Monday 28 February 2022

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek: Picard - No Man's Land



Whetting the appetite for Picard's imminent second season, No Man's Land is a rare foray by Trek into the medium of the full-cast audio drama. Given that other franchises, most notably Doctor Who, have created huge and successful lines in audio, and that Trek audiobooks (as in readings of prose rather than actual audioplays) are an established product, it's odd that there have been so few of these over the years.

Given how well it works, No Man's Land could very well kick off a whole new direction for Trek fiction. Picard and Discovery writer, and Pocket Books author Kirsten Beyer joins with comics writer Mike Johnson to work in this new medium. At just over an hour-and-a-half long, it's nicely paced, and a good deal happens, with plenty of audio-only action and tension. First and foremost, though, this is a personal drama, focusing on character relationships, primarily the two leads. Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan star as Raffi Musiker and Seven of Nine respectively, picking up their screen roles and building on them. Much of this is to do with their tenuous new romance, teased at the end of the last episode of Picard's first season.

While it was good to see a same-sex romance on Trek, especially between two older women (a rarity on television still), it did seem to come out of nowhere, especially as Raffi and Seven hadn't interacted all that much on screen before then. No Man's Land redresses the balance, exploring their feelings for each other and convincingly portraying the two women as nervously falling for each other. It's no whirlwind affair; both Raffi and Seven are damaged by their previous experiences and are cautious in making new connections. Much of Raffi's personal background was hinted at on screen, and explored in more detail in the Picard novel The Last Best Hope. Seven's post-Voyager life, on the other hand, remains quite mysterious, and while the audio sketches in some details, there's plenty of room left for the TV series to explore more without worrying about contradiction.

The lack of visuals really hammers home just how different Ryan's performance is to her Voyager days. She simply doesn't sound the same after twenty-plus years, and the older, more human but even more guarded Seven is a distinctly different, yet recognisable, version of the character. Aside from exploring her reluctant attitude to relationships, the story delves into her history with the Fenris Rangers, the still virtually unknown power that has taken over some of the Romulan Empire's former sphere of influence. While they remain quite mysterious after this, the impression we get is of a loose alliance of various life forms trying to keep some sort of order in a dangerous region of space.

The plot concerns the Rangers bringing Seven back into service to help them track down a figure from her past, who, inexplicably, appears on galactic records going back centuries. A brutal Romulan warlord, one of many vying for power in the region, is stopping at nothing to discover his secret, and the Rangers are trying to prevent him gaining more power and destabilising the quadrant further. We're introduced to some fun characters in the Rangers' employ, including Deet, who comes across as quite a Star Wars-style character with his peculiar voice and language. The authors generally resist the urge to have characters over-describe what they're seeing – a common mistake in audio – which pleasantly leaves the alien characters' appearances up to the listeners imagination.

In spite of a strong performance by the remaining cast, this is solidly Seven and Raffi's story, and the plot exists to service the emotional storyline as the two women work out what it is they want from life and each other. If there's a complaint, it's that the music is sometimes intrusive, but largely the sound design works well and helps make the production recognisably Star Trek. While it's not essential listening, it's an enjoyable and satisfying story that is, fundamentally, about love.

Sunday 27 February 2022

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-9 & 4-10


After a pacey opening episode for this semi-season, Discovery settles down for the slow grind again. This season has suffered from real pacing issues so far; bursts of exciting adventure but very gradual progress in the overall story. Again, I think this will play better in a season-long rewatch, and there's the inescapable feeling that this season was written for the Netflix-style bingewatch then scuppered by being released weekly.

“Rubicon” is an episode that exists purely to push the overall arc along a step, and doesn't do much beyond that. There's never any real sense of jeopardy or tension in the pursuit of Book and the tactic of proving that he has some thinking time before the DMA leaps away again is, while reasonable, not the most gripping approach. There are some nice touches – the scene between Michael and Book, separated by starship hulls, is lovely – but there's still a unshakeable feeling that this episode is filler material. After all, essentially nothing changes as a result of the events of the episode. Tarka proves that he is ruthless and can't be trusted, threatening the Discovery diplomatic team and using his isolytic bomb in spite of Book's reluctance, but this is hardly a major shock and doesn't, in the long run, change the dynamic. Tarka uses the bomb, destroying the DMA... and there's another one along to replace it in moments. Did it really not occur to the genius scientist that a culture that advanced wouldn't have back-up systems they could put in place, or that they'd keep the ever-so-tempting power source safely remote?

