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)

Discovery - Short Treks 2x1 "Q & A"

rating: ****

the story: Spock boards the Enterprise for the first time and meets Number One.

review: Seems more an ode to Number One than Spock, though it can function both ways, and I'm not at all complaining either way.  This may be the best Number One spotlight (and the closest to learning her name?) we ever get.

I've already seen quibbling over whether or not they screwed up the costuming for this one, given that it's technically a flashback to a period with different costumes than we remember.  I suppose that can't possibly matter in the grand scheme, unless you really want it to, and I don't.

Written by acclaimed novelist Michael Chabon, "Q & A" sets the the second batch of Short Treks on sure footing.  Number One didn't get a lot of scenes in Discovery's second season, so it was nice for her to get this spotlight at all, much less it turning out to be such a good one.  A character famously portrayed by Majel Barrett Roddenberry in the original pilot of the original series ("The Cage"), and never seen again, until Discovery, Number One occupies a unique place in franchise lore.  Here we discover that she's an intellectual equal to Spock, and it doesn't feel like a cheap development.  We even see how she helps guide Spock's subsequent deportment, reconciling the smiling Spock glimpsed in that pilot with the famously stoic one better known in virtually every other appearance.

It does help connect the Spock previously featured in Discovery with his other portrayals, too.  When we caught up with him in the series, he was already past the point where we'd seen him with Pike's crew originally.  We not only learned of his relationship with Michael Burnham, but another period of doubt in a life filled with such moments.  Here it's nice to be able to enjoy unfiltered Spock, with someone who accepts him as he is, not merely as a friend or colleague, but his basic character.

criteria analysis:

  • franchise - Wonderful look at Spock regardless of where you're coming from.
  • series - A welcome return to the Discovery version of Pike's Enterprise.
  • character - At long last, a Number One spotlight!
  • essential - It's possibly the best one we'll ever have!
notable guest-stars:
Anson Mount (Pike)
Rebecca Romijn (Number One)
Ethan Peck (Spock)

Sunday, September 8, 2019

What We Left Behind: A Look at the Documentary about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Released on home recently, What We Left Behind is a retrospective documentary celebrating Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the third live action series in the franchise that ran from 1993 to 1999 (making this twenty years since it ended).  I didn't participate in the crowdfunding for it, but I loved that DS9 showrunner Ira Steven Behr helped put it together.

I've been a member of the cult-within-a-cult since the back half of the second season, when I started watching (not incoincidentally, perhaps, also when Next Generation was ending), perhaps with a rerun of "Necessary Evil" from earlier that season (which at any rate is my earliest solid memory of the series).  As What We Left Behind makes clear, lots of fans dismissed DS9 as too dark, too far from the spirit of the franchise.  Later, internet observers sort of convinced themselves it was Voyager or Enterprise that led to the end of that era, but it was really DS9's lack of popularity that began the downward spiral.  They had to add Worf in the fourth season to even begin to convince fans it was worth watching.  The third season remains my favorite, when everything started coming together to create the memories the internet fans have of the richly-woven tapestry that helped usher in the modern era of serialized storytelling in TV shows.

So to call it a "cult-within-a-cult" is to acknowledge that although What We Left Behind dwells on the unpopularity, there has long been a subset of fans who argue that DS9 is the best Star Trek has ever been, a phenomenon that probably helped make the documentary itself exist.

What the documentary is, then, is perhaps as much a love letter for initiated fans as for those just becoming aware of its remarkable achievements a quarter century after it began.  There's some of the actors reprising their crooning honed from years on the convention circuit, peppered about, and most of the cast getting a chance to revisit their time making the show.  In a lot of ways, it's an opportunity to officially welcome Terry Farrell back into the fold, after she somewhat abruptly left the series just before its final season after becoming convinced she was ultimately unappreciated by the studio. 

One of the more surprising things I learned was how Marc Alaimo views himself.  He, too, apparently felt unappreciated, needing validation that went beyond being repeatedly brought back to reprise the increasingly pivotal role of Gul Dukat (somewhat amusingly, Nana Visitor seems to cringe at the thought of Alaimo's crush on her).  It was also great hearing more about how Avery Brooks presented himself, and how he was viewed by castmates.

And, CBS All Access, after you've done Star Trek: Picard, take a cue from the reunited writers room brainstorming.  Do an update of DS9, too! 

Anyway, as a longtime fan, What We Left Behind was absolutely a rewarding experience.  I don't know how it plays if you're not already committed to DS9 (a lot of commentators are doing the default social media thing), but hopefully it's a good way to discover just a little of what the series contributed to the franchise.  Even the extended deleted scenes don't cover everything else!  But there's a good sense of humor involved.  Just wait until Behr and Visitor give us the best scene of the series in the credits!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda: An Overview

Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda (2000-2005) was an oddity in an era where fans were weaning themselves off Star Trek thanks to a combination of The X-Files, Babylon 5, and even Xena: Warrior Princess redefining their viewing habits.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had developed a strong but relatively small following, and Star Trek: Voyager was proving hard to love.  Farscape swooped in to steal attention, and Stargate: SG1 was on its way to becoming a whole franchise of its own.  Then of course Battlestar Galactica happened.  Star Trek: Enterprise couldn't compete.  Andromeda, stuck in the sudden vacuum of syndication that had worked so well for Star Trek: The Next Generation, became an afterthought, no matter how successful in that market.

