Sunday, 26 May 2013

Trekollections IV: SKY's the Limit

The early 1990's were my Trek proving ground. My knowledge of the subject was growing and the franchise was about to move into what I consider its golden era. Everything was good...

Except I was going to miss every moment of it because we didn't have SKY and that was where season four of The Next Generation was due to premiere in the UK. The year was 1992 and the countdown to Family was on.

Now I'll rewind back slightly to Trekollections III at this point - I slipped in the mention of a saviour there and it's only fair to bring this in now. As you will remember I'd talked about the Christmas Day watching The Motion Picture and having turkey fritters for dinner. What had happened was that Dad had been made redundant and was searching for work at the time. Co-incidence had it that one day he was out gardening and started talking to the guy who lived directly behind us through the slatted wooden fence.

Over the next few weeks and months we came to know this man very well. George was ex-RAF and one of the nicest people I have ever known, bar none. He too was looking for a new job which led to many collaborations with my parents but George also had SKY. Now in the early 1990's in the UK that was a big thing and somehow the conversation one day turned to me being given the chance to go and watch some  if I wanted to. Now I jumped at the chance - but it would need to be weekdays around 5pm and could I video something say once a day...?

Personal library photo
At the cost of a bit of house-sitting and gardening i could now watch new Star Trek whenever I could. George would be quite a big influence on my life at this point and significantly, about 15 years later but we'll talk about that in due course. Being a writer himself when schedule permitted i was able to spend some time with our neighbour helping me develop a few essential planning skills which I used for a fair few years while I was focused more on novel writing. I believe we worked on a The Next Generation story on a few occasions and got a fair distance into the planning. Sadly time was against me and I never sat down to flesh it out properly.

While a lot of my friends and peers were getting into Blur, Oasis, Suede and other indie Britpop bands that were beginning to rear their head, I was turning away from the music scene and digging firmly into the sci-fi camp. My foray into the world of music would be put on hold for a long time. In fact it would only be the last 15 years or so that I have really started to hone my tastes!

Luckily for me George was very reasonable and at the cost of a VHS cassette I was soon receiving batches of The Next Generation on its first run through on SKY One. I didn't manage to see every episode during the run but I did get to see a good 70% of seasons four and five. My viewing of season six was a bit hit and miss but I had better luck when SKY cycled back round from Encounter at Farpoint before they embarked on the first showing of the seventh season in 1994. Actually this reminds me that my first encounter with these later seasons was Unification in it's movie-length format and for more on that one I would refer you to a previous blog piece on that two-parter.

Anyway, my recollections of this first run on SKY is of some grainy VHS quality episodes, particularly, Reunion, Future Imperfect and The Loss. Many of them were taken out of sequence so what I saw when is a bit of a blur but I do know that in the following season I managed Darmok and Cause and Effect at least. Why I missed a good chunk of the sixth season is hard to recall but what I can tell you is that SKY held back the first part of Descent which was the season cliffhanger to air with the final year. 

Now around this time I started to get TV Zone magazine from the local newspaper shop. The first issue I bought was number 52 (right). It was a must have if only for the brilliant episode guides for the seventh year of The Next Generation and the second season of Deep Space Nine. Magazines were a key way to keep up to date with any goings on in the Trek universe. TV Zone and Starburst in Copelands newsagents were a monthly revelation and I found out a great deal about the last days of The Next Generation through their pages. I also managed to find the odd copy of the now sadly defunct Starlog mag. Again while doing some loft rummaging and reminiscing I located the issue in which readers were asked to vote for their favourite 25 The Next Generation episodes. 

Oddly it's conducted before the seventh season and with half of season six still to run so whether any of those would have made the list we will never know. Anyway, the magazines gave some brilliant tit-bits of info and pictures of what was coming. You have to remember that this was in the days before something called the "internet" (you may have heard of it) so finding out information was a much more challenging hobby! I seem to recall reading my first bits of character detail and plot synopsis for Deep Space Nine's pilot there. At the time I didn't quite get what it was all about and thought it was going to be another show featuring a crew on a space ship in a completely different sector of space. Indeed, this would come true to some degree in season three of the series with the introduction of the Defiant

VHS was the format to get hold of new Star Trek back in the day and as with "Unification" it was the way that I managed my first viewing of Deep Space Nine's pilot episode in 1993. Rented from the local (and recently closed-down) Blockbuster Video shop it was my treat while mum and dad went out for the evening. Different was an understatement and I wasn't totally prepared for such a drastic departure from the Star Trek world we came to know and love in the hands of Kirk and Picard. It was rough, tough and gritty and really placed Roddenberry's vision on the edge of the final frontier. While Encounter at Farpoint had gripped me from the start of The Next Generation this was a much more tepid introduction and it would take time for me to appreciate how good this show was. During the first year I was even contemplating turning it off on occasion because it didn't seem to be going anywhere. While I had rented that first volume, it would again be down to the kindness of our neighbour, George and the Powers That Be at SKY who would provide me with the chance to see the remaining 18 episodes of that inaugural season and unlike The Next Generation it would be one episode per week on a Sunday night. 

