Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Discovery 2x9 "Project Daedalus"

rating: **

the story: In which we learn more about Airiam...that robotic character...right before we say goodbye.

review: "Project Daedalus" reverts back to Discovery's penchant for viewing traditional Star Trek through a warped lens.  The ostensible central element of the episode, the character and destiny of Airium, never fully claims the spotlight, instead serving as an echo for things the season has already done, and better.

Airiam herself is fascinating.  She's one of several background characters in the tradition of the original series, which if you look closely featured characters like this, and the diehards...care?  But in the grand scheme, their repeated presence doesn't really amount to much.  (There were characters like this in other series as well; Voyager in particular.  What separates Discovery's use is mostly the endless emphasis on them.)  Let's call it the Detmer Effect.  Detmer is a character who, like Burnham and Saru, hails from the Shinzou, the original Georgiou's ship at the beginning of the series.  She mostly serves as a point of continuity, and the lingering repair job that left an implant on her face, a funky hairstyle, and a replacement eye.  You'd know her if you saw her.  You might even know her name.  But she really doesn't amount to anything except her image.  Discovery has made no effort except continually showing her to make Detmer anything actually important.  Even Mayweather, a main character in Enterprise who was featured much in this manner for most of his appearances, had a ton more to do in sporadic spotlight material.  Airiam, even in finally getting her story told, is not a Mayweather.  Even her spotlight episode is full of things other people are doing.

But at least one of these background characters gets a story.  We learn that Airiam isn't a robot or an android, but a person who survived a horrific crash, that among other things claimed the love of her life.  But the story doesn't even allow her to dwell on that, the most significant parallel of her story (see: Spock, Culber, even Tyler).  Instead she becomes another pawn in the Section 31 power struggle.

So anyway, what's most worth remembering about the episode is once again Spock and Burnham, still trying to sort out their relationship, this time over a game of 3D chess.  Spock proves cruel in his efforts to force Burnham to face her past.  This is a Spock who is feeling less of his typical Vulcan restraint than we're accustomed to, who is a lot more like the Spock famously known as "frenemies" with Bones McCoy.  Except this Spock is interacting with someone he knows a lot better than Bones, someone he literally grew up with, who knows as much about him as he does them.  As much as Burnham is trying to use her knowledge of Spock, Spock is protecting himself, as he has been all season, as best he can.  Burnham just happens to represent everything he thought he'd mastered already, but still challenges him.  This is Motion Picture territory, when even Kirk couldn't get through to a Spock who again had tried to perfect himself, but found a giant obstacle in his way.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - This is the sort of episode that might prove uncomfortable for established fans, who will naturally seek a more comforting, familiar vision of Spock.
  • series - And yet it's a Spock who fits in perfectly in the Discovery model.
  • character - And as such, that chess sequence is the highlight of the episode.
  • essential - It also completely overpowers the Airiam elements, which undercuts the whole episode.
notable guest-stars:
Ethan Peck (Spock)

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Discovery 2x8 "If Memory Serves"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham and Spock go to Talos IV.

review: "If Memory Serves" opens with clips from the original Star Trek pilot, "The Cage" (later refashioned into the two-part "Menagerie").  The episode establishes that these events happened in Discovery's past, and so it ends up serving as a sequel (I suppose the second one).  Burnham brings Spock there thanks to the Red Angel mystery, and because she hopes the Talosians will help awaken Spock from his fractured state of mind.

Long story short, this is the episode where Spock finally gets to be Spock again.

Not only that, but Burnham and Spock, as adopted siblings, have a dramatic memory of their childhood revisited, and I'm stating now that it's one of the great scenes of franchise history, a must-see for fans of either character, and hopefully as of now, both.  They are now inextricably intertwined.  (The only thing that could make all this better?  Bring in Sybok.  But what're the chances of that happening?)  You know how the Abrams movies put a hard focus on Spock's difficult formative years, how he struggled to reconcile his human and Vulcan sides, and how his Vulcan peers made things worse?  That's the level of material we get here.  Burnham's younger self attempts to distance herself from Spock in the most logical way possible.  In a lot of ways, the results are what define Spock for years to come, his obsessive devotion to his Vulcan side over his human half that resonated so strongly in all the classic material. 

