Star Trek Into Darkness

star-trekinto-darkness-posterSo much hoopla has been made over king-of-nerds J.J. Abrams directing the next chapter of the Star Wars saga that his latest sequel Star Trek Into Darkness has played second fiddle to the wave of news circling that other sci-fi universe.  For casual Trek fans, such as myself, Abrams will likely do for Star Wars what he has done for Captain Kirk and crew.

Abrams brought Trek out of the depths of cult obscurity and hammered down the door of nerdom to allow mainstream audiences access to an otherwise closed-off franchise.  With the use of punk wit, a young cast of immense talent, rousing action sequences, and the gravitational pull of dead-on comedy, the Star Trek reboot was one of very few films to not bring further slander to the term ‘reboot.’  The more times I’ve viewed the 2009 entry, the more I enjoy it as all-around grade-A entertainment.

Thus Mr. Abrams’ sequel Into Darkness gets a little more serious and has slightly less fun toying around with the strict mechanics of series expectations.  Slightly less.  The Abrams magic is still intact and he manages to deliver a satisfying action-sequel that simply hasn’t the fresh air of the previous film especially when the story relies on previously-mined material.

For round two Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), having just been suspended from active duty, is  driven to revenge after a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) stages multiple attacks on the Federation that results in the untimely death of one of Kirk’s most endearing mentors.  The appointed captain reenlists Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his first officer and sets out with his crew aboard the Enterprise on a Starfleet mission to target the fugitive Harrison in hiding on a Klingon planet.  Relations are tense between the Federation and the Klingons, and Kirk has been ordered to target Harrison with highly powerful torpedoes whilst trying avoid the start of a planetary war.

star-trek-into-darkness-stillKirk must also grapple with his own thirst for blood and his rocky rapport with his crew members.  The story further digs into Trek lore, Spock’s and Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) unlikely romantic relationship, and springs about as many laughs as the previous entry.  I honestly wasn’t quite as engulfed in this Trek, but only by a slim margin.  The film is still visually brilliant and action-packed, but the more sinister tones have set in as is to be expected for a second installment.

Most noteworthy in this chapter is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain Harrison.  He’s a brilliant, deep-voiced menace full of mystery and intrigue.  The performance is the stuff of terrific acting and he’s certainly a much more memorable foe than Eric Bana as the bald Romulan from ’09 Trek.  The rest of the cast is exceptionally good just as they were last time, but Cumberbatch is a standout and helps elevate this sequel above its few shortcomings in originality and suspense.

The themes at play revolve around the true meaning of leadership, friendship and heroism.  It is here that the writers and Director Abrams pave the way for a strong emotional journey for the leading characters.  Set against the backdrop of grand set pieces—Spock caught on a small bed of rock in the middle of an erupting volcano; Kirk suited up and soaring through space between two Federation spaceships; Harrison’s attack on the Federation tower—the emotional undercurrent allows the action to actually have some stake.  But then occasionally, and all too abruptly, Abrams hooks back into familiar territory that the franchise has previously explored rather than leap over new hurdles.

As much as I think J.J. Abrams has delivered Star Trek out of darkness, I assume he will be moving on from the franchise to become engulfed in Star Wars.  Even though I would still welcome him back to Trek, perhaps that will be for the best?  Abrams has relied upon alternate takes of previous adventures for Trek thus far and I think it’s time for a new director to expropriate Abrams’ discovered fountain of youth for this franchise and hasten the current Enterprise crew to a new infinite frontier from a storytelling perspective.   Please don’t misunderstand, however.  Into Darkness is a rock-solid film and likely light years ahead of what’s to come this season.  But with such a previously accomplished entry, Abrams has not managed to top himself, and I can’t exactly fault him for that since he already brought Star Trek into greatness.

