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Monthly Archives: December 2013

Star Trek II, III and IV: Holiday Retrospectives Part 6

I wasn’t kidding when I said that I’ve been a Trekkie for about as long as I’ve been able to walk. My parents are both fans, and I was born the year Star Trek: the Next Generation started. And like a lot of people in the 1980s I was very keen on the movies.

The Original Star Trek took a while to gather momentum into the phenomenon it is today, so it wasn’t until 1979 that Captain Kirk et al returned to prominence by way of movies. Altogether they appeared in six of them, but the ones that most people remember, and the ones that I grew up with, were the informal trilogy of II, III, and IV, entitled the Wrath of Khan, the Search for Spock, and the Voyage Home, respectively.

Everyone knows by now that Wrath of Khan was the movie that Into Darkness was ripping off. It was a stab at a comeback after Star Trek: the Motion Picture flopped – critically, and deservedly – and represented the arrival of Nicholas Meyer, a newcomer to Star Trek, as director and writer.

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In Wrath of Khan, Kirk is an Admiral, and chafing at the administrative inactivity of the position when it’s in his nature to, as Dr. McCoy puts it, “be out there hopping galaxies.” It becomes that much more poignant when he arrives for an inspection tour on a training cruise for new officers, aboard the Enterprise, under Spock’s command.

At the same time, Chekhov, also late of the Enterprise, is on an expedition searching for a totally lifeless planet as part of a scientific project called Genesis. When he goes to the surface of one to check an ambiguous reading, Chekhov is horrified to realize that he’s wandered right into the clutches of Khan, the genetically engineered warlord, a fugitive by way of cryogenic preservation from war-torn 20th Century Earth, who once tried to seize the Enterprise, only to be defeated and marooned – events which formed the Original Series episode “Space Seed.”

He uses a local parasite to gain control of Chekhov, and then learns of Genesis and where he can find Kirk, to get power and revenge for his exile. It turns out that Genesis is a new system for terraforming dead planets instantly into garden worlds. The problem is that if used on a planet with life already present, it becomes a weapon of mass destruction. Kirk has to race to stop Khan gaining control of Genesis and destroying his ship and crew, taking horrible casualties in the process.

The movie deconstructs Kirk’s traditional devil-may-care style of leadership, showing the cost in character and lives it can carry. And the cost is high. As everybody probably also knows, this is the one where Spock dies. With the weight of decades of their friendship in popular culture, it was enough to make people weep in the theatres.

While the situation leading to Khan’s escape is a bit of a stretch (surely lifeless planets can’t be that hard to find), the thematic elements are highly complex and powerful. The writing is excellent, and the special effects the pinnacle of the days (which I sometimes miss) when model photography was the normal method. It brought back all the old cast, including Ricardo Montalban as Khan, and introduced Kirstie Alley to movie audiences as Spock’s protege, Lt. Savvik, who serves as a useful foil for the old crowd.

It’s important to remember that in those days, every Star Trek movie produced was made for its own sake. There was no assumption that sequels would be made. So it was probably a bit out of left field for the gang to be called up for another one: Star Trek III: the Search for Spock.

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There’s a funny sort of superstition among Trekkies that odd-numbered Trek movies are never as good as even-numbered ones. And indeed, Star Trek III is a bit silly. I love it, but since this is the specific example of Trek that I started out with, most of it is sentimental.

As the grief-stricken Enterprise limps to Earth, the planet created by the Genesis Device which Khan detonated in a last-ditch attempt to kill Kirk has become a political hot potato for the Federation. Savvik (played by Robin Curtis now) has transferred to a science vessel to explore it.

While Kirk and crew sit idly, after learning the Enterprise is to be scrapped, they are concerned by the illness of Dr. McCoy, who seems to be have been driven round the bend by Spock’s demise. As Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek explains to Kirk, Spock mind-melded with McCoy before he died, leaving a ‘backup copy’ of himself in McCoy’s mind. Apparently, to free McCoy and lay Spock truly to rest, McCoy and Spock’s body must be brought to Vulcan. Trouble is: they buried Spock on the Genesis Planet, and no one but the science team is allowed there. So, for the sake of their friend, Kirk and his comrades steal the Enterprise and go to Genesis. But they’re in for a shock: the Genesis Effect has somehow resurrected Spock’s body, leaving him a gibbering shell, but with a chance to reunite his consciousness with a living body. It will be hard-fought, because the Klingons have gotten wind of the power of Genesis, and want the planet for themselves.

The whole premise has ‘contrived’ hovering over it. The conjuration of a means to bring Spock back was at least vaguely hinted at in Wrath of Khan; exactly why the Klingons need to go to Genesis is a bit unclear, as is why they needed Spock’s body even before they knew that Genesis would regenerate him. The end of Kirk’s long-lost-son arc from Wrath is kind of cheap. But as with Wrath, the saving grace of the movie is its thematic meaning. For all the hoops they had to jump through, the writers made Search a counterpoint to its predecessor. The phrase that bookends Wrath of Khan is Spock’s remark that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” It summarizes the reasons of Spock’s sacrifice and Kirk’s acceptance of his own responsibilities as a leader. In Search for Spock, though, he counters with “the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many,” the team’s responsibility to each member. If the basic message of Wrath was ‘one for all,’ then Search’s was ‘all for one.’ The basic moments of friendship, especially Spock’s return and McCoy’s remark to him that “it seems I’ve missed you,” are heartwarming and classic, not something you’d hear in this era of ‘bromance.’ The action sequences are tons of fun too. It also marked a few milestones, including the first extensive showcase of the Klingon language, the first of many appearances of the Klingon Bird of Prey (to this hour, I submit, the coolest spaceship ever imagined), the appearance of a fantastically hammy Klingon played by Christopher “1.21 Gigawatts” Lloyd, and Leonard Nimoy’s directorial debut.

