08 May 2009

Obligatory Star Trek post

With the new Star Trek movie arriving in theaters in the US this Friday (and hopefully pirated copies in Arab bazaars shortly thereafter), I thought I'd weigh in on the world of Trek.

Before deploying, I thought I'd round up the original series on DVD. The original series is by far my favorite, but I haven't had the opportunity to watch all of the episodes. In the interests of purity, I purchased the DVD set where there's absolutely no tinkering with the 1960s-era special effects. Yes, the crippled USS Constitution model in "The Doomsday Machine" is simply a USS Enterprise model that some lazy special effects technician just took a cigarette lighter to. Yes, the monster ship that threatens all of humanity is simply a poorly-decorated windsock. But that's okay, at least it's a good story.

The franchise has had its series of ups and downs, especially in the movies. There are Trek movies that are excellent—The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country ranking among them. There are also Trek movies that are abysmal—The Final Frontier and Nemesis being the worst of the bunch.

I could go on about how much I like the good Trek movies, but let's be honest, it's much more fun to make fun of the series at times. Nemesis is a case in point of one of those Trek movies that's just simply bad. It's essentially a copy-and-paste of the script from The Wrath of Khan. I suppose one of the writers wanted to make a great Trek movie and decided that simply re-hashing the best script of all time was a great way of doing it. Right down to the Data/Spock's-dead-but-not-dead moment at the end of the movie, it's practically a verbatim repeat. It actually takes talent to not only rip off the best script of all time but also subsequently fuck the movie up, but they actually managed to do it.

But there's another Trek movie that's so bad, it's actually laughably good. That movie is the 1979 classic, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Basically, Paramount pictures was planning another Star Trek TV series, called "Star Trek: Phase II", but it was cancelled during production. So what to do with all of the scripts and special effects shots? Well, how about taking a one hour episode and adding an extra hour of special effects to it in order to make a two-hour movie? Sounds like a plan to me.

The basic plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP for those of us in the know) is that a Voyager probe from the 20th Century went through a wormhole and wound up on the other side of the galaxy, landing on a planet filled with machines. The machines build a massive ship for the probe, which is trying to return to Earth to meet its "creator". The plot had already been done before in one episode, and, well, the writers really weren't that creative. So not only do we have a one-hour episode stretched over two hours, but we have an OLD one-hour episode stretched over two hours.

Of course, we don't know that there really is a Voyager probe trying to run home to mommy. Instead, we are treated to an awesome spectacle of late 1970s Tron-era graphics of a massive cloud headed to Earth, and a mysterious entity identifying itself only as V'Ger—the "OYA" in Voyager's dataplate had been worn out. The cloud—82 astronomical units in diameter—is on a collision course with Earth, the center of civilization.

Of course, there's only one starship in the entire Starfleet that is anywhere remotely near the home of the Federation, Earth. This must apparently mean that Department of Homeland Security is still alive and well in the 23rd Century. Not to mention, wouldn't you know it, the only ship available is the newly re-fitted USS Enterprise.

The movie begins with Admiral James T. Kirk arriving at Starfleet HQ in San Francisco. William Shatner must have made a conscious decision to do a comic impersonation of himself during the entire movie, because his acting throughout all of TMP is significantly more, well, Shatner-esque, than anything we've ever seen before. For example, highlighting the urgency of the mission, Admiral Kirk declares his intention to move aboard the USS Enterprise:

It is my intention….to be on that ship…in one hour.

Okay, I lied. The movie is actually three hours long. One hour of plot, one hour of special effects, and one hour of William Shatner's dramatic pauses.

But on to special effects. One of the interesting plot points in this movie is that the transporters on the Enterprise are out of order. This is actually a curious reversal of a convenient little plot device from the original TV series. In the 60s, the writers for the TV series came up with the idea of the transporter because, well, they didn't have the budget to film shuttle ships leaving the Enterprise and whatnot.

In the late 70s, the writers had significantly more money than ideas. I suppose they must have thought that, hey, those long, sweeping shots of ships passing by worked for movies like 2001 and in Star Wars. If we do the same thing, we'll be sure to have an awesome movie! Therefore, they decided that transporters no longer worked, and we'll fill up some time having elaborate shots of shuttles docking with spaceships.

As we later see when Admiral Kirk and Scotty take a shuttle to the Enterprise, this gets boring rather quickly. It takes five and a half minutes for Kirk's shuttle to leave the orbital spacedock and finally latch on to the USS Enterprise. If you pay attention, you'll notice that Kirk and Scotty deliberately take the long way around the ship, making a complete circle around the ship (great shots), before finally docking.

This is about 99% of what Star Trek: The Motion Picture is all about. There are a number of scenes which are just long, extended special effects shots—for example, Spock's shuttle docking with the Enterprise and numerous fly-bys of the V'Ger ship which just go on and on and on.

There are also a number of things worth laughing about in this movie—for example, the skin-tight pastel Starfleet uniforms the crew must wear. There's also great humor in Dr. McCoy's pimp outfit, gold medallion and beard when he beams aboard the Enterprise. Not to mention, who couldn't help but chuckle to himself upon seeing Mr. Sulu's infatuation with a female crewmember (who looks like a prepubescent boy). This scene is particularly funny, especially when you take into consideration that George Takei is, in fact, gay.

But there are a number of things worth cringing over. The extreme-slow-motion action sequence where the Enterprise almost hits an asteroid, complete with blurry rainbow effects is one such scene. And, in early un-edited versions of the movie, the incessant "RED ALERT, RED ALERT, RED ALERT" which goes on for ten minutes straight is downright God-damned annoying.

But what really sums up the movie is a scene in which the Enterprise approaches the mysterious cloud surrounding the V'Ger ship. The crew marvels at its size—it must hold a crew of ten thousands. Or, as the ever-astute Mr. Sulu observes, it might hold a crew of ten, a thousand stories tall. For about ten minutes, we're treated with shots of the V'Ger cloud, interspersed with the reactions on the crew's faces. Mr. Sulu is downright terrified, Spock is mildly interested, and Shatner is, well, Shatner.

We are treated to some epic, creepy sounding music (complete with a 1970s-era blaster beam) with some bizarre visuals on the screen. But, wait, take a look at the visuals on the screen. Doesn't it look as if they just played the soundtrack on Windows Media Player (or Winamp) and used the visualization as the special effect? Looks like it to me.

Focus: Is the new Star Trek movie any good? Can anyone pirate it and send it this way? Thanks!

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