Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Achieving Your Golems

The re-skinning of a board game is hardly a rare phenomenon. Decade-old games are resurrected with a new theme. Kickstarter successes are bought and released more broadly by publishers who update the setting. Designers update a beloved game system with a new theme (and a sprinkling of gameplay additions). But I can't say I'd ever come across a game that was released in two versions in the same calendar year -- until I encountered Century.

Released in 2017, Century: Spice Road was a game about trading spices. Also released in the same year, Century: Golem Edition offered (I'm told) the exact same gameplay as Spice Road, but with the theme of gathering gems to create giant-sized golems. I've played the Golem Edition a few times recently, and while I don't quite know what to make of the two different skins draped over the same game, I can say I found that game to be pretty good.

The gameplay is streamlined and simple. It's written on just one double-sided rules sheet, and can be explained in a minute or two. There are four colors of gems, of ascending values. A row of five cards shows different combinations of these gems to build different golems; each is worth some amount of points, and the game ends in the round when one player builds their fifth golem.

To accumulate the necessary gems, players work with a hand of cards in a system much like one of my personal favorites, Concordia. You must play one card from your hand on your turn. Each card either makes gems for you, or converts specific gems you have into specific other gems. You can take a turn off to acquire a new card for your hand, but when your hand runs out (or when the cards left in it don't help you), you must take a turn off to return all your previously played cards to your hand and start again.

It's a simple engine-building game. Because players obtain different cards for their hands, everyone's strategy/engine is slightly different. And yet the game keeps all the players in fairly close contention with each other (in pacing, if not necessarily in score) -- everyone approaches the game-ending condition of five golems at about the same time.

The nature of competition between players evolves throughout the game. Early on, there is competition to get desirable new "engine" cards. (You choose what you like from a row of options, but to pick from farther up the row, you must "bribe" each card in the row before it with one of your gems -- bribes which ultimately go to the person who takes that card.) Later on in the game, no one is really fighting over the gem-trading cards. Instead, competition gets fierce over the golems. Play is open enough that you have to watch (and can watch) whether one of your opponents is going to reach a particular combination before you can. With a strict one action per turn system, sometimes you're just too slow and have to resort to Plan B.

Luck does perhaps play a large role in the game. Having a card flip over at just the right time -- a particular golem or a particular gem-trading card -- can swing the game pretty hard for one player. Another liability in the game is how easy it is to cripple yourself when building a golem. Engines need fuel, and if you trade all your gems away, it can take you a long time to trade your way back to relevance.

But if the game can go bad in those ways, the upside is that at least it's quite a short game. Even with 5 players, even having to explain rules to some of them playing for the first time, the game can easily be finished in less than an hour. The pace also tends to increase, not decrease, as the game goes on. The decisions get faster and easier, as you're really beholden to the engine you've built. (Of course, the inability to change strategies on the fly could also be argued as a negative.)

For a fairly straightforward game, I did find Century: Golem Edition to be reasonably compelling. It seems to me to have potential as a crossover/gateway game for more casual players. (And perhaps the theme of gems and golems is better for that purpose than trading spices.) I give the game a B+.

Monday, August 19, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Distant Voices

After more than a dozen story credits on Star Trek: The Next Generation (including the widely loved "Darmok"), writer Joe Menosky was allowed to leave Star Trek without really leaving Star Trek. He gave up his job on staff and moved to Europe, but was still allowed to lob story ideas at his former co-workers whenever he had them. One of these became the Deep Space Nine episode "Distant Voices."

Bashir is attacked by a telepathic alien, sending him in to a strange coma. Struggling against both the dreamlike environment in which he lands and his accelerated aging, Bashir must find a way to escape the mental prison. But to do it, he'll have to confront his own secrets and fears.

Menosky was known for unusual premises (like TNG's "Masks" and DS9's "Dramatis Personae"), and this started out as no exception. Bashir's comatose dreamscape was to have featured guest stars playing concepts like "youth," "age," and "joy," in a literally introspective trip through his psyche. Staff writer Ronald Moore suggested the tweak that convinced the writing staff that this far out idea might actually work: have the regular actors play parts of Bashir's psyche, and set the whole thing on a falling-apart version of the station itself.

This gives the lighting crew a chance to present the show's traditional sets in a very different... well... light. There's fun spookiness throughout, from near-black corridors to a sinister visit to Quark's bar to a broken-down Infirmary. The main cast cuts loose too; particularly fun are Armin Shimerman as a frightened Quark, and Rene Auberjonois as a hyper-suspicious Odo who doesn't even trust the other characters. There's also a fun horror movie quality to the way they're all taken down one by one.

If the end result is a bit more grounded than Joe Menosky originally conceived, he can at least take consolation that it's all still pretty weird; the episode is crammed full of dream "logic" that includes unintelligible whispering, rapid jumps in setting without explanation, a Marilyn Monroe-style rendition of "Happy Birthday," and tennis balls spilling out of opened consoles. But the weirdness is in service of a solid character-driven story about Bashir's own insecurities -- chiefly fear of aging and fear of failure.

The story has Bashir lamenting his 30th birthday -- a milestone that had just been reached in real life both by the co-writer of this script, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and the actor embodying the character, Alexander Siddig. As a belated gift, Siddig got to be featured in every single scene of this episode, a rarity even when a script focuses on a particular character. He also got a taste of what some of his co-workers dealt with, having to endure three-hour makeup sessions to apply the "old age" look as his character rapidly ages inside the coma delusion.

It is not a good makeup effect, in my opinion. By the end of the episode, Bashir's face looks troweled on -- not pliable enough to look real, or for Siddig to work through it. Unfortunately, he brings a performance to match, affecting a Yoda-esque sing-songy cadence as he shuffles around. Much to my surprise, this episode actually won the Emmy for Outstanding Makeup -- even though other Trek episodes such as "All Good Things..." had far more convincing old age looks. Perhaps they won more for the admittedly cool and scary look of the Lethean alien?

It's an interesting episode for Andrew Robinson as Garak. For the second time this season, we spend most of an episode with a Garak who isn't actually real. Here, Bashir is projecting behaviors onto a psychic version of him -- those of a disguised villain secretly leading him to his doom. (The reveal of Garak as the Lethean is an especially neat morph, by the way.) Robinson threads the needle between "regular Garak" and the intentionally large performances the other cast members give, offering a chance to know something is off without giving the game away. He also has great fun in the bookending scenes in the real world, where Garak speaks of age as a mark of power and status, and compliments Bashir on not fully trusting him.

The episode also has interesting revelations for Bashir, of course. We learn here that his real aspiration was to be a tennis star, but that he went into medicine for his parents' approval. That's an intriguing notion, given how proud he's always been of healing people -- though it also explains his talents at racquetball.

Also explained is Bashir's previously established mixup of a preganglionic fiber with a postganglionic nerve. When this was first mentioned, many fans in medicine wrote in to point out that, similar as the names may seem to the average person, the two things are actually nothing alike and could not possibly be confused. Robert Hewitt Wolfe's own wife, in pre-vet studies, needled him about it too, so here he wrote those words into the mouth of the villain. Bashir must have messed this up on purpose! (A few more seasons down the road, the writers would come up with a further explanation of that.)

Other observations:
  • Actually.... nope, I think I covered it well enough this time.
This isn't one of Alexander Siddig's better performances, and the makeup is truly unfortunate. Still, I find the story itself and the secrets it reveals about Bashir to be fairly compelling. I give "Distant Voices" a B.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Tangled Up in Blue

I was really impressed with writer-director Jeremy Saulnier's thriller Green Room. I was less taken with his next film, Hold the Dark -- though I was still left with enough goodwill in the reserves to seek out Saulnier's earlier efforts. This led me to his 2013 thriller, Blue Ruin.

Blue Ruin is the story a Dwight Evans, a homeless man whose life went hopelessly off track after his parents were murdered. Now the murderer is being released from prison, and Dwight is willing to sacrifice all of what little he has to seek vengeance.

This movie was made before Green Room, but has much of the same DNA in it. It's a compact story that puts an outclassed hero in an impossible clash with an intractable foe. The message is not obscure in any way: this is a story about the high cost of revenge. But though the story is clear and simple, that doesn't necessarily mean it's predictable. Multiple times throughout the film, just as I was calibrating my expectations to what I thought was going to happen next, there would be a sudden shift that surprised and thrilled me.

