Thirty years of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Thirty years ago this month, on September 28, 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted with the two hour premiere “Encounter at Farpoint” co-written by D.C. Fontana & Gene Roddenberry. Set nearly a century after the original Star Trek, the series featured a brand new crew headed by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) exploring the galaxy aboard the starship Enterprise-D.

Star Trek TNG cast

To be perfectly honest, The Next Generation took a bit of time to find its footing. In the years since the original series aired in the late 1960s, series creator Gene Roddenberry had frequently been lauded by fans for his utopian vision of the future.  It would be fair to say that perhaps Roddenberry bought too much into his press.  When it came time for him to devise the structure of TNG, he approached his role not as a writer or a storyteller but as a philosopher presenting his ideology for humanity’s salvation.

In the first season of TNG, Roddenberry had the Federation presented as a post-scarcity socialist paradise where currency had been eliminated, conflict was all-but-unknown, and human beings had reached mental & emotional maturity. The crew of the new Enterprise was intended to be practically perfect… which seriously hampered the dramatic possibilities of the show.  In those early episodes, each time there was a crisis Picard would calmly convene a meeting of his senior staff to reason out a solution.

Trust me when I say that I very much look forward to the day when humanity matures enough that when an emergency occurs our response will be to form a committee to peacefully resolve the situation. Having said that, it is a fact that dramatic fiction thrives on conflict, and the conflict-free ethos of that first season of TNG often rendered the show cripplingly dull.  As someone who had become a fan of the original show via reruns and the movies, I watched most of the first season on TNG, but I was underwhelmed by it.  When the second season began to air in late 1988 I had pretty much lost interest in the show.

Fast forward to the Summer of 1990… I was 14 years old and going to day camp, where I met two cool teenage girls, Meelise and Renee, both of whom also had an interest in science fiction.  We all spent a lot of time hanging out.  As I recall, Meelise and Renee both mentioned that they were fans of TNG.  Thinking back to that first season, I expressed the opinion that it was a pretty disappointing show.  Meelise insisted that is had become much better.  She lent to me a few VHS tapes on which she had recorded a number of episodes from the recently-completed third season.

I remember taking those tapes home, watching them, and being genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed those episodes. Not only had the plotting gotten better, but the writing for the main characters had all improved tremendously.  Then I got to “The Best of Both Worlds” written by Michael Piller, the riveting season finale which ended with the shocking cliffhanger of Captain Picard assimilated by the seemingly-unstoppable cybernetic Borg.  I was hooked.  That September I was glued to the TV set when “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2” aired, and I remained an avid viewer of TNG up until the series finale was broadcast in May 1994.

Star Trek TNG Locutus

With the benefit of both hindsight and a greater knowledge of the behind-the-scenes workings of the show, as well as recently binging on TNG episodes on Netflix over the last few months, I can see that there was a actually a gradual increase in quality even before season three. Most of the first year is still very underwhelming, but late there were several episodes that offered a glimpse of the series’ potential.  Despite some rough edges, “Where No One Has Gone Before,” “Heart of Glory,” “Symbiosis” and “Conspiracy” each offered the promise that TNG had new & interesting things to say.

It was actually in the second season that the first truly great episode of TNG aired. “Measure of a Man” written by Melinda M. Snodgrass was a challenging, thought-provoking piece that all these years later remains eminently watchable, one of the best episodes of any Star Trek series ever made. Obviously inspired by the material presented them in this script, Patrick Stewart as Picard and Brent Spiner as the android Lieutenant Data both turned in extremely strong performances.  Later that year another amazing episode, “Q Who” written by Maurice Hurley, featured the eerie, tension-filled introduction of the Borg.

I mentioned in my look back at the original Star Trek that, outside of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the characters were underdeveloped. Picard and Data were the characters to receive the most time in the spotlight on TNG.  That makes a certain amount of sense.  Stewart is one of the strongest actors ever to appear in the regular cast of any incarnation of Star Trek.  It was a genuine stroke of genius casting him as Picard, and it made sense that the show would often focus on the intellectual, cultured Captain.  Data, an android struggling to understand what it was like to be human, to try to grasp the intricacies of emotion, was also a compelling character, well portrayed by Spiner.  Again, it was an understandable decision to anchor a number of episodes around Data’s character.

Star Trek TNG Measure of a Man

TNG nevertheless did make an honest attempt to flesh out and develop the other members of the crew of the Enterprise-D, with varied amounts of success. It took the show’s writers longer to find the voices of certain characters.  The female members of the crew were definitely ill-served at times by the plots of certain episodes.

However, in spite of these hiccups, there were some interesting relationships between the characters. One of my favorites was the deep friendship that Data and Geordi LaForge shared.  Certainly any time you put Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton opposite one another you were almost guaranteed to have a really great, funny, warm scene.  All these years later re-watching the show, a smile inevitable breaks across my face when Data and LaForge are paired up.

Besides, when I was a kid I watched Reading Rainbow all the time, so I really enjoyed seeing LeVar Burton on TNG.

Although not as successfully executed, another relationship that had potential was the one between First Officer William Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes, and Counselor Deanna Troi, played by Marina Sirtis. Riker and Troi were ex-lovers, and were now serving together on the Enterprise.  This brought about the inevitable “will they or won’t they” tension, which could have been clichéd, although it seemed to work in this case since Frakes and Sirtis did possess a certain amount of chemistry.

