Winter’s Quarterly: Overpass

jan2015small“Overpass” begins in what the narrator Alex thinks is the final moments of his life. He is staring over the edge of a bridge with a busy freeway below it. He also realizes it’s cold out, and no one should have to die freezing. He spots his regular hangout, the Funky Perk, and decides he has time for one last cup of coffee.

There, he has a seemingly casual chat with Emily, the owner. She notices he’s depressed and tells him about the worst time in her life, which was the end of her marriage.

This story started out as an academic assignment, much like “We Be Cool” and “The Confessor” began life. Those stories, however, were much easier to conceive of than “Overpass.” For “The Confessor,” I had the option to rewrite a short story we studied from a different character’s point of view. Well, who the hell was Montressor talking to in Poe’s “A Cask of Amantillado”? That spun an entirely different character and a twist of irony. Plus I had a month to pull it off. From the same class, I had the option to write a story about a poem we read. “We Be Cool” gets its title from “We Real Cool” and was one of several stories I’d written about Rufus and Ralph, two characters from Holland Bay. “Overpass”?

I had taken a class in Modern Short Story to polish off my English requirements. Our teacher did not know until the morning she announced it that we had to write a short story for our final. I had a week to come up with something. And then I heard the line every writer who goes to college later in life hates hearing: “Oh, well, you write. This should be easy for you.”

Yeah… See, I generally sketch out shorts ahead of time, maybe outline the longer ones. A story may sit on my hard drive for months before a draft is written. This story needed to be mainstream and apply to our class.

OK, at least it was under 2000 words. I can do that. Right?

Confession time here. Once, when I was 19 and my life had hit rock bottom – no job, no car, no girlfriend – I had contemplated jumping off an overpass near my house. It was about a mile away, and I often took a walk out there to clear my head. By the time I walked back home, I’d realized that, if I was having thoughts like that, I had no place to go but up. Not everyone pulls back from it like that, so let’s agree that I got lucky with beating back depression.

For some reason, that incident returned to mind, so I pictured an overpass closer to where I now live and thought about it. I also thought about a coffee shop I used to go to called the Pleasant Perk (now Coffee Exchange.) I’d gone to that shop through three owners since about 2009, and it was a happy way to start my morning before heading to work downtown or on the westside. So the Perk/Exchange became the model for the Funky Perk. Emily bears a striking resemblance physically to one of the previous owners, but she is based on several women I’ve met who owned places like that. They always seem to be rebellious free spirits, which probably infuses such places with their atmosphere. (The Exchange is now run by a suburban mom and her family, but it’s still a nice place to stop first thing in the morning.)

Alex is at a point lower than I’d ever gotten, and it was fifty-fifty when I started the story as to whether he’d jump or not. In fact, when I read it to the class, one lady interrupted me and told me I was a sick bastard for writing something like that. By the time I finished, everyone had warm fuzzies after Emily reset Alex’s mental state just by sharing her own problems with him.

You Are Not Victims. Get Over It.

There’s a growing debate in social media these days about geek culture and whether or not it is under siege. It’s risen to new heights of hysteria as one gaming critic received death threats and had to leave her home temporarily for the safety of her family. What’s going on?

Well, for a certain subset of geek culture, the move to the mainstream threatens their very identity. And therein lies the flaw. The culture itself is not under threat. If anything, it’s growing, changing, becoming more interesting and more relevant. ComicCon is covered the way rock concerts and fashion shows were once on MTV. It’s hip to be seen with Chris Pine or Peter Dinklage or Hugh Jackman. It’s cool to dress up as your favorite Game of Thrones character or Batman at a large gathering. Suddenly, the public gets the whole Halloween all year vibe of geek culture. Cosplay is in. Video games are in. Scifi/fantasy/horror are in. Wil Wheaton, who spent years taking flack for playing one of the least liked characters on a Star Trek series is rapidly becoming the next Jon Stewart. Welcome to the new age, my friends.

So why the hate?

When I first got into IT back in the nineties, computers were becoming mainstream, and there was a certain degree of this sort of angst around it by people who hunkered down and did arcane things with the pre-Netscape Internet, with distant Unix boxes, and with cryptic command-line operating systems. Now PC’s and even Linux boxes started to look like Macs. “Oh, noze,” they cried. “Everyone can do this now. We’re not special anymore!”

Since I got into the technology realm in the mid-1990’s, I had no stake in the “old ways.” If someone told me to quit using a mouse and use the DOS prompt on a PC, I looked at them like they were stupid. They certainly were telling me stupid things. But the mouse represented change, and not the cool kind of change like big hard drives and high-speed Internet brought. Those icky muggles now knew how to do magic. Ew!

Eventually, that went away, and to some degree, the novelty for the non-technically inclined went away as well. I used to have a rule that, if you graduated high school after me, you had damn well better know where the Start button was, what it could do, and, oh, you also forfeited the right to complain when I said “Reboot” sometime around the Y2K changeover. The old guard looked at these things as secrets of a mystic art. I looked at it (admittedly being an arrogant ass in the process) as a benchmark one needs to function in the modern era. We got more than three channels on the TV, Corky. Better master that remote or no HBO for you.

So it is with geekdom. One columnist complained that too many hot chicks were wearing costumes at conventions without earning their geek cred. Said columnist got his ass handed to him by John Scalzi, whose initiation into geekery happened roughly at the same time as mine did (even though John is younger.) As creator of the Old Man’s War series, a noted expert on all things scifi, a Heinlein scholar, creative consultant for one of the Stargate series, and probably the most popular SF author today, Scalzi made two declarations that, I’m sorry, but are not open for debate: 1.) Anyone who wants to be a geek is a geek. No exceptions; 2.) there is no king of the geeks (though Wil Wheaton could make a case) nor any rules for initiation. It is not a closed society. It is not a mystic cult.

And therein is the parallel to the technology sector in the 1990’s. Long time geeks don’t like all this change!

