Friday, January 23, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 5

Four episodes in, "Star Trek: Phase II" (formerly known as "New Voyages") and its creator, James Cawley, have gained quite a reputation in the field of fan films. And not undeservedly so.

"Phase II" is remarkable for several reasons. It's the first example we've had of a proper fan series - all of the works I've reviewed so far were clearly conceived either as feature films or miniseries with a set conclusion. "Phase II" is an ongoing series, and as a series it gets to demonstrate something most fan works can't: improvement over time. The differences between the first and second episodes of "Phase II" are nothing short of astonishing in the sense that every aspect of the production gets better: by the third episode, it's pretty much up there with Roddenberry's original series.

Like "Of Gods and Men", "Phase II" serves as a useful example of how Trek fans recreate rather than innovate: the premise is that "Phase II" depicts the last two years of the Enterprise's original five-year mission (never filmed due to the series' cancellation). So it's Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the gang continuing their adventures, very much an extension of the Shatner series; it should be interesting to compare "Phase II" to the upcoming movie when it comes out, because you have two very different groups (with, we may presume, different agendas) telling stories about the same characters, roughly at the same time.

Unlike "Of Gods and Men", the primary roles have been recast, though Cawley's series still interfaces very deeply with canon, as we'll soon see. Since it's not a very long series (especially in comparison to next week's feature), I thought it might be interesting to do an episode-by-episode review and see what emerges.

1. Come What May/In Harm's Way: Listed together here are the pilot for "New Voyages" (as it was known at the time) and the first "official" episode. I'll be upfront about these: they're not very good. Everything's a bit off - the lighting's too strong, the acting's too weak, James Cawley (Kirk) sports a disturbing Elvis quaff, the plot's so disjointed all you get are scenes that fail to mesh into a coherent whole... the CGI's impressive, so there's that, and "In Harm's Way" had Gene Roddenberry Jr. as consulting producer, cameos by William Windom (reprising the role of Commodore Decker) and BarBara Luna (Marlena Moreau of "Mirror Mirror"), and while I haven't been able to confirm this, apparently Sam Witwer of "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" and "Battlestar Galactica" voiced the Guardian of Forever. Not a bad grab for the first time out, but it's still a very, very rough start.

There's not much point in providing summaries of either episode, due to the shoddy plotting, but we might as well go with it: in "Come What May", the Enterprise stumbles across a continuing battle between Onabi, a flirtatious girl with Q-like powers, and a threat she calls the Monap (though the design is unmistakably that of a Borg ship). She seems to know a lot about what the future holds for Kirk and his crew, but aside from some babble about possible futures, nothing really comes of this. So Onabi hangs around for a while, turns into an Orion dancing girl in an attempt to seduce Kirk, and then she goes back to her ship and disappears along with the Monap. That's about it. Rather anticlimactic - I get the feeling the whole point of that episode was the montage near the end where Cawley and Jeffery Quinn (Spock) get to play out a sequence of scenes from the first batch of Star Trek movies (ie: Spock's death and resurrection, the anti-Klingon conspiracy in... was it the fifth or the sixth? And, of course, Kirk's death scene in "Generations").

"In Harm's Way" is a direct sequel to an episode of the original episode, specifically "The Doomsday Machine", but there's almost no context to explain what's going on. Memory Alpha to the rescue once again, though having the background information doesn't really help here because, again, the story is extremely muddled, with some interesting ideas lost in the rapid shuffle.

And yet... despite their shortcomings, these episodes are worth wathcing for the glimpse they provide of the project's potential: at first, it seems the creators' reach is exceeding their grasp, which is a fair enough assessment, but you can also see the germ of something better in the making, and "Phase II" certainly delivers on that promise with later episodes.

2. To Serve All My Days: This episode marks two major changes for "Phase II". First, this is where the series really starts interfacing with canon: Walter Koenig guest-stars as Chekov, while former Trek writer D.C. Fontana contributed the script.

But the far more significant issue has to do with episode quality; in every area, "To Serve All My Days" represents improvement on a quantum level. The visuals are sleek and polished, there's a greater emphasis on the characters, and the acting is more refined - Andy Bray is excellent as a young and insecure Chekov, while Cawley's Kirk is approaching that Shatner-esque mix of camp and uber-gravitas (and he'll get it just right starting next episode). John Kelley's McCoy could stand to be a bit crankier, but he's a lot younger here, so we can let that one slide.

The plot's still a bit clunky, with a rapid-aging disease that quite literally comes out of nowhere and a B-plot that would've been a great start to an ongoing Myth Arc, except - as kazekage points out here - "Star Trek" didn't really start doing those until late into "Deep Space 9" (owing, apparently, to the influence of "Babylon 5"). "Phase II" seems to deliver an anti-arc where nothing flows from one episode to the next: a major character dies here, only to return the very next episode with no explanation. As I recall, resetting to the status quo at the end of every story was standard practice during the Shatner run (in fairness, a general aversion to lasting change is typical of most late '60s and early '70s TV), so in that sense "Phase II" is remaining true to the structure of its template, but... well, why bother creating the illusion of change only to undermine it immediately afterwards? It's refreshing to see a situation that isn't resolved through contrivance and technobabble, but I'm not sure ignoring it altogether to get on with the show was the best decision.

