Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TNG Flashback: Clues

"Clues" is one of Star Trek: The Next Generation's more pure mystery episodes. It's also a case of a fan dream come true.

The Enterprise unexpectedly passes through a wormhole, causing everyone in the crew, except for Data, to lose consciousness for 30 seconds. But as a number of strange inconsistencies are discovered, it appears that the crew has in fact lost an entire day, a day in which they were actually awake. Not only have they all lost their memories, but it becomes clear that Data is concealing the truth about what happened during the missing time.

Beginning in the third season, show runner Michael Piller instituted a very rare policy for television -- he directed the production to accept script submissions, unsolicited and unrepresented by agents, from the series' own fans. This was one occasion on which that policy bore fruit. "Clues" was an idea submitted by a hopeful fan of the show. Piller thought the idea was first rate, but found the writing itself (particularly the dialogue) to be in poor shape. He contracted an outside professional, Joe Menosky, to do a polish draft, which was very well received. Not only did the series get an episode out of it, it got a new staff writer; Menosky was offered a permanent position on the writing staff.

Mysteries on Star Trek are seldom that compelling. They almost always turn on some vital information an alien-of-the-week is withholding, and are invariably resolved with a swim through technobabble. Actually, this episode is awash with technobabble too, from Crusher's growing moss to out-of-sync transporter trace biorhythms to tampered computer clocks. But what makes the crucial difference here is that the person withholding information is one of our own.

It's truly fascinating to watch Data "lie" in this episode. Given his lack of experience, he's unsurprisingly quite bad at it. When pushed into a corner, he responds with some incredibly suspicious variation of "I cannot dispute that it appears I am not telling you the truth." And this only deepens the mystery for the crew and the audience, as we wonder what could have happened that was so terrible that Data of all people would conceal it.

The revelation is the truth is perhaps a bit of a letdown: the fact that the Enterprise encountered a race of xenophobic aliens called the Paxans. The idea is compelling, but perhaps for lack of time in the episode, the aliens themselves are remarkably... well, "convenient." They apparently have the power (and immediately, the desire) to simply destroy the ship and everyone on board. Yet twice, they are almost instantly agreeable to a "memory wipe" solution. I guess there's just a strange mix of mercy and ruthlessness here that doesn't quite track for me. The "what" behind the mystery is certainly compelling, but the fact that the Paxans are dealt with so easily undermines their credibility as a threat. The way Data is acting throughout the episode, I suppose I expect a bit more of a menace.

If a few extra minutes could have gotten the writers the time to give the Paxans sharper teeth, I know where I would have taken them. The episode opens with a long Dixon Hill sequence that doesn't serve much purpose in my mind. Sure, it's fun to see Dixon Hill again, and fun to see Whoopi Goldberg play some comedy by stepping into that world. But did the episode really need to present us a tonal echo for "mysteries are compelling," as opposed to just showing us a compelling mystery? Did we really need several minutes of watching Guinan try to talk her way through an imperious secretary? And if you're going to put Guinan in an episode, is it really going to be just for that and not to appear anywhere else in the story? Perhaps this extended, unnecessary sequence is a consequence of the episode's fan origins; it smells like fanboy wish fulfillment to have Guinan and Dixon Hill in your episode.

Other observations:
  • There are a few firsts in this episode. We see Worf teaching a martial arts class for the first time. Nurse Ogawa also makes her first appearance... though strangely, she only gets a first name here, Alyssa, and not a last name.
  • Some fans of Red Dwarf have suggested this episode was actually ripped off from an earlier episode of that show. "Thanks for the Memory" apparently had a similar plot.
  • When playing Dixon Hill on this occasion, Picard intermittently adopts a bad Chicago mobster kind of accent that I don't recall him embracing in previous adventures.
  • The series somewhat frequently seems to end a Data-centric episode with a tight closeup on his face. I suppose they do it because Brent Spiner is the master of giving a truly subtle expression that lets you in on Data's thinking without actually showing what we'd consider full "emotion." In this episode, it's a very slight smile of satisfaction that this time, the plan to cover up the Paxan encounter has worked.
As one of the show's more effective mysteries, I feel "Clues" earns a solid B. It's a fun entry in the middle of the season.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Ghostbusting Team

