Thursday 31 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-4 - "The Watcher"

Wotcha! Another strong episode from Picard, and it seems we're now firmly in the serialised part of the storytelling, rather than the attention-grabbing stage of the opening two episodes. It's a quieter, more thoughtful episode, albeit with enough action to keep things fun and interesting, with some strong character moments.

By far my favourite part came early on, with Seven and Raffi on the bus, reenacting the “I Hate You!” scene from The Voyage Home, with Kirk Thatcher appearing as an older version of his punk character from that film. He's a lot more mellow and polite now, although perhaps he's having traumatic flashbacks to his humiliating nerve-pinching by Spock back in 1986. In the meantime, he'd got out of California and took a trip to New York to appear in Spider-Man: Homecoming. I like to think there's a Kirk Thatcher Punk Rock Guy in every reality.

Seven and Raffi get some angry bonding time this episode, but to be honest this isn't the strongest episode for either of them. Their main purpose at the moment appears to be to run around trying to find Rios while he's doing more dramatically interesting things. It's fun to see Seven driving (in a stolen police car which would have been perfectly fine to leave where it was if Raffi had just pinched the laptop inside and run, instead of getting in), albeit badly. It's a shame we didn't get a little nod to Voyager; who else could have taught Seven to drive 20th/21st century internal combustion vehicles but Tom Paris?

As said, Rios's experiences in ICE detention are more interesting, and damning. His character is consistent with how he appeared in season one: putting on a facade of charming nonchalance to cope with genuinely traumatic experiences. He continues to have great chemistry with the gorgeous Dr. Teresa, and this plot thread shines a light on the appalling state of the West, particularly post-Trump America, in the 2020s. I like that the writers are openly tying this into the future seen in DS9's “Past Tense,” with Rios being carted off to a Sanctuary District. The future shown in DS9 is looking more and more like the present we now inhabit. However, the Sanctuary Districts are a paradise compared to the conditions that many men, women and children experience in ICE custody, even after the States' regime change.

Alison Pill's toughened-up Agnes Jurati continues to be one of the best things this season. He relationship with the Queen is becoming very interesting. After their interface, they each have an insight into each other's psyche and are seemingly trying to out-manipulate each other. While Agnes gets what she wants, the Queen is nothing if not patient, and I suspect we'll see them connect once again further down the line. Our prediction: Agnes is destined to become the new Borg Queen after the current version finally breaks down, and will be revealed to be behind the mask we saw back in episode one.

The main talking point of the episode is, of course, the reintroduction – pre-introduction? - of Guinan. Ito Aghayere is brilliant as the younger, angrier Guinan, giving enough of a young Whoopi vibe while providing her own take on the character. There's a bit of a clash with existing continuity: a time-travelling Picard previously met Guinan back in 1893, when she was already living on Earth and played by Whoopi Goldberg, looking and acting quite differently. Obviously, Whoopi looks very different now, and I much prefer re-casting to attempting an extended de-ageing CGI effect. We know from the 2401 Guinan that El-Aurians can age if they choose to, so maybe they can take their physical age down or otherwise tweak their appearance too? Along with their time-sense (which I had previously supposed was down to Guinan's exposure to the Nexus in Star Trek Generations), it's all very Doctor Who.

As to why Guinan doesn't doesn't recognise Picard from their previous meeting... well, it was 130 years earlier, so she could be forgiven for not immediately clicking, but you'd expect once she'd heard his name and her time sense had been triggered she's recall. Then again, has that meeting even happened in this timeline? The Picard she met came from a future which no longer exists, after all. The time travel rules aren't quite clear here.

When it comes to her character, though, Aghayere's version is perfect. After decades on Earth, living through the entire twentieth century, it makes perfect sense that Guinan has lost her faith in humanity and is getting off planet. Maybe it would have been different if she, as she pointed out, looked like Picard, but as a black woman in the United States, who knows what she's experienced in that time? Plus, it's the right time for her to leave, what with World War III coming and all.

Thankfully, Guinan is not revealed to be the legendary Watcher, which would have been too obvious, but she does at least know who is. The mystery is even greater now, though, as the alien overseer has turned up looking just like a human version of Laris. Meanwhile, Q is keeping an eye on a young woman who is no doubt vitally important to the future of Earth, Picard's ancestry or both. Only he seems to have lost his powers. More evidence that something has happened to reality and he is powerless to fix it without help from Picard? We're almost halfway through, so will likely be getting a few more answers soon.

Links and references:

Jurati calls Picard “Dixon Hill” for being clever, a reference to his favourite fictional detective, who he often cosplayed on the Holodeck. The mystery woman is reading a Dixon Hill novel, The Pallid Son, written by Tracey Tormé, who wrote for TNG back in its first and second seasons.

Guinan keeps a bottle of Saurian brandy in her bar. She drives a car with the registration S02 E01, referenceing the character's first appearance on TNG season two episode one (“The Child”).

The Europa Project where Q and the mystery woman were sitting is situated at Jackson Roykirk Plaza, named after the scientist who created the Nomad probe from TOS: “The Changeling,” twenty-two years earlier in the Trek timeline. Q's newspaper namechecks Brynner, the businessman who unsuccessfully tried to hook up with Dax in “Past Tense.”

