersey to a member of the Canadian Forces who has served on active duty.  If that soldier then chooses to wear that jersey to a game simply as a fan, would anyone, pro athlete or otherwise, dare to scoff and suggest that he or she hadn’t earned it?  There may be a story to that self-named jersey, and you shouldn’t presume that it’s because the person chose to spend $250 on being “lame.”

No matter what Noah Syndergaard might possibly think.

(And let’s put things in perspective:  the ability to throw a 100 mph fastball is not curing disease or contributing to world peace.  It’s not even as noble a cause as that of a teacher who gets first graders passionate about reading, and no matter how many millions of bucks we fling at these dudes, they’ll be relegated to being laughable side statistics and local celebrity golf guests the day their arms finally blow out.)

For my (harrumph)th birthday, my family got me a Blue Jays jersey with MILNE and 11 on the back.  I don’t wear it to disrespect Kevin Pillar, the gravity-defying center fielder who currently wears #11 for the team.  I don’t even wear it for myself, even if it is my last name.

I wear it for my father.

Dad attended the very first Toronto Blue Jays game in 1977 and sat shivering on the metal benches of the Ex to watch them beat the White Sox in the April snow.  When I was old enough he started taking me to games, often pulling me out of school to the chagrin of my friends so we could hustle down to Toronto for a 12:35 contest on a Wednesday afternoon.  He loved the Blue Jays more than I ever could, and bequeathed to me an enduring passion for the game – a flame that sadly dwindled following the 1994 strike but blazed back to life in 2015.  While he saw them win the AL East for the first time, and we shivered in the stands together as they lost to George Brett and the Royals in the ALCS, he passed away in early 1987, and would never see the Jays make it to and win the World Series five years later.  It’s one of my deepest regrets that he missed out on that.  As for the #11, that was his number when he played football in high school, and when he played amateur slow-pitch softball as an adult – with me on the creaky wooden bleachers, scoring the game and keeping track of the bats and gloves and the post-game beers.  In another life he might have worn #11 for the Blue Jays himself, such was his dedication and determination for the things that drove him.  But absent the realization of that fantasy I will continue to sport the 11 and the name in his memory, to carry a part of him with me to the games that he would have loved to see, and if you want to approach me and tell me I’m lame for doing that then I hope you enjoy the bloody nose you’re going to walk away with.

The point is that you don’t know.  You don’t know where that jersey came from, or the personal significance of what’s stitched on the back.  There’s certainly more of an emotional history to it than to that of anyone who goes out and buys a Donaldson or a Bautista so they can look exactly the same as the fifteen other guys sitting in their row.  Making fun of someone who chooses to support their team in this small way is yet another example of this perplexing and tribal human need to qualify, for whatever insecure ego-assuaging reason, precisely how people are allowed to demonstrate their interest in whatever innocent something makes them happy – a reminder that class distinctions and unspoken rules prevail even in the shared passions that everyone is quick to claim unite us.

Just stop it already.

Anyhow, see you at the game.

You’ll know which one I am.

Liftoff – Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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The Star Trek franchise is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and those who remember tuning into NBC on a cool September night in 1966 to see a hammy William Shatner and a Satanic-looking Leonard Nimoy battle a shapeshifting salt vampire through cardboard starship corridors couldn’t possibly have fathomed that we’d still be talking about this thing five decades later.  As late as the Nemesis debacle and the failure of Enterprise, when Star Trek seemed to have attained its final frontier and been dismissed by the masses as terminally uncool, the property of sad neckbearded nerds in plastic pointed ears, we worried that we’d never have anything new from that universe again to keep us going – other than perpetual commercial-crammed reruns keeping us up late on lonely weekends, or old DVD’s dissected for some hitherto unknown piece of production trivia to make the whole thing seem fresh again.  Trek was a box office loser, a past glory fated to fade away in a whimper rather than burn out.

And yet… here we are in 2016.  Still boldly going.

Over the course of 37 years and now 13 films, Star Trek, like its audience, has evolved and adapted to changing eras, trends, and expectations.  As leaps forward in visual effects technology have obliterated the limits of what moviemakers can realize with their imaginations, so too have the goalposts been shifting in terms of what the people sitting in the theater will crave.  What stirred us as kids can jade us as adults; what once had us clinging to the edge of our seats will eventually yield only yawns.  Our demands are nigh near impossible to accommodate:  repeat the past note-for-note, we caution, and be labeled unoriginal; wander too far from the formula and be damned as a demographic-chasing heretic.  Make it the same, but different, and better.  Rising to the challenge, a football stadium’s worth of people have wandered through the Star Trek cinematic universe since 1979 attempting to put their stamp on it, appeal to the times and, perhaps in defiance of those first two objectives, stay forever true to the vision articulated by the late Gene Roddenberry of that hopeful, diverse future where the conflicts that make headlines today have been relegated to the realm of head-scratching ancient history.  The success rate seems to hover at about 50/50; we’ve spoken about the odd-numbered Star Trek movie curse, we’ve seen triumphs when it hit all the right notes and embarrassments where it flailed vainly to speak to people who’d stopped listening to what it had to say.  We’ve seen it make the most of limited resources and almost strangled by the ego battles associated with movie studio politics.

So on to this demanding stage steps Star Trek Beyond.

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It’s strange to think that after only the second voyage of this rejuvenated and financially potent Enterprise crew that there might arise the need for a behind-the-scenes shakeup, but with J.J. Abrams lured from our galaxy to the pressing needs of another significantly more distant, Paramount was suddenly left without a captain for its flagship, even though Abrams would remain attached as producer (albeit with his workload likely reduced to mere infrequent consultation).  Instead, Roberto Orci, who had co-written the two previous movies with Alex Kurtzman, took the lead on developing the script with writers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay and lobbied the studio suits for the opportunity to helm his first feature.  Wary of entrusting this important tentpole to a novice director, Paramount nonetheless extended Orci an offer to direct, contingent on their approval of the screenplay.  The story ideas floated at the time however suggested a franchise unsure of where to head next:  one intimated that the new movie would pick up where Star Trek Into Darkness had left off, with Starfleet going to war against the Klingons and Benedict Cumberbatch returning as Khan, and another said that there would be no villain at all and that the movie would try to recapture the original series’ spirit of exploration.

Whatever was in Orci’s pages, it wasn’t enough to seal the deal, nor was his cause aided by his online behavior:  always an enthusiastic participant in social media and on Star Trek message boards, Orci had become bitter and foul-mouthed in his responses to fan criticism of Into Darkness (one exchange had him boasting “this is why I get to write the movies, and you don’t”), and he eventually deleted his Twitter account.  Orci withdrew from the director’s chair in December of 2014 (remaining credited as producer, but effectively with no further involvement) and Justin Lin, veteran of the Fast & Furious series and TV’s True Detective, assumed his place a few weeks later, after a brief campaign by Jonathan Frakes to get the job went unanswered.  The Orci/Payne/McKay script was binned and Lin was told he could come up with his own idea from scratch.  For writing duties he enlisted the aid of Doug Jung, who had worked on the TV series Dark Blue and Big Love, and none other than Simon Pegg – continuing into this new generation the tradition of Star Trek‘s actors contributing behind the camera as well as in front of it.

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In interviews accompanying the announcement of his involvement as writer, Pegg explained that the studio had found the Orci script bogged down in the obsessive minutiae of the Star Trek canon – “too Star Trek-y,” as he put it, with its potential appeal limited only to diehard fans.  His and Jung’s new approach would be to first structure the movie like a heist film or western, and then populate it with the Star Trek characters, in the hopes of reaching the sort of audiences that would happily flock to see The Avengers three times without wanting to or having to understand the decades of often perplexing history that preceded it.  Absent would be questions of politics spread across the light-years; this would be a good old-fashioned action-adventure story that didn’t ask you to remember how to retrofit a warp core, or to keep track of the motivations of dozens of different characters with funny names full of apostrophes.

With the main seven heroes under contract, only three major guest aliens were required:  acclaimed British actor Idris Elba would be slathered unrecognizably in prosthetics as unstoppable villain Krall; rising star Sofia Boutella, who had played a baddie with blades for legs in Kingsman: The Secret Service would be painted in zebra stripes as the helpful, beats-and-shouts-loving Jaylah (taking her character’s name from Jennifer Lawrence’s celebrity moniker J. Law) and Lydia Wilson, from the magic realist rom-com About Time (featuring Pegg’s frequent co-star Bill Nighy) would take the role of Kalara, a mysterious captain whose distress signal sets the plot into motion.  Persian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo was also added to the cast late into production as a Starfleet commodore.  To save money, the majority of filming took place outside the U.S., a first for a Star Trek production, with soundstages in Vancouver, B.C. used as the primary location and additional scenes filmed on the futuristic streetscapes of Dubai.

