Saturday 25 March 2023

TREK REVIEW: PIC 3-6 - "The Bounty"


“The Bounty” is a cracking, action-packed episode, and with a name that is certainly appropriate, if you consider an abundance of references and Easter eggs to be a bounty. In a season that is overflowing with nostalgia, it is the episode most overstuffed with kisses to the past, to the point where it seems almost like an episode of Lower Decks. Yet it’s also a strong episode with a focus on both action and character. There are a couple of decisions in the storytelling which are bit questionable, but as we are discovering more each episode, it’s clear we haven’t learned the full truth about any of it.

We’re finally away from both M’Talas Prime and the living nebula, and onto some new locations: the Fleet Musuem at Athan Prime, and Daystrom Station in orbit of an unnamed planet. I don’t mind the overly dark sets this season – it’s unrealistic, but it does make it cool and moody, so fair enough – but inside Daystrom is just ridiculous. Has Data’s disembodied mind decided that pitch blackness is best for security? There could have been even more Easter eggs in there than we realise, and no one would ever be able to see them.

Anyway, it’s old friends and enemies all round. Of course, unlike Ro’s return last week, most of the returning characters were spoiled by the season trailer, but it appears that was just as much for misdirection as anything. After Lore’s involvement was revealed early on, I assumed, along with many, that he would be the, or at least a, major villain this season. While he could certainly come to play a bigger part, it seems he’s just a sidenote right now, sharing a body with Data, Soong and B-4 (and allegedly Lal, who hasn’t spoken up yet. They should have had Brent Spiner snog Riker to show she was in there.) It’s not a massive surprise that Spiner’s playing Data again (or at least, a version of him), but there’s only so many times they can kill the character off and bring him back without it seeming meaningless. Still, I guess a robotic character is one who you don’t have to find too many excuses for resurrecting. The script still isn’t very clear on the difference between androids, golems and synths, but it seems to have something to do with them being played by old men. Twenty years ago, Spiner said he was done playing Data and didn’t want to keep playing an increasingly aged android, but you’re allowed to change your mind, aren’t you?

Daniel Davis’s brief appearance as Moriarty was a treat, but sadly rather spoiled by his appearance in the trailer. Had he appeared out of the blue, it would have been fantastic. Still, as a red herring it worked well, since we were all expecting that the archvillain would actually be taking part in the plot properly. It seems this is just a recreation of Moriarty as part of the security system, rather than the AI himself – hopefully, he’s still out there in his little virtual world. Given that mobile holo-emitters are now seemingly easy to come by, there’s no reason he couldn’t come back as a proper villain. In the end, he was just included as extra colour, along with a lovely call back to the very first appearance of Riker and Data in “Encounter at Farpoint” back in 1987 (or 2364, if you prefer).

Levar Burton excels as an older, wearier, more cautious version of Geordi. Now a Commodore (so he outranks Riker!) and worried about his daughters, he’s understandably not ready to go in, all guns blazing, or to turn his back on the chain of command and break orders. Of course, if the Changelings do take over Starfleet, his daughters are screwed anyway, along with everyone else. Setting aside just how Picard and co. can be sure he isn’t a Changeling as well, I rather liked how they assumed he'd be ready to throw his lot in with them again at a moment’s notice, only to be rebuked. Characters have to move on, after all, and becoming more cautious in later life, as with both La Forge and Riker, is probably more realistic than Picard and Crusher’s increased recklessness. Plus, we saw Captain La Forge about ten years earlier (in-universe time) chasing after rogue Starfleet officers in VOY: “Timeless,” so it’s in character.

The interplay between Riker and Worf was great, with it never being clear how much Worf is really being a reborn, Zen Klingon, and how much of it is just a new way to wind up Riker. I would have liked some more time with Seven and Raffi, if only to give them some closure and find out just what went wrong between them, but there is still time for that. It’s not all about the old guard, though. The next next generation is being set up here, with Mica Burton (Levar’s real life daughter) now introduced as Geordi’s other daughter Alandra, bringing a new dynamic to the developing new crew. Speelers and Chestnut have great chemistry together as Jack and Sydney. Their side mission to nick the cloaking device from the Bounty was a lot of fun. Altogether, it has a flavour of the earlier Trek movies, where David Marcus and Saavik seemed to be set up to carry on the franchise, before they got pushed aside so the old boys could carry on.

However, perhaps the single most touching moment in the episode is during the browsing through the starships at the Fleet Museum. What could have been pure fanservice is raised to something rather beautiful when Seven shares a moment with Jack, reflecting on how the starship Voyager became her home. Jack also shares some nice moments with his father as he reflects on the burden of his inherited Irumodic Syndrome. I don’t buy for a second that this is all there is to his hallucinations, though. For one thing, what sort of neurodegenerative disorder grants someone the ability to beat the crap out of four Changelings without breaking a sweat?

Presumably, it all has something to do with whatever else is hidden within Picard’s original body, now in the possession of the Changelings (again, great misdirection – I assumed that it was Lore and/or Moriarty that they had stolen from Daystrom). It feels very much as though we’re moving into the final stage of the mystery now.

