Archive for the ‘Star Trek’ Category

‘Chasing New Horizons’ Book Review: Go for Launch

April 24, 2018

New Horizons

Like many who conceived, designed, created, launched and tracked the magnificent bound-for-Pluto spacecraft called New Horizons, I grew up a space geek.

I loved the enticing mysteries of our universe. I devoured science and sci-fi books about it. I even launched my own model rockets, courtesy of Estes Industries.

So it was only fitting that my journalistic career took me to Houston, where I’ve lived since the early ’80s, proud of being a citizen of Space City, whose neighbors reach for the stars.

But those are manned missions. The first closeup looks at our planetary neighbors must come from robotic scouts — and spacecraft such as New Horizons, which made humanity’s first historic flyby of  Pluto in July 2015 after a journey of nine years and three billion miles.

Not that this robotic machine was soulless — not when so many humans’ efforts, hopes and dreams went into it, and traveled with it in spirit.

From such dreams to mission-accomplished reality is the compelling tale of Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, due May 1 from Picador.


DVD review: 3-hour Watchmen is old and new

July 21, 2009

Having Watchmen arrive on DVD means having an extra 24 minutes added to the theatrical cut, so the entire movie (with end credits) now runs 186 minutes. That’s a long time to tell a tale, but given the fact that Watchmen is based on a solitary graphic novel that’s set apart from the well-traveled superhero universes of Marvel or DC,  uninformed viewers have a lot of catching up to do.

They get that and more in this superb expanded cut, which introduces the multi-generational heroes who were forced to drop out of sight by a furor akin to the mutant-hunting scares in X-Men. And then, of course, they’re needed again.

The characters are both familiar types (strongmen–what a concept) and kooky-new (Rorschach, with his ever-shifting masked face). But the most intriguing, in a way, is the godlike Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who was transformed by an agonizing scientific accident into a near-omnipotent (if not omniscient, as he reminds us) bald and blue creature. He can get real big, too–real fast.

What makes Dr. Manhattan such a kick is that he faces much the same dilemma as one of the greatest characters ever created for a single network TV episode. And by that, I’m referring to the classic 1960s Outer Limits episode titled The Sixth Finger.

In it, David McCallum played an illiterate coal miner who agreed to be the test subject in a scientist’s experiment to advance human evolution via a machine. McCallum became advanced, all right — and kept going. Soon he was devouring books in seconds and playing piano like a master. Then he got even smarter — and more detached from human reality, seeing us as mere ants.

Similarly, Dr. Manhattan has trouble connecting with the human experience. He’s simply too godlike to relate, much as he might try.

In either case, it’s an incredible character “arc,” which is what many actors live for. You don’t want to go from A to B. You want to go from A to L to X to Z and then — who knows?

At any rate, Watchmen fans are urged to check out McCallum’s extraordinary performance and how his alarming human evolutionary imperatives are resolved. And speaking of ’60s TV sci fi, also keep in mind what Bill Shatner’s Captain Kirk told a similarly godlike being (played by Gary Lockwood) in the classic Star Trek episode Where No Man Has Gone Before: “A god must have compassion.” For humanity, if we truly can transcend our wretched existence, perhaps such compassion, beauty and love are where our greatest character arc — and evolutionary path — lies.

DVD review: ‘Star Trek: Season 3 Remastered’ shows where ‘Boston Legal’ bent began

November 18, 2008

And so, Paramount’s splendid refitting of Classic Trek comes to a close with this week’s release of Star Trek: The Original Series — Season 3 Remastered from Paramount. Again, the new effects and enhanced picture and sound are a fan’s dream, provided you’re not the kind of purist who balked at similar spiffing up of Star Trek: The Motion Picture or the original Star Wars trilogy.

Me? I love progress, and if you can improve a show without losing its basic integrity, I’m there. Bottom line: If they’d had the resources to produce this level of effects when making this show in the 1960s, they’d have loved to do so. Now Paramount can — and it does a fantastic job. ‘Nuff said.

Sure, Trek‘s third and final original season was nowhere near as good as the first two, but it still had some worthy winners, including the going-native-while-an-asteroid-looms love story of The Paradise Syndrome. (I’m a sucker for idyllic-looking shore leave shows — and that asteroiod gets a great makeover.) The DVD extras here also are welcome, from the original pilot version of The Cage to a tribute to Trek producer Bob Justman, a man I’ve admired dating back to his pre-Trek time on The Outer Limits.