It's not just the story that's smart and slim; the dialogue itself is also incredibly economic. For large chunks of the movie, the main character is completely on his own. His thoughts and mood have to be conveyed without the benefit of words. Not only does Saulnier's script set this up well, the performance from actor Macon Blair is excellent.

Saulnier is an even stronger director here than a writer. The tale is incredibly suspenseful, and presented in a visually dynamic way. Violence is used shockingly and effectively to drive the message home. I was instantly wrapped up in the tale, and it kept me that way without ever letting up.

I give Blue Ruin an A-. And while it's getting a bit late to be updating my old Top 10 Movie List from 2013, I must do so now -- Blue Ruin makes it. Any fan of thrillers would be well rewarded to check it out.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Visionary

Fans of long-running TV series can be hard on episodes of their beloved entertainment. But often, no one is harder on the writers of these shows than the writers themselves. Such is the case with Deep Space Nine's "Visionary" -- a perfectly fine episode from season three that the writers themselves seem not to care for.

A Romulan delegation comes to Deep Space Nine for a Starfleet intelligence briefing on the Dominion. But Romulans being on the station is far from the most unusual thing happening. O'Brien is experiencing time jumps, glimpses of five hours in the future. And what he sees is a series of escalating threats to both himself and the station.

This story was pitched by a school teacher from Texas named Ethan H. Calk. Show runner Ira Steven Behr then gave the idea to a friend, John Shirley, to write the script (which, in the end, was polished by staff writer Ronald Moore). Having this many hands in the mix really isn't unusual for television, and isn't related to why many on staff wound up unsatisfied with the results. According to Behr, the idea felt much more like an episode of The Next Generation than of Deep Space Nine. Although it was centered on O'Brien, the "most human" character -- it wasn't really about him or especially tailored to him. This was a science mystery of the week, a type of story that Behr was trying to steer away from in season three. Some might even argue that they did do this story on The Next Generation -- "Time Squared" also dealt with time travel on an unconventional scale of hours. It still plays out quite differently from "Visionary" (and isn't nearly as good).

Ronald Moore stood up for the episode, feeling it was refreshing to tell a time travel story not bogged down in concerns about "preserving history." I side with him; The Next Generation was off the air by this point, so go ahead and tell the story they might have told but now couldn't. Besides, this story is filled with plenty of fun character moments to leaven the story and keep things from getting too technical. (A great example of steering clear of unnecessary details is when O'Brien interacts with his future self and both declare "I hate temporal mechanics.")

There's plenty of playful fun at O'Brien's expense throughout the episode, from Bashir mocking his deficient fantasy life if all he can hallucinate is a conversation with Quark, to Bashir lamely apologizing in one time jump for having failed to save his life. Other characters get light moments too, particularly Quark (who lies brazenly to the Romulans, wants to profit from O'Brien's trip to the future, and whose dart-throwing technique is a great sight gag) and Kira (whose claim to being "diplomatic" is undermined by a smash cut to her debriefing by the Romulans).

Though it's an O'Brien episode, Odo actually gets a fair amount to do in it. He's taken off guard when the Romulans reveal his secret love for Major Kira. (He's also the object of their xenophobia, which fails to distinguish between Founder and changeling.) He gets to show off his skills during his investigation of the Klingons (and specifically notes he is showing off, to remind Sisko how good he is). He also gets in several good one-liners, including the expected digs at Quark.

The ending of the episode has a surprise twist -- and it's not that a cloaked Romulan warbird is ultimately the cause of O'Brien's time jumps. (Nerdy fans of Star Trek will suss this out the moment that a mysterious "quantum singularity" is mentioned, recalling when Next Gen taught us of their use in Romulan engineering.) No, the twist is when the "O'Brien we know" dies, and his future self takes his place. It was an idea Ronald Moore introduced in his final rewrite, leading to a neat existential discussion at the end of just whose life it is O'Brien is now living.

Other observations:
  • There's nothing like a classic "Vertigo zoom" to convey disorientation. The famous camera technique is employed here when O'Brien flashes forward for the first time.
  • The bar fight is staged pretty well. Scenes like this don't always get enough extras, or enough fight choreography. It feels convincingly out of control.
  • O'Brien and Kira have actually been through a few adventures together. There's a nice acknowledgement of their friendship when she shows up in the Infirmary with a report for Sisko, but first stops to ask how the chief is doing.
  • Klingons are so often portrayed in the same limited way that it's fun when they shake things up. The idea of Klingon covert intelligence operations is a pretty sharp turn from their normal values of honor and combat.
It's probably fair to say this wasn't the most "Deep Space Nine-y" of Deep Space Nine episodes. But it's one I enjoyed a fair amount. I give "Visionary" a B+.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Freak -- Out

Because he publishes a new novel every year (unlike other bestselling, foot-dragging fantasy novelists), I've had many occasions here on the blog to write about my love-hate relationship with Terry Brooks. On the love side: I discovered him as an impressionable teenager and so I over-praised him -- not unlike many I know who loved The Wheel of Time books (reading them decades before I sampled and failed to finish them). On the opposite side, I fully recognize that the quality of his books has slipped steadily over the years -- and yet I can't bring myself to quit.

One of his recent novels could go a long way toward helping me kick the habit. Street Freaks is a stand-alone tale from Brooks, not tied to any series, and a departure in more ways than that. It's his first foray into science fiction. Set in a future version of Los Angeles, Street Freaks is the story of a young teen named Ash Collins. Pursued by assassins who killed his father, Ash hides out with a group of outcasts in a notorious section of the city. Why are people after him? And why did Ash's father use his final message to direct Ash specifically to this gang of misfits?

There are a few ways in which Brooks uses this book to try new things. After dozens and dozens of novels, this is his first ever to be written in the present tense. It's also one of the few to never switch narrative perspective, being told entirely from the point of view of the main character. These two decisions work together to make the book feel like more intimate. It's not first-person, but it's the next closest thing, making the story feel personal and immediate.

Immediacy seems to be a particular focus for Brooks here; this book is more compact and tightly paced than others he's written. It's not action on every page, but it is action right from the first page -- as opposed to most of his books that take a few early chapters to establish character before really diving into plot.

But in other ways, Terry Brooks is slipping back into his familiar habits. Once again, he's writing a book filled with young characters, and leaning even more into a YA fiction vibe than usual. There's an awkward romance shoehorned in, involving one character slowly trying to wear down the other's protests of how they just aren't right for each other. (Guess which one's the female?)

There's a high fantasy "chosen one" element woven into the story. Ash is given the trait of having an exceptional memory, which unfortunately is mishandled in key ways. First, it's something that both the reader and the other characters are just asked to take on faith for about half the book; there are no demonstrations of this ability for 150+ pages. Second, the unfolding plot strongly suggests that there's a reason Ash has this ability. This leads you to believe for the entire book that you've guessed the ending... only for Ash's memory to be completely unexplained in the end. I'm not sure what's worse, to have a flashing neon Chekhov's Gun, or to introduce a Chekhov's Gun that's never fired. What I do know for sure: I wound up disappointed twice, once when I thought I'd guessed the ending 10% into the book, then again when the end left me with an unresolved plot point.

This little side trip into science fiction by Terry Brooks hasn't delayed his other writing. The four-book series he's in the midst of right now, the one he's said will conclude his long-running Shannara series, is still on its schedule with a new book every year. (The third book was released a few months ago.) Since I've already started that series, and have been reading Shannara books almost as long as I've been reading books (that don't come with a vinyl record telling me when to turn the page), I'm probably committed to finish those. But Street Freaks was a powerful motivator for me to cut Brooks off after that. I give the book a D. Even if you're a fan of his other writing, this one is best skipped.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Prophet Motive

Though all incarnations of Star Trek have been primarily dramatic, some weren't afraid of staging largely comedic episodes. Deep Space Nine was the most willing to try of the "second age" Star Trek shows, usually focusing on the Ferengi when they wanted to play for laughs. So it was with "Prophet Motive."

Grand Nagus Zek arrives on the station, but he isn't acting like himself. He's generous, philanthropic, and honest -- and he has a vision that all Ferengi will follow his example. Quark initially suspects an elaborate scheme, but soon decides there's actually something very wrong that he's determined to uncover. Meanwhile, Dr. Bashir finds himself nominated for a prestigious award he thinks he has no chance of winning -- but the enthusiasm of his friends and colleagues is infectious, and he begins to get his hopes up.