Friday 25 March 2022

REVIEW: The Batman

This is the... let's check... ninth live action Batman solo feature film. If you add in the animated features, old serial films, and shared universe movies, there have been... a lot. It's tough, against this background, to make a Batman film that stands out, not least considering that previous iterations have included some of the best superhero films ever made (although, admittedly, also some of the worst). Like Spider-Man a few years ago, this seemed like another hurried reboot far too soon after the last one. Just as then, though, Matt Reeves's new take on the now octogenarian franchise shows how well it can work when someone who really gets the character has creative freedom.

The Batman sets itself apart with its title, which now seems to be the method of dispensing with an uncertain past and heading off in a stronger direction. We've had The Suicide Squad, and I wholeheartedly look forward to The Superman, The Wonder Woman and, of course, The The Flash. It's a bit pretentious, that definite article, but it fits with the very serious, self-conscious tone of the film. Batman works best when it's taken seriously but also accepts the campness and absurdity in its concept. The Batman only really does the first part of that, and this leads to quite a dour experience. It's dark – so dark that it's hard to make out what's going on in some scenes – and by gum it's long, and on the whole it's extremely well done. Still, I do miss when a Batman film was entertaining (in live action at least – the perfect remedy to this is The Lego Batman Movie, this film's antimatter twin).

It's had a long and torturous upbringing, this film. Initially an intended as an installment of the DCEU, and virtually a vanity project for Ben Affleck, it was completely reworked when he dropped out and Reeves stepped in. One thing I continue to love about DC/WB's current approach to its films is the creative control it has given writers and directors. While the MCU becomes ever more expansive, swallowing up earlier franchises, it also threatens to become more and more homogeneous. DC, having failed to emulate the Marvel model (not for lack of trying) have allowed something different here. Unique interpretations of classic characters that can sit alongside each other, with no single one being the official, definitive version.

This is, semi-officially, the cinematic Earth-2, where a younger version of Bruce Wayne has only recently donned the cape and the cowl. I like how we've side-stepped the origin story (no need to cover that again) yet are still dealing with a very young version of the character. Yes, the death of the Waynes weighs heavily on the storyline, but this is still Batman as an established force in Gotham City. Only two years established, however, and still in the angry, emo phase of the Caped Crusader, stunted at an adolescent stage of development.

The casting of Robert Pattinson is perfect for this version of Batman. Like many, I was doubtful, but after previously surprising success stories I was happy to wait and see how he turned out. (Heath Ledger's Joker, of course, being the most famous example of “trust the casting director,” but most of the previous live action Batman castings have met with a undeserved backlash.) I was sniffy of the images of emo Bruce Wayne, with smudged make-up and lank black hair, but the character has always been an angry emo kid in a big bloke's body. This was just the first time he looked the part. Really, though, Bruce's character is almost – almost – irrelevant here. Pattinson's Bruce barely has an identity beyond Batman, subsuming himself entirely into the role of the vengeful vigilante.

(A side note – the current main actors for Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, the three most bankable superheroes in the world and often considered quintessentially American characters, are now played by Englishmen. Funny old world.)

The cast are all impressive. Jeffrey Wright is, for me, the best version of James Gordon we've ever had on the screen; gruff, straight-down-the-line and noble. Not yet the commissioner of lore, but still an established figure, much like the young Batman. There's a mystery about what happened during the last two years that made Batman such a notorious figure, yet one trusted by Gordon, but I suspect we'll learn that in time. Andy Serkis gives a version of Alfred who's both recognisably the butler and pseudo-father figure we know and a more formidable character, a veteran who you'd never cross and who has almost lost faith in his charge.

Zoe Kravitz plays Catwoman (for the second time – see again Lego Batman), or rather the Cat, as the character was originally known. Her version is more Selina Kyle than Catwoman, but you can see her slowly going down the route that Bruce himself has and being subsumed by her alter ego. Catwoman is always best as a morally complex antihero rather than a straightforward villain, and, of course, a romantic interest for Bruce to further muddy the waters. Kravitz portrays Selina as a sexually-charged figure, but this also comes across as just as much a mask for someone who has had a brutal and exploitative upbringing. It's an excellent performance.

The main villain, though, is the Riddler, virtually unrecognisable from his comicbook counterpart and previous big screen outings. Paul Dano's version of Edward Nashton (no Nygma in this telling) is a twisted but ultimately sympathetic individual. Dano's performance is remarkable, giving us a young man who is clearly mad as a jacket full of question marks, yet on whose every word we hang. Even under a mask that makes Batman's seem revealing, Dano gives Edward a depth and power, and he deserves to be remembered as one of the great Batman screen villains.

