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Star Trek Phase II: Kitumba

January 6th, 2014
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Star Trek lives!  I have written before on this site about the wonderful Star Trek fan-made series, Star Trek: Phase II.  Taking their series title from the name of the proposed second Star Trek TV series of the seventies (which was eventually abandoned in favor of a big-screen resurrection called Star Trek: The Motion Picture), this dedicated group of fans have taken it upon themselves to produce episodes of the never-made fourth season of the original Star Trek TV series.  Releasing about one full-length episode a year, this series has been getting better and better with each installment.  This doesn’t look like any other fan-made effort I have ever encountered.  If you were to flash by a Phase II episode on your TV, you’d have no reason to suspect this wasn’t an official, professionally-made Star Trek episode.

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After years of anticipation by Phase II fans (this episode was originally filmed several years ago, though various production problems have apparently kept it from being completed until now), the series has released its eighth episode: “Kitumba.”  In this episode, the rising tensions with the Klingon Empire are threatening to lead to war.  Though the Organians brokered an uneasy truce between the Federation and the Klingons (in the Original Series episode “Errand of Mercy”), those powerful aliens appear to have vanished (indeed, they would never again appear in any future Trek series or episode), and so the war between the Federation and the Klingons that they stopped now threatens to erupt again.  To avert catastrophe, the U.S.S. Enterprise is sent on a possible suicide mission to Qo’noS, the Klingons’ home planet, in a desperate attempt to broker a peace.  Their only hope for success lies in an unlikely ally — Ksia, a Klingon defector who was a former teacher of the “Kitumba,” the young Klingon emperor.  Until the boy comes of age, power is held by a Regent, Malkthon, and Ksia believes it is Malkthon who is beating the drums of war, and he hopes that Kirk can convince the Kitumba to put a halt to the war before it begins.

The idea of James T. Kirk visiting the Klingon homeworld is a juicy notion.  (In the Original Series, we never saw the Klingon homeworld.  It wouldn’t be until the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation that the Trek shows would show us Qo’noS and begin fleshing out the Klingon people and culture.  Kirk did visit Qo’noS, in less than ideal circumstances, as a prisoner in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which was made after those early Next Gen episodes.  But the idea of seeing young Kirk in his prime on a mission to the Klingon homeworld is a great notion, as is the idea that Kirk has to find a way to work with a Klingon, Ksia, on his journey into Klingon space.)  One of my favorite aspects of “Kitumba” is the way the episode puts Kirk right in the heart of the civilization of his enemies, and the way the show tries to bridge the apparent continuity gap between the Klingons of the Original Series and the culture of a High Council with warring Great Houses as depicted in Next Gen.

As with many of the Phase II episodes, “Kitumba” has an interesting history.  The script was originally written as a two-part episode for the never-made Star Trek Phase II TV series.  That original draft, by John Meredyth Lucas, was re-written as a one-part Phase II episode by Patty Wright.  I love the way the Phase II fan series has recently been bringing to life unmade Trek stories (such as David Gerrold’s rejected Next Generation script for “Blood and Fire” and the original 1970’s Phase II version of “The Child”).

The production value of these Phase II efforts is extraordinary, and is what elevates these episodes to greatness.  The sets and costumes are magnificent, gloriously bringing to life the world of the Original Series.  In many ways, the sets are even better than those seen on the Original Series, as the Phase II team have made many subtle enhancements, such as motion graphics on the bridge control screens.  (In “Kitumba,” one of my favorite little bits is the CGI animation on the screen behind Chekov during his scene in the briefing room.)  There are moments when the reach of the production slightly exceeds its grasp — the much-ballyhooed location shoots at Fort Ticonderoga, used to create the exteriors on Qo’noS, don’t wind up being all that convincing, nor are the scenes in the Klingon tavern — but my goodness do I love and admire the ambition on display.

