Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 6

As promised, starting this week we'll be doing a season-by-season review of "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier", quite possibly the longest-running fan series currently available. I'm hoping to get a twice-weekly rhythm going, but that depends on my progress with various seminar papers and my commitment to the Savage Critics.

Series creator Rob Caves has a short note on the "Hidden Frontier" website, in which he asks viewers to start with the sixth season premiere, rather than season 1. Obviously, that's out of the question if you're doing a comprehensive review... but after briefly comparing the two, I can certainly understand Caves' request.

If "Phase II" impressed me in terms of how much it improved over time, the gap between the first and sixth seasons of "Hidden Frontier" is even more remarkable (granted, they'd been working at it for much longer than Cawley's group). But I don't want to go into that now, as it'll be far more relevant when we actually get to the later seasons; we should just keep that in mind as we go over Caves' earlier efforts. Because the first season of "Hidden Frontier" is a mess. I want to be charitable, I really do, but I can't find many redeeming qualities in the initial six episodes.

For starters, we have a fairly large cast of characters and yet there isn't a single sympathetic person in the bunch: Knapp, our Captain figure, is a douchebag of galactic proportions, and you'd think that was intentional except he never gets his comeuppance and he's not viewed in a negative light, despite the fact that he constantly berates his crew (when he's not abandoning them to die on hostile alien vessels) and he's way too trigger-happy for a starship captain. Robin Lefler, imported from "The Next Generation", quotes her Laws so often that it quickly goes from cute to annoying (Diana's Law #26: Don't speak in platitudes, because you can't eat an omlette without gaining some calories). Munoz, the cheerful first officer, disappears midway through the season and is replaced by Elizabeth Shelby (another "Next Generation" import), only this incarnation of the character lacks the backbone that made her such a great foil to then-Captain Riker. None of them act much like Starfleet officers, and the only characters who aren't unbearably annoying are Counselor Elbrey and Dr. Henglaar, who don't get enough screen time to make the most of their appeal.

The plot doesn't do much better, either on an episode-by-episode or season-wide basis: the three-part premiere is basically a rehash of the Dominion War, in which a new enemy - the Grey Confederacy - launches unprovoked attacks against the Federation. Unlike the Dominion, there's a far more parasitic nature to the Grey, as they mind-control humans in order to feed off their neural energy. That storyline is then interrupted so we can have a bizarre time-travel story involving the Titanic, and an episode featuring a visit from Darth Vader's flagship. The season finale reintroduces Wesley Crusher in an utterly disjointed storyline where the Tzenkethi demand access to the healing planet of Baku, for reasons that are neither known nor discovered, and then we abruptly segue to a Grey invasion of Tzenkethi space. This episode also recasts Lefler with an older actress, and that's an interesting choice, but Joanne Busch doesn't have enough screen time to leave an impression, good or bad.

On a technical level, I have to criticize the use of low-resolution Quicktime videos; Caves says this was done with an eye towards preventing the sale of pirated DVDs (which, in turn, could bring the Wrath of Paramount down on the whole production), but no other fan film I've seen so far seems to have this problem.

"Hidden Frontier" represents an interesting thematic departure from what we saw with "Of Gods and Men" and "Phase II". Those fan projects emphasized homage, recreating specific characters and getting as close to the "feel" of the original as possible. As I said, this series does feature characters from the canon series - Lefler, Shelby and Wesley Crusher - but they're secondary figures, and part of a mostly original ensemble. The setting's also quite distant from usual Trek fare: focus tends to alternate between the station, Deep Space 12, and the various ships assigned to that sector, which obviously allows for a much wider array of potential stories as it combines the fixed center as seen by "Deep Space 9" and exploring the unknown via starships. We'll see where that leads us.

All in all, it's off to a very awkward start; thanks to Caves' urging, I know the series will improve, but it's also true that there's a limit to how far one's patience can be stretched while waiting for things to get better. We'll have to see whether the second season has any kind of upward mobility in that sense; I can't see myself sitting through another two or three seasons as poor as this one.