Saturday, October 17, 2020

Star Trek: Lower Decks 1x5 “Cupid’s Errant Arrow” Review

 rating: **

the story: Mariner is convinced Boimler’s girlfriend can’t be real.

review: Well, I guess it had to happen. “Cupid’s Errant Arrow” is the first episode of Lower Decks that didn’t really work for me.

Everything about it feels like the series at its most basic level, in fact everything we’ve already seen...again. The worst part is that for the first time, Boimler is reduced to being the butt of the joke rather than actively participating in it. In fact, it’s kind of a whole episode that’s theoretically about him but instead is about Mariner’s desperate attempts to uncover the truth about his girlfriend.

Tendi and Rutherford get a subplot about how much better everything is on another ship, but they learn it comes with a price, that the crew there is under immense pressure...because they experience big wacky events all the time. Except literally every episode of Lower Decks has pivoted around big wacky events, too. And therein lies the danger of the series: calling too much attention to the fact that it doesn’t really follow its own premise.

In fact, the other subplot is another big dramatic Starfleet mission the crew of a third-rate Starfleet ship is...still involved in. I mean, I get that this is an animated series in an era where big wacky events are expected to happen every episode, and that half of Lower Decks is the funny version of Star Trek. But there have to be some limits. Even Orville frustrates viewers just expecting funny Star Trek, because as often as not it’s actually trying to...just be Star Trek(ish). 

Anyway, there’s nothing that particularly stands out this episode. You might call it the one where the creators were finally done enjoying how great the original idea was and then just took it for granted.

criteria analysis:

>franchise - If you’re already a Star Trek fan there’s little to gain from watching this one. Except that one alien who was fighting for the right to inhabit a whole planet with his wife. In context it’s the best bit of the episode, and nothing you would ordinarily see in the franchise.

>series - Which I guess I’ll use as the reason to watch Lower Decks this episode. It’s a great punchline, however deeply buried it is in everything else.

>character - Since it’s really a Mariner episode, it’s worth watching for that, including a flashback scene that’s kind of fun.

>essential - Not essential. Nope. Move along home!

Friday, October 16, 2020

Star Trek: Discovery 3x1 “That Hope Is You, Part 1” Review

rating: ****

the story: Michael Burnham lands in the 31st century, where she learns the Federation has collapsed.

review: At this point, even though I liked them, I’m quite willing to view Discovery’s first two seasons as mere prelude. That’s exactly how sensational this season premiere is. It’s the birth of a whole new era. It’s a classic. Period.

It’s also Michael Burnham carrying the entire episode, alongside new costar Book (David Ajala) (yet to be determined if and how he relates to Craft in the similarly excellent Short Trek “Calypso,” produced prior to Discovery’s second season, and itself a prelude, to this season). Both are black, marking the first time in franchise history a whole story is led exclusively by black actors, building on Uhura’s legacy, and Deep Space Nine.

Book is a complex character, but as the episode progresses we learn he’s squarely in the Star Trek tradition. Much of  “That Hope Is You” looks like Star Wars (which fans have been claiming newer Star Trek increasingly looks like since the Kelvin films began, and which has been just as consistently nonsense), but Star Trek is still Star Trek, no matter what it looks like, as true in 2020 as it was all the way back in 1966, when NBC wanted Gene Roddenberry to compromise his vision, and he stubbornly clung to his demonic Mr. Spock and his big ideas anyway.

The Andorians have their biggest spotlight since Enterprise as Burnham and Book navigate this introduction, and that’s nice to see. We meet an Indian character who has been upholding the legacy of Starfleet almost singlehandedly in his sector, which is a thing that has happened since dilithium became scarce a few centuries earlier, making it difficult to maintain regular direct contact (perhaps a criticism of virtual relationships such as we have with the internet). He’s actually the best part of the episode, the first character we see, the embodiment of the hope Burnham believes in because she had it just this morning as a tangible thing, and what Book keeps so guarded because he doesn’t find it easily elsewhere.

(Hey! This is mere geeking out, but there’s an alien from Morn’s species in the episode. Morn was Quark’s most famous patron in Deep Space Nine. He doesn’t get any lines, either!)