The gangsters are strong too. Colin Farrell is utterly unrecognisable as “Oz” Cobblepot, the Penguin, lathered in latex and donning a broad accent. We might ask why they didn't cast someone who looked and sounded at least a bit like the character they wanted, but Farrell's performance is suitably impressive. This scarred, arrogant version of the Penguin works, as the best iterations of the Penguin do, as a power-hungry crook who's out-of-his-depth. Perhaps the scariest of the villains is John Turturro's Carmine Falcone. No outlandish make-up, no scary mask, no voice modulation. Just a man who's cruelty and greed is outstripped only by the power he's accumulated. Tying him into the Waynes' murder is a good idea, giving the story greater structure, much as Tim Burton's Batman tied in the Joker to the origin story.

The Batman's strength as a story is its deconstruction of the vigilante hero's existence, positioning him as just as much a threat to the safety and structure of Gotham as the villains. Throughout, it's made clear that a noble mission can be easily perverted by human weaknesses, be it in Thomas Wayne's poor judgment in the face of a threat, the various lawmen and politicians of Gotham giving into corruption and greed, or Bruce's own spiral into violent vengeance. Like all the best Batman stories, it positions Batman as a reaction to Gotham's brutality, but also as a catalyst for the worst to come. It's far from the first story to suggest that Bruce's costumed crusade acted as inspiration for the various outlandish villains who came after him, but it makes it explicit and holds him to account for it. (It's exactly the opposite take to the last “young Bruce” attempt, the Gotham TV series, which had it entirely the wrong way round.)

Notably, it's not entirely down to the Batman's example, but the insidious, ongoing radicalisation of young men (particularly young white men) online. Edward commands a small but loyal following of angry men, and he has broken away from a deeply isolated existence into a world where violence is the only means of making the wider world pay attention. Like Joker, which similarly explored the explosion of violence that lies beneath masculine social conditioning, it has its real life reflections in young men and boys who dressed up in Joker make-up before shooting at cinemas full of people. We don't know the backstory of the Joker in this version of events (a recently released deleted scene gives some hints, but it's clear why it was deleted, not least because it's almost impossible to make out what Barry Keoghan's version of the Joker is saying), but it's easy to imagine that the Riddler is inspired by both the Joker and Batman (he's long been something of a Joker copycat, after all).

There's a note of hope in the climax, as Bruce turns away from the pursuit of violence and starts to actually help people, rescuing those in danger rather than simply beating up villains and abandoning their victims. Still, it's hard not to think that he's missed the point. It's an improvement, sure, but as the new mayor has been trying to tell him, his money would be put to better use in philanthropic programmes than in whatever else he's been spending it on. Thomas Wayne's failure at the last doesn't mean that his goal of using his wealth to improve people's lives was wrong.

Visually, musically, and directorially distinct, The Batman succeeds in standing out as its own animal amongst all the many Batmen that have gone before. It's a strong, solid dark detective story with an important message, but one that's a bit muddled in the telling. Clearly open for a sequel (with an entire new Bat-verse franchise planned, whether or not this is a wise direction), it's not quite the triumph some are making it out to be, but it has the potential to be the start of something truly great.

Thursday 24 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-12 & 4-13

 4-12: SPECIES 10-C 


Season four ends with a two-part adventure that is both pacy and thoughtful. Quite a bit happens in these two episodes, recalling the pacing issues of the first season of Picard: languid progress through the season followed by a mad rush to tie things up. In this case, the finale works well on its own measure, although as the culmination of a three-month arc it doesn't quite hit the mark.

To begin with, we have a fascinating encounter with an alien environment. As I mentioned in the last review, we've had any number of Earth-like planets over the years, with only occasional excursions to more exotic worlds. Now Discovery enters a truly unique location: a gigantic forcefield surrounding the core of a star system, within which a megastructure orbits the sun, and within this three jovian planets that are home to totally new alien life forms. It's wonderful to have Discovery actually discovering something again, for once something that doesn't seem like a rehash of something we've seen before.

There are some wild visuals as the ship is pulled inside by a tentacle of who-knows-what, as the 10-C's technology makes short work of Discovery's defences. There's some fundamental good work in the first contact department, with the Starfleet crew offering a gift (some handy boronite) before the process of communication is attempted. Dr. Hirai leads the team in trying to communicate with a gigantic, nebulous entity that speaks through a combination of light sequences and olfactory molecules... it's a genuinely interesting look at how an alien life form might operate differently than us. We can barely communicate with other species on our own planet – hell, sometimes we can barely communicate with each other. This is the sort of problem we're going to face if we ever do meet intelligent extraterrestrial life.

It's a bit hard to swallow just how quickly the team go from tenuous mathematical concepts to full blown conversation. One minute they can just about say, “nine,” the next Michael and T'Rina are speechifying with all manner of idioms and metaphors. Still, it works well overall, tying into a season-long theme of communication fostering understanding and overcoming otherness.

Meanwhile, Tarka and Book come to blows, when the Risian scientist reveals he's not to be trusted after all. Shock! Horror! The least-surprising development all season, signposted as it has been since he first started peddling his scientific wares. It's a bit of a shame, since Tarka has been among the best things this season, and he's so obviously a wrong'un that setting him up as a proper villain earlier, rather than Book's shaky ally, would probably have worked better and given the season some focus. Still, his plight is a sympathetic one, even as his delusions overcome his sensibilities. The idea that there was a perfect universe out there that he could beam to was always a bit unbelievable, but we've had more outlandish ideas in Trek. Like so many villains before him, his final acceptance of the truth, sudden heel-turn and redemption come too quickly. It would have been good to see a last shot of him, in some idyllic world meeting Oros, left open for the viewer to decide if he had reached his goal, died and passed to the other side, or was simply imagining his heaven in his last moments.

