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Star Trek: Phase 2

February 6th, 2009

Back on September 9th I wrote about Star Trek: Phase 2, by far the most interesting of the many fan-made Star Trek projects that have sprung up over the past few years, in the absence of any new official Star Trek material on TV or at the movies.  The goal of Phase 2 is to create the fourth season of the Original Series (which was cancelled at the end of its third season).  Each installment of Phase 2 (there have been five episodes so far, counting their “pilot”) is an hour in length, and what is astounding about the endeavor (betcha thought I’d say enterprise) is the degree of professionalism involved in the production.  While the episodes don’t QUITE look like actual broadcast-able Star Trek episodes, they come pretty damn close.

The fifth episode was just released on-line:  “Blood and Fire Part I.”  This is the first installment of the series’ first two-part episode.  The episode opens with a fierce battle between the Enterprise and a Klingon warship.  Although the Klingons are ultimately defeated, the Big E sustains Star Trek II level damage.  However, before the Enterprise can return to a starbase to be repaired, they receive a distress call from another Starfleet vessel, the USS Copernicus, which appears to be locked on course directly into a dying star.  When Spock leads an away team over to the Copernicus to try to figure out what happened to the ship and its crew, they soon find themselves in quite a lot of jeopardy.  “Blood and and Fire” also re-introduces us to Captain Kirk’s young nephew Peter (introduced in one episode of the Original Series, “Operation — Annihilate!”), who has transfered over to the Enterprise to be closer to his husband-to-be, who is already an Enterprise officer.

“Blood and Fire” was written and directed by David Gerrold, who is only the lastest industry professional (and someone involved with the production of the original Star Trek) to have gotten involved with this fan-made series.  Mr. Gerrold was a key writer for the Original Series, and he wrote what many consider to be one of the finest Original Series episodes ever produced: “The Trouble With Tribbles.”  This story, “Blood and Fire,” was actually written by Mr. Gerrold for the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it was never produced.  (According to the Phase 2 web-site, the episode was shelved because of its mention of a gay crewman on the Enterprise.)  Mr. Gerrold re-worked the story for Phase 2.

Over-all, “Blood and Fire Part I” is another winner from the Phase 2 team.  The production values are incredible.  The sets, the costumes, the make-up, the lighting — everything looks just about perfect, totally capturing the feel of the Original Series.  (If anything, the bridge looks even BETTER than it did during the actual Original Series, with the inclusion for the first time in this episode of moving computer graphics on the bridge control screens.)  And the starship visual effects are astonishing.  The intense space combat with the Klingons in the episode’s teaser is the most eye-catching sequence, with action far beyond anything we ever saw in the Original Series, but I thought that the visuals later in the episode of the Enterprise and the Copernicus in close proximity to the dying star were even more marvelous.  I should also note the deign of the Copernicus.  As opposed to being a ship that looks just like The Enterprise, the special effects artists have created a ship that has the lay-out of the USS Reliant from Star Trek II (with the nacelles underneath the saucer section), but that has the look and feel of an Original Series-era starship.  In Paramount’s Star Trek: Remastered project, in which the hokey, models-on-sticks special effects of the Original Series were replaced by new CGI effects, there were a few instances in which the effects team replaced shots of other starships with this type of Original Series Reliant design.  But I always thought those attempts looked awkward and unconvincing.  In “Blood and Fire,” though, the Copernicus is a beautifully realized vessel.

The revelation in this episode that Peter Kirk is gay has caused quite a stir on-line, but personally I am thrilled to see this story-line make it to the screen.  I love the way his homosexuality is handled in the episode.  There are several “do people know” moments between Peter and his husband-to-be, and some bemused reactions from Enterprise crewmen.  But in every case the scenes could be interpreted to indicate that people are either wondering about the homosexual nature of their relationship OR just about the fact that they’re so young, and trying so poorly to keep their relationship a secret.  In the context of the episode, it’s almost certainly the latter, but the audience watching the episode might read in the former, which adds resonance to the story.

If I’m able to accept the re-casting of all the Original Series characters in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Trek film, then I’ll need to thank James Cawley (who plays Kirk and is the mastermind of this Phase 2 effort).  Over the course of the five Phase 2 episodes, I have come to accept and really enjoy these different actors’ interpretations of the characters.  Cawley’s Kirk is a lot of fun, capturing the energy of William Shatner’s iconic performance while avoiding falling into mimicry (at least most of the time.  The only scene of Cawley’s in “Blood and Fire” that doesn’t work for me is his sort of overblown reaction to the news of his nephew Peter’s engagement.  Later in the episode there is a moment when young Peter imitates his uncle’s reaction, so I assume Cawley over-did it in his scene to make the latter scene make sense.  Still, that moment of Shatner-imitation is the only tiny flaw in what is over-all a great performance.)  Other stand-outs include Ben Tolpin as Spock (replacing Phase 2‘s previous Spock, Jeffery Quinn, who was also excellent) and Andy Bray as Checkov.  Kim Stinger is also great as Uhura, although she hasn’t had a lot to do in the series so far.

If there’s a weakness to this installment, it’s that Peter Kirk’s relationship with Enterprise crewman Alex Freeman takes up way too much of the focus of the episode, particularly in the first half.  I think it’s a mistake to shift the story too far away from our main characters (and it helps that I’ve been enjoying the main cast’s performances so much).  It was one thing in the last two episodes for the focus to not be on Phase 2’s Kirk and Spock, because the guest stars were Walter FREAKING Koenig (reprising his role from the Original Series as Pavel Chekov) and George FREAKING Takei (reprising his role from the Original Series as Hikaru Sulu).  But in “Blood and Fire” the guest star isn’t anyone famous, and Bobby Rice as Peter Kirk just isn’ t that compelling.  In fact, there are occasions where he reaches Peter Preston levels of annoying.  (Come on Star Trek fans, you get the reference, right??)  His husband-to be Freeman, played by Evan Fowler, does a better job, but still, these two guest stars get way too much screen time.

There are also some instances of inconsistencies with the Treknology of the sort that also bugs me in so many ACTUAL Star Trek episodes.  Towards the end of the battle during the teaser, the Klingon ship cloaks in order to get away.  First of all, it’s surprising to me that the ship could cloak after having sustained so much damage, as so often in actual Trek episodes the cloaking device was portrayed as a very delicate piece of equipment, and it was always the first thing to fail once a ship got even the tiniest bit damaged (see almost any episode of DS9 that featured the Defiant in combat as support of this).  But whatever.  The ship cloaks, and we see what looks like an Enterprise phaser blast go right through the spot where the Klingon ship was, just a second before.  This is silly, because a cloaking device doesn’t make the ship intangible, it just hides it from sensors.  So even invisible, a phaser blast would still HIT IT and cause damage.  Then, in the next scene, Spock reports that the ship has changed course and moved outside of weapons range.  Well how the heck would he know that, if the ship is cloaked and thus invisible to sensors???  These are minor quibbles, and as I wrote above they happened ALL THE TIME in actual Trek episodes, so I can’t judge Phase 2 too harshly.

Bottom line: If you’re a Star Trek fan who has been having to do without the weekly dose of new adventures that we enjoyed for 18 years (from the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 until the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005), I highly encourage you to check out Star Trek: Phase 2.  The episodes aren’t perfect, but there is so much love and effort on display that I defy you not to find a lot of enjoyment in their episodes.

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