Friday, May 31, 2013

Another Train Game?

My gaming group has recently picked up a new party game that's a good deal more challenging than most games in the genre. Train of Thought gives each player two minutes to go through a series of cards, each with a single word. Your goal is to get one of the other players to guess the next word, scoring 1 point for each of you. You must give a clue of exactly three words, one of which is the previous guessed word, and each player then gets only a single guess. If no one gets the target word, then you must construct a new three word clue, using one of the failed guess words in the new clue. In this way, you keep working your way closer and closer to the target word, even if it's initially far away (conceptually) from your original starting point.

The game is both easier than it sounds and harder than it sounds. Sometimes you draw a word that feels naturally connected to the one you're working from, and it's only a matter of one or two clues. Other times, you can't fathom a connection to your new word, and you start spewing anything just to move the players into another arena of the English language. Perhaps most difficult of all is when you draw a word that seems best connected to a word you did earlier in your two minute period; you have to "turn the car around" and steer everyone back to where you've already been, inevitably drawing similar guesses to those you got before, but not quite the new thing you're looking for.

There is some fuzziness around the "spirit of the game" (literally referred to as such in the rules), where you're required to give an actual three word clue (which may or may not be a complete sentence), not merely a two word clue with a useless third word tossed in. You often dance around this issue, your mind sticking on things before you get a third word out, or players bombarding you with guesses before you deliver all three words. For this reason, this is one of those games that rules lawyers will no doubt be unsatisfied with. Then again, party games rarely do satisfy those types of sticklers for precision.

But overall, Train of Thought is fun, plays very quickly, and adapts easily for a broad number of players. I've had fun the handful of times I've played it so far, and I would gladly play it again. It plays out at just four minutes per player (with everyone taking two turns giving clues), making it a great game night opener, or between-games game. I'd give it a B+.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Music of Darkness

There are some aspects of Star Trek Into Darkness that I was disappointed by, but as I said in my original review of it, the score by Michael Giacchino is nothing but excellent. I recently picked up the soundtrack album, and I'm pleased (and unsurprised) to report that the music holds up just as well on its own, outside of the film.

Giacchino had already laid an excellent foundation with the prior film, composing a new theme for Star Trek which was alternately mournful and triumphant. He also incorporated the Alexander Courage theme from the original series -- not just the opening fanfare, as nearly all past Trek composers have done, but the main melody too. Into Darkness continues to make liberal use of the theme, playing with it in myriad ways. Among the most effective is in the track "Warp Core Values," the backing for Kirk's heroic actions that set up the climax of the film.

But Into Darkness wouldn't be as good a score as it is if Giacchino merely relied on remixing his melodies from the first time around, and fortunately he does no such thing. He creates wonderfully effective music for Benedict Cumberbatch's character, highlighted during the brig sequence, which he playfully titled "Brigadoom." He also sets up the character's first appearance on screen with a wonderful piano melody for the two-minute post-title montage without dialogue, "London Calling," opening as a sonata before expanding to the entire orchestra.

Of course, Giacchino has always excelled at action queues, and Into Darkness is no exception. He serves up high power music for the opening ("Pranking the Natives") and the finale ("The San Fran Hustle") and several sequences in between. I'm most impressed by his track "The Kronos Wartet," which covers the attempt to escape the Klingon sentry ship, and the subsequent battle with the Klingons on the planet surface. Giacchino becomes the latest in a long line of composers to take a swing at Klingon music, and he manages to honor much of what's come before while being very inventive. Using much of the same percussion sound palette, he abandons the traditional fifth tonal intervals, and the march time signature. In its place is an absolutely frenetic rhythm in a wildly unsettling time signature, supported by a full choir screaming Klingon phrases. It's an utter cacophony that still manages to hold together.

There are just one or two tracks, written for the film's extremely rare contemplative moments, which don't quite stand up to listening on their own, but otherwise the soundtrack is marvelous. My only real disappointment is that it's not the complete score -- but that's par for the course for initial Star Trek soundtrack releases. It's always up to a company like La-La Land Records to come along a few years later to do the job right. This incarnation of the album, I give an A-.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Morally Straight

Last week, the Boy Scouts of America altered their standing policy against allowing gays in the organization... sort of. In a vote that reportedly broke 61-38%, they decided that openly gay youth within the group will be allowed, while openly gay adults serving in leadership roles will still be banned. The decision smacks of the need to do something to address the corporate sponsors that had discontinued their charitable donations to the Boy Scouts due to the old policy. And yet, it's a decision assured to appease virtually no one.

It has at least served to expose the lie (admittedly, an already transparent one) of the organizations that claim to be "pro-traditional marriage" and not "anti-gay." After all, what possible reason should the National Organization for Marriage have, given their stated charter to protect marriage, to care what the Boy Scouts do for their membership policy? But in the wake of the vote, NOM president Bran Brown issued a brief but predictably hateful press release that concluded with: "It's the beginning of the end for what once was one of America's noblest organizations."

For those of us who support equality, it's difficult to mark this one in the "win" column. Yes, boys and young men will now be able to be a part of Boy Scouts without having to lie in direct contradiction to the stated values of the organization to be honest and moral. But if young gay men with their Arrows of Light freshly in hand then want to then turn around and give back to Scouts by becoming a leader and mentoring the next generation, they can forget it. What sort of organization holds that its own former members are unfit to be leaders?

What's unfortunate here is that this policy change is some especially dark bigotry masquerading as tolerance. On paper, it looks like progress, that "at least now the kids can be accepted." It looks and feels like, say, Colorado legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples, where you know that marriage itself is still banned by the state constitution, so you celebrate the incremental victory.

But when you ask yourself what sort of thinking informs the decision not to allow gay adults, that's when the ugliness is revealed. This is more of the fearmongering, that belief that gay people are also pedophiles... or at best, that they're somehow out to "convert" more impressionable youth to their "lifestyle." And not only is that complete nonsense, the thought process is exposed simply by the fact that adult women are allowed to lead scout troops. No one seems afraid that a straight woman is going to molest a young Scout in the way they fear the same from a gay man. And what if the female Scout leader is a lesbian? There's no possibility at all of attraction there... but the woman is a lesbian, and not allowed to be a Scout leader under the new policy.

So overall, this one doesn't feel like cause for celebration to me, not like the recent three legislative votes in Rhode Island, Delaware, and Minnesota that have made same-sex marriage legal there. No doubt for the Boy Scouts this is indeed a stepping stone to get to true equality, but until that happens, I withhold my enthusiasm.

Monday, May 27, 2013

About Face

The next Sherlock Holmes story (for me at least, as I'm reading an American edition of the stories, strangely presented in a different order) is "The Yellow Face." It's a curious tale, quite strong in some respects and rather weak in others.

Watson opens the narrative by telling us this will be a story of one of the rare occasions where Holmes did not solve the mystery... but that this tale can be told, as the truth behind the mystery was indeed discovered. Holmes is contracted by a man whose wife has recently engaged in strange behavior. When new neighbors moved in nearby, the man was alarmed to see a face with an ominous yellow pallor in the window, and reported the incident to his wife. She subsequently snuck away from the house on multiple occasions to visit these neighbors, making the husband suspicious even despite her protestations that nothing was amiss. She begs him not to pursue the matter, but he goes to Holmes because he must have his answers.

This story requires me to reveal the plot to adequately review it. One of the better aspects of the mystery is the notion that Holmes gets it wrong. He crafts a theory that is in fact exactly the one that I as a reader had crafted just before he articulated it: that the woman's former American husband (whom she'd claimed had died) had returned to blackmail her. The story is well crafted to leave these clues and lead both reader and character to an erroneous conclusion.

However... the real solution of the mystery is less than satisfying. It turns out that the woman's former husband is dead indeed; the new occupants of the house are her child by that first marriage, and the child's governess. The woman's husband was black, and the child the product of their interracial marriage. In hopes to avoid drawing attention to herself, the girl was made to wear a mask whenever she might be seen at the window, explaining the ghostly yellow face seen by Holmes' client.

The only way that Arthur Conan Doyle was able to fool both Holmes and the audience was to omit any of the facts that would have been necessary to solve the mystery. There's no indication that the woman's former husband was black, nor any hint of the mask. The ending is thus unfair; deduction is impossible, given nothing from which to deduce.

But one thing that does save the story somewhat is Doyle's very forward-thinking take on interracial marriage. He does have characters hiding from the stigma of such a union, as befit his time. The wife has kept her secret child from her new husband, thinking he'd never accept the mixed-race girl. Instead, the story resolves with the husband welcoming the girl wholeheartedly and taking her in to raise as his own. Mind you, this tale was written in the 1890s (and set in the 1880s, according to Holmes historians). At that point, we were the better part of a century away from legal, nationwide interracial marriage in the United States -- and many States had laws banning it. And while my understanding is that such marriages were never actually illegal in the United Kingdom, the stigma was certainly still there. So praise is due to Doyle for being ahead of his time on this one. (It atones for the casual bigotry on display in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four.)

