Sunday, 21 February 2016

An Open Letter to Star Trek fans

Dear Trekkies,

I’ve just watched Season 3 Episode 3 of your show. That’s right, I’m one of “the other ones”. From the other side. Not just the other side of the Pond, if we still make those silly America/Britain divides. The other side of the great Enterprise/TARDIS dichotomy.
Can you guys keep a secret? Star Trek. Never seen it. Not once. (Well, the JJ Abrams films… and maybe something with Patrick Stewart? Once? Does that count? Can we get an expert in?) So I thought I’d give it a try. See how it shapes up next to Doctor Who, so to speak.
To this end I gave your very own The Paradise Syndrome a watch. These were my thoughts. Forgive me if I say anything you could misconstrue as insulting your beloved programme (Yes, I spell that word the irrational way and proudly so. I said I was British).
I refuse to believe this is 1968! The production values are excellent. The on-location filming at Franklin Canyon Park, Los Angeles, looks very convincing, and right from the opening in the forest as the camera pans across the lake I could tell that this show had money. You weren’t making it cramped in some BBC Lime Grove studio the day before it had to go out on TV, were you? Jud Taylor’s direction is strong too, with some nice camera angles and well-held close-ups. It doesn’t feel as static or as slow as Doctor Who did in 1968. Go watch The Wheel in Space. I promise. You don’t know when you’re well off.
And. It’s. In. Colour. I mean, Doctor Who didn’t get colour until 1970. Wow. And pretty sumptuous colour too, those lovely blue uniforms, the shimmery variegated hues of Kirok’s Medicine Chief cloak, and the energy beams fired at the asteroid. Let me tell you, Doctor Who didn’t look this good until about … the early 80s. I was also pretty impressed with some of the other technical aspects of the production, in particular that big old Preserver obelisk. Lovely work, and very convincing. The way the production team contrast the two worlds is also a highlight, distinguishing well between the mundane and the fantastic, the unfamiliar, as all good fairy tales do: it’s just that here the mundane and the standard is the bridge of a spaceship. The music echoes the genre mash-up rather effectively as well – look at the first moment the obelisk is revealed: the floaty pan-pipes fade into a sudden burst of electronica.
But my oh my, there are some key differences above and beyond the aesthetic. The Paradise Syndrome plays out like a military galactic empire procedural – which, in a sense, it is. The crew of the Enterprise have a five-year mission to be getting on with (it said so at the start, so I’m sure that’s right. That’ll probably be the only I attempt a vague Star Trek statement). This seems to involve landing in various places and sorting things out (it’s a nicely ill-defined mission). So far, so much like Doctor Who. But you guys, you really are running a military outfit! It’s a bit po-faced and straight-laced, isn’t it? Where are the wisecracks and the big scarfs? Where’s the fun?
The plotting, I feel, is much less successful. It’s an intriguing concept, certainly, and I’m rather a fan of the way the story opens and gets its audience plunged straight in to the central dilemma (the 50 minute pacing time, as opposed to the six parts of 25 minutes with which I’m familiar, is a big help here). Unfortunately, once the main plot itself kicks in I was dragged in to the realms of B-movie cliché. The best idea on show (an ancient alien force seeds human life throughout the galaxy) is very vague and underexplored – though this is forgivable if the Preservers become a long-running plot strand, of course. The portrayal of the tribal people themselves is … troublesome, to say the least. An open letter to you guys is not the time or the space (sorry, place) to open up a discourse on judging yesterday’s ethics by the standards of today. But we’ll try anyway.
White man lands among dark-skinned people, worshipped by tribe, falls in love with daughter, departs leaving tribe in disarray and daughter dead. The thing is, this was a little bit backward by 1968, you know. Agatha Christie’s novel had famously already had its controversial name (you know the one; or look it up) changed to And Then There Were None, and that was only just post-war. Doctor Who was churning out some unpleasantly semi-colonialist stuff at this point too. It doesn’t make it any more excusable. Marks deducted there, I’m afraid.
Also, what the hell is going on with William Shatner? You guys worship this dude or something, don’t you? But he spends most of this episode wandering around looking like he doesn’t know where he is. And I don’t mean the in-plot rationale for that. I mean, genuinely. The actor looks mildly baffled by everything he has to do. Like he doesn’t quite believe in any of it. That’s the death knell of drama. We can believe anything this bonkers as long as the people involved do.
Okay, deep breath. I don’t want to be lynched. On the plus side. Well, I mean Leonard Nimoy is fantastic. Of course he is. Those eyebrows. These ears. It’s like every part of his face is giving its own mini-performance. And just when they threaten to go solo, his facial expression reigns the rebellious blighters in. The camera loves him: all those close-ups on his face. And that semi-regal, dry, semi-theatrical voice. Marvellous stuff.
The script’s … mixed, really. Some of the dialogue between Miramanee and ‘Kirok’ is unforgivably corny, but there are some lovely bits too. “Behold a god who bleeds!” is particularly good, just a dash of Shylock in there. And Scotty’s “my bairns! My poor bairns!” genuinely made me beam from ear to ear. More moments like that, please. More wacky humour with a side order of knowingness.
I hope I haven’t been too harsh. All those cultural differences, you know, it’s surprising we enjoy each other’s stuff as much as we do. Although as The Paradise Syndrome suggests, aren’t all cultural differences fiction after a fashion? So pop past when you’re in the vicinity. Give Britain a whirl and try a Doctor Who story once in a while. Repay the favour. I propose one of the sillier ones. Try Time and the Rani.
And I’m smirking because I know what’s in store for you if you follow my completely mad advice, and you have no idea…

Signing off,

Tom

4 comments:

  1. I remember watching the Star Trek episode "Devil in the Dark" a few years back, and my brother came into the room when there was an establishing shot of the planet and then a cut to a matte painting of a colony: http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/File:Janus_VI_colony_collage.jpg

    He made some joke about how terrible the special effects were (he was a very jaded kid) and asked if it was Doctor Who. I replied that Doctor Who in the 1980s wished it looked as good as Star Trek did in the 1960s.

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  2. Gosh, you're not wrong are you!

    I realise that you're published on Star Trek and the like so hope you don't take my tongue-in-cheek article too seriously ;) I don't really have a vendetta against it!

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    1. Gosh, no! I take Star Trek and Doctor Who both very seriously and not seriously at all. (My joint-favorite episode of the original is "A Piece of the Action," which might be more to your taste. It's certainly not straight-faced!)

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    2. "Both very seriously and not seriously at all"...that's the way to do it! :)

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