Tag Archives: Jerry Goldsmith

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

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You remember that great movie Star Trek: Renaissance, right?  The one where the Enterprise crew fights zombies on the streets of 1400’s Florence and Data teams up with Leonardo da Vinci?  Hmm, not quite.  Yet if not for a series of mindful rewrites and a certain actor’s demands regarding his costume, that’s very possibly the mess of a movie we might have been served in the winter of 1996 instead of what we and the people involved remember as the generally agreed-upon high-water mark of the four Next Generation features.

From humble beginnings, as the saying goes.

Star Trek Generations had the same aim (and issues) as Star Trek: The Motion Picture fifteen years earlier – get the awkward first inevitable stumbles from television to silver screen out of the way in a modestly entertaining fashion, and clear the decks for a carte blanche story going forward through the sequels.  With Captain Kirk laid to rest, the TV Enterprise in pieces and no requirement (or lingering desire for that matter) to shoehorn in the ancestral cast again, Captain Picard’s crew could go, much like in the Nexus, anywhere, any time.  Producer Rick Berman, given the green light to begin work on another sequel just as Generations finished its run in theaters, took this literally.

Recalling that time travel had been an element of some of the most successful Star Trek stories, including all-time top grosser The Voyage Home, Berman approached his Generations screenwriting team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga and requested that they dream up a time travel plot.  The two writers had been contemplating using the Borg instead; a virtually unstoppable cybernetic alien race whose modus operandi was not to kill, but to assimilate other beings and cultures into its hive mind.  They had become The Next Generation‘s most popular, catchphrase-ready villains, thanks largely to the third season’s famous cliffhanger finale episode, “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which Picard himself was transformed into a Borg.  So Moore and Braga wrote a story in which the Borg would travel back to the Italian Renaissance to disrupt humanity’s emergence from the Dark Ages.  The Enterprise crew would pursue them and battle Borg drones in Florence while Data assisted Leonardo da Vinci in his earliest breakthroughs.

This treatment was rejected for two reasons:  first, a survey showed that general audiences weren’t terribly familiar with what the Renaissance was (I’m guessing most replied that they thought it was a hotel), and second and most importantly, Patrick Stewart advised that under absolutely no circumstances would he be induced into wearing tights.

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Patrick Stewart in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  Clearly once was enough.

Forced to pick another era, Braga and Moore delved into Star Trek‘s own history instead and selected what they called its birth:  the moment in our immediate future when humanity broke the light speed barrier and contacted aliens for the first time.  The original series episode “Metamorphosis” had introduced a character named Zefram Cochrane, played by Glenn Corbett, who was credited with having invented warp drive; the revised story, now titled Star Trek: Resurrection (because somebody at Star Trek in those days had a fixation with titles ending in “-tion”) would see the Borg going back in time and attacking the missile complex in the town of Resurrection, Montana where Cochrane was assembling his prototype warp ship.  Cochrane would be injured, and Picard and Geordi La Forge would take his place at the controls for his historic first warp flight while Riker and the rest of the crew battled with the Borg aboard the Enterprise in orbit.

There were a few problems with this version; namely, that the character with the most personal involvement and history with the Borg never had anything to do with them over the course of the plot, and that Cochrane was a one-dimensional and disposable prop.  It was a simple matter of switching Picard and Riker’s respective places, and putting Cochrane back in the pilot’s seat of his own ship, with the twist that he starts out not as a divinely inspired legend but rather as a flawed, drunken mess more interested in money and women than achieving a place in history.  A savvy (for once) studio executive also observed that the Borg were essentially zombies (a decade before our collective cultural obsession with them began) and requested that there be a central character who could command them – from that directive arose the Borg Queen, the first (and to date, only) female villain in a Star Trek movie.

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Impressed, Paramount boosted the movie’s budget.  While Generations had been made for a modest $26 million, the new movie’s bottom line was penciled in at $45 million, allowing for more location shooting, more imaginative set pieces, more impressive visual effects, and – potentially – pricier, in-demand talent.  But as pre-production continued, a reminder of the Eddie Murphy debacle on The Voyage Home surfaced when the studio requested that the now-major guest part of Cochrane be offered to an A-list star; depending on whose account you believe it was one of the Toms (Cruise or Hanks).  Different era, but identical concerns that such a presence would eclipse the regular cast.  Attempts to land an A-list director were equally fruitless, as top choices like Blade Runner‘s Ridley Scott and Die Hard‘s John McTiernan were far too expensive or not the slightest bit interested in Star Trek.  Berman eventually assigned the movie to Jonathan Frakes (Riker), who had cut his teeth directing multiple episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and clearly knew Star Trek top to bottom.  Given a hand in assembling the guest cast, Frakes suggested his godmother Alfre Woodard as Cochrane’s assistant Lily, who would act as an audience surrogate for the non-Star Trek fans as she accompanied Picard in his battle against the Borg.  But someone still needed to play Cochrane.

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It was never a question of going back to Corbett, as he had died three years earlier.  And with neither famous Tom willing, able or available, James Cromwell auditioned for and was awarded the part instead.  At the time, Cromwell was not nearly as well known as he is now; a veteran of decades of small parts across both TV and movies (including three different guest roles in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), his star-making, Oscar-nominated turn as the kindly farmer in Babe was just peaking.  Alice Krige was cast as the Borg Queen, and Neal McDonough (a.k.a. Dum Dum Dugan for you Marvel Cinematic Universe fans) received a plum early role as the unfortunate redshirt, Lt. Hawk.  In a replay of The Wrath of Khan‘s title woes, “Resurrection” was dropped from the movie after Alien Resurrection was announced, and a couple of lousy interim titles (including the particularly uninspired Star Trek: Borg) finally gave way to Star Trek: First Contact.

