Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Digital Revolution

I've found that generally speaking, most people don't watch documentary movies. If you do, it's already somewhat implicit that you're a film enthusiast. Well recently, I watched a documentary for the real film enthusiasts: Side by Side. Made in 2012, it's an hour-and-a-half examination of conventional celluloid film vs. digital camera use.

The documentary has as a host and narrator an unlikely choice: Keanu Reeves. But as the movie unfolds, that choice seems less odd. Reeves has worked with a number of modern auteurs in film, like Richard Linklater and the Wachowskis. (The latter give so few interviews, that it's quite possible they wouldn't have participated without Reeves reaching out to them.) Meanwhile, there are plenty of directors with such strong opinions on the film/digital issue that they would likely have been interviewed for this documentary in any circumstances, people like George Lucas, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, and Christopher Nolan. The movie also features a number of cinematographers (directors of photography). None are household names, but you'll know the movies they've worked on, and you'll learn they have in most cases even stronger opinions on the subject.

The documentary tracks the very beginning of digital camera use in movie-making, starting just before the turn of the millennium. It follows the introduction of new and better digital cameras over the years that followed, and shows examples of movies shot on eachmodel. You can see the advancement of the technology, and the plateaus it had to reach to make converts out of more and more people.

You also get the strident response from a handful of people who'll have none of it. Christopher Nolan is an ardent supporter of film (to the point where his latest movie, Interstellar, was given first to theaters willing and still able to screen it on film instead of digitally). But though the documentary starts off balanced in its presentation, with Keanu Reeves proving a surprisingly effective devil's advocate to each person he interviews, it ultimately comes down pro-digital. The film purists are never quite able to articulate the advantages of the format, not even as clearly as vinyl lovers sometimes argue in the world of audio. The film purists come off like oldsters shaking their fists at kids on their lawn.

But that doesn't mean the documentary is without merit. Actually, the most fascinating moments come in hearing certain directors talk about the use of digital. You really see who these people are in a nutshell, through the reasons they've embraced the format. Martin Scorsese proves the thoughtful artist so many regard him to be, as he proclaims digital photography to simply be one more tool in the storyteller's box. James Cameron characteristically looks down his nose at everyone else, as his chief argument against the notion that film is "more real" is that nothing about the process of making a movie was real to begin with. George Lucas demonstrates how the prequel Star Wars trilogy emerged so lifeless as he argues for an exacting vision that can't see the forest for the trees -- he praises the ability to make minor alterations to individual frames, without really justifying how that improves the storytelling as a whole.

If you love movies, Side by Side has a lot of intellectually stimulating points to make. If you don't know your SD from your HD from your 4K, then you're sure to find this documentary lacking; I'm not sure it really presents a case for why the "film vs. digital" debate matters at all. Overall, I'd say it lands at about a B-. Certainly, you'll know if you're this movie's target audience.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Conquer

Last night, The Walking Dead served up a decidedly "doesn't feel like a season finale" season finale, one that in many respects felt unresolved and unfulfilling. But at the same time, I want to give the writers credit for not dipping into their stale old bag of tricks.

By having conditioned us to expect major character deaths and mayhem in every season finale, they were able to serve up several interesting bait-and-switch moments. It certainly seemed like we could lose Daryl or Aaron or both to the bizarre trap they encountered. It certainly seemed as though Glenn could have been killed by Nicholas and/or (un)timely Walkers. It certainly seemed as though Sasha could have killed Gabriel in a fit of rage. And it certainly seemed as though Alexandria could have been overrun by zombies after Gabriel left the gate hanging open. None of those things actually came to pass.

But paradoxically, because the writers have conditioned us to expect those kinds of things, they didn't actually stir up much tension. Rather than coming to the edge of my seat wondering how Daryl or Glenn might survive, I just assumed that "this would be the Walking Dead cliche moment where they don't." Rather than getting excited or worried about Gabriel leaving the town gate open, I just sort of rolled my eyes, thinking, "so this is how they're going to dispose of Alexandria -- just like Woodbury, just like the prison." So, in a weird way, even though none of these threads led to their cliche endings (yay!), I reacted to each in the moment as if they were going to, and thus got few thrills from them (boo!). And I sort of hate that The Walking Dead has turned me into a Pavlov's dog for bloodshed.

Still, there were some nice character moments that really worked, scattered throughout the episode.

Carol remains the best thing about the show now. There was her cold, borderline(?) sociopathic taunting of Pete. (If she comes to deliver a casserole to my door, I'm running in terror.) There were the multiple, unsettling ways in which she made it clear that she thinks herself above everyone -- not just the Alexandrians ("children" who like to hear "stories") and her fellow survivors (who she lies to without a second thought), but even Rick too (to whom she condescendingly says, "You don’t want to leave this place, and you don’t want to lie? Oh sunshine, you don’t get both."). She is quite frankly "not good people" anymore, but it's wildly entertaining to watch.

Deanna had a serious fall from grace. I hold no illusions that she hadn't decided to exile Rick before his fight with Pete had even ended. But she still wanted to look like a thoughtful leader, keeping up appearances and doing it "right." But the back-to-back loss of her son and her husband stripped that important piece of her identity away from her -- her ability to step back and reflect. In a fit of bloodlust, she told Rick to execute Pete, and he eagerly obliged.

Morgan's timely arrival illustrated just how far Rick has fallen too, though Rick's slide has played out over the course of several seasons. Last time we encountered Morgan (the post-episode teases sprinkled throughout this season notwithstanding), he was the one burrowed up in madness. Since then, he has apparently found his inner zen master (complete with wicked bo skills), and he tells Daryl and Aaron that "all life is precious." So, of course, he shows up at the exact moment he gets to see Rick extinguish a life in cold blood. Regardless of your views on capital punishment in general, or in a fictionalized situation like this, we can be fairly sure it's not going to sit right with Morgan.

Gabriel continues to be a coward -- a hateable character, but a consistent one. His failures to commit suicide by zombie (one), zombies (multiple, leaving the gate open), and Sasha echo all the way back to the very first moment we saw him, sitting atop a rock in the forest that was surrounded by zombies. I'd bet that too was another failed suicide attempt. He wants to be punished more than anything, and doesn't care who he drags down with him along the way.

But despite all these interesting character moments, nothing really resolved to end the season. Nor did anything culminate in any particularly cliffhanger way. The expansion of the Wolves (the source of the season's mysterious W marks) hardly set up much of a menace for next season. Daryl, Aaron, and Morgan were able to escape from them easily enough (Morgan twice!)... and if I've understood the writers attempt to identify them as the Alexandria exiles, there are probably only three of them out there anyway. Is this the big new menace I'm supposed to get excited for next season?

So, in all, I'm torn by this finale. A lot to like, really, but mixed in with a pretty strong "that was it?" feeling. I give it a B. We'll see if I have any interest in coming back in October.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Derivative

A while back, I wrote about the muddled-but-not-truly-awful The Maze Runner, a movie I sat through in large part because I was trapped on an airplane. I have no such excuse to explain how I made it all the way through Divergent.

In this dystopian young adult Madlib, a young girl lives in a future Chicago where the trains apparently never stop to let anyone off, and everyone is Sorting Hatted into one of five factions. Each faction is named to teach a teen reader a more highfalutin word for a virtue: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, or Erudite. It's a perfect society, where everyone has a place and everyone knows that place. Well... except for a bunch of people who are factionless, but in a way that somehow doesn't threaten the perfect society. And also a handful of people who are Divergent (multi-classed), in a way that somehow does. Heroine Tris pledges her allegiance to the parkour-enthusiast Dauntless faction, where she learns to cover her secret of her Divergence, while uncovering the secret of a plot to take over the city.

There is a great deal about this story that simply makes no sense. Some of that possibly resulted from trims made to adapt the book to a movie. (Though they couldn't have trimmed much; the movie is an uncomfortable 2 hours and 20 minutes long.) Most of the awkwardness must have been baked right into the book itself. Why is the test to tell you your faction so important when you just get to choose anyway (and you're supposed to choose what you know in your heart to be true)? Does each faction have to be so cartoonishly one-note in its depiction (especially when several of non-Divergent characters seem to do a pretty good job of multi-classing in the film's final act)? What exactly is the wall around the city protecting people from?

And don't even get me started about Erudite's plot to take over control of the local government. For the supposedly smart faction, man do they have a stupid plan. It involves using some kind of injectable mind-control device to seize control of the people in the militant Dauntless faction. The brainwashers work on anyone except a Divergent, so the Erudites are working hard to identify and weed out any Divergents they can find. Except they're not looking for them using the method they've already invented that is 100% effective: brainwashers that work on anyone except Divergents. Equally inexplicable, their endgame involves using zombified Dauntless soldiers to wipe out the in-power-for-no-clear-reason Abnegation faction. But with brainwashers that work on anyone, why not just brainwash the Abnegation folks into yielding power to the Erudites? Ta-da! Instant, bloodless coup.

