Tuesday 28 December 2021

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-5 - The Examples

The mystery of the DMA steps up a gear when it's finally confirmed that the anomaly is not a natural phenomenon. We might have assumed this, given that it appeared to be steering itself round the galaxy, but the drip-drip of new information about it is tantalising. With some kind of advanced technology at its centre, and the ability to appear virtually anywhere by dint of a tame wormhole, it's tremendously dangerous and threatens and anyone and anything in the known universe.

Naturally, it's all hands on deck trying to work out who made this thing and what makes it tick. Now that Discovery has lost one of its best scientists in Tilly, Admiral Vance assigns a famed scientist, one Ruon Tarka, to assist. Meanwhile, the DMA is threatening a former Emerald Chain colony, so Discovery also heads there to mount an evacuation effort. The colonists prefer to leave their criminals behind to die in their prison, so Burnham and Book, the latter needing to make some amends for his survivor's guilt, mount a rescue mission. Meanwhile again, Culber is finding the sheer ongoing pressure of helping the many people struggling through this crisis overwhelming.

Three distinct storylines again this week, all with something important to say about how we face crises. Of the three, it's the scientific discourse that's actually the most fun. Shawn Doyle is wonderfully watchable as Tarka, an arrogant but charismatic scientist. Making him a Risian is a nice touch, with the scientist still annoyed at his upbringing on a pleasure planet, but that Risian “do whatever you want” attitude is still with him. He's a hedonistic scientist, with little regard for rules or risk. I was reminded a little of Richard Kiley's Gideon Seyetik (from the DS9 episode “Second Sight”) by the character and performance, but while the same arrogance, self-aggrandisement and lust for knowledge is there, Tarka is a much more dangerous character. He clearly knows more than he's letting on, and it's heavily implied he was once enslaved by the Emerlad Chain, so there's a lot of interesting backstory there. Stamets immediately dislikes him, although a lot of that is because the man has been heading up the spore drive research and cutting him out, but Tarka's sheer brilliance begins to win him over.

Once they start experimenting with the creation of a tiny DMA as a simulation, things get potentially dangerous. Leaving Saru in charge while Burnham is off on a rescue mission works in the ship's favour, for even when the Kelpien is won over by Tarka's charimatic pleas, he's still intrinsically cautious and probably responsible for the ship not being sucked into a black hole of its own creation. The reappearance of the long-missed Tig Notaro as engineer Jett Reno adds another spiky personality to this heady mix. You have to let slide the obvious idiocy of undertaking this experiment in the middle of a rescue mission on the edge of the most dangerous spatial event in the universe – it's absolute madness they wouldn't put it off until they were a safe distance away – but it's heady sci-fi and really sparks.

The mission to the colony, spread over a string of asteroids, is the action-packed side of the episode, but oddly the least engaging. This is classic Trek stuff but the unjustly imprisoned criminals – the Examples of the title – are a bit of an uninteresting bunch, and I struggled to remember who was in prison for what. Still, Burnham an Book remain a great team when it comes to this daring missions. The genuinely criminal Felix – the only guilty man on Radvek, if you will – stands out a little better, mostly thanks to Michael Greyeyes, but he's still not the most interesting character. Clichéd characters are fine, but the noble prisoner is harder to pull off than the self-serving scientist or the stalwart captain and the whole storyline just fails to gel for me. Still, it's a very nice touch making the colony's founders the Akaali. Previously seen in the Enterprise episode “Civilization,” the Akaali were at a roughly twentieth century level when we met them. A thousand and forty years later, they are, of course, much more advanced. (Annoyingly, I almost put the Akaali in my Discovery season four article, but decided on the Crepusculans and the Romans as my pre-warp follow-ups instead.)

