Wednesday, 17 April 2019

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-11 - "Perpetual Infinity"






It's the episode with the answers, or at least, a fair few of them. After last week's surprise revelation of the Red Angel's identity, we get an episode that is essentially dedicated to Michael's relationship with her mother. The writers have an amusing take on the two of them, with Gabrielle being just as stubborn and self-important as her daughter. It's also pretty funny that, after Spock thinking it was all about him, it turns out to be all about Michael, only for it to be all about her mum... then it turns out to be about her after all. Gabrielle, thrown 950 years into a desolate future, has twin missions across space and time: stop Control to save the Galaxy, and keep Michael safe.

Not that she admits this last bit for a long time. Perhaps she wants to make it easier on her daughter by being a bitch so that when she has to leave it doesn't hurt so much – exactly the same thing that Michael did to Spock back at Vulcan's Forge. In the end, though, these events are a healing process for Michael's family, with her relationships with both Spock and her mother mended. Sonequa Martin-Green gives a great performance here, and her chemistry with Ethan Peck is perfect, but it's really Sonja Sohn's episode. She's got the perfect voice for dropping in from the future to make grand proclamations of doom. She's a kind of female Morgan Freeman.

Less convincing is Michael's other mother, Evil Georgiou. I'm actually enjoying the character more and more as the season goes on, as Yeoh has reigned her performance in, but nonetheless, the character's shift from grand mistress of the universe to Michael's champion is unconvincing. And Michael already has a guardian angel, after all. Still, we do get some spectacular martial arts from Yeoh as Georgiou fights the Controlled Leland, in a Matrix-styled battle on the planet's surface. It's exactly what you hire Michelle Yeoh for, after all. Why put her in a black catsuit if you're not going to have her go all space ninja on a cyborg's ass?

Controlled Leland is great, with Alan van Sprang making the Section 31 leader just a little more sinister, a little more robotic than usual. It's totally believable that it takes a while for Georgiou and Tyler to realise he's not quite right, since he's such a cold bastard at the best of times. Once they do realise, and team up against him, both agents work better than they ever did when they were at odds. Georgiou and Tyler, it turns out, make a really effective team.

There are some logical flaws in the episode, or rather, it extends logical flaws from earlier in the season. The crew had come to the conclusion that the Red Angel was from the future because its technology was too advanced to be explained otherwise, yet it turns out that Gabrielle created it twenty years ago. While Section 31 has displayed tech that's further ahead than the rest of Starfleet, it's still a daft contradiction. (Unless the inference is that the Angel was created using future tech, in some kind of paradox, like Control itself, but that's never made clear.) The revelation that Gabrielle knows nothing about the red bursts is a twist, yet it's just as feasible that she hasn't created them yet, from her perspective. And how does she manage, even given the technology at her disposal, to lift a bunch of people fifty thousand years across space to Terralysium? I do like the idea that the Sphere data is so sophisticated that it can learn and adapt itself, preventing itself from being deleted. No wonder Control is so keen to get hold of it; the Sphere's database is more advanced an AI than Control itself.

In spite of some slightly silly and hard to swallow plot anomalies, this is a decent episode that combines both spectacular action and powerful emotional beats. I don't buy for a second that we won't meet Gabrielle again, even if she is unstuck in time.

Observations:

  • So, is Control the origin of the Borg? The hologram that infects Leland states that “Struggle is pointless,” which is practically “Resistance is futile,” and the method Control uses to infect Leland, using nanites, is practically identical to the Borg's later use of nanoprobes. It's not impossible that Control or some of its tech is eventually sent back in time, ending up in the Delta Quadrant and giving rise to the Borg... or maybe it's just a red herring.
  • Michael's dad, Mike, is played by Sonequa Martin-Green's husband, Kenric Green.
  • Spock quotes Hamlet, and Michael gets ridiculously overexcited about it, because Trek characters are all obsessed with Shakespeare. It's better in the original Klingon, anyway.
  • Dr. Gabrielle Burnham never returned home.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Black Holes and Planetoids

The news has been alight with the first ever image of a black hole, released to the world this week. The black hole was imaged by a 200-strong team at MIT, led by Dr. Katie Bouman, whose face has become known across the world due to her vital role in the research. The Guardian has a great article on Dr. Bouman and her contribution to the creation of the algorithm that created the image.