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The hiring of Justin Lin led more than a few fans to speculate yet again as to whether Star Trek was being lobotomized for the ever-crucial and expanding teenage demographic, and the first teaser trailer for Star Trek Beyond did not do much to dispel the notion, featuring Chris Pine’s Kirk leaping across bridges and chasms on a motorcycle as the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” blared.  Simon Pegg sought immediately to calm the Trekkies’ collective frayed nerves, opining that he was not fond either of what had been cobbled together by marketing to highlight the action-intensive parts, and assuring us that the movie as a whole was more substantial than that.  In fact, Pegg assumed the role of Beyond‘s primary defender when the movie waded into a most unexpected – if ultimately minor – controversy around the character of Mr. Sulu in the months before its release.

For a franchise that had prided itself on its long-standing embrace of diversity, Star Trek had steadfastly avoided the question of gender and sexuality, apart from one or two clumsy attempts in the early 90’s.  Gene Roddenberry had frequently told convention audiences that he wanted to introduce gay characters, but those plans never came to fruition – a Next Generation AIDS allegory script that was to have featured a male/male pairing was scuttled before it could be shot, and the agender race in the episode “The Outcast” was cast entirely with female actors for fear that the love story between one of them and Riker would wig folks out.  Deep Space Nine featured a f/f kiss, but it was wrapped in the trope of “forbidden passions” between a character who identified as straight in her other 100 appearances, and a one-shot guest star.  Voyager, Enterprise and the twelve preceding films had steered entirely clear.  For fifty years, Star Trek had never dared to breach the final frontier of establishing one of its heroes as gay, but it was 2016 now.  Surely we had outgrown the last of our old prejudices?

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In Star Trek Beyond, Pegg and Jung wanted to make a statement without making a statement; that is, portray the sexuality of an important main character (not a quickly forgotten redshirt) with the kind of casual indifference that would be shown if it were entirely heteronormative, as would be expected in the more evolved world of the 23rd Century – when interaction with multiple alien species would lead humans to embrace a much more pansexual and fluid gender view of themselves.  In tribute to George Takei, who had become an icon and activist for the worldwide LGBT community since coming out eleven years earlier, the writers chose Sulu.  Sulu was given a husband, Ben (played by Jung himself at John Cho’s suggestion) and a young daughter, Demora (as established by Star Trek Generations).  Perhaps it was hoped that Takei would be moved by the portrayal, and indeed he was, but in the opposite direction.  Takei took to the airwaves to claim that Roddenberry had never intended Sulu to be gay, that he was conceived as a straight man and should have remained such.  Pegg wrote a rebuttal on his blog explaining their decision and providing an in-universe rationale as to how the Prime Sulu (eg. Takei’s version) could be heterosexual, preserving Roddenberry’s original intent, while Cho’s version wasn’t.  But the debate would be laid aside when tragedy struck just  before release:  Anton Yelchin died suddenly at the age of 27 when his own vehicle ran over him in the driveway of his home.  The question of Sulu’s sexuality became immediately less pressing as the cast and crew grieved for their friend under the spotlights of red carpet movie premieres.

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(Author’s note:  this would normally be where I would go into a detailed summary of the plot; given that Star Trek Beyond is still in theaters as I write this, I will demur in order to avoid specific spoilers, but before you tread further, please note that they may come up in the course of the actual review.  Consider yourself duly warned.)

Beginning in 2009, the revitalized Star Trek had essentially owned the big screen science fiction market, cementing itself as the yardstick by which pretenders to the genre would be measured.  This worked fine for a while as even the underwhelming Into Darkness manage to achieve massive box office success.  But in December of 2015, the world was introduced to Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8.  Star Trek immediately became something of an afterthought, with reactions to its rollout akin to are they still making those?”  Fairly or not, Star Trek Beyond would fall under the shadow of Star Wars, and to a certain extent the surprise Marvel sci-fi smash Guardians of the Galaxy, which had come out two summers before (and featured Saldana as one of its leads).  Would it stake new ground or let itself be influenced by its competitors?  The answer is the latter, with the caveat that such influence doesn’t in this instance make for a lesser experience – so long as you go in with the right attitude.

Being a fan of the modern Star Trek cinematic universe is accepting that the days of plots hinging on characters engaging in heated moral debates over a briefing room table are long gone.  The pulse of these new movies beats much quicker, and you can either choose to keep up or let them race ahead without you and seek solace in your copy of The Wrath of Khan instead.  Star Trek Beyond is a trek for the age of Marvel and The Force Awakens, with a similar lightweight, straightforward plot about a group of rag-tag heroes who have to come together to stop a ruthless bad guy from using a superweapon to destroy their world – nothing more complicated than that.  Of course, our heroes here aren’t a band of misfits, they’re a professional crew who have already been through two adventures together aboard a state-of-the-art starship, so Pegg and Jung’s script essentially pushes the reset button by destroying the beloved Enterprise and stranding the crew in separate pairings on an alien world before the movie has reached the thirty-minute mark.

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Ironically those first thirty minutes are where Beyond reserves the majority of its sheer spectacle; a quality that the first four decades of Trek films lacked.  Starbase Yorktown, where the Enterprise docks for resupply after being out in space for three years following the end of the previous film, is a jaw-dropping creation that Gene Roddenberry and his 1960’s designers could only have dreamed about (assisted by a few era-appropriate doses of acid).  Described on-screen as an elaborate snowglobe in space, it’s a visual feast of skyscrapers and hundred-mile-long glass tunnels large enough to accommodate starships stretching out in every gravity-defying dimension, with infinite minute details that it would take at least a dozen viewings to absorb and sort out, and the only shame is that we don’t spend nearly enough time there before the plot kicks in and we set out into space again.  Star Trek has too often underwhelmed in its visuals, and it is as if Justin Lin and his effects team are trying to make up for every missed opportunity of the past by cramming them all into one.

The planet on which the majority of the film’s action takes place, Altamid (taking its name from an anagram of Matilda, daughter of Simon Pegg) is likewise an effective exercise in the subtlety of worldbuilding:  if Pandora from Avatar is filmed sci-fi’s gold standard and the endless boring trips to L.A.’s Bronson Canyon that characterized most of Star Trek‘s alien landscapes to this point are the definition of half-assing it, then Altamid scores a respectable silver.  It is never weird enough that we spend all our time gaping at the scenery to the detriment of losing our focus on the characters, but there are lovely little added digital touches (in the form of unusual plants and tiny creatures scrabbling over the local rocks) to give us the sense of elsewhere and that this isn’t just a municipal forest tract five miles from the studio.  It speaks to a most welcome level of care about the details, about recognizing that we as an audience want to be immersed in a place that we’ve never seen before.  We want to explore strange new worlds just like the characters do, and we’re savvy enough to recognize an indoor set when we see one.

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Pretty scenery isn’t worth a bucket of tribbles if you don’t populate it with interesting characters, however, and Star Trek Beyond succeeds not only in giving each of the ensemble something substantial to do (one cannot help but grin at Pegg’s significantly larger role this time around given he was the one co-writing it) and in introducing a compelling new member of the family (Boutella’s spry and upbeat Jaylah) but in finally making Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk seem for the first time like a real captain, seasoned and tempered by his time in the chair instead of the impulsive, somewhat out-of-his-depth maverick he was in the first two films.  His uniform collar is higher, and he stands straighter.  Certainly part of this evolution belongs to the actor:  no longer the unknown under the pressure of his big break, Chris Pine has become a major movie star with plenty of significant roles under his belt, and he moves and speaks with an authority that he simply didn’t have before (and was most glaringly absent whenever he had to share the screen with Benedict Cumberbatch).  When he gives an order, it’s with conviction and certitude, and you can’t imagine the crew still thinking of him as that smarmy punk who fell ass-backward into a captaincy.  But as Beyond begins, this new commanding Captain Kirk is restless, wondering about a greater meaning to his life, and worrying that he is losing himself to the unknown that frames his every day of existence.  It takes a kick in his complacency – the destruction of the comfortable confines of his ship and an encounter with a man who has lost himself to the unknown to lead Kirk to rediscover his purpose.

