Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ (2009)

In 2009, the ‘Star Trek’ franchise made a bold return to the big screen…

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The cast of J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ (c. Paramount Pictures).

Year:  2009

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / written by:  Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman

What’s it about?

A young James Kirk and Mr. Spock meet for the first time aboard the newly commissioned U.S.S. Enterprise where they soon find themselves tasked with saving the universe from a vengeful out-of-time Romulan…

Retrospective/review

With the underwhelming box office and tepid critical reception of Star Trek Nemesis in 2002 and the cancellation of television series Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005 due to declining ratings a creative refresh of the Star Trek franchise was needed in order to rekindle fan interest and bring in a whole new audience that would help carry Gene Roddenberry’s creation into the future.

Whilst Star Trek would remain dormant on the small screen until the arrival of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, it’s theatrical voyages would recommence just four years after the conclusion of Enterprise.  Enlisting J.J. Abrams (together with his Bad Robot production company) to produce, direct and help craft the story – with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (co-creator and executive producer of Discovery) – Paramount Pictures commissioned Star Trek for the big screen.

Released in May of 2009, received to favourable reviews and a healthy worldwide box office of around $385 million (a fairly respectable figure at a time when $1 billion grossers were few and far between and comparable to Marvel’s Iron Man), Star Trek would prove to be a rollicking action adventure that, although favouring popcorn spectacle and Star Wars-style visual grandeur over the deeper philosophical explorations of previous iterations, excels in its characters and engaging story.  In order to be free from the burden of decades of continuity whilst still tying into the established universe, Star Trek would employ the popular time travel trope by bringing Leonard Nimoy’s (gifting the project with true Trek royalty) Spock back in time in an event that would create an alternate reality – now referred to as the Kelvin timeline – allowing a new series of Star Trek films to forge their own creative path.

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Eric Bana as Nero (c. Paramount Pictures).

Star Trek opens with the arrival of the Romulan ship Narada, thrust back in time after the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in the wake of a catastrophic supernova, which Ambassador Spock and the Vulcan High Command pledged, and fail, to avert.  The Narada, under the command of the embittered Nero, is discovered by the U.S.S. Kelvin which is subsequently attacked and its captain killed – leaving Lt. George Kirk (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth) in command.  The Kelvin’s crew, including Kirk’s wife (played by Jennifer Morrison) – about to give birth to their son, are evacuated as Kirk sacrifices his life to save others.  Jumping forward several years we meet a young trouble-making James Kirk and an equally troubled Spock, struggling to reconcile his half-human/half-Vulcan heritage.  Little do both know that destiny awaits (which for Kirk includes the captain’s chair of a certain starship), events drawing them together as the fate of both their worlds hang in the balance.

Finding new actors to inhabit the roles of the beloved original series crew was undoubtedly a daunting task and fortunately, the casting of Star Trek is exceptional.  Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are perfect choices for the roles of Kirk and Spock, respectively, both actors bringing respectful and recognisable performances to classic characters whilst making it their own and their chemistry helps drive the core narrative.  Likewise, Karl Urban is a revelation as the cantankerous but loyal Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy – the final component in the celebrated Kirk/Spock/McCoy troika that was such an important part of the original series.  There are equally strong turns from Zoe Saldana as Communications Officer Uhura, John Cho as Helmsman Sulu, the late Anton Yelchin as the incredibly eager Ensign Chekov and Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter in Star Trek’s original pilot episode, “The Cage” and by Anson Mount on Star Trek: Discovery) is also a highlight, particularly in his relationship with Pine’s Kirk as he inspires the bright but directionless young rebel by daring him to be better and enlist in Starfleet.  Playing the part of the villainous Nero is Eric Bana, who had previously starred in Ang Lee’s Hulk.  He’s not necessarily the most complex of antagonists but Bana gives it his all, delivering a decent measure of menace.

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A slick redesign for the U.S.S. Enterprise (c. Paramount Pictures).