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The Captains

The CaptainsKirk. Picard. Sisko. Janeway. Archer.  Just hearing these names is enough to bring a smile of fond remembrance to Star Trek fans of all ages, and conjures images of heroism in the face of danger, face-offs with alien races, and some egregious fashion faux pas.  From the original Star Trek in the 1960’s to the 2009 movie by J.J. Abrams, the Star Trek franchise has been one of the most enduring and profitable in Hollywood history, and even though interest in the TV shows has waned in recent years (the recent series Enterprise was cancelled after four seasons), the characters and the actors who played them continue to be a force of pop culture with which to be reckoned.  But despite (or perhaps because of) the myriad documentaries, interviews, and convention appearances that the actors have taken part in over the years, it is the individuals who played the storied captains of the various vessels in the show who continue to fascinate millions of fans worldwide.  And it is with this in mind that William Shatner, who wowed audiences and wooed women as Captain Kirk in the original series, set out to create a film that offers a singular insight into the hearts and minds of the actors who have had the distinct privilege to sit in the fabled captain’s chair.  The result is a documentary consisting almost entirely of simple conversations between Shatner and these actors that is equal parts compelling and funny, while also managing to be heartbreaking and even a bit awkward.  Shatner, whose career includes high profile shows like Boston Legal, melodramas like Rescue 911, and a dose of sitcoms and commercials to boot, is clearly in his element as he interviews the actors–often providing a window into his own heart and even upstaging his subjects from time to time.  It all comes together to make The Captains a fantastic and singular work of art that boldly goes where no documentary has gone before, and offers Shatner the unique opportunity to blaze a trail that no one else could hope to trod.

What would you say if you could sit and chat with Patrick Stewart for an afternoon?  Would you ask him what it was like to play Jean-Luc Picard, one of the most recognizable figures in modern science fiction?  How about Kate Mulgrew, the woman whose Kathryn Janeway helmed the starship Voyager on its 70,000 light year journey through the Delta Quadrant? Or Chris Pine, the young actor who filled Shatner’s Starfleet-issue boots as Captain Kirk in the 2009 film?  What questions could possibly be worth their time–surely nothing these actors haven’t been asked hundreds or thousands of time before.


Captain Kirk vs. Captain Kirk in the arm wrestling match of the century!

And so Shatner wisely stays away from all of the topics that would, on the surface, be of most interest to fans.  Instead, his conversations with the “captains” wander back and forth from pop culture to horseback riding to philosophy, religion, and even death and the afterlife.  Heavy subjects to be sure, but counterbalanced by a liberal dose of Shatner’s off-kilter sense of humor and glowing charm.  The most profound and compelling segments come from his discussions with Patrick Stewart, where things start off cordial but end up digging deep, exposing a side of both actors that has rarely been seen in public.  Stewart goes as far to divulge regrets that are as deeply felt today as they were back when he was filming The Next Generation, and Shatner likewise comes to a realization about his role as Kirk that has haunted him for decades.  I doubt the two are best friends, but it’s clear there is an incredible mutual respect and genuine appreciation for the contributions both have made to science fiction and modern culture.

His visits with the rest of the captains may not be at heart-wrenching, but each is compelling in its own right.  It’s hard to not smile as Shatner and Scott Bakula (Captain Jonathan Archer) shoot the breeze over drinks at a diner, talking about the acting profession and their appreciation of each other’s work.  He visits with Mulgrew on stage at a New York theater, where the two discuss the pioneering work she did as the first female captain in Star Trek and how the work put impossible demands on both of them–the effects of which were bitterly felt by their spouses and children.

While these conversations are thoughtful and compelling, Shatner’s afternoon with Avery Brooks (Benjamin Sisko) goes somewhat off the rails.  Brooks improvs jazz licks on a piano while Shatner provides a somewhat bewildered impromptu lyrical accompaniment, and the two go off on metaphysical tangents that make me wonder if part of Brooks is still lost in the wormhole somewhere.  The weakest link by far is Shatner’s all-too-brief conversation with Chris Pine.  Even though the two men give it a good honest try, their segments are brief and lack nearly all the chemistry from the other interviews.  To their credit, neither actually has much in common besides the Kirk character, and Shatner is old enough to be Pine’s grandfather.  But whereas the role of captain serves as the genesis of Shatner’s conversations with all the other actors, it actually seems to hamper his dialogue with Pine.

