Monday, 19 December 2016

Lesser-Known Sonic Gems of Christmastide

By Dr Leslie McMurtry

Last year, 33,000 people voted for their favorite Christmas songs on British radio station Classic FM’s annual poll.  The winner was “Silent Night” with “O Holy Night” taking second place.  On American site Ranker, “White Christmas” takes the prize with “Silent Night” in second place.  While these songs are undoubtedly beautiful and perennial favorites, it occurred to me as I looked over my Christmas song collection that out of nearly 250 songs, I had 192 different titles, and many of them relatively obscure.

I have been interested in the origins of Christmas songs and carols for almost as long as I can remember, looking with interest at the date and composer of songs published in children’s books with lyrics for singing.  With several centuries of tradition, it seems miserly to focus on tunes of the last two hundred years.  I would like to highlight here some of the lesser-known Yuletide songs and their stories.
I applaud the website Hymns and Carols of Christmas which provides not only a wealth of information but keeps the spirit of Christmas all year round.

Corelli’s Christmas Concerto (Concerto Grosso Opus 6, No. 8)

Arcangelo Corelli is remembered as “Founder of Modern Violin Technique,” the “World's First Great Violinist,” and the “Father of the Concerto Grosso.”  However, he is probably not known very well outside of reasonably au fait classical musical listeners. claims that Corelli would have been as well-known for his violin in the 17th century as Paganini was in the 19th, but that he was not a virtuoso in the modern sense.  We are more concerned here, naturally, with his composing technique.  He popularized the Concerto Grosso and made it as integral to music as the symphony became in the classical period.  He wrote comparatively few compositions but all were popular, and he labored hardest on Opus 6, which was not finished in his lifetime.  As a teacher, he influenced a whole generation including Vivaldi.  There actually is not a great deal of biographical information available on Corelli; however, his composition definitely speaks for itself.  What is the Christmas connection, you might ask?  In the notes, the composer wrote “Fatto per la note di Natale,” i.e. written for Christmas Eve.

What is beautiful about Corelli’s composition are the varying moods.  The Adagio is contemplative and soulful—indeed, you could almost describe it as melancholy or wistful.  The first time I ever heard this piece of music, it was not associated with Christmas and was part of the soundtrack of the Peter Weir film Master and Commander.  The film is important to me as it introduced me to Patrick O’Brian’s book series which is the best historical fiction ever written, and to several beautiful pieces of baroque music such as Corelli’s Adagio from the Concerto Grosso.  The scene for which this piece is the accompaniment was the incredibly sad moment when Dr Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), having been accidentally wounded, is brought on a stretcher to the Galapagos Islands by his concerned friend Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe).  Although (spoilers) he survives the surgery, I thought in the context of the film that he had been brought to the islands to die.  Thus, that movement will always be tinged with unwonted sadness and poignancy for me.  I can imagine, though, that Corelli wanted to compose something reflective, as, with much in Christian tradition of centuries past, the joyousness of the Nativity is colored by the knowledge of Calvary to come.  Listening to the Adagio reminds me to be still and reflect on the mystery of Christmas with meditation and focus.

Very different, indeed, is the Pastorale Movement.  Oddly enough, once again I had to rely on another medium to introduce me to this joyful and exquisite piece.  It has featured in years’ worth of Jacquie Lawson computer Advent calendars and though I had often heard it and enjoyed it, it wasn’t until I heard the full Concerto Grosso on YouTube that I recognized its provenance.  Although its tempo is slow, the Pastorale is delightful and full of good feeling.   

This is my favorite rendition of the Christmas Concerto on YouTube, it’s beautifully played and beautifully filmed.  It is interesting to see the faces of the performers as they interpret the soulfulness of this composition. 

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The beautiful poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written during the American Civil War in 1863, has been set to various pieces of music, something I did not realize until I came to research the Advent Calendar in 2011.  The poem reminds us that while many Christmas songs have been composed with the abstract (or even the flippant[1]) in mind, some have concrete and sometimes poignant backgrounds.  Longfellow, one of the most iconic American poets of the 19th century, wrote this poem after his son Charley was wounded in Virginia in December 1863.  You can read more about his story here.
In 1872, John Baptiste Calkin arranged a shorter version of the poem “Christmas Bells” with the verses about the Civil War removed, and provided music, which he published in 1912.  There are at least three other tunes which have been assigned to this poem.  This is the version I heard first. 
Here is another version about which I can find little information.  But I like the tune.
A more recent arrangement was made by Christian rock/pop group Casting Crowns’ frontman Mark Hall and Dale Oliver.
More than ever, we need to heed its message and try to take some comfort from it:
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

