Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bloody Disappointment

There was a time where I wouldn't dream of missing a new book from Terry Brooks. But now I've missed not one, but two. For most of his career, Brooks has published once a year in the summer, like clockwork. But since last summer's Wards of Faerie, he has picked up the pace and released books two and three of the "Dark Legacy of Shannara" trilogy with only a half year gap in between.

I didn't exactly "miss" the books entirely. I knew they'd been published. I even bought them. But I simply wasn't finding as much time to read. The move was a convenient excuse, but when it came to Brooks specifically (rather than books in general), the truth was really that upon reflection, I don't think I really liked Wards of Faerie as much as I'd thought at first. Not as much as I'd wanted to. I re-read it to refresh my memory before continuing on to books two and three, and found I just wasn't that engaged. But I finally did finish it, and then went on to finish book two of this Dark Legacy of Shannara series, Bloodfire Quest.

The truth is that Terry Brooks has (for a long time now, really) fallen into quite a formula. His characters are a bit more shallow with each new series, and what's there is often recycled bits of characters from earlier novels. This series has proven especially derivative, as it has turned out to be a wholly unnecessary follow-up to, in my opinion, his weakest trilogy, The High Druid of Shannara. It seems as though to make up for the unsatisfying climax of that series (in which the main character escapes without ever confronting the monstrous adversary Brooks set up), this new trilogy exists only to go back and finish things there the way they should have been finished the first time.

Bloodfire Quest also is a sequel of sorts to Brooks' best novel, The Elfstones of Shannara. That book, the second Brooks published (back in 1982), cast off the dogged adherence to The Lord of the Rings from his first book (The Sword of Shannara) to tell a truly compelling and original story. But Bloodfire Quest sees characters following in the footsteps of the adventure from that great, early book -- and in a far more perfunctory and uninteresting way.

It also seems that on some level, Terry Brooks knows he has fallen into a formula, and he's trying to rebel against it. He can't help but utilize unwilling heroes rising from modest origins, can't help but include simple romantic subplots, can't help but craft power-hungry villains with little practical motivation. But he's also trying to be a little different, and in Bloodfire Quest he seems have decided that George R.R. Martin is a new muse. Bloodfire Quest is Brooks' bloodiest novel, with characters lined up for slaughter. But unlike Martin, Brooks doesn't successfully make us care about most of the characters before killing them off. His breezy writing style -- the same thing that makes him quick to read, and has kept him publishing every year since 1985 -- is too quick to give us time with the "victims." Martin may drone on for pages about 20-course dinners, taking half a decade or more to deliver a thousand-page doorstop, but nearly every character he kills off is a full personality when they head to the grave. Brooks gives us little more than a name.

Bloodfire Quest was a big disappointment for me. That said, I feel in for the long haul at this point (which, compared to other fantasy writers, isn't that long -- I have just one more 400 page book to go). I will complete the trilogy, and maybe Brooks will find a way to pull out of the spiral. But unless the conclusion somehow saves the series, I do feel that Bloodfire Quest is his weakest novel. And as he's written more than 30, that truly is saying something. I suppose as a long time fan, I can't quite bring myself to give it a truly low grade. I still want to say that a poor effort from Terry Brooks is better than many authors can give you. But I couldn't rate it more than a C-, and a soft one at that.

We'll see what happens in the final book...

Friday, November 29, 2013

TNG Flashback: Family

The second episode of the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a truly unusual one for the series, stepping out in several ways that changed up the traditional formula. Sadly, this risk was not rewarded, as this was apparently the lowest rated episode of the season. Nevertheless, it's a good one.

The Enterprise remains at Earth for repairs following its encounter with the Borg. Captain Picard uses the opportunity to visit his old family home in France, and the estranged brother he hasn't seen in more than a decade. Meanwhile, Worf's adoptive parents come aboard the ship for a visit, and Beverly Crusher discovers a message recorded long ago by her husband Jack to give to their son Wesley.

This episode essentially turns "The Best of Both Worlds" into a trilogy, directly following the story of the season opener. But that wasn't the original plan. After finishing the first episode of the new season, the production went on to film two other episodes. But things just weren't sitting well with show runner Michael Piller. He went to producer Rick Berman and argued that for a show that prided itself on realistic storytelling, they'd done a very unrealistic thing: having Picard essentially be "raped" by the Borg and then being just fine by the next episode. Yes, the series was episodic by nature, but this felt like a case where an exception was warranted.

