Saturday, August 8, 2020

Star Trek: Lower Decks 1x1 “Second Contact” Review

the story: Crew is assigned for follow-up contact with new species.

rating: *** (out of ****)

review: The unspoken truth about Star Trek fandom is that it can often (okay, nearly always) be ruthlessly protective. Often this manifests itself as preferring older material (and of course rejecting newer, which has been a thing since at least the start of Next Generation). So when Lower Decks was announced and subsequently revealed as an “adult animated series,” it faced the immediate and obligatory fate of instant, summary rejection. But, well, lighten up!

I think it can actually be seen as a response to Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which is roundly regarded as a comedic Next Generation. In Lower Decks our perspective is a crew of a Starfleet ship tasked with less glamorous assignments but just as prone as any ship or crew we’ve followed before in getting into a heap of trouble very quickly and easily. Like The Animated Series before it, this translates first and foremost to a more visually dynamic presentation.

Our main guides are Mariner and Boimler, two junior officers who lead the support team on a support starship. “Second Contact” is really about them coming to terms with the nature of their relationship, which at this point is not romantic but merely working together. Mariner has seen more, and been to more planets (Boimler counts Vulcan and...Earth among the whole five he has thus far visited, which for those keeping score at home is like counting places you’ve lived rather than outright visited), and so her perspective is kind of like Kirk’s while Boimler’s is sort of fresh-out-of-the-Academy, Harry Kim style. Until he learns how valuable her perspective really is.

But for me it’s actually more interesting how we glimpse Mariner’s backstory. Her mom is ship’s captain, her dad an admiral. It really is like a Voyager throwback with Mariner and Boimler; just imagine what it would’ve been like for Tom Paris to work closely with his dad! 

Of the command crew we spend the most time with first officer Jack Ransom. Suffice to say but usually it’s the admirals who come off looking this bad, though here it’s all in good fun!

I don’t know if the whole series is going to follow this template, if we’ll get healthy servings of character work with all the comedy, but I would certainly prefer it that way. Some fans forget that Star Trek at its core spends most of its time confronting wacky scenarios. At least this time the approach is wacky, too. This is not at all a bad thing.

criteria analysis:

>franchise - A fresh take on Star Trek for sure!

>series - A good introduction to Lower Decks.

>character - Excellent use of at least two members of its cast, Mariner and Boimler.

>essential - Here’s where I’m really going to be monitoring Lower Decks, in its ability to produce truly standout material. Will this format be capable of it?

notable guest-stars:

Jerry O’Connell (Jack Ransom)

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Picard 1x10 “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2”

rating: ****

the story: Conflict resolution; saying goodbye to Data.

review: Yeah, that was about right. The general plot of the series was a juxtaposition between duty on a large scale and a small one. The large scale was confronting bigotry in opposing forces, and helping both sides realize there was more than one possible response. The small scale was finding peace with the death of Data.

For much of the season, the small scale goal was in the background, as Picard assembled his response to a crisis that in effect happened in large part because he was no longer in a position to prevent it, and that was largely because he no longer had Data at his side. “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” is a much bigger success than its preceding component largely because it doesn’t allow itself to become lost in the details. In any proper ending, the details ought to be clear enough, and in this case they are because the goal was already explained in the beginning.

Except Data doesn’t return. He stays dead. He has a chance to explain why he actually prefers to remain dead, and it’s the perfect completion of the journey he began in his first appearance, finally understanding that the idea of being human is basically embracing the limits he was always determined to push.

Anyway, there’s also Riker’s pitch-perfect cameo (which sums up his command dynamic with Picard), characters who didn’t make sense last episode making sense (including yet another Problematic Soong Android being summarily deactivated; I’d really like if just one of them had a chance to be anything but binary).

Basically the best possible ending to the season, and everything it needed to be to celebrate Picard and his legacy. Until they figure out how to include, y’know, Guinan. Q. And, uh, the rest of the Next Generation gang...

criteria analysis:

  • franchise - Final resolution for Nemesis. Maybe fans can decide to embrace it?
  • series - A great ending to the season.
  • character - The final statement on Data.
  • essential - The final statement on Picard’s moral, heroic character.
notable guest-stars:
Brent Spiner (Data, Soong)
Jonathan Frakes (Riker)
Jeri Ryan (Seven)

Picard 1x9 “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1”

rating: **

the story: Picard’s team reaches their destination.

review: Sometimes the problem with serialized storytelling is that it boxes the story into elements that need to happen but become difficult to tell interestingly. That was always the biggest problem with Deep Space Nine, especially in the six- and ten-episode arcs that were laden with plot elements that squashed all opportunity to explore their potential. They ended up hammering points without elegance. What Enterprise accomplished so brilliantly in its third season was the ability to break its ideas down to concrete points, particularly as the importance of Degra blossomed. Even after he was necessarily taken off the table, there were enough moving parts still in play that even the inevitable was interesting.

