Star Trek: Picard Episode Two

stpicard2Where I think a lot of the current genre material, on both television and film, gets into trouble is that it often feels a bit like trying to get square blocks into round holes- it doesn’t really fit right. I don’t know if its a general lack of imaginative, new thinking creatively or just the Corporate pressure to keep resurrecting old properties (because its easier to update/reboot/sell old stuff than come up with something genuinely original) but when you think about it, a lot of the genre stuff we see now is Star Trek or Star Wars or based on Marvel and DC comics we read as kids back in the 1960s or 1970s.  Its rather like the old saying, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, after all, I’m not adverse to anyone making a show or movie based on a 1920s Lovecraft story or bringing back Conan or Tarzan or John Carter. But Star Trek was a 1960s show and of its time, retconned somewhat in the 1980s for The Next Generation, and Star Wars likewise was a 1970s/1980s film series. Bringing them back in the 2010s and now, crikey, the 2020s… well, its certainly causing a friction because a lot of our ‘wiser and more progressive’ thinking , as it is often referred to, is pretty much a bad fit for some of our genre classics.

Moreover, people rather forget that back in the day, there wasn’t a dozen other shows competing with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and while there were a few sci-films etc (The Black Hole, Star Trek: TMP, Battlestar Galactica, take a bow) there wasn’t really much competition with the Star Wars films either. These days there are so many genre shows and films being made I think the talent pool is really pretty thin, and I think we’re getting films and shows written and made by people who just aren’t up to it, but are finding careers easy to pursue in an arena where Netflix and Amazon and Disney are throwing so much money into it. Genre stuff is too popular now and I think as we’re getting so much of it general creativity and the quality of writing is sinking fast.

I don’t think JJ Abrams was a proper fit for the Star Trek reboots and I don’t think he was a proper fit for the new Star Wars films either. His Star Trek films tried to refit so much of the old shows mythology but never seemed right, with characters and plot-devices (teleportation to ships in warp or across star systems) that just weren’t correct to established logic or mythology. I know, I sound like a raving geek all the time raising that stuff, but it gets to a point at which Star Trek stops being Star Trek, and it may as well be something else entirely, but of course the Corporate heads want to exploit already established and easily marketable IP. What, after all, does Star Trek: Discovery really have in common with Star Trek that isn’t just in name only,  if the Klingons don’t look or act like Klingons, the Vulcans don’t look or act like Vulcans, and Star Fleet doesn’t look or behave like Star Fleet proper? Its the same thing with the new Star Wars films, which I have frequently berated elsewhere on this blog- if characters or events are so indistinguishable from what was established before in the Original Trilogy or elsewhere, when is it frankly no longer Star Wars and something else?

Its happening now with the current iteration of the BBCs Dr Who, with established cannon being sacrificed, far as I can tell, to just excuse bad writing or lack of creative responsibility to the franchise. Fans and critics are being blindsided by a lot of ‘progressive’ and blatant  ‘social agenda’ material being thrown in, but on the whole its disguising the real tragedy that is a really crummy, lazily written show that is really Dr Who in name only.

Its not that everything is creatively redundant. Ironically some new stuff is very good- The Expanse, for instance, is terrific and is perhaps thriving because it isn’t beholden to decades of established mythology and fans who are experts on those decades of material. Characters in the show can be fresh and exciting and challenging because in behaviour they don’t have to be true to anything established decades before, only what has been written in novels written by genuine talented sci-fi writers who know what they are doing.

Which brings me, finally, to the subject of this post, which is the second episode of Star Trek: Picard. Yeah, I got here eventually. Its not that I dislike this show, its certainly watchable (if only much of that is simply from the presence of Sir Patrick Stewart) but it certainly has its problems, and a lot of this is the writing, the creative choices. Its not a disaster on Dr Who levels, but it does have the feel that the core idea for this series is from some other franchise. Maybe somebody at Alcon had an idea for a Blade Runner series on Netflix and retconned it into a Star Trek story, because all this talk about synths and rebellions Off World (sorry, Mars) feels more Blade Runner, or maybe Westworld, than it does Star Trek. I can almost imagine a pitch meeting where one of the suits responded “yeah, nice idea but that Blade Runner flick flopped, can you maybe write it for the bald guy from Trek, I hear he’s looking for a gig?” I’m sure that’s not how it happened but it feels like it could have. Or maybe the suits looked at HBOs Westworld and thought, “yeah, I fancy a bit of that on my streaming channel, what IP do we own that we can retcon?”.