Even if you can just take the plot at face value, the movie will have you rolling your eyes with small details too. It equates "bravery" with "not fearing death," to a degree of stupidity. It leaves you bemused that the story of parents whose two children both left them in a single day is not a thing worth exploring. It leaves you wondering why on Earth Kate Winslet agreed to be in this movie.

About the only good thing I can point to here is the performance of the film's young star, Shailene Woodley. While she really isn't plausibly tough enough to sell the movie's action, she is very good at the softer, emotional moments. She's a likeable and sympathetic lead, and I look forward to seeing her in other films.

With Divergent, I truly hope we've reached the nadir of YA dystopian fiction. But I suppose since I'd give the movie a D-, I am leaving just a sliver of room for something worse to materialize somewhere. Needless to say, I won't be seeing the sequel in theaters now.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

TNG Flashback: Schisms

With "Schisms," Star Trek: The Next Generation tried for the second time in the sixth season to offer an episode mixing horror with science fiction. But like the previous effort, "Realm of Fear," the episode made some missteps. And this time, Lieutenant Barclay (and Dwight Schultz) wasn't around to compensate.

The Enterprise is charting a dense globular cluster, with the help of sensor modifications by Geordi LaForge. As the ship spends days in the cluster, different crewmembers begin to experience deleterious effects -- an inability to sleep, odd flashes of panic associated with common objects, and periods of missing time. When they begin to share their experiences with each other -- and when a subspace rift is discovered in a cargo bay -- it begins to seem that LaForge's modifications have attracted unwelcome attention from alien abductors.

Star Trek had certainly done a number of episodes in which characters were abducted by aliens, but this was the first time the show took on "alien abduction" in its classical sense. Episode writer Brannon Braga indicated in an interview that he saw this as a chance to embrace "mystery and the weirdness and seeing our people losing their minds, which is not something you get to see very often." It was also chance to introduce some horrific elements into the storytelling, and Braga did make some use of the opportunity. (For example, when Dr. Crusher tells Riker that his arm has been severed and reattached, the idea of that is quite chilling.)

But the pacing of the episode is off. It takes a long time for the characters to conclude that anything is out of the ordinary. Is the audience supposed to be concerned that Riker is losing sleep at night? The teaser doesn't even end in an actual "tease" of a plot -- it's just a self-contained vignette in which Data reads his poetry. (Though "Ode to Spot" is a pretty genius piece of work. It's said the writing staff had been looking for some time for the right episode to insert that into.)

Things start to pick up a bit when the crew finally realizes there's a problem to be solved. But their method of investigation is somehow simultaneously interesting and dry. Counselor Troi takes a group of abductees to the holodeck, using it as a tool to reconstruct the alien environment to which they were taken. It's a very neat idea to use the holodeck as an aid for memory reconstruction, and the scene has some marvelous and moody lighting. But after a time, the constant "computer, change this; computer, change that" starts to feel quite redundant.

The episode builds to a climax that is, again, simultaneously interesting and dry. The idea that Riker will be forcibly kept awake while confronting the people who severed and reattached his arm holds dark promise. But the aliens don't actually do anything to him during the final abduction. The use of odd lenses, dream-like floating camera shots, and harsh shadows is clever, but the fishlike aliens themselves are not at all a scary design. The idea of long scenes without dialogue is a cool departure for the series, but the scene isn't scary, and the harsh restrictions Rick Berman placed on the music kept composer Dennis McCarthy from doing much to amp up the sense of menace.

Ultimately, the writers and producers knew this episode was a misfire. Despite it ending with a cliffhanger of sorts, a tease that the aliens would learn how to find our dimension again, this story was never continued. The writers mainly cited the disappointing look of the aliens themselves as the reason why; as Brannon Braga put it: "I felt they looked like monks – fish monks – and monks aren't terrifying." He also claimed that budgetary considerations forced a scaling back of what he'd originally intended to depict in the final act. Director Robert Weimer said that he should have used more rapid cutting in that abduction sequence, for a less "languid" look -- a time-honored horror film strategy that certainly would have helped.

But the real problem with the climax is that true horror is a genre of visceral thrills, fear and tension. The final act of this episode -- like "Realm of Fear" -- resolves the story with an avalanche of technobabble. There's technobabble about finding the aliens' dimension, technobabble about keeping Riker awake, technobabble about closing the rift. There's virtually nothing about any actual threat to Riker (or Ensign Rager), which puts the emphasis squarely in the wrong place for the episode to be truly effective.

Other observations:
  • Going back to Data's "Ode to Spot" for a moment... Brent Spiner noted that he was particularly impressed by the writing. "I couldn't believe it because not only did it rhyme, but it's technobabble and it also had something to say. It had a really sweet point of view towards the cat."
  • Mot the Barber makes his final appearance of the series in this episode. (Though Captain Picard would claim to be him in the upcoming "Starship Mine.")
  • There are a lot of extras (background actors) milling about in this episode, noticeably more than in a typical episode. I'm not sure why this decision was made, but it feels like money they could have saved for some episode that really needed the sense of more people on the ship.
  • As I understand it, Geordi's sensor modifications are said to be responsible for attracting the attention of the aliens. But Riker has been losing sleep at the beginning of the episode, before Geordi has done anything.
  • Why does the computer not automatically alert security when someone goes missing from the ship?
There was certainly a neat idea at the core of "Schisms," but its execution simply didn't do it justice. I give the episode a C+.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Love in the Time of Hydra

This week's installment of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a less action-oriented affair than the last few have been, though that didn't necessarily mean it was less than enjoyable.

Skye's storyline was a rather wrinkle-free moving of her to a secret safe house, but it did a number of things well. There were several scenes where characters got to shine. Fitz and Simmons' argument in front of Skye showed that while the two may be back on speaking terms, they're far from "okay" again. The discussion between Coulson and May provided a great opportunity for May to really drop her mask and reveal her thoughts. (Heh. May and a mask. We'll get to that plot.) And the more fatherly scenes between Coulson and Skye were outstanding, largely because Clark Gregg can do no wrong. The plot even managed to serve up multiple references to the Avengers in a way that felt far more organic than some of the ham-fisted references of early first season.

The story of Hunter being brought into the "Other S.H.I.E.L.D." was an interesting one, largely because of the guest star casting. Edward James Olmos brought full Adama-style gravitas to his role as Gonzales, while Kirk Acevedo (of Fringe and 12 Monkeys) smarmed about the sidelines. I thought the characters all made a credible presentation of a view where Coulson is a crazy threat not to be trusted. It made sense, from their point of view. The one thing that doesn't make sense to me is that this Other S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to have a great deal of money and resources at its disposal, especially compared to Our Heroes. Particularly, how is it that Talbot doesn't know these guys are running around out there when they clearly have the blessing of someone with traditional authority? Perhaps we'll get into that in weeks ahead.

But the main development of the week was the return of Ward and Agent 33 to the plot. It was a great opportunity for Ming-Na Wen to portray a different character (and gave her the technical challenge of dubbing dialogue into several other actors' mouths). The relationship between the two characters was an interesting one, particularly for Ward. He seems to have somewhat genuine intentions to help a fellow broken person pick up the pieces of their life. But he's also working an angle, controlling and lying to her (for example, about the fate of his family). So you can bet he has an endgame in mind.

Their caper to break into Talbot's installation was fun, although Talbot himself was written a bit cartoonish for the otherwise serious tone of the show. It's hard to tell exactly when it shattered the top, but it was definitely over the top when he was pulling on someone's face and ordering his wife to the ground at gunpoint.

It was a bit of a transition episode overall, but it was full of nice moments. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fantastic Answers to Life's Least Burning Questions

If you're a fan of xkcd, you're undoubtedly familiar with the comic's "What If?" feature. (If you've heard of neither of those things, well, then those links are your first step into a larger world.) Hopefully, you're also aware of the recently published book, What If?, a compilation of some of the best articles from the web site -- along with some new material.

What former NASA engineer turned webcomic artist Randall Munroe does is summed up in the subtitle of the book: he gives "Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions." The result is some great reading, broken up into easily digestible portions. Don't have time for a chapter of that doorstop fantasy series you've been chipping away at? Well, surely you've got a couple of minutes to learn what would happen if you took a swim in a spent nuclear fuel pool.

There are two keys to the book's effectiveness. First is the wide array of insane queries sent to him by his ever expanding pool of readers. Topics range from philosophy-meets-probability ("What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?") to nerdy word play ("What would happen if you were to gather a mole -- unit of measurement -- of moles --the small furry critter-- in one place?") to culinary ("From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?"). There are things the Mythbusters would surely tackle, if only they could be done in reality. ("How hard would a puck have to be shot to be able to knock the goalie himself back into the net?") There are "who comes up with this?" questions. ("If someone's DNA suddenly vanished, how long would that person last?") There are people trying to measure fiction in real-world terms. ("How much Force power can Yoda output?") The questions come from every sphere imaginable, and they're all fun.

