Sunday 23 April 2023

TREK REVIEW: PIC 3-10 "The Last Generation"

And so, it's the last episode of Star Trek: Picard, or is it the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Or the first episode of Star Trek: Legacy, or whatever the inevitable spin-off is going to be called. This episode, like the whole season, balances two goals: to tell a good, thrilling story, and to indulge the old school fans in some wholesome nostalgia. It succeeds far better at one of these than the other.

On last time - SPOILERS below, although, to be fair, you can probably guess most of what happens.

Saturday 15 April 2023

TREK REVIEW: PIC 3-9 - "Vox"

The penultimate episode of Star Trek: Picard proves to be tremendous fun, chock to the gills with fan-pleasing moments. It's also an utter mess, story-wise, guilty of many of the same sins that previous season finales have committed. SPOILERS throughout after the break.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

TREK REVIEW: PIC 3-8 - "Surrender"

 SPOILERS within.

Episodes seven and eight of this run very much formed a two-part story, within the longer ongoing storyline of the season as a whole. Still, while this episode settled and shut down several storylines both from last week's, and from the main arc, it also left plenty open. The story's moved on a long way, and while we're still waiting to the answers to some big questions, it's clear everything is et up for a big, two-part finale.

There was some strong writing, direction, acting and visual design this episode, which meant that, as with last week, we got through a lot of exposition without it ever bogging down the story. "Surrender" is a tense episode, largely thanks to the long but nail-biting hostage situation that begins the episode. Plummer chews up the scenery as Vadic, the Changeling having a ball as the new de facto captain of the Titan. I'm still not entirely convinced by her as a Changeling, whatever her backstory - for one thing, why would a Changeling smoke? Like the elaborate monologuing, the cigar-puffing is just easy shorthand for villain in the 21st century. Fortunately, Plummer has class and always makes it entertaining. It's in her quieter, more sinister moments that she really shines. 

Jack's brief posession of Lt. Mura is both unsettling in itself, and serves to highlight the extent of his powers. It's satisfying that his plan doesn't work, as he was on the verge of seeming invulnerable. Instead, Vadic threatens both Mura and Ensign Esmar - and neither is the most exciting character on the bridge crew, so it looked like we'd definitely be seeing one of them zapped. And then Vadic goes and zaps Lt. T'Veen, the coolest member of the bridge crew! Just to make it sting.

There's no coming back from that, so Vadic's days were numbered. It's a pity to see her go, without actually giving us any actual answers about Jack's nature or the identity of Serious Beef, both of which will have to wait till next week. But what a final scene for her. Does flushing a Changeling into space actually freeze it and kill it? We've seen Changeling's fly through space before (Laas in DS9), but then, Vadic is the new, semi-animal kind, so probably more vulnerable. In any case, there's nothing stopping Plummer coming back, either as Vadic once all her pieces have been collected up, or another Changeling, what with them being shapeshifters and all. 

Coming back from the dead not entirely right is all the rage in this series, and now we have New Data, with added Lore. The virtual showdown between Data and Lore's aspects was quite predictable, and it was very clear where it was going, but there were some nice callbacks, and Spiner's dual performance made it work. Now he gets to play a version of Data who has more of the humanity he was always searching for. It's not easy to play multiple versions of android characters and make them distinct yet clearly alike, but he nails it, with the new Data being clearly Data, while also like, yet also distinct from, Lore. It turns out, what you need to be really human is a little bit of bastard in you.

After being deferred last week, Will and Deanna are reunited and allowed to sort our their manage, under the therapeutic conditions of hostage captivity. Marina Sirtis is great, sharing wonderful chemistry with both Frakes and Dorn as always. I'm one of the few who actually liked Deanna and Worf's relationship at the end of TNG, fudged though it was, and Zen Worf's laid back flirting with Deanna was a joy to watch. I'm also happy to believe that Worf was doing it purely to wind Riker up, which I feel has become his primary mission in later life.

Sadly, our lovely counseller is just as useful as ever, which is to say, not very. She senses in Jack "a great darkness," and that something is wrong with him. Yes, darling, we know. At least she's been honing her telepathic abilities over the years since she was on the Enterprise, so she can perform an off-brand mind meld with Jack to find out just what's behind his mental doorway. Not that I'd allow her in my head, after she mind-raped her husband in an attempt to push him out of his very understandable depression following his son's death. Worst therapist ever.

In time for the grand finale, we finally have the entire TNG bridge crew around the conference table, ready to hash things out. Except Ro, who's dead. And Tasha, who's dead twice. And Wesley, who isn't dead, but his mum is seemingly convinced he is.

