Tuesday, 16 January 2018

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 1-10 - "The Wolf Inside"


OK, Discovery fans, you owe me a tenner.

Not for realising Ash Tyler is actually Voq - it would have been more interesting if he hadn't been, and last week's episode all but confirmed it anyway - but for pegging Georgiou as the Emperor. She was the odds-on favourite there, with Harry Mudd at 10/1 and Sarek at 33/1, but still, I claim my kudos. Anyone else would have been a let-down, though. It had to be Michelle Yeoh back for an encore.

This was a fun, silly episode, disguised behind some grimdark events and soul searching for its characters. The Mirror Universe is an intrinsically silly concept that makes very little sense if you analyse it at all. Why do the same people end up on the same ships living such similar lives in spite of human history being so very different for the last two hundred years? Why do the same people meet, across light years, in both realities? It's absurd, so it's best to just sit back and enjoy the silliness. (This silliness was enhanced by last night's episode of Lost in Space on the Horror Channel, which saw the characters visit their own mirror universe, inhabited by their antimatter counterparts. I was very disappointed that John Robinson's alter ego wasn't called Ron Jobinson.)

There were three main strands to this episode: Burnham's depressing roleplay in Mirror Starfleet; Tilly's attempt to save Stamets; and Tyler's inevitable reversion to his true nature. All three strands were woven together cleverly, so although the episode felt a bit like the necessary middle-of-the-trilogy installment, the overall story moved on in satisfying ways. Credit goes to the writers and to Martin-Green for making Burnham's struggle so immediate and painful. As captain of the ISS Shenzhou she is at once in a position of considerable power and utterly powerless, having to go along with the execution of prisoners guilty of "malicious thought" and watch her own captain be tortured. Even in her own cabin she gets little chance to be herself, since she is doted on by her slave, the Mirror Saru. (Burnham says that she has seen no Kelpiens onboard, out of respect for Saru, and frankly, having no Kelpiens on that ship of horrors would be the best result for him. I doubt they did well under the Empire.)

Burnham tries to help the rebels on Harlak, a ragtag group of Klingons, Andorians and Tellarites that are the closest thing this universe has to a Federation. Another thing I called right - that Mirror Voq is the leader of the rebels - although there's no only so much satisfaction to be gained from guessing the bleeding obvious and shouting "I could have written this." So happy to have some recognisable alien races in Discovery, even if they are the Mirror Universe versions. Like the Klingons, they've been revamped for the new era, with new make-up designs. The Andorians are a fair development from how they looked on Enterprise, with more built-up faces, and their eyebrows (long since an optional accessory) replaced with mini-antennae. I wasn't so keen on the Tellarites initially, considering them a bit too much of a departure from the older styles, but again, they're actually not that different from the Enterprise versions and the warthog tusks are pretty cool. There's a bit of an issue with the modulation of alien voices, which makes them difficult to understand. At least when they're choking on Klingonese we get subtitles. Nonetheless, I was still unreasonably excited to see Andorians.

It was also inevitable that we'd see Mirror Sarek, rocking a goatee beard, which much be about the only thing he has in common with his son in this universe. You thought Prime Sarek had a problem with Spock joining Starfleet, imagine how the Rebel Prophet feels about it? Sarek's there primarily to give Burnham the green light so that she can chat with Voq and the rebels, and that's only permitted so that Tyler-Voq can lose his shit when he sees his alternative self and screw everything up. The fact that we've basically had the reveal of Voq last week could undermine this strand, but seeing Tyler and Burnham get together properly when we already know he's a Klingon spy makes it all the more chilling. 

There's some very sloppy writing in here, though. Do none of the Mirror crew think it's even slightly odd that Tyler starts barking in Klingon and that this doesn't require some further questioning? Why does the crew of the Discovery assume that Stamets killed Culper, when he's been catatonic for so long? Don't they have CCTV on this incredibly advanced starship? Stamets's fake-out death is also pretty cheap and underwhelming, although it's saved somewhat by his strange mushroom-fuelled vision in which he meets himself (or is it his Mirror self?)

It'll be fun to see where the Mirror Universe sage goes next, although I hope it isn't dragged out for the whole remainder of the season. I'm also intrigued as to how much they're planning to tie this into Enterprise (will Georgiou turn out to be Hoshi Sato's descendant, as some fans have suggested? The last we saw of the Mirror Universe had her setting herself up as Empress) and how it will fit in with the Mirror Universe's "first" crossover in the original series.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

TIME SHADOWS 2 is now available

Time Shadows: Second Nature is now available to order! Click here to go straight to Pseudoscope Publishing to order copies of both Second Nature and the reprint edition of the first Time Shadows. All profits from Time Shadows go to CODE, the international literacy charity. 

