Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Nightmare Is Real

Happy Halloween, everyone!

With the holiday falling awkwardly in the middle of the week this year, many fans of Halloween did their "observing" this past weekend. Among the festivities for me was a Friday night trip to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, which was presenting another of their "score live to film" concerts for a most appropriate movie: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. This wasn't the first time for me that the pairing of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman was the topic of a symphony performance; a few years back, I attended a CSO concert that presented musical highlights from all their collaborations together. But this time out, it was the entire score of the one film -- and what a great film it made for this treatment.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a short movie, running only around an hour and 15 minutes. But in that time, the orchestra is silent for only perhaps a collective 60 seconds. The score is relentless, almost non-stop, giving you as much music or more than many movies twice the length -- and in this case, just as much opportunity to study what all the parts of the orchestra are doing.

There's a sprinkling of atypical instruments in the mix for this score. A pair of saxophone players were on hand, together covering the full spectrum of the instrument's types. One harp player simply wasn't enough; this score needed two. There was also a synthesizer on hand, controlled by a keyboard player; it picked up rare sounds throughout, and seemed to substitute for the squeeze box that pops up throughout the score (most notably in "Sally's Song").

Ah, the songs. That, of course, made this different from any of the previous film concerts I've seen at the symphony. It's impressive enough to keep an entire orchestra perfectly on tempo to sync music to picture, but the degree of difficulty feels more present when songs are in the mix. The vocals, of course, were playing dry and unalterable in the movie's audio track, while the conductor led the orchestra in the accompaniment. And for this score, that was an especially tricky proposition.

Seeing the music played live and really focusing on it made me aware of just how complex it is. It's loaded with tempo changes (which I could even watch, over the shoulder of the conductor as the markings on his personal TV screen would warn they were coming). There are odd time signatures (7/4 in one of Jack's leitmotifs), many bars of otherwise 4/4 music with inserted (or removed) beats, and odd pauses that disrupt the rhythm ("What's This?"). That everything stayed perfectly on course in the live performance was a testament to how great these musicians are.

I was wowed all over again by the concert, even though by now I've seen half a dozen or more of these score-to-film performances. (I also appreciated, as much as I do like John Williams, that this concert took a break from him and gave another composer the spotlight. The CSO will be back to Williams later in the season, though.) I know I say this every time I go to one of these shows, but if you're a fan of film music at all, you should definitely look into a show like this -- here in Denver if you're local, or by whatever orchestra might be near you.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad

With 700+ episodes of Star Trek out there, the writers of Discovery aren't always going to be able to offer up something that feels like we haven't ever seen. So if this week's episode feels like it's cribbing The Next Generation's "Cause and Effect," that's to be forgiven -- if they use this series' characters to tell the story in a different way. (Hell, almost every science-fiction TV series to air since Groundhog Day was released has done a "time loop" episode at one point or another.)

Having escaped from Klingon captivity, Harry Mudd carries through on his threat to torment Captain Lorca as he plots to steal Discovery and its technology and sell it to the Klingons. And with help from an alien device that allows Mudd to relive the same 30 minutes over and over again, he might just be successful.

Several things that made Discovery's take on the time loop trope unique and satisfying. First was how they played all the expected beats of that story. The "tell me how to convince you of the truth next loop" moment elicited a powerful and personal secret from Burnham. We almost certainly could have guessed that she'd never made room for love in the life she's led, but it still cost her something to say it out loud. And Stamets' reaction to it was pretty great, not just sorrowful and empathetic in the moment, but in the way he was then willing to sacrifice a few time loops (and die a couple of grizzly deaths) to focus on that personal problem as much or more than the jeopardy.

The "deaths" are also a big part of the time loop conceit, and Discovery certainly had fun with them. We got first person perspectives of people burning in an exploding ship. We got grizzly deaths by purple pellet. And we got a comedic/horrific montage of Lorca deaths including one only Trek can do: spacing-via-transporter.

But Discovery also refreshed the time loop conceit by hitting a few beats the trope doesn't normally cover. It was interesting to have a love story in the mix that did not involve a character actually aware of the loop. This wasn't the Groundhog Day arc of learning how to really be with somebody, this subplot existed outside of that and will continue to be fuel for future episodes. Also, many of the expected "highly memorable moments you expect to see repeated" weren't always actually repeated -- the collision in the hallway, the phaser fight in the cargo bay, and so forth.

Discovery also upped the ante by not just making the episode about escaping a time loop; the crew also had to foil a heist. As I find myself often saying on this blog, I do love a heist -- so the combination plot certainly worked for me. It also worked fairly well as a Harry Mudd gimmick, I think. The Mudd of the Original Series has an established history of getting his hands on more fantastical technology that you'd think. He's also a bit of a scamp/buffoon, which you saw more of here than in his previous Discovery episode. He took many loops himself to enact his plan, leaving room for Stamets to be able to stop him. A smarter, more ruthless man wouldn't have wasted as much time killing Lorca over and over just for kicks, wouldn't have been so slow to figure out everything he needed. And that playfulness here let Rainn Wilson really have fun with the role and chew some scenery.

There is the prequel problem, though. At the end of the adventure, Mudd has to be put back in the package where we find him in the Original Series, and this episode did that a bit over-neatly. Fun as it was for Trekkers to actually see the real Stella (and her overbearing father), it strains credibility that Mudd wouldn't be thrown in prison for his antics here.

I also wasn't sure about the use of Tyler's character in this story. He seemed a bit too gung ho for a relationship here, after the psycho-sexual ordeal of his Klingon imprisonment. He actually feels a bit too jovial in general, though that could certainly be a cover, an overcompensation -- and I'll respect the show a lot more if it digs into that in future episodes.

Still, great moments throughout this one. There was a party that felt like an actual party instead of a stuffy work function (complete with real party music; either mash-ups are still a thing in the 23rd century, or an ironic retro throwback). There was lots of fun Tilly, trying to be Burnham's wingman. Groovy, trippin' Stamets remains humorous.

I give this episode an A-. Discovery is really only just getting to "stand-alone" episodes, but this is their best of those so far.

Friday, October 27, 2017

DS9 Flashback: A Man Alone

A man is murdered inside of a locked room with no apparent escape. It's a classic mystery trope, and serves as the inspiration for the Deep Space Nine episode "A Man Alone."

An old enemy of Odo's is murdered aboard Deep Space Nine, and it's a clever frame job of the constable: a crime it seems only a shapeshifter could have committed. Meanwhile, Keiko O'Brien struggles to settle in at her husband's new post, but finds purpose in starting a school the station.

This episode was actually filmed before "Past Prologue," but the decision was made to air it after. (Some streaming services, such as Netflix, arrange it in the production order.) Usually, these sorts of shuffles happen on a new show when the Powers That Be are convinced that certain episodes will appeal more to audiences. This practice was partially blamed for killing Firefly, but the less serialized nature of Deep Space Nine (at this point in time, anyway) made it a mostly seamless exchange. That said, I don't think there's a significant difference in quality between these two episodes.

Actor Armin Shimerman was actually made nervous by the swap. His character, Quark, wasn't even in "Past Prologue," and so when it was selected as the first regular episode, he wondered if that meant the producers didn't like him. He even said in a later interview that there was a clause in his contract that "if they didn't like me after the fourth or fifth episode, they could get rid of me." Maybe he was joking, though it does seem plausible that the producers were hedging their bets at having a Ferengi main character, a member of a Star Trek race so widely hated by fans (after being so thoroughly ruined by The Next Generation writers).

I suspect the real reason behind the episode swap was that the producers got nervous about this installment being so plot light. What's there seems at least somewhat compelling to me -- it's a classic "locked room mystery" rendered in a science fiction format. Yet the bulk of the episode is really slow, character building material. Even the scenes about the murder investigation quickly turn into confrontations between Odo and Sisko, Odo and Quark, and so forth.

