Twenty-Five Years of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

It’s a bit difficult to believe that this month is the 25th anniversary of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine, which premiered on January 3, 1993. Time really does fly.

Unlike other Star Trek shows, DS9 was set on a space station, not a starship. Spinning off from events in The Next Generation, the premiere of DS9 saw the planet Bajor achieving independence after four decades of brutal occupation by the militant Cardassian Union.  The space station Deep Space Nine was originally Terok Nor, a former Cardassian outpost orbiting the planet Bajor.  Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), a Starfleet Commander mourning the recent death of his wife, is assigned to the newly rechristened Deep Space Nine, to help oversee the restoration of the devastated Bajor in the hopes that it can join the Federation.  In this unpredictable environment Sisko also sought to build a new life for himself and his young son Jake (Cirroc Lofton).

Star Trek DS9 cast

Sisko’s assignment appears to be very much a dead end for his career, until a stable wormhole opens nearby, a shortcut to the far distant Gamma Quadrant. The alien beings who occupy the wormhole are worshiped by the Bajorans as their gods, the Prophets.  For seemingly-inexplicable reasons the Prophets have now manifested for the first time in centuries, and have anointed Sisko their Emissary.  Instantly Sisko becomes one of the most important figures in the Alpha Quadrant, in charge of the station guarding a strategic wormhole, the sole individual with whom the entities occupying it will communicate.  Sisko is, to say the least, ambivalent about his position of Emissary, especially as many Bajorans now see him as the representative to their gods.

Star Trek: DS9 had a dual focus. It examined the efforts of Sisko and his crew to aid Bajor in recovering from 40 years of foreign occupation, a task complicated by both the ineffectual, corrupt provisional government and by the continuing machinations of the Cardassians, who were still stinging from the humiliation of being driven from the planet.  The show also concerned itself with the Federation’s explorations of the mysterious Gamma Quadrant, which until the discovery of the wormhole was a region of the galaxy that would have taken decades to reach via normal warp drive.

Due to the fact that it was set in a fixed point in space, DS9 was able to examine how various cultures grew and developed over time. The Bajorans, after spending 40 years fighting a desperate guerilla war to liberate their planet, now had to figure out how to work together to restore a stable system of government.  The return of their Prophets also brought about conflicts between science and faith, further threatening to fragment Bajor’s people.

Meanwhile the Cardassians, after centuries of militaristic expansion, were beginning to enter a period of steep decline, with various factions within the corrupt government attempting to exploit the chaos for their own personal benefit. The proudly nationalistic Cardassian people also struggled to deal with guilt over the crimes their military had perpetrated against the Bajorans, and with the inconvenient truth that if their society did not change then it would eventually perish.

Beginning with the season two finale “The Jem’Hadar” and continuing until the conclusion of DS9’s seven year run, the Federation was faced with an existential threat in the form of the Dominion, a vast alliance of powers based in the Gamma Quadrant that was obsessed with bringing “order” to the galaxy. The Dominion was, in a way, a dark mirror of the Federation.  Whereas the Federation relied upon diplomacy, the gift of technological advancement, and the promise of a “better” way of life to attract new member worlds, the Dominion utilized brute force and terror to expand its reach.  DS9 was a show that was skeptical of institutions & authority, and it would make the case that though their methods differed dramatically, the Federation and the Dominion were alike in each arrogantly believing that their system of government was the ideal one.

Star Trek DS9 Dominion War

The conflict with the Dominion enabled the show to take a close look at the United Federation of Planets. In both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, the Federation was typically characterized as something quite close to utopia, a near-perfect society seemingly without any significant injustice or inequality.  In spite of its occasional excesses and various blind spots, the Federation was, at least in theory, fundamentally based upon the principle of the rights of the individual.  The Dominion, in contrast, was a fascist structure that demanded absolute obedience from its subjects.  Not only was the Dominion diametrically opposed to the ideals of the Federation, it was also a vastly superior military power.

DS9 addressed the question of what happens when a utopia like the Federation encounters an adversary inimical to its very ideals, a foe that can neither be negotiated with nor outfought. Faced with the very real possibility of its destruction, the question repeatedly arises as to how far the Federation will go to achieve victory, how much it will compromise its principles to ensure its survival.

These ideas were, of course, examined via the regular characters of DS9, how they acted and reacted to the events of galactic importance taking place around them, how their lives were affected over the show’s seven years.

Sisko often saw his principles tested. He was stationed far from the peaceful center of the Federation, commanding a space station occupied by a diverse population of alien species.  Helping the devastated, divided Bajor to rebuild, fighting the dissident Maquis who had dropped out of the Federation, and serving on the front lines of the brutal war with the Dominion, Sisko regularly struggled to live up to both his personal ethics and the ideals of Starfleet.

The season six episode “In the Pale Moonlight” pondered just how far Sisko would go in compromising his morality in his quest to prevent the Dominion from conquering the Alpha Quadrant. All these years later the episode remains one of the most riveting, thought-provoking, unsettling installments of the entire franchise.

Star Trek DS9 In The Pale Moonlight

Another character who was repeatedly challenged throughout the run of the show was Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), the station’s First Officer. As a member of the Bajoran militia Kira was often pulled between her loyalty to her homeworld and her responsibilities serving under Sisko.  Additionally, Kira had been born during the Occupation, and has spent most of her life fighting against the Cardassians.  To be blunt, Kira and her compatriots in the Resistance could be regarded as terrorists.  She had a great deal of blood on her hands, having been required to commit numerous violent acts in the struggle to liberate Bajor.  Kira was unapologetic for her actions but at times was nevertheless haunted by her past.  She also struggled with having to shift from being someone who had fought tooth & nail against an unjust status quo to being a member of the establishment.

One of the most fascinating characters on DS9 was Odo (René Auberjonois) a mysterious shapeshifting entity who had been discovered by the Bajorans during the Occupation. Odo had no knowledge of his past.  Surly and brooding, he had fallen into the role of Terok Nor’s chief of security while it was still under Cardassian control, but was trusted enough by the Bajorans to remain in that position once the Federation moved in.  Odo was the ultimate outsider; he was literally one of a kind.  There were times when it seemed the only reasons why he stayed on DS9 were that he literally had nowhere else to go, and because he carried an unrequited love for Kira Nerys.

Odo’s sad story took an even more tragic turn once the Dominion entered the picture. Early in season three Odo was reunited with his shapeshifting people, only to quickly learn that they were the Founders, the ruthless rulers of the Dominion.  Having spent centuries subjected to mistrust, the shapeshifting Founders had established the brutal Dominion, believing that the only way to escape being persecuted was to seize control of the galaxy.  Odo, in spite of his sympathies for the Founders’ cause and his longing to rejoin his people, was nevertheless revolted by the Dominion’s horrific tyranny.  He reluctantly returned with Kira and the other “solids” to DS9.  Despite having found his people, he was in a way now more alone than ever.