The design of Star Trek is exemplary, from the Academy Award winning make-up, costumes and props (both nifty updates from the original series) to the lavish, brightly lit sets by Scott Chambliss and the sleek redesign of the Enterprise herself, providing viewers with a pleasing new look which respectfully adheres to the overall configuration conceived by Matt Jeffries.  Whilst there’s a comforting sense of the familiar, Star Trek also takes some creative risks – primarily the destruction of Vulcan by Nero and his cohorts in retribution for the failure to save Romulus from its own obliteration in the future.  It’s a shocking and dramatic sequence that establishes the highest of stakes to unite the Enterprise crew and allows for a more emotionally vulnerable depiction of Quinto’s Spock.

As director, J.J. Abrams (who made his feature film debut in 2006 with Mission: Impossible III) brings energy and enthusiasm to Star Trek, keeping the viewer invested whether it’s in his execution of action and visual splendour or the tight and attentive focus in the quieter, more intimate character moments.  A good film is always enhanced by a great musical score and composer Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack is a memorable one, exciting, emotional and wonderfully intertwining cues from Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek theme with fresh themes to take the new big screen franchise forward.

Star Trek may have been divisive so far as the fanbase is concerned but there are those that enjoyed it for what it was, a polished and highly entertaining rejuvenation of an ageing franchise that opened up the universe to a whole new audience which is something that shouldn’t be undervalued.

Geek fact!

The story of Star Trek was fleshed out via tie-in comic books from IDW Publishing (and overseen by co-screenwriter Roberto Orci) with prequel titles Star Trek: Countdown and Star Trek: Nero adding a lot of insightful detail and background to the narrative of the 2009 film.

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

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.

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.

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Series Premiere

The beloved science fiction franchise returns, boldly, to the small screen…

‘Star Trek’ makes a much awaited return to television in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, Chris Obi, James Frain

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

Written by:  Bryan Fuller & Akiva Goldsman (“The Vulcan Hello”) and Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts (“Battle at the Binary Stars”) / Episodes directed by:  David Samel (“The Vulcan Hello”) and Adam Kane (“Battle at the Binary Stars”)

What’s it about?

Investigating an object of unknown origin, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham and the crew of the U.S.S. Shenzhou are thrown into a direct confrontation with old adversary, the Klingons.

Episodes review

51 years after the debut of its original series, Star Trek returns to the small screen after an absence of twelve years, following the conclusion of Star Trek: Enterprise – which left the air back in May 2005.  Produced by CBS for their All Access streaming service and rolled out worldwide courtesy of Netflix, Star Trek: Discovery is a lavish and promising addition to the Star Trek universe that feels fresh yet comfortingly familiar for long term fans of the franchise.  Created by Trek veterans Bryan Fuller (writer/co-producer on Star Trek: Voyager) and Alex Kurtzman (co-writer and co-producer of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness), the series takes place ten years prior to the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk.

Serving as a prologue to the rest of the show’s fifteen-episode first season (the majority of the principal cast and the U.S.S. Discovery herself being absent until episode three), the two-part premiere gets things off to an engaging and intriguing start as we’re introduced to Discovery’s lead character, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) as she serves as First Officer on board the U.S.S. Shenzhou, commanded by Captain Phillipa Georgiou (martial arts legend Michelle Yeoh) who quickly find themselves thrust into a tense confrontation with a rogue Klingon faction that places the Federation on the precipice of war.  Burnham’s back story is revealed via a series of flashbacks as we follow her from being orphaned as a child to being raised on Vulcan by ambassador-in-waiting and father of Spock, Sarek (Gotham’s James Frain) and her eventual assignment to the Shenzhou.

What’s clear from the outset is that the creators of Discovery have set about establishing something that manages to strike a delicate balance between producing a series that will not only appeal to fans but draw in a whole new generation of viewers.  After 51 years and some 700+ hours of television, engineering a fresh take on an old favourite is no easy task, yet Discovery achieves this quite successfully.  The first major departure is the decision to not have the series focus on the ship’s captain and proves a welcome one with Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) turning in a decent performance and demonstrating plenty of potential as a strong and capable lead.  There’s also the heavily serialised nature of the story, whilst a construct employed in previous spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Enterprise it’s utilised to a more intricate degree here in accordance with co-creator Bryan Fuller’s intentions for the storyline to unfold episode by episode like the chapters of a novel.