Random thoughts:

I absolutely loved Shaw’s geeking out at meeting legendary engineer Geordi La Forge. We absolutely need more from Shaw in a future series (although, a younger version of him, mid-career, could appear on Lower Decks as well).

For a moment it appeared that Riker hadn’t heard of Section 31. They should have kept it like that – it would have been hilarious if he was the only person in Starfleet who still wasn’t in on the “secret.”

Not only did Daystrom hold Picard’s old body, they also apparently have Captain Kirk’s in there – do they collect them or something? They must be annoyed that Sisko ascended instead of leaving a body behind.

The “attack tribble” was utterly pointless and completely ridiculous. I love it.

You have to wonder if the Bounty’s cloaking device is still any good after nearly 120 years – surely Starfleet can detect ships using such an old cloak by now. I’m assuming the Defiant no longer has its cloaking device (if the second one ever even had one).

As well as the HMS Bounty and the USS Voyager NCC-74656, the Fleet Museum includes the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A from Star Treks IV to VI, and a previously unseen classic Constitution-class, the USS New Jersey NCC-1975 (apparently referencing Terry Matalas’s home state and year of birth). It looks like the original Enterprise, not the Discovery/Strange New Worlds redesign.

There’s also, among several others, a Klingon battlecruiser (perhaps Kronos One from Star Trek VI); a Romulan Bird-of-Prey; an Excelsior-class ship (perhaps the Excelsior NCC-2000 itself) and an NX-class ship (probably not the Enterprise, as it’s a refit version).

The existence of an intact Enterprise-A and Kirk’s corpse proves the Shatnerverse novels can’t take place in this universe.

Thursday 23 March 2023

TREK REVIEW: PIC 3-5 "Imposters"

SPOILERS from the outset.

Another very strong episode, a taut thriller which delivers some surprises, albeit more in terms of unexpected returning characters than plot twists. The big deal in this episode is, of course, the return of Michelle Forbes as Ro Laren, thirty years since her last appearance on TNG: “Pre-emptive Strike.” I had genuinely avoided any spoilers regarding this, and among all the many returning faces given away in the trailers before, seeing Ro again was a true surprise. Playing on the Changeling conspiracy with it, so we kept questioning whether it was really her to begin with, added an extra layer to an already tense reunion.

Forbes and Stewart are electric together, the once protégé confronting the teacher she betrayed. As beautifully done as it is, though, I’m not entirely happy with it. After all, as I said, it was thirty years ago, and it doesn’t seem like Picard to have been nursing this grudge so venomously for so long. He claims to have been planning what he’d say to Ro all that time, yet not once has he mentioned it on screen since the aforementioned episode. Yes, this was right at the end of The Next Generation, and it's not surprising that it wasn’t followed up in the films or previous series of Picard among all the many other elements. Still, while it’s good to finally have some closure on Ro’s story, Picard’s simmering anger with her seems to come out of nowhere. While last week it was Shaw who channelled Sisko, this time it’s Picard, whose attitude to Ro is almost identical to Sisko’s hatred of the other major Maquis turncoat, Eddington.

Yet, it’s hard to be turned off by this, given how exceptional the performances are, and it’s way beyond time Forbes came back to the fold. It’s common enough knowledge that the creators of DS9 originally wanted Ro as a main character, and that Kira was created as a replacement when Forbes said no. As much as I love Nana Visitor, I feel we missed out on an even more powerful dynamic that Forbes would have brought to the series. At least she’s back…

… and then they kill her. I’m not against major character deaths, and Picard is certainly not afraid to bump off legacy characters, but we really needed more time with Ro. I understand that killing her was intended to show that no one is safe, but with this being the last last hurrah for the TNG crew, we already know that major characters can be killed.

After missing out last week, we’re back with Worf and Raffi, and they’re as good together as ever. I loved Kirk Avecedo as the villainous Vulcan Krinn. I understand that he’s another of Matalas’s Twelve Monkeys stalwarts, along with Aaron “Sneed” Stanford, but to me he’s always going to be Charlie from Fringe. The idea of a Vulcan who has become a crime lord because he’s deduced that crime is a logical and unavoidable element of society, so he might as well be the one organising it, is a great one. The fight between Raffi and Worf was fun, an obvious callback to the Kirk-Spock deathmatch in TOS: “Amok Time” (but what it was really missing was that classic TOS fight music). Still, I’m glad that the season’s threads are tying up and that we’re finally moving on from M’Talas Prime.

The Changeling threat gets more interesting, with the revelation that this a new breed of shapeshifter that actively mimics human blood and organs a logical progression of their infiltration techniques (so it seems their new look is deliberately “fleshy,” compared to their translucent old style). Equally intriguing is Jack’s ongoing trouble with alien visions, and his sudden superhero moment where he takes out a whole bunch of shapeshifters. He’s seemingly some kind of sleeper agent, but who or what placed him there? This feels like it might be one mystery too many, but hopefully it’ll all be tied up satisfactorily in the end. My concern is that we’re halfway through the season and the characters are only now finding answers and moving onto new locations. I fear that we’re going to have the same rushed ending issues as the previous two seasons.

