Monday, January 16, 2017

Squawk Box: Das Trekgold

So, last September marked the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek's debut on television. While another movie did come out last summer (Star Trek Beyond) and another television show is slowly making it's way toward reality (Star Trek: Discovery) the fact of the matter is that Paramount- in stark contrast to the celebrations put on by the BBC for Doctor Who- hasn't done a heck of a lot to mark the milestone. So I decided that if Paramount wasn't going to roll out the red carpet, I was going to roll up my sleeves and start a Star Trek Party of my own.

Yes, I'm attempting to tackle the complete Star Trek Televisual Cycle-  the science fiction equivalent of The Ring Cycle (hence the title of my post- a rather weak paraphrasing of Part 1 of the Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold). Between six television shows, there are 725 episodes to tackle. This is where I stand:

Series Completed: 1, the Animated Series
Episodes Watched: 286
Progress: 39.44%

I've made my way through the entirety of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine before, but I had only passing familiarity with the remaining television shows before I started this- I did tackle Voyager a couple of years back, but had gotten through a few seasons of The Next Generation and an episode here and there from the Original Series and Enterprise. So here are my first impressions:

Star Trek: Enterprise
Ugh, that theme song. It's like one of those ear slugs from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, slowly burrowing it's way into your brain before you know, eating you from the inside or whatever the hell they did in the movie.

I'm kind of surprised by how well this works and by how good a lot of it can be. I think the Vulcans, as a species get the most character and cultural development in the history of Star Trek with this series. They're not perfect! They have flaws! They don't like the Andorians- a race which appears in the original Trek but few other places- and the Andorians don't like them just as much. The Romulans make an early- an menacing appearance, as do the Klingons, but there's also a sense that there's a ton of galaxy left to be explored at this point in the series canon- and had Enterprise played with that concept a little more- that there's more these folks don't know than they do know and they really are out there all alone, I think this might have gone on for longer than it did.

But, Enterprise's greatest strength- namely, an already established galaxy to play in- also proved to be it's biggest undoing, because that meant that boxes had to be checked. So we had to meet the Ferengi, even though that seems to be a contradiction from what's established in The Next Generation- and we had to go to Risa. They seem to have to do a lot of things because the other shows do it too, and it weighs this show down a bit- too much, as it would turn out.

The standout episode so far has to be 'Dear Doctor' and John Billingsley as Dr. Phlox is criminally underused in this series. He's awesome. 'Shockwave Part I' also marks the moment where I think this show really get itself going. We'll see what the rest of it brings. Highlights: 'Dear Doctor', 'The Andorian Incident', 'Shadows of P'Jem', 'Shockwave Part 1', 'Carbon Creek', 'The Catwalk'

Star Trek: The Original Series
The first season of The Original Series held up better than I expected. Yes, the effects are dated and the acting can involve a little bit of scenery chewing- but in it's first season, The Original Trek churned out some classics of the genre- including a two parter, 'The Menagerie' which dealt with the events of the first (unaired) pilot featuring a Captain Christopher Pike nicely. It brims with optimism and idealism for a vision of a better future and in general, I surprised myself by enjoying it far more than I thought I would.

'The Conscience of The King' probably is my favorite episode of the first season- using the Bard, it delves into historical memory, justice in a way that at the time was probably a deliberate echo of the whole rounding up of Nazis after World War II so they could face justice for their crimes. This episode mines territory in a beautifully written way that Trek doesn't come close to touching until Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (Old favorites that remain awesome: 'Balance of Terror' and 'The City On The Edge of Forever.'_

Where it dates itself, however, is the casual sexism which jumps up and slaps you in the face in unexpected and unpleasant ways. If television can serve as a barometer of our cultural advancement, then we've come a long ass way, as 'The Enemy Within' proved. When Kirk is divided into a 'Good Kirk' and a 'Bad Kirk'  and 'Bad Kirk' sexual assaults poor Yeoman Rand it's sort of laughed off (after both Kirks are put back together) in a 'you know you kind of wanted it' moment that made me physically cringe. One season in and The Original Trek has some work to do when it comes to women on board the Starship Enterprise. (To be fair, women get to save the day and run the show- just not until 'The Lorelai Effect' in The Animated Series.)

My other 'lowlight' for this season is 'The Squire of Gothos.' Long held in canon to be the first appearance of a 'Q' it just sort of... sucks. Highlights: 'The Conscience of The King', 'Balance of Terror', 'The City On The Edge of Forever'


Star Trek: The Animated Series
You know, I'm sort of surprised that someone hasn't revived Star Trek in an animated form since The Animated Series had it's run. The medium allows the writers to do more and to do it credibly- with more 'alien' races and not just a parade of vaguely humanoid actors in ridiculous amounts of make-up. The overall tone of The Original Series carries forward into it's animated counterpart, albeit in a somewhat compressed form.

