Star Trek: Voyager

startrekvoyagerStar Trek: Voyager is the worst Star Trek show. And by that I don’t mean it’s the fifth-best Star Trek show. I mean it’s just a bad show.

And, yes, it’s worse than Star Trek: Enterprise, which wasn’t very good either. But at least Enterprise had some interesting crew and tried to do a few things, although it annoyingly ignored canon at times. Still, that’s better than Star Trek: Voyager, which was an exercise in the writers growing far too comfortable (read: complacent) with the genre and the era.

 
What Works
Interesting premise, flinging the ship and crew seventy thousand light years from Federation space. One query with this is that Kirk and Picard regularly had their ships flung to the far reaches of the galaxy, and always got back within forty minutes. But at least the idea is sound.

Robert Picardo is excellent as the Doctor, and Jeri Ryan strong as Seven of Nine. Robert Beltran brings a quiet nobility to Command Chakotay, but is underused (allegedly, because Beltran was so outspoken about the direction of the show). Kate Mulgrew is a good actress and was solid as Star Trek’s first commanding female officer but, unfortunately, Captain Kathryn Janeway is a terrible character.

 
What Doesn’t Work
Mulgrew herself described Janeway as ‘bipolar’ to explain why she was so erratic, although apparently the reason for this were different writers had different ideas on how Janeway should be portrayed, so were always pushing their own agenda given their opportunity.

The rest of the cast is bland – Tuvok (Tim Russ) was just a Spock clone without what made Spock interesting (the half-human side). Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) was meant to be killed off a few seasons in, which shows how valued he was. B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) just seemed to run around being angry or frustrated with everybody. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan MacNeill) is likeable, but doesn’t get to do much. Kes (Jennifer Lien) walks around in a perpetually dreamy state, and Neelix (Ethan Phillips) is appalling, with little to offer once Voyager moves out of the regions he knows. All these characters become one-dimensional, even when their lives change circumstantially. They hit their beats, do their thing, and that’s it for them.

Following The Original Series, the writers struggled creating adversarial races. The Ferengi were initially laughable, and the writers could never make the Romulans work as this omnipresent threat. The Breen were often mentioned but never went anywhere. Ultimately, to create threatening aliens, the writers fell back on using a warrior archetype, which meant they just cloned the Klingons, e.g. the Jem’Hadar were just juiced-up Klingon, while the Cardassians were cultured Klingons. What helped the Cardassians come to life were two compelling characters, Gul Dukat and Elim Garak, played brilliantly by Marc Alaimo and Andrew Robinson. Through Dukat and Garak, the Cardassians gained depth. The Borg were genuinely good as mechanised Klingons. In Star Trek: Voyager, the initial threat were the Kazon, another brand of alien who were just Klingon Lite.

Initially, Janeway integrates Chakotay’s Maquis crew onto Voyager, which is meant to create conflict and tension. That’s briefly explored, but then dropped. The show then unfolds as a clone of Star Trek: Next Generation, with the crew stopping to investigate new life, new civilisations, and all that. You’d think given how far they are from home, there’d be some urgency about their journey, and that their Starfleet integrity would be tested more. It happens a few times, but never with any real complexity.

Robert Beltran was also critical of the show as it went on, saying that Janeway had grown tyrannical, that supporting characters were forgotten, and any time any situation came up, all Janeway had to do was consult Seven of Nine’s repository of Borg knowledge for a solution, thus it made the rest of them redundant.

The technobabble progressively grows out of control so that it undermines any dramatic tension. If you look at the climax of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as a comparison, we have a very simple set up: the ship doesn’t have enough power to warp away before the Genesis device explodes. Spock goes down and we see him fixing something to do with the engine. The Enterprise regains power and warps away. Nice, simple, yet compelling. We understand that. Technobabble used? Zero. In Voyager, you know they’ll get out of any situation just by spouting some meaningless technobabble. It becomes a deus ex machina. Then there’s the Borg: they were intimidating in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In Star Trek: Voyager, they’ve lost any real threat. Whenever the crew of the Voyager deal with them, it’s with complete aplomb.

Finally, I’m unsure why the needed so many time travel stories. The writers have the vastness of the galaxy, they’re in uncharted space, and they still have to screw around with time travel. That goes infinitely for the finale, which has to rate as one of the laziest and most offensive finales in television history.