Berman agreed, but with a condition: the writers would need to come up with some kind of sci-fi plot to take place on the Enterprise as Picard went to visit his family. Piller accepted the condition, and went to work with his writers to come up with something. They concocted and rejected a number of ideas, including one that ultimately became the basis of the later episode "Remember Me," but everything clashed too much with the introspective Picard storyline. So finally, Berman relented, and let the writers do the only episode of the entire series with no sci-fi Macguffin. The hour was fleshed out with additional family related stories for Worf and the Crushers, and thus was born the most character-driven episode of the series. The episode was shepherded through production and rearranged to run right after the season premiere, holding the other two intervening episodes for later.

As you would expect in an episode whose story comes entirely from the characters themselves, continuity abounds. In addition to Picard's pivotal encounter with the Borg, the episode also references Worf's holodeck workout routine, his love of prune juice, and his discommendation from last season. The events of the episode "Pen Pals" are mentioned too. (It's not quite a continuity slam dunk, though. Riker expresses surprise that Worf would not want to see his parents, when he himself was even less happy about seeing his own father in a previous episode. I guess he came around.)

Even more important are the new things we learn about the characters in this hour. We meet the human parents Worf has mentioned before. (It seems very fitting somehow that if humans were to raise a Klingon, they'd be Russian.) Chief O'Brien gets both a first AND middle name (Miles Edward). We meet Picard's brother, sister-in-law, and nephew -- and, in the case of that nephew, see that Jean-Luc has come a long way since the days of the stiff captain who couldn't relate to children.

Each of the three story lines has great moments. I'll start with what to me is the weakest, the story of the recording left by Jack Crusher for his son Wesley. Gates McFadden is excellent in the scene where she finds the message. You can sense her grief and loss, not raw or recent, but still there in a way that I think explains why she never remarried after nearly two decades. The subtext comes through strongly: Jack was her one true love. Unfortunately, the recording itself doesn't pay off as well in my mind. There's really nothing Jack of the past can say to give closure to young Wesley, of course... but playing that honestly can't help but leave the storyline feeling incomplete.

The Worf storyline is wonderful. The love of his parents is deeply touching, as they find a way to tell their closed-off son that he doesn't have to bear his embarrassment and dishonor alone. The scene between his parents and Guinan is particularly great. The "home is where the heart is" sentiment isn't especially profound, but it is expressed in a different way that plays the emotion well.

Then there's the Picard storyline. The story of two brothers, estranged and opposite, is a familiar narrative construct, but the way this story is put together leaves interesting room for interpretation. Jeremy Kemp gives a nuanced performance as Robert Picard that makes me wonder just how much he knows about Jean-Luc's circumstances before his arrival. I can easily imagine events not depicted within the episode, Robert hearing that the brother he hasn't seen in over a decade wants to visit, and wondering "why now?" The way Robert goads Picard throughout the episode seems more than the mean-spirited ribbbing of an older brother; it feels like he knows there's a truth that needs to be exposed, and that taunting is the only way Robert knows how to bring it out. When it does come out, Patrick Stewart's portrayal of Picard's anguish is profound.

Other observations:

  • At the start of the episode, Troi becomes the voice of Michael Piller arguing to Rick Berman. She says the very words that must have been said in the real-life argument over having this episode: that there's no way Picard could achieve complete recovery from his ordeal so quickly.
  • This is the one episode of the entire series in which Brent Spiner does not appear. That said, an exploration of Data's family was soon to follow in the episode "Brothers" (which had already been filmed at the time this episode went before the cameras).
  • There are also no scenes set on the bridge in this episode.
  • We've seen Worf's quarters before this episode, and the wacky sculpture he keeps by his door. In this episode, it turns out it's not a sculpture at all, but a chair!
  • Another great moment for guest star Jeremy Kemp is the goodbye hug between Robert and Jean-Luc. So much is said without words.
  • It's great that the last moment of this episode is not aboard the ship, but with Picard's family on Earth, and about young Rene's ambitions to become a starship captain. That said, it's very sad to know the fate of these characters. In the movie Star Trek: Generations, we would learn that the entire family we met here was killed in a fire. And worse, it seems of trivial importance to that movie's narrative (or maybe it's just that the movie itself is rather weak).

