Flashback: ‘X-Men’

Summer 2000 saw the arrival of Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ on the big screen, leading to an explosion of superhero blockbusters at the cinema…

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Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan provide heaps of gravitas in Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

Year:  2000

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn (as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Bruce Davison

Directed by:  Bryan Singer / written by:  David Hayter (Story by Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer.  X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

The not-too distant future: as the U.S. Government contemplates the introduction of a registration act for mutants – evolved humans with paranormal abilities – the benevolent ‘X-Men’, led by Professor Charles Xavier must stop Xavier’s old friend, Erik Lensherr and his Brotherhood of Mutants from igniting a conflict with the rest of humanity…

Retrospective/review

Although it could be argued that the contemporary explosion of comic book superhero films was initiated by the success of Blade in 1999, it was actually X-Men that brought the genre to the masses – leading to an (at least presently) endless crop of big screen comic book adaptations.  Helmed by The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, X-Men would become a smash hit for film studio 20th Century Fox in the summer of 2000 and although it may now seem a little tame when placed alongside Marvel Studios releases such as the colossal Avengers Endgame, it remains an enjoyable superhero action adventure that has an important place in the history of superhero cinema.  It would also spawn a lucrative film franchise spanning almost two decades, concluding with last year’s unfairly maligned (albeit flawed) X-Men: Dark Phoenix…or technically, will conclude with the still as-yet unreleased New Mutants spin-off.

By enlisting a director of proven calibre and having its cast include two of the world’s most talented and experienced actors, Star Trek legend Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier – leader of the ‘X-Men’ and a mutant with incredible mental powers – and Ian McKellan as Xavier’s old friend turned enemy, fellow mutant Erik Lensherr – aka ‘Magneto’, with the ability to control magnetism – X-Men would take a serious and somewhat believable approach to the source material without betraying the core fantasy and socially aware elements Stan Lee and Jack Kirby infused into the original Marvel comics (and which was so well portrayed in the classic 1990s Fox X-Men animated series).  Some may have been upset by the lack of more colourful costumes, but the cool black leather X-uniforms are indicative of the style and creative intentions favoured in Singer’s film.

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Hugh Jackman debuts as Logan/Wolverine (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

In X-Men, as U.S. senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) debates the perceived danger of those with mutant abilities and presses for the Mutant Registration Act, Erik Lensherr, with his ‘Brotherhood’, believing that a war between mutants and the rest of humanity is all but inevitable, plots a pre-emptive first strike which Charles Xavier and his benevolent mutant X-Men must prevent.  In order to uncover Magneto’s plans, Xavier must investigate the link with two stray mutants – the young and afraid adolescent girl going by the name ‘Rogue’ (Anna Paquin, future star of TV hit True Blood), with the ability to absorb the powers of other mutants and the mysterious Logan, otherwise known as the cage fighter called ‘the Wolverine’, who is unable to recall his past or how his skeleton was grafted with the indestructible metal adamantium – a process he only survived thanks to his mutant-healing factor.

Although he may be taller than his comic book counterpart, Hugh Jackman – receiving top-billing – is instantly and effortlessly Logan/Wolverine, perfect casting in a role that would quickly become popular with audiences and fans alike.  Jackman simply is Wolverine, aside from matching the obvious physicality of the character (minus the height difference, which really isn’t an issue given the strength of Jackman’s performance) he embodies the spirit of Logan, from the raging temperament to the emotional depth arising from his nightmare flashes of lost memory and his befriending of Anna Paquin’s Rogue.  It’s a sublime portrayal right from the outset in X-Men and one that would only become more refined and assured in later instalments.

The cast of X-Men is filled out commendably with a generally strong group of actors who are a good fit for their characters.  James Marsden, Famke Janssen (previously a femme fatale in the James bond film Goldeneye) and Halle Berry make for pleasing live action versions of fan-favourite X-Men, respectively: the optic-blasting team leader Scott Summers/aka Cyclops (the conflict between Cyclops and Logan intact from the comics), the telekinetic Jean Grey (with no X-alias) and Ororo Munroe/aka Storm, with the ability to control weather effects.  Magneto’s Brotherhood boasts Rebecca Romijn as the shape-shifting Mystique, Tyler Mane as the feral Sabretooth and Ray Park (Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) as the agile, whip-tongued and slime-spitting Toad.  They may not be afforded anything in the way of character development, but non-the-less help facilitate the threat to the central heroes.

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‘Cyclops’ (James Marsden) leads the X-Men as they attempt to prevent a war with the rest of humanity (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

From a story by Singer and Tom DeSanto, the script is provided by David Hayter (best known for voicing iconic video game character Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid) which captures the essence of the X-Men comics, it’s characters and the themes of prejudice and persecution which sadly remained as prescient in 2000 as they were in the 1960s, transposing it all into a more grounded reality.  Despite the more serious elements of the story (immediately evident from the bleak flashback opening at a World War II concentration camp, where the young Erik Lensherr is separated from his parents and his mutant abilities are first demonstrated) there’s still some fun to be had with a smattering of black humour and entertaining action sequences which complement the human and emotional aspects of the film.  The narrative wisely focuses on Logan and Rogue as the lone outsiders who cross paths with the X-Men, acting as a mirror for those in the audience unfamiliar with the world and characters of Marvel’s X-Men.  Bryan Singer’s direction is tightly and expertly executed, with a clear sense of visuals, tone and character deftly balanced with the action set-pieces which meld seamlessly with the special/visual effects which make full use of the $75 million budget (a princely sum back in 2000 but small change compared to today’s cinematic superhero offerings).  The Liberty Island finale is suitably tense and exciting bringing X-Men to an action-packed crescendo which may pale in comparison to the more epic and effects saturated climaxes of subsequent entries but is a satisfying close for Singer’s first effort.

Whilst the overall quality of Fox’s X-Men franchise may be inconsistent, the films are generally entertaining and sometimes excellent (see: X2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Logan) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men is certainly one of the better early Marvel Comics big screen adaptations, the success of which (along with Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man) would allow more comic book blockbusters to hit the big screen and inevitably become the dominant genre in film and television.

Geek fact! 

Amongst the serving producers of X-Men was later Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, mastermind and guardian of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘The Terminator’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Come with me if you want to live!”

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Arnold Schwarzenegger is the iconic killer cyborg in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Year:  1984

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henrikson, Earl Boen

Director:  James Cameron / written by:  James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd

What’s it about?

An unstoppable cyborg is sent back through time from the year 2029 to murder Sarah Connor, a waitress who will be mother to the leader of the human resistance waging a future war against the machines…

In review: why it’s a classic

Prior to 1984 it would be hard to believe that James Cameron would become one of modern cinema’s greatest auteurs.  Having previously worked as an art director on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (and later increase his profile by co-writing the screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II with Sylvester Stallone), Cameron had made his directorial debut with the dreadful horror sequel Piranha II: The Spawning.  Yet his fever-induced vision of a robot killing machine would spawn not only a successful filmmaking career but also a pop culture phenomenon.

