Spock lives!

The Thinker by Rodin

When us denizens of the Internet yesterday weren’t debating whether a certain dress was gold and white or blue and black we were mourning the death of actor Leonard Nimoy, famous in his portrayal of the logical and taciturn Vulcan (well, half human-half Vulcan) Mr. Spock in the original TV series Star Trek, not to mention a bunch of Star Trek movies and even some animated episodes in the 1970s. It was unclear to me which topic won the day, but I do know which topic will endure: Leonard Nimoy’s outstanding portrayal of our favorite Vulcan. Spock, and by extension Leonard Nimoy who defined him, has become immortal.

Here’s the truth about Star Trek: it was always far more about Mr. Spock than it was about Captain Kirk. This was because Leonard Nimoy could act and William Shatner could not, unless he had a really good director (e.g. Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)). But of course it was also because Spock was a far more interesting character. He was deep and mysterious, in spite of his projected lack of emotions and clockwork-like brain. He was different but somehow cool, an outsider but someone most of us secretly wanted to emulate. He was Sherlock Holmes on steroids, a super outsider fighting for truth, justice and the United Federation of Planets. He was virtually flawless: an intellectual giant that specialized in synthesizing disparate information for the benefit of good. His only flaw to my way of thinking was his dopey, over the top and undeserved loyalty to James T. Kirk, his friend for life who frankly deserved his scorn, not his admiration.

Unsurprisingly, Nimoy was thrice nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor for his role as Spock while Shatner never got a single nomination. Maybe it was the 1960s, but we couldn’t get enough of Mr. Spock. Women in particular were fascinated by Mr. Spock. In a time when women were required to tightly reign in their passionate sides, Mr. Spock gave them a safe channel to vent. In particular women were fascinated by the Kirk-Spock relationship, mainly because it hinted that two men could have a relationship of great depth during a time when men’s relations with other men were typically superficial. Women knew there was something deeper there that us men did not see: a homosexual context. Perhaps Kirk was a repressed homosexual, or at least a bisexual. Spock’s puppy dog admiration for Kirk hinted that Spock’s ultra logical personality was a mere projection. Inside he was a cauldron of passion for his true love: Kirk, and certainly not Nurse Christine Chapel.

Spock was the infectious character of his time. While the series died in 1969 the character simply would not go away. Star Trek lived principally because of the subtext of the Kirk-Spock relationship. It was women more than men who kept the show in their hearts and petitioned Paramount for movies and spinoffs. When the movies became successful (and they did when the Kirk-Spock relationship became front and center in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan) of course the demand would spin off all sorts of Star Trek themed shows, some good, some not so good.

The emotional subtext of Spock aside, we grooved on Spock because of what he stood for. Our world today is far messier than it was in the chaotic late 1960s. But Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry laid out an idealistic but somehow hopeful vision of humanity’s future where we had overcome issues like racism and classism. We lived in peace and in something close to utopia, except for the Klingons, Romulans and other another assorted unenlightened species we encountered exploring brave new worlds that wanted to do the United Federation of Planets harm. Star Trek inspired us. It inspired me. The Prime Directive (which Kirk often ignored) was an enlightened way that acknowledged the greater forces at work shaping civilizations. Maybe it inspired the Beatles to create their song Let it be. It shaped my thinking on our war in Iraq and how we should handle our current conflict with ISIS. It was Spock, not Kirk that modeled this new and enlightened universe. As long as this half-breed could maintain his civility and logic, there was hope. I often think that President Obama channels Mr. Spock, so much so that I wrote a post about it. Due to Nimoy’s death, the post has surged to the top of my most popular posts list.

It was Nimoy of course who impressively pulled off a plausible and coherent character that the rest of us could latch onto. Unsurprisingly, Nimoy developed a love/hate relationship with his character. It caused him write a book, I am not Spock and years later another book, I am Spock where he wrestled with his feelings with being saddled by the character. However, it was Nimoy that really brought Spock alive. The character brought Nimoy huge celebrity and also drove him to drink, but like it or not it made him and his character immortal.

