Star Trek: The Next Generation Showed It Was Possible To Catch Lightning In A Bottle Twice

As we’re getting ready for the return of Star Trek to TV (or rather Trek’s first foray into original streaming service) with Star Trek: Discovery, it’s a prime time to look back at Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was Star Trek’s first foray in a then-unique syndication format. Devoted fans already know that it’s the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The series is almost as beloved as the original Star Trek, but many overlook the fact that when it debuted thirty years ago in syndicated televisionit was dismissed automatically. Fans of the original show were understandably skeptical about Star Trek: The Next Generation ever since it was announced. After all, it did not feature Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the other beloved characters and the first promo images looked strange. A bald captain? Klingons are no longer the enemies of the Federation? Why did the new Enterprise look ungainly? What was the deal with those weird one-piece uniforms and lounge chairs on the Enterprise bridge? People wondered what the creator Gene Roddenberry must have been thinking when he developed the new Trek incarnation. Even Leonard Nimoy wondered if the show would succeed. Citing that it was impossible to catch lightning twice in a bottle, Nimoy turned down the offer to develop the show before Roddenberry was approached.

When it finally premiered in September 1987, let’s say that many fans were underwhelmed by what they saw. The first episode “Encounter at Farpoint” was interesting and gave the main characters good introductions. Plus, it introduced the omni-powerful entity Q into Star Trek lore and thanks to John DeLancie’s sardonic line delivery, the character stood out. But more importantly, the main star of the show Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard, made a powerful impression. Sure, he was not the swashbuckling Captain Kirk, but Stewart made his character uniquely different from Kirk while exuding a commanding and thoughtful presence in the show.

Still, Star Trek: The Next Generation was nearly derailed in its wobbly first season. What handicapped the first Star Trek spinoff were poorly written scripts and characters. One of them was especially hated by fans, young Wesley Crusher played by Wil Wheaton. In many episodes he came off as petulant, self-important Gary Sue who was a critical key in many plot lines. Some episodes were incredibly dull and did not go anywhere. The early episodes aped the worst qualities of the original show where the Enterprise crew would visit a planet of the week and solve that planet’s problems. The made-up societies they encountered were just unbelievable and its people reeked of caricatures. The show also had a problem with coming up with interesting villains, aside from Q.

Yet, the show showed promise. As the first season drew to a close, Star Trek: The Next Generation seemed to find its bearings. The characters were better developed with the breakout being Data (Brent Spiner), who emulated the Spock position of being the outsider who questioned humanity. The stories also became more interesting as Star Trek first toyed with the idea of episodes-spanning sub-plots. In this case, a nefarious conspiracy at the heart of Starfleet and the first hints of the Borg, a cybernetic race that would not appear until the second season. It took some risks such as the above-mentioned conspiracy storyline that upset some parents for its violent content. There was also the killing off of a major character in the show (Tasha Yar, played by Denise Crosby), which was a first for Star Trek.

Fans began to come around and eventually embraced the Star Trek spinoff. Although the original show continues to be regarded as the best Star Trek show, it cannot be denied that Star Trek: The Next Generation has achieved its share of greatness through the season. It stood apart from its predecessor for being more thoughtful, for better exploring themes and characters and for its updated special effects.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation was being developed it was supposed to have featured descendants of the original Enterprise crew. Thankfully, the show evolved away from that and went with all-new characters. References to the original show were extremely rare, which allowed the show to develop its own identity. It would have been all too easy to just continue the same formula, but Roddenberry knew that for the new show to succeed it had to follow a different path. That is why we’re celebrating the show thirty years later.

Enterprise D

Now as if to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a new Star Trek TV show will debut this month to pick up the baton. However, many fans are highly skeptical and dismissive of the new Star Trek: Discovery. The list of complaints continues growing as more details come to light, and many of them are valid. The core complaint is that the new show does not feel like Star Trek. But think about that, it’s the same gripe leveled at Star Trek: The Next Generation when it first aired. The new show seems like it will take Star Trek in a new direction, just like the first Trek spinoff did. Star Trek: Discovery may not hit a homerun at first, but fans should keep an open mind and show some patience when it premieres. It may find its legs and be as memorable and great as Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first Star Trek spinoff that proved it was possible to catch lightning in a bottle twice.