I suppose part of the reason why Riker and Troi never worked as well as they could have was because the writers seemed to struggle with both of those characters. Riker was supposed to be a Kirk-type figure, charismatic and romantic and ambitious, but the dynamics of the show established by Roddenberry required that the First Officer couldn’t be too much of any of that, especially ambitious, because otherwise he could have ended up as a rival to Picard, a challenge to the Captain’s authority.  At times Riker was a study in contradictions, and over the years a lot of fans, using the bits of characterization scattered across seven seasons, have tried to work out their own personal head canon to explain his behavior.

Troi at times fared even worse than Riker. As I said, the writers had trouble giving the female characters strong scripts, and so Troi would get saddled with one implausible romance of the week after another, or get take over by aliens, or other weird stuff.  Troi possessed telepathic powers of empathy, which in theory should have been useful, but again the writers frequently had trouble utilizing this.  Often the Counselor was reduced to telling Picard such near-useless statements as “Captain, I sense hostility and deception coming from the other ship.”

As with certain other elements to TNG, there was potential to both Riker and Troi, but unfortunately the show did not develop either of them as well as it could have. I think that much of the appeal of Riker and Troi is down to Frakes and Sirtis, who both did the best they could with the material they were given.

Star Trek TNG Troi and Riker

There was also an interesting relationship between Picard and Doctor Beverly Crusher, who was played by Gates McFadden. Picard and Crusher also had shared history that predated their assignments on the Enterprise, and even though they had never been romantically involved there was an undeniable mutual attraction.  I do think it was to the benefit of the show that Picard and Crusher were usually written as colleagues who were very close friends, and the writers mostly avoided trying to nudge them into a relationship.  Crusher was typically written as a competent professional, which was good to see, although over the course of the series she really didn’t receive too many quality episodes which spotlighted her character.

While on the subject of Beverly Crusher, I should mention her son Wesley, who was played by Wil Wheaton. Initially written as a teen whiz, the character was apparently a fictionalized version of Roddenberry himself.  Unfortunately in the first couple of seasons the show went out of its way to try to make Wesley the smartest person in the room, and many viewers absolutely hated him.  In later seasons, when Wesley was a semi-recurring presence on the show, the writers definitely gave Wheaton much better material to work with, and the character became more interesting & likable, at least in my estimation.

One cannot discuss TNG without mentioning Worf, played by Michael Dorn. The first Klingon to serve in Starfleet, Worf had been orphaned at a young age and adopted by humans.  Much of what he knew about Klingon culture he learned from books, and his idealized view of his people as proud, honorable warriors often came into conflict with the reality of a once-mighty militaristic society infested with political infighting, corruption and treason.  The solemn, brooding Worf was very much a character who was caught between two worlds, too human to be accepted by most Klingons, and too Klingon to fit in with most humans.  Often alone, Worf struggled to discover his own path, to find a way to live up to his own personal standards of Klingon honor and duty while serving in Starfleet.

Probably the most enigmatic member of the Enterprise crew was Guinan, played by Whoopi Goldberg. Ostensibly the bartender of the ship’s Ten Forward lounge, Guinan was a centuries-old alien with nebulously-defined powers whose home planet had been destroyed by the Borg.  Guinan often imparted sage advice to the crew during various personal crises or ship-wide emergencies.  On paper Guinan sounds like the sort of character who could quickly become annoying. However, Goldberg played the character with just the right combination of gravity and mischievous charm that in her occasional appearances Guinan was usually quite charming.

Star Trek TNG Borg

TNG introduced a number of key concepts to the Star Trek universe. Probably the most iconic was, of course, the Borg.  Instantly memorable, the cybernetic juggernaut of the Borg Collective was perhaps too effective as an adversary.  They were such a powerful, formidable foe that, as cool as they were, it was immediately apparent that they needed to be used extremely sparingly, lest they suffer from villain decay.  TNG was mostly able to avoid this, as the few appearances of the Borg after “The Best of Both Worlds” saw individuals or rogue, underpowered divisions of the Collective popping up here and there.

It was a smart decision hold back on once again utilizing the full might of the Borg until the 1996 movie Star Trek: First Contact.  It might have been a good idea for the concept of the Borg to have been put to rest after that, to have them go out on a high point.  Unfortunately they became a reoccurring adversary on Star Trek: Voyager, with the inevitable diminishing results.

At least the writers recognized that TNG needed another adversary that could be used regularly. The ultra-capitalist Ferengi had already been introduced in the first season, but they had landed with a dull thud, never once working as serious villains.  They were very quickly reduced to comic relief, although several years later Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would do a decent job at developing them into a semi-believable culture.  The Klingons, with their political in-fighting, could occasionally be brought in as bad guys, with treasonous factions plotting against the Federation.  Likewise, another adversary from the original series, the Romulans, returned.  They were fairly effectively utilized, with a tense state of cold war existing between the Federation and the Romulans.

Finally, in the Season Four episode “The Wounded” scripted by Jeri Taylor, we were introduced to the Cardassians. A fascist, expansionist empire governed by the military, the Cardassians were involved in a lengthy, bloody war with the Federation.  “The Wounded” opens shortly after the signing of a peace treaty between the two sides, although it quickly becomes obvious that the Cardassians are utilizing the lull in conflict to secretly re-arm.  The Cardassians presented the writers of TNG with an opportunity to explore the less-idealistic, more pragmatic side of the Federation.  Over the course of the second half of the series, we see the Federation and Starfleet making certain decisions that, from both a moral and tactical perspective, are ill-advised, all out of a desire to avoid another full-blown conflict with the Cardassians.

TNG also introduced the Bajorans, whose planet had been brutally occupied by the Cardassians. Both the Bajorans and the Cardassians would become central, key elements of the Deep Space Nine spin-off, where each of their societies would be intricately developed by the writers.