I think most of this character work is great, but the episode as a whole certainly doesn't come across as the "adventure" a Star Trek fan was used to at the time. The episode's teaser (the scenes before the credits) don't even actually tease anything -- it's a pure character scene of Bashir flirting with Dax. Then, coming back from the opening credits, we get a series of vignettes around Quark's bar (making great use of the two-story set), checking in on Sisko and Dax's new relationship, the strain in Keiko and Miles' marriage, and only almost incidentally the beginnings of the conflict between Odo and the soon-to-be murder victim, Ibudan.

Even once the murder story gets ramped up, the episode still gives equal consideration to other matters: Nog and Jake bonding over pranks, Keiko trying to persuade Rom to send his son to school, Odo attempting to monologue about the difference between "justice" and "the law" (though Sisko isn't having it), Sisko reminiscing (twice!) about his past days with Dax's previous host, and more. Ideally, this character work would probably be blended more naturally with a more compelling story, but I think if you're going to err on one side or the other, this is how I'd do it. Get the audience engaged with the characters, and they'll care about what happens to them in future adventures.

Relationships between the main characters continues to be a big element here, more than they were in the early days of The Next Generation. Quark sets aside his rivalry with Odo to stick up for him against the Bajoran mob; it feels like Quark wants to be the one to beat Odo himself, and on terms he considers fair. Kira defends Odo to an almost irrational degree, arguing against even removing him from the investigation. It's not all nobility, though; Odo actually challenges Sisko when the commander claims he believes Odo is innocent. They hardly know each other, the shapeshifter rightly points out. Why should there be any trust there?

Interestingly, the creative team behind this episode doesn't give themselves much credit for hitting these character beats within this episode. Director Paul Lynch praised the actors, but worried that they were bring made to "say so much technical stuff early on." Staff writer Ira Steven Behr felt there was a missed opportunity in not later bringing back the character of Zayra, the Bajoran rabble rouser, as a recurring problem aboard the station.

A recurring character who was introduced here was Rom, Quark's brother. Though actor Max Grodénchik had actually appeared in the pilot, he was credited only as a "Ferengi Pit Boss." Grodénchik actually thanks Armin Shimerman, who beat him for the role of Quark, for speaking to the producers and lobbying that the "runner-up" should get to play Nog's father. It became a recurring role, though here Grodénchik hadn't really found the character yet. The Rom of this episode is more confident, less of a buffoon, and doesn't have the trademark voice he'd have for the series run.

Other observations:
  • Odo says he'll "never" understand the humanoid need to couple. Never is a long time, of course.
  • I wonder if any real-world teachers take offense here at how easily Keiko just decides to become a teacher, almost on a lark.
  • When Odo reviews Ibudan's schedule, it indicates that he arrived on the station from "Alderaan." Ha, ha! Got out just in time, I guess.
  • I'm spoiling the ending here, if you haven't seen the episode, but they really do go to great lengths to hide the fact that the thing Bashir is growing in his lab is a clone. Or maybe it's shaped like a big blob in part to feed a red herring? Odo thinks only a shapeshifter could have committed the murder; maybe we're meant to think that one is growing from the DNA?
  • I know that what happens to the Ibudan clone is totally beside the point of this episode, but it's kind of a weird afterthought that the clone just starts wandering the galaxy after emerging from Bashir's petri dish. I wonder if there was an intriguing follow-up story in that character -- a nature vs. nurture sort of examination in whether the clone also would become a criminal?
The producers may have decided to postpone this episode to air after "Past Prologue," but I actually think all the character building here makes this episode the (slightly) better of the two. I give "A Man Alone" a B.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Can I Buy a Vowel?

Over the years, I've played plenty of board games that ask you to "play Tetris": to fit oddly shaped pieces in a tight space, obeying some placement restrictions. Usually, as in a game like Princes of Florence, this is a minor side activity nested within a larger game. Now comes a game where the "Tetris" activity is the whole game: NMBR 9.

NMBR 9 presents a tray of pieces shaped like all the single digits from 0-9. Well, pixelated versions of all the numbers, if you will -- they're all four squares tall, and two or three squares wide. A deck of 20 cards is shuffled, containing two of each number. Cards come off the deck one by one, and each player is giving a piece of the corresponding number to work into an individual puzzle they build. Each piece must touch another, and not just diagonally. You try to build upward, but each piece must touch at least two different numbers below it, and cannot overhang any empty squares.

After all 20 cards have been played, the highest-scoring puzzle wins. Every piece placed on "level 1," the table, scores nothing. Pieces on "level 2" score face value. Pieces on "level 3" score double face value, "level 4" triple, and so on.

Within these simple rules, some real placement challenges ensue, thanks to the shapes of the numbers -- perfectly crafted to create awkward spaces in your puzzle you have to work around. The overall strategy is clear: you want to put the biggest numbers you can on the highest level you can. But transforming that into a play-by-play strategy is tricky. The shuffled deck means you never know when the big numbers will come. How far should you build outward before you build up? How much effort should you put into the tightest placement possible? Is a gap or two worth it if you think you know what number you're going to place on top? And will your future planning hold up when you're trying to move on to the third level of your puzzle?

It's been a while since I've played a game that's completely abstract like this, no story wrapper at all. It's fun and pure... and fast to play, taking only about 10 or 20 minutes. And while I did enjoy it, I can't recommend it without reservation. It is, of course, a spatially-oriented game, and while there shouldn't be any more randomness in it than what comes from the cards, that amount of randomness isn't enough to truly disrupt the most spatially-oriented players. What I'm trying to say is, some players are just going to be better at this game than others, and that's a skill gap I doubt repeat plays could ever really close. That's not a bug in the purity of this game's design, but it could make it a bad fit for your particular game group.

Overall, I'd grade NMBR 9 a B+. Short and sweet, and calling on different thinking than many other games, I expect it will fill in between games on its fair share of game nights.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Woman of the Hour

I'm late to the party, but I finally got a chance to see DC's latest superhero movie, Wonder Woman. My own response was less enthusiastic than the rapturous reception it seemed to receive in theaters, but that very same hype probably set me up to expect too much. (I also still haven't seen the reportedly terrible Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad, so the thrill of "finally getting a good DC movie" wasn't as strong for me.)

That said, Wonder Woman was a pretty good film, notably better than the DC universe film I have seen, Man of Steel. For one thing, it's considerably more fun. With this story depicting Diana's first time out in the world, there's a lot of fish-out-of-water comedy to be mined, and Gal Gadot has great comic timing for delivering it. (That said, other Wonder Woman appearances set in the modern day won't be able to leverage this, which seems like a big loss.)

The movie also has its share of action sequences that don't destroy every damn thing in sight. Yes, it devolves in that direction -- and those set pieces near the end are the most tedious of the movie -- but Act One stages a big battle on the Amazons' island without giving into wanton destruction, and Act Two has a tight, low-stakes fistfight in an alley that demonstrates how less can sometimes be more. (Or, at least, how variety really counts for something in an action movie.)

The core of the movie is kind of a bug and a feature. It really doesn't stray very far from the well-established formula of a superhero movie, and stocks heavily in cliches. You've seen just about every aspect of this plot structure in some superhero movie of the past decade, and you've got most of the tropes too. It is, by-and-large, a very predictable movie -- it does the formula well, but it's an old formula.

But like I said, that's also kind of a feature. It's not a small thing that a woman is the hero of this story, and while it would have been nice to be more surprised by the narrative, the fact that it isn't surprising is a statement. This story doesn't have to be different just because it stars a woman, it can just go through all the stations of the superhero movie cross, and do them better than any recent DC universe movie. It can gender-flop the damsel-in-distress cliches to a male, not really punch the character up all that much, and still attract an A-list star like Chris Pine to want to play the part.