Wilson Cruz is a shining star this season, bringing such humanity and warmth to the increasingly troubled Culber. Deliberately throwing himself into the task of maintaining the crew's mental health, he has refused to spend time looking after his own. Given that not long ago he was mudered, resurrected through interdimensional mulch and then thrown out of his own timezone, it's fair to say he has some issues to work through. Pairing him with David Cronenberg's blunt and pragmatic Kovich is a brilliant choice, perhaps not making a great deal of logistical sense but providing some tremendously entertaining interplay between the two characters. There's an effective coda between Culber and Stamets where they recognise that they are frankly just as bad as each other when it comes to looking after themselves.

The episode ends with ominous rumblings of future developments regarding the DMA, plus a briefly explored plotline looking at the computer Zora's gradual evolution, something which demands more attention further along. More important to the episode itself are the themes carried throughout. A lot has been made in the real world about how this season is a response to the events of the ongoing pandemic, with the Federation and its neighbours facing an implacable natural threat that they cannot reason with but must work together to understand and survive. This carries through with this episode, reflecting the general attitude of many government to ignore their prison populations safety when it came to the virus, and of course Culber's focus on the huge, ongoing stress that the situation is causing. On the other hand, this allegory is broken by the revelation, however expected, that the DMA has been constructed. If it is meant to be a parallel for COVID-19, what is that supposed to signify? Surely the scriptwriters aren't suggesting they think the virus was engineered by the Chinese or something?

More likely it's just a case of not fully thinking the allegory through. The episode equally takes a look at society's collective responsibility for its less privlileged members. The plight of the various Examples, mostly imprisoned for minor crimes, suggests the treatment of minority groups who are targeted disproportionately by legal systems, although having them be a varied group perhaps lessens this parallel. More up-front is Burnham's reprimand of the Akaali governor, pointing out that he's a refugee now and hoping for his sake that whoever takes his people in is fairer than he was. Some very clear parallels to recent attitudes by some western governments there. Altogether, this is some classic Star Trek material.

Starship Spotter: Starships mentioned this episode incluce the USS Janeway and the Ni'Var starship NSS T'Pau.

Alien civilisations: Species considered as responsible for the DMA inclue the Nacene (VOY: “Caretaker”), the Iconians (TNG: “Contagion”) , the Metrons (TOS: “Arena”) and the Q Continuum, although the latter haven't made contact with the Federation for six hundred years.

Scanning for life forms: An officer on the Discovery bridge is visibly of the Shlerm race, previously only seen in the film Star Trek Beyond.

Sunday 19 December 2021

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-4 - All is Possible

And catching up with my Disco reviews, watching now week-by-week on Pluto TV, which is both perfectly legal and charmingly retro. I haven't had to actually tune in at a particular time to watch Star Trek since 2005. We even had to stop watching something else to switch over, or we'd have missed it.

As such, it's nice that we have an episode with a solidly old-fashioned Trek feel to it in Disco week four. Tilly's story, while visually riffing heavily on 2009's Star Trek movie (and unsurprisingly, given the same visual artist, Neville Page, was involved) is a meat-and-potatoes story that harks right back to "The Galileo 7" with Tilly as the Spock figure, testing out her command (and teaching) skills. Thinking on it, Tilly's path seems to be quite similar to Spock's, in that they're both heading from the command path into the training path. I could easily see a future series one day in which an older Tilly is captaining a training ship, pulled to the frontline suddenly like in The Wrath of Khan.

Tilly's leaving the show is a bit of a surprise, not because it wasn't signposted, but because it's come so quickly. I fully expected this storyline to run through the season and culminate with her leaving at the end. While it's clear Tilly's new academy posting will keep her close at hand for guest appearances, it's also a big change to core line-up of the series. Since she arrived on the scene in season one, Tilly has been an essential part of the show and of Burnham's life. It's not helping quell the rumours of Mary Wiseman's pregnancy, of course. For that matter, where's her husband? The series' resident Andorian hasn't been seen all season.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if we get a Starfleet Academy spin-off - after all, there have been on-off plans for that for at least thirty years. I'm not sure the characters we have set-up this episode would carry a series themselves. Adira aside, none of the cadets say main character to me. There's promise in the simmering rivalry between Harrall and Gorev, the young Orion and Tellarite cadets, but it's resolved by the end of the episode. Still, applause for Adrian Walters for his decision to play the Tellarite with a Caribbean accent. Sasha is cute, but doesn't have much character beyond the quiet nervous one. Still, there's promise in the idea, with the nurturing, understanding, but surprisingly steely Tilly taking wet-behind-the-ears cadets on various ill-advised missions.