The funny thing about Star Trek III is that it was billed as “the last voyage of the starship Enterprise.” As I said, they didn’t assume they’d be making any more. Mind you, it was technically true: the Enterprise itself didn’t survive the movie.

Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home finds Kirk and crew still on Vulcan, having chosen to return, by way of the Klingon vessel they seized in Search for Spock, to Earth and face the music for their actions. Spock, still not fully recovered from his experience, rejoins them for this last voyage.

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But Earth is abruptly cut off when an alien probe of enormous power arrives, sending out a thunderous but incomprehensible transmission that cripples every ship, station or planetary infrastructure around it, and starts vaporizing Earth’s oceans.

Kirk and his anxious crew are stymied, but Spock realizes that the probe might not be trying to talk to humans. He’s right: the transmission is actually in the song of humpback whales. Trouble is, they’re extinct in the 23rd Century. To talk the probe down, they’d need actual whales to understand what it’s saying. With no other option to hand, they decide to risk travelling in time to the 20th Century and get some.

So, yes, this is the one where they save the whales. A lot of people seem to regard that as the biggest joke Star Trek ever played on itself. I don’t understand why. Saving whales is good, isn’t it? And the time-travel technique they use was well-established in the Original Series. Plus, it was a fresh formula after the Enterprise vs. Bad Guy setup of the last two. Regardless, it is true that Star Trek IV is written as more of a comedy. This was customary all through the pre-reboot film canon; Star Trek movies cycle between dramatic and lighthearted every other movie or so.

They arrive in 1980s San Francisco, hide their stealthed Klingon ship in Golden Gate Park, and Kirk and Spock make the acquaintance of the marine biologist who is responsible for the only two humpbacks in captivity. Meanwhile Chekhov and Uhura have to try and jump-start their ship’s engine by breaking into a nuclear reactor (oddly enough the one aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise) and Scotty, Sulu and McCoy have to get into the good graces of a Plexiglas manufacturer in order to convert their ship into a flying aquarium. Wackiness ensues.

The degree of cultural disconnect between the 20th and 23rd Centuries is the root of a lot of the humour; the fact that our heores don’t use money (“I’ll give you one hundred dollars.” “Is that a lot?”) or Scotty trying to give voice commands to an early Apple MacIntosh (through the mouse, no less) or their tenuous grasp of the colloquial idiom (“Double dumb-ass on you!”). The one everyone (especially J.J. Abrams) remembers is Chekhov asking the way to the ‘nuclear wessels.’ Funny thing is, it isn’t his Russian accent that’s the joke: it’s that he’s a Russian in 1980s America asking the way to the United States nuclear navy.

I have an on-again off-again fondness for farce comedy, so I can see how some people might not have much patience with it. It’s interesting insofar as this movie has a lot more conversational dialogue, rather than the “Captain, sensors are picking up such-and-such” material Trek usually deals in. The coolness of humpback whales is sold quite well by the movie, and indeed, they had the co-discoverer of whale song on the crew: Roger Payne.

Except for a brush with a whaling ship, there’s no villain per se in the movie, but the end, as they struggle to get the whales free and clear to call the probe off is nevertheless very suspenseful. Spock’s ongoing recovery is both plot relevant and rather charming and funny (“Spock, where the hell’s the power you promised me?” “One damn minute, Admiral”). The camaraderie of the crew is strong as ever and it’s all wrapped up with a feel-good ending promising further adventures.

The three movies form a trilogy within the Star Trek film canon, based on Meyer’s and Bennett’s vision of it being very much Horatio Hornblower in space, and Leonard Nimoy’s long-standing acquaintance with the show, its characters and its themes. They were in many respects more grounded than the Original Series or the Motion Picture, and I find them the most aesthetically compelling Trek production prior to Deep Space Nine. James Horner’s soundtracks for II and III are absolutely fantastic (he’s a major reason why the ‘stealing the Enterprise sequence is so exhilarating), and the special effects represent Industrial Light and Magic in their prime. For a lot of people this was the high point of the Original Star Trek cast, if not Star Trek generally. And despite what everyone thinks of Star Trek, and William Shatner particularly, the acting is top game all round.

Happy New Year, and Live Long and Prosper

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Posted by on December 30, 2013 in Holiday Retrospectives, Movie

 

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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Doctor Who

With yet another Doctor Who special on the books for this Christmas, I thought that, as with my comments on Star Trek, a little context might be called for.

As I’ve said before, there are three franchises that set the style for popular science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Of the three, Doctor Who is the oldest, starting on the BBC in 1963. Two schoolteachers, curious about the uncanny knowledge of one of their pupils, follow her to her home, which turns out to be a police telephone booth. Or so it seems. Within, it is in fact an enormous, impossibly advanced machine, able to travel instantly through space and time, called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space). And its master is an eccentric scientist known only as the Doctor.

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From top left: 1. William Hartnell 2. Patrick Troughton 3. Jon Pertwee 4. Tom Baker 5. Peter Davison 6. Colin Baker 7. Sylvester McCoy 8.Paul McGann 9. Christopher Eccleston 10. David Tennant 11. Matt Smith…12. Peter Capaldi still pending

Over time, we learned that the Doctor is in fact an alien; a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a freethinking, good-hearted (and also two-hearted) voluntary exile from a society once described as ‘dusty old senators,’ with an offbeat intellect and strong sense of right and wrong. He’s regularly accompanied by at least one or two, usually younger, female companions whom he can explain things to, and thus to the audience. He has a recurring rogue’s gallery: the genocidal Daleks, the implacable Cybermen, and his dark counterpart, renegade Time Lord the Master.

