Monday, 9 March 2015

Nimoy's Whales

Thomas Hunt has taken all of the original Star Trek films and cut them down to just those parts that feature ships. So each film is a 5 to 30 minute version featuring just those images of ships or other objects in space.

So its basically storytelling with just complex objects moving through space, so you can see why I liked it.

I watched them backwards, starting with Nemesis and working towards The Motion Picture. It was interesting to see the seismic effect that CGI had on the storytelling of the series.

Short version - it fucked it up.

I - The Motion Picture

My god this is a long fucking film. Its only 20 minutes longer than Wrath Of Khan. The ship bits are over 25 minutes long, that's more than twice as much as any other Trek film.

(The total amount of ship footage goes down after this film to around ten minutes, sometimes more, sometimes less. Which is interesting. It seems that even in a series of films about space, people don't want to actually see that much stuff moving around in space. Budget constraints would be an issue as well, but it also seems to me that for most people, the bit with the ships flying about and interacting with each other is not very informationally rich on its own, it is mainly context dependant on the actors acting in set. Like a kind of shadow play or Masque in the middle of a naturalistic play.)

The film takes a lot of time looking at the Enterprise, then looking again, then looking some more. It likes looking at everything in space for a long time. Some klingon ships, a complex grey station in space. Lots of little men floating about in little suits.

The men in suits are important becasue they being in a theme that carries through the early Trek films and it largely abandoned by the later ones of illustrating scale by including the human form against the size of the ship.

The Enterprise is clean in this film. I didn't see any azteking (I think its called), which is the fine detailing the model makers put on the surface of the ship at tiny scale ti create the illusion that it is a vast thing made of plates and rivets. (Or space rivets or whatever.)

Of course future ships wold very possibly not be made of anything like plates or rivets, even sci-fi versions. So azteking cheats by reproducing the qualities of a modern form, (the aircraft carrier or large naval ship, or the space shuttle) and transposing it onto a futuristic form so we can 'sense' the scale with the subconscious process we use in our present for judging the scale of technologies.

Almost 20 minutes of the 30 minute running time are the enterprise slowly slowly approaching and penetrating the V'ger space probe thing. These segments are probably massively overlong for the film, and still feel so in this clip version, yet, looked at purely as art, they are almost unique in the history of the series.

The V'ger probe is a huge craft, near planet-size, surrounded by a kind of labyrinthine aurara of blue flame that stops you seeing anything within.

The scenes of the Enterprise drifting through this alien/elfin/fairyland gigastructure are really remarkably beautiful. We never see the ship as a whole but only undergo an almost endless series of penetrations and slow unfoldings as more of its landscape is, piece by piece, revealed. Large parts of the first part are spent in building up the scale of the Enterprise in the mind of the viewer, this later part of the film then takes the bold move of pushing the camera right way back, showing the Enterprise as tiny, emphasising its smallness against the blue cityscape of V'ger.

This switching of scale works very well, it shocks our apprehension of size and distance in a way that we expact real space travel would. In space, things are either really fucking far away so that you almost can't see them, or really fucking close an huge. The human-familiar scale of 'things that are reasonable size, a reasonable distance away' really woudn't happen that much. But this is the distance at which human storytelling can carry most information. You can kind of tell the creative courage of the Trek films by the frequency with which they abandon this 'comfort zone' of middle-distance. Good ones are more likely to both push the camera in close and to pull it further away. Bad ones tend to treat the ships as characters in a soap opera, hanging together in vague-space in the middle distance.

The movement through V'ger is a lot like the movement through a sacred space like a church or temple. An endless opening into deeper and deeper mysteries. Then they get to big space valve and chuck Spock through it so that Gene Roddenberry can further exercise his 2001 gland. Which leads to Spock going through yet another series of doors and portals, describing what he sees.

Of all the Trek films, this one seems most like a kind of collage of other Sci-Fi moods. It feels very 60's in some ways. The grey space stations (only the Enterprise is white so far) feel a little Star Wars. The mood is quite decadent and mystical and dreamy in a very 70's way.

II - Wrath of Khan

Shadows and Speech.

Space is more shadowed almost straight away in WOK. The worlds hang half-shadowed in space and the lighting on the Federation ships creates pools of brightness on their surfaces that also (by necessity) makes margins of shadow. We are back with Ruskin and Rodin.

There is a lot more talking over the ship scenes from in-character voices. This almost didn't happen at all in TMP.

There is still a 'hero shot' of the Enterprise where we get to look at her. Despite apparently hanging in the same space dock as in TMP, they seem to have put someone a lot more moody in charge of pointing lamps at the ship. She is not evenly-lit but picked out in soft pools of white light. the lights glowing from within the ship can be more clearly seen in the darkness away from the spot lamps.

Again we have a little diddy squarish shuttle that is clearly never meant to ever go fast or do anything useful. Perhaps another rule might be formulated that the more boxy and shit the shuttles are in a Star Trek film, the more motion and life the Enterprise will exhibit?

