Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Next Generation 6x26 "Descent, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: The Borg return, and Data gains emotions.

similar to: "The Search" (Deep Space Nine), "Darkling" (Voyager)

my thoughts: After the monumental "Best of Both Worlds" that served as the blockbuster introduction (for many, although they debuted in "Q Who?") to the Borg, and the much more contemplative follow-up "I, Borg," how the Collective showed up again was a crucial and probably doomed to be controversial affair, especially when later appearances (Star Trek: First Contact, Voyager) seemed to contradict the conclusions to be found in "Descent."

(For those who want explanation, it could be argued that the Borg who appear here are the remnant of the invasion force from "Best of Both Worlds," where the rest of the Collective remains as it always was in the Delta Quadrant.  Remember that the Borg were already at the fringes of Federation space as early as the end of the first season, probably a scout force that may or may not be related to the cube from "Best of Both Worlds.")

Putting aside Borg developments, the key component of this half of the story (it concludes in the seventh season premiere) is Data's struggles with emotions, how they become addictive and uncontrollable (in ways completely different, and darker, than depicted in Star Trek Generations).  Simply put, this is Data like you've never seen him before, and it makes for riveting drama.

Voyager's Doctor experiences a whole different artificial existence.  He would often manipulate his own programming, with wide-ranging results, some of them as nasty as what Data experiences here (see: "Darkling").  Data usually experienced that sort of thing due to the manipulation of his android brother, Lore, who is of course once again responsible (the plot thickens in the second part on that score).

"Descent" is foreshadowing for the kind of storytelling Deep Space Nine would tell on a regular basis, starting with the full reveal of the Dominion in the two-part "The Search," which opened its third season.  Aside from the Klingon saga (last touched on in "Rightful Heir" a few episodes ago), Next Generation was still a relatively episodic adventure, where big events were mostly self-contained.  Although the following seventh and final season continued this trend, it's easy to imagine that if the series had continued, it might have eventually embraced further serialization, and "Descent" is an example of what that might have looked like.  Lore had been around since the first season.  This is the story where his saga concludes, in impressive grandiose fashion.  But again, more on that next episode.

The first part of "Descent," meanwhile, is fascinating in its own right.  Like "Birthright" before it, the episode is an ambitious attempt to tell two separate, and yet related, stories.  This half is all about Data's initial journey, and it can't help but feel more vital than its follow-up, as we're in the familiar context of his fellow officers the whole time.

For the boldness of its vision, it's another of the unusual classics, but a classic all the same.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Brent Spiner (Lore)
Stephen Hawking
John Neville
Natalia Nogulich (Nechayev)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Next Generation 6x25 "Timescape"

rating: *

the story: The crew experiences time distortions, including a Romulan ship that seems to have been completely frozen.

similar to: "Wink of an Eye" (original series), "Condundrum," "Cause and Effect" (Next Generation), "Blink of an Eye" (Voyager)

my thoughts: I'm once again fudging my criteria acknowledgments with "Timescape," as by my standards, it could easily be given both franchise- and series-relevant labels.  In the franchise, the original series episode "Wink of an Eye" is about a species that visits the ship at a different speed (think a whole species of superheroes like the Flash or Quicksilver) while in Voyager, the similarly-named "Blink of an Eye" features a whole world whose revolutions are quicker than average, and so civilization advances rapidly while Janeway's ship is lodged in orbit (the crew experiences time normally).

At any rate, real science fiction-heavy episodes like this are somewhat a dime a dozen, and as such are kind of the bread-and-butter of the franchise.  For my tastes, "Timescape" rings most true to Next Generation's fifth season contributions to this trend, "Conundrum" and "Cause and Effect," both of which I labeled classics.  As a late entry in the follow-up season, "Timescape" betrays a creative staff that's once again dragging its feet, which was something that plagued the staff at the beginning of the season, too. 

Which is to say, "Timescape" shares none of the brilliant spark of its predecessors.  It's a by-the-numbers affair, with the crew busy experiencing odd things (this is old hat for the series: see "Where No One Has Gone Before" from the first season, for instance).  By the time we get aboard the Romulan ship, and see that crew frozen in time, and play a cat-and-mouse game with the bad guy (unlike in "Conundrum," we don't get to hang out with him the whole episode), things pick up considerably, but by then it's too late.  Come to think of it, the odd chronal mechanics from Enterprise's "Future Tense" is a better example of this sort of story, too.

You can certainly enjoy "Timescape," but it's a distinctly minor affair.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Star Trek Beyond Cheat Sheet from the TV Franchise Perspective

I'm not one of those fans who see parallels and automatically think dark, judgmental thoughts.  I see parallels as significant resonance in storytelling, affirming what has come before by addressing it and saying something new, which is the basis of all good storytelling.  That being said, Star Trek Beyond brings plots from several key episodes you might want to keep in mind:

"The Tholian Web" (original series)
As an episode straight out of the bedrock franchise material from the '60s TV show, "Tholian Web" probably needs the least amount of introduction.  Known as much for the introduction of the Tholians (not actually seen until the Enterprise two-part "In a Mirror, Darkly"), it features, like Beyond, an lost Starfleet ship, the Defiant (Deep Space Nine later featured a warship called the Defiant, too), which Kirk finds himself aboard, separated from the rest of the crew (leaving, as in Beyond, Spock and McCoy to speculate about what comes next).

"Power Play" (The Next Generation)
Another lost Starfleet ship, the Essex, comes from the same general era as Beyond's Franklin, and Enterprise's namesake predecessor to the classic franchise line of flagships.  As in Beyond, Picard is confronted with a baffling situation focused on a Starfleet captain who isn't what he appears to be.  Both "Tholian Web" and "Power Play," as well as by extension Beyond, are a nod to the classic maritime problem of the potential for ships to be lost at sea, which in the case of "Power Play" and Beyond are indicative of the early problems Starfleet encountered in that regard.

"The Swarm" (Voyager)
Aside from similarities in the name of the episode and Krall's army of killer drone ships (hey, has anyone else mentioned that parallel with our modern warfare, the drones?), the way Kirk defeats Krall's drone fleet in Beyond is similar to how Janeway overcomes her enemies in this episode, too.  (There's a nice subplot involving the holographic Doctor in desperate need of repair, and getting help from a facsimile of his creator, Lewis Zimmerman, which might be considered in metaphor as a version of Beyond's commentary on the state of Starfleet, then and now.)

Taken as a whole, these episodes don't quite add up to Star Trek Beyond, just as the movie isn't merely a conglomeration of these, or any other, episodes.  Always be wary of commentators who gloss over creative decisions like that. 

Star Trek Discovery coming January 2017

At this past weekend's San Diego Comic-Con, Series VII was given a name: Star Trek Discovery.  Bryan Fuller also made it clear that Discovery will take place in the Prime Timeline, which for all you laymen means the same timeline as each of the previous six TV shows and the first ten movies (The Motion Picture thru Star Trek Nemesis).

He also confirmed that Discovery will feature serialized storytelling, meaning each episode leads directly into the next.  Given the title, and Fuller's comments (read about them here), it seems the new series will also put a strong focus on the practical aspects of Starfleet life, by which I mean following the familiar mandate of exploration rather than (presumably) the more action-oriented nature of the film series.

The title, to me, seems like another nod to Star Trek's Western, frontier-style roots.  The Corps of Discovery, the team around the famous explorers Lewis & Clark, were among the early pioneers of westward expansion in the United States, a precursor to the settlements behind the concept of Wagon Train, a TV series that was one of Gene Roddenberry's inspirations for Star Trek.  If much of the franchise has reflected the obvious maritime traditions behind Starfleet ranks and travels across space, it seems fitting (Deep Space Nine's outpost metaphor, the space station, is Discovery's predecessor in this regard) that the frontier returns to the forefront of a franchise that has always called space the final frontier.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Star Trek Beyond review

Star Trek Beyond is a hugely successful continuation of the 2009 reboot series.  As directed by the experienced Fast & Furious franchise hand of Justin Lin, it resonates throughout franchise lore, and makes a profound statement anyone can appreciate.  On the latter score, that's a somewhat unique achievement in the film series, of which this is the thirteenth overall installment.

