The Day of the Doctor (and it ain’t McCoy!)

Picking up where I left off in my last post, tonight is the “One Night Only” theatrical screening of the BBC’s “Day of the Doctor” and my son and I will be attending at our local AMC Theater. He couldn’t contain his excitement and decided to watch the television broadcast this past Saturday. While I opted to skip it, I did ask him for a spoiler-free opinion when it was over. His reply – “Perfect!” That’s a good thing. It would be disappointing, to say the least, if it had been a stinker and he were now forced to sit through it again in a movie theater. But, instead, he can’t wait to see it again.

As for me, I’ve now seen “The Aztecs” (with the first Doctor from waaaay back in ’64) and the more contemporary episodes “Dalek” (9th Doctor), “Silence in the Library”, “Forest of the Dead” (10th Doctor), “The Impossible Astronaut”, and “Day of the Moon” (11th Doctor). I’ve also checked out the “Night of the Doctor” mini episode which features the return of Paul McGann. I have a basic grasp of the concept of the Time War, the planet Gallifrey, the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Silence, and, of course, of the Doctor’s continual regeneration. Last night, I even took the time to watch the docu-drama “An Adventure in Space and Time”.

So tell me, Whovians, am I ready for tonight?

It’s finally going to happen . . .

Yes, that’s right. After years of ambivalence (for what reason I cannot say) I am finally going to make the time to sit down and purposely watch an episode or two of Doctor Who. It’s not that I have anything against the idea, or the series itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. I simply haven’t found any compelling reason to watch it until recently.

A few months ago, my 15 year old son discovered that recent episodes of the program are available to view on Netflix. He’s already a discerning fan of Sci-Fi and fantasy, having developed a love for Star Trek, Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more. So, when he began watching the Doctor Who series and became immediately enthralled by it, I took notice. This weekend he decided that he wanted share his new found enjoyment with the old man if I’d be willing to partake of an episode or two. And that folks is all the initiative I need.

I realize that these pages have been devoted primarily to Star Trek. However, anyone who has read my entries thoroughly knows that the underlying themes are of much greater importance. One such theme, on which I have continually touched, is the nurturing of the relationship with my boy through our shared love of Sci-Fi. Given that, I am not only enthusiastic about spending the time with him checking out the behemoth of Brit Sci-Fi, but just as enthused by the idea of writing about it here.

More news to follow after the episodes.

A Father, A Life, A Legacy

I carefully aimed the remote control as though it were a hand phaser and I were Captain Kirk preparing to stun a hostile alien.  I pressed the power button and watched the image disappear from the screen as the TV flickered and went off.  Having just finished watching the lovingly crafted documentary Trek Nation, I was struck by two thoughts: I hope I have formed close enough bonds with my children that, when I’m gone, they don’t feel like we never got to know each other … and… if my legacy, whatever that happens to be, includes touching peoples’ lives for the better as Gene Roddenberry did, I will have been a success.  Of course, I’d like to think the lives upon which I will have the greatest positive effect are those of my family.  If that’s the case, I will not only have greatly differentiated myself from Mr. Roddenberry, but my achievements as a man will have reached a pinnacle and any good I do afterward will be just a bonus.

The documentary followed Roddenberry’s only son on a poignant journey of discovery as he familiarized himself with his father’s greatest work – Star Trek and, by extension, came to better know the man with whom he’d had a mostly uneasy father/son relationship.  The elder Roddenberry passed away before they could enjoy the closeness that many adult sons eventually find with their fathers.  In any case, the film was appealing largely for the same reasons that Star Trek episodes are.  Its focus was decidedly on the human emotional components of the story to which we can all relate.  The fact that it relied heavily on input from the producers, writers, performers, and fans of Trek just made it that much more interesting.

For rabid fans of Star Trek, there wasn’t a lot of new information revealed.  I think we all knew that Gene Roddenberry was just as flawed as any other human being.  Nevertheless, his son provided a very tasteful treatment of the subject matter which allowed me to come away with a new appreciation for the man while, at the same time, leaving my previous image of him relatively untarnished.  The interviews helped to cement the idea that, through Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry became known as a  visionary and  had a profound impact on a very large number of the shows’ fans – ultimately causing many of them to better themselves through life altering choices.  At the same. there was a good deal of emphasis on Roddenberry’s roles as a husband and father and his seeming inability to model his private behavior on the visionary philosophies he espoused through his TV shows.