I do come out of this movie generally entertained, easily believing that Gal Gadot must have been the best thing about Batman v. Superman, and more interested than I was before in seeing Justice League in a few weeks. Though Wonder Woman probably won't crack my top 10 list by the end of the year, I'd give it a solid B.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Past Prologue

The first regular episode of Deep Space Nine continued to define how the series would be different, but The Next Generation still cast a long shadow over its new spinoff.

When Bajoran terrorist Tahna Los seeks asylum on the station, Major Kira feels her loyalties torn between the new Starfleet alliance she values and the old friend who helped win Bajor's independence. A web of intrigue is quickly woven around Tahna, involving the Duras sisters (who are aiding his next plot), a Cardassian commander (who seeks to capture him), and the "plain and simple" tailor Garak, who may be a secret spy tangled up in all of it.

Part of the mission statement of Deep Space Nine was that the problems would come to our heroes, and the consequences would persist after the final credits rolled. "Past Prologue" does play off these notions. It introduces the idea of Bajoran terror cells still actively fighting for an independence they don't see as fully won. It avoids a happy ending; while the first draft script reportedly ended with Tahna Los renouncing his terrorist ways, the finished version leaves Kira no outs and forces her to betray her friend to do the right thing.

Most importantly for the long-term trajectory of the show, the episode introduces one of its most indelible characters. The creative team wanted to have a recurring Cardassian character on the show, but it was reportedly co-producer Peter Allan Fields who figured out how to do it. Garak couldn't explicitly be a spy, Fields reasoned, or he'd just be thrown in jail immediately. He pitched the idea of a "plain, simple" tailor, and reportedly guided a lot of the writing here, even though his name isn't on the finished episode.

The master stroke was casting Andrew Robinson to play the part. With a long career as a character actor (notably including the killer in Dirty Harry), Robinson felt he knew Garak immediately: "If a smart guy like Garak says that he's 'plain and simple,' you realize that he's not plain and not simple." Told only that he would have to honor some of the trademark Cardassian stiffness, Robinson chewed the scenery with a delicious performance that was all subtext.

In this first appearance, a large part of that subtext was a very particular take on Garak's sexuality. As my husband put it when we watched this episode's opening scene of Garak approaching Bashir: "Is he hitting on him?" Yes, according to Andrew Robinson. In many interviews given over the years, Robinson says he started out playing Garak with an "inclusive" sexuality, neither gay nor straight, using sex as a tool to disarm and unsettle. Ultimately, the actor says, the writers "didn't want to go there, and if they don't want to go there I can't, because the writing doesn't support it."

But even as Deep Space Nine was setting up characters and elements that would play for weeks and years to come, the writers just couldn't quite let go of the familiar. How else to explain the bizarre and unnecessary appearance of the Duras sisters, Lursa and B'Etor, from The Next Generation? Their weird intrigue here doesn't amount to much, and doesn't even make sense -- they provide explosives in exchange for money, but it seems implausible that an on-the-run terrorist like Tahna Los would be able to get his hands on any.

It's not the only part of Tahna's character that doesn't track. There's no discussion of his religion, yet it seems like he should have been made explicitly atheist for him to plot to destroy the wormhole where his people's gods were just discovered. At least a cliché romantic past with Kira, which was reportedly in the first draft script, was wisely excised from the final version. And the nationalist elements of his character, taking isolationism to a terrorist extreme, feel quite realistic. (Sadly, this material seems even more topical today in 2017 than it did in 1993.)

Other observations:
  • Not only does the episode set up a great character pairing in Bashir and Garak, it also does so with Odo and Kira. When the Major is trying to reconcile her guerilla past with her administrative present, she goes to Odo for moral guidance.
  • Andrew Robinson isn't the only guest star "all-star" in this episode. The captain of the Cardassian ship is played by Vaughn Armstrong, who appeared throughout The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise in a record 12 different roles. (Most were in various makeup, though Enterprise fans have seen him without, as Admiral Forrest.)
  • When Kira goes over Sisko's head to a Starfleet admiral (only to get wonderfully chastised for it later), that Admiral is played by Susan Bay, the wife of Leonard Nimoy.
  • This episode aired just a few weeks after The Next Generation aired its famous (and outstanding) "Chain of Command" two-parter. There are some nods to Cardassian torture thrown in here: O'Brien's cautioning Sisko not to hand a prisoner over to them, and Bashir pointing out the scars on Tahna's chest.
  • Garak interrupts Bashir before he can finish one of McCoy's trademark "I'm a doctor, not..." phrases.
  • Kira sports a new, shorter hairstyle in this episode. Nana Visitor requested it herself, arguing that Kira wasn't the sort of person who would want to spend any time styling her hair in the morning -- she'd just want to wake up and go.
There are a few too many ingredients in this stew, and Lursa and B'Etor in particular almost spoil it. Still, the morality at play is more complex than The Next Generation. That and the introduction of Garak make this an an important step in the series finding its way. I give "Past Prologue" a B-.

Monday, October 23, 2017


This week's Star Trek: Discovery might be the closest the show has come (or will ever come) to a stand-alone episode, though it was still a story accented with plenty of character development and threads on the ongoing story line.

When Sarek is injured in a terrorist attack and lost in space, his telepathic connection to Michael Burnham may be the only thing that can save his life. Meanwhile, Ash Tyler settles into a new role on the ship, and Captain Lorca is scrutinized by Admiral Cornwell.

Even as I've seen a few of the harder-to-win-over fans warming to Discovery, I still see fairly regular complaints of it being set a decade before Kirk's Enterprise. I'm not sure if episodes like this hurt (by thrusting that connection front and center) or help (by making it key to the plot). What I am sure of, though, is that the writers found a deep emotional story to tell here that was made more resonant by its prequel-y connections.

When Spock was revealed in the movie Star Trek V to have a half-brother, it was an unnecessary reveal made cheaper still by the poor quality of the story. Here, Spock's unknown-until-Discovery sister paints in moving subtext about Sarek. This isn't the first time that a deep love of Spock for Sarek has been made explicit on screen, but there is a new context here that's painful for all involved.

You can also reason how Sarek choosing Spock over Burnham "lines up" with what we know of the relationships we've seen previously. Spock making a choice that rendered the sacrifice of Burnham moot would absolutely be the sort of thing that could explain the rift in the family. So would the fact that Sarek and Burnham had mindmelded (in such a particularly intimate way) when Sarek and Spock never did. It's a story that plays for good drama on its own and enriches what we already know to be true. If you're going to do a prequel, this is how you do it right.

Ash Tyler seems to be buttoned up tight for the moment, betraying no real sign of his ordeal as a Klingon prisoner. (There's a preposterous fan theory online that this feeds into, but I certainly hope it's incorrect.) Still, the character got a lot of good moments at the margins of this episode, landing a role as security chief after earning Lorca's trust and praise, and giving Burnham the logical pep talk she needed to successfully rescue Sarek.

But you can argue that even though the Sarek/Burnham story was front and center, this was really Lorca's episode. Everything you knew about the man holds true, but is so much darker than you'd ever imagined. The one big thing we seem to be missing about him at this point is his core motivation. He's doing whatever he has to, using whoever he has to, to stay in the game -- but is that to exact revenge on the Klingons who cost him his crew? Is he on a vain quest for one adventure that will somehow atone for what he did? Or is he just cracked, does he just need to keep swimming like a shark?

Even before Cornwall voiced on screen that she couldn't tell if she was talking to the real Lorca, he'd delivered chilling moments throughout the episode. Using the holodeck to force a prisoner of war to relive his escape, for the sake of an evaluation? (But then, he knew the conventional evaluations had failed to effectively test himself.) Referring to Burnham as more of a possession than a person? (And I don't think he was kidding when he said don't come back without her.) Deploying sex as a distraction/weapon in a way that would make even James T. Kirk recoil? (In this, at least, it seems Cornwall had schemes of her own.) Star Trek has never had a captain like this, and while some will argue that it shouldn't be possible, I for one embrace the new storytelling possibilities it opens up.

