Saturday, July 16, 2016

Spock Returns and Goes to San Francisco: or, How Star Trek Became A Franchise

The year was 1982, and Star Trek was back with a vengeance.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, despite being made on the cheap in a very short amount of time, had come out to rave reviews and the highest box office numbers ever.  In the world of American popular entertainment, Star Trek had officially arrived.  No longer was this odd little space property from the '60s to be the butt of jokes, tarred with its cheesy acting and the obsessiveness of its fans.  Star Trek had entered the ring of cinema--the epicenter of the mainstream, the home of the culturally respected and esteemed--and made a name for itself there.  Star Trek belonged.

More to the point, for the studio at least, Star Trek II was quite simply a success, financial and critical.  It was the kind of film every studio executive wanted to be responsible for: a hit.

Still, the studios, and Harve Bennett, were not yet satisfied.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Wrath of Khan, the Recreation of Star Trek, and the Redemption of Kirk

If there's one key insight that animates the Wrath of Khan, fueling its action and driving its plot, it is this: Kirk is not a very good person.

Yes, Kirk, the heroic exemplar of Kennedy-era masculinity, Horatio Hornblower for the Space Age Gene Roddenberry's fantasy of an ideal military commander, is, in truth, a shallow, irresponsible man, egotistically obsessed with winning at all costs, who has spent his life flitting from one easy success to another without ever dealing with the consequences of his actions, his human limitations and flaws, and his own mortality.

This may seem harsh and one-sided; and indeed, Kirk is without a doubt the hero of The Wrath of Kahn.  But if this central point is not grasped, in all its starkness, then it will be completely impossible to understand what makes TWOK tick: and, more than this, what makes The Wrath of Kahn without a doubt the greatest of all Star Trek films, and, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest works of American cinema as well.

Where does this insight come from?  Well, to really understand that, we will have to go back in time just a bit, to explain the origins of TWOK as a film, and to tease out a number of other insights that ultimately paved the way for this one.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Death and Highly Improbable Posthumous Success of Some Show From the '60s; or, Almost Everything Was Terrible in the '70s; or, The Messiest, Bloodiest Television Revival Ever; or, Why Star Trek the Motion Picture Is Not Very Good

Famously, Star Trek went off the air, finally and for good, only a matter of weeks before the Apollo moon-landing.  Later, people involved with Star Trek would wonder what might have been if this momentous event had happened earlier: would the reality of outer-space travel, beamed live to televisions across the nation, have given the nation's top dramatic space show a new lease on life?

Well, maybe.  But if so, it probably would have doomed Star Trek forever.

Getting cancelled, it turns out, was probably the best thing that ever happened to Star Trek.  If Star Trek had run for a few more years, winding down in the manner typical of a reasonably popular television show, it almost certainly would not have become a phenomenon at all, and we probably wouldn't remember it at all today: not any more than we remember Wagon Train, the popular, long-running show Star Trek was based on.

Why was Star Trek cancelled?  Well, really, the question is why it wasn't cancelled before.  CBS had in fact planned to cancel it both after its first year AND after its second year; both times, the show was belatedly saved by a letter-writing campaign, the first led by a number of respected science fiction authors, the second by a few ordinary fans, the legendary Trimbles.  Why the studio wanted to cancel it is a bit more complicated; but it mostly came down to the fact that Star Trek was very expensive and not quite popular enough to justify itself in the network's eyes.  According to some, Star Trek was, in fact, very popular with the "youth" demographic especially coveted by advertisers, which means that in this day and age it would probably have stayed on the air a good deal longer; but Star Trek came before networks had begun to think in this way.  Judged on an absolute scale, it simply wasn't popular enough for CBS and Desilu to continue underwriting its exorbitant budget.

And by the end of its third season, Star Trek was tired.  Gene Roddenberry, its creator, had already jumped ship for easier and more profitable pastures; and despite managing to pull together a decent season, Star Trek seemed to be feeling its age.  Death was, to a degree, a welcome respite.

This was bad news for a lot of people, though, including the many who had drawn their paychecks from the show; but it was especially bad news for William Shatner.  Having just gone through a costly divorce, he found himself completely insolvent, forced to travel the country with a theater troupe, a dog, and pickup truck, living out of a camper because he couldn't afford to pay hotel bills.  Eventually, by taking every single role available to him, he was able to get back on his feet in time for Star Trek's eventual revival.  Leonard Nimoy did much better; he continued to work on television and theater in various high-profile roles, including on Mission Impossible and as Sherlock Holmes.  Deforest Kelley took a supporting role in one of the greatest worst films of all time, Night of the Lepus, about giant, mutant killer bunnies with a taste for human flesh (I highly recommend it), and then retired to his house and wife.

Life, it turns out, goes on.