The algorithm correlated data from the Event Horizon Telescope, a huge array of radio telescopes across the globe, which scan the sky for radio signals indicative of black hole activity, notably from Sagittarius A* - aka the Monster - a huge black hole at the centre of our own Galaxy, and M87*, the equivalent object at the core of Galaxy M87, over 55 million light years away.

The data collection is remarkable in itself, but it would be nothing without the teams of scientists working to interpret it. Dr. Bouman's algorithm is what is responsible for turning the reams of radio data into a visual image. While the image may not look impressive at first, this fuzzy ring of glowing gas is the first image ever of a phenomenon we long thought would never be seen. Until now, no one had ever seen a black hole, or had real proof of one's existence.



To put this image into some context, here's an imaging of the entire region from which the data was collected. The black hole is a tiny speck in a huge region of ionised gas, slowly dragging it all in and releasing energy. The black hole is over six billion times the mass of the Sun.




What's wonderful about this discovery is how many people are sharing it, talking about it and Dr. Bouman, and sharing the image. In our pop culture driven, the image has already become the subject of dozens of memes. Also, be careful if you're heading to New Earth on Doctor Who, that's in the same galaxy, along with all those Macra.

In further space news, the planetary body 2007 OR10, a dwarf planet candidate, has wandered the outer reaches of the solar system without a formal name since its discovery twelve years ago. Although nicknamed "Snow White," the trans-Neptunian body is the largest object in the solar system without a proper name. Meg Schwamb, an assistant scientist at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii and co-discoverer of the worldlet, makes a good case for why it needs a name here. Her team has narrowed the name list down to three options, and is asking for the public to vote on the final decision.

The names are: Gonggong, a Mandarin name for a Chinese water god; Holle, a Germanic winter goddess and linked to the winter solstice; and Vili, a Nordic deity of Asgard who defeated the giant Ymir and created the Earth. I voted for Gonggong, because it is quite the silliest option of the three. You can read all about the suggestions and cast your vote here.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

THE ORVILLE REVIEW: S2, E8 to E11

2-8 & 2-9) IDENTITY, parts 1 & 2




The big, blow-out two-parter that everything has been leading up to, this was originally meant to be the finale for season one. The decision to push it back till midway through the second season wasn't a bad call; the characters probably did need more development to give it the impact it deserved. Still, you've got to wonder how they can follow it up for the finale of this season.

It's heartbreaking to see Isaac give up on his character development, throwing out the minor elements of humanity he's gained and selling the Orville crew out to the Kaylon. The impact on Claire and her kids is the most obvious bit of betrayal, but it impacts every member of the cast. Isaac's had a genuinely interesting development through the series, one that's similar to the route Data took in TNG but goes down a different track. There was never any real doubt that Data was a person, who embraced his humanity, while with Isaac it's quite different. There's an ongoing question as to whether Isaac really is self-aware, or whether he just presents a convincing simulation of it, and while he appears to have developed feelings for his friends, he has no real emotions and has no apparent inclination to change this. 

It's also hard to argue with the Kaylon when they say Isaac has been abused his crewmen. He's been the subject of a lot of verbal abuse from people on the crew, particularly Gordon, for his mechanical nature. The story is pretty predictable - we know from the outset that the Kaylon are up to something, and we know that Isaac will eventually put his crew's life before his people's mission. It's just a question of when, and why, he'll change sides. The Kaylon design, and the design of their world, is impressive: planet Kaylon One looks like a technological utopia, and the Kaylons themselves, being completely identical, impress when they attack en masse. Making Isaac recognisable just by his different lights and colour is a nice touch. 

That said, I was under the impression that Isaac's appearance was due to his being designed to fit in with the humanoid crew, and I was looking forward to seeing something different for the Kaylons themselves, but I guess they were designed by humanoids so it still makes sense. The Kaylons history is basically the backstory for The Matrix, or The Terminator, except that they made a much better go at wiping out their creators. It's hard to argue that organic life is warlike, but the Kaylon are immune to the irony of planning to wipe everything out to assure peace. And, as predictable a reveal it is, the bone pits beneath the planet's surface are a great visual moment.