Man up, buttercup. When you go mainstream, you have to open the gates. Otherwise, you’re no better than those idiots in pretentious literary circles sniffing their own farts and sneering at anything that doesn’t sound like Hemingway or Faulkner and whining if their work does something horrifying like sell over 10,000 copies. (I’m looking at YOU, Franzen, you self-absorbed pretentious hack!) You are no longer the outsiders. Isn’t that what you’ve been pining for? Acceptance? Respect? A little bon ami for whatever franchise it is that you love?

Well, here’s the second part I alluded to earlier. There’s a culture of victimhood in geekery. Not every geek has thought this way. I did cosplay back in the 1990’s when it was “grownups in silly costumes.” And it was fun. It let me blow off steam. It gave me (Surprise!) social skills. But there were plenty of folks in that then-smaller community that felt slighted by the mainstream. They felt hurt to be ridiculed, and much of it was carry-over from adolescence and childhood, when a love of Star Trek or Star Wars replaced the mandatory love of the NFL. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were supposed to be your gods, not Captain Kirk and Han Solo.

And I get that. I was not the most athletic child. I sucked at baseball. (A few dozen men who played Little League with me are reading this and going, “No! Really?” One star pitcher reminds me of it on my birthday every year as a joke.) I found solace in Star Trek, in the monster movies on Saturday afternoons, in repeated viewings of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back on HBO when we first had it. I loved this stuff. I wanted to make up my own.

And then, as a young adult, I fell in with the Trekkies. Often ridiculed, most of them didn’t care. We had a blast together, and it was about more than the television show. I drifted into the Klingon fan groups because, frankly, they threw better parties and were better draws for charity events. Plus, you haven’t lived until you and several of your friends barge into a Denny’s dressed as alien berserkers and growl at the manager, “We demand finger food! Bring us pudding!”

But there’s that obsessive component of which the victim mentality plays into. Fandom began to suck up all my time. The politics of the clubs started intruding on other aspects of my life. I was going broke trying to pay for all the gear it took to be a Klingon, and, alarmingly, I had little time to actually watch the show we all claimed to love. One day, I posted my farewell on a local Fidonet bulletin board, took my costume (which a few fanatics insisted I call a “uniform”), and dumped it in the Salvation Army clothing bin, latex forehead and all.

I have never taken so much flack for a decision in my life. When someone called or emailed me, hurt that I’d turned my back on the group, I said, “I’m in debt. I need to go to school and learn some skills. And I need to have time to myself that’s not devoted to a television show you guys won’t give me time to watch.”

“But that’s not fair!”

No, working sixty hours a week at three jobs for two years so I could catch up on my debts was not fair. Driving cars that were expensive rolling death traps bought for less than I now pay on my mortgage each month wasn’t fair. Having no social life beyond the group wasn’t fair. Even the most fanatical churches acknowledge you have a life beyond the sanctuary (unless it’s a cult.) All this did was bolster my decision to leave. Too many people made it central to their lives, and I, having been vetted and approved to join the sacred congregation, was a traitor.

Some of those people I still called friend afterward. One of them is an online member of my current writer’s group. But the mentality is still there across all franchises and formats, from gaming to movies to comic books and beyond. A small group of hardcore fans feels threatened that they’re suddenly not special anymore. And that victimhood of being outsiders is a huge component of that core belief.

All I have to say, having been in that world and having fond memories of most of it is…

The only threat to geek culture are the hardcore fanatics who can’t stand change. If you want to know what’s threatening your culture?

Go look in the mirror.

 

A Modest Proposal: Star Trek: The HBO Series

2009 Star Trek cast

Source: Paramount Pictures

As JJ Abrams takes on Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars, it’s clear there’s only one Abrams-driven Star Trek left. Paramount has decided it wants a movie for the fiftieth anniversary of Trek‘s debut. But after that…?

Let’s be honest. As good as JJ Abrams is, he didn’t think of the future of Trek, just how to get fannies into theater seats. But the technology is too omnipotent. A couple of devices used to drive both movies’ plots – transwarp beaming and Khan’s blood – don’t bode well for long-term story-telling.

So let me suggest that, once Pine, Pegg, Quinto, et. al. take their last bow in 2016, that Paramount reboot the series once again, this time for HBO.

HBO Original Series logo

Source: HBO

Or SyFy or Showtime or FX or… You know. Star Trek is ripe for the kind of storytelling that made Breaking Bad, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and even Deadwood hits. It’s time to start over, give the thing an arc based on its original run, and take it places. While completely revamping it like BG is a horrible idea (Galactica was always kind of an unfinished idea in its original incarnation anyway), it would be an opportune time to toss out some of the cliches that have grown up around it. A cable series would also allow writers to explore aspects of the crew’s story that are only hinted at or played around with in novels and fanfic. Is there really a sexual undertone to Kirk and Spock’s relationship? Why is McCoy so neurotic? What’s the real story behind Khan? Klingons: Ridges or no ridges? (I know Enterprise answered that, but this would be a reboot.) I’d also love to see an end to all the time travel nonsense.

Fans, of course, would have to come along for the ride. It’s been fifty years. Time to give up pelting the writers over trivial inconsistencies that would simply be ignored in real life. It’s not Doctor Who, where the very nature of The Doctor demands inconsistency. Besides, back when I indulged in cosplay, this sort of nitpicking sucked all the joy out being a fan. One idiot told me I could never write fanfic involving Harry Mudd, the lovable rogue who gave Kirk and company migraines in the original series. When I asked why, he said that Roger Carmel, the actor who played Mudd, was dead. Yeah, I’m pretty sure Ron Moore and Brannon Braga were going to show up on my doorstep with a bunch of red ink. Rick Berman would shake his fist thusly at a pizza delivery driver from Cincinnati no one had ever heard of. That kind of lunacy.

But it’s also time to bring Trek back to its original story. The altered timeline with a Kirk who is something of a cross between Han Solo and Stifler from American Pie works for the Abrams movies. Now, let’s get back to why people even care about him in the first place. You can’t duplicate Shatner (which is why Kirk’s character was selected to be the epicenter of the altered timeline), but you can build on what he did previously. And it’s not that you need to ignore the latest movies. Why should you? They’re fun. (OK, I do still cringe whenever I see Spock bellow “Khaaaaaaaannnnnn!!!!“)

It’s something to think about. Besides, Trek is a story about explorers. Exploration is better suited for TV. Movies are for high action and epic battles.

