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06 December, 2009

“… To Boldly Go Where Some Have Gone Before …”: Rebooting the Trek, Forty-five Years Later

Trekkers are a curious breed. We have a fanatical devotion to a television series that ended its network run long before many of us were born. We spend our time pouring over blueprints and technical manuals for ships and devices that don’t exist; we translate works of literature such as the Bible and Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a fictional, alien language; and we ceaselessly discuss and debate arcane points of the history of the future… a future that exists only as part of one of the most lucrative franchises ever to spring from Hollywood.

In 1964, roughly around the time a baby Unimonster made his debut, a network executive named Gene Roddenberry was pitching an idea for a new hour-long Sci-Fi series, in his words a, “Wagon Train to the Stars …” concept. NBC liked the idea, and ordered that a pilot episode be shot. That first episode, “The Cage,” starred Jeffery Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, of the United Earth Ship Enterprise. M. Leigh Hudec, aka Majel Barrett, the future Mrs. Roddenberry, was cast as his female First Officer, nameless save for Pike’s nickname for her, “Number One.” His Science Officer, played by Leonard Nimoy, was an alien named Spock, a native of the planet Vulcan. The network rejected that version of the show, but, in a highly unusual move, asked Roddenberry to recast many of the roles and shoot another pilot. This time, a young Canadian actor named William Shatner played a new Captain, named James Tiberius Kirk. Shatner, who had learned his craft in Toronto theaters, was a relative unknown to American audiences, as was Nimoy, whose character of Spock was the only one to survive from the first pilot. Promoted to First Officer, the pilot began with a, no pun intended, fascinating interplay between he and Kirk, an interplay that would set the tone for the pair’s friendship that would become the driving theme of the Original Series.

The network purchased that second pilot, entitled “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and slated Star Trek on the fall, 1966 schedule. The regular cast would include Shatner, Nimoy, DeForest Kelley as the irascible Chief Surgeon Leonard “Bones” McCoy, James Doohan as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, Nichelle Nichols as the communications officer, Lt. Uhura, and George Takei as the helmsman, Lt. Sulu. On September 8th, 1966, NBC aired Star Trek's premiere episode, “The Man Trap.” For the next two-and-a-half years, fans of the series fought an almost constant war with the network to keep it on the schedule. NBC, dismayed by lower than expected ratings and the relatively high production costs per episode, shuffled it from time slot to time slot, and finally decided to cancel the series at the end of the second season.

However, the show’s fans banded together to mount an unprecedented letter-writing campaign to save Star Trek, one that actually succeeded. The show was back… at least, for another season.

However, NBC had washed its hands of the series, burying it in a metaphorical dead zone of a time slot—Friday nights at 10pm. Despite its devoted core of supporters, the show couldn’t be rescued a second time. As the third season ended, with the episode “Turnabout Intruder,” Star Trek ended its network run after seventy-nine broadcast episodes. Though most observers would write “the end” to the series at this point, a dedicated group of fans, led by a California housewife named Bjo Trimble, refused to let the show die a quiet death. A series of novelizations of the broadcast episodes fed the appetites of the show’s fandom, now referred to disparagingly as “Trekkies,” until the fall of 1973. CBS and Filmation teamed to resurrect the franchise, albeit in animated form, for the network’s Saturday morning children’s line-up. The original cast returned to voice the characters, and the series enjoyed very good production values and excellent writing. In general, the Animated Series was on a creative par with the Original Series, with several episodes, most notably “Yesteryear,” equal to the best of the live-action scripts.
The Animated Series lasted an even shorter time than the original version had, just 22 episodes, but it would leave a lasting impression on both fandom, and the franchise. Five years later, elements common to the Original Series episode “The Doomsday Machine” as well as one of the animated episodes, “One of Our Planets is Missing,” would be combined with the plot of the Original Series episode “The Changeling” to create the script for the big-screen relaunch of the franchise, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.

In the years since the cancellation of the series in 1969, the popularity of the series had spread via syndication. Almost from the time NBC pulled the plug on the show, it was running daily on stations around the country, including the Unimonster’s hometown. A new generation of fans fell in love with Roddenberry’s vision of the future, and an entire industry grew to feed the hunger of those fans for anything relating to their beloved Trek. Blueprints of the Starship Enterprise were a prized acquisition for the ten-year-old Unimonster, as was the Star Fleet Technical Manual. Both consumed much of my annual income of $52, and I gladly forked it over. Items such as the AMT/Ertl models of the U.S.S. Enterprise (complete with decals for every starship!), the shuttlecraft Galileo, the Klingon and Romulan warships, even life-sized replicas of the Phaser, Communicator, and Tricorder were huge with me.

However, the crown jewels of my personal collection were the Mego action figures of the crew of the Enterprise. I had them all—Kirk, Spock, Scotty, even the Klingon and Romulan figures. More importantly, I had the Enterprise Bridge playset, complete with Captain’s Chair and working Transporter. Nothing captured my childhood attention as thoroughly as Trek did, not even my beloved monsters.

