Star Trek Who?
Comparing two of my favorite fandoms – and their various re-boots.
I vividly recall watching Star Trek in my youth. I can tell you the first episode I remember watching. It was Operation Annihilate - the one where there are giant brain cells floating around killing people. I don't know how old I was, but I can tell you where I was. I was watching it on a probably 19” grainy color television at my Aunt Fern's house. Part of the reason the location stuck with me so well is because as I grew up, there was no doubt in my mind that 1 – I loved Star Trek, and 2 – my aunt did not. Not even a little bit. Irony has a way of highlighting memories. You iron your clothes to get rid of wrinkles and apparently irony-ing your brain makes for vivid memories. From that day, some time in the early 80's, Star Trek had me. Come '87 and Next Gen, and I was hooked, all doubts being erased the summer after Best of Both Worlds part 1 aired. I shared a room with a brother 5 years older than me & we spent many conversations debating what the fate of Picard would be, come fall of 1990.
As I got older, I made friends based on our interest in Star Trek. In high school, we even managed to create our own Star Trek club. This was in the mid 90's – Truly the Golden Age of Star Trek. I can even partially trace my marriage of near 20 years to my love of Trek. Not to undermine the other things that brought us together (music, general geekdom, both cock-eyed optimists), but the first time that my wife-to-be spoke to me was because she heard me talking to someone else about Star Trek (unfortunately, I can't recall what the conversation was).
I can also recall my first exposure to Doctor Who vividly. I was alone in a motel room & flipping channels to the SciFi channel (it was still called that then). I think I had seen a preview or something. I'm sure I had heard the phrase “Doctor Who” in my life. I think I had it in my mind filed away as a British Sci-fi book or something, akin to Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. Sorry to my Brit friends out there, I was woefully under-educated in all things Who. It must have been about 2006 & the episode was the one on the space station with the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodefoe (it had me with such an absurd name). The episode is The Long Game, I believe. My impression was – 'Wow. This is very British. It's funny. It's also odd. And a little cheesy. And there's a gross giant slug on the ceiling.' And the main character is delightfully quirky... and.. Principled?' I was curious, but at that point, we didn't have a TV set at our house & I also thought that with the big gross slug thing, I wasn't sure my wife would like it. It was also my first exposure to Simon Pegg, who would of course later redefine Scotty so perfectly.
Then a few months later, we got a TV with a digital antenna and discovered that PBS aired Dr. Who late at night on Saturdays & we were both hooked. Thus began my Whovian education. I don't remember what my second episode was, but I remember it was David Tennant, and I thought, "weird." But Who being Who, I soon found out he was in fact the 10th incarnation of the Doctor. A brilliant move on the part of 1960's BBC Productions to create a franchise that maintains the same framework, to a degree the same main character, but also having the ability to go anywhere from there & do anything they darn well please. New Who (in particular Eccleston and Tennant) came out when there was a dearth of Star Trek, and fulfilled that part of me that craved for optimistic science fiction that celebrates life. We later went on to watch, not all, but a good chunk of OLD Who to fill in some of the blanks.
I have other fandoms that I love almost as much as these two, but these two set the bar for what I want in a science fiction show. The bar has gone up and down through the years for both, though. There is untold number of things written about the ups & downs of both, even documentaries of their fan bases. But because I love them both and because I want to chime in with some of my thoughts in my initial dive into writing this month coincides with the most recent re-boot season of Star Trek, I wanted to chime in with my observations, including what I've loved about both & the times when they've gone... astray as it were.
Both shows started out HIGHLY campy. It was the 60's, folks. At the time, they were awesome. Both of the initial shows celebrated diversity, but were still couched in some of the social norms of the day because they were beholden to censors of the day that held them to a certain moral, racial, and societal standards. But both also tried to expand the minds of their audience. Interracial and gender and even species mixed crews in the Federation, and in the Who-niverse, women regularly were members of crews, and the overall message of both was that life is precious & always worth protecting. Star Trek had 2 pretty good seasons, but the third season... well... there's a reason it didn't get brought back for a 4th season, and it had a lot less to do with the acting or the people who were watching it & more to do with the producers & dreadful writing that plagued season three. Doctor Who was not without its demerits as well.
