Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lost Trek Lore

If you can find it, try to get Bill Planer’s “Lost Voyages of Star Trek.” It includes synopses of Star Trek scripts that were never filmed.

In the mid-70s, Paramount was going to start a “fourth television network” and its flagship show was to be “Star Trek: Phase II.” The adventures of the Enterprise’s second five-year journey.
Scripts were commissioned, the actors were going to reprise their roles, except for Leonard Nimoy.
New characters were drawn up: Decker, a headstrong, young first officer; Ilya, a psychic, and onetime lover of Decker’s, and Xon a vulcan who, unlike Spock, actually enjoyed working on a ship with humans and wanted to be more like them. (These three characters might sound familiar.)

Then something big happened: Star Wars. 

Paramount executives who had spent every morning climbing over a new pile of mail from Star Trek fans begging for a Star Trek movie started asking themselves: Do we own any properties that have spaceships in them?
Plans for the fourth network and Phase II were scrapped. (Barry Diller, the Paramount executive spearheading this concept, would take it to Fox. You might have heard of this.)

Roddenberry was ordered: Make us a movie.

Then came an astonishing series of bad decisions, one understandable, the rest bewildering.

Bad decision one: Choosing the director. This is the understandable bad decision. We’re talking Robert Wise. “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music,” Blockbusters both. But most important to Roddenberry: “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Possibly the most cerebral science fiction drama up to that time, and probably to this day. (Call me what you must, 2001 a Space Odyssey was a pretentious overlong boring indulge-o-fest)

Rodddenberry didn’t want space spaceships blowing each other up, he wanted a movie just like “The Day the Earth Stood Still”: men in military uniforms sitting around discussing what to do about the alien threat.

The problem is, after Star Wars, no one else wanted that. We wanted fast ships and explosions. Instead we got long long talky meetings, and interminable inspections of the outer hull of the Enterprise
Now the baffling decisions: Roddenberry went to the stack of scripts written for Phase II and found “In Thy Image,” a story about an Earth space probe that becomes self-aware and returns to meet its makers. 

Two problems with this script. A) it had been done before as an episode of Star Trek, B) the concept really doesn’t lend itself to a big budget motion picture experience. There are no villains! Now after “Wrath of Khan” I can’t argue that going back to the source material is a bad idea, but Khan was a sequel, building on the original. And if you’re going to spend $20 million (then a lot of money for a movie) to remake an episode of Star Trek, do “The Doomsday Machine” That episode just begs for the big-screen treatment. (Check out the CGI-improved version, you’ll see I’m right).

Baffling decision 2: “Let’s shave Persis Khambatta’s head!” 

Baffling decision 3: Upon finding out the revived Star Trek would be a movie, Leonard Nimoy was suddenly interested. At this point, Roddenberry thought, wow, I can keep Decker and Ilia, but I’ll have to kill off Xon. 
Kill off Xon? 

Roddenberry somehow was thinking that not only were the Star Trek Phase II episodes, complete, they were aired, and the fans would want an explanation on why Xon wasn’t in the movie.

How else to explain his role in the film of quickly introduced, quickly dispatched Vulcan, making a movie that was a half hour too long even longer.

The film was released, became a hit, but was quickly nicknamed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture. 
So, Roddenbery went into exile and Paramount would never release another Star Trek film without phasers being fired and things blowing up.

When Roddenberry returned from exile, they let him produce an ambitious little TV program called Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Once again, he raided the box o’ scripts from Phase II. Only wherever it said Kirk, he crossed it out and wrote Picard. Decker became Riker; Ilia became Troi, and Xon became Data.

This man was the master of recycling.

As  pointed out in a Cracked article, Roddenberry’s talents were somewhat overrated in favor of people who worked for him. Cracked cites Gene Coon, but I would add DC Fontana and David Gerrold to the mix. When they left Next Generation things quickly went to crap. Interesting thought-provoking scripts were replaced with tropes that were moldy in the ‘60s. Evil twins, unambiguously-good good guys. A captain who surrendered seemingly every episode, the psychic who provided no insight that wasn’t always obvious, the boy genius for whom every episode had to stop in its tracks so someone could explain the plot to him, and a Klingon who got knocked on his ass in every fight.

Star Trek: Phase II could have been the best Star Trek series of them all. Roddenberry was always somehow Star Trek’s greatest champion and worst enemy.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Film Review: Annie

It was much better than I thought it would be. I expected something more girly and extra-sweet, but Quvenzhan√© Wallis is so ridiculously adorable she won me over. Such a  great screen presence. There's a quick scene where she's eating a lobster, drops it on the floor and in the eighth of a second before she leans over to pick it up, she makes an "oops" face that's so cute. Lots of charisma but the only thing she doesn't have is one of those great big Andrea McArdle singing voices. (there would have been no shame in dubbing her voice.)
Cameron Diaz was another unexpected surprise. She was very funny as Miss Hannigan. Mean, but never threatening.
It did go on maybe 20 minutes too long, and the story meandered a bit, but it was much better than its reviews.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

film review: Big Hero 6

OK, my 7-year-old liked it.

There's two Disneys really, there's the Disney that makes films for 7 year olds ("Cars," any "Cars" sequel), and the Disney that makes films for everybody ("Tangled," "Maleficent")

This would easily go in the 7-year-old class.

There's a lot going on and the animation is of course stunning, but the plot's surprises are predictable (if someone dies and they never find the body, two out of three times the person is not really dead), and the characters seem to come from a random generator of multicultural characters. At one point they say, "Let's be superheroes,"and they use their science smarts to be superheroes.

