The Bat Segundo Show: Nicholas Meyer

Nicholas Meyer appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #310.

Nicholas Meyer is perhaps best known for his work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He is most recently the author of The View from the Bridge.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ah, listener my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish best served cold?

Author: Nicholas Meyer

Subjects Discussed: Lotus positions, talking back to prescience, writing books when the Writers Guild goes on strike, Samuel Johnson, the origins of The Seven Per-Cent Solution, words as a place of retreat, William S. Baring-Gould, generating “scholarly” commentary, Meyer’s dislike of Sherlock Holmes movies, Watson being portrayed as a buffoon, using the old Warner shield for Time After Time, the unusual opening shot of Time After Time and developing a directorial voice, Stanley Kubrick on the set of Spartacus, on-the-job training about cinematography, directing Ricardo Montalban, making specific choices, directors who don’t know what they want, the importance of understanding actors, finding distinct style with a preexisting Star Trek cast, William Shatner’s concerns on Star Trek II, the Coca-Cola product placement in Volunteers, responding to Ken Levine’s remarks on the scene that ruined Volunteers, Meyer’s problematic metrics with cinematic comedy, Black Orchid, whittling down the original draft of The View from the Bridge, being a script doctor on Fatal Attraction and determining Meyer’s precise involvement with the bathtub ending, calculating a film for an audience and the problems with doing so, how to write a good screenplay with Philip Roth’s source material, the differences between source material and other versions of the story, The Wizard of Oz, arguments about Dickens film adaptations, thoughts on Josh Olson’s “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script,” The Avengers, and why Meyer’s frequent flyer miles are in the University of Iowa archive.



Correspondent: You’re sitting in a rather strange lotus position.

Meyer: No.

Correspondent: Do you sit like this often?

Meyer: I’m not lotus actually.

Correspondent: Oh. Not lotus.

Meyer: You can’t see, but, underneath this table, my legs are stretched out in a very conventional position.

Correspondent: I’m sorry I wasn’t noticing your muscular legs.

Meyer: The anti-lotus.

Correspondent: How are you doing?

Meyer: I’m doing fine so far.

Correspondent: Okay. I had a question pertaining to recent events and also pertaining to your work and your tendency to have scripts mirror certain international events. I think, going back to Star Trek VI and Company Business, how real events tended to unfold in relation to those particular scripts. But simultaneously I might argue that you were prescient with one particular character in the Star Trek films. Most recently, as you’ve probably been reading the headlines or seeing various clips, a certain Congressman from South Carolina basically said something to the President. And I couldn’t help but think when that happened, Chekhov saying to Khan, “You lie!” Which I thought was quite prescient of you possibly. But simultaneously, in relation to Chekhov and Presidents, I should point out that Chekhov was able to correctly pronounce “nuclear,” whereas the previous President was not. So what do you attribute this linguistic prescience on your part?

Meyer: Well, talking back to prescience is like one of the weirder things that you can do. And I think the fact that Chekhov addressed Khan so disrespectfully in the well of the Botany Bay obviously qualifies him for a Federation reprimand.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Meyer: Does this address your question?

Correspondent: It sort of does. But it’s interesting that Chekhov could pronounce “nuclear” where George Bush could not. 43.

Meyer: The list of things that George Bush was unable to pronounce. In order to pronounce some of these things, I think you have to conceive of what they are first.

Correspondent: And Chekhov was able to conceive of what they were. I mean, it’s funny that Chekhov was the guy here. This could also have a lot to do with my own particular connections to your work and the larger canvas. But you did bring this up in your book and so I was tempted to infer many things in your scripts that possibly were intended or prescient or seer-like.

Meyer: Well, I think Chekhov’s remark clearly, as far as Congressman Wilson is concerned, is an accident. It was about thirty years before. And there are people who go around saying “You lie!” at the drop of a hat. Chekhov, I think, is more right than not when he accuses Khan.

Correspondent: Yeah. I also wanted to ask — just to go to a general question that isn’t so convoluted or so crazy. This particular book. Was this written during the writers strike at all?