Because the episode did such a good job of peeling back the layers of the rotting onion that is Lorca, you knew where it was going to end up before it got there. Still, it made it no less horrifying to see him throw Cornwall away to the Klingons just to protect himself. It's possible we'll never see her again, though in a serialized story structure willing to make big changes, it's just as possible we will. If Cornwall ever returns, what condition will she be in? Will it be enough for Lorca to feel any remorse at all? Will her story be enough to cost Lorca his career? Will the threat of that possibility be enough to push Lorca to even more immoral measures?

Before closing, I should also mentioned the compelling little Burnham/Tilly subplot -- a sweet parallel to the A-story in which Burnham learned that there's more than one way to be a mentor. We also got a small glimpse of Stamets, who seems to have gone full hippie after his spore experience of the previous episode. (This would be pure fun, if the final moment of last episode hadn't suggested more dire and sinister after-effects.)

In all, a really great episode (undermined by the terrible CBS All Access streaming service, which couldn't play it for me without freezing and stuttering regularly). I give it an A-.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Stain on Your Game Table

Sagrada is a largely abstract board game at its core, done up in a very colorful wrapper. The players are each crafting their own stained glass windows, vying for the most points at the end of the game.

Each "window" is a grid 5 squares wide and 4 squares tall, which you must fill up over the game with dice in 5 different colors. You must always place each new die adjacent (diagonally or orthogonally) to a die you've previously placed, but you may never place a die of the same color or value next to another (orthogonally). Complicating this task is the starting template you must work on, which, though leaving some squares undefined, will require that many squares be filled with a die of a particular color or value.

Each round of the 10-round game is a serpentine draft. The first player pulls dice from a bag at random, one more than the number of players, and then rolls them. That player then drafts which die he wants to take and place in his window. He then must sit in tension as every other player drafts two dice from the pile, one at a time clockwise around the table, then one at a time counter-clockwise back, starting with the last player. It's a draft style that works especially well for this game, as early players will often end up with one thing that's exactly what they want and one thing they don't want at all; later players can usually get two things that work, though neither of them perfect.

Changing up the game each time you play are the scoring conditions. Each player has a secret color they're trying most to collect -- they'll score the total value shown on all dice of that color at the end of the game. There are also three common scoring conditions shown on cards revealed at random at the start of the game. There might be points for full sets of all 6 die values, or for maintaining an entire column of different colors, or for an entire row of different values. (You'll lose 1 point for every empty space you aren't able to legally fill by the end of the game.)

Easing your strategic considerations while also making them deeper are a trio of special powers (also randomly selected and represented on cards) you can use during your turn. They provide effects like the ability to relocate one die within your window, reroll a die at the time you draft it, or place a die while ignoring a particular restriction normally placed on you. But you only get to use these powers sparingly. Each player is given between 3 and 6 tokens at the start of the game, as defined by the starting window grid -- harder grids give more tokens. The first player to use a power in the entire game can do so for a cost of just one token; each subsequent use by anyone requires two. You want to act early for the bargain, but powers are far more useful later in the game as your window fills and dice placement gets harder. (Any tokens you haven't spent by the end of the game are worth a point each.)

I've thoroughly enjoyed this game each time I've played it. What's more, it's been the rare game of late to get played multiple times in my group; too often, it's only the party games that make repeat appearances, while the deeper thinking games, no matter how satisfying, get played only once or twice. (So many games, so little time.) Sagrada, with its fairly easy-to-understand rules and short-to-medium play times, has become a regular request.

I should also point out that I've enjoyed the game despite the fact that I haven't yet won it. Actually, my husband has defeated all comers, dialing in expertly on the type of planning this game requires. But I still want to keep trying to pull out a victory.

My only minor complaint would be that I think the dice in the game are a little too small. The scale was understandably shrunk to conserve table space, make the draw bag of 90 dice not too heavy, and (yes) save a little on production costs. But the dice are small enough, and the window frames tight enough (and built shallow enough) that it's fairly easy to accidentally nudge a die you've previously placed. It seems like every single player has done it at least once every time I've played, and they always have to apologize to the group as they try to remember what value that die showed previously when they put it back.

Still, I'd give Sagrada a high recommendation -- an A- grade. Even for gamers that normally might shy away from the randomness of dice, this game uses them in a compelling and strategic way.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Emissary

It's been more than a year now since I wrapped up my re-watch of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It had always been my intention to move along to Deep Space Nine, my favorite of the Star Trek series, but I didn't quite get around to it. By now, of course, we have Star Trek: Discovery and the Star Trek homage series The Orville, so my blog has no shortage of Star Trek. Still, it's Deep Space Nine! So away we go, starting with the two-hour premiere, Emissary.

In the three years since losing his wife in the battle with the Borg at Wolf 359, Benjamin Sisko has grown detached from most everything but his son Jake. Now he's been assigned to command a remote space station, abandoned by the Cardassians in orbit of Bajor... and this may just be the last straw before he leaves Starfleet for a civilian life. But then the spiritual leader of the Bajorans, Kai Opaka, sets him on a quest that may change everything for him, Bajor, and the galaxy: he must find the Celestial Temple, home of the god-like Bajoran Prophets.

It may be for the better that I didn't start watching Deep Space Nine again until Discovery came along, because Star Trek's newest series provides interesting context for this older one. Many of the criticisms leveled at Discovery today were leveled at Deep Space Nine back in 1993. It's so dark and gritty. The theme song isn't adventurous enough. The characters don't feel like a happy family. Where's the "boldly going?" Why do they wear different uniforms? Deep Space Nine grew into something amazing, of course, despite these initial signs that turned some Trekkers off. Here's hoping Discovery does the same.

Deep Space Nine was designed to be different, of course. The creators felt they couldn't have two exploring starships on two different series at the same time, and so deliberately designed this "Western in space" show to be The Rifleman to The Next Generation's Wagon Train. Deep Space Nine would stay in one place and have to live with consequences, where the Enterprise could just forget about the ramifications of anything they did and warp to the next adventure.

The creators did want to use some elements of the parent show in the spin-off. They'd hoped to bring Ro Laren over as the station's first officer, but actress Michelle Forbes turned down the offer, not wanting to be tied to a single series for years. (Major Kira was created in her place, and this was likely a better thing for the show, having a Bajoran character who was not a Starfleet officer.) The creators also decided to have a Trill in the main cast, though the makeup was redesigned from its original Next Generation appearance after two days of filming, once the executives decided it detracted too much from Terry Farrell's appearance.

But mostly, Deep Space Nine was intended to be new and different. And it would include a mix of Starfleet and non-Starfleet characters, to skirt Gene Roddenberry's edict that future humans wouldn't have conflict (the lifeblood of good television drama) with each other. The rough circumstances of life on the station would also give the human characters permission to be less than their idealized Starfleet selves. This falling apart alien station, a steampunk-like contrast to the comparatively antiseptic Enterprise, made it okay for O'Brien to kick the machinery, for Bashir to unthinkingly flaunt his privilege by calling someone's home a "wilderness," and for Sisko to not want to be there at all.

Right out the gate here, we have Sisko and Kira feuding with each other. We have Odo sparring verbally with Quark (though it's the performances of Rene Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman that rightly shade this for comedy rather than venom). We have Kira and O'Brien bonding over, essentially, racism -- a mutual hatred of Cardassians. You even have the star of this new series actively hating the star of the existing one, depicted in Sisko's anger (irrational, though understandable) at Captain Picard over the death of his wife. (For Picard's part, this is a truly terrible reminder of the worst event of his life.) I suppose if one could only see Star Trek as what The Next Generation was offering, then yes, this was a real shock to the system.