 
How I Would’ve Done It
We can keep the premise. We can keep the bulk of the characters. Tom Paris is good, but I would’ve played on him as disreputable – always looking for an angle to try to get Voyager home quicker. Cut Tuvok’s long-standing friendship with Janeway. And cut him as a Vulcan. Make him a Romulan observer who was aboard (for their initial mission), and now has to integrate into the crew, but whose motivations and choices are often questionable, although he learns morality along the way. Harry Kim and Neelix are out. Instead, I would’ve used Nog (Aron Eisenberg) from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, who now has to embrace his Ferengi instincts to barter with people in the Delta Quadrant for supplies and resources. Atop of being a Starfleet officer, he has to learn to accept who he is.

Janeway and Chakotay can stay, but both are pushed way down the chain of command – Janeway to Lieutenant Commander, Chakotay to equal rank, more general experience, but no real bridge qualification. When the Voyager is shunted into the Delta Quadrant, the bridge crew – including the Captain and the First Officer – are killed. Janeway survives because she’s in Astrometics, and is now thrown way out of her depth because she has to take command. The crew are divided about her. Half want to uphold Starfleet principles, the other half feel they should just do whatever’s required to get the Voyager home as quickly as possible. Everybody’s unsure whether Janeway has the capability to command. It doesn’t help that Chakotay feels he should be in charge. Torres also stays, but not as this fledgling engineer, but chief engineer who’s been around, is decorated, and has the respect of the crew. Her support of Janeway validates Janeway’s standing.

Throughout, Janeway’s ideals are tested. But the Voyager is a big ship, and she has a lot of people wanting to get home, so there are times she has to compromise for one reason or another – either to keep the ship functioning, because she finds a possible shortcut, or simply because she recognizes the crew’s coming apart. Voyager (the ship) also experiences wear. Throughout the existing show, Voyager always looks pristine, but the ship would become scarred, run out of resources, and even go through stretches (as in episodes) where systems aren’t working. It’ not like they can just stop at a starbase and get a service, so keeping the ship up and running drives the urgency of their mission.

Mad Max: Fury Road

madmaxfuryroadI didn’t like Mad Max: Fury Road. There, I said it.

Lots of people did like it. Lots of people love it. And they’ll tell you how great it is. I’m fine with that, whereas if that happened with some other movies (e.g. Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Man of Steel) I might try to convince people otherwise. But, as far as Fury Road goes, I can see why people enjoy it.

I didn’t hate it, like those other movies I’ve named. I just didn’t connect to it in any meaningful way as a Mad Max movie. If it was a Furiosa movie, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. It’s a great action movie. But it’s not. It is a Mad Max movie, and that’s the standard by which I measure it.

 
What Works
Charlize Theron is magnificent as Furiosa, and Furiosa is the only truly fully-rounded character in the story. The supporting characters are good. Visually, Fury Road is spectacular, bordering on awe-inspiring. You can sit there and lose yourself in the visuals.

 
What Doesn’t Work
My biggest query is that Max is a guest star in his own movie. People will suggest this parallels Mad Max 2 – Max is just a loner getting caught in other people’s problems. But Mad Max 2 is about redemption. Max doesn’t care anymore. He forsakes a man who begs for his help until the man promises gasoline, he forsakes Pappagallo’s plea for help, and it’s not until the end – after he’s truly lost everything – that he decides to throw his lot in for a greater good, only to be duped. The story follows him at all times. The plight of the refinery is an aside to his journey.

Fury Road is strictly about Furiosa’s plight. Max is captured at the beginning, then used in a way where he has no control over his own fate. When he finally frees himself and decides to help, it’s not for any spiritual or emotional growth of his own (although some might say he’s motivated by flashbacks of whatever horror befell his family). He is an aside to Furiosa’s journey. Furiosa is the one driving the story. This is her story. And that’s great for Furiosa. But this is meant to be Max’s story, hence the title, Mad Max. (The same problem undermined Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.)

Another query is the lack of the mystique around the character. In MM2, we have a brilliant scene where Max is cuffed by the people of the refinery, and he casually picks the locks, frees himself, listens to them rant, and then tells them if they want to get out of there, they talk to him. This is on top of outwitting his pursuers at the beginning and capturing the snake guarding the gyro. In Fury Road, our introduction to Max is him eating a two-headed lizard, his car getting trashed, and him being used as a ‘blood bag’. The one time there’s a chance for some mystique-building – Max dropping back to intercept their pursuers – it happens off-screen.

The world is gorgeous but feels absolute, like it’s always been. The gangs are so entrenched and idiosyncratic, that you’d imagine that they’ve been like this for decades, whereas in both Mad Max II and Beyond Thunderdome there’s clear references to the world before, so you actually understand how horrible yet necessary a transformation these people have undergone to survive. That’s confronting. And cool.

