Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Questioning Podcast

Though actor Jonathan Groff's most recent work was in the Netflix series Mindhunters, he's best known for musicals -- from Hamilton and Spring Awakening on Broadway to Frozen in the movies and Glee on TV. And he's followed that thread of his career to an unexpected place: podcasts.

36 Questions is a three-part podcast from the creative forces behind Limetown. It's a sort-of stage play rendered in audio form, about a couple who have reached a major bump in their marriage: Jace has discovered that his wife "Natalie" is really Judith, and has been lying about her identity since they first met years ago. He's fled to a cabin in the woods, while she's pursued him in a last-ditch attempt to save the relationship. She wants a do-over of one of the first things they did together: taking a quiz of 36 questions that lead to love.

And, as I mentioned, it's a musical.

Written and composed by Christopher Littler and Ellen Winter (and produced by the Limetown duo Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers), 36 Questions is a cleverly constructed little piece. It's like a play in its level of intimacy, in how it focuses on just two characters in a tight and impossible situation. It also adapts to the unconventional medium of a podcast by not being limited to what could be produced on a stage. The action does move around, through a raging thunderstorm, inside a moving car, and into a crowded restaurant. Clever foley work always grounds the sense of place, making it easy to imagine watching the performance in your mind's eye -- it's just that sometimes you have to imagine sitting in a theater while other times you might imagine it on your television.

Two performers have to carry the whole enterprise essentially on their own, and do so wonderfully. I've already mentioned Jonathan Groff, the "heavy hitter" who will pull many musical fans to the podcast. The other is Jessie Shelton, a lesser-known performer who actually has more of the heavy lifting to do in the story -- her character Judith is the one desperate to save a marriage Jace has already given up on, she's the one who has been lying and must explain why, she's the one narrating her crazy plan into a cell phone recording (the framing device for the entire show). This piece wouldn't work if both performers weren't 100% dialed in, and both rise to the challenges.

In any musical, the songs have to click to make the whole thing work. They do here. Like the project itself, they're often unconventional tunes, playing with discordant notes in unusual keys, toying occasionally with dropped beats and weird rhythms, and layering the performers to provide their own harmonies. But the songs are quite memorable. It's been nearly two weeks since I finished listening to the third and final part, I only listened to the podcast once through, and yet some of the songs still pop up in my mind from time to time.

My one slight reservation about 36 Questions is that, in setting up such a difficult situation for the characters, the bar to get them out of it is quite high. I'm not entirely sure how I felt about the ending. It was unexpected, though, like the podcast itself, I suppose -- so not necessarily a bad thing.

At roughly 50 minutes per "chapter," you're not looking at a deep time commitment here, certainly not compared to a typical podcast or even a fully-produced audiobook. I'd grade it an A-. If you're up for something experimental and different, I'd give 36 Questions a try.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Dax

Though all of the Deep Space Nine characters would grow to be layered and compelling in time, Jadzia Dax was arguably the one with the most built-in potential. With multiple past hosts of experience and back story to flesh out and play with, the character inherently contained multitudes. The writers, just as curious as the audience about that, decided to explore things in the episode "Dax."

After a group of Klaestrons attempt to abduct Jadzia Dax, their leader Ilon Tandro switches to a direct route and presents Sisko with a warrant for her arrest and extradition. 30 years ago, her former host Curzon allegedly committed murder and treason, and now Tandro wants to extradite Jadzia for trial and capital punishment. A trial ensues to ascertain whether the current Dax can stand accused for the crimes of a past host, while Odo investigates the decades-old case to try to exonerate her.

Among the die-hard Star Trek fans who followed all the series, this episode may be most notable for one of its credited writers: D.C. Fontana. The veteran of the original series and early Next Generation was invited by staff writer Peter Allan Fields (who'd worked with her before) to come in and write this script from a rough outline the staff had generated. The character-heavy premise played to her strengths, but she found the assignment difficult all the same. Her ideas on the voices of the new characters of this new series didn't necessarily mesh with those emerging from the staff. Fields would end up re-writing her draft (and splitting episode credit), and this would be Fontana's final Star Trek contribution.

The episode could be seen as a loose repackaging of an all-time great Next Generation episode, "A Measure of a Man." But while both episodes put a main character's very identity on trial, the allegory there (of slavery and the Dred Scott case) was stronger. Perhaps you could consider this episode analogous to the story of criminal who lives a straight-and-narrow life for decades only to be caught later for high crimes? Or perhaps there's no real analogy here at all -- it's simply an exploration of a sci-fi concept without being a lens to examine a real-world dilemma.

Notably, the episode doesn't even resolve its moral question: Dax is exonerated before we ever get an answer to the question of whether she can stand accused for the crimes of past hosts. And while the episode does have fun with the back-and-forth arguments over the question, it's odd that we never get the "official" Trill answer to this. Surely their society must have laws governing this exact situation, so what's the legal culpability in their minds?

Then again, perhaps the omission of the Trill perspective isn't so odd, when you consider that this episode about Dax isn't much of a showcase for Dax. Terry Farrell has surprisingly little to do in the episode, her character remaining stoically silent through most of it. It's good for many of the other characters, though (save O'Brien, who for some reason is specifically written out at the top of the episode). We get a lot more back story on the friendship between Sisko and Dax, of Sisko's admiration for (and acceptance of the faults of) the "old man." Odo gets into full investigative mode, and unlike last time gets to see it through to the end. (Though you'd think being recently framed might make him initially less flippant about the situation.) There's a delicious scene in which Sisko steps aside and Kira goes full-tilt at the "annoying" Ilon Tandro.

It's also a pretty solid episode for the guest stars, a mix of solid working actors and Star Trek veterans who turn in good work here. Gregory Itzin has had a long career of weasels and lawyers (and weaselly lawyers), perhaps most memorably playing Charles Logan on 24. He imbues Ilon Tandro with enough strength that his arguments at the hearing actually seem credible. Fionnula Flanagan plays the widow Enina Tandro, delivering a good scene with Odo and an even better one at the end of the episode with Dax. You can see in their farewell that Enina still recognizes something of her former lover Curzon in Jadzia. (Though even a chaste kiss on the cheek would have been nice here. It would take a few seasons before Trill romance would be explored in that way in an episode.)

Stealing the show, though, is Anne Haney as the Bajoran arbiter Els Renora. Striking an entirely different tone from her role as Rishon Uxbridge on The Next Generation, she's crusty and stern, yet in a truly fun way. There's a subtlety to the performance too -- watch for the withering look she gives the "unfaithful" Enina as she makes her final exit. I was reminded throughout the episode of a much more recent show, The Good Wife, which routinely presented similar judges with memorable personalities (and brought them back in multiple episodes, too; sadly, there would be no repeat visit by Renora).

