Sunday, November 17, 2019

Discovery - Short Treks 2x3 "Ask Not"

rating: ***

the story: A cadet faces an awful test when faced with an impossible decision.

review: Finally, a Short Trek that isn't mediocre or great, just comfortably somewhere in the middle.  This is the seventh one now; the format itself has been tested and its creators generally know what's possible.  This is the third one, of the past three, to give the Discovery Enterprise a little more breathing room, and the first to feature Pike directly.  As he was throughout his appearances in Discovery's second season, Pike remains eminently watchable, so "Ask Not" has at least that going for it.  But there's more.

Ever since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Wesley Crusher's early experiences in The Next Generation, fans have been given glimpses at the sorts of things Starfleet recruits might expect in their initial training.  The 2009 Star Trek movie was built around the idea, too, but for the purposes of this Short Trek, I'll dwell mostly around Wes.

"Ask Not" feels like an attempt to give us something far better than what Wes got to experience.  It doesn't give us strong character work so much a great grasp of the scenario.  We get some fun details, including an unexpected callback to The Motion Picture's hilarious "reserve activation clause" that Kirk used to bring McCoy back, another sign that Discovery's creators have been far closer attention to franchise lore than some fans have been willing to admit.  (The longer a franchise goes, the more old fans like to claim that the new stuff "just isn't the same."  But Star Trek fans have been making that claim since at least the first season of Next Generation.  And really, since The Motion Picture.)

This is the sort of experience that's fun just to watch play out.  Like a lot early Next Generation, Wes's experiences feel fairly primitive.  "Ask Not" is vivid, as Discovery tends to be, without being needlessly flashy (these productions are always by definition minimalist, operating on budgets befitting their brief running times; this one's the shortest of the Shorts so far).

It's another real treat.

criteria analysis:

  • franchise - Good use of Starfleet lore, in familiar yet fresh ways.
  • series - If it doesn't give us fresh insight into Pike necessarily, it does give us a welcome return visit with this version of him.
  • character - With such a brief run-time, it's a welcome relief that this Short Trek didn't try to hamfist character development, as some of the earlier ones did.
  • essential - For its kind of story, yes!
notable guest-stars:
Anson Mount (Pike)
Ethan Peck (Spock)
Rebecca Romijn (Number One)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Discovery - Short Treks 2x2 "The Trouble with Edward"

rating: ****

the story: You've got to see the secret origin of the tribble scourge to believe it!

review: Every time the tribbles are in the spotlight, they shine.  You've got "The Trouble with Tribbles" in the original series, "More Trouble, More Tribbles" in The Animated Series, "Trials and Tribble-ations" in Deep Space Nine, and now, "The Trouble with Edward."

Aside from Pike at the start of the episode, the cast is entirely original to this Short Trek.  It doesn't matter.  Everyone delivers.  And it's got terrific logic.  And it becomes pretty darn hilarious.  It's everything you would want if someone were to try and explain all of it. 

With the original batch of Short Treks, the writers delivered a mixed bag of brilliant and labored stories.  The first two of this second batch have both been brilliant.  As a format, Short Treks is turning into a reliable engine.

criteria analysis:

  • franchise - Tribbles!
  • series - Pike's bit actually helps flesh out the story.
  • character - Take your pick, but really it's the tribbles.
  • essential - Required viewing for fans.  Including the commercial at the end!
notable guest-stars:
Anson Mount (Pike)

Discovery - Short Treks 2x1 "Q & A"

rating: ****

the story: Spock boards the Enterprise for the first time and meets Number One.

review: Seems more an ode to Number One than Spock, though it can function both ways, and I'm not at all complaining either way.  This may be the best Number One spotlight (and the closest to learning her name?) we ever get.

I've already seen quibbling over whether or not they screwed up the costuming for this one, given that it's technically a flashback to a period with different costumes than we remember.  I suppose that can't possibly matter in the grand scheme, unless you really want it to, and I don't.

