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It’s after midnight but I’m still up watching this video of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell tap dancing to Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” in Broadway Melody of 1940. Ever since I was six years old, watching Savion Glover on Sesame Street I’ve know the truth — that tap dancing is actually the coolest thing ever. People who know me know would probably think it’s funny that I took some tap lessons when I was a kid (and, yeah, I can still bust out a time step if I have to).
So far, as I’ve been writing about the scenes that make Star Trek great, I’ve been shying away from the scenes everyone thinks of—Riker facing off against Locutus at the end of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1,” for instance. The reason is I’m making a distinction: just because it is a big moment doesn’t mean it’s a great scene. In fact, to me the greatest scenes are usually the quiet ones. I’d argue that it’s harder to make a great scene out of a big moment than out of a small one because big moments are so goal driven. Certain things have to happen in order to satisfy pre-determined plot points, and it’s difficult to add the little something extra necessary to make it a great scene as well. Maybe there’s even a temptation for writers, directors and actors to get lazy at big moments. The big moment is so interesting in its own right there’s the temptation not to put in the extra effort to make a great scene out of it as well, while in small moments the creative types will work extra hard to make sure the audience isn’t bored.
Well, the death of Spock at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is both—it’s definitely a big moment, but it’s also a great scene. It’s the climax of the entire movie, and it also might be the best scene William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy do together in the entire Star Trek series.
There is a misconception about Star Trek II that I want to address before I talk about the scene more. Some people claim that Star Trek II is the best Star Trek movie because it has a strong antagonist. Strong antagonists, the theory goes, are missing from Star Trek and as a result the drama is undercut. Therefore, nearly every Star Trek movie since Star Trek II has been trying to duplicate the feat of creating an antagonist like Khan—I remember Soran, the Borg Queen, Ru’afu, Shinzon and Nero all being compared to Khan by the producers of the various films. In the case of the antagonist of the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness (John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch), he has not only been compared to Khan, there is an unbelievably persistent rumor that he actually is Khan.
People who think that the reason The Wrath of Khan is so good is because it has a strong antagonist have been reading too much Syd Fields. Yes, an understanding of basic dramatic structure can improve an ailing narrative, but you can’t chalk up Star Trek II’s greatness to a cheap storytelling formula. Especially since Khan is not a strong antagonist. He’s a madman with a two-dimensional motivation who spends about twenty minutes on screen in the entire movie, most of it sitting on the bridge of his stolen starship surrounded by his hair metal lackies. During the film, he never comes face to face with any of the heroes of the movie, except for a scene at the beginning with Chekov—Chekov! Ricardo Montalban’s performance is memorable in spite of the material, not because of it. In fact, most of what is interesting about Khan as a character comes from his original appearance in “Space Seed,” and it’s all irrelevant here. Any unhinged madman bent on revenge could have filled Khan’s place in the film. Please take note: It isn’t good villains that make good Star Trek. What makes good Star Trek is using a sci-fi adventure story to explore what it means to be human—and Star Trek II is one of the best examples of this winning strategy.