But that's not all!  There's more Section 31 drama, not just the emerging power struggle between Georgiou and Leland, but Tyler still trying to be taken seriously by Pike.

But that's the least of Tyler's worries!  He also has a big confrontation with Culber, who's having a difficult time adjusting to his return from the dead, finally even pushing Stamets away.  It's by far the best material Culber has ever gotten (a different era would've given him a whole episode to himself, and maybe that still happens later in the season?), given something other than his romantic relationship with Stamets to distinguish himself. 

It's a strong character episode all around, because of course even Pike gets in on the action, with a complicated reunion with Vina (we know that by the end of "Menagerie" they'll get a more satisfying one).  It was absolutely the right call to do this, if they were going to use Pike at all.  This might be the essential episode of the season, and an overall series highlight.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Talos IV's legacy continues to expand, and of course Spock.
  • series - Spock becomes thoroughly a part of Discovery mythos.
  • character - There's strong work in this regard everywhere!
  • essential - Absolutely!
notable guest-stars:
Ethan Peck (Spock)
Wilson Cruz (Culber)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
Shazad Latif (Tyler)

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Discovery 2x7 "Light and Shadows"

rating: ***

the story: Burnham finally finds Spock.

review: "Light and Shadows" feels like an episode that will be interesting to return to.  It might be something truly special.  For the moment, I will treat it as a transitional episode, though this alone makes it exceptional in the annals of the franchise.

The story of "Light and Shadows" doesn't attempt in itself to accomplish much.  This might sound as if it's perhaps ultimately a waste of time that you don't really need to see, but that would be an overly reductive conclusion.  Star Trek has traditionally been episodic, which this season has attempted to replicate, even as the series continues its dedication to the new serialization dynamic favored by TV shows today.  Yet it's rare for episodes even in this time just to spend time with the characters without trying to accomplish something big, which is of course much of what Discovery has become known for, big reveals at nearly every turn.  This makes "Light and Shadows" a rarity, a curiosity, and just perhaps, a hidden treasure in the making.

The thought of how the episode feels might best be demonstrated by the elaborate visual sequence of Burnham landing her shuttle on Vulcan as she prepares to visit Sarek and Amanda.  It's one of the more striking images of Vulcan we've seen over the course of its sporadic appearances throughout the franchise, comparable best to the revised scenes from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, director's cut.

The other distinctive element of the episode is how it treats time anomalies, again visually rather than strictly storytelling. This is well-trod Star Trek territory, and yet we've seldom seen it done this way. 

Add in some of the more developed insights of Section 31 in this series, including all three representatives (Tyler, Georgiou, and Leland), and there's a lot more to unpack here than it might seem.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The search for Spock concludes!  And this is once again time to talk about time.
  • series - A moment that has been developing all season.
  • character - This is indeed Spock as we've never seen him before.
  • essential - Perhaps a topic to be revisited later for a remarkably subtle episode.
notable guest-stars:
Ethan Peck (Spock)
Shazad Latif (Tyler)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
Mia Kirshner (Amanda)
James Frain (Sarek)

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Discovery 2x6 "The Sound of Thunder"

rating: ***

the story: Saru fights for his people.

review: Much of what "The Sound of Thunder" accomplishes might ultimately hinge on what Discovery does to follow it up.  On the one hand, it's a powerful example of the kind of hope for the future that Star Trek has always been about.  And on the other, it might end up serving as a cautionary tale.

"The Sound of Thunder" is a kind of sequel to the Short Treks minisode "The Brightest Star," which was the first time the series visited Saru's home world and the circumstances in which he left it behind.  Now we see Saru, having made a personal discovery a few episodes ago, coming back not only to redeem himself, but help his entire species move on.  The question remains, move on to what?  Saru was originally depicted as an alien whose fear response was the result of his species being prey.  Recently he learned that given the natural course of events the predators on his world had been preventing, he could actually move on from that.  As we learn in "Thunder" (much as Voyager depicted with the Kazon in its second season), quite the reverse ends up being true.  Saru's people, the Kelpians, were originally the predators, and the present state of affairs (as of "Thunder," concluded) was actually engineered to prevent them from continuing that role.  (It's almost like an analogy for post-war occupations, as in Germany after WWII or Iraq today, though so thoroughly fictionalized as to not depict clear parallels.)