But there were ways in which this first episode of Deep Space Nine actually wasn't all that different from the series that spawned it. Many of the elements introduced here were also part of The Next Generation's pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint." You have characters with one kind of past relationship now trying to forge a different one. (Riker and Troi; Sisko and Dax.) You have a single parent who has lost a spouse trying to raise a kid alone. (The Crushers; the Siskos.) There's an "outsider" character who doesn't know the full details of his origins. (Data; Odo.) Some characters aren't introduced until partway through the episode (Riker, Geordi, and the Crushers; Dax and Bashir.) And then there's the fact that Deep Space Nine would actually go on to have a mostly "Next Gen" first season of not-always-inspired adventures of the week.

Still, a lot of what would become core to Deep Space Nine was here, in some form, right at the beginning. Religion played a major role in the story, for the first time in Star Trek. Recurring characters, significant and minor, appeared for the first time: Dukat, Nog, and barfly Morn. Quark is conniving, and less of a caricature than Next Generation Ferengi. Avery Brooks is pouring his soul into an emotional performance. Kira is all hard edges and emotional barriers.

Not everything gels right out of the gate, though, and the script itself isn't top notch. The emotional content of the scenes with the wormhole aliens is great, but the actual dialogue is rather rough. (Does Sisko really do convincing a job explaining the nature of linear existence? I mean, if you really have no understanding of it at all?) And not that this show ever pretended to have a "grand plan," but various details here, major and minor, don't quite fit with things we later learn. The Prophets would later be revealed to be much more in touch with existence beyond the wormhole than you'd ever guess. Sisko's father, though established here as a chef, is implied to be either dead or retired. Dax's previous host would eventually be said to have died in a far less peaceful (but happy; ahem) way. Quark's makeup looks different (with Armin Shimerman wearing the prosthetic for his brother Rom). Still, there's much more good than bad here, and plenty of promise for the future of the series.

Other observations:
  • This pilot had a huge budget for the time, particular compared with The Next Generation's premiere. You see the money on screen in lots of location shooting, and in the on-screen realization of the Battle at Wolf 359. (In Next Gen, we saw only the aftermath.)
  • The captain of the Saratoga is played by J.G. Hertzler, the actor who would go on to play Martok in later seasons of the show.
  • O'Brien's goodbye to The Next Generation -- first, to the bridge itself, and then to Captain Picard -- is a wonderfully poignant moment for fans of that series.
  • The idea that Sisko and Dax see different landscapes when they exit the runabout inside the wormhole is an interesting one, but isn't really explained. My thoughts: maybe Dax sees a paradise because she's happy to be out there exploring, while Sisko's desire not to be on the station at all is reflected in the bleak wasteland he sees.
  • Michelle Forbes wasn't the only "first choice" actress to turn down a role on the series. The creators originally sought Famke Janssen to play Dax, but she too didn't want to be tied down to a series. Interestingly, the character Janssen played in The Next Generation would clearly inspire the redesigned Trill makeup.
"Emissary" is hardly peak Deep Space Nine, but it gets the series started on a stronger foot than any previous Star Trek pilot did. I'd mark it a B+. As I remember things, that actually puts it on the high end of a sometimes lackluster first season of the show. But either way, the (long) journey through Deep Space Nine has begun for me again.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


The Orville feels like it's still trying to find the right balance of comedy and drama, and with its most recent episode, turned the dial sharply in the comedy direction. "Krill" was far and away its funniest episode yet. If I were just tuning into The Orville for the laughs, I might be inclined to say that this is perfect -- keep things right there. But the prior episodes of the series have established that they're not just here to crack jokes, they're here to tell legitimate Star Trek stories as well. And from that angle, the episode was decent, but still a bit off.

The moral line this story tried to walk was a bit too tricky. Mercer and Malloy started their mission as an earnest attempt to understand their adversaries better. But then it took a sharp turn into planning a mass murder. And then the scales of that were somehow meant to be balanced by their efforts to save a group of children. Sure, war blurs the moral lines, and you could weigh the lives they were saving against the lives they were taking, but the episode didn't really do that effectively -- the one good moment in this regard was the final scene, in which the Krill woman Teleya chillingly pointed out that they've made enemies for life out of each of those rescued children. Perhaps without all the surrounding comedy, this material wouldn't have seemed so jarring. Or perhaps it's simply that because the humor seemed at its most dialed in, I wanted the drama to be too.

I certainly did enjoy the episode for that humor, though. The endless jokes about the Krill deity Avis never seemed to get old (may he cover the loss of our vehicle). But there were plenty of other funny moments too, from the general sloppiness of Mercer and Malloy as undercover operatives (though that too may have hurt the credibility of the drama), to the "Bortus eats anything" cold open, to the great callback about Malloy's new leg. If the show can continue operating at this level, I feel like it will have nailed a key part of its formula.

We skip The Orville this week, thanks to baseball playoffs. Hopefully this doesn't cost them too much ratings momentum just when they're building up a rhythm. I'd mark "Krill" a B+.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Choose Your Pain

Star Trek: Discovery turned in another strong episode this week with "Choose Your Pain."

When Captain Lorca is captured by the Klingons, Discovery must mount a rescue. But the unwilling use of the tardigrade to power the ship's spore drive has had increasingly negative effects on the creature. A clash ensues between Burnham and Saru over the ethics versus the necessities of the situation.

For those concerned that Discovery was charting too dark a path, this episode injected a big dose of Star Trek ideals into the mix. Michael Burnham's conscience could not abide the abuse of a life-form, no matter the justification, and that attitude helped other characters reconnect with their own dormant sense of morality -- most keenly Stamets. One could argue that his motives in injecting himself with the tardigrade DNA weren't primarily about sparing the life-form (or even the ship); he specifically wished in a previous episode that he could "talk to his mushrooms," and this was an exact fulfillment of that wish. (Though the final scene darkly hinted at hidden costs for this.)

Even though more recognizable Star Trek ideals were in evidence this episode, the series definitely didn't relinquish its claim on darker material. We learned this week that Lorca murdered the entire crew of his former ship rather than see them captured by Klingons. Though you could fixate on the plot hole of wondering just how he managed to escape, I instead choose to focus on the volumes this says about his character. It's a real turducken of compassion, cold-bloodedness, and compartmentalization, and tells us just what lengths Lorca will go to. (Where Klingons are involved in particular.)

There was still more darkness in the introduction of the series' final main character, Ash Tyler. Though he and Michael Burnham have both spent the last half year in prison, Tyler's experience could not be more different. Discovery as a series is poised to really explore his PTSD in deep ways that, say, The Next Generation only briefly did with Picard after his experience with the Borg (and even less following his torture at the hands of a Cardassian). Moreover, Tyler isn't just a prisoner of war, isn't just a victim of torture, but was specifically established as a survivor of sexual violence. Discovery will have to handle this very carefully to do right by real life victims, but if the writers can rise to the challenge, it will allow Star Trek to truly go where it's never gone before.

Speaking of which... "Fuck." With Tilly's unguarded outburst (and Stamets' agreement that that's the exactly the word that was called for), Star Trek left its former high water mark of profanity in the dust. (Data's "shit" in Generations?) I'm really not sure how I feel about this moment. Over on The Orville, "Star Trek with characters that talk like normal people" is part of the allure. Here, on actual Star Trek, having the characters talk like normal people has been an adjustment, whether its Stamets talking about music that actually came after the baroque era (his uncle plays in a Beatles cover band), Tilly's awkward motor mouth, or now, the dropping of F-bombs. I can imagine there are parents out there now truly outraged that they feel they can no longer watch Star Trek with their children. I sort of empathize with them to the extent that if Discovery is just doing this because they're on a streaming service and they can, that's not a great reason. But it did feel reasonably organic (and funny) in the moment. I guess the jury's out for me, and we'll see if further "evidence" is "submitted" in future episodes.