And now we see the azteking. This is the archetypal Enterprise-hero scene. Azteking. Pools of shadow. Self-lit enterprise. A little space man actually waving to the ship. Force the camera right in close to the model to highlight its size. Exactly like watching a liner being launched.

Regular One

You can pretty much tell the story of what happens on the Regular One space station just from the outer shots and the voice overs. It starts looking peaceful, speaking with a female voice.

Then the angles shift as the enterprise approaches, the Enterprise speaks with Uhura's voice.

Then silence.

Then the death shot with the station backlit and turning. Now it looks like a grave or a cross. Actually it looks like a cross within a cross.

Almost half of this cut is taken up with the battle in the Mutara nebulae. basically the Wuthering Heights of space. No stars. Space-lightning. Much darker than star-trek space usually is. (Star trek space is lighter and more brightly lit than real space so if they want to terrify you with its darkness and inpenatraibility then they have to invent an new kind of gothic space to be scary in.)

This shot exemplifies the mood

The Reliant difts out of a patch of darkness, only its hull-lights signifying its shape. The camera flips slowly. far close, far close. Ship-in-distance then near-hull shot. then here
we see the physical logic of the hunt embodied in the shot with the Enterprise rising up, framed by the Reliants superstructure, using the body of the ship as as both character and landscape.

Sometimes space ships are like masks, carrying the information of characters, sometimes as vast-pseudo landscapes to be traversed and sometimes as lonely symbols.

III Search For Spock

Nimoy is on direction and you can tell straight away.

- Enterprise fires Spock's coffin in a streak of light.
- The light curls around a newborn world.
- The light becomes a rising sun.
- The camera turns to the world
(Wrong way round for ST, the camera usually turns from the world to space, but we are with Nimoy now.)
- CLOUDS. Now we are in atmosphere.
(Nimoy loves clouds.)
- Clouds from below opens up into forest.
- We drift through the forest, things are getting mystical.
- Spocks sleek, dark coffin, surprisingly whole in the edenic greenery.

So from the darkness of space to life and living things. This is going to be a hallmark of Nimoy's direction.

The Kilongon Bird of Prey by Nilo Rodis, Dave Carson and William George is here to be evil and it looks raw as fuck. This might be my favourite ship from the series other than the Enterprise. It appears directly above a kitbash victim ship, literally spreading wings, with actual wings painted on its fuselage (because Klingons would do that), and strange wing patterns worked int o its engineering in the topside. If you described this to me I would think it was a terrible idea but it works surprisingly well.

And now the Federation has a big space house to put the Enterprise inside. They must have built that since the last film. The Federations tech is now the creme-white we expect instead of Star-Wars grey. The lights glimmering inside are a soft blue. The Space Dock is a big friendly motherly mushroom made of soft regular curves. A civilised city in space. You can tell they have theatres in there, and an arts programme somewhere. The inside if the space house is a lot less moody than in WOK, there is some spotlighting. No tiny space men or people looking out of windows. Lots of little ships buzzing around.

Previous versions seemed like NASA-Plus. A little tough and scrappy. Now we are clearly in the friendly utopian future.

Later, as the Enterprise escapes, its darker in the space house. The scene is about the Enterprise getting away by stealth so the scene is low lit as if it were night, even though it makes no sense to have a day-night cycle in the working bits of a space dock.

And here we also get a brief comparatively-gentle chase scene with the Excelsior, a ship designed in the early 80's to look more futuristic than the Enterprise and which therefore, to us, seems a bit cheaper since good 60's design ages better than average 80's design.

Nimoy uses some of the techniques of WOK in a reduced way, but doesn't really push them. Space (both outer space and more prosaically, the careful use and management of space in film shots) is not his love.

And this is a film where we blow up the Enterprise, which falls like a dying angel. The Klingon Bird of Prey Escapes and travels to Vulcan to land in some cool spotlights.

From our perspective, we know the Enterprise crew is still alive. But if we look at this series of short films as standalone works of strange art, it looks as if the elemental power of the white ship has strangely been transferred to the violent green ship, which is now peaceful.

IV - The Voyage Home

Now this is a very special case. In film terms TVH re-uses the Big Scary Alien Ship With Mysterious Purpose Strangely Linked To Earths History trope from TMP. (I need to think of a better name for that trope.)

In terms of _objects_ though, we are dealing with a strange and remarkable cylinder. A black ship wielding a shaft of light and a kind of pale nucleus that spins around like a periscope or sensing eye.

The blackness of the cylinder is curious. It is dark, reflective and weathered. The weathering and seeming 'ancientness' works wonderfully. It is a truly gothic ship and it deals with light in an opposite way than the Federation ships. They are white, self-lit to create layers of shadow, with lights within showing through. The Whale-Tube *is* shadow. Its mass is picked out by the gleams of reflected starlight running along its sides, and by the light reflected from its own column of illumination, the only light it gives off.

I could probably write a whole thing on various star ship sounds and how they are used in ST, but suffice to say the WhaleTube rolls in on a chundering 'wub-wub-wub-wub-wub' mixed with electronica whalesong. It has the most unique sound in the series, a powerful element of its identity.