Star Trek TNG The Wounded

If I had one criticism of TNG that remained consistent throughout its seven year run, it was the writers’ annoying overreliance on techno babble to resolve their plots. It would always drive me up the wall when the Enterprise would solve an emergency by bouncing a particle beam off the deflector dish, or transmitting a phase-shifting tachyon pulse into a planet’s atmosphere, or some such nonsense.  I realize that the show wanted to be more cerebral than the original Star Trek, but if you have to make up a bunch of technical-sounding gobbledygook in order to avoid a fist fight or a shootout then you’re really just cheating.

In certain respects, TNG remains very much a product of its time. The show was produced when one of the primary goals was to re-sell the series over and over in syndication.  This meant cranking out as many episodes a year as possible.  Nearly every season of TNG contained 26 episodes, which required a breakneck production schedule.  Even from the point when the show got noticeably great with season three, there were inevitably a few duds each year.  By the sixth and seventh seasons, with DS9 simultaneously being made, I think the production crew on TNG was beginning to get burned out, and the number of underwhelming episodes began to increase.  The level of quality never dipped too low, but it’s apparent that it was the right call to end the series after seven years, while the good still outweighed the bad.

Looking back on Star Trek: The Next Generation three decades after its debut, it remains a study in contradictions. It was produced at a time when television was approaching a crossroads, when genre shows were slowly beginning to gain popularity in the general public, when serialization and long-form plotting were just beginning to gradually creep into the medium.  At times TNG was clearly looking forward while nevertheless remaining firmly rooted in the established traditions of television production.  Perhaps TNG never quite lived up to its potential, but it was a crucial stepping stone that enabled both the Star Trek franchise, as well as genre television as a whole, to leap into first the 1990s and then the 21th Century.

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Shin Godzilla

Michele and I went to see Shin Godzilla, aka Godzilla Resurgence, last week in the theater during its limited US release. Toho has once again rebooted the movie series, with Godzilla’s inaugural attack on Japan taking place in the year 2016.  The film is co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, with a screenplay by Anno.  Shin Godzilla is probably the darkest, most serious Godzilla movie since the very first entry in the series, Gojira, back in 1954.

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Shin Godzilla is a very political movie. With the story told in an almost-documentary style, events unfold from the perspectives of the politicians and bureaucrats whose task it is to deal with Godzilla’s rampage & the aftermath.

The film’s protagonist is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa). Young, ambitious, and definitely something of a rebel, Yaguchi continually chaffs at the innumerable regulations that have to be dealt with amidst Godzilla’s arrival, as well as the overly cautious attitudes of the senior political establishment.

There are quite a number of issues at play here as they relate to Japanese society. Yaguchi is uncomfortable with the traditional deference to seniority & rank, preferring instead to work with people possessing talent & ability, regardless of their age or social status.  His assembly of various scientists & technicians, who he affectionately describes as misfits & outsiders, into a group dedicated to stopping Godzilla is a definite attempt to cut through the red tape that he feels has entangled the rest of the government.

The push by Yaguchi for the Japanese Self Defense Forces to take a proactive role in protecting the country from Godzilla also has real-world echoes. Japan was forced to de-militarize after its defeat in World War II.  During the early years of the Cold War the country was entirely dependent upon the United States for protection.  This eventually led to the formation of the SDF, which has for much of its existence served a very limited role.  In recent years, seeing the potential threats posed by North Korea and China, certain voices in Japan have called for the full-scale rearmament of the country.

At the same time, though, we do see in Yaguchi a desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He wishes for Japan to shake off American influence and to be able to defend itself, but he also cautions against the overconfidence that led his country into catastrophic defeat 70 years before.

shin-godzilla-attack

The United Nations ordering a nuclear strike on Tokyo to destroy Godzilla before the creature can reproduce & spread across the globe is certainly rooted in Japanese fears. Japan is the only country to have ever been attacked by atomic weapons.  Obviously one can argue that the United States had a very strong rationale for using the atom bomb to end World War II back in 1945.  Nevertheless, within the movie we see the Japanese characters genuinely horrified at the possibility that their country will once again be devastated by atomic weapons, that in order to stop Godzilla the entire city of Tokyo will have to be reduced to a radioactive wasteland.

Yaguchi and his team race against the nuclear strike’s impending deadline to devise an alternate method of stopping Godzilla. With time of the essence, they are forced to ask for the assistance of Germany in analyzing their data.  When the team realizes it needs another day to finish their plans, Yaguchi’s allies in the government lobby France to extend the countdown by 24 hours.  Finally, when the SDF launches the attack devised by Yaguchi’s team, they receive valuable assistance from the United States.

I do not think the choice of these countries is accidental. Japan, Germany, France, and United States; seven decades ago the first two were mortal enemies of the later.  Now, in the present, all four of them set aside their differences and work together against a danger that threatens the entire globe.  The movie demonstrates again and again that cooperation is essential in stopping Godzilla: government and private industry must to pool their resources, military and science must work side-by-side, and nations must come together as allies.

shin-godzilla-profile

This is a very unconventional entry in the Godzilla series. That’s not surprising, given Hideaki Anno’s involvement.  He is best known for his work on the incredibly offbeat & bizarre science fiction anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, which left audiences very divided.  (Years ago, after watching the final episode of Evangelion, I literally threw my hands up in the air and uttered a loud “WTF?!?”)

The conflict between generations was a central one in Evangelion, with anxious teenager Shinji Ikari attempting to find his own way in life and assert himself again his cold, manipulative father. Aspects of this extremely dysfunctional relationship appear to have been translated into Shin Godzilla, in the disagreements between Yagushi and his superiors, as well as the larger theme of 21th Century Japan rebelling against the overbearing, paternalistic attitude of the country’s older generations and the United States.

