Friday, January 18, 2019

Discovery 2x1 "Brother"

rating: ****

the story: The crew takes on Pike as temporary captain to solve a dangerous riddle in space.

review: There's a ton going on in this second season premiere, but the concise way to explain is thusly: this is a great way kick things off, as well as continue what came before.  It all centers, once again, on Michael Burnham, as we delve once more into her backstory, as the adopted daughter of Sarek and now as foster sister of...Spock.

First of all, let's get this out of the way: "Brother" continues Discovery's penchant for setting up new characters in the series.  Burnham's arrival aboard the Discovery itself was deftly handled in the first season, and there's the same dynamic spirit again here, not only with Pike (in his third live action incarnation, as with Sarek), but the cocky (and amusingly short-lived) Connolly and Reno, whom I hope we see again, all lively personalities that likewise follow in the tradition of the likes of Tilly and Stamets.  If Star Trek used to have the reputation of holding back the personalities of actors playing humans (a criticism leveled against Voyager), Discovery seems determined to prove that as yet another thing it's enthusiastically kicked to the curb.

Visually this is now the standard by which all later generations are going to judge the franchise.  "Brother" is the strongest TV effort yet in that regard, if you consider such things important.  Funny for something that began on a shoestring budget and often looked like it.

But back to Burnham.  The episode leans heavily on things Discovery fans already know, but backtrack so that newer fans might be able to catch up, before plunging ahead with our first glimpses of Spock in the series, at this point as a boy the young Burnham first met.  She's been a character to reckon with since she first appeared, and is easily the essential element of the series.  That is to say, she has earned her right to stand alongside not only Sarek but Spock as well, regardless of whether or not the actor playing him is Leonard Nimoy (the late and much-lamented).  The episode is very careful about how it approaches Spock, even as it shows us, incredibly new things us about even him, his relationship with Sarek, and even more of what made his early life such a struggle to reconcile his human and Vulcan halves.

If that isn't enough, "Brother" also throws in two classic Star Trek storytelling beats: a lost Starfleet ship being rediscovered unexpectedly, and a baffling enigma in space.  Any or all of this ought to be intriguing to longtime fans, and seeing it afresh will hopefully help hook new ones.

Humor was obviously also injected somewhat deliberately, mostly in the character of Saru, something that would've greatly benefited his Short Treks entry, which saw none of this kind of inspired storytelling.  The brief reference to it in the episode is basically all you really need to know, until we inevitably see his sister again.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A lot of stuff fans will appreciate.
  • series - Beginning a fresh chapter doesn't mean the previous one is forgotten.
  • character - All the returning main characters have at least a moment or two in which to shine, and several new ones are introduced brilliantly.
  • essential - This is Discovery doing what it does best.
notable guest-stars:
James Frain (Sarek)
Mia Kirshner (Amanda)
Ethan Peck (Spock)

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Discovery - Short Treks 1x4 "The Escape Artist"

rating: ****

the story: Mudd has been captured...again.

review: Wow, so I begin to suspect there was no production overview on these Short Treks.  Two of them were attempts at profound statements, idea-wise or character-wise, and they more or less failed, and two of them were simply creative statements, and they were huge successes.  The latter I consider "Calypso" and now "The Escape Artist."  "Calypso" featured a totally new character while "Escape Artist" marks Harry Mudd's third Discovery appearance, and his best to date.

After a debut marred by an undercooked debut for Tyler in "Choose Your Pain" and a perhaps overly clever follow-up in "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad," Mudd at last stands front and center, and is all the more charming for it.  It's not Rainn Wilson who was ever the problem.  On the contrary, he proved an inspired choice (the most inspired casting choice of Discovery to date) to play this incarnation of Mudd.  Presentation of the character has also been remarkably consistent, more than enough to sell the, ah, virtues of a character who had become entangled in memories of the original (and animated) series but perhaps doomed to never escape it. 