DS9 seemed to be a port of call for people who had no roots, no place to call home. Worf (Michael Dorn), the only Klingon to serve in Starfleet, was one of the most popular characters on The Next Generation.  Beginning in season four Worf joined the crew of DS9.  He once again found himself expelled from his own society after he objected to the Klingon Empire’s war against the Cardassian Union.  Worf correctly perceived that the Klingon Chancellor, by making spurious claims that Cardassia had been infiltrated by the shapeshifting Founders, was using the threat of the Dominion as a pretext to invade Cardassia.  Unable to abide by the Empire’s dishonorable actions, he again pledged his loyalty to Starfleet.  Worf was in for a shock, though, as he quickly found the colorful mayhem of DS9 to be very different from the orderly routine of the Starship Enterprise.

Star Trek DS9 Miles OBrien

Another former member of the Enterprise crew who found himself stationed on DS9 was Miles O’Brien (Colm Meany). O’Brien was very much a working-class everyman who had a grounded, stoic perspective on the strange events that frequently beset the station.  The station’s Chief of Operations, O’Brien had transferred from the Enterprise at the start of season one.  He had hoped to give his wife Keiko and their young daughter Molly a more stable life than on a starship, although he quickly discovered that the station had its own particular brand of chaos.  O’Brien seemed to be a magnet for trouble, often becoming mixed up in all manner of bizarre and horrifying events.  He was undoubtedly the hard-luck hero of DS9.

Deep Space Nine found its feet much quicker than The Next Generation had, generally offering up some pretty good episodes during its first season. Nevertheless the writers did take a while to figure out what to do with the characters of Jadziya Dax (Terry Farrell) and Doctor Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig).  Eventually the show settled down into having Dax as a purveyor of dry wit and confidant to Sisko.

Jadziya Dax was actually a composite of the Trill woman named Jadziya, the very long-lived symbiont slug-like entity Dax, and the memories of Dax’s previous Trill hosts. Dax’s prior incarnation, a charismatic diplomat named Curzon, had been a mentor to the young Sisko.  Now that relationship evolved into a close friendship between the vivacious Jadziya and Sisko.  Eventually, at the end of season six, Jadziya was killed, but the symbiont Dax survived.  In season seven Dax was joined with another Trill, a young woman named Ezri (Nicole de Boer).  This led to an interesting reversal of roles, with the now-seasoned Captain Sisko serving as a mentor to the inexperienced Ezri Dax.

Star Trek DS9 Ezri Dax

The arrogant, ambitious Bashir, who probably would have been much more suited to service on the Enterprise, was often the odd man out on the dysfunctional DS9. However, as the series became more and more morally ambiguous, Bashir was often used to demonstrate how the ideals of Starfleet were being challenged, and how he refused to let his own ethics to be compromised.  Bashir and O’Brien, in spite of their very different personalities & backgrounds, also developed an odd but endearing friendship over the course of the show’s seven years.

A discussion of DS9 would not be complete without mentioning the Ferengi. Originally conceived as uber-capitalist baddies in the first season of The Next Generation, the Ferengi were an immediate flop, and that series very quickly reduced them to comic relief.  DS9 set out to rehabilitate the Ferengi, to make them into a three-dimensional, believable species.  To a degree the show was successful.  While the Ferengi were still rather implausible, and often silly, they nevertheless came across much better on DS9 than they had on TNG.

One of DS9’s regular characters was Quark (Armin Shimerman) a Ferengi bartender & club-owner operating out of the station’s promenade. Quark was always looking to make a quick buck, and often fell afoul of Odo, who was determined to halt the Ferengi’s extra-legal activities.  As we got to know Quark, however, it became apparent that he did operate according to his own particular code of ethics.  He wasn’t evil; rather his pursuit of wealth caused him to have a number of rather glaring moral blind spots.  Quark’s main failing was that he was often unable, or unwilling, to foresee the negative consequences of his actions on both himself and others, at least until some particular scheme happened to blow up in his face, sometimes literally.  To his credit, Quark would usually attempt to make things right with those he had harmed, albeit somewhat reluctantly, while also trying to recoup as much of his investment as possible.

Star Trek DS9 Quark

I could also discuss such fascinating recurring characters as Gul Dukat, Garek, Nog, Winn Adami, Weyoun and Martok, but we would be here all day. Suffice it to say that DS9 had a rich, fascinating, colorful ensemble.

Deep Space Nine had been described as the most multicultural of the various Star Trek series. It was the first Star Trek show to feature a black man, the superb Avery Brooks, in the lead.  Miles O’Brien was played by Irish-born Colm Meany, and Julian Bashir was played by English-Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig.  Nearly all of the other characters on DS9, both regular and recurring, were members of different alien species, with their own cultures and mores, their different perspectives on the events that unfolded.

The show is also noteworthy for being one of the first American genre series to experiment with serialization. Various storylines played out across multiple episodes, and the final season concluded with an ambitious, epic nine-episode serial that worked to resolve as many of the plotlines and character arcs as possible.

Star Trek DS9 station

Deep Space Nine was produced at a time when American television was at a crossroads. It definitely was a forerunner of the now-standard model of serialization, yet at the same time it was still being made when 26 episode seasons were the norm, to crank out as many hours of television as possible to sell to syndication.  Inevitably each season had at least a few subpar installments.  As the show progressed, and became more involved in long-form storytelling, those surplus episodes inevitably became somewhat more glaring, especially in the final two seasons.

While DS9 has for the most part aged exceptionally well, its treatment of women and sexual relations does feel rather dated. Dax and Kira were the only two significant female characters among the very large ensemble.  Bashir’s almost stalker-ish pursuit of Jadziya Dax in the first couple seasons, Ezri Dax in the final season, and a few other women over the course of the show, sticks out as an especially poor choice in today’s climate.  The relationship between Odo and Kira also has problematic aspects.

Nevertheless, despite certain missteps, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine remains a quality show. For the most part it was well-acted, well-written, and well-produced.  It was actually quite ahead of its time in its examination of the challenges presented by multiculturalism, and its debate concerning liberty vs security during times of war.  It is definitely a favorite of mine.

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.

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!)

star-trek-crew-and-enterprise

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.

star-trek-orion-slave-girl

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.

spock-kirk-and-mccoy

Even today, fifty years later, there are aspects of the original Star Trek that 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.

uss-enterprise

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.

Olaf Pooley: 1914 to 2015

English actor Olaf Pooley, who was born on March 13, 1914, passed away on July 14th at the grand old age of 101.  Pooley’s best-known role was undoubtedly his 1970 appearance in the Doctor Who serial “Inferno” which starred Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor.  At the time of his death Pooley was the oldest still-living actor to have appeared on Doctor Who.

In the seven-episode “Inferno” Pooley portrayed the monomaniacal Professor Stahlman, a scientist obsessed with drilling through the Earth’s crust in his quest to locate a new source of energy.  As the story unfolds, Stahlman’s project instead unearths a green mutagenic slime that regressed humans into savage animals, and the drilling threatens to wipe out all life on the planet.

Doctor Who: The Book of Lists succinctly describes Stahlman as “arrogant, confrontational and pretty single-minded even before he gets turned into a hairy monster.”  Indeed, Pooley played the Professor as a thoroughly-unpleasant individual, a villain viewers absolutely love to hate.  Pooley was so convincing in this performance that whenever I saw him in other roles or being interviewed I was always a bit taken aback at how affable he actually was!