Random Thoughts:

Names of interest on Worf’s feed include Morn of Luria (he never shuts up), his one-time associate Larell, Brunt (FCA) and Thadiun Okona (the one whose managed to appear on Lower Decks and Prodigy lately – you know, the guy who’s like what you’d get if you ordered Han Solo from Wish).

New ship alert: the USS Intrepid NCC-79520, apparently Duderstadt-class. I don’t enjoy the constant fan negativity when it comes to new ship designs, but that’s one ugly vessel. It looks like it’s bum’s the wrong way round.

Picard speaks Bajoran, it seems. He offers Ro some Bajoran springwine – she looks like more of a spirit drinker to me.

The mobile holographic emitter, cribbed by the Doctor from the 29th century, is now on the market to intelligence operatives and criminal lowlifes.

Although there hardly seems to be room for yet more legacy characters in the season, it definitely sounds like they’re building to an appearance by Admiral Janeway.

Worst line of the week:

“Is it a new species?”

“No… it’s evolution.”

Christ, Crusher’s always been lumbered with nonsensical pseudoscientific dialogue, but doesn’t she understand that’s what evolution is?

Friday 17 March 2023

TREK REVIEW: PIC 3-4 "No-Win Scenario"

SPOILERS, technically, but the episode is now a week old and the next one is out. So much of this might be considered old news and bumf by now.

After an excellent third episode, Picard delivers a taut, solid part four which, while predictable in almost every respect, is so perfectly realised it's hard to find fault. "No-Win Scenario" is a tough, exciting but basically old-fashioned episode of Trek, with a good balance of the wonder of exploration and nail-biting fights against the odds, plus plenty of humour and a powerful emotional backbone.

With the action provided by fights with Changeling infiltrators, cosmic mothers of a thousand young, deadly asteroid fields and some clever sciencey escape plans, the really powerful stuff is the emotional head-to-heads between Picard and the various people he's pissed off. The scenes between Jean-Luc and Jack are some of the best material we've seen from Stewart in this series, with Speelers holding his own against the veteran actor. Spending time together in Ten-Forward (or rather, a holographic recreation of Guinan's terrestrial Ten Forward bar), they truly bond, but at the same time it's hammered home to Picard just how much he's missed out on, and how much he threw away by not having a family.

While it's a bit hard to line-up the flashbacks to Picard's storytelling to an enraptured audience of cadets (I'm fairly sure he should have been sulking in France during those years, but never let consistency get in the way of a good scene), they're a joy to watch, as the old admiral pretends he'd rather be on his own but is evidently having a whale of a time regaling the students with tales of his exploits. Yet, the most powerful moment comes later, when we see that Jack was there at the bar too, having asked the admiral about his family and being outright told that "Starfleet is the only family I ever needed."

Picard's realisation in the present, as the penny drops and he realises who he was talking to all those years ago, is another masterful moment of non-verbal acting from Stewart. It's interesting to wonder exactly why he said this, of course. Was he being disingenuous, saying what he thought the cadets would want to hear from their hero, especially when starting out on careers that will take them far from home and dominate their lives? Or was it a moment of honesty? After all, the younger Picard had often been sniffy at the idea of family on the Enterprise, and had been famously awkward with children. It's less than surprising that Beverly Crusher would be reluctant to tell him about her son with that in mind. Plus, Picard is presumably still dealing with the loss of his nephew (seen in Star Trek Generations) and the memory of an entire family lost to him (in the classic episode "The Inner Light"). Even though Generations showed that his true desire was to have a family, he's fought hard to keep that truth from others and admit it to himself, and is no doubt frightened by the idea as much as he desires it. I feel like you can see all of that in his face in that moment of recognition. But then, I've just had a baby, after years of fearful reluctance myself. This stuff is hitting me harder than it would have done a year ago.

JL and JC are interrupted at one point by Captain Shaw, in another powerful moment. Todd Stashwick is amazing as Shaw, finally bursting out with his anger and grief at Picard (yet still somehow in that measured way he always has) for the events of Wolf 359. Of course, we've seen this before: with Sisko in the opening episode of DS9, but it's not as though there won't be hundreds, maybe thousands of officers who still blame Picard for his actions as Locutus. It's irrational for Shaw to blame Picard or Seven for their actions as Borg - they were, after all, just as much victims of the Collective as those killed at Wolf 359 - but it's also entirely understandable. Shaw acts like a dick (Seven's word!) but in an entirely relatable way. I also enjoyed his noting that, for all the "weird shit" on the Stargazer, the real Borg are still out there (albeit apparently still reeling from the attack at the end of Voyager). Presumably this was put in to clear things up for the various people still somehow confused by the end of season two.

