Friday, 1 August 2014

Arcanis, Inverness... AXANAR

In 2004 Phase II arrived and Star Trek's future in the hands of its faithful and resourceful fans seemed to be looking good. 

Shows such as FarragutExeter and most recently Continues have pushed the envelope and challenged what can be done to keep Star Trek alive in a time where there are no new televised adventures.

Then came Axanar. A media frenzy has surrounded this astounding project since it first appeared in the circles of fandom,  more so with its unparalleled Kickstarter success and now the main project has begun it's stepped fundraising with over $160,000 being donated to make the main feature in less than seven days. It's ambitious, it's original, it's unique and at least a bit of it is finally here for us to experience.

Now let's get one thing ironed out; they aren't just taking money and giving sweet nothing back. Oh no. As of this week the highly anticipated Prelude to Axanar got its world premiere at San Diego Comic Con and went live on the project's Kickstarter page on Wednesday 30th July.

In the past I've noted how each show does better and better, pushing the others to be more challenging and in Axanar's 20 minute taster that self same envelope has been well and truly torched.

Stepping away from giving us an action orientated episode-like adventure,  Alec Peters and the Axanar creative have moulded a sublime documentary style show providing an insight to the buildup of the crucial and legendary Battle of Axanar.

The behind the scenes shots and trailer footage we talked about a few weeks back blew a lot of people,  myself included,  away and Prelude to Axanar maintains the standard and does exactly what it's meant to -  show the fans and the donors exactly what they can do and the quality of the final movie product. Christ, if this is what they can do in 20 minutes imagine what we'll get for a feature length production.

Focusing on just six of the main cast as we noted before, the United Federation of Planets Historical Society presents this (third) part in their series giving us a blow by blow account of what led to the events at Axanar and how all those big players were involved from the beginning. We were teased but now we get to see another thread of the main tapestry.

Each character is distinct and the suggestions we made are there... Ish. Most of the feature is played out through talking heads intercut with scenes from the war but we'll cover those shortly. First, let's talk people.

Gary Graham's Soval is bitterly regretful at his failure.  He passes an exceedingly negative shadow over proceedings seemingly taking the blame for the onset of War between these two super powers and is apparently ashamed at their lack of knowledge on the Klingon Supreme Commander, General Kharn.

J G Hertzler's Samuel Travis is a true veteran, mindful of events and the decisions that needed to be made. He clearly understands the horrors of War but seems to have been powerless to so more to turn the tide. Hertzler plays him with a great deal of weariness which opens up the memories of the war. I love Hertzler for his Martok performance in Deep Space Nine and Travis seems to be a dramatic shift in portrayal for the actor. I like the subtlety we get here in contrast to the raw energy of the Klingon general.

Ramirez as portrayed by one of my Star Trek favourites;  Tony Todd is absolutely the leader,  the speech-maker and a man born to take the battle to the Klingons. Todd's physical presence in the packed, vast Archer Arena for his inaugural speech is incredibly intense and powerful - totally the right choice for this role and while there is an agressive hint of Kurn in there, it's somewhat odd to have him getting angry at the Klingons for once! He is a man prepared to make change and his position works well alongside the seasoned field experience that we get from Travis.

Kate Vernon's starship captain Sonia Alexander comes across much more as one of those who saw the worst of war and ended up being there to clean up the mess at the end as is demonstrated here with the situation in the Inverness System. Quietly spoken, Vernon's character comes across as damaged by her experiences although there's a glimmer of hope still alive which becomes apparent as Axanar draws closer. I guess she'll be key in the events of the main feature while here her role seems more an observer on the actions of Garth leading up to the battle.

Kharn is almost as full of regret as Soval but because his decisions and concerns over the progress of the war were not heeded by those above him in the chain of command. A good general he has come to realise the overconfidence he may have exuded during the dominating times of the D-6 cruisers and before the arrival of the Ares Class. His character plays a lot on the benefits of hindsight and what could have been done earlier to bring about a different result. Richard Hatch is superb in this part - and not something I would have expected him to pull off if I look back to when his involvement in the project was announced. We still have to see his lieutenant, Chang for which I can't wait.

In the lynchpin role of Garth is writer/producer, Alec Peters - it's a role from the heart and a man who appreciates the efforts of all those involved with the struggle. Garth comes across as a little uncomfortable with his status as the Hero of Axanar, humbled by his peers maybe but still responsible for introducing radical new tactics - almost Klingon in style.. While I see the laying out of the character here so we can see what he stands for, the real challenge lies ahead to when we'll get to watch him command the USS Ares into battle.

