Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek: The thinking man's sci-fi

Star Trek may be my favorite entertainment franchise, but it's not for everyone. Even among dedicated Star Trek fans, certain flavors of Star Trek are downright unpalatable. Still, Star Trek is unquestionably one of the best sci-fi experiences around...if you're exposed to it properly.

Unfortunately, too many people judge Star Trek on first impressions, and on fans who turned down a date with them to go home and work on an emotion chip for their android girlfriend. However, relying on one single episode or movie or fanboy to determine whether or not you like Star Trek is like keeping your eyes exclusively on the shortstop to determine whether or not you like baseball.

Granted, it's possible to watch a few movies or a whole season of Star Trek and still not like it. Sometimes Star Trek just isn't accessible enough to the masses--it's "high sci-fi" that is usually only enjoyable if the fans can remember the names of numerous alien races, the functions of countless techno doohickeys, and whether it's possible (or wise, for that matter) to transfer your katra to a targ during pon farr and then mind-meld with it.

Other times Star Trek forgets the guiding principles on which Star Trek is based, eschewing its philosophical nature, not staying true to its characters, and trying to gain a greater appeal by becoming indistinguishable from any generic sci-fi out there.

But...

When Star Trek is truly Star Trek, when the size and scope of the starships invoke a sense of awe, when the character interactions are genuine, when the plot deals with the best and worst that human nature has to offer, when the heroes use their words and their wits to diffuse an impossible situation, and when an Andorian who so deserves it gets punched in the face...

...When Star Trek is truly Star Trek, it's an unforgettable experience that is as entertaining as it is meaningful.

As is to be expected, Star Trek fans are prone to playing favorites; if you ask them for advice on which series to watch, you're bound to hear that you must start with this one series, and that this other series is so awful it shouldn't even be considered canon. To assist you with figuring out which kind of Star Trek might be for you, here is a semi-brief guide to the different Star Trek series, with just a hint of my own personal bias.


Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS)

Once known as just plain Star Trek, the TOS television show (1966-1969) is a very episodic series that throws the crew of the starship Enterprise up against all sorts of strange aliens and ship-threatening situations. TOS is generally very easy to jump into at any point, given that virtually every episode is self-contained and requires little or no prior knowledge to enjoy.

Star Trek: The Original Series castTOS really revolves around the bold and cunning Captain Kirk and the logical, half-human/half-Vulcan science officer Spock; although the other characters don't always play as great a role, their quirkiness and banter with other characters makes them every bit as memorable. Among these characters are a down-to-earth doctor who tells it like it is (McCoy), an engineer who is deeply proud of his ship (Scotty), a communications officer with a love of music (Uhura); a tactical officer with a love of antique weapons and botany (Sulu); a helmsman who is boastful of his Russian heritage (Chekov); and a lovesick nurse (Chapel).

TOS episodes tend to fall into similar patterns: the ship encounters an all-powerful being; some sort of duplicate crew member (or crew members) is on the loose; the crew discovers a planet that is almost identical to Earth at some point in its history; somebody gets thrown into prison and needs to break out; the crew meets a missing starship captain who always ends up working against them somehow; Kirk is forced into a fight to the death with an alien and inevitably loses his shirt; etc. Sure, the limited budget didn't always allow for more diverse adventures, and the show often feels more retro than futuristic at this point in time, but TOS establishes the framework of the entire Star Trek universe and has some very fun, very interesting episodes along the way.

Star Trek: The Animated Series crewAn oft-forgotten piece of Star Trek history is Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS), which is essentially TOS without the budgetary restrictions of live-action television. With two short seasons of half-length episodes, TAS features the voice talents of all the original actors from the main cast (minus Walter Koenig, whose Chekov character is notably absent from the show). Aside from a few especially goofy moments here and there, TAS fits in surprisingly well with TOS, bringing back some recurring characters and even offering some valuable character development that never transpired on the original show.