In Fury Road, the Vuvalini – the old women Furiosa brings Max to – talk distantly about the ‘Green Place’. Given the age of the Vuvalini and the vagueness of their memories, the Green Place must’ve existed (at the very least) decades ago. Max would’ve been a child before the world turned to shit. It’s hard to believe he could share the same Max backstory (although there’s no reason he has to) as the original – his leathers and Interceptor might have nothing to do with previously being a cop. However, ironically, I thought the Mel Gibson Max would’ve fit much better into this story, and given the world and its problems context.

Tom Hardy – usually a great actor – also seems to struggle with the lack of dialogue, much of his emoting overdone and better-suited to a silent picture. When he does speak, he manages some bizarre accent that sounds like a mongrelized South African. The Australian accent is one of the hardest to pull off. Actors who can’t, should just leave it alone.

 
How I Would’ve Done It
Firstly, I’d still use Mel Gibson as Max. I understand Mel Gibson’s somewhat on the outer, and that Hollywood loves their reboots, but the original Max is an interesting character, and still has a story to share. It would’ve been interesting to revisit an older Max.

I would’ve opened with a V8 Interceptor – identical to Max’s in Mad Max 2 – pursuing a gang car. The gang car leads the Interceptor into an ambush. One gang car is destroyed. The Interceptor is run off the road. The door opens. A booted foot plants itself on the road. Somebody emerges in the police leathers. But it’s not Max but somebody about eighteen (who I’ll name Kid). The gang cars pull up. There’s a shoot out. Kid is overwhelmed. Then Max does arrive, emerging from behind a dune. The gang members are petrified. Max kills several of them. Other gang members flee. Max talks to Kid, and in him sees the son he would’ve lost. Kid is in awe of Max – Max has literally become a legend over the years. Nobody truly believes he exists (and the implication is he’s done other things to help people out since Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome). Max is more fascinated by the Interceptor and wants to know where Kid got it.

Kid offers to show Max and drives him out into the desert and explains that he wants to bring law back to the wasteland. Max finds the suggestion fanciful, but Kid brings him to a secret underground bunker filled with weaponry, cars, and other supplies. Kid explains his dad was in the army, and when things started to go bad, they took refuge in this bunker with other families, whilst resources were commandeered and militarized. But over the years, the others have died, leaving Kid alone. Recently, though, he’s heard a voice from the radio, which he shows to Max. The voice is from some faraway government installation, which has begun to airdrop supplies to remote regions, as they’re trying to restore civilization. But out here, the leader of the gangs, known as the Grand Abbott, is stealing the supplies. Kid wants to help, but it’s a question of getting Max involved. Max has stayed away from people and civilization for decades, but now must help to rediscover his own humanity.

Gotham

gothamPrequels – they’ve become the rage. And we have Smallville to thank for this.

Smallville (2001) told the story of a young Clark Kent as he developed his powers and learned about his heritage and his role on Earth – the foundation of why he’d one day become Superman.

For the most part, Smallville works. Casting is great, with Tom Welling (Clark Kent) and Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) brilliant in their roles. The writers also recognized the spirit of the Superman character, instead of making him the gloomy, mopey, emo Superman who appears in Zack Snyder’s two interpretations (Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman). Where the show can struggle is it can be formulaic (a freak of week Clark has to tackle – although this isn’t surprising with twenty-plus episodes per season), and in the continuity the canon has to recognize once the characters move to Metropolis. But otherwise, it’s definitely worth watching.

Then Christopher Nolan gave us Batman Begins (2005), which looks at how Bruce Wayne became Batman – beyond the murder of his parents which fuels him, but also looking at his physical and psychological training. Nolan also grounds the character so that everything we see could just about be possible in our world.

Gotham (2014) tells the story of the younger Bruce Wayne, picking up the story shortly after Thomas and Martha Wayne are killed, and follows Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) tackling police corruption and a city run by the underworld, as well as the emergence of villains from the Batman mythology. Effectively, everybody gets a prequel story, which sounds great in theory.

Right?

 
What Works
Um, nothing?

That’s harsh.

The casting is generally good. Robin Lord Taylor is exceptional as Oswald Cobblepot, the man who’ll one day become the Penguin. McKenzie is solid as Gordon, as is Donal Louge as his questionable partner, Harvey Bullock. The show looks great, too.

But that’s about it.

 
What Doesn’t Work
Gotham is already overrun with crime and the police department is corrupt. How much worse can it get?

Young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) spends a lot of his time in his study, whining. Even if you knew nothing about the Batman mythology, you would’ve thought that after his parents were killed, he’d throw himself into becoming stronger so the same fate never befalls him, e.g. getting self-defense lessons, learning karate, lifting a weight or two, and so on. We’re talking about a kid who’s meant to be so messed up that he eventually becomes Batman. Wayne in Gotham is a whiny brat. I can only foresee that this Bruce Wayne will become Bratman.

