ReelReviews #115: Looking back at the Star Trek pilot episodes

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SEPTEMBER 25, 2017: 50+ Years of Star Trek pilots

 

One good Star Trek review deserves another!  The other day, while reviewing my initial thoughts on Discovery, someone noted that they disagreed about my assessment about DS9’s pilot episode, “Emissary” (I noted that it used to be my least favorite pilot episode until Discovery came along)

This reaction gave me a good idea for a follow-up review.

While it’s too soon to judge what direction Discovery will go, and whether its first season will ultimately be successful, and whether it will ever embrace or even show the content I think it should, we can look back at 50 years of Star Trek pilots (That’s eight – yes, eight different pilots, since the original series had two, and people overlook the animated series) and see how Discovery stacks up against them.

As I noted, I don’t hate Discovery, but what I saw on screen is my least favorite Star Trek pilot at this point. So without further ado, here’s my take on the rest of ‘em.

 
1) “Caretaker” (VOY) — This one had it all. Very ambitious in scope, did most of the stuff Discovery now claims to be pioneering for Star Trek (e.g. start out with two different crews and killed off major crew members without warning, etc.) Compelling sci-fi adventure drew on all the previous Star Trek shows up until that time, and incorporated elements of them into its story. The stakes were high, Janeway was forced to make a heartbreaking decision, and it neatly ended the episode with the show’s premise in place and leaving the audience excited for where they would go from there.

2) “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (TOS 2nd pilot) – Had a surprisingly compelling sci-fi story for being a “less cerebral” pilot than The Cage. Good character information. Most importantly, WNMHGB introduced us to Kirk & Spock, established their differences early on, and forced Kirk to make a very difficult decision right off the bat. Only suffers because 1960s TV isn’t really a “pilot” per say and ended up getting aired randomly out of order.

3) “The Cage” (TOS 1st pilot) – The one that started it all, so brownie points for that. Talosians were an excellent foil for the crew in this episode and it introduces a classic Star Trek morality conflict. Plus, much of this episode was used to give us the excellent “The Menagerie, Parts I & II”. Still, it just makes me wonder how things would have gone if they had continued with this crew.

4) “Beyond the Farthest Star” (TAS) Not much as far as pilots go, but worked well in establishing the template for the Animated Series is a short running time only 22 minutes. It was very good they didn’t go with some silly idiotic plot aimed at 5 year olds but gave us a legitimate sci-fi threat that could have made a good live action episode. Plus the ending genuinely moved me.

5) “Broken Bow” (ENT) This is where the pilots start to show flaws. Overall its pretty solid but I felt they made a mistake introducing the Klingons from Day One of this series and making a much more lighthearted “first contact” story with them. Other than that, it has a very good backstory for Archer and establishing the history of warp drive to “fill in the blanks” between Cochrane’s landmark event to the establishment of Starfleet. The Suliban were cool villains – and actually better than the later Xindi. I hated the “Temporal Cold War” stuff later on, but it’s tolerable here.

6) “Encounter at Farpoint” (TNG) – This one is a guilty pleasure for me. TNG in its embryonic form and the show was still trying to find its identity at this point, and it shows. A lot of it is unintentionally campy and the dialogue is a little too “on the nose”. Still, it introduced Q and the Q stuff is good, and ensured we would end up with one of the most iconic characters in Star Trek history, and it did a good job showing how different things would be a century after Kirk (Klingon on the bridge and so forth)

7) “Emissary” (DS9) – Meh. Never liked DS9, and I do not like the pilot, though the episode itself is tolerable. Best thing about this one is it showed us the famous Battle of Wolf 359 from an entirely different perspective, and something we’d never see on DS9 again. Stuff they introduced about the Prophets did nothing for me. This just didn’t feel Star Trekish enough, even with all the TNG references constantly thrown in.