Other observations:
  • There are worse things than being left out of an episode (like O'Brien and Jake) -- like being in one, but horribly written. Bashir crosses over into true ickiness here in his pursuit of Dax. After she shoots down his skeezy flirtations at the start of the episode, he basically decides "no doesn't really mean no" and stalks her. At this point in the series, his character needs some serious rehabilitation. (But by my memory, it's a long way off.)
  • This episode brings the first mention of Klingon coffee, a.k.a. raktajino.
  • Klaestron assault gear includes some truly impressive gloves.
  • Though this isn't primarily an action episode, the opening act featuring Dax's abduction is fairly well staged. There's a satisfying amount of strategy/counter-strategy between our heroes and the Klaestrons.
  • The notion of holding the hearing in Quark's bar feels pretty flimsy. I would have said it was to save money on building a new set, but producer Michael Piller specifically denied this, saying they just liked the bar and wanted to use it. It does make for another fun Odo/Quark scene, at least, watching the former strong-arm the latter.
This would have been a better episode if it had really pursued all the interesting issues it raised to some dramatic completion. Still, it did at least raise the issues, in the mode that would ultimately come to define Deep Space Nine. I give this episode a B.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Photo Opportunity

In some board games, the theme is a fairly light gauze draped over a mechanical framework. Sometimes, though, the theme is such a compelling fit that you can't imagine the game existing without it. Photosynthesis is the latter kind of game.

Each player is custodian of a group of trees that they're cultivating for points inside a forested grove. Seeds grow into small trees, which can be grown larger and larger, until they can finally be harvested to increase your score. In each of their intermediate stages, the trees generate the energy that become your action points -- the means by which you spread new seeds, grow existing trees, or harvest.

But the real nugget at the heart of it all, locking all the flavor and mechanics into a compelling place, is the sun. The board is a large hexagon, and every round, the sun shines in from one corner, spreading in straight lines down two edges of the board. Your energy is only generated by trees that can see the sun. If a taller tree stands in the way, it casts shadow that blocks other trees in the line from doing anything. Every round, the sun rotates to a new point, so while one round could be very powerful for you, the next round might change fortunes entirely.

While I was playing Photosynthesis and trying to plan my next moves, I found myself thinking about the story wrapper of it all. The strategies you have to contemplate here feel very mechanical. There are a lot of ideas of area control at play here. Every space on the board has three things you have to account for -- how it will generate energy for you, how you might use it to block energy from opponents (through the casting of shadows), and how an eventual harvest in that location will score you points (as different spaces on the board are worth different amounts). You also have to think about how each space might play for you on future turns as the sun comes around to new locations.

On down time between turns, I found myself thinking about how much it all played like an abstract strategy game, something from the GIPF Project series, perhaps. And yet, without the metaphor of sun and trees and shade, the whole thing would hardly make sense. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a designer would ever even think to craft a board game this way without first having that story to underpin it all. And the components are really well made -- large, interlocking cardboard pieces that form a colorful "army" of trees.

The rulebook isn't quite as explicit on a few points as I think it ought to have been. In particular, the rules around spreading seeds from an existing tree into an empty space have been clarified in multiple threads on BoardGameGeek -- and getting them wrong (which we did, the first time) leads to a quite imbalanced way of exploiting the game. Still, there was much to appreciate here.

Provisionally, I'd give Photosynthesis a B+. But with multiple (correct) plays, I can only imagine that inching upward, not down.

Monday, November 27, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Q-Less

Among Star Trek fans, the character of Q was widely loved. It was inevitable that he would put in appearance on Deep Space Nine. That this would occur only a few episodes into the life of the series was not only a surprise, but I think a misstep.

A runabout returns from the Gamma Quadrant with a human archaeologist aboard, the roguish Vash. Though at first no one can understand how she got halfway across the galaxy years before the discovery of the wormhole, the answer becomes apparent when her former traveling partner, Q, arrives on the scene. Vash is looking to make a quick buck, and clean break from the troublesome entity. Q, of course, has other ideas.

According to series writer Ira Steven Behr, the staff was under a directive to "'show that we're still part of the Star Trek universe' by bringing over people from the other series." Hence, the appearance on Deep Space Nine of Lursa and B'Etor, and now another Next Generation pair. According to show runner Michael Piller, though, the original pitch from writer Hannah Louise Shearer was for Vash only.

To me, crossing Vash over makes some sense. Her role on The Next Generation was to clash with the show's sensibilities in general (and Captain Picard in particular). It was like oil and water over there -- intentionally, and to good effect. Bringing her into the world of Deep Space Nine, where she would blend easily with the show's sensibilities in general (and where she'd get along with Quark in particular) is a logical way to highlight the differences of the spinoff series.

But Piller was looking for a way to bring Q to Deep Space Nine. He knew enough to admit (in an interview) that "if you just have him come on and say "Look, is this the new show?,' it's silly." But he wanted to have Q all the same, and since Vash had last been seen in Q's company, Piller thought he'd found a natural opportunity. When he assigned script duties to staff writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, it was with the directive to add Q to the story.

Wolfe was a veteran of The Next Generation who had made the jump to Deep Space Nine. Years later, with the benefit of hindsight, he speculated that this actually worked against him on this episode. The Deep Space Nine characters were still largely unknown at this point, but "Q was familiar to me ... and he was so fun to write." The two familiar characters, Q and Vash, gobbled up all the screen time, resulting in a guest-star-centric episode.

It's questionable how true this episode is to the character of Q in any case. Sure, he's funny here. I laughed, even re-watching it. But his motivations for wanting to stay together with Vash are unclear. She should be so far beneath him as to be completely uninteresting after their time together. Actor John de Lancie said the behavior he was asked to play here amounted to "skirt-chasing," and though he could imagine Vash's connection to Picard being some kind of motivation for Q, it's not part of the script. (And rightly so. This episode is already enough of a sequel to an episode of an entirely different television series.)

The Deep Space Nine characters really are bystanders in their own story. Odo, Kira, and Dax are barely in the episode. (Jake is absent altogether.) Bashir's role is to creepily chase two different women (having given up on Dax for the moment?), before literally sleeping for the back half of the episode. O'Brien's job is to provide exposition for anyone who hasn't seen the Vash and Q episodes of The Next Generation. Sisko's one meaningful scene is to punch Q in the face, but it hardly makes Sisko look daring since Q is rather de-fanged in this episode -- he doesn't even retaliate with "Qpid" level playfulness, much less "Q Who" level deadliness.

Quark is the one regular character that gets anything of substance this episode -- and it isn't necessarily great. His bargaining skills fly out the window the moment Vash molests him. (Oo-mox puts the sexual harassment shoe on the other foot. Hooray for equality?) He's ostensibly better at pimping merchandise at an auction than Vash, but his actual technique doesn't provide the strongest evidence.

There are at least a couple moments dropped in that, while not paying off well here, do set up some good things for future Deep Space Nine episodes. Bashir tells his story of confusing a preganglionic fiber with a postganglionic nerve for the first time. O'Brien's there to hear it and roll his eyes, too, the beginning of the "frenemy" phase of their relationship. And, in a purely flavorful tidbit, this episode marks the first mention of "gold-pressed latinum."

Other observations:
  • This episode is so guest-star oriented that it even makes room for a boring scene in which Vash interacts with another guest star to stash items into a deposit box. I can only imagine that the scene is so long because the writers think they're cleverly hiding the episode's "Macguffin crystal" amid other items. It's a tissue-thin pretense that fails to conceal anything.
  • Speaking of that crystal, the fact that it turns into a giant space alien at the end of the episode is a worthless, out-of-nowhere twist that only serves to make the episode feel like a spiritual sequel to another Next Generation episode, "Encounter at Farpoint."
  • Q actually says the word "technobabble" out loud, making it canon of a sort.
  • What the hell is going on with Vash's weird necklace-that's-also-earrings?
  • It's still too early in the series for the Morn to be a source of fun. But we still get some mirth from a non-speaking character when the six-fingered alien raises his hand to bid at the auction.
I'll be honest. Because I have of course seen The Next Generation and I do know Vash and Q, there's a part of me that enjoys this episode. As an installment of Star Trek, it might even rate a B-. But as an episode of Deep Space Nine, it's a C at best.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

This Movie Is Sick

The "rom-com" is a much-maligned movie genre. (Hell, I don't think much of them myself, most of the time.) But sometimes a movie comes along the shakes up the formula and does something different and special -- a movie like The Big Sick.