Even more key to the fun of the book is Randall Munroe's writing style. It's never enough for him to just to answer the question; he explores even more ridiculous layers to each scenario. And he describes the outcomes in hilarious prose, sprinkled with hilarious drawings, annotated with hilarious footnotes. Particular comedic triumphs in the book include:
  • "What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?" (The answer grows more hilarious with each descending row.)
  • "What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?" (Nothing the questioner was envisioning, but a global apocalypse as 7 billion people try to make their way out of one area on Earth.)
  • "How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?" (A great answer for all the ways it taunts LEGO enthusiasts with all the possible ways to say Legos -- properly and improperly.)
  • A periodic feature of questions he doesn't answer, in part because they suggest unsettling things about the questioner. (For example: "How many houses are burned down in the U.S. each year? What would be the easiest way to increase that number by a significant amount?")
Whether you devour the book in large sections or make it your bathroom reader, What If? serves up lots of laughs. It's a definite grade A. The only down side is that eventually, it ends... and even that can be addressed by checking in regularly at Munroe's web site.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Try

Last night's episode of The Walking Dead continued to increase the focus on the theme that has pervaded the Alexandria episodes: some people are just too broken to live in civilization anymore. Given that, it was surprising that neither Gabriel nor Maggie even appeared in the episode; you'd think she'd have run straight to the group with news of what she overheard at the end of the prior episode. But there still were a handful more character vignettes to explore before the final big blowout in next week's season finale.

Sasha's story was a particularly interesting one, as you could probably read it a few different ways. Taking her words at face value, she's just out for blood now, on a blind quest for vengeance against however many zombies she can possibly lay eyes on. Below the surface, you might also read that she has a death wish. She's not willing to turn a gun on herself, or walk unarmed into a group of walkers, but some part of her knows that her behavior will result in her eventual suicide by zombie -- and she's just fine with that. Either way, she's a hollowed out shell; either avenue is an interesting direction for her.

Carl found a kindred spirit in Enid. (Though what they did not find was a smart hiding place. A hollowed out tree with no other exits? Bad freaking idea!) We learned that Enid spent time out in the world before finding Alexandria, though we don't get the specifics of what happened to her. And while whatever it was isn't likely as bad as Carl having to shoot his own mother in the head, the point was clearly made that the two of them had their childhoods cut short by the apocalypse, and that there's no reclaiming what was lost.

Rick has lost something even more basic: any sense of decency and humanity. There's no doubt that Deanna -- aware of the way Pete was abusing his wife Jessie -- wasn't on the moral high ground either. (Though her cold pragmatism about protecting the settlement's only doctor certainly makes her more of a calculating survivor than anyone else in Alexandria. Hence why she's the leader.) But Rick -- and Carol too -- sees no solution for the problem short of execution. What has happened to a former law enforcement officer that the notion of "prison time" (or some confinement) doesn't even occur to him? Or hey, sure, resources are what they are -- maybe you get a bit medieval and come up with some sort of corporal punishment? But no, Rick is one revealing outfit away from a corny Star Trek episode where society in his mind has death as the one and only punishment for every crime.

Michonne's story was an interesting intersection of Sasha's and Rick's. Rather than taking on Sasha's melancholy, Michonne rededicated herself to making Alexandria work more than ever at the end of the episode. Recognizing that Rick had gone off the deep end, she snuck up behind him to knock him out cold. Whether this is a more enduring wedge between them will remain to be seen.

The Alexandria continues to serve up solid episodes. I'd give this one a B+. Next week, we'll see if the 90-minute finale manages to punch out strong.

Friday, March 20, 2015

TNG Flashback: Relics

The Next Generation commemorated the 25th anniversary of Star Trek with the "Unification" two-parter, finally bringing on a main character from the original series (not just a guest star) for more than a cameo appearance. Spock's appearance was only partially effective, yielding a few good scenes -- but a convoluted plot that didn't make the best use of the character. But it did break through the wall; no longer did producer Rick Berman fear connections with classic Star Trek. And that made it possible to create "Relics."

The Enterprise encounters a Dyson sphere -- an unimaginably large construct encompassing a star. They also discover a lost starship, the Jenolan, that crashed on the sphere's surface 75 years ago. Boarding the Jenolan, they find one survivor who managed to stay alive inside the pattern buffer of a highly modified transporter: Captain Montgomery Scott! As the Enterprise crew works to explore the Dyson sphere, Scotty struggles to fit into the advanced future in which he finds himself -- and clashes with fellow engineer Geordi LaForge.

The genesis of this episode came from freelance writer Michael Rupert, who pitched an episode about someone surviving for 80 years inside a transporter. The writing staff disliked his script, but thought that one gimmick interesting enough to buy the idea. And when they set about developing and reworking it, Michael Piller (about to move from head writer on The Next Generation to Deep Space Nine) hit upon a simple but compelling twist: what if this conceit were used to bring back an original series character?

Everyone immediately embraced the idea; the only question was who to bring over. According to Ronald Moore, the episode's eventual writer, the debate was short. McCoy and Spock were off the list, having already appeared on the series. Kirk was considered, but it was thought that his presence would raise more issues than the episode could properly address. Among the remaining options, Scotty seemed the obvious choice. Not only did he have the technical know-how to complement the transporter gimmick, he had interesting character traits the story could use -- heavy drinking, aspirations other than starship command, the obsession with his engines.

To hear Ronald Moore tell it, the story outline was simple and came quickly: Scotty would be found on a nearly destroyed ship, then would have to help the Next Generation crew escape the same calamity that nearly killed him. That was enough to go to actor James Doohan and see if he would want to reprise the character of Scotty. It wasn't a given that he'd say yes, as back during The Next Generation's first season, he'd publicly complained that this new series was simply rehashing episodes of his series. (And he wasn't entirely wrong about that.) Reportedly, his family sat Doohan down to watch The Next Generation at some point in the years between, and he soon changed his tune. When they called to ask him to appear on the show, he accepted eagerly.

Now the actual script had to be written, an assignment that was originally given to writer Brannon Braga. He wasn't much of an original series fan, and knew how much Ronald Moore was. Meanwhile, an upcoming story idea ("A Fistful of Datas") appealed much more to Braga, a lifelong Western fan. The two writers agreed to swap scripts.

Moore felt that one key to a good episode would be to contrast Scotty with the new Enterprise's engineer, Geordi LaForge. Noting that Geordi had actually been a bridge officer back in season one, Moore reasoned that engineering wasn't his true passion. LaForge probably hoped to command his own starship one day, and that was his main difference from Scotty, who only ever wanted to be a chief engineer. Not to mention the fact that a behind-the-times fossil like Scotty would only naturally be in the way. (Think about it; if someone from the 1940s showed up at your job offering to "help," how much help do you really think they could be?)

Next, Moore needed to know what catastrophe the two generations would be up against. Series science advisor Naren Shankar suggested an idea the writers had been kicking around for years: a Dyson sphere. This was a real-world thought exercise by physicist Freeman Dyson, who in 1959 posited a massive structure around a star, allowing interior inhabitants to harness all the star's radiant energy. It's a tantalizing way to kick off the episode, interesting even before Scotty shows up. Who could possibly have the resources to build it? How do they live? Of course, as the episode is all about the return of Scotty, it doesn't get into any of that. (Which Moore later acknowledged was probably a sad waste of a fertile idea.)

Lastly, Ronald Moore stuffed his script with every homage to the original series he could. Moore himself was Scotty, he realized years later. Despite being the youngest member of the writing staff, he was the fan of the old, always telling his fellow writers how good things had been back in the day. It came naturally to him to have Scotty's stories reference actual classic episodes like "The Naked Time," "Wolf in the Fold," and "Elaan of Troyius." Fantastic jokes came too, like Data's "it is green" (a callback to "By Any Other Name"), and Scotty admitting that his reputation as a miracle worker comes from inflating his estimates.

Once the script was finished, it was time to bring it to life. Alexander Singer was selected to direct it, a choice with nearly as much history as Scotty's return. Singer been a director for Paramount in the 1960s, working on Mission: Impossible -- which filmed right across from Star Trek. He desperately wanted to direct Star Trek, and even got an interview with Gene Roddenberry at the time. Nevertheless, it didn't work out... until two decades later, when he finally got this job. (He would go on to direct several more episodes, and work on Deep Space Nine and Voyager as well.)

One scene in particular presented an enormous challenge -- the holodeck scene in which Scotty recreates the original Enterprise. Originally, the concept was to have Scotty actually interact with his old shipmates via 25-year-old footage, but that never even got to the script stage. That would be far too expensive for a television series, especially years before the movie Forrest Gump would forge the path for creating that kind of visual effect. (In large part because of that film's pioneering effects, this idea later would become feasible for Deep Space Nine's "Trails and Tribble-ations.")