Still, the fact that this mystery really doesn't play by fair rules means I can only rate it so high. I give it a C+.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The House That Netflix Built

Tomorrow is the day that Netflix unveils a brand new season of Arrested Development, seven years after the series was cancelled by FOX. I've been eagerly looking forward to the new episodes, and prepping for all the callback humor by rewatching the entire series from the beginning. But another way that I've been passing the long wait is watching Netflix's first foray into original programming, House of Cards.

House of Cards is an adaptation of a 1990s BBC show (itself an adaptation of a series of novels) about corruption in politics. Kevin Spacey stars as an ambitious congressman with elaborate machinations to amass more power and move up in the ranks. Two women in his life are equally driven and shark-like: his scheming, Lady Macbeth-style wife played by Robin Wright, and a young and impatient reporter played by Kate Mara. There's also great acting from Corey Stoll (who impressed as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) and Constance Zimmer (who never really got much to do during her run on the David Kelley series Boston Legal).

Add to this impressive stable of actors a solid team behind the camera. The producer and director of the first two episodes is David Fincher, the dark visionary behind Se7en, Fight Club, and more. His presence in turn attracted a number of other high caliber directors with a number of HBO series under their belts. (And also Joel Schumacher, the man who brought nipples to the Batsuit in Batman and Robin -- but he doesn't do anything horrible here.)

Liberated from commercials, and from having an audience who would be forced to wait a week between episodes, House of Cards is a bit different than anything else on TV. Its protagonist is truly not a good guy, which calls to mind the brief brilliant-but-cancelled series Profit. Spacey's character narrates directly at the camera and the audience, a convention almost never seen outside of theater. Episodes are routinely peppered with unexplained scenes that establish tone and metaphor, in ways more typical of a novel. There's a little something of everything in the mix here.

Most of the time, the mix is very effective. The series is compelling to watch, and you easily find yourself rooting for someone who would be the villain in any other tale -- even when he goes too far over the line. But there is occasionally a price for being this experimental. A mid-season episode, for example, in which Spacey's character returns to his college and reunites with old friends is painfully dry, and contributes almost nothing to the ongoing narrative established to that point. Also, the breathlessly paced finale still manages to disappoint a bit by teeing up a lot of exciting threads without delivering on many of them. That element -- a cliffhanger ending -- is all too much like traditional television.

The good news is, House of Cards was bought out of the gate by Netflix with a minimum two season commitment, and that second season is being filmed right now. At some point down the road, I'll be diving into the continued twisted adventures of Frank Underwood. Before then, you should definitely consider catching up yourself. I'd give the first season of House of Cards is a B+ overall.

Friday, May 24, 2013

TNG Flashback: Booby Trap

Star Trek: The Next Generation's increased emphasis on character in season three continued with its next episode, "Booby Trap."

The crew finds an ancient alien battle cruiser adrift in an asteroid field. But in going to investigate, the Enterprise becomes trapped in the very same snare that doomed the aliens -- a network of machines that drain a ship's own energy to produce a radiation lethal to the crew. Geordi LaForge is tasked with figuring out a way to beat a trap that uses your own efforts to escape against you. To help get inside the engine, he turns to a holographic simulation of the Enterprise while it was still being constructed, and of Dr. Leah Brahms, one of its brilliant designers.

While this episode does have a science fiction jeopardy in play (the only story element featured in the original 1989 episode preview, in fact), the real story here is about Geordi's ailing love life. The opening scene shows him on a bad, overwrought date, which later leads to a wonderful conversation with Guinan that exposes his problem -- he tries too hard, and just isn't himself around women. The episode then goes on to show Geordi in his element, dealing with an engineering crisis, and having a very natural relationship with a woman along the way. (Natural, but probably not quite "healthy," since the woman is a holographic simulation.)

This story flows so smoothly, it's hard to imagine that the first draft was actually written to feature Picard instead of Geordi. Show runner Michael Piller realized that the core of this story was about a "man who loves his car," and thought that it was an awkward sell for Picard to be getting romantic with a holographic woman during a crisis anyway. He switched the story over to Geordi, and the results were a clear improvement.

Although it's a Geordi episode, other characters get solid moments too. Picard's enthusiasm for exploring the alien ship speaks to his love of archaeology, and even the other characters comment on how great it is to see this boyish side of him. There's marvelous comedy in Worf, Data, Riker, and O'Brien all weighing in on playing with "ships in bottles" as young boys. Data and Wesley have a wonderful exchange upon seeing Geordi return early from his disastrous date. And Guinan tells an intriguing story of her attraction to bald men, because "a bald man was kind to me once." (It's left vague whether she might mean Picard -- although Guinan says in another episode that she never met the captain before coming aboard the Enterprise. The time-traveling events of the later episode "Time's Arrow, Part II" might be seen paying off this conversation here.)

After a long string of first- and second-season episodes where the holodeck accidentally puts people into jeopardy, it's nice to see here a logical use for the technology: to test out ideas in a simulation before putting them into practice in reality. That said, Geordi really hasn't learned his lesson about holodeck use. A slip of his tongue in "Elementary, Dear Data" created the menacing Moriarty; here, it's another unthinking turn of phrase that results in the creation of the Leah Brahms hologram.

Other observations:
  • Ron Jones delivers another fantastic score for this episode. He blends live and synthesized trumpets together to personify the alien trap, and crafts an almost pop-music love theme for Geordi and Leah. Still, producer Rick Berman wasn't a fan of all his music for this episode; Jones' music for the final sequence was thrown out. Instead, pieces of his earlier score for "Where Silence Has Lease" were used to cover the Enterprise's escape from the asteroid field.
  • Look very closely in the scene where the Away Team searches the alien ship with handheld flashlights, and you can spot the cords running to those lights from the actors' sleeves. In 1989, it took more juice than a small battery could provide to get a light that bright.
  • This episode spawned a clever idea for a sequel. You don't really think about the horrible violation of privacy when Geordi conjures up a holographic romance with an actual person, but it makes total sense. And as for the "margin of error" the computer gives here for the faithfulness to Leah Brahms' actual personality? Let's just say that somewhere, mistakes were made.

"Booby Trap" is another solid episode that delves into character as a crisis is resolved. I give it a B+. The show was definitely coming into its own.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

One Console to Rule Them All?

Three months ago, everyone was mocking the big reveal of the PS4:



Now, we can all transition to mocking the big reveal of the XBox One:



As with every console I've ever purchased, I'll be waiting for the "must have game" to convince me to buy it. For these consoles -- as with the Wii U -- I haven't seen it yet.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My Horse Two Cents

"Silver Blaze," the first of "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" is the story of a missing prize horse, and the trainer whose murdered body was found out in a field near the horse's stable. Holmes and Watson travel by train to investigate the mystery, which may involve a rival horse stable, a band of gypsies, and a strange man snooping around the stable on the night of the murder.

As a pure mystery, "Silver Blaze" is one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most effective stories so far. Many of his mysteries lack for sufficient credible suspects. Often, there is one culprit favored by the police (who is of course the wrong one) and only one other possible character in the mix (who Holmes unsurprisingly reveals as the guilty party). This story has at least three possible suspects right away, and a police Inspector Gregory who does see holes in the theory framing the man already in custody. And hopefully without spoiling anything, I'll say that in the course of the story, a fourth suspect emerges.

There's also a nice break with tradition in how the background of the case is recounted. Ordinarily, Doyle brings in the client to converse with Holmes, and the first 1/3 to 1/2 of a story is a recitation of the facts by a heretofore unknown stranger. This time, Holmes provides the background details of the case himself as he and Watson are traveling to the site of their investigation.

There is a bit of a narrative slip near the end, in my opinion. It's always more powerful to actually show events happening where possible, rather than tell them. Holmes pulls someone aside at one point to have a private conversation out of Watson's earshot. They then return, and Holmes immediately recaps half of what was just said. Of course, the reason Doyle does this is so that he can preserve the other half of what was said as the reveal a few pages later. But weighing the drawing out of the mystery a short while longer against having the third recapping in the story of things that happened previously, I'd choose to expose the plot if it were me. Then again, I'm not a renowned writer whose work is still being read a century later.

I give "Silver Blaze" a B+. A good effort with enough compelling twists to set it apart from other Holmes tales.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Bonding

From a certain point of view, "The Bonding" might be one of the most important episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That's because it was the first episode written by Ronald D. Moore, and was in fact the very first sale of his writing career. Because of this episode, Moore would spend the next 10 years writing some of the best episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and then would go on to create the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica.