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Aboard the newly-commissioned, Sovereign-class, U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-E, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is having nightmares of his assimilation by the Borg several years earlier, triggered by their entry into Federation space on their way to Earth.  Initially ordered to stay on the sidelines because of his personal involvement, Picard disobeys and charges into battle, identifying a key weakness that allows the Starfleet armada (including the Millennium Falcon, which you can spot if you have a Blu-ray copy and a good pause button), to destroy the Borg cube and rescue Worf (Michael Dorn, dropping by from his regular duties on Deep Space Nine).  A spherical escape vessel emerges and plummets towards Earth while opening a temporal vortex to travel back in time, catching the Enterprise in its wake.  The effects are immediate:  the Borg change history, transforming Earth into an entirely Borgified planet.  Protected from the alteration in the timeline by the temporal wake, the Enterprise follows them back three hundred years to the night of April 4, 2063, where the Borg are attacking the Montana installation where the famous Dr. Zefram Cochrane is scheduled to make his warp flight aboard his converted nuclear missile, the Phoenix, the very next morning, which will lead to first contact with an alien species.  A spread of super-duper quantum torpedoes destroys the Borg ship, and Picard and crew beam down to the surface.  Many are dead, Cochrane is missing and his assistant Lily has radiation poisoning from the damaged Phoenix.  Picard leaves Riker in charge of repairs and returns to the Enterprise, where the environmental systems are haywire and crewmembers are going missing.

The drunken Cochrane is finally located hitting on Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) in a bar, and he is informed of the importance of his journey in the morning.  A skeptical Cochrane, summing up our heroes as “astronauts… on some kind of star trek,” agrees to help, but is overwhelmed by the attention and adulation he draws from the Enterprise crew – including the nervous Lt. Barclay, in a cameo from Dwight Schultz reprising his character from The Next Generation.  Aboard the Enterprise, as Lily is treated for her injuries, Picard figures out that the Borg have sneaked aboard and are working on assimilating the ship.  Data (Brent Spiner) quickly locks out the main computer and comes up with a plan to stop the invaders by puncturing the plasma coolant tanks around the warp core, which will liquefy the Borg’s organic components and kill them.  But when a team descends to engineering, Data is captured, and a mysterious woman’s voice taunts him as the Borg begin to experiment on him.  The voice is revealed as the Borg Queen (Krige), who, apart from trying to obtain the command codes to release access to the main computer, has a personal interest in Data as well, and offers him the temptations of the flesh – literally, in the form of organic skin grafted to his exoskeleton – to sway him to her side.  Meanwhile, Picard is also separated from the group and runs into Lily, and once he is able to convince the frightened 21st Century woman of her surroundings and the present situation, the two of them ambush a pair of Borg in the holodeck, where Picard’s long-simmering rage against them starts to emerge.  By analyzing a piece of circuitry from a fallen Borg – a former member of the crew now transformed – Picard discovers that the Borg are building a transmitter on top of the Enterprise‘s deflector dish to contact their home system and summon reinforcements.

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As repairs on the Phoenix near completion, Cochrane finds he cannot handle the burden of history and tries to flee the missile complex only to be stopped by Riker with a phaser stun.  He complains that he is nothing like the person that the Enterprise crew have read about, and admits that he built his warp ship only with the hope of financial reward.  Riker quotes Cochrane’s (eventual) words back to him:  “Don’t try to be a great man, just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.”  Cochrane grins, shakes off his hangover, and begins readying his ship for launch.  On the Enterprise, Picard, Worf and Hawk suit up and spacewalk onto the deflector dish, where the Borg are assembling their transmitter.  Worf’s suit is punctured and Hawk – befitting his red uniform – is captured and assimilated.  Picard is able to sever the deflector dish and the Borg transmitter from the ship, and Worf, who has tied his suit closed with a cable from a dead Borg’s arm, blows it into a bajillion pieces.  But the Borg are still advancing, and Picard’s officers recommend that he set the Enterprise‘s self-destruct mechanism as a last ditch effort.  Picard is incensed, and even calls Worf a coward for suggesting it.  After a tirade in which Picard reveals his history with the Borg and gloats in how he will exact vengeance upon them, Lily, who is not obligated to follow orders, takes Picard to task and compares him to Captain Ahab.  Picard comes to his senses, activates the self-destruct and orders the crew to abandon ship.  However, he remains behind to try to save Data.  Arriving in the completely Borgified engineering section, Picard encounters the Queen, who reveals their history:  it was she who arranged his assimilation years ago as she wanted a partner instead of another drone.  Picard volunteers to exchange himself for Data, but Data, now with human flesh covering half his face, is having none of it.  He wants to be the Queen’s counterpart.

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On the morning of April 5, as the Phoenix launches from Earth with Cochrane at the controls (blaring a Steppenwolf tune) and Riker and Geordi as his co-pilots, Data releases control of the computer to the Queen and locks torpedoes on the warp ship.  Humanity’s future is on the cusp of vanishing forever when the torpedoes abruptly miss their target, and Data, hissing the Borg’s catchphrase “resistance is futile,” smashes the coolant tanks and floods engineering with the deadly plasma.  Picard climbs out of reach while Data pulls the Queen down into the toxic soup, which tears her to pieces and causes all the remaining Borg to short out and perish.  The Phoenix blasts away into warp speed as it was always intended.  Surveying the remains of the invaders, Picard and a wounded Data contemplate the uniqueness of the deceased Borg Queen, and Data reveals that he had been tempted by her offer for a grand total of 0.68 seconds.  That evening, Picard and his crew witness the arrival of the alien ship that detected the Phoenix‘s warp signature, and its crew – revealed as Vulcans – step out to meet Cochrane and spark humanity’s future.  After Picard exchanges a final goodbye with Lily, the Enterprise slips away in the night sky toward its restored future as Cochrane entertains the Vulcans with his vintage jukebox recording of Roy Orbison, and the camera pulls back and pans up into the stars.

