Monday, April 23, 2018

All Roads Lead...

The title of the latest Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed to be a nod to Fitz's theory on the inevitability of the future. Even if the group manages to do things "differently," events will still lead to the apocalypse they saw.

The end of the episode spoke directly to this. Yo-Yo saw the chance to save the world by killing Ruby, and took it with no real hesitation. This may have had the effect of driving Hale directly into the arms of her alien allies, though, who may now come and do the job of destroying the Earth (or trying to). It's possible that this is "the way things happened" all along, save that it makes Future Yo-Yo's advice to herself even more obtuse than it seemed in the beginning. We've come a long way and we're still really no closer to seeing how "letting Coulson die" would be the key to avoiding disaster. But perhaps the real advice should have been "don't kill Ruby." Maybe? I guess we have to see how this all shakes out in the season's last few episodes.

Speaking of Ruby, actress Dove Cameron sure was entrusted with a lot of challenging material this week. The bulk of the episode, where she taunted and threatened FitzSimmons -- that was pretty rote for the character. But the total meltdown after partial infusion with the gravitonium was tough stuff: pained, terrified, desperate, and unhinged all in the span of just a few minutes. It was a strong way for the character to go out, and a fun thwarting of expectations that there was no big knockdown fight between her and one of the main characters to settle things.

Meanwhile, back at base, Coulson, Mack, and Deke had to deal with a brainwashed Talbot as he took Robin hostage and threatened to kill both her and himself. I liked that they were in fact able to talk him down (well, enough to ice him, anyway), because I hadn't yet really been sold on the transformation of Talbot from antagonist to hero. For certain, he deserves sympathy for everything he's been through in the last season or so, but he spent a lot of time being a thorn in the side of our heroes (and not much time on screen since then). It's hard for me to totally flip the switch yet.

I suppose one big question mark now is whether the show is going to be acknowledging Infinity War in any specific way in the next few weeks. The show used to tie-in to every Marvel movie that came along (to varying degrees of effectiveness), but hasn't done so for a while now. Also, the unexpected move of the movie's release date to a week earlier might mean that whatever plans the show made are now mistimed anyway.

In any case, I found this a largely satisfying episode. I give it a B+.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Magic Missive

Cooperative board games can be a lot of fun, though there is a particular risk if you don't have the right mix of players. Sometimes, one or two people can dominate the strategic planning and overwhelm the participation of the rest of the group. Well, here's a game with an unusual mechanism that can actually address this: Magic Maze.

A group of fantasy adventurers have appeared at the center of a shopping mall. Their job is to run around and grab the item each one needs to embark on an adventure, and then find their way to the exit. It's a quirky theme, to be sure, but it does largely feel appropriate to the quirky gameplay.

Magic Maze is a tile laying game with a timer. Each tile is a 4x4 grid -- though not every square may be an actual, walkable path. For sure, there will be some number of exits off of that tile into... whatever tile is revealed next and placed alongside it. The game is a race to explore the "mall," turning over new tiles and revealing items and exits.

There are always four adventurers on the board, regardless of the number of players. Each one is looking for a particular item (think the four characters of the video game Gauntlet, and you're in the ballpark). Once the tile with their item is found and their piece is taken to exactly that spot, they must then find and move to the one exit space of their exact color.

Now here's were things start to get interesting. Each player in the game is assigned a card defining the one action (or two, depending on number of players) that they are allowed to take. For example: only one player can reveal a new tile and place it on the map; another player might be the only one allowed to move any piece south on the map, and another the only one who can move pieces up and down escalators. So players are forced to take turns and work together. Anyone can jump in at any time and do their thing, to any one of the four adventurer pieces on the ever-growing board.

But the big catch: no one is allowed to speak.

Once the timer begins, players are forbidden to talk to each other. They just have to reach in and move a piece if they think it's the right time and place to do so. They're allowed to glare intently at another player to "ask" them to do something. They're also allowed to grab one wooden pawn sitting on the table and smack it forcefully in front of somebody to get their attention. Otherwise, you're trying to work together as best you can under the extreme limitations.

You are allowed to stop the clock once or twice a round by moving one of the adventurers to a "pause" space on the board (once you've uncovered one). During the pause, players can speak, and plan what they hope to do next. But once the timer is restarted, it's back to silence.