Worf leads an Away Team to a planet whose inhabitants annihilated themselves long ago in a violent war. One of their still-active mines is triggered, instantly killing a member of the team, Marla Aster. She leaves behind her 12-year-old son Jeremy with no other parent, and the crew rallies around him to help him cope with the loss. But then an energy-based lifeform from the planet appears on the scene, creating a simulacrum of the boy's mother who attempts to take Jeremy from the Enterprise to live in an illusory world on the planet.

The story of how Ron Moore sold this episode is a true Hollywood tale that combines his obvious writing talent with knowing the right people. His girlfriend at the time had been a junior casting assistant on the pilot of The Next Generation, and knowing what a huge Star Trek fan he was, used her connections to arrange for him a tour of the set. He prepared for the occasion by writing the script for "The Bonding" and bringing it with him to force into someone's hands. It stayed in the slush pile for over half a year, but when new show runner Michael Piller took over, he was literally without any stories ready to go before the camera, and willing to look anywhere for relief. He found "The Bonding" in the slush pile, did a minor rewrite pass on it, and based on the good results, convinced Paramount to begin an open script submission policy for Star Trek. For the rest of The Next Generation's run, literally anyone anywhere in the world could submit a script for consideration (even without an agent), so long as they signed a release form.

What's great about this episode is that even though it seems centered on guest characters -- a hitherto unknown crew member and her son -- it's really about how the main characters react to events. Marla Aster's death causes "ripples in the pond," and nearly every character has at least one interesting scene showing how they're affected.

At the forefront, you see Worf trying to do right by this boy, as humans did for him when he was taken in as an orphan boy. You see Wesley forced to reexamine his feelings at losing a parent as a young child, and a very real conversation between him and Beverly about his father's death. You see Picard struggling with the fact that children are aboard the ship at all to be put in this situation. You see Counselor Troi get to counsel people in this episode -- and actually be good at it. There's even a tight little scene in which Data asks Riker about Aster's death, contrasting it with the death of Tasha Yar in a wonderful nod to continuity.

Supporting this very character driven material are some excellent camera placement decisions by director Winrich Kolbe. There are a lot of very tight close-ups on actors that allow you to see every muscle in their faces at work. A scene in which Troi offers advice to Worf is notable for an uncharacteristic obstruction in the frame, as we look on the characters through a grated wall. A tender moment in which Picard reaches for physical contact with the boy Jeremy focuses specifically on that gesture, not even showing the captain speak as he offers consolation. It's wonderful work.

So great is this character material that I find myself wishing there was no science fiction plot in this episode at all. The idea of a guilt-ridden alien posing as Jeremy's dead mother isn't a bad one, but it does seem to detract from the drama. Apparently, this element of the story was actually less prevalent in Ronald Moore's original script. He had Jeremy first escape to the holodeck to recreate his dead mother on his own, and then the aliens swept in, seeking to reproduce that simulation down on the planet. Gene Roddenberry objected to this, saying that humans in his future -- even children -- would not struggle so much to cope with a death, and so the alien subplot was punched up.

But it's the boy's stoicism at his mother's death that rings most hollow within the episode. Roddenberry's ideals may be noble and/or inspirational, but conflict is the life's blood of dramatic writing. The boy's woodenness is awkward in the finished product, and it's not helped by the performance of young actor Gabriel Damon. He's not really "bad," but he is limited. There are very few child actors of any given generation who would really be capable of pulling off a role this demanding. This episode merely got one who could say the lines without sounding too stiff.

Other observations:
  • The disaster that claims Marla Aster's life in the teaser takes place off screen, and we see the reactions of the bridge crew instead. While this may have been primarily a budget saving move to avoid the need to show an alien planet, it does fit with the overall tone of the episode -- showing how our characters react to a death.
  • Composer Dennis McCarthy does employ some interesting music with sinister undertones for the facsimile Aster, but his Klingon music in this episode falls far short of the great work done in other episodes by Ron Jones.
  • Ronald Moore came to the set for one day of filming on this episode, and tells a wonderful story of meeting Patrick Stewart for the first time on the Blu-ray commentary track. By that point, Moore had already sold his next script for the show ("The Defector"), and found himself telling Stewart what he was working on next. Stewart's advice to/request of the young writer: "The captain doesn't do nearly enough shooting and screwing on the show."
"The Bonding" wonderful showcase for a number of the main characters. It's also a far more interesting look at the consequences of having children aboard the Enterprise than the first season's "When the Bough Breaks." Still, this episode could have been stronger still if the reaction of the young boy had been allowed to be more realistic, and if even more time had been given to the emotional drama. I give it a B+.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Second Sons

A number of plot lines took the bench for this week's Game of Thrones, so that we could spend more time mainly on a pair of significant developments: the marriage of Sansa and Tyrion, and Daenerys finding new allies in the Second Sons and Daario Naharis.

I myself enjoyed the former storyline more, a cascade of delightfully dark scenes. Elements from the book were well realized, such as Tyrion's embarrassment at having to ask Sansa to kneel for the ceremony. Peter Dinklage played Tyrion's drunkenness at the reception masterfully. And the moment where he threatens Joffrey was absolutely chilling.

The new additions satisfied too. We got another feast of Lady Olenna's droll wit, as she taunted Margaery and Lorys with the horrors of their family tree. But better still was the pair of scenes with Cersei this week. First, we got her lengthy and flowery threat to Margaery; then, having apparently just worn out her patience for anything more, her curt dismissal of her groom-to-be, Lorys. It was a fun way to thwart expectations to start into a carefully considered, metaphorical story only to have Cersei pull the plug on the whole thing.

Over in Yunkai, things played out pretty much exactly as written in the book, but it still made for an interesting display. They have revised the appearance of Daario, and much for the better. (He's described in the book with a blue-dyed, three pronged beard.) In any case, his adoration for Daenerys was conveyed quickly and well.

The story of Melisandre and Gendry seems to have found its way back to a place book readers will find familiar. Excising the extremely minor character of Edric (I had to look up his name), the show has decided to graft Gendry into that role in the story. Seems like an excellent elision to me.

For those hoping for a more action packed hour, the episode ended with Sam slaying one of the white walkers in a tense sequence. The gathering crows set things up in an effectively creepy way, and the visual effects team delivered on the powers of both the walker itself and Sam's dragonglass dagger.

Because of Memorial Day next weekend, it's going to be two weeks before the story continues. I enjoyed this episode enough to hold me over until then.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Delving Deeper into the Darkness

A few days back, I wrote a review of Star Trek Into Darkness that tiptoed around revealing any details of the plot. That preserved the surprises for people, but made it incredibly difficult to articulate exactly what shortcomings I perceived in the film. So here's Take 2, or my "Captain's Log, Supplemental," if you will.

Just to be crystal clear here: this post is going to spoil absolutely everything about the movie. If you haven't seen it yet, and you keep reading this anyway, that's on you.

Let me start by reiterating that I gave the movie a B in my first review, and I do stand by that. It has problems, but is pretty good overall and worth seeing. I begin with this because there really isn't much more I need to say about what I liked in the movie; those things I could talk about before without giving anything away. Still, it's worth saying again that the cast is exceptional. This new ensemble playing Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura are all absolutely perfect for the job. I would eagerly watch a weekly television series starring this group -- though the film careers of enough of them are taking off that you'd never actually get them all onto the small screen. My point is, they're all such perfectly credible incarnations of the characters that I feel like having a new series with them would be like getting all new episodes of the original Star Trek.

And that's the real problem with Star Trek Into Darkness. It's not new.

J.J. Abrams' previous film took a huge risk in upending everything that longtime fans knew about Star Trek. We all know that the crew didn't "meet as kids," if you will. But that was only the beginning of the changes. The movie set up an alternate timeline in which Vulcan was destroyed and anything could happen. And it did it so well that even me, a life-long Star Trek fan, was completely on board. Let's do it! Let's boldly go where no one has gone before!

Instead, they went straight back to where we've already been, by telling an alternate version of the story of Khan. They missed the opportunity to take their spiffy new universe out for a spin. But more to the point: if they absolutely felt they had to do a remake of a classic Star Trek storyline, why not choose one that could have benefited from being remade? There are plenty of classic, middle-of-the-road episodes. Don't retell, say, "Spock's Brain," because nothing is going to shine that turd. But on the other end of the spectrum, don't retell "Space Seed" and "The Wrath of Khan," because you aren't going to do any better with it.

Star Trek Into Darkness was at its best when it was in its most original territory. The idea of a bloodthirsty Admiral capitalizing on the destruction of Vulcan to try to militarize Starfleet was great. We've never seen anything quite like that on Star Trek. (We also never would have while Gene Roddenberry was alive, because he never would have gone for such corruption within Starfleet under any circumstances.) Still, the story concept in fact is classic Star Trek, because it's an allegory for a moral question very relevant in today's world: when facing a terrifying new enemy, how much are you willing to compromise on your core values in pursuit of a sense of security? Sure, this topical message got buried a bit in the constant action sequences, but at least it was there. So far, so good.

