Category Archives: 1990s

Memory Bank: Laserdiscs

Once upon a time, I was certain that the future of home entertainment media belonged to the laserdisc format. 

From about 1992 to 1999, I amassed a huge (now virtually worthless…) collection of laserdisc films and television programming, and paid a pretty penny for those discs too.  I remember that when Goldeneye(1995) came out on laserdisc in the mid-1990s it sold at (the now-defunct) Media Play stores for the princely sum of forty-five dollars.

But still — for a while anyway — laserdiscs were the best game in town.

At some point, probably during the mid-1980s, film lovers, scholars, and critics began to see and understand the inherent limitations of the VHS home-video format, and that’s what created an opening for laserdiscs, I suppose.

For one thing, most movies on VHS saw their original aspect corrupted, reducing the rectangular frame of the silver screen to a box.  I remember seeing somewhere (was it on Siskel and Ebert at the Movies?) a side-by-side comparison of a scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in theatrical format and VHS format, and feeling pretty darn upset at how much of the frame was sacrificed on the latter.

One of the tremendous benefits of the laser disc “optical storage” medium was that, as a collector’s format, it most often featured films in their original, theatrical widescreen ratio.  You didn’t losing anything of value, frame-wise, and the picture was crystal clear. 

Laserdiscs were wonderful as well, for their capacity to navigate frame-by-frame (in CAV mode, anyway).  They could also feature a host of extras outside the film itself, both on the discs and on the over-sized, record album-like packaging.   The laserdisc for Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989), for instance, featured extended cuts of the film.

But I’ll be honest: I didn’t join the laserdisc revolution because I had to see my favorite films in immaculate widescreen and with extra material. 

I purchased a Pioneer laserdisc player in late 1993 because that format represented the only way I could view the entirety of Gerry and Sylvia Andersons’s Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) again, for the first time in over a decade.  Image Entertainment and J2 Communications had released (virtually) all of the four-dozen or so episodes on laserdisc, and, well, I was determined to see the series again after it had disappeared from the spotlight.  If this was the way I had to see it…well, so be it.

Not that finding all of the episodes was easy or cheap. 

It was a months-long and expensive proposition to hunt down all the laserdisc volumes of the series.  Fortunately, I found an outfit in Fairfield New Jersey called U.S. Video Source (“America’s Laser Disc Store”) that was selling a number of the Space:1999 releases, at $26.96 a disc (consisting of two hour-long episodes).  

To demonstrate what a crazy and obsessive collector I am (as if I haven’t already…) I still own many of my invoices from U.S. Video Source during the span from 8/25/93 to 01/05/94.  I have no idea why I’m still keeping these documents, except that they reflect a time in my life that I remember fondly. 

There was something wonderful and exciting about hunting down every laserdisc volume of Space: 1999 I could find at both at both remote venues like Video Source and at real locations such as the Camelot Music store that was located on Central Avenue in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I have great memories of that Camelot Music store laser disc bin, although the store is long-since closed.  It was there that I found some truly great (and bizarre…) deals.  Still, I’m not sure what fever possessed me to buy a laserdisc of Mom and Dad Save the World (1992).

But for me, the absolute truth is this: I became a professional writer in large part because I had to legitimize with my then-girlfriend/now-wife the amount of time and money I had sunk into collecting all the Space: 1999 volumes.  In the end, it turned out okay for me, of course…and here we are.

Over the years, I collected everything I could on laserdisc.  I even began collecting Star Trek: The Next Generationepisodes in that format…even though I didn’t like them so much that I had to own them. 

On the other hand, I’m thrilled that today I own the Star Wars Original Trilogy on laserdisc, sans the CGI changes of the Special Editions and DVD and Blu-Ray releases. 

I also love re-reading the liner notes on my Star Wars laserdisc.  George Lucas – who sued Battlestar Galactica(1978 – 1979) for copyright infringement – commented there (“Behind the Scenes”) that he made Star Warsso everyone will copy it.  Then I can go see the copies and sit back and enjoy them.”


Anyway, laserdiscs (LD) never really took off in the United States, and even after several years on the market were only in something like 2% of American households.  And then came the real kicker: DVDs were on the horizon by the mid-1990s, and the new, cheaper format represented the death knell for laserdiscs.

Today, I still possess my Space: 1999 laserdiscs, though many have succumbed to the dreaded condition called “laser rot.”  And, I’ve again bought the series on DVD and once more (Year One, anyway…) on Blu Ray. 

Given my penchant for collecting, my wife is extremely happy that DVDs and Blu Rays are much more affordable than laserdiscs.  Yet there’s something about that oversized format that I still cherish. And yes, I’m nostalgic for it. 

Although, I suppose, I don’t miss getting my ass up off the sofa to flip laserdisc sides…

Cult-TV Flashback: The Burning Zone (1996 – 1997)

The Clinton Era (1992 – 2000) represents the golden age of conspiracy and horror genre television.  This development was due in large part to the unexpected and transcendent success of Chris Carter’s The X-Files, which became a ratings hit in the early 1990s and ran for an incredible nine seasons.

