Saturday, February 16, 2019

He Was a Particularly Troubled Romulan: Star Trek Post-9/11

"He was a particularly troubled Romulan."

That's what Spock says of Nero in Star Trek (2009).  The line always stuck out for me, but I never quite understood why until recently.  Spock, of course, is Vulcan, and Nero is Romulan, an offshoot of the Vulcans.  Further characterizing the Romulans was always a little difficult.  In the original TV series, they were presented as another Cold War analogy, like the Klingons, who had fought the Federation in the past but had retreated into reclusiveness.  In fact, the fact that Romulans descended from Vulcans wasn't even generally known until they emerged again, and they went back into isolation until The Next Generation, where they became a recurring threat, until the events of Star Trek Nemesis, in which a clone of Picard named Shinzon attempted another full-scale war against the Federation, but ended up suffering the loss of their home planet in the backstory of Star Trek

Characterizing Nero as "particularly troubled" is a telling detail.  Nero's response to the destruction of Romulus is to blame Spock, the older one still alive in Picard's day, and all of the Federation, and to once again declare open war.  He sets about a plan to what is in his mind equitable retaliatory action, affecting the destruction of the Vulcan home world and then the rest of the leading Federation worlds, starting with Earth.

And it made me wonder what exactly Nero represented.  Longtime fans tend to look down on the new films, claiming they lack the spirit of the franchise by putting too much focus on flashy special effects.  But that's simply not the case.

Since 9/11, Star Trek has had terrorism on the brain.  Star Trek: Enterprise famously launched within weeks of 9/11.  By the end of its second season, Enterprise launched a major story arc in direct response, an act of terrorism against Earth that led to a preventive mission against the aliens responsible. 

As you read above, the franchise was responsive to its times from the very beginning.  The Klingons and the Romulans were both reflective of the Soviet Union, an idea that culminated in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country with its breakup.  The Next Generation continued the tradition; the Troubles in Ireland were often reflected in its storytelling.  Deep Space Nine echoed the collapse of the imperial age with the end of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, reflecting back to the days of WWII but often evoking present times, if not the Troubles then the ongoing conflict in Israel.

Which brings us back to Star Trek.  What if Nero was a Palestinian analogy?  Or Islamic terrorists such as those who struck on 9/11?  I find it likely.  And then Star Trek Into Darkness doubled down on the idea. 
                                                                                                                                                                          
 
You'll recall the above promotional poster, meant to evoke Khan's early terrorism in the movie.  Khan himself might as well have depicted the perception that America's response to 9/11 ended up being excessive or misguided, to put it mildly.
 
Things worth considering.


Discovery 2x5 "Saints of Imperfection"

rating: ***

the story: The mycelial network is finally cleansed.

review: Hey!  I just wrote "mycelial" in a Discovery review for the first time.  The mycelial network in question is responsible for the spore drive that allowed the ship to make miraculous jumps throughout the first season, and gave Stamets a dramatic arc during it, and Tilly hers in the current, second season.  "Saints of Imperfection" effectively closes a story begun with the introduction of the ship itself.

The show's approach to the network has been comparable to the Prophets in Deep Space Nine or the Caretaker in Voyager; whether it goes in the latter direction or the former remains to be seen.  Voyager retired its original driving force in its second season, while DS9 kept its for all seven seasons. 

"Saints" turns expectations on their head, shifting the focus from Tilly back to Stamets by rediscovering his romantic partner Culber within the network.  The episode features a handful of reunions, between Burnham and Georgiou, Burnham and Tyler, and even Pike and Section 31 agent Leland.  Obviously all of this is leading up to the inevitable reunion of Burnham and Spock later in the season. 

It's a more satisfying climax within a season than the first season's unceremonious dumping of Lorca (I still hope that, too, can be revisited), and some of the most dramatic storytelling of the series to date, a nice response to the previous episode, "An Obol for Charon," in a completely different fashion.  For a series that has been attempting to tell big dramatic moments as frequently as possible, it's a considerable achievement to still be doing it so well, and arguably better than ever.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Section 31 has become a matter of fact in Star Trek at this point, and this is a moment to really let that sink in.
  • series - Resolving a longstanding arc.
  • character - Tilly and Stamets are squarely in the spotlight.
  • essential - It's an episode that can't be missed.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
Shazad Latif (Tyler)
Wilson Cruz (Culber)

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Discovery 2x4 "An Obol for Charon"

rating: ****

the story: A mystery sphere cripples the ship.

review: Well, this just might be the best episode of Discovery to date.  That's how good "An Obol for Charon" (a title that refers to Greek mythology, Charon being the ferryman bringing new souls to Hades) is.  No exaggeration.

It's the most confident Discovery has ever been.  It's the most Discovery that Discovery has ever been.  The characters assert themselves (which is saying something, as Discovery features perhaps already the most assertive characters in franchise history) to their fullest in a classic crisis episode (most comparable to Deep Space Nine's similarly masterful "Civil Defense") that also features at its core an equally classic "mystery space object," which itself seems to be a metaphor about the big mystery of the season itself, something Enterprise attempted in its third season Xindi arc multiple times.

But really, at times it's just plain masterful, just plain fun.  The early scenes concerning the Universal Translator not always performing adequately, to the Translator being sabotaged by the mystery space object and everyone speaking in foreign languages (it's an episode that builds and builds until it reaches a true crescendo), those are just the icing that somehow must compete with Saru's dramatic arc, which itself leads Burnham to realize she has to keep fighting for her brother (y'know, Spock)...