Nimoy quickly became typecast by Spock, which put a serious dent on his acting career. He wanted to be more than Spock, but for the most part he wasn’t allowed. He dabbled in directing and summer stock. His most impressive non-Spock role was as Morris Meyerson, the husband of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance, but didn’t feel too bad for losing, as he lost to Laurence Olivier.

Nimoy is gone but Spock has endured, and was most recently portrayed by Zachary Quinto, who was tutored in the role by Nimoy himself. At one time (2003) I was convinced that Star Trek was dead. These newest Star Trek movies proved me wrong, thankfully, because they were done so well. However, the reason they survived was because Spock, not Kirk, proved too popular to die. After all Spock died in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and we had to resurrect him, just like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from certain death.

Nimoy, a Jew, did not believe in resurrection but his character is likely to endure and may prove as immortal as Sherlock Holmes in the decades ahead. It would not surprise me if when the 22nd century dawns that portrayals of Mr. Spock will still endure on popular media and Star Trek, in it’s 22nd century projection, will as well. United Federation of Planets, here we come! And here’s hoping that Spock will be in charge.

Review: Star Trek (2009)

The Thinker by Rodin

Nearly six years ago I said that Star Trek was dead and we should just move on. I have moved on to shows like Firefly and the re-imaging of Battlestar Galactica. I still have yet to see Star Trek: Nemesis, released in 2002 and probably never will watch it.

The funny thing about Star Trek though is when you think it is dead it is resurrected. It is understandable why the attempt is made: it has proven to be a huge moneymaker for Paramount, which bought Desilu Studios that produced the original series, and is now just a division of Viacom. Millions of Trekkers have not exactly disappeared, just sort of were burned out. What was needed was something to make us care about Star Trek again. What was needed, frankly, was a clean divorce from Rick Berman, who reinvented Star Trek in the 1980s and who shaped its many reincarnations. In this latest Star Trek movie released this weekend, labeled simply Star Trek, we have director J.J. Abrams to inject the brand of testosterone that was sorely needed in the franchise. His idea was to take us back to the beginning. Just how exactly did James T. Kirk become a starship captain anyhow? How did he meet Bones, Spock, Scotty, Uhura and the rest of the gang?

To make it work Abrams had to do a bit of reimagining himself. It is not cool to mess with the Star Trek canon. Granted there have been gaping holes in the canon before but messing with some things will not do. To make Star Trek exciting though a reimagining was necessary, so Abrams essentially created a hole in the space-time continuum so that two versions can now peacefully coexist. Yes, this is all for the good. I won’t give away too many plot points, but let’s just say that in this newest version Kirk’s predecessor, Captain Christopher Pike doesn’t end up a vegetable in care of The Talosians.

Instead, this version of Star Trek is what the 1960s version probably should have been if the budgets had been much larger and much better special effects had been available. Everyone and everything about the original series is improved by many orders of magnitude. If you go back and see the original series, many of the ancillary characters were more stereotypes than people. Scotty, Uhura, Chekov and Sulu showed up in most episodes but we learned little about them. In this movie, Abrams fleshes many of them out rather substantially, particularly Uhura (Zoe Saldana). I never gave a damn about them in the original show, but based on this movie I want to know a whole lot more, especially about Lieutenant Uhura.

For a Trekker, this movie is a great gift: tremendously fun and entertaining, gloriously well acted, and full of tension, adventure and romance. Frankly, all the principle characters are far more interesting and engaging than they were in the TV series. Leonard Nimoy has a small (and necessary) role in this movie but thankfully, none of the other stars from the original series appear. I am so grateful that William Shatner was in no way associated with this movie. Chris Pine, who plays James Tiberius Kirk as a young adult, portrays all of Kirk’s cockiness without Shatner’s dreadful overacting. Pine is terrific and brilliantly cast, but so are all the other principle characters. I never was a Dr. McCoy fan, but casting Karl Urban (he played Eomer in The Lord of the Rings movies) as Bones was brilliant. Zachary Quinto would be an unlikely choice for Mr. Spock but frankly, he outdoes Leonard Nimoy, who was by far the best actor from the original series.