In The X-Files’ wake came Nowhere Man (1995 – 1996), Strange Luck (1995 – 1996), American Gothic (1995 – 1996), Dark Skies (1996 – 1997), Millennium (1996 – 1999), Sleepwalkers(1997), Prey (1998), Strange World (1999), and other efforts, including UPN’s The Burning Zone (1996 – 1997).

Created by Coleman Luck, The Burning Zone boasted important antecedents outside The X-Files as well.  The mid-1990s also happened to be the great era of “virus”-centric pop-culture entertainment, from the book The Hot Zone a true-life account of an Ebola outbreak in Virginia — to Outbreak (1995), a horror film which pitted scientists Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Kevin Spacey against hemorrhagic fever in California. 

The Burning Zonebrought a similar premise to TV on a weekly basis: “Today’s battle to save humanity is fought in sterile labs with petri dishes and test tubes for weapons.  Virologists and geneticists are the new warriors,” described Coleman Luck in SFX  #18, November 1996 (page 10).

Accordingly, The Burning Zone, which ran for nineteen hour-long episodes, followed the dangerous missions of a small bio-crisis team dedicated to eradicating new and deadly diseases in what the series described as “The Plague Wars.” 

The team leader was Daniel Cassian (Michael Harris), a no-nonsense doctor with “Level 92” clearance and a firm grip over his emotions.  He was assisted by Dr. Edward Marcase (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a virologist who survived a childhood case of Ebola but lost both parents to the disease.  Edward’s controversial approach to medicine considered the curing of disease a “mystical” experience, a supernatural quest.

Other team members were Kimberly Shiroma (Tamlyn Tomita), a molecular-geneticist-pathologist recruited from the World Health Organization, and Michael Hailey (James Black), the man responsible for the team’s overall security.

After eleven episodes, The Burning Zone endured a dramatic format shift and cast change.  Shiroma and Marcase left the team, replaced by Dr. Brian Taft (Bradford Tatum), a motorcycle-riding, rebellious James Dean-like physician.  The re-boot of the series largely abandoned the (much-criticized) supernatural angle and featured more action-oriented stories.  Only Harris and Black appeared throughout both formats.  Cassian became the primary hero, after playing a kind of Dr. Smith-like thorn in the side for the first run of shows.

As you might well expect, critics were not particularly kind evaluating this genre series.  Writing for The Skeptical Inquirer in May-June of 1998, Peter Huston observed that the series made him “want to throw shoes at the television” and noted that it featured “Snarly fashion-model scientists chasing intelligent hive-mind vampire zombie viruses with flame throwers.” 

And yes, that may be the best line ever written in a TV review.

Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Caryn James opined that the UPN series mostly served to remind viewers just how good The X-Files really was, and noted that The Burning Zone offered “the loopy delights of a cut-rate, over-the-top horror movie.” 

Only Roger Fulton’s and John Betancourt’s The Sci-Fi Channel Encyclopedia of TV Science-Fiction (Warner Books; 1997, page 106) reserved such harsh judgment, calling The Burning Zone a series that “went thought so many transformations in its brief 19-episode run that no viewer who saw the first show would recognize the last.”

I watched The Burning Zone when it aired, and although I wholeheartedly concur with the largely-negative sentiments, I wouldn’t mind seeing the program (along with Sleepwalkers and Prey…) released on DVD. Ever since I first saw it, I’ve always considered The Burning Zone a kind of “disease-of-the-week” show.  But what made it so memorable were indeed the goofy plot-lines and various diseases that had to be cured. 

Among these were ones that caused fear (“The Silent Tower”), rage (“St. Michael’s Nightmare”) spontaneous combustion (“Arms of Fire,”) insanity (“Critical Mass”), skeletal collapse (“Death Song”), hypothyroidism (“The Last Five Pounds are the Hardest”), and hemorrhagic fever (“Night Fever”). 

Other stories dealt with a dimension of death (“Lethal Injection”), the disease that destroyed the Mayan civilization (“Touch of the Dead”), psychic surgery (“Hall of the Serpent”), an occult Nazi weapon called “The Eyes of Odin” (“Midnight of the Carrier”) and a flesh-eating virus (“Elegy for a Dream.”)

The quality that distinguished and perhaps harmed The Burning Zone the most was its insistence on blending hard science with spiritual or religious sub-plots. Most of the protagonists in the series are highly-trained physicians who had gone through years if not decades of training.  Yet in story after story, these men and women of science found themselves exploring the “spirit” in ways they certainly couldn’t have anticipated back at med school. 

Now, if this idea had been applied consistently, intelligently and believably, it could have proved an interesting subtext for the program: medicine vs. spiritualism.   But The Burning Zone never seemed to understand that science had to come first for these doctors working the front lines of the plague war.  One episode involved a cure that was made from the “venomous fruit” of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  It was just…wacky.

“Touch of the Dead” followed a similarly bizarre trajectory.  In this tale, Cassian was infected by a terrible disease with no scientific cure.  He survived because he found a “reason to live:” a healthy soul! 

Next time I’m sick, remind me to save my fifteen dollar co-pay and see if this technique works.