With this penultimate episode of a season-long arc, we reach a point that ought to have been can’t-miss, nearly does. The problem is in the introduction of two characters. One is a good addition handled poorly, and the other is a bad addition also...handled poorly. The first is another Brent Spiner Soong performance, but the character is almost completely marginalized, his significance taken for granted, perhaps. The other is another android played by Isa Briones (who also portrays Soji, the twin from the first episode, the one glimpsed last episode, and probably dozens of other iterations), who turns out to be the latest treacherous turncoat. The reveal is somewhat akin to the Founders in Deep Space Nine (in fact, the whole conflict is very similar), which is why I tended to have a problem with the Female Founder in that series; she had no nuance at all, in a series where shades of gray were everywhere.

There was a good way to handle all of this material, but I don’t think this was it. But let’s get to the point summary to clarify:

criteria analysis:

  • franchise - I think you have to be invested for any of this to work. I think general viewers would be even more inclined to dismiss the creative approach to this episode than I am.
  • series - I mean, it’s interesting and relevant, obviously. 
  • character - The introduction of the new Soong was the only good thing about the episode.
  • essential - The results are too perfunctory. After all the creative thought put into it, I would almost greatly prefer to Picard movie default ending of him needing to stop some giant machine from blowing up. Or having to blow the machine up. 
notable guest-stars
Brent Spiner (Soong)
Jeri Ryan (Seven)

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Picard 1x8 "Broken Pieces"

rating: ***

the story: Rios grapples with his past as it catches up with him, and we learn...a lot.

review: If I weren't feeling particularly generous because I generally love the results of the series to date, I'd call this latest episode...a glorified infodump.  Basically it's...everyone...explaining...everything.  The exception is Rios (even though he's thoroughly wrapped up in it, too).  Between his holograms (best part of the episode) and how learning about his past informs his, and the show's, present, he finally grabs the spotlight, without any of the flashback material that might in hindsight seem something like a crutch elsewhere in the series.

Speaking of flashbacks, we see the evil Romulan conspiracy take shape, the continuingly fairly vague nature of the AI apocalypse, past and present, although now of course it looks all the more like fear-mongering (as I write this, I'm grappling with the effects of COVID-19 in American and personal activities, so I seem to have pretty relevant recent experience).  Someone on the internet, which is capable of reducing even the most complex concepts into the least helpful summaries possible (which, again, because I'm feeling cynical at the moment, seems to be the extent of human discourse, at least at the moment), pointed out that Picard and the second season of Discovery both have AI apocalypse plots.  The difference of course is in the storytelling, and in that you really have to go out of your way to worry about similarities.  Picard weaves a tale drawing on rich Star Trek tradition, where Discovery invented its out of sheer cloth (and maybe a Pocket Books novel). 

Anyway, Jurati comes clean, and even finds some peace and solace with what's happened, Seven (or, Annika) is back, and feeling somewhat ambiguous about bringing back a hive mind to kick Romulan ass, Soji is starting to understand the scope of what lies behind her (and ahead), Raffi is plunging well into the mess at last, Picard is playing a truly supporting role in his own show for the first time, and...

Rios!  The holograms have been around since he first appeared, but this is our first chance to truly enjoy them, and their relationship to Rios himself.  It's Raffi's best showing, too, by the way, trying to get information, any information out of them, through which she demonstrates her newfound commitment.  And we learn the circumstances of how Rios left Starfleet behind (really makes you wonder what Voyager would look like in the CBS All Access era), and how they directly tie into current events.  That part is extremely artful.  That's why I hesitate to dismiss "Broken Pieces" as infodump, because (and it's Michael Chabon writing solo, so maybe this is not surprising) the Rios elements are artful, in ways the episode, and the series, and maybe Star Trek itself, really need them to be.