But then Khan was brought into the mix -- and for a rather flimsy reason. Apparently, a savage mind was needed for savage times (overlooking the fact that Khan was defeated in Star Trek II precisely because, as brilliant as he was, he was not capable of thinking beyond his own time and making full use of space combat's third dimension). We got virtually none of Khan's back story in this movie, seemingly because the movie was banking on us already knowing that back story from having seen Khan before. It even had Leonard Nimoy show up in a fun but unnecessary cameo to tell the audience what the movie had not effectively shown for itself: Khan's as bad as they come. I just don't think this was a good way to go, making the audience reflect on one of the best stories classic Star Trek ever told.

Worse, this story then took us to essentially the same ending. Yes, the role reversal of having Kirk sacrifice his life to save the Enterprise instead of Spock had a certain cleverness to it. And it was a bit fun (to a point) to hear some of the exact same lines of dialogue. But here again, as with Khan's back story, the film is trading on years of Star Trek history to supplement what it's not providing itself. When Spock died in Star Trek II, it was the culmination of a decade-long friendship between him and Kirk, three-plus years of which we saw depicted on screen. The emotional reaction was entirely earned, and we the audience felt it too. In this case, Spock and Kirk have only known each other for about six months, and it's been a rather contentious relationship the entire time. We're asked to believe Spock is moved to tears when he didn't even break his stoic facade when his entire homeworld was destroyed -- a torture that included seeing his own mother die right in front of him. Spock's emotional reaction is only believable if the court accepts facts not in evidence: the vast background of the original Star Trek timeline.

And it was a huge mistake to have Spock scream out Khan's name in rage. It worked -- barely -- in Star Trek II, even though we all realized how borderline hammy William Shatner's performance was. But I think somewhere around the time George Costanza screamed it in a Seinfeld episode, it stopped being a moment that could be taken seriously. If Kirk's death scene had been able to generate any real emotion, that moment totally undercut it.

While trading on Star Trek's past was the movie's big flaw in my mind, there were other little problems along the way. Most of them had to do with sacrificing logic on the altar of things that looked cool. For what reason was the Enterprise hiding underwater in the opening sequence? (Because it would look cool when it rose up out of the ocean.) How exactly did the ship fall to Earth from an orbit roughly the distance of the moon? (Does it matter? Cause, you know, great moment when the ship plummets through the cloud layer, then rises back up.) Why does Khan stop to grab a trench coat when he's fleeing Spock in the final chase? (Because it will look neat flapping in the wind.)

There were a few plot holes too. For me, the biggest was the conceit at the end of the movie that Khan's blood was needed to save Kirk's life. Spock has to take Khan alive, we're told, even though there are 72 other genetic supermen in stasis available for McCoy's use. In fact, they're scooping one of them out of a tube to put Kirk in it at literally the moment McCoy says they need Khan alive. (So pay no attention to what's going on in the background!) And as a side note, I shudder to think at the repercussions of McCoy having possibly created an unkillable Tribble.

It's also a bit disappointing that a movie which includes Klingons, Khan, and more action sequences than any previous Star Trek film somehow managed to essentially have no ship combat. The Enterprise got the crap beaten out of it in the space of a few seconds (seriously marginalizing its role as the unofficial "eighth character"), and that was about it.

Having now read me going on quite negatively for so many paragraphs, you may be asking yourself: he gave the movie a B? It sounds like he hated it! Well no, I really didn't. The action, though illogical, was generally quite exhilarating and fun. And (though I've said it before, it's worth saying again) the cast is absolutely superb in their portrayal of the classic characters. Overall, I did feel like I was watching Star Trek. And not bad Star Trek. Just Star Trek that was too familiar.

When the next Star Trek movie rolls around, I will remain eager to see these actors in action. I just hope that the script steps out from the shadow of the original series. They really don't need to earn their "Trek cred" with me anymore. Move on and tell a new story, please.

(With less lens flare, please. Seriously, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is about the most ironic title they could have chosen.)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

TNG Flashback: Who Watches the Watchers

"Who Watches the Watchers" is a classic Star Trek tale that revolves around the Prime Directive. It will be familiar in many ways to fans, but it's well conceived and has a lot of things going for it.

A group of Federation anthropologists are using a holographic "duck blind" on the planet Mintaka III to study a Bronze Age society of "proto-Vulcans" without being observed... until an accident in their base lowers their camouflage and exposes their presence to the aliens. The Enterprise hurries to the rescue, but not before one of the Mintakans spots the base and is critically injured in his attempt to explore it. Dr. Crusher heals him, but her attempts to wipe his memory fail, exposing the entire civilization to a newfound belief in an all-powerful god, The Picard. Now the captain must use all his powers of persuasion to try to contain the cultural contamination.

This episode manages to pack a lot into just 45 minutes. The crew tries many tactics for stemming the flow of a new religion in Mintakan society. After the memory erasure fails, Troi and Riker infiltrate a village in disguise. When one of the injured anthropologists turns up, Troi creates a diversion to allow Riker to spirit him away. When Troi herself is then captured, it's on to Picard's attempt to persuade the village leader in a face-to-face meeting aboard the Enterprise. This evolution of the problem really makes what's happening feel natural and believable.

For the second episode in a row, the series did some filming on location. What's more, they weren't filming just anywhere, but at the Vasquez Rocks, made famous in many classic Star Trek episodes (most notably "Arena"), and re-used for Vulcan in J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek film precisely for this reason. The environment really adds a lot to the episode, and helps drive home the primitive existence of the Mintakans.

Patrick Stewart is excellent in this episode, as is the much of the dialogue written for Picard. He seems truly aghast when one of the anthropologists suggests that the best course of action would be to provide the locals some guidelines for their new religion. The scenes in which he tries to explain things to the Mintakan leader, Nuria, are exceptional. Stewart is able to show the wheels of Picard's mind at work.

There are some good guest stars in the episode too, but the one most likely to make the fanboys take notice is Ray Wise, who plays Liko, the alien who puts the whole mess in motion. Wise is known for Twin Peaks, a villainous run on 24, and playing the Devil himself on the short-lived Reaper. He gets to play a different type of role here, earnest but misguided.

Ron Jones provides a fantastic score for this episode, infusing the music with strains of tribalism. The sequence in which Riker abducts the wounded anthropologist may well work only because of the wonderful action music Jones wrote; without it, it would be almost infuriating how many rocks Riker ducks behind before he decides it's finally safe to signal for a beam up.

But this time around, what I noticed most about this episode is how it pulls no punches in its characterization of religion. My own thoughts on religion have developed a lot since this episode first aired in 1989. And it certainly feels to me like religion is a more hot button issue in American society since then. Still, even though Star Trek has never hidden the fact that Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future is one without religion, some of the language used to convey that in this episode is striking. Belief in gods is lumped in as "superstition" (along with belief in ghosts and astrology), and Picard characterizes moving beyond it as a societal "achievement."

Other observations:
  • Vulcans have a good propaganda machine going somewhere. In this episode, the bridge crew is fawning over what a distinguished and peaceful development they had as a culture, but classic Star Trek established that their primitive society was actually very warlike, which is what led to their rejection of emotion.
  • There's a nice bit of continuity when Picard orders Crusher to wipe Liko's memory, referencing when the same thing was done in the episode "Pen Pals." But the best part about it is that Gates McFadden conveys just the perfect amount of snottiness when mentioning Dr. Pulaski by name.
  • There's a little weirdness in the climax of this episode. Liko, fearful of and pleading with his perceived god Picard, suddenly decides to attack the captain instead. (Huh?) Picard decides that if the Mintakans see him die, they'll stop believing that he's a god; which might make sense, except that he then does not die, and in fact returns to say goodbye to them! Somehow, they're still persuaded of his mortal status. (Huh?)
  • Liko must be known throughout his village as an archer of Robin Hood caliber. When he is going to shoot Troi, he takes aim from several feet away, and her guards show absolutely no concern of being hit while they hold her in position.
  • At the close of this episode, Picard is given a tapestry by the Mintakans, a token to remember them by. In a nice nod to continuity, this tapestry can be seen sometimes throughout the run of the show (and in most of the movies), hanging over the back of his ready room chair.
The awkwardness in the final act does bring the episode down a notch, but it's still pretty good overall. I give this one a B+.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Shining a Light on the Darkness

Last night, I went to see the new Star Trek film, Star Trek Into Darkness. I know that because of the unusual mid-week opening, many of my readers who intend to go themselves have not yet had the chance, so I'm going to strive to keep this review free of major plot spoilers. Still, I could understand that some of you don't want to risk even that much. (The Entertainment Weekly review of the film, for example, claims to be spoiler free, yet describes the opening sequence in great detail in its first paragraph, and is so "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" in dancing around certain plot points that only a total idiot wouldn't be able to connect the dots.) So for those of you who don't want to risk any details at all, I give you the summary first, and then you can head out: Star Trek Into Darkness is a fairly good movie, but falls short of J.J. Abrams' previous effort, and of several other previous films in the storied franchise.