Setting out to create the definitive technological science fiction terror tale, Cameron would drive The Terminator above its perceived B-movie trappings and create an all-time classic.  Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role, The Terminator sees a formidable and seemingly unstoppable cyborg sent back in time to the then present day of 1984 from the year 2029, where mankind faces extinction in a war against Skynet – an advanced form of A.I. – and its army of war machines, to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the human resistance’s leader, John Connor, before he is born and can lead the human race to victory.  There’s hope for Sarah in the form of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn – later to star in Cameron’s Aliens), a resistance soldier also sent back to 1984 with a mission to find and protect her from Skynet’s ‘Terminator’ at all cost.

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Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting abilities, but his balance of subtlety and intensity created a truly terrifying adversary, a shark-like robotic predator driven relentlessly to fulfil its programming in a career-defining role that would propel him to superstardom and a performance that is a crucial component in the success of The Terminator.  The film is a tense, exciting and often terrifying sci-fi action chase-thriller that posits a frightening scenario in which the advancement of technology and humanity’s hubris results in its obliteration.  Its dystopic elements are levied by the romance that builds between Sarah and Reese and together with the hope of humanity’s survival, creates a sense of hope amidst the bleakness.  Michael Biehn is great as Kyle Reese in a performance that conveys more depth than the average action hero.  Biehn is certainly adept at handling all of the required physicality but there’s a vulnerable quality to Reese that brings a lot of humanity to the character and a believability to a man out of time who has only ever known a life of hardship and struggle.  Linda Hamilton is perfectly cast as Sarah Connor with a fine portrayal of the everyday girl-next-door who has the fate of humankind literally placed in her hands.  Despite the fantastical aspects of the story, Sarah’s arc and her growth unfold naturally as she begins to unlock her inner strength and ultimately accept her destiny.  She is the heart of The Terminator and Linda Hamilton helps to create one of the most iconic screen heroines, inspired by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

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No escape? The Terminator continues its relentless pursuit (image credit: MGM).

The film’s special effects have aged extremely well and bely the $6 million production budget.  Younger viewers may scoff at the more practical nature of The Terminator but the ambitious blend of miniatures, puppetry, stop-motion animation and rear screen projection are a testament to Cameron as a pioneer in filmmaking.  Of course not all of the credit should go to Cameron, sure, through his tenacity the film’s grand vision was realised but it mustn’t be forgotten that the film’s groundbreaking effects and design would never have been achieved without the works of effects company Fantasy II and Hollywood legend Stan Winston (who would collaborate with Cameron again on Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day as well as creating the deadly alien hunter in Predator).  The Terminator is the successful sum of numerous parts and would not have been complete without Brad Fiedel’s score, undoubtedly one of the greatest revelations in motion picture music.  As strong as the film’s concepts and visuals, the metallic clunks and thrumming beats infused within Fiedel’s electronic score bring the killer cyborg and ravaged future Los Angeles to life.

Whilst the franchise may have faltered in recent years, James Cameron’s The Terminator remains forever a classic piece of science fiction cinema and with its laudable technical achievements, thrilling action and a captivating story it’s a film that will continue to endure.

Standout moment

Homing in on its target, the Terminator tracks Sarah Connor to the Tech Noir nightclub – making its way through the crowds on the dancefloor, drawing a handgun as it approaches Sarah and prepares to make the kill.  But Kyle Reese is already there, waiting to spring into action…

Geek fact!

Initially under consideration for the role of the Terminator were Lance Henrikson (who would go on to appear as LAPD cop Vukovich, alongside Paul Winfield’s Lt. Traxler) and O.J. Simpson.  Arnold Schwarzenegger was also originally put forward by his agent for the part of Kyle Reese.

If you like this then check out:

RoboCop (1987): the ‘other’ iconic 80s techno sci-fi action classic, director Paul Verhoeven executes a violent and satirical film with a superb central performance from Peter Weller as the titular part-man, part-machine future cop.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Have You Read… ‘Hulk: Gray’?

The comics and graphic novels you may not have read that are worth checking out… 

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Cover art for the original hardcover collected edition of Hulk: Gray by Tim Sale (image credit: Marvel Comics).

 

Written by:  Jeph Loeb / art by:  Tim Sale (The Incredible Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

Seeking out an old friend, Dr. Bruce Banner recounts the first hours following his exposure to Gamma radiation – the very event which unleashed his raging alter-ego, aka the Incredible Hulk…

In review

Following their collaborations on Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale (the creative team who produced fan favourites Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman: For All Seasons for DC) reunited for another Marvel Comics limited series – Hulk: Gray, originally published in 2003/2004 as six single issues under the more mature and less creatively restricted Marvel Knights banner.

Hulk: Gray is a standalone story recounting a previously untold tale in the history of the Incredible Hulk, within the first 24 hours of Dr. Bruce Banner’s fateful exposure to Gamma radiation and his transformation into the raging gray – or “grey” – giant.  That’s right…as aficionados will likely be aware, the Hulk was originally coloured grey for his debut in 1963’s The Incredible Hulk #1 and was subsequently recoloured green due to issues with printing reproduction (although a grey version of the Hulk would later feature in Peter David’s popular run on the title).  But aside from honouring this aspect of the character’s origin, the title Gray has more of a thematic meaning as it ponders the shadier middle moral ground between black and white.  It also explores the Frankenstein parallels that have often been linked to the character – something that was there from that very first classic issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  The story is presented in a straightforward manner, weaving its ideas neatly into the narrative.

Hulk: Gray opens as a forever on-the-run Bruce Banner, mourning the death of his late beloved wife, Betty (nee Ross), on the night of their wedding anniversary, takes a brief pause to seek the counsel of an old friend, psychotherapist Dr. Leonard Samson.  Tired of being pursued and eternally haunted by his beastly alter-ego, Banner bares his soul to Samson as he recalls his earliest moments as the Hulk and how the only true salvation in his life was Betty.  Yet, as we learn, Betty’s initial encounter with the Hulk is not exactly a sympathetic one and adds to Banner’s heartbreak in the face of an inevitably irreversible change in his life.

As well as Banner’s relationship with Betty, Hulk: Gray also looks at the conflict the Hulk’s appearance incites with the U.S. Military as Betty’s father, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross begins his relentless campaign to hunt down the creature.  What’s interesting is that Gray really conveys the sense that Ross, with his traditional air of “might makes right” (again in-line with how he was originally conceived by Lee and Kirby), is equally as raging and destructive as the Hulk, the difference being that his actions are deemed lawful and sanctioned by the U.S. government.  He may be more in control and less unpredictable than the almost mindless (or more child-like) Hulk, but the maniacal, near-psychotic Ross faithfully depicted here is proven to be just as dangerous with the resources – the “might” – at his command.

