Friday, March 29, 2019

Don't Mind if I Xanadu

This past weekend, I headed down to the Denver Center to see Xanadu, the stage musical adaptation of the cult 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John. It's nearing the end of an extended run in the Garner Galleria Theater, a smaller, cabaret-style theater that's well-suited to this oddball production.

Like the movie that inspired it (so I gather; I've never had the "pleasure"), the musical is a disco-drenched, campy, over-the-top romp. With roller skates. Unlike the movie (so I've heard), the play is self-aware about its campiness, planting its tongue firmly in cheek to deliver comedy that makes you laugh (and occasionally groan).

The play is, quite honestly, fairly stupid. But it's also disarming and, when you give in to its charms, rather fun. There's a lot of interplay with the audience, which works especially well in the smaller space. There's a lot of very familiar music, including many hits from Olivia Newton-John and ELO (some of which came from the original film). I've had "Magic" and "Evil Woman" stuck in my head on and off for a week.

In this particular production, there's some clever scene design, some fun costumes, and great prop work. A visit to Mount Olympus brings us a hilarious vision of Zeus (paying off a gag that runs all through the show). And the "pegasus" ridden by the main character Clio is one of the best sight gags I've seen in a theater.

The performers were a bit hit and miss, though. Anchoring the show, Lauren Shealy makes a great Clio, alternately singing quite like Olivia Newton-John and deliberately butchering an Australian accent for comedic effect. Unfortunately, she's much stronger than the rest of the cast, particularly the romantic lead she plays opposite. Marco Robinson was not only stiff in the role of Sonny and outmatched as a singer, he couldn't be heard after his microphone went out late in the performance we attended. (He awkwardly used a handheld mic for the final minutes, apparently unable to project even in the not so large theater.)

Xanadu runs for about another month here in Denver if you're in town and interested in checking it out. Go ready for silliness, and you'll probably find fun. I give the show a B.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Collaborator

Deep Space Nine had been flirting briefly with serialized storytelling throughout its run, but the late second season episode "The Collaborator" marked a real turning point for the series -- a bold step for their implementation of ongoing story lines.

Just days before the election of Bajor's new Kai, a scandal emerges. Kira is recruited to investigate an incident from the Cardassian occupation, in which a collaborator's intervention led the slaughter of a Bajoran resistance cell. What she learns may change the outcome of the election.

According to staff writer Ira Steven Behr, the team had been working all season toward Bareil becoming the next Kai of Bajor. One story pitch suddenly changed their minds. Gary Holland worked for Paramount, and was in charge of advertising and promotion of Deep Space Nine (for the series' entire seven year run, in fact). He'd had a few brushes over the years with the opportunity to write for television, and was invited in to pitch story ideas to Star Trek. One involved a Bajoran who collaborated with the Cardassians during the Occupation. He was trying to return home, and seemed to be hiding the secret that he had murdered Kira's father. In the end, it would turn out he was covering for his daughter.

According to Behr, this pitched somehow sparked a conversation in the room and a sudden realization: "We don't want Bareil as the Kai." The best way to foster more drama for the show would be to install an adversary, not a friend, as the Bajoran spiritual leader. Holland was offered the chance to flesh out that idea, and then ultimately to write the first draft of the script. According to another staff writer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, much of Holland's input survived to the final shooting version, "more so than most freelancers."

Among these ideas was the romantic pairing of Kira and Bareil. It was meant to raise the stakes on what would transpire this episode, and does so with mixed results. Nana Visitor's performance is fantastic, as Kira must wrestle with apparent betrayal by the man she's just grown close to. Philip Anglim's performance? Well, it remains hard to know what exactly about Bareil isn't clicking. He's clearly a relaxed and progressive religious figure, but he seems to lack any of the charisma that would suggest he could lead a real movement.

Fortunately, Anglim is just one guest star among several important ones. Camille Saviola returns to play Opaka, albeit only in "Orb vision" form. She was thrilled to learn that her character had had a son and essentially had been a "working mother" while being the spiritual leader of an entire planet. But she also pointed out about the episode's final twist, when Bareil takes the fall to cover for Opaka's actions: "I didn't understand why what I did had to be kept secret, when it was a heroic deed. It was almost like Oskar Schindler: I have sacrificed 40, including my own son, to save 1,200." Hmmm... fair point there.

Louise Fletcher returns as Winn, and is marvelous as always in delivering venomous verbal jousting with an insincere smile. A scene in which she smacks down Kira for failing to show proper respect demonstrates Winn as a credible threat even before her ascension to power. Another scene in which she lobbies Sisko for an endorsement (securing from him a pledge of neutrality) shows her savvy. And in her final scene, when Kira grudgingly greets her as Kai while pointedly maintaining eye contact, Winn glows with triumph. Fletcher twists the knife on our heroes in every scene, making her a delightful villain we want to see more of, because she's so much fun to hate.

It's not just the continuance of an ongoing story here that shows Deep Space Nine is "growing up," it's that they trust that the audience will keep up. There's no "previously on" package at the start of the episode. The episode opens inside an Orb vision, leaving viewers to play catch-up on what's happening. If they haven't watched previous episodes to know who Vedek Bareil is, then they don't even know who they're watching. There's also a lot of trust here that the audience will tune in again next week even when the "bad guy" wins in the end this time, with lasting consequences.

There are also many aspects of this story that remain relevant today. The notion is raised that collaborators did what they did to prevent the Occupation from being even worse. It's an idea we hear a lot today, that people who work for immoral political leaders are doing so to control the leader's worst instincts.

Other observations:
  • Quark shows up to give us a sprinkling of comedy in this dark episode. He fills us in on the 285th (and final) Rule of Acquisition: "No good deed ever goes unpunished."
  • This episode marks the beginning of Odo's unrequited romantic interest in Kira... and it's all thanks to an acting choice by Rene Auberjonois, in Odo's reaction to Kira confessing her love for Bareil. Gary Holland admitted he was surprised by this moment, and it inspired him in another episode he'd pitch to the show a few seasons later, "Children of Time."
  • In "Emissary," Sisko's Orb experience was more like a flashback he could interact with. Here, Bareil's visions are more like the disjointed, non-linear interactions with the Prophets themselves. Is this an inconsistency or an evolution? Perhaps Sisko's interaction with the Orb was different because he's the Emissary? Or because he's human?
"The Collaborator" is really a milestone episode for the show. The rather dry characterization of Bareil keeps it from also being a truly great episode of the show, but I do think it deserves a B+.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Lasting Impressions

In its latest episode, The Orville took a bit of a risk and presented an story that one could argue barely counted as science fiction. It was more of a conventional relationship drama with only a mild sci-fi twist, unfolding mostly in the present day (well, a facsimile of it).

A guest comes aboard the Orville with an unusual historical discovery, a time capsule from early 21st century Earth. Among its contents are a cigarette (setting Bortus and Klyden on a nasty nicotine addiction), and a smartphone (that soon causes another form of addiction). Intrigued by a video of the phone's long-dead owner, Malloy loads the device's data into the ship's environmental simulator to recreate and interact with her. What starts as fascination soon becomes infatuation, as Malloy falls in love with the simulation he's created.

This is not the first episode of The Orville to ditch the galactic stakes and focus on a simple romance -- we got that earlier this season with Dr. Finn and Isaac. But given that a robot was one half of that pair, science fiction was present in every single moment of that episode. This was a story about Malloy losing himself in the past, which in turn meant the episode was losing the genre trappings.

The Finn/Isaac episode also had the advantage of featuring Penny Johnson Jerald in a key role; I would say she and Adrianne Palicki are the two strongest performers on the show. (And admittedly, I say this mostly for the work I've seen them do on other TV series. The Orville, for its strengths and its sense of fun, doesn't often call for capital-A Acting.) Scott Grimes, the show's go-to comic relief player, is here given his second episode in a row playing against those expectations. And though he won't suddenly be winning awards for his work here, he does step up when given something meaty to do.

It helps that he gets a great scene partner in guest star Leighton Meester. I never watched Gossip Girl, though I do watch Single Parents -- so for me, this story featured two comedic performers being asked to play drama. She brought great charm and dimension to her character of Laura. It's never easy to come on a show and play the love interest that a regular character is drawn to in the span of 60 minutes minus commercials. I believed it here.

