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How the new ‘Star Trek’ recast Kirk

Fun DVD extra from the 2009 Star Trek reboot, exploring how J.J. Abrams’s team cast the Enterprise’s crew.

How do you recast Captain Kirk—a performance so inextricably linked to its originator, William Shatner? By 2009, Shat-as-Kirk had seeped into our cultural consciousness: the stilted, rambling delivery, the bemused smirk, the paunchy physique.

Fortunately, Abrams and Co. didn’t go down the imitation route. After four decades of Kirk parodies, asking a young actor to do his best Shatner impression wouldn’t have gone over well.

As the new Kirk, Chris Pine, explains,

I talked to J.J. [Abrams, the director] about it at the beginning of the process, and we kind of made a mutual decision that it would be a mistake to try to recreate what Mr. Shatner had done…. There are certain qualities of Kirk that you can’t ignore…, but to try to mimic Mr. Shatner would be a mistake.

Boiling Kirk down to his essential qualities could have proved dangerous, too. Make the Enterprise’s captain too cocky, and the audience might dislike him. Pine makes it work; he captures Kirk’s headstrong charm without turning us off—yet he somehow avoids merely imitating his predecessor.

But there is at least one moment in the film where Pine unapologetically channels William Shatner. In the 2009 film’s final scene, Pine’s delivery of Dr. McCoy’s nickname (“Bones!”) sounds unmistakably Shatneresque. Compare the clip above to some classic Kirk-McCoy banter from Star Trek: The Motion Picture:

It’s a fitting homage. At the end of 2009’s Star Trek, Kirk finally slides into the captain’s chair, so Pine slips into Shatner, too.

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‘Conan O’Brien on 8 Iconic Early Late Night Bits’

That was the period at the very beginning of the show where you don’t know how long you’re going to last, so you’re putting everything you can out there. I used to say that I fed my bone marrow into the first couple of years of that show. Because you’ve been waiting your entire life to get your comedy out there, and then you have this window to do so, and you’re just going to go 130 percent till they drag you off the air.

Conan, reminiscing with Vulture about the early days of his Late Night show on NBC.

As I’ve written, late night shows ossify over time, and their hosts transform from the production’s driving engine to “the talent.” It’s just not possible to maintain the manic creative energy that earned you a time slot in the first place. As the years passed, for example, Dave mellowed and Jay checked out.

Conan, for his part, dropped his show’s most absurd bits and started leaning more on his own cynical sarcasm. He’s still funny—but not quite as interesting.

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Interchangeable subplots?

The Big Bang Theory is one of my guilty pleasures. Usually, I demand more from a TV show: great writing, careful storytelling, stellar performances. For Big Bang, I make an exception. Sometimes, you just need a mindless chuckle.

Still, if I’m honest, Big Bang Theory is not an innovative or well-written show. It overuses a stale “setup-setup-punchline” recipe for laughs. And when the jokes fall flat, it fills the silence with an aggressive laugh track—a broadcast trick that should have died decades ago.

I can overlook these faults; almost every other sitcom leans on these genre standards, too. Harder to forgive? The Big Bang Theory’s lazy, haphazardly-written plot lines. Too often, Big Bang’s ‘A’ storyline and ‘B’ storyline have literally nothing to do with one another.

Consider one recent episode: October 2015’s “Helium Insufficiency.” Half the show deals with Sheldon and Leonard buying black-market helium to buoy their scientific research. Meanwhile, the other characters help Amy navigate the world of online dating.

The episode cuts back and forth between the two storylines, but never lets them intersect or even overlap. The separate narratives just plod along, the characters oblivious of what’s happening in the other thread. And then, the episode abruptly ends—or really, ends twice (once for each subplot). For contrast, take Seinfeld, which specialized in cleverly interweaving multiple seemingly-unrelated stories.

I’d posit that you could combine almost any set of Big Bang subplots. Splice them together, and you’d end up with a serviceable episode. For all I know, that’s how the writers chart out each season: come up with a few dozen “hilarious” situations, toss them in a hat, and pull out two or three at a time to conjure up an episode.

That makes writing scripts easier, perhaps, but it hardly makes for legendary comedy.

