Monday, August 29, 2016

Star Trek: Discovery - Number One!

Bryan Fuller has been making more announcements about the upcoming CBS All Access series, revealing the name of the lead character: Number One.  This will sound familiar to fans of the original series, whose first pilot, "The Cage," featured the same character. Number One was also the first character Majel Roddenberry played in the franchise.  This was to be Star Trek's first trailblazer, a woman in a command position.  Now there's a second chance to get it right.  Number One's name will be an instrinsic mystery of the first season (you'll recall that Picard usually referred to Riker that way).

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Next Generation 7x5 "Gambit, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Riker and Picard get to the bottom of the archeological search the space pirates have been on.

what it's all about: The moving parts here all involve layers of trust, from the obvious to the less-so (Worf isn't sure what to think of Data in command).  It doesn't seem like Next Generation at all, except when you realize the series routinely focused on exactly these matters in its biggest stories. 

What helps set "Part 2" apart is that it's the rare opportunity to see Riker and Picard actively collaborating.  This is certainly something strange to admit, because in every other series, it was much more common, from the one-two punch of Kirk and Spock to Sisko's necessary relationship with Kira, Janeway needing Chakotay as a source of strength, and Archer having T'Pol operate as a testing ground.  Yet more often than not, Picard worked in concert with his whole crew (the movies would finally simplify this by pairing him with Data), and Riker in a vacuum, notably in "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2."  "Part 2" also evokes "Redemption, Part 2," where Data originally has personnel problems with how he runs things while in command.  Seeing how he and the crew handles things (including the incredibly tall Klingon!) is almost as much fun as watching Riker and Picard wing their way among the space pirates.

But the episode works best just watching everything develop, including the obligatory twist (Next Generation is easily the most the franchise ever got out of the relationship between Romulans and Vulcans), represented by Robin Curtis, who had previously appeared in Star Trek as the second actress to play Saavik (in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). 

As a whole, "Gambit" is like the Next Generation version of an original series episode, and it's a terrific breath of fresh air.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Romps are a tradition in Star Trek!
  • series - But, a unique experience in this series!
  • character - Making for great character work!
  • essential - All of which makes it a classic.
notable guest-stars:
Robin Curtis
James Worthy

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Next Generation 7x4 "Gambit, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: Riker and the crew investigate whether or not Picard is really dead.

what it all means: This is the start of an unlikely Star Trek classic: space pirates!  In a way, this is like Harry Mudd taken to the next level, or "The Outrageous Okana" remastered.  The best part?  It convincingly gives Patrick Stewart something he'd desperately yearned for earlier ("Starship Mine") but wasn't quite able to get, which is a full-out Next Generation romp.

"Part 1" is like a clever rephrasing of "Chain of Command, Part 2," in which the crew tries to figure out what happened to Picard.  The difference is huge!  Investigation episodes always have the potential for great franchise material, and they're done sparingly enough so that they're always a pleasant surprise, and done differently each time so that they always leave you guessing.  "Part 1" has a huge advantage in that it is, of course, the first of two episodes, and so gets to have a killer ending (Picard is working with the bad guys!).

Those paying attention will also be rewarded during "Part 2," because "Part 1" not only lays the groundwork for figuring out what's going on with the captain, but why this is happening in the first place.  In short, it does everything necessary to be a true standout.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Gene Roddenberry hated space pirates, but they always proved memorable.
  • series - Plays fast and loose with series lore.
  • character  - Works for Riker and Picard.
  • essential - It works well on all accounts!
notable guest-stars:
Robin Curtis

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Next Generation 7x3 "Interface"

rating: **

the story: Geordi uses a special interface to investigate his mother's death.

what it all means: This is one of those episodes that would've been so much better if they'd done away with the dramatic hogwash that develops during the course of the story and simply laid the groundwork in an earlier episode.  Geordi's VISOR was one of the signature elements of the series, and yet with a few exceptions it was usually ignored as a creative devise.  "Interface" tries to have its cake and eat it, too, by making Geordi uniquely fitted to using a new devise that allows the user to experience firsthand a special probe's sensory information, but then quickly barrels ahead into a more personal story that then further thickens into an overly familiar twist of things not being as they seem.