The aspect of human existence explored in The Wrath of Khan is mortality, not a subject that Star Trek touches very often. The entire movie is full of references to mortality. As it begins, we learn that Starfleet gives every aspiring captain a test designed to impress upon them that death is sometimes inevitable, and to get an idea of how each candidate would choose to meet hers or his. “How we face death is at least as important as how we face life,” Kirk wisely tells Saavik, but we soon learn he hasn’t taken these words to heart. Our swashbuckling captain is now a middle-aged admiral facing another depressing birthday—he nostalgically collects antiques, needs reading glasses, and believes the best days of his life were over the day he gave up command of the Enterprise. No matter what he said to Saavik, it’s clear Kirk isn’t facing death very well, but he’s facing it a heck of a lot better than Khan is. Unable to accept the death of his wife, Khan has gone absolutely off his rocker. His hatred is so single-minded that even his most loyal minion, Joaquin, questions Khan, suggesting maybe Khan should just let it go. The territory that Kirk and Khan are fighting over, coincidentally, is the possession of the Genesis Device, a miracle of Federation science. Khan doesn’t seem to realize why he wants Genesis so badly, but when you consider that Khan can’t accept death and Genesis can create life from nothingness it becomes a whole lot clearer. The device was created by Kirk’s erstwhile love and his son David. It is said that having children is the closest human beings can get to immortality. If that’s true, it’s of no use to Kirk because his son doesn’t even know who he is; in fact, he believes Kirk embodies all that’s wrong in the world and tries to kill him. It all leaves Kirk feeling old and worn out. And no wonder. Kirk reveals to his stranded landing party that he cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test—he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario, he has always thought that if he’s clever enough he can defeat death every time, forever. That’s the cause of his unhappiness—age has begun to teach him otherwise. The whole thing comes to a head with an actual no-win scenario. As Kirk sits by doing nothing, Spock saves the ship in the most logical way, by accepting death, and Kirk must do what Khan never could. He must watch as the person he cares most about in the universe dies, and he must accept it.
This actually happens in two scenes: the actual death scene rightfully focuses on Spock, and then the funeral scene where we see Kirk’s reaction in the eulogy. Both the writers and Nimoy nail the death scene. Spock’s dignity is spot on—the way he stands stiffly and adjusts his tunic even as he is dying. First he intellectualizes, talks of logic. Then he mentions the Kobayashi Maru test, in what almost seems like a bit of gallows humor. Spock always was a funny man. Then he begins to collapse, and at the same time as his dignified bearing slips away he lets go of his trademark stoicism in order to use his last moments to say what is most important: “I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper.” And William Shatner may be accused of overacting sometimes, but the look on his face of a man who has been completely destroyed is about as perfect as it could be. In the funeral scene, we see a man who is grieving but who has accepted his friend’s death. Spock died as logically as he lived, Kirk says, reminds his friends that life follows death as surely as death follows life, and ends with, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.” What does he mean by this? Human is a loaded word in Star Trek. The entire series is about defining what it means. No definitive definition has emerged, but whatever human means on Star Trek, we’re told that Spock embodies it.
The film ends with Kirk’s reconciliation with his son — his connection to the future, and therefore immortality — and then a scene on the bridge where Bones asks Kirk how he feels and Kirk says, “I feel young.” Lesson learned.
Some might argue that most people don’t even notice all this philosophical stuff when they watch Star Trek II. They enjoy it because of the space battles, period. I disagree. You don’t have to notice it to be affected by it. On a deep level, most people are concerned with the big questions of human existence, and when those questions are asked they are interested. We just resonate at those frequencies. We don’t have to notice. It can happen on an unconscious level. Not everyone sees the systematic discussion of mortality in almost every aspect of Star Trek II, yet they feel it at a deep level and are left wondering, “Why was that so much better than Star Trek Nemesis?” And then they say to themselves, “Well, I guess it’s because it has a strong villain…”
A Federation scientist wants to disassemble Data to learn how to create more androids like him to improve the quality of life of the entire Federation. Only one problem — Data isn’t so keen on risking his life in the scientist’s experiment but Federation law doesn’t give a machine the right to refuse. Paging Patrick Stewart — the scenery is in desperate need of chewing!
Unlike the first entry in this series, “The Measure of a Man” is included on just about anyone’s top 10 list of TNG episodes. Broadcast when Next Gen was still trying to find its footing, it’s often considered to be an early example of the greatness the series would achieve in the following years. The reason is simple. “The Measure of a Man” is one of the finest examples of what Star Trek does best: it tells us a story about a group of characters, but that story is actually about something much bigger. The episode starts out being all about Data and his ability to refuse a Starfleet order. Not even Picard, who is defending Data’s rights, realizes how much more is at stake — not just Data’s rights but the rights of any and all future artificial lifeforms in the Federation. It takes a chat with Guinan for Picard to realize this (isn’t that always the way?), but once he sees that a monstrous injustice is unfolding in front of him, nothing will stop him from making sure his beloved Federation remains an unreproachable beacon on justice.