So I eagerly welcomed the premiere of the return of my favorite show… this time, to the big screen. The 13th of December, 1979, was my little sister’s eighth birthday, and I, being the loving big brother that I was, promised I’d take her to the movies in celebration. Little did she know that the Friday prior to her birthday was the date of the STAR TREK opening. Thus it was that she found herself sitting, with her big brother, amidst an eager crowd of his fellow Trekkers as the curtain rose on the rebirth of the franchise. There’s no doubt she failed to appreciate the significance of her birthday present that year, but that December in 1979 cemented Star Trek’s place in pop culture. Though that first effort was less than impressive, story-wise (it was initially intended to be a new television series, titled Star Trek II…), more movies followed, and new landmarks in the franchise’s existence were reached. In 1982, Ricardo Montalban reprised his role as Khan Noonian Singh from the Original Series episode “Space Seed,” in the best of the Trek films, Nicholas Meyer’s STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. In a seminal moment for the series, Spock dies saving the Enterprise from Khan’s dying act of vengeance. Two years later, Kirk & Co. rescue Spock, reanimated by the energies of the Genesis Planet, but at the cost of both Kirk’s son and the Enterprise herself. Though not as well done as the previous outing, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK marked Nimoy’s debut as a director on the series, and he did well enough to earn the big chair for the next film as well.
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME did something that the previous three films had completely failed to do: Recapture the light-hearted humor and fun of the Original Series. 1986 marked the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut, and the movie’s release was accompanied by a spirit of celebration that electrified fandom. The movie itself helped with this, as it was easily the most successful of the films to date. The humor that was so much a part of many of the series’ best episodes returned full-force, and Trekkers, weary of the bleak tone set by the previous films, loved it.

In 1987, Star Trek returned to the small screen, with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Billed as closer to Roddenberry’s original vision than what the movies had become, fans of the Original Series at first hated the new concept. Derided as a “… kinder, gentler …” Trek, TNG seemed to want to eliminate all conflict from the galaxy. The Captain was French, the Bridge crew included a psychologist, and the helmsman was a Klingon. It was Star Trek—as envisioned by Mr. Rogers. Replacing Shatner’s Kirk in the center seat was Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, a cultured, urbane Frenchman played by British actor Patrick Stewart. Stewart—in his late 50’s, thin, balding—made a singularly unimpressive choice for a starship captain, at least at first glance. However, he did have one advantage over Shatner that wasn’t readily apparent to Trekkers—he could act. Though the debate would never be settled, as it came down to a matter of personal preference, Stewart was able to win over most in the Trek community.

According to the new creative direction, the old, established races with whom the Federation had battled were no longer important. The Klingons were allies, and the Romulans were isolated behind the neutral zone. The new threat was the Ferengi, a race of uber-capitalists interested only in the acquisition of wealth—a rather blatant political commentary on the excesses of the late ‘80’s.

In time, the series would evolve, finding its metaphorical testicles as the Ferengi were relegated to a comic relief status in favor of new threats and new dangers, such as the Borg, an enemy that would become the franchise’s arch-villains, crossing over to every subsequent series. Landmark episodes such as “The Inner Light,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Best of Both Worlds,” and “Chain of Command” set a standard as not only excellent episodes of Star Trek, but excellent stories in general. By the fourth season, fans had come to accept the series as a worthy follow-up to the original, and the franchise’s overall success had engendered plans for another Trek series.
More movies had followed STAR TREK IV, of course. Shatner himself was the next to take the director’s chair, with 1989’s STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER. Easily the worst Trek film of all, Trekkers heartily ridiculed this film, from the preposterous premise to the glaring technical mistakes to the quite frankly insane mischaracterizations. The opinion of Trek fandom was virtually unanimous—instead of sending the Enterprise in search of God, it should’ve been sent after competent direction. That mistake was corrected when it was announced that the director of STAR TREK II, Nicholas Meyer, would helm the next film. STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY marked the end of the original cast’s run, though individual members of that cast would continue to appear across the franchise. It also cemented in the minds of Trekkers the notion of the “odd-Movie” curse. Since STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, each odd-number film in the series had been panned by critics and criticized by the fans, while the even-numbered films were much better in terms of both quality and reviews. STAR TREK VI did nothing to dispel these notions, as it was far better than the previous film.

January 1993 saw the debut of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, a second concurrent Trek franchise. If the original Trek had been envisioned as a “Wagon Train to the Stars,” then DS9 was “Gunsmoke in the Stars”—with Avery Brooks’ Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko as Marshal Dillon, and the abandoned Cardassian ore processing facility now known as Deep Space 9 as Dodge City. Instead of traveling to new planets and meeting new races each week, they would remain in place, while those new races and adventures would come to them. Though Trek purists—the Unimonster among them—at first hated the concept of DS9, the series’ producers, just as had happened with TNG, moved the show in a direction that was closer to what the Trekkers expected. New plotlines—involving a growing militant movement that had evolved from the Bajoran resistance to the Cardassian occupation, known as the Maquis, took the series from the mediocrity of its first two seasons to show promise of better things to come. Then, two additions, first of Michael Dorn’s character Worf from TNG, after its seven-year run had ended, and then what the series needed most of all—mobility. The Starship Defiant, an experimental warship designed to counter the Borg threat, was permanently assigned to the station, with Sisko as its captain. Gradually, more and more of the episodes were set away from DS9, and the …Trek part of Star Trek reentered the series.

One area of improvement that was consistent from TNG to DS9 was writing, particularly in the area of story arcs that would be revisited from time to time, creating a connection and a sense of continuity between series. Beginning with the Klingon invasion of Cardassia in season 4, and transitioning into the beginning of the Dominion War by the end of the fifth season, DS9 exemplified some of the best Trek ever, as the vast scope of the conflict played out over the remainder of the series’ run. Prior to this, combat in space, at least in the Trek universe, was ship-to-ship, small-scale action. The single fleet engagement, against the Borg at Wolf 359, occurred off-screen, seen only in it’s aftermath, or in flashback. Now, entire fleets did battle—Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Cardassian, and Jem’Hadar—and nothing and no one was considered sacred. Deep Space 9 was captured and retaken, the Defiant was destroyed, even Sisko died at the end.

1994 witnessed the handing off of the torch, as the crew of The Next Generation took over the feature film series, with STAR TREK: GENERATIONS. Though better than most critics—and most Trekkers—give it credit for, the “Odd-Movie” curse reared its head once more, and many fans came away less than satisfied. Two momentous events make the film notable in the franchise’s history, however: The destruction of the Enterprise-D, and the death of Capt. James T. Kirk. Of course, the fact that Kirk ‘died’ twice in the film, each in spectacular, dramatic fashion, was not lost on those Trekkers who weren’t die-hard Shatnerphiles. Still, his final exit from the Trek stage was handled as well as was possible, considering the attendant melodrama and hype.