Counterbalancing all these ways in which this episode was presenting a modern, grittier Star Trek, it loaded up with shout-outs to prior series. Saru's computer inquiry about great starship captains mentioned Robert April, Jonathan Archer, Matt Decker, and Christopher Pike, ticking off the animated series, the first Star Trek pilot, Enterprise, and a particularly beloved episode of the original series. Meanwhile, if you made any mental connections to The Next Generation in watching a captured captain be tortured with light, that's on you. (Though there should have been four lights.)

Then we had Star Trek fan Rainn Wilson as original series rogue Harcourt Fenton Mudd. This was a performance that worked well in this series, even if it's hard to reconcile this tormented Klingon prisoner struggling to survive with the playful scamp we'd "later" see in the original series. Then again, we don't see starship hallways bathed in pink and green spotlights either. The personality of the original Mudd wouldn't have worked at all here. For some, that probably means this version should have simply been an original character. But we have what we have, and I for one hope we'll see Mudd again, trying to make good on his threat to come after Lorca.

I can't close out without acknowledging, at last, the depiction of a relationship between gay characters on a Star Trek series for the first time. It had been teased in the press for Discovery, but in this episode was finally made official, the relationship between Stamets and Culber. On the one shoulder (with the chip on it), I'm annoyed that the two weren't shown in a romantic context (even a simple kiss), as if the creative forces behind the show are still nervous about that or something. On the other shoulder, it's nice that we saw a scene of simple domesticity that depicted the relationship as routine as any other. (And the scene was a little daring, from a Star Trek point of view: it actually took place in a bathroom.) In the end, I mostly come down on the side of thrilled to see this, particularly when the nature of Discovery doesn't seem like it's going to make much room for any other romantic relationships besides this one.

This was probably my second-favorite episode so far, though it still didn't quite climb into A territory for me. I'd call it a strong B+. It put down lots of new paths for future episodes to walk, and I look forward to that.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Pharaoh to Remember

Mask of the Pharaoh is a bit of an odd duck that straddles the line between game and group activity. (It also straddles names; before Hasbro bought and re-issued it, it was originally released under the title Mask of Anubis.)

You download an app to your phone that will simulate a view standing inside a cartoonish Egyptian tomb, placing your phone inside a mask that will create a 3D effect when you look inside. (For spectators, it creates the appearance of you putting a dog-headed Anubis mask over your eyes. A+ for flavor there.)

You get one minute to look at a fixed position inside the tomb, but you can rotate in all directions to describe everything you see in a 360-degree panorama -- the junctions of the passages, any adornments hanging on the walls, and so forth. As you describe, all other players use a series of jigsaw-style pieces to try to assemble an overhead map of what you're seeing.

When the minute is up, you pass the mask to the next player, who is then dropped into a separate location inside the same tomb and then gets a minute to describe what they see. You get seven views in total, and if everyone is good enough and thorough enough at describing what they see, a clear picture will come together of the entire tomb -- you'll figure out where the different parts of the maze adjoin, and reveal an unbroken path from the starting point to a throne deep inside. If you do this successfully, your group wins. If not... well, try again (perhaps on an easier difficulty setting).

The endeavor takes, as you would imagine, just upward of seven minutes (one minute per view). But you'll immediately want to play again, so don't expect this to just be 10 minutes and done. It has a viral quality to it too. It came out on a recent game night where the group was large enough to split in half, and the people who had opted for the more conventional strategy game had moments of envy glancing over at the group playing with the Egyptian mask.

But the fun it brings is limited. It isn't a super-deep experience; there are only so many things you can find adorning the walls of the tomb, and the "gameplay" (to the extent it feels like a game at all) is very limited. The more you play, the more you and your friends develop a shorthand and the whole thing becomes much less challenging. Simply, the half-life on this thing is quite brief. I was glad to have played it, and I also kind of expect not to play it again -- not for not wanting to exactly, but because I doubt it will ever be anyone's top suggestion.

I'd give Mask of the Pharaoh a B-. Perhaps if a more robust game had been grafted onto the concept, it would be something to recommend. As it stands, a party game group (with spatially-oriented people) will probably mine it for a bit of fun before moving on.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


If I'm being honest, I respected the movie Blade Runner more than I enjoyed it. Film noir stories are more miss than hit with me, and the original Blade Runner indulged in all of the trappings of film noir that turn me off. Still, there was an artistic sci-fi vision there beyond reproach; the film looks amazing even today, and is positively mind-boggling by 1982 standards. Hopefully, this background gives you a sense of the modest hopes I had for the new sequel, Blade Runner 2049.

Almost any discussion of the plot gets into spoiler territory, bur slightly fleshing out what the trailers implied seems safe enough. Set 30 years after the events of the first film, Blade Runner 2049 follows a new police officer/hunter played by Ryan Gosling, as he tracks down a missing replicant of world-changing significance. The search ultimately brings him into contact with Rick Deckard, the central character played by Harrison Ford in the original film.

I found the plot of this sequel to be stronger than that of the original. There are more explicit character motivations woven into this story, and the stakes are much higher. The issue of "humanity vs. artificial intelligence," which often plays as subtext in the original film, feels more integral to this new tale, and is better for it. I felt more of an emotional investment here.

That said, the pace is ponderously slow at times. Some of this is done in deliberate homage to the original, and even works at times as a stylistic choice. But the movie does run two hours and 40 minutes, and there isn't two hours and 40 minutes' worth of plot here. Particularly uncomfortable is the decision to delay a particular plot development you know is coming until more than 100 minutes into the film. Many movies are ending by that point, and yet this one is (from a cynical point of view) just getting started.

The casting is impeccable, most keenly in Ryan Gosling. Looking back on the original film, Harrison Ford's rather flat performance was one of its weaknesses; he was deliberately turning off the Han Solo/Indiana Jones charm, but was still years off from perfecting the non-verbal acting he'd show off in other films. (Key exhibit: The Fugitive.) Ryan Gosling is a perfect heir-apparent to the emotionally stunted Deckard of the original Blade Runner; the film leverages his trademark restraint in a fantastic way. (And as for Harrison Ford himself? Well, he's now 35 years wiser as a performer, and is able to effectively "do more with less" this time around.)

A pair of outstanding actresses do their best to steal the movie. Ana de Armas plays Joi, a holographic character that's the film's most effective way of exploring questions of "real" vs. "artificial." From one scene to the next, and even alternating within a single scene, de Armas walks the line between authentic emotion and programmed response. Then there's Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, this film's closest proxy for Roy Batty in the original film. Hoeks imbues her character with more legit menace and malice than I ever felt from Rutger Hauer, standing out as a strong character, period (without needing to qualify her as a "strong female character").

There are plenty of other actors you'll recognize. Dave Bautista has a small but pivotal role that may well surprise people with its emotional heft (those people who didn't pay attention to what he was doing in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, anyway). Robin Wright employs the frigid authority she cultivated on House of Cards to chilling effect. Jared Leto's role is a weak link, though the actor's own real-life egocentric impulses play as perfect subtext for the self-important aphorisms of his character. There are other tiny roles that make a big impact too, but it feels best not to spoil anything about them.

Of course, it wouldn't be a worthy Blade Runner sequel if the visuals weren't a major part of it. Director Denis Villeneuve (who helmed the excellent Arrival) takes the baton from Ridley Scott without missing a step. With brilliant production design and cinematography, the movie is awash in color and mood. Sickly yellow never looked so gorgeous. The future of the first film is expanded on creatively and faithfully (even when that means continuing to use brands that have gone belly-up over the years since 1982). In this age where I'd have bet no visual effects could be considered truly jaw-dropping anymore, this film manages multiple such moments. (One in particular is a trick that has been tried recently in other films, succeeding here where others failed by knowing the limitations of the technology, knowing how to do things sparingly and hide the "seams.")