Addiction may have been the thread linking the two plots of the episode, but I really could have done without the Bortus/Klyden subplot. It was yet another in the long list of examples of Klyden Being Just The Worst. At least this episode, Bortus was being terrible too... but I'd rather have Klyden redeemed (or removed) than have Bortus dragged down to his level.

In that subplot's place, I think the episode might have benefited from a more sci-fi-based story. Perhaps I think this because of the ways in which this episode reminded me of Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Booby Trap," in which Geordi has a brief flirtation with a hologram. (That episode put the Enterprise in jeopardy for its B-plot.) Or perhaps I think this because I'm less invested in Malloy as a character than Dr. Finn (whose relationship with Isaac I felt could sustain a "no science problem" episode).

A last side note here. I feel I ought to mention that Star Trek: Voyager's Tim Russ was in the episode, continuing the use of Star Trek veterans both in front of and behind the camera of The Orville. But I feel all I can do is mention it; there wasn't enough to the role to really justify "wasting him" in the part.

Overall, I was entertained by the episode. I think its aspirations were good, and its heart in the right place. But I was less moved by the story than I was intrigued. (The most emotional scene, I thought, was Grayson consoling Malloy near the end. Like I said, Adrianne Palicki is one of the strongest actors on the show.) I'd give "Lasting Impressions" a B.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Back to the Symphony

Exactly one year after the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed the entire score of Star Wars live in sync with the film, they were back to present The Empire Strikes Back.

This was a can't-miss performance for me. Just as Star Wars fans debate whether the original or Empire was the better movie, I debate which had the better score from John Williams. Yes, it was Star Wars that won him an Oscar and not Empire (though he was nominated, losing to.... Fame?!). Yes, Star Wars was entirely new where Empire reused some established material.

But take a moment here. John Williams created a great deal of brand new music for this film, from the battle of Hoth to the asteroid field sequence to the escape from Cloud City (on the city itself and in space). He created several new themes, including themes for Cloud City, the droids, and the emerging romance between Han and Leia. This is to say nothing of his sweeping, emotional theme for Yoda, which helped lend the odd puppet character some much-needed gravitas.

Plus, of course, the Imperial March. Darth Vader's theme is so iconic and memorable, everyone knows it. It's the most recognized theme from Star Wars outside of the main title itself, and I'd wager many people don't even realize Williams didn't actually compose it until the sequel.

As always, seeing an orchestra perform a John Williams score live is a wonderful treat, giving you a visual aid in discovering just how the music is put together. I'm always fascinated to learn how heavily certain instruments are actually utilized. There's quite a bit more piano than I knew in the Empire Strikes Back score, for instance, though it's largely buried in the audio mix of the official recording. There's also far more piccolo than I'd imagined -- not that it can't be heard, but I certainly thought about it much more when I saw just how often the performer here was working.

Part of the cleverness in a John Williams theme is how he recontextualizes it throughout a movie by passing it around to different sections of the orchestra. Seeing the music performed live turns this into almost a tennis match as you see a musical phrase volleyed around to french horns, flutes, trumpets, and more. I couldn't take my eyes of the performers... though of course, there are few movies I know as well as The Empire Strikes Back. (And it was nice not to have to look much at the goofy Special Edition inserts. The rotoscoping of extraneous windows in Cloud City has not aged well, and looks more dated today than anything that was actually in the movie back in 1980. Except maybe for the guy in Cloud City running with an old giant ice cream maker that's the exact model my family had when I was a kid.)

It seems inevitable that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra will be performing the Return of the Jedi score at some point down the road. And you bet I'll be there. But this film, this experience was a real pinnacle. Once again, I can't recommend enough these wonderful film score experiences, whether you're close to Denver or near another symphony that surely stages similar events.

Monday, March 25, 2019

This Is Us

I was late to the Get Out party, missing out on the film in theaters and being very sorry about that later when I did see it -- writer-director Jordan Peele had made my favorite movie of 2017. So I was ready and eager for his latest, Us.

As presented in the incredibly eerie trailer, Us follows a family of four as they're tormented in a terrifying home invasion scenario. But the truly horrific twist? The four people stalking them are twisted dopplegangers of themselves.

It's both unfair and inevitable to compare this new movie to Get Out. That was a true modern masterpiece (generally -- not just of the horror genre). But Jordan Peele is savvy about how he follows up his success. Get Out was a tale of incisive social commentary; its horror trappings were well-composed, but secondary. Us feels like an inversion: it seems built first and foremost to scare, with some commentary added in the secondary position. It's a subtly different formula that should help with expectations.

That's not to say that there's no meat on the bone here. I did walk out of the theater thinking to myself, "well, that was fun, but it was no Get Out." And yet, the movie hung with me for days, in an undeniable way. First, it stuck with me in the way that a well-made scary movie does -- a "don't want to be alone in the house without lots of lights on," "wait, what was that noise?" kind of way. But later, it stuck with me as my thoughts kept drifting to its themes. The message of Us isn't as crystallized and strong as that of Get Out, but it is there, and stands up to continuing examination of the film.

What also struck me odd at the time, but then stuck with me long after the movie, was the score by composer Michael Abels. It's more conspicuous than the average film score these days, which takes some getting used to. But it's profoundly unsettling, from its classic "creepy choir" moments to its balletic and disturbing remix of the hip hop track "I Got 5 on It." It's a soundtrack I expect I'll be picking up at some point soon.

The performances are outstanding. The core cast, of course, are playing dual roles as themselves and their doppelgangers, but Lupita Nyong'o has the heaviest lift here. She stars as the haunted Adelaide and the menacing Red. While one performance is pure menace, both are full characters shaded with nuance. Winston Duke provides much of the movie's comic relief as husband Gabe. He's perfectly deployed to lift the tension so that it can be felt all the more when it returns. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are great as the couple's two children, both particularly strong additions to horror's proud lineage of creepy kids. Also fun, though definitely supporting in the film, are Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as friends of the family (and the most yuppie of couples).

There's an almost M. Night Shayamalan quality to what Jordan Peele has written and directed this time around. I don't mean that in a withering The Happening kind of way; I'm talking about early Shyamalan. The opening of this film feels very disjointed at times, full of apparently unassociated moments and imagery that leave you scratching your head. But every single frame of the film fits into the whole somehow, and by the end, you see the whole machine as it was designed. Indeed, you may anticipate some of the machine before it's revealed. I did. But the journey was still worthwhile; this was not a movie only about the destination.

I still think this movie isn't as good as Get Out. But I've realized in the days since I've seen it that it's still really good. I give Us an A-. If you're a horror fan, it's definitely worth checking out.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Systems Processing

On our vacation last month to Steamboat Springs, the drive to and from was filled with a few podcasts and a science fiction audiobook: All Systems Red, a novella by Martha Wells.

All Systems Red is told from the perspective of a security cyborg that thinks of himself as a "Murderbot." He's been assigned to guard the members of a planetary expedition, but it turns out to be a tall order. First, a monstrous creature attacks one of the members. Then the group finds missing data in their information about this planet... and sabotage appears likely. The Murderbot must help the explorers uncover the truth while protecting a secret of his own: he's hacked his own systems, and isn't required to obey commands as they all think.

I had basically no expectations on this story, and I think that worked to its advantage. Later on, I found out that this novella was first of a series of four (though it is itself essentially stand-alone). I also learned that it won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novella, two of the most prestigious prizes for science fiction. Had I known any of this ahead of time, I think I would have brought expectations to this simple little tale that would not have been satisfied.

There are some things to like here. The protagonist, this "Murderbot," has a dry and sarcastic wit that lends a lot of humor to the tale. It's also just a nice flip of convention; so often, cyborgs (or robots or androids) are used in science fiction as "others" -- menacing villains we're not meant to understand, or figures of infant-like innocence we're meant to empathize with. Having such a character tell you his own tale is certainly not revolutionary, but it is surprisingly uncommon.

But so much of this tale is surprisingly common that I don't quite understand the award love. Wells is a skilled enough storyteller, but her story is full of tropes: an evil corporation pulling strings in a hyper-capitalist future, a machine wrestling with questions of humanity and freewill, and others more specific (which would spoil too much of this short tale if revealed). Yes, there are marks to be earned for how a tale is told -- and Wells does often earn them. But the tale itself is a fairly straightforward science fiction Mad Lib.