Trek was at it’s peak in 1994-95, with one series just ending it’s seven-year run, a second well underway, the film franchise going strong, and a third series, Star Trek: Voyager, just beginning. As was becoming the norm for Star Trek series, the initial response from fans was not overwhelmingly positive. The premise was closer in spirit to what Trekkers wanted from the franchise however, with the starship Voyager, commanded by Capt. Kathryn Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew, after Genevieve Bujold backed out), pursues a Maquis vessel into the Badlands, and both ships disappear, only to find they’ve been transported to the Delta Quadrant, 75,000 light-years from home. Both ships are damaged during the event and suffer casualties, including the medical staff of Voyager. The two crews band together to return to the Alpha Quadrant—a journey that will take decades to complete.

By November of 1996, the two Trek series were both doing well, and fans were looking forward to the upcoming release of the next Trek feature, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT. This would be an “Even” movie, and hopes were high for it. DS9 primed the fans for a month-long Trek celebration by revisiting one of the most popular episodes of the preceding 30 years, the 1967 episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” In “Trials and Tribble-lations,” computerized imaging and editing was used to blend the Defiant, along with the DS9 crew, into the Original Series episode. The plot concerned Arne Darvin (Charlie Brill), who had been exposed as a Klingon agent in the original episode, hijacking the Defiant to return to the past and complete his mission. While the story was well-written, humorous and full of in-jokes designed to thrill devoted Trekkers (such as Worf’s discomfort when asked about the “odd” appearance of the Klingons in this era…), what really excited Trekkers such as the Unimonster were the CGI models of the Enterprise, Deep Space Station K-7, and the Klingon cruiser. The combination of old and new worked perfectly, and the episode rapidly became one of DS9’s most popular.

But the big event that November was STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT. Directed by Jonathan “Cmdr. Riker” Frakes, FIRST CONTACT introduced a new starship Enterprise—a big, beefy, beautiful ship that looked bred for combat—and that’s what it would find, within minutes of it’s introduction, as the Borg once more began an assault on Earth. This was, at least in this Trekker’s opinion, the best movie since THE WRATH OF KHAN. Fans and critics alike were pleased with the film, and with it the TNG crew took the reins of the franchise firmly in hand.
As DS9 neared the end of it’s run, rumors ran high among Trekkers as to what would replace it, or even if it would be replaced. Paramount’s decision to launch it’s own broadcast network, UPN, and to headline it with Star Trek: Voyager was not a good one for the franchise. Though DS9’s ratings on Fox were never great, they were far better than Voyager could manage on UPN. Star Trek, in whatever incarnation, had always been an expensive series to produce, and low ratings did not sit easily with those in charge of the pursestrings. More than once, Voyager’s cancellation looked to be probable, though following the DS9 finale in June of 1999 the likelihood of that diminished.

Six months before the DS9 crew bid farewell with the two-part episode “What You Leave Behind,” the TNG crew was back in theaters with their third feature film, STAR TREK: INSURRECTION. Easily the most disappointing of the TNG films, INSURRECTION might have made a decent broadcast episode; as a major feature film, it was completely lacking. The script, by Trek veteran Michael Piller, is bland and derivative, and the direction, once more by Jonathan Frakes, does nothing to counter the episodic feel of the movie.

The lackluster reception the film received from the fan base did not help convince the powers that be that there was a demand for yet another entry in the Trek franchise, but the strengthening of Voyager’s numbers, now that they were the only Trek in town, did much to show there was yet life left in the franchise. As Voyager began it’s final season in the fall of 2000, plans were already underway to replace it. Rumors abounded regarding the shape of the new series, including one that suggested it would be set at Starfleet Academy. As Voyager’s journey back to the Alpha Quadrant reached a successful conclusion, in “Endgame,” special promos informed Trekkers that the next series would take the franchise back into its own prehistory, back before there was a Janeway, before Sisko or Picard, Kirk or Spock, even before the Federation. Back to when there was just... Enterprise.

Enterprise was set more than one hundred years prior to our first meeting with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701. Under the command of Capt. Jonathan Archer, played by former Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula, the Starship Enterprise, NX-01, leaves Earth in the year 2151. The first starship capable of traveling at warp 5, it opens up the area of the galaxy that will become the Federation for exploration. Once again, Trekkers demonstrated an unwillingness to accept new concepts in Trek, nor did events unrelated to the Trek universe help create a welcoming environment for the new series. Two weeks prior to the premiere episode, “Broken Bow,” the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place. Though the national mood would soon turn nostalgic, in search of the emotional equivalent of comfort food, we were still too close to the attacks to want to focus on escapist fare.

Enterprise had difficulty attracting even the long-term Trekkers to it’s audience, primarily due to the difficulty of finding it. Though both UPN and Time-Warner’s WB Network claimed to be viable broadcast networks, their penetration on a national level was never impressive. In fact, for most of Enterprise’s four-year run, the Unimonster was unable to view it. The terminally low ratings the series endured throughout it’s run were less a reflection of the show’s inherent quality, which was easily the equal of Voyager, than of the fact that the fans who would’ve watched the show couldn’t find it.

In December of 2002, the TNG crew made its final film appearance, in STAR TREK: NEMESIS. Planned from the outset as the cast’s swan song, it had the largest budget of any Trek film to date, a reported $60 million, and as it would be the tenth feature—an even numbered film—hopes were that it would end the franchise on a high note. Such was not to be the case.
Whether it was the unfocused direction, the poor writing, or the impression of tiredness that permeated the cast, NEMESIS completely failed to deliver what Trekkers were hoping to see. With a domestic box-office take of only $43 million, NEMESIS didn’t approach being successful, and for the first time since it’s rebirth in 1979, the Trek seemed to be running out of steam—or deuterium, as the case may be. That sad prognosis seemed confirmed by the early departure of Enterprise from the airwaves. In May of 2005, after only four seasons, it ended it’s run with “These are the Voyages…” and for the first time since 1987, the soundstages at Paramount, once dominated by Star Trek, fell quiet.