There’s still an element of hope in the story as the Hulk is not totally alone and has one person he can call “friend” (notwithstanding an unfortunately brief meeting with a desert-roaming bunny rabbit) – teenager Rick Jones, whom Banner had saved from the fallout of the Gamma Bomb test.  Gray highlights the ever-important friendship between Banner/Hulk and Rick and touches upon the burden of guilt that Rick carries as he blames himself for Banner being caught in the blast that leads to his ‘condition’.  Despite his troubles, Banner doesn’t hold his new young friend responsible and both as man and beast finds, at this point, his only trusted ally.  It underpins Banner’s inherent sense of morality and benevolence that prevents the Hulk from becoming a force of evil without removing the element of danger that accompanies an unrestrained and primal creature.

Throughout its six chapters, Gray serves up a pleasing dose of Hulk-Smash! entertainment and facilitates a secret, undocumented pre-Avengers confrontation between the formidable grey behemoth and Tony Stark’s Iron Man (with his classic early 60s bulky, golden tin-man appearance).  The desert-bound battle between the two future allies is a standout moment with Stark quickly realising that he’s bitten off more than he can chew as he’s beaten and tossed around by the Hulk.  Despite the technology at his disposal, Stark is unable to counter the threat that he and the U.S. Military have, perhaps unwittingly, provoked.

With the opening and closing of Gray taking place in the present, most of the story is told via Banner and Banner/Samson’s conversation, threaded throughout and serving as a narration.  Jeph Loeb’s entertaining script grapples onto the thematic concepts to present a poignant and thought-provoking tale of a man and a simple-minded and powerful but misunderstood monster, examining the dichotomy between the two personas and Banner’s startling revelation of why he really believes Betty loved him and stood by him for so long.

Tim Sale’s art is great and makes for a suitable accompaniment to Loeb’s script, with a classic, cartoon style that is reverential to – but exaggerates – Jack Kirby’s original visual design and which was also influenced by celebrated Hulk artist Marie Severin and her parody take on the character, ‘The Inedible Bulk’ (appearing in Marvel’s superhero spoof comic Not Brand Echh).  The use of colouring and shading is simple and effective (the black and white bookending sequences between Banner and Samson adds a touch of noir that also accentuates the central ‘grey area’ concept), creating a strong sense of atmosphere and the use of grey ink wash for the Hulk himself provides a subtle highlight that helps the iconic character standout on the page.  Whilst Sale’s style wouldn’t necessarily work as successfully in regular issues of The Incredible Hulk, the art he produces for Hulk: Gray is befitting of the pulpier approach taken by a story rooted in atomic age sci-fi.

Lovingly executed by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Hulk: Gray is a salute and homage to those early tales of the Incredible Hulk crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, simply told whilst broadening the depth of a decades-old Marvel Comics icon and reiterating the core elements that make the character most appealing.

Geek fact!

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale would team up once again in 2008 for a further ‘colour’ Marvel hero limited series – Captain America: White in which Steve Rogers recounts a special mission during World War II.

Hulk: Gray is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’

The Enterprise crew battle to save a cosmic paradise in the ninth ‘Star Trek’ feature film…

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Patrick Stewart and Donna Murphy in ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’ (imaged credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1998

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Donna Murphy, Anthony Zerbe

Directed by:  Jonathan Frakes / written by:  Michael Piller (story by Rick Berman & Michael Piller.  Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

Captain Picard and the loyal crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise disobey Starfleet orders to protect the B’aku, whose homeworld produces rejuvenating effects which a race called the S’ona plan to exploit…

Retrospective/review

The success of Star Trek: First Contact was surely a tough act to follow and although 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection would not prove to be as good, the result would be an enjoyable, if inferior, big screen instalment of Star Trek.  With Jonathan Frakes back in the director’s chair, the screenplay for Insurrection would be tackled by former Star Trek: The Next Generation head writer (and co-creator of television spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Voyager) Michael Piller, who had helped to guide that series to greater creative success and penned various standout episodes including the beloved two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds”.  From a story by himself and producer Rick Berman, Piller’s script provides a very Star Trek-like narrative that deals with moral themes and ethical quandaries traditional of the franchise and the types of character-driven stories that Piller favoured.  As the title implies, Star Trek: Insurrection see Captain Picard and his crew defy orders to protect the population of the planet Ba’ku, the rings of which produces a rejuvenating radiation (making the world a sort of galactic fountain of youth) which Starfleet and the Federation, in partnership with a race called the Son’a – who are trying to preserve their lives via genetic manipulation and cosmetic surgeries – seek to harvest and share for the benefit of the many.

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F. Murray Abraham as Ru’afo – the main villain of ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’ (Image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Picard learns from his superior, Admiral Dougherty (Licence to Kill’s Anthony Zerbe), that the 600-something population of Ba’ku are not indigenous to the planet – a fact that the Federation cites as justification for its actions, which the Son’a (lead by F. Murray Abraham’s Ru’afo) have manipulated to their advantage – and that the process of collecting the ring’s particles will render the world uninhabitable.  Yet the Ba’ku people are a peaceful group and Picard feels that to forcefully relocate them is a betrayal of everything he believes in and the core values upon which the Federation was founded, for which he is prepared to risk his career…and possibly his life.

Insurrection may seem, for better or worse, more like an extended episode of The Next Generation (albeit on a larger scale and with a much higher budget) and fails to match the overall excellence of First Contact but it’s still an entertaining watch with a good dose of drama, action and humour.  Jonathan Frakes once again directs with skill and a knowledge and appreciation for the history of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its characters.  As Commander Riker, Frakes is afforded a larger and slightly more significant role than in First Contact (notwithstanding him shaving off his beard) – the youthful effect of the Ba’ku radiation leading to a rekindling of romance between Riker and Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis) and the plot leading to Riker’s command of the Enterprise in its battle with the Son’a as Picard and his team fight to protect the Ba’ku on the ground.

It goes without saying that Patrick Stewart (who is also credited as ‘Associate Producer’) is great in the film, with another strong portrayal as Picard and Insurrection provides him with a romantic interest in the form of Donna Murphy’s Ba’ku villager, Anij.  Brent Spiner, again, proves solid support as Data and his befriending of one of the young Ba’ku (Artim, played by Michael Welch, who would go on to appear in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes) is a highlight.  The rest of the TNG cast also get their moments, Michael Dorn’s Worf once more joining his former crewmates for their latest adventure – the B’aku radiation hilariously causing “aggressive tendencies” as it triggers the hormonal effects of Klingon adolescence – and blind Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge (Levar Burton) finds his eyesight temporarily restored.  As Doctor Beverly Crusher, Gates McMadden has less to do but does share some fun and humorous scenes with Patrick Stewart, Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner.  Leading the threat against the Enterprise crew is Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) who is superb as the Son’a leader, Ru’afo, with a hefty and maniacal performance providing a worthy antagonist for Patrick Stewart’s Picard to face.

