17 March 2016

Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage

Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage
Czech National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Justin Freer
16 March 2016 | The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, Louisville, KY

As a Crohnie, ticketed events spook me. I've had to cancel on so many plans at the last minute over the years that I have a difficult time bringing myself to commit money toward something I may not even be able to attend. When I saw that this concert tour was coming to Louisville, I was reflexively excited and then immediately deflated when my anxieties caught up to me. Within an hour of finding out about the show coming to town, though, I also learned of a Groupon offer that made it an attractive enough risk that I impulsively took it and hoped for the best. I make mention of this because it paralleled the experience I had at the show.

Though I haven't discussed it in this blog so far, I've followed the current presidential election campaigns as closely as my mental health allows (I learned a few years ago that I have to keep more distance from these things than I used to, which accounts for the lack of commentary in this blog). The dominant theme has been the divisive, increasingly threatening campaign of Donald Trump. His rhetoric has attacked Mexican immigrants and Muslims already, and it took him 48 hours to decide to reject an endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, saying he'd "have to look into" white supremacy groups to find out whether he felt their endorsements were ones he wanted. It's been terrifying to watch his support base grow over the last few months, and spiritually fatiguing, too.

Star Trek has always been about togetherness. Togetherness of the characters within its stories, but also the togetherness of its fandom. I identify as a member of several pop subcultures, and there's really nothing else quite like Star Trek. There was a palpable sense of camaraderie throughout the audience. Conversations could be overheard about favorite episodes and characters, quoted dialog, and trivia. I resisted inserting myself into these chats, but I feel confident that I'd have been welcomed if I had made the attempt. That's how Trekkers are; we love sharing this thing of ours with one another.

Throughout the performance, Michael Dorn narrated a series of video montages, each highlighting a different theme of the franchise. Each theme was a manifestation of some kind of togetherness. It wasn't anything original or insightful, mind you; these were the kinds of statements that have been made ever since "The Man Trap" first aired on 8 September 1966. But like all in-groups, Trek fandom thrives on the repetition of its mantras; specifically, those about "hope for the future" being at the heart of Gene Roddenberry's vision.

As I watched one montage after another, I found myself recalling the narration to the Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country teaser trailer:
For one quarter of a century, they have thrilled us with their adventures, amazed us with their discoveries, and inspired us with their courage. Their ship has journeyed beyond imagination. Her name has become legend; her crew, the finest ever assembled. We have traveled beside them from one corner of the galaxy to the other. They have been our guides, our protectors, and our friends. Now you are invited to join them for one last adventure, for at the end of history lies...The Undiscovered Country.
It's all true. They really have thrilled, amazed, and inspired us, and they really have been our guides, our protectors, and our friends. Through them, we've befriended countless others, and I don't mean guest characters. Here, I refer to the real life human beings we've encountered through our fandom, especially over the last twenty years as the Internet has made it possible for us to connect with people from around the world.

My face physically hurt from grinning throughout the concert. Some of my pleasure was from being entertained (Dr. McCoy snapping to Mr. Spock, "I'm trying to thank you, you pointy-eared hobgoblin!" will always make me laugh), but there was something far greater beneath the surface. This wasn't merely a celebration of TV shows and motion pictures. It was a celebration of the ideals and values embraced and promoted by them, and it was glorious. Absolutely glorious. I felt like I was at the antithesis of a Trump rally, reassured that our collective longing for peace and acceptance of one another is not idle wishful thinking. Idealistic, certainly, but an ideal worth pursuing. The inclusion of Captain Picard's monologue in Star Trek: First Contact to Lily explaining the state of humanity in the 24th Century was a delightful choice on the part of the show producers. "We work to better ourselves," he asserts, imploring us as viewers to remember to work to better our selves - which, in turn, means contributing to bettering things for one another, as well.

I only took one picture of the stage before the concert even began before an overzealous usher rushed to tell me it wasn't allowed. She chased people across five rows to chastise them. Later, I discovered that the production's official social media accounts actively encourage and share fan photos from the shows. THANKS, JUNE.
The Czech National Symphony Orchestra's performance was so delightful that there were instances when I wished there had been no narration or sound bytes. Thankfully, the orchestra did record a 2-CD set of the music as arranged for and performed in the tour. It's an instant favorite addition to my library! There's something fulfilling about hearing our favorite music performed live, and Star Trek has a rich musical legacy full of favorites. I first became a fan in 1991, only vaguely aware of it prior to that year. I've made mention several times over the years about how it was the teaser poster art for Star Trek VI that caught my eye and piqued my interest. (I wrote an entire piece about this for Flickchart a few years ago.) I was already a soundtrack enthusiast, and I collected the soundtrack albums for the first five Trek movies. That wasn't easy in those days; I had to go to music stores in malls to find them.

But I also discovered that GNP Crescendo had issued soundtrack albums for select episodes of the original series and The Next Generation! Admittedly, that felt like a niche within a niche when I first saw these CD's for sale, but I also of course had to have those, too. There's even a CD of sound effects from the original series, and I would never have guessed how sustainable 41 minutes of those artificial noises could be, but it works really well! Just before the opening of Star Trek VI, Paramount issued a compilation album of music from the first five movies, selected and sequenced by the new film's composer, Cliff Eidelman. I loved that album, particularly as it showcased the musical styling choices of three different composers: Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and Leonard Rosenman. Goldsmith's scores are sweeping; Horner's, resolute; Rosenman's, lighthearted.

