Sunday, October 30, 2011

Star Trek: The Motion Picture - a toupological analysis.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the first Star Trek feature-film and was released in the US on December 7th 1979. The entire extended cast, from William Shatner as James T. Kirk all the way to Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand are reunited in this $45 million epic for the first time since the run of the original series in the late 1960s.

Normally at this point we try to give an overview of the plot of whatever movie or TV show we are examining. But since we assume that most, maybe even all of our readers are thoroughly familiar with ST:TMP, we're instead going to do something a little different. We will try to relay the story of the film only through the significant central character moments/stories/threads contained therein:

James T. Kirk is now a desk-bound admiral. Promotion has left him restless and bored (this is inferred rather than seen).

When news reaches him of a strange, destructive energy cloud detected out there in our galaxy, Admiral Kirk senses his opportunity. After a heated conversation with his boss (again, described but not actually seen), he seizes control of his old starship - the newly refitted Enterprise. Only he, the admiral maintains, is qualified to lead such a potentially dangerous mission.

Meanwhile, something is up with Spock. Living back on Vulcan, he suddenly eschews the attainment of a higher order of logic because he seems to be sensing something out there. Is he in contact with this cloud? Is it contacting him? Why?

Back in Earth orbit, Kirk muscles his way into the command of the Enterprise, elbowing the young Captain Decker out of the way.

But Kirk appears to be masking a mid-life crisis.

Is he placing his own egotistical sensibilities above his now rusty abilities as captain? His sense of inadequacy grows as we see that the Admiral struggles to even find his way around the new Enterprise.

Kirk, lonely and lost, summons one of his two close friends in the universe aboard the ship. Dr McCoy protests. "I need you," Kirk exclaims. McCoy senses something is wrong.

Now en route towards the cloud, our suspicions about Kirk's competence are confirmed by an incident that almost destroys the ship.

Thankfully, the ousted Decker overruled Kirk and prevented disaster.

In a brief confrontation, McCoy gives the admiral an earful, accusing him of "using this emergency to get the Enterprise back". Kirk really begins to wonder about whether he's in over his head.

As the mission continues, the crew is stunned to find Spock suddenly showing up. Did he just miss his estranged friends and want to join in on this mission or is there more to it than that?

The half-human, half-Vulcan science officer seems to be acting even more strangely than normal. Not even McCoy's barbs stir any hint of the old-style sparring.

Spock, seemingly sharing his own tormented duality with the entity, then sneaks off into the heart of the cloud, and is lucky to survive the ordeal.

Can he be trusted? Has he gone off the deep end? It's alive, he says.

Is Kirk ignoring the fact that Spock is basically possessed? McCoy steps in...

Spock, it seems, holds the key and Kirk knows it.

The point we've tried to illustrate with the above is that there are plenty of seeds of characterization sown throughout the movie, particularly in the first act, but none of them are really fully developed into a dramatic punch or coherent story arc. At the beginning, Kirk is out of sorts; Spock is potentially under the control of some alien entity and McCoy doesn't even want to be on this adventure. Plenty of threads for a decent drama, but it all, sadly, falls apart as the movie continues.

The Kirk in-over-his-head aspect just kind of evaporates with a premature nod to Decker during the second act. Spock the possessed goes the same way (some of these scenes were actually cut from the theatrical release and only seen later in home video versions).

The character elements described above should arguably have provided the core of the movie, balancing out the journey towards the mysterious V'ger cloud heading towards Earth. And there was one person, the third man in the triangle, Dr. "Bones" McCoy, through whom these fireworks should, we think, have played off.

DeForest Kelley.

Ultimately, no-one is more ill-served by this movie than the George Harrison of Star Trek - DeForest Kelley. It gets so bad that after a few scenes, his character (watch the movie and count) actually ends up repeatedly entering the bridge, gawking and exiting again. That's perhaps the greatest symbol of what's wrong with Star Trek: The Motion Picture - the human core, McCoy, is suddenly rendered silent and barely relevant.

"Hi, I'm DeForest Kelley. You may remember me from earlier in this movie."

