WHEN: May 31, 2014, 8:41pm. (Week 22, May 25-31.)
WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME.
FORMAT: Blu-ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Really didn’t want to start today’s viewing (my girlfriend literally pressed play for me), wish I was watching Star Trek. Eating Cheez-Its and drinking iced tea.
PREVIOUSLY ON CINEMA 52:
Oh, you know, whatever, I was complaining last week about why I find The Fellowship of the Ring so bland, because the second half is just nine characters with one goal. Snore, amirite?
And then this happened.
Yep, that’s a message from Cinemanaut John, and as usual, he knows how to hit me where it hurts. I love Star Trek. I can’t stand The Lord of the Rings. And yet, both Trek and Rings are centered around a diverse group of characters with the exact same goal. Has he derailed my argument? Am I just making excuses to justify my tastes? Is this truly a no-win scenario?
That’s right, I’m changing the conditions of the test. If both franchises suffer from the same “problem,” what keeps Trek fresh? I decided to preface today’s weekly viewing of Fellowship with three episodes of classic Star Trek, and so I couldn’t be accused of just picking the best ones, I polled my many nerd friends and asked for prime examples of a great episode, a mediocre episode, and a bad episode. The winners, in that order, were “Arena,” “The Trouble with Tribbles,” and “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Let’s compare the plot of each to The Fellowship of the Ring.
Oh, wait, before we get going, most people would say Star Trek is old enough that it doesn’t require spoiler alerts, but I consider TOS to be just below The Twilight Zone on the “it doesn’t matter how long it’s been around, it’s so good that you just plain don’t give away the ending, you cruel shit-hearted monster” scale.
At first glance, you probably see a man in a cheesy rubber lizard costume trying to make out with a strangely alluring Canadian, but there’s so much more to this scene. You see, Captain Kirk and his crew found a Federation outpost in ruins and pursued the attackers across space, but when they passed by an unknown planet, its powerful inhabitants (known as the Metrons) demanded that they end this shit and transported the captain of each ship down to the surface so they can settle the dispute face-to-face. While Kirk is left alone to construct a weapon that can defeat his enemy, his crew must watch from orbit in fear (as their ship will be destroyed if Kirk loses), and it turns out the Federation may actually be to blame for starting all of this. When Kirk finally gets the upper hand over the alien, he cannot bring himself to deliver the fatal blow. And thus, he has passed the test; the Metrons merely wanted to know how civilized the human race is.
Meanwhile, in The Fellowship of the Ring…
“Agh! A big monster! Let’s kill it!”
“Agh! A big monster! Let’s kill it!”
“Agh! A big monster! Let’s kill it!”
Sure, I’ll slay a few straw men right off the bat. “But Bill, they explain each monster in the book–” This is a movie, next argument. “But Bill, those creature effects are breathtaking!” Maybe, but the crappy-looking alien from Trek has an infinitely more complex and interesting story behind why it’s attacking. “But Bill, the Fellowship was just trying to survive!” Yeah, so was Kirk, and he had to build a cannon out of goddamned nothing before his opponent could stab him in the throat. That’s exciting.
“You… shall NOT… pass.”
Oh, and the entire time he was building that cannon? He was questioning his own code of ethics. Do we ever get a scene like that in Fellowship? Does anyone suggest, “Hey, maybe there’s a non-violent way to deal with this Sauron character”? Hell, the only voice of dissent is Boromir, but he proposes using the One Ring to kick evil ass even harder. Any more ideas, gang? Nope, bad guy is bad, let’s go kill him and every boring monster we meet along the way. It’s about as suspenseful as the instructions on a shampoo bottle.
I suppose now’s a good time to point out some similarities. In both “Arena” and Fellowship, the team gets split up, though Merry and Pippin don’t get kidnapped until two hours and forty minutes in, which is enough time to watch three good Star Trek episodes. Plus, Ensigns Gandalf and Boromir totally get redshirted to remind us how dangerous this mission is, though we’re supposed to care about them a little more than lowly Federation interns. Also, powerful weirdos in luminous dresses blab about a test or some shit.
Who wore it better?
“THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES”:
AKA The One Non-Trekkies Have Heard About. It’s a fun episode, to be sure, but from a story standpoint, I think it earns its place in the mediocre pile. Still, even though a lot of “The Trouble with Tribbles” is just shots of fuzzy lumps rolling around and cooing, it’s a good example of giving multiple characters on the same team different things to do.