Of course we cannot forget Godzilla himself. There is an effort by Anno, Higuchi, and their collaborators to ground the creature in reality.  Obviously there is a certain limit to how well this can be pulled off, since the concept of a giant radioactive fire-breathing dinosaur is, when you get right down to it, rather implausible.  Nevertheless the movie does succeed rather well at giving Godzilla a certain verisimilitude.

A constantly-evolving life form, when we first see Godzilla he is an aquatic creature that walks on four legs. This initial form is very much unlike the monster we are used to, which led Michele to whisper to me “Is that Godzilla?”  I must have been frowning when I whispered back “I don’t think so.”  The detail that really threw us off was the creature’s pair of comically large googly eyes.  As the creature shuffles onto land and begins toppling buildings, all efforts to appear formidable are totally undone by those ridiculous peepers.

shin-godzilla-big-googly-eyes

At a certain point the creature plops to a halt and right then & there evolves into a bipedal creature.  That’s when I realized that this really was Godzilla, even though he still had those big googly eyes of his.  Fortunately the creature quickly makes his way back into the ocean.

Later in the movie, when Godzilla returns to land, he has evolved further, and is much closer to his traditional form. Twisted & grotesque, this is a monstrous incarnation, one that lumbers unceasingly forward, smashing everything it its path.  An unstoppable engine of destruction, this Godzilla is genuinely terrifying, a quality that has been seldom present in the creature since the original Gojira.

Anno’s use of music by the late Akira Ifukube from older Godzilla movies is effective. Ifukube’s music was a vital part in establishing the tone and atmosphere in many of the past entries.  It demonstrates just how effective his scores are that they are still being utilized.

Much as his work on Evangelion was divisive among viewers, so too has Anno’s approach resulted in a polarization of opinion on this movie. Some found the detailed focus on the inner workings of government in crisis to be fascinating.  Others felt Shin Godzilla was dull, and they expressed difficulty in keep track of the innumerable bureaucrats.

My own opinion falls in-between these two extremes. The scenes of committee meetings and press conferences and scientific gatherings are well written & insightful, although at times they do get excessive and drag on.  These could certainly have been scaled back.  I think that at least 15 minutes of the movie’s two hour run time could have been trimmed without losing anything of real significance.

Flaws aside, I found Shin Godzilla to be a good movie. After the underwhelming Godzilla: Final Wars back in 2004, Toho has done a good job at reviving the series with this new entry.

Fifty years of Star Trek

Star Trek made its television debut 50 years ago this week, on September 8, 1966, when the episode “The Man Trap” aired on NBC.

(For the pedantic-minded, yes, “The Man Trap” was number six in production order, and the actual first episode of Star Trek should have been “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” but NBC decided to instead debut the show with a “monster of the week” first episode. And that’s not even getting into the matter of first, unused pilot episode “The Cage” which wasn’t broadcast in its entirety until 1988.  Okay, I’ll stop now!)

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I wasn’t born for another decade, in June 1976, but in the early 1980s when I was a young kid I regularly watched reruns of Star Trek on Saturday evenings on WPIX Channel 11. I was a science fiction fan, and the show was such a thrill for me.  At the time, the concept of an ongoing sci-fi TV series that aired a “new” episode every single week was just so revolutionary.  It’s almost inconceivable these days when there are numerous genre shows on the small screen, but when I was a kid Star Trek was literally one-of-a-kind.

(It’s really no wonder that a couple of years later I also became a huge Doctor Who fan once I discovered repeats airing Monday to Friday on PBS stations.)

I honestly don’t remember my first episode of Star Trek. I have very fuzzy memories of a young me watching Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn (“Arena”) and of Kirk and Spock communicating with the Horta (“Devil in the Dark”), but I certainly couldn’t swear with any certainty that either of those was my absolute first exposure to the show.  The point is that as far back as I can recall, I was watching Star Trek, and enjoying it.

kirk-vs-gorn

It is interesting to have re-watched many of those episodes over the past decade and a half, to revisit them with adult eyes. Some of them are still classics, while others have not aged well.  And, no, I am not referring to the low budgets or the dodgy special effects.

When you are six years old “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” probably seems an insightful examination of racism; when you’re in your 30s it comes across as a heavy-handed, clunky allegory. When you’re a kid “A Private Little War” strikes you as a tragic tale of good men forced into conflict; when you’re an adult you realize that it’s actually a  defense of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

In the decade after Star Trek’s original three season run concluded, its creator Gene Roddenberry was a regular of the sci-fi convention circuit, and he worked hard to propagate the myth that the series was extremely progressive and forward-thinking. This was true to a degree, but certainly not as much as Roddenberry would later claim.  As with any series that was crafted by a number of different writers, Star Trek’s politics were all over the place.  Roddenberry himself could be maddeningly inconsistent, at times genuinely liberal, and at others decidedly right-of-center.

The show is, in hindsight, not nearly as diverse as it could have been, with the three lead characters of Kirk, Spock and Doctor McCoy all played by white males. There is a good deal of  sexism & sexual titillation in many episodes.  Yes, Star Trek did show men and women serving alongside each other in a military organization.  But most of the females in Starfleet were relegated to secondary roles.  The women of Star Trek were often characterized as emotional & irrational, and many of them were clad in extremely revealing outfits.

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I doubt it’s any accident that one of the things that everyone remembers about Star Trek are those green-skinned Orion “slave girls” portrayed by Susan Oliver and Yvonne Craig.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with being sexy.  But as they say, everything in moderation.)