The events on the moon Kokytos are fun and gripping, with spectacular visuals. The new virtual sets are really justifying their expense this season. The alien monster, referred to here as a Tuscadian pyrosome, is a wonderfully odd bit of random science extrapolation; pyrosomes on Earth are bioluminescent filter feeders, not carnivorous monsters that hunt people down, but they got the colony creature part right. Equally questionable science comes with the gamma-ray burst that knocks the shuttle out of flight in the first place; if you get hit by a gamma-ray burst then you'll be pretty much vapourised, and crashing is the least of your worries.

The other two main plotlines aren't as exciting, but work solidly well. Book's ongoing therapy is starting to lose its appeal as a storyline, but is saved by the ever-impressive performances of Ajala and Cruz. The more interesting part of the storyline is how Culber's own trauma is gradually coming to the fore, beyond time given how much he's been through even since he was resurrected. More interesting is the diplomatic incident to Ni'Var, with Burnham and Saru drafted in to sit and look official while Admiral Vance is off with political gutrot. Of course, this all part of the canny Federation President's plan, knowing she and Vulcan President T'Rina are both stuck in non-compromisable positions. Michael's a ig mouth who can't help but get involved and Saru's the wisest old man in the galaxy, let's get them involved. I'm starting to really like Tara Rosling as the quiet, measured T'Rina, and particularly her gentle, well-mannered romance with Saru.

With Ni'Var demanding its own Article 50 Brexit clause before it rejoins the Federation, there are clear parallels with the political situation today, and we can see that neither the Federation nor the Ni'Vari can back down without angering way too many voters. Burnham and Saru's compromise seems a little too easy, but overall this is a strong diplmacy storyline of the kind TNG and DS9 used to do so well. Altogether, there's a strong theme of compromise and understanding running through the episode, both understanding of ones rivals and oneself. Burnham points out the Romulan and Vulcan reunification, and President Rilak's mixed heritage, as examples of civilisations moving past their differences, and Saru joins in with his own acceptance of the Ba'ul (who used to eat his friends, let's remind ourselves, so there's no one more willing to let past sins go than him). Meanwhile, Tilly makes her cadets stop and get to know each other, even while they're being hunted by a killer blob monster, forcing them to undestand that not everyone who looks like your enemy is your enemy, and Culber helps Book understand that he'll need to find new ways beyond his homeworld to accept its loss. It's a thematically strong episode that holds together very well.

Stellar Cartography: The Alpha Helios system has, in traditional human style, names from Greek mythology. Helios was a sun god, while the ice moon Kokytos is named for a river in Hades (also spelled Cocytus). Geryon, the intended destination, is named for a three-bodied giant.

Monster Monster Monster: The Pyrosome beast seems very reminiscent to the Henrauggi from 2009's Star Trek, and its home on Kokytos is very like the similarly frozen Delta Vega.

What's in a name? The USS Armstrong is obviously named for Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, while its Captain Imahara is surely named for Mythbusters and Star Trek Continues star Grant Imahara, who died last year.

Thursday 9 December 2021

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-2 & 4-3




This season of Discovery has gotten off to a very serialised start, with "Anomaly" essentially acting as a coda for the opener and "Choose to Live" continuing the themes and plotlines. Not that there's not plenty else going on, but it seems season four will be a strongly serialised narrative. Both episodes revolve heavily around the mystery of the gravitational anomaly, as we might expect, but also around Book's emotional fallout from the loss of his homeworld. It's the latter that makes for the better television, not least because of David Ajala's excellent performance as the traumatised traveller. 


