Sunday, 29 May 2016

Star Trek at 50: Defending the Final Frontier

In 1991 Brandon Tartikoff - a legendary television executive who'd turned around the declining fortunes of NBC in the 1980s - moved to work at Paramount. One of the first things he did was summon Star Trek: The Next Generation executive producer and showrunner Rick Berman into his office. Berman braced himself for possible bad news, but Tartikoff instead told him he was impressed with the performance of TNG and wanted to know what they were doing to build on that success. In particular, with TNG in its fourth season, the show would be ending in a few years and something was needed to take the franchise forward.

Deep Space Nine was built by the Cardassians and meant to be a more dangerous, more alien and less perfect location for stories than a cutting-edge Federation starship.

Rick Berman was immediately stumped for ideas. The Next Generation was about the starship Enterprise exploring final frontiers and seeking out new worlds and civilisations. Wasn't that what Star Trek was? But Tartikoff suggested using the vast universe that the original series and TNG had established to tell a new kind of story, in the same way that in the 1950s Westerns had told different kinds of narratives in the same setting. In particular, if Star Trek was "Wagon Train to the Stars", as Gene Roddenberry had described it, than the new show could be "The Rifleman in Space". The Rifleman had told the story of a man and his son living in a frontier town and had developed storylines on the basis of staying where you were and making a life in one place rather than constantly travelling.

Berman sat down with TNG producer/writer Michael Piller and started brainstorming ideas, but they kept returning to Tartikoff's idea because it was the one that made the most sense. If one setting for a Star Trek story was a starship, than clearly the two obvious alternatives were a space station or a colony planet. The colony idea was briefly developed, but they realised that the amount of location filming required per episode would be ruinous and would also limit the number of stories that could be told. Setting the new Star Trek series on a space station was therefore the only real alternative.

The USS Enterprise-D arrives at space station Deep Space Nine.

Rather than come up with completely new concepts, the producers looked at the races, concepts and ideas developed on The Next Generation for inspiration. The Ferengi, who had originally been developed as antagonists on TNG, had become too comical and two-dimensional to fulfil that role and had been supplanted by the Borg. However, Berman and Piller saw an opportunity to rehabilitate the Ferengi and use them as commentary on the benefits and disadvantages of capitalism, as compared to the moneyless society of the Federation depicted on TNG. They also wanted the new show to stand apart from the original series and decided against using any of the long-established races like the Klingons, Romulans or Vulcans. Instead, the Cardassians were chosen as the primary antagonists. The Cardassians had been developed in the fourth season TNG episode The Wounded and were shown to be a proud, patriotic race who filled a niche between the honour-bound Klingons and the deceptive Romulans. The producers were also intrigued by the Trill, a race of symbionts developed for the fourth season TNG episode The Host. The idea of a symbiont living for centuries and transferring memories and personalities from humanoid host to humanoid host seemed a rich source of stories and drama. In the wake of the success of Terminator 2: Judgement Day and its shapeshifting antagonist, the producers were also keen to use the same technology to include a shapeshifting character. Star Trek had employed shapeshifters in the past but they had always been let down by the technology.

Berman and Piller were also inspired by contemporary events. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of war in the Balkans, with the United Nations helpless to intervene in a partially religiously-motivated conflict, inspired them to place the space station in orbit around a planet which had recently broke free from the control of a larger empire and now faced a rough path to freedom and self-determination. It was decided to make the Cardassians the former empire in charge of the planet and the builders of the space station. This would fulfil something that Piller was keen on, on a move away from the shiny, almost flawless technology of the Federation towards something that was a little rougher around the edges and more alien. The decision to focus on the Cardassians also allowed the producers to do something they'd wanted for a while. They'd been tremendously impressed with the performance of Colm Meaney as Chief O'Brien on TNG, even developing a backstory for him (as a veteran of the long war against Cardassia) and allowing him to get married, but had struggled to find ways to get him involved in the stories enough to justify promoting him to a regular castmember. They decided to transfer him to the new station as its chief engineer. Despite the risks of leaving a successful show to join a brand new one, Meaney jumped at the chance to work more regularly and have a starring role in a series.

The cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in its first season. The decision to include non-Starfleet, alien characters was meant to help generate conflict and drama without breaking Gene Roddenberry's rules about 24th Century humans being free of the failings of the past.

The series began to come together, but the lead time was enough for the writers to use the fifth season of TNG to start seeding ideas for the new series. Bajor, the planet the new station orbited, was introduced in the episode Ensign Ro. This also introduced the character of Ensign Ro Laren, who would go on to become a recurring character in the fifth and sixth seasons of TNG. The producers were blown away by the performance of Michelle Forbes and offered her a starring role on the new series, but she turned them down in favour of pursuing guest roles on other shows.

Deep Space Nine was formally announced in late 1991. The original title was in fact Deep Space IX, but after several magazines misspelled this as "Deep Space Ix" the producers decided to spell out the number. The announcement of DS9 came just weeks after Warner Brothers had announced its own space station-set TV show, Babylon 5, and this led to brief controversy as that show's creator, J. Michael Straczynski had proposed the series to Paramount in 1989 and wondered if they were copying the idea. However, Straczynski later backed off on this, as he was aware of the professional reputations of Tartikoff, Berman and Piller and also that a space station setting was a very obvious one for an SF show, especially if you are deliberately avoiding a spaceship setting.

