Friday, October 31, 2014

The Next Generation Metamorphosis Misstep

I’m not going to lie: when Star Trek Generations was released twenty years ago I was hyped. The geriatric cast of the Original Series had taken their final bow in the excellent Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country three years before, and now it was time to hand the reins to a new, younger cast headed by this fresh-faced youth:


Yes, I believed we were in for a treat. Now, I should point out that I was only 16 years old in 1994, and my powers of criticism had not yet been honed by years of watching and reading Internet critics make fun of things. Although I realized that some episodes and movies were better than others, I basically functioned on the belief that anything with the Star Trek name on it was automatically good. That being said, you might imagine I was confused and disappointed by the decision to pull TNG off the air after its seventh season. But I wasn’t.

You see, even my adolescent powers of observation could tell that the Next Generation writing staff ran out ideas about one season before the show ran out of episodes. You may not remember it, but that last season was pretty painful. Scripts that would’ve been rejected outright just a season or two earlier were now getting made into episodes, like the one where a mutant virus makes the crew de-evolve into animals, or the one where Dr. Crusher resigns her commission to live on a gothic Anne Rice-inspired planet where she has a passionate affair with a green energy wisp. And although the series finale “All Good Things” is widely regarded as one of the best TV series finales ever, fully half its two-hour run time is taken up with meaningless technobabble about anti-time and spatial anomalies and modifying the main deflector to create an inverse tachyon pulse.

So I was glad to see TNG escape the restrictions of a weekly TV show and get the opportunity to tell new and bigger kinds of stories. And you can imagine how excited I was to learn that Captain Kirk would be in the movie! What kind of cool space adventure would Kirk and Picard have together? I was dying to find out, but since there were no Internet spoilers back then (or maybe there were, but the Internet was in its infancy in 1994 and most people still didn’t have access to it) I had to wait until Entertainment Weekly published this photo:


It looked like Captain Picard was out on a horseback ride and he happened to run into Kirk. The picture should’ve made my Bad Movie Spidey Sense tingle, but it didn’t. Honestly, my minutae-obsessed self was way more interested in the fact that the TNG cast would be wearing Deep Space Nine-style uniforms.

Finally, the movie was released and I was able to go see it. I can’t tell you how cool it was to see the Enterprise-D on an actual movie poster:


It was even cooler to see the TNG crew in action on the big screen, to see Data finally get the emotion chip, and to see the awesome saucer crash sequence—one of the last big movie effects sequences to be accomplished without CGI. But I had this weird nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right, that the movie didn’t live up to what it should’ve been. Of course, today we all know why I felt that way: because Star Trek Generations is a piece of crap.

I’m not going to go into all the movie’s flaws here. Other people have already done that far more capably and humorously than I ever could. But I do want to talk about why it’s a piece of crap. What went wrong? There were two main problems.

1. The Script Was A Joke

Generations was written by two of TNG’s best writers: Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore. Back when the show was on the air, seeing a “Written by Brannon Braga” credit during an episode’s opening scene meant that were in for some kind of cool reality-bending sci-fi story. A “Written by Ronald D. Moore” credit meant that the episode was going to be a strong character piece, probably featuring a meaty moral dilemma or 24th century political intrigue. Both separately and as a team, the two were responsible for some of The Next Generation’s finest episodes. So what went wrong with Generations?

First of all, it’s not like they were given carte blanche to come up with whatever story they wanted. Before they even got the job, Star Trek producer Rick Berman and the Paramount executives decided that the next movie should have the following plot points:

  • It should involve The Original Series cast in some way, or at least William Shatner and whoever else would be willing to work for the meager salary involved.
  • The Original Series cast members, or at least Captain Kirk, would interact in some way with The Next Generation crew, but . . .
  • There would be no time travel, because everyone thought it was an overused plot device.

But that wasn’t all. Because if William Shatner was going to be in the movie, he demanded to have a scene where he got to ride his horse. And Patrick Stewart insisted on having some kind of meaty emotional storyline for Captain Picard. So now Braga and Moore were handed the following list of disparate elements:

  • Kirk and maybe some other members of the original cast meeting up with The Next Generation cast, but without time travel
  • Captain Kirk on a horse
  • Picard having heavy emotional drama, allowing Patrick Stewart to show off his Shakespearean acting skills.