But two qualities Trekkers have in abundance are patience and loyalty, and none of us believed Trek was gone for good. As rumors of a new Trek movie began filtering out of Hollywood, one phrase kept repeating itself, one phrase calculated to drive old-school Trekkers crazy—“new Kirk, new Spock …” It soon became apparent that the producers intended to take the Trek back to the beginning, and it would not be an overstatement to say that Trekkers were very concerned. The further news that J. J. Abrams was attached to direct did not improve the outlook much; not only did he not have a history with the franchise, he was on record as not even being a fan of the series. This had every indication of being a disaster in the making—it would even be an “odd movie.”

However, despite Abrams lack of Trek credentials and previous lack of knowledge of the show, he went to school on Trekkers and just what it would take to satisfy them. Abrams understood that Trekkers are a hard to please group under the best of circumstances, and two disappointing movies in a row, as well as the failure of Enterprise to capture an audience, had convinced many that the only good Trek was old Trek. Now some newcomer to the franchise was going to “reinvent” the relationship that began it all? Abrams had one shot to get it right, and fortunately for Trekkers everywhere, he nailed it.

First was the incredibly difficult task of casting actors that could take over from icons. Shatner, Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig lived in these roles for more than forty years—no one could simply replace them. The hardest shoes to fill, of course, would be those of the two leads, Shatner and Nimoy.

Whatever his weaknesses as an actor (and there are a plethora of them), it cannot be denied that William Shatner IS James T. Kirk. His mannerisms, the cadence of his speech, even the way he romanced the ladies became fodder for comedians and impressionists who grew up with Kirk on the tube, and ultimately became so ingrained into popular culture that everyone can relate to it. Finding someone able to overcome the burden of playing so well-established a character would not be easy—just ask George Lazenby or Timothy Dalton how comfortable 007’s loafers were.
Abrams found perhaps the perfect actor to take over the role in Chris Pine. The 29-year-old, best known previously for his role as Darwin Tremor in SMOKIN’ ACES (2006), looks like a young Bill Shatner, and more importantly, acts like a young Shatner. He fits the role, and Trekkers can easily see Kirk in his performance.

Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was an equally important role to fill, and while Zachary Quinto, the 32-year-old actor cast as the half Vulcan, half-Human Starfleet officer is not as dead-on as Pine is in the Kirk role, he is acceptable. Quinto, who stars as Sylar on NBC’s Heroes, does capture the young Spock’s emotional turmoil and inner conflict, however—and that does create a believable character, if not one that perfectly mirrors Nimoy’s Spock.

37-year-old Karl Urban, familiar to genre fans from roles in THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, GHOST SHIP, Xena: Warrior Princess, and most famously as Eomer in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, plays Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the Chief Surgeon of the Enterprise. His performance is the one weak point in the film. DeForest Kelley was the soul of the original crew, the one whose function on Star Trek, in Leonard Nimoy’s words following his death in 1999, “… was to represent humanity, and the role fitted him perfectly.” Urban completely fails to capture this, instead reducing McCoy to the status of comic relief, a caricature of the original McCoy. Humor was part of McCoy’s character, not the sum of it. Apparently, both Abrams and Urban failed to comprehend this.

However, the most inspired casting choice, at least in the Unimonster’s opinion, is the 39-year-old Simon Pegg as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. Scotty, as played by Jimmy Doohan, is without a doubt my favorite character from the original series, and finding someone who could recapture that had to be a daunting task. Pegg, who is no doubt familiar to regular readers of this column as the star of the best Horror film of the decade, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, does a superb job with the character of Scotty. He doesn’t do it like Doohan did it, but it works perfectly.

The second obstacle to overcome was one that had proven to be significantly more difficult, at least in the previous Trek films—a decent story. Too often in the Trek features, intelligent plotting and dialogue had been sacrificed on the altar of more action and splashy special effects. Ineffective direction, most notably from Shatner, on THE FINAL FRONTIER, and Frakes, on INSURRECTION, only compounded weak storylines. If Abrams was to avoid disappointing Trekkers with his film, the script had to be rock-solid.

Fortunately, the screenwriters were both Trekkers themselves, and were equal to the challenge. Roberto Orci, as described in the bonus feature “To Boldly Go…” on the STAR TREK 2-Disc DVD release, “… lives for Star Trek.” Teamed with long-time friend Alex Kurtzman, whom he introduced to the joys of Trek, he was the voice of the Trek fandom in the planning sessions and story conferences, representing their interests and concerns as the concept moved toward reality.

One of the greatest concerns involved the most basic premise of the film: How do we recreate the original crew and ship in a way that satisfies the die-hard fan, yet still make it fresh and welcoming to people who might never have seen Star Trek before? And once we settle on the method, how do we sell it to the fans in a way that’s both exciting and believable?

The method is nothing new to Trek, dating back to the Original Series episodes “City on the Edge of Forever” and “Mirror, Mirror”—Alternate Timelines and Alternate Realities. From the Narada’s first appearance and the subsequent destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin prior to the opening credits, the timeline as it has been for the past forty-five years was irrevocably altered. This was a concept that Trekkers would both understand and accept—if it were presented properly. And who better to present it than the only member of that original cast of “The Cage” still active, Leonard Nimoy?