Seeing and processing just how human the man really was didn’t make me appreciate his work any less.  It did, however, make me realize the importance of giving loving attention to those closest to you.  I believe it is in that way – by giving fully of yourself where your family is concerned and teaching your children the values of Star Trek by example –  that we will affect human evolution to the point where our society will one day resemble the kind Gene envisioned.  That is the legacy I hope to leave behind.

Where Do We Go From Here? Part 1

After complaining in some of my recent posts about the lack of anything new to look forward to in the world of Star Trek, I have come to find out that the Science Channel will be airing a new documentary entitled Trek Nation on November 30th.  In addition, filming on the second J.J. Abrams Star Trek motion picture begins on January 15th.  Admittedly I am looking forward to the former much more than the latter but it’s all good.  Meanwhile, as I wait patiently for the 30th to arrive,  I have been thinking back on my own particular journey through the realm of sci-fi fandom and realized that it started with Trek but didn’t end there. The 60’s classic Star Trek TV series was merely a jumping off point from which I delved into a number of other fascinating movies, television shows, and books.

As anyone with similar interests knows, the relationships among all these various works within the genre can be somewhat circuitous, leading a fan right back to where he started in the most glorious and unexpected of ways.  So it was with me, with Star Trek and the collection of other enjoyable stories that I am going to touch on here.  Seeing them or, in some cases, reading them, was interesting in and of itself, but also in the respect that they allowed me to  gain new perspectives.  I found that getting away from my favorite Trek episodes for a while and checking out a new sci-fi movie or story allowed me to return to the Star Trek universe with a greater appreciation – picking up on nuances I’d perhaps missed earlier.  In other words, everything reinforces everything else in some way.

So, to any readers of this blog who may be interested in sci-fi vehicles other than Star Trek, today’s entry begins a multi-part overview of some of the earliest additions to my list of favorite sci-fi stories.  If my memory is intact enough, I will endeavor to organize them in the order in which I discovered them.  As far as I know, they are all readily available now to anyone wishing to check them out.  Gotta’ love 21st Century, instantly gratifying, streaming, downloadable, on-demand media availability!  Anyway, here we go with Part 1:

Silent Running – Theatrical Motion Picture – 1972

Like the best Star Trek episodes, this film is a morality tale.  Set in “the first year of a new century”  (the 21st I suppose), the film establishes that all trees and plant life on Earth are gone, except for a small collection forests being cultivated under giant domes aboard ships in deep space. The crews of these enormous vessels have apparently worked onSilent Running the forestation project for a very long time with a view toward reintroducing the greenery to our abused planet.  They have their doubts that the project will come to fruition, though, and, one way or the other, they are anxious to get home. Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a botanist charged with caring for the forests on one of the ships – The Valley Forge.  When the project is abandoned, the crews of all the ships are ordered to jettison and detonate the forest domes and return to Earth.  Lowell is devastated and cannot accept that the forests must be destroyed. Driven by his (laudable) desire to save at least one forest, he takes drastic actions that ultimately determine the outcome of the story.

The film was directed by Douglas Trumbull who had previously worked on the visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which didn’t make today’s entry in the list primarily because I didn’t see it until 10 years after it came out).  Although the emphasis on saving our ecology that was prevalent in the 70’s is very thinly veiled in this movie, it nonetheless manages to entertain – with a convincing performance by Dern, believable effects, and a moving (if somewhat dated) soundtrack featuring songs performed by Joan Baez.  Notable also are the “drones”, small utility robots played by amputee actors in very believable costumes, forerunners of George Lucas’s “droid” concept from Star Wars.

Westworld – Theatrical Motion Picture – 1973

This film afforded me my first exposure to the work of Michael Crichton, who both wrote the story and directed the movie.  It’s basic theme is one that Crichton had dealt with Westworldbefore and would return to again in some of his later tales – namely, the dangerous consequences that can occur when we assume we can control technologies or elements of nature that we don’t entirely understand.

Sometime in the not too distant future, vacationers can visit a  resort where, for $1000 a day, they are able to interact with completely realistic android robots in three specific historical settings: Roman World, Medieval World, and Western World.    In these adult amusement parks, nothing is off limits.  There are deadly sword battles, gunfights, good old fashioned brothels, and more.   Visitors to these resort-worlds can live out their every fantasy, no matter how violent or perverse. The story centers around a pair of businessmen, played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin. They’ve chosen to unwind in Western World, where they engage in barroom brawls with outlaws, shootouts with a gunslinger (expertly portrayed by Yul Brynner), and romps with 1880’s style prostitutes – all of whom are lifelike robots.  The movie also depicts a number of secondary characters who have similar adventures in the other two themed resort-worlds.