The cooperative board game is still a somewhat rare animal amid the many German style board games now being produced. The problem is, cooperative is a hard style of game to do well, with two common pitfalls: it's hard to give every individual player his or her own agency within the group process, and it's hard to strike the right balance of difficulty in allowing the players to win. I don't know that I've ever truly loved any game in this genre, though I do think fairly well of Pandemic.

Recently, a game called Ghost Stories tried to change my mind. It's one of the more distinctively flavored games I've ever come across, an odd blend of undead, Lovecraftian horror, and Taoist philosophy. Up to four players take on the roles of monks trying to save a small village from being drawn into hell by the evil minions of Wu-Feng, who seek their master's ashes to return him to life.

Players move on a 3 by 3 grid of tiles, each tile with a unique power they can wield against the enemy. Those enemies congregate along the edges of the grid, threatening the player who sits along each particular edge. As is typical for the cooperative genre, the game itself puts up a relentless onslaught of calamity that the players must try to mitigate. If they survive long enough, Wu-Feng himself shows up in the final act of the game. When the players defeat him, they win.

Ghost Stories does pretty well with the "player agency" problem. Each of the four monks has a unique power (two, actually, which can be swapped from one playthrough to the next), and all four monks can prove very useful in the efforts to win the game. It's harder to tell how the game does with the difficulty issue. Moments through your first playthrough, you'll realize some very basic strategic considerations you simply must adhere to; if you ignore them as a group, you'll simply have no chance of winning.

Luck plays a pretty large role in the game, which is also typical of the cooperative genre. But where I think Ghost Stories isn't quite as strong is that it's very easy (more so than in Pandemic, I think) for one player to get pigeonholed into a kind of "janitor" duty -- taking the unfun job of keeping the crap at bay so that another player can try to be the hero. At least Ghost Stories rules don't provide for a "true winner" as some co-op games do; you either all win or all lose together. Still, it's possible even in victory to feel like one player didn't get to have as much fun.

Still, I have played far worse co-op games. If you're a fan of that genre and haven't tried it, it may be worth a look. The easiest difficulty level certainly seemed to offer a challenge, and the three harder difficulties above that would surely keep a play group striving for many plays to come. I give Ghost Stories a B.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

More Music from Westeros

It's been a month or two now since the recent season of Game of Thrones concluded, which means it's time for the release of the soundtrack. As three times prior, composer Ramin Djawadi has compiled about an hour of highlights from these last 10 episodes and served them up on an album. And just as the show tinkers with its conventions from year to year, the music has changed with it.

Listening to the album tracks in isolation, I was quickly struck by something I hadn't noticed when the music was paired with the visuals. Djawadi's sound palette has drifted a bit back to what it was when he was scoring the TV series Prison Break. That series had a signature way of building suspense, a blend of rhythmic strings in the low register with the orchestral version of a four-on-the-floor rock beat. (Albeit, sometimes not strictly in a 4/4 time signature.) That technique reigns here in tracks like "Oathkeeper" and "He Is Lost."

This season (or at least, the music from the season curated here) also relies on Djawadi's established leitmotifs a bit more than past seasons. Phrases from the famous main title pop up at least twice as often here as they have before. Also used often, as a theme for the Lannisters, is the melody he created for "The Rains of Castamere"; it pops up most prominently in the tracks "Two Swords" and "You Are No Son of Mine."

Fittingly, "The Rains of Castamere" itself appears also on the soundtrack, in an entirely different arrangement than the one that previously graced the Season 2 soundtrack album. Personally, I'm not a fan of the bizarre falsetto that performer Sigur Ros uses here, though the strange "leaky squeeze toy" sound effects that haunt the background are effective in unsettling the listener.