This was, and is, the most basic formula of the show. Not much else about it is constant. Doctor Who in its original form was a really long-runner, from 1963 to 1989. William Hartnell, known ever since as the First Doctor, was nearing the end of his career (and, sadly, his life) when he started the role. When he left in 1966, it was revealed (that is, invented) that Time Lords had multiple (later specified to 13) lives. At the end of each, he would ‘regenerate,’ altering his appearance and the balance of his personality. Altogether, there were seven Doctors in the original run of the series.

It’s difficult, given its scale, to encapsulate what Doctor Who is. As I said in my Day of the Doctor article, it was basically a scenario upon which a great diversity of stories could be grafted, but it lacked the explicit mission statement of Star Trek. It was a lot more flexible because it wasn’t designed specifically to showcase an idealism or vision of any sort.

Which isn’t to say it couldn’t do that. The 3rd Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” could almost have been a Star Trek episode. And while it looked campy as heck even in the late 80s, the anti-Thatcher and pro-gay rights subtext of the 7th Doctor’s “The Happiness Patrol” was, I thought, quite impressive.

The usual framework was, and remains: the TARDIS appears somewhere, the Doctor finds out that the people who live there have a problem, with mysterious disappearances/alien attacks/whatever. The Doctor investigates, his companion in tow, finds a solution that either sets things right or, perhaps more often, clears the way for the locals to do it themselves, and then he moves on.

After that, each story is probably best appreciated on its own merits. I’ve seen at least some episodes of Doctors 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11, and there’s something to be said for all of them. They can range from drama (“The Curse of Peladon”) to comedy (“The Sun Makers”) to horror (“Blink”). Still, I think a lot of people would agree that the heyday of the classic series was the period from 1971 to 1984, the tenures of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

The first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton seem less thoroughly remembered. They lacked the distinctive costumes of their successors, a lot of the mythology hadn’t evolved yet; their episodes haven’t held up as well because they’re in black and white; and, indeed a number of their serials were destroyed in a BBC archives purge. Happily, though, a number of them have since been recovered or reconstructed. Troughton did become a big hit on the convention circuit once it began. He was actually at one when he died.

Pertwee was the first Doctor to become iconic in the role to the point of typecasting (luckily, he loved being the Doctor) and his tenure is defined by a strong focus on his character and many benchmark moments for him, including the introduction of his most beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith. It also spent some time with him grounded on Earth and working with the special ops group UNIT, which framed a lot of somewhat politically loaded stories concerning military responses, human fallibility and interpersonal drama.

Baker captured the darkly comedic, countercultural side of the character with his off-the-cuff lunacy, insanely long scarf and tendency to offer a candy to any passing monstrosity. For a long time, if you asked most people to think of Doctor Who, they’d picture him. He ultimately held the post the longest, at seven years, and his serials contained a greater variety in content, setting and themes than Pertwee’s. Incidentally, it was during this period that Douglas Adams spent time as the series’ writer and script editor.

Davison was a younger, more big-brotherly Doctor, and arguably one of the first attempts to make him a genuinely conflicted character. Baker had his melancholy, even disturbing side, but Davison’s Doctor could sometimes be excessively soft-hearted and naive. Also he wore a celery stalk on his lapel for some reason.

An eccentricity that may have been a bit ominous, because, it is generally agreed, the low point for the series came with the advent of Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) as the Sixth Doctor. This was through no fault of his, I should say, but of assorted political and creative wranglings in the BBC and an ongoing effort to re-tool and ‘brand’ the series. The Doctor now had a dreadfully loud technicolour outfit, a lot of villains and plot elements from previous Doctors started getting recycled, sometimes to excess, and the use of companions as sexy fanservice had markedly increased. The Doctor could exhibit deeply unsettling outbursts and his serials became very dark and violent. Baker only lasted two seasons and was replaced by the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (or Radagast the Brown, as he’s known these days).

The branding efforts continued, notably with a costume festooned in question marks. The dark side was rolled back, though not eliminated. It regained some thoughtful depth (sometimes at the cost of coherence) and was also the first to dabble in mythology arcs. Ultimately, the series ended in 1989, returning briefly to introduce an 8th Doctor, Paul McGann, for a TV movie in 1996.

We shall never know where any of the hints dropped in McCoy’s day might have led, and in any case to try and establish a continuity for Doctor Who at that late stage seems a bit pointless. So many hands contributed to it over so long that which mythology additions and story elements stuck and which got retconned out of existence was pretty much a crapshoot. The rules of time travel were whatever the current serial’s plot required, and the Doctor could utterly defeat, say, the Daleks or Cybermen a hundred times and still run into them again. The purely episodic style meant that cast changes, be it the Doctor or his companions, are often abrupt and seem rather dismissive.

Go through the whole series and count how many aliens left racial memories or secret plans for their return on Earth; “the Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” “Image of the Fendahl,” “City of Death,” “the Stones of Blood,” “Battlefield,” “the Satan Pit.” That hair guy on Ancient Aliens never had it so good. While the show often professed a respect for science and reason over tyranny and violence, it was at best dodgy on hard scientific or historical accuracy.

Among the few points that stuck were the 12-regeneration limit (“Keeper of Traken”) the fact that they have two hearts (“the Daemons”) and the origin story for the Daleks. That is, their second origin story, in “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Probably what will put a lot of people off it today is the special effects, which are limited and crude by today’s standards, as can be the overacting that goes on in reaction to them. I like the creativity of them, myself. I may not look at them as say “oh, that’s realistic,” but I do tend to say, “oh that’s a very clever way to do that.” I think that in those days, TV had more in common with theatre than, as now, with movies. They ask, as Shakespeare did, for you to ‘eke out [their] performance with your mind.’

