Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Game

"The Game" is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where I think the writers believed they were being rather more profound than they actually were. Nevertheless, the result was fairly entertaining.

On Riker's trip to Risa, a mysterious woman shares a strange but simple VR game that he takes back to the Enterprise. It soon spreads like wildfire through the crew, and is ultimately revealed to be a brainwashing tool invented by an alien captain to seize control of first the ship, and then all of Starfleet. The only people that stand in the way are Wesley Crusher, visiting from Starfleet Academy, and Robin Lefler, the clever engineer with whom Wesley has struck up a relationship.

This was another episode with a long gestation period. The original idea to do an episode about video game addiction was pitched more than a year before this aired. It went through several permutations, and two complete written drafts, only to be scrapped each time. Show runner Michael Piller was starting to think the idea simply couldn't be saved, but producer Rick Berman pushed him to keep at it. Piller himself, Berman pointed out, had been saying the show needed more inherently sci-fi concepts. (A criticism Piller had leveled at the immediately prior episode, in fact.)

So Piller decided to give it to "the new guy," new staff writer Brannon Braga. Braga decided to go in a darker direction, influenced in part by Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What if Wesley came home for vacation and everyone was out to get him? And how fun would it be for all the adults to become addicted to a video game while the adolescent looked on from the sidelines?

I think the real success in this reconception was giving up the notion of saying anything deep about video game addiction -- it instead just embraced a fun story. But some of the production staff still talked about this episode in interviews as the "video game addiction" episode. It's kind of hilarious to think about writers in 1991 trying to forecast the future of video gaming anyway, in an age before MMOs or cell phones.

Piller rightly praised Braga's finished script -- for while the episode may not be profound, it is certainly well written. It finds room for many good character moments amid the action. Picard and Wesley share a wonderful conversation about the Academy and the groundskeeper Boothby, first mentioned in "Final Mission." (Patrick Stewart is especially brilliant, making you really believe in the memories Picard is recalling.) Data gets to recall Wesley's mom teaching him to dance. We get to see Riker's idea of a good time on Risa. (And how appropriate, by the way, that his horndog nature makes him Patient Zero for this crisis.) Even a minor character like Nurse Ogawa gets her most substantial appearance to date. Or, as Michael Piller neatly summed up, when Troi can talk about chocolate for half a minute and not slow down the story, you've done something right.

Braga also wrote the character of Wesley better here as a guest star than in any episode where he was actually a main character. Braga deliberately tried to relax the uptight character, believably making him a college prankster with, in his words, some "spunk" and "savvy." The romantic relationship is good too. (Immeasurably better than Wesley's last girlfriend episode.) It helps that Robin Lefler is also well-written. Her "Lefler's Laws" imply an untold personal history in which those life lessons were for some reason learned in that order. (And they're perhaps a spiritual precursor to the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition on Deep Space Nine.) Plus, the fact that she ends up using a medical scanner to run tests on a first date really makes her a great match for Wesley.

The performances are good too. Wil Wheaton is so much more confident in this episode that he's been in past Wesley episodes. Plus, we get the return of future star Ashley Judd. The staff had liked her so much in "Darmok" that they'd been looking for an opportunity to bring her back. They liked her so much here that they wanted to bring her back a third time when Wesley reappeared later in the season, but that didn't work out. (Perhaps her career was already starting to take off?)

Yet the episode does have its share of misfires. There's the dopey look of the video game itself, with the not-all-at-subtle metaphor of guiding a disc into a cone to provoke an orgasmic reaction. (Jonathan Frakes, though a fan of the episode overall, noted hilariously in an interview: "They told me it was going to be this incredible graphic, and all it was... was a tuba on a checkerboard.") There's also a bit of "been there, done that" in this episode, telling another brainwashing story so soon after "The Mind's Eye."

But probably the biggest stretch is the implausible virality of the game. For one, there's the scientific unlikelihood of a single device being equally effective on aliens of different physiologies (Worf, Troi, who knows who else) and even somehow the blind (Geordi). Then there's the question of how certain crew members would ever even try it in the first place. Braga indicated in an interview that this was his ulterior motive in the Troi-Riker chocolate scene, to illustrate that people tried the game because they were encouraged to do so by the people they trusted most. Maybe so, but that really makes me want to see how Worf or Picard tried it. (Troi and Beverly, respectively?)

Other observations:
  • In the opening scene on Risa, the set department took great pains to recreate the look established in a previous episode. There's even a horga'hn visible on a table in the background.
  • I'm not sure I buy that a Sadie Hawkins Dance would even be a thing in the future. Surely there's true gender equality by then, such that women asking men out doesn't have to be a special occasion.
  • Wesley totally fails his perception roll when talking to Picard about the game, by not noticing that the captain has one sitting there on the table right behind him, in plain view.
  • Costuming highs and lows in this episode: the "cadet uniform" makes its first appearance here, and is something of a precursor to the Deep Space Nine uniforms. But Wesley's civilian clothes and hairstyle somehow manage to make him look instantly five years younger.
  • I like the chase scene in the final act. Wesley believably eludes capture for a time. But also believably, he can't keep it up forever and is soon caught.
  • Wil Wheaton proudly noted that he was Ashley Judd's first on-screen kiss.
  • In the scene where Dr. Crusher knocks Data unconscious, Brent Spiner slammed down so hard on the medical bed that he cut his chin and had to be rushed to the hospital. When he returned to the set, they had to complete the scene, and he was obviously much more cautious -- look at how slowly Data lowers himself onto the bed after he's switched off.
This episode asks you to ignore a plot hole or two, but offers enough fun and solid character moments to make up for it. In all, I'd give it a B.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Zany to the Max

Friday night, I had a unique experience at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra: Animaniacs Live! This was the premiere performance of a new show that has been put together to celebrate the Warner Bros. cartoon of the 1990s.

If you haven't seen the Animaniacs, you're really missing out. Molded very much in the classic Looney Tunes style, Animaniacs featured the zany trio of Yakko, Wakko, and Dot -- along with a host of other creations like Pinky and the Brain -- as they stirred up trouble in every situation imaginable. Though digestible for children, it seemed very much aimed at the adults, a far more rare breed then than it seems to be today.

And it boasted plenty of clever and funny music. There was a song to explain time zones, a song to mock California earthquakes, a song naming every country in the world (at the time), a song naming every U.S. state and its capital, a humorous Christmas play on words, and much, much, much more. Animaniacs Live took two hours of this music and presented it with a full orchestra for a wild evening.

The event was anchored and hosted by Randy Rogel, the writer/composer of the majority of these songs, and Rob Paulsen, the virtuoso voice artist behind Yakko, Doctor Scratchensniff, Pinky, and others. Making featured appearances were Jess Harnell and Tress MacNeille, the voices of Wakko and Dot. (Though if you've watched any cartoon made in the last two decades, you've probably heard the work of one or both.)

Together, these performers all rattled off rapid fire songs with the live orchestra. Sometimes, they upped the "degree of difficulty" by playing in sync with the original cartoon as it was projected on a large screen behind the orchestra. In the second act, they brought in some unusual treats, like the original version of a song that was rejected and never used on the show, and a sprinkling of songs Rogel had written for other cartoons -- from a sentimental look at the possibilities of growing up, to a condensed appraisal of all 37 of Shakespeare's plays. There was even a brief encore, in which the "Yakko's World" song was given another verse to update it for the new countries to appear since the original version was recorded.

The audience, naturally, ate it up. We were mostly adults, who had enjoyed the Animaniacs at various ages when it ran new on television. But there was also the next generation of fans, infected by their parents thanks to DVD. And sprinkled here and there were people dressed in costumes -- a few Wakkos, a handful of Dots, and even a Hello Nurse.

Sadly, it was a one-night only performance, so I can't urge any of you to go. (None of you Denverites, anyway. Those in other cities might consider looking for future tour dates.) But it was such a fun night, I couldn't help but gush about it.

Friday, September 26, 2014

R.I.P. Off

Judging from its anemic box office take, you didn't see last year's R.I.P.D. But as it turns out, if you've seen Men in Black, then you pretty much have seen R.I.P.D.

It's no secret that Hollywood studios are constantly trying to bottle the success of their rivals with similarly themed films. But it does seem a bit odd to me for a movie to be this close to an earlier film, yet be so far behind the times (this coming more than a year after the third Men in Black film). R.I.P.D. is the story of a cop suddenly pulled into a world he never knew existed, capturing dead rogues who are stirring up trouble on Earth. (The afterlife substitutes for aliens, though there are hardly any changes, cosmetically.)