It has been reported that Pooley was less-than-enamored with his heavy make-up in the later episodes of “Inferno.”  One would think that most guest actors working on Doctor Who would be going in knowing that there was an above-average chance that they would end up playing some sort of grotesque monster.  Having said that, I don’t blame Pooley for being apprehensive about being made up to look like something across between an ape and a werewolf!

With its journey sideways into a parallel universe where Britain is a fascist police state and its ominous end-of-the-world scenario, “Inferno” is a favorite among Doctor Who fans including myself.  It’s been included on several Top Ten and Top Twenty Stories lists over the years.

Olaf Pooley Inferno

Of course, Doctor Who was but one entry on Pooley’s resume. In a lengthy career that spanned from the 1940s to the beginning of the 21st Century, he worked in theater, television and movies on both sides of the Atlantic.  In an interview conducted just last month Pooley related working alongside such noted actors as Michael Gough, Noel Coward and a young Anthony Hopkins.  He also wrote several plays and screenplays.

Moving to the United States in the 1980s, Pooley made a number of appearances on American television.  Notably, he was a scientist in the 1985 pilot episode of MacGuyver, and he made guest appearances on popular series Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

At the age of 86, one of Pooley’s last roles before retirement was in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Blink of an Eye” which aired in January 2000.  This made him one of only a handful of actors to have appeared in both Doctor Who and the Star Trek franchise.

Pooley had a lifelong love of art.  He studied at the Architectural Academy in Bedford Square.  It was after being convinced that it would be difficult making a living as an artist that Pooley went into acting.  Yes, his second choice for a career was one that had only slightly better prospects for financial security!  Pooley really must have been a creative person with a passion for expressing himself to have gone that route.  Fortunately this worked out quite well for him.

In his last years Pooley was still involved in the art world.  Having retired from acting and living in Los Angeles, he once again immersed himself in painting, spending the final decade and a half of his life creating many pieces in his Santa Monica studio.

On March 13, 2014, his one hundredth birthday, he was briefly interviewed by ABC 7 Los Angeles about both his work as an artist and his acting…

I find it amazing and wonderful that Pooley was active right until the end of his life.  Imagine retiring from a job that you enjoyed and then spending your remaining years actively engaged in a hobby that is a deep passion for you.  On top of that, to live to be over a century old and still be in fairly good health & retain your mental faculties?  We should all be so lucky!

Leonard Nimoy: 1931 to 2015

Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27th at the age of 83.  It’s odd when someone you literally grew up watching on television and in movies dies.  In the last two days others have written extensively about Nimoy’s numerous, varied accomplishments throughout the decades.  I would certainly recommend taking a look at the piece by Darren at the m0vie blog.  Darren has written some of the most insightful, intelligent reviews of Star Trek that I have ever come across, so of course he offers a worthy appraisal of Nimoy’s life & career.

For my part, I am going to just offer some brief thoughts on Nimoy’s amazing portrayal of the character of Spock on the various incarnations of Star Trek, the science fiction series created by Gene Roddenberry and developed by a variety of talented writers such as Gene L. Coon & D.C. Fontana.

Star Trek VI Spock

Leonard Nimoy did amazing work bringing Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer of the Starship Enterprise, to life. The original Star Trek was broadcast from 1966 to 1969.  This was an era when television series were extremely episodic, characterization was one-dimensional, and there weren’t any sort of extended arcs that developed long-term subplots or depicted the evolution of the characters over a period of time.  Within these constraints, during three wildly uneven seasons of Star Trek, Nimoy nevertheless succeeded in communicating the continuing struggles of Spock to reconcile his Vulcan and human backgrounds, to adhere to the Vulcan ideal of non-emotion while finding a place among a crew of highly emotional human beings.  Spock was in a number of ways the perennial outsider.  He was a character who I expect a great many viewers could identify with.

The chemistry between the three leads in Star Trek was very apparent.  Nimoy as Spock, William Shatner as Captain Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Doctor McCoy all possessed an excellent rapport.  Whereas Spock represented logic, McCoy was the personification of human sentiment, of acting upon feeling, and the two had a very contentious friendship.  It fell to Kirk to listen to Spock and McCoy’s two disparate world views and to strive to find the correct balance between intellect and emotion that was necessary to resolve each episode’s crisis.

Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock was often very moving.  Certain moments invariably stand out, such as from “The Devil in the Dark” written by Gene L. Coon, broadcast on March 9, 1967.  That episode was one of the best examples of Roddenberry’s hopes for a future where humanity would learn to embrace tolerance, understanding and open-mindedness.  Coon’s script sees the Enterprise crew working to prevent a mysterious, deadly alien from destroying the Janus VI mining colony.  As the episode progresses, we learn that the Horta is no savage, mindless killer.  Rather, it is a mother attempting to prevent the accidental destruction of her nests of eggs by the miners.

Spock’s mind meld with the Horta, when the truth about the entity is uncovered, is one of the most iconic moments from the original Star Trek.  Nimoy’s acting in it was an absolutely crucial component in making this scene genuinely believable, in helping to convince the audience that a living rock pile that resembled a giant pizza pie was a thinking, feeling, sentient being.  It is one of the best examples I know of where intelligent writing and quality acting more than overcame the hurtles of primitive special effects and a shoestring budget.

Just a week ago I was watching “The Enterprise Incident” written by D.C. Fontana, originally broadcast September 27, 1968.  I think that “The Enterprise Incident” is one of the most morally complex, cynical episodes of the original Star Trek.  Fontana’s script sees Starfleet sending Kirk and Spock on a covert mission to steal a cloaking device from the Romulans.  In the process they violate the treaty with the Romulan Empire and engage in overt acts of espionage.

(There are some fans of the series who believe that the sixth Star Trek movie and the 1990s spin-off series Deep Space Nine portrayed Starfleet and the Federation in an unfavorable light contrary to Roddenberry’s original intentions.  I would argue that certain episodes of the original series such as “The Enterprise Incident” demonstrated that there was always a morally ambiguous, harshly pragmatic side to those institutions.)

Star Trek The Enterprise Incident

“The Enterprise Incident” features one of Nimoy’s best performances from the original series. Spock’s stoic devotion to logic and duty is apparent in his carrying out his orders and performing Starfleet’s dirty work.  At the end you also witness the tangible regret that he feels at having been required to assume the devious role of a spy & double agent, in deceiving the Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville), who he had developed a genuine fondness for, in order to help Starfleet achieve its goals.  At the end, reflecting on how all of Starfleet’s machinations have probably only achieved a temporary strategic advantage, Spock acknowledges to the Romulan Commander “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all. I hope that you and I exchanged something more permanent.”  Nimoy’s delivery of the line was very effective and thoughtful.

Nimoy’s wonderful portrayal of Spock continued within the Star Trek movies. Spock’s striving towards the purging of all emotion, only to realize the emptiness of pure logic, was one of the few strong points in the uneven Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Although his character was not a central focus in The Wrath of Khan, Spock’s sacrifice the save the Enterprise at the end of was incredibly moving.  Under the superb direction of Nicholas Meyer, Nimoy and Shatner played the scene perfectly.

