Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ – “The Cage”

Where the voyages of ‘Star Trek’ truly began…

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Jeffrey Hunter leads the cast of “The Cage” as Captain Christopher Pike.

Year: 1964

Starring: Jeffrey Hunter, Leonard Nimoy, Majel Barrett, John Hoyt, Susan Oliver

Series created by: Gene Rodenberry

Written by: Gene Rodenberry / episode directed by: Robert Butler

What’s it about?

Searching for survivors of the S.S. Colombia on the unexplored planet Talos IV, the crew of the Earth space ship Enterprise are thrown into crisis when their captain, Christopher Pike, is captured and imprisoned by a race of powerful telepaths…

Retrospective/review

As any Star Trek fan more than likely knows, the voyages of the starship Enterprise didn’t actually begin with Captain Kirk. Whilst the series would launch with the airing of “The Man Trap” in September of 1966, viewers at the time were unaware that two years previously another version of Star Trek had been produced – and canned. Screened at conventions during the 1970s but unaired until the 1980s and now widely seen thanks to decades of home video releases (greatly enhanced by its beautiful 21st Century high definition remaster with new CGI effects), “The Cage” is a fascinating glimpse into the genesis of Star Trek.

Springing from his ‘Wagon Train to the stars’ concept, Star Trek married Gene Roddenberry’s love of science fiction and adventure with the frustrations of television censorship to create a vehicle for telling serious, adult (eschewing the campier comic book approach of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space) stories about humanity, exploration, discovery and tackle social and political issues without the interference of network executives. Realising that science fiction fans would recognise the deeper themes offered by Star Trek and the television suits would in most instances not, it would be the perfect passion project for Roddenberry and a means to explore compelling and thought-provoking ideas.

In “The Cage” the U.S.S. Enterprise, under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, traces a distress signal to the unexplored Talos star system, a region where the S.S. Colombia reportedly disappeared eighteen years prior. Arriving at Talos IV, Pike and a landing party discover survivors of the Colombia expedition, including the beautiful Vina. Quickly learning that the survivor’s camp is a fake, it’s too late for the Enterprise party to prevent Pike’s capture by the Talosians. Forced underground when the surface was decimated by war and having developed powerful telepathic abilities in the succeeding centuries, the Talosians imprison Pike with Vina – the only true Colombia survivor – subjecting them to various illusionary scenarios, for their captors’ own satisfaction and in the hope that the pair will become close and produce offspring to add to the Talosian ‘zoo’.

A notable actor with roles in big screen features including the John Wayne-fronted Western The Searchers and as Jesus Christ in King of Kings, Jeffrey Hunter is an assuring lead and, as written by Roddenberry, brings a complex and layered performance to the role of Captain Pike – a resourceful and capable commander suffering a crisis of conscience and loss of direction and desire for responsibility following his most recent mission which saw members of his crew injured and even killed.

 

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The late, great Leonard Nimoy as a very different Mr. Spock.

 

Joining Hunter is Leonard Nimoy as a far more ebullient and emotive Mr. Spock, the only character who would make the transition to the series where the concept of the emotionally repressed and logic-driven Vulcan race would be defined, Majel Barrett as Pike’s unnamed first officer – referred to only as “Number One” (Barrett would later become Mrs. Roddenberry and join the Star Trek cast as Enterprise nurse, Christine Chapel), a skilled and intelligent women in a position of authority which was uncommon in television and film at the time, John Hoyt (previously seen in the George Pal science fiction cult classic When Worlds Collide) as Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Philip Boyce and Peter Duryea as ship’s helmsman Jose Tyler and Laurel Goodwin as Yeoman Colt – whose characters are both unnamed onscreen. Guest starring as Vina is the excellent Susan Oliver and Meg Wyllie as the Talosian ‘Keeper’ with dialogue redubbed by Malachi Thone, the vocal pitch adjusted to give the Talosian race a mysterious androgynous quality.

Gene Roddenberry’s narrative is exciting, dramatic and filled with intelligent SF ideas but it’s in character that he excels – he provides Pike with a richness of depth and humanity and his scenes with Oliver’s Vina provide pathos and emotional investment (and offering food for thought as the theme of slavery is examined), which complements the science fiction aspects of the story and the morality play elements. Roddenberry backs this up with some great dialogue that verges on the poetic, best exemplified by the ‘doctor, bartender’ exchange between Boyce and Pike (played superbly by Jeffrey Hunter and John Hoyt) in which the doctor shares a martini with his conflicted captain and reminds him that “a man either lives life as it happens to him, meets it head-on and licks it, or he turns his back on it and starts to wither away”.