There's nothing one longs for more in ST:TMP than a good "Damn it, Jim!" moment or three in the second and third acts. McCoy could have argued with Kirk about the admiral's apparent inability to see that he's (still) in over his head; he could have also argued with Kirk about his inability to ask real questions about Spock's behavior and trustworthiness ("Why is no-one asking if we should even trust this guy? What if that thing out there has taken Spock over? What if he's trying to get us killed?"); he could have reminded Kirk about the fact that Earth too is in real danger and the consequences of all of this are huge etc. etc.

And then maybe Kirk, alone in his quarters, feeling the pressure, could end up giving some sort of a moving personal log entry:

"Is McCoy right? Have I lost what I once had? Am I in over my head? Maybe I should have stayed at that desk after all..." - that sort of thing. (Compare this to the Kirk arc in the sequel The Wrath of Khan, when the captain realizes "I know nothing" after his early cowboy approach comes up short. At the beginning, he feels old - by the end he says "I feel young").

What ST:TMP arguably needed somewhere during the second half is something very much like this:

It could have been dramatic. It could have been moving. It would have woven threads together that were stretched across the movie. But it just isn't there. Instead, everyone just ends up staring out into space waiting for something to happen.

That's what the hypnotizing excess of special effects, and wonder, and glorious music by Jerry Goldsmith can't conceal no matter how hard the movie tries to pretend that it's some deep philosophical tone poem. And there is only one reason for this: bad writing.

Harold Livingstone and Gene Roddenberry (source).

Behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of ST:TMP published in countless books and magazines paint a picture of utter chaos. What began as a low-budget TV movie soon morphed
into a pilot for a proposed new series, Star Trek: Phase II, called "In Thy Image". This then ultimately became Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The script was re-written and re-written, and shooting actually began with only the first act fully completed. It shows.

Two men fought and fought and fought over competing re-writes:
Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry and co-producer Harold Livingston.

Harold Livingston and William Shatner on set (source).

The latter recalled:

"Around this time, Roddenberry and I really began to get at each other's throats...I just didn't think that Gene was a good writer. He, for his part, considered me a total interloper." (source)

And so two authors, at complete odds creatively, often ended up sending competing re-writes to the set. It was dysfunction of the highest order and it ended up almost paralyzing the production.

What was wrong? We suspect that after a less-than-fruitful "Lost Years" of his own, post-original series, Gene Roddenberry somehow sub-consciously came to despise the one creation that had brought him success. As a result, given an opportunity to return to Trek, he decided to change it to prove that he was still creatively capable (maybe turn it more into a humanistic 2001: A Space Odyssey). The dramatically redundant Decker and Ilia would have been permanent members aboard Phase II (they later became the equally dramatically redundant Riker and Troi aboard TNG).

Anything, it seems, but focus on what had made the original series so great: the triangle (Leonard Nimoy would have been replaced by a new Vulcan called Xon in Phase II - he was later persuaded to return for the movie).

And so, during the 1970s, Roddenberry the terrific re-writer of TOS simply lost it. Head in the clouds, he seemed to forget the basic principles of good drama. With director Robert Wise unwilling or unable to do a Nicholas Meyer and simply seize the script and re-write it himself, chaos prevailed. Why Roddenberry didn't bring in TOS producer and master of both production and storytelling efficiency Robert Justman is perhaps the greatest unanswered question of them all. Was it simply ego, wanting to go-it-alone? We suspect this was the case. "You broke my heart, Gene," Justman would later recall telling Roddenberry about the matter, "But Gene didn't respond. He couldn't," he opined. The pair would eventually heal their wounds and work together again briefly on The Next Generation.

Robert Justman (right) would arguably have brought some much-needed discipline to ST:TMP.

Other problems, stemming from this script chaos, plague TMP too. Given the rush to make the December 1979 release date, the editing process became a frantic rush. As a result, the released movie was, in places, "essentially a rough cut" conceded Robert Wise (source) years later. Not only is pacing often dreadfully slow (say the wormhole "action" scene), but in some cases we see odd editing choices too (ironic as Wise was the editor of the legendary Citizen Kane).

