Star Trek Beyond review podcast

26-Aug-16 10:40 AM by
Filed under Star Trek; Comments Off on Star Trek Beyond review podcast

Last month saw the release of Star Trek Beyond, the third film in the JJ Abrams / Kelvin / Handsome universe that began with the 2009 reboot and continued in 2013 with Star Trek Into Darkness. Although I was excited for any new live-action media in the Star Trek franchise, I wasn't sure what to expect from this outing. The 2009 film was a welcome and necessary update to the formula, while the 2013 film was mired in too many weird plot devices and allusions. With a new director and scriptwriter, the latter including Simon Pegg ("Scotty"), would Star Trek Beyond prove a fitting closure to what was originally intended to be a trilogy?

Family photo at Star Trek Beyond premiere

The family that treks together!

Yes. Star Trek Beyond was utterly delightful, with a perfect mix of action and character moments. While the 2009 film may've been decried as being too heavy on action, Star Trek Beyond bookends with intense, concentrated action sequences, leaving the middle of the story to focus on pairs of characters: Kirk and Chekhov, Scotty and Jaylah, Spock and Bones, Uhura and Sulu. There was none of the stereotypes or pettiness we saw in Star Trek Into Darkness, instead allowing the characters to demonstrate genuine introspection, growth, and camaraderie.

Whereas I used this blog to dissect the previous two Star Trek films in prose, for Star Trek Beyond, I took to the air with my friend Sabriel Mastin, the only person I know who can out-recollect me on any Star Trek series. We co-opted Polygamer, my biweekly audio podcast about equality and diversity in games, to produce a bonus episode in which we reviewed and raved about the movie. Give it a listen:

On a personal note, I saw Star Trek Beyond opening weekend with the KansasFest 2016 crew. Conspicuously missing was my father, who had passed away just a few months earlier. He's the one who got me into Star Trek in the first place, and we'd seen the last six films together in theaters. It was tough to sit through this film without him… but a week later, I saw the movie again with my oldest brother and our mom, for whom this was her first theatrical Star Trek outing. Although she's not as mired in Trek lore as some, she nonetheless found the film exciting to watch and was glad she went.

There's talk of a fourth film with this crew (though sadly, without Chekhov, in memory of the late Anton Yelchin; and without Ambassador Spock, in memory of Leonard Nimoy). I'm eager to spend the intervening years continuing to bring my mom up to speed in time to better enjoy the Enterprise's next voyage!

Star Trek Into Darkness' origins and impact

25-May-13 11:09 AM by
Filed under Films, Star Trek; 6 comments.

Four years after J. J. Abrams rebooted Gene Roddenberry's original television show, the youthful crew of the original NCC–1701 have again taken to space in Star Trek Into Darkness. As is now our tradition, my father and I attended the film's opening night. Two hours later, I left the theater feeling a way no other movie had ever left me: overwhelmed. The layers, implications, and consequences of the Enterprise's latest mission are too complex to be boiled down into a simple recommendation. Although I do wholeheartedly recommend this film, it's not enough to say that it's a good film, as it's much more than that.

I'd walked into the movie having successfully avoided all trailers, teasers, rumors, and revelations. I cannot promise I will do the same in this review, so proceed with caution. For example, the latest trailer has a single word that would've ruined for me the identity of the antagonist, which some might consider an already poorly kept secret — but even as I watched the film, I was never sure of myself right up until the big reveal. It would be impossible to comment on the film without including that moment.

Spock in flames

What better way to start a summer blockbuster than with a volcano?

More broadly than those specifics, it's important to first acknowledge that this is no longer Roddenberry's Star Trek. Some have criticized Abrams for dumbing down Star Trek from its ideological origins into a generic action-packed blockbuster. But with these two films, Star Trek has undergone a natural evolution from philosophy defined to philosophy realized. Star Trek is no longer about debates around tables and in turbolifts, as it so often was in The Next Generation, a series I adored. Now it is about making difficult decisions in the heat of the moment — and dealing with the consequences. The most talkative we see this crew of the Enterprise is Kirk's confrontation with Scotty, which does not go the way either Scotty or the audience expected; the look on his face says, "Did we really just pull the pin on this grenade?" Other conflicts, such as Uhura and Spock's spat, seem almost comically timed and forced. But even these moments move the story and the characters forward through challenging times. Just because the set has moved from a conference room to the heat of battle does not make the decisions any less difficult.