It is also unfortunate the most of the crew of the Starship Enterprise was underdeveloped. By today’s standards Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov are very one-dimensional.  But that was an inevitable reality of the model of American television in the late 1960s.  Watch any prime-time drama from that era and you will see that it is made up of stand-alone episodes that are primarily driven by plot, with extended story arcs and long-term characterization nonexistent.

Nevertheless, for all its flaws, Star Trek was still groundbreaking. It was the unexpected beginning of a decades-long franchise, one that in its various incarnations over the next 50 years would genuinely become more and more progressive.  The original series was the necessary foundation upon which all of the subsequent TV series and movies were built.

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Even today, fifty years later, there aspects of the original Star Trek that still hold up. The lead trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy works very well, due to the genuine chemistry that existed between actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley.  You definitely see these three men as colleagues who, despite their differing world views and their often passionate arguments over ideology & methodology, possess a genuine rapport & friendship.

I’ve sometimes heard it suggested that Kirk, Spock and McCoy are a Freudian Trio.  Kirk is the ego, the leader.  Spock is the superego, reason.  McCoy is the id, emotion.  Whatever the case, it made for compelling drama.

The writing on Star Trek could also be very good. Despite his flaws, Roddenberry certainly devised a wonderful concept, and his plots could be intelligent & imaginative.  Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana are the two writers who probably deserve the most credit for taking Roddenberry’s vision and developing it into a compelling, nuanced three-dimensional universe.  Other talented writers who contributed quality plots & scripts to Star Trek are George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, David Gerrold, Norman Spinrad and Jerome Bixby.

The costumes, props, sets and models created for Star Trek were also striking & original. The designs conceived by Matt Jeffries and Wah Chang are now iconic.  The Enterprise itself, the crew’s phasers & communicators, the Klingons’ cruisers, aliens such as the Gorn and the Salt Vampire; all are instantly recognizable.

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For a television show that lasted a mere three years, constantly teetering on the edge of cancellation, the original Star Trek has had a seismic impact on popular culture. It has simultaneously served as escapist fantasy while providing a lens through which to explore the social & political controversies of the last half century.

Of course there’s also plenty to say about the Star Trek movies, and The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine, and so on, but I think I’ll save those for another time.

By the way, one of my favorite WordPress blogs is the m0vie blog. Among the numerous reviews, its author Darren has written some incredibly detailed, insightful, thought-provoking analyses of the Star Trek franchise. I encourage everyone who is a fan of the series to check it out.

Comic book reviews: The Rook #2-4

The four issue miniseries The Rook by Steven Grant and Paul Gulacy published by Dark Horse recently concluded. I previously reviewed the first issue, so now I’m going to take a brief look at the remainder of the story.

The Rook 2 cover

Having been gifted the Time Castle by his older self, Restin Dane aka the Rook travels back from 2015 to the late 19th Century to seek out his great-great-grandfather Adam, the man who first discovered the secrets of time travel. Adam is, in fact, the unnamed narrator from the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine.  In a paradoxical twist, Restin with his knowledge of 21th Century science plays a key role in his ancestor’s development of the first time machine.

Having related his experiences to his friend Wells (who of course goes on to describe them in his book), Adam returns to the far-distant future to lead the Eloi against the Morlocks. Resin follows after him in the Time Castle, only to discover that Adam’s mission has gone decidedly pear-shaped.  Adam also has, from his perspective at least, his first run-in with the sinister Quarb.

Grant sets up an interesting relationship between Restin and Quarb. The later is an incredibly long-lived being, having existed for countless thousands of years.  Restin, via time travel, has (or will have) encountered and fought against Quarb repeatedly throughout the millennia, but always in a non-linear manner.  It was Quarb who organized the “Rook Revenge Squad” (as I like to call them), the assemblage of Restin’s old enemies, in the first issue.  That was but one of the innumerable schemes that the immortal plotter has crafted over the eons.

I get the impression that Grant must have some flowcharts to keep track of the timelines of the various different characters, and the points at which they meet. I read issue #4 as soon as it came out last week.  Today I re-read the entire miniseries in one sitting.  A number of the connections and strands that Grant sets up in it suddenly became much clearer to me.

The Rook 3 pg 6

It’s interesting to see how events unfold. For now Grant leaves it up in the air if various occurrences are the result of time loops and predestination paradoxes, or if history actually is being rewritten by Restin’s actions.  As the Rook’s robot aide Man-Rs astutely observes in Dark Horse Presents #14, if you do alter the past then all of your memories of it, and all of the accounts in the history books, are instantly going to change, so you are never going to notice the difference.

Grant is definitely not doing the decompressed thing here. These four issues, plus the DHP prologue, are packed with plot and dialogue.  Considering that nowadays most 22 page “pamphlets” can be read in less than ten minutes, it’s a real pleasure to find a comic book that demands the reader’s attention to detail.

Once again the art by Paul Gulacy is amazing. As I’ve written on a few occasions, I am a huge fan of Gulacy’s work.  I really think he is such an underrated talent.  His storytelling and action sequences are among the very best in the field of sequential illustration.  Gulacy demonstrates his versatility, effectively depicting both Victorian London and the far distant era of the Eloi and Morlocks.  Jesus Aburtov’s coloring once again looks amazing over Gulacy’s art.

It’s worth mentioning that Grant imbues his stories with a certain amount of humor. Gulacy’s art very ably complements that quality.  His style is definitely hyper-detailed, but he also possesses the ability to render comedic scenes through exaggerated figures and facial expressions.  The encounter between Quarb and the Morlocks in issue #3 literally had me laughing out loud.

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Grant and Gulacy are currently working on a second miniseries. I’m definitely looking forward to it.  The Rook was a great read, and I’m anticipating the further adventures of Restin Dane.