The Seven Joys of Mary

Like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” there is a real sense of satisfaction at having got to the end of this carol; it really feels like climbing up toward something important!  The words and music of this carol are traditional English and it is probably medieval; one version was collected by Mrs Milligan Fox and recorded by Richard Runciman Terry in Two Hundred Folk Carols (1933).  
Here is a version of that traditional tune, though personally I think it was best interpreted by the Pro Arte Singers with music arranged by Joshua V. Himes.  (Buy their album.  Buy it now!)
There is another version, called “The Seven Blessings of Mary,” collected by John Jacob Niles in Appalachia, coincidentally also in 1933.  This is quite different from the traditional English version. 
As noted by Erik Routley in The English Carol (1961), the so-called “primitive” versions in the medieval manuscripts have five joys:
The Nativity
The Crucifixion
The Resurrection
The Ascension
The Assumption

The sevenfold pattern of joys or miracles in the familiar version:

The Nativity
Making the lame to walk
Making the blind to see
Raising the dead to life

The version with twelve may date to the mid-17th century.   

Loreena McKennitt sings the lyrics of “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” to a different tune which much resembles that from the Irish folk song “The Star of the County Down.”  This tune, according to Routley, is heard “everywhere,” was recorded at multiple places in England such as Weobley, Lew Trenchard, Kingsfold, Scotland, and appears three times under different titles in English County Songs. 

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

One of the best Christmas album purchases I ever made was Christmas Center Stage by the San Francisco cast of Phantom of the Opera.  Although some might argue the instrumentation is basic—a piano—it’s a wonderfully interpreted album with plenty of variety, from “Merry Christmas, Darling” and “White Christmas” (with the original opening from Holiday Inn intact) to this musical setting of Clement Moore’s famous poem.  (In fact, I blogged about it here previously.)  I didn’t think much about where the music came from; it just seemed a nice piece for multiple voices.

Flash forward several years: This was solved for me when I was carrying out my listening for a previous guest blog.  Writing the blog got me started on my odyssey to listen and catalogue Christmas-themed audio drama, and I heard the piece once again in “Fibber Paints the Christmas Tree White,” an episode of Johnson Wax/Fibber McGee and Molly (NBC, 18 December 1945). 
Like Burns and Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly (written by Don Quinn, sponsored sometimes quite outrageously by Johnson Wax, and played by Jim and Marian Jordan) were a fixture of Depression-era humor.  The real-life married couple started in radio in the late 1920s.  They were Irish-American Catholics, but as you can hear, this is an entirely secular program.  It took me awhile to get into the show, but Fibber’s hapless but well-meaning character won me over at last. This story is one of several from 1945 that address the short-lived craze for white flocked trees.  Evidently, though, the song featured in several episodes of the radio comedy program and was composed by Ken Darby c. 1941.  It was performed by the King's Men and arranged by Harry Simeone and performed by the Billy Mills Orchestra featuring the King's Men.

You can hear it here:

Here is another version on early television by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians from 1951 (it’s a bit strange):

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (1967)

This must surely rank as one of the most exquisite Christmas carols ever written.  Its unaccompanied sound lends an ancient feel to it while the harmonies suggest a modern composition style.  The text hails from Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs, compiled by Joshua Smith in New Hampshire in 1784 (though it was apparently first printed in London in 1761 and signed by one "R. H.").  The music is a different story altogether, having been composed by Elizabeth Poston in the twentieth century.  Poston was a talented composer who wrote a variety of music, including scores for television and radio. 
The conceit of the lyrics compares Jesus Christ to an apple tree, with some Biblical precedent, though others have speculated it is an attempt to Christianize the pagan ritual of Wassailing the apple orchards, popular in the West Country.  In any case, it’s beautiful imagery.
Here is a lovely version:

Twas in the Moon of Wintertime

Written probably by Jean de Brébeuf in the early 1640s (I have seen three dates proposed), a Jesuit missionary, at the Sainte-Marie Huron community, with the original words in the Huron language, the best-known English translation was made in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton.  The tune is a French melody, “La Jeune Pucelle,” but as the song went unrecorded for 100 years, it’s impossible to know if this was the original tune.  The carol was collected from the Hurons by Father de Villeneuve, a Jesuit stationed 1747-94 at Lorette, Quebec.  Brébeuf was certainly the author of the first Huron catechism and a French/Huron dictionary. He was killed by Iroquois and the mission destroyed in 1649, and Brébeuf has since taken on legendary status.  The song endured, was translated into French by Paul Picard (Paul Tsaenhohi, son of the famous Huron leader Point of Day).  Father Paul Lejeune wrote in 1634, “The Indians are great singers, they sing like the great majority of nations on Earth for pleasure and for worship; that is to say with them during their pagan beliefs . . . they use few words when singing, using tonal variation and not varying the words. . . They say that we imitate the cries of birds in our tunes” (somewhat freely translated by myself, I must say).