Avery Brooks became the first African-American actor to headline an American drama series in twenty-five years when he was cast as Commander Ben Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Casting continued and the producers began a gruelling auditioning process for the new commanding officer of the station, Benjamin Sisko. More than one hundred actors were considered before the producers chose Avery Brooks, best known for his supporting role as Hawk on Spenser: For Hire. According to the producers, the fact that Brooks was African-American was not a major reason for casting him but they were nevertheles gratified that it was Star Trek that became the first TV show since The Mod Squad in 1968 to cast a black actor in a leading role in a drama, rather than a supporting one. Keeping up with Tartikoff's original idea of a man and his son living on the frontier, the producers also decided to give Sisko a son, Jake, and cast Cirroc Lofton to play him. Brooks was keen to ensure that Sisko's relationship with Jake was shown to be responsible and strong (despite natural occasional conflicts) as he felt that too many TV shows depicted the lives of African American men and their fathers as dysfunctional or rooted in crime.

The writers and producers also had to confront a problem that had stymied them on TNG. As per Gene Roddenberry's direction, the characters on TNG were pure and free of conflict. This occasionally made finding dramatic stories extremely difficult. For DS9, the writers decided to have a mix of Starfleet, civilian and non-Federation characters which could allow conflict to be generated without breaking Roddenberry's rule of no conflict between the human characters. The producers were extremely happy with the conflict that was generated between Sisko and his first officer, Bajoran Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), a former freedom fighter/terrorist who is now in a responsible military position. This conflict was rooted in cultural issues and radically different mindsets but later developed into real mutual respect.

In the summer of 1992 production began of the show's two-hour pilot, Emissary. One of TNG's most acclaimed directors, David Carson, was called in to helm the pilot and Paramount gave the production a budget of $12 million just for the first episode, a jaw-dropping amount that set a record that was not beaten until Lost spent $14 million on its pilot twelve years later. Paramount also greenlit the entire first season of twenty episodes before a single frame of footage was shot, a stunning display of confidence in the Star Trek brand.

Now the producers just had to deliver.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

The Lost Reviews: Part 13 - Season 3, Episodes 9-12

Welcome to the Lost rewatch project. I am currently rewatching all 121 episodes of the TV series which aired for six seasons from 2004 to 2010. This is very much a rewatch thread, with the show watched with knowledge of what is to come in later seasons. If you've never watched Lost before, you definitely do not want to read this blog series.

Without further ado, let us continue after the jump.

If you're one of the people dying to know what's up with Jack's tattoos, then...oh, that's no-one then? Right. Okay.

Star Trek at 50: The USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-E)

 The Sovereign-class USS Enterprise (registry number NCC-1701-E), built by the United Federation of Planets circa 2368-71. The ship was commissioned and launched in 2372 under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The Enterprise-E served with distinction during a Borg incursion in 2373, defeated a Son'a ship at Ba'ku in 2375 and helped defeat the Reman warlord Shinzon in 2379. It was still operational in 2387 when Romulus was destroyed by a hypernova, sparking a major shift in the balance of power in the Alpha Quadrant.

Class History

Whilst the Galaxy-class was undergoing its lengthy gestation period (running from roughly 2344 through to the first ships entering service in 2363), Starfleet developed a large number of new technological breakthroughs and concepts. These ideas were field-tested on a number of smaller ships developed alongside and after the Galaxy, such as the Nebula, Intrepid and Akira-class, not to mention the new weapon systems developed for the (controversially) combat-oriented Defiant-class, but it was decided in the early 2360s that a new class was needed to combine these elements into one large, front-of-the-line design.

The Sovereign-class was developed throughout the mid-2360s. The development process for the class was much faster than for the Galaxy for several reasons. Whilst the Galaxy was developed in peacetime, the Sovereign began its development during a period where the Romulan Star Empire was resurgent, where the Klingons had undergone a brief but tumultuous civil war and the Borg had emerged as a serious new threat to the entire quadrant. In addition, the Galaxy was designed to be the largest ship in Starfleet and entirely new types of propulsion, life support and computing power had to be developed to help it fulfil that goal. The Sovereign was, instead, designed to be the most advanced starship, building on those technologies already present in the Galaxy rather than having to design them from scratch.

The prototype USS Sovereign was launched for pathfinding trials circa 2369 or 2370. The next batch of Sovereign-class vessels were nearing construction when word came of the destruction of the Galaxy-class Enterprise at Veridian III in 2371. One of the under-construction ships was immediately given the name Enterprise.

The USS Enterprise orbiting Earth.

Operational History

The USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-E) was launched in late 2372, approximately one year after the destruction of the Enterprise-D. After the destruction of the Enterprise-D, its highly decorated and experienced crew was expected to be promoted and scattered across Starfleet. However, Captain Picard requested that his crew be kept together and assigned to the new Enterprise. Starfleet and the crew agreed, apart from Lt. Commander Worf who accepted reassignment to space station Deep Space Nine (ST:DS9: The Way of the Warrior).

