PARADISE LOST: LOVING THE ALIEN
After watching last weekend’s ‘remastered’ version of “This Side of Paradise,” it’s not hard to imagine how Philip Kaufman got the idea to cast Leonard Nimoy in his 1979 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the most underrated genre films of the 70’s (re-issued in a the new Invasion of the Body Snatchers DVD (Collector’s Edition) next month and definitely worth buying, BTW). Re-imagined as a paranoid sci-fi film noir, Kaufman’s film is sheer genius (which doesn’t taken anything away from the original which is also a superlative film) which managed to showcase Leonard Nimoy in a role that we seemingly had not seen him in before in which he goes from an emotional psychoanalyst to a cold, logical pod person in a heinous corduroy suit transformed by alien spores. It was while watching “This Side of Paradise” again that I realized what a debt of gratitude this wonderful episode owes to Jack Finney’s classic “Body Snatchers” tale, but not in a goofy, body switching piece of sci-fi theatrics like The Next Generation’s “Power Play” in which Data, Troi and O’Brien go all Kryptonian on the crew of the Enterprise D, but rather using the body snatching motif to illuminate character nuance.
Donald Sutherland & Leonard Nimoy in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’
“This Side of Paradise” may not show up on a lot of fans Ten Best list anymore, but if you’re old enough to remember in the 70’s when every teenage girl who was a Trekkie seemed to be writing a Mary Sue story in which their fictional dopelgangers melted the heart of the logical Mr. Spock in seemingly every fanzine story ever written, “This Side of Paradise” figured prominently. And it’s not hard to understand why, in the context of Trek’s first season; “This Side of Paradise” was a highpoint. While “Corbomite Maneuver” remains the apex for its space exploration stories and “Errand of Mercy” and “Balance of Terror,” the zenith of space combat adventures, “Paradise” was a benchmark for peeling away the layers of the Spock character who had gone from an almost silly, pointy-eared throwaway character in “The Cage” (“the women!”) to a fully, nuanced and deeply complex character it would become. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it took a woman, D.C. Fontana, to write what is probably the best Spock stories of the series (“Paradise,” “Journey to Babel” and “Yesteryear” – it was Gene Coon who later nailed the Spock/McCoy relationship perfectly) in which we learn the price of the logical stoicism of the Vulcan first officer. And it’s not just that he can’t get jiggy with a comely Jill Ireland, it keeps him at a distance from his friends and, as we’ll learn later, his family. By the end, Kirk makes an impassioned plea for frailty and failing rejecting the utopia offered by the spores for a more imperfect world, much as he later makes an uncomfortable manifesto to the Organians for the right to wage war. We’ve seen Kirk’s fear of losing of his ship before, as in “The Naked Time,” but it’s never been so brutally hammered home as when he confronts a crewmember fleeing the ship and declares, “This is mutiny, mister.” The pod-possessed mutineer casually replies, “Yes, it is” as he waits in line to beam down. No one’s trying to kill Kirk or do harm to him, they’re simply trying to wear him down so that he can appreciate what they got. Of course, since Spock already got Jill Ireland, you can understand Kirk’s reluctance to join them on Omicron Ceti III.
That’s right Jim…this one is mine
It’s fascinating that for a show that has often been perceived as a liberal, Kennedy-esque view of the future, this episode firmly rejects the ethos of the time of tuning in and dropping out and rejects the spores in lieu of accepting reality as it exists (a/k/a don’t do drugs and accept the world you are living in). Much as the Vietnam-tinged “A Private Little War” makes a case for interventionist foreign policy in arming the villagers against the Klingons, “Trek” could often seemingly be at odds with itself although there’s no question that the show firmly rejected bureaucratic incompetence in lieu of a strong captain who had the strength of his convictions, but wasn’t afraid to question them when he was wrong (unlike other commanders-in-chief’s we may be acquainted with). He’s weaker without the sage counsel of Spock and the emotional id of McCoy and his baiting of Spock into an emotional tantrum into ridding himself of the spores is one of the episode’s strongest sequences when he realizes he can’t save the Enterprise without Spock’s help. What good is being the captain if there’s no one to follow your orders?
Is Kirk ‘Kirk’ when he is alone?