While it is an official Canadian carol and remains a common Christmas hymn in Canadian churches of many Christian denominations, I think outside of Canada it is not particularly well-known (except perhaps in music education where the modest range makes it easy for students to play and sing); in any case, it is not particularly frequently recorded or broadcast on conventional pop radio.

The opening lines in English go,

“ 'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled . . .,”

making obvious that the carol uses a number of concepts familiar to Algonquin peoples.   Among the Iroquois, specifically the Seneca, the Midwinter Festival took place five days after the new moon following the zenith of the Pleiades.  On the first day there was the “Boiling of the Babies,” the public naming of babies who had been born since the Green Corn Ceremony.  The corn soup was boiled to be eaten the following day.  New Year officially began at dawn on the next day.   Late December was known to the Lakota as “The Moon of Popping Trees,” when it was so cold twigs would snap in the cold.  
Here is a version of “ ‘Twas in the Moon in Wintertime” in English:

Here performed in several languages:

Still, Still, Still

“Still, Still, Still” is a traditional Austrian melody which, as you can imagine from the title, is a lullaby.  The words were first printed in 1865 in a folk song collection. The Salzburg melody dates from 1819.  I’m afraid there isn’t much more I was able to dig up on it.

Here is a version in the original German:

Star in the East

Not to be confused with this version, collected by J. M. Lowrie, in The Silver Song, by William A. Ogden and music from William Augustine Ogden (Toledo, Ohio: W. W. Whitney, 1870). 

I first heard this haunting carol on Anonymous 4’s album The Cherry Tree Carol.  It has also been recorded by the Rose Ensemble who cite The Southern Harmony (1854) as its source.  Not surprisingly, Anonymous 4’s version is more Early Music in approach and the Rose Ensemble is more “southern harmony hymn.”  Both versions are beautiful. 

Here is yet another interpretation with guitar with clear links to the southern harmony hymn. 

Stan Freberg
As this is “lesser-known sonic gems,” you can’t have Christmas (I’ve learned in the last year) without a liberal sprinkling of Stan Freberg.  Freberg (b. 1926) was a maverick, who reportedly entered the world of making commercials on radio and TV because he found most adverts moronic.  He injected everything he did with satire.  Evidently he was even an influence on the Beatles, according to Paul McCartney.  He didn’t impress everyone—while elected to the Radio Hall of Fame, he was never elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame.  He is a bit of a hero to us radio folks as he loved the medium and served it well.  By the way, it’s his voice you hear as the beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955). 

This is great—though better if you know Dragnet. 

Wow, they even animated it!
Greed is never welcome at Christmas:

Noel Nouvelet

A traditional French carol from the 15th century, numerous versions exist of this New Year’s Carol.  Keyte and Parrott took their version from the 1721 Grande Bible des noels, tant vieux que nouveaus.  Translations were made into English as early as the 17th and 18th centuries.  The tune, as Hymns and Carols of Christmas notes, echoes in its first five notes the Maris Stella Lucens Miseris. 
Here is Loreena McKennitt performing her excellent interpretation.
Here is a more traditional version.
Please be adventurous in your Christmas song listening and discover a tune you may not have heard before.  There are hundreds of them! 

Wishing you peace this holiday season. 

[1] I love the story of how “The Christmas Song” was composed, which you can read about here.

Thursday, 3 November 2016


Ron Howard’s film The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, doesn’t reveal anything particularly new about the greatest band that ever was, especially not if you’re a fan, yet there is something about the film that feels fresh, new and different. It captures a spirit, an atmosphere, a sense of The Beatles and the era they were in, and it captures the heart.

Some of Ron Howard’s best films in recent years have pitted two great men against one another to create an exciting and highly engaging drama. Frost/Nixon was hypnotising and gripping and Rush was thrilling. It would have been easy and right up Howard’s alley to create a battle-of-the-giants kind of film and he would have made it excellent, but the rivalry between Paul and John has been quite open and public at the time it was happening and it was analysed to death later on. Howard has something else in mind and this film is not about who is the best Beatle (Paul!), it is not a film about individuals, a bit like his Apollo 13, this film is about The Beatles as a group.

On the face of it the film does very much what it says on the tin and focuses on the touring years. Being made by an all American filmmaker it comes as no surprise that most of the touring in the film refers to US tours. Unfortunately The Beatles' beginning in Liverpool and their defining trip to Hamburg are only mentioned briefly in the film and not really explored in depth. It seems that the Americans did take Beatlemania to the next level. 

