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)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Discovery 2x13 "Such Sweet Sorrow"

rating: ****

the story: Deciding on a final course of action to thwart Control.

review: "Such Sweet Sorrow" is an excellent follow-up to "Through the Valley of Shadows," and an even better way to smooth over the rough patch of discovering the identity of the Red Angel while also building on it, and as the second season has been doing so well, emphasizing the strengths of its characters and how they embody the franchise tradition of utilizing brilliant minds in concert.

And blowing up a ship?  Almost!  And saying dramatic goodbyes?  Yep!

My biggest criticism of the season is that it began to overplay the dramatic moments.  Once Saru nearly died, it was hard to top.  What "Such Sweet Sorrow" does so brilliantly is not play things the same way, but rather circle back to the tradition of optimism in the franchise, crews supporting each other, defying fate (lookin' at you, Pike!) and the odds.  Once the solution to the Control problem becomes, once and for all, time travel, Burnham volunteers to carry it out, even though it becomes equally clear that she can expect to be lost in the future as a result.  But just as she decides to walk this course alone, everyone rallies around her, at least to help her reach the point where she'll get to make the jump. 

Two notable exceptions: Pike, of course, who the season has made clear has a specific destiny, and nothing done here is going to change that, and Tyler.  Burnham and Tyler have been on a rollercoaster ride across Discovery's two seasons.  One might expect Tyler, of all people, to finally commit to Burnham.  No doubt we'll learn more of what follows for him, and for them, later (I have to chuckle at my early season efforts at prognostication, believing Tyler and Section 31 to have a limited role in it), whether in the season finale (next episode) or at some point in the future.

This is a series that keeps its cards close to the vest, and yet sometimes it allows a wink or two to escape.  "Such Sweet Sorrow" gives us a literal wink, perhaps, when Georgiou finally tells Pike who she really is, and he winks back to her.  Does that mean we'll see more about that later?

Anyway, the episode also features a lot of great visuals, and even a redemption of the seemingly vapid Tilly Short Trek.  Plenty to enjoy.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Our first look at the Discovery version of the classic Enterprise bridge!
  • series - A dramatic setup to the season finale.
  • character - Burnham's arc reaches a satisfying climax.
  • essential - Where does she goes from here?  I think the question itself is raised eloquently.
notable guest-stars:
Ethan Peck (Spock)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
Rebecca Romijn (Number One)
Tig Notaro (Reno)
Shazad Latif (Tyler)
James Frain (Sarek)
Mia Kirshner (Amanda)
Wilson Cruz (Culber)

Discovery 2x12 "Through the Valley of Shadows"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham has a showdown with another Control avatar.

review: This is a series that's at its best when it needs to be.  There are rough patches at times, but there are in books, too, which any reader ought to be able to acknowledge.  When a long-form TV story is being told, there will be episodes where things that have to happen won't resonate as well as they should, especially if the complexity of the story is sufficient where risks have to be taken.  This season of Discovery has had considerable complexity, and considerable risks have been taken.  Much of the complexity has taken the shape of applying parallel structures to successive arcs.  Much of the storytelling itself has as a result become familiar.  If one version hasn't worked as well as another, there's always a chance to see it again.

The Section 31 threat, as the season has crystalized around, finds a new mode of expression in "Through the Valley of Shadows," in a single episode repeating the Leland arc but with greater focus and clarity, and as a result, execution, with a colleague Burnham knew from the Shinzou (the ship she served aboard at the beginning of the series, with the original Georgiou).

But most significantly, what helps the episode succeed so well is how it allows Discovery's eclectic cast of characters do what they do best, which is work together to solve problems.  For instance, we get to see Reno again, and her relationship with Stamets has now reached the point where she's willing to speak on his behalf to Culber, and that in itself is satisfying for all three characters.  These are characters who rarely mince words.  They take risks at alarming rates, in a very classic franchise tradition, both in their willingness to try and save the whole universe at great personal sacrifice, and they don't mind doing so at the personal level, either.  That was kind of the whole point of the series, looking beyond the Roddenberry template of a unified front, and discovering that it still exists anyway.  The Reno/Stamets/Culber sequence demonstrates that in spades.