In fact, there are so many elements of The Outer Limits in Star Trek that you almost could argue the first spawned the second, from Trek‘s direct steal of its Arena episode (which makes a cameo in Tropic Thunder, BTW) via OL‘s Fun and Games episode to the fact that some big Trek actors appeared first on the sci-fi anthology show (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, etc.). And Harlan Ellison, author of Trek‘s beloved City on the Edge of Forever episode, first wrote two of the best Outer Limits episodes in Soldier and Demon With a Glass Hand.

But back to The Paradise Syndrome. In it, as in so many Classic Trek episodes, we see the seeds of Shatner’s late-career renaissance. No, we’re not talking his amusingly in-your-face guy on TV commercials, but Shatner’s Denny Crane on Boston Legal, a role which won him an Emmy, which Kirk never did. In short, in Kirk we see a man who, like Denny Crane these days, can’t keep his hands off women — even when he’s in a mind-zapped daze (The Paradise Syndrome) or suffering from “mad cow” (Boston Legal).

Are James Kirk and Denny Crane truly cut from the same cloth? To answer one rhetorical question with another, in an astronomical context: Is there a constant far side (as opposed to “dark side”) of the moon? Yes and yes, of course.

Each character is an alpha male who’s king of his castle, whether it’s a spaceship or a law firm. Each is drawn to women like a meteoroid pulled into a giant planet’s gravitational hold. And each gives good speeches, whether it’s Kirk’s moralistic rallying-the-troops sermonettes or Crane’s sly, shrewd strategies offered to BFF Alan Shore (James Spader) in their balcony chats.

And there, of course, lies the biggest link between Kirk and Crane: Both celebrate male-bonding to the Nth degree. Kirk had Spock, and to a slightly lesser extent McCoy. And Crane has Shore. And those relationships are the thread, the theme, the backbone and the heart of their respective series.

Classic Trek never would have been classic without the intense brotherhood of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and Boston Legal is basically a platonic love story about political opposites but similarly rebellious legal eagles who end each episode with a drink, a cigar, a heart-to-heart talk and another declaration of their “bromance” love.

I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Kirk and Crane — separated at birth? Again, it’s a rhetorical question.

In fact, I rest my case.

‘Star Trek: Alternative Realities’ sets the table for 2009 movie

September 11, 2008

Sure, Paramount has milked its Star Trek cash cow to the point where ol’ Bossy must be mooing in protest. But the fact is, the latest recycling gimmick for already-sold TV episodes is right on the money — and right on time.

Star Trek: Alternate Realities Collective is a fitting scene-setter for the 11th Star Trek movie due next May. That film will feature time-tripping — a customary Trek device — which reveals Leonard Nimoy’s Spock at an advanced age, as well as Spock, Kirk and many others from the Enterprise at a much younger age. You might call the film an “alternate reality” all its own.

Meanwhile, this new five-disc box set groups 20 episodes from the five live-action Trek TV series, all geared to the kind of twists that turn good guys into bad guys and spin heads in the process. I must admit, these are some of the best Trek shows ever, as divided into the sub-themes of Mirror Universe, Alternate Lives, Twisted Realities and Parallel Dimensions.

My own personal favorites are Classic Trek’s Mirror Mirror (which provides the set’s box art), in which a warped “dark” Enterprise crew is revealed, complete with sinister goatees and beyond-Klingon ruthlessness; and the same series’ The Enemy Within, in which Kirk (William Shatner) is split into a “good” Kirk and a “bad” Kirk, revealing the innate and necessary duality of human beings. Trek: TNG’s Yesterday’s Enterprise and Voyager’s Before and After also are winners.

Special features include commentaries, and the episodes are remastered. Heck, I even agree with the DVD box hype that this is “the most unusual Star Trek collection ever assembled.” Of course, to be truly complete, it would have to include the animated Trek series’ Yesteryear episode, but I’m only tribbling — er, quibbling.


‘Doomsday Machine’ steals show for remastered ‘Star Trek’ Second Season DVD

August 1, 2008

Now that the next Star Trek movie is boldly going where no Trek film has gone before — to Kirk and Spock’s youth —  it’s a superb time to revisit “Classic Trek” via Paramount’s interrupted but now ongoing release of the original three seasons in remastered form, with updated visual effects.

Those who have watched such shows in syndication recently know how beautiful they are, even though you’ve probably seen them in truncated form, with five or six minutes trimmed to make room for more ads. No sweat. Due Tuesday, the new Star Trek Season Two Remastered DVD Edition has all 26 episodes in full, including such fan favorites as The Trouble With Tribbles, Amok Time, I, Mudd and The Deadly Years.