However, The Beatles as a live phenomenon isn’t just about their concerts and Beatlemania, though that is a great deal of it, it is also about their public appearances, their popularity and their image as a naturally funny and fun band. Their photo shoots, films, their live presence and facial expressions and their interviews are all part of what made The Beatles a unique live band like no other. A great deal of what makes this film different is that Ron Howard doesn’t try to analyse The Beatles or explain much. Painstakingly collecting a treasure trove of archive and fan footages, he simply lets The Beatles be. With exceptional editing that weaves together current Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr interviews with archive George Harrison and John Lennon interviews, Howard manages to make the conversation flows over the years. It is as if they are all still in the room chatting and you still want to join the conversation. Like Whoopi Goldberg says in the film, you want to be their friend. Eight Days a Week transports you there and then and you find yourself with The Beatles and with their fans, the social and political events of the era in the background melting away the moment those four went on stage and became amazing.

While the images of screaming, crying and fainting ladies of the 1960s are familiar ones, especially when it comes to The Beatles, Eight Days a Week manages to put the viewer right in the middle of Beatlemania. The film goes into the crazed crowd and by playing the thin, barely recognisable and very real sound from the Shea Stadium, you get to experience Beatlemania as first hand as it can get and again Howard manages to make the familiar new and overwhelming.

At the beginning of the film Paul McCartney says that at the end things got complicated, but at the beginning it was simple. Eight Days a Week chooses to end when things got complicated, with Lennon’s famous remark about Jesus[1], which lead to burning of The Beatles records and the cringing and pointless apology interview that followed. There is something quite sad and at the same time wonderful in their last international performance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and even more compelling is their rooftop performance on Savile Row at the end credits. Famously this was the end of the Beatles, yet there is still something quite magnificent in them somehow, all the behind-the-scene-drama doesn’t matter and for a brief moment they remind us that despite everything they were incredible.

The cinematic release of the film is accompanied by thirty minutes of incredible remastered footage of The Beatles live concert at the Shea Stadium, which takes you back to the magic. More than anything it is brilliant to see their faces and their dumbfounded expressions of disbelief at the masses and the hysteria when they were at the top. The post credit concert footage were probably the best live Beatles footage I have ever seen. It got close and personal and it was unbelievably amazing.  

[1] In one review that I read about this film the reviewer mentions that a more accurate blasphemy would have been to say they are bigger than Shakespeare was. I can't help wondering what would have been the result of that kind of a remark. 

Monday, 22 August 2016

Star Trek


It is somewhat surprising that I found myself feeling a bit sad at the end of the five days 50th anniversary Star Trek convention in Las Vegas. The celebration was over and I was rapidly plummeting towards reality, which I work hard to avoid, so sadness was to be expected, but there was something else that painted the glorious Star Trek convention with a little gloom. There may have been a moment when I thought “I am too old for this shit”, which followed mostly by exasperation and despair of what has become of Mel Gibson since Lethal Weapon 4. This thought was easily dismissed by my ridiculous excitement at seeing Whoopi Goldberg, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula and others, so much excitement that I look like a crazy psychopath in some of my photos with them. All I need is a glance at my posters, my shirts, my jewellery and my toys to realise, “hell, I am never too old this much fun!” 

Nevertheless, there was sadness, irksomeness and even anger during the five days. Some of it was caused by the impossible furnace outside the hotels. Having to be in a blasting air condition the whole time and moving between extreme temperatures, was… let’s just say challenging. Other parts were caused by Las Vegas and everything it represents. While I enjoy materialism as much as the next person, the loudness of this money sucking, consumeristic desert was turned up to about two hundred and one and was so aggressively in one’s face it kinda crushes the soul a little. Luckily I was in Vegas specifically for the Star Trek convention so at least my contribution to this capitalism inferno came in the form of Star Trek shirts and toys as well as some weird pictures with awesome people. That said, most of the sadness, irksomeness and indeed anger were connected with the convention. It is easy to get irritated when you pay ridiculous monies for a professional photo with your chosen Star Trek celeb only to discover that there are fuzzy selfies that look better than some of these photos. And there was a host, Scott Muntz who is a presenter for Access Hollywood apparently, who made me want to build a test lab just like the one in The Empath and put him through the same torture as Kirk goes through, but without having his shirt torn, just so I can watch him suffer. It started when Muntz decided to call whatever episode of Star Trek he like “the Citizen Kane of Star Trek The Original Series/The Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager or Enterprise”, but the hate was really fuelled when what was supposed to be a critical discussion of the new film turned into his tales of how much he loves Star Trek, how he started watching it and who from Star Trek did he meet and what was their reaction. Luckily for Scott Muntz I simply decided to leave the auditorium in disgust instead of searching for the means to build that lab. However, not even Scott Muntz from Access Hollywood could ruin such a special event. No, most of the real sadness that seeped in came from some of the discussion panels, which turned out to be very engaging and quite thought provoking.