Starring comedian (and Silicon Valley star) Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick is a story inspired by real life. He and his wife Emily V. Gordon teamed up to write a script based on how they actually met. A short span of dating led to a break-up, and then immediately went into upheaval when Emily became suddenly and mysteriously sick and was placed into a medically induced coma. "Film Kumail" must suddenly interact with the parents of "film Emily," whom he's never met, all the while trying to deal with his own overbearing family.

Rom-coms are a predictable genre, and of course this one is too, despite the radical change-up in narrative. Gordon lived, and she and Nanjiani married, and that's how we get this story. (Also, not too many "coms" would dare to kill the love interest.) But it's not surprise or suspense that makes this movie tick. Instead, it's all about the performances, and about seeing obstacles to a relationship seldom portrayed on film.

The coma would seem to be the biggest one, on paper. But the real emotional spine of the film is the clash of cultures. Nanjiani's parents (the fictional ones, but one can assume the real ones too) are all about maintaining a cultural connection with Pakistan, and that includes trying to arrange a marriage for their son. Nanjiani can't bring himself to stand up to them for what he wants; this leads to the breakup, and the ensuing guilt when tragedy strikes. This strain between heritage and the "melting pot" feels very real and specific, while at the same time quite universal -- almost everyone has a story about hiding a truth from their parents, being unable to stand up.

The cast is really great. Nanjiani plays his own role; anyone who's watched Silicon Valley or his stand-up would have known he could nail the funny, but he's also quite potent in the dramatic moments too, and easy to root for. Zoe Kazan plays Emily, and rises to two interesting challenges in the film -- first, she has only a short time at the beginning to win the audience over to both her and the relationship; second, she has to be sympathetic after the coma when circumstances have changed wildly for everyone else but not for her.

Emily's parents are played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Both bring great shades of emotion to surprisingly nuanced roles. These two characters are said not to be too closely based on real life, but they feel just as real as everyone else, thanks to the honest portrayals. The three who play Kumail's family -- Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, and Anupam Kher -- are a lot of fun, and while they don't have to do as much of the "heavy lifting," they do get their own more dramatic moments to shine.

The Big Sick is more than a simple, fluffy rom-com, and yet remains a fundamentally "feel good" movie even as it dares to dig deeper. I enjoyed it a great deal. I give it a B+.

Monday, November 20, 2017


No Star Trek: Discovery this week, but The Orville is still finishing off its first season, and this week served up a spooky episode centered on Alara Kitan.

When Kitan freezes during a crisis, she blames herself for the death of crewman and questions whether she's fit for duty. But soon there's a new problem to face, as a series of bizarre and terrifying events begins to occur aboard the ship.

All episodes of The Orville have a Star Trek vibe, and some feel like they're re-mixing one episode in particular. "Firestorm" feels like more of a cocktail, mixing the scariness of "Schisms," the am-I-going-mad elements of "Remember Me," the self-doubt of "The Loss," and a few other elements as a garnish. It turns out in the end that what's really being played on is a good, old-fashioned "danger on the holodeck" episode.

Up until that final turn, I found the episode pretty good. Alara's self-reproachment was perhaps a bit over the top, but within the bounds of setting up a typical episode of television. All the various scares were well delivered. It was fun to speculate at what sort of fear demon/space monster might be at the heart of it all.

Contributing a lot to the atmosphere was a fantastic musical score by John Debney. He's actually a Star Trek alum, and you got to hear what a big difference it makes when an executive producer (Rick Berman) isn't tamping down any attempt at interesting music. This score was brazen, energetic, and tense. And scattered throughout were a number of phrases that seemed carefully curated to evoke particular movies -- the cargo bay search conjured Alien, the fight with Isaac seemed to mimic Total Recall, and more.

Unfortunately, the idea that everything we saw was all just hologram nonsense really undercut the whole thing. It did actually explain why the fears were so scattered and random -- the scenario was itself stitched together in a manner with internal logic. But the lengthy scene in which everyone gathered to explain what we'd just seen was too long and laden with exposition -- mind wipes, special regulations, who contributed which fear. On and on it went, retroactively sapping more and more of the fun out of what we'd just seen with each line.

One last bit of fun worthy of comment was the cameo appearance of Robert Picardo as Kitan's father. So far, two Star Trek main cast members have been by to direct The Orville (Robert Duncan McNeill and Jonathan Frakes), but none had found their way in front of the camera. It was inevitable that eventually someone would put in an appearance. My money would have been on Patrick Stewart, who voices a regular character on American Dad and would have been an easy phone call for Seth MacFarlane to make. But Robert Picardo got there first.

Though it didn't stick the landing, I liked "Firestorm" overall. I'd give it a B.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Thor Thubject

I was pretty down on the first two Thor movies. I didn't even see them in the theater, in fact. But the new, third installment, Thor: Ragnarok, was said to be different. It was funnier, less self-important. More like Guardians of the Galaxy. And directed with comic sensibilities by Taika Waititi, the man behind What We Do in the Shadows. Okay, then. But fool me three times, shame on me indeed.

Thankfully, I wasn't fooled this time.

I will say there isn't a whole lot of originality on display here. The plot is essentially the same as the first Thor movie: cast out of Asgard, Thor must climb back from the depths to save the day, without the use of his hammer. But this movie is a far better take on that, the movie they should have made in the first place, really.

It is funny, in part because of the script, but in larger part because it's clear that everyone involved with the movie was actually having fun this time. Chris Hemsworth has been slowly revealing himself to be a skilled comic actor, after getting some of the better jokes in the first two Avengers, then stealing the show in Vacation and Ghostbusters. Here, the movie makes use of this, alternately letting Thor command the humorous moments and taking the wind from his sails.

Tom Hiddleston, of course, has been having fun as Loki from day one, and this movie is no exception. And the Loki fun extends to Anthony Hopkins; we saw from the end of the previous Thor film that Loki had disguised himself as Odin, and Hopkins' scenes of Loki-as-Odin are really great. You feel like he's really savoring a kind of acting he almost never gets to do. Mark Ruffalo is getting to branch out in different ways too, spending as much time or more as Hulk in this movie than as Bruce Banner, and infusing a lot of character into his motion capture performance.

The new characters are fun too. Jeff Goldblum is brought in to go full Goldblum, blending all the craziness of his wildest performances (including batty commercial pitchman) into a form of self-parody that's actually quite hilarious. Cate Blanchett seems to revel in getting to play the villain, chewing the scenery so hard in every scene that it's a good thing lots of the scenery is computer generated. She really doesn't get enough screen time for how fun she is in this movie, but I still appreciate what we do get. Then there's Tessa Thompson, who after playing tightly wound and severe on Westworld, here gets to cut loose and kick ass. I love Natalie Portman in general, but sorry, Thompson is a much better fit for this franchise.

The actors making cameo appearances are perhaps having the most fun of all. Benedict Cumberbatch's brief appearance as Doctor Strange is fairly well known, and a hilarious highlight of the first act. There are some other even briefer appearances early in the movie that have also been widely reported -- though if you haven't heard about them, it's better to be surprised. Suffice it to say, all these cameo appearances effectively take Thor (the character and the franchise) down a peg, a recurring theme of the movie that works great.