The Whaletube threatens the Federation by approaching the Mushroom Space House from SFS, darkening it, and turning off its soft blue lights.

It also appears directly next to it and is clearly fucking huge.

CLOUDS. We are back with a planetary atmosphere again with the strange sensing of the WhaleTube causing Leonard Nimoy to take a lot of groovy shots of storms and clouds and to reverse or speed up the footage to make them feel weird.

Here, for the first time in a ST film we get an image of a human city. Its the dreamlike POV of the Bird Of Prey flying over modern San Francisco at night. Then a strange chase scene where the Bird Of Prey saves some whales from whale hunters. This is the second time a ship has been used for humour in the film series, the first was Excelsiors failed pursuit of the Enterprise in SFS.

The second half of the edit is made up of the return of the whales to earth. Again, water and cloud play a big part, its rare for them to be in a ST film so much.

The sequence where the Whales apparently communicate with the WhaleTube is shown almost entirely without words or human intervention. Its just movement, shape and sound.

Then we are back in the space house which is once again full of life. We see the Excelsior again, before a new enterprise is revealed.

In terms of the boldness of the use of space and the way the ships are interpreted, nothing Nimoy does comes close to WOK. But, in the way he assembles the film and the way he uses the ships as part of the story, he is unique. The whole of the TVH could be shown as an art film to a bunch of film students who have never heard of Star Trek and it would work.

Nimoy's storytelling is so rock solid you can actually just pull out the effects alone and they still makes an entirely coherent film in which the character, needs and  nature of the objects can be clearly perceived. The whale-hunt sequence works perfectly ian unexpected and charming way and the appearance of the Klingon Bird of Prey looming over the fishing boat it both utterly strange, appropriate, characterful, amusing and heroic. It could almost be a silent movie. And the tone and feel of this sub-movie matches the tone and feel of the film as a whole. Warm, human and funny.

Thats enough for now, I may come back and do the rest later on, including the depressing arrival of CGI. Into Darkness indeed.


  1. Man, this is really good. I just rewatched TMP and WOK and I agree completely.

    In particular your point about ship shots not being very informationally rich on their own - there are, I think, several things at work here.
    Mostly, the unfamiliarity of the spaceships. Yes, the Enterprise is familiar _as an icon,_ but its scale is hard to interpret - it's not much like anything familiar. And we don't know much about how it works except what Scotty et al tell us, and these elements do not hang together cohesively. In an Age of Sail drama there can be stuff about the hull leaking under stress in a storm and the spars falling and the rigging groaning and capsizing and it works on a visceral level. The camera shake and the bridge crew throwing themselves around do not achieve the same connection. I never really _get it,_ when ships get strafed with phasers. I think that vague remove was deliberately added to the TV series to keep it family-friendly (no bullets!) but it adds challenges to making the space scenes dramatic.

    The WOK moment when the Enterprise rises over the Reliant (and we know everyone's blind). 1. in general, this is a very soap opera fight - good observation. The distance at which the ships joust, the crossing shots, are like the characters in a kitchen. 2. I suspect but cannot prove right now that there's probably a direct cinematic quote from the Gregory Peck _Moby Dick_ there. Anyway as you note it sums up the whole situation and is like all those "soon" meme pictures.

    Why do people love the Millenium Falcon so much? Why does it get a cheer in the Star Wars 7 teaser-trailer? I think partly (a) it is well established as a character in its own right but also partly (b) it's about the size of a house. It has a few rooms inside that we know the size of, and we've seen Han looking out of the cockpit, and that's like a truck cab, and everything's very familiar in scale. X-wings, BTW, are pretty much exactly the size of a P51 Mustang. It's all very familiar.
    Also, ships in Star Wars are always pretty autonomous - the least autonomous, that cannot operate far from a mothership, is the evil and under-armoured TIE fighter. So maybe there's a discourse about dependency there. Shit Star Trek shuttles speak of dependency on a massive support system: they can afford to be shit because they're in a totally safe environment.

    1. Yes, the Millenium Falcon is like a home. Same thing with the Enterprise. One of the pleasures of watching Next Gen is imagining yourself living on the Enterprise - it would be absolutely brilliant.

  2. Am I wrong to like Star Trek III the best? I think it's very moving. And Shatner's acting in it is superb. The scene where he reacts to his son's death is really well done.

    1. STIII is underrated for sure.

    2. As someone who has a deep love for The One With the Whales, I can say that you can love whichever one you like.

    3. The rule of thumb that the even numbered movies are great and the odd numbered ones terrible really only holds up if you watch them as action or at least plot movies. They are easy to grasp.
      But from an artistic perspective both 1 and 3 are pretty amazing (and I find 4 rather lacking for anything but the space parts).

    4. I'd rank them 3, 6, 2, 1, 7, 4, 8, 10, 5, 9. The Abrams ones I don't count; they're Star Wars films with Star Trek characters.

  3. Might? Might?! Of course we want to hear the rest now!

  4. I love this statement:
    "... since good 60's design ages better than average 80's design."
    So true,