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In my rather snarky review of Star Trek Nemesis I talked about the misguided choice to make that movie largely about its (lame) villain.  Star Trek Beyond, by contrast, is a much better example in how to craft your bad guy from a personification of your hero’s flaws.  The remorseless Krall comes on initially like a force of nature with his endless swarm of alien ships, wrecking the mighty Enterprise without much of a fight and stranding its crew on his world.  We discover as the movie goes on that he is not as alien as we first thought, and that he was a human Starfleet captain named Balthazar Edison, a veteran soldier whose ship crashed on Altamid a hundred years ago with only three survivors.  With no help forthcoming due to their remoteness and the inability of communications signals to escape the local nebula in which Altamid is located, Edison employed alien technology to prolong his life by draining others, which mutated him beyond recognition.  He has literally lost his humanity, and as an old soldier put out to pasture with no one left to fight, he believes that the peace and unity among worlds promoted by the Federation will only make humanity weak (one suspects he and the war-hungry Admiral Alexander Marcus from Into Darkness would be kindred spirits).  To that end he seeks to assemble an ancient life-consuming biogenic weapon (the “Abronath,” which sounds suspiciously like a small village in Scotland – likely writer Pegg being cheeky again) and unleash it on the diverse population of millions inhabiting the Yorktown in the hopes of renewing a galaxy-wide conflict.

This is Kirk’s listlessness and loss of purpose amplified with a healthy dose of rage, and in Edison/Krall, Kirk can recognize what he might become given similar circumstances and thus stake his own moral compass determinedly to the opposite direction.  Although there is an element of revenge to Krall’s thinking, it’s not his sole motivation and it’s certainly refreshing given that we’ve had four villains in a row driven primarily by vengeance.  There is a complexity to Krall that reflects more mature screenwriting, and the pity is that the Edison reveal takes place so late in the third act that we don’t really get the chance to chew over the duality of the basic conflict between himself and Kirk, the contrast between the two once-valiant starship captains.  Also, the heavy makeup the role requires pretty much smothers the great Idris Elba, and he has a hard time emoting through the latex beyond the requisite evil growls and snarls.  I wasn’t wild either about the “life force draining” aspect of his character, given that it (and the design of the corpses left in its wake) reminded me a little too much of that space vampire zombie movie from the 80’s…

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Amidst imaginative visions of alien worlds and a villain determined to wipe it all out using an ancient gizmo that fits into the palm of one’s hand, Beyond manages to fit in a nice arc for Spock and McCoy too, giving their legendary combative friendship attention that has been absent with the first two films’ decision to focus primarily on the Kirk/Spock relationship.  Spock in particular is much more like his old familiar self this time, less formative and more assured, with noticeable restraint shown in both the writing and the performance, and – thankfully – no rage eruptions in sight.  There is a note of tragedy instead, with Spock grieving over the passing of Spock Prime, and doing so with dignity (only a single tear).  It’s tough to gauge in fact where the performance ends and the genuine emotion begins.  There are moments where the curtain drops and you are seeing Zachary Quinto grieving for Leonard Nimoy.  In those scenes Karl Urban as McCoy becomes almost fatherly in his responses, as the character who is supposed to represent stoicism becomes the source of the movie’s deepest expression of heart.

Now, to the stuff that’s not so great.  As a general rule, I haven’t been fond of the sillier scenes that have peppered the most recent Star Trek movies, and regrettably Beyond does cough up a few, including the climactic unleashing of the Beastie Boys as the ultimate weapon against Krall’s swarm ships, which has stretched my tolerance for their ongoing and increasingly grating presence in this universe to its breaking point (though to be fair, I did love McCoy’s subsequent joke about “classical music”).  You just have to roll your eyes a bit and move on.  One thing that is difficult to move on from, however, is the choice by the filmmakers to yet again destroy the Enterprise.  The first time this happened, in Star Trek III, it was a true shock and an important beat in that film’s theme of sacrifice, and the reveal of the Enterprise-A at the end of Star Trek IV was a joyous surprise, a merited reward and a promise of greater things to come.  When the Enterprise-D bit it in Generations, it was as part of a meaningless “wow sequence” designed to allow the series to continue with more modern sets and a sleeker, more cinematic ship (and to make matters worse, the characters didn’t seem that bothered by losing the home in which they’d spent the last seven years).  Watching the Enterprise go down for the third time, early in the movie when we’ve barely gotten to know her and her destruction has been spoiled by the trailer, we don’t feel much of anything at all, apart from “there they go again.”  Since we know the crew will get another ship in the end (as has happened twice before), the impact of this plot twist is muted, and it’s a tired gimmick that I hope we have seen the last of.  However, it crystallizes my key issue with the movie, even as I land on the thumbs up side of the equation.

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Fundamentally, Star Trek Beyond is not a journey forward, it is a stop on the side of the road to fix a tire.  Everything about its story, from the conception of its villain to the construction of its plot, is about getting the characters back to exactly the same place they were in the beginning.  This is not necessarily a bad idea; some of the greatest movies ever made are about finding your way home.  But Beyond feels like a placeholder, or at best, a transition towards an even greater adventure (depending on the final grosses of course, which sadly have not been up to par with the previous two films).  Like the Marvel movies, which manage to be simultaneously entertaining and forgettable, it doesn’t leave you with a lot to think about, except perhaps missed opportunities, and the expectation of something better – deeper, more provocative – the next time out.  The movie does have a lot of good in it, especially in what seems like the most diverse cast of both leads and extras (and aliens) in any movie in recent memory, but it never manages to be greater than the sum of those good parts, perhaps because there is no greater aspiration inherent in its creation other than being a passable piece of fun summer entertainment.  Which it most definitely is, with more heart in it than any other shoot-em-up you’ll see this season.  Justin Lin’s direction, the source of controversy among fans the instant he was announced, isn’t as obnoxious as the trailers would lead you to believe, and while the pace is certainly in keeping with the action blockbusters that have made his reputation, he is astute enough to know to when to slow things down and give the characters (and the audience) a chance to breathe.  And we do love these characters and this universe so much that we will doggedly follow their trek wherever it leads, or whomever is leading it.

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As we’ve looked back at the peaks and valleys of Star Trek‘s cinematic history in the spread of these posts over the last couple of months, we’ve seen that what remains compelling even in its weakest outings is the vision at its core, the one that was first articulated by the flawed Gene Roddenberry, perhaps on some level out of the desire to remedy his own human failings, and shaped by the creativity of the people who came together around him.  It is of a future where human ingenuity has lifted us out of our pettiest problems, where human ambition pursues not the meaningless acquisition of wealth but the betterment of the individual and the all, where fear of the other has been replaced by the unqualified celebration of our differences.  The bells and whistles of special effects and chases across the stars are merely glittering ornaments on a sturdy and ever-thriving tree; that of a welcoming, wondrous galaxy that we want so desperately to touch, especially as our own world repeatedly lifts up leaders who seemed determined to prevent us from ever reaching it.  After fifty years, there remains an unquenchable spark in the vision that is Star Trek.  The hope, in the shadow of this most recent installment, is that next time, it truly does dare to go beyond.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

All 13 Star Trek Movies, Ranked (again, arbitrarily):

  1. Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  3. Star Trek: First Contact
  4. Star Trek
  5. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
  6. Star Trek Beyond
  7. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  8. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  9. Star Trek Into Darkness
  10. Star Trek: Insurrection
  11. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
  12. Star Trek Generations
  13. Star Trek Nemesis

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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If there is to be an epitaph for the last two decades of filmed entertainment, it will be these two words:  dark and edgy.  I’m not sure you can pinpoint the precise date at which this era began:  perhaps it coincides with the re-emergence of disaster movies in the mid-1990’s, followed by the tremendous downturn in the overall mood of the world since 9/11.  Somewhere in there it became un-hip to look up, and nowadays, you need only tune your receiver to any given TV station to see programs filled with people doing horrible things to other people, whether it be on reality or on scripted television, and receiving accolades for it.  The esteemed professional critics of our time are only too happy to initiate rounds of trained-seal clapping at the most violent and unpleasant pieces of fiction, and to wrench their noses disdainfully skyward at anything that suggests optimism and hope.  I honestly don’t know whether this is our actual culture as a whole being reflected by our entertainment, or merely the small and insular cabal that produces that entertainment inflicting their inner turmoil on the rest of us.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both; how else do you explain Donald Trump?  But sensing the pervasiveness of the “dark and edgy” trend, I did roll my eyes a bit when the title of the twelfth movie in our ongoing series here was announced as Star Trek Into Darkness – a little on the nose, n’est-ce pas?  Besides, Star Trek is supposed to be about looking to the future with anticipation that things are only going to get better.  “Into Darkness” seems like the wrong course to plot.