When the robots and the systems that control them begin experiencing inexplicable malfunctions, the engineers in charge have to decide how best to proceed.  Although they initially consider closing the resort to address their concerns, it is ultimately decided to wait and allow the current guests to stay out their planned visits.  That’s when all hell breaks loose!  This is a compelling movie for sure.  I especially like how the line “Nothing can go wrong” prefaces all the action.  If you enjoyed the Trek TOS episodes, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, “I Mudd”, or “Requiem for Methuselah”, you’ll probably like this film.

Next time around, I’ll touch on a collection of short stories and a novel, both of which were adapted for the big screen.

Getting Animated Over TNG

The shirt came from K-Mart.  Or maybe it was Target, I’m not sure.  In any case, the recent trend toward retro fashions has resulted in the availability of some really awesome clothes and my wife, knowing what a die hard Trek geek I am, couldn’t resist getting me the dark green T-shirt depicting the lead characters from Star Trek in their 1970’s animated form.  So enamored am I with my retro TAS (The Animated Series) shirt, that I wore it on the first day at Creation Star Trek Las Vegas.  Today’s post has its genesis in a conversation about that very shirt; a conversation involving Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, and myself.

Brent Spiner

"Yep, I can do Old Baldy's voice pretty well."

For those very few readers who may not be aware, the aforementioned gentlemen portrayed Cmdr. Will Riker and Lt. Cmdr Data (respectively) on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I had the good fortune to meet them in the dealers’ room at the con and we were discussing something completely unrelated when Spiner commented on my shirt.  “Are those cartoons of the original series guys?”, he asked.  “Did they have an animated show?”  When I told him that they had, indeed, done a Saturday morning Star Trek cartoon, he leaned over toward his costar and inquired, “Hey Frakes, did you know the old guys did an animated show?”.

Mr. Frakes was well aware of the existence of the ’70’s Star Trek cartoon series and suggested to Mr. Spiner that the Next Generation cast should do something similar,  “We could do that.”. “Yeah”, said Spiner, “…and we wouldn’t even need to look good!”.  When I suggested that either one of them could voice Picard if Patrick Stewart were unwilling or unable to do it, Brent Spiner regaled me with his excellent impression of Sir Patrick and we all had a good laugh.

It was a memorable moment for more than one reason.  Obviously, as a fan, I was thrilled to even be talking to those guys.  However, as a fan who believes there hasn’t been any really good new Star Trek since Voyager went off the air, it really got me thinking about how great an animated version of NextGen could be!

It’s an affliction from which we Trek fans suffer – we are forever hopeful that our favorite characters from our favorite show(s) will return to television or theatrical films in one form or another.  And why not?  With rotoscoping and other awesome animation techniques now being possible (and affordable) on computers as well as the wealth of experience the cast has in voicing cartoon characters, it seems that good writing would be the only other element required to produce a phenomenal TNG cartoon series.  Personally, I’d love to see that happen.

The 1970’s animated Star Trek was actually fairly cheesy in many regards but it included the voices of [most of] the original cast and it did have good writing.  In fact, it won an Emmy in 1975.  I can’t think of any reason, except perhaps the prohibitive salaries of the actors, that a TNG animated series couldn’t be made and be ten times as good.

I know I’m not the only person who’s ever thought of this either.  Several years ago CBS/StarTrek.com artist David Reddick had a similar idea and even prepared an imageJean Luc Picard cartoon pitch depicting Captain Jean Luc Picard as he might appear in animated form.  A slightly altered version of his original image appears to the right.  It is fairly obvious that he chose to emulate the animation style of the old ’70’s animated Trek … and that’s fine.  Although I still contend that better animation would be easily and cheaply achievable.  All the same, there might be something rather novel about a TNG cartoon that borrowed the visual characteristics of its classic Trek predecessor.  The quality of the stories and the believability of the voices would really be the keys that could make it work.  Terrific animation quality would just be a bonus.

As exciting as the prospect is though, it seems wildly unlikely.  After all, if there were a market for a TNG cartoon, someone would probably have seen to it already.  Furthermore, Sir Patrick Stewart himself indicated at the Vegas con that he would have no interest in reviving Captain Picard in animated series (other than Family Guy anyway).  Oh well. Maybe, by some miracle, it can be made to happen and, if need be, Brent Spiner can do his very convincing Picard impression on a weekly basis.

To Boldly [Le]Go Where No Fan Has Gone Before

“You must be either an obsessive crackpot who’s escaped from his keeper, or Samuel T. Cogley, Attorney at Law!” .  That line, spoken by the character of James Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series episode Court Martial, has always given me a laugh.  I think it would be just as accurate to replace the “Samuel T Cogley” part with, “Chris Collins, adult fan of Lego and Star Trek fanatic”.

