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Suffer a Sea-change Into Something Rich and Strange: Detour for Star Trek: Voyager, Season 3

Posted in Random Science Fiction Goodness, television, TV with tags , , on April 30, 2012 by top50sf

Here’s my take on the third season of Star Trek: Voyager, Paramount’s FOURTH television series set in the Star Trek universe….

Star Trek: VoyagerApparently I know more Shakespeare than I thought I did, as I’m referencing the Bard once again in a title (even if the first time ’round I was really thinking about Faulkner).  But it is relevant: season three was a transition for Voyager.  Gone are the multiple-episode story arcs, as well as the Kazon and the Vidiians, our heroes’ familiar foes from seasons one and two; “A Briefing With Neelix” has been pushed to the background, and Janeway’s holonovel is kaput.  There’s only one glimpse of Ensign Wildman and her new baby.  Worse still, at least in some respects, there’s a return to the more traditional Next Generation-style stories (not that I have anything against that, but it’s nice to see events have consequences which reverberate through time, sort of like reality).  At least there are signs and portents of the things to come in season four.  All in all, it’s a satisfying season of science fiction, but it breaks no new ground and has few standout stories or developments along the way.

It’s rather like that awkward stage in people or dogs between child (or puppy) hood and an adult status—it’s cute, but the onlooker is always glad it doesn’t last.  In this case, the third season is a transition from a starship crew desperate to get home, and facing destruction of the entire ship on a routine basis, to a crew which has come to terms with their situation and who seem determined to explore, and have some fun, along the way.  I think a lot of people enjoy the idea that there is no specter of doom hanging over the good ship Voyager, and it’s true that the show simply feels more relaxed, without spazzing out about things like running out of energy or food.  I do miss the continuing storylines and arcs, and they’re still there—but they’re relegated to character movement, with a very few exceptions.

It’s worth considering where Season 2 left the crew of Voyager before we consider the ins and outs of Season 3.  The Kazon, led from behind the scenes by the traitorous Seska (Martha Hackett) (though, since she was actually a Cardassian infiltrator of the Maquis, perhaps she owed no loyalty to the Maquis or to Starfleet), take Voyager and maroon the crew on a hostile planet without their technology, while the heroic Tom Paris attempts to escape in a shuttle and the Doctor and Ensign Suder (Brad Dourif), the telepathic serial killer, are left behind on Voyager.  Our heroes are in a bad, bad spot, folks.

Of course it all works out okay.  It’s the way that it all works out that’s surprising:  Paris gets to be the hero, with a ruthlessness surpassed only by that of the Doctor, and a complete willingness to kill on a mass scale.  Heroic Paris is something we could all see coming, but the Doctor’s use of the hapless Ensign Suder, who has finally gotten his murderous tendancies under tenuous control, as a weapon against Voyager’s enemies is perhaps the most chilling thing we’ve seen on Voyager to date.  And it’s somewhat fitting that Paris’ plan relies on the intricacies of his knowledge of Voyager, and how the phaser system works, to turn that weapon on the ship itself.  And that, my friends, is also the end of Seska (with one last gasp to come later during the season) and we see the backsides of the Kazon for good.

There are few, if any, recurring themes in this season, and the number of times the entire ship was in danger are few and far between.  Not so the characters—they face deadly personal danger on a weekly basis, and there’s some fairly significant character movement.  Some of that movement, unfortunately, is marred by bad writing and silly stories….  The acting, though, is first-rate in the third season, and the cast has melded into a finely tuned machine capable of believably portraying friendships and, in some cases, dislike.

The season boasts three episodes in which actors get to portray something other than their normal characters: Kes is “possessed” in “Warlord,” Holodoc messes with his program and makes some big mistakes in “The Darkling,” and B’Elanna lives another life in “Remember.”  In each case, the actors shine, though in different ways.  Jennifer Lien blew me away as Kes-possessed, demonstrating a self-centered, strong-willed, sexually predatory character utterly unlike that of Kes, and did so in a wonderfully convincing manner.  The episode was fun to watch because Lien did so well with it.  “Darkling’s” evil Doctor is a caricature, perhaps fittingly given that the Doctor rashly combined the characters of some famous historical figures with his own holomatrix.  But it’s still fun seeing the Doctor go bad—even if it is a horrifying glimpse at things to come, further along the line.  Finally, Roxanne Biggs-Dawson’s B’Elanna Torres is telepathically given the memories of a young woman who witnessed genocide, and sees herself in the role instead of the young woman.  Biggs-Dawson delivers a nuanced performance of a young woman torn between cultural imperatives and love which is an absolute joy to watch.

Q is back this season, with a frankly silly episode (“The Q and the Gray”) about a civil war in the Q Continuum.  On the other hand, John DeLancie reprises his role as Q, and Suzie Plakson, who played Worf’s mate in The Next Generation, is along for the ride as a female Q.  Between these two fine actors and Mulgrew’s inspired performance with them, the episode was a lot of fun.

Robert Duncan McNeill directed two episodes, “Sacred Ground” and “Unity” (Chakotay meets some ex-Borg), and did a fine job on both.

There are several “message” episodes which encapsulate moral dilemmas and interesting situations.  The aforementioned “Remember” gives us a look at a genocidal race of telepaths who do away with unwanted elements of their society.  The episode was also quite well-paced, even if the telepathic transfer of memories is a somewhat trite device at this point, and I rate it as one of the better episodes of the season.  “Sacred Ground” covers the idea that science cannot explain all by putting Kes’ life in danger, and requiring Janeway to have faith in order to find a cure.  Voyager also covers the other side of the equation in “Distant Origin,” in which evolved dinosaurs who left the Earth long, long ago are forced to match their science against their doctrines and faith.  While it’s easy to see the episode as a criticism of the anti-evolution movement, it’s probably more fair to say that the movement inspired the episode; science has confronted faith on a regular basis (just ask Galileo).  Each of these episodes packs an emotional punch, doing what science fiction does so well: examining the human condition from outside.