The lack of a rigid mythology is frustrating, but also liberating in a show this long. The fans can indulge, relish the scraps of mythology that they find personally compelling. It can be, and is, many things to many people.

In 2005 Russel T. Davies achieved a dream of his, to bring Doctor Who back afresh, and he did this while attempting to marry the old traditions and the new. The Doctor was the wandering adventurer, with a companion or two in tow, finding all manner of alien menaces and saving people and planets, usually Earth.

He also began to build a clearer continuity, something expected of television series in the new century; now the Doctor was the last Time Lord, having wiped out both his own people and the Daleks in a last-ditch attempt to halt a terrible war. So far we’ve seen a Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor each going through quite compelling phases of coping with that experience. It lent the series a new emotional punch, something which Tennant seemed to capture particularly well, along with reflecting a lot of the best of the eccentric comic Doctors. With the advent of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Davies handed the torch off to his writer, Steven Moffat.

The new series has distinguished itself with a regard for the effect of big cosmic events on the little people, examining the consequences – not always positive – of the Doctor’s impact in the long term, and his adventures’ impact on him. Eccleston’s (9th) high point was in “The Doctor Dances” when he exclaims “Just this once, everybody lives!” It’s further exemplified in Smith’s premier episode, when he says “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” It also explores the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, who are often his moral compass and foil, as well as exposition conduits.

Having said that, the new series is attracting its share of criticism, especially since Moffat took over. A lot of them, I feel, can be traced to the attempt to make a cohesive long-term story arc and mythology, because after having burst in shining colours in every direction for 26 years, trying to get Doctor Who to turn into a unified laser beam of a story causes a lot of collateral damage.

There’s been a creeping tendency throughout the new series that got really bad late in Tennant’s run for the Doctor to exhibit a sort of machismo about his status as the hero of the piece. Similarly, his sidekicks have gotten increasingly worshipful of him. In a way, this makes sense, given the cumulative effect of his adventures, but in “Day of the Doctor” we can see that it’s getting the better of storytelling.

This seeps over into an increasingly violent show: gunplay has been introduced, albeit often not the Doctor doing it, in ways that make it cool and heroic (“Time of Angels,” “A Town Called Mercy”) whereas when Eccleston picked up a gun (“Dalek”) it was a clear sign there was something wrong with him. A shocking deviation from, as Tennant so excellently put it, “a man who never would.”

And, much like in the late 80s, the series is beginning to repeat itself a fair bit. One of the things that cooled me on the show was that the seasonal arcs, always promising something dreadful and profound happening, fell into a pattern of the entire Earth/Universe being menaced by a monster. You start to wonder how the Doctor gets any sleep without the cosmos imploding. The recycling of monsters themselves was getting wearisome.

Especially the Daleks. For perspective, consider: the 4th Doctor, in 7 years, fought the Daleks twice. Doctors 9-11, in the same span, have fought them eight times. And this is after they were supposedly wiped out in the Time War and, seemingly, wiped out again in “Bad Wolf” and then again in “The Stolen Earth.” Obviously this was common practice in the old days (but even then), but back then we weren’t trying to build a consistent story arc.

The stakes oftentimes felt a bit toothless anyway because of the prevalance of excuse-by-technobabble and Deus Ex Machina devices (several of them at once in some cases). Look at the sonic screwdriver. Believe it or not, the Doctor actually used it to undo screws once in while in the old days. Now it’s a magic wand that abuses suspension of disbelief beyond all tolerance.

The point where I finally quit watching was “the Hungry Earth” which re-introduces the Silurians and the 11th Doctor’s efforts to avert a war between them and humanity. We already saw this! The Third Doctor did this (twice, if you count “the Sea Devils”), and did it well, no matter how bad the special effects were! It indicates both a dearth of ideas and, despite the enthusiasm of the writers in general, is a bit disrespectful of the character’s heritage.

Strangest of all, to me at least, has been the use of romantic tension. The character of River Song, teased along as the Doctor’s destined wife, was prefaced by companion Martha’s torch for him, and even earlier by an unfulfilled mutual attraction between the Doctor and Rose.

The BBC during the 70s and 80s forbade such teases because it was considered family entertainment (albeit with companions like Leela and Peri who dressed “for the dads” as they described it) so it was deemed improper for there to be any suggestion of “hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” Thus has it been that the Doctor was an asexual character, which was sometimes used to underscore his alienness. In principle I don’t object to this content (except to the stupid phallic humour around the sonic screwdriver), but I have to ask: why did this need to be here? Do romance subplots have to be put in everything? Why wasn’t the Doctor as friend, teacher and enigma good enough?

River Song’s especially irritating because the way she upstages the Doctor left me, in “Time of Angels” feeling like I was watching the show that Moffat wanted to be making, instead of Doctor Who! Even in the old days, the companions, male or female, could be at least basically intelligent, decent people. Moffat’s women are, infamously, cardboard cutouts, and the way the Doctor and other men behave around them reflects a dunderheaded Mars/Venus sitcom dynamic. I knew we were in trouble when River said of the trademark TARDIS sound, “It’s not supposed to make that noise: YOU leave the brakes on!” This is Doctor Who, not How I Met Your Mother!

He also has a tendency (done three times now) to have the Doctor meet his companions as children, make a deep impression on them, and then meet them again after they’ve grown up, inevitably as highly sexualized adults, deftly upgrading from absurd to creepy.

