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Josh Sees a Rough Cut of Star Trek Phase II: The Holiest Thing

August 27th, 2014
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Despite the lack of good “official” Star Trek these days, I think it’s a great time to be a Star Trek fan.  I have written often about several incredibly high-quality Star Trek fan productions, including Star Trek Continues and Star Trek Axanar.  But the first, and still in my mind the best, is Star Trek Phase II.  They have produced, over the last decade, nine full-length episodes of what could have been the never-made fourth season of the Original Series.  These episodes have all been terrifically entertaining and of an astounding high quality.  By their third episode, “To Serve All My Days,” the Phase II team was creating episodes that looked and felt totally professional, incredibly close to “real” Star Trek.  (They were also attracting the involvement of real Trek professionals, including Walter Koenig in “To Serve All My Days” and George Takei in the next episode, “World Enough and Time.”)

I feel like the Phase II group has been a little bit overshadowed recently by other Trek fan projects.  The group Star Trek Continues have set out to do exactly the same thing that Phase II undertook a decade ago, that is to create the never-made fourth season of the Original Series, and they have surged past Phase II in productivity, releasing three complete (and high quality) episodes in the last year.  (Click here for my review of their first episode, “Pilgrim of Eternity”, here for my review of their second episode, “Lolani”, and here for my review of their third episode, “The Fairest of Them All”.) Then there is Star Trek Axanar, a group setting out to make a feature film that will tell the story of Garth of Izar (from the Original Series episode “Whom Gods Destroy”) and his victory over the Klingons in the Four Years War (years before the events of The Original Series).  I raved about this project recently, praising their twenty-minute “Prelude to Axanar” short film for its incredibly high-quality, professional look, and for the astounding array of professional actors they attracted to fill out the roles.

Meanwhile, Phase II seems to have hit some speed-bumps.  They announced a big relaunch last summer, but they are still sitting on several episodes that have been filmed over the past several years.  They announced that their next episode, “The Holiest Thing,” would be released last February, then delayed it on the planned day of release.  What at first seemed like a delay of just a few days or weeks has stretched into months, with no sign of the episode in sight.  Now the Phase II team have said they won’t be releasing it next at all, instead bumping up another episode, “Mindsifter.”  But no release date has yet been announced for that either.  Meanwhile, other exciting episodes have no release date in sight (like the “Bread and Circuses” sequel, “Bread and Savagery”) or have been apparently abandoned altogether (like “Origins,” which they announced with much excitement back around the time of J.J. Abrams’ first rebooted Trek film, and which was supposed to tell the “real,” in-continuity tale of young James Kirk’s time at the academy.  I was really looking forward to that episode, but in spite all the footage filmed it seems like the Phase II team does not plan for this episode to be completed and released.)

As a big fan of Phase II, this is really disappointing!!  But I continue to root for the Phase II team to get things back on track and release more episodes soon.  They were the first project of this sort and still in my mind the leaders of the pack.  And so I eagerly await the release of their next completed episode, whatever it winds up being.

I’m excited, then, to report that I’ve been given a little tease.  I was very pleasantly surprised to see a link in my e-mail last week to a rough cut of “The Holiest Thing,” apparently a reward for my having been a backer of their last kickstarter effort.

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I can understand why this was not released, because while there is definitely the core of a great episode here, it is very clearly not finished.  The biggest problem is the sound, which is hugely inconsistent throughout the episode, and often within a single scene.  (In many scenes, one character’s voice would be very quiet, while the other character’s voice would be way too loud.). Often, the dialogue is hard to hear under the music or sound effects.  Visually, the episode also looks far less polished than even episodes the Phase II team created years ao.  Most of the scenes appear far too bright, almost washed out, to my eyes.  It makes the wonderful Enterprise sets look less real and more like, well, sets.

The episode’s story is strong, telling the story of Captain Kirk’s first meeting with Carol Marcus, and their romance.  I don’t think the timeline makes any sense, which is the episode’s biggest weakness for me.  The Wrath of Khan takes place about fifteen years after the Five Year Mission, right?  So David would only be 14 or 15 years old?  In my head, I’d always assumed that Kirk knew Carol back in his academy days, which helps make David be in his late twenties or early thirties by the time Wrath of Khan rolls around.  (My thinking in this is also influenced by Peter David’s great story of Kirk’s academy days and his meeting of Carol Marcus from DC Comics’ Star Trek Annual #2, from back in the nineties.). I’d really like to hear from the Phase II team how they felt that Kirk’s not meeting Carol until the fourth year of the five-year mission could work.

(And speaking of continuity, I’m not wild about the appearance of a Ferengi in this episode, either.  While I think the character works in the context of this story, I am really not interested in seeing Next Gen elements inserted into Classic Trek stories.  More problematically is that, here again, I don’t think the continuity works, as a hundred years later Picard and co. knew next to nothing about the Ferengi, as seen in “The Last Outpost.”)