. . . and told to shoehorn all of them into the first movie screenplay they’d ever written. All while juggling their regular duties as staff members on TNG. And they even ended up drawing the plum assignment of writing TNG’s two-hour finale. They had to frantically alternate between working on Generations and “All Good Things”, and they’ve admitted in interviews that they sometimes got the scripts confused during that hectic period.

With all that was going on, it’s no wonder that Generations’ story didn’t make any sense! But if blockbuster films of the last decade or so have taught us anything, it’s that filmmakers can always distract audiences from a script’s Death Star-sized plot holes with lots of special effects and fast-paced action sequences. Unfortunately for Generations, that wasn’t an option because of:

2. Paramount’s Broken Star Trek Business Model

The first Star Trek film in 1979 was made on a budget of about $40 million. That’s about $127 million adjusted for inflation, which puts in in the modestly-priced summer blockbuster range. But when that movie failed to be the Star Wars-slaying megahit that Paramount was hoping for, they decided that any future Trek film would have to be significantly cheaper. Star Trek II was actually made by the studio’s TV division for $11.2 million, or about $26.6 million in today’s dollars. That’s the budget for a romantic comedy, not a space adventure. But it was a hit, and Paramount decided that they’d found their Star Trek budgetary sweet spot. Henceforth, Star Trek movies would be strictly low-to-medium budgeted productions only.

This worked pretty well during the 1980s, and a big reason for that was simple supply and demand. You see, Star Trek fans had been watching the same 78 Original Series reruns since the show ended in 1969. There was an incredible amount of pent-up demand for new material, so the release of a new movie every two to three years was a big event. Fans flocked to see it over and over again. And thanks to technological advancement, the special effects on even a low-budget 1980s movie were light years better than anything the TV series could have done in the ‘60s.

But by the time Generations rolled around in 1994 things had changed. The onetime scarcity of new Star Trek had turned into an abundant surplus. In fact, Generations had a pretty limited time in the spotlight; the big mystery of Odo’s origins had just been solved a month-and-a-half before on Deep Space Nine’s third season premiere, and about a month-and-a-half after Generations was released the fourth TV spinoff, Voyager, had its premiere. And while budgets on the TV shows might’ve been limited, they certainly weren’t miniscule. In fact, the VFX staff did an excellent job putting out near movie-quality special effects on a TV budget. So in order to make Generations feel really cinematic, Paramount would have to spend some serious money to make sure it didn’t just look like an episode of the show projected onto a movie screen.

They did not.

Instead they stuck to their same old business model, and Generations was given a tiny $35 million budget (which works out to about $54.1 million in today’s money). We’re still in romantic comedy territory here. The cost savings were realized by using the same sets, costumes, props, and spaceship models from the TV series. They were even too cheap to pay for a movie director, instead hiring David Carson from their stable of Star Trek TV directors. Things were so bad that, not only did they recycle the effects shot of the Klingon ship exploding from Star Trek VI, but they even reused one of the stock Enterprise flybys from the TV show! The fact that they could even try to get away with that shows what a tiny, almost nonexistent gap there was between what a big-budget TV show and a low-budget movie could do, special effects-wise.

My point is that because Generations was made on basically a television budget and overseen by a television producer and a television director using television actors on television sets acting out a script written by television writers and then scored by a television composer it was exceedingly television-y. Simply releasing it in theaters didn’t make it cinematic. And although it got decent reviews and did pretty good business, the one thing that you kept hearing over and over again was that it seemed like a two-hour episode instead of a movie. It was a criticism that would be repeated for all the TNG films. And although at the time I viewed it as a recourse of snobbish critics who imagined that Star Trek was the nothing more than the nerdy purview of greasy 40-year-old virgins living in their mother’s basement, it was actually pretty accurate.