So Doctor Who is in trouble: the writing quality is suffering, partly from being marketed to what marketing people think of as 20-somethings, partly from excessive enthusiasm and flat-out bad writing. The long arcs became attempts to disguise vagueness as profundity, and often conflict with the, occasionally rather distasteful, short-run gags and gimmicks in certain episodes. The CG effects are generic and tiresome, and so, increasingly, are the stories. The attempts to build huge epics while at the same time trying to tell the unconstrained-by-canon stories of the classic series, are causing more clutter than coherence, even to the point that the number of Doctors is suddenly up in the air. The attempts to brand the series with two very similar, young Doctors while at the same time fetishizing the Doctor out of proportion to his actual (considerable) appeal are a combination of new vices and the ones that afflicted it in the late 80s. I also fear that it causes even fans to dismiss the storytelling, creativity and performances of the classic series because it’s ‘old,’ while neglecting their great merits.

But it need not be past saving. No Doctor hasn’t had at least one good adventure. I have hopes that the new, older Doctor will sober things down a bit, and help recapture the older traditions.

Doctor Who is, and has always been, a show with near infinite possibilities, a male lead who (usually) stands out for his intellect and nonviolent ways, in contrast to many such leads in fiction, and, I might add, the most epic theme song ever created.

Merry Christmas

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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The Rankin Bass Hobbit: Holiday Retrospectives Part 5

You know, most of the time when I hear objections raised against an adapted work, like the Lord of the Rings, it usually takes the form of ‘it’s not enough like the book.’

Yet, strangely, I usually find that following the book too closely isn’t a good idea. David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune or the Harry Potter movies often recreate scenes word for word from the books, and the result ends up as a disjointed, inelegant crush. Whereas the ones that are a bit more liberal, like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which aren’t all that wayward anyway, capture the magic in a way that makes the most of the change of format.

Still, I did argue earlier this week that the new Hobbit movies are straying somewhat further than is reasonable. So for those who want to see their beloved childhood favourite rendered faithfully, not merely spectacularly, then there is another option: the 1977 animated rendition of the Hobbit by Rankin Bass studios.

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People around my age have all experienced this production, often at school during study of the book. And if you ask about it, the opinion is almost certainly that it’s terrible.

And frankly, I find this statement somewhat puzzling. Possibly a lot of people conflate it with Ralph Bakshi’s visually artistic but otherwise dreadful rendition of about two-thirds of the Lord of the Rings, which was guilty of the same erratically stitched-together compression used in the other poorer adaptations listed earlier. Rankin Bass did make a campy and quite sloppy adaptaion of Return of the King, handy since Bakshi never got around to it, which probably is best forgotten.

I suppose part of it is the animation, which is a Japanese rendition of fairy-tale style figures that make all the characters look about 95 years old – for some reason, Thorin’s enormous nose is always my first thought in this direction. The New York Times described the goblins as looking like Maurice Sendak’s doing. And in an act I normally regard as unforgivable, several of the characters – Bilbo, Gandalf, Bard and Smaug among them – are voiced by American actors instead of British ones. Amusing side effects include Gandalf pronouncing treasure “tray-sure” and Smaug’s name being (rather aptly, you have to admit) pronounced “smog” instead of “smowg”

The animation is also rather stylized – several of the animators went on to work for Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. The Great Goblin and the spiders’ deaths end with them spinning out and vanishing. Bilbo’s invisibility when he puts on the Ring is denoted by his becoming semi-transparent. And for some reason, the Mirkwood elves are blue and rather ugly, like Smurf gorillas, and have German accents. Possibly the creators used folkloric images of elves and other Fair Folk and missed the memo on Tolkien’s ideas of elves. Plus Elrond has a beard, Gandalf has a tall pointed hood instead of his signature hat, and Gollum looks more like a gargoyle frog than anything that could once have been a hobbit. On the plus side, the design of Smaug, or at least his face, is unlike the standard issue dragon in most European illustrations and cartoons. He looks almost fox-like. In point of fact, he looks like a Japanese dragon, a novelty that, despite Weta Workshop and Tolkien’s own illustration and all the rest of Western artwork, has become fixed in my mind as the ideal dragon.

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And then there’s the music. The 70s-American-folk melodies do use a lot of Tolkien’s lyrics, including the same ones used for “Misty Mountains Cold” in Jackson’s Unexpected Journey. They have a charm and memorable ear worm quality to them which, while stylistically a bit odd, are quite a lot of fun to listen to.

The plot is truncated to fit into the 77 minute runtime: many scenes are a lot briefer, just long enough to get the job done. If nothing else the plot moves quite briskly, while maintaining cohesion. Some changes are a little strange: Gandalf seems to make the sun rise early to trap the trolls, rather than distracting them until it rises on its own; Beorn is absent, joining Bombadil in narrative extraneousness; the Arkenstone and the drama around it is omitted; most bizarrely, in the runup to the Battle of the Five Armies, Thorin seems happy and willing to march into battle with just his thirteen companions (though Bilbo repeatedly points out that this is insane), and treats the arrival of his allies from the Iron Hills as merely a bonus; and while only three of the thirteen dwarves die in the book, seven of them fall in the movie. Bombur and Thorin are the only ones named specifically, with no concern with who the others are.

I re-read the Hobbit in anticipation of Jackson’s movies coming out. And I watched the Rankin Bass version so many times as a kid I fairly memorized it. That being the case, I discovered that the Rankin Bass version oftentimes follows the book word-for-word, or near enough to it. In particular the scene between Bilbo and Smaug is almost dead on the money, as is the scene with Gollum. However abridged, the whole of the basic story is in here. It’s been cut down without turning it into the disconnected mess of cool scenes that many such adaptations end up as. Thorin is also middle-aged or older, as he is in the book.