But this is by far the most character work Geordi gets in the whole series, and as such is the first episode of the season to answer the promise of "Descent, Part 2," which was about going deeper into the characters than the series had thus far managed (with the exception of Worf and Troi, which is probably why they ended up seeming like a perfect romantic match).  Yes, it's a shame that the story is bungled, but it's fun seeing his parents, including Ben Vereen as his father.  Years later, fans would be begging for this sort of thing from Voyager, even though that series would have to do far greater gymnastics, and far more successfully, to pull it off, which it did, without getting any credit for the work.

This is a textbook case of the series trying to be too clever, but if you can ignore what it gets wrong, it still does plenty right.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Don't watch it to see the franchise at its finest.
  • series - Don't watch it to see the series at its finest, either.
  • character - Definitely watch it to cheer on Geordi.
  • essential - Because this is about as good as it gets for him.
notable guest-stars:
Warren Munson
Ben Vereen

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Next Generation 7x2 "Liaisons"

rating: **

the story: Various members of the crew are confronted with representatives of an alien species studying them in unexpected ways.

what it all means: This was a lighthearted and easy way to follow-up the heavier "Descent, Part 2," exploring well-established character traits among the crew, whether Troi's easy-going nature, Worf's perpetual unease, or Picard's skepticism at even the most straightforward scenarios.  Obviously the meat of "Liaisons" is spent on Picard's story, which is itself a follow-up to the numerous episodes he was featured in during the sixth season, but the full weight of the story is spread around, in ways that weren't always successful in the series.

Still, it's clearly not an ambitious affair, and it relies entirely on a reveal at the end of the episode, and that in itself is a tricky thing to pull off.  In a way, "Liaisons" is a throwback to prior episodes in the series that explored day-to-day life for the crew ("Data's Day," which similarly tacked on an unneeded dramatic twist, for example), while also giving Picard a fairly generic predicament and mystery to resolve, who that person is who he's found similarly shipwrecked, even though all the pieces of her story don't quite seem to add up.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - It reflects similar first-contact turnabouts from the franchise.
  • series - It generally reflects well on the series itself.
  • character - It doesn't add anything to the understanding of any particular character.
  • essential - It is not essential in any regard.
notable guest-stars:
Eric Pierpont

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Next Generation 7x1 "Descent, Part 2"

rating: ***

the story: Data confronts Lore one last time.

what it all means: The seventh season of The Next Generation is often slagged as being meaningless space-filler material, after the grand storytelling contributions of the previous four seasons that measurably added to the legacy of Star Trek.  In contrast, "Descent, Part 2" already seems like it's treading water in comparison to predecessors like "Time's Arrow, Part 2" (sixth season premiere, finally explains why Guinan and Picard mean so much to each other), "Redemption, Part 2" (fifth season premiere, which concludes the Klingon epic), and the mother of them all, "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2" (fourth season premiere, which finishes out a universally-acclaimed classic chapter in franchise history).

In contrast, "Descent, Part 2" seems to confirm all the neutering of the Borg established in its sixth season finale predecessor, and makes the whole thing more of a resolution of Data's relationship with Lore than anything else.  The later Enterprise fourth season premiere,"'Storm Front, Parts 1 & 2," similarly finishes up an arc (the equally long-standing Temporal Cold War) with a somewhat dismissive gesture.

What does it all mean?  As a Data/Lore episode, it's perhaps the most satisfying one from the whole series.  For once, Lore is at the advantage, and instead of trying to get Data out of the way, tries to get him to be more like himself, which is perhaps more chilling than the struggles Data experiences in the first part of the story, where no one really knows what's going on.  On that score, "Part 2" is definitely a step up from "Part 1."  But then, its conclusions are troubling.  Data simply decides to switch Lore off, indefinitely.  This is cold reasoning from Data, something that doesn't seem to be supported by the many other episodes where he championed not only his own rights, but those of his offspring as well.

It's tough to reconcile "Part 2" with the ideals of the series or franchise around it.  There are multiple episodes where characters find redemption.  "Part 2" doesn't even seem to consider that as an option, and worse still, Lore is never seen again.  A different Soong android pops up in Star Trek Nemesis, and one of the fascinating thing about that movie fans rarely consider is that it's an odd kind of redemption for Data, because initially he considers treating B4 the same way he does Lore, but eventually relents, with a little help from his friends, which ends up being justified.  That's the Star Trek message in a nutshell, no matter how many irredeemable villains there might be (even Dukat in Deep Space Nine had periods where he could be seen in a positive light).