Even learning about the praise after the fact is probably making me judge All Systems Red harsher than it deserves. It's a breezy and fun little story -- and at novella length rather than doorstep epic, it doesn't overstay its welcome. Still, I'm not sure that I'll ever make time for the other stories in the series. I give All Systems Red a B.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Creature Discomfort

I love deduction games. It started back when I was a kid and Clue was a personal favorite. I've since discovered better options (like Sleuth and Code 777), but I'm still eager to try basically any new deduction game that comes along.

Along comes Cryptid. Players are each cryptozoologists, trying to locate a fanciful creature (think Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, or such). The board is a map made of interlocking pieces, with several wooden markers adding landmarks. The elusive creature is out there somewhere, on one specific hex of the map among dozens. Each player has a single clue to that location -- "it's in a desert or mountain space," "it's within two spaces of a green marker," "it's within one space of water," and so forth.

Your job is to probe at your opponents' information and collate it with yours. On each of your turns, you pick another player and propose a hex on the map: "could the creature be here?" That player must respond truthfully, according to their clue, whether the creature could be in the proposed location. If the answer is "no," then you must also reveal something, marking a location on the map where you know the creature also cannot be. Around the table you go, eliminating options, until one player is able to deduce the single hex on the map that no player's clue can disprove. That's it! You've discovered the creature!

There's an interesting element of evasion at work in Cryptid. The biggest moment of strategy in the game comes when, after having been refuted in one of your questions, you too must reveal information. What do you think your opponents know? What space can you eliminate that gives away nothing more than you've already given?

The deduction works on multiple levels. Ultimately, you're trying to find the mysterious creature, but to do that, you're going to have to deduce what piece of information each other player knows. What can you gather from the questions your opponents are asking? What do the elimination tokens they've place suggest?

Unfortunately, Cryptid struck me as more fascinating from a design angle than as a player. The game comes with hundreds of puzzles, each carefully crafted for 3, 4, or 5 players. It's quite a feat that the same board pieces and wooden markers can be reconstituted in so many ways that all work. There's always exactly one right answer, only one space that isn't eliminated by the clues given to the players. I'd love to see the documents and tools used to build the puzzles.

But after a handful of games, it has always felt to me that the puzzle unravels almost randomly each time. There's a theoretical role for deduction here, but each game seems to come down to a moment when someone happens to ask the question that breaks it all open. That player doesn't even usually win -- Player A causes key information to be revealed, in then Player B or C wins because of it, before Player A gets another turn.

It's also disappointingly easy to mix up the clue giving. The first game I ever played fell apart when one of the other players realized they'd answered an earlier question incorrectly. The second time I ever played, I nearly messed it all up, nearly giving wrong information before catching myself. The third game went off without a hitch, but the fourth almost went wrong too -- though in correcting misinformation, one player actually revealed extra information that brought the game to a faster conclusion.

I've tried Cryptid now with a few different mixes of players, but no one has had a truly enthusiastic response to it. So at this point, I wouldn't be surprised if I don't ever end up playing it again. And I'm not terribly broken up about that; there are plenty of other deduction games I enjoy much more. I'd grade Cryptid a C.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Crossover

There was a time when "Mirror, Mirror" was just a one-off episode of the original Star Trek. It was beloved by fans, and known even among non-fans (goatee = evil), but it was not a well that Star Trek had ever returned to. Then came the Deep Space Nine episode "Crossover."

When a runabout passes through the wormhole while experiencing an engine malfunction, Kira and Bashir are transported to a dark and sinister parallel universe. The Klingons and Cardassians have united, with Bajoran assistance, to subjugate the descendants of a once-mighty Terran Empire. All this is the consequence of a prior "crossover" decades earlier, when the James T. Kirk of our universe persuaded the Spock of theirs to pursue more peaceful ways. Bashir must stay alive while slaving in ore processing, as Kira tries to convince her mirror self to release them to return where they belong.

This is not the first time a Star Trek spinoff staged a sequel to a classic episode. Quite illogically, The Next Generation did so with their very first one hour episode, "The Naked Now." According to show runner Michael Piller, "Mirror, Mirror" sequels were pitched multiple times over the years, with him always resisting. Eventually the Star Trek spinoffs established their own identities well enough that looking backward probably felt less risky. And the lure of finding out how Kirk's influence changed the mirror universe finally proved irresistible.

The mirror universe would ultimately be visited several more times in Deep Space Nine, become the subject of a two-part episode of Enterprise, and fuel the first season of Discovery. But it seems clear that there were no long-term plans at the time "Crossover" was made. Had the writers known better, they surely would not have chosen to kill both Quark and Odo (the latter in a marvelous practical explosion of a wax model), cutting two series regulars out of the ongoing fun.

This take on the mirror universe is far less action-packed than later episodes would present. "Crossover" is actually a surprisingly talkie episode -- or perhaps not surprisingly, when you consider that this episode, like the original "Mirror, Mirror," is interested in making a social point: brutal authoritarian governments will inevitably crumble, either from within or without.

That's not to say that this episode is all talk and no fun. It's tons of fun, mostly in how it lets most of the regular cast cut loose as they play their mirror counterparts. Rene Auberjonois gets to play Odo as a full-on baddie. Armin Shimerman serves up a noble Quark, operating an "underground railroad" to free humans. Avery Brooks goes broad as a swaggering, piratical Sisko, giving us a hint of how much more compelling the real Sisko would become in later seasons (once the writers quit trying to hammer him into the Starfleet mold so hard). Guest star Andrew Robinson drops Garak's usual mask to play a less subtle villain.

But no one is having as much fun here as Nana Visitor. The mirror universe "Intendant" Kira is a slinking hedonist oozing camp over every scene. It's such a vivid performance, it may well be The Main Thing inspired a revisit to the mirror universe next season. Visitor does great work as original Kira too -- putting up with Bashir's annoyances in the teaser, lying to mirror Quark to manipulate him, and playing convincingly off herself in split-screen scenes with the Intendant.

By placing Kira at the center of the story (rather than a Starfleet character), the writers have a way to work in exposition for viewers who may not know the original "Mirror, Mirror." For the viewers who do know it, they pile on the homages. Garak tries to advance in rank by assassination, just as Chekov attempted in the original episode. The logo on the Terran jumpsuits is the original series' Terran Empire logo, with the sword removed. There are multiple explicit references to Kirk and Spock (plus a mention of Lursa and B'Etor for Next Generation fans). Tons of fairly seamless fan service.

As with "Necessary Evil," the look of the station is completely transformed through set decorations and extreme lighting changes. Characters get brand-new costumes, from the Intendant's iconic bodysuit to a collar and belt for Odo that Rene Auberjonois liked so much, he lobbied to add them to his regular uniform at the start of next season.

Other observations:
  • I'd argue that director David Livingston went a bit too far with the camera work when Kira and Bashir first arrive in the mirror universe. The extremely low angles when Klingons board the runabout do make it clear something is different now... but I think too clear.
  • We don't get mirror versions of Bashir, Dax, or Jake in this episode. Later mirror universe episodes would give us the first two, while establishing that Jake simply doesn't exist there.
  • The original plan was to put Worf in this episode, but Michael Dorn could not be freed up enough from filming the final season of The Next Generation. His lines were given to Garak. This arguably worked out for the best, allowing for a different take on Mirror Worf when Dorn actually joined the Deep Space Nine cast a few years later.
Despite the big money spent on this episode, it doesn't feel all that big to me, perhaps due to the relative lack of overt action (particularly space battles). I'd probably grade it a B... though I feel like an extra "+" is earned by the clear fun the actors have in their different roles. I don't know that I find the mirror universe as compelling in the long-term as various Star Trek writers clearly did, but that's nothing to hold against this episode.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Hold Off

A few years ago, I found my way to the movie Green Room, a tense and compact thriller from a director I did not previously know, Jeremy Saulnier. In that moment, I made a subconscious mental note to check out any future movies he released. One came along in 2018, snatched up by Netflix: Hold the Dark.

Another violent suspense film, Hold the Dark is set in Alaska. Russell Core is a writer with expertise in wolf behavior, invited to a small village by a woman named Medora. Her son has been abducted by wolves. With her husband away on tour in Iraq, the police unhelpful, and the locals with ancestral roots deeply mistrustful of her, she has nowhere else to turn. But the people shunning Medora may be on to something. Core has no idea what he's getting himself into.