We saw the movie in IMAX. For those of you wondering if you should spend the extra money: save it. The camera is always in motion, which means that in IMAX the film is mostly blurry, but on a much bigger screen. The bigger screen also makes it harder to follow. Moreover, our IMAX theater figures that to get the total IMAX experience you have to hear it at ear piercing volumes. My ears will take a few more days to recover and hopefully I sustained no permanent damage. There is no lack of action in this incarnation so hold on to your armrests for it is going to be a wild ride.

I remember feeling the odd man out when I went with my family to see the Harry Potter movies. They were okay, but nothing special, but then I did not know all the characters. So I wonder how much of this movie will be appreciated by those who are not Trekkers. It feels more like a work for its fan base than for the Star Trek neophyte. Even for a Trekker who understands the long back story, it can be challenging to follow the plot points.

The movie also strains credulity because it brings together many of the characters (including Kirk, Bones, Uhura and Captain Christopher Pike) before Kirk even decides to join Starfleet. I am not sure what they are all doing out there in rural Iowa, but someone picked Iowa as a place to build starships, but not in a hanger, mind you. Bringing them together in Iowa though does tickle Star Trek’s enormous fan base. It is fun watching Kirk try to proposition Uhura, or to be caught while he is trying to bed her roommate. Other plot points make little sense. For reasons I won’t get into Kirk ends up on a very cold planet where he encounters, of all people, the elder Mr. Spock, who lives in exile but is not too far from a Starfleet outpost where we find a young engineer named Montgomery Scott. I also decided that I want to be a Romulan because they age very well. Eric Bana plays a Romulan named Nero who looks exactly the same age although twenty-five years have elapsed. Perhaps it is because of all that time inside his starship meant he did not have to worry about ultraviolet radiation.

Even if you are not vested in the Star Trek universe, you will still have a great time, but you may feel like someone watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show and wondering why the audience is acting out certain scenes. Just why is it so important that Spock and Kirk to have such a deep friendship anyhow? Is there anyone in the first world who has really managed to tune out Star Trek? It seems hard to imagine. Regardless, even if you have little affection for the original series or are just a casual Trekker, you will kick yourself if you miss this latest incarnation. It looks like preproduction is already underway for a sequel.

Of all the myriad Star Trek movies over the years, including some of the best ones like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, this one sails well above all of them. Prepare to be engaged and to have a stellar good time. Memo to the producers: please rush the sequel.

3.5 on my 4.0 scale.

Second Viewing: City on the Edge of Forever

The Thinker by Rodin

Watching movies and shows online can be both fun and convenient. On Christmas Eve, I watched the British film Cashback streamed live to my desktop computer. Last night I watched classic Star Trek, specifically the episode City on the Edge of Forever from the show’s first season. Many Trekkers insist this was the best episode in the three-year run of the original series and I am inclined to agree. It was ostensibly written by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, but had to be substantially rewritten by staff scriptwriter D. C. Fontana to keep it within the show’s budget and fifty-minute length.

In case you have not seen the episode, at the start of the show NCC-1701 (a.k.a. the U.S.S. Enterprise) finds itself in the midst of a space-time disturbance. It jolts the ship; the usual sparks fly out of the navigator’s console and knocks out poor Lieutenant Sulu. Dr. McCoy (“Bones”) rushes to the bridge to give Sulu a small dose of “cordrazine”. When the ship is rocked again by another space-time disturbance McCoy accidentally injects the rest into himself, which turns him into a paranoid schizophrenic. He manages to elude security and beam himself down to the planet they are orbiting, which is at the center of the space-time disturbance. There on the planet a mysterious structure called The Guardian acts as a portal to human history. Dr. McCoy, still in a cordrazine paranoia high, jumps through the portal and back in time to New York City during the Great Depression.

It is not a good idea to disturb time because McCoy apparently does something to cause their present reality to disappear. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock end up going back to the same time to try to prevent McCoy from doing whatever he did to change history. This is a tall order because there is no guarantee they can find him.