This episode sprang from two unusual sources of inspiration. One was an unsold script that show runner Ira Steven Behr had written years earlier when he was first trying to break into the business -- an episode of the sitcom Taxi. The story, about a caddish character shocked to learn than the womanizing uncle he idolized has changed his ways, formed the loose outline of Quark's story here.

Bashir's story line was inspired by real life. As this season of Deep Space Nine was kicking off, the final season of The Next Generation was nominated for an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series. Knowing that science fiction never really got award love outside of technical categories -- and being up against the red hot new NYPD Blue -- everyone involved with the Star Trek knew they had no chance. Unless... what if they did? As the Emmy ceremony drew closer, many of the people who'd worked on the now departed Next Generation talked themselves into believing that just maybe it wouldn't be "an honor just to be nominated." But in the end, as expected, they lost. (Not as expected, they lost to Picket Fences.)

This B story actually shows that Deep Space Nine didn't have to turn to the Ferengi when it wanted to be funny. The banter between O'Brien (giving the doctor grief about his chances) and Bashir (needling the chief about how much longer his wife will be living off station) is great fun. Odo catching Bashir working on a speech he's sworn he won't need is amusing too. That said, it is an odd little story line. Bashir tells us at the beginning exactly what's going to happen, and that's exactly what happens in the end. It's not exactly the most engaging narrative -- though it is enough to hold some humor.

The A plot is carrying most of the weight, though. From fun silent acting by Tiny Ron as Zek's servant Maihar'du, to a splash of "The Odd Couple" when fussy Quark and slovenly Rom have to live together, to big sight gags surrounding the book of the "New Rules of Acquisition," and even an audio gag as a kidnapped Zek hums happily inside his sack -- the light touch works. It's broad, for sure, but it works. Particularly fun, I think, is how this episode leans into the "Rom isn't as dumb as everyone thinks he is" gag that only been flirted with before this. In the course of this episode, we learn Rom has been stealing from the Quark's bar for years to furnish his quarters, and that's he's both brave and clever enough to embezzle from the Grand Nagus himself.

The serious elements of the episode are interesting, though. Ultimately, we learn that Zek has met the wormhole aliens, who have altered him to behave this way. We see the Prophets again for the first time since the pilot, with Quark now an unlikely substitute for Sisko. It winds up being an intriguing subversion of lofty Star Trek principles: the same noble drive for self-improvement that humans praise is attributed by Quark to ambition and greed.

This episode is the first of eight to be directed by Rene Auberjonois -- following in the footsteps of Avery Brooks and several Next Generation actors before him to take the reins of a Star Trek episode. He had directed many plays before this, but never an hour of dramatic television. At the time, he said of the job that one "has to make so many decisions and I'm not a person who particularly likes to make decisions." Much more recently, he confessed in an interview that he probably didn't really want to direct for Star Trek that much in the first place, but sort of felt an obligation to do so. He didn't think too highly of his own work in many episodes, though he said he grew more comfortable with directing over time.

You can see his theatrical background in this episode. The work with the actors is very good. Auberjonois gets solid performances from all of them, particularly Armin Shimerman as Quark and Max Grodénchik as Rom. Actors are blocked in interesting ways throughout, particular highlights being Rom sitting in the window as he reads the New Rules of Acquisition, and a row of intimidating Prophets that Quark encounters in the wormhole. But the camera placement is quite pedestrian throughout. It is often treated like the proscenium of a stage, with the actors playing right to it. Auberjonois was correct: he would get better over time.

Other observations:
  • The opening moments of the episode remind us about oo-mox, and how molesting a Ferengi is a gross (but effective) way to get what you want. But this makes it more noticeable when, later in the episode, Zek grabs Quark's ear playfully.
  • Fun acting from people as wormhole aliens in this episode. Nana Visitor plays "Prophet Kira" with particularly stilted and clipped speech. And Tiny Ron, who never once on the series speaks as Maihar'du, does have dialogue here as a Prophet.
  • The game of darts makes its debut as O'Brien and Bashir's new down-time diversion. It was much cheaper to show than the racquetball court.
  • Armin Shimerman invents a Ferengi gesture of promise here, pinching his ring finger and thumb together. Fun, but not as enduring as Leonard Nimoy's "live long and prosper."
A fun little lark, I give "Prophet Motive" a B. It may not be one of the greats, but I think Rene Auberjonois was being too hard on himself in evaluating the finished product.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Art Critique

I recently saw the new movie The Art of Self-Defense. It's a quirky, dark satire starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots. When mild and meek Casey is mugged and beaten one night, he decides to enroll in a martial arts class. The Sensei of the class comes on supportive and kind at first, but is gradually revealed to be an intense figure with extreme and particular views. Casey soon finds his entire identity being re-molded by the man.

I've heard comparisons between this movie and Fight Club -- which is a pretty fair jumping off point. Both present critical looks inside a cult of personality, and both are aware of the taint of toxic masculinity. But where Fight Club plays it so straight that a section of its audience actually didn't realize it was against those things, The Art of Self-Defense is more overtly comedic. It's a dry comedy in which every character takes every moment seriously, but the behavior and the dialogue are plainly meant to be funny to the audience. It's even more dark than it is dry, though, so while many lines really are laugh out loud funny, you might occasionally find yourself a bit too embarrassed to laugh out loud.

The casting really is perfect. The main character Casey is the exact kind of milquetoast that no one (outside maybe Miacheal Cera) plays better than Jesse Eisenberg. Alessandro Nivola infuses the Sensei with a great underbelly of menace and danger, but then covers that up with just enough kindness and reasonableness that you can believe people falling under his spell. Imogen Poots is the determined Anna, masking a sea of emotions behind a hardened exterior that occasionally cracks and leaks. (It would be nice if the movie used her more, though it's a particular point of the story that it doesn't. At least her moments really make a mark.)

All three actors are wonderful at the played-completely-straight comedy of the film. And writer-director Riley Stearns fills out the rest of the movie with people who capture that same quality. Some of the best laughs comes from minor characters who breeze in, drop some wickedly sharp truth, and then are never seen again. An early scene in which Casey goes to by a gun is so direct and apt that it's almost more sad than funny; either way, it's a highlight. The movie even manages to generate laughs when simply (and repeatedly) showing a photo of a "character" we never even meet.

Yet while I found it a fairly astute joke engine, I also found The Art of Self-Defense to be fairly predictable. It's a lean script for a short movie, and all the big developments are telegraphed well in advance. Indeed, the story arc is so out in the open that I can scarcely imagine that Riley Stearns thought he was hiding any "twists" -- so perhaps the predictability isn't a weakness but a strength: however wacky this world, it's always playing fair with the audience.

The film seems to be a bit more "art house" than I might have expected; it doesn't seem to be playing widely in that many venues. But I expect those who go to the trouble of seeking it out are the sort of people who would enjoy seeing it. I give The Art of Self-Defense a B+.

Friday, August 09, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Destiny

Because Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was set on a station and couldn't as easily "boldly go" in search of stories, it more often generated them from the characters themselves. Sisko's role as the Bajoran Emissary was fertile ground that spawned several episodes, including season three's "Destiny."

Now that a treaty between the Bajorans and Cardassians has been reached, a pair of Cardassian scientists are coming to the station to assist in establishing a relay to aid communications through the wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant. But a Bajoran Vedek named Yarka warns that Sisko their work will fulfill a dark prophecy from the Prophets themselves.

According to the series' writers, this episode was an especially tough one to create. They'd bought a pitch in the second season from outside writers David S. Cohen and Martin A. Winer, and had even allowed the writing team to work on multiple drafts themselves. The initial take had a Starfleet executive coming to force Sisko out of his role as Emissary, fearing a Heart of Darkness/Colonel Kurtz sort of situation where Sisko had "gone native." It took into season three before the staff writers identified why they felt this story wasn't working -- it revolved around a miraculous, wonderful prophecy. If it was flipped around to be dark and ominous, then Sisko could be put at odds with his duty, with the Bajoran people, and with Kira in particular.

That sounds right on paper, but I think the final episode doesn't push far enough with this take. For one thing, the prophecy doesn't carry much force. Only this Vedek Yarka, specifically said to be out of step with most Bajoran religious figures, is arguing the apocalyptic nature of what's going to happen. For another, there really isn't much conflict for Kira here. She explains calmly to Yarka that she has little trouble compartmentalizing Sisko her superior officer from Sisko the Emissary. When Sisko tells her basically to keep religion off his bridge, that's that.