8) “The Vulcan Hello” (STD) — Amazing visuals & art direction, and I thought Sonequa Martin-Green did a great job bringing Michael Burnham to life as a three dimensional character. The rest didn’t work for me, and left me cold. Extremely bleak and felt nothing like “10 years before Kirk”, and the re-imagined Klingons were awful. 40 minutes of grimdark war stuff that didn’t “get” the Star Trek spirit at all. It felt more like Star Wars (minus the fun), not to mention they apparently now communicate via holographic messages like Star Wars. What the hell? Failed to do its job of selling me on the show and getting me to sign up for All Access to see what happens next.

 

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ReelReviews #114: Star Trek: Discovery, Ep. 1: “The Vulcan Hello”

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SEPTEMBER 24, 2017: Discovering Discovery

 

Star Trek Discovery just might be the longest-delayed pilot episode in TV history, so it was with great relief that the show FINALLY aired its premiere on CBS Sunday evening – but not before one final delay that pushed the episode’s start time to 7:48 p.m. CST. There’s been a great deal of behind-the-scenes problems with Discovery, and oodles of merciless Discovery bashing on the internet. Anyone who has followed my posts in recent months knows that I have been firmly in the “very pessimistic about Discovery” camp. So, now that we can actually watch the show instead of just speculate on what it will be like, I tried my darnedest to keep an open mind and hope for the best. Perhaps the end result would prove me wrong and turn out to an hour of fantastic television.  One day later, the results are in.  The good news? I didn’t hate Discovery. The bad news? I didn’t like it, either.

 

The biggest problem here is that CBS pretty much set themselves up for failure. If you study the history of Star Trek, most Star Trek TV series have had rocky starts (even the original series with its now legendary first season), but CBS insisted that only the first episode of Discovery would be aired on actual television. All future episodes– including the second episode that immediately picks up where the first one left off— would be locked behind a pay wall and available exclusively online through their paid streaming service, CBS All Access. To convince both seasoned Star Trek fans and newcomers to Star Trek to sign up for All Access, CBS really needed to have their first episode knock it out of the park and leave the audience thrilled, at the edge of their seat, begging to know what will happen next. Did Discovery accomplish this? In one word: No.

 

To be fair, having a mind-blowing pilot episode is an extremely difficult task, so I can’t blast them for failing to pull that off.  Likewise, no matter how doubtful I was of Discovery, and did not care for the setting, characters, and direction the show planned to go in (and I especially hated the “Ghostbusters reboot style” marketing where Discovery and its defenders accused naysayers of the show of being motivated by bigotry), there is little doubt there were many positives about the show.  The opening theme music is much more dignified and appropriate for a Star Trek series than Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Faith of the Heart” theme was in 2001, and the credit sequence itself (showing interactive sketches of things from Star Trek like Tricorders, phasers, etc.) was a clever idea, even if it seemed more appropriate for a documentary about Star Trek props.  The visuals: and especially, the cinematography, special effects, and art direction lived up the hype and were the best I’ve ever seen for Star Trek on the small screen, and were indeed very “cinematic” in scope.  Obviously, a lot of time and attention was paid to getting the “look” of this show right.

 

The biggest issues I had with the first episode was that the episode utterly failed to accomplish some major things it needed to do from the start.  The marketing and trailers for Discovery made the show look ultra-dreary and serious, which is totally against the upbeat spirit of optimism found in the most beloved Star Trek shows: the original series and the Next Generation. I was hoping the pilot would prove me wrong and demonstrate that Discovery could be fun and adventurous, too. It did not.  Likewise, Discovery has been under fire nonstop for looking nothing like a “prequel” set “10 years before Kirk” in the original Star Trek timeline. Discovery needed to alleviate those concerns in the pilot and demonstrate that it legitimately fits into the existing Star Trek timeline and believable takes place “10 years before Kirk”. Not only did it fail to do that, its look and feel was so inconsistent with past Star Trek series, it felt like a total reboot.  Star Trek: The Next Generation began the tradition of having an existing Star Trek actor reprise their role in the new show (namely, DeForest Kelly showed up as an elderly McCoy in the 1987 TNG pilot) and every Star Trek series and movie that involved “passing the torch” to a totally new vision/setting for Star Trek has followed suit. This is such a major hallmark of Star Trek that even JJ Abrams’ 2009 “reboot” brought back Leonard Nimoy as the classic Spock, in order to have the movie tie-in with existing Star Trek.  Discovery’s failure to do so is very disappointing, and makes the new show awkwardly stick out like a sore thumb in the Star Trek universe.