While it's understandable for dramatic purposes, allowing Burnham to lead the mission is obviously a terrible idea. She is far too close to Book to be allowed to take command of such a delicate point of the mission, even if she did hold it together and put the tracker on him before. Yes, Discovery is the only ship currently equipped to chase after Book via spore drive jumps, but surely someone else could have taken command? Saru, although still involved, would have been a more sensible choice, as a captain with seniority who knows the ship and crew and hasn't been sleeping with the enemy, as it were.

Assigning an officer to provide oversight and override if necessary is a reasonable compromise, but it's a hell of a conceit having Nhan take the role. As good as it is to see the gorgeous Rachael Ancheril back, Nhan's return doesn't really add much to the story and lacks the dramatic conflict of interest that the writers seem to think it provides. Visually, the episode is absolutely stunning, with events playing out against the backdrop of a complex nebula-like structure within the DMA, and there are some inarguably tense moments, altogether it just feels like we're treading water.


Things push on a little further in “The Galactic Barrier,” although the main beneficiary of this episode's development is Tarka, who finally sits down and opens up about his past to Book. Indeed, this episode, while moving the plot along a touch, is mainly concerned with the characters' personal relationships. Saru and Ni'Var President T'Rina move along in their cautious romance, now that Culber's given the Kelpien suitor a touch of courage. Michael and Federation President Rillak finally learn to see eye-to-eye, developing a mutual respect of each other's approach and a willingness to work together. Is it stretching things to have both presidents along for the ride on a ship with a significant chance of never returning? Well, yes, but it adds something to the feeling of danger. We're unlikely to see any members of the main crew bite the dust, but the second-tier crew and characters could be useful if the writers want to kill someone off with a bit of impact.

But yes, it's Tarka who benefits from this episode the most. Shawn Doyle has been one of the highlights of this season, but Tarka's ruthless and closed persona, combined with his arrogant self-assurance, was beginning to become annoying. This episode humanises him just in time, and explores his background in enough depth that, while keeping him mysterious and not entirely trustworthy, at least makes his attitude understandable.

The scenes set in the past in the Emerald Chain prison colony are the strongest in this episode. The chemistry between Doyle as Tarka and Osric Chau as Oros (the latter absolutely swamped with make-up and prosthetics) makes these scenes, and they both put in beautiful performances. The exact nature of their relationship remains uncertain; while Tarka describes them as friends, their physical closeness as time goes on suggests something more than that. In either case, it's a believable look at two people who have adjusted to isolation and brutality, slowly learning to bond with and rely on each other. As much as I hope Tarka finds Oros, it's slightly hard to accept that the alien has made his way to his perfect parallel universe. Kayalise, the optimal possible universe, is a fascinating idea, the sort of religious belief I can imagine a highly scientifically advanced culture developing. However, the certainty that this universe exists and can be reached seems like the wishful thinking of someone desperate to escape their unhappy life. I fear Tarka may be destined for a disappointing truth.

On the more action-based side of the episode, Discovery makes its way through the Galactic Barrier, taking back to territory from the very beginning of Star Trek. It's a very different region what we saw in those heady days though. Visually, just like this entire season, it's remarkable, a complex and alien region, but I can't help but wish they'd kept something of the pinky-purple cloud. Thanks to 32nd century shield tech, the psychic supercharging that sent Gary Mitchell off the deep end is no longer a problem. However, the volatile phenomenon is still full of dangerous energies, with Discovery forced to bunny-hop between semi-stable bubbles of safe space. It's suitably tense, but again, it seems far removed from the Galactic Barrier we saw back in the TOS days.

Overall, the episode works, but with only three episodes left in the season, there remains the sense that we really need to get moving with the arc plot now.

Monday 14 February 2022


Discovery comes back from its mid-season break with a slice of good, solid fun. As with much of the preceding few episodes, the overarching plot doesn't move forward much, although we do have a fairly significant revelation towards the end. However, this week's adventure is full of colour, incident and fisticuffs, enough to keep the attention from wandering.

