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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 10, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Star Trek, Wolverine, and Young Performers

I'm not a great fan of the Star Trek franchise. When it first came on the air on the late sixties, I was a drama student in college, and even though I read science fiction, I saw little to enjoy about Gene Roddenberry's venture into sci-fi on TV.

The biggest hurdle was the dreadful acting. Only Leonard Nimoy gave consistently good performances; everybody else was often (and some of them always) embarrassingly bad.

Which was not inappropriate, since the scripts were usually awful, too. Roddenberry is given credit for writing about "deep" issues. But as far as I could tell, comparing his stuff to the written science fiction that was coming out at the time, Roddenberry wasn't deep, he was merely obvious.

And the "science" in Star Trek was laughable; for instance, no print sci-fi writer could have gotten away with such howlers as a "warp" drive that steps up numerically, like a quantum speedometer.

Eventually, I did see most of the episodes of the original series; or, I should say, I heard them. Mostly because there was a Star Trek marathon on some cable channel back in the mid-80s, and I had the TV on as I sat in the basement working on programs for a computer book I was writing.

However, because I took time off to sleep now and then, I managed to miss the two reputedly best episodes: "The Trouble with Tribbles" and "The City on the Edge of Forever." (I still haven't seen either one.)

Later, with Star Trek: The Next Generation on TV and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan in the theaters, I saw that it was possible to create serviceable -- even good -- science fiction within the Star Trek universe.

Still, I could take it or leave it, even at its best.

Skip 40 years from the end of the first run of the first series, and now in 2009 we have a new Star Trek movie. Big deal, right?

Yes, right, big deal.

Because even though the movie continues to use Roddenberry's asinine science, this movie has everything else I could have wished for: good writing, good acting, a powerful story, and the kind of ethical-dilemma philosophy that Roddenberry faked. Only it's presented subtly, intrinsically, so that "intellectuals" who have been trained by English literature classes to recognize only what is obvious miss it entirely.

And, best of all, this movie starts over. That is, it reinvents the Star Trek storyline with a new beginning, so that we can conceivably have intelligent, believable, well-acted, well-written Star Trek movies for years to come.

If you haven't seen the film, stop reading now and skip to the next section of this column -- you've heard my praise and my recommendation, and we have nothing more to talk about until you've seen it for yourself. If you keep reading, I'm going to say things that may spoil a few surprises for you -- though it won't spoil the movie, because the film is good enough that it doesn't depend on surprise.

The core of the backstory is this: In the future, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), as an old man (well, half-man, half-Vulcan), is ambassador to the Romulan Empire when an exploding supernova threatens to destroy Romulus itself. Spock tries to save the planet by dropping a "red matter" bomb into it that is designed to create a black hole that will suck in all the exploding mass and energy of the supernova. But he gets there just a little too late -- and Romulus is destroyed.

A Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana, the fine actor who played Hector in Troy and, with some irony, the title character in Romulus, My Father) survives because he was on a mining expedition. He sees his planet destroyed and blames Spock. He chases Spock through the new singularity and in the process is thrown backward in time.

Just as he emerges from the singularity, he encounters a Federation starship, murders the captain, and proceeds to entrap and destroy the ship. The first officer, George Kirk, has his pregnant wife with him; she goes into labor as he gets her onto an escape pod; then he dies in his ship as he protects the fleeing crew and passengers.

Nero waits at the exit point from the singularity until old man Spock comes through after him. Because of the time anomalies in the singularity, it takes twenty-five years.

Meanwhile, George Kirk's newborn baby, James Tiberius Kirk, is brought back to Earth and grows up to become the same Captain Kirk who was played by William Shatner in the first go-round.

Here's where things can get complicated -- especially for those who are unfamiliar with science fiction. Now, let's start with the recognition that time travel is actually impossible: the essence of time travel is a disruption in the order of causality in the universe, and it doesn't happen.