In 2373 the Enterprise-E responded to a Borg assault on Earth. Using Picard's knowledge of the Borg, gained when he was temporarily their prisoner during the 2366-67 crisis (ST:TNG: The Best of Both Worlds), Starfleet was able to destroy the Borg vessel. A Borg sphere ejected from the main cube and travelled back in time to 2063 to try to prevent First Contact between Earth and Vulcan, thus preventing the founding of the Federation. The Enterprise-E was able to pursue and stop the plan in its tracks, resetting the timeline (Star Trek: First Contact).

With the outbreak of the Dominion War in late 2373, the Enterprise-E was assigned to support duties. The Sovereign class had the strongest offensive arsenal in Starfleet, but as there were relatively few of the ships in service or under construction Starfleet preferred to depend on the Galaxy-class as its heavy capital design of choice. The Sovereigns were deployed only where the heaviest punches were needed and it was unlikely they would be lost. Although this meant that the Federation didn't lose any of the class at the disastrous Second Battle of Chin'toka in 2375 (when some 300 Federation, Klingon and Romulan ships were destroyed by the Dominon and their Breen allies in arguably the worst defeat of the war), it also meant that the design failed to see much action. The class was notably absent during Operation Return, the largest battle of the war, the First Battle of Chin'toka and even the final assault on Cardassia Prime at the end of the war. Controversially, in 2375 Starfleet decided to redeploy the Enterprise-E to diplomatic duties well away from the front line.

During these duties, the Enterprise-E was ordered to allow the Son'a to forcibly relocate the inhabitants of the planet Ba'ku against their will. Captain Picard defied orders and forced the Son'a to abandon their claim. This resulted in tremendous controversy, as the Son'a later defected to the Dominion side of the conflict, but it was later ruled that Picard had acted correctly in upholding the principles of the Federation even in a time of war (Star Trek: Insurrection).

In 2379 the Enterprise-E was assigned on a diplomatic mission to Romulus, designed to help foster closer relations in the wake of the victory of the Federation-Romulan-Klingon Alliance during the Dominion War. However, the Enterprise crew discovered the Reman Praetor, Shinzon, had staged a coup and attempted to seize control of the Star Empire. Assisted by loyalist Romulan forces, the Enterprise-E was able to destroy Shinzon's flagship and kill him. The wake of this assistance, the Romulan Star Empire and the Federation entered a new and closer period of cooperation and assistance (Star Trek: Nemesis).

By 2387 the Enterprise-E remained in service, having served for almost twice as long as her predecessor. By this time Jean-Luc Picard had retired from Starfleet and accepted a new role as the Federation Ambassador to Vulcan. William Riker had assumed command of the USS Titan and Chief Engineer La Forge had become a leading science and propulsion expert. Command of the Enterprise-E passed to Captain Data, the first android to command a Starfleet vessel. The Enterprise-E lent assistance to the Narada, a Romulan mining vessel that had almost been destroyed mining decalithium in the Hobus system. The Hobus star had gone supernova, but the decalithium-rich asteroids and planets in the system added to the power of the nova. The supernova became a hypernova capable of travelling through subspace as well as normal space. The resulting explosion destroyed Romulus merely months after it began, and threatened to obliterate a vast swathe of the Alpha Quadrant. Ambassador Spock, using the experiment substance known as red matter, was able to collapse the hypernova back in on itself into a singularity, ending the threat to the rest of the galaxy. Spock, the Narada and its captain, Nero, were all lost and presumed killed in this incident. (Star Trek: Countdown and Star Trek (2009) ).

Ship Overview

The Enterprise-E was a Sovereign-class starship. It was launched in 2372 and remained in service fifteen years later in 2387. This meant that it served - at minimum - longer than the Enterprise-C (12 years), Enterprise-D (8 years) or Enterprise-A (7 years), but not as long as the original Constitution-class Enterprise (40 years) or the Enterprise-B (36 years).

The vessel was commanded by Captain Jean-Luc Picard ("surviving" several efforts to promote him) for its first decade in service before he retired from Starfleet altogether. By 2387 Picard's long-serving android second (and later first) officer Data had become Captain of the Enterprise.

The Enterprise-E was 685 metres (2,248 feet) long, 250 metres (820 feet) wide and 88 metres (290 feet) tall. Although 40 metres longer than the Enterprise-D, it was only half the height and width and had significantly smaller internal volume. In fact, it was even thinner and shorter than the Enterprise-C. The crew complement was estimated at somewhere between 650 and 700. The Enterprise-E did not have families or civilians on board outside of specialised and specific mission requirements, meaning it did not need as much as space as its predecessor. The ship launched with only 24 decks compared to the Enterprise-D's 42. However, circa 2376 the ship underwent a minor refit which enlarged the secondary hull and increased the number of decks to 29.

The ship was moderately faster than the Galaxy-class, capable of attaining Warp 9.95 for brief periods of time. Its armaments were superior, mustering sixteen phaser arrays and ten torpedo tubes. The Enterprise-E was armed with both photon and the higher-yield quantum torpedoes.

The Enterprise confronts the Reman battlecruiser Scimitar in 2379.

Behind the Scenes

The destruction of the Enterprise-D in Star Trek: Generations necessitated the design of a new Enterprise for the following movie, First Contact. The miniatures team had assumed that the ship would be replaced by another vessel of the same class (as had happened with the original Enterprise and the Enterprise-A) and had in fact re-labelled the Galaxy-class model with "NCC-1701-E" markings. In the event it was decided to build a new ship.