Although this episode is a quiet one, it's also a strong one. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Worldly Thoughts

I haven't yet been able to watch this week's new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, but I did manage to get out to see Thor: The Dark World this past weekend. It was a tremendous improvement over the first Thor movie. But then, if you've read my review of the first Thor movie, you know that's not a particularly high bar to clear.

In the plus column, Thor: The Dark World is actually a rather funny movie. Perhaps more so than any of the previous Marvel movies, it does a great job of sprinkling moments of light humor in amongst the action. Think of a classic 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but less corny. There's solid patter throughout, and a handful of good sight gags as well.

In the enormous plus column, there's Loki. In this, his third film in the role, Tom Hiddleston has come to perfectly embody the character. His dry sarcasm is the perfect skewer for the self-importance of the plot surrounding him. His bold swagger actually makes him more likable than the title character. He's something of a classic Disney animated villain, actually, but it works completely given the rather cartoonish nature of the film's Asgard setting. Or, to sum up, while I wouldn't line up to see a third Thor movie, I'd probably be there on opening night for a Loki movie.

What's less effective? Well, most everything that doesn't have Loki in it. Rene Russo does score some points as Frigga, the one truly relatable Asgardian character in the film. But so many other excellent actors (including multiple Oscar winners!) are simply wasted in one-dimensional parts. Anthony Hopkins bellows as Odin, Idris Elba is blandly stoic as Heimdall, Christopher Eccleston's villain Malekith is simply bitter and evil for no clearly articulated reason, and so on down the list. Worst of all is the treatment of Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, who manages somehow to be the movie's Macguffin while simultaneously contributing almost nothing to the progression of the plot.

The film also seems to borrow too much from The Avengers. The climax is a rather similar conceit that involves Earth being threatened by a portal from elsewhere in the universe (but in a far more jumbled way that prompted a lady to ask us as we walked out of the theater: "did you follow any of that?"). Even some of the humor is a retread, such as an early "big guy knocks someone out of frame" moment that fails to recapture the hilarity of the "Hulk punches Thor" moment from The Avengers.

As I said, a big improvement over the original, but Thor: The Dark World still fails at making all these immortal aliens relatable, nor does it make the "all of Earth is threatened" storyline feel as important as the more personal stakes of other Marvel movies. I give this one a C.

(Seriously, I can't be the only one who wants a Loki movie.)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reopening the Book

I wrote about the musical The Book of Mormon when I went to see it last year. Still, I feel compelled to say a few words about it again, now that I've seen it for the second time just before it headed out of town after its second limited run in Denver. If anything, I enjoyed it even more this time around.

It can't be understated just how big a difference casting can make in theater, movies, and television. Though The Book of Mormon had a solid cast the first time it rolled through Denver, the performers were even stronger this time around -- a combination of great new people coming into the production to replace departing actors, and more time with the material. Last year, the touring cast were opening for the very first time in Denver. This time around, they've been all around the country and back and have really come to inhabit their roles.

The real standout this time was A.J. Holmes in the role of Elder Cunningham, the part originated by Josh Gad in the original Broadway production. On the previous tour, it seemed the producers were trying their utmost to match Gad's physical type (along with everyone else in all the other roles they cast). In Holmes, they've gone in a completely different direction, but in doing so have found a skilled performer who, if anything, "out-Gads" the manic energy Gad displayed on the Broadway cast album. He mined new laughs in the material even from me, someone who has seen the show once already and listened to the soundtrack more times than I could count. He quite simply stole the show and earned the thunderous ovation he got at the final curtain.

Last time, I focused mostly on the hilarity and profanity of the musical... and mind you, none of that has changed. But this time, I figured it worth noting that the show actually has insightful commentary and heart too -- not unexpected, given the "I've learned something today" endings we often see in South Park, the other big endeavor of co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The show is actually remarkably positive on spirituality in general (if not on religion in particular). And it's fairly limited in its jokes on Mormonism; the show picks and chooses moments to comment, and even then chooses an approach of "we're just going to state facts, and let the audience laugh if that's what they're going to do."

The Book of Mormon is on to other cities now... possibly one near you. And its return to Denver in 2015 is already announced. So I'd encourage you to make plans if you can to check it out. It's a fun, hilarious show.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Well

I haven't seen Thor 2 (yet, at least), so I was a touch nervous about last night's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which was widely advertised as a follow-up to events of that film. One of my biggest criticisms of most comic book films (the bad ones, anyway), is that they're often crafted too much at the people already "in the tent," so filled with in-jokes and cross-references that they crowd out the entertainment value for the rest of the audience.

