Saturday, July 23, 2005

Babylon Trek: The Next Incarnation?

Lately, a lot of angst is starting to build over the concept that the creator of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski, hereafter referred to as JMS, wants to take over the Star Trek franchise.

Fine so far. He's fairly fan-friendly and can spin a good yarn. The fact that he's a Star Trek fan himself only helps, right?

Not so fast.

The key to his plan is that he wants to do a complete reboot. Start over, back on the old Enterprise with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc., etc., except "updated" or "reimagined" for a whole new generation of newbies.

That means someone else playing the parts of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and so forth, and a "kewler" looking Enterprise, 'cause, y'know, that old 60's stuff was fine in its day, but it's just sooooooooooooo cheesy now, isn't it?

The short answer is to go back and take a look at the Enterprise offering "In a Mirror, Darkly" and notice how good those designs actually look.

The more thoughtful answer is that it's not worth worrying over because it ain't gonna happen.

And I'm not even gonna mention how the Roddenberry estate or Star Trek minority owner William Shatner would never allow it.

No, it has to do with the enlightened self interest of that studio we all love to hate, Paramount.

Y'see, not even Paramount, that stuck with Rick Berman and Brannon Braga as they personally drove the studio's golden goose franchise right into the dirt with great enthusiasm, would be stupid enough for the full reboot that JMS is proposing. They've got too much financial interest in maintaining the established continuity.

But it worked for Ron Moore and Battlestar Galactica, some folks counter.

The reason it worked for Galactica is that there was only one and a half or two seasons of, frankly, very forgettable crap. Everyone's got very fond, warm-fuzzy feelings for the old show, but it's really for the characters and the general concepts, and most of us who actually remember the show were kids at the time, so there's a whole lot of childhood nostalgia involved, but let's face it, the vast majority of the individual episodes were crap. Fairly well acted, but crap nonetheless, especially when you throw "Galactica 1980" into the mix (here's where that "one and a half" thing comes in; I don't recall if "1980" ran a full season or was cut off at 13 episodes). What'd they have, ONE good episode (the one with Starbuck), and even that came with a heavy layer of cheese.

Let's compare that record with Star Trek's and count up all of Star Trek's onscreen incarnations:

TOS (3 seasons)
TAS (technically 2 seasons, but only 22 episodes, so I'm counting it as one)
TNG, DS9, & Voyager (7 seasons each)
Enterprise (4 seasons)


And tha's just the television product. Add in the ten movies and all the ancilliary material that's been based on all that background, and it starts to dawn on even the dimmest bulb that that's a lot of material, aka merchandising opportunities, to chuck overboards for the sake of "a fresh start".

If JMS is signed, and that's still a mighty big IF, seeing as they've already got a list of names that have already dealt with this beast and done okay, it'll be with the condition that he play in the official sandbox with the official toys, not build his own and call them "official".

Otherwise, they might as well bring over Babylon 5 and let him have fun with his own sandbox and his own toys. It'd be a lot cheaper to but out WB for the rights than take the hit when everything they've produced under the Star Trek name for the past 30+ years suddenly "doesn't count".

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Yes, at long last, an update...

I know, I know, I've been neglecting my duties. So sue me, everyone else seems to be.

The following is the result of a bit of a dust-up I had with Shane Johnson, well regarded Star Trek fan artist and author of, among other works, "Mr. Scott's Guide To The Enterprise". He took a mild swipe at my attempts to lay out the internal arrangement of the original Enterprise after I questioned the veracity of the technical details of "The Making of Star Trek" and Franz Joseph's Constitution class blueprints.

The resulting rant was just too good not to share here...

* * * * *

At times like this, I hate AOL.

I had an absolutely beautiful mega-rant, reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw, just about ready to go when the thing crapped out, and lost the entire thing.

Oh well, I'll recap the basic gripes. I may not be as enraged as I was earlier, but I still need to vent a bit. Besides, there are some folks who still haven't gotten some key points.

Before anyone takes any swipes at certain aspects of these plans **coughcoughShaneJohnsoncoughcough**, I'd suggest taking a good long look the process that was gone through to get to that apparently screwy solution. How long did the bridge take? Two, three months? With all sides screaming and throwing things at each other until an overlooked bit of implied history proved useful and the sucker fell into place. It's not the solution I was looking for, but at least it's one case where clear creators' intent that the bridge faced straight forward, was adhereed to.

As far as creators' intent regarding the engine setup, the only thing that's clear is that there was no clear creators' intent for the most part, beyond the general details of the ship using warp drive to go from star to star, and that the system used matter/antimatter annihilation for power. Otherwise, the technical references wouldn't be all over the map. They got things nailed down well enough for what they needed, which was light years beyond what was done on other shows and their hero ships, and they set a level of development that set the standard for years to come, but let's not ascribe a level of development that wasn't there. They got things nailed down to the point that they could produce the stories and make it on air, and if some technical detail was essential to the plot resolution it got attention, but I guarantee you that if you were to chime in during a writer meeting during that period and ask where the main power was generated, you'd get three or four different opinions, a couple of arguments, then someone reminding everyone that they didn't have time for this nonssense and that the story wasn't about the engines anyway, it was about Kirk stopping the evil computer and freeing the planet's population so they could become a more normal society, and they needed to crank out a draft before Monday or they're all dead.

