Friday, March 6, 2015

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - a toupological analysis



And so there was a sequel: Khan. Genesis. Kirk's son. Spock dies...

1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is widely considered as either one of the best, or indeed the best of the original series big screen outings.

Firstly, why was this film ever made? For all its creative failings and production turmoil 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture managed to rake-in a respectable $139 million worldwide against what was then an astronomical budget of $46 million (a barley acceptable 302 percent return; incidentally 1977's Star Wars cost only $11 million and ended up making $775.4 million - a 7,049 percent return!).

Asides from satiating a hungry army of Star Trek fans, we suspect that a considerable part of ST:TMP's box office success was a direct result of the Star Wars boom - for many non-Trekkers, the Enterprise crew's premiere big screen outing served as a sufficient sci-fi fix in the run up to the mid-1980 release of The Empire Strikes Back.

In many ways, Star Wars (1977) was more like the Star Trek TV series than ST:TMP

And so Star Wars saved Star Trek not once, but twice. Fox had a franchise in Star Wars. Did Paramount have one in Star Trek?

"The Creator" Gene Roddenberry was out. Kicked upstairs to the ceremonial role of Executive Consultant. TV producer Harve Bennett instead assumed the reigns. "Could you make [a better picture] for less than forty-five f*@#ing million dollars?" Bennett recalled a studio exec asking him.

"Oh boy, where I come from, I could make five movies for that."

Harve Bennet and Gene Roddenberry.

After a few months, however, Bennett and writer Jack Sowards were stuck in rewrite hell. Lots of ideas, but no workable script. Enter the famously neurotic writer-director Nicholas Meyer. He described a meeting with Bennett and fellow producer Robert Sallin:

"Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even . . .And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose."

A miraculously quick rewrite ensued, which led to a rather miraculous script.

Testing the waters? Bill Shatner performs a scalp meld on director Nicholas Meyer.

We should note that at this point in the history of Star Trek, the behind-the-scenes story and on-screen antics of the Starship Enterprise essentially fuse into one.

The now-defunct Cinefantastique magazine.

During the 1980s, it wasn't enough to merely go see Treks II, III, IV etc... Rather, in magazines such as Starlog and Cinefantastique, fans could learn about every aspect of how these films were made, from discarded story ideas to the effects magic of ILM. All part of the package...

Creating a nebula in a tank - source.

Another crucial factor in Star Trek II was Leonard Nimoy's initial reluctance to return for a "cash-in" adventure: "I really was adamant that I would not work on Star Trek II because I had been so frustrated with [The Motion Picture] and I was feeling very negative about the whole thing," the actor recalled.


But Harve Bennet had a potentially irresistible hook: "Leonard, how would you like to play your death scene?" the producer asked Nimoy over the phone. Spock was in.

So this sequel ended up defying logic - the fragmented nature of its construction actually helped rather than hindered the final product. Crucially, the audience watches a story unfold with no idea about what will happen next...


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is responsible for creating something of a storytelling fallacy: discard the loftiness of the original and bring in a bad-ass "black hat" villain in the sequel. Wham! Bang! Boom! That's more like it!

As director Bryan Singer said of his never-realised plans for a sequel to (the yawn-fest that was) 2006's Superman Returns: "I plan to get all Wrath of Khan on it." Flash forward to 2013 and the literal sequel to the literal re-boot of the Star Trek franchise, which literally brings back Khan; and, in case that wasn't subtle enough, it was literally called Into Darkness. Get it? Dark. Villain. Is we becoming more dumber?

Khan - now blond and mulleted.

But the strengths of the 1982 sequel arguably have very little to do with Khan alone. Indeed, he is barely in the movie. Stuck on the bridge of the starship Reliant spouting histrionic tongue-twisters, one could even argue that the villain represents the weakest part of The Wrath of Khan, a mere shadow of the devious, ultra-manipulative tyrant of the original series episode "Space Seed".


