Friday, May 24, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Search, Part II

Continuing the two-part episode that opened Deep Space Nine season three, "The Search, Part II" continues setting the stage for one of the series' most important ongoing story lines.

Odo has found the home planet of his people, yet something doesn't feel right. He's having difficulty connecting with them, can't help but notice their xenophobia toward "solids," and becomes increasingly certain they're hiding a secret from him. Meanwhile, the crew of the Defiant is rescued after their Gamma Quadrant mission and returned to Deep Space Nine. There they meet shocking news: the Dominion has made overtures of peace with the Federation. But this too doesn't feel right. The Federation seems too eager to agree to the Dominion's increasingly difficult demands: to break an accord with the Romulans, give up control of Deep Space Nine, and abandon the Bajorans.

There's a bait-and-switch in this episode that reportedly annoyed many viewers when it first aired: everything that happens on the station is really part of a simulation in the minds of the characters. Or, uncharitably: "it's all a dream." I side with the writers and their intentions here; the episode shows just how powerful the Dominion is to toy with the heroes like this. Cunning too. As writer Robert Hewitt Wolf put it, "the whole thing was a test" for them -- if they can take over the Federation slowly, by diplomacy, why expend military resources?

Even if this part of the story is fake, interesting things still happen. We see Sisko stick up for his team, charging in to yell at a superior officer over Dax's transfer. We see him and his officers take a firm moral stance, choosing insubordination over blindly following bad orders. We can also infer the cleverness of the Dominion in how complete the scenario is... it pushes the test subjects one way with a stonewalling Admiral Nechayev, pulls them another with a supportive Garak, draws out their feelings with a questioning Jake, and mocks them with a self-righteous Quark.

But you don't just have to infer; you learn even more about the Dominion from what the Founders come straight out and say. The Changeling Leader that interacts with Odo tells a story of how her people were once hunted and tormented by "solids," leading to their xenophobia. We never learn the actual historical truth in the series, but it's probably not as white as she paints, nor as black as the changelings being maniacal subjugators without provocation. In any case, their attitudes are so deeply entrenched that Odo's interactions with them changes nothing -- not his memories (shared via "link"), and not seeing firsthand how caring and true a friend Kira is to Odo.

Odo may have finally found "his people," but the episode repeatedly shows how little he has in common with them. He has no instinct to explore other shapes in the arboretum, as the Leader suggests. When he tries it, it means nothing to him. Most profoundly, the Founders have no sense of justice as Odo recognizes it -- the core of his being is absent in theirs. The conflict is well-defined right out of the gate, this episode serving to develop the Founders as clearly as the second season finale set up the Jem'Hadar. (Notably, though, the writers still haven't quite figured out what to do with the Vorta. After this, we wouldn't see them again until nearly the end of season four -- when Jeffrey Combs' performance as Weyoun would blaze the trail.)

Other observations:
  • Jonathan Frakes directs his first episode of Deep Space Nine, with his signature use of high, wide angles to put characters in isolation. He spoke glowingly of this experience, noting that an Odo story "was like having a Next Generation episode assignment to direct a Data story." Besides praising the work of Rene Auberjonois, he also loved the spacious Deep Space Nine sets, saying "it's hard to find a bad angle on that space station."
  • In a nice bit of continuity, the monolith seen in the changeling arboretum matches the one in seen in "The Alternate," that was claimed to be a "relic of Odo's people."
  • The Vorta character of Borath was originally planned to be Eris, the same character from "The Jem'Hadar," but actress Molly Hagan was unavailable to reprise the role. Her loss perhaps was ultimately Jeffrey Combs' gain.
  • "No changeling has ever harmed another" is a huge bell placed in this episode that you know will someday be rung. It also further underscores the Founders' xenophobia, as the idea of killing each other is so unthinkable, while the idea of killing solids is so unworthy of thought.
I give "The Search, Part II" a B+, though in terms of importance to the series, it would rank higher still. It's a huge milestone in establishing Deep Space Nine's unique identity in the Star Trek universe.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Forum Letter

At the risk of repeating myself, I do love board games by designer Stefan Feld. Sparing you a lengthy introduction that belabors that point, I'll get right to it: I had a chance to try one of his more recent releases, Forum Trajanum.

