Saturday 30 September 2023

TREK REVIEW - Lower Decks 4-3 - 4-5

 4.3 - "The Cradle of Vexilon"

A fun episode that draws on classic sci-fi and Trek lore. We've never had a ringworld on Star Trek before, although we did find that Dyson sphere once. It's a fascinating setting that offers some real storytelling opportunities, and it's fair to say that a half hour funny episode isn't enough to give it the exploration it deserves. Full marks for really acknoledging the debt to Larry Niven by including the Kzinti crewman on the away team. The best joke is having Vexilon, the computer that runs the world, not be evil at all, but actually be rather lovely.

The entwined storylines of Boimler's desperate attempt to make his first mission in command go smoothly, and Captain Freeman's hopeless handling of fixing Vexilon, work pretty well, although the show does go down the route of killing off a major character and then reviving him for laughs, which is getting old already.

The B-plot of the other Lt. LGs' hazing isn't bad, but it devolves quickly into an excuse to pile references on top of references. The Betazoid gift box is a wonderfully weird thing to bring back (a pity it's not voiced by Armin Shimerman), and having Sam get trapped in the Chula game is great. Both together though, and then chucking in the Kataan probe for a quick gag, might be a bit much though.

4.4 - "Something Borrowed, Something Green"

It's amazing that, aside from a couple of very brief glimpses, we've never been to the Orion homeworld on screen before. Now that we finally get to visit the planet, we see that Orion culture is both exactly how we imagined it to be, and much deeper and more surprising.

Tendi's long been hiding a secret about her life on Orion, and while this didn't go down the route some of us where expecting, it was still a beautiful story about being yourself and learning to accept each other. Yes, I suspected that Tendi was trans, which might still be true, but isn't apparently the reason she doesn't have the Orion women's powerful pheromones that can bewitch men. It turns out that it really is just some Orions, even as Mariner makes fun of the whole concept (and the idea of basing an episode of Enterprise around it). On he other hand, after decades of objectifying Orion women, we see on their home planet it's the men who walk around in skimpy costumes. 

Tendi's coming to terms with both her violent, Orion past and her true path in Starfleet, and learning to reconcile both parts of her life, is very nicely done, and ties into the gradual rehabilitation of the Orions as a people in the franchise, while still leaving plenty of leeway for them to play the bad guys as well.

The side plot of Rutherford and Boimler fighting and making up via the Mark Twain holoprogram is both ridiculous and adorable, as well as being a charming call-back to "Time's Arrow," one of TNG's stranger stories. Another surprising callback is having the rival captain, who's violently set on scanning a nebula first, be a Chalnoth, a species seen only once before (in TNG "Allegiance"). If this had been the A-story, though, they could have called it "Never the Twain Shall Meet." What a missed opportunity! Nonetheless, the more important work of developing Tendi and fleshing out Orion culture takes precedence, making this a fine episode.

Fun bits:
  • The Orions ride rhinos on their planet!
  • The ship Tendi and the gang steal is the same class as Seven of Nine's parents' ship, the Raven.
  • According to Memory Alpha's count (which includes Short Trek and Very Short Treks) this is the franchise's 900th episode.

4.5 - "Empathalogical Fallacies"

The latest episode is probably the slimmest of the season so far, in spite their being three plots going on. Boimler's subplot feels a bit tacked so that he has something to do, and it feels like a missed opportunity to not have him meet the randy Betazoids, as you know he'll be incredibly uncomfortable. Still, some lovely moments between him and Shaxs. 

As for the main plot with the three Betazoid ambassadors/spies, it's a fun idea to have the most open people in the galaxy keeping secrets like this, and using their OTT behaviour as the perfect cover. It looks like it's going to play out as Lower Decks' version of DS9's "Fascination," with everyone catching rampant emotionalism from the 'zoids, but it's actually a fun bit of misdirection, a great example of the series' writers using the fans knowledge and expectations to lead them down the garden path. For one thing, everyone expects middle-aged Betazoid women to act like Lwaxana Troi, so here three of them turn up acting like Lwaxana turned up to eleven, but even this is (mostly) a front. 

As an aside, I love that one of the Betazoids is seemingly called Dolores. I think my favourite is Cathiw, the uber-horny one.

Where the episode really works is in its development of T'Lyn, who gets to finally come to terms with her, for a Vulcan, impetuous behaviour, her old crew's poor treatment of her, and her place on the Cerritos. Gabrielle Ruiz is really stealing the series from the other regulars this year.

Finally, we get further hints at the strange ship attacking vessels throughout the quadrant, albeit just to note that no one recognises the design. Personally, I reckon it's going to be Peanut Hamper on a killing spree.

Fun bits: 
  • The Betazoids are being ferried from Angel One - the planet where women run everything - to Risa - the planet where everyone goes to get laid. Seems in character.
  • Apparently, Caitians used to hunt and eat Betazoids!

Tuesday 12 September 2023

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 4-1 & 4-2

All Star Trek: Lower Decks episodes are watched using the traditional Orion method.