The gameplay is pretty simple and the strategic implications minimal, obviously. Some people might even consider this more of a "puzzle" than a "game." But it is a fair amount of fun. The combination of the time pressure and the no-speaking rule make this very much the antithesis of most cooperative games. There aren't drawn-out discussions about what to do -- you just act on instinct, and if you make a mistake, you stare intently at the player with the power to undo it.

The game seemed very good for 4 players, with each participant having enough to do to be satisfied. I've also played with 5 and 6 players, and while that spread jobs enough that some people would sometimes have a little down time, it didn't seem to hurt the experience too much overall. The game does say it takes up to 8, though, and that many I'd be less sure about.

There is escalating difficulty, with more and more wrinkles thrown in on each playthrough as the players learn to negotiate the obstacles of the scenario before. We gotten a couple of layers deep the few times I've played, but I know there's more to it that we haven't yet tried, and I'd be curious to see just what that involves.

Super-short cooperative game that accommodates a wide range of players is a pretty narrow niche. This game has done it, and in a way that sets it well apart from other games. I was entertained. Because it's a bit shallow, I wouldn't say it became an instant favorite. Still, it's a game I can appreciate and recommend. I give Magic Maze a B+.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

DS9 Flashback: The Circle

Deep Space Nine's three-part season two opener continues with "The Circle."

After Kira's rescue of Bajoran hero Li Nalas, the ambitious politician Jaro Essa installs Li in Kira's job aboard Deep Space Nine. Suddenly stripped of purpose, Kira is invited to the Bajoran monastery by Vedek Bareil for spiritual exploration. But her stay is cut short when she's abducted by operatives of the nationalist terrorists known as the Circle. Her friends on the station must stage a rescue against a ticking clock -- the provisional government is coming under the sway of Jaro and his philosophy, and the Federation may soon be expelled from Bajoran space.

The middle part of this Deep Space Nine trilogy was scripted by staff writer Peter Allan Fields. His primary responsibility was to amp up the conflict of the story and develop the main adversary, Jaro Essa. Here, actor Frank Langella gets to sink his teeth into something fun. The episode isn't too interested in red herrings. Jaro is rather villainous right out of the gate, and the revelation that he's the leader of the Circle hardly feels like it's meant to surprise. Because there's no bait-and-switch, Langella gets more opportunities to mug for the camera, first in a great "explain my evil plot" scene with Kira, and later in a delicious one-on-one with Vedek Winn (a scene in which two great award winning actors get to twirl their figurative evil mustaches).

Louise Fletcher is back as Winn, firmly establishing her (and Bareil, and Bajoran politics) as a regular fixture on the show. Once again, Fletcher is the master at delivering a "chocolate covered cobra," smiling pleasantly as she cuts with her words. The shots she takes at both Kira and Bareil are both hilarious and infuriating. She is the perfect holier-than-thou clergy member.

It's not just the guest stars who get to have fun and show off their skills. In an early scene in Kira's quarters, nearly the entire main cast of characters comes to wish her goodbye. The scene was written by Fields as a deliberate farcical homage to the Marx Brothers. Episode director Corey Allen chose to film it in a single, uninterrupted take, knowing the core of mostly theater-trained actors would be up for the challenge. Unfortunately, this was a few years before TV audiences were given credit for being ready for the idea of a "one-er," and Allen was forced by producers to shoot close-ups to also edit into the scene. Even if the end result isn't quite Allen's vision, the comedy totally plays -- as does the dramatic punctuation on the scene, when Kira introduces Bareil to the people she realizes in that moment are her friends.

Fields takes another chance, writing a more dream-like and impressionist "orb experience" for Kira than the quite literal flashback Sisko had in the series pilot. The sequence plays well, as do a handful of other good character moments for the commander. In the opening scene with Jaro, Sisko conveys the force of his anger without ever raising his voice, saying a lot about his character. Later, Sisko's honorable nature is underscored when he approaches a Bajoran military leader for a favor without trying to strong-arm it out of him.

But there are also less successful aspects of the episode. Kira's departure from the station is something of a mixed bag. Her goodbye is given appropriate time and weight, including a nice scene with Sisko and a farewell to Ops itself (which includes a neat upward angle showing off the multi-story set). Yet despite all this, it never for a moment seems real to the audience that Kira will actually be leaving the station for long. Her captivity is similarly short; she's rescued mere minutes after she's captured.