William Hartnell flubbed lines continually, and the stories were very similar one show to another. Part of the original difference between the two was also doubtless the initial impetus for the shows production, and the backers. BBC was interested in essentially educating the masses to a degree, so they promoted a learned old man, apparently from another planet who always managed to solve things with his brain. Star Trek was to be a future humanity, where we have moved past our petty differences, and backed by Lucille Ball. With Dr. Who, the ability to time travel let them directly educate about some events, highly fictionalized, from Earth & England's history in particular, but in their writing for distant future I find it interesting that Humanity is still as it is now. There are tragedies, bigots, heroes, but they always manage to come together & be better & help those in need down the road.
When Trek went off the air, it became MORE popular than it had been, eventually spawning what has become the modern fandom & Convention culture. Meanwhile, Who was regularly rebooting itself from the late 60's through the 70's, quite successfully. Each Reboot, or regeneration of the Doctor, brought the show to a higher level production-wise, and acting-wise, but still suffered from being basically a government sponsored show. Still, writers such as Douglas Adams helped to turn Doctor Who from more than just escapism into a mythology. I'm really not sure when Who first crossed the pond, but I do know that in the 80's I had a cousin who watched it faithfully on PBS late night Saturdays.
The first Reboot of Trek was pretty much Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And as someone who also loves 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's hard not to see the parallels. TMP in reality has Star Wars to thank for its existence, but in cinematography, script, and feel, it's a lot closer to Arthur C. Clarke than George Lucas. And some would also say than Gene Roddenberry. But as Trek's first foray into Film, and in comparison with everything except Star Wars of the era (1979), it was epic, amazing, and groundbreaking. Directed by Robert Wise (who also did Sound of Music, of all things!), it brought a completely new look & feel to Trek The film franchise was officially based on the success of TMP, though there are certainly those who found it pedantic, slow, and so on. But box office speaking, you really can't say it wasn't a success. Trek was back in the game and on new fans' lips. The following trilogy of The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home brought back a little more of the original Star Trek vision. After that original series episode, these films were my next exposure & I loved them in my youth. What I didn't like was the number of times I had to go to bed right after Chekov got the worm thing in his ear because it was bedtime.
I probably saw the first ½ hour of II 6 times before I finally got to see the whole thing. And they say Dr. Who is about the kid hiding behind the couch!
So while Trek was thriving, Who was dying on the vine. The doctors of the mid to late 80's were unfortunately not as well written, costumes became more absurd. Question marks on Lapels for example. The Celery was pushing it. The thing that hurt it most was that it was still in part treated as a government project & instead of seeking what the fans wanted, they just kept going with low budgets and lowering expectations.
The next big reboot for Trek was, of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation. I watched the premiere in September 1987 with my whole family at 6:00 on Saturday night, as we would continue to do so for nearly the entire show. The first couple of seasons, like virtually everything else, was very much a product of the time. Spandex & synthesizers.
But the writing was there! And it got better as it went on. Season 1 was essentially taking 90% of what happened in original series & rehashing it with a more modern, diverse, and sometimes politically correct-forced crew. But as it went on, I would argue TNG redefined Trek, science fiction, and even television in general, at least in the states. It brought about a “Golden Age” of Star Trek. Between 1987 and 2000 there were 3 television spin-offs of Star Trek launched and 6 theatrical releases. I remember a time in high school (late 90's) when I could watch 5 different episodes of Original Series, 5 different episodes of Next Gen, 6 different episodes of Deep Space Nine, and 1 of Voyager in a week on syndicated broadcast television.
Deep Space Nine was in a way its own reboot & featured much different themes, often showing a lot more grey area. If you ask me my favorite series, I'll usually say DS9, but it really is a toss-up for me between that & TNG. DS9 has its elements that are decidedly '90's, but the questions of ethics it dealt with for 7 seasons & without a doubt, the character development blew all other Trek, before and after, out of the water. But – DS9 was never allowed to flourish on its own. For me, the first season aired before my bedtime, but then our network moved it to absurdly late at night, and I had to catch up later. They moved it back to 6:00 on Saturday after TNG ended its run, but it had all of half a season before it was competing with Voyager as well.
