To Boldly Go… A Look Back At Star Trek

When I was five years old, there were two shows that scared the hell out of me. And I would pitch a tantrum whenever my mom would change the channel. One was Dark Shadows. Years later, I would watch this campy, badly shot soap and wonder what the hell was so scary. The other was Star Trek. What scared me was the episode with the mugato, which was sort of a cross between a gorilla and a unicorn. Captain Kirk shot it. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone or something vaporized in a science fictiony sort of way. They followed this up with the “cheesebread” episode, with those flying things that stung people on the back and drove them insane. Both eps were pretty intense for a five-year-old to watch.

But I was hooked.

And I stayed hooked right up until season 2 of Enterprise. By that point, I was in my late thirties and burned out on the franchise. Hey, you watch about 700 episodes of anything and see if your interest still holds. I watched it all, at least until halfway through the final series. I’ve seen all 11 movies, 8 in theaters, the first two on cable since my parents didn’t take me to see them, and one on DVD because I was in the midst of Trek burnout.

And yet it’s had a profound impact on my life. It’s why I wanted to become a writer. I watched Captains Kirk and Picard and wanted to write my own adventures. By the time I took the plunge, I was writing crime fiction. But I also saw the good and the bad in storytelling. I even read some of the novels, many of which I’m embarrassed to say that I liked. (A few were fun, but there were quite a few that would probably have never been published as part of other series.) I even indulged in cosplay for a couple of years, though that hobby got expensive and time consuming. I found other attractions, like making steady income and not getting sick every time I put on the full Klingon gear. (If JJ Abrams said, “How’d you like to be an extra and play a Klingon in the next movie,” I’d say “No, thanks. How about I have a beer with Simon Pegg or be Zoe Saldana’s cabin boy for a day?”)

But I couldn’t stay away for long. Eventually, I relented and rented Nemesis on DVD. (Thankfully, I only rented it.) I took a day off to see Chris Pine’s debut as Captain Kirk in 2009. (No cosplay folk, but I really didn’t appreciate the idiot pseudo-film students yammering through the noon showing at the Newport AMC theater.) So how do the series rank?

I’ll skip the current movie series because, for starters, only one has been released at this point, and two, I’m looking at the TV shows.

5. VOYAGER

voyagerThis show had the most potential of all the Treks, even the original series, and yet it had the most miscues. So what did it have going for it? Kate Mulgrew portrayed Kathryn Janeway, Trek’s first regular female captain. It had a spectacular premise for any science fiction series, ship flung instantly across the galaxy or the universe and facing nearly a century-long trip home. The cast was interesting. Tim Russ, a fan of the series since the Shatner days, played a Vulcan who lacked Spock’s empathy. Robert Beltran as a former rebel forced to become first officer to weld together two crews originally in battle against each other. Best of all was Robert Picardo as a holographic doctor whose lack of personality evolved into sarcastic, lonely, and surprisingly thoughtful being. So why am I listing this last?

To begin with, Voyager should have been looking pretty decrepit midway through Season 1. Also, after one of the best Trek pilots ever filmed, I was left wondering which Kathryn Janeway would show up from week to week. And really, Voyager should have left the 2003 Battlestar Galactica looking like a sitcom. Instead, I got the impression I was watching a somewhat better written version of Buck Rogers. Mind you, I don’t think anyone, especially after the dark, heavy Deep Space Nine, would want to see week after week of the Starship Meridian (from an episode of where the crew meets a starship that met the same fate as Voyager two years earlier.) But think of your average HBO series, like Rome or Deadwood. You can do dark with healthy doses of humor and humanity woven in.

4. ENTERPRISE

enterpriseThis is the series I bailed on, and probably unfairly. As I said before, I stopped watching after seeing nearly 700 episodes and 9 movies of Star Trek. There was a lot to like about this show. Scott Bakula, like Kate Mulgrew before him, played a more down-to-Earth (no pun intended) starship captain than the swaggering James T. Kirk, the charismatic Jean-Luc Picard, and the intensely brooding Benjamin Sisko. The engineer was the sarcastic, almost McCoy-like Trip Tucker, who uttered one of the funniest lines in Trek history. “A poop question?” Then there was the alien and philosophical Dr. Phlox, usually unflappable and often the voice of reason.