There are plenty of other Star Trek documentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes out there, but none so personal and intimate as the portraits Shatner constructs in The Captains.  It is an impressive labor of love that could have been made by only one man, and as a lifelong Star Trek fan I am grateful for the work Shatner has done to assemble this collection of interviews–if nothing else than for sheer posterity.  I would imagine this film would come across as boring or obscure to non-Trek fans, but if you wouldn’t feel at home in a Star Trek convention rubbing elbows with Klingons, Cardassians, and Orion Slave Girls, this is definitely not your kind of movie.  However, for those of us who have spent years venturing into the final frontier with the Star Trek captains, this film is a jewel and not to be missed.


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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek VIThe first episode of the venerable Star Trek sci-fi series was aired on September 22, 1966, and spawned an entertainment tour de force that, despite some rocky times in syndication and various states of cancellation, continues to chug along even today more than 30 years later.  But with the passing of time, the weathering of the starship Enterprise, and the graying of its crew, the original series that started as a gleam in Gene Roddenberry’s eye graced the silver screen for the last time 25 years after it began.  Even though Undiscovered Country is the sixth movie in the sci-fi franchise, it stands tall as one of the best and still holds its own against its spry, modern, younger successors.

In a bit of a twist from previous films, Sulu is never seen together with the rest of the Enterprise crew.  Instead, from the outset of the film, he is in command of his own ship The Excelsior (Note to William Riker: this is called career advancement).  Off exploring space as usual, his ship encounters a gigantic energy surge resulting from an energy explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis which was, as near as I can tell, basically a gigantic Klingon Power Plant.  In a brilliant twist on typical Star Trek lore, the mighty Klingon race is forced to come to the Federation for aid lest they go extinct as a species in less than five decades.  Kirk is then put in the awkward position of playing would-be ambassador to the Klingon high council, an incredibly uncomfortable diplomatic role considering that his son was murdered at the hands of Klingons.  It’s this type of juxtaposition that is the hallmark of Star Trek and all good science fiction, and further propels Undiscovered Country into the upper echelons of Star Trek movies.

Star Trek VI Cast

The gang's all here

The phrase “Action-Packed” has never been apt for Star Trek, save for the notable exception of First Contact, but it wouldn’t be far off the mark here.  After the abysmal Final Frontier, and knowing that this film would be the series’ swan song, director Nicholas Meyer (who also helmed the brilliant Wrath of Khan) ratchets up the intensity on all fronts.  From the uncomfortable dinner scene aboard the Enterprise, where the Klingons and Enterprise crewmen can barely contain their disdain for each other while General Chang (Christopher Plummer) and Kirk try to out-Shakespeare-quote each other, to the amazing courtroom scene (“Don’t wait for the translation!”) to the final showdown between the Enteprise and a Klingon bird of prey, Undiscovered Country is about as intense as they come.  There’s also a bit of mystery, treachery, backstabbing, and old-fashioned fisticuffs thrown in for good measure.  It all comes together quite well, despite a few missteps here and there such as the over-the-top climax which is far too abrupt and logic-defying to go over with much satisfaction.  Believe it or not, even the visual effects are far from terrible, though still mired in typical Star Trek cheese.  Couldn’t they find decent model builders by now?

Star Trek VI Courtroom

The Klingon judicial system: a model of legal efficiency.

Unfortunately what gets sacrificed here, as with some of the other movies, are the characters.  Most of Kirk’s intrepid crew is reduced to goggle-eyed stares at the viewscreen or groan-worthy one-liners.  The story here is about Kirk, and to a lesser degree, Bones and Spock, and unlike Voyage Home no one else is given any significant contributions to the story.  It’s an unfitting sendoff for Sulu, Uhura, and of course Scotty, but given the high quality of the movie as a whole these character missteps are somewhat forgivable.

Few movie series ever make it to their sixth iteration, and those that do are mostly content to cash in on trends, following the same regurgitated storylines all the way to the bank. But rather than churn out a halfway decent film destined for the VHS bargain bin, Meyer and his crew gave Undiscovered Country all they had and put effort into crafting a work that respects the source material while offering an incredibly pleasing finale to the journey begun by Gene Roddenberry more than three decades earlier.


