Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Plugging

2012 turns out to be the year of watching things from the beginning and blogging.

Over on Horsehair Nebula a Bond Watch is taking place. The CBS version of Casino Royale has already been reviewed and the films should be coming soon...

Meanwhile This Way Up is working through all 52 episodes of Blake's 7 at the rate of one a week. A nice round number but it does mean Christmas dinner could be spoiled by the garish nightmare that is Warlord.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Naked Time

There's an episode of Blake's 7 called Ultraworld where the spaceship Liberator is trapped by the Core, a living planet. Servants of the Core, the Ultras, want the technology of the Liberator and the crew will be added to Core's collection of brain prints. After Cally and Avon have their minds drained Tarrent and Dayna must prevent their crewmate’s bodies being fed to Core, restore the correct mind to the correct body, and then escape.

It's not difficult to imagine this as Star Trek. Substitute the Enterprise for the Liberator; Scotty and Yeoman Rand for Avon and Cally; Kirk and Uhura for Tarrant and Dayna (the Ultras want knowledge of “human bonding” added to Core's databank so there's even a “so tell me about this Earth thing called love” scene when they try to get Tarrant and Dayna tupping). Judged on its' own as a piece of television it's not bad. The story is exciting, there are some good jokes, some nice effects, and Cally nearly gets fed to a giant brain; an image guaranteed to grip the imagination of any seven year old watching. But it's poor Blake's 7 because it fails to engage with the characters, or use the elements which make Blake's 7 unique.

Likewise Star Trek has episodes which, while enjoyable, could easily belong to another series. In The Gamesters of Triskelion Kirk, Uhura and Chekov are kidnapped and forced to fight aliens for the entertainment of three multicoloured brains. Again not a bad story but not one to use as an example of Star Trek firing on all cylinders. Swap Kirk for Commander Koenig, Uhura for Doctor Helena Russell, and Chekov for Nick Tate and you've got a perfectly serviceable episode of Space 1999.

The ease with which you can visualise transferring an episode of one series to another isn't a foolproof way of spotting poor scripts -both of the examples above are at least good fun- but it is a starting point. If a writer is just going to squash established characters into his own plot, and fit the characters to his ideas rather than vice versa then even in the hands of a skilful writer an episode will struggle to be better than average, at most. And of course, generally speaking it's not going to be the skilful writers that cram Kirk, or Blake, or Commander Koenig, into their story, because they wouldn't be skilful writers if that was how they wrote scripts.

The Naked Time is the one glorious exception to this rule. It's the ultimate plug and play story. You have a concept, weird alien water causing space-drunkeness, and you fit the characters in around it. This could be an episode of any science-fiction series; Blake's 7, Doctor Who, Star Cops, Space 1999, Babylon 5, Star Trek: Voyager. Make the water demon blood and it's an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It doesn't matter because the emphasis stays firmly on the characters, and how they react, and what we learn about them. What do we learn about Kirk in The Gamesters of Triskelion? That he thinks it's bad to be kidnapped and forced to fight aliens for the entertainment of multicoloured brains. Well gosh! What do we learn about Kirk in The Naked Time? Loads.

We get to see him fret, and snap at Uhura when she is unable to switch off Lieutenant Riley's endless intercom performances of I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen. He is a man struggling to remain composed even as his command falls apart in bizarre circumstances. Kirk, and Shatner's, best moment comes when he gets increasingly angry and hysterical before realising he too has also been infected by the alien water. We also get some insight into his character with a speech about how as Captain he is only allowed one love, the ship, but the impact of this scene is undercut by following too quickly on the heels of a similar speech from Spock about his mother. Leonard Nimoy also gets a very good scene where Spock has a private breakdown in the briefing room. In an unusual editing flourish the scene runs as an uninterrupted single shot for almost 90 seconds; a long time without a cut for Star Trek

If Spock is, metaphorically, the person who goes to a party and ends up sitting alone on the stairs at 3am crying then Sulu is the one who gets all hyperactive and overexcited. Sulu has the most memorable scene in The Naked Time. D'Artagnan in space, sword fighting down the Enterprise corridors. George Takei's enthusiasm and energy sell the scene and also provide cover for a nifty bit of character redirection. Up to this point Sulu has been Head of Astroscience (Where No Man Has Gone Before) and seen working in the botany section of the Life Science Department (The Man Trap). Here, suddenly, he's helmsman with this change of career covered by a single line from Lieutenant Riley “last week it was botany he was trying to get me interested in...” as if what we've seen Sulu doing previously is him flitting from hobby to hobby rather than another job. Someone on the production team has rightly realised it will be easier to get Sulu involved in plots if he is always on the bridge. Sulu's bout of space madness also leads to a brilliant joke in the next episode preview. Kirk's line,”question, could what happened down there to those people create any danger to this vessel or crew?” is followed by a jump cut to Sulu, half-naked and sweating, leaping forwards holding a sword. Kudos to Associate Producer Robert Justman and Assistant Film Editor Don Rode who were in charge of these previews.

The ending is the one part of the episode that disappoints. The build-up to the antimatter implosion necessary to break orbit is tense but the resolution, that the Enterprise has somehow also travelled back in time three days, feels like it has wandered in from another episode. It seems to be there to prime the audience to the idea of doing time travel stories but the audience has already accepted four episodes of other concepts without similar prompting. It's an unusual lack of faith in the audience from the production team.