I was disappointed to discover that Gary Lockwood, who played Gary Mitchell in the Star Trek aired pilot Where No Man has Gone Before and perhaps more famously he played Dr Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is an odd and a little bit troubling man, not in a funny or good way. Denise Crosby (Lt Tasha Yar) and John de Lancie (Q) seemed like they didn’t want to be there, which is strange because I have seen de Lancie in a convention in the UK before and he was a hoot and half. Marina Sirtis was unpleasant to put it mildly, her only interesting contribution was to say she wished the Borg came and took Donald Trump (though arguably than they will assimilate him which will make them worse, or maybe he will break them and they will turn good in comparison to him, or perhaps Trump is too vile even for the Borg and they’d simply kill him. It’s hard to tell the outcome of such happenings.) Jonathan Frakes was sweet but attention seeking and Michael Dorn looked mostly bored. One of the most surprisingly excellent though at the same time kind of sombre was actually the Enterprise panel with Dominic Keating, Connor Trinneer, Gary Graham and John Billingsley. It was a bittersweet panel with some amusing stories about auditions and genuine love and enthusiasm especially from Keating, mixed with stories of unavailable writers, falling out with the network, professional failure as well as failure to impress the fans and criticism of the show. It was an unusually sober and self-aware discussion that stirred the heart. The panel was asked what they thought Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) would have thought of their show had he been alive to see it. Interestingly, John Billingsley, who is the least interesting character in Enterprise, gave the most poignant and observant answer. He said that he often wondered about the political implications of some of the episodes and felt that maybe some did not sit right with Rodenberry’s vision of a peaceful future. He remembered that following September 11th, Rick Berman (the writer and co-creator of Enterprise) was asked to up the action and increase the violence for the third season of Enterprise, I find this a very odd reaction of a television network to the attack. Billingsley mentioned Anomaly, an episode in the third season, a season revolving the Xindi arc, where captain Archer (Scott Bakula) crosses a line when he pretty much tortures an Oosarian pirate and threaten to depressurise the airlock with the Oosarian in it in order to get information about the Xindi. This, claimed Billingsley, was more of a 24 thing to do than Star Trek.

Star Trek: Enterprise is largely considered the lesser of the Star Trek franchise, at least until the new JJ Abrams films (which I have learned are now called the Kelvin Universe or the Kelvin Timeline) and were even worse. I generally tend to agree that Enterprise is a step down in quality for the most parts and is definitely the inferior amongst the TV shows (there is still the new Brian Fuller one, Discovery, to top that, but I am going to be optimistic about it for the time being). Enterprise was a lot more sexualised, with much oil rubbing, massaging and walking around in underpants. At least men and women were fairly equally naked and sexualised on the show, there might even have been slightly more naked men than women, but while everyone were quite good looking none of it was particularly subtle and just didn't sit well with Star Trek. The crew and the show itself took a long time to find their feet and work as a crew and as a show, it all felt a bit clunky and uncomfortable for the first two season. It might have suited the nature of their circumstances and the premise of the show, set one hundred years before the original series of the Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise were the first human to voyage into deep space with than a brand new Enterprise, which was a lot more primitive than any of the others. Often it was difficult to watch them making it up as they go along. More than anything Enterprise felt very abandoned by the rest of Star Trek. Given its setting there was no room for any characters cameos,yet there were actors cameos which didn't help. The show just felt detached from the Trek universe and Gene Rodenberry’s vision. I must admit, personally I often felt similarly occasionally even more so about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and that had at least two characters that were transfered from The Next Generation, but that's another story. Billingsley is right in his observation that perhaps the third season has had some problematic political implications, which may not sit well with Rodenberry’s and Star Trek’s world view. It became a little rough, perhaps too bleak, though no bleaker than Deep Space Nine, for Trek. However, it was in its third season that Enterprise became quite good and the roughness of it, its mistakes, political ones and even the violent ones, fitted a pre-federation world when humanity was still recovering from a whole lowasn’t yet as peaceful as it supposedly was in the original series' crew. There are similarities between the Xindi story in Enterprise and the Dominion arc of Deep Space Nine. While they both bare similar themes, I think that the Xindi arc was handled better than the Dominion one. I had a lot more sympathy with the Enterprise crew than I did with the DS9 crew, The Xindi didn’t remain this big scary, unseen enemy as long as the Dominion did and  you got to know the Xindi, which made the Xindi conflict a lot more complex, sadly, over less time. In the end, Enterprise wasn’t all that bad. It could have done with less sexy times and a bit more political times and more subtlety to begin with, but I can’t help thinking that, given more time, Star Trek: Enterprise could have been great. 