Just building the Enterprise bridge set was still beyond the budget, which got the bean counters talking about taking the Enterprise-A set from Star Trek VI out of storage to use instead. Aghast at how that would undercut the message of the scene, original series fans in every department worked hard to find clever solutions. First, someone remembered an original series episode ("This Side of Paradise") in which the bridge was shown briefly without people. This became a background plate to greenscreen Scotty's holodeck entrance. Second, it was determined that the production could afford to build one "pie wedge" of the bridge, which would be used behind both Scotty and Picard during filming. Lastly, rather than building the captain's chair and console themselves, the set team rented them from a Star Trek fan who built them himself (who was only too happy to claim his work had actually appeared on the show).

The result of all that work is the most poignant scene in the episode. This was the first time the old Enterprise bridge had been seen (other than in reruns) in more than two decades. Scotty and Picard's frank talk about their first, true loves was so powerful that director Alexander Singer's wife -- visiting the set that day, never having seen any Star Trek herself -- was moved to tears. James Doohan and Patrick Stewart are both just outstanding in the scene. From Doohan, it's a revelation. He'd never been given this much material in any other Star Trek episode or movie. Ronald Moore and Alexander Singer both admitted to quiet doubts early on that he'd even be up to it. They were thrilled to find those doubts misplaced, and we the audience are the beneficiaries.

The extra effort behind the scenes didn't stop just at bringing the original Enterprise back to life. The visual effects of the Dyson sphere are all quite striking too, as are the solar flares from the star inside (but small blooper: we see other distant stars twinkling behind it). There's also the classic transporter effect used for Scotty's appearance. The actual film element from the original series was found in perfect condition at the studio that originally created the effect, while the sound effect was located by co-producer Wendy Neuss in Paramount's own archives. (Sure, the Jenolan is a movie-era starship, but who cares? Seeing the older stuff is too much fun!) And then there's composer Jay Chattaway, who selectively sneaks in the classic Star Trek fanfare in choice moments.

Other observations:
  • Freeman Dyson himself said in an interview that he never took his own idea of the Dyson sphere very seriously, and called the science behind it "nonsense." (My question: if you could possibly gather the resources to build such a thing, wouldn't you be advanced enough to know you were building it around an unstable star?) Still, Dyson saw this episode, and said he enjoyed it as a TV viewer.
  • When Scotty hears that the Enterprise has rescued him, he says that Jim Kirk himself must have hauled the ship out of mothballs. This fun line would be later undermined by the film Star Trek: Generations, where Scotty sees Kirk "die." Ronald Moore, who co-wrote Generations, said he was fully aware of this discontinuity, but he had too much affection for the Scotty character not to use him in the movie.
  • When Scotty first boards the Enterprise and is being escorted to sickbay, Geordi thwacks him several times on his broken arm. LaForge may have been a bridge officer and a chief engineer, but we can see why he was never a doctor.
  • The scene in which Data serves "green" alcohol to Scotty was originally written for Guinan, and changed when Whoopi Goldberg was unavailable. I think the change was actually for the better, as Data -- with his infinite patience -- seems like the perfect person to assist Scotty.
  • In the final scene of the episode, Scotty gives Troi a familiar kiss on the cheek -- despite them never having met before that moment. This oddity is given proper context by a deleted scene that can be found on the Blu-ray version of the episode. Troi has a scene in which she tries to counsel Scotty, only to have him furious rebuff her efforts when he learns she's a "psychologist" who must think he's "crazy."
  • The Blu-ray also has a commentary track on this episode, featuring Mike and Denise Okuda (from the production team), and writer Ronald Moore. Among many fascinating anecdotes, they talk about the way the visual styles of three different "generations" are depicted in the episode: the original series, the Enterprise-D, and (through the Jenolan) the movies. This in turn leads to frank observations about one of Star Trek: Voyager's many failings -- that, unlike Deep Space Nine, it didn't have a distinct enough visual look of its own.
  • In the same commentary, Moore gets ribbed for a mistake no one caught when making the episode: the fact that Scotty and LaForge are beamed off the Jenolan even while its shields are up.
  • With the death of Leonard Nimoy last month, we now have this sad bit of trivia: the three original Star Trek main cast members who appeared in an episode of The Next Generation -- DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy, and James Doohan -- were the first three to pass away.
Generations unite in "Relics," and the crossover is everything Spock's appearance in the previous season should have been. I give it an A-. And now that nearly as many years have passed between "Relics" and today as had passed between classic Star Trek and "Relics," the episode takes on extra nostalgia. As Scotty says in the final act: "Enjoy these times, Geordi. ... It's a time of your life that'll never come again. When it's gone, it's gone."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

One of Us

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was entertaining as usual, but there was something a bit off for me too. I had to sleep on it before it finally came to me: the super-team of villains that Cal assembled seemed only intermittently "super," and in no way a "team."

Take, for example, the character of Karla. (Rather a waste of actress Drea de Matteo, I think.) Her industrial-strength razor fingernails really made her no more dangerous than, say, a ninja armed with hand claws. A good deal less dangerous, really, as she didn't really have much in the way of combat skills. Thematically, this was sort of the point on two levels: that Cal was reaching out to all the misfits, and that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s categorization system -- that dumps her in the same bin as some real super villains -- is in need of an overhaul (as Simmons pointed out). My point is that after seeing Bobbi Morse beat the crap out of that guy in the prison facility, there wasn't even the slightest hint of danger as she fought Karla.

Similarly, the "strong man" Noche didn't seem like much of a menace. Again, Morse had taken out a strong man earlier in the episode. And while I'm not willing to speculate at who would win in a fight between May and Morse, I'm confident in saying there's no opponent that would lose to one but defeat the other. I mean, the fight looked awesome. But the similarity of the characters here meant no sense of danger for May in the final showdown.

The "tech guy." Did he even do anything? Which leaves Angar, with the catatonia-inducing shout. Okay, he was pretty cool, and the scene where we saw him use his power was an excellently crafted visual. But since Coulson dealt with him first -- and since his powers in no way meshed with the rest of the villains -- things never really got rolling there. The whole storyline was just a bit scatterbrained and toothless, much as I'm starting to find Cal himself, no matter how fun Kyle McLachlan's performance is.

But the episode did deliver up some nice moments for some of the main characters. Surprising us with May's ex-husband, and seeing Skye's reaction to learning about him, was great fun. The scene where Fitz and Simmons briefly forgot they were upset with each other as they gossiped about him was even more fun. Blair Underwood was a solid presence in the role of Andrew, and I'm already looking forward to them bringing him back for a future episode.

As for the Mac-Bobbi-Hunter story... well, they must have felt as I did last week, that things on the show were moving a bit too fast. This week was just a tap dance (while handcuffed to a sink) that kept things stationary until the reveal at the end of the episode: Mac and Bobbi are working for the "real" S.H.I.E.L.D. (or at least, what they think is). I'm not sure I'm seeing the potential in this storyline yet. At best, it's just a misunderstanding between two different groups of people who both think they're picking up the pieces of the former organization. At worst, it's a Hydra redux when they could just as easily have kept using the genuine article, right? I guess we'll see. The up side is that the show has managed to get me caring as much about the new characters as those from season one, so I am interested in seeing what happens with Mac, Bobbi, and Hunter.

I'd say this episode certainly had its fun moments, but was the weakest since the show's return. I give it a B.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Enterprising Music

My love of Star Trek is well known to regular readers of this blog, as is my love of film and television scores. As is my particular love of Star Trek scores. La-La Land Records has always been there to feed that addiction, with spectacular sets of music from the original series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine. Now they've turned their attention to the last of the Star Trek series (to date), with a 4-CD set of music from Star Trek: Enterprise.

Enterprise was certainly in a horse race with Star Trek: Voyager for the worst Star Trek series. I hadn't exactly been clamoring for a soundtrack album of its music. But when I heard samples from the album, I changed my tune. Enterprise had been plagued by a litany of bad decisions, but one thing they apparently got right was the music. (Well, except for the inappropriate choice to use the schlocky "Faith of the Heart" for the main credits.)

As executive producer of all the spin-off Star Trek series (again, to date), Rick Berman had some strong ideas on what the series' music should sound like. Apparently, he felt that strong, thematically driven music was hokey. You can perhaps understand such a point of view when you think about, say, the classic "fight music" from the old Star Trek. It's wonderful music, and lots of people can hum the melody... but few would be likely to associate it with "realism." But on the other hand, when you think of all the triumphant (and serious) melodies that have been composed by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and more, the attitude makes no sense at all.

