“Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway”: Come What May
There’s something about Star Trek that inspires people, in spite of itself.
2004 marked the beginning of a period of tender, heartfelt introspection for Star Trek fans, perhaps unmatched at any other point in the history of the franchise. The mere fact that Star Trek Phase II (at this point still operating under its original name of Star Trek: New Voyages) exists here while Enterprise was in the middle of its third season and the “Save Enterprise!” campaign in full swing is probably a decent indication of the faith anyone had in the continued longevity of the sixth Star Trek series, or indeed Star Trek itself, at least as an extant and relevant mass media presence. Perhaps it was this zeitgeist, and the accompanying urge to “go back to where it all began” in an attempt to understand things, that was what motivated James Cawley and Jack Marshall to make their own Star Trek TV show.
But 2004 is also an interesting transitory period for independent TV shows. This is still before the advent of YouTube made easy and accessible Internet video hosting and sharing a major cornerstone of what’s come to be (somewhat inaccurately) called “Web 2.0”. One could imagine that had Star Trek Phase II come along just a few years later it would have resembled much more closely the recent Star Trek Continues: Kickstarter-funded and then given a major sponsor such that it attracted the much sought-after “buzz” and had an actual budget. But Star Trek Phase II didn’t have the luxury of any of that in 2004, being entirely funded out-of-pocket by Cawley’s career as an Elvis impersonator (which comes through delightfully in Cawley’s portrayal of Kirk in “Come What May”: Not only does his hairstyle look like an Elvis wig, he has appealing sense of artifice) and having to build its own web presence and following entirely from scratch. There’s a sense that this show is in some ways a throwback (but not a bad one) to a time when independent filmmakers could only rely on their own resources, ingenuity and tenacity, trying desperately to convey their visions in somebody’s backyard with a home VHS camera.
(Not that Star Trek Phase II looks cheap by any stretch of the imagination: The fact the creative team managed to convincingly recreate the sets from the Original Series is staggering, and the CGI effects shots, while obviously comparatively crude, look more dynamic and interesting than the ones on the actual show did.)
Star Trek Phase II is, predictably, in part a revival of the abandoned show from 1978 that Paramount had initially hoped would bring Star Trek back to TV and serve as the flagship programme for their new network. The name is slightly misleading, however, as it’s also pegged as the fifth year of the five-year mission depicted in the Original Series and Animated Series and is comprised of mostly original work. The show has the rather ambitious aim of linking together the various and disparate stories and timelines of the Original Series, Animated Series, Phase II and Original Series movies into something resembling coherence. But lest you think this is pure fanwank, the aim of Star Trek Phase II is really quite simple: To be pure, honest Star Trek for the 21st century while paying tribute to the legacy and influence of the franchise that spawned it. This show is clearly the product of genuine love and admiration and, if “Come What May” is any indication, it honours Star Trek and reminds us what it’s really all about.
Set somewhere between “Turnabout Intruder” and “More Troubles, More Tribbles”, “Come What May” sees the Enterprise beginning the final leg of its first five-year mission under James T. Kirk by investigating a series of mysterious attacks on a Federation colony. Upon arrival, the crew is met by the testy director Cal Strickland (played with delightful flippancy by Larry Nemecek) who informs them the situation is already under control thanks to the benevolent intervention of a being known as Onabi. Suspicious, Kirk decides to hang around the sector in case the intruder comes back, so he can ascertain the potential threat it might pose and see Onabi’s handiwork for himself. Kirk gets his wish when a massive triangular starship suddenly appears out of nowhere and starts an assault on the colony and the Enterprise before another ship appears in a flash of light, causing the first ship to just as quickly vanish.
Locking onto the smaller ship, Scotty beams aboard its two pilots, an energy being who calls itself Ohn and a quirky, eccentric and apparently godlike young woman: Onabi. Onabi displays some inexplicable, and to Kirk unsettling, behaviour, such as stepping out of the transporter beam before materializing, walking right through a security force field and teleporting all over the transporter room. Ohn is no less distressing, causing various crewmembers to collapse upon contact with it, overwhelming them with strange visions. Suspecting Onabi of somehow being behind the attack through a form of thought projection, Kirk throws her in the brig and places Ohn under constant security surveillance before regrouping with the rest of the crew to get a handle on what they’re up against. But, when the intruder returns and the Enterprise finds itself hopelessly outmatched, Kirk may have to put his trust in Onabi, who is suddenly the only person capable of saving the ship, the colony, and the galaxy.
