Friday, November 30, 2007

Trekdom Review: "The Menagerie" Movie Screening

by NyackJohn

So, I've been meaning to post for a while regarding the Movie Event showing of "The Menagerie" on the big screen.

My group attended the evening of November 13. Interestingly, most of the group consisted of a bunch of us who went to see each of the re-released "Star Wars" films at the giant Zeigfield Theater in NYC when Lucas re-did the effects some years ago. We thought remastered Star Trek was a perfect thing for this group.

There were six of us - a Diva who sings "Carmen" at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere; an Exec Marketing VP for a TV network; a 2 time award winner for "Best Jazz Singer in New York"; an Artisan Carpenter (who Acts on the side); a simultaneous interpretor from Bosnia; and me. I say this because some Emo kid who was waiting on line for the latest slasher flick said very loudly "Look at those loosers going to see "Star Trek"...". I admit curiosity to exactly what his definition of "loser" means...

We met for dinner at Dallas BBQ on 42nd Street, directly across from the theater. If you've never been to NYC, Dallas BBQ is a football field sized restaurant that caters mostly to tourists, but has the best damn Barbequed Chicken within about a 150 mile radius. Our Bosnian interpreter was "fascinated".

Our showing was sold out. We thought being a half hour early would get us good seats and we were very incorrect. In this enormous 4 story theater we were up near the very top (we also wanted to sit together, so...). Looking out at the audience, there were lots of business suits, and a number of people were actually extremely well dressed (though they could have been coming from work). There were a few "Star Trek" T-Shirts in evidence, but not much more than that. One poor soul was dressed as an Andorian, but sat in the very back and would not let me take their picture. Most of the audience did appear to be in "our" age group (30's and 40's) with more people in their 50's and 60's than younger (or so it appeared to us). The audience was equally divided between male and female (which seems to be more of a TOS thing than the later series, which seem skewed towards the male viewer).

The Movie finally began, and there was a prologue by Rod Roddenberry. It really seemed to be a commercial for the remastereds on DVD, but still, it kept the interest of the audience, and you could see his genuine affection for his father's work.

The Menagerie was shown in it's entirety - including both sets of credits. Many viewers around the country later complained it was too dark - there were moments when I did think it a trifle dim, but it never really bothered any of us. Interestingly, when the Enterprise is NOT in a star system, they do show it with running lights, and looking rather dark - it makes sense, really. The cleaned up video is truly wonderful - the colors are not at all garish, for instance, Uhura and Scotty's uniforms glow with a deep regal red rather than the more orangey-red that always showed up on our TVs. The Bridge looks spectacular. The CGI in this showing did not appear cartoonish, though I hear in some of the other episodes it can do so.

What I found particularly wonderful were the cleaned up Matte Paintings - the Citadel on Rigel VII was magnificent, as was the cleaned up Talos IV horizon. Very Wonderful! I liked the changes done to the mattes on Starbase 11 - the adding of more detail, more lights, even moving ships. Some complained they weren't "exciting" enough - Hello! In theatre we call that "upstaging" - you don't have a background be so interesting that it fights with the drama down front. I thought the changes were just right.

Except for the slight "jarringness" of having ending and second beginning credits in the middle of the presentation, "The Menagerie" actually holds it own extremely well as a cinematic presentation. Afterwards, many people remarked on how they'd fogotten how well written it was and wished there was more good writing like it around.

Interestingly, Kirk really does come across as a total womanizer on the big screen moreso than he does on TV. And even the two straight guys in our group agreed that Jeffrey Hunter was probably the handsomest actor in all the Trek incarnations. Our Bosnia remarked on how odd it was to finally see it without it being dubbed into her language!

"The Women!", Spock's empassioned cry, actually garnered huge laughs. Seems no matter how "canon hounds" try to explain that one, it just sticks out like a sore thumb.

Once "The Menagerie" was over, there was another "commercial" for the DVDs, previewing the Second Season of remastered episodes. It was well-received by the audience, and the whole place erupted into cheers with the line "after 40 years you will finally see a Gorn blink...".

There was no mention of the upcoming film, and I think that was probably a good idea. This was NOT the crowd to tout the "re-boot" to - these were, for the most part, old die-hard fans of the original series who are tentative about the new project. It was as if the HD-DVD's were sort of a present and apology to them - a loyal fanbase which basically kept much of Paramount alive over the years and has been a great boon to their new parent company, CBS. It appeared to me that this was CBS/Paramount's way of "having their cake and eating it too" - a new "reboot" movie for younger fans and some of the older fans that can handle it, and a dusting and polishing of the original series for the older fans who like Shatner/Nimoy/Kelley/Nichols just fine thanks.

I mentioned the TV exec who was with us. When he was leaving the office to go to the movie he mentioned where he was going to a VERY senior exec there - a man who had been with NBC in his younger days during the 1960s, who said "cancelling that show was quite possibly the stupidest thing done in that entire network's history..."


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Star Trek and Religion (A Conversation with Prof. Mary Jo Weaver)

After earning her Ph.D at the University of Notre Dame in 1973, Prof. Mary Jo Weaver (Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University) wrote and taught about contemporary American Catholicism. Her publications focused on the history and politics of institutional Catholicism, as well as the impact of feminism. Two books, in particular, explored the political divisions and competing ideologies that shape modern Catholism: Being Right: Conservative American Catholics (1995) and What's Left?: Liberal American Catholics (1999).

Mary Jo Weaver also taught several courses on Star Trek that incorporated popular culture, theories of religion, and analytical explorations of cosmology. She was kind enough to speak with us about religion and spirituality in the Star Trek universe.

