Sunday, October 15, 2017

Discovery 1x5 "Choose Your Pain"

rating: ***

the story: Lorca is kidnapped by the Klingons.

what it's all about: This one will probably end up being known for two things: the return of Harry Mudd, and the first explicit same-sex relationship in franchise history.  Okay, three!  The swearing.  Wow, right?

Let's tackle each one, shall we?  Harry Mudd appeared three times over the course of the original and Animated series.  Had the movies (and thus, the return of Khan) never happened, he would continue to have a dominant place in Star Trek lore.  As it is, he was reduced to a brief nod in the Abrams timeline (Star Trek Into Darkness), which might have been the sum total of his further significance, until it was announced he'd appear in Discovery, depicted by The Office's Rainn Wilson, no less.  So what was that going to look like?  Turns out, both the character and actor justified the gambit.  Mudd even gets something of an origin story from the appearance, and arguably becomes a far more significant, and poignant, character, despite being at the same time as arrogant and opportunistic as ever. 

The first explicit same-sex relationship in franchise history, meanwhile, is a follow-up to the brief glimpse of Sulu's love life in Star Trek Beyond, and I do mean glimpse.  But the scene at the end of "Choose Your Pain" between Stamets and Culber leaves no doubt of what we're seeing.  This is akin to the kiss, at least in the franchise, between Kirk and Uhura in "Plato's Stepchildren."  Where that kiss broke broadcast history by featuring a white man and a black woman kiss, the LBGTQ community has for years enjoyed mainstream representation, but its inclusion in Star Trek, long delayed, is a breakthrough of another variety.

And the cursing...!  The decision to air Discovery on CBS All-Access has been met with considerable controversy, but one benefit is a loosening of network (and syndicated) guidelines.  This is the first instance of those loosened restrictions, in a scene where the ice is broken with a knowing wink to the audience, as if the characters are giddy to be so liberated but also shocked that they're getting away with it.  One can easily imagine the salty McCoy joining in...

The episode itself relies less on Burnham than the first four of the series gently pushing her aside to share the focus with Saru (always worth spending time with) and Lorca (whom we learn more about).  We also meet the last series regular, Ash Tyler,  but actor Shazad Latif proves himself, alas, to be by far the weakest member of the cast.  It's not surprising, in some ways.  Latif was originally cast as a Klingon, but allergies to the prosthetics forced the producers to redirect his participation.  In some ways this is the first visible proof of the complicated production history of the series. 

Thematically it's the first episode of the series to step away from strict serialization, although one lingering plot thread is resolved, the life-form that had been utilized by the ship for its alternative propulsion system being released back into the wild, so to speak, a resolution for events depicted in the previous episode ("The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry").  "Pain" also has Klingons in it, with some interesting new things to say, especially where Lorca, Mudd, and Tyler's imprisonment aboard one of their ships is concerned.  It's where the name of the episode comes from...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Mudd's back!  And also, the same-sex relationship.  And swearing!
  • series - The soft break of serialization is evident.
  • character - Lorca, Stamets, Saru, and even Mudd all have strong showings.
  • essential - This is all strong Star Trek material.
notable guest-stars:
Rainn Wilson (Mudd)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Orville 1x6 "Krill"

the story: Mercer and Malloy infiltrate a Krill vessel.

what it's all about: This is the first episode of The Orville I've managed to catch.  Like Galaxy Quest before it, Orville is both an homage to and parody of Star Trek.  It seems to have been created in response to Discovery, which from the beginning was announced to be a dramatic departure from the Star Trek franchise.  Whereas Babylon 5 ushered a floodgate of challengers in a previous generation of new Star Trek programming, Orville is the exact opposite.  Actually, along with Discovery it signals an improbable resurgence of sorts of the kind of programming the Babylon 5 surge eventually ended, somewhat symbolically with the abbreviated run of Firefly some fifteen years ago (Firefly itself could be considered a literal interpretation of Gene Roddenberry's famous "Wagon Train to the stars!" pitch for the original Star Trek).

This particular episode even features the recurring Krill threat, another Orville parallel relevant to Discovery.  The Krill, who sort of look like a cross between Deep Space Nine's Jem'Hadar and Nemesis's Remans, might otherwise be considered Klingon analogs, and of course the Klingons are at the heart of Discovery.