There was more here to intrigue me than just director Jeremy Saulnier; Hold the Dark has an interesting cast too. Jeffrey Wright is the lead, serving the story in much the same way as his character on Westworld -- he's a steady anchor who seems unflappable, but you can tell there's a great deal going on beneath the surface. Medora is played with cryptic allure by Riley Keough. Her husband does not remain off-screen in Iraq; he becomes a key figure in the film, and is embodied with icy menace by Alexander SkarsgÄrd. Then there's the local police chief, played by James Badge Dale; he's more accessible and human than anyone else in the movie.

But the performances are strong because they have to be. The script for this movie is very spartan, more interested in evoking a mood than making strict sense. The characters are all ciphers, people whose motivations are often a complete mystery. It's hard to know why anyone does what they do. There is a payoff of sorts in this approach, as there are several gripping moments of surprise and suspense throughout. But "I didn't see that coming" isn't the same as "I couldn't have seen that coming"; the latter isn't really playing fair.

Horror fans might like this. The movie straddles the line between natural and supernatural, and if you work hard enough, you could ascribe either explanation to what unfolds. There's also startling and effective use of extreme violence, which may excite slasher fans (though I wouldn't actually consider this movie a slasher film). But many a horror film has gone wrong when it fails to adhere to the "rules" set out early on; this movie doesn't quite bother to set any at all.

I really wanted to like this movie more. Fortunately, I don't think it has hurt my appreciation of Green Room in the least -- I would still enthusiastically recommend that. But certainly not this. I give Hold the Dark a C. Netflix is full of better viewing options.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Project Daedalus

Star Trek: Discovery is undeniably the most action-oriented of all Star Trek series to date. To some extent, the previous series weren't actiony out of necessity, the budgetary and technological limitations of their times forcing a more dialogue centered approach. Discovery does still try to be Star Trek, mixing in the big ideas and introspection where it can. But sometimes, the blend isn't entirely successful. So it was for me with the newest episode, "Project Daedalus."

Admiral Cornwell arrives aboard the Discovery in secret. Though she isn't immediately ready to believe in Spock's innocence, she's distrusting of Section 31. Their analytical computer, Control, has stopped accepting input from her and other Starfleet admirals, and she wants Discovery to go there and find out why. It's a dangerous journey that leads to an alarming revelation.

There's plenty in this episode that I thought was quite good -- though that material was all rather front-loaded. It's nice to have Cornwell back, and interacting with a very different captain than in season 1. Cornwell is among the more interesting Admiral characters Star Trek has had over the years; she's different because of her medical background, and Discovery's writers continue to use her in a way that highlights this.

The sibling rivalry between Michael and Spock was excellent. Some might say Spock was pushed too far into emotion this episode, but I thought the character was used perfectly. No one knows how to push your buttons quite like a sibling. Michael and Spock were both pushing on each other in a way that felt very personal and very real. It was Ethan Peck's first real chance to do something substantial in the role of Spock. He rose to the occasion, and Sonequa Martin-Green played wonderfully off of him.

But once Discovery arrived at Section 31's base, the well-built machine of this episode began to come apart for me. The series is sometimes so determined to maintain a breathless pace that it doesn't even slow down to drop in a line or two of explanatory dialogue that would patch fairly glaring plot holes. Running the mine field gauntlet was an interesting scenario, but you feel like the crew of any previous Star Trek series would have found another way around the problem -- jamming the mines with interference, masking the ship's passage somehow, something. Hell, you want the action solution? Hang back at a distance and use weapons to detonate the mines. (Pike had clearly expressed his disdain for Section 31 even having the mines, so what's a little destruction of Starfleet property?)

Boarding the base itself was a fun and moody bit of horror, featuring frozen bodies hovering in zero-g and atmospheric lighting. But then came a climactic series of showdowns and revelations that fell completely flat for me. (And it gets extra SPOILERY from here.)

How did a "logic extremist" even rise to such a position of authority in Starfleet in the first place? That feels like something that really needs exploration, but we're not likely ever to get it.

Will the series really be able to do something with the Killer AI trope that hasn't already been done in several past Trek episodes, many sci-fi movies (including the first Star Trek movie), Doctor Who, and hell -- even The Orville?

When "hacked Airiam" rips out Nhan's breathing apparatus, why doesn't Nhan just close the helmet of the spacesuit she's wearing and pump in some atmosphere that's standard for her?

When Michael traps Airiam, why does she not go to check on Nhan?

Why can't Discovery just beam them back? Any of them? Nhan when she gets into trouble, or Airiam once she starts going crazy? Hold her in the pattern buffer, beam her straight into the brig -- something. Anything. (Seriously, I must have missed them explaining this. I cannot imagine they actually overlooked something so basic.)

I know we're all supposed to feel for the death of Airiam, but they waited until this episode to even make much of a character out of her. And the fact that they suddenly hit us with such transparent melancholy as her "weekly memory purge" made it pretty predictable what was going to happen to her by the end of the episode. It felt especially false to wedge in a sudden friendship with Tilly we never saw evidence of before now. Indeed, when Michael first came aboard Discovery in season one, Tilly told her (and us) quite explicitly that she had no other friends on the ship. So it feels as though we really ought to have seen the developing friendship between Tilly and Airiam before the sudden calculation that it was needed for emotional heft.

I was really loving this episode in the first half, and then felt like it completely threw all that away in the second. The result is an installment really hard for me to sum up in one rating. If I think more about what I liked, it feels like a B+ episode. If I think more about the last 15 minutes, it feels like a C+ at best. It may come down to hindsight, and how I feel later about the season as a whole. Right now, after a few mid-season episodes that have left me feeling less charitable to the series, I think I'm going to call this one a B-.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Blood of Patriots

There was no new installment of The Orville this week, making it a little less awkward that it took me a few extra days to get to the most recent episode, "Blood of Patriots."

When an old friend of Malloy's is rescued from the Krill, it sparks a difficult diplomatic situation. The Krill accuse this former prisoner of terrorist attacks on their ships, and demand his extradition. If they don't get what they want, then the peace talks with the Union they've recently agreed to will fall apart.

It's nice for the series to follow up immediately on the events of "Identity" by continuing the story thread of potential peace with the Krill. For the many ways The Orville often strives to be like Star Trek: The Next Generation, serialized storytelling wasn't among that series' greatest strengths -- they'd rarely continue a story line, and even when they did, it would often take years to do so.


Indeed, if you were to say The Orville was inspired by a previous sci-fi show this week, you might well pick Firefly over Star Trek. Malloy's friend Chambers did not just escape from the Krill himself, he brought along a withdrawn and quixotic young woman, Leyna. There are definite Simon and River Tam vibes coming off this relationship, even though her it's a father/daughter bond instead of brother/sister. (Also, there's a late-episode twist hidden here, though that doesn't change how the characters come across for the bulk of the episode.)

It's interesting to put Malloy at the center of this plot. On the one hand, he's been a mostly comic relief character, so it's asking more to have him carry a dramatic character tale like this. On the other, it's an investment worth making; it's wise for no one character to be purely for laughs. Still, the road is tougher to climb for this character than it would have been for any other. It helps that Malloy has a well-established friendship with Mercer, putting him squarely in a "torn between two friends" scenario.

It's a decent episode for the newest character too, security chief Teyali. This hour is essentially a whodunit with a sci-fi twist. (A howdunit?) Teyali spends a lot of time investigating and showing her professional skills. She also gets a little early comedy (the rubber glove moment is patently ridiculous, but come on -- you know you laughed), and a nice-if-short scene with Malloy, drawing out his confession about his friend.


I think a while down the road, this won't be among The Orville's more memorable episodes. They didn't exactly follow up their version of "The Best of Both Worlds" with their version of "Family." But it was a still a decent episode I'd grade a B. This series really knows itself at this point, and rarely stumbles entirely.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Star (Trek) Struck

For some time now, I'd been aware of a trilogy of non-fiction books by author Marc Cushman about the original Star Trek television series. In These Are the Voyages, Cushman chronicled the production of those classic episodes (one book for each of the three seasons), and I'd long wanted to get around to reading them. I hadn't exactly made a high priority of it, as I'd imagined there wasn't much left to be told about the making of Star Trek that I hadn't heard at some point.

It turns out I was wrong. Cushman conducted a number of new interviews for his books, and was granted access to production files and old papers. He dove truly deep, and indeed found plenty of stories to be told that really had not been told before. I've now finished his first volume, dedicated to season one of the original series, and I definitely plan to continue on to the other two books.