Meanwhile, “Arms of Fire” pushed the same anti-science notion when a boy in danger of spontaneously combusting (!) survived the horrible ordeal by expressing his willingness to pray.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with faith or belief. Only that for a science-oriented series to continually fall back on religion as a basis for its cures is ridiculous.  If this were the direction the show wanted to go in, it should have featured clergy, not scientists, as main characters.

Perhaps the most memorable expression of The Burning Zone’s spiritual philosophy occurred in the installment called “Lethal Injection.”  There, Marcase visited a hellish “after life” dimension after taking an experimental drug.  In the after-life, he encountered whispering, black-shrouded ghosts who could remove a man’s spirit by touch.  But he was protected from the loss of his soul by beings he termed “angels.”  At the end of the episode, Marcase – again, a well-educated scientist, remember– theorized that this alternate dimension was actually an entrance to Hell for angels who had fallen from grace. 

Quite a significant discovery for someone working on a bio-crisis team, huh? I wonder why he never shared his confirmation of a spiritual plane with the rest of the world, however.  Seems like an important thing for the human race to be aware of…

If science and religion didn’t fit together well in the stories, then the science component by itself was a frequent stumbling block on The Burning Zone.  The series relied on the straight-faced belief that a disease could be isolated, diagnosed, cured, and its effect totally reversed in every single episode.  

Though this is drama we’re talking about and some rule bending is necessary and expected, this series simply asked viewers to suspend disbelief too much.  The Burning Zone wanted the audience to believe that this elite medical team could stop outbreaks faster than a speeding bullet.  

On the series, there was never once a disease the doctors couldn’t overcome, and most of the horrible plagues and viruses didn’t even leave behind scars or pock-marks on their victims.  Had some of these horrible diseases left at least a residual indication of their presence, The Burning Zone might have felt a little more real.  Or, maybe it could have taken a three-or-four episode arc to cure a particular disease, showing the process over a period of several weeks or months.  That kind of approach would have been much more true to life as we know it..

As far as the format changes go, The Burning Zone only went from bad to worse.   Visually, the show developed a new visual sheen in its last dozen or so programs, with sudden and largely purposeless zooms, distorted angles, fast-motion photography, hand-held camerawork and so forth.  These stylistic bells and whistles, however, could not hide the basic banality of the new stories.

One episode (“Death Song”) actually re-hashed The Bodyguard (1991) with Hailey protecting and romancing a beautiful rock star.  Another episode was a variation on Duchovny’s Playing God (1997), with Taft forced to administer medical care to a sick gangster. 

At least the original approach — the juxtaposition of the medical with the miraculous – offered something to think about, even if you dismissed it as ridiculous.  The later approach was The Burning Zone…lobotomized.

And believe me, that is really saying something.

The Burning Zone: UPN Promo

Cult Movie Review: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Star Trek: First Contact(1996) is likely the finest of The Next Generation feature films.  In part, this is so because the film combines an extremely popular villain, the Borg, with an extremely popular idea in the franchise: time travel

In part, First Contact also thrives because the film is more action-oriented and visceral than some of the other entries in the canon. The screenplay, by Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore also goes through fewer contortions than Generationsdid to fashion its compelling tale.  Where Generations seemed confusing and contrived, First Contact feels stream-lined and sleek. 

Perhaps most importantly, Star Trek: First Contactwhile occasionally gory and quite violent – remembers that the core of Star Trek’s appeal does not rest in warfare and hatred, but rather in the exploration of the “human adventure.” 

By ending on the high note of humanity’s first contact with the Vulcans, First Contact honors Star Trek’s important legacy of hope and promise.  This vision of a better tomorrow (and of a better humanity, to boot), differentiates the franchise from virtually all other space adventures, and makes the film a pleasure to watch, even fifteen years after its theatrical release.  An average Star Trek movie can excite you with space battles, certainly, but only a very good one can tap into the inspirational nature of Gene Roddenberry’s celebrated creation.

Accordingly, film critics approved of and admired the film, and First Contact remains one of the best-reviewed Star Trek films in the saga’s history.  Variety wrote: “Star Trek: First Contact”is a smashingly exciting sci-fi adventure that ranks among the very best in the long-running Paramount franchise. Better still, this is one TV spinoff that does not require ticket buyers to come equipped with an intimate knowledge of the small-screen original. Fans and non-fans alike will line up for this wild ride, and many will be repeat customers.”

Lloyd Rose at The Washington Post praised Jonathan Frakes’ direction, and opinedThere are moments of visionary beauty in this film that rank with “Metropolis,” with Josh Meador’s interior vistas in “Forbidden Planet” and Irvin Kershner’s and Ralph Quarrie’s work in “The Empire Strikes Back” — that is to say, with the best fantasy films ever made.

As a reviewer and unapologetic Trek fan, I boast deeper reservations about First Contact than Rose apparently did, and feel that while the film is indeed the best of the Next Generation cinematic efforts, it still falls short of the cinematic majesty and scope of The Motion Picture(1979), or the sheer emotionality and humanity of The Wrath of Khan(1982). 