Since Star Trek wasn’t a show that shied away from politics neither did the celebrity guests and the topic of the upcoming American election floated around the room during several panels. The celebrity guests desperately trying to push Hillary Clinton over that psycho, Donald Trump and who can blame them? A bag of dog poo would be a preferable choice of president than Trump. Though I don’t know much about American politics, or any kind of politics since 1996 for that matter, as it has become too painful a subject, I do know a little bit about where Hillary Clinton stands with regards to the Israel-Palestine situation, her position about Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East and her general fondness of war. My impression is that Clinton is more of a lesser of two evils than an actual decent candidate. Being a strong woman and feminist is not enough, history is full of strong women who weren't good for the world. It is depressing to think that the next president of the United States of American would either be an insane maniac or a “strong woman” with a questionable foreign policies. The situation is not better in UK, in Europe or the rest of the world. The world has turned right and it is full of hate that I cannot grasp. It is a dark and oppressing place to live in, more so than usual. Or maybe it is this kind of doom and gloom that would bring everything to the surface and into the open and somehow it will be a good thing? I don’t know if I can be this optimistic or this naïve anymore. This is particularly jarring at a convention that celebrates a sci fi show that offered a uniquely optimistic, often quite radical, utopic future that encourage science, peace and vegetarianism instead of violence and war. Yes, Star Trek has its own problem and was still very American in ideals and values, but its intentions were better than most.

The innovation, the political and the socially critical nature of the original show, which mostly continued and flourished with its later incarnations, Star Trek The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager and even, though to a lesser extent and often as mentioned problematic, Star Trek Enterprise, are simply non-existent in the new Kelvin universe films. Star Trek had an incredibly diverse cast for its time. An Asian crew member, who was the navigator and stereotypically portrayed. The first black woman in science fiction who also had a real job. It is common to joke that Uhura was not but a secretary who looks great in her short dress uniform (let’s face it she looked absolutely gorgeous and Nichelle Nichols still does) and answer the galactic phone, but in fact she was an essential member of the crew with quite a bit to do. She could handle the technology, throw a punch if she needed to and sing beautifully. Star Trek was the kind of show that brought a Russian main character whem in the real world of 1960s America the Cold War was in full swing and the US was probably mostly terrified of the USSR. Indeed the Russian character, Chekov, is portrayed by the very American Walter Koenig, putting on an accent, I doubt anyone in Hollywood actually knew any Russian actors at the time. Though I recently discovered that Koenig does have some Soviet Union family relations. Gene Rodenberry not only tried to fictionally portray a better future, he also tried to make it happen. Today this might sound quite silly, but Star Trek was very much ahead of its time in many ways. Whoopi Goldberg tells that when she met with Rodenberry to explain why she wanted to be on Star Trek: The Next Generation, because just as people today do not believe that she was on Star Trek, so did Rodenberry not understand why she wanted to be on Star Trek, she told him that before Star Trek the future always looked very white and she was happy to see that on Star Trek people like her still existed. There were no black people on sci fi before Star Trek, which is why the show became so close to Whoopi’s heart, since she is an avid sci fi fan. Rodenberry thought that Whoopi must be wrong and went home to do a little research. He was surprised to discover that she was not. He casted Nichelle Nichols, as well as George Takei for their talents and not for their race and without necessarily any agenda behind it. Nichelle Nichols herself only realised what a symbol she became after she received a letter from Martin Luther King asking her not to leave the show.

