Sunday 25 October 2020

FICTION: "Pathways to Now"

 A very short story about the possibilities of quantum technology, submitted into the 2019-20 Quantum Shorts competition. The requirements were that the story should include the line "Things used to be so simple," and that the story hinge on a quantum effect. The Many Worlds hypothesis, positing that multiple distinct future worldlines could descend from every choice and moment in existence, is a well-worn source of science fiction. It was hawking that postulated that such a quantum effect, if possible, could work both ways in time, giving rise to the fascinating possibility of multiple pasts.

Not for the first time, Aaron asked himself how he had got himself into this situation, and despaired. The problem wasn't that he had no answer. It was that he had too many answers.

    The Bubble was the pinnacle of engineering achievement, an entirely isolated system, left adrift in space to protect its occupant from outside interference. Only then could the decoherence drive be put into effect. The idea was sound, but baffling to the human mind. Multiple paths were open to each particle, each quantum system, up to and including Aaron in his Bubble. His trajectory in space was random and unbounded. All possible futures were open to him.

    His career in deep space was the result of many decisions, many happy accidents, many flukes of random chance. He'd wondered before how different things might have been if, say, he'd gone to MIT instead of Caltech, or if Andi had said yes. The slightest difference, and his life could have been unrecognisable.

    The deco drive filled the Bubble with an almost imperceptible hum, which he tried to focus on, to keep his mind straight. Flight paths branched before him, laid out as probable routes, to be chosen at random when he gave the command. The Oort Cloud, Alpha Centauri, the long journey to Rigel, all were open to him. By using the deco drive, the theory went, the Bubble would journey along each of these probable paths simultaneously, with Aaron sending information back on all of his contemporaneous missions.

    He' undergone rigorous psychological training to prepare for this, that much he was sure of. He'd had to, to be allowed to make the journey. He was prepared to experience flashes of alternative journeys, as his subjective awareness overlapped with the experiences of his other selves. He remembered his instructor telling him to focus on the immediate and the tangible, to ground himself in the here and now, but had that been Dr. Geiger or Dr. Bhushan?

    There'd been a mistake. A vital element had been overlooked. Just as the Everettian interpretation had proved to be true, and multiple futures branched from every action or decision, so had the Feynman interpretation. All possible histories that could lead to an event were true, existing side-by-side, separated by many worlds of memory.

    The hum of the deco drive faded into the background as Aaron tried to piece together the events that had led him here. He'd finished first in the training programme. He'd finished second, but Butler had pulled out due to a sudden injury. He'd aced that first Bubble test flight after three months of extra preparation. He'd spent weeks grounded after a failed test, but they'd made the launch time because they'd started in June. The barman at the Dropout talked him into to reapplying for his Masters after he'd screwed up that vital exam. He jumped to another college and switched majors, only to be headhunted by the Agency anyway. He stood at the edge of the launch site, saying goodbye to his brother Mike/his wife Annie and their two boys/his husband Rich/Yuki, the ops manager he was sure had a crush on him. He promised he'd be back in time for New Years/Christmas/his birthday/her daughter's finals.

Desperate for a firm memory, he thought back to his childhood. His home in Pittsburgh. His home in New York. The year he'd spent in London. Regretting never travelling in his youth. He was named after his father's best friend... no, his mother's cousin... no, they'd just heard the name and thought it sounded cute.

    He looked at the readout, the paths stretching before him, and flinched at the memory of the paths branching behind him. He swam in the mire of memories, and feared he would drown.

    The past was as limitless as the future. When things got complicated, he used to laugh it off, joking with his brother/wife/husband/colleagues/friends. “Things used to be so simple,” he'd say. They never had been. He drifted, lost in endless complexity.

Saturday 24 October 2020

TREK REVIEW: DIS 3-2 - "Far From Home"

After a bold opening, Discovery settles into a groove with an episode that's fun but predictable. There's a clear western feel to the adventure, with the Disco crew riding into town and getting mixed up with the local bandits. It was a clever move, separating Burnham from the ship for the opening episodes, allowing her to do the expositional heavy lifting and find out about the 32nd century, while this episode has to deal with a lot more characters and so doesn't have nearly as much scope for worldbuilding. In that light, a really straightforward adventure isn't a bad idea, but it's still a bit underwhelming after last week's season opener.

