Friday, June 21, 2019

A Brief Dispatch

From a confluence of a few different places, I was recently encouraged to check out the work of science fiction writer John Scalzi. I've added one of his full length novels to my reading list, but I've already had a chance to enjoy one of his shorter tales in audiobook form: The Dispatcher.

The Dispatcher posits an alternate world in which 99.9% of all murdered people are instantly restored to life and somehow teleported back to their homes, healed of recent injuries, and with full knowledge of everything that happened to them. This state of reality has given rise to an unusual profession, that of the titular Dispatcher, a person with a professional license to murder. Undergoing a risky surgery? Insurance will put a dispatcher in the room in case of complication, to kill you and spirit you home. Want to take "fight club" to the next level? Beat your opponent literally to death, with little chance of consequence.

But there is that one in a thousand chance that someone murdered doesn't come back.

John Scalzi sets up this clever world, and then puts the character of Tony Valdez into a twisted story that cuts to the heart of the premise. It's a story that's part mystery, part science fiction, and it explores both those aspects well. It's a classic science fiction construction: "if X is true, then what Y would follow?" The tale avoids just enough roads it might have gone down to keep you guessing about what will happen next, while exploring enough aspects of the premise to leave you satisfied.

The audiobook version of the story that I enjoyed was read by actor Zachary Quinto. He was a solid narrator, perhaps more effective voicing some characters than others, but overall good at fleshing out the pictures painted with Scalzi's words. It was a perfect selection for a road trip -- and that's how my husband and I used it, for our driving outside of Portland during our May trip.

It would be hard to say much more without giving it all away, what with the story taking less than three hours to listen to. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed it and would recommend it. I give The Dispatcher an A-. I was intrigued both in this tale in particular, and to learn what other tales John Scalzi has written. I'll definitely be trying another book from him.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Second Skin

In all incarnations of Star Trek, putting the regular actors in atypical alien makeup was a reliable gimmick for a fun story -- from the original series' "The Enterprise Incident" to The Next Generation's "Face of the Enemy," plus many other good episodes. But Deep Space Nine found a compelling new take on this with "Second Skin."

Kira is abducted by Cardassians and taken to their homeworld... but it's only the beginning of her horror. She awakens having been altered to appear Cardassian, and then is told she is Cardassian. All her memories, her sense of self, are implanted. The truth, according to a Cardassian intelligence agent named Entek, is that "Kira" is a persona given to a Cardassian sleeper spy. Now she's been retrieved to report all she's learned while embedded aboard Deep Space Nine. Unwilling to accept this story, Kira's only hope may be the Cardassian who claims to be her father.

Writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe was well aware of Star Trek's other "alien disguise" episodes, and conceived this story to be something different. He wanted a regular character to actually become an alien. Specifically, his original concept was to reveal that Miles O'Brien had been killed and replaced by a Cardassian sleeper agent two decades earlier -- that every moment we've ever seen of O'Brien, we were really watching this unknowing imposter. His idea hit an insurmountable hurdle when he couldn't explain how O'Brien had fathered an entirely human daughter, Molly.

Wolfe then turned to Kira, another character who would be equally horrified to learn of a secret Cardassian origin. And the way Wolfe wanted to leave the story, it would never be truly resolved whether Kira was really Cardassian or Bajoran. It wouldn't matter, he thought. That was the message: you are your actions, not your genetics. Through gradual rewrites, though, this element was taken out of the story.

What remained, however, was still a great episode. Like "Duet" before it, this is a story that really forces Kira to reckon with the race that oppressed her people -- and to learn that there are actually noble and compassionate Cardassians. It's a more personal lesson here; in "Duet," Aamin Marritza was doing the honorable thing for his people, while here, Tekeny Ghemor shows kindness specifically to Kira. He shows the genuine love of an adoptive father, and she is truly taken aback that this level of emotion is even possible in a Cardassian.

Nana Visitor gives an amazing performance. She tracks Kira's emotional unraveling every step of the way. When Kira is defiantly giving false information to her "handler," Entek, we see that she's projecting more confidence than she actually feels. When she confronts her own dead body, we see her struggle to maintain her sense of identity, hurling accusations of trickery by hologram or cloning. Ultimately, we see everything stripped away as she cowers in a corner of the screen, muttering "I don't know" in response to every question she's asked.