Odd editing choices.

According to one account, "[At the premiere] Wise was seen to cover his face during some scenes as he'd requested more time to edit and fine tune the film, but Paramount said there wasn't any time left." (source)

And Wise's direction is rather shaky too. At times commanding, at other times it seems like he's fallen asleep at the helm (for example in the below scene).

Many (including Bill Shatner, who in Up Till Now noted "Robert Wise was a wonderful director, just not for this film") have questioned whether this director's often clinically detached directorial style was simply the wrong choice for this movie. Perhaps they have a point.

Interestingly, one of the moments where, towards the end, the movie suddenly gains a pulse and momentarily feels more like a TOS episode, with Kirk bluffing his way through a tense situation, was conceived by none other than Bill Shatner. Both he and Nimoy gained script approval after the movie went over-schedule. As Nimoy recalled of the scene in question "I mean Kirk and Spock were just basically staring at a blue-screen at the mercy of this...thing for pages and pages...[Bill Shatner's idea] tightened that particular scene, made it less talky, more interesting..." (source).

Yet for all its many flaws, it's impossible to completely dismiss the movie. For Trekkers of the time, the build up to the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a magical event in and of itself. A failed TV series, then conventions, then the Space Shuttle Enterprise...

"Anyone seen Shatner?"

...and finally the return of the beloved cast in a new live-action adventure. Magically geeky times indeed! The fervor that surrounded the release needed no manufactured hype - there really were thousands and thousands of people who simply could not wait until ST:TMP was released.

Eager Trekkies in 1979 (source).

Compared to today's often instantly forgettable and rather mind-numbing CGI effects (that said, we strongly applaud the subtle and inventive CGI approach used to add new F/X to the 2001 "Director's Edition" of ST:TMP, which were nothing like the jarringly "computery" effects injected into the later TOS remastered project), Star Trek: The Motion picture is something of a work of art, with particular credit due to director of special photographic effects Douglas Trumbull.

Those were the days...(source).

The beautiful model photography is a genuine feat of craftsmanship...

...and serves as a testament to a very special time in American cinema, the late 1970s, when guys with beards essentially made visual magic with spit and chewing gum in the newly revived science-fiction genre.

From this...

To this... The now, sadly, largely defunct art of model photography (source and more pictures here).

So one can't help but come away from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and think: thank goodness we had one Star Trek made in the 1970s; one Star Trek that was more about exploration than the militaristic adventurism of most of the 80s installments; one Star Trek with a budget and talent capable of making the Starship Enterprise feel grand and majestic both inside and out. It's a failed attempt at an epic, but at least it's an attempt. No other Star Trek movie tried what this one did. And that's largely why, we think, that despite its numerous flaws, ST:TMP still manages to hold a special place in many a heart...

Let's move swiftly to the hair...

Persis Khambatta has her head shaved for the role of Ilia - was Gene Roddenberry sending Bill Shatner a message by creating a new bald character in Star Trek?

So Star Trek: The Motion Picture is released and thousands of Star Trek fans end up saying the same thing: "It's different!" "It doesn't have the same feel as the classic series!" "Why did you change it?". Did Bill Shatner make a mistake with his new toupee style in a way that mirrors some of the dramatic shortcomings of TMP? Consider that long, drawn out scene early in the movie when Admiral Kirk surveys and surveys and surveys the Enterprise from every conceivable angle.

It might as well have been the other way round, with a miniature Enterprise flying around a giant head studying the intricacies of Bill Shatner's intricately redesigned and refitted toupee...

Majestic? Certainly. But right there, something of the spirit of the original series is missing. Sure TOS was low budget, but there was also something inherently awesome in watching the original "Jim Kirk lace" toupee get all disheveled during a hearty fight scene. That was surely part of Gene Roddenberry's vision too.