Random Thoughts:

Worf wears captain's pips, and Matalas has confirmed this is accurate. The Picard tie-in novel The Last Best Hope had Worf become captain of the Enterprise-E (off screen, as it were), so perhaps this will hold through to the show itself. This means Worf has the same rank as Riker (albeit not seniority), outranks Data (who retains his Lt. Commander status) and is under Geordi, who as a Commodore, is subordinate to only Picard.

The new Changelings seem remarkably vulnerable to bladed weapons, although as least Worf remembers to vapourise them afterwards to be certain.

Lt. Mura's first name is Matthew, so presumably he's at least part human.

Best line: 

"Fucking solids."

Wednesday 5 April 2023

TREK REVIEW: PIC 3-7 - "Dominion"

 SPOILERS from the outset.

"Dominion" is a mix of the excellent and the irritating, that comes together to make an overall strong episode, albeit one that stops at a frustrating point. 

On the plus side, this episode features some of the best cast performances so far this season. Brent Spiner is as good as ever, flitting between Data and Lore, while Levar Burton gives easily his best ever performance as Geordi. It's a good indication of how he's matured as an actor over the years, with his scene as the grief-stricken and desperate Geordi as he speaks to the android by far the best work he's done in the role. Both Stewart and McFadden are also on top form this episode, particularly in their quiet yet intense scenes together, discussing the lengths to which they are prepared to go in their mission.

Ed Speeler and Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut continue to show excellent chemistry, although their scene in the turbolift is a bit weird. Not only does Sydney have a very specific flirting routine, and Jack doing something slightly different puts her off, when he does touch her hand at the right moment this freaks her out. Sure, we know he's reading her mind, but surely from her perspective he's just doing something perfectly normal that she wanted him to do anyway? Christ, I'm glad I'm not dating this woman. Fortunately, their later scenes during the Changeling assault show that they make an excellent team, and this sequence actually makes Jack's sudden, newfound telepathy work as a plot point.

This is really Vadic's episode, though. Amanda Plummer, allowed to do more than chew the scenery, is absolutely phenomenal, with Vadic coming into her own as a powerful and almost justified villain. The flashbacks to her torture at the hands of a Federation scientist make for a potent and disturbing origin story, and one that is all too believable. I suspect many Trek purists will balk at this darker side to the supposedly utopian Federation, just as they balked at the dirty secrets and warfare of Deep Space Nine. I prefer this take, though, for reminding us that there is always the temptation to break the moral code when you think the ends justify the means. I love how Picard keeps trying to point out that the Federation gave the Changelings the cure to the disease that almost wiped them out, while Vadic points out that not only did they create the disease in the first place, once it came to light, even the public face of the UFP voted not to give it to them. It was only Odo and his comrades on DS9 who saved the Changelings, and then the Federation continued to experiment on their enemies.

Of course, Vadic conveniently forgets that the Dominion was also happy to commit genocide against the Cardassians, and that it had used biological warfare numerous times in the Gamma Quadrant. Her mission is not truly justified - not least because many innocents will surely die if she completes it - but it is entirely undersandable. Once she takes the Titan, it's hard not to feel a surge of triumph on her behalf.

Unfortunately, to get us to this point, the plot has to take some ridiculous and contrived turns. The forcefield battle and trap on the Titan is brilliant, but it's hard to see how Vadic could fall for it, especially as she was surely unaware that Lore was hiding in there to help her escape. Why, indeed, did Picard and Geordi leave the new android plugged in at all, knowing that Lore was in there and threatening to assert dominance? Sadly, all too often, to get a plot to function supposedly intelligent characters have to do very stupid things.

The episode gives us both questions and answers, predictable moments and surprises, and it's satisfying that this season isn't simply a folow-up to The Next Generation, but to the entire TNG-era. Tim Russ making an appearance as Tuvok (or not, as it turned out to be) was a nice touch and a genuine surprise, and I understand from his tweets post-broadcast that he'll be back again, so hopefully real Tuvok will appear before the series is done. The mysterious, swirling face is heavily implied to not be a Changeling itself, and the list of possible villains is getting slimmer. (You just know it has to be someone we've met before. My money is on Sela, as she has unfinished and it would give Denise Crosby a chance to return to the fold, but frankly it's a wild guess.) Somehow less interesting is the truth about Jack's nature, and Picard's in relation to him, as it all feels a little too contrived. Still, it looks like we'll be getting answers to these questions shortly, and not before time.

Random Thoughts:

Setting much of the episode in the debris field of the Chin'toka system is a nice touch, showing more of the fallout of the Dominion War.

Interesting that the Vulcans still have warships, though. We know from Lower Decks that they retain their own fleet, but a warship doesn't seem like their style post-Enterprise era.

Seemingly forgotten is that Lal is also within the new android, along with Data, Lore and the dormant personalities of Altan Soong and B-4. Unless, of course, this is being deliberately overlooked for a surprise development later.

Dr. Crusher is still talking like Wesley is dead, and not actually having a great time travelling time and space.