 

 

Stylistically, Discovery was much more similar to the JJ Abrams movies than the “prime timeline” it claims to be set in.  Like the JJ verse, Discovery relied on lots of lens flares, sleek tech, frantic non-stop action, shouting, and shoot ‘em up action sequences.  The one major difference is that the Kelvin universe movies at least kept the fun, humorous, and lighthearted style of the prime timeline Star Trek (even “Star Trek Into Darkness” was actually very “dark”), whereas Discovery is extremely dour and somber, making the experience more like watching Blade Runner or Alien.

 

Tonally, the only existing Star Trek that Discovery resembled was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This was an odd choice, since the movie was roundly criticized in 1979 for not “getting” the point of Star Trek, and Discovery is (quite fairly) getting the same criticisms.  Like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Discovery relies on wowing the viewer with breathtaking visual effect sequences (there’s even a “spacewalk” scene for the Michael Burnham character that is reminiscent of TMP), and some “big” scary crisis in space to drive the events forward– but it lacks any kind of warmth, personality, playfulness, or sense of wonder and joy.  Looking at it objectively, this tone is likely the reason “The Vulcan Hello” is probably my least favorite Star Trek pilot (falling behind my previous “least favorite”, Emissary), as all the previous pilots seemed to have some compelling ideas and fun characters that Discovery simply lacked.

 

One thing that surprised me going into “The Vulcan Hello” is that it’s really the first Star Trek pilot since the original series that’s not really a legitimate “pilot” episode.   In other words, all the other pilots from Next Generation to Enterprise made a point of introducing the characters and setting up the story that the rest of the series would be about. They were also all two-hour premiere “mini movies” on the small screen.  “The Vulcan Hello” harkens back to the original 1960s Star Trek where the “pilot” may have been the first episode produced, but it’s just a random story that plucks the viewer right into the middle of an established setting and doesn’t really let you get to know the characters. I’m actually OK with Star Trek trying this format again (after all, Roddenberry originally wanted the Enterprise to be a ship with “some history” and to introduce a seasoned crew as opposed the later shows all taking place on the crew’s maiden voyage), so I’m fine with Discovery starting us off with Michael Burnham having already served on that ship for seven years, and pushing the viewer right into a critical mission they’ve having.  That being said, what I question about this episode was the execution of that idea.  Once the decision was made that the pilot would be the lone “free” episode on regular TV and would have to “sell” the viewer on signing up for the rest of the show, there should have been enough time devoted to the first episode of giving us a compelling story and ending with a “tease” of the USS Discovery and its regular crew (perhaps the final scene showing them shaking hands with Jason Isaac’s Captain Lorca or something).  It seems bizarre to me that a show called “Star Trek Discovery” gave us a pilot episode that didn’t feature one second of footage showing the USS Discovery.

 

Rather, Star Trek Discovery can be summed up as about 40 minutes of frantic action revolving around a crisis with “Predator-style” Klingons that act like ISIS members.  The Klingons in “The Vulcan Hello” seemed to be depicted as purely evil nasty monsters barking angry orders about some crazy ideology, which didn’t fit with even the most negative portrayals of Klingons in past Star Trek series (at worst, past Klingon villains were more along the lines of arrogant, tough bullies who delighted in putting down the federation). To me, the pilot episode was very much at odds with Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future where vastly different cultures try to find common ground, no matter how difficult.  It also seemed to have a very ugly and cynical look at the future that was never present in any incarnation of Star Trek, even “dark” series like DS9.  If there’s one thing it did manage to “sell” me on, it’s that Sonequa Martin-Green did an excellent job as Michael Burnham (I had my doubts about the show revolving around her character before I saw the episode), and she is compelling character in her own right – though she deserves better than a shoehorned in back-story about being raised by Vulcans and having a season-long arc that apparently involves fighting ISIS-like “Klingons”.

