Sunday, 27 January 2013

Why We Shouldn't Blame JJ

(Sigh.) So the dust is still blowing in the wind as the world comes to terms with the fact that JJ Abrams is to direct Star Wars Episode VII. Of course this left Trekdom up in arms seeing as he's the crowned saviour of the franchise and has been since 2009's reboot. How could he do it? How could the person who gave Star Trek A New Hope(!) defect to the darker side?

The simple answer would be cold, hard cash and the fact that JJ has openly admitted that he is a much bigger Star Wars fan than he is a Star Trek fan. Dummies have been spat out, anger has been vented at this apparent defection but hey; can we really blame him?

Abrams has been responsible for Lost, CloverfieldSuper 8, reviving Trek (and Alcatraz cough, cough) so he would be the obvious choice. He loves his sci-fi/fantasy and 99% of it turns to gold. I can imagine it wasn't the hardest choice in the world and now he has control over the futures of the two biggest franchises in that genre. For decades these two have been at war; their battles spreading to many memes, Fisher vs Shatner on Twitter...but really, who cares? He wants to do this and I'm sure all these internet blowouts are just like water off a duck's back and come on, you've got to be a bit jealous that he gets to play with BOTH franchises?

Now before we go any further I have to declare myself firmly in the Trek camp and initially when I heard the news I was pretty gutted. I have a fairly large Trek collection but there is a place in my home for a Star Wars Lego collection. It did feel like two fingers being waved and I hadn't been this disappointed since the Enterprise finale. However after a couple of days dealing with the rumours and the official announcement that JJ is directing Episode VII I think I can live with it. Even Star Wars fans have to admit that the prequels were substandard and I'm not going to shy away from the fact that the latter end of Trek's film series were less than spectacular. The Clone Wars TV series has been a success and Abrams has something to build on, luckily with Lucas only on board as a creative consultant who has provided (importantly) only treatments of the three sequels to the original trilogy. 

Star Wars has made a fat lot more money in a much shorter period of time than Roddenberry's creation and that's not something to snigger at. I have included the excellent infographic here to demonstrate - of course all figures and facts can be swayed but the numbers speak for themselves. There's a billion dollar difference at the box office in the UK and a THREE billion dollar deficit worldwide for Star Trek. Mark my word, JJ hasn't been dumb here.  He holds the ultimate keys to fictional power now and I for one can't wait to see how he reboots the movie Star Wars universe. We can be pretty certain it'll all fit in and there won't be any resets or sideways universes. Let's just hope this amazing success and fortune doesn't go to his head and we get less Empire Strikes Back and more Phantom Menace. However lest we forget that Lucas did a deal with the cinematic devil or as we like to call it, Disney.

That's something that you might not have remembered - two massive Star Wars stories in a matter of months which means that, because of the first one, JJ Abrams is going to be directing a movie for the House of Mouse. Who could have seen that coming a year ago? Then again without that kind of backing and input would there even be Episodes VII, VIII and IX on the boards plus a plethora of other films and media that has been rumoured to be coming on the back of the announcement. Don't forget as well that Lawrence Kasdan who was prominent in the making of the original films (having written Empire and Jedi) as well as George Lucas will be involved in the new movies. No doubt to keep the train of thought pure with the vision of the series. Notably JJ was pretty much given free reign by Disney rivals Paramount when he stripped Star Trek back to basics a few years ago.

Star Trek began life with a second start in 1966 and has never had a life of smooth running - cancellation, dropping box office takings and an inconsistent prequel series. Books and spin off material has varied from being canon to being totally irrelevant to continuity while it's "rival" has kept its material canon pretty much all the way through since 1977. Question is, will the new director be paying much attention or are we going to get the JJ vision of how this universe has evolved since the closing credits and Ewok songs of The Return of the Jedi? His work with Trek has been outstanding and brought it back from the brink with a stunning film and now a sequel that looks just as, if not better. Star Wars on the other hand hasn't fallen so far and it's popularity is far larger as the stats here belay. Working fandom up into a frenzy for Episode VII won't take a lot but then there's no "disturbing lack of faith" to work on. It's there to be built on and not from the ashes. The Star Trek reboot could have been a disaster but it wasn't so surely Trekkers and Trekkies alike should be more than happy to share their saviour apparent with the "enemy" - after all we'll get to keep him at least as a producer on future installments and with the hype over Star Trek Into Darkness, that could be for some time.

Let's bring this to a rambling conclusion - both franchises are now in very, very safe hands but what we MUST hope is that one doesn't suffer because of the other. Be wise, JJ for you could well rack off at least 10 million people on Facebook if you get this all wrong and both Kirk and Skywalker go down the pan.