Lewis T. Grove

 

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Unleashed Star Wars Toys

star wars unleashed

While we Star Wars fans salivate over the Star Wars Force Friday II release of new toys, let’s take a quick look back to one of the most popular and colorful Star Wars figures line. This one was called Star Wars Unleashed, which debuted in 2002 and ran until 2007, ten years ago. The line mostly concentrated on the characters from the then-current films Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

As with recent Star Wars toys, the Star Wars Unleashed line was manufactured by Hasbro and the figures cost more than the standard six-inch figures. Usually they retailed for about $15-$20 and the cost was due to their size, plus the bases of the figures. Those who managed to buy them at the initial price back then are extremely lucky because they now cost quite a lot in the secondary markets. Some fetching prices well into the hundreds of dollars.

When the line was first launched, each figure had a theme reflected in their dynamic poses. Each pose represented a key moment for the character in the movie. This was probably to make up for the fact that they’re not as articulate as regular figures though they’re much more detailed. A good example of such vivid posing and sculpture is the Anakin Skywalker figure is known as “Rage” since that the sculpture illustrated his violent mood after his mother was killed in Episode II. We all know after her death Anakin went on a killing spree, which made him reckless, even into his fateful confrontation with Count Dooku. It was one of the most dramatic poses in the series with Anakin in full attack mode wielding two lightsabres and a look of pure hatred. It’s amazing that the manufacturers were so capable of capturing his inner turmoil since one wouldn’t expect that from a toy. The other most dramatic figure that was part of the initial release was the Darth Maul figure that is called “Fury” and he is placed standing on one leg as if ready to pounce on a hapless Jedi as a swirl of red dark force energy swirls around that leg. For some reason, the other figures released in the following years didn’t have any subtitles, which took away from the idea that the sculpture were supposed to represent the characters at certain, pivotal moments.

Luckily for the collectors, the later figures in the Star Wars Unleashed line were just as impressive and in fact more so. Take the Boba Fett figure that was sold exclusively at Target. The detailing is simply beautiful and the pose was so dramatic. You almost expect the bounty hunter to come to life. In the actual display, Boba Fett is battling the hungry sarlacc creature while trying to escape. This was inspired by the scene in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi when he is eaten by the creature. In this pose it looks as if he’s ready to blast off, implying that he survives the encounter. It was a beautiful and dynamic sculpture as Fett’s posture with one arm raised high and one leg tangled in the sarlacc’s tentacle was reminiscent of a cover from an old science fiction pulp magazine.

On a side note, additional figures were repackaged and sold exclusively in Wal-Mart, KB Toys, Best Buy and Target. They included two versions of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and General Grievous. The figures were slightly larger than the original figures.

The best figures from that line included the just-mentioned Darth Maul and Boba Fett, as well as the Yoda (2003), Obi-Wan Kenobi and General Grievous (2005). One nifty aspect of the Obi-Wan figure is that he can be easily connected at the base with the Anakin Skywalker figure also released in 2005. Based on the final moments of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, when they confront each other on the volcanic planet Mustafar, they are both shown in battle poses as swirls of lava surround them. Only their mastery of the Force keep the lava at bay. Even though these two figures were sold separately, they could be connected.

This idea was carried one step further the same year with the Yoda vs. Palpatine figures that come together in one package. It can be said that Hasbro took this to the next level with the release of the Epic Battles packs collection. These sets sold for less and included at least four figures though they are much smaller, roughly three inches tall. The collection includes groups of Jedi, Wookies, Droids, Imperial Troops and so forth. They were also well detailed with dramatic poses but were not as enticing as the regular Star Wars Unleashed figures, which were more geared for older children and adult collectors. However, they’re perfect for the younger fans who want to recreate exciting scenes from this film series that just seems to spawn more and more creative toys and figures.

On the other hand, the popularity of the Epic Battle packs spelled the end of Star Wars Unleashed. There was only one Star Wars Unleashed released in 2007, Count Dooku, which was just as masterfully sculpted and detailed as the other figures. It’s a shame that the line ended because there are so many characters that would be perfect.  Imagine one being sold for Ahsoka Tano, Rey, Lando Calrissian, Qui-Gon Jinn, or Luke Skywalker from the first Star Wars film. We do have the Titanium and Black Series figures which are just as impressive, but Star Wars Unleashed does hold a special place in my collector’s heart. It’s probably because of the dramatic forces that captured the essence of the characters. Perhaps one day they can come back in some form or another.

