Friday, 15 April 2016

Berkmann Sets Phasers to Stun

Phasers to Stun isn't your typical Star Trek reference work nor is it a definitive history of the franchise since 1966.

Written by journalist and fan Marcus Berkmann, it's a personal love story with the show covering all iterations (some more than others) since that fateful September day.

While Phasers to Stun does allude to some points of Berkmann's life, glimpses of his childhood, his original attraction to the show, his conversion to The Next Generation and his opinions on the reboot movies, it is quickly apparent - even in the author's own words - that it's a book for the general public rather than the avid Trekkie. 

Berkmann provides the standard potted history of Star Trek from the creation of Gene Roddenberry's show and the infamous two pilots before descending into the bulk of the original 79 episodes. For regular watchers and fans this might become a bit laborious as it effectively becomes Berkmann's personal opinion on every single The Original Series episode boiled down into a few paragraphs or even just a few lines be it a theme, quotes or an incident within the show that was good, bad or downright awful.

But, he does make some very acute observations around story quality, repetitiveness, the level of consistency and how the battles off screen to save the show both benefited and handicapped it from the perspective of one UK viewer (and remember we didn't get it until 1970). Heck, you do find yourself nodding in solemn agreement that season two did have a lot of disembodied aliens/computers for Kirk to oppose and more than likely there was a parallel Earth round the corner as well as a sprinkling of brilliance in there too with Amok Time and The Trouble with Tribbles for example.

Most of the views about particular episodes are nothing new; The City on the Edge of Forever is incredible especially given it was a first season story, The Omega Glory is tosh, season three is a horribly mixed bag that starts and ends badly with only The Enterprise Incident and The Tholian Web worth watching. What does lift this from the average is that fact that it feels like you're chatting about Star Trek with a mate down the pub and getting his honest view from the heart. It helps that these opinions are laced with humour or it could have ended up very po-faced by the end and just another bland review book.

Marcus takes us through the uneven transition from series to animation to Phase II and finally into the motion picture series again tracking his experiences at watching Kirk and crew on the big screen. The Motion Picture was a lot of long, slow camera shots, The Wrath of Khan is still a classic, The Search for Spock is actually decent - although I did find myself disagreeing with his assessment of The Undiscovered Country although I will be watching pre and post Rura Penthe Kirk to see the differences from now on.

What I liked here (as well as in the series reviews) is Berkmann's attention to quoting direct from the episodes to firm up his points but also referring to a massive collection of works in the literary market including many of the cast biographies, Gross and Altman's reference works plus even a writer. Perhaps more of Berkmann's personal experiences with the show in the real world and away from the TV would have made for even more interesting reading (I have tried to do something like that with my Trekollections series here) but I guess page number won out on that one!

The choice to really explore these cast and fan sources is a winning stroke with the book and the extensive bibliography and notes sections are brimming with suggested reading that would hopefully lead a fledgling Trekkie scurrying to eBay or Amazon to locate a key book and devour that as well (admittedly I still have not read James Doohan's autobiography) There's also a useful episode five-star rating for both The Original Series and The Next Generation. Purely down to opinion but I have to say they are pretty close to where I would place the stories except perhaps one star for Aquiel and five for The Pegasus. Minor gripe and something I'll mention in a bit - no starred reviews for Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise nor for the movies or animated series.

As a long-time fan a lot of the stories and anecdotes are things I have known for a while but I can see how new advocates of the franchise would relish this information well-compacted into a single easy to digest volume. 

The book does go through the movies and intertwine the arrival of The Next Generation in 1987 (or 1990 in the UK), even alluding to the must-have VHS cassettes we Brits had to survive on until SKY and BBC2 caught up. His writings on the second TV series episodes are a lot more focused to individual likes and dislikes rather than all 178 instalments but the key moments are all covered from Encounter at Farpoint through Skin of Evil, The Measure of a Man, The Best of Both Worlds and ultimately All Good Things... but it did at times feel like Berkmann knew he was running out of pages to discuss the show.

Which is the issue I have because we have a ton of information on Kirk and Picard but Sisko, Janeway and Archer find themselves confined to a chapter at the end of the book which is only slightly longer, it feels, than the section on the JJ Abrams reboots.

I understand that if the general public gets into Star Trek and then The Next Generation there's a likelihood they will stumble into Deep Space Nine and thereafter but it does feel that these shows are bitterly under-served with not even their most key moments highlighted to inspire readers to hunt them out. There's no reference to In the Pale Moonlight, the Dominion or to Voyager and the return and effect of the Borg after such a large space is turned over to them around The Next Generation and First Contact. It is a real shame because I sensed there was a lot more that could have been said for these "lesser" series as they seem to be portrayed. As a huge Deep Space Nine fan I did feel short-changed however if Marcus wants a hand writing a sequel which could cover those shows I can supply a contact phone number...

I managed to get through the 300 plus pages of Phasers to Stun in just over three days of sporadic and focused reading. It is a very, very involving book and, as I said, it might not have been a chunk of new material but it still kept my attention because it is a personal account of one man's interactions with the show since it first arrived on UK shores. It's funny, honest and pulls no punches as to the author's real beliefs and interest in the subject matter - and that's evident on every page. There's absolutely no fear you'll get bored and it was refreshing to read a book that wasn't fixated with taking itself perhaps a little too seriously nor dishing the dirt on Star Trek. Good job there Marcus.

Long-time fans may find this a nice volume to tuck into their shelves to help mark the 50th anniversary but more as a way to reminisce over their favourite memories rather than a way to uncover wedges of new and unexplored material. New fans of the show and movies will find this an interesting, funny and different way to get into and explore the final frontier as Star Trek heads into the next 50 years of existence.

Set Phasers to Stun is available now from Little Brown priced at £13.99 ISBN 9781408706848.

Have you read Set Phasers to Stun or are you considering purchasing it? What did you think to it? Let me know below!

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