Friday, March 20, 2015

TNG Flashback: Relics

The Next Generation commemorated the 25th anniversary of Star Trek with the "Unification" two-parter, finally bringing on a main character from the original series (not just a guest star) for more than a cameo appearance. Spock's appearance was only partially effective, yielding a few good scenes -- but a convoluted plot that didn't make the best use of the character. But it did break through the wall; no longer did producer Rick Berman fear connections with classic Star Trek. And that made it possible to create "Relics."

The Enterprise encounters a Dyson sphere -- an unimaginably large construct encompassing a star. They also discover a lost starship, the Jenolan, that crashed on the sphere's surface 75 years ago. Boarding the Jenolan, they find one survivor who managed to stay alive inside the pattern buffer of a highly modified transporter: Captain Montgomery Scott! As the Enterprise crew works to explore the Dyson sphere, Scotty struggles to fit into the advanced future in which he finds himself -- and clashes with fellow engineer Geordi LaForge.

The genesis of this episode came from freelance writer Michael Rupert, who pitched an episode about someone surviving for 80 years inside a transporter. The writing staff disliked his script, but thought that one gimmick interesting enough to buy the idea. And when they set about developing and reworking it, Michael Piller (about to move from head writer on The Next Generation to Deep Space Nine) hit upon a simple but compelling twist: what if this conceit were used to bring back an original series character?

Everyone immediately embraced the idea; the only question was who to bring over. According to Ronald Moore, the episode's eventual writer, the debate was short. McCoy and Spock were off the list, having already appeared on the series. Kirk was considered, but it was thought that his presence would raise more issues than the episode could properly address. Among the remaining options, Scotty seemed the obvious choice. Not only did he have the technical know-how to complement the transporter gimmick, he had interesting character traits the story could use -- heavy drinking, aspirations other than starship command, the obsession with his engines.

To hear Ronald Moore tell it, the story outline was simple and came quickly: Scotty would be found on a nearly destroyed ship, then would have to help the Next Generation crew escape the same calamity that nearly killed him. That was enough to go to actor James Doohan and see if he would want to reprise the character of Scotty. It wasn't a given that he'd say yes, as back during The Next Generation's first season, he'd publicly complained that this new series was simply rehashing episodes of his series. (And he wasn't entirely wrong about that.) Reportedly, his family sat Doohan down to watch The Next Generation at some point in the years between, and he soon changed his tune. When they called to ask him to appear on the show, he accepted eagerly.

Now the actual script had to be written, an assignment that was originally given to writer Brannon Braga. He wasn't much of an original series fan, and knew how much Ronald Moore was. Meanwhile, an upcoming story idea ("A Fistful of Datas") appealed much more to Braga, a lifelong Western fan. The two writers agreed to swap scripts.

Moore felt that one key to a good episode would be to contrast Scotty with the new Enterprise's engineer, Geordi LaForge. Noting that Geordi had actually been a bridge officer back in season one, Moore reasoned that engineering wasn't his true passion. LaForge probably hoped to command his own starship one day, and that was his main difference from Scotty, who only ever wanted to be a chief engineer. Not to mention the fact that a behind-the-times fossil like Scotty would only naturally be in the way. (Think about it; if someone from the 1940s showed up at your job offering to "help," how much help do you really think they could be?)

Next, Moore needed to know what catastrophe the two generations would be up against. Series science advisor Naren Shankar suggested an idea the writers had been kicking around for years: a Dyson sphere. This was a real-world thought exercise by physicist Freeman Dyson, who in 1959 posited a massive structure around a star, allowing interior inhabitants to harness all the star's radiant energy. It's a tantalizing way to kick off the episode, interesting even before Scotty shows up. Who could possibly have the resources to build it? How do they live? Of course, as the episode is all about the return of Scotty, it doesn't get into any of that. (Which Moore later acknowledged was probably a sad waste of a fertile idea.)

Lastly, Ronald Moore stuffed his script with every homage to the original series he could. Moore himself was Scotty, he realized years later. Despite being the youngest member of the writing staff, he was the fan of the old, always telling his fellow writers how good things had been back in the day. It came naturally to him to have Scotty's stories reference actual classic episodes like "The Naked Time," "Wolf in the Fold," and "Elaan of Troyius." Fantastic jokes came too, like Data's "it is green" (a callback to "By Any Other Name"), and Scotty admitting that his reputation as a miracle worker comes from inflating his estimates.

Once the script was finished, it was time to bring it to life. Alexander Singer was selected to direct it, a choice with nearly as much history as Scotty's return. Singer been a director for Paramount in the 1960s, working on Mission: Impossible -- which filmed right across from Star Trek. He desperately wanted to direct Star Trek, and even got an interview with Gene Roddenberry at the time. Nevertheless, it didn't work out... until two decades later, when he finally got this job. (He would go on to direct several more episodes, and work on Deep Space Nine and Voyager as well.)