In fact, the episode is chock full of fine performances and some bucolic location lensing along with excellent use of Trek library cues. It may not have the bombast and space action of other episodes (even the brilliant “City on the Edge of Forever” had a great time travel motif and the iconic Guardian to give it its unforgettable place in Trek history with its unforgettable emotionally wrenching coda), but it’s subtle and smart and embodies all the elements that made Classic Star Trek the best of the Trek series and contributed to its enduring appeal for what is now four decades.
As for the new visual effects, courtesy of CBS Digital, they’re largely irrelevant in this particular case. For the most part, they’re executed well, but they’re besides the point. The episode isn’t any better because we can see the Berthold Rays irradiating the green-ish hued planet or the orbiting Enterprise shots are any different. What I continue to find maddening is how inconsistent even the simplest of shots seem to be. There’s a great new image above the primary hull as the ship orbits that looks, no pun intended, stellar and yet other shots of the Enterprise circling planets look terrible.
Great shot of the E, but others not so much
The Season that was
Looking back at the first ‘season’ of Trek Remastered in syndication, some shots of the Enterprise are majestic and in others, the frame is so badly composed, that it looks like the cameras about to crash into the ship, either too close or too far away. That said, there’s yet to be a bad matte painting which have been lovingly and faithfully rendered in such episodes as “Wink of an Eye,” “Devil in the Dark,” “The Menagerie,” even “Spock’s Brain” among others. The ambitious work on “Amok Time” is extremely well integrated into the episode and looks sensational and some great work, where I wouldn’t have expected it, is done in “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” and most gratifyingly, “The Immunity Syndrome.” And yet, the stock shots of the Enterprise in orbit are at times stunning and more often, overlit and fake looking. On the miniscule iTunes screen, most of the shots are more than passable, but try watching them on a projector or a 60” TV like I do and they just don’t hold up. It’s exceptionally galling that Paramount intends to charge over $200 for the HD DVD combo release of the new Trek episodes, but is failing to make the set definitive by including the original, un-enhanced episodes on the set. While I’d be happy to watch the new and “improved” “Space Seed” or “Amok Time,” I can’t stomach having to watch the re-imagined “Doomsday Machine” or “Tholian Web” in lieu of the original, superior versions. Not unlike when Lucas put out his bastardized Star Wars Special Editions and buried the original releases of the unaltered versions (until they were re-released in inferior, crappy non-anamorphic versions last year as a final ‘fuck you’ to the fans), Paramount is basically force-feeding Trek to the masses without taking into account the feelings of those who grew up on it. Instead, we’re getting HD DVD combo version with both the HD and standard def versions of the episodes when it could have easily accommodated both the new and original versions of Trek (for a considerably lower retail price, I would add). In other words, if you want to see the gorgeous new transfers of the episodes which are truly magnificent, you have no choice but to watch the remastered episodes with all their inconsistent visual effects work whether you want to or not — or you can trot out your old sets of episodes and look at the grainy, muddy transfers of previous iterations and enjoy the classic 60’s era of Emmy Award winning visual effects in all their splendor. Furthermore, the extra features don’t reflect what fans really want to see in terms of bonus materials. While Blackburn’s Super 8 footage sounds great (and may be the sole reason I buy this set), it’s time that the studio shelled out for Shatner and Nimoy to do commentaries and interviewed the remaining living writers, producers, directors, costumers, propmakers and visual effects technicians from the show before they really do grow old…and don’t become part of this collection.
STIII inspired matte shot showing TOS-R making a real improvement
…and the new ‘Enterprise’ inspired Tholians making it worse
Despite my concerns, I’m actually a fan of the idea of the new Trek effects, but I don’t think that should be at the expense of the original versions and, if these are to become truly definitive versions, more care, time and, most likely, money will need to be spent to insure that the visual effects live up to the potential of what the best of them have been.
With a hiatus in episodes coming, we can only hope when the project resumes and we get to see such episodes as “The Galileo Seven,” “The Ultimate Computer,” “The Cloud Minders” and “The Enterprise Incident,” that they really get it right because, whether you like it or not, it appears these new episodes will be the one’s you and your children will be watching for a long time to come and the classic, award winning, miniature work of the 60’s that many of us still love and cherish, will become as obsolete and irrelevant as Captain Dunsel. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m not sure why you’re reading this. Come to think of this, I’m not sure why you’re reading this anyway.
Mark A. Altman is the writer/producer of such films as Free Enterprise, starring Eric McCormack and William Shatner, and producer of DOA: Dead Or Alive, based on the bestselling video game from Tecmo.