This episode put me in mind of "Caretaker," the Voyager opener, what with the eponymous starship crashing into parts unknown, leaving the ship in tatters and the crew injured. Discovery only loses one crewman, which is a lot better than Voyager managed, but the ship is in much worse shape. Stuck without communications until they can get hold of some rubindium (that handy made-up element from TOS), they need to dispatch someone to the unfamiliar planet they've virtually crashed into. It's a bit hard to swallow that, with both space and time seemingly variable and a whole region of the galaxy open to them, both Burnham and the ship manage to smack right into habitable planets. Maybe the angel suit has some failsafe for this? Who knows, but some kind of mention would have been nice. I do love that wormhole travel is depicted as being incredibly dangerous, with the tidal effects of the space/time distortion putting the crew through the ringer. Wormhole travel is usually far too safe and uneventful on Trek.

Although everyone gets their moment here - including some unfairly overlooked characters who've been with us since season one - it's Doug Jones's time to shine. He's absolutely excellent as the new, more confident Saru, currently acting captain of the Discovery, and although he shouldn't really be heading down to the mysterious planet himself, captains are always doing this. I liked how quickly he went from non-interference to not-standing-for-this-tyranny, although I wish he'd have whipped out his superpowers (Saruperpowers?) a bit sooner. It's almost like he forgot he could should venomous barbs when riled.

His relationship with Tilly grows, with her remaining the most delightful character. Tilly got some good material here. She's clearly overwhelmed by the situation, perfectly understandably, but still holds it together when she needs to. She had a nice moment with the sweet Coridan guy, and it looked like she'd found her own future friend, but then he died in a very nasty way. It was a pretty horrible episode for a lot of our regulars, to be honest. Much needed time spent with Detmer and (too a lesser extent) Owosekun, and there's potentially more to them than being friends and colleagues, but Detmer really took a beating. She's suffered a lot over the course of the series, and it finally looks like it's taken its toll. Emily Coutts is really impressive in this episode, believably showing the PTSD that Detmer is clearly suffering. I do hope they explore that maturely, and don't make her another possessed cyber-person like Airiam. Let her have some human drama. Everyone's favourite space couple are back on strong terms, with Dr. Hugh on top form as he bosses his boyfriend around, taking full advantage of his bashed-about brain. Stamets is always watchable, even when he's recovering from serious trauma, and these two light up the screen when they're together. I'm glad the couple is back together properly. 

Georgiou is already starting to get on my nerves. Aside from being shitty to Tilly, her character really is a one-note scoundrel, and while Michelle Yeoh is clearly having a great time as a hammy villain, there's just not enough to her character to warrant giving her that much focus. I realise they're setting up her Section 31 spin-off (still not sure how that's going to fit in, but we'll see), but that's going to require a lot more depth for the character to hold her own show. I did like her relationship with Nhan, who looks like she'll be something of a new recruit for Georgiou's personal mission, and I like how she's resigned herself to forever jumping "between universes" now that she's cut off from her own. And to be fair, she worked well in this episode, striding into a stand-off being a hardass and shaking off a nasty pain-inducing blaster. She probably uses an agonizer for fun, there's no way that's going to stop her. But I really can't see how this shallow of a character is going to remain entertaining all season, especially if they're going to keep this battle-for-command subplot between her and Saru simmering for long. I hope the cold war goes hot sooner rather than later.

The alien planet, utilising more amazing Icelandic vistas, is just stunning. The idea of a fractured planet, parts of it floating tenuously over the horizon, is just a beautiful visual, and truly different to any location we've seen on Trek before. The Colony (could they really not think of a name?) is an interesting mix of the timelessly ramshackle and the highly futuristic, and that makes sense. Step into a rural town in S. E. Asia or developing Africa and you'll see people with iPhones and plasma screen TVs in their huts. Once technology turns up, it hangs around, and gets into the hands of everyone. Hence, programmable matter for people living in a seedy dive bar with barrels for chairs. The Coridans were a nice bunch - I really like that we're seeing lots of aliens in the post-Federation future - but the villains were pretty weak. While I like that it's humans being the villainous species this week (assuming they're human - there's plenty of human-looking aliens in Trek), they were just dull and uninteresting. Jake Weber was singularly unimpressive as Zareh, but then, I guess he didn't have much to work with. Last week we had some fun one-off characters as antagonists, so this was a disappointing drop in villain quality.

I liked the pidgin English used by the villains, though. This was a simple, effective way of showing that things have moved on. Notably, Zareh uses the term V'draysh, the corruption of Federation that cropped up in the Short Trek "Calypso." We assumed then that the short was set around the 33rd century, with Discovery having drifted for around a thousand years, but now we've jump forward "Calypso" could be set as far ahead as the 42nd century. Then again, with all the time travel going on, it's impossible to be sure. In any case, the V'draysh is clearly a thing in this time period, so there's a lot of changes in people's attitude to the Federation. 

