Sunday, January 12, 2020

Short Treks 2x6 "Children of Mars"

rating: ****

the story: The daughters of separate Starfleet engineers at the Utopia Planetia shipyards are rivals until forced to discover common ground under the worst circumstances.

review: I think Short Treks is becoming the most reliable source of great franchise material we've ever seen.  "Children of Mars" continues its emerging tradition of bucking traditional Star Trek storytelling forms, and in the process gives us another transcendent experience, and could actually be the best of them yet.

A mostly wordless experience (much like "Ephraim and Dot"), we follow the arc of two girls who engage in fairly typical school behavior.  The whole thing becomes an object lesson not only in how these things happen, but reaches far beyond the franchise to speak at truly universal levels.  Again, Short Treks achieves something that can be viewed by someone who has never seen and never imagined liking Star Trek, and can easily be appreciated for its remarkable accomplishments.

The Star Trek ideal has always been at the heart of its appeal among fans, its idealistic vision of a future where humanity has reached, at last, a state of peace with itself.  But even in Kirk's day Spock still felt the sting of racism.  The integration of aliens into the culture was something Enterprise explored, with particularly compelling results in its final season.  By the time we see the image of Picard, and realize this is part of the Star Trek: Picard landscape, we realize that humanity still has a way to go.  This isn't Star Trek rejecting its own message, but continually affirming it. 

We won't know the particular relevance of "Children" to Picard until Picard itself  But that hardly stands in the way.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Speaks directly to the heart of Star Trek's message.
  • series - Begins to emphasize that Short Treks itself has become a viable representative of the franchise.
  • character - In this instance, Starfleet itself.
  • essential - A breathtaking artistic achievement.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Discovery - Short Treks 2x5 "The Girl Who Made the Stars"

rating: **

the story: The young Michael Burnham learns a valuable lesson.

review: Sort of a bootleg Moana, "The Girl Who Made the Stars" combines subpar animation with an extrapolation of a tale Burnham recounts in Discovery's second season.  This is the sort of effort younger viewers won't complain as much about, compared with older ones.

It's nice, as a fan, to have a moment with the young Burnham and her dad (given how the second season played out, it's now easy to assume they had a much better relationship than Burnham and her mom...!), so I almost wish we could get more.

Just maybe, not in this style.  A stark contrast to the results with "Ephraim and Dot."

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - You don't need to be a Star Trek fan to watch this one.
  • series - But an appreciation of Discovery will help.
  • character - A nice peak into Burnham's childhood.
  • essential - It's not a great selling point for the franchise.

Discovery - Short Treks 2x4 "Ephraim and Dot"

rating: ****

the story: A tartigrade fable!

review: If Star Trek is to delve back into animation, this is the template for greatness.

Obviously, Star Trek has delved into animation before, the relatively short-lived Animated Series that, back in the early '70s, was actually the second incarnation of the franchise, a fairly cheap production that brought back the original cast and told new adventures much as the original series had, with the same basic execution, a pattern Star Trek was to follow for decades across four additional live action incarnations.

Discovery was the boldest break in the TV branch, not only because it was the first fully serialized version of the franchise, but because it freely embraced new narrative structures in ways no other version of Star Trek had before it, despite a few notable exceptions (such as Voyager's "Distant Origin," which featured the main cast in supporting roles). 

"Ephraim and Dot" is sort of like the Disney version of Star Trek.  I don't say this because of wholesome family values or any other current association that might readily come to mind, but because it feels like a Disney short, that most direct expression of the studio's best creative instincts.

It features a tartigrade, the weird alien life-form (based on a current science fad that's popped up any number of places in recent years) called the tartigrade, which factored heavily into key aspects of the first and second seasons of Discovery, enabling the show's ship to feature its innovative spore drive.  Discovery had already turned the creature into a "Devil in the Dark" morality tale, so "Ephraim and Dot" is free to presents its tartigrade at face value, and still, by the end, duplicate the feat.

At its most simple, the Short is sort of like Wall-E, with a fun little relationship that develops, mostly in silence, between the tartigrade and a Starfleet maintenance bot.  But the storytelling and animation push the whole package to exquisite heights.  This is something you will be able to enjoy or share with your kids for years to come, beyond any immediate need to delve into greater Star Trek lore.  Yet another classic Short Trek.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Lots of easter eggs for fans!
  • series - Arguably the best tartigrade appearance in Discovery.
  • character - And more than any previous appearance, makes you care for the creatures.
  • essential - Pushes the boundaries of great Star Trek still further.