The mysterious face who likes to give orders is now named Serious Beef, thanks to a comment I made on the Star Trek Shitposting FB group being picked up. Whoever they turn out to be, I shall always think of them as Serious Beef.

Tuesday 4 April 2023



I don't get the ill will towards this. Much like the bad rep that Ant-Man: Quantumania has been getting, it confuses me. Sure, neither film is perfect, neither is a work of art and neither is even the best of the kind of superhero film their studios offer. But so what? Not every film is going to be the greatest ever. Both these films are good, silly fun - brightly coloured entertainment. When did that stop being enough? When did we become so joyless about these films?

Shazam! was a surprise hit for DC, Warner Bros. and New Line, bringing the original Captain Marvel - sorry, he's Shazam nowadays - to the big screen for the first time since 1941. Doing the film as essentially a superhero version of BIG was an ingenious move, and most importantly, writer Henry Grayden and director David F. Sandberg remembered that this is basically a kids' movie. 

Fury of the Gods has the difficult job of following this success, and was hit hard by the Covid lockdowns, delaying production by almost four years. The main kid actors are already in danger of ageing out of their parts, something that's referenced in the story, but it's not as if we're not used to young actors playing even younger characters. Fear of growing up is a major theme of the film, albeit not one that's entirely resolved.

The film makes a few odd choices. Asher Angel is unfairly sidelined as the "proper" Billy Batson, with very little screentime in which to make an impression. When he does appear, he gives a more mature performance than Zachary Levi, who's clearly having an absolute blast but sometimes goes a little too broad. Fortunately, the creators realised that Jack Dylan Grazer's performance as Freddie Freeman was the best thing about the first film, and make him a major focus of the film (his alter ego, Adam Brody, is hardly in it, and while he's also entertaining in his role, he's not really missed).

Grace Caroline Currey gets some good material as Mary, but again, she really deserves some more of the screentime. In an interesting choice, she doesn't have to hand over to another actor for her Mary Marvel phase - reflecting that her character is now an adult. Jovan Armand is just a treasure as Pedro; D.J. Cotrono is fun as his alter ego, but doesn't really come across as a version of the same character (to be honest, also a problem with Billy sometimes). Ian Chen and Ross Butler are both somewhat overlooked as Eugene, but fortunately Faithe Herman and Meagan Good are absolutely perfect and adorable as the younger and older versions of Darla.

There's some lovely material with the kids going on adventures as chaotic, semi-competent superheroes, while trying to keep it from their foster parents. Not making this into a farcical TV series is a missed opportunity. (Although, vaguely finding the superheroes familiar doesn't really work for Mary, now she looks identical in both guises.) Djimon Hounsou is brought back as the suspiciously not dead wizard Shazam, getting some much better material this time round and showing some real charm and comedy instincts, especially when paired up with Freddie. 

While it's still focused on comedy, there's some pretty intense and occasionally gruesome material here too, although the tone isn't as balanced as in the first film. I thoroughly enjoyed the reliance on Greek mythology in this story - one of my first obsessions. Yes, it plays a little fast and loose with the mythical genealogy when it comes to the Daughters of Atlas, but then, it's not as if the Greeks kept their mythical canon consistent over the centuries. Helen Mirren makes a convincing action film villain in spite of being in her eighth decade, and as always brings a touch of class to the whole affair. Lucy Liu brings an icy cruelty to the role of Kalypso, the younger sister to Mirren's Hespera. As Anthea, the youngest of the three (but still six thousand odd), Rachel Zegler gives a mixed performance. As everyday Anne, seemingly human teen, she's excellent, tremendously likeable and sharing great chemistry with Grazer. She's not so good when openly playing the goddess; she lacks the presence required, and struggles with the cod-Shakespearean dialogue that Mirren and Liu can roll off effortlessly.

The over-the-top climactic act is tremendous, with, I was overjoyed to see, monsters a-plenty. I actually cheered when the manticore appeared, and then we got harpies, minotaurs and a very Harryhausen-inspired Cyclops. Already we had the dragon Ladon, an archaic bit of mythology reworked with a fabulous and unsettling design. The Shazam! series has the best monster designs in superhero cinema. There are real punch-the-air moments (that cameo was lovely, really) but there are, admittedly, shockingly poor moments as well (the Skittles product placement is painful). Overall, though, the good stuff wins out.

Ultimately, while it doesn't balance heart, humour and horror as well as the first Shazam! the sequel is a brisk, entertaining and heartwarming action flick that makes for a cracking family film. The series deserves a third instalment, to allow Billy and Freddie the chance to truly grow up into their roles as heroes. And, just as importantly, I want the Monster Society of Evil team-up the post-credits scenes keep promising us (minus Black Adam, of course, as Dwayne Johnson will doubtless veto that).