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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Star Trek V: The Final FrontierThe Star Trek movie franchise is one of the most inconsistent string of films in existence. While some franchises are either mostly good or mostly terrible, the Star Trek movies swing like a pendulum from amazing to awful.  Conventional wisdom among Trekkies states that every other film is good, and my experience pretty much verifies this.  The first one in the franchise spends well over two hours chasing Kubrick’s coattails and ends up being a mess of heavyhanded philosophizing, but its sequel, Wrath of Khan, is considered one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time.  And so the pendulum swing begins, with Search for Spock floundering while Voyage Home soars.  The pattern being established, then, things don’t look good for Final Frontier from the get-go, even though it’s directed by William Shatner.  If anyone can do justice to a Star Trek film, it’s Captain Kirk, right?  Unfortunately, the pattern holds true: Final Frontier is a poorly written, haphazardly directed, logic-defying science fiction disaster.

Things begin with a bit of promise, as all the trappings of classic science fiction are present and accounted for:  Mysterious Distant Planet? Check. Strange aliens? Check. Hints at a violent struggle–a system to be overthrown–and an allegorical savior figure, check.  We then meet our intrepid Captain James Kirk (affably played, as always, by the great William Shatner), free-climbing mountains in Yosemite with all the fervor a post-middle-aged guy can muster, and soon find and his pal Bones (DeForest Kelley) him teaching Spock (Leonard Nimoy) how to sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat around a campfire.  It’s a tad endearing, and all in all not a bad start for the film.

Star Trek V: Go Climb a Rock

Good advice, Shatner...

It’s not long before things spiral hopelessly out of control, with Starfleet sending Kirk and his aging crew off to the aforementioned Distant Planet to figure out what is going on with Sybok, the man who has taken over the only settlement on the planet.  Why Starfleet would send Kirk on a dangerous mission with a brand new Enterprise that is clearly not ready for a trip around the block, much less across the galaxy, is the first of many such asteroid-sized plot holes in the movie that is just too big to overlook.  Sybok, no doubt cribbing from a few self-help books, persuades all of Kirk’s loyal companions to follow him and turn against their fearless captain.  With the flip of a couple switches, the Enterprise gallivants off to the mythical Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy all because Sybok thinks he will get to have tea with the Almighty. Turns out the mythical Great Barrier is a) about five minutes away, and b) about as impenetrable as a kleenex, meaning Sybok and company sail right through as easily as if they were heading off to Risa for a cup of earl gray.

The final showdown with God has all the drama of a middle school play, but it does give Shatner a chance to ask one of the great questions that has plagued mankind since the dawn of time:

Meantime, those darn Klingons keep causing trouble (wouldn’t you if Kirk had blown up your starship two movies earlier?), and the fabled Enterprise crew is reduced to uttering one-line expositions while staring blankly at the bridge viewscreen.  The movie is an exercise in futility, and the special effects are as cheesy as a jar of Velveeta (though to be fair, this wasn’t entirely Shatner’s fault).  Even though a few lighthearted and genuinely entertaining bits are scattered here and there, it’s like having to sidestep piles of horse manure to pick up some candy at a parade.  As Kirk and his bros enter into a reprise “Row Row Row Your Boat” to close out the film, the best we can do is wish that the film would have also been left ‘but a dream.


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Star Trek Voyager: Season 2

Star Trek Voyager Season 2The first season of Voyager was an excellent freshman effort for a series with such big shoes to fill, and though Season 2 finds Janeway and her crew still stuck in roughly the same part of space as when we last left them, with more or less the same set of aliens and long-standing conflicts, it does push things in some interesting new directions and offer some fantastic moments of action, philosophy, and character-building too.  The central goal remains more or less the same:  these people gots to get home!  Still stuck in the (we are constantly reminded) Delta Quadrant, in a hyper-advanced spaceship capable of traveling at warp 9.975, they continue their pattern of puttering along at warp four or five until even the smallest spatial anomaly or class-M planet catches their attention, at which point Janeway happily throws caution to the wind and risks the lives of everyone on board in order to make contact with alien races or get some veggies for the airponics bay.  It makes for some creative episodes, but at this rate it seems like the entire crew had better just abandon the idea of getting home altogether, as it sure isn’t likely to happen before they’ve all kicked the space bucket.