Lots of the crimes that do happen are offbeat (for the want of a better word) – a precursor, no doubt, to what Gotham will one day become, although (as a friend put it) it feels more like it’s a precursor to the Adam West Batman (1966) series. For example, in an early episode, a murderer kills their victims by strapping a weather balloon to their wrists so they float up into the sky. The detective work behind investigating these crimes is banal.

Most of the villains from Batman’s rogues’ gallery are loitering around in one form or another. Bratty Wayne even hangs around with a young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who’ll become Catwoman. And all these characters revolve around Gordon. You wonder why these relationships don’t come into play when Gordon is promoted to Commissioner. It seems he knows everybody. He has a perverse friendship with Cobbeplot.

That’s not to say you can’t make these relationships work. Smallville did it, with Clark becoming friends with Lex Luthor (before he became evil), and falling in love with Lois Lane (Erica Durance). But in Gotham the use of these characters feels more like a menagerie of name-dropping.

 
How I Would’ve Done It
Because it’s a television series, I’m not going to look at a specific story, but setting up the world to sustain a season’s worth of stories.

Foremost, the city of Gotham needs a revamp. It needs to be beautiful, with low crime rates. It should be the city where everybody wants to live. The police department is beyond reproach. The Mayor – backed by Thomas and Martha Wayne – has a zero tolerance for crime. This set-up works better because we can see the city decline. We can see the underworld start to run the city. We can see the police department grow corrupt. This also gives impetus as to why Bruce Wayne becomes Batman – he’s trying to return the city to what it was and, by an extension of that, undo the murder of his parents. We have an arc then: what the city was, and what it becomes. We also have motivation.

Following Thomas and Martha Wayne’s deaths, Wayne Enterprise founders as there’s spills on the board with various directors trying to take control – some trying to uphold the Waynes’ benevolent programs, while others are more interested in profit. This affects the city and the incumbent Mayor.

Fast-forward a couple of years. One of my issues in the existing Gotham is Bruce just seems too young to have any direct influence on the story. Push him up to fourteen or fifteen and he can start to fraternize with adults without being considered just a brat. He has trained obsessively, running through disciplines (e.g. karate, kung fu, etc.), retaining the best instructors from around the world. At night, he goes out and hangs around with the wrong crowds, trying to understand what makes these people tick. The murder of his parents haunts him. His daredevil behavior desensitizes him to fear.

A detective is reassigned to the Gotham Police Department, and finds not that they’re corrupt, but complacent. They’ve had it good too long. This is a worry because there’s scuttlebutt of a new crime boss who’s organizing the underworld and extending their influence. As the story goes on, the detective learns about other detectives who begin to accept bribes. The crime boss’s influence grows pervasive. He gets behind a political candidate to oppose the Mayor, who’s begun struggling without the backing of the Waynes. The boss tries to eliminate his rivals. This begins a gang war – the first time Gotham has experienced such bloodshed.

So far, I haven’t used any names from the Batman canon, outside of Bruce Wayne. These would all be new characters. The established characters regiment the universe, where – at this point – the universe should be nebulous. This gives greater license to maneuver. Then those existing characters can gradually be seeded in as Gotham continues to devolve, with a view that the universe grows more colourful and idiosyncratic as it goes on.

Creed

creedpostersmallerI’ve always loved fight movies, even though the fight genre is usually formulaic and predictable, e.g. an underdog will enter some sort of fight game, come good, and – more often than not – win.

This is where the recent Southpaw (2015) – starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, and Forest Whitaker – didn’t work. Gyllenhaal played Billy Hope, an undefeated champion sitting on a 44–0 record. When a personal tragedy derails his career, he enlists trainer Tick Wills (Whitaker) to help him train, regain his title, and get his life back on track and rescue his daughter from welfare.

This story is the antithesis of the fight movie formula. Hope sits 44–0. He’s not an underdog. He shouldn’t even need to seek out anybody to train him. All he has to do is get back in the ring and apply the skills that got him to 44–0. It’s the other guy – regardless how well-credentialled – who should be the underdog.