The production values are impressive and hold up extremely well, whilst the Enterprise sets are drabber and more muted in terms of colour (likewise, the crew uniforms, which would be re-designed once the first season of Star Trek proceeded) they are largely the same, minus subtle changes, to how they would appear in the series. Props such as the communicator and laser pistol (the forbearer of the phaser) are highly detailed and believable, functional devices. The subterranean caverns of the Talosian community are sparse but effective, the make-up design of the Talosians themselves is exemplary, their large, bulbous craniums given life with throbbing veins indicating the use of their advanced mental abilities.

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One of CBS Digital’s new CGI effects sequences for the remastered edition of “The Cage”.

Although the Enterprise model effects work is somewhat primitive and experimental in comparison to the series proper, Matt Jeffries’ design remains iconic and the substituted CGI effects for the remastered edition of “The Cage” render this point moot and increase the enjoyment of the story greatly. Equally legendary is Alexander Courage’s theme music (so celebrated that Courage’s cues are incorporated into Jeff Russo’s theme for the latest Star Trek series, Discovery), identifiable to even those who may not be fans of Star Trek. Beyond the main theme, Courage’s score for “The Cage” is quite magnificent – conveying all the action, emotion and mystery of Gene Roddenberry’s script.

“The Cage” would run over schedule and over budget and ultimately be rejected by the NBC television network for being “too cerebral” but enough potential was seen in Gene Roddenberry’s creation to commission a second pilot leading to the more action-driven (but actually, still fairly intelligent) “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (read the retrospective here) with the incomparable William Shatner taking over the lead as Captain James T. Kirk. The rest is of course history but there should always be an appreciation for “The Cage” and its role in the birth of a cultural phenomenon.

Geek fact!

Footage from “The Cage” would later be incorporated into “The Menagerie”, the original Star Trek’s only two-part story which guest stars Malachi Throne as Commodore Mendez.

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

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TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ – Season 2 Premiere

The newest ‘Star Trek’ crew embark on a new adventure…

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The crew of the U.S.S. Discovery are ready to begin their next voyage as season 2 of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ begins (image credit: CBS, used for illustrative purposes only).

Starring: Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Anson Mount, Wilson Cruz, James Frain, Tig Notaro

Written by: Ted Sullivan, Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts / episode directed by: Alex Kurtzman

Series created by: Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman (based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

“Brother” : Captain Christopher Pike takes command of the Discovery with orders to investigate a mysterious and dangerous cosmic phenomenon…

In review

Star Trek: Discovery returns to screens with an intriguing and highly promising start to it’s second season. Following on from those enticing final frames of the season 1 finale, “Brother” picks up right where things left off with Discovery responding to an emergency distress call from the U.S.S. Enterprise. Viewers are thrust right into the excitement as Enterprise captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) boards the Discovery to take command in order to investigate a series of mysterious red bursts which have appeared throughout space and resulted in catastrophic systems failures aboard the Enterprise. The investigation ultimately leads to the stricken U.S.S. Hiawatha (where we meet Tig Notaro’s wonderfully dry Chief Engineer Reno), grounded deep within a chaotic asteroid belt and Lt. Commander Michael Burnham’s encounter with a strange vision of a red angel-like figure that may have some connection with the red burst phenomenon.

There’s an awful lot established here – the introduction of a new lead character for the season (Pike, of course), the set-up of the ‘Red Angel’ mystery, the post-war status-quo for the crew of Discovery and further exploration of Burnham’s back-story, her upbringing on Vulcan and her seemingly uneasy relationship with her adoptive brother, Spock. Thankfully (and aided by an extended running time for this episode) it never feels rushed or unfocused and enough time is taken to provide a reasonable amount of overall interest and anticipation for the story arc that lies ahead.