It’s a bit of a shame, really, because the idea of one ship stranded 70 years from home affords all kinds of interesting possibilities, but most of the concepts in Season 2 could have played out in regular Federation space.  It’s almost as if the wheel was reinvented just for the sake of doing so, especially when the aliens in the Delta Quadrant are so similar to races we all know and love from the Alpha Quadrant.  In essence, the gimmick begins to wear thin by the time Season 2 wraps up.

Voyager Denara Pel

The Vidiians are back again, but not all bad this time.

That being said, it’s not as if the content of Season 2 is bad at all.  It’s actually pretty solid for the most part, barring a few episodes near the end, and does a good job of expanding on the conflicts and characters introduced the first time around.  The first episode, The 37’s is a bit of a cheap throwaway bit, as the crew encounters a band of people who were mysteriously transported from Earth in the 20th Century.  (Think Bermuda Triangle and Roswell.)  And while it was fun to go through a bit of fish-out-of-water time travel, I find it frustrating that the Voyager crew wouldn’t build more of a relationship with the human colonists.  I guess it’s a constraint of the episodic nature of the show, but it seems like such fertile ground was laid for some amazing future developments, but at the end of the episode the Voyager crew say farewell and never speak of their newfound human friends again.  Ever.  But such is the nature of Star Trek–some conflicts make the cut and show up all the time, while others are left by the wayside like so much interstellar particles.

Also back for another go-round this season are the Kazon, an incomprehensibly anachronistic alien race whose reach apparently spans a great deal of the Delta Quadrant but is inexplicably fixated on blowing up capturing the USS Voyager and using their technology for their own nefarious deeds.  In a nod to the Godfather films, there is even a “Meeting of the Five Clans” in the episode “Alliances” that, predictably, doesn’t work out as well as Janeway had hoped.  We also have episodes about Kazon child-rearing, Kazon burglary, Kazon trechary, and a season cliffhanger where the Kazon finally take over Voyager and maroon the entire crew on a rocky planet.  The problem with the Kazon is they are neither threatening or interesting, and have the tactical smarts of a bowl of leola root stew.  They exist merely to provide an adversary for the crew, and only do a middling job at that.  Throw in a dash of Seska, up to her usual meddlings, and it all adds up to a persistent conflict that needs to just be vented like so much plasma gas.

Ensign Suder

Ensign Suder, the Star Trek equivalent of The Joker.

The rest of the season is a fairly inventive, not-entire-derivative, mix of suspense, danger, characterization, and thankfully, a whole lot less of Neelix and Kes (though the requisite Star Trek pon farr episode has a twist here since it’s Kes and not a Vulcan.  The joke remains the same, though.  *yawn*).  After a bit of an awkward start, things pick up with with the usual cornucopia of time travel, unexplained space phenomenæ, warring factions, and convention-breaking space maneuvers.  There is also a few head-scratching episodes that seem like they were directed by David Bowie on a weird acid trip, but to be honest, those kind of episodes (when used sparingly) are a nice change from the norm.  It’s par for the course for Star Trek, which is a good thing, since it’s all presented through the eyes of a fairly interesting crew.  Despite the paint-by-numbers makup of the starfleet personnel on board, each one is actually growing into his or her own character by this point in the series.  Janeway cements herself as a captain the crew can really get behind, Tuvok fits nicely into the shoes originally worn so well by Spock, Torres is still no Scotty, but she is proving that she doesn’t really need to be.  A few soft spots remain, though, most notably Neelix, whose presence on the ship continues to baffle me, and Harry Kim who is mostly bland and unremarkable despite an entire episode devoted to himself.  Chakotay and Janeway get a little closer when they are stuck on a planet for weeks on end, which could have been cool if only this relationship had been explored more during the rest of the series.