A possible key reason for The Wrath of Khan's strong script is that it avoided the narrative traps, which to greater or lesser extent ensnared no less than four of the original Trek films:
 
ST: I - We'll get there and see something amazing!
ST: III - We'll get there and hopefully find something amazing (and then bring it back)!
ST: IV - We'll get there and hopefully find something amazing (and then bring it back)!
ST: V - We'll get there and see something amazing!

ST:TMP - staring and waiting to get there...

Only II and VI present story structures, which are more snake-like, meaning countless unexpected twists and turns. VI, we would argue, is less successful at this with its somewhat muddled murder-mystery plot. From a storytelling viewpoint Star Trek II is mature, literate and bursting with all kinds of well-woven themes and tensions. And that has very little to do with the cliché about "getting all Wrath of Khan on it". That is just far too simplistic.  


Star Trek II isn't about explosions and villains - it is about life and death; old age and the creation of life; friendship and family; love and loss. It is Horatio Hornblower meets Charles Dickens. Back in 1958, Robert Wise, director of ST:TMP, directed a submarine movie called Run Silent, Run Deep - ironically, very similar to Meyer's deliberately more militaristic and claustrophobic Star Trek film...

Life and death...and life.
The production also included contentious re-shoots, filmed without Meyer's participation, in which Spock's death was made less final. As the end of production neared, it became clear that this movie might actually be good - so what the hell have we done by killing Spock? Backpedaling ensued, from "Remember..." to a coffin on Genesis. The groundwork had been laid for a Star Trek III.

"Remember..." (to leave room for a sequel)

For all the it's strengths, including a terrific score by James Horner, other movies in the series arguably do better in terms of cinematography (III and IV) and production design (again III and IV). Star Trek II never looked very good on home video with its very 1982-ish yellow-blood red color palette.


When the Enterprise bridge goes red for red alert, it goes almost totally red, which always looked pretty horrible on VHS and even DVD.

"Bleeding" reds on home video.

Speaking of Gayne Rescher's cinematography, why is Khan's Reliant bridge lit so cheerfully bright (with hints of minty green), while the Enterprise - along with the rest of the movie - is lit with far greater broodiness and contrast?

Odd mismatch - the "bright" villainous Khan and the very red Enterprise.

But there is something of a revelation to be had here, too: for anyone who hasn't seen this movie remastered on Blu-ray (hitherto the only one of the six properly restored for release on this format) we strongly recommend it. Though still unusual in terms of its aesthetic feel, the movie looks far better. The conscious effort to move away from the muted, under-lit look of ST:TMP and revive some of the colored gel techniques used in the Original Series leaps through the screen with a clarity not seen since Khan was released in cinemas.


In summary: certainly Khan suffers less from its low budget than TMP suffered from its excessive budget. But the lack of any location photography (until the tacked-on ending) is somewhat stifling, and the interior Genesis Cave (pictured above) set is rather odd and implausible. And, of course, Khan and Kirk never meet face to face. Lots of small gripes like that, but overall very successful.

Let's move swiftly to the hair...

Bill Shatner promotes Khan on the Merv Griffin Show. Note the easily identifiable demarcation line between toup and real hair.

The immovable "patty" of TMP is laid to rest in Star Trek II.


Rather, the hair returns to a slightly less perfect state, akin to the toup seen in newly-revealed (thanks to readers for tip) costume/makeup tests for Star Trek: The Motion Picture:

Bill Shatner in 1978, before he went on a crash diet. Note the less patty-like hair.

All part of a conscious effort by both Meyer and Bennet to have the characters look like they had aged since TOS. "I had to be dragged in kicking and screaming," Bill Shatner recalled of his reluctance with regards to spotlighting the middle-agedness of Captain Kirk.


While III has wind and IV has water, II sees very little physical action to challenge or disrupt the toupee. Perhaps this is why the movie represents the final Trek appearance of the "cap" version of the "T.J. Curly". For the next movies (no doubt caused by the demands of the very physical T.J. Hooker TV series in which the actor was starring) a sturdier, more resilient "T.J. Curly" would be affixed to the top and also the sides of the head.