Though perhaps Berman didn't see prominent melody as "hokey" so much as "old-fashioned."  (Again, given its use in the original Star Trek series.) In any case, when it came time for Enterprise -- a prequel to the original series -- Berman decided to change up the musical approach to the show. Recurring themes were still off-limits, but lots of things forbidden on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager were suddenly allowed: loud percussion, short musical stings, more extensive use of synthesizers and electronics. The result: outside of the amazing material Ron Jones composed for The Next Generation, the music of Enterprise is the best of all the Star Trek spin-offs.

The 4-CD collection that La-La Land assembled assigns a topic for each disc. Star Trek stalwarts Dennis McCarthy and Jay Chattaway each get their own disc, filled with selections of their best music from Enterprise's four seasons. For his part, McCarthy was not reluctant to admit that synthesizers weren't his forte. Partway into the run of the show, he decided to bring in a collaborator, Kevin Kiner. Together, the two of them brought excitement to several episodes in seasons three and four, and their disc represents McCarthy's best work on any Trek series.

As with Deep Space Nine, though McCarthy and Chattaway composed for the majority of the episodes, a number of others were brought in for the occasional fill-in assignment. Disc 3 of this CD collection is filled with tracks from these composers: Mark McKenzie, David Bell, Paul Baillargeon, John Frizell, and Velton Ray Bunch. (The last of those scored Quantum Leap, and got work on Enterprise at star Scott Bakula's recommendation.) With the exception of Bunch's work, this disc is actually the weakest of the collection. I think that McCarthy and Chattaway, after so many restricted seasons of three earlier Star Trek series, were itching to try different things. Bunch, who had never scored for Star Trek before, didn't even know of the restrictions that were no longer being enforced. It was those other guys, who did only a handful of Deep Space Nines and Voyagers, who didn't seem to be yearning to breakout. Consequently, their efforts on this disc don't stray far enough from Rick Berman's boring old formula.

But Disc 4 of the collection is a real treat, a so-called "Fan Favorites" selection of episodes. While I know of no one who would actually call the series finale "These Are the Voyages..." a favorite, the other episodes represented on the disc are "In a Mirror, Darkly" (the mirror universe two-parter) and "Regeneration" (the Borg episode), both fun and action-heavy installments of the series. The mirror episodes are scored by the team of McCarthy/Kiner, and are all-out percussive assaults. (They also include an alternative title song, mercifully replacing "Faith of the Heart," as well as a distorted interpretation of Jerry Goldsmith's music from First Contact, for the alternate meeting of Zefram Cochrane and the Vulcans.)

As for the music from "Regeneration" -- well, it's the best on the collection. It was written by Brian Tyler, unknown at the time, but now a rising star in films (with a pair of Marvel movies under his belt). I'm reluctant to praise any Borg music other than that of Ron Jones (who composed for The Next Generation classic, "The Best of Both Worlds"), but Brian Tyler brings an entirely different, yet equally valid approach to the music. Where Jones expertly conveys the cyborg nature of the race with his haunting synthesized choir, Tyler focuses elsewhere. His take highlights the unstoppable nature of the Borg, and makes them damn scary.

Overall, my one complaint about the La-La Land's Enterprise Collection would be that it has a few too many short tracks, only a minute-or-so long. (And many of those were composed to accompany "previously on Enterprise" episode openers.) There are a handful of long tracks (one over 12 minutes long!) to balance this, but I would have preferred to see a little more consistency overall. Still, this collection is a massive improvement over the Deep Space Nine release. (Deep Space Nine may have been the far better show, but Enterprise had the better music.) I give this set an A-.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Martian's Chronicles

Over the past few months, I'd been hearing a lot of buzz about a novel titled The Martian. The story behind the story was talked about as much as the novel itself. Author Andy Weir had originally self-published it on his own web site in 2001, chapter by chapter. His handful of readers, wanting it all to be collected in one place, convinced him to offer it through Amazon. Weir did, charging the minimum allowable 99 cents. In a flash, the thing had blown up, topping bestseller lists and securing him not only an agent and a publisher, but a movie deal.

The Martian is a sci-fi novel set in the near future, chronicling the third manned mission to Mars. Specifically it centers on one astronaut, Mark Watney, who during a freak accident is mistakenly presumed dead and left marooned alone on the planet. He has limited supplies and no communication with Earth. He has only his own sarcastic wit and repair skills to figure out a way to survive.

This is a real page turner of a book, pulling you through at a breakneck pace out of breathless desire to see what happens next. One calamity after another befalls the main character, each seemingly more dire and unsolvable than the last, and you've just gotta know how he's going to overcome. His gallows humor, coupled with a first person narrative, makes you root for him too. And on top of all that, Andy Weir claims to have grounded the scenarios he's written in plausible science; if he hasn't, he writes in a way that convinces you he has.

But that said, Weir does make some mistakes too -- probably because he's a first time author who originally wrote this without an editor to help him shore things up. Though the novel does have other characters (NASA employees back on Earth, the other astronauts on the Mars mission), none of them pop like the central figure of Mark Watney. I'm not sure there's a solid physical description of anyone in the entire novel, and all the non-Watneys have a homogenized, interchangeable behavior and dialogue pattern -- something that feels like "Watney Lite."

There's also one narrative style too many. The first person material, Watney making his log entries, is Weir's strongest writing. A more traditional third person style comes in when the book tracks all the other characters, and that works well enough too. But there are a few scattered pages where Weir wants to follow events on Mars without being in Watney's head. Here, he uses the style of a weird omniscient documentary maker who fancies himself a poet. It disrupts the rest of the book's tension and immediacy, and feels odd and out of place.

Still, Weir's few missteps don't bring the book crashing down. It's a very fun, exciting, and quick read. There's a reason Hollywood came calling, and I'm certainly interested to see what kind of movie results. (We know this much already: it's a movie directed by Ridley Scott, starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and more.) Until that movie arrives, I'd certainly recommend reading the book. I give it a B+.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Spend

This week's episode of The Walking Dead focused mainly on the characters who hadn't seen much screen time in the last week or two. The result was mostly good, but still a bit mixed. Much of the character behavior felt off to me, which usually makes for an episode I don't care for. But somehow this episode rose above the sum of those parts.

I'll start with the plot line that was I thought was most solid from beginning to end, the one focusing on Abraham. When we learned the particulars of his history in the first half of this season, we learned he was a man who ended up losing everything just because (in his mind) he came on too strong in his desire to protect everyone -- which manifested as bloodlust. This tiger has not changed his stripes. He came charging in to the rescue of an Alexandrian, and genuinely enjoyed picking off walkers as they came at him one by one like pitches in a gory batting cage.

Not only was this a good plot line for Abraham, but it helped to answer to the question: "How have these Alexandrians managed to live so long like this?" The answer: they seem to hold human life in only slightly higher regard than zombies. As soon as someone was injured, the group's leader was willing to write her off and run. Eminently practical in terms of the long term survival of the group, of Alexandria. Pretty bleak for any one given Alexandrian -- which is exactly why they need to have a recruiter constantly out looking for new fodder to join their ranks.

Carol's story also worked quite well for me. I appreciated the turn things took after last week's menacing cookie threat. She found herself right in the middle of a situation that played on almost every bit of her history. A child was trying to get closer to her, which after the loss of her own daughter Sophie and her soul crushing "look at the flowers" moment last season, was about the last thing she'd ever want. And then it turned out he was reaching out to her because of an abusive father, touching on her pre-apocalypse history as a battered spouse. Carol has come a long way since then, and is no longer the sort of person who can tolerate abuse. She still may well play a part in the disintegration of the Alexandria situation, but not in the way I would have expected last week.

And certainly only one part. This takes us to the more questionable stories for me. First, there was the supply run. After Glenn's last experience outside the walls with the Alexandrians, it seems questionable to me that he'd agree to go out there again without a more serious overhaul to the system. Him getting to be in charge this time doesn't qualify in my book; he's still having to take with him two known loose cannons. And surprise, surprise, trouble ensued.

I'll only spend a moment on Noah's death. He wasn't around long enough to develop much of a personality to be missed. I'll only briefly note this oldie (and no longer goodie) from the writers' bag of tricks, suddenly giving attention to one character in the episode where they'll ultimately meet a "shocking death." (I suppose the death was shocking though, at least in terms of gore.)

The plot line was really about Eugene stepping up and finding his courage. It was a good idea, though I'm not sure I bought all the particulars. Why now? Had he developed enough of an attachment to Tara while creepily watching her with Abraham that he just had to act? And is him finding his courage really just a throw of a switch like that? Surviving one zombie clawing at his throat is enough to make him want to carry Tara to safety? Enough to make him put himself out there as zombie bait? Enough to make him try to pull a gun on someone who can almost certainly overpower him? I mean, I'm certainly not sad to see spineless weasel Eugene go, but I'm not sure I see how courageous Eugene arrived in his place.