And thematically it holds up well: Bilbo gains gumption and courage in his adventures, enough to call out Thorin on his greed and bravado by the end, and their reconciliation is quite touching. After all that, Bilbo takes a tiny fraction of his share and goes home to write his memoirs and get as far away from such grand matters as possible.

While I normally cringe at hearing American voices in what is fundmentally a British story, the particular voices involved – veteran actors from the 1950s like Orson Bean and John Huston (also the director of the Maltese Falcon) – have a great deal of character that makes up the difference.

If you can, get the version with the old hi-fi audio, like the VHS edition, since many sound effects are unaccountably missing from the DVD release, and enjoy it. The target audience is younger than the book’s, that much is clear. But it actually is a pretty grounded and precise adaptation of the Hobbit, with none of the excesses the Jackson version has been exhibiting. Equally, it lacks the sense of depth Tolkien imbued his work with. But it’s much better, I think, than it’s given credit for. People who insist that adaptations aren’t any good because they aren’t close to the book really have no right to complain about it. If you like Studio Ghibli movies, the style will be familiar, and the music is a lot of fun.

“You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m very fond of you. But you’re only quite a little fellow, in a big world after all.”
“Uh, thank goodness.”

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Holiday Retrospectives, Movie

 

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Desolation of Smaug: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Deciding whether a movie lives up to your expectations is a little like interpreting a prophecy: you pick apart the smallest detail, bending, twisting and occasionally outright coiffing your thinking to make it make sense, or fail to if you expected the worst…

It’s a natural product of nerdiness, and probably not really a healthy one, but it’s accursedly difficult to avoid, especially with something as hotly anticipated, and with such a literary and filmmaking pedigree as the Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, the second part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the forebearer of the Lord of the Rings.

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In this instalment, Bilbo, Thorin and the rest of the company are on the run from orcs, and are forced to head into the dark and sinister Mirkwood forest, rasping against the pride of elf-King Thranduil, and ending up in the politically tense Laketown, near the Lonely Mountain itself. Winning over the people (and particularly the town’s venal ‘Master’) with promises of a new golden age, they embark for the secret entrance, leaving only a wounded Kili and some others behind. A good thing too, since the orcs are closing in, seeking to stop Thorin, and endangering Laketown.

Not that Thorin, Bilbo and co. are in much better shape, because Bilbo the burglar rouses the sleeping dragon, while Bard, a descendant of the Lord of Dale, readies to face Smaug’s return with the help of the remaining dwarves, and some civic-minded and thoroughly badass elves, including the son of Thranduil, one Legolas.

Meanwhile, Gandalf, having left the company at Mirkwood, confirms his suspicions that the increasing orc activity is directed by the Necromancer of Dol Goldur, and that the Necromancer is what they’d most feared: the Lord of the Rings himself.

I will say that I liked this movie better than the first one, and I liked Unexpected Journey quite well. The action’s better paced and more exciting and tightly bound to the story (the barrel-chase was particularly excellent), if still a little excessive; they might have gone further in recreating the game of wits that defines Bilbo’s interaction with Smaug, and had less of the protracted runaround it becomes. Thorin’s character arc is progressing on an even keel consistent with the book. Bard has been expanded into a conflicted character who is quite interesting to watch, and Bilbo is as great as ever. I was pleasantly surprised by the design and rendering of Smaug. He’s just different enough not to be ‘just another dragon,’ resembling a lizard with wings on his forelegs, as opposed to a six-limbed dinosaur. Add to that the voicework of Benedict Cumberbatch and he’s no end of memorable.

The inclusion of Beorn was also a nice touch. He’s in a better place narratively than was Tom Bombadil, as a chance for the characters to catch their breath before things really get going.

As I’d hoped, the one big problem I had with Unexpected Journey is rendered moot: the sense that Azog was a tacked-on extra, since he’s one of the Necromancer’s reserve officers. Pertinently, the Enemy’s strategy of keeping Smaug as an ace up his sleeve is heavily implied throughout.

It bears repeating: the Sauron-in-Mirkwood thing isn’t in the novel proper, but it is part of the mythology. In the book, Gandalf organized the quest to happen specifically when the elves were going to attack the Necromancer so that Smaug wouldn’t answer any call for backup from Dol Goldur. In the movie, Gandalf seems motivated more by general dislike of letting the dragon stay there unchallenged, and the strategic aspects are discovered within the movie. It’s awkward, but the alternative would have been even more flashback sequences than we already had.

In the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens exercised good judgement about when to change things, to heighten the drama, to allude to the larger mythos, or to keep the narrative focused. Some such choices here, such as the poltical conflict between the Master of Laketown and Bard, are basically versions of that kind of thinking.

A similar series of little touches are put in to tie the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies together – funnily enough, Tolkien himself only worked the Hobbit into his Legendarium when he started on Lord of the Rings. In particular, Bilbo is already feeling the influence of the Ring. He realizes, for example, that he enjoyed killing the Mirkwood spiders a little too much. It’s really well-acted and compelling; I have modest misgivings that it’s happening a little too fast. After all, remember, it took sixty years for Gandalf to even suspect who the original owner of that Ring was!

Some of them are a little silly, a nudge and wink at the fans and nobody else at all. When the elves catch the dwarves and search them, Legolas, leading the elvish party, sneers at Gloin’s picture of his son. Who is Gimli. Who becomes Legolas’s pal in LOTR. Eh? Eh? *nudge nudge*

But, just as Azog finds his niche in the narrative, a new extraneous element swans in. And I am genuinely sorrowful to announce that it is Legolas himself.