Meanwhile, on the other ship, Vadic is showing some more interesting character. It's becoming clear that behind closed doors, she's actually rather frightened and a little out-of-her-depth, putting on a show of bravado for her crew, and even more of one for her enemies. We're getting little snippets of a more complex character. The question of her relationship to the Changelings hangs in the air in this episode, although by the time I got round to writing this, Matalas has gone and confirmed on Twatter that she is indeed a Changeling. Which is all very intriguing, given her behaviour. The scene in which she hacks off her hand to form a sort-of communications device is fascinating, and one that I actually assumed proved she isn't a shapeshifter - why would she need to hack off her hand rather than simply detaching it willfully? Also intriguing is the scary face she communicates with. Some kind of new Link, or something else altogether speaking to her via her innate telepathy? (Remember, we saw Odo once form a telepathic link with Sisko, Dax and Garak unconsciously and under stress.)

The appearance of the Changelings is also creepy, looking more fleshy than the shimmering fluid we've seen before. This could just be a case of the designers making use of better visual effects techniques to create a scarier version of the enemy, but I wonder if it's actually something to do with the disease that ravaged the Changelings at the end of the war? That might explain an awful lot of what we're seeing.

It's good to see Riker and Picard resolve their own differences like adults, instead of dragging out animosity like many dramas would. Riker's scenes, where he talks to Picard and later Deanna, and finally admits that he's been dealing with a drawn-out depression following his son's death, also struck me powerfully.

As I noted above, a lot of this episode plays out very predictably, from the unmasking of the infiltrator, the reluctant resolution between Picard and Shaw, and the already signposted nature of the nebula as a life form (although the reveal that the waves were contractions was rather nice). None of this is a problem, and actually helps the episode run along without ever becoming hard to follow, even as a lot happens in a short time. The real triumph of the episode, though, is its emotional core. 

Favourite bits worth mentioning:

  • Picard and Jack discussing premature baldness.
  • Riker throwing an asteroid at the Shrike.
  • Shaw referring to Changeling residue as "resi-goo." He has a way with words.
  • Nods back to "Encounter at Farpoint," "Darmok" and "Booby Trap."
  • Patrick Stewart saying "dipshit" will stick with me.

Questions and quandaries:

  • If the Changeling took the transporter chief's place, why did he hide the body in a cupboard? Wouldn't he be in a perfect position to beam it into space without being caught?
  • Picard's tales include an encounter with the Hirogen, also involving Worf. Now that's a story I would like to see.
  • Is pot legal in the Federation? I like that they're still calling it pot in nearly 400 years (Picard and Jack no doubt call it weed).
  • What's going on with Jack's red weed hallucinations? (Is it the Martians from The War of the Worlds? They are public domain now.)

Tuesday 14 March 2023

REVIEW: Before the World Ends (Cerys Evans, 2023)

Every now and then, you go to see something entirely new, and are absolutely blown away by it. 

This was the experience by our little group at the debut performance of Before the World Ends, a new science fiction play by Cerys Evans. Performed by Cerys's own Open Handed Theatre Company at The Actors in Brighton, in a tiny and intimate performance space, as part of FemFest 2023, Before the World Ends is a very different creation to Cerys's previous show, A Trans Fairytale. Full disclosure: Cerys is a good friend of mine, but I don't give good reviews to things I don't rate, even when I like the person who wrote them (I just hide and try not to make eye contact and try to think of excuse for next time). I knew Before the World Ends would be good, but I wasn't prepared for just how good.

With a cast of only six, performing nine roles, it's a very tight production, made with minimal set dressing and props, relying on the talents of the actors and some immersive sound and light design to do the script justice. Realising a world through so little visual material is tough, especially when you're setting the entire thing in the future, but the production handles it with ease.

The story is set in two main time zones: 2027 and 3027. Our focus in the further future is Nicola (Sophie Bloor), trying to work her way up the ladder at a museum of ancient history - specifically the 21st century, a time period that just doesn't draw in the crowds anymore. When she discovers an archaic phone that can somehow communicate through time, she is accidentally connected to Barry (Sam Gibbons), living a thousand years earlier and blissfully unaware that his new phone buddy is interested in more than market research.

Nicola can't help but try to learn from Barry. Not the specifics of the events at the close of 2027 - in spite of a spotty historical record, there seems to be no confusion of the important events - but just how people living then could close their eyes to the devastation around them. As Nicola connects with Barry, she comes to question whether the people of the 21st century were really as selfish and blind as they're believed to be, or whether there is something more to it. Surely they can't be all that different?

I hate when sf material is self-consciously justified as being "a drama first," but that's a very apt way to describe this play, which balances the brutality and heartache of mundane life with futuristic speculation. Nicola's personal and professional life could just as easily be taking place today, and while in some science fiction that would be a weakness, here it reinforces the idea that people are just people, doing the best they can wherever and whenever they live. Nicolas has to contend with an abusive partner and an unimpressed boss, all the while trying to balance her new cross-temporal friendship. For his part, Barry has to struggle with an elderly, disabled mother, as well as the unending "one thing after another" of 21st century life that makes the plight of the wider world seem so far away.

The play deals primarily with climate change and collective responsibility, but also touches on domestic violence, bereavement, the ups and downs of technological progress and cultural misunderstandings, and very briefly touches on gender identity. If there's one complaint, it's that in it's ninety minute runtime there isn't room to explore all of these in depth, and the story could be greatly expanded to a full length play or film, or even beyond to a television series. As it stands, though, it's an extremely focused story.