Chasing Book beyond the bounds of the Federation's influence, Burnham leads her crew into the kind of rough-and-tumble adventure that she and her runaway beau used to enjoy before Discovery caught up with them. It has to be said, Michael is a lot more fun in this environment, trolling and trash-talking her way into and out of trouble, without the Starfleet stuffed shirt to constrain her. I feel we should have spent more time with her and Book during the gap year before responsibility caught up with them. Still, at least we get a glimpse of it now, with the pair of them separately trying their luck at getting ahold of some isolynium, a powerful substance required for the building of isolytic weapons.

The result is an old-fashioned romp seeing two double-acts scheme and swagger their way through a distinctly Star Wars-esque den of iniquity. Yes, every galaxy has its dodgy alien bars and casinos, and this one is run by a colourful character by the name of Haz Mazaro. He's from a species we haven't seen before, but his character is easily recognisable: overly friendly, untrustworthy, larger than life and puts profits over pals. It's a fun turn by Daniel Kash, displaying a fun rapport with both Book and Michael. It's a much stronger rapport than Book is managing with Tarka, whose ego is not endearing him to anyone (except me, I think he's hilarious). I don't think we can trust anything he says, or at the least we're only getting fragments of the truth from him. Still, his talk about terrible loss has the ring of sincerity.

For her part, Burnham picks a much more suitable partner in crime. Oyin Oladejo shines as “Ow Wow” Owosekun, getting more character development and, well, character in one episode than she's received in the whole series so far. And it turns out that this officer can really handle herself. This is the sort of rough-and-tumble we could easily see Kirk and McCoy getting themselves involved in; although Bones would no doubt be trying to talk Kirk out of wagering their mission on a pit fight, not bigging him up to the crowd.

Burnham and Owo are so obviously hustling, it's amazing the assembled aliens fall for it. It's almost as obvious as Burnham and Book's outrageous cheating as they play a pair of Emerald Chain non-entities at galactic poker for the isolynium. For all their chemistry and cleverness working together though, the two ex-couriers find themselves at irreconcilable odds. It doesn't look like Book is coming back to his ex anytime soon.

Back on Discovery, there's a reasonable B-plot that sees Stamets console his husband for his apparent failure to help Book through his trauma, or at least predict he was about to go off the rails. These quieter moments work nicely in this episode in contrast to the more gung-ho stuff at the casino. In the final moments, we find out that Burnham's been cleverer than Book after all, pinning a tracker on him. Not only that, but Mazaro, who can apparently get his hands on anything, also picked up some handy star charts for her, which helps them narrow down Species 10-C's location. It turns out whoever they are hidden by a truly gigantic energy field in an extragalactic star system. It also turns out that the DMA isn't a weapon at all; it's a dredge, dragging up a rare element that may be very significant. Whoever the 10-C are, they either don't know or don't care about the millions of lives they're destroying.

Alien life forms: Among the many familiar faces on Haz Mazaro's Karma Barge we find a Changeling running a gambling scam. Quite what led this character to be living a life of crime far from the Gamma Quadrant we may never know.

Stellar cartography: The Barge operates from the Porathia system, previously where the Discovery appeared in the Mirror Universe.

Particle physics: The alleged rare element boronite, used by the 10-C to create its miraculous energy source, was previously noted in VOY: “The Omega Directive” as a substance that could be used to synthesis Omega particles, suggesting the aliens are using the dangerous particles as their power source.

Nitpicking: Why do Burnham and Owo go to the casino wearing their very bright and obvious uniforms, knowing that Starfleet isn't welcome there?

Sunday 6 February 2022

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-7 - But to Connect

 A talky but effective episode that acts as the mid-season finale, heralding something of a change of direction for the series. Following “Stormy Weather,” Discovery's crew and the UFP have two major dilemmas: what to do about Species 10-C and what to do about Zora, which come to a crunch together when Zora reveals she can locate the origins of the DMA but then refuses to do so.

It's an intriguing follow-up to Zora's previous crisis of confidence, with her new found reassurance still vying with her anxiety, this time concerning the crew's wellbeing. It's the classic First Rule of Robotics: Zora can't allow her crew to come to harm, so refuses to give them information she believes will out them in harm's way. In spite of her altruistic reasons for doing so, unsurprisingly this is a cause of concern to the crew and the UFP in general. Stamets is in particular freaked out, but everyone from the 23rd century has unpleasant memories of Control and it's brutal reign of terror.