Which is why Abrams needs to do Star Wars.

 

 

Keep Calm And Call The Doctor

tardis_xmas

Source: BBC

As the world prepares for the debut of the Twelfth Doctor (actually, Thirteenth. John Hurt sort of snuck in there and fought in the Time War), I’ve been getting into Dr. Who, going all the way back to the beginning. This past weekend, I watched a chopped up copy of the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child.” (I could have watched it all, but YouTube keeps yanking the middle part. Damn you, BBC. Damn you for enforcing your copyright!) I also watched the first part of “Tomb of the Cybermen” on BBC America. So I got to see the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. I also watched part of the Dr. Who television movie last week, the webisode “Night of the Doctor,” and the absolutely brilliant “Day of the Doctor,” which manages to feature all thirteen incarnations of The Doctor (and never mind that the first three actors and one’s replacement are all dead.)

I’m hooked. For a kid who was suckled, weened, and stoned on Star Trek, Dr. Who is the perfect nerdgasm for middle age. Here’s a character who is the same person across fifty years. If the actor leaves, as William Hartnell did in 1966, The Doctor just regenerates into a new incarnation. Change the actor and the personality and carry on. Plus, The Doctor is a time traveler. So you can have the old actors come back to let different incarnations of The Doctor meet each other. “Day of the Doctor” did this and introduced not just one (John Hurt’s tragic War Doctor), but two new incarnations (Peter Capaldi’s fleeting appearance as The Doctor’s future self.)

I did watch Dr. Who as a kid, only seeing a few episodes. So naturally, I thought that Tom Baker was the original Doctor. I also remember seeing a couple of movies on Superhost featuring Peter Cushing as a human scientist named “Dr. Who.” Those are discounted by Whovians, since it essentially is a reworking of the original concept. I remember seeing a later episode with (I think) Peter Davidson as The Doctor and wondering what happened to Tom Baker. Then I learned about regeneration and how The Doctor (who is never really named) changes looks and personality every time he regenerates.

But my real discovery of The Doctor came in 2005, when SyFy started running the revived series featuring Christopher Eccleston. He was a bit of culture shock. Most of The Doctors I’d seen had taken their cues from Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor (and a favorite of most of the currently living actors, particularly the outgoing Matt Smith.) This Doctor wore a leather jacket, had a short haircut, and a Scottish accent. He wasn’t as whimsical as Troughton or Baker or even McGann. He had the mischief the character had developed over the decades, but there was something dark about him. I also witnessed his regeneration into the Tenth (and my favorite) Doctor, played by David Tennant. His first words (later echoed by Matt Smith in his first moments as The Eleventh Doctor) was “I wanted to be ginger!” (Smith, after a brief moment of terror when he thinks he’s changed genders, says, “Damn. Still not ginger!”)

franzliszt

Maybe he was Franz Liszt. Ever see the two of them together?

So my image of The Doctor is Baker, McGann, Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith. So how was it watching that first episode? William Hartnell was an elderly man with the hair of Franz Liszt. He was mysterious, gruff, and, let’s be honest, a bit of an asshole. Mind you, that’s my only experience with The First Doctor. And he is so unlike the later incarnations, more like Hurt’s War Doctor or Jon Pertwee’s angry, exiled Third Doctor than the whimsically dressed Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor or any of the newer Doctors. Mind you, the writers and producers had no clue their creation would last fifty years and be played by fourteen actors. They barely knew what “TARDIS” meant. But it was fun, and a bit creepy, watching the beginning of this journey. By the end of episode 1, you still have no idea who this Doctor person is, what his nature is, or what it is he does.

But Patrick Troughton, more than any other actor, is responsible for the Doctor’s look and feel across all the remaining incarnations. If he has an equivalent in American television, it’s Detective Columbo, a sharp mind disguised in the persona of a bumbling idiot. Later actors would use the distracted mannerisms in varying degrees, the dry egotistical humor, and the “Gotcha!” when it becomes clear that The Doctor has outsmarted his enemies.

We have yet to see much more than a glimpse of the Twelfth Doctor, but already many are speculating on the Thirteenth (now that the twelve regeneration limit has been quietly “debunked” (ie – The producers realized this is probably going to go beyond sixty years and thirteen incarnations). My picks? Eddie Izzard would make an excellent older Doctor, with his own personality, sense of humor, and long association with the Monty Python troupe. Harry Potter star Rupert Grint would give the Doctor his fondest wish: to be a ginger. Grint’s Ron Weasly coupled with the dark genius that is The Doctor would create a Doctor in the best tradition of Troughton. With the call for a Doctor who is black or female, producers would do well to look at Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) when Capaldi decides to call it a Doctor. Elba is English and would bring an intensity to the character that’s been somewhat missing (John Hurt an exception) since Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. A female Doctor? I honestly don’t know enough about British television or film to make an educated guess. I’ve suggested (in jest) that Emma Watson might be good as it would be a huge shift in the character (and hilarious if you have Eccleston, Tennant, or Smith’s Doctor run into her), changing not only the gender, but making him (her?) incredibly young. Plus I can see Watson having fun with her Doctor. However, a better choice might be (and was considered) Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley. Lumley, back when the thirteen-Doctor limit was still in place, starred in a parody of the show The Curse of the Fatal Death, in which Rowan “Blackadder” Atkinson (another one considered for the role) appeared as the Ninth Doctor, but kept meeting with repeated mishaps. Lumley, in the end, appeared as the Thirteenth Doctor, whom his (her?) nemesis, The Master, found rather attractive and rode with her in the TARDIS off into the sunset.

But we still have a few years of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor to see. Capaldi is older and looks somewhat like Tom Baker in his Doctor days. Should be fun.