So the thought remains, will the Kelpians become predators again?  On the one hand, Saru is optimistic, and of course he is.  But on the other, he himself is depicted as more aggressive, less reasonable.  It might even be noted that Saru was always aggressive in his instincts when provoked, even when driven by fear.  Now, imagine a whole species, all of whom apart from Saru himself never moved on from their simple, isolated life on Kaminar, and you would expect that...the results will probably be complicated. 

That lingering doubt has to be the response to an episode like this.  The episode itself is artful and gives some lovely insights to other matters (the whole season arc actually begins to look like Enterprise's much-discussed Temporal Cold War from a different vantage point).  But the risk of serialized storytelling is that in avoiding conclusions in any given installment, it becomes difficult to properly value some installments based on their own merits.  You end with ambiguity, you get an ambiguous result.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - That idea of hope that's always been at the heart of Star Trek...is it really there this time?
  • series - Discovery, as ever, boldly plunges ahead.
  • character - Saru has definitely taken up the mandate.
  • essential - This is one of those episodes that could impact the overall legacy of the series.
notable guest-stars:
Shazad Latif (Tyler)
Wilson Cruz (Culber)

Saturday, February 16, 2019

He Was a Particularly Troubled Romulan: Star Trek Post-9/11

"He was a particularly troubled Romulan."

That's what Spock says of Nero in Star Trek (2009).  The line always stuck out for me, but I never quite understood why until recently.  Spock, of course, is Vulcan, and Nero is Romulan, an offshoot of the Vulcans.  Further characterizing the Romulans was always a little difficult.  In the original TV series, they were presented as another Cold War analogy, like the Klingons, who had fought the Federation in the past but had retreated into reclusiveness.  In fact, the fact that Romulans descended from Vulcans wasn't even generally known until they emerged again, and they went back into isolation until The Next Generation, where they became a recurring threat, until the events of Star Trek Nemesis, in which a clone of Picard named Shinzon attempted another full-scale war against the Federation, but ended up suffering the loss of their home planet in the backstory of Star Trek

Characterizing Nero as "particularly troubled" is a telling detail.  Nero's response to the destruction of Romulus is to blame Spock, the older one still alive in Picard's day, and all of the Federation, and to once again declare open war.  He sets about a plan to what is in his mind equitable retaliatory action, affecting the destruction of the Vulcan home world and then the rest of the leading Federation worlds, starting with Earth.

And it made me wonder what exactly Nero represented.  Longtime fans tend to look down on the new films, claiming they lack the spirit of the franchise by putting too much focus on flashy special effects.  But that's simply not the case.

Since 9/11, Star Trek has had terrorism on the brain.  Star Trek: Enterprise famously launched within weeks of 9/11.  By the end of its second season, Enterprise launched a major story arc in direct response, an act of terrorism against Earth that led to a preventive mission against the aliens responsible. 

As you read above, the franchise was responsive to its times from the very beginning.  The Klingons and the Romulans were both reflective of the Soviet Union, an idea that culminated in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country with its breakup.  The Next Generation continued the tradition; the Troubles in Ireland were often reflected in its storytelling.  Deep Space Nine echoed the collapse of the imperial age with the end of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, reflecting back to the days of WWII but often evoking present times, if not the Troubles then the ongoing conflict in Israel.

Which brings us back to Star Trek.  What if Nero was a Palestinian analogy?  Or Islamic terrorists such as those who struck on 9/11?  I find it likely.  And then Star Trek Into Darkness doubled down on the idea. 
You'll recall the above promotional poster, meant to evoke Khan's early terrorism in the movie.  Khan himself might as well have depicted the perception that America's response to 9/11 ended up being excessive or misguided, to put it mildly.
Things worth considering.