The idea of a sentient AI is less shocking in the 32nd century, although the rights of AI's now isn't entirely a clear issue for the viewer. Dr. Kovich undergoes an investigation of Zora to decide whether she is, in fact, a life form, and from there discuss the situation. While it's clear that things have moved on from the days of “The Measure of a Man,” it's a similar set-up, but one really has to wonder why Kovich has the overall ruling here. Who exactly is he and why does he has so much power in so many matters? Naturally, things turn out alright in the end, with Zora's being recognised as a living being and given a Starfleet commission, which seems to resolve her issues of responsibility enough to get on with the mission.

The bigger picture concerns the DMA and the alien powers themselves, with a host of civilisations sending representatives to decide what the best course of action is The meeting of the various cultures feels like classic Star Trek, and there are some nice nods to the ongoing storyline. General Ndoye from United Earth makes a return appearance, and while they've not rejoined the Federation, they have reunified with Titan thanks to Discovery's efforts. The Alshain, having accepted Burnham's olive branch, are now willing to look past their own concerns and open up dialogue. It's nice to see both familiar faces and new creations, although given that representatives “from all four quadrants” are said to be present, it's a shame we don't see any recognisable Gamma or Delta species. Also notable in their absense are the Klingons. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the 32nd century.

On one side, Burnham argues that it's the Starfleet way to open communication and try to understand them. They don't even know if they're destroying worlds deliberately or are even aware that they're doing so. On the opposing side, backed by vengeful book, is the argument to attack the 10-C to stop them destroying anything else. Ruon Tarka is also present, providing the means for attack should it be chosen: an isolytic burst based on his experiments on Discovery, which could destroy the DMA, but also subspace across light years and cause untold “collateral damage.” I'm glad Burnham also pointed out that attacking something as powerful as the 10-C is likely to get you wiped out anyway, but nonetheless, it came to a two-option vote, with the benefit of the doubt ultimately swinging it.

This is ultimately it for Book and Burnham's relationship, seeing them at loggerheads in a way they haven't been since their first encounter. In an older episode of Trek, we might have expected them to come to terms with their differing opinions or for Book to come round and swear of his desire for vengeance against the people who destroyed his planet. Not in this instance, though. Tarka whips out his piece de resistance: the new, next-gen spore drive he's been working on, which he just needs a ship and a navigator to make work. He and Book team up and jump towards the unknown, determined to take matters into their own hands, leaving Burnham to go after her (now presumably ex) boyfriend to stop all-out galactic war, or worse.

But to Connect...” is another episode that serves primarily to push the overall plot ahead rather than tell its own story, but this time it feels more expansive thanks to an array of colourful guest aliens, some more concrete developments regarding Zora and the DMA and a decent cliffhanger that brings back some of the urgency from the beginning of the season.

In the background, other character threads get prodded along. Gray decides to go back to Trill to become a Guardian, an obvious role for him but also perhaps a tacit admittance that, now he's back in the land of the living, his storyline has run out of steam. Saru and T'Rina continue their sweet, gentle romance. Most unexpected is Tarka's revelation: that he intends to use the enormous energies of the DMA to jump into another universe, one that's apparently far nicer than this one and distinct from the Mirror Universe. It's just possible this is the future of the Kelvin Timeline, but I imagine that this is something new altogether. With sci-fi TV and film going multiverse crazy lately, we could be looking at a whole new avenue for exploration. Perhaps Discovery's recently confirmed fifth season will see another change in direction?

While it leaves us, still, with more questions than answers, this episode is overall more satisfying than the previous and bodes well for the season's second half.

Alien life forms: Races seen at the conference include the Vulcans, Kwejian, Alshain, Ferengi, Cardassains, Orions, Lurians, Trill, Risians, Osnullus and Shlerms. Info from behind-the-scenes artwork, hard to make out in the episode itself, lists the Aamazzarans, Insectoids (apparently Xindi-Insectoids), and new races including Facians, Hornish, Sarrotheyn, Drakohn and Ckaptir. We can't be sure which are Federation members and which aren't, since some, like Trill and Ni'Var, are listed as well the UFP.

Weapons of Mass Destruction: Isolytic weapons were banned by the Khitomer Accords. W e saw the Son'a use them in Star Trek: Insurrection.

Background check: President Rillak's mother was human, but never got the chance to visit Earth, The President is very keen to keep Earth onside and get them to rejoin the UFP.

