Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Laws of Nature

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back for season 3, and right out of the gate seems to have declared bolder intentions than past seasons. "This is the year of Inhumans," the show pronounced, apparently promising more action, more superpowers, more whiz-bang.

Fortunately, while they've upped the ante in the visual department, they haven't dialed back on the more dramatic moments that their now well-established characters allow. There was a lot of ground to cover -- so much that some characters (May, Ward) weren't even seen this week. (Though the ways in which they were referenced, and the ways their absence resonated with other characters, made a big impact.)

Actually, strong characterization began with the guest stars this week. First, there was metal-melting Joey, whose experience of awakening as an Inhuman made for a nice subplot in the episode. Then there was actress Constance Zimmer, who made a wonderful impact as new adversary Rosalind. The subway scene, which put her in a battle of wits with Coulson, was a great show piece for both characters.

Speaking of Coulson, Clark Gregg was excellent as usual in confronting Fitz about the need to let Simmons go (as Coulson had let May go). But on this rare occasion, he wasn't the stand-out performer of the episode. That award goes to Iain De Caestecker. It was fun enough to see his subplot, basically showing Fitz coming into his own as a stone cold badass. But then there was his final scene, and the way he poured out such desperation and fury at the monolith. I'm hard-pressed to recall a more powerful moment in the entire history of the show.

Putting so many balls in the air certainly set the stage for a promising season. I give the premiere an A-.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Eyes Have It

Around this time last year, when movie critics were discussing which upcoming films were likely to figure into the next Oscar race, many were talking about Big Eyes. That talk evaporated when they actually got to see the film (and, judging from its low box office, when audiences chose not to see it). But after checking it out for myself, I'd say the movie wasn't really all that bad. It was just eclipsed by worthier fare.

Big Eyes is based on the true story of Margaret Keane. It's the late 1950s, and the dual stigma of her gender and her divorced status is making it hard for her to earn a living and support her daughter. During an outdoor art show in San Francisco, she meets Walter Keane, is soon swept off her feet, and remarries. Walter has a steady job, but dreams of being an artist, so the couple are constantly trying to establish themselves in the art world. When one of Margaret's stylish "big-eyed waif" paintings catches the right attention, it appears to be a big break. But through a misunderstanding, the buyer takes the painting to be one of Walter's, not Margaret's. A long con begins, with Margaret slaving away on hundreds of wildly popular new paintings that Walter takes all the credit for.

This movie is directed by Tim Burton, though you might not know from watching it. The "Big Eyes" of the title are pure Burton, an artistic choice that feels very in keeping with his films, particularly the animated ones. But nothing else about the movie is overtly in Burton's style. Save one brief hallucinatory sequence, it's all quite realistic. The sets, the costumes, the acting, the staging -- everything feels "normal" in a way Tim Burton seldom is. He has chosen to get out of the way of this story for the sake of its subject; you sense that Burton feels a true kinship, or at least respect, for the real Margaret Keane. (Though at the same time, Burton doesn't pull punches; the film expressly shows how the established art world looked down on Keane's work, regardless of which Keane they thought painted it.)

The two major roles of Margaret and Walter are played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Adams effortlessly gets the audience on her side. You see how her character is led down this road, and share in her sense of injustice at where it leads. Waltz is a great fast-talking blowhard, so believable in the beginning of the film, and so ridiculous by the end of it. He also pulls off the necessary menace at the end of Act Two to drive the story toward a conclusion.

But while everything about the film is perfectly fine, it isn't especially moving. You can certainly appreciate the story intellectually, for the comments it makes on sexism, how times have changed (and how they haven't), and the passion people feel for art. But the feelings you see playing out on the screen never really take deep root in the audience. The story unfolds at a respectful distance, like a photo of a painting rather than the painting itself. It's far less effective than, say, the last time Tim Burton aimed for something deeper than fun, with Big Fish.

All told, I'd give Big Eyes a B-. If the story intrigues you, or you like either of the main actors involved, it's probably worth your time. But I'd be surprised if someone called it a personal favorite.

Monday, September 28, 2015


In "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client," Sherlock Holmes is hired through an intermediary to help the titular client, an anonymous benefactor seeking to end a wedding engagement. It seems a young woman has fallen madly in love with one Baron Gruner, a nefarious (but unproven) criminal compared with the worst adversaries in the Holmes canon. Hopelessly in the scoundrel's sway, this young woman is persuaded by nothing anyone has said against her fiance. Holmes hopes to procure hard evidence to present her, in the form of Gruner's own diary -- the existence of which he has learned from a spurned past lover of the villain.

Interestingly, this short story served as loose inspiration for a major half-season arc of CBS' Sherlock Holmes modernization, Elementary. Very loose inspiration, anyway. The character of Gruner and his former victim Kitty Winter came from this story, and became the major thing that pulled me back into Elementary after almost giving it up -- though nothing else recognizable from this story ever appeared on the show.

Which is just as well, in my view, as there's not much else here to commend. This entire story is built on uncomfortable and archaic notions about the inferiority of woman -- their supposed frailty and stupidity, and how emotion strips them of all reason. Of course, I speak mostly of the duped fiancee of the story, yet the superficially stronger Kitty is no prize either. Her entire character is defined only by her past relationship with a man, Gruner. She has seemingly no reason to live but for revenge (for wrongs not particularly well stated), and seems to lose her mind in some sort of hysterical panic at the climax of the story. (In sharp contrast, the Kitty of Elementary certainly had her life torn apart by Gruner, but resolved to rise from the ashes rather than dwell upon them, and had a number of commendable character traits besides her specifically articulated past tragedy.)

The structure of the story is a bit awkward through the first half, with too much information relayed secondhand to the reader (above and beyond the customary introduction of the case). Watson is absent for a near-fatal attack on Holmes, for example, which seems like an awfully important event to leave "off camera." Things do at least pick up for the finale, where Watson goes "undercover" and Holmes resorts to criminal actions of his own to resolve the case.

Still, some third act adventure doesn't quite make up for a dated opening. (And, to some extent, a dated closing. I'm not sure if it's a "passage of time" thing or a cultural barrier, but I didn't find the implied identity of the "illlustrious client" to be particularly clear. A member of the royal family?) I'd grade this story a middle-of-the-road C.

Friday, September 25, 2015


This coming Tuesday sees the return of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which really blossomed in its second season thanks to improved writing and some compelling new characters. In the past few weeks, I've been sort of "counting down" to the return by listening to the recently released soundtrack album, featuring samples of composer Bear McCreary's score from throughout the first two seasons. Many of you will have heard McCreary's work on other TV series, including The Walking Dead, Outlander, and Eureka. But his style is best exemplified by his music for Battlestar Galactica. The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. music is compelling for how it retains much of that sound while blending into the Marvel universe.

The Marvel films actually don't have much of a musical style of their own; rarely has the same composer worked on more than one MCU film, and rarer still has any new composer hued to the sound established by one of the old ones. That doesn't hinder Bear McCreary, who in turn adopts the styles of multiple Marvel films. There's smatterings of the distorted hyper-electronic style of The Winter Soldier, and anthems that seem clearly inspired by the Avengers. Meanwhile, he's mixing some Galactica-style taiko drums with a conventional rock drum kit, evolving the action music he wrote for Human Target, and even incorporating some of the creepy bass he used for Europa Report. In short, it's definitely Bear McCreary music at the core, even when he experiments.

The album kicks off with the big, brassy theme that is the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Overture." It establishes a melody that recurs throughout the album (and the show), a heroic anthem more memorable than most of the Marvel film scores served up. Interestingly, it's among the shortest tracks in the collection; this album chooses to present many long cues of 7 minutes or more (basically, an entire act's worth of music from an episode). It's a decision that really lets you get into the music.

