Saturday 27 April 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-5 - "Mirrors"

We reach the halfway point of the final season with a strong episode that gets away with being the second bottle episode in a row by keeping things interesting with character moments, lore revelations, new questions and some effective action sequences. Yes, it's a bottle episode but it doesn't feel like it, partly due to cleverly pinching the sets from another series. There will, however, be a couple of big spoilers below the cut.

Sunday 21 April 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-4 - "Face the Strange"

Time travel episodes are always fun, and "Face the Strange" is no disappointment there. Even though this is very clearly a bottle episode designed to recoup some of the money spent on the big flashy openers (and no doubt even bigger, flashier series end), it uses its limitations well. Given that Trek has done a lot of time travel episodes before, including a number that saw a central character jump back and forth through their timeline, there was inevitably a sense having seen this before. However, the episode embraced that, referencing a number of the time travel episodes from the past, but in a natural way. There's a bunch of references in this episode that make the die-hard fans go "aha!" but just sound like extra colour to the less obsessed viewer, which is exactly how it should work.

In the past, when we've had a character thrown back and forward through time, it's generally just been them alone, struggling to convince the rest of the crew of what's going on: Picard in TNG "All Good Things;" Kes in VOY "Before and After;" and Chakotay in "Shattered." The last of these is perhaps the most similar to this, as there the ship had been thrown into different points in its timeline, while here, Discovery itself is being thrown back and forth, along with its crew. The difference here is that we have two characters working together, able to rely on each other, with Burnham and Rayner unaffected thanks to being mid-transport at the very moment the time bug activated. (I love that: time bug. Such a simple, silly sci-fi idea, and such a simple name. On Voyager they'd have called it a "chronometrically disaffected ambulatory arthropod" or something.)

As much as the central idea of shifting everyone else along the timeline doesn't quite make sense (where do all the crew in the future when they're dead? Where does Airiam come from when it goes back to the past?) it's a fun conceit. It's also a good opportunity to finally have Rayner work closely with Burnham and adjust to her way of doing things; had he carried on being an immovable object much longer, he would have become tiresome. 

The episode is focused on the theme of change, and it works so well as a final season instalment it's surprising it was written before they knew the series was ending. Like "All Good Things," this works well because the series has changed so much since its first series. Having Rayner there, who wasn't present for the earlier episodes, underlines this, as he can act as an external observer to remark on this. In this regard, it works better than Voyager's "Shattered" or the quite similar-in-approach "Relativity" (down to the scene on the ship pre-launch), where, in spite of characters coming and going, the series still felt much the same throughout. 

It's gratifying that the writers remembered that Stamets exists slightly outside of time, calling back to the previous (and somewhat better) season one time loop episode "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad." This allows a third character to take part in the time-jumping proceedings, but in a different way, affected by the jumps but aware of them. (Really, what the hell happened to him while they were all dead?) It was nice to have Hannah Cheeseman back as Airiam one last time, and frankly they should never have killed off a character with such potential. Ultimately, the time jumping was worth it to see today's more measured Captain Burnham face off against her angry, chip-on-her-shoulder mutinous younger self. (A touch of the Captain America fighting himself there; she could do this all day, I bet.)

Other bits to like: breaking the warp bubble, with a (fairly solid) conception of what suddenly falling out of warp would do to time relative to the ship's frame of reference when back in normal space; a fun, gruesome intro that shows us just how much Moll and L'ak aren't to be messed with (and that L'ak seems to be the more timid and weary of the two); the jump forward to a ruined Federation being genuinely eerie and foreboding. The only disappointment there was that it really looked like we were getting a glimpse at what led to the situation from the Short Trek "Calypso," when Discovery has been abandoned and Zora has continued to evolve into a sophisticated but lonely being. While clearly that scene was meant to evoke the mini-episode, it can't be related, showing instead a different future that, presumably, Burnham and crew will avert.

A fun, standalone adventure then, but it'll be good to get moving with the main storyline again after treading water for an hour.