Written by acclaimed novelist Michael Chabon, "Q & A" sets the the second batch of Short Treks on sure footing.  Number One didn't get a lot of scenes in Discovery's second season, so it was nice for her to get this spotlight at all, much less it turning out to be such a good one.  A character famously portrayed by Majel Barrett Roddenberry in the original pilot of the original series ("The Cage"), and never seen again, until Discovery, Number One occupies a unique place in franchise lore.  Here we discover that she's an intellectual equal to Spock, and it doesn't feel like a cheap development.  We even see how she helps guide Spock's subsequent deportment, reconciling the smiling Spock glimpsed in that pilot with the famously stoic one better known in virtually every other appearance.

It does help connect the Spock previously featured in Discovery with his other portrayals, too.  When we caught up with him in the series, he was already past the point where we'd seen him with Pike's crew originally.  We not only learned of his relationship with Michael Burnham, but another period of doubt in a life filled with such moments.  Here it's nice to be able to enjoy unfiltered Spock, with someone who accepts him as he is, not merely as a friend or colleague, but his basic character.

criteria analysis:

  • franchise - Wonderful look at Spock regardless of where you're coming from.
  • series - A welcome return to the Discovery version of Pike's Enterprise.
  • character - At long last, a Number One spotlight!
  • essential - It's possibly the best one we'll ever have!
notable guest-stars:
Anson Mount (Pike)
Rebecca Romijn (Number One)
Ethan Peck (Spock)

Sunday, September 8, 2019

What We Left Behind: A Look at the Documentary about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Released on home recently, What We Left Behind is a retrospective documentary celebrating Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the third live action series in the franchise that ran from 1993 to 1999 (making this twenty years since it ended).  I didn't participate in the crowdfunding for it, but I loved that DS9 showrunner Ira Steven Behr helped put it together.

I've been a member of the cult-within-a-cult since the back half of the second season, when I started watching (not incoincidentally, perhaps, also when Next Generation was ending), perhaps with a rerun of "Necessary Evil" from earlier that season (which at any rate is my earliest solid memory of the series).  As What We Left Behind makes clear, lots of fans dismissed DS9 as too dark, too far from the spirit of the franchise.  Later, internet observers sort of convinced themselves it was Voyager or Enterprise that led to the end of that era, but it was really DS9's lack of popularity that began the downward spiral.  They had to add Worf in the fourth season to even begin to convince fans it was worth watching.  The third season remains my favorite, when everything started coming together to create the memories the internet fans have of the richly-woven tapestry that helped usher in the modern era of serialized storytelling in TV shows.

So to call it a "cult-within-a-cult" is to acknowledge that although What We Left Behind dwells on the unpopularity, there has long been a subset of fans who argue that DS9 is the best Star Trek has ever been, a phenomenon that probably helped make the documentary itself exist.

What the documentary is, then, is perhaps as much a love letter for initiated fans as for those just becoming aware of its remarkable achievements a quarter century after it began.  There's some of the actors reprising their crooning honed from years on the convention circuit, peppered about, and most of the cast getting a chance to revisit their time making the show.  In a lot of ways, it's an opportunity to officially welcome Terry Farrell back into the fold, after she somewhat abruptly left the series just before its final season after becoming convinced she was ultimately unappreciated by the studio. 

One of the more surprising things I learned was how Marc Alaimo views himself.  He, too, apparently felt unappreciated, needing validation that went beyond being repeatedly brought back to reprise the increasingly pivotal role of Gul Dukat (somewhat amusingly, Nana Visitor seems to cringe at the thought of Alaimo's crush on her).  It was also great hearing more about how Avery Brooks presented himself, and how he was viewed by castmates.

And, CBS All Access, after you've done Star Trek: Picard, take a cue from the reunited writers room brainstorming.  Do an update of DS9, too! 