But putting that all aside, “The Holiest Thing” gives us a lovely story of Kirk & Carol’s romance, paralleled by their investigation of an accident in her terraforming project.  I love this depiction of Carol, and the idea of seeing her being involved in a more traditional terraforming project prior to her work with Genesis, is clever.  There are some nice subtle seeds planted here (space seeds?) of where we know her story is going.  I particularly liked the mention of proto-matter, which as we know from Star Trek III is what ultimately leads to the failure of the Genesis project.  The actress playing Carol, Jacy King, is strong and does a very nice job in the role.  She gives Carol a nice balance of toughness and sweetness, along with a powerful intelligence.  We can see why Kirk is attracted to her, and also what sparks her interest in Kirk.

This is the first full-length episode in which we see Phase II’s Brian Gross as Captain Kirk (replacing Phase II’s creator, James Cawley).  I really liked Mr. Cawley as Kirk, and I will miss him moving forward.  That said, Mr. Gross does well in this initial outing.  He looks the part, and I think he is able to convey the Kirk cockiness while also his nobility and genuine sweetness.  Nr. Gross’ voice feels a little high to me, which was distracting at first, but by the end of the episode I had accepted Mr. Gross in the role completely.  I think he had strong chemistry with Ms. King as Carol.

In an episode spotlighting Kirk and Carol, I was pleased that Spock (played by Brandon Stacy) also had a lot to do in the episode.  I liked the arc of his relationship with Carol.  (Though I think Mr. Stacy might have overplayed slightly some of Spock’s confusion over social interactions.  He’s a little cruel to Carol for my taste, and I think his shrug dilutes the impact of a nice joke comment about the Ferengi’s ears.  I imagine that Leonard Nimoy would have given more of a deadpan delivery.)

Meawhile, John M. Kelley as Dr. McCoy has quietly become my favorite member of the ensemble.  In the earlier Phase II episodes I sometimes thought Mr. Kelley was the weakest link, but now I truly love his depiction of McCoy (and I will really miss him, as I have read that Mr. Kelley is leaving the series).  He has a terricfic scene with Kirk about halfway through the episode, in which we see that McCoy can see right through Kirk, who protests that he has no romantic interest in Dr. Marcus.  I love the way Mr. Kelley plays this moment, gentle with Kirk but also calling him on his bullshit.

I wish the rest of the supporting cast had a little more to do.  Uhura has been criminally given next-to-nothing to do in the last several Phase II episodes.  I would love to see this change.  Why couldn’t Uhura have come up with the plan that the new female character in science blue did?

Other than my beef about the continuity, my other main gripe with this episode is that I felt it was a little too by the numbers to me, with no real surprises.  I wish there had been a few more twists.  I mean, obviously Carol wasn’t involved in the deaths of her fellow terraformers, so there wasn’t too much tension there.  I also felt that, while I think the Kirk-Carol romance worked, it didn’t feel to me all that different than Kirk’s many other one-episode-long romances.  I’d like to believe that there was something special, something different, about his relationship with Dr. Marcus, that that meant something more to Kirk than his other flings.  But I didn’t get quite that feeling from the episode.  (I think ending the episode with Carol’s perspective, rather than Kirk’s, was a mistake.  I wanted to see the impact of the end of the relationship on Kirk.)

I mentioned above that the episode, visually, looked unfinished, and it does.  But all of the outer-space visual effects shots look completed, and they are astounding.  Absolutely amazing, gorgeous work by Tobias Richter and everyone else involved.  Holy cow the Big E looks amazing.  (I like this hybrid version of the Enterprise that Phase II has introduced, a version in between that of the Original Series and the refitted Enterprise seen in the movies.)  Really gorgeous stuff.

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(Though one editing note: the habit of fading into the shots of the Enterprise in orbit felt weird to me.  I feel like a cut rather than a fade would be more stylistically fitting, no?)

I am eager to see this episode in its finished form.  I think that once the sound is fixed and the color-timing completed, this will be an excellent installment of Phase II.  If they are also making any adjustments to the edit, I would suggest a little tightening here and there.  The episode feels a little long to me.  (And the ending, which I discussed above, feels not quite there yet.  Why do we have Carol saying goodbye to Kirk on the bridge, with the turbolift doors closing on her face, and then get a whole second goodbye scene immediately after that?  And why then the short little scene with Scotty?  I know he helped save her life in the episode’s opening, but why is that  short scene really the best note on which to end the episode?  As I commented above, I wanted the episode to end with Kirk and his reaction, so that we can feel the impact of this relationship on him.)

I continue to stand in astonished amazement at the incredible work the Phase II team has done and is doing.  I am eager to see ALL of their in-the-pipeline episodes completed and released.  I hope this will happen sooner rather than later.  When those episodes are released, believe me I will be one of the first ones watching them, and I’ll be here to share my thoughts!  For now, I am thrilled to have seen this rough cut of “The Holiest Thing,” and eager to see the finished, polished version.

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