Anyway, anyway, anyway. I look forward to seeing the results of Abrams work both this year with the Star Trek sequel and 2015 for the Star Wars re-ignition. I think that's really all we can say for now.  It's not that bad. It does feel like he is in command of everything but I think we can be assured the two will be kept separate however they might have some familiar touches in the next round. That will certainly be something worth looking out for. As a Trek fan I'm sad to see his resource split and to something that he openly admits he likes more, but from a sci-fi/fantasy perspective this can only be just about the best news you could want - and it does mean we can virtually guarantee that we will be seeing the next Star Wars episode in cinemas in just TWO years time.

May the Needs of the Force; or the One, be with You

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Fixing Your Warp Wings: Haynes Klingon Bird-of-Prey Owners' Workshop Manual

Back in 1984 we were introduced to what would become one of the most iconic spacecraft ever to grace the Star Trek franchise.

Decloaking above a rusty freighter in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Klingon Bird-of-Prey was an instant hit with fans and has become one of the longest surviving ship types in the history of the series, appearing in several of the films, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Quite incredible when you consider that even a single incarnation of the Enterprise probably hasn't seen that much action and even more amazing considering that it was supposed to be a Romulan Bird-of-Prey in an original version of the Star Trek III script.

Aside from entries within the Star Trek Encyclopedia there has been very little written about this ship over the years, so it's fitting that the Bird-of-Prey should now receive the attention it deserves in the form of the Haynes Owners' Workshop Manual. While it has been a few months since the original release of this volume (November 2012), this is still one of the biggest Star Trek literary offerings for some time and well worth a few column inches.

I thoroughly enjoyed 2010's volume on the various incarnations of the USS Enterprise but this is a completely different beast.  While the Enterprise manual was more a history of the namesake from Archer's NX-01 to Picard's NCC-1701-E this is a much more detailed look at a particular class and to some degree one specific ship in the form of the Rotarran from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Running at 119 pages from start to finish it might not appear to be a long read but once you're past the scene-setting introduction by the no less than the Klingon Chancellor and commander of the Rotarran, Martok, it's a mesmerising read.

Written by Ben Robinson and illustrated by Trek expert Rick Sternbach with CGI renders from Adam 'Mojo' Lebowitz this manual provides an insight into not only the ship but the Klingon way of life that has developed through nearly 50 years of the Star Trek franchise. As usual with Haynes, the volume is hard-backed and presented with their trademark cutaway illustration on the cover (above) keeping it firmly framed within their owners' manual range. Inside, the contents are split into distinctive sections for easy reference with the first two; Commissioning a Bird-of-Prey and the IKS Rotarran; giving the reader a look into the way in which the B'rel Class of ship was developed and how they come into service, funded by individual Klingon houses rather than by the military.  

The multiple designs of the command deck from numerous appearances on screen are explained here by way of a commander's personal preference and it's good to get to grips with the background before we delve deeper beneath the space-frame. What I like is that we have never been provided with this kind of intricacy before and it marks this as distinctly different to 2010's Enterprise offering straight from the first chapter. Cleverly it sets the scene for the rest of the manual and how Klingon life is very much intertwined with their vessels and the militaristic way of life.

For the casual fan this opening section is a great introduction to the book and even by this point you'd be easily forgiven for thinking that the Bird-of-Prey actually exists - the image conjured is that distinctive. For more experienced lovers of Star Trek it's great to see such information in the same place and given some form and structure amassed from snippets of disalogue and set design over the years. 

Moving further in, the design and specification of a Bird-of-Prey is further divided into areas of focus; Weapons and Defensive Systems, Propulsion and Navigation and Ship's Systems with a final addition section on ships of the Klingon fleet across all generations of Star Trek.

The detail in the description of everything from ship systems to operations, crew positions and even shift rotation is absolutely incredible. Every process appears to be explained in the greatest detail and for the more involved Star Trek fan this will prove a fascinating read. While the text opens up the Empire to all, it is Sternbach and Lebowitz's illustrations that truly make this a book worth the investment.  Every page is filled with cutaway diagrams carefully key coded to allow you full access aboard ship from stem to stern, deck one to deck six.

Illustrations of the interior of the engine room (never seen on TV), the deck by deck plans  as well as explanations of how the impulse engines and warp wings function (for example) show the furtive imagination that this expansive franchise has fostered - a good thing that these ships have backup systems for everything considering how much of a pummeling they routinely came under in the show! The main cutaway illustration of the Rotarran (also on the cover) is definitely a highlight but there are so many to choose from it's hard to pick an absolute favourite. In terms of content it's excellent that we get to know the details of the cloaking device as well as specific answers as to why the cloaking device from Chang's ship in Star Trek VI was never replicated. There are even pages dedicated to the computer core, the gravity systems and even the different types of photon torpedo and their differing characteristics - not something you would have picked up on the small screen.