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 1-9 - "Despite Yourself"

Star Trek: Discovery returns from its mid-season break to begin chapter two, which looks set to be the saga of the Mirror Universe. It's a bit of a wrench sideways for a series that has so far been almost wholly concerned with the war with the Klingons. The big revelation that the ship has been stranded in the Mirror Universe is actually no surprise whatsoever - it was pretty well signposted that they'd travelled between universes and there have been several hints along the way - but it's still exciting to back in Star Trek's favourite parallel continuum.

The Mirror Universe is an extended joke that can wear thin quickly, but for now, this is tremendous fun. We've just about gotten to know the characters well enough to make hearing about their nasty parallel counterparts fascinating. One fan theory has held that Lorca is actually from the Mirror Universe anyway, but unless he's a very good actor he's just as shocked to be in another universe as the rest of the bridge crew. It'll be interesting to explore whether Mirror Lorca is truly a freedom fighter or whether he wants to take the Empire for himself.

I'm not so enamoured with Burnham this episode, impressive though she is in the combat scenes, but that's mainly due to the other characters getting the bulk of the quality scenes. Anthony Rapp manages to continue to impress as Stamets, even though he spends much of the episode unconscious and/or delirious. It's going to be a very upsetting scene when he fully regains consciousness and discovers his partner Culber has paid the price of trusting Tyler. That was a genuine shock, as even though Culber was never the most significant character and potentially a bit disposable, he was so inoffensive that it was a surprise to see him bite it so suddenly.

So, the big mystery of Ash Tyler turns out to be... exactly what we thought it was. Although L'Rell never comes out and says, "Yeah, your name's Voq and you're an undercover Klingon agent," it's basically been confirmed. In a way, I think it's a pity, since it's the most obvious explanation, and also lessens the impact of Tyler's PTSD storyline. A major storyline dealing with wartime abuse is to be praised, and to reveal it's all warped/implanted memories cheapens that. Nonetheless, Shazad Latif is absolutely excellent throughout the episode, really selling the anguish and confusion of Voq/Tyler.

The episode really belongs to Mary Wiseman as Tilly, though. It's a massive, and questionable, cliche, that evil fascistic women must be sexified, but wow, Tilly in this episode! The most likeable character in the series gets to play against type as the evil "Captain Killy," the most vicious woman to ever fight her way to the captaincy of a ship. The idea that the crew could redecorate the entire ship, repaint the hull, recarpet the bloody place and synthesise new uniforms in about a day is pretty hard-to-swallow, but when worth it when it allows us the entertainment value of Tilly ad-libbing her way out of a confrontation with an imperial starship.

Just tons of continuity in this episode, from the Shenzou turning up as an imperial ship,to the Organian System, to the references to the Enterprise two-parter "In a Mirror, Darkly," and the fate of the starship Defiant. It sits on just the right side of intense fanwank, and adds something to the episode. It's a real fan-pleaser.

I think I'll carry on reviewing episodes until the season ends, if only to track how the series develops and how wide off the mark I am in my predictions. The new mystery is the identity of the "faceless emperor." Almost undoubtedly this is the Mirror Universe version of a character we already know. The smart money's on Georgiou, what with Michelle Yeoh being the biggest star in Discovery's arsenal and still involved heavily in the promo circuit - plus Burnham being a favourite of the emperor. 10-1 it's Harry Mudd, though. That would be a laugh.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Time Shadows: Second Nature

The time is coming... Time Shadows was an absolutely brilliant fanthology written for charity and featuring all thirteen Doctors (well, more than thirteen, in fact). Now the second volume is approaching its imminent release. Featuring Doctors galore and stories from authors such as Nick Walters (The New Adventures: Dry Pilgrimage; Eighth Doctor Adventures: Dominion, The Fall of Yquatine, Reckless Engineering; Past Doctor Adventures: Superior Beings); Dale Smith (Past Doctor Adventures: Heritage; New Series Adventures: The Many Hands; Faction Paradox: Spinning Jenny; Time Hunter: The Albino's Dancer); Paul Driscoll (The Black Archive: The God Complex) and many more, including me.

The book will be raising money for CODE, the global literacy charity. It will be available to order very soon, but for now, Pseudoscope have released teasers for all the stories, including mine, "Time-Crossed."

Click here to peruse.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Discovery, Orville, Callister: A Starship Trinity (part two)

On the face of it, Black Mirror is a completely different sort of show to either Star Trek or The Orville. So much so that it was a genuine surprise when Trek-like imagery was revealed from the upcoming fourth series. Yet the three series are, in their own ways, doing the same thing: discussing contemporary issues, both social and technological, through the medium of science fiction. While Black Mirror episodes are set predominantly in the 21st century, albeit in a nebulous set of timeframes, they aren't so different from the 22nd to 24th century adventures of the various starships Enterprise or the 25th century voyages of the Orville. The Next Generation's many holodeck episodes, which saw fantasy realms created technologically, then go awry, aren't a million light years away from Black Mirror's explorations of virtual reality. The Orville's seventh episode, "Majority Rule," is almost a more family-friendly version of Black Mirror's third season opener "Nosedive," both of which imagine worlds in which social media "likes" determine everything from social status to legal process.