That said, I was quite doubtful this episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. would actually make "required reading" of Thor 2. And I was tantalized by the other piece of the advanced hype on the episode -- that it was directed by Jonathan Frakes, who cut his directorial teeth on some of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation before embarking on a very successful 20-year career directing television.

I'm pleased to say that all the ingredients came together well. As far as I could tell from last night's episode, the only thing I needed to know about Thor 2 was that, at some point, London University gets trashed. And even that tidbit seemed to be just played for mild comedy in an early scene; the rest of the episode, while involving plenty of Asgardian material, seemed to have no real relation to the plot of the movie at all. If it did, it was completely transparent to me, just the way I'd hoped for.

Moreover, it was actually a good episode! I might say the best so far, in fact. This makes three installments in a row where the machinations of the external storyline were inextricably intertwined with personal drama and stakes for at least one of the main characters. This time, the episode served to pull back the curtain on Agent Ward, giving us insight into what makes him tick. We learned why he's such a devoted do-gooder and hard-ass, and it humanized him a great deal to see it. It's telling that despite all the Asgard-flavored shenanigans, the episode title, "The Well," was not a reference to any of that, but to this very importance piece of Ward's past. (And, as an added bonus, we even got a tantalizing brush against May's inner workings, too.)

Not that the Asgard stuff wasn't fun. I thought it was helped along a great deal by the presence of fun guest star Peter MacNicol. He was perfectly cast in a role that called for his two signature trademarks as an actor, oddbeat quirkiness and soft introspection.

It seems Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is losing viewers with each passing week, but in November, the show really is starting to move in the right direction creatively. Here's hoping they can stop the slide, because the show really is, bit by bit, transforming into something to look forward to.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Oh, the Humanity!

Over the past two nights, FOX has rolled out the last TV series premiere of the fall season. (Until January brings the sizable "mid-season" crop.) Almost Human comes from series creator J. H. Wyman, one of the showrunners on Fringe, and is produced by J.J. Abrams' company, Bad Robot. It's set in a near future L.A., following a police officer working with his android partner.

From the two episodes so far (aired back-to-back on Sunday and Monday night), the show seems aimed at carving out a familiar space despite its undeniable sci-fi trappings. It's part procedural cop show, with a sci-fi brush over the particulars of any given case. It's part buddy cop movie, in which it just happens one of the buddies is an android.

Though rather simple on the page, the episodes so far have managed to be more than the simple premise. I'm not wowed, but I'm definitely interested, in large part because of the two main actors. The series stars Karl Urban (the new Dr. McCoy, but with a pile of geek cred including Dredd and The Lord of the Rings) as the grizzled human cop and Michael Ealy (whose own less exhaustive geek cred still includes an Underworld movie and the short-lived TV series FlashForward) as his android partner. The two actors have an immediate rapport with one another, which puts the writers a big step ahead in trying to figure out just what the show ought to be like.

There are a handful of other side characters, some of them somewhat recognizable faces from other TV series. But the only one making even a modest impact so far is a tech geek played by Mackenzie Crook (known for the original British version of The Office). At this early stage, I suppose it's understandable -- even desirable -- that the focus be on the main two characters. Still, at this point it leaves me wondering why bother with anyone else at all. No one else seems like they're really adding much to the mix.

It will be interesting to see what the show does in the weeks ahead. There was the layering in of an ongoing plotline in the pilot episode, which was not mentioned again in the second hour. Is the show going to feel compelled to build an ongoing story, just because it's science fiction and produced by J.J. Abrams? If so, is that going to be an interesting ongoing storyline, or is it going to go the way of The X-Files? Will the show instead embrace a more episodic, procedural format, letting its unusual setting do the job of separating the series from the pack? The first two episodes have at least earned more than enough goodwill for me to hang around and see.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Matter of Inches

It's a been a light year for concerts for me. In fact, this Wednesday night was only the second time I've been to one this year. The first time was for Trent Reznor's "other band," How to Destroy Angels. So it was fitting that this time was to see his better known group, Nine Inch Nails. The group is on tour promoting its latest album, Hesitation Marks. It's an album I have only heard pieces of in passing, but that didn't keep from really enjoying the show.