Percussion is a big part of the soundtrack, as in past seasons. There are a few interesting tweaks on expectation, though. In a track entitled "Watchers on the Wall," Djawadi uses rhythms with an oddly tribal quality, where one might expect a militaristic attitude to represent the Night's Watch. Conversely, "Meereen" strikes a martial posture where one might expect a more tribal element to represent the society's different culture.

The best music on the album is used to represent the wildlings. In a pair of tracks, "Thenns" and "Let's Kill Some Crows," Djawadi knocks you over with deep bass horns, thundering war drums, and pulsing low strings. The theme stands with some of the composer's best music for the series.

But overall, the collection loses steam in the middle. The "spine" of the album is filled with too many low energy tracks. And unfortunately, they aren't just restrained in the way that a more dramatic scene often requires -- they're simply amorphous, atmospheric music. Because of this, this probably isn't the album for you if you aren't already collecting music from the show. Pick up one of the previous seasons' soundtracks if you're looking for the main title and other highlights. This season 4 collection, I'd give a B- overall.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

TNG Flashback: Devil's Due

Rarely since the second season had Star Trek: The Next Generation produced an episode as bad as "Devil's Due." But that's not surprising when you learn that the origins of the episode can be traced back to that season... and earlier.

The Enterprise rescues a science team from Ventax II, a planet whose people turned away from technology a thousand years ago and established a global peace. Legend has it this was because the citizens sold their souls to their "Devil" figure, Ardra, in exchange for this peace. And now, a woman claiming to be Ardra, and wielding powerful abilities, has come to collect her payment.

I've written before about how the 1988 Writers' Guild strike sent Star Trek (and other shows) scrambling for scripts to put before the cameras. I also wrote about how one of the places they looked was "Star Trek: Phase II," the late 70s attempt to reboot Star Trek with most of its original cast (which ultimately spawned the first Trek movie instead). Thirteen scripts were written for that aborted series, and when times were tight, The Next Generation recycled one of them to produce "The Child." Other possible candidates for adaptation were earmarked at the time.

What became "Devil's Due" was one originally of those. Reportedly, the Phase II version featured Kirk going up against a male Devil figure, and ultimately resolving the dispute in a trial arbitrated by the Enterprise's computer. It sounds to me like you can be thankful that never got made. Unfortunately, what did get made was scarcely better.

In my view, the chief problem of this episode is one of tone. One of the many writers to take a crack at adapting the old Phase II script opted for a comedic approach, and Next Gen show runner Michael Piller loved that angle. He responded and advanced it by switching "the Devil" to a female character, throwing in flirtatious elements with Picard and still more opportunities for humor. The end result is an episode that can't be taken seriously. And that's a shame, because the core idea here is deathly serious.

Imagine if a whole society thought the literal Devil was coming to claim their planet and all their mortal souls. We're talking literal, Biblical armageddon here. The planet's leader, Acost Jared, seems rather nonplussed (or certainly, not frightened) to be face-to-face with his concept of Evil Incarnate. Troi mentions in this episode that some Ventaxians are on the brink of suicide, but it seems to me in this situation, you already would be dealing with mass suicides on a global scale.

Then there's Ardra. In reality, she's a con artist posing as a demonic figure, but she really doesn't seem to have a "then what?" to her plan, beyond establishing her alias. Ardra makes no attempt to use the subjects she has conquered for any meaningful purpose. Shouldn't she be living the high life, extorting everything from her victims? Shouldn't she be using the cowering Ventaxians as weapons to stop the efforts of Picard and the Enterprise crew from exposing her ruse? A few forced suicide bombers, for instance, might get the doubters to back off.

