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

Star Trek: Discovery 2x13 "Such Sweet Sorrow" (review)

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)

Star Trek: Discovery 2x12 "Through the Valley of Shadows" (review)

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

Star Trek: 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)

Star Trek: Discovery 2x10 "The Red Angel"

rating: ***

the story: At last, the identity of the Red Angel is revealed!

review: So, obviously a big moment for the season, and as we learn by the end, and as explained in the next episode, a big moment for the series in general.  But it somehow manages to underwhelm.  So let's explain:

This kind of storytelling, where big moments have to happen throughout an entire season, can begin to overwhelm, especially if many of those moments are set up as parallel to each other, or in literary parlance, foreshadowing.  Whether you're thinking of Tilly's arc from the first half of the season or Saru's in the middle, or the hunt for Spock that accompanied both, all of its fed on the same basic arc of big revelations and momentous character developments, and they all led to this big reveal.  "Red Angel" has a red herring, in that for the duration of the episode we're led to believe that the eponymous individual is Burnham herself, some future version on an epic quest.

But that final line, and a sparing glimpse, reveals otherwise.  But more on that next episode.

Instead, my thoughts on "Red Angel" itself rests on the crew's plan to in effect stage Burnham's murder, which ought to feel like one of the worst possible experiences any of them could possibly endure.  But we already had that with Saru, and that was a moment that could never really be topped.  So instead of setting this moment up, the show instead sabotaged it.  The results feel convoluted instead, thoroughly acceptable in its storytelling logic, but...less than they should have been. 

Last season had this sort of experience, too: even if basically everything we knew about Lorca confirmed what he was all along, it was still disappointing for viewers who nonetheless had grown fond of him to see Lorca unceremoniously dispatched well before that season concluded.  Gene Roddenberry had realized that effect when he coined the term "beloved character status" for Saavik when Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was in development.  Saavik, who had been featured prominently in Star Trek II and III (Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock), was intended to be among the conspirators in VI, but Roddenberry vetoed the idea, on the grounds that this was a character who had firmly established herself as one of the good guys.  No manner of plot necessity would've truly justified betraying that status, and would've tarnished her rather than make for compelling material.

That's essentially what Discovery seems incapable of preventing itself from doing in these season-long arcs.  It never seems to know when it's pushed too far.  In the rush to keep viewers engaged, it forgets that at the end of the day, the whole thing will be taken into account.  Some fans will complain that Spock himself has been poorly handled in all of this, but his material has been the strongest, and it's obvious that the writers were most concerned about his role in the arc, and kept it most protected. 

If only they had been so careful with the rest of it.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The constant pitfall of serialized storytelling in established frameworks like Star Trek is that they run the risk of becoming too insular in their logic, which is where "Red Angel" seems to leave this arc.
  • series - The overall importance to Discovery itself can't, however, be denied.
  • character - The focus once more swings to Burnham.
  • essential - Even if the execution is suspect, the content speaks for itself.
notable guest-stars:
Ethan Peck (Spock)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
Wilson Cruz (Culber)
Shazad Latif (Tyler)

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)
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