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The U.S.S. Enterprise plays her part in helping to save paradise (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

The narrative may flow more like an episode of TNG and not necessarily fulfil the grander high-stakes ambitions of a feature film, but at the heart of Insurrection is a Roddenberry-esque morality tale and the script contains a few neat twists and turns, including the true motivations of the Son’a rising from their surprising history with the Ba’ku.  There are also a number of decent action sequences, the standouts including the Son’a attack on the Ba’ku village, the battle in space as Son’a vessels pursue the Enterprise and the climactic confrontation between Picard and Ru’afo aboard the Son’a collector ship.  The film is blessed with Matthew Leoneti’s beautiful cinematography, wonderfully captured from the Californian landscapes doubling for the Ba’ku planet.  Jerry Goldsmith earns kudos for producing another excellent music score that draws on his previous Star Trek themes whilst creating new cues fitting of Insurrection’s story.

So, there are certainly positives in favour of Star Trek: Insurrection and although it doesn’t raise the bar for the Star Trek film series and may seem a little underwhelming when placed alongside First Contact, it still makes for entertaining viewing with solid cast performances, direction and neat action set pieces.

Geek fact! 

Star Trek: Insurrection was the first Star Trek feature to move completely away from model effects work, utilising CGI for all its exterior spaceship sequences.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘The Twilight Zone’ – “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“There’s a man out there!”

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William Shatner provides a wonderfully anxious performance in the classic ‘Twilight Zone’ outing “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Year:  1963

Starring:  William Shatner, Christine White, Ed Kemmer, Asa Maynor, Nick Cravat (introduction/narration by Rod Serling)

Written by:  Richard Matheson / directed by:  Richard Donner / series created by:  Rod Serling

What’s it about?

A man, flying home having just recovered from a breakdown is convinced he can see someone or something on the wing of the aeroplane…

In review:  why it’s a classic

One of the greatest and most popular episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is amongst the best not to be written by series creator Rod Serling.  Penned by noted science fiction writer Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend and a regular contributor to The Twilight Zone, having previously written memorable episodes such as “Third from the Sun”, “The Invaders” and “Steel”) – adapted from his 1961 story Alone by Night – and helmed by future Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” features a pre-Star Trek William Shatner (who also starred in another Matheson scripted story for The Twilight Zone: the excellent 1960 episode “Nick of Time”) as Robert Wilson, a man flying back home on a stormy night with his wife (played by Christine White) after recovering from a nervous breakdown.  During the flight, as his wife sleeps, Wilson observes something outside the window – a strange figure on the wing of the plane that subsequently disappears.  As the figure – a gremlin-like creature – reappears, only to jump away before anyone else can see it, Wilson is convinced it is causing damage to the aircraft and desperately tries to convince his wife and the flight crew what he’s witnessed is real – but nobody believes him.

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The gremlin creature (Nick Cravat), given a suitably creepy facial make-up design by William Tuttle (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Richard Matheson provides a suitably mysterious and tense script that’s enhanced greatly by an increasingly anxious performance from William Shatner.  The tight close-ups and low angle shots employed by Richard Donner’s direction add to the sense of unease and help capture the exasperation and nervousness of Shatner’s reactions, you truly believe this is a man on edge, having already suffered through his own emotional issues and thrust unwittingly into a fantastic scenario that he faces alone – a common but always enjoyable theme in Matheson’s writing.  The general look of the ’gremlin’ may now appear a little dated with the plump and fluffy boiler suit costume, yet the monstrous make-up design by William Tuttle is still very effective and with the strange animal-like movements by actor Nick Cravat makes it appropriately creepy.

Whilst the fifth and final season of The Twilight Zone is generally considered as its weakest (and even then, it yielded some firm fan favourites), “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is rightly praised and beloved.  It’s the one that even the most casual of pop culture observers recognises, affectionately parodied on The Simpsons and remade twice (a third time if you count the 2002 radio drama adaptation with Smallville’s John Schneider) – firstly for a segment of 1983’s The Twilight Zone:  The Movie (starring John Lithgow and directed by Mad Max’s George Miller) and more recently as an episode of the Jordan Peele-fronted revival of the series, the retitled story “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”.

Although “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” doesn’t feature a traditional rug-pulling twist that more often than not would conclude an edition of The Twilight Zone, it does leave the viewer with an unsettling final shot as the episode fades out with Rod Serling’s wonderfully lyrical closing narration to an all-time classic outing for the celebrated science fiction/fantasy anthology series.

Standout moment

As his flight home weathers a raging storm, Bob Wilson looks out of the window and between flashes of lightning is convinced he can see someone moving about on the wing…

Geek fact!

Richard Matheson would go on to write for the first season of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, scripting the iconic 1966 episode “The Enemy Within”.

If you like this then check out:

The Twilight Zone – “Nick of Time” : William Shatner makes his first TZ appearance in another classic instalment written by Richard Matheson in which a pair of newlyweds find their fates controlled by an ominous fortune telling machine.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Have You Seen… ‘Escape From New York’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

– 

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Kurt Russell as “Snake” Plissken, the iconic anti-hero of John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From New York’ (image credit: Studiocanal).

Year: 1981

Starring:  Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau

Directed by:  John Carpenter / written by:  John Carpenter and Nick Castle

What’s it about?

1997: New York is now a maximum-security prison and when the President of the United States is taken hostage after terrorists seize Air Force One, the authorities enlist the help of “Snake” Plissken – a convicted criminal and ex-Special Forces solider…

In review: why you should see it

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York may not be as widely known to contemporary viewers as the director’s more iconic mainstream hits – Halloween and The Thing – but it’s a science fiction action cult classic and comfortably one of Carpenter’s best films.  Taking place in the dystopic then-future of 1997, the U.S. crime rate has risen to uncontrollable levels leading to the conversion of Manhattan Island into a maximum-security prison, the city of New York being walled-off and mined in order to contain the most dangerous of criminals.  When the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) – on his way to a critical peacekeeping summit – is taken hostage after fleeing a terrorist-seized Air Force One, the U.S. Police Force enlists the help of “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell – who would subsequently star in The Thing) a former Special Forces operative incarcerated after attempting to rob the Federal Reserve.  Offered a full pardon if he can rescue the President and get him out of New York alive within 24 hours, Snake is unwittingly given an extra incentive:  explosive charges injected into his arteries that will only be neutralised if he succeeds and returns in time.  Free to roam the decaying New York landscape and live as they please, with no hope of ever leaving, the prisoners within bow to the rule of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) – the city’s overall crime boss – and Snake, with his life already on the line, must fight his way through the deranged and deadly gangs of a place that once stood for peace and liberty before it’s too late.

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Oscar-winning music legend Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York (image credit: Studiocanal).

