Monday, February 1, 2010

Where No Kid Has Gone Before

When I was in grade school, my Mom and I used to have an after-school routine. I’d get done whatever homework I had, I’d watch the afternoon movie (frequently some science fiction film from the 50s), and then a bit before dinner we would watch an episode of Star Trek being run in syndication. We rarely missed an episode. I remember one Christmas where Santa Claus brought me a complete set of the Mego Star Trek action figures, including two Klingons, and an Enterprise bridge with working transporter. Star Trek was not the only thing I was into at the time… probably not even the biggest thing I was into… but it was important.

One of my best friends throughout my childhood was an even bigger fan. He would have definitely been a Trekker by today’s standards, though the whole convention experience was not well-known at that time. He was always Spock. I was always Kirk, and we seemed to always come up with some plot that required us to be against each other… mind control, alien possession, whatever. Boys must get into wrestling matches as always.

I left my Star Trek ways behind me along with my childhood. I watched the films as they were released in theaters, recapturing some of those lost feelings, but not compelled to be a diehard fan. This wasn’t a case of putting Star Trek aside to devote loyalty to Star Wars either. Like with video game consoles there seems to be a real either/or mentality at work in the various fan bases. You either REALLY like Star Trek or you REALLY like Star Wars. I liked both, but neither one had me slobbering after it. When Star Trek: The Next Generation was announced, I was hugely skeptical. I knew that the real draw to the original series was not the science fiction or the social commentary. No, the real meat on that show was the triangle of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and the hugely likable supporting cast propping those three up. And I didn’t feel lightning could strike twice. When I did finally cave and give TNG a grudging try, I found it to be a decent TV show. It didn’t have ‘the big three’ but it had its own identity, and found its place in Roddenberry’s universe of big ideas and big optimism. As okay with TNG as I was to become, it didn’t propel my interest enough to then also watch Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise. I kind of peripherally knew what those shows were about, and I gleaned some of the series’ major events from somewhere… maybe watching an occasional episode, but apart from the TNG films, I hadn’t really gone back to the Trek universe for years.

As my children have gotten older, something spoke to me that maybe Star Trek would be something they would need to see. My kids are pretty media savvy, and they have the usual smattering of fan-love. My daughter digs the Disney tween shows, especially Wizards of Waverly Place. And Narnia is more-or-less her Middle Earth… books and films both. My son’s interests run closer to my own and he’s into Godzilla and Ultraman, Gundam, Warhammer 40K, and a lot of other things his friends at school have no clue about.

With all my love of transgressive film, music, and print… I am actually quite restrictive on what my children get to put into their eyes and ears. I exercise huge control, fully using, cable TV channel locks, internet nanny software, and film, DVD, and video game ratings. And when in doubt about whether something is suitable, I will watch it myself first or research the hell out of it. Only recently have I let my son play Halo, maybe the one thing his friends DO enjoy in common with him.

I needed something we could all do together. Something both my son and my daughter would like equally, that would be ‘safe’ family fare, and that we could all share together. I remembered what a great bonding experience watching and talking about Star Trek was when I spent that time with my Mom. The kids excitement over the 2009 Star Trek film’s trailer got me to thinking.

Star Trek: The Original Series, as it is now called, has been out on DVD for some time now, but it has been ‘remastered’. Cleaning up and re-recording the show for modern players and televisions is fine, but they also replaced many of the old effects shots with new modern ones. The new shots don’t actually try to look super-realistic… the designers did a pretty good job of integrating them with the shows dated look, but there’s something about being able to see ‘how things were done’ back in the day, that needs to be preserved. Fans who know the difference between Star Wars and Star Wars Special Edition know what I’m talking about.

Enter Blu-ray. Although my AV setup is fully capable of taking advantage of Blu-ray, and I CAN (unlike much of the public apparently) see a difference between this media and DVD… I didn’t see enough of a difference to add Blu-ray to my home. Star Trek forced me into the 21st century. The Blu-ray editions allow seamless branching between new and old effects. So I bought a player, wrangled it into my video morass, and made the kids start watching them.