There are even echoes of other Star Trek adventures here.  One can see Enterprise's "Bounty" in there; the two stories even share Tellarites in common, and I doubt that's coincidence.  But the difference is that Mudd isn't Captain Archer, and isn't even Starfleet.  What "Escape Artist" and "Calypso" do best, in fact, is prove that Star Trek doesn't need Starfleet to tell a worthwhile story, which is something the franchise hasn't really tried before.  As Mudd has reiterated a few times at this point, existing alongside the Federation but standing outside of it gives him ample opportunity to reflect on its existence (another thing the Abrams films, particularly Star Trek Beyond, have also touched on to considerable value).

"Escape Artist" takes full advantage of the Short Treks format, even using unusual editing for a Star Trek, which other entries would've greatly benefited from (particularly "Brightest Star"), and unlike the other three realizes that this was an opportunity to revisit something we had seen but could might see in even better light with added spotlight.  And it's something you could show anyone and they would more likely than not get a kick out of.  And that's as high praise as you can get for mass audiences.  For fans, it's a fun indulgence in a lot of familiar material, grounded by letting a fun character be at his most engaging.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - General fans will dig it.
  • series - Committed fans will dig it.
  • character - Arguably the best Mudd spotlight to date.
  • essential - A great way to showcase Star Trek.
notable guest-stars:
Rainn Wilson (Harry Mudd)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Discovery - Short Treks 1x3 "The Brightest Star"

rating: **

the story: How Saru ends up joining Starfleet.

review: Well, "Calypso" officially seems like an outlier.  This is the second of three Short Treks to produce underwhelming results.  High hopes for the fourth, though, as it features Mudd, who has become one of my favorite Discovery elements.  "Brightest Star" wastes all its time, basically, fifteen long minutes.  Take the opportunity, people!  Be bold!

We see Kelpian society, at least Saru's experience of it, probably for the first and last time, including Saru's father and sister, and a wisp of the competing species they live amongst.  Maybe this is all revisited, but Kelpians are pre-warp, and only Saru is apparently clever enough to not only question why things run the way they do, but also to use technology on an instinctive level...This is all stuff that could be better explained if it's to be accepted easily at all, by pulling back the lens much more, make it less simplistic.  I realize that Star Trek's bread and butter has often been this kind of storytelling, but usually for aliens of the week, not main characters and their origins.  One of the franchise' strongest legacies is background material.  Even going back to the very beginning, Kirk and Spock had solid experiences sketched out at a time when it's wasn't particularly necessary.  Saru has been presented as one of Discovery's lead characters from the start.  There's no excuse to leave him with so little to go by, especially once you actually show it. 

I don't know.  I don't mean to be grumpy.  I hate grumpy Star Trek fans.  But these Short Treks haven't been showing Discovery at its finest (aside from "Calypso" which is the franchise at its finest), and that's somewhat inexplicable to me. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Having Georgiou explain what a huge exception she's making for Saru doesn't really fill the credibility gap in the whole concept.
  • series - This is not Discovery at its finest by any measure.
  • character - Still, you gotta give points for trying harder with Saru than they did with Tilly.
  • essential - If this is the best they ever get with the guy, it is nice they tried, because we don't often get to actually see this kind of material.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Discovery - Short Treks 1x2 "Calypso"

rating: ****

the story: A thousand years in the future, Discovery's AI makes a startling new friend.

review: The first Short Treks was ultimately a disappointment, a crude narrative that suggested the whole concept was a mistake.  "Calypso" is the complete opposite.  It's also basically the same exact story, and that's how you can tell that it's the strength of the storytelling that's always key.  You can probably pin the victory on Michael Chabon, the celebrated novelist who helped come up with the idea and wrote the teleplay. 

