Sunday, March 15, 2009

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

To sum up, some macro-level observations about "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier".

As a fan-series, "Hidden Frontier" has an interesting and somewhat contradictory relationship with its source material. On the one hand, Rob Caves and his associates explored themes that neither Roddenberry nor Berman and Braga dealt with at length (or at all), such as homosexuality, clinical depression, drug addiction and the deeper implications of interracial relationships. That's the sort of thing you'd expect from a fan-based project, since the lack of a censoring authority means freedom to depict any controversial concepts the mainstream would've avoided. And in a way, that approach is very much in line with the most basic premise of "Star Trek" - to go where no one's gone before.

On the other hand, if we look at the overall narrative of "Hidden Frontier", what emerges is a story that doesn't really conform to "Star Trek" at all. It's clear that the series was heavily influenced by the Dominion War arc of "Deep Space 9", but that arc also had a spiritual/metaphysical dimension (the thing with Sisko and the Big Book of Evil, which I suspect was the long-lost eighth Harry Potter novel). Once Siroc comes into play, "Hidden Frontier" becomes a war epic to the exclusion of all other storylines, and there is no additional dimension to that conflict.

Moreover, it's not a war between two collective identities or ideologies - in DS9, you had certain characters who represented the factions, like Weyoun and Dukat, but the Briar Patch Wars are fought against Siroc and his cohorts on an individual level, with the Tholians and the Breen minimalized to the point of eventually becoming irrelevant altogether. And... well, that's more along the lines of "Star Wars", isn't it? With the Empire of Evil British White Guys just being an extension of the Alpha Villain? Think of that last celebratory scene in "Return of the Jedi" - the Emperor's death is equated with the death of the Empire as a whole. Hell, even the Expanded Universe could never shake this need to associate the entire Empire with a single figurehead, whether it was Grand Admiral Thrawn or Daala or Darth Krayt. And that's Siroc's function here: everything revolves around his actions and agendas.

But Siroc only rose to prominence in the fourth season; what about before that? Well, the main antagonists for the first three seasons of "Hidden Frontier" were the Grey Confederacy, an ill-defined race that seemed to combine the strong points of the Federation's two greatest opponents in the 24th century - like the Dominion, the Grey were a consortium of races all dominated by the psychic Ethereals; like the Borg, the Grey take over the minds of their victims and their ships can regenerate over time.

Unfortunately, the Grey failed because where Siroc was a highly specific and individualized enemy, the Grey are too anonymous, too vague. They have no voice, no personality, no real communication with their enemies - even the Borg had their infamous catchphrases ("You will be assimilated, resistance is futile"). In seven seasons we learn nothing of value regarding the Grey themselves: their member races, their philosophies, their motivations. They just turn up as a plot-required wild card whenever needed.

Moving on to another issue: time. I mentioned during the sixth season review that the series develops a timeline problem by equating each previous season with a year of story-time, so that the Federation had been fighting the Grey for three years before Siroc showed up, and that conflict lasted another four years.

Carlos Pedraza makes an interesting point about the perception of time in this particular fan-series: the episodes were produced at intervals of roughly two months, which meant that in real time the series had lasted for seven years. The assumption (which becomes explicit in the last two seasons) is that viewers who were watching the series as it was being produced would equate real time and narrative time.

But I disagree with that assumption, simply because "Hidden Frontier" is a visual narrative - and like all visual narratives, time only passes if we see it pass. It's certainly legitimate to pull an occasional time jump, with or without a "Two/Five/Ten Years Later" tag; however, I strongly doubt real time has any influence there. For example, the "Lord of the Rings" films were released annually, but in story time only a few days pass between installments (at most). If we go a little closer to the subject matter, the various Trek series made roughly the same equation - Picard had been captain of the Enterprise for seven years by the end of "The Next Generation" - but twenty-odd episodes are a much longer (and much more credible) span to depict a year's worth of stories than six, or even nine.

