Thursday, 30 January 2014

Phase II: Why Aren't You Watching?!

Hi, my name's Clive and I have an admission.

Star Trek: Phase II (nee New Voyages) is a revelation. The downside is that since it's arrival back in 2004 we've only been privy to nine (soon to be ten) episodes. But what a collection they have been so far.

The first thing is that until I saw Kitumba my knowledge of the series was purely based on what I read on the internet.  I'd never watched a single solitary minute. The poster for that episode enthralled me; there was hype, there were Klingons and it was one of the "lost" episodes proposed for the original Phase II show in the late 70's. I watched, I reviewed...and then I thought; OK, that was pretty impressive....what else have they done...?

"More than I thought" was the straight answer so let's rewind back and talk about what I believe to be the best online fan series created. Now I've had several conversations with +Carl Thomson and +Mark Thwaite telling, nay preaching...nay ordering them to watch at least one episode from start to finish. Truth be told I'm still waiting but maybe this post will spur them (or shame them!) into watching some Phase II. I believe I may have said something along the lines of:

"Have you seen Phase II?"
"Then ******* watch it!!!!"

So it's time to prove a point, to reinforce the facts and my argument. From the start then...

Back in the beginning Come What May and to some extent the subsequent In Harm's Way were a little out of focus, definitely fan-produced and reminded me more of 70's Blake's 7 rather than 60's Star Trek. James Cawley's Elvis hairdo sticks out like a sore thumb in the pilot but is mercifully laid to rest by the follow up. They're both fairly average and my attention dropped in and out. The pilot has it's moments with some cute little flash forward moments courtesy of the whirly alien effect and it's bouncy human companion. Now when I watched the first episode after having seen Kitumba I nearly went into cardiac arrest. Was this really the same show I'd reviewed? It seemed light years away but at that moment began a wonderful, somewhat unexpected journey but there were sparks of genius buried within that even I allowed myself to give a little nod and smile to.

So I successfully restarted my heart and ploughed on. While I have to admit the existence of Come What May it was In Harm's Way that really suggested the potential of the show. Bringing back the Guardian of Forever and introducing a substantially larger plot device sibling as well as drawing on Star Trek history with the inclusion of Pike and the crew from The Cage do work a treat. Not only is Phase II exploring the galaxy but also the rich Star Trek universe and history. Cawley, Quinn and Kelley as Kirk, Spock and McCoy are ok but you're always going to be raising comparisons; it's natural. The spark of Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley isn't quite there but these guys are very watchable together. If anything, Jeffrey Quinn does seem a bit young for Spock however the story is very engaging crossing time and space - and reminding me a little (by its conclusion) of the three Enterprise scene at the end of All Good Things....

The script from Doug Drexler and Erik Korngold is total fan immersion with all the references to classic episodes with unexpected cameos from William Windom as Commodore Decker, reprising his role from The Doomsday Machine and Barbara Luna. The latter is ok but Windom looks a little uncomfortable with his lines. A great shame as his return to Star Trek is a great moment that brings in a ton of continuity which is something that New Voyages/Phase II does manage with greater aplomb than The Original Series. More on that in a bit. Oh yes, and while we're mentioning the unexpected, what could be more so than a shuttlecraft in the garage of a suburban house?!

This episode truly drew me in more than the iffy pilot because there's so much going on and a ton of curve balls that make it super watchable. However, it keeps getting better.

The next two episodes could have done with a little more separation as they both deal with main cast members aging so that Walter Koenig and George Takei can guest star as Chekov and Sulu. Now I'm not complaining as it's great to see them back and appearing to thoroughly enjoy the experience. To Serve All My Days, penned by D C Fontana is a something sequel to The Deadly Years while The World Enough and Time offers something akin to Children of Time with a "future" Sulu storyline. The ending of the Chekov focused To Serve All My Days is bitter-sweet but effective and reminds the audience that Phase II does have some poetic licence to mess it up a bit and for good reason here. The Sulu show even did something that surprised me more than the ending of the preceding Chekov one; it set both the prologue and the epilogue in the future. Clearly not something that would have been possible in the 1960's but here it's a beautifully executed maneuver that even Picard would be proud of - and I'm glad of any excuse to see the Excelsior on screen. So it's a big tool just to get Takei into the Phase II universe (and Grace Lee Whitney) but it works and while we expect the reset it kind of makes sense to a degree. George looks totally engrossed playing a not-quite-Sulu Sulu and I'd happily watch this again and again. 