Part of the reason that Star Trek: First Contactdoesn’t work on the same rarefied level as those aforementioned titles is that many of the earthbound scenes involving James Cromwell’s recalcitrant Zefram Cochrane boast no effective foil for the mischievous inventor of warp speed technology.  Riker, Troi and Geordi are beloved characters to be certain, but they are never really established effectively in the script as larger-than-life personalities with the heft to match Cochrane note-for-note and blow-for-blow.  As a result, the film’s pace lags badly every time First Contact returns to Earth and the Borg are shunted off-screen.

By contrast, the Borg themselves (itself?) are incredibly effective in design, concept and execution.  They are visually-inspired, dynamic villains, and First Contact benefits strongly from their presence, even if aspects of their culture (namely the Borg Queen) now seem contradictory and unnecessarily muddled.   As a longtime Star Trek fan, I was also disappointed with some of the shoddy continuity in the film, especially because in most cases the flaws were unnecessary and could have been easily rectified in post-production.

But such quibbles aside, Star Trek: First Contactremains a fun and involving science fiction adventure.  It’s an eminently sturdy entry in the long-lived franchise, and comes close to recapturing successfully the character chemistry that made Star Trek: the Next Generation so beloved an endeavor.
“A group of cybernetic creatures from the future have traveled back through time to enslave the human race… and you’re here to stop them?
In the 24th Century, the cybernetic Borg attempt a second invasion of Sector 001, the home of the human race.  Instead of warping to planet Earth to join the battle, however, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the U.S.S Enterprise-E are ordered to stay away.  Starfleet fears that Picard’s traumatic experience being assimilated by the Borg could make him an “unstable element” in the critical defense of Earth.

With his crew’s support, Captain Picard ignores Starfleet’s orders and assumes control of the fleet battling the Borg Cube.  Able to hear the Borg’s thoughts, Captain Picard pinpoints the cube’s weakness and destroys it, but not before a Borg escape craft opens a temporal anomaly and travels into Earth’s past.

Caught in the energetic wake of the escaping Borg sphere, the Enterprise crew can only watch as Earth of the past is assimilated by the cybernetic organisms.  The starship follows the Borg to the past, to April of 2063 in an effort to prevent the change.  There, they learn that the diabolical aliens plan to scuttle Earth’s “first contact” with alien life forms following the successful test flight of Zefram Cochrane’s (James Cromwell’s) experimental warp ship. 

Picard realizes he must preserve the timeline, or the human race will become…Borg.

Before long, the Enterprise herself is infested with Borg invaders.  Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) is captured by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who requires the information stored in his android brain if she wishes to access the ship’s computer and stop Cochrane’s historic flight. 

Meanwhile, on Earth’s surface below, Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) must convince Cochrane to make his historic flight…

“I am the beginning. The end. The one who is many. I am the Borg.

The Borg are really no-brainers as movie antagonists.  The most beloved episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation remains the two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds,” concerning a Borg incursion into Federation space. The Borg are such popular villains because they promise a fate much worse than death. 

It’s one thing to be killed by drooling, murderous aliens; it’s another thing entirely to have your individuality wiped away and your intelligence sublimated into the Borg Collective.  In that state, your memories belong to the Borg.  Your physicality belongs to the Borg.  Your very soul…is theirs. 

Somewhere inside, you may want to struggle against the Collective or Hive, but you can’t succeed.  You must stand by and watch in a kind of living Hell as the Borg exploit your knowledge and exploit your body, perhaps even condemning your very loved ones to the nightmare of being “one” with the collective. It’s a horrid fate to imagine, let alone endure. 

The Borg threat also works remarkably well in the context of The Next Generation, a series that — through the inclusion of half-Betazaoids, Klingons, androids, the blind and other colorful characters — champions diversity as a worthwhile human ideal.

The Borg destroy diversity, making all life-forms conform to their vision of perfection, thus making them a perfect adversary for our colorful and very individual 24thcentury heroes.

Assimilation into the Borg group consciousness is such a powerful, frightening notion that it would be nearly impossible to ruin the threat of the Borg in a two-hour motion picture.  And yet, First Contact almost achieves the impossible by giving the Borg a heretofore unseen new ruler, a single individual called the Borg Queen. 

Now, let me be plain: Alice Krige is remarkable as the Borg Queen here.  She gives a performance simultaneously terrifying and sensual.  Similarly, her appearance is both frightening and incredibly sexy.  And yet the very idea of a Borg Queen represents a terrible undermining of the original notion of the Borg: a collective life form.

Now, suddenly – after several years of Next Generation episodes – we learn that that the Borg are ruled by an individual leader?  By the equivalent of a Queen Bee?  And worse, this Queen Bee is apparently seeking a human mate?  Here, it is plain she seeks not to make drones of protagonists Captain Picard or Data, but to make them her lovers and companions, co-rulers of the lower Borg caste. 

In one fell swoop, then, the terror and anonymity of assimilation is largely undone.  For one thing, the Borg can maintain individuality after assimilation, as the presence and personality of the Borg Queen prove.  For another, our heroes don’t face total erasure of individuality.  Instead, they get to hob-knob it with the sensual, if sadistic, Borg Queen.  There are some humans who may not consider that arrangement so terrible, frankly, given her overt sensuality…

I understand the (flawed) thinking that individuals make a “better” enemy in a movie than a group of bad guys, but the popularity of the Borg as a collective in the Next Generation TV series proves the fallacy of such thinking.  First Contact invents a new character in the Borg Queen that — while beautiful and menacing — totally undercuts the terror of the Borg equation.