One of the high points of the season has to be the second episode, “Flashback.”  Tuvok winds up hosting a sort of disease which masquerades as a memory, which is really irrelevant to what makes the episode work:  we learn in the process of a Janeway-Tuvok mind-meld that Tuvok served on the Excelsior during the captaincy of Sulu, and we get to witness the events of the original series movie The Undiscovered Country from a fresh perspective.  We also find out quite a bit more about Tuvok, since that was his first period of service in Starfleet; he resigned his commission and went back to Vulcan, returning to Starfleet later.  So, in addition to Sulu and the Excelsior, we get to see some of Tuvok’s past weaknesses and growth.  Written to commemorate Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, the episode is tremendous fun and a nice entry into the series.

There are a few low points in the season, and while they do not approach the level of season two’s “Threshold,” they’re pretty bad.  The first one is a two-part episode, “Future’s End,” in which Voyager is dragged through a time portal to the 20th century due to a 26th century Federation time ship’s attempt to destroy Voyager in order to prevent a massive temporal explosion in its time.  Still with me?  The two-parter combines some terrible performances from guest stars who normally do a fine job (Ed Begley, Jr. and Sarah Silverman) with a script which is unfocused and has a number of plot holes.  For example, during an attempt to rescue some of the crew, Voyager is filmed flying over Los Angeles and shown on the news, and Captain Braxton, the 26th century time cop, is accidentally marooned on 20th century Earth.  At the end of the episode, when all is resolved, that footage still remains in Earth’s history, and Captain Braxton is left marooned on Earth.  Voyager also acquires a pretty nifty piece of 26th century technology, a mobile holoemitter, which they elect to keep in spite of opposing Begley’s character precisely because he was using future technology he shouldn’t have had access to—well, that and the fact that his actions were going to cause a massive explosion in the 26th century.  On the plus side, the holoemitter does give the Doctor some badly needed mobility.  And watching Janeway and Chakotay as a 20th century couple is fun in its own right, as well as a reminder that the two actors are remarkably attractive people.

The other major low point is “False Profits,” an episode in which Voyager encounters two Ferengi who were accidentally transported to the Delta Quadrant in an episode of The Next Generation, and take advantage of their situation to set up a religion based on the Ferengi deification of commercial principles—and to earn great riches as well.  The basic idea of revisiting a “loose end” in a Next Generation episode is sound, but the execution is anything but, something I lay at the feet of the scriptwriter.  Janeway and the crew set out to fix things by “out-Feregi-ing the Ferengi,” and it all goes terribly wrong.  Out-thought and tricked at every turn by the wiley Ferengi, Voyager actually winds up missing its chance to return to the Alpha Quadrant through the newly-stabilized wormhole that deposited the Ferengi in the Delta Quadrant in the first place, while the Ferengi sail through.  In other words, evil triumphs and our heroes fail, largely because of their uncharacteristic stupidity.  It was not a shining moment for the show, and I actually found myself wondering if the writer of the episode hated the show.

Character development is generally pretty good in this season, though some of it is unexplained, and the show’s willingness to confront its characters’ flaws as well as their strengths is, perhaps, a departure from standard Star Trek.  Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) demonstrates that she’s a stubborn woman who, while intent on doing the right thing, won’t back down from a fight.  That stubborness is both a strength and a weakness, and the show isn’t afraid to show it as such. Voyager also isn’t afraid to show her arrogant side, such as when she disagrees with Chakotay about how to handle the Borg, or when she confronts the need for faith in “Sacred Ground.”  Perhaps the strangest thing, though, is Janeway’s sudden disregard of Starfleet principles in the desire to get her people home, especially after her impassioned defense of said ideals in the second season.  Suddenly the “Ship of Death” moniker seems a little more appropriate, with Janeway decided to go through, rather than around, dangerous situations—sometimes with little or no regard for the rights of others, especially the aliens who happen to be in her way….

Chakotay (Robert Beltran) continues to develop into an even-keeled, thoughtful second-in-command with considerable patience and understanding of human nature.  He is always correct and proper with his captain, but there’s a lot more touching and meaningful glances than would be appropriate in a Federation starship in the Alpha Quadrant.  But Chakotay is also not afraid to disagree with his captain, and tell her what he thinks; their working relationship is a strong and solid one for much of the season.  I do have a quibble, however, in that in “Distant Origin” he announces that he, too, is a scientist, a theme which the show returns to here and there.  When, exactly, did he have time to become a scientist?  This is the first I’d heard of that, and there’s no further explanation.  Former Starfleet member, Native American with spiritual leanings, former terrorist, yes…scientist, no.  I think some writers didn’t realize that Janeway’s background as a scientist is not just talk, since she was a science officer before being tapped for command….

Tuvok (Tim Russ) is emerging as a strange figure indeed.  He is, perhaps, one of the few characters on the show who doesn’t seem to learn, and his arrogance toward other characters is grating.  He insists on the logical and the Starfleet way at all times, even though there have been at least two incidents when he seemed to have learned better in previous seasons, and his disdain for Neelix rises to the level of contempt in this season.  In short, Tuvok is rigid and resistant to change, holding to his opinions in the face of evidence to the contrary.  While perhaps in “Rise” he learns better about Neelix’s capacity for leadership and his strength, there’s simply no guarantee that the lesson will hold, given his past actions.  On the other hand, some of his past emerges, and he is definitely a flawed character with some intriguing traits and a stranger backstory than is immediately apparent.  It’s just a shame he’s not more likeable.