The character of Vedek Bareil doesn't work very well for me either -- though I'd chalk this up more to performance than writing. Actor Philip Anglim's take on serene wisdom comes off to me more like dispassionate detachment. The suggestion that he might now or in the future be a love interest for Kira feels rather far-fetched as of this episode (though I suppose you could argue that's the point).

In the outright failure column, I'd put Li Nalas. After the previous episode set up an intriguing character, this one doesn't really know how to use him. Fields himself acknowledged this shortcoming, noting that the character barely had an arc in the three-parter overall: "He was an okay guy in part 1, part 2, and part 3." The core idea seems to be one of a coward who ultimately stands up. It doesn't really play, as Li really isn't "cowardly" enough (nor really, much of anything) here in this middle chapter.

The episode also falters in conveying the state of Bajoran society and politics overall. The serene monastery and the sterile and spartan war room do little to demonstrate that the government is truly on the brink of collapse. The episode's conclusion, an ultimatum to the Federation to leave Bajoran space, feels like a plot contrivance more than an inevitable development.

Other observations:
  • Odo has a weird pop-up screen built into his desk, which is never seen again after this episode. That's a good call, as what's projected on this screen winds up looking a bit like a baseball card photo.
  • Speaking of Odo, this episode recalls his trick from the pilot of sneaking aboard a docked ship to do reconnaissance. Sometimes it feels like Odo's obvious "stealth capabilities" aren't used nearly as much as would be logical.
  • The series continues to spend money to make this three-parter special. There's more shooting on location, this time to portray the Bajoran monastery.
I wouldn't really call this episode "weak" as such, nor does it feel to me like it has "middle part of a trilogy" problems with pacing. Still, it falls a bit short of the promise of the first part. I'd grade "The Circle" a B.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Signal Degradation

More than a year ago, I stumbled on a list somewhere that was something to the effect of "fun science fiction movies you've never heard of." It's from this list that I learned about the fascinating-though-not-ultimately-good Coherence,  and the far more entertaining Time Lapse. I threw everything from that list into some streaming queue or another, and every now and then I fire one up. Most recently, it was a movie called The Signal.

Three college friends are on a road trip to confront a hacker whose location they've traced. But when they reach the source, they don't find a dangerous computer genius. They experience (no need to be coy about this part) alien abduction! Next thing they know, they wake up separated from one another and in government custody. Secretive agents want to know exactly what happened to them, and it turns out to be more than even they realize.

This movie starts out well enough. The writing is rather sophisticated early on, not spoon-feeding the exposition to you and forcing you to connect the dots about who these people are and what their relationship is to each other. The movie draws you in as it makes you work to understand it.

You then have to work even harder when the weirdness begins. The deeper into the story you get, the more unexplainable details are laced into the narrative. Whether you're the sort of person who tries to "figure out the end of a movie" or not, this movie will start you doing that. You're constantly having to reevaluate your assumptions about what's really going on here, as each new piece of information given seems to contradict whatever theory you've crafted so far.

Unfortunately, the longer it goes, the less the movie comes across as actually clever, and the more it's like it's trying to seem clever. The puzzle box of this movie has more levers and gizmos than feel strictly necessary. Extraneous bits seem grafted on in an effort just to obscure the truth. Though I don't want to spoil the ending, I think it's not giving too much away to say that everything resolves like a subpar episode of The Twilight Zone -- but without the allegorical commentary. It's an M. Night Shyamalan twist "because there's supposed to be a twist," and not necessarily because it adds to the experience.

Still, the cast is interesting enough at times to save this from being a total bummer. Brenton Thwaites stars. You may recognize him from the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie, among other places, but he gives reasonably good "what the hell is going on?" -- enough to keep a current of empathy underpinning most of the strangeness. Olivia Cooke is here too, though her role is far less significant than in the recent Ready Player One (and you could argue she's a marginal character there).