One thing this movie delivers in spades is high-octane action. Eleven prior Star Trek films have never served up anything even close to the intensity of the action in this movie, and there are several very well conceived action sequences. (Although there are also one or two that maybe wilt a bit after the fact when you question the logic of the situation.)

There are also some solid character moments. As in the previous Trek film, Kirk, Spock, and Uhura get very strong scenes throughout. Scotty's rather minimal role from that movie is paid back with a more substantial role in this one. Chekov is once again solid comic relief, and McCoy is wonderful again thanks to the uncanny channeling of DeForest Kelley by Karl Urban. (It's Sulu that gets a bit marginalized this time around.)

The movie is a visual triumph (aside from some incredibly distracting lens flare; I'll come back to that). It has visual effects more dramatic than any previous Trek films could dream of, trumping even Abrams' previous effort. There's intriguing makeup design for several background aliens, cool new ship configurations, and more. It's also a feast for the ears, with lots of chair-rattling sound effects and a Michael Giacchino score that surpasses even his exceptional work on the first film.

However...

The first Abrams film did a superb job of balancing the new interpretations of the characters with our classic expectations of them. The movie did right by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Nichelle Nichols -- and to the writing of their characters over the years -- honoring that history while bringing something new we hadn't seen, the story of "how they all met". This movie felt to me not so much like it was honoring and expanding that character history, but rather that it was trading on it. It forced the realization that these in fact are not the people we've loved for decades. The film tries for a greater emotional depth, and couldn't really reach it because we've only spent a collective four hours with these incarnation of the characters. Key scenes specifically conjure our memories of things that happened to the original versions of the characters, and it usually doesn't work out for the best.

Character development is also lacking in the villain -- a weakness shared by the first film. Benedict Cumberbatch does a lot to try to inject motivation and emotion into his character, John Harrison, but the script simply doesn't feature him enough to quite get us there. Here again, the movie asks the audience to do the heavy lifting.

And seriously, J.J., stop with the damn lens flare. It's impossible not to have noticed in the previous movies and television that J.J. Abrams has directed that the man likes his lens flare. (He's been parodied for this extensively.) But while this has bothered many people in the past, I personally have never found it distracting until now. There's a particular scene in this movie (and you will know it when you see it) that goes way too far. It's an emotional, dramatic moment at a key juncture in the plot, and you can't even pay attention to the actor speaking for the blade of light beheading them.

There are still strong performances all around -- particularly from Zachary Quinto (who muscles through a critical line of dialogue that is unintentionally funny; no one in the audience laughed out loud, but I was stifling a laugh inside). There's all that adrenaline-surging action I mentioned. But the heart of this film isn't beating as strongly as last time around.

I feel like I've tiptoed around saying many of the things I really want to say about this movie, so perhaps I'll come back in a day or two, after more people have had a chance to see it, and give the spoiler-laden version of this review. But in any case, the bottom line is that I give the movie a B. It's certainly worth seeing, but also worth realigning your expectations a bit before you do.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Machinations

After skipping out on the last few albums from Depeche Mode (largely due to my lukewarm opinion of 2001's Exciter), I've been listening quite a lot to their newest effort, Delta Machine. It's a solid album that has reinvigorated an old love of the band.

What I really enjoy about the new album is that it perfectly walks the line of sounding like something new while capturing the feel of the band's classic songs. They're still a synth-driven band with distinctive vocals and a splash of guitar. You'll find tunes that remind you ever-so-slightly of Ultra's "It's No Good" or Music for the Masses' "Strangelove." But there are differences in the mix too.

The up-tempo bookends songs of the album, particularly "Soothe My Soul," seem to channel Nine Inch Nails. The subdued middle section of the album has an atmospheric quality reminiscent of Portishead. But all of it has the familiar vocals of Dave Gahan, and a certain instrumentation that's all Depeche Mode.

If you're going to pick up the album (which I'd recommend, if you're a fan), I'd say it's worth springing for the Deluxe Edition. Though the second disc contains only 4 additional songs, a couple of them ("Long Time Lie" and "All That's Mine") are among my favorites of this collection.

Overall, I haven't yet settled on any true 5-star songs I'm listening to obsessively, but this is the first album in a long while that I'm not heavily cherry-picking. There are no real duds on Delta Machine. I give the album a B+.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Survivors

In reviewing the third season premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I noted that its new show runner, Michael Wagner, would be in place for only a few episodes before leaving and handing the reins over to Michael Piller. And that's a very good thing when you take a look at the lone episode of the series solely credited to him, "The Survivors."

The Enterprise responds to a distress call to find an entire planet utterly wiped out. The surface is scorched, the water boiled away, and all life exterminated... save for a single house on a tiny plot of land. An old human couple, Kevin and Rishon Uxbridge, live there, and are unable to explain why the vicious alien ship that destroyed everything else spared them. Meanwhile, Counselor Troi's empathic abilities are being blocked by a strange music box tune she hears endlessly in her head, building in intensity to the point of threatening her sanity. Picard and his crew attempt to unravel both mysteries, and must contend with the aliens themselves when they return to the planet.

There is an intriguing science fiction conceit at the heart of this episode. Kevin Uxbridge is revealed in the end to be a super-powerful but peaceful being who renounced his powers to live a life with an unknowing human wife. In a moment of grief at her death by the alien Husnock, he retaliated by killing them. All of them, a universal genocide of an entire species. The final scene in which this is revealed is a strong one for all actors involved. As Crusher and Picard, Gates McFadden and Patrick Stewart are utterly aghast and unable to comprehend the magnitude of this; as Uxbridge, guest star John Anderson is equally anguished at the loss of his true love and the irrevocable compromising of his principles.

But there are a lot of moments that are not nearly so good before we get to that. Picard's deductive powers in this episode are impossibly sharp. Not only does he come to realize the godly abilities of Kevin, he somehow concludes that the Rishon he now sees is simply a recreation of the original. Picard is also incredibly annoying in his revelation of what he knows; for hours, he forces his crew to follow nonsensical orders without explanation, all just for transparently dramatic purposes. Sure, captain's prerogative and all, but in some other episode (one later this season, in fact), this would be the sort of behavior that would make the crew suspect he'd been replaced by an alien doppelganger or something.

Another unexplainable inconsistency in the writing is the character of Kevin Uxbridge himself. He's omnipotent enough to find every member of a specific race in the entire universe and kill them with a thought, but he can't tell when the Enterprise is orbiting above his planet... except when he can, and is making them fight a phantom Husnock vessel. We're also asked to accept that Kevin lived an entire life with a woman who never learned his true nature, even though he leaves so many clues that Picard can figure it out in around 30 minutes. Does Uxbridge really think no one will come to investigate the distress call from the planet, or that no one will think it suspicious that just his one house survived? If he can conjure up a whole spaceship, why not the rest of the planet's population, or at least a village in which he could appear to be one of many survivors?

But the worst writing is the impossible demands made of Marina Sirtis as Counselor Troi. The premise here is reasonable -- that hearing music over and over again, getting louder and louder, would be a form of torture that would gradually drive you insane. (Though there are some who would call it "enhanced interrogation" instead.) And yet asking an actress to writhe around, clutching her head and screaming (at a wooden extra who gives her absolutely no reaction)? There's no way that's going to come off credibly.

Other observations:
  • A lot seems to have been poured into the budget of this episode. The scenes outside the house are actually filmed on location in a rare outdoor Star Trek shoot. There are some impressive matte paintings of the surrounding devastation. And the Husnock ship was, according to one source I found, a new model built from scratch (despite its similarities to the Sheliak ship feature in the previous episode). It's too bad, because I think this episode wouldn't have been made appreciably worse had the money been saved here.
  • Worf's comical curtness is back in this episode, having not been seen in a while. "Good tea. Nice house."
  • Troi gets a new costume in this episode. The bright blue dress seems more dignified than her other outfits, but would just become part of a rotation.
  • Nope, thought I was done on this, but I'm not... Picard is just too good a sleuth in this episode. Seriously, is the universe so littered with omnipotent, powerful aliens that his mind just jumps right to that solution? And if the universe is populated in such a way, one wonders how it continues to be here.
There are things that save this episode from being a total loss: a solid guest star performance by John Anderson, a powerful final scene, and some striking visuals along the way. But there's also an anchor of hokeyness weighing down the entire thing. On the whole, I'd say it just barely makes it to a C-.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Dangerous Game?