The performance is even more impressive when you know that Nana Visitor is claustrophobic, and was fighting through that sensation throughout her long hours in the uncomfortable Cardassian makeup. Reportedly, she was so desperate to get out of the makeup on one day of filming that, even though the shots that director Les Landau wanted weren't complete, she began ripping off the makeup with her own hands, insisting they'd have to finish the next day. That's how good Visitor is in this episode -- she shows us all these layers of Kira, both surface and hidden, all without giving us even a hint of how she herself was really feeling.

It's also a strong episode for Garak. The character is now playing with the fact that people know he was a spy. In talking about the thrill of traveling to alien worlds, he mentions "earning their trust" as an enjoyable part. (That monologue is also clever exposition to remind us that in his exile, he's not supposed to leave the station.) He uses his knowledge to get a rescue party to Cardassia. And lest we think he's gone too soft, he kills his rival Entek in cold blood. Also, speaking of claustrophobia, we get a hint that Garak suffers from it when he talks about the cramped Defiant quarters; this character trait would be picked up on in a later season.

Other observations:
  • This is also a subtly strong episode for Sisko. In his calculating extortion of Garak, we see that he's willing to bend or break the rules in certain situations. (Odo's smile also tells us he approves of Sisko's choice.)
  • The theme of clashing truths is peppered throughout the episode. Dax, Kira, and Quark discuss whether an experience in the holosuite is as good as one in the real world. The Defiant crew tries technological trickery to pass the ship off as a freighter. Odo gets behind his adversaries by assuming the form of a bag that Sisko casually throws into a room as he enters.
  • Actor Lawrence Pressman, who plays Ghemor, is a busy working actor. I think at the time, I may have known him best from Doogie Howser, M.D. But his list of credits is long. He'd even be back at the end of this season of Deep Space Nine, playing a completely different character.
  • It seems like Les Landau did get all the shots he wanted, claustrophobia or no. There are some noticeably great compositions here, including a sharp focus on a speechless Kira as Entek and Ghemor argue out of focus behind her, and the moment when Kira smashes her mirrored reflection.
  • One tactic Entek uses to sell the story of Kira's Cardassian origins is to reveal information he claims was implanted in her mind. Kira is sure she's never told anyone the story, yet Entek does know it. How?
When the material is strong, and Kira is the main character, you can count on Nana Visitor to deliver an excellent episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. "Second Skin" is no exception. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Night at the Wunderbar

Last night, I saw Eddie Izzard perform here in Denver on his stand-up tour, Wunderbar. It's been a long globe-hopping tour he's performed in German, French, and English, and he's now beginning to wrap up in anticipation of a run for public office for the U.K. If he wins, this could be his last comedy tour for some time.

This is the third time I've seen him, and I confess to being a touch disappointed in the previous two sets -- not because he didn't have some good material. He did. But his recorded performances of Dress to Kill and Glorious were so amazingly funny that they set too high a bar for expectations. This time, I tried to keep that bar at a more reasonable level.

With politics on his mind, you might expect this to be a highly political set. Fortunately, such moments were sparse (and mostly front-loaded in the first five minutes). I do agree with his political views (so far as I know them), but I found it less enjoyable when one of his previous tours leaned heavily into material about them. Basically: the world can be depressing enough right now... can you just make me laugh instead? This batch was more along those lines.

It was also a lot of material. He played two full acts by himself, without an opener, for a grand total of nearly two hours (including the encore). He touched on literally everything, from the Big Bang to "last Thursday." Especially fun segments focused on the behavior of eons-old monkeys, what dogs would say if we could understand them, and the origin stories of superheroes. He also closed with an extended riff on the Lord of the Rings that had some good moments.

Overall, it seemed like stronger material than the previous times I've seen Eddie Izzard in person. Unfortunately, though, it was also the worst sound quality of any time I've seen him. I don't generally find his accent too difficult to follow, but last night, I truly could not understand somewhere between 10-20% of what he said. Same goes for the people I went went, and even for strangers sitting around me (who remarked on the issue during the intermission).