 

Although I did not care for the episode, I freely admit that an entire television show cannot be judged by a single episode, so I intend to tune into the next few episodes, and I hope the show improves. In the meantime, however, Star Trek Discovery’s biggest obstacle to succeeding at this time seems to be itself.  Discovery simply hasn’t earned its place as a “legitimate” Star Trek show and it can’t afford two seasons to “find its footing” like past Star Trek shows have done.  In the meantime, the Orville has sprung up to capture the attention and respect of Star Trek fans, and it’s doing something that would have seemed impossible two years ago – it seems to be working as a valid substitute for having Star Trek on television.

 

 

** out of ****

ReelReviews #113: The Orville, Ep. 1: “Old Wounds”

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2017: The Orville (pilot episode)

 

“The wait is over”.   Those words, spoken by Eric Bana’s Nero character in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, seem to resonate far more eight years later.  At long last, Star Trek is returning to television after a twelve year hiatus.  But the kicker now is that another television show has already beaten them to the punch to win over Star Trek fans before the “official” Star Trek has released a single episode.  That unofficial rival is Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which made its debut on Fox after Sunday night football.

 

I actually hesitated before blogging a full review, trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t seen the episode yet, and feeling that a review that appears on 9/11 might be a pretty bad time to talk about a comedy show. Still, a slew of negative reviews about Orville from ‘professional critics’ (e.g. people paid to write stuff like this) have convinced me that “the wait is over” and the time to discuss the show is now.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the pilot episode of Orville.  Is it a bit crass at times? Yes. Do some of the jokes fall completely flat? Yes. Do I wish Seth MacFarlane had cast someone besides himself to play the lead? Yes.  Still, the bottom line is the show has tremendous potential and it successfully accomplished its goal of engaging me as a viewer and making me eager to tune in next week to see what they are planning for the future.

 

There weren’t any “laugh at loud” moments in the pilot, but I hardly expect a single television episode to create the definitive humorous event of our era during its first attempt.  There were plenty of scenes that make me chuckle and put a smile on my face, and – perhaps more important – the show piqued my interest and presented a fun and engaging sci-fi adventure, even though it was saddled with the problem bogging down most pilots – having to spend half of its one hour running time introducing us to the characters and the world they inhabit before the story can get rolling.

 

Overall, you could say that “Old Wounds”, the show’s first episode, was fun but uneven, and gives us a nice glimpse of what is to come even though the series hasn’t found its footing yet.  The same can be said of the two pilots of the best known Star Trek series:  “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966) from the original Star Trek, and “Encounter at Farpoint” from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). If “fun but uneven and yet to show full potential” is damning for Orville, then the show is in good company, seeing how it seeks to emulate Star Trek.

 

Talking to other Star Trek fans online, the vast majority of those who viewed the episode were glad they did so, and reported that they also thoroughly enjoyed it. I spotted only two “meh” responses from fellow Star Trek fans, and the reason both of them gave for not liking the episode was – and here is an exact quote: “it seemed they were making fun of Star Trek, so I stopped watching it”.  Gee, you think? To me, this is along the lines of tuning into Young Frankenstein and saying “Hmmm. It appeared to me they were poking fun at old 30s Universal horror movies. That irritated me. Turned it off.”