Having glommed much of them in advance, I can report that one episode you might not expect to stand out is truly the key — key to the remarkable job Paramount has done in sprucing up this show via enhanced effects. (Even staunch fans must admit, there was ample room for improvement.) And that episode –effects-drenched and driven by a sense of wonder for its spectacular interstellar images — is The Doomsday Machine.

Not only is it a great Star Trek episode, with William Windom playing, in effect, a tortured Captain Ahab seeking his Moby Dick — in this case an enormous trumpetlike machine with a giant maw that’s gulping entire planets — but it’s also a grand showcase for new special effects, with its many exterior shots of hardware, planetary bodies and the big fat bad thing grazing the galaxy.

Some even deemed The Doomsday Machine as a “litmus test” for the remastered and revamped efforts, especially after preview clips of the effects surfaced a year ago.

Indeed, if this doesn’t sell you on Trek’s retooling, nothing will. My only quibble (rhymes with Tribble) is that the huge thing in space now reminds me even more of a snack food called Bugles which, coincidentally, first hit the market just before Trek began airing in the ’60s.

Hmmmm . . . I wonder . . .

Anyway, whether the contraption makes you awed or awfully hungry, it’s the best example yet of how Trek’s once-bold but always cheap SPFX have been supplanted by work which makes Classic Trek look more like the movies which followed. In fact, slow down the footage in one scene and you’ll notice an asteroid field hanging in space outside a window past which Kirk (William Shatner) passes. Nice touch.

The box set itself has some nice extra touches, too, including bonus episodes of animated Trek and Deep Space Nine, each featuring an extension of the Tribbles saga.

For too many years — including the era of Star Trek’s original run — sci fi as a genre got negligible respect, along with horror and fantasy. No more. These classy improvements to a great show are downright reverential.

So beam us up again, Scotty. No matter that HD DVD bit the dust after Season One emerged. DVD is still DVD, and these episodes have never looked better — even including the dates on which they originally aired.

‘Saving Grace’ graced by Vasquez Rocks

July 29, 2008

Plenty of TV and movie locations have been overused — take all of Manhattan, for instance. But at least you know what you’re seeing and what it represents, and it’s germane to the story since the plot is, in fact, set in Manhattan.

Other locations get overused in different ways — such as reprentations of scenery for a rugged setting. And perhaps none in that category has been used more often than the Vasquez Rocks.

If you’ve seen the Arena episode of classic ’60s Star Trek, you’ve seen the Vasquez Rocks. In fact, the slanted, jagged, alien-looking rocks supposedly appear in the upcoming 11th Star Trek movie, due next year, having already made a cameo in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Named after a bandit who once hid there, the Vasquez Rocks have popped up in dozens more movies and TV series, most recently in what should be an unlikely place: TNT’s Saving Grace. In promos for its new season, we see star Holly Hunter stand against the striking, jutting, craggy rock formations, which allegedly represent Oklahoma. (The series is set in Oklahoma City.)

Now, I’ve lived in Oklahoma — both OKC and Tulsa — and I’ve never seen or heard of such rock formations in a largely flat terrain of farm lands and open spaces. But somehow the show’s producers figured anything west of New York City is the untamed region of “the Weeeeeest,” and Oklahoma got the Vasquez Rocks.

Actually, they’re located in So Cal — north of Los Angeles, on property owned by LA County. So they’re Californy rocks, not Okie rocks.

So there you have it: If you thought the jagged rock formation looked familiar when you last saw it, well, chances are you’ve already seen it many times. In fact, the Vasquez Rocks have become so widely used on screen that, in a way, they aren’t effective anymore. They simply remind us, “No, that’s not Oklahoma or another planet. That’s the Vasquez Rocks of California — again.”

‘The Invaders’ invades DVD

May 26, 2008

One of the creepiest of ’60s TV series, The Invaders makes its long-awaited DVD debut with a first-season box set from CBS Video. Since the show was a mid-season replacement, debuting in January of 1967, that first season, or half-season, ran 17 epsidoes, but by today’s standards that’s virtually a full season. The Invaders would return that fall for a full season and another 26 episodes.

Its premise echoed the “running man” setup of another series produced by Quinn Martin, The Fugitive. Only in this case, it wasn’t a man unjustly charged with murder but architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes), who was in the wrong place at the right time and witnessed a saucerlike spacecraft landing on Earth. (We’re told in offscreen narration it’s from “another galaxy.” Riiiight. Try “interstellar” or “another star system”. It would take the aliens millions of years traveling at light speed to cross the gulfs between galaxies.)