It's also worth noting that at no time did anyone appear to use "The Making of Star Trek" as a reference during the production, even during the third season when the book was actually available.

Remember, they weren't even all that certain what century the show was set in. Why? Same reason, it usually wasn't important to the story at hand. With the time and budget constraints the show was under from Day One, there simply wasn't time or inclination to putting together a detailed technical manual for the ship and equipment. Phasers were slightly cooler looking zap guns with a fairly established list of capabilities; nobody gave a rat's patootie how it worked, just accept that they work and move on to the next problem.

It wasn't important what Yarnek was doing to the Enterprise to put it in danger of blowing up, it was important that if Kirk didn't do as Yarnek said, the ship was gonna blow up. It wasn't important what Scotty and Spock cooked up to blow up the ship in the energy barrier, it was important that they'd cooked up something to blow up the ship and stop the Kelvans from taking the Enterprise back to Andromeda. The result is there isn't a lot of consistency in technical references. Some point to the most obvious aspect of the ship's power, the nacelles, some point in the general direction of the secondary hull, some don't point one way or the other.

Other, less frequent, times, there were other plot points that were decided to be more important than technical consistency with previous episodes. To service the plot of "Day of the Dove", it was deemed important that Kang and his forty fellow Klingons controlled Engineering, Kirk and the others held the bridge, and that the vast bulk of the Enterprise crew was locked away from the action, so that the forces would be equal. I doubt they even considered the likely location of Engineering based on previous episodes, the important thing was the episode they were doing right then and there. The fact that this situation cropped up pretty rarely is testament to the effort to at least try and stay fairly consistent from week to week.

Contrast that with the instances where the engine problems were critical to the resolution of the plot.

"That Which Survives" The Enterprise needs to get back to that artificial planet to retrieve the landing party, but it's got a problem. The engines have been sabotaged, resulting in the ship accelerating out of control. Clearly, the ship is on its own, Scotty can't just wave a magic wand and stop some outside force from causing the problems, he's gotta go in there and fix the problem himself, so it now becomes important just what it is he's doing, which means some details of how the ship works actually have to be settled; before you can concoct a realistic reason for why the ship is going nuts, you have to figure out how it works normally, so you can then decide which piece of the works to take a sledgehammer to and cause the problem. Here's where we get the "matter/antimatter reaction chamber." That's right, Rick Sternbach did not create the term for the TNG Tech Manual, it came from that creaky old TOS episode. A clear and unambigous reference to how the ship actually works, to wit: Matter and antimatter enter the chamber, go boom, and feed that energy to the warp engines, and in this case, the throttle has been jammed wide open. Now you go about devising what has to be done to fix the problem; in this case, shut down the runaway reaction, thus choking off the power flow to the warp engines and bringing the ship back under control.

"Elaan of Troyius" The Enterprise is being attacked by a Klingon ship, but can't respond properly because the warp drive has been sabotaged, and Scotty has to fix it. To do this right, you need to figure out just what was sabotaged, why it's important, and what's needed to fix the problem. It had already been determined waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in "Mudd's Women" that the ship's power goes through the (di)lithium crystals, and if that gets knocked out, the ship don't run so good. In order for Kryton to sabotage the things, they have to be accessible, and we have that big contraption in the middle of Engineering (someone better versed with the behind the scenes history needs to find out if it was decided that the big whatsit was the where the crystals were kept at the time the thing was put in at the beginning of the second season, or if it was just a big whatsit until a script required it to have an explicit purpose). And again, we get a reference to one single antimatter reactor. In order to restore full power, the burned out crystal needs to be replaced with a fresh one, which they don't have. Enter Elaan's necklace of crude dilithium crystals, which she describes as "common stones" (thus showing us why the ship was being attacked in the first place). Spock and Scotty carefully fit the rocks into the framework, amid concerns over what the shape of the crystals would do the energy flow, concerns which are confirmed when we see the lights on Scotty's bridge station waver very noticeably and Scotty complains about the shape of the crystals effecting the energy flow.

So, again, in very clear, definitive references (which, due to their specificity carry far more weight than vague references to "antimatter pods" and unidentified "reactors"), we get the flow of energy starting at a central reactor, running through the dilithium crystals, and feeding the warp engines.

Would these episodes have even been produced if it was the "clear creators' intent" that all the matter and antimatter was all up in the nacelles? The only way Scotty's feats work is if there is one central M/AM reactor feeding the engines, whereas all the other technobabble references that appear to (and to be honest, probably did) point to the nacelles can all be finessed to fit with what has become accepted as the standard warp drive setup, matter & antimatter in one reactor, plasma fed through dilithium crystals to nacelles.

So, as far as "creators' intent" goes, the only thing I can conclude is that, if it wasn't critical to the story, they weren't all that concerned, but when it was critical to the plot, things pointed towards one central reactor feeding the nacelles.

And not once have I invoked TMP, TNG, or ENT. Nor have I relied upon outside works to explain what was shown on screen or to provide background information.

So you tell me who's being revisionist.