I will not give out too much more of the plot on the off chance you have not seen the episode. While I watched it online on Netflix, there are other places online you can watch it, some for free. One place is cbs.com, which is more than a bit ironic since it first ran forty years ago on NBC.

I was ten when the show first ran in 1967. For some bizarre reason my parents considered Star Trek too adult for us godly devout Catholics (perhaps it was the miniskirts the women wore), so it was off our list of approved shows. I did not actually see it until the early 1970s when it was broadcast in abbreviated form on an independent TV channel in Orlando. As I was living in Daytona Beach, this meant poor image quality and many Ronco ads. Watching it online though was a pleasure, because I could see it in full color and in higher definition than the 435 lines available to TV viewers back in the 1960s. It was like watching it projected in a movie theater. It made quite a difference.

Star Trek is of course a fantasy about the future, but to me it was a blast into my distantly remote past when I was only ten years old, we were up to our hips in Vietnam and prominent people like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were being gunned down. As much as Gene Roddenberry tried to hide it in its 23rd century frame, the show espoused the values of those times. Back then, the network censors were pretty ruthless. Kirk’s line at the end of the episode, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” considered shocking at the time, was lucky to make it past the network censors.

Women may have worn miniskirts in the U.S.S. Enterprise but there are oddities in the shows that today’s National Organization for Women would find sexist. When time stops, for example, Lt. Uhura says (rather unconvincingly), “Captain, I’m afraid.” It was perfectly reasonable back in the 1960s for a woman, even a Star Fleet officer like Uhura to revert to wallflower when the situation got too heavy. The same was not true for Kirk or Spock. It was time to raise the shields of masculinity and exude some testosterone.

For the 1960s, Star Trek was high primetime cinema. However, the pressures of putting out twenty-six episodes a year as well as keeping to a strict budget frequently strained the quality of the show. City on the Edge of Forever is an excellent episode for classic Star Trek, yet if compared to most shows of its successor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, it would rank maybe in the middle. In the 1960s, TV was not considered to be art, but entertainment. Occasional series like The Twilight Zone showed what the medium was capable of. With the constraints on time and budget the show was under, putting out good episodes every week was impossible. Unlike the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation was syndicated. This allowed for bigger budgets, higher production values and better actors. Watching the original Star Trek series forty years later, the lack of quality, even for the better shows, is glaring.

Still, if you can rewind your mental clock back four decades you can appreciate that City on the Edge of Forever as a really good episode. New York City in the Great Depression was portrayed on a back lot of Desilu Studios, but the scenes were quite convincingly rendered. William Shatner’s ego is kept in check by director Joseph Pevney, who probably not coincidentally directed many of the show’s better episodes. Joan Collins plays the kind-hearted social worker Edith Keeler and renders a surprisingly fine performance. Some of the dialog comes across as rather strange and the music is at times too suggestive of how you are supposed to feel, but the episode is a great blend of fun, drama and science fiction. Actually, the best performance in the episode is given by the late DeForest Kelley (McCoy). It is consistently well acted, well directed and well written. The essence of Ellison’s fascinating and tragic plot is retained and convincingly rendered.

What a pity that network executives were so niggardly with prime time shows back in the 1960s. Star Trek was obviously an innovative idea for a TV series, given its long and successful franchise. Given the relative paucity of its production values (which were considered high for the time) the original series, when it was good in episodes like this one, demonstrated what the original series could have been had it been given the time and the money necessary. Star Trek’s true glory was destined to show up in future incarnations of the show.

The audacity of being Bill Shatner

The Thinker by Rodin

So recently, I learned that actor George Takei (Sulu, on the original Star Trek) had invited William Shatner to his wedding after all. (Takei, 71, was recently wedded to his longtime gay partner Brad Altman, 54.) Takei does not say how he sent the invitation. Presumably, he did it on engraved stationery and sent it via the U.S. Mail.  In any event, Shatner claims he never received an invitation and that is why he wasn’t there, but it was certainly not because he is a homophobe. This has become the latest in a long running tiff between the two former Star Trek cast members. Apparently, George and Bill cannot just pick up the phone and chat.