Some of the things that come up in "Obol" will undoubtedly be much debated in years to come, and I'm sure it'll make it hard for fans to fully embrace the episode.  At one point assisted suicide seems to be considered a viable option (Next Generation had a whole episode, "Ethics," in which Riker was disgusted at the very thought).  But this kind of bold storytelling is exactly what Star Trek ought to be, and what it invariably is at its best.  Whether or not you agree with the ideas is beside the point, but the very fact that it brings them up, that's always been at the heart of the franchise.

Toss in comparably small fish like the first appearance of Discovery's version of Number One (a classic one-off character who appears in the first Star Trek pilot, "The Cage," and its repackaging in "The Menagerie") and wonderful appearances from supporting characters, and yeah, more of Tilly's predicament, which like the Spock arc continues to develop, but this time in a most compelling fashion, and the whole thing is a sheer delight.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Echoes of familiar storytelling that's frequently at the heart of Star Trek.
  • series - Yet strongly resonant within Discovery itself.
  • character - While Discovery is often at its best introducing characters, this is an instant of fully embracing their potential.
  • essential - Discovery in bloom.
notable guest-stars:
Rebecca Romijn (Number One)
Tig Notaro (Reno)

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Discovery 2x3 "Point of Light"

rating: ***

the story: Amanda visits, Tilly's ghost is explained, and we revisit the Klingons.

review: "Point of Light" was an episode attempting boldly to accomplish three things at the same time (four, really, but we'll get back to that), and the whole was less than the sum of its parts for it. 

The lead story, ostensibly, was actually the first plot point I reference above, Amanda's visit.  Amanda, of course, is Spock's mom, Sarek's wife, and Burnham's adoptive mother, and we've seen her a number of times over the years, and a few times in Discovery itself, but this might be her biggest spotlight to date...The problem is that because she has so much to compete with, she ends up the loser of the bunch.  Like "Lethe" last season, the Sarek spotlight, we get to find out more of what it was like to be Spock and Burnham's parent, not only relation to them, but the effect on the parent.  But where Sarek got a strong focus and a definite resolution, Amanda has to settle for a serialized tale.  It's been my observation that while serialization can work wonders, the best storytelling always knows when parts of a story need to work on their own.  This one is going to need other episodes to justify it, not just because it's part of an overall mystery, but because Amanda herself doesn't get to complete her statement.

But the good news is we quickly get a kind of resolution for Tilly's arc this season, even if it clearly has further room to blossom.  In this instance, Discovery did a classic bit of Star Trek storytelling (some kind of alien intelligence was messing with our people) in a thoroughly Discovery manner.  This part works for all the reasons the Amanda part doesn't.

Revisiting the Klingons means Ash Tyler and L'Rell, last seen in the first season finale ending the war and uniting the houses.  But Klingons being Klingons, there's an attempt to sabotage L'Rell's position as chancellor (or, Mother, as she dubs herself at the end of the episode).  More importantly, it's a chance to revisit Tyler, and he's got a new samurai look and seems far more comfortable than he ever was last season, and that's good.  And spending more time with the Klingons also lets us see where Discovery's depiction of them melds with other versions, even if the seeing them with hair doesn't work for all of them. 

But that part of the episode also sees the return of Georgiou, who'll be getting her own series, so this episode also serves as a backdoor pilot.  I'm not as sold on Georgiou as a compelling character as I am Tyler, so it's good that he's apparently going to be joining her adventures. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Feels less like something casual fans will be wild about and more for Discovery faithful.
  • series - After two episodes that were for casual fans, it feels about right to go in that direction.
  • character - Lots of focused storytelling, obviously.
  • essential - Lots of important stuff happening, too, in ways that feel more organic than Discovery can sometimes feel.
notable guest-stars:
Shazad Latif (Tyler)
Mia Kirshner (Amanda)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Discovery 2x2 "New Eden"

rating: ***

the story: Locating one of seven mysterious anomalies unexpectedly leads the crew to a distant human colony.

review: "New Eden" is Discovery in deep classic franchise mode, one of the very textbook episode archetypes.  If you don't recognize it from the above brief summary, you probably aren't a fan.  This one goes back to the original series, and there were even examples in both Voyager and Enterprise.  Actually, the episode's roots go so deep, it was directed by Jonathan Frakes (Riker from The Next Generation)!

The funny thing is, that's probably the least explored element of the episode.  As with most such attempts, Discovery seems only half-interested in such storytelling, as if to say that it knows what Star Trek's supposed to do, and it's enough merely to acknowledge.  But the second season so far has greatly deviated from the frenetic pattern of the first, and actually begins to look a lot like Enterprise's third season, the hunt for the Xindi that, like this arc, involved the search for anomalous objects in space (in Enterprise it was spheres).

What's perhaps more interesting about the episode is how it's helping Tilly take a more active role in the series.  Tilly is emerging as a polarizing figure among fans.  Some find her downright irritating.  This actually puts her in good company, as the franchise has frequently found characters like that (Wesley Crusher in Next Generation, any number of Ferengi in Deep Space Nine, Neelix in Voyager, among others) in the spotlight.  But in the first season, Tilly stood out in small moments, never really driving the plot, in a series composed of characters filled with lucrative intrigue.  In this season, she's taken on a far more active role, and even has started borrowing a little from Stamets, for instance, as she finds herself haunted by dead acquaintances.  This will, at any rate, by interesting to see develop.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - An old plot, and also echoes of a previous serialized season.
  • series - A few interesting things to say about the season's arc.
  • character - Tilly begins to emerge as a more important element of the series.
  • essential - The clumsy way the old plot is handled is familiar to fans of the series by this point.

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)
Tig Notaro (Reno)

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)
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