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TO BOLDLY REVIEW #6 – STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION – SEASON 1 (1987 – 1988)

TO BOLDLY REVIEW #6 – STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION – SEASON 1

Based on Star Trek & Created by: Gene Roddenberry

Season 1 writers (selected): John F. Black, Diane Duane, D.C. Fontana, Maurice Hurley, Robert Lewin, Richard Manning, Kathryn Powers, Gene Roddenberry, Joseph Stefano, Tracy Torme etc.

Season 1 directors (selected): Colin Bucksey, Rob Bowman, Cliff Bole, Les Landau, Kim Manners, Win Phelps, Mike Vejar etc.

Main Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Denise Crosby, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton etc.

Music/Composers: Alexander Courage, Jerry Goldsmith, Dennis McCarthy, Ron Jones, Jay Chattaway

Production Company(s): Paramount Television, CBS Television

**THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS**

“MAKE IT SO. . .”

So, my cultural journey beyond the stars continues with a review of the first season of Star Trek: Next Generation. It took some serious time for what was originally known as Phase II to take off. Indeed, they finally hit warp speed during the late 1980’s. Roddenberry, the original Enterprise crew, plus swarms of Paramount employees had kept themselves busy with the ‘Original Series’ cinema releases, but, in 1986, a new TV series was announced.

Then, almost a year later in September 1987, Star Trek: Next Generation was released. TNG featured: a new crew, a more advanced class of Enterprise, and a variety of new aliens, planets and galaxies to boldly explore. While there was an initial decree to avoid all the old enemies from the original series, the Klingons, Romulans and more, slowly bled into the show as it was further developed.

FIRST CONTACT

Much has been written about Star Trek in general and the internet is brimming with articles, features, interviews, podcasts, fan films and documentaries which would take an immortal’s lifetime to read. So, my approach to this piece is to concentrate on the characters, narratives, themes and concepts which leapt out while watching it.

Overall, I really enjoyed most of Star Trek: Next Generation – Season 1. I have read that die-hard fans were resistant to the idea their favourite show from the 1960’s was getting a makeover. However, Paramount/CBS Studios chucked $1.3 million at each episode and shot on 35MM film, thus demonstrating a commitment to a quality product.

Even watching it now I am impressed by the production values, cast, direction and science fiction concepts. Obviously some of the effects are a bit dated compared to what we experience today but I always prefer in-camera effects and prosthesis, anyway. Having said that Star Trek has always been about strong ideas and themes for me.

In terms of story and character there are some very strong episodes and some pretty weak ones. Gene Roddenberry, his producers and raft of writers were, reported to be consistently at loggerheads throughout the production. So much so very few of the original TNG writing team remained by the end. It’s a testament to the rock-solid formula of the show that such issues did not hinder the ultimate consistency of entertainment while I was watching.

My main criticism is that some episodes felt like first drafts. Plus, there was, on occasions, a few episodes which were top heavy in set-up and rushed toward the end. Nonetheless, Roddenberry’s original format is always fascinating and you could certainly feel that when they successfully married: the science fiction concepts, characters, tone and dialogue you got many great episodes.

THE FAMILY UNIT

Holding the narratives and show together was an exceptionally brilliant set of actors. I mean, in the cold light of space, Star Trek: Next Generation could be deemed just men, women and aliens in silly outfits. Of course, we know it’s much more intelligent than that. So with acting heavyweight Patrick Stewart leading the way, all the cast were committed to their roles formidably. They had to be for it to work so well.

To me TNG was structured around a quasi-family unit, as opposed to the naval/military hierarchy of the ‘Original Series’. Captain Jean-Luc Picard majestically leads from the front with authority and a keen sense of fair play. Dr Beverly Crusher is the pseudo-matriarch, both professional and caring. Further, the other main members of the crew are, very loosely speaking, the children.

Riker I’d suggest is the first son and heir apparent, closely followed in the hierarchy by Geordi. The likes of data and Wesley are the younger, gifted children, full of intelligence and enquiry. The sensitive, Troi and tougher Yasha represent the older daughters, while I’m not quite sure how the Klingon, Worf, fits in. Perhaps, he’s a bastard son or long lost cousin seeking affirmation of the family unit. Thus, these characters as a ‘family’ support the spine of the show, all combining with varying strength and characteristics to form a whole that propels both drama and emotion.

THE REST IS HISTORY. . .

Star Trek: Next Generation consisted of TWENTY-SIX episodes!! While no doubt well paid, this remains an incredible workload for the cast and crew. Initially, the season got off to a difficult start in terms of ratings and reviews. Nonetheless, by the end of the season , the class of the production and format shone through. Furthermore, it would be nominated for seven Emmy TV awards. Ratings would also improve and it became the highest rated syndication series by the end of the run. To conclude, I would like to look at six episodes from season 1 which I felt stood out while I watched them.

THE BIG GOODBYE – EPISODE 12

The ‘Holodeck‘ plays a huge part in the series as a whole. It’s a fantastic way to marry the past and future together. In this clever episode Picard attempts to escape into one of his favourite film noir simulations but gets more than he bargained for. Then when the holodeck malfunctions, Picard and his crew find themselves in the midst of a simulated “real-life” and perilous gangster mystery.

DATALORE – EPISODE 13

I love a good Jekyll and Hyde story and this one explores the origin of much respected android, Data. Brett Spiner is such a good television actor and he nails both roles as Data and his “brother” Lore, who, as genre conventions require, is basically bad Data and hell-bent on taking control of the Enterprise.