Looks back and forward:

  • Pretty clear now that the Breen are set to be the big bad this season, being the main bidders for the Progenitor tech and out to take down the Federation.
  • We get the briefest of glimpses at a 32nd or 33rd century Breen ship.
  • Kind of nice that we see the Golden Gate Bridge out the ship's window while it's still in drydock, seeing as it was the Breen who destroyed it 120 years later during the Dominion War.
  • I thought the lizardy guy who sold Moll and L'ak the time bug looked familiar, but couldn't place the species. Apparently he's an Annari, from the Voyager episodes "Nightingale" and "The Void." It makes sense that this far in the future, species from all over the galaxy can turn up.
  • Also from the Delta Quadrant, the time bug is Krenim technology left over from the Temporal Wars. Again, it makes sense that the Krenim, who used time as a weapon, would have been involved in that.
  • This might be the first time travel episodes that sees someone jump into the middle of an earlier time travelling trip.
  • We got some great Linus and Reno moments in this episode.
  • The title's a nice nod to the episode's theme: a line from Bowie's classic "Changes."

Tuesday 16 April 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-3 - "Jinaal"

After a cracking start to the season, the third episode of Discovery is a middling affair that suffers from trying to do too much at once. There are four main plotlines running through this, which is perfectly fine for a serialised story, but as Discovery is trying to manage that middle ground between serial and episodic adventures, none of it really gets the time it needs to thrive. 

The core story, the quest for the galactic puzzle pieces, brings us to Trill, a planet we were bound to go back to if only to resolve Adira and Gray's story. There's some deep Trill lore on offer here, with the zhian'tara ritual performed again - Jadzia Dax manifested all her past hosts using this on DS9, with Ezri using it to manifest her murderous past host Joran in the final season. Those weren't portrayed in the same way, and what we have here is closer to the original, with Jinaal, the first host of the Bix symbiont, taking control of Culber's body, while the rickety old lady its currently inhabiting just waits for permission to die.

Thanks to Wilson Cruz, this is by far the most successful part of the episode. He gives a great performance as Jinaal, tweaking everything about his persona: his vocal delivery, his walk, his overall demeanour all change, without ever being over the top. Jinaal is a lot of fun to be around, thoroughly enjoying the chance to go for a walk in the wilds after centuries of being a quiet voice in a succession of heads. This section of the quest really is contrived: those old scientists expected someone to find the previous clue, decipher it, find the right Trill who by rights was expected to be dead by now, seek out their new host, and then go on a perlious journey, survive a monster encounter and still be around for when said Trill reveals the next piece still, luckily, hiding under a rock. 

Still, it's fun, with Michael and Book making a good team as usual, always more enjoyable to be with when they're out causing trouble and getting into scrapes. It's always strangely reassuring to be back in a quarry standing in for an alien planet, and while the big, bug-like monsters are a little generic, watching the adventurers work out how to deal with them while trying to not get killed is entertaining.

Meanwhile, Adira and Gray have an awkward but mature conversation about their relationship, which basically means they break up. This is the least interesting part of the episode, in spite of Blu del Barrio's attempt to keep things engaging. Even the chemistry they shared with Ian Alexander isn't present anymore. Frankly, now that Gray's got his body back and isn't haunting his ex, he's not a very interesting character. Gray and Adira were once two parts of the same being, which was fascinating and gave the actors something to work. Now they're in a long-distance relationship and it's not working for them or the story.

Back on the ship, some more engaging relationship antics are going on with Saru and T'Rina, who have their first, very mild-mannered argument, when the Kelpien does the man thing and tries to protect his fiance's interests in the political arena. This rather overshadows his first assignment as ambassador, but Doug Jones and Tara Rosling keep the scenes working. T'Rina is proving to be a quietly awesome character; she should end up president of the whole Federation. I suspect we'll see something of the Vulcan purist threat in future (a 32nd century follow-up to the "logic extremists" of the 23rd, I suppose).

