Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Star Trek Movies Part 2

            Let’s pick up where we left off last week by ranking the best films in the Star Trek franchise by their ratings according to Rotten Tomatoes.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Rotten Tomatoes Score 83%
            The final voyage of the Original Cast rebounded nicely from the debacle of the Final Frontier. The film, made at the end of the Cold War, pondered the cost of the overcoming the hatred and fear that defined the longstanding conflict between the Federation and the Klingons. With Spock instigating a reconciliation between the two sides, the film provides some nice character moments for Kirk as he must put aside his prejudices and accept Spock’s humane reaction to the Klingons’ plight (they are dying). Indeed many of the humans in the film advocate letting the Klingons’ die, while logical and calculating characters like Spock advocate the humane route by aiding them. The film presages the work of Deep Space Nine by questioning the high morals that the Star Trek franchise had set to embody. Uglying up the reputation of Star Fleet gave the franchise some much needed breathing room as its high minded moralism threatened to devolve into lectures about contemporary soceity’s inability to overcome its own parochialism. Christopher Plummer delights as the Shakespeare quoting Klingon General Chang.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Rotten Tomatoes Score 85%
            The Voyage Home completed the Enterprise’s journey back to Earth following Spock’s resurrection. But no journey home would be complete without time travelling back to the 1980s and hammering home, in classic Star Trek fashion, an overtly environmentalist message: Save the Whales! The notion that a giant black cigar would come to Earth after not hearing from whales for two hundred plus years is an incredibly stupid conceit. Yet some parts of the movie work remarkably well. Watching Kirk and Spock interact in the 1980s produces some very funny moments, including when Spock gives the Vulcan nerve pinch to a man playing his boom box too loudly on a public bus. Chekov asking for the location of the “nuclear whessels” remains amusing to this day. Even Dr. McCoy got in on the action by chewing out the antiquated medicine of the 1980s or as he called it the “Dark Ages.” The film manages to be preachy, but fun.

Star Trek Into Darkness: Rotten Tomatoes Score 87%
            The second of Abrahams’ Star Trek reboot serves as Star Trek Growing Pains. The film stresses the growth of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew into the characters that we would come to know in the Original Series. Kirk’s arrogance and innate belief in his own abilities and decisions finally come back to haunt him. He also learns that command means he must place the needs of others above his own. Spock’s growth as a character comes from his attempts to shield himself from pain, while recognizing that sometimes the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. Benedict Cumberbatch ably demonstrates both Khan’s superhuman strength and mental genius. The film, however, suffers from imitating too many beats from the Wrath of Khan without the same emotional resonance.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Rotten Tomatoes Score 90%
            No matter what Rotten Tomatoes says, Wrath of Khan remains the best of all of the Star Trek films. Installing Khan as the villain gave the audience a preexisting and antagonistic relationship with the highest of stakes. The film features strong action and character moments. The battle in the nebula between the Enterprise and the Reliant still plays well as two technologically advanced ships have to rely on the skills of their captains in order to survive. Kirk and Spock’s philosophical discussion about the needs of the many and the needs of the few highlights the core of their respective characters. Kirk always acted in the manner he thought best, regardless of the rules, and refused to accept the inevitability of death. Spock measured his actions carefully with the broader situation and when the situation called for it; he sacrificed himself to save the rest of the crew. The film provided a strong blend of action and character moments that represented the best a Star Trek film could be.

Star Trek: First Contact: Rotten Tomatoes Score 92%
            Like Khan, this film relied on a pre-existing villain known to fans of Next Generation: the Borg. Also like Khan, the film succeeded by balancing action with explorations of its central characters. The opening space battle and the fight with the Borg during a spacewalk were both well executed. Picard must grapple with his guilt about his assimilation by the Borg and his overwhelming desire for revenge to prevent their assimilation of his ship and Earth. Data, meanwhile, struggles with his duties and loyalty to his friends as the Borg Queen offers him what he desires most of all: a chance to be human. Ultimately Picard offers to sacrifice himself to save Data, while Data rejects the offer of the Borg Queen and Earth is saved.  