Sonequa Martin-Green makes for a promising lead in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Michelle Yeoh provides another strong female presence as Georgiou and there’s a wonderfully nuanced relationship between herself and Burnham (affectionately referred to as “Number One” in a nod to Majel Barrett’s character in original Trek pilot “The Cage”), the former bringing an almost maternal quality to her ‘role’ as mentor to the younger officer.  Martin-Green also has some great interplay with Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru, the Kelpien science officer who has a fun sibling-like rivalry with Burnham.  Much like he did in Hellboy and Falling Skies, Jones is once again a master at conveying subtle strokes of humanity through the prosthetics and alien characteristics.  James Frain evokes the requisite measure of wise intellect and cold logic in the role of Sarek (originally portrayed so unforgettably by the late Mark Lenard) and similarly to Yeoh, there’s a paternal element to his dynamic with Martin-Green’s character.

The Klingon threat is spearheaded by T’Kuvma, with Chris Obi infusing the part with the right amount of that familiar warrior instinct, although the redesign of the Klingons themselves is likely to be the most controversial aspect of Discovery.  They’re radically quite different and take some getting used to, yet the make-up and costume design is certainly impressive and gives the iconic race an appearance that’s more alien whilst retaining the overall Klingon ‘feel’ with an adherence to their principles of honour and glory in battle.  What’s interesting here is that the Klingon Empire has fractured into numerous disparate ‘houses’ which T’Kuvma seeks to unite and lead, fanatically, into war against the Federation in the name of Kahless – the forefather of Klingon society itself.  It’s handled in a manner that’s not quite as black-and-white as that sounds and there’s a definite sense that the writers are seeking to add dimension to the conflict by offering a deeper insight into the Klingon’s motivations.

The Klingons are given a new look for this new iteration of the long-running franchise.

Visually, CBS have spurred no expense with feature film quality effects, make-up and set design fully on display.  Perhaps wisely, given the level of the production, the producers have leaned towards a look more reminiscent of the alternate universe established on the big screen by J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek.  As classic and iconic as the look of the original series is, a direct translation wouldn’t hold up to viewers in 2017 and it only increases the scope and cinematic quality of Discovery.

Star Trek is heralded for its ability to delve into the human condition and comment on the issues of the day and in this era of social and political concerns and the rising threat of terrorism and religious extremism, Discovery is no different and deftly weaves these themes throughout.  This is what Gene Roddenberry and the writers of the original Star Trek always intended, coupled with rich characters and a vision of a hopeful, inclusive future for humanity – even in times of conflict – and there’s great potential for Star Trek: Discovery to continue that tradition.

The bottom line:  Star Trek makes a confident return to television with a visually dazzling premiere, bolstered by a promising lead and the potential to explore real-world topics in an engaging and entertaining manner.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery (as well as post-show discussion After Trek) can be seen weekly via subscription services Netflix (worldwide) and CBS All Access (U.S. only).

What did you think of the ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ premiere? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ (spoiler free)

Mighty Marvel casts its spell…

Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen.

Directed by:  Scott Derrickson / Written by:  Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill / 115 minutes

What’s it about?

His hands mangled in a car crash, brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange’s career is seemingly over.  Exhausting all surgical efforts to repair his injuries, Strange travels to a place called Kamar-Taj where an encounter with a mysterious figure sees him thrust into the world of the mystic arts…

In review

With the runaway successes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Marvel Studios have proved adept at bringing lesser and more obscure comic book properties to the big screen and in a manner that manages to please fans and regular audiences alike.  Doctor Strange would immediately seem a far trickier and more daring gamble than those previous hits but for the most part, Marvel Studios succeed once more.