4.1 - "Twovix"

Now, with a title like that, it could only be a winner. Lower Decks storms back with a cracking episode that acts as a love letter to Star Trek: Voyager, particularly the most out-there, unexpected and idiotic parts of its seven-year journey.

So, as well as having a "Tuvix" situation when several crewmembers end up merged into composite beings by the transporter, we have a macrovirus infestation, a holodeck malfunction (made worse by the ship having holoemitters installed throughout, something they gave up trying on Voyager itself), hyper-evolved newt people (sadly only as models) and even Neelix's stinky cheese.

Given that fans are still debating the ethics of Janeway's decision to split Tuvix back into Tuvok and Neelix over his own wishes, it's refreshing to have Captain Freeman announce that Janeway straight-up murdered the guy, and sensibly go to Starfleet for some support in the matter. Of course, things get out of hand from there, helpfully having all the merged characters stuffed into an unviable mess (although as for Tendy's insistance it was non-sentient - was that just a handy assumption to make the decision easier?) Either way, the blob couldn't very well carry on as it was, and a little unlikely pseudoscience, and some good work between Tendi and T'Lyn saved the day.

Meanwhile, the madness on Voyager, which gets increasingly out-of-hand, is a lot of fun, not only for all the callbacks but just the overall ridiculous thrill of it all. There's a fast-and-loose approach to continuity (with even Mariner pointing put that the evil clown guy shouldn't be in the holodeck's logs since he was never a hologram to begin with), but it's all in service to the jokes. There's a real sense of the series loingly poking fun at the franchise's past, which is what it's always been best at. Focusing on Voyager makes for a tighter story than just wildly grabbing at the whole back catalogue.

I particularly like the addition of T'Lyn, who provides a new dynamic to the team. After being introduced in season two, it seemed clear she was going to transfer over to Starfleet and the Cerritos, only to disappear until the closing moments of season three. She makes a great foil for Tendi, and it'll good to see how she does on the Cerritos (although, given it's Gabriel "Valencia" Ruiz voicing her, maybe the USS West Covina would be more appropriate).

Links and observations: 

Boimler and Mariner briefly discuss "that Pike thing we aren't supposed to talk about," placing the Strange New Worlds crossover before the season.

The USS Voyager is here installed as a museum ship, after several years being of prep after arriving home in 2378. We're still in the early 2380s, probably crossing into the timeframe Star Trek: Prodigy, which was set starting in 2383. At the end of the first season, the Voyager-A was nearly ready to launch, and it makes sense Starfleet would try to time the events together. By the time of Star Trek: Picard, in 2401, the original Voyager has been moved from Earth to the Fleet Musuem, and the Voyager-B is active.

4.2 - "I Have No Bones Yet I Must Flee"

After that storming opener, the second episode was going to have a tough time impressing, and it's fair to say it doesn't hit the same heights. Nonetheless, there's a lot to love about this episode, and in the absence of a ton of callbacks, it has to work harder for both jokes and adventure.

It's full of sci-fi cliches, though, from the alien zoo holding humans as exhibits (which has been used as recently as the first season of The Orville, and as far back as the original Trek pilot "The Cage," and doubtless much, much earlier) and the cutesy alien that turns out to be a blood-thirsty monster (which we've seen on Doctor Who, Farscape, Futurama, to name but a few. Even Mike and Angelo had the fuzzballs.) 

Still, it works, giving us a fun adventure in service of the characters' development. Having Mariner face up to her self-sabotage is a much-overdue step for her, and it's interesting that it's shepherded by Ransom, giving us a glimpse of how such a dudebro managed to make commander in the first place. It appears he's actually got a real insight into his crew's personalities.

Meanwhile, there's some lovely stuff with Rutherford once again making things difficult for himself rather than taking the simple route, all because he wants to stay best buds with Tendi (and when the hell are they going to get together?) At the same time, Boimler has a horrible time trying to find new quarters, showing that the much-deserved promotion the team have all now received comes with its own challenges. (Of course, we discover that Boimler is being an idiot and never considered that the quarters next to the collector lights would have a dimmer switch. Or think of, I don't know, replicating some curtains maybe.)

In both episodes, we've also seen a mysterious alien ship make unprovoked attacks on first a Klingon ship, and then a Romulan Warbird, wiping them out. This new background arc is intriguing, and I'm left wondering if this is a new threat or, more likely, something unexpected from the past. (I swear the ship looks like one from one of the Trek games, but I can't put my finger on it.) We shall have to wait and see.

Links and observations 

The Romulan Warbird is oriented to be taller than it is wide, which was the Andrew Probert's original design for The Next Generation before he was told to tweak it.

While this episode doesn't depend on callbacks, there are several, teh funniest being Ransom and Shaxs exercising in the same leotards that Troi and Crusher wear on TNG. 

There are also plenty of recognisable aliens in the Menage, incuding an Aldebaran serpent (which Q turned into on TNG "Hide and Q"), a glommer from TAS "More Tribbles, More Troubles," the space dog from TOS "The Enemy Within," a Hanonian land-eel from VOY "Basics" (a very long way from home) and a Ceti eel from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

It's not only Trek getting referenced. The episode title is a reference to I Have No Mouth, Yet I Must Scream, a truly disqueting and justly famous sci-fi horror story by Harlan Ellison. 