Obviously Orville has deep affection for Star Trek.  It virtually is Star Trek.  It's Star Trek with nitpicking commentary built into it, which is about as meta as you can get with Star Trek fifty years in.  The nitpicking is the only real parody involved; otherwise it's just as if Seth MacFarlane gave himself permission to continue the Star Trek franchise as it has been traditionally known.  The storytelling is more or less exactly the same.  Mercer and Malloy find themselves in a moral dilemma where the Krill have developed a superweapon, and in order to prevent it from being used, they must decide whether to take out the Krill, or let them use it on an unsuspecting colony, basically in order to guarantee their own safety during the risky mission aboard the Krill ship.  They end up killing most of the Krill, saving the children they find aboard, and a Krill woman Mercer has developed a relationship with.  But the woman chillingly tells him that he hasn't saved innocent lives but rather created new enemies. 

This is a twist that probably is only possible in the age of terrorism, in which the laws of cause and effect have been observed more keenly than perhaps ever before, how they take their time to play out, not merely action and reaction, but what happens with the next generation that has witnessed the sins of the past.  Mercer makes the call that has always previously been considered the right one, but he's forced to accept that it maybe isn't as right as it used to be, so to speak.

It's fascinating.  MacFarlane previously did this sort of thing with A Million Ways to Die in the West, which I think also worked extremely well on its several levels, but his fans, and audiences in general, will mostly think of him in terms of Family Guy and Ted.  Which is a shame.  I knew he was capable of something like this from his Family Guy Star Wars specials alone. 

No matter how long Orville lasts (history doesn't favor Fox's patience), it'll be a worthy testament to Star Trek's legacy, and in some ways an expansion of it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Discovery 1x4 "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry"

rating: ***

the story: Burnham solves Lorca's biggest immediate problem in true Star Trek fashion.

what it's all about: I've mentioned before that it's still too early to know just how serialized Discovery is.  It's possible that the whole season will feature one continuing story, so that every episode is linked.  This has become increasingly standard since Star Trek last had a TV series (Enterprise).  For now, I'll continue to treat episodes in their immediate context, and consider "The Butcher's Knife" as a kind of second half of the "second pilot" that was "Context Is for Kings," much as "Battle at the Binary Stars" was a continuation of the first episode, "The Vulcan Hello."

In that sense, we get some clear resolution in this episode, seeing where Burnham settles in among Lorca's crew, and even see her at her unabashed best, which was probably kind of necessary after seeing her Starfleet career literally self-destruct previously.  We see her perform a classic compassionate solution to a vexing problem, another alien life-form needing to be understood (see: "The Devil in the Dark").  If you don't want to see this as merely a continuation of previous episodes, that act itself is as close as Discovery has gotten to Star Trek's episodic roots.

In the process, we get the show's second shocking death of a character who seemed like they would otherwise have been in it for the long haul.  Previously it was Captain Georgiou (a lot of fans are saying it was obvious she was going to die, when they saw Michelle Yeoh listed as a guest-star; it could just as easily have meant Burnham merely being transferred to another ship, which is to say, Burnham's fate at the end of "Binary Stars" itself couldn't have been predicted, either, except in hindsight).  This time it's Landry.  Matter-of-fact Landry in a lot of ways represented the darkest fears of Lorca himself, his apparent rogue captain status.  And yet, once Burnham figures out the truth behind the alien life-form, Lorca isn't there demanding everyone ignore it.  One has the sense that Landry wouldn't have been so malleable.  And yet, she's a compelling element of the episode all the same, and it's a shame to see her go.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A classic Star Trek narrative.
  • series - Burnham finds her place in the new crew.
  • character - Finding redemption in the process.
  • essential - It's a little disappointing that she is so straightforwardly heroic this time.\
notable guest-stars:
Rekha Sharma (Landry)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)

Discovery 1x3 "Context Is for Kings"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham is conscripted by Captain Lorca following her discharge from Starfleet.

what it's all about: For all intents and purposes, "Context is for Kings" is what the pilot of Discovery would be if it were like every other Star Trek series to date.  It sets up the ongoing continuity of the series, whereas the first two episodes explained the backstory.  And it's another winner.