Toupological moments in TMP? No time for such things - too busy looking serious and staring at things:

Near the end of the movie, Kirk at least wears a gold tunic. Maybe as a kid you closed one eye, stuck you finger out to obscure from view the non-black collar in a rather desperate attempt to see the old Kirk. And then you thought (rather unfairly): "It's still not him. It's the hair, dammit! The hair has ruined this movie!"

What we have in TMP is a very subdued "TJ Curly" far less like the disheveled look in 1976's Columbo appearance (or in the subsequent Trek movies)...

It's a sort of patty, really.

A helmet (it changes somewhat throughout the movie). And judging from what you our readers have repeatedly told us, the look was more than displeasing, it was even downright traumatic! Suddenly, many of you thought: "Oh, my God! Shatner is wearing a toupee!!!"

Even toy-makers were confused.

All the while, traumatized children wept...

"Mummy, what happened to Kirk?"

So what should Bill Shatner have done? A return to the "Jim Kirk lace" would have probably made the actor resemble Quincy.

Jack Klugman as Quincy.

But there was, we think, a viable alternative. The lace-like, light, side-parted toupee that Bill Shatner had worn repeatedly throughout the 1970s.

In 1971:

In 1975:

And even in 1976:

Bill Shatner in Barbary Coast.

It would at least have been Kirk-esque, while also allowing for some growth and change to accommodate for the passing years and 1970s styles. We think that audiences would have accepted this. But it wasn't to be. Dylan went electric and Shatner went curly - that's just the way life is sometimes.

To be fair, and upon considerable reflection, maybe Bill Shatner did do the right thing after all. Perhaps sensing the new sets, the new uniforms, the sudden emphasis on special-effects rather than characters, the actor decided to make a definitive statement: This really isn't the old series. It never can be. That was then and this is now. If I go back to my old 60s toupee, then all of this will probably seem even weirder; even more different. At least this way, the memory of what was is protected by this one major change. At least now we definitively know that what we are doing is something new -- still boldly going where no man, where no hair, has gone before...

UPDATE: One additional toupological observation we couldn't resist underscoring. A montage of fake hair that really speaks for itself. There are many subtle reasons why Bill Shatner is the odd one out here!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Poll result and the trouble with Tom.

Our latest poll imagined a scenario in which Bill Shatner agreed to honestly answer one and only one question about his toupee-wearing. What would you ask?

Only one vote went to "Was hiding the lace line the biggest drawback of the 'Jim Kirk lace' "?; two votes went to "Do you consider the current "Denny Katz" as something of a perfect toup?"; three votes went to "Do you regret earlier blanket denials about your toupee-wearing?" and four votes went to "Which past toupee choice most makes you cringe?". 12% chose "Why not just admit that your hair isn't real?"; 14% chose "Was going curly in 1976 a mistake?"; 27% chose "When you first started going bald, were you fearful that it might hurt your career?" and the greatest number of votes, 30%, went to "Of all the toupees you've worn, which has been your favorite?". (And three votes went to "something else"-- please tell us your ideas!).

Thanks for voting!

The WSSTS complex.

Now onto another matter (one not related to the toupee - though maybe that's the problem!). Every week, some of our Shatner's Toupee staff take a walk around the huge William Shatner School of Toupological Studies complex, visiting the various departments and assessing the progress of countless research projects underway at any one time.

But recently, we were stunned to see so many glum faces among the ranks of even our most experienced toupologists. What was wrong? It wasn't long before we found the answer. The WSSTS had ordered several thousand copies of Bill Shatner's new album Seeking Major Tom. The intention was that staff might be inspired by it as they went about their work (and maybe even find some toupological references). Sadly, that's not what happened...

So we had a listen to the album and immediately sympathized with our bewildered, baffled and disappointed colleagues. To be blunt, we think this album stinks. It really is not very good at all. Much of the blame, we believe, lies with producer Adam Hamilton (pictured below). We'll try to explain why:

A total lack of musical creativity sinks Seeking Major Tom.