Friday 8 September 2023

REVIEW: Something Strange 3 by Richard Crypt


Something Strange is, quite simply, the finest Ghostbusters fanfic available. Richard Crypt, who turns out art at an astonishing rate and does commissions too, has the knack for creating work that just feels like genuine GB material.

I'd highly recommend his Patreon, where you get access to sneak previews and exclusive images for as little as a $1/£1 a month. If you really can't stretch to that, at least follow him on Instagra, where you'll get glimpses of his incredible work.

The part we look forward to, though, is Something Strange, a fully-realised print comicbook that is published only occasionally, but my god, it's a great piece of work. It's remarkably professional for a fan-produced item, and each issue features a collection of strips of various lengths telling stories of the 'busters and characters caught up in their world.

We're on the third issue, and this time round it's a direct follow-up to Ghostbusters II, examining the public image of the Ghostbusters following the bizarre occurances in New York in 1984 and '89. We see events from the Ghostbusters' point of view, revisit major characters from the film, and get a glimpse of what both the media and the average New Yorker think about these things. 

Richard's artwork is absolutely spot-on. His ghosts fit right in with the films, but also have a feel of The Real Ghostbusters, upscaled and enhanced to the highest quality. RGB HD. He has the Ghostbusters' likenesses down pat, but it's his skill at recreating other actors in a few lines of black on grey that really impresses. I'm not going to post whole images or pages here - you'll have to support Richard for that - but just look at this one panel.

It's just a sketch of the lower half of his face, and you can immediately see that's Harris Yulin, and know we're going to see how the events of the Ghostbusters' trial and the return of the Scolari Brothers affected Judge Wexler. It's immaculately done. It's not only GB actors who are rendered with skill; characters are frequently cast as recognisable faces, and it's a lot of fun spotting who's guest starring in a strip. (I was pleased, but not at all surprised, to see that Richard is clearly also a fan of the 1993 classic Super Mario Bros.)

You can buy the latest issue on Richard's Etsy site, as well as the previous two, and I'd recommend going straight over there and buying them all. Well-written and exceptionally well illustrated, these comics are a must for the Ghostbusters fan. Plus, if you're a patron, you get your name hidden on the cover, something which never fails to make me smile like a fool (although I don't think anything will beat issue one's "Tessier Slimed Again" newspaper headline).

Subscribe to Richard Crypt's art here, and buy his work here.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Neil Gaiman - comic and graphic novel recommendations (that aren't The Sandman)

There's been a lot of Neil Gaiman discourse on the old Tumblr lately, thanks to the return of Good Omens, so I put this post together. It's long and wordy enough that it might as well go on the proper blog.

Firstly, The Sandman goes without saying. It's already been covered in the previous post and is easily Gaiman's biggest work. 

Death: The High Cost of Living

This is my single favourite comic ever. A spin-off from The Sandman, it follows Dream's sister Death on the one day a century that she lives as a mortal. It's  a beautiful treatise on life, death, depression and hope. 

Mark Buckingham and Chris Bachalo provide wonderful artwork (Mark's also a really nice gent, and signed some artwork from the book for me at a con). The collected version has an additional strip, an infomercial with Death and an embarrassed John Constantine teaching readers about safe sex. There's also a bumper edition which includes the sequel, The Time of Your Life.


A lot of people will be familiar with the Eternals only from the recent movie, which I thought wasn't bad, but it wasn't amazing either. 

Gaiman's revamp of the Marvel title a few years before is excellent though. He brings his trademark balance of the everyday and the cosmically mythic to the title, and adds a lot more nuance than in the original comics. John Romita Jr's artwork is incredible, a worthy successor to Jack Kirby.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

One of the best, and most meta, Batman stories ever written. A final end to the Batman saga, dealing with his death, but with multiple, fascinating tellings that all contradict each other. Alfred's story is the highlight. 

As well as the graphic novel edition, the whole thing is included in The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman along with a selection of other iconoclastic stories for DC heroes and villains. (Full review here)

Signal to Noise

One of Gaiman's many collaborations with the unique visual artist Dave McKean (who also worked with him on MirrorMask, Neverwhere and the Sandman covers). It's grim, moving and powerful, and not overtly a fantasy unlike much of Gaiman's work.

Black Orchid

Another Dave McKean collab, this is a revamp of an existing DC superhero, with a complex new origin story. A powerful story that interacts with other intriguing DC characters such as Poison Ivy and Swamp Thing, all beings with plant-based powers and mysterious natures. It's short, striking and beautiful.  

An ongoing series came after, but Gaiman wasn't involved. It's not bad though. I can't speak for the later New 52 version.

There are many more, and I'm sure people are going to be annoyed at my leaving out The Books of Magic, Marvel 1602, Midnight Theatre, Violent Cases, Mr Punch...