Neelix (Ethan Phillips) may have the most inconsistent treatment of any character during the season.  In “False Profits” he is threatened by two Ferengi, and cowardly spills the beans about the entire plan to out-Ferengi the Ferengi.  He falls in with a bad influence and participates, albeit unknowingly, in a drug deal, and then attempts to hide the evidence.  On the other hand, he stands up for himself against Tuvok’s scorn and emerges as a competent leader in “Rise.”

Kes (Jennifer Lien) continues to display her trademark compassion and concern, developing into the moral voice of the crew.  She also has developed considerable self-confidence and a will of steel, which enables her to stand up for the Doctor once again in “The Swarm” to prevent his being re-initialized.  “The Swarm” is a rather unsatisfying episode with a contradictory ending which suggests both that the Doctor’s growth has been lost, and that it has been retained even though he doesn’t remember it; it fails to have any actual consequences for the characters, in that the Doctor once again has his memory back in succeeding episodes.  Kes’ possession by an alien mind gives us further insight into her stronger side, as she fights a battle inside her own mind for control of herself, as well as generating emotional pyrotechnics.  Her scenes with Tuvok are always engaging as she attempts to learn to control her burgeoning gifts—gifts which are clearly greater than those of Tuvok.  Finally, “Before and After” shows Kes in the future, near the end of her seven year life span, aging backwards due to a technical error on the part of the doctor, and along the way we get a sense of just how good and compassionate the character truly is—as well as hints and signs of things to come, particularly the Krenim and “The Year of Hell” (if I had to guess, the episode was intended to give glimpses of a future that wouldn’t come to be, but “The Year of Hell” proved to be too tantalizing to leave alone).

This is as good a place as any to consider the character of the Doctor (Robert Picardo), and there are some disturbing glimpses into the Doctor and his changeability in this season.  We all “know” that the Doctor isn’t a “real” character, since he’s a computer-generated hologram, and the writers seem to be cognizant of this issue.  There was a lot of time and energy spent in seasons one and two establishing that, despite his gruff exterior and lack of bedside manner, the Doctor was, in fact, a real person—and his brilliance, competence and arrogance are central to his character.  But we get quite a bit more this season, and some it doesn’t bode well for the future.  First, in “Basics, Part II” the Doctor knowingly sets Suder’s recovery from the whole sociopathic killer thing back quite a ways, coldly aiming him at the Kazon intruders.  Given Suder’s essentially mentally ill status, that decision rather surprised me.  Remember, too, that this is before anyone started messing with his program in any of the ways that we see happen further down the line.  Next, the Doctor loses his memory, only not really, in the “B” plot in “The Swarm.”  A confusing episode, that, and its total effect on the Doctor’s character works out to nothing.  “The Darkling” shows that the Doctor’s personality, real as it may be, is subject to all kinds of meddling—in this case his, and well-intentioned, but ultimately dangerous.  The Doctor simply isn’t the same as the other crew members, and that has disturbing implications for the future.

Poor Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) continues in his role as the guy to whom weird things happen (this time it’s a planet of black widow women who want him for a mate).  In this season, though, we learn a little bit about what drives him—he had a domineering and driving mother who wanted what was best for him, and who he loves as only a son can love a mother (which explains his regard for Janeway, a substitute mother figure).  But we also see him take center stage as the strong one when he and Paris are in prison and Paris is injured (“The Chute”), and we learn that he has a drive to be “special” (“Favorite Son”).  That episode also showcases the character’s qualities of intelligence and resourcefulness.  He’s still young, and he still sometimes says things he shouldn’t, but the callowness and raw nature of his character is being smoothed away as he matures.

Finally, there’s Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson).  Starting in season three, you almost have to consider them together, because there’s definitely something going on.  Paris is a damaged fellow who’s made some serious mistakes, and he uses humor to keep everyone around him at an emotional distance.  Torres is a damaged lass who’s made some serious mistakes, and she uses aggression to keep everyone around her at an emotional distance.  As you can imagine, their courtship—and make no mistake, that’s exactly what we see—is a bumpy one.  When, due to a telepathic mishap (really, telepathy seems to cause a lot of problems on this show), B’Elanna goes into the Vulcan version of heat (ponn far) (“Blood Fever”), Paris refuses to take advantage of her but the chemistry between the two is very real.  As an aside, B’Elanna demonstrates that she’s a strong-willed woman who is quite capable (literally, in this case) of fighting her own battles in this episode.

It is in three of the last five episodes of the season that we see the two working together, showing strengths as a pair which complement one another and benefit the ship.  First, in the heart-breaking, tear-jerking “Real Life,” the pair work on the Doctor and convince him to go back to his holographic family after it becomes a total mess.  “Displaced” gives us B’Elanna and Tom in deadly danger after aliens have imprisoned the crew, but working very handily together to create havoc for their enemies.  Finally, in “Worst Case Scenario,” B’Elanna discovers a secret holonovel which asks, “What if Chakotay led a mutiny?”  It is, of course, Tom she choses to tell about this piece of subversive fiction.

“Worst Case Scenario” is notable for the return of Seska (Martha Hackett), the Cardassian infiltrator.  It turns out that the holonovel was written by Tuvok as a training exercise in the early days of the crews’ merger aboard Voyager.  Seska found the program and messed with it, creating a dangerous situation for the unlikely pair of Tuvok and Paris.  It’s nice to see these two working together for a change, and their female partners, Janeway and Torres (platonic in the first pairing, but still a close partnership), working together to save the two inside a holodeck program gone wrong.  Seska’s last gasp was an appropriately malevolent and sneaky thing for her to have done, and it’s nice to see her on the screen one last time.