The set list for the show included plenty of more classic Nine Inch Nails hits among the new material, and a surprise or two along the way. I particularly enjoyed a new take on "Sanctified," still quite recognizable, but with an oddly different take on the distinctive bass line from the album version (on Pretty Hate Machine). The new album's first big single, "Come Back Haunted," was also a strong number in the set.

While the band itself was mostly stationary on stage, Trent Reznor's performance at the mic was still intense and full of energy. As a friend of mine noticed, Reznor frequently managed to make the crowd stop recording their cell phone videos because they were just that pulled into wanting to enjoy the music and the show -- a rare feat in the modern concert environment.

But, as with How to Destroy Angels, it may have been that the real star of the show was the amazing light show. Many similar techniques were used here, including the screen sometimes lowered in front of the band to serve as a see-through projection surface. But in every way, this concert just offered "more." The stage and the venue was many times larger. There were more lights, turned up to more intensity, moving in more exotic patterns, and cycling through more colors. It was a sensory feast that defies easy explanation, other than to say it was damn cool.

This was just a solid show all around, that I enjoyed a great deal more than my concert experience from earlier this year.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Hub

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. delivered a pretty solid episode this week. Though I didn't have much interest in the larger view inside the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, there was a lot of great character material this week. And it was mostly generated by pairing all those characters off in interesting ways.

The mission team of Fitz and Ward made for some strong storytelling, particularly coming on the heels of last week's episode in which Fitz felt upstaged by Ward. This is the sort of character driven plotting that I've been hoping the show would edge toward, and it was punctuated with plenty of nice comedic moments. From Fitz's clever handling of the Russians to the argument over the world's "most dangerous sandwich," the two made an excellent team... all the more enjoyable in that they were actually effective in their mission.

Nearly as entertaining was the pairing of Skye and Simmons. Where Fitz rose to the occasion during his time in the field, Simmons' hilarious ineptitude delivered the best laughs of the episode. But the subplot was also a good vehicle for Skye, when she chose the good of the team over digging into her own past.

Lastly, there was the pairing of Coulson and May. Though the character of May remains stubbornly stoic, this episode found better ways to use that than we've seen before. It played for good laughs during May's tai chi practice and Coulson's "conversation" with her, and it played for good drama in the final scene, in which the two of them seemed to take a big step away from the company line they'd been toeing.

Momentum in the series really seemed to be building this week. I just hope that they don't lose it again next week when they air the big Thor 2 crossover episode. As long as the characters don't get lost in the shuffle of the story being told, it could work out well.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Bear Necessities

It's been a few years since the TV series Caprica went off the air, the short-lived prequel spin-off of Battlestar Galactica. The series showed occasional hints of greatness amid a sea of flaws, but one element that was always consistent was the musical score by composer Bear McCreary. Continuing his work on Battlestar Galactica, he evolved a new soundscape that clearly felt part of the same universe while still staking out new ground of its own.

A soundtrack album of the pilot episode was released during the series' original run. Now, La-La Land Records has released a 2-CD set of music taken from all throughout the show's 20-episodes. And I'm far too big a fan of Bear McCreary's work to pass it up.

The overall tone of Caprica's music is much less flashy than that of Battlestar Galactica. While the pulsing percussion that was the parent show's signature sound does show up on occasion, Caprica is dominated by mournful wind instruments, quiet strings, and minor melodies. Listening to the soundtrack in isolation (and reading the CD set's well-researched liner notes) also made me realize just how clever the work was.

The themes Bear McCreary established for the Greystone family and the Adama family are readily apparent in the compositions, but what was less apparent was how they transformed over the life of the show. As you make your way through both discs, the two melodies slowly change and intertwine. Ultimately, as each family influences the other (one growing more corrupt and the other digging in on principles), the two melodies swap instrumentation, each theme being presented on the instruments usually reserved for the other. It's surprisingly subtle in the context of the show, but screams loud when listening to the music in isolation. And it's damn smart writing, a true symphonic representation of the storyline that played out over a season.

Accenting the work are great crossover moments with Battlestar Galactica's music. The Cylons are depicted with the same loud eastern percussion of the parent show. The relationship between Joseph Adama and his son is often scored with phrases from the melody used to represent William Adama and his son Lee on Galactica. So not only does Caprica's music stand well on its own, it works within the greater fabric of the Galactica universe.

