Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Review by Matthew Rasnake

It's been twenty-one years since William Shatner's first novel, TekWar, hit the shelves and spawned a tenuous media empire, held together, I imagine, by the force of Shatner's will, his creative drive, and his charisma. There have been, according to Wikipedia, nine novels, four made-for-TV movies, eighteen episodes of a subsequent TV series, two comic-book series (one of which entered publication just last year, with a third on the docket for this year, I believe), a set of trading cards, and a video game. Since 1989, Shatner's Tek universe has found its way into every major form of media, making it a prime candidate for the Cultural Wormhole treatment.

I recently caught the first episode of the TV series, and was surprised at how it seemed to dump you into the middle of this universe without any form of introduction to the characters, the world, or the backstory. I had to hunt, but I finally stumbled across the four TV movies, which are based on the first four Tek novels. Having read these novels, I was familiar with the characters, but I thought it would be more appropriate for our purposes to start at the beginning—and that means TekWar.

TekWar is set in a 22nd century society very similar to our own, but with human-looking androids, video phones, smart houses, self-navigating cars, and, of course, Tek. As a drug, Tek is a sort of digital hallucinogen, which treats the user to a fully-immersive fantasy; it is also highly addictive. Use too much Tek, and you risk burning out your synapses—frying your brain. Tek is the number one problem in this world, and Jake Cardigan (Greg Evigan) was an undercover cop dedicated to stopping it—before he got addicted to Tek himself, and killed his partners while deep in the throes of a Tek overdose.

Our story opens in the Freezer, where Jake Cardigan is being awoken after serving four years of a fifteen year sentence in cryo submersion. His release, though he doesn't yet know it, comes courtesy of Walter Bascom (William Shatner) and the Cosmos detective agency. A major development is brewing in the Tek world, and Bascom needs "the best" investigator on the case. It didn't hurt that Bascom also employs Sid Gomez (Eugene Clark), Jake's best friend and former partner, who never believed the charges against Jake and who likely convinced Bascom to take a chance on him.

While Jake was in the Freezer, his wife divorced him and left with their son. They both believe he was guilty, and now neither want anything to do with him. Jake wants to clear his name, get his wife and son back, and take down Sonny Hokori (Von Flores)—the Tek Lord who framed him.

This series was filmed in the mid-nineties, in Canada, and it shows. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not good either. There's a certain lack of subtlety to the production that pegs it as made-for-TV.

For the most part, studio sets are well-realized and feel appropriately futuristic (or run down and dirty, depending on the setting). Exteriors are perhaps not quite as well done—we feel like we're seeing something set in a modern city with a bit of futuristic set dressing.

More annoying than the exteriors are the vehicles—there are a few that are futuristic looking, but they're just modern ('90s modern, anyway) vehicles with some modifications. Jake Cardigan drives a Jeep with very minor redressing to smooth out the edges, and some foley work to make it sound like a Prius.

TekWar is essentially a cyberpunk story, and it doesn't disappoint in this regard. However, despite being a long-time sci-fi fan, my exposure to cyberpunk literature has been fairly limited, so I don't feel qualified to discuss relative merits of this versus other examples of the genre. Still, the short introduction we get to the "Matrix"—the three-dimensional, visually immersive, world-wide computer network—is interesting, if somewhat quaint. I get the feeling that it's not terribly original.

The character of Jake Cardigan is compelling, and Greg Evigan is probably the best actor in the episode. He's appropriately intense, and convincing in his portrayal of the wounded hero on the mend. Shatner himself is great as Bascom, playing the slick, self-assured head of the Cosmos agency. He doesn't get a ton of screen time, but he puts it to good use. Other than these two, and occasionally Torri Higginson as Beth Kittridge, the other actors are fairly average.

In adapting the novel, the character of Beth Kittridge got short-changed. There was quite a bit of potential there for making her a more sympathetic and emotionally engaging character before the climax of the story. Certain points in the story could have had a bit more impact if they'd been able to develop her further. That said, while her character was central to the plot, it wasn't necessarily central to the story.

The worst aspect of the episode was Sheena Easton's performance as Warbride... the dialogue she was given didn't help, but better stuff wouldn't have made a huge difference. Nipping at Sheena Easton's heels were Richard Chevolleau and Lexa Doig (as Wild Side and Cowgirl, respectively) who, honestly, probably had even worse material. The concept of the Matrix and the visualization of it may have been interesting, but the actors supposedly interacting with it were, to put it bluntly, bad.

The story covers a lot of ground, and at times the episode feels disjointed. While they generally do a decent job of transitioning from point to point, there's so much to pack in that some of it ended up feeling forced. Because of the compression of the story, we seem to lose track of Jake's pursuit of his wife and son, especially once Bascom officially puts Jake on the trail of the missing Kittridges.

Thankfully, the various plot threads converge quickly, on Sonny Hokori—the Tek Lord most likely responsible for the Jake's frame-up, and for the disappearance of the Kittridges. The matter of Jake's wife and son is dealt with perfunctorily, by Jake's wife popping in halfway through the episode to tell Jake to leave them alone (and to deliver a pointless warning).

The big finale is a bit anti-climatic, but there is something of a twist ending to lead into the next story. Certain bits of plot, character motivations, and actions happen without adequate explanation, but I'm attributing this again to an unfortunate result of adapting the story for the small screen. The major plot points, action sequences, and character beats were retained, and they tried to work in as many of the other non-critical things into the background or foreground just enough to keep them from being totally lost.

Overall, TekWar is an average entry in the realm of sci-fi TV, which pales in comparison to more modern examples of the genre like 'Battlestar Galactica', 'Firefly', and the first season of 'Heroes.' It's certainly an order of magnitude more sophisticated than the old 'Buck Rogers' series that I finished watching a couple weeks ago, but not up to current TV storytelling standards in the areas of cinematography, or narrative or character complexity.

Is TekWar worth watching? That's hard to say. Production values and complexity notwithstanding, it's not the worst science-fiction TV show I've ever seen. It's probably on par with some of the stuff coming out of the BBC in the past few years ('Torchwood', for example). If you're a true-blue sci-fi fan, it's got the components and the credentials to make it worth checking out. If you're a hard-core Shatner fan, it's a must see for the smarmy, manipulative Bascom—Shatner playing to his strengths. However, if you think the old Adam West 'Batman' series wasn't worth the film stock it was printed on, you're probably too harsh a critic to take more than a few minutes of TekWar.

I'll be interested to see if the subsequent TV movies (also adapting the next three novels in the TekWar series) improve on any of these points, but, having seen the first couple of episodes of the "second season" of 'TekWar' before I stumbled across these movies, you're not going to find me holding my breath.


  1. Great review, Matt. I will be expecting those 'TJ Hooker' articles in about a week.

  2. Lest we not forget that it also inspired Stephen Colbert's "Tek Jansen" adventures...

  3. @Paul: I really should try to watch TJ Hooker at some point... I've never seen more than a few minutes of it.

    I'm hoping to hone my reviewing chops on this prior to season 3 of Castle...

    @Ben: I've only seen Tek Jansen in passing, but if it's "inspired by" TekWar, I guess I'll have to check it out at some point. There are few whose egos meet or exceed that of the Shat, Colbert being the best modern example.