Sunday, 30 August 2015

Whatever Happened to the Sci In Scifi?

[EDIT: This review can now be considered a part of this longer set of Fan Trek reviews, which I started working on after this post.]

I've just watched Star Trek: Renegades, and it's certainly better than the Abrams movies in many ways. That's an accomplishment of note for a fan-made, crowdfunded, feature-length thing with a fraction of the budget of the official, canon movies. But I still didn't think much of it; it seems to be yet another production that doesn't actually understand the central premise of the Star Trek franchise.

There will be some spoilers below. You should watch the movie, then come back here to pick it apart with me. Because it's not a terrible movie - it's definitely watchable - but it just doesn't meet my personal standards for a good Star Trek movie.

Let me start with the positives. It looked right. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what made it, but the visual style was all right, somehow. I read a thing about how the production designers at the start of DS9's run faced a challenge with making their Cardassian-built (and therefore non-Starfleet) space station look alien and yet still recognisably part of the same setting - and they did successfully pull that off. I would guess there was a similar challenge with Renegades, making a pirate ship look specifically like a Star Trek pirate ship and a bunch of offices on Earth look like Star Trek offices.

The other vessels, the Starfleet ones, worked well too, though that was a lesser stretch. The uniforms were different, but that's as good as Trek tradition now. Uniforms are not very uniform. I gather a lot of this was borrowed from Star Trek Online's visuals. The alien ships were the usual, meh, but we see so little of them that this makes no real difference.

The special effects were fine, considering the budget, but sometimes jarringly inconsistent. Ship exterior scenes worked well, because they were pure CGI, which mastered showing us spaceships years ago. Simple interior scenes worked well because they were mostly physical sets with little to be added. The awkward ones were the more actiony green screen scenes, where lots of extra stuff was added, not always cleanly. The random spurting background fire, early on, bugged me the most.

The selection of characters was great. As an anti-hero crew, they were a good mix of interesting concepts, borrowing cleverly from established canon without being unoriginal about it. There was clearly a lot of thought spent rounding each one out behind the scenes. They'd make a great roleplaying game party. Unfortunately, we barely get to know them once they're on screen, and they might have done better to trim a few off and focus on establishing a smaller number of characters more deeply. The older characters brought over from the official series fitted in well (even if I don't like how they changed Chekov, he's still believably Chekovian), and the experienced actors taking on new roles also clearly knew just how to make their new characters fit in. The only negative I noticed with the cast is that there was a noticable quality clash between the top experienced actors and the less skilled (maybe amateur?) ones. Nobody was actually completely terrible, but the difference in skill was stark enough that it reminded me just how important good actors are. And official Star Trek has had some excellent talent over the years.

Now, on to the serious negatives.

I didn't like the plot, and that's no small thing. The setup was interesting (an entire new major power just suddenly appearing within known space), but then the villains were pretty flat. It seemed like their strange arrival was linked to their motives, but this was covered in a single brief villain-monologue, rather than explored in any depth. So, they might as well have just been normal aliens who lived normal alien lives out beyond the fringes of Federation space, until they were encountered in the usual manner. The magic world-teleportation was a flimsy gimmick, but I'll explore that more later on. For now, I'll just say it added little justification for the aliens to be generic two-dimensional bad-guy bug-eyed monsters.

But it's worse. This sort-of interesting initial hook could still have been turned into something good, and instead it's used to kick off what I can only describe as a stereotypical 21st century American conservative war-fantasy. Not only does the ruthless dictator (and his pure-evil monster-people) actually have weapons of mass destruction (for realsies!), making him an actual, direct threat to Earth's homelandworld security, but the ever-ineffectual Big Government in the Federation Council can't and won't stop him, so it's up to people with lots of guns to disregard diplomacy and ethics. I'm only surprised they didn't put a computer-animated Ronald Reagan in the captain's chair and unfurl a "Mission Accomplished" banner in the shuttle bay at the end (or halfway through, rather).

And so our "heroes" are really just brutal killers, totally uninterested in interstellar diplomacy or the ideals of the Federation. I get that anti-heroes aren't supposed to be clean and squeaky, but beyond a certain line, you're not telling a Star Trek story anymore, just a story that happens to be set in the Star Trek setting. And I don't think Roddenberry would have recognised this as anything like his ideals.

