Star Trek’s continuous Re-Discoveries

After years of waiting season one of Star Trek: Discovery has finally been broadcast (or rather made available to stream) in its entirety. The first Star Trek adventures to hit the small screen since the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005, fans were excited not just to see Trek back where it belongs but also to how it would have evolved after its absence, especially in the wake of the likes of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica.

Beating Swear Trek at its own game…

The result was a series which was full of action, drama, suspense, even a little humour, and to quote Cadet Sylvia Tilly was just “so fucking cool”. As with the best of Trek before it Discovery also dealt with important and contemporary humanitarian themes, in this case the rise and consequences of nationalism. Something which is obviously designed to resonate with the current climate of Trump and Brexit, yet was metaphorical enough to be subtle in its comparisons.

At its heart it was also a very human(oid) story which put the emphasis on characters above all else. A choice I can only applaud it for and was at the heart of its success, but which also came with its own complications. Although it is hardly the first season of any show to take its time finding its feet, this is just one way in which the series suffered from its over reliance on misdirection.

The series’ delight in its playing with the audience’s expectations began right from the very beginning when the title of the first episode ‘The Vulcan Hello’ was announced. Ostensibly referring to the celebrated greeting which has transcended its way into pop-culture lexicon, “Live Long and Prosper”, but it in fact translates to what is essentially “go in all guns blazing”, the polar opposite of a race so peaceful they’ve adopted vegetarianism as one of their commandments.

Although this is one example of many which worked by taking something so established into an unexpected direction and fitting in with the narrative of the episode, others were not as succesful. In fact there are several which aren’t simply because they fall into the category of just being one too many.

When used correctly, misdirection can be one of the most powerful tools in a creative arsenal, something superbly exemplified by Metal Gear Solid 2. One the most highly anticipated games ever when it was released on the Playstation 2 back in 2001, the advertising campaign focused on two main elements. The first was that of the gameplay, and how the technology had progressed even since the release of the original Metal Gear Solid in 1998. Three years and an updated console later and an impressive nine minute cinematic trailer teased the literally game changing ways in which characters interacted with elements such as rain and shadows, and could shoot even the smallest of elements, including individual light bulbs to hamper the enemies’ vision.

The second was of course the main character of Solid Snake. The protagonist of the games predecessor, Snake was a military veteran who, thanks to being a clone of another veteran, was quite literally born to undertake this kind of stealthy yet action-oriented mission. Having already established the importance emphasised on narrative as much as gameplay in the first game, this series (which now comprises five main, and countless spin-off titles) is one which has created an entire world with complex characters, of which Snake is an integral part.

When players finally had their hands on MGS2 however, after completing the short opening chapter they were dumbfounded when they discovered that the majority of the game took place in a completely different environment and were now controlling a brand new never seen before character, the naive rookie known as Raiden. Not only had the advertising campaign been almost exclusively taken from this initial chapter, but the nine minute trailer actually conveys its entire narrative (Snake infiltrates a tanker which is also boarded by a special ops team betrayed by Revolver Ocelot who destroys said tanker in the process of stealing the Metal Gear) to the point that if you’ve seen it you wouldn’t actually need to play this opening in order to understand the whole/main story.

Despite everything the game had done in terms of its technological and world-building leaps, this instantaneous almost 180 degree flip is still one of the games most defining moments. Gamers expectations were completely cast aside as they had to reimmerse themselves in what the series creator Hideo Kojima later revealed to be a more thorough examination of Solid Snake by forcing the player to view him (he continued to appear occasionally throughout as a non-playable character) from a different perspective. The rug had well and truly been swept out from under them, and everything from here on in was completely new.

Obviously times have changed since this trailer was given away as a magazine freebie on VHS and this level of secrecy would be virtually impossible in the current age of social media and spoiler alerts, but even taking this into consideration the fact that Discovery went through so many minor changes during its run resulted in a drawn out period of confusion and continued adjustment so that even several episodes in the viewer is still not fully up to speed with what is happening.