In any case, we still have enough spineless weasel to go around. Gabriel's "arc" consisted only of bookend scenes at the start and end of the episode. With so little material, it's hard to make sense of his actions. But he is certainly feeling like a cliche who poorly represents religious people. Well, he 100% nails representation of a certain kind of religious person -- the judgmental hypocrite. But as we've never really had another overtly religious character on the show, he has to stand in for everyone at the moment.

We have to remember that while the group's journey north from Atlanta took only a few episodes for us viewers, it probably took them weeks or even months to make the trip. (Though one of those episodes certainly felt like weeks or months, so maybe we can understand.) That's a whole lot of time for Gabriel to learn who these people really are and what they're about. Instead, he fixates on his own loss of faith -- which, as the Bible shredding in this episode showed, was not just a single moment of weakness. Gabriel decides to blame his loss of faith -- and every other bad thing he's done, seemingly -- on Rick and the group. So he's got to see them punished for his wickedness. Yeah, I hate this kind of religious person. No question, they do exist. And as he is now the show's proxy for that, you'll understand if I now root for him to meet an even grislier fate than Noah or Aiden did this week. (Seriously, no mercy bullet to the head for poor Aiden?)

I suppose I'd call this episode a B. Some of it worked. Some of it didn't. But at least it all is clearly going somewhere now, which was hardly the case when this half-season began.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Who You Really Are

It took me until the weekend to catch up with the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode that aired last Tuesday, but it certainly was enjoyable once I got there -- a jam-packed hour of action and plot developments.

If anything, I'd say the story is actually progressing too quickly. It's understandable that the series is reluctant to bide its time these days. After stretching season 1 too long while waiting for The Winter Soldier to release in theaters (and leaking viewership in the process), they don't want to repeat the same mistake. But it felt like there could easily have been another episode or two in Fitz and Skye working to keep Skye's transformation a secret.

At least if things are going to move at this quick a pace, they got some good moments out of it. Watching Fitz inarticulately trying to defend Skye (and his decision to help her) from several angry friends made for a strong scene. And the clash between Fitz and Simmons was a particularly good moment.

The new characters -- Hunter, Morse, and Mac -- got a nice showcase in the mysterious "what's the conspiracy?" arc that continued from the last couple of episodes. (And after the episode's tag, it looks like that will be dealt with soon.) Each character got nice depth to their personalities this week: Hunter was revealed as not the clueless dupe he was thought to be, nor Morse the ice cold manipulator; Mac continued to develop as a "reluctant badass" in a manner different from May's superficially similar story from season one.

Added to this potent mix was Lady Sif, returning after her appearance in one of the better pre-Hydra episodes of the first season. Actress Jaimie Alexander is certainly good at the deadpan humor, and the episode benefited from her dry presence. (Plus May got in that hilarious dig about Sif being too serious even for her.)

All the back story about terrigenesis and ancient rebel Kree seemed laid on a bit thick for just one episode, but at least there was plenty of action, humor, and tension to help the exposition go down more easily. Overall, I'd give the episode a B+.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Beauty Spoiled

If there was a worse movie in 2014 than Maleficent, I truly hope never to see it. The film had an intriguing enough hook: a live action retelling of the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty, featuring one of animation's most indelible villains. But the result was a muddled mess.

The biggest problem with the movie is how fake it is, on every level imaginable. CG is overused, none of it convincing in appearance or effective in execution. There are fake-looking characters, fake-looking landscapes, and actors casting fake-looking magic as they stand in fake-looking digital sets.

There are fake emotions from every actor. Presumably, the heightened style of performance was intended to evoke the sense of a fairy tale, but instead it simply feels like everyone is overacting. Angelina Jolie, as the title character, has but two gears: cartoonish rage and mawkish near-crying. Sharlto Copley -- who really ought to be able to work with CG after his District 9 experience -- hits just one note repeatedly (and loudly) as the dully menacing King Stefan. Elle Fanning is out of her depth as doe-eyed Aurora, as fake as her surroundings.

Though the movie runs barely more than 90 minutes, I was checking my watch before the halfway point. And I really shouldn't have bothered sticking around for the ending, which Disney simply cribbed from its own recent hit, Frozen (a film infinitely better on all levels).

I can really say only one thing in support of Maleficent -- it has tremendous visual continuity with the original animated Sleeping Beauty. The look of the characters, from the villain herself to the young Aurora, and especially the three color-coded good fairies, is a real ringer for the 1959 original designs. Perhaps that's part of why the film looks so false, though, as the art direction was trying too hard to mimic something that never originally existed in the real world.

There's nothing to recommend here. And if you're at all a fan of Sleeping Beauty, you may actually owe it to yourself to stay away. I give Maleficent a D-.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Feasting at the Dance

Not long ago, I finished reading (for the second time) the five existing books of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Most recently, I posted reviews of books four and five, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. But in truth, I didn't read those two books in the manner they were published. I read both books simultaneously.

At the risk of being repetitive here -- as repetitive as Brienne's chapters in A Feast for Crows -- I'll remind my readers of two things. First, I'm going to be revealing spoilers here of things that won't appear on HBO's Game of Thrones until the coming season. Bail out now if you haven't read the books. Secondly, recall that George R.R. Martin set out originally to write a single book, which ultimately grew so large that he split it into the two books that became Feast and Dance.

Not long after the publication of A Dance With Dragons, fans of the series went to work trying to "reintegrate" the last two books. Though the books followed different characters (mostly), they took place over the same time frame. Shuffling the chapters back together would not only produce a more logical narrative, it would come closest to Martin's "original intention," and will ultimately be the approach the television series takes to this chunk of the narrative. At first, there was a fair amount of debate among Martin's most fanatic readers, but soon the internet seemed to reach agreement on a particular reading order, developed by Sean T. Collins.

Collins eschewed a strictly chronological approach, as even within the novels as published, not all the chapters are ordered in that way. He preserved Martin's technique of hopping around between characters, while minimizing (as much as possible) the need to flip back and forth between books. The result: his suggested reading order for a combined A Feast-Dance for-and-with Crows-and-Dragons. This is what I used for my second readthrough of the series. Though I posted separate reviews of the two books, I actually read them as one enormous (even by George R.R. Martin standards) 119 chapter book.

"Feast-Dance" (for want of a better term) is a better whole than the sum of its parts. It dulls the visibility of one major problem in each book -- the lack of beloved characters in one, and the lack of activity near the Iron Throne in the other. It even helps a little bit with the repetition in certain storylines (particularly Brienne's and Tyrion's), as it places each character's chapters further apart. The combined book is admittedly a bit slow to get started, but at least you're getting the whole story. It does read like one tale that should never have been separated -- the only exception being a Samwell chapter from Feast and a Jon chapter from Dance which contain about six pages of repeated material between them (without enough truly justifiable differences from seeing it from two different characters' perspectives).

Indeed, the two books feel like they have a single overall theme that bonds them as one too. But I think that theme exposes why Feast and Dance (individually, or together) aren't as good as the first three books of the series. Feast-Dance is one huge book in which everybody fails at everything. I am, of course, well aware that George R.R. Martin is willing to make bad things happen to good people (or at least, to people we like). But even as Eddard Stark was getting beheaded in A Game of Thrones and the Red Wedding was shocking everyone in A Storm of Swords, some characters were doing well. Arya was surviving against impossible odds. Daenerys was hatching dragons and conquering slavers.

In sharp contrast, look at all the failure in A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. Aeron Greyjoy's kingsmoot fails to crown the king he'd hoped for. Asha Greyjoy fails to take the throne, and then is captured after failing in battle. Stannis fails to march on Winterfell. Davos fails in his mission for Stannis, first getting captured, then getting redirected to some other goal. Brienne fails to locate Sansa Stark. Arianne Martell fails in her efforts to crown Princess Myrcella as queen. Her brother Quentyn fails in his quest to find and marry Daenerys (which is also a failure for his father Doran, who sent him to do it). Cersei fails at running the kingdom as Queen Regent. Jon Snow fails as Commander of the Night's Watch. Samwell fails to keep Maester Aemon alive on their journey south. Tyrion fails at meeting Daenerys (or doing much of anything on his own volition). Daenerys fails at securing peace in Meereen on her own, while Barristan fails at maintaining what fragile excuse for peace she married into. Failure, failure, failure. Everywhere.

Arya, Sansa, and Bran all spend time in "Jedi training" at their respective "Dagobahs," but each fails in the sense that their progress is so slow that each finishes the book in the same place they started. The only success anywhere in sight is marginal to say the least: Jaime (who only succeeds at conquering castles by backsliding on his moral progress in A Storm of Swords) and Theon (who was beaten so low he had nowhere to go but up). All this punishing failure, with limited narrative progress, makes Feast-Dance the bleakest book(s) of the entire saga. That's saying a lot.