With a quarter of a billion dollars in Paramount’s bank account as the lights went down on the final screening of Star Trek in 2009, questions about the content of an inevitable sequel to this suddenly-hot-again commodity began to simmer, but, strangely, they were singularly and somewhat simply focused:  “Are you gonna do Khan?  Huh?  Are you gonna do Khan?”  As much as we bemoan Hollywood’s tendency to repeat itself, those outside the bubble seem just as programmed to expect and even desire the recycling of their favorite hits.  The Star Trek universe had been rebooted specifically to open up storytelling possibilities, not to churn out bigger-budgeted rehashes of what had gone before, and yet, here was the public almost daring J.J. Abrams and company to do just that.  Ever the diplomats, and aware that every syllable of their responses would be parsed by fans eager to glean whatever hints they could, writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof would make coy comments musing about how in this new continuity, Khan was out there in space in his sleeper ship, and it would be foolish to “not consider” using him.  Privately, the writing team debated for over a year whether or not they wanted to shoehorn Khan into the screenplay they were crafting that was designed to confront Kirk and his crew with a threat to the fabric of Starfleet and the Federation itself.  Responding somewhat to criticism that Kirk had been advanced too quickly to his captaincy in the previous movie, this story would see Kirk’s inexperience and impetuousness coming back to bite him.

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But to Khan or not to Khan?  The former would immediately invite comparisons to the gold standard of Star Trek films; the latter, observed Lindelof, would be like Batman not using the Joker.  So Khan it would be, but Abrams invoked his “mystery box” policy and clamped down on any mentions of the Enterprise crew’s most notorious foe, leading to what would turn out to be one of the most ineffective disinformation campaigns in the history of motion picture marketing.  When Benicio del Toro was said to be in talks with the studio, only the least astute failed to note the similarity to Ricardo Montalban; when del Toro bowed out, additional Latino actors were considered, and everyone asked, “is it Khan?”   Finally the very much not-a-Latino, but very much in vogue Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as this enigmatic bad guy, which allowed the Bad Robot team at least a modicum of deniability.  The other actors weighed in on the is-he-or-isn’t-he debate as filming got underway:  Simon Pegg called the rumored presence of Khan ridiculous, and Karl Urban blurted in an interview that Cumberbatch would be playing Gary Mitchell (Kirk’s best friend-turned-remorseless-godlet in Star Trek‘s 1966 pilot episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”)  A movie magazine ran a still from production in which Cumberbatch’s character was labeled as “John Harrison” – a bland, meaningless name intended to quiet rumors and creating quite the opposite effect.  When Alice Eve was cast as “Carol Wallace” and Peter Weller as “Alexander Marcus,” it became fairly clear to all that some manner of retelling of The Wrath of Khan was afoot – even if the production crew remained adamant that Harrison was his own, unique man.  They would stick to this attempted subterfuge until the middle of the movie’s second act…

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On the primitive planet Nibiru, Kirk and McCoy are running from some angry aliens while Spock is lowered from a shuttle into a massive supervolcano on the verge of tearing the planet in half, and the Enterprise hides on the bottom of the nearby ocean.  When Spock’s tether breaks and the shuttle can’t retrieve him, Kirk exposes the ship to the natives in order to beam Spock safely back, just before a “cold fusion” device detonates and renders the volcano forever inert.  Nibiru is saved, but the natives begin worshipping the image of the Enterprise.  Spock files a report criticizing Kirk’s decision – even if it was to save his life – and Starfleet strips Kirk of his command and reassigns him to the Academy.  Admiral Pike tells Kirk that he does not “respect the chair,” and that such reckless behavior might one day lead to his entire crew being killed.  Meanwhile, in London, a Starfleet officer with a dying daughter is approached by a deep-voiced stranger who promises a cure, which he supplies by way of a sample of his blood.  The price is agreeing to carry out a suicidal terrorist attack – the bombing of London’s Kelvin Memorial Archive.  A dejected Kirk is approached by Pike, who has spoken in his defense and gotten him reassigned to the Enterprise as first officer, under Pike himself.  But the bombing in London necessitates an emergency meeting at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, led by Admiral Alexander Marcus (Weller).  Spock is also present, reassigned to the U.S.S. Bradbury under Captain Abbott.  Marcus advises that the attack was carried out by one of their own:  special agent John Harrison (Cumberbatch).  He orders a massive manhunt, just as Kirk notices that Harrison is carrying something in the security footage of the bombing.  Kirk recognizes that Harrison must have known that such an attack would precipitate a meeting like the one they are having now.  Abruptly a Starfleet jumpship piloted by Harrison rises outside the window and strafes the meeting room with phaser fire, killing most of the senior personnel including Abbott and Pike.  Kirk is able to disable the jumpship, but Harrison disappears in a transporter beam and materializes on a distant planet.

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In the wreck of the jumpship, a portable transwarp beaming device is found, which Harrison used to escape to Kronos, the homeworld of the Klingon Empire – where Starfleet cannot follow.  Admiral Marcus admits that the Kelvin Archive was cover for Starfleet’s intelligence unit, Section 31, which was researching advanced weaponry and tactics for an anticipated war with the Klingons.  He gives Kirk the Enterprise, with Spock as his first officer, and orders him to hunt down and eliminate Harrison.  He also equips the Enterprise with 72 special long-range torpedoes and assigns science officer Carol Wallace (Eve) to the crew.  It’s an uneasy mission:  Spock is uncomfortable with the idea of executing Harrison without a trial, while Scotty, who is unable to determine the armaments of the long-range torpedoes, resigns his post rather than sign off on permitting them aboard the ship, and cautions Kirk against ever using them.  Kirk makes Chekov acting chief engineer and orders a course set for Kronos.  Swayed by the arguments of his friends however, he advises the entire crew that their primary mission will be to capture Harrison, not kill him.  Spock confronts Carol, telling her that he knows her real name is Carol Marcus, daughter of the Admiral, and questioning the purpose of her presence on the ship.  Suddenly the Enterprise drops sharply out of warp; there is an unexplained coolant leak in the engine.  Chekov gets to work on fixing it while Kirk, Spock, Uhura and a few security guys change into civvies and use a confiscated, non-Starfleet ship to finish the trip to Kronos, to ensure that the Federation cannot be held responsible for whatever happens next.  Sulu, meanwhile, issues a message to Harrison, ordering him to surrender or be eliminated by the advanced torpedoes.  Approaching Kronos, Kirk’s ship is ambushed by several Klingon vessels, and on the surface, Uhura, who speaks Klingon, tries to negotiate with their leader, who is uninterested in the internal disputes of humans and threatens to kill them.  They are rescued by an unlikely savior – Harrison, who takes down most of the Klingon patrol with superior strength and fighting skills, before demanding to know just how many advanced torpedoes Kirk has.  When he is told the number, he surrenders and is confined in the Enterprise‘s brig.

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McCoy takes a blood sample from Harrison, who demands to speak with Kirk alone.  He is aware of the Enterprise‘s engine trouble and gives Kirk a set of coordinates not far from Earth to investigate.  He also suggests that Kirk open one of the torpedoes.  Kirk contacts Scotty, who is sulking in a San Francisco bar, apologizes to him about the torpedoes and asks him to check out the coordinates.  Scotty discovers a secret shipyard near Jupiter, and reacts with shock to what he sees.  Since their message to Admiral Marcus indicating that Harrison has been captured has received no reply and the warp engines are still down, the Enterprise limps to a nearby planetoid where a torpedo can be opened safely without endangering the ship; Carol, whose true identity has now been revealed to everyone, volunteers to try with McCoy’s help.  Inside the torpedo is a cryo-tube with a person frozen in it.  Further examination reveals that the individual is 300 years old.  Kirk demands answers, and Harrison is forthcoming:  he is a genetically engineered human being from late 20th Century Earth, exiled with 72 of his crew into space aboard a sleeper ship that was found by Admiral Marcus after Vulcan’s destruction in the previous movie.  Marcus woke him up to exploit his intellect and savagery in the design of weapons and ships to prepare for a war with the Klingons.  Marcus also arranged for the sabotage of the Enterprise‘s warp drive, figuring that if a Federation starship fired torpedoes against the Klingon homeworld and was then found lurking in Klingon space, it would ignite the war he wanted.  Harrison had hidden his crew in the torpedoes for their protection but thought they had all been killed, prompting his acts of terrorism.  He adds that his real name is Khan.

