Sunday, September 18, 2005

Star Trek: Avalon - 'Shattered Heaven pts I to IV' (Mini-Series)

WRITTEN BY: Joshua Legg & Joe Burdette
PREMIERE DATE: Pt 1 - 18/4/2005 - Pt 2 - 26/5/2005 - Pt 3 - 17/7/2005 - Pt 4 - 4/9/2005

2285. Thomas Hatch is a self-centered, slobbish cargo pilot. He has no career. No friends. And his beautiful girlfriend has just left him. He believes things can't get any worse, until a prank against him, combined with encountering a mysterious subspace phenomenon, throws Hatch into a strange, dark world where he is captured by the crew of the Avalon, a ship full of mercenaries led by strong Hirogen captain Zorin & the seductive Siren. While struggling to comprehend what has happened to him, Hatch soon discovers the Avalon crew are running from the Cult, a powerful force who are trying to convert the galaxy to their dogma, and comes to realise he isn't getting home any time soon......

In the last few years, I think every fan of science-fiction has probably asked themselves the simple question: what killed Star Trek? I mean, let's face it, the most successful TV franchise in history is dead in the water. After roughly a decade of weak concepts (Voyager),
lacklustre movies (Insurrection; Nemesis), and missed opportunities (Enterprise), Gene Roddenbery's opus has flatlined. The current Trek production team, with the possible exception of one Manny Coto, are old men fast out of ideas. And the unoriginality and refusal to take risks with the Trek concept, largely for fears of denting the lucrative cash cow the franchise delivers, has sunk Trek's future into a quagmire of uncertainty. It's only on the Net that Trek lives on right now. In the minds of fans unhindered by budgetary concerns, worries about syndication, or of jeopardising the loyalty of the brigade of fans out there who hate to see Roddenberry's vision altered in any way. Star Trek Avalon is one of a new wave of online produced shows daring to take Trek into new areas. And, by and large, in this case, it's a successful experiment.

Avalon is markedly different from any Trek concept before in numerous ways, but none more so perhaps than in it's main character. Thomas Hatch is absolutely nothing like Trek protagonists of old. He's not a Starfleet captain. He's not heroic. He's not respected. By most, he's not even liked. And in many ways, he's not even likeable. From when we first see him, breaking up with his beautiful, career-minded girlfriend Melanie in the teaser, Hatch comes across as a self-centered guy who's never really grown up. His refusal to accept responsibility, to better himself as most people in the Trek universe try to do it seems, has left him behind. Basically, his life is not worth much. In devising such a character, creators Legg & Burdette have basically screwed up the Trek rulebook and thrown it in the nearest waste paper basket. Trek as we've seen on the box would never have concieved of including such a character in it's cast, let alone as a protagonist. The nearest we've come is Quark, but even he deep down had some worth and dignity. Plus, he was a Ferengi, an alien. Hatch is all human, and his existence goes against everything Roddenberry tried to show humanity were three or four centuries from now. He's not enlightened or selfless. He's real, like many people of our time, and in many ways can be related to much easier than most other human Trek characters could be.

As I said before, however, he's in many ways unlikeable, not meant to be liked given his attitude (and his propensity for needless profanity). Legg and Burdette seem to make a conscious effort to repeat this in the rest of the main cast, once they are slowly introduced throughout the mini-series. Zorin, the imposing Hirogen captain of the Avalon, doesn't suffer fools gladly, meaning he pretty much hates Hatch from the get-go, and is in the best tradition of tough, aloof character. Admittedly, it'd be odd if a Hirogen was anything less; again, Siren, essentially the second in command, may be seductive but she's also cold with it; Isaac the doctor is often just plain rude. It's not that Trek in the past has had a multitude of characters with beaming smiles 24-7, but no cast has been as specifically set up as 'anti-heroes' as much as this one. Fact is, though, it works. Mainly for the fact the universe they inhabit is far from being a place that would inspire happiness and warmth, plus the creators make an effort to include more lightweight characters in the mix, such as Xindi cousins Azel & Shera and Ava, the sentient computer at the heart of Avalon, who create a good counterbalance. It's also refreshing to see the focus on a multitude of characters with darkness to them, exhibiting shades of grey that very few main characters in Trek have ever had.