Her presence raises important questions too.  How does the Queen exist in multiple dimensions at once, since First Contact suggests that she was present on the Borg ship with Locutus, although though we never saw her there in “Best of Both Worlds?”

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, how do the Borg survive (into episodes of Voyager) if their multi-dimensional Queen keeps getting destroyed?  How many Queens are there?  How does she die?  Does Star Trek now possess an un-killable character?   Also, because she can apparently be in more than one dimension at a time, why does the Queen have to bother with sending a message to the Borg of her time by sensor dish?  Why not just transition from one place to another, one time to another?

Another serious problem in First Contact again comes down to how writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga choose to highlight crew interaction.  Specifically, superficial “movie thinking” undercuts what could have been incredible scenes of conflict and drama between Enterprise team members.  

Here, Patrick Stewart delivers an incredibly well-written Moby Dick speech about the Borg, explaining in detail why he won’t fall back again, why he won’t let the Borg win.  Stewart does a terrific job with the material.  It’s the monologue of an obsessed, driven man, and it works quite effectively in terms of the character we love, even if it seems logical that he would have exorcised these Borg demons already, given the span of time between “Family” and First Contact.

But forget all that. Picard gets called on the carpet and called out for his obsession with Borg… by Lily (Alfre Woodard), a one-time guest star in the franchise.  She goes toe-to-toe with Picard and points out how his pursuit of the Borg doesn’t make sense.  She’s known him for maybe a few hours, when she makes the speech.

I’ll be blunt: this confrontation should have occurred between Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden).  She has known Captain Picard longer than anyone else aboard ship, she can speak from experience — not hear say —  that his orders usually make sense, and she boasts the standing as chief medical officer of the Enterprise to stop Picard in his tracks if he is acting in a manner that is dangerous to the well-being of the starship’s crew. 

If this were an original cast Star Trek movie, do you have any doubt that it would have been McCoy calling Kirk on the carpet over his behavior, as he did, explicitly in Star Trek: The Motion Picture(1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier(1989), to name just three incidents?  McCoy could do it because he was Kirk’s confidante, and because he had that standing as CMO to question a captain’s behavior.

Again, Crusher – who shares breakfast with Picard every day as we know from the series – is that person in The Next Generation universe.  Yes, Stewart and Woodard are powerful in the confrontation scene together, but it doesn’t resonate deeply in terms of Star Trek history, because Picard doesn’t get checked by one of his own, by one of his crew. These movies are supposed to be about how starship crews work together to resolve problems, right?  Shouldn’t the person who actually knows Picard be the one to question him?  You may recall, I had a similar problem with how Generations used Crusher.  She should have been Picard’s “Nexus” ideal, given their relationship there. And she should do her duty as CMO here, in First Contact. It’s not that I have a thing for Crusher (though I like her just fine).  It’s that as a member of the team, when there is an opportunity to use her character appropriately…she should be thus used.  And she never is.  In any Star Trek movie.  Even Chekov, Sulu and Uhura had moments in the sun in the original Star Trek films when there was opportunity.

I’ve always believed this a major flaw in the Next Generation movies: they give the supporting cast members little to do, and farm out the dramatic work to guest stars inside of established characters.  The Moby Dick scene would have been infinitely more powerful if Gates McFadden – whom we know and love as Crusher – had been given the opportunity to stand up to Captain Picard.  I wrote above how Riker, Geordi and Troi don’t seem equal to the task of countering Cochrane here.  The same is true of Crusher in First Contact: she’s written like a doormat.  She remains on the bridge, without questioning orders, while Lily enthusiastically performs her job as chief medical officer.

This reveals — as we see time and time again – that there’s definitely a pecking order in the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies:  the men get better roles than the women do, and Picard, Riker, Worf and Data get the lion’s share of the drama, while the rest of the characters are afforded only brief moments that play as the equivalent of shtick.  Troi gets to play drunk, for example.  In First Contact, Crusher not only shirks her duty to hold Picard’s feet to the fire over a bad decision, she actually loses a patient (Lily again…) who is under her protection.  That’s the best the writers could come up with for a character who raised a son, overcame the tragic death of her husband, commanded the Enterprise from time-to-time and even headed Starfleet Medical?

In short, for First Contact, the writers decided to go out and invent a woman tough enough to challenge Picard, when a woman already in the Next Generation stable could have done it just as well, and it would have resonated far more with the Trek fan base.  All they needed to do was to write Gates McFadden a decent part.

In the introduction to this piece, I wrote about some careless errors in the film.  Let me name just a few.  At one point, Picard tells Lily the Enterprise consists of 24 decks. Later, Worf’s security chief replacement reports that the Borg control “deck 26.”  If we’re to believe Picard, that deck doesn’t exist.  By looping “24” over the “26” dialogue, this would error would not have occurred.  I just can’t believe that nobody was checking continuity on a major studio’s tent-pole franchise.