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-6 - Stormy Weather

 Better get on with these before the series starts up again.

In an episode that could have been called “Book's Brain,” the Starship Discovery is catapulted into the great beyond as it enters a subspace rift in an attempt to find out something about the mysterious power behind the DMA. Straight away, there's a new tension between Book and Burnham, as the former is more concerned about contacting other civilisations to see what they know about the DMA. Plus, it's his dad's birthday, which brings up some difficult emotions even before the disagreeable old man starts appearing to him to tell him just how disappointed he is in his son.

Meanwhile, Zora's burgeoning sentience and emotional awareness spirals into a full-blown anxiety attack when the ship is trapped on the other side of the rift, a region of absolute nothingness. DOT probes immediately disintegrate, the warp drive won't function, even the mycelial network doesn't fully penetrate the region so there's not even the option of mushrooming away. With not only the crew but the ship freaking out, getting back to civilisation is going to be rather a challenge.

Booker's hallucinations of his father are caused by a power surge of particles from the void, seemingly the same as those that make up the galactic barrier. Of course, that's assuming they are hallucinations; given the near magical empathic powers that the Kweijian show, a zap from the psychically-charged barrier could surely trigger even greater powers in Book. Perhaps he really is speaking to his late father beyond the veil? In any case, it seems that the particles are the key to finding a way home. Unfortunately, Discovery's shields won't last long enough to keep the crew alive through the journey.

Stormy Weather” is quite the bottle episode, with just one new face in the speaking cast – Rotherford Grey as Book's father Tarecx. Given that everything is comfined to the ship and the briefest glimpses of blackness outside, director Jonathan Frakes hasn't a huge amount to work with so it's impressive how much tension he and the cast manage to generate. Still, it's perhaps appropriate that this episode feels rather like it's treading water, existing to bridge a gap between the previous episode and the next rather than tell its own story. Sure, this is serial television, but when it comes out a week at a time, this lack of motion is frustrating. I imagine it will play better upon a season-long rewatch.

The effective parts of the episode are the various characters' emotional journeys and their changing relationships. Gray is able to comfort and reassure Zora through mindfulness and game-playing, likening the AI's awakening to his own adjustment to his rebirth in an artificial body. He sure points a lot of the obvious, but it does the trick with the computer, and it's nice to see Gray get to do something except look pretty now he's present again. There's a great deal here to do with identity, with Gray's further exploration of his self, Zora's continued evolution, Book's rejection of parts of his background against his father's expectations and even Burnham's family tree. For her part, Burnham is able to both survive the ravages of radiation and fiery heat as Discovery returns through the rift, and keep Zora together emotionally as they complete the journey, because it's still Michael's show and she has to help save the day.

What she can't do, it seems, it help keep Book together. He ends up discussing his internalised rage – either the cause of his hallucinations, or made worse by his dad's visit – with Saru, but he's very clearly coming apart and Burnham's continued reliance on him isn't helping him get to grips with his loss. Book chooses his love and trust for Michael ahead of his need for retribution for his people, but the increasing tension between them shows that this won't be the case for long.

The DMA plot though creeps forward barely a jot. The revelation that the uninspiringly-named Species 10-C are from outside the galaxy isn't nearly as remarkable as the writers seem to think it is, and while it narrows down previously known races to a mere handful it's clear they're brining in someone new (unless this is all misdirection). Either way, after all the loss and struggles of the episode the crew end up in almost exactly the position they were when they started.

Reflections and References:

When the suggestion to put the crew in transporter suspension raises doubts Saru points out it has worked before. The most notable example is Scotty's 75-year suspension that ended in TNG: “Relics,” but there's also the multiple suspensions used to hide telepathic crew and refugees from the Devore in VOY: “Counterpoint.”

Saru also refers to both the Enterprise and Voyager encountering subspace rifts. There are a number of incidences of this in both TNG and VOY, but he could just as likely be talking about the Voyager-J and a 32nd century Enterprise.

A Ferengi works behind the bar on Discovery, while a Lurian sits on the opposite side. That looks remarkably familiar...

There's the first onscreen confirmation that Gray is transgender like his actor Ian Alexander, having chosen his own name to match his identity.

Zora's rendition of “Stormy Weather” hints she's already developing an appreciation for the classics, as she will one day display in the Short Trek “Calypso.”