But could they convince him to take on the role that had been such an enormous facet of his career, and his life, one last time? A role with which he had publicly stated he was finished? After meeting with Abrams, and hearing the film’s concept, it was apparent that they could.
Gradually, the pieces did come together. On May 8th, 2009, Trekkers lined up, as they always have, to view the latest Star Trek film. For the first time in more than a decade, Trekkers were treated to a film that gave their franchise its due respect, as well as being a rollicking, fun ride. STAR TREK earned $75 million in it’s opening weekend, on it’s way to more than $257 million total, making it the most successful Trek movie ever.

It also reminded millions of devoted fans why they fell in love with the Trek in the first place. It reawakened the adventure, the excitement, and the hope—the hope that we are destined for greater things, that we can overcome our own propensity for self-destruction. The hope that one day we too might achieve the stars, and, “… boldly go where no one has gone before …”


















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Monster Toys and Ghoulish Goodies

There are certain things that tend to remain with you from childhood, things that have the power to pull you back through the intervening years… the smell of bacon frying on a chilly Autumn morning that instantly wakes you up; the whistle of the feedback that would come from my dad’s hearing aid when the earpiece wasn’t adjusted just right; the sight of a Christmas tree surrounded by kids, and heaped high with gifts. These are just some of the touchstones of my childhood, things that remind me of who I am and where I come from.

Other anchors to my past are more idiosyncratic: rushing home from school to watch Dark Shadows and Star Trek in the afternoon, or fighting to stay up all night, just to see if I could. My comic books and my monster mags. My models, and my baseball and football cards. But few things define a kid as clearly as the toys he plays with, or those he wishes he had; and few memories of childhood are sharper.

My personal taste in toys was similar to my tastes in entertainment. I had a G.I. Joe of course, the real one, not the 3¼-inch rip-offs of the ‘80s. He had a fully equipped foot-locker, including an astronaut’s space-suit, a deep-sea diving suit, and various combat fatigues. He could also boast more firepower than the 2nd Marine Division, with everything from a Colt .45, to a flame-thrower, to an M-16. He led a veritable regiment of toy soldiers, of every conceivable size, shape, and shade of plastic.

There were dozens of toy airplanes, ranging from tiny little plastic ones intended as party favors, to one massive cast-iron Tonka plane my older sister gave me, that now would be regarded as a lawsuit waiting to happen. It had folding wings that pinched me constantly, working landing gear that did the same, and weighed at least 2 lbs. I’m sure that today it would be classified as a deadly weapon in most states. Nor was the Navy neglected, as one of my favorite toys was a plastic Seaview submarine, from the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

But in the end, I was a child of the Ackermonster, and the toys that really stood out were the Monster and Sci-Fi toys that I owned. Star Trek was my first love, and it was well represented in my toybox. I had all the 8-inch Mego figures, along with the U.S.S. Enterprise Bridge playset… with working transporter, no less! At one point or another I built every Star Trek kit AMT/Ertl put out… multiples of the U.S.S. Enterprise, as they were thoughtful enough to provide decals for every Constitution-Class starship in the fleet; the 1:1 scale Phaser, Tricorder, and Communicator set; the Klingon and Romulan ships… let’s just say a significant portion of my allowance went to that company.

The monsters certainly weren’t neglected, either. I had toy Draculas, Frankenstein’s Monsters, Mummies… the entire Universal pantheon was well represented, as was Toho’s stable of Kaijû. Most of these were, in retrospect, probably cheap, unlicensed knock-off’s… but that mattered not at all to a young MonsterKid who just wanted to play with his beloved monsters. Fortunately, I was born in a time when such toys cost at most a dollar or two. The situation isn’t so good for aspiring MonsterKids today.

As dedicated Monster collectors will attest, there is no shortage of Horror collectibles on the market today, and most of them are truly superb in terms of quality and faithfulness to their subject. Sideshow Toys, the 800-lb. Gorilla of the Horror collectible world, leads the way in this, with dozens of beautifully sculpted figures and busts, capturing virtually all of Universal’s Monster characters, and many more modern horrors as well. Meca and Hawthorne Village are also producing Horror collectibles; just as attractive, and just as high quality.

The one drawback to all of this? Price.

The 12-inch Sideshow figure of Lugosi as Dracula, in the box, can cost several hundred dollars, as will the Karloff Monster, or Karloff as Im-Ho-Tep. The complete Hawthorne Village Universal Horror town collection would represent an investment of more than a thousand dollars. Prices for these Horror collectibles are steadily climbing, with no sign yet of softness in the market. Yet for all their beauty and quality, they fail to fufill their prime function as toys… to be played with.
For all the Horror merchandise out there, there’s precious little that you’d let your seven- or eight-year old MonsterKid rip into in a sheer, unadulterated frenzy of childish glee. Let’s face it, when you pay $300 for a Sideshow figure, you aren’t likely to even take it out of the box, much less hand it off to a sticky-fingered rug-monkey who ten minutes before was burying his little sister’s Malibu Barbie® in mud. And that’s the real sadness of this.

Unless you are in your ‘80’s, you aren’t likely to have fallen in love with the classic Monsters in a movie theater. If, like me, you’re a Baby-Boomer, then your first exposure to Karloff as the Monster, or Chaney as the Phantom, was on TV… as some middle-aged guy in monster make-up cracked bad jokes in-between segments of the movies. Your love was fed and encouraged in the pages of Famous Monsters, and Fantastic Monsters, and Tales from the Crypt. And it found expression in the models we built, and the 8mm monster-movies we made, and the toys with which we played.

Well, with few exceptions, infomercials have crowded out the time-slots that used to be devoted to the Horror-Hosts. Famous Monsters is long gone, replaced by a pale, bastardized imitation. And the models and toys of our youth have been replaced by $150 high-tech resin kits and $500 sculpted busts.

As the horror industry constantly chases their next dollar, skewing the market towards the older collectors, those who can afford to pay a few hundred dollars a pop for a collectible and have no desire to actually touch their acquisitions, perhaps they should be more concerned about where the next generation of fans will come from.