All of that being said, I do recommend watching this movie. Specifically, I recommend the DVD edition with Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore’s excellent commentary. You see, between the badness of Generations, the horrible formulaic crapstorm of Voyager, and the sheer incompetence of Enterprise, I spent several years believing that Brannon Braga was a high-functioning idiot boy whose only talent was sucking up to his boss. So I was very surprised to listen to the commentary and hear a very funny, self-aware guy named Brannon Braga candidly admit all the problems with the movie and even point out some that I’d never noticed. (Like how everybody on the Enterprise has pictures of space scenes hanging on the wall of their quarters)

You see, in my teens and early twenties I assumed that if a movie or TV show was bad, it was because the director, writer, or producer was an idiot who was bad at their job. And while that’s certainly true at times (like the Joel Schumacher Batman films) very often there are other things going on behind the scenes that the creative people have no control over, things that are never revealed until years later.

So while Star Trek Generations is a maddeningly unsatisfying movie that I’m simply unable to sit through without howling in frustration at how stupid it is, it did manage to teach me a valuable lesson. Not about how time is the fire in which we burn, but that even good people sometimes make bad movies.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Totally Unrealistic EPCOT Center Restoration Idea

People say to me “Hey Dave, you talk all the time about how the people in charge of Disney World are complete idiots who make the wrong decision every single time, especially where EPCOT is concerned, but what would YOU do differently? Huh?”

Okay, actually that’s a lie. No one ever says that. I don’t follow any of the strident Everything-Disney-Does-Is-The-Best-Thing-Ever crowd on Twitter and they don’t follow me, so most of what I say just fades into the electronic aether. I just needed a way to introduce the premise of this article, which is basically what I would do if I had a completely free hand to remake EPCOT as I see fit. In a future article in this series, I’ll tell you what I would do if I could fly to Mars on a giant winged hedgehog.

I think what EPCOT really needs—in fact, what the entire Disney enterprise needs—is to be run by a visionary George Lucas-type person. I don’t much care for the Star Wars prequels. But I massively respect how Lucas, secure in the knowledge that the films would make tons of money no matter what, carried out his own creative vision and gave exactly zero craps what anybody else thought. “Hey, wait a minute!” you might be saying. “Disney should give people what they want!”

No. No, they definitely should not, especially where EPCOT is concerned. People shouldn’t be given what they want, they should be given what they ought to have. Why do I say that? Let’s consider an example. Think back to the mid-2000s, when the rumors first started to swirl that Apple was developing a mobile phone. The Great Internet Speculatron started churning out renderings of what this rumored mobile phone might look like, and all of them looked like Apple-ified versions of existing devices:



The phone that Steve Jobs unveiled in early 2007 was nothing like the vast majority of people had imagined. Simply listening to what people wanted would not have resulted in such a revolutionary device as the original iPhone because most people had no idea that such a device was even possible.

Another example: the third Star Trek spinoff, Deep Space Nine. Prior to that show, the only Star Trek anyone had ever seen was about a group of Starfleet officers flying around the galaxy in a starship. DS9 was totally different, and shortly after it hit the airwaves people were complaining that it was set on a space station that didn’t go anywhere and that it’s characters were not all nobly heroic and didn’t always get along with each other. In short, they were unhappy that it wasn’t like the previous Star Treks they were used to. A direct result of that criticism was the creation of Star Trek: Voyager, a show that hewed closely to the established Star Trek formula and took absolutely no chances. Over a decade after both shows ended their 7-year runs, DS9’s popularity is actually rising thanks to its complex characters, well-plotted storylines, and prescient tackling of post-9/11 issues, and Voyager is generally regarded as an empty piece of fluff by everyone apart from a tiny and fiercely-devoted fanbase.

Bottom line: if you do nothing but chase after the ethereal magic unicorn of What The People Want, you’re doomed to mushy mediocrity. It’s much better to have a clear creative vision and stick to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t bend to people’s tastes when you have to (the way Disney did in the mid-80s when Mickey & friends began making appearances in Future World wearing their silver spacesuits) but you can do it within the framework of your vision. That way your creative endeavor doesn’t devolve into an unfocused mess.

So, all of that being said, here is what I would do with EPCOT. First, I would fix Future World. There would be no more empty pavilion space. Wonders of Life would return in a modernized form. Innoventions would again become CommuniCore and would get exhibits to fill all that empty space. And the refurbished and updated Journey Into Imagination pavilion would bring back the upstairs ImageWorks. New pavilions would be built in the expansion pads. (A new, updated Horizons would definitely be one of those) And every pavilion would be reworked to conform to EPCOT’s original vision: education, entertainment, and inspiration. There would be no pavilions devoted to cartoon characters. (So The Seas with Nemo and his Computer-Generated Friends would become The Living Seas once more) And then, once Future World had been updated and expanded so you could spend a whole day exploring it, I would close World Showcase.