"Showdown at Union Station" brings an electric guitar to the orchestra, and uses not only the S.H.I.E.L.D. theme, but a tender melody for a more emotional moment (a melody that also recurs throughout the album). "0-8-4" is a great suspense cue that uses percussion and bass to give the impression of a bomb -- first ticking, then ringing, then detonating in a sort of slow motion explosion. There are slow tracks that imply mystery, like "The Obelisk," with its discordant strings. There are tracks that emphasize the conventional orchestra (like the tremolo strings and sinister brass of "Cal") and others that showcase non-acoustic instruments (like the growling synth bass of "Gravitonium").

The biggest break from the norm comes in "Cello Concerto" (from a pivotal first season episode of the show), where a cello soloist broods in contemplation for a minute-and-a-half before the orchestra joins in to transition to suspense. There's also experimentation with music-as-sound-effect in "Helicopter Rescue," where the pulsing crescendo of the bass instruments implies the beating of a chopper's blades. On the other end of the spectrum, the most conventional track (for McCreary) is "Alien DNA." It uses his wife Raya Yarbrough as a solo vocalist, chanting a haunting melody.

"Garrett" establishes a militaristic motif for that important first season character, while "Hail Hydra" appropriately mimics the sounds of The Winter Soldier soundtrack to create a motif for the villains. One of my favorite tracks on the album is the lengthy "The Big Bang," an all-out action cue with distorted electric guitar, crazed drums, and clever use of different sections of the orchestra.

The last track on the album, "The Rising Tide," ends with a triumphant statement of the S.H.I.E.L.D. anthem... but with uncertain strings still pulsing beneath. It promises more adventure to come, which is exactly what we're getting in just a few days. If you can't wait that long (or if you're just a Bear McCreary fan), you can pick up the soundtrack in the meantime. I give it a B+.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

TNG Flashback: Liaisons

Some great hours of Star Trek: The Next Generation came as the first episode after a season premiere, episodes like "Family" and "Darmok." The seventh season's entry in this #2 position, however, fell far short.

The Enterprise is receiving a trio of diplomats from a newly contacted alien race, the Iyaarans. Plans are made for Troi and Riker to host two of them aboard the Enterprise, while Picard travels with the third to the Iyaaran homeworld. But those plans quickly come apart. As Troi is tested by the gluttonous demands of one delegate, the other rejects Riker as his escort and strong-arms an unwilling Worf into the role of diplomat. And meanwhile, Picard's shuttle crashes on a seemingly uninhabited planet, where he is rescued by a mysterious woman named Anna. She's been alone there for seven years after a crash of her own, and is less interested in escape than in striking up a romance with Picard.

This might be the most forgettable hour of Star Trek: The Next Generation ever produced -- not memorably bad, but certainly not memorably good. I recalled the episode title before re-watching it, though almost nothing of the contents, not even after starting off with its 30-second preview. But then, some associated with making the episode might prefer it was forgotten entirely.

Even though the season had just started, this idea came in under the gun. Back in season six, outside writers Roger Eschbacher and Jaq Greenspon sold a pitch, basically to adapt the story of Stephen King's novel Misery for Star Trek: a crazy woman would hold one of the crew hostage. Several times in season six, when the writers had been desperate for a script, they'd tried to map out the beats for this story. Each time, they'd failed to make it work. As a last ditch effort, they gave it to sixth season interns Jeanne Carrigan Fauci and Lisa Rich, who came back with the beginnings of what would eventually go before the camera.

But there was still more work to do. Fauci and Rich had fleshed out a subplot for the script about Troi going after a promotion. Though the idea would be used later in season seven, it was thought here to be incompatible with the A-story. So in a late week-long uncredited rewrite that ran right up to the start of filming, staff writer Brannon Braga added the two other Iyaaran delegates for Worf and Troi to wrangle. Show runner Jeri Taylor was convinced the oddball humor Braga had introduced would make the episode popular. Director Cliff Bole, who would later express disappointment with the finished product, blamed these late rewrites.

Braga may or may not have been conscious of it, but his script polish made the whole episode feel very much like 60s-era Star Trek. The Iyaarans feel like a race ripped right from the original series. They have no children, and they don't understand our strange human concepts of love, antagonism, and pleasure. They apparently also lack for communication skills, as their method of learning about these things is to put our heroes through the wringer testing them.

Some of the moments to work to some degree. It's nice to see Worf in this "fish out of water" story line. Picard is perfectly delicate in deflecting Anna's early advances. We get a little taste of what went largely unexplored in "Second Chances" -- a look at what it might be like to be marooned alone on a planet for seven years.

But then there are other aspects of the episode that truly don't work. For example, if Misery really was the inspiration for this story, the "threat" of a person wanting to love you hardly seems to compare to Annie Wilkes. The opening gag involving Worf's sexism about Starfleet's literal "dress" uniforms plays strangely, as Riker's chastisement is so tongue-in-cheek that it seems almost equally sexist. And the resolution of the story has such an "oh, you wacky aliens" quality that you almost expect to hear a sad trombone play.

Other observations:
  • I might be mistaken, but I don't think a single card in Decipher's Star Trek CCG was ever taken from this episode (in the First or Second Edition). And there were certainly many other designers who worked on the game over the years, which leads me to think it was as forgettable for them as it was for me. Then again, Worf's very first personnel card did have Diplomacy, which almost has to be a nod to this episode. (Star Trek CCG fans, please weigh in with any game-related thoughts you have.)
  • In the final act, it's revealed that Anna is in truth the alien ambassador Voval in disguise. This finishes up the story with a retroactive and quite subtle gay undercurrent. I wonder if the writers even realized this. If so, they wisely chose to make no comment on it at all.
  • The season seven Blu-ray set includes one deleted scene from this episode, in which Worf's belligerent alien charge rouses him from bed at 5:00 in the morning, claiming that this is the hour Worf said they would meet. It's not a particularly necessary moment, though it does further test Worf's ability to hold his temper.
As I said before, this episode is forgettable precisely because it's not that terrible. But it's certainly no prize. I grade it a C-.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Code to Joy

Game designer Vlaada Chvátil is best known for elaborate board games with elaborate themes -- Dungeon Lords, Galaxy Trucker, and the like. But he does occasionally produce simpler games where the theme is hardly important at all. And apparently in those cases, his go-to theme is "spies." So it was for his earlier Sneaks & Snitches, and so it is with his latest, Codenames.

Codenames is a party game where players divide into a red team and a blue team. 25 cards are dealt into a 5x5 grid, from a deck of hundreds of English nouns. One player from each team then looks at a randomly chosen map card that (by position) identifies a third of the word cards in the grid for the red team and another third for the blue team. These cards represent "agents" with whom the teams are attempting to "get in contact"; these are the words the team is trying to guess.

The single players from each team take turns giving one word clues that point to the cards their team is after. Efficiency is rewarded, because each team can keep guessing multiple word cards -- until they guess a word that isn't one of their targets. Thus, the clue givers are trying to give one word clues that apply to multiple words the team is after. But the clue givers must also take care not to be too general. Any word card belonging to the opposing team is scored by them, no matter who guesses it. And one word represents the "assassin," which everyone wants to avoid. A team that exposes the assassin loses the round.

The spy veneer disappears instantly from this game once you start playing it, so if flavor's what you're looking for here, you may be disappointed. But I think it likely you won't be disappointed, as the game itself is quite a brain tickler. Somehow, Vlaada Chvátil has been able to take the rough idea of Password or Taboo, give it a pseudo-visual aspect, and the compress the tension. The result is a completely different game.

The deck of words is hundreds of cards tall, and double sided. Yet it is clearly "curated" in a way that puts many possible multi-answer clues into play. "Heat" could be a valid clue for both "Degree" and "Phoenix." "Performance" could be a valid clue for "Stage" and "Bow"... and maybe, if you're stretching, "Cycle." But the trick as clue-giver is not just to connect your words in inventive ways, but to avoid connecting any "enemy words" (or the dreaded assassin word). It's quite challenging, and quite fun.