Cushman really gets into how the sausage was made. He writes all about the courting of established science fiction writers for the show, the pitch process for ideas, and the writing and re-writing (and re-re-writing) of scripts. There might be occasional exaggeration about the quality of some of the lesser episodes of that season, but there's no varnishing of the conflict behind the scenes in making them. You read about open clashes clashes between Gene Roddenberry and both the writers and the key network executive assigned to the show. You read about more passive-aggressive wars waged in memos and in open letters to trade publications. There are noble moments where praise and credit are given where they're due, but there's certainly no suggestion that creating utopia on the screen was anything like a utopia behind the scenes.

Cushman's research is so deep that he does at times get bogged down in minute details. He provides the exact completion date of every single draft of every single script of the season. He tells you the exact end time of each day of filming on every episode, whether something interesting happened that day or not. He lists the money spent on each episode, to the dollar. This sort of detail can be a bit much, as can the thorough historical context he provides for each episode's production. (Yes, it's interesting to think that The Monkees were the pinnacle of pop culture at the time the first season was being filmed. It's not so interesting to be told for the 12th time that "I'm a Believer" was the number one song on the charts as filming began on an episode.)

Still, microscopic detail and all, I found myself sucked into this book in a big way. Knowing that it was going to be broken in separate chapters for each of the 29 first season episodes produced (not to mention additional chapters covering the selling of the show, major shifts in production, and more), I assumed it would be something I'd read intermittently. When I didn't feel like committing to a long chapter of a novel one night, I'd read an easy chapter about the making of Star Trek instead. But Cushman's account swallowed me whole -- I read it without any interjections along the way.

Things got less rosy for Star Trek after the first season. The troubled third season is particularly notorious for the drop in quality and the marginalization of Gene Roddenberry after one too many fights with the network. I'll be curious to read Cushman's other two books on seasons two and three, to learn what more there is to know than I do now. If this first book is any indication, it'll be quite a bit.

You'd have to be a major Star Trek fan to want to read this, but you'll love it if you are and do. I give These Are the Voyages: TOS Season One an A-.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

So Wrong, So Right

This past weekend, I went to see the touring production of last season's hit Broadway comedy The Play That Goes Wrong. It was, as the saying goes, side-splittingly funny.

In the proud British farce tradition, The Play That Goes Wrong is a fast-paced comedy loosely parodying a murder mystery like Agatha Christie's Mousetrap. But the conceit here is that you're watching a production put on by a very unskilled college theater. Actors don't make their entrances and exits on time, don't know their lines (one literally doesn't know how to pronounce some of them), don't stay in character, and stumble around the stage (sometimes literally). Props aren't where they're supposed to be. Lighting and sound cues are mistimed. And the set is falling apart.

This is very similar in tone to a wonderful play by Michael Frayn called Noises Off. (It was made into a movie that's admittedly less wonderful, but has just about the most amazing cast of comedy actors you could assemble in the early 1990s.) Because of the similarities, it took me a little while to warm to The Play That Goes Wrong. But there's really no reason there can't be two (or more) funny plays built upon the fun premise of disastrously bad theater.

It's an extremely clever script. Written by a team (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields), The Play That Goes Wrong is especially clever for how precisely the play within the play is crafted. Unlike Noises Off (where you see the action repeated multiple times), this show follows a single performance of "The Murder at Haversham Manor" straight through. The dialogue of the fake play is hilariously indicative of what's supposed to be happening on stage, so that whenever someone speaks, you immediately know exactly what's "going wrong" with the titular play.

The physical comedy is excellent throughout. It ranges from broad to minute, and the latter was especially impressive to me. The Buell Theater in Denver (and really, any venue that would host a touring Broadway show) isn't exactly an intimate space. Humor depending on small moves or subtle facial expressions aren't necessarily going to work. But everything was very carefully thought through in the staging to make sure that each and every joke could play from the front row to the back.

The set itself nearly steals the show. It's a booby-trapped nightmare, with elements all over carefully constructed (in reality) to malfunction at just the wrong time (fictitiously). One can step through it all and imagine how all the tricks were done, but it's quite easy (and more fun) to just get swept up in the moments as they come and watch decorations break, pieces fall off, and so forth. Again... it's all extremely clever comedy.

The cast is great, each embodying an archetype you'd expect to see whether you've actually participated in bad theater or are just imagining it. It was hard to pick a favorite; they were all funny, and everyone had their own particularly showy moment to go for a huge laugh from the audience.

After a couple of shows in this year's touring season that I thought were lackluster, The Play That Goes Wrong is a wonderful change. I give it an A-. It's here in Denver until Sunday, before moving on to other cities. If you have the chance to see it, I'd highly recommend it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

If Memory Serves

I have no idea how the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery played to someone unfamiliar with the original Star Trek series. (And that may well be most of the audience.) But for me, it was a nostalgic ride back to the beginning.

Michael Burnham arrives on Talos IV with her brother Spock, hoping the Talosians will use their mental abilities to restore his fractured mind. But the aliens demand a price from her that will come at great personal cost. Meanwhile, Discovery must find a way to track their missing crew member without alerting Section 31.

I wasn't expecting this episode to kick off with a "Previous on" package of clips taken exclusively from Star Trek's original pilot episode, "The Cage." And what a package it was -- besides explaining the key points of that story, you got to see a smiling Spock and a charisma-free Jeffrey Hunter in the role of Pike, smash-cutting directly to Anson Mount. (For what it's worth, I don't think Hunter and Mount look like the same person, though it feels like they could credibly be brothers, or father and son or something.)


The episode was full of callbacks to that original episode. The singing plants, which Georgiou even had a snide comment about. The return of Vina, this time played by Melissa George. New Talosian aliens, veins throbbing in CG instead of by the efforts of a stagehand pumping an air bladder. (And in a non-Star Trek shout-out, everyone has now agreed that the movie Interstellar has decided for us what a black hole looks like.)

There was a lot to like here besides the nostalgia factor. The flashbacks to Michael and Spock's childhoods delivered a nice emotional payoff to what the series has been building up since it began. No, it wasn't entirely "surprising," and it was good that it wasn't. Because they prioritized something honest over something shocking, the revelation of how the emotional rift formed between the siblings delivered on the drama.

The moments between Pike and Vina were also quite strong... though perhaps this depended more on a knowledge of the events of both "The Cage" and the original series two-part episode "The Menagerie." This filled in the middle act of a love story in a melancholy way, while staying true to the lighter payoff it has (if you watch those early episodes). Anson Mount got his most personal material of the series so far, a scene more demanding than "looking captain-ly," and he was great.

But speaking of a love story in its middle act: Stamets and Culber. Man, am I torn about this. On the one hand, I recognize that happiness and contentedness is the enemy of drama. Happily married characters on a TV series are a magnet for writers to tear apart to generate story. However, on the other hand, we've now traded one ugly TV cliche about gay people for another. Because if TV writers aren't killing off their gay characters in metaphorical punishment for their orientation, they're demonstrating how its impossible for them to maintain a healthy and stable relationship like straight people can.

Like I said, I'm torn on this. It's not like there are any stable straight relationships on Star Trek: Discovery the writers are intentionally or unintentionally contrasting with. And I like that they're engaging with the trauma that would surely result from being brought back from the dead (or even, less metaphysically, rescue after a long period of torture). But goddammit, Star Trek writers, do you not understand that having waited 50+ years to give us a recurring gay couple, having fallen behind other television in inclusiveness when your franchise was once a forerunner, you need to do better than serve the same cliches? Especially cliches that carry an undercurrent of anti-LGBT attitudes?

And while I'm on what's not-so-good about Discovery in general, I'm officially sick of the camera work. It was distracting enough when they were one-upping the J.J. Abrams penchant for lens flare. But the constantly moving and rotating cameras need to stop. It's not underscoring emotion in the script particularly well, and it's certainly not organic to the storytelling.

The resolution of this episode threw an intriguing lifeline to viewers who might still be hung up on the continuity between all we're seeing and original Star Trek. Spock made it clear that the interventions of the time-traveling Red Angel led to him save Michael's life as a child. Perhaps this did not take place in the "Prime universe" of past Star Trek series? Maybe to that timeline, and the movies' "Kelvin timeline," we've now added a third Star Trek timeline?