Taking on the Tommy Lee Jones role is Jeff Bridges. While Bridges' Roy cuts loose a bit more than the dry Agent K of Men in Black, he's still a prickly stick-in-the-mud forced to train a new rookie he doesn't really like. He revels in the new guy's greenness and failures, shows no reactions to the weirdness around him, and tosses off curt observations on (after)life. The Will Smith role is filled by Ryan Reynolds. His headstrong Nick thinks he knows better than the veteran he's been saddled with, has a chip on his shoulder a mile wide, and mugs for the audience when weird stuff he could never have imagined happens.

Of course, Men in Black was hardly the first film to serve up this kind of buddy cop pairing. But R.I.P.D. is more than willing to steal other cliches as well. In just an hour and a half, you get the "former ally revealed as the ultimate villain" trope, the "disobedient cops kicked off the case" trope, the "villain who gets captured on purpose as part of his plan" trope. R.I.P.D. doesn't feel written so much as manufactured.

But depending on your love of the cast members, it might not be a total loss for you. Jeff Bridges is playing a caricature of a drawling Old West outlaw here, but it is a fun caricature. Ryan Reynolds once again excels in his apparent lot in Hollywood, being very likeable in a drab movie. Kevin Bacon continues his recent trend of playing the villain, and is clearly having a ball twirling his virtual mustache more broadly than ever before. And Mary-Louise Parker manages a few laughs with her deadpan delivery.

Still, I don't think a few scattered laughs really justifies sitting through this wholly uninspired movie. Any one of the actors, even the apparently cursed Ryan Reynolds, has better films in their histories. R.I.P.D. gets at best a D+.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

TNG Flashback: Disaster

Star Trek: The Next Generation served up several homages to classic films over the years. With "Disaster," it presented a take on disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.

The Enterprise is struck by a quantum filament, an interstellar phenomenon that wreaks havoc all over ship. With systems malfunctioning and everyone cut off from other parts of the ship, the crew faces a series of calamities. Counselor Troi finds herself in command on a bridge powerless to prevent an impending explosion in engineering. Captain Picard finds himself trapped in a turbolift with three children. Geordi LaForge and Beverly Crusher are sealed in a cargo bay with a dangerous plasma fire that threatens to detonate several deadly cargo containers. Riker and Data are struggling to get through the innards of the ship. And Worf is leading triage in Ten Forward, and suddenly thrust into the role of delivering Keiko O'Brien's new baby.

Ronald Moore took point in writing this script, bought from a pair of outside writers and then developed by the entire writing staff. Some of them had reservations about the finished product. Staff writer Jeri Taylor thought the fans didn't receive it well. Show runner Michael Piller thought it was fun enough, but didn't reach the "upper echelons" because it lacked a compelling mystery or science fiction element. (He also had issues with one of the story lines, but I'll come back to that.) Perhaps they're critical of the television tropes they used: "trapped in an elevator" and "delivering a baby in awkward circumstances." Or perhaps they're all judging this outing a bit more harshly than normal because this happened to be the final episode of Star Trek to air before Gene Roddenberry's death. (And admittedly, this isn't the sort of high-concept allegory in the classic Star Trek mold one might want to be perceived as Roddenberry's epitaph.)

Though criticizing those things would be reasonable, the fact remains that "Disaster" is still a very entertaining episode. In my view, there aren't many episodes that managed to make better use of all seven of the main characters. This one deftly juggles five storylines in different parts of the ship, each plot thread putting people in danger and/or outside of their comfort zone.

Picard, of course, is forced to deal with children. And, as we've seen before on more than one occasion, he's not at all as bad with them as he thinks. His smart handling of the children makes for a number of great moments, and several great lines ("I want you to know, this is mutiny."). The editors also find the time for a long but effective single shot -- without any dialogue -- in which Picard and the children finally escape from the turbolift shaft.

In Ten Forward (where Guinan's calming influence is appropriately absent), Worf is thrust into the job of delivering Keiko O'Brien's baby. This is undoubtedly the most cliche of the plot threads in this episode, but a healthy dose of deadpan Worf humor makes it well worthwhile.

Geordi LaForge and Beverly Crusher, a rather rare pairing, are thrown together in the cargo bay. They get some great moments, both as characters and actors. We're reminded of Beverly's theater hobby, and see Geordi's awkward forced audition. We see both of them bring their own skill sets to a crisis. And in a refreshingly good moment for a female character (one of several in this episode), it's Beverly who manages to save their lives after the two of them save the ship.

Data and Riker must crawl through the guts of the ship together, leading to a bizarre situation in which Riker must remove the android's head. The writers dreamed up this crazy idea while Michael Piller was out of the room, and were nervous to pitch it to him when he came back. Instead, he loved how wild a notion it was, though he was sure executive producer Rick Berman would have them take it out of the script. (Instead, Berman never said a word.)

Then there's the story on the bridge, where Counselor Troi finds herself in command -- an excellent writing choice. She finds herself butting heads with Ensign Ro, appearing for the first time since her introduction. The Bajoran stirs up exactly the sort of conflict her character was created to cause. O'Brien is aghast at the shortcuts and risks Ro is willing to take (but he'd learn the "spit and bailing wire" approach when he later transferred to Deep Space Nine). Both O'Brien and Troi are shocked at the callous way Ro wants to cut loose the stardrive section of the Enterprise to save the lives in the saucer.

Predictably, Ro's suggestion proves wrong in the end, and this is ultimately where Michael Piller had the biggest problem with the episode. For one thing, he felt like the story was covering similar ground as the season premiere, in which Data butted heads with a reluctant subordinate. Secondly, he felt that Ro was too new a character to be put in a losing situation -- she hadn't racked up enough "wins" to balance out looking so foolish here. Lastly, he hated the way Ro apologized to Troi in the end. He felt Ro should have said, "I still think I was right, and you just got lucky that it worked out this time." Instead, Piller felt Ro's intentionally hard edges were already being buffed out. I would concede that Piller was probably right on all three counts, though fortunately I think Ro's character wasn't hurt too much in the long run.

Other observations:
  • At the beginning of the episode, Miles and Keiko talk about their child as though certain it's going to be a boy. Even now, in 2014, doctors can determine the gender of a baby with almost 100% accuracy. So, since I don't want to think Doctor Crusher capable of such a massive error, I'll assume Miles and Keiko didn't want to know ahead of time.
  • Laws prevent the use of actual newborns in film and television. So in this case, as always, a pregnant woman gives birth to a distressingly huge baby.
  • The names of the three children trapped with Picard -- Marisa, Jay Gordon, and Patterson -- kind of sound like a first name, a first and last name, and a last name only. But when we see the plaque they've made for Picard at the end of the episode, we can see all of the characters' actual last names. (Sort of. The names are just the last names of the actors playing them.)
  • In a nice bit of continuity, Troi attempts (incorrectly) to compare the quantum filament that cripples the Enterprise here to the cosmic string fragment they encountered in the past.
  • As an homage to the disaster movies that inspired this episode, Ronald Moore half-joked that he wanted to cast Shelley Winters in a guest starring role in this episode. Nobody went for the idea.
Despite the holes you could maybe poke in this episode, I found it quite enjoyable. I'd call it an unexpected A-.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shadows

The big question going into tonight's season two premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is whether the show would sort of "reset" itself in the slow and vague attitude in which the series began, or continue the momentum of the strong episodes that ended the first season. In my view, the answer was very much the latter. As with the successful "post-Winter Soldier" episodes, this premiere felt like it really was connected with a larger story in a larger universe, and not merely name-dropping for longtime Marvel fans.

This premiere sure had a hell of a lot going on in it, though that did help in creating the sense that they have a lot of story to tell this season. We got a new villainous thug in the form of Absorbing Man, and he was fairly fun to see in action -- more menacing in just one episode, I think, than Deathlok managed to be in all his first season appearances. We also got a taste of who might be the new Big Bad for the season (for a while, at least) in mysteriously ageless Whitehall (played by Whedon-verse alum Reed Diamond). There were also a host of new "good guy" characters, though the most impactful of them, Lucy Lawless' Hartley, apparently did not survive the episode. (Having your arm slowly cut off, only to die anyway? That's a bad day!)

But by far the most compelling aspect of the episode was the parade of changes we saw in the main characters. Skye, forced out of her naive shell late in the first season by Ward's betrayal, has now moved further into true badassery. She was confident in the field, confident in bantering with the team, confident in her talk with Coulson-- confident everywhere except for her meeting with Ward. (And even then, she didn't shrink from going to see him.) In short, she seems to have a raft of new capabilities to supplement her already considerable ones, which should make her a more compelling and formidable character this season.