Herman Zimmerman and John Eaves designed the basic look of the ship, although the first pass had swept-forwards warp nacelles. Everyone liked this idea until someone said it looked like a chicken in a pan, at which point they moved the nacelles into the more traditional swept-back configuration. Rick Berman signed off on the design in early 1996, meaning that the model had to be built and shot with extreme rapidity. Fortunately, improving fabrication technologies meant that the model could be constructed much more quickly and much more cheaply than its predecessors. A CGI replica of the ship was constructed at the same time, with the movie moving between the two as required. Paramount was so impressed by this, unable to discern when a physical model was being used and when the computer-generated one was, that they mandated that all future movies would use CGI only for the ship models. Thus, First Contact marks the one and only appearance of the actual physical model for the Enterprise-E.

By the time Star Trek: Nemesis was released in 2002, the CGI model had been updated to feature more weapons, the reasoning being that Starfleet would up the ship's firepower as a result of the Dominion War.

The Enterprise-E, and indeed the Sovereign class as a whole, did not appear in Deep Space Nine or Voyager. The logic was that this was Starfleet's most advanced, cutting-edge design and the ship would not be used lightly in battles or on risky missions during the war. As a result, Nemesis remains the final appearance of the ship on-screen. However, a comic book was produced for the J.J. Abrams 2009 movie which tied the plot of that movie into the so-called "prime timeline". Declared canon by the film's writers, the comic reveals that the Enterprise-E remained operational and in service in 2387, fifteen years after launch.

Officially, the Enterprise-E is still the "current" Enterprise as far as the prime timeline is concerned. With twenty years since its first on-screen appearance, that makes it the longest-serving "current" incarnation of the vessel (compared to 18 years for the original Enterprise, 7 for the Enterprise-A and 7 for the Enterprise-D).

Meanwhile, in another timeline...

The Odyssey-class USS Enterprise (registry number NCC-1701-F), built by the United Federation of Planets circa 2405-09. The ship was commissioned and launched in 2409 under the command of Captain Va'Kel Shon. The Enterprise-F is 1,062 metres (3,484 feet) long, 374 metres (1,227 feet) wide and 148 metres (485 feet) tall.

Star Trek Online, a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, depicts the Enterprise-E being crippled by the Undine in the year 2408. The ship is able to escape, but has to be scuttled due to the severity of the damage done to the basic spaceframe. The game depicts the ship being replaced by the Odyssey-class USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-F) a year later. The Odyssey is the largest and fastest class of starship ever built by the Federation, featuring cutting-edge new technologies and weapon systems. It should be noted that Star Trek Online and the events in it are explicitly not regarded as canon, but unless future live-action projects are undertaken in the old canon (which the new 2017 TV series may or may not be), its events may be the closest we get to an official continuation of the prime timeline.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Star Trek at 50: The Next Generation on Screen

In 1992 Rick Berman summoned scriptwriters Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, along with executive producer Michael Piller and retired TNG writer Maurice Hurley, to a series of meetings. Initially Braga and Moore thought that TNG was about to be cancelled, so were surprised to be offered the chance to write a Star Trek movie. The directive from Paramount was that the film would see the final appearance of the original series crewmembers and see the transition of the TNG crew to the big screen. Hurley and Piller were also invited to write scripts, but Piller turned down the opportunity because he thought it was calling for too much competition between colleagues. In the event, Hurley's script took too long to write and Paramount instead put Braga and Moore's script into pre-production.

The moment fans had been waiting for.

Paramount handing over control of its biggest and longest-running movie franchise to a bunch of TV writers was remarkable, but it was also a display of confidence in the (mostly) young and inexperienced team who had turned The Next Generation into one of the biggest and most successful TV shows in the world. However, it nearly ended up misfiring. Braga and Moore were among the more prolific writers on the series with multiple scripts to write for the final two seasons, including the two-hour TNG finale, All Good Things. Agreeing to write the seventh movie on top of that proved to be a stretch too far, and the writers later admitted they had spread themselves too thin. Leonard Nimoy had also been approached to direct and appear as Spock, but Nimoy voiced concerns over the script and also about the limited nature of his role. In particular, he pointed out his lines could be given to another character with barely any alteration. Ironically, when he passed, that's exactly what happened when his material was instead split between the characters of Scotty and Chekov. British director David Carson was called on to direct, having hugely impressed Paramount with his TNG episode Yesterday's Enterprise and the pilot episode for Deep Space Nine.

The script was a busy one, using Guinan (played by major Star Trek fan Whoopi Goldberg) and a mysterious energy ribbon known as the Nexus to bridge the two time periods, along with the sole live-action depiction of the Enterprise-B, introducing all of the TNG characters to a more casual cinema audience and killing Kirk. The idea of killing Kirk came up in story development meetings where it was felt that the script lacked a big enough climax. Destroying the Enterprise-D was also a surprising move, but one the producers felt was emotionally correct (putting a capstone on the TNG TV show era) as well as having practical value, freeing up studio space until the next film was produced. To help publicise the film, Paramount decided to make use of the nascent Internet and created one of the first-ever websites designed to publicise a specific feature film (the website for the film StarGate went live almost simultaneously, leading to occasional disputes over which film achieved the distinction first).