Dark Horse will be releasing a trade paperback of The Rook on May 25th. If you missed this miniseries then I highly recommend picking up the collected edition when it comes out.

Comic book reviews: The Rook #1

I’ve been anticipating The Rook miniseries from Dark Horse since it was first announced several months ago.  I was not familiar with the character, other than being aware that Restin Dane was a time traveling adventurer created by W.B. DuBay and featured in various Warren Publishing titles between 1977 and 1982.  Even so, the creative team for this revival of The Rook immediately grabbed my attention.

The Rook 1 cover

Steven Grant was the writer of the Punisher: Circle of Blood miniseries that helped to catapult the character into A-list status.  Grant has written a number of excellent, intelligent crime and horror series over the years.  In particular, I enjoyed his writing on The Damned and Mortal Souls, as well as his offbeat revamps of Challengers of the Unknown and Manhunter in the mid 1990s.

Paul Gulacy is an artist who I’ve blogged about previously.  After his breakout run on Master of Kung Fu, Gulacy went on to work on such diverse characters as Sabre, Batman, Valkyrie, James Bond, Black Widow, Terminator, Catwoman, and G.I. Joe.  I’m a huge fan of his work.

Even though The Rook is a pre-existing character, Grant & Gulacy have made Restin Dane entirely accessible to new readers.  An eight page prologue, “The Gift,” appeared in Dark Horse Presents #14.  The time traveling Dane arrives thousands of years in the past in the city of Ilion, where the inhabitants are celebrating the ending of a long war.  At first Dane is confused about his whereabouts… until he spots a giant wooden horse, and belatedly recalls that Ilion was another name for Troy.  Uh oh!

DHP 14 pg 5

“The Gift” was a solid introduction to the character of Restin Dane.  Grant gives us a good look at his personality and hints at his mission.  I felt that Grant packed in more plot and characterization into this short prologue than many writers nowadays manage to fit into a full-sized comic book.  It definitely left me intrigued and eager to read the actual miniseries.

Within the first issue, Grant again sets out essential information.  It is quickly established in that Dane originates from some point in the 21th Century, and that he is embroiled in a temporal feud with a sinister individual known as Lock.  With that, the story barrels ahead, presenting both action and mind-bending questions.

As a fan of science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, I really appreciate the fact that Grant is exploring the nature of time travel, and the possible paradoxes inherent within it.  “The Gift” suggests that Dane, in attempting to alter events and prevent the destruction of Troy, instead causes history to unfold exactly as it was written.  The implication is that Dane always was going to arrive in the past to play that specific role in it.

Moving on to the first issue, Dane arrives in his own past in the year 2015, affecting people and events, including his own younger self.  I’m really curious to see what Grant does over the next three issues.  Only a couple of weeks ago I was touching upon the concept of the bootstrap paradox in another post.  Now I am wondering if Restin Dane’s timeline will be another example of a causal loop.  Hey, the cover logo does have an infinity symbol / Mobius strip contained within it!

Then again, perhaps Grant is playing with reader expectations and is actually going to go in an entirely different direction.  We shall have to see.

The Rook 1 pg 2

The artwork by Gulacy in the DHP prologue and in the first issue of the miniseries is amazing.  He superbly renders the historical setting of the Trojan War and early 19th Century Spain, as well as the hi-tech and fantastic elements.

Gulacy is one of the best action artists in comic books; his fight sequences are dynamic.  He definitely knows how to lay out a page and tell a story.  I was also struck by Gulacy’s designs for Lock’s sinister coterie of assassins against whom Dane is pitted in the first issue.

Last but certainly not least, the rich coloring by Jesus Aburto suits Gulacy’s artwork very well.  It definitely works to create a genuine atmosphere.

I enjoyed the debut issue of The Rook and am looking forward to reading the next three installments.  A sequel by Grant and Gulacy is reportedly already in the works.  I certainly recommend this miniseries.  The first issue is still on sale, and it is also available digitally.  I hope everyone will check it out.

Remembering Murphy Anderson: a look back at The Atomic Knights

Silver Age comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on October 23rd at the age of 89. Anderson was an incredibly prolific inker who worked on numerous series for DC Comics from the 1950s thru to the 1980s. His embellishments wonderfully complemented the pencils of Curt Swan on Superman, Carmine Infantino on The Flash and Batman, and Gil Kane on Green Lantern and The Atom.

Less often Anderson also did both pencils & inks, turning in excellent work on Hawkman and The Spectre. He was the co-creator of the sci-fi hero Adam Strange and of the sexy magician Zatanna.

Anderson’s friend and colleague Todd Klein recently observed on his blog “I loved his precise style and crisp inking.” Reflecting on Anderson’s art in a tribute at 13th Dimension, Dave Gibbons commented “His inks brought a crispness and finesse to the work of so many great Silver Age artists. Stories always seemed to gain an extra magical dimension under his painstaking hand.”

Strange Adventures 144 cover

Among Anderson’s vast body of work, one of my personal favorites was the wonderfully weird Atomic Knights feature which he created with writer John Broome and editor Julius Schwartz in the Strange Adventures science fiction anthology series. The Atomic Knights made their debut in Strange Adventures #117 (June 1960) and appeared in every third issue of the series thru #156 (Sept 1963) with a final installment running in #160 (Jan 1964).

Set in the then-future year of 1986, the Atomic Knights stories by Broome & Anderson depicted the adventures of a group of heroes seeking to restore civilization to a post-apocalyptic world devastated by World War III. Oh, yes, and they happened to wear Medieval suits of armor and ride around on giant Dalmatians!