Sometimes I do think others perceive me as an obsessive crackpot but it’s OK.  I’m perfectly happy to have that reputation.  In fact, there are times I go out of my way to live up to it.  One such time occurred recently when my family had to give up their dining room table for the entire winter while I constructed a scale model of the ST:TOS Enterprise bridge out of …

Wait for it …

LEGO!

TOS Enterprise bridge made from Lego

Looking back on the project, I realize there are a hundred things I could have done to make it better. That’s the obsessive crackpot in me really coming out though.  Ultimately, it was a very satisfying undertaking and one that I would like to tackle again someday, albeit with a little more advance planning.  This one I threw together hodge-podge just to see if I could improve on a similar Lego project I had attempted as a kid.  There was a marked improvement; so much so that I created a profile at MOCPages.com where I have uploaded the only existing photos of my Lego bridge from childhood as well as a whole series of shots taken while I built the new one.

To me, this is one of the great appeals of Star Trek.  I know that I am only one of many millions of people who feel bolstered by Star Trek, its characters, and its stories.  Granted, others have made major changes in their lives because of inspiration derived from Trek, while anything I have achieved as a result of my fandom is much less profound.  All the same, I like to think that the “you can do anything you set your mind to” approach is something that was brought out in me, at least partially, by Star Trek.  I am not particularly athletic.  While I am intelligent, I am no rocket scientist.  I am at least somewhat creative though, and my love for all things Star Trek has given me numerous outlets for that creativity – to say nothing about the fomentation of that part of my personality, which sprang up quite unexpectedly while I was a youngster obsessed with Star Trek

“It’s Just a TV Show!” or: Was Star Trek Revolutionary?

Merriam Webster lists the following among its definitions of the word revolutionary:  “constituting or bringing about a major or fundamental change”. Other similar reference sources use the word innovative as a synonym.   I have found myself thinking about this a great deal recently and, given these definitions, I think it is fair to say that the original Star Trek TV series of the 1960’s was revolutionary.

This begs the question, “What major or fundamental change did Star Trek bring about?”. In other words, what made it innovative?  I have several answers, some of which are common knowledge even among non-fans, while others are more personal to me.  Herein I will tackle them one at a time and attempt to explain each in some detail.

Star Trek depicted a future of racial and gender equality:
While it may be true that Trek was not the first TV show to place “non-whites” in prominent roles (see: I Spy with Bill Cosby opposite Robert Culp – 1965-68), it was the only one bold enough to consistently portray a human future in which skin color, national origin, gender, etc. in no way determined a character’s level of importance or ability.  In Star Trek we see a multi-national crew comprised of officers both male and female who function as a completely cohesive unit; one in which individuals’ standing is rarely questioned because of race or sex.

I have heard complaints from young Star Trek fans that characters like Uhura and Sulu weren’t featured prominently enough.  Certainly, I too would love to have seen more from those members of the ensemble who were co-stars.  Nevertheless, anyone who has watched the bulk of episodes from the original Star Trek series can’t argue that Uhura, Sulu, and even Chekov later on weren’t given important parts to play.  It was, after all, the 1960’s – a time when African and Asian Americans still had to suffer indescribable indignities in many parts of the United States and Russians were looked upon as little more than cold-war enemies.

Consider that Uhura was portrayed not only as a full Lieutenant but a competent electronics technician, a capable navigator, and an insightful, talented, and gutsy woman on top of her position as Communications Officer.  Sulu too was a commissioned officer who served as a department head, deft Helmsman/Weapons Operator, accomplished botanist, and a confident commander in the absence of Kirk, Spock, and Scotty.  The character of Chekov may have been the most under utilized as he was there primarily to appeal to the same young people who were fans of The Monkees.  All the same, he was given plenty of time in the limelight in his role as Navigator, often being assigned to landing parties, taking the science station in Spock’s absence, and even “getting the girl” in an episode or two – to say nothing of his “national pride”.

I had a great many friends at that time who were of diverse national origin.  All of them counted themselves as Star Trek fans and simply loved the characters I have described. In addition, many celebrities and public figures have cited the characters and philosophy of Star Trek as inspirational, actress/comedienne Whoopi Goldberg and astronaut Mae Jemison among them.

Star Trek was aimed at adults but appreciated equally by children:
With the possible exception of The Twilight Zone (which wasn’t necessarily science fiction anyway), there was very little believable adult sci-fi on TV or in movie serials prior to Star Trek.  Much of what was being shown was intentionally written for children or quickly changed its focus to appeal to the young after otherwise promising starts (see: Lost in Space – 1965-68).