Sisko doesn't seem especially conflicted here, either. He never really seems to consider what it really means to have an entire alien world looking to him as god-adjacent, and how much responsibility he really bears for their well-being. He only goes down this road far enough to speculate how much his fate is fixed by the wormhole aliens who really can see the future, a notion Dax swats away for him pretty quickly. He just has to be himself, she says. But isn't the whole point of this story supposed to be that this is an identity crisis for Sisko and he doesn't know who he is?

But if this episode is a somewhat sad Christmas tree, lop-sided and sparse, it's still at least adorned with pretty decorations. The interactions between the two Cardassian scientists and the regular characters make for some really nice moments. They make a point of kindness toward Kira, recognizing how odd it must be for her to have them here. One in particular, Gilora Rejal, squabbles with O'Brien over differing approaches to engineering; later we learn that she thinks it's sexy that a man would know anything about engineering, and that he would stand up to her. Add the third Cardassian to the mix, the secret Obsidian Order overseer Dejar, and it makes for some fun commentary on nationalism. (She doesn't even like the other two enjoying non-Cardassian food.)

There are a few nice moments with Odo. His own take on Sisko as Emissary is an interesting one, as he's lived among Bajorans longer than anyone while still maintaining a distinctly "outsider" view (not just of Bajorans, but of all humanoids). On the comedic side, we get two new complementary Rules of Acquisition (both war and peace are good for business), and Colm Meaney's great reaction when O'Brien realizes Gilora is flirting with him. (It's probably not an easy thing for O'Brien to be lusted after by a Cardassian, but he handles it with more diplomacy than you might expect.)

Other observations:
  • Gilora Rejal is played by Tracy Scoggins, who played a main character in the final season of Babylon 5.
  • The episode ends with reference to a "fiery trial" prophesied in the Emissary's future. A few stories in later seasons could fit the bill (including the series finale), though it's hard to say whether the writers were later trying to connect with this episode, or if the deliberately vague nature of the average prophecy allowed connection without deliberate effort.
  • One of the original writers, David S. Cogen, wasn't happy with how he was rewritten: "I still get a headache when I watch it." He once recounted a TV executive telling him that "Destiny" was his favorite Deep Space Nine episode, and was taken aback. "Hell, it's not even my favorite Deep Space Nine episode."
There are minor thrills in the sort of sci-fi predestination paradox presented here, but this is hardly a standout episode of the series. I give it a B-.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Russian to the Theater

Although it's now more than 20 years old, I've never seen the animated movie Anastasia. But I have now seen the touring production of the Broadway musical it inspired, as it has stopped here in Denver to run for a few weeks. It's the story of a woman who may or may not be a lost member of a Russian royal family, coached by a pair of con men to take part in a scheme that will take them all the way to Paris.

My husband and I have seen a lot of shows at the Buell Theater over the last year, but Anastasia is far and away the most show we've seen. It's an over-the-top spectacle that's using the latest technology to come as close to presenting a live movie on a stage as they can manage. A huge projection backdrop combines with a few strategic set pieces and plenty of lighting effects to completely transform the stage in scene after scene. The musical moves from castle interiors (in their prime and years later in decay), city streets, a moving train, a green forest, the inside of a raucous dance hall, and more. The action moves from Leningrad to Paris. And at every step, the set is completely transformed.

Frankly, it's more interesting to watch the scenery than what's happening in front of it. Anastasia isn't a bad story -- but it's the most rote, dutiful musical I've seen in a long while. Each beat of the story rigidly follows the framework for the Platonic ideal of a Broadway musical: here's the moment where the protagonist sings a song about this, and it sounds kind of like this. Here's a song where the lovers come together; it happens right when it's supposed to, and it sounds like this. On and on.

There are only a few departures from this slavish formula -- and not surprisingly, they're the moments that drew the most enthusiastic response from the audience: a brazen, comedic number early in Act Two (performed by two heretofore minor characters), and an elaborate ballet number in the second act (presented as the main characters stand near the wings, singing a song you won't remember).

The music manages the neat trick of being utterly forgettable while burrowing deep into your brain. That's because a lot of it sounds quite a lot like other music. One of the show's most prominent recurring melodies is a waltz that sounds an awful lot like John William's main theme for the Harry Potter movies. So yes, you'll walk out of Anastasia absent-mindedly humming a tune -- Hedwig's Theme. Other music so dutifully fills the role of "the song in the musical that does this" that the next morning, I can only think of "The Song That Goes Like This" from Monty Python's Spamalot.

Anastasia is certainly a feast for the eyes. Even though you know that 90% of what you're seeing is projected, you constantly forget that. The visuals are crafted with enough care, and supported with enough other (and more conventional) theatrical lighting that you're instantly swept up in each new setting. But it's a run-of-the-mill tale of "journeying for one thing only to find the thing you're really looking for," ordered into expected scenes that are built to hold forgettable songs.

All told, I'd give Anastasia a B-. Don't see it for the story; see it only if you're interested in the spectacle a big Broadway production can deliver.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

This One Goes to 11

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the first human walking on the moon. It's a milestone I expected to be celebrated in the news rather more than it was. But one way it was commemorated was in a documentary film released earlier in the year, Apollo 11.

The 90-minute film is comprised almost entirely of archival footage. (The only parts that aren't are a few very brief moments of rudimentary animation to show mission progress and illustrate a few spacecraft maneuvers.) It is a straight-forward look at the mission from launch to splashdown, without adornments (acknowledging, I think, that it doesn't need any).

This approach to the making of the film is both to its credit and detriment, depending on how you look at it. Because it features no narration and no interviews, the movie doesn't really convey much of a sense of authorial intent. Sure, there is an intent here: it's in choosing to assemble it this way, and in the choices of what's shown. But if you're expecting a documentary to express a strong point of view or message, you won't find one here.

On the other hand, by presenting this so matter-of-factly, the documentary becomes the closest possible thing to having actually been alive in 1969 to witness these events. It's an expansive picture of everything from the fashions of spectators watching the liftoff to the wonders of being a quarter-million miles from Earth. And it takes you through absolutely every major moment of the flight.

What's truly remarkable about the film is just how amazing the picture quality is. I was expecting images like the famous blown-out TV broadcast of Neil Armstrong's "one small step," or the grainy video footage the astronauts sent back mid-flight. But that's only a tiny bit of what's presented. A great deal of archived film has been exhumed, including some shot in 70mm. Other footage has perhaps been cleaned-up through modern processes. But by whatever alchemy, a great deal of what you see in this movie looks like it could have been shot yesterday -- as if an expensive Hollywood blockbuster spent a lot of time and money recreating 1969 for the big screen.

Apollo 11 enjoyed a brief run in theaters earlier this year, which included a handful of screenings in IMAX. I feel truly sorry to have missed it there, because was a breathtaking, emotional spectacle even watching it at home. I was swept up in that historic journey all over again, even with as much as I've read and seen about it over the years.

I give the documentary an A-. If you're at all a fan of space travel, this look back at its golden age and greatest achievement is sure to thrill you.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Heart of Stone

Many episodes of Star Trek (particularly the various spinoffs of the 80s and 90s) juggle two different story lines, an "A plot" that's the main dramatic focus and a smaller "B plot." Every once in a while, though, it's the B plot that turns out more successful. So it was with Deep Space Nine's "Heart of Stone."

Kira and Odo pursue a Maquis raider to an unstable moon, but encounter a problem on its surface. Kira's foot becomes trapped in a strange crystalline formation that is slowly expanding to envelop her body. Meanwhile, aboard the station, Nog tries to convince Sisko to write him a recommendation to join Starfleet Academy.

As conceived, the main story here was the Odo/Kira one. It's a long con by the Changeling Leader (with Salome Jens' name held out of the opening credits to preserve the surprise), who is probing Odo's reluctance to rejoin them. Disguised as Kira in a sophisticated display of shapeshifting that includes withstanding phaser shots and confusing both tricorders and transporters, she draws all sorts of information from him. Where does his name come from? What dire situations has he been before that bonded him to solids? Ultimately she learns his big secret: he's in love with Kira.

The situation was loosely inspired by a scene from the film adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel Sometimes a Great Notion -- more specifically, as show runner Ira Steven Behr put it, "a great scene in a not so great movie." A character's leg becomes trapped under a large log, and he drowns when the water rises over his head. Unfortunately, their attempt to recast this scenario for science fiction proved too much for the production to realize. As director Alexander Singer noted, the growing rock effect was the sort of thing that, "had this been a feature, they would have spent months in preparing, and shooting tests and so on." On a television budget and schedule, they got, in Behr's words, "a horrible, horrible prop." Nana Visitor said "I looked like a big old hot fudge sundae, and my head was the cherry on top."