This Enterprise wasn’t like Kirk’s ships or Picard’s. It was new, untested, bleeding edge technology. In what was the first use of the transporter in a combat situation, an officer was beamed aboard with debris embedded in his skin. So what put me off?

It was the bunny suit. T’Pol was an interesting Vulcan character, not as friendly or comforting as Spock, but not as aloof and cold as Tuvok. And they put this highly intelligent, extremely competent representative of the Vulcan Science Fleet in a bunny suit. I was in my early twenties when they did that to Counselor Troi and already put off by Voyager when it happened to Seven of Nine. By the time producer Brannon Braga decided that actress Joleen Blalock needed to demonstrate how she got on the cover of Maxim, I was already sick of Braga’s last minute resolutions and the annoyingly bland background music that had been with Trek since the Next Generation days. The bunny suit, while lovely to look at, really annoyed the hell out of me. And let’s be honest. Trek was ready to let it’s field lay fallow. By then, executive producer Rick Berman was wasting everyone’s time with, “OK, so we need to come up with a new premise. How about the crew of an interstellar ice cream truck cruising the Klingon Empire?” It’s seven people in a spaceship, stupid. Take two years off, change the cast, and find some fresh writing talent.

3. DEEP SPACE NINE

ds9castThe politics of the Federation suck. The farther you get from Earth, the more messy the universe gets. Not all the good guys wear Starfleet uniforms, and not all the bad guys are with the enemy. Deep Space Nine has more in common with the original Star Trek than the later Treks, yet it builds on The Next Generation, even reintroducing Worf in later seasons.

Benjamin Sisko is a survivor of the epic Wolf 359 battle from Next Generation and takes what he hopes is a quiet posting at a joint Federation-Bajoran station at the edge of Federation space. Right off the bat, he finds himself thrust into the role of The Emissary, the mortal contact for the godlike wormhole aliens that the Bajorans worship as “The Prophets.” His first officer is Major Kira Nerys of Bajor. At first, she resents the presence of Starfleet, then grows to respect Sisko as a colleague, trying to suppress her religious tendencies to see him as The Emissary.

Deep Space Nine amped up the political intrigue and took Star Trek in a darker direction, climaxing in a nearly apocalyptic war with the shape-shifting Dominion. But the show had a rocky start: murky plots in the first two seasons, undefined direction, and unflattering comparisons to the similarly premised Babylon 5. And then producer Ira Steven Behr decided to go the opposite direction. Technology is not necessarily mankind’s friends. Friends and enemies are not so clearly defined. Behr then plunged the Federation into World War II in space, which contrasted it nicely to B5‘s Lovecraftian civil war. Still, the dark vibe was not for everyone. A few people said, “I feel like opening a vein watching that show.” Perhaps they missed the more personal and optimistic…

2. THE NEXT GENERATION

nexgenGene Roddenberry had to be convinced to do this show. He wasn’t happy with the direction the movies were taking, but he was happy with the paychecks. Paramount smelled a cash cow and tried to get Roddenberry to sign off a cheesy series set at Starfleet Academy. Sensing his “child” was in trouble, he made a counter-proposal: A new Enterprise set a century later with a different crew and different set of values, a Trek for the 1980’s.

Instead of the horny, swaggering James T. Kirk, we got the staid, formal Jean-Luc Picard with first officer Will Riker filling the Kirk role. There was an android, Mr. Data, who mirrors Spock’s quest for self-identity, but in a more childlike manner. A blind navigator? A kid at the helm? What’s that Klingon doing on the bridge?

The Next Generation spent its first two seasons trying hard not to be the original series. The conflict between characters was taken down a few notches. And yet, through its long run, it had some of the most classic Trek moments. Who can forget the almost cinematic Best of Both Worlds, the two-part season cliffhanger/premier that is a science fiction classic in its own right. As time went by, TNGĀ began to embrace its predecessor with cameos by Leonard Nimoy as Spock and James Doohan as Scotty, revived and bewildered after suspended 80 years in a transporter beam to survive a ship crash. Some of the original series’ birds have come home to roost. The predicted alliance with the Klingons is now a fact when the show begins, and some episodes of the original series and its movies have ramifications throughout the show’s run.