The series began with the unconventional ‘The Vulcan Hello’/’Battle at the Binary Stars’ which were more of a two-part prologue than pilot. Like MGS2 it was from these episodes which the bulk of the trailer footage had come from, even though keen fans would already be aware that despite Discovery continuing in the tradition of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise and take place on a ship (or station) bearing the same name as the series, these first two episodes focused on the USS Shenzhou instead.

The Vulcan Hello
It was a good day to die…

By knowing that the Shenzhou would not be what is often refered to as the “hero ship” of the series, the fact it was abandoned by the end of ‘Battle’ came as no surprise. The death of T’Kuvma however, someone billed beforehand as a Klingon leader, would have his own comic miniseries – written in conjunction with the writers of the TV series itself – and even instigated the events of an interstellar war, was unexpected.

(Again, this is something comparable to MGS2 in that T’Kuvma and his ideals are discussed from an outside perspective, but are done so all too infrequently.)

So in addition to the series’ main character having been sentenced to life imprisonment, by the start of the ironically titled ‘Context Is For Kings’ rather than a big single change the audience know they are yet to be introduced to the majority of the regular cast whilst at the same time now trying to figure out how much of what they had essentiality been ‘promised’ from the advertising campaign would still feature.

Prior to its initial broadcast, the build up promised that the show would be set during the war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire which was alluded to in The Original Series, and even included distributing cast announcements and promotional material relating to the Klingons, such as T’Kuvma, as much as those to the latest crew of Starfleet’s finest. Watching through the series itself however, and it becomes obvious there is a difference between Discovery being ‘set’ in, and ‘about’ The Klingon war.

Somewhat surprisingly in this day and age of almost exclusively serialised storytelling, the pilot and finale episodes of Discovery may revolve around the instigation and ending of the war to bookend the season, but by weaving a tale in which the Discovery characters will change and grow through their experiences of love and loss however, for the majority of its run the Klingon war is little more than a McGuffin.

Ash Tyler’s true identity as the Klingon Voq was predicted long before its ‘shock’ plot twist reveal, although where many would have expected the sleeper agent to play a significant role in major galactic events (something which had previously been seen with Arne Darvin in both TOS and DS9), instead the repercussions of his true existence only served to affect the crew of the Discovery; namely his murder of Dr. Hugh Culber, and in his relationship with Michael Burnham.

As mentioned before, this is a choice I admire and respect, but is also something which they could/should have made more of rather than sharing its screentime alongside the reveal of ‘Captain’ Lorca’s true origins which may not have been as predictable, but like the entire mirror universe arc was only linked to the rest of the season thematically, and its inclusion added to Discovery‘s restlessness.

Had this particular twist have waited until season two it would not only have had a bigger impact by receiving the full attention it deserved, but also by playing the long game Lorca would have had time to become more of an established character. In addition many saw the seeds in earlier episodes as Trek casting its spotlight on the serious issues surrounding the consequences of war such as PTSD, which also caused disappointment when it became obvious they were sewn for nothing more serious than yet another narrative curveball.

All of which make up for a season of science fiction television which takes far too long to find its feet before suffering from an overambitious desire of filling its episodes with too much too fast. Much like Dollhouse it’s almost as though the second half of the season was made in certain knowledge it would be cancelled immediately, with more than one episode setting up the next reveal before it’s finished exploring (or even completely ignoring) the repercussions of last.

Although each of the individual arcs which run throughout the season all make for fascinating viewing, hopefully so many different threads each vying for the title of biggest misdirection is a lesson Star Trek: Discovery can learn from in later seasons.

20 years on: The ‘”Maybe not super, but still better than average” Mario Bros.’

For some reason, 2013 has been one of those years that’s reminding me I’m getting older. As an avid film fan, it’s probably something to do with the fact that 1993, a great year of films for seven year olds, was 20 years ago.

Yep, I’m afraid to remind you that as of this year Mrs Doubtfire, Cool Runnings, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights to name but a few, are all 20 years old.