Anyway, as a longtime fan, What We Left Behind was absolutely a rewarding experience.  I don't know how it plays if you're not already committed to DS9 (a lot of commentators are doing the default social media thing), but hopefully it's a good way to discover just a little of what the series contributed to the franchise.  Even the extended deleted scenes don't cover everything else!  But there's a good sense of humor involved.  Just wait until Behr and Visitor give us the best scene of the series in the credits!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda: An Overview

Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda (2000-2005) was an oddity in an era where fans were weaning themselves off Star Trek thanks to a combination of The X-Files, Babylon 5, and even Xena: Warrior Princess redefining their viewing habits.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had developed a strong but relatively small following, and Star Trek: Voyager was proving hard to love.  Farscape swooped in to steal attention, and Stargate: SG1 was on its way to becoming a whole franchise of its own.  Then of course Battlestar Galactica happened.  Star Trek: Enterprise couldn't compete.  Andromeda, stuck in the sudden vacuum of syndication that had worked so well for Star Trek: The Next Generation, became an afterthought, no matter how successful in that market.

Fans heaped blame on Robert Hewitt Wolfe's departure in Andromeda's second season.  Wolfe had developed Andromeda out of basic elements left behind by Gene Roddenberry (most notably the name of lead character Dylan Hunt, which had appeared in two failed pilots from the '70s), and fans latched onto him as a central creative voice in an era where J. Michael Straczynski had dominated the idea in Babylon 5.  Wolfe had been a crucial part of the creative team behind Deep Space Nine, and all the dazzling elements he created for Andromeda were themselves worth salivating over.  He struck big idea after big idea for the show's first season, and it looked as if Andromeda might join the geek pantheon of beloved TV shows.  And then Wolfe left in the second season.

What exactly Wolfe was doing originally was never really questioned.  Certainly, the idea of the show itself can be seen as a version of the whole Star Trek era from which he'd come.  The premise, even if suggested by Roddenberry, could be viewed as a variation of Voyager's concept, that a lone starship might be forced to carry the torch of an entire civilization.  The dynamic between Hunt and breakout character Tyr Anasazi could be seen as a riff between the unique dynamic seen in the Deep Space Nine pilot "Emissary," in which lead character Benjamin Sisko shows us a new way to look at Next Generation's Jean-Luc Picard.  (Here, Sisko would be Tyr, the more aggressive loner, while Picard would be the idealistic visionary Picard.) 

And what about Trance?  Trance was Wolfe's biggest tipoff.  Trance was a combination of Next Generation's Guinan and Deep Space Nine's Odo.  Guinan, when introduced, was made up of odd suggestions of great mystery, whose true nature, powers, and origins lurked behind everything she did.  She was no mere bartender.  (I suppose even "plain, simple tailor" Garak in Deep Space Nine owes her a debt.)  Except the more we learn about her, the less spectacular Guinan becomes, until at last we learn who her people really are in Star Trek Generations, and the mystique is finally gone completely.  Odo, meanwhile, is known as a shapeshifter, but he never knew his own people, and spends his first few seasons earnestly searching for them.  Finally we learn they're the Founders, who lead the malevolent Dominion, and Odo spends the rest of that series trying to reconcile his life with the nature of his people.

Trance develops differently.  By the time Wolfe leaves, she's still largely unexplained, but there are increasing hints of what she might actually be.  There apparently was great resistance to her continued presence in the series, so cosmetic and personality changes push Trance along, including in Wolfe's final episode, until Andromeda reveals, in its final season, that she is a star avatar (and a crucial one, at that).

The classic narrative is that everything that was good about Andromeda happened while Wolfe was still involved, and that it all went downhill from there.  I watched the series throughout its original run.  I'm watching it back now.  Wolfe, I think, tried to go too big too soon.  He knew that the episodes fans tend to love best are the ones that go big.  He oversaw some big episodes in the first season.  He built Tyr up to be a thorn in Hunt's side.  But eventually, if Tyr was to stay, he would have to settle in a little.  But to be true to himself, to everything he did even when Wolfe was still around, he had to leave, even if Wolfe never did.  And ironically, the seeds are definitively planted for it not longer after Wolfe did, and it's arguably Andromeda's finest hour.