The actors do their best with it, salvaging some good moments out of the unfortunately hokey situation. Rene Auberjonois arcs Odo carefully from a standoffish opening scene, through tension-cutting humor and more technobabble than he's usually asked to handle, and is great in the final revelation. Even sadder than Odo confessing his love under such circumstances is when he realizes he's been duped -- because he can't believe Kira would actually love him back. Visitor is great in shading her performance just enough for you to sense something is off without quite pegging it; it's fun on a re-watch to know that she's playing the Changeling Leader as Kira. It's an intriguing physical performance too, with her voice strained once the "rock" reaches her lungs and throat -- not to mention that Visitor had to overcome her claustrophobia for the second time in a season to play this.

But it's the B plot that really shines in this episode -- and not just because the A plot was compromised by the visuals. Staff writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe was the one who suggested that Nog (more than Jake, or Wesley on The Next Generation) would be most interested in joining Starfleet. And the reason behind it is heartbreaking -- he sees his father Rom's squandered potential, and doesn't want to end up the same way. It's a story about class and lack of upward mobility, a great use of the capitalist Ferengi on the show for something other than comedy.

The acting here is even better. Aron Eisenberg (who initially needed reassurance they weren't writing him off the show) gives one of his best performances of the series, crediting his scene partner Avery Brooks for feeding him a performance of his own that drew this out in response. Even the secondary performances are good in this half of the episode: we see that Jake can't even conceive that Nog would be serious (as he's already rejected Starfleet himself), we see Quark push too far in his keeping his brother down, and we see Rom stand up in defense of his son. It's all very emotionally honest, and perhaps extra resonant for many Star Trek viewers who might wish for their own place in this idealized world.

Other observations:
  • It's great watching Nog try to blend human and Ferengi customs (handshakes and bribery).
  • The rock encompassing Kira may look silly, but the Star Trek caves have never looked better. This is surely the same set used throughout The Next Generation and earlier Deep Space Nines, but it seems to be painted and/or lit a bit darker and more realistically here.
  • I wonder, when "Kira" orders Odo to leave her behind, if his refusal came as a surprise. To a Founder, having an order refused seems generally unthinkable.
  • An off-screen alien, Ensign Pran, is mentioned here. The writers made him purposefully unusual -- a pregnant male whose offspring "bud" on his body -- knowing he would never be seen. They wanted less human aliens to at least exist in Star Trek, even if it wouldn't be practical to show them.
  • I'm not sure if the writers yet knew where they were heading at the end of the season, but the bell is rung again loudly in this episode: "No changeling has ever harmed another."
It's tantalizing to wonder: if the prop rock had looked more convincing, might this have been one of the all-time best episodes of Deep Space Nine? Hard to say, though there's still a lot to like here despite shortcomings that can't be ignored. I give "Heart of Stone" a B.

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Sign and New Life

Season six of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has come to a close. Though mostly entertaining, it wasn't as strong or even as other recent seasons of the show have been. I think the writers themselves sort of knew that on some level, as this finale spent nearly as much time setting up the next season as wrapping up this one.

Izel has everything she needs to open a portal to another dimension, with more beings like her waiting to come and possess/destroy all humanity. But a few agents are on the scene, with Sarge in tow, to mount a rescue of Mack and Yo-Yo and maybe still save the day. Meanwhile, at the Lighthouse, FitzSimmons have a big problem of their own. A force of Chronicoms invades, seeing S.H.I.E.L.D. as the only threat preventing their takeover of Earth to claim it as their new homeworld.

I feel like Izel was introduced too late in season six to be as effective a villain as those in years past. Similarly, her relationship with Sarge was revealed too late for the audience to build much engagement around their final reckoning -- I dare say there'd be no drama in it at all if Sarge didn't happen to have Coulson's face. And as for the way Izel was ultimately defeated? Kind of a big snooze. "Kill the King/Queen, kill all the drones" is fast becoming the most overused trope in fantasy and science fiction, a weak attempt to have your cake (a seemingly insurmountable load of jeopardy) and eat it too (still surmounting it in the end).

But despite that, I did find more to like than to be critical of in these concluding two episodes. The reactions to the near deaths of May and Yo-Yo felt potent and earned. Sure, I knew neither of them was actually going to die (well... honestly, I did have a little doubt about May, the second time), but the reactions of the characters were genuine and a nice way to raise the stakes. Watching May get stabbed on live feed, watching Yo-Yo gasp for the breath to beg to be killed... it was powerful stuff.

There were also good moments that weren't so dark. Deke finally earned being called "Agent" by Mack, and actually saved the day more than once. It was a great win for his character, who still remains a fun source of comic relief while now being someone we can take a little more seriously.

I also really liked how the Sarge storyline was ultimately resolved. They didn't take the obvious out of turning him into some form of Coulson, nor did they go the Ward route of leaving him alive to become the main villain for the next season of the show. They just closed off this story, ended Sarge, and concocted a new way to keep Clark Gregg on the show -- a solution I feel like will be stronger all around.

I do wish a little less time had been spent on the invading Chronicoms, though. To me, it felt like it was crowding out a real resolution of season six at times. I feel like we could have used a bit more of May fighting in the other alien dimension, or of Izel and Sarge's final confrontation, or of Deke rising to the occasion. Instead, we got a lot of track laid for the seventh and final season.

On the other hand, it sure feels like that season is going to be more interesting than the one we just finished. So... we're doing time travel, huh? Just like Avengers: Endgame, this will be an opportunity to conclude everything by revisiting beloved elements from the series' past. (Presumably, also like Endgame, altering the past won't actually alter the future, but will instead cause a splintered reality. Otherwise, the crisis could be resolved simply by preventing the destruction of the Chronicoms' previous homeworld.) Who knows... maybe season seven will even give an opportunity for Hayley Atwell to reprise her role as Peggy Carter one more time? (Those of us who liked the TV series Agent Carter would sure appreciate it.) And you know we have to end up seeing Ward one more time, don't we?

But that's a matter for 2020. (Or perhaps later this year, if some other new ABC show flames out so fast that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is brought off the bench to fill the hole.) For now, we can put the completed season six on the shelf. I give these final two hours a B.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Getting Attached

Last night was the first time I'd been to Red Rocks for a concert in a while -- and among the most unusual concerts I've attended. Well, not so much unusual as... weird. "Weird Al" Yankovic was playing a sold-out Red Rocks, accompanied by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, as part of his "Strings Attached" concert tour.

So much about the show seemed surreal in a fun way, like it couldn't really be happening. Last time I saw Yankovic was in the comparatively tiny Paramount Theater, and here he was filling up Red Rocks. Whenever he'd do a parody song, I'd think "I'll bet Robin Thicke/Chamillionaire/Coolio has never played with an orchestra." Whenever he'd do a particularly deep cut original song that took advantage of the orchestra, I'd think "I never imagined I'd be seeing The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota/Jackson Park Express" performed in concert. Whenever he'd play something especially strange or irreverent, I'd think "I wonder if the Colorado Symphony Orchestra has ever played anything as odd as Weasel Stomping Day/Harvey the Wonder Hamster?"

From the "opening act" of the symphony playing a selection of great John Williams music (plus the Mission: Impossible theme), to the all-Star Wars parodies encore, it was a fun concert that the crowd was really into. A sea of cell phones went up unprompted for "Don't Download This Song." You could hear the laughter throughout "You Don't Love Me Anymore," even though it seemed like half the crowd knew every word to every song. The call and response at the end of "Dare to Be Stupid" was loud.

Part rock concert, part stand-up set, part night at the symphony -- this was a unique experience I'm really glad I went for. And judging by my Facebook feed, which last night was filled with "attending this concert" posts, I wasn't alone.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Life Support

Viewers of long-running, serialized television shows sometimes criticize the writers for "making it up as they go along" or "not knowing where they're heading." But there are benefits in not sticking to a rigid roadmap. One is that the writers can close down a weak story line that didn't play out as well as they'd imagined. Which is exactly what happened in the Deep Space Nine episode "Life Support."