Ardra's behavior may be inexplicably dumb, but that of Picard and our other heroes is scarcely better. Grant them points, I suppose, from disbelieving the con right from the beginning. (But as an aside: Why? Picard has seen things much stranger than this woman claiming she's the Devil. They even mention the Q Continuum a possible source of her powers.) But even doubting Ardra's claim, the crew hardly makes an effort to disprove it.

When Ardra boards the Entperprise -- on multiple occasions -- they don't even so much as raise the shields to try to prevent it. They don't try to use phasers to stun her or force fields to confine her. Picard almost immediately believes that her "powers" could be the product of technology: transporters, holograms, and so forth. But rather than using that exact technology, already at his disposal, to demonstrate how, he's utterly a loss until his crew locates and seizes Ardra's ship.

If you keep picking at this story, it breaks into even more jagged pieces. Apparently, Ardra is a low grade con artist wanted on other worlds. Yet the Enterprise crew aren't able to search any records or anything to learn this; they only discover her true identity when they take her ship. So apparently, she's doing the equivalent of driving around in a car with printouts of her arrest warrants in the passenger seat.

Yet somehow, this low rent con artist has managed to get her hands on technology that, while similar to Federation gadgetry, seems to be superior. Her transporters work faster, her hologram generators can generate substance outside of a holodeck, and she has a cloaking device that can be extended to envelop other ships! Our gang is lucky this criminal didn't come up with some much more nefarious use for her super-cool ship. But then, if she were actually smart at all, she wouldn't make her attempt to control a planet anywhere near Federation space. She'd find some undeveloped planet of relative savages somewhere and subjugate them.

Perhaps worst of all, this implausible plot filled with foolish characters is resolved in a peculiarly dry way. Who settles armageddon with a legal arbitration? What writer thinks that's satisfying television?

Other observations:
  • Very (in)conveniently, Troi is unable to sense the emotions of Ardra to provide evidence of her deception.
  • I noted in the previous seasons that Data's study of Sherlock Holmes gave way to Shakespeare, thanks to copyright issues. Here, it changes again to be more generally a study of acting. The episode writers are trying to draw a connection between Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the events of this episode. I feel it's a suspect connection, since in the scene, Scrooge is dismissing a real haunting as a fake, while the episode is instead about a fake Devil pretending to be real. Later dialogue instead tries to play the connection as one of "what fear can make people do," but since none of the aliens seem convincingly fearful, this only serves to underscore how the episode is not taking armageddon seriously enough.
  • For some random reason I can't possibly understand, this episode brought in the highest ratings of any Star Trek: The Next Generation since the series premiere. Why couldn't all of those people have tuned in for a better episode?
The one kind thing I will say about the episode is this: even though I didn't think it should have been funny, it is funny. Thanks to the skills of the actors, particularly Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner, the lighter moments of this episode really do bring a smile to your face. For that reason, I won't shove this one in the basement of the truly worst Star Trek episodes. But I still can't bring myself to rate it higher than a D+. I'll be amazed (and disappointed) if I come across a worse episode in season four.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

Somewhere along the line, I heard generally good things about a horror film that screened at Sundance Film Festival, called In Fear. It's a taut little 85-minute movie about a fresh couple that gets lost on labyrinthine forest roads in the dead of night, apparently by the design of a mysterious tormentor. Adding to the curiosity factor for me was that one of the leads was played by Iain de Caestecker, now known to us geeks as Fitz on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The movie was directed (and ostensibly written -- but I'll come back to that in a moment) by Jeremy Lovering, a man who clearly knows his horror. The films definitely feels like a soup made from a number of familiar ingredients. There's some of the slow, creeping dread of the original Halloween. There's the car-bound claustrophobia of Joyride. There's the unexplainable randomness of it all, as in The Strangers. And although it is not a "found footage" film, I couldn't help but feel a sense of The Blair Witch Project permeating it all.