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Netflix credits-skipping

Netflix makes it easy to binge. By auto-playing the next episode, and by stripping out the commercial breaks, the streaming service removes the interruptions that typically prompt you to get a snack or go to bed.

But there’s still one vestige of broadcast TV that invites you to stop watching: interminable opening credits sequences. Star Trek’s theme song is retro-catchy the first ten times. After that, it’s tedious and irritating. Or consider House of Cards, whose melancholy opening sequence lasts nearly two full minutes(!). There’s only so many times I can watch those DC time lapses.

So why can’t Netflix automatically skip these opening titles for me? Assign an intern to flag the start and finish of each episode’s credits sequence. Then offer users a preference in settings: always skip credits, never skip, or skip after the first five episodes.

Maybe Netflix’s license agreements prevent them from showing modified versions of the shows. If so, its brokers should negotiate less user-hostile deals. And that explanation wouldn’t apply to Netflix’s own in-house programs, right? As I mentioned above, House of Cards is the chief long-credits offender!

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‘Star Trek: TNG’: a misnomer?

Captain Kirk retired from Starfleet in the year 2293. Jean-Luc Picard assumed command of the Enterprise-D in 2364. That’s a gap of 70+ years. Even in an era when lifespans have lengthened dramatically,[1] it’s a stretch to call Picard’s crew “The Next Generation.”[2]

Then again, “Star Trek: A Subsequent Generation” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  1. Memory Alpha suggests that the average human lifespan had lengthened to 120 years by the TNG era. A 137-year-old McCoy visits the Enterprise-D in the newer series’ pilot episode.  ↩

  2. Technically, the “next generation” was already serving in Starfleet at the tail end of the Kirk era.  ↩

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When you play the Game of Thrones, you win(ce) or you die (inside)

When I was thirteen, my high school English teacher assigned Lord of the Flies to our class. At first, I enjoyed the book. After all, Flies begins innocently enough: grade school boys shipwrecked on a mysterious island. It almost felt like an outdoor survival adventure—still a favorite genre of mine.

But soon the tone—and my outlook—shifted drastically. By the time the eponymous “Lord” made his putrified appearance, my mood had darkened. When the island’s suddenly-savage boys started slaughtering each other, I felt downright depressed. Flies pulled me into a listless, discouraged funk that didn’t lift till I finished the book. After turning the last page, I threw open every window in my bedroom, hoping to let some light stream into my psyche.

Media affects mood; it’s an amazing—and sometimes awful—phenomenon. I love the hopeful, broadened perspective I’m left with after an epic film. On the other hand, darker content fouls my disposition and leaves me feeling depressed.

Case in point? Game of Thrones, HBO’s hit medieval fantasy series. Thones is notorious for its raunch and gore. In Westeros, everyone is cruel, rape is common, and main characters get offed in gratuitous showers of blood. Unlike Lord of the Flies, which used violence to comment on society’s hidden darkness, Game of Thrones revels in nastiness, seemingly without purpose.

That’s a major turn-off. I can’t bring myself to wade into the Thrones bloodbath. I did try reading the Ice and Fire series, upon which the HBO show is based. But once the only admirable character met his bitter end in the first book’s finale, I gave up. George R.R. Martin (Thones’ author and mastermind) seems to relish dousing hope wherever it arises. Why volunteer for that sorry slog, when it makes me so unhappy?

Plenty of others do sign up. Each spring, Thones dominates my social media feeds. Both geeks and non-geeks obsess over the show. Otherwise mild-mannered friends cheer on the throat-slitting and village-pillaging every Sunday night.

I can’t join them, for some reason. Maybe I’m squeamish. Maybe I hold my media to absurdly high standards. Maybe I can’t properly separate my internal life from my imagination. Whatever it is, I don’t plan to play the Game of Thrones any time soon.

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George is getting upset.

I couldn’t figure out how to play off of her. Her instincts for doing a scene—where the comedy was—and mine were always misfiring. …. It’s fucking impossible. It’s impossible! And Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] actually said, ‘I know. Don’t you just want to kill her?’ And Larry went, ‘Kabang! … We’ve got to kill her.’

Jason Alexander (Seinfeld’s George Costanza), speaking to Howard Stern re. working with Heidi Swedberg, who played George’s fiancée Susan on the show.