But there is a grand old tradition of accepting the fantasy of time travel as if it were scientific, and extrapolating from it in sci-fi stories. There are dozens of different "rules" of time travel -- the writer can pick any set of them, but then must remain consistent.

I've heard complaints about this Star Trek because it has the "paradox" of people meeting their younger selves. But the complainers are simply ignorant: Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have chosen a rule-set in which there is no paradox.

Here's how it works. When Nero (and later Spock) traveled backward through time and reentered the universe at exactly the point where James Tiberius Kirk was on the verge of being born, this causal anomaly forced the flow of time into an alternate path. It did not (and could not) destroy or erase anything that happened in the first go-round -- all of that happened, up to and including the destruction of Romulus.

All the episodes of Star Trek and its sequels and spinoffs remain "true," but they are on a different time-line -- in a different reality. This time, James Tiberius Kirk is born into a different reality, one in which his father is dead and he grows up as a juvenile delinquent. We're on a different timestream. There is a whole new future waiting to be invented.

With this time-travel rule-set, there are no paradoxes. When Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) meets Young Spock they are not the same person. They began the same way, yes, and had the same parents, but the universe diverged. This Young Spock could never have grown up into the Old Spock because they're not in the same reality. Old Spock lived his life: Young Spock, starting with the same parents and the same genes, will live a different one. He is not meeting "himself" and his future is not changed in such a way as to introduce paradox.

Which brings us to the deep ethical and philosophical issues that this movie handles so well (and subtly). In the midst of all the action and adventure, the movie demonstrates to us -- with delightful panache -- that character is destiny. Even though the universe is very, very different, nevertheless every major figure from the original Star Trek series ends up on the maiden voyage of the Enterprise, and through a series of internally logical events, Spock and Kirk (the young versions) end up as captain and first officer of the ship!

With one tiny glitch: Their roles are reversed. Kirk is first officer, Spock is the captain, and Spock promptly throws Kirk off the ship for insubordination.

I read one review in which the critic complained that the movie is too much about the friendship between Kirk and Spock. What a bonehead! (I mean that, of course, in the nicest possible way.) The issue is not friendship, it's which man will make the best military commander at a time of dire crisis.

They both have issues from their childhood; they both have habits of thought that will shape their style of command. And it happens that while Kirk's flaws are dangerous, Spock's are fatal. It is vital that Kirk assume command of the Enterprise in order to undo the damage that Nero is doing to the universe.

Every character in this new Star Trek is more interestingly written than his or her counterpart in the original; every actor is better than his or her predecessor (or, in the case of Nimoy and his successor, well-matched in talent). And with writers like these -- if the studio is smart enough to pay them whatever they need to keep them on the job -- we can keep on having terrific, unembarrassing new Star Trek movies.

There are also ethical dilemmas concerning revenge and justice. Eric Bana's tormented Nero is punishing people in this timestream for things that happened in the other one. In this timestream, Romulus has not been destroyed (and now probably won't be); but because he, a refugee from a different timestream, remembers seeing his home planet destroyed, he sees no injustice in deliberately destroying other people's home planets so they can feel what he felt. It is monstrously wrong, yet has its own weird logic; what other justice is possible for him to find?

Believe it or not, despite all these revelations, I have still only given you backstory or obvious plot points -- I have not spoiled any of the cool adventures along the way.

Just a bit about a couple of the actors. Chris Pine, who portrays Captain James T. Kirk, is a graduate of the teen-heartthrob movie mill. He played the romantic lead in the charming but slight Just My Luck, opposite Lindsay Lohan, and managed to get through Princess Diaries 2 with his talent intact. Suffice it to say that now he has a role worthy of his talent, and I hope that he never stops doing Star Trek movies as long as the scripts are good -- he'll have time enough for plenty of other movies in between.

Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, is most familiar to American audiences through the once-interesting TV series Heroes. He played the appalling villain Sylar, a character so loathsome that when it became clear that the writers had not killed him off at the end of the first season, I stopped watching, specifically because I had no need to see any more of that character.