Book suffers from a very understandable survivor's guilt, not least because he could have saved his brother and nephew - had he only known that they were in such terrible danger in the first place. "Anomaly" sees him clearly unable to make rational decisions in the wake of his loss, but Burnham still okays him for a mission into the anomaly that destroyed his world to gather essential telemetry. A little later, Michael steps back from being captain for a brief moment to act as his partner first and foremost, but the person who makes the most impact on him, surprisingly, is Stamets.


Beamed into Book's ship as a sophisticated hologram, Stamets isn't the natural choice to team up with Book, but their wildly different personalities actually get the better of one another and they force each other to open up. For his part, Stamets owns up about his feelings of being made redundant as the one-and-only spore drive operator, while also feeling a sort of guilt for not being the one to save his family at the end of the previous season. Rapp and Ajala have a wonderfully awkward but ultimately respectful rapport on the screen, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of this unlikely team.


Ultimately, though, very little actually happens in "Anomaly," plot-wise. Stamets's initial theory that the anomaly (blimey, that word is getting irritating now) is a pair of colliding black holes is rapidly thrown out when the data comes in. This isn't a bad thing, given that, as David McIntee points out in his own (better) review, this would lead to a gamma ray burst that would kill even more people than the anomaly's gravitational effects. As also points out, it does look rather like a big evil eye. By the time of the next episode, the new data has the scientist referring to it as a Dark Matter Anomaly or DMA, even though that's definitely a poor description and he becomes convinced it's a wormhole except that it doesn't fit that model either. 


We also get two Culber-oriented subplots through the two episodes. Tilly, who is dealing with a time-displacement malaise and seems to be working towards being written out, basically appoints him as her personal counsellor. He seems to have taken on this role by default, but he's easily the best counsellor the franchise has ever had (sorry Troi, sorry Ezri, sorry red from Star Trek Continues), with Wilson Cruz emenating a calming presence at all times. 


His second storyline is more immediately impactful, seeing him mastermind the work to grant Gray a new body in the here-and-now. Like the Qowat Milat space nuns who also makes up a significant part of "Choose to Live," this plotline follows on from Star Trek: Picard, with the technology used to make Gray corporeal again being an adaptation of the golem tech that allowed Picard to survive death. It's a strange thing to have the very end of the TNG era be a distant history in Discovery's new setting, but it's helps tie everything together as parts of a greater whole. Given the tech in Picard could and should revolutionised life in the galaxy, it's both frustrating and understandable that we learn that virtually no one has ever gotten it to work in the eight hundred years since.


The use of the zhian'tara ritual is a clever way of making this work, as in DS9 this was used to allow Dax's former hosts live again through borrowed bodies. Again, it ties it all together nicely, although we might suppose from this former example that now Gray is incorporated his memories and experiences are lost from Adira's mind. It's nice to see Xi, the nice man from Trill, come back as well.


A further ongoing element is the reintroduction of Saru to the ship, settling in as Mr. Saru, the first officer. It's not unheard of for a captain to act as first officer in the franchise, but it's odd considering that Saru has seniority over Burnham. Still, he seems happy, and it suits the character better to be doling out the old man wisdom than be giving out the orders. He's relatively underused in these episodes though.