I have three Sideshow figures. They aren’t in their boxes, and they are routinely handled. They may not be worth $300… they may not even be worth what I paid for them. But the joy they’ve given me has nothing to do with dollar signs or condition grades.

It’s a shame our kids can’t know that kind of joy.











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Aurora’s Monster Models

As many devoted Horror fans also enjoy building model kits of their favorite monsters, most are well aware that Modeling is not an inexpensive hobby. At a bare minimum, a decent resin kit from a reputable company will run 50-60 dollars, and the average would be well over $100. Add in tools, paints, and time, and we could easily spend thousands on this hobby we love.

But that wasn’t always the case. When I started building models, resin and vinyl kits were virtually non-existent. Airbrushes and moto-tools were unimagined luxuries, glue came in red and white tubes and paints came in little square bottles with “Testor’s” on the cap. My first kit was ancient even in 1972… Monogram’s 1/72 scale Curtiss P-36 Hawk. I doubt that I paid more than 75¢ for it, and the finished product was hardly worth bragging about. But I was instantly hooked on a hobby that I still enjoy 37 years later.

In those days I built everything and anything… from the crappy Hawk box-scale airplanes, to Monogram TBF Avengers with a torpedo that actually dropped from the bomb bay, to Aurora’s Russian Golf-class Missile Submarine. I even tried my hand at the Visible Eye… and wound up with something not even Lasik could save. But given my natural affinity for the monsters, it was only a matter of time before I found the fantastic Monster kits from Aurora.

Anyone who was a regular reader of Famous Monsters in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s will remember the ads for these kits… Dracula and Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man and the Mummy, the skeletal Prisoner chained to the section of dungeon wall, even a scraggly-toothed, wart-nosed witch, hard at work stirring a bubbling cauldron. Famous Monsters #59, November 1969, lists several of the monster kits in the Glow-in-the-Dark style for the princely sum of $1.49… quite a bit of money when you consider that you could get a perfectly good airplane or car kit for half that.

But the monsters of Aurora were hard to ignore, and, as soon as I saw one for sale at my neighborhood Pic-n-Save, I had to have it. It was, luckily, my favorite monster, the Mummy. But I wouldn’t have cared which monster I wound up with… I just wanted one of them. Somehow, I came up with enough money to buy it. How, I’m not sure; I am sure that it was no mean feat on a dollar a week allowance. How much I paid for the kit is a mystery; I doubt I could have told you the next morning the price of the model. I had one, and that was all I cared about.

When I got home with my prize, I rushed to my room and opened the box. The figure seemed huge compared to the kits I was used to building, though simple to assemble… a definite plus at that stage in my modeling experience. I can’t recall much detail about the kit, other than the Mummy was undeniably Kharis. I don’t remember what color plastic it was molded in, or how good the quality was. I just remember the joy of building it.

I later added other monsters to the collection, as well as some of the MPC Pirates of the Caribbean and AMT/Ertl Star Trek kits. There was a Tarzan along the way, as well as a Spock, a Batman, and others. Eventually, Aurora folded, the monster kits went away, and I returned to the B-17G’s, M60A1’s, and Federation Starships that I loved.

Now, some thirty-seven years later, those Aurora monsters are hot collector’s items, going for thirty to fifty dollars, unbuilt. Companies such as Polar Lights have issued their own versions of those kits, and high-quality resin and vinyl monster kits abound. These kits, especially the latter, are so far above the old Auroras in terms of quality and accuracy that comparing the two is akin to comparing a ’78 Ford Pinto to a brand-new Mercedes S-class. I just wish I could afford them.

Yes, the new kits are better in terms of quality, better in terms of accuracy, better in terms of choice of subject matter. The only thing they don’t do better is inspire joy and wonder in the mind of an eight-year-old boy.








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DVD Review: BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)

Title: BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)

Year of Release—Film: 2006

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: Dimension Home Entertainment



Bob Clark, the director who was recently killed by a drunk driver, will forever be known for what must be the best Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, 1983’s A CHRISTMAS STORY. The tale of young Ralphie Parker and his quest for an official Red Ryder, 200-shot, Range Model Air Rifle, (with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time…) the film is one of the most humorous and heart-warming I’ve ever seen, capturing perfectly experiences that are common to most children, regardless of era. Clark also helmed another of my favorite comedies, released in 1980—PORKY’S. This raunchy, risqué teen sex-comedy is one that I never seem to tire of watching.

However, before he became known for his comedies, Bob Clark was one of the new breed of independent Horror directors, a contemporary of Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Curtis Harrington, and Larry Cohen, that burst on the scene in the early ‘70’s following the success of George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Without the constraints of a major studio production, these filmmakers were able to push the envelope in ways heretofore unexplored. Most of their efforts were, quite frankly, less than successful; Clark’s own first feature, 1972’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, was a thoroughly unmemorable, though mildly entertaining, rip-off of Romero’s NOTLD. His next film however, DEATHDREAM, was much improved; and in 1974 he laid the foundation for the Slasher genre with BLACK CHRISTMAS.

Set in a sorority house over the Christmas break, as a lunatic hiding in the attic hunts those young ladies who didn’t go home for the holidays, this film laid down several of the conventions that would be developed further four years later with the masterpiece of the Slasher film, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Now, Glen Morgan has remade what is arguably Clark’s best Horror Film, with both Clark’s blessing and his imprimatur as Executive Producer.

This new version is faithful to the original, without being a shot-by-shot restaging of it. It also answers many of the questions that were purposefully left unanswered in the 1974 version. This has a mixed result; part of what the fans remember about the original film is the vagueness of the ending, and I think that leaving some secrets buried would have been a better choice. But today’s horror fans seem to prefer their loose ends neatly tied together, and gathering the threads probably produced a more ‘commercial’ film.