José Soto

Robocop: Celebrating The Cyber Masterpiece

Robocop poster

On August 1987, genre film fans received a bonafide treat when the film Robocop made its debut. To say that the film was a thrilling surprise would be an understatement on the league of the title character’s stoic line delivery. Part of the reason for the enthusiastic reaction to Robocop is that August is usually a dumping ground for non-starter films that no one remembers weeks after they debut. Robocop bucked that trend with its no-holds-barred action, over-the-top violence and wry social commentary.

Serving The Public Trust

Robocop starred Peter Weller as Murphy a beat cop in a futuristic and crumbling Detroit who is viciously gunned down. Left for dead, and with a ruined body, Murphy is resurrected into the mechanical body of Robocop, a prototype robotic constable. The cyborg police officer is touted as the crown jewel of Omni Consumer Product’s (OCP) media blitz to promote a revamped Detroit to be renamed Delta City. Robocop makes an immediate impact in the public consciousness as he patrolled the dangerous streets in his sleek chrome body that was designed by Rob Bottin. Buttressed by Basil Poledouris’ pounding and bombastic score, Robocop efficiently curbs crime thanks to advanced cybernetic skills.

morton and robocop

However, beneath the chrome armor Murphy’s mind and humanity, which was supposedly wiped clean during his transformation, starts to re-emerge. At the same time, the film follows the ruthless corporate antics of Robocop’s overlords who care little for their community. Eventually, Murphy’s emerging morality clashes with his handlers, who are in league with the local crime lords. In this case, Robocop’s arch rival Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who looks like a typical suburban father but has a severe aptitude for violence that rivals a favela gang leader. Even though these villains did not have any superpowers, their cunning and willingness to go the extra mile were quite a match for Robocop.

Robocop and Boddicker

The film made quite a splash that late summer and for good reason. Thanks to Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, Robocop excelled in macabre humor and biting action scenes. Verhoeven and the other filmmakers including producer Jon Davision, and screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, were clever enough to inject a balance of pathos for Murphy’s plight and inspired social observations.

Dystopian Corporate Culture

Robocop’s futuristic America is one where the country is slowly decaying as common decency gives way to empty consumerism. An insensitive corporate culture has taken hold on society as the top business leaders claw each other to get to the top while the rest of community suffers from their decisions. The main corporate scumbags in the film were Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) and his boss Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), and both men exemplified the callous, slimy and two-faced negative image of corporate leaders. Seeing Morton’s conniving machinations and Jones’ ruthless actions were fascinating to watch and reflected the narcissistic business-oriented culture of the ‘80s.

Jones and ed209

Sadly, the film’s commentary echoes the fraying moral fabric of today’s society and illustrates how prophetic Robocop was in predicting our future. Of course, violent crime is not as prevalent as in that film, but many of the other dystopian aspects presented in that film seem just around the corner for us, if not here already.

The level of violence shown in the film is still quite shocking today given the way Verhoeven seems to revel in showing us how vicious humanity can be. What helped make the level of violence so intense and shocking was the superb makeup work by Bottin.

First Modern Superhero

In many ways, Robocop can be considered a prototype for modern superhero films. The film was inspired by The Six Million Dollar Man and the more adult-oriented comic books that appeared in the 1980s. Groundbreaking comic book writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller were making a splash with their graphic comic book stories where the heroes were more than willing to use extreme violence to fight crime. Robocop employs similar means, using all of his weapons and high-tech tools at his disposal. A good example of this in the film is where a thug took a woman and used her as a shield against Robocop. The cyber cop then used his advanced marksman skills to castrate the bad guy through the woman’s dress with a perfect shot that left her unharmed.

But Robocop didn’t just have street punks to fight against. His greatest enemies were his corporate handlers who stripped Murphy of his humanity and did not have the public’s best interest at heart. OCP only saw Murphy not just as an asset but as a quick fix. The company wanted to replace Detroit’s human police force with a robotic one they could control. Their first attempt, the lumbering ED-209, proved to be a failure and so the Robocop program was quickly brought online as a stopgap measure. Even though Robocop was a public success, he was distrusted by many human police officers who correctly saw him as a threat to their livelihood. The one exception was his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen), who eventually deduces Robocop’s original identity and helped him recover his humanity. Although ED-209 was considered a failure, due to software issues, the robotic sentinel was still a credible threat to Robocop. ED-209 was quite popular with fans and the stop-motion effects by Phil Tippet used to bring him to life was one of the last times the effect was used in a major film.