The visual effects of the outer-space sequences — in this episode, lots of shots of the Enterprise and a whole mess of Klingon ships — are extraordinary.  Overseen by Tobias Richter and The Light Works, these visual effects rival anything seen in even any of the modern-day Trek series.  The Enterprise has never looked more gorgeous, and in particular all of the Klingon ships are brought to glorious, stunning life.  We get to see classic D-7 ships (from the Original Series), Birds of Prey (first introduced in Star Trek III and then  used a LOT in Next Gen and the other 24th-century-set Trek TV shows), and even a new Klingon scout-ship designed by Andrew Probert (a designer who worked on official Trek productions for decades, he designed the refit-Enterprise seen in The Motion Picture as well as the Enterprise-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation).  (Though I was a little disappointed that, after reading for years how Mr. Probert had designed a new Klingon ship for this episode, it’s actually only seen for about a second.)  The visual effects are really incredible, I can’t emphasize that enough.  There’s a great bit about half-way through the episode in which the Enterprise tangles with a whole fleet of Klingon ships, and it is beautifully realized.  When Kirk & co. beam down to Qo’noS, we can glimpse Klingon ships in the cloud overhead — very cool.  An unexpected benefit of this episode’s long gestation time is that the Phase II team has had time to improve and refine the visual effects.  Check out these two shots of the Klingon Homeworld, below.  The first was an image released by the Phase II team a few years ago, as a tease of the episode.  The second is the same scene as seen in the final episode.  The first shot looked good, but the second shot not only better integrates the location with the background, but is also more consistent with Klingon design as established in Next Gen and elsewhere.

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There are some weaknesses in this episode, mostly in the second half.  I think the first half of the episode is really dynamite, setting the stakes right away and giving us an escalating series of confrontations as the Enterprise journeys deeper and deeper into Klingon space.  We also get a few great exchanges between Ksia, representing the Klingon point of view, and the humans.  (There’s a tense bit on the bridge in which Kirk has to decide whether or not to destroy the one-man Klingon ship that spotted the Enterprise, as well as a great debate in the briefing room about the values of Empire versus Federation.)  Unfortunately, at the moment when the episode should be at its most exciting — when the Enterprise actually arrives at Qo’noS — the exciting plot seems to grind to a halt, and we then seem to spend a lot of time spinning our wheels until we get to the episode’s final minutes.  There’s a lot of confusing back-and-forth between Qo’noS and Altair, and a lot of beaming up and down and up and down again from the Klingon homeworld, without much actually happening.  (Just following all of the beaming makes my head spin.  Kirk & co. beam down to meet the Kitumba in public, then beam back up.  Then they beam down again to meet secretly with Kargh and “kidnap” the Kitumba and beam back up.  Then then beam down again to return the Kitumba and get captured.  Then they escape and beam back up.  Etc. Etc.)  I think this section of the episode could have been dramatically simplified.  Wouldn’t the story have been simpler had Kirk & co. been able to connect with the Kitumba right away, on the surface?  Wouldn’t the story have been simpler had the Klingon military HQ been on Qo’noS rather than Altair, to prevent all of the back-and-forth?  Later on, what was the purpose of all the stuff in the Klingon bar?  Who exactly was Peter “distracting,” and why did he have to distract that girl again when they returned the Kitumba?  The kid had been gone for a long time, had she really not noticed??  So silly!

I also don’t, in the end, really understand Ksia & the Kitumba’s plot.  What exactly did they need the Enterprise for in the first place?  In the end, the Kitumba just declares the re-organization of the Klingon government.  Since his word is law, everyone obeys.  If that’s what the Kitumba wanted all along, why couldn’t he just do so?  I imagine that we are meant to understand that the Regent wouldn’t have let the Kitumba do that, that somehow the Regent would have stopped anyone from knowing about it had the Kitumba made such a declaration.  But what, exactly, has changed by the end of the episode?  I am unclear how Kirk & co.’s involvement helped the Kitumba in any way.

Please note that, as I have said before when writing about Phase II episodes, the over-all quality of these episodes is so high that I like to treat them as professionally-made films.  As such, I don’t shy away from critiquing the points that, to me, fall short.  But please understand that, while these episodes might not be perfect, they are nevertheless extraordinary.  These professional-looking shows are created by Star Trek fans, working for months — if not years! — to bring these fan-made efforts to life, without ever receiving any money for their efforts.  These episodes are a gift from Star Trek fans to other Star Trek fans, and I for one am very grateful.