The musical score, by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, is a glorious throwback to the Vangelis music of the original film. It repeats actual themes from the original, develops new ones, and manages to capture the soul of early 80s synth without bringing the cheesiness along with it. It's a soundtrack I'll likely be adding to my collection.

Blade Runner 2049 does have its flaws, but it held my attention far more effectively than the original -- and judging by the reviews, it managed to do so while simultaneously pleasing that movie's most die-hard fans. That's no mean feat. I give Blade Runner 2049 a B+. This is one to catch in a theater, on the big screen.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


The latest episode of The Orville wasn't just an homage to Star Trek: The Next Generation, but to Firefly too. It felt directly inspired by two episodes (though not an exact copy of either), Trek's "A Matter of Time" (about a time-traveling hustler) and Firefly's "Our Mrs. Reynolds" (about a grifter who takes in most of the crew, and the captain in particular).

Unfortunately, I found it a weaker episode of The Orville, on a few levels. The script was in a general shape, but lacking polish. The ex-spouse conflict between Mercer and Grayson was a great theme to explore, but the dialogue was a bit ham-fisted. The title character of Pria was a great stone to make ripples in the pond, but not quite alluring enough to believably captivate Mercer, nor quite clever enough for the audience to ever really believe her over Grayson.

On the performance side, I learned about the limitations of Charlize Theron. She is, without question, a strong actress. She's made many great films and has been great in them. I haven't seen the one for which she won an Oscar (Monster), but I have no reason to suspect she didn't deserve it. But television is a different animal -- a merciless beast that must be fed.

Films shoot just a couple pages a day, over the course of months. Television shoots a whole episode in just seven or eight days, filming up to 10 pages a day (or more) at times just to keep on schedule. There's little time for rehearsal, only slightly more time to try multiple takes and finesse a performance. A television actor has to be in the ballpark on the first try, calibrate quickly to director suggestions, and nail a scene fast to make the day. I think it's not saying much bad about Charlize Theron to say that (from this performance, at least), television simply isn't for her. She came off rather wooden, and certainly couldn't wrap her tongue around the technobabble. She was there at the request of her friend Seth MacFarlane, and now will return to the movies, where she'll shine again.

I place the blame on Theron because I know she had a good director on this occasion: Star Trek's own Commander Riker, Jonathan Frakes. Frakes is an excellent television director, having cut his teeth on The Next Generation (many of its better episodes), and having since worked on a number of other shows. What's more, he works well with actors; in fact, I'd say he teased out the best performances in the show so far from MacFarlane (as a dopey, smitten Mercer) and Scott Grimes (as Malloy, in the "pranking Isaac" subplot). Frakes also did some flashy camera moves in this episode -- nothing that broke the show's style entirely, but definitely more ambitious than the norm.

Still, it's a shame that Frakes' episode this season was the one that could have used another draft on the script. It was more disorderly than an actual disaster, but when the comedy subplot plays as stronger than the main story line, something is definitely off. I give "Pria" a B-.

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry

I said of last week's Star Trek: Discovery that you should just break down and get the CBS streaming service. That was for the content, and I stand by the recommendation. But I'll acknowledge that the service itself sucks. It doesn't work at all on Xbox 360 despite being advertised for it, and it took a week-and-a-half for their "customer service" to reply to my email about that with a simple "yeah, that's a known issue and we're working on it." When we watched last night's episode, there were visual artifacts throughout, created by poor compression and delivery. So yeah, the service itself is terrible, and I'll be canceling it the moment Discovery goes on hiatus. (Hopefully, I'll squeeze in the 10-episode season of The Good Fight by then.)

Anyway... I put all that talk first mainly as a buffer, because I'll no longer be dancing the spoiler-free dance in these Discovery reviews. If you're not on board yet, come back tomorrow for talk about The Orville.

This week's Discovery felt like a direct response to the criticism the writers no doubt anticipated before a single episode ever aired: "It doesn't feel like Star Trek." The core values of Star Trek informed the central character conflict this time, as Captain Lorca and Commander Landry pushed and pushed to weaponize the creature captured from the Glenn, while Burnham pushed back to do the Trek thing, the "Devil in the Dark"/Horta thing, and strive to understand and respect the "monster."

The Star Trek thing was vindicated as the right thing on many levels. Landry was killed (going through a glass table, pure Star Trek-style) for pressing the opposite. Doing the right thing still got got Lorca something of value. But this is dark Star Trek, so Burnham still has to reckon with the reality that the creature, understood or not, is now a prisoner, an enslaved "computer" for the Discovery's experimental propulsion. The metaphor is surely not lost on her -- she herself can also be seen as a prisoner forced to work for Lorca, though she is choosing this out of her own sense of guilt, where the creature has no choice.

The episode was filled with other great character moments to underscore the way they'd been established in previous episodes: whip-cracking Lorca, awkward motormouth Tilley, thoughtful and wary Saru, and put-upon (understandably so) Stamets. Look four episodes into any other Star Trek series, and I think you won't find characters as sharply drawn as what we have here.

But this was only half the episode. The Klingon storyline was resumed, following Voq's efforts to lead T'kumva's disciples back to glory. Well, back to just functioning, actually; it was revealed that they've been scavenging around the battlefield/graveyard for months, barely subsisting. It's a uniquely Klingon attitude to be all about the battle, yet reject the spoils of a battle as a pollution of racial purity. It's also uniquely Klingon that enduring hardship doesn't really fall under the banner of "honor"; given the chance, most of Voq's followers abandoned him.

It's an intriguing story line, and more intriguing still to see a Star Trek show pursue a serialized story line that's completely isolated from every main character of the show. But I'm going to join the chorus: the subtitles stink. I don't object in principle to the idea of reading extensive dialogue in a foreign language -- it's been used to great effect in Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and other prestigious shows. But there are two major flaws in how it's being approached here:

First, the Klingon language itself doesn't sound right in these actors' mouths. It's so stilted and guttural that the actors seem hard-pressed to emote through it. This episode showed some progress in this from the premiere, but it's still hard to read the impulses driving any given scene. The second problem is the actual font itself in which the dialogue is subtitled -- it's just the worst. It's presented in small caps, which compresses the vertical appearance and makes any character talking about himself (saying "I") stick out awkwardly in a sentence. It has bulky serifs that spindle out and render the individual characters less distinct. And the kerning leaves huge spaces between the letters such that very little text can be placed on the screen at one time; this makes it even harder to follow the throughline of a scene, because a character's dialogue often must be broken up and can't fit on the screen all at once. There's really something to the widespread subtitle complaining, above and beyond a superficial "I hate reading" criticism -- these specific subtitles are almost bred in a lab to be off-putting and hard to read.

Overall, though, the episode was a good one, and the most "Star Trek" episode the series has had yet. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Boxing Day

Rewinding now to that escape room/dinner party night I wrote about last week, I'd like to talk about the other brand of escape room in a box game we tried.... er.... Escape Room in a Box.

This is one of the many Kickstarter-makes-good stories in the board game industry, a product that was funded so successfully and feted with such enthusiasm that it was subsequently purchased by Hasbro. Word is it will be re-released this coming November, now re-christened as the first of a line of games -- Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment.

Where this product seeks to stand out from the many other escape games is that it goes in hard for the props. The game contains metal tins and a zippered "bank bag" (just like you will actually encounter in a live escape room), all closed with combination locks you'll have to deduce the codes for. There are other props too, though saying much about them would risk spoiling the experience for those who will one day try the game. Suffice it to say, though I have yet to try some of the escape room games out there, I can't imagine that any others have spent more on the tactile side of things, giving you actual items to interact with.