Nimoy slipped into the director’s chair for the third and fourth movies, doing quality work.  In the later, The Voyage Home, Nimoy’s performance as the resurrected Spock, once again seeking to find the balance between his dual heritages, was very good.  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country saw the characters of Spock and Kirk at odds with one another over the possibility of a future where the Federation and the Klingon Empire could be at peace.  Once again directed by Meyer, both Nimoy and Shatner turned in solid performances as Spock and Kirk contemplated the idea of growing old, and of the universe moving on without them.

On a more personal note, as someone who is Jewish, as a child I remember being pleasantly surprised when I learned that Leonard Nimoy was of that faith.  Nimoy very much embraced his heritage, and was proud of his Judaism.  Yet he never let that pride blind him.  He recognized the importance of people from different backgrounds working to find common ground and understanding.  As the co-writer of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nimoy was inspired by looking at the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the hostility between Israel and the Arab nations of the Middle East, and by his hope that these different peoples could one day learn to peacefully co-exist.

Nimoy’s character Spock often expressed the sentiment “Live long and prosper.”  Those are certainly words that Nimoy himself lived by.  He will be missed.

Khan Noonien Singh: Star Trek’s “benevolent dictator”

I thought it might be nice to sit down and re-watch my DVD of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan today.  As I’ve written before, it is a really great movie.  The script by Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards has so many fascinating aspects to it.  And then it occurred to me that it had been literally years since I’d actually viewed “Space Seed,” the Star Trek episode written by Gene L. Coon & Carey Wilber to which The Wrath of Khan is a sequel.  I did a Google search, and found that you can view it for free online at Hulu.  Yeah, okay, you have to sit though several commercials, but it’s still better than watching a grainy bootlegged version.

Viewing “Space Seed” and Star Trek II back-to-back, I realized what an amazingly fascinating character Khan Noonien Singh was.  Obviously a major aspect of this is that the part of Khan was portrayed by the amazing Ricardo Montalban, who turns in a forceful, charismatic performance.  But I think that aspects of Khan’s character also speak to a quality present in society, the notion of the appeal of the so-called “benevolent dictator.”

The idea of one unifying individual bringing order to a state or nation, or perhaps even the entire world, is certainly not a new one.  In certain respects, it is understandable.  The alternative, democracy, is an extremely flawed, messy process.  Dozens upon dozens of dissenting voices have to be heard and appeased, compromises need to be achieved that often end up pleasing no one, politicians who are supposed to be the representatives of the people are swayed or outright bought by private interests, and the entire day-to-day functioning of government can be ground to a halt by a small group of elected officials who are unwilling to participate in the process.  One needs only look at the current deplorable state of affairs here in the United States to see this taking place.

But, really, just how much better is the alternative?  Lord Acton stated that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Or, as Spock (Leonard Nimoy) observes in “Space Seed,” when commenting on the genetically engineered supermen who once nearly seized control of Earth, “Superior ability breeds superior ambition.”

Khan Space Seed

The crew of the Enterprise, having discovered the cryogenically frozen Khan and his band of followers in outer space, is of two minds about the man.  While Kirk (William Shatner) dislikes what Khan represents, at the same time, looking at the historical record, the Captain of the Enterprise sees that, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, Khan’s dominion over a major portion of the globe was relatively benign & peaceful.  Indeed, over dinner with the ship’s crew, Khan passionately argues that the Earth made a terrible mistake in driving him into exile.  He states that his rule was not tyrannical, but “an attempt to unite humanity.”  He goes on to forcefully declare “We offered the world order!”

Khan is certainly an extremely charismatic individual with a magnetic personality.  However, the man’s true side begins to come out in his interactions with Lieutenant Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue). The Enterprise’s historian is immediately attracted to Khan and what he represents.  In an early establishing shot, we see McGivers’ quarters are decorated with paintings & sculptures of men of power such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Richard the Lionheart.  She possesses a much romanticized view of these individuals, who she considers superior to the males of her time.  And Khan immediately seizes on to that.

In his actions, Khan shows some of the signs of being a sociopath.  He is driven by ego, by the belief in his superiority over others.  He values other people primarily for what they can give him.  He knows how to talk a good game.  And he is superb at reading other people.  Khan immediately identifies that McGivers has this idealized view of individuals such as himself, and that she is attracted to him, both on a physical level and because of what he represents.  No doubt he also notes that she has a rather submissive side to her personality.  He takes advantage of all this, forcefully seducing her, and then ordering her to assist him in taking over the Enterprise.  When McGivers is at first unwilling to do so, Khan then appears to dismiss her, denying her the attention & affection she craves.  It is definitely an extremely unhealthy and twisted relationship built on abuse.

Once Khan and his followers, with McGivers’ aid, take over the Enterprise, his charming, civilized veneer continues to slip.  Khan realizes that Kirk and his crew are not going to easily capitulate.  He threatens Kirk with an extremely slow, painful death by suffocation, and promises to repeat this to the rest of the bridge crew, one by one.  However, if any of them swear to serve him, he will spare their lives.  In this way, at least in his mind, he appears benevolent.  As Khan no doubt sees it, he is basically saying “Look, I can be reasonable and merciful. Just do what I tell you to do and I promise no harm will come to you.”  Of course, the crew refuse Khan’s offer, and remain loyal to Kirk.  This just serves to further enrage Khan.  The more his enemies resist him, the more violent he becomes.  It is this that shocks McGivers into betraying Khan.  Witnessing first-hand the cold, hard reality of the types of men she had admired, she is repulsed, and she rescues Kirk, who organizes his crew to take back the ship.

However, Khan’s ego will not allow him to give up.  He attempts to blow up the Enterprise, wanting to take down everyone with him.  Kirk of course manages to thwart this.  Later, with the super-humans in custody, Kirk offers Khan and his followers the choice of settling on the untamed planet Ceti Alpha V instead of imprisonment by Starfleet.  He also gives McGivers the opportunity to join Khan rather than face court martial.  She agrees, and Khan declares “I will take her. And I’ve gotten something else I wanted: a world to win, an empire to build.”  There is Khan’s ego once more at work.  He forgives McGivers for her betrayal.  And he twists things around so that he can rationalize that despite being defeated he has achieved what he wanted in the first place.

Khan Star Trek II

Unfortunately, as we find out fifteen years later in Star Trek II, things turn out really badly for Khan and his people on Ceti Alpha V.  Six months after settling there, the neighboring planet in the system exploded.  Ceti Alpha V’s orbit shifted, turning it into an inhospitable desert, and for the next decade and a half Khan and his followers barely clung to existence.

When the Reliant arrives at Ceti Alpha V, mistaking it for the exploded planet, Khan instantly recognizes its First Officer, Pavel Chekov, formerly of the Enterprise (Yes, I know, Walter Koenig didn’t join the cast of Star Trek until the second season, and so wasn’t in “Space Seed.” Koenig likes to joke that his character was serving on a different part of the Enterprise at that time, and that Chekov accidentally kept Khan waiting an uncomfortably long time to use the bathroom, hence the animosity.)  Here again Khan’s ego immediately comes into play.  Instead of recognizing an opportunity for rescue, he becomes full of resentment.  Looking around at the sorry state he is now in, Khan declares “On Earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince, with power over millions.”  He is disgusted at the notion that in the intervening years Kirk has been promoted to Admiral, no doubt seeing it as a further insult that his rival has had a successful career while Khan was off rotting in exile.  In fact, Khan places the blame for his circumstances squarely on Kirk for never returning to check up on him (which, admittedly, is a fair enough criticism).  Now Khan sees the opportunity for revenge.  He takes control of the Reliant and sets out to kill his hated foe.