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During filming, Jonathan Frakes was nicknamed “Two Takes Frakes” for his efficiency in getting scenes in the can without the sort of Kubrickian perfectionism (and the emulation of such by insecure and considerably lesser directors) that can have productions dragging on for months and leaving everyone involved hating each other.  This movie, then, proves quite nicely that endless retakes are not the harbinger of quality, as there isn’t a single scene here that rings false or isn’t performed well.  Rather than just shoot the movie with the same subdued TV blocking and pacing as David Carson did on the previous installment, Frakes did his homework by screening Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and borrowing some of those techniques to bring much more life to his camera, assisted by his DP Matthew Leonetti.  Indeed, First Contact is full of dynamic shots and imaginative sequences that you would never, ever get on the TV series, and everyone involved from the screenwriters to the last guy clicking the last CGI pixel into place seems to be much more aware that they are making a movie on this go-around, and consequently giving each moment their all.

I remember seeing it for the first time, arriving at the scene when Picard says the Borg are building a transmitter on the deflector dish, and thinking okay, there’s no way they’re going to show that, they’ll probably just talk about it on the bridge and push a few buttons, problem solved.  I was gobsmacked to see the characters put on spacesuits and actually walk outside on the hull of the ship for the very first time, and when they put a button on a wonderfully suspenseful scene by having Worf do his best Schwarzenegger and growl “assimilate THIS!”, you couldn’t wipe the grin from my face.  We’ve become accustomed to Star Trek letting us down when it comes to the idea of spectacle, but this movie never does; instead, it doubles down every chance it gets.  The benefits of an expanded budget and an experienced crew are all there, bursting from each and every frame, with none of the obvious cost-cutting measures like re-used sets and recycled effects shots we so often find ourselves shrugging at over the course of these films.  And there are so many little treats for folks in the know:  Barclay’s cameo, for one; Ethan Phillips’ (Neelix on Voyager) uncredited appearance as a holographic maitre d’, Robert Picardo showing up as the Enterprise‘s version of Voyager‘s sardonic emergency medical hologram.  Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, and the energy radiates from the screen.

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Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore’s screenplay is so sharp and cracking after the plodding effort of Generations that I was certain – no disrespect intended – that someone else (maybe Carrie Fisher?) had done an uncredited polish.  The story benefits immensely from the characters of Zefram Cochrane and Lily as the outsiders and foils to our regulars, never afraid to poke a few sarcastic holes in the immaculate conception that is the Star Trek universe as we understand it (“Borg?  Sounds Swedish.”  “Don’t you people in the 24th Century ever pee?”) and Cromwell and Woodard are both perfect, especially the former as a revered Professor Stephen Hawking revealed as more of a crazed Doc Emmett Brown, who is wisely allowed to retain his lead role in history rather than being replaced by perfect people who’ve already saved the galaxy a hundred times over – as was the intention in the original draft.  Krige is very good as well, with the Borg Queen ranking ahead of Chang but just a shade shy of Khan in Star Trek villains, and certainly the most unique, bringing an unsettling mix of ice-cold technology and red-hot sensuality to what in lesser hands could have been a dreadful cliché.  And there is little more to be added to the copious esteem reserved for Sir Patrick Stewart, who carries the movie on his surprisingly muscular back (seriously – check out the guns in this movie) and gets to own the camera with some tour de force acting and character development as he reveals to us the flaws in the heart of our intrepid starship captain.  (I do wish, given that Moby Dick had been so notably employed in The Wrath of Khan, that Moore & Braga had gone to another text for Picard’s big emotional scene, but Stewart sells it so well this is a minor gripe.)

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In its latter years (seasons 5 to 7), the Next Generation‘s music was notorious for relying solely on repetition of bland, undulating, occasionally atonal strings, with percussion considered verboten by Berman.  But after a two-film hiatus, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith is back at the podium, assisted by his son Joel, and what a pure delight to the ears it is to have his music backing the twists and turns of this crew, from the surprisingly low-key yet melodic main title theme to the pulsing, metallic clangs of the relentless march of the Borg, and a welcome return of the Klingon fanfare to give Worf his very own taste of heroic leitmotif.  Goldsmith pere et fils deliver the scope and sweep that we’ve been so desperately craving, and was a bit beyond the reach of the well-intentioned Dennis McCarthy (who was perhaps still too locked into the style of the series in his thinking) on the last movie.  Thankfully, Goldsmith would continue scoring Star Trek movies until his death in 2004.

If there is fault to be found in Star Trek: First Contact, it’s that the movie is much darker than its predecessors, with scenes (and an enemy) that can be genuinely frightening to younger viewers, and that quite a lot of people die in pretty awful ways before the triumphant and hopeful conclusion (in the time-honored tradition of Star Trek, most of these are unmourned extras without dialogue).  If memory serves, it was the first Star Trek movie to be rated PG-13 for that very reason.  But for someone who grew up with these movies and watched them rise and sink in both their quality and ability to reach beyond their ambitions, this is a true peak in Star Trek‘s cinematic history, an occasion where everything went right and you are left wanting nothing more.  Until 2009, Star Trek: First Contact ranked second only to The Voyage Home in total Trek box office earnings.  The wild and snaking creative process that began with zombies on the streets of Renaissance Florence led us to the best Next Generation movie ever made.