Trekdom: Professor Weaver, thank you so much for the taking time to speak with us. Like many teachers and scholars, you've had success using Star Trek in the classroom. Whether giving introductory lectures on modern intellectual history or delving into complex debates about religion, philosophy, science, and politics, Star Trek has been a useful teaching aid. Why is that? Is it simply because artifacts of contemporary popular culture are useful teaching aids, or is there something unique and special about Trek?

Mary Jo Weaver: Trek is useful because I found many of its episodes able to dovetail with what I wanted to do in the classroom. I would have used another bit of popular culture, but happened to love Trek and to own most of it, so tailored my course to it. For example, I wanted students to understand a bit of Freud’s critique of religion and why he dismisses arguments from antiquity. Well, “Devil’s Due” is a great episode for Freud: it is about reality, about how mythological figures fool people, about the weakness of the argument from antiquity etc. Anyway, point is, I was interested in students understanding Freud, not Trek. I think Roddenberry was interested in making a successful television series, and it happens that he had a pretty well-developed consciousness as a secular humanist (thought human beings had unlimited potential to do good, especially if not impaired by evil systems by which he usually meant religion, or the military, or business). He was able to take on issues because of the Sci-Fi format and he produced an excellent show. I do not believe that Trek is all that interesting intellectually in itself, but it is suggestive and works with a variety of approaches to deepen awareness of a variety of issues.

Trekdom: If you could characterize Star Trek's overall stance on religion and the existence of God(s), what would you argue? Was there a consistent message throughout the various series, or did the message change over time?

Weaver: Not sure it had or was all that interested in taking a stance on God. GR did not like organized religion, and he was drawn to some Enlightenment thinkers which means that when he did open up vaguely religions themes, he sounded like some of those people. In that, again, I think he reflected the culture of the 60s. By the 90s, with the rise of some religious alternatives (ecumenical, new-age, etc.) Trek was able to reflect some other ways to look at religious material. Early Trek (esp original series) was horrid when it took on religious themes head on (“Who Mourns for Adonis” is a cliché argument about how we’ve outgrown our need for the gods – Plato made the same argument long, long ago) but those episodes are useful to get students interested and to guide them toward sources that can flesh out, criticize, and evaluate the “stance” presented in the program. Trek is only consistent as a barometer of cultural change (by the 90s folks were comfortable with Native American ideas, so Chakotay goes on vision quests and has a quasi-mystical approach to some things; by the 90s anthropologists were interested in religious practices (Victor Turner, Geertz e.g.) and so we can see Janeway searching the Federation data base on religious anthropology and using it to undergo some sort of ritual. The nice thing about that episode is that her knowledge won’t get her very far, that she has to rely on her own self, her experience (not someone else’s data), and that, too, is one of the theme songs of the 90s.

TD: It's interesting because many fans argue that Gene Roddenberry's secular humanism and personal intolerance for faith and organized religion contradicted his proclamations of "infinite diversity in infinite combinations." When the later series treated mysticism, spirituality, and faith with more respect, Star Trek started to finally live up to its professed embrace of multiculturalism and competing worldviews. Any thoughts here?

Weaver: I don’t think he was intolerant of faith, but surely had no use for organized religion. Infinite diversity is not really a religious formula, it is more of a nod to Darwin and to the complexities of the material universe translated into human terms. There are times in interviews that GR sounded like Plotinus or something (ultimate union with “The One”). Faith is a tricky matter – often even in shows where they almost admire a mystical approach, they continue to show an aversion to “faith” which suggests to me that they think faith is something inexorably connected to institutional religion. Trek’s multi-culturalism was mostly racial and that’s great. Not so embracing of gay characters, or conservative believers or other groups that make multi-culturalism more interesting or (for some) more vexing. DS-9 was fascinating about religion and politics. I never quite knew what to make of the prophets, or of Sisko’s experiences with them. And, frankly, DS-9 was not on my radar screen the same way TNG and VOY were when I was creating the syllabus.

TD: Star Trek is at its best when it deals with complex social issues in provocative ways. Those examples of social commentary could be quite preachy at times, as with "Let that Be your Last Battlefield," "Who Mourns for Adonais," and "Who Watches the Watchers." Still, Trek asks viewers to think and reflect about important issues. However, with Star Trek: Enterprise, it seemed like that aspect was lost amidst laser fights, steamy decon rub-downs, and Vulcan zombies in space. I can think of only one episode ("Chosen Realm") that approached the topic of religion in a direct way. Do you share my frustration here, or would you say that ENT had much to say about religion and philosophy?

Weaver: Enterprise was horrible exactly as you say, because there was no there there. Who cares how they came up with “Red Alert?” Nothing to think about, just something to see. The social commentary episodes you mention were preachy which is why I think Trek is much better when it comes at religious issues in a tangential way (Transfigurations, e.g., about the personal evolution of humanoid species into cosmic light particles, is provocative and open to a variety of religious interpretations). I think ENT had nothing to say about religion (except, perhaps, that in its institutional form—the old GR bugbear—as in Vulcan monasteries, religion is horrid). My guess about the steam decon scenes is that TV studios are probably more interested in such scenes than Trek creators in some ways.

TD: Star Trek is now in the hands of J.J. Abrams, whose previous work on Lost explored the conflicts between a man of science (Jack) and a man of faith (John Locke). If Abrams' 2008 Star Trek reboot recreates those types of dichotomies and uncompromising battles, would that be good for Star Trek, or would you like to see something much different?

Weaver: (Will wait and see)

TD: Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure.

Weaver: This was fun.