The story moves inexorably to the reunion with Burnham - tremendously predictable but really effective. It's been a year and she's grown her hair out. It'll be interesting to see just what's been happening while she's been away from the ship. I predict flashbacks next week.

Alien life forms: Coridans first appeared in season one of Enterprise, looking roughly like they do here, although they made an appearance in season four looking completely different and insectoid. Possibly more than one species lives in the same system. Coridan was mentioned as an important planet in TOS, due to its dilithium reserves, which suggests it wouldn't have survived the Burn.

Also, Linus is still there! Nice to note the Saurian people's highly attuned eyesight, long mentioned in expanded universe works. Georgiou seemed far too interested in that. She's definitely building a team.

Sexy Trek: Such a crush on both Emily Coutts as Detmer and Rachael Ancheril as Nhan. Am I developing a thing for women with metallic implants on their faces?

Crew Roster: 88 crew stayed on Discovery for its journey to the future, which is a pretty astonishing number of people willing to give everything up and journey into the unknown. Especially Jet Reno, who doesn't seem to like working with anyone on the ship. It was also gratifying to see people doing the mopping up after the climactic horror of last season. Things are usually so inexplicably clean on these ships. 

Sunday 18 October 2020

Forgotten Lives available for pre-order

 Obverse Books hae announced that their new unofficial Doctor Who anthology Forgotten Lives is now available for pre-order. I'm sorry to say I wasn't involved in this - god, I wish I had been - but it looks like something really exciting and I'll definitely be reviewing it. Plus, all the profits to Alzheimers charities which is an excellent cause. 

Forgotten Lives features stories about the mysterious "Morbius Doctors," the eight faces seen in the mind battle during the Tom Baker serial The Brain of Morbius. During that scene, the two Time Lords fought with their minds, and on a monitor we first saw the face of Morbius, followed by the Doctor's. Then, as Morbius forced him "back... back to your very beginnings!" the images went through Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell... and then further, to show four other men in various period costumes. These were all backroon boys including writers and directors, and while it's possible to interpret them as faces of Morbius's earlier incarnations, it takes a willful misreading of the scene to do that. They were always meant to be earlier Doctors, the people responsible for the scene (who put their own pictures up) said as much. But, this is very difficult to reconcile with the rest of the series, and it's vague enough to explain away as Morbius.

But some of us always believed these mysterious men were Doctors, and finally, this year in "The Timeless Children," we got seeming confirmation that these were earlier faces of the Doctor before they got their memories wiped. I think this project started before that revelation, but it's a handy back-up and makes this more relevant than it otherwise would have been.

The authors include Lance Parkin (who had to be included, as the Morbius Doctor's novel champion), Simon Bucher-Jones, Philip Purser-Hallard and more excellent authors. Plus, Paul Hanley has made a project of illustrating the mysterious Doctors, taking the glimpses we saw on screen and beyond and creating whole looks for them to tie into the stories. You can see the pictures and read about the process on his Patreon, which includes a free blog. I adore these new pictures, each one giving each new Doctor their own personality and hinted at backstory. The Gallaccio Doctor has a Dr. Doolittle-esque style to him; the Camfield Doctor is a romantic adventurer all in purple; the Hincliffe Doctor (always my favourite) is a glam rock Cavalier; the Barry Doctor is a mix of Jimi Hendrix and Elizabethan courtier; the Holmes Doctor is an Enlightenment-era swashbuckler with a gleam in his eye; the Banks Stewart Doctor looks like some kind of Renaissance natural philosopher; the C. Baker Doctor is a Georgian astronaut; and the Harper Doctor is such an amazing story of deduction, creativity and thrown expectations that you should really just go and see for yourselves.

And all that's "just" the artwork. Imagine what the stories are like! Forgotten Lives is available to order from Obverse Books for £16.95 (plus shipping). 

Saturday 17 October 2020

TREK REVIEW: DIS 3-1 - "That Hope is You, Part 1"

Star Trek: Discovery returns with a complete relaunch, acting as a second pilot in much the way Voyager tried with "Scorpion" and Enterprise did with "The Xindi." Those were qualified successes - great episodes that promised something really new, but didn't really make much of a difference to the style and direction of the series in the long run. "That Hope is You, Part 1," however, seems determined to push Discovery in a completely new direction, and juding from this episode, it should be a lot of fun.