Third time's a charm, I guess. I give Thor: Ragnarok a B+. It's already been displaced from the biggest movie screens by the arrival of Justice League, but it's probably still worth getting out to the theater for in the next few weeks.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Captive Pursuit

The production schedule of broadcast television is a merciless, inexorable beast. Sometimes, bad episodes get made even when everyone knows it at the time, because something has to get in front of the camera to make the air date. Later on, with perspective, the creative forces behind a show recognize their "less than best" efforts. Not so with Deep Space Nine's "Captive Pursuit."

The first visitor from the Gamma Quadrant arrives through the wormhole, a secretive reptilian alien who calls himself Tosk. (Name? Species? Job? He's secretive about that too.) O'Brien tries to befriend him and draw him out, but things grow more complicated when more Gamma Quadrant visitors arrive, hunting Tosk for sport like an animal.

There are a surprising number of people behind the series who regard "Captive Pursuit" as one of the best episodes of the first season. It's understandable actor Colm Meaney would feel this way, since it focuses on his character, O'Brien. (Though he cited less personal reasons in an interview, noting that the question of whether to interfere with an alien society's patently barbaric practices was a "classic Star Trek story.") Producers and series co-creators Rick Berman and Michael Piller also called this a favorite from year one.

I think perhaps the good feelings stem from the way this show marked a big step forward in establishing the identity of Deep Space Nine as a separate thing from The Next Generation. It's a problem that comes to the station, not a "new life form" the crew "seeks out." And the resolution is more morally ambiguous. For one, O'Brien cheats the straight and narrow rules to help Tosk in the end. Moreover, it's really not lasting help; Tosk goes free only to be surely captured somewhere down the line, and certainly without any change to the society that engages in this bloodsport.

All that is great on paper, at least. The problem is that on screen, it's not very engaging. To my mind, it comes down to problems with pacing and urgency. No one seems particularly bothered that Tosk is withholding information... though you could argue that almost makes sense, given that Tosk doesn't really act like someone being hunted. He should be running for his life, afraid he could be caught any moment, but gives only lip service to the idea that he's in a rush. Perhaps the current depiction of Saru on Star Trek: Discovery casts a shadow here; Saru has learned to live with the feeling of being hunted, yet still comes off more credibly like "prey" than Tosk does here.

The pacing remains lax even when the hunters arrive. There's a fire fight on the promenade that includes plenty of phaser shots and even a loose sense of tactics, but it all feels less kinetic than a laser tag or paintball match, never mind a situation where lives are actually on the line. And the action suffers even more from Rick Berman's edict that the musical scores of his Trek shows never do anything flashy. There's no tension or sense of stakes at all.

It also doesn't help that Tosk plays like a first draft of a later element of Deep Space Nine that here hadn't been thought out fully. So much of Tosk ended up a part of the Jem'Hadar -- existing only to serve a more powerful race, the reptilian appearance, the ability to cloak. Even the actor who plays Tosk, Scott MacDonald, would wind up playing a Jem'Hadar in a later episode.

There are a few decent character moments scattered throughout that do pull the episode back to middling. Because O'Brien doesn't know his new commander well enough yet, he can't confide in Sisko his plan to set Tosk free. (Even though Sisko implicitly approves of it in the end with a sly "I guess that one got by us.") This is the also episode where Odo makes explicit the fact that he never carries a weapon, a detail that actor Rene Auberjonois then dutifully safeguarded going forward any time someone tried to hand him a phaser prop.

However, the one element of the episode that plays worst today is the opening scene, in which a dabo girl comes to Sisko to complain that Quark has been sexually harassing her, and has even made accepting such harassment a condition of her employment. It's quite timely to be watching this scene now, when similar allegations are cropping up daily, and being taken seriously. On the other hand, how dated the scene appears, in that it's played just as a comedic slide whistle, a cold open to start the episode that has no thematic connection to the plot and is never brought up again. Still, it could have been worse. According to episode director Corey Allen, an early draft of this scene actually had Sisko flirting with the vulnerable dabo girl and trying to land a date. Whoever saw fit to cut that, bless you.

Other observation:
  • Just this one, really: how bonkers is it that anyone can just ask the computer where the weapons are stored on the station (whether they're in a "secure" area or not)?
The weakest episode of Deep Space Nine so far, I give "Captive Pursuit" a C. The show had been hitting better to this point than The Next Generation in its early days, but it had to stumble eventually.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

It All Works Out

After our group was humbled the last time we attempted an escape room, we got together again recently to try another room. It was also a new company for us, EscapeWorks Denver, in the heart of downtown.

There were 9 of us, planning to split up into two groups. We got a call from the company an hour before, though, that one of the rooms had a broken element that would make it unplayable. Already being in the area, we decided to combine into a "super group" to take on a Casino Heist: after planning a caper with an absent "partner" who double-crossed us, we had one hour to enter the vault and then escape the trap before the "police" arrived.

This room was meant for a maximum of 8, but they did let us all go in because of the technical difficulties on their end. We did learn, though, that the escape room experience is awfully crowded when you play at the max (much less above it). It's just hard for everyone to find a way to contribute. Any puzzle you look to already has two or three people working it who seem to have it well in hand; leave them to find another puzzle and you'll just find the same thing.

Still, we did manage to avoid stepping on each other's toes too badly, and almost everyone had their moment to shine on one puzzle or another. I was particularly glad that I did, as I also had a "poisoning the well" moment on an earlier puzzle. I'd misinterpreted a particular written clue in a way that was leading me to a wrong answer, and had successfully infected the thinking of several others with my wrong assumptions. It definitely cost us some time and effort.

EscapeWorks has an interesting solution to the problem that plagued us last time we went to an escape room: being too proud to ask for a clue. We swore to ourselves going in that we weren't going to be like that this time, but it turns out that wasn't how clues worked at this place. There was a TV screen inside the room, and clues appeared at the observer's discretion. If they felt you'd been stuck on something too long, a clue would appear on the monitor after a while. Not everyone was a fan of this approach; there were a few cases where some people wished we'd been given more time to figure things out for ourselves before getting even a small nudge. (But no one could quite bring themselves to ignore the monitor altogether.) In any event, it did keep us moving forward.

We were successful in our escape, with just under 12 minutes remaining. As further apology for the problems with the second room, we were given some passes to return, but we almost certainly would have planned to go back anyway. The production values felt much higher than Colorado Escape. The puzzles were varied and clever. And they've got four other rooms available (when working, anyway) for you to take on.

We'll be back for more...

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Cupid's Dagger

When a TV show builds a major event into a character's back story right from square one, it's inevitable that some episode will delve into it deeper. The Orville is no exception, building an episode around Darulio, the infamous "squirting blue alien" that came between Mercer and Grayson. Less expected, perhaps, was seeing that alien embodied by none other than Rob Lowe. Seth MacFarlane seems to have an exhaustive Contact List, though, and a crazy makeup job wasn't enough to deter Lowe from coming to play.

This was the silliest episode of The Orville by far; all aspects of the plot were handled lightly. That included the ostensibly serious subplot of the alien diplomatic negotiations, and Yaphit's pursuit of Dr. Finn. The actors seemed to be having a lot of fun with it, from Lowe enacting a full charm offensive to MacFarlane being dopey and smitten, to Penny Johnson Jerald going for broke and trusting the CG artists not to leave her hanging. (They didn't.)