That gravity is carried by the excellent acting of the cast. Although the credits list the actors in alphabetical order, implying an ensemble cast, it is very much Kirk and Spock's show. Most everyone else gets their chances to shine: Scotty is integral to the plot; Bones and Uhura have some fantastic scenes; and Sulu's moment in the spotlight is the first time I've seen a hint of the man who will eventually captain the U.S.S. Excelsior. Chekov, unfortunately, is mostly wasted in this episode, serving as a poor substitute for Scotty. But the movie is ultimately about Kirk and Spock's friendship and their diametrical approaches to situations, as indicated by McCoy's answer to Kirk's early question, "If you were here, Spock, what would you do?" The returning cast is joined by Alice Eve (Men In Black 3) as Carol, Peter Weller (RoboCop) as Admiral Marcus, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as John Harrison.

Harrison vs. Kirk

A new rivalry…
or an old one?

John Harrison? Yes, that is the name of our villain, at least at first. His early act of terrorism was brutally unwelcome here in Boston, where we had just suffered a similar tragedy. From there, his actions are pettier than I'd expect. His escape to the Klingon homeworld gave us a first glimpse at this re-imagined alien race, but they are otherwise a red herring. Harrison was neither conspiring with them nor enticing the Enterprise into a war with them. Given those missed opportunities, what was he going to do on Qo'noS — hide? It seems an unfitting and unambitious fate for the tyrant he eventually reveals himself to be. Had he succeeded, we might once again have had a movie where Kirk and Khan never come face-to-face — a missed opportunity from the 1982 film, finally realized in 2013.

Carol and Jim

Watch their love explode across the screen!

Cumberbatch's character is one of the film's many ties to the known Star Trek timeline. Another is Section 31, the brief mention of which elicited a gasp from this long-time fan. It indicates a familiarity with Star Trek lore, both the unaltered timeline that precedes Nero's incursion — Section 31, although introduced in Deep Space Nine, was alive and well in the age of Captain Archer — and the implications of what it could become in the future. The same occurs with the introduction of Carol Marcus: her introduction to Kirk produced little unique chemistry, but we know what it could become.

But no character, alien, or organization carried as much weight as a scene revisited from The Wrath of Khan. Kirk's rescue of the Enterprise came so suddenly that, when I realized what was happening, it hit me like a ton of bricks. "Not again!" I despaired. Leonard Nimoy's Spock had just said that Khan was defeated "at great cost" — a heavy statement: how many people can reflect on their own deaths, then be chilled by the knowledge that their murderer has risen from the grave? Now here we are, seeing it happen again, this time with Kirk as the human sacrifice. The captain who'd started the film with the proud proclamation of having never lost a member of his crew had more than a perfect record in mind; the agony with which he had, moments ago, apologized to the bridge for what he thought was their ultimate defeat was palpable. Kirk cares for every member of his ship as much as he cares for Spock — the latter being a friendship that is no less weighty for having been witnessed across only two films instead of two decades, as it was the last time Khan threatened the Enterprise. Kirk bookends the film by saving Spock's life, and the evolution we see is in Spock's reaction: from a detached betrayal of his captain to Starfleet, to a vengeance-fueled hunt his friend's killer. Through Kirk's selflessness, Spock has gotten in touch with the best and worst of his own humanity.

Spock and Kirk

Watch their love explode across the screen!… or not.

This scene, combined with using Khan as the film's protagonist, may suggest an unoriginality among the scriptwriters. Four years ago, Khan seemed the least likely candidate for the sequel, lest Abrams walk the same cinematic path laid out in decades past. But critics clamoring for this new generation of Star Trek to go on an original adventure need look only four years to the past, when the Romulan Nero arrived on the scene.

By contrast, this sequel is not a rehashing of an old plot but rather a brilliant exploration of destiny. How much of these characters' fates are their own to decide? Are Kirk and crew destined to always clash with Khan, no matter how much the circumstances may change? Just how far-reaching are the effects of Nero's destruction of Vulcan? The exhumation of the SS Botany Bay is a small change with dramatic consequences. Will the next film continue referring to the pivotal moment in time when a villain from the future set a new course for the galaxy?

With the full weight of Star Trek's history behind this movie, it is hard for me to say if this sequel is as much meant for a general audience as the 2009 reboot was. You can get away without knowing what Section 31 is, or who Carol Marcus becomes — but is Khan a good villain on his own merits? There is no reference to the Eugenics Wars, which may be too much backstory for one film to deliver, lest it become the preachy Trek it is trying to move away from. Not only his origin, but also his ambition, may be lost on an audience that is not as likely to respond to Khan's identity with "Holy crap!" than they are with "Who?"