Sound City

sound-city-amp-desktop

Source: Roswell Films

Back in 1991, three guys from Seattle piled into a rickety van and headed down the coast to Van Nuys, California, to record an album. When they arrived, they found a converted factory that looked ready to fall in on itself at any moment. The owner’s office was under the ramp to the rooftop parking lot. Inside, the walls had shag carpet. The place reeked of spilled whiskey and years of cigarette smoke (tobacco and otherwise). The three guys and their producer, a guy from Wisconsin named Butch Vig, took one look at the place and went, “WTF?”

This, my friends, was Sound City Studios, where Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and a slew of Tom Petty albums and Johnny Cash’s last recordings and…

Yeah. This dump was an epic dump. This was where rock history was made. The band was Nirvana. The album became Nevermind. Once again, rock history was made.

Dave Grohl, now the leader of The Foo Fighters, made a documentary about the place. It’s special to so many musicians because music is hardly ever made this way now. If you recorded at Sound City, you’d better bring your A game. Because Sound City was a tape-based studio, well into the digital era. What comes out of the amps and the drums is what comes off the CD, MP3, and vinyl. No bending the note on the computer because your bass player is tone deaf or turning the snare drum into a artillery shell. Nope. Do it right, or go home.

Many of the musicians interviewed from Mick Fleetwood to Rick Springfield to producer Rick Rubin to Tom Petty lament that these days, younger musicians don’t believe that they have to practice. “Oh, they just fix it in the computer.” Yeah. That’s why a geriatric Who sounds a damn sight better at the Super Bowl than a supposedly in-their-prime Black Eyed Peas.

Sound City is mostly a music nerd’s movie, and a technology buff’s movie, but it’s a fantastic look at how real music is made. Keith Olsen, the legendary producer who worked for twenty years at Sound City, took that mentality with him when he started his digital studio nearby. Pro Tools is nice, but, as Keith Richards says in his autobiography, Life, “play the fucking room.”

Grohl (and pretty much everyone else in the movie) credits a customized Neve recording console with how all those great (and not-so-great. Telly Savalas and Vincent Price, anyone?) albums sound. Listen to Damn the Torpedoes, Rumours, Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion, and Nevermind. Listen to the drums. You can hear that it’s Studio B at Sound City. It’s that distinctive. Phil Collins, who popularized noise-gating (chopping the reverb on snare and bass to get a really rough sound, like on “In the Air Tonight”) could have gone to town in that room.

sound city

Source: Roswell Films

Sound City closed in 2011, prompting Grohl to shoot this film. He also bought the console when it became clear it would not go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It now lives in Grohl’s Studio 606. What’s that?

Well, the last third of the film is Grohl in Studio 606, his own private studio, making an album with everyone from Stevie Nicks to Springfield to Paul McCartney (the famous Nirvana reunion song, “Cut Me Some Slack”) with Butch Vig manning the boards.

Yeah. Sounds pretty sweet. Try getting that on a laptop in your living room. Oh, wait. You’re not Jeff Lynne or Daryl Hall, who have houses built for that specific purpose.  In other words, they don’t just live in the rooms; they play them.  Taking notes, will.i.am?

Nevermind.

Star Trek Into Darkness

enterprise-down

Paramount Pictures

So JJ Abrams returns with a second installment of his vision of Star Trek. Last time, we were treated to faithful reboots of the original cast with the exception of James T. Kirk. No, Kirk sat at the epicenter of the changes from the original timeline, so instead of disciplined risk-taker William Shatner played, we got…

Well, Chris Pine’s Kirk was kind of an asshole who had to figure what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wants to be captain of the Enterprise, but is he ready?

We are treated for the first nine minutes to what could be the tail-end of a rebooted series on television. The Enterprise is surveying a distant planet inhabited by a species that is still trying to figure those new-fangled wheel thingies someone just invented. In order to preserve the budding civilization, which lives around a very active volcano, Kirk and Spock hit upon the idea of a stopping a cork in said volcano, only Spock is trapped when Sulu and Uhura have to leave him behind. The only way to save Spock is to fly the Enterprise, which has been sitting under water for two days over Scotty’s protests, over the volcano and beam him out. It’s classic Star Trek, and you can see Shatner and Nimoy pulling this kind of stunt if Gene Roddenberry had the technology and the budget to do it. But it also has two very bad consequences. First, the natives think the Enterprise is their god now. Second, Jim Kirk gets demoted to Christopher Pike’s first officer for falsifying reports and violating the prime directive.

That sets up the spoilery goodness after the jump.

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Star Trek: Oh, Captain, My Captain

With the new Star Trek set to debut in North America this weekend, I decided to take a look at all the Trek captains… Well, the main ones, not the one-offs we’ve seen over the years. I’m not going to rank them. If you thought ranking the shows or the movies would get me a lot of static (It did), ranking the captains would likely have a horde of angry cosplay Trekkies on my front lawn with torches and pitchforks. I can’t have that. We just redid the landscaping.

In addition to the captains for each series, I’m including a couple that deserve mention, one of whom is… Well, he deserves to be on the list since his was an honorary Trek movie.

pike primeChristopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter/Bruce Greenwood)

Even though I’m counting William Shatner’s and Chris Pine’s Kirks separately, I’m combining the pilot Captain Pike with the one from the current movie series because we really did not get to see enough of him to form an opinion.

Hunter and Greenwood’s Pikes do mesh rather nicely. Both are rather no-nonsense captains impatient with fumbling subordinates, but at the same time, admiring to ability to “look before you leap.” It’s likely Greenwood watched the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage” (later subsumed into a two-part episode, “The Menagerie”) for queues. So what makes them so seamless?

pike tooBoth Captains Pike are the prototype for the later Captains Kirk. In “The Cage,” Pike leaves his first officer, whom we only know as Number One, on the bridge while he goes down to the surface of Talos IV to check out the wrecked SS Columbia. And of course, like Kirk after him, he bags the blonde babe as he gets into trouble. In 2009’s Star Trek, while not the lothario Kirk is, Pike goes to face down an angry Nero while leaving an insubordinate Kirk to second a bewildered Spock in command of the Enterprise.