Other matters of concern include the origin of Zefram Cochrane.  He is a character from the original series episode “Metamorphosis,” and one with an entirely different look and origin (in terms of home planets, apparently) than what this movie establishes. But First Contact feels no obligation to explain the discrepancies in Cochrane’s biography. 

Also, since when can Captain Picard hear the voices of the Borg?  Is this a common side effect of those who have been separated from the Collective?  If so, did Hugh, the Borg refugees of “Descent” and Seven of Nine also hear Borg voices in their heads whenever they encountered them?

In spite of such problems, Star Trek: First Contact is a highly entertaining movie with many dramatic and visually-appealing high points.  

Prime among these is the zero-gravity sequence in which Picard, Worf and Hunt must battle the Borg on the exterior of the Enterprise hull, on the main deflector dish.  This scene is splendidly-directed, buttressed by incredible special effects, and it features an undercurrent of anxiety throughout, as the Borg – slowly becoming aware of Picard’sinterference – begin to menace the crew as the team works to stop them. 

I remember, circa 1994 or so, I was deeply disenchanted with the Star Trekuniverse and consequently looking back at Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) with much appreciation, because I felt that the world of the Enterprise had become too safe and predictable.  Space adventuring was no longer dangerous.   Now it consisted of vacations on holodecks, endless resources and material wealth, courtesy of replicators, and even families living on the saucer section while exploring the final frontier.  I lamented the fact that not once in Star Trek: The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine up to that point, had any main character been seen in a space suit, actually reckoning with the actual environment of space.  The crew members of Starfleet seemed to me too insulated from danger.

So I was delighted that Star Trek: First Contact included this zero-g sequence and put my qualms to rest, at least momentarily.  The zero-gravity action scene in Star Trek: First Contact reminds us that these men and women are in a dangerous profession, and that even with all the comforts of “technology unchained” in the 24th century, they must still sometimes go out into space with precious few resources to fight enemies, or attempt to repair their ship.   The zero-gravity fight scene is actually my favorite in the film because it is so tense, and because it features so many nice character touches, from Picard’s unconventional cleverness (blasting a Borg into space by shooting the deck of the ship…) to Worf’s “always be prepared” mentality, bringing a blade out into space with him.  It’s terrific stuff.

I also enjoy the climax of Star Trek: First Contact tremendously because it remembers that Star Trek isn’t always supposed to be about battling hostile aliens.  This is one of the reasons why I’m not all that impressed with Star Trek Online. It’s a game about going out to other worlds and fighting aliens, about firing phasers and engaging in battle.

For me, that’s but one small aspect of Star Trek, and not, for me, the one with the most appeal.  Star Trek: First Contact features great battle sequences, but more than that, ends on the high note of first contact.  It shows us an important and inspiring scene in human history, our first, peaceful meeting with extra-terrestrials.  In this case, the humans who broach that contact are fatigued from war, and not “perfect” (like our 24thcentury protagonists).  And yet they lead with trust and peace, and a wonderful, new era is opened up because of their willingness to go out on a limb.  Frankly, I find the final scenes of First Contact absolutely inspiring, reminding us of the better angels of our nature.  We can greet the unknown not with fear, paranoia and suspicion, but with hope and peace and trust. 

In ending the film on this high note, rather than the (admittedly-satisfying) defeat of the villainous Borg, First Contact remembers and honors the highest aspirations of Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek saga.  Remember “the human adventure is just beginning?” the tag-line of Star Trek: The Motion Picture?  First Contact literalizes that motto, and shows us the wondrous beginnings of man’s odyssey to the stars, beginning with the first moments of brotherhood with another race.  It’s a fantastic and inspiring story-point.

I also appreciate the creativity involved in Data’s subplot in First Contact. I didn’t care for how Data was utilized in Generations…as a veritable bi-polar psychotic. Here, he seems more…balanced.  He faces temptation as the Borg perform an assimilation in reverse.  Usually, the Borg apply mechanical prosthetics to biological skin.  Here, they apply biological skin to a mechanical apparatus.  It’s an interesting idea, especially since Data suggests early on that he can’t be assimilated by the Borg.  The Queen proves him wrong, and in a diabolical fashion that tempts Data.  We never really believe he has turned to the dark side…but as Data suggests, a few seconds can feel like eternity when we’re uncertain of his exact motivations. 

I understand that Star Trek fans are divided on the subject of Frakes as a director.  He gets good performances from the cast here, and manages several action scenes nicely.  Judging by First Contact, he certainly seems up to the center seat…the director’s chair. 

Between the zero-g action, the up-lifting last moments of first contact, and Data’s unique experience being Borgified, it’s largely futile to resist First Contact, a high-point for theNext Generation cast at the movies. 

Movie Trailer: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Cult Movie Review: Wing Commander (1999)

Chris Robert’s revolutionary space battle simulation video game Wing Commander took the world by storm more than twenty years ago, in 1990.  

At the time of its release, the game earned Computer Game World’s “Overall Game of the Year” award and numerous other hosannas. 

In short, the Wing Commander game landed the intrepid player in the pilot’s seat of a space fighter for a “World War II in outer space” scenario. Your mission: to help the Terran Confederation defeat the villainous aliens, called Kilrathi.  Your base of operations: The space carrier, Tiger’s Claw.

