Sunday, 20 September 2020

REVIEW: Bill & Ted Face the Music

 


The original two Bill & Ted films are among my favourite go-to feelgood movies. Bogus Journey, in particular, I absolutely love, even though conventional wisdom has it that it's weaker than the first. Well, Excellent Adventure has more George Carlin, but it's not got William Sadler as Death, and the ending of the second film is such a beautifully uplifting crescendo that it cannot help but bring a happy tear to my eye.

So to hear the third film announced after all this time brought both excitement and trepidation. On the one hand, I couldn't wait to see the characters again (fondly remembered animated series and recent Boom! Studios notwithstanding, it's been almost thirty years). On the other, could a new film really capture the glorious late-80s/early-90s slacker magic of the originals, especially since the leads are now well into their fifties.

The solution is a stroke of genius – have Bill and Ted as middle-aged washouts. I always find it kind of embarrassing seeing ageing rockers performing reunion gigs or taking part in the Royal Gala. There's a point at which you just can't recapture your successful youth, and it just looks sad. Which is exactly the story to Bill & Ted Face the Music. While they're ostensibly fighting to save the future of the universe, it's their own lives and futures Bill and Ted are really fighting for. Not only are their wives (recast again) on the verge of leaving them, they risk losing the love of their kids as well. The script was apparently being worked on as long ago as 2010, but the extra ten years makes it all the more effective.

Of course, this film does undercut the ending of Bogus Journey. That movie ended with Bill and Ted having mastered their art, married to the princesses and with Little Bill and Little Ted in tow. The alien scientist Station, their good robot selves and Death himself were part of the band. Wyld Stallyns performed their first triumphant show, broadcast worldwide, kick-starting not only an illustrious career but also peace throughout the universe. To have that ending cut down is galling. No wonder Bill and Ted feel as lost as they do, nearly thirty years on, their careers down the pan and having still not written the song that unites the world. Not only is the utopian future, founded upon their music, under threat, but the paradox is causing all of space, time and reality to collapse. Just to up the stakes.

Normally we'd rely on Rufus to help save the day, but the great George Carlin sadly died twelve years ago. He does have a presence in the film, thanks to a rather touching moment where his hologram appears next to the time-travelling phonebooth as an object of historical interest (with a decent impersonation of his voice to allow some new dialogue). I still think Pam Grier should have played him, but we can't have everything.

Fortunately, Rufus's daughter Kelly (named after Carlin's own daughter, a huge deal in her own right, who makes a quick cameo in the movie) travels back from the 28th century to lend her aid to the Stallyns. It would have been easy to cast a man to play a pastiche of Carlin's Rufus, but Kelly, played by Kristen Schaal, is a different sort of saviour. It also happens that her mother (played by Holland Taylor with imperious arrogance) is the Great Leader, the ruler of the universe, who will stop at nothing to nip the problem in the bud, even if this means killing Bill and Ted to kick off a posthumous hit.

Winter and Reeves are still perfect as Bill and Ted. They were never the world's greatest actors (let's be fair here), but they never had to be to make the pretty shallow characters work, and here they give them just enough new depth to make the shallows all the more loveable. Their own solution to the problem – to travel into their own futures and get the song after they've written it – is as ingeniously stupid as they've ever been. Unfortunately, they have to drop the princesses in the middle of marriage counselling, triggering the final collapse of their relationships. Not only do they have to deal with increasingly warped and bitter versions of their own selves as they travel forwards in time, but Joanna and Elizabeth eventually get hold of the time booth and travel into their own past to try to find a better life themselves. The mission to save their marriages becomes even more important to Bill and Ted than the stability of the space/time continuum. It helps that Elizabeth and Joanna (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays, respectively) are given some actual character this time round, and you can't help but root for them as well as they try to find a version of reality where they can be content.