And thank whomsoever you want to thank that we didn’t have to see Patrick Stewart in tights.

In summary:  I’m deducting half a point for the cribbing of Wrath of Khan, but otherwise, yeah, they nailed it.

Next time:  Building on the revelatory success that is First Contact, the Star Trek production team goes and does the exact opposite.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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Greetings humanoids!  As summer begins to scorch the green from the lawn, it’s time to resurrect a Graham’s Crackers tradition from a few years ago:  the movie series review!  You may not realize this, given the complete absence of advertising and hype thus far, but there’s a new Star Trek movie coming out at the end of July.  Star Trek Beyond, the thirteenth volume of films based on that obscure cancelled sci-fi series from the 60’s, is due to hit theaters on July 22, 2016.  Longtime readers may recall that back in 2012 I did a day-by-day recap of every James Bond movie leading up to the release of Skyfall, offering up a custom brew of trivia, anecdotes and commentary designed to whet appetites for what turned out to be arguably the best 007 movie of our generation – and Star Trek Beyond‘s pending premiere gives me a lovely excuse to do the same for the bygone silver screen adventures of Kirk, Spock, Picard, Data et al.  There are seven weeks remaining and only twelve movies to get through so the posting schedule won’t quite be so rigorous – but hopefully you’ll enjoy what I have to say, and perhaps you might be inclined to brush the dust off your DVD cases and pop them in again.

Without further ado, let us… engage!

Given the entrenchment of Star Trek into western popular culture as we know it today, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was nothing more than an old cancelled NBC space show with a robust group of dedicated fans who couldn’t let go – the Firefly of its day.  In the mid-1970’s, without the Internet to give viral life to the latest rumor, one could rely only on tantalizing hints of revival shared at conventions like a game of telephone.  For series creator Gene Roddenberry, a contradiction of a man whose lasting vision and humanism were always tempered in life by a healthy degree of Barnum-esque hucksterism, the notion of being able to squeeze a few more cents from a past success in a climate where his attempts to move on were flaming out left and right must have been powerfully compelling.  When he would show up and announce that he was working on a way for Star Trek to return, who knew how much of that was truth and how much was just baiting the hook so he could keep charging appearance fees and selling merchandise?  The short-lived animated Star Trek series was a taste, an ultimately unsatisfying hors d’oeuvre, but for fans, it was something – something to stoke the fire of hope for the return of the genuine article.

Eventually, Roddenberry got down to business and began writing, cobbling together a controversial screenplay provisionally named The God Thing that was subsequently given the green light for a very low budget – even for the penny-pinching 1970’s – movie.  But in Hollywood, there is no such thing as a straight road, and The God Thing would be rewritten, cancelled, revived as a TV pilot, cancelled again, scheduled as a TV movie of the week, cancelled, and then finally – after Star Wars exploded across the world, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on its heels proved that the popularity of sci-fi wasn’t a one-off fluke – given the go-ahead as a big budget motion picture.  The best effects houses in the country were hired to give it a sweep and scope equal to Star Wars, and the production secured the services of director Robert Wise – a filmmaker who had edited Citizen Kane, directed one of the highest grossing movies of all time (The Sound of Music) and won an Oscar for West Side Story.  And the movie was titled, to remove any sense of doubt as to its potential for epicness, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In the 23rd Century, an unspecified number of years after the conclusion of the USS Enterprise‘s five year mission to explore strange new worlds, a massive energy cloud that is vaporizing everyone and everything in its path is headed straight for Earth.  The highly decorated Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) undertakes some bureaucratic wrangling to get himself assigned as captain of his old ship, which is currently undergoing a massive refit in orbit.  In doing so, he displaces its current captain and his protege, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), and swiftly recruits his old crew to accompany him on this emergency mission – all with the exception of science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is back home on the planet Vulcan attempting to purge himself of his lingering human emotions, but at the same time is drawn to a consciousness at the heart of the energy cloud and in short order, finds himself back – albeit uneasily – amongst his old friends, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov.  Also signing on for this mission is the Deltan navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a mysterious bald alien woman who has a history with Decker.