Meyer: Yes.

Correspondent: It was.

Meyer: I write my books when the Writers Guild goes on strike. You’re not allowed to write screenplays. And I usually write it because I have to make money. And Dr. Johnson said a man is a blockhead who writes for any reason except money.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, that’s paraphrasing it a bit. But it’s close enough.

Meyer: Well, I got “blockhead” and…

Correspondent: You got “blockhead” and “money” definitely. Nobody but a fool wrote for money…

Meyer: For anything except for money, yes.

Correspondent: I think I’m mangling it now. Yeah, I’m familiar with that quote. You were a movie reviewer at the University of Iowa. You then wrote press kits for Paramount. And then you wrote The Love Story Story. And then you headed out west to become a screenwriter and what was, of course, this novel that came about. Quite a circuitous route in terms of approaching the inevitable. And so I’m curious why you postponed it for so long over the years. Was there a definitive answer? You say that you’re not an analytical person. But I’m sure you’ve had many years to think about this roundabout way of going to your present profession.

Meyer: Well, I always wanted to make movies from the time I was very young. I never thought much about the writing part of it. Which is interesting, because I’ve been writing since I was five years old. Writing was just something I always did. Words were the place to which I retreated. Sort of instinctively and intuitively all my life. I tried writing novels as a young man and I didn’t like my novels very much. And by the way, neither did anyone else. So I went to California eventually to seek my fortune and try and get into the movie business. And I was lucky. I started to make some progress. And then just as I was starting to have stuff produced, the Writers Guild did go on strike. This was back in 1972 or ’73, I think. And I was sharing digs with a young woman who said, “Well now, since you’re not allowed to write screenplays, you can write that book you are always talking about.” And that book was my fanciful notion of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, in which Holmes met and joined forces intellectually as well as narratively with Sigmund Freud. And there really wasn’t any good reason at that point not to try doing it. I don’t think I was expecting it to add up to much. But it was as much a way of passing the time when I wasn’t on the strike line as anything else.

And so, yes, it became a big success. It was the number one best-selling novel for a while in the United States. And then when it was optioned for the movies, I said, “Yes, I will sell you the option on condition that I write the script.” And the script with all its faults was lucky enough to be nominated for an Oscar. And so that sort of led me to the next level. And the next screenplay I wrote, I said, “Yes, I will sell you the script, but I must direct the movie.” And so I leapfrogged my way into my profession.

BSS #310: Nicholas Meyer (Download MP3)

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Review: Star Trek (2009)


In 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture featured the likes of David Gerrold and Bjo Trimble in small roles, transmitting a subconscious wire that, whatever the film’s faults, this was really an expensive telegram for the fans. Thirty years later, with similar commercial circumstances in place, Vulcan Council Member #1 is played by the notorious hack screenwriter Akiva Goldsman — the no-talent Oscar-winning scribe behind Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, the man who had the effrontery to butcher both Lost in Space and Asimov, and who was recently reported to be sodomizing Dave King’s excellent novel, The Ha-Ha. If this representative casting doesn’t spell out the Sino-British style handover of the Star Trek franchise from the fans to the hucksters, then perhaps you may not understand that Hollywood has remained quite interested in systematically raping your childhood if it will fill its coffers.

Since comparative points are often the best place to start, let’s just say that J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek isn’t as bad as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or Star Trek: Nemesis. I realize that’s a bit like telling you that having a dentist rip out your molars without anesthetic is better than getting repeatedly stabbed in the eyeballs. For the undiscriminating fanboy who will lap this movie up without complaint, the film is about as good as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: Insurrection. Which is to say that it isn’t up there with the sublime quartet of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek: First Contact. It isn’t one of those movies you’re going to geek out about, although Eric Rosenfield and I spent more than an hour in a diner expressing our frustrations about the film’s total misunderstanding of basic science (And neither of us are scientists.) There was a point where the film almost had me, but J.J. Abrams betrayed that trust by having three guys in spacesuits enter into a planet’s atmosphere without burning up. This mesospehre-defying trio eventually land on a drill platform tethered to a space elevator that is floating several thousand feet above the planet’s surface. And even after the considerable wind factor has whisked away the token red shirt, the remaining crew members still manage to duke it out with Romulans while standing on the platform. Which is as improbable as Philippe Petit juggling fifty chainsaws while standing on the wire between the Twin Towers in 1974. The man certainly had skills, but the world has physics.