The original Star Trek continues through six adventures on the big screen featuring Kirk and his crew, and most people know of the infamous odds/evens rule: to put it as objectively as possible, the odd-numbered Star Trek films are weaker than the even-numbered films. Here's a quick overview of these six films:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture posterStar Trek: The Motion Picture: This film apparently intended to capitalize on the "Ooh! Aah!" factor of the big screen; if you cut out all the panoramic space vistas and shots of the Enterprise slowly gliding by, the movie is about 45 minutes long. Still true to the series, though, and still worth watching, if for no other reason than to hear a bald woman refer to the captain as "Kirk Unit." (See? Now you're interested.)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: A strong villain, plot twists, character development, a tense battle of wits between two starship captains, and some of the most memorable moments in Star Trek history. 'Nuff said.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: A continuation of Wrath of Khan that pits man versus nature, stars Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon, and shows a lot of big stuff getting destroyed.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: The conclusion to the story arc begun in Wrath of Khan, and typically the most popular Star Trek movie among non-fans because it involves time-traveling back to 20th-century San Francisco to steal some whales.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: The Enterprise is hijacked and taken to meet God. Like, you know...God. There are rocket boots involved.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: A murder mystery, political intrigue, a shapeshifter, a Shakespeare-spouting Klingon, lots of action, and every character gets a chance to shine. In my humble little opinion, a spectacular final outing for the entire original crew.


Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG)

TNG is where Star Trek began to develop into a fully realized universe; whereas the Star Trek universe in the original TV series consists primarily of the Enterprise and the isolated planets and characters that are encountered, TNG leaves the impression that there's a vast, dynamic universe out there that has planetary alliances and political turmoil and sinister aliens plotting their conquest of the galaxy.

Star Trek: The Next Generation castTNG (1987-1994) takes place nearly a century after the events of the original Star Trek and features an all-new crew aboard an all-new Enterprise. Under the command of the refined and diplomatic Captain Picard are a brash, womanizing first officer (Riker); an emotionless android who longs to be human (Data); a counselor who can sense the emotions of others (Troi); a Klingon security chief abandoned by his own people (Worf); a blind chief engineer with an intense passion for his work (LaForge); and a theatrical, motherly doctor (Crusher), just to name a few.

Unlike the original Star Trek, where Kirk and Spock (and McCoy) were clearly the leading characters, TNG is more of an ensemble show where all of the characters are roughly of equal importance--Captain Picard might be in command of the ship, but there are numerous episodes that have nothing to do with him whatsoever.

TNG is still fairly episodic, but certain recurring characters and continuing plotlines throughout the series and help to tie everything together. Setting the standard for Star Treks to come, nearly every episode has two plots: a main plot, and a subplot that usually ties into the main plot somehow. Episodes might cover everything from exploring an unknown planet to tracking down an intruder aboard the ship to developing the backstory of just one character.

There are four movies starring the Next Generation cast, and the first two are widely believed to be better than the second two, though the odds/evens rule is still more or less in effect. Here's a brief look at what they are:

Star Trek: Generations posterStar Trek: Generations: This film represents the passing of the torch from the original Star Trek to The Next Generation. There's planets in peril, a madman who must be stopped, loose ends tied up from the TV show, and cameos--one big one in particular--from a few of the original series characters.

Star Trek: First Contact: Normally hailed as the strongest of the Next Generation films, this one brings back our old friend Time Travel and puts the heroes up against one of Star Trek's greatest villains, a collective of cybernetically enhanced beings that seek to conquer the universe (think robotic zombie honeybees) known as the Borg.

Star Trek: Insurrection: This movie feels like an extra-long episode of the TV series, and as such doesn't fully capitalize on its cinematic potential. The Enterprise must defend a planet that acts as the proverbial fountain of youth from some goons who want to take it for themselves.

Star Trek: Nemesis: The final Next Generation film is all about family, clones, doppelgangers, the crafty Romulans, and what it means to be human. I once described Nemesis as "an okay movie that's a disappointing end to the series," but I know at least one other person who would describe it as "an abomination that never happened." It's very easy to get caught up in criticizing the film, but if you are willing to overlook the negative and focus on the positive, Nemesis might not be as bad a conclusion as people say.


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9)

Set on an alien space station near a wormhole leading to a faraway quadrant of the galaxy, DS9 (1993-1999) deals with political tension, religious issues, racial relations, wars, and other heavy challenges that make the show darker than any other Star Trek.