Finally, a fun but throwaway run of difficult introductions for the backbenchers and job-doers as new Number One, demoted Commander Rayner does the worst breaking-the-ice in workplace history. There are some entertaining titbits in the crew's 20-word party pieces, but mostly this is here to expand upon the friction between Rayner and Tilly. It works, but feels unnecessary to the story, using up time that might be more valuably spent elsewhere.

That kind of sums up the episode. It all works, just about, but the balance is off, and while it's a perfectly watchable instalment, it's a bit of a disappointment after two such strong opening episodes.

Nods, winks, promises and revelations:

  • It turns out that Trill spots form a pattern that is unique to the individual, like human fingerprints or Saurian ridge scales.
  • On the subject of Saurians, they are revealed to reproduce parthenogenically, with Linus having already laid several clutches. Perhaps he'll look up his descendants.
  • It's said that it's unusual for a Trill symbiont to live 800 years, but not unheard of, with Bix having made it this far but being on its last legs (metaphorically speaking). That almost seems included just to rule out a new version of Dax, who would be 1273 by now (the Dax symbiont was born in 2018, fact fans). We can hope though.
  • Starship watch: we glimpse the USS Locherer, named for the late cameraman JP Locherer who got a nod in the credits of "Red Directive." 
  • The diplomatic conference includes a Selay, who previously appeared in the first season TNG episode "Lonely Among Us," as well as in a couple of cameos since. This one is quite redesigned since then, and is reddish instead of green.
  • There's a second mention of the Breen Republic, so I'd not be at all surprised that those icy bastards turn up this season.
  • Next, we're off to Tzenkethi space - could we finally, after all these years, find out what they actually look like?

Wednesday 10 April 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-1 & 5-2



After two years, Star Trek: Discovery returns with its fifth and final season. We'd been promised something special with this run, with the showrunners intending to deliver something that even the naysayers of this divisive series would enjoy, and that was before it was decided it wouldn't be renewed. The double-episode season opener delivered on that promise, giving us a pair of episodes equally rich in action, mystery and heart.

"Red Directive" starts with an almost absurdly action-packed teaser that sees Burnham surfing on the hull of a starship, before jumping back to the events that lead up to this. I'm not sure Trek has done this before; it reminds me of classic episodes of The Outer Limits. It's a fun introduction, but borders on being too much; hasn't every season Discovery season opener had Burnham in freefall in space somehow? In a way, it's comforting: for all the promise of this being season doing something different, it's still full of OTT action setpieces, and Michael still has to place herself right in the centre of the action.

It isn't long before we learn of the Red Directive itself, seemingly 32nd century Starfleet's highest priority order, put in place for when it's absolutely imperative something doesn't fall into enemy hands. It was open knowledge that this season was going to have a quest element that revolved around some galactic mystery. However, I don't think anyone expected for it to act as a sequel to a sixth season episode of The Next Generation that'snow over thirty years old. "The Chase," while designed as a way to silence critics who couldn't suspend disbelief at a galaxy full of human-shaped aliens, was a fun episode that hinted at deep mysteries of the Star Trek universe. Sure, the science was wonky, but when isn't it on Trek? We already knew that no one writing for the franchise understands how evolution works.

It's a story that, in retrospect, is begging for further exploration. If anything, the chase across the galaxy was a bit lacklustre in the 24th century, and this longer, more action-packed version is far more entertaining. On the other hand, the original version had the Progenitors hiding clues in our very DNA; this time, they've scattered bits of a stone jigsaw puzzle across the galaxy, which isn't quite as fun from a sci-fi perspective. Still, it allows for lots of Indiana Jones-esque gallivanting across the place, exploring ruins and colourful locations and getting into scrapes. 

This means new planets - two in two episodes! Sometimes it feels like this series forgets what its name is. Q'Mau is a classic desert world with a hint of the Tatooine to it, while Lyrek, the world with the twin moons, is a proper, Republic Serial jungle adventure location, with haunted ruins and killer mechanisms, albeit a bit more on the high-tech side. Lyrek calls back to The Next Generation as well: while it mostly recalls the weaponry showground of Minos from season one's "The Arsenal of Freedom," it's actually a tombworld of the long-dead Promellians, whose abandoned ship caused trouble for the Enterprise in season three's "Booby Trap." It's a fun detail that the Romulan ship that kicks all this off is almost as old in the Discovery era as the Promellian ship was in The Next Generation.