Burnham is now a convict, being transported with other convicts, until fate intercepts her with Lorca and the Discovery.  Lorca seems to be akin to the kind of rogue captain Kirk kept running into in the original series.  Since he isn't the lead character (and unlike every other series in franchise history there is a clear lead character, and it isn't by default), there's no automatic assumption that he's the good guy or right in his decisions, and there's no reboot at the end of the episode where everyone learns from their mistakes, that sort of thing, regardless of whether or not he's another rogue. Our allegiance necessarily falls to Burnham, who tries to understand what a science vessel being run by a war-hungry commanding officer can possibly have for someone like her.  Like Picard thought of Riker in Next Generation, perhaps it's merely her willingness to defy expectations.

At any rate, it's the introductions that carry the episode.  Where Saru made a strong impression in previous episodes, it was really Burnham carrying the bulk of the material.  That changes in "Context."  Lorca certainly makes a huge impact.  So too does science officer Stamets, whose differences in philosophy with Lorca recall Wrath of Khan, where Carol Marcus and her son David were equally aghast of domineering Starfleet methods.  Also noteworthy is Tilly, Burnham's bunkmate who's struggling with anxieties of one kind or another, not the least of which is realizing that Burnham is one and the same mutineer she'd just been babbling about to Burnham herself...!  Plus, there's the awkward reunion between Burnham and Saru.  These are all strong, and strongly-defined, characters, right from the (re)start.  There's also Landry...but more on her next episode.

There's been a number of complaints among fans that Burnham can't really be classified as a mutineer based on how circumstances played out in the first two episodes.  "Mutineer" is the word on everyone's lips around her in "Context."  And it is appropriate.  Her confrontation with Georgiou is off the bridge in "Battle at the Binary Stars," and yet she's the only one, initially, of the two on the bridge when she changes the ship's orders.  The crew complies with her orders with little protest despite the radical departure she's introduced.  In effect, she fakes a mutiny; the crew remains blameless but was also complicit.  Had Georgiou not turned up so quickly, no one would've known differently, but she did, and so the situation devolved into chaos.  Chaos is the result of conflicted motivations, which is to say, there had been a de facto mutiny under Burnham's brief leadership.  The crew believed Burnham's lie, and that's really just about enough.  If this had been a pirate ship, these "conspirators" would be dead. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Meeting the main characters of any series is always pretty important.
  • series - Effectively a pilot episode.
  • character - Aside from the new faces we meet, we also follow Burnham as she finds herself in unexpected new context.
  • essential - This continues to be bold new Star Trek storytelling.
notable guest-stars:
Rekha Sharma (Landry)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Voyager 7x12 "Lineage"

rating: ****

the story: When B'Elanna learns she's pregnant, it causes her to once again anguish over her mixed heritage.

what it's all about: "Lineage" is among the most harrowing character studies in franchise history.  Of course it's a classic.  It's the culmination of B'Elanna Torres's whole arc in the series, beginning with "Faces" in the first season, in which we literally see her Klingon and human sides struggle with each other.  Here, she replays the struggle on behalf of her unborn daughter. 

Star Trek has often tackled big moral problems, and slightly less often put a main character in the position of being wrong.  Clearly B'Elanna is wrong in her desperate attempts to modify her child's DNA, to wipe out the Klingon side entirely.  And she goes to extraordinary measures to try and achieve it, even messing with the Doctor's programming...

We also get rare flashback material in a Star Trek episode, in which the young B'Elanna goes on a camping trip with her human father, and we see firsthand her early struggles.  We'd seen Chakotay's flashback childhood troubles in "Tattoo," so it's a nice callback, too, and even Tuvok's ("Gravity").  Seems if you're Maquis (Tuvok pretended to be, anyway), that's what you get. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A gripping example of Star Trek's moral compass.
  • series - Concludes a main character's arc.
  • character - B'Elanna's.
  • essential - Said character is arguably the true MVP of the series.  So, pretty important.
notable guest-stars:
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)

Voyager 7x11 "Shattered"

rating: ****

the story: Chakotay finds the ship shattered into different time periods.

what it's all about: Sure, "Shattered" is a bit like Next Generation's final episode, "All Good Things...," where Q has Picard hopping between the past, present and future, but it stands uniquely on its own as a clever and fun episode, revisiting various signposts from throughout Voyager's seven seasons.  We do see a future, where Icheb and Naomi have grown up and have become the second generation to run the ship, and we see Seven when she was still a Borg drone, and we see Janeway from just before "Caretaker" (first episode, dude). 