- Captain Kirk, being the captain, has various problems to solve, like reluctantly guarding some space grain, keeping a dispute over a planet civilized, and getting covered in tribbles.
- Spock… actually doesn’t do a whole lot here, aside from being Kirk’s sounding board. He points his tricorder at things?
- Dr. McCoy has to study the tribbles’ biology so he can stop the trouble with them.
- Some of the crew have been granted shore leave. Uhura gets a tribble and soon everybody on the Enterprise wants one. Chekov looks cute, says things about Russia, and chills out. Scotty is supposed to keep an eye on the crew but instead keeps a fist on some Klingons.
Pictured: how all Trekkies feel when someone trash-talks the Enterprise.
Hey, those are all different things! And, save for Chekov’s yammering about Leningrad, they aren’t just random tasks the writers threw at each character. Every action adds more to the story, the conflict, the mystery, and the reveal, none of which I’ll bother giving a lengthy summary of before another smash cut to Fellowship being boring.
“Alright, gang, let’s all kill the thing together!”
There’s little to no variation in what each member of the Fellowship is doing. Some of them might be doing it better than the others, or with a big veiny revenge murderboner, but they’re still all doing the same thing (killing) in the same direction (wherever the generic, detached monster is). You could argue that Gimli is at least out for vengeance, but what does that possibly add to the action? Was he not going to fight the cave troll if his family had survived? “Hey, you guys get this one, me and Balin will be over here making margaritas”? Seriously, a gigantic pile of dead Dwarves adds less to the plot of Fellowship than a sentient hairy nutsack does to the plot of “The Trouble with Tribbles.”
And what do “TTwT” and TFotR have in common? I’d like to stop talking about both of them.
Ugh. This one.
Yup, that’s Captain Kirk giving a horsey ride.
This was the perfect episode for today’s experiment, because I found myself just as bored as I normally get watching Fellowship. Wonder why? It’s about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy being held hostage by an alien emperor with mind control powers, and the majority of the story centers on them doing silly shit against their will.
“Keep hitting yourself! Keep hitting yourself!”
Transitioning from Zombie Spock tapdancing to Zombie Spock singing is exactly like the repetitive string of battles in the second half of Fellowship. It doesn’t raise the stakes; they’re just different flavors of the same thing. It makes me want to shout at the screen: “Yeah, we get it! Mind control/monsters! Do something else!”
And guess what? Trek totally does something else. Kirk and friends figure out that the emperor gets his brain powers from a particular substance and they inject themselves with a double dose of that shit.
Meanwhile, when Fellowship takes a break from the repetition, it’s… whatever this crap is.
Look, I’m not gonna pretend like the solution to several Star Trek conundrums isn’t technobabble and horseshit, but at the very least, it’s more interesting because you get to watch the characters outsmart the problem. In Fellowship, any sneaky advantage like the mithril-coat or that bottle of star water is just some plot coupon given to the protagonist by someone else. Hobbits get handed shit. Starfleet builds shit.
THE FINAL WORD:
I could list many more elements from these three Trek episodes that I think would have made The Fellowship of the Ring, particularly the second half, a far more interesting film about a diverse group of characters with a single goal, but I want to end on a general observation about science fiction vs. fantasy.
Fantasy is about where we’ve been. Science fiction is about where we’re going.
I’ll keep the Joseph Campbell to a minimum here, but fantasy has always struck me as an analysis of society’s old ways of thinking: kill this, screw that, and here comes a mystical creature that exists solely to represent some part of the human psyche. Science fiction absolutely has some of these same elements, but of the two genres, it seems to be the one that asks us to maybe not try the killing option, and while we’re at it, here come five more ethical quandaries that we’re barely prepared to start discussing as a species, but we’d better hurry up. Fantasy may age better due to its primal nature, but at least science fiction is bothering to bring up these questions in the first place.
The three Star Trek episodes I watched today were created to excite and entertain, but they also tackled issues of mercy, responsibility, freedom, accountability, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and our place in the universe. The Lord of the Rings is about a poisonous, addictive, magical form of pure evil that can only be stopped through destruction, and that’s a very old way of thinking indeed.
ONE THING THAT WOULD HAVE IMPROVED THE MOVIE:
Not J.J. Abrams, that’s for damn sure.
Lens flare jokes: hacky, dated, easy to Photoshop. Good night!