It goes beyond the rogue crew, too. Chekov, dear old Chekov, has apparently been replaced by his Mirror Universe self, and thinks nothing of ordering assassinations. My guess is that they wanted to have Koenig's Bester character instead, without bothering to explain why Chekov is now acting so un-Chekovy. Tuvok, always the more complicated True Neutral secret agent, is a little more believable behind dubious dealings, but I would have thought he'd have learned to Not Be Evil from Janeway. And bringing back Section 31 as his baby is super dubious. The whole point of Section 31, as portrayed in DS9, was that, yes, unethical means might get the Federation what it wants, but it's not the way the Federation (as represented by Starfleet) wants to be. They were written specifically to demonstrate that the ends do not justify the means, because Star Trek ideals are as much about the means as the ends. Section 31 is rightly treated as a bunch of villains, and it's risky bringing them in as supposed good guys now; I certainly wasn't sold on their sufficient necessity, let alone goodness, in this movie. Where was their stealth diplomatic mission, aiming to undermine support for the evil dictator? If all the aliens are equally Evil, then how does killing just the one leader help? Won't his successor just keep trying Evil things? And why didn't they just steal the alien WMD, both protecting the Federation and giving them a new kind of toy to study? "Kill da baddies!" is such a simplistic, lazy plot, both from a story-telling point of view, and from a realistic international relations point of view.

The sole conventional Starfleet captain we see, Alvarez, is an asshole, also apparently capable of nothing more than shooting stuff. I get that he's filling an antagonist role, so we're supposed to side with the Icarus crew over him... except they're all equal assholes and I didn't want to side with any of them. Alvarez looks like a total fool when compared against Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Janeway. I did think, while watching his scenes, that he was just about the right age to have been a young officer during the Dominion War, and that might explain his more aggressive demeanour later on, but the movie never even tries to explain him, and his much younger crew all simply bow to his orders (with one brief exception), so it's hard to excuse. The Starfleet I know wouldn't have promoted someone like him to captain.

The science in this movie was also apparently not considered at all. It's an old joke that Star Trek's science is always wonky, but at least they always used to try, often with slightly cheesey analogies to link audience understanding with this stuff even the writers aren't supposed to understand properly. (Analogies are actually a great tool in real-world science education too, so I think traditional Trek handled that well.) This one isn't even trying. It makes sense that 24th century technology could be super-science to us, virtually magic. But it shouldn't just be magic to the characters in the 24th century, and they should give the impression that they know how things work. Renegades, unfortunately, does slip into treating technology as magic a few times. We aren't given a techno-babble explanation or analogy for why the magic alien obelisks do what they do, they just do shit. And apparently hacking isn't a branch of computer engineering anymore, it's literally magic brain telepathy.

There's much less to say about the bad science than the over-reliance on violence to solve problems, and that ratio says a lot on its own. This is supposed to be Science Fiction. I've read, watched, studied and even created enough scifi to understand perfectly well that scifi doesn't have to be all hard physics, all the time, and I personally really enjoy scifi that leans more on the social sciences. It's really fun and useful to be able to play what-if games with whole societies and see if we can work out how life might be different if XYZ were a thing. Star Trek did just that for decades, not only looking at what we might be like with warp drives and phasers, but with a post-scarcity economy and universal equality (or as close to this as its writers could get). Renegades seems to have been written by people who were blind to all of this, unless they were trying to get us to imagine a what-if world in which Dubya Bush was right and Saddam really had nukes and the intent to use them against the US mainland (as well as the places where America gets its fuel) and ruled over a culture of warlike savages who cared only for blood and battle and couldn't possibly be reasoned with. It has no more political depth than a Star Wars movie (and I don't mean Empire Strikes Back).

I'd be prepared to believe that, behind the scenes, a lot more thought went into all of this than we see on screen. The character backgrounds, for example, give a lot of indication of brimming over with stuff we don't get told explicitly. And the magic space menhirs may well have come from somewhere exciting, by some interesting means, and operate in a technically interesting manner. They may even have a semi-decent excuse for the telepathy-hacking. But, crucially, none of this actually makes it onto screen, and that's the sort of stuff that always made real Star Trek great: Not just showing the audience shiny, flashy lights, but trusting that the audience is smart enough to be interested in the explanations for the shining and the flashing. Assuming your audience is dumb and impatient is the same assumption the Abrams movies made, and it's a self-fulfilling assumption, because it bores more engaged audiences. I'm pretty sure that taking the time to explain the Syphon situation more completely would have been more interesting, and would have unearthed alternatives to mindlessly killing the mindless killers. Roddenberry's ideals aren't just nice ideals to live by, they're also a mine of good story potential.