Set at the height of the ancient Rome, players each compete to develop their own piece of the Empire. The story wrapper has a few more nuances to it than that, but the simple truth is that the particulars aren't terribly important. It's a vehicle for delivering another intricate Feld game system.

It's perhaps too much a generalization, but the closest Feld game I'd compare this one to is Notre Dame. That's because actions in Forum Trajanum are drafted -- each turn, you look at two options and pass one to another player. You then choose whether to take the one action you picked or the one you were passed. It's a system that immediately gets you more invested in what your opponents are doing -- or one of them, at least -- just to be sure that you're not passing them a great opportunity.

I'd love to attempt to explain the other systems in the game in more detail, but it feels quite challenging to do it justice without having the board and pieces close at hand to illustrate. It's not necessarily that it's "too" complex. (I've played more convoluted games.) But it is hard to wrap your head around until you've played a few turns of it.

But then, maybe it is a bit more involved than it absolutely has to be. I wonder this because when I played, it seemed like all players (myself included) were having to "take back" actions more often than usual. Certainly more often that would be desirable. Planning ahead in Forum Trajanum is harder than you think it will be. There are lots of ways to convert resources into points, which is great from a "many ways to win" standpoint, but pretty hard when you try to think through all your options and their ramifications.

It does at least all seem balanced -- no surprise there. There's a section of the game devoted to unlocking special rules-cheating powers, along a series of ability tracks. Each track seemed useful for different strategic approaches to the game. It was easy to simultaneously be both proud of an engine you'd developed and envious of someone else's engine.

I did enjoy the game, and would play it again if the opportunity arose. Still, I'm pretty sure this doesn't reach the top tier of Feld games for me. It feels a touch too hard to teach, a touch too much to wrap your mind around. Likely it would smooth out with more regular plays, but my group has found other game options lately that I suspect will be more popular. Forum Trajanum probably sits just outside looking in. I'd grade it a B. It's far from a Stefan Feld "failure," but it doesn't sit along his long list of past triumphs.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Search, Part I

Season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was unique for the series. For the first half of the run, it was the only Star Trek series on the air, carrying the torch after The Next Generation ended and before Voyager began. The premiere made clear that it wasn't content to just keep doing what it had been doing; Deep Space Nine was going to continue evolving.

After time away from the station, Sisko returns to Deep Space Nine with a surprise -- a tough warship named the Defiant, built in response to the Borg threat. With it he brings a mission to enter the Gamma Quadrant and seek the Founders, the mysterious leaders of the Dominion.

Adding the Defiant to the series was reportedly a real battle the writers had to win with Rick Berman and the executives at Paramount. Voyager was right around the corner, and it was supposed to be the "starship show." There were fears of brand dilution if Deep Space Nine were to add its own ship and start "boldly going" every week. The writers had to provide reassurance that the goal here wasn't to take the characters away from the station any more than usual. In truth, they just wanted to be able to take more characters than a runabout could comfortably hold (from both a story and production perspective).

There were still more fights beyond getting the ship itself. Staff writer Ronald Moore had wanted to name it the Valiant, but another "V"-named ship was not going to fly. Rick Berman was reluctant to let the ship have a cloaking device, worried that Gene Roddenberry would not have been happy about the Federation "sneaking around." Then there were budgetary considerations; the series wouldn't be able to show all the expected locations aboard a starship, and would have to make do with just a bridge, hallway, and single crew quarters.

All of these limitations led to some clever creative decisions that made the Defiant the compelling part of Deep Space Nine it would become. Its warship nature made for a really different visual design, more like an armored turtle than any Federation ship we'd seen before. The close crew quarters allowed for intensely personal scenes, like the one here in which Odo doesn't want to show vulnerability by "sleeping" in front of Quark.