The best thing about the movie, though, is Bill and Ted's daughters. Billie Logan and Thea Preston, aka Little Bill and Little Ted, are the absolute stand-out characters and carry much of the film. Predictably, there were plenty of loud-mouthed idiots on the internet complaining about forced diversity and SJWs and the like, because how dare the creators of the franchise decide to make two characters who were briefly, arguably, presented as male into women? (Anyway, as writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon pointed out, the babies in Bogus Journey were girls.) Making the second leading duo of the film women adds some balance (as does giving the princesses some personality), but more importantly, Billie and Thea are brilliant characters. Thea is played by Australian star Samara Weaving, while Billie is played by up-and-coming NB actor Brigitte Lundy-Taylor. They're excellent characters; essentially like their fathers, but smarter, more proactive, and unstoppable in their mission to form the greatest band in history to support their dads' ultimate song.



Billie and Thea steal every scene they're in, and add a freshness to a film that could otherwise easily have been nothing more than a nostalgia fest. They're gorgeous, hilarious women who manage to be Bill and Ted perhaps even more than the older Winters and Reeves. Lundy-Taylor in particular is magnetic and somehow manages to completely recreate the Reeves's performance from the originals – she's even perfectly performs his walk – while adding something totally new. The girls make their own trip, backwards through time, recruiting some familiar and not-so-familiar faces from music history. This strand of the movie is the most like the first film, without ever feeling like a retread.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the Great Leader has sent a killer android after Bill and Ted, but he isn't very good and ends up killing pretty much everyone who gets in his way. Dennis Caleb McCoy (for that is his name, and I fear I'm missing some reference there) is a weird character. He's brilliantly performed by Anthony Carrigan, but he seems to belong to a different film. In the end, though, this just makes the neurotic robot seem more of an outsider, and he becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character. Multiple deaths by laser bolt naturally leads to everyone being sucked down to Hell, where eventually the Stallyns reform, after Bill and Ted make up with Death, who's been sulking since they kicked him out of the band over a law suit and forty-minute bass solos. The only character really missing from the band is Station, but Kid Cudi (as himself) oddly fills the genius otherworldly scientist role.

The entire film is visually astonishing, but the finale is spectacular. The climax to the story is both utterly predictable (the reveal of the great song and its performers is obvious from very early on) and truly satisfying. It's not quite the feel-good ending of Bogus Journey, but it's not far off, and yes, I shed a little tear of nostalgia-tinged happiness. Bill & Ted Face the Music doesn't quite hit the highs of its predecessors, but it's still a most excellent adventure.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 1-7 - "Much Ado About Boimler"


A very strong episode that balances silliness and character work, "Much Ado About Boimler" tells us more about Mariner than the eponymous ensign. We know what makes Boimler tick: he's all ambition and loyalty to Starfleet's rulebook. Mariner's more complicated, and we keep seeing there's a lot more to her than the disruptive rulebreaker she appears to be. When her best friend from the Academy shows up, it throws her into sharp relief and tells us a lot about her character.

Captain Amina Ramsey (a classy performance by Toks Olagundoye) has climbed the ranks and assembled an elite bridge crew, bringing them with her when she takes temporary command of the Cerritos. (Captain Freeman and the regular bridge crew are on a special mission to plant some seeds on a politically sensitive frontier planet.) Ramsey's success shows just how much Mariner's been treading water since she joined Starfleet. Ramsey appoints her first officer for the duration of her time on the Cerritos, but Mariner's behaviour rapidly tries the captain's patience. Although Mariner's a goof, she's generally a competent officer, just one who doesn't always do things the way Starfleet would like. It becomes clear what she's doing quite quickly: she's frightened that her friend is going to promote her out of her comfort zone. A lot of Mariner's questionable behaviour over the series makes sense when you know how hard she's trying to stay at ensign level. Maybe there's some fear of change there, but on the other hand, why shouldn't Mariner carry on being a really great ensign? Not everyone wants to move up the ranks.

Once everyone comes clean, Mariner and Ramsey work brilliantly together, and you can see how they were so alike back in the Academy days. It's good to see the Cerritos back on its primary mission – a follow-up second contact with the boggy planet Khwopa, where they'll help fix their water filtration system. The follow-up mission, to rendezvous with the USS Rubidoux, is where we see Mariner and Ramsey kick ass, as they save the crew (but not the ship) from a maturing spaceborne organism, which looks like it might be the larval stage of the Farpoint alien.