One possible drawback of the game is that it's considerably more fun to give the clues than it is to guess them. It can also take a lot of time, as the clue givers agonize over the perfect clue. There is an optional timer you can use to speed the action... though employing it feels like it might short-circuit the core fun of the game. That leaves me with the vague impression that this game works best if you've got, say, 8 or more people willing to commit to one party game for a long time -- and who don't mind filling the inevitable waiting time with conversation. Or it might be fine if not everyone playing wants a turn in the clue-giving hot seat. It's probably great for four players in two teams of two, where everyone can spend equal time giving and guessing. (But then, it's probable that with just four of you, you wouldn't want to play a "party game.")

Still, there are many in my circle of friends who really enjoy clever wordplay, and who all seemed quite taken with Codenames. I have no doubt it'll be seen again at future group gatherings. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Biting the Bed That Eats You

Having written of my love of The Room before (on two occasions!), it should be no surprise that I can be quite entertained by a terrible movie that's the right kind of terrible. I was hoping to find that again with a movie I recently learned of quite by accident.

Actually, that's a story worth telling in and of itself. I'd been playing a mobile game with some friends, called Fireback Movies. It's sort of the Kevin Bacon game as an app; you name a movie, and your opponent has to respond with some other movie with at least one actor in common. You score better for changing the actor connection with each "fireback," so you're rewarded for obscure movies and movies with only one major memorable star.

After playing this game over a period of months, it had gotten a bit stagnant. We'd often get caught up in the same mental whirlpools, naming the same movies over and over again. Whenever a new game would begin, and I'd have the opportunity to "throw out the first pitch" (without a time limit), I'd make an effort at trying something new. I wanted to be fair, and actually name a movie people might reasonably have seen -- but I wanted it to be a movie we'd not played before.

Starting one game, I couldn't think of a film. I just started typing random letters. D.... E.... "ooo, there's a ton of movies with 'Death' or 'Dead' in the title"... A...

At this point, having typed 3 letters, the app throws up a list of films it thinks I might be aiming at. I could have kept typing, but I decided to browse the list. There's tons of these movies, so many that I'm already bored of browsing by the time I get to Death Becomes Her. "Fine," I decide. "It's not exactly obscure or anything, but I don't think we've ever played it." I go to tap that film. I accidentally tap the film below it instead, which I've never heard of before. But wow, did its title leave an impression:

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.

It turns out that this is a super low budget horror film made from 1972 to 1977 (it took five years to put it together!), printed only a couple of times, and then lost and (supposedly) forgotten by its writer-director George Barry, who never made another film. Somehow, one of those prints survived to be circulated among cult fans via endless pirated copies, until it finally received a DVD release 25 years later.

The plot is pretty much all in the title. An abandoned mansion is home to a nefarious, evil bed. Unwitting victims find their way into the house, sleep on the bed, and it eats them. All the while, a past victim of the bed lives on as a ghost trapped in a painting on the nearby wall, watching the continuing carnage while powerless to warn anyone or stop the Death Bed.

Obviously a ludicrous concept to begin with, matters aren't helped by how this movie is put together. At least 80% of the dialogue is delivered in voice-over, in the form of various characters speaking their inner monologues. The middle act flashbacks chronicling the Death Bed's long history of kills are utterly inessential to the plot, yet the most entertaining material in the film. Lingering shots actually depicting the digestive system inside the bed are ill-conceived, but hilarious. Subplots that flirt with characters' potential motivations are teased only to be dropped.

Editing problems abound. Scenes are lacking for establishing shots, coverage of certain characters, and adequate mental separation from adjacent scenes. The sound quality is terrible, with microphones picking up incidental noise like actors walking over rocks, while the dialogue they speak is often unintelligible. The acting is horrible. One woman is so bad that it feels like the director started taking away her dialogue to avoid hearing her speak; beyond a certain point, she doesn't utter a single word (even in voice-over) for the rest of the film.

The ways in which people react to horrifying injuries are hilarious to behold. One character has a painfully protracted sequence of trying to escape the Death Bed for several minutes; the director seems to think he's being artistic by showing it all to us in one unbroken take. (Or maybe he didn't have enough money for more film?) Two other characters seem downright indifferent to a comically over-the-top disfigurement.

This movie is really full of the types of mistakes that make The Room so hilariously awful, so "so bad, it's good." But sadly, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats might just peak at its amazing title. I certainly did laugh out loud at moments. There were certainly lots of silent sections where your clever friends could inject stinging jokes. But somewhere along the line, it was just missing that special sauce. More consistently, the movie is just boring, too boring to keep you enjoying its terribleness from beginning to end.

If you want to make an evening of watching this film with some friends, it might be worth a go. If the RiffTrax gang ever did a commentary on this movie, I'd probably have to force myself to watch it again so I could listen to their jokes. But make no mistake, this is an atrocious grade F movie. I mean, duh, I knew that going in... but I was hoping for a bit more entertainment value.

Monday, September 21, 2015


By the time Arthur Conan Doyle wrote "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs," he was just three years and a handful of stories away from finally, truly giving up writing about the detective. "Garridebs" feels like an indication to me that it was time.

One Nathan Garrideb contracts Holmes for an unusual task: finding another man with the same last name. This Nathan has been approached by a John Garrideb from Kansas, with a fantastical opportunity to get rick quick. It seems an American land tycoon has died, quixotically declaring in his will that his entire estate will be divided evenly among three total strangers, should three men all sharing the obscure last name of Garrideb come forward to claim it. With two Garridebs in hand, can Holmes find the third to fulfill the terms of the will? Or, as the case is ultimately revealed, can Holmes discover why this Kansas Garrideb has spun such an outlandish falsehood?

The story is actually fairly entertaining overall. The problem is, it's essentially a remake of one of the earliest Sherlock Holmes adventures, "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League." More than essentially, in fact. In both tales, a would-be thief is contriving to get a person out of his house in order to rob them. In both, the person himself is not the target of the theft; it just happens that the house itself is important. In both, a strange con is crafted to explain why the person needs to leave his house (in one, that a trust fund has been set up for red-headed gentlemen willing to perform pointless, menial work; in the other, that a vast fortune is coming to three men named "Garrideb").

I would dismiss "Three Garridebs" as the lesser story, being the second and therefore derivative tale, but there is one aspect of the tale worth commending. In the story's climax, Watson receives a grazing gunshot wound, which moves Holmes to an uncharacteristic emotional outburst in which the depth of his feelings for the doctor are revealed more fully than ever. For all the barbs and verbal abuse it seems Watson endures in these tales, it's nice to get this moment of confirmation that the detective actually does care about his friend.

Indeed, because of this very important character moment, I'd actually have to pick "Three Garridebs" as the superior story, if I'm comparing it and "Red-Headed League" side by side. And because I graded "Red-Headed League" a B-, I feel compelled to give a B to "Three Garridebs." Nevertheless, it's a shame that the two stories feel so similar. If this really was a sign that Doyle was running out of ideas, then it's perhaps just as well that he was about to retire Holmes (for good, this time).

Friday, September 18, 2015

TNG Flashback: Descent, Part II

The seventh season premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation wrapped up the "Descent" cliffhanger at a breakneck pace. But that wasn't a good thing.

Data's evil brother Lore has seized control of the Borg group torn asunder by Hugh's "infection" of individuality. He has also exerted a different form of control over Data himself, by erasing Data's ethical programming and feeding him only negative feelings from Dr. Soong's emotional chip. Now Picard, Troi, and LaForge are prisoners, with Geordi the target of twisted experimentation. Riker and Worf's efforts at rescue take an unexpected turn when they encounter Hugh himself, the de facto leader of a handful of Borg trying to resist Lore's megalomania. Meanwhile, Dr. Crusher commands the Enterprise, trying to outwit the Borg ship in orbit.

Writer Jeri Taylor had worked on The Next Generation for years, and swore that if she were ever calling the shots, any season ending cliffhanger would have its concluding script written before the show's summer hiatus began. Despite those noble intentions, this script was once again written after the break, chiefly by her and credited writer Rene Echevarria. If they'd had time to plan ahead, they might have been able to do something about the problem they both later acknowledged: this episode has "too much story" for just 44 minutes of television. This was a lesson not learned from the two-parter "Birthright." There too, the second half was loaded with story (with nearly 10 minutes left on the cutting room floor), just so that the first part could end on the cliffhanger of Worf being captured. Here, the original story idea was to present Lore as a cult leader exerting control over Data... yet Lore hadn't even been revealed until the final seconds of season six.