After watching the movie, when I turned to the DVD's brief "making of" featurette, I understood where that feeling came from: the movie was improvised. The director had a sense of the types of characters he wanted, and the thematic tones he wanted to touch on. There was no script. He did not specifically know the ending he was working toward. The movie was filmed chronologically, and as he worked out the plot beats, the actors would only learn of them as they were playing the scenes for the first time. (Upon retakes, he would sometimes feed them lines of dialogue he wanted spoken.)

Ah... well, now that explains it -- both the things that are good and bad about the movie. The good includes an effective sense of dread throughout the film. The characters are believably on edge as they inch deeper and deeper into their ordeal. There are also a number of situations that are quite unnerving without relying on violence; indeed, the movie's most significant theme is one of pushing someone to the point of violence to see whether they'll take that final step.

What's not so good? The setup takes a lot longer than it should, with more than a third of the running time elapsed before anything really starts to "happen." The character decisions are questionable throughout, starting from the acceptance of a very sketchy situation in the opening minutes. These moments are a likely consequence of having no script. The actors couldn't build an overall logic for their characters, they just had to do what they were asked in a given scene. In particular, the thinking of one of the characters in the final scene of the film, while consistent with the tone of the film, doesn't really seem to make logical sense.

Ultimately, The Blair Witch Project, with its largely improvised style, is probably the barometer you should use to measure whether you should see In Fear. I really liked that film, and so found more to like than dislike here. Others who weren't keen on that past film will probably be bored or put off by this one. I'd give In Fear a B-.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Deep Brethren

When I recently finished reading The Nine, I decided my itch for Supreme Court non-fiction had not quite been scratched. So I decided to pick up "The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court." This book was published in 1979, covering an entirely different period of the Court's history -- the first several years under Chief Justice Warren Burger.

This book was written by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong. The former is the Woodward of the famous Woodward and Bernstein team that were crucial in revealing the Watergate conspiracy (and who chronicled the story in All the President's Men). The Brethren is built in that same investigative journalism tradition. The opening explains that the stories within were revealed to the authors on condition of anonymity, but that they're almost always verified by two or more sources.

In the 35 years since the book was published, the Supreme Court has completely transformed. None of the Justices of the 1969-1975 period the book covers are still serving; all but one is now dead. It's been decades since the revelation that Justice Potter Stewart was the primary source of information for the book. (Though it wouldn't have been that hard to read between the lines on that; among the Justices who were actually there for all six years covered, Stewart certainly comes off looking the best.)

Today, The Brethren is a fascinating study in contrast, punctuated by a few things that haven't changed much. Chief Justice Burger, Richard Nixon's first Supreme Court appointee, takes control as the book begins, following the long and celebrated career of Earl Warren. Burger is determined to be just as revered, and equally determined to steer the court sharply right in a more conservative direction. Nixon would end up placing four men on the Supreme Court before his resignation, more Justices than any president since has appointed, and yet one of the surprising things of this book (and this period of time) is that the Court in fact did not fully lurch as sharply to the right as one would imagine.

This is the period of time in which the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in a 7-2 decision, legalizing abortion nationwide. It was a time in which most laws barring obscenity were struck down as violations of the First Amendment. It was a time in which numerous campaign finance reforms were upheld (many the very laws that in the last few years finally have been overturned by the Roberts Supreme Court, which finally has moved as far to the right as Nixon and Burger might have envisioned).

And yet this is also the period of time in which a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty was held in place for many years before giving way to a new precedent allowing executions. It was a time in which Fourth Amendment precedents limiting police actions were eroded. In short, it was a time where the Supreme court appeared to fluctuate between two political poles a great deal more than it does today.

Interestingly, there seemed to be a lot more give and take in the process back then. I suppose until the day someone publishes a similar expose inside the Roberts Court, we won't really know for sure if all the votes are as rigid as they appear to be in the published opinions. But The Brethren presents a number of cases in which multiple Justices switched their votes upon being persuaded by a convincing argument.