"Choose to Live" has a lot more plot going for it than "Anomaly," with three separate story threads jostling for the A-plot role. As well as Gray's re-embodiment, we've got Burnham being arbitrarily teamed-up with her own mother to hunt down a rogue space nun who's turned to piracy, and a trip to the Planet-Formerly-Known-as-Vulcan for new best buds Book and Stamets. The latter plotline is the most satisfying, again even though there's relatively little actual plot, giving Book the opportunity to heal through the embracing of his emotions and memories. Distinctly forward-thinking stuff from the more Romulan-influenced Vulcans of the 32nd century, who can, it's clear, still perform the classic mindmeld. It's great to finally see Ni'Var in the dusty, red reality at last, super-futuristic with its hovering platforms far above its iconic deserts. The Vulcans are the same as ever in some ways though, granting their visitors no consideration or niceties and putting themselves into meditative trances in order to think about scientific problems.


Burnham's hectic Qowat Milat storyline has a lot more going on, but is somehow the least involving of the lot. I enjoyed the fun space adventure, from the "That's no moon!" moment of the gigantic space ark reveal to the Abronians themselves - proper aliens with big, hulking semi-insectoid bodies. The idea of a race of aliens whose bodies are prized for containing latinum is a new and chilling one, as is the idea of grave-snatchers raiding stasis pods. Still, for all the fighting and derring-do, this threa failed to grab me in the same way as the quieter moments of the episode. 


In the end, of course, we're still no closer to knowing what that nasty anomaly is all about.


New worlds: The Abronian ark is a huge, hollowed-out asteroid, not unlike Yonada in the classic episode "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky."


New civilisations: Ni'Var remains separate from the Federation, and getting the world to rejoin seems to be the President's top priority. As we hear it's coming out of isolation, it seems clear that Kaminar is not currently a member either.


Old titles: This is the second Trek episode called "Anomaly." Enterprise S3 E2 shared the title. This is the first time an episode title has been recycled in the franchise, although there have been several close calls in the past.


Old jokes: And, for Mr. McIntee, a Star Dwarf meme:


Tuesday 7 December 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter Six - The Vanquishers

Well that's the end of Flux, Doctor Who's first season-long serial since the eighties. After six very busy, sometimes confusing episodes, generally highly entertaining episodes, how did that all hang together?

I wasn't wrong. Chibnall didn't manage to tie everything up by the end of part six. There's still a lot of unanswered questions and hanging threads, and that's not necessarily a problem - we still have three specials left to cover the Thirteenth Doctor's final days, and doubtless much of this will be revisited. Still, there are some painfully dissatisfying elements that niggled at the back of my mind throughout.

Let's start with the good stuff, though. This is a belter of an episode for the Sontarans, more so even that part two, giving the ludicrous space goblins a chance to really stand up to the big league monsters. They're still the butt of jokes - Dan Starkey's chocoholic soldier being a very silly diversion - but they work as a serious threat. For once they're the terrifying military force they're always claiming to be. Murdering the entire Lupari people, barring Karvanista, hunting them down on their own ships and killing them one-by-one, winning through sheer force of numbers - that's the Sontaran threat we've heard of all these years. 

The Doctor's peculiar journey throughout, wrestling with the promise of her lost memories, while she is split into three facets who work together and apart to save the universe - excellent stuff. Yes, it's highly derivative of "Journey's End," which had the Doctor and his duplicate save the multiverse together, but it's not a take-for-take rip-off and that was twelve years ago now. In fact, at times it looks like it's riffing on The Three Doctors, and that was in 1972. Whittaker is on fire snapping and flirting with herself - she's had to spend far too much of her time as Doctor talking to herself, but this makes it into a game. That's not to say she doesn't have serious moments as well, and her eventual reunion and confrontation with Yaz is well worth waiting for.

On the subject of reunions, Bel and Vinder's discovery of each other is a lovely moment. Jacob Anderson is great when he gets solid material, and Thaddea Graham is magnetically watchable in all her scenes. Their storyline seems only tangentially connected to the main Flux plot, but watching the events sweep others up in their path is a solid line for the serial to take. In any case, it seems highly likely they'll be back before the end of 2022. Equally impressive is Nadia Albina as Diane, who finally gets to make a contribution to the plot, even if it's not entirely clear why her character is given such unique treatment by the Ravagers. Still, she's a badass, and we could do worse than having her on side the next time aliens come invading. It's a shame we're unlikely to see Kevin McNally back as Professor Jericho, who would have made a fun recurring character in 20th century settings had he survive, but at least Claire gets a resolution of sorts to her story. We still don't get a full rounding off of the Angels storyline, but not everything has to be crossed off.