Kai Winn and Vedek Bareil come to the station for a secretive meeting: they're pursuing an historic treaty with the Cardassians. But a shuttle accident en route leaves Bareil critically injured, and Dr. Bashir must use increasingly extreme measures to prolong his life so he can help with the negotiations. Meanwhile, Jake's friendship with Nog is in jeopardy after a disastrous double date that shows just how different their cultural backgrounds are.

This episode began as a pitch from outside team Christian Ford and Roger Soffer, who wanted to put Bashir in the role of Dr. Frankenstein, struggling to give unnatural life to an important Federation ambassador as he grows ever more inhuman. Ultimately, Bashir himself would recoil at what he'd done, and be forced to end the life of his "creation."

The series staff was intrigued, but they struggled to develop the story around some previously unknown character. For the story to work, the "ambassador" would have to be someone the audience could actually care about. Briefly, they discussed the possibility of O'Brien. Colm Meaney had been taking more movie roles, and might be looking to get off the show? Not at all, he assured them. And that's when Ronald Moore (whose track record included killing off fan favorites K'Ehleyr and Captain Kirk), suggested Vedek Bareil as the victim.

The writers all felt that the Kira-Bareil relationship had run its course, with nowhere interesting left to take it. Count me as one viewer who never found it particularly compelling in the first place -- actor Philip Anglim's drone-like delivery (even if deliberately affected to signal "serenity") always seemed hopelessly flat opposite Nana Visitor's reliably deep emotion. I say gradually turning Bareil into an emotionless robot as Kira is forced to face his death multiple times was pretty much the perfect story to utilize what both of them were bringing to their roles.

Nana Visitor does give a powerhouse performance here, particularly in the final five minutes of the episodes as she first pleads with Bashir to continue surgeries on Bareil, and then when she sits at his bedside and delivers an emotional monologue. And it's great that she does step up like she always does to command the screen, because this episode didn't really wind up being as much a "Bashir episode" as I think the original concept intended. He gets a mountain of medical technobabble to deliver, and then one big scene that I don't think plays very well.

As it's slowly dawning on Bashir that perhaps he's gone too far with Bareil, he has a one-on-one scene with Kai Winn, who has been pushing all along for these procedures to extract a last little bit of usefulness from her aide before he dies. Bashir stands up to her, calling out her vanity, selfishness, and political calculation. (All shortly after a scene where he threatened to throw her out of his Infirmary.) Sure, it makes him look assertive, but pump the brakes a bit here, Bashir. This isn't the Starfleet chain of command, where a doctor gets to outrank anyone in medical matters. You're talking to the spiritual figurehead of an entire alien planet -- the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and a good many more all rolled up into one. Sure, we the audience all hate Winn (and love to hate her), but I'd have more respect for Bashir if he showed a little diplomacy here, deploying a verbal scalpel rather than a mallet.

But it isn't Bashir's behavior that takes you most out of the moment when watching this episode. It's the B story line featuring Jake and Nog. Ronald Moore reportedly pushed this angle, feeling that the seriousness of the Bareil plot could stand some counterweight with something a little less intense. According to show runner Ira Steven Behr, the moment they saw the first dailies of scenes from the filming in progress, they immediately wondered "what the hell have we done?" 

The story itself isn't a bad idea. Indeed, it's probably easier to get into that the Bareil story, and more enjoyable. Jake and Nog go on a double date, Nog behaves like a misogynistic pig (by human standards), and Jake suddenly wonders if his Dad was right all along, that humans and Ferengi are too different to be friends. (Thankfully, Ben holds to Starfleet ideals and admits he was wrong to think that.)

The problem is interpolating this story with the other one. They butt up against each other too hard. There's even a moment where Jake plotting how to restore his friendship is then immediately followed a scene of Bareil gasping and unable to breathe. The "womp-womp" ending of Jake and Nog being stuck in a holding cell comes just before Kira is forced to say goodbye to Bareil for the final time. The tonal whiplash is extreme. It does not work at all.

Other observations:
  • Nice character work for Kai Winn in this episode. When she speaks well of Bareil, it's about how helpful he's been to her since the election. Any good qualities she recognizes in another person is through the prism of how they're good for her.
  • At one point, we're told that a condition the Cardassians are putting on a Bajoran peace treaty is the return of all their equipment in Bajoran hands. Nobody raises the objection that this pretty obviously includes Deep Space Nine itself.
  • Nog protests at one point that he doesn't even know what a Tholian looks like. This is a small in-joke for old school Trekkers. The Tholians appeared just once (prior to this episode) on the original series, where we saw only their heads -- and then only on a rainbow-colored viewscreen that strongly suggested we weren't seeing the "real thing" anyway.
  • There actually were some fans out there into Bareil in a way neither I nor the series' writers were. The production received lots of fan mail all addressed from "The Friends of Vedek Bareil" after this episode, expressing their disappointment, and including photos of the memorial services they'd held for the character.
Nana Visitor (and guest star Louise Fletcher) do lend this episode some worthwhile moments. But ultimately, it's a story about the loss of a character we care little about, juxtaposed with a jarringly dissonant Jake/Nog subplot. I give "Life Support" a B-.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

From the Ashes

The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't cover a lot of ground in terms of plot, but it did put a lot of focus on characters and their complex emotions -- which was nice this deep in the season, as everyone was being nudged into position for the season finale.

Mack and Yo-Yo are captive, and soon joined by Benson, who Izel has figured out knows the location she seeks. She's torturing them all to extract this information -- but the torture is psychological instead of physical. Meanwhile, back at the Lighthouse, FitzSimmons and Deke try to develop a tech solution to Izel's body possession advantage, as May and Daisy clash over whether any part of Coulson is still alive in Sarge.

I was just complaining last episode about how the series made Benson disappear, and suddenly here he was back, and put through the emotional wringer more than anyone else this week. Of course, May would have had some sense of his pain -- of seeing the one you loved brought back to life only to behave wickedly. But the nightmare version of Benson's husband was both closer to the real thing and particularly calibrated to cause pain in a way Sarge hasn't been. Plus, Izel murdering him -- and threatening to do it repeatedly -- was really the capper on the horror for Benson. Guest star Barry Shabaka Henley played the scene very well.

After several weeks where Sarge has simply been the new character Clark Gregg plays on the series, it was nice to get the "he might be Coulson"-ness of it back into the story in a big way. Daisy's take on the matter was articulated well by Simmons: she has a history of running from the big emotional blows. More specifically, and not as directly stated: she has a history of being let down by father figures. So when Coulson died, she was emotionally determined, right away, to put the whole thing behind her. That made the moment when Sarge's Coulson memories poked through, and he called her "Skye," extra poignant. (Another poignant moment came when she read the letter from Coulson -- which the writers let us understand in context without giving us a ham-fisted voice-over of the letter's contents. It was better left to the imagination.)

May was on the opposite end the debate because the emotional place she was coming from was opposite. She hasn't really had a wide array of romantic relationships in her life (that we know of anyway)... but even after divorcing one husband, he remained on the periphery of her life. May forges very deep relationships (with friends too) that don't fade easily -- so she was open to the idea that a part of Coulson might remain in Sarge. (Also... she was right.)

I've mentioned once or twice this season how the heroes haven't always used the full sweep of their powers or intelligence, sometimes in an artificial way to keep the plot going. This burden kinda-sorta shifted to the villain this week, with Izel not just setting up residence in Yo-Yo to have access to her abilities. Some of her hopping around was motivated, at least -- when Izel thinks her host has information she needs, she has to hop somewhere else to get it. But ultimately, her evil plan is that she and others like her are going to each possess a human on a permanent basis. So it seems like her behavior ought to be to stick with Yo-Yo unless she has a specific reason to step away. Of course, this is bad for the narrative, which rightfully gave us real character interaction between Yo-Yo and Mack instead... but it felt like another moment this season where characters weren't quite being true to themselves.

FitzSimmons and Deke were more on the periphery this week, cooking up a tech solution to their situation -- but I did really like the moment where "grandpa was proud." Deke hasn't had the biggest character arc this season, but what's been there has been about not fitting in, and being particularly worried that Fitz doesn't like him. So the quick little exchange between them, when they really had worked out a solution together, was nice.

I'd say this episode was a solid B. Next week, we get a two-hour season finale... and then begins one last one-year wait before the final season.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Past Tense, Part II

Picking up on "Past Tense, Part I," the concluding installment of Deep Space Nine's mid-season two-part episode continued its examination of homelessness and indifference toward the underprivileged.