But in both Pikes, we see the beginnings of another captain, Jean-Luc Picard. Hunter’s Pike is quick to turn off the rage once he understands his captors predicament and offer a helping hand. This is not an option for the doomed aliens, but they reward Pike after he is rendered invalid by offering him an illusory life with Vina to make his final days more comfortable. In the two new Treks, Pike is the father Jim Kirk was deprived of when the Kelvin was destroyed. It’s Pike who recognizes what Kirk is capable of, and probably no surprise that he and “Spock Prime” unwittingly conspire to put the alternate Kirk and Spock together in a way that will bend the new timeline back toward the original.

It’s too bad we never got to see what the original cast could have done with a series. I especially would have liked to see how Majel Barrett’s “Number One” dealt with serving under a captain she had feelings for. But had Jeffrey Hunter said yes to returning for the second pilot and the series, we never would have had…

kirkJames T. Kirk – Original timeline (William Shatner)

Christopher Pike might have been the template for every captain that followed him. (I see a lot of Pike in Kathryn Janeway, actually. Maybe Kate Mulgrew should have played “Christina Pike.”) Kirk, however, set the standard by how every succeeding captain would be created – both in similarities and differences.

Kirk is what every man wants to be: decisive, strong, smooth with the ladies, charismatic. But he’s also headstrong, rash, and a bit arrogant. What makes Shatner’s Kirk so compelling is that he knows this and occasionally (especially in the movies) beats himself up over it. What makes Kirk a great leader is that he relies on his inner circle to open up his blind spots. He leans heavily on the logical Spock and his grouchy moral compass, McCoy, with Scotty sometimes cutting through the bullshit to zero in on a problem and to bear the brunt of his demands. But even Sulu and Uhura, two underlings who aren’t quite as high in the Enterprise‘s pecking order, have his attention. Only someone like Uhura could snap back at Kirk in front of the crew when he gets a bit overbearing. Anyone else would likely have been reassigned to toilet cleaning duty in the enlistees’ quarters for that.

What defines Kirk, though, in both the original continuity and the new movies, is his inability to believe in the no-win scenario. He hates the concept so much that, after two attempts, he simply cheats the Academy’s Kobayashi Maru test, shrugs, and says, “Of course, I did. The test is bullshit.” In this continuity, that excuse gets him a commendation for original thinking, since that, not winning, was the actual aim of the test. (Thought I seriously doubt anyone could try that gambit again.)

spockSpock – Original timeline (Leonard Nimoy)

Sure, Spock commanded the Enterprise for only one movie, but that served an important purpose. The Enterprise is a training vessel. And after all these years seconding and second-guessing Kirk, he probably knows more about commanding a starship than Kirk does. Kirk can do it better than most people, but he can’t really teach it. Spock, a lifelong student of human nature from the outside, can.

In the show’s original run, Spock’s turns in the command chair often infuriated the crew despite the fact that, like Kirk, they would follow him to the gates of hell. They would grumble and protest that the coldly logical Vulcan just didn’t get it, but they would also assume that he seldom did anything without some compelling reason, especially since the younger Spock had an infuriating habit of not sharing everything he was thinking. The older Spock, on the other hand, knows people, knows his crewmates, knows Kirk, and most importantly, knows himself better. When Spock is again put in command of the Enterprise in Star Trek VI, logic still guides his every move, but he has learned enough tricks watching Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty, and learned to trust Uhura and Chekov’s judgment enough, that he manages to out-Kirk Kirk in the process of rescuing the Enterprise‘s true captain and taking down those who framed him.

Spock really is captain material. It just takes him into late middle age to figure out how to be himself.

picardJean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart)

One of the tricks to reinventing Star Trek is to make it different to what came before. When Gene Roddenberry resurrected the series with a new crew and ship, he had to create a captain who was as un-Kirklike as possible without disrespecting the original. So Roddenberry simply flipped the Kirk and Spock roles, making First Officer Wil Riker the cocky, charming officer to a cool, logical captain. So Roddenberry created Jean Luc Picard, a reserved, calculating man with “the soul of a poet.” Whereas Kirk is clearly an earthy Iowa farmboy prone to jumping feet first into a situation, Picard is thoughtful, level-headed, and patient. Of course, we meet Picard when he is about sixty years old (Stewart was in his forties when he took the role), so he’s had time to evolve from a Kirk-like swashbuckler to an elder statesman.

And it’s not that Picard is incapable of looking before he leaps. He’s just had about twenty years more than Kirk to add nuance to that. There are those who say that one would want Picard in command most of the time, but Kirk in an emergency. That sounds about right.

suluHikaru Sulu – Original timeline (George Takei)

Oh, my. They finally gave Sulu a ship, and a big ship they gave him, the Excelsior. We only got to see Sulu in one movie, Star Trek VI, but George Takei made the most of it. He is very much the protege of James T. Kirk: Disciplined, but more than willing to break rules when the stakes are high.

They later revisited the events of ST VI in an episode of Voyager, using the same set and cast members to depict Kirk’s last hurrah from the point-of-view of the Excelsior‘s crew. Between the two, we could see Sulu as an older, wiser officer who stood on his own. It would have been nice to see Takei in a television movie or two showcasing the character.

siskoBenjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks)

Benjamin Sisko is an angry man. His wife was killed by the Borg at Wolf 359. He is unceremoniously yanked from his quiet post close to Earth to deal with the equally angry Bajorans and the ever-scheming Cardassians. To add insult to injury, a group of aliens inside a wormhole decide that he is the Emissary of the Prophets, their linear reality mouthpiece to the Bajorans. So, in addition to being a reluctant station commander, an informal diplomat, and an unwilling religious figure, Sisko also has to be a single dad.