As for that weak spot, Ward. I think we all know that in the long term, Ward can't forever remain a Hannibal Lecter style character that stands behind the glass and interacts only with one other person. But the slower the writers can make the journey to him actually getting out (for whatever reason), the more chance it will have of being believable. And in this episode, it certainly seemed like a slow pace could be sustained for a while. The interesting thing about captive Ward is that he wasn't entirely in control and pulling Skye's strings. He seemed in at least half measure to be a broken man. His account of his suicide attempts came off surprisingly grisly, considering the sparse visuals. Of course, given how many times we were told last season that he's the "male Black Widow," there's always the chance that he's faking. But either way, it does seem that captive Ward is still going to be interesting for the show.

An unquestionably broken man was poor Fitz. It's great that there are lasting consequences to his narrow escape from death in last season's finale. And those consequences seemed bad enough for most of the episode -- the brilliant mind was slow in his thinking and battling a sort of aphasia. But in a clever twist I probably should have seen coming but didn't, we learned at the end of the episode that it's far worse than that. He's closer to full on crazy, hallucinating a Simmons to talk to. And even his hallucination doesn't seem to be 100% on his side; some of her body language with him was caring, but some of it also seemed reluctant and pitying. Worse, it seems that Coulson, the man who never gives up on anyone, has given up on Fitz. Is Fitz really beyond recovery? Probably not; we have a long season ahead. But completely isolating Fitz like this certainly gives him a tough challenge to surmount. Given that his character was defined almost exclusively as part of a pair in season one, cutting him off like this definitely sends him in a new and interesting direction. (To say nothing of the future possibilities for the real character of Simmons, when she eventually pops back up.)

All of this, plus little teases alluding to the ongoing plot threads that remain in play from season one -- Coulson's weird writing, the alien that healed both him and Skye, the mystery of the multiple Patton Oswalts, and more. Plus a fun little peek at the upcoming Agent Carter series. For juggling so many threads so well, and getting me genuinely excited to see what happens next, I give this episode an A-.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Batman Re-Begins

Last night was the premiere of the new TV series Gotham, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Cautious optimism, I suppose, as there was a fair amount of "good" and no real "bad." But there was also a lot of "hmmm."

On the plus side, though the episode did throw far too many balls in the air, it did seem to focus mainly around two plot threads, both of which were effective. One of them was the efforts of rookie detective James Gordon, realizing the extent of the corruption within his city's police force. The story in no way relied on comic book origins to generate interest, instead building up interesting characters. Ben McKenzie presented his noble character without making it seem over the top, and his partner Bullock was written decently -- corrupt, but not too much to imagine as unredeemable.

The second storyline forecasted the rise of Oswald Cobblepot. This story almost got by without relying on comic book origins either, save for the need to remind us every few minutes that "this guy's totally gonna become the Penguin, you guys!" But either way, he was a compelling villain among villains, an opportunistic weasel we want to see both succeed and be punished.

If the series going forward remains largely about these two major characters and their stories, then I think they may well have something. The part I'm not sure about is the gallery of other characters around them. Sure, you probably can't tell the beginning of a tale set in the world of Batman without showing Bruce Wayne and kicking off the Batman origin story. Yet now that that's done, is there any interesting way that they could actually use the character of a little boy going forward?

And what about all the future villains that popped up rather needlessly to say, "hey, I'm here too!" The Riddler, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, one assumes the Joker. If the show tries to track all of them with any kind of regularity, it seems like it will be an overreach. But then, why show them all if the writers don't plan on cooking something up for them? It's not like TV shows haven't successfully juggled that many characters before. Still, how this show will do it feels like an open question that could swing either way.

I'd probably give the first episode something in the neighborhood of a B, but that at least is interesting enough for me to try more episodes and see what happens.

Friday, September 19, 2014

TNG Flashback: Silicon Avatar

The writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation had deliberately decided to shy away from sequels at the beginning of the fifth season. But then an outside writer came in and pitched them a totally unexpected "character" to bring back: the Crystalline Entity.

When the Crystalline Entity attacks a planet where an Enterprise away team was helping to establish a colony, a scientist is brought in to analyze the aftermath. Dr. Kila Marr has devoted her life to studying the Entity after it killed her son in the attack on Omicron Theta, the planet where Data was built. Though she is initially suspicious of the android, believing he may be in league with the creature as Lore was, she eventually comes to respect him. And when she discovers that Data holds within his positronic brain many memories of the Omicron Theta colonists, she realizes Data may be her only remaining link to the lost son she seeks to avenge.

In later interviews, Michael Piller (showrunner) and Jeri Taylor (the staff writer who took the lead on scripting the outside pitch) both praised the idea at the core of this episode. They loved the Moby Dick tale of Kila Marr, determined to hunt down and get revenge on the Crystalline Entity. Taylor was particularly drawn to the story of a mother who has lost her son, and asked for the assignment to craft the script.

But everyone involved acknowledged that the finished result didn't really succeed. Piller noted simply that it wasn't as effective as it might have been. Director Cliff Bole felt the compressed 40 minutes of the episode didn't really allow enough time for the arc of Kila Marr's character, particularly her becoming unhinged in the final act. Actor Brent Spiner was even more critical. He recalled there being difficulties with getting the next episode ("Disaster") ready for production; this script "was ready to go, but it wasn't very remarkable." He also was dissatisfied that if the Crystalline Entity storyline was really to be concluded, that it would go out this way.

A storyline inspired by Moby Dick would later be done more effectively, in the feature film First Contact. And while part of the difference in appeal is that the Borg are a far more compelling adversary than the Crystalline Entity, the real reason is that that story revolved around Captain Picard, one of the main characters. At the risk of sounding like a broken record on this issue, "Silicon Avatar" is another episode built too heavily around a guest character. It's a showcase for Kila Marr, barely involving our characters at all.

Just look at the whirlwind journey she goes on. First, she harbors an illogical hatred for Data: an almost racist distrust of him (though one less compelling than that portrayed just a few episodes earlier in the season premiere). Then, when Data later presents a theory on how to communicate with the Crystalline Entity, Marr suddenly warms to him -- even though that should, if anything, reinforce her notion that Data is in league with the creature. Suddenly, the episode is all about Marr bonding with Data, whose role in the story is little more than that of a glorified "lost diary" left behind by the doctor's son. And ultimately, the tale winds up with Marr throwing away her career to get revenge. None of the main characters grow during any of this, and none are at all altered by the experience. Consequently, it makes for a quite dull hour.

The closest thing we get to an interesting thread involving a main character is a subplot involving Commander Riker. He's putting the moves on one of the colonists, a woman named Carmen Davila. (And it's totally working, too.) But then she is killed in the Crystalline Entity's attack, showing the deadliness of the creature, and giving one of our characters a personal loss. Riker later has a scene with Picard in which he shares the desire to kill the Entity, claiming that he knows what it's like to lose someone on a mission, so his thinking in this matter is clear. It would have been nice to delve further into that; an exploration of Riker facing the death of someone he cared for might have made for a better episode. (Though to some extent, we already got that in season three, and it didn't make for that much better an episode.)

It also doesn't help that the episode is riddled with little continuity errors and plot holes. The "brilliant" Doctor Marr holds her tricorder upside-down. She's supposed to be the expert on the Crystalline Entity, but it's Data and Geordi who figure out how to track it (and she is initially dismissive of their theory). The doors in Picard's ready room have built-in drama sensors; Riker is farther from them when they open at the end of a scene than he is when they remain closed as he reconsiders leaving mid-scene. Why in the final act is everyone so shocked that it's possible to communicate with the Entity when they know from personal experience that Lore was able to do so? Why, when Marr's program is about to destroy the Entity, does no one think to just "unplug" the graviton emitter?

The one thing the episode does have going for it is that the teaser and first act serve up some pretty exciting action. The "death ray" from the Entity is presented with a cool visual effect as it instantly turns every living thing to dust. The actual location filming (for the third episode in a row; this time in Golden Oak Ranch in Santa Clarita Valley) showing the beautiful landscape makes for a great contrast with the matte painting showing the post-attack desolation.

Other observations:
  • Jeri Taylor admitted that another element of the outside writer's pitch that captured the staff's interest was the strange title, "Silicon Avatar." Yet she also thought that no one really knew exactly what it meant. (It must refer to Data's hosting of Renny Marr's memories, right?)
  • Data has picked up yet another musical instrument. In this episode, he's shown playing guitar.
  • If Brent Spiner's recollection was correct, and this episode indeed was inserted last minute before "Disaster," it had the unfortunate side effect of hurting the ongoing introduction of Ensign Ro. After her first appearance the week before, Ro is nowhere to be seen in this episode. One might have thought that she wasn't meant to be around for the long haul after all, that she was just another random character to appear once and then disappear.
The episode starts off strong, but everything after the first act is just a dry study of an unfamiliar character no one in the audience really cares about. I give "Silicon Avatar" a D+.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Kings Revisited

After finishing my re-read of A Game of Thrones last month, I plowed right into the follow-up, A Clash of Kings. As with book one, it's been some 13 or 14 years since I last read it, and my memories of it were fuzzy in places. One thing I did remember was not liking the book quite as much... but I always thought that judgment might be suspect, as this volume was nestled between the exceptional first book and the superlative third.