As Captain Pike, Anson Mount is a great addition to the series and much like Bruce Greenwood in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness makes his own mark on the character originally played by the late Jeffrey Hunter in “The Cage”Star Trek’s original pilot episode. Mount is instantly likeable in the role, confident, authoritative but personable and engaging, he has an immediate rapport with the crew of Discovery and the writers take steps to address the distrust they may have after being betrayed by their former commander (Jason Isaac’s Gabriel Lorca). Mount is sure to be a highlight going forward.

Whilst Mount certainly makes an impression, Sonequa Martin-Green continues to be the central focal point of Star Trek: Discovery and she doesn’t disappoint and delivers on the solid material she is given. An opening voiceover reiterates Burnham’s renewed sense of faith in herself and her place in Starfleet whilst flashbacks to Burnham’s Vulcan childhood and her interactions with Sarek (James Frain) in the present add emotional value. The flashbacks also facilitate a glimpse of a young Spock, preparing viewers for the impending introduction of Ethan Peck as the adult version (who is heard, via voiceover, but as yet unseen) which is bound to stir matters up dramatically.

Whilst Martin-Green’s Burnham is undoubtedly the narrative focus of Discovery, Mary Wiseman’s Ensign Tilly is once again the heart of the series and the character who most exemplifies the positive values of Starfleet and the Federation – her wide-eyed, child-like enthusiasm balanced by an innate kindness and endearing humanity. Wiseman also has a lot of fun with the role and there’s some great interplay between her and her co-stars – particularly her friendship with Burnham – and the fumbling star-struck moment Tilly has with Pike is priceless. The ever-impressive Doug Jones makes an assured return as Saru and although there is less for him to do in this episode, he still has a presence and applies the same level of skill and passion he demonstrated during the first season. Anthony Rapp brings a similar level of commitment as Stamets, with a slightly more sombre and reflective twist as he mourns the loss of his partner, Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz – able to participate via holographic messages) and announces his plans to leave Starfleet once Discovery’s current mission has been completed. This leads to some sweet moments between Stamets and Tilly that accentuate the building feeling of family amongst the crew, always an important part of any iteration of Star Trek.

The visuals of Star Trek: Discovery are again hugely impressive with epic, feature film quality production values – in fact there are moments where you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), especially during Discovery’s tense navigation of an asteroid field and an edge-of-the-seat space-pod set-piece as Pike and Burnham attempt to reach the Hiawatha. It’s all handled superbly under the direction of series co-creator and executive producer Alex Kurtzman.

Now that the Klingon War and Mirror Universe storylines have concluded, Star Trek: Discovery is free to chart a lighter and more hopeful course and that’s clearly intended from the outset. That’s not to devalue season 1, and those darker narratives provided gripping drama and helped define and galvanise the crew but it will be a welcome fresh direction for the series as it ties further into Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a positive future for humanity whilst continuing to tell stories about the issues of the day through the prism of compelling science fiction and identifiable characters.

With CBS’ plans to expand the franchise – from the hotly anticipated Jean-Luc Picard series, to the forthcoming animated comedy from the creators of Rick & Morty and the recently announced Discovery spin-off that will focus on the Mirror U Philippa Georgiou and the clandestine Section 31 organisation, despite the lack of movement on a fourth J.J. Abrams produced film it’s a great time to be a Star Trek fan.

The bottom line: The second season of Star Trek: Discovery launches confidently with a highly promising premiere with impressive visuals, strong characterisation and a tantalising mystery at its centre.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are released Thursdays via CBS All Access in the U.S. and available to stream internationally every Friday on Netflix.

Have you read… ‘Superman Unchained’ ?

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

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Art for ‘Superman Unchained’ by the phenomenal Jim Lee (image credit: DC Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  2013

Written by:  Scott Snyder / pencils by:  Jim Lee (main story) & Dustin Nguyen (epilogues) / inks by:  Scott Williams / colours by:  Alex Sinclair

What’s it about?