There's some good material on Book's ship, though, as Jet snarks her way through captivity and uses licorice as a combined food/distraction/building material. It's classic Trek engineer work, taking low-tech materials and using them on incredibly high-tech problems. It's the sort of silliness we can get behind. Less so is the fact that it takes the rest of the crew hours to even notice that Jet has gone. The abandoned communicator trick got old with The Next Generation. Equally disappointing is the abandoned plotline of Discovery being lost in the depths of extragalactic space, having burnt out the spore drive escaping from one of the 10-C's impenetrable bubbles. A decades-long journey home at conventional warp could have been an interesting, Voyager-esque direction for season five. Still, this is far from the first time Trek's pulled that trick; by now, it almost feels like a tribute.

Some of the best material takes place far away from the ostensible main action. Naturally, the threat of the DMA was going to be magnified by having it threaten Earth directly (and Titan and Ni'Var, not that we see any of that). While some scenes of the chaos on Earth itself might have made it more powerful, there's a real sense of impending doom during the crisis. Starfleet HQ proves to be not merely a space station, but a gigantic starship, one that can speed all the way to Earth and even split into smaller ships to help with the evacuation. It helps hammer home not just the scale of the crisis, as the whole of Starfleet, every ship and the entire HQ come to the rescue, but also the level of technology in the 32nd century. In turn, the 10-C, being so much more advanced than this, appear even more powerful.

Mainly, though, these scenes work so well because of the much-missed Tilly, staying behind and working with Admiral Vance. The good Admiral has been underused this season, and here Oded Fehr finally gets to make his character seem human, displaying good chemistry with Mary Wiseman's character. There's definitely the sense that the two leave the situation as firm friends. When they give us that Starfleet Academy spin-off (come on, it's bound to be coming), I suspect lots more Tilly-Vance time. Get Jet Reno in there too – she'd suit perfectly as a crabby engineering instructor.

Ultimately, everything turns out for the best, and unfortunately, this is where it all falls down. The 10-C's immediate capitulation is too sudden to be satisfyingly dramatic. Had this been a standalone story, as most episodes had been in the old days of Trek, then it would have worked fine within those confines, but as the culmination of a season-long arc, it's all too sudden. The 10-C are sad apologise, switch off the DMA and their forcefield and send Discovery home. Oh, and they bring Book back from the dead while they're at it, undercutting some strong material by Martin-Green as she mourns her lover. Perhaps Book, Gray and Culber can form a support group for people who were dead for a bit and then got brought back in unlikely ways?

Speaking of Book, it must be said, he gets off lightly here. Having committed serious crimes against the Federation (although not treason, whatever people are saying, since he was never a Federation citizen or official member of Starfleet), the rogue gets a few months community service. That's pretty slight for stealing classified technology, attacking a starship and almost triggering an intergalactic conflict.

Much like the season as a whole, the finale involves a string of solid and effective elements that together are simply dissatisfying. Less than the sum of its parts, the season ends with everything almost exactly as it started. Except that Earth has rejoined the Federation, and to be honest, even that was a bit quicker and easier than it should have been.

Cool bits:

Species 10-C are a Kardashev Level II civilisation, at least, meaning that they can harness the entire energy output of their home star. Human civilisation has yet to reach Level I, but we might assume that they've managed it by the 32nd century.

President Rillak mentions the Borg and their hive mind, suggesting the Collective is still active in the 32nd century.

Perhaps most satisfyingly, we finally know the Tellarites' status: they never left the Federation, unlike the other founding worlds.

The Earth President is played by Stacey Abrams, a major American political figure, activist and lawyer, who has been working to address voter suppression in red states.

The USS Mitchell, oft-mentioned and finally seen, is named for Discovery guest star Ken Mitchell, a rare tribute to a still-living cast member.

The final episode is dedicated to April Nocifera, a long-time Trek producer who died from cancer late last year.

Sunday 20 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-3 - "Assimilation"


Another solid episode which pushes the story onto what seems to be its main trajectory – setting the path of history right back in the 21t century. After a gripping (and pretty bloodthirsty) intro, La Sirena is catapulted back in time in a classic slingshot round the sun, just like in the good old days before Red Angels and tachyonic subspace rifts. It's not as trippy as The Voyage Home, but it's still a pretty cool sequence as the ship heads back in time under the Borg Queen's control.

Time travel episode are, of course, common as muck in Star Trek, and trips back in time to roughly contemporary settings are nothing new either. It's an obvious idea, of course, letting the characters comment on our way of life directly, but Trek has been running so long now that the present is catching up with the future. DS9's classic two-parter “Past Tense” was set in San Francisco in 2024, just a stone's throw from LA. There are hints towards it in the rundown homeless area that Raffi materialises in, and plenty of commentary on how we live in a society on the brink of collapse.