That just leaves us with the cliffhanger conclusion to the season, the astonishing (and expensive) “Scorpion, Part I.”  Part I of the two-part episode gives plenty of meat to chew on, but it’s also reportedly one of the most expensive episodes of the series, and that shows in the special effects.  Briefly, Voyager finally encounters Borg space, something presaged in “Unity.”  As Janeway says in the episode, they have always known that the Borg were in the Delta Quadrant, and now our heroes are confronted with the legendary insurmountable obstacle.  They find a corridor of space full of gravimetric distortions and singularities, which they call “the Northwest Passage,” which appears to offer a safe way through Borg space.

Naturally, the Northwest Passage is anything but safe.  It turns out to be the invasion site of a malevolent race, called Species 8472 by the Borg.  That species turns out to be worse—far worse, in fact—than the Borg.  Kes’ telepathy makes it clear that this species will kill anything and everything that it can: “the weak will perish.”  Or at least that’s one potential interpretation.  Chakotay sees the Borg as worse, since assimilation is a sort of unending death, and while Species 8472 is a race of genocidal meanies, the 8472s will only kill you.  The conflict between these two views, the first embodied by Janeway and the second by Chakotay, is what drives the episode.  Chakotay tells the parable of the fox and the scorpion, warning that the Borg will, like the scorpion, sting.  They can’t help it; it’s their nature.  Janeway takes the position that a deal with the devil is the only real choice that the crew has, and it will be to the ultimate benefit of the galaxy.

To be fair, there’s no way to ally with the genocidal Species 8472, while the Borg might be desperate enough to cooperate.  And the only other alternative is to try to go around the “vast” Borg space or actually settle in the Delta Quadrant.  I’m not sure which alternative Chakotay prefers….

I have to point out here that the Borg are the ultimate Next Generation enemy.  They’re the science fiction equivalent of vampires, converting anyone they meet to copies of themselves, so that they can expand and do it again and again.  In many ways, they’re the most terrifying concept to come out of Star Trek, a mad fusion of biology and technology with all the self-restraint of cancer and a serious threat to individuality every time they grace the screen, and enough raw technological power to stomp on any of the races of the Alpha Quadrant.  Species 8472 is intended to be even worse, a telepathic species with biological technology impervious to assimilation and possessed of a malevolent and destructive mindset.  They prove to be able to do unto the Borg as the Borg have done to so many other species.  As you can imagine, this is a visually rich and intellectually shocking development, and the episode makes the most of it, with gorgeous and stunning space battles.  As an aside, the designers of Species 8472 were the same folks who did both the Shadows and the Vorlons for Babylon 5, and there are certain visual similarities between the three.

During their investigations, the Doctor discovers a way to modify Borg nanoprobes into a weapon against Species 8472.  Because humans investigate, while the Borg assimilate—and Species 8472 has proven to be immune to assimilation—the crew of Voyager is in a unique position to provide the Borg a weapon against Species 8472.

Janeway is the captain, so they do it her way, and they meet “Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01,” a female human Borg.  Seven of Nine is the captain’s liason with the Borg in their attempts to create a large-scale weapon.  Species 8472 demonstrates why it’s winning the war with the Borg.  While Janeway is on a Borg cube, Species 8472 attacks, destroying a Borg planet and two cubes.  The surviving Borg cube and Voyager flee the devastation….

And that, my friends, is it for season three.  Heck of an ending, even if it recycles some concepts from earlier series.

A Soap Opera In Space: Detour for Star Trek: Voyager, Season Two

Posted in Random Science Fiction Goodness, television, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2012 by top50sf

Star Trek: Voyager:  The fourth television series set in the Star Trek universe, Voyager takes place in the same general time period as The Next Generation but features Star Trek’s first female captain of a much smaller, though unique, starship lost in the Delta Quadrant 70,000 light years, or twenty years’ travel time, from home. I’ve already reviewed season one, and since I’m still watching and enjoying, here’s my take on season two.

Star Trek: VoyagerI’m not sure exactly what was going on during the second season, which was Voyager‘s first full season, but it produced some amazing drama and a great deal of fun for me.  It may be significant that Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga, two writers from Star Trek: The Next Generation, played a large role in the second season, writing or contributing to 11 of the season’s 26 episodes.  On the other hand, Braga wrote what was arguably the worst episode of Star Trek ever, so…

What made this season so much fun was the soap opera quality it brought to the table.  A storyline might begin in one episode as a seed, and grow throughout several episodes until it flowers into the center of an episode all its own.  The major plot line revolves around Seska, the Maquis crewman who was actually a Cardassian spy who betrayed Voyager in season one, escaping to join the Kazon, Voyager’s mortal enemies.