I admit, I laughed quite a bit. Then afterward, I had second thoughts. Attitudes about consent and sex are undergoing a titanic shift right now, and this episode is airing in a world radically more aware than even the one in which it was filmed only months ago. This episode was meant to go down light and easy, and at times it did; nevertheless, taking a wider view of it, there are elements that really shouldn't read as so funny.

Darulio knows fully what he does to others while he's "in heat," but has no problem exploiting their compromised ability to give consent. This is probably now the second time he's done it to Grayson -- I'm going to go with yes; she's long been unable to fully articulate why she did what she did with him. He's now done the same to Mercer too (who, thankfully, at least wasn't "horrified" at having had a same-sex encounter). He's broken up a marriage. He's basically a walking rufie, which, when you stop to think about it more than what the episode gives space for, is kind of terrible.

The Yaphit/Finn story shows the dark side of the glamorized Hollywood "keep chasing the girl until you wear her down" trope. Yaphit has always oozed near the border of taste, and it's been just "Yaphit being Yaphit." He can hardly be blamed for what happened here, having no way of knowing that Finn was not voluntarily giving into his "charms" at last. Still, he took advantage of her, and likely would never have been in a position to do so if the prior rebuffing of his constant "background harassment" had been received seriously.

So, yeah, ugh. Hard to like this one. Hard to completely like how I reacted to it, thinking about how hard I laughed at some of it. The Orville is trying to be Star Trek (I mean that in the best way), and Star Trek tries to make you think. So you could say that this episode was a triumph; I am certainly thinking now. But it's abundantly clear that none of these issues were actual authorial intent here. It was supposed to just be a fun romp.

This one's hard to place on the scale, but I think I'm going to call it a C+. Examining the Mercer/Grayson relationship and trying to bring more closure on their past was a good instinct. The cast was game to have fun here. Not all the jokes were inappropriate (though not letting us hear Bortus sing "My Heart Will Go On" was cruel.) But the rest of the episode was simply not okay.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Into the Forest I Go

It's crazy to think that Star Trek: Discovery had ever planned to go on hiatus with last week's episode rather than this week's. This was the tense, dramatic, action-packed note the show needed to go out on, and it certainly has me anticipating the series' return in January.

If you're going to nitpick, there are certainly some details in the episode that don't quite bear scrutiny -- the idea that Tyler would be tasked to board a Klingon ship in the first place (given his history), the character shift that Lorca is suddenly good at pep talks, Burnham lasting for even a moment in hand-to-hand combat with Kol, and of course the you-can-see-trouble-coming-from-light-years-away "one last jump" Stamets decides to take in the final moments. But these lapses in logic felt small to me, and at least in service of good moments for the characters.

Burnham got some closure (or at least, some vengeance) over the death of Georgiou, confronting Kol and reclaiming her captain's badge. There were some aspects of this confrontation that I wish had been set up a long time ago -- the "Hunt for Red October" style treatment of the Klingon language (finally sparing us from reading the worst font ever), and truly positioning Kol as a villain, but the payoff generally led to the right place. Burnham's Vulcan-cultivated exterior cracked, and then crumbled entirely later, in the quiet scene with Tyler. It was a potent journey for the character.

Tyler was brought face-to-face with his torturer, L'Rell, and the experience shattered him. There was some debate in fandom about whether "Star Trek on streaming" properly utilized its lack of language restrictions a few episodes back; I am in any case much more impressed here with how they decided to incorporate nudity -- not to titillate, but to horrify. The images of Tyler's torture and rape were truly disturbing, even as fleeting and scattered as they were. (Or perhaps because of it.) It tore down Tyler's veneer, for an emotional reckoning that's been inevitable since the character's arrival.

You're going to want to skip this paragraph if you're not up on the internet's big theory about Tyler. This episode seemed to confirm it, given L'Rell's behavior toward Tyler once she was captured. Tyler is Voq, rendered human by surgery and inserted as an agent in the Federation. Based on what we saw, Tyler doesn't actually know he's Voq, a development that certainly saves it from being the dumbest plot twist ever. If you assume there was a real Tyler, and that his brain was picked clean by a Klingon mind sifter (original series shout-out!) you can reason how Voq-Tyler was "made." Moreover, by making him being a sleeper, the emotional arc of this story isn't compromised. Tyler's experiences are still valid and not play acting. And now he'll also have to reckon with the differences once he learns the truth -- that his sexual encounters with L'Rell were no doubt consensual and loving, and that his memories of mutilation are no doubt of the surgery that transformed him.

The best character arc of the episode was for Stamets, who chose to risk it all (and/or who got manipulated into it by Lorca) on a dangerous plan to use the spore drive to pierce the Klingon cloaking technology. Prickly to noble in 7 episodes sounds like an awfully compressed character arc, but it did feel like we got to see every important step on that journey. More importantly, we got to see it culminate in one of the most loving romantic moments ever portrayed on Star Trek, which also happened to center on a gay couple. The kiss with Culber was a powerful enough moment, but the exchange "I love yous" -- which sure felt in context like saying goodbye forever -- was wrenching. Stamets may have survived that moment, and we may have even been fairly confident that he was going to, but the moment still felt honest and potent when they played it.

A second online fan theory seemed to get some love too, the one regarding Captain Lorca. But for now, I'll keep vague on this one. Suffice it to say, the evidence in this episode remained somewhat circumstantial, though the correlation felt much stronger.

Between emotional payoffs and post-hiatus teases, this episode felt to me like one of the strongest yet. I give it an A-. See you in January, Discovery.

Friday, November 10, 2017

To the Manner, Bored

I'm now seven episodes into what's been announced as a ten-episode, limited-run podcast, and I'm pretty sure I don't like it. Yet I've come so far, I'm also pretty sure I'm going to be seeing it through to the bitter end.

The podcast in question is Deadly Manners, a fully-cast work of fiction about an upper crust 1950s dinner party that devolves into a murder spree. It was the cast that drew me in, which includes Kristen Bell, Denis O’Hare, RuPaul, Timothy Simons, Anna Chlumsky, and is narrated by LeVar Burton. It's a potent lineup for a medium that in most cases hasn't figured out yet how to make money, and it definitely got my attention.

You can also tell from that lineup that this thing is probably meant to be funny. The movie Clue, as a radio drama. Maybe that was the first problem, because Clue is a bit of lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance that seems difficult to recapture. But the second, bigger problem, is that it seems the podcast isn't always on that page.

Kristen Bell is playing a ludicrously self-centered socialite (think of her character on The Good Place, but rich). Timothy Simons has all the bluster and insensitivity of his Veep character, swapping obliviousness for drunkenness). Anna Chlumsky adopts a weird accent and just chews the imaginary scenery. But the script isn't feeding them material that works for how broad they're all playing.

Meanwhile, RuPaul is playing as though just being there is enough of a joke, and Denis O'Hare is actually playing it pretty straight (even though everyone who saw True Blood or American Horror Story: Hotel knows he can serve up a joke with tongue planted firmly in cheek). Then you've got LeVar Burton holding court over it all; it sort of sounds like now and then, he's got a twinkle in an eye you can't see, but he's generally reading with such gravitas as to throw another weird gear into the mix.