This is a movie that outlines everything you need to know about James T. Kirk, both personally and how he confronts his duties as a Starfleet captain.  His exploration of deep space has left him questioning why he's doing this at all, especially after unrewarding experiences like the one that starts out the movie, in which he fails spectacularly at bridging the gap between two alien worlds, despite the best of intentions.  He's ready to walk away, and then another crisis breaks out.  As he's always been, Kirk is at his best, and most effective, when dealing with crises.  The whole movie is about him finally realizing what he brings to the table.  It's no longer about justifying himself to Starfleet (as in the two previous movies), but to himself.

The big threat is Krall, who depicts the antithesis of the Federation mandate: he believes unity to be a weakness.  As the film progresses, we learn who and what Krall really is (something perhaps more elegantly handled in Beyond than its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness), and how he came to his conclusions.  It's a story ripped from the headlines, as with the best Star Trek plots.  Just as we're confronted with an Arab world bewildered by the advances of the West, we have members of our own society equally baffled by the demands of change, and the effects of war.

It's also a story of the frontier.  Star Trek is the last of the great Westerns, in some respects.  Originally conceived as a Western in space, seldom is that concept more relevant than in Beyond.  Krall's opposition to the Federation may also be correlated with the encroachment of white settlers in Native American territory, and how this frequently proved to be impossible to reconcile.  We've been so busy thinking of the Federation as the good guys, it's truly startling for anyone, other than implacable foes like the Klingon and Romulan races (who were represented as such in the last three movies, and others besides, not to mention many instances throughout the TV adventures), to present another view.

This is an expansive vision, with a rich depiction of Star Trek's vision of the future, the clash of cultures and what it means to be a part of it (from Kirk to Krall to resourceful refugee Jaylah, who helps Kirk defeat his enemy).

Idris Elba (Krall) and Sofia Boutella (Jaylah) are both wonderful additions to Star Trek's acting family, adding richly to its diversity in a number of ways, both in their casting (Elba is the first black actor to play a villain in a Star Trek movie) and their voices (Boutella's accent is equally unique in franchise lore).  And they're only part of the increased diversity in the film, from the aliens to the sexual orientation (Sulu is famously depicted as gay in this movie, yet another first for Star Trek).  In addition, the fears everyone had of Deep Roy's Keenser being turned into a Guardians of the Galaxy figure were lightly rebuffed (his colds, however, are not to be messed with!).  Shohreh Aghdashloo's presence lends further dramatic and cultural credibility to the proceedings.

Filled with wonderful character moments, some killer comedy beats, and a deep plot, Beyond joins the elite of Star Trek movies, not just as, arguably, the best of the reboot era, but one of the best, period.  It's a heck of a way to celebrate the franchise's fiftieth anniversary.

Your Star Trek Beyond Cheat Sheet

The 2009 reboot films have done a remarkable job synthesizing existing Star Trek mythology, and Star Trek Beyond is no different.  Put on your seatbelts, settle in, (prepare for spoilers), and enjoy this little primer on everything you need to know (plus a few cool callbacks) in order to enjoy this new movie from a franchise perspective:

  • U.S.S. Franklin - This century-old starship Kirk and company bring back into working order to stop Krall's plans to destroy the starbase Yorktown (we'll get back to that) is taken from the early Starfleet era depicted in Star Trek: Enterprise, which features the first ship to be called the Enterprise, an experimental design that's the first to hit warp 5.  The Franklin is said to be the first ship to hit Warp 4.  It's reasonable to assume that it was a design Starfleet worked on in the run-up to the NX-01 (Enterprise), and was later added to the expanding fleet (as the NX-326, if I remember the placard correctly).
  • M.A.C.O.s - Its captain, who is introduced as Krall but later turns out to be commanding officer of the Franklin, was previously a M.A.C.O., an army service that helped feed the ranks of the emerging Starfleet program (Enterprise's Malcolm Reed came from a similar background).  M.A.C.O.s were featured in Enterprise's third season, which featured the Xindi conflict referenced in Beyond.
  • Xindi & Romulan conflicts  - Speaking of the Xindi conflict, Elba's character also talks about a Romulan conflict.  He's not talking about the events of 2009's Star Trek, which featured the rogue Romulan named Nero, but rather the Romulan War, which took place soon after the events of Enterprise and were the last time in the original canon anyone had contact with Romulans until the original series episode "Balance of Terror."
  • Starbase Yorktown - The starbase Yorktown is named in honor of Gene Roddenberry's name for the startship in his first vision of Star Trek.  This draft came even before the abandoned pilot "The Cage," which was later incorporated into the two-part "The Menagerie;" the original vision, featuring the Yorktown, had as its captain Robert April, who was later featured in the Animated Series episode "The Counter-Clock Incident," the last episode of the series, in fact.
  • The Yorktown is actually takes the design of the original vision for the space station featured in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
  • Three years into the mission - It might be said that Beyond is a metaphor of the fate of the original TV series, with events coming to a head and seeming conclusion three years into a five-year mission, with the crew forced to justify its ideals in the face of an implacable foe (previously, merely cancellation).  Kirk references the episodic nature of his experiences, which is a nod to the series, which is often described as episodic in nature, one mission distinct from the next, which is to say unrelated.
  • Cultural differences - The beginning of the movie features a humorous sequence in which Kirk attempts to make peace between two worlds, which proves difficult when a symbolic gesture from one world means something else entirely in the next.  Archer faced blunders of this kind in Enterprise ("A Night in Sickbay") during the formative years of Starfleet.
  • Death of Ambassador Spock - Those seeing their first Star Trek movie with Beyond may not be aware of the significance of the birth and death years depicted in the movie, assuming he had a fairly short life.  On the contrary, Spock is observing the death of his counterpart from the original timeline, where they share a birth year, but Ambassador Spock lived on to the time of Picard (his journey in pursuit of Nero as depicted in Star Trek takes place after Nemesis), and his death picks up where he emerged in his own past.  His death is a nod to actor Leonard Nimoy's death in the real world.
  • Absent friends - At the end of the movie, Kirk proposes a toast to his crew.  As he references absent friends, the camera focuses on Chekov.  This is a nod to the recent death of the actor who portrayed in these films, Anton Yelchin, which is referenced in the credits with the "For Anton" card.

Now, some throwbacks to prior movies:
  • The destruction of the Enterprise - This is something that happened twice previously, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek Generations.  The saucer separation happens in both Generations and Beyond.
  • Abandoning ship - The ship is abandoned in Search for Spock, although it's a limited crew complement (just the main characters, due to unique circumstances), and everyone beams safely away.  The crew also abandons ship in Star Trek: First Contact, in a similar fashion to how it's depicted in Beyond.
  • Getting an unlocking sequence accomplished - Speaking of First Contact, the way Kirk desperately must unlock a series of panels as he struggles against Krall in Beyond is similar to a sequence in which Picard and Worf desperately work to detach the deflector beacon and thus deprive the Borg of their main weapon in First Contact.
  • Rogue villain taking on the whole Federation - This may seem somewhat unique to the terrorism era we're living in, but it's something Star Trek has been doing since at least Search for Spock, in which a rogue Klingon warrior attempts to lay claim to the Genesis Device (it might be argued that Khan is similarly engaged in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but he's pretty singularly focused on Kirk as a target).  Anyway, all four of the Picard movies (Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis) feature what at the time looked almost like Bond villains (Tom Hardy's Shinzon in Nemesis even unmistakably evokes recurring Bond foe Blofeld, last appearing in 2015's Spectre and portrayed by Christoph Waltz), feature this type of villain.  Nero fits this model perfectly, and might be the easiest example to spot, and he's probably best understood in that light, the one we're unfortunately experiencing with alarming frequency these days.  I'm told anarchists, a century ago, used to use dynamite like this, for what it's worth.
  • The passage of time - Kirk deals with this in Wrath of Khan and its predecessor, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, although circumstances have changed considerably.  In the original universe, it's because Kirk is literally aging.  In this one, it's because he's now older than his father (George Kirk, depicted in Star Trek) was at the time of his heroic death.
  • Spock considers leaving Starfleet - Not only is this a nod to the events of Star Trek and their lingering effects, but it evokes Leonard Nimoy's repeated intentions to distance himself from the franchise, both in the aborted second live-action TV series (which later gave way to The Motion Picture, where Spock does appear) but Wrath of Khan as well (Spock's death originally conceived as a way for Nimoy to gracefully exit; he returns promptly in Search for Spock).