Star Trek: Generations was released on 18 November 1994 to fairly indifferent reviews. However, some impressive visual effects, a decent couple of trailers, the mass crossover appeal of The Next Generation and rumours of Kirk's death ensured a strong turn-out. Generations was made on a budget of $33 million, the same as Star Trek V, but at just under $120 million made twice as much at the box office. It was a huge success for Paramount, who greenlit an eighth movie in February 1995.

Rick Berman re-hired Moore and Braga to write the script, taking time away from their new day jobs (Moore was working on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine whilst Braga had transferred to the new, second TNG spin-off, Star Trek: Voyager). Brainstorming ideas and aware they would have a larger budget to play with, they decided to combine two notions that had come up early: time travel and the Borg. The Borg had been lightly used on TNG following their defeat in The Best of Both Worlds, with the fear that over-using them would rob them of their unstoppable power. Moore believed that they would make for a fine enemy for a movie. A film would also allow the Borg to be depicted as more powerful and threatening. Their previous appearances had been cut down due to budget issues, with the iconic Battle of Wolf 359 in The Best of Both Worlds happening off-screen. Braga's notion was to have the time travel involving Earth's first contact with the Vulcans, an iconic moment in the history of Star Trek which led to the founding of the Federation. This would also allow the film to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of the franchise.

First Contact was deliberately played as a more action-driven story than previous Star Trek movies.

Jonathan Frakes, who had played Commander Riker on The Next Generation, was selected to direct the film. Frakes had directed multiple episodes of TNG, DS9 and Voyager and had won plaudits for his visual style as well as his professional attitude. Frakes won the role after several other directors were rejected for their lack of familiarity with the franchise. Patrick Stewart exercised his considerable influence on the production to give Picard a more action-heavy role in fighting the Borg on the new Enterprise-E.

The movie was originally entitled Star Trek: Resurrection (a title everyone seemed to like), but this was changed to First Contact when 20th Century Fox announced that the fourth Alien movie would have the same title.

Star Trek: First Contact was released on 22 November 1996. The movie grossed $146 million worldwide, an all-time franchise high (not beaten until thirteen years later and the J.J. Abrams movie), against a budget of $45 million (quite modest even by 1996 standards). The critical reception was mostly positive, despite some criticisms of the Earthbound storyline being lacking compared to the space-borne battle between the Borg and the Enterprise crew. One common thread amongst reviews was that First Contact was the first Star Trek movie in a long time that felt like a big event, something more than just a TV episode dragged out to two hours in length.

The ninth Star Trek movie was greenlit a few months later. Paramount were keen to revisit the success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which had been a massive box office success as a more light-hearted, even comedic film built around a central strong SF idea. With Moore and Braga firmly committed to their respective TV series, Rick Berman called upon former TNG executive producer Michael Piller to write the screenplay. Patrick Stewart, who had a managed to get a production credit on the new film, also suggested ideas. He was particularly keen to build on the idea of Picard as an unconventional, older action hero established in First Contact. For the new movie Picard was cast as a moral rebel, who rejects an alliance of convenience between the Federation and the brutal Son'a to protect an exploited, less powerful race. In later drafts Piller ran into some problems finding the through-line of the story, but Ira Steven Behr, the showrunner of DS9, reviewed the script and helped Piller resolve several issues with it. Paramount showered the script with praise, to Piller's unexpected pleasure, and Patrick Stewart also approved of it.

Star Trek: Insurrection was criticised for a lack of ambition.

Jonathan Frakes agreed to return to direct, with Paramount impressed by his work on First Contact. The production team floundered for some time to find a title before settling on Insurrection.

The film was released on 11 December 1998, somewhat bafflingly marketed as the first "Star Trek date movie" for its focus on humour and romance. The film received mixed reviews, which surprised the studio after what they believed was a very strong script. Most of the reviews felt that the producers had made a mistake by moving away from what had worked in First Contact and instead making a glorified TV episode, and not a good one either. Many reviews criticised this lack of ambition (especially after the darker, more action-oriented and even horror-influenced First Contact), although the film certainly was not slated to the same level as The Final Frontier. Much to Paramount's relief, the critical indifference was not reflected in the box office. Against a budget of $58 million, the film took home $112 million worldwide, enough to be judged a reasonable success.

The 1990s were drawing to a close, and with it, Star Trek's golden age. The financial success of the four movies released in the decade was indisputable, but there remained the feeling that Star Trek's true home was on television. When The Next Generation began winding down back at the start of the decade, it was decided that the Trek universe was a big enough place for many different kinds of story...even one where the crew explored the final frontier by standing still.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Live-action trailer for DEUS EX: MANKIND DIVIDED

Square Enix have released a well-made, live-action trailer for the forthcoming Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. This is the sequel to the excellent 2011 CRPG Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Mankind Divided is set in 2029 and develops a plot point from the preceding game, where a terrorist organisation triggered a signal which sent every person in the world with upgraded, augmented technology insane for a few minutes. Millions of people were killed as the hacked augments went on the rampage. In the aftermath of the bloodbath, people are understandably weary of augmented individuals. Their civil rights have been revoked and the great "mechanical apartheid" has begun. Augmented civil rights protests have been ruthlessly quashed, and less restrained groups have sprung up, prepared to fight for equality and freedom.