Sure enough, after reading A Clash of Kings, I found it to be just as good overall as its predecessor -- though in different ways. The pace of the plot in book two, for example, feels decidedly slower. Whereas book one feels like a steady flow of important events (until perhaps you reach the final third of the book, when the Really Important Events begin to happen and make what came before look small by comparison), book two does feel a bit like a gradual build. Tyrion's plotting in King's Landing feels like a slow march toward the epic battle of Blackwater Bay. Jon's ranging beyond the Wall feels a bit meandering in places until the climax finally places him with the Wildlings. Theon's trip home feels like a questionable diversion, until you come to realize how it has positioned him to set his sights on Winterfell. Other characters like Arya and Sansa feel almost aimless, as their fates are largely out of their own hands.

But what the book may lack in an exhilarating narrative (and only "may" -- there's still plenty that happens), it makes up for with even sharper writing than A Game of Thrones. I noted of that first book that George R.R. Martin really did a great job placing you in the heads of each character as he passes the story around to their different perspectives. A Clash of Kings accomplishes even more on that front. Each character has its own history, desires, thoughts, and beliefs. You may not like them all, but the world as seen through their eyes makes total sense. Arya doesn't make the best objective use of her three "wishes," but she acts as a young girl in her position probably would. Theon piles mistake on top of mistake, being a reprehensible snake every step of the way, but it's the logical result of his particular blend of entitlement and eagerness-to-please. Catelyn makes a massive tactical blunder near the end of the book, but it's the only choice someone who has lost two children (and who is about to lose a parent) could really make. And so on, true behavior, through all the characters.

A Clash of Kings is also where a re-reader like myself will find the chapter of the series most rewarding in a revisit -- the chapter in which Daenerys visits the House of the Undying. Her parade of visions and prophecies are full of references to things we now know came to pass in books three through five, and they offer still more tantalizing morsels one can use to speculate about the books yet to come. It's yet more proof that Martin really did have a master plan with this saga; it's just one he hasn't yet been able to fully realize.

In appreciation of the writing skill involved in this book -- the focused characters, the clever turns-of-phrase, the vivid descriptions -- I find upon re-reading it that it too deserves an A grade. But of course, my favorite book of the series is up next.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TNG Flashback: Ensign Ro

A half season and more had passed since the character of Wesley Crusher had been written off of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now the time had come to bring in a new face, the title character of "Ensign Ro."

A group of Bajoran terrorists has attacked a Federation outpost. The Enterprise must track them down and persuade them to abandon their cause. But this won't be easy, as the Bajorans are fighting to free themselves from occupation by the Cardassians, by any means necessary. To assist in this endeavor, an Admiral assigns a Bajoran officer to the Enterprise, Ensign Ro Laren. But this new officer has a checkered past that includes a recent stint in prison. Even if she can fit in, will she be of any help? And even if she could help, will she?

Although the series did not intend to introduce a new series regular to replace Wesley Crusher, the writers did want a recurring face in place of the procession of anonymous helmsmen seated next to Data. Specifically, the writers wanted someone with a darker background who could inject a bit of conflict into the otherwise harmonious crew. And preferably, they wanted a female. From these requirements, Ro Laren and the Bajorans were born.

This episode contains much of the back story that would inform the next spinoff series, Deep Space Nine. But the writers were by no means planning ahead. In fact, the original script for this episode positioned the Romulans as the oppressors of the Bajorans. But executive producer Rick Berman felt that they'd been used too much recently in the Klingon civil war arc. Recalling "The Wounded" from the previous season, he requested the change to the Cardassians.

To portray this new character, the producers looked to an actress who had impressed them in a minor guest starring role in the previous season, Michelle Forbes. She comes through again here. She brings the conflict they were looking for, conveying Ro's standoffish personality with rolling eyes, folded arms, and a perpetual scowl. But even more, she rounds out the character with a strong performance in a scene where she recounts watching her father be tortured to death in front of her when she was seven years old.

Other characters play key roles in introducing this new one. Picard, ever the level-headed diplomat, recoils with shocking venom at the first mention of Ro Laren's name. It's a tone he rarely strikes, instantly telling us a lot about the character we're about to meet. Ultimately, it takes Guinan -- a fellow refugee from her own homeworld -- to break the ice with Ro and forge a way forward with Picard. Show runner Michael Piller thought this was the key element in introducing Ro, using the beloved character of Guinan to give the audience permission to accept the new character. (Piller also pointed out that the lack of fan resistance to Ro indicated the success of the new character. Perhaps he was comparing Ro to the failure of Dr. Pulaski from before his tenure.)

The introduction of the Bajoran race is somewhat less successful here, though it might be unfair to judge them against how fully seven seasons of Deep Space Nine would flesh them out. Picard does share the intriguing detail than their civilization was culturally advanced even before humans were walking upright, but there's no notion of their religious convictions beyond the symbol of Ro's earring. They seem to all generically be terrorists. Their makeup is still a work in progress (with an extra ridge between their eyebrows that would never appear again). And there seems to be disagreement about whether they're called the "Bajora" or the "Bajorans," sometimes even by the same character within the same scene.

Other observations:
  • Ro isn't the only character making a first appearance here. Though a Bolian barber had been seen on the series before, this was the debut of Mot the Barber. Riker calls him "the best barber in Starfleet," though the way he jerks Picard's head around suggests otherwise.
  • For the second consecutive episode, the series does some filming on location. And for the second consecutive time, it's in Bronson Canyon.
  • The first moment that demonstrates Ro's nonconformity is when Commander Riker orders her to remove her earring and comply with Starfleet uniform code. It may be a nice character moment for Ro, but it really doesn't make much sense for Riker. After all, Worf is allowed to wear his Klingon baldric, while Troi doesn't even bother to wear a Starfleet uniform at all.
"Ensign Ro" isn't exactly one of the series' strongest episodes, but it is a successful enough introduction of a new recurring character. And since it ultimately laid the groundwork for an entire Star Trek series, I'm inclined to give it a decent mark. I grade it a B.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mirror, Mirror

Earlier this year, when commercials were running for the horror movie Oculus, it looked like an interesting enough premise to check out. Still, it took until recently on Blu-ray for me to actually do so.

I knew only a bit going in -- that Oculus was about a haunted mirror that corrupts the minds of those who gaze into it. As the film unfolded, I quickly learned that it featured two actresses with ample sci-fi cred. Karen Gillan will be remembered as Amy Pond on Doctor Who (and she also was wonderfully unrecognizable in Guardians of the Galaxy), while Katee Sackhoff played Starbuck on the Battlestar Galactica revival. The film also features Breton Thwaites (a young actor popping up a lot these days, who may or may not be the next new Big Thing) and Rory Cochrane (of CSI: Miami and a handful of interesting films including Argo).

After watching the film, I also learned that Oculus (like Mama before it) was actually a feature length expansion of an original short film. In making it, writer-director Mike Flanagan made a couple of very smart choices. First, he rejected the notion to turn it into a "found footage" horror film. Apparently, several studios floated the suggestion to build the movie with that device, with at least one even offering him a contract contingent on that change. He turned it down and held out to make the movie his way, and it's better for it. Found footage is quite played out in horror for the time being, though it certainly would have made an alluring idea here, since one of the characters is trying to document the mirror's powers on video. But the harsh realities of the camera would have clashed utterly with the psychological uncertainties of the mirror's power.

Secondly, to expand the short film to feature length, Flanagan chose to split his narrative between two time frames -- a past in which two children watch their family crumble under the mirror's influence, and a present in which those two return as adults to try to destroy the mirror once and for all. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of abruptly switching back and forth between time frames, creating brief moments of uncertainty in which the audience is slightly confused about time and place -- just as characters influenced by the mirror are.

That said, though the film does have the right agenda for psychological thrills, it has a bit of a "bookend" problem. The setup doesn't quite make sense; with the main characters having experienced all of this before in the past, and the extreme precautions that one of them takes for their "rematch" against the mirror, it doesn't quite track that they leave anything to chance. And as for the ending? Well, I daresay I thought the movie was going somewhere, it went somewhere else, and I believe my ending was the superior one. (In my oh-so-scientific polling of two other friends who'd also seen the movie, 100% of people surveyed agreed that my ending would have been better.)

Still, watch this movie in the dark at home, and it might just stir up a few spine-tingling moments for you. I'd give it a B. Among horror lovers, that might be nearly as good as an A. (And if you do see it, then I suppose we could compare notes about that ending!)