Look, I was thrilled when learning that Legolas was going to be in the Hobbit. I don’t like when creators pander to fans, because it’s basically bribing them to like the movie. But there’s no call for being wantonly unkind either by refusing to put him in. But I figured Legolas’ role, vis a vis the dwarves at least, would end with their escape from Mirkwood. He’s obliged by the story to be a bit of an anti-dwarf jerk. Indeed, the whole movie does a good job at showing ordinary, non-magical, and working-class elves, and I like that.

And then we have Tauriel, Thranduil’s Captain of the Guard, played by Evangeline Lily. She represents an attempt to get a female character or two into this movie, Tolkien being notoriously short on those. There’s a massive amount of talk to be had over tokenism, female representation and the limits of how far you should bend an source work in adaptation. More than I have space for. Giving the elves some distinct characters to focus on for the next movie seems perfectly reasonable to me though, and why not throw in a heroine since you’re doing so?

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All perfectly fine. Where I, and, seemingly, Jackson and his team, lose the plot is that, just when I want to be experiencing the climax of Smaug and Sauron’s plotting, I find myself watching the Orlando and Evangeline Variety Hour. Tauriel is Legolas’ and Thranduil’s foil, trying to get through to them that the larger picture and the people in it are important. So she drags Legolas to Laketown and they run into the Orcs and proceed to kick ass with standard elvish aplomb.

Meanwhile, Kili, left behind with some of the other dwarves after being wounded (and also to have some of our heroes on the ground for this front in the fight) is tended by Tauriel, with whom he seems to have a bit of chemistry. She gets hold of our favourite healing herb, kingsfoil, says some words over him in Elvish, and pulls him back from the brink.

And here, to my perplexity, we seem to have Jackson et al undermining elements they captured so well from Tolkien in LOTR. As speculated by a neighbouring blog, the uniqueness of the interracial friendship between Legolas and Gimili just lost a lot of its punch. Also, I’m 95% certain that the spell/prayer Tauriel says over Kili is the same one Elrond says over Frodo when he’s similarly injured in Fellowship of the Ring. So suddenly this military officer has the same skill as the greatest loremaster in Middle Earth? Admittedly, she sounds like she’s doing it in a ‘what the hell, I’ll try’ kind of way but she’s in critical danger of entering ‘Mary Sue’ territory.

I assumed that she’d be the one to persuade Legolas and Thranduil to go take on Dol Goldur, having been impressed by the dwarves and their place in the bigger picture. Instead the main story of the Hobbit gets usurped by the two of them. It’s jolly cool and exciting, but not what I signed up for.

Look, the movie is really good. It’s just tackier than it deserves to be. The Rings fanservice is laid on a little too thick. The acting is superb, funny, intense, and wilfully over-the-top, the action much better-paced and exciting, and the cliffhanger ending is first-rate. When the writing sticks close to the book, it’s really good. Actually, when it doesn’t it’s still really good anyway, the problem is the deviations are going a little too far now, to the point that it’s almost two distinct movies towards the end. And it breaks my heart to say it, but the soundtrack is just not up to snuff this time. The ending song in particular sounds…wrong somehow. Not like a song somebody in Middle Earth might sing. But then I didn’t like the end song of Two Towers either so maybe I just have a problem with middle-chapter end credits or something.

Lord of the Rings was a once-in-a-lifetime High Fantasy Epic film experience. The Hobbit, thus far, is a Fun Movie. A very Fun Movie, as only Sir Peter Jackson can make, but still lower-grade than Rings, and the same was true of the book, albeit for different reasons. My advice is to kick back and enjoy it for what it is, not torture yourself with what you imagined it might be.

And, of course, stay tuned for the next one!

 

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in Movie

 

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Robin of Sherwood: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 4

I’ve been interested in history for most of my life. My parents both made at least some study of the subject, and I hold a degree in the subject.

And tracing the root of this is a little tricky. As stated, science fiction and I have known each other from the word go.

I went into Early Modern History not least from fascination with the aesthetics of Myst and Pirates of the Caribbean. But the genesis of my fascination with ancientry, swordsmanship, armour and horsemanship of days passed can, I think, have come only from a sadly little-known series from the 1980s. At the time it titled itself Robin Hood, but it nowadays can be found under its title from the other side of the Atlantic, Robin of Sherwood.

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L-R Will Scarlet, Little John, Lady Marian, Much, Robin Hood, Brother Tuck, Nasir

Whatever name you give it, it was a British series that ran from 1984-1986. In other words, it began and ended just before I was born. Luckily we had taped copies, and even more luckily somebody invented the DVD.

Robin of Sherwood represents a bit of an upgrade from the the traditional depiction of the dude in tights and a green hat with a feather, popularized by the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks and Disney – a shiny, idealized, generically medieval adventure of derring-do.

In Robin of Sherwood, it’s little more than a hundred years since England was conquered by the Normans, and innocent commoners suffer under the oppression of greedy nobles and officials. As the Normans burn the village of Loxley, the hero of the Saxon rebellion says with his dying breath, “The Hooded Man is coming!”

Years later, the rebel leader’s son, Robin, is a wandering woodsman, living with his adopted brother, Much the Miller. Running afoul of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his chief lieutenant, Sir Guy of Guisborne, he’s thrown in prison with a number of other disaffected victims of the regime, among them Will Scarlet, grieving for his murdered wife and hungry for vengeance. They stage an escape and become outlaws, or ‘wolfsheads.’ On the way, he meets Lady Marian and her chaplain, Brother Tuck.

Having dared to stand up for the little guy as he has, Robin is approached by Herne the Hunter, the Saxon forest god, who says that he is Herne’s Son, the defender of the helpless and hero of the common people.