Martha Hackett, who played Seska, was a brilliant antagonist for Captain Janeway, and she always seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else.  Admittedly, I’d hate to see the series’ heroes consistently outplayed, out-fought, and out-thought every episode, but Seska proved to be a tenacious and dangerous adversary who had Starfleet, Maquis and Cardassian experience and training.  Seska manipulates Chakotay easily, and finds the Kazon Nistrim Cullah easy prey as well.  Before everything is said and done, she has both Chakotay and Cullah believing that they are the father of her baby (a soap opera style plotline if there ever wasy one).  Hackett’s performances simply stole the show in all of her episodes (it’s hard to believe that this plotline was central to only four episodes).  Indeed, this storyline wound up being critical to the season’s cliffhanger ending—something I’ll address again a little further along.  But before we hit the ending, we get intriguing glimpses into an arrogant but extremely capable woman, the Kazon culture in which she’s immersed herself, and the character defects of our heroes.  In a way, it’s a shame that the goodness had to end…

But that’s hardly all that Season 2 had going for it.  A love triangle involving Kes, Neelix and Paris added fuel to the fire.  Neelix displays insane jealousy throughout the first few episodes of the season, while Kes constantly told Neelix that Paris was just a friend, and Paris actually backed off when he realized he was beginning to feel something for Kes.  All of this may have worked better if Neelix and Kes had more or better chemistry, but Neelix generally came off as more of a mentor or protector for Kes, with no hint of sex or romantic involvement.  I guess since they’re both aliens, that’s okay.  At any rate, we get the first food fight in space when Neelix’s temper boils over, and the boys wind up stranded on Planet Hell, where their shared experience allows them to bond.  All in all, a nice arc for the two, which has ramifications for their friendship, and the chance to tug on the viewer’s heartstrings, throughout the rest of the season.

As an aside, “Investigations” featured then Prince, now King, Abdullah bin al-Hussein II of Jordan in a non-speaking role.  Hussein was a fan of the show, but could not be given a speaking role because he was not in the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Paris’ character development through the second season was nothing short of amazing.  In the first season, Paris is clearly trying hard to fit in and be a member of the crew, and in season two, that continues, but in Paris’ own way.  His emotional armor is up, and he’s never without a quip or a joke.  Paris holds everyone at a distance even while being the life of the party, even—or perhaps especially—with his best friend Harry Kim.  But in “Threshold,” which is in many ways the worst hour of Star Trek ever filmed (only DS9’s “Run Along Home” can really compete), Paris displays what really moves him: he’s a pilot, first and foremost, and he wants to be the first to achieve warp 10.  Somehow during the process the Paris shell cracks and we get a chance to see what really moves the man, and we get insight into how his mistakes may have flowed out of his conflicts with his father, a Starfleet Admiral.

A word about “Threshold” before we continue, since I’ve labeled it one of the worst hours of Star Trek in history.  The basic premise of the story is that you can’t achieve warp 10, because when you do, your speed is infinite and you exist throughout space simultaneously.  There are obvious advantages to such a speed, if you can reach it, namely that every point in the universe is accessible in an instant, and so Voyager‘s crew is assiduously researching this idea.  The flaw in the episode comes about from the consequences of achieving warp 10, which our intrepid crew manages to do: Paris changes rapidly into a superhuman being, the purported endpoint of human evolution.  And what, you may ask, is Star Trek’s view of such a perfected being?  It’s a lizard of some kind, apparently.  I could have lived with that if that was just something that happened to Paris through some quirk of his DNA or something, but since it also happened to Janeway, and since the crew rescued the two but left their litter of hyper-evolved children behind, I’m less than sanguine about the episode.  Brannan Braga, who wrote the episode, has acknowledged that they were not successful in what they were trying to do, and that this was in fact the worst episode he wrote.*

In the wake of “Threshold,” Paris’ character takes a turn for the worse as he develops seditious and downright insubordinate traits.  This progresses and worsens throughout the second half of the season until Paris leaves Voyager—all of which was a ruse, cooked up by Janeway, Tuvok and Paris in order to flush out a traitor supplying information to the Kazon and Seska.  The situation comes to a head in “Investigations,” in which “A Briefing With Neelix,” Neelix’s television-like contribution to morale, uncovers the true traitor and restores Paris’ good name.

Another intriguing aspect of the season is Captain Janeway’s never-named holonovel, which appears to be something along the lines of a Victorian novel in which Janeway takes the role of a nanny to a strange family where the mother may or may not be dead.  It gives the writers an excuse to put Janeway in a subservient, but not menial or lesser, role, and dress her up as well.  The holonovel becomes a focus for some telepathic skulduggery, but the holonovel does show us a different aspect of the otherwise tough-as-nails Janeway.  Incidentally, that episode, “Persistance of Vision,” does some intriguing things—especially for Star Trek.  The alien (his race was Botha) is driven off by Kes, who shows off some impressive (if passive) telepathic abilities, but interestingly, the alien was bad because it was fun, and Voyager neither got the last word nor stopped him from doing his thing to others…

Another fascinating episode came up when the crew realized that they had a serial killer aboard the ship.  It turned out to be Ensign Suder, a Betazed (and therefore telepathic) former Maquis.  Brad Dourif played Suder, and his chilling monologues about violence were actually a little scary.  His telepathic mind-meld with the Vulcan security officer Tuvok proved to be scary as well, upsetting Tuvok’s rather tenuous emotional controls.  Dourif played Chucky in Child’s Play, by the way, and true to season two’s form, this would not be the only episode featuring Suder.

Ensign Samantha Wildman, a secondary character, comes to Captain Janeway and tells her that she’s pregnant—her husband, and the baby’s father, is in the Alpha Quadrant and doesn’t even know that Wildman is pregnant.  The pregnancy persists throughout the season, culminating in a birth which would go on to have ramifications for the rest of the series.

The second season is also the first time in which the phrase “ship of death” is used.  Turns out that the Kazon have been spreading nasty rumors about Voyager and her crew, though to be fair, there are a lot of explosions and whatnot when Voyager comes around.  Still, this is the first time we’ve seen a Next Generation era starship operating so far from the Federation, and it’s refreshing to see alien reactions to the cloyingly noble Federation.

In the first episode of season two, we learn that Voyager, in addition to its other unique qualities, can actually land.  That’s a first for Star Trek, and it probably says more about the evolution (and cost) of special effects than anything else.  Sadly, once the writers got it into their heads that Voyager can land, they seemed to want to bring it up, and season two sees the starship on the ground three times.