The real draw to try to bring in an audience is Laurence Fishburne, cast here as one of the shadowy government types questioning the hero. He's totally here to play Morpheus, minus the kung fu. He speaks in the same slow and soothing way, and I honestly can't say if it helps or hurts the movie. It's fun as hell at times. At other times, it also feels like self-parody you're supposed to laugh at. But I guess it does keep you engaged in one way or another.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend The Signal. I think at best, I'd give it a C-. Which I guess means that list I found is batting .3333 right now. Not bad for baseball. Not great for movies. Perhaps I should cull the others out of the queue.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

DS9 Flashback: The Homecoming

When Deep Space Nine's second season was spinning up, show runner Michael Piller took his cues from the two best episodes they'd made so far -- the ones that concluded the first season. They were all about the Bajorans, with political angles that really wouldn't play well over on The Next Generation. Season two would open with the same way, he decided. And with Star Trek's first three-part episode.

When Kira learns that a Bajoran war hero long thought dead is in fact being held in a Cardassian prison camp, she's mounts a daring rescue. With Bajor's government cratering to the influence of a nativist faction, she hopes this hero, Li Nalas, can unite the people. But Li is reluctant to be the figurehead the Bajorans need, as he's not really the hero any of them thinks.

Though this three-part episode is clearly a Deep Space Nine kind of story, it began as an idea from Jeri Taylor, head writer of The Next Generation -- which she originally intended for that show. Deep Space Nine head writer Michael Piller (and Taylor's former boss on Next Gen) appropriated the idea for the newer series, sensing how good a fit it would be. The story was expanded to three episodes, with a different writer taking each part. Ira Steven Behr developed this first chapter, and put his stamp on it by changing the nature of the legendary Bajoran at the heart of the tale. While Li Nalas had originally been conceived of as a reluctant hero, Behr felt it would be more compelling to make him a mistaken one, whose initial act of bravery had been totally misconstrued and blown out of proportion.

Behr and the rest of the writing staff also infused this story with a lot of political and social commentary. All incarnations of Star Trek have produced their share of thought-provoking and topical episodes. But even just this far into re-watching Deep Space Nine, I'm struck that this series may have the most staying power. This Bajor story line feels so "ripped from today's headlines" that it could just as easily have been part of Star Trek: Discovery. The government is losing stability after the departure of a key leader, and we're told that many Bajorans now feel that politicians can't get things done. In the Circle, there's a small but riled group stoking racist and nativist inclinations. They wear masks instead of white polo shirts and wield spray paint rather than tiki torches, but the parallels are pretty damn strong.

Because this story is unfolding over three episodes, there's a lot of time spent on fun world-building too. We see Kira pray, learning that the Bajoran prayer stance (appropriately) is arms-up like some sort of endurance test. We see how Li Nalas' earring comes into Quark's possession, giving us a taste of the criminal underworld in the Star Trek universe.

Fun though all that is, script writer Ira Steven Behr uses the time to dig into the message as well. A subplot about Jake's date with a Bajoran girl ends in a sober conversation between him and Benjamin. The girl's father breaks the date because Jake isn't Bajoran, leading to a meaningful talk about racism. It's not white actors in sci-fi makeup wringing their hands and wracking their brains over how this could be; it's between two people of color, a resonant talk between a father and son.

There's also plenty of time spent developing this story arc's great guest characters. Li Nalas is built up not only by Kira's praise, but by the fact that both Sisko and Bashir have already heard of him. Late in the episode, Li gets a lengthy and poignant monologue revealing how his heroism is a legend blown out of proportion. (It's filmed smartly, too, with Li staying in foreground focus the entire time as Sisko offers out-of-focus counsel in the background.) To embody Li Nalas and deliver this monologue? The show was able to nab Richard Beymer, Tony from West Side Story himself.

Beymer was arguably not even the "biggest get" of the episode, though. Frank Langella appears as Bajoran politician Jaro Essa. It's an uncredited appearance; Langella reportedly took this role for his kids, refusing a big paycheck and prominent billing. As his role is more significant in the subsequent chapters of the story, though, I'll dive into that more then. Rounding out the guest cast, we get Marc Alaimo's return as Gul Dukat. I feel like it's somewhere right around this episode where the series stopped calling up Alaimo because they'd already developed makeup for his face and starting calling him up because they wanted to do things specifically with his character.