Raffi has a rough episode all through, first seeing Elnor die and then being thrown into, from her perspective, a primitive society. And she's understandably furious at all this, especially as Picard prioritised the Queen's survival over Elnor's. Seven fares better in the 21st century, suddenly “liked” by people she meets instead of being met with fear or awe. Seemingly because she no longer has Borg bits on her face, she's not threatening, by I wonder if she's actually different in this timeline; if not having her implants has changed her physiologically and mentally.

Seeing Raffi and Seven doing the couple-y thing is fun, of course, and aside from some odd lines (“You and 2024 should get a room,”) they have great chemistry in this episode. Among the storylines in contemporary America, though, it was Rios's plotline that I enjoyed the most. Having Chris, a Hispanic man who commands a starship, suddenly thrown into the world of immigration raids and back alley medicine illustrates the brutality and injustice of our society more effectively than having Raffi pass judgment on the homelessness crisis and beat up a mugger. Sol Rodriguez is a great addition to the cast as Teresa. She has excellent chemistry with Santiago Cabrera and will no doubt be our present day point of contact for the story. More of an Edith Keeler than a Rain Robinson though...

It's interesting that the Queen remains as a major character in the series. I was expecting them to just leave her in her self-induced coma. Wersching's Queen, now that she has her marbles back, seems more like Krige's than before, manipulative and insidious, but has a sassy arrogance that's all her own. Alison Pill gives her best performance ever as Dr. Jurati, as she very inadvisably links with the Queen to try to kickstart her and get data off her. There's definitely a lot more to come from this strange pairing. Really, the only character who doesn't come off well here is Picard, who's perhaps proving too single-minded and inflexible for his crew. I'm wondering just what sort of test Q is running him through.

One more niggling element is the inconsistent attitude to their presence in the past. They worry about “butterflies” but simply being present on Earth in their own past is inevitably changing events. I'll be frankly surprised if it doesn't turn out that Picard and co's interference isn't the very thing that sends history down the wrong path. At least Agnes is thinking about causal loops, even if no one else is.

It's a great episode, the pacing settling down a little since the frenetic opening episodes. The direction, by time travel sci-fi veteran (and huge Trek fan) Lea Thompson and strong performances by the cast make this is a gripping instalment.

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-11 - "Rosetta"


Catching up with my Disco reviews, and finally the season gets moving. I feel that this is probem with this season; the individual episodes are mostly good, but the overall pacing of the season is so slow that the arc plot never seems to go anywhere. In a truly episodic series this wouldn't be an issue, but when there's an ongoing mystery all this treading water is frustrating.

Still, at least now we're getting somewhere, having breached the Galactic Barrier and reached the 10-C's home star system. There's some proper sci-fi stuff here, as we enter a star system with one solitary planet, the rest having presumably been demolished to build the huge Dyson ring that is the sytem's main habitat. It's immediately clear that we're dealing with an incredibly advanced civilisation, who can create a structure like this and encase an entire system behind a forcefield. I just wish we got to see more of it.

Instead Burnham and co. go exploring on the planet, the lifeless core of a former gas giant. This is first time we've seen an environment like this on Trek – a Chthonian planet, unlike the many, many Earthlike worlds we usually see. The virtual sets have been an absolute triumph this year, bringing us some truly imaginative and remarkable worlds. I love the gigantic skeletons that litter the planet, and the concept of a people that leave chemical signs to signal emotions as markers for their dead. It's rare that we get something truly alien in Trek, and this is evocative stuff.

It's good to see Saru back in season one mode, showing us how much he's changed since the series began. Unlike back then, though, Saru's fear at “the coming of death” isn't something extrasensory. He's just the first person to inhale the hydrocarbons that the 10-C use to transmit emotions. It's a huge step forward, finding out how the aliens communicate, but you have to sympathise with Ndoye and the others when it comes to Burnham's attitude. Naturally, she's proven to be right in all this, but her pacing's as off as the series. This little excursion turns out to be the answer to contacting the 10-C, but it's bloody lucky that it worked. At first it seemed much more likely that the planet wasn't the 10-C's home, but their first victim, seeing that it was bombarded by asteroids just like the ones currently being flung towards the Earth by the DMA. It turns out that yes, the aliens have left this world alone, out of respect for their ancestors, but going for a walk around the graves of their children might not have gone down so well either. The Disco crew are lucky the 10-C's first message wasn't “You have desecrated the Tombworld!”

Meanwhile, Book and Tarka tread water, unable to actually do anything until they can follow Discovery into the hyperfield. As part of all this, though, we get some more depth for Ndoye, and after a long absence (due to health concerns around COVID), Tig Notaro is back as Jet Reno. I'm also becoming a big fan of Hiro Kanagawa as Dr. Hirai, the wonderfully blunt, perpetually snacking linguist. There are some good moments for Culber, Detmer and Stamets, but it's largely Saru and Burnham's episode. “Rosetta” works mostly for its ideas, but there are some nice character moments too. Mainly, though, it's good to be making progress, even if it is in fits and starts.