As the gruff, eye-patch wearing and no-nonsense Snake, the excellent Kurt Russell, with some Clint Eastwood-esque delivery (and accompanying attitude), creates an iconic action anti-hero (who would be the basis for the “Snake” character of the popular video game series Metal Gear Solid) – a disillusioned man, jaded and apathetic to the Stars and Stripes, whose only real interest here is his own survival.  It’s a central character we’re not initially supposed to like but quickly find ourselves rooting for.  Co-starring with Russell is Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as the equally no-nonsense police chief, Bob Hauk, whose grudging dislike for Snake begins to soften as he monitors the mission’s progress from the Liberty Island control centre.  Also appearing is Alien’s Harry Dean Stanton as “Brain” a genius engineer serving as an advisor to the Duke, Adrienne Barbeau (wife of Carpenter and star of one of his previous films – The Fog) as Brain’s tough-as-nails girlfriend, Maggie and Airwolf’s Ernest Borgnine as “Cabby”, the New York cabdriver who helps Snake get about in his armoured taxi.  Donald Pleasence, best remembered as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the classic James Bond film You Only Live Twice, provides a wonderful performance as the slightly buffoonish U.S. President and music legend Isaac Hayes (later the voice of Chef in South Park) makes for an appropriately menacing villain as the proclaimed Duke of New York and is aided by Frank Doubleday (previously from Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13) as the oddball and eccentric Romero – named after George Romero, director of legendary zombie-horror classic Night of the Living Dead.

Considering its modest $6 million budget and the technical limitations of the time, the production of Escape From New York remains impressive.  Without the by now all too easy reliance on computer generated wizardry, John Carpenter and his team employ incredible ingenuity to combine miniatures, physical sets and matte-painted backgrounds (all helping to effectively create Snake’s stealthy insertion into New York by glider plane) with the St. Louis locations, practical effects and stunts that blend to create a suitably declining and rotten New York (that feels as indelibly dangerous as it looks, even more so given much of the film takes place at night – kudos to Director of Photography Dean Cundey) complemented by the expertly staged action sequences – whether it be gun battles or fist fights…even the arena match Snake is forced to submit to.  It’s been said before but despite the great wonders that can be achieved with CGI, its now predominant usage has diminished the true art and craft of filmmaking.

Escape From New York oozes atmosphere and is populated with colourful characters backed up by a great script.  Writing with Nick Castle, Carpenter produces a pleasingly lean and uncomplicated action-narrative laced with political subtext, social commentary (the real-world escalating New York crime rate feeding the core concept) and flourishes of black humour.  The film’s memorable synthesized music score is also composed by Carpenter (with Alan Howarth) and like much of his directorial output is an important component, elevating all the tension and excitement as the stakes begin to stack up.

Escape From New York would prove another success for John Carpenter and after teaming up for The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell would later reunite for a disappointingly poor sequel – 1996’s Escape From L.A. – but that doesn’t erase the appeal and the pure entertainment value of Escape From New York.

Geek fact!

Working with Carpenter on Escape From New York is future director James Cameron (credited as “Jim” Cameron) as part of the visual effects team and a matte artist, just a few years away from his breakout success with The Terminator.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Picard’ – Season 1

A science fiction legend returns in the newest ‘Star Trek’ spin-off…

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Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) embarks on a new mission in ‘Star Trek: Picard’ (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Warning! Contains some spoilers

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Isa Briones, Alison Pill, Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera, Harry Treadaway, Evan Evagora, Peyton List, Brent Spiner, Jeri Ryan

Series created by:  Akiva Goldsmen, Michael Chabon, Alex Kurtzman & Kirsten Beyer (Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

As the end of the 24th Century approaches, on the anniversary of the devastating destruction of the planet Romulus, retired Starfleet Admiral Jean-Luc Picard is confronted by a mysterious young woman on the run, as a new adventure beckons…

In review

Recently completing its ten-episode run (via CBS All Access/Amazon Prime), the first season of Star Trek: Picard is an enjoyable beginning for the newest addition to the expanding Star Trek television universe.  From the creators of Star Trek: Discovery, Picard adds additional pedigree to its creative staff in the form of Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay), serving as co-creator/showrunner and who writes/co-writes a number of episodes throughout the season.  The series boasts the same impressive production values seen in Discovery, with near-feature film quality visuals and special effects complemented by some striking cinematography.  Headlined by lead star/executive producer Sir Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: Picard sees the celebrated actor return to the beloved role of Jean-Luc Picard after an eighteen-year absence (last appearing on the big screen in 2002’s Star Trek Nemesis), with a clear enthusiasm and investment in the material.  In the established traditions of Star Trek, Picard provides a mirror for current events weaving commentary on issues ranging from Brexit to global political turmoil and social segregation into its narrative, whilst also delving into the often mined but always intriguing concept of artificial intelligence.

Star Trek: Picard picks up two decades after the events of Star Trek Nemesis and the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in the wake of a catastrophic supernova.  Having resigned from Starfleet following their withdrawal from the Romulan relocation effort, implemented after a deadly revolt by the synthetic workforce brought online to increase the production of rescue ships, a dejected and morose Jean-Luc Picard has retreated to the family vineyard in France, embittered by the failure of the once cherished and noble values of Starfleet and the Federation which he long fought to protect.  Haunted by dreams of his late comrade and friend Lieutenant Commander Data (the ever-excellent Brent Spiner), the Enterprise’s former android crewman, Picard is lost and without purpose until one day, he encounters a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones).  Hunted by Romulan assassins and drawn to Picard by hidden memories, we soon discover that Dahj is an advanced type of android created by Doctor Bruce Maddox (John Ales – portraying the character originally played by Brian Brophy in the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man”) based on Data’s positronic neurons – essentially Data’s ‘daughter’.  Picard is unable to save Dahj but learning that she has a twin, Soji, unaware that she is in fact an android and working aboard a Romulan-captured Borg vessel known as ‘the Artifact’ to help rehabilitate the individuals assimilated by the Borg and now disconnected from the Collective.  Refused help by Starfleet, Picard gathers a crew of his own aboard a ship called La Sirena and sets out on a mission to reach Soji as a conspiracy by a secret Romulan order – the Zhat Vash – to eradicate all synthetic life before it threatens organics (prophesied by ‘the Admonition’), unfolds.