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Kirk has Khan moved to sickbay under guard, and the Enterprise is approached by a massive, sinister-looking starship:  the Khan-designed, Dreadnought-class U.S.S. Vengeance, double the size and speed and weaponry of any other Starfleet vessel, and commanded by Admiral Marcus.  When confronted with what Kirk knows, Marcus accuses Kirk of being influenced by Khan and orders that the renegade be executed.  The Enterprise tries to escape at warp speed, but the Vengeance easily catches up with them and cripples the ship between Earth and its moon.  Carol pleads with her father to spare the Enterprise, but he simply beams her aboard his ship and prepares to resume his attack, judging Kirk and crew in league with a terrorist and admitting he had always intended to destroy them.  As Kirk looks despairingly at the faces of the crew he has seemingly led to their deaths – just as Pike predicted he someday would –  the Vengeance‘s systems suddenly go offline.  It’s Scotty, who managed to sneak aboard at the Jupiter shipyard and has now sabotaged the warship.  They have a few minutes while the Vengeance reboots.  Kirk asks for Khan’s help, claiming it’s the only chance he’ll have to save his own crew.  McCoy, meanwhile, is further experimenting with Khan’s blood and injects it into a dead tribble to see what effects it might have.  The Enterprise aligns its waste port with the Vengeance‘s airlocks, and Kirk and Khan leap across debris-filled space in thruster suits to reach the warship, reuniting with Scotty and proceeding to confront Admiral Marcus on the bridge.  In the meantime, Spock, left in command of the Enterprise, makes a call to his older self (Leonard Nimoy in his last acting role before his death in 2015) to ask about Khan; Spock Prime reveals that Khan is the deadliest adversary that the Enterprise ever faced and that he was only defeated at great cost.

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Spock orders McCoy to begin work on arming the torpedoes, and the Vengeance‘s systems come back online just as Kirk, Scotty and Khan reach its bridge, stunning everyone except the Admiral and his daughter.  Scotty also stuns Khan.  Kirk arrests Admiral Marcus, but Khan recovers from the stun and attacks them all, crushing the Admiral’s skull as Carol screams in horror.  Khan takes command of the Vengeance and orders Spock to surrender the torpedoes containing his crew.  Spock complies, beaming Kirk, Scotty and Carol back as the torpedoes are transferred to the Vengeance.  But they unexpectedly detonate once they are onboard, damaging the Vengeance beyond repair and driving Khan into a blind rage.  It turns out that Spock had all the cryo-tubes removed before beaming them over, and Khan’s crew is stored safely in sickbay.  But the crisis is not over; the Enterprise‘s engines fail, and the ship is caught in Earth’s gravity and begins plummeting toward the planet.  The warp core injectors are misaligned, and extreme radiation is saturating the chamber where they are located.  Kirk knocks Scotty out, enters the chamber and kicks the injectors back into place, restoring ship’s power and pulling it out of its dive.  Scotty calls the bridge and tells Spock to get down here, that he’d better hurry.  Beyond the glass wall of the reactor chamber, Kirk is dying.  He says he is scared, and asks Spock if he knows why he saved his life back on Nibiru.  Spock says it is because they are friends.  They press their hands against their respective sides of the glass, and Kirk slips away.  Spock’s emotions overwhelm him and he screams Khan’s name.

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Khan sets the crumbling Vengeance on a suicide run into Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, and the massive ship plows into the city, taking out several buildings (including Alcatraz Island) and probably killing thousands, though we never see that.  Spock beams down to chase the genetic superman through the streets, and the two battle hand-to-hand on top of a flying garbage barge.  Back on the Enterprise, the dead tribble McCoy had injected with Khan’s blood chirps to life, and they realize there is still a chance to save Kirk.  As Spock and Khan fight, Uhura beams to the barge and stuns Khan, knocking him off balance and enabling Spock to get the upper hand.  Spock begins pummeling Khan remorselessly until Uhura screams at him to stop, that Khan is their only chance to bring Kirk back.  The Vulcan finally K.O.’s his opponent with one last belt to the face.  Some time later, Kirk awakens in a hospital room, having been restored by an injection of Khan’s blood.  Kirk thanks Spock for saving his life, and Spock reciprocates the sentiment.  Khan is returned to cold storage along with his crew, and Kirk presides over the dedication of the rebuilt Enterprise, observing that Starfleet’s true mission has always been one of exploration and that they cannot be lured from that path by those who would seek to do them harm.  Back on the bridge, Kirk orders the Enterprise to commence its five-year mission, with Carol Marcus as a member of the crew, and Spock finally expressing his trust in Kirk’s good judgment.  Warp speed to credits.

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Star Trek Into Darkness is perhaps the most overtly political Star Trek movie, simmering with hard questions about the role of principles, ethics and due process in an era of war against enemies that can rarely be seen or predicted.  It asks whether we can remain true to who we are and the values we cherish, or if victory requires that we become what we despise.  Unfortunately it buries these fascinating discussion points beneath a poorly constructed and far less effective karaoke version of The Wrath of Khan, with a climactic sacrifice undone before the end credits by means of magic blood.  At every turn, punches are pulled; for a movie whose title boasts of a journey into darkness, the story really never has the guts to venture that far down the path.  Who, in fact, is trekking into darkness?  It’s not our guys, who largely resolve their ethical qualms in the first act.  It’s more the Dick Cheney-esque Alexander Marcus, who sets the convoluted plot in motion for our heroes to untangle (and for Cumberbatch to explain mid-movie in an overly long expositional monologue), and who is merely the latest in a long line of Starfleet admirals who are corrupt/misguided/evil (curious in Roddenberry’s supposedly perfect future how the guys at the very top remain morons).  Perhaps the only main character who dares explore his dark side is Spock, in what to me represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the character.  This is two movies in a row now we’ve watched him lose his temper, but what made Spock special in the first place was his ability to make emotional and human choices from an unemotional, flawlessly logical perspective – not waiting to see what will make him fly off the handle and start throwing punches.  When he gave of himself in The Wrath of Khan, he kept his emotions contained to the very end, suggesting that grief was unnecessary because his act was logical – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  By contrast, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is always being driven almost exclusively by his emotions, and it betrays the mentality of the writers penning his lines, guys who are accustomed to painting in broad, easily understood by mass audience strokes rather than the more interesting nuances and subtleties that made up the Nimoy version of Spock.

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Be that as it may, the main problem with Star Trek Into Darkness is that only half of it is a good movie.  Its first hour is compelling as we are welcomed back to Abrams’ immersive, budget-busting worldbuilding and genuinely intrigued by the mystery of who this sepulchral-voiced stranger might be… and it finally goes off the rails when the camera tightens in on Cumberbatch as he hisses “my name… is… KHAN!”  From there we can’t help but do exactly what the writers feared we would:  compare to Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II.  The writers do not help themselves in this regard either, by bringing in Nimoy’s third act cameo to evoke memories of that other movie just as we should be neck deep in this one.  And then, restaging the entire climax of The Wrath of Khan beat for beat, with the roles of Spock and Kirk reversed and the dialogue echoing lines we’ve heard recited a thousand times before.  If we’re going to be asked to take this as the movie’s most dramatic, emotionally impactful moment, we shouldn’t also be invited to wink and smile at the familiar at the same time.  This is blowing the landing, big-time.  When The Wrath of Khan came out, nobody knew whether Spock would come back; here, we know Kirk will make it because this series just started and Chris Pine has a three-film deal.  It’s dancing on the border of “dark and edgy” but skipping hurriedly back because we don’t want to possibly leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouths.  It also sets a dangerous precedent for future films, in that there is now a story mechanism available in this universe for resurrecting any character who happens to kick off during the adventure – just go dig up Khan again and help yourself to a pint of his O-neg.

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There are a few dumb moments that don’t help matters either:  the Enterprise rising out of the ocean, Kirk in bed with two cat-tailed alien girls, the Beastie Boys again, and the much-maligned unnecessary shot of the lovely Alice Eve in her skivvies are products not of good storytelling instincts but of Red Bull infusions for bored writers thinking certain ideas would be “cool.”  Some of the early plot twists don’t make any sense – I’m still not sure why, if Khan hates Marcus so much, he would retreat to Kronos of all possible forbidden locations throughout the galaxy (remember, space is really, really, really big) and give Marcus the perfect excuse to start his desired war with the Klingons.  In fact, everything he does for the first hour seems to be helpfully furthering Marcus’ agenda, rather than trying to stop it.  I can’t quite figure out the order of events following Khan’s waking either.  He says Marcus held his crew hostage, but then Khan hid them in torpedoes, but only managed to get himself away, then thought Marcus had killed them all, then went rogue but was still able to meander about on Earth?  Maybe there’s a piece I’m missing, but I shouldn’t have to think this hard to have things make logical – sorry – sense.  As to the question of the caliber of the guy with the task of succeeding Ricardo Montalban as Khan, Cumberbatch is fine in this thankless assignment, and one supposes that it is a testament to his raw skill that he is able to speak a completely bewildering mid-movie monologue and still arrest your attention.  He’s much less interesting when he’s required to growl and wince while he swings at Quinto – but then, action blockbusters have oft made fools of dignified Shakespeare-trained thesps, and Benedict Cumberbatch is not the first to succumb.