Monday 14 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-2 - "Penance"


Picard storms ahead with another belter of an episode that barely gives the viewer a chance to take in what's happening. The episode leaves you breathless, but under the excitement and strong performances, it's not as solid as it appears.

Resolving last week's cliffhanger by barging us into a different reality altogether, “Penance” acts like a second introduction to the season that, on the face of it, has little to do with what went before. “The Star Gazer” set us up with the characters in a new dynamic, and with a mystery surrounding the Borg's strange new behaviour, before essentially blowing it all up and starting over with a new story about Q and his interference in the timeline.

Q's scene with Picard is a highlight of the episode. Stewart and de Lancie have the same great antagonistic chemistry they had back in the TNG days, but overlaid with an angrier, more impatient drive, made fierier by the fact that the streaming platform doesn't need to watch its language for primetime. “I don't have time for your bullshit!” snarls Picard at Q, and you feel him. It's two old men lashing out at each other after years of furious history. Picard insists that Q has gone mad, but perhaps he's just lost his patience as well – who knows what bizarre pressures are playing on him?

This new reality, not a parallel universe like the Mirror Universe but an altered timeline, is well-realised, a dark, fascist state where humanity rules with cruelty and brutality. Some of the details are chilling – First Contact Day replaced by Eradication Day, famous aliens slain by the ruthless General Picard, Romulans as slaves and no ban on synthetic servants – but others are harder to understand. After introducing the Stargazer, Rios is now captain of La Sirena again, now a warship for the Confederation of Earth. Annika Hansen is the President of Earth, never having been assimilated by the Borg and changed into Seven of Nine. It's a bit too neat.

Of course, there's the question. Is this really an altered timeline, or some huge fabrication of Q's? On the other hand, given Q's apparent insanity, is something else going on? Has something else changed history in 2024 (only two years away from our present, but also notably the year of the crucial turning point of the Bell Riots in Trek lore)? If that's the case, Q must be pulling strings somewhere to have put everyone (except the unfortunate Elnor) in positions of power that allow them to escape and travel back.

The bigger question, though, is: just how is this different from the Mirror Universe? Aside from Q pointing out it's not an altered rather than alternative reality, this is the Mirror Universe in all but the details. The Confederation instead of the Empire, Nazi-esque black instead of imperial gold. In the Mirror Universe humanity was overthrown by its subject races, while here its still in power and ready to wipe out Vulcan and execute the last of the Borg. Really, though, that's just pushing things forward by a century or so. We still have versions of the regular characters, however unlikely that would be after centuries of divergence, but twisted to become utter bastards. Why not just make it the Mirror Universe and be done with it if you're going to be that clichéd?

Still, it's hard to worry too much about that when it leads to such a gripping thriller as this. Where this works, while the Mirror Universe episodes of Discovery didn't, is that it keeps things moving and focuses on the “real” characters instead of mincing supervillains. Stewart is impressive, of course, convincingly frightening when he pretends to be the cruel General Picard. The most effective part of the episode, though, is President Hansen waking up, with Jeri Ryan beautifully portraying the slow realisation that she is no longer Borg, testing her reality to make sure she's not dreaming it. It's a shame the trailers spoilt the reveal, because it's a wonderful moment when we finally see she has no implants.

On the Borg side of things, Annie Wersching's new iteration of the Queen is also a triumph. Whereas Alice Krige played her as oily and creepily sexual, and Susanna Thompson with a sort of twisted maternal instinct, Wersching's Queen is the most inhuman, twitching and insectoid and more concerned at the change in time than her own imprisonment. The idea of forming an uneasy alliance with the Borg Queen as she's the only one with the brains to calculate the trip back in time is a brilliant one. Making these scenes even better is Alison Pill as the entirely out-of-her-depth Dr. Jurati. Agnes obviously never got parallel universe training and is terrible at undercover work, but watching her wing it is hilarious.

As fun as it all is, I'm glad that it looks like we're on our way back to the past in the next instalment. Just like the Mirror Universe proper, this new evil empire could outstay its welcome quickly. I'm more interested in seeing how all this ties together than spending time in fascist central.

Observations (and evil observations with sinister beards):

General Picard keeps the skulls of his most high-profile vanquished foes on stands in his trophy room. They include Gul Dukat, General Martok, Ambassador Sarek, an unidentified Ferengi (but probably the Grand Nagus, given the staff included), a Borg and uncertain reptilian species (update - it's a Saurian!)

Brilliantly, we learn that the Ferengi have bones in their ears.

General Sisko is namechecked. I would have loved just a quick cameo from Avery Brooks, if only to punch Q in the face again.

The Queen says Annika was assimilated in 2350. That was actually the year of her birth, and she was assimilated when she was six, so in 2356 or '57. Still, the Queen was having an off day.

Apparently, the Queen can hear her counterparts in other realities through higher dimensions.

Patton Oswalt voices Spot 73, Jurati's cartoonish hologram and homage to Data's cat Spot.