There is an instinctual compulsion here, especially with a show that has this kind of pedigree, to roll your eyes and complain about fanwank, and there *is* quite a lot of that: The whole first act is essentially made up solely of extremely unsubtle nods to iconic Original Series quotes and episodes, the intruder is very obviously the Borg even though they’re not referred to as such and Onabi displays several traits reminiscent of previous godlike beings and Kirk girls-of-the-week. But doing so would overlook the heart of “Come What May”: This is a story consciously invested in the history of Star Trek in all its forms, and is trying to distill this into a statement about what makes Star Trek worthwhile and important. The first clue is that the invocation of the Borg is not just done because they’re scary and epic and Trekkers obsess over them: Rather, their presence is actually carefully considered and integral to the point “Come What May” is trying to make.
Curiously, the main plot of “Come What May” in many ways feels like a truncated reiteration of the way the Borg were introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation: Tension builds with the discovery of a series of mysterious and inexplicable attacks on Federation colonies leading to an eventual confrontation with a laughably overpowered and unstoppable force for which the Enterprise is no match and the captain has to rely on a godlike being to bail him and his crew out before they’re wiped off the face of the galaxy. An enemy from the future invades and deforms the present. There are significant differences, though, and these prove crucial: In “Q, Who?” Q flings the Enterprise into the Delta Quadrant out of spite to teach Picard a lesson about hubris. Here though, Kirk has to learn to trust Onabi, who always maintained from the beginning she was on his side. This then becomes a more clear-cut Star Trek story, as it’s about two parties learning to communicate and understand each other.
(This does, however, also result in what I find to be the episode’s one sour note: In the scene that most clearly invokes and subverts “Q, Who?” Onabi confronts Kirk, pleading him to let her help the Enterprise, because she’s travelled more and seen all the horrors that lurk in the galaxy, name-checking the Breen, the Cardassians and the Dominion, and by implication and association putting them in the same category as the Borg. In other words, the unknown is scary, threatening and full of danger and all non-Federation cultures are monolithic, monstrous and evil.)
That’s not to say “Come What May” lacks metacommentary. Indeed, this is actually the more important aspect of what it’s trying to get at. Ohn’s visions, for one, are of commingled timelines: For each time someone comes in contact with him, the cast acts out recreations of iconic scenes from “Mirror, Mirror”, the first seven Star Trek films, an original scene where Christine Chapel marries Spock and even, apparently, William Shatner’s novel “The Return”. Kirk even flat-out states that the Borg are likely an enemy from the Federation’s future. But when Kirk and Spock ask Onabi if these visions are of the future, she quickly dismisses that theory, saying “the future hasn’t been written yet”. In other words, what Onabi and Ohn are showing the crew are visions of potential futures: Different paths the story could take, but that aren’t set in stone. The key moment comes in the final showdown with the Borg, where Onabi tells Kirk that what he says next “…will either doom your ship, or save it”. History is neither predestined nor teleological, but made in the present by people doing what they feel to be right each and every moment.
This is why the episode is entitled “Come What May”, and is a perfect point for a show like Star Trek Phase II to be making, especially in 2004, with the future of Enterprise and the larger Star Trek media franchise uncertain: No matter what happens to Enterprise, or the rest of “official” Star Trek, what Star Trek has meant to people will continue to live on, because people will continue to tell Star Trek stories as long as its characters and ideals continue to resonate with them. And, as a fan series with a dubious and changeable relationship with canon in the first place, it’s the position of Star Trek Phase II to remind us that linear chronologies are nowhere near as important as the heart and soul of storytelling. And this is where Onabi’s true power comes through as well, because she’s not only a godlike presence from out of time, she’s also a Star Trek fan.