Enterprise crew deaths: 1, Lieutenant Junior Grade Joe Tormolen.
Running total: 17

The camera pushes forward as Scotty finishes cutting open the door to Engineering and as it does there is a nasty judder, and an audible thump. The camera's obviously rolled over something, or got caught, but the shot must have been deemed acceptable. It may have been the only take as it involves a pyrotechnic which would eat up time being reset. I guess the producers hoped it would be mistaken for turbulence from the collapsing planet or not spotted at all.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Where No Man Has Gone Before

This is Star Trek's second pilot. Picked by NBC from three scripts (the other two being The Omega Glory, and Mudd's Women) and made more action oriented at their request. So while original pilot The Cage ends with then Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike accepting fantasy is sometimes preferable to reality Where No Man Has Gone Before ends with Kirk and new God Gary Mitchell having a fistfight.

If Charlie X is The Man Trap's brainy cousin Where No Man Has Gone Before is Charlie X's knuckle dragging older brother. Charlie X and Where No Man Has Gone Before tell different stories but both could have sprung from Gene Roddenberry's one line proposal for The Day Charlie Became God “The accidental occurrence of infinite power to do all things in the hands of a very finite man.”

Where No Man Has Gone Before may be less thoughtful than Charlie X but you can see how it persuaded NBC to buy the series. As an episode it's insanely ambitious. From the catalogue of expensive production techniques all that's missing is location filming. There are matt paintings, and planet exteriors, and interior sets, and shipboard action, and unique special effects sequences -including a really unusual optical zoom in the teaser as the camera pulls back from a star field to show Kirk and Spock watching it on a screen-, and new props (I don't think Kirk's phaser rifle was ever used again), and stunts, and fights, and special make-up. Also three guest cast members get killed off. Not just three nameless non-speaking extras but proper actors with lines. That's quite expensive. If I was a producer on a budget I'd remove the doomed Lee Kelso character and replace him with one of the featured cast; probably Scotty because Sulu is still head of Astrosciences in this episode. The Doctor can come in and say “Scotty's been choked unconscious, but he'll be okay.” and you've saved the cost of an actor. Penny pinching, but we're talking about an episode budgeted at $215,644 -against the standard first season budget of around $190,000 per episode- which ended up costing $354,974 (about $2,534,841 today). Incidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic the BBC was making Doctor Who and the four part story The Time Meddler was broadcast as Where No Man Has Gone Before was filmed. In 1965 100 minutes of Doctor Who cost £7157 or about £114,297 today.

So, what did Desilu Studios get for their money? The script for Where No Man Has Gone Before is entertaining but utterly routine. A standard story of absolute power corrupting absolutely. It has some nice moments. Kelso's death comes as a surprise because of a scene in the turbolift where Kirk and Mitchell mention him when he's not on screen. This doesn't often happen to one off characters who are not also the main guest star. It establishes the friendship between the three, makes Mitchell's later killing of Kelso more shocking, and ups the stakes in Kirk and Mitchell's fight. Which is why the producers didn't cut Kelso's character in the first place. Actually, if the producers did want to save money by cutting an actor they should have removed Yeoman Smith. It's a real nothing part which doesn't serve the plot and just makes Kirk and Mitchell both look unprofessional. Kirk can't remember her name and calls her Jones by mistake. Then Mitchell holds her hand as the Enterprise tries to break through the galactic energy barrier; the ship's at red alert, both hands on the steering wheel mister. Also, because Smith is standing slightly behind Mitchell he is forced to extend his arm back at a very awkward angle. It looks stupid and unnatural and is, presumably, at the instruction of the director because having her standing further forwards would mess up the framing of his shots. Apart from that moment the direction is quite stylish. Some interesting camera angles -an unusual overhead shot of Kirk and Spock entering a turbolift- and a great moment during the fade to commercial break between act one and two. Gary Mitchell's silver eyes linger on screen shining out from the black, I don't know if this is deliberate or just a happy accident of the fade to black process.

So what does happen to Gary Mitchell? The episode implies gaining the abilities of a god simply drives Mitchell mad with power but this has happened to other Star Trek characters without similar results. Commander Riker in Hide and Q is the most obvious example, but we've also seen Charlie Evans in the previous episode, who seemed to have comparable powers, and the Organians from Errand of Mercy. As Mitchell gains in power he becomes egotistical, cruel, and emotionally distanced from the crew. Maybe Mitchell is just unstable to begin with but if that's the case why does he say “Jim” in such a saddened and regretful way when his power is momentarily drained by trying to walk through a security force field? The Enemy Within shows us a transporter accident that splits Kirk into good and evil individuals. Maybe the energy from the galactic barrier performs a similar function, massively boosting the evil side of Mitchell's personality. For all his powers, Mitchell never displays any empathic ability like Counselor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the one telepathic power which would seem to be rooted in the good side of a person's personality would be the ability to sense what others are feeling.

Enterprise crew deaths: 12. Nine unnamed plus Mitchell, Dehner, and Kelso.
Running total: 16