Like "Runaway," "Calypso" features a single character visiting Discovery and interacting with a single character, and both visitors ultimately leave, and there's personal discoveries (ah) learned along the way.  But where "Runaway" feels forced, "Calypso" is a rich and rewarding experience.  It maybe doesn't hurt if you're an Odyssey nerd like I am, and realize that the title and arc of "Calypso" are drawn from Homer's ancient epic poem about Odysseus's ten-year journey homeward after the Trojan War.

That's actually a lot of what I love about the story, what it says about The Odyssey itself.  Calypso the Homeric character might be said to be a villain, who sidelines Odysseus for an extended period, keeping him from his mission, but as a commentary, "Calypso" helps explain how the experience might have been beneficial to him, therapeutic.  Too often, especially in our present age, we reduce everything to the most negative, simplistic interpretations possible. 

"Calypso," on a more superficial level, also revels in Star Trek's frequent indulgences in old Hollywood footage, in this instance Betty Boop and the Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face (1957).  Footage like that will always be cost-effective, but "Calypso" particularly uses it effectively, involving it directly in the plot.

No familiar faces appear, but the storytelling is strong enough where you become drawn into it anyway, and the concept of Short Treks suddenly awakens, as "Runaway" didn't manage to accomplish, a whole new world of possibilities in a more than fifty-year-old franchise. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - There's something that just feels right about an old Starfleet ship still doing good for the universe well after its crew has departed. 
  • series - If that ship isn't named Enterprise, then a story like this almost does more to solidify Discovery's bid for an enduring legacy than anything in the first season.
  • character - Easily draws you in with previously unknown characters.
  • essential - This is Star Trek in a nutshell: evocative storytelling on every level.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Discovery - Short Treks 1x1 "Runaway"

rating: **

the story: Tilly encounters a stowaway.

what it's all about: This is Discovery doing what every other incarnation of Star Trek did on a regular basis.  Somewhat appropriately, as with the lone episode from the first season that attempted the same thing ("Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum"), it's a relatively clumsy affair.  The best that can be said about it is that it puts the spotlight squarely on Tilly, which strangely never really happened in the first season. 

As with "Para Bellum," the writers seem positively ill-equipped to handle this kind of storytelling.  Their attempts at shorthand in a short episode (roughly fifteen minutes, but this is called Short Treks) are painfully rough, and come off more as the work of an amateur playwright than professional screenwriter, the same na├»ve conclusion (experience literally makes Tilly feel better about herself) common to such efforts.  What Discovery does far better is breakneck speed storytelling, or letting Michael Burnham ruminate (or torture herself, which was why Ash Tyler was such a good match for her) on problems.  That's the complete opposite of what "Runaway" attempts to accomplish. 

But again, spending time with Tilly also helps us get to know her better.  Knowing at all that she struggles against an overbearing mother (imagine the young Troi!) adds welcome depth.  The story also builds on the Mirror Universe experience, where Tilly was a command-track type (to say the least).  Having her struggle along that path puts her in the same footsteps as the Doctor, say, or yes, Troi, and that's a nice bit of resonance.

But I really hope further Short Treks are less clumsy.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Familiar material for Star Trek fans.
  • series - Unlike the whole first season (practically), there's nothing of particular significance going on here.
  • character - Except some welcome character work for Tilly.
  • essential - Nope.  Not at all, if for no other reason than it doesn't showcase Discovery's storytelling strengths very well.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Star Trek Discovery Season 2 Trailer


Here's what the second season of Discovery, and our third version of Christopher Pike, is going to look like!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Star Trek at the box office

I've always been interested in box office results.  Recently I've begun taking a closer look at different sets of figures: the international box office and the adjusted-for-inflation box office, which is something I previously didn't care too much about but now view as a window into comparative popularity.  This is going to be a look at how Star Trek movies look from these vantage points.  All figures come from Box Office Mojo, retrieved on 6/5/18.  (B = billion, M = million)

The first list is the US box office report:

1. Star Trek (2009) $257M
The first of the Abrams reboot series; this will be the most successful movie in two of the three lists.

2. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) $228M
The second in the Abrams reboot series will take the top slot in one of the two remaining lists.

3. Star Trek Beyond (2016) $158M
This will be the third Abrams reboot series entry's best showing.

4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) $109M
The obvious favorite among general audiences, it's never been as popular among fans.  We might see why in another list.

5. Star Trek: First Contact (1996) $92M
The second Picard flick and by far the most successful.

6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) $82M
This total is going to have long legs.  You'll see why its exposure caused problems.

7. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) $78M
Its inordinate popularity with fans always seems to indicate it was more successful than the first one.  It wasn't.

8. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) $76M
Yet fans are never as excited about its sequel, even though it was about as successful.

9. Star Trek Generations (1994) $75M
This meeting of Kirk and Picard was a huge disappointment in a lot of ways.

10. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) $74M
The final full cast appearance of the original Kirk crew made up a lot of ground from its predecessor, but not quite enough.

11. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) $70M
Surprisingly, despite its reputation the third Picard entry was about par for the course.

12. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) $52M
The first real flop of the franchise.

13. Star Trek Nemesis (2002) $43M
The second and far more disastrous was also Picard's fourth and last appearance.

Okay! 

Now onto adjusted for inflation, in which we see some interesting things develop:

1. Star Trek (2009) $316M
Still the most popular!  This is officially Star Trek as a whole at its most popular.

2. The Motion Picture (1979) $300M
Here's the biggest surprise!  Maybe it shouldn't be, being the oldest entry in the series, and therefore the greatest beneficiary of inflation.  But here we see that the first and subsequently much-maligned movie in the franchise was also its most successful for years.  Thirty years, to be exact!

3. The Voyage Home (1986) $264M
And here we see just how popular this one really was!

4. Into Darkness (2013) $250M
And here's where we see where all the fan outrage about Khan's second movie appearance comes from; it officially made more money, and thus had more exposure.

5. The Wrath of Khan (1982) $245M
Just a little more, but that's a little too much competition for some.

6. The Search for Spock (1984) $208M
When you look at the unadjusted box office, it looks like the follow-up follows more closely than in the adjusted box office. 

7. First Contact (1996) $189M
In the unadjusted box office this looks like a much more impressive hit.

8. Beyond (2016) $170M
You can see how far this one fell in comparison.  That's why it was so little talked about compared to its two predecessors.

9. Generations (1994) $165M
But it still did better than this one.

10. The Undiscovered Country (1991) $163M
Fans were so relieved to like a Star Trek movie again, they didn't really give this one its due.

11. Insurrection (1998) $134M
It doesn't look like par for the course in the adjusted box office.

12. The Final Frontier (1989) $120M
Although Final Frontier doesn't look as bad in comparison from this vantage point.

13. Nemesis (2002) $67M
Hard to make this one look good.


Okay!

Box Office Mojo doesn't have a full chart for international results (totals in parentheses include unadjusted results).  Here's what's available:

1. Into Darkness (2013) $238M ($467M total)
Here's where Wrath of Khan fans really have kittens.  It's technically the most successful Khan movie.

2. Beyond (2016) $184M ($343M total)
Surprisingly, this ranks above the first Abrams on this list.

3. Star Trek (2009) $128M ($385M total)
Still near the top, naturally.

4. First Contact (1996) $54M ($146M total)
Unsurprisingly charting high here.

5. Generations (1994) $42M ($118M total)
Here's where Generations most looks like a winner.

6. Insurrection (1998) $42M ($112M total)
And here's where you can see Picard made Star Trek more popular internationally than Kirk.

7. Nemesis (2002) $24M ($67M)
Even the least successful one was more successful than the most successful original Kirk film on the list.

8. The Undiscovered Country (1991) $22M ($96M total)
Which was the last one.  So internationally, Generations really was, comparatively, a huge hit, and original Kirk's biggest exposure, at least as far as Box Office Mojo knows.

And now you know!
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