Not every aspect of the Defiant was fully realized out of the gate, though. The machine gun-like phaser fire, though cool here, would be retooled. The idea that a Romulan character would be around to supervise the use of the cloaking device would be dropped after the two-parter (though actress Martha Hackett would get to play a recurring character on Star Trek -- Seska, over on Voyager).

The same attitude with the Defiant to "try new things -- some will stick, some won't" permeated other aspects of the episode too. Dax has a new (and wildly big) hairstyle here, never to be seen again after the two-parter. Odo has a new uniform with a belt and collar (a request from Rene Auberjonois, who liked these aspects of his "mirror universe" look); it would last a bit longer, though not permanently. What would last was the new character of Michael Eddington. Like the minor character of Primmin from season one, he was put there so that on screen he could clash with Odo over security issues, and behind the scenes he might fill in for Colm Meaney when he booked movies mid-season (as he'd done the first two years).

In many ways, this episode functions as a second pilot for the show. Explanations of the Dominion, the main characters (especially Odo), and the overall situation are laid on extra thick as if for first time viewers hopefully making the jump from the now-ended Next Generation. It's probably not a coincidence that this was the first episode scripted by Ronald Moore, a writer from The Next Generation who himself was making the jump to Deep Space Nine. Moore fits in right away, nailing a tense submarine-like scene of cat and mouse with the Jem'Hadar ships, delicately weaving in a discussion of racism (Odo thinks Starfleet is anti-shapeshifter; Sisko has to talk him down), and depicting friendships that feel comfortably and realistically lived in (both Kira/Odo and Sisko/Dax).

What Moore nailed on the page, director Kim Friedman nailed in the execution. Returning from the second season finale, Friedman puts great camera work in this episode. A roving, handheld camera stalks Dax and O'Brien while they're on a risky away mission. A "Vertigo zoom" captures Odo's reaction to meeting other shapeshifters for the first time. Friedman is also good with the actors. An early scene between Ben and Jake Sisko really convinces you they think of the station as home now. Odo's animalistic draw toward the Omarion Nebula somehow feels both spooky and natural. Eddington comes on nice; actor Kenneth Marshall said Friedman coached him that just the fact of his being there was threat enough to Odo.

The ending of the episode packs quite a punch, when Odo comes face to face with another changeling for the first time. As fun as parts of the season two finale were, it would have truly been something if this had been the cliffhanger end of that season. Odo has found his people? What?! Writers Behr and Wolfe had been cooking up the twist of the Founders being Odo's people for much of the previous season, but according to Behr, "we never thought they'd go for it in a million years." Similarly, Rene Auberjonois had often joked of his character that "the day we find out where Odo is from is the day that they will be writing me out of the show." But producers Michael Piller and Rick Berman were reportedly on board with the idea right away, and Auberjonois quickly realized that the development would only make his character more complex.

Other observations:
  • One moment that doesn't play well at all is when Sisko produces the Grand Nagus staff and forces Quark to pay homage by kissing it. It's a weirdly petty moment for Sisko. There's also no particular reason why Quark should trust it's the genuine article and not a replica. (I mean, if Sisko can be that petty, why not that deceitful?) As actor Armin Shimerman aptly put it: "it seems to me that this was another example of the Federation making fun of, taking advantage of, and ridiculing the Ferengi way. So kissing the scepter was a bit irksome to both the actor and the character."
  • In a small role as an alien, "I know that guy" actor John Fleck makes an appearance in the episode.
  • When the Jem'Hadar board the Defiant, they barely fire their weapons at all, engaging instead in hand-to-hand combat. Is this saving the special effects budget, expressing the race's bloodthirst, or hinting at the truth (revealed in part two) that the goal of this attack is to take prisoners? All of the above?
  • The Founders' homeworld is described as a rogue planet not orbiting a star, though when we see the planet from space, there's a very prominent and bright star in the visual.
I'd give "The Search, Part I" a B+. I thought it was a rather strong season opener. But of course, it's only half the story...

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Window of Opportunity

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. started off its sixth season with an episode in no hurry to dispel audience confusion. The second episode continued very much in this mold.