This is an excellent spotlight for Burnham, still considered by disgruntled, grumpy fans as “that mutineer,” as well as for Sonequa Martin-Green, who gets to play well past Burnham’s usual Vulcan reserve thanks to a healthy dose of a special truth serum. It’s worth celebrating that sequence alone!

But the whole thing is executed perfectly. It really is Discovery’s crowning achievement to date.

criteria analysis:

>franchise - Star Trek going boldly into its future (complete with a nod to why time travel isn’t expected anymore, either, with a nod to the Temporal Cold War).

>series - Discovery goes boldly ahead as well, finding and seizing a sensational new opportunity.

>character - Very possibly destined to be the single best Michael Burnham spotlight the series produces.

>essential - All that and it keeps the moral heart of the franchise alive and well. Literally could not ask for more.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Star Trek: Lower Decks 1x4 “Moist Vessel” Review

rating: ***

the story: Freeman tries to alienate Mariner by promoting her.

review: The one thing Lower Decks hadn’t really done in its first three episodes was really emphasize what its concept was really supposed to be, the idea that it followed around junior officers doing truly mundane work. There were a lot of riffs on traditional Star Trek tropes (which really suggests this was a crew of complainers rather than a ship that did less interesting things than any other characters we’ve followed), and sure, we saw our main characters, the junior officers, doing routine work, but never to the point where it seemed they were really that different from the command staff.

But here’s Mariner to save the day again!

If “Temporal Edict” was a Boimler spotlight, “Moist Vessel” is Mariner’s, putting a hard focus on her relationship with Freeman (her mom), who has decided she’s had enough of Mariner’s lax attitude and will do anything to get her to request a transfer.

(We also get a subplot with Tendi concerning a colleague “ascending,” a spiritual development that’s interesting.)

Anyway, what this means is that Freeman tries two very different ways to achieve this. The first is to assign Mariner the very worst tasks. This doesn’t work because Mariner finds a way to enjoy them.

Then Freeman stoops even lower. She promotes Mariner!

This is actually the best element of the episode, in which we discover all the mundane duties Mariner is suddenly required to perform as a lieutenant, which are typified by the boring meetings she’s forced to attend. As viewers we’re conditioned to view meetings as dramatic events in which unique perspectives and brilliant decisions are the point. But meetings are meetings. So through Mariner we get a better sense of what being in Starfleet is probably really like.

criteria analysis:

>series - An excellent use of the central premise.

>franchise - Ever find yourself romanticizing Starfleet? Watch this!

>character- Mariner’s worst nightmare is career advancement. Apparently she’s successfully worked against it for years!

>essential - Insofar as we get to laugh about an admiral pronouncing “sensor” funny. Would have been a bigger statement by deciding something about Mariner and Freeman’s relationship.

Star Trek: Lower Decks 1x3 “Temporal Edict” Review

 rating: ****

the story: Boimler accidentally reveals to the captain how most of the crew functions by padding out their work time.

the review: If there’s a potential breakout episode among the first three of the series, it’s this one. I loved the Boimler/Mariner dynamic in the first two, but separating them turns out to if anything be even better.

Mariner is the best character in the series, but her story in “Temporal Edict” is the weaker, generally speaking, of the two. The effect is to set up a potential romance with Ransom (his biggest spotlight so far) as they square off in an “Arena” riff. So I’m not really going to focus on that (though pending future developments this could become more significant).

Instead: the Boimler Effect, folks.

Boimler’s best moment in the episode is when everyone else is freaking out and struggling to perform routine tasks for n the time allotted by Freeman (and now I know the captain’s name; previously, for me, she was better known as “Mariner’s mom), which for Boimler is no big deal at all, as he strolls the halls of the Cerritos (and maybe I know that now, too! it wasn’t until this, Discovery and Picard that I actively demonstrated in these reviews having to learn basic facts in Star Trek, because these are “real time” reactions where all the previous ones are retrospective; there was legitimately a time I had no idea what a Cardassian actually was, and that was when I was actively engaged in the franchise and expected to know these things by my family, in which I was the resident “expert,” which as this side note expands I assure you is all the more accurate now than ever before).