To be fair, there are actually a lot of compelling ideas in "Descent, Part II." It's just that each of them gets about two scenes. We get only the barest taste of Crusher's command style, marked by gentle bedside manner. (And what we see makes me even sadder at what an unreasonable hardass Janeway was written to be on Voyager.) A conflict between two junior officers on the bridge -- Taitt and Barnaby -- is reduced to one taunting the other with a testy quip, and the other later throwing it back. The confrontation with the Borg feels minimal after the apocalyptic import of "The Best of Both Worlds," and their vessel is defeated far too easily.

The presentation of "evil Data" gets even shorter shrift. The stripping of his ethical programming feels like a dramatic moment that should have been played on screen, rather than left off-screen for the sake of surprise. (And it feels more like contrivance than surprise.) There isn't enough time to really establish "evil Data" as being any different from Lore, and his torture of Geordi is far too cerebral (pun not intended) to elicit much of a reaction from the audience.

Lore's role as a cult leader is compressed into a single scene, in which he uses charisma to manipulate a wayward Borg named Goval. (He shows more tenderness toward Goval in this scene -- even if it isn't genuine -- that he ever shows Data.) The opportunity to explore how this kind of brainwashing can happen is missed entirely. And worse, the defeat of Lore is anti-climactic. After his escape on two prior occasions, Data seems to disable him with implausible ease

Worst of all is the subplot involving Hugh. Part I managed to get by without him appearing at all, and perhaps they should have just left well enough alone for Part II. Hugh gets one scene to complain about the consequences of what was done to him, in which he declares that he won't help the Enterprise crew. Then, the next time we see him, he has a completely unexplained change of heart. That's his abbreviated character arc for the episode. He doesn't even get to reunite on screen with his friend Geordi. I have to wonder if consideration was ever given to making a three-part episode out of "Descent," in order to give the whole story proper space. Were the writers just feeling like it was best to cut their losses, or did they imagine they had a lot more stories to tell and just one final season in which to tell them?

At least even in the crush for time, a few nice moments shine through. Data gets to throw Troi's words about "negative emotions" (from Part I) back in her face. Picard and Troi get to take advantage of these relatively brainless Borg by running an obvious escape ruse on one of them. Crusher gets a major callback to her last big episode, by saving the ship through metaphasic shielding. Brent Spiner paints a convincing anology to a junkie's withdraw when Lore threatens to take emotion away from Data. And Lore's final ploy to save himself -- telling Data "I love you" -- is brilliantly manipulative. (Though don't think about it too carefully; Data has no positive emotions to be moved by the plea.)

It turns out that this episode represents some major connective tissue between the TV series and the Next Generation movies. First, great pains were taken (at Michael Piller's request) to make it explicit that only these Borg -- not all Borg -- had become individuals. This left the road clear for First Contact. Meanwhile, Data's emotion chip would return in Generations. Just don't expect much continuity on that subject -- here we're told the chip is damaged; in Generations we're told it's permanently fused into Data's brain; in First Contact we're told he can disabled it when he wants to; and in Insurrection he can physically remove it when he wants to. But really, my big complaint about the emotion chip is that they didn't just pull the trigger and give it to Data here, for the last season of the show. I feel like Deep Space Nine would have had the guts to tamper with the status quo like that.

Other observations:
  • Barnaby, the lieutenant who expresses skepticism over metaphasic shielding, was played by James Horan -- the very actor who, as Jo'Bril, tried to steal metaphasic shielding in "Suspicions."
  • Ensign Taitt, Barnaby's verbal sparring partner, was originally intended to be Reginald Barclay. Dwight Schultz's availability and price tag put the brakes on that idea. (Though Rene Echevarria observed it wouldn't have made much plot sense either; Barclay was a senior enough officer to have been sent down to the planet in the ill-conceived "empty the ship to carry out a search" plan.)
  • Emotions aren't the only upgrade Data gets between now and the movies. Here, Geordi tells a story about Data trying to swim and sinking straight to the bottom of the ocean. By Insurrection, the android is anachronistically able to serve as a "flotation device."
  • Riker has a quick communicator conversation with an off-screen Lieutanent Powell. This is probably the same man that Nurse Ogawa is engaged to later on in the season.
  • The shrinking of Lore's irises as he deactivates is a wonderfully subtle visual effect.
  • The Blu-ray collection of season seven includes a couple of deleted scenes from this episode. One is a few deleted lines in which Data justifies his claim that positive emotions don't exist. (The express mention of "love" in those lines would have made for a nice bookend with the Lore "I love you" moment.)  The other scene shows Riker and Worf rescuing Troi and Geordi from their cell.
"Descent, Part II" comes off like the abridged version of a story we'll never get to see in its proper full length. I think it started the show's final season off on a rocky C+.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Monkey Music

Over the past couple of weeks, I've had a continuing mini-series of posts on awesome TV shows I talk about by way of their soundtrack albums. Today is the latest entry, with a look at 12 Monkeys.

Since Battlestar Galactica ended years ago, I hadn't really been pulled into the Syfy (formerly Scifi Channel) series I'd sampled. That all changed with 12 Monkeys, an adaptation of the Terry Gilliam-directed science fiction film. That's a favorite movie of mine, so the idea of a remake immediately violated my personal belief that only mediocre movies should be remade. (The theory being that the bad movies don't deserve a second chance, and the great ones shouldn't be messed with.) But in this case, my curiosity overwhelmed that feeling. 12 Monkeys itself already is a remake, of a (boring) French short film, La Jetée. It already felt as to me as though the core idea had been enlarged; how could it expand to sustain multiple episodes of a television series?

I had to know. And the answer is: very well. I hold the film in such high regard that I can hardly claim the show surpasses it... but the show does do an excellent job of setting up a similar premise in its pilot episode, and then expanding onto a much bigger canvas as its 13-episode season unfolds. It quickly became its own entity, and very good in its own right. I find myself eagerly awaiting the second season, coming next year.

One very evocative component of the show is the music, composed by Trevor Rabin and Paul Linford. Not only is it perfect for the show, it's also a perfect illustration of how the show forged a different path than the film. The score for the 12 Monkeys movie was conspicuous and bizarre, featuring jaunty melodies on a squeezebox. (But strange though it was, it totally worked.) 12 Monkeys the TV show has a much more conventional orchestral soundtrack that's clearly inspired by more classical-style film composers. There's heavy use of frenetic strings, reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann. There's strategic use of Eastern percussion that sometimes evokes Bear McCreary. But there's also plenty that seems uniquely tailored to this series -- the "12 Monkeys sound."

That sound is often a wonderful juxtaposition of urgency and melancholy. It's perfectly represented by the show's theme, a song you get only a few seconds of every week, but which gets a full overture presentation on the album in the opening track, "I Am the Clock." Tense strings provide the backing for a haunting piano melody built around a five-note pattern. The album version explodes this into something majestic, almost like a superhero's anthem, but the song always returns to the main, simple melody, trading it to different instruments.

A variety of instruments get turns on center stage in this soundtrack. There's a sad cello (for "Katarina (Jones' Theme)"), rain pipes (on "The Monkeys on the Wall"), the piano ("Railly Meets Jones"), instrumental guitar ("Goodbye, Cole"), and a vocalist with a solo violin ("The Cycle Is Complete"). In all, real world instruments are more prominent than in most modern television scores, though some tracks play with synthesizers as well -- weird echoes (in "Do You Believe in Fate?"), half-swallowed tones (in "Temporal Frustrations"), a sinister bass so low in pitch that it's only a rumble ("The Pallid Man"), and mechanized whining ("Scav Attack"). But overall, the human element is always winning out over the technology, a sonic mirror for the themes in the storytelling itself.