It's the kind of episode that pushes along the narrative exceptionally well, the necessary connective stuff that doesn't look like it's as amazing as other, flashier episodes, but, for fans of Picard, is absolutely essential.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - I think the "infodump" nature would most affect viewers who aren't as invested in Picard as in Star Trek as a whole.
  • series - And yet, this is crucial material that builds up everything that has come before, and will follow.
  • character - Finally, the Rios spotlight!
  • essential - The Rios spotlight probably no one could have expected, but becomes a definitive lynchpin of the season.
notable guest-stars:
Jeri Ryan (Seven)

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Picard 1x7 "Nepenthe"

rating: ****

the story: Picard visits with old friends (you've probably heard of them).

review: It's official, then.  Riker became Little John.  (Give you a moment to remember.)  That's the wonderful memory and thought I had, anyway, watching "Nepenthe," among other happy reflections.  This was another solid episode.  At this point, I'm easily calling Picard the most rewarding series experience of the whole franchise, not just because I enjoy seeing Picard again, but because the season has been so consistently good, an excellent mix of everything, from ideas to characters new and old, and building on the rich legacy preceding it.

Let's talk about the ideas a little.  Finally we learn what convinced Jurati to kill her own friend and lover, Bruce Maddox, a vision of the future, and not just a vision, but that frequent vision of today, some dreaded apocalypse.  If we don't do this, this will happen.  And there's no convenient real world allegory here, no side to pick, in case you were worried.  It's just the times we live in, which is much as it was in the '60s, when Star Trek originally suggested it didn't have to be that way. 

But we begin to have an idea of why the Romulans, or anyone else, fear artificial life so much, and that's the key here, in this episode, that prejudice so often infused with some awful kernel but more often created by hysterical imagination, especially when the victim is so easy to dismiss as "other," as of course is always the case. 

No doubt we'll learn more.

In the meantime we have Picard and Soji visiting Riker and Troi and their daughter!  And, learning about what's happened in the meantime, who they lost, and how their lives have developed along the way.  Troi's there, but Riker receives more emphasis, and before anyone cries injustice, let me just suggest that Riker makes for better entertainment, and this might actually be his best-ever appearance in the franchise (across Next GenerationVoyager, Enterprise, and even his transporter duplicate in Deep Space Nine, and the movies, and now this, helping him, and Jonathan Frakes, set a new record, surpassing the likes of Nimoy/Spock and Dorn/Worf for most franchise appearances, that is unlikely to be broken).  And I'm not sure his height difference with Picard ever came across this sharply, either, at least for me.

For everything in the mix, it's another strong showing for Soji, who perhaps again most benefits from what might otherwise have seemed an obvious Picard spotlight, as she begins to accept who and what she is as she interacts with Picard's friends.

(Is it too early to suggest that the daughter gets her own series?)

Plus, unfortunately, the death of another familiar face, this time Hugh, as the Romulans officially switch into villainous gear.  Who else was seeing Narek, meanwhile, as a Star Trek Boba Fett?

(The title "Nepenthe," meanwhile, comes from The Odyssey, referencing a drug that cures a troubled mind.  Love the deep Greek mythology cut for that one, as with another recent Star Trek classic, Discovery's "An Obol for Charon.")

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - I mean, gosh, it's great to see Riker and Troi again!
  • series - But there's still plenty of room to celebrate what's happening in Picard, all you fans still paranoid about "These Are the Voyages..."
  • character - Soji grapples with recent revelations, among other highlights.
  • essential - Hardly a missed opportunity!
notable guest-stars:
Jonathan Frakes (Riker)
Marina Sirtis (Troi)
Jonathan Del Arco (Hugh)

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Picard 1x6 "The Impossible Box"

rating: ****

the story: Picard reaches the Artifact (Borg cube).

review: Such is the emerging interest in Picard itself (which for many fans is contrasting with their perceptions of Discovery, which isn't the case for me, as I like them both, and they're doing two entirely separate things) that fans are starting to hype up the relevance of its events.  With "The Impossible Box" I've seen a rash of articles explaining its relevance to Star Trek: First Contact, how it explains and reconciles Picard's mood from what we've typically seen from him.  But we knew this already, from "Family" and of course, "I, Borg," both of which tackle his emotional response to the events of "The Best of Both Worlds," and from other episodes as well ("The Drumhead," for instance).

But the idea that his time as Locutus continues to bother Picard, that it has in fact becoming a lingering bigotry for him, is perhaps something new.  "I, Borg" touched on it (this is the episode where we originally meet Hugh, of course), but Picard seemed to use it as a definitive turning point.  Instead, as First Contact and "Impossible Box" make clear, it was an experience he had much more difficulty forgetting, much less getting over.