From her first appearance, Onabi gives every sense of being someone who is simply ecstatic to be on the Starship Enterprise acting in a Star Trek episode: She jumps the gun in the transporter room, apologising for “not waiting”, because she’s just so excited to get aboard the ship. She talks about how much fun it is to “play along” with the crew when Chekov puts up the security force field and is even jazzed to visit the brig. Even when she gets her stock “I can be any woman for you, captain” seduction scene in Kirk’s quarters, the sense is that she’s doing this because she’s expected to, as she’s having a gleeful romp through Star Trek cliches. All of this is duly conveyed through Andrea Ajemian’s charmingly pixiesh portrayal, through which she turns Onabi into essentially an omnipotent fangirl. Hell, she’s even arguably riffing on the Mary Sue archetype, as she’s a gregarious, benevolent, beautiful, hyper-competent goddess who comes in to save the crew from a situation they can’t handle themselves.
But this is actually precisely the sort of thing Onabi should be doing. As a true fan, she loves Star Trek, but she also understands it remains seriously flawed and problematic. And, like any good fanfic writer, she wants to help-She wants to make Star Trek greater than itself as an act of love to demonstrate how much it’s meant to her. So, she harnesses the power of the maybes and could-have-beens that orbit her and reshapes Star Trek’s future by reinstating its abandoned past. Star Trek lives on no matter which way the future goes thanks to the love of fans like Onabi and the people who make things like Star Trek Phase II.
This is evident in the episode’s definitive scene. While unwinding in Kirk’s quarters, Spock notices a framed copy of “Amazing Grace” and gets confused:
“”Captain, I do not recall previously viewing this representation.”
“The musical composition you have on display.”
“Oh, you mean the hymn. That belonged to my brother Sam. My mother gave it to he and Aurelan when they left for Deneva. What is it, Spock?”
“I do not understand the words. ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…’”
“’…I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see’. Spock, it’s about us. It’s about what we’re supposedly doing out here. Extending compassion to those in need. Saving the lost. Helping those people who can’t help themselves and asking nothing in return.”
“But the song would seem to indicate a deity. Were it not the religious conflicts of your world that led your species to the brink of destruction?”
“Yes. But it’s the ideal that survives. Then the hymn is still relevant.”
“I shall endeavor to study it further.”
Kirk reconceptualises an artefact frequently mobilised by the forces of pop Christianity to speak for the ideals he sees in the work the Enterprise does. While Jeffery Quinn’s Spock at times feels more like the youthful and curious Data or the elegant and aloof T’Pol rather than the closeted and conflicted Spock, the scene still works as it plays out across generations of Star Trek history to hit at truth. Similarly, though James Cawley’s Kirk doesn’t seem much like the gruff military commander Gene Roddenberry wrote him as or the drag action hero William Shatner played him as, he does come across as a wise, kindly traveller and a good friend and teacher (especially in the scenes where he helps newly-minted officer Janice Rand through the hoops of command). In some ways he reminds me more of an idealized, yet much younger, Jean-Luc Picard or Katherine Janeway, but it still seems appropriate as Kirk was the template from which every other Star Trek captain was originally conceived.
And, just like canon, Star Trek Phase II need not be beholden to the original portrayal of these characters. This is its own show with its own take on and vision of what Star Trek was, is and should be. That Star Trek allows for this is its true strength, and at a time when most people are beginning to give it up as an irrelevant, passe part of history, that kind of statement of love is needed now most of all.
If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say our future might look a bit like this.
April 13, 2014 @ 11:01 pm
Oh my gods but you are so right!
I haven't taken the time to watch it yet, but just had to jump in and say that I am REALLY EXCITED to, after that loving and brilliant essay! More to follow in about 40 minutes…!
April 14, 2014 @ 2:32 pm
The Amazing Grace scene did quite a bit for me to redeem Spock's Funeral. It had started to bother me some time before that the only thing even a little spockish about the funeral is that he's the guest of honor. Why would they be playing an old christian hymn rather than something Vulcan? The delightfully simple answer: Spock had heard the song at some point and was fond of it. (I mean that, and, as MST3K said, "This song / is in / The public / Domain / That's why/ We used / it twice"
(Not fully redeem it, of course. "His was the most human"? That's mighty white of you, Jim.)
April 15, 2014 @ 1:43 am
Grrr. Totally wouldn't play for me last night, and now I won't have time to watch it for the next couple of days! But the first few minutes look great, much as you described.
April 16, 2014 @ 8:29 pm
I really love the work done by the Phase II team. One thing in particular I really enjoy is seeing a re-visioning of the characters in a way that is different from and not slavish to TOS. This is a real work of passion, positivity and love – all of which shines through.
Thanks so much for covering these !