Monday, September 15, 2014

TNG Flashback: Darmok

With the wrap-up of the "Redemption" cliffhanger out of the way, the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation quickly soared to memorable heights with one of its finest episodes, "Darmok."

The Enterprise is dispatched to meet with the Children of Tama, an inscrutable alien race who have apparently made a peace overture to the Federation. "Apparently," because no one has ever been able to actually understand their nonsensical language. When talks stall due to the language barrier, the aliens abduct Captain Picard, beaming him and their own captain down to a primitive planet where a strange creature threatens both their lives. As the two captains band together against this common foe, Picard finally begins to understand -- the Tamarian language is one of metaphor, every sentence a reference to some story from their culture's deep mythic history.

Show runner Michael Piller once revealed that "Darmok" had been in the pipeline longer than any other script during his entire tenure on the show. Perhaps because of this lengthy gestation, executive producer Rick Berman reportedly hated the idea. The production had bought a pitch from an outside writer, involving a difficulty in communicating with a group of "ant farm"-like aliens, but it took two years before a finished script went before the cameras. That script came from staff writer Joe Menosky, who finally cracked the troublesome story when he came up with the concept of the metaphorical language.

The scope of what Menosky did is truly remarkable. This episode really does depict one of Star Trek's most plausibly alien cultures. Not only is their language meticulously thought out, but there are moments of ritual and ceremony, and a true sense of nobility in the captain. Dathon gives his life for the goal of making peaceful contact with another people, a Star Trek ideal taken to an amazing extreme.

Menosky's script was something everyone recognized as special -- even Berman, who recanted and ultimately named this one of his favorite episodes of the series. Piller thought it was the model of everything Star Trek should be, raving "it had the philosophy dealing with language and what it does for us, two great acting performances, it had a monster and a space battle – it had everything." Episode director Winrich Kolbe called it "almost flawless" (though he likened shooting it to making a movie in a foreign language he did not speak). Patrick Stewart, who has frequently complained about the lack of award recognition for the series just because it was in the science fiction genre, offered up this script as a keen example of that unfairness.

The episode also had many fans outside the production. There are stories of college language professors using it to illustrate to new students how languages operate and evolve. There's also the curious reaction of Russell T. Davies, writer and producer of the new Doctor Who. When he heard the synopsis of this episode, "Captain Picard is trapped on a planet with an alien who can only talk in metaphors," he found the mere idea so compelling that he chose not to spoil the magic by actually watching the episode! It resonated with him so much that he ultimately decided to base a Doctor Who episode on his own interpretation of the premise. (For curious Whovians, the episode was "Midnight.") Davies claims not to know to this day if his episode actually bears any resemblance to "Darmok," but he specifically cited it as his inspiration.

But it's not just the script that makes a strong impression here -- it's the perfect work by Patrick Stewart and guest star Paul Winfield. The latter was no stranger to Star Trek, having played the ill-fated Captain Terrell in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Here, he infuses everything his character Dathon does and says with an internal logic. His emotions range wide, from frustration when Picard doesn't understand him to near euphoria when finally he does. And Patrick Stewart is impeccable. His gradual understanding of the alien is compelling, his recounting of the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is moving, and his final moment (in which he mimics the ritual gesture of the fallen Dathon) is filled with true sorrow and reverence.

Perhaps knowing what they had even at the time of filming, the production apparently spent some extra money here. There's rare filming on location -- the location in this instance being Bronson Canyon, in Griffin Park. There are effective and suspenseful visual effects used to realize the strange creature that attacks Picard and Dathon. There were also expenditures that simply came with the start of a new season: a new jacketed uniform for the captain makes its first appearance, as does a new shuttlecraft design. (The series had long been hoping to redesign their multi-person shuttle, as the exterior model didn't match the shape of the interior set.)


Other observations:
  • In the teaser, Worf makes a suggestion for aggressive posture that Picard -- as is tradition -- shoots down. But the two seem to be on the same page when Picard is first beamed down to the planet; both expect some sort of one-on-one contest between ships' captains. (They both must have seen Kirk battle the Gorn in the original series episode "Arena.")
  • Though Picard is actually able to learn some of the stories behind the Tamarian language, it's nice that Data and Troi are at least able to figure out how the language works. They don't have to look dumb for Picard to look smart.
  • The story Picard tells Dathon, of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, is itself a metaphor for what happens to the two captains. It's also one of the earliest known stories in our history, coming from a Babylonian poem that dates to some time before 2000 BC.
  • Look out for Ashley Judd, before she became a star. (She's so pre-star here, in fact, that she doesn't even make the credits at the beginning of the episode.) While Judd would appear a few episodes later in a larger role, her character of Robin Lefler actually makes her first appearance here.
  • Eagle-eyed and detail-minded fans noted a mistake in this episode: at one point, when the Enterprise fires its phasers, the beam comes from the photon torpedo launcher. In the remastered Blu-ray version of the episode, a shot was stolen from "The Best of Both Worlds" to correct this error.
I doubt there was any suspense to this, but I give "Darmok" an A. It's an exceptional hour of The Next Generation, and indeed all of Star Trek.

Friday, September 12, 2014

TNG Flashback: Redemption II

Season five of Star Trek: The Next Generation begins with the wrap-up of the season four cliffhanger, "Redemption."

The Klingon civil war continues, and Gowron's forces are losing ground. Certain that the Romulans are supplying the family of Duras, Picard assembles a fleet to enforce a blockade at the Klingon border. This will test Data, who is given his first starship command. But a surprise awaits them all: the Romulan fleet is commanded by Sela, the half-Romulan daughter of an alternate timeline's Tasha Yar.

"Redemption II" is, quite simply, an overcrowded episode. It boasts three major story lines, and none can really be said to be secondary to any of the others. As with part one, Ronald D. Moore handled the script. (Though the director changed for the conclusion; David Carson, the man who ultimately directed the first Next Generation feature film, took charge.) Moore once again let his love of the Klingons show, peppering the script with fun glimpses of their culture. The scene in which rivals party together in the same bar is a fun one (even if it does conflict with a past episode in which Q informed us that "drink not with thine enemy" is part of the Klingon code). From the knife-enhanced version of arm wrestling to Kurn's desire to live it up in case they all die tomorrow, it feels like a realistic foreign culture.

Klingons also bookend the episode. It opens with a fairly elaborate (for the time) opening battle sequence, one that makes clear Kurn is the captain, even if Worf played the "I am the older brother" card in the previous episode. And it ends in the Klingon High Council chamber, with Gowron flashing those wide eyes and a wicked grin as he taunts the vanquished son of Duras. This last scene is perhaps indicative of the overcrowded nature of the episode -- the scene could have been longer to better help the story. I feel like Worf should explain why he wants Toral to live. (Forcing him to live with a father's dishonor, as Worf himself had to, seems reasonable, though it should have been voiced.) I also question why Gowron would let a potential political rival live, regardless of Worf's "pardon."

In my opinion, the best storyline involves Data's command of the U.S.S. Sutherland, and the first officer, Christopher Hobson, who is reluctant to take his orders. The plot is an allegory for racism, and not at all a subtle one. Lest you think that Hobson is just anti-android in some possibly understandable way, he also tosses off the bigoted opinion that a Klingon could never be a ship's counselor. He is, in short, an oddly reprehensible Starfleet character.

By contrast, Picard does much better when Data confronts him earlier in the episode about his casual bigotry. When Data asks why he is not being assigned a command, Picard immediately backpedals and gives him one. And at the end of the episode, he congratulates Data with a big, beaming smile and a string of compliments. But really, I think it's no surprise that Data would make a good captain. I remarked of last season's "In Theory" that Data had clearly learned how to be a good friend over decades of observation. He's probably had even more role models for a leader than for a friend, and Brent Spiner's performance in this episode makes clear how Data is drawing on those role models -- chiefly Picard himself.

The least effective storyline, in my mind, is the revelation of Sela. The idea came from Denise Crosby herself, who had enjoyed her return appearance in "Yesterday's Enterprise" and was apparently having second thoughts about leaving the show. She concocted the idea of Tasha and Richard Castillo (from that episode) having a daughter who was raised by Romulans. The writers went for the idea, though they decided to remove the Castillo element from the pitch.

The idea of a recurring Romulan nemesis for the Enterprise is actually a great one, particularly one who is at least sometimes able to outthink our heroes (as Sela briefly does in this episode). But there are problems with the idea too. For one, Sela doesn't really recur much. She reappears in the "Unification" two-parter later this season... and then vanishes forever.