This was a particularly bad situation, given the nature of Izzard and his material. Some of what he said was deliberately mumbled for comedic effect, or actually in a foreign language. But then, some of it was neither of those things... it was just too quiet to hear, or spoken too quickly, or swallowed up in bad reverb of sounds smacking around the space. As much as I was laughing otherwise, I felt like I was missing some really good moments for failure to understand them. I found myself in the regrettable position of wishing maybe I'd stayed home so I could turn on the closed captioning. (Not that he's releasing this tour in such a format, but you get the sentiment.)

I feel as though the performance might have been something like a B+, and the best material I've seen Izzard deliver in person. But the issue of understanding really dragged down the night for me in a significant way -- I'd say the experience overall was a B-. Though perhaps, if he is indeed about to embark on a long career in politics, the night will grow in my memory. I'll be able to say I was there for his final (?) tour.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Bear -- Necessity

Back when 2017 wrapped up, there was a movie I kept seeing on various critics' lists as one of the best of the year: Brigsby Bear. But it was never in contention for any major awards, wasn't generally buzzed about in social media, and no one I know mentioned seeing it. I filed it away as something I might get to some day. Recently, "some day" came around.

Brigsby Bear is a sweet movie springing from what sounds like a horrific premise. A man named James is rescued from the bunker where he's lived his entire life with his "parents" -- who turn out to have been his abductors. For two decades, they've raised James in isolation from the world, creating the only entertainment he was allowed to see: a low-budget "TV show" of their creation, called Brisgby Bear. When James struggles to assimilate back into the real world, Brigsby Bear becomes the lifeline he clings to. He wants to make a movie to continue the story and show the world that his upbringing was actually full of joy and happiness.

This is a far-out premise that presents a tough needle to thread. You could go super dark and heavy with it, diving into issues of abuse and torment. You could play it for total comedy, as a fish-out-of-water tale about a young man-child fresh out of the bubble. Brisgby Bear charts its own middle course, walking a surprisingly touching and sentimental tightrope. There are moments of humor, without undercutting the seriousness of the situation. There's real drama, without the movie being dragged down with heaviness. There's emotion, without the tone ever turning too earnest or saccharine.

You can engage with Brigsby Bear on a purely nostalgic level. Much of the movie captures the feeling of young kids getting together to make their own movie with handmade props. But there are also deeper messages you can find in the movie if you choose to look. For example: a statement that family can help you through your problems even when you can't understand them yourself. Or the notion that people are only guarded and suspicious because they're coached to expect this in others; meet someone you know is coming at you without artifice or agenda, and you'll be free to drop your guard too.

The lead character of James is played by Kyle Mooney (of Saturday Night Live). He gives a great performance, though the cast is really excellent throughout. The more recognizable faces in the ensemble include Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, and Matt Walsh, but there's also great work from Ryan Simpkins as James' sister, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as his first true friend outside of captivity.

I was entertained and moved by Brigsby Bear. I give it an A-, and a belated slot on my Top 10 List of movies from 2017. I'm glad I made the time for it, and I wish it had been hyped more so that I might have found it sooner.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Other Thing

The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (back after a week off) provided a lot of the answers I'd been looking for so far this season. It was also a reasonably entertaining hour.

Captured by Sarge, May learns more about what he's doing on Earth and what the team is truly up against. Meanwhile, in space, Fitz's rescue team is captured by a Chronicom fleet. They're the last survivors of the destruction of their world, and have big plans for their prisoners.

It's a tricky thing, plotting a serialized television story. If you think of the whole thing as a novel, it's not at all unusual for the true shape of the plot not to come together until the end of the "first act." With this season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this was the fifth episode of a 13-episode season, more or less a third of the way into the story, so it's not that odd to withhold answers until now. On the other hand, though, this season has been running more than a month, and leaving us largely in the dark that whole time. So it was really nice to finally learn the outline of this season's conflict: "shrikes" have come to destroy the planet, Sarge is here trying to stop them once and for all.