No stone is left unturned in this dissection of the ship, even down to the very shift patterns and workloads of the various crew-members. This works perfectly when set beside the expansive section on the Rotarran bridge and stations.  Who would have thought that this much could come out of something that has only existed as a CGI creation and at the most an upscaled model kit? It is in the level of detail and intricacy that this manual steps ahead and possibly may even eclipse the preceding year's Enterprise edition. No self respecting Klingon warrior would be without this should they be called up to serve on a Bird-of-Prey. What becomes apparent is the care and attention that Robinson, Sternbach and Lebowitz have taken in producing the Owners' Technical Manual and equally it goes to show just how much information on the Empire, its ships and customs have been referenced since Klingons were first introduced in the original Star Trek series' "Errand of Mercy"

As you go through the manual there is no doubt you will recognise and remember points from episodes of The Next Generation including "A Matter of Honor" and Redemption" and Deep Space Nine installments such as"Soldiers of the Empire" and "Sons and Daughters". This only helps to enrich the experience as it steps between being both a reference guide to a civilisation as well as a technical bible for their most prominent spacecraft.

Nicely the authors have also included a final section to familiarise us with all craft within the Klingon Defence Force both "past" and "present" which even hints at the reasons for the construction and design of Martok's predecessor Gowron's flagship, the excessive and opulent Negh'Var. It's also nice to have something on paper as a reference to the predecessor of the Bird-of-Prey from Enterprise alongside the D-7, K'Tinga and Vor'Cha crusiers. As an appendix there are also a handy couple of pages of English to Klingon translations should you ever find yourself stuck behind the navigation console of the Rotarran and need to engage the warp drive. A nice touch to really round off the manual and keep both landing footpads securely within the fictional world - perhaps those screen shots from episodes and films scattered throughout aren't necessary to keep that "fourth wall" in place?

This is the second book produced in conjunction with Star Trek and it's a breath of fresh air into the franchise, reminding us of the "Prime" Universe especially at a time where the JJ Abrams alternative reality reboot is becoming more prominent. Moreover it's good to see some new and fresh reference-style books coming onto the shelves when they have been absent for what seems like an eternity. Hopefully we can expect a third title at the end of 2013..

So overall is this a recommendation?  Absolutely.  

As a casual fan you would more than enjoy the diagrams and illustrations here and for those who are more hardcore fans demanding behind the scenes detail this is a must as it lays open the Klingon military lifestyle for all to analyse.  Since the first season of the original Star Trek series we have gradually come to know these fearsome warriors as a major piece of the overall franchise puzzle.  Here we have their world captured concisely, elegantly displayed and catalogued precisely for future reference once you have, of course, read it from cover to cover. It's been a while coming for a decent Trek technical manual and this is certainly one that fulfils all of fandom's wishes.

The Klingon Bird-of-Prey Owners' Workshop Manual ISBN 9780857332769 is available now from the Haynes website here priced at £15.99.

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Wednesday, 16 January 2013

"The Masterpiece Society" - Civilisation Perfected?

What is perfection?  Is it the eye of the beholder or is it what resides within?  Is the very concept of perfection in its own way imperfect and to what ends can this idyllic demand of life actually lead?

Season Five's "The Masterpiece Society" tackles this in 45 minutes.  Contacting a previously unknown xenophobic colony to warn them of an impending collision with a stellar core fragment from a disintegrated neutron star, the Enterprise crew find they are dealing with an apparently "perfected" race.  Everyone has their role in society, there is no illness, life is structured from the cradle to the grave and any form of disability is eliminated at birth.

Like many of the episodes I'm choosing to look at during my rerun of TNG,  "The Masterpiece Society"  was not one of my preferred list of episodes to watch.  In fact it comes right bang around what I consider to be a bit of a lull in the season,  surrounded by the likes of "Hero Worship", "Ethics" and "New Ground" which are all excellent character driven stories but are very Enterprise-centric, allowing for some great performances but little diversity in the environment to mix up the dynamic (but let me not take it away from some great guest performances in all those installments).  

Re-watching this episode (number 113 for the record) was actually a breath of fresh air.  It's not a dawning revelation as I experienced with "Unification" a few weeks ago but I have developed a better understanding of what it's aiming to do.  Heck, I think it would be impossible to love every single episode because of the variety in plot, subtext, writer etc etc.  but what I can garner now is that here we have TNG attempting to tackle quite a touchy subject and not being afraid to do it openly. In this sense TNG has a great deal in common with its 1960's predecessor through such stories as "Miri", "Plato's Stepchildren" and "A Private Little War" but this is a much softer attempt at unraveling the discussion than the barely concealed fables regarding the state of America during the post-war decades.

Once the Enterprise has made contact and the away team have beamed to the surface, we find there are two sides to the story - those who are more open to outsiders led by Aaron Conor and the opposing opinion from Martin Berbeck. Their civilisation has been perfected to ensue smooth running and this interaction with outsiders is seen as a terrible mistake while also being a necessity - a necessary evil if you will - to ensure the very survival of the secretive colony. 

