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?

Iron Man vs Superman vs Star Trek

29-Apr-13 12:01 PM by
Filed under Films, Trailers; 1 comment.

The summer movie season kicks off this week, with dozens of big-budget blockbusters maintaining the momentum through Labor Day. Although our attention may be piqued by many films, from Pacific Rim to The Wolverine to Now You See Me, only three film have bubbled to the top of my must-see list. For each one, I am cautiously optimistic, as each has the potential to be awesome — or to soar too close to the sun and plummet spectacularly.

I have purposely avoided trailers for each of these three films. If the purpose of a trailer is to sell its audience on seeing the movie, then mission accomplished: I'm sold. Many trailers do so by featuring the film's best moments, and I'd prefer to avoid such spoilers and see them in context. If you're of a similar mindset, you're welcome to skip over the trailers embedded below.

Despite ignoring these media, I've still absorbed critical details about each of the films. So here is my breakdown, which I'd like you to use to answer the question: If you could see only one movie this summer, what would it be: Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, or Man of Steel?

Iron Man 3 (May 3)

  • Jon Favreau, director of the excellent Iron Man, is not at the helm of this sequel. How good can it be?
  • Jon Favreau, director of the mediocre Iron Man 2, is not at the helm of this sequel. How bad can it be?
  • Written by Shane Black, who also wrote the excellent Robert Downey Jr. noir comedy, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
  • It's been only a year since we last saw Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark; his Avengers teammate, Thor, is also returning to the silver screen later this year. Is Marvel running the risk of saturating the superhero genre?

Star Trek Into Darkness (May 17)

  • Likely J.J. Abrams' swan song in Gene Roddenberry's universe before he departs to play in George Lucas's sandbox.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch is the villain — but do we know yet what character that is? Could Paramount be playing this too close to the chest?
  • Star Trek XI was the highest-grossing Star Trek movie of all time; it earned almost as much as Star Trek Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis combined. Can lightning strike twice?

Man of Steel (June 14)

  • The first Superman film reboot since Christopher Reeve's 1978 movie.
  • Smallville was on the air for a decade before signing off in 2011. Is it too soon for more Superman? Or is this just the right time to capitalize on the character before he fades from public consciousness?
  • Directed by Zack Snyder, who's had mixed critical success with past films 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch.
  • Produced by Christopher Nolan, who directed the recent Dark Knight trilogy. He knows how to make a superhero relevant and cool — but Batman and Superman are the dark and the light. Will Superman become a brooding badass?
  • The film's title does not actually say "Superman", in much the way the first seasons of Enterprise did not include "Star Trek". That didn't work out so well, either. Are the producers trying to cast this as something it's not?
  • This film holds the potential to set up a Justice League team-up movie. If well-executed, could DC finally begin to rival Marvel in silver screen popularity?

Fortunately, we can have our cake and eat it, too: I'll be seeing all three of these films in due time. What about you?

Views of First Contact

25-May-11 6:17 PM by
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This past April 5 was First Contact Day, marking only 52 years until humans first encounter beings from another world. I observed the occasion by watching the film that introduced this milestone into Star Trek canon: First Contact, the first film to feature the TNG crew exclusively.

But it wasn't until this week that I finally popped in the set's second disc of bonus features. I'm not usually a fan of such material and can't remember the last time I listened to a director's commentary, but I'm always willing to make an exception for Star Trek.

As I expected, this disc was a welcome addition to the set and not just some tacked-on money-grab. Some of these featurettes were filmed on the set of the movie, but others were shot exclusively for the special edition DVD's 2005 release. They're broadly broken down into "The Star Trek Universe", "The Borg Collective", "First Contact Production", "Scene Deconstruction", and "Archives", for a total of 19 pieces.

Star Trek First Contact menuI first watched the 11-minute "The Legacy of Zefram Cochrane", which details the inventor of the warp drive and how he was cast and written for First Contact. The interviews with Rick Berman, Michael Okuda, James Cromwell, and Brannon Braga focused primarily on the First Contact portrayal of the character but does include some clips and discussion of Glenn Corbett, who debuted as Cochrane in TOS. (Corbett died in 1993, well before Cochrane's reinvention for First Contact.) No mention of a very different interpretation in the non-canon novel Federation was made, though.

I spent the next 18.5 minutes with "First Contact: The Possibilities", which was in fact not a montage of scenarios from science fiction or hypothesis of humanity's first encounter with extraterrestrials, but was instead a profile of real-world, modern-day efforts to detect signs of alien intelligence. Representatives of SETI and the Planetary Society shared their methodologies and hopes, detailing some interesting intersections with Star Trek. For example, I had no idea that SETI@home would not exist if not for Paramount Studios!

"Design Matrix" dissected the artistry of the Enterprise and its cybernetic inhabitants, the Borg. Although I imagined the budget of the silver screen allowed for more complex cyborgs than their television roots did, I had never consciously noted some of the differences — for example, TNG Borg had helmets and caps, and movie Borg did not. The attention to detail that the First Contact Borg received also allowed for eyepieces that you probably didn't know blinked Morse code messages, usually the names of the electrician's friends and pets. With so much investment in each outfit, the crew had the time and budget to design only eight individual Borg outfits, which were reused time and again in this film and in Voyager. Director Jonathan Frakes was quick to give credit where due, a quality consistent with my meeting him at the Super Megafest a few years ago.

"The Story" revealed some alternative angles the scriptwriters tried, including putting Picard in Montana with a local photographer as a love interest, or even setting the entire film in Medieval Ages. I'm not surprised that MAD Magazine spoofed this film when it came out, but I didn't know that their parody was apparently based on one of those earlier scripts. Now I'm keen to get my hands on that lampoon!