Based on the Marvel comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the journey of neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange from arrogance to fall from grace and eventual redemption may be a little clichéd but via the film’s exploration of magical abilities and mystic realms there lies another dimension to the storytelling that opens up the possibilities for future Marvel Studios productions.  It’s fair to say in that sense that this makes the “Sorcerer Supreme” an important character as the looming apex of Avengers: Infinity War approaches.

In the role of Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a strong lead and although for some it may take a little time to adjust to his American accent, the Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness star laps up the material handed to him in a performance that’s impassioned, witty and by the end of it all, noble.  Seemingly the requisite love interest, Rachel McAdams is somewhat underserved as Christine Palmer although she does share some vital scenes with Cumberbatch that helps the audience become more invested in the character and his arc throughout this origin story.

Tilda Swinton is wise and otherworldly as the enigmatic Ancient One and co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong fit nicely into the mix as fellow sorcerers Mordo and Wong respectively.  As the main antagonist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius – a former pupil seeking to unlock the secrets of dark magic –  has some great moments, rising to the challenge of being pitted against the talents of Cumberbatch and Swinton but is ultimately less memorable than Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger) or James Spader’s Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

There’s a slight over reliance on humour at times, parts of it are welcome relief but some moments feel forced, included merely for the sake of it and arguably undermine several key scenes that would have benefitted from a more dramatic tone.  Where Doctor Strange really excels is via its jaw-dropping, kaleidoscopic visuals as director Scott Derrickson intertwines influences of Escher with the cinematic awe of Inception and the mesmerising psychedelia of 2001: A Space Odyssey that bring the trippy imaginings of Messrs. Lee and Ditko breathtakingly to life.  The extra expense of an IMAX 3D ticket is fully warranted for the fullest possible immersion in the mind-bending spectacle of folding cityscapes and unravelling astral planes.

Ultimately it’s the visual elements that gloss over the overall flaws in the tone and narrative of Doctor Strange but there’s no denying the charm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and the potential of further adventures of Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts.

The bottom line:  Despite some formulaic elements and jarring moments of silliness, Doctor Strange is a reliably entertaining and visually stunning addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange is screening in UK cinemas now and opens in the US and worldwide from 4th November.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios' 'Doctor Strange'.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios’ ‘Doctor Strange’.

Fim Review: ‘Star Trek Beyond’ (spoiler free)

Star wreckin’…

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella

Directed by:  Justin Lin / Written by:  Simon Pegg & Doug Jung / 120 minutes

What’s it about?

Attacked during a rescue mission in uncharted space, Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise find themselves stranded and fighting for survival against Krall, an enemy who seeks to destroy the Federation and the way of life its citizens hold dear…

In review

Arriving as the beloved science fiction franchise approaches its 50th anniversary, Star Trek Beyond is the third (with a fourth already confirmed) cinematic instalment set in the rebooted ‘Kelvin Timeline’ featured in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) and sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).  Directed by Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin, Beyond proves a worthy continuation of this new series of Star Trek films that’s crowd pleasing fun if not as wholly cerebral as some of the franchise’s highpoints.

Whilst Abrams is arguably the better filmmaker, Lin is a credible successor who does a commendable job of crafting a commercially viable summer blockbuster, his affection for the franchise and its characters clear as he deftly balances an eclectic ensemble with large scale action and jaw dropping visuals.  Although this is a Star Trek for the era of serviceable billion dollar blockbusters, Beyond offers something a little more with a script (by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung) that delves into themes of unity and the strengths found in diversity, reflecting on the social concerns of today.