This one's for the Star Trek vs. Star Wars fans:
  • For as long as these franchises have existed alongside each other, the debate has been constant.  And while the Star Trek movies have often tried to ramp up the action Star Wars helped bring to sci-fi movies, the 2009 reboot and its increased budget made the distinction harder than ever to distinguish.  I think Beyond makes a pretty clear statement, in contrast to the recent Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens, in the similar characters of Jaylah (Beyond) and Rey (Force Awakens).  Both are living in the ruins of an old ship.  One of those ships becomes crucial to the rest of the movie (Jaylah's, which is the Franklin), whereas the other is quickly replaced by a more familiar, albeit well-loved, relic (the Millennium Falcon).  Who Jaylah is and how she helps resolve matters is accomplished in one film, while Rey's journey will likely continue for another two films (a Star Wars custom).  Where Star Wars handles the fate of empires, Star Trek is keenly concerned with the fate of ideals.  (Clearly, they both value the merits of friendship and heroic commitment.)

The Next Generation 6x24 "Second Chances"

rating: ***

the story: Riker discovers his transporter duplicate.

similar to: "Defiant" (Deep Space Nine)

my thoughts: As opposed to episodes where a character is split apart (the original series' "The Enemy Within" or Voyager's "Faces") or simply melded together (Voyager's "Tuvix"), "Second Chances" has the distinction of introducing a permanent alternate version (not counting the Mirror Universe, naturally) of a main character.

Transporters accidents are a classic franchise trope, and on that score "Chances" may be the prototypical example, in some ways the nightmare scenario even worse than somehow dying from one (although that happened in The Motion Picture, too).  But most significantly, not only does Thomas Riker come into existence, he actually returns later, too (Deep Space Nine's "Defiant").  That means everything this episode concludes had an additional layer of resonance.

"Chances" might be considered a what-may-have-been story (Voyager is chalk-full of those!), from the unique perspective of it actually playing out.  Thomas Riker (the transporter duplicate) was created before Will Riker became the man we're familiar with (in some ways, "Tapestry" without the reset), which means, among other things, the famous Riker/Troi romance that was one of the worst teases of the series gets to be revisited, and in some ways addressed directly for the first time.

Although the episode somewhat glosses over how Thomas was able to survive on his own for as long as he did (unlike those pesky Soong androids, no reassembly required!), it's a nifty reminder that nearly everyone in this series has a similar origin story, where they were literally scooped up from the ruins of a shattered life, and had to somehow make good and start anew.  You can actually enjoy "Chances" for that peek into all the stories we mostly only really heard about over the years.

Because I don't think "Second Chances" is a classic, I'm going to classify, besides its distinction as an essential character piece for Riker, as a series recommendation over a franchise one, although this is kind of splitting hairs.  Bottom line, it's a 3-star affair.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Jonathan Frakes (Thomas Riker)
Mae Jemison

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Next Generation 6x23 "Rightful Heir"

rating: ****

the story: The clone of the legendary Klingon warrior Kahless causes considerable political turmoil among his people.

similar to: "Way of the Warrior" (Deep Space Nine), "Barge of the Dead" (Voyager)

my thoughts: After the intensity of the series Klingon arc begun in "Sins of the Father" three seasons earlier, the "Redemption" climax made it look like not only had it become difficult to continue ("Rightful Heir" arrives nearly two seasons later), anything that tried to had to do something truly out of the ordinary to justify itself.

"Rightful Heir" does exactly that.  The legendary Kahless is second only to Vulcan's Surak as a great historical figure in Star Trek's aliens mythology, said to have, like Surak, set his people on their present course.  Both of them debuted in the original series episode "The Savage Curtain" (Surak would have to wait ten more years, in an Enterprise three-part episode, to have his return engagement).  The idea of cloning comes up surprisingly sparsely in franchise lore (Deep Space Nine's Vorta are big proponents; Next Generation's "Up the Long Ladder" makes the Dominion's Vorta program look virtuous by comparison), but that's how Kahless ends up in this episode.  Cloning itself isn't even the issue (somewhat surprisingly), but what to do with Kahless now that he's, for all intents and purposes, back.

As a standalone Klingon episode (unlike every other Next Generation effort, following "Sins"), "Rightful Heir" thusly has a unique position.  If you somehow don't have the time to sift through the whole preceding arc, in which we eventually meet Gowron and see how he becomes Chancellor of the High Council, you can still enjoy his predicament in a different kind of power struggle (the Dominion War in Deep Space Nine eventually gives him another, don't worry!).  Caught in the middle, as always, is Worf.

This is another Next Generation preview of Deep Space Nine, in a way.  The importance of spiritual beliefs would become an increasingly important part of Deep Space Nine mythology.  Worf's struggles here are similar to the ones Kira and Sisko continually face.  Again, if you somehow don't have time to parse through a whole series, "Rightful Heir" fits the bill for that, too.

As far as exploring Klingon mythology goes, Voyager later features the Klingon afterlife in "Barge of the Dead."  Worf is caught in an equally tricky situation, in a crossroads of his career, in his Deep Space Nine debut, "Way of the Warrior."

But I don't mean to bog you down in a lot of references you either will or won't track down.  "Rightful Heir" works in its own right, which is mainly why I'm classifying it as a classic.  The bottom line is, this is a story about the messiness of actually confronting a legend, and whether or not they can live up to their reputation.  It does the idea justice.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Robert O'Reilly (Gowron)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Next Generation 6x22 "Suspicions"

rating: ****

the story: Crusher's investigation into the death of a Ferengi scientist puts her career into jeopardy.

similar to: "Remember Me," "Ethics"

my thoughts: The question about The Next Generation is how Crusher was so easy to drop after the first season, and what was gained when she returned again in the third, because she remained a notoriously difficult character to crack.  Most of the time, it seemed as if the failure was on the part of the actress portraying her, Gates McFadden, but the fact that nearly every episode that focused on Crusher featured a single theme might also be telling.

Simply put, Crusher tended to box herself into corners.  In "Ethics" it was, as the title of the episode implies, her ethical stance against a colleague who otherwise epitomizes the Star Trek custom to feature mavericks of their respective fields (if they're a main character, this is a good thing, and if they're not, it's not).  Next Generation, in the choice not even to have a main character portray the chief engineer in the first season, seemed to shy away from the idea of exceptionalism, with the cautious Picard leading the way. 

There's also "Remember Me," in which Crusher is as literally isolated as you can get (although this sort of thing happened to other Star Trek regulars, too), with everyone disappearing around her, and no one believing Crusher when she attempts to explain what's happening.  Taken together, "Remember Me" and "Ethics" present a pretty convincing portrait of who and what Crusher was in the series ("Sub Rosa" can be included as well, but to no one's credit).