The puzzles of this game were a pretty authentic representation of the escape room experience too. Some were easy, some were hard (though, talking with another group who played, we didn't necessarily agree on which was which). One puzzle we never did exactly crack how the game was trying to give us the information, though we got to it just the same without having to "cheat" by trying multiple answers through brute force.

Kickstarter backers got a "refill kit," replacing the games disposable items so that it could be played again with another group without having to duplicate any of the items. (Hopefully, this touch makes it to the mass market production.) The game even registered itself with a "track your escape room success" app, placing it alongside physical escape rooms and letting you track your time/score, if you like.

They seem to have thought of everything, and the effort really shows. I'm tempted to dock the product a few points for the one or two obtuse elements of its puzzles.... but then, maybe it was just me and my group that were being obtuse. The bottom line is, this product does a pretty amazing job of rendering the escape room experience in bring-it-home form. I give it an A-.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

If the Stars Should Appear

The writing of the most recent episode of The Orville was not as sharp or compelling as the installment before, but it was still a classic Star Trek story through and through. "If the Stars Should Appear" had the Orville crew dealing with a primitive people unaware that their "planet" was actually a massive interstellar spaceship.

The metaphor was a bit murkier this time, though the plot did brush up against issues of religious dogma, authoritarianism, and (if you sort of squint and cock your head) climate change. It was definitely a cocktail of Star Trek themes. Though the jokes were still woven in, and the characters still relaxed and 21st-century casual, the behavior was more noble and in the Trek mode this week. The crew still helped the aliens, even after those aliens shot Kitan and tortured Grayson, and gave the ship over to its owners in the end.

The most Star Trek element of all this week was actually the music, which in several key moments was specifically crafted to mimic passages of actual Star Trek scores. Most distinctive -- to me, anyway, as I've listened to Jerry Goldsmith's work again and again -- was when they first boarded the alien ship, a two-minute chunk of music that came as close to matching "V'Ger's Theme" from Star Trek: The Motion Picture as you can without opening yourself up to a lawsuit. I was quite distracted, though simultaneously swept up in a wave of nostalgia by just how much this series wants to pay homage to Star Trek.

Character behavior was a bit one-note all around this week. That was nothing out of the ordinary for the "aliens of the week," but was a bit of a regression for the main cast. Bortus had a generic spat with his husband (that didn't even get resolved within the episode), Isaac was all about making Mercer uncomfortable with personal questions, and most everyone else was being generally stoic. There was at least plenty of room for some of the better humor the show has played thus far: Mercer trying to be diplomatic about the terrible food, LaMarr's celebration at destroying the enemy ship, Grayson cracking wise about her "Friends" at Central Perk, and more.

And it did all end on a fun note of wonder, with the world ship's dome retracted for an entire population to behold the stars for the first time. (An extra degree of gravitas was lent to the proceedings by Seth MacFarlane dipping into his Contacts and calling up Liam Neeson for an unexpected cameo.)

I think this might have actually been the weakest episode so far of The Orville, but it still struck a loving tone that was fun to watch -- an especially nice one in pairing with Star Trek: Discovery, actually. Those who can't get on board with the darker Trek can revel in the old school-ness of this pseudo-Trek. I give "If the Stars Should Appear" a B-.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Context Is for Kings

If you were on the fence about Star Trek: Discovery last week after its one broadcast episode (half episode, really; the two-parter finished online), let me try to clarify things after episode 3: do it. Go for it. Get the streaming service. Suck it up, pay the monthly fee (you do it for Game of Thrones without complaint; or do you pirate that too?). It's worth it.

Here ends the spoiler-free portion of the review. If you need the spoiler-light version as farther convincing:

It's easier to recommend Star Trek: Discovery now that we can all wrap our heads around what it is -- "Star Trek: Black Ops." I expect this will have a section of Trekdom up in arms. Starfleet doesn't have a sinister bone in its body, they'll say. But Deep Space Nine used the "Section 31" conceit to serve up some of the most powerful morality tales of the entire franchise. Starfleet doesn't pursue research with weapons applications, they'll say. Except for the Genesis Device, of course, the Macguffin at the heart of the best Star Trek movie. Or, you know, just recall that the Starfleet of Kirk's era wasn't nearly as enlightened as that of the series that followed, justifying the time in which this series is set (as opposed to setting it post-Voyager).

But watch it. Because this series is very quickly declaring itself as a worthy entry in the Star Trek canon, actually going boldly where none have gone before -- because this setup sure feels like it will facilitate some new kinds of stories. Or even worthy takes on similar old stories, as we have a whole new darker set of characters to experience them.

Here ends the spoiler-light portion of the review. If you continue from here, I'm assuming you're current on the show.

One of the virtues of doing a "prologue" two-parter to open the series is that it already firmly established Michael Burnham (and, to a lesser extent, Saru). That made for more time to introduce others in the Discovery crew this week, and the episode really did this well -- we got very little in the way of monologues serving up backstory (Captain Lorca talking about his eyes was the only moment that stuck out awkwardly for me). Instead, we got lots of the characters actually showing us who they are.

Starting with Lorca (since I just mentioned him), we've got a captain who might just have the shortest leash of any to command in a Star Trek series. He's stern, won't leave the door open even a crack for insubordination, and is absolutely willing to bend the rules to get what he wants. But he's also not humorless (his playful but withering dig at Stamets' intelligence establishing that). After wondering what the hell a Tribble was doing in his ready room for several minutes, I decided that might actually tell us everything we need to know about the man. Lorca is the sort of person who would keep a cooing biohazard as a pet, the sort of person who has actually figured out (or had people figure out) a way to keep the damn thing from overrunning his ship with its breeding... and who decided to keep that information a secret. Lorca lives dangerously and keeps his cards close to the vest always. He's unlike any Trek captain we've seen so far, and casting Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) to play him seems perfect.

Another character with rough edges, Stamets will not suffer fools -- but he's smart and inventive enough that unfortunately for him, he usually has to. Simultaneously, though, he actually might be the closest thing to a "regular Starfleet character" that this show has -- he's the voice on the show most questioning why a convicted criminal should be welcomed into the crew, he's the one complaining how his pure dream is being co-opted for nefarious applications. He seems like he might be the moral center of the show, which is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it seems like Discovery's mission will have vanishing use for morality; second, because he's going to be a beacon of morality and the franchise's first regular gay character. (Not to be retconned as such.) This facet of Stamets wasn't discussed in his first episode, though it's been widely reported on, and I love the pairing of stalwart morality with the character who a stubborn portion of society would find inherently immoral. I look forward to seeing what Anthony Rapp does with the role.

Cadet Tilly is hilarious. I imagine some people will find her annoying. And it's also true that "doe-eyed newbie" has an expiration date as the character experiences more and more. But it's great to have someone in the mix who doesn't react to the bizarre, unique, and incredible with blank-faced stoicism. It's also fun to have someone so socially awkward in the mix too, whose attempts to be sly backfire in her face ("assigned seating"). Giving Burnham, the character raised by Vulcans, a roommate who's so emotionally unreserved is an inherently wonderful comedic pairing. And it seems like Mary Wiseman has the comic timing to pull it off.

The episode gave us not only lots of character, but plenty of atmosphere too. The sequence aboard the USS Glenn was a straight-up Alien homage, a mini-horror movie that included lots of tension and some truly grisly visuals (this is the stuff they can do because it's a streaming show). The opening taste of prison life, by way of the three hardened criminals on the shuttle with Burnham, was another glimpse at a corner of the Star Trek universe we don't usually get to see.

In short, I'm enthusiastically on board now. If this were the pilot episode of the show, it would, far and away, be the most effective pilot of any of the Star Trek series. I give this episode an A-. I'm ready and eager for what comes next.