It's not that the show is all doom and gloom, but a happy ending is never guaranteed, and even the happy endings are sometimes bittersweet. TNG especially shows a very utopian vision of the future where humanity has worked out its own problems, but DS9 is gritty and depicts a cast of imperfect people in an imperfect environment.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine castThere are too many recurring characters on the show to list here, and the permanent cast changes a little through out the course of the show, but some of the main characters include the tough, baseball-loving Captain Sisko; his adventurous son (Jake); a shapeshifting security chief (Odo); a Bajoran militia officer fighting for the safety of her homeworld (Kira); a science officer who has lived several lifetimes in several different bodies (Dax); a cheerful and overachieving doctor (Bashir); an opportunistic Ferengi bartender (Quark); a Cardassian who revels in his own air of mystery (Garak); and an outgoing engineer (carried over from TNG, along with Worf in later seasons) who is quite possibly the most normal, "human" human on Star Trek (O'Brien).

Chronologically, DS9 begins during the final season of TNG, so there's plenty of crossover between the two series. DS9, however, is far less episodic after its third season; catching a random episode on TV is likely to result in confusion and unnecessary spoilers, so it's best to watch this series in order if you can help it.


Star Trek: Voyager (VOY)

Set during the same time period as DS9, this series follows the crew of the starship Voyager, which has been thrown all the way to the other side of the galaxy and is now approximately 75 years away from home and trying to make their way back.
Voyager is, in a way, an amalgam of all the Star Trek series that came before it: the show tends to be very episodic and the crew is constantly encountering new life and strange new worlds (as was the case in TOS), but this happens mostly within the confines of a single ship (just as much of DS9 takes place on board the space station) that looks and feels a good deal like the Enterprise of TNG. There's just a lot more questionable science than usual.

Star Trek: Voyager castVoyager (1995-2001) stars the first female captain to lead a Star Trek show, the no-nonsense Captain Janeway, as well as a cast made up of characters that is composed of both Starfleet officers (the good guys) and ex-Maquis (the good bad guys). These include a first officer with strong ties his Native American ancestry (Chakotay); a rigidly serious Vulcan security officer (Tuvok); a fiery half-Klingon engineer (Torres); a wisecracking ex-con navigator (Paris); a kindly Talaxian chef/morale officer/jack-of-all-trades (Neelix); a sardonic holographic doctor (simply, The Doctor); an upstanding and by-the-book young operations manager (Kim); and a perpetually young-looking girl with mental powers (Kes) who is eventually replaced by a perpetually attractive-looking woman (Seven) who was once a part of the Borg collective.

Although Voyager takes place on the other side of the galaxy from the rest of Star Trek, that doesn't mean there isn't any crossover. There's at least one familiar race that's based in this corner of the galaxy, and there are numerous episodes that find a clever way to bring back characters and races from the other series. Voyager is connected to the greater Star Trek universe without being tethered to the framework and history of the part of the galaxy where the rest of the franchise has thrived, so it's a fresh spin on Star Trek for those in need of a change of pace, and it's largely accessible to first-timers.


Star Trek: Enterprise (ENT)

Taking place a little over a century before the original Star Trek, Enterprise (2001-2005) shows the early years of Earth's manned missions of interstellar exploration, providing a great deal of insight about the events and aliens seen in TOS and other series. Like all other Star Trek spinoffs, Enterprise took a while to discover its individual identity and become its own unique series... except it took much longer than usual; as a result, when the show finally did start to hit its stride, it wasn't much longer before it was cancelled. This is something of a tragedy, because the storylines proposed for the cancelled fifth season had fantastic potential.

Star Trek: Enterprise crewThis Enterprise is headed by the athletic, dog-loving Captain Archer, who commands a crew that includes a wary and judgmental female Vulcan (T'Pol); a genial and quirky Denobulan doctor (Phlox); a British armory officer with a strong military and naval family history (Reed); a helmsman born and raised in space (Mayweather); a communications officer with incredible linguistic skills (Sato); and a personable engineer with a fondness for ancient cinema (Tucker).