I think Wolfe's biggest failure was forgetting the premise, that Dylan Hunt awakens after three hundred years to find the Systems Commonwealth gone, and civilization devolved into barbarity.  He never really depicts the barbarity. He becomes obsessed, like Hunt, in the quest to rebuild the Commonwealth.  The fifth season is often accused to be the show's worst, the most Hercules of all the Hercules shenanigans that followed Wolfe's departure.  Andromeda starred Kevin Sorbo, who previously starred in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.  I'm not sure what show fans watched when thinking of Hercules, because Sorbo always, always had a companion of some sort in that series (and, remember, Xena was a spinoff of it), but Andromeda had a whole cast of "companions" that even after Wolfe's departure remained thoroughly in the picture, in the same roles they'd always occupied.  Beka Valentine continued on as Hunt's rogue first officer (with her own ship, the Eureka Maru, which in some ways was like criticizing Voyager for never, ever remembering that Neelix had his own ship, too).  Trance continued baffling everyone.  Harper remained deliriously, happily Harper.  And Tyr remained Tyr, even while he struggled to decide to remain Tyr.  Yeah, we lost Yoda-like Rev Bem, but the makeup ought to have been better conceived.  That's why we lost him.  And we gained Rhade, who was like the show's secret weapon all along.  But maybe the right Rhade would have been better.  Well, can't have everything.  And Rommie!  All three versions!  Four, by the final season! 

And that final, "disastrous" season?  It's basically one long meditation on what a failed civilization looks like, one that definitely needs saving, and Hunt's crew doesn't magically decide to work peacefully together, but has to work at trusting each other.  And they all have their own distinctive arcs.  If this were Babylon 5, starting the series like that and then hammering big moment after big moment would've been completely natural. 

It's also worth considering the Magog.  The Magog were the biggest gamble.  If Wolfe had Star Trek on the brain when he developed Andromeda, the Magog were his Borg.  In Next Generation, the Borg were actually teased as early as the first season, but didn't debut until the second, even though their biggest mark waited until the end of the third.  Wolfe ended Andromeda's first season with the first Magog encounter, and it was terrifying.  He even seemed to anticipate Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films.  And that was only the beginning.  It wasn't until the final episode of the series that the Magog and their World Ship and the Spirit of the Abyss were finally, finally defeated.  (Even Enterprise, at the same time, didn't nail what cosmetically looked fairly similar with its Temporal Cold War and "Future Guy" arc.)  The Borg are hard to compete with, but the Magog make a fair argument.  I think even the Shadows can't compete with their legacy (but I'm not a Babylon 5 guy).

Anyway, I remain a big fan of Andromeda, and yes, I'm rewatching the series at the moment.  I hope to put together a viewing guide, much as I have for every incarnation of Star Trek.  Maybe not exactly as I've done with Star Trek, but enough so that Andromeda can begin to be...appreciated.  Because it really deserves to be.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Star Trek: Discovery - In Control

I was reading a friend's blog recently, and he happened to note that there was a Star Trek book published in 2017 called Section 31 - Control.  Now, anyone who's watched the second season of Star Trek: Discovery will quickly recognize the terms "Section 31" and "Control," especially in connection with each other.  I haven't read Star Trek books in years (I've read Star Trek comics more recently; IDW has done a lot of interesting things with the franchise), so hadn't really caught on to the existence of the book and Discovery's apparent wholesale appropriation of it until pointed out.  (It's worth noting that the creators of the show have links to the books, which I realize is not entirely unique but has seldom resulted in links between screen and book material.)

Readers of the books, assuming they're interested in new screen material (it was my impression that there was a diminished overlay at the very least in previous years), no doubt made the immediate connection.  Readers of Section 31 - Control itself might have had very strong opinions about Discovery's second season, or they might have been perfectly fine with it.  You can find a summary of the book here.  As far as I can tell, without having read the book myself (although I'd now really love to), there seems to be plenty of room for Discovery's arc to have had the book directly in mind, either as an homage or prequel material. 