The result is something that looks good, and can even be entertaining, but doesn’t quite feel right. I enjoyed the first episode because for all its issues, it at least felt more like Trek ‘proper’ than Discovery did, but with its second episode that feelings getting a little stretched. Moreover, returning to my point about the talent pool getting thin, some of the writing here is really pretty atrocious and slipping to Dr Who levels. The rooftop fight (and explosion, remember) of the first episode, has been cleared up, the evidence disappeared, we are told, as if it never happened. Picard doesn’t wake up in hospital but in his villa back in France and his testimony apparently the ravings of a crazy old fool. Going back to the apartment of Dahj we see that it has been cleared up, all traces of the fight (and murder of her boyfriend) all gone, until some magic gadget can recreate what happened in a 3D Hologram until some point at which even that has been erased clean (my sorcery is more powerful than your sorcery!). If it wasn’t for the charisma that Stewart had, or the fact that this show would still be watchable if it was just him reading names out of a phonebook, I doubt I’d be sticking with it. You see, in the old days of Babylon 5, Fringe, the BSG reboot etc, when shows like this had mysteries or multi-episodic arcs, they were often worth sticking with, because I could have confidence in the creative team and the main arc winning through, but on the evidence of so much current genre stuff I really have my doubts here.

And really, I don’t know if its the writing, but other than Stewart, some of the acting is really pretty bland and dire.

Here’s hoping it gets better!

Star Trek: Picard

stpicardAs far as first episodes go, I thought this was a pretty solid effort. Certainly it feels more of a genuine ‘Star Trek’ than anything in Star Trek: Discovery,  which is all good in my book. I suppose a lot of this is due to having as familiar (and iconic) a face as Jean Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) as the central protagonist.  I must confess to feeling a certain glow when I saw Picard and Data together wearing their old TNG uniforms- I rather think that Stewart and Brent Spiner must have gotten a bit of a kick filming that scene. Whats most surprising though is that this still remains a pretty clear departure from Star Trek of old, particularly from TNG. This Picard is a rather bitter, lonely and frustrated man in his twilight years questioning the institutions that once held such importance to him, and perhaps questioning his life, what he achieved, what was the point of it all.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it (this first episode hints at more than it delivers, but I expect its just teasing answers soon to come in subsequent instalments) but I rather fancied that this series could just have easily been titled Star Trek: Kirk had it been made a decade ago, and perhaps would have made a fascinating epilogue for both Kirk and William Shatner’s role in the franchise, had that been possible.

Bad timing for Shatner, great timing for Stewart then, who seems to be relishing the opportunity this series affords him.

A friend of mine from work who left a few years ago, and was an avid Trekkie who read all the books etc, dropped me a text over the weekend informing me that he’d watched the show. He seemed to enjoy it, but couldn’t help but wryly note that the show credited 18 producers. A sign of the times, I guess, but I did text him an observation that too many cooks can spoil the broth, and that the cohesive vision of, say, a Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon, the two grand old masters of the original 1960s Trek, seems to be lost to us now. Star Trek: Discovery seemed to spend too much effort trying to be all things to everyone, getting lost in a spiralling mess in the process, and I only hope that this series goes its own path and maintains the promise of this fairly solid beginning.

Invaders From Mars (1986)

invaders1This film and I have a history. I saw it at the cinema back in 1986 and I hated it. Absolutely hated it. One of the most excruciating cinematic experiences of my life. Horrible movie. So horrible I have never seen it since, not any of it. I really hate seeing bad films at the cinema- hasn’t happened to me too often thank goodness. Its one thing to be watching a bad movie on home video, you can switch it off, hit that ‘eject’ button, but at the cinema? You’re stuck there for the ride. Even if the projectionist should really know better and put the patrons out of their misery by faking a power cut or something. So me and Invaders From Mars. We met in 1986 and never again since. Until last night.

I should have known better.

