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Star Trek Lives! Josh Reviews Star Trek: Phase II’s Latest Episode: “The Child”

April 11th, 2012

Here in the long winter of our many-years-without-new-Star Trek TV shows or movies, James Cawley and his magnificent band of fellow Star Trek fans are keeping the Trek flame alive.  As I’ve written about beforeStar Trek: Phase II is a completely fan-made series (no one gets paid for any of their work) attempting to create, one episode at a time, the fourth season of the original Star Trek show.  The production releases about one full-length episode a year, and they’ve just been getting better and better, to the point where if you stumbled across an episode of Phase II on TV late at night, you could absolutely believe it was a real Star Trek episode.  The production quality is that amazing.

Phase II has just released their seventh full-length episode: “The Child.”  (Watch it here or here!)  This episode was written and directed by Jon Povill, and it has a fascinating history.  The story was initially developed by Mr. Povill back in the 70’s for the aborted Star Trek: Phase II television series.  (That series-that-never-was, from which this fan series draws its name, was intended to be a second Star Trek series starring Kirk and co.  The proposed TV show was eventually abandoned in favor of the idea of making Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)  Mr. Povill’s story for “The Child” was eventually used by Star Trek: The Next Generation. That version, which was credited to writers Jason Summers, Jon Povill, and Maurice Hurley, was Next Gen’s second season premiere.  It’s a pretty lousy episode, and apparently Mr. Povill was (rightly) unhappy with how his original story was realized.  Two decades later, he hooked up with the Phase II crew to bring something much closer to his original vision to light.

Although I’m always tremendously excited by the prospect of the release of a new Phase II episode, I can’t say that I was all that much anticipating “The Child.”  The Next Gen version was so lame.  It wasn’t a story I was excited to revisit.  Well, I am happy to report that “The Child” is another phenomenally entertaining episode from the Phase II gang.  It’s not my favorite of the Phase II episodes, but it’s marvelously well-done and FAR more watchable than the professionally-made Next Gen version.

It’s neat to see the Phase II crew tackling so many different kinds of episodes.  Their previous episode, “Enemy: Starfleet!” was a fast-paced action adventure.  “The Child” is something else entirely, a much slower character study and sci-fi mystery.  But I wasn’t at all bored — no, I was quite taken by the episode.  The main story (in which the Enterprise’s Deltan officer, Lt. Isel, becomes impregnated by some sort of alien ball of light and then gives birth to a rapidly-aging child who just might pose a deadly danger to the ship and crew) was far better realized than in the Next Gen version.  In this version, the titular child is a girl, not a boy.  Her mother, Lt. Isel, names her Irska.  She’s played by a young girl named Ayla Cordell, and she’s terrific.  We get to know and empathize with Irska far more than we did Deanna Troi’s child, Ian, in the Next Gen episode.  That gives the central dilemma — that this child just might have to die in order for the Enterprise crew to live — more heft.

In Mr. Povill’s smart script (co-written by Jason Summers), the central dilemma provides story opportunities for most of the regular cast.  (This is one way in which Phase II has often been superior to the “real” Trek TV shows, that too often ignored the supporting characters.)  Almost every member of the main Enterprise crew gets a little bit of business to do, and their personal story-lines are moved forward.  (Although each of the Phase II episodes stands entirely on its own, it’s nice to see the series developing some gentle continuity between episodes.)  It’s fun seeing Chekov in security red (he was promoted to Chief of Security in the last episode), and Peter Kirk has integrated nicely into the crew.  (The character is better used here than in any of the previous episodes.  Read: he’s not at all annoying like he was in “Blood and Fire.”)  The Vulcan Xon (a character intended for the original Phase II series in the ’70s, and who has been cleverly incorporated into this fan-made Phase II) gets a nice scene, and there’s also a wonderful Spock mind-meld scene in the classic Trek style.  (This is followed by an equally classic Kirk-snapping-Spock-out-of-it moment.)  Sulu gets his moment in the center seat in the episode’s teaser, and Dr. McCoy gets some meaty scenes as well.  (I commented in my review of “Enemy: Starfleet!” how pleased I was that the actor playing McCoy, John Kelley, seemed to have finally gotten a handle on the character in that episode, and he’s equally good here.  I had thought for a long time that Mr. Kelley was the weakest link of the ensemble, but he’s really turned a corner.  I’m very much enjoying his interpretation of McCoy now.  It’s much gentler and humanistic, rather than angry and brittle as he was in earlier episodes.)  The only character who gets the shaft is Uhura, who strangely doesn’t appear in the episode at all!  (She’s replaced by an un-named communications officer.)  I missed Uhura.

The sets on the show are astounding.  This episode takes place entirely on the Enterprise, but it doesn’t feel at all claustrophobic.  The Phase II team have flawlessly recreated all the major Trek sets: the bridge, sickbay, various characters’ quarters, hallways, the turbolift, and more.  The new Jefferies tube set that was introduced in the last episode gets some more screen-time here, and it looks great.  Heck, some of these sets look even BETTER than they did in the Original Series!  (As an example, I continue to be delighted every time we see a cool CGI motion-graphic on one of the bridge’s computer screens, something that was of course impossible in the Original Series.)