Star Trek Into Darkness opening night

Star Trek: Generations.

For those filmgoers who take this film as just another summer blockbuster, there's still plenty to enjoy on just that level, and plenty to gripe about, too. As with any Trek (or even sci-fi in general), there are plenty of plot holes and technological inconsistencies. Some were elegantly addressed: when I wondered how Khan could beam himself to Qo'noS, they tied back into the 2009 film with a reference to Scotty's transwarp beaming technique, a direct result of Nero's temporal incursion. But then the question becomes: why send the Enterprise to Qo'noS when they could just beam there? Of course, the choice to plot a course into enemy territory furthered Admiral Marcus' agenda, but it still seems an oversight. Also, I think the film may've addressed this, but is within an explosive device the smartest place for Khan to have hidden his family? And, even if the Eugenics Wars was two hundred years ago, shouldn't at least one member of Starfleet have studied enough history to recognize the leader of the Augments? Or was plastic surgery part of Khan's transformation into John Harrison, that he might work alongside Section 31 without revealing the depths to which Admiral Marcus had plumbed for inspiration?

Still, most other scenes can be neatly explained. Marcus sharing the secret of Section 31 with Kirk seemed a faux pas, but I suspect Marcus never expected Kirk to come back from his next mission, taking the truth of the clandestine group's existence to his grave. The explosion of the 72 torpedoes first seemed heartless and cruel, especially given McCoy's involvement — what happened to "First do no harm"? When Kirk learned that the Augments had been extracted, his response took the words right out of my mouth: "I'll be damned." And the use of Khan's blood to save Kirk (which has its own implications for the future of Star Trek — is there anything Augment blood can't cure?) was foreshadowed not only by the tribble's resurrection, but also by the cure for the diseased girl, which was likely a dose of the same elixir. And sure, we knew Kirk wouldn't die, not so early in Pine's career in the role. But if only the admirable Pike had been afforded so heroic a death, or at least the peaceful one we can assume he was granted in the original timeline, rather than gunned down in cold blood — even if the latter was necessary to provide Kirk the drive to go after Harrison.

Whatever level you view this film on, it has special significance for its core audience. For someone who has seen all 726 episodes and 12 movies and read dozens of novels of Star Trek, I cannot take what J.J. Abrams has done here lightly. It is a powerful combination of fan service and creative license — a message of "I will use what you like, but you may not like how I use it." I almost cannot render judgment without seeing what comes next. Will Abrams continue to rely on the familiar, remixing it in unexpected ways? Or will he contribute something wholly original to the Trek universe? In a sense, he has already gone boldly, with his direction and pacing of this action-packed sequel. What more lies far beyond the stars for the Enterprise and her fans to discover?

The Science of the Big Bang

15-Nov-10 12:20 PM by
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Big Bang Theory a show about a bunch of geeks, is not shy in parading scientific celebrities before the camera. Steve Wozniak, Wil Wheaton, and Neil deGrasse Tyson have all appeared on the show, matching the stars' fictional genius with authentic brilliance.

But there's just as much intelligence behind the camera, too. While Leonard and Sheldon debate over quantum physics and incomprehensible calculations, David Saltzberg is making sure the math checks out.

As detailed online at Scientific American, this UCLA physicist isn't writing BBT scripts but is double-checking the theories and equations discussed and displayed on the set. Since the show likely attracts a high caliber of viewer, it's sensible to ensure the crew doesn't get risk their credibility by getting caught passing off unbalanced equations. Even Star Trek, with a similarly brainy crowd, had its science and continuity checkers — though its futuristic setting allowed them to get away with more fantastic postulations. When asked how the Heisenberg compensators worked, Star Trek technical expert Michael Okuda famously replied, "It works very well, thank you,"

What I found most interesting in the SciAm piece was this passage:

There are parallels between Saltzberg's day job and his side job, he says, adding that "comedy is an experimental science." The show is taped in front of a live studio audience. If the audience doesn't respond to a laugh line, the writers immediately rework the script to make it work.

I knew the show to not use a laugh track, but I didn't realize that live shows could be so fluid in their scripts. To redo a line or scene while changing more than the delivery sounds more akin to improv, a talent very different from traditional acting.

But in the end, it's worth it — because is there any subject funnier than physics?