The irony of the episode I believe is that while they save the colony from an interstellar disaster, the damage to the colony is much more personal. In a way, Berbeck is absolutely right to be skeptical of the new arrivals from the Enterprise because he can see that it will only cause an imbalance within the community.  He can see that there will be individuals who will be swayed by the excitement and intrigue of something different from outside their protected environment and when everyone is engineered to perform a specific task within that, losing one piece would cause difficult readjustment.

Leading the colony on the counterpoint is Conor and here I am at a bit of a loss. While I can feel the sense of difficulty he goes through as a character to justify the presence of the away teams and the choice to allow Hannah Bates aboard the starship, he commits something of a sin in forming a romantic relationship with Troi. Why does Picard not chew her out over this misdemeanour?! Surely this is like spitting on the Prime Directive considering the delicate nature of the mission and Troi appears to have no concerns about  developing this relationship which she MUST know is never going to last?  Conor is never likely to leave the colony - he stands as their leader, his genetic makeup tells him that is his position and no matter what choices he makes this is still where he belongs whether it's by choice or physical design.

Ultimately it is the attraction of the imperfect universe which gnaws away at members of this community, most notably Hannah, once she has explored the Enterprise and worked with Geordi to devise the solution to the danger approaching their world. As a scientist her (constructed!) nature makes her inquisitive and opening up the endless possibilities of the universe after a lifetime contained in a bubble (literally) would not be something easy for her to turn away from. She needs to know, explore and learn and the colony can no longer contain that part of her innate inbuilt nature.  Perhaps a twist here that the way they have refined their genetic makeup has in fact led to the collapse of the carefully nurtured society. The masterpiece does indeed have its flaws due to the perfection with which it has been balanced over seven generations. In a way it was perhaps inevitable and at some point this Utopia would have collapsed once people began to ask "Why?" and become curious about the wonders outside of the biosphere. Hannah herself even questions the perfect nature of the perfect world while working with La Forge, wondering why their society has not invented such incredible inventions if they are as advanced as their lineage would have them believe.  It is a key thought as to how the xenophobia has been passed down through the years to keep the generations "pure" as it were: the past five days I have encountered technology that I have barely imagined. I've got to ask myself; if we're so brilliant, how come we didn't invent any of these things?
Her point is valid and effectively mirrors the two worlds.  The perfect world is, as we see in no end of moments within the episode, fatally flawed because of how perfect it argues to be while the "imperfect" world that the Enterprise brings is nothing but a magical marvel to these sheltered people, especially to those within it who were made to ask questions by their very genetic natures such as Hannah in her role as a scientist - "Why?" is what drives her.

There is a hint of arrogance in the structure of the society by the way in which removal of just one individual (or as it is, 22) could cause a total collapse.  There is no backup plan. Everyone is expected to play their part from birth until death with no exceptions and no way out of doing anything but your role as determined by your genes. They all know what they were born to do; society needs them for a particular reason; nobody is useless but that ultimately means no-one is expendable.  Although Conor notes that accidents do happen and they readjust to cope with that missing individual, their aloof nature means they never see the society from changing or, more importantly, evolving any further - why would they need to when there is the perfect status quo in existence?  The problem is that because they never expect anyone to want to leave Eden, when more than one does choose to depart it means that they have to adapt; something that they would find difficult given that so many assigned roles within the colony will be missing. Not only are they arrogant enough not to think that this is a possibility but Conor also manages to take swipe at "lesser" species:
"...My entire psychological makeup tells me I was born to lead. I am exactly what I would choose to be. Think of it another way - there are still people in your society who have not yet discovered who they really are or what they were meant to do with their lives. They may be in the wrong job; they may be writing bad poetry or worse yet they may be great poets working as labourers, never to be discovered..."
What I do like about "The Masterpiece Society" is the "two-fingered salute" that having Geordi come up with the solution makes to the story.  The only outwardly disabled member of the cast comes up with the answer to their prayers thanks to his VISOR which would not have existed had he been born within the colony because "defects" are eliminated. 

So who is right here?  Is the Picard's decision to help them correct? Should the colonists have been allowed to leave or should they have been left to reassemble their community after this limited brush with outside life?

Picard is, I believe, right to allow some of the colonists to leave as it is a matter of free will and he and the Enterprise are responsible for causing the ripples of change in the first place.  It's a dangerous thing that Prime Directive especially when bending it is unavoidable as here where doing nothing would have caused the destruction of the Masterpiece Society. However amazing this place may actually be and however brilliant the people have been "constructed" to be, they still need to live their lives and experience all it has to offer.  Perhaps in this sense it is the ones who remain behind who are imperfect, preferring to stay and close themselves back off from the outside world; their xenophobic attitudes perhaps tolling the death knoll of the Perfect World. Maybe they are foolish and selfish to chose this path but then there is no force to leave - indeed it might even be argued (as it might be in the case of Conor and the speech I noted above) that it is in their very nature; their very genes that they are unable or unwilling to leave - the way they have been made has pre-determined their choices. Berbeck himself is not quiet about his concerns but it may only be that he voices the feelings of the majority because of who and how they are.