The team is on the trail of the strange new threat that looks like Agent Coulson. Meanwhile, Fitz is trapped aboard an alien space ship, trying to hide as a member of its engineering team. But when his cover is blown, he scrambles to save his own life without sacrificing his sense of right and wrong.

Ever so slowly, the series is giving us more information about what's going on this season. But it's still finishing the outside border of the jigsaw puzzle. The threat is from a marauding group of alien baddies who leave a trail of destroyed planets in their wake. But are they causing that destruction or staying just a step ahead of it? In their search for precious (to them) resources, are they fighting to survive, or involved in some profit-seeking adventure? I feel like I need to understand who these people even are before I can begin to engage in why their leader looks like Coulson. So far, the show isn't offering many answers.

But at least it isn't stingy with the fun visuals. The "portable hole" technology that connected the aliens' HQ/big rig with the inside of a vault was fun both as the heist began and as it turned into a cross-location fight with May later in the episode. There were other simple thrills too -- visual gags like the rig's cloaking technology, and tantalizing morsels of character development as the personalities of the people on Sarge's team were slowly penciled in.

I feel like I should have felt more engaged in the Fitz plot line this week -- it does, after all, revolve around a character I know, one I'm very happy to see not dead. And yet the underpinnings of the story here make it a little hard to get into. Time travel being what it is, this version of Fitz is almost completely ignorant of the events of season five -- events that advanced and changed his character a great deal. His notion of destiny has been reset, his marriage to Simmons has been undone, and he's regressed in working through his guilt over the Framework and the end of season four. That's a lot to undo, and seeing him "do" it again isn't especially compelling. In short, I feel like he needs to be found by the rest of the team sooner rather than later. The longer he's isolated, the more he's just repeating previous emotional beats.

I suppose I did find this second episode a touch more engaging than the premiere. But I'm still not really on board with this new season of the show just yet. I give the episode a C+. Here's hoping they find their groove again.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Iron Throne

Right now, I'm mostly satisfied. It's the morning after the Game of Thrones finale, and while it's hardly in contention with me for one of television's all-time great series finales, I'm reasonably contented with what we got. Throughout the day, I have no doubt I'm going to read a lot on the internet trying to convince me I'm wrong... but in this moment, I feel like I got an ending, the parts more or less fit, and it ticked most of the boxes.

I imagine you're not here right now if you haven't seen it yourself. But just in case, this is where my thoughts stop being spoiler-free.

I will concede that as with several elements this season, the plot developments were good ones, even if the moves to get there weren't as skillful as some might have hoped. I think the biggest example of this was the rise of Bran to lead the remaining Six Kingdoms. It seems like a reasonable choice at like a reader/viewer level, but Tyrion's speech was hardly the most persuasive argument for it. If it's just about who had the best, most transformative "story," then any one of the surviving Starks would easily compete. (And not coincidentally, nearly all of them ended up ruling somewhere.)

No, I think the most compelling arguments for Bran would be that he's demonstrated himself the least bloodthirsty of the surviving characters. After a catastrophe like the destruction of King's Landing, that would seem to be the most compelling criterion. The fact that he could "research" any crisis throughout all of history to see how it (or anything similar) was handled? Also fairly compelling. Assuming you trust his judgment, anyway.

And that's the area where I wish a little more connective tissue could have been laid in for us. I could see why Tyrion and Samwell might support Bran for King. But there really isn't any established relationship with any of the other characters on that dias with him. I mean, weeks did pass after Dany's murder, so maybe Bran went around after arriving in King's Landing, giving his creeper stare to everyone and making believers of them. But we have to imagine how this all came to pass, adding facts not really in evidence. And that's especially a bummer given the fact that Bran's own sister was unwilling to support him as her ruler. In any plausible political reality, that feels like all the excuse someone ambitious would need to pitch a fit and sow discord.