Trapped in 2024 San Francisco, Sisko has been forced to assume the persona of civil rights icon Gabriel Bell in an attempt to preserve history. This may cost him his life, as Bell died in the hostage situation Sisko must now control. Meanwhile, Kira and O'Brien travel to moments throughout Earth's past in an effort to find Sisko and the other missing crew members.

In my review of "Part I" of this story, I wrote about its underlying message and how it both predicted and underestimated what the world might be like a few decades later. Rather than reiterate that here, I'll try to focus on things specific to the second half. For starters, "Past Tense" wasn't originally planned to be a two-part episode. In reviewing the story outline, executive producer Michael Piller noted that the Attica-inspired hostage situation didn't even develop until Act 4 of a five-act script -- and that there was easily enough meat on that bone to sustain an entire episode of its own.

This hour gives us our first real taste of Ben Sisko as "tough guy." Actor Avery Brooks had previously played the badass character of Hawk on Spenser: For Hire (and a spin-off) for several seasons of television, but his Star Trek character had gone a different direction -- likely written to put deliberate distance between the two. But Brooks excels at depicting a contained emotion spilling over, where Sisko had previously not often spilled over. This episode makes better use of Brooks' strengths. He shows more passion here than in any previous episode, from chastising a cop for ignoring the plight around him to handling hostage takers as forcefully as hostages. In a way, this episode is a precursor of the end of this season and the start of the next, when the producers would finally allow Avery Brooks to grow his goatee, shave his head, and act in a more natural manner.

This episode is also a precursor to Jonathan Frakes, movie director. This was Frakes' third (and final) episode of Deep Space Nine, and it became part of his demo reel (along with The Next Generation's "Cause and Effect") to convince the studio executives he could direct Star Trek: First Contact. He keeps great tension throughout the episode, bringing his own sense of style while not totally clashing with the tone set by the previous director who'd made Part I.

The story continues hard with its cautionary tale of rounding up the homeless into what the writers themselves dubbed concentration camps. Improbably, according to show runner Ira Steven Behr, the show received some letters from people complaining that the story "should have presented 'both sides' and not just the 'liberal' point of view." In an interview, he wryly noted, "In other words, we should have showed the positive aspects of putting the homeless into concentration camps? And I do admit we probably failed in that – we really did not show the many, many wonderful aspects of life without money and living in over-crowded camps." On a more serious note, he noted that while of course two hours of television weren't going to solve the problem, he thought it important to treat the situation realistically.

By and large, the episode does so. But not always. The character of Grady, played by Clint Howard, feels like a misguided addition to the tale. His mad conspiracy theories are presented for broad laughs rather than in recognition of the serious mental health issues they likely connote. Don't blame Howard for the wild performance, though -- Behr reportedly wrote the character this way, intending the part for Iggy Pop. (The rock star/actor was unavailable, but would eventually show up on Deep Space Nine.)

The subplot of Kira and O'Brien's search through time for their missing crew members is also played for disruptive laughs. Kira's "I broke my nose" excuse for her appearance echoes similarly light explanations for Spock's ears while undercover in the original series, and the 1960s-era encounter with hippies is a particular groaner of a scene. (Though it's one of the few times that real world, non-classical music is used on Star Trek: "Hey Joe" by the Jimi Hendrix Experience plays in the background).

One way you can't fault the episode is for its failure to anticipate the ubiquity of cameras and cell phones in the world of today. Honestly, who in 1995 could have foreseen that? Chalk this up as one of the countless movies and television shows of yesteryear that would fall apart completely with access to a smartphone -- the hostage crisis and the effort to get the stories of the Sanctuary District "residents" out into the larger world simply wouldn't work this way.

Big as the budget is for its time, it's not big enough to do justice to the ending. Hundreds of people are said to have died in the Bell Riots. We see no more than half a dozen. The action condenses down to little more than Sisko taking a bullet for one of the police officers. It certainly doesn't feel big enough in scope to be the historical turning point we've been told this moment is. (But what are you going to do on a 1990s television budget?)

Other observations:
  • Dax sneaks in and out of the Sanctuary District through the sewer. Surely once the hostage crisis began, this sort of entry/exit would have been monitored.
  • One of Kira and O'Brien's quick visits in time is to the 1930s, a moment that evoked for scenic artist Doug Drexler the memory of the classic Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever." Drexler wanted to acknowledge that classic episode in some way, so he took a poster from "City" that advertised a boxing match at Madison Square Garden and here did a poster advertising "their first rematch since Madison Square Garden."
As in Part I, the message of this story remains spot on. But some awkward humor is dropped into this episode (with a resounding clang) and knocks it down a peg. As with the first part, I give "Past Tense, Part II" a B+.

Monday, July 29, 2019

A Walk in the (Rocky Mountain National) Park

My husband and I just got back from a three-day weekend where we decided to be tourists in our own home state. We hopped in the car and drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park. We took our time getting there, stopping in Boulder at both Twisted Pine Brewing Co. and Upslope Brewing Company, and ultimately arrived at Estes Park in the late afternoon.

We checked in at the Stanley Hotel, the place made famous for inspiring Stephen King to write The Shining. And boy, do they know it. By the end of our two nights there, we felt they'd surely have torn the place down decades ago without the shot of Shining-based tourism. From the pipes leaking into our closet from the room above to the computer/credit card systems that were down for most of the weekend, it wasn't a great place to stay. Pretty, though. All the furnishings were carefully selected to blend early 20th-century with Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation. It was sort of fun, in a visiting a movie set kind of way. (Even if the Stanley was only used in the 90s TV mini-series, not the original film.)

On our first night in town, we sampled the first of three Estes Park breweries: Lumpy Ridge Brewing Company, which is located in a converted old gas station (and which has pretty solid beer). We also stopped at Snowy Peaks Winery to taste some of their offerings. We enjoyed their wine enough to bring a few bottles back to enjoy later. We then had dinner at the Dunraven Inn (delicious Italian food) before walking the shops of Estes Park (seemingly half souvenir shops, half salt water taffy stores) on a lovely summer night.

The next day, we trekked all over Rocky Mountain National Park. We went for a drive up Old Fall River Road, a less traveled (and less often open) one-way dirt road that was the only way across the park before the construction of the more famous (and maintained) Trail Ridge Road.

There are all sorts of great sights to see along the nine-mile drive, from a picturesque waterfall (Chasm Falls) to bright green meadows to forested paths to snow-covered valley walls in territory home to marmots -- ending up at the Alpine Visitor Center, near the highest point in the park.

From there, we continued along Trail Ridge Road, farther west into the park and intending to find a spot for an afternoon picnic. We'd planned all the food, but a heavy afternoon downpour spoiled those plans. We parked the car just a few feet off the Continental Divide and ate there, watching the rain pour all around us (half into the Pacific, half into the Atlantic, of course). It did finally let up enough for us to stop for a short hike around a spot called Lake Irene. The trail was covered with puddles from the storm, but we had the place mostly to ourselves, with people not yet coming out again after the rain.

Next, we backtracked on Trail Ridge Road, but not yet to returning to the hotel. We headed to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead for a short hike to a popular spot in the park, Alberta Falls. It's a lovely spot for pictures... it's just really hard to get one without any other people in them. We considered briefly a longer hike back up to a more secluded location, but decided it was a bit late in the afternoon for that. (Plus. we weren't as fully outfitted for such an adventure as we'd have liked.)

The evening back in town saw us trying the two other local breweries, Estes Park Brewery and Rock Cut Brewing Company. Neither was a standout, though the former was also having their fun riding the Shining gravy train, with multiple beers named in reference to the book. After another sunset walk among the shops in town, we closed down the night back at the Stanley Hotel in their whiskey bar. Neither of us is an aficionado of whiskey, but we appreciated how rare it was to find a place with literally hundreds to choose from. We were guided to a good choice by our server, sipping slowly amid the bustling Saturday night crowd.

When we'd planned our weekend, we weren't sure whether we'd want to head back into Rocky Mountain National Park on Sunday too. As it turned out, we were in a lazy mood. We didn't do much that morning but take a quick trip through the hedge maze they've planted in front of the Stanley -- again, in honor of the Shining. (Only installed four years ago, it hasn't had time to grow to heights that make it particularly difficult to navigate.) Some coffee and breakfast, and one more quick browse of the town shops, and we were on the road back home.