Star Trek (Reboot): Rotten Tomatoes Score 95%
            J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise understood the core relationships that defined Star Trek and employed them to create summer blockblusters. The cast largely embody the traits of their characters without falling into slavish impersonations. Chris Pine portrays Kirk’s brashness well. Zachary Quinto manages to demonstrate Spock’s relentless logic while also providing a window into his struggles with his own humanity. The film also plays with key themes from the previous films, but spins them in interesting ways, suggesting that no matter what changes in the timeline, these relationships and themes recur (a sort of Battlestar Galactica approach). Additionally Abrams never forgets to imbibe the film with a sense of humor and fun that attracted so many fans to Star Trek in the first place. Karl Urban’s McCoy and Simon Pegg’s Scotty carry much of the humor in the films and to great effect.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Star Trek Movie Rankings

            Star Trek premiered in September 1966 and ran for three seasons on NBC until it was cancelled in 1969. The popularity of Star Trek first prompted a cartoon series in the 1970s and then a feature film franchise beginning in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Since 1979, there have been twelve Star Trek films: six featuring the original cast, four from Star Trek The Next Generation, and two with a new cast playing the original characters.

            The films themselves have varied greatly in quality. In order to demonstrate that variability, I have charted the 12 movies by their ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates film critics rankings onto a scale of 0-100% (the higher the better). The chart below provides a visual representation of the varying quality according to Rotten Tomatoes:

Rotten Tomatoes
Star Trek The Motion Picture
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek Generations
Star Trek: First Contact
Star Trek: Insurrection
Star Trek: Nemesis
Star Trek
Star Trek Into Darkness

            The data supports the old adage that only the even numbered Star Trek movies are any good at least until Star Trek Nemesis. Now that we’ve laid out the data, let’s talk about the worst six movies by Rotten Tomatoes and what made them so bad.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 21%
            God is an evil space alien who looks like Karl Marx and needs a spaceship to leave his prison in the middle of the Galaxy. That is the concluding act of this film. Along the way, Spock’s half brother brainwashes people by helping them confront and let go of their pain. Kirk naturally refuses arguing that he needs his pain. By the end of the film, Spock, McCoy, and Kirk agree that maybe there is no sentient creature known as God, but rather the spark of the divine lies in the hearts of mankind or alienkind or whatever. It is an overtly touchy-feely ending to a dreadful film. The less said about Uhura doing a seductive fan dance the better.  

Meet Space God. 

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 37%
            Nemesis again attempted to make Picard doubt his humanity and question the course of his own life. How did it accomplish this task? Introduce a Picard clone who has risen to lead the Romulan Empire. Picard doubts his own humanity after hearing the life story of his clone (played by a young Tom Hardy). Similarly Data must deal with the existence of another nearly identical android named B-4. Picard’s inability to recognize the differences between his own behavior and those of his clone does not fit with the character. In this nature/nurture debate, Picard comes down firmly on the side of nature, yet his own experiences across the Star Trek films and series would argue otherwise. While killing off Data tugged at the heartstrings of Trek fans, Data pulled a Spock and imprinted his memories in his clone.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 45%
            The first film featuring the Original Series cast suffered from a distinct lack of action. The movie spends ten minutes showing the Enterprise approaching a mysterious object hurdling towards Earth. The film struggles with incorporating the Original Series characters and launching a movie franchise without showing the Enterprise slowly drifting towards a mysterious space cloud. Decked out in Star Fleet’s line of casual lounge wear, the film’s costuming is horribly distracting.

Star Trek Generations (1994) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 48%
            The first film adventure for the Next Generation crew is a mixed bag. It slogs along while the Enterprise searches for a mad scientist trying to get caught up in a magical energy ribbon. He’s ruthless and has an appetite for destroying solar systems—so the Enterprise must stop him. Along the way Picard enlists the help of Kirk, long since thought dead, but actually caught up in the energy ribbon. The film gives the original Enterprise a nice send off, featuring a warp core breach and a crash landing of the saucer section. The film fails in its treatment of Kirk’s death. Instead of dying alone, Kirk dies with Picard looking on. What this adds to the film or the character is unclear.