The 1999 movie  — directed by game designer Roberts himself — adapted the world of the popular video game to the silver screen, but didn’t fare nearly as well as the acclaimed game had.  In fact, critics were downright savage.

Meanwhile, Athima Chansanchai at Village Voice concluded that Wing Commander falls far short of its legacy and gets sucked into a gravitational cesspool of sci-fi clichés.”

In broad terms, this 1999 space battle film was criticized on every point from lighting to acting to special effects and dialogue.  The result was a soon-to-be notorious box office bomb. Wing Commander ultimately grossed only eleven million dollars or so against its budget of thirty million.

I’ve been reviewing 1990s space adventure films here on the blog of late (Generations [1994], Stargate [1994], Lost in Space [1998]) so I was hoping to return to Wing Commander and find an unexpected diamond-in-the rough, an under appreciated genre film that, in some fashion, might be rehabilitated upon closer inspection. 

Unfortunately, a second viewing reinforced my negative memories about the film. Despite some interesting and unique visuals, Wing Commander feels insular and confused, and some of the performances are authentically terrible, made exponentially worse by the legitimately risible dialogue The New York Times complained about.  That established, some of the visuals (set in space) are skillfully vetted.

If you want to play at being a fighter pilot I suggest you find a virtual fun zone.”

In the distant future, man is locked in a deadly space war with a race of feline space predators called The Kilrathi.  A Kilrathi fleet attacks a Terran Confederation outpost in space and steals the installation’s precious Pegasus Navcom A.I. computer.  With this tool, the Kilrathi can determine jump coordinates for the Sol System and Earth itself. With one attack, they can bring the space war to a terrible end.

Realizing the entire human race is jeopardized, Admiral Towlyn (Warner) decides to get a message to the nearest ship  in range of the damaged installation, Tiger Claw, via a courier: the half-human/half Pilgrim pilot Christopher Blair (Prinze Jr.).  Blair is currently serving aboard the Diligent, a ship under command of the enigmatic Captain “Paladin” Taggart (Tcheky Karyo).

Blair and his co-pilot, “Maniac” Lt. Marshall (Lillard) arrive on the Tiger Claw but Blair meets with prejudice from his fellow pilots because of his Pilgrim heritage. Meanwhile, both men catch the eye of their hard-as-nails new wing commander, Devereaux (Saffron Burrows).  She wants to rein them in, but that’s easier said than done.

While the Kilrathi near their jump point for Earth, Devereaux’s squadron may be humanity’s last line of defense, and Chris must summon his repressed Pilgrim attributes to deliver jump coordinates to Towlyn’s waiting fleet, navigating a quasar in the process…

“Emotions are what separate us from the Pilgrims and the Kilrathi.”

For being so widely reviled, Wing Commander certainly strikes the right note as it begins.  The film commences with audio of an uplifting speech by President Kennedy, discussing the goal of mastering space.   

This opening is inspiring, certainly, and it’s refreshing to hear a speech from an epoch when our politics weren’t so small.  Back in Camelot, we believed we could work together to accomplish great things, even land on the moon.  Didn’t matter if you were Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, the sky was the limit.

The same idea is expressed in the film’s World War II-like aesthetic.  Everyone is galvanized by the existential threat of the Kilrathi, working together to stop a grave threat to humanity.  I appreciate how Wing Commander envisions a future where people of different ethnic backgrounds serve together for a cause.  And yet, of course, if you scratch the surface, there’s prejudice toward some less-favored people under the surface. That also seems true to the World War II era of the 1940s.

From starting out on the right note, however, this 1999 film quickly becomes a superficial Top Gun (1986) in space, with hotshot young pilots (replete with colorful “handles” like “Maniac”) competing for attention in their high-tech cockpits.  The movie also throws in an unnecessary dash of Star Wars (1977)-styled mysticism with the inclusion of the “Pilgrims,” a race who — like Dune’s Guild Navigators — can travel space without benefit of instrumentation, or in the lingo of the film, without “nav-coms.”

The whole Pilgrim sub-plot here– not present in the original video game, to my understanding — is a bit under cooked.  The Pilgrims are actually humans who spent so much time in space that they thus developed a kind of “second sight” in navigating its ebb and flow.  But Pilgrims in the film appear fully human, and have a dark history with the human race, from which they broke off.  This history is all spelled out in the film, but unfortunately Blair’s Pilgrim nature never proves particularly dramatic in practice.  

Instead, to summon his buried heritage he must merely concentrate and – whammo — he can suddenly navigate “jumps” without a computer.  Yet, importantly, Blair’s Pilgrim ability rests on an internal process — calculations or “instincts” he feels in his head — so it all comes across on screen as a weak echo of Star Wars’ famous “feel the Force” moments.

Feel your inner Pilgrim, Chris!

Looking at a mid-20th century thematic overlay, it’s possible indeed that the Pilgrim subplot is designed to reflect the (segregated) treatment of African-American soldiers in wartime, before President Truman’s order to integrate the Armed Forces.  