HEART OF GLORY – EPISODE 20

Obviously the stories involving the Federation are always interesting but often I really enjoy the more personal narratives. In this episode Michael Dorn as Worf finds his allegiances between the Enterprise and fellow Klingons tested. It’s a fine character exploration as we get to see Worf’s warrior persona versus the more reasoned Starfleet side.

THE ARSENAL OF FREEDOM – EPISODE 21

War, or threat of war has always been at the heart of many great episodes. The concept that a planet of arms dealers who are killed by their own hi-tech product was a great idea. It also gave the crew and Enterprise major threats on the planet they visit and in space. The action, character development and suspense make this a very thrilling episode all-round.

SYMBIOSIS – EPISODE 22

Social commentary was a key component of the ‘Original Series’. Many episodes tapped into the zeitgeist of the 1960’s issues relating to war, race, religion and gender etc. TNG continued this tradition with Symbiosis which expertly explores the nature of narcotic addiction and how it can be exploited to negative effect by an alien race. I especially enjoyed the grey ending where the ‘Prime Directive‘ comes into play.

CONSPIRACY – EPISODE 25

A major rule throughout Star Trek is that the Federation is not to be shown as corrupt. There have been exceptions to this in certain feature films and they get around this in Conspiracy with the Federation top brass invaded by parasitic aliens. The narrative was very strong and felt like a feature film story in scale. I also loved the David Cronenberg-style monsters appearance in the gory finale.

VANITY FAIR (2018) – ITV DRAMA REVIEW

VANITY FAIR (2018) – ITV DRAMA REVIEW

Created and written by: Gwyneth Hughes

Based on: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Executive producer(s): Damien Timmer, Tom Mullens, Gwyneth Hughes, James Strong

Directed by: James Strong

Starring: Olivia Cooke, Claudia Jessie, Tom Bateman, Johnny Flynn, Charlie Rowe, Simon Russell Beale, Anthony Head, Martin Clunes, Frances de la Tour, Michael Palin

Composer(s): Isobel Waller-Bridge

Distributor: ITV, Amazon Studios

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

It’s an interesting anomaly in my later years that having previously boycotted period dramas which illustrate the lives of the wealthy and privileged, I now find myself being less partisan and actually watching more. This change doesn’t derive from a mellowing of my socialist working class roots but more an intelligent inquisitiveness as ignorant dismissal of the genre, be they on television or film, means one is possibly missing out on some fine drama or comedy. Indeed, many historical periods’ works of literature or theatre are in fact satirising or damning the upper classes.

Dickens for example dealt with the lower, middle and upper classes, shining a critical light at the many degradations of the era. Likewise, William Makepeace Thackeray also critiqued the folly of war, greed and narcissistic pursuits of the privileged. Stanley Kubrick demonstrated this brilliantly in his classic adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975); while in ITV’s most recent adaptation Vanity Fair (2018), Thackeray’s adroit study of ambition and upward mobility shows the strengths, weaknesses and foibles of the women and men at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

Vanity Fair is widely considered a classic and considered the founder of the Victorian domestic drama. Originally serialised between 1847 and 1848 it was at the time a massive hit and one could argue the equivalent of what we would call a soap opera today. There have been, since the novel’s release, a plethora of screen, radio and television adaptations. Did we need another one? Probably not; but over seven compelling episodes Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay does great justice to bring to life an army of: well-to-dos, country lords and ladies, soldiers, clergy, businessmen, plus the sparkling scheming of anti-heroine Rebecca or Becky Sharp.

Indeed, the effervescent, nuanced and outstanding performance of Olivia Cooke as Becky drives the narrative forward with absolute purpose. Cooke owns every scene as Becky attempts, from lowly beginnings, to rise through the ranks of society. It is both her strength of character and confidence which is her biggest asset and greatest enemy, because, always pushing for more, she doesn’t quit when she’s ahead. In stark reflection to Becky, Claudia Jessie as Amelia, is characterised as a romantic and desirous not of wealth or position, but rather love and romance. She is a pure spirit and her personality contrasts perfectly with Becky’s. While we admire Becky’s ambitious drive we remain suspicious of her motives, yet Amelia we warm to due to her big and gracious heart.

The men in the piece are a mixture of romantics, noble soldiers, treacherous or haphazard patriarchs, foppish fools, gamblers or all of the above. Tom Bateman gives a solid performance as Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s gambling military husband, as does Charlie Rowe as the more conflicted romantic, George Osborne. Furthermore, the adaptation contains sterling support from the cream of English character acting royalty including: Martin Clunes, Frances De La Tour, Claire Skinner, Anthony Head and Simon Russell Beale to name a few. However, the standout performance for me was Johnny Flynn as William Dobbin. This is such an empathetic and selfless character that, while holding a torch for Amelia, was prepared to sacrifice his love to make everyone happy. Potentially seen as a weakness, this for me was a real strength in a story which was full of selfish narcissists out for what they could get.

Aside from slightly dodgy green-screen CGI for the later scenes in India this was beautifully shot and lit, with the vistas of the English and French countryside wonderfully rendered. The interiors were eloquently designed as the stately and city homes of the characters, likewise the colourful costumes, were expertly brought to life.  James Strong is a prolific television director and he gets brilliant performances and marshals the pace and machinations of the narrative precisely. With Olivia Cooke and Johnny Flynn delivering star turns in their roles I was consistently surprised by this adaptation of Thackeray’s masterpiece. Ultimately, I’ve learned that whether something is a period drama or not one must give it a chance as it could have qualities which continue to stand the test of time.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11