Then came Eidelman's own score for The Undiscovered Country, and I fell completely in love with it. It remains my single favorite Trek score. In my estimation, it's the most sophisticated of the entire canon. Four years ago, I bought Intrada's expanded 2-CD edition of that, which I wrote about here. The Ultimate Voyage includes an abridgment of its "End Credits Suite" near the end of Act II. I knew that going in, and I admit I got a little antsy for it a few times, but it's probably for the best that it came so late in the show because my anticipation had pretty well peaked by the time it was played. I missed the triumphant opening that Eidelman wrote, but in truth they could have just performed that entire score in its entirety and I'd have still wanted more of it.

One of the things that I hadn't known going in was that each of the TV series would be represented by two scenes playing in their entirety, with the recorded musical cues replaced by the live orchestra. From the original show came the fight between Kirk and Spock in "Amok Time" and Kirk's final showdown against the titular "Doomsday Machine", both of which were revelatory to see on the 40' screen. My favorite of the series has long been Deep Space Nine, which was represented by the destruction of the U.S.S. Defiant in "The Changing Face of Evil", and Captain Sisko's confessional monologue from "In the Pale Moonlight".

DS9 was the crucible of the franchise, Sisko in particular being an in-story voice for keeping the franchise honest about its ideals. There was only one instance of flash photography taken throughout the entire concert, and it was during that piece. I don't know who took that picture or how it turned out, but I loved knowing that someone else was that ecstatic about our captain at his finest. We Niners have always been a sub-subculture all our own within Trek fandom, and that single camera flash was an unspoken act of togetherness that made me smile. I do worry that for any newcomers who may not know the context for that monologue that it might have been off-putting. It was a risky choice for the concert, which made it arguably the single most perfect choice they could have made. If any part of Star Trek can go out on a limb and take its chances being misunderstood, it's DS9!

Q: What's the definition of a gentleman?
A: Someone who knows how to play the trombone and doesn't.
I only really have three nitpicks, one of which isn't even fair and that's that footage from DS9 and Voyager looked outright awful. That's because those shows haven't been remastered in high definition, though, and there's certainly nothing that the concert producers could have been expected to do about it. It's a shame, too, because I suspect that if they had had access to sharper looking visuals from those two shows, they'd have been more prominent throughout the concert. As it was, the original series and TNG dominated every montage -- which they would, anyway, of course, being the two most popular, but there were a lot of moments in DS9 that crossed my mind that we never got to see, and I'm reasonably sure it's because standard definition shyness discouraged their inclusion. (The oddest sight of all was a very crude digital removal of Rick Berman and Ira Steven Behr's executive producer credits from the parting shot of DS9's finale.)

That said, there were a handful of things that were repeated, which felt conspicuous. Captain Kirk's "Risk is our business!" speech plays in its entirety early in the show, and then that single line recurs in the next montage, for instance. Some of Q's lines from the scene in "All Good Things..." that played in full resurfaced in different places later. And I think some of General Chang's taunts were also repeated, but again, my fixation on Star Trek VI would have rendered me too biased to be bothered by that.

Aside from what was conspicuously repeated, my final nitpick is, of course, some of the stuff that was conspicuously absent. I couldn't believe that nothing from "Unification" appeared, especially in the "2 B Human" montage that was basically all about Spock and Data - who shared a wonderful moment in "Part II", when Data observes that Spock has rejected throughout his life the humanity that he was born with that Data has aspired to all his. That seemed like an obvious line to include in that montage. I'd have also loved to have heard the exchange from the end of "Part I":
Picard: I'm looking for Ambassador Spock.
Spock: Indeed. You have found him, Captain Picard.
That was one of the most exciting moments in all of Star Trek! How did that not make the cut?

In fact, aside from Kirk and Picard in Star Trek Generations, very little of any of the crossover appearances seemed to be represented. There was only a quick shot of Scotty in "Relics"; none of his exchanges with Geordi, and the scene of him on the Holodeck reproduction of the original Enterprise's bridge was nowhere to be seen. One entire montage is dedicated specifically to the Enterprise (curiously, not set to "The Enterprise" from The Motion Picture). Admiral McCoy telling Data, "She's got the right name. You treat her like a lady, she'll always bring you back home, you hear?" seems a shoo-in for that, but it's not there or anywhere else. Nor is there anything from the Voyager episode, "Flashback", in which Captain Janeway and Tuvok interact with Captain Sulu's U.S.S. Excelsior during the events of Star Trek VI. These are just the most obvious crossover appearances, but none of the others made it into the show, either.

Surprisingly, though, even main characters weren't selected for sound byte inclusion. I don't recall hearing a single line spoken by Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher, or most of the casts from the other shows. Michael Dorn was the most qualified narrator for the special, having more credited appearances than anyone else thanks to having been in all seven seasons of The Next Generation and the last four seasons of Deep Space Nine, plus the four TNG movies as Worf (and an appearance as that character's grandfather in Star Trek VI, to boot!), but very little dialog from Worf showed up - including nothing from his tenure on DS9.

But these are all minor quibbles. I'm sure they didn't even occur to some viewers, and many of the ones who did think of them likely shrugged them off quickly. They certainly did nothing to spoil my enjoyment of the evening. When the lights came on after the encore performance of Alexander Courage's main title from the original series, I felt rejuvenated. I left the theater reassured that, despite the narrative that has been created in our political landscape, there is hope for our future. It's idealism worth striving for, and I thank Justin Freer and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra for shepherding an evening dedicated to that idealism. We need it. I certainly do.