The first time I ever heard of the Atomic Knights was back in the early 1990s. My high school library had a copy of The Encyclopedia of Monsters by Jeff Rovin.  One of the entries was on the Mole-Creatures.  It included a black & white image of the cover to Strange Adventures #144, which featured two of the armored Knights atop their giant Dalmatian steeds about to be ambushed by the Mole-Creatures.  The concept was just so far out and crazy that it immediately stuck in my mind.

DC reprinted the entire Atomic Knights run from Strange Adventures in a hardcover collection in 2010. Since acquiring all of those old issues would have been a difficult and expensive task, I picked up the book so that I could finally read this oddball series.

Atomic Knights collection cover

The story begins in late 1986, some weeks after the Great Atomic War has decimated nearly the entire globe. Wandering through the ruins of the town of Durvale, ex-soldier Gardner Grayle learns that the area is under the oppressive thumb of the self-proclaimed “Black Baron.”  Gardner befriends teacher Douglas Herald, and the pair discover six suits of armor in the remains of the Durvale Museum.  Somehow the energies of the nuclear war have transformed the metal, giving it radiation-resistant qualities.

Gardner and Douglas, along with Douglas’ sister Marene, the scientist Bryndon, and twins Wayne & Hollis Hobard, don the armor and attack the Black Baron’s fortress.  They capture the tyrant, liberating Durvale.  The armor-clad sextet decides to remain together as a group, “to represent law and order and the forces of justice in these terrible times.”

Throughout the course of the series, the Knights have a variety of unusual adventures. They explore the post-apocalyptic Earth, encountering a succession of bizarre monsters created by nuclear radiation, as well as human adversaries attempting to seize power.

Atomic Knights collection pg 35

It’s important to remember that these stories were published in the early 1960s. There are aspects that by today’s standards are dated.  The most obvious is how Marene, the only female Knight, is more often than not sidelined.  She is usually left in Durvale to care for another member of the Knights who has been wounded in battle, or to guard the town while the rest of the group goes out on a mission.  The apparent rational behind this is that Marene is “just a woman.”  At least she does finally have the opportunity to play a crucial role in the last story.

The character development of the heroes is minimal. We know that Gardner and Marene have a mutual attraction that they never seem to get around to taking to the next level, and that the Hobard brothers are huge fans of Jazz music, among other nuggets of information.  But mostly Broome is interested in just getting the characters from point A to point B, introducing the story’s menace and coming up with a resolution.

The science is also wonky. Radiation-resistant armor and dogs the size of horses is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scientific implausibility.  Then there’s Bryndon, one of those typical 1960s comic book scientists who apparently knows everything.  There doesn’t seem to be any area of science or technology of which he doesn’t possess at least some knowledge.  We eventually learn that he is literally a rocket scientist, but even so the guy is almost an encyclopedia on legs.

Perhaps the most blatant scientific unlikelihood is that all of the plant life on Earth was destroyed during World War III.  If that was the case, there wouldn’t be any plants to convert carbon dioxide back to oxygen, and humanity would have died out.  Fortunately our heroes soon find samples of fruits & vegetables on the lost island of Atlantis (yes, really) and are able to revive farming & agriculture in Durvale.

All kidding aside, writer John Broome was scripting these comic books to entertain young readers, not to meet a standard of inquiry from Scientific American. Given that fact, the dodgy science can more or less be excused, as these pulp sci-fi adventures are fun and delightfully offbeat.

It’s noteworthy that the Atomic Knights stories take place over a period of several years, with the final installments set in 1992. This enables Broome to show the gradual rebuilding of civilization.  That’s one of the more interesting aspects of the series, and it gives the stories a nice feeling of continuity.

Atomic Knights collection pg 45

The art by Murphy Anderson on the Atomic Knights stories is absolutely beautiful. I observed a quality to his work here that is reminiscent of some of the great newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and 40s.  Gardner is heroically handsome & strong, Marene is beautiful & sweet, the villains are sneering fiends, and the monsters are bizarre, menacing beings.

Anderson admirably succeeds in illustrating the fantastic elements of these stories in such a way that they seem grounded in real life.   No matter how weird or impossible the monsters of the stories, Anderson gives them a weight and gravity, be they walking trees, electrical beings, or a giant crystal monster with a head that resembles a disco ball.

Anderson renders the spectacle of an armored knight riding a giant Dalmatian and makes it look perfectly plausible.  For example, on page 85 of the collection, we see the Knights astride the Dalmatians charging into battle.  The immense dogs kick up clouds of dust in their wake, their ears are flopping, and their tongues hang out of their mouths.  Anderson’s depiction of this scene makes it very easy to imagine the sounds of giant paws thundering across the ground, of the heavy pounding from the canines drawing in gasps of breath.

Atomic Knights collection pg 85

Between the offbeat writing of John Broome and the superb artwork of Murphy Anderson, the Atomic Knights was an engaging feature. It’s no wonder that it became something of a cult classic.  Although the series was written out of continuity for a time, later on the characters were brought back into the DC universe in various different forms.  Most recently the Atomic Knights were featured prominently in Convergence: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes written by Stuart Moore.

That the Atomic Knights have fondly endured for all these decades in readers’ minds is undoubtedly at least partially due to Murphy Anderson’s stunning art. His work on the feature is, in my estimation, among the best he did in his lengthy and impressive career.  The Atomic Knights is but one of the many wonderful legacies that Murphy Anderson has left us.

Monsters Who’s Who

It can be a mixed experience revisiting a piece of your childhood, equal parts joy and surprise.

I’ve been a fan of science fiction and horror and monsters ever since I was a kid in the early 1980s.  As I’ve mentioned before, I was definitely a geek.  I didn’t have many friends; instead most of my free time was taken up by books and movies and cartoons.