After a nearly fatal misadventure inside a wormhole thanks to Kirk’s unfamiliarity with his new ship, the Enterprise arrives at the energy cloud and manages to avoid being vaporized (thanks to Spock’s quick thinking).  The ship penetrates and journeys deep inside the cloud, seeking to make contact with the intelligence that is powering it, to try and convince it to leave Earth alone.  Abruptly, Ilia is abducted and replaced with a probe identical in appearance (but with a sudden penchant for high heels and short skirts) through which the crew can now communicate with the intelligence, which calls itself V’Ger.  V’Ger is a form of mechanical life travelling to Earth to locate its creator, with whom it plans to join.  After Spock goes rogue attempting to investigate further, he reveals his understanding of his connection to V’Ger – both incomplete and searching for someone who can provide answers.  V’Ger is having a crisis of faith – for a mechanized life form built to function solely on logic, this is an anomaly that it simply cannot compute.  The Enterprise is finally welcomed inside the heart of the energy cloud, where they discover what V’Ger really is:  a probe built by NASA and launched over 300 years ago, Voyager 6 (V—ger), which has grown beyond its 1970’s programming and become sentient.  Voyager has seen the universe, has learned the what and the where and the how, and now wants to understand the why.  The answer lies in the human equation:  Decker sacrifices himself to join with Voyager and Ilia, completing a trinity of sorts which causes them to ascend to a plane of existence beyond our comprehension and leave the Enterprise (and Earth) alone to continue its adventures.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (or TMP in fan shorthand) is most definitely not akin to Star Wars.  There is no swashbuckling, there are no action scenes to speak of.  There isn’t even really a villain.  This is less shades of Joseph Campbell on monomyth than it is a deeply philosophical pondering of essential questions of human existence – notions of faith and purpose and the meaning of it all, perhaps with the aspiration of the story far exceeding its capacity to reach it in the course of an economical running time.  It’s interesting to situate the movie opposite its sequel, The Wrath of Khan, as the two most literate and intellectual Star Trek movies ever made.  But where Wrath of Khan locates the philosophy in the hearts of its characters, TMP assigns them to a largely offscreen, unfathomable character that we, the audience, don’t really care that much about.  There are few personal consequences whether or not V’Ger gets its answers, other than the hackneyed “Earth will be destroyed!” gimmick.  The resolution of the crisis is also hived off to supporting characters that we’ve just met and haven’t invested that much in either.  Stephen Collins brings a great deal of likability to his thinly-written Decker, and Persis Khambatta tries her best but is stuck in a pretty dumb, borderline unplayable role.  (I have to roll my eyes at the description of her character – an alien beauty from a race that is supposedly so sexually alluring that members of her species have to take “oaths of celibacy” in order to serve safely with humans, lest they, I don’t know, sex them to death?  Such a creation would not be out of place in anything directed by Michael Bay, and speaks to irritation at the way Roddenberry and many, many artists and creators like him over the decades feel this puerile compulsion to flaunt their sexual fantasies publicly within their art.  Put it this way – a woman wouldn’t have come up with the idea of Ilia.)

What is striking about the regular cast is how uncomfortable they seem in their roles.  With the bulk of the movie’s runtime given to showcasing the effects work, the script is thin on character moments as it is, but even in those brief bluescreen-free scenes, there is a notable lack of energy to the interactions, stemming from the fact that Kirk just doesn’t seem like Kirk, McCoy is not McCoy, and so on down the line.  I’m sure not all of it can be traced to the ridiculous uniforms they were clad in (Shatner observes in his book Star Trek Movie Memories that the actors could not sit between takes without ruining the costumes, and an inadequate compromise was made with the crew providing boards that they could lean against instead).  It must have been a considerable challenge for each actor, returning to a part they had played ten years earlier – and never expected to again – and trying to recapture what was endearing about them in the first place while regurgitating technobabble and conjuring emotions at blank screens where effects would be inserted later.  This works for the story, to a point; the Enterprise crew is supposed to be uneasy at being reunited suddenly in a crisis after a long time on separate paths, not to mention worried at the fate of their home world, but for an audience, especially for a 1979 audience that had waited to see these people again for a long, lingering decade, it would have simply felt wrong, as if you’d showed up at someone else’s family reunion.  There is no sense of camaraderie; the interplay, even the familiar banter between Spock and McCoy, is forced and clunky.  The screenplay uses the characters only as props in service of exploring the movie’s larger philosophical canvas, rather than using the philosophy to explore the characters.  The dialogue is almost exclusively explanatory and plot-driven, “Morris the Explainer” writ large.  As such our emotional investment in the journey is minimal, and as the credits roll, we might be thinking about what we’ve just seen, but we don’t feel much of anything.  The motion picture has not moved us.

So what works about The Motion Picture?

Two major things.  The first and most obvious answer is Jerry Goldsmith’s music.  There had been a merciful pivot away from the deeply grating bleeps and boops that characterized 50’s and 60’s sci-fi, starting with Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cemented with John Williams’ brilliant work in Star Wars.  Given his turn at the podium, Goldsmith echoed Williams’ symphonic sweep in the creation of the famous main title theme which would appear in five of the films and serve as the theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation, but also craftily incorporated some electronic elements to underscore the eerieness of the mysterious cloud as the Enterprise travels through it, the music often the only element pushing the movie forward through long, silent stretches.  The visual effects, assembled by such industry heavyweights as Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, are sublime, and the odd wonky matte painting aside, hold up extremely well against their modern-day CGI equivalents.  They rival and arguably exceed the Star Gate sequence in 2001 in terms of their abstract beauty and the imagination infused into the imagery.  It’s not X-wings flying over the Death Star, but it’s art, and much of it is beautiful.  The only mistake with the effects is the fault of whomever decided that every penny that was spent had to wind up on the screen, to the detriment of pace.  (Wise had to cut the movie together without the effects in place, as they were still being worked on right up until almost the hour of the gala premiere.)

A criticism levelled frequently at Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it is boring.  A critic at the time complained that it had “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars.”  In hindsight, Roddenberry, Wise and the production team deserve some credit for not trying to make another Star Wars.  Their noble error was in going too far the other way, of giving us poetry when a prose exploration of the same subject would have been more in line with what the audience wanted.  In a sense, the entire movie functions not as narrative but as metaphor, and a rather vaginal one at that given the predominance of men in the cast:  it was observed by a smarter mind than myself that the Enterprise, a tiny speck soaring deep through the tunnels of a vast energy matrix in search of V’Ger, is a sperm bringing the spark of humanity to the egg waiting to be fertilized by it.  Throw in talk of the creator and creating God in our own image and you’re dealing with some heavy, heavy stuff, man, when perhaps most people just wanted to see some spaceships blow up.  Still, if you’re not going to press my thrill button, or try to stir my emotions, then at least challenge my intellect, and in that area, The Motion Picture succeeds.  I, too, have on occasion stopped to ask the question to the empty air just as Spock does at a critical moment in the third act:  “Is this all that I am; is there nothing more?”  Figuring that out seems to me to be the essence of what it means to be human – the fuel that has driven Star Trek in all its forms.