But this new soundtrack isn't one I expect I'll be listening to straight through again. That's because scattered throughout, and amounting to nearly a entire half disc's worth of material, are a number of "source music" cues. And very few of them are enjoyable. I have little interest in hearing a warbling tenor sing the planetary anthem "Caprica Abides." Even less do I want to hear the "V club" scream-o rap "Voices of the Dead." Back to back source cues from the episode "Gravedancing" leave me cold. It's a lot of music that really doesn't play well except in the context of the given episode, and I wish it wasn't crowding out other score from the discs.

So overall, the collection isn't perfect. Still, if you're a fan of Bear McCreary's work as I am, it's a must-have. I give it a B.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Indie Genius

I'm not sure how I first heard of the movie called "Sexy Evil Genius," but the moment I heard that title, I knew I had to see it.

The film earns some serious geek cred from the people involved. The cast includes Seth Green (of Robot Chicken, Family Guy, and more), Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck of Battlestar Galactica), Harold Perrineau (of Lost and the two Matrix sequels), Michelle Trachtenberg (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gossip Girl), and William Baldwin (perhaps not famous for any one particularly geeky thing, but hey, one of the better Baldwin brothers). The director and one of the producers are a team from the TV series The Dead Zone, and for good measure, they bring along with them actor Anthony Michael Hall for a brief cameo role.

So, all that is in play before you even get to the plot itself. But the plot is equally strange and interesting. Sexy Evil Genius is the story of a trio who meets in a bar by the machinations of their shared ex-girlfriend, the manipulative title character who is bringing them together for the first time for unknown reasons of her own.

This is indie film making, an inexpensive but distinctive movie. It actually plays out very much like it was written first as a one-act stage play, opened up slightly with brief flashbacks in the adaptation to another medium. Still, the emphasis stays on sharply drawn characters and fun, clever dialogue. And as things spiral downward in the movie's brisk 90 minutes, things get more and more interesting.

That said, the movie sets up a situation that's fairly hard to pay off in a satisfying way. So it's no surprise that the ending disappoints just a bit. Worse, it's an ending lamely teased in a flash-forward opening scene -- basically, a cliche "hours earlier" beginning (though mercifully, without the actual on screen caption).

Still, this is one case where a weak ending (and one tired plot device) doesn't bring the movie down far enough for me not to recommend it. It's just too much fun by that point to be spoiled. So if you're in the mood for a dialogue driven bit of quirkiness starring a handful of recognizable TV sci-fi faces, put Sexy Evil Genius on your list. I give it a B+.

Thursday, November 07, 2013


I'm getting to this week's new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode a day late, which has been enough time for the internet critic consensus to emerge. Many are proclaiming the second half of this episode the best the series has ever been. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but the prevailing opinion in my house certainly was that the second half of the episode was stronger than the first.

The first half was a rather rote procedural, investigating a mystery of the week and discovering what the victims had in common. Things took a turn with Coulson's revelation that he himself is aware something isn't right with his surviving his encounter with Loki in The Avengers. It would have been more plausible if he hadn't been telling his story to a virtual stranger, but it was still a strong moment, and well acted by Clark Gregg.

That scene served as the bridge to a more character-centric story exploring the relationship between Fitz and Simmons. Curing an incurable disease in 40 minutes is a staple of staple of television drama (in fact, this week's episode of The Blacklist featured that plot line too), but the episode rightly put as much emphasis on Simmons as the puzzle she was trying to solve. It put possibly even more emphasis on Fitz's reaction to the situation. It was good to see an episode feature these two characters more, as they're easily the least developed characters in the cast.

This all likely points towhat Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to do to transform into a more reliably good show. Raise the emphasis on character. Cut back on the "investigation of the week" stories, or make sure that any such stories have a personal stake with one of the main characters. Let the more stone-faced characters -- May and Ward -- show some emotion, as they did this week.

We'll see. I'd say for now, this episode (like most before it) continues to linger in B, B+ territory. Not bad, and yet you sense that the show could be much more.

Monday, November 04, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Best of Both Worlds, Part II

There was no way that the fourth season premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation was going to live up to the spectacular cliffhanger that ended season three. Still, even if "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II" is a bit of a disappointment, it's far from a flop.