Yaz gets to be genuinely awesome as well, showing that she always had the potential to be a brilliant lead character once anyone bothered to actually write her that way. Dan fares less well, and I'm not entirely convinced he's essential to keep on as an ongoing companion, but Bishop remains a fun presence. It's good to see Joseph Williamson get some closure to his story, and he's rather more polite now he's in the presence of ladies. There's no explanation given for the doorways through space/time, but again, that might be something else that will be followed up later. Or maybe not. Either way, while being known forever as the "Mad Mole of Edge Hill" is pretty cool, he's hardly "too important to history" to risk, although if he was killed before he'd finished the tunnels they were all standing in that would a tricky paradox to deal with along with everything else.

Other characters fare less well. Kate Sewart is entirely unnecessary, doing nothing much to contribute to the plot. She's just ort of there, seemingly only to give her an opportunity to meet the current Doctor. Craig Parkinson remains icily cool as the Grand Serpent, but there isn't any clear reason for him to be allied with the Sontarans and he seems superfluous. Still, he gets some excellent moments, particularly his complete dismissal of Vinder whom he doesn't even seem to remember - a mere footnote in his life of power-grabbing and murder. His comeuppance is fairly satisfying, but he's likely being kept alive for a return appearance, which should make his story mean more. Assuming he's not another iteration of the Master, that is. He did turn into a body-snatching snake once, after all.

It's in the overarching plot with Swarm and Azure that things really fall flat. While they look pretty striking, there's not been much to the Ravagers throughout, and their plotline just doesn't hang together. Sure, they want revenge, and apparently they're trying to wage a war on space in the name of time, but it's all just words. None of it really seems to mean anything.  Having the Doctor face a vengeful enemy from a time in her life she doesn't remember is a solid idea, but it needs proper attention, and it's lost in all the other goings on. When we finally discover that Time is a some kind of living entity, we're left with even more questions and no sign of any answers. This isn't a first for Doctor Who - the New Adventures had Time as a godlike figure who played a significant role on occasion - but here it's just one too many revelations thrown at the screen.

Finally, we have to address the Doctor's actions in this episode. The Sontarans, in their ruthlessness, plan to use the Daleks and Cybermen to absorb the Flux, wiping them out in the process. Aside from a complete misunderstanding of how antimatter works - something of a Doctor Who tradition, and more than a little Crisis on Infinite Earths - it's a brilliant play on the ruthless warriors' part. The Daleks and Cybermen seem a little gullible to fall for it, but doubtless they were planning on betraying the Sontarans themselves. It's evidence for how monstrous the Sontarans are - and yet the Doctor, instead of trying to save the Daleks and Cybermen, instead uses the Flux to wipe out both race and the Sontarans as well. It's premeditatedly ruthless by even the Doctor's standards. I'm all for the Doctor being a terrifying bastard, but it sits poorly with the idea that her Fugitive incarnation represents a darker side to her. Why, because she works for a dodgy organisation and carries a gun? Did she just wipe out three whole species? 

It leaves the Whoniverse in an unclear and precarious state. I hardly think the Daleks, Cybermen or Sontarans are actually extinct - this is, at my count, the seventh time the Daleks have been conclusively wiped out, and they're not even pretending it's going to last, since they're back in four weeks. However, the universe is still apparently sitting at 90% wiped out, with nothing but Earth and a handful of devastated worlds left. No mention is made of this at all, and the Doctor and co. leave for adventures without considering there's nowhere left to explore. Surely they've got to follow some of this up?