One of the aspects of Enterprise that makes it most interesting is that the show takes place during a time when the starship technology everyone takes for granted in other series either is being tested for the first time or doesn't exist at all. Transporters, for example, are used for beaming cargo and could be potentially hazardous to living creatures. If you're looking for a break from the super-futuristic feel of other Star Trek series, Enterprise might just be for you.


NuTrek

In 2009, a film simply titled Star Trek was released. Without spoiling too much, the film effectively rebooted the entire Star Trek franchise while attempting (loosely) to stay in continuity. Star Trek is simultaneously a prequel starring the Original Series characters and not really a prequel at all.

It's complicated. The Star Trek: Countdown comic helps to explain the jump from Nemesis to NuTrek (as this alternate Star Trek is sometimes called), as the movie's explanation is just barely adequate enough to make sense on its own.

The 2009 movie itself is often more like Star Wars than Star Trek, but there's enough inside references to placate the longtime fans. It's got a distinctly younger, "hipper" feel than the other movies, and for the first time in Star Trek history, there's no clear consensus from the fans about the movie. Some say it's exactly the jolt that Star Trek needed to stay alive and relevant, while others criticize it for taking the franchise in an unwelcome direction.

Either way, Star Trek marks a brand-new chapter for...Star Trek, and it's a great jumping-on point for neophytes...and possibly a great jumping-off point for certain dedicated fans.


--


Of course, there are countless other ways to experience Star Trek. Lots of great comics. Oodles of books. Manga, even. Action figures. Video games, too...but Star Trek video games are notorious for being lousy, so make sure you do your research before buying anything. Star Trek Online is your best bet right now if you're into the whole Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game thing.

Really, I could be here all day describing everything, but I think I'll save that for another time.

U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701So if you haven't already watched all the Star Trek there is to watch, I encourage you to test the waters. Catch a few episodes. Try out a series. Pick up a graphic novel. Go see the 2009 movie. You've already spent enough of your time reading this bulky post about Star Trek...I think it's time you get out there and experience Star Trek.


[Captains poster image from tv.infinitecoolness.com. All other images from memory-alpha.org.]

8 comments:

Clinton said...

I am a huge Star Trek fan. I've read several of your posts on Star Trek. I generally agree with most of what you have to say, but as is to be expected I did disagree with some things. I know that most trekkies hated Insurrection, but personally I loved it. TNG is my all-time favorite show and in fact, it's the series that first got me into Star Trek. Yes, Insurrection felt like an over-long episode of the series, but perhaps that's why I enjoyed it so much. It reminded me of the enjoyment I had of watching each new episode when it was still being broadcast.

And personally, I also enjoyed Nemesis. Sure, there were some things I didn't like about it. But it still felt like TNG to me. It still dealt with philosophical issues, in this case the age-old nature vs. nurture debate. Why did Picard turn out the way he did, and Shinzon became almost a polar opposite. Then there was Picard's inner struggle about how much of him was really in Shinzon and how much of Shinzon was really in him.

I could say more, but perhaps I should start a blog myself. :D Take care, and I'm really enjoying perusing your blog.

Clinton said...

Oh, and P.S.:

I checked out the link for the proposed fifth season of Star Trek: Enterprise, and now I'm actually more upset than I was about Enterprise's cancellation. Most of those episodes would have been awesome, especially the proposed Dr. Who crossover (I'm also a huge fan of Dr. Who). I hope they eventually write novels about these proposed episodes that we can consider canon. That might actually take some of the sting off of the realization that they won't happen.

Flashman85 said...

Glad to have you on board, Clinton! Now, let's see here...

I liked Insurrection, too--I was just pointing out that it didn't live up to the potential of its medium. Sort of like playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on an IMAX screen. A little bit.

As I said, I thought Nemesis was okay. There are elements of it that I greatly appreciated, and thinking back on it there was a bit more philosophical stuff than I gave it credit for, it's just that the structure that served as the catalyst for that wasn't developed or explained enough for my taste.

Concerning Enterprise, I recall seeing a group of people trying to do a 5th season as an episodic mod of the PC game Star Trek: Voyager: Elite Force (or possibly Elite Force 2... or heck, maybe it was Half-Life 2). Poke around a bit; maybe it's still out there?