The end-of-season cliffhanger is kind of cool too, with the entire crew left stranded on a rocky planet with only Suder and the Doctor left on the ship.  Suder is one of the high points of the show, and even though his character is only in a few episodes he is one of the more compelling characters to enter the Star Trek universe in a long time.  He is indicative of the show’s ability to take risks, which is a refreshing change after sitting through four seasons of Enterprise, and serves as a good reminder of what has traditionally made Star Trek such a good series.  And at this point in the Voyager’s seven-year run,  it has grown into a show that, while not without fault, really is worth watching.


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Star Trek Voyager: Season 1

In some ways it’s impossible for me to give this show an objective review.  I watched many episodes when I was in high school, then re-watched the entire series a few years ago, and subsequently watched the entirety of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise as well.  But going back and re-watching Voyager has, in some ways, actually helped me be more critical in reviewing it.  Having a much greater perspective than I did a few years ago, with respect to science fiction and the Star Trek universe overall, I am actually enjoying the show far more than I originally did.  In fact, even more than Deep Space Nine, it is a worthy successor to the legacy left by Next Generation.  But while it gets many things right, it also does not innovate in the same way that Deep Space Nine did, and while the show often feels fresh and interesting, it is also more iterative than innovative.  Nonetheless, Season One got things off to a fairly good start despite some missteps, and laid some impressive groundwork for the seasons to follow.

Voyager debuted on January 16, 1995, almost one year after All Good Things… and sci-fi fans, still wistful over the final voyage of Picard and Company, while also a tad angsty from the first few lackluster seasons of Deep Space Nine, were eager for a return to the single space-faring vessel concept pioneered by Gene Roddenberry decades earlier.  And for better or for worse, Voyager in essence gave them exactly what they wanted:  a lone ship of exploration, more or less seeking out new life forms and new civilizations, boldly returning from an area of space where no one had gone before.  Having recently watched the exploits of Archer and his crew in Enterprise, a series with a big budget, top-notch special effects, but mediocre plotlines and forgettable characters, I was a little anxious at returning to Voyager.  Would it hold up against the test of time, or would its scars show through as I had gained a more critical eye for these sorts of things over the years?  Returning to favorable times gone by is dangerous, as some movies and TV shows just don’t age well.  But Voyager, surprisingly, remains as interesting, exciting, and even fascinating as it did when I was a wide-eyed 15-year-old kid watching the series premiere for the first time.

Star Trek Voyager Season 1 Crew

The crew of Voyager. And yes, it was difficult to locate a picture from Season One (i.e. without Seven of Nine).

The basic premise for the show is fairly simple:  Voyager, an Intrepid-class starship fresh out of spacedock, ends up on the other side of the galaxy and its crew, led by captainatrix Kathryn Janeway, gots to find its way back home.  As (bad) luck would have it, a ship of Maquis, the closest thing Star Trek has to terrorists, are trapped out there with them and both crews have to not only share the same starship, but learn to work together and respect one another if they want to make it back home in one piece.  Sound like an after school special?  You bet, but such is the nature of the best of Star Trek–lessons about humanity wrapped in a cloak of space exploration and otherworldly aliens.

Though Season One has its rough times, its focus remains primarily on what makes Star Trek, and all good science fiction, great:  the characters, and by extension, the exploration of the human condition.  When one strips away the special effects, what’s left is a group of interesting, though a tad contrived, individuals who must learn their place on the ship as well as their place in the world.  The mix of Maquis and Starfleet personnel on Voyager creates some compelling conflicts, particularly in the final episode Learning Curve, where several Maquis must learn to work within Starfleet rules while, at the same time, Tuvok, the rigid Vulcan security officer, learns there are times to bend the rules too.  It’s this type of give-and-take that is vintage Star Trek, and it’s nice to experience it all over again.

Commander Tuvok

Vulcan Commander Tuvok: If you've got a problem, yo, he'll solve it.