I suspect part of why it doesn't all gel is that it wasn't all recorded together. That's just the bizarre way of doing things when it comes to animation, audiobooks, anything that involves standing at a microphone in a studio. That would go doubly so for a low-budget enterprise like a podcast, which surely could never actually get a cast this big standing together in a room all at the same time. But it's the core of comedy (and in particular, of something like Clue) to feed off the energy of the other performers. Here, when no one really knew how anyone else was doing it, the results are a jumble.

Weirder still are the sound effects used throughout each episode of the podcast. LeVar Burton often narrates a noise about to be made when we wind up hearing it anyway a moment later. The sounds are always maxed out in volume and jarring -- a breaking champagne glass sounds like a shattering window, a slamming door sounds like a crypt being sealed. And several times an episode, character dialogue is inexplicably panned from one speaker to the other, implying movement even if the character isn't logically moving.

I really don't like it, to be honest. But before I had really figured that out, I was already enough episodes in that I knew I was going to have to see it through. It's a whodunit, after all... and now I've got to know whodunit. New episodes are released each Tuesday, so I guess I have 3 Tuesdays to go before I'm released from my self-imposed prison.

Alright, it's not that bad. (If it were, surely I'd be able to pull away.) There are moments where the different performers are clearly having so much fun that it pushes through the mess and puts a smile on my face. But I still wouldn't recommend it; this review is more to wave anyone off that may have heard of this thing. I give Deadly Manners a C-. (Though I suppose that could adjust up or down, depending on how worthwhile the mystery's resolution ends up being.)

Thursday, November 09, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Babel

I remembered "Babel" as being one of the real turkeys of season one of Deep Space Nine. When I watched it recently, however, I found it wasn't really as bad as I'd recalled.

A virus spreads aboard the station that afflicts people with aphasia, scrambling their minds and rendering them incapable of communication. When the disease turns out to be genetically engineered, Major Kira must track down the Bajoran freedom fighters who created it during the Cardassian occupation.

There are enjoyable elements throughout "Babel," but there's something about the "everyone contracts a disease" premise that feels to me more like The Next Generation than Deep Space Nine. That turns out to literally be the case, in fact; co-creator and producer Michael Piller said that the "aphasia" premise had been around for years at Next Generation, pitched by outside writer Sally Caves (who also gave them "Hollow Pursuits").

The script does garnish the premise with a few Deep Space Nine elements to compensate. The avenue into the story is O'Brien, trying to keep up with the constant repairs that this falling-apart station needs -- a far cry from the pristine environment of the Enterprise. When the disease spreads, the father-son relationship of the Siskos is placed front and center. (On TNG, a ship-wide crisis at this point in the series simply had Beverly talk about her off-screen son, who didn't even appear in the episode.) How the disease spreads is also a DS9 geopolitical flourish; what is initially suspected to be Cardassian sabotage turns out to be a defunct counterinsurgency by the Bajorans.

There's also more screen time for the emerging frenemy relationship between Odo and Quark. Again, we see them verbally spar with each other without mercy, but the moment someone from the outside threatens (the customer who wants to force-feed Quark bad soup), they've got each other's backs. And the last act, which leaves Odo and Quark the only uninfected characters on the entire station, is a real showcase for both characters. It's the best part of the episode, though the fact that we've seen so little of the characters in their element so far does make it a little harder to appreciate them being out of their element here.

Still, it was plenty of insight for the man playing Quark. Armin Shimerman has said in interviews that this was the moment when he felt he started to really grasp the character, thrilled to be in charge alone in Ops. "Ah, this is the character," he said, "this guy who likes to have a good time, who enjoys life and who feels that no problem is insurmountable. And that fun-loving spirit and delight became ingrained in my character at that moment."

He wasn't the only actor working hard this episode. Nana Visitor has a few great accents tossed in, from Kira's swaggering walk through the promenade to the way she punctuates a threat by actually getting in a guy's face as if to breathe virus directly onto him. But it's not all fun and games for the cast. This gibberish "aphasia dialogue" requires some real commitment. It doesn't just feel like nonsense words strung together, it's as though the writers deliberately picked things that would sound silly too. The whole cast has to just power through like it's Shakespeare.

Other observations:
  • Many people probably recognize their own work day in O'Brien's, constantly being pulled in different directions by different people to do different things.
  • Major Kira's makeup in this episode is way over the top, with cheeks so brightly rouged that she looks like a James Bond villain or something.
  • Quark mentions an "old Ferengi saying" in this episode, but the idea to group these things as "Rules of Acquisition" hasn't been hit on yet by the writers.
  • I wonder if Bajorans are predominately left-handed rather than right-handed, given the placement of their combadges on their uniforms?

  • Odo's not the only one who doesn't know the rules of Dabo; the audience is definitely getting some mixed clues about it. In this episode, the way Quark talks about hitting "Dabo," it sounds like a bad thing. This would make sense if the game was named like Craps, for something you don't want to have happen. But before many more episodes, "Dabo!" would clearly become a great event for the whole table.
There are some super-cheesy moments in this episode. But there are also enough solid moments in the mix to make the episode more good overall than bad. I give "Babel" a B.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Dropping the Ball

Harmonix, the company behind the revolutionary music video games Rock Band and Guitar Hero, has partnered with Hasbro to release a new game: Dropmix. This time around, however, I'm skeptical of them having a new revolution on their hands.

Dropmix is a hybrid game that uses a smart phone/tablet app, a deck of custom cards, and a proprietary device. It's a high startup cost (though that was hardly a barrier for Rock Band), yet each piece is an important part of the whole.

The cards represent stems of songs. A card might be the lead vocals from Sia's Chandelier, the bass line from Cake's Short Skirt/Long Jacket, or the drums from Run-D.M.C.'s It's Tricky. Each card is illustrated with interesting original artwork, rarely a literal representation of the song, but a fun riff on the tone or flavor.

The device is the "game board." It has five slots where players play the cards, each slot color-coded to permit only one or two of the possible kinds of stems. There's a slot where only percussion is allowed, a slot that will take any lead part (vocals, guitar, keys, what-have-you), and so forth. The board is capable of reading radio tags cleverly hidden inside of the cards, and reacts to what gets played, turning each slot the color of the card that's there. It also connects via Bluetooth to your smart device, which is the most important piece of the puzzle.

The app does real time mixing of all the cards in play, actually playing the stems of the songs and manipulating them to fit together. The first card played sets the tempo and key, the template by which your custom masterpiece can emerge, mixing up to five song stems together into music. As cards come and go, parts of the music come and go, giving you the experience of being a DJ, and drilling down into songs to highlight their constituent parts. And somehow it always sounds good -- there's some amazing tech here, and (I suspect) careful curating of the total pool of songs available. All together, it feels like a magic trick.

What it doesn't really feel like is a game. There are two modes you can play (beyond simply free-styling with the board to create your own mixes). One is a cooperative mode, where the app prompts you ("Simon Says" style) to play a card with certain characteristics as quickly as possible. The other is a head-to-head mode where you score points by taking control of different parts of the mix.

It's not that there's no thought put into these games; there actually are some balancing elements, like a catch-up mechanism to eliminate powerful cards that can dominate the mix for too long. It's just that the games are super-shallow, operating at an Uno or Fluxx kind of level. You can argue the game has to be on that order of complexity for the sake of mass market appeal, and you'd probably be right. The music is the star here, and the average person thinks of Monopoly when they think "game." But the strategy here is minimal, repetitive, and unsatisfying. When I tried Dropmix out with friends, the initial shock of just what the game could do lasted about 3 minutes. After about 3 more minutes, it seemed like nobody really cared if they ever saw the thing again.