I haven't been following the books, but there's definitely hope for more Star Trek in the comics realm. Already we've gotten stories that bridge the gap between TOS and ST:TMP, Nemesis and Star Trek XI, plus stories about various aliens and Sulu's Excelsior and... well, Star Trek is alive and well in comics, and who knows where they'll go next?

Stefano Wohsdioghasdhisdg said...

I recently started watching Star Trek, and I've enjoyed The Next Generation. That being said, I have heard that Star Trek: Generations was not very good, while you stated that it was better than Insurrection and Nemesis (which I have also heard aren't very good, though). My point is that you stated that Generations was in the good section. I have not watched it yet, but I would like to know why you classified it as good.

Flashman85 said...

Stefano: I can probably tell you what people's biggest complaints about Generations are. They are fair criticisms, but they don't entirely dominate my opinion of the film.

First, the film feels more like an alternate series finale than a standalone movie...which is bad because (a) it alienates the viewers who haven't seen the show, and (b) the final episode of TNG, "All Good Things...", already provided a satisfying conclusion to the show, and the closure to the series that Generations provides is meaningful, but ultimately less satisfying.

Second, many fans were outraged by the treatment of a beloved character who makes a major cameo in the film. At the very least, there was a lot of wasted potential.

Third, In general, it's the villains that really make or break a Star Trek film. The primary villain is more of a peripheral anti-villain who's difficult to love or hate (he's just selfish and misunderstood!), which puts pressure on the supporting villains to be primary villains, which only works so well.

However, I'm supposed to be making a case for Generations being a good film! Though I acknowledge the shortcomings, I also acknowledge the triumphs:

The opening to the film feels just like any of the original six Star Trek films, and provides a wonderful sense of continuity to transition from one crew of the Enterprise to another.

If you're as in love with the starships of Star Trek as I am, this film offers some terrific eye candy. And stuff blows up real good, too.

Some of the philosophical questions about friends, family, humanity, reality, and eternity are especially intriguing. If you can accept the movie as it is and aren't tearing it apart for the flaws, there's really a lot to think about, some very significant character development for several characters, and a lot of loose ends from the TV series get tied up.

Lastly, Data is hilarious. Period.

As for the other films:

First Contact is what all other TNG films inevitably get compared to. Strong villains, great dialogue, explosive action, a satisfying conclusion, etc.

Insurrection is a more consistently enjoyable experience than Generations, but it doesn't feel very cinematic in scope (more like an extended TV episode), and the high points aren't as high as some of the most memorable parts of Generations.

Nemesis has enough merits to warrant a watch (mostly for the action sequences), but a multitude of issues spoil the enjoyment for most fans.

So, I would argue that Generations is, at the very least, not significantly worse than any other TNG movie. At best, it's a good movie that would benefit from a few key revisions, and is too often judged on what came before and after, rather than on its own merits.

Definitely watch if, if you're enjoying TNG; just wait until you've finished the TV series (and watched at least a little bit of the original Star Trek movies or TV series) before you see it.

Stefano Wohsdioghasdhisdg said...

All right, thanks. And speaking of the original movies, I've heard of the even/odd rule, but should I watch the odd numbered movies at all, or not? I know you suggested watching I, and after watching II, I want to watch III, if just to see what happens to Spock (okay, we all knew what would happen), but should I really? And, God? All Good Things..., at least the novelization I read, makes it clear that life was created by evolution in their universe or reality or whatever. How exactly can there be God if they claim that God didn't create the world? And rocket boots sound fun. I also have Voyager Season 3, (just 3) and have watched quite a few episodes. I really liked it. I found it very interesting to have them somewhere else entirely and have them encounter things we've never seen before. And as for the Original Series, I think it's pretty good. It's not nearly as "good" as TNG or VOY, but it's good in different ways. While I enjoy the characterization and overarching stories in the later series... serieses? series's? seriess? I really like the characters in the original. They are some of the most iconic characters in the series (I mean, EVERYBODY knows Spock) and the episodes I've seen are very interesting. Of course, I was watching the Best Of DVDs, so they would be good, but I refuse to believe that in a series that ran that long, there were only 8 really good episodes. And the reboot... I really liked it, but watching the old Star Trek shows after reading your rant, I realized that you had some good points. And I hated what they did to Uhura. Kirk felt like a jerk sometimes, and the fact that they didn't mention any of the four other Star Treks at all (Okay, I know three of them happened afterwards, but Countdown did it, and Enterprise was a prequel) was kind of rude to fans of TNG, DS9, VOY, and/or ENT. Wow. That's long. Anyways, sorry for the excessively long reply with more questions than necessary, but I have discovered Star Trek, and I want to learn where I should boldly go from someone who has gone before. (That was fun to write)

Stefano Wohsdioghasdhisdg said...