Despite the time spent establishing significant guest characters, the episode finds plenty of great moments for the regulars. Odo and Quark spar in their fun and characteristic way. Dax serves as an effective intermediary between her two friends, Sisko and Kira -- after a great verbal exchange where Dax's advice is to "give Kira the runabout," we get a great non-verbal exchange in which the permission is given and graciously accepted. Kira learns not everything involving a Starfleet officer will necessarily be a fight; when she tells O'Brien that they will "come back with Li Nalas or [not] come back," his solemn acceptance catches her visibly by surprise.

The production also clearly chooses to blow out the budget on this three-parter, planning to tighten the purse strings later to make up for it. There's filming on location for the Cardassian prison camp, and an extensive (and effective) action sequence shot there.

Other observations:
  • Late last season, Sisko's trademark baseball was added his desk. I believe this is the first time we see him playing with it as he tries to think.
  • When the Circle steps up their attacks to physical assault, Quark is their first target. The meta reason for this might simply be to give Armin Shimerman more to do in the episode. In-universe, it's interesting that they go after a Ferengi and not one of Bajor's "Starfleet interlopers." Is it that the Ferengi are more obnoxious? An easier mark? Is the Circle not quite ready to poke the Federation straight in the eye?
  • Though Deep Space Nine would later get into even more serialized storytelling than this, those episodes wouldn't generally end with a "To Be Continued." Indeed, Star Trek as a whole would not again attempt a three-part episode like this until late in the run of Enterprise.
While I like a lot about this episode, it is obviously an incomplete story. With lots of setup and little payoff, I feel I can only rate it as high as a B+. Still, I applaud the ambition here. This is clearly a foundational moment in defining the type of show Deep Space Nine would become.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Honeymoon

Ever since Ruby was introduced to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and revealed to be a moody teenager, it was only a matter of time before she'd turn against her mother, General Hale. The particulars may have been up for grabs (could Ruby turn good? would she out-evil her mother?), but the fuse was definitely lit. Sure enough, that plot twist blew up in Hale's face this week, and in the process felt like a big piece of this story arc's conclusion.

Elsewhere, love was in the air. FitzSimmons made a "honeymoon" of their raid with Yo-Yo. There was a lot of fun to be had in this story line, from Fitz's acknowledgement of how far he's come since season one (with regards to jumping from airplanes), to the pair's initial certainty of their invulnerability wavering in the face of overwhelming odds. The one contrived beat in the story was that Yo-Yo had never tried using her powers before this moment. Even accepting the conflict between Inhuman abilities and robotic arms as a worthy plot point, the discovering of it in these conditions felt like a cheap writers' trick. I think suspense would have worked just as well as surprise here -- having Yo-Yo discover this problem earlier, then having to go on this raid knowing her speed wasn't available to her.

Love also served as the peak moment in the "rescue" story line this week. Coulson and Talbot were brought back into the fold, setting up a showdown between May and Coulson about his reckless behavior. That May "shut him up" by declaring her love for him was the perfect punctuation on the scene. I remain unconvinced that the show is actually working toward killing off Coulson as they've repeatedly telegraphed (or that an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without Coulson could carry on without having lost something vital), but I do at least like the way the May/Coulson relationship is playing out as they pursue this story arc.

During Coulson's rescue, Deke got shot, ultimately leading to the third thread of love in the story, Deke's drugged-up post-operation confession of feelings for Daisy. Totally cliche, but if you're going to do a cliche, best to reveal it in a broad comedic moment like this. Actor Jeff Ward certainly had fun with the scene.

The tag on the episode was the reveal of Talbot as a good old-fashioned "Hail HYDRA" sleeper agent, which should provide fun tension for an episode or two on our way to the finish line. That, along with FitzSimmons' capture, could serve to make next week a less action-y, more suspense-filled affair.

As for this episode? I'd give it a B.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

DS9 Flashback: In the Hands of the Prophets

Coming off their strongest episode yet, the season one finale of Deep Space Nine kept the momentum going with a tale of Bajoran politics, and a clash of religious and secular viewpoints.

Trouble follows when Vedek Winn, figurehead of an orthodox faction in the Bajoran clergy, visits Deep Space Nine. She takes issue with Keiko O'Brien's secular teachings about the wormhole, driving a wedge between Starfleet personnel and the Bajorans they've been working with for months. But Winn is sowing discord for a deeper purpose, hoping to lure a political rival to the station where he can be assassinated.