It All Started with a Big Bang

25-Jan-10 1:45 PM by
Filed under Television; 3 comments.

I've now had a month to play with and evaluate my Christmas bounties and have come to a conclusion: the thought and care that went into my handmade Pac-Man scarf puts it on top, but the first two seasons of Big Bang Theory on DVD made for a close match.

True to the conjecture that "the geek shall inherit the Earth", we finally seem to be in an era where it's hip to be a geek. The world runs on the Internet and is beholden to those who have mastered it, while the success of movies like Batman and TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica are evidence of the consumer power of the geek demographic.

Big Bang TheoryBig Bang Theory puts those geeks in the spotlight with two cohabitating physicists, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons). Together with co-workers Howard (Simon Helberg of Dr. Horrible) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar), they play Halo and Dungeons & Dragons, attend Star Trek conventions and costume contests, and postulate about quantum mechanics and string theory. When Penny (Kaley Cuoco), a cute Cheesecake Factory waitress, moves in next door, Leonard tries to get her attention without abandoning his esoteric lifestyle. Hilarity ensues.

Although the show does play to some stereotypes, it does so respectfully. Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj are respected by their peers and are successful in and fulfilled by their careers and hobbies. The humor arises not from lampooning what it means to be a geek as much as it does by highlighting the culture clash that occurs when geeks try to interact with the rest of society. Besides, how could the show poke fun at geeks when the geeks in the audience can empathize with so many of the jokes? This is a show about laughing with, not at, the heroes.

Although adorable and well-intentioned Leonard is ostensibly the star of the show, the scenes are often stolen by Sheldon, who exaggerates the geek archetype by proving himself completely devoid of emotion. Imagine a creature as logical as Spock but with a complete unawareness of the existence of other organisms' emotions or how to be sensitive to them. Such extreme snarkiness is unattractive, but it makes Sheldon's occasional humanity all the more surprising.

Take this scene from the second season's Christmas episode. Sheldon, not knowing what price range his gift from Penny will fall under, has prepared several gifts to give her based on the value of what he receives. Once he has received and evaluated her gift, he intends to sneak away to choose the appropriate reciprocation.

Would any of us have reacted any differently? (The fact that you're reading Showbits in the first place suggests "no".)

From the opening number performed and sung by Barenaked Ladies to the epilogue, each episode is a riot of intelligent, witty humor. If you liked the superior stylings of Frasier, you'll like Big Bang Theory. My thanks to those who took a chance on introducing me to this series for Christmas.

Hailing Frequencies Closed

17-Dec-07 7:59 AM by
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For years, I have relied on StarTrek.com as the official source of information for all things Trek. It has also been a special source of comfort these past two years since Enterprise went off the air: in lieu of new episodes, I've subsisted off their streaming reports of alumni affairs, remastered episodes, actor interviews — even comic strips. With Star Trek: The Tour kicking off next month, and a new Star Trek movie launching in just one year, one week, and one day, the time is ripe for StarTrek.com to enjoy a renaissance as the center of Trekkie online activity.

Apparently, the powers that be see things differently. This shocking and abrupt note was posted to the site on Friday:

Sadly, we must report that CBS Interactive organization is being restructured, and the production team that brings you the STARTREK.COM site has been eliminated. Effective immediately.

We don't know the ultimate fate of this site, which has served millions of Star Trek fans for the last thirteen years.

If you have comments, please send them to editor@startrek.com — we hope someone at CBS will read them.

Thank you for your loyal fandom over the years. It has been a pleasure to serve you.

This action is disrespectful and inhumane not only to the team that has created and maintained the site since its founding in November 1995, but also to the legions of fans who have respected and appreciated their efforts. Though I've worked at papers where a new editor-in-chief laid off the entire existing staff, I'm flummoxed to find a similar justification here. From the vast reference library to the daily updates, there's nothing wrong with the existing StarTrek.com. The brusque manner of the current staff's dismissal does not bode well for a transition that will leave this resource intact.

Please make your voices heard by emailing someone at CBS. May the integrity of StarTrek.com, its creators, or both live long and prosper.

These Are the Voyages…

01-May-07 3:36 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 3 comments.

May 13th marks the two-year anniversary of the airing of the series finale of Enterprise — what may've been the last episode of Star Trek ever. My viewing habits precluded catching most of the fourth and final season when it originally aired, so this past weekend, I engorged myself on the last 19 episodes (which I shall attempt to discuss spoiler-free).

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