No, not permanently. It’s just really hard to massively rework an area when you have customers walking around in it. One of World Showcase’s big problems has always been its lack of rides. So it would get one. Specifically, the World Cruise. You may recognize the World Cruise as a piece of the sadly-abandoned WestCOT Center concept that was progressively scaled down and chipped away until it became Disney’s California Adventure. WestCOT’s version of the World Showcase was called The Four Corners of the World, and was devoted to different regions rather than individual countries. The World Cruise (also called The River of Time) would’ve been a dark ride that flowed beneath the area with a stop in each “corner” of the world plus a fifth stop in Future World. In between stops, there would be show scenes devoted to whatever themed area the ride was passing under.

Imagine something like that for EPCOT’s World Showcase. True, it couldn’t be done exactly the same way. For one thing, it couldn’t flow beneath the World Showcase without razing the existing buildings, building the World Cruise at ground level, then rebuilding the World Showcase on top of it, the way the Magic Kingdom is built on top of the Utilidors. The most logical thing would probably be to have the World Cruise run behind the existing World Showcase. Also, you couldn’t have a stop in every World Showcase pavilion, especially since part of my plan would be to use every expansion plot. Maybe there would be a stop in every third country. Some of the pavilions might have rides of their own, but each one would at least have a show. And of course there’d be the normal assortment of shops and restaurants. But, like Future World there would be no shows or attractions devoted to Disney films or licensed characters. That means no character dining. EPCOT is not the place for that stuff.

Finally, after the big EPCOT restoration was completely done, there’d be a dedication ceremony officially renaming the park EPCOT Center.

One of the things that the original EPCOT Center did really wonderfully was to use the Disney brand name as a springboard, not a straitjacket. It took the chance of being more adult and educational, of not having any attractions devoted to licensed characters. It took those chances because the people behind it knew that the Disney brand name gave them an automatic audience. People would come just to see the new Disney thing, and once they were in the park, even though it was nothing like the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center’s designers bet that they’d like what they saw. And they were correct. Yes, some people complained that there were no character meals or roller coasters and they were offended that Disney would dare expose them to educational content on their vacation. But a lot of people liked EPCOT Center very much. It’s not like the place was a ghost town while the Magic Kingdom was packed. EPCOT Center was legitimately popular. The only reason the place depends on the Flower & Garden and Food & Wine festivals to support it today is because of two decades of executive ineptitude.

Obviously, all of this is just pie-in-the-sky fantasy on my part. Disney apologists on the Internet are fond of pointing out that it is a business, and therefore cannot afford to spend any of the billions of dollars it rakes in per year making improvements to its theme parks, even though doing so is a proven way to make even more money. And from what I’ve heard the Orlando arm of Disney’s theme park division is a dysfunctional miasma of incompetence and petty office politics that couldn’t muster the collective will to open an umbrella if it was raining. So I have zero confidence that anything positive will happen at EPCOT ever again. I wish I didn’t have to be so pessimistic, but that’s where the facts lead me.

But maybe, at some point in the future, if Disney is led by a strong creative person with the courage to put forward a creative vision and carry it out without being paralyzed by what people might think, things could turn around.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Maelstrom Desecration Response

If you have the Internet and use it to keep up with Disney-related things, then you know that this past Friday afternoon the official Disney Parks blog finally confirmed a months-old rumor; that the Norway pavilion’s Maelstrom ride will be converted to a Frozen-themed attraction.

One thing I love about Twitter is that it allows us to react to things in real time before we’ve really had a chance to think them over. Then we can scurry over to our blogs and write up a more thoughtful reaction, then go back to Twitter and tell everyone to check out our blog. It’s a circle of some kind.

CircleOLife“Hey, Internet! Here’s this thing I wrote!”