But the larger problem is essentially voiced in the episode by Picard himself: what difference does it make that Sela is Tasha's daughter? Picard says the revelation won't influence his tactics, and indeed it does not. Nor does Sela get any special insight from her unusual origins. Basically, as soon as Sela's origin story is explained, it stops being at all interesting or relevant to the story. And when you scratch the surface of it a bit, the origin doesn't even quite work. Sela is a mere 23 years old (which Denise Crosby decidedly is not), and yet has somehow risen to command an entire Romulan fleet? I think if Denise Crosby wanted to return to play a recurring villain, they simply should have cast her as some alien in concealing makeup (she could have been Lursa or B'Etor, for example), and simply not made a thing of it -- as, for example, Rene Auberjoinois' appearance on the series Enterprise had nothing to do with his character of Odo from Deep Space Nine. Oh well.

Speaking of Deep Space Nine, it was that series that actually followed up on this episode more than The Next Generation. Lursa, B'Etor, Kurn, and Toral all made their last appearances on The Next Generation in this episode, yet all of them appeared on Deep Space Nine. (Though Lursa and B'Etor did return for the film Star Trek: Generations.) And as for how things end here, why exactly do Lursa and B'Etor leave Toral behind? He's their only real means of claiming power, and it's not like they didn't have time to save him while they were saving themselves.

Other observations:
  • In the fourth season finale, Worf was said to be going to serve on Gowron's ship, but this episode has him serving with his brother. The writers were actually aware of this consistency, but felt that pairing the brothers made for a better story -- a story they had not planned out ahead of time when the first part was written.
  • O'Brien takes over at tactical in Worf's absence. In the episode "The Wounded," we learned that he had past experience in that role.
  • I really don't buy the conceit that you could blockade a border in space. Why do the Romulans have to cross into Klingon territory right there? I mean, people sneak undetected across the borders of countries here on Earth all the time, and those borders cover an unimaginably tiny fraction of the distance of space, even before you account for the three-dimensional nature of it.
  • How do the Romulans know that one of the Federation ships has an "android captain?"
  • Perhaps another reason the introduction of Sela is less than compelling is that the script writer himself didn't really believe in it. Ronald Moore said in an interview, of Denise Crosby: "She came up with the concept, which I rolled my eyes at the first time I heard." He then tried to sell it a bit in that same interview: "But as we started to get into story on 'Redemption II,' I needed some sort of Romulan thing to actually happen this time since we kept saying they're doing this stuff. It just seemed natural. It fit and we did it." But I think Moore's true feelings on the subject shine through.
  • Michael Dorn was also a bit critical of the crowded nature of this episode. He said in an interview that he thought this was a good episode for him, but that the Data story could have easily been an episode unto itself -- and that that strong idea didn't get enough time here.
Despite the overstuffed nature of this episode, there is something to be said for its relentless pace; it's far more action-packed than most episodes of the series. And the Data subplot, even if it is a bit truncated, is a good one. In fact, I'd have to say that overall, the resolution of this cliffhanger is actually a touch better than the setup was. I give "Redemption II" a B.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Grave Thoughts

Before Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, or any of his other famous films, director Danny Boyle got his start with a bizarre little movie called Shallow Grave. Two men and a woman -- all flatmates -- take on a fourth boarder who mysteriously dies shortly after moving in. Even more mysteriously, he's left a suitcase full of cash under his bed. The trio comes to the decision to dispose of the body so they can keep the money for themselves. Complications, from within and without, ensue.

The two men of the film will be quite recognizable: Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor. The former was the first of the new crop on Doctor Who, while the latter was actually making his first film appearance here before returning for Trainspotting and going on to break out in a huge way. These two, together with Kerry Fox, anchor the bizarre story.

The 90-minute film seems to strike a quite serious tone, and all three give serious performances throughout as the characters start united and then begin to fracture. And yet, somewhere around 10 minutes from the end, it weirdly dawned on me: "I think this was supposed to be a black comedy." Nothing I'd seen before had made me feel the urge to laugh, and yet things had wound up in such a ridiculous place that I could only assume laughs were intentional. Indeed, the final moment of the film centers on a character laughing maniacally at the scene.

Well, I have nothing against a black comedy in principle. But I feel like this film didn't lean into that genre enough. Yet it also certainly wasn't serious enough to hold the specter of disbelief at bay for the duration. So ultimately, though the film did entertain, I don't think it was completely successful.

But it's certainly worth recommending to the right audience. If you liked the unhinged quality of Trainspotting, you'd probably enjoy it. If you like the macabre elements of a horror like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer, but were put off by the slasher qualities and/or the teenaged sensibilities, this might be the more "grown-up" version to suit you. Some critics likened it to Pulp Fiction, which I know will catch the interest of some of you. In any event, I'd call Shallow Grave a B-

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TNG Flashback: Redemption

After the epic cliffhanger ending to season three, Star Trek: The Next Generation had set a high bar for its fourth season finale -- an episode which also, coincidentally, was the series' 100th. The bar was an impossibly high one, I think, though the series did try to set equally galactic stakes.

Picard is about to perform his final duty as the Klingon Arbiter of Succession, by installing Gowron as the new leader of the Empire. But Gowron unexpectedly comes to him, warning that the sisters of the dead and dishonored Duras have rallied tremendous support -- enough to fracture the Klingon Empire in a civil war. Worf uses the ships loyal to his brother Kurn, leaning on Gowron's weakened position to force the restoration of his family name. But when Picard will allow Worf to go no further -- as doing so would risk drawing the Federation into the internal Klingon conflict -- Worf resigns his Starfleet commission to fight for his people.

According to showrunner Michael Piller, the storyline of this episode was originally conceived of as the third season finale, following up fairly soon on "Sins of the Father," the episode that ultimately set it all in motion. When the concept for "The Best of Both Worlds" was hit upon, this Klingon storyline was postponed for a year. I think it was a great decision, as it not only stepped aside for the greatest cliffhanger in the history of Star Trek, it made room for an intervening chapter of the Klingon story, "Reunion," which I think turned out to be the best of that saga.

It's no surprise that the resident Klingon fan, Ronald D. Moore, crafted the script for this finale. As always, he has the right details that give the Klingon culture life, such as the way B'Etor caresses Picard's bald head (as though tantalized by his lack of ridges), or the knife-grasping, bloodletting ceremony that restores Worf's honor. He also crafts a great scene with Guinan, where she needles Worf into realizing that if the situation is not rectified, the dishonor he has accepted will one day affect his own son.

But the rest of the episode is not as strong, simultaneously overstuffed and half-cooked. The number of plot points is overwhelming, including the rise of Gowron, the introduction of Lursa and B'Etor (and their nephew Toral), the secret involvement of the Romulans (and the reveal of Sela), the restoration of Worf's honor, and Picard's dilemma of how to keep the Federation uninvolved. Because it's so crowded, some of it doesn't feel very realistic. For example, the fact that Picard is successful in that last part strains credibility for me. By refusing to aid Gowron in his time of need, he certainly avoids the ire of Duras' family. Yet when he twice refuses to help Gowron, it's hard to understand how the hot-headed Klingon doesn't take equal offense in that.

There's also some inconsistency in the fact that it's initially Picard who pushes Worf that now is the time to clear his name, yet also Picard who would later deny Worf access to the information needed to do it. But Picard does get other, better moments in the episode. He lobs a wonderful insult at Lursa when he compares her manipulative skills to that of a Romulan. (An insult she can't respond to, as it strikes close to the truth.) Picard also, refreshingly, lets Worf leave Starfleet without bitterness, instead sending him off with heartfelt compliments and a column of officers.

Other observations:
  • Guinan doesn't just like to collect weapons, she's apparently very good at using them too. She "comes down" to Worf's level on the phaser range, and wipes the floor with him too.
  • The revealing Klingon armor worn by Lursa and B'Etor shows off what fans quickly dubbed "Kleavage."
  • In a fun little bit of kontinuity (ha!), kellicams -- the Klingon unit of distance used in the movie Star Trek III -- are again mentioned here.
  • In a lack of kontinuity (seriously, ha!), Gowron says here that women aren't allowed to serve on the Klingon High Council, even though he himself offered K'Ehleyr a seat in "Reunion."
  • Former President Ronald Reagan visited the set while this episode was being filmed. Though I'm not certain how much of a Star Trek fan he truly was, he apparently showed great deference to Gene Roddenberry. According to Brent Spiner and Ronald Moore, when Roddenberry dropped his cane, the president knelt to pick it up for him.
  • Denise Crosby is revealed in the final moment of the episode, after her shadowy (voiced-over) appearance in "The Mind's Eye." She makes quite an entrance with the very droll line: "humans have a way of showing up when you least expect them."
I imagine Klingon fans were quite satisfied by this episode, but I myself was less enchanted. It feels (as indeed it is) like only half a story -- and not actually suspenseful in its incompleteness as "The Best of Both Worlds" felt. Moreover, the half that is there leaves most of the main characters without anything important to do. (I'm not sure Dr. Crusher and Troi even have any lines.) I give "Redemption" a B-.