The funny thing is, "Impossible Box" features this aspect of the story much less directly than Seven's role in "Stardust City Rag," which was allowed to create a whole deviation from the flow of the series, so that we didn't even visit the Artifact that episode.  "Impossible Box," meanwhile, is the point the season has been building toward since the first episode, in which Picard finally meets the other sister, Soji (the naming scheme of the sisters can't help but call to mind another Picard movie, Insurrection, at least for me, which might even have been intentional; in a sense Data found a "kid brother" in it), who herself is in the midst of both finding out the truth about her Romulan lover, and her own origins.

In that sense, "Impossible Box" is much more of a Soji episode than it is another Picard spotlight, which is the second episode in a row for that to happen, and only second in six episodes.  Picard's reaction to the Artifact becomes icing on the cake.  In a sense, it's wonderful parallel storytelling, which is something that can sometimes feel like a lost art in the new franchise paradigm (though Discovery attempted, perhaps too much, exactly that in its second season, in successive character arcs throughout the season).

One last note: In his second Picard appearance, Hugh a last gets to soak in his legacy, which was sort of robbed of him the first time.  Viewers were left to either recognize him or not.  Here the context is at the surface.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - I wonder if fans ever really ever tire of revisiting the Borg.
  • series - A crucial turning point of the season.
  • character - Soji manages to upstage a key moment for Picard.
  • essential - All that, plus learning more about that elusive Borg Queen, which amounts to another of Star Trek's spectacular gateways.
notable guest-stars:
Jonathan Del Arco (Hugh)

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Picard 1x5 "Stardust City Rag"

rating: ****

the story: Seven's revenge is a dish best served cold.

review: This is the sort of episode that will be easy to view on its own terms as well as part of the overall narrative, and as such is a de facto highlight in a serialized story.  And it is: Seven's spotlight.

In a lot of ways, Seven finally got around to joining the Voyager family.  Voyager was a series about a crew in part made up of Federation renegades who despised the results of a policy decision.  It didn't end up feeling like that because those renegades soon enough signed up with their Starfleet counterparts and for all intents and purposes looked indistinguishable within a handful of episodes (though it really took a few seasons for all the rough edges to work away).  Seven came along well after that point, and her journey was an entirely personal one.

In a lot of ways, then, Seven and Voyager serve as a template for Picard itself.  Picard views his quest as a personal one, but he's really being drafted back into a much bigger cause, and is forced to work alongside whoever's available rather than his old Starfleet colleagues (except, of course, Raffi, who might be eating some humble pie, after being forced to confront a past she was just lambasting Picard for resembling).  Seven herself has finally become a renegade, choosing a side.  It seems circumstances are always defining our choices, and what they look like.  Star Trek will always, or should always, choose to follow those who prefer principle over form, what's right rather than what Starfleet says, and has since we first met Kirk (and, technically, Pike before him).

Seven's journey is dramatized by...the death of Icheb.  Icheb was Voyager's Wesley Crusher, a boy genius who happened to be a former Borg drone.  He ended up with a far more anonymous career (and fan legacy) than Wes, but he meant a great deal to Seven, even during Voyager (he appeared throughout the show's last two seasons).  And someone butchers him for parts. 

Understandably, Seven takes this personally.  It's the same as what motivated Picard to action, really, only, at this point, Picard has less immediate results available to him. 

The episode also shows us Bruce Maddox (like Icheb, played by a new actor) for the first time (and, uh, last time), thanks to Jurati (here I am, using character names for the first time!), finally exhibiting some agency of her own (even if it seems awful!).  Rios has another great showing.  No Soji (that's the other twin in the Borg cube).  Elnor (that's the Romulan samurai dude we met last episode) is kind of the Justice League Flash in the episode. 

It's the first episode of the series to cede the spotlight to someone other than Picard, and so that's remarkable in itself, and Seven of course is a worthy substitute, and the acknowledgement of their shared Borg past is nice, and of course it does link up with what Soji's working on, which Maddox is able to point toward before Jurati offs him.  The whole episode feels like one of those classic pivotal arc moments from Deep Space Nine or Enterprise

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A huge shout-out to Voyager!
  • series - While remaining completely relevant to Picard itself.
  • character - Focus shifts to Seven, brilliantly.
  • essential - The spotlight is also shared by Maddox, finally, but I bet he wishes it hadn't.  This is a crucial turning point.
notable guest-stars:
Jeri Ryan (Seven)
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