Telling this story on the air was a mistake for Jason Alexander. Two reasons:

First, it’s in poor taste to bad-mouth a guest star on the show that made you rich. You’re (still) one of the most recognizable faces in comedy. She now teaches ukelele to grade school kids and hardly has a platform to defend herself. Plus, Alexander admits that he helped get her written off the show. Why share an anecdote that makes you sound like a jerk?

A second reason why Alexander gets this wrong? Maybe the lack of chemistry made their scenes work better. The audience can sense that George genuinely dreads every interaction with Susan. She makes Costanza—or maybe Jason Alexander himself—ooze discontent.

Heck, for all we know, maybe the actress intentionally made Alexander squirm, just to squeeze out those reactions from him.

UPDATE (6/4/15): Jason Alexander seems to agree that making these comments was a mistake. He posted an apology to Heidi Swedberg on his Twitter account. Here’s an excerpt:

She was generous and gracious and I am so mad at myself for retelling this story in any way that would diminish her. If I had had more maturity or more security in my own work, I surely would have taken her query and possibly tried to adjust the scenes with her. She surely offered. But, I didn’t have that maturity or security. And, Larry [David] and Jerry [Seinfeld] would probably have killed me as it was all playing exactly as they wanted. Clearly Susan and George were coming off just the way they wanted.

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Picard’s final mission

Actor Michael Dorn, who played Worf on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, is currently spearheading a movement to bring his character back to television.

With all respect to Dorn, Star Trek’s eventual return to TV shouldn’t be a vehicle for Worf; that character has already appeared in more episodes than any other in Trek’s history.

And the new show shouldn’t further J.J. Abrams’ alternate universe, either. That shiny, whiz-bang world is best-suited to the big screen.

No, the next Star Trek TV series should follow the final days of Jean-Luc Picard in Starfleet. Give us just a few hours’ worth of story, explaining how the beloved Next Gen captain finishes his career.

Here’s why a Picard-centric miniseries is the way to go:
1. Patrick Stewart is pushing 75. While other key TNG actors could reprise their characters in another decade or two, the window is closing on Stewart’s ability to swashbuckle. Let Geordi or Riker (or Worf) have their moments in the sun when they turn 75.
2. The last Next Gen movie, Nemesis, failed to bring closure to the TNG narrative. Its weak-sauce villain and clumsy plot left the audience with a bad taste in its mouth. Picard—and Patrick Stewart—deserve better.
3. Plus, a miniseries is a perfect format for dipping our toes back into *Trek* on TV. It would demand only a short-term commitment for Stewart, whose busy acting schedule might make a multi-season run unappealing.
4. Focusing on Picard would allow the show to up the dramatic stakes. Stewart is likely the best actor to ever play a major Star Trek role. Leveraging his talent, Trekcould find its place in TV’s “New Golden Age” of recent years—think Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and *House of Cards*. I’m not saying Picard should become a murderous misanthrope, but Trek needs a new, darker tone in today’s television era.

What story would the series tell? I’d like to see something more character-focused, at a very small scale. No galaxy-wide war. No Deux-ex-machina meddling from Q. No fan-service appearances from other TNG characters. Just Picard. Maybe he spends his final years commanding an archaeological vessel, and his well-intentioned exploration draws him into some unexpected conflict?

Honestly, the actual plot device isn’t that important. Just give us clever writing, quality production values—and a fitting send-off for a favorite captain.

UPDATE: In August of 2015, Patrick Stewart was asked whether we might see Picard again. He seemed pessimistic:

It’s possible. I think it’s unlikely. But it’s possible. The series wrapped over 25 years ago and we’ve got a rather elderly Captain Picard now. So I don’t know. It would be… it could be entertaining.

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Rebooting LOST?

I think there will be more LOST.

Damon Lindelof, co-creator and executive producer of ABC’s LOST.

When LOST aired its finale in 2010, its ending pretty much ruled out a sequel. The show’s main character died. Actually, the whole cast died. Sort of. (It was a little confusing.) So it’s hard to imagine a sequel picking up where LOST left off.