That was simple, in fact, too simple to be entertaining.

But then the one girl pulls sticky balls out of her purse you think, "wow, they really ran out of ideas for super powers. ("The Incredibles" at least stole from the Fantastic Four).

The centerpiece is Baymax, the medical, comedy relief robot who is oversized and inflatable because, well, it's funnier that way. Later when they give him jet boots and armor and Hero, the boy genius, rides him through the sky, you're supposed to feel awe, instead you feel, "awe, I saw this already in "Iron Giant." They also borrow from the "Lost in Space" movie, especially the ending.

And at one point, Hero hides Baymax from his aunt (because, of course, he's an orphan.) Why? His brother had been working on it in his bedroom for years, she never saw it? Why did he keep it a secret, yet show her everything else he did?

The bad guy steals a scientific creation from Hero and uses it for evil. A plot hole I couldn't get over was, Hero invented this, can't he override the bad guy's commands and shut it down? This is never addressed.

Take a 7 year old, and a good book.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Substitute Day

Remember back in grade school when your teacher called out sick and there was this feeling of disorganization? You sat in the classroom wondering what you were supposed to be doing, and various administrative types would poke their heads in the door to assure you someone was coming in. Eventually someone would be called from out of her bed and come in and provide some sense of order but deep down, you knew she really didn't know what was going on.

The seams of the organization were visible and this always fascinated me.

What's further amazing is when this happens on TV.

I remember turning on the Tonight Show one night in the mid-80s and Steve Allen was the guest host. That was odd, it wasn't one of Johnny's many many many many weeks off. Johnny obviously called out and we can only imagine what happened next. Freddy DeCordova and Peter Lassally huddled together going down a long list of comics, making calls and seeing who was available. "Jay, this is Freddy, can you host the Tonight Show this afternoon?.. You're booked? OK, thanks anyway."

(Steve Allen meanwhile made the night his own, delivering his monologue from a piano. He'd play between jokes and it became pretty obvious, this is the guy who invented the Tonight Show, and NBC should have probably never let him go.)


This happened last night with The Daily Show. Jon called out sick, the producers weighed their options. John Oliver, who did such an great job subbing for Jon over the summer is now at HBO, so he's off the list. Jennifer's too green, how about Jason or Samantha?

So Jason Jones hosted it, he did a bit about Joe Biden that was obviously written for Jon, jokes were made about his nervousness, and it pretty much worked. In the second segment, Samantha Bee made jokes that she should be guest hosting, which were cute, and recycled from when John Oliver hosted. Then they showed her pre-filmed segment.

In the third segment things kind of went off the rails. Samantha refused to leave the desk, and she and Jason both interviewed Daily Show alum Wyatt Cenak, in an interview that made you appreciate Jon's ability to put everyone at ease and be the funny guy for serious-minded guests, or be the straight man for comics.

Cenak had brought a pie, Bee asked if he made it with his own hands, then she said she wanted to taste his hands in the pie and it was just awkward. Jones brought up his American citizenship test and asked Cenak some questions. This worked. Cenak then  did a bit about plugging books by dead authors which was OK, but the whole time I'm just sensing flop sweat.

People like Allen and Carson and Cavett make hosting a talk show look easy, but maybe it's harder than we all think.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Film review: Maleficent

**Spoilers ahead**

Sleeping Beauty gets the "Wicked" treatment here. The villainess isn't evil, just misunderstood, and ultimately, the real heroine. So, it loses points for borrowing that concept.

It starts off interesting, it ends with a nice  -- if not totally original -- climax, it's the middle where things lose momentum. I usually feel patronized when a film throws in a gratuitous action sequence to prop up a sagging middle (I'm looking at you three most-recent Star Wars movies, and Casino Royale), but this film needed it. In the second act we watch Aurora go from baby to 15 in a totally unremarkable childhood.

Unremarkable ... couldn't anything happen? A world of dungeons and dragons, and absolutely no conflict in the flabby middle. Just Jolie becoming protective then loving of the princess she had cursed. There had to be a better way of showing that than a playful mud fight with the local trolls.

Just as in the Disney classic, three fairies raise her, but they're incompetent so Maleficent takes over raising her. The incompetence is supposed to be humorous, but never actually is funny.

It's a literal adaptation of the animated film - they frequently recreate scenes faithfully - and I'm sitting in  the theater thinking: please, take liberties, please, someone say something sarcastic. Wicked told an old story in a new way, turning what we knew about Oz on its head. This film, not so much.

I could also see parallels to "Terminator 2." The cyborg didn't turn good to service the story, the cyborg turned good because between Terminator 1 and Terminator 2 Arnold Schwarzenegger became a big movie star, and big movie stars don't play the bad guy. (the exception would be Jack Nicholson who's secure enough in his stardom to play the Joker or Jessup in "A Few Good Men.")

This is the same deal, Angelina Jolie is too big a movie star to play a villain. You could hear her agent yelling at the Disney people, "If you want her to be in this movie, she demands that she's the one who kisses the princess to break the spell!"

"Um...but in the story..."

"We don't care!"

As  a result, when the handsome prince does show up, he has nothing to do. In fact he spends more time unconscious than Sleeping Beauty.

It's like that Monty Python sketch "Scott of the Antarctic," where the dim  lead actor wants a rewrite in which he fights a lion. Nevermind there are no lions in the Antarctic.

So when Jolie gives the princess "true love's kiss," the only thing you see is Jolie's true love for her career.