Via the two J.J. Abrams outings, audiences have grown to love the characters of Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al thanks to a wonderful cast, melding nuances of their own personalities with the legacies of these established characters.  Thankfully that continues here and we get some great character moments amongst the spectacle and social commentary where everyone (albeit some more than others) gets an opportunity to shine.  Zoe Saldana, John Cho and the late Anton Yelchin (as Enterprise crewmembers Uhura, Sulu and Chekov respectively) all feature in the action and have relevance in the story (Simon Pegg’s Scotty is also served better beyond being mere comic foil).  Idris Elba makes an imposing villain with physicality and gravitas, although the character of Krall could have warranted further exploration he delivers a fair measure of menace and threat.  Fellow guest star Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service) also provides a memorable and enjoyable turn as Jaylah, the alien ‘badass’ that a stranded Kirk and company enlist for help against Elba’s Krall.  Once again, though it’s the three main stars that compel the most with numerous standout moments for Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban.  Through Pine we get a universe weary Kirk, with Quinto a contemplative Spock and Urban a McCoy who’s irascible as ever and provides both humour and the supportive conscience Kirk and Spock need as they face their respective emotional dilemmas.

Against the backdrop of story and character, Justin Lin brings his Fast & Furious credentials to the fore during the action of Star Trek Beyond with big budget CGI and explosive pyrotechnics marrying to produce some jaw dropping spectacle (most significantly the decimation of the poor old Enterprise, as already depicted in the film’s pre-release trailers).  It’s a little frantic at times, but no different from what you would experience in any modern blockbuster.  In addition to all of this, there’s a plethora of references, tributes and respectful call backs to the history and legacy of Star Trek that all in all make for a pleasing and fitting celebration of one of pop culture’s most beloved and enduring franchises that will most definitely continue to go boldly.

The bottom line:  Star Trek Beyond is an enjoyable and fun blockbuster that has something to offer both fans and casual viewers alike and proves a fitting tribute to the legacy of the franchise on the eve of its 50th anniversary.

Star Trek Beyond is in cinemas now.

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) prepares to lead the fight in Paramount Pictures' 'Star Trek Beyond'.

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) prepares to lead the fight in Paramount Pictures’ ‘Star Trek Beyond’.

Film Review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (spoiler free)

The Force is strong once more…

Starring:  Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / Written by:  Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt / 135 minutes

What’s it about?

As the evil First Order rises, young defector ‘Finn’ crosses paths with Rey, a scavenger who comes into possession of a star map that will lead them to the mythical last Jedi, Luke Skywalker…

In review

Unarguably the most anticipated cinema release of this year, perhaps even this decade, The Force Awakens – Episode VII of the Star Wars saga – is unleashed upon global audiences on a wave of positive buzz and record breaking opening box office numbers.

The Force Awakens is an important film not only to entertainment goliath Disney, following their $4.5 billion purchase of Lucasfilm, but also legions of Star Wars fans eager to see the beloved science fiction film franchise return to its former glories.  Turning to director J.J. Abrams seemed a wise move, not only a great filmmaker whose reputation was solidified when he refreshed Star Trek for a new generation with epic big screen reboots Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), but more significantly a life-long fan of Star Wars himself.

With The Force Awakens, Abrams and his production team have delivered a pleasing new entry in the Star Wars saga that restores much of the magic diluted by George Lucas’ overly polished, CGI littered ‘Prequel Trilogy’.  Whilst it’s all a touch familiar with several plot elements repeated from earlier instalments (mainly A New Hope) and some heavy doses of fan service, The Force Awakens reigns triumphant thanks to a rich mix of engaging characters, edge of the seat drama (peppered with a smattering of humour) and thrilling battles, bound by Abrams’ skilled direction and the quality craftsmanship on display.