Friday, December 13, 2019

DS9's 2019 Losses...

2019 was a bad year for Deep Space Nine

First, Aron Eisenberg passed away September 21st.  Eisenberg ended up becoming the most successful of DS9's much-celebrated recurring guest stars when he was featured in his own episode during the final season, "It's Only a Paper Moon," in which Nog, Quark's nephew, grapples with PTSD with the help of holosuite lounge singer Vic Fontaine.  Having debuted as a naive youth, best friend of Jake Sisko, Eisenberg helped revolutionize the portrayal of Ferengi perhaps more than even Quark, rejecting his people's ideals even more radically than his father Rom, joining Starfleet and enjoying great success in his new career.  The What We Left Behind documentary, which I watched not long before Eisenberg's death, captures a bittersweet moment when the show's writers reunite to break an imaginary new episode, in which Nog is quickly killed off, with a quick cut to a distraught Eisenberg.  We would have mourned Nog, and we mourn Eisenberg himself greatly.

Then Rene Auberjonois!  The actor behind the CGI shapeshifting and rubber mask of Odo passed away December 8th.  Auberjonois had a number of distinguished roles during his career, including portraying father Mulcahy in the original film version of MASH, a supporting role in the long-running TV series Benson, and the chef in The Little Mermaid.  Star Trek fans also saw him in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, and Batman fans caught him in Batman Forever.  My favorite memory of him outside of Star Trek was The Patriot, which sees his dramatic death include a thrilling hand-off of a musket to Mel Gibson.  It's really hard to imagine the legacy of the Star Trek franchise without him.  DS9 itself would be infinitely poorer without Odo, and without Auberjonois brilliantly portraying him.  Not even considering Odo's specific relationships with Kira or Quark, his role in the series is still unique within the franchise, the kind of gruff even Bones could never approach, but the kind of gruff you want to have around, certainly for station's chief of security (Cardassian or Starfleet).

(It should be noted that the imagined new episode of the series mentioned above had two roles not specifically needed in the plot, and they were both played by these actors.  A curse!)

They will be greatly missed.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Death of D.C. Fontana, "Project Daedalus"

I figured I ought to acknowledge the passing of D.C. Fontana, one of the original guiding voices of Star Trek.  Fontana was instrumental in the development and execution of the first two seasons of the original series, and arguably, her departure from the regular writing staff in the third was part of the reason fans even today claim it was a marked downturn in quality.  She worked on The Animated Series, and the first season of Next Generation (again, an involvement that dovetails with popular fan sentiment; she left after one too many clashes with Gene Roddenberry), and wrote one episode of Deep Space Nine in its first season ("Dax"), as well as one of the fan-made Star Trek: New Voyages productions.  Aside from the films, her involvement was about as comprehensive as anyone's in the history of the franchise.  Star Trek literally wouldn't be what it is today without her.

And speaking about Star Trek today, I recently bought the DVD of Star Trek: Discovery's second season, and watching it again, in the classic binge fashion, was like experiencing it anew all over again.  The whole Spock arc plays out much differently when it doesn't seem like you're waiting forever for something to happen.  I didn't necessarily have a problem the first time around, but I did often wonder if they were dragging it out.  In binge mode it's pretty rapid progress.

As part of that I caught "Project Daedalus" again, obviously.  This is the episode pivoting around background player Airiam (the character who looked like a robot).  I stand by my original assertion that it's not as moving as he clearly wants to be, in much the way fans in a previous era worried that Harry Kim's random friend in Voyager's "Ashes to Ashes" lost some of its impact because it centered on someone we hadn't really met before.

But IGN included "Project Daedalus" in its best TV episodes of the year.  My problem with that has as much to do with the above sentiments as to the fact that the episode epitomizes the worse instincts of the season, not its best.  The writers spent a little too much time reiterating the same points, hoping it would lend the season greater resonance, when it really added endless repetition and a competition for relevance.  "Project Daedalus" will stand out for impatient viewers, who won't care to focus on better moments more entwined in series and franchise lore, and on that level it's fine.  The season, and series, has been light on such moments, rushing to embrace the trend of fully serialized storytelling.  What this ignores is that Star Trek has often been at its very best when it lingers on one brilliant moment, something that happened in episodic series past not because they were episodic, but because the opportunity was there.  Deep Space Nine and Enterprise both found landmark episodes in the midst of serialized material ("Far Beyond the Stars," "Twilight"), but when they hit a pause button on known characters, which was why they worked so well, and still work now. 