Still, Bran felt like a decent choice, even if it wasn't perfectly depicted. Certainly, it's good that he served a purpose in the narrative beyond being bait for the Night King. It felt right for Sansa to get her own throne as Queen in the North, and for Jon to become, essentially, King Beyond the Wall. It also felt right for Arya not to end up in charge of anyone or anything -- sure, she recently steered away from vengeance, but it wasn't that long ago she was poisoning a whole room full of people. If Daenerys isn't fit to lead, neither is she. (I was less persuaded that Arya had expressed any past wanderlust that set up her ending, but a friend convinced me that it was more present in the books.)

The element that I think most needed space did get it: the death of Daenerys. The hour led off with Jon and Tyrion's horrified reaction to the destruction, and then we got a solid one-on-one scene between them where Tyrion made argument after argument as Jon still tried to parry them away. But just enough got through Jon's thick head so that in his scene with Dany, he could be pushed that last step. Emilia Clarke made the best of a truly tough monologue, speaking as though everything she was saying was perfectly rational. Perhaps the most subtle and skillful line of the episode was when Jon alluded to all the other people who think they're doing the right thing: an accusation of Dany not quite phrased as one. I think they earned Jon's reaction in their two key scenes. (Grey Worm's comparitive non-reaction to Dany's death? Maybe not so much. But, again narratively speaking, no one really needed another big battle at this point, did they?)

Otherwise, the episode was filled with nice symbolism and some good moments. Samwell naively pitching the idea of democracy and getting laughed down by the nobles was gold, a great acknowledgement of one of the fan theories that had been making the rounds. The destruction of the Iron Throne: on the nose, but necessary. Jon holding Daenerys as he once held Ygritte (and being far more personally culpable in the death): a nice dramatic echo. Drogon riding off with Daenerys' body: a fitting final image for her. Tyrion being chosen as Hand after so many blunders made me shrug at first... until I considered that Bran really doesn't need advisors, he just needs middle managers. Tyrion's fate is arguably more a punishment than anything else, and a cleverly subtle one at that.

Bottom line? We got an ending. And I'll offer this one more Game of Thrones theory: I doubt George R.R. Martin will ever finish A Song of Ice and Fire himself. So I'm extra happy we got this. And yes, far less down on the final season than most corners of the internet seem to be. My grade for the finale: a B. Yes, it could have been better. It could also have been much, much worse.

Like I said at the beginning: right now, I'm mostly satisfied.

Friday, May 17, 2019

It's Harder the Fourth Time Around

I didn't exactly plan on this being a "series" on my blog, but I have been slowly working my way through all the Die Hard movies. Besides the original, I'd never seen any of them before. Some readers advised me I'd probably be fine leaving it that way. And yet somehow, I found myself watching the fourth installment.

Live Free or Die Hard puts John McClane up against Thomas Gabriel, a former Defense Department analyst who is staging a massive cyber attack on the country. As in the third Die Hard movie, McClane is forced into a pairing with an unlikely partner -- this time, a young hacker named Matt Farrell.

While one could debate just how "realistic" the original Die Hard was, the sequels grew increasingly less so. By movie three, when Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson were solving riddles against the clock, it felt more like a classic Batman episode than a serious action adventure. But this fourth movie escalates to new heights of ridiculousness, in an almost "James Bond before the Daniel Craig reboot" sort of way. John McClane has gone from saving an office party to saving multiple commercial airplanes to saving the New York financial district to now, literally, saving the entire country.

If the increasing sense of scale and stakes were the only ridiculous thing about Live Free or Die Hard, you could chalk it up to run-of-the-mill sequel-itis, the urge for an ongoing movie series to constantly one-up itself. But if anything, this movie is even more ridiculous in execution than in concept. Although it's not that old a movie, made in 2007, its handling of computers (the core element of the plot) is fanciful and ignorant. There's lots of hand waving about how anything actually works. Hilariously, the hacker character even says at one point that he doesn't really know how he knows everything he knows. It's cyber stuff, audience... who cares?!

There are some fun set pieces throughout, but they hit "that's cool!" and "that's crazy!" in fairly equal measure. Car vs. helicopter, semi truck vs. fighter jet -- the action sequences are both entertaining and preposterous. Yet it might be that the over-the-top quality of it all is a perfect counterbalance to one of Bruce Willis' core strengths as an actor. He can "take a punch" as few other actors can; when he's beat up and/or beat down, he shows it well. So use John McClane's core humanity to ground the insanity.