Set some 30 years or so after the events of Return of the Jedi (1983), The Force Awakens presents the heightening threat of the First Order which has risen from the ashes of the Galactic Empire and seeks to continue its plans to dominate the galaxy, far, far away.  Luckily the Rebellion, which has now become known as the ‘Resistance’ survives to fight the forces of evil and it’s this conflict and the search for last Jedi Luke Skywalker that serves to reunite old heroes as well as introduce new ones.  Of the returning cast of the Original Star Wars Trilogy, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo (together with pal Chewbecca, with Peter Mayhew once again donning the fur) that is given most prominence – it’s great to see him in action once more – yet The Force Awakens really belongs to its new cast of heroes – lead by Rey (Daisy Ridley) and defecting Stormtrooper ‘Finn’ (Attack the Block’s John Boyega) together with daring Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, villain of the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse) and his faithful (and adorable) droid BB8.  Feeling the draw of the mystical Force, the new generation are thrown into the path of the First Order and central villains Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has been seduced by the Force’s ‘Dark Side’, Stormtrooper commandant Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), their quest for galactic domination lead by Supreme Leader Snoke (a creepy CGI motion capture creation brought to life by Andy Serkis).

The new cast is great and it will be exciting to see their characters develop over the course of this ‘Sequel Trilogy’ much in the same vein as we saw the likes of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia grow.  It’s true that some characters are given more time in the limelight than others but it’s obvious that The Force Awakens is merely the beginning and we’ll no doubt see more of them in the next instalment.

The Force Awakens is a well-crafted visual feast with J.J. Abrams leading the charge of melding CGI with practical filmmaking, the elaborate physical production design complemented by computer generated elements rather than overwhelming it.  With the era of practical miniatures largely surpassed by CGI, Abrams brings a real, weighty feeling to the requisite spaceship battles and stages some truly thrilling action sequences that will please and wow fans as well as casual viewers, from X-Wing dogfights to the Millennium Falcon’s hyperspace jumps to lightsabre duals – it’s all here and offset nicely against John Williams’ music score.  There’s also some beautiful imagery from director of photography Dan Mindel, enhanced by Abrams’ insistence on the use of physical 35 and 65mm film (the latter for the film’s IMAX sequences) with the blistering deserts of the planet Jakku being a particular highlight.

Overall, The Force Awakens is only hindered by that slight touch of familiarity (and to an extent it’s dangling threads reserved for Episode VIII), yet it was never intended to reinvent the wheel and J.J. Abrams and his cast and crew have delivered the Star Wars sequel many were hoping for, whilst not quite the masterpiece that A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are, it’s at least as good as Return of the Jedi and superior to the controversial prequels and a great new start for an enduring franchise.

The bottom line:  The Force Awakens is a triumphant, if at times familiar, new entry in the Star Wars saga that will please and thrill both fans and novices alike.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in cinemas now.

Director J.J. Abrams stages some thrilling action in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'.

Director J.J. Abrams stages some thrilling action in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy

Words truly escaped me when the news broke yesterday of the death of Leonard Nimoy, best known for his portrayal of the iconic character of Mr. Spock in the equally iconic science fiction television series, Star Trek.

Having been a Star Trek fan for the majority of my geeky existence (so far) I cannot express how saddened I felt upon hearing the news, it felt like losing a friend – not someone I knew personally or had even met, yet, someone who was always strangely part of my life.  Nimoy’s contribution to Star Trek (and film and television in general) cannot be understated, his nuanced and introspective portrayal of Spock always captivating and effective in conveying the character’s struggles to reconcile the emotional and logical parts of his half human/half Vulcan heritage.  Nimoy shared great onscreen chemistry with co-star William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, a friendship that would filter into their personal lives with the two becoming close friends during and beyond their Star Trek years.

Aside from his role as Spock in the original Star Trek series (as well as guest starring in the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter “Unification”), Nimoy would go on to direct big screen voyages Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as well as serve as an executive producer on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country where he also worked with director Nicholas Meyer on the film’s story.

Outside of Star Trek, Nimoy appeared in numerous other films and television series including a two year stint as ‘Paris’, the enigmatic master of disguise and deception on Mission: Impossible, a memorable guest role as a murderous surgeon in Columbo, both the 1960s and 1990s versions of The Outer Limits and even parodied himself in The Simpsons.  He would also go on to direct the smash hit 1980s comedy Three Men and a Baby.  He was also a writer having penned memoirs I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock and a talented photographer – there was even a singing career, perhaps not his finest hour, yet he managed to release seven albums!  Nimoy’s final onscreen appearances as an actor were guest roles in Fringe and the 2009 big screen Star Trek reboot and its 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness.