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Sequels, especially first sequels in a franchise, are tricky work in that you have to do the same thing, but different and better.  So much of the tank was obviously emptied for 2009’s Star Trek, because it was their one chance to do this universe over and set it up for a brand new generation of audiences.  They had to leave it all out on the field.  As a result, there did not seem to be much inspiration left for the second entry, necessitating the trip back to an old, much too familiar well.  It would be one thing if The Wrath of Khan hadn’t been seen much since its initial release, but this is a modern sci-fi classic that is screened frequently every year, both in Trekkies’ home video collections and in revival houses across North America, its tropes seared into our pop culture collective consciousness.  You don’t dare tamper with that unless you know you can knock it out of the park – and the best Star Trek Into Darkness can manage is a ground-rule double.  It fails to get any further because it promises far more than it delivers, competently meeting expectations rather than thwarting them or surprising us.  J.J. Abrams has said in hindsight that it was perhaps a mistake to hold back Khan’s identity in the marketing, given that the big reveal was ultimately a source of audience annoyance.  But it never needed to have been Khan at all – the movie would have worked much better if Cumberbatch had played a completely original character in keeping with the freshness of this new direction.  Recycling Khan, even if he is considered the Joker to Kirk’s Batman, brings nothing to the table.  When he announces that his name… is… Khan, that’s for the benefit of us watching it, not for Kirk & company, who in this universe have never met him before and so the revelation within the story is meaningless.  (I was watching the movie hoping that he wouldn’t say it, and when he did, my enthusiasm for the remainder of the movie ebbed like air silently escaping from a balloon.)  And Spock yelling out his name in agony is not an earned, honest character moment, but a laughable callback to one of the most comic examples of William Shatner’s famed overacting.  Montalban’s Khan had a history with Kirk, but this version of Khan is a forgettable villain-of-the-week, provided with just about as much depth and having as little lasting impact.  Though the end sees him stored away for possible future revivals, I very much doubt we’ll be seeing him again.

The challenge for Star Trek Beyond will be to look forward and up once more, to put the lie to the notion that everything has to be dark and edgy to be accepted in this day and age.  The trailers seem to foretell the opposite: a wrecked Enterprise, a lost crew, and a sneering bad guy promising death and destruction (and more Beastie Boys… sigh).  But that doesn’t mean that the movie itself won’t contain what we need it to:  hope, rising from the ashes of ruined starships.

I’ll check it out at the theater and let you know.

In summary:  The non-Wrath of Khan parts are good.  The Wrath of Khan parts are bad.  Magic blood should never be spoken of again.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek (2009)

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On May 13, 2005, the cancelled Star Trek: Enterprise aired its much-maligned series finale, “These Are The Voyages,” and for the first time in eighteen years there would be no new Star Trek on the air in the fall.  Likewise, the box office failure of Star Trek Nemesis had staked the film series through the heart.  Even die-hard fans, weary of repetitive plots resolved by reconfiguring the deflector dish, were pleading that Trek needed a forced rest.  Go away, we cried, echoing Bono, and dream it all up again.  Behind the scenes, life still stirred, as franchise guardian Rick Berman proposed reinvigorating the movies by introducing a brand new crew in a yet-unexplored piece of Trek‘s future history:  the Earth/Romulan war of the 22nd Century.  He hired Band of Brothers writer Erik Jendresen to pen a script with a World War II movie feel called Star Trek: The Beginning.  In Jendresen’s draft, after a devastating attack on Earth by a Romulan fleet, the disgraced Captain Tiberius Chase, an ancestor of James Tiberius Kirk, would lead his hastily assembled, ragtag crew on what would turn out to be a suicide mission to detonate a nuclear bomb in the heart of the Romulan Empire and bring an end to the war.  Fans weren’t wild about Berman’s continued stewardship, and this proposed story sounded pretty depressing after the already dreary Nemesis.  And so it was that in 2006, new Paramount chief Gail Berman (no relation) cancelled development on The Beginning and turned creative control of future Star Trek film projects over to an up-and-coming filmmaker named J.J. Abrams.

Abrams had started young, writing the script for the Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry at the age of 21 and serving as script doctor on blockbusters like Armageddon before turning to television and achieving success with the series Felicity and Alias.  The latter, starring Jennifer Garner as a spy who has to keep her espionage work secret from her closest friends, attracted the notice of Tom Cruise and earned Abrams a shot at directing the third Mission: Impossible movie, which made $400 million worldwide just as Rick Berman was being advised that his services were no longer required.  M:I-III just happened to be a production of Paramount Pictures, who had signed Abrams to a multi-film contract and realized, well, lookie here, we have this other moribund franchise in need of some adrenaline.  Abrams, who admitted up front he had always been more of a Star Wars fan, signed his Bad Robot Productions on to produce, but wouldn’t commit to direct as well unless the script measured up.  To ensure that it did, he brought along his co-writers from M:I-III who were also veterans of Alias:  Roberto Orci, who described himself as a rabid Trekkie, and Alex Kurtzman, who didn’t.  Immediately they faced the challenge of what to do with Star Trek‘s weighty history:  ten movies, hundreds of episodes and one of the most elaborate – and from some perspectives, creatively suffocating – fictional canons ever assembled.

Their answer:  toss it.

Sort of.

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Abrams wasn’t interested in chronicling the further exploits of Captains Picard, Sisko, Janeway et al, claiming that the various spinoffs and sequels had “disconnected” him from the franchise.  He wanted to return to the essence of Star Trek, and that meant a new take on the classic characters of Kirk and Spock, and, in an echo of the Harve Bennett “Starfleet Academy” movie that had never been made, going back to look at how they first met to reintroduce them to a new world.  He noted, however, that one of the (many) weaknesses of the Star Wars prequels was that there was little dramatic tension in their foregone outcome – basically, you knew Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t going to die because you’d already seen him in his elder years.  Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci came up with a concept that in their minds would respect the hundreds of hours of Trek that had gone before but still give them carte blanche to craft a fresh and unpredictable story – without throwing away everything a la Batman Begins.  To wit: using a little time travel to go back before Kirk was even born and create a new, unpredictable alternate universe in which all bets as to the fates of our characters were off.  Satisfied with the progress of scripting, Abrams agreed to direct and his participation was confirmed by official press release in February of 2007.

It was then a matter of finding new faces for this new universe.

Casting Captain Kirk’s original crew for the first time since 1966 was a daunting task; the fanbase would rebel, and quite rightly so, if the iconic roles were filled with a bunch of vapid CW flavor-of-the-month types.  Although Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) was interested in playing Spock, and Matt Damon had to call Abrams personally and ask him what was up after reading trade rumors that he would be cast as Kirk, the choice was made to go with actors who had solid experience but remained relative unknowns so they wouldn’t overwhelm the parts with offscreen personality.  Zachary Quinto, who was earning notices as superpowered supervillain Sylar on the TV series Heroes, and looked more like a young Leonard Nimoy than Leonard Nimoy, was the first to be announced in July 2007 – along with Nimoy himself.  The Bad Robot team had visited the retired actor at his home and pitched him their story and the significance of the presence of the elder Spock in it, and, uncharacteristically perhaps for a Vulcan, Nimoy was so moved by their presentation he could not speak for quite a few moments after they had left.  With Nimoy having rejected multiple previous offers to rejoin the cinematic Trek universe, his enthusiastic participation calmed the nerves of fans who didn’t know what to make of these new kids who’d been trusted with the sacred keys to the Enterprise.  After Nimoy and Quinto came the rest:  Zoe Saldana, who had played a Star Trek fan in the Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal – where the legendary director taught her the split-fingered Vulcan salute – was cast as Uhura.  Anton Yelchin, who had been born in Leningrad, got the role of Chekov, while John Cho, best known for his comedic roles, took over as Sulu.  After working with him on Mission: Impossible, Abrams cast Simon Pegg as Scotty simply by sending him an e-mail asking him if he wanted the part (would that we could all get jobs so easily.)  And Lord of the Rings veteran Karl Urban was first rumored to be playing the villain before it was clarified that he’d be succeeding DeForest Kelley as McCoy.