These fighters don’t contend with wind, even as the planet is in seismic upheaval. Indeed, they perform acrobatics while fighting on the platform. (For those who don’t mind spoilers, Eric has outlined some of the egregious specifics in his review.) When John Rambo leaping off a cliff without so much as a scratch on his body carries more plausibility than a Star Trek movie, you know that the latter has serious narrative issues. (And speaking of cliffs, the scientific discussions involving Kirk’s fingers in the trailer are worth revisiting. This post demolishes the physics and even has Neil deGrasse Tyson showing up in the comments.)

All this is a shame because the new cast, who I’ll get to later, is quite good. But the “every other rule” that used to be applied to the Star Trek movies is no longer valid. And that’s because J.J. Abrams and his team really don’t get Star Trek. I suspect that they don’t even like Star Trek. And let’s face it. Today’s most critically and commercially successful franchises are made by geeks like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, not cold and calculating businessmen like J.J. Abrams. If Star Wars: The Phantom Menace served as Lucas’s visceral betrayal to his fans, perhaps epitomized best with the unpardonable Jar Jar Binks, then J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek (a more aloof and uninformed vision than Rick Berman’s) is more of an intellectual betrayal. It has a few good ideas to shake up some of the creaky complacency that has set in, but it still staunches the bloodflow. The film is not outright bad. It’s good that the crew of the Enterprise is carrying on in some form. But what now is ultimately the point? The Star Trek of 1968 was utopian and futuristic. It projected a hokey but earnest progressive vision. And even in television reruns, you could somehow believe that this was a future that could happen. But the Star Trek of the last two decades has been constantly playing catch-up with present-day technologies. Despite the presence of geek outreach representative Simon Pegg in the role of Scotty, this Star Trek is all about the cold hard cash. (And to give you some small sense of the commercial sacrifice, Pegg has shaved off his goatee for this. Apparently, there’s no room for true geeks in this new commercial vision. Nor is there any room for the handicapped. In a move that will surely ire legions of handicapped Star Trek fans, at the end of the film, Captain Christopher Pike is stripped of his command and booted up to admiral because he now sits in a wheelchair. Pike isn’t burned or scarred or given two lights to flash his affirmatives and nays before a magistrate, but he remains quite lucid despite having chowed down a Centurion worm. Which leaves one to wonder why the Americans with Disabilities Act isn’t applicable to the rosy humanitarian goals of the future.)

The problem may lie in the conceptualization. It’s a little discussed chapter in the Star Trek franchise history, but shortly after Harve Bennett produced the dreadful Star Trek V, he had an even worse idea called The Academy Years, focusing on Kirk and Spock when they were young Starfleet cadets (believe it or not, John Cusack was in mind for the younger Kirk) and featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy bookending the film in small roles. Top brass were initially wary of a film released around Star Trek‘s 25th anniversary that didn’t feature the regular cast. Bennett wrote more wraparound scenes for the veteran thespians. But the project was eventually scrapped, and Bennett was gone from Paramount not long after.

What’s striking about this reboot is how close it resembles purported descriptions of Bennett’s The Academy Years. Like Bennett’s story, the young Jim Kirk is a reckless rebel smashing up vehicles in Iowa. (In Abrams’s film, he drives a motorcycle instead of Bennett’s speeder bike.) Like Bennett’s story, young Spock is told not to go to Starfleet, with Spock informing his fellow Vulcans that logic suggests that he go anyway. The people of Earth are, in this phase of the Federation’s existence, still bigoted. (What’s interesting about this reboot is that the “green-blooded” racism originates not from McCoy, but from Kirk. It is McCoy who perpetuates this verbal ignominy. The suggestion here that Kirk’s red state beliefs are somehow responsible for sullying Starfleet’s blue state virtues is a daring and subversive one, but one that the writers have neither the skills nor the intelligence to fully weave into their narrative) We may never know whether writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who also “rebooted” the Transformers mythos in disastrous collusion with Michael Bay) were aware of Bennett’s script, or if Paramount felt compelled to draw upon some of the ideas for some source material. But while these two writers may know how to write a dumb yet engaging high-octane thriller, they don’t know elementary science and they sure as hell don’t know Star Trek.