As Superman tries to prevent the escalating attacks of a cyber-terrorist group, events lead to him crossing paths with General Lane and a mysterious and powerful alien being called ‘Wraith’…

In review:  why you should read it

Originally published as a nine-issue limited series, launched in June 2013 to coincide with Superman’s 75th anniversary as well as the release of Man of Steel on the big screen, Superman Unchained is a bright spot in DC’s divisive ‘New 52’ reboot.  Whilst other DC characters and titles such as Batman (for the most part) and Justice League were well served during the New 52, Superman, generally, was not with both Superman and Action Comics something of a mixed bag, if not mediocre.  Superman Unchained remedied that with an epic and exciting story that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Written by Scott Snyder, who was already in the midst of his popular run on Batman (with artist Greg Capullo) and with pencils by Jim Lee (with inks and colours by his regular collaborators, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair), Superman Unchained sees the Man of Steel faced with the threat of a cyber-terrorist group known as Ascension, whose attacks lead to an encounter with General Lane and his forces, the discovery of a military facility called ‘the Machine’ and a secret weapon: Wraith, an alien being – with powers to rival that of Superman – who arrived on Earth in 1938 with an equation that is the key to unlocking technological advancements.  Amidst this, humanity faces even greater danger as a further threat from the stars looms.

As well as drawing in appearances from Batman and Wonder Woman, Unchained also gives Lois Lane her own share of the action as she investigates and is ultimately captured by Ascension, learning that they are in possession of a powerful crystalline technology known as ‘Earthstone’ which they plan to utilise to devastating ends.  It also wouldn’t be a good Superman story without Lex Luthor and Snyder has fun with him, presenting a Luthor who’s at his megalomaniacal and ingenious best.  Luthor’s escape from maximum security detention (aided by a mech-suit of his own construction) and subsequent kidnap of Jimmy Olsen exemplify all of those qualities and remind us that he’s Superman’s most formidable nemesis.  The main story is complemented by back-up epilogues that run sporadically throughout, written by Snyder and pencilled by Dustin Nguyen and which provide tantalising teases of things to come.

Snyder creates a busy narrative, with multiple threats, fast action and several interconnected story threads but luckily it all hangs together quite successfully.  The fan-favourite writer has a good handle on the character of Superman in his New 52 iteration (later defined during DC’s ‘Rebirth’ initiative as an alternative version, whose essence would merge with that of the original pre-New 52 universe Superman…whoever said comics could be confusing?), who has a bit more of a gritty edge than the traditional take but still upholding those nurtured values of truth and justice.

Whilst Unchained may seem predominantly focused on Superman, there’s still a place for Clark Kent as we see his efforts to investigate Ascension and enlist the assistance of Bruce Wayne/Batman in tackling the group.  Snyder also incorporates a flashback of a traumatic event in Clark’s childhood that plays thematically into the present.

Although there’s a lot going on in Unchained and parts of it may seem overly wordy, it’s more a case of substance than waffle and Snyder does take time to focus on characterisation, even when there’s fists flying and satellites crashing and we get a sense of what motivates everyone.  The conflict between General Lane and Superman is a good example, both are sworn enemies with opposing viewpoints but Lane has an argument and a personal perspective with a commitment to duty and service that drives him, adding some dimension to the age old battle between the two characters.

Some of Snyder’s more recent works (and to an extent, the latter parts of his Batman run) tend to be a little overindulgent and unnecessarily convoluted but Superman Unchained is a more positive and coherent example of his writing and being paired with the amazing Jim Lee certainly helps.  Lee’s visual storytelling speaks for itself and his style here is as you would come to expect – powerful, detailed and cinematic – Superman Unchained reads and looks like a superhero blockbuster.  Lee’s renditions of Superman are confident and his depictions of the action scenes are exciting, all adding to the appeal.  Lee proves he can handle the scale and also the craziness of Snyder’s script, Superman’s battle against Lane’s forces in a Kryptonian armour suit being a particular highlight.  There’s also the design of Wraith, a hulking stone-grey creature emanating flaming tendrils of energy – simple, yet effective and when married with Scott Snyder’s dialogue together they create an interesting adversary for Superman with a foe who is not just physically imposing but also challenges the Last Son of Krypton on a philosophical level.  Having been in the service of the U.S. government since his arrival and intervening clandestinely in conflicts throughout history, Wraith believes in what he is doing just as much as Superman does and having our hero team up with Wraith against Ascension creates an unusual dynamic given Wraith’s declaration that once they’re done he has one more task to perform: kill Superman.

Superman Unchained is a highly entertaining read and easily one of the best Superman stories of the last decade and it wouldn’t be surprising if in the years to come it ends up ranking amongst some of the Man of Steel’s all-time greats.  Even if you weren’t a fan of DC’s New 52, it’s well worth the dive.