However, I am not surprised to find out that Bill did not show up. After all, Takei thinks Shatner has an Olympian size ego and has said as much, most recently on Entertainment Tonight but also in his tell-all 1994 book, To the Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei.

I did not learn all these tawdry details until sometime over the last few months I stumbled on The Shatner Project, Bill’s personal YouTube site. Since then, I have gone back on occasion, not because I am a big fan of Bill Shatner but for the sheer audacity of watching Bill be Bill. Unless you are a big fan of Shatner, it is hard to disagree with Takei’s assessment of Shatner’s oversized ego. Indeed, the site (not to mention Shatner’s own personal website) indicates that Bill Shatner likes to make sure the world knows what’s going on in Bill Shatner’s life.

I think my recent fascination for Bill’s site is like rubbernecking past a really awful car crash. One thing I can say about Bill: he is not afraid to be what he wants us to think he is. If you want to know what Bill Shatner wants us to think of him, watch some of his YouTube videos. Shatner continues to boldly go where few actors rightly have gone before, which in this case is the quirky but pedestrian YouTube site. On his YouTube site, you can see him talking with his daughter Lisabeth or his wife Elizabeth (who looks about his daughter’s age) as well as hear him emote on all sorts of things. One of these recently, and what caught my attention, has been his feelings about George Takei, who he has characterized as a psychotic. He feels that Takei is out to discredit him. It turns out though that Takei’s sin, and the reason he has been frequently mentioned on his site lately, is that Takei simply tells people who ask just what Shatner clearly is in his videos: an egomaniac.

Bill, if you were not an egomaniac, why would you have your own domain, billshatner.com, with forums, a fan club, blogs for both you and your daughter and (naturally) your own online store. There, fans can preorder his newest book Up Till Now. Also available is a collection of personally signed pictures and the opportunity to preorder a Captain Kirk nutcracker (sale price: only $28.99). Is the Actors’ Guild not sending you enough royalties? Moreover, isn’t paying $94.95 for a personally signed copy of your latest book a wee bit excessive?

What sort of exciting things do we learn about Bill Shatner from his YouTube site? Aside from his thoughts about his dysfunctional relationship with George Takei, you can learn all about Thanksgiving in the Shatner household, his thoughts on Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin, watch Bill drive a car and watch Bill’s close encounter with Koko the Gorilla.

Granted, considering most of the dreck on YouTube, The Shatner Project might be considered something like high art. I actually did find one video of particular interest, this one, where William Shatner talks about his infamous Rocketman video. (His excuse: he didn’t think it was being videotaped.) No worries, Elton John; you do not have to give up your day job.

I imagine Shatner does have a significant fan club that thinks he is something of a god. Fans are not known for being unbiased in their fandom. As for the rest of us, Shatner and his web site and videos in particular, give us plenty of reason to develop slack jaw. I suspect that the fact that others of us treat him and his site with derision does not bother him in the least. As I noted with Sarah Palin, to some people any form of attention, even if it is negative, is better than no attention. Shatner may be 77, but if he is destined to be a B actor, he might as well go through life with the ego of an A actor. How will his obituary read? It’s hard to say as he is still among the living, but we can be sure when he passes from this life his obituary will be large and oversized, much like himself and his inflated career.

Now if I can just break my The Shatner Project addiction. To quote Mr. Spock, it’s “fascinating” in a bizarre and surreal sort of way. Perhaps in his final years, he can go on tour with the circus. He could get a tent of his own right outside the three-ring circus. He would make quite a freak show. Heck, I would gladly pay to see a live performance of Bill doing Rocketman. It is not to be missed! Perhaps it could be followed by his rendition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Something must have rubbed off because at a stage in their careers, even Leonard Nimoy was affected, as documented in this not to be believed 60s video.

Takei at least still has his dignity intact. For sheer spunk and audacity though, few will be able to match William Shatner.