1. STAR TREK

startrekOh, myyyyy. Shatner redefines a genre for television as the swaggering, cocky James T. Kirk, balanced by the logical, alien Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy. The two have become elder statesmen for science fiction and for television. The cantankerous McCoy serves as the conscience of the crew. Scotty is the voice of the audience. And wait. There’s a woman – a black woman – serving as senior officer? And she’s one of the ship’s resident techies? In 1966? And an Asian and a Russian driving the ship? What is this?

It’s Wagon Train to the stars. It’s everything hinted at in Forbidden Planet. It’s everything Lost in Space wanted to be and couldn’t. It’s one of those things George Lucas watched as a film student and poured into the witch’s brew that evenutally became Star Wars. And it was part action, part morality play, and part Saturday morning serial.

Like TNG, which followed it, Star Trek was a more personal show. For all their larger-than-life personalities, the crew of the original Starship Enterprise was very real. They were family, a line that has since been uttered by Chris Pine in the trailer for the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness. The cast has had its conflicts, like any good rock band or theater troupe, a vibe the TNG cast picked up on very well. Yet for all their sniping, witness how George Takei and William Shatner playfully dig at each other in social media. (Takei was the source for me of a hilarious photo of Shatner having a rematch with the Gorn commander, this time on Xbox.) Shatner and Nimoy are lifelong friends, predating the show, and while there has been tension between Shatner and the rest of the cast, that has resulted in a chemistry matched only by TNG‘s cast. It is why both these shows top this list. Each was creating something original and personal that has proven difficult to duplicate. Perhaps JJ Abrams found the best way to carry on the story: Don’t try to duplicate it. Do something different.

That’s when Star Trek works best.

All photos Paramount Pictures

The Compleat Kepler: What Next?

cover-smallerAnd so we have reached the end, 13 tales of crime from America’s North Coast. In them, Nick Kepler has taken down an unstable cop threatening two of his fellow officers, made a couple of domestic abusers disappear, solved a decade old murder, nabbed a sexual predator, watched the events of 9/11 while chasing a fugitive in an airport, and even disarmed a gun-wielding maniac in the nude. To say Nick Kepler leads an interesting life is an understatement.

The events in this collection start in 1999 and end a month after those in Northcoast Shakedown, set in the summer of 2002. So what’s next?

Well, Second Hand Goods, the follow-up to Northcoast, takes place about eleven months afterward. So you have that to read until the next Keplers appear. What are those?

For starters, there is a short story called “Gypsy’s Kiss,” a sort of sequel to “Roofies.” In it Gypsy informs Nick that she is finally getting out of the sex trade. And she wants Nick to be her final client.

Then there is Bad Religion. Nick is hired by a mega-church to find out where all the money’s going. One of the people getting ripped off is a known Russian mobster. And he’s not even one of the crooks involved.

Beyond that, I haven’t decided. I have a story outlined call Suicide Solution, wherein a friend of Nick’s commits suicide after betting his and his wife’s retirement money on a shady deal to redevelop an abandoned amusement park. But will it be a Kepler story? I originally started on this in 2005, when it looked like Second Hand Goods would hit bookstores the following spring. I had the entire Kepler series mapped out, and I figured Nick would be only a couple years behind the calendar when each book debuted. Oh, if I only knew!

One of the reasons I’m rethinking this is that Nick is fixed to the calendar. That might not be important to you, but the author needs to be able to undo something like that before he or she writes. So Suicide Solution would have to take place in May of 2005 if I kept up Nick’s established timeline. I really never liked the “ageless” character. I can’t see Nick being 35 in 2003 and 36 in 2013.

I can, however, see another character taking over. And the setting for this one offers new story ideas as well. We’ll see. For now, know that there are two Keplers in the pipeline. Coming soon.