So maybe "USS Callister" isn't such an odd fish. Beginning with a note-perfect parody of an old Trek episode, in which a Shatnerising Jesse Plemons plays Captain Daly, facing down the villainous Valdak (Billy Mangussen), who is equal parts Khan and original series Klingon. It's exactly right, from the soft-focus female close-ups to the VHS frame fringeing.

It's also a fantasy, since Daly is in fact a meek coder at a successful company. The USS Callister is his own private universe, a walled-off section of his company's MMR game Infinity, into which players plug their brains. He has chosen to recreate his favourite sci-fi series, Space Fleet, as his own personal playground. To begin with, Daly's a sympathetic character, unfairly put down and used by his boss Walton (a brilliant Jimmi Simpson). It's a bit odd that his computerised crew look like his workmates, but still, it's a fantasy, and seemingly a harmless one. However, after a bad day we see him violently assaulting and tormenting his second-in-command, modelled after Walton, and it's clear there's more to this.

A new employee, Nanette, played by Cristin Milioti, initially gushes over her master coder boss, but it isn't long before she's warned away from him. Daly then takes a sample of her DNA from a discarded cup and, in a display of pseudoscience worthy of Trek, clones her within the Infinity programme. There's now a duplicate of Nanette, Science Officer Cole, existing within the confines of Daly's fantasy universe. Everyone on the Callister is a sentient duplicate of someone who has, somehow, wronged Daly in some innocuous way. It becomes clear that Daly is a sadistic dictator, an "asshole god" as Walton puts it, who wields absolute power in his domain and enforces his will with physical and psychological torture.

It's an absolutely vicious attack on a certain type of Star Trek fan. The sort of fans that the general public once popularly imagined - sad, lonely, scared of sex - but elaborated to the anti-liberal fanbros that now plague the internet. It would be easy to see this episode as an attack on Star Trek and its fans, but it's clearly written by someone who loves the show. While showrunner Charlie Brooker isn't a particular fan, his co-writer on the episode, William Bridges, has spoken about adding little homages to the franchise. It's clear that he loves it in many iterations: Daly's initial display of omnipotence is a horrifying scene in which he removes Nanette's face, leaving her featureless, blind and suffocating, and is lifted directly from the first season Star Trek episode "Charlie X." Later scenes, such as Walton's Chekov-esque dash to engineering and his heroic sacrifice, owe more to the recent reboot movies. Brooker himself has spoken about the series and how it was never intended as an attack on fans of classic sci-fi, and actually watching it, that's clearly not the case.

It's an attack on those who claim to be fans but do not understand the very thing they profess to love. Daly spouts on about Space Fleet doing things the right way, about behaving in a particular way with a particular morality and cleanliness, while exposing his true nature as the exact opposite. While he never actually rapes anyone - indeed, he seems almost terrified of sex, even to the extent of removing the genitalia of his constructs - he forces all his female crew to kiss him after every successful mission, something that smacks of the endemic male entitlement and abuse of power that sweeps the entertainment industry. (Some might read this as an attack on Kirk's character, but even at his worst Kirk wasn't like this, at least in the original. If anything, it's an attack on men like Harvey Weinstein, Bryan Singer and, indeed, Gene Roddenberry.) It's an uncompromising dissection of the sort of close-minded male uberfan who obsesses with Star Trek (or Doctor Who, or My Little Pony, or whatever) and then sends rape threats or racist bile to people involved with his favourite show because it doesn't live up to his vision.

While the Trek trappings are obvious, "USS Callister" reminded me most of the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life," (effortlessly parodied in The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror,") and above all, Harlan Ellison's terrifying short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." Although, unlike those stories, in the end the episode is uplifting and victorious. Mutterings of a spin-off series are already being heard, and while that might be a bit much, a revisit to the Callister could be worthwhile. It's perhaps only a matter of time before the whole exercise eats its own tail, and a Star Trek production takes itself to task in this way.

While Discovery, The Orville and "USS Callister" are quite different productions, they all touch upon similar issues and explore similar themes. One thing is very clear: for all the ways they may or may not be doing Star Trek "right," they're all very obviously made by people with a real love of Trek. They're also doing one thing absolutely right: pissing off the sort of men who make Captain Daly look sensible and well-adjusted.

Back to part one