Airiam's death, and life, are fleeting elements even in "Project Daedalus."  So many new, and interesting!, characters were introduced in the second season, but Airiam still had to wait for one episode, and not even get to be the focal point, just the featured element, of the story, it was like a tacit acknowledgement of how much time had already been wasted with the character, and that the great weakness of the great strength of finally doing so was that the character herself hardly mattered.  Instead she packs an emotional wallop in a season full of them.  Too many.  And hers isn't, at least for me, the best of them, but rather...the worst.

Maybe in time, when I've watched the episode, and the season, and the series, this perspective will change.  I still care most for Saru learning the truth about his people, even if I think the idea itself was undercooked. I think it's a perfect, timeless moment, in an episode ("An Obel for Charon") that fires on all cylinders, the series at its absolute best.  That it centers on Saru, in a season that focuses most of its attention on Michael Burnham's relationship with her obscure foster brother (Spock? I think the name was), is all the better, because like Tilly, he was a character who in the first season stood ought despite having little material to truly justify it, and he and Tilly were both vindicated in the second (but Saru's materuak was better).  But maybe the randomness of Airiam and her tragic fate(s) will ring like the perfect echo of events truly epic in Star Trek lore.

If that's what those observers are thinking, I can get behind that.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Discovery - Short Treks 2x3 "Ask Not"

rating: ***

the story: A cadet faces an awful test when faced with an impossible decision.

review: Finally, a Short Trek that isn't mediocre or great, just comfortably somewhere in the middle.  This is the seventh one now; the format itself has been tested and its creators generally know what's possible.  This is the third one, of the past three, to give the Discovery Enterprise a little more breathing room, and the first to feature Pike directly.  As he was throughout his appearances in Discovery's second season, Pike remains eminently watchable, so "Ask Not" has at least that going for it.  But there's more.

Ever since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Wesley Crusher's early experiences in The Next Generation, fans have been given glimpses at the sorts of things Starfleet recruits might expect in their initial training.  The 2009 Star Trek movie was built around the idea, too, but for the purposes of this Short Trek, I'll dwell mostly around Wes.

"Ask Not" feels like an attempt to give us something far better than what Wes got to experience.  It doesn't give us strong character work so much a great grasp of the scenario.  We get some fun details, including an unexpected callback to The Motion Picture's hilarious "reserve activation clause" that Kirk used to bring McCoy back, another sign that Discovery's creators have been far closer attention to franchise lore than some fans have been willing to admit.  (The longer a franchise goes, the more old fans like to claim that the new stuff "just isn't the same."  But Star Trek fans have been making that claim since at least the first season of Next Generation.  And really, since The Motion Picture.)

This is the sort of experience that's fun just to watch play out.  Like a lot early Next Generation, Wes's experiences feel fairly primitive.  "Ask Not" is vivid, as Discovery tends to be, without being needlessly flashy (these productions are always by definition minimalist, operating on budgets befitting their brief running times; this one's the shortest of the Shorts so far).

It's another real treat.

criteria analysis:

  • franchise - Good use of Starfleet lore, in familiar yet fresh ways.
  • series - If it doesn't give us fresh insight into Pike necessarily, it does give us a welcome return visit with this version of him.
  • character - With such a brief run-time, it's a welcome relief that this Short Trek didn't try to hamfist character development, as some of the earlier ones did.
  • essential - For its kind of story, yes!
notable guest-stars:
Anson Mount (Pike)
Ethan Peck (Spock)
Rebecca Romijn (Number One)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Discovery - Short Treks 2x2 "The Trouble with Edward"

rating: ****

the story: You've got to see the secret origin of the tribble scourge to believe it!

review: Every time the tribbles are in the spotlight, they shine.  You've got "The Trouble with Tribbles" in the original series, "More Trouble, More Tribbles" in The Animated Series, "Trials and Tribble-ations" in Deep Space Nine, and now, "The Trouble with Edward."

Aside from Pike at the start of the episode, the cast is entirely original to this Short Trek.  It doesn't matter.  Everyone delivers.  And it's got terrific logic.  And it becomes pretty darn hilarious.  It's everything you would want if someone were to try and explain all of it. 

With the original batch of Short Treks, the writers delivered a mixed bag of brilliant and labored stories.  The first two of this second batch have both been brilliant.  As a format, Short Treks is turning into a reliable engine.

criteria analysis:

  • franchise - Tribbles!
  • series - Pike's bit actually helps flesh out the story.
  • character - Take your pick, but really it's the tribbles.
  • essential - Required viewing for fans.  Including the commercial at the end!
notable guest-stars:
Anson Mount (Pike)
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