There are some shonky bits: Claire's so emotional that she'd have derailed relations even if the Kaylon had been serious about joining the Union, and you've got to wonder how it can be so easy for a kid to sneak off the ship and around an alien planet without anyone noticing him. And yes, it's easy to see where this is all going, but when it's done with such panache, it's hard to argue that this is a very successful two-part event episode. It's a very important episode in the series' setting and future history, not only setting up the Kaylon as a major recurring threat, but beginning the process of making peace with the Krill as they face a common enemy. It's also pretty funny that this is another instance of The Orville running similar plot points to Star Trek: Discovery, except that this time, The Orville got there first, and Control's quest to wipe out organic life looks like it's copying the Kaylon's.

"Identity" is a very successful story, although it would have been absolutely brilliant if the invasion had turned out to be Isaac's greatest practical joke.

Planets visited: Kaylon One

Music: That's really Scott Grimes singing when Gordon performs at Isaac's going away party. 

Starships and stations: Named Union ships include the USS Roosevelt, USS Quimby, USS Spruance and the USS Hawking

Crewman of the week: It has to be Yaphit, who gets to be more than a comedy character this time and takes out a Kaylon in a heroic bit of bodily invasion.

New aliens: There's a bunch of new faces under impressive make-up at Isaac's party.

2-9) BLOOD OF PATRIOTS


A month after the events of "Identity," a ceasefire is in place between the Union and the Krill Empire, and a true peace treaty is on the horizon. While Mercer does have more experience of dealing with the Krill than anyone else in the fleet (at least, anyone who's lived to tell of it), the admiralty is still showing a hell of a lot of faith in the Orville crew. There's a much more serious tone over this episode, even for the more drama-focused second season. There's scarcely any comedy here, save for Talla's very funny delaying tactics with the Krill delegation. This is pretty strong stuff, dealing with the trauma of abuse of a prisoner of war, divided loyalties and the costs of peace. 

This is the first of two episodes that focus on Gordon Malloy, and Scott Grimes proves in both that he's a very strong actor who can do a lot more than the comedy moments he generally got previously. His moral dilemma here, torn between the friendship with Orrin and loyalty to his crew and the Union, is very well portrayed. Mackenzie Astin is also impressive as Orrin, understandably filled with hatred towards the Krill, who imprisoned him for twenty years and killed his family. There's certainly an argument that peace with the Krill can't work, given that they view all other life as soulless animals without value, but it's also clearly true that this is first and only chance for peace and that otherwise all-out war is probably inevitable. 

This is a solid episode, well performed, with some serious things to say. However, it never quite gripped me like it should have. Perhaps it's because Orrin is so obviously guilty from the outset, while it's hard to credit that none of the thorough scans made by Talla and Claire picked up that Leyna isn't human, or that she's got a hidden weapon. The plot feels a little poorly constructed, which would have slipped by unnoticed if it had been a little pacier. Plus, there's no fallout from Isaac's betrayal, when you'd expect some follow-up. Still, it's a pretty decent episode. 

Planets visited: Strictly none, but the ships meet in orbit of Tarezed 3. Tarezed, Menkab al Nasr or Gamma Aquilae, is a real star system a little under four hundred light years away.

New aliens: "Leyna" is an Envall from Lakkar B, a species whose blood reacts explosively when in contact with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere. They've agreed to avoid Union worlds because of this.

The Trek link: John Fleck, who plays the Krill ambassador, played the Suliban leader Silik on Enterprise. His voice is immediately recognisable. 

2-10) LASTING IMPRESSIONS





After a month's break, The Orville comes back with another Gordon-centric episode. Possibly the season could have been ordered a little better, but this is such a lovely episode that I don't really mind. This is a low sci-fi episode, being more of a light romcom, and while it's straightforward and predictable, it's so nicely done that I can't really fault it. It's success is mainly down to the performances of both Scott Grimes and his one-off love interest, Leighton Meester as Laura. There's an easy chemistry between the 25th century man and the 21st century girl, and it sells the episode. 

The set-up in the episode is very simple. A time capsule from 2015 has been uncovered, and the Orville is taking it from Earth to an offworld museum. Inside is a smartphone, left by Laura and complete with all her messages, photos and videos, to help build up a picture of early 21st century life. Gordon uses the environmental simulator to recreate her and her world. It's all very predictable; Gordon falls for Laura, she falls for him back, his crewmates warn him how unhealthy a fantasy it is, things don't work out and he has to move on. But it's beautifully written and performed, so it works. Laura is genuinely likeable, but not unrealistically so, and the romance develops slowly enough to be believable, at least within the confines of a forty-five minute show. 