The White Album

Beatles-White-AlbumWhen most people think of The Beatles’ most influential album, they usually think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If you listen to what came before, you can see why. It took The Beatles’ own Revolver and Rubber Soul, along with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and turned it up to 11.

But let’s be honest. Sgt. Pepper’s sounds dated. There are songs on Rubber Soul and Revolver that still sound fresh and modern 45 years later. Sgt. Pepper’s is more a snapshot of the era in which it was recorded. If you want to look at the most influential album The Beatles ever recorded, you have to take a serious listen to their self-titled follow-up, colloquially known as The White Album.

It, too, is clearly a product of the sixties, but as often as not, the songs defy definition. A few, such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” have achieved timelessness. Not bad considering that the guest guitarist, Eric Clapton, was pining for George Harrison’s wife as the song was recorded.

The White Album emerged during an era when The Beatles had abandoned live touring for the studio. So from 1966 until 1969, The Beatles would practically live at Abbey Road. By now, Apple Records was a going concern and Brian Epstein had already passed away. The Beatles were the biggest band in the world and could literally do no wrong. (Almost. The Magical Mystery Tour proved they could make a bad movie.)

So what do you do when you’ve created the album against which all future rock albums will be compared? (The Stones’ Their Satanic Majesty’s Request was an admitted dig while Dark Side of the Moon is constantly referred to as Pink Floyd’s Sgt. Pepper’s.) The smart answer is “Anything we want.” But with the exception of “Revolution 9,” the band is surprisingly less self-indulgent than many bands at their peak. (Taking notes, Coldplay? Go ask U2 how they recovered for that faux pas.) They kick it off with a Beach Boys parody (“Back in the USSR”) and end it with a show tune (“Good Night”). In between, they hit blues, ragtime, psychedelia, and even heavy metal. To this day, “Helter Skelter,” even without help from Charles Manson, remains one of the most menacing songs ever recorded, giving even Black Sabbath a run for its money. Without it, there would have been no Who’s “Miles and Miles” and likely no “Smoke on the Water.”

Most of the songs, “Cry, Baby, Cry,” “Blackbird,” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” (which you can hear the vibe from in “Cut Me Some Slack” by Paul jamming with Nirvana) don’t sound fixed to any point in time. A few (“Birthday,” “Wild Honey Pie,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) are definitely relics of the later sixties. But the album as a whole, which defies categorization, is a work of art, one that endures nearly fifty years later. Not bad when you consider that Ringo quit in the middle of it and demonstrated that The Beatles were four musicians, not three musicians and a drummer. Paul drums on a couple of songs, but thankfully, they lured Ringo back into the studio before they finished.

Let It Be is overproduced. Abbey Road might be a better album artistically. But The White Album, more than Sgt. Pepper’s, continues to redefine rock 45 years after it was released.

Thursday Reviews: Charlie Opera by Charlie Stella

CHARLIE OPERA

Charlie Stella

Charlie Pellechia takes his wife to Vegas in a last ditch effort to save his marriage. Unfortunately, she’s had enough of him and his love of opera. So what was supposed to be a second honeymoon is the end of their marriage.

Only Nicky Cuccia has other ideas. Nicky is a wise guy and thinks there should have been no consequences to grabbing Charlie’s wife’s ass. There were, however, as Charlie broke his jaw defending his wife’s honor. Cuccia follows Charlie to Vegas and proceeds to beat both of them up separately, through hired muscle, then tries to kill Charlie. But he can’t get that right. An aging mobster, dying of cancer, decides to turn before the job is done. Cuccia’s other hired hands are a vapid body builder and a would-be wise guy who loses his nerve easily. There very presence brings them into the sites of a nervous organized crime cop, a DEA agent out to save his own hide, and the psycho ex of a waitress whose roommate Charlie ends up with.

This is a little bit of a departure for Stella. The cops play a bigger role in this, and the main protag, the titular Charlie, is not a mobster. He’s a civilian caught up in Cuccia’s macho vendetta. Plus the story takes place almost entirely in Las Vegas, new territory for Stella, who usually sets his stories in New York. Stella is juggling a lot of balls here, including a subplot about a Vegas cop whose wife is cheating on him. It’s more complex than Jimmy Bench Press and Eddie’s World, and unlike the follow-up, Cheapskates, is only very loosely tied to the world of those books.