If this all sounds heavy going, then fear not: Before the World Ends is also frequently hilarious. The main events are given context by Patrick McHugh's brilliant museum guide, who gives poignant and often ridiculous notes to 21st century events and artifacts. McHugh is one of the actors playing dual roles, along with Madeleine Hawkey and Aurea Williamson. Plays with limited casts often struggle with this, but here each actor makes their characters completely distinct. Everyone is excellent, of course, but I feel particular praise must go to Bloor and Gibbons in their lead performances, and Sokratis Kyria for his terrifying turn as Nicola's partner. 

As events in 2027 deteriorate around Barry, and the aftereffects are felt in 3027 and even beyond, the story turns bleak. Ultimately, though, it's a hopeful story, showing us how we can make a difference, even if it's only a small one, and that understanding each other is perhaps the most important thing of all.

Sadly, this was a one-off performance for now, but Cerys has plans for future performances. To the future.

Monday 13 March 2023

REVIEW: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

SPOILERS if you still haven't caught it.

Well, that was certainly very strange. I can fully understand that Quantumania isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I don't get the level of hate thrown at it. It's nonsense, yes, but it's enjoyable, entertaining nonsense, as befits an expansive sci-fi cartoon (more than any other MCU film, this is clearly a cartoon). 

The first Ant-Man was a very clever film that masqueraded as a stupid action flick. Quantumania is a rather stupid film trying hard to appear as a clever one. The plot moves arbitrarily, with some huge illogical elements that aren't quite covered up by the spectacle. It was hard enough to accept that Janet Van Dyne could be picked up from the Quantum Realm with such ease once Scott had been down there, considering that we're talking about what is supposedly a whole universe. It's tiny, yes, but lying within the "main" universe, it's still infinite in extent. In fact, relatively speaking, it should be even bigger to its inhabitants than our universe is to us. Yet everyone who enters it ends up in the same area, where everyone knows each other from some point in their lives either above or below. Even when you accept that MODOK was interfering with Cassie's satellite, this is hard to swallow. The Quantum Realm is microscopic, but it shouldn't be small.

There's also a deeply uneven tone to the film. The Ant-Man films, more so than even the rest of the MCU, have always balanced the over-the-top and comedic with high-stakes drama, but here, the balancing act fails somewhat. The comedy - particularly the later scenes with MODOK - becomes intrusive to the drama. Add this to irrational plotting, and you have a film which can be frustrating to watch.

In spite of those frustrations, Quantumania is tremendous fun. We don't get enough truly weird, visually over-the-top sci-fi these days, and this film just throws us straight in there, showing us a noisy, colourful, baffling universe. There are some brilliantly bizarre choices, not least making the MCU's version of MODOK the twisted remnants of Darren Cross. The comedy isn't on the level of the previous two films - the opening act is easily the funniest, and the comedy never really recovers from jumping to the Quantum Realm - but there are still moments of gold there. That's probably the biggest problem with this film, and why it doesn't reach beyond good fun to something more. Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp worked so well because they juxtaposed the absurd and the mundane, and they were refreshing amongst later MCU films by mostly standing alone. 

Quantumania, for all its joyous embracing of the bizarre, loses this juxtaposition, and by positioning itself as the introduction of the new Big Bad and the fulcrum of Phase Five, there's a lot riding on it. Plus, after the surprise hit of the first Ant-Man and the impressively solid follow-up, the expectations were higher. I guess a weird cartoon alien battlefield doesn't cut it now.

All this serves to distract from the stars, who without exception gives great performances. Paul Rudd remains the adorable everyman of the MCU (albeit the terribly handsome everyman), who grounds the film even in its weirdest moments. Evangeline Lily is a little underused, but continues to make Hope a formidable character, one who could easily carry her own story if given the chance. Kathryn Newton is very likeable as (the third) Cassie Lang, now rather randomly given her own suit to become another size-changing hero (Stature/Stinger/Giant-Woman in the comics), and while she doesn't yet have the presence to carry the adventure herself, she shares great chemistry with Rudd and brings their scenes together to life.

One thing that I really liked about the film was its embracing of an older heroic cast. Aside from Newton, they're all over forty. Lilly is the youngest at 43, and actually looks it, which is a rare privilege for an actress in Hollywood, and while Rudd is forever ageless, he's now 53. Michelle Pfeiffer is 64 and Michael Douglas is pushing eighty, and they both get a solid chunk of the action. Pfeiffer is excellent as Janet Van Dyne, holding her own against the villainous Kang in both present-day and flashback scenes, and Douglas manages to give a classy performance even when delivering lines about hyper-intelligent ants.  Honestly, the original Ant-Man and the Wasp deserve their own film as out-of-retirement superheroes. Pit them against Doctor Nemesis or Egghead. It's a sure-fire winner.