The Magistrate/First Husband is played by Jon Jon Briones, the father of Isa Briones who plays Soji, which may well end up being significant (or not).

Picard even has a synthetic body in this reality, as unlikely as that seems, thanks to a nasty altercation with Dukat.

Monday 7 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-1 - The Star Gazer


After quite the wait, Picard returns with a storming opening episode. While it's predictable in many ways, due to the main plot points being heavily trailed and the decision to open with an action-packed teaser that takes place in the episode's climactic moments, it's all done with such verve and flair that it's hard not to be swept up in it all.

In the eighteen months or so between seasons, we've reached the 25th century and Starfleet has forgiven all sins. Picard, Raffi and Rios are all back, with promotions and new positions. The venerable admiral is Chancellor of the Academy, Raffi has her own posting on the Excelsior and Rios is now captain of a brand new Stargazer. Meanwhile, Seven has taken La Sirena off his hands to continue her work for the Fenris Rangers, while Soji and Dr. Jurati have both been let off their frankly murderous ways on some pretty flimsy rationalisations (one wonders if Picard has been pulling some strings and bending the truth).

While they're all doing rather well for themselves professionally (Jurati's position as drunken master remaining entertaining but questionable), none of them are managing terribly well in their personal lives. Picard is too uncertain and stuck-in-his ways to allow a romance with his housekeeper Laris (and when Orla Brady comes on to you, you do not make excuses). Raffi and Seven don't appear to be seeign each other anymore, or it they are, it's very long-distance. Jurati and Rios have a tenuous friendship at best. At least we can rely on Guinan to sit down and talk sense to Picard – hopefully she'll have a chance to tell everyone off before the season's out.

The episode is actually rather slow, but punctuated by exciting bursts of action. In between there are very long talky segments, but the occasional exposition dump aside, the dialogue is entertaining enough to keep things moving (in both senses of the word). It helps that we have an absolutely top-notch cast delivering it. Nonetheless, it can't all be awkward chat about feelings: this is Star Trek, so there's an anomaly to explore.

Big swirling subspace anomalies are ten-a-penny in Trek, and it would be no surprise who's behind it even if we hadn't seen them attack in the opening moments. Green is the signature colour of the Borg, after all. Nonetheless, the Borg we meet here aren't quite like anything we've seen before. They ask for Picard by name, send their Queen (visibly unrecognisable) as an emissary, and claim to be interested in peace. The closest we've seen to this before is their tenuous alliance with Voyager, when Seven herself was sent as an emissary, and even then we couldn't trust them. Yet the Queen, even as she assmilated a fleet of starships, continues to only use stun setting with her weapons. Something interesting is going on here, but it doesn't look like we'll get to the bottom of it anytime soon.

Still, if this was Discovery, it would have been a month before we even saw the anomaly and another before we found out who was behind it. This episode introduces a spatial rift, pulls the Borg out of it, gives us both a mystery and a thrilling battle and then up-ends everything. While Q's appearance is, again, well-known to everyone coming in unless they've been very careful to avoid trailers, but it still packs a punch, largely down to John de Lancie's magnetic presence. Doubtless Q is in someway linked to the Borg event – who knows, perhaps this is what he was guiding everything towards when he flung the Enterprise-D into the path of that cube in “Q, Who.” Then again, given that they arrive through some kind of space/time rift, perhaps these Borg, in their bizarre ship, with their even more bizarre Queen, aren't from this timeline at all.

Whatever the answer, I can't wait for the next episode.

References and observations

The gorgeous shot that pans out from Earth, across the solar system, into deep space and finally to the Borg rift, brings to mind the original title sequence of The Next Generation.

Elnor is lauded as the first fully Romulan cadet in Starfleet Academy. Simon Tarses, who was pilloried by Admiral Satie in TNG: “The Drumhead” was a quarter Romulan, but he both kept this secret and enlisted as a crewman rather than attending the Academy. Saavik was originally written as half-Romulan, but this never made it to the finished films.

Raritan IV, visited by Soji and Dr. Jurati, appears to be a Deltan colony. This is the first time we've seen the Deltans on screen since The Motion Picture, save a couple of barely visible cameos in subsequent films.

El-Aurians can age if they choose to, to make others feel comfortable. Q, of course, can appear how he likes on a whim.

The USS Stargazer NCC-82893 is a Sagan-class ship, apparently the first of its class. We also hear mention of a USS Hikaru Sulu, and according to info from the design crew, a USS Uhura. Ships making their live-action debut (if you can call it that when they're all CGI) include the Luna-class (from the novels and later Lower Decks) and the Ross, Reliant, Sutherland and Gagarin-class (from Star Trek Online).

Tuesday 1 March 2022

WHO REVIEW ROUND-UP: The Wintertime Paradox


This an overdue review, given that this book came out in 2020 in the Christmas lead-up and I finally got it for Christmas '21, yet only now in March am I finding the time to sit down and review it. Which is negligent, because once I got this collection I read in a couple of days.