Voyager was Lost in Space for Star Trek. They wanted to do something different than DS9, which many felt was too much like a soap opera, but still different from TNG as well. And Voyager had some great episodes. Star Trek in general (and Dr. Who for that matter) rely way too much on Deus Ex Machina & that was what the basic writing amounted to. Don't get me wrong, I still like Voyager. But I could list off a half dozen episodes right off the top of my head, where at the end of the episode everything resets and NO one remembers anything. At least on TNG you would have Guinan have a weird sense about something. Best move they possibly made was bringing on 7 of 9.
She & the Doctor (who was in fact, my first “Doctor”) experience some actual character growth through the series & the rest... Well... Tom & Be'lanna get married. By the end of the series though, the Doctor is still treated as not much more than a program you can be friends with by the rest of the crew. Neelix gets some character development once his crutch becomes a lightbulb. But for the most part, its pretty darn static. It developed the Borg beyond that which TNG had done. Some say they ruined the Borg, but for the most part, I liked the Borg story lines.
Sometime mid 90's – America tried to reboot Doctor Who. Abysmally. Watch it sometime. It's worth a laugh. And apparently its canon, because he's the 8th
Doctor – and was really the ONLY redeeming part of the whole 2 hour premiere that went nowhere. Whovians everywhere – be grateful it didn't. The production of Doctor Who belongs firmly on the other side of the pond. Paul McGann really is a very good doctor & has since done some audio-drama productions of Doctor Who, giving his Doctor more air time. He deserved more, but based on the premiere – I'm REALLY glad that it didn't go anywhere. It seemed Dr. Who was retired.
In the meantime, The Next Gen movies were in some ways another reboot. I enjoy each of the movies up until the ill-conceived, ill-written Star Trek: Nemesis. They just tried to do way too much in one movie. Generations I've heard described as more of an episode, but it really was a good first film for TNG, probably not so much of a good send-off for Shatner & crew (most of whom wouldn't have anything to do with the film), but they got an EPIC sendoff in The Undiscovered Country (which imho is the best Star Trek film because its just a great film period, while still sticking with the canon of Trek).
Part of all of the reboots in both franchises have had strengths and weaknesses based on the television industry in general and their attempts to adapt to it. Voyager launched the UPN network as its flagship show, but UPN wasn't available everywhere, resulting in local stations hodge-podgedly applying for syndication, and UPN sometimes holding it back.
The 90's attempt to get Doctor Who popular in America failed abysmally because it was trying so hard to be American, and it just ain't. Nor should it be. It was like Doctor Who meets 21 Jump Street, but forced beyond belief. The heart surgeon trying to operate on him in full ball gown after being moved to tears at the opera... Not sure who wrote it & I probably don't want to know. We're all so glad Rose Tyler eventually came along.
2001 Saw the biggest attempt at rebooting Star Trek so far – Go back before Kirk even. I was skeptical going into it, but I actually liked the first Season of Enterprise BETTER than any other 1st seasons of Trek so far. I felt like the crew just fit together well & it was fun to bring Star Trek back a bit to a little closer to where we are today. Admirals in neck ties. And it completely changed the way you see Vulcans. It was, after all, the age of prequels. I did find myself wishing they could have learned a few things from the Star Wars Prequel weaknesses.
Unfortunately, I've never even finished watching Enterprise, but MOST of what I have seen, I enjoyed. Until... the last season, much like its Original Series predecessor, died on the vine. What I've seen of it (including the pilot episode now that I think of it) seemed to be trying to draw young male viewers by showing the female actors in their underwear as often as possible. In some ways, I felt that Enterprise was trying to be too much like everything else on TV, but I do still felt it maintained the general principles of Trek. And then show runner Rick Berman killed it. Dead. When your series finale ranks nearly unanimously among fans as the worst Star Trek episode ever, you obviously got it wrong. Abysmally wrong. At that point, nobody knew if Trek would ever come back.
I'm pretty sure part of the impetus for its 2009 return was the smashing success of the 2005 Doctor Who reboot. Season 1 of Doctor Who, with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor & Billie Piper as Rose Tyler abandoned the former Who format of 20-30 minute weekly episodes in favor of hour long episodes that were written and planned superbly. And in BBC's time off from Who, it grew in quality, writing, budget, everything. BBC is now a moneymaker like all other makers of popular television. (I tend to think the 90's Pride & Prejudice was a big first step in that direction, but that's for another blog post). Russel T. Davies Nailed it. And though Eccleston only lasted one season, I think it was a good move because it got us silly Americans who had never heard of it used to the idea a lot sooner than had he stuck around. Not to mention their continual reference to the Time War & the Time Lords. That's what got me looking back into old Who. (Yes, it was highly campy, the sets shook, and the monsters were goofy, but hey, it was still fun).