Star Trek has certainly not shied away from the sci-fi friendly concept of genetic perfection over the course of its lifetime, right back to the days of Kirk.  We have seen warriors bred purely to fight and act as a brutal right hand where needs be (the Jem'Hadar), subserviant races designed to be commanded and worship their creators (the Vorta), ultimately "pure" genetic creatures (Species 8472) and a race that adds a species' distinctiveness to its own in the form of the Borg. 

We have even had genetic creations who have been modified to be "super humans"; altered to give them advantages in life such as Doctor Bashir on DS9. Both he and the group of "misfits" featured in "Statistical Probabilities" and "Chrysalis" were enhanced to give them an extra push in life with very different results. It's possibly worth name dropping Khan Noonien Singh as well as Dr Arik Soong and his Augments from season four of Enterprise in here too as they are all excellent examples of genetic engineering. However, what is notable about "The Masterpiece Society" and is unique when we are examining the bigger "genetic manipulation" picture is that their society works because they have defined each individual and the role they play . If you look at all the examples above, perhaps the Moab IV colony can hold its head high because there was no "darker", underhand motive to their existence. That and possibly the fact that at some point most of these creations have wanted to start a war against the Federation....

In conclusion I think "The Masterpiece Society" more than adequately shows that nothing is perfect and it is only in the eye of those who have created or experienced it that believe it exists. An outside force is always likely to bring something different and new whether it be a belief or a microbe that will change the nature of that enviroment and its inhabitants.  The colony at Moab IV is no exception within TNG as the wonders of the Federation make them question their past and existence to the very core - their lives may be defined because of their genetics but they are still not being allowed to truly explore all the avenues that might be open to them even within their "specialist" fields. Imperfection, here perhaps most prominent though Geordi's VISOR, brings variation, unexplored answers and raises previously unspoken questions.  Would I want to live in the Masterpiece Society?  Not likely thanks; I'm more than happy with our flawed human world - something that a certain Vulcan had to come to terms with following rebirth I recall...

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Apps, Rings, Posters and Blu-Rays

It's been a good and bad week in Trekdom with quite a wide range of new additions announced.

On the positive side we have the brilliant and perhaps for some, including myself, unexpected news that Star Trek Into Darkness will be receiving it's very own app launching during the Superbowl.  Awesome.  Can't wait to see it and it does look like Paramount/Bad Robot/JJ Abrams have really pulled together one hell of an advertising campaign for a film that really stands a chance of being this year's summer smash.  

Big shame that the competition promoted by as part of this hype is once again only open to US and Canada.  When are you going to learn that you have fans across the pond?!  What have we done wrong?  Can you not give us something to enter other than a forum debate on what was wrong with Riker's haircut in "Future Imperfect" or getting kudos for working out that it's Weyoun behind a pixellated image?  Just once?  Please?! Thank you.

Announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by Paramount and Qualcomm it will allow users to be part of "real-life" missions using geographic, audio and image recognition technology which all sounds a tad long as you're in the USA (you can see where I'm going with this...). The audio function means that the phone will reward users for watching Star Trek Into Darkness content while the geographic and image recognition features will mean that smartphone owners (for smartphone read iPhone) will be able to interact with STID in the real world - I would suspect this will be QR Tags and the like on billboards, shop signs etc.

Of course there will also be the usual plethora of images, wallpapers available to users as well as special offers and some untold extras that will kick in when the full TV trailer campaign juggernaut ignites during the Superbowl in February. Those lucky US and Canadian citizens who register will also be entered into the chance to win tickets to a VIP trip to the US premiere. Lucky, lucky, lucky.  Looks like I'll have to make do with the local Odeon or Vue. No chance of there being something for UK fans in May?  Or maybe opening up this app to Android users on both sides of the Atlantic? Here's hoping.

The beginning of each month is something I look forward to in many ways - payday, a step nearer Christmas, white rabbits and also the time when we get to see another four retro TOS posters.  January has been no exception to this with another superbly imaginative selection.  Why so happy?  Well this time we have "The Tholian Web" among the offerings.  If you've read Life of Trek previously you'll know it's my favourite TOS episode hands down. Great poster,  classy and space serial styled apparently around 1920's and 1930's Russian film posters.  Might just have to buy the t- shirt for a full indulgence in this one!

Two of the remaining three as just as good; "Mirror, Mirror" recreates the iconic mirror universe Spock with his Prime universe alternative in the style of a boxing match flyer; "Miri" recalls the controversial banning of its original broadcast in the UK with a teaser line included by artist Juan Ortiz. This is unusual for the posters created thus far and was brought about due to research into the show for this collection. As part of this 60's style design, the ship represents a tear and the black/white hair effect is supposed to represent water which was the way in which the pubescent virus was transmitted.