The school library at Davis Elementary in New Rochelle had a handful of books about monsters, the kinds from movies, the ones from myth, and the supposedly-real creatures hiding just out of sight.  These were a real pleasure for me, a momentary escape from the tedium of homework and book reports.

One of the books from the library was Monsters Who’s Who, published in 1974 by Crescent Books.  It was a huge illustrated encyclopedia containing profiles on a diverse selection of strange, scary beings… at least that’s how I remembered it.  I hadn’t seen that book in literally decades, but last week on a whim I decided to see if it happened to be on Amazon.  Much to my surprise there were quite a few used copies available dirt cheap.  I ordered one for a mere 84 cents… plus $3.99 shipping & handling.  You have to laugh when postage is more than four times what you’re paying for the book!

I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight...

I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…

The book arrived in the mail, and with it were a couple of surprises.  The first was that it had a completely intact dust jacket.  I’d never seen the cover before; the school library copy was missing the jacket.  It’s actually a rather nice illustration.

As for the second surprise… hey, wasn’t this book much bigger?!?  When I was a kid Monsters Who’s Who seemed immense!  My memory of it was that it was a huge, thick volume.  Instead the reality is that it measures 11 by 8.5 inches and is only 122 pages.

Oh, yeah, after all these years I’ve finally learned just who wrote Monsters Who’s Who.  Seriously, there’s no author credit inside the book itself.  But the front flat of the dust jacket reveals that it was penned by none other than Dulan Barber!  Um, wait… who?!?  That has got to be a pseudonym.

Okay, putting aside my unreliable 30 year old memories of Monsters Who’s Who, it actually is a neat book.  I’m not at all surprised that I was so interested in it when I was a kid.  It contains a really diverse selection of subjects.  Yes, the write-ups are for the most part extremely short.  But the photos & illustrations are great.

Among the absolutely-fictional entities profiled in Monsters Who’s Who are such iconic figures as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, King Kong and Godzilla.  A variety of mythological creatures including the Chimera, the Hydra, Medusa, the Sphinx and the Unicorn are also found in these pages.  Third, there are the real and possibly-real beings, such as dinosaurs, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti.

Some of the profiles of mythical beasts are accompanied by very old artwork.  Very few of them are credited, regrettably, but they are certainly beautiful.  And occasionally you have an odd piece like this one…

Who's a good doggie? Who's a good boy?

Who’s a good doggie? Who’s a good boy?

This might have been the first occasion when I heard of Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Greek underworld.  Even at eight years old I found this illustration to be not so much fearsome as forlorn.  All three of Cerberus’ heads wear a sad expression, as if they want nothing more than to receive a nice tummy rub!

There are also a few comic book characters, specifically from the pages of Marvel Comics.  I had forgotten that Monsters Who’s Who was the first time I ever learned of the oddball Incredible Hulk character known as the Bi-Beast.  The Hulk himself also has a profile in the book.

Actually, the writer plays very fast & loose with the term “monster.”  The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man (spelled as “Spiderman”) have entries in this book.  Admittedly this does make a certain amount of sense.  The early Marvel universe devised by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko was definitely a weird, unsettling place populated by strange beings which did not neatly fall into the categories of “good” and “bad.”

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

There were also a few profiles of Doctor Who monsters!  Seriously, the timing of me discovering Monsters Who’s Who in the school library was perfect.  I’m not totally certain, but I think it was in 1984 when I was eight years old.  I had just started watching Doctor Who on PBS station WLIW Channel 21 only a couple of months before, first seeing the final season of Tom Baker and then the beginning of Peter Davison’s run.  Finding this book right on the heels of that helped me understand that the show had been around for quite a few years, and that the Doctor had fought some interesting monsters in the past.  I remember wondering if any of them would ever show up in the episodes I was now watching.

It must have been only a week or so later and I was at home one weeknight watching Doctor Who.  The TARDIS had landed in some dark caves.  A bunch of soldiers armed with ray guns were searching for something, not realizing that they were being hunted by these two mysterious androids.  Next thing you know the soldiers had come across the Doctor and his companions.  After the usual misunderstanding where they assumed the Doctor was their enemy, they joined forces when those androids showed up and started shooting.

And then the episode came to a completely shocking cliffhanger ending when the beings controlling the androids were revealed… at which point my eyes jumped out of my head.  Silver robot-like creatures with handles on the sides of their heads?  There’d been a photo of them in Monster Who’s Who, hadn’t there?  Oh, how I wished I had the book beside me at that moment!  The next day at school during lunch I broke land speed records getting to the library, grabbed Monsters Who’s Who off its bookshelf, and flipped rapidly through it.  Yes, it was them!  It was the Cybermen!

Destroy them! Destroy them at once!

Destroy them! Destroy them at once!

That was my very first Doctor Who related geek-out.  Obviously it left a major impression on me to remember it so vividly 32 years later.  I know I was equally thrilled when that night episode two of “Earthshock” aired on WLIW and contained actual clips from old Doctor Who stories.

I think that in the 21st Century we often take for granted the immense amount of information that we have at our fingertips.  Just hop on any computer, or turn on your smart phone, and within minutes you can Google any subject or look it up on Wikipedia.  You can download old movies and television shows with little effort.  It’s very easy to forget how things were in the pre-digital, pre-internet age, when discovering a book like Monsters Who’s Who was like unearthing a geek goldmine.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start with one of those “when I was your age” tirades.  I am not that bad.  Well, at least not yet!  Nevertheless it is nice to recall some of my more pleasant childhood memories.  Just me and some monsters taking a stroll thru the past.