And if you want to call David Tennant a reboot – MANY would argue that he's the best Doctor ever. I've got a few personal favorites that if I'm watching them, they're my favorite & he's one of them. Between his acting, and Davies (and sometimes Moffat's) writing, seasons gelled into overarching themes & were moving, inspiring & just plain fun. Doctor Who has always been essentially the Doctor & his companions vs. Monsters. The reboot certainly updated the monsters & there are some I could have done without.
Then Moffat took over with Matt Smith as the Doctor & the Epic of the Ponds. And Smith was completely Daft. I loved it. Sometimes I found the writing a little dark, but still... this bizarre young ancient guy owned the role for me as much as Tennant. The Moffat years of Dr. Who remind me in some ways of DS9 – He pushed the envelope for what was ok for the Doctor to do, and made some very long story arcs. They were fun, but sometimes disturbing (rebel flesh for example). But overall, I LOVED Matt Smith's story arc.
Which brings me back to the next Star Trek Reboot. The 2009 movie, Star Trek, was billed completely as a reboot & it most definitely was, with someone from after-TNG period coming back in time to when Kirk was born & completely throwing off all established timelines from there on. I loved the movie. And I was ok with them rebooting it.
The fact that they got Leonard Nimoy to come back made me decide it would probably be worth seeing. And it was. JJ Abrams learned from George Lucas' mistakes in his prequels and made a movie that was visually appealling, well written and cast, fun, and still pretty true to Star Trek. It was also my first conscious exposure to the music of Michael Giacchino, the heir apparent to John Williams. Anyone who can take the Original Alexander Courage music from 60's Star Trek & make it epic, driving & amazing gets my vote. My only complaint with 09 Trek was that like Enterprise, it did seem to try to be like everything else in some ways. No one makes PG movies anymore. Its just not done unless it's animated. Into Darkness was panned by many critics & fans, but ultimately, I thought it was a great movie as well. My big complaint with it: I love Benedict Cumberbatch. Everybody does. He even does great in the role. BUT WHY in the 21st century would you possibly cast a completely white guy to be someone with the name of Khan? Go to Bollywood & hire a Khan if nothing else. They could have used the actor who Played George Kirk's Dad from the first movie & it would have been a far better casting decision. I think they cast Cumberbatch to get more eyes, and I'm sure it worked, but... yeah. Not to mention casting Mickey Smith to draw some of the Whovian crowd (Mickey, How could you?)
And now... the head to head showdown.
Doctor Who's 50th anniversary vs. Star Trek.
Anyone who has watched both knows without a doubt who won. All freakin' year in 2013 Brits - & Americans too for that matter - were celebrating all things Doctor Who, culminating in one of my favorite ideas ever put forth in a Doctor Who episode in The Day of The Doctor. You're in a room with your opposition and you don't remember which side you're on. Work it out for both sides. THAT is what Doctor Who is all about. And getting Tennant, Smith, Capaldi, Tom Baker, And representations from ALL the doctors along with John Hurt, and the mini episodes leading up to the Day of the Doctor. Thank You BBC. Thank You Stephen Moffat. Thank you for an amazing year getting the world celebrating an epic anniversary. And then topping it off with a superb finale for Matt Smith. Superb. Thank you.
Then fast forward a couple years to Star Trek's 50th. We get... Rumors of new shows... that keep getting pushed back. And Star Trek Beyond, which in some ways was more Star Trek than the previous 2 films. But... They put 50 new aliens in it. That we've never seen before. And the draw on some from Enterprise, which was cool. But... Didn't you guys pay attention 3 years ago when WHO did their 50th? I was just underwhelmed. Sorry, Star Trek. Who won that one. Hands down.
I'll do part 2 for this reviewing “since their 50th” anniversaries in a week or 2. This one's already long enough. What do you think? Agree, disagree? Something I got completely wrong that I need to be called out for? I'd love to hear what you think.