Theatrical poster for 'Super Mario Bros', Rocky Marton & Annabel Jankel, 1993.
Theatrical poster for ‘Super Mario Bros’, Rocky Marton & Annabel Jankel, 1993.

With so much time having passed since their production, these films are all viewed in different ways. Jurassic Park is set for a re-release in eye-popping/hurting 3D, whereas Bob Hoskins is most likely still of the opinion that: “The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Brothers. It was a fuckin’ nightmare.

Credit where credit is due though, in 1993 Jurassic Park set the record for highest grossing film. I’ve never quite agreed with measuring a film’s (or anything’s) success with money, but considering it’s ground-breaking physical effects are still better than many modern CGI efforts, the forthcoming Jurassic Park 4 notwithstanding, it’s not hard to see why they’re giving it the 3D treatment.

Super Mario Bros. on the other hand didn’t exactly wow many critics or cinema-goers, but in the spirit of fair play, it was the first of a whole wave of  Hollywood Video Game adaptations that haven’t exactly fared much better. The very next year Japanese and Western audiences were each given their own Street Fighter film, which the last 19 years have given both the time to be seen worldwide. The resulting opinions seem to suggest that Hollywood’s Jean Claude Van Damme offering was K.O’ed by it’s anime counterpart.

As the years came and went, so did films such as Mortal Kombat, House of the Dead, and Alone in the Dark. Don’t worry, I haven’t seen them either.

But this is not to say that all video game films are worth avoiding, or haven’t at least contributed something to modern cinema. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within might not have been what audiences were expecting, but the sophistication of its photo-realistic animation garners nothing but respect. Likewise I can think of much worse summer action movies than Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Even with a last minute sci-fi time travel twist, it still received much less flack than the aliens of Razzie winning Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

With so many films receiving so many mixed reviews it’s hard to say which has fared the best, though perhaps one that stands out the most is 2002’s Resident Evil. Where others have been faulted for either staying too close or straying too far from their playable counterparts, writer/producer/director Paul W.S. Anderson instead decided to take it in another direction. From a game famous for it’s suspenseful horror and nerve shredding atmosphere, the film places emphasis on action instead, and even does so without the need for running ‘zombies’. The result is a film which not only keeps in plenty of the game that the audience love, but gives it enough of a twist to keep it fresh.

'Tekken', Dwight H. Little, 2010, wasn't even released theatrically in the U.S.
‘Tekken’ was never given a theatrical release in the U.S.

Between its failures and moderate success’s though, it doesn’t seem as though Hollywood has learnt much over the past two decades. Resident Evil has since jumped the shark with four (so far, more on the way) sequels, Street Fighter‘s player two, The Legend of Chun-Li, barely even pressed the start button to join in, and the only U.S. screening of 2010’s Tekken was to prospective distributors. Needless to say, none felt that entering the Iron Fist Tournament was worth their effort.

Despite this however, Hollywood’s films keep on coming, with Assassin’s Creed and Metal Gear Solid reportedly in development. But given its reputation, it’s not surprising that the Japanese games makers themselves are increasingly producing CGI films themselves. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and Resident Evil: Damnation are aimed almost exclusively at gamers, fit into the games’ continuity transmedia style rather than rebooting, and were released straight to DVD. It seems to me as though they’ve found the right way to go about it.

Taking all this into consideration then, from a general perspective if not Bob Hoskins’, does Super Mario Bros. really deserve the bad reputation its been chained to all these years?

First things first, the Mario games were more than likely chosen for being a well known name than having an adaptable storyline. The basic premise of ‘hero rescuing princess trapped in a castle’ isn’t exactly the most original, even if Mario is the first plumber to do so. Also using this age old fairy tale however, is the other still long running Nintendo franchise, The Legend of Zelda. 1993 saw the release of the series’ fourth title Link’s Awakening, and by nature of being an RPG as opposed to a run and jump platformer, each offered much more in terms of quests, adventure, and more importantly, characters that were only two dimensional in terms of pixels.