Star Trek, on the other hand, never lost sight of its adult audience.  Even in its third and final season when the writing was sometimes less than stellar, the stories were often thought provoking morality tales that might not have been shown at all had they been conceived for any television series format other than sci-fi.  Moreover, the series always managed to maintain a level of quality that adults could appreciate while sprinkling in more than enough action and adventure to keep kids like me (I was a little tyke when the show first aired) glued to the TV.

Star Trek engendered strong feelings of loyalty among its fans:
The above is an understatement of galactic proportion!  I can think of no other television series, in any genre, that garnered the respect, devotion, and love of its fans the way Star Trek did.  When rumors of cancellation began circulating during the 1967-68 TV season, fans organized a massive letter writing campaign quite possibly contributing to the renewal of the show for another year.  After its network demise, Trek achieved such cult status during its run in syndication that, at one point in the mid 1970’s, fifty two percent of Americans considered themselves Star Trek fans.

Fan conventions brought out thousands when only hundreds were expected to attend. The stars of the show were highly in demand for personal appearances and were asked by organizations as prominent as NASA to be goodwill ambassadors.  The show become such a cultural phenomenon that four years after its cancellation it spawned a Saturday morning cartoon and after five more years of increasing popularity was re-imagined as a major theatrical motion picture.  The country’s first space shuttle was renamed Enterprise in deference to the show’s popularity.  It is highly likely that the market for films like Star Wars might not have existed had it not been for Star Trek.

I could go on but I think the point has been made.   If even one life is fundamentally changed by something, there is no measure of the importance of the thing.  Millions of people have been affected positively by Star Trek – some in the most trivial fashion and some in life altering ways.  I think Merriam Webster would agree – that is revolutionary!

Star Trek Lives!

This phrase means something completely different to me now than it did when I first heard it nearly four decades ago.  As I recall, in the early 1970’s “Star Trek Lives!” was a rallying cry; an almost defiant exclamation by a large segment of the public that our beloved Star Trek couldn’t be killed by an entity as insignificant as a mere television network.  Thanks to a less than accurate Nielsen rating system, the execs at NBC put an end to production of new live-action episodes in 1969.  However, within a few short years people were clamoring for more – and we ate up anything we could get: TV reruns in syndication, paperback books, magazines, photos, models, toys, and more.

I even had the good fortune to attend some of the earliest conventions and I witnessed first-hand the effects we, the fans, had on keeping the Star Trek universe alive.  By September of ’73 people my age (and, yes, even older ones) could see new adventures on TV, albeit in a half-hour, Saturday morning animated format.  The important thing though was that the quality of the storytelling and the optimism of the show’s creators was still evident.  Then there were the books – novelizations of the original ’60’s TV episodes, collections of short stories, new full-length novels, looks behind the scenes – enough to fill the bookcase in my bedroom.   But it got better still.  When the Federation Trading Post opened on 53rd Street in Manhattan, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!  By 1976 or ’77 all manner of Trek merchandise and memorabilia was available.  It was only a matter of time until the “Star Trek Lives!” mantra would result in the fulfillment of every fan’s dreams – new live-action Star Trek with the original cast intact!

Fast forward 30 years.  It’s fair to say that Star Trek has reached its saturation point.  After 11 theatrical films, 4 new television series, hundreds of books, and dozens of video games old-timers like me are forced to wonder if there is anything fresh and new to be brought to the Star Trek table.  And yet, even if there is not, Star Trek lives!  As far as I can tell, there are still millions of people around the world whose appreciation for, and devotion to, the Star Trek universe is unwavering.  And although there are undoubtedly those who would disagree, I think that’s a good thing.

In a little over a month, I’ll be attending Creation Star Trek – Las Vegas with my 13 year old son in tow.  We’ll be celebrating with thousands of others the 45th anniversary of the sci-fi juggernaut we both love so much…and it really doesn’t matter to us if there is ever another new Star Trek TV show or film.  Heck, my son wasn’t even alive when the bulk of the Star Trek stories we now enjoy were released.  Yet, in the Star Trek universe as it stands now there are so many good stories, so many morals worth living up to, so much blatant optimism for our future – it’s a legacy well worth celebrating.  In many ways, I am reminded of the means by which we mere mortal humans manage to live forever… by creating great memories with our loved ones and passing them down through generations.  The phrase “Star Trek Lives!” may have a different meaning now but the optimism, understanding, tolerance, hope, and love which continues to be shown by its newest legion of young fans speaks volumes!

Star trek Lives!