3. World Enough and Time: Now this is where "Phase II" really hits its stride. Guest-starring George Takei as Sulu, Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand, and Majel Barrett-Roddenberry (in one of her final roles) as the ship's computer, it might be a bit much to do two rapid-aging stories in a row, but this episode is so entertaining that I can't begrudge the contrivance. It really feels like an episode of "Star Trek", both in terms of appearance and plot, and unlike "To Serve All My Days", there is a typical explanation (albeit delivered in Trekspeak, but at least it's there). Takei delivers a superb performance, as always, and while Alanna is clearly doomed from the get-go (precisely because we know the status quo is going to be restored by the end of the episode), Christina Moses' performance still manages to evoke a great deal of sympathy.

4. Blood and Fire Part 1: This is the first episode released as "Phase II". It's a name with some history attached to it, having to do with Roddenberry's planned relaunch of the series following its original cancellation (the seeds of which eventually became the first "Star Trek" movie). So we're once again given a statement of intent here: to be faithful to the original, to tell the same types of stories Roddenberry might have told, to be seen as an extension of the past rather than a reconfiguration or a modernization of that past.

In other news, Uhura and Spock have been recast; while Kim Stinger acquits herself as well as can be expected given Uhura's minimal role thus far, Ben Tolpin disappoints as Spock, as he can't quite manage the ever-calm, ever-neutral facade Leonard Nimoy and Jeffery Quinn (and, I expect, Zachary Quinto) did so well. Fortunately, based on preview information for upcoming episodes, the role will be recast yet again after the second half of "Blood and Fire", so we'll see how that works out.

This is the episode that drew my attention to "Phase II" in the first place, due to the publicity storm surrounding a certain subplot. I am, of course, referring to Kirk's nephew Peter coming aboard the Enterprise to marry his boyfriend.

Most "Star Trek" viewers with a mild interest in this particular issue probably know how the legend goes: Gene Roddenberry had planned to feature gay characters in "Star Trek: The Next Generation", under the (hopefully accurate) belief that homosexuality would be entirely normalized in the 24th century. David Gerrold had penned a script called "Blood and Fire", which - according to reports - had a few lines of dialogue discussing a relationship between two male crew members. Unfortunately, network television of the early '90s wasn't the most supporting environment for taking creative or social risks, and the episode was censored. There's a widespread opinion that, had Roddenberry lived, he would've eventually succeeded in getting a gay character into the Trekverse, but that never materialized during the subsequent tenure of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, unless you count the women of the Mirror Universe, and I don't, because that was just puerile fanservice. (Nana Visitor actually pointed out that turning Mirror Kira into a hedonistic bisexual sort of missed the point, because in the first DS9 Mirror episode her attraction to the "real" Kira is pure narcissism.)

In any event, Gerrold eventually reworked his script for the Kirk era (which would've been even more unthinkable, given the way people reacted when Kirk and Uhura kissed that one time), and here it is. This is very much a situation where fandom "picks up the slack", as it were: the Internet as a medium isn't subject to morally outraged Christian families or sponsors or network executives, it's very much an arena where any theme, any content, can be explored. I should note, though, that "Phase II" isn't exactly breaking new ground: fan series "Hidden Frontier", which started in 2001, had an ongoing love triangle between three men throughout its run. In fact, Bobby Rice - the actor who plays Peter Kirk in "Blood and Fire" - also played one of the characters in that triangle, though the role originated with another actor (but we'll talk about that when we start reviewing "Hidden Frontier" next week).

So what we have here is a case where two completely unrelated fan productions picked up the same theme and used it, albeit in very different ways (we'll go into greater detail about those different approaches when it becomes relevant to "Hidden Frontier"). And here's the thing: homosexuality isn't necessarily the issue critics had with "Star Trek", it's not something that absolutely demanded to be addressed in the vein of women or ethnicity in "Star Wars", yet it's something both projects felt obliged to explore.

"Phase II" follows Roddenberry's alleged perspective on the matter (ie: who cares?) so Peter and Alex have a completely conventional, if slightly sappy relationship (seriously, postponing your wedding until after an away mission to a ship whose entire crew died under mysterious circumstances? Might as well paint a bullseye on your forehead and scream "VICTIM HERE! VICTIM HERE!"). The word "gay" doesn't even exist in this milieu - Cawley plays Kirk's reaction to the news as having to do with Peter's youth (and probably Kirk's own relationship issues as well, especially in light of what happened with Alanna last episode). But there's no distinction between types of relationships here, and that's a paradigm I whole-heartedly embrace.

(As an aside, that's what "Hidden Frontier" did differently: homosexuality is socially acceptable, but still viewed as "alternative" in that one of the men has to struggle for a very long time before coming to terms with same-sex attraction. "Phase II" implies the opposite, that no one sees any difference.)

Like "World Enough and Time", this episode looks and feels right: from the opening battle with the Klingon warship, to the "creature feature" horror of the Bloodworms, "Blood and Fire" is perhaps as close to the source material as is humanly possible without time machines; the days of pointy Elvis 'dos and bad lighting are long over.

For the next few installments (which I might condense into a twice-weekly thing depending on my pace and time considerations) we'll review "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier", quite possibly the longest fan series available: fifty episodes divided into seven seasons, plus no less than three spin-offs running concurrently.