This was not because Quinto is not a good actor; quite the contrary. It was because Quinto made Sylar so believable and disturbing that I chose to shun the series.

I thought Quinto would never be able to shed the image of Sylar; I thought his post-Heroes career would be as dead as Alan Alda's or Henry Winkler's post-Hawkeye and post-Fonz acting careers.

I underestimated Quinto's talent. He is not a one-trick pony. His Spock was excellent, allowing me to forget my loathing for Quinto-as-Sylar instantly and completely.

As for the other actors, let's just say that Zoe Saldana does a splendid job of making Uhura seem a brilliant, compassionate, and enigmatic character; Karl Urban as "Bones" McCoy makes the love-hate relationship between him and Kirk completely delightful (a surprise only because the original McCoy was played by the worst actor in the series); and Anton Yelchin as Chekov, Simon Pegg as Scotty, and John Cho as Sulu give real and compelling performances.

I wonder if this might not be the best space-adventure movie ever made.

*

X-Men Origins: Wolverine opened to about ten million dollars more than Star Trek, but that's probably because the previous X-Men movies were so much better than the previous Star Trek movies -- and because Hugh Jackman is a much bigger star than anybody in Star Trek.

David Benioff and Skip Woods did a creditable job of creating a script with some interesting relationships and fun twists and surprises, but it is clear that most of the time, money, and love were poured into the fight scenes. And since these are fundamentally silly and arbitrary, I was entertained without ever becoming even the slightest bit involved in the movie.

That is, I knew instantly that because Wolverine was in love with Kayla Silverfox, she was going to be killed. (Come on, it's not a spoiler, everybody knows it from the first moment.) Because Wolverine's brother, Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber at his comic best), became his enemy, I knew that there would be an obligatory confrontation, but they would end up supporting each other -- it's Film School 101. There was no escaping these obvious plot moves; in fact, their inevitability is part of the forward movement of the story.

It's all about watching people live through injuries that should have killed them. The wars of the gods, that's what we're seeing. And it was fun to watch, full of high-fructose corn syrup and monosodium glutamate. I got my money's worth. Yet there is absolutely no reason why I would ever want to watch even five seconds of this movie a second time.

One viewing gives you everything there is to get from it, unless you're a violent-super-being junkie, in which case my review is irrelevant to you anyway.

See it once, if you wish, especially if you'll be watching with somebody you like; but your life will not be poorer for missing it if you should happen not to go.

*

In the past week I had the chance to see three different stage presentations featuring the talents of Guilford County teenagers.

It began with On Stage, the 2009 Student Talent Showcase produced by Guilford County Schools. I went because my fifteen-year-old was in a musical number from Grease that was Weaver Center's most visible contribution to the show. (The less visible contribution was the fact that Weaver faculty and students also provided all the lighting and set changes for everybody.)

I only got there in time for the second half of the show, but what I saw made me wish I had come for the whole thing -- the first thing I heard was Annie Turner of Erwin Montessori School singing "Never Alone" with a voice that marks her as a future American Idol contestant.

All the acts were good, but the standouts were the Weaver musical number (and since that's the county's elite school of the arts, if it weren't among the best it would suggest we were wasting some tax money there), the jazz ensemble from Northern High School, and the international prize-winning Ben L. Smith High School Gospel Choir.

Then, for a complete change of pace, my family and I went to First Baptist Church for the world premiere of New Day, a charming musical-comedy treatment of Acts chapter 16.

Church theater is a hard thing to bring off, mostly because the solemnity of religion is often incompatible with the requirements of entertainment. Writer/composer/director Keith Rhodes simply blew away the requirement of "dignity" and modeled his bad guys directly on the Three Stooges!

The result was a weirdly wonderful mix of low slapstick and moving spirituality. The songs, which tended to be slow ballads, were a pleasure to hear. Even though the play was performed in the sanctuary (with the pulpit moved out of the way), the cleverly designed set made maximum use of the space.

Not all the actors in this show were young (though they were all younger than me!) -- grownup Scott Lyle (playing the apostle Paul) was especially effective as a singer.