Despite a couple of missteps, I did mostly like this episode. Still, I'll feel a lot better if they'd just wrap up the storyline of Culber's trauma and move on. I give this episode a B+.

Monday, March 11, 2019

You Look Marvelous

Movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been laden with extra pop culture weight for a while now. See it fast before the spoilers catch up with you. See it or fall behind the pop culture times. But the latest MCU film, Captain Marvel, comes laden with extra weight: it's their first to focus on a female superhero. Sadly, social media has made this into some sort of litmus test. Fortunately, the movie itself doesn't collapse under the extra weight; it just delivers a fun time.

We're somewhere close to a dozen "origin stories" into the MCU at this point, and the template for that has been rather rigidly defined. So I was relieved and a little surprised for Captain Marvel to upend expectations in this regard. Not radically, not entirely -- but in a welcome and fitting way. For those who haven't yet seen the movie, it spoils only the first two minutes to say this: the protagonist herself doesn't know who she is. Stricken with amnesia, her discovery of herself in the film mirrors the discovery by the audience. Her past comes at us jumbled and out of order, fragmented and sporadic. This results in some refreshing disruptions to the first two acts of the normal superhero three-act structure.

Also strong here is the union of character and actor. Brie Larson is really great in this movie. There's no way to say this without slamming the way other MCU heroes have been written and performed, so I'll just say it: Larson (and her character) are better than most. Yes, a lot of solid actors play Marvel heroes. Yes, a lot of those characters have become quite interesting over the course of multiple films. But Captain Marvel emerges more well rounded and fully formed than nearly all of those others were at first. She's better written, better performed. Most significantly, she's allowed to have multiple gears. She gets to kick ass without being annoyingly serious all the time. She gets to be funny without being an irreverent wise-cracker all the time. She has trauma in her past without being consumed by it. She's more balanced, which in turn makes her more realistic, which in turn makes her more compelling.

The good casting in this movie may start with Brie Larson, but it certainly doesn't end there. Jude Law and Ben Mendelsohn are particularly well-placed in their roles, both of them used quite cleverly. Then there's Annette Bening, who seems like one of the less likely "gets" for a Marvel film, but brings a nice gravitas. And basically stealing the movie from all of them is Lashana Lynch, excellent as Maria Rambeau. Her character arrives later in the film, but she's vital in grounding the superhero antics and making things feel more real and personal.

Of course, I've skipped over the big co-star of the film: Samuel L. Jackson. I hadn't totally understood just how much I'd missed him and Nick Fury in the essentially entire "phase" of Marvel movies that have been made without him (almost two). Simply put, it's great to have Jackson and Fury back. This Captain Marvel film is also functioning as an "origin story" for Nick Fury, and it's fun to see a less-jaded, less-badass (but still badass) version of the character here. Plus, thankfully, the visual effects used to "de-age" him in this 1995-set film weren't distracting. This gimmick has appeared in previous Marvel films, but always in short scenes and often with mixed results. It's an almost unqualified success here with Jackson (though less effective on Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson), allowing you to just sit back and enjoy.

As the movie careens toward its climax, the story gets a little less novel. Things devolve a bit into the required CG pyrotechnics of explosions and punching things. This is basically an expected part of the bargain in a movie like this, but it is unfortunate that in this case, the personal stakes fade very far into the background. As Captain Marvel comes into her own, everyone and everything that was troubling her falls instantly beneath her. It's arguably the right choice for a character meant to be as powerful as she is. Certainly, it sends a message of empowerment that resonates beyond the movie. But I found it less compelling as a dramatic resolution to the story itself. All the issues that mattered for two hours.... just... suddenly... don't.

Nevertheless, Captain Marvel was still a very fun ride, and I think one of the more successful MCU movies. I'd put it in the top third of the franchise, with a B+.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Less Is More

In a book review I posted a while back, I noted that I've been on the hunt for a novel with a gay protagonist that was not a coming-out story. In response, I got a recommendation to check out Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. It was exactly that -- and winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to boot.

The titular character of the story, Arthur Less, is having a mid-life crisis. He's soon turning 50. He's now single after years in a committed relationship that came to an unexpected end. After a string of published (though not bestselling) novels, his publisher has rejected his latest manuscript. So he decides to escape everything and reset his life by embarking on a trip around the world. Each new destination on his journey seems to bring more indignities, stripping him down piece by piece.

It's easy to see why this novel would win some kind of award -- the writing itself is genius. Greer's use of language is evocative, stunning, brilliant, a thing to envy. Each paragraph is chock full of poetic metaphors. He just has the ability to choose the perfect words and craft the perfect phrases, accenting one noun by appropriating a second as an adjective. It's almost distracting how clever the writing is, and yet somehow to me it never seems overworked. (Yet I can only imagine how long each sentence had to have been labored over.)

The story is rather less compelling. Perhaps it's inevitable with the craft so elevated that the substance could never match the form. This novel is about something, to be sure: aging, regret, self-delusion. There's a coherent, organizational principle to what happens here -- and it's true that many "things happen." But nevertheless, I feel it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say this book has a "plot."

There's also a meta aspect to the book that I found a little too cheeky. Arthur Less' publisher tells him that no one wants to read about a white gay man recoiling at the thought of getting old. Poor him, boo hoo. Of course, that's exactly what this book is about. Arthur Less is jealous of another writer who has won a Pulitzer Prize; Greer couldn't have known when he wrote this book, but his efforts would win him a Pulitzer Prize. All these references are a sledgehammer of a joke when the language is so very much more subtle.

And yet, where a spotty story usually leaves me cold, I found Less engaging on every page. The writing is simply that great. You might almost call it more poetry than novel... to which I'd say I enjoyed it more than any poetry I've ever read.

Taken all together, I would give the novel a B+. So no, overall, it wasn't an absolute personal favorite. But I'm very glad I read it, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to experience smart writing.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Wire

As Deep Space Nine was approaching the end of its second season, the character of Garak had made three appearances on the show, definitely cementing his "recurring" status. With his fourth episode, "The Wire," it felt like he crossed over into something more: a key part of the series.

The normally secretive Garak has been unable to hide the intense headaches he's been experiencing, though he emphatically refuses Dr. Bashir's attempts to help... at least, until his body begins to fail. He was a spy, he admits, for the Obsidian Order -- and he was given an implant allowing him to resist torture by stimulating his pleasure centers of his brain. Faced with exile and what he regarded as a hellish life, Garak found a way to activate the implant and leave it on nonstop. Now the device is breaking down, and the intense withdrawal may kill him.

This episode began with a very different premise pitched by staff writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe. He suggested that Kira battle an addiction to stimulants dating back to her time with the Bajoran resistance. The concept was shot down as one that would tarnish the character of Kira too much. But Wolfe revived the idea later with Garak in the central role. It being later in the season, and following the expensive "Maquis" two-parter, the series needed to alleviate a budget crunch. This time, Wolfe was allowed to run with his idea.

So-called "bottle shows," which can be filmed for minimal expense (on existing sets, and with few guest stars and visual effects), are often very dialogue driven. For this, they sometimes get a bad reputation from the fans -- especially fans who love action-packed Star Trek episodes the most. But the best Deep Space Nine to date ("Duet") had been a bottle episode, and when the producers finished assembling this installment, they thought they'd done it again. The fans, by and large, did not think as highly of "The Wire." I think the truth is somewhere in between.

I think the split here is similar to that over the TV series Lost -- particularly the ending of that series. Fans of Lost who were most engaged with the mysteries of the island were disappointed. Viewers more engaged with the drama of the characters had plenty to enjoy, even through the final season. Here, in "The Wire," fans who wanted concrete answers about Garak and his background were disappointed. But viewers who could get into the drama between Garak and Bashir (and the new mysterious spymaster Enabran Tain) found plenty to enjoy.

We do get some firm answers about Garak. All past innuendo aside, this episode firmly establishes that he was a spy for the Obsidian Order (named here for the first time). His unfailing pleasantness in past episodes now gains new context -- we learn he was essentially high as a kite in every moment we've seen him so far. (And it's all the more shocking in this episode to see the mask slip.) Subtext tells us why he lies all the time -- he was trained to do that in his former career, and he probably does it now partly on inertia and partly to entertain himself in an otherwise bleak existence.