The other main area where Avalon clearly shows it's difference and originality is in the world it creates. We begin in the late 23rd century, roughly the timeframe of the Original Series, but the world we see is not the one we know and love. From Hatch's perspective, the Federation is a snobbish hierarchy who have royally screwed him over. Even that era is seen through much more of a rough looking glass, from Hatch's position as a dreg of society. It's quite unique to see that era in this way, even if it is brief. However, it's when Hatch is throttled into the distant future of, what we later learn, to be 4427, that Legg and Burdette really go to town. The destiny of humanity & the Federation they paint is an extremely dark one. In an effort to raise a striking middle finger to Roddenberry and his somewhat naive, yet hopeful, vision of humanity's social and technological evolution, the creators completely wipe away all the progress humanity made from our time to the established Trek era. Not only humanity, they practically cause the extinction of all the races we know and love. In this universe, there are no devious Romulans, bull-headed Cardassians, logical Vulcans, violent yet heroic Klingons. And no Federation. This universe is a dark and fearful place, that felt quite reminiscent of the universe of the Dune novels in many ways. Enforced religion, in the form of the all-pervasive Cult (kind of like the Borg spliced with Jehovah's Witnesses), has now swept the galaxy. Their creation is another two-fingers to established Trek, which made an effort to remove any kind of religious presence from the evolution of humanity in the next few centuries. Humanity had turned to science, not theology. Legg and Burdette presumably recognise this as another piece of naivety in Roddenberry's world. Given the strong role religion plays in world events today, both as a force for good and indeed the driving force between a great deal of misguided bad, it's a disturbing parallel to find Trek's future contains the Cult, people who will use appalling violence and devastating to convert the universe to their way of thinking.

This four-part mini series has been a way of introducing the world of Avalon in quite an epic fashion, and on that note it succeeds. The story is suitably large and dynamic enough to sustain it's 300+ page length. All of the characters get their moment in the spotlight and are well-rendered, giving us interesting glimpses into their psyches that can be further explored. Mysteries, too, are posed. Exactly what caused Hatch to be thrown into the 45th century?; what is Isaac's connection to Adele?; who is the Prophet who the Cult worship?. These are just a few questions the reader is left wondering about by the time we finally reach the conclusion. This isn't to say this extended pilot is perfect, however. It does have weaknesses that need to be addressed.

For a start, at times, there's a feeling this is a show trying too hard to be different. Right from the very first scene, Legg and Burdette make an effort to give the writing a much more contemporary feel. Gone is the professional, technobabble laden speak of most Trek characters, and in comes a much more late 20th/early 21st century vernacular. I'm not sad to see the technobabble largely disappear, but this 'hip' dialogue sometimes seems forced. There's more profanity throughout this mini-series than probably in any of the previous Trek series combined, in some cases strong. It fits certain characters, yes, and it certainly gives the show a rougher and more grown-up feel, but at times it's unnecessary. Swearing only really works well if it's used sparingly, but at times it feels as though Hatch simply says 'shit' or 'fuck' for the sake of it. You don't need profanity to tell a good story, and Avalon could reign than in a bit, as well as the streetwise dialogue. It does make the show stand-out, but it could quickly grow tiresome. The other problem goes back to the characters: some are perhaps just too unlikeable. In every successful TV show, Trek or otherwise, there are likeable characters. The best shows get the balance between characters you can relate to and root for, and swines you hate but you love to see doing their bad thing. At times, Avalon's main characters can be so repulsive and vicious that it's hard to distinguish them from the real bad guys. This could be disconcerting for many a reader. Hopefully, in future installments, the writers will strive to give some of the characters just a little bit more humanity.

All in all, though, this mini-series displays a great deal of promise. It's well-written, with grammar and formatting largely in the right place, and has a style all it's own. It's entirely unique, unlike any Trek we've seen before, which is immensely attractive right now. It's perhaps telling if you stop and ask yourself something: would Avalon, in it's rough and ready style now, ever be successfully made into the next produced version of Trek for TV? I think for almost everyone, the answer would be a firm no. And that, quite frankly, can only be a good thing.

STYLE: 2/2
DEPTH: 1/2



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