In order to reboot the series, you have to comprehend a number of very important principles behind Star Trek. First, Star Trek has borrowed liberally from science. So much so that physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book called The Physics of Star Trek and entire websites exist attempting to provide scientific explanations for the concepts. People have devoted their careers to science because they have been inspired by Star Trek. The transporter beam and the slingshot time travel effect seen in “Assignment: Earth” and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home may not have any real-world counterparts. But the details are vague enough for us to believe in the premise. So when J.J. Abrams and his writers have a starship hovering next to a black hole, or someone observing a black hole on a nearby planet, and none of this adjacent space gets sucked into a considerable gravitational pull, this goes beyond lazy writing and into the realm of unbridled idiocy. It’s a big fuck you to the fans. (The science geeks aren’t the only ones left huddling in the cold. IT geeks will also bristle over one scene in which Chekhov must run several decks to a transporter room to beam aboard two people. Despite the Enterprise containing limitless displays of consistently shifting text and graphics, Abrams and his team apparently haven’t heard of VPN.)

And while I appreciated the Starfleet skirts returning and the general defiance of political correctness, one of Star Trek‘s appealing qualities has always been its multiculturalism. You’d think that, in an Obama presidency, we’d be given a Uhura who is more than a leggy linguist. But Uhura’s screen time involves fending off advances from Kirk and throwing herself at Spock. She’s a character composite of Nurse Chapel and the Nichelle Nichols incarnation. This is not a character who is permitted to think or offer solutions. Sure, she intercepts and translates a vital radio transmission. But it is Kirk who seizes this information and uses this to advance up the ranks of command without crediting Uhura. Again, if Kirk embodies the ugly capitalist who keeps utopia’s engine running, there’s some promise in the suggestion. But the writers simply don’t have the chops to think along these lines and make this interesting. Indeed, with Uhura so exploited, it’s evident that the writers barely grasp feminism’s second wave. (It’s worth noting that Kirk does sleep with an Orion, but she resembles nothing more than an attractive actress who has been painted green. There is nothing “exotic” about her, and the film offers no contemporary answer to the Vaseline-smeared lens or the strange soft lighting that greeted many of the women in the original series. So even if the film adopts the position that sexual conquest is alive and well, it lacks the courage to be forceful about it. And it becomes as cowardly as the G rating attached to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)

J.J. Abrams’s film flits through three years in Starfleet Academy with all the contrivances of a by-the-numbers TV movie (complete with a few token “farmboys” that seem more applicable to Luke Skywalker than Jim Kirk), it’s worth pointing out that Kirk and Spock never required an origin story. They were never characters who, outside of homoerotic fan fiction, we were supposed to speculate about. With their cinematic incarnations, we had three seasons of the original series to inform our view. But what we have with Abrams’s Star Trek is a solid cast very familiar with the cultural canon, but a group of filmmakers who fundamentally misunderstand the truth behind the legend. Bennett’s The Academy Years was vetoed for the right reasons. We want to see the Star Trek crew in action, using their seasoned experience and skills to battle it out with Klingons. We want to see them contend with scenery-chewing villains like Khan Noonien Singh or General Chang. We want to see Shatner shout “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNN!” Who is our nemesis in Star Trek? Eric Bana, who could not even pull off Bruce Banner (and caused the studio to act as if Ang Lee’s Incredible Hulk adaptation had never happened). Presumably, he was cast as the Romulan because he starred in a movie called Romulus, My Father. And why have a cheesy actor in the role of a Romulan commander? The Romulans were often commanded by women — most notably the commander in “The Enterprise Incident,” who tempted Spock with both lust and knowledge. But in a typically sexist move by Abrams, we don’t see a single woman on board the Romulan ship. It’s as if Abrams and company confused the Klingons with the Romulans. Indeed, in a prosthetic move that desperately attempts to one-up the ridged Klingon forehead introduced in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Romulans have been given bald pates and silly tattooed faces. They look like something out of a bad cyberpunk movie from the 1990s.