Hats off to Jonathan Majors, who takes on the thankless task of following Josh Brolin's Thanos as the new chief villain. I didn't like his performance as He Who Remains, the alternative variant on Loki, at all, but here he gives an entirely different performance. He embodies the arrogance and frustration of someone utterly convinced he is destined to rule, with a remarkably restrained performance. There were moments when he seemed to be channeling Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance in Serenity: that same resignation to doing what he is certain is right, whatever the unpleasant cost. I'm reassured that Kang will make a great villain for the franchise, although the other variants on the Council of Kangs were all rather broader.

The core cast rightfully dominate their scenes, but there are some nice moments from the expansive supporting cast of peculiar characters. Bill Murray's much-anticipated appearance as Lord Krylar is fun, although he just plays Bill Murray like he always does. David Dastmalchian has a silly cameo voicing Veb the blob, which is a nice touch since there's no room for Kurt or the rest of the X-CON gang here (although Michael Pena is sorely missed as Luis). William Jackson Harper is underused as the telepath Quaz, but is entertaining in the scenes he has, and Katy O'Brien's warrior Jentorra deserves a future appearance. Lovely to see that Jimmy Woo got his dinner with Scott. The decision to include MODOK, played by Corey Stoll as a twisted version of the first film's Darren Cross, is hilarious; it's just a shame that his comedy intrudes on more dramatically important scenes later. (And look, MODOK has always been utterly ridiculous. The last screen version was a cartoon parody starring Patton Oswalt. It's not like he was ever a serious villain.)

I liked how the Quantum Realm was depicted, and how we had a mixture of humanoids, inexplicably alien creatures and almost protozoan organisms all mixing together, giving a truly otherworldly experience. It was satisfying how quantum physics played into the action at crucial moments; given the Multiverse is the central concept for this iteration of the MCU, playing with the Many-Worlds Interpretation is an obvious and effective way to create new problems for the characters. I'd have liked a bit more quantum, though; have characters appear in two places at once, or play with superposition. It's not like any of this really makes sense when applied to people and macroscopic action anyway, so why not go nuts with it?

The final confrontation is where it falls down somewhat. Not because it isn't an effective final battle; the siege of Kang's fortress and his showdown with Lang are both some of the best end-of-the-movie fight scenes we've had. It's just that, with Kang being built up to be the ultimate, multiverse-threatening villain, having Scott and Hope be the ones who kill him seems a bit imbalanced. Of course, we know he's coming back. Whether he was actually crushed by that singularity, or fell down into an even deeper level of reality, we don't know. Equally, it looked like the film was going to end on a powerful cliffhanger, with Scott and Hope marooned in the Quantum Realm. And then they just got out, with the minimum of effort. It massively undercut the final act.

However, let's remember the Many-Worlds Interpretation. If we're talking about a Multiverse-travelling villain, he can surely never be truly defeated, since there will naturally be a version of events where he won. Logically, there should also be a version of events where Scott and Hope won, but remain trapped. Is this how they'll follow up the climactic scenes? Or is that giving them too much credit?

Monday 6 March 2023

TREK REVIEW; PIC 3-3 - "Seventeen Seconds"

 SPOILERS, naturally.

And suddenly, the season went from being good to bloody great.

Last week I quibbled about wanting to know what's going on, having seen the previous two seasons spend too long getting to the core of the plot and having serious pacing issues because of it. I needn't have worried. Although the events remain stuck in the same places as in the end of episode one - a mysterious, unusual nebula and the seedy streets of M'Talas Prime - they're pushing forward, and while the claustrophobic tension increases, we suddenly learn a lot more about what's going on behind the scenes in the galaxy.

On the Titan, Captain Shaw is incapacitated by Vadic's attack, with the absolute pummeling the ship takes this episode proving him completely right about the folly of getting involved here at the edge of space. Todd Stashwick's performance, combined with some solid writing, have made Shaw move from the nasty character who opposes our heroes to the one we all finding ourselves siding with. He's the only one, somehow, to realise that Vadic must be tracking the Titan somehow, as if the idea they're trailing something is so difficult for all these Starfleet geniuses to come up with. (I don't know, maybe they're all just overconfident.)

Sadly, this pushes Shaw out of the episode, but there's more than enough going on elsewhere. I love that he puts Riker in command, not Picard, in spite of the elder man being the ranking officer. It's clear that, while he doesn't much like the former Titan captain, he can't stand the legendary Jean-Luc Picard, and you can understand why. Last week I mentioned how Jack was very much Picard in his youth, reckless and irresponsible but well-meaning, while Shaw is rather like early-TNG, all duty and by-the-book, not friendly with his crew but garnering their respect. 

Contemporary Picard has come through the other side, being familiar, morally-bound and courageous, but he's come right back through to reckless again. Riker, who has a more recent and keenly felt loss, is more cautious and introspective than we once knew him. Their command roles are switched, just as their personas have changed with time. It's great to see them at each other's throats after so many years being on good terms. We barely got a cross word between them on TNG (thanks to Roddenberry's drama-killing "no human conflict" rule), and you can't help but feel that there's nearly forty years' pent-up resentment between these men, finally coming out.