B’ellana Torres continues to develop as a character, having faced and understood her Klingon half, and she seems more at peace in season two.  She’s also less inclined to flout the rules, which may have something to do with her continuing bonding with Captain Janeway.  The two are always riveting when they’re on the screen together, and though that usually involves science and engineering, the aptly-titled episode “Maneuvers” features an impassioned Torres defending the actions of a wayward Chakotay to Captain Janeway.  These two actors really work well together, and they are tremendous fun to watch when they’re together.  Torres’ embarrassment at seeing a fellow crewmember in the near-altogether is also amusing.

Chakotay gets a lot to do this season, and it’s not all being manipulated by Seska—for whom he apparently had very strong feelings at one point.  But we do get to see more of his background both as a Maquis and as a Native American, which is both good and interesting.  Poor Harry Kim continues in his role as the ensign to whom wierd things happen: in this season, he has to leave a doomed Voyager in one reality and board another Voyager which lost its Ensign Kim, as well as being transferred to an alternate timeline in which he was never aboard Voyager at all.  The holographic doctor continues to develop as a person, even falling in love and having a brief romantic relationship, while Kes displays new strengths as well as her trademark compassion.  She even tricks the holodoctor at one point by programming a simulated illness to last longer than he expects, in order to teach him what it’s like to be sick.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Tuvix,” an episode which has generated substantial fan and critical response as well as philosophical analysis.  To be honest, I found the episode a little trite, and felt that some of the characters’ actions were difficult to understand.  In brief, a transporter accident fuses Tuvok and Neelix into the title character, a new being with some of the characteristics of both individuals.  Needless to say, the question of what to do with the fused being is at the heart of the episode’s moral ambiguity.  After two weeks, the doctor discovers a way to take Tuvix apart and retain Tuvok and Neelix, but by then, members of the crew have bonded with Tuvix and he himself views the procedure as a death sentence.  Ultimately, Captain Janeway has to intervene, and the episode seems to garner strong emotional responses from viewers.

Voyager ends season two with one heck of a bang.  Seska, having cemented her position in the woman-hating Kazon culture, manages to lead Cullah and his Kazon Nistrim in a raid and then an ambush which succeeds in taking Voyager.  At the end of the episode, Paris has escaped in a shuttle, while the Doctor and Ensign Suder, the serial killing Betazed, are left on the ship and the remainder of the crew is marooned on a dangerous planet.  It’s one heck of a season finale…

* I think I need to defend Braga, in spite of his numerous detractors among Star Trek fans.  Let’s face it: the man wrote almost 150 episodes of Star Trek in 15 years, an astonishing output which included some very fine episodes, many of which showed up in Voyager.  He wrote the scripts for the highest and second highest grossing Star Trek movies (Generations and First Contact).  He’s a creative powerhouse who, like all of us, has made a few mistakes along the way, but we shouldn’t lose sight of his successes. (Jump back!)

Detour: Star Trek Voyager Season One

Posted in Random Science Fiction Goodness, television, TV with tags , , , , , on December 19, 2011 by top50sf

You know, I could get used to this Netflix thing.  I’ve just switched from a combination streaming and one-DVD out at a time membership to two DVDs out at a time.  I don’t have anything against streaming video, but I do prefer to watch on my TV for any number of reasons.  At any rate…I decided it was time to begin watching some fun science fiction television to go along with the relatively serious stuff in the movie list.

For reasons which aren’t entirely clear to me, I chose to begin with Star Trek: Voyager.  I could have started with the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, starring James Edward Olmos and Mary McDonnell, two sterling performers in a fantastic series which raised the bar for science fiction on television.  Or perhaps the underrated Babylon Five, a ground-breaking show with more than just a nod to E. E. “Doc” Smith‘s Lensman series, along with a superlatively drawn four-year long meta-story.  But I’d seen both of those much more recently…then there’s the excellent and ground-breaking Farscape, which features some amazing performers in Ben Browder and Claudia Black, along with an astonishing writing crew…but I was in the mood for something a little more traditional, and had very fond memories of Voyager, so I decided to spend a little time with Paramount’s only female captain and her mis-matched crew on their 70,000 light year journey home instead.

So why review it at all?  Why not just watch and enjoy?  It’s an old series which went off the air back in 2001 after a seven-year run, and I’m aware that anyone who wants to see it has probably already done so.  And yet…I loved this show when it was on the air, watching it without fail for seven years.  So it’s sort of an old friend, and I decided to go back to it and see how it held up.

Star Trek: Voyager occupies a fairly unique place in the Star Trek franchise, which consists of five television series along with a number of movies.  It was the first, and so far only, series to anchor an entire network, being one of the flagship shows of UPN, Paramount’s venture into network television.  It was also syndicated, though at one point UPN ended the syndication deal and fans outside of the UPN’s broadcast area lost access to the show…

Caretaker (Star Trek: Voyager)

First, the setup.  Simply put, a Federation starship, Voyager, and the Maquis (a group of terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective) get stranded in the Delta Quadrant 70,000 light years from the Federation.  They were drawn there by the Caretaker, an alien who’s been looking after the Ocampas—providing them a safe existence, including food and energy, in an underground city with the planet’s only available water supply.  The Caretaker is motivated by guilt because he accidentally destroyed the planet’s hydrocycle.  To make matters worse, he’s dying and is looking to have children using a compatible life form so that he will have a worthy and motivated successor to protect the Ocampa when he dies.  The Ocampa are threated by the Kazon, a nasty bunch with some fairly capable ships who would love to get their hands on the Caretaker’s Array.  During the fight which erupts around the Array after the Caretaker’s death, the Maquis destroys the main Kazon warship by ramming it.  The crews of both ships, now on Voyager, watch as Captain Janeway uses her entire supply of tricobalt explosives to destroy the Array so the Kazon can’t get it.