An occasional flaw is visible (top left), but no real "toupological moments"

The closest we could find to a real "MTI" (Moment of Toupological Interest) was a shot from the end of the movie:


This, too, we believe, was part of the non-Meyer re-shoots. For some reason, there is an almost "Afro" look to Bill Shatner's hair in the wide shot. Why does the hair suddenly seem so curly? Is it to help visualize that Kirk is wound-up over the loss of Spock?

Finally, it is with great sadness that we publish this review at a time when three de facto "torch-holding producers" of the Star Trek franchise have passed away, all within the space of a little over a week - Maurice Hurley (a kind of Trotsky figure to Rick Berman's Stalin), Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett.

Bill Shatner made some eyebrow-raising headlines with regards to Leonard Nimoy's passing. Sometimes, the behind-the-scenes stories are far more complex, and the reactions of those who survive are not what we expect...


We note that Paul McCartney had not seen John Lennon for four years when his "brother" was tragically shot in December 1980. Never the most comfortable about expressing his feelings publicly, the devastated and deeply shocked former Beatle was unfairly berated for calling the news "a drag".


"We just don't have that kind of a relationship anymore - we used to..." Nimoy lamented of Shatner in a 2014 interview with Piers Morgan. The once brotherly pair seemed to have stopped their mutual Twitter banter some time ago, too. Were they really as close friends as Kirk and Spock? Did they have some kind of falling out? And do Kirk's rhetorical words in Star Trek II apply at all here?: "...how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?"

There are always possibilities...

Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015) and Harve Bennett (1930-2015)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy 1931-2015



We mourn the passing today of Leonard Nimoy. Our sincere condolences to his friends and family.

Perhaps the most moving aspect of the outpouring of tributes to the actor is the degree to which those involved in real-life space exploration idolized Star Trek - and specifically Mr. Spock."NASA was fortunate to have him as a friend and a colleague," the agency's Administrator Charles Bolden said on Friday of Nimoy.

A low-rated TV show? Even in 1967, Star Trek was viewed by many in the space community as a viable vision of future spaceflight.

In 1967, Nimoy wrote to Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry about the enthusiastic reception he had just received from scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington D.C.

I do not overstate the fact when I tell you that the interest in the show is so intense, that it would almost seem they feel we are a dramatization of the future of their space program, and they have completely taken us to heart - particularly since you and the rest of the production staff of STAR TREK have taken such great pains in the area of scientific detail on our show. They are, in fact, proud of the show as though in some way it represents them.


NASA Astronaut Mike Fincke and ESA European Space Agency Astronaut Luca Parmitano released the below video message on Friday.
  
  

Nimoy's Mr. Spock character provided inspiration for an inclusive vision in which mankind could first overcome internal differences, and then extend that spirit to our exploration of alien worlds. In a sense, through his portrayal of Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy served as an alien ambassador to Earth. Aliens might not be the monsters of our darkest imaginings, he showed. They could even become our friends...

Friday, December 19, 2014

The (not quite) Indestructible Mr. Gore

(Source: rjbuffalo.com)

"The Indestructible Mr. Gore" is a first season episode of a short-lived 1959-60 television series called Sunday Showcase. Much like the far better known Studio One, it was an anthology series of teleplays (though it also included comedies and musicals), and often featured writing, acting and directing (including John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet) talents who would go on to achieve widespread fame and recognition. "The Indestructible Mr. Gore", broadcast in color, was written by celebrated American author Gore Vidal, who also appears in the episode as an on-screen narrator.

Fred Kaplan's eponymous biography Gore Vidal (available on Google books - see pages 467-468) notes that "The Indestructible Mr. Gore" was  "one of the last television dramas broadcast live..." It also adds that the program, screened on December 13, 1959 "deserved and received superb reviews".