Remission: Setbacks

The last three weeks or so have seen my weight roll back to about 260 pounds after bottoming out at 252. This is where most plans to lose weight go off the rails.

But I’m supposed to keep losing weight!” people will cry.

I’m happy. I can run a couple of miles with no problem, unless my hamstrings get a little tight. I’m coming up on my birthday, which means lots of food, lots of booze, and damned little exercise. I’ve even stopped calorie counting because I go over every other day. I do try to keep my intake down. Protein bars and bananas are a big part of my diet.

I had a plan coming in, though. Originally, when I thought I would be taking off from school this summer, I intended to dust off the P90X kit downstairs. Then I discovered that a couple of the workouts take 90 minutes. 90-minute workout + school = not happening. But P90X is put out by Beach Body, the fitness juggernaut burning up the informercial time slots in recent years. They have other workouts, the Beach Body workout (hence the name) and one that does not require equipment, Insanity. It just so happens a friend of mine, Mindy Chislow, resells Beach Body and is a fitness fanatic. In fact, it’s her career. So I asked her if Insanity was a good substitute for P90X.

It is. An hour, and without equipment, is easier to work in than 90 minutes. So I’ll be doing the Insanity 30-day workout. It’s different from the slow buildup to running 2-3 miles a night.

It also helps that Nita is working out how she wants to attack her health problems. She wants to look how she did when we dated. (Never mind that she’s still beautiful.) I would prefer not to as she married me when I was at 275 pounds. And that was down from a peak of 305. But having someone in the house who needs to revamp her eating and exercise habits makes things easier. We can parallel our diets. It also means we aren’t buying a lot of food that only one of us is going to eat.

Right now, running and biking the Little Miami Trail are keeping me from becoming the Expanding Man once again.

The Compleat Kepler: Lady Luck

cover-smallerLady Luck

The last completed story from the Deep Purple Project takes its inspiration from the last album of Deep Purple’s original run, Come Taste the Band. One of that album’s signature songs was “Lady Luck.” All I needed was the title. It would involve casinos.

But casinos did not exist in Ohio at the time. Here in Cincinnati, that was irrelevant. Drive west out US 50 or I-275, and you arrive in Indiana. There are three riverboat casinos within fifty miles of downtown Cincinnati. Not good for Cleveland. My septuagenarian aunt informed me that she had to go to West Virginia, Michigan, or even Canada to play her slots when this was written. (Ohio now has four casinos.)

So Nick was going to have to hit the road. He would have to go look for a husband who absconded with the kids’ college fund to count cards. At the time, I had just read books by Steve Hamilton and Laura Lippman that inspired a couple of story elements. Steve writes about the area around Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, which has several Indian casinos. That made the perfect place for Kepler to go on a wild goose chase. Frustrated, Nick consults the element I got from Laura’s By a Spider’s Thread. In that novel, Tess is part of an Internet group where female private investigators share information. It wasn’t much of a stretch to think there were other such groups for PI’s or that Nick would use it. So on the group Nick consults, a colleague from Cincinnati complains about a guy at Louisville’s casino (really in Indiana as Kentucky has yet to legalize non-track gambling) It sounds like his errant husband, and we pick up the story at Lawrenceburg, Indiana’s Argosy Casino (now Hollywood Casino).

I’d actually never been in the old Argosy, but I knew the area well enough, including the extended parking. I actually used Belterra Casino (about forty miles west of Lawrenceburg) as a model. I also decided to make this more interesting than just a missing husband story. I had just seen the movie Rounders, where Ed Norton and Matt Damon play two hustling poker players who get into hock with a Russian nicknamed KGB. A lot of illegal poker games are played in every city, including Cleveland. If our missing husband upset the apple cart by not being the mark some seedy thug wanted him to be, he would likely also have someone looking for him.

The story starts out in the Cincinnati area, where I’ve lived since 1991, and follows the normal route to Cleveland. Even the truckstop where Nick finally phones his client after dealing with the muscle and the husband once and for all, is a standard pit stop for anyone heading north.