Last year, I stepped up on my soapbox for a moment and tried to explain my opinion on the then-topical proxy battlefield for LGBT rights, Chick-fil-A. Yes, the chain is more a symptom of the problem than the problem itself, but they do make considerable "charitable" donations to organizations that stridently oppose equality. I find myself traveling similar mental and moral ground in thinking about a movie coming later this year.

Ender's Game was a science fiction novel published in the mid-80s. It's a fairly acclaimed book that has been kicking about Hollywood for years, despite once being categorized as "unfilmable." Someone has finally cracked that problem (perhaps), and the film is scheduled for release on November 1, 2013. It seems there's already considerable buzz about it; both in person and on Facebook, I have friends reading the book for the first time and talking about their anticipation for the film.

Orson Scott Card, the author of the book, is profoundly anti-gay. And I don't mean "this one time, he said something without thinking" anti-gay. He is a board member of the National Organization for Marriage, one of the largest political organizations working against marriage equality. He has published essays and op-ed pieces on the subject, including the marvelously offensive "Homosexual 'Marriage' and Civilization." Some of his most choice quotes on the subject:
"The dark secret of homosexual society—the one that dares not speak its name—is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally."

"Instead they are attempting to strike a death blow against the well-earned protected status of our, and every other, real marriage. They steal from me what I treasure most, and gain for themselves nothing at all. They won't be married. They'll just be playing dress-up in their parents' clothes."

"Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy."
There are countless more within Google's easy reach; I won't foul up my blog any further by listing more.

Orson Scott Card isn't exactly a household name, and even as the movie approaches, I don't expect most people will know who he is. Even among those who have heard of him, I don't expect everyone will know his views on gays. I didn't. I first became aware of Card when I was assigned his "How to" book on writing in a college course; I only learned of his views on gays and lesbians earlier this year when controversy erupted over his being hired to write a Superman comic storyline. So I don't hold anything against anyone who didn't know. (For that matter, my own boyfriend just read Ender's Game for the first time this past winter.)

But now I do know. And now that you've read this, so do you. What then to do?

If it were just a matter of picking up a book or not, it would be simple -- don't buy the book. Don't give Orson Scott Card any money. I could even still read the book if I wanted to. A friend (who paid for the book long, long ago) has loaned me his copy, should I choose to read it; I could read the version on my boyfriend's Nook; I could check it out of the library.

If it were just a matter of one idiot having an idiotic opinion, it might not even be worth taking note of in the first place. People are entitled to opinions, of course -- idiotic or otherwise. Going through life boycotting and cutting off all contact from people with contradictory opinions is no way to live. Even if that opinion happens to be that I should not be able to go through my life on my own terms. But freedom to have and express and opinion does not carry with it any entitlement to be insulated from any consequences of that opinion. Here again, the dividing line comes in the fact that this particular man with this particular opinion puts his money where his mouth is, serving in an administrative capacity to support the work of an organization that is actively trying to make my life worse. So we're back to: don't give Orson Scott Card any money.

But the film incarnation of Ender's Game is hardly the work of one man. One could even argue it's not even primarily the work of Orson Scott Card. (After all, World War Z is coming out this summer, and by all reports it has absolutely nothing to do with Max Brooks' novel of the same name.) Indeed, the sheer number of people involved in making a film of this scope and budget assures that several of the people who worked somewhere on this movie are themselves gay. Quite possibly they, like me, had no idea of Card's views. (And before last year's controversy blew up, you could have reasonably argued the same about low-level employees of Chick-fil-A, and their knowledge of their executives' "charitable" practices.)

Then there's the math of movie profits. Even if Ender's Game is a huge hit, not much of that money is likely to end up in Orson Scott Card's pocket -- surely a great deal less than the book itself has earned him in nearly three decades.

Where to draw the line?

There are many people (often those who object to gay rights on religious grounds) who assert that it's actually equality supporters who are being intolerant -- intolerant of their deeply held personal convictions. I think that's pure nonsense; it's not intolerance to reject bigotry. But I have to acknowledge that there must be a point where principled opposition gives way to an unsustainable "scorched earth" level of boycotting. Or, put another way, do I know the gay rights positions of every person/business/corporation I do or don't give my money to?

No. Some, yes. Not all.

I think maybe I'm hoping that when October rolls around and the movie reviews start to trickle in, that they're just universally awful. Then I don't have to make any decision at all. It's not difficult to "boycott" a movie for being terrible.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Bear and the Maiden Fair

Once in each season of Game of Thrones, original book author George R.R. Martin himself takes on the job of writing a script for the series. Last season, he penned "Blackwater," the epic battle for King's Landing. This season, it seems he left the hour of "most major plot development" in the hands of other writers, choosing a different episode instead.

Perhaps after "Blackwater," which spent the entire hour only at King's Landing, what appealed to Martin here was that he'd get to write for virtually every character. Cersei, Stannis, Littlefinger, and Varys did not appear, but nearly everyone else did. Well, everyone who was a "perspective character" from the novel did. Well... except for Samwell and Davos. (These books have a lot of characters!)

It's rare, but this time the added scenes were not among those I found most compelling in the episode. Well, more precisely, I wasn't as satisfied as I'd hoped by the confrontation scene between Tywin and Joffrey. Yes, Tywin got in his withering barbs and firmly held the upper hand, but it felt to me like the real pinnacle of "manupulative Tywin" scenes came previously, in his face-off with Lady Olenna.

I do certainly want to see where the business with Melisandre and Gendry is headed, because that story has no connection to the book at all. In a discussion of this development with other book readers following last week's episode, someone floated what seemed like an excellent theory, that Gendry was being combined with another minor character to avoid introducing a new face on the show. He'd thus be showing up at the place where we readers knew Melisandre would be turning up next. As I said, an excellent theory... until this week, when it appears the two are making an unscheduled stop at King's Landing. It's fun to be in the dark on this one.

Ultimately, what I found most enjoyable this week were specific, very clever lines of dialogue. It's been long enough since I've read "A Storm of Swords" that I couldn't tell you whether they were taken from the book itself, or whether Martin came through here and polished up his own writing. Either way, the end results were great. The barbs between Bronn and Tyrion brought a smile to your face. The banter between Jon Snow and Ygritte, along with her genuine confusion about the concept of fainting, was great. And the button on the Margaery-Sansa scene, in which naive Sansa asks if she learned so much from her mother, was perhaps the funniest moment of the season.

Another solid week for Game of Thrones. Only three to go.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Ensigns of Command

Filmed first but deliberately aired second, the next episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's third season was yet another Data-centric story from writer Melinda Snodgrass, the woman behind "The Measure of a Man" and "Pen Pals." It falls somewhere between those two episodes in terms of success.

The Enterprise is contacted by the Sheliak, a powerful race of legal-minded aliens who have a century-old, Wheel-of-Time-sized treaty with the Federation. They inform the crew that a colony of humans is on a planet in their territory that they intend to settle themselves -- exterminating the intruders if they're not immediately removed. The colonists have adapted to this planet in spite of local conditions normally toxic to humans and disruptive to the transporter, so Data must take a shuttlecraft alone to try to convince the colonists to evacuate. But Gosheven, the charismatic leader of the colony, refuses to abandon his people's home. Data, working with a local technophile named Ard'rian McKenzie, must find a way to assert authority and change the colonists' minds.

Like the season premiere, this was not a truly great episode, and yet still demonstrated in many ways that the series was improving. I say this because there were problems behind the scenes here -- including a last minute budget slash for this installment and a rushed rewrite to abbreviate a romantic subplot for Data -- yet while many of the flaws are obvious in the finished product, the episode is still not that bad. By contrast, first- or second-season episodes forced to deal with similar challenges usually wound up a total mess.

The guest actors playing the colonists are pretty terrible. They give performances so stilted and emotionless that Data actually ends up looking less robotic in this episode by comparison. Grainger Hines, the actor playing Gosheven, must have been especially bad. He reportedly used a John Wayne-like accent so obtrusive that the producers decided to re-record all his dialogue in the final cut with another (uncredited) actor. Hines then asked his name to be taken off the episode, leaving no one in the role of Gosheven, as far as the credits are concerned. The results on screen are quite rough.

Filming seem to have been rushed through in places. After Data destroys the city's aqueduct in the climactic scene, water is still clearly visible flowing on the set, as though no one thought to turn it off. In another late scene where Ard'rian says goodbye to Data, one of the two camera angles is noticeably unstable. The distracting shake kills what little momentum is being generated between the actors, yet either this obvious problem wasn't noticed on the day, or the schedule was too backed up to allow them time to re-film.