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The superb Jeri Ryan returns as Seven of Nine (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Assembled aboard the La Sirena (following a trilogy of opening chapters, all skilfully directed by executive producer Hanelle M. Culpepper), the main players are an eclectic – and flawed – bunch.  Joining Picard is the washed-out, hard-drinking Raffi Musiker (a conflicted yet maternal Michelle Hurd), his right-hand woman during the Romulan evacuation crisis who was subsequently forced out of Starfleet, robotics expert Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) who joins the mission to search for Maddox – and whose troubled journey becomes a highlight, with a wonderfully quirky and nuanced performance by Alison Pill – and Elnor (Evan Evagora), a childlike but dutiful young Romulan warrior Picard once befriended and mentored as a boy.  Commanding La Sirena is the roguish cigar chomping Cristobal “Chris” Rios (Santiago Cabrera), who is a nifty blend of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, with his own reasons for abandoning Starfleet and aided by a number of Emergency Holographic programs, each with their own specific purpose (medical, helm, navigation, engineering…even psychiatric!) and personalities to suit.  The main threat is provided effectively by Gotham’s Peyton List who plays Narissa, a Zhat Vash operative who is devilish and formidable, but also given some credible motivations.  List’s character is supported by her brother, Narek (Harry Treadaway), assigned to become close to and manipulate Soji – who is believed to be ‘the Destroyer’ who will bring about the annihilation of organic life – and Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), the sinister Romulan/Vulcan spy at the head of Starfleet security.

Picard’s voyage also facilitates the return of some old faces.  Aside from Brent Spiner’s Data, there’s an emotional reunion with former Enterprise colleagues Will Riker and Deanna Troi (in the Chabon co-written episode “Nepenthe” which is a standout of the season, featuring wonderful performances by Jonathan Frakes – who also directs a number of episodes – and Marina Sirtis), appearances from Hugh, the former Borg introduced in TNG (a now de-Borgified and sorely underutilised Jonathan Del Arco) and popular Star Trek: Voyager character and other ex-Borg, Seven of Nine (the superb Jeri Ryan).  Seven (rejecting her real name of Annika Hansen) is in something of a dark place in Picard, the tragic loss of her young protégé Icheb (sadly, original Voyager actor Manu Intiraymi is recast for a startlingly brutal flashback sequence) leading her to join a group of galactic mercenaries.  Jeri Ryan is well-served by the writers and excels in a performance that evolves Seven and takes her in an unexpected direction, allowing for more depth and complexity and she is a significant asset to the series.  What works especially well about the inclusion of legacy Star Trek characters in Picard is that they each play a part in the story and are not simply incorporated to provide fan service, which could have all too easily been the case.

As the show’s lead actor and focal point, Patrick Stewart is given a lot to play with and delivers a generally robust, passionate – and at times touching – portrayal of the 94-year old Picard.  There’s a slight shaky quality to Stewart’s performance – understandable, given his age – but it goes without saying that the mere presence of Jean-Luc Picard, a character that fans have longed to see return to the screen, is reassuring.  The revelation that Picard is beginning to experience symptoms of a terminal neurological condition (undoubtedly the Alzheimers-esque ‘Irumodic Syndrome’ depicted in the alternate future of the TNG series finale, “All Good Things”) adds a bittersweet touch and there’s an element of PTSD as Picard has to once again deal with his traumatic history with the Borg – which naturally provides some neat moments between Patrick Stewart and Jeri Ryan as the series examines the plight of the innocent victims (referred to as ‘Ex-B’s’) who had their individuality stripped away by the Borg.  The relationship between Picard and Elnor is quite sweet and the interplay between Stewart and Isa Briones is also memorable and especially well-portrayed as Picard helps Soji come to terms with, and embrace, her true nature.

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Picard seeks the help of some old friends (image credit: CBS Viacom).

As the season unfolds, there are various twist and turns – often genuinely surprising and even shocking (none of which will be divulged here for the sake of those not yet caught up) and the story reaches a climax with a two-part finale (“Et in Arcadia Ego“) in which Picard and his cohorts find their journey reaches Coppelius, a planet Dr. Maddox withdrew to continue his work following the synth ban and now populated by androids.  Trying desperately to prevent the galactic cataclysm foretold by the Admonition and from Soji playing a role in the event, Picard soon finds himself piloting the La Sirena and heading off a fleet of Romulan warships.  It’s a suitably epic confrontation and leads to an emotional and poignant denouement which establishes a new status quo for Picard, some satisfying closure for the TNG era and the promise of exciting new adventures to come.

Picard isn’t perfect, despite some of the talent behind the scenes the plotting can be a little haphazard and the writing is sometimes a bit clunky and contrived.  Some of the narrative elements – such as the afore-mentioned synthetic revolt and subsequent ban on artificial life – are not afforded enough focus, likewise there are character backstories left underdeveloped, such as Raffi’s strained relationship with her son.  It makes IDW’s Star Trek: Picard – Countdown comic book mini-series and Una McCormack’s novel Star Trek: Picard – The Last Best Hope recommended reading as they flesh out much of what is missing on screen in that regard.  It’s also worth mentioning that unlike The Next Generation, Picard – like a lot of modern genre TV productions – carries a mature viewer rating and fulfils it with instances of bloody violence and a jarring overuse of profanity.  Whilst Picard was never intended (nor should it be) as merely a reprisal of TNG, perhaps it’s a missed opportunity to not have the series be accessible to a broader age range given its heritage.

Grumbles and nit-picks aside, Picard remains entertaining and each episode is at the very least (ahem) engaging with plenty of drama, action and numerous Easter eggs for fans to feast on.  The series may have benefited from tighter and more consistent pacing, especially in the earlier instalments and maybe even an increased episode count to better cater for the various sub-plots and character developments, but there are often glimmers of greatness that assures potential for the already confirmed second season.  It’s hard to recommend Picard to the uninitiated as it is steeped deeply in the lore and history of what has gone before, requiring a certain amount of affection for the viewer to become properly committed.  In the end, Star Trek: Picard isn’t bound to please everyone – much like we’ve seen with Star Trek: Discovery – but on the whole it’s a well-produced and worthy new entry in the Star Trek canon with an intriguing story that’s elevated by the return, and resurgence, of Jean-Luc Picard and whets the appetite for the further voyages of a science fiction legend.

The bottom line:  A solid if sometimes flawed first season, Star Trek: Picard is non-the-less enjoyable and enhanced by the triumphant return of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard.

All episodes of Star Trek: Picard season one are available to stream via CBS All Access in the U.S. or internationally on Amazon Prime.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Comic Review: ‘Action Comics’ #1021

The Man of Steel fights to save Metropolis from total destruction…

Action Comics #1021

Cover art by John Romita Jr (image credit: DC Comics).

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / pencils by:  John Romita Jr / inks by:  Klaus Janson / colours by:  Brad Anderson

What’s it about?

“Metropolis Doom!” Conclusion : as Metropolis crumbles, Superman faces-off against a supervillain team-up of seemingly unbeatable proportions – but help is at hand…

In review

A good but by no means great issue of Action Comics, issue #1021 concludes the “Metropolis Doom” arc which began back in issue #1017.  The good is furnished by writer Brian Michael Bendis with an entertaining, if packed, script and solid characterisation whereas the not-so-good is the result of the underwhelming visuals by penciller John Romita Jr.