"Part 2" is an important episode in the overall scheme of Next Generation, and it does set a tone for the season, in which other episodes question whether redemption really is possible.  More often than not, the conclusions are far different from the ones Data reaches in this episode, which actually serves to demonstrate his limitations, where more often than not he didn't seem to have any, except his ability to behave as a human would.

That being said, its limitations prevent "Part 2" from fulfilling its promise, even if those same limitations open up the season to go deeper into Next Generation's psyche than had ever been attempted. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Is not a great representation of the franchise.
  • series - Is a good representation of the series.
  • character - Is a good representation of a character.
  • essential - Is an essential episode for Data, and the series.
notable guest-stars:
Brent Spiner (Lore)
Jonathan Del Arco (Hugh)
James Horan

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Star Trek: Discovery - character details emerging

Further information concerning Star Trek: Discovery, the forthcoming CBS All Access series, has emerged, this time about the character make-up (read the full scoop here).

In brief, the lead will be a woman, there will be a gay character, and there will be a rich assortment of aliens.

This will mark the second time in franchise history, after Voyager's Captain Janeway, in which a woman is in the lead.  Notably, some 50th anniversary observers thought Janeway was more historic than Deep Space Nine's Captain Sisko, the first black lead in Star Trek.  Now that there will be two out of seven series with female leads, the odds will have begun to even out a little (although technically, two the males were the same guy: Kirk was featured in both the original and Animated series).

Following Sulu's somewhat controversial (bizarrely, if you're George Takei) outing in Star Trek Beyond, this will also be the second time an openly gay character appears in the franchise.  This was long a sticking point in the fan community for a franchise so famous for its inclusive nature.

Finally, the expanded presence of aliens in the cast will be a welcome sight for a franchise that so often features nearly exclusive human crews despite the fact that it features a future where human are part of a vast interstellar community.  The series with the highest percentage of aliens to date is Deep Space Nine (the changeling Odo, the Trill Dax, the Ferengi Quark, the Klingon Worf, the Bajoran Kira).  Actually, that'll kind of be tough to top.  Still, another welcome development.

The female lead is also going to be the rare Starfleet lead who won't be a captain, but rather a lieutenant commander (three steps below a captain in the ranks).  The last time a Star Trek series launched without a captain was again Deep Space Nine; Sisko spent the first three seasons as a commander (finally promoted to captain in the third season finale).

Whether it can possibly please fickle fans remains to be seen, but clearly Discovery is taking great strides to addressing some of the creative issues that've bothered some of them over the years.

One final note: apparently the show will be set ten years before Kirk takes command of the Enterprise.  This could put it in Pike continuity, or even Robert April, the first captain of the ship.  Or feature entirely new characters.  We'll see!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Hey Howard Weinstein, Voyager and Enterprise did get what "Being Better" was all about, thank you

Reading Boarding the Enterprise, a celebration of Star Trek's legacy originally published ten years ago but rereleased to coincide with the franchise's fiftieth anniversary (I got the book thanks to AshleyRose Sullivan's giveaway, which she held on her excellent blog, My Year of Star Trek), I found some essays I particularly enjoyed, and some that kind of irritated me.  One of the latter was the very last essay in the book, Howard Weinstein's "Being Better," which was about how the original series is best remembered as Gene Roddenberry's vision of a better tomorrow.

Which is fine and dandy.  I mean, that's about the best summation of Star Trek you'll find, a common one, in fact, that you'll find littered throughout most of the commemorations of the anniversary.  Where Weinstein's thoughts stick in my craw is when he suggests the sentiment is at its purest in the original series, and each subsequent iteration features diminishing returns, to the point where he suggests, "Voyager and Enterprise muted the message."

It bothers me because this is the legacy I've been battling for fifteen years, the idea that Star Trek has never again been as good as it was in the three original seasons.  I get it.  I really do.  Loathe as they would be to admit it, Star Trek fans are slaves to nostalgia as much as anything else.  It's perfectly valid to adhere to a thought process you developed years, even decades ago, but to continue to insist, in completely dismissive tones, the contributions later iterations of the franchise have had over the years, is just plain wrong.