And here is perhaps the first misconception. Looking back it is easy to assume that a simpler backstory to adapt naturally gave the film-makers the attractive prospect of more freedom to explore the Mushroom Kingdom; but with such an assumption comes the wonder where Dinohatten and even dinosaurs came from? With The Princess Bride made six years previously, it’s not as though such a fantastical medieval film, turtles included, wouldn’t have been practical. But when you consider this point is backed up by the all too similar Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, a film released just two months before Super Mario Bros., in which the titular turtles travel to feudal Japan, you can’t really blame the film-makers too much for going in another direction. Even if that direction wasn’t Zelda.

As mentioned before though, Mario video games are simply more popular, and therefore a bigger name to draw in the crowds. But they are still video games. Unlike the books and TV series which were also being adapted, adapting a film from games was always going to be aiming at a niche audience, something which still holds true today.

I’m not saying they’re mutually exclusive so forgive me for generalising them, but gamers are going to be less concerned that a film is adapted from a book, than readers towards a film from a game. In terms of storytelling at least, books have a centuries old reputation of being grown-up, even cultured, and moving. Video games on the other hand were looked down upon just for being what they are, games. Not only this, but generally speaking, the less sophisticated the game (ie: mere running and jumping), the younger the audience they are seen to be aiming for. Whether this is the case or not, its fair to say its how they are perceived.

Added to this is the fact that the more an audience enjoys something the more critical they will be of its film. After watching one of their adaptations you can instantly tell who’s read a Harry Potter book, simply because the first thing they’ll say about it is everything that was missed out. Mario’s job of pleasing audience members is an uphill struggle even before the outline becomes the screenplay.

A screenplay with which you also have to acknowledge the compromises made to contemporary Hollywood. Between a choice of Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, it was always going to be Leguizamo taking the romantic lead in a film aimed at the kids to twentysomethings demographic, so I’m afraid the switch of Peach for Daisy is somewhat justified. The dinosaur being called ‘Toad’ on the other hand, isn’t.

And that’s where the next problem comes, Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper. Obviously I’m not saying I have a problem with Hoskins and Hopper, far from it, just that I’m agreeing with them when they say they regret having done it. Kids watching the film in cinemas, may have recognised Bob Hoskins as Smee from 1991’s Hook, Dennis Hopper probably not at all, but their accompanying parent’s would obviously recognise them a lot more. The Long Good Friday, Blue Velvet, Easy Rider, all are respected films that bestow upon their actors a sense of class, which in turn give audiences expectations. Expectations that this film was never going to live up to.

Script and cast aside though, lets look at the production values. Not the worst certainly, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Mario’s Dinohatten was actually a hand-me-down Mars from Total Recall. As for the CGI, it’s no surprise that co-directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton’s only other recognisable creation (then, and even now) was Max Headroom, which would explain their being chosen to attract the MTV generation. Gripes notwithstanding, its two Saturn Award nominations for best costume and make up were well founded.

Like the games that preceeded it, Dead or Alive focused heavily on the visuals.
Like the games that preceded it, ‘Dead or Alive’ focused heavily on the visuals.

Weighing up the pros and cons, it’s fair to say that twenty years later, Super Mario Bros. is still a bad film, but that doesn’t matter. And even if it did, that’s precisely the reason why it’s brilliant.

Yes, the fact it makes me feel old does add to it’s nostalgia factor, simply by reminding me of being a kid, but more than that you have to remember it’s primarily a kids film. Adaptation or otherwise, kids films are always going to stand the test of time better, not just because they’re silly, but because they’re meant to be silly. Script and casting are always going to be hard hurdles to jump, and that’s where the majority of video game films fall down. But if you can look past those, the dated effects only add to its charm, and while it may not have had D.O.A.: Dead or Alive‘s forethought to not take itself seriously (disclaimer: not a kids film), when looked at in the same vein I don’t think you can deny that Super Mario Bros. is pop corn munchingly, brain meltingly, silly.

And that’s why I love it.