It’s interesting that Khan refers to the death of his “beloved wife,” undoubtedly a reference to Marla McGivers.  I really do wonder if Khan loved her.  It seems somewhat difficult to believe so, based on their relationship in “Space Seed,” where he was manipulating her.  Maybe he genuinely did.  Then again, perhaps Khan merely convinced himself that he loved her, because it fulfilled his self-image as a good man.  Whatever the case, I think that when the opportunity arose to attack Kirk, he uses McGivers’ death as one more self-justification in pursuing his vendetta.

In watching Star Trek II, you do realize that Khan has ample opportunities to take a different course of action.  Instead, he is absolutely hell-bent on gaining revenge.  Even Khan’s utterly loyal right-hand man Joachim (Judson Scott) attempts on more than one occasion to argue that they have their freedom and a spaceship, they can go anywhere in the universe, lead their own destiny once again.  But Khan’s monumental pride simply will not allow it.  He will not let go of the idea of avenging himself on Kirk.

After the Enterprise barely survives an encounter with the Khan-controlled Reliant, Kirk bitterly notes “He wants to kill me for passing sentence on him fifteen years ago. And he doesn’t care who stands between him and his vengeance.”  It eventually transpires that this includes Khan’s own devoted followers.  He is more concerned with revenge than he is for their welfare.

It’s interesting to note that early in the film we see a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on Khan’s bookshelf.  No doubt he has had ample time to familiarize himself with the novel during his long exile.  Yet Khan ends up playing the role of Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal captain who leads himself and his entire crew to their deaths in his pursuit of the white whale.  Khan himself obviously recognizes the parallels, but he simply does not care.  As he activates the stolen Genesis Device in an attempt to destroy the Enterprise along with his own ship, he quotes the novel: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”Doctor Doom Jack Kirby

I had never noticed it before, but Khan actually bears some interesting similarities to the comic book character Doctor Doom, who was created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Like Khan, Victor Von Doom is often described as a “benevolent dictator.”  He is the absolute monarch of the country of Latveria.  In certain respects, Doom has transformed his homeland into a paradise.  There is no crime or poverty in Latveria; of course, neither is there any free will.  Some might argue that the loss of civil liberties is a small price to pay.  The problem is that this seeming golden age is dependant solely upon the whims of Doctor Doom.  Like Khan, he is a creature of immense ego, convinced of his innate superiority.  He claims to love the people of Latveria, and by granting them peace & prosperity it allows him to demonstrate to himself and everyone else that he is right, that he knows what is best for the world.

However, just like Khan, when things don’t go exactly according to plan, off come the kid gloves, and suddenly Doom is an extremely dangerous, petty, vengeful individual.  Certainly his decades-long vendetta against Reed Richards for what is, in truth, a mistake Doom made due to his own arrogance, proves that.  In Doom’s mind, he cannot be wrong; it must be somebody else’s fault.  And he’s pursued his quest for vengeance against Richards, his desire to show everyone that he is the smarter, better man, with a fanatical single-mindedness.

As for the people of Latveria, as much as Doom claims to adore and cherish them, the second they become a liability, the second they stand in his way or cease to be of use to him as a propaganda symbol or a method of stroking his ego, he will casually cast them aside or destroy them.  In the end, Doom comes first, and everything else is secondary.

And that is why, as alluring as the concept of the “benevolent dictator” appears, it is really a terrible idea.  Yes, in the short term a supposedly well-intentioned absolute ruler may be able to create order & stability.  But it is the type of progress that cannot last in the long run, and which is ever subject to the frailties of the all too human egos of those in control.

Happy birthday to Tony Isabella

I wanted to wish an early birthday to the super-talented comic book writer, critic & columnist Tony Isabella, who was born on December 22, 1951.  I’ve enjoyed Isabella’s comic books since I was a kid.  His straightforward, no-nonsense, yet slyly humorous observations on society & popular culture in his online blog and in the pages of the late, lamented Comic Buyer’s Guide are always informative & insightful.

Ghost Rider 7 cover

Isabella started in the comic book biz in 1972 as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics.  He also wrote a diverse assortment of Marvel titles in 1970s, among them Daredevil, Captain America, the “It, the Living Colossus” feature in Astonishing Tales, Monsters Unleashed, and Power Man.  He co-created The Champions, and revamped the short-lived heroine The Cat aka Greer Grant Nelson into the popular Tigra in Giant-Sized Creatures #1.  For a time Isabella was the regular writer on Ghost Rider.  He intended to stay on that particular series longer than he did.  Unfortunately, one of his issues was rewritten at literally the last minute by Jim Shooter, in the process derailing a significant ongoing storyline, and Isabella walked off the title in protest.

In 1977, Isabella created Black Lightning, the very first African American character to have a solo title at DC Comics.  Paired with then-newcomer Trevor Von Eeden, Isabella wrote the first ten issues of the Black Lightning series.  Also at DC, in the mid-1980s, working with artist Richard Howell, Isabella began a major Hawkman storyline.  That’s when my young ten year old self first discovered Isabella’s writing.  I discussed the interesting premise of that series in my recent blog post about Richard Howell.  I think that Isabella was doing some good, suspenseful writing on Hawkman, and it is unfortunate that he departed the series due to a disagreement with editorial.

Captain Universe TPB pg 135

In the early 1990s, Marvel editor Jim Salicrup gave a number of interesting assignments to Isabella.  These included a handful of issues of Web of Spider-Man, a trio of Rocket Racer short stories, and back-up stories for the 1990 Spider-Man annuals featuring Ant-Man and Captain Universe.  Both of those tales were illustrated by the legendary Steve Ditko.  In the Captain Universe story, the latest recipient of the Uni-Power was a two year old child named Eddie, named after Isabella’s own son.  This delightful story also featured a cute nod to Ditko’s classic Gorgo and Konga comic books published by Charlton in the 1960s.  (Isabella’s story is collected in the Captain Universe: Power Unimaginable trade paperback.  Go get it!)

Salicrup became editor-in-chief of Topps Comics in 1992.  Several of the titles published by Topps were based on some of the many previously undeveloped series concepts devised by Jack Kirby, and were referred to as the “Kirbyverse.”  Among these was Satan’s Six, an entertaining four issue horror comedy miniseries which Isabella wrote.

Satan's Six 1 cover

In 1995, Isabella had the opportunity to return to Black Lightning, a character who he has said on numerous occasions has great personal significance to him.  Working with the immensely talented artist Eddie Newell, Isabella wrote some amazing, emotional, moving stories.  However, apparently due to some behind-the-scenes editorial shenanigans, Isabella was removed from the book after issue #8, and the series then sputtered to cancellation just five issues later.  Despite this unfortunate turn of events, I definitely look back on those first eight issues by Isabella & Newell, as well as their ten page Black Lightning story in the DCU Holiday Bash II, as among the best mainstream material published by DC in the 1990s.