The subplot with Bortus and Klyden getting addicted to cigarettes is pretty amusing, although the funniest joke is LaMarr replacing the battery on the iPhone so that it won't need charging for ten years. This might not be the most visually impressive or imaginative episode ever, but it's rather beautiful and it makes a nice breather after the combat and politics of the last few episodes.

Planets visited: None, unless you count the simulation of Earth.

The Trek link: Voyager's Tim Russ appears as Dr. Sherman. 

The music: Making Laura a singer seems to have been included just to allow Grimes to sing again, but he's genuinely very good. The music's a highlight in this episode.

The shallow bit: Talla, in 21st century hipster get-up, is just gorgeous.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Comics Round-up March 2019


Well, it's been a while since I did one of these. I very rarely find the time and money for new comics these days, but when I was feeling crappy with the latest infectious agent that was doing the rounds – and neither going out nor really eating – I thought I could spare a few quid to treat myself.

I've picked up a few first issues and one-shots, some brand new, some released a month or so ago, to see what's new on the shelves.




Invisible Kingdom #1 (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

A fascinating new science fantasy series from G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward, about a distant solar system where cut-throat economics and religious piety rub shoulders. A female-centred book – and I'm focusing on reading more of these, since they seem to offer much of the best character work in current comics – it includes space nuns (or “nones”), an alien species with four sexes, and a shipping conglomerate that delivers goods to other planets regardless of the cost to the workforce or locals. It's only the first chapter and barely scratches the surface of the setting, but it promises to be something very interesting and looks like it'll be a far better sci-fi take on Amazon than that Doctor Who episode. Think I'll carry on with this one.

Domino: Hotshots #1 (Marvel)

Domino heads an all-female team of super-agents that reminds us that this character was a lot of fun before Deadpool 2 reinterpreted her. This is another strong comic centred on women, with as many good as bad characters, all with at least some complexity (although the newer characters don't get a lot of exploration yet). It's Gail Simone, so you know it's going to be good, and it's sensible marketing, including enough elements familiar to movie-goers to appeal (Domino, Black Widow, Wakandan rebel, anime-esque woman...) Props for remembering that Black Widow is a spy, as well. Then a male character crashes into the narrative loudly at the end, but again, he's one Simone knows how to handle properly.

The Magnificent Ms. Marvel #1 (Marvel)

Why did I stop buying Ms. Marvel? I'm fairly sure it was lack of money, but it was a hard one to let go of. This is ostensibly a new series, but it's really a continuation under a new name, as per. It doesn't matter, Kamala is as wonderful a character as ever, now a little older and wiser but still very much a teenaged girl. This combines some very fun and silly superheroics with believable friends and family dynamics, that make Kamala feel a lot more real than most superheroes. This is what Spider-Man feels like when he's written right.

Goddess Mode #1 (DC/Vertigo) 

Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi, the artist/colourist team from Spider-Gwen, work together again, this time for DC. No surprise that this comics looks just gorgeous, with bold, frenetic artwork. The story, by Zoe Quinn, is an interesting one, but it's seriously exposition-heavy. Maybe this is just a symptom of its being a set-up issue, but for now, this AI-techno-magical future comes across as better in concept than execution. It's another interesting all-female superhero team, though, and worth picking up issue two to get to know them a little better.

Star Trek: The Next Generation 20/20 (IDW)

Part of IDW's 20th anniversary celebrations, which appear to be hitting just in time for them to be bought up. Oh well. The idea with these is that they're taking popular series and either rewinding or fast-forwarding twenty years into the narrative. In this case, the story turns back to the 2350s, when Picard has just taken command of the USS Stargazer, with Jack Crusher as his Number One. Peter David is on writing duties, so you know it'll at least be entertainingly readable. It's pretty slight, but captures the younger Picard well – he's a bit of a dick, trying to prove himself, and recongisably halfway between the cocky cadet from “Tapestry” and the wiser elder statesman we love. And, while it's a touch fanwanky, this explores a very important meeting in his life.



Tuesday, 26 March 2019

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-10 - "The Red Angel"


So, there's no way of reviewing this one without dropping some clunking SPOILERS about the ongoing mystery of the series. Well, it's in the episode title. I'm going to hit the spoilers straight away, so I've hidden the review under the page break.