With Captain Picard transformed by the Borg into their voice, Locutus, they are now equipped with all the knowledge and experience they need to obliterate the Federation's defenses. Riker must step out of the shadow of his former captain and devise new strategies to protect Earth from annihilation.

Part II has a lot of story to pay off, but in its first half at least it does a commendable job in continuing with more of the character moments that helped make Part I so wonderful. Admiral Hanson gives us the back story of how he met Picard, as a means of declaring that Picard is already dead; the thing now working for the Borg is not the captain. It's a sentiment shared by Guinan in a brilliant scene where she comes to the ready room to lift Riker out of his uncertainty and give him permission to let Picard go. When Guinan says it's alright -- necessary -- to move on, that's that. (She also playfully teases the story of how she met Picard, without telling it.)

The rapprochement between Riker and Shelby is handled well in this episode. Riker extends an olive branch by revealing to her the comments Picard made in Part I... but still does get in a few jabs here and there even as they begin to work together more harmoniously.

There are plenty of other great accents throughout the episode. It's a chilling "walk over your grave" moment when we learn that the ship Riker was offered to command in Part I -- the Melbourne -- was destroyed in the battle at Wolf 359. The brief glimpses of Saturn and Mars are fun, particularly the former in that it sort of calls to mind the series' original opening credits from the first two seasons. The mention of weaponizing nanites is a fun bit of continuity to an earlier episode. And the fact that Riker and Shelby both change the pips on their uniforms (to indicate their promotions) does work to push the notion that the loss of Picard might be permanent.

Speaking of Picard, the most powerful moments in the episode are ones involving him. Right in the teaser is the outstanding moment where Locutus first calls Riker "Number One." It's a wonderful twist of the knife on the fact that Picard truly is in there (despite whatever Hanson or Guinan might later say), and simultaneously belittles Riker as a subordinate, an unworthy adversary. It makes the moment that Riker rises to the challenge that much sweeter. Later, there's the scene in which we see Picard further transformed by the Borg, in which they attach a prosthetic arm and drain the color from his skin. The single tear that rolls from his eye again tells us: Picard is in there somewhere. And then of course there's the final shot of the episode, a melancholy gaze out the window that lets us know this ordeal has cost him something dear.

As I've mentioned before, when this episode aired for the first time, I got to watch it at a Star Trek convention with thousands of fans. The cheers that erupted when Worf and Data retrieved Picard were deafening. The laughter at Worf's hilarious "I like my species the way it is" line was memorable. But the crowd quieted down a bit as the episode came into the final acts. That's where the episode gets weak.

There's no denying the logic of making the Borg's interconnectedness -- their strength -- be their weakness. Writer Michael Piller reportedly only figured that out two days before shooting began on this episode, after weeks of struggling with how to resolve his unsolvable cliffhanger. But as logical as it is, it just doesn't make for much excitement. They literally put the Borg to sleep. Director Cliff Bole would, in later interviews, acknowledge this as "a little bit of a cop out." And composer Ron Jones essentially lets us hear how disjointed this wrap-up is: his score whiplashes back and forth between pulsing action for the battle outside, and atmospheric synthesizer for the work in Data's lab. It's low energy, the only drama in it being quite intellectual -- you have to really stop to think about it to respect how much strength of will Picard has to fight the Borg and give the solution to Data.