There's plenty more callbacks but, unlike in Picard's final season, none of feels gratuitous. It all adds to the sense of a rich universe, full of history. Making an obscure, one-off Romulan character one of the greatest scientists in the universe is a nice touch, as is washing up a classic Romulan starship. There's also Fred, the delightful Soong-type android - sorry, synth - who's been knocking around since at least the 26th century. It's nice to see Data's family is still going strong in the far future (and we're bound to see more of Fred, just as soon as Culber and Stamets get him fixed up).

Which isn't too say there isn't plenty of new material here. Eve Harlow and Elias Toufexis are great fun as dastardly duo Moll and L'ak, whose simple money-motivated approach makes for a nice contrast to the high-minded ideals of science and learning of the Federation team. Of course, Moll turns out to be Book's long-lost sort-of-stepsister, because everyone knows everyone in this universe, but this offers some promise for future tension, especally if she has links to the now-lost planet Kwejian. 

The other major new character, Callum Rennie's Captain Rayner, is a joy to watch. We may have lost our hero Shaw, but we get new grumpy, bullish officer to enjoy. However, Rayner is quite the opposite in command style, taking risks and considering the mission ahead of individual lives. We can only ask what other skeletons are in the closet if his poor decisions on Q'Mau were enough to get him forced into retirement, especially considering the sorts of breaches of protocol that Burnham, Tilly and the rest get up to on the reg. Of course, it's all an excuse to get him in place as Burnham's new Number One, in the most most predictable move of the two episodes (and one that makes a mockery of any kind of disciplinary system Starfleet has going on here). It's an interesting choice to make Rayner a Kellerun; so far, it's had no bearing on the story, but it's always gratifying when a one-off species isn't completely forgotten about. (The Kelleruns were one of two warring people's seen in the second season DS9 episode "Armegeddon Game," the one where O'Brien does take coffee in the afternoon.)

The regulars and semi-regulars are all well-served. Doug Jones in particular gets some choice material, getting some heartfelt moments with both Burnham and his now fiance T'Rina, and some very fun stuff as "Action Saru" down on Lyrek. It's always good to see Tilly back, absolutely not setting up her new role as a lead on upcoming spin-off Starfleet Academy, no-sirree (and don't ask Mary Wiseman, whatever you do). Oded Fehr and David Cronenberg get to play to their strengths as Admiral Vance and Dr. Kovich, the latter who seems to have his own personal version of the Matrix on hand for super-secret mission briefings. 

Experience tells us that Discovery has a tendency to start a season well, before floundering in the middle and rushing the ending. Still, I remain optimistic that the final season will continue to deliver. A shorter, ten-episode season will hopefully fix some of the pacing issues that have affected the series in the past, and with another four pieces of the puzzle to find, more than half of the run should be taken up with missions to mysterious planets. Next stop: Trill.

Questions, references, observations:
  • No one has any idea what L'ak's species is, and I can't help but wonder if that will be significant to the story later.
  • We're convinced that President Rillak, with her mixed heritage, will somehow be instrumental to decoding whatever miraculous technology is finally recovered from the Progenitors.
  • They've shelved the Spore Drive, much to Stamets's chargrin, in favour of the still mysterious Pathfinder Drive. Probably for the best: has everyone forgotten that they're not supposed to use the spore drive because it hurts the people on the mycelial plane?
  • Starship watch: Rayner commands the USS Antares, another well-worn Starfleet name.
  • Picard callback: the Romulan puzzlebox that kicks off the quest also had a role in that show's first season mystery.
  • Why does Moll think that a Romulan ship would be beyond the Federation's jurisdiction? The Romulans are members now, since Ni'var rejoined.
  • The sands of Q'Mau have "unknown radiative properties." That's got to come into play somehow later. I hope no one has space cancer.
  • Three cheers for everyone's favourite future knick-knacks, the self-sealing stem bolts!