The player controls Adam Jensen, an augmented law-enforcement agent who now works with Interpol to bring down the most dangerous augmented terrorist groups. However, Jensen is also working to expose the shadowy group who deliberately sent the augmented insane with outlawed technology. Jensen hopes that by doing this had begin repairing the trust between augmented and non-augmented humans.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will be released on PC, PS4 and XB1 on 23 August.

The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

Oxford, 1929. The Great Depression is looming. Anna Francis is a Greek refugee, one of many forced to flee the fighting between Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of the First World War. She lives with her father, who continues to campaign on behalf of his countrymen. Whilst Anna's father hosts meetings and writes to politicians, Anna explores Oxford and the surrounding countryside. One night she sees something in the fields that she wasn't supposed to, irrevocably changing her and the course of her life.

Paul Kearney is, very easily, the most underread author in modern fantasy. He has written epic fantasy with vast armies clashing, heroic fantasy about the tribulations of a flawed hero and several "slipstream" stories about people who cross from one world to another. He has also written a personal novel about the real world's intersection with the fantastic. He's even written a Warhammer 40,000 novel about Space Marines (although that's currently on hold due to legal issues). Kearney has an ability to switch gears and voices to tell many different kinds of story that is highly enviable.

The Wolf in the Attic represents another such gear shift. This is a story about a young woman coming of age in a country that treats her like a foreigner, despite her fluency in the language and her father's attempts to integrate. The notion of being a refugee and trying to find a home after your own is destroyed is a powerful one, and Kearney tells this part of the story extremely well. There is also an impressive mastery of POV and characterisation: Anna idolises her father whilst also being honest about his flaws, but even so the reader may pick up on things about him that Anna herself does not (or is in denial about).

These musings on identity, home and growth sit alongside a couple of scene-stealing cameos from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien had met and become friends in the mid-1920s and would remain in contact for the rest of their life. They appear very briefly, but Kearney has clearly done his research about the two men, their characters and the times they lived in.

So richly and vividly drawn is 1929 Oxford that the reader may even forget they're reading a fantasy novel until the supernatural enters the fray. First slowly and then with a growing presence, Kearney presents a sort of magical shadow world intersecting with our own, with people and factions represented as one thing in our world but having another role in the other. A mid-novel twist brings the supernatural element much more to the fore and this transition is successful as the book becomes more of a quest or road trip that takes Anna from her comfortable life into something more mystical and primeval.

Kearney has always had an excellent grasp of character and no-nonsense writing, but his writing skills in this book reach new heights with easily the most accomplished prose of his career to date. He handles the transition from the earlier, more grounded chapters to the later, more fantastical ones very well and he makes Anna a compelling protagonist, young but not foolish, inexperienced but not naive. If there is a weakness it might be that some secondary characters are not developed as strongly (Luca most notably) but in a first-person narrative that may be expected.

Overall, The Wolf in the Attic is an unusual book. It has YA hallmarks but isn't really YA. It has elements of fantasy and mythology and history but is more than the some of those parts. The movement between realistic childhood issues and fantasy reminded me somewhat of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but The Wolf in the Attic is an effortlessly superior novel which has more to say.

The year may only be half over, but The Wolf in the Attic (*****) makes a bold claim to be the best SFF novel released this year (contested, at least so far, only by Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky). It is a rich and unputdownable read and increases its already-talented author's range and capabilities even further. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

The Lost Reviews: Part 12 - Season 3, Episodes 1-8

Welcome to the Lost rewatch project. I am currently rewatching all 121 episodes of the TV series which aired for six seasons from 2004 to 2010. This is very much a rewatch thread, with the show watched with knowledge of what is to come in later seasons. If you've never watched Lost before, you definitely do not want to read this blog series.

This entry covers the first eight episodes of Season 3. When Lost first aired on ABC, they mandated very long seasons (22-25 episodes). As used to be traditional with American network television, they would air batches of new episodes interspersed with several weeks of repeats. Although this model had been standard for decades, it became increasingly unsustainable with Lost due to the intricate and heavily serialised nature of the storytelling. For Season 3 the producers tried a new tack, airing the first six episodes of the season as a self-contained mini-series (of sorts), taking a three-month break, and then returning with the rest of the season. Although successful in this instance, the producers still experienced significant production issues with making so many episodes in so short a timeframe. During the airing of this season, they struck a deal with ABC to make three further seasons with a reduced episode count.

Without further ado, let us continue after the jump.

 The crash of Flight 815 is revisited from another perspective.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Star Trek at 50: Crossing the Generations

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had been a major box office success upon its release in 1986, but the original crew's thunder had been stolen a little by the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation a year later. With that series established as a success, Paramount were keen to continue developing the movie series.

In order to retain William Shatner as Captain Kirk, Paramount had made an informal agreement for him to direct the fifth movie in the series. This followed Leonard Nimoy's directing of the third and fourth movies, both of which had been judged highly successful. Shatner's screen directing career was more limited than Nimoy's, limited to ten episodes of his TV series TJ Hooker, but he was certainly familiar with the process as well as knowing his fellow actors well and having the support of the filming crew, which would be a mixture of experienced personnel from the previous movies and staff from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Harve Bennett, who had produced every movie since The Wrath of Khan, also stayed on as producer for this film and helped break the story.