The benefit Discovery has is that it doesn't have to follow the set-up from the first two seasons anymore. Strange New Worlds and, presumably, the Section 31 show, will continue showing adventures in the revamped version of the 23rd century, freeing up Discovery to map out a new future in the 32nd. It's Sonequa Martin-Green's series, and more so than ever, the focus is on her. The rest of the regular cast don't even appear in this episode, leaving the runtime free to explore Burnham's experience in this new century and her new friendship with Book. Thankfully, they're both brought to life by very talented actors who can do a lot with strong material when they get it. Martin-Green often seemed constrained by the role in the first two series, either having to display Vulcan reserve or over-the-top commitment, and while she still gets those moments, there's a much more human side to her character here. It's fun to see her get a chance to be manic, with the truth-drug scene genuinely funny, but the most affecting moment is her triumphant cry when she discovers her mission has been successful and the galaxy is still full of life.

David Ajala is very impressive as Book, edgy and likeable, just the sort of swashbuckling character the series could do with. I enjoyed him as Manchester Black on Supergirl, but like Martin-Green, he's working with stronger writing and characterisation here and impresses more. There's a strong chemistry between the two that makes their development from antagonism to friendship (and clear attraction) believable. Plus, Ajala gets to strut around with his chest out, which certainly doesn't hurt. 

It's also notable that there are only three speaking human characters in this episode (assuming Book is human, more of which later), and they are all people of colour. That shouldn't be a big deal, but it is, particularly in the current political climate. The two leads are a Black American and a Black Briton, and they're joined by an Indian actor. After so many years of a very white future on screen (less so in Trek than other things, but still) it's a strong motion.

It's exciting to be in (almost) entirely unknown ground with the series. We've got recognisable alien races, but their roles are unlike what we're used to - Orions allied with Andorians, with a weird mix of aliens on staff. The Federation is drastically diminished, the extent of which is unknown. Starfleet is basically gone, from the looks of it. As much as I love all the mythos of the Star Trek universe, and revel in the references of things like Lower Decks, it's time we headed into the unknown again. Still, that's not to say there aren't plenty of little nods and winks peppered over the episode for the fans (yeah, they'll be at the end there.)

The 32nd century is a mix of the remarkable and the mundane. There's exceptionally advanced technology: programmable matter used for furniture, holograms used as mirrors and alarm clocks, portable personal transporters. But some things are far more limited: there's no tritanium, dilithium is in short supply so warp drive is at a premium, sensors are limited and Mr Sahil at the Starfleet outpost has barely any idea whose out there beyond his little bubble. It's also very, very Star Wars: a roguish trader with a heart of gold; two characters who start at odds but are blatantly going to end up together; wrecked spacecraft; man-eating monsters; conversations in English on one side and guttural alienese on the other; a wretched hive of scum and villainy... of course, Trek has played with these tropes before, but it's rarely gone as full on Star Wars as here. In Trek terms, the most similar outing to this was the 2009 movie, which played with a lot of the same tropes. Visually it's bloody amazing, and the location shooting in Iceland is astonishing. The incredible geology of Iceland has been used for alien planets a few times lately (including Altamid in Star Trek Beyond), and it's easy to see why it was chosen to represent Hima. The only visual sequence that didn't work so well was Burnham's arrival, crashing into Book's ship amid a load of space debris, which is overly busy as the battle sequences were last season. On the other hand, it's presumably meant to be overwhelming and confusing, and it's not as if it lasts too long.

The episode takes a moment to go out of its way and tie up the last season's events, with Burnham sending the Red Angel suit back to send a last message to Spock and then self destruct, which seems bizarrely short-sighted. That might have come in handy, you know. But then it wouldn't be hard enough for Burnham, whose story is inarguably a superhero narrative. She's immediately out of one galaxy-threatening crisis and into another, once again pitting herself as the last, best hope for humanity. The woman really needs a quest, doesn't she? Book also steps into that role, having some kind of superpower that allows him to summon life forms and communicate with all manner of creatures. It's an assumption that he's actually human, although with a name like Cleveland he's got to be at least part-human (although there's also an Orion going by Hadley, so maybe names aren't much of a clue to origins in this century). 

There's a troubling lack of morality on display here. Sure, Book's a bit of a baddie, but he's a lovely old soul who looks after endangered animals... but has no qualms killing a lot of people, and Burnham joins in. They murder a lot of people in this episode, and yes, they were under fire, but do they not have a stun setting on their weapons anymore? And then Book feeds the rest of them to his per hypnotic worm monster. It's hardly upholding the noble ideals of the UFP, is it?

Still, this is a quibble. This was a very fun, exciting episode which provided an emotional punch while promising a bold new direction for the series. I'm looking forward to exploring the 32nd century.