A few other comments:

There are some great nods to Trek continuity in this episode, from the reference to Captain Archer’s previous visit to the Klingon Homeworld (from the premiere episode of Enterprise, “Broken Bow”) to a mention of Sherman’s Planet to Kirk making a joke about crashing his corvette as a kid (an unexpected nod to a scene early in J.J.Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot).  There is a lot of effort spent at the end of the episode to set up aspects of Klingon government as we saw it in Next Gen, which is really cool.  (Though I didn’t need the reference to another disgraced Klingon being of the “Duras” family.  If the family had been disgraced, how could they be so powerful during Next Gen time?  That didn’t track for me.)  I also liked how this episode featured both smooth-headed Original Series-style Klingons, as well as the bumpy-headed style, as well as mentioning the Augment virus (that was Enterprise’s retroactive explanation for the two different Klingon “looks”).  I also LOVED seeing Space-station K-7 (from “The Trouble with Tribbles”) again!!  (Wonder if Cyrano Jones is still busy picking up tribbles??)

I loved the appearances of the afore-mentioned Andrew Probert, as well as Gil Gerard (Buck Rodgers!) as admirals in the pre-credits scene.

I loved seeing the Klingon Kargh (John Carrigan) again.  I loved seeing this recurring Phase II Klingon character mixed up in this Klingon-centric story.  (Great also to see Le’Ak, Kargh’s right-hand-woman, included as well.)

I loved the return of DeSalle (who featured heavily in early Phase II episodes, back when the series was called Star Trek New Voyages).  In fact, I was impressed by how well the episode gave all the members of the Trek ensemble some good stuff to do, from Chekov to DeSalle to Peter Kirk to Xon.  Spock got a bit of the short shrift, though — I couldn’t believe he didn’t beam down to Qo’noS with Kirk!  Leaving Spock in charge of the Enterprise makes sense, and is certainly how things would have worked in the Next Gen era, but it seems out of character for Kirk to leave Spock and McCoy behind.  (Spock is left with not much to do in the episode, other than his pointless two-second impersonation of the Kitumba that gets him stabbed.)  Also, as has been the case in several recent Phase II episodes, I miss Sulu!!  I am unclear as to why Sulu wasn’t included in this episode.  I assume actor availability was at issue.  But still, when the Enterprise landing party was discussing the bladed-weapons they were bringing down to the Klingon homeworld, I really missed Sulu.

Vic Mignogna and Michele Specht do nice work as the Klingon Regent Malkthon and his right-hand-lady Kali.  In the years since this episode was filmed, Vic Mignogna has created his own Star Trek fan-made episode project, entitled Star Trek Continues.  (Click here for my review of their first episode, “Pilgrim of Eternity.”)  Mignogna plays Kirk on Star Trek Continues, so it’s funny seeing him as a Klingon in this episode, facing off against James Cawley’s Kirk.  Interestingly enough, Michele Specht also made the jump, along with Mignogna, to the Star Trek Continues project… as did Kim Stinger as Uhura, so this episode has unintentionally turned into a fun crossover of the two casts.

Speaking of James Cawley, “Kitumba” marks his final appearance as James T. Kirk.  Mr. Cawley created this Star Trek: Phase II project a decade ago, and he has not only led the production team but also the cast as Captain Kirk.  I have really grown to love Mr. Cawley’s work, and I will miss him a lot as Kirk.  He’s really made the role of Kirk his own, and it’s easy to see how much he has grown as an actor in this role.  Phase II’s new Kirk, Brian Gross, has big shoes to fill.

Unlike in Star Trek Into Darkness (click here for my review), I was very pleased that this episode spelled the Klingon homeworld, Qo’noS, correctly on-screen!  (Though for some reason it was still spelled “Kronos” when we briefly see it listed on Chekov’s star-chart in the briefing room.  Weird.)

Over-all, while I have some quibbles with the episode’s second half, “Kitumba” is yet another extraordinary achievement by the Phase II cast and crew.  I applaud and thank them for their efforts!  This episode was a ton of fun to watch, and I am excited that, after waiting more than a year between the previous episode (2012’s “The Child”) and this one, the Phase II gang have announced that their next episode will be released at the end of February, less than two months away!  Can’t wait for “The Holiest Thing.”

Click here to watch “Kitumba.”

Here are my reviews of previous Phase II episodes:

“Blood and Fire” Part 1 (2009)

“Enemy: Starfleet!” (2011)

“The Child” (2012)

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