Naturally, hardly anyone believes Vincent, and it doesn’t help that the aliens, when killed, instantly disintegrate. Even so, Vincent utterly devotes himself to his mission to track down and thwart the furtive alien invasion.

This premise often echoes It Came From Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in that the aliens walk among us in human form. And the production is first-rate, including impressive guest stars such as Suzanne Pleshette, William Windom, Roddy McDowall, Ed Asner and Dabney Coleman. Thinnes also is a strong lead character, known more for steely resolve than frantic desperation. In other words, he didn’t overact. He also looks good — cool, even — as a dapper 70-year-old in onscreen interviews for the new DVD (which also offers commentary, network promos and an extended version of the original pilot).

Also impressive is the show’s first-season composer, Dominic Frontiere. He’s the same man who composed perhaps the greatest TV score ever, for the first season of The Outer Limits (1963-64). In fact, that music was so good that he used it again throughout The Invaders’ pilot episode (as he’d also done in 1965 film Incubus, and sometimes in The Rat Patrol). But after that he used mostly new music.

One piece of Outer Limits music persists on The Invaders. Just as the theme music to Star Trek: The Motion Picture became the theme to TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, Frontiere’s theme for a single Outer Limits episode became the theme for The Invaders as a series.

I’m speaking of the opening musical theme, used throughout Season One. That music was first used in the final Outer Limits episode of Season One, The Forms of Things Unknown. It was actually shot as a pilot for a new anthology show (which never was produced) called The Unknown (clearly geared more toward gothic fantasy than Outer Limits’ sci-fi). Since Frontiere never got to use it as an ongoing theme for The Unknown, he made it the theme for The Invaders.

By the way, Frontiere’s ex-wife, who recently passed away, was Georgia Frontiere, owner of the Los Angeles — then St. Louis — Rams.

At any rate, The Invaders is quality sci-fi TV from a time when the only other such worthy series was the original Star Trek (which also shares many Outer Limits elements). So savor Thinnes’ running man. He may not have won much support while defying invaders, but he’s certainly worthy of yours.

‘Trek’ refit is winning enterprise

December 3, 2007

I know what you’re thinking: You love classic ’60s Star Trek, but you’ve seen it — and bought it — over and over. First you taped it off the air, even editing out commercials, while chafing at the minutes you lost from increased ad breaks. Later you picked up single-episode VHS tapes, as sale-priced as you could find them, but still averaging $10 or so. Finally you got all three seasons on DVD when they debuted in 2004, and at under $70 each. At last!

Yet you still haven’t seen and owned Star Trek at its best — not until you’ve glommed its first season on its new Combo HD and Standard DVD.

Yes, it’s pricey, costing $132.95 on when marked down from an SRP of almost $195. But how much did those first 29 episodes cost on individual VHS tapes?

Besides, any previous release of Trek is like a horse and buggy compared to the new set’s Ferrari. This is what fans — if not purists — have been waiting for since Paramount began enhancing the show for renewed syndication months ago.

Purist? I’m not one. I love what George Lucas did with his original Star Wars trilogy in Special Edition form. (Well, most of it, anyway.) I also love what the late Bob Wise did six years ago when reworking Star Trek: The Motion Picture for a Director’s Cut DVD. And I’m a defender of ST: TMP in large part for the enormous improvements it offered for the first time in music and special effects.

Now such light-years advances are an even bigger part of ’60s Trek’s refitting for syndication and DVD, from painstaking cleanup of the original negative to faithful re-recording of  Alexander Courage’s theme to the most important change of all: creating new footage for virtually all effects shots.

The Enterprise need never again look like a wooden model photographed from fixed points of reference. Now, thanks to CG creativity, it can look state-of-the-art, swooping at varied angles and even disgorging satellites from a bomb-bay door as it orbits what look like true planets, with elaborate land masses and cloud covers, not globs of green or orange. Old mattes also have been replaced with far more vivid settings, while minute details have been added, such as giving Kirk’s lizardlike Arena foe blinking eyes.

Such work is assessed on a 20-minute disc-one featurette, Spacelift: Transporting Trek Into the 21st Century. It was previewed recently at theaters showing special screenings of the rebooted two-part episode The Menagerie (a sellout, here in Houston). In effect, that served as an infomercial for the new DVD set, but no matter. If those 20 minutes don’t convince you of the love and care which went into this project, nothing will. The creative types show true reverence and enthusiasm for Gene Roddenberry’s vision, and say they only enhanced the effects because that’s what he’d have done if he had the capability 40 years ago.