Isabella has also collaborated with fellow Comic Buyer’s Guide columnist Bob Ingersoll on several occasions.  They co-wrote the Star Trek: All of Me special published by DC in 2000, a Star Trek novel, a prose short story in the anthology The Ultimate Super-Villains, and the novel Captain America: Liberty’s Torch.  I enjoyed that last one.  The book featured illustrations by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod.  In it, Cap is captured and placed on trial by a fanatical, ultra right wing militia that has accused him of betraying the country to minorities and foreigners.  What was interesting about how Isabella & Ingersoll wrote the novel is that they never really reveal to us Cap’s own opinions are on all of these controversial issues.  Instead of having Steve Rogers get on a soap box to offer a civics lecture, the authors pretty much leave it up to the reader to decide for himself or herself Cap’s views on globalization, immigration, taxes, and big government.

I was thrilled when Isabella recently had the opportunity to return to comic books and write the six issue miniseries The Grim Ghost, published by Atlas Comics in 2011.  Isabella did really great work on the series, which also featured amazingly atmospheric artwork by Kelley Jones & Eric Layton.  Regrettably, Atlas ended up having some distribution problems, and it took me quite a while to snag a copy of the final issue.  That also seems to have prevented a trade paperback collection from being published.  All that aside, it was a really good series, and it is well worth tracking down.

Grim Ghost 6 cover

Looking back over Isabella’s body of fiction, as well as his work as a columnist, a great deal of his own viewpoints and opinions come out through his writings.  Isabella definitely has an ultra liberal perspective.  Nope, I am not jumping to conclusions, is says so right on his Facebook page, under Political Views: “Very Liberal.”  I’m a bit more middle-of-the-road myself, and occasionally I’ll read something of his and think to myself “Whoa there, Tony, might want to rein it in just a little!”  But I certainly respect the deep sincerity of his views.

He is also a very spiritual person.  And not, I certainly must add, in a “If you don’t believe in God, you are going to Hell” sort of way.  Isabella sees God as a loving entity, not a punishing one.  His protagonists often find redemption and the strength to go on via their faith in a higher power, by resolving to do good and set aside their own inner flaws & defects of character. That is what Isabella was trying to do with the character of John Blaze, who had sold his soul to the Devil, within the pages of Ghost Rider, and why he was so angry when Shooter threw a monkey wrench into those plans.  This is a theme that he returned to so effectively with the characters of Matthew Dunsinane and Michael Colavito in The Grim Ghost. The importance of casting off pride & resentment, and need to let go of the past, in order for each of these men to finally be free to escape from the purgatory known as the Fringe and find salvation, is one of the central messages of the series.

Something you may have noted in this blog post: Isabella seems to have had his share of clashes with editors at both Marvel and DC.  I think that this is indicative of a man who is very principled, ethical and passionate about his work, and who is unwilling to let editorial, or the corporate types overseeing them, impose what he sees as unreasonable demands upon him.  The comic book industry has innumerable examples of creators who have been exploited & abandoned by greedy, short-sighted corporate interests.  So I certainly admire Isabella for standing up for himself and not allowing others to steamroll him.

Black Lightning 5 cover

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Tony Isabella on a couple of occasions, first at one of the Big Apple conventions over a decade ago, and then at New York Comic Con in 2011.  I later found out that those were the only two NYC conventions that he’s done in the last two decades!  Talk about good timing.  Both times I found him to be a very pleasant fellow.  Having followed his comic books and columns for so long, it was a pleasure to meet him on those two occasions, and to have him autograph some of the books that he has worked upon.

Have a very happy birthday, Tony.  I sincerely hope that there are many more years, as well as many more stories, to come for you.  Keep up the great work.

Five new comic book artists who I like

Last month I was over at Jim Hanley’s Universe for one of their creator signing events. It just so happens that standing right next to me in line was Fabrizio Fante, author of the excellent WordPress blog Fate’s Inferno.  As we were waiting on line, Fabrizio and I got to talking about a whole bunch of topics.  One of the things that came up was new comic book artists.  Specifically, Fabrizio was curious to know which new artists I was a fan of.  And, y’know, I immediately started drawing a blank.  Every single name I could come up with off the top of my head was someone who had been working professionally for more than a decade now.  It was actually really bothering me.  Surely there had to be at least one artist who had broken into the biz after 2003 whose work I enjoyed?

I guess my subconscious mind was dwelling on the subject, because over the past few weeks several names did gradually come to me.  Yes, there are definitely a number of really good, talented individuals working in the comic book field nowadays.  I am going to spotlight some of those artists here.

Rocket Girl 1 cover signed

AMY REEDER

I first discovered the work of Amy Reeder on the Madame Xanadu series written by Matt Wagner and published by DC Comics / Vertigo.  To be perfectly honest, when I first learned that Reeder had broken into comic books via Tokyopop, I might have sighed in exasperation, figuring that she was yet another of the Manga-derivative individuals to flood comic books in the last two decades.  But actually looking at her art for Madame Xanadu, I was floored.  First of all, Reeder has this amazing storytelling sense, the ability to really lay out pages in a dramatic fashion.  Second, her first story arc “Disenchanted” was set over a millennia-long period, which required that she conduct an extraordinary amount of research to obtain an authentic look for numerous historical eras across the globe.  I was really impressed by the work she put into those ten issues.

Reeder has drawn a couple of really stunning books written by Brandon Montclare, her former assistant editor at Vertigo.  The first was the whimsical fantasy one-shot Halloween Eve, published last October.  The second is the sci-fi Rocket Girl, the first issue of which just came out.  After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the series was picked up by Image Comics.  Rocket Girl #1 looks great, and I’m very much anticipating upcoming installments.

Star Trek Doctor Who 3

J.K. WOODWARD

Working on a number of books at both IDW and BOOM! Studios over the last decade, J.K. Woodward first caught my attention when he produced amazing painted artwork for the Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimilation 2 miniseries written by Scott & David Tipton.  This eight issue crossover saw Captain Picard’s crew working with the Eleventh Doctor, Amy & Rory to face the combined forces of the Borg and the Cybermen.  On the early issues, Woodward did full artwork, while on the later ones he was paining over Gordon Purcell’s pencils.  In both cases, the results were fantastic.

Especially striking was Woodward’s cover artwork to issue #3, which contained a flashback to the Fourth Doctor meeting the crew of the original Enterprise and fighting some old-school Cybermen.  As someone who grew up watching Tom Baker and William Shatner on re-runs of Doctor Who and Star Trek in the early 1980s, I thought that was a super-cool addition to the story.  Woodward has stated that his childhood was spent watching many of those same reruns.  He did a stunning job on this piece.

Captain America 625 cover

FRANCESCO FRANCAVILLA

Italian artist Francesco Francavilla made his debut in 2006.  His style is quite reminiscent of the legendary Alex Toth.  I first noticed Francavilla’s work when he illustrated several issues of Captain America for Marvel Comics.  He’s also worked on Black Panther and Hawkeye, as well as rendering numerous amazing covers for a variety of publishers.  Most recently he’s been the cover artist on Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time for IDW.