I was disappointed to find the featurette dubbed "From A To E" was not about the history of the Enterprise, but rather the putting together of First Contact. The crew's analogies amused me, from Ronald D. Moore calling the film "Die Hard on the Enterprise" to Brannon Braga describing the film's conclusion as the "Star Trek nativity scene, with three wise Vulcans". Throughout these interviews, though, Braga and Rick Berman rarely cracked a smile, even as other cast and crew cheerfully shared that "Star Trek is so much fun!" and "First Contact is my favorite film." It was a sharp contrast.

There are also a few scene breakdowns that show how the CGI was done (ever liken the Borg sphere to the Death Star?), with narration by ILM special effects supervisor John Knoll. This and some Easter eggs topped off a great package, though a lack of deleted scenes was noticeable.

Star Trek First Contact bookAs much as I appreciated learning more about my favorite Star Trek film, what truly gave a new perspective of it was the novelization. Whether a movie is being adapted to book or vice versa, the source material is almost always superior, but there are nonetheless opportunities to explore the characters and plot in a way unique to that medium. In the case of First Contact, the J. M. Dillard's novel explains to us why Zefram Cochrane is both brilliant and an alcoholic. It gave our protagonist much more gravitas and let me better empathize with him, rather than seeing him almost as the film's comic relief.

Two negative changes the book featured (perhaps due to working off an unfinished script) were relatively minor. When Picard claims the phaser from Lily and she demurs "It's my first ray gun," the preceding line in the film indicates that the weapon was set to kill. In the book, it's on its lowest setting, which would've given Picard only a bad burn, making the perceived threat of the scene into fantasy. Finally, before Data's novelized betrayal of the Borg, he gives Picard many not-so-subtle cues. I much prefer the tension produced by his last-minute cinematic revelation.

That there are so many important details, both within and behind the scenes, demonstrates how much love was poured into this movie. It's the Star Trek film that I've returned to time and again, and I look forward to celebrating many more First Contact days.

Star Trek Voyager Turns 16

16-Jan-11 10:58 AM by
Filed under Humor, Star Trek; 1 comment.

On this day in 1995, Star Trek: Voyager made its premiere, launching Paramount's own television network, UPN. Though building on plot threads developed in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (most noticeably the existence of the Maquis rebel faction), by stranding a Starfleet vessel in the far reaches of the Delta Quadrant, the show promised to return the franchise to its founding premise of exploration and discovery, something that was often absent from the more operatic DS9.

For all that potential, Voyager is often maligned as the worst Star Trek series of all. Consistent plot holes (no stranger to the Star Trek universe), atrocious writing (Threshold beats out Shades of Gray anytime), sexy but shallow characters (Kes, Seven of Nine), non-threatening adversaries (leave it to Voyager to defang the Borg), and an over-reliance on spatial anomalies (including time travel as a series finale deus ex machina) hamstrung the show.

Voyager had its strong points as well, and I enjoyed its episodes more often than I didn't. But a proper roast doesn't focus on a subject's admirable qualities, so to bid a happy sweet sixteenth birthday to the fourth live-action Star Trek series, I offer this breakdown of Voyager's secret formula (note: the following video contains a subtitle with the f-word — you have been warned):

Happy anniversary, Voyager. May you live long and prosper!

(Hat tip to uncultured via ROFLrazzi)

Star Trek Trailer: Past, Present, and Future

17-Nov-08 8:00 PM by
Filed under Star Trek, Trailers; 4 comments.

With still six months to go, Star Trek XI has already traveled a long road. The intention to develop the property was announced in April 2006, with the first poster coming out in June of that year. JJ Abrams (Lost, Alias, Mission Impossible III) signed on to direct in February 2007, and filming began in November 2007, with a wrap date of March 2008. The film-footage-free teaser trailer was released before Cloverfield in January 2008, back when we thought we'd be revisiting Roddenberry's future as early as this Christmas.

Now, with less than half a year until the May 8th release, the veil of secrecy under which the Star Trek reboot has until recently been conducted provides us with our first significant glimpse of what awaits in the form of this full-length trailer:

I was sorely tempted to not indulge in this trailer at all; if its purpose is to sell me on the film, then its very existence is superfluous. Why not leave that many more surprises until its silver screen debut?

But I'm glad I watched it, and gladder still that it is completely spoiler-free. Almost nothing of the plot or obstacles are revealed, leaving us instead with a more general look of the actors and their environment. I confess that even that little is not what I expected. The Enterprise has always faced the final frontier with a sense of wonderment, though here we find it in not the seasoned and mature crew of TOS, but a younger and less experienced crew. As a prequel, that only makes sense, but I worry that too much rebellious angst will fill the film, as suggested by the conflict between Kirk and Spock. Also, seeing Kirk on two classic means of locomotion lends an even lower-tech feeling than its temporal predecessor, Enterprise.

Other than these minor points, I have a surprisingly nondescript reaction. The fast-paced nature of the trailer left little opportunity to assess the characters in their roles, or even to get a good look at their ship, within or without. I find myself neither more eager nor more anxious about the fate of the franchise; only the final film will allow me that judgment.

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.

View from the Rooftop

14-Dec-07 9:38 PM by
Filed under Trailers; Comments Off on View from the Rooftop

Here's a five-minute clip from Cloverfield:

I'm amused by the reaction of the New Yorkers to seeing Lady Liberty's decapitated head; I would think 9/11 would've struck a bit less shock and somewhat more caution around seeming catastrophes. The videographer does not seem to manifest himself much, though it does seem my previous concern that the film would be shot entirely from that character's perspective will be realized — but the motion is far less jerky than I feared. Perhaps my stomach will tolerate it after all.