Violent Laughs

ED-209’s failed debut when he mistakenly kills a hapless OCP executive was one of the film’s funniest and macabre moments and illustrated how Verhoeven reveled in directing over-the-top violent scenes that brought out guilty laughs. Keep in mind, that the executive’s death scene was actually edited from a more violent version where the robot repeatedly fired on the corpse, which sprayed blood all over the boardroom. Then there were the clever commercials that were inserted in between scenes, which were bursting with satire. Fans of the film still love the line from some ads “I’d buy that for a dollar!” which was shouted from a john buying the services of prostitutes.

 

Given all the film’s merits, what made Robocop a masterpiece that still resonates thirty years later was its core conflict of individuality versus an overbearing corporate culture. We empathized with Murphy’s dilemma as his humanity shone through all the hardware covering up what remained of his physical body. It was also a metaphor for the capacity of our human spirit to rise above encroaching technology.

José Soto

 

 

Experience The World Of Avatar

By now everyone, especially tourists and sci-fi fans, have heard of the recent opening of Pandora-The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This land devoted to James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar has been gestating for several years and puzzled many people. After all, why would Disney pour so much resources into creating a new themed land based on a film that came out last decade? Worldwide, Avatar is the highest grossing film to date, but it has not resonated deeply with most of the general public. Theme park and Disney fans wondered about the quality of the land and its attractions; for some time, The Walt Disney Company has faced criticism in recent years for neglecting its theme parks in the U.S. and Universal Studios has stolen Disney’s thunder with its hugely successful Harry Potter lands. Last month, the company formerly announced a slew of new rides and attractions for its parks and Pandora, which opened on May 27th of this year is the opening salvo.

pandora entrance

After finally being able to visit the land and experience the attractions, I can honestly say that it was worth the wait. Pandora-The World of Avatar is so deeply immersive and stunning with details and it is the best themed land in Walt Disney World. The Disney imagineers have taken great pains to recreate the primordial world of Avatar and their efforts have paid off. Part of the appeal in this land is the land itself. It will take several visits to truly take in everything and the land’s nooks and crannies are begging to be examined in detail. Huge and beautiful alien plants are intermixed with our Earthly flora and the landscaping is highlighted by the jaw-dropping Hallelujah Mountains that seemingly float over our heads. It is fun trying to figure out how the imagineers pulled off this trick, but to be honest, I’d rather not know since the revelation will spoil the illusion. These mountains are a bonafide engineering marvel and what makes them so imposing are their majestic beauty and roaring waterfalls that cascade down their sides.

Hallelujah Mountains Pandora world of avatar

Completing the immersive experience are the attractions themselves. There are only two of them in Pandora, but they are absolute must-rides. The best one is Flight of Passage, which everyone fortunate to ride will attest is one of the best rides ever created, even contending with classic theme park rides like the Spider-Man and Harry Potter rides in Universal. How should Flight of Passage be described? Basically, it is a simulator experience that is more immersive than most simulators since riders are given individual ride vehicles that are mounted like motorcycles.  The ride’s story is that you are linked to a Nav’i avatar that is riding the flying animals called mountain banshees. Thanks to state-of-the-art 3D and well-timed movements, I felt like I was actually riding a mountain banshee as seen in Avatar. The scenes in front of you are panoramic and the motions trick you at many times into thinking you’re diving through Pandora’s tropical forests, mountain ranges and beaches. Yes, there are many instances where you fly over the alien world’s seas, which provide distinct clues as to the sequels’ content. The ride even features new alien animals to marvel over and hope they appear in the Avatar sequels. As I flew over Pandora on my banshee, I actually wished James Cameron would hurry up with the followup films!