Future history:

It's 3188, 931 years since the end of the previous season, and 789 years after the previously latest set series, Star Trek: Picard. We've seen bit of futures beyond this, of course, but this is the latest point we've seen in the franchise, with the exception of the Short Treks episode "Calypso." (That was set a thousand years plus from when Discovery was abandoned, which now puts it at least as far as the 42nd century.)

Something called the Burn made all the dilithium explode about 120 years earlier, destroying most of the ships and devastating the Federation. The Gorn have also destroyed two light years worth of subspace. This might have something to do with the devastating Omega molecule seen in Star Trek: Voyager, but maybe not (it's a popular fan theory, but there's no real evidence for it just yet). 

Time travel was banned after the Temporal War and all time machines destroyed. This is a handy way of putting it ahead of the other far future stories, which tend to revolve around time travel, and leaves Burnham stranded. The Temporal War was glimpsed in Enterprise and involved the factions as far ahead as the 31st century. Still, once time travel has been invented it can't really just disappear - people could pop out in any time period from any other once time machines exist. 

Alien life forms: 

The marvellously named Cosmo Traitt is a Betelgeusean. Like the Saurian last season, the Discovery team have resurrected another obscure Motion Picture alien with a modern redesign. I really like the updated design, although it loses the two mouths element from the original.

The Orion-Andorian alliance makes for a colourful setting at the Mercantile. Their security staff includes Lurians (like Morn), a Tellarite, a Cardassian (briefly seen, easier to spot in the trailers) and an Osnullus (the big-headed aliens seen in the background on previous episodes of Discovery), plus some new faces.


This episode is Part 1, but there doesn't appear to be a Part 2 in the list for the season. I'm wondering if that ends up being the series finale. Other episode titles include the intriguingly named "Unification III" - seemingly following on from a two-part TNG episode.

Trek stars:

David Ajala appeared on the 2010 Doctor Who episode "The Beast Below," making him one only a few actors to appear in both franchises. The only other Trek regular to appear on Doctor Who is Simon Pegg. 

I like Grudge. I hope she gets an episode, like Porthos did.

Wednesday 14 October 2020

Thoughts on The New Mutants

 In the latest of my "occasionally catching up on the films I've seen lately" series, I'm taking a look at New Mutants, the Fox comicbook movie that has been stirring in development hell a while. This was supposed to be released in 2018, but the continual messing around by more than one production company delayed it by two years. The original idea, to make the The New Mutants comic series into a full-fledged horror film was kiboshed by Fox's cold feet. The film was rewritten and reshot, then changed back again after the horror-themed trailers gained a good response, before Disney bought up Fox and demanded yet more reworking to make it marketable under their brand.

The result is a very brief 94-minute film, with a botched sense of tone. Still, I found a lot to enjoy. The first couple of acts work really well as a genuinely unsettling asylum horror, riffing on the enduring fear of being unjustly imprisoned. It balances this with the superpower stuff pretty well, particularly since the New Mutants' power sets are mostly pretty horrifying anyway. The final act has the same problems many superhero movies have, going all out with the action at the expense of the tone and coherence of the film, but overall it works. It feels like there's a much stronger film in here, though, and I hope that it proves popular enough that someday a director's cut is released. Sadly, the fact that it finally limped to cinemas in the middle of the pandemic means it'll probably be put down as a failure regardless.

This is officially part of the X-Men movie universe that started back in 2000, and after twenty years audiences are familiar enough with that for a mere handful of references to reassure them this is the same world. Just having people manifest powers spontaneously as a fact of life makes everything much more streamlined.

The cast is excellent, and the interpretations of the characters is strong. Blu Hunt is the star, playing Dani Moonstar (Psyche or Mirage in the comics), a teenaged girl of Cheyenne heritage who manifests her powers when her village and family are destroyed by a demon bear. If this seems ridiculous, then the writers agreed, taking that strange supernatural villain from the comics and reworking its nature very cleverly. I mean, it's well signposted, so I won't reveal the exact nature of Dani's story here for anyone who is going to watch it still. In any case, I liked what they did with the idea and thought Hunt was solid in the role.

Dani is then taken into a hospital/prison/training camp for adolescent mutants whose powers threaten them and their loved ones. Maisie Williams, probably the most recognisable of the young faces here, is excellent as Rahne Sinclair, a Scots girl shunned by her Christian community because of her mutation. Her name in the comics is Wolfsbane, and she's basically a werewolf (I guess the inference is that all werewolves must have shared the same mutated gene, but this is never explored). She and Dani form a close friendship that develops into a very sweet and tentative romance, which is a new development to the comics but works very well onscreen. It adds more weight to the anti-fundamentalist Christian narrative as well.