Series creators Rick Berman and Michael Piller took a bit of a chance with the captain of Voyager as well:  after a storied tradition of alpha male captains, the decision to put a strong-willed female character in the captain’s chair was a bit daring but mostly successful.  In fact, Janeway’s balance of tough-as-nails on-the-bridge persona with caring and sensitive ready room character is so successful, her femeninity all but ceases to be an issue by the end of the season.  She’s a woman, sure, but first and foremost, she is in charge of a starship–and Berman and Braga wisely make that the central focus here.  Along for the ride is first officer Chakotay, the leader of the motley Maquis crew; freewheeling helmsman Tom Paris; naive, wet-behind-the-ears Harry Kim; tough but brilliant half-klingon engineer B’elanna Torres; and a handful of supporting characters like Neelix, Kes, and the unnamed holographic doctor.  At times the show feels like the characters were cobbled together in a focus group (“Ok guys, we need a womanizer, a ‘new guy,’ and a Klingon!”) but through their exploration of the Delta Quadrant the crew encounters enough situations to really give them a chance to interact, learn, and grow, and by the end they start to feel like a crew that really does work together and rely on each other.

Where things get a bit rocky is the aliens, as the omnipresent villains, the Kazon, are more like paint-by-numbers Klingon ripoffs than a true alien race.  Neelix, a Talaxian care-bear version of Han Solo and Kes, his sidekick Ocampa girlfriend, are picked up by Voyager but don’t really serve much of a purpose other than to be used as traditional Star Trek exposition sounding boards (Kes:  “How does this weird space device work?” Starfleet Officer: “Good question! Let me explain it so you, and the audience, can understand!”) and to generally be annoying or get in the way.  Neelix appoints himself Morale Officer, a title which only gets more embarrassing as time goes on, and generally exhibits a ninth-grade-level of possessiveness over Kes, which is thankfully dropped midway through Season Two.

Voyager Kazon

The of the dumber alien races to appear on Star Trek (and that includes the Gorn).

The Vidiians are a bit more interesting, and post a more dangerous threat other than simply carrying a bigger stick, but still a far cry from Romulans, Cardassians, or even Ferengi. And really, if a captain is trying to get her crew back home, why does she stop to investigate every potentially dangerous and harmful space anomaly she finds?  But then, a show in which nothing dangerous ever happened wouldn’t be all that interesting to watch, so I can overlook this a little.  But only a little.

The 16 episodes in Season One run the gamut from time travel, to alien encounters, to wormholes, to good old-fashioned murder investigations.  There is also a bit of political intrigue thrown into the mix with the defection of one of the Maquis to the Kazon, and some soul searching when Torres is essentially separated into two individuals:  one human, and one Klingon. But at the heart of nearly every episode is a focus not on the action, special effects, and harrowing space battles (yes, Voyager is all about the molasses-paced shield-draining phaser-based ship combat), but a focus on the characters.  Almost every episode helps us get to know someone better, or shows us how a character overcomes an internal conflict, or gives us a bit of insight into what it means to be human.  And for a show’s inaugural season, it’s hard to ask for much more.


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Star Trek

This review isn’t exactly timely, as Star Trek was released in theatres over six months ago, but having just watched it for the fifth time (four times in the theatre, once at a friend’s house a few nights ago), I think it’s high time we had a writeup of one of the best science fiction movies in years here on Walking Taco.

My history with Star Trek dates back nearly twenty years: the first episode I remember seeing was Final Mission, with my cousins Jason and Nathan at their home in Saint Louis when I was only about ten years ago.  Since that young age I have been hooked on Star Trek, not just for its portrayal of science fiction, but for the characters.  The genius of Gene Roddenberry’s creation lies not in fantastic tales of starships exploring the galaxy, but in using that backdrop as a canvas to paint a tapestry of human interactions and as a way of exploring the human condition in 45-minute chunks every week.  Several spinoffs and ten movies later, it’s this core strength of Star Trek that keeps it relevant in a world where many of the futuristic gadgets and fiction elements of the series are now most decidedly fact.