Then Voyager, with both Starfleet and Maquis personnel on board, starts off on the 70,000 light year journey home.  They think it will take about seventy-five years.

The important characters:

  • Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), the captain of Voyager;
  • Chakotay (Robert Beltran), a former Starfleet officer who resigned his commission to join the Maquis and defend his family, captain of the Maquis ship pulled into the Delta Quadrant, and First Officer on Voyager;
  • Tuvok (Tim Russ), a Vulcan member of Starfleet with a long-standing relationship with Captain Janeway who infiltrates Chakotay’s Maquis crew for Starfleet, and after Voyager catches up to the Maquis ship, returns to Voyager as Chief Security Officer;
  • Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeil), a disgraced son of a Starfleet admiral who was dishonorably discharged, joined the Maquis, and was captured, after which Janeway pulled him out of a penal colony in order to pilot Voyager on its mission to the Badlands;
  • B’ellona Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson), a half-human half-Klingon hybrid member of the Maquis who struggles with anger issues and winds up serving as Voyager‘s Chief Engineer;
  • Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), a Starfleet ensign who is assigned to Voyager for his first mission fresh out of Starfleet Academy;
  • Neelix (Ethan Phillips), a Talaxian native to the Delta Quadrant who joins the group and serves as cook and unofficial morale officer;
  • Kes (Jennifer Lien), Neelix’s main squeeze, an Ocampan girl with undeveloped telepathic powers who takes up medicine; and
  • The Doctor (Robert Picardo), a holographic artificial personality originally intended as a temporary emergency medical officer.

Right from the start, it looked like Voyager was going to be a much more serious show with a harder edge than the sometimes-maligned, very optimistic Star Trek: The Next Generation, perhaps even an equal to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  Look at the setup for a minute:  half the crew of Voyager are former terrorists who are on Voyager because it’s the only ride home after the events of the pilot.  Add in that Voyager’s security officer infiltrated the terrorist group, and that some of the terrorists wind up holding positions of authority on Voyager, passing over Starfleet personnel in the chain of command, and that Captain Janeway blew up the way home in order to protect a species which none of them knew or cared about, and which had only five or six years before they’d have to emerge from their protective caverns, and you’ve got the makings of some fairly serious conflict.  Oh, yes, and they have limited supplies and no way to conveniently get the things they need—including photon torpedos—as well as the fact that they’ve come in conflict with a species which is rather angry about their actions to date.

Somehow, though, a lot of that got muted or lessened in the first season.  It felt less like a desparate group of people with serious divisions in desparate circumstances, and more like a group of people in semi-bad circumstances who are determined to pull together and make things work.  I think that may be why I liked the show, upon reflection.  It retains the hopeful vision of Gene Roddenbury, that people can get along if they try, and they can take pleasure and explore along their journey.  It also captures the essence of the first series, with the exploration element being foremost, though in the context of a near-Utopian, perfect Federation.

To put it another way:  this show is not about a heroic journey in which the characters achieve heroic stature.  They already have it—they’re representatives of a near-perfect society in a near-perfect future.  You will see character development, as various characters confront both a hostile universe and elements of themselves, but you won’t see people struggling to do what’s right; this group knows what’s right, and is looking for the right way to do what’s right.  In some ways, that’s a bit of a weakness for a television show.

The first season had some pretty bad episodes, which seems to be the rule for series in general as they get into gear and figure out what the show’s about and what the characters and settings are capable of.  The low point is probably the first episode, Parallax, in which Voyager finds itself in a “quantum singularity.”  Only they don’t realize it and try to rescue themselves.  Sound confusing?  It was a mite silly, with Voyager somehow traveling outside the singularity while it was still inside it.  I didn’t understand it either, though there was some technobabble about a temporal distortion, and I suppose in the grand scheme of things this low point can’t touch, for example, DS9’s “Run Along Home” for sheer unadulterated stupidity.

In addition to the inevitable “anomaly in space” type episodes (Parallax, Time and Again, The Cloud, Eye of the Needle, Emanations, and Heroes and Demons), we also get to meet the Vidiians, a race of disease-ravaged folks who steal organs and skin to survive (Phage and Faces) as well as an “arc” episode in which a traitor is unmasked, with the potential for subsequent drama (State of Flux), an original series-like episode featuring brain vampires who want to eat the crew’s neural energy (Cathexis), and three Next Generation-like episodes (Ex Post Facto, Jetrel, and Learning Curve).  The stand out episode, from the vantage point of originality, is probably Prime Factors, a unique episode in which a concept like the Federation’s Prime Directive is used to justify not sharing a potential way of traveling 40,000 light years in a single hop with Voyager.  Cathexis successfully creates a paranoid environment as the crew is serially possessed by an entity that seems to be trying to stop the ship, all unaware that it’s Chakotay trying to save the ship.  The two Vidiian episodes are well done, and State of Flux is a good story in which we discover that Seska, a Maquis, is actually a Cardassian infiltrator who betrays the entire ship to the Kazon.  We know we’ll see Seska again…

Two of the episodes run right up against the Gilligan’s Island problem:  in both Prime Factors and Eye of the Needle, the crew is presented with a way of either getting home or cutting their journey time in half.  You know, right from the beginning, that it won’t work.  If it did, it would completely undercut the show’s basic premise and require a complete retooling of the show—or its ending.  In both cases, though, the writers handled those series-busting concepts intelligently, and the question was not whether the crew would find a way home, but rather how it would deal with the inevitable disappointment of the method not working.  In other words, the shows illustrate, in a bizarre meta sort of way, that it’s not the journey’s end that’s important, but the journey itself.