After recently picking up a few soundtracks that play more like soundscapes than conventional music, the 12 Monkeys album was a welcome return to something more familiar. There's something tenuous and mournful about it -- as you might expect for a show involving an apocalypse. But there's also something compelling about the world it pulls you into. I give the 12 Monkeys soundtrack a B+. And it evokes many memories of a consistently good show.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

One Bloodsucker That Really Sucks

It's quite bizarre to me that "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" was the Sherlock Holmes story published immediately after "The Adventure of the Creeping Man." The second story, albeit not explicitly, seems to completely disavow the first.

Holmes is hired by one Robert Ferguson in the matter of his wife, a native of Peru. He has on multiple occasions stumbled upon her apparently in the middle of abusing their infant son; on the most recent occasion, the blood on her lips and wound on the boy's neck implies she's actually engaged in some horrific act of vampirism!

Where the "Creeping Man" was a Jekyll/Hyde sort of story that embraced the supernatural in a thoroughly unsatisfying way, here in "Sussex Vampire," Holmes immediately dismisses the supernatural explanation as preposterous. From the moment they set out on their investigation, Holmes basically declares, "I'm not sure what's going on here yet, but there's no way it involves an actual vampire." Which is true, of course, and which makes the story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had just written seem even more ridiculous by comparison.

The trouble is, the actual solution to this mystery is scarcely more realistic than an actual vampire attack would have been. (Spoilers a-comin'!) It's actually not terribly hard to guess -- when one strives to imagine any other reason someone might suck on an open wound, surely poison (in particular, a snake bite) is going to spring to mind. But the big ask here is that the Peruvian wife here is choosing to conceal the person (not herself) who deliberately inflicted poison on her own infant son.

We're meant to believe that this woman is so concerned for her husband's feelings toward his adolescent son from a previous marriage that she hides that the child is a masochistic freak abusing his infant half-brother. Absolutely ludicrous. I can think of no parent who would stand by for any reason and allow one of their children to repeatedly attempt murder on another. (And that's before you even factor in her lack of emotional connection to the stepson.) Plus there's the fact that she's risking being permanently separated from her child if she doesn't reveal the truth. And there's the matter that she told her maid the entire story, and that the maid doesn't feel compelled to disclose it either!

The resulting story is hugely unsatisfying, even if this time out, Holmes has a properly skeptical mind about things which seem to be supernatural in nature. This story hangs entirely on disbelief I can't possibly suspend, on the behavior of people that cannot logically be explained. As such, I have to rate it among the worst of the Holmes short stories. I give "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" a D.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

TNG Flashback: Descent

Season six of Star Trek: The Next Generation went out on a sadly not-very-interesting cliffhanger. It came together like so many episodes in the back half of the season -- through last minute desperation.

Responding to an attack on a Federation outpost, the Enterprise unexpectedly encounters the Borg. But they've changed dramatically since their last encounter with our heroes; now fiercely individual and driven by bloodlust, they have no apparent interest in assimilation, only destruction. Alarming as this is, there may be an even greater concern for Data, who experiences his first emotion during the Borg attack -- a violent outburst of anger that may be his first step in becoming a sociopath.

No one could ever accuse The Next Generation of overusing their most popular adversary, the Borg. (Voyager would be the series to do that.) This was the first time the nemesis had been seen since "I Borg," which itself came nearly two full years after "The Best of Both Worlds." The problem (as I see it) was that that Borg cliffhanger was so powerful, so iconic, that any attempt at another Borg season ender was inevitably going to compare badly.

But "Descent" didn't actually start out as a Borg story. Several ideas for the season finale had fallen through (including one about Data's newfound dreams turning into nightmares), when the writers decided to take some inspiration from Heart of Darkness. They envisioned Data's desecnt into corruption (the inspiration for the episode title) at the hands of his insane brother Lore. But they felt a further catalyst was needed. (Indeed, the finished episode doesn't even reveal Lore until the final seconds.) Writer Ron Moore suggested that this catalyst could be the Borg, and showrunner Jeri Taylor lifted her ban on using them because of the potential to depict them differently (and not simply as villains).

This could explain why the writers were willing to attempt another "Borg cliffhanger"-- because to them, the Borg were secondary to the tale of Data's emotional awakening. But unfortunately, I don't find this story very compelling either. There are just too many reasons not to believe that Data will become a sociopath. For one, if they were going to write Data off the show, they certainly wouldn't make us hate the character on his way out the door. For another, even Troi doesn't believe Data can turn evil, explaining it to him in a counseling session (with a good example of how anger can be a productive emotion). And on more nitpicky level, this isn't Data's first emotion. That was a huge belly laugh from Q, which on at least some small level should alleviate the concern that Data is only capable of negative emotion.

Then again, a lot of characters aren't acting much like themselves in this episode. Picard (he of many speeches from the moral high ground) is suddenly not sure that what is "moral" equates to what is "right." (Good line, though.) Near the end of the episode, he is allowed to beam down to a planet that might be crawling with Borg -- with no objection from Commander Riker. Stranger still, the captain decides to leave Crusher in command of the ship. (Though at least that sets up some good material for the doctor in Part II.) Plus, of course, there's the Borg, who in gaining individuality and ranged combat weapons seem to have lost their signature personal shields.

Actually, the one scene that really works completely comes right at the top of episode: the holodeck poker game between Data, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking. This is the only time in all of Star Trek that someone played himself on the show, and it came about because Stephen Hawking asked. The writers were eager to accommodate him, though staff writer Naren Shankar recalled that they struggled for a long time to come up with a sufficiently "profound" scene for the professor to play. Michael Piller ultimately solved that problem by suggesting they eschew the profound and go with a poker game.

According to producer Rick Berman, Hawking himself did a writing pass on his own scene -- and the writers weren't about to re-write him. Much of the humor was Hawking's contribution, from a highbrow "perihelion precession of Mercury" joke at Isaac Newton's expense (because Newtonian physics couldn't explain it until Einstein's General Theory of Relativity), to the more accessible "Wrong again, Albert" (a nod to how Hawking in turn has disproved some of Einstein's work).

By all accounts, Stephen Hawking's sense of humor should come as no surprise. During a tour of the set he took during this episode, he remarked of the warp engine, "I'm working on that." (It was also one of the rare occasions he asked to be lifted out of his wheelchair... so that he could sit in the captain's chair.) Brent Spiner has also told a story of running into Hawking many months after filming this scene, and having the professor demand "where's my money?" (That is, his winnings from the fictional poker game.)

Other observations:
  • Hawking's appearance as himself isn't the only Star Trek "first" in this episode. For the first time (and only time, in all of Star Trek), the episode credits run over the teaser instead of Act One. I'm not sure if they didn't want to distract from the action of the Borg fight, or if Act One in fact ran too short to fit all the credits in.
  • This was the first time a shootout scene was filmed without live sparks or flames. All the "phaser hits" in the sequence were generated in post-production.
  • This episode is also the first time a Starfleet ship is named for a non-human. The Gorkon (a shout-out to Star Trek VI) was named when Rick Berman requested an alien reference.
  • In another Star Trek VI connection, the exterior of the building on the Borg planet was the same location where the Khitomer conference was filmed.

"Descent" is an unfortunate mix of several less-than-convincing ideas. I'd say it wraps up season six on a disappointing C+.

And since that is the end of season six, it's time for a short recap. The season was very strong overall, with only a couple of outright clunkers and a great many A- efforts. I'd say the top 5 episodes, starting with the best, are "Chain of Command, Part II," "Tapestry," "Chain of Command, Part I," "Relics," and "Second Chances" -- though many other excellent episodes get crowded off the list by limiting it to just five.

Next up, the seventh and final season!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Star Struck

If you're a reader of this blog, you surely don't need me to remind you that Star Wars: Episode VII is coming in December. Burned by the prequel trilogy, I've been steadfastly keeping my enthusiasm in check. Still, I'm not going to pretend I won't be heading to my theater on opening day -- nor will I pretend that some degree of "getting ready" for the movie seems appropriate. To that end, friends and I are planning mini-viewing parties over the next few months to watch the existing films. (Yes. All of them.)

We began recently with the original, Star Wars. (Well, the mostly original. We weren't willing to haul out a VCR and jump down in quality far enough to watch our only handy non-Special Edition copy of the film.) Again, because you're here reading this blog, you don't need me to do a traditional "review" of the film. But I thought it worth posting a "pseudo-review," that is: a handful of thoughts I had watching the movie this time.

It's really impressive what a hearty stew Star Wars is, combining so many different ingredients. There's Errol Flynn-inspired swashbuckling and sword fighting. There are Old West shootouts. The climax is a long World War II airplane dogfight. Plus, this first film plays high fantasy beats more overtly than its sequels -- referring to the Force multiple times as a "religion," and to its practitioners as "wizard"s and "sorcerer"s. A huge part of the original appeal has got to be that there really is something for everyone in this movie.

It's notable how fast the movie starts, particularly compared to the two films that would complete its trilogy. The camera just pans down, and BOOM! Spaceships shooting at each other! And this battle was presented with great visual effects that still captivate today (needing no Special Edition meddling). I can only imagine how much it must have impacted theater audiences in 1977.

All the significant characters get their own moments to shine. There are of course the obvious heroics of Luke and Han, the sacrifice of Obi-Wan, and the way Leia is no mere damsel-in-distress, but takes charge of her own rescue. But you also have R2-D2 literally putting out fires, and even the clearly comedic C-3PO gets to save the day. (My friends noted that 3PO actually turns out to be the more convincing liar in this movie; he twice deceives stormtroopers on the Death Star, while Han Solo's "boring conversation" fails miserably.)

On the other hand, the characters are sometimes shockingly unaffected by death. The loss of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, and of Obi-Wan Kenobi, do get appropriate weight in the story. But Leia never really feels the impact of her parents' deaths (nor, moreover, the loss of her entire planet). And after the Death Star battle, Luke shows more concern for R2-D2 than for his longtime friend Biggs, with whom he was just finally, briefly reunited. (The Special Edition calls undue attention to this latter example, by restoring a scene between Biggs and Luke that was cut from the original release.)

Yes, there's some hokey dialogue. Yes, there a couple moments of less-than-stellar acting. (But also some solid performances too.) Still, the strange and potent concoction that is Star Wars overcomes those minor flaws. Even if you're watching it for the hundredth time. Even if you're unwillingly thinking of Robot Chicken sketches all through the cantina scene. Even if you're cursing George Lucas for making "who shot first" a thing, and for inserting a terrible CG Jabba the Hutt into the movie.

In short: this right here? This is the stuff.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Room, With a Review

The novel Room, by Emma Donoghue, has been in my reading list for some time. But not long ago, I learned that it's about to be released as a film, and that pushed it to the top of the heap. That's because the idea of turning it into a movie seemed to me totally subversive of what makes the novel... well, novel.

Room is the story of a young woman who was abducted in college and has been imprisoned in a 10 x 10 shed for the past seven years. She lives there with her 5-year-old son Jack, born there during her captivity. To preserve Jack's innocence and make his confinement bearable, she has kept secret from him the existence of the outside world. To Jack, "Room" is the entire world. But now the day has come when all that is going to change.

The premise of Room is already quite strong, intriguing and horrifying in equal, intertwined measure. But the idea that really puts it over the top is that the entire novel is told from the perspective of 5-year-old Jack. When I first heard of the novel, this sounded like its single most important element -- and the thing that would inevitably be lost in the translation to film.

Regardless of how the movie comes out, I can certainly say that the book is brilliant. The story unfolds at a compulsively readable pace, and is always expanding into new areas I wasn't sure it would explore. Though it's actually a very short 200-and-change pages, I feel like it squeezes every drop of juice out of its premise and then ends at exactly the right time.

And just as I expected, the fact that it's all told from young Jack's perspective makes the book. Emma Donoghue does a brilliant job of putting you inside the mind of her unconventional protagonist. The writing perfectly captures his limited vocabulary and experiences. His behavior honors both the typical ways a child becomes devoted to ritual and unchallenged ideas, and the ways in which this particular boy is like no other. Emma Donoghue herself wrote the script for the forthcoming movie, so it would seem that any alterations were made with her blessing. Still, the book is worth reading independently of the film, as it's a truly effective piece of perspective writing.

While the book deals with some very dark subject matter (and, horrifyingly, was inspired by a real event), it's actually not a relentlessly oppressive or grim read. Here too, the story benefits in being told from the viewpoint of an optimistic child. But the juxtaposition of light and dark definitely makes you think, long after you've put the book down.

In short, I really can't recommend Room highly enough. I give the book an A, and I hope the movie is enough of a success to call more attention to it.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


Ex Machina is a film that could get a lot of attention in the future, as two of its stars (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) are really starting to take off -- and in particular, both will be in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But Ex Machina is also a film that should be getting a lot of attention right now, because it's quite simply excellent.

Eccentric inventor Nathan Bateman claims to have created an android with true artificial intelligence. He invites Caleb, a low level programmer in his company, to come to his remote lab/hideaway to perform a "Turing test" on the creation, named Ava. It quickly becomes apparent that Nathan is a devious and deceptive man... and that the question of Ava's intelligence may be the least of Caleb's concerns.

Ex Machina is an effective blend of a lot of genres. Of course, it's a science fiction movie -- though its current, real-world setting leaves very little disbelief to be suspended. The heavy focus on three major characters (there are few others even in the film) often makes it feel like a piece of intimate live theater. And permeating everything is the claustrophobic environment and persistently creepy tone -- making the movie feel like a suspenseful thriller more than anything. Its a battle of wills, where you're never completely sure who has the upper hand, and you're always questioning who knows more than they're letting on. And the story doesn't balk at venturing into some truly dark areas.

The acting in the film pulls you completely into the story. Domhnall Gleeson brilliantly walks the line of a smart but not-quite-savvy protagonist; you believe in all the decisions he makes, even though you sometimes want to scream at him not to. Oscar Isaac is a perfect foil, oily and dangerous without being overtly villainous. And as Ava, Alicia Vikander is exactly what the movie requires to work correctly -- you are no more sure than the main character of what might be really going on in her head.

The movie is also a visual effects triumph. Though the movie is loaded with FX shots, you're rarely conscious of them. Writer/Director Alex Garland never makes them the focus, never allows them to get in the way of the story he's telling. There's never a moment where the staging or camera movements of a scene feel like they were dictated by the demands of anything other than effective storytelling.

In short, there's no way this movie won't end up on my top 10 list for 2015. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Creeping Me Out

"The Adventure of the Creeping Man" is a real head-scratcher of a Sherlock Holmes story -- not in the mystery itself, but in the way it will surely leave you asking: "what was Arthur Conan Doyle thinking?"

The personal secretary of a prestigious professor approaches Holmes. The professor has recently undergone an entire transformation of personality, in the wake of an engagement to a younger woman. He's altered his routine, is prone to violent temper fits, has been attacked twice by his own loyal dog, and has even been observed crawling around at night like some hunting creature. What can possibly explain this strange behavior?

Nothing, as it happens. Nothing realistic, anyway. I'll give the game away and reveal that Holmes discovers that the professor has been taking some drug in the hopes of recovering lost youth. Instead, it has worked a Jekyll-and-Hyde metamorphosis on him, all the way down to granting a few supernatural abilities and provoking the violent attack by the dog. None of this has any basis whatsoever in science, crossing well into the bounds of science fiction. It's a truly odd departure for Arthur Conan Doyle, to a degree where I'd actually doubt his authorship of the story were the history and the scholars not otherwise certain on the matter.

The result is a truly disappointing tale. It's not badly written as such, but it feels as though the long-standing contract with the readers (of just what Sherlock Holmes is about) has been violated. It's like a Scooby-Doo episode in which the ghost at the end is real and not some guy in a rubber mask. Especially peculiar is the way Holmes berates himself near the end of the tale for not having deduced the solution to this mystery sooner -- as though he somehow should have known that a drug exists that can transform a man into some kind of pseudo-lycanthrope monster.

For straining credulity past the breaking point, I'd call this one of the worst entries in the Holmes canon. I give "The Adventure of the Creeping Man" a D.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

TNG Flashback: Timescape

The penultimate episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's sixth season, "Timescape" has nothing I usually enjoy in an hour of Star Trek. There's no major character drama, no allegory or moral dilemma... nothing but a pure sci-fi gimmick. Yet it's a truly entertaining episode all the same.

Picard, Data, Troi, and LaForge are returning to the Enterprise from a conference. Along the way, their runabout encounters strange pockets of distorted time. They follow the distortions back to their flash point -- the Enterprise itself, which is frozen right in the middle of what appears to be a Romulan attack. But once the foursome finds a way aboard without becoming frozen in time themselves, they begin to learn that things aren't quite what they seem. They may in fact be a good deal worse -- Dr. Crusher is being shot point blank by a disruptor, a hostile force has boarded the ship, and the warp core is in the midst of a ship-destroying breach!

It's a familiar tune here in the back half of season six, but once again, another script idea had fallen through just a week before filming, leaving this episode to be rushed to fill the slot. Outside writer Mark Gehred-O'Connell had pitched the idea of two ships (neither the Enterprise) being "trapped in time like amber," which everyone loved. Unfortunately, because of the time crunch, the producers were unwilling to chance letting a first timer write his own script; staff writer Brannon Braga ended up writing it instead, seizing upon the chance to one-up his previous time-twister, "Cause and Effect."

Directing this episode was Adam Nimoy, son of Leonard (Spock himself). Previously, he'd directed "Rascals," and at the end of that shoot, producer Rick Berman promised him another one "with grown-ups." There were no child actors to deal with this time, but still plenty of challenges thanks to the extensive visual effects required here. Even as he wrote the script, Braga wasn't sure it could be filmed. Perhaps if there had been time for more drafts, everyone would have decided not to go for it. Instead, the complicated episode became one of only two that stretched filming over eight-and-a-half days.

One way money was saved was by placing the four major characters on a runabout instead of a shuttlecraft. But interestingly, this was done not to save money for The Next Generation, but for its sister show, Deep Space Nine! It was decided to build the large back room/"dining hall" of the runabout on TNG's dime, and then hand the set over to DS9 for future use. Ironically, the set was never used again on any Trek series.

Just because this story isn't really character driven doesn't mean there aren't still some good character moments within it. The bookending scenes are great, with Riker terrorized by Data's cat Spot, and Data trying to test whether a "watched pot" in fact never boils. In between, we see Troi actually get to lead an Away Team, where her quick thinking actually saves Geordi's life. We also get some fun comic relief as Troi and Picard perform their impressions of the boorish people they met at their conference.

Still, the main course of this "meal" is the wacky way it deals with time. And this episode is a feast indeed, a procession of neat ideas with fantastic visuals. There's the bowl of rotting fruit, and Picard's instantly long fingernails when he tries to reach inside. There's the image of the motionless ships, disruptors and energy bandying between them, which instantly captures the imagination. And then there's the funhouse waiting on board those ships -- a dying Crusher, an exploding engine, and more. And the way in which the twists are presented is excellent; this episode has some of the most compelling "act outs" (revelations right before the commercial break) ever presented on the show.

What knocks the episode down just a peg or two, fittingly enough, is time. The script feels like it came in short. There are lots of lingering shots of people walking into or out of rooms, moments that would have been trimmed to get straight to the action if the episode could have done without them.

There's also the truly bizarre "temporal narcosis" moment, in which Picard draws an anachronistic smiley face in a frozen cloud of smoke right before having a panic attack. Brannon Braga spells out the inspiration for the idea right in the episode -- the nitrogen narcosis condition one can get while scuba diving. (Indeed, diving was so much on Braga's mind when writing this episode that he originally wanted to call it "Deep Time.") But though Patrick Stewart does his level best to sell the hell out of this idea (and even manages to keep you from laughing at its cheesiness), it nevertheless doesn't quite feel right.

Other observations:
  • If you're a fan of continuity, this episode is full of little callbacks to previous episodes. Troi tries plexing to calm her nerves. Her previous experience aboard a Romulan warbird is mentioned. And the method for isolating a person from normal time that was technobabbled up for "Time's Arrow" is recalled.
  • Star Trek fan (and Family Guy creator) Seth MacFarlane has talked about one of his favorite things about the show, and while he may not have been thinking of this particular episode, it is a perfect example of it. When the trouble first begins, and Troi tells everyone that she's seen time appear to stop, everyone just believes her. Despite the fact that a cursory examination detects nothing wrong, no one thinks she imagined it, and Data and Geordi both volunteer to dig deeper to try to find some evidence. Paraphrasing MacFarlane, everyone is afforded respect in the Star Trek universe.
This fun, high-concept adventure scores a B+ in my book. Very few episodes this loaded with technobabble were this good.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Museum Everywhere You Go

Having checked Night at the Museum off the list, I recently moved on to the sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. The gang is (mostly) back, but shipped off to storage at the Smithsonian in the name of progress. Ben Stiller's protagonist is drawn into a new adventure on an even broader scale than the original.

The scope of the second film is one of its greatest strengths. The visual effects aren't always convincing, but the ideas are there in the script. By moving out of the natural history museum and into the Smithsonian, gags move beyond dioramas and skeletons coming to life. A major new action sequence involves jumping in and out of a painting (and extracting real-world objects from framed art), while massive statues (and one national monument) are brought to life as well. It all feels like a fun expansion of the original movie's ideas.

What doesn't work so well is the way the sequel uses the characters from the first film -- or, rather, fails to use them. Robin Williams is squandered in a glorified cameo (perhaps he only agreed to work for a couple of days?), as are the returning characters of Sacagawea, Ahkmenrah, and Rick Gervais' Dr. McPhee. (Owen Wilson's Jedediah and Steve Coogan's Octavius do a bit better.) The absence of Carla Gugino's character from the film isn't even addressed. Granted, there are several new characters to play with -- Amy Adams is clearly having fun as Amelia Earhart, and Eugene Levy's collection of Einstein bobbleheads serve up some good laughs -- but they crowd out the old guard in an unfortunate echoing of the "out with the old" set-up of the plot.

The story isn't quite as strong as that of the first film. This time, protagonist Larry Daley has found success as an inventor and infomercial personality, but his life is devoid of the happiness he felt while working at the museum. The script is smart to give him this new problem, but it doesn't feel as core and relatable as his quest from the first film, to improve his relationship with his son.

Still, while the movie might not play the heartstrings as effectively as its predecessor, it might just be more pure "fun" overall. That comes from small touches (like the casting of no less than three alumni from The Office in bit parts), broad strokes like Hank Azaria's over-the-top mugging as the villain, and silly little gags like an Oscar the Grouch cameo and a flying group of singing cherubs.

In all, I'd call it a decent sequel that (in typical sequel fashion) doesn't quite measure up to the original. Still, I'd give it a B.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Sherlock Holmes, A Bridge

"The Problem of Thor Bridge" is a creative Sherlock Holmes adventure, demonstrating that even as Arthur Conan Doyle was drawing to the end of his stories about the character (not for the first time), he still had a few clever ideas kicking around.

Holmes is hired by a former U.S. Senator to investigate the murder of his wife. The evidence seems beyond doubt that the family governess arranged a clandestine nighttime meeting on a bridge for the purpose of murdering the woman. But the Senator steadfastly believes in the innocence of the governess, and wants Holmes to prove it. The twist in the tale comes with the manner in which the governess was framed, and the surprising party responsible.