Discovery has been blazing its own path in franchise lore.  Plenty of fans already thought the Abrams movies set a different, more action-oriented standard (#notmyStarTrek).  I mention in my reviews how when the series tries to be traditionally Star Trek is when it is least effective.  Yet the heart is always there, the yearning for human potential and the inherent belief that the potential is positive, and that's what really matters, that we're capable, a whole crew at a time, of miracles.  There's never been a movie or a TV series in this thing that believed genius was held in a single person, but rather than there was a spectrum of extraordinary abilities working in concert. 

What Section 31 has suggested since it first popped up in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the antithesis of that idea, that genius is to be coveted, protected, exploited.  (You can see examples of Starfleet's fallibility outside of the shadowy organization, for instance, with Admiral Dougherty evaluating Data's fate without affection in Star Trek: Insurrection.)  It's not just a metaphor about the spy world, but everything that can go wrong when you begin to doubt, lose the ideals Gene Roddenberry championed, believed in, at precisely the point in history when they no longer seemed possible. 

Section 31 - Control, the book, is a culmination of Julian Bashir's efforts to defeat Section 31.  The Control in Discovery is the beginning of Section 31 losing its way.  Section 31 at this moment in history could recruit morally questionable figures like Mirror Georgiou, but it could also win the loyalty of fundamentally good people like Ash Tyler.  Tellingly, Control targeted a rank-and-file agent like Leland.  Section 31 was featured in Star Trek: Enterprise as well, a hundred years prior to the events of Discovery, and even then it was looked upon as a heinous concept, and yet it seems to have been pushed however grudgingly into a less covert existence, for a time.  (Of course, in Star Trek Into Darkness, Section 31 seems chiefly interested in warmongering.) 

There's a Georgiou Section 31 series on the horizon.  I find that an increasingly intriguing concept.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Discovery 2x14 "Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham makes her leap into history.

review: This is kind of instantly the high water mark for epic Star Trek TV storytelling in a single episode (though it obviously continues and contains elements from previous episodes).  It's a bombastic sendoff for the Discovery crew in its original timeframe, and a nifty packaging for why we don't hear about any of this in later (earlier) incarnations of the franchise.

Okay, so that last part might be a point of debate for some fans, who will naturally feel dismissive for any number of reasons.  What a cheap way to explain it! they'll say.  But forget them.  This has been a series that has consistently enmeshed itself in familiar lore while carving a separate destiny.  Now it seems it's reached the point where the unknown will truly be embraced, and all we have to do is wait for next season.  This is how season finales are done, folks.  This is one of the best I've ever seen.

So of course there's lots to appreciate.  We get flashes of that brilliance Discovery has so enjoyed celebrating about Starfleet officers.  We get callbacks to all the signals the crew followed throughout the season (and how the whole of it feels so satisfying in summary).  We get Burnham and Spock in a bittersweet farewell.  We get Stamets and Culber finally reconciling.  We get Tilly's queen friend saving the day.  We get Control being defeated.  We get Georgiou being truly heroic.  We get repair droids! 

Just a lot of good stuff.  The episode ends with Pike, Number One, and Spock (shaved! in uniform!) on the bridge of the Enterprise (and the credits featuring the original theme!), nudging us to what Star Trek was when it began, and it feels right.  So often fans have struggled to identify Discovery with the original series, so it seems appropriate that a season that spent so much time with familiar elements concludes on such a note. This might be the kind of experience Enterprise tried to capture in its final episode, with a holodeck simulation aboard Picard's ship of Archer's crew.  Then again, it might be equally controversial.  But then, again, forget the fans who will view the results that way.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A rewarding way to bridge the Enterprise with the Discovery.
  • series - Setting the Discovery definitively along its own destiny.
  • character - Burnham becomes the symbol of what Spock later finds in Kirk & Bones.
  • essential - An affirmation of Discovery's place in the franchise.
notable guest-stars:
Ethan Peck (Spock)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
Tig Notaro (Reno)
Rebecca Romijn (Number One)
Shazad Latif (Tyler)
Wilson Cruz (Culber)
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