Anya Taylor-Joy is also excellent as Ilyana Rasputin, aka Magik. She's initially characterised as the surly mean girl, but her character has much more depth than that and has been through real trauma and abuse. Her memories of it clearly aren't meant to be accurate depictions of what she went through, instead manifesting as some of the most horrifying imagery in the film. The fact that she's very sexualised as a result of her abuse actually makes the character uncomfortable to watch, since to begin with she's clearly meant to be the sexy lithe one and this forces you to question how you're viewing her. 

Ilyana has a strange rewrite in the form of Lockheed, the dragon companion that is associated with Shadowcat/Kitty Pryde in the comics. It's not clear exactly when this is set (X-movie continuity being a minefield anyway), so they could have included a recast young Kitty here, but instead, Lockheed is reimagined as Ilyana's soft toy hand puppet, essentially her safety blanket. Her reality warping, dimension jumping powers do give us a "real" Lockheed eventually though. What's missing is her brother, Colossus, who was apparently part of an earlier draft. Still, it's hard to see how he'd fit in here.

Brazilian actor Henry Zaga plays Bobby da Costa (Sunspot in the comics), who's a rich boy jock but is a very vulnerable character once you get past the bravado. His fire-based powers are a standard superhero ability, but the script really looks at how terrifying and destructive they would really be. His character turned up briefly in the future segment Days of Future Past, so presumably this is a good few years before that. I understand there was some controversy over Zaga's casting, since Sunspot is supposed to be of mixed race and Zaga isn't, but to be honest this didn't seem to be part of this version of the character's story at all. 

Charlie Heaton, who's definitely a new big thing since Stranger Things, is Sam Guthrie (Cannonball), and plays him with a broad Kentucky accent. I really liked his character in this, more openly vulnerable than the others but tremendously brave when it came to it. I imagine that, had the Fox X-Men films continued, he would have graduated eventually to X-Force as in the comics, along with maybe some of the other cast members.

The wonderful Alice Braga plays Dr. Reyes, the teens' doctor/captor, and manages to make her both sinister as hell and quite sympathetic. Like in the comics, she can generate powerful forcefields, even using them to maintain the border of the hospital, which is a cool concept. She's normally a heroic character in the comics, so it's interesting that they've made her a villain here. She works for the Essex Corporation, which ties this film to Logan, which is presumably many, many years later. 

While I found the early part of the film very atmospheric, it's still a fairly low-rated film, whereas the initial idea was clearly to go for an R-rated release like Logan and Deadpool. Still, you can get away with quite a lot on a PG-13/UK 15 rating these days, and there are some really disturbing moments. Again, there seems like there's a lot of unrealised potential here. The plan was to make this the beginning of a new trilogy of films, and the ending is left open in a way that could easily be followed up, but this really looks like the last gasp of the Fox X-Men franchise. I mean, it's thirteen films over twenty years, if you count the two Deadpool movies, so that's an impressive innings, but it's fizzled out now and there's no indication that Disney wants anything to do with the series. Well, with the exception of a (presumably toned-down) third Deadpool and recruiting Hugh Jackman back as Wolverine (which is highly unlikely). Any new X-Men projects will be a separate thing, and we'll never get to see the screen manifestation of Mr Sinister. On its own merits, though, The New Mutants works well, but it's inarguably a middle-of-the-road comicbook movie. A shame, because it tried something different and has a lot to enjoy.

Sunday 11 October 2020

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 1-10 - "No Small Parts"


Well, I called it. SPOILERS from here on out, so...

But yes, I totally called it. With all the namedropping of the USS Titan earlier in the season, I just knew that Riker and his shiny new ship would show up, especially given Jonathan Frakes's longrunning association with the franchise in its various forms. I was not disappointed, with the Titan storming to the rescue of the Cerritos to the stirring tones of the TNG theme tune, along with Marina Sirtis as Mrs Deanna Troi-Riker. It's the least surprising but most satisfying way to end the season.

Before all that, though, Lower Decks gives us an incredibly strong season finale. While I was pleased before that the writers were going with a personal crisis to end the run – Boimler finding out Mariner is the captain's daughter – this is balanced out by both an action-packed catastrophic attack and a philosophical debate on the nature of Starfleet's interaction with other cultures. Again, while occasionally this series can get a little too busy, it's really impressive just how much the showrunners can cover in a half-hour episode.