The new Star Trek films completely lack the bravado, imagination and creativity that Rodenberry had and it is, to me, not particularly surprising since JJ Abrams has openly admitted that he never really understood Star Trek and was in fact a fan of Star Wars where violence and war do the talking instead of characters and the human condition. The new films simply duplicated the old characters, which by now, following several additional Star Trek shows that continued to political and social themes, have lost their edge. The gender ratio and human to alien ratio remained the same and the one alien, who in the show was a true outsider and really provided a different point of view, is becoming more and more human with every new film, so much so that I have to wonder for what was the point of making new Spock a Vulcan at all?  In order to ignite some politically correct spark, it has been decided that the new film would bring an LGBT representative on board, something that Gene Rodenberry, according to George Takei who says he had many conversations with him on the subject, simply couldn’t do. Just think of the difference between the first unaired pilot The Cage, where Majel Barrett played a commander, she was captain Pike’s second in command, and was, believe it or not, wearing trousers. She came back as a short dress wearing nurse Chapel in the aired pilot and in the series because the network was not happy with a woman in a position of command and wearing trouser. That awful kiss between Uhura and Kirk, awful because it was a terrible premise and a terrible episode not because of the kiss, cost the series major rating because certain American states would not air it. It was understandable to Takei that the issue of one’s sexuality has remained untouched in the original series American wasn’t ready and even in later reincarnation of Trek the issue is only been very gently hinted, that and the topic of abortions are still very much a no no in American mainstream culture. Takei continued to explain his very public opinion with regards to the decision to make the new Sulu gay. He said that he was happy that the new film wanted to represent the LGBTQ community, but would have preferred it if they have created a new character with his or her own story rather than force the issue on a character that already has a history. Takei didn’t say it, but to me it is rather obvious that Sulu was chosen as the token gay character for the new film because George Takei who happened to be playing the character originally also happens to be gay and not because there is an actual reason or justification for it in the story and character’s development in the films. “Have you seen the new film and have you changed your mind about gay Sulu following it?” someone asked Takei. It was not but a whiff, Takei thought, a blink-and-you-missed-it kind of moment, which is not really worthy of the LGBTQ community or Star Trek. And I had to agree. I understand the wish of the filmmakers to normalise the idea of being gay, but a brief moment that includes introducing new characters, Sulu’s partner and daughter, which kinda comes out of nowhere just doesn’t cut it. When Rodenberry brought in Chekov he and his Russian origin were a major part of his character, in addition to being a crew member and a success with the lady that would almost threaten Kirk’s reputation, his Russian-ness wasn’t a sudden “oh by the way, Chekov is from Russia” it was there all the time right from the start. And so new Sulu, played by John Cho who is rather excellent actually, becomes a box the filmmakers can tick and not a particularly interesting one. This, in my view, is what characterises the new films which become enjoyable yet generic sci fi adventure films instead of food for thought the way the original series and films were.

Captain Pike and his Number 1 Majel Barrett
Star Trek Beyond’s biggest problem, however, is that Idris Elba’s character, who is potentially brilliant, is really weak, which isn’t Idris’ fault, because the little bit he is in the film he is absolutely fantastic. It was more important for the film to focus of Spock’s and Kirk’s personal crises and Spock and McCoy’s friendship (I hate the term Bromance) than the actual story, which could have been amazing. And so Idris Elba’s character become an annoying nuisance instead of a serious rival who can actually pose a real threat to Kirk and the Federation the way Khan or the Klingons were in the original series and the Borg were in The Next Generation. On the plus side I think that Chris Pine was at his best Kirk performance since the new Kelvin universe films started, he finally settled into the role, stopped doing bad Shatner impersonation and made Kirk his own. In fact most, apart from Karl Urban who still feels like a bad parody of DeForest Kelley’s McCoy and is still really annoying, seemed more confident in their roles and even the Spock Uhura romance, which is infuriating and seem to have turned Spock not just into a boring human but also into a woos, was slightly less irksome than before. The Star Trek spirit and the Star Trek potential are definitely more present in this film than in any of the others in the Kelvin universe films and it is a more interesting film, if nothing else but for the fact that they have come up with an original and an independent story that doesn’t rely on the previous series (if there’s anything positive about Leonard Nimoy’s passing is that now they cannot turn to old Spock to solve all their problems every time they get stuck).  

George Takei continued to discuss growing up in a prison for American Japanese. Rohwer and Tule Concentration Camps. Following the Second World War he and his family, as well as many other American Japanese, were given a form from the US government to fill, which was phrased in such a way that any answer would pretty much result in imprisonment. On a more optimistic note, Takei also told the story of meeting his husband Brad and his unique and very funny sounding experience in zero gravity, an experience he is grateful to Star Trek for as he wouldn’t have gotten to do that otherwise.

Many of the discussion panels were highly entertaining and interesting (you might note that I haven’t been to any of the Deep Space Nine panels I was never a great fan. I would have gone, but most of their panels fell on either other panels I was more interested in or some photo opportunities.) Almost always they were mixed with a pinch of woe that added an air of melancholy to a joyous convention. Kate Mulgrew, who by the way is the queen of everything that is good ever, now also famous for playing Red in Orange is the New Black as well as for her brilliant captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, was, as I expected her to be, strong, passionate, charismatic and wonderful. She talked of a great tragedy in her life, her baby sister died of pneumonia and Kate Mulgrew was, and often still is after all this time, convinced that she is responsible for her death because she was angry that her mother forced her to take care of the baby while she wanted to go out and play and instead of warm milk she gave the baby cold water. This heart-breaking story was accompanied by a lot of positivity from Mulgrew and a show of a great personality. She said that everything in her life has always been quite extreme and that she found that everything great that had happened to always happened side by side with something terrible and vice versa. This, she claims, has shaped her and made her the person she is today. I don’t know if I see the mystical or balance of life in such things, I generally think life is always a mixture of great and terrible, but I certainly think that this dichotomy marked my feelings about the convention. Mulgrew also talked, quite openly about her views on acting, studying with Stela Adler, she feels being an actor is doing your job and acting, not making demands or asking for more money. Indeed all her fellow actors from Voyager mentioned in their panel just how disciplined and hardworking she was on set, they were all in awe of her ability to never miss a step and remember all her lines despite working ungodly hours, and, might I add, having two children at home. Finally, she talked about how much she enjoyed the process, especially in her writing (she wrote a book and currently working on another one) in which she is as disciplined as she is in her acting. Her attitude and manner were different to anyone else in the convention, very confident, not that anyone else wasn’t confident, but hers was a different kind, very unapologetic and quite refreshing.