But the standouts in the show were two young actors -- Fletcher Keeley as the jailor converted to Christianity during the play, and Alan Rhodes as the sweet-spirited, utterly sincere Silas.

Then, on this past Monday night, we went to see a playwriting showcase at Aycock Auditorium, involving groups of kids from a five middle and high schools, including the freshman drama students at Weaver.

Each of the schools had taken part in a playwriting project spearheaded by a grad student at UNC-G. Ms. Grad Student invited the students in each group to list the problems at their school, in the city, in the county, in the nation, in the world, and then write scenes or speeches about them.

Then the work of individual students was put together into ten-minute plays, which the groups themselves performed.

Of course, in the real world plays are not written by committee -- or, I should say, good plays are not. So the students still have no idea of how scripts are actually written. But two of the plays -- by the groups from Weaver and the Newcomers School -- managed to tell coherent stories.

The Weaver group did a comedy that earned many laughs from the audience, and the Newcomer group, while sometimes hard to understand (the point of the school is that the students arrive there not speaking English well enough to take part in a regular school), told a heartfelt story that was entirely based on real incidents in these kids' own lives.

Unfortunately, the way the program was organized almost forced the other groups to create, not drama, but propaganda; the plays had little to do with these students' own life experiences and a great deal to do with the politically correct agenda that is constantly pushed in the schools. (Weaver's group actually parodied this situation by depicting a teacher whose sole motivation seems to be "I don't want to lose my job!")

Despite the limitations of this didactic approach, the kids at all the schools did a good job of bringing their themes to life -- the verve of youth trumped the phoniness of the adult agenda-setters. And while the performances of the younger actors would have benefitted from some rudimentary instruction in such matters as talking loudly and slowly enough to be understood, all the kids who took part were a pleasure to watch and hear.

Somebody should have told Ms. Grad Student, however, that the audience comes to see the actors, not the adult who put them through their paces. Nor had anyone warned her about her habit of inadvertent self-revelation: When you repeat the assertion that "these are all their words" for the fourth and fifth time, the audience is bound to conclude that the statement isn't true. ("The lady doth protest too much, methinks," wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet.)

While the students' work was enjoyable, the project itself was wrongheaded in the extreme: The kids got a ludicrously false idea of what playwriting is, and the audience was given no chance to see what these kids might have created if they had been given the slightest chance to write what was in their hearts and on their minds. Only the Weaver and Newcomers groups were able to subvert the process enough to sneak something genuine through.

(As a test, we asked a group of high school students who knew nothing about the playwriting program to tell us the official approved list of "problems you're allowed to talk about in school." It was the identical list (bullying, discrimination, etc., all of them requiring children to see themselves as victims), and they rolled their eyes while reciting it.

(Missing from that official list -- and from the playwriting project -- were such topics of real concern to students as: parents who are out of work or are afraid of losing their jobs, broken and single-parent homes, uninvolved or overinvolved parents, the pressure to have sex, the pressure to commit to a sexual identity way too young, social pressure against academic achievement, incompetent teachers, intrusive school administrators that keep good teachers from doing their job, repressive school disciplinary policies that deprive good kids of the most basic human rights, the contempt with which students are usually treated at school, the inability to openly express religious belief, constant meaningless homework, loneliness and the longing to be part of a group of close friends, and of course the ubiquitous middle school and high school topic of who likes [or loves] whom and who is going together and who is breaking up.)

I teach writing -- fiction and plays -- and I've taught kids of that age many times. They can actually do remarkably good work, far better than this, if the adults get out of the way and don't insist on their own agenda. But that is unlikely to happen when the teacher thinks she's the star of the show and treats the young writers with condescension.

Still, from all three programs -- the talent show, the church musical, and the playwrights showcase -- I saw proof that our young people are talented, smart, and bold performers and creators of art.

And in a school district that sometimes acts as if they thought that only achievement in math and science were worthy measures of educational success, it's nice to know that the performing arts are still alive and well.


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