The first thing I tweeted in response to the news was this:


Then I tweeted this:

And finally I tweeted this:

And that’s pretty much where I am today. Putting a Fantasyland dark ride into EPCOT is a terrible idea, but at this point it doesn’t matter because almost everyone who really appreciated what EPCOT Center stood for doesn’t go to the park anymore. I realize that last sentence may be a bit controversial, so let me elucidate.

The generally accepted way to create a successful theme park is to take a bunch of preexisting intellectual properties that people like and build a bunch of rides, shows, shops, and restaurants devoted to them. As time goes on and your company churns out new pieces of intellectual property (or acquires them from other, more creative companies) you replace old rides and shows devoted to things that are no longer popular with new rides and shows devoted to your popular new stuff. EPCOT Center was something totally different. It was built around, not intellectual properties, but ideas like futurism and the joy of experiencing different cultures. People came to EPCOT for one of two reasons:

  1. Because they already enjoyed Disney’s other offerings and wanted to check out this latest one.
  2. Because they had a preexisting interest in one of the topics presented at EPCOT. Maybe they were especially interested in ocean life or wanted to eat at a Moroccan restaurant.

The people who loved EPCOT Center but still come to the park anyway belong to that first group. If you asked one of them, they’d probably tell you they’re a Disney fan. Understand I’m not criticizing these people. I’m just pointing out that they’re there. They keep coming to the park because the nostalgic feelings it gives them and their affinity for most things Disney allows them to enjoy themselves there. And that’s totally cool.

I belong to the second group. Yeah, I grew up with various Disney-related entertainment, but it didn’t inspire me or capture my imagination the way other things did. I loved EPCOT Center because of my preexisting interest in science and futuristic technology. When EPCOT moved away from those things and it became clear to me that the people in charge of the park did not care about them anymore, my interest in it declined accordingly. The fact that today’s lowercase Epcot occupies the same physical space and has a bunch of buildings that outwardly resemble those EPCOT Center pavilions I once loved is not enough to make a visit there enjoyable for me.

Now let’s talk about World Showcase for a bit. When I was a kid, I had no use for the place. Sure, part of this is because like most kids I was a cultural Philistine and World Showcase was too adult-oriented for me to appreciate yet. But Future World dealt with some pretty advanced topics, too, and it was my favorite place on the whole planet. The difference between the two was that Future World had rides and World Showcase didn’t. That wasn’t by design. There were always supposed to be more rides; a Rhine River Cruise in Germany, some kind of gondola ride in Italy, and unbuilt pavilions like Spain, Venezuela, and the Soviet Union were also supposed to contain rides. But for various reasons the plans for each of these fell through. As a result, World Showcase has always been kind of dysfunctional. Adding the Norway pavilion with Maelstrom in 1989 was absolutely a step in the right direction. Changing this fanciful but mostly reality-based tribute to Norway into a showcase for a cartoon just because that cartoon did Avengers-level business at the box office is a massive step in the wrong direction.

At this point you might say “Dave, I see where you’re coming from. Disney should using one of those empty World Showcase expansion pads for their Frozen ride!” If this is your opinion, let me respond thusly:

A trait that all the very best EPCOT attractions shared was their refusal to talk down to the audience. They managed to handle complex grown-up topics in ways that were entertaining but also assumed that you had a brain. What message does plopping a Frozen ride into the Norway pavilion send? This: “Hey audience, there’s no way the country of Norway could possibly interest you because all you care about is stuffing your face with mass-market entertainment! So here’s another helping of that!” Putting a Fantasyland ride into World Showcase goes against everything that World Showcase is supposed to be.

I’ve heard some people argue that it’s okay because Frozen was a good movie that they personally enjoyed. Those people are missing the point. The Emperor’s New Groove was a good movie that I enjoyed, but that doesn’t mean that the Yzma’s Secret Lab Roller Coaster belongs in the Mexico pavilion.

There have been some efforts to get Disney to reverse their decision by using the hashtag #SaveMaelstrom, apparently because if you can get a hashtag trending on Twitter it somehow bends the fabric of the space-time continuum and makes the thing you’re trying to accomplish magically happen. These efforts are not going to work any more than the hashtag #LessExplosionsAndSexismPlease would move Michael Bay to completely change his style of filmmaking. The people who ran the Walt Disney Company when EPCOT Center was being designed and built are not there anymore, and the people in charge now have absolutely no allegiance to their ideas or set of values. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. No social media campaign can induce the leadership of a Fortune 100 company to fundamentally change the way they do things. Heck, as of this writing it hasn’t even been able to shame NFL commissioner Roger Goodell into resigning for looking the other way when the people in his employ violently beat women and children.