The story of the killer, Billy, is told in a series of flashbacks to his childhood in the home that later became the Sorority House. His abusive mother kills his loving father, setting the pattern for the young boy’s psychopathia. As an adult, he eventually kills both her and her second husband, and is busy devouring her when the police arrive. Committed to a mental institution, he escapes, heading back home… to what is now the Delta Kappa Alpha house.

The cast is good, though not spectacular, and the young women of the sorority are certainly beautiful. Though most of the faces are familiar to viewers, there are no household names present, not that the material really requires much star power. Morgan’s direction is competent; nothing inspired, but smooth and capable.

While remakes are difficult to pull off successfully, Morgan and co. do a very good job here. Perhaps it has more to do with the lack of familiarity most fans have with the original, never a big commercial success, than with the changes inherent in this version. Still, for whatever the reason, BLACK CHRISTMAS works, and works very well.

My disc is the special BlockBuster Video© Unrated Edition. How this differentiates it from any other Unrated Edition escapes me, but no matter. Dimension usually does a good job packaging their films, and this example is no different. The audio and video quality was good, and the disc had a full selection of sound and subtitle options.

The release has several excellent features that should please viewers. There is a very good behind-the-scenes documentary that includes comments from Bob Clark. I would imagine these were among his last comments on his early horror films, as his death came not long after the DVD’s release. Concerning his early films, he remarks that, in order to break into the business, you had to either “…make pornos, or make horrors. And I didn’t want to make pornos.” The documentary stands as a far more interesting look at this talented director than as a look at the making of BLACK CHRISTMAS.

Perhaps the best of the special features are the three Alternate endings; at least one of which would have been an improvement over the ending of the U.S. released version. (The International release had one of these alternate conclusions…) These are presented in sufficient depth and detail to allow a true comparison to be made, and each viewer to make their own choice.

In my “2006 in Review” column over at http://www.creaturescape.com/, I discussed this film in conjunction with my look at the Remake of the Year, and stated that I had heard good things about this film but would reserve judgment until I had seen it myself. Well, I’ve finally seen it, and must admit that I was very pleased. It’s rare that I see a remake that I enjoy, and one that exceeds and expands upon the original is rarer still. This one does just that, and does it with some flair and a dash of originality. Not much, but enough to make a difference.

I got my copy from the four for $20 bargain bin at BlockBuster Video, (a definite recommendation, I might add…) but even at the list price it’s worth consideration. I say give it a try… and have a scary Christmas.











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DVD Review: GHOST STORY

Title: GHOST STORY

Year of Release—Film: 1981

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment


One of the best pure Ghost movies I’ve ever seen, perhaps the best ever next to THE SIXTH SENSE, John Irvin’s 1981 film GHOST STORY is a film that I keep returning to, time after time. Working from a dark, suspenseful, truly frightening script (based on the novel by Peter Straub), and blessed with a cast composed of a Hollywood Who’s Who list, Irvin managed to construct a tale of supernatural revenge that holds up as well on it’s tenth viewing as on it’s first.
Starring four of the greatest performers of their generation—Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Melvyn Douglas, and John Houseman—this is a story of four elderly men, and the secret that has tied them together for more than fifty years.

Referring to themselves as the “Chowder Society,” they meet regularly to tell each other ghost stories, each trying to top the others. The sudden death of the son of one of the quartet begins an increasingly horrific descent into their own ghost story… one that they may not survive.
As I stated, this cast is composed of some of the greatest actors of their generation, and even if they were past their prime, they still had more talent at their command than half the films released last year—combined. While Fred Astaire is remembered mainly for his musicals with dance partner Ginger Rogers, he was possessed of some serious acting chops as well. His body of work included both dramatic and comedic roles, and this film gave him the opportunity to flex those dramatic muscles. John Houseman’s performance is equally rich and layered, as Sears James, the de facto head of the Chowder Society. His natural arrogance makes an excellent counterpoint to Astaire’s good-natured down-home character. Fairbanks and Douglas are good in supporting roles, Fairbanks as the father of two sons, both portrayed by Craig Wassoon, both of whom fall under the spell of the beautiful Alma Mobley, played perfectly by Alice Krige.
John Irvin’s direction is competent and steady; not brilliant, but he patiently lets the suspense build throughout the film, never revealing too much. The only letdown in the film is the climax, which in my opinion was a poor concept, poorly executed.

But any dissatisfaction I might have with the last three minutes of the film does nothing to change the film’s status as one of my favorite movies, nor should it keep you from enjoying it.
The disc is a fine example of the quality that Universal usually invests in it’s DVD releases. The audio and video quality is superb, especially when compared to my antique VHS copy of the film. Subtitles are, as always, a much-appreciated bonus for the Unimonster, and this disc is no exception. Overall, it’s a wonderful presentation.

The only weakness of this DVD is the total lack of special features. While that would be acceptable on an ordinary film’s DVD release, it simply is not on a film of this quality, with this much talent connected to it. Not even a commentary track, when there are so many anecdotes that must exist regarding the four lead actors. 200+ years of acting experience; are you telling me no one’s still around who was impressed enough to have tales to tell?

While THE SIXTH SENSE is undoubtedly the best ghost film ever, at least on the first viewing, the fact that so much of it’s impact is predicated on the extraordinary twist ending does affect the subsequent viewing of the movie. As someone who will watch a favored film repeatedly, I find that my opinion of it has altered somewhat. GHOST STORY has no such inherent weakness; it’s as powerful on it’s fifth viewing as on it’s first.

This DVD is a bargain offering from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, with a list price of $14.98. Still you can find it cheaper, particularly from DeepDiscount.com. At any rate, you owe it to yourself to see this film, and you may find that it’s your favorite ghost film, too.