Anyway, Boimler’s whole thing is that he loves serving in Starfleet under its standard operating procedures. He’s the picture of a generic officer, which because we’ve...never seen this before (the closest is Harry Kim, but even he tried desperately to prove himself to Torres and Paris right from the start in Voyager). He loves going by the book. 

And...basically no one else does. He loves it so much it’s easy for him. When it’s just Mariner in contrast, it looks like he’s weird because she’s so awesome (generally speaking), but set against...everyone else, you realize, this guy’s like the Vulcan of Starfleet officers. Which because he isn’t Vulcan makes him all the more fun to follow.

So imagine his reaction when his biggest victory turns into his biggest defeat: by convincing Freeman to lax the rules (for everyone else), he actually sends the message that everything he stands an impossible standard that no Starfleet officer should ever be held to. And gets that distinction named after him: “the Boimler Effect.”

Anyway, the whole thing feels like the best statement of the series to date, very close at the very least to some of the best of the Short Treks. I could very well bump it up to classic status at a future date, depending on how much better the series itself could get.

And then, just because this is the episode that keeps on giving: there’s a wonderful nod to Miles O’Brien at the end.

Okay, okay, I talked myself into it: This one’s a classic.

criteria analysis:

>series - Well worth watching as a fan of Lower Decks itself.

>franchise - A wry commentary on being a Starfleet officer.

>character - Boimler fully in the spotlight.

>essential - A truly defining moment for him, in fact.

notable guest-stars:

Jerry O’Connell

Monday, September 14, 2020

Star Trek: Lower Decks 1x2 “Envoys” Review

 rating: ***

the story: Boimler and Mariner pilot a Klingon ambassador to an embassy.

the review: This second episode is less manic and steeped more in familiar franchise elements (notably, Klingon), but at heart sticks to the same winning formula of showcasing how great a lead character Mariner is.

Technically Boimler drives the plot again, but it’s Mariner, how she plays off him and even in a last second reveal again is given more depth. Her role seems to be the living embodiment of rejecting all the stereotypes someone might have about a Starfleet officer, and by “someone” I mean people who don’t typically watch Star Trek. Of course, fans will know it’s not just Kirk who tends to go off-book. In a lot of ways Mariner embodies the later Jadzia Dax (initially, Deep Space Nine depicts her far more conservatively, and even the new Dax host Ezri seems more like a Boimler than a Mariner), especially in her unexpected ability to bond with Klingons (and Ferengi).

The dynamic between Boimler and Mariner is formulaic until the end of the episode, when it’s Boimler bragging to his friends about their adventure. It’s nice to see him as something other than the nebbish wannabe, a counterpoint to Mariner’s relaxed experience.

We get a better contrast with the two other lead characters, Tendi and Rutherford. Tendi’s the green one, Rutherford the one with a cybernetic implant. Tendi, who was initially presented as a potential viewer surrogate, still has little to actually do, while Rutherford questions his career path and tries out every other available track, giving viewers hilarious examples of how they can go wrong (and right!), and also how Starfleet is a generally accepting organization, encouraging him in all his decisions. Anyway, it’s a great spotlight for him.

Just the endless fun the episode has with familiar and new aliens is worth celebrating. Where the original animated series allowed itself to let loose visually, there’s a sense that Lower Decks might actually serve best to let, say, the Klingons be fully Klingons. Even better, we have a Ferengi who nails both the shifty original vision seen in Next Generation and the more nuanced one we see in Deep Space Nine

All of which is to say, I think I’m really beginning to enjoy this version of Star Trek.

criteria analysis:

>franchise: It’s a great way to see the Star Trek landscape.

>series: It’s a great way to settle into Lower Decks itself.

>character: Mariner and Rutherford have excellent spotlights.