They love them. The effect has been almost exactly the same as I remembered from my childhood. These children have the added benefit of watching them in broadcast order (I tinkered this when I knew the broadcast order was detrimental to seeing the show’s evolution), then watching the films. So they get the whole story. There was a chance my daughter would not take to the show since her world is mostly caught up in friends, fashion, pop songs, and gossip… but she has a vivid imagination, and the beauty of this show is that for all its dated look and relatively simplistic plots (by today’s standards) the friendship of the characters transcends the limitations of the show and of what one thinks a science fiction show should be about. I had remembered this and hoped for the best, mostly because my mother liked it so much… and she is absolutely not the science fiction or action show type.

The kids laughed and cried in all the right places. As soon as one show ended they’d be psyched for the next. And when we finally got done with the television episodes, my son was very eager to see what would happen with the ships and special effects when a few years and much bigger budgets would make a difference. Cue Wrath of Khan. This film had the effect of tearing everything down that they loved about the series, and rebuilt it even better. The space battles and sets showed them what they thought Star Trek would actually look like if the TV series hadn’t been so small-scale. Spock’s death required me to console them. I had to take great pains to NOT give anything about the subsequent film away while still asking that they keep open minds and keep watching. They were all choked up when Spock begins to recognize Jim again at the end of Search for Spock. All the notes were hit exactly right for them. Amazingly, for all that he enjoyed the bigger more expansive battle scenes, aliens, and all that… at the end of the day, what mattered most was what was going to happen to the big three. The kids were genuinely melancholy to watch these characters age, and finally retire, as the Trek universe changed around them and their bodies could no longer keep up.

JJ Abrams new Star Trek film was a sort of icing on the cake. They were very excited to see it, even before they started watching the series. I was cruel and required them to watch all the original series and the films before allowing them to get to it. They enjoyed the series, but the 2009 film’s trailer is at the beginning of every Blu-ray disc so they were repeatedly bombarded with this titano-budget reboot that had all the now-generation sensibilities that they were accustomed to. I patiently reminded them over and over that they needed to hang in there because the new film would make a lot more sense if they had the original series under their belt.

It isn’t like the film is a bad viewing even if you don’t know the series, but I wanted them to get as much out of the work ‘for the fans’ that Abrams and company did as I got out of it. They especially needed to understand the momentous change that would be brought about by Nero and Spock fucking about with time travel.

It totally worked. Watching the new movie I had to pause it like twice for the gravity of certain situations to settle in as the kids jumped up from the couch to question the sanity of what they were watching. Kirk no longer being the first to see Romulans. The appearance of Leonard Nimoy. Uhuru and Spock’s relationship. I orchestrated this whole thing from beginning to end, and by the time it was over the kids didn’t begrudge me my puppet-master shenanigans one bit. They pretty much picked up on every little thing. The only plot element I really had to explain ahead of time was Spock’s role as ambassador to the Romulans from The Next Generation.

I’m sure we will re-visit Star Trek at some point. We’ll pick out an episode or film every now and then. Or maybe at some point we’ll do this whole exercise again. I’m undecided as to whether I want to move on to TNG. On the one hand, it would be more adventures in that universe (though my son doesn’t see how it could be Star Trek without the big three—that’s my boy!),nad the show IS good. On the other hand, it is much, MUCH longer than the original series and is not out on Blu-ray. I’m not sure I want to make that big of an investment in a format that isn’t as good as the Star Trek stuff we already have. Finding out I could get TNG in Blu-ray will probably convince me to start us up on that.

All told the Star Trek ‘project’ took us about three months to get through. I guess that lines up with today’s accelerated, instant-gratification pace. When I was watching Star Trek with my Mom there were no Blu-ray players and HDTVs. She didn’t orchestrate the viewing with some overall plan. We just ENJOYED them. I probably overdid it. But I know in this day and age of bigger, better, and more spectacular I felt like I really wanted this show to have an impact on my kids… like it did on me. I wasn’t a big fan all my life, but the influence on my future tastes, and my discernment about what was important in a story, was huge… maybe incalculable. So we made this big event out of it so Star Trek wouldn’t just become another show. Lost in all the TV, movies, video games, internet surfing, phone texting, etc etc.
Now they KNOW what a good show actually is.

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