On the other hand, we have the confrontation between Picard and Crusher, and here it's hard not to feel sympathetic to old JL. It's entirely understandable that Beverly would fear for son's safety as the child of the legendary Picard, especially given how his approach became more gung-ho in the movies and beyond. Plus, let's not forget the one time that he thought he did have a son, because the Ferengi Daimon Bok wanted revenge so badly that he faked a DNA test. If someone did find out that Jack was Picard Jr, he probably would be in danger from certain elements. On the other hand, Beverly has been living an even more dangerous life on the edge of the law with her son, breaking all manner of treaties and seeing him become a wanted man, all by the age of twenty (yes, Ed Speelers is about 34, but that's how the years add up, no two ways about it). Something doesn't quite ring true.

Elsewhere, Raffi and Worf become a wonderful new double-act, with Dorn in particular shining as the older, wryer Klingon. "Beheadings are on Wednesdays" - and they say this guy doesn't have a sense of humour. Dorn has, famously, appeared in more instalments of the Trek franchise than any other actor, all as Worf (except The Undiscovered Country, where he played Worf's grandfather... Worf). He's great, but his long-championed Worf series never sounded particularly appealing, until now. I'd watch these two snipe at each other on undercover missions for hours.

Both storylines finally come together with the revelations that, a) Vadic has the portal gun (obvs), and b) the Changelings are behind the plot. Now, that was a bit of a shock - not because they weren't a possibility (the changing faces line hinted at it), but because there were so many other possibilities, and DS9 so rarely gets any follow-up. We had that one episode of Lower Decks, and the odd little alien cameo or mention, and that was it for the legacy of the best series in Trek canon? (No, I will not take discussion on this.) An updated Changeling effect makes for a visually appealing, and not immediately obvious, reveal, and that it's a breakaway group, acting against the Founders, is intriguing. Of course the Changelings should hate the Federation after how they won the war.

Intriguing, though, is the clear implication that it isn't just the Changelings behind this. Is Vadic a Changeling? No reason why not, as such, but it somehow doesn't feel likely. As an aside, I loved the battle this week, with Amanda Plummer giving a much more subdued, more appealing performance, and the visual spectacle of the portal gun making for something new in space battles at last. (Riker has clearly never played Portal, and it shows.) It's very Wrath of Khan/Mutara Nebula, of course, but a newer, twistier version. Just as Khan couldn't quite grasp that he was in 3D space, not on the sea, Riker and Picard can't quite grasp that they're fighting something that can come from any angle, any time.

We learn, as well, that the portal gun isn't the prize at all, merely a handy bonus that can be used as a distraction. It's pretty clear that the actual aim of the heist was Lore and/or Moriarty, as we've already seen them in the trailers (perhaps keeping them a secret would have worked better?) Daystrom is, after all, known far more for AI than weapons development. I'm beginning to wonder if we're actually seeing a loose alliance of various beings with an axe to grind with the Federation (hey, maybe we will see the Conspiracy bugs after all).

Interestingly, we've seen that Lore and Moriarty will be visibly older, in spite of the de-ageing software used in the prologue for this episode. With Picard now 96 in-universe, it seems that being a synthetic life form doesn't protect one from the ravages of time. There's a definite theme of ageism in this episode, with Dr. Trill dismissing Crusher, then having to eat her words as Beverly effortlessly diagnoses Shaw. On the other hand, Picard and Riker seem to be genuinely out of their depth against this new threat. 

 All of this covered, and not once did we feel bogged down in exposition or that the pacing was lagging. Excellent work.

Random thoughts:

It's genuinely tricky watching this my partner Suzanne, who has an uncanny ability to guess left-field plot twists way ahead of the reveal. So if it turns out that Riker is actually Thomas Riker, and that's why he's so unconfident in command, she got there first.

Worf has taken to drinking chamomile tea. I hope he still drinks prune juice - it keeps you regular.

Thaddeus Troi-Riker, Will and Deanna's late son, was apparently born around 2381, the same year that Jack was conceived.

Thomas Dekker, who played the Changeling on M'Talas, also played young Thomas Picard on Star Trek Generations. He's about the same age as Ed Speelers. Makes me wonder if he auditioned for Jack Crusher.

Beverly agrees with my theory that Jack's accent is genetic... although it's really because he was schooled in London. We've given up any pretense that Picard is meant to sound French, then.

Thursday 2 March 2023

TREK REVIEW: PIC 3-2 - "Disengage"


Not that they'd really spoil anything, to be honest. There were revelations aplenty in this episode, but it's not as if any of them were actually surprising.

Which isn't to say this was bad. This was another solidly entertaining hour of Trek that was heavy on both the character and action. It's just that there was very little that we couldn't have guessed beforehand, or hadn't been outright told to us in the huge promo campaign.

Fortunately, every plays their parts with absolute investment and charisma. Ed Speelers being a case in point. The young Jack Crusher (if that is your real name, sir) is a winning presence, purely on the strength of Speeler's looks and charm. There's any number of ne'er-do-wells with hearts of gold in Trek, and in adventure telly in general, and their success as characters comes down purely to how likeable they are. Speelers makes Jack a character whose adventures I'd want to watch. And yes, there is something a bit Picard-like in him, a bit like the tearaway Jean-Luc once was, and who occasionally breaks out during those more macho adventures. 