I couldn't find out if, at the time this episode was being written, the staff knew whether Deep Space Nine was getting a season two. It feels like the fate of the series was uncertain, as this episode not only doesn't end on a cliffhanger, it has a strong "leave it all on the field" vibe about it. The story seems to come full circle to the pilot, demonstrating that the Federation really has gained ground in its relationship with Bajor. "Series finale" or no, the echo was deliberate by series runner Michael Piller, after executive producer Rick Berman nixed the original idea to conclude the season with a Next Generation crossover centered on an all-out Cardassian invasion.

There are sophisticated ideas throughout this episode, and the real-world comparisons are quite direct, with little or no sci-fi veneer. Church walks right into school and demands that "intelligent design" be taught as part of the curriculum. A shop owner refuses to sell to someone on religious grounds. Children are put at potential risk when a school is targeted for violence. A suicidal attacker is promised salvation in heaven for her actions. It all feels ripped from the headlines, in 2018 as much as (if not more so than) 1993, when it originally aired.

Not only are these issues raised, but characters are given different perspectives on them. Kira is initially supportive of Winn and the idea that Bajoran religion should be taught in school, arguing that Bajoran and Federation interests aren't always the same. When Jake spouts off about the foolishness of religion, his father is quick to point out how faith helped the Bajorans survive occupation; Benjamin also notes that since the Wormhole Aliens can see outside linear time, they're hardly the craziest thing one might regard as godly.

Some great character development is put into Vedeks Winn and Bareil. Decades before we'd know who Pope Benedict and Pope Francis were, Deep Space Nine dramatized a reasonable proxy for both, struggling for the soul of a fictitious church. On the one hand, a strict authoritarian who sees the interests of herself, her people, and her religion as one and the same -- a character for whom the ends absolutely justifies the means. On the other hand, a progressive hippie type looking to pierce the pompous rituals of the establishment, appealing but perhaps naive.

How these two roles were cast is another display of that "leave it all on the field" mentality I mentioned. Philip Anglim was a noted Broadway actor who originated the role of the Elephant Man. Louise Fletcher was a bona fide Oscar winner who found a science fiction role meaty enough to keep coming back to play again and again. What's more, Fletcher was cast to play basically the very archetype she won for -- a smiling villain, mannered but vicious.

It isn't just the guest stars who get great character moments to play. Sisko goes out on a limb with the belief that the relationships forged with Bajorans over the past few months are strong enough to trump hate. Kira has a particularly great arc in the episode: first she identifies with (and envies) Winn's strong faith, then she's tested in her support of Sisko, and finally she instantly surmises Winn's role in the assassination attempt. (With her history in the resistance, she'd be one to recognize guerilla tactics.)

There are a few missteps in the episode, or at least they seem so on the heels of an episode as exceptional as "Duet." One is the transparent twist that O'Brien's new assistant Neela is the assassin. The writers had reportedly planned to hide this reveal by featuring her in multiple episodes leading up, but the original performer cast "didn't work out," and so Neela only appeared (briefly) in one episode before this. Another disappointing note to me is the banter between Keiko and Miles; her chiding him for his relationship with his female assistant doesn't feel as playful to me as probably intended.

Other observations:
  • When Odo is told by a Bajoran radical to "seek the Prophets," his retort to "seek them yourself" is just perfect. There are a lot of people in this episode claiming virtue without demonstrating it.
  • Even while on duty, Dax calls Sisko "Benjamin."
  • Why does password breaking on television always look like it does here -- like an electronic game of Mastermind where correctly-guessed digits are helpfully confirmed by the computer being hacked?
  • The Bajoran treat known behind the scenes as "glop-on-a-stick" receives the official name "jumja."
There were some shaky steps along the way, but season one of Deep Space Nine went out on a strong note. I give "In the Hands of the Prophets" an A-.

As I noted in a recent episode review, Deep Space Nine may not have been as good in this first season as The Next Generation was at the time, but it was miles better than Next Gen's own first season. My picks for the Top 5 episodes of year one: "Duet," "In the Hands of the Prophets," "The Nagus," "Emissary," and "Battle Lines."

On to season two!