On the plus side, we get some nifty character development.  Captain Janeway emerges as a woman you don’t want to cross—she’s well aware of the capabilities of her ship, and almost arrogant about what’s right and wrong.  Though she’s a scientist by training, she’s definitely the captain of the ship, and she shows a willingness to shoot first if she believes the situation requires it.  Kes emerges as a compassionate, bright and burgeoning young woman with some serious intellectual, and perhaps telepathic, gifts.  Chakotay is another stand-out character, demonstrating an unswerving loyalty to Janeway, presumably initially founded on respect for a Starfleet officer who is trying to do what’s right instead of what’s convenient, as well as a deep understanding of the needs of his crew (both parts of it).

There is some fun stuff along the way, of course.  I love the fact that Kathryn Janeway is willing to go to great lengths to get more energy so she can get coffee.  Her relationship with Belanna Torres emerges quite nicely, with the two women—one a former scientist turned commander, the other a free-thinking engineer with a knack for problem solving, bond over the technical issues facing the ship.  And watching Torres split into her human and klingon selves due to some Vidiian medical know-how is great fun, as is the Doctor’s slow emergence, under Kes’ patient and compassionate urgings, as a real person.

All in all, the short first season satisfies.  It’s not great, but it is fun, I enjoyed watching it—though I’m looking forward to Season 2 with high hopes for the show getting into second gear.

The Other White…Detour: Carrie Comes to Television

Posted in Movies, Random Science Fiction Goodness, Science Fiction, television, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2011 by top50sf

2002

Director:  David Carson

Cast:  Angela Bettis, Patricia Clarkson, Rena Sofer, Kandyse McClure, Emilie de Ravin, Tobias Mehler, Katharine Isabelle, David Keith

Introduction     Plot     Impressions     Wrap-Up

My Rating:  Class A (hot white star).  I’m not generally fond of remakes, particularly when the original is as good as the first Carrie, but this movie does bring some new things to the table and it has a certain style all its own.  Plus the update from the seventies looks pretty good…

Introduction

Some people say that comparisons are odious.  I majored in English in college, though, and like most of us, I can’t resist a comparison—so when I caught the 2002 made-for-TV version of Carrie, I had to watch it, and I had to write a review comparing it to the fantastic 1976 Brian DePalma film, which I reviewed here.

Here’s how the thing came to be:  NBC executives were pleased with the success of The Dead Zone, a television series which ran from 2002 to 2007 starring Anthony Michael Hall about a man who awakens from a coma with psychic powers.  It began on UPN and moved to USA.  The series was loosely based on a 1979 Steven King novel which was made into a 1983 David Cronenberg film starring Christopher Walken.  Still with me?  Good.  Apparently someone thought that other Steven King properties involving psychic phenomena would also make a good series, and that someone thought of Carrie.

Thus did Carrie come to television, as a made-for-television movie intended as a pilot.  There was no real way that this could work out, was there?  I mean, if you know the original story at all, you know it’s a tragedy which ends with a whole lot of dead people, including Carrie.  So, as you can imagine, there had to be some changes, which at least makes for a very different kind of ride, and as it turns out, the film is worth watching in its own right.

Plot

I’ve already given the plot for this movie in my previous review, and this movie sticks fairly close to the plotline laid out in that film.  The differences are subtle, and primarily come from either this movie’s being slightly more faithful to the King novel or the use of a series of present-day interviews in a police station.

Carrie White is a high school outcast—a loner who doesn’t fit in and is mistreated by everyone at school.  To make matters worse, her mother is a religious fanatic.  And on top of that, Carrie is telekinetic, with the ability to move things with her mind.  When she gets her first period in the shower after P.E., she believes she’s dying and the other girls laugh at her.  One of the girls, Chris Hargenson, continues to torment Carrie, while another, Sue Snell, decides to try to help Carrie have a more normal life.  Carrie winds up going to the prom with Sue’s boyfriend, where Chris orchestrates a prank in which Carrie winds up drenched in pig’s blood.

Because Carrie is telekinetic and crazy, bad things wind up happening…

Impressions

This movie uses CGI instead of the split-screen technique of the 1976 film, and so it looks pretty good.  And since the movie was filmed in 2002, it doesn’t have the full-on seventies look of the first film.  Naturally, the music was updated as well.  In short, this doesn’t feel like a dated exercise, but instead as a contemporary movie.

By itself, of course, that’s little reason to remake a movie—though this movie was never intended as a simple remake, and I’ll get to that in a bit—and this movie does bring some new things to the table.  Narratively, the movie is a little closer to the novel, and the fact that it was filmed for TV means that some of the language, nudity and violence common in movies didn’t make it into this movie.

One of the things that struck me forcefully was that this movie is more nuanced in terms of characterizations than the DePalma film.  That’s not necessarily a good thing, since the archetypal nature of DePalma’s characters gives emotional power to the movie.  DePalma’s Sue is good, and Chris is evil; this Chris, in particular, is less evil and more real.  I think it’s because the focus in DePalma’s Carrie never wavers from Carrie herself; everything and everyone in the film moves around her, either acting on her or reacting to her.  In this movie, characters have their own motivations and actions independant of Carrie’s situation.

This characterization-rich script does take away some of the movie’s power, but it also gives the actors a chance to shine in ways that the DePalma film only gave to Sissy Spacek (as Carrie) and Piper Laurie (as Margaret, Carrie’s mