Friday, October 30, 2015

Veiled Criticism

"The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger" might just be the shortest Sherlock Holmes story published. And while that might not automatically mean it was destined to be unsatisfying, the connection is still hard to ignore.

Holmes is persuaded to go listen to the story of one Mrs. Ronder, a horribly disfigured woman who has lived a secluded life since the accident that saw her face mangled. She wishes to confess her complicity in a years-old crime, trusting that Holmes will have sympathy enough not to rouse the police once he's heard her tale. She does not seek absolution, but wants a means for the truth to one day come out after her death.

This story hardly contains any mystery at all. Holmes has no clues to unearth, no deductions to make. It's a fact which Doyle acknowledges in the writing, with Watson noting that this tale doesn't really make use of Holmes' skills. The problem is, this choice also makes Holmes and Watson completely extraneous to the story. They don't do anything here; they're simply a vehicle by which a tale that has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes is foisted upon a wider audience.

Indeed, the story left me wondering if scholars question Doyle's authorship as they do one or two other Holmes short stories. This one is just so peculiar, in big ways and in fine details. I've already mentioned the fact that it's short -- roughly half the length of the average Holmes short story. At one point, Watson posits a possible explanation of events which Holmes gently and politely pokes holes in, quite counter to his usual evisceration of the theories the doctor sometimes poses. At another point, Holmes criticizes Watson for his smoking habit; yet if my memory serves (perhaps it doesn't), in past stories it has been Watson lamenting Holmes' vice. It just feels that the writer here has appropriated the names of the characters without respecting any of their essence, a feeling I stand by even if this was one of Doyle's efforts.

In fact, I can really find only one thing to commend about this story-- its opening. Watson often opens these "memoirs" by speaking directly to the readership, grounding the Holmes fiction in the real world. Here, Watson alludes to threatening letters received by Holmes from some anonymous party regarding an unrelated matter. Watson cheekily warns this fictional party that he is in fact not anonymous, that Holmes knows exactly who he is, and that if he wants to keep it that way, he'll stop with the threats. Despite the story's subsequent flaws, this is one of the best blurring of the lines between fact and fiction ever presented in a Holmes adventure.

Still, that basically means that in my view, you could read the first few pages of "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," and then just stop. (Not that you'd be saving much time anyway.) Not exactly a ringing endorsement. I grade the story a D.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

TNG Flashback: Gambit, Part II

After Star Trek: The Next Generation served up a rock solid action-adventure romp in "Gambit, Part I," the story stumbled a bit in its conclusion, "Gambit, Part II"

Working undercover aboard Baran's ship, Picard and Riker learn the object of the mercenary's search, a Vulcan artifact known as the Stone of Gol. If the pieces are all assembled, the resulting device will unlock powerful psionic abilities that could threaten the entire Federation. And it's soon revealed that Picard and Riker aren't the only ones on the mercenary ship concealing their true intentions.

Writer Ronald Moore was responsible for the script for this episode, fleshing out a story from staff writer Naren Shankar (who scripted Part I). Shankar had a core idea (inspired from Spock dialogue in the classic episode "Journey to Babel") that a Vulcan could kill for a logical reason: these were "people who very logically felt that Vulcan's 'problems' were linked to contamination by illogical people, so in a logical sense you say 'Get rid of them'... I just thought it was a very logical way to arrive at racism being the answer to your problems."

This idea is still reflected in the final episode. But Shankar's notion of how the Vulcan artifact would accomplish this isolation didn't go over nearly so well. He imagined a device that would actually phase the planet Vulcan out of our universe! There it could exist alone and avoid cultural contamination from other species. According to Shankar, "everyone was afraid it was going to be like a Space: 1999 episode," so that idea was rejected.

That left Moore to flail around a bit trying to figure out what the artifact would actually do. An early draft had it capable of genocide, slaughtering millions of people at a time. When that didn't pan out, he ultimately suggested, "maybe we should just go for it and make this a classic Gene kind of message and go for 'think happy thoughts' and make it something which tied into the backstory of Vulcan and of Surak and peace." Perhaps Moore was subconsciously drawn to such an ending as a sort of apology to Roddenberry for violating the "no space pirates" rule the way they'd done in Part I. But the result is a rather jarringly talky wrap-up to such an otherwise action-packed story. Or, as Moore summed up, "it might have just fallen in on its own gooeyness." He's probably on the right track; the moment when Worf (of all people) is somehow able to empty his mind of violent thoughts feels pretty trite.

There's even another too-talky confrontation before that ultimate climax -- the moment when Picard stands up against Baran and takes control of the mercenary ship. Rather than simply shooting Baran, Picard draws him out in a lengthy dialogue that ultimately ends in contrivance. Somehow, Picard has been able to hack the pain-giving neural servo device to work on Baran instead. When and how did Picard do this, and not get caught?

Still, there are also some fun moments throughout the episode. The scheming aboard the mercenary ship is generally good, with Picard, Riker, Tallera, and Baran all trying to outmaneuver each other. The subplot that sees Data disciplining Worf for insubordination is effective throughout, particularly in the moment where Data apologizes "if I have ended our friendship." There's plenty of great banter between Picard and Riker. Plus, there's a funny classic Trek type of final scene where Data is ready to haul Riker off to the brig.

The character of Koral, played by basketball star James Worthy, is also good for a few laughs. His appearance on the show reportedly came about thanks to his chance meeting on an airplane with Robert O'Reilly (the actor who played Gowron). Worthy mused about appearing on the show, and O'Reilly arranged the meeting to make it happen. Ron Moore actually was "not a big sports fan," and didn't even know who James Worthy was. (Me neither.) But he and the other writers were happy to accommodate the cameo, as they were already looking for a filler element to pad out the too-short two-parter.

The script gets good mileage out of Koral/Worthy's height, and deliberately makes him an untalkative character so as not to demand too much of someone who wasn't actually an actor. Director Alexander Singer was also quite happy to work with the Laker, saying that in his experience, athletes are usually quite comfortable in front of a camera. "They're in show business, they don't freeze, and they take direction well."

Other observations:
  • There are some fun hints in dialogue to Tallera's true Vulcan identity, such as the moment that she suggests a "logical" course of action to withdraw from battle.
  • Ronald Moore, ever one of the writing staff's biggest Star Trek fans, named the Stone of Gol from the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There, the place where Spock studied for his "kolinahr" ritual was a plateau named Gol. Naren Shankar (perhaps bruised by the alteration to his original story) mocked the name, joking that the artifact could thus be called a "Gol Stone."
  • There are a couple of deleted/extended scenes on the Blu-ray collection of season seven, in which Riker smoothly deflects Narik's execution by Baran, and Baran elaborates on his decision to board the Enterprise. They're neat to see, though neither really feels like much was lost from the final episode as aired.
"Gambit, Part II" merits a B grade. It's not bad, but it does fall short of the promise of the far better first half.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

4,722 Hours

This week's installment of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was an impressive one, all the more so for pulling off such a moving episode while telling a somewhat unoriginal story.

This was the episode that filled us in on Simmons' six months trapped on an alien planet -- first for a month in total isolation, and then with just one other person, Will, to keep her company. This sort of situation has been featured with its own small twists in many other science fiction stories, from Enemy Mine to Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Darmok" and/or "Second Chances" to the current hit movie The Martian. Supernatural did a run of episodes about purgatory that was almost exactly the same, minus the romantic angle.

And all that really didn't matter much, as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really found a way to make the idea their own. It started with their willingness to break from their format so completely. With a cast of ten regular characters, and a standard approach of juggling two or three story lines in every episode, the show wisely opted to spend an entire episode just on Simmons' plight. Phone footage of a birthday party aside, the only other character to even appear in the episode was Fitz, and even then only to set up the story and return for the potent ending.

They could get away with this because Elizabeth Henstridge could be relied upon to give an outstanding performance... and she did. The first act was her all alone, and by the end of it I was perfectly content to have the whole episode be that way. Simmons' slowly growing understanding of her situation, her attempt to keep madness at bay through dictation to Fitz, her triumph in procuring food, all made for really compelling moments.

But once another character did show up, the episode got even better. Even in just 30 minutes of screen time (or so), you believed completely in how the relationship between Simmons and Will developed. Even feeling it might be an elaborate contrivance to put an obstacle in the Fitz-Simmons romance, you absolutely could understand Simmons giving up on rescue in that situation. (And bravo to Fitz, who instantly went back to the lab to work on rescuing the new most important person in Simmons' life, no questions asked.)

The episode managed to present some incredibly personal stakes against an incredibly fantastical backdrop. In fact, it so completely drew me into the Simmons story line that I suddenly find myself not caring all that much anymore about Daisy and the Inhumans, Coulson butting heads with Rosalind's organization, Ward and Hydra and the quest for vengeance by Hunter and May... none of it. This seems more important, more pressing, more urgent.

I give this episode A-. The "minus" comes only for the more derivative aspects of the premise, and even then I hesitate to apply it. This was the best episode of the season for certain, and one of the best of the series.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Jobs Done

This past weekend, I went to see Steve Jobs, the new biopic about the Apple co-founder. This movie, a greatly condensed and rearranged version of the same-titled book by Walter Isaacson, examines the minutes before three major product launch presentations from throughout Jobs' career.

The film adaptation was written by Aaron Sorkin, and this inevitably drives you to compare this movie with The Social Network. (A movie I should note has risen a fair amount in my esteem since I first blogged that review.) Both movies tell the story of unpersonable geniuses in the field of computers. Both are true stories clearly layered with fiction, particularly that trademark rapid-fire dialogue that is Sorkin's signature. Both were helmed by directors you wouldn't typically think of for this sort of dialogue-centric drama. (David Fincher for The Social Network; Danny Boyle here.)

In this comparison, Steve Jobs doesn't come out as well. First, and foundationally, it's not as great a piece of writing. The Social Network seemed to add up to something, a sort of statement on blind ambition and its cost. Steve Jobs doesn't seem to saying much of anything, hardly even about its subject, much less in general. It can't even be said to be a solid "warts and all" approach to the man, as the film almost relentlessly presents him at his worst, largely scooping out the "and all" part of the story.

Danny Boyle's directing and editing feels less polished than David Fincher's on The Social Network. The script has the feeling of a three-act play, suggesting that long takes might have been an appropriate way of drawing the audience into the story. Instead, Steve Jobs employs a lot of unnecessary cutting. In particular, the way a few brief flashbacks are handled feels particularly cumbersome.

But one place Steve Jobs has the edge on The Social Network is in the acting. Not to cast too many stones at that cast (which was perfect for the movie), but Steve Jobs is loaded with some seriously talented performers. Michael Fassbender commands attention as the title character. He manages to make a lot of inherently pretentious dialogue seem less so (or, short of that, he at least makes you believe that his character would speak that way). Jeff Daniels (coming over from Aaron Sorkin's recently ended television series, The Newsroom) is excellent as John Sculley, the most fiery of the supporting characters in the film. Seth Rogen is wonderful as Steve Wozniak (and calls to mind another comedic actor who excelled at Sorkin drama: Jonah Hill in Moneyball). Best of all is Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, vanishing into a carefully built personality and accent. She could well be a contender for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. This top-lining quartet, and many other actors whose names aren't as recognizable, make the dialogue sing and the movie fun to watch.

But ultimately, Steve Jobs doesn't stay with you very long after the closing credits. It's fine enough, though certainly could be enjoyed at home rather than at the theater. I give it a B.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Story Threads

Reviewing The Unraveling, the fourth story in Hugh Howey's Silo series, presents an interesting challenge. By this point, the story is so far in that it's difficult to offer a synopsis of the plot (or even a tease) that doesn't threaten to spoil earlier installments for folks who haven't read it. Still, I want to continue giving the series my endorsement, so here's my best effort.

The residents of the silo's lower levels are outraged at what has happened to their "local hero" Juliette, and as a result are about to declare open rebellion on the silo's leadership. Meanwhile, Juliette herself is cut off and powerless to stop what is to come, and is dealing with a world of troubles all her own. If that sounds a bit generic, my apologies -- but the Silo series continues to entertain me, and I want to preserve that experience for you.

This is the first installment of the series not to center on a wholly new protagonist, and Juliette is a great character to continue carrying focus. Author Hugh Howey writes her as a competent and resourceful person who isn't unrealistically clever. She's in a fish-out-of-water situation in The Unraveling, and the way she deals with it is very satisfying; half the time she's putting her mind to work solving familiar problems, and half the time she's trying not to lose her mind because of the strange situations in which she finds herself.

But the story isn't all from Juliet's point of view. Multiple other characters who had existed in the background of the earlier short stories now each take turns having the tale told from their perspective. Some are more effective than others, but all are reasonably well-drawn personas.

In terms of plot, this is the best of the series yet. Where 1 and 2 were almost extended character studies of a sort, and 3 featured a protagonist who had less information than the reader, 4 leaves both character and reader guessing at what will happen next -- and each turn of the page is a thrill.

I give The Unraveling an A-. You're definitely missing out if you don't give the Silo series a try.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Devils You Know

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continued to follow and build the story lines that have defined the season so far, and to good effect. I did feel it was a bit awkward that Lincoln wasn't featured after the events of last week (and I guess that means they've done a sufficient job of making me care about the character), but I suppose there's only so much time in one hour minus commercials.

The Simmons story line did tread water a bit from a dramatic perspective, biding its time until the end of the episode, when she'd confess to Fitz the same thing she'd confessed to Bobbi last week. But at least in the mean time, we did get some good character moments between Simmons and Bobbi, commiserating over their not-quite-shared-but-not-dissimilar situations. It continues season three's theme of messing around with new pairings in the series' sprawling cast, and the scenes worked fairly well.

I was also pleased to see Daisy at odds a bit with Coulson. The parental-esque relationship there has been great, but it's high time we saw a "rebellious teenager" sort of phase to it, and Daisy's mistrust of the group Coulson has pledged to work with is the perfect vehicle. The repartee between Rosalind and Coulson continues to be great, this week giving us funny lines about classified information and laser fingers. Plus, of course, there was further development of the nemesis of Lash.

But the Hunter-May story was most interesting to me -- even though I'm not entirely sure how I feel about still having Ward around as the bad guy. On the one hand, it's certainly nice to have a villain in play with a strong connection to the heroes. And the Marvel MCU certainly has a dearth of developed villains. (There's pretty much just Loki and Ward.) But I'm not sure how much longer Ward can keep being a step ahead of our heroes without just making them look bad. We'll see how the show handles it; maybe having him get shot by Hunter on his way out the window helps with this?

What I definitely liked about the plot line was the relationship between May and her ex-husband Andrew, and how it apparently culminated with Andrew's death. Now granted, we didn't see the body (or the face of the body, anyway), but this feels like a narrative win-win. There's been a lot of commentary in recent months about how one of the most sexist of all narrative tropes is killing off "the woman" to motivate the male hero to action/vengeance. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is now effectively getting to subvert this trope either way this unfolds. Either Andrew is dead, and the trope has been satisfyingly gender-flipped, or he's still alive, and the trope has been used as a bait-and-switch. (Either option probably works for the new character of Von Strucker. Either he went through with the killing and upped his baddie quotient, or he chickened out and developed more personality through his hesitation.)

So, a fair amount of interesting stuff in play. Not much resolution, but it's quite early in the season to be expecting any. I give this episode a B+. Things are still continuing on an interesting path.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Colourman Commentary

"The Adventure of the Retired Colourman" is not the last published Sherlock Holmes story. Most modern collections of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, however, pull a FOX television scheduling move -- they present the stories out of their original order, with this as the finale. In this case, I can imagine the motivation: they're trying to save the best for last. This is a strong tale, and definitely the best of the collection.

Sherlock Holmes is contacted by Josiah Amberley, a retired art dealer. After a failed police investigation, Amberley is hoping Holmes can shed light on the disappearance of his wife. He's certain that she has run off with a neighbor, Ray Ernest, and that together the two have stolen most of his amassed fortune, leaving him hopeless and penniless. Holmes is the last resort for tracking down the thieves... but immediately upon undertaking the investigation, he suspects that Amberley is lying about aspects of the crime.

I must come dangerously near spoiler territory to say that what makes this story special is how clever Holmes must be to resolve the case. The crime is not at all what it seems; the detective must not only solve the mystery, but first actually identify the mystery. What's more, he runs a clever ruse along the way to put himself in a position to gather more evidence. In short, this tale displays more of Sherlock Holmes' skill set than any tale has for some time.

Watson too makes a good showing. This is one of those rare mysteries where Holmes dispatches him to do investigation alone. And while Holmes can't help but get in a few digs about information Watson missed, the fact is that this time, Watson actually obtains two crucial clues, and the praise of Holmes for having done so.

There's a bit of an unnecessary distraction in a "rival investigator' character, Barker. (It's curious that such a rival would never before have been mentioned in a Holmes adventure; the truth behind that is surely just that Arthur Conan Doyle needed a red herring here.) Still, the whole tale comes together well, and indeed feels like a strong note to end on.

Of course, I'll see soon enough how it really all ends. "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman" gets a B+.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What If?

My customary Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. review will be delayed for a few days, thanks to a series of evening plans filling up my week. Last night, it was going to see the touring production of the musical If/Then during its limited run in Denver.

If/Then is a new musical built around a premise you've probably seen on TV (Awake) or in a movie (Sliding Doors): how would your life be changed if just one key event had gone differently? If/Then follows Elizabeth as she moves back to New York after a divorce. She reconnects with some old friends and tries to get her life back on track. A seemingly inconsequential decision right at the start of the play fractures it into two stories: one in which "Liz" pursues love, and another in which "Beth" pursues a career. The musical thoroughly explores both choices.

This musical didn't enjoy a particularly long run on Broadway; indeed, musicals rarely go on national tour without more New York success. But this was a special case. Broadway superstar Idina Menzel (who you and your kids know as the voice behind "Let It Go" in the movie Frozen) had starred in the show to much acclaim. Fittingly enough for a story about choices, she made an unusual one here. She chose to head out on the road to continue the role in the first six stops on its national tour. Her devotion to the play wasn't unique, either; with her at the top, three other key actors from the Broadway cast (LaChanze, Anthony Rapp, and James Snyder) decided to join her. The result is a rare chance for theater-goers outside New York: the chance to basically see the original Broadway production in your hometown.

If/Then isn't the most profound play I've seen, but it is very well put together. The switching back and forth between "time lines" is handled very smoothly through several story and lighting clues that quickly orient where you are. There are plenty of fun moments of near-convergence in the two worlds even as they unfold in very different ways. And a particularly dark second act definitely increases the impact of what up until then had been a fairly lightweight night of theater.

The music is exceedingly clever, and also quite unlike what you think of as a Broadway musical. The melodies are memorable, but far from simple. The lyrics are tangled and smart, with a wide variety of rhyming patterns. And singers curse. Proudly.

Clever though the show is, though, it's still fair to say the major draw here is to see Idina Menzel and her fellow Broadway cast members. And they certainly do deliver. The major numbers won enthusiastic (and deserved) applause from the audience. Even more rare, the emotional moments in the story felt small and intimate, even in a giant theater.

I'd rate If/Then a B+. It's here in Denver for a few more days, and it's worth hunting for a ticket if you can get your hands on it. And if you live in one of the other cities where it's stopping soon, that search should be even easier.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Marco! (Polo!)

Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar is one of my favorite board games of the last few years. And now the team behind it, Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini, have released something new. Something entirely new, bearing little obvious connection to their previous effort: The Voyages of Marco Polo.

Players take on the roles of 13th century merchants, traveling throughout the Far East to deliver camels, pepper, silk, and gold. Players begin each round by rolling dice, then allocating their dice in turn to the actions they wish to take. The design makes sure there are uses for high rolls and low rolls, and plenty of pressure to get to actions before your opponents. And moving around the board takes a good deal of money -- yet another resource you must manage.

It's a hallmark of many German board games that you want to do dozens of things in a space where you have time only for a few. The Voyages of Marco Polo captures this feeling more than most. It lasts just 5 rounds, and you roll just five dice in each. With most actions taking multiple dice, you're likely only looking at 10 to 15 actions for the entire game. And when the game's rules have been explained to you, you'll probably wonder "how am I going to do all this?" It just doesn't seem like you'll have much time to get anything going.

Thus, it's a quite subtle and clever triumph of the game that things do develop, and quickly. By the end of the game, you'll feel like you were probably just one more round from doing most everything you could have done. And that feeling of leaving you wanting just a little bit more is what will likely drive you to want to play again. It's a quite deftly balanced bunch of game mechanisms.

But there is one mechanism that's harder to judge: each player takes on a unique character role, with a unique power to cheat a specific rule of the game. Roles are drafted at the start of the game in reverse turn order, making them a counterbalance for any advantage in acting first. How good each one is can depend a great deal on the board layout, which is randomized to some degree in each game. I would certainly imagine that the roles were thoroughly tested by the game designers for fairness and rough equality. But first-glance appearances certainly suggest one or two that are better than the others. And if one needs to be a skilled player to tell when a board layout or a different number of opponents shifts the balance of power to a different role? Well, that could potentially lead to a big skill gap.

I certainly don't have enough experience with The Voyages of Marco Polo to render a final judgment. But while I can't say with authority that the roles don't take anything away from the game, I'm not yet convinced that they add anything necessary, either. For the rest of the game, I give a B+. It remains to be seen over the long haul whether the roles move that up or down. Either way, I think it's a good effort, but not quite at the level of Tzolk'in.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Mane Attraction

With "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane," Arthur Conan Doyle for the second consecutive time chose to omit the character of Watson and write a Sherlock Holmes story from the perspective of the detective himself. But the feeling of this tale is a sharp contrast from the previous one, "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier."

Many years have passed, and Sherlock Holmes is now living in the countryside with a housekeeper and his bees. He's settled into a life with beautiful scenery, a variety of neighbors, and no mystery or adventure. That is, until a teacher at the local prep school staggers up and collapses dying at his feet. Fitzroy McPherson appears to have been accosted while on an ocean swim, some unknown assailant leaving whip-like lashes crisscrossing his back. When McPherson dies of his injuries, Holmes must determine who might have been responsible for his death.

As far as the mystery in this short story goes, there's a decided lack of suspense and plausibility here. If a man lays dying after an ocean swim, it's hardly a difficult leap to suspect (SPOILER) that some sort of mishap involving marine life might be the cause. So much for the mystery. And for the dying man to gasp out "the lion's mane" as his dying words -- referencing a (FURTHER SPOILER) particular breed of jellyfish -- is awfully convenient for plot (though inconvenient for investigation). He might just as easily have said something obvious and instructive like "jellyfish." So much for plausibility.

But what is intriguing about the story, and what sets it quite apart from the other Holmes-narrated "Adventure of the Blanched Soldier," is its setting in both a time and place quite different from every other Holmes mystery. This retirement-in-the-countryside setting provided the most direct inspiration for the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind (and its film adaptation, Mr. Holmes), and it's easy to see why: it feels like there are other tales that could be told in this different mode. This story presents Holmes somewhat out of his element, with several new surrounding characters one might imagine to be recurring in subsequent tales. It's rather like a modern television series doing a major creative "reboot" going into a new season... though it turns out this series was actually near the end of its run.

The lacking mystery does drag this tale down from where I might have scored it, but the fascinating changes to the formula had it starting from a higher mark. I give "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" a B-.

Friday, October 16, 2015

A-sylum

I generally try to keep my blog posts relevant for both Denver locals and my readers from elsewhere -- but on this occasion, I'm going to have to give a recommendation to the locals.

This past weekend, I went the Asylum Haunted House here in Denver. Haunted houses aren't a "must do every Halloween" sort of thing for me, but I do generally enjoy them and try to hit one up every two or three years. One of the reasons I'm not more diligent about it is that so many haunted houses are duds. Not Asylum, not this year. Of course, haunted houses are always more about startles than genuine scares. But to me, the cleverness is even more important. What's the layout like? Does your path from room to room give you a good ebb and flow of tension? Are there particularly memorable rooms? Asylum excels in all of this.

I'm reluctant to say too much for people who might go in the weekends ahead. But to give you some motivation to do so, I'll mention a few highlights. The experience opens with a contained little "locked room" puzzle, where you have to figure out how to escape. It then takes you through an effective and highly disorienting introduction into the "house proper." There's an especially cool "swamp" area built with fog, lasers, and inflatable air bags. There are two excellent sections built on Dutch angles. There's a dark and creepy cave-like chamber filled with uneven columns you have to force your way through (and you're not alone in there). And lots, lots more.

There are several fun characters inside the actual "Asylum" portion of the house. Performers are screaming their heads off, somehow for hours on end, all in good fun. There's plenty of great make-up, including a particularly great character in a full body look that blends in with the background of his room. Even some of the haunted house tropes (a chainsaw wielder, "please help me" victims waiting to die) get a jolt of life from people throwing themselves into the part.

And perhaps best of all, it's big! Our group darted through the house faster than we really should have for maximum enjoyment, but it still took at least 20 minutes to see it all. Do it right, and you could probably get a half hour out of it, which is a lot for a haunted house.

So the bottom line is, if you love Halloween and you live in Denver, you owe it to yourself to go check this place out. (Particularly in contrast to other houses in the area, which I've heard are far less fun this year.) The Asylum is spook-tacular!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

TNG Flashback: Gambit, Part I

The final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation started off with a series of lackluster installments. But things started to turn around when they got to the two-part episode, "Gambit."

While pursuing a strange archaeological mystery, it appears that Captain Picard has been killed by a group of mercenaries. As acting captain of the Enterprise, Riker takes it upon himself to track down the killers and bring them to justice. Instead, he himself is captured by the mercenaries... only to find Picard alive, working undercover inside the group to uncover the reason for their raids. Riker is quickly positioned as a disillusioned Starfleet officer with negotiable morals, and he and Picard start working together under their assumed identities -- all the while pretending to hate each other in front of the mercenaries' dangerous captain, Arctus Baran.

The idea of "Gambit" was first pitched during the sixth season, by a college student named Christopher Hatton. It was set aside because the premise demanded breaking an edict Gene Roddenberry had established going all the way back to the original Star Trek series: there was no such thing as "space pirates" in his universe. Still, some of the writers couldn't quite let go of the idea, sensing in it the opportunity for something less talky and more more action-packed than Star Trek could usually manage. Ideas for the episode piled up to the point where Michael Piller even suggested it could be a two parter.

At last, executive producer Rick Berman had to make the call whether to pursue the episode in violation of "what Gene Roddenberry would have wanted." The story goes that Berman actually tied a bandanna as a blindfold around the bust of Roddenberry he kept on his desk, then invited showrunner Jeri Taylor in to argue for doing the episode. She made her case, and Berman gave his permission to move forward.

A "less talky" romp is indeed what resulted. From the very first scene of the episode, Crusher and Troi are threatening people with phasers. Later, Riker manhandles a reluctant informant and slams him into a wall. The real triumph is the most exhilarating phaser fight ever presented on the series. As Jeri Taylor joked, director Peter Lauritson must have "saved up all the favors ever owed him," somehow getting VFX for 70 phaser shots in a sequence filmed in a real outdoor location -- a sequence filled with running, jumping, and explosions. (The explosions are all VFX as well; fire bans at the location prohibited the use of practical explosions.)

The plot of the episode builds toward a question that isn't answered here in part one: what is it the mercenaries are looking for? It's good to have that suspense drawn out, because the "suspense" at the start of the episode is really the one weak element. There's no way the audience is going to believe that Picard has been randomly killed off four episodes into the season -- and off-screen, to boot. Indeed, script writer Naren Shankar thought this element of the story was so weak that he felt it should never have been made into two episodes. He felt the plot was "just marking time until the captain's revealed." But I do think he's not entirely right -- to me, the story actually feels shortened, not lengthened. We don't follow Picard's initial investigation, nor the establishing of his covert identity, lending a subconscious feeling that chaff has already been trimmed from this story and that what's left is vital.

It also helps that it's not all about action; character plays a big role too. There's a nice dramatic scene in which Riker refuses to attend a memorial service for Picard. (Well, Jonathan Frakes' performance is nice; Marina Sirtis veers a bit into melodrama.) It's a great episode for Data, with him first stepping into the first officer's role (trying to protect Riker from dangerous missions as Riker protected Picard), and then later into the captain's chair (whereupon he immediately adopts some of Picard's mannerisms).

Character is also important when the story shifts to the mercenary vessel. There are a number of reasonably interesting characters there, most especially the menacing captain Baran and the mysterious Tallera. Those two characters in particular benefit from solid casting. For Baran, there was some concern that Richard Lynch would come across too campy thanks to roles in films like Alligator II, Puppetmaster III, and Trancers II. Still, he'd worked on stage before with Patrick Stewart, and director Peter Lauritson lobbied that he would convey the power and presence needed to be a reasonable adversary for Picard.

Meanwhile, for Tallera, the show recruited Robin Curtis, who had memorably taken over the role of Saavik in the Star Trek movies. Here, as in those movies, she makes the most of limited screen time, presenting a nuanced character to the audience. (And she would have even more to do in Part II.)

Other observations:
  • Not all the episode's guest stars were part of Baran's mercenary crew. Once Data rises to first officer, and then captain, the helm is crewed by Ensign Guisti, played by Sabrina LeBeauf. She was quite recognizable at the time from her role as oldest Huxtable daughter Sondra on The Cosby Show.
  • This episode really showcases how completely the Star Trek universe had been established by this point. Both Picard and Riker adopt aliases that incorporate bits of past episodes -- Picard using his mentor's name, and Riker's supposed Starfleet disgrace stemming from his being relieved of duty in "Chain of Command, Part II." Deep Space Nine is referenced too, with "gold-pressed latinum" being mentioned on The Next Generation for the first time, and an Admiral (Chekote) from that series reappearing here.
  • Earlier, I mentioned Naren Shankar's reservations over his own final script. Fellow writer Brannon Braga was even less convinced of this episode's merits. He thought the core idea had too many "campy, swashbuckling elements," and feared it would look "very corny." He thought the finished episode "came off like Buck Rogers: The Series and why do that? Is that good? We try many different mediums. I was curious as to why we were involving ourselves in a medium that is not usually a respected one."
  • The Blu-ray collection for Season 7 features one deleted scene and several scene extensions from this episode. The missing scene (covered by a Riker log entry in the final episode) has Crusher confirm that Picard is dead. Excising this for time has the added benefit of making it less obvious that Crusher has made a major professional error here. The other deleted lines within scenes show Troi having fun as she works a bartender for information, Riker taking a bit more time interrogating the alien Yranac, and (most effectively) showing Picard as he improvises to prevent Baran's intended attack on a Starfleet base.
This episode effectively sets up an intriguing mystery, and serves up some of the best action ever presented on the series. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Wanted (Inhu)man

This week's Agents of SHIELD was a solid entry that once again juggled three different story lines in a fairly deft manner.

The title referred, of course, to Lincoln on the run. It doesn't quite track for me that the man who was such a put-together Yoda for Skye/Daisy last season is now coming apart at the seams. It would have helped certainly this character repositioning if we had seen more of his struggles on the run. Still, the writers did put a big moment on that timeline in this episode -- the accident where he killed his own friend. That was a big enough incident (and effectively portrayed) that you can sort of sketch in the rest in your head and get there. Certainly, this episode made a good case that Lincoln will be an interesting character to now have regularly on the show.

Nevertheless, the Simmons plot was the one I found most compelling. Actress Elizabeth Henstridge was rock solid in her chance to shine, showing us how her months away had effectively rendered this an alien world. Your heart went out to her, and out to Fitz for trying everything he could think of to speed along a recovery that simply won't be rushed. It all built up wonderfully to the episode's tag, where you could feel the anguish as Simmons declared she had to go back. (Because she left something behind? Because she no longer feels at home on Earth? Tune in next week, folks!)

The Hunter/May story thread landed well too. It impressively delivered a wide variety of moments. There was comedy (with the subtitled scene a particularly fun gag), drama (in the scene where Hunter draws May out about her relationship with her husband), and action (the "Fight Club," and May's 3-on-1 fight in the next room). Their pairing is turning out to be every bit as interesting as I hoped it might be, and I look forward to more of it.

All of this, plus more fun repartee between Coulson and new adversary Rosalind, played wonderfully once again by Constance Zimmer. The plot development to force them to work together may be slightly contrived, but it's a contrivance well worth granting to see the two of them together more in future episodes.

It was a solid episode that left me hungry for more. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Soldiering On

"The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" marked a major departure for Arthur Conan Doyle in his writings of Sherlock Holmes. For the first time, the mystery is recounted not by Watson (who in fact is only referenced and does not appear in the story), but by the great detective himself.

A former soldier, James Dodd, asks Sherlock Holmes to help with a rescue of sorts for his friend from the war, Godfrey Emsworth. Godfrey's family is united in a lie, that the man is on a round the world tour after returning from the war. Yet Dodd saw Godfrey himself, pale white and lurking around the Emsworth estate at night. Dodd fears that Godfrey may be imprisoned against his will, yet can find no motive or explanation for the family's actions.

The conceit of Holmes narrating his own adventure is an intriguing one, yet I'm not quite sure it's used to maximum effect. A full half of the story is setup, Dodd recounting to Holmes everything he has attempted so far to resolve the matter himself. As is Doyle's custom, the backstory is presented with virtually no commentary or narrative interjections -- so for half the story, it frankly makes little difference who is narrating, be it Holmes, Watson, or someone else altogether.

But when Holmes takes over, the contrast to Watson's narration is quite fun, marked most in my mind in three ways. First, there's a very "just the facts, ma'am" approach to his storytelling, for which Holmes actually apologizes to the reader on a few occasions. Second, we learn that Holmes has not been mocking Watson all those past times he assumed that obviously Watson must already have deduced the solution to a mystery; here, Holmes makes the same assumption of his readers before closing in on what he assumes will be a deflated climax. Thirdly (and related to the first two), he praises Watson's dramatic streak in recounting these adventures, acknowledging that he himself doesn't have storytelling skills and forgiving Watson some of the past exaggerations he'd previously criticized. (One hand giveth while the other taketh away, though. Holmes also basically says that he likes having Watson around because he's such a dullard.)

It's likely that getting these mysteries from Holmes' point of view would get old with too much repetition. Yet it's a very fun departure here, and Doyle does a generally good job of changing the narrative tone to put the reader in the detective's head. The mystery itself isn't among Holmes' most compelling, but the story merits a B overall.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Troubling Review

About a year ago, I finally got around to watching Escape from New York. I expected one or two of its fans to grumble at me for the less-than-flattering review I gave it, but I got away unscathed. I doubt I'll be so lucky this time, though, when I am even less kind to another John Carpenter film that's generally more beloved: Big Trouble in Little China.

This 1986 cult film follows big rig driver Jack Burton as he tries to help a friend, Wang Chi, rescue his fiancee from a powerful sorcerer in San Francisco's Chinatown. I gather some of the love for the movie comes from the fact that it subverts a lot of heroic conventions. Burton is a rather bumbling character, and in fact is not really the protagonist of the story. He's actually more the sidekick to Wang Chi, missing out on key action and skating by on dumb luck. It's fun to see Kurt Russell in the role, and a sharp contrast to his heroism in other John Carpenter films.

But that was really the only aspect of the film that worked for me. The story is too threadbare to account for the way events bounce from place to place. The editing is overly aggressive. It often drops you into entirely new locations without any establishing shots to anchor you, and muddies the clarity of most of the combat sequences. But then, maybe it was bad martial arts and visual effects being intentionally obscured.

The acting is no better. Outside of Kurt Russell, it's pretty embarrassing. Kim Cattrall is by far the worst of the bunch; she seems to have been beamed in from a Flash Gordon serial or something, and is too campy even for this intentionally campy movie. Then there's the cartoonish depiction of Chinese culture, certainly meant to be in good fun, but too often flirting with stereotypes.

I wasn't wowed by Escape from New York, but I feel like it at least adhered to an internal logic and served up a few fun moments. Big Trouble in Little China just struck me as bizarre for the sake of being bizarre, and I found its "action" sequences too boring to hold my interest. I give it a D+.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Readers Digest

In some random digging for books (assisted by Goodreads.com), I found my way to one called The Thought Readers. It's the first of a series called Mind Dimensions. (Four volumes long? Open-ended? At this point, I'm not sure.)

The book's protagonist is 21-year-old Darren, an analyst at a hedge fund with a mental ability that gives him a huge edge: he's able to stop time. By slipping into a frozen parallel reality he calls "the Quiet," he's able to snoop around and gather information. The book kicks off with his surprising discovery of another person who shares the same ability -- and soon leads to the realization that he's barely scratched the surface of his full powers.

Author Dima Zales is quite good at some things and not so good at others. Plotting is one of his strengths. Though there's a familiarity to the "stepping into a larger world" aspect of the story (Dune, Star Wars, any of the stories those were actually inspired by, take your pick), there's something intriguing about the way he's put it together. It's part superhero, part spy thriller, and yet also doesn't seem too untethered from the real world. (Not completely, anyway.)

Zales is also fairly good with first-person narrative. The book is written entirely from Darren's POV, and while you can sense a "fantasy fulfillment" aspect to what unfolds, you can simultaneously get wrapped up in that fantasy as a reader. It's just kinda cool.

But detail isn't really one of Zales' strengths. He tends to rely on the same small pool of adjectives to describe things, particularly people. (Though you could argue that's being true to the POV of a 21-year-old male.) And he's not too good with exposition either. In any narrative where the protagonist "discovers a larger world," you inevitably must explain the rules of that world to the character (and the audience). Zales does so in awkward info dumps. Whether sensing this flaw in his own writing, or simply holding onto details for later plot revelations, he does tend to avoid doing this for too long at a stretch. Nevertheless, it's always a slow moment in the book when he does it.

Still, there's something fun and breezily readable about the book. That's augmented by the fact that it's quite short (I'd call it more novella than novel), and that it ends in a place that springboards you into wanting the next book. Since all of this series is quite inexpensive in e-book form, I'm likely to let myself be caught up in them. I give The Thought Readers a B.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Gable It Up

"The Adventure of the Three Gables" is a curious Sherlock Holmes adventure -- on the one hand painfully dated, while on the other so prescient as to still feel modern today.

Sherlock Holmes is asked to consult in an odd decision facing an elderly widow, Mrs. Maberley. A mystery party has suddenly offered to buy her house for an exorbitant price, giving her money enough to live out the rest of her days in comfort and leisure. But the sale is predicated on an odd condition: she must abandon every last possession she has inside the house. Sensing something amiss, she and her lawyer have asked Holmes for insight into what true motivation may lie behind the offer.

The general thrust of that motivation is easily guessed, particularly when this story comes so soon on the heels of "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" (which itself cribs "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"). The would-be buyer is after some possession in the house, not the house itself. But to Arthur Conan Doyle's credit, he doesn't really seek to surprise the reader on this count. Sherlock voices this theory early on in the story -- a theory which even the often-hopeless Watson has arrived at. This story turns not on the offer itself, but on the secret of the prize truly being sought.

But before the tale gets to any of that, it opens in a manner quite counter to Doyle's typically staid pace. The brutish Steve Dixie bursts in on 221B Baker Street and threatens Holmes not to take the case about to unfold. This intrusion would set the table in an exhilarating manner... if the modern reader weren't so distracted by the casual racism in the scene. Steve Dixie is a black man. He is portrayed as a dumb oaf, his dialogue written in a caricature of an accent, and Holmes shows him no respect. (As far as I can recall, he's the only person in the entire canon that Holmes calls by first name rather than last.) In the middle of the story, a police inspector uses that most dreaded of racial slurs in referring to Dixie -- a total record scratch of a moment that snaps you right out of the narrative flow. It's the simple reality that Doyle had no reason to think anything of all this, writing in his time, but the context is different a century later.

The climax of the tale, however, feels still quite topical. It's revealed... ahem, SPOILERS... that one Isadora Klein, a spoiled and wealthy woman used to getting her way, is the person after Maberley's house. And the thing she's after is a manuscript for a book revealing a romantic relationship between her and Marbeley's deceased son. Rich people using their money to buy their way out of scandal is pretty much a timeless theme. And the idea of a "tell-all book" generating controversy is as current today as it was when Doyle wrote the story. It's a reasonable revelation, made more fun by the way Holmes then blackmails Klein to avoid involving the police.

It's of interest that some scholars have voiced the theory that this story may not in fact be the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. But whoever wrote it, I'd say the various aspects of the story -- dated and current -- work out to around a C+ for me.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Purpose in the Machine

This week's installment of Agents of SHIELD felt to me like it slowed down a lot from last week's premiere, though this week was certainly dutiful about answering a lot of questions. (When will they get Simmons back? Where has May been? What is Ward up to?)

The May story line was my favorite of the episode. First, there was the inherent fun you get in almost any long running television show when they introduce you to a relative of one of the main characters. Second, there was the added fun in that being May's father, played by wonderful character actor James Hong. Lastly, there was the interesting promise in having May and Hunter paired up for future episodes. They are a bit of an odd couple, she the least talkative and open of the characters, and he one of the most. It's a pairing we haven't had before on the show, and I'm looking forward to it.

In the main story line, we continued to see a desperate Fitz take reckless chances to get Simmons back from wherever the monolith took her. (I have no doubt future episodes will fill us in more on what her time there was like.) This was the most emotional and dramatic of the plot threads this week, and once again Iain De Caestecker was giving a hell of a performance as Fitz. Peter MacNicol's return as his decidedly un-Asgardian Asgard was a nice texture to have woven through the story as well.

As for Ward's story? Well, they have some building up to do to catch up with last season. The face-changing Agent 33 of last season was a wonderful gimmick, in that it provided an excuse for other main cast members to act in scenes with Brett Dalton. Now that that's finished, the writers have to put in some work to get
other interesting characters around Ward. So far, I don't have high hopes for this spoiled rich child wannabe supervillain. But we'll see where it all goes.

All in all, a decent if not great episode. I give it a B.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

High Wire Act

This past weekend, I went to see the new movie The Walk. It tells the true story of Philippe Petit, who in 1974 walked on a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

If this sounds familiar to you (besides having seen one of the ubiquitous commercials), it may be that you've seen the documentary Man on Wire (or that you recall my review of it). Reportedly, writer-director Robert Zemeckis had been circling this project for years, planning to make it before the documentary came along -- and not letting its creation deter him even after it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. As a result, we get to see two different takes on the same story.

Though Man on Wire had already featured some recreations cast with actors, it had understandably not recreated the "main event" itself. That's what The Walk had going for it from the beginning, and it upped the ante through the use of 3D. I'm not usually one to go in on 3D movies, but there was clearly a reason for it here. Indeed, the idea of seeing a 3D wire walk 110 stories high (a sequence which last 17 minutes in the completed film) is so grand in concept that it risks making the rest of the movie leading up to it dull.

The script is actually well paced and includes plenty of other great scenes. After about 45 minutes, it becomes of sort of "heist film" as the characters plan their covert "coup" on the towers -- and I love me a good heist film. Yet much of the movie does feel a touch dull, and that's because of comparison to Man on Wire. You might not imagine a modest documentary could outshine a multi-million dollar movie, but right up until the hero reaches the World Trade Center roof on that fateful night, it absolutely does.

The reason for that is that The Walk runs pretty shallow on emotion. The only character who really pops is Philippe Petit, in large part due to a great performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. You see the character's mad devotion to his dream, though you never really see why any other character wants to help him achieve it. In sharp contrast, in the documentary Man on Wire, many of the interview subjects became overwhelmed with emotion just in talking about events 30 years old. You got a real sense of how this changed their lives forever, and I myself was moved by it. Unfortunately, The Walk doesn't really capture any of this.

All that said, the big disappointment of Man on Wire is that there are very few photos of Petit's actual walk. I mean, I know it was 1974, and I'm not expecting GoPro footage from a helmet cam -- but the few people in a position to actually photograph the walk (as The Walk shows) fled quickly to avoid capture by the police. So to me, the documentary really built my expectations for something wonderful that it then failed to deliver.

Now we have The Walk for that. It quite literally reaches dizzying heights for 3D movies. Different moments in the titular sequence made me feel a hollow space in my chest, made me grip my armrests, and made my eyes bug open. Even more impressively, the movie didn't just make you experience the height as you or I would surely feel it, but as Philippe Petit himself might have felt it. The walk sequence itself actually begins with a truly serene and tranquil moment, and as the sequence went on, I found myself increasingly relaxing into it and feeling none of the twinges of vertigo I'd felt early on.

As a result, though Man on Wire and The Walk both tell the same story, I feel like they're really companion pieces to each other, each one presenting about half the story in a really effective way. The Walk certainly thrilled me, but it also didn't move me as Man on Wire often did. I give it a B-. Basically, my recommendation is: see it in the theater, in 3D, or don't see it at all.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Mars in Ascendance

After being thoroughly entertained by Andy Weir's novel The Martian, there was no way I wasn't going to be there opening weekend to see the new movie adaptation. The film tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, mistakenly left for dead on a mission to Mars. All alone on the red planet, he must solve crisis after crisis, staying alive long enough for NASA to figure out a way to rescue him.

The screenplay for the movie was written by Drew Goddard, director and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods. That Joss Whedon-groomed background gave him the perfect sensibilities for bringing Andy Weir's writing to the screen. Goddard does an excellent job of converting a story told through inner monologue into film. But his real success is in shoring up some of the flaws in the original book.

Weir's book didn't do a great job of presenting strong characters outside of the likable protagonist. Goddard's script deftly develops a number of other distinct personalities, doing a nice job in particular with the other five astronauts on the Hermes mission. Book purists may resent the main method in which this was achieved: at least three additional calamities that befall Mark Watney in the book are excised from the movie. But this isn't just a cut for time; by taking some of the emphasis off Watney in the back half of the film, the other characters (on Earth and aboard the Hermes) have more time to shine.

The film also presents a much better ending than the book. Weir's original novel actually ended a bit too soon, resolving the major dramatic question of course, but leaving out a lot of the aftermath you'd really want to know about. The movie fixes this with a nice epilogue (some of it playing out quite cleverly over the end credits). It helps the movie pack more of an emotional punch -- something it successfully manages to do several times.

That punch is thanks in large part to the great cast assembled here. The script may have polished a lot of the characters up from the book, but let's be realistic here: most of them still don't get a lot of screen time. That's where some great performers step in to do a lot with a little. Jessica Chastain plays the Mars mission commander, and really nails the most poignant moments in the story. Jeff Daniels does a lot to make the paper-pushing head of NASA a sympathetic character. Sean Bean is effective as the character arguing the human element back on Earth. (And the script has an awful lot of fun in one scene with one of his most memorable past roles.) And less well known (unless you watch Halt and Catch Fire), Mackenzie Davis stood out to me from a crowded cast.

Of course, the whole movie wouldn't work without Matt Damon. Working with no other actors, and taking up half the movie's screen time, he already faces a "high degree of difficulty." Making the wise-ass Mark Watney seem funny and endearing on top of that? And really making you feel it in the handful of moments where emotion overwhelms the character, without making it seem over the top? Now you're bordering on impossible. But Matt Damon completely nails it.

As for director Ridley Scott, some disappointed fans are already calling this his "apology" for Prometheus (a film not as horrible as claimed, but not nearly as good as was hoped). Whether or not you buy that, Scott really shows his chops here. As noted above, he gets great performances from many different actors. And he deals with a wide array of visual effects without letting them overwhelm the storytelling.

All told, this is one of the stronger book adaptations to come out of Hollywood in some time, capturing the essentials, improving the flaws, and still leaving enough on the book page for later discovery by a reader. Seeing the movie got me thinking about wanting to read the book again, even though it's only been a few months since I finished it. I give The Martian an A-.

Friday, October 02, 2015

TNG Flashback: Inheritance

It reportedly wasn't planned as such, but season seven of Star Trek: The Next Generation saw a large number of never-before-seen family of the main characters appearing on the show. Writer Ronald Moore later dubbed the trend The Year of Lost Souls. It began here with "Interface."

The crew has been testing a new technology, by which Geordi can directly control a sophisticated probe via neural interface; he sees what it sees, and controls its movements with his mind. An opportunity to field test the system comes when the Enterprise must recover a ship trapped deep inside a gas giant. But then Geordi receives some terrible news: the starship commanded by his mother has gone missing. He insists on going through with his mission, only to be shocked when he discovers his mother alive aboard the trapped ship!

Joe Menosky had pitched this story idea two years earlier as a staff writer. It originally put Riker in the VR suit, coping with the death of his father and seeing visions of his childhood cabin in Alaska. But in the intervening time, Riker had been the centerpiece of another "hallucinated reality episode." Plus, according to showrunner Jeri Taylor, "an order" had come down from on high to flesh out LaForge. He was literally the only main character who had never had a family member appear on the show, and it was deemed necessary to show, as Taylor put it, "that he didn't spring isolated from Zeus' forehead."

The chance to show both of Geordi's parents made for a reunion of sorts for the classic TV mini-series in which LeVar Burton starred, Roots. Ben Vereen (who here is LaForge's father) played Burton's character's grandson in Roots. Madge Sinclair (LaForge's mother) played the wife of his Roots character as an older man.

Technology plays a key role in the story. It's one of those not-uncommon cases where Star Trek either seemed prescient about future tech, or inspired someone to actually create it. While we don't have computers you control with your mind (yet), drone technology and virtual reality have developed a lot since 1993, and this is essentially a combination of those two ideas. In fact, staff writer (and former science advisor) Naren Shakar worried that the premise wasn't futuristic enough. "From a gee-whiz standpoint... we weren't looking at technology four hundred years in the future. ... The technology seems out of proportion to the other technologies that we use on the Enterprise." Perhaps he's right, but the result was certainly quite plausible.

Unfortunately, what doesn't feel plausible is the behavior of most of the characters. You may recall just a few episodes back that when Troi made the fantastical claim that time had stopped for everyone but her, everyone took her at her word until proof was found. That's how they roll in Starfleet; no idea is too far-fetched. Except, apparently, the idea that Geordi's mom could be trapped on a ship inside a gas giant.

Everyone tells Geordi he's simply in denial, and demonstrates a rather callous response to his understandable emotions. Troi gives him a counseling session, but she comes off unusually frigid and harsh with him. Picard doesn't even offer him a chance to find supporting evidence for his claims, simply dismissing them out of hand. Only Data seems to respond in character, deciding that his demands as Geordi's friend require him to break the rules. (But how much better would this have played if Data had been wrestling with not-yet-fully-understood input from his new emotion chip? I still maintain that a final season with an emotional Data would have been good for the show.)

Now don't get me wrong; while I don't like how everyone treats Geordi with skepticism, I actually like that he really is wrong in this episode. It's a fun change from the Star Trek norm that his wild theory about his mother is incorrect. I just question if Geordi, even allowing for wishful thinking, really wouldn't notice the decidedly stiff and alien behavior of his "mother." At least the script (which received an uncredited final polish by René Echevarria) does telegraph from the very beginning that not everything Geordi experiences in the interface is real.

Other observations:
  • Actually, the best scene in this episode wasn't originally part of the script. During the editing process, the episode was coming in several minutes short. So Jeri Taylor wrote the scene where Riker tries to console Geordi by speaking of the death of his own mother. It was filmed three episodes later, and Jonathan Frakes gives an outstanding performance. The loss Riker speaks of still feels raw.
  • Staff writer Ron Moore was especially critical of this episode. "We were talking about bringing Geordi's mother in, and we all kind of looked at each other and we were like, 'This is sad. This is the best we can do? Is this the best we can do, is Geordi's mother?' It was such a 'who cares' idea that we were just sort of, 'Oh man... This show has got to end.'"
I'm not sure it was that bad. But it wasn't great, certainly not enough to lift season seven out of the doldrums in which it began. I give "Interface" a C.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

A Startling Omission

Not long ago, I took a look at a most unusual book, Gadsby. In crafting this oddity, Gadsby's author laid out a conspicuously difficult task: to draft a work of fiction without using that most common symbol any child would know from his "ABC"s -- that traditionally found twixt "d" and "f." It sounds absurd, but Gadsby runs almost sixty thousand words without a solitary intrusion by that taboo symbol.

In a harsh bit of irony, I can only supply this author's patronymic whilst complying with his own lipogrammatic constraint -- so "Wright" must satisfy. My hat's off to Wright for consummating his wild vision. I must say, mimicking his form for just a fraction of Gadsby's duration is profoundly taxing. If you doubt it, an introduction pinpoints many pitfalls you'd indubitably avoid if you took on this particular orthographic proposition. (That introduction also proclaims his motivation for doing it at all: it was a goal that critics thought no author could attain.)

Lots of fun follows from Wright's dizzying syntactical contortions. You'll find substitutions for broadly known sayings, such as "music hath charms to calm a wild bosom." Also built in: a handful of playful fourth-wall violations, noting how normal word options can't apply in this book. For illustrations, Wright taunts you for many paragraphs about throngs of animals that can't crop up in his fictional city's zoo; and portrays unions of holy matrimony (you'll find as many in this book as in a humorous play by Stratford-upon-Avon's famous Bard!), highlighting just how many contraband words usually crop up in chronicling such an occasion.

What isn't so stimulating is Gadsby's plotting, or that is to say, its total lack of anything you might distinguish as a plot. Wright arrays this book as fiction, but it drifts around akin to random scribblings in a diary. This author roughly follows Gadsby's administration as mayor of Branton Hills -- a city which blossoms in his guardianship. But Gadsby's story has no arc. Affairs don't climax in any substantial way. No significant antagonists or hardships pop up. (Wright so quickly whisks away small intrusions involving war and alcoholism that no impact sticks around.) Basically, Gadsby wants things for his town, and his plucky Youth Organization aids him in making it so. Branton Hills grows ad infinitum. Yawn.

Wright's book is also simply too florid. It first hit around World War II, and favors an archaic approach to yarn-spinning. Winding thoughts carry on too long, with run-on construction. (Though mayhap it's a natural instinct Wright has to show off his virtuosity with lipograms. I admit, I am drawn to do it too!) Still, with as much difficulty as is intrinsic to crafting thoughts without that most common symbol, you'd think succinct wording a short cut worth a king's ransom. (Gadsby also contains a sprinkling of musty chauvinism against womankind, but that too is unsurprising for its day.)

Gadbsy is truly a triumph of linguistics... but as a work of fiction, it's all but bankrupt. From his own introduction, I doubt that Wright would contradict my analysis. This book is a curiosity that warrants a C-. Hunt it down out of fascination, not for satisfaction.