Now, after saying all of that I have to admit that while I’m opposed to the Frozen Maelstrom replacement, I’m not too worked up about it. It’s like if the Peruvian government started selling billboard space on the buildings at Machu Picchu; it’s a horrible, crass decision and I don’t like it, but it doesn’t directly affect my life in any way.

[A clever concluding sentence goes here]

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Star Trek Movie Development Derailment

It’s been said that nobody sets out to make a bad movie.

sharknadoWell, almost nobody

For example, William Shatner once set out to make a Star Trek movie that would be a sweeping epic, combining high adventure with a profound spiritual journey for the characters. And we ended up with Star Trek V.


The Final Frontier’s failure was almost guaranteed from the beginning, though, because the story was built around an inherently bad idea: the Enterprise crew setting out to physically locate God. Sure, there were a lot of other problems with the production: a writers’ strike, budget cuts, etc. But you can pretty much draw a straight line from the bad idea at the beginning of the creative process to the cinematic cow pie that came out the end. However, some bad movies start out as fairly good ideas. Or at least ideas that sound good at first. For example, Star Trek: Insurrection.

A very important piece of tie-in merchandise for Insurrection was to have been a book, penned by screenwriter Michael Piller, that detailed the entire creative process behind the film, from initial idea to finished screenplay. Had Insurrection been successful the book would have been a splendid commercial for it. But when the movie sputtered like a wet firecracker the studio decided that they’d rather not publish its post-mortem. So Piller’s book went unpublished. However, the manuscript surfaced online a while back, and I was able to read it before it was pulled. Here, then, is a condensed summary of the various forms Insurrection’s story took from concept to finished script. It’s a fascinating look at how Hollywood can turn a guaranteed crowd-pleaser into a dirt sandwich.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Spock Search Recollection

Thirty years and a few weeks ago, I saw the most important movie of my life. You see, I’ve been a huge Star Trek fan pretty much since birth. But during my early-1980s childhood, the world was much different. There were no Internet streaming services or Blu-Ray players to allow you to watch the show whenever you wanted in glorious high definition. And although selected episodes were available on VHS as early as 1980, my family didn’t have access to a VCR. Heck, I didn’t even know what a VCR was until 1985 or so. All we had, in fact, was a 15-inch black-and-white TV set with a pair of rabbit-ear antennae perched atop it. When we watched the show weeknights at 6PM on WAWS Channel 30 out of Jacksonville, Florida, it looked something like this:


And let me remind you that until 1987, there was only one show called “Star Trek”. There was only one Captain and crew of a single USS Enterprise. During my early childhood, of course, I had no idea how long ago the show had been on the air, how many episodes there were, or even the fact that there were movies. My only inkling that additional Star Trek stories existed beyond the confines of television were occasional glimpses of odd-looking early novels in the Waldenbooks at our local mall:

IshmaelThis book was a crossover with the early-1960s comedy-Western series Here Come The Brides. I am not making this up.

So you can imagine how surprised and excited I was 30 years ago, in early June 1984, when my parents said that we were going to the mall see a Star Trek movie (in those days, movie theaters were commonly located in malls). While we were waiting to get in, I gazed up in wonder at the first movie poster I can clearly remember:


Now, since I’d had no idea that Star Trek movies even existed before that day, I had some questions. Why were they searching for Spock? How did he get lost? I recognized the Enterprise in the upper-left corner of the poster, and I imagined that the unfamiliar-looking spaceship at the lower-right was a shuttlecraft the crew was using to look for Spock. I was going into this movie totally blind, with no idea what to expect. Once it started, I didn’t know what the heck was going on. Spock was dead? Kirk had a son? And who was this Saavik person? Probably 90% of the plot sailed right over my 6-year-old-head.

And it was the most awesome filmgoing experience of my life. I mean it; Star Trek III: The Search For Spock completely blew me away.