One scene in particular presented an enormous challenge -- the holodeck scene in which Scotty recreates the original Enterprise. Originally, the concept was to have Scotty actually interact with his old shipmates via 25-year-old footage, but that never even got to the script stage. That would be far too expensive for a television series, especially years before the movie Forrest Gump would forge the path for creating that kind of visual effect. (In large part because of that film's pioneering effects, this idea later would become feasible for Deep Space Nine's "Trails and Tribble-ations.")

Just building the Enterprise bridge set was still beyond the budget, which got the bean counters talking about taking the Enterprise-A set from Star Trek VI out of storage to use instead. Aghast at how that would undercut the message of the scene, original series fans in every department worked hard to find clever solutions. First, someone remembered an original series episode ("This Side of Paradise") in which the bridge was shown briefly without people. This became a background plate to greenscreen Scotty's holodeck entrance. Second, it was determined that the production could afford to build one "pie wedge" of the bridge, which would be used behind both Scotty and Picard during filming. Lastly, rather than building the captain's chair and console themselves, the set team rented them from a Star Trek fan who built them himself (who was only too happy to claim his work had actually appeared on the show).

The result of all that work is the most poignant scene in the episode. This was the first time the old Enterprise bridge had been seen (other than in reruns) in more than two decades. Scotty and Picard's frank talk about their first, true loves was so powerful that director Alexander Singer's wife -- visiting the set that day, never having seen any Star Trek herself -- was moved to tears. James Doohan and Patrick Stewart are both just outstanding in the scene. From Doohan, it's a revelation. He'd never been given this much material in any other Star Trek episode or movie. Ronald Moore and Alexander Singer both admitted to quiet doubts early on that he'd even be up to it. They were thrilled to find those doubts misplaced, and we the audience are the beneficiaries.

The extra effort behind the scenes didn't stop just at bringing the original Enterprise back to life. The visual effects of the Dyson sphere are all quite striking too, as are the solar flares from the star inside (but small blooper: we see other distant stars twinkling behind it). There's also the classic transporter effect used for Scotty's appearance. The actual film element from the original series was found in perfect condition at the studio that originally created the effect, while the sound effect was located by co-producer Wendy Neuss in Paramount's own archives. (Sure, the Jenolan is a movie-era starship, but who cares? Seeing the older stuff is too much fun!) And then there's composer Jay Chattaway, who selectively sneaks in the classic Star Trek fanfare in choice moments.

Other observations:
  • Freeman Dyson himself said in an interview that he never took his own idea of the Dyson sphere very seriously, and called the science behind it "nonsense." (My question: if you could possibly gather the resources to build such a thing, wouldn't you be advanced enough to know you were building it around an unstable star?) Still, Dyson saw this episode, and said he enjoyed it as a TV viewer.
  • When Scotty hears that the Enterprise has rescued him, he says that Jim Kirk himself must have hauled the ship out of mothballs. This fun line would be later undermined by the film Star Trek: Generations, where Scotty sees Kirk "die." Ronald Moore, who co-wrote Generations, said he was fully aware of this discontinuity, but he had too much affection for the Scotty character not to use him in the movie.
  • When Scotty first boards the Enterprise and is being escorted to sickbay, Geordi thwacks him several times on his broken arm. LaForge may have been a bridge officer and a chief engineer, but we can see why he was never a doctor.
  • The scene in which Data serves "green" alcohol to Scotty was originally written for Guinan, and changed when Whoopi Goldberg was unavailable. I think the change was actually for the better, as Data -- with his infinite patience -- seems like the perfect person to assist Scotty.
  • In the final scene of the episode, Scotty gives Troi a familiar kiss on the cheek -- despite them never having met before that moment. This oddity is given proper context by a deleted scene that can be found on the Blu-ray version of the episode. Troi has a scene in which she tries to counsel Scotty, only to have him furious rebuff her efforts when he learns she's a "psychologist" who must think he's "crazy."
  • The Blu-ray also has a commentary track on this episode, featuring Mike and Denise Okuda (from the production team), and writer Ronald Moore. Among many fascinating anecdotes, they talk about the way the visual styles of three different "generations" are depicted in the episode: the original series, the Enterprise-D, and (through the Jenolan) the movies. This in turn leads to frank observations about one of Star Trek: Voyager's many failings -- that, unlike Deep Space Nine, it didn't have a distinct enough visual look of its own.
  • In the same commentary, Moore gets ribbed for a mistake no one caught when making the episode: the fact that Scotty and LaForge are beamed off the Jenolan even while its shields are up.
  • With the death of Leonard Nimoy last month, we now have this sad bit of trivia: the three original Star Trek main cast members who appeared in an episode of The Next Generation -- DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy, and James Doohan -- were the first three to pass away.
Generations unite in "Relics," and the crossover is everything Spock's appearance in the previous season should have been. I give it an A-. And now that nearly as many years have passed between "Relics" and today as had passed between classic Star Trek and "Relics," the episode takes on extra nostalgia. As Scotty says in the final act: "Enjoy these times, Geordi. ... It's a time of your life that'll never come again. When it's gone, it's gone."

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