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The guest cast began to fill in with interesting names as well:  Ben Cross, as Spock’s father Sarek, became the second actor from Chariots of Fire (after Alice Krige) to take on a Star Trek role.  Jennifer Morrison from TV’s House and Once Upon a Time signed on to play Kirk’s mother Winona, her presence in the movie confirmed after paparazzi snapped a picture of her walking to the set in a bathrobe to conceal her costume.  A more famous Winona – Winona Ryder – would play the cameo part of Spock’s mother Amanda.  Bruce Greenwood got the role of Captain Christopher Pike on the strength of his work as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days.  After trying his hand at being a superhero in 2003’s controversial Hulk, Eric Bana decided to err on the side of villainy as the embittered Romulan captain Nero.  Some other Australian guy no one had really heard of at the time named Chris Hemsworth was cast as Kirk’s father George.  The crew needed its captain, though, and while Mike Vogel, who had worked for Abrams before on the 2008 shaky-cam horror movie Cloverfield, was said to be a front-runner, the successor to William Shatner was ultimately announced as Chris Pine.  Pine’s father Robert was a veteran TV character actor who had guest-starred on Enterprise as a Vulcan, and Chris’ most prominent role to date had been alongside Lindsay Lohan in a 2006 rom-com called Just My Luck.  Pine looked not to create an impression of Shatner but rather to Harrison Ford’s roles as “accidental heroes” Indiana Jones and Han Solo as inspiration in his interpretation of Jim Kirk.

Shooting began in November of 2007, just as the Writers’ Guild of America went on strike.  As a result, for fourteen weeks of production, Abrams could not make any changes to the screenplay (very, very few scripts are “locked in” once shooting begins – on-the-fly rewrites and polishes may be required as stuff that seems brilliant on the page often doesn’t work when the cameras finally roll and the actors have to say the lines).  But the overall impact on the production was minimal, and because writers Kurtzman and Orci were also credited executive producers, they could be on set the entire time and provide indirect assistance in shaping scenes without violating their union rules.  Of course none of that would have mattered to those of us who were awaiting this new take on Trek with equal measures of excitement and apprehension; thrills at the spare-no-expense blockbuster treatment balanced with fear that the entire affair would be a trendy Hollywood dumbing down of what was still thought of as the more cerebral of the world’s two leading cinematic space franchises.  The first teaser trailer, which showed the Enterprise under construction to echoes of the sounds of the early American space program, did much to heighten our enthusiasm that perhaps this would finally, after a string of false starts, be the Star Trek movie we were waiting for.

May 2009 arrived, the theater lights dimmed, and we held our breath…

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In a prologue set in the year 2233, the starship U.S.S. Kelvin encounters an enormous, spider-like vessel, the Narada, emerging from a lightning storm in space.  Quickly crippling the outmatched starship with their advanced weapons, the Romulan crew demand that the Kelvin‘s Captain Robau come aboard to discuss surrender, leaving first officer George Kirk (Hemsworth) in command.  The Romulans want to know the location of a strange jellyfish-shaped ship and its pilot, an Ambassador Spock.  When Robau admits he does not know of either, the Romulans’ leader Nero (Bana) kills him in a fit of rage and resumes the attack on the Kelvin.  Kirk orders the entire crew to the shuttles and escape pods, including his wife Winona (Morrison) who has just gone into labor.  With weapons gone, Kirk sets the Kelvin on a collision course, but the autopilot is disabled and he must remain behind.  He hears the first cries of his baby son, and he and Winona agree to name the boy Jim.  The Kelvin cripples the Narada and allows the shuttles to escape, but George Kirk is killed, leaving the newborn Jim fatherless.

A decade later, we peek in on our two lead heroes:  teenage Jim Kirk is leading a rebellious life in Iowa, while on the planet Vulcan, young Spock is bullied over his half-human heritage.  A college-aged Spock (Quinto) is eventually accepted to the Vulcan Science Academy, but rejects the honor after the Vulcan elders refer to his human half as a disadvantage.  In Iowa, a group of Starfleet cadets are celebrating before shipping out to the Academy, and townie Kirk (Pine) makes a drunken attempt to flirt with Uhura (Saldana) before getting his ass kicked in a fight that is stopped by Captain Christopher Pike (Greenwood).  Pike talks about Kirk’s father and how he represented an element of daring that Pike feels Starfleet has lost.  He notes that in George Kirk’s twelve-minute captaincy, he saved 800 lives.  Pike dares Jim to do better and suggests that he enlist in Starfleet.  After a late night bike ride to contemplate the U.S.S. Enterprise being built in a cornfield, Jim accepts Pike’s challenge and boasts that he will complete the four-year Academy program in three years.  On the shuttle ride to San Francisco, Kirk meets up with the man who will become his dear friend, Doctor Leonard McCoy, who laments that his recent divorce has left him with nothing but his bones.

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Three years later, Nero’s crew, which has been waiting out in space for a quarter century, captures the mysterious jellyfish ship when it emerges from a second lightning storm, with Nero growling “welcome back, Spock.”  At the Academy, Kirk is taking the no-win Kobayashi Maru simulation test (first mentioned in The Wrath of Khan) after failing it twice, this time beating it by reprogramming the simulation.  A disciplinary hearing is convened and Kirk is dressed down by the test’s programmer, Spock.  But judgment is interrupted when a distress call comes in from the planet Vulcan, which says it’s under attack.  All cadets are assigned immediately to different ships, with the exception of Kirk, who is grounded pending a decision on his status.  McCoy injects Kirk with a vaccine to make him ill and invokes a regulation regarding transportation of patients to bring him onboard the ship to which he has been assigned – the brand new U.S.S. Enterprise.  A Starfleet armada warps out of orbit headed for Vulcan, with the Enterprise delayed a few moments as its helmsman Sulu (Cho) forgets to disengage the inertial dampeners.  But when a woozy Kirk overhears Chekov (Yelchin) talking about the appearance of a lightning storm in space preceding the attack on Vulcan, he makes the connection with the lightning storm that occurred on the day of his birth prior to the arrival of the Romulan ship, and realizes the Enterprise is heading into a trap.

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The Enterprise drops out of warp into a scene of carnage:  the entire fleet of starships destroyed by the Narada’s advanced weapons, and its laser drill carving a deep bore into the surface of Vulcan.  Nero orders his crew to destroy the new arrival too until he realizes what ship it is.  He hails the Enterprise and addresses Spock, advising him that they will know each other quite well in the future.  Nero also demands that Pike surrender himself by shuttle.  Pike agrees, leaves Spock as acting captain and promotes Kirk to first officer.  He assigns Kirk, Sulu and Chief Engineer Olson to space-jump to the drill platform to try to disable it.  The thrill-seeking Olson (dressed appropriately in red) waits too long to deploy his chute and is killed, and the explosive charges he was carrying are lost.  Kirk and Sulu still manage to overpower the Romulans on the platform and disable the drill, but not before Nero’s crew launches a probe filled with mysterious “red matter” into the drilling site.  The probe detonates inside Vulcan’s core and a singularity begins to form – a black hole that will consume the planet.  Spock beams down to locate his parents, but his mother is lost as the group beams aboard, and Vulcan is destroyed.

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Left in command of the Enterprise with the death of his mother and his planet weighing on his mind, Spock decides to retreat to join the rest of Starfleet in the Laurentian system.  Kirk objects, insisting that they should be hunting Nero down.  Frustrated, Spock renders the combative Kirk unconscious and dumps him on the icy world of Delta-Vega.  There, Kirk is saved from a ravenous local monster by an oddly familiar old Vulcan:  the original Spock (Nimoy).  Spock Prime explains everything:  one hundred and twenty-nine years from now, a star will go hypernova and threaten to destroy the galaxy.  Spock was sent to use red matter to swallow the nova with a black hole, but he was not able to act in time before the planet of Romulus was destroyed by the cosmic explosion.  Nero held him responsible and chased him down, but both ships fell into the black hole and were transported back in time, with Nero arriving first, and changing history by destroying the Kelvin.  Nero now has Spock’s ship and the red matter and intends to destroy every remaining planet in the Federation in retaliation for the loss of Romulus.  Spock Prime knows he has to get Kirk back to the Enterprise and takes him to someone who can help:  Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Pegg), who has been assigned to a derelict Starfleet observation post on Delta-Vega.  Spock completes Scotty’s formula for transwarp beaming and transports Kirk and the engineer back to the Enterprise, where Kirk forces the younger Spock to relinquish command to him after provoking him into a wild display of anger.  Kirk orders the Enterprise to chase after Nero, who is on his way to Earth after obtaining the system’s planetary defense information from a tortured Pike.