It also annoyed the fuck out of me that Renegades resorted to the Disposable Woman trope, in order to give the Singh character... something? A weird poem? Motivation? I wasn't even clear why they'd bothered to write that part in, given that the Singh character also apparently gets sufficient motivation just from wanting to avoid the rape-gangs that are implicitly condoned conditions for a Federation citizen in a jail (was it a jail?) that is evidently somewhere in or near Federation space. It's an unfortunate double dose of the sort of bad writing that treats the serious abuse of women as a casual one-liner to drop in as a cheap, lazy signal of edginess and grit. Of all the character backstories, I was most interested in Singh's, but we actually get very little of it, because we're supposed to take the single phrase "escaped rape-gangs" as a full story, when it clearly isn't.

I really think a good Star Trek anti-hero story is possible. The Maquis, old favourites of mine, illustrated this wonderfully. They had a good, solid reason for choosing to abandon the rule of law and embrace violent means, and even then we aren't supposed to take it for granted that they're always in the right. They were properly complex and that made them very interesting. I was disappointed that Renegades failed to live up to that level of complexity. There's talk of making more, of turning this into a new series. As a serious Trekkie, I'd be very happy if a new series started up, and this one definitely has a lot of potential to be good. But, I do need the writers to up their game a lot. Put some science in it. Take out some guns. Make it nerdy and idealistic, and show you actually like Star Trek, not just the money Trekkies will give you for putting the right label on a production.


A couple small quibbles, while I'm here, and be warned that these are even more spoilerish than anything above, though probably also less crucial to the plot:

Why did the engineer, Doc, wear reading glasses? It's been long-established in Star Trek that most eye problems can be permanently corrected, that this has been so for centuries now, and that absolutely no Federation-born human needs glasses any more. Even total blindness can be fixed! It's a medical anachronism as odd as seeing a modern sailor with a wooden peg leg and a hook for a hand. It instantly jumped out at me as weird.

Why did the hand bomb have to be painfully phasered off and only teleported away to safety after that? Wouldn't it have been safer, cleaner and far less painful just to teleport the hand off directly? Or even just to teleport the bomb out of the hand? And why would Starfleet HQ only have bomb sensors right next to the admiral's desk, but not in any of the doors and corridors you'd have to pass through on the way to his office? By the time you know the bomb is right next to the admiral, it's probably too late to protect him from it.

Who was the random academy friend of young Cadet Chekov? She's in a bunch of scenes, she gets a talking part, and yet does absolutely nothing for the story. Some sort of crowd-funding gimmick, maybe? Surely, whatever the reason for adding the character, they could have given her more to do than just stand there and be impressed to be near (the Mirror version of) Chekov?

(EDIT: I quite liked this guy's perspective on Renegades, even if he doesn't express it with perfect eloquence.)

I've just caught up on the predecessor movie to this one, Of Gods and Men. It's not a prequel-sequel pair, but they're written by the same people and produced by many of the same people. It even has a lot of the same cast in common, as well as the mighty Nichelle Nicholls. And it's boring as fuck. The plot is ridiculously convoluted, and as near as I can tell this was only done so that they could cram a huge pile of early TOS references into the future. It feels awfully similar to the crude shoehorning of plot we saw in the 2009 Trek movie. (The way they treat Vulcan also looked suspiciously familiar.)

OGAM shares Renegades' militarism, with the sort of mass fleet battles that seem common amongst people who thought that was the exciting, interesting bit of DS9's Dominion War phase. In a plot already stretched across twice as many minutes as it could possibly justify, all these long battle scenes add is yet more tedious waiting for something worthwhile to happen. And they don't even have the better graphics that Renegades has.

They wasted some really quality acting skill. And to add insult to a different sort of insult, half the gag reel at the end is just pervy shots of the excellent Chase Masterson in a skimpy outfight. Not funny stuff, not gags for the gag reel, as was the case with all the other actors. They literally just wanted an excuse to put cleavage on screen. It's extra dissapointing coming from Star Trek fans who ought to get the whole equality thing.

On a more positive note, though, the uber-Trekkies at Women at Warp reported recently that Melinda Snodgrass, the very, very good writer of several of the best Star Trek episodes, has been brought on to write for Renegades in future. And since the shit writing is what I'd call their absolute biggest weakness, then this could well save the concept. Snodgrass really gets Trek, I have no doubt she can make good use of this new platform too.

At the same time, it was announced yesterday that there will be a whole new official Star Trek series launching in 2017. It'll be interesting to see how it compares with the many fan projects that have filled the void since ENT was cancelled. I hope they're not going to take this sort of thing as a model of what Trekkies want.