Brian Michael Bendis produces some challenging stakes for the Man of Steel as he confronts the combined threat of Leviathan, the Invisible Mafia and Lex Luthor’s Legion of Doom.  Luckily, Superman has some help as the Justice League and Young Justice join the fight to save Metropolis from annihilation.  Bendis continues to demonstrate his passion and belief in the values of Superman in a classic take on the character that is both reverential and relevant, bringing strength and hope in a time of bleak crisis.  The support of the likes of Justice League comrades Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern in addition to Young Justice heroes such as Conner Kent’s Superboy, Impulse and Wondergirl enhances the hopeful and upbeat aspects of the story.  It’s certainly ambitious and epic in scope but can also make thing seem a little overcrowded at times, there are some fun quips from the likes of Flash and Conner Kent in the heat of battle and there’s a lot of strong dialogue for Supes himself, maintaining the determination and morality we’d expect – even when the odds are stacked against our hero.

In terms of adversaries, Leviathan continues to be an intriguing and well-defined antagonist with an idealistic nature and identifiable motivations.  Bendis also continues to develop the increasing threat of the Invisible Mafia and the Red Cloud which has been building since the beginning of his Action Comics tenure, but perhaps it’s time to bring things to a head with Red Cloud/Robinson Goode and seek some resolution to that particular arc.  Once again though, Lex Luthor (in his ‘apex’ form) is the most formidable of opponents and the climactic showdown between Luthor and Superman is suitably tense and richly dialogued.

What really diminishes the quality of this issue – and indeed this arc – is penciller John Romita Jr who’s blocky, cartoonish characters and overuse of linework to accentuate shading is something of an acquired taste (it’s a shame that Romita Jr has maintained this style in recent years as some of his earlier work is actually pretty good).  It’s not totally awful, the visuals are improved by legendary inker Klaus Janson and veteran colourist Brad Anderson and to be fair Romita Jr does help construct some intense action sequences and is able to bring out the emotions of the various players, but it irrefutably pales in comparison to the exemplary work Ivan Reis is doing over on the also Bendis-written Superman.  Fans of John Romita Jr will likely be satisfied but one can only wonder how much more appealing and effective the story could have been if drawn by someone like Jim Lee or Jason Fabok.

The bottom line:  Brian Michael Bendis writes a fairly enjoyable, if overstuffed, issue of Action Comics that’s let down by some unremarkable visuals by penciller John Romita Jr.

Action Comics #1021 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ – “Caretaker”

Looking back at the premiere of the fourth live action ‘Star Trek’ series…

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The cast of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ – lead by Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway (image credit: Paramount/CBS Viacom).

Year:  1995

Starring:  Kate Mulgrew, Robert Beltran, Tim Russ, Robert Picardo, Robert Duncan McNeill, Roxann Biggs-Dawson, Ethan Phillips, Jennifer Lien, Basil Langton, Gavan O’Herlihy

Series created by:  Rick Berman, Michael Piller & Jeri Taylor (based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

Written by:  Michael Piller & Jeri Taylor (story by Rick Berman, Michael Piller & Jeri Taylor) / directed by:  Winrich Kolbe

What’s it about?

Transported across the galaxy whilst in search of a missing Maquis ship, Captain Kathryn Janeway and the crew of the U.S.S. Voyager encounter a powerful alien being known as the Caretaker…

Retrospective/review

With Star Trek: The Next Generation leaving the air in 1994 and the Paramount television studio wanting another Star Trek series to both accompany Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and launch the new United Paramount Television Network (UPN), January 1995 saw Star Trek: Voyager begin its seven year run with the double-length premiere titled “Caretaker”.  The series itself created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller (co-creators of Deep Space Nine) and Jeri Taylor (a writer and producer on The Next Generation), “Caretaker” is an enjoyable introduction to the third live action Star Trek spin-off.

In “Caretaker”, Starfleet dispatches the U.S.S. Voyager (docked at Deep Space 9, providing a neat crossover with the wider shared Star Trek universe and including a cameo for Armin Shimerman’s Ferengi barkeep, Quark), under the command of Captain Kathryn Janeway (the first female lead for a Star Trek series, played by Kate Mulgrew – rapidly cast to replace French actress Genevieve Bujold, who departed during the first days of filming), to search for a missing vessel belonging to the Maquis (a group of freedom fighters protesting an undesirable treaty with the militaristic Cardassians and considered as outlaws by the Federation – previously established in episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) which vanished without a trace in a volatile area of space known as the Badlands.  The mission is of importance as Janeway’s Vulcan security and tactical officer, Tuvok (Tim Russ – who had previously appeared in guest roles on TNG, DS9 and the film Star Trek Generations), was placed amongst the Maquis crew to gather intelligence.  To assist, Janeway enlists the help of an observer familiar with the Maquis – disgraced former Starfleet helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill – Cadet Nick Locarno in the TNG episode “The First Duty“), sentenced to a New Zealand penal colony after being caught during his first Maquis operation.  There’s some ill-feeling towards Paris by members of the Voyager’s crew but he soon finds a friend in the form of the newly assigned academy graduate, Ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang).

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The Intrepid-class U.S.S. Voyager (image credit: Paramount/CBS Viacom).

Entering the Badlands, Voyager encounters a strange phenomenon and finds itself engulfed in an energy wave.  The ship damaged and a number of its crew dead, Janeway soon discovers that the vessel has been transported 70,000 light years across the galaxy to a region known as the Delta Quadrant and in the vicinity of the missing Maquis ship and a massive space station belonging to a powerful life-form known as the ‘Caretaker’.  Appearing as an old man, the Caretaker (portrayed by guest star Basil Langton) is dying and has brought Voyager and the Maquis vessel to him in order to find compatible DNA to create a replacement to continue his work as guardian of a race known as the ‘Ocampa’.  As events unfold, the Starfleet and Maquis crews find they must work together in order to locate missing crewmembers (one of whom is Harry Kim) and face-off against the threat of the ‘Kazon’, barbaric factions of Klingon-esque aliens (and recurring baddies throughout the first two seasons of Voyager – lead here by Gavan O’Herlihy’s Maje Jaben) who will stop at nothing to seize technology that will allow them to assert dominance.  It leads to a difficult choice for Janeway, one that will protect the Ocampa but will leave Voyager stranded in the Delta Quadrant.

Through the course of the episode, “Caretaker” puts in place the rest of the varied main characters of Voyager:  Janeway appoints the leader of the Maquis, the tough but reasonable Chakotay (Robert Beltran) – of American Indian descent – as her first officer, Chakotay’s hot-headed half-Klingon/half-human engineer B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson) is subsequently assigned as Voyager’s chief engineer, the ship’s holographic Doctor (a wonderfully acerbic Robert Picardo) – the Emergency Medical Holographic programme (or EMH) – is the only choice to replace the deceased chief medical officer and joining the journey back to Federation space is alien guide and cook (later ‘morale officer’), the quirky and resourceful Neelix (Ethan Phillips) and his beloved, Kes (Jennifer Lien).  Tuvok of course returns to his post and Tom Paris is redeemed when Janeway entrusts him as the ship’s new helm officer.  As Janeway, Kate Mulgrew is magnificent – melding her own intellectual and maternal qualities with shades of the no-nonsense leadership of William Shatner’s Kirk and the curiosity and diplomacy of Patrick Stewart’s Picard.