But, as I noted in my separate reviews of the two books, the quality of the writing is top notch -- poetic and evocative, perhaps even more than that of the preceding volumes. As a combined experience, I'd say Feast-Dance nudges the separate books up from two B- singles into a B whole. It's not much, but that's all we'll get until HBO starts finishing Martin's epic tale for him in the coming seasons of Game of Thrones.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

TNG Flashback: Man of the People

Television production is a race against a ticking clock to get new episodes ready to be aired. As soon as filming on one episode is completed, the next one gets started -- sometimes even during the same day. This inexorable forward march means that sometimes, things that aren't quite ready go before the cameras all the same. So it was with "Man of the People."

Alien ambassador Ves Alkar comes aboard the Enterprise, to be escorted to a delicate negotiation between squabbling factions. When his old, malevolent mother dies en route, Alkar turns to Counselor Troi to help with a "funeral ceremony." In truth, he is using Troi as a telepathic receptacle into which he can shunt all his negative emotions. This method of calming him for his diplomatic work soon threatens Troi's very life.

For this third episode of season 6, the show had intended to film "Relics," the episode which brought original series character Scotty into the world of The Next Generation. But actor James Doohan's schedule forced a delay, which in turn forced the writers to put something in the empty slot. Drawing the assignment was Frank Abatemarco -- a veteran of other television series, but creating his first script for his new job on Star Trek. He no doubt needed guidance, the sort of direction that would normally come from the show runner, head of the writing staff. But having just been promoted to that position, Jeri Taylor was throwing all her efforts into polishing the script for the season premiere. She would in a later interview acknowledge that this wasn't a "fair introduction" for Abatemarco. But the real truth is, Abatemarco wasn't a good fit for Star Trek. He would be credited with only one more story for The Next Generation (the admittedly terrific two-parter "Chain of Command"), and would then leave the show.

All that said, "Man of the People" was not entirely Frank Abatemarco's work. The schedule was so tight on getting this script together that the entire writing staff (minus Taylor) bashed out the story together, then each took a separate act to write. With his name ultimately to be on the script, it fell to Abatemarco to do a quick polish, unifying the different writers' material. He also got to be the final arbiter of disputes between writers on just what direction the story would take -- and there was reportedly a lot of disagreement between him and the other, established Trek writers.

To hear Brannon Braga tell it, this episode could have been a truly dark exploration of Troi descending into the negative emotions inflicted on her by Ves Alkar. Where Abatemarco saw a comedic scene in which Troi councils a young ensign to stop "whining" (quite funny, to be sure), Braga instead saw Troi becoming a sort of taunting Hannibal Lecter. He claimed that Abatemarco wanted to do a Prime Directive story about Alkar's idea of "the greater good" vs. that of Our Heroes. The other writers apparently prevailed on Abatemarco enough to soften that "Star Trek cliché" (as Braga called it), as the words "Prime Directive" appear nowhere in the finished episode. Still, it ends up in this weird nether realm between ideas. Abatemarco seemed unsure enough in his role as "the new guy" to wholly force his own vision, but he was still stubborn enough not to give Braga and the other writers all they wanted either.

It might have been interesting to see if Marina Sirtis even could have delivered had the episode ended up "Hannibal Lecter" dark. I don't think many would dispute me saying she was sort of the weak link of the Next Generation cast. And her comments on making this episode are, I think, quite revealing as to why. She gave an interview talking about how much seeing her character's appearance in the mirror was enough to shape her performance. So far, so good. But she also said, "in the scene in Ten Forward where my hair was up, I saw Anne Bancroft in the mirror. I saw Mrs. Robinson and that's what I played." Also, "the old person was a witch and that's who was in the mirror, so I played a witch." Not to get all Method or preachy here, but the best acting generally comes from playing an action in pursuit of some goal, resulting in the behavior and emotion we see. To play "Mrs. Robinson" or "a witch" is trying to short cut to the result, and ignores the character's (actor buzzword here:) motivation.

If this truly is Marina Sirtis' process, it illuminates why she's strong in some kinds of scenes and weak in others. Roll your mind back for a moment to "Encounter at Farpoint," and the "great joy" and "great sadness" that Troi expressed. It came off hammy and overacted, because Sirtis was just trying to emote without any underlying context. (Though to be fair, the cheesy writing of those scenes would have been a challenge for any actress.) Now think of "Power Play," where Troi becomes possessed by a tough, brutal alien entity. In real life, many people who want to come off tough literally "act tough." This is a situation where one actually can aim for the end result, with less attention to the journey... and Marina Sirtis nailed it. (She would again "act tough" to good effect later this season, in the Romulan episode "Face of the Enemy.")

Here in this episode, when called upon to be flirtatious and sexy, Sirtis is quite good. (She was even praised by writers Michael Piller and Ronald Moore for her performance.) "Acting sexy" is something real people do when they're trying to pursue the action of flirting. But later in the episode, when Troi has aged into an old woman and is awash in a sea of negative emotion, Sirtis is lost trying to present the situation believably. She screams and rants, but it all feels over the top.

But lest it seem like I'm bagging on Marina Sirtis too hard here, it's not like she was getting a lot of help from anyone else this episode. The makeup department lets her down; in the first stage of her old age makeup, her face is swallowed by wrinkles while her neck and chest appear completely normal. The guest star lets her down; Chip Lucia is so smug as Ves Alkar, it's impossible to believe his character actually believes he's doing the right thing. The visual effects department lets her down; the sudden morph from emotionally corrupted hag to Troi's normal self is awkward and hokey.

And my, oh my, does the script let her down. So many holes in the plot. How does the empathic Troi, normally able to sense lying, not detect any of Ves Alkar's lies? (About the identity of his "mother," and the true nature of his "funeral meditation.") Why does Dr. Crusher, who normally fights for the life of a patient even when they don't want to live, all but jump at the chance to kill and revive Troi as a solution to her predicament? (Couldn't Crusher at least mention that she'll die anyway if they don't act first?) And the way this magically feeds back fatal emotion into Alkar is literally explained in the episode by Troi as being "reversed back to him somehow." Indeed.

What is good in the episode? Not much. But a little. I already mentioned that Marina Sirtis actually plays the sexy seductress well. The episode also cleverly tips its hat to its inspiration, Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," by naming the alien spaceship in the teaser the Dorian. (If you're unfamiliar with that classic, it is -- in a nutshell -- about a man who sells his soul to preserve his youth and beauty through a portrait that ages on his behalf.)

There are other parts of the episode I'm not sure are bad or good, which I think I'll cover in my traditional closing section...

Other observations:
  • I'm not sure about the decision never to show the squabbling aliens Alkar is supposed to be helping. On the one hand, the story is about Troi and not the diplomatic conflict. On the other hand, by not showing us what Alkar is actually selling his soul (and Troi's life) to obtain, he comes off even more cartoonishly evil.
  • The scene where Picard confronts Alkar has me conflicted too. We get to see Patrick Stewart deliver Picard's aghast response to Alkar calling his victims "receptacles" -- a great moment. But then, when Picard proclaims that "you cannot explain away a wantonly immoral act because you think that it is connected to some higher purpose," it's a totally unearned speech. It doesn't even seem like Alkar tried to make that claim.
  • At the end of that same scene, the alien bodyguards somehow manage to get right up on Worf and take his phaser right out of his holster, no problem. On the one hand, I'm certainly tired of "watch some alien beat up Worf" scenes. On the other, it can't be better to make him look incompetent instead of just plain weak, can it?
It took about 7 or 8 working days to film an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'm honestly not sure that that much more time -- the time where "Relics" was meant to have been filmed -- would have fixed all that's wrong with this episode. "Man of the People" is marginally better than some of season 1 and 2's big dogs... but only marginally. I give it a D+.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Return to the Dance

In an afterword to A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin wrote (in 2005) of his decision to split his narrative into two separate books. He had already written most of the next book, he said, and would be publishing it some time next year. "Next year" became six years later; A Dance With Dragons did not arrive until 2011.

Immediately, this put the fifth book of A Song and Ice and Fire behind the eight ball. This book was finally continuing the stories of characters readers hadn't read about in eleven years. I for one scarcely remember what had been going on at the end of A Storm of Swords. I probably should have re-read all the books back then, before reading the new one. Instead, I've only undertaken reading all the books back-to-back in the last few months.

(Once again, I'll warn people who only know this story from watching HBO's Game of Thrones: I'll be talking spoilers of things that haven't happened yet on the series. Turn away if you so choose.)

While a refreshed memory of the story certainly helps improve A Dance With Dragons, the book is still a marked step down from the high quality of the first three in the series. I said the same of A Feast for Crows, criticizing the way it ignored fans' most favorite characters. A Dance With Dragons brings all those characters back into the mix, but is thin on another important "character" in the series: Westeros.

Four books leading up to A Dance With Dragons taught us that the struggle for the Iron Throne is what this tale is all about. Even Daenerys, whose story takes place across the Narrow Sea on the continent of Essos, has had the long term goal of coming to Westeros. This book finally gives us the characters we most want to read about... but none of them are anywhere near the center of the action, the Iron Throne.