Read it if you like…

The Man of Steel by Brian Michael Bendis (as well as the writer’s current run on Superman with artist Ivan Reis), Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee and Superman: For Tomorrow written by Brian Azzarello with more fantastic visuals from Jim Lee.

Superman Unchained is published by DC and is currently available in print and digital formats.

TV Review: ‘Doctor Who’ 2019 Special – “Resolution”

New year, new dangers…

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The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends welcome a new year as a deadly threat to humanity looms (image credit: BBC, used for illustrative purposes only).

Starring:  Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Daniel Adegboyega, Charlotte Ritchie, Nikesh Patel, Nicholas Briggs

Written by:  Chris Chibnall / episode directed by:  Jamie Childs & Wayne Yip

What’s it about?

The Doctor faces a new challenge from an old enemy as a new year on Earth dawns…

In review

In a break from tradition by foregoing a festive edition of Doctor Who on Christmas Day, the BBC instead brought viewers a special hour long episode for New Year’s Day (and the only new Doctor Who for 2019 with series 12 due to air in autumn 2020).  In “Resolution“ Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor once again faces her oldest and greatest enemy when a lone Dalek mutant, buried on Earth centuries prior is revived and blazes a path of terror as it sets about constructing a new armour casing and fulfil its plans in summoning a Dalek invasion fleet.

Jodie Whittaker’s debut series has been interesting if a little uneven (despite a strong premiere) and although “Resolution“ gets off to a sluggish start it shifts into higher gear as it moves into its second half.  It may not be the best Dalek story but it’s still a good one and like Steven Moffat before him, Chris Chibnall gives us something fresh and unusual from Doctor Who’s most iconic monster.  Although the Dalek creature itself is separated from its casing and weaponry it doesn’t diminish the threat of the Doctor’s enduring adversary and demonstrates the intelligence and ingenuity of a resourceful and dangerous foe (its MacGyver style method of constructing a new casing undoubtedly being a highlight of the episode) as it controls, or ‘pilots’ an unwitting human host (archaeologist Lin, played by Charlotte Ritchie) to accomplish its mission. Kudos should also go to voice artist Nicholas Briggs who continues to bring the Daleks unsettlingly to life, never failing to succeed in conveying the pure evil and ruthlessness of the alien menace.

Jodie Whittaker continues to make her mark in the role of the Doctor with an enthusiastic and quirky performance, she perhaps comes across a little too energetic at times but non-the-less continues to prove her worth as the titular lead character of one of SF TV’s most beloved series.  Facing Whittaker’s Doctor with the Daleks early on in her run is a wise move as it always provides the opportunity for any actor in the central Doctor Who role to bring their talents to the next level and a test of the resolve of any incarnation of the character.

There’s also a bit of social commentary thrown into the mix as we learn that the operations of UNIT, the security and defence organisation with a long association with the Doctor, have been suspended due to funding – a victim of the uncertainties of Brexit?  It’s also a bit of a shame (and a missed opportunity) as the prospect of teaming Jodie Whittaker up with Jemma Redgrave’s Kate Lethbridge-Stewart surely has a lot of merit.

Ryan reconnecting with his estranged father serves to further flesh out not just Ryan himself but also his ‘gramps’, Graham and their relationship.  Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh both turn in solid performances (and guest star Daniel Adegboyega is also effective as Ryan’s father, Aaron) and whilst those scenes threaten to drag out the pace and verge on being a little soap opera-y they still have narrative importance and facilitate emotional pay-off in the final act.  Consequently there’s less for Yaz (Mandip Gill) to do in this episode (supporting the argument that the TARDIS may have been overcrowded this season) but she still has a part to play and gets her own moments to shine.

The climax of “Resolution“ (capably directed by Jamie Childs & Wayne Yip) is a tense and exciting affair, with great special effects, well-staged action scenes and reasonably tight drama with a poignant and satisfying outcome.  With Whittaker and Chibnall’s first full season in the bag, capped off with this enjoyable New Year’s Day adventure here’s hoping that the series hits a more consistent stride next year.

The bottom line:  An entertaining special to round off a hit and miss debut season for Jodie Whittaker, “Resolution” renews the threat of an old menace that raises the stakes for the Thirteenth Doctor and her friends.