This is something Stallone understood through his Rocky series. Through every movie, he cast himself as the underdog. In Rocky he is a bum versus the great Apollo Creed. In Rocky II, Apollo claimed he went easy in the first fight (somewhat validated by his behaviour in Rocky) and is determined to make amends, and Rocky struggles with the vision in his right eye, forcing him to fight right-handed. In Rocky III, Rocky is deemed too old and too domesticated to face the younger, hungrier, and more powerful Clubber Lang. In Rocky IV, we have a freak of genetic engineering in a seven-foot-tall Russian, Ivan Drago. In Rocky Balboa, Rocky is now retired, old, and facing an undefeatable champion. Only in Rocky V is he pitched as the favourite, yet Stallone handicaps Rocky with brain damage, retirement, and sneak attacks (whenever Tommy Gunn gets the advantage, it’s because Rocky’s walking away and Gunn ambushes him).

Something else that’s needed in the fight genre are stakes. Again, Stallone always has stakes on the line – usually self-respect and the pursuit of survival. In The Karate Kid, Daniel fights to earn respect from the crew who bully him. In Warrior, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) fights to provide for his family (mortgage is outstanding, and his daughter needs open heart surgery). Southpaw got this right, with Hope needing to get his life back on track so he can rescue his daughter from welfare.

Stakes are the reason we believe that our hero is taking the action they’re taking, why we root for them to succeed, and why we worry about them failing. In real life, it might be enough that somebody wants to be the best. In a story, we need a more tangible form of motivation.

That’s where Creed fails.

 
What Works
Stallone. Stallone is brilliant in Creed, trying to carry on now that his wife, Adrian (Talia Shire) and best friend Paulie (Burt Young) are gone. He also has a battle with cancer – an engagement with his own mortality. Probably the best thing about Rocky in this movie is the tactical advice he offers as a trainer to Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) following each round during Adonis’s fights. One of my queries on the Rocky series is Rocky’s sole strategy seems to be to stand there and have his head punched in until his opponent exhausts himself, and then Rocky knocks him out. It’s good to see Rocky strategise.

 
What Doesn’t Work
Nothing else really works. Some of it (e.g. some of the training sequences) border on laughable.

Adonis is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed and, for reasons never truly explored, wants to become a fighter. Mostly, it’s because it’s what he’s meant to be, I guess. The weight of carrying the Creed name should threaten to asphyxiate Adonis, but it plays no real part other than to be a novelty, and to later get Adonis a title fight. Apollo’s death in the ring should cast a shadow, but only exists as background. So the stuff that could’ve been interesting isn’t.

Living with Apollo’s former wife, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis works in a securities firm, seeming – from all appearances – to have a cushy life. I guess you could make an argument that the story is about finding yourself, about chasing your true calling, but it’s hard to empathise with Adonis, or invest in his dreams, because he has no stakes. The pursuit of his dream is nothing more than an indulgence. If he’s not a rich brat, he’s a well-off brat. If he fails, he has a wealthy guardian to fall back on.

Although he’s embarrassed in an early sparring session, you also never get the feeling that Adonis is troubled in his bouts. He’s brash, cocky, and sure of himself. Compare that to the original Rocky, where Rocky has a heated exchange with Mickey, who tells Rocky he had the talent to become a good fighter and instead he became a leg-breaker. Had. Just in that exchange, we learn so much about Rocky and his relationship with Mickey. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that layered in Creed. From the moment Adonis decides to box professionally, you just know he’ll fight the champ.

 
How I Would’ve Done It
I would’ve ditched the illegitimate angle. Adonis could’ve been the legitimate son of Apollo, perhaps born six or seven months following Apollo’s death. Adonis pursued a career in boxing, showing a wealth of talent, and climbed as high as tenth or so in the world. But he never fully realised his abilities, and lost a string of important fights. He became a journeyman (as a boxer) and got involved with the wrong crowd, getting arrested several times. Finally, when his friends – headed by a minor gangster, Eight-ball – commit an armed robbery, Adonis is looking at possible hard time. Mary Anne Creed appeals to Rocky to help straighten out Adonis – Rocky owes her, after all, because he didn’t stop the fight in which Apollo was killed.

Rocky and Adonis form a begrudging friendship, where Rocky learns that fear – because of what happened to Apollo – has always undermined Adonis. In big fights, Adonis has been afraid to commit . Rocky trains and nurtures him and Adonis begins a climb up the ranks, until Rocky gets him a shot against the champion. Unfortunately, Adonis’s friends continue to have a hold on him, and try to leech from him, and Eight-ball tries to get Adonis to sign a contract. Feeling that debt to Apollo, Rocky intercedes and, later, is ambushed and beaten. Adonis goes to see Eight-ball. They argue, fight – Adonis runs amok – until Eight-ball draws a gun. Adonis surrenders himself but says he’ll never sign, and he’s done with the crew. Eight-ball realizes he no longer has a hold on Adonis, and lets him go.

Adonis learns that there’s some things worth dying for (family, loved ones, pursuit of dreams) and goes on to fight the champ.