The costumes are equally perfect.  I’me enjoying the way Mr. Cawley and his crew have begun to sneak in some more connections to the original Phase II series, and to the Trek movies.  In the teaser, Cawley’s Kirk sports a casual tunic that was created for the original Phase II show, and Peter Kirk wears a red jump-suit later in the episode that I also recognized as an original Phase II design.  We get to see Scotty and his engineers wearing the white protective garb that we see them wearing in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and eagle eyed viewers will even catch the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance of an officer named Decker!  (Lt. Decker is, of course, the Enterprise’s first officer in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I always assumed that he was new to the Enterprise, and that he and Kirk had never served together before, but I suppose it’s conceivable that he came up the ranks on the Enterprise, as opposed to from another ship…)

I also have to highlight the lighting.  First of all, the lighting set-ups really are astounding in the way they mimic the look of the Original Series.  I also really enjoyed the use, in this episode, of a lot of shadow to bring some extra depth and drama to the scenes.  I loved the look of the darkened, night-shift bridge in the episode’s teaser, and I noticed many other scenes throughout in which there was an unusually dark look to some of the sets.  I was really taken with this approach.  Rather than looking flat and two-dimensional, this look of the lighting brought a whole new dimension to the episode.

The highlight of these productions continues to be the gorgeous visual effects.  “The Child” isn’t an action episode, but it is still filled-to-the-brim with some dazzling shots of the Enterprise in motion.  The whole sequence of the Big E passing slowly through a mysterious cloud, in the teaser, is magical, gorgeous work.  I also love the look of the alien cylinder that menaces the Enterprise. And the shots of the ball-of-light alien creature were gorgeous — FAR better than the way that was realized on the Next Gen episode.  All of the visuals are extraordinarily well-done.  This is absolutely professional-quality work, and far better than anything seen on the original series.  (And far better than the CGI shots created for the official CBS “Star Trek Remastered” project from a few years back, in which new CGI effects were created for the original series.)

This episode does have some flaws.  I’ll mention a few, but please understand that these are all pretty minor nitpicks.  The overall quality of these Phase II episodes is so outstanding, that when every now and then something isn’t totally perfect, it stands out.  But this should in no way undermine the incredible achievement of the dedicated Phase II team.

The weakest part of the episode is the set-up in the teaser.  The bridge crew night shift detects a mysterious space-cloud, and an annoying whiny ensign says that he’s never seen anything like it.  Sulu ignores his warning and orders the ship to pass straight through the cloud.  Of course, this allows one of the ball-of-light aliens to enter the ship.  First of all, that annoying ensign really got on my nerves.  Thank goodness he was only in that one scene.  (To be fair, often on the Original series we saw Starfleet officers who looked and behaved like they were teenaged kids.  So, in this way, Phase II is being sort of consistent with Classic Trek.  The later Trek series, thankfully, mostly succeeded in portraying Starfleet officers as a bit more adult and professional.  I’d prefer to see the Phase II team go that route in the future.)  But whatever, despite being warned that the cloud contains unknown radiation, Sulu judges it safe and takes the ship straight through.  It’s frustrating to see Sulu — a character we’re supposed to know and like — make such a clearly wrong move.  It’s even more surprising that at no point in the episode does anyone say to him “hey, maybe you should have taken the ship AROUND that mysterious cloud, dumb-bell,” nor does he ever show any remorse for the effects of his action on Isel and the ship.

There are other problems in the teaser.  Sulu orders the Enterprise to go through the cloud at warp, but in the next shot we clearly see the Enterprise still at impulse.  (Here again, you could argue that Phase II is actually being consistent with classic Trek, which didn’t use the streaking star-field effect to show the ship at warp that the later Trek series did.  But that was clearly a limitation of the Original Series’ capacity for visual effects.  Phase II DOES use the streaking-light effect to show the ship at warp — they do so even in this very episode.  So it’s definitely a mistake to show the ship entering the cloud at impulse after Sulu has ordered warp.)  Even Kirk seems off in the teaser, snarkily remarking “Deltans” when he sees a shaken Lt. Isel pass him in the hallway, rather than bothering to stop and ask her what’s wrong.

I’m picking apart the teaser more than I should, but all these little things jumped out at me.

Really the biggest flaw with “The Child” is that it focuses on two entirely new characters: The Deltan Isel and her child Irska.  The actress who plays Isel (Anna Schnaitter) is perfectly fine, and as I commented before, the girl who plays Irska is terrific.  But why not focus on a member of the Enterprise’s crew?  The TNG version at least focused on Troi.  How much more interesting would the Phase II version of “The Child” have been had the woman who became pregnant been Uhura??  I would have LOVED to have seen Uhura spotlighted in that way.  I think that would have really deepened the drama.

My only other complaint: Where was Arex???  James Cawley has been teasing us for years with the prospect of this character from Star Trek: The Animated Series popping up on Phase II. About two years ago we were given a tantalizing screen-shot of Arex, apparently from this episode.  But Arex was nowhere to be found.  I can only assume creating this very-alien character proved to be too much for the Phase II crew.  I can’t at all blame them (I was SHOCKED that they thought they’d be able to pull off Arex in the first place!!) but still, I was bummed not to see him.

If you’re a Star Trek fan and you haven’t seen these Phase II episodes, you really owe it to yourself to give them a try.  The amateur acting and the unfamiliar faces playing the classic Trek characters might take a bit of getting used to, but I expect you’ll quickly find yourself swept away by the astonishing professionalism of these productions, and by the enormous love of Star Trek poring out of every frame.

Bring on the next Phase II episode, the Klingon epic “Kitumba”!!  I can’t wait!!  That one looks really awesome.

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