The show is almost a split for me - the stronger stories are certainly the later ones which also include several cast changes with new actors for Spock (Jeffrey Quinn to Ben Tolpin to Brandon Stacey), Chekhov (Andy Bray to Jonathan Zungre), Sulu (John Lim to J T Tepnapa) and Uhura (Juliette Irons to Kim Stinger) as well as the additions of Peter Kirk and Xon. While this may seem like bloating what was already a fairly sizable ensemble it does add a great deal of diversity and more varied character relationships. But that's not exactly what I'm stabbing a finger at here - the stories themselves keep getting better (with the blip of Enemy: Starfleet in the middle actually). 

Starting with Blood and Fire, passing through to The Child and into Kitumba is a masterful batch of lost Star Trek finally able to make it onto the screen. Gerrold's legendary story that touched on homosexuality gets expanded into a superbly acted, directed and written two part/move length story. Justice is truly served after such a long time and the bar just keeps finding it's being raised just a little more. It's no wonder the calibre of guest star that this show can get when you look at how innovative and boundary pushing Phase II has been. Not only are there those mentioned here, but add in Malachi Throne, Grace Lee Whitney, Eddie Paskey and John Winston to what is an exemplary mix. 

OK, so we would never have seen movie uniforms turn up in a flashforward back in the 1960's  (etc) but that's where this series is different. While it's in keeping with The Original Series it can think and act outside of that box with the benefit of 50 years experience. It draws on the known future, the inherited forward-story if you will and makes it even more watchable just to see what we "missed" and what could have been. I particularly like the way in which stories are continued across episodes (Ensign Kirk's loss from Blood and Fire for one or the returning villain Kargh) and, on a little nod to his role in the movies, Chekov making it as Head of Security and putting on a redshirt.

Newcomer to the show (at this point), Bobby Quinn Rice, has a big role to fill here as Peter Kirk and does an admirable job from start to finish. While he's not overly used for the subsequent stories (as with Xon), his presence is still felt in each. For me, his arrival marks a key change in the quality of Phase II. I hit Blood and Fire in one sitting. I was glued. We know why this never originally made it to screen but here, with an additional guest appearance from Denise Crosby it's wonderfully realised with some genuinely decent effects, dialogue and CGI to boot. This story has humanity, action, Klingons, blood worms, geniuinely surprising moments for a few characters and a starship load more to enjoy. A true top notch story that SHOULD have been made.

It does become apparent though, even in the double-length Blood and Fire that budget is restraining the show to the established ship sets with the occasional pop over to a Klingon bridge or sneaky away mission. All of the two-parter appears to be on starship sets however because of the quality you tend to only realise afterwards. It's not until Enemy: Starfleet that we get the real feel of an away mission complete with sandy camera filter. Saying that, the CGI also makes dramatic steps forward along the way from some not-too-bad shots at the start through to full blown battle scenes and fleets of Klingons by the time we reach Kitumba

Actually, I want to stick with Enemy: Starfleet for a moment. The title made this one anticipated episode and while there is a great story at the heart of it, I felt decidedly let down after the two-part juggernaut. The Eagle is a mighty piece of CGI but sadly it's let down by Barbara Luna in my humble opinion. Whether she meant to aim for a panto performance or not I can't say but it's just a little too much and does detract from the episode. Her appearance in In Harm's Way was nothing like the one she puts on here and the seduction scenes with Kirk are slightly toe-curling. Sorry, readers, but I just can't get excited about this one; probably the weakest of the latter half and maybe of the show thus far and I so wanted it to be the best one.

I can't however strike that at The Child. Now I had read a lot about taking it back to the original idea and making the show as it was meant to be -and they weren't joking. This eighth installment is unrecognisable to the "travesty" that introduced the shorter second season of The Next Generation. Itself a "lost" script from the original Phase II production it makes a heck of a lot more sense and praise has to go to both Anna Schnaitter as Lt Isel and Ayla Cordell who plays her rapidly aging daughter Irska. Their performances truly lift the show and make it an excellent example of how Star Trek could and should have been done. John Povill's story and direction show this story has been (no pun intended) his baby for a long time. Great to see a Deltan on the crew as a nod to Illia from The Motion Picture who was originally intended as the mother figure here.