The crew has spent the entire episode hunting down a rogue Federation captain who’s waging a one-man war against the Cardassians. They catch him on the verge of claiming another victim. Time for a giant space battle, right?
More like time for a supporting character to upstage the main cast by singing an old Irish folk song with the villain.
Up to this point, “The Wounded” wasn’t really such a good episode. The Cardassians, introduced here for the first time, are not yet showing their full potential as villains. We’ve spent a lot of time watching battles between dots on radar screens as Data explains the epic space battle that the show’s budget doesn’t allow it to show us. Captain Maxwell doesn’t come across as likeable or particularly unlikeable in his confrontation with Picard, just kind of bland. Even the background we’re getting about O’Brien’s wartime experiences, in a long monologue delivered to a former enemy, isn’t as moving as it’s intended to be. When O’Brien beams over to his former captain’s ship to convince him not to make the biggest mistake in his life, we’re expecting him to do exactly what everyone in this episode has been doing ad nauseum up to this point: talk, talk, talk. Instead, they sit down and sing a song that was loved by one of their fallen comrades and by the time they’re done it’s all over.
Good Star Trek episodes usually don’t have a battle at the end. The crew normally finds some way of coming to terms with the bad guy and prevail peacefully. What makes this scene great is that it’s so unexpected. Part of that is the content of the scene, and part of it is the fact that there isn’t a main character in sight — O’Brien, at this point, is just a recurring guest star who only got a first name a few weeks earlier, yet for the first time ever the day is saved without any assistance from a series regular. It was unprecedented. If you’re wondering when Colm Meaney got his job on Deep Space 9, it was right here.
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Wow. This is a moving video. I’m really grateful that, even though I was never the most popular kid in school, I never had to spend every day in this kind of environment. My particular school wasn’t nearly so mean spirited, or maybe I was just normal enough or just thick-skinned enough that no one thought I was worth teasing. But I know so many people who went through this sort of thing. While I was watching this video, I kept thinking how brave it was for the filmmaker and poet to make this. This kind of raw sincerity makes you extremely vulnerable, which is doubly impressive considering how deep the wound obviously is already. It’s inspiring that someone would take a risk like that in order to perfectly express what millions have felt.
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I’m spending the weekend in LA, visiting Teresa. Yesterday, we walked all over Hollywood, hiked in Runyon Canyon and went to Griffith Observatory. We also spent a large amount of time discussing a writing project we are going to work on together — a sample TV pilot for our portfolios. I love being a little sunburned in February!
This weekend, I came up with an interesting solution to an old problem and I’m having a good time implementing it. I have to send in a 10,000 word excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Obscenity, to apply for a fellowship, and I don’t know what 10,000 words to choose. So what I’ve decided to do is stitch together some of the best parts (of what I have written so far) breaking it into short, choppy chapters that jump around in time and changes narrators frequently, stitched together by fragments of exposition from what used to be the prologue.
I’m calling it my “Quick Cut” for the novel’s prologue and first three chapters — normally about sixty pages, cut down to thirty — but it’s turning out better than just a clever way to excerpt. I really like the new way the story is organized and I’m considering applying this experiment to the entire novel once I’m a little further along. When I described it to my roomie, she said it sounded like The Blind Assassin, which has been on my reading list since I went to a Margaret Atwood reading in the fall, so I started it last night.
It is really nice to feel this inspired to write. Because of a crazy time at work, I wasn’t able to get much done in the fall. My New Year’s Resolution has been to write a little bit each day and I have mainly kept to it, but I have been wondering when this constant movement forward might translate into some actual momentum. Fingers crossed, yesterday may have been the start of something!