Comparing Flight of Passage to Nav’i River Journey is unfair. The former ride is a genuine thrill ride and worthy of being designated an E-ticket attraction. Nav’i River Journey is decidedly more tranquil and relaxed. It is a short boat ride taking you along Pandora’s river at night. Wondrous and unworldly sights and sounds surrounded me and made me feel like I was navigating the waterways of this alien world. The bioluminescent flora and fauna really pop out and my group and I had a joyous time picking out them out. Do not be put off by some reviews about the gentle ride. After the intensity and excitement of riding a banshee vicariously through a Nav’i, this boat trip is a nice way to settle down.

navi shaman

The complaints are probably due to the long wait times for the Nav’i River Journey, which can be more than an hour. Flight of Passage has even longer wait times (I’ve seen times posted as long as five hours during the day!), but since it’s a thrill ride many feel this justifies the long wait. Personally, I would never spend so much time just to get on a ride. If you are unable to get a FastPass and you are not staying on Disney property the only decent option is to arrive at Disney’s Animal Kingdom an hour before it opens. This guarantees that you will be able to get on the rides and be done in less than an hour. Or wait until the hoopla dies down, which probably will be when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens in two years.

In many ways, Pandora-The World of Avatar is a good primer for Disney in crafting the next generation of immersive lands and attractions. Even if you are not able to get on the rides or are a fan of Avatar, it is worth visiting the newest land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom just to take in the ambiance. Plus, it gives us an idea of how Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be like when it is finally unveiled. Regardless, Pandora-The World of Avatar and its Flight of Passage and Nav’i River Journey are definite must-dos for your next visit to Disney World, they already are for me.

José Soto

The Dark Tower Film Adaptation Aims With Its Hand

After decades, we’ve finally gotten a live-action adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novels of The Dark Tower. Unfortunately, as many of us feared The Dark Tower is a pale and hollow adaptation. Actually it is not even a faithful adaptation (never mind the casting of Idris Elba as Roland the last Gunslinger, he was superb as the Gunslinger) but a mish mosh of the seven novels in the series. As you can expect, it is impossible to do the sprawling storyline any justice with a paltry 90 minute screen time.

For those who don’t know the background, The Dark Tower novels are about a lone, Jedi-like Gunslinger from another dimension who is pursuing his arch foe, the Man in Black. This bad guy  wants to destroy the mythical construct called the Dark Tower, a nexus point of sorts that connects and separates all the universes. Destroying the Tower will unleash chaos across dimensions and obliterate reality. Part Western, part fantasy, part sci-fi and part horror, the novels were some of King’s best works and actually revealed that all of the Stephen King works are interconnected. The wild and wonky storyline was complemented by memorable characters. Not just Roland but the small band of Earthlings from different time periods who join his quest. Too bad only one of them makes it into this film, young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor).

Roland and Jake

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect this one movie to cover the entirety of the novels, but as an introduction to this rich mythos, The Dark Tower cannot adequately do it. There is a popular line in the books “I do not aim with my eye, he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye.” This film commits the sin of aiming with its hand not its eye or heart. On the whole, the entire film is a barebones adaptation that lacks the nuance and for the most part, the epic scope of the novels. It does a just an average job of enticing viewers to want to learn more about Roland and his quest. We never feel the animosity Roland has with the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who is not well developed. The film just moves along so quickly we don’t have time to absorb any of the information given to us. And with the rushed editing and running time, there isn’t enough in the film to win over non-fans or satisfy die-hard fans of the novels. In fact, many of them will be enraged with the missed opportunities and the thin surface details.

Idris Elba as Roland

This does not mean that the film is a disaster, but a rather frustrating watch because there are nuggets of wonder that struggle to get through the film’s banal tone. For one, the actors in the film are quite good and it has several fine moments. We get glimpses of why Roland is to be revered as he wields his guns with near-supernatural precision. For Stephen King fans, there are more than a few Easter eggs of his other works and overall, the film is not dull. It’s just that so little time is spent on these highlights because the film is so intent on getting from point A to point B and in the end, we cannot enjoy the ride. The bottom line is that fans know that the source material is rich and enticing and most of that is missing in the film. This is beyond annoying for fans who have waited so long after so many false starts for a film adaptation. These novels have such sprawling stories with off-the-wall imagery that they deserved a film or a film series that would adequately adapt them. Unfortunately, this film does not accomplish this goal and instead of being a monumental film experience it is just your standard summer film.

The sad thing about The Dark Tower is that it will wind up being forgotten and unlikely to be a hit film. Meaning, that it is doubtful that future films will follow that will better explore Roland’s world and his epic quest. There are plans for a TV show that will tie-in to this film but who knows if that will ever come and the film’s reception will probably mean that it will be a long time before fans get a proper adaptation.

C.S. Link and Lewis T. Grove