The title thread of the episode is a lot of fun, with Boimler pushed out-of-phase by Rutherford's experimental transporter upgrade. Alongside this, Tendi has genetically engineered a dog – called The Dog – who is clearly genetically unstable and capable of all manner of strange things. The Dog starts off as a clear reference to the classic sci-fi horror The Thing, mutating into terrifying shapes, but also brings to mind the polymorph from Red Dwarf (and maybe the shapeshifting alien from TNG: "Aquiel" was an influence). Tendi and Boimler are picked up Division 14, a branch of Starfleet that deals with unsolvable medical problems. The Division sends its own starship, the Osler, commanded by an Edosian, who's introduced in a very sinister moment and has a very unsettling laugh for any medical practitioner. It's amazing to see an Edosian again, the first (indeed only) we've seen since Arex on TAS. I'm loving these shout-outs to Lower Decks' forebear, but I'd also love to see an Edosian in live action Trek. Voyager pulled off Species 8472 in the nineties, they can definitely whip up an Edosian for Discovery or Picard.

The journey to "the Farm," Starfleet's experimental treatment facility, is harrowing, with the ship full of so-called freaks. It's gruesome but hilarious, leading to a mutiny as the freaks have come to realise that there is no Farm, and they've been abandoned by Starfleet. I'm glad this turned out to be nothing but paranoia, and that Division 14 just send unnecessarily sinister ships and doctors.

While the Boimler-Tendi-Dog storyline is the funniest part of the episode, it's Mariner's story that gives it the heart. A very successful episode.

References and observations:

Boimler's beaming accident is similar to the accident that put Geordi and Ro out of phase in TNG: "The Next Phase," although they were left both invisible and intangible. Among the "freaks" on their way to the farm, one is in an all-encompassing wheelchair-life-support-unit like Pike was in TOS: "The Menagerie." Another has turned into a giant newt-like creature, which suggests he's been playing with transwarp, since this is what happened to Paris and Janeway in the classic Voyager episode "Threshold." The ringleader though has a body ageing at different rates, which is what happened to both Chakotay in VOY: "Shattered" and Daniels in ENT: "Storm Front." He also describes himself as "half a rascal," a reference to the TNG episode "Rascals" which saw Picard, Ro, Guinan and Keiko reverted to childhood.

Ramsey's colleague Drew Prachett, in spite of the human name, looks like he's an Enterprise-era Rigellian. He's voiced by veteran voice artist Maurice LaMarche.

Division 14 is reminiscent of Section 31, of course, but they turn out to be much nicer. The Osler is a unique starship design, which does look particularly menacing. Its registration is NX-75300, which might indicate that it's experimental.




TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 1-6 - "Terminal Provocations"

 


Some of Lower Decks' best moments are when it pokes fun at Star Trek's cliches, and it really goes for it here. Again we have three story threads, and it's impressive just how busy these short episodes can get. Firstly, Boimler and Mariner find themselves stuck helping Tim Robinson's guest character Fletcher, a passable send-up of the sort of story when a new character turned up for one episode to either cause trouble or be amazing for a week before disappearing. In a second thread, Rutherford and Tendi find themselves in trouble on the holodeck when the safety protocols fail, sending up seemingly dozens of episodes of TNG, DS9 and VOY, to the point where Rutherford gives a rundown of pretty much every holodeck character who's ever caused trouble in the franchise (and then some). Finally, the bridge crew find themselves in a face-off with some aliens over the fate of some Starfleet wreckage, bringing to mind any number of alien-of-the-week antagonists who turned up to cause a little trouble and then vanished off back into the galaxy.

Of the three storylines, which interplay rather nicely, the strongest is the holodeck sequence. It's joyfully silly – and surprisingly violent – revolving around Badgey, a computer icon designed by Rutherford to help with simulations. He's basically Microsoft's Clippy reimagined as a Starfleet Delta. The ease with which Rutherford accidentally creates a sentient programme (or something close), the fact that the safety protocols fail as soon as there's even a slight drop in available power, and the speed at which things turn violent are all ridiculous, but that serves merely to poke fun at how often these things happen on 24th century Trek. Honestly, you can't help but wonder how holodecks are even legal.

