In Defense of Star Trek

Who will defend the future from J.J. Abrams... and his fans?

Star Trek Into Darkness

Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Leonard Nimoy
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-05-17 (General release)
UK date: 2013-05-09 (General release)

The future needs defending. Not against Klingons or Romulans. Not even, simply, against J.J. Abrams. The future of Star Trek needs defending against audience members willing to accept a Star Trek film that is, in essence, not really a Star Trek film.

In Star Trek (2009) director J.J. Abrams led audiences into a false sense of security by creating an extraordinary reimagining of the original Star Trek series. All the old favorites were there, revitalized and updated for the 21st century. The story and performances drove the film, not the special effects which were, albeit, excellence. The filmed seemed like an almost elegant hand off of the original franchise -- even in its time travel story devices featuring original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) as the key element of the plot. In that sense, it was not a reboot, it was simply a shift in the Star Trek timeline. Very clever.

However, that tone has changed in Star Trek Into Darkness and the afterglow of the 2009 film has been left far behind. In 2009, the crew of the Enterprise faced a larger than life ship captained by an insane Romulan and had to defeat it. In 2013, the crew of the Enterprise faces a larger than life ship captained by an insane Starfleet Admiral and must defeat it. They also face what is, perhaps, the greatest retread in the history of movie villainy -- that of the quintessential STAR villain: Khan.

That aside, however, the film is visually difficult to watch. Because of the manner in which it was filmed -- great action filmed at odd angles, it was best to move back several rows to get a picture of the entire screen. It is, also, the first movie wherein the frequent costume changes, including Nazi-style hats worn by Starfleet personnel, become a distraction.

The special effects were, obviously, what any contemporary viewer of a science fiction blockbuster would expect: visually dazzling with plenty of fast, erratic movement of everything from rogue ships to space garbage. However, between that and the bar scenes there was a disturbing presence in the Force -- that of director Abrams seeming to use Star Trek Into Darkness as a palette to practice for his upcoming Star Wars VII film. In fact, there is a space chase sequence that is, put politely, a direct homage to a popular scene from The Empire Strikes Back. In fact, take this as a compliment or a criticism depending on your point of view, the special effects in Star Trek Into Darkness were very reminiscent of the each of the Star Wars prequels (Cue me watching the pod racer seen on opening day of The Phantom Menace in 1999 bored out of my mind). As George Lucas once said, “Special effects without a story is a pretty boring thing.”


But that seems to be what Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the crew of the Enterprise have stumbled into here. Special effects in search of a story. Space chase scenes and fight scenes in search of a story -- along with an epic final sequence as the Enterprise plunges to earth that stretches the disbelief of even the most ardent moviegoer.

Is there a story to this film? Of course. But, really, what does it matter? Unlike the previous 2009 origins film Abrams and Co., apparently, decided, to simply fool around with Star Trek Into Darkness and make the storyline second to the special effects, whereas the 2009 film seemed to be an almost perfect blending of the varied elements of a modern science fiction film including, even, the hero’s journey motif. Keep in mind Abrams has said, even recently on The Daily Show with John Stewart while he was promoting Star Trek Into Darkness, that he never liked Star Trek and thought it was “too philosophical.” He always preferred Star Wars.

That does certainly beg the question as to whether or not someone who does not like Star Trek should direct it. Abrams was given a pass in 2009 for creating a fine film. The same can’t be said for Star Trek Into Darkness.

There’s been some criticism against Star Trek fandom objecting to Star Trek Into Darkness -- my own criticisms range from the completely derivative use of Khan as a villain to verbatim and almost verbatim quotes from the science fiction classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan being used. And while the reversal-of-death-death scene in the film evokes emotion, it is soon destroyed when Spock screams out “Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!” -- well known as a classic Shatner-as-Kirk line that could never truly be recreated.

Star Trek (2009) demonstrated that the new cast is up to the challenge. However, in this latest incarnation some of the key characters, namely Kirk, seem to have regressed emotionally to the point where they don’t seem to be fit to crew the Enterprise. There is a general sense of dysfunction in some of the key relationships of the characters in the film, the script, the directing and thus the acting lacks the depth and engagement of the 2009 film (which leads me to believe there’s something missing from the directing -- perhaps, in this case, it is interest on the part of the director). Finally, the whole thing becomes almost some kind of adolescent fantasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with adolescent fantasy. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of -- and, apparently, the stuff that Star Trek Into Darkness is made of.

So, yes, Star Trek needs some defending from, well, Star Trek. The Star Trek franchise is nearing its 50th anniversary. To criticize fans of the original versions of the show and films merely as nerdy, nitpicking fanboys is incredibly superficial. Let’s not forget, it was the fans who in an incredible letter writing campaign saved Star Trek from being cancelled in its second season in the 1960s. It was the growing popularity of the show in re-runs, along with fan run conventions, that gave rise to the feature film franchise, then Star Trek: The Next Generation and all the other shows. Fans also gave rise to J.J. Abrams Star Trek (2009). No fans, no franchise. So, when it comes to Star Trek, the fans, actually, do matter.

J.J. Abrams said in the same interview that Star Trek Into Darkness was not a film just made for the fans but that it was made for anyone to see -- even people who had not seen Star Trek before. That’s certainly not an approach that can be objected to because in Star Trek everyone has always been welcome. It’s also not a bad approach especially when the goal of filmmaking in Hollywood is to make as much money as possible. It’s a business. Movies are a commodity. The latest film, however, borders on caricature much more than it does on being a film that either fans or general viewers will enjoy.

No doubt the film will be an incredible success over the course of the summer. But that still leaves the question: Should it be? Or has Star Trek finally been transformed into a film franchise whose components have been so successfully milked by a director who knows how to make crowd pleasing films that it has lost what made it Star Trek to begin with -- the humanistic, philosophical kind of science fiction that was about something more than just a good vs. evil adventure.

Message to J.J. Abrams: There’s a difference between a Trek and a War.

And now that Abrams if off to direct Star Wars VII I’ve only got one more thing to say: Get Baz Luhrmann on the phone -- somebody new needs to screw up Star Trek.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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