It’s also the only story in this collection that takes place after Northcoast Shakedown. I tried to work in Elaine, but the story required some judicious trimming. Still, it brings Nick into the period between Northcoast and Second Hand Goods.

Live From Daryl’s House

Live From Daryl's House logo

Good Cop Bad Cop Productions

Some time in 2007, Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates fame decided that, instead of the endless touring longtime rock and country musicians seem to do late in their careers, why not bring the music home and put it up on the web or, better, television where more people can see it with only the guests having to travel? Hall has a reconstructed 18-century colonial house in Upstate New York, near where he, partner John Oates, and most of their supporting musicians are based. The only travel would be done by the guests, who would show up, jam, and “have some food, drink some wine.” The result was an hour-long webcast-turned-TV-show Live from Daryl’s House.

Once upon a time, I knew everything there was to know about music and was constantly up on the latest bands. If I didn’t know them, so much the better. I’d get to know them soon enough. That lasted through the nineties, which, to me, was the last great decade for original music with grunge, post-grunge, Brit pop, post-punk, matured heavy metal, and Lillith Fair. It was like the early 1970’s all over again.

Then came American Idol. That pretty much shut down music for me. Is Marillion doing another album? Is there a Rolling Stones album I don’t have yet? Why hasn’t Kurt Cobain’s corpse been reanimated? Chop chop. I want more Nirvana! The Foos aren’t making albums fast enough!

This just all served to make the 2000’s a bigger suckfest than I already thought they were. And then my friend Brian Thornton turned me onto Live From Daryl’s House. Even some of those singers and bands I didn’t like for being too poppy sounded great just jamming in the great room of Daryl’s restored colonial home. The show is Hall with various session musicians from his solo work and Hall & Oates. John Oates does not appear, but he is frequently mentioned. Anyone can show up, from obscure prog rockers Minus the Bear to sexy alternative rocker Grace Potter to seasoned veterans like Joe Walsh and Todd Rundgren (who brought the show to his home in Hawaii. You haven’t lived until you watch a bunch of guys on acoustic guitars play “Bang the Drum” while a hula dancer struts her stuff.) Hall even had his idol, Smokey Robinson, appear. By the way, an elderly Smokey still sounds better without autotune and no studio trickery than the Black Eyed Peas on a good day.

There is a cooking segment as Hall will have a local chef come in to demonstrate what’s for dinner that day. Sometimes, as in the case of the Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzeznik, the guest musician(s) will do the cooking. Late in the show, the musicians all sit around a big table with that day’s dish to swap war stories from the studio and the road.

Usually, the show has about four to six songs, split between Hall’s backlist and the guest’s. Often younger musicians will want to sing some of Hall’s classic hits. For instance, the female lead singer for Fitz and the Tantrums would not be denied her chance to sing “Sara Smile,” while Minus the Bear picked an obscure song from Hall’s Sacred Songs that originally featured King Crimson’s Robert Fripp at his most bizarre. But it’s also a chance for Hall to sing on new material. Grace Potter, for instance, was excited to hear Hall’s harmonies on her hit “Paris (Ooh La La).”

One thing that comes up time and time again during the dinner discussion near the end of the show is the way the music sounds when they play. Many of the musicians note that they love the sound of the room at Hall’s home and marvel at how, aside from wiring it up for electricity, it is closer to the original house than many restored homes. The other noteworthy subject is how imperfect the music sounds. A note goes somewhere unplanned. The rhythms are frequently improvised. There’s just enough rehearsal to learn the songs they play. This is a philosophy that made Keith Richards a personal hero to me, and it’s one Hall is very big on: Play the room, and don’t over-polish the music.

As such, I’ve discovered a lot of new musicians and developed respect for some I didn’t care for previously. I became a fan of Grace Potter and of Nick Waterhouse (“Say I Wanna Know”) as a result. And I fell in love with Philadelphia singer Nikki Jean after hearing her singing Hall & Oates “One on One.”

This is how music is supposed to be written, played, and recorded: On real instruments, with the room as much a part of the sound as the players, and with all its imperfections and unexpected turns left intact.