Tyrion is running in the wrong direction. He has crossed the Narrow Sea to Essos, and has virtually no agency over his own story at any point in the book. He gets carted around by Illyrio, then Griff, then Ser Jorah, then a slave owner... all the while repetitively asking "where do whores go?" in every. Freaking. Chapter. This is not the Tyrion readers came to love. And while it seems likely to be one of Martin's rare nods to traditional story formulas -- the hero being laid low for a time before rising to even higher greatness -- it makes for less than entertaining read.

Jon Snow, at least, is on the right continent. But being up at the Wall and explicitly sworn not to take any interest in the struggle for the Iron Throne, it's equally hard to see how his chapters will make a long term impact on where things are ultimately going. His story is also quite repetitive, each chapter a restatement of the same elements: Stannis' wife Selyse is a rigid pain; everyone is deeply prejudiced against Wildlings. Mercifully, the formula varies more than Tyrion's chapters, but Jon's story still feels like its taking 13 chapters to tell what could have been told in no more than five.

But most disappointing by far are the chapters surrounding Daenerys. She has indefinitely postponed her mission to return to Westeros, and spends the entire book struggling to rule a conquered city in Essos. Rubbing salt in the wound is that fact that these chapters are the reason George R.R. Martin took so long writing this book -- a series of narrative complications he dubbed "the Meereenese knot." He reportedly rewrote these sections of the book time and time again, trying to get all the characters and plot elements to land at the right place and time.

It would be easier to forgive the time this took if the final results were more effective. Four chapters are devoted to the perspective of Quentyn Martell, a character teased in A Feast for Crows who never even appeared in the narrative before now. And he never really coalesces as a character; instead, he seems a plot device -- a way of releasing Dany's dragons from captivity at the end of the book. Certainly, there doesn't seem a point in following any of his story before he arrives in Meereen.

Once he does arrive in Meereen, it feels like his story could have been told from the perspective of another new POV character in the book: Ser Barristan. Barristan has been a significant secondary character in the story from the very beginning, but here in A Dance With Dragons he became the only way for Martin to cut through his Meereenese knot. When Dany is abruptly removed from the Meereen storyline 20 chapters before the end of the book, Martin is stripped of the only character he'd been using to tell the "eastern" story until this point. Barristan becomes the focal character to remedy that. His thoughts and motivations are interesting to read about... and yet, if Martin had planned this ahead, it seems like he would have made Barristan a POV character before now.

But then, it's abundantly clear that elements of A Dance With Dragons weren't planned ahead. Or at least, they weren't planned to be in this book. Back in 2005, Martin thought he was splitting his characters into two groups and two books. But in 2011, Martin peppered the last third of book five with characters from book four -- a few chapters each for Cersei, Jaime, Arya, Asha, and Victarion. Surely a plan fully formed in advance would have put these chapters in A Feast for Crows, right? As it stands, it's unclear why these character's stories merit advancement (but only incrementally) when others like Samwell, Sansa, and Arianne Martell don't.

Still, what the book really bungles in structure, it does largely make up for in other areas. For one thing, it finally makes good on the Stark family motto, "Winter Is Coming." Winter arrives at long last in these books, and it's as harsh as promised. Martin delivers evocative writing about the snows at the Wall, Winterfell, and around Stannis' beleaguered army. This is something the series has promised seemingly since page one, book one... and it lives up to the hype.

And though some of the characters disappoint in this book, one character's storyline is outstanding: that of Theon Greyjoy, rechristened Reek. Martin does a brilliant job of depicting Stockholm Syndrome from the perspective of its brutalized victim. Theon's story is not only profoundly uncomfortable to read, but his long journey back to reclaiming his sense of self is the thread of greatest character development and momentum in the book.

Also intriguing is the chapter from the POV of Melisandre. Though it is a bit peculiar to have just one chapter from her perspective, I believe here Martin is getting right what he got wrong with Barristan -- he's introducing her viewpoint ahead of the moment where it will be needed (in The Winds of Winter). Though it does demystify Melisandre a bit to get inside her head (until now, we could only guess whether her faith was genuine or a sham), it adds a missing texture to the story. Though Martin crafted multiple religions for his epic, he has rarely let us into the mind of a zealot. (The painful Aeron Greyjoy chapters of A Feast for Crows being the only other example I recall.)

But ultimately, though I found A Feast for Crows to be better than I remembered when I read it a second time, I found A Dance With Dragons to be worse. Indeed, some of the things I found endearing the first time (happiness just to see Tyrion and Jon Snow again) lost their luster this time. Most of the characters seem to be lacking forward momentum in their stories, which is the last thing a book 6 to 11 years in the making (depending on your reckoning) needs. I give it a B-.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Forget

This week's episode of The Walking Dead was the first one in the "back half of the season" batch that I really felt was solid. There didn't seem to be any dead weight in this storytelling, just good character exploration in this new and very different setting for the show.

Of all the characters in the group, I'm not sure I would have pegged Sasha to be the one with the most lingering PTSD. Still, it's a development that makes plenty of sense, and it was great to follow the story of someone who just can't adjust to something even close to civilization again -- not for lack of trying, but for inability. Her perfect outburst at the party, shocked and disgusted at what merits "worry" for the Alexandrians, was a great climax in an intriguing thread through the episode.

Watching Michonne gradually decide to "hang it up" (literally, in the form of her sword) was another great thread. I'm increasingly expecting something tragic in her future, given how badly she (in particular, among the group) seems to want this. But if the writers are going to mine that tragedy for interesting beats along the way, rather than one cheap shock (the way they typically do), I'm all for it.

Daryl's story was compelling too. Hearing Aaron's invitation to become a recruiter, he seemed genuinely moved to be appreciated. It's nothing he ever would have gotten from his brother, of course. And though Rick and the group certainly watch each others' back and appreciate each others' skills, it's not the sort of thing they're ever saying to each other out loud. This may well be the first time Daryl has ever felt he might have a place, beyond mere survival. And needless to say, as one of the characters who hardly ever lets his guard down, it's interesting to see him in this position.

Last, but most certainly not least, there was Carol, continuing her brilliant and entertaining ruse as the sweetest little old lady in the world. Of course, all the talk among the fans will be about her cold threatening of that unfortunate little boy. (What my friend's friend has now dubbed the "look at the flour" speech.) Carol has long been the character who, more than anyone (even Rick) does What Has To Be Done. The question is, how far did she need to go? Did that truly have to be done? And what more will she do in the weeks ahead? Even more than Sasha, she feels like the time bomb threatening to destroy this in this whole Alexandria scenario.

I give the episode a B+. It's definitely the strongest yet in this second half of the season.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Space Campiness

I would imagine not too many of you remember the movie SpaceCamp. Filmed in 1985, but then faced with an untimely release in 1986 -- after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger -- the movie was ignored by the public and panned by the critics. I have the dim memory of sort of liking it, but I saw it long ago, at a time in my life where I might well have imagined myself as one of the characters: a space-loving kid dreaming of a ride on the shuttle.

There's a short list of movies for which I'd desperately like to see soundtrack albums released. SpaceCamp was by no means on that list; I simply had no recollection of its music. In any case, it had an album, but it's been out of print for a while. Intrada Records recently decided to rectify that situation by releasing a new edition, and the news quickly rippled out among the soundtrack enthusiast web sites I visit.

Why is a soundtrack album of the score from SpaceCamp a Big Deal? Because that score was composed by John Williams -- the one composer that people who never pay attention to film music have still probably heard of. Consequently, this is not unlike finding a "lost score" from one of the preeminent composers in the field.

In practice, listening to the album, it's a bit less like finding a "lost score" than it is like finding "unused music" from an existing John Williams score. Williams is known for writing memorable melodies in his scores (often triumphant marches -- see Indiana Jones, Superman, or Darth Vader's theme from The Empire Strikes Back), but there is no prominent theme in the SpaceCamp score. There are plenty of Williams' trademarks, from wailing strings to pounding timpani to pulsing brass, but it's Williams trying something less flashy, something truly supportive and less able to stand on its own. That leaves the listener to imagine the music as tracks cut from some other film; in particular, SpaceCamp sounds a lot like his work for E.T.

But there is one track in particular that definitely stands out: the hilariously of-its-time "Training Montage." This is not a 5-star track, to be sure. It's a standout because John Williams completely abandons his traditional style to provide the quintessential 80s movie montage song. We're talking two minutes of no orchestra, synth lead, slap bass, drum machine cheesiness. It's like Plato's ideal of 80s montage music, and somehow this came from the mind of John Freaking Williams.

The rest of the album is probably worth picking up for hardcore John Williams fans, but it's not really his best work. It's an album full of 3- and 4-star tracks, devoid of true clunkers, but also missing any top shelf track You Must Have. I'd give the album a B-. It's more of an interesting curiosity than essential for a film soundtrack collection.