During the first couple of seasons of Deep Space Nine, producers worked hard to not only make Sisko not Picard, the strained themselves silly not making him Hawk, Brooks’ previous role on Spenser for Hire. Pretty stupid idea. DS9 finally found its legs when they let Brooks be himself playing Sisko (including shaving his head and speaking in lower tones) and admitting that Deep Space 9 was a dystopian version of Trek set in a rehash of World War II. Which is good. Sisko is very much a wartime captain. He’s not boldly going.  He’s boldly trying to keep civilization from collapsing. Instead of Horatio Hornblower (Kirk) or Lord Nelson (Picard), he’s more like a crankier version of Eisenhower, having to balance competing egos, agendas, and even enemies to keep the whole works from coming apart.

janewayKathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew)

The best thing to happen to Voyager was Genevieve Bujold stomping off the set of the show’s pilot. I saw a clip of her first turn as “Jean” Janeway. I know Bujold can act. I’ve seen her do it. She didn’t do it here. It took executive producer about five seconds to pick up the phone and tell Kate Mulgrew’s agent “Oops. Should have hired your client.”

Mulgrew gave Janeway (now named “Kathryn”) what every starship captain needs most: gravitas. That might have been lacking in Kirk in the 2009 movie, but that was by design. The kid hadn’t even graduated Starfleet Academy yet before taking command of the Enterprise. (“I hope you know what you’re doing, Captain.” “Yeah. Me, too.”) But Pike, Shatner’s Kirk, Picard, Sulu, and Sisko all had it.

And I seriously doubt any of those men would envy Janeway’s job. She is 90 years from home. Half her crew is composed of renegades she was sent to arrest. She’s menaced on all sides by space-faring tribes at war with each other, the Borg, and even another Starfleet vessel that met the same fate not long before Voyager ended up on that side of the galaxy.

Janeway maintains a Kirk-like presence on the bridge, perfectly willing to make the snap decision in a crisis. It helps that her first officer (and originally, the leader of the fugitives she went after) is an otherwise exemplary military officer more concerned with the good of the crew than his own agenda. But Janeway also shows the cracks. Kirk, Picard, et. al. could always duck into a shore leave bar, Ten Forward, or Quark’s to forget about the burden of command. Janeway’s got nowhere to go but the holodeck.

As I said before, she has the most in common with Christopher Pike, only we got seven seasons of Janeway, not to mention a cameo in Nemesis, a bright spot in an otherwise horrible film.

peter-quincy-taggartPeter Quincy Taggart (Jason Nesmith as played by Tim Allen)

OK, Galaxy Quest is not Star Trek. And yet it is, a sort of playful This Is Spinal Tap for the scifi set.

Tim Allen’s portrayal of washed-up actor Jason Nesmith does poke gentle fun at Shatner (who good naturedly gives back as good as he got.) But I’m pretty sure both Shatner and Allen could point to a hundred other actors they’ve known who ended up like Nesmith without alien intervention or a transformation to a more comedic persona to save their careers.

But Galaxy Quest respects the very franchise it parodies. And watching the cast fall into their old roles while trying to “do it for real” hints that this might have been a really good entry into the Star Trek franchise. Plus how can you go wrong with Ripley from Alien as a hot, busty blonde who is nonetheless smarter than her captain?

I suspect Taggart in a series would be every bit as cocky and over-the-top as Kirk. It’s too bad we’ll never get to see it. Could be fun.

archerJonathan Archer (Scott Bakula)

Jonathan Archer is the most like us. Maybe that’s because he’s the first captain who lives in a world that looks so much like ours. The Klingon at the beginning of the pilot even crashes on a farm that’s clearly in California’s Imperial Valley (doubling for Oklahoma). This is the beginning of Star Trek, and Archer has to not only set an example for future Starfleet captains, he has to make up the rules as he goes along. It doesn’t help that the rather self-important Vulcans have put one of their own on his bridge to keep an eye on these primitive humans. (Earth people can be such children.)

Whereas the other captains have larger-than-life personas, largely out of necessity, Archer is an everyman. He’s amazed to be going out into space and doing it at a blazing speed of Warp 4. And he does this with a ship that has balky technology, has to endure condescension from Vulcans, and deal with the paranoia of the Andorians. Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and Janeway all have a century or two of history where Earth is the dominant world in the Federation. Archer has grown up in a world that can barely spell “aliens,” let alone deal with  them. His default position is to offer the hand of friendship. After all, it’s a cold, dark universe out there. You need all the friends you can get.

Kirk tooJames T. Kirk – Altered timeline (Chris Pine)

This Kirk is a completely different Kirk from the original. After all, Shatner’s Kirk got to know his father, who lived to see him take command of the Enterprise. This Kirk was denied that only sixty seconds into the start of his life. And boy, is he pissed off about that. He grows up a rebellious, hell-raising youth, “the only genius-level offender in the Midwest.” Hey, it’s good to have goals. But Christopher Pike sees a lot of the late George Kirk in him. “Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s. And yours. I dare you to do better.”

Well, let’s see. A life of bar brawls in some backwater Iowa town? Or maybe doing something with your life. It takes Kirk only a few hours to make up his mind. Only he needs a little tempering. “Four years? I’ll do it in three.” Maybe so, but that bravado nearly gets him court-martialed, does get him kicked off the Enterprise, and damn near gets him killed. He’s not the Kirk we used to know, and maybe he never will be. But he knows what he’s supposed to become, even if he has to get his ass kicked a few times on the way there. At least this Kirk can roll with the punches, and like the original Kirk, loathes the concept of a no-win scenario. Spoilers and clips from Star Trek Into Darkness suggest he’s almost there.

All photos from Paramount, except for Tim Allen as Peter Quincy Taggert (Source: Dreamworks)

Star Trek: The Motion Pictures

In 1979, Star Trek went where few TV shows had gone before. Using effects that looked more like 2001: A Space Odyssey and capitalizing on the success of Star Wars, Paramount decided to bring back a canceled television show that somehow found new life as a Saturday morning cartoon and become a sleeper hit in syndication. Did it work?

The fans were forgiving of the overblown first effort and were rewarded with what has become a science fiction classic in its own right, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The franchise made it through eight more films across two series (with elements of two more) before going on hiatus for several years. Then JJ Abrams was tapped to give Star Trek a reboot. He managed to take the overused time travel plot line and graft his own continuity onto the original storyline (over 800 episodes and ten films). The film rocked, though not everyone was happy.

So how do I rate the films?

11. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

st1Originally a script for an aborted revival of Star Trek as a TV series, this 1979 blockbuster gave us a colorless Enterprise, colorless uniforms, and a colorless plot. A giant entity called V’Ger is headed to Earth to find “The Creator.” Only the Enterprise is in range to intercept, but the ship has undergone a massive refit and isn’t quite done. Desk-bound Admiral Kirk comes out of retirement to take command from Will Decker (a character eventually recycled as Wil Riker in Next Generation.) Nurse Chapel is a doctor now. Rand is a transporter tech. Chekov is chief ass-kicker, and everyone in the original cast has been promoted, except for Spock, who’s gone off to the desert to find himself.

The punchline? This enormous entity was originally a missing NASA probe.

True, this is not as bad as Star Trek V (which is higher on this list than you might expect for reasons that I’ll get to), but it’s a dull, boring plot, and even the climax is boring. Yes, Decker and his beautiful bald girlfriend Ilia get what they always wanted in the end: They wanted to be a beam of light. Yippee. Thank God the special effects attracted enough fannies into theaters to fund a better-written (and acted) sequel.

10. Star Trek: Nemesis

star-trek-nemesisThis was the first Trek movie since 1981 that I did not see in the theater. By then, I was extremely burned out on Star Trek and had no desire to even see this one. I finally relented and got it on DVD. It’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back. Like the first movie, Nemesis had a lot of potential, a finale for the Next Generation crew. It was badly executed by a director who did not respect his cast, the franchise, or the fan base. Was Stuart Baird trying to do like JJ Abrams and go for a wider audience? According to the cast, he “had his own vision.” Fine and dandy. So did Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and Jonathan Frakes (who should have directed this.)

It’s the end of the road for the crew of the Enterprise E. Will Riker has married Counselor Troi and is moving on to take his own command. But wait! Picard’s clone has taken over the Romulan Empire and wants to… um… Well, he hates Picard. Me personally, I’d be hating the Romulans, but unless you’re an idiot like Glenn Beck, the idea of someone like that becoming the leader really doesn’t pass the smell test. What else went wrong?

Picard driving an SUV on an alien planet. Data’s Spock-like sacrifice at the end (which made little sense.) The whole Romulan coup subplot. Just a murky, stupid movie that could have been up there with the 2009 movie, First Contact, and The Wrath of Khan. Not a good ending for the original run.

9. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

stvOkay, let’s be honest here. This is really the dumbest movie of the franchise. There are a lot of ridiculous flourishes here. The Enterprise has 86 decks? It doesn’t even look that big on screen. The fake God at the end that sounds like it’s constipated when it tries to kill Kirk? And the Klingon Captain Klaa? Purely comedic.

To be fair, every single cast member, including those critical of Bill Shatner, has pointed out that Paramount pretty much forgot the movie was even under production and kept cutting the budget. Couple that with a director who, as an actor, was starting to transition into a more comedic presence, and you have a recipe for unintentional parody.

And parody is what keeps this movie from being worse than the tedious The Motion Picture (which even has a dull name) and the badly executed Nemesis. The cast seems to be having fun despite the ridiculousness of the plot and dialog. The scenes in Yosemite National Park at the beginning with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are actually well-done and well-written (all except Spock’s rocket boots. That sequence comes off as a Wile E. Coyote bit remixed for the coming 1990’s.) As long as you don’t take it seriously, remember to make fun of it as you watch, it’s actually quite funny. Should have been better, but then Shatner should not have directed.

8. Star Trek: Insurrection

Star-Trek-InsurrectionHonestly, I had trouble remembering what this one was about five minutes after walking out of the theater. I think F. Murray Abraham plays the leader of an alien race addicted to facelifts. That and Picard falls in love with a 300-year-old woman. There’s a vague time travel element to this that makes little sense. It’s well-paced, thanks to Jonathan Frakes, and gorgeously photographed, but I’m not sure there was enough here to justify an entire episode of the series, let alone an entire movie.

This was the movie that cost Ron Moore and Brannon Braga, originally the wonder duo of Next Generation and First Contact, as well as Deep Space Nine, their regular gig of penning Star Trek movies. It also cost Frakes the opportunity of directing the series final effort.  What this movie suffered from, though, was overwork. Paramount had Deep Space Nine on the air, as well as Voyager, was still employing Moore as a producer and Braga as Voyager’s executive producer, and was already deep into developing Enterprise. Insurrection became the neglected little sister in the mix, and it shows in this turkey. They could easily hired another screenwriter. Better still, take Rick Berman out of the equation. Berman seemed to look at each movie on his watch as a television movie with a huge budget.

7. Star Trek: Generations

generationsAt last! The two captains meet! It starts off well enough. Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov see the Enterprise B off on its maiden voyage. Naturally, disaster strikes and the Enterprise is the only ship in range. In the process, Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck, aka “Cameron” from Ferris Buehler’s Day Off) slowly realizes Starfleet wasn’t quite finished putting the ship together. Leave it to the old guys to take over and save the day. In the process, Kirk is sucked out of a gap in the hull and into a temporal vortex. If that had been the end of Kirk, this movie might have been a bit better, but instead, said temporal vortex, which explains why Guinan was psychic, becomes an excuse for one of the most contrived bits of casting in movie history.

This comes off more as a long episode of The Next Generation and is not the most auspicious debut for that cast on the big screen. Darkly photographed with a murky plot, it gives Kirk one of the most ignoble endings. Too bad, because Malcolm McDowell is great as Soran, the sociopathic, smarmy villain. Lursa and Betor, the conniving Duras sisters from Next Generation, meet their fiery fate. Data has fun with his new emotions (even saying “Oh, shit” when he realizes Deanna Troi has just wrecked the Enterprise.) But overall, not very satisfying.

6. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country  

Trek+VI+2Klingons making nice with the Federation? This loose allegory for the end of the Cold War marked the end of the original cast’s run in theaters. There are plot holes big enough to drive the Enterprise through, and sometimes it rides roughshod over its own plot. But there are some great moments, both serious and comedic in this one. Chancellor Gorkon sums up the conflict in this movie nicely: “You don’t trust me. Do you, Kirk? I don’t blame you. If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.” When Gorkon is promptly assassinated, with Kirk and McCoy framed for the murder, everyone has to overcome their prejudices to find out who’s behind it all.