And to give us characters fresh out of the academy, permitting them to run the Enterprise through contrived circumstances just days out of the gate, is somewhat entertaining but unacceptable. We get an explanation for the “Bones” nickname, but wasn’t this a mystery better left unknown? We get cliched dialogue like “I knew I should have killed you had the chance,” but this lacks Star Trek II‘s melodramatic poetry (“I’ve done far worse than kill you, Admiral. I’ve hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left me. As you left her. Marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet. Buried alive.”). (Come to think of it, should there be a reimagined Star Trek II, perhaps Nicholas Meyer might be coaxed to write it.) Even the stardates here have been replaced by crude anno domini.

All Abrams has here to sustain his tentpole picture are desperate references to previous films. An ice planet evoking the Klingon prison planet in Star Trek VI. A slimeless Centurion worm that rips off Star Trek II‘s slimy Ceti eel. The three Vulcan computers used to rehabilitate Spock’s intelligence at the beginning of Star Trek IV. The lone Spock investigative mission in Star Trek: The Motion Picture recycled late in the film. This is a film that offers a phaser with a sliding click, but that simultaneously gives us the fundamentally stupid idea of red matter. This is a film that has the courage to make Spock unapologetically emotional, but that has the fine Karl Urban simply doing an accurate DeForest Kelly impression (complete with a prefatory “My God, man!”). Chris Pine has the ego and the masculine swagger to sell Kirk. And I can even imagine him putting his own spin on the immortal line, “I am Kirok!” But even Pine is given a Shatneresque “Bones” boom when he takes the bridge near the end of the film. John Cho is Harold as Sulu, and it’s just possible that the excitable Anton Yelchin may be his Kumar. But even Zachary Quinto, who was better as Spock than I anticipated, is doomed, like the rest of the cast, to mimic the cast that came before.

Had Abrams taken the chances that Ron Moore did with his Battlestar Galactica reimagining, this might have been a franchise worth getting excited over. But Abrams’s failure to shake up the Star Trek universe while remaining fundamentally true to the franchise’s underlying appeal is a sign that some mausoleums are best left sealed and that reinvention is another way of saying that you’re out of fresh ideas.


The Bat Segundo Show: Brent Spiner

Brent Spiner appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #233. Spiner is most recently a producer and performer on the album, Dreamland.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ducking his head and dodging paranoid crooners.

Guest: Brent Spiner

Subjects Discussed: Natural reverb, conversational limitations, co-owning a recording studio with Dave Way, being a control freak, the shaky profitability of the music industry, self-distributing a CD through Bellarama, David Byrne’s DIY article, the lack of response from magazines and newspapers vs. the response from blogs and online sites, being restricted by self-production, the distribution for Ol’ Yellow Eyes is Back, getting mechanical rights for the songs, merging “I Love You” with “Nice and Easy,” the difficulties of getting Cole Porter’s “Let’s Fall in Love,” DJ Giagni, tap dancing and footfalls, sound effects, maracas that appear on the left speaker, arguments for and against the older man-younger woman musical trope, certain elements that are holding back Dreamland from being transposed to a live performance, the belting quality of Spiner’s voice, wrestling, Spiner’s extraordinary claims as an opera singer, Mark Hamill as a figure to help smooth over the rancor between two popular science fiction franchises, growing up in Houston, the demolition of the Shamrock Hilton in June 1987, Cecil Pickett and the brothers Quaid, Randy Quaid and Actors’ Equity, Spiner’s complex feelings for Rutger Hauer, Hauer and Whoopi Goldberg, taking umbrage with YouTube commenters, working with Maude Maggart, signing on for a six-year contract for a show that rhymes with “car wreck,” committing to a project without knowing when it will end, Threshold, negotiating the limitations of television, the relationship between art vs. commerce, why Spiner moved to Los Angeles, Superhero Movie, living like a college student vs. an adult lifestyle, and the trappings and consistent struggles of being an actor.