The episode wasn't just about connecting dots of the plot, though. The running flashbacks of May's final moments in Tahiti with the real Phil Coulson were a nice element woven throughout to add a more personal and emotional element. Also, they gave Ming-Na Wen something deeper to do than just perform fight choreography. (Though, of course, she still got to do that -- and was great at it, as always.) The scenes between Coulson and May -- and between Sarge and May -- were a highlight of the hour. It was exceptionally clever how the episode's title was spoken twice, by two different Clark Gregg characters, each time with two very different meanings.

I was less swept up in the spacebound story line, though it too had its moments. Agents Davis and Piper still feel a long way from being fully fleshed out characters, but the rivalry between them is a lot of fun. They have at least reached the point where they serve a part in a story that can't just be filled by any random one-off characters you'd drop in there.

I was also glad that this part of the story ended this week with most of the characters returning to Earth. I don't think the show has benefited so far this season from keeping the characters in separate narrative silos, unable to interact with each other. That hasn't been completely resolved yet, but bringing Daisy (and Davis and Piper) back home feels like it will help.

The continued development of Dr. Benson was also a nice element. Too often, characters in these sorts of fantastical stories take too much in stride things that are too amazing. They don't react as a real person would... or maybe they get one slack-jawed moment, and then snap right into the groove. Seeing Benson really live in how out of his element he is in all this was a welcome change of pace. Also nice, the way they casually worked in that he's gay and mourning the loss of his husband. I do like how more TV shows are realizing that it's this easy to get LGBT characters into a story without upsetting other things they want to accomplish. (Sure, the ultimate "prize" is more central, more heroic representation. But this is nice too.)

Now that it's easier to wrap my head around the story this season is telling, I'm beginning to be more engaged. I give this episode a B.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Factory Approved

Coming out of The Last Defender, my friends and I were on a bit of a high. We don't do escape rooms as often as most of us would probably like. And we'd just missed out on a success by one puzzle. So as six of us were carpooling back home, a conversation about other escape rooms somehow first turned into "there's a newer one nearby" and then into "we're going there, right now."

Escape Factory is set up in an industrial complex in Lakewood. It's not the slick and elaborately produced sort of place that Denver Escape Room (ironically, in Thornton) or EscapeWorks Denver is. In fact, we'd learn from talking with the man at the counter: it's one guy's particular dream (or, at least, entertained whim). Designed and built entirely by this one person, and on this occasion operated by him too, it's a noticeably smaller operation. After being spoiled by the sets we've seen at some other escape rooms, this could have been a bit of a letdown. Fortunately, this guy knows what he's doing when it comes to the puzzle design.

We just walked in, asking if he had any rooms available right then we could jump into. Appropriately, the one room he did have was about... being in a bunker and trying to prevent nuclear annihilation. An opportunity to prove ourselves after what had just happened!

As I mentioned, the puzzle design was clever enough. There was an actual laptop in the room with a password you had to "hack" to gain access to files. There were also the expected combination locks (though a bit more naturally integrated, story-wise, than normal). Logic puzzles, observation puzzles... the usual spread. And they were laid out in a non-linear fashion -- once again, that's the special sauce that allows any group of four or more to do an escape room while giving room for everyone to contribute.

The room did have a "found props" and "hand built" feeling, and part of that was that there wasn't much scenery. There weren't really any red herrings, decorative details you didn't actually need for any particular puzzle. Still, we had a lot of fun with it. Of course, it helped that we solved the room -- in a record time, apparently.

Escape Factory isn't the best escape room we've been to. But there's a good foundation there. The owner is building out a new room even now. Hopefully, that's a good sign that business has been good for him. And perhaps with experience and success, he'll be able to construct a more convincing environment to match his intriguing puzzles. I'd certainly be willing to go back and check the place out again.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Equilibrium

A writer's inspiration can come from some unexpected places. So it was for the season three episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "Equilibrium." In this case, though, it didn't really pan out.

Jadzia Dax is being troubled by an elusive memory of a strange melody. Soon, odd visions escalate into terrible nightmares. When Dr. Bashir is unable to cure her, Sisko decides to take Dax to the Trill homeworld to see what the Symbiosis Commission can do for her. But they may be unwilling to help, as the core problem plaguing Dax may have to do with a secret they're trying to protect.