And with that, I've come to the end of season four. Thus, it's time for a quick look back. I felt the season didn't quite hit the highs of year three; I gave no straight-up A grades to any of the 26 episodes. Still, there were quite a lot of A- and B+ episodes, and only a handful I thought any worse than a B-. In short, season four really was quite good overall -- much like season three, if not quite as good.

My picks for the top five episodes of the season: "Reunion," "First Contact," "The Drumhead," "In Theory," and "Qpid."

On to season five!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

10 Books That Have Stayed With Me

I was recently tagged in one of those Facebook chain list thingies. The topic: 10 books that "stayed with me in some way." I'm willing to play along on this one, but I figured my choices deserved some context: why did they stay with me? And I also figured that elaborating on my choices would let me get a blog post out of it. So here, in no particular order, are my ten books and the stories that go with them.

The Wishsong of Shannara, by Terry Brooks
Proving that in fact you CAN judge a book by its cover, I plucked this book from the shelf of my 6th-grade school library because the font of the title drew my eye. (I see that font in use in lots of places. Apparently, people are aware of its appeal.) I didn't realize until I was several chapters into the book that it was the final installment of a trilogy of stand-alone novels, but by then I was too hooked to stop. And starting with Wishsong was probably fortuitous anyway. That book is full of original ideas, as opposed to the first volume, The Sword of Shannara, which is widely (and not altogether unfairly) regarded as derivative of The Lord of the Rings. In any case, this was my first exposure to Terry Brooks, who I loved at the time and still have a perhaps-unreasonable affection for today.

A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin
I could easily have listed either this third volume of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series or the first volume, A Game of Thrones. Book One was the first time I felt I'd found a new level that fantasy fiction could aspire to: a much more realistic and evolved form of writing. But it was Book Three that evoked one of the most visceral reactions I've ever had while reading a book. The now-famous "Red Wedding" chapter left me dejected and mopey for quite some time.

Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk
This book by the author of Fight Club evoked the most visceral reaction I've ever had while reading. Haunted is basically a series of short stories unified by a larger framing device. One of the earliest stories, involving a character named Saint Gut-Free, concludes with fiendishly vile bit of imagery that aroused such disgust in me that I physically threw the book from my hands and got out of my chair. It took me a few minutes to "walk it off" before I came back and finished the chapter.

The Club Dumas, by Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte
It's not that I loved the movie The Ninth Gate, but I did find it interesting in its own bizarre way. When I heard it was in fact based on a book, The Club Dumas, I decided to give that a try. This one sticks with me as a truly memorable example of a film "adaptation" almost completely departing from its source material. The last third of the book bears no resemblance whatever to the film. And nowhere in the film will you find any reference to Alexandre Dumas, the author whose work is a significant runner throughout the book's plot (as well as providing its title). How odd to adapt a book without keeping its title, theme, or plot.

World War Z, by Max Brooks
Here's another example where the book and the movie that came from it bear no resemblance to one another. (In this case, however, the movie was fairly good.) But it's not the differences that make this stick with me. It's that the book is absolutely amazing. It's hard to imagine right now, but this book hit before the resurgence of zombies in pop culture. It came at a time when the most recent zombies we'd seen were the "fast zombies" of 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead re-make. This went back to genre roots, but did it with tremendous creativity too, fusing zombies with historical fiction. I always wanted to see this adapted into a Band of Brothers style mini-series... and frankly, that still ought to happen, since the film was nothing like the book. Oh well, at least we have the brilliant audiobook version, which cast a dozen different actors as characters recounting the horrors of the Zombie War.

2061: Odyssey Three, by Arthur C. Clarke
I read this in junior high. I'd never read Clarke's prior two books, 2001 or 2010, though I'd seen both the movies that came from them. 2061 sticks with me as being one of the worst books I've ever read. 240 pages of mounting tension culminates in 10 pages of utter copping-out -- the sum total of which amounts to "you needn't have bothered reading this book, because nothing happens in it." To pour salt in the wound, the book concludes with a 2-page epilogue set in the far future of 3001, in which it is strongly implied that "now something is actually going to happen." Clarke did ultimately write a 3001 novel, but I'll be damned if I'm going to ever read it.

Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn
In 1991, it seemed as though there would never again be another Star Wars film. But one day, I walked into the book store and sitting there was Heir to the Empire, the first book of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy. Holy crap! A new Star Wars adventure? Featuring a badass new villain, and spot-on renderings of all the familiar characters we knew and loved? Yes, please! And, as we would learn 8 years later, this book was light years better than the next Star Wars tale that would actually spring from the mind of George Lucas. I suppose it remains to be seen whether next year, 24 years after the release of this book, the official continuation of the Star Wars storyline is better or worse. But I feel like Heir to the Empire set the bar rather high. Even though hundreds of Expanded Universe novels followed, almost none were as good (at least among the handful I read).

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

This is the third volume of Pullman's outstanding trilogy, His Dark Materials. The first book (titled The Golden Compass in the United States and Northern Lights in the rest of the world) really grabbed me with its clever fantasy premise and the thorough way in which that premise was explored. But it was the final volume that really revealed what an incredibly subversive idea Pullman had Trojan Horsed inside his work. The scathing rebuke of organized religion was icing on an already skillfully crafted cake. It's probably just as well that the film adaptation of the first book failed at the box office and sank the series; if they couldn't do that book justice, they would have failed utterly at this brilliant final volume.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
Speaking of final volumes, the seventh Harry Potter book is pretty amazing. It concludes the evolution of the series from something very surface and kid-friendly to something quite deep and adult. It surprises. It tugs at the emotions. And most improbably, it satisfies. It frankly should not have been possible for Rowling to write a satisfying ending to a series that had that many people waiting for that long. And yet, though most people I know don't consider Deathly Hallows their favorite Harry Potter book, I don't know of a single one who thought it was disappointing. I vividly remember canceling all my weekend plans, disengaging from the internet, and hiding in my apartment in a self-imposed blackout to devour the book as quickly as possible.

Hold 'Em Poker for Advanced Players, by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth
Though I've now become quite casual about poker, there was a time in the early 2000s where I was taking it quite seriously, reading all the strategy books on Texas Hold 'Em that I could get my hands on. I considered this to be one of the best. (Or at least, one of the first to make a big impression on my thinking.) The advice of this book has probably "stayed with me" in a more literal way than any other book on this list.

And there you have it, 10 books that have stayed with me in some way. If you're reading this, and are inclined to offer a list of your own, consider yourself tagged. Feel free, if you prefer, to take it back to Facebook and simplify things by just offering the titles without elaboration. In any case, let's see what books are on your mind.

Monday, September 08, 2014

TNG Flashback: In Theory

The penultimate episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's fourth season was a character-driven story that could only be told on this show: Data's first romantic relationship.

When Lieutenant Jenna D'Sora breaks up with her previous boyfriend, she finds herself drawn to Data. After seeking advice from his friends, Data decides to explore the possibility of that relationship, creating a romantic program to govern it. Meanwhile, the Enterprise is passing through a dark matter nebula, where a strange phenomenon is causing parts of the ship to phase out of reality and back. What begins as a series of unexplained annoyances soon becomes a life-threatening situation.

It's quite surprising that it took almost four full seasons before the writers thought to craft a romantic storyline for Data. (Though an early third season episode included a woman with a small attraction to Data, the romance was far from central to the plot.) Still, credit writers Joe Menosky and Ronald D. Moore for seizing upon the idea and creating this truly well-done script. It may be that for a fan-favorite character like Data, they could hardly have missed, but that also means they could have easily phoned it in, missing out on the special touches they included. The script has both tender moments and funny ones. The different angles Data tries to work the relationship are all cleverly realized. There's even the subtle inclusion of several contractions -- sure to rile the nitpicky fans, but a very smart device for showing lines of dialogue Data has simply worked verbatim into his program. ("Honey? I'm home!" "You're not my mother!")

Best of all, the writers don't just make the episode about Data. He goes to every major character one by one (except, sadly, Dr. Crusher) for advice, giving each character, each pairing, a fun and distinct moment. Guinan is visibly thrilled at the prospect of Data in a relationship. Geordi acknowledges that his track record doesn't make him a good source of information. Troi is understandably concerned for the emotions of the other person in a potential relationship. Worf plays the threatening father figure. Riker, predictably (but humorously), is the horndog encouraging Data to go for it. And Picard brilliantly caps the entire sequence with the wry "I would be delighted to offer any advice I can on understanding women. When I have some, I'll let you know."

In a more subtle sign of the good writing, Data's romantic entanglement grows quite naturally out of a friendship. We see how good Data has become at friendships over his lifetime, how attentive and supportive he is. It seems inevitable that some woman would eventually misconstrue that. It also seems as though, given enough practice, Data could probably learn to be a good boyfriend too. He's simply too inexperienced at it right now.