Does it get better than that?  Wow it does!  It's Pike's second big moment of the season, and second direct acknowledgement of his ultimate fate.  And to do so, Discovery handles even niftier Star Trek continuity, digging deep to showcase Klingon time crystals (and Tyler's son!).  You'd have to be willing to remember Voyager and its series finale ("Endgame") to grin about that one.  I'm glad Pike has had this chance to shine, and his role in the season has been the most rewarding element of it.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - There's a satisfying deep cut of lore to savor here.
  • series - But it's also satisfying for Discovery fans.
  • character - Pike gets the nod as biggest beneficiary of the episode.
  • essential - But really, everyone wins.
notable guest-stars:
Ethan Peck (Spock)
Tig Notaro (Reno)
Shazad Latif (Tyler)
Wilson Cruz (Culber)
Mia Kirshner (Amanda)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Discovery 2x11 "Perpetual Infinity"

rating: ***

the story: The Red Angel's backstory is explored.

review: If "Red Angel," the preceding episode, was underwhelming despite being hugely significant to the season, the follow-up needed to deliver.  But "Perpetual Infinity" is, if anything, equally maddeningly underwhelming.

Just at production level (I don't often discuss this, as it's assumed, unless I'm commenting on something particularly good, that the execution itself is adequate), the actress playing Burnham's mom is not compelling.  And that's a huge chunk of the impact missing right there. 

The episode, the story itself, is not at Discovery's compelling best, either.  Discovery has hit some pretty high notes, whether in these first two seasons or even the Short Treks in between ("Calypso").  When all cylinders are firing, this is just about as good as it gets in the franchise.  "Perpetual Infinity" is instead undercooked, with too much held back to stretch out the story.  At times like this you yearn for the good old days of this sort of climactic material being saved for those episode season finales/premieres, not for the sake of turning back the clock to episodic storytelling being the norm, but serialized storytelling, when used, being used to maximum effect.

Instead we just get another "Wait, there's more!" but without any big reveals yet to remain, because at this point if there were, they might begin to feel like cheats.  Instead it's just the bad guy getting away for plot convenience.

Which wastes one of those moments that does feel impactful, Tyler's apparent death and his subsequent transmission about what's really happening.  Instead we get more of what Discovery has revealed as one of its crutches from the original series: fight scenes that just sort of exist.  Even if the choreography has improved from fifty years ago, they're still just window dressing, just as they felt in the first season when Burnham was facing the Klingons and it felt like the producers wanted fight scenes without really justifying them.  It's not just having these scenes that's supposed to be impressive, but knowing how do execute them, no matter how technically flawless they are.  They have no heart.

Even if Leland has transformed into the true threat of the season, and even if the fans speculating that the whole point is to provide an origin for the Borg (and the definitive reason they're obsessed with humans, like an updated V'ger after all), the whole thrust of the emergency weakens when the arc refuses to admit there are obvious franchise holes in its logic.  Time travel became an increasingly detailed phenomenon in later incarnations, to the point where Starfleet in later centuries took on the protection of the timeline as part of its duties.  And yet nowhere is this acknowledged.  The logic of the storytelling becomes too finely centered on artificial moments meant to derive emotional impact, if all we're meant to care about is Burnham agonizing over the sudden revelation that her mom was alive all along, and has spent a long time trying to solve one problem, and failing miserably. 

Part of what made Deep Space Nine so compelling is that there were characters who showed up to cover every conceivable vantage point.  Discovery has cobbled together an impressive repertory of familiar faces, but holds too many of these cards close to the chest.  This might produce endless possibilities in shock reveals, and often plenty of wonderful character moments, too, but in the end it's the storytelling, when all's said and done, that has to hold up. 

Bottom line, you have to nail big moments like this, and "Perpetual Infinity" doesn't.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - You truly have to be a fan of Discovery to enjoy these results.
  • series - It's not an insult to say that, but it would be nice to believe anyone could appreciate them.
  • character - This is about as big as Burnham's gotten, and there's a nice moment in which her differences with Spock are finally put aside, too, and that's gratifying.
  • essential - The elements themselves are mandatory viewing, it's just the execution that's lacking.
notable guest-stars:
Ethan Peck (Spock)
Shazad Latif (Tyler)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
Wilson Cruz (Culber)
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