Discovery 2x5 "Saints of Imperfection"

rating: ***

the story: The mycelial network is finally cleansed.

review: Hey!  I just wrote "mycelial" in a Discovery review for the first time.  The mycelial network in question is responsible for the spore drive that allowed the ship to make miraculous jumps throughout the first season, and gave Stamets a dramatic arc during it, and Tilly hers in the current, second season.  "Saints of Imperfection" effectively closes a story begun with the introduction of the ship itself.

The show's approach to the network has been comparable to the Prophets in Deep Space Nine or the Caretaker in Voyager; whether it goes in the latter direction or the former remains to be seen.  Voyager retired its original driving force in its second season, while DS9 kept its for all seven seasons. 

"Saints" turns expectations on their head, shifting the focus from Tilly back to Stamets by rediscovering his romantic partner Culber within the network.  The episode features a handful of reunions, between Burnham and Georgiou, Burnham and Tyler, and even Pike and Section 31 agent Leland.  Obviously all of this is leading up to the inevitable reunion of Burnham and Spock later in the season. 

It's a more satisfying climax within a season than the first season's unceremonious dumping of Lorca (I still hope that, too, can be revisited), and some of the most dramatic storytelling of the series to date, a nice response to the previous episode, "An Obol for Charon," in a completely different fashion.  For a series that has been attempting to tell big dramatic moments as frequently as possible, it's a considerable achievement to still be doing it so well, and arguably better than ever.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Section 31 has become a matter of fact in Star Trek at this point, and this is a moment to really let that sink in.
  • series - Resolving a longstanding arc.
  • character - Tilly and Stamets are squarely in the spotlight.
  • essential - It's an episode that can't be missed.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
Shazad Latif (Tyler)
Wilson Cruz (Culber)

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Discovery 2x4 "An Obol for Charon"

rating: ****

the story: A mystery sphere cripples the ship.

review: Well, this just might be the best episode of Discovery to date.  That's how good "An Obol for Charon" (a title that refers to Greek mythology, Charon being the ferryman bringing new souls to Hades) is.  No exaggeration.

It's the most confident Discovery has ever been.  It's the most Discovery that Discovery has ever been.  The characters assert themselves (which is saying something, as Discovery features perhaps already the most assertive characters in franchise history) to their fullest in a classic crisis episode (most comparable to Deep Space Nine's similarly masterful "Civil Defense") that also features at its core an equally classic "mystery space object," which itself seems to be a metaphor about the big mystery of the season itself, something Enterprise attempted in its third season Xindi arc multiple times.

But really, at times it's just plain masterful, just plain fun.  The early scenes concerning the Universal Translator not always performing adequately, to the Translator being sabotaged by the mystery space object and everyone speaking in foreign languages (it's an episode that builds and builds until it reaches a true crescendo), those are just the icing that somehow must compete with Saru's dramatic arc, which itself leads Burnham to realize she has to keep fighting for her brother (y'know, Spock)...

Some of the things that come up in "Obol" will undoubtedly be much debated in years to come, and I'm sure it'll make it hard for fans to fully embrace the episode.  At one point assisted suicide seems to be considered a viable option (Next Generation had a whole episode, "Ethics," in which Riker was disgusted at the very thought).  But this kind of bold storytelling is exactly what Star Trek ought to be, and what it invariably is at its best.  Whether or not you agree with the ideas is beside the point, but the very fact that it brings them up, that's always been at the heart of the franchise.

Toss in comparably small fish like the first appearance of Discovery's version of Number One (a classic one-off character who appears in the first Star Trek pilot, "The Cage," and its repackaging in "The Menagerie") and wonderful appearances from supporting characters, and yeah, more of Tilly's predicament, which like the Spock arc continues to develop, but this time in a most compelling fashion, and the whole thing is a sheer delight.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Echoes of familiar storytelling that's frequently at the heart of Star Trek.
  • series - Yet strongly resonant within Discovery itself.
  • character - While Discovery is often at its best introducing characters, this is an instant of fully embracing their potential.
  • essential - Discovery in bloom.
notable guest-stars:
Rebecca Romijn (Number One)
Tig Notaro (Reno)
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