A LOST renewal could, potentially, tell the story of what happened to The Island after Jack’s death. whoever’s left. But while the show’s fan-pleasing epilogue already revealed who’s now running the Island–Hurley, Ben, and Walt–it also wrapped up a lot of the show’s mysteries and spoiled the fun. Besides, who wants LOST without Jack or Locke? Did anyone like AfterMASH?

A sequel just wouldn’t work. But there’s another way to go back to The Island: to hit the reset button. To reboot the whole narrative, starting from the plane crash. After all, Hollywood loves to recycle.

But you couldn’t just retell the exact same story. What would be the point? The viewers would already know what’s coming–every plot twist and cliffhanger would be spoiled, ahead of time. As I wrote earlier, this is what makes it difficult to watch LOST in reruns.

No, instead, a LOST reboot should adhere to the Battlestar Galactica model. Revive a cult classic series, but don’t follow its original plot line slavishly. Instead, work in clever references for the hardcore fans, but tell a new story from scratch.

What would this “new story” look like? Since this is LOST we’re talking about, that story would likely mash genres together–adventure, drama, and science fiction. It would undoubtedly take place on a tropical island. Ideally, producers would commit to a fixed number of seasons from the start; that way, they could meticulously plan and pace the plot. By nixing the typical renewal/cancellation cycle, the network could help eliminate the filler that too often derailed the show’s first run.

All that being said, as much as I loved and miss LOST, it’s too soon to think about a reboot. Everything’s still too fresh. The Battlestar reimagining premiered twenty-five years after the original went off the air.

So… mark your calendars. You’ve got a ticket on Oceanic flight 815… for September of 2035.

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Why video piracy won’t die.

These days, piracy is king. Anyone with basic Internet skills, a broadband connection, and a low-end PC can watch every TV show and movie ever produced. Hours after a new episode premieres, it’s uploaded to a dozen different services that allow instant playback. Even live sports streams aren’t hard to find.

Of course, content producers try to shut down these streaming sites. They lobby the feds to seize pirates’ domain names. They petition Google to remove links to the unsanctioned content.

But piracy prevention often seems like Whack-A-Mole. Shut down one site, and it resurrects itself the next day under new branding. Similarly, you can excise the Google links, but Google isn’t the only way to browse the web. Finally, the more “traditional” piracy options—Usenet and torrents, for example—continue to thrive. Video piracy just won’t die.

In some ways, today’s Internet TV mess resembles the music landscape, circa 2000. Back then, Napster and Kazaa made it simple to download entire music catalogs. And once music fans grew accustomed to downloading MP3s, they refused to return to the studios’ lucrative $18-per-CD business model. Napster had opened Pandora’s box, and the damage couldn’t be undone.

Eventually, the piracy problem forced the music studios to cut distribution deals with Apple. They made every album and every track available for purchase, legitimately, through a single vendor. Sales soared. iTunes’ success proved that customers would pay for reasonably-priced, conveniently-available digital content. Eventually, new business models—including paid streaming services like Spotify—began to surface.

Is the music industry as profitable as it was twenty years ago? No. But it’s far better off than it would have been, had the studios stubbornly refused to adapt.

Video content-makers must adapt, as well. Customers want a legitimate alternative to illegal streaming, and the studios haven’t provided one. The average viewer hates the recent trend of requiring a cable contract to stream shows online. And nobody likes hunting for a particular show across a dozen different online services (e.g. Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, etc.), each with a different catalog.

Why can’t TV and movie studios give their customers what they want? One easy-to-use, on-demand service for all the content ever produced. Every movie ever filmed. Every TV show, from the smash hit to the obscure cult favorite. And every game from every sport, broadcast live.

Customers would gladly pay for such a service. If one company offered viewers all the content, instantly and reliably, viewers would abandon their illegal streams and fork over a fat monthly subscription.[1]

Of course, this is naive. Content deals are notoriously difficult, and no one service can negotiate with every studio. But until paying for content is at least as easy as stealing it, video piracy will live on.

  1. After all, very few consumers want to pirate. It’s dangerous, for one thing; if the studios catch you torrenting, you may face a hefty lawsuit. And streaming is unpleasant, since it forces you to wade through malware-infested, ad-plastered scam sites.  ↩