I feel like this works if you're trying to complete the full Star Trek Nibelungen and probably fit in quite well within it's era and to be sure, there's a certain nostalgic feel to the animation that's enjoyable. It's very old school 'Johnny Quest'- even the music has the feel. Having the voices of the majority of the original crew back makes sense- but there are also some interesting additions, like Lt. Arex that would have been interesting to see more of in subsequent movies and television shows.

You have to wonder if the success of shows like Clone Wars or Star Wars Rebels might inspire someone to revive the animated Trek universe, but so far I haven't heard anything. As an overlooked chapter of the Trek Cycle, it's decent enough- with highlights that could have been classic episodes of the original series, but it's misses are deep and somewhat inexplicable. Highlights: 'The Lorelai Effect', 'Yesteryear', 'The Counter-Clock Incident'


Star Trek: The Next Generation
Where to begin with The Next Generation? There's good, there's bad and there's excellent to be found here, but it's growing on me- slowly. This is probably the deepest dive I've ever taken on The Next Generation  The series premiere introduces us to Q with 'Encounter At Farpoint' but it's the death of Tasha Yar in 'Skin of Evil' that really stands out- marking the first time in Trek history that a character has been killed off and stayed dead- save for an alternate timeline appearance in the episode, 'Yesterday's Enterprise.'  The First Season ends with the return of the Romulans in 'The Neutral Zone', but it's the second season where things really get going.  Dr. Pulaski is a welcome addition to the crew- even if it's only for one season, but we get to meet The Borg in 'Q Who'.

The third season is when this show really begins to take off, however. 'The Defector', 'Yesterday's Enterprise', 'Sarek' all build to the best cliffhanger in Trek History: 'The Best of Both Worlds' It took me a little bit to get down with the adventures of Picard and Company and man, can Wesley Crusher be annoying sometimes, but by the end of the Third Season, I'm all in. Bring on the rest of TNG. Highlights: 'Up The Long Ladder', 'The Emissary', 'Peak Performance', 'Contagion', 'The Defector'


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Deep Space Nine remains my favorite Trek series and is probably one of the best science fiction shows out there- I'd put it up against any of the greats you can name me and the early seasons of DS9 start strong and don't let up. The first season episode, 'Duet' is a fantastic culmination of the themes justice in the wake of wartime atrocities that has to land on any list of all-time Trek episodes somewhere pretty damn close to the top. A nice three parter opens the 2nd Season with Frank Langella lending his excellent acting to the show as First Minister Jaro and by the end of the third season, The Dominion are firmly established as Trek's biggest, baddest villains since The Borg.

Deep Space Nine hits far more than it misses and the levels of morality and complexity and the depth of the themes that the show explores are a welcome departure from Trek's usual moral clarity. This show gets down and gets dirty and it gets gritty and it just kicks ass from start to finish. Honestly, if I could buy any Trek series in fancy boxed set blu-ray form, it would probably be this one. (I must have a thing for Space Stations, as I've already got a few seasons of Babylon Five lurking in the basement.) If I had to pick a 'lowlight' it would probably be, 'The Alternate' which was sort of... 'meh.' But, there are highlights a plenty. Highlights: 'Duet', 'The Homecoming', 'The Circle', 'The Siege', 'Blood Oath', 'Profit and Loss'


Star Trek: Voyager
I was sort of surprised how much I found myself liking Voyager the 2nd time around. What I noticed- especially in the early seasons is that it's very science-y- more so than a lot of the other Treks, there's a lot of scientific method, hypotheses testing and problem solving that's kind of cool, to be honest. A 2nd Season episode, 'Deadlock' references a Kent State University experiment that's got to be a real thing- though the Wikipedia page doesn't give any hints one way or the other about it.

Kate Mulgrew is excellent as Captain Janeway- and if there's a welcome tonic for the casual and cringe-worthy sexism that seems to pop up from time to time in the Original Trek- it's Captain Janeway. Voyager, for those keeping score at home more than passes the Bechdel Test. (For some reason I've got 'Prime Factors' listed as my 'Lowlight' from the first round of Voyager, and I'm not sure why. Must have rubbed me the wrong way or something.)

The pilot starts strong and the long journey home is more entertaining than I remember it from the first time around. Honestly, right now I'd slot in Voyager as number two behind Deep Space Nine in terms of my personal favorite Trek flavors. Highlights: 'Caretaker', 'State of Flux', 'Threshold', 'Alliances', 'Investigations'

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