>essential: Still waiting to see how deep all this can actually get.

notable guest-stars:

Jerry O’Connell is technically a part of the regular cast, but his character First Officer Jack Ransom has a token appearance in this episode. When he has something substantial to do, as in the previous episode, I’ll list him here, as I did then.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Star Trek: Lower Decks 1x1 “Second Contact” Review

the story: Crew is assigned for follow-up contact with new species.

rating: *** (out of ****)

review: The unspoken truth about Star Trek fandom is that it can often (okay, nearly always) be ruthlessly protective. Often this manifests itself as preferring older material (and of course rejecting newer, which has been a thing since at least the start of Next Generation). So when Lower Decks was announced and subsequently revealed as an “adult animated series,” it faced the immediate and obligatory fate of instant, summary rejection. But, well, lighten up!

I think it can actually be seen as a response to Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which is roundly regarded as a comedic Next Generation. In Lower Decks our perspective is a crew of a Starfleet ship tasked with less glamorous assignments but just as prone as any ship or crew we’ve followed before in getting into a heap of trouble very quickly and easily. Like The Animated Series before it, this translates first and foremost to a more visually dynamic presentation.

Our main guides are Mariner and Boimler, two junior officers who lead the support team on a support starship. “Second Contact” is really about them coming to terms with the nature of their relationship, which at this point is not romantic but merely working together. Mariner has seen more, and been to more planets (Boimler counts Vulcan and...Earth among the whole five he has thus far visited, which for those keeping score at home is like counting places you’ve lived rather than outright visited), and so her perspective is kind of like Kirk’s while Boimler’s is sort of fresh-out-of-the-Academy, Harry Kim style. Until he learns how valuable her perspective really is.

But for me it’s actually more interesting how we glimpse Mariner’s backstory. Her mom is ship’s captain, her dad an admiral. It really is like a Voyager throwback with Mariner and Boimler; just imagine what it would’ve been like for Tom Paris to work closely with his dad! 

Of the command crew we spend the most time with first officer Jack Ransom. Suffice to say but usually it’s the admirals who come off looking this bad, though here it’s all in good fun!

I don’t know if the whole series is going to follow this template, if we’ll get healthy servings of character work with all the comedy, but I would certainly prefer it that way. Some fans forget that Star Trek at its core spends most of its time confronting wacky scenarios. At least this time the approach is wacky, too. This is not at all a bad thing.

criteria analysis:

>franchise - A fresh take on Star Trek for sure!

>series - A good introduction to Lower Decks.

>character - Excellent use of at least two members of its cast, Mariner and Boimler.

>essential - Here’s where I’m really going to be monitoring Lower Decks, in its ability to produce truly standout material. Will this format be capable of it?

notable guest-stars:

Jerry O’Connell (Jack Ransom)

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Picard 1x10 “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2”

rating: ****

the story: Conflict resolution; saying goodbye to Data.

review: Yeah, that was about right. The general plot of the series was a juxtaposition between duty on a large scale and a small one. The large scale was confronting bigotry in opposing forces, and helping both sides realize there was more than one possible response. The small scale was finding peace with the death of Data.

For much of the season, the small scale goal was in the background, as Picard assembled his response to a crisis that in effect happened in large part because he was no longer in a position to prevent it, and that was largely because he no longer had Data at his side. “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” is a much bigger success than its preceding component largely because it doesn’t allow itself to become lost in the details. In any proper ending, the details ought to be clear enough, and in this case they are because the goal was already explained in the beginning.

Except Data doesn’t return. He stays dead. He has a chance to explain why he actually prefers to remain dead, and it’s the perfect completion of the journey he began in his first appearance, finally understanding that the idea of being human is basically embracing the limits he was always determined to push.

Anyway, there’s also Riker’s pitch-perfect cameo (which sums up his command dynamic with Picard), characters who didn’t make sense last episode making sense (including yet another Problematic Soong Android being summarily deactivated; I’d really like if just one of them had a chance to be anything but binary).

Basically the best possible ending to the season, and everything it needed to be to celebrate Picard and his legacy. Until they figure out how to include, y’know, Guinan. Q. And, uh, the rest of the Next Generation gang...

criteria analysis:

  • franchise - Final resolution for Nemesis. Maybe fans can decide to embrace it?
  • series - A great ending to the season.
  • character - The final statement on Data.
  • essential - The final statement on Picard’s moral, heroic character.
notable guest-stars:
Brent Spiner (Data, Soong)
Jonathan Frakes (Riker)
Jeri Ryan (Seven)
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