So, as beautifully performed the moment between Picard and Beverly Crusher was (a lovely moment of non-verbal acting), it was followed by an announcement that was still played as if it was meant to surprise us. Yes, we know he's your son, JL, we've been battered over the head with it for the last hour.

Equally unsurprising is the reveal of Raffi's handler. While it could have been just about anyone, Worf was by far the most obvious candidate. Still, while it wasn't a surprise, his swashbuckling entrance, lopping baddies apart with his new Klingon sword was awesome. And he actually got to use it as a sword, a benefit of the more lenient standards of streaming television compared to primetime broadcast and syndication (how many bat'leth fights have we seen where they just hit and prod each other with these deadly weapons?) Lots of Romulans on hand helps, of course - green blood doesn't up the rating as much as red.

Michelle Hurd has an especially good episode as Raffi. You have to feel sorry for her, facing her ex-husband and having to choose between her own life and the safety of the galaxy, all the while being slated for her conspiracy-chasing ways. There was a conspiracy, Jay, she helped uncover it! And now she's back with Starfleet to help uncover another one. She's not nuts! Of course, we get the inevitable moment when she finally has to go all in for the part and shoot up again, although there's a fun side to it as she's such a rock-solid addict that Mr Sneed's knock-out party drug hardly affected her.

Sneed is a fun side villain, with a suitably broad performance by Aaron Stanford, and it's a shame he was dispatched so quickly. One odd thing, though - he had very small ears for a Ferengi male. (Suz's immediate thought when we met him - "Well, he hasn't got the lobes for business!") Is he perhaps a trans Ferengi? Or is there some weird fashion for ear reductions in the 25th century? Or is just luck of the draw?

When it comes to villains, Vadic certainly is one. Amanda Plummer gives a tremendously hammy performance, but that fits perfectly with the material she's given, which is firmly in the self aware, monologuing megalomaniac mold. She's not got the Shakespearean class of her father's General Chang, rather a more unhinged, joyfully evil vibe. So far, she's entertaining, but I hope there's a solid reason behind her actions, rather than just plain baddieness.

The Titan situation continues to be interesting. Captain Shaw is definitely growing on me, with this episode showing things more from his point-of-view. The thing is, he's absolutely right: risking 500 lives for the sake of two is the wrong call, no matter how legendary they are, especially after they went and got themselves into trouble. He seems especially risk averse considering the extent of the danger wasn't clear at this point, but that seems to be sloppy writing/editing rather than a deliberate move. It's a bit of a shame that he falls for Seven's hero speech, since he's a more interesting character if he's not a hero, but rather the sort of measured officer that Starfleet needs a lot of if it's going to function. Someone once said that the definition of a hero is "someone who gets other people killed." (Actually, it was Zoe from Serenity). And it's true, he does.

He's in a genuinely difficult situation with Jack and the order from what is clearly a dangerous terrorist to hand him over. The "we don't negotiate" rule by Starfleet is the sort of directive that is easy to respect until you're actually presented with such a situation. To be honest, the humourless, by-the-book Captain Shaw is not unlike the Captain Picard of the earlier TNG seasons, which, given how Jack is very like the young, undisciplined Picard, and the man himself is now working purely by moral principles, illustrates some interesting character progression.

There's a lot of exposition in "Disengage," but, considering how much ground it has to cover and how many introductions it has to make, it's a swift, easy watch. However, it's already feeling like we should be getting a few answers to what's driving events here.

Random thoughts:

  • The Eleos XII is described as a Mariposa medical vessel, which suggests it is (or has been previously) working for an organisation that descended from Cristobal and Teresa's 21st century crisis organisation.
  • The shuttle Picard and Riker stole is called Saavik, after the Vulcan officer who served on the Enterprise in Treks II and III. Presumably, this was a homage to Kirstie Alley, the original Saavik actor, who died recently.
  • Among many, many other weapons, including "technology unknown" (so the portal gun), the Shrike has isolytic burst warheads, which are illegal under the Khitomer Accords.
  • Sneed isn't a fan of Section 31 either. Remember when they were supposed to be a secret organisation?
  • "I believe it is afternoon in the Sol system." Does Vadic not understand anything about how time zones work? It's not even afternoon all at the same time on Earth, let alone through the whole system. 
  • I didn't mention much of the rest of the Titan crew last week, but they're a colourful bunch, including a bald-headed Vulcan (who might be part-Deltan according to BtS gossip), a Bajoran helmsman and an alien comms officer, apparently a Haliian. Ensign Sidney La Forge is the only one who gets any real attention though, and she's a lot of fun, the one bridge officer who's allowed to be a bit flippant in the presence of Shaw. It helps that Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut is gorgeous, in spite of her silly name.
  • Picard and Riker both forget they have transport inhibitors set on the Eleos XII, which almost dooms them. It was a busy moment with a lot going on, but are they getting just a bit too absent-minded in their old age?
  • Fun line: "She threw a ship at us!"