A large part of that was the visuals. Remember, the vast majority of my Star Trek viewing experience had been on a little black-and-white TV. It was a huge treat just to see the show in color when I visited my grandparents. I was used to the Enterprise looking like this:


And now it looked like this:


I was used to a starship bridge that looked like this:


But now it looked like this:


Even the Excelsior bridge set—which by today’s standards looks like something a low-budget fan film would be embarrassed to have—was just about the most hi-tech looking thing I’d ever seen.

TSFS_excelsiorFor some reason, Starfleet’s newest flagship was controlled from inside a 23rd-century Radio Shack

On the TV show, the rare glimpse of a space station looked like this:


But Star Trek III showed me a space station that looked like this:


I was used to Klingons that looked like this:


But now they looked like this:


Even though I only saw the movie a couple times, Star Trek III’s late 70s/early 80s futurist aesthetic was burned onto my brain. The huge impression it made on me was only reinforced when I visited EPCOT Center for the first time a few months later. As I’ve written before, EPCOT’s Future World shared that same late 70s/early 80s futurist aesthetic, and to see it fully realized in three dimensions was an amazing experience and was a huge reason why I became so obsessed with the place. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that The Search For Spock is the reason this blog exists. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you look at it.

But it wasn’t only the visuals. The Search For Spock was the biggest, most unique Star Trek story I’d ever seen. The TV episodes followed a predictable pattern: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would beam down to a planet, the natives would capture them and take away their phasers and communicators, and eventually they’d escape captivity and get their stuff back, while solving whatever societal ill affected the planet. Kirk would give the aliens a speech about freedom, then the landing party would beam up and the Enterprise would fly off into the end credits.

But movie started in the middle of a story already in progress. Some bad stuff had gone down, and Spock was dead. In order to set things right, Kirk and the remaining crew zoomed from Earth to the Genesis Planet, and then to Vulcan. Compared to the television episodes I was used to, The Search For Spock was a sprawling epic! It really expanded my idea of what Star Trek could be. It also turned me on to the existence of the film series. After all, if there was a Star Trek III, then there must’ve been a Star Trek II and a Star Trek I, right? Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see those earlier films until many years later (my parents maintained that The Wrath of Khan was too violent for children and that The Motion Picture was too boring) but the movie left me eagerly anticipating Star Trek IV, and I was not disappointed when The Voyage Home premiered two years later.

I didn’t become aware of the “odd-numbered curse” (the idea that all the even-numbered films are all good and the odd-numbered ones are all bad) until I got onto the Internet in the mid-‘90s. And even though it’s obvious today that Star Trek III was a medium-budget film trying to pass as a blockbuster, it remains one of my favorites. It’s not as groundbreaking as The Wrath of Khan or a rollicking caper like The Voyage Home, but its heart and the way it remains true to the characters will always make it one of my favorite Star Trek stories of all time.

By the way, you should really check out Vonda McIntyre’s novelization. (Available used on Amazon or electronically in the iBooks store) It fleshes out characters like Captain Esteban of the Grissom that came across as rather cartoonish and one-dimensional onscreen and has a touching subplot for Carol Marcus, who was completely absent from this and all future films.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Disneyland-Superman Replication

The grand opening of Disneyland in the summer 1955 was a huge event that sent ripples through the pop culture of the day. For example, the story that appeared in Action Comics #210 from late 1955.

These days comics are mostly aimed at an adult male audience, but in the 1950s they were strictly kid stuff. In fact, thanks to the Fredrick Wertham-inspired moral panic in the early 50s, comic publishers went out of their way to make their publications as square, nonthreatening, and kid-friendly as possible. (They still managed to make them totally psychotic and weird, but we’ll get to that later) And since kids were excited about Walt Disney’s new theme park, it was perhaps inevitable that DC’s writers would come up with a story about their flagship character getting a theme park of his own: Superman Land!


The plot of the story is pretty simple: Clark, Lois, and Jimmy are assigned to cover the grand opening of Superman Land, and Clark keeps slipping away to change into Superman and help out with the park’s various opening-day problems. All the while, a disguised Lex Luthor is lurking about thinking menacing thoughts like “Everyone thinks Superman is invincible, but I’ll change their minds soon enough!” and “I’ll stop Superman permanently! And I’m going to do it tonight, with what I’ve got in this box!”

