Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek... Into Reruns!

Update: iTunes is running a sale on all Star Trek films and TV seasons. For those of you interested I recommend you check it out.

Original Post:

I am big Star Trek fan. I've been sitting and reading articles about the new film and the series and disagreeing at various points, and realized that I was getting frustrated by them. Then I realized that "I have a blog," which means I can have my say. So indulge me while I give you a primer on Star Trek.

Gene Roddenberry
Its important for you to understand that Star Trek does not belong to one man, like Star Wars. It was created by a man named Gene Roddenberry in 1965 but even he never owned the idea, it actually belonged to Lucile Ball. At that time, she was heading a production company called Desilu which sat next door to Paramount Pictures. Star Trek aired on NBC (just like The Office and 30 Rock) from 1966-69. By its last year, Paramount purchased Desilu, acquiring Star Trek along with its other properties. Gene Roddenberry himself left the show after its second season, but even while he was there, a succession of people put their creative stamp on the series, which is one of the reasons its episodes are so diverse.  

Famously, Star Trek was canceled because network ratings figures did not use demographics like they do today. Star Trek was incredibly popular in the 18-35 "demo", but no one knew. Throughout the 1970's it became a touchstone for youth culture. It was after the release of the first "Star Wars" in 1977 that Paramount decided it wanted to compete in the sci-fi craze (the best modern comparison is the superhero film). 

This began the second longest running film franchise in history (both in years and installments), behind the James Bond series. From 1979-2013, Paramount has produced 12 films, and 4 additional tv series. Rather than to into detail on the entire history, I am going to give you my recommendations on what you should watch. Many of  the things I don't list may still be worthwhile for you once you've seen the others, and some I won't list aren't worth your time at all. Many of you will disagree with my recommendations, but this is my blog, so I get to be right. 

1) Star Trek: the Original Series

Kirk and Spock's stunt double battle to the death!
This one is easy. It's currently on Netflix in glorious HD. But don't start at the beginning, you won't like it. However, unlike modern shows, it got good very quickly. Start about halfway into the first season and then watch through the second season. If you need an even more abbreviated schedule, try the episodes "Balance of Terror," "The Galileo 7," "Space Seed" (prequel to Wrath of Khan), "Errand of Mercy," "The City on the Edge of Forever" (consistently voted the best Star Trek episode),  "Amok Time," "Mirror, Mirror," "The Doomsday Machine," "I, Mudd," "Journey to Babel," "The Trouble with Tribbles," "A Piece of the Action," and the only entry from season 3, "The Enterprise Incident." For you modern kids, the episodes all feature a 2006 40th Anniversary restoration which features new (but retro) digital effects.

2) Star Trek Films

You do not need to watch all of the films. I actually advise against it unless you are really devoted. But you do need to watch some of them in a certain order. Some of these films will be sporadically available on Netflix, but not all, which, unfortunately, means you'll have to find a friend that owns them.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - the one that made Star Trek real

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - the one that made Star Trek feel

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - the one that made Star Trek funny
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - the one that ended the Cold War

Star Trek: First Contact - it has the Borg.

You'll notice I only listed four of the original six films. As I indicated prior, there have been many creative influences on Star Trek. These films represent one creative direction that tells a unified story, and it is this thread that maintained Star Trek in the 1980's, paving the way for the series' that followed. This is "the good stuff," and its very good. It is these films that establish the Star Trek cast as real characters. The original show presented great archetypes but ultimately didn't allow for character growth due to the format of 1960's TV. These films change that, as they grow old and truly become friends. The JJ Abrams films synthesize the characters of these films with the hijinks of the series.

3) Star Trek: Enterprise

In a way, this is a proto-version of what JJ Abrams eventually succeeded at, which is to attempt to recapture the energy and spirit of the original series with new actors. A straight reboot was considered unthinkable, but a prequel series was deemed practical. An excellent series lead in Scott Bakula really sets this series apart. Since the original, no Star Trek captain was really able to headline the show (Patrick Stewart, while excellent, was still more the head of an ensemble). Bakula's Archer was a kinder, more respectable Kirk, less womanizer and more everyman. Starting out adventurous and curious, he develops more of an edge as the series progresses, eventually almost being spiritually isolated on the show. He is supported by an excellent cast, and one of the great unsung heroes of Star Trek, writer (and fourth season Showrunner) Manny Coto. He and Gene Coon (from the original series) are probably the two best writers to have shaped Star Trek. The connections between this series and the Abrams films are clear, as the new films serve as a better sequel to Enterprise than the original series really could. This series is also available on Netflix in HD, and you should watch the third season (a season long story arc) and much of the fourth. As a fairly recent show (canceled in 2005), it's very palatable to a modern audience. A small "resurrect Enteprise on Netflix" movement has quietly begun on Facebook in the wake of leaked information indicating its Netflix viewing figures are very good.

4) Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness

JJ Abrams' films that are more films based on Star Trek than Star Trek films. Very entertaining, capturing much of the fun and essence of the original. Good entertainment, buy a ticket. I can't review STID yet because its impossible to do without spoilers. But it's worth it. Interestingly, Leonard Nimoy, who was practically exiled by the Star Trek powers that be from 1994-2005 after directing 2 of the films and executive producing one (all three of which are on my list), really supports these films because he feels they honor the work he and his colleagues did in the 60's.

5) Other Stuff

Geek Trek...
Now I left a ton of stuff off this list! I'll explain why. I hate Voyager. I've tried Deep Space 9, and while I'll admit the concept sounds cool, I have never been able to enjoy it. Watching "The Trouble with Tribbles" back to back with its DS9 homage tells you everything you need to know: it's just not fun or funny. What Deep Space 9 and Voyager are is geeky. That's not a bad thing, but it does make them niche. If you like minutiae and techno-babble you will enjoy these series. Best wishes to you.

Finally: Star Trek The Next Generation

90's Airline Crew
To many people my age and older, this "is" Star Trek. The Shakespearean, android infested, techno-centric vision of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry's late in life attempt to retake Star Trek (after Paramount removed him following the creative failure of the first film). In tone, Next Gen follows closely that first film, largely devoid of fun and hijinks, but heavy on philosophy. The original combined philosophy with fun. The films tended to embrace the fun, while Next Gen zeroed in on the philosophy. This was largely due to technical constraints (the series was produced on video and has only recently begun to be restored from its original negatives, and intensive and expensive process). The series produced many legendary Star Trek episodes such as "The Best of Both Worlds" and an excellent finale "All Good Things," but I cannot recommend it as essential Star Trek viewing. It's dense, long, and cultish; though it was intensely popular when it aired. Check it out, if it appeals to you, great. But if you are a newcomer, attracted by the characters and relationship types of the original, Next Gen will not appeal to you the same way. That said, of all the Star Trek spin-off's, it is the most original.

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