What gets me with this cast is just how real it all feels in this documentary style. I get their anguish, the challenge, the futility of the seemingly lost war against the military might of the Klingon Empire. The filming style, leaning onto the shoulder and head shots ensures that we can see the emotions in the eyes of these officers on both sides of the conflict. It's a brilliant move that gets pulled off exceptionally well and hasn't been done anywhere that I can remember in the Star Trek universe. It's bold especially as the main feature will be very different to what we see here although I hope that the lighting and mood are kept because it's becoming a bit of a trademark to Axanar. I suspect that passionate director Christian Gossett will be stepping up his game with the main feature as we'll be a little underwhelmed if it's 90 minutes of talking heads in the same vain as this short! Seeing the result though you have fauth that his enthusiasm will never wain as long as Axanar exists.

Probably one of the biggest draws to Prelude alongside the brilliant cast has to be the beautiful, stunning, miraculous (add your own adjective here) visuals supervised by the ever impressive Tobias Richer and Light Works. From the start of Axanar the Facebook page and the website have dropped the occasional image of a D-6 Klingon cruiser, a Starfleet ship or a shot of work in progress to keep us in the loop. The recent trailer also added in motion sequences from Prelude and initially you start to think it's just going to be those bits that we'll see again - but it isn't.

Once you've seen a D-6 crashing into a city-scape you'll be hoping Robert Orci is adding these guys to his speed dial because I'd see that any day in preference to the USS Vengeance redesigning downtown San Francisco. The CGI is movie quality all the way with numerous sequences highlighting the action between the two fleets. Initially that's the Klingons pummelling Starfleet but with the arrival of Garth's USS Ares - the first pure warship - the tide turns as we see here. The ship movements are an art and make a lot of decent features look amateur. Plus there are some examples of the graphic interfaces and displays we might see in the workstations of the sets; bonus. 

Anyway - the Ares - it's impact on the conflict is the point where we see the hope return and it's doubled with the announcement that a heavy cruiser is being built (at Axanar which doesn't add up in my memory but I'm ready to stand corrected) and the low and slow pan confirms that it's the USS Enterprise. Thanks for giving us a few angles to see her construction from too - very much liked that!

There might have been chill in my bones at that point because seeing the original ship in drydock is never something we've been privvy to and getting this new shot is worth every second. The detail in the ships is a credit to those who worked on them and I look forward to seeing what they produce for Axanar in the coming year. 

The now-in-progress Kickstarter campaign for the main movie is split into five sections each covering a different aspect of the production - Set Construction ($100,000), Sound Stage ($125,000), Pre-Production Costs ($50,000), Production Costs ($350,000) and a fifth, Axanar Heroes ($25,000).

It's the fifth one that means we'll get to see more Axanar ahead of the main feature.  To quote from the Axanar Kickstarter page: 

Heroes takes place three months after the events of Whom Gods Destroy and will feature the Phase II USS Enterprise crew bringing a now fully rehabilitated Garth of Izar back to Starfleet. What are the ramifications of Garth's mental illness now that he is fully recovered? How will Kirk interact with his hero now that Garth is the man he remembered as a cadet? This week-long shoot will cost us approximately $25,000 and produce at least four Axanar vignettes, three of which will be cross-overs with Phase II. The fourth will take place just before the battle of Axanar and give you an inside look at the relationship between Garth and Captain Samuel Travis (JG Hertzler).

These will be awesome additional teasers to the main event and don't go forgetting about all those perks as well. Definitely worth adding your donation to the pot and I recommend heading over to that Kickstarter page for a full rundown on what's available - also a good excuse to dust off the credit card while you're at it.

But let's just put the brakes on and take stock before we get carried away with the excitement and ask one crucial question about all this; Does Prelude to Axanar do what it was intended to do?

I believe it does. This is payback to the fans who have supported the project and clearly demonstrates the talent and ability which are available to the production team. Peters and Axanar have firmly planted their flag and I'm confident we will see the full movie and it will top what we have seen here. Axanar titillates and exhilarates as we learn more and more about why the balance of power tipped and the way that the Federation sought to regain it's fragile foothold. Before you know it there's a smile-raising finale and the end titles roll. Time to watch it again just to believe that what you saw was indeed what you saw.

There can be no doubting the enthusiasm, the passion and the flair which have gone into Prelude from every angle. It's modern but yet still retains that sense of being in the time period relative to The Original Series (or just before). OK, so it is a war story but it's a war story that leads into the full formation of Star Trek as we know it, perhaps more than that four year sojourn with Enterprise. The standards are very high and I can see that other fan productions will be keen to learn from their successes - and one of those will certainly be James Cawley and Phase II. Great that Axanar will be linking in with that team in the near future. I mean what else can one say about a short that will surely be categorised as a fan-made classic in years to come? I won't be the only one who thinks that the networks should be looking in this direction for inspiration for the future and the next 50 years of the franchise (but let's not head into that territory as it gets a bit messy). 

Actually though, if there is one criticism though it has to be on running time. 

For a lot of us, 20 minutes just wasn't damn long enough guys. Sorry. Do better next time....(!)

All images from Prelude to Axanar reproduced with kind permission from Star Trek Axanar

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