Finally we have "The Savage Curtain",  one of the final original series episodes and probably my least favourite of the January selection. While I don't mind the episode,  a red faced Lincoln isn't my cup of Earl Grey on the worst of days.  Bit of a misfire I think although I can see where the artist is coming from in using part of the extremely memorable image of the president appearing on the Enterprise viewscreen. The credits as a vapour trail is a nice effect but it doesn't save this from being a bit of a disappointment.

Talking of disappointment, what is THIS all about and I would love to know what kind of fan buys this stuff? It is of course the QMx Starfleet Academy Class ring (2009). Made using (and I quote from "a high strength, scratch-resistantmetal alloy that simulates the brilliance and sheen of polished sterling silver" it goes on sale later this year and faithfully recreates the prop used in the first reboot movie. Wonderful as this may sound, the only reason I can see to buy this would be to use it as a VERY faithful cosplay or to sit in a prime position on my Trek-themed mantelpiece.  Sorry all, but I think this is a bit excessive and I'm not going to go back and rewatch Star Trek to even find a frame where we see this. Totally pointless and a massive cash-in on a teeny tiny prop that got very little screen time. Now, if they made a replica of the Genesis Device control console....hmmmm....

Let's move on before I engage in a session of 1980's nostalgia here and talk Blu-ray. In their amazing wisdom, Paramount Home Media/CBS Home Entertainment will be releasing the four seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise next. As part of their idea for the sets, they invited fans to choose the cover design; the ship, the insignia or the captain - and then decided to go for something completely different based on fan comments because, apparently, there was no clear winner from the three concepts.

So what can we expect in regards to the release which is set for March 26th?
  • 25 episodes of Season One over six discs
  • New audio commentaries from Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, Connor Trinneer, Dominic Keating and more
  • To Boldly Go: Launching Enterprise
    • Part One: Countdown (creating the prequel)
    • Part Two: Boarding the NX-01 (casting and production of the pilot)
    • Part Three: First Flight (production and post-production of Season One
  • Outtakes
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Archival Mission Logs
Seems like a decent set of features in my opinion but will it be enough to draw back any fans that the prequel series lost over the course of four years?  TNG garnered an even better set of features for its re-release on Blu-ray including extra episode promos, origin documentaries and archive launch footage amongst other things. Why Deep Space Nine failed to get a 20th Anniversary re-master is questionnable but we can only hope this is due to Paramount and CBS wanting to wait until all seven seasons of TNG are released when Star Trek: Enterprise would only need a transfer onto Blu-ray and an addition of some features to make it worthwhile. Time will tell in this case but it'll be good to see what the set looks like when it does arrive on shelves in just over two months time (US date) and currently there's no announcement on when it will reach the UK shores. At the moment I also haven't seen any news on how much they will cost to purchase but making them significantly higher in price than TNG might just backfire against drawing in some new fans or just those wanting to take a second look at their own pace.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A Pivotal "Unification"?

Spock: In your own way you are as stubborn as another captain of the Enterprise I once knew.

Picard: Then I am in good company, sir

I remember the first time I saw "Unification" was rented from a local Ritz video shop of the TV movie version during a school summer holiday in 1992.

At the time I found it boring, drawn out and a little confusing; but then I hadn't seen much of the fourth season and it wasn't the most action-packed installment I had seen.  I managed to watch it all the way through and in conclusion it was OK; nothing particularly special considering this was the seminal 25th Anniversary moment where The Next Generation finally shook hands with its predecessor and acknowledged its past openly.

The second time I saw it was in two-part format over two weeks on BBC 2 probably a few years later after it had been rerun on SKY One and I'd missed it.  Still I didn't see anything special but now, as I relive the seven seasons of TNG in order I have found a new understanding of the story and would argue that now "Unification" is probably one of the most important moments in Star Trek history.

I'm not a big fan of plot summarising as there are plenty of sites and books out there that do it brilliantly but here it is in a nutshell for those of you who might need a refresh. Starfleet believes that Ambassador Spock has defected to Romulus and get Picard and Data to go undercover on the Romulan homeworld to investigate.  They make contact and discover that Spock is actually looking to work on reunifying the Vulcan and Romulan peoples after many centuries of separation. Meanwhile Riker and the Enterprise are following a lead on some debris that leads them to a Federation salvage yard and a missing Vulcan ship. Ultimately it becomes apparent that the two incidents are linked and with the reappearance of Commander Sela we learn that it's all to do with the Romulans using Spock's reunification plan to cover up an invasion attempt.  Needless to say it's foiled by Picard, Data and Spock and all is well in the universe once more.

So why has my opinion of this story changed in the 22 years since it aired?  I think "Unification" is a cornerstone firstly because of the arrival of Leonard Nimoy as Spock.  While we had a fleeting meeting with McCoy in the pilot and Sarek in the eponymous third season episode, this marked the true acknowledgement of the original series and their part in the history of the franchise.  Of course this came at the time around the promotion of Star Trek VI and the story references Spock's part in the Khitomer Conference on several occasions which acts as a nice tie-in to "historical" Star Trek events.