Fans heaped blame on Robert Hewitt Wolfe's departure in Andromeda's second season.  Wolfe had developed Andromeda out of basic elements left behind by Gene Roddenberry (most notably the name of lead character Dylan Hunt, which had appeared in two failed pilots from the '70s), and fans latched onto him as a central creative voice in an era where J. Michael Straczynski had dominated the idea in Babylon 5.  Wolfe had been a crucial part of the creative team behind Deep Space Nine, and all the dazzling elements he created for Andromeda were themselves worth salivating over.  He struck big idea after big idea for the show's first season, and it looked as if Andromeda might join the geek pantheon of beloved TV shows.  And then Wolfe left in the second season.

What exactly Wolfe was doing originally was never really questioned.  Certainly, the idea of the show itself can be seen as a version of the whole Star Trek era from which he'd come.  The premise, even if suggested by Roddenberry, could be viewed as a variation of Voyager's concept, that a lone starship might be forced to carry the torch of an entire civilization.  The dynamic between Hunt and breakout character Tyr Anasazi could be seen as a riff between the unique dynamic seen in the Deep Space Nine pilot "Emissary," in which lead character Benjamin Sisko shows us a new way to look at Next Generation's Jean-Luc Picard.  (Here, Sisko would be Tyr, the more aggressive loner, while Picard would be the idealistic visionary Picard.) 

And what about Trance?  Trance was Wolfe's biggest tipoff.  Trance was a combination of Next Generation's Guinan and Deep Space Nine's Odo.  Guinan, when introduced, was made up of odd suggestions of great mystery, whose true nature, powers, and origins lurked behind everything she did.  She was no mere bartender.  (I suppose even "plain, simple tailor" Garak in Deep Space Nine owes her a debt.)  Except the more we learn about her, the less spectacular Guinan becomes, until at last we learn who her people really are in Star Trek Generations, and the mystique is finally gone completely.  Odo, meanwhile, is known as a shapeshifter, but he never knew his own people, and spends his first few seasons earnestly searching for them.  Finally we learn they're the Founders, who lead the malevolent Dominion, and Odo spends the rest of that series trying to reconcile his life with the nature of his people.

Trance develops differently.  By the time Wolfe leaves, she's still largely unexplained, but there are increasing hints of what she might actually be.  There apparently was great resistance to her continued presence in the series, so cosmetic and personality changes push Trance along, including in Wolfe's final episode, until Andromeda reveals, in its final season, that she is a star avatar (and a crucial one, at that).

The classic narrative is that everything that was good about Andromeda happened while Wolfe was still involved, and that it all went downhill from there.  I watched the series throughout its original run.  I'm watching it back now.  Wolfe, I think, tried to go too big too soon.  He knew that the episodes fans tend to love best are the ones that go big.  He oversaw some big episodes in the first season.  He built Tyr up to be a thorn in Hunt's side.  But eventually, if Tyr was to stay, he would have to settle in a little.  But to be true to himself, to everything he did even when Wolfe was still around, he had to leave, even if Wolfe never did.  And ironically, the seeds are definitively planted for it not longer after Wolfe did, and it's arguably Andromeda's finest hour.

I think Wolfe's biggest failure was forgetting the premise, that Dylan Hunt awakens after three hundred years to find the Systems Commonwealth gone, and civilization devolved into barbarity.  He never really depicts the barbarity. He becomes obsessed, like Hunt, in the quest to rebuild the Commonwealth.  The fifth season is often accused to be the show's worst, the most Hercules of all the Hercules shenanigans that followed Wolfe's departure.  Andromeda starred Kevin Sorbo, who previously starred in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.  I'm not sure what show fans watched when thinking of Hercules, because Sorbo always, always had a companion of some sort in that series (and, remember, Xena was a spinoff of it), but Andromeda had a whole cast of "companions" that even after Wolfe's departure remained thoroughly in the picture, in the same roles they'd always occupied.  Beka Valentine continued on as Hunt's rogue first officer (with her own ship, the Eureka Maru, which in some ways was like criticizing Voyager for never, ever remembering that Neelix had his own ship, too).  Trance continued baffling everyone.  Harper remained deliriously, happily Harper.  And Tyr remained Tyr, even while he struggled to decide to remain Tyr.  Yeah, we lost Yoda-like Rev Bem, but the makeup ought to have been better conceived.  That's why we lost him.  And we gained Rhade, who was like the show's secret weapon all along.  But maybe the right Rhade would have been better.  Well, can't have everything.  And Rommie!  All three versions!  Four, by the final season! 

And that final, "disastrous" season?  It's basically one long meditation on what a failed civilization looks like, one that definitely needs saving, and Hunt's crew doesn't magically decide to work peacefully together, but has to work at trusting each other.  And they all have their own distinctive arcs.  If this were Babylon 5, starting the series like that and then hammering big moment after big moment would've been completely natural. 

It's also worth considering the Magog.  The Magog were the biggest gamble.  If Wolfe had Star Trek on the brain when he developed Andromeda, the Magog were his Borg.  In Next Generation, the Borg were actually teased as early as the first season, but didn't debut until the second, even though their biggest mark waited until the end of the third.  Wolfe ended Andromeda's first season with the first Magog encounter, and it was terrifying.  He even seemed to anticipate Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films.  And that was only the beginning.  It wasn't until the final episode of the series that the Magog and their World Ship and the Spirit of the Abyss were finally, finally defeated.  (Even Enterprise, at the same time, didn't nail what cosmetically looked fairly similar with its Temporal Cold War and "Future Guy" arc.)  The Borg are hard to compete with, but the Magog make a fair argument.  I think even the Shadows can't compete with their legacy (but I'm not a Babylon 5 guy).

Anyway, I remain a big fan of Andromeda, and yes, I'm rewatching the series at the moment.  I hope to put together a viewing guide, much as I have for every incarnation of Star Trek.  Maybe not exactly as I've done with Star Trek, but enough so that Andromeda can begin to be...appreciated.  Because it really deserves to be.
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