That, to me, is the polar opposite of boring.

The Motion Picture also works as a necessary stepping stone for what is to come; a cathartic purge, if you will, of the mess of false starts and dashed hopes that preceded its creation.  It dispenses with the awkward baby steps that were always going to accompany the first reunion of the characters and their transition from small screen to big and gives the series tabula rasa to move forward to much greater heights in a brand new era.  It is also, in its more stately approach to the solving of narrative problems, a template for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Where Gene Roddenberry had to include a fistfight to sell his show when NBC had dismissed Star Trek‘s first pilot as too cerebral, here we see that cerebral approach to storytelling in full, elegant display.  V’Ger begins the movie as a terrifying antagonist, doing seemingly villainous things, but its actions are not out of spite, and a crisis is eventually resolved without shots fired nor nuclear explosions set off (aside from the “heavenly” burst of white light that accompanies the creation of new life at the end).  There is a profound optimism in the message that understanding is the greatest means at our disposal to end conflict between enemies who seem implacable.  Today, when a presidential candidate bleats incessantly about building walls to keep the terrifying others out, we should take this message to heart, even if our cinematic appetites have always trended toward resolution by good old-fashioned shoot-em-up – as exemplified by the enduring appeal of Star Wars.

In summary:  Points for score, effects, philosophical underpinning and aspirational reach.  Probably the best, if only, “hard sci-fi” Star Trek film. Marks off though for weak characters, expositional writing, languid pace and a lack of emotional depth.  It’s Star Trek, but it’s not enough Star Trek, if that makes any sense.

As the last thing you see before the credits promises, the human adventure is just beginning, and next time we’ll delve deeper into what is still regarded, justifiably, as the greatest Star Trek movie of them all, where we learn that it was the Klingons who said that revenge is a dish best served cold.

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

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part IV

spaceship earth

The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was Walt Disney’s prophetic vision of how we would be living today; a vast city thriving on the substance of its connections.  Walt wanted people to live and work there, but after his passing the Disney corporation decided they did not want to be in the business of running a municipality (ironically, Disney does operate its own municipality, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which manages the land on which the Walt Disney World Resort sits) and instead transformed Epcot into what they knew they could run well – another theme park.  Famously derided by the likes of none other than Homer Simpson, who wailed “it’s even boring to fly over!”, Epcot has long been an oddity, its ultimate purpose somewhat out of sync with the predominant Disney mantra of just coming to play and be a kid again.  Throughout the evolution of its exhibits from opening day in 1982 it’s always been the more mature, educational counterpart to the whimsy of the Magic Kingdom, the fairy dust harder to see in the polished presentation of the technology of the future and the many shades of our present.  This is the park for the grownups.  Epcot the Expo.  Divided into two distinct lands, Future World and World Showcase, and presided over by the imposing sphere (or overgrown golf ball, depending on your attitude) that is Spaceship Earth, Epcot is more linear; easier to find your way around, harder to lose your way amid winding paths.  Yet for some reason I never feel I’ve truly arrived at Disney until I’ve reached Epcot.

There is an indelible scent to Spaceship Earth that speaks to my distant memory like trumpets heralding the return of a long-absent pilgrim.  A peculiar brew of industrial strength air conditioning, special effects smoke and wheel lubricant combines into a unique visceral trigger, the feel of the arm of an old friend draped around my shoulder.  What is ostensibly Epcot’s signature attraction offers a journey back through 35,000 years of human history, with the voice of Judi Dench guiding you from a frozen plain where primitive man hurls spears at mammoths in unforgiving darkness, through the development of written language and the spread of civilization across the planet made possible by the phenomenon of communication.  Drifting past animatronic humans painting glyphs on cave walls, an Egyptian slave pounding out reeds into papyrus, toga-clad Greeks delivering a lecture on mathematics and Arab scholars sharing opinions over a hookah, anyone who calls himself a writer cannot fail to appreciate the significance of what is unfolding before him and the small, yet important part that he plays in this ongoing saga.  (He is particularly moved when he sees Gutenberg examining the first printed copy of the Bible.)  Humanity defines itself by the sharing of its ideas, the stories we tell to each other and the method by which those stories are passed on, long beyond our mere mortal existence.  A mind raised in the presence of the Internet can scarcely fathom the limitations faced by our ancestors, the incredible patience needed to etch history into brick and mortar.  We live in a time when it is easy, too easy some might argue, to fire off every thought to the entire world in real time, with a few keystrokes and a click, regardless of whether those thoughts have any lasting value.  The democratization of communication gives everyone equal ability to mouth off at the celebrity whose last movie we hated or whose political opinions make our skin crawl, without the need to consider our words first.  Passion drives communication as it never has before, as ink no longer needs to be bought by the barrel and rationed out only to the reasoned.  Spaceship Earth‘s main presentation ends with a facsimile of Steve Wozniak building a personal computer in his garage in the late 1970’s, but if the golf ball was bigger, perhaps it might be updated to advance thirty years and show us where we are now – to remind us that as trifling as they may seem in the moment, our communications are our legacy to the generations to come, as much as those dusty scrolls in the ancient libraries are the legacy of those who preceded us.  Every precious word is written into the future.  One way time travel, as it were.

Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.
Spaceship Earth‘s Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.