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Gavan O’Herlihy as the Kazon leader, Maje Jaben (image credit: Paramount/CBS Viacom).

“Caretaker” also sets up the general concept for Voyager that’s a sort of inversion of Star Trek: The Next Generation ­ (and, with some inaccuracy, labelling the series as Star Trek’s version of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space) with the U.S.S. Voyager – revolutionary for its ‘bio-neural’ circuitry and featuring those cool pivoting warp engines – exploring space inward from the outer reaches of the galaxy as it heads along a seventy-plus year course towards Earth.  The integration of Maquis into the Starfleet crew creates an element of tension that’s dealt with during the first season but is, for the most part, quickly abandoned.  On one hand it’s a missed opportunity, possibly a victim of the episodic story of the week style of television at the time which DS9 would increasingly eschew to great creative advantage.  On the flip side, it allows the writers to focus on having the crew establish a familial bond, setting aside their differences and working together as a team in the spirit of the more holistic outlook favoured by original Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  It was also likely a response to the at-the-time divisive reception to the darker Deep Space Nine, which, ironically, is now one of the most popular iterations of Star Trek.

Star Trek: Voyager could be a little formulaic, especially in comparison to the more daring storytelling of Deep Space Nine and often seen as an inferior clone of The Next Generation, perhaps making it the weakest of the Rick Berman-produced Star Trek series (opinion amongst fandom of course varies).  Non-the-less there’s still plenty to appreciate with another solid central cast (and an undeniably strong lead in Kate Mulgrew) and numerous standout episodes.  It’s possible that if the series were made today it would have benefited from the more sophisticated and serialised nature of contemporary TV but as it stands, Voyager – boasting a memorable Emmy-award winning main theme from composer Jerry Goldmsith – is certainly an enjoyable if sometimes uninspired series and “Caretaker” is an engaging start to the adventures of the U.S.S. Voyager and her crew.

Geek fact!

Scenes shot for “Caretaker” featuring Genevieve Bujold as Captain Janeway were included amongst the extra features for the Star Trek: Voyager season one DVD set.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce”

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Batman faces a new threat to Gotham City in ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Year:  1993

Starring the voices of:  Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Mark Hamill

Directed by:  Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm / written by:  Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko & Michael Reaves (story by Alan Burnett)

What’s it about?

Wrongly accused of the murders of several Gotham mobsters, Batman investigates the appearance of a reaper-like figure…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Spinning off from the immensely popular Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an exciting, fun and emotionally resonant adventure for the Dark Knight that provides a fresh and compelling insight into the origins of Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego, the heartbreak of a lost chance for happiness and the enduring tragedy of the murder of his parents.

Enlisting the voice artists of Batman: The Animated Series with a script (the plot inspired by Mike W. Barr’s Batman: Year Two comics storyline) written by regular writers of the series and directed by creators Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (originally intended as a straight to video release but ultimately receiving a theatrical release during Christmas of 1993) sees Bruce Wayne reconnect with the love of his past, Andrea Beaumont, who returns to Gotham City after disappearing some years prior.  It evokes bittersweet memories for Bruce who is still trying to understand why Andrea left so abruptly just as the pair planned to marry.

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The mysterious Phantasm (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Flashbacks facilitate a glimpse into Bruce’s earlier days in his career as a vigilante but also shows a brief point in that period when he considers a happier and more hopeful path that would see him unburdened by his vow to avenge his parents’ murders and keep Gotham safe.  Meanwhile, in the present, Bruce continues his war against crime and as the Batman, investigates the deaths of some of Gotham’s top mob bosses for which the Dark Knight is wrongly accused and must uncover the identity of the real perpetrator – a mysterious cloaked reaper-like figure who stalks the city at night.  In order to tackle this new threat, Bruce must face unexpected revelations from the past and how it relates to Andrea and her father, a financier entangled in the affairs of crime lord Salvatore Valestra.

Kevin Conroy is the definitive voice artist for the lead role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, bringing a vulnerability and humanity to the former and skilfully infusing the latter with the right amount of intensity and confidence.  Dana Delany is sublimely cast as Andrea with an appropriately strong and heartfelt performance that enhances the love story element of the film.  Filling out the cast is Efrem Zimbalist Jr. who brings his warm, dutiful tones to the role of Alfred (the familial bond between Bruce and his faithful butler is an obvious highlight), Bob Hastings as Jim Gordon, Gotham’s tireless Police Commissioner, Hart Bochner as corrupt City Councilman Arthur Reeves, Stacy Keach as Andrea’s father, Carl, Abe Vigoda as Valestra and Robert Constanza as Detective Harvey Bullock.

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The incomparable Mark Hamill returns to voice the Joker (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Naturally, any Batman story is made all the greater when it features the Joker and thankfully Mark Hamill reprises the role for Mask of the Phantasm.  Like Kevin Conroy, Hamill is perfect casting and he engages with the part passionately, bringing, assuredly, all the expected maniacal, deranged and playful qualities that define the Dark Knight’s greatest adversary.  The script ensures that the Clown Prince of Crime’s inclusion has important ties to the narrative so as not to simply throw the ever-popular comic villain into the mix merely for the sake of it – leading to a climactic showdown between Batman, the Joker and the Phantasm at the derelict remains of Gotham’s The World of the Future Fair.

Unfortunately, there’s no place for Dick Grayson/Robin in the story but this is very much a Bruce/Batman-focused narrative so whilst the inclusion of Loren Lester may have been welcome, it makes sense not to just shoehorn Robin into the plot – and there’s always the excellent “Robin’s Reckoning” two-parter from TAS.

The animation and design of Mask of the Phantasm is iconic, evoking the dark, retro-modern and gothic style of the series that displays influences of Tim Burton’s Batman.  The character designs are classic and strike the perfect balance between realism and caricature and the visuals flow beautifully with some great action scenes that are deftly executed under the guidance of co-directors Radomski and Timm.  Completing the package is Shirley Walker’s wonderfully atmospheric score which builds on the exemplary work she produced for Batman: TAS.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is essential viewing for older and newer fans alike and stands proudly alongside Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as a classic screen iteration of a beloved comic book character.

Standout moment

In the darkened caves deep below Wayne Manor, Alfred stands aghast as Bruce emerges from the shadows, donning for the first time the cape and cowl of the Batman…

Geek fact!

Impressing the producers with her work on Mask of the Phantasm, Dana Delany would be cast as the voice of Lois Lane for Superman: The Animated Series.

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Batman (1989) : perhaps the defining big screen presentation of the Dark Knight (at least for a particular generation) Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy approach to the source material provided a clear reference point for the makers of Batman: The Animated Series.