The premise was that the Enterprise crew were going to meet God, something Gene Roddenberry had been pushing for for a long time. However, the twist envisaged by both Shatner and Bennett was that it would be an alien posing as a deity who would manipulate people into following him through faith. Although the premise was judged strong, further rewrites were believed to be necessary to make the story stronger. This turned out to be impossible as the 1988 Writer's Strike took hold, forcing the movie to shoot with a script that had been less revised than was ideal.

Unexpectedly, the shoot turned out to be quite enjoyable. Even those actors who had experienced personal acrimony or issues with Shatner - most famously George Takei - found that Shatner as a director worked quite well. In particular, Shatner enjoyed getting his fellow actors involved in physical activities despite their age (they were then all well into their fifties and James Doohan was approaching his seventies), which they respected. They also appreciated the fact that Shatner kept backstage drama - such as budget cuts and constant interference from the studio - away from the rest of the cast.

As it turned out, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier nearly killed the franchise. The movie opened in the summer of 1989, in a crowded sequel season, playing against Ghostbusters II and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as well as Tim Burton's Batman. The film took home $63 million, a franchise low, against a franchise high budget of $33 million. The reviews were also terrible. Shatner accepted the blame, although also pointing out issues such as the script development being cut short by the strike and constant budget cuts meaning they had to use a less experienced special effects company.

Over the next year or so Paramount began to question the future fate of Star Trek on the big screen. The massive burst of popularity that Star Trek: The Next Generation underwent through its third season caused them to change their mind, as this resulted in renewed goodwill to the franchise on the eve of its 25th anniversary. Harve Bennett was asked to develop a new script which would act as a prequel to the series, featuring new, younger actors playing Kirk, Spock and McCoy at Starfleet Academy. This script went through several versions, but as momentum gathered pace the original series actors began to see the benefits of returning in a new film. There was a feeling that they did not want Star Trek V to be their goodbye to the franchise. Bennett was asked to jettison his previous work for a new story involving the old crew but he was not interested in this idea and decided to leave the series after spending ten years working on it.

Paramount began considering new writers and reached out to Leonard Nimoy for ideas. Nimoy went to see Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II and co-writer of Star Trek IV, and they started throwing concepts around. Meyer was thinking about contemporary issues and suddenly had the thought of the "the wall coming down in space", a reference to the then-recent fall of the Berlin Wall and the resulting end of Communism in Europe. He came up with the story that the Klingon Empire experienced a massive ecological disaster (comparable to Chernobyl) and this sparked the idea of glasnost with the Federation, but forces on both sides working to undermine it, including - unintentionally - Kirk. Nimoy took the idea to Paramount, who immediately saw potential in it, and Nimoy asked Meyer to direct. Nimoy himself was a preferred choice, but Nimoy foresaw possible difficulties with Shatner if Nimoy directed his third Trek movie to Shatner's one. Meyer agreed. Gene Roddenberry was brought on board as a consultant, but fervently disliked the movie's militaristic and naval tone. Meyer described one argument as being extremely passionate and angry, and he later felt ashamed of himself. Meyer particularly took issue with Roddenberry arguing that Saavik (a returning character from Star Trek II and III) would never betray Kirk, as Meyer himself had created the character. Ultimately, actor scheduling issues meant that Saavik had to be removed from the script and replaced with a similar Vulcan character, Valeris.

As with Star Trek V, there were significant struggles over the budget. Eventually, the sixth movie would come in at $27 million, $6 million less than the previous movie. Money was saved by redressing Star Trek: The Next Generation sets wherever possible, as well as reusing the already-built Enterprise, Excelsior and Klingon Bird-of-Prey models, as well as overhauling the Klingon battlecruiser model built for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was released on 6 December 1991 and was an unexpected hit, grossing just under $100 million. The critical reception was much stronger for the film and some of the marketing for the movie - most notably a guest appearance by Leonard Nimoy as Spock on a Star Trek: The Next Generation two-part episode called Unification - was highly praised. Amusingly, the only real scorn was reserved for the movie's opening special effect in which a massive explosion in space only propagates in two dimensions rather than three. Enough of a fuss was made about this by fans that a similar stellar explosion in the following movie was explicitly shown to be a sphere.

Gene Roddenberry passed away barely six weeks before the film opened. The movie was dedicated to him. In addition, the castmembers' signatures appeared at the end of the film as they expressly said goodbye to the characters they had been portraying for a quarter of a century. The movie marked the final appearances by Nichelle Nichols (to date) and DeForest Kelley in a Star Trek production.

Behind the scenes, Paramount were very happy with the movie's rate of return versus its budget and began planning a seventh film. Star Trek: The Next Generation was planned to end with its sixth season and it was decided to bring the new cast and crew to the big screen. When it was decided to expand this to seven seasons, Paramount declined to change the release date for the movie, forcing the crew to begin development of the film whilst work on the final season of the TV show was underway (everyone involved later admitted that this was a mistake). The seventh movie would feature Walter Koenig and James Doohan in brief cameos, with William Shatner taking a larger role in a story which would teamed him up with Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard to defeat a mutual enemy.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Lost Reviews: Part 11 - The Lost Experience

Welcome to the Lost rewatch project. I am currently rewatching all 121 episodes of the TV series which aired for six seasons from 2004 to 2010. This is very much a rewatch thread, with the show watched with knowledge of what is to come in later seasons. If you've never watched Lost before, you definitely do not want to read this blog series.