But as I said, despite all these obvious flaws, there's a lot to like in this episode. The emphasis on character-driven scenes continues, for example. The hour is bookended by scenes exploring Data's development as a violinist. The opening telegraphs the episodes themes about taking command, while the closing floats the notion that emotionless Data does in fact display a form of creativity in the various human behaviors he chooses to mimic. Plus, the very idea that Data has to "get tough" and go against his nature to resolve this situation provides good development for his character. Particularly effective is the writing of the "rousing speech" he attempts to give in the town square, a transparent bit of reverse psychology that one could imagine being effective if delivered by a Captain Kirk or Picard; Brent Spiner gives it just the right deliberately stilted performance to make it fall flat the way it should.

There's another well-written scene between Troi and Picard, where they discuss how remarkable it is that two alien races (here you could really substitute "foreign cultures") can manage to communicate at all. Troi illustrates with a compelling hypothetical: we're stranded together on a planet and I want to teach you my language; how would I go about it? In the fifth season, this very scenario would become one of the series best episodes, "Darmok." Even here, in the abstract, it's intriguing.

Another nice touch in the writing is that technobabble does not save the day. Desperate to find some way to evacuate the colonists in the short time frame, Picard assigns Geordi, Wesley, and O'Brien the impossible task of making the transporters function despite the planet's interference. And though the trio labors on this all episode, they're unable to make it happen.

The Sheliak make for fun alien villains. Their ship has a strong appearance, and even the minimalist interior is oddly intriguing. I almost found myself wishing they'd appeared on the series again... except that surely they would have become a predictable nemesis, always defeated by finding some obscure paragraph of legalese in their massive treaty. By the way, if the mud-slickish Sheliak leader looks or sounds familiar, he should -- he's Mart McChesney, the same actor who played Armus in "Skin of Evil."

Other observations:
  • This feels to me like the episode where Chief O'Brien moves from recurring character to unofficial ninth member of the cast... but for a very odd reason. He appears in this episode, and yet doesn't speak a single line of dialogue. Why would you bring in Colm Meaney for that, as opposed to paying a non-speaking extra, unless you wanted the continuity? O'Brien also gets a hobby in this episode; we learn that he plays the cello when he participates in Data's string quartet.
  • There's a strange metal sculpture near the entrance of Ard'rian McKenzie's house that looks eerily like the battle droids of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. (10 years before The Phantom Menace was released, of course.)
  • Picard is beginning to cut loose as a character. It's hard to imagine the first- or second-season incarnation of him toying with the Sheliak as he does when he gets the upper hand near the end of this episode.
While this episode certainly could have been better, it manages to transcend its flaws enough to still be mostly enjoyable. I give it a B-.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Return to Oblivion

A couple weeks back, I reviewed the new movie Oblivion. In the review, I noted that one of the stronger aspects of the film was its musical score, composed by French electronic band M83. I mentioned that I'd probably be picking it up for my MP3 collection, and soon after I did just that. Unfortunately, however, this turned out to be a score that works much better in concert with the film than standing on its own.

This happens sometimes. Movie scores are created to support a film, of course, and the fact that many of them work as an independent listening experience is merely an added bonus. Even a film score enthusiast like me can't truly pay that much attention to the music while watching a movie for the first time. I'm certainly aware of it if I think it's strong, but there's no way I can really dig into it until later when I'm listening only to the music. And when I did that for the Oblivion score, I realized it's actually a rather derivative work.

M83 is not the first electronic band to compose for film, but their approach is heavily reminiscent of another band that has done so recently -- Daft Punk. Oblivion quickly calls to mind the score for Tron: Legacy, as fused with the powerful horn drones of Hans Zimmer's music for Inception. (You know, the sound that's now in almost every new movie trailer?) There's a considerable amount of low-adrenaline music in the film too, which doesn't have that Daft Punk vibe... but it too seems derivative, this time of the new age ambiance of Phillip Glass (who contributed to the score for The Truman Show, among others).

The soundtrack isn't a total bust. There are a couple of moments where M83 cuts loose with something a bit different. My favorite track on the album is "Canyon Battle," which has a bona fide rock music drum solo in the middle of it. With films usually dominated by orchestral music, this is an entirely different vibe that still meshed well with the film itself. There are also some decent tracks in "Waking Up," StarWaves," and "Odyssey Rescue," although these don't carve out as much unique territory.

I post this mainly to retract my earlier endorsement of the Oblivion music. Well, in part. It's certainly not the worst soundtrack in my collection. In fact, I'd say it rates as good as a C overall. But it does turn out that I what I thought was an exceptional part of an average movie is really just equally average.

Friday, May 10, 2013

All or Nothing

Last night's season finale of Glee was a bit of an improvement over recent episodes. The story threads were more compelling than things have been of late, but the hour was still overstuffed.

First of all, there was Rachel's audition, which took place so early in the episode that you almost totally forgot that it was probably meant to be one of the episode's big cliffhangers for the summer.

Then there was the matter of Blaine's potential proposal to Kurt, which apparently wasn't put to bed after all in last week's episode. I couldn't decide whether it was odd or sweet that the majority of this storyline seemed not devoted to the guys themselves, but instead to the older lesbian couple Blaine happened to meet in the process of shopping for an engagement ring.

The catfishing storyline for Ryder was finally resolved. After a brief bait-and-switch in which Marley claimed responsibility, it was revealed that Unique was the person behind "Katie." Ultimately, I think I liked this particular twist, because for once it seemed to reveal a bit of advanced story planning on the part of the writers. Several episodes back, when there was a bizarre subplot about Ryder having trouble interacting with Unique, I noted that the sudden change in his behavior seemed unearned. It still does... but at least now it appears that it was done to add stakes to this reveal at the end of the season.

Brittany's MIT freakout was a strange but funny way of apparently covering for the actress' real-life pregnancy. If they should need to write her out for the beginning of the next season, they certainly have it covered. She can be missing in action, much like Mercedes and Chang for the bulk of this season.

After the big runaway bride episode of months ago, Glee couldn't do another big wedding moment for Will and Emma. I get that. Still, I thought it added to the rushed atmosphere of the episode to wedge their vows in at the end in the choir room.

Of course, all these threads had to be worked around performances, because it was another competition episode for Glee. That means an entire act of no real plot, and this time the songs themselves weren't the best. The vocals were noticeably processed in the first two numbers, enough to make me question (cattily) whether the competition has rules against that sort of thing.

I've said it too much lately, but I'll say it again: I'm tired of Glee right now. Some of my readers, I suspect, are tired of my write-ups about them. Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief, because this is it for at least a few months. (And even if I come back in the fall, my regular reviews of new episodes may not.) I'd say this hour gets a B-. In a time when I was enjoying the show more, that would represent just a small bump in the road. The way things have been lately, it's sadly more of an "is that the best you can do?"

Thursday, May 09, 2013

TNG Flashback: Evolution

Here we go: the beginning of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the year when the series finally attained a more consistent level of quality. It kicked off with an episode titled "Evolution."

The Enterprise is ordered to assist a cocksure scientist, Dr. Paul Stubbs, as he conducts an experiment at a binary star system where a rare astrophysical event is about to take place. Meanwhile, Wesley is conducting an experiment of his own for a school project, allowing microscopic surgery robots called nanites to interact with each other to see if they can work collectively. When he falls asleep from exhaustion, leaving his container of nanites open, two of them escape into the ship's computer. And they do indeed work collectively, quickly breeding an entire civilization of intelligent computers that threatens to destroy the ship.

"Evolution" is hardly an amazing episode, and even the co-writer Michael Piller and director Winrich Kolbe acknowledged this in later interviews. Both felt that the aspects of character development were strong here, while the plot itself didn't quite come off as well. And that criticism nails the truth exactly. That said, you can still tell right away that something has changed on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Little changes are apparent from top to bottom, and they collectively make the series feel more mature and polished than ever before.

The visual effects take a quantum leap here beyond anything we've seen before. The binary stars, one cannibalizing gasses from the other, are a startlingly beautiful image, and are literally the very first thing we see in the episode. The opening credits go through a major overhaul too. Gone is the flyby of Jupiter and Saturn -- and when you think about it, what was so exciting about a tour of our own solar system anyway? Instead, we have wilder images of a vivid nebula and a burning red planet. (The theme itself was re-recorded too, thankfully eliminating a wavering horn note in Alexander Courage's Star Trek fanfare that always bugged me.)

The costumes have been changed. While minor characters are still wearing the spandex of seasons one and two (for now), the main characters are all outfitted with two piece, collared uniforms that make things seem a bit more dignified. Reportedly, this change occurred because the taut spandex had actually been causing the cast members to experience lower back pain after long days of filming, and the production decided it was worth $3000 (in 1989 dollars!) per new uniform to address that.