Sure, Trek still comes down to the stories and characters. That’s why we love it. That’s what sets it apart. But for a show shot on a relative shoestring and with limited resources in its day, getting this kind of facelift — or “spacelift” — is a remarkable upgrade, providing the series a vibrant new look and an invigorating new life. In fact, for me, this is what purists really should be about: savoring a favorite show in its finest form imaginable. Forty-one years after its bold birth, Star Trek has achieved this.

New MST online!

November 9, 2007

Don’t miss, the Best Brains folks’ own new official website, which has new input from some of the original crew. (And yes, stalwart fan site Satellite News remains in action.) So far it’s largely an online store with limited archives from the show, but much more is promised, and there’s already the first in a series of new Crow, Servo and Gypsy cartoon shorts to get things started. A lake scene ostensibly on a newly found SOL holodeck, “Reel Livin'” is voiced by Paul Chaplin, James Moore and Jim Mallon. For Crow and Servo, Paul and James are an adjustment, but they’re good, and Mallon’s Gypsy is the same as always. It’s also heartening just to see the ‘bots in some form for new misadventures, with more expected weekly. Consider this the MST3K answer to Filmation’s ’70s show for another beloved series deep into reruns and adored by hungry-for-more fans: Star Trek: The Animated Series. It’s nowhere near as great as the original, but as ERB’s John Carter of Mars would say, “We still live!”

Cry ‘UNCLE’ on Nov. 27

November 8, 2007

High-concept filmmaking may be a function of this era’s corporate-controlled studios (Titanic = “Romeo and Juliet on a sinking ship”), but it also stretches back to early network TV.  In the ’60s, The Man From UNCLE was conceived, quite simply, as “James Bond for TV.” Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo seduced and sauntered in lady-killer Bond mode as a spy guy for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, with David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin as his patient and steady Felix Leiter from another country. Only thing is, as upcoming DVDs for the series show, McCallum quickly evolved into more of a co-star, because Solo didn’t go solo, as in the pilot’s first concept, when the show was even named Solo.

Due Nov. 27 as a full-series box (though the first season also is sold separately, as with Get Smart!), UNCLE’s new Time Life set has a featurette explaining these origins. Turns out Bond creator Ian Fleming was involved in UNCLE’s gestation — even suggesting the name Napoleon Solo for its hero. When Fleming dropped out, the name stuck. But when UNCLE’s creators realized Fleming had a character in his novel Goldfinger also named Solo, they backed off on calling their series that. Enter The Man From UNCLE, and enter McCallum as a charismatic young actor suddenly given co-star status.

Of course, 41 discs and four seasons of UNCLE is a lot to sit through, especially given the show’s sometimes bare-bones production values and leaden pace by today’s standards. If you caught any of TCM’s screenings this week of UNCLE “movies” (two episodes cobbled together), you know what I mean. Still, it was a cool concept for TV in the swingin’ ’60s, and Vaughn and McCallum were stellar leads — treated like rock stars when their fame crested. What’s more, Jerry Goldsmith’s music can’t be beat, and I’m lucky enough to have it on CD. This is a man who went on to win an Oscar (for The Omen) and earn 18 Oscar nominations. For UNCLE, he wrote action and love themes equally well and produced some of TV scores’ strongest melodies.

The new UNCLE set also has a featurette on the show’s many prominent guest stars, and two in particlar pop out: Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, both guest-starring in the same episode, 1964’s first-season “The Project Strigas Affair.” It was their first acting together on screen, a couple of years before Star Trek. Nimoy played a bad guy, and Shatner was an innocent who got to behave spectacularly drunk in one scene. What a great excuse for him to serve up an even bigger plate of steaming hot ham than usual. But hey, I still love his heroic Captain Kirk and his brassy rejuvenation as Denny Crane.

UNCLE’s Vaughn had his Trek ties, too, having starred in short-lived series The Lieutenant for future “Great Bird of the Galaxy” Gene Roddenberry. McCallum was more of an Outer Limits man (a series also with close ties to Trek), via two superb episodes: “The Sixth Finger” and “The Form of Things Unknown.” I’ve interviewed hundreds of actors, including Shatner and Nimoy, and I can tell you they get most enthused about a meaty character “arc,” where their role has significant changes. If you know of another single TV episode with a greater character arc than McCallum had in The Sixth Finger (brutish coal miner to sudden genius to cruelly godlike being to omniscient peacenik), I’d like to hear it. And if you’re right, all right — I’ll cry “UNCLE!”