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%
            There’s a good film somewhere here. Star Fleet willingly sets asides its principles to ensure its long term survival. The film’s writers, however, failed to develop that idea into an interesting or engaging movie. Instead the Enterprise, the flagship of the Federation, seems outmatched at every turn. All while helping the inhabitants of a small planet fight off those who wish to steal their secret to everlasting life. Also Picard falls in love, Data befriends a little boy, Worf gets pimples, and everyone on the Enterprise gets their groove back.

Worf with pimples, don't thank me. Thanks the makers of the movie. 

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78%
            The Search for Spock struggled to cohere the different parts of the movie into a single film. It starts off promisingly with Kirk and the crew orchestrating the theft of the Enterprise. It’s Star Trek meets a heist movie. When they reach the Genesis planet to get Spock’s body, the film struggles. Christopher Lloyd’s Klingon villain appears out of nowhere and decides to kill Kirk and steal the Genesis device. Why? It’s never really made clear other than that he’s an evil Klingon. Much of the rest of the plot involves putting Spock back together again.  They’ve got the brain (fittingly inside Dr. McCoy’s head) and now the body. Then they fly to Vulcan to merge  the two together.

            Next week, the top six films. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

New Horizons Mission to Pluto

            On January 19, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft, managed by NASA, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute, will reach Pluto, its intended destination on July 14, 2015. This will be the first space mission for the recently reclassified dwarf planet. The mission is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program that seeks to explore Pluto, Jupiter, and Venus. A second spacecraft, Juno, launched in 2011 and will reach Jupiter in July 2016. After exploring Pluto, the spacecraft will then be re-tasked to explore other objects in the Kuiper Belt—the group of small rock and metal bodies that are remnants of the creation of the Solar System. Over the past several weeks, New Horizons has been sending back the most detailed images of Pluto that we have ever seen.

New Horizons Transparent.png
The New Horizons Spacecraft
            In February 2007, the spacecraft passed within 1.4 million miles of Jupiter and performed a test run of New Horizons’ equipment. It spent four months photographing Jupiter and its moons. The spacecraft studied Jupiter’s atmosphere and captured some amazing images of the planet’s famed Red Spot. New Horizons then went into hibernation mode in order to preserve its equipment for the long trip to Pluto. Mission engineers have periodically awoken the spacecraft in order to make sure it is running properly. On December 6, 2014, the New Horizons team began waking up the spacecraft to prepare it for its approach to Pluto. Since January 2015, the spacecraft has been sending back images of the dwarf planet. It transmits the images via a radio transmitter and 83 inch antenna. Full communication between NASA and New Horizons takes over nine hours. Commands are first tested on simulator, then the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland sends them to NASA’s Deep Space Network, headquartered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory then sends instructions from one of three locations around the world in Bartsow, California, Madrid, Spain, or Canberra, Australia. 

Jupiter and its moon Io (as photographed by New Horizons)

New Horizons has a lofty set of goals including:

·         Mapping the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon
·         Discovering the characteristics of Pluto’s atmosphere and whether Charon has one at all
·         Investigating surface temperatures on Pluto and Charon
·         Looking for planetary rings around Pluto
·         Exploring other Kuiper Belt objects 

The spacecraft carries two computer systems one for command and handling of the spacecraft and the other handles guidance. Photos from the spacecraft come from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). Starting in May 2015, LORRI has been able to provide better images of Pluto than anything from the Hubble telescope. A single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) supplied by 24 pounds of plutonium dioxide powers the entire spacecraft.

Pluto and Charon (June 29, 2015) 

In the past weeks, New Horizons has sent back some new and revealing images of Pluto. On July 4, the mission hit a snag. The spacecraft experienced an anomaly and switched itself into safe mode. The project’s engineers have managed to correct the problem within the command sequence of the spacecraft. With New Horizons again operating normally, it should resume sending the best images of Pluto that mankind has ever seen.