(Click for larger view)

Asides from Vidal as narrator, the episode stars William Shatner, Inger Stevens and E.G. Marshall (who also acted alongside Bill Shatner in Vanished, 1971, and Disaster on the Coastliner, 1979). The story centers on Gore Vidal's real-life blind grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore, portrayed by William Shatner. According to IMDB:

 Senator Thomas Gore (source:Wikipedia)

"In the early 1890s, Thomas seeks employment in the office of a Texas judge. During the interview Thomas reveals that it is his life's ambition to become a United States Senator. He also informs Judge Wingate [Eg.G. Marshall] that he is completely blind."

On a side note: Thomas Gore would indeed overcome his blindness and serve as a US Senator from 1931-1937, chiefly under wheelchair-bound US president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

William Shatner's portrayal of the blind but ambitious young Gore was called "outstanding" by The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, called the episode an "expertly handled hour", and lauded the performances of the three stars performing alongside Gore Vidal.

(Source: rjbuffalo.com)

We wish we could offer our own review of this episode. But unfortunately the master tapes of this show were erased by NBC in 1973. Thus, it may have been wiped from existence. In the UK, this phenomenon has given rise to the name "Missing Believed Wiped". Basically, until as late as 1980, TV stations were wiping tapes of previously broadcast programs to free-up space. Reruns? VHS? DVD? Historical value? No-one seemed to give a hoot.

A brief detour: Perhaps the most publicized wiping and subsequent re-locating of lost elements surrounds the BBC's Doctor Who series. Dedicated fans have spent years tracking down episodes believed wiped by the BBC, locating copies in places as afar as Nigeria. This also led to some fascinating restoration technologies being utilised (ever heard of "chroma dots"?). But some episodes are still missing.



Even if, like us, you have no idea what Doctor Who is supposed to be about as a dramatic presentation, the story of how so many of its episodes were lost and then re-found is certainly worth looking at by anyone interested in film and television.



Meanwhile, the website rjbuffalo.com has an extensive section on the television works of Gore Vidal. It features plenty of stories of similarly lost episodes and calls for readers to help track down potential kinescope (a film camera recording video footage off a TV) recordings that may or may not still exist somewhere. Its section on "The Indestructible Mr. Gore" notes:

"This is one of the most sought-after of all lost television programs [emphasis ours]. There MUST be copies around somewhere, and whoever has them probably doesn’t realize that they’re anything special.."


"That is what happened to the 2 inch color quad. There is the possibility, of course, that other 2 inch color quad copies, recorded by stations that wished to delay the broadcast, might still exist. The chances, though, are vanishingly small. It is more likely that a kinescope, probably b&w, would still survive somewhere...If you have any leads, any leads at all, on where this program might be located, please contact me IMMEDIATELY. It is of utmost importance that this program be found, rescued, restored, and released."

We contacted "rj" and confirm that he is still very much interested in tracking down this episode...


Fortunately for us, the story does not end there. Two images of "The Indestructible Mr. Gore" do survive - one of which we believe to be of major toupological interest.

The first, reprinted at rjbuffalo, is from a Variety TV listing of the broadcast (full image atop this post). Obviously, magazines cannot show pictures from live broadcasts that have not yet aired. So the image is possibly from a dress rehearsal or publicity shoot. It shows Bill Shatner very likely wearing his easily identifiable "Jim Kirk lace". (Note the lush and rounded, rather than v-shaped, hairline at the side of the forehead.)


By 1959, this toup was one the actor was, we believe, wearing full-time for TV broadcasts. The first hitherto identified usage is back in May 1958's Suspicion: "The Protégé".

William Shatner in "The Protégé" (1958)

But as we noted in our analysis of Kraft Mystery Theater: "The Man Who Didn't Fly", which aired later in July 1958, lengthening, clever combing and heavy spraying could still at this point yield a viable (from the standpoint of concealing thinning hair) toupless performance.