Amongst the current crop of “hot” artists who seem to have defaulted back to early Image Comics-inspired work full of over-rendering and excessive crosshatching, Francavilla’s retro pulp leanings are a breath of fresh air.  It has often been observed that it is the seemingly “simpler” styles of art that are actually much more difficult to pull off.  An artist does not have all the fancy bells & whistles to hide behind, and must rely on genuine talent & storytelling ability. I think that is true of Francavilla’s work.  In any case, his art has a very noir sensibility, with a palpable atmosphere to it.  He also possesses a really amazing design aesthetic, a talent for knowing exactly how to lay out a cover or a page for maximum dramatic impact.

Supreme 64 cover

CORY HAMSCHER

I’m probably bending the rules a little here, since I think Cory Hamscher has been a professional artist for slightly more than a decade.  But he’s really come into prominence in the last several years.  I first noticed his work when he illustrated a back-up story in Savage Dragon #150 that spotlighted Mr. Glum, the diminutive alien dictator from Dimension X.  Shortly after, Hamscher did an absolutely superb job inking Tom Grummett’s pencils on X-Men Forever and Chaos War: Dead Avengers.  Last year, Hamscher provided very detailed finishes to Erik Larsen’s layouts on Supreme.

Hamscher has an inking style that immediately appealed to me.  It reminds me quite a bit of the amazing embellishing of Terry Austin, who is one of my all time favorite inkers.  Hamscher just makes the pencils or layouts he is inking pop off the page.  He’s amazingly talented.  Recently on Facebook, Hamscher has expressed a desire going forward to do full artwork, i.e. both pencils & inks.  I really hope that he has that opportunity, and I’m looking forward to further announcements about his upcoming projects.

Vescell 6 cover

JOHN UPCHURCH

First becoming a professional artist in 2011, John “Roc” Upchurch has been doing stunning work on Vescell, a sci-fi / fantasy / noir series written by Enrique Carrion and published by Image.  I did a full-length review of the latest issue, #8, on my June 13th blog post, so go check it out!

Upchurch has this beautifully polished, slick quality to his work that perfectly matches Carrion’s imaginative, darkly humorous scripts.  What is especially noteworthy about Upchurch’s art is that, yes, he can draw these really stunning covers and dynamic action sequences.  But he has also demonstrated that he is a good storyteller.  Carrion’s stories have frequent “talking heads” segments where important plot points & philosophic issues are discussed.  Upchurch does a masterful job rendering these, drawing multi-panel pages which engage the reader’s attention and keep the flow of the story going.  I definitely hope to see more from Upchurch in the future, as he continues to grow & develop.  He has a hell of a lot of potential.

(By the way, I was actually able to think of at least twice as many new comic book artists as I profiled here.  But I chose to spotlight these five because they are among my favorites.  And, of course, I can always save the others for a future blog post!)

Comic books I’m reading, part three: independent titles

It’s the Fourth of July, American Independence Day, and so today I’m going to do a rundown of what independent comic books I’ve been reading recently.  For the purposes of simplicity, I’m just going to consider anything that is not Marvel or DC as an independent.  And I’ll be covering graphic novels in a later post, because otherwise this one is going to be way too long!

I’ve already written an in-depth review of The Grim Ghost before, but I wanted to mention it again.  Written by Tony Isabella, with artwork from Kelley Jones & Eric Layton, for my money The Grim Ghost was the best superhero comic book of 2011.  This six issue miniseries published by Atlas Comics unfortunately ran into some distribution problems with the final issue.  As I’ve heard it, Diamond Distributors decided to cancel (or, as they would say, “re-solicit”) the shipping orders for a number of small companies at the end of last year, so that they could focus their resources on sending out the copious amounts of DC’s New 52 titles that were being ordered by comic shops.  That’s the problem when it comes to dealing with a monopoly, folks, you’re at the mercy of decisions like that.  Anyway, I was eventually able to obtain a copy of #6 by ordering it online from the Atlas Comics website.  It was a great conclusion to a fantastic story.

Grim Ghost 2 cover

As I’ve posted before on this blog, I’m currently following Erik Larsen’s long-running Savage Dragon and his revival of Supreme, both published by Image Comics.  Larsen is one of my favorite comic book creators, a total fountain of colorful characters & imaginative ideas, and I really look forward to seeing what he does next on each of these titles.

Additionally, there is another pair of books from Image, written by Joe Keatinge, that I’m reading.  The first is the re-launch of Rob Liefeld’s Glory, which Keatinge is doing with Ross Campbell.  The other is a brand new series, Hell Yeah, with artist Andre Szymanowicz.  That one is really interesting, as it looks at “the first generation raised in a world where superheroes exist,” to quote Keatinge himself.  The protagonist, Benjamin Day, learns that across myriad alternate realities, other versions of him are being murdered.  The identity of the killer is revealed within the first few issues, so it’s not a whodunit but rather a “whydunit,” so to speak.  Keatinge’s writing is very riveting, and I cannot wait to find out what happens next.  The artwork by Szymanowicz is very well done, having the feel of something out of Heavy Metal.

Steve Mannion is an artist with this incredibly wacky, zany, sexy art style.  His work is somewhat reminiscent of EC Comics, both Wally Wood’s sci-fi spectacles and the offbeat humor of Mad Magazine.  I first discovered Mannion’s artwork when he drew an utterly baffling, but nevertheless very funny, issue of Captain America about twelve years ago.  Mannion went the self-publishing route for a while, but in recent years he’s had his books coming out through Asylum Press.  His signature character, Fearless Dawn, has been featured in several books.  The most recent have been Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp and Fearless Dawn in Outer Space.  I haven’t had an opportunity to pick up the second of these yet, but The Secret of the Swamp was an insane riot, just lots of crazy fun.  Mannion continues to grow as an artist, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp
Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp

Over at IDW, there are a few licensed titles I’ve been picking up.  The main one is G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, written by Larry Hama.  That’s the series which continues the continuity from the original comics published by Marvel back in the 1980s and 90s.  It seems like Hama is having a lot of fun writing this book, and it’s definitely an exciting read.  I’ve also been picking up some of the Doctor Who books, which do a good job of capturing the feel of the series.  Right now IDW is publishing the improbable but entertaining Star Trek / Doctor Who: Assimilation miniseries, which has beautiful painted artwork by J.K. Woodward.  This one is more of a natural fit than you might think, as the Borg are really pretty much the Cybermen with a bigger budget.  So it makes sense to combine those two cyborg menaces, and then have the crews of the Enterprise and the TARDIS come together to confront them.

IDW is also publishing Godzilla.  I bought the first few issues of their initial title, Kingdom of Monsters.  That had nice art, but the writing just never clicked for me, and I ended up selling them on Ebay.  I was much more impressed with the five issue miniseries Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths, written by John Layman, with artwork by Alberto Ponticelli.  That was an incredibly deft blending of the kaiju genre with a noir hardboiled crime story.  Layman wrote some very compelling human characters.  Ponticelli’s art was stunning, offering stunning giant monster action sequences, as well as more human moments.  Gangsters & Goliaths was published last year, but it has been collected into a trade paperback, which I highly recommend picking up.

Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1
Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1

I got the first two issues of the new X-O Manowar series published by Valiant.  So far so good.  The writing by Robert Venditti is very well done.  He appears to have done a great deal of research into the historical era that the initial story arc is set in.  The artwork from Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano is quite impressive.  I really enjoyed the original Valiant books in the 1990s, so it’s nice to see them return.  X-O Manowar is definitely a great initial title for their reboot.  Hopefully I will have the funds to continue picking this one up.

I certainly cannot close out an entry on independent comic books without mentioning Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics Books.  Since around 2001, I gradually began reading Love and Rockets through the collected editions.  And within the last four years, I’ve really got into the series, as my girlfriend is a huge fan of the works of Los Bros Hernandez.  Having someone I could discuss these stories and characters with really made them come alive for me even more so than in the past.  As I have written previously, the Hernandez Brothers have both created large casts of interesting, multi-faceted, nuanced, compelling characters.  I often find myself talking with my girlfriend about these characters and the plotlines they are involved in as if they were real people & events.  And, of course, both Jaime and Gilbert are incredibly talented artists who not only draw amazingly beautiful women but also know how to tell a story through pictures.

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
Love and Rockets: New Stories #4

For the last few years, Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez have been releasing Love and Rockets as a giant-sized, hundred page annual publication.  Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 came out last autumn, which hopefully means the next edition will be on sale in a few months.  In New Stories #4, Jaime continued the story of Maggie and Ray’s on-again, off-again tumultuous romance, as well as the tragic tale of Maggie’s brother Calvin.  Jamie’s story had a really dark, heartbreaking occurrence, followed by an ending that seems deliberately ambiguous.  It reminded me of his classic tale “The Death of Speedy,” where Jaime left it up to the reader to decide exactly what had happened at the conclusion.

In his half of the book, Gilbert appears to be continuing his recent practice of creating graphic novel adaptations of the B-movies that his character Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez has acted in.  Fritz’s niece Killer (at least, I think that’s how they’re related… I’d love if Gilbert would put together a family tree for his characters, there are so many of them) follows in her aunt’s cinematic footsteps in New Stories #4, starring in a very strange vampire story.  There seems to be a great deal of subtext and symbolism to Gilbert’s recent stories, and they no doubt benefit from repeated readings.  I think that at times his work is perhaps too obscure.  But at least it does require you to think it through, and work to interpret it.

This is an aspect that both Gilbert and Jamie’s work possesses, that their stories are not something you can just breeze through.  There is a very substantive quality to their works.  Love and Rockets is not the easiest read out there, but it is worth taking the time to try and figure out what the Hernandez Brothers are attempting to articulate through their stories.  In other words, they really make you think, definitely a good thing.

There are obviously a great many more really good independent comic books currently being published besides the material I’ve covered in this blog post.  Unfortunately, financial and time constraints prevent me from picking up more of the books out there.  Just remember that those books do exist.  They may not be as easy to find as the latest big events from Marvel or DC.  But it is well worth it to take the time to seek out all the great stuff being published.  The creative future of comic books really doesn’t lie with the Big Two any longer, but with the creators working on new & exciting projects released through the smaller independent publishers.

Does Sci-Fi Get The Respect It Deserves?

I have been a science fiction fan since I was a kid.  There has always been something magical about the genre for me.  One of my favorites growing up was the original Star Trek television series, which was in reruns on Saturday nights in the late 1970s and early 80s.  I looked forward to catching a “new” episode of that each weekend.  I was too young to see the first Star Trek film in the theaters, probably a good thing, in retrospect, given that it’s a long, ponderous movie that really needed a lot of fine-tuning and editing.

But by the time Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hit the big screen in 1982, I was six years old, and my father took me to see it.  To be perfectly honest, I was not thrilled by it.  The movie was too dark & downbeat for me, and it ended with Spock dying.  Over the years, though, I often heard it referred to as the absolute best film of the entire series, and I just could not understand why.

Fast-forward to 2002, and the two disk DVD “director’s edition” of Star Trek II came out.  On an impulse, I purchased it, because despite my original impression of it, I never actively hated the film.  It had been years since I had last seen it, so I thought this would be a good time to look at it with a fresh perspective and see what all the fuss was about.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan DVD
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan DVD

Well, what a difference twenty years can make!  I was completely blown away when I re-watched The Wrath of Khan.  There were so many themes in it that I had not picked up on when I was a kid.  Dealing with death and loss, growing old, morality and science, the all-consuming passion of vengeance, making the decision whether to dwell in the past or to move on to the future, and much more.  Since then, I’ve viewed it on several subsequent occasions.  Each time, I get a little bit something more out of it.

So much of the film is of the highest quality.  The script by Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer is crisp, intelligent, witty, and thought-provoking.  James Horner’s’ soundtrack is stunning.  And the directing by Meyer is riveting, dramatic, and absolutely top-notch.   I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Meyer succeeds in obtaining one of the best performances out of William Shatner in his entire career, no easy feat.  And the acting by Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Ricardo Montalban is likewise top-notch.

Last week, I watched The Wrath of Khan again.  And something occurred to me.  Yes, it is a great science fiction film.  But, I realized, it is also an excellent film, period, regardless of genre.  This got me thinking.  Science fiction really gets very little respect of acknowledgement among so-called legitimate film “critics.”

I was curious, so I looked up the Academy Award nominees for 1982.  The frontrunner of the year was, unsurprisingly, Ganhdi, a good if overly long film.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial had received several nominations.  But not a single nod to Star Trek II, not even in the technical categories.

What do you mean we didn't win an Oscar?!?!?
What do you mean we didn’t win an Oscar?!?!?

Nowadays, the Academy Awards do make at least a passing effort at trying to acknowledge more “mainstream” films, having increased the potential number of best picture nominees to ten.  Even so, the way the Academy members actually vote, the probability of film such as Star Trek II being nominated, much less winning, a Best Picture Oscar is very low.  Witness the most recent awards, where The Artist was swept up six Oscars.  Brilliant film, yes, but the equally great, very funny comedy Bridesmaids didn’t even warrant a nomination.  (Of course, the manner in which voting is tabulated for the Oscar nominations and actual awards is apparently so convoluted that it makes filling out your taxes seem simple by comparison.  So for all we know Bridesmaids just narrowly missed the cut-off.)

What is the point of all this?  I am actually not sure.  Part of it is my lamenting that those aforementioned critics often believe it is impossible for a film to be both popular and of high artistic merit.  Especially when it comes to science fiction.

Then again, hindsight can be twenty twenty.  The history of film criticism, and the Academy Awards in particular, is rife with “What the hell were they thinking!?!” moments that totally stupefy you.  One of the most infamous was when How Green Was My Valley won Best Picture for 1941, beating out Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a film now regarded as one of the absolute all time greatest movies ever made.  So who knows how history will judge?

In the meantime, regardless of how such-and-such critic opines concerning cinematic fare, or what movie wins what awards, I will be watching what I feel like watching.  And that includes science fiction, thank you very much.