"Thor Bridge," with its memorable death, has figured in several subsequent adaptations. The CBS series Elementary, for example, has alluded to it on two occasions. But it sticks in the mind for good reason; like a magician's trick, it turns on a surprisingly simple mechanism to mislead and confound the audience. Here, the perpetrator has a quite simple but potent way of disposing of the weapon, casting doubt on the entire crime scene. It's so tantalizing, you can overlook the possibly questionable motives of the perpetrator -- is death really the answer here? You can also overlook the question of whether a normal police investigation might not have recovered the weapon in due course. (Though the fact that the governess is being railroaded helps with this.)

Even with these quibbles, this feels like quintessential Sherlock Holmes. A masterfully committed crime, with the tiniest of evidence leading to the true solution, noticed only by the great detective. It's the sort of story I was looking to see plenty of when I first set out to read Doyle's complete collection. I give "The Problem of Thor Bridge" an A-.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Killing With Kindness

In the world of novels, the hot new trend is thrillers with multiple, unreliable narrators. Gone Girl paved the way for The Girl on the Train, and now for The Kind Worth Killing, by Peter Swanson.

In an opening that pays homage to the classic Strangers on a Train, a man and woman meet by chance on an ocean-hopping flight from London to Boston. He wants to kill his wife, and she (with a hidden, murderous past of her own) wants to help him get away with it. The two make a pact... but they face obstacles throughout the novel far greater than the simple secrets they're keeping from each other.

The Kind Worth Killing is presented through the eyes of four different narrators, yet it doesn't feel like it ever cheats the reader because of the very precise structure to which it adheres. The novel is divided into three sections; within each, we get the perspective of only two characters, who alternate chapters. As the plot progresses from section to section, one of the narrators is replaced by another, providing a new angle into the story as it shifts mid-stream.

Swanson does a good job of giving each of his narrating characters a distinct personality. You're not likely to have a "favorite," as they're all various degrees of reprehensible. Nevertheless, the internal logic of each makes sense in his or her own mind. More appealing, none of them are as smart as they think they are. I've heard complaints of Gone Girl about the too-perfect female lead (or, at least, of the unbelievably dumb other characters who can't seem to point out obvious flaws in her plans). You won't have that problem with The Kind Worth Killing. Indeed, it's an aspect of the narrative hand-off from section to section that each new narrator pokes holes in the self-importance of the others.

But it's also possible that the novel packs a few too many twists into its tight page count. The first major reveal is a nice revelation that kicks the story in an exciting new direction. But as the saying goes, "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." You begin mentally "looking in every corner" from that point on, and sure enough, nothing that follows is nearly as unexpected or effective.

Still, it all amounts to a rather fun thriller that doesn't take much time to read. I give The Kind Worth Killing a B+.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

TNG Flashback: Second Chances

With many of the Star Trek: The Next Generation writers feeling that Will Riker (and Jonathan Frakes) had been underutilized for most of season six, the episode "Frame of Mind" was crafted for the character. But they didn't stop there. The intriguing "Second Chances" would soon follow.

The Enterprise is returning to a planet that Riker barely escaped during a dangerous past mission as a lieutenant. Atmospheric conditions are now making transporter use possible for the first time since that narrow escape 8 years earlier. But the crew beams down to find a duplicate Will Riker! Copied in a transporter mishap all those years ago, this Riker has been living in isolation, and is now eager to get his life back on track. That includes rekindling a romantic relationship with Deanna Troi, a relationship the counselor had long given up on.

Staff writer René Echevarria wrote this script, from an idea pitched by outsider Michael Medlock. To hear Echevarria tell it, Medlock's "Riker has a transporter clone" concept was almost laughed out of the room, until the freelancer got to the real meat of the idea: that the duplicate was still interested in Counselor Troi. That aspect captured everyone's imagination (though Michael Piller reportedly insisted that it be explicit this kind of duplication was a one in a million accident). From there, Echevarria said the script practically "wrote itself."

But not before some initial arguing behind the scenes. An early idea from the writers' room, which most of the staff was wildly enthusiastic about, was to end the episode by killing Commander Riker! Their idea was to have the new duplicate, Thomas Riker, take over Data's position at the helm, and promote the android to first officer. It was perfect, they insisted! Jonathan Frakes could still be on the show, but the relationships would be scrambled up with new blood that could lead to interesting new stories. Rick Berman shut that idea down, by some accounts out of fear that losing Commander Riker could damage plans for Next Generation movies that were already being considered to follow the run of the show. But years later, writer Ron Moore (among those most enthusiastic for the idea at the time) agreed that it would have been a mistake; he felt that in their youthful enthusiasm to do something different, they'd failed to respect the fans' attachment to the old character, above and beyond that of the actor. (Needless to say, today's television world is quite a different one, with characters and the actors who play them being written off a show purely for storytelling shock value.)

Fortunately, there's plenty more to this episode than an abandoned "Riker Swap." Indeed, the episode barely has time for the also-compelling idea of simply showcasing how someone would struggle to reintegrate with people after being alone for eight years. That's because the even more compelling notion here is about "roads not taken," an idea the episode thoroughly explores. Lieutenant Riker basically discovers that an imposter has been living his life for nearly a decade -- and, in his mind, has messed it up completely. Commander Riker didn't get the girl, nor the starship command he wanted. It's like being betrayed by himself, and it sparks an interesting and believable rivalry between the two.

The episode serves up lots of great dialogue, loaded with double meanings. It also fleshes out the past relationship between Troi and Riker in interesting ways -- for example, making it explicit that he ended it, and that they'd actually still been together just two years prior to the first time we met them. There are nice moments for Troi and (Will) Riker as friends -- her tormenting him with the jazz solo he can't play; him trying to shield her from another heartbreak. There are equally nice moments between Troi and (Thomas) Riker as a couple -- the romantic scavenger hunt, and the thoughtful conversation that follows.

This is the first episode ever directed by LeVar Burton, and he does an excellent job. He stays focused on the characters, and never lets the technical challenges of duplicating an actor get in the way. (Though he does get tricky at times. For example, there's a long and intriguing circular sweep of the camera during the tai chi sequence.) You can sense that the cast all wanted to do well for one of their own. In particular, Jonathan Frakes gives a strong performance with nuance for each of the two Rikers, while Marina Sirtis is very relatable, in turns both swept up in romance and in bittersweet memories.

Someone else that agreed to help when LeVar Burton called was Dr. Mae Jemison. She was the first African-American woman in space, and had retired from the space program a few years prior to this episode. Burton asked if she'd come cameo as the transporter chief, and in doing so she became the first person who'd actually been in space to appear on Star Trek. Adding to the significance of the moment, Burton also invited Nichelle Nichols to visit the set on the day the transporter room was filmed. Uhura had been a hero for Dr. Jemison as a child (much as she'd been for Whoopi Goldberg), so Burton arranged for them to meet.

Other observations:
  • It's too bad that (obviously, because they're played by the same actor) that Thomas Riker had to have the same beard as William Riker. (Particularly since William Riker didn't have one at the start of the series.) Still, the gold uniform and some subtle makeup and hair work do make Jonathan Frakes look slightly different in the two roles.
  • Speaking of that gold uniform, note that when the duplicate Riker first shows up, it's the old style uniform from the first two seasons. Nice bit of continuity there.
  • Though stud has typically been the poker game of choice on the show, here the game is five-card draw. It seems weird that they never played Hold 'Em, but then this was just a few years before the big poker explosion. At this time, Hold 'Em simply wasn't as well known.
  • There's a fun scene in which Data speaks to Worf about what it would be like to have a double. I find it interesting that the subject of Lore doesn't come up. Missed opportunity? Or did the writers already know they were planning to bring Lore back in the season finale, and they didn't want anything to risk spoiling the surprise?
  • It's nice that in deciding not to kill Commander Riker, that the writers didn't then resort to the obvious ending of killing Lieutenant Riker. Instead, the episode leaves both Rikers alive in the universe. (And Deep Space Nine would make use of that a few years later.)
Everyone ponders the road not taken from time to time, which is what makes it so compelling to see a character actually face it. Simple, but very effective, I give this episode an A-.