Beyond the confines of Future World lies World Showcase, the part the kids usually find boring.  It is a collection of eleven pavilions each dedicated to a different country and staffed exclusively by citizens of those far-flung lands.  Walking clockwise you can stroll through Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK and finally Canada.   The pavilions are sponsored by private corporations from the countries in question (with the exception of Morocco, which is sponsored by its government) and each features a signature restaurant and souvenir shops, where other attractions may vary.  Mexico and Norway are the only two with actual rides inside, while Canada and China feature movies and The American Adventure contains an animatronic show about the founding of the United States.  If you’re walking by at the right time you may chance to encounter characters, buskers or live bands.  And for the littler ones staving off yawns there’s an interactive adventure based on Phineas & Ferb that encourages them to hunt through the Showcase in search of clues while their parents ponder purchasing a kimono in Japan or getting henna applied in Morocco.  You’d think that Canada would be my favorite of the undectet, shameless patriot that I am, eh (despite my non-adherence to the rules of Canadian English spelling), but my soft spot here at Epcot has always been for the UK.

Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.
Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.

Anglophile leanings aside, regardless that a Beatles tribute band can often be found performing in a nearby gazebo and Mary Poppins is usually on hand to advise on how to say supercalafragilisticexpialadocious backwards, what endears this place to me is a memory of my father attached indelibly to it.  About three or four times a day a group of improvisational players gathers in the square and invites members of the audience to take part in a humorous spoof, jape or vignette drawn from the annals of that fine British tradition of pantomime.  The first time we ever visited Epcot they picked my dad to join in, and I’m sure his boisterous manner didn’t factor into it at all (he may possibly have jumped up and down to volunteer).  When I walk these pink pathways and look around the corner past the pub I can see him again, reaching for the rafters as he crumples to the ground with a plastic sword tucked under his arm while the players narrate “And he died… OVER THERE!”, pointing six paces to his left and forcing him to get up sheepishly and walk over and do it all again.  Olivier he was not, but he loved being part of that sort of thing, ever happy to look a bit silly to give a stranger a laugh.  I come by a bit of it myself, to be honest, and I’m often the first to raise my hand when a similar enterprise arises.  It feels like paying tribute to the late great old man, and so walking through the faux-UK at Epcot is too akin to the metaphorical laying of flowers for someone long gone.

But back to Future World, to The Land, and the most popular ride in Epcot, Soarin’.  It’s not uncommon that the fast passes for this ride are all snapped within a scant few hours of the park’s opening, it remains that popular.  Seinfeld‘s Puddy, Patrick Warburton, plays the chief flight attendant welcoming you aboard your 5-minute trip over the scenic vistas of California, set to a majestic score composed by the late, legendary Jerry Goldsmith.  You are seated in “gliders” that are raised high above the floor before a massive screen, and the film that projects before you brings you sweeping through the clouds over San Francisco Bay, through Yosemite National Park, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, Monterey and Anza-Borrego to name but merely a few.  The experience is not only visual as you are also greeted by the scent of citrus as you sail over orange groves and of salt mist as you watch surfers tumble.  Goldsmith too modifies the arrangement of his theme as it evolves to give appropriate flavor to both the natural wonders and the human achievements rushing toward you, before a fireworks finale over Anaheim Disneyland introduced by Tinkerbell heralds your inevitable return to earth.

soarin

I’m uncomfortable with heights, so I had every reason to expect that this experience would leave me dizzy, gripping the sides of the glider in nauseated panic.  But just as the theme song to Firefly insists “you can’t take the sky from me,” even acrophobics can come to understand the pull the clouds can exert upon those of us fated to stand on solid ground and gaze up at them in resignation.  A few years ago when my wife and I were in the Dominican I signed on reluctantly to try parasailing, and only after putting it off to our last day.  What surprised me most as the parachute dragged us up, up and away, was the silence of the sky, the utter peace to be found less than a hundred meters up.  The ground is a noisy place and we’ve all become inured to the persistent drone of our 21st Century lives – mechanical equipment, inane conversations, half-assed music played on repeat.  Dial all that down to zero, banish the distraction, and you find a hitherto unknown treasure buried beneath – a chance to hear the spirit speak.  In a theme park dedicated to the wonders of communication, Soarin’ is a reminder of the greatest communication you can have, and one you owe to yourself sooner rather than later.  It’s a chance to think about who you are, the sum of your contradictions and the difference between the face you present to the world and the true shape of your inner self that lies hidden behind it.  To unite the sense of the present with the memory of the past and the dreams of the future and find that the answer leaves you smiling.

It’s possible that’s why Epcot completes the equation for me, why it’s what makes me feel most like I’m back.  I could go on at length about our experiences this time at some of the other favorite attractions; my son’s insistence on riding Mission: Space four times so he could fill each different crew position, his chance to have a conversation with an animated character from Finding Nemo at Turtle Talk with Crush.  Those family memories will be added to the extensive cache getting ever larger with each visit; complaining at the age of 8 that I didn’t like the food in the restaurant in the German pavilion (nein to your schnitzel!), watching IllumiNations around the World Showcase Lagoon on New Year’s 1990, listening to the Future Corps play the Jetsons Theme on a trip there with my high school band in 1993.  Ask me what I did a week or two before or after those individual moments and I’ll give you a master class in blank stares.  But decades later, here I am, transcribing these moments for the world and understanding that they, like those hieroglyphics on the pyramid walls, will now outlive me.  Writing into the future.  Just beyond the park entrance, before you reach Spaceship Earth, lie a series of obelisks on which Disney allowed guests to “Leave a Legacy” – a small, laser-etched photograph of yourself to be mounted there for all time.  The program was discontinued for whatever reason so a majority of space on the obelisks remains unfilled.  Yet it doesn’t really matter that I don’t have a picture of my face waiting to see me again at Epcot.  The true legacy is something I take with me when I go, etched in my mind, inspiring me far beyond the borders of Walt Disney World and Florida.

illuminations

We need to go darker

Katy Perry in the video for “Wide Awake,” conjuring some musical magic.

Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” has been on my playlist all week long, an incongruity even sandwiched inside an eclectic playlist that includes Hendrix, Dylan, the Byrds, Tom Petty, Richard Ashcroft, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Mychael Danna and Hans Zimmer.  I cannot stop listening to it.  It accomplishes the remarkable feat of being both catchy and soulful, bruised yet full of hope.  Apart from innocently fancying Ms. Perry herself (which my Alexander Skarsgard-adoring better half assures me she’s totally okay with) I’ve been indifferent toward her music until now.  Her breakout hit “I Kissed a Girl” is the giggle of a nine-year-old too chicken to truly explore questions of confused sexuality lest her parents think badly of her.  “Firework” is a well-meaning song undermined by Perry’s inability to hit and sustain high notes.  The lack of proper rhymes in “California Gurls” and the Brady Bunch-esque misdeeds of “Last Friday Night” are a saran wrap-deep package unwilling to chafe against the very successful mould in which she’s been forged.

Then her marriage to Russell Brand broke apart, and she wrote, recorded and released “Wide Awake” as a meditation on what she’d been through and where she is now.  And it’s a great song.  This isn’t a pig-tailed goofy girl jumping up and down on a beach – it’s the honest testament of an emotionally bruised woman picking herself up off the concrete.  Katy Perry has established such a niche for herself that she didn’t have to record this song – she could have released yet another ode to partying in the sunshine and achieved plenty of accolades and album sales.  But she chose to try to say something profound about who she is and how she’s feeling about the world.

I’m not going to go faux-Lester Bangs and suggest that “Wide Awake” is a watershed moment in music.  But it illuminates a larger question that I think most artists grapple with.  Is introspection by its nature a journey of sadness?  Does something have to be dark to be good?  Is the stuff of genius found only in the minor chords?  There’s an old axiom that says all real comedy is born from pain.  So too does it seem that the best music is that which reflects lessons learned at great cost.  This is not to say that everyone gets it right – it seems that every Kelly Clarkson song is about breaking up with someone and being better off because of it, but unlike Katy Perry in “Wide Awake,” you get the sense that Kelly’s just reading the lines someone else wrote for her instead of feeling them through the notes, and that’s why, at least to my ears, “Wide Awake” will have greater staying power than the grating and empty “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.

Bob Dylan told John Lennon when they first met that he needed to get personal in his lyrics.  You begin to witness the transformation through the Beatles middle period as songs like “I’m a Loser” on Beatles for Sale and “Help!” lead to angry kiss-offs like “Norwegian Wood,” the existential exploration of “Nowhere Man” and the psychedelic dream state of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the Sgt. Pepper era becomes the truly dark, soul-baring Primal Scream anguish that closed out the Fab Four and realized itself fully in John’s solo career.  Had Lennon and the others chose to rest on their laurels and sing nothing but upbeat generic pop for their entire careers, they might have done very well.  They might still be touring casinos and retirement homes today.  But they wouldn’t be legends.  It was their choice to share their vulnerability, their humanity, that made them so – the gods who dared to admit they were the very same as the mortals who worshipped them.  In the documentary Imagine, there’s a scene where Lennon confronts an obsessed fan who is trespassing on his property, who wants to know how Lennon could have known so much about this fan’s life as to write songs that seemed to be about him.  Lennon responds, frankly, that “I’m singing about meself.”

The stories that have the deepest impact on us are tales of catharsis; of people like us who are tested to the limits of their endurance, who go all the way to the point of breaking and come back changed, improved, and renewed.  To find the brightest light, one must brave the darkness, because it is only in the dark that light can shine.  Every artist who starts out warbling giddily about rainbows and lollipops will face a crossroads at some point, where they will be forced to decide whether to continue skipping along the yellow brick road or stumble off into the gloomy forest – with no guarantee that something better waits on the other side, only faith that it does.  It’s a journey that is always worth taking.  The Dixie Chicks’ music improved immeasurably after their fracas with the American right over their Bush-inspired version of John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus moment”, when they got away from karaoke-ready dreck like “Goodbye Earl” and opened up with powerful anthems like “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  Brian Wilson struggled his entire career against the goofy surfin’ tunes that characterized the Beach Boys and that his record label insisted he continue to produce, and as a result we were blessed with lasting gems like “God Only Knows.”  I have no doubt whatsoever that someday Justin Bieber will grow a goatee and release an acoustic album, and you know what – done with the right intentions, and not just as a sales gimmick, it’ll be terrific.

Until then, play “Wide Awake” again and think to yourself, damn, Katy Perry makes for one fine-looking goth.

Inspiration for a Saturday morning

My better half and I are Disney fiends.  We try to visit at least once every couple of years.  Our favorite ride, bar none, is Soarin’ – for those of you who are unfamiliar, it’s a flight simulator where you and about a hundred other riders are hoisted into the air before a massive screen on which visions of California race toward you.  The ride pivots and dips along with the images to give you the feel of flying over these vistas, accompanied by cool breezes and the scents of pine trees and orange groves.  It’s four and a half minutes of sheer bliss – and a taste of what it must feel like to be Rainbow Dash.

The score for this experience was composed by the late film legend Jerry Goldsmith, who is alleged to have done so for free after being literally moved to tears by his first ride.  The music captures, as sublimely as any piece I’ve ever heard, the exhilaration of wandering above the clouds on gossamer wings.  I can’t hear it without being lifted, and it’s my gift to you on what promises to be a beautiful day.

Take flight.