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DVD Review: STAR TREK

Title: STAR TREK

Year of Release—Film: 2009

Year of Release—DVD: 2009

DVD Label: Paramount Home Video


If you’ve already read my article above [“‘… To Boldly Go Where Some Have Gone Before …’: Rebooting the Trek, Forty-five Years Later”], then it will come as no surprise to you that this release of STAR TREK will be getting the Unimonster’s highest recommendation. Though I initially had doubts about J. J. Abrams’ ability to recreate the Original Series, those doubts disappeared quickly as I watched the film unfold on the big screen earlier this year, and I eagerly awaited this DVD release.

Since I’ve already discussed the film’s cast in detail above, as well as Abrams’ directing, I’ll confine this review to the film itself. The task of reinventing the Trek universe is not small, and is fraught with potential dangers. Few groups are as unforgiving as Trekkers when it comes to messing with what we perceive as canon, and recasting the most iconic characters in Science-Fiction carried the possibility of a complete disaster with it. In my opinion, the problem of changing the history of Trek was handled as deftly as possible by Abrams, along with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

The film open as the U.S.S Kelvin is encountering an unusual phenomenon, a “… lightning storm in space.” From a vortex in the center of the storm an immense ship emerges, firing on the Kelvin. The commander of the alien vessel, a Romulan named Nero (played to perfection by Eric Bana), demands that the Captain of the Kelvin shuttle over to his ship—or he will destroy the Federation starship. The Captain agrees, leaving his First Officer, Lt. George Kirk, in command. The Captain, of course, is murdered within moments of his arrival on board the Narada, Nero’s ship. Kirk manages to get his crew off the Kelvin before its destruction, including his pregnant wife. As he aims the Kelvin’s burning hulk on a collision course with the Narada, his wife delivers their son aboard a medical shuttle. Just before his father’s death, they name the infant after his grandfathers—James Tiberius Kirk.

Unbeknownst to anyone, that encounter had repercussions that would alter the course of history. In time, Jim Kirk—young, rebellious, undisciplined—is convinced to join Starfleet. The viewer is introduced to the future members of the crew as he is, and as Nero returns to the scene, we see them come together, and we’re witness to the Trek’s new beginning.

Visually, this film plays out unlike any other Trek movie in the series’ history. Whatever one’s opinion of Abrams as a director may be, there is no denying the fact that he has a style that’s uniquely his own. He and Dan Mindel, the director of photography, combine to give the film an almost cinema verité feel, a reality and immediacy that brings the viewer into the movie. The result of excellent story, strong direction, generally good performances from the cast, and spectacular visuals is a movie that, quite simply, the best of the year.

There are numerous special collectors’ editions of the DVD release out there, and all have features that will make the dedicated Trekker drool with ill-concealed lust. But they all have one thing in common—the best Trek movie since 1982’s THE WRATH OF KHAN. No matter which set you choose, even if it’s just the basic single-disc DVD, you won’t lose out. Take the Unimonster’s word on that.



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Junkyardfilms.com’s Moldy Oldie Movie of the Month!: SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY

Title: SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY

Year of Release—Film: 1972


Our story begins with a skinny Santa in a dimestore suit, with a large sweat stain on the butt. He's sitting dejectedly in his sleigh, marooned on a Florida beach. Occasionally, he coughs out a sad "ho-ho-ho.” Apparently, his reindeer got too hot and went back to the North Pole without him. With only days to go before Christmas, he sings a "woe is me" sad song a Capella and some children from a nearby suburb hear it and come running. Hearing of his plight, they run home and bring back their pets to haul Santa out of the sand. A horse, a mule, a sheep, a cow, a pig, a guy in a gorilla suit...this suburb has some loose rules as to what one can keep as a pet! But, the sleigh stays stubbornly stuck. Santa decides to cheer up the children by telling them a story about Thumbelina.

With that, the movie takes a vertigo-inducing turn and another movie begins, complete with opening credits! "Well, the first movie was awful but at least it was short!" one may think at this point. In the second movie (shot at Pirate's World amusement park), Thumbelina, a tiny girl "not much larger than a clothes pin" runs away from home and gets lost in a forest. Its winter and Thumbelina will freeze except the kindly Mr. Mole, who feeds her and protects her, takes her in. But, a neighboring mole Mr. Digger falls in love with her and wants to marry her but she doesn't feel the same way and when spring arrives, deserts her benefactor. The End. (It actually says "the end!”)

But, you may think, what about poor Santa!?! After all, his name is first in the title! Well, just as Santa is finishing the Thumbelina story, (in fact, as the end credits are rolling!) we hear the wail of a distant siren. "What is that? What is that I hear? Where's it coming from? I hear a siren, but I don't see any fire, I don't see any smoke. Whenever there's a siren, it means there's a fire, but I don't see any smoke. That siren. Where is it coming from? Where's that sound coming from?” exclaims Santa. Could it be!?! Yes! It's the Ice Cream Bunny come to save the day (and Santa's sweat stained butt) in his antique fire engine! But, first, the Ice Cream Bunny takes a short cut through Pirate's World amusement park. Then, he kills several minutes crossing a hundred feet of beach. Finally, he arrives and greets his old friend, Santa, and offers him a ride back to the North Pole on his fire truck. With that, Santa, the Ice Cream Bunny and the fire truck disappear. Wait! What about Santa's sleigh!?! With a "POOF!" that, too, disappears. The children all wave up at the clear blue sky, supposedly saying goodbye to Santa. The End.

Wow...did that suck! Every thing about this movie is pretty bad. From the costumes to the endless kazoo playing to Santa's bad singing to the bad pacing and editing. The acting could be said to be as bad as a third grade class play except that would be an insult to third graders. But, the worst thing about this movie is the lie in the title. THERE IS NO ICE CREAM! This is, without a doubt, one of the worst movies I've sat through in my many years of bad movie viewing. If you are one of the die-hard people who swear that Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space is the worst movie ever, you haven't seen Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny!

Happy Holidays!
MSTjunkie
Enjoy! Or not!





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