What does this have to do with "Suspicions"?  This is the episode where this portrait of the character comes together.  This is one of those episodes with a framing narrative where we meet the character after the worst of it has already happened (Deep Space Nine's "Whispers" is a similar achievement, while that show's "In the Pale Moonlight" is the best one, and Voyager's "Thirty Days" is a step or two below), but more than that, it's about explaining why Crusher is so easy to isolate, because she's a character who isolates herself, and it takes extreme circumstances to prove it.

"Ethics" made it look like she was merely the good guy, and "Remember Me" was merely a fun experience.  "Suspicions" paints Crusher into such a corner that she feels the only way to get out is to actually remove herself entirely from the equation, risk everything to prove she was right about her investigation. 

In the best way, "Suspicions" challenges everything the viewer thinks it knows about Star Trek.  Like Enterprise's "Judgment," which introduced a Klingon who wasn't happy to be defined as a warrior, the presence and significance of a Ferengi scientist blows open the classic stereotype that even a prejudice-free concept like Star Trek can let creep in when introducing alien cultures.  Even as Deep Space Nine was introducing Ferengi who weren't merely villains or comic relief (although they could still be both), and hadn't yet introduced further wrinkles into the culture (the second and third seasons would do that), Next Generation finally suggesting that itself, for having produced all the stereotypes to begin with, was a bold move, one seemingly buried in a story that focuses on Crusher instead of the scientist.  It's not merely about producing sympathetic characters in a species otherwise considered the enemy (the series did that with Romulans all the time).  No, to go out of its way and find that ill-fated little Ferengi was kind of a metaphor for Crusher, too.

Look below the surface.  It took six seasons, but Crusher was finally figured out.  And she helps bring further depth to the series, and franchise, along the way.  Yeah, I've been guilty of making Crusher look bad.  Sometimes it's all too easy.  But she has a way of bringing out the most surprising material, too, in a very good way.

"Suspicions" is a classic in ways few other classic episodes are.  Like Crusher herself, it may be easy to overlook, but it shouldn't be.

This one's also notable as the last time Guinan appears in a TV episode.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)
James Horan

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Next Generation 6x21 "Frame of Mind"

rating: **

the story: Riker tries to figure out why he's been committed to an asylum.

similar to: "Phantasms"

my thoughts: This is a fun Riker episode, one of his most memorable (things kind of got sparse for Number One after the second season, when he was still in the running to replace Picard as the most interesting commanding officer of Next Generation; strangely enough, this was the exact fate of Chakotay in Voyager, too), in which numerous perspectives are juggled, including his memories of performing in one of Crusher's plays, his being locked in an asylum, and deciding if he's really crazy or someone's just trying to make him think he is...

So, I repeat: fun!  Although, like the later "Phantasms," the basic idea seems to have been inspired by Data's dreaming in "Birthright, Part 1" (I guess I'm not the only one who felt unsatisfied by how that played out). 

Bottom line, without too much analysis required, is that you can lose yourself in this one without worrying too much about its significance.  That's the mark of a good, not great, episode.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Susanna Thompson

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Brief Introduction to Star Trek's Movies (1979-2013)

With the imminent release of Star Trek Beyond in theaters, you may be wondering, you potential newbie to the franchise, what to make of the previous twelve movies.  No doubt you've already heard quite a few definitive statements about which ones are excellent (Wrath of Khan normally gets that kind of acclaim) and which are skippable (Final Frontier).  As with everything else, Star Trek Fan Companion is here to give you the insider's look, but from the perspective of not having to be a fan...

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
This first in the series was exactly a decade in the making.  The three seasons of the original TV series concluded in 1969 (there was a short-lived animated series a few years later, plus an attempted live-action revival that led directly to The Motion Picture).  You have to keep in mind that, other than the massive success of Star Wars, which was what prompted The Motion Picture into existence, the defining mark of science fiction on the big screen was 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the elegiac hard science statement about man's origins and destiny that remains a cultural touchstone to this day (both due to its director, Stanley Kubrick, and the reputation of the author of the original book, Arthur C. Clarke).

This resulted in a clash of expectations.  Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry didn't envision a sci-fi landscape like Star Wars.  His was the more cerebral approach.  He was always more interested in the human condition, what motivates us, how we react to adversity, and reacting to the state of the world as he found it (the TV show heavily commented on things like race relations and the Vietnam War).  So the first Star Trek movie was always going to be more 2001 than Star Wars.  In fact, The Motion Picture might best be understood as Star Trek's answer to 2001, rather than to Star Wars.

Its reputation, in the nearly forty years since its release, has been a response to the plodding nature of the quest to solve the riddle of what's been plowing through space.  You can consider two additional Star Trek films (The Voyage Home and The Final Frontier) as direct creative responses to how to tell this same story differently, with more of a lively atmosphere to the proceedings.  Here, though, they're dominated by the moody James Kirk, who's having a hard time dealing with the fact that history has passed him by.  Decker has replaced him as captain of the Enterprise.  The story is really about whether or not he unfairly steps over Decker to resume command of the ship, regardless of the circumstances.  It's about whether there really are things bigger than us, not as a species but as individuals.  That's why it becomes Decker's story as much as Kirk's, as he becomes intertwined in the fate of the woman he once loved, Ilia, who becomes an avatar of the phenomenon they're investigating.  There's also Spock, who wonders if there's still something for him in the world of emotions.

Echoes of echoes of the major theme, which crystalizes in the realization that the enemy is really an old Earth probe, which is looking for its creator, and has no idea that mankind is what it's been looking for.  It's lost touch with reality, and in its desperate attempt to reconnect, it's created all kinds of havoc along the way.

The Motion Picture is a creative statement that stands in stark contrast to the movie ethos Star Wars represented, and so fans have had a difficult time accepting it, even though it may be the definitive franchise statement in film.  In their rush to embrace Kirk again, fans kind of ignored that The Motion Picture perfectly captures Kirk's character, ten years later...

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The result of this fundamental disconnect was the second movie being the exact opposite of the first one, despite sharing many of the same themes.  Once again, Kirk is aging and not sure what to do with himself, and the villain is driven by motivations he doesn't clearly understand, except as direct reaction to a situation that is beyond him.  (Yeah!  Bet you never heard Khan described that way before!)  We meet Kirk's son, David Marcus, who is exactly like him, but doesn't see it because their lives are pointed in opposite directions.  And, Spock dies.

This is the fan-friendly film that's been enthusiastically embraced since its release.  It revived popular interest in the franchise, and was acceptable to anyone whose previous touchstone was Star Wars, and like the original Star Trek series but wanted the original cast to have more life to it.  It's filled with iconic moments, none of which are more iconic than Spock's death.  Khan was the villain a story could really sink its teeth into, and again, fans could appreciate without thinking too much about.

Needless to say, I've never been a part of the Wrath of Khan bandwagon.  As depicted, genetic superman Khan is a moron.  The submarine warfare he engages in with Kirk may not be anything he was familiar with in his heyday (the Eugenics Wars of Star Trek's 1990s), but he's so consistently outsmarted that it really boils down to the surprise of his return, and nothing more, that motivates the whole story.  The Genesis Device, which serves as a handy metaphor (and deus ex machine if you don't want your friendly neighborhood Vulcan to stay dead).

Because Wrath of Khan was so important to making Star Trek cool again (at least, among fans), it's always held a special place in the franchise, as the movie by which all others are compared.  But, objectively, it really doesn't age well (Khan's minions look hopelessly dated, like the residents of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome ten years early, and eternally '80s), and its plotting is about as thin as you can get.  It's certainly memorable, but it's not the creative gold standard you've been led to believe it is.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Its follow-up actually comes closer.  This is one of the first direct sequels in film, from the modern, post-Star Wars era.  As the title suggests, it's all about bringing Spock back to life.  By its own logic, it's completely logical, and even lyrical.  This is what it looks like when the franchise tries to tell a franchise story, which remained unique until Star Trek: The Next Generation on TV started looking into Klingon affairs more closely, which led directly to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Enterprise, which were all about telling stories directly from the franchise bible.

But because it's so directly related to Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock never gets near the same kind of love.  It appears so much more inevitable, less spontaneous, and therefor less vital an experience.  But you really can't have one without the other.  The first two Superman films are kind of like this, except Superman II remains popular because of its memorable focus on General Zod, whereas the villain of Search for Spock, a Klingon played by Christopher Lloyd (a year before his most memorable role, in Back to the Future), can't compare to Khan, even though the movie does what its predecessor, amazingly never did: have Kirk physically confront his enemy.  (Although, in brief, the choreography doesn't really do the encounter justice, which actually keeps it in-line with the lousy stunts of the original series.) 

If Spock returns, then a price must be paid.  Actually, a pair of sacrifices, one of them being David Marcus, and the other the Enterprise.  These are dramatic moments that rival Spock's death, as does the varied tone of the movie itself, rather than the heaviness everywhere on display in Wrath of Khan (in its own way, extending the legacy of The Motion Picture in that regard).  Clearly this is still Star Trek in the Star Wars vein, but Search for Spock injects so much character unique to the franchise (any scene involving McCoy), it's hard to argue that it's trying to do so, so much as carrying on the ethic of the movie (Wrath of Khan) that did.

Subsequently, I've always considered Search for Spock better. 

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
"The one with the whales" is actually the first time the movies directly reflected Roddenberry's idea that Star Trek is really all about the message.  Ostensibly the conclusion of a franchise trilogy (Kirk and crew must answer for the theft of the Enterprise in the last one), Voyage Home is ultimately Star Trek's answer to the strong environmentalist push that began in the '80s.

It's also the one where everyone learns that the levity Search for Spock served up could be expanded.  It's the one where the goofiness of the classic episode "The Trouble with Tribbes" erupts on the big screen, as the crew finds itself strangers in a strange land, future humans forced to contend with the world of the 1980s, in all its glory.  (Chekov inquiring after the location of "nuclear wessels" remains one of the best memories anyone has of these films.)

Fans tend to be embarrassed by this one, even though of the first ten movies it was the biggest hit at the box office (which meant a lot of people who weren't necessarily fans quite enjoyed it).  This notion is absurd, that Voyage Home can't be enjoyable just because it's not drenched in heavy plotting.  This is probably the first movie anyone could watch in the franchise, and totally get its appeal, no explanation needed.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Long maligned as the worst of the movies featuring the original cast, Final Frontier is about as true to the experience of the original series as the movies ever get, and now that's twenty years removed from the TV experience.  And it shows.  Fans no longer have any need to reference the series when thinking about the films.  That's the Wrath of Khan effect for you.

Taking cues from Search for Spock, Final Frontier tries to be a grand action-filled adventure, featuring a villain who isn't as memorable as Khan (again), and the greatest peril anyone really faces being at the very beginning of the film, when Kirk goes mountain-climbing.  It also smacks in the face of expectations by playing around with franchise mythology, introducing Spock's half-brother (the villain), who isn't particularly Vulcan even though, unlike Spock (whose mother was human), he is full Vulcan. 

For all that, and for all its limitations, Final Frontier isn't that bad.  As a bonding experience between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy (something denied and/or delayed by Spock's death previously), it's a fun experience, and you can probably leave it at that.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
This allegory for the end of the Cold War is arguably the best of the original cast films meant to evoke the Star Wars aesthetic.  It's an adventure, but it also has a message, and talks very frankly about the perils of racism (not for nothing does Chekov evoke the movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, where a white girl brings home her black boyfriend to astonished parents; here the strange bedfellows are the Klingons).

It's both a story where franchise mythology counts, significantly (without needing a specific tether, as with the villainous Khan), but it's also a story that can stand on its own, and be viewed from a number of standpoints.  And as the last of the movies featuring a mature cast, it doesn't demand any awkward action beats from the actors.  Instead, they're finally allowed the dignity of positions they would have assumed years ago, if only those pesky movies with all their Star Wars demands hadn't gotten in the way. 

Star Trek Generations (1994)
Living up to the billing of finally uniting Kirk with his Next Generation counterpart, Picard, was always going to be difficult, especially when fans were bound to be upset that only one of them would come out of it alive (hint: not Kirk).  For a series of movies that had been awkwardly juggling their place in the greater film lore since The Motion Picture, this was always going to be an impossible order.

So Generations subverts all expectations, and does the sci-fi equivalent of the classic Western showdown.  This was always fitting, because Roddenberry envisioned Star Trek as a sci-fi Western.  Next Generation fans got a huge bonus from the proceedings when Data, the android who spent seven seasons desperately yearning to become more human, got emotions, even if they end up playing havoc.  Picard's emotions are running high, too, when he learns that his brother and as a result the last of the continuing Picard lineage has died, a metaphor for anyone wondering whether Star Trek dies with Kirk.  (Notably, no one ever got that metaphor.) 

Patrick Stewart, who portrayed Picard, was always noted as the most capable thespian Star Trek ever saw, and Generations was the first attempt to give him something worthy of his talents.  And yet, by the end of the movie, the emotional journey he takes ends with him simply mourning Kirk's death, along with everyone else.  Fans tend to feel cheated by Generations, and that's probably the metaphor to keep in mind.  But it's a truly magical experience, everything Final Frontier hoped to be.  Fitting, in a way.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
For a different generation (heh), First Contact is the new Wrath of Khan.  It's thrilling adventure you thought Star Trek could never produce, infused with series-specific foes (this time, the Borg).  And it's a story so focused on getting the best out of Picard, it pushes him to the breaking point (something other stories tried, but here finally happens, in the "ready room sequence" where he tries to explain his complex attitude toward his enemies, which is a story point the film builds toward from the very first scene, and absolutely delivers on).

It's hard for me to even pretend to be objective about this one, because it's been an unabashed favorite for twenty years.  So let's just move along.

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
The "long episode" one, although I think its biggest problem is that Insurrection introduces a classic Star Trek message that's still difficult to accept, despite the fact that literally the whole history of the United States, where these movies are made, is built on the legacy of what it seeks to address: the plight of Native Americans. 

There's a certain amount of Final Frontier clunkiness built into Insurrection, which like its predecessor was envisioned as the opposite of the film that came before it.  Fans really liked First Contact.  So anything that tried something different (because, as with Wrath of Khan, part of First Contact's charm is that it adequately fills Star Wars-inspired expectations for action-heavy sci-fi films).  The studio tried to sell Picard's moral stance as a rebellion against the Federation itself (it wasn't).  And any attempt to sell fans on completely new aliens (by this point, dedicated ones had built up an idea that it had to be mythology-specific, and even on that score, Insurrection failed to directly address then Dominion War arc playing out concurrently in Deep Space Nine).

Bottom line, this was the ninth Star Trek films.  Mainstream audiences didn't care.  And fans generally didn't, either.  Not that it was the film's fault.

Star Trek Nemesis (2002)
Because Wrath of Khan was such a touchstone for fans, anytime another film even slightly evoked it, they tended to shrink back in defensive postures.  Nemesis, which casts Picard against the specter of his youth (that's a story that goes all the way back to The Motion Picture, thank you very much) in the Romulan-engineered clone Shinzon (Tom Hardy's headlining debut), is filled with too many action beats (as opposed to how this was embraced with First Contact) for fans increasingly confused as to what they want. 

Wider audiences, meanwhile, had Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings leading the charge for Hollywood, which was about to finally crack the Star Wars code (about thirty years later).  Star Trek, which had been the leading contender during that timeframe, was now an also-ran, and its contribution all but completely ignored, and outright derided by fans.

Yet the film itself is the most mature statement from the Picard era, like Undiscovered Country before it speaking to the fate of empires, but also directly to the soul of Picard himself, who had gotten this kind of treatment for three films already, but never to an extent where he couldn't cope, never so that defeat was actually possible.  The death of Data was considered the most egregious lift from Wrath of Khan, but it's serves as a perfect metaphor (Spock's death was one, too) for Picard's success, or failure, in the preceding events.  Star Trek was always about making you think about why things happened.  Look at the fallen face of Picard, as Shinzon impales himself, as Data sacrifices himself.  Words, for once, cannot express the depth of what has happened.  Nemesis concludes the cinematic adventures of Picard by deciding he's best left speechless.  It's as bold a creative statement as The Motion Picture's leisurely pace.

Star Trek (2009)
The J.J. Abrams reboot has drawn considerable ire from fans for having embraced the Star Wars conceit.  Ironic, isn't it?  These are also the most successful films in the series at the box office.  These are big adventures, but also the ones that ask the most of its characters, whose individual journeys are more important than the action around them.

Here, we explore the journeys of Kirk and Spock as never before, and find out what made them such good friends to begin with (hint: they started out despising each other).  If Roddenberry always envisioned a future where we finally put our differences behind us, Star Trek is finally where we see it happen with the characters themselves.  Tellingly, it's a message that's gone on deaf ears.  I mean, just look at the news today...

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
This delicate rephrasing of Wrath of Khan predictably enraged fans (they list this as the worst Star Trek movie!), even as it resonates deeply with everything that came before it, in the best possible way.  In the age of terrorism (which Star Trek has always explored, from Bajorans to Maquis to Xindi) and secret police in the post-Cold War world, what would using Khan look like?  As fans thought of the film itself (again, ironically), it turns out to be a bad idea, and also a good one.  I mean, without Khan, the bad guys would have gotten away with it. 

This is complex storytelling, and it's the very finest tradition of observing the mythology, and building on it.  Into Darkness proves that the new Star Trek movies aren't just the franchise version of Star Wars (but, that's been going on anyway, since Wrath of Khan) (again, ironically!), but about seeing how well these things can really be made, with all the stops finally let out.  There's a marked difference between Nemesis and Star Trek, even though they were both made in the same era.  That's not just filmmaking at work, but budget.  Now, every blockbuster is given an outrageous budget.  But the results are usually far less ambitious than Star Trek as it was always conceived.

So, let's see how they stack up:
  1. Star Trek: First Contact (big on emotion, action, resonance)
  2. Star Trek (the movies as fans always wanted them, and general audiences, too)
  3. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (the original cast at its most dynamic)
  4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the original cast at its most profound)
  5. Star Trek Into Darkness (the perfect follow-up)
  6. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (the perfect sequel)
  7. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the big vision at its most viewer-friendly)
  8. Star Trek Nemesis (wrestling the deepest depths of the franchise)
  9. Star Trek Generations (the epic encounter)
  10. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the fan benchmark)
  11. Star Trek: Insurrection (the big vision at its most challenging)
  12. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (the biggest question, the original vision)

The Next Generation 6x20 "The Chase"

rating: **

the story: Picard becomes involved in the search for the intergalactic ancestor species.

similar to: "The Jihad" (Animated Series)

my thoughts: The last Picard-heavy episode of the season (seriously! count among them: "Time's Arrow, Part 2," "Chain of Command, Part 2," "Tapestry," "Starship Mine," and "Lessons," which covers about as broad a portrait of a Star Trek character in any season, any series, as you'll ever see) features the good captain indulging his love of archeology when his mentor dies, passing along his greatest discovery to his most famous pupil. 

(If you're looking for ways the mature Picard developed, other than "Tapestry," you can count the influence of Professor Galen along with Groundskeeper Boothby's.)

This is like the franchise equivalent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or The Da Vinci Code, the big mystery thriller that's about as Next Generation as it can get, bogged down in inter-species relations that never really degenerate past cultural differences, and everyone gets to share in the discovery, where Star Trek meets Salome Jens (the Female Founder in Deep Space Nine) for the first time, and gets to hear how her species populated the galaxy.  It's a very '90s explanation, one Ridley Scott later picked up for his Aliens prequel, Prometheus.  Really, given all the ancient artifacts that populate the franchise, it's about as likely an explanation as Star Trek will ever give. 

Aliens working together was also the theme of The Animated Series' "The Jihad" (not to mention the bedrock of the United Federation of Planets).  If ever Next Generation came close to resolving all the conflicts of the Star Trek world, this was it.  But of course, as Deep Space made clear, that didn't really happen.  You could also consider "The Chase" the episodic equivalent of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

But it's kind of soft-shoe for the deeper stories from the season, and series in general, so I wouldn't get too worked up about it.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Salome Jens

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Next Generation 6x19 "Lessons"

rating: **

the story: Picard finds himself falling for a member of his crew.

similar to: "Fair Haven" (Voyager)

my thoughts: "Lessons" is at once an unexpected follow-up to "The Inner Light" (Picard plays the flute again!) and the object-lesson in why romance is so difficult for starship captains (unless you're Kirk, although I guess that kind of goes double for him).  It's both odd and appropriate that this particular lesson is learned by Picard, who stretched out a romance with Crusher across a whole series, four movies, their backstories, and never found any actual resolution...

In Voyager's "Fair Haven," Janeway is so hard-up for love she considers romance with a hologram.  That's how tough it can be.  Sisko had it easy!  All he had to do was get past his suspicions that his girl was a Maquis rebel.  (She wasn't.)  For Picard, it means walking through the perils of supervising (every workplace warns you about this) your love interest, his being in the unfortunate position of determining whether or not she goes on dangerous away missions, and fretting the whole time if she does go on one (and of course she does). 

For me, and maybe a lot of other viewers, "Lessons" is best remembered for the literal music Picard makes with his lover.  Music has always been a part of the franchise, whether Uhura's singing or Riker's trombone playing.  When Picard experienced someone else's lifetime ("The Inner Light"), he unexpectedly acquired a new skill, which was playing the flute.  "Lessons" is where he discovers he still has plenty left to learn about it, and his improvisations ("Frere Jacques" never sounded so good!) are every bit worth watching the episode to hear. 

That's about it.  "Lessons" is an episode worth watching as a fan, but I'm pretty sure the uninitiated will get it, too. 

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Next Generation 6x18 "Starship Mine"

rating: *

the story: Picard must defend the ship against a gang of pirates.

similar to: "Macrocosm" (Voyager), "Acquisition" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: Picard's Die Hard moment and audition for his action-heavy appearances in the films is a fun little romp (say hello to Tim Russ's franchise debut; see you in a few years, Voyager!), repeated a couple of times (Janeway's commando turn in Voyager's "Macrocosm;" Enterprise's Ferengi episode, "Acquisition") for good effect (hey, it makes for good entertainment!), and features some fun character moments, both for Picard (remember that he's a horse-riding fan, because it'll come up again in the movies; also, he's most certainly not the barber!), and Data (his fascination with the tedious Hutchinson!).

Otherwise, this really is the throwaway little romp it appears to be.  It's not a bad episode.  It's also not hugely important.  For Next Generation, you kind of wish they'd done something a little more substantial, especially with the cerebral Picard front and center.  But apparently this is exactly what Patrick Stewart wanted.  You don't say no to Picard, the real or the fake one.  The baddies found out the hard way...

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Tim Russ
Patricia Tallman

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Next Generation 6x17 "Birthright, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Worf discovers a colony where Klingons and Romulans live side-by-side.

similar to: "The Enemy" (Next Generation), "Chimera" (Deep Space Nine)

my thoughts: I have long struggled over this episode, and yet now I am recommending it as a Star Trek classic.  So let me explain...

What used to make me so uncomfortable is how fallible Worf comes off, and how unwinnable a situation he comes across in the strange village housing both his people, the Klingons, and their frenemies the Romulans.  "The Enemy" had already demonstrated the depth of his enmity toward Romulans (refusing to help save the life of one), and later in Deep Space Nine's "Change of Heart," his refusal to see the greater picture (which would have sacrificed Dax in the process), all of this amounts to a unique franchise character, one who doesn't conform to the perfect standards Gene Roddenberry envisioned for the future.  It's not that he's Klingon and therefore absolved from the human vision, but that, as perhaps best depicted in "Birthright, Part 2," he has a hard time overcoming the prejudices and attitudes he has formed over a lifetime, and yes, inherited, too.

Which makes him unique, a continuing character study of everything Star Trek sought to demonstrate as having been overcome in the future.  This doesn't mean Worf, ultimately, is a villain.  Far from it.  His struggles make him, if anything, more heroic.  "Birthright, Part 2," again, is where it all comes together.

Lured on the promise of reuniting with his dead father, Worf instead comes face-to-face with something his people won't overcome, despite Klingons finally having made peace with one implacable foe, the Federation, with Worf himself being the living embodiment of that progress.  That doesn't make confronting his shortcomings any less ugly or uncomfortable to watch.  To him, his actions are all about Klingon pride, but the underpinning is his basic intolerance of Romulans, and his unwillingness to reconsider his views.  He may, with every justification, question Romulan motives (Deep Space Nine did a similar story, "Cardassians," about a war orphan forced to choose where to pledge his loyalties, which itself was similar to Next Generation's own "Suddenly Human"), but that doesn't excuse his disgust as he finds out his lovely Klingon beauty also has Romulan blood in her. 

Again, there's a Deep Space Nine episode ("Chimera") where Odo is forced once and all to decide where he stands on the matter of prejudice against his kind (changelings), and this matter can't be discussed without bringing up Data ("The Measure of a Man") or The Doctor (Voyager's "Latent Image"), but just as with the bigotry even Spock faced ("Balance of Terror," for instance) and Enterprise's xenophobes ("Demons"/"Terra Prime"), this is a matter very much relevant to the real world, and Star Trek's exploration of it, in all its forms (Deep Space Nine's "Far Beyond the Stars"), ultimately tends to let the good guys off.  Not this time.  And this is very, very important, because it acknowledges how unsettling this problem really is.  Because it's not just something that happens to the other guy. 

"Birthright, Part 1" featured Data daydreaming, which was a metaphoric acknowledgement that the android needed to continue growing.  I think "Birthright, Part 2" is about Worf struggling to understand that, too.  Something to think about, anyway.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Alan Scarfe
Jennifer Gatti
Richard Herd
Cristine Rose
James Cromwell

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Next Generation 6x16 "Birthright, Part 1"

rating: ***

the story: Data triggers a dream subroutine as Dr. Bashir examines him, while Worf discovers that his father may still be alive.

similar to: "Projections," "Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy" (Voyager)

my thoughts: For the longest time, I found it hard to appreciate Deep Space Nine's appearance in "Birthright."  That may be because for the longest time, I didn't appreciate Deep Space Nine's first season, having become a fan during its second and only discovering the first later.  Bashir started out as a brash young upstart, whose enthusiasm usually got him into trouble.  (He matured relatively quickly, rest assured!)  It's equally strange, too, because when I did begin exploring that first season, I had no problem with the frequent Next Generation tie-in, the appearances from the Duras Sisters, Q, and even Lwaxana Troi (who would go on to become a Deep Space Nine staple, and arguably make her best appearances in that series).  No, my problem was Bashir, because he was entirely out of place in Next Generation.  His kind, young Wesley Crusher, had long been absent when he appeared.

But you know what, in hindsight this is an almost magical moment.  There were so many crossover appearances in Star Trek over the years, most of them, originally, characters from the original series, until it became possible to do something else.  Picard made an appearance in Deep Space Nine's first episode.  This was an age, remember, before multiple series running concurrently in a franchise was a thing, before it was even possible, really.  Star Trek got the ball started.  (Never you mind Detective Munch!)  "Birthright, Part 1" is actually historic, when you think about it, without really calling any attention to it, I mean the fans, in the more than twenty years since it first aired.

And Worf visits Deep Space Nine for the first time!  Later, he'd become a regular in Deep Space Nine, and "Birthright, Part 1" marks the first time he ever goes there, before anyone could guess what his future would hold.

Okay, enough geeking out.  In that nonchalant franchise guest-starring act, "Birthright" has that in common with Voyager's "Projections," which was the first time Barclay shows up in that series, with no one particularly pointing out how awesome and serendipitous that is, when he later becomes a recurring character in the series. 

Ah!  I said enough with the geeking!  The actual story features Data dreaming, a subtle build on his character (later revisited in "Phantasms," featuring the famous Troi cake), and one of the niftier appearances of his creator Dr. Soong.  (Daydreaming got Voyager's Doctor in a whole lot more trouble in "Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy," alas!)  And it features Worf getting the oddly unsettling news that his father Mogh may actually still be alive.  The whole of these parts is less than it should be.  Given that the second part of this story focuses exclusively on Worf, one wonders why Data's was even in the first, but perhaps it's some subtle metaphor I hadn't really considered previously, given how traumatic the second part turns out to be (more in that review), for all involved.

The embarrassment of riches in guest-stars is incredible to look at, and is enough for me to want to watch the episode all over again, not just for Bashir, but to see James Cromwell (buried in alien makeup this time), Cristine Rose (long before she becomes Mama Petrelli in Heroes), Richard Herd (before he becomes Tom Paris's father in Voyager), and even Jennifer Gatti (who later appears in more attractive form as Harry Kim's girlfriend, also in Voyager).

The story continues...

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Alexander Siddig (Bashir)
James Cromwell
Cristine Rose
Richard Herd
Jennifer Gatti

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Next Generation 6x15 "Tapestry"

rating: ****

the story: Is Picard dead?  And is Q waiting there in his afterlife?  God help us all!

similar to: Yeah, I think this one's pretty unique.

my thoughts: Arguably the best Q episode, and arguably the best Picard episode (seriously, this sixth season had some really good material), "Tapestry" is the uniquely Star Trek answer to It's a Wonderful Life, in which Picard is granted a second chance at a crucial moment in his life, only to discover things really couldn't have worked out better for him, and that even his mistakes were crucial in making it all happen.  It's a profound statement on the human condition, maybe one most easily appreciated by fans, but if ever there was a continuity statement made in this franchise, this was the mother of them.

As touched on in the second season's "Samaritan Snare," the young Picard was a lot more like Kirk than his present incarnation would indicate.  What makes this so interesting is that Picard was literally created to be the opposite of Kirk, cool and calculating where the other was famously brash and impulsive.  What's more, by the time Next Generation debuted, we'd already seen the later career of the aging Kirk, and knew that he never turned into Picard.  So what was the difference?  Well, he learned a costly lesson in a youthful bar fight, and paid with his heart, so that ever after he would have to depend on an artificial one, that could sometimes prove less than dependable.  It's not so much that he shrank back from his early self, but that he started to look at the world differently, began to think about his actions before making them. 

Yet, had he done so without learning the lesson, in his youth, Picard would never have become the brilliant officer and commanding officer we came to know and love.  And it's not that his lowly position in that alternate reality, where Riker diagnoses his career as spoiled potential, is a sad one, even pointless, but that he would never have blossomed, never learned the value of taking risks.  Because even the older Picard takes risks, just not the way Kirk did it. 

Really, it's fascinating character analysis, and at the same time, it shows how he can interact with Q on equal footing, which no other episode ever dared to present, not even the time Q was briefly human.  They always made a delightful odd couple, but Q actively helping Picard makes such a difference (see how the effect is nearly duplicated, pointedly, in the final episode, "All Good Things...," Q's next appearance (after a flurry of them this season, including the episode of Deep Space Nine broadcast a week earlier, "Q-Less," his only appearance in that series, and "True Q").

It provides some wonderful comedic moments, as Q needles Picard at every opportunity, playful jabs like butchering the pronunciation of his name, or even the opening conceit of making Picard think this really is the afterlife (provoking Picard to his best barb: "The universe is not so badly designed."), which for argument's sake is clearly not.  (Right?)

It's also fun seeing Picard in a Kirk's-crew movie era uniform (we'd also get to see Voyager's Tuvok in one, thanks to "Flashback").  Remember that the young Picard pictured in Star Trek Nemesis (as depicted by Tom Hardy, presumably at a time Picard was merely shaving his head bald) sports that, too, and realize Shinzon wasn't so far off the mark.  I mean, that whole movie makes much more sense when you remember "Tapestry."  It actually takes on greater resonance, and poignancy.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
John de Lancie

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Next Generation 6x14 "Face of the Enemy"

rating: ****

the story: Troi is conscripted by Romulan agents to help dissidents escape.

similar to: "Second Skin" (Deep Space Nine)

my thoughts: This is, arguably, the best Troi episode of the series, a culmination of the "Chain of Command" and earlier efforts to have the character taken seriously as something other than the empathic counselor as originally conceived.

This is one of those episodes where a main character temporarily becomes a member of an alien species.  Most of the time it's voluntary (such as when Picard and Data are disguised as Romulans in "Unification," incidentally the start of the story continued in "Face of the Enemy") or through some quirk-of-the-week (exemplified by "The Inner Light").  Every once and a while, it's done for different impact entirely (Deep Space Nine's "Second Skin" is another good example), such as when Troi wakes up as a Romulan, and is forced to adjust on the fly as she learns what's really going on.

The Romulans were always such a hard species to feature in the franchise.  Inherently taciturn, like their Vulcan cousins, they were also decidedly more calculating, which cast them as enemies of the Federation and thus frequent opponents of crews in Starfleet uniforms.  Since this is an inherently difficult position to represent, it's not surprising that of all the major Star Trek aliens, Romulans alone have never been represented in an ongoing or even recurring basis (other than the relatively minor Tomalak). 

"Face of the Enemy" makes the novel solution of turning a main character into a Romulan, and thus we're given our one direct look into how a Romulan crew functions.  Like the Klingons, turmoil reigns, which is no surprise.  Like a preview of the Deep Space Nine Cardassians, paranoia is the order of the day as the Romulan CIA, the Tal Shiar, makes Troi's mission exceedingly difficult, although she proves up to the task thanks to the selfless support of her Romulan counterpart.

Helping smooth the story is the fact that two familiar guest-stars are supporting Marina Sirtis: Scott MacDonald, who was a go-to guy for Star Trek aliens, either as a good or bad guy (he really did do both, whether in Deep Space Nine's "Captive Pursuit" or the chief Xindi villain in Enterprise's third season) and Carolyn Seymour.  Both contribute their distinctive voices to give life to the frequently enigmatic Romulan species.

While it was hardly unusual for Star Trek to find a sympathetic Romulan (from the original appearance in "Balance of Terror" to Next Generation's best Romulan episode, "The Defector;" both Romulans and Klingons were inspired by the Cold War's Soviet Union, and in their unique ways it shows), "Face of the Enemy" presents a truly unique opportunity, which it nails. 

It doesn't hurt that Marina Sirtis absolutely, as she did earlier in the season with "A Fistful of Datas," rises to the occasion.  Anyone who wants to figure out how she managed her breakout performance in Star Trek: First Contact ought to look no further to see how it happened.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Scott MacDonald
Carolyn Seymour

Friday, July 8, 2016

In Which I Just Don't Get George Takei

In a recent interview, George Takei, original portrayer of Hikaru Sulu, expresses his dismay that John Cho's Sulu will be revealed as gay in Star Trek Beyond, in theaters a few weeks from now.  Read about Takei's thoughts here.

I don't get it, because Takei came out of the closet more than a decade ago.  You'd think he'd be thrilled that the new movie pays tribute to his legacy like that.  Yet he steadfastly insists that this decision instead flies in the face of everything Gene Roddenberry sought to accomplish.  I just don't get it.

Star Trek's legacy of tackling the issue of the LGBT community is a spotty one.  Various episodes have done analogies about it over the years ("The Host" and "The Outcast" from The Next Generation, "Rejoined" from Deep Space Nine, for instance), but famously, the franchise has never touched on it directly.  "Trouble with Tribbles" screenwriter David Gerrold pitched such a script to Next Generation, but it was rejected.  Advocates have suggested it could be as simple as showing background actors engaged in same-sex relationships, without ever having to draw direct attention to it.  To have a main character, especially one as well-known, in either incarnation, as Sulu, is groundbreaking in a way that at one time seemed impossible. 

It's all the more baffling because, as pointed out, Takei himself is gay.  You'd think he would be thrilled.  But Star Trek can sometimes be overly protective of its own legacy.  Gene Roddenberry famously nixed the idea of having Saavik, who appeared in prominent roles in Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock, being revealed as a Federation traitor in Undiscovered Country, because he thought she'd reached "beloved character status."  I guess the same didn't go for Cartwright, who wasn't nearly as lucky.  He appeared as a good guy in Voyage Home, and as a bad guy in Undiscovered Country.

I have to assume that's the kind of logic at play here.  Leonard Nimoy nixed an appearance in Generations because he felt the script didn't give enough justification for Spock to be there.  (Scotty and Chekov more or less got the material intended for the famous Vulcan.)  He didn't want to appear in the would-be '70s TV show, and requested Spock's death in Wrath of Khan because he still didn't want to continue in the franchise.  Takei, meanwhile, has been advocating nearly as hard as Shatner to make further appearances in the franchise.  One gets the impression, based on his further remarks, that if a gay character finally appeared in Star Trek, it would have to be Takei playing the part.  Just not as Sulu.  For whatever reason.

Maybe it's the psychology of being a gay man who spent more than half his life having to hide who he was, I don't know.  But it just doesn't make sense to me.  As the article points out, Sulu by far had the least character definition from his generation.  Uhura, at least, got to sing and dance.  Chekov had his Russian heritage.  Sulu?  He fenced that one time, and liked antique pistols.  That's basically the extent of the Sulu biography, from three seasons and six movies.

There's also the matter of the promotion.  Sulu was supposed to be a captain in Wrath of Khan.  One of the reasons Takei in particular is bitter to this day toward Shatner is because that didn't happen.  I can't really say what Sulu had done, particularly, to that point in Star Trek lore, that would have justified such a rank, other than for the mere sake of doing it.  Chekov was the only character who'd been reassigned to another ship as of that film.  There was another character moment lost in the filming of Voyage Home, in which Sulu would have met his own ancestor, if the little kid they chose had been a committed actor of any extraction.  And anyway, he did become captain, the only character to be anywhere besides the bridge of the Enterprise during Undiscovered Country, besides the imperiled Kirk and Bones.

His daughter appears in Generations.  According to the non-canon novel Captain's Daughter, I guess Sulu has a one-night fling with some kind of goddess?  Definitely an air-tight case for heterosexuality, right there...There's literally nothing preventing Sulu from always having been gay, from Takei's era to Cho's.  Into Darkness had already given Takei's Sulu a direct nod in a deliberate sequence where Sulu's command ability is proven, just like the combat training joke from Star Trek.  It's entirely within the character of the new Star Trek movies to continue making direct nods to Takei's Sulu, both in front of and behind the camera.  He should be flattered beyond all measure at this point.

So again, I say it just doesn't make sense to me.  There are ways to explain it, but they're all incredibly weak.  Cho's Sulu is gay.  End of story.  This is a good thing, George Takei.
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