Of course, the bigger problem is that if you add a two-month gap after every single episode, it kills a lot of story momentum: McCabe's grief in "The Widening Gyre" doesn't make much sense if you're meant to think it's been over a year since "Vigil", Aster's one-two punch with Hanar and Zen in season 4 falters, and so on. It doesn't help that there was no explicit indication of time passing on that kind of scale until the fifth season - and even then, it was just Aster and Zen celebrating their one-year anniversary, and enough time had passed in-series since "Crossroads" to sort-of-justify the jump.

Winding down, let's talk about what "Hidden Frontier" did well: conceptually speaking, I loved (and still love) the idea of exploring a fixed location in space (the Briar Patch), with both a static setting (DS12) and several ships in rotation (Shelby's Excelsior, Cole's Independence, etc.) There's a clear and visible improvement from the fifth season onward in terms of story arc construction, acting and visual effects. I should also note that "Hidden Frontier" is exceptionally fair to its female characters, with women like Cole, Elbrey, Nechayev, Lefler and Shelby holding their own against (and in some cases, outshining) their male counterparts. And we can't ignore the fact that this series ran for seven years - warts and all, that's an impressive achievement that speaks to genuine dedication and consistent hard work.

What "Hidden Frontier" didn't do so well: characterization. Looking back, I can point to several characters and say they're my favorites - McCabe, Bobby Rice's Ro, Rebecca Wood's McFarland, etc. - but I can't say that any of them were explored in any depth. Some characters didn't seem to have a personal life (Shelby has an in-story excuse for that in the fifth season, but nothing happens after that), others were locked in a monotonous cycle (the Aster-Dao merry-go-round of "I love you/No you don't"). And Ian Knapp will forever baffle me.

As I said, the Grey just didn't work out in the long run - they go from being the primary innovation of the fan-series (at least at first) to sixth-stringers in just three seasons. Things get much better when Siroc is integrated into the story, but there would've been no way to plausibly retcon the Grey at that point so they just sort of hang around.

I gather the green-screen technique will have its detractors and defenders: personally, I didn't mind it, as that's precisely the sort of thing I'm inclined to overlook when dealing with fan-productions (again, it's all about standards and expectations being adjusted for the medium and the mode).

And finally, what I would've liked to see: according to John Whiting (who played Henglaar), the writers of "Hidden Frontier" deliberately avoided three concepts throughout their run: time travel, the Borg (with the exception of "In Memory Of", which really wasn't that bad) and the Mirror Universe. The reasoning behind that decision was that these concepts had already been done to death on the various Trek series. And I'll concede the first two - TNG gives us more than enough time travel stories, and nothing more needed to be said about the Borg after "First Contact" - but...

Obviously, as a fan of the Mirror Universe, I'm going to wish "Hidden Frontier" had gone there. But it's more than just an appreciation of the setting: the appeal of the Mirror Universe is that it lets actors put different spins on their characters. Someone like Rebecca Wood pulls this off easily enough - Betras, McFarland and Vindenpawl are very distinct and separate characters - but it might've been interesting to see Bobby Rice attempt a Mirror Ro in the mold of Intendant Kira, or see Risha Denney portray a broken and hopeless Shelby (alternatively, a gun-crazy sociopathic Shelby). Knapp would probably still be a douche, but some things never change. The point is, yes, the Mirror Universe degenerated into farce by the end of DS9, but it still offered a bit of leeway and range for the actors, allowing their characters to do things that wouldn't be possible in a standard episode.

Final thoughts: overall, I have to admit that "Hidden Frontier" ended up being more an academic project than genuine entertainment for me. I can say it was an interesting experience, but fun? Not so much. And that's not because I held it up to the standards of network television - on the contrary, I tried to avoid making any kind of unfair comparison, not only because different fan-production groups have different resources, but also because "Hidden Frontier" is much older than, say, "Phase II", and it's not impossible to see Cawley's efforts as being informed, at least to a degree, by the successes and failures of its thematic predecessor. All that said, I hesitate to recommend "Hidden Frontier" for anyone just looking for an enjoyable fan film, as I imagine the flaws will be difficult to overlook if you're not interested in doing a bit of digging.