This entry is a little different in that it recaps The Lost Experience. This was an alternate reality game (ARG) that unfolded between Seasons 2 and 3 of Lost in the United States, and also played out via the show's British and Australian broadcasters. The ARG took the form of multiple websites, fake TV ads and live-action Comic-Con appearances which led to the unveiling of a series of videos with contained further information on the Hanso Foundation, the mysterious financial backers of the DHARMA Initiative. Part of The Lost Experience's modern-day storyline is considered semi-apocryphal (since some of it plays out in the "real world" where Lost is a TV show) but the revelations it contains about the backstory of DHARMA, Hanso, the Numbers and the Island were considered canon by the TV show producers.

Without further ado, let us continue after the jump.

The Lost Experience was extremely meta, featuring adverts and flyers actually posted up in major American cities, as well as websites for the fictional band Geronimo Jackson and the release of the Apollo Candy Bars from the Swan Station in UK comic book stores.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Who should the next STAR TREK captain be?

CBS's new Star Trek show is currently in development, with scripts being written and shooting due to start in August or September. The question that is now starting to arise is about casting.

The current rumours are that the new show will take place between the events of the original movies and The Next Generation, that is the seventy-one year gap between Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (which took place in 2293) and the events of Encounter at Farpoint (which took place in 2364). According to rumour, the show will adopt an anthology format and will swap ships, crews, characters and premises every season whilst still taking place in a shared universe, similar to Fargo and True Detective.

So the question to ask, is who will play the first captain on the new show? Let's throw some names out there.

Nathan Fillion

For: After the recent and rather abrupt cancellation of Castle, he's free. He's the right age (45) and has some starship-captaining experience (from Firefly). He would, of course, attract tons of viewers and fans just on name value alone. The geek audience would be very happy.

Against: I'm not sure if it's a strike as such, but it's a very obvious and safe choice. CBS and the creative team might be wanting something a bit less obvious. Fillion himself might be looking for a longer-term gig to fill in after Castle.

Rosario Dawson

For: She's a good actress (most importantly) and she's also a firm favourite of showrunner Bryan Fuller, who named her and Angela Bassett (see below) as his favourite candidates for the role long before he got the showrunner gig.

Against: Nothing too bad, but she is signed up to star in The Defenders for Netflix (although that isn't due to start shooting until early 2017) and guest-star in Iron Fist and the second season of Jessica Jones before then.

Stephen Dillane

For: He's got that middle-aged, slightly grumpy but heartfelt British thing going on that Patrick Stewart had. He'd bring in some Game of Thrones fans. He's a bloody good actor.

Against: He doesn't seem to be the biggest fan of genre work, and was downbeat on his Game of Thrones role, although that might have more been the show rather than the genre.

Angela Bassett

For: She's a great actress with tremendous and impressive range. She was Bryan Fuller's #1 pick for the job back in 2013.

Against: She's already a regular on American Horror Story, although that would still leave her some spare time. However, she recently specifically ruled herself out of the running (although noting it'd be cool) because she didn't want to take more time away from her family life.

Michelle Forbes

For: She's a supremely talented actress with fantastic form on multiple genre series, including True Blood, Orphan Black and Battlestar Galactica...not to mention a little show called Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Against: She had recurring role across three seasons as Ro Laren on Star Trek: The Next Generation. That was long enough ago not to necessarily rule her out of a new role on a new series, but it may be more interesting to hold back until a later season and maybe explore what happened to Ro twenty-five years after we last saw her. Forbes herself was lukewarm about the idea of becoming a regular on The Next Generation, remaining only a recurring guest star, and later turned down a regular, starring role on Deep Space Nine, so might be reluctant to return to the franchise, even if it was just for a short-term gig.

Gina Torres

For: She's got SF form from Angel and Firefly, and she's a favourite of Fuller's from both Pushing Daisies and Hannibal. Her current gigs are mostly in animation and voiceover work, so she might be free for this.

Against: Not really seeing anything major against her, apart from her ongoing role in Suits.

Tony Todd

For: Well, he's the only actor we know who's auditioned for a role on the series, although not which role. He's an established Star Trek performer, having played both Worf's brother Kurn on The Next Generation and the older version of Jake Sisko in Deep Space Nine. He's a very accomplished actor with a much larger range than he may be known for from his signature horror character, Candyman.

Against: At 61 he may be considered a little too old for the role, but he's in great shape for his age. CBS may prefer to go for a bigger or at least more "current" name.

David Tennant

For: It's fricking David Tennant. Imagine the craziness of a former Doctor Who becoming Captain of the USS Whatever It's Called (NCC-TARDIS).

Against: The filming dates sound like they might clash with the filming of the third and final season of Broadchurch, but wouldn't rule him out for appearing in subsequent seasons.

George Takei

For: The crowd would go wild. Sulu is one of the more popular and under-explored Original Series characters. Depending on where in the timeline exactly the series is situation, Takei would be the right age to play a much older Sulu, possibly promoted to Admiral and after he's moved on from captaining the Excelsior.

Against: At 79, we'd assume that Sulu would have been promoted out of the captain's chair, so he probably wouldn't be the lead character. But having him, Walter Koenig or Nichelle Nichols show up in a role would be a very nice gesture in the show's 50th anniversary year.