But the script also compromises one of the best aspects of the McClane character. In the prior Die Hard films, luck was the character's curse -- bad luck. He was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, with things happening to him in the worst way... but he'd find a way to use his smarts to get out of the situation. The McClane of Live Free or Die Hard is instead incredibly lucky instead of unlucky. He just happens to avoid explosions, just happens to take out bad guys, and just happens to possess new skills he just happens to need for this particular adventure.

Even altered and compromised as John McClane is, none of the movie's new characters are as compelling as he is. Timothy Olyphant's villain is often implausibly stupid, Justin Long's hacker ally is more of a burden than an asset, Maggie Q is a personality-free ass kicker, a young Mary Elizabeth Winstead is inconsistently weak or strong as needed by the plot, and Kevin Smith is... what the hell is he doing here?

If you can switch your brain off and let this movie just wash over you, there is some fun to be had. But that's a tall order at times, a demand that the first Die Hard movie didn't make of its audience so regularly. I give Live Free or Die Hard a C. My readers were right: I probably shouldn't have bothered with it. (And yet, with just one more Die Hard movie left to go, I'm probably "pot committed" to finishing the series at some point.)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Left (Coming Soon) to Your Own Devices

For years, the head writer behind Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has been promising a documentary looking back on the series. He crowdfunded the effort, and it hardly seemed likely that he was scamming everyone and making off with the money... yet, year after year, no movie. But finally, this year, it has arrived.

What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is the result of this long wait. Ira Steven Behr has gathered up nearly everyone you could think of involved with the show for wide-ranging interviews on the series -- cast, crew, writers, and producers. (Notably, star Avery Brooks participated in no new interviews here, but some previously existing clips of him are incorporated. His co-stars also have plenty to say about him and his positive but unusual creative energy.)

I was perhaps a little disappointed that the film didn't delve more deeply behind the scenes than it did... but I also think I was on some level judging it against unfair competition. The book series on the original Star Trek, These Are the Voyages, remains fresh in my mind. Three hefty tomes, those books have space to delve far more deeply than a two-hour documentary ever could. They also set an unreasonably high standard for unearthing previously unknown information about the show; Star Trek has been around for five decades, with countless books written about it, yet nothing else came close.

All of this is to say that fans really in the know about the behind the scenes of Deep Space Nine shouldn't expect many new revelations from this documentary. But you do get a lot of pleasant nostalgia. Indeed, it's easier to be more nostalgic about the series than its more widely acknowledged predecessors, since you don't hear as many people talk about it.

The documentary gets into how the show was at the forefront of serialized storytelling on mainstream television, as well as racial diversity and representation, prominent use of well-rounded and powerful female characters, unflinching examination of spikier subject matter, and more. Show runner Behr also pointedly acknowledges at one point an area in which the show could have been more daring than it was: LGBT representation.

An interesting element of the film is how it uses the reunion of the Deep Space Nine writers. Five of them spent a full day together in a room brainstorming what they might do with a new, eighth season of the show, were they given the opportunity to produce it today. They wind up sketching out an entire season premiere episode in rough form, which is presented to us in bits and pieces throughout the film via animatics. It drives home the pervading sense of nostalgia as it shows off one of the hallmarks of the show: how it wasn't afraid to indulge increasingly big ideas over the years. (It's now 20 years later, and they don't actually have to make this show; imagine how big the ideas get!)

Seeing all these people reunite to reminisce and stick up for the overlooked installment of Star Trek was a lot of fun. And seeing the film screened in theaters for one night was also fun, to see fans of Deep Space Nine in particular (not just Trek generally) come out to show their love for the show. The documentary will be released on streaming and Blu-ray in just a couple of months, but this early, special screening was worth not waiting.

I give What We Left Behind a B+. If you loved Deep Space Nine, it's well worth checking out. (And if you've never seen the series, you're truly missing out.)