But to the keen observer, the clues that Bill Shatner's hair was rapidly thinning, in particular in the crown area and moving up towards the front of the head, were evident as far back as 1956:

Goodyear Television Playhouse:"All Summer Long" (1956)

And even more so by 1957:

Alfred Hitchcock Presents:"The Glass Eye" (1957)

All of which brings us to the second available photo of "The Indestructible Mr. Gore". We spotted a low resolution version on the rjbuffalo site, taken from a 1994 book written by Gore Vidal entitled Screening History. Our staff immediately set about locating a copy of the book and subjecting the photograph in question to the full range of our latest touposcopical equipment.


The conclusion reached by the Department of Toupological Determinations, and subsequently affirmed by the Toupological Review Board, was a startling one: this was Bill Shatner in 1959 without his toupee. That would date this picture as the last toupless image we have come across thus far. Previously, the last likely toupless picture we had was a mid-1959 rehearsal image from a TV series called Tactic.

(Bill Shatner rehearses Tactic. See here for more)

Before we get into the details of how the call was made, there is the question of why this photo differs from the first one, which is most certainly one in which Bill Shatner is touped-up. Obviously, we can't say for sure. Is it possible that Bill Shatner went toupless for the actual broadcast? It's possible (though given the actor's thinning hair, we suspect only external circumstances, like a damaged lace, would have forced such a decision upon Bill Shatner). The other, perhaps more viable option is that this is some kind of unofficial rehearsal picture. Unlike the first image, it is not necessarily intended for public release. We can only speculate...


But what is evident is that Bill Shatner's hair is very different between the two pictures. In the second image, the characteristic curve that follows the upper sides of the hairline is absent. Instead, we have not only a normal v-shaped recession, but also a line indicating a parting of the hair. Along the parting line, we see an area of Bill Shatner's scalp that is usually fully concealed (and certainly not visible if wearing a "Jim Kirk lace").


Overall, our team divided the image into four specific Areas of Toupological Interest (ATI). This yielded ATI 01, ATI 02, ATI 03, and ATI 04.These areas were then studied and compared with available images of Bill Shatner both touped-up and toupless. Staff recorded the following observations:

ATI 01 - this suggests long, thinning hair.



Side-parted and quite compressed - perhaps as a result of wearing a toupee on top or hair treated with hair oil or other product.

ATI 02 - (the area we discussed a little earlier).


Side-parting. V-shape. No rounded strands of "Jim Kirk lace" sprouting up from this area. Scalp visible, extending towards mid-section of head.

(Jim Kirk lace "rounded" side of hairline. Source: Trekcore.)

ATI 03 - observable thinning.



Hair of notably different density than that visible at the sides of Bill Shatner's head. Shortening effect at rear, thinning "comb-back" clump.

("All Summer Long". Note lightened, thinning "comb-back" at rear. Beyond is "missing" section - see ATI 04)


ATI 04 - characteristic "Jim Kirk lace" smooth curve of hair arching around back/crown of head absent. Something "missing".


The "Jim Kirk lace" creates a very particular smooth, curved look to the back of the head.

(images from Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961)

Conversely, later-stage toupless performances show this curve to have the "missing" area, in which the combed-down hair was not sufficient to maintain the fluidity of this arch.


It's a sort of "hen peck" effect. Something has been "gnawing" at the back, leaving an area of disruption.


A similar effect was observed in the "The Indestructible Mr. Gore" image. The rear area does not appear to follow the smooth, thick curve indicative of a "Jim Kirk lace". Something at the back is noticeably missing.

Thus, for the above reasons, as well as due to some more detailed sub-toupular readings detected by our touposcopes...


...the William Shatner School of Toupological Studies (WSSTS) "felt that enough evidence exists to conclude that the image in question is very likely one in which William Shatner is not wearing a toupee, or in the modern vernacular, is 'toupless'". The full 567-page report can be obtained by writing to the WSSTS.

Toupee delivery delight? Via Twitter.