The episode uses its cold open very effectively, pitching the Cerritos to the planet Beta III, a callback all the way to 1967's TOS episode "Return of the Archons." It turns out that the inhabitants of Beta III have reverted to worshipping their god-computer Landru, although they've at least not gone back to their Purge-like Red Hour. This cleverly sets up a running thread of how Starfleet, in spite of their non-interference directive, actually does interfere, but just enough to solve the problem today. What happens once they've gone on their way, to the planets and cultures they left behind?

At the same time, Mariner and Boimler are breaching protocol by beaming down to Beta III without permission, leading to a hilarious moment when Boimler accidentally broadcasts their conversation to the entire ship. I've often wondered how the communicators know who's supposed to receive the transmissions, other than dramatic necessity, and it's surprising this hasn't happened before. (Come on, if Reg Barclay hasn't done that at least once, I'll eat my Remco Spock Helmet.) Now the entire crew knows Mariner is Captain Freeman's daughter, leading to a complete change in attitude towards her.

The resulting storyline ties in both Boimler and Mariner's attitudes to advancement, deals with the mother-daughter team making peace with their two very different approaches, and takes Starfleet to task for not following up on its first contacts. The big joke of the series – that the Cerritos only goes on follow-up missions – is shown to be the essential message. Starfleet has a responsibility to follow-up its interventions in the greater galaxy.

The story addresses two one-off TNG species, to see how things can turn out differently. Tendi's storyline focuses on her welcoming new crewmember Peanut Hamper aboard. She's an exocomp, the robot race who achieved sentience in TNG: "Quality of Life." Starfleet has taken its responsibilities seriously with the exocomps (who were admittedly created by a Federation scientist), and now they are free to live as please and join Starfleet. Peanut Hamper turns out to be a bit of an ass, but there we go, at least she has the freedom to be an ass, and let's be fair, if she was a model officer they wouldn't have sent her to the Cerritos.

On the other hand, the Cerritos is drawn into a trap by none other than the Pakleds, the notoriously rubbish tricksters from TNG: "Samaritan Snare," who have spent the intervening decade-and-a-half perfecting their technique of capturing and cannibalising other races' ships. The characters themselves admit that they consider the Pakleds a bit of a joke, and this refusal to take them seriously has meant they've been happily preying on space traffic and have now amassed a deadly fleet of cobbled-together starships. It's totally fitting that Lower Decks ends its first season with such a laughable villain as big bad, but makes them into a genuinely deadly threat. In the frenetic climax to the series, the Cerritos crew are forced to fight to the death, with both Rutherford and Shaxs showing what they're made of. Both of them suffer heartbreaking fates, but at least there's some hope for Rutherford. Bringing Badgey back is a nice touch, part of how the season has tied together, although I do hope we've seen the last of him now – joke characters become less funny each time you seen them.

As a finale, "No Small Parts" absolutely nails it, combining action, pathos, character development, big laughs, deep cut references and a scathing critique of the parent shows. Ending with Captain Freeman and Mariner mending their relationship and beginning their own, personal mission, season one has been a great success as a show for Trek diehards, although it's probably pretty impenetrable for more casual fans or newcomers. As a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie, though, I can't wait for season two.

Deep Cuts:

The USS Titan NCC-80102 makes its canon debut, with the fan design that has graced the covers of the Star Trek: Titan novel series making it onto screen at last. In universe, the Rikers have been married and commanding the Titan for only a year, but we've been waiting to see the Titan onscreen since 2002.

Jonathan Frakes has now appeared as Will Riker in a remarkable number of Star Trek series. From his regular appearance on TNG, he's since had guest spots on Voyager, Picard, Enterprise and now Lower Decks. In all but his Voyager appearance he appeared alongside Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi, although she made two apperances in that series separately. Still, Frakes pips her with his appearance as Will's transporter duplicate Thomas Riker in DS9. I loved how Riker is still watching holodeck recreations of the Enterprise NX-01 crew, as in the Enterprise series finale, the dreadful "These are the Voyages." "Those guys had a long road, getting from there to here."

Mariner's massive stash of contraband includes a tribble ("for personal use"?!), a Klingon bat'leth, mek'leth and mace, a Ligonian gauntlet (from the terrible TNG episode, "Code of Honour"), a Remco toy "Spock helmet" from the 1970s and a booze stash including Romulan ale, Saurian brandy and Klingon bloodwine.

Riker's first officer is a Saurian, of the same design as Linus in Discovery.

The Titan crew are still wearing the grey uniforms introduced in First Contact, so perhaps the more colourful ones from this series are unique to California-class vessels? Of course, the real reason is that having everyone in grey wouldn't be very visually striking on a cartoon.

Commander Ransom refers to the 2260s as the "TOS era" – TOS standing for "Those Old Scientists." He has a PADD which shows an image of Kirk and Spock, taken from the 1970s Animated Series.