My thoughts on Kitumba have already been well-documented but I honestly can't wait for The Holiest Thing. New Kirk, Carol Marcus...brilliant. It will also mean that John M Kelley is the only main cast member to be retained since the pilot in 2004 as James Cawley moves off screen to focus on the production of the series. I think for Brian Gross this will be a very hard act to follow. While there is the occasional glimpse of a facial movement or vocal intonation that reminds us of Shatner, Cawley has set out his own portrayal of Kirk admirably - even if there was that hint of Elvis at the beginning! Let's also not forget two other long serving cast members. I've been a little harsh on Charles Root's accent in my Kitumba review and I'm going to take that back. He's done a great job in the role and frankly who cares if Scottish isn't his native vocal sound, I really like the part he plays and hope he sticks with the show. Up there as well is Ron Boyd's DeSalle. He's the Phase II version of Kyle - always there but not too prominent - and he's a redshirt that's survived more than one episode so he's clearly doing something right!

One thing that I cannot heap enough praise on for this show is the effects and the stunning work of Tobias Richter who is also going to be master of the CGI for the much-hyped Axanar. I didn't think it would be possible to produce such stunning work on very little money but you can when there's this level of ability. The USS Eagle of Enemy: Starfleet, the USS Copernicus and surrounding space in Blood and Fire, even the nebulous materials that the Enterprise encounters in The Child are awe inspiring on the screen and make every episode a fantastic spectacle. Yes, at the beginning the ship movements were a little bit too smooth and some of the graphics a little jittery but things have moved on at a phenomenal rate to create some very memorable moments. In fact, how many times can you remember the original Enterprise carrying severe battle damage through an episode on screen that you could see?

Oh and then there's the vignettes that have popped up in and around the series. I think there are four to date - Centre Seat, No Win Scenario, 1701 Pennsylvania Ave and most recently Going Boldly which act to whet the appetite between episodes. The first deals with both DeSalle and the returning Lt Cmdr Sulu and a minor navigational error, the second with Kargh as he works to devise a plan of attack against the Federation border. The next is set on the day of the Moon landing in 1969. It's an inspired 11 minutes which is, to say the least, off the wall in more than one way. Klingons, tribbles, Nixon - if I say any more it might all make sense.

What I do want to focus on though is the fourth; it's truly the start of a new era. Kirk has a new face and a little less Shatner. Times are a-changing with the arrival of Brian Gross and also this new swanky vignette that offers something of a prelude into the upcoming The Holiest Thing. While saying goodbye to both Enterprise crew lost on missions and real life individuals who passed away and were associated with the show, it's a glimpse of what could well be Phase II.1. After that wonderful, if brief "hello" to Garth of Izar played by Alec Peters (who is the guy behind Axanar) we get to see a few sneak peeks. 

There's The Animated Series' Arex at the navigation console which is perfect sense now Chekov is down in security and Scotty has a nice shiny new warp core to play with (above).  What was that i said - yes - Arex - a CGI character!!! You have to see it. Go on YouTube here and take a look, it's genius!

It's ALSO the exterior shots which just make this a salivating treat of a vignette and there's definitely a homage here to the drydock departure scene in The Motion Picture as we see the starship's new warp engines and torpedo tubes. Clearly Phase II is starting to increase the notable links between the TV series and the first movie. At the core though the USS Enterprise is very recognisable as her original self but these new tweeks do help to add to the production's individuality. Love it.

Not only do we have The Holiest Thing but Bread and Savagery is in post-production and there's work going on to complete The Mind-Sifter for future release. Despite some behind the scenes rumbles, overly-long delays and the fact this is all done on volunteer time, it's a fan-made masterpiece. We may not be getting a new episode each week, Star Trek fans, but at the moment if we want to get the feel of the Roddenberry universe back this is absolutely the first stop you should be making and exploring.

So, gents, ladies, one and all my original question stands - with the quality that we're getting from this series Why Aren't You Watching?

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You can learn more about Star Trek: Phase II at their website and view their episodes too at YouTube

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