The lighting of the sets undergoes the most noticeable change of all. While the first two seasons are bathed in a uniform, almost florescent-looking light, suddenly in this episode there are dramatic shadows everywhere. The bridge seems far more formal, and the shuttlecraft bay appears to be in "nighttime" mode. The unexplained jars of red and blue water in Sickbay draw the eye immediately, because they seem to glow in the midst of the more subdued environment. Not that all this change is just in the lighting; the bridge appears to have been recarpeted, for example.

Beverly Crusher is back, and not a moment too soon. It seems writer and show runner Maurice Hurley was primarily responsible for booting Gates McFadden off the show in the first place, but when he departed after season two, producer Rick Berman happily asked her back. Other character changes are there too, if considerably less dramatic; Worf and Geordi both have received promotions since season two, according to their collars.

But the change that really makes it seem like Star Trek: The Next Generation is growing up is the writing. This episode was penned by Michael Wagner and Michael Piller. The former was the new show runner... though he would end up leaving after just a few episodes and handing that job over to the latter. Piller really wanted to bring an emphasis to character in the storytelling, and you can see it in this episode. Characters banter in a more natural way. There are scenes solely about exploring character that don't necessarily advance the science fiction plot (and I mean that in a good way).

As noted above, the most successful element of the plot is actually this character material -- Beverly's reacclimation into Wesley's daily life. She's concerned that her son is driving himself too hard, and is on a course to burn himself out, miss his youth, and become a crass and graceless man like this week's guest character, Dr. Paul Stubbs. This storyline includes a fantastic scene between Picard and Beverly, discussing what she has missed of her son's life, and an equally good one between Beverly and Wesley that feels like literally the first realistic mother-son exchange the two characters have ever had. It's frankly amazing at this point that you feel any sympathy for Wesley making a foolish mistake at all, since until now, his character was written in a way that made most of the fans hate him.

That guest character who plays an important role in this story is interesting too. Though Stubbs is abrasive at times, and callously indifferent to the emerging intelligence of the nanites, he's written in a way that you can understand his point of view. (He's also given a quirky love of baseball, one of Michael Piller's own passions.) This character then gets a fairly good performance from actor Ken Jenkins, later best known for administrator Dr. Kelso on Scrubs. Jenkins is over-the-top in the handful of moments where his character is recovering from something painful, but he nails the dialogue scenes nicely.

Other observations:
  • This episode has another wonderful score from Ron Jones. He represents the nanites and the jeopardy they cause with an unsettling synthesizer melody, but then cleverly replaces that artificiality with pure strings in the final scene where they communicate with the crew through Data. (As a side note, Ron Jones got to score both the premiere and the finale of this season, even though composers usually alternated episodes. That's because this episode -- while always intended to air first -- was actually filmed second.)
  • There's a fun mention of the Borg made, as the crew believe they're encountering one of their vessels during a shipwide malfunction.
  • Troi has a few good scenes trying to interact with Paul Stubbs. But there's also a humorously subtle dig at her character's often marginal role on the show, when Picard responds to one of her observations: "Even my sensory perception picked that up."
  • This episode ran long after filming and was cut to fit the time. You can feel this in the ending, where Picard rushes through the wrap-up in a closing log entry. He breezily explains that Data's fine, the ship is fine, and the nanites get a homeworld. Everything worked out. But note that they chose to glide through this material and not cut some of the purely character-driven scenes. That's that shift in the show's tone at work.
Actually, when you think about it, the main plot of this episode -- the story of an intelligent lifeform emerging where no one thinks it possible, threatening the ship in the process -- is exactly the plot of the first season episode "Home Soil." And even if this episode isn't one of the series' best, its dramatic improvement in quality over that earlier clunker is yet another way that you can sense that the rebirth of Star Trek: The Next Generation has begun here. I give "Evolution" a B.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

A Day at the Beeches

"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" is the last of the 12 stories collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and having finished it, I'll be moving on to The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection. It was a good note to go out on it (though really, it just represents an arbitrary pause in the journey, since these stories were originally published individually in a magazine).

A woman approaches Holmes seeking reassurance about a strange job she's been offered as governess to a couple in the country. The husband wants to pay her an exorbitant sum to watch just one child, but he wants to impose some odd conditions: she must consent when asked to dress in clothes they provide for her, and she must agree to cut her hair. Though skeptical, she finds she can't refuse the job, even though Holmes advises her something is amiss. When she contacts Holmes again after two weeks on the job, she has gotten in over her head, and it's up to the detective and Watson to extricate her.

This story is in the mode of "The Red-Headed League" and "The Noble Bachelor," where the mystery is less of a whodunit than a what's going on? There's a reason behind the odd requests being made of Holmes' client in this story, and it up to him (and the reader) to deduce it. It's an intriguing way to build a tale, and a more pure exercise in reasoning: what scenario could fit all of these peculiar facts?

There are a number of aspects to this story that make it stronger. One is that Holmes is engaged rather early on, instead of late in the client's story. The typical model for a Sherlock Holmes story is this, as I've come to see it in two novels and a dozen short stories: someone approaches Holmes to resolve a puzzle, and spends fully half of the tale recounting a narrative of events that have already transpired. This approach can be difficult at times, because Holmes is essentially being brought into a story at the halfway point, and rather dryly being caught up on events.

"The Copper Beeches" seems similar at first, with this young woman recounting her strange job offer. But things are helped right away by the peculiarity of her story, and they're helped even more by the fact that, from her perspective, we're not arriving at the final act of her story, but at the conclusion of the first. After consulting Holmes, she takes the job anyway, then comes back to him later having had still further adventures. It's a subtle distinction, given that Holmes and Watson don't actually do any investigating at this point in the story, but I nevertheless feel it makes a big difference that they aren't being brought in at the end of someone else's tale.

The short story is also intriguing in its opening pages, which follow a bit of an argument between Holmes and Watson over the way the doctor has recounted his cases in past stories. Holmes feels Watson has sensationalized things a bit, taking the focus away from the best part (the deduction) to focus on the strangeness of the cases themselves. Yet even Holmes acknowledges that the truly sensational thing to do would have been to write of nothing but crimes, which Watson has not always done in the strictest sense; a good number of the stories to this point have not turned on an illegal activity.

This is a compelling opening on several levels. First, it's a fun brush against the fourth wall, telling us that the characters themselves are aware that readers like us are out there following these tales through publication. Doyle has done this before, but never so directly. Second, it's the first taste of strain of any kind in the Holmes/Watson relationship. It's hardly a true argument; you don't even get the sense of raised voices from the writing. But it is a rare moment where Watson is not in awe of Holmes, and the two characters aren't seeing eye to eye. Third, it's a wry commentary on what's about to happen in this story. This case is perched right on the line between criminal and suspect-but-not-illegal, and this opening foreshadows that. It may even be a sort of indignant interjection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who perhaps didn't want to be thought of simply as a "crime writer."

I'd rate "The Copper Breeches" a B+. I consider among the best of the Holmes stories I've read so far.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Simply Smashing

I think because I've been starved for new episodes of Breaking Bad for a year now, I decided to watch the movie Smashed to attempt to fill in the gap. Starring Aaron Paul (who plays Jesse on Breaking Bad) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, it's the story of young married couple that boozes it up to the extreme every single night, and damn the consequences. At least, until one night when the wife's binge drinking leads her to throw up in front of the class of young kids she teaches, and she covers by claiming she's pregnant. Realizing she's gone too far, she tries to quit alcohol entirely, which puts a serious strain on her marriage when her husband does not.

It's a tight little 90-minute indie movie, and bears the hallmarks you expect of such films. The acting is very, very good -- not just from the two actors I mentioned, but from an unconventional cast of supporting actors. Despite this film being a very serious drama, many of the roles are filled by performers best known for comedy. The school principal is played by Megan Mullally (of Will and Grace), while the vice principal -- a recovering alcoholic himself -- is played by Nick Offerman (of Parks and Recreation). I'm not the sort of person who often pigeonholes an actor into comedy or drama, but I was still surprised to see how deftly these two handled their roles in this film.

But another hallmark of these kinds of indie films is that they can be a bit dull at times. Smashed bears this mark too. There's very little to this story other than the splintering relationships of the characters. Despite the seriousness of the alcoholism subject matter, it simply drags in more than a few places. It feels as though the plot is heading to one inevitable place... and wouldn't you know it, it does.

Since I saw another movie about alcoholism not long ago, Flight, it's hard not to think of that movie and compare it to this one. In that comparison, at least, Smashed comes out far ahead. It doesn't promise anything it doesn't deliver, and the film allows room for more than one actor to take the spotlight and deliver a good performance.

If acting-driven movies aren't your thing, though, there's nothing here for you. I'd give Smashed a C-.