But my favorite part?  One last reprise of Seska.  Seska was the signature arc of the first two seasons, the Cardassian who posed as a Bajoran in order to infiltrate the Maquis, and thus betraying in her defection to the Kazon not only the crew as a whole, but Chakotay, with whom she'd been close.  She technically met her end in the third season premiere, "Basics, Part 2," but returned via a holodeck program she'd booby-trapped in "Worst Case Scenario" at the end that season.

For a second time, she gets another chance to finish the job, and really, it's just confirmation that Seska remains a signature villain of the series, in case anyone had forgotten or simply roped her in with her Kazon allies, whom many fans didn't really care for.

That it's a Chakotay episode is awesome, since he had nothing much to do with "Worst Case," nor "Basics, Part 2," despite being so important to the arc and character previously.  This was a point when he'd receded far into the background, and hadn't been particularly relevant except in his spotlight episodes since...basically the second season.  But Chakotay was king of spotlight episodes.  He could sell any concept, and seemed to get a good share of the truly interesting ones, like this one.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Shades of a classic final episode here.
  • series - Reflects back on the journey without being a clip show, which is itself clever.
  • character - Chakotay, and Seska, are well-served.
  • essential - Seeing Seska again is a great reminder of how important she was to the show.
notable guest-stars:
Martha Hackett (Seska)
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)
Martin Rayner (Chaotica)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Voyager 7x10 "Flesh and Blood, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Holograms fight for the right to exist on their own terms.

what it's all about: In the highly charged atmosphere of 2017, it's difficult to find anything that attempts to unite disparate perspectives, and yet that's Star Trek at its most ideal.  In the original series, Kirk routinely broke the rules to give alien societies a fighting chance against oppression.  Somewhere along the way, that instinct was muted, but Next Generation's "The Measure of a Man" introduced an intriguing new way to express it: via the individual, the android Data.  Voyager's holographic Doctor was a chance to broaden that expression, and "Flesh and Blood" is one of its finest attempts to explore it.

The short-hand of using holograms who look like familiar aliens, notably Bajorans and Cardassians, prominent in Deep Space Nine, calls to mind how in that series the Founders, a race of changelings, eventually created the Dominion as a means of protecting itself from a galaxy that didn't seem to understand them.  The holograms in "Flesh and Blood" are well on their way to such a destiny, but fate intervenes.  The crew of Voyager was inadvertently responsible for this situation when it gave the Hirogen these holograms to hunt.  The Hirogen greatly enhanced these holograms, to the point where things got out of hand, and suddenly these holograms were considering themselves individuals.

With a lot of additional dilemmas on their hands.  Next Generation had, in some ways, used the Borg to further explore its concept of artificial life ("Descent" helped make that clear), which Voyager itself certainly continued.  The idea of individuality proved to be a concept far more difficult to comprehend for the likes of Seven and the Doctor than anyone could have anticipated.  Seven's journey is clear enough, but the Doctor's is complicated by the fact that it was always too easy to remember that in some respects he was made up of subroutines and programming, and that if he had become something other than all that, it was something he'd earned rather than been given.  Or so it was sometimes concluded.  But what if it's a right of all life, biological or artificial?  Other holograms find it very much worth fighting for.

In the end, it's not really about who's right or who's wrong, which is a sign of the maturity of the franchise at this point, and that's as much as any other reason why "Flesh and Blood" is a pivotal moment in Voyager and Star Trek as a whole.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Grapples some big ideas, in fine tradition.
  • series - The final stop before the Doctor reaches his final catharsis in "Author, Author."
  • character - Well, so it's significant for the Doctor.
  • essential - Seems like it's not that important.  But it kind of is.
notable guest-stars:
Vaughn Armstrong
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