But yes, much of what we "learn" here is contradictory and unreliable. Is Garak an "Oskar Schindler" who helped prisoners escape Cardassia Prime (also named here for the first time), or is he the ruthless agent who destroyed their ship? Is either story true? Is Garak so conditioned to lie that even at death's door, he can't do anything else? Is he so sure he's going to die that's he's just extracting what last little bit of fun he can from life before the end by stringing Julian along? It's all ugly and unresolved, but in a way I find compelling and intriguing.

One thing that's clear, Andrew Robinson is amazing. His performance here is excellent. He demured somewhat to the writers, noting once in an interview: "I wish there was more writing like that for television. I think we'd have a much healthier industry." Certainly, television today is far more willing to embrace darker areas -- though I think it's the technique that shines here, not just the decision to go dark or mysterious.

And while this might be the moment Garak became essentially a main character, the show also does right by the actual main character featured in it. This really is a Bashir story, focusing on his struggles to save a patient. We see his professionalism, as he stoically endures every bit of bile that a detoxing Garak has to throw at him. We see his morality, as he questions Odo's practice of monitoring all of Quark's communications. We see him defend a friendship to the utmost, in many contexts -- he weathers Dax challenging if Garak even is a friend, and he takes off alone into Cardassian space in a last ditch effort to save Garak's life. Alexander Siddig noted that this episode did for his character and Garak what "Armageddon Game" did for his character and O'Brien. (And in a similar way, even, forcing two people into close proximity.)

This episode also introduces us to Enabran Tain, former head of the Obsidian Order. Tain was almost certainly intended as a one-off character, but makes such an impression in his one scene here that he would be brought back later for multiple appearances. There are certainly nods in this episode to the relationship that would ultimately be established between Tain and Garak -- though I suspect like Tain himself, this was just a happy accident that wasn't planned.

Other observations:
  • In the opening scene, Garak notes Bashir's reputation for entertaining lady friends. Certainly, Bashir came off that way in his icky pursuit of Dax in earlier episodes. But aside from one brief relationship, we've never really seen Bashir as a serial dater. It sort of skims by in this episode because it does sound right.
  • Though the Garak/Bashir relationship here is not new, I believe this is the first time that their intellectual debates over culture is featured. (Here, Garak thinks Federation prejudice prevents Julian from enjoying the most acclaimed Cardassian novel.)
  • Keiko is referred to here as "Professor O'Brien" for the first time.
  • The "Obsidian" Order was reportedly called the "Grey" Order in the first draft of the script. The name was changed when someone pointed out that Babylon 5 had a "Grey Council" that might come off as too similar.
  • This was the first episode of Deep Space Nine to be directed by a woman. Kim Friedman had a long television career before this, though this was the first time she directed "sci-fi" (despite being a fan). I think her skill with the actors shows; the fact that this episode wasn't mired in sci-fi technobabble gave her a chance to shine. Friedman would go on to direct more episodes of both this and Star Trek: Voyager.
A key episode in the development of Deep Space Nine (or at least, its characters), "The Wire" also happens to be one of the better episodes of season two. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Spelling Connoisseur with a Q

Over time, as the market for board games has grown steadily bigger, the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award ("Game of the Year") has shifted its focus to lighter and more accessible fare. For those deeper into the hobby, they spun off the Kennerspiel des Jahres (or "Connoisseur-gamer" Game of the Year) in 2011, to honor more involved titles with more complex rules systems and more advanced strategic options. The 2018 winner of this award was The Quacks of Quedlinburg.

In this peculiarly named game, each player takes on the role of an apothecary trying to prove themselves the best potion brewer in the land. But everyone is really a "quack" haphazardly tossing ingredients into their concoctions, equally likely to create an amazing potion or explode the cauldron. It's a press your luck and "pool building" game, in which each player grows a bag of ingredients over the course of nine rounds. Each round, you pull ingredients from your bag as long as you dare. Many score you points and/or build your potion to greater effectiveness. One type of ingredient counts against a running total; if you hit 8 or more before you stop, your potion "explodes" and costs you either points or the ability to purchase new ingredients for the next round.

If Quacks of Quedlinburg is any indication of years to come, at some point they're going to need to introduce a new "advanced" category above this. The game may sound like a lot at first, but everyone I've seen try it (no matter their level of interest in board games) seems to take to it very quickly. Indeed, the main 2018 Spiel des Jahres winner, Azul, is only barely harder to teach than this.

Quacks of Quedlinburg has a similar feel to Dominion, in that it uses the mechanisms of a deck builder (with the bag being your deck), while actually being quite constrained in "card" variety. In Dominion, you use a limited number of cards in any given game. In Quacks, you have a limited number of ingredients -- and each is simple enough that it can be explained on a single reference card placed in the center of the table. There are multiple options for what many of the ingredients can do, and this allows you to change things up from one play to the next. But your decisions are always tightly contained.

As with Dominion, this constraint is both a strength and a shortcoming of the game. Combos and strategies are easy to discern, and this helps make it easy to pick up. But deck builders with broader variety, such as Ascension and (dare I say) Clank! (/end plug) can force you to adopt new strategies on the fly when the avenue you'd been pursuing suddenly becomes unavailable. In a game like Dominion or Quacks of Quedlinburg, the options are all there for you. If you decide that one particular ingredient is the path to victory, you can just lean on it and buy it turn after turn. Nothing is really going to kick you off the narrow path you've defined for yourself, and nothing your opponents do is liable to have much effect on you.

Adding to this sense of playing "parallel solitaire," players pull their ingredients all simultaneously each round. It's the right choice to speed the game along -- but when each of us is focused on our own bag, not really watching anyone else, the feeling that we're not totally playing this together intensifies. There are moments of interaction -- a catch-up mechanic to help players lagging in score, one particular ingredient that makes you compare yourself to your two adjacent opponents -- but these more interactive moments are rather limited.

With the choices constrained and not often impacted by other players, the game really can feel like it just comes down to luck in the end. It can still be fun along the way -- it's hard not to feel at least some rush out of the "dare I pull one more time?" decision -- but I find it fairly lacking in real strategy for a "Connoisseur-gamer" Game of the Year. In a nutshell, I was far more taken with Azul.

I can imagine I'll play The Quacks of Quedlinburg some more. I would play if someone else suggested it. But it's not a game I'll be suggesting myself. I'd grade it a B-.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Light and Shadows

With the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, we're now officially halfway through the second season. And at last, they have stopped beating around the bush and have given us what they've been teasing since the season one finale: Spock.

Michael Burnham returns to Vulcan, convinced that her adoptive mother Amanda knows more about Spock and his whereabouts than she's been letting on. Meanwhile, Discovery remains in orbit of Kaminar to investigate a temporal anomaly left in the wake of the Red Angel's latest appearance.

At last, Spock is no longer a mere Macguffin being chased in season two; he's actually here in the flesh. But now that he's here, his role has transformed into something else that I have decidedly mixed feelings about. He's become, essentially a "damsel in distress." Reduced to some form of insanity, Spock is unable to help himself, and is an object for Michael Burnham to rescue.

On the one hand, I think, "sure, go for it!" Let's gender flop that old trope, put Burnham in the role of rescuer, and take on a cliched method of storytelling by coming at it in a new direction. On the other hand, I think, "it doesn't seem right to do this to Spock." This is a long and storied character, a fan favorite. He's been through a few reinventions (and a reincarnation), but he's been an active and iconic character in every version. This babbling lunatic iteration of him feels like a disservice to that history.

I do like that Discovery is taking the opportunity to paint in more about Spock, though -- specifically in revealing that as a child, he struggled with a form of dyslexia (maybe the human version, maybe a Vulcan version). This is a great new detail that comports with what we already knew of the character, the ostracization he experienced as a child and how it was a challenge for him to join Starfleet. Now we learn of another layer to that challenge, one that makes him even more heroic for having overcome it. Spock is as brilliant as we've always known him to be, and now we know it was that much more work for him to be so. It's inspirational, and positions Spock as a role model for even more of the audience.

But even as everything about Spock's past felt like it lined up for me, I questioned whether everything about Amanda did. Exactly how long has she been hiding Spock? Did she find him before or after she last talked to Michael aboard Discovery? Was Spock ever actually on that shuttle Section 31 was chasing? I don't need the show to necessarily spell out all these details for me (I mean, I definitely don't want other "how did Culber survive"-like exposition dump), but I do want to feel like it would make sense if I chased it all down myself -- and I'm not quite feeling that.