But even that real life metaphor doesn’t entirely fit, since African-Americans, though discriminated against by society-at-large, were never classified as an enemy of the United States.  Not so, the Pilgrims.  They actively fought against the Terran Confederation, and were conquered, apparently.

The whole subplot transmits as trite, and contrived.  The Earth fleet wins the day because one pilot happens to boast a quasi-magical power.   Good thing the Kilrathi don’t have any exceptional pilots like that, I suppose.  And as is so often the case in the science fiction genre, the Pilgrim “blood line” seems vaguely fascist.  Only people who possess the right blood type (either Midi-chlorians in Star Wars or Pilgrims here…) can achieve super feats and tap the mystical essence of the universe.   Paladin even puts a fine point on it.  “It isn’t faith.  It’s genetics.”  No wonder humans hate these smug bastards, right?

So much for striving to be all you can be.  The Pilgrims are just born better than the rest of us.

After the umpteenth repetition in sci-fi movies, this kind of people-of-superior-blood-line thinking is tiring.  The original appeal of the Force in Star Wars, by my estimation, was its universality. We could all tap into The Force if only we tried…if only we mastered ourselves.  Once you add a genetic, biological component to such a concept — as is also the case with the Pilgrims in Wing Commander — the universality of the concept is diminished. 

In terms of Wing Commander, one must also wonder about the line of dialogue featured at the head of this sub-section. At a critical juncture in the story, Blair states that possessing emotions is what separates humans from Pilgrims or Kilrathi.  Really?  Isn’t that a kind of prejudicial or racist remark?  He’s part Pilgrim, after all, and Blair certainly possesses feelings.  Paladin is a pilgrim, and he shows emotion on more than one occasion.  And we don’t see enough of the Kilrathi to assess whether they are emotional or not, I would wager.  But the very argument suggests a kind or real-life racist thinking that a national (or interplanetary) enemy is somehow sub-human.  That’s not the kind of thinking a hero – one who is fighting discrimination, himself – should demonstrate, in my opinion..

The film’s biggest problems likely occur in the casting department.  Freddie Prinze Jr.  — here channeling his inner Keanu Reeves — and Matthew Lillard are generally  fine in the slasher films of the 1990s or other movies set in the present, but their trademark brand of snarky, California emotionalism seems somehow jarring in the far-flung world of 2654.  Judging by his work in this film, Prinze’s idea of a dramatic line reading is to shout…each…word…really…slowly.  “You…are…not…going…out…there!” and so forth.  He also spends an inordinate amount of time with his mouth drooping open…a stance which somehow diminishes the character’s intelligence.

Some of the specific, practical details in the narrative seem off too.  Late in the film, while aboard Towlyn’s ship, Blair learns that Devereaux has been rescued from her cockpit by Paladin, and has been returned to the Tiger Claw.  He hops in his fighter, flies back to his carrier, lands, disembarks, meets up with Devereux and then orders a medic to the landing bay.  Shouldn’t someone – anyone, really – have ordered the medic a wee bit earlier than that?  I mean, everyone knew an injured officer was in-bound with Paladin because it was announced over communications channels, a speaker to be precise.  Why wasn’t a medic already standing by, especially since Blair himself had time for ship-to-ship transit?

Looking back today, many of Wing Commander’s visuals are indeed quite compelling, and the special effects remain colorful and dynamic.  In other words, the Rapier fighters and their opposite Kilrathi numbers look distinctive and unusual, move convincingly through asteroid fields and other space hazards, and some of the stellar vistas are downright gorgeous. 

With the pilots housed in their cramped fighter cockpits and trading barbs and zingers, this movie looks like a dry-run for the Battlestar Galactica TV remake of 2004.   In fact, the re-designed Cylon fighter of that Ron Moore re-imagination looks an awful lot like a Kilrathi fighter here.  Frankly, I suspect that if critics were too hard on any one aspect of Wing Commander in 1999, it was the visuals.  I found the look of the film, overall, at least…interesting.

Finally, even though Wing Commander relies excessively on all-too familiar World War II clichés and bromides for its narrative thrust, there’s something simultaneously baffling and off-putting about it too.  Watching David Warner (as Admiral Tomblyn) bark high-tech orders on the command deck of his space carrier while officers explain Pegasus nav-com A.I.and the like I suddenly realized what it must be like to watch a Star Trek film without having seen a single episode of the series.  If I had played the Wing Commander game, would I have felt this way?  I don’t know…

Regardless, Wing Commander plays to me like the jargon-heavy sequel to a series never made.  This approach creates great distance between film and general audiences, and makes watching Wing Commander a passive rather than active viewing experience. The movie doesn’t quite draw you in on an emotional level.

While watching the film, I did keep noting moments of invention and ingenuity in terms of visualization, and kept thinking that if this were actually a pilot for a TV series, I would have tuned in the following week to see if the performances normalized, if the details grew clearer, and if the narrative grew more interesting.  In other words, I would have given it a second chance and hoped against hope the series would improve, because I love space combat movies and programs.

But standing alone, Wing Commander feels like it was translated from the original Kilrathi.

I don’t know why good old-fashioned space adventure was so tough to vet during the 1990s, but Wing Commander does not represent the genre’s finest hour.

Movie Trailer: Wing Commander (1999)