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After a conversation with his father in which he realizes that his emotions can be a source of strength, Spock returns to duty and makes amends with Kirk.  The Narada arrives at Earth and begins drilling into San Francisco Bay, while the Enterprise conceals itself in Saturn’s rings and Kirk and Spock beam to Nero’s ship, where Spock obtains the details of Nero’s scheme and the location of Captain Pike from a mind-meld with an unconscious Romulan.  They locate the jellyfish ship and its supply of red matter, and the ship recognizes Spock as its pilot and permits him to steal it.  Kirk confronts Nero, who brags that he will deprive the young captain of his future just as he did Kirk’s father.  But their fight is interrupted as Spock uses the jellyfish ship to destroy the drill, and Nero orders his crew to pursue it.  Kirk defeats Nero’s second-in-command and heads off to rescue Pike.  Spock sets the jellyfish ship on a collision course with the Narada, and Nero fires everything he has – only to be surprised by the Enterprise, which destroys Nero’s missiles and allows the jellyfish ship to complete its kamikaze run, with Kirk, Spock and Pike beamed to safety.  The red matter ignites on impact and a black hole begins to form inside the Narada.  Nero refuses assistance and quietly closes his eyes as his ship is crushed.  The black hole begins to pull in the Enterprise as well, but Scotty ejects and detonates the warp core to push the starship clear.

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At a ceremony on Earth, Kirk’s field promotion to captain is made permanent and he is assigned the Enterprise in relief of Pike, who assures him that his father would have been proud.  Spock encounters his future self, and Spock Prime promises him that his friendship with Kirk will come to define them both.  The Enterprise crew is reunited and sent off on its first formal mission, and the elder Spock narrates the famous “space, the final frontier” speech as the grand ship hurtles into warp, and sequels.

Well then.

Star Trek was always popular, but not that popular, really – it had consistently been a moderate box office performer, a sort of useful pinch-hitter who comes off the bench every few innings for a single up the middle right when it’s needed, but never sets any records or makes the playoff roster.  There had been attempts to lure non-fans, but both production and marketing for each film release tended to linger on the conservative side of the ledger, operating from the perspective that “we know we’ll get the Trekkies, and if we get a few other folks wandering in too, hey, that’s gravy.”  Never had there been a concerted effort to really strive for that glittering true blockbuster ring hovering like a tantalizing tempter just out of reach, the gilded echelon achievable only by those who dare to leap for it with both feet.  It was a credit to Paramount’s confidence in J.J. Abrams that they gave him and his team the resources with which to try.  While previous entries relied on story and performances to create a sense of scale, the truth of the matter was that most of the time you still felt you were watching a TV production shot on cardboard sets, and what should have been a massive universe still seemed very small and confined.  The Wrath of Khan got away with this because the people and the stakes were larger-than-life; The Search for Spock could have stood comfortably alongside a two-part episode of MacGyver.  The Voyage Home created scale by being able to shoot in real locations without having to hide the cars driving by, but The Final Frontier whiffed with alien environments resembling nothing more exotic than anything you’d find ten miles from the Los Angeles studio gates.  Progressively bigger budgets and more exotic location shooting followed, but the final results remained artificial and hopelessly Earthbound.  It was, perhaps, a failure of ambition.

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The worldbuilding of Star Trek has never felt immersive until the release of this movie, which finally had the resources and the determination to pay that critical exacting attention to every blessed detail; to make us feel as though you could wander through any door and find evidence of the 23rd Century in every conceivable nook and cranny.  If Abrams borrowed this approach from Star Wars, so be it – but it works, and works well.  And what we wanted from Star Trek in 2009 was not more of the same.  So here are the thousands of extras that William Shatner couldn’t get for The Final Frontier.  Here is the “future with a past” –  fleets of ships both large and small that look banged up by years of re-use and not as though the paint dried five seconds before the cameras rolled.  Here is a movie-caliber Enterprise that looks like the grand old lady we always imagined she was, with dozens of massive decks to get lost on.  Here is an alien threat that doesn’t come off like one guy in a tiny room pushing plastic buttons.  Here are exotic worlds with unifying cultural themes evident throughout their architecture, their costuming and even the lay of their landscapes; aesthetic details that you don’t notice on your first viewing but are saturated in each frame, pushing the experience into your mind on a subliminal level.  And here, finally is the broad and extensive marketing campaign that sells a Star Trek movie as a can’t-miss event.  Not a mere curiosity offered meekly for a small, enlightened clique, but the explosion of a globally inclusive phenomenon that makes you feel foolish for even considering giving it a pass.  Maybe some Trek purists preferred the idea of a protective, hipster attitude towards it – this thing that is ours and that you mainstream people don’t get – but the economics of entertainment don’t always favor that attitude, and Star Trek was stagnating toward the brink of demise.  It needed the kind of movie that would explode and introduce it to a new audience, and it simply couldn’t do that by staring at its own navel through a haze of impenetrable continuity.  “Not your grandfather’s Star Trek,” proclaimed the ads, to the derision of more than a few.

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One thing you can certainly never accuse J.J. Abrams’ films of is lacking in energy.  In Star Trek the characters are alive and bursting from the screen in a way they never have been before; perhaps it is their immediate juxtaposition against the more languid Next Generation characters who had preceded them in the drab Nemesis, that makes them seem so vivid and colorful.  As he would later show in The Force Awakens, Abrams always has an excellent eye for casting, and Pine, Quinto, Urban, Pegg, Cho, Yelchin and Saldana slip very comfortably into the roles originated by Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Takei, Koenig and Nichols and are not burdened by the responsibility.  They never make you forget about the original seven, but, armed with snappy, punchy (and mercifully bereft of technobabble) dialogue, they each bring something new to create complete characters for this new timeline instead of merely doing glorified impressions (Quinto and Urban veer closest to this dodgy tactic in their respective approaches but never quite tip over the line).  Pine in particular is absolutely nothing like William Shatner, and the story’s decision to reinterpret James T. Kirk as a maverick, Beastie Boys-loving bad boy who stumbles into his captaincy by sheer, inherent “chosen one” awesomeness, instead of the dedicated, by-the-book career officer he had been in the original series – in effect playing Kirk as the exaggerated Zapp Brannigan version of himself – is perhaps the most jarring element of this reinterpretation, but to paraphrase The Dark Knight, this Kirk may be the hero we need, not the one we deserve.

That latter statement may be the best pronouncement to be made on the entire movie.  Criticism at the time, of which there was relatively little, opined that this was an action movie, or a Star Wars remake, masquerading as a Star Trek film – that social commentary had been eschewed in favor of gags and broad action sequences.  It was ironic that 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture was lambasted at the time for having “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars,” and 30 years later the reboot was slammed for being too much like it.  Whose verdict matters most?  The moviegoing public, who decided to the tune of a record-obliterating $257 million in ticket sales that this was the movie they needed:  exciting, optimistic, and fun instead of measured, ponderous and dry.  Star Trek starts to buckle if you apply too much analytical pressure to its weaker points; the science is slapdash, the plot relies on too many encounters of convenience, and the screenwriters don’t seem to understand the process of advancement in military ranks, among many others, but there comes a point where you just say screw it, this is a flat-out great time at the movies and none of that stuff matters.  It is not cerebral, but it does have a genuine heart, and more emotion in its scenes than the last five Star Trek movies combined.  Perhaps it’s to the credit of Star Trek as a franchise that there are so many options on its menu to suit every taste and mood:  some days you want to watch Stewart-as-Picard pitted in heated debate with a recalcitrant admiral and other days you prefer to watch Pine-as-Kirk bounce around in bed with sexy green girls.  The big tent of Star Trek spans the galaxy, and this was the first time it got the proper big-screen treatment it had perhaps not needed, but always deserved.

In summary:  Points for the cast, the boundless energy, the scale of the worldbuilding, stellar special effects, heck, even the lens flares.  Deductions for a plot relying on coincidence, convenience and very suspect pseudo-science, but look, if you can make me tear up in the first ten minutes of a Star Trek movie then I’m cutting you a heck of a lot of slack.

Next time:  Cinematic karaoke goes way off-key as the new crew matches wits against a bad guy who totally isn’t Khan… or is he?

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 out of 4 stars.

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