It certainly doesn't have the staying power of Rock Band. You don't truly engage with the music on as deep and personal a level. And the diversity just isn't there. Even if you splurge on new cards with new song components, you'll quickly get tired of mashing up the same few pieces over and over again. And it's less compelling still the less you know of the music that is included. The pairing of stems is so seamless that if you don't really know what was part of one song and what was part of another, you won't be able to identify them as separate in a resulting mix.

Ultimately, Dropmix feels like a clever tech demo. Something fun and incredible might be built using it, but this isn't it. That brief, visceral thrill you get when you first interact with it might be enough for me to grade it something like a C-, but I certainly can't recommend it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Into the Fold

Parents will tell you there's a big difference between one kid and two. It seems that's not just true in life, but in science fiction television.
This week's episode of The Orville used a stock premise that every space-faring TV series gets around to eventually, being marooned. Some series, including Star Trek, have even done it with a kid in the mix. But I don't recall seeing one that put siblings in the mix. And while that certainly risked being more annoying than entertaining, the gamble paid off in my eyes, changing up the story enough to give it an Orville stamp.

While Isaac is piloting Dr. Finn and her two sons to a vacation, a space phenomenon damages their shuttle and forces them to crash-land on a moon. Complications abound. The shuttle breaks in half upon entry, separating Finn from the rest. The moon is inhabited by an intelligent species that has resorted to cannibalism in the wake of an environmental catastrophe. And Finn is soon captured by a local looking for company in his secure bunker.

The Orville has always sought to tell Star Trek-inspired stories using more modern, realistic characters. I think this episode was the among the more effective examples of that, because it also let their children be children. Even Deep Space Nine, which let Jake Sisko be "just a kid," nevertheless kept him mostly an evolved future kid that didn't get into that much trouble. Enter Marcus and Ty Finn, who act their age, fight like brothers, and are generally worthy of Isaac's "observation" as something quite different than tiny adults. Don't get me wrong, watching two kids scream and poke at each other for a substantial portion of the episode wasn't always fun, but it did bring a dynamic into the story that was used well.

Each of the regulars involved in the crash had their own story line. For Isaac, it was the fish out of water situation of having to safeguard two children. The Orville has been writing Isaac as even more blunt that Data or Spock ever was, and got full mileage out of it this episode. The comedy worked without being too juvenile.

Meanwhile, Finn was involved in her own mini-episode of 10 Cloverfield Lane. The problem with the prisoner premise is that there really aren't that many story angles to try. 10 Cloverfield Lane addressed this by changing up the entire nature of the story multiple times along the way. Here, we got only the expected escape/cajole beats that made up the first 30 minutes or so of that excellent movie... though that was really all they needed to fill a subplot of a single episode of television. It wasn't exactly revealing much of Finn either, one of the characters more in need of development.

But the notion that she chose to be be a single parent of two boys, all while still pursuing a relatively dangerous life on an exploratory spaceship? Well, that's a big revelation. There's a chance that there's not much more to say beyond those simple facts of the situation, and yet I'm also interested to see if the show is able to expand and develop this information in a meaningful way. What does it say about this future universe in general, and about Finn in particular? Parenting is hard, and more than twice as hard when you're doing it solo. There's a kind of tenacity and resolve there that I wouldn't have previously associated with the character, one I hope is reflected more going forward. And with the recent news that the show has been renewed for a second season, there's more "forward" in which to reflect it.

For approaching a classic trope in a novel way, I give this episode of The Orville a B.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

In grading this week's Star Trek: Discovery, part of me wants to give it an "incomplete." Much like the episode that started it all, "The Vulcan Hello," this installment felt incomplete on its own, in need of a second half. Unlike that episode, we can't just fire up the next one immediately this time.

But the Powers That Be did at least learn some lesson from the premiere -- in the original scheduling plan, this episode (with its Latin title meaning "If you want peace, prepare for war”) was to have been the fall finale. But much like "The Vulcan Hello," this installment was only sort of a cliffhanger; it didn't so much build to a crescendo as it just stopped a story at the halfway point. They saw fit to go ahead and give us the conclusion next week, and then go on break for the holidays.

One element of the story felt like the most classic take on Star Trek that Discovery has served up yet, the story about making first contact with the mysterious lifeforms of Pahvo. There was the gradual realization that the landing party was in fact dealing with intelligent life, the ensuing discussion about the morality and regulations surrounding the scenario, even the series lead delivering rousing speeches.

But the whole thing felt rather rushed. This is particularly odd, because in a streaming format unbound by the need for strict network run rimes, the writers could have given everything as much time as necessary. Instead, this is actually the shortest Star Trek episode ever (outside the animated series) -- less than 37 minutes without the re-cap, "next time on..." and the beginning and end credits. In my view, that brevity sacrificed a great deal of clarity.

The "possessed Saru" plot served up the needed boogieman/complication in that story line, but didn't exactly do right by the character. You have to do a lot of painting in between the lines on your own to understand the character's behavior, and his explanation at the end somehow felt less than sufficient. The Pahvans took away Saru's fear, and so he instantly became predator instead of prey, smashing equipment, seeking to maroon his crewmates, and generally not thinking anything through more than one step? I suppose I see the logic of instantly throwing a switch here, but I feel like a gradual leaning into his newfound bliss/strength would have been more compelling, and would have done a better job of driving home that it's still really him in there, not an alien-controlled puppet.

None of the other story lines really got enough closure to comment on much. It's inconceivable that after laying all the groundwork for a L'Rell/Admiral Cornwell team-up that the Klingon would have actually killed the Admiral. (Indeed, it seems they've set up a role reversal, where the Admiral will now have to rescue L'Rell.) I guess we'll see how this plays out.

The Stamets/Tilly subplot had some fun moments between the characters, but it too is incomplete at the moment. We've seen that after being high on life for a while from huffing tardigrade DNA, Stamets is now crashing hard and back to his cranky old self. Moreover, he's devolving even from there, experiencing momentary confusion about basic reality. That's as much as we got though -- all setup, no payoff, or even intermediary steps on the way to one.

So, yeah.... I'm feeling a bit put off by this episode at the moment. I will say in its favor that an alien planet has never looked so great in any Star Trek series. The location shooting combined with strategic CG assists really made it a credible environment that was shot as impressively as any of the planets that showed up in the Kelvin timeline movies. Plus, we got the elaborate opening ship battle. The money was really all on the screen this week.

Just not all of the story. I give this week's Discovery a C+. Perhaps, when considered as a piece with what follows, I'll need to revisit that, but for now, this was definitely my least favorite episode of the series to date.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Potion Crush

Board games take their inspiration from a variety of places, and it's only natural that games from other mediums would be one of those places. Still, I was a bit amused to recently come across a game with a principle mechanic that felt cribbed from Candy Crush Saga: Potion Explosion.

Players are each trying to brew a series of potions for the most points possible. Potions all require combinations of ingredients, with more ingredients being worth more points. Each potion also has one of five special powers once completed, which the player can then "drink" to cheat the basic rules of the game one time. A bonus for brewing three of the same power (or one of each of the five) provides another axis for you to care about.

