Thursday, August 22, 2013

AFTER SHADOWS: Mitchell Ryan and STAR TREK


STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, "The Icarus Factor"

In which Burke Devlin boards the Enterprise-D and proceeds to get his swag all over everything.

First off, this isn’t meant to be some kind of Old Trek/Nü Trek turf war thing. I happen to like STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, but the show sometimes had its head up its ass. Most people chalk it up to Riker's Beard, the appearance of which creates a fairly clear median line in the show's seven-year run. If you randomly watch an episode on ST:TNG and see a clean-shaven JONATHAN FRAKES, the reasoning, goes, then you should change the channel. But the problems with ST:TNG go a bit deeper than facial hair fashions.

Revisiting the show recently, ST:TNG (especially the early episodes) has a weird kind of detachment, like a Zager & Evans song come to life, only with less Spaghetti Western horns. More to the point, ST:TNG is like a DAFT PUNK song in that it feels like art made by robots for humans. All of the basic components of storytelling are there … they’re just a little off. It’s escapism for replicants. And here’s what finally tipped me off:


Have you ever seen a more synthetic family portrait? Someone made this, and it was supposed to represent sentimentality in the 24th century. THIS is what we’re supposed to be aspiring to: awkward Sears catalog portraits shot in front of a green screen. (And I’m pretty sure that’s a photo of Mitch Ryan's face from HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER added into the image, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Data is the true voice of ST:TNG. He’s a contraption that looks human, but isn’t. His primary character arc involves a search for what it means to be human, and it's telling that the show's other characters don't even understand the concept. Most of his crewmates were interchangeable, save for a single (sometimes abrasive) character element. Worf was angry, Picard was confident, Yar was humorless, and Riker ... played the trombone. Yeah, that last character flourish doesn't sound like much, but it's the kind of detail that stood in for "character development" during the first few yeas of ST: TNG. It took a while for the show to evolve beyond these growing pains (i.e., it got better once Gene left the show) but the first few seasons were trite and artificial.
 
The Icarus Factor, which first aired back in 1989, falls back on the hoary old “Daddy Issues” story cliche. Will Riker and his father, Kyle, haven’t spoken for a while, and have been estranged since the death of Mrs. Riker (I don’t recall them giving her a name in this episode, but I probably just missed it. Trek is way too OCD to let a detail like that pass.) All of this builds toward some kind of “judo” match that involves Mitch Ryan and Jonathan Frakes wearing BMX pads, helmets and visors, while swinging blindly at each other with American Gladiators pugil sticks and screaming Japanese non-sequiturs at each other.


This scene made me wonder: "Do actors actually know how fucking weird their jobs are?

The episode is wrapped up with no real emotional payoff. The two Rikers decide to put aside their differences because the credits were about to roll, and might as well have been ushered off stage by SANDMAN SIMS. Riker the Younger decides his dad’s not so bad after all, then takes his career out behind the shed and puts it down OLD YELLER style by turning down command of his own starship.

Oh, and Worf does some really stupid shit that involves letting Klingons taser him. Dude has issues.

Ryan and Frakes are surprisingly well matched as father and son. Both of them are alike in a way that doesn’t require either to study the others’ physical habits to convey familiarity. If you’ve ever seen DARK SHADOWS (and if you’re reading this, you probably have) then you know that Ryan has a unique way of entering a scene. It’s nothing like Frakes’ "Ima knock a wall down with my head" technique, but it’s close enough for horseshoes. These are two guys who really know how to occupy a scene, and it’s fun watching their natural gravities in competition with each other. This episode is worth checking out for their  performances.

Oh, and you also get to hear Burke Devlin say “Ferengies.” That’s just a bonus.


This isn't the first time the paths of DARK SHADOWS and STAR TREK have crossed. ART WALLACE, the guiding light behind DARK SHADOWS, wrote a pair of episode of the original TREK in the '60s (neither of them are especially good.) KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT, who appeared opposite Ryan in the first episode of DARK SHADOWS (and many more after) appeared on the ST:TNG episode WHO WATCHES THE WATCHERS in season three.

(Note: an earlier version of this piece ran on BLOOD DRIVE, the Collinsport Historical Society's Tumblr feed.)

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