But it was also a more naive time. The book follows a number of recurring legal matters, and the landmark cases in which the Justices apparently thought they'd disposed of the issues once and for all, only to wind up revisiting them a short while later. There's the issue of desegregation in schools, brought about by a policy of extensive busing of children to other districts. There's the issue of the death penalty, which the Justices hilariously-sadly thought would never come up again when they ruled that it was capricious application of the penalty that made it unconstitutional. (Surely no state would respond by making the death penalty mandatory for a crime, they foolishly reasoned.)

The real takeaway from The Brethren is that Chief Justice Burger was an inept buffoon. Every other Justice seems to be critical of him, characterizing him as paper pushing management with little real command of legal principles. Time and again, the book shows him changing his votes not on any merits, but out of a desire to control which Justice would write the majority opinion in a case. (The Nine's brief mention of Burger in the opening pages confirms this assessment.)

Other justices are painted in unflattering terms as well. William O. Douglas, the longest serving Justice in Supreme Court history, was so determined to stay on the Court that he worked a full year after suffering a largely paralyzing stroke -- and then continued to try to work even after retiring from the job. Thurgood Marshall, the first black Justice of the Supreme Court, is characterized as a follower of other liberal Court members who wasn't even always aware of the arguments his own clerks wrote in his name. Harry Blackmun is portrayed as so paralyzed by his hyper-attention to detail that he couldn't get any work done in a timely manner. William Rehnquist is an affable but calculating hard right-winger who appeared to be slowly achieving the political momentum Burger imagined. (Authors Woodward and Armstrong had no way of knowing that Rehnquist would become Chief Justice himself seven years later.)

Fascinating as the book is, it does have a few flaws. One is that there's very little narrative throughline to it. The authors are simply presenting several years in the life of the Supreme Court. There's no "ending" as such; Warren Burger wasn't even halfway through his time on the job when this was published. Another is that the book devotes almost its entire 1974 chapter to the Watergate case, without really providing enough background to fully comprehend that case. Both these choices are understandable in context. No reader of the time wouldn't have been intimately familiar with the details of the Watergate scandal, and the scope and importance of the case would have well justified so many pages of the book. But to a modern reader, the story needs a bit more exposition.

Overall, it's an excellent book. But it's very much a history book, in contrast to other, more current things you might read about the Supreme Court. If that sounds interesting to you, then I'd certainly recommend picking it up. I give The Brethren an A-.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Flight Time

It was Rio 2 that was playing in theaters earlier this year, but I only recently got around to watching the original 2011 animated film. As I imagine many parents out there know, Rio is the story of a citified bird who becomes separated from his owner during a trip to (duh) Rio de Janeiro. He winds up shackled to a free-spirited wild bird yearning to return the jungle, and adventure ensues.

This movie came from Blue Sky Studios, the animation company that hit upon Ice Age and proceeded to churn out sequels ad nauseum. In some ways, Rio shows a similar lack of originality -- it plays very familiar story beats of the well-worn "opposites attract" genre. But while the plot maybe doesn't receive much attention, the characters do, and that helps elevate the film above average.

The voice cast also helps a lot. Jesse Eisenberg's stock in trade is his ability to play an uptight social misfit, and it's put to good use here as Blu, the sheltered bird forced out of his element. Anne Hathaway is strong as Jewel, his more adventurous (forced) companion. Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro voice a pair of humans whose relationship mirrors the birds. And then, rounding out the comedy, is an eclectic list of names including Jemaine Clement, George Lopez, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Wanda Sykes, and Jane Lynch.

The jokes aren't generally laugh out loud, and the story isn't especially great... yet there is a strong sense of FUN permeating the entire film. The filmmakers seemed to aspire to something that the parents of their target audience wouldn't mind watching, and I do think they mostly got there. I give it a B-. The recent sequel hasn't rocketed to the top of my list after seeing this one, but it has found its way into the queue.