 

There was little doubt before I tuned into this show that Orville would attempt to emulate TNG era Star Trek in attempt to be a homage/parody of it. Indeed, they not only got the “look” of TNG down, but also many of the characters (Bortus, for example is a very “Worf” like character), but also the music and action beats and so on. Even some typical “Star Trek” style scenes played out, like the famous “beauty pass” where a shuttlecraft drives around the starship giving the audience an idea of its size and scope – a scene first made famous in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

 

Still, critics of Orville have repeatedly argued that people rooting for Orville on the internet are only doing so because they are blinded by nostalgia and looking for a duplicate of the old Star Trek they are “used to”. While Orville does capture a lot of that spirit (again, much of it as intentional parody, for example, there was a fun send-up of the “holodeck training programs” in TNG), it is more than just a trip down memory lane. “Old Wounds” had a nice original sci-fi story in its own right, and it certainly doesn’t try to capture late 80s/early 90s television effects or anything really cheesy like that.  It is a 2017 television show taking bits and pieces of what audiences liked best about 90s era Star Trek, and putting a clever new spin on them.

 

Orville will also be episodic TV with each episode being its own “stand alone” story.  That’s certainly good news for me, as it’s the format that TOS and TNG used, and it would work best for this show, as an episode that “picked up” right where this one left off and continued the storyline about the age acceleration device in the pilot would probably get old quickly.  It is clear the writers intend to carry on several character threads into future episodes – the main being the unique circumstance of a divorced husband and wife being forced to work together as the Captain and First Officer of the vessel.  Whether that will give the show additional gravitas and make it evolve over several years, or whether it will quickly become an irritating unfunny “comedy routine” in future episodes will depend entirely on the skill of the writers and actors as the show continues.  As it stands, this setup did have a really good payoff in the final scene of the pilot, and one that I will not reveal to readers since the episode is brand new.

 

Orville is off to a decent start. Had Orville disappointed me and turned out to be another “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (Seth MacFarlane’s obnoxious, vulgar, and painfully unfunny “western” spoof that had only one good scene — and perhaps a catchy and mildly amusing theme song), I would be the first to express my disappointment, and pray the show gives me something better the next time around. I will simply say at this point that the critics mercilessly bashing Orville from day one are simply wrong.  Orville is worth a watch and hopefully the show will grow and last a while. The real test will come when we find out what the “official” Star Trek has to show us.  I have been saying for months that Orville looks like it will be much exciting and fun for Trek fans than Star Trek Discovery will be. Nothing I saw in Orville’s first episode has swayed me from that stance.

 

 

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #112: Woo-oo! Ducktales (2017 reboot)

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MARCH 16, 2017 SCREENING: DuckTales (2017 pilot)

 

Woo-oo!  Having grown up on the original 80s Ducktales cartoon (which makes me feel freakin’ old, seeing as it was 30 years ago), I’m one of the many adults who couldn’t resist tuning into the August sneak-peek of the NEW Ducktales, thanks to the 24 hour marathon of “Woo-oo!”, (its appropriately named pilot episode) on the Disney XD channel.

 

Although the regular episodes of the series won’t start until September 23rd, the pilot premiered a month earlier and it’s only now that I’m blogging this much belated review. So what can be said about Ducktales that hasn’t been said already? Well, I’ll throw my 2 cents into Scrooge’s vault.

 

Most of the reviews I’ve seen online have nothing but glowing praise for the new Ducktales. I really liked it too, but I have to hesitate before lavishing unqualified accolades for the new incarnation of Ducktales. Compared to its iconic 1987 predecessor, Ducktales 2017 has yet to earn its place as a part of television history, nor has it stood the test of time like its previous version.  Ducktales 2017 had numerous examples of both positives and negatives, so on the whole I have to say it was a mixed bag.