Other elements of this episode were a similarly mixed bag. When it comes to the continuing (mis)adventures of Section 31, Georgiou is still a great deal of fun. When you've got Michelle Yeoh in your cast, you use her for hand-to-hand combat sequences as much as you can possibly justify (and maybe more). So we got a great fight between her and Burnham this week. The context for the fight was fun too -- that Georgiou will help you... if it's also helping her somehow.

But as interesting as Georgiou can be, the character of Leland is equally and oppositely uninteresting. He's been fairly devoid of personality so far, and not a credible threat for Georgiou at all. Perhaps the show is trying to address this with the sudden revelation this week that Leland is responsible for the death of Burnham's birth parents. On the one hand, that seems completely extraneous and unimportant; but on the other, maybe it's the first step in actually infusing the character with some menace.

Meanwhile, on the Discovery, the time story seemed like it was full of potential. The ghostly glimpses of the past and future were a great gimmick to build a story around.... but then we got just one moment of each, and it simply didn't amount to much. Stamets' riding to the rescue seemed like it was going to be a difficult thing... except it wasn't. Instead, the subplot seemed like only a machination to bring Pike and Tyler closer together. And yet, while it was nice to have someone call Pike out on his borderline suicidal tendencies, I'm not sure we got significantly closer to knowing why he's this way.

In a season that's been full of shout-outs to the original Star Trek series, this episode ended with arguably the biggest one yet: the revelation that the next step on the Red Angel hunt is Talos IV, the planet where the first pilot episode, "The Cage," took place. I hope this doesn't become a letdown in the way that season two's premiere failed to deliver on the finale's tease that we might go aboard the Enterprise in a meaningful way. I'm wondering if we'll get to see Talosians again (with makeup advanced by 55 years). Might we learn that the original series' ban on traveling to Talos IV went in place not because the events of "The Cage" (as we'd logically assumed), but because of some new events about to unfold for us?

I'd say "Light and Shadows" deserves a B-. I wish I'd found the episode itself more satisfying, but even when it's a bit jumbled, the series once again tees up intriguing possibilities for what's to come.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Identity, Part II

The Orville wrapped up its first two-part episode with the action-packed "Identity, Part II."

A Kaylon armada is escorting the Orville back to Earth, intent on exterminating all life on the planet. Imprisoned in the shuttlebay, the ship's crew must escape and warn the Union before all is lost.

This episode had a difficult needle to thread: trying to surprise the audience while at the same time organically paying off plot threads that had been telegraphed in part one. It essentially shopped from both aisles, giving us both the expected and the surprising.

Not that good storytelling is all about the surprise, but the surprising elements were the more effective parts of the hour. First, there was Grayson's idea to go seek the help of one enemy against another, by going to the Krill. The shuttle escape was a fun sequence -- and the first of a few times in the episode that the normally comic relief character of Malloy got to "save the day." Then there was just the pure Star Trek-style wholesomeness of trusting an enemy in a crisis... and them not taking advantage of the situation after the fact. Naive and a touch unrealistic, perhaps, but a full-throated endorsement of diplomacy nonetheless.

Also surprising was the way the show swung hard in its final act at being less Star Trek and more Star Wars. The final showdown between the Union fleet and the Kaylons (and then the Krill) was enormous in scale even for a feature film, much less a weekly network television series. They pulled out all the stops, blew out the budget, and served up a massive space battle that was exciting and well-staged. (Of course, it helps the clarity when every faction has their own color-coded laser beams, right?) You may not come to The Orville for this sort of thing, but it was a fun change of pace to have them do it, and a treat that they did it so well.

Less surprising, and less effective (though those two things aren't necessarily connected) was the way the Orville crew got out of their jam. It was basically inevitable that Isaac would feel some kernel of emotion that would lead him to turn against his fellow Kaylons... and even more inevitable that the moment would have something to do with Ty Finn. I don't mind Ty essentially getting to save the day in this way -- it was signaled well ahead of time, and ultimately relied on just Ty's childlike faith and love. But the parts where he was an amateur action hero, crawling through the ducts with Yaphit? Or the opening scene, when he put everyone in jeopardy again by rushing the Kaylon guards? No, not my favorite moments.

I suppose maybe there was the slightest drop of doubt in the mix here. Because the series wrote out the character of Alara earlier this season, it was at least conceivable (if quite unlikely) that they might write out Isaac too in the course of wrapping up this story. It's always hard to put a TV series' regular characters in believable danger.

Overall, I'd say the setup of "Identity, Part I" thrilled me a bit more than the conclusion of Part II. Still, I did enjoy it, and was pleased the episode didn't cop out on the threatening of Earth as it easily might have done. I give Part II a B. It was a lot of fun.

Friday, March 01, 2019

What's in the Box?

It seems that the zetigeist always decides that "Things on Netflix You Absolutely Must Watch" come in pairs. Over the Christmas holiday, the pair was Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and the meme-tastic Bird Box. (By now, the world has moved on to Russian Doll and Sex Education -- but I've got a bit of a backlog of older posts here right now. Two concurrent seasons of The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery and all...)

Bird Box was "A Quiet Place, but for sight instead of sound." A comeback movie for Sandra Bullock (who actually never went anywhere). The reason people were posting videos of themselves running into things while blindfolded.

Based on a novel by Josh Malerman, Bird Box takes place at the onset of an apocalypse in which people who catch a glimpse of a mysterious something are instantly driven to commit suicide. A woman named Malorie struggles to survive as everything falls apart. Meanwhile, in interlaced scenes set five years later, Malorie tries against overwhelming odds to get herself and two young children to safety.

Bird Box has a really phenomenal cast, who are really responsible for what's best about the movie. Sandra Bullock is a great anchor, giving a physically demanding performance (as in Gravity) while not losing the drama and emotion amid the technique. John Malkovich plays a wonderfully selfish heel. There's fun character work by BD Wong, Lil Rel Howery, Sarah Paulson, and Tom Hollander, among others.

If you never got around to watching Bird Box, but saw any of the memes of Sandra Bullock and two kids alone in a boat, it may surprise you to hear that all those other people are in the movie. It's really no spoiler to say that this is the sort of movie where characters get killed off, and unfortunately I think the movie gets less interesting as that happens. The performances are great, the interactions are great, and when there are fewer performances and interactions, the movie is less great for it. This isn't a knock on Bullock, who can certainly command the screen on her own (again, as in Gravity); it's more that her character Malorie might be the least interesting character in this story.

Part of the problem is that her character arc doesn't work as well in practice as it does as an intellectual exercise. We learn in the opening minutes of the movie that Malorie is pregnant and far from enthusiastic about it. She's not quite sure she wants a child, and rather sure she won't be good at parenting. Her throughline in the story, the major emotional journey being told, is about her transformation. The idea makes sense for a two-hour movie. The actual plot points that depict this, and the timeline on which it happens, don't make sense at all. It's a back-loaded transformation; the version of Malorie we see in the opening "five years later" scenes hasn't really changed in five years of post-apocalyptic jeopardy. It strains belief.

But then, straining belief is kind of what Bird Box is all about. This is the "Bird Box Challenge" in a nutshell, in which the denizens of the internet blindfold themselves and try to do things. But I say forget the question of whether you could find your way around without sight in a place you've never been. The more unbelievable thing is that anyone could survive in a scenario with the odds this stacked against you. As the movie unfolds, it keeps piling on complications so high that the situation feels too hopeless.

Though I might seem rather down on Bird Box here, the truth is that it works pretty well from moment to moment. There are many clever set pieces and impactful scenes. There's an extended sequence about trying to reach a grocery store for supplies that is just plain neat in concept. The deaths are the perfect blend of fun and horrific. The scenes intended to be suspenseful always are. The more dramatic and serious elements of the story may feel flawed to me, but the thrills and chills the movie is actually built to deliver totally work. (And they're well-supported by a creepy score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.)

I'd give Bird Box a B. I can't help but feel it would have worked better as a novel. After all, when the whole point is that you're threatened by something you can't see, having to picture everything in your mind's eye could only make you empathize better with the characters. On the other hand, the things I liked least about the movie are baked into the story, not problems with the presentation. So I doubt very much I'll ever make time to read the original novel. The movie is good enough for me... and will probably be "good enough" to be worth the time for many of you too.