Lt. Levy on the Cerritos is a conspiracy theorist nutjob, who thinks the Battle of Wolf 359 was an inside-job and that "Changelings aren't real and the Dominion War didn't happen." I'm sure he'd refuse to wear a mask during a plague as well.  

Saturday 3 October 2020

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 1-9 - "Crisis Point"


"Screw the Prime Directive!" I've waited a long time to hear a Trek character say those words. The penultimate episode of Lower Decks' debut season hits the ground running, with Mariner busted by Captain Freeman for overthrowing a twisted society where a race of rat people rules over and eats a race of lizard people. Freeman's angry at her daughter for violating the Prime Directive, while Mariner isn't going to let something like that stop her from saving people from being eaten. It's a pretty vicious swipe at Discovery's Kaminar storyline, where Starfleet was reluctant to get involved in the Ba'ul eating the Kelpiens for generations.

Naturally, this leads to a fight between the mother-daughter team, so Freeman books Mariner in for therapy. "It's the eighties, dude, we don't have psychological problems!" It looks like this episode is going to town on TNG. It weirdly hadn't occurred to me that setting this series in the 2380s might be a nod to TNG's beginnings. The 1980s were the only decade when a series would put a therapist on the bridge of a starship. It's particularly odd considering Roddenberry's view that humans in the 24th century would be paragons of self-awareness and would have no interpersonal conflicts. Frankly, the Great Bird would be horrified by this episode and that's no bad thing. Even a comedy series gets that interpersonal conflict is essential to drama.

But that's just the opening teaser. The main episode is a scathing but ultimately affectionate parody of the Trek movies. Boimler, you see, has developed a holodeck simulation of the ship and its crew (the ethics of this, particularly his breaking into private logs, is briefly touched upon), in order to prepare for a job interview with the captain. Mariner commandeers it and creates her own Lower Decks movie. Right from the get-go, it's an affectionate pastiche of the Trek movies from The Motion Picture to Beyond, pushing at the fourth wall the whole time. Boimler wants to get on with his interview prep, but Mariner, Tendi and Rutherford all have roles as badass space pirates who attack the Cerritos.

It's an episode that an anyone who's enjoyed a Trek film can get something from, but if you're a dyed-in-the-wool fan it really sings. The music that opens the film is an appropriately cinematic upgrade to the usual theme, leading into a long bit of starship porn that references Kirk and Scott's even longer Enterprise flyby from TMP. From there it's all out, poking fun at the lensflare obsession on the Abrams movies to the tendency of the Enterprise to crash land or be otherwise gutted in the films. It even ends with a very silly use of the characters' signatures that homages the cast's autographs at the end of Star Trek VI. But the line that really got me was Mariner calling Boimler "kind of a Xon," which is a deep cut reference if ever there was one. I roared with laughter, but no one else got it.

Mariner gets violent with the crew very quickly, and my, she's got issues, but it's not until she faces down her own holographic alter ego that she gets to work some of these issues out. I really think this is a great therapy idea – I feel that a good punch-up with myself would let me work out all sorts of stuff. Mariner actually ends the episode a more in control, better developed person than she started. I really enjoyed both Rutherford and Tendi's stories too. Rutherford, an altogether more positive character than Mariner, uses the simulation to figure out his issues too – but his big deal is his burning admiration for Lt. Cmdr Billups. It's a beautiful bromance – can't Sam just switch to "emotional honesty" mode and be truthful to his boss?

I loved Tendi's turn as an Orion pirate (and there'll be a fair bit of fan art about that outfit before long, I'd wager), but I really love that she also found it really problematic. We've had Orion characters in Starfleet in the Abrams movies, but Lower Decks is the first prime timeline production to do that. Other than Tendi, the only positive Orion character on TV must be Devna from TAS. The dialogue makes light of it, but it's a genuine problem for Tendi that everyone thinks of Orions as pirates and slavers. We might actually see the Orions get some of the rehabilitation the Ferengi received on DS9 should this series continue down this route.

The episode ends with Boimler finding out the big secret about Freeman and Mariner from the holographic captain, leading in to the series finale. It's quite right that this smaller scale series focuses on a personal crisis rather than a galactic one as its endgame. A cracking episode that's hopefully leading to a successful finale.

Dialogue triumphs:

"It's a movie! You can do all sorts of beaming stuff in a movie!"

"When you get to Hell, tell the Pah-wraiths that Shaxs sent ya – special delivery straight from Bajor."

"This isn't my first overpowered space lord, and it won't be my last."