In Boim-Boim and Mariner's story, the by-now inseparable pair find themselves having to bail out their fellow Lower Decker when they leave him on shift alone to go to a dance, resulting in utter chaos when he fouls up the computer core. Fletcher is the sort of guy you might enjoy hanging out with for a while but you wouldn't want to work with him. He gets irritating quickly, but that's the idea, and it's clear he's being dishonest when he claims he was attacked and the core sabotaged. The truth – that he tried to tie his own brain into the core – is suitably outlandish. Both these storylines show a very human concern – trying to impress ones workmates and friends – can lead to serious errors in judgment. In turn, in the Trek galaxy, these errors can lead to deadly sci-fi absurdities. Both the violence and the science-gone-wrong nature of Badgey and the Fletcherised computer core bring to mind Rick and Morty, making this episode the most like the series on which the showrunner worked. This episode is more like how I expected the whole series to turn out.

The bridge crew's story is the least interesting, but it holds the episode together. Fletcher's messing with the core causes problems with the shields, suddenly making the rather primitive aliens the Drookmani a threat. In turn, their attack leads to the holodeck going awry. Everything ties up rather nicely at the end, too. The Drookmani are a very standard threat – a bunch of agressive aliens who want to get their hands on some Starfleet tech – but that's rather the point. This is week-in, week-out Starfleet work. The use of Antares-class ships in the wreckage – first named in TOS, seen in TAS and then later in TOS-Remastered – is a nice touch. I like the idea that Starfleet kicks off about aliens salvaging their tech even when it's a century out-of-date; I can't help but feel the Drookmani have a point.

The episode pushes the relationships of the four central characters forward. They're very much two pairs now. Rutherford and Tendi make a great team, and now Rutherford finally starts to admit his feelings for Tendi, so maybe we'll get some romance in the future. There's hints of that with Mariner and Boimler, but I think they probably work better as best buds. We shall see.

Observations:

Yes, that's Martok actor J. G. Hertzler as the Drookmani captain. That makes seven species he's played now, after Vulcan, Klingon, Changeling, Prophet, Hirogen and human (eight if you count holograms).

The starship to which Fletcher is promoted, the USS Titan, is the ship Riker took command of at the end of Star Trek Nemesis. It's amusing to think of Riker having to deal with that liability of a crewman. Apparently the Titan is Boimler's dream assignment. Are we building up to a cameo by Jonathan Frakes?

Best line: "Do you know how hard it is to get cheese out of fur in a sonic shower?"

Saturday, 5 September 2020

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 1-5 - "Cupid's Errant Arrow"

 


The fifth episode of the series is, for me, the strongest so far, balancing three distinct story threads during its short runtime and getting away with it. This is a very funny episode, that balances the Trek-references, slapstick, character humour and story drama very well.

Everything revolves around the Cerritos' rendezvous with the USS Vancouver, a clearly more advanced and up-to-date starship. (Mariner can't see the difference, but it looks like the next step up from the Cerritos on the design chain, rather like the Excelsior-class compared to the Constitution.)

The A-plot deals with Boimler's new girlfriend Lt. Barbara Brinson, science officer on the Vancouver. She's fallen inexplicably in love with the young ensign, who will not shut up about her and how they're a thing. Mariner can't accept how Boimler is batting so far out of his league, and comes to the conclusion that Brinson's some nightmarish threat in disguise with horrifying plans for Brad. This is a deeply paranoid side to Mariner we haven't seen before, but it stems from a terrible incident in her past when she was stationed on the USS Quito: we get a fun flashback where her friend's boyfriend turns into a shapeshifting monster and eats her, so it's understandable she's got some hang-ups.

For his part, Boimler realises he's punching above his weight, and is sent into jealousy-mode when Brinson is hanging out with Jet, the "second-coolest guy" on the Cerritos, who is, of course, tall, buff and handsome. Boimler tries to impress his coolness on Brinson in increasingly desperate ways, while Mariner tries to gain evidence for whatever kind of monster she is, leading to a series of farcical scenes throughout the episode.