 

For me, the weakest element of the new series is the completely new (aside from Donald Duck himself) voice cast.  It actually pains me to say that, since I fell in love with the new cast singing the “Ducktales” theme on YouTube and I thought it was really inspired casting to have people like David Tennant as the new Scrooge McDuck. Simply put, the new cast sounds almost nothing like the original cast, and often, they don’t even attempt to do so. It’s not just a matter of “getting used to” the new voices – in many cases, they seem wholly inappropriate for the characters, even if you welcome the idea of a new take on those characters.  Scoorge’s nephews, for example, now sound like middle-aged comedians, which is not surprising, since that’s who’s voicing them. And while I didn’t expect Tennant to try and slavishly mimic Alan Young’s Scrooge, I expected him to at least get the “crusty old miser with a heart of gold” essence of the character down.  The most I can say is that Scrooge still sounds Scottish, but that’s not surprising since David Tennant IS Scottish. Tennant’s enthusiasm for the role is clearly present, but I’m just not hearing Scrooge McDuck. Even Kate Micucci, who on paper seemed like she’d be the “most like” the original character, bears virtually no resemblance to the 1987 Webby. Strangely, the only voiceover actor who mildly invokes the style of his 1987 counterpart is Beck Bennett as Launchpad McQuack.

 

Another thing that irked me was I sincerely hoped the 2017 series would be a revival of the 1987 series – that is, even if it didn’t directly pick-up where the ’87 series left off, it would start off with Scrooge and his nephews relationship clearly established and presume that the adventures in the 80s show were canon and had already “happened”, so we’re seeing new adventures. Alas, this is a “reboot” in the true sense of the word, and that means the writers will be ignoring everything that happened in the classic 1987 series and starting over scratch. This was demonstrated from day one, as “Woo-oo!”, gives us another origin story where Donald’s nephews meet their great uncle scrooge for the “first time”, and the episode revolves around Scrooge learning to accept them. I strongly felt we didn’t need to see that.

 

Now, aside from the negatives, the rest of the pilot was superb television, IMO.  The simpler and sleeker animation style had me a little worried the new Ducktales might be aimed more for the kindergarten crowd than the original show. Nope. The new Ducktales pretty much remains an all encompassing family show like its predecessor, and shows the same mix of action, adventure, comedy, drama, fantasy, and sci-fi that made the original show so engaging. I think its rare to find that combo in kid’s shows these days.

 

 

I am reluctant to admit it, but some of the changes seem to give the show more gravitas than the original. For example, in the 1987 Ducktales, Scrooge’s archenemy Flintgold Glomheart might be mistaken for Scrooge’s brother – they look identical aside from Glomheart sporting a kilt and gray beard. Here, there is no question Glomheart looks and sounds completely different from Scrooge and they are totally different characters aside from both being Scottish billionaire Ducks.  Webby Vanderquack, pretty much a damsel-in-distress role in the original show, is much more proactive and has a lot more to do in the reboot.  Huey, Dewey, and Louis have distinctive personalities in the reboot, compared to pretty much being clones and interchangeable in the 1987 series. The revamping of these iconic characters make me look forward to what Ducktales will do with other classic characters like Magica de Spell, Duckworth, and Professor Ludwig Von Drake.

 

Aside from completely changing the voices, Ducktales 2017 has an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude and transplants much of the classic Ducktales universe over to the new show. The souped up version of theme song might be even better than the original, the humor is still sharp and will make adults as well as kids laugh, and Ducktales still has a tour-de-force, upbeat spirit of adventure and fun.

 

Finally, Ducktales 2017 ends its pilot episode with a surprise twist, and one that has yet to be explored in any previous incarnation of Ducktales, and will no doubt play an important role in the new show.

 

Overall, I’m upset that Ducktales 2017 has shown up to “override” the stories and beloved characters from its predecessor television show, but I’m excited what the future will hold for this new series once it establishes itself in its own right. Perhaps the only major problem is it seems the new Ducktales, while being wholly a “kids show” on paper, is generating far more excitement for 30 something adults these days.  Time will tell if the next generation of kids grow up loving Ducktales, too.

 

 

 

*** out of ****