The novelty is in how the potion ingredients are acquired. The four ingredient types are all represented by differently colored marbles, which are randomly arrayed in a five column tray. The "funnel"-type mechanism at the top loosely splits the marbles into the columns, and also covers the top third-or-so of the tray so that you can't tell the exact order of what's up there. On your turn, you pull one marble out of one of the columns, claiming it for yourself. If, when the marbles slide downward to fill the gap, two identically colored marbles are made to touch by what you just removed, then you take ALL the adjacent marbles of that color. If pulling THOSE marbles brings identical colors into contact again, you keep going, chaining the process as long as it will go. The marbles you acquired are then allocated to your two potions in progress, while up to three leftover ingredients can be held on standby for your next turn.

It's a bit of a fickle game. Certainly, you can plan, and you can recognize when a particular move is going to be better than others. But that's not quite strategy so much as pattern recognition. And it's very possible, through no fault of your own, to not have a good move on your turn -- which is particularly painful when you just watched your opponent cascade four matches together and haul off a dozen marbles.

The fact that you can only brew two potions at a time (and that you can't work on a new potion during the same turn you acquired it) does help balance the randomness -- there may be only so much you can do with a windfall. The composition of the potions themselves helps too; they typically require multiples of just two or three ingredients, rather than all four. This means that sometimes, the play on the board that might give you the most marbles won't actually give you a lot of the colors you need at the moment. (That in turn means you might leave a great play for the next player.)

Still, if you struggle to get going early on, that seems to be a problem that will snowball as the game progresses. Completing potions gives you access to special powers, remember, and those powers can set up some pretty major turns. That's great when one special move opens up an opportunity you wouldn't have had; it's not so great when opponents already shined on by luck get more abilities while you are struggling to complete your first potions.

There's a quirky cleverness here that I appreciate, but overall I don't think I enjoyed Potion Explosion quite as much as some other games I've been fortunate to try recently. I'd grade it a B. If you're up for a cute theme and novel mechanic in a fairly quick-to-play wrapper, it might be a good one for you. It's hardly the first "four-player game" where circumstances inevitably conspire against one of the four players. (I'm looking at you, Settlers of Catan.)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Driven Into the Ground

On Sunday afternoon, I caught up with Baby Driver, one of the movies from earlier this year I was most sorry to have missed and most excited to see. I loved it, and was eager to write about it here on the blog.

By Monday, the co-star of Baby Driver, Kevin Spacey, had been accused of making inappropriate sexual advances on a teenager, and had responded by choosing that moment, after all the years of rumors and coy innuendo in interviews and public appearances, to finally come out as gay. It felt like a self-serving and cynical ploy to deflect, and served up to the bigots of the world that pernicious and offensive stereotype: gay man as pedophile. Meanwhile, there can be little questioning that the accusations against Spacey are true: Netflix reacted immediately by first announcing the final season of House of Cards and then by outright suspending production, and more men came forward over the following days to point the finger at Spacey.

It's not like Baby Driver is what I would call a "Kevin Spacey movie," but there's no doubt in my mind that watching it right now would be a truly compromised experience. And it doesn't help that his character is a rich and powerful criminal who professes a close relationship with the young male protagonist (that isn't reciprocated), and forces him into doing things he doesn't want to do. Yikes. Good luck watching this movie now without thoughts of the real world intruding.

It's unfortunate for everyone else involved in Baby Driver, because it was really great. From writer/director Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and more), it's the story of a young, expert getaway driver looking to pull off one last heist so he can pay off his debt and leave the life of crime behind forever. Wright has brought here all the over-the-top action sensibilities of his past movies and somehow amped them up even more.

Music is integral to what he's doing here. Every major sequence of the film is set to a carefully selected song, and meticulously choreographed to fit it and only it. It's an impressive feat that thrills immediately; the first 15 minutes of this film blew me away. First, there's an extended car chase sequence filled with dazzling and clever stunts (performed with real cars). Then there's a mind-boggling credits sequence that follows the protagonist on a lengthy walk through the crowded city streets, all in a single camera take.

The cast is excellent. Ansel Elgort is brilliant in a walled-off, largely non-verbal role, cool as they come while letting emotion show to the audience in subtle ways. (There was a rumor that he was in the running to have played the young Han Solo in the upcoming Star Wars movie. Now I have even higher expectations on who they did cast, because Elgort would have been perfect.) Lily James is a playful and compelling love interest. Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, and Jon Bernthal all play scary goons in the heist crew, greatly amping the sense of danger. Foxx in particular plays a wildly unhinged criminal capable of anything, while Hamm channels a cool facade that crumbles completely to uncontrolled rage by the final act.

And... ahem... Kevin Spacey is decent too. But his on-screen performance isn't the one anyone will be thinking of right now when they watch this movie.

I was looking forward to writing a review, giving Baby Driver an A-, and strongly encouraging everyone to watch it. To the degree that art stands separate from the artist, the quality of the movie itself is unchanged by the revelations of this past week. Baby Driver is still a great movie, right up there with the many other favorites Edgar Wright has produced. But to the degree that art is often impossible to separate from the artist, Baby Driver is sadly compromised by Kevin Spacey's presence.

It's a great movie, and you simply might not want to watch it right now.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Majority Rule

One of the central tropes of the original Star Trek TV series was the planet that's "exactly like Earth, except for..." While The Orville is more of an homage to The Next Generation than the original Trek, and Next Gen (and subsequent spinoffs) relied less on this budget-saving measure, The Orville nevertheless dabbled in that trope with its most recent episode, "Majority Rule."

The Orville crew goes undercover on a planet at a 21st-century Earth level of development, looking to determine what happened to the anthropologists who vanished there while on an observation mission. When LaMarr is caught on video by the locals performing a lewd act on a statue, they find out what happened -- they were forced into the planet's legal system, a televised hybrid of popularity contest and apology tour where the public decides whether to lobotomize the offender. And now LaMarr is in the spotlight.

The "exactly like Earth, but..." trope was also a concept at the core of many episodes of The Twilight Zone, and informed many later series that followed in its footsteps. The most current of those is a show I've really wanted to watch but haven't found the time for, Black Mirror. Still, Black Mirror has been on my radar enough to know that this exact story, that of a planet where people's "up-votes and down-votes" are used as social currency and more, was already presented on that show. So by the time you add that to the Star Trek tropes in general, plus the similarities to the Next Generation episode "Justice" in particular, it might be fair to say that this is the first episode of The Orville that isn't just an homage -- it's actually kind of a rip-off. So the question is, did this incarnation bring anything novel to the table?

Unfortunately, not much. The ending was a little bit different. Classic Trek episodes of this nature often end with some high-and-mighty speechifying about the insanity of the local culture, and a plea to set it on the "right" path. The Orville is content with a less on the nose approach, sprinkling condemnation throughout and ending with the idea that one person, at least, has seen the light by interacting with aliens.

Because the characters of The Orville aren't so polished and highly strung, the actual conflict itself is a different too. This isn't Wesley falling in some flowers because he didn't know better; LaMarr grinding on a statue in public is something he should have known better than to do in the first place (to maintain a low profile, if nothing else, as Grayson chastises him for in the moment). It's a bit silly, but silly is part of this show's makeup. In any case, the episode handles a later scene much more delicately, when Kitan unknowingly offends a local with her headgear -- a cleverly constructed metaphor of "I'm online and you just offended me!" translated into a face-to-face confrontation.

Still, I do feel like this might be the weakest episode of The Orville we've seen. I'd give it a B-.