Rocky Mountain National Park has some beautiful spots. But also, you kind of can't go anywhere in Colorado without stumbling onto beautiful spots. Those of us lucky enough to live here are pretty spoiled. And being a "home state tourist" was a nice opportunity to appreciate that. We saw license plates from all over the country or people who drove days to get here. We saw it all, and then were comfortably back home in less than two hours (even after a traffic delay for a huge weekend festival in Lyons).

It was a lovely little getaway.

Friday, July 26, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Past Tense, Part I

From the very beginning, Star Trek was always presenting allegorical episodes that looked at present-day issues through a futuristic science fiction lens. Sometimes, the allegory would lose the remove of being set on an "alien world," as our heroes time traveled back to earlier periods in Earth's history. So it was with Deep Space Nine's two part episode, "Past Tense."

While the Defiant is visiting Earth, a transporter accident sends Sisko, Dax, and Bashir back into the past. They become separated in 2024 San Francisco, the men winding up in a "Santuary District" -- a concentration camp for the homeless -- just days before a formative historical event known as the Bell Riots.

This episode had been in the works since early in the season, when staff writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe pitched the idea of sending Sisko back in time to wind up homeless and diagnosed insane for his rantings about being from the future. Wolfe himself thought his script wasn't quite right (though it sounds like it may have been inspiration for the later episode "Far Beyond the Stars"); still, the writers wanted to do something that commented on homelessness.

Show runner Ira Steven Behr came up with the angle to make the story work: the idea of "Sancutary Disticts," concentration camps into which people would be callously rounded up -- out of sight and out of mind for the rest of society. He also took inspiration from the 1971 prison riot at Attica, which was driven largely by inhumane living conditions. Behr thought he was presenting a fictional cautionary tale, yet as the staff was crafting the story, the L.A. Times ran an article describing a proposal by the mayor to move homeless people into fenced-in areas to "make downtown Los Angeles friendlier to business." As Wolfe put it: "literally there it was in the newspaper. We were a little freaked out." But also, of course, determined to tell the story.

It's quite a different experience to view "Past Tense" today than it was when it first aired in 1995. What was theoretical then is closer to reality today. This isn't an off-the-mark, 1960s prediction of interstellar travel in sleeper ships by the 1990s; this story is set in 2024, just five years from now. And while there isn't a "Sanctuary District" in every major U.S. city, people are being rounded and penned in like cattle. It's not about homelessness or class, as this episode posited -- it's about nationality and race.

This episode isn't blind to the racial angle, though. It's quite telling that when Sisko, Bashir, and Dax all find themselves trapped in the past, the two dark-skinned men are essentially incarcerated, while the white woman is ushered into the lap of luxury. Sisko and Bashir sleep outside in an alley; Dax gets a ritzy party and a swanky hotel room.

Of course, the writers of this episode weren't trying to predict the future, they were merely trying to depict that you don't get to utopia without some troubles along the way. Yet there are some interesting details they get surprisingly close: the ubiquity of advertisements online, the way society can backslide on its ideals when the going gets tough, and more. Really, the least plausible detail in the episode is that people in 2024 San Francisco are measuring the temperature in Celsius.

Well... except for one truly disheartening aspect. What the episode really gets most "wrong" is in what it would take to awaken society from a complacent torpor. The description we get here of the Bell Riots (which will be dramatized more in Part II) is that of a linchpin, eye-opening event in which online videos and tragic deaths alter the course of history. Sadly, similar events in the real world -- over not just the past few years, but decades -- suggest it will take a lot more than that. "Past Tense," sadly, feels a bit dated even as it feels eerily prescient.

At the time, these episodes were criticized by some as being too preachy, though I think if anything, they spend a lot of time they could be moralizing on technobabble to explain the time travel. There's a lot of overworked explanation of how three crew members were sent back, how the Defiant remained insulated from the timeline, stuff that just isn't as important as the message being delivered. (And it's an especially weak explanation anyway. If transporting from ship with a cloaking device runs any risk of causing time travel, you'd think that would be something Klingons or Romulans would have weaponized by now.)

In the inexorable grind of making a season of television, the production staff at Deep Space Nine may not have felt they were making a "Very Important Episode" here. But it feels like they did give it special consideration. By expanding the story into two parts, they were able to absorb the costs of extensive new sets, outdoor filming, dozens of extras and several guest stars (including classic "that guy"s Dick Miller and Bill Smitrovich). There's plenty of money spent here that all appears on the screen.

Other observations:
  • Sisko mentions that he has a sister who lives in Portland. We never get to meet her, though.
  • In a discussion of Earth's blue oceans, we learn that the water on the Trill and Bajoran homeworlds is purple and green. I'm not sure that actually matches with what we've seen before, but it sounds beautiful and exotic.
  • Quark gets a small scene at the top of this episode, to make up for him not being in the rest of this two-parter.
  • Dax is pretty smooth, keeping her wits about her and playing along with the man who finds her until she can figure out what's going on.
  • That man, by the way, is supposed to be the CEO of a huge company that owns a cable station. Why is he taking the subway? (Was the assumption that public transportation would be more of a thing in the U.S. by 2024? Another optimistic prediction.)
  • Several of the characters in this episode -- Brynner, Vin, Lee, Calvera, and Britt -- all take their names from characters or actors in The Magnificent Seven.
  • During a fist fight in this episode, we get to see a classic Kirk-style double-fisted hammer punch.
The message and morality of "Past Tense, Part I" is excellent. But the episode is dragged down a bit by too much technobabble... and by how it underestimates the power of entrenched indifference. I give the episode a B+. (But maybe I should be docking the score of reality rather than this episode.)

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Go, Fourth

I remember, after the first Toy Story movie, when Pixar announced the sequel. Sequels are what studios do with their hits, after all. And, impressively, Toy Story 2 was even better than the original. More years then passed, with Pixar focusing mainly on new projects and hardly ever doing sequels. Then they announced Toy Story 3. Couldn't they just leave well enough alone? There's no way a third movie could be as good! And indeed it wasn't. It was even better!

A few months back, a friend of mine was recently hosting an online discussion: what's the greatest movie trilogy of all time? Some said the original Star Wars trilogy. A few claimed Back to the Future. I suggested it might actually be Toy Story... except, of course, that Toy Story was about to cease being a trilogy. And surely there's no way Pixar could beat the odds again, right?

Welp. No, they didn't. But that's not because Toy Story 4 is a "bad" movie. It's just that the bar set by its predecessors (which I recently re-watched before seeing the new film) was set that high. It's not really hating on Toy Story 4 to say that it's the worst of the Toy Story films. One of them has got to be.

There is an intriguing new idea at the heart of the story. Woody is struggling in his new toy room. He remains as certain as ever that his job is to be there for his owner, but Bonnie isn't interested in playing with him as Andy was. How can he be there for her when she doesn't really notice if he's around? It's truly a clever extension of Woody's character arc, the fear he had of being replaced in the original film actually coming to pass.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't offer much for the other characters. Bo Peep is back (after being absent in Toy Story 3), and her return is a major element of the plot -- but everyone else you remember from the earlier films is reduced to glorified cameos. That includes Buzz Lightyear, more minimized in this story than he's ever been. Sure, the Toy Story films have always been Woody's stories, but they've at least utilized the other characters in fun ways. This movie is more interested in the new characters.

They are a lot of fun, though. There are clever concepts from Forky (the hand-made creation) to Duke Caboom (traumatized by his inability to live up to his TV commercials). There's great new voice casting, including Tony Hale, Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Christina Hendricks, and Carl Weathers. And the humor is among the best since the original film, particularly as the toys (far more adventurous now, in their fourth film) push the boundaries of "getting caught" being alive.

Plus there's the animation, which is more stellar than ever. (It's a particularly shocking progression when you watch all four Toy Story movies in close proximity.) This movie features realistic rain storms, a hopelessly cluttered antique shop, dazzling light displays, and facial expressions (on both toys and humans) more natural than Pixar has ever presented.

Also praise-worthy: the movie sticks the landing with an emotional, poignant conclusion. Sure, it falls short of Toy Story 3, whose final 20 minutes (from the garbage dump sequence to the end credits) is all but weaponized to stir your emotions. But Toy Story 4 is very moving, very fitting, and (once again) feels like closure for the series.

If the movie had treated a few of its other returning characters as well as Woody (Buzz and Jessie in particular), this would have been another absolute triumph. As it stands, it's still very good -- worth seeing in the theater, and good enough that I don't "wish they hadn't made it." But I think it's "only" a B+.