Symbolically "Unification" is a torch-passing moment not only for this appearance but also because it was dedicated to the Great Bird of the Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry, who passed away shortly before it aired. His influence on the series would be no more and his legacy would be firmly in the hands of those he had worked with since the first thoughts of Trek's return in the 80's. As within the episode we lose the father-figure role of Sarek to his long-term debilitating illness so the man who had brought the series to light back in the 1960's also took his final bow.

What I do think is fitting here is that we have almost every major race up to this point in Trek history making an appearance (except the Borg of course) - the Klingons help deliver Picard and Data to Romulus, the Vulcans are here (which is not a common  occurrence;the Romulans play host of course; we have a Ferengi mercenary who rubs Riker up the wrong way and there's even a Zakdorn thrown in for good measure.  The Klingons even manage to get one of their older K'Tinga class cruisers a cameo part at the salvage yard if you keep your eyes peeled. Oh yes - while we're mentioning links to TOS, the name of that Vulcan transport that Riker and the Enterprise are so keen to find? The T'Pau - a freighter and also the name of a certain priestess who presided over proceedings during the TOS second season classic, "Amok Time"

Unless I'm mistaken the next time we would get major races together in one episode would be "The Chase" in season six however the Cardassians would taken the place of the Vulcans.  In Trek terms that's probably more in line with the way the series was progressing and the franchise would develop particularly with note to Deep Space Nine.

In fact, "Unification" is very much about pulling the two series of TOS and TNG together through Spock's addition but there are also a couple of other notable guest stars here with at least one getting majorly overlooked.  which draw on Trek history even more closely than you may appreciate.

Commander Sela makes her second and final appearance in TNG and returns Denise Crosby for the third of her four post-death roles (the next is "All Good Things...") ensuring that all of the original crew from TNG are represented in some form but it is Spock's Romulan friend, Senator Pardek who intrigues me the most here. Played by Malachi Throne, Pardek turns out to be in league with Sela and part of the conspiracy to invade Vulcan but Throne's history with Trek is just as interesting and he has crossed paths with Spock before providing the two-parter with another link to its acclaimed past. Throne's voice was used for the lead Talosian in the original pilot "The Cage" and then he featured as Commodore Mendez in the reworking of that very episode, "The Menagerie" which was, of course, the only two part installment of the classic Star Trek series. Rather fitting then that he should be here, in a two part TNG story with Spock!

For a show that was never great on ongoing storylines/recurring characters and back-referencing, "Unification" is full of it whether its just to Sela's previous "meeting" with Data in "Redemption II", the recent Klingon civil war itself or Sarek's time on the Enterprise-D with Picard or his relationship with his half-human son, this tale has it all. Even Kirk gets a sideways nudge-nudge-wink-wink mention (see quote at the start) as well as a direct reference as to how Kirk was involved in the Khitomer peace mission by his Vulcan first officer. Perhaps this is given even more resonance through the fact that The Undiscovered Country had the original crew officially signing off and here we have an epilogue to that tale - almost a what happened next that would oddly carry on into an alternative universe....

"Unification" also acts as something of a precursor to the events of Deep Space Nine and Nemesis in the way that there is hope of the Romulans being accepted as an ally rather than an enemy which they have been since "Balance of Terror" in Kirk's era.  The very possibility that there is hope here may turn out to be a ruse but the seed is planted for future developments; the twist eventually being that they have to join with the Federation to defeat the Dominion and then in the final Prime Universe film the concept of peace initially would be a ruse to tempt Picard to cross the Neutral Zone. For years we have seen the Romulans as hostile and indeed that is how they were introduced back in Season One's "The Neutral Zone" but here we get the hint that not all Romulans are the same and there are some that would welcome a more peaceful future. Lest we also forget that this is the first time since Trek records began that we have seen Romulus AND get to set foot on it too. 

Of course the best example of both the torch-passing and the notion that this is a symbolic moment in Trek history was the meeting of Spock and Data - specifically the conversation they have aboard the Klingon Bird of Prey in the concluding part.  I have recreated it here because it is one of the most interesting few lines of dialogue in the season maybe the series.  I love it for the way in which we realise how similar yet how different these two "windows into humanity" characters are:

Spock: Fascinating. You have an efficient intellect, superior physical skills, no emotional impediments. There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you have been given by design.

Data: You are half-human?

Spock: Yes

Data: Yet you have chosen a Vulcan way of life?

Spock: I have

Data: In effect, you have abandoned what I have sought all my life.

It's the realisation that while they are both exploring the human condition they are hitting it from quite opposing angles and coming to massively different conclusions. Logic has dictated both their paths yet they are truly unique characters who allowed us to see humanity for the flawed species we are!