There was Star Trek: The Next Generation panel with Levar Burton, Gates McFadden and Brent Spiner who were delightful and funny. McFadden pointed out that while she loves Jonathan Frakes and was very happy to work with him as a director, he was given the opportunity to direct over her who not only expressed her directing desires before him, but actually had more directing experience than him, yet it wasn’t until season seven that she got to direct and only one episode. The real world of Hollywood took a lot longer, and still does, to progress than the world of Star Trek.

It was William Shatner who has left one of the strongest impressions on me, which I wasn’t expecting. Shatner seems to enjoy playing the buffoon. He often comes out with the most stupid and ridiculous things to say and the worst kind of way to say them or better yet sing them. Then, just as you think “he is lucky he is William Shatner cause no one else can get away with this” he suddenly strikes and wows you with intelligence and knowledge that is as baffling and dumbfounding as his singing and general idiocy. This is not the first time that Shatner has shown he can be a fascinating man if he wanted to. The history of Greenpeace and its sister whale saving movement and their inception, were some of the topics that Shatner discussed very knowingly when he was on stage. He made quite profound observations regarding Star Wars and Star Trek: he pointed out that without Star Wars there wouldn’t be any Star Trek films because everybody wanted to make the next Star Wars and that is why Paramount decided to fund a Star Trek film. He also noted that Star Wars is a grand space opera (interestingly, soap/space opera is how George Takei branded the Kelvin universe films) that is rich with special effects and grandiosity, while Star Trek explores human condition (that is why I think, Star Trek has better characters and better stories… but that’s beside the point). When a child asked him if he played Pokemon Go, Shatner replied with a plea to read books and interact with people instead, he then talked about how difficult it is for men his age to make other male friend and that he sometimes felt lonely because of that. Though his bizarre relationship with Misha Collins has to be mentioned here. Shatner formed an interesting and unexpected friendship with the Supernatural cast and especially Misha Collins, very well documented in social media. He is currently helping Collins with his charity treasure hunt which reached the convention as well. All this and more makes me wonder why is he chooses to play such a fool, not in a Shakespearian sort of way and not the kind of fool who asks question, but just plain dumb, when in fact he has some interesting insights and intelligent things to say and I am not sure if people, especially those who are not Trek fans, would ever take him seriously. It also makes the animosity between him and the rest of the remaining Star Trek The Original Series cast, most famously Takei, especially sad and unnecessary. I understand and will not be surprised if he was impossible as a young and cocky actor, but I would have liked to believe that he has become better with age. Publicly at least he definitely has. Takei claims the feud between he and Shatner is not but Shatner’s attempt at publicity, which to me sound somewhat bitter and was not supported by Walter Koenig, who actually said that he regrets that there is so much hostility between Shatner and the rest of the cast. His silliness and often worrying stupidity, makes him funny and even likeable and in a way I have developed a kind of respect for his ridiculousness with which really only he can get away with, but I think it is probably a bit difficult even for Star Trek fans, let alone non Trek people, to take him seriously and that is a real shame because occasionally he might have something interesting or important to say.

The Las Vegas Star Trek convention, celebrating fifty years of Star Trek, was an incredible experience. The cosplayers alone were jaw dropping, from a guy with a shuttle hat to an uncanny old Scotty lookalike, Mudd, several Khans and many more. My top favourites were a woman dressed as the IDIC, the symbol representing Vulcan philosophy meaning Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, a beautiful concept and wonderful costume. Incidentally, or not, Whoopi Goldberg wore an IDIC necklace on her stand up show and when she was asked about it by a non Star Trek audience member she brought Rod Rodenberry, son of Gene Rodenberry and Majel Barret, onto the stage to explain they symbol. Other favourites were a huge Balok, Captain Picard as dressed in The Inner Light story and General Trelane, retired, “just squire now”, coupled with Yeoman Teresa Ross in her fancy gown. It was truly a beautiful and exciting celebration of something rather magnificent.