Tuesday 15 September 2015

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek: Renegades

This had so much promise. Such a pity. One of the big fan productions, with higher than average productions values and several stars of the franchise appearing both as new and established characters.Unfortunately, it's really not terribly good.

The set-up is promising: it's 2388, a year after the destruction of Romulus and ten years since the starship Voyager returned to Earth. A disturbing new threat has emerged in the quadrant, but Starfleet are reluctant to to anything about it, hiding behind the Prime Directive. Whole planets are vanishing the space around them collapsing in on itself. A newly contacted alien species, based on the planet Syphon, is behind the events. Some in Starfleet suspect a conspiracy within their ranks is what is keeping the Federation from investigating this threat. In such circumstances, it's down to rebels and renegades to defend the Earth and its allies.

Renegades has been much touted as a darker, grimmer version of Trek, and it certainly delivers on that promise. We meet the central protagonist, Lexxa Singh, in a particularly brutal prison, having been left hanging out to dry by the Federation. The villainous Borada and his Syphon buddies are vicious brutes. Much is made of Starfleet's dirty tricks department, Section 31, and there are heavy hints of some nasty secrets in the Federation's past, although it's not entirely clear how much of this is true and how much is fabricated by its own enemies. There are some surprisingly violent moments that come with little warning. It's a murkier side of the Star Trek universe.

On the whole, I'm OK with that. I've spoken out against the tendency of recent movies to make grimdark adaptations of properties, but sometimes it's worthwhile having a look at the darker side of a world and seeing how far the fiction will stretch. I wouldn't want every episode of Trek to be like this, but occasionally exploring the seedier, dirtier side of a universe is worth doing. It's not entirely original, of course; perhaps it's a sign of the cynicism of our age that we can't quite believe in a utopia like the Federation anymore, and have to imagine conspiracies and dirty secrets behind the facade. At the end of the day, not everyone can be living a good, happy life in this or any universe, and these kinds of productions reflect that reality.

However, as with the most recent official Trek production, Star Trek Into Darkness, the attempt to make Renegades darker and more uncompromising is ham-fisted. As with STID, this is a poorly written script, with a plot whose twists and revelations make little narrative sense, and with poorly judged attempts at gritty reality. I can forgive the cringeworthy Syphon aliens, with their endless bleating on about the honour of the kill and macho posturing; Star Trek's been obsessed with that crap since it began to invent a culture for the Klingons back in the beginnings of TNG, and this just feels like more of the same. (Although, with both of these examples, it's clear that the writers have never once met anyone from any of the real warrior cultures that exist on Earth or bothered to investigate what such people might be like.) There's much worse examples than that, with continual posturing by the main characters, and needless moments of gratuitous unpleasantness. Oh, great, now the aliens are casually making rape threats to the women; even filtered through po-faced Trek language I'm not keen on shit like that.

It's certainly impressive that so many actors from official Trek productions have joined this cast. Most significant are Walter Koenig returning as Chekov (a longtime supporter of unofficial and fan projects), and Tim Russ as Tuvok. Both characters are well into their second century, with Chekov a prominent Starfleet Admiral, and Tuvok heading Section 31, which is a little harder to swallow. They share a fair part of their screentime, and this helps sell the significance of the plot: two recognisable characters discussing the importance of the unfolding events. Added to this we have Richard Herd returning as occasional Voyager guest character Admiral Paris, Manu Intiraymi as former Borg drone Icheb, and a star turn by Robert Picardo as Dr Zimmerman, creator of the EMH. Another returning cast member is Gary Graham, previously the Vulcan ambassador Soval in Enterprise, here playing a humanoid renegade named Ragnar.

Having so many characters from disparate parts of Star Trek come together has a risk of developing "small universe syndrome," but with a fan production like this is helped add authenticity, and makes it all feel like part of one, big narrative. Unfortunately, guesting on Star Trek does not mean an actor is actually any good at their job. Graham, in particular, should have stuck to playing Vulcans, as he seems incapable of convincingly expressing any human emotions. Admittedly, the dialogue he's given is pretty poor, but still. Many of the new faces in the cast are as bad, or even worse; there are several scenes in this film that, with the combination of poor acting and risible dialogue, are borderline unwatchable. A great deal of time is given to the crew of the Icarus, the eponymous renegades, several of whom are not capable of holding a scene together. Edward Furlong, best known for his childhood role as John Connor is Terminator 2, is the ship's technician, Fixer, and his acting skills haven't improved much over the years. There's worse acting in the film, but I expect better from the bigger names.

The best of the renegades is the aforementioned Lexxa Singh, the captain of the Icarus, and seemingly part of Khan Noonien Singh's extended family of superhuman augments. Adrienne Wilkinson is really very good in the role, a strong-willed, dangerous but principled character, and she makes a lot of the scenes watchable. Making her an augment doesn't add much to the storyline, but does give her a handy set of superpowers. In fact, the Icarus crew are essentially a superteam, boasting many powered-up individuals. Ragnar is a shapeshifter, while Icheb has had his Borg technology weaponised against his will. There's a mutant Betazoid who has no telepathic ability but displays psychokinesis, a war-damaged Bajoran and a recalcitrant Breen. It's a team that would work well in comics, a sort of Trek version of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Also very comicbook-esque is the boosting of the cast with numerous sexy alien females of various species, something I'm honest enough to admit made the film more enjoyable for me. (I don't think the Breen was a sexy female, but who can say under all that kit.)

Where the film really succeeds is in its visuals. It's well directed by Tim Russ, and has numerous pros working on the visual effects and design. The space sequences are gorgeous, both for the starships and the various planets seen. The CGI planetscapes occasionally look a little cartoonish, but since this is a consistent style, it doesn't detract from the overall effect. I particularly liked the surface of Syphon, a desolate realm that appeared inspired by the sets of Alien and its follow-ups. The make-up is also excellent, and while some have been critical of the villainous Borada and his followers, I think they worked well visually. Combining reptilian and simian looks, their design is intimidating, and while the prosthetics are a little rubbery and static, I actually don't mind that effect. It's kind of classic.

Ultimately, though, the fun ideas and impressive visuals aren't enough to save the film from the poor scripting and performances. The climax clearly sets up the possibility of sequels, and it's been well enough received by fans to make this likely, but there's a great deal of room for improvement between now and episode two.

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