Meanwhile, T'endi and Rutherford are lusting after the superior technology on the Vancouver. There's a fun scene where they geek out over a new kind of tricorder-like instrument, the T-88. They get the opportunity to engage in a little healthy competition to see who will win one of the devices – in reality, by gaining a transfer to the Vancouver. In a nice touch, they draw, earning them both a transfer, but they're not sure they're ready to move away from the Cerritos, especially when it turns out that the transferring officer is desperate to get off the more advanced ship because of the endless high concept missions. It's a fair point; life on a ship like the Enterprise or Vancouver, with its weekly life-threatening scenarios, would be unbearably stressful for most people.

Meanwhile again, Captain Freeman and Commander Ransom must work with the natives of the Mixtus system to try to solve the problem of an errant moon, which is due to collapse and rain down fiery death onto Mixtus Three. The simple solution is to implode the moon, except that the various Mixtan factions all have reasons to stand against this, be they economic, religious, or sheer paranoia (the whole things a hoax to control our minds! Sound familiar?) This requires some serious diplomacy from Freeman, who is well up to the task, but she is then stymied when it turns out that saving Mixtus Three will doom Mixtus Two. It's great to see the captain really showing us what she's capable of, after previous episodes have made her look pretty incompetent. She's great here, never backing down from her impossible problem, and though the final solution is a jokey one, the storyline itself shows us her worth as a commander.

Everything comes to a head as each storyline is resolved at the episode's close. I can't help but feel sorry for Boimler, who loses his girl after all. It'd have been nice for the geeky guy to get the girl for real – after all, there's more than a few of us geeky guys watching. As fun as the main thread is, I wonder if there was a better way to approach it. Brinson turns out to be completely human, but it could have been wonderful if she wasn't, but Brad just didn't care. Mariner could have done her investigating behind her back, and dramatically revealed to him proof that Brinson was a shapeshifting alien, just for Boimler to go, "Yeah, I know. So what?" Still, the storyline shows the deep friendship Mariner has for Boimler, and there's just a chance it'll develop into something more as time goes on.

A very good episode with a great guest spot by Community's Gillian Jacobs as Barb Brinson.

Observations and fun bits:

Things Mariner accuses Brinson of being: a salt succubus, a Suliban, a rogue hologram, a shapeshifter, a reptoid, a surgically altered Cardassian or Romulan spy, a transporter clone and a parasite.

The USS Vancouver is a Parliament-class starship. Mariner's old posting, the USS Quito, is an Olympic-class ship, like the USS Pasteur seen in TNG: "All Good Things." We see it docked with Deep Space Nine, the first appearance of the station since DS9: "What You Leave Behind."

There's a bit of confusion about the Mariner's background as seen in the flashback. She and her shipmates talk about the events of TNG: "Descent" like it was recent, which would place the flashback in 2370. This would mean Mariner has been in Starfleet for at least ten years, which isn't impossible, given her ability to get herself promoted and demoted frequently. However, she and her shipmates are wearing the grey-shouldered uniforms that first appeared in Star Trek: First Contact, meaning the scene can take place no earlier than 2373. On the other hand, Mariner probably isn't the most reliable of narrators when it comes to details.

As well as the Suliban, Trip Tucker gets a name check. I always like it when Enterprise gets a reference. This is the second post-Enterprise character reference, after Captain Archer was briefly mentioned in Star Trek: Discovery.

There's a Phylosian (from TAS: "The Infinite Vulcan") serving on the Cerritos.

Boimler's full name is Bradward Boimler.

Best line: "It's so stressful. It's so epic. It's all, 'Tow this space station and calibrate the Dyson sphere. Go back in time and kill the guy that was worse than Hitler!"


Monday, 31 August 2020

Ancient Beings online exhibition

 The Ancient Beings exhibition was displayed in the Tower Gallery at Eton College from late 2019 until closure earlier this year due to the COVID-19 crisis. It has now been deinstalled, but there is now an online version of the exhibition freely available to view here, allowing anyone to view the remarkable relics that have been collected.

The Ancient Beings exhibition features materials from Ancient Egypt, some of them dating back over five thousand years, and gives incredible insight into the mythology and culture of this distant civilisation.

Explore the exhibition now at this link, thanks to my extremely talented sister, Rebecca Tessier, who just happens to be the curator of the exhibit.