In terms of musicality - the wonder, nuance, magic, excitement, creativity, originality and all that music (as composition and arrangement) can conjure up and convey - this album, sadly, gets an F. A fail. A big fat fail. The use of synthesizers in so many songs in a tacky effort to replicate real instruments is one key reason for this. Why not use a real piano instead of a synthetic one that sounds like inoffensive shopping mall music?

Alright, perhaps there wasn't much of a budget. Only on occasion could real instruments be used (particularly with the numerous music legends that took part in the album).

But if you don't have a budget, then why not get really creative? Take a baseball bat to your computer terminal and start thinking outside of the box. Put Shatner inside a piano, see how that sounds; find some rare 1970s instrument and use that; invent a new kind of echo by sticking a microphone inside a milk bottle; call up some old sound effects guy who did Star Trek and borrow his homemade, still functioning who-knows-how-it-works gizmo...

Anything! That's what low budget should mean. More creativity not less! Thinking outside the box rather than surrendering to laissez-faire mediocrity.

Experimenting with sound. The Beatles with their producer George Martin.

Sadly, Major Tom sounds like the latter: creativity reduced to lazily sitting by a computer terminal, using standard settings, standard filters, standard techniques and ending up with what amounts to standard-sounding karaoke backing tracks. Seeking Major Tom should have been called Shatner Does Karaoke, because that's what it sounds like.

Even when real instruments are used, it's music that is so clean, so "correct" and "proper" that it ends up being completely soulless, like it went through a thousand "suits" who step by step robbed it of all that was remotely unique, risky and unconventional. And what of the truly incredible lineup of guest musicians from Zakk Wylde to Dave Davies? Totally wasted. What's the point of having creative people present but in no way asking them to utilize anything other than their technical talents?

How a low-budget production of a metal album could end up like that is truly, truly baffling. Was it laziness? Was it lack of creative thinking? Or was it just poor judgement?

"Whatever! It's Shatner, who needs creativity?"

Some of the behind-the-scenes footage released of the making of the album perhaps provides clues. Once you get over the "look at Shatner being silly" part, isn't there just a hint of a dominant atmosphere of rushed "whatever"? A sort of "Shatner will carry this and not too much effort otherwise will be required"?

Maybe the hope was that Bill Shatner himself is the lively, real, edgy component. Add whatever crap sound behind him and he'll make up for it. But that approach really just ends up turning Bill Shatner into a circus performer. A freak show. "Listen to this! Listen to Shatner sing 'Bohemian Rhapsody'". "Haa haa! Good laugh." "What the f--k is this?"

Shatner does karaoke - section from "Bohemian Rhapsody".

The essence of what makes Bill Shatner's music so amazingly weird but enjoyable is a not-quite-fully-defined combination of energetic earnestness and Bill Shatner's own eminently charming, yet also highly contradictory personality. The Transformed Man was the 1960s!!! (need we say more?). Has Been was sincere and deep and creative on the Shatner side and sincere and deep and creative on the musical Ben Folds side. Other performances, for example this...

...are both odd but also moving. They make Bill Shatner a sort of champion of the creativity of the silent non-mainstream. "Screw you, Britney!" it says, "We're the real artists and we demand to be heard!" And then there's Bill Shatner as the 80-year-old badass, whom we admire for just not giving a s--t and doing what the hell he wants to do:

But with Major Tom, a cardinal rule has been broken (keep it real). Sincerity has been diluted, while the freak-show "its all a joke" aspect has been placed in an uncomfortable central position carrying a load where creativity should be, but isn't. That is sad. And what a wasted opportunity. We wish it wasn't so but we really can't recommend Major Tom at all (though, to be fair some songs are better than others). It's really a struggle to listen to for more than a few minutes. Friends who don't know Bill Shatner much and marveled at Has Been are probably going to just scratch their heads at this and tell you what you probably already think: that it sucks...

If you disagree with the above, we are genuinely eager to hear a robust defense of Seeking Major Tom!! We'll end this piece on a high - "Common People" from the 2004 album Has Been:

UPDATE: Bill Shatner writes a letter to his younger self. Alas, no mention of his still lush (real) hair.