Although Star Trek brought Nimoy fame and fortune it did lead to some personal troubles with the actor enduring a struggle with alcohol which he sought as a release, allowing him to ‘break away’ from the often cold and emotionless Mr. Spock.  He also smoked heavily and despite quitting over twenty years ago Nimoy was last year diagnosed with obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition related to smoking and which ultimately lead to his death.

Leonard Nimoy died on Friday 27th February 2015, aged 83.  Those closing scenes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan have become all the more poignant and emotional and made a legendary screen actor truly unforgettable…

Leonard Nimoy found fame in the iconic role of Mr. Spock in 'Star Trek' - a character loved by millions all over the globe.

Leonard Nimoy found fame in the iconic role of Mr. Spock in ‘Star Trek’ – a character loved by millions all over the globe.

Comic Book Review: ‘Star Trek: Khan’ #1

Written by:  Mike Johnson / pencilled by:  David Messina & Claudia Balboni

What’s this issue about?

Standing trial for his acts against Starfleet, the genetically enhanced Khan Noonien Singh reveals the truth about his origins…

In review

With Star Trek: Khan #1, IDW Publishing has launched another tie in to director/producer J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness.  I’ve felt that IDW’s Into Darkness related titles have been a bit of a mixed bag, I was a little disappointed with the Countdown to Darkness mini-series (whereas the previous Star Trek: Countdown is essential reading that adds considerably to the enjoyment of the 2009 film) and similarly underwhelmed by the three issue After Darkness” arc from the ongoing Star Trek title.  The lead in issues of that monthly series did however produce some interesting character pieces, particularly the rather excellent flashback to McCoy’s earlier years told in issue 17 and the current post-Into Darkness storyline certainly has potential.

With so little of Khan’s back story dealt with in Star Trek Into Darkness I’ve eagerly awaited this series which should hopefully enrich and enhance the film by fleshing those details out.

Much like the Star Trek: Nero mini-series added layers and complexity to the villain of Star Trek, the premiere issue of Khan provides a platform to do the same with the antagonist of Into Darkness and so far, it succeeds.  IDW’s veteran Star Trek writer, Mike Johnson (with guidance from Trek screenwriter Roberto Orci) serves up another strong tale with some great dialogue (including Khan’s sharp and icy rejection of the court’s authority) that is faithful to the voices of the characters we’ve seen on screen and I was pleased to see the inclusion of Lead Prosecutor Cogley (who defended William Shatner’s Kirk in the classic original Star Trek episode “Court Martial”).

In terms of visual quality, David Messina’s pencils and inks in the opening trial scenes have never looked better with strong character likenesses and each panel feeling like it could be a scene framed and shot for film.  Claudia Balboni provides the art for the majority of the book as we flashback to Earth in the 1970s and the story of Khan’s past unfolds as the science of eugenics is born.  I’ve said before that I’ve been a fan of Blaboni’s previous work on IDW’s monthly Star Trek title and her style complements Messina’s perfectly, not so different that it’s jarring yet subtle enough to ease the reader into another time and place within the story.

It’s interesting to see a departure from Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars novels in that the young Khan is a cripple and a guinea pig ‘enhanced’ through genetic manipulation (oh and for those troubled about the stark contrast in appearance between Ricardo Montalban and Benedict Cumberbatch, the seeds are cleverly sown for an explanation).  Like all good Star Trek stories this provides the ‘viewer’ with a cautionary and topical tale of man seeking to interfere with nature and the unforeseen repercussions that arise from those efforts.  As Spock put it in “Space Seed”“superior ability breeds superior ambition”.

The bottom line:  It’s hard to judge Khan completely at this point until all six issues have been published and the full story has been told, but it’s all off to a good start of what could prove to be an essential companion piece to Star Trek Into Darkness.

Star Trek:  Khan #1 is out now in print and digital formats from IDW Publishing.