While the movie seems a bit rushed, it benefits from guidance from Leonard Nimoy and Nicholas Meyer, who were responsible for the troika of the second, third, and fourth movies. A bit more militaristic than creator Gene Roddenberry would have liked, it nonetheless had the feel of The Wrath of Khan that saved the movies from the scrap heap.

5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

EnterpriseCrewStarTrekIIIThis could have ranked higher, but it had a dodgy premise. Spock’s body was shot into orbit around the Genesis planet and has somehow regenerated as a result. But the planet’s rapid aging is also aging the newly baby Spock (who has no mind to speak of now. It’s in McCoy’s head) rapidly as well.

What keeps this movie from falling down around the Final Frontier and Nemesis on this list is that the premise is almost superfluous to this film. Directed by Leonard Nimoy (his first movie and a condition of his returning), the movie uses the chemistry of the original cast to its fullest potential. It also develops the backstory of James T. Kirk nicely, building up the relationship with his son (whom, I suspect, will be conceived in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness) and then tragically ripping them apart in a way that bears fruit three films later. It’s understood that Spock would obey orders and leave Kirk’s body on Genesis despite the outrage that might cause. Kirk would expect no less from his best friend, but he is James T. Kirk. And the rest of the crew also know Kirk would fly through the gates of hell, even sacrifice the Enterprise itself (which he does), to save any one of them. That’s what this film is all about.

4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home   

star-trek-ivStar Trek does a time travel movie. If anything, this movie is The Motion Picture done right. It takes the same premise and simply goes in a different direction with it. Nimoy again directs and does what he and Nicholas Meyer do best: Exploit the chemistry of the cast. On their way to their “own funeral,” as a sarcastic Chekov puts it, an alien probe comes to Earth and threatens to destroy the planet if it does not hear from that world’s most intelligent species. No, not humans. Whales. Humpback whales. Which disappeared… Oh, right about the time I’m writing this, which is Sunday evening before this posts. Taking a cue from a couple of episodes, they slingshot back into time to bring back some humpback whales.

Done for comedic effect, the movie brings Kirk and crew full circle, redeeming them for the crimes they committed to save Spock in Star Trek III, and puts them on the bridge of a new (and familiar-looking) Enterprise in the end. It’s whole fish-out-of-water vibe – Kirk’s awkward swearing, Spock looking like a hippie in 1987, Scotty’s inability to figure out the mouse on a Macintosh – is what brought in non-Trekkies to this movie. The crew drawing closer together and carrying on the adventure again brought in the core audience. Win-win.

3. Star Trek: First Contact

Cochrane_and_Troi_toastThe Borg go back in time to kill Zefram Cochrane, inventor of warp drive, before the Federation can begin and be a permanent thorn in their collective side. Picard is not having it and follows them, only to have his ship, this new Enterprise, slowly be taken over by the bionic zombies.

Directed by Jonathan Frakes and written by a surprisingly underworked Bragga and Moore, this movie does what the Original Series movies did: Use the cast’s chemistry to tell the story. Picard is out for payback while Data proves to be more human (in a good way) than even he suspected. Together, they face the Borg Queen, the actual intelligence of the species personified in a being who is both sensual and repulsive at the same time. She is sort of a human version of The Bitch from the Alien movies. Extra kudos to this movie for helping raise the profile of James Cromwell, who went from obscure television actor to a go-to guy for playing powerful, if often corrupt, men and, on the softer side, the kindly farmer in Babe.

2. Star Trek

startrek09This could have been bad. And if you’re one of those who has a favorite original cast member who just cannot be replaced, it is bad. But red matter aside, this movie rebooted a stale franchise with a new look and a new feel, using the old continuity as a jumping off point. While some of the cast do a good job capturing the characters originally played by someone else – Simon Pegg as Scotty and Karl Urban as McCoy in particular – others added a new dimension to previously unexplored characters. John Cho plays a less confident, but more kinetic Sulu while Zoe Saldana puts some much-needed flesh on the bones of Uhura’s character, something original actress Nichelle Nichols complained was missing in the original run.

It’s Kirk who is the most changed, and you can’t help but expect it in the film’s first ten minutes. Kirk’s father is killed – on screen, no less – moments after Jim Kirk’s birth. So, instead of Shatner’s original martinet who eventually loosens up and becomes a curmudgeonly old admiral, Chris Pine plays Kirk as a rebellious, arrogant young man who has the original Kirk’s swagger and smarts, but none of the discipline we saw in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Nero plays one of the most bizarre Trek villains. Angry over the destruction of his planet and the death of his wife and daughter, it never occurs to him to simply go to the capital of Romulus, and say, “Hey, I’m from 150 years into the future. There’s a supernova that’s going to crack the homeworld in two right about then. You might want to tell the Vulcans to step it up with the red matter a little faster.” But this man is not rational. This movie is #2 for reviving a dead franchise and making it into something new instead of regurgitating the same old thing.

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan 

kirk-khan-shoutKHAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In the franchise’s second reboot on the big screen, director Nicholas Meyer pretends Star Trek: The Motion Picture never happened. Instead of setting the movie two years after the end of the original series, he puts our heroes 15 years forward. They’re older, tired, and past their prime. Yet, Khan escapes the prison Kirk made for him, hijacks a ship of the line, and goes after him, hoping to use the Genesis device to kill him.

This is Moby Dick in space, as well as Run Silent, Run Deep (which was directed by The Motion Picture director Robert Wise). Only Kirk and Khan are both Ahab and Great White Whale. The interplay between Kirk and Spock is poignant through most of the movie, even though it’s Kirk we pity in the beginning, the forgotten man watching the world move on without him. In the end, it’s about sacrifice and duty. Originally intended to the end of Spock, this movie, a scifi classic in its own right, serves as the template and the jumping off point for the rest of the Original Series movies.

All photos Paramount Pictures

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, TNG 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