Superman Land has a lot of similarities to Disneyland. It’s like the writers glanced at a map of Disneyland and adapted some of its attractions to fit the Superman theme. For example, Disneyland had Rocket To The Moon, and Superman Land had the Rocket to Krypton:


This one is actually amazingly prescient. It’s basically an Eisenhower-era Star Tours 2. By the way, you may notice that the Kryptonians in that last panel are flying around like Superman. That’s because the writers hadn’t established that Superman’s powers came from Earth’s yellow sun. Supposedly everyone on Krypton had super powers. This idea was abandoned a short time later because the writers realized that it was hard to explained why they all died if they could have just flown away when Krypton exploded.

From here, though, Superman Land veers from the eerily prescient into the deeply weird and criminally negligent. For example, you know how Disneyland has the Frontierland shooting gallery? Well, Superman Land has a shooting gallery, too! Why, you ask? So park visitors can experience Superman’s invulnerablity for themselves by shooting at a steel Superman dummy. With real guns. Loaded with live ammo. Obviously, we’re in an NRA fever dream. And what’s even more funny/disturbing is that, in one of Superman Land’s many opening-day mishaps, the steel Superman dummy’s delivery is late. So guess how Superman handles it?


Yes! He stands in for the the dummy, and the people firing live ammo at him never even notice! It’s one thing to have a theme park attraction where guests can pick up a loaded firearm and go to town, it’s something else when those guests can’t even tell the difference between a steel dummy and a real person.

But the ability to distinguish between a live human and an inanimate object is a common failing in this world. Later on, Clark needs to sneak away from Lois and Jimmy to deal with a problem at the post office as Superman. (Yes, the park has a Superman-themed post office. Don’t ask why.) How does he manage it? By plopping a Clark Kent dummy onto the most awkward-looking merry-go-round ever, helping at the post office, then replacing the dummy with himself before the ride is over:


I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that investigative reporter Lois Lane couldn’t tell the difference between Clark and a wax statue. After all, this is a universe where a pair of glasses is an impenetrable disguise. But the weirdest thing is the merry-go-round itself. Whose idea was it to have a ride that requires people—mostly children—to mount a replica of a large spandex-clad man like they were one half of the Ambiguously Gay Duo? That’s pretty edgy for 1955. Then again, the Batman comics of the same era had Bruce Wayne and young Dick Grayson sleeping in the same bed and showering together, so what do I know?

batman-robin-whaaaThis is not Photoshopped. It actually appeared in a comic marketed to children.

But the Disney theme park experience is about more than just rides. Disneyland had the Main Street Cinema, and Superman Land has its own cinema that plays (what else?) Superman cartoons.


And what’s a theme park without gift shops selling themed merchandise?

6cWhy do I get the feeling that Superman’s Health-Food-In-A-Can is not a big seller?

And finally, just like Disneyland has a nighttime fireworks show, Superman Land would have its own pyrotechnic spectacular. But where Disney fireworks are charming, whimsical shows about wishes, dreams, and licensed characters, Superman Land’s fireworks are psychotically insane:


Remember, in the universe where these stories take place, Krypton was a real planet, and its explosion extinguished billions of lives and wiped out an entire civilization. And every night, Superman Land is going to re-create this tragic cataclysm for cheering crowds! It’s like reenacting the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at a theme park called Japan Land, or reenacting the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents at Batman Land. And don’t get me started on how they plan on using pre-Sputnik technology to launch a rocket into space as part of the show every night. How did they get the FAA to sign off on this? It’s like this comic was written by alien creatures playacting as humans with no understanding of actual human behavior or emotions.

Tommy-WiseauIn other words, this guy.

Compared to Superman Land, the Disneyland of 1955 may seem like a pretty dull place. There’s no nightly rocket launches, no 3-D space simulator, no real guns in the Frontierland Shooting Gallery, no place to pick up a can of Superman Health Food, and the carousel only gives you the opportunity to mount plain old boring horses and not tights-wearing flying muscle-men.

But—and you can call me old-fashioned—I still think I prefer Disneyland.