Brent Spiner gives an outstanding performance in this episode. He very cleverly contrasts the more natural movements and speech patterns Data normally employs with new, highly robotic ones incorporated as part of the "boyfriend subroutine." He also hilariously mimics a doting lothario and a quarreling spouse, in turns. Playing opposite him is a solid guest star, Michele Scarabelli. She must convince us that a woman would fall for Data, and does it wonderfully. And here again, the script helps in making Jenna D'Sora a woman who would believably fall for Data; she's essentially a woman who has been drawn to "bad boys," who decides to give the "nice boy" a try for once. (Although where all these "bad boys" come from in the cleaned-up Gene Roddenberry future is a question best left unexamined.)

Helping bring out these strong performances is first-time director Patrick Stewart. He followed in the footsteps of Jonathan Frakes, becoming the second Next Generation actor to step behind the camera. In a later interview, he would call the days shooting this episode "seven of the most exciting days of my career." He was grateful to have no big action for his first time out, instead getting a story that allowed him to focus on structure and performance. He was also apparently quite satisfied with the finished product; when a "Captain's Log" DVD set was assembled, in which each of the five TV series captains was asked to select his or her favorite episode, Patrick Stewart chose this one as his.

If there's one weak part of the episode, it's the sci-fi B plot, which largely plays out as the afterthought it surely was. Particularly odd is the moment where Picard inexplicably but firmly demands to pilot the shuttle himself in leading the Enterprise out of the nebula, and the totally false moment of jeopardy that ensues. Still, this subplot takes up very little screen time in the episode, and thus takes very little away from it.

Other observations:
  • Data's relationship isn't the only one included here. Miles and Keiko O'Brien are back again, this time playfully fighting over a pile of dirty socks on the floor.
  • Data's musical interests have branched out here. We've seen him play the violin before, but here he plays the oboe in a woodwind quintet.
  • I believe that this is the first time that Data's cat Spot is referred to by name. But it was only a midpoint on the inconsistent evolution of the character. Spot would change breeds in his next appearance, and change from male to female still later.
  • Composer Jay Chattaway took an appropriate approach to representing Data musically in this episode. Much of the score was played on an Electronic Wind Instrument, a synthesizer that is played by a musician blowing into a traditional, woodwind-like device. The result is a sound that's neither wholly synthetic nor wholly real.
"In Theory" might have been the season's best episode were it not for the unnecessary "dark matter nebula" B-plot. But even still, it's right up there at the top of the list. I give it an A-.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Clouds Sweep In

I was pleasantly surprised by the film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. It was visually impressive, fun, loaded with puns, and had just enough sentiment to be more than "empty calories." I liked it enough to be curious about last year's sequel.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 was still visually impressive, still fun, even more loaded with puns, and still aspired to a few dramatic moments to bolster the comedy. But nevertheless, it was still missing something. And I later found out that that something was probably writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Those two creative forces behind the first film decided to serve only as executive producers on the sequel and contribute story ideas. They instead went off to make The Lego Movie (and I think we all know how "awesome" that turned out).

The new folks certainly understand what made the first movie good, but they don't quite seem to understand how to replicate or build on that. There's a sort of paint by numbers quality to Cloudy 2; the result is pretty enough, but it doesn't seem particularly inspired. But certainly, it's never boring. I'll go ahead and torture the food metaphor by saying the film is a visual feast, and ideas keep coming at you course by course, enough to satisfy any appetite.

Nearly all the voice cast from the original returns. (Mr. T's role as Officer Devereaux is taken over by Terry Crews, while Will Forte takes on a different role from the first film.) The hilarious Kristen Schaal is also added to the mix. They give generally good performances all around, though the story doesn't really ask too much of them.

It's a fun movie while it lasts, but is ultimately rather forgettable. (Here come the food jokes again.) It's a dessert where the first movie was a main dish. I give Cloudy 2 a C+.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Mind's Eye

With only a few episodes to go before the fourth season finale, "The Mind's Eye" helped set the stage for the Romulan-influenced Klingon civil war that the finale would depict.

Geordi LaForge is traveling to Risa by shuttle for a vacation when he's abducted by the Romulans. Using the neural pathways in place for his VISOR, they brainwash him and return him to the Enterprise as an unknowing double agent. Picard is in the midst of mollifying a Klingon governor, who has accused the Federation of arming local rebels with weapons. LaForge's secret programming threatens to further undermine the situation and dissolve the Klingon-Federation alliance.

Star Trek has done a few episodes that are homages to classic films. While Geordi's torture at the the hands of the Romulans evokes shades of A Clockwork Orange, the main inspiration for the hour is The Manchurian Candidate. Geordi is the best character to use in such a story, as he has both the technical knowledge to cover his tracks and a built-in Macguffin that explains what makes him susceptible to Romulan control. (Data might have been a second choice, but he'd already betrayed or appeared to betray the crew twice earlier this season.)

The script is set up in a rather clever way. We're told early on that the Romulans will be "testing" Geordi once he returns to the Enterprise. This leaves a first-time viewer in some doubt as to what his ultimate mission really is; are the things he's doing part of the plan, or part of a test? There are also good little fakeout moments, juiced with sinister music from Dennis McCarthy -- like when Geordi intentionally pours a drink on O'Brien (mirroring the Ten Forward simulation in which he was programmed), or when he appears to be firing a phaser rifle for nefarious purposes. The tension gets even more Hitchcockian in the final act, when we've learned Geordi's real mission (and that Ambassador Kell is a mole himself), and are watching Data race to solve the puzzle before disaster strikes.

The director does good work here too. David Livingston, a unit production manager on the pilot, here take's the director's chair for the first time. He uses the camera in very interesting ways, including a great shot that shows only Geordi's hand and reflection when he arms himself to assassinate Vagh, and a neat use of a slightly fisheye lens as he robotically marches down the hallway to the cargo bay. Plus, the staging of Geordi's simulated murder of Chief O'Brien is a specific homage to a shot in The Manchurian Candidate.

As I mentioned, this episode is setting up a lot for the season finale. When the Klingon ambassador Kell comes aboard the Enterprise, he brings disdain for the dishonored Worf (reminding everyone of Worf's status within the Empire). He also, as in "The Drumhead," assumes that Worf would be susceptible to corruption; this time, Worf specifically calls out the Klingon who tries to tempt him. The episode also sets up the Romulan Sela as a mysterious character lurking in the shadows. Here, she's played by a body double (who is clearly not wearing a blonde wig), with Denise Crosby only dubbing in the dialogue later.

Despite the broad geopolitical landscape this episode must paint, and the heavy focus in must keep on Geordi LaForge, the episode does manage to offer up a few great moments with other characters as well. Picard gets to stand toe to toe with the Klingon governor Vagh and curse at him in his native language. Data gets to play an ace detective in the final act. Troi humorously pumps Geordi for licentious vacation stories. Troi also gets to do some genuine counseling in the final scene, when she cleverly begins to help Geordi unlock his real memories.

There are a few small misfires in the episode, though. I wish it could have showed us more of the long term impact of all this on Geordi. What are the emotional scars like for him? And how long will it be before he can really be trusted to be totally free of Romulan control? I also felt a bit disappointed that after all of Data's sleuthing, the assassination is ultimately averted by little more than Picard's quick reflexes. Reportedly, stunt doubles spent part of a day filming an actual struggle between Picard and LaForge, but this didn't make it into the episode.

Other observations:
  • A minor quibble: how do the Romulans know where and when to intercept Geordi on his way to Risa?
  • This is a big episode for visual effects. There are several shots from Geordi's point of view (looking quite different than they did in "Heart of Glory"). Also, transporter effects for both the Romulans and the Klingons are shown for the first time.
  • To preserve the surprise of Sela for the season finale, Denise Crosby received no credit for her "appearance" here. But on the flip side, Majel Barrett was credited for providing the computer voice for the very first time in this episode, and would receive credit from here on. (Perhaps someone took notice here because she has a lot of dialogue, during the opening trivia game with Geordi, and Data's final act sleuthing.)
  • Director David Livingston tried to further honor The Manchurian Candidate by getting one of the actors from it to appear in this episode, but wasn't able to make it happen.
  • Speaking of directors, Larry Dobkin, the actor who plays Kell, directed an episode of the original Star Trek series, "Charlie X."
  • This isn't the first time the shuttlecraft Onizuka appears on screen, but as I failed to mention it before, I'll do so now: the shuttle is named for Ellison Onizuka, one of the astronauts who died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
I would have liked to see more of the emotional toll of Geordi from this ordeal, but "The Mind's Eye" is still an entertaining episode, one of The Next Generation's more effective "suspenseful" installments. I give it a B+.