Other observations:
  • With a new season replenishing the production coffers, the costumers were able to outfit all the background characters with the same collared uniforms the major characters had been using for a year. (Apparently in the moment between Riker's order to fire on the Borg cube and the actual execution of it, half the bridge staff rushed out to change their clothes.)
  • This was the last episode of the series to show the Enterprise separating the saucer. This required the visual effects team to haul the older, larger model out of storage; the newer Enterprise model they'd been using lacked the ability to do this.
  • This was also the last episode to feature a Borg cube, even though the Borg themselves would reappear in later episodes.
  • This episode won two Emmy awards: Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series and Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Drama Series.
  • During the battle sequence in which Picard is rescued from the Borg, Riker orders the use of a new communications scrambling code, "Riker One." But you can plainly see from the way his lips move that the "One" was a substitution in post-production. I wonder what the original line was, and why they decided to change it?
  • Writer Michael Piller wanted to add dimension to the Borg, explaining the motivation behind their outright villainy, so he wrote the scene in which Locutus explains that they want to improve the quality of life for all species.
  • Security was understandably tight on this episode, the production fighting to keep the conclusion of the cliffhanger a secret. To track any potential leaks of the first draft of the script, the number of the "Jupiter station" referenced in the episode was unique in every single copy.
  • LeVar Burton was in the hospital for emergency surgery when filming began on this episode. This is why Geordi appears in tight close-ups throughout this episode; his material was filmed later and spliced in with the other actors. This is also why Chief O'Brien is the one to assist Data in the lab during the episode's climax; this was written to have been Geordi, but his lines were all given to O'Brien because of Burton's unavailability.
  • The Blu-ray set for season four includes a scene deleted from this episode for time, in which Troi and Riker discuss the loss of Picard. It was meant to occur before the Riker/Guinan scene, and given the similarities between the two, that later scene probably plays better without this one. There's also some rough, trite dialogue for Troi in this scene that the episode is probably better without. That said, there are two great moments: Riker acknowledging the Picard was more like a father to him than his real one, and Troi flat-out contradicting the sentiments Hanson and Guinan argue at other times. Troi says there is still humanity she can sense in Picard.
  • Though I mentioned the somewhat schizophrenic music from Ron Jones in the climactic scene, the bulk of his work in this episode is just as exceptional as what he composed for Part I. His screaming action cue for Picard's rescue is brilliant, but just as powerful are some quieter moments in the episode: the mournful solo horn that plays as Riker "lets go" of Picard, the Enterprise's flight through the graveyard at Wolf 359, and Picard's look out the window at the final fade to black.
Despite that "cop out" of an ending, I still think there's plenty of good things about this season opener. I give it a B+.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Carrie On

This year on Halloween night, after the trick-or-treaters had packed it in, I decided to watch a horror movie that I'd never seen before. Inspired in part by the new remake of Carrie in theaters right now (which I also haven't seen), I decided to watch the original -- the first film adaptation of a Stephen King novel (and of his first novel, in fact).

While there are still parts of the film that work, the film now has to overcome its hopelessly dated trappings. The fashion, the hairstyles, the attitudes... this film is a time capsule of 1976, and a most cliche version of it at that. Also pulling you out of the fantasy is the parade of familiar faces, showing up here before they became more famous: besides star Sissy Spacek, there's John Travolta, Nancy Allen, William Katt, Edie McClurg, and more. Ultimately, I try not to hold those things against the film too much, and they actually do add some fun to watching it.

But it's harder to overlook some very odd choices in the storytelling. The film is barely more than an hour and a half long, and yet still manages to be too long in many ways. Paradoxically, it also manages to be too short at the same time. The problem really stems from what the film decides to focus on.

Carrie is the title character, and while the ending of the film ultimately judges her to be a villain, the movie really should be all about her. I thus find it problematic that some major pieces of her character development are absent in the film. She starts out unaware of her telekinetic powers, and even of the concept of telekinesis itself. Then she reads one sentence in a book, and instantly seems to have full control over her abilities. There's no development of her powers, little real buildup to her moment of defying her controlling mother, and insufficient context for her lashing out at the entire school at the climax of the film. Sure, students treat her like crap throughout the movie, but there's never any inkling that she harbors any revenge fantasies about any of it.

Meanwhile, fully half the film seems to be devoted to the other characters setting up the famous prank they play at the climax of the film. We see them slaughter the pigs to harvest the bucket of blood; we see them maneuver things to rig the prom queen ballot box; we see every step of the jealous young perpetrator recruiting people to her cause; we even see said perpetrator suffering through gym detention, apparently the inciting incident for her plot against Carrie. Frankly, this is all pretty meaningless stuff, laying a lot of track for little apparent reason other than preventing us from asking at the end of the film "why would they do that?" and "where did they get the blood from?" And those seem like trivial questions compared to "when did Carrie achieve mastery of her abilities?"

Director Brian De Palma works in his characteristic, showy style. He uses a number of conspicuous camera tricks (such as repeated use of split-focus diopter to hold two different depths of field in a single shot). And the famous prom climax is cut together with lots of split-screen shots that I found quite jarring. That said, he does manage to make a number of key scenes land with appropriate intensity, such as the final confrontation between Carrie and her mother, and the great "gotcha" scare of the final scene.

In the end, I think there are other classic horror films that hold up much better than Carrie. It wasn't a total loss, but it also wasn't something I'd really recommend. I give it a C-.