Part of Star Trek movie lore is that the even-numbered movies are generally the best:  Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, Undiscovered Country, and First Contact are the better of the celluloid-based incarnations of the series.  The cycle was broken…no, entirely blown away, with Star Trek Nemesis, though, a film that debuted at #2 on its opening weekend, next to Maid in Manhattan.  Yes, any time a movie series opens below a Jennifer Lopez movie, you know there’s trouble.  And so the series stagnated, and after seven years it was time for a reboot–not only of the franchise, but of the entire Star Trek timeline as a whole.  Star Trek (no subtitle this time, folks) is a reinvention of the franchise that turns everything we know about Trek on its head, while staying true to the core concepts so deeply rooted in Roddenberry’s original series in such a way that most of the newer TV spinoffs and movies have never even done.  It makes Star Trek relevant again, and updates the series for a new generation of youngsters raised on the science fiction movies and TV shows that have cropped up in the wake of Star Trek, but unaware of how amazing the source material, when peeled back to its basic fundamentals, can truly be.

Spock and Kirk, reimagined for a new generation of moviegoers.

Spock and Kirk, reimagined for a new generation of moviegoers.

The movie, directed by J.J. Abrams, begins aboard the U.S.S. Kelvin, a starship out exploring during the early days of Starfleet.  Upon investigating what is described as a lightning storm in outer space, the crew realized it’s actually a black hole-type of anomaly with a giant ship emerging from it.  The commander of the ship orders the captain of the Kelvin to come over for a chat, which leaves George Kirk in charge of the Kelvin.  Shortly thereafter, the captain of the Kelvin is killed, a battle ensues, everyone abandons ship including Kirk’s pregnant wife who has just gone into labor.  But wouldn’t you know it, Kirk is the only one who can fend off the incoming torpedoes long enough to provide an escape for the exiting shuttlecraft.  Sure enough, Kirk ends up sacrificing his life for his crew, but gets just enough time to go over baby names with his wife before he kicks the bucket.  And yes, their son, born amidst the chaos of a space battle, grows up to become the famous James T. Kirk we all know and love.

Right away the movie deviates from established canon of the series, as any Star Trek fan knows Captain Kirk was born in Iowa and knew his father rather well–a fact that is actually acknowledged by the movie at one point.  But the appearance of the mysterious spaceship (which, we find out, came back from the future to prevent a planetwide catastrophe) serves to alter the history of Star Trek lore altogether.  This genius move by Abrams and co. allows them to have near-total creative freedom within the Star Trek universe–no longer constrained by what *should* happen, according to the hundreds of hours of existing Star Trek TV shows and movies, they are free to have the characters we know and love do anything they want to.  And yet Abrams

Simon Pegg does an excellent job as Scotty, the ever-frazzled chief engineer.

Simon Pegg does an excellent job as Scotty, the ever-frazzled chief engineer.

plays this mechanic with a very even hand, not having the familiar characters deviate from their expected norms, but at the same time crafting a Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and the rest of the bridge crew, who are familiar and brand new at the same time.  In fact, the actors do an amazing job of inhabiting their characters throughout the movie, especially Zachary Quinto in the role of Spock.  His every nuance is so dead-on that it’s almost as if Leonard Nimoy himself were playing the role, and when Quinto’s Spock meets up with Nimoy’s Spock at the end of the movie, it is as if we really are watching the exact same character, to the point that it hardly even seems like two different actors.

The plot is outlandish and far-fetched, but fits the tone of the movie perfectly.  Planets are destroyed, armadas are locked in combat, ships explode, people are chased by giant monsters, and in the middle of it all are two time-traveling spaceships whose existence changes the entire fabric of the universe.  And even after watching the movie five times, I am still amazed at how much action there is.  Hardly a minute goes by when there’s not a fistfight, firefight, spaceship battle, or black hole sucking in everything in its path.  But at its core, the movie is not about action, explosions, or spaceships:  it’s about a young man coming face to face with his own destiny.  It’s a retelling of the Hero Myth we have heard time and time again from infancy–a myth that is forever immortalized by Luke Skywalker staring at the twin suns of Tattoine as he contemplates what the future holds.  Indeed, Star Trek even acknowledges this with young Kirk gazing at the Enterprise while it is still under construction, pondering what lies ahead for him.  My only thought now is what lies ahead for the series, and this movie leaves me with more hope and excitement for Star Trek than I have had in quite some time.


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Rating: 5.0/5 (6 votes cast)