This episode was spawned when executive producer Michael Piller saw a magic show by Jeff Magnus McBride. Piller was taken by a particular routine in which McBride would remove a seemingly endless number of masks, only to reveal more hiding beneath. A mutual friend, Christopher Teague, was hired by Piller to pitch a Star Trek episode involving this routine. The result, a tale of a traveling circus visiting the station (with a murderer in its midst), was immediately rejected. But there was the idea of magic and the masks, bought and paid for, needing something to be made of it.

Staff writer René Echevarria kept the "murderer" tidbit of the original piece and proposed a story focused on Odo and involving a series of disturbing dreams. When the tale still refused to come together, a different staff writer, Ronald D. Moore, suggested that perhaps the masks were a good metaphor for the Trill species, and that the story should be centered around Dax.

Though the writers had finally hit on the final shape of the episode, the finished product would still reflect the troubled creation. It's not exactly that you watch it and know that you're seeing a mountain made out of a molehill -- an entire story built around a single magic trick. It's that the story doesn't quite work. The last half is particularly dry, a half-baked mystery centered on Sisko and Bashir. The gathering of clues is dull, and involves a lot of characters shoveling exposition at the heroes in emotionless performances.

The Trill coverup here, that any of them is capable of being joined with a symbiont and not just a select few, doesn't make much sense. For starters, the first time we ever saw a Trill, it was joining with Commander Riker (at least temporarily), suggesting joining isn't actually that difficult at all. Any one specific accident or odd circumstance might be rare, but it's impossible to believe that over time, there wouldn't have been enough of them for the Trill secret to have gotten out long ago. The reason for the secrecy feels overstated too: if people knew, everyone would want a symbiont. Really? Everyone would be champing at the bit to have their personality subverted by a parasite whose life society regards more highly than yours? I suppose as long as demand exceeds supply, the premise works. Still, it seems a secret impossible to keep.

There are moments in the episode that do work, mostly in the first half, and mostly thanks to the heavy lifting done by the actors. Terry Farrell gets some fun and different material to play here, spewing harsh venom at her friends, and showing a childlike fear of returning to the Commission on her homeworld. But when the show yet again sidelines Dax in a story that's supposed to be about Dax (after "Dax" and "Invasive Procedures"), it begins to falter.

There are some good moments for other main characters sprinkled throughout the episode. Sisko's pure joy in cooking is infectious, and Rene Auberjonois' take on how Odo would become fascinated with stirring a bowl is quite funny. Nana Visitor has a great moment in which Kira jokes with Dax... until suddenly realizing Dax isn't joking. There's also a nice arc for Bashir, who finally gets to be something other than a horndog around Dax -- he comforts her as a friend when she confesses a fear of doctors.

But the guest cast isn't rising to the level of the main cast, and the back half of the episode is increasingly reliant on them. The "wacky, socially awkward" Trill Guardian is a dull cliche. The leader protecting the secret about Trill joining is flat and one-note. And the man playing Joran Dax? He's Jeff Magnus McBride, the magician whose act spawned this whole episode in the first place. He isn't really an actor, and it shows in his performance.

Other observations:
  • We're back on the Defiant for the first time since the series premiere, and getting to see and appreciate it a bit more. The bunks in the quarters are tiny, like on an aircraft carrier. The hallways are similarly inspired -- not quite that narrow, but noticeably more compact than on, say, the Enterprise.
  • Decades before Shazam was invented, they're totally using the idea of it in this episode to identify the piece of music Dax keeps humming.
  • It's odd, for an episode in which music plays a key role, how little music there actually is in the episode. Another element that makes the back half so dry is that there's very little score to accompany the lengthy scenes of exposition.
  • Here, Joran is presented more like a troubled youth who snaps in one bad moment. Later on, Dax's past host would be reimagined more as a raging psychopath -- a more stark and intriguing thing to put in her back story.
"Equilibrium" is the first clunker of season three. It's not truly bad, but it is very uneven. I give the episode a C. If the Dax back story introduced here hadn't been picked up on in subsequent episodes, I think it would be all but forgotten in the series overall.