P.S.

I've watched like 2 episodes of DS9, and it was... okay. I didn't really know what all was happening, so I couldn't enjoy it as much, but I do think the premise has promise, and what you wrote about it intrigues me. I may have to check it out. And now for a completely off topic question: Why are there no DS9, VOY, or ENT films?

Flashman85 said...

Stefano: Whaaaa! Lots to respond to.

The number one rule of Star Trek: If you like Star Trek, watch Star Trek. You can modulate your expectations based on other people's opinions, but don't give up on watching something just because some people said, vaguely, that it wasn't any good.

For the original series movies, Star Trek II, III, and IV form a continuous storyline; definitely watch all three of them. The odds/evens rules is almost universally agreed to be accurate, though I should note that it's better stated that the even-numbered movies are STRONGER, but not necessarily the only good ones.

You'll have to see for yourself about God in Star Trek V (after you've watched III and IV, of course); bear in mind that there is SO much continuity to keep track of that there may be occasional contradictions, or things that SEEM like contradictions until you look at them a little more closely.

You've jumped into Voyager at a pretty good place at Season 3, actually; with the exception of TOS, which hit its stride almost immediately, Star Trek series in general take about 2-3 seasons before they really find their footing. You're going to start seeing some references to other series, if you haven't already, so it's beneficial to keep watching TOS and especially TNG, but not mandatory.

DS9, on the other hand, is probably best avoided until you've seen some of TNG's story arcs through to completion: the Borg, the Klingon Civil War, and the Bajoran/Cardassian conflict, specifically. Even then, you really need to watch the entire series in order; some of the earlier episodes can be skipped without incident, but by the time Season 3 rolls around, missing an episode can train-wreck your understanding and enjoyment of the show.

TNG will forever be my favorite, but in terms of structure, plot and character development, and making meaningful connections to every Star Trek series (except ENT, which wasn't around yet), DS9 is unquestionably the superior series. It can be tough to get into, but it's incredibly rewarding if you stick with it; marathoning is a good idea.

I would speculate that we never got a DS9 movie because the TNG films were still going for a couple years after DS9 went off the air; Nemesis was a critical and commercial failure, which called into question the possibility of ANY new Star Trek movie, let alone one from a series not as many people were familiar with (DS9). For that reason, and also because the series ends pretty conclusively, VOY never had much chance of getting a movie.

ENT was supposed to run for at least five seasons, but it was canceled after four; they would've needed to pull a Joss Whedon to make a film, but the fanbase simply wasn't there. And, again, Nemesis was still fresh in everyone's minds when ENT went off the air, so odds were extremely unfavorable for a film.

So, to summarize, in your particular situation, I would boldly go through the following items first:

- Star Trek III-VI (in order)
- TNG (as much as you can, especially through Seasons 3-6, where most of the major events happen)
- TOS (whatever episodes you can catch here and there)
- VOY (keep going from Season 3, and at some point circle back to Seasons 1-2)

Then, once you've made some progress on those:

- Star Trek: The Motion Picture
- TNG (whatever you haven't seen)
- VOY (whatever you haven't seen)
- TOS (whatever you haven't seen)
- DS9 (start from the beginning)

And, finally,

- Star Trek VII-X (Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, Nemesis)
- DS9 (whatever you haven't seen)
- ENT (start from the beginning)
- TAS (that's Star Trek: The Animated series; catch a few episodes or watch the whole thing)

The great part is that TOS, TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT are all currently on Netflix, along with at least a few of the movies. You can also watch all the episodes from every series (including TAS) online for FREE at startrek.com. Enjoy!