But all is not as it seems. The Sheriff and his brother Abbott Hugo, Marian’s guardian, are plotting with the sinister Baron Simon de Belleme, a sorcerer who plans to sacrifice Marian and promises to use his arcane knowledge to thwart the prophecy of a rebel, who seems now to have appeared, as one Robin-in-the-Hood. Robin confronts Belleme to rescue Marian and the Baron’s ensorcelled slaves, the giant John Little, and the Saracen Nasir.

Thence begins a series of adventures driven by the ongoing game of cat-and-mouse between Robin Hood and his band of medieval guerillas, and the conniving Sheriff and the tenacious Guisborne, to hold the line against tyranny and uphold the protection of Herne the Hunter. Over the course of the series, they confront many faces of oppression: the Sheriff, and sometimes the wicked Prince (later King) John, evil sorcerers, corrupt churchmen, bandits and even Templars.

Moreso I think than any other version of the tale of Robin Hood, this one seems to me to feel most like how it could really have happened. The clothing is realistic, even the most extravagant costumes understated to modern eyes, the castle is a real, proper castle, not one of those ghastly Bavarian birthday cakes. The class division between Saxons and Normans is still a factor: a lot of the noblemen have French-sounding names – the Sheriff is Robert de Rainault, the King’s emissary is Hubert de Guiscard, etc. – the peasants live a Third-World life but they don’t crawl around covered in manure a la Monty Python; the Crusades are still fresh in a lot of peoples’ minds and names like Richard the Lionheart, Philip of France and Saladin get dropped from time to time. Richard himself appears and is not the kind fatherly figure he traditionally is, but the hard-charging, egotistical autocrat he actually was; a conversation between two noble characters in a late episode foreshaows the Magna Carta. And for that matter, you can tell that we’re seeing into an age where the concept of last names hasn’t totally caught on yet.

The only switch there is the paganistic and magical elements, and even these are compelling: even the Sheriff and his brother (who is an abbott, after all) think Simon de Belleme is creepy, and they respect the old supertitions – or fail to at their peril, as when the Sheriff steals a Kabbalah from a Jewish family in Nottingham. Later in the series we have a recurring villain in the mad sorcerer Gulnar, played by Richard O’Brien (late of Rocky Horror) who calls up pagan gods like the Celtic Cromm Cruach and the Norse Fenris, very much trading on the Christian demonization of these figures (not that Fenris was very nice anyway), plus two cases of flat-out Devil worship. Of course Herne provides a nice counterpoint to it, as Robin Hood is his metaphorical Jesus.

The series is pretty well all episodic, each part a self-contained adventure. The tone changes in the third season when Robin of Loxley (played by Michael Praed) is finally slain, only for Herne to appoint the son of the Earl of Huntingdon as the new Hooded Man (played by Jason, son of Sean Connery), thus finding room for two of the traditional origin stories for the character. The tone changes somewhat, upping the level of supernatural features a little bit, and causing a certain amount of ongoing angst for Marian which creates a rather tacked-on-feeling love story, plus one episode with a rather dopey long-lost-brother twist. At the very least, Much’s character did evolve into something other than a man-child nuisance…

While the look of the Middle Ages is captured, nitty-gritty details, like the number of times Guisborne gets shot in the arm and never dies of gangrene, or the fact that Robin never even accidentally gets Marian pregnant is a bit strange, but that isn’t the story they want to tell, so it’s simply not in there. Marian herself doesn’t get quite as much characterization as the others, being ever this serene, if occasionally feisty love interest, although she can bring down a soldier at a hundred yards with a longbow with the best of them.

Belleme and Gulnar seems a bit more fantastical (not that Richard O’Brien is ever one for the grounded or naturalistic), whereas the Sheriff and Guisborne are pretty believable. Guisborne is a good soldier but not much of a leader, whereas the Sheriff is a conniving bastard who seems well aware, and not particularly unhappy about what he is. King John, in his appearances, is the kind of venal creep he is sometimes remembered as, and fully displays the Plantagenet family’s famous temper. His and the Sheriff’s outbursts are, along with the antics of Robin’s band, a source of much comic relief. Abbott Hugo, while as conniving and cynical as his brother, the Sheriff, still takes his religious station (and its perks) seriously; the writers didn’t take the easy route of making him a lecherous hypocrite.

The actors really nail it: Praed and Connery both bring a neat flavour to the title role. Nicholas Grace as the Sheriff is delightfully good at being bad; King John, who some might also recognize as the cab driver in Sherlock, is an absolute hoot; Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet is a brilliant, scenery-chewing machine; Mark Ryan as the tactiurn, enigmatic (if shamelessly whitewashed) ex-Hassassin Nasir was a trendsetter in the adaptations of Robin Hood, and, for better or worse, the first character I ever saw my mother fangirl over. Not that I can throw stones; I once used him as a character in a game of Dungeons and Dragons

The special effects are few, cheap and crude, but they do the job. Any Anglophile will relish the views of the English countryside; the choreography of fight scenes is above average for a show this age; the acting is old-school, gloriously hammy, theatrical, and memorable; the actors themselves are perfectly cast; the stories have equal parts action, drama and historical resonance, with lots of little bonuses like playing spot-Eleanor-of-Aquitaine; its award-winning soundtrack by Irish group Clannad is haunting and flawlessly sets the scenes. It’s a perfect example of the British aptitude for making short, memorable series that don’t burn themselves out but also leave you wanting more. It’s a classic which deserves way more attention than it gets, and is easily available on YouTube or your local library.

“Nothing’s forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.”

 

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Holiday Retrospectives, Television

 

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