Correspondent: I should observe that you grew up in Houston.

Spiner: Yes.

Correspondent: Of course, for a long time, the Shamrock Hilton was there.

Spiner: Right.

Correspondent: And what is rather unusual is that it was demolished in June 1987, which almost exactly coincides with your big break on the show that shall not be named. I was wondering if you ever contemplated this connection, and whether the hotel [in Dreamland] may have jumped out because of this. Why did you choose the hotel? And what of the Shamrock Hilton?

Spiner: You know what, Ed, I’m not sure what the question is really. And I’m not even sure you know what the question is.

Correspondent: No, no, I’m just throwing associations at you.

Spiner: Yeah, you know what?

Correspondent: I figured that you can handle this.

Spiner: Let me say, and I will say the word, I did Star Trek purposefully because of the demise of the Shamrock Hotel.

Correspondent: Yeah. I knew it.

Spiner: There was no other reason that I took that job. When they told me…

Correspondent: …that Houston was dead to you.

Spiner: Yeah, Houston was dead to me once the Shamrock Hilton was gone. But let me just say this. How do you know about the Shamrock Hilton?

Correspondent: I just am curious.

Spiner: Are you from Houston?

Correspondent: No, I’m not. I’ve never actually been in Texas, aside from, I believe, a layover. But I just knew about it. I knew that big people came through there.

Spiner: Yup. Oh! Please.

Correspondent: And so I figured you hung out there.

Spiner: I did.

Correspondent: When these big people made their way through there.

Spiner: I once saw Mel Torme at the Shamrock.

Correspondent: Really?

Spiner: At the Shamrock pool. Walking fast. And even more importantly, I once saw Jock Mahoney doing chin-ups outside by the Shamrock pool.

Correspondent: Did you talk with these folks when you were there?

Spiner: You know, I didn’t. I wish I’d talked to Jock Mahoney, which is another story altogether.

Download BSS #233: Brent Spiner (MP3)

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“Dagger of the Mind” — Allegory for 2004 America


DR. ADAMS: “Now Captain Kirk is going to have a complete demonstration. I want there to be no doubts whatever in his mind.”

KIRK: “Mmmmm.”

dagger2.jpegDR. ADAMS: “You’re madly in love with Helen, Captain. You’d lie, cheat, steal for her, sacrifice your career, your reputation.”

HELEN: “No, Doctor! No!”

DR. ADAMS: “The pain — do you feel it, Captain? You must have her, or the pain grows worse, the pain, the longing for her.”

KIRK: “Helen.”

DR. ADAMS: “For years, you’ve loved her, Captain, for years.”

KIRK: “For years, I’ve loved you.”

DR. ADAMS: “You must continue to remember that, Captain. And now…she’s gone.”

dagger.jpg[The mind machine is turned up to a dizzying level.]

KIRK: “Helen! Helen, don’t go! I need you, Helen!”

DR. ADAMS: “Now, Captain…you must take your phaser weapon and drop it to the floor. Captain, the pain increases unless you obey me.”

KIRK: “I…must…drop it.”

[KIRK drops phaser.]

DR. ADAMS: “Very good, Captain. Very good indeed. And now your communicator. Drop it to the floor.”

[KIRK desperately flips open communicator.]

KIRK: “Kirk to Enterprise.”

[The mind machine is amped up further.]

KIRK: “Uhhhhhhhhhh! Kirk…to…Enterprise. Ahhhhhhhh!”

HELEN: [shrieking] “No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

[KIRK laughs maniacally in pain/torture/confusion, as camera fades out to commercial break.]