Yet another top cover to a n IDW 'Star Trek' title, this time from Paul Shipper.

Another top cover to an IDW ‘Star Trek’ title, this time from Paul Shipper.

Comic book review: ‘Star Trek’ (ongoing) #25

This review contains SPOILERS

Written by:  Mike Johnson / pencilled by:  Erfan Fajar

What’s this issue about?

“The Khitomer Conflict” Part 1 of 4:  the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise prepare to embark on their five year mission of deep space exploration but soon find themselves facing a renewed threat from the Klingon Empire…

In review

IDW Publishing’s ongoing Star Trek series continues to chart new territory (and all the better for it) in the aftermath of Star Trek Into Darkness and this month’s 25th issue (unfortunately no expanded page count like those special “anniversary” editions once common in the medium) launches another original storyline which builds upon the title’s “After Darkness” three-parter from issues 21-23.

“The Khitomer Conflict” opens with a Romulan attack on the newly founded Klingon colony on the planet Khitomer (an incident from Star Trek canon that established fans will no doubt be fully aware of) before cutting to the Enterprise docked at a deep space station where the crew are making final preparations to head out into the unknown.  It’s here that we’re introduced to new crewmember Yuki…Sulu, much to the dismay of the Enterprise helmsman of the same surname.  It’s a fun little sequence (especially since Chekov is rather taken with Sulu’s younger sister) that provides some levity before the proverbial storm gathers.

Of course it isn’t long until Kirk and his crew find themselves embroiled in the Klingon’s quest for vengeance against the Romulan aggressors, a dishonourable act that is complicated by the fact that the nefarious Section 31 have provided the Romulans with the very weapons used to carry out their attack.  With the Enterprise responding to a Klingon ‘distress’ call there’s a steady build up to a tense cliffhanger with Kirk a prisoner of the Klingon Commander, Kor (who was played by John Colicos onscreen in the ‘prime’ Star Trek universe).

Long-serving writer Mike Johnson delivers another decent script, deftly balancing those lighter moments between the Enterprise ‘family’ (he certainly knows the universe and nails the character voices perfectly, you can quite clearly imagine Chris Pine or Zachary Quinto delivering the dialogue) with the darker more sinister elements of the story as well as both the space and planet bound action scenes.

For me, the weakest link really is Fajar’s art which I didn’t really take to during the “After Darkness” storyline.  Sure, the character likenesses are generally fine (the odd facial expression aside) and I did like the overall design of the Romulans (sporting Nero-like facial markings and uniforms not unlike those seen in Star Trek Nemesis) and the cover is good, but I’m really not a huge fan of the style (maybe it’s the colouring).  I’m certainly no expert but I’ve read enough comics to know what I like and what I’m not so fussed about and I much prefer Claudia Balboni’s art from last month’s standalone issue which was more reminiscent of the clean, sharp lines of Stephen Molnar’s detailed pencils (I hope he returns to the title someday).

At least the story holds up well and IDW’s Star Trek title has usually been at its best when telling original stories, the standalone character back stories featured in issues 17-20 where generally excellent (with McCoy’s story in #17 the highlight) and it’s good to see that now Star Trek Into Darkness has been and gone the series can continue to move beyond those patchy original Star Trek episode adaptations of earlier issues (although I’m not totally averse to the occasional one).

The bottom line:  The opening chapter of “The Khitomer Conflict” is a promising start to what could potentially be the best story arc IDW’s Star Trek has had to offer.  Although the artwork may not be to everyone’s liking the writing is top notch and faithful to the characters and lore of Star Trek.

Star Trek #25 is out now in print and digital formats from IDW Publishing.

Cover artwork for #25 of IDW Publishing's 'Star Trek' by Erfan Fajar.  A nice cover but  the interior artwork may not be to everyone's liking.

Cover artwork for #25 of IDW Publishing’s ‘Star Trek’ by Erfan Fajar. A nice cover but the interior artwork may not be to everyone’s liking.