In essence this is TNG saying that while it recognised it's history it was very much its own series with its own views, direction and beliefs.  This truly is an occasion where the new generation is finally at ease with its past. Indeed it's well known that the writers had to fight to get a reference to Spock into the script of "Sarek". McCoy was unnamed in "Encounter at Farpoint" and "The Naked Now" retrod ground perhaps a little too familiar too early. Here we are in the presence of celebration and acknowledgement for the 25th Anniversary as was.

So 22 years has made a lot of difference. Once an episode that I had little love for is now one I would treasure to watch again. "Unification" is a moment captured and an occasion for TNG to be proud of and at such a maturing stage of its life. While it's not the most action-packed Trek of all time I do think it can hold its head high as one of the best installments in it's lengthy history if only for its unifying factor not only potentially between Romulans and Vulcans but also Star Trek generations.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Raise a Glass and Stare Into Darkness

Just two things if you have a moment fellow fans of the Trek. 

Firstly it's a big congratulations to my favourite incarnation of the franchise, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as we celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the first airing "Emissary". Arguably the best pilot from any Trek series it started a bit wobbly through the first two seasons before the Defiant arrived and then Worf turned up a year later to mess up the dynamic and shuffle in a truly stunning final few years.

Severely darker in tone from day one and placed on the edge of the final frontier, DS9 proved that Star Trek could thrive somewhere other than a starship.  It was perhaps the introduction of its recurring cast in the form of Rom, Nog, Leeta, Dukat, Garak, Martok and Weyoun among others, that helped pull this into a very different league than either Voyager or the seminal Next Generation. Love it or loathe it, DS9 changed the formula and the landscape of Trek forever with ongoing storylines, a mammoth war story and some truly brilliant moments right across its seven seasons.

So happy birthday, DS9. When I complete my TNG marathon I'll be tucking into the full run of the space station drama. "Emissary" truly set the scene by moving our characters together for the first time, finding the first ever stable wormhole and providing us with a Starfleet commander who was very different to the diplomatic and logical approach of Picard.  Sisko was emotional and a father in a frontier environment where even members of his staff were part of an alien culture providing multiple levels of conflict and understanding that would develop into something unique in the Trek universe. Of course it's not without saying that the rest of the cast were stellar; Kira, Odo, O'Brien, Dax (x2), Bashir, Jake and Quark all had standout moments and watching "Emissary" back as I shall do shortly will no doubt rejuvenate my love of this classic series.  As part of my Life of Trek series I'll cover my first viewing of the pilot in more detail as well as my personal highlights from the show but for now I'll be raising a glass to toast this most unlikely of Trek offspring.

And secondly, what's happening with Star Trek Into Darkness?

Well quite a lot actually.  We've been treated to a series of great new images from the film which, unsurprisingly tell us absolutely nothing.

What we can confirm is that Alice Eve IS Carol Marcus and that John Harrison is some kind of rogue Starfleet officer as per this information from

"With Earth under terrorist attack from Benedict Cumberbatch's ex-Starfleet employee, John Harrison, Kirk is forced into a rash decision that breaks a critical Starfleet Command, puts his crew in danger and costs him his captain's chair. Now out of uniform and dressed down in space civvies of black leather jackets and boots, our three heroes have separated from the Enterprise and headed off on a mission to try and rectify his mistake..."

...which in turn means he ISN'T Khan/Gary Lockwood/Garth of Izar/Balok/The Gorn/Harry Mudd....

So it does indeed look like ALL the scenes of the crew in uniform are from the early part of the movie and that for the majority of their screen time we're going to be trying to tell the difference between each of the cast, black leather and shadows.  Should be entertaining.  We've also got more images of Spock on the fire world in his space suit, Scotty looking a bit worried (below), Harrison jumping through a glass window (from the trailer), JH in the brig (bottom), Uhura in her civvies toting a phaser, another of Kirk in a similar position as well as one from early in the movie in conversation with Ms Marcus (above)

Also Empire magazine has produced these very natty Kirk and Harrison designs.  Pretty cool huh? One thing I glimpsed in the images from Empire is a great quote from Chris "Kirk" Pine:

"Harrison is Kirk's shadow of death, his Achilles' heel..."

Therefore it might as well be Kirk vs Khan/Kirk vs Chang/insert your own favoured nemesis as applicable.  The more they reveal about what's going on, the more you wonder why they didn't just make it Khan in the first place...

For those of you who like a bit of viral, why not check out this site which has been launched in the buildup to the film.  There is also a Twitter account which you can access with the same name but on last viewing there was nothing much of note although that probably won't be true for long - get registered now!

And just in case you missed it, here's the story that's gone global.  One seriously ill Star Trek fan managed to catch the attention of JJ Abrams and got to see the new film as a dying wish before the end of 2012.  An awesome story and great to know that good things do still happen in this world!
That's it for now - I'll be back shortly with the second part of The Life of Trek as well as the fabled "Unification" blog. Right, now I'm off for a well earned flip through of my Star Trek 365 book to see if I can work out what plotlines they've nicked for Into Darkness...