Everyone knows (another contributor, Paul Levinson, whose "How Star Trek  Liberated Television" is literally about how viewing audiences fragmented over the years, and is the essay just before Weinstein's in the collection) that the '90s represented the dawn of a seismic shift in ratings dominance between network and cable TV, which was directly reflected in the fortunes of the three later Star Trek shows, including Deep Space Nine.  The popular shell game of the lack of unity within the Star Trek fanbase itself has consistently, in the past fifteen years, insisted that this was solely because of the product itself.  I won't say that every Star Trek fan has to like every series.  That's equally ridiculous.  But to continually push the fiction that one series or another, or two or three of the last three series, simply didn't succeed because they weren't true to the spirit of Star Trek, has to end.

Because Weinstein singles out Voyager and Enterprise I'll discuss them here, and why they most emphatically did maintain Roddenberry's vision of a better future, in ways that were uniquely their own but totally in-line with what came before them.  (In fact, the fact that they did was the main sticking point for a lot of younger fans, who didn't understand why Star Trek had to exist with this vision, when other, cooler sci-fi shows clearly didn't.)

Let's start with Voyager.  Famously envisioned as the "Lost in Space" of the Star Trek franchise, and later usurped in the hearts of fans by the similar Battlestar Galactica (which took a very different outlook), this was all about a crew that was stranded far from home.  Captain Janeway quickly decides that they will make the journey home, no matter how long it'll take, and in the process reconciles a group of Federation rebels into the crew, which will operate under the ideals of Starfleet.  I don't see how any of that contradicts Roddenberry's vision.  In fact, it's the greatest affirmation possible. 

A lot of fans had problems with the show, whether because it was basically another exploration series with new dressing, or because they thought it was incredible that Janeway could so easily convince the rebels to join her crew.  This speaks to the integrity of the fans more than anything, who clearly didn't understand what Roddenberry's vision was.  You'd expect Weinstein to be better?  Except he isn't.  The very spirit of inclusiveness that was at the heart of Roddenberry's vision quickly turned defensive, when the promise of new Star Trek meant older fans might have to make room for competition from within.  Ironically, it was the fans themselves who turned on the franchise's ideals, without once thinking twice about it. 

Enterprise, meanwhile, was a prequel, and as such attempted to dramatize how Kirk's era came to be.  Again, the very struggles Captain Archer's crew experienced in their adventures embodied the essence of Roddenberry's vision.  Every time Archer had to admit his mistakes was a working example of what Star Trek was all about.  Every time he struggled with his conscience (something that had been common in the franchise since Deep Space Nine) was the full-blown version of the dialogue Kirk so frequently indulged in with Spock and McCoy on his way to making some decision or other on an alien world that had somehow been corrupted and he had to decide whether or not to intervene.  It wasn't simply the presence or absence of the Prime Directive, and Archer's dawning awareness that such a thing would probably be necessary, that made Enterprise reflect Roddenberry's ideals, all over again, but that when things were at their darkest, in the third season Xindi arc, Archer struggled the most. 

If Archer's missteps, if his yearning to find common ground, was something less than the spirit of a better tomorrow, if Janeway somehow failed to live up to Weinstein's standards, it would have looked better for him if he hadn't so casually rejected their efforts.  Listen, I know what fans have said about these shows over the years.  I know it's easiest to embrace what the widest pool of fans have already embraced, but I thought the whole idea of Star Trek was that we stop letting petty differences get the best of us, and recognize the fact that we're better than we sometimes allow ourselves to believe. 

Boarding the Enterprise has a surprising depth to it, looking at Star Trek from a large pool of perspectives.  Some of it is decidedly irreverent, which I wish were more common among fans.  Some of them take it far too seriously.  Some don't take it seriously enough.  Not one incarnation has failed to meet Gene Roddenberry's vision that tomorrow, things will be better.  And maybe, tomorrow, fans will understand that, too.  Maybe it doesn't matter, in the long run.  Maybe it doesn't matter which fans like what.  But I'd like to think every fan could recognize what Star Trek is, what it has always been, and stop trying to antagonize each other.  Because that's the opposite of what it's all about.  I recognize that it's ironic to complain about Weinstein's comments, in this spirit, but his perspective perfectly encapsulates everything that's wrong with everything that's right, why we're still imperfect, and why we can still hope to be better, tomorrow.
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