When all this was going on I managed to gain a StarTrek ally in the form of Steven Bond. How we were introduced is now lost in the annals of history. What I can say is that we both went to the same school and were heavy StarTrek addicts. We would swap magazines and information regularly as well as VHS cassettes of the latest The Next Generation releases. Later it would move across to Deep Space Nine and Voyager episodes as while I was more of a fan of Sisko and crew, "Bondy" preferred the charms of Captain Janeway and the Delta Quadrant.

Neither of us had bought that many of the VHS releases upto this point with any dedication. The only ones I had at home were volumes bought by grandparents (which amassed to half of The Next Generation season) one along with the one video I had bought after much searching; Relics. To this day it is still the only Trek episode I have ever watched twice in one day. It was, to bring us nicely full circle in this blog, one of the episodes I caught on that first run through of seasons four through six on SKY. It is also one of the few episodes that I can still watch again and again and again and never get bored. This was also the first volume Bondy borrowed and it would continue with the majority of the final year meaning that when it did come round on SKY I only had a few to catch. When season one of Deep Space Nine had run its course this was exactly what happened. This was to be the final year of first-run The Next Generation and I had to wait until my birthday in 1994 to see the finale. Thanks to my VHS partnership with Bondy I'd managed to see the best of the last season; Parallels, The Pegasus, Genesis and Preemptive Strike still stand out from their first viewing and in the next few weeks I'm going to be going through them again, in order, for the first time since the mid-1990's.

Let's pause there for a second and take a breath - Deep Space Nine. That's the second reference here and it's about time I come clean that of all the Trek incarnations it's without any doubt my favourite. In fact probably for the opposite reasons that I should like Star Trek. It had conflict, it was darker, more unsettled and each week built on the last. There were repercussions from actions and the format didn't get the magic reset that plagued many an Original Series or The Next Generation episode. There is so much I'll come to talk about with this series but if truth be told in its first season I almost reached for the off button on more than one occasion.

In 1993/94 it was a huge shock to go from the comfort of The Next Generation to the frontier outpost of Deep Space Nine. The pilot was and still is my favourite of all the series inceptions but after that it was decidedly mixed. Q was just wrong for the series; we didn't need Lwaxana showing up, there was no action considering the promise from Emissary of what could be coming. It was very, very talky; nothing seemed to be happening and the characters were a bit, well, poor. Episodes such as The Storyteller, If Wishes Were Horses and Move Along Home didn't help the case for the defence but it seems as though Deep Space Nine managed to get a lot of its problems sorted in those first 20 hours. To this day I'm glad I persevered as otherwise my love of Star Trek may well have died with the end of The Next Generation in 1994.

Sadly on VHS the long-awaited finale of that show was a bit of a disappointment because after such great coverage of the entire series, All Good Things... was presented in its edited two-part format, missing some great little scenes to account for the restricted running time and addition of title and end credits. Later a feature-length version was released coupled with the Journey's End documentary and trailers for all seven feature films in a limited run but with my budget it was too late. I would have to wait a few months for SKY to show the finale as part of its Sunday run to enjoy such gems as Old Q and references to Leah Brahms marrying Geordi. Minor they may seem, but it was shocking to see them cut and the last The Next Generation ever presented in its hacked format. However as Picard proclaimed that "The sky's the limit." I already knew there was more to come. The main reason that The Next Generation had finished after seven fantastic years was so that the crew could move to the big screen. We were going to get our first Trek film since 1991. Star Trek Generations was on the way.

While I'd been avidly following The Next Generation through its swansong season I had inadvertently taken my eye off the Deep Space Nine ball as it had in turn passed into its second year in parallel. I'd kept a track of the episodes that were coming - there was a three-parter to kick off the season, an episode set in the past - but that was about all that interested me. When SKY started to run these episodes I dropped myself in front of the screen and prepared for more of the same as the previous year. I was surprised to find that the step up in quality that had been evident in Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets had been maintained and there was even the hint of an ongoing storylines around the Prophets, Bajor and something else... It was a much improved season all round and the second half of the year really emphasised that Deep Space Nine had a future and being different to the concluding The Next Generation was essential to that.

So here we are; it's coming to the end of 1994. I'd been a big fan of The Next Generation particularly in its later years when my love of Star Trek really took hold. How was I going to remain a fan with only Deep Space Nine to maintain my interest? It was nowhere near as good as Picard's Enterprise and there's no way it ever could be...Could it?!

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