I’m something of a sucker for cheap blu-ray releases of older films. In this day and age of streaming and PPV catalogue releases on disc are becoming rather scarce. The main studios don’t seem to bother, instead licensing titles out to distributors like Arrow here in the UK. Its no doubt a niche market. Well, its tempting to just try encourage more releases by supporting those we do get. You have to buy every Hammer film released on Blu-ray (even the poorer ones) if you want to get your favourite Hammer films released someday. But that doesn’t really explain why I bought this one. We grow older and our faculties wane, bitter memories ease a little, and the passing of time, all near-thirty years of it, blurs memories until you begin to wonder, was it really all that bad? Maybe it was a bad day, maybe I wasn’t being fair, I was a teenager, maybe I wasn’t ready for it, maybe…

invaders2Invaders From Mars is still a horrible movie. Maybe even worse than I remembered. Its certainly nowhere near the fun that Tobe Hooper’s earlier Lifeforce is. Lifeforce is a bad movie, its a positive stinker of a film, but its nonetheless so bad its… well its one of those bad films that…  its actually quite fun. I love Lifeforce. Its got risible dialogue and a nonsensical plot but its a great laugh when you’re in the mood for it. Any film that portrays the End of the World as a Jean Michel Jarre concert attended by zombies can’t be all bad, and its got a cast to die for uttering those atrocious lines- Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart, Aubrey Morris… it’s geek gold. And I haven’t mentioned Mathilda May’s charms either. But Invaders From Mars? No, its just bad, really bad. Its casting is just part of it, but… yeah, about that cast…

Louise Fletcher. I’ll never forget my horror at seeing the wonderful Louise Fletcher who I had previously seen in Brainstorm, in which she was so monumentally brilliant, slumming in this film as the teacher from hell that eats a frog for no discernible reason. She hams it up in this film with its rubber martian monsters like she’s in a cheap muppet movie, privy to some joke none of us are in on (maybe its her paycheck that she finds so amusing). James Karen, so wonderful in the horror comedy Return of the Living Dead, incredibly miscast here as some army general, smoking cigars like his life depended on the smoke hiding his face/shame from the camera. Karen Black as the oddly hysterical school nurse is just so wrong, wrong, wrong in so many ways, its like she’s walked onset from some other movie. But really the true horror is the kid.

invaders3Hunter Carson is the nominal star of the film, the child ‘hero’ David Gardner whose parents are under the martian influence. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a bad child performance in a movie- the only thing that gives this a run for its money is Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace. Really its terrible, as if they got some kid off the streets and shoved him in the movie. Its really quite bizarre, he even manages to ‘move’ all wrong- even when he runs across the playground it looks like he’s acting. I can only imagine what the producers thought after seeing the dailies roll in. They must have known they were in trouble. I always wondered how the hell he got through any audition and then I discovered he was the child of Karen Black so maybe it was some kind of package deal that horribly misfired.

Or maybe its all Tobe Hooper’s fault. Maybe it’s just how Hooper was directing Carson. The thing is, the central conceit of the original Invaders From Mars was its dreamlike quality, it was the stuff of a child nightmare. Camera angles were always low, the art direction exaggerated perspective with its strange sets, the colours all exaggerated… I actually think in some odd way Hooper was doing something along those lines with how the actors in his remake were delivering their lines and acting, not like real people/characters, but somehow like a childs picture of adult behavior, like adults in a child’s dream. Unfortunately it doesn’t work in the slightest, the adults just look stupidly overacting, and the kid, well, he’s just incredibly irritating. I don’t know what Hooper was thinking. Lifeforce has this strange, almost camp quality of a huge blockbuster Hammer film that never was, but Invaders From Mars… its just badly shot, badly acted, badly directed. A complete mess.

Its a really ill judged film. Of course, when he was making Lifeforce, Hooper thought he was making a horror movie. When it was screened he was reportedly upset that audiences were laughing at it. So maybe following that experience he approached Invaders From Mars in some odd way at playing for the laughs (in which case he misfired again) or was suffering from a complete lack of confidence. I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t help the case for him having had any hand in directing Poltergeist, because none of the suburban scenes in Invaders look anything like as sophisticated as those of Poltergeist, and none of the stunts or horror gags have any of the finesse of Poltergeist. Its clearly the work of another director, far as I can tell. If Hooper did indeed direct Poltergeist, then I have to wonder, what the hell happened to him in the next few years. Did he get abducted by Martians? Did he shoot this film with a plaster on the back of his neck?