We've had plenty of Doctor Who short story collections over the years, many of which had overarching themes, from the most restrictive to the loose and nominal. The Wintertime Paradox stands out because not only is there a general theme – Christmas, that well-worn favourite – but all the stories are by a single author. Unless I've missed something along the way, I think this is the first time Doctor Who have done such a thing, although Jenny Colgan received a collected set of her stories and novellas around the same time.

Dave Rudden brings a new and interesting style to Doctor Who, presenting stories which cover various genres and subjects but still recognisably of one voice. His stories are easy to read and often very funny, but pack a punch as well. This isn't a feel-good book, in spite of the Christmassy theme; Rudden clearly gets that Christmas cheer works best alongside the bittersweet and spooky parts of that time of year. What's exciting as a Wilderness Era fan is the secondary theme that runs through much of the collection: the paradox of the title.

Rudden clearly got caught up in Doctor Who in the same period I did, and is one of the few writers to call back to the Eighth Doctor Adventures era of BBC Books that was one of the main ranges of Doctor Who between 1997 and 2005. Unlike the 90s New Adventures by Virgin, the EDAs haven't had much influence on contemporary Who, excepting the pretty major impact of a devastating Time War that saw the Doctor destroy Gallifrey to protect the universe at large. I much prefer the attitude that the War in Heaven seen in the EDAs and the Last Great Time War that preceded the modern series were different iterations of the same catastrophic event.

Rudden runs with this, presenting a post-War universe that is still reeling from the many interventions and revisions perpetrated by the Doctor and other belligerents in the War. As such, this is the first time in decades that official Doctor Who has called back to the War in Heaven, and specifically to Faction Paradox, the renegade cultists who were so important to the EDAs but seemingly didn't survive beyond that era (excepting fascinating work by Obverse Books). For most of the collection there are little hints and cameos by two surviving Faction agents, disconnected from their history during the Doctor's latest destruction/removal of Gallifrey, and they don't actually get a story to themselves until the twelfth story, “The Paradox Moon,” where they finally come face-to-face with the Thirteenth Doctor.

However, the Faction's influence is felt throughout the collection. They work in the shadows, as it should be. The gorgeous “Visiting Hours” focuses on Rory coming to see River at the Stormcage prison, bringing with him a plated-up Christmas dinner. It's absolutely lovely and tugs at the heartstrings even as a chaotic prison-break featuring powerful alien criminals goes on around them. And of course the Faction are there in the postscript – River is the most obvious target for them ever, both in herself and as a route to the Doctor.

Many of the stories work by sketching in the ongoing events around, under and behind the stories we're familiar with. “Father of the Daleks” proposes the odd but somehow entirely believable revelation that the Doctor meets with Davros every Christmas for a neutral parlay, as they both try to convince the other to see things from their point-of-view. It hammers home just how frighteningly similar the two ancient characters are, and works as a bridge to “The Magician's Apprentice” (as well as giving us an Eleven/Davros story, a pairing that works remarkably well). “A Day to Yourselves” is just brilliant, seeing the Ninth Doctor, just before the events of “Rose,” continually intervening in major galactic events only to find one of his later selves has got their first. It's a funny but affecting story of the Doctor working to heal themself by involving themself in their own past when they were most vulnerable.

Other stories don't feature the Doctor at all but focus on supporting characters. “A Perfect Christmas” is an adventure for the Paternoster Gang, but one that ties into the machinations of the Papal Mainframe seen in “The Time of the Doctor,” itself a deeply Paradoxical organisation. “For the Girl Who Has Everything” is a spot-on stoory for Osgood, leading up to her involvement in The Day of the Doctor but also managing to provide a well-reasoned follow-up to “The Sontaran Stratagem.” “Missing Habitas Frond” is an adventure for Missy, who is clearly just a joy to write for every author who gets to play with her.

While it's heavily focused on the BBC Wales series, classic era Doctors do get involved. “A Girl Called Doubt” features the Fifth Doctor, but mostly focuses on the experiences of one soldier in the Cyber Wars, and has a gut-punch reveal. “We Will Feed You to the Trees” is as effective a Seventh Doctor story as I've read in a while, seeing him not pulling the strings like a master schemer but heading somewhere to investigate a mystery and not stopping until he's left things better than he found them. It features a fascinating central sci-fi concept too, the sort of thing Doctor Who doesn't do enough of these days.

Christmas With the Plasmavores” barely features the Doctor, instead being a standalone horror story that presents a clever new take on the monstrous race from “Smith and Jones.” “He's Behind You” and “Inflicting Christmas” are solid adventures for Ten and Rose, and Twelve and Bill respectively, but don't sing like the others in the collection. Even so, they're well-written, entertaining adventures, better than an awful lot of what gets published in the range lately.

Suitably paradoxically, the collection advertises itself as containing twelve stories, but the reprint version actually includes thirteen. “Canaries,” a previously released e-story that ties into the now defunct Time Lord Victorious event (remember when that seemed to be a big deal?) Primarily, though, it's a further exploration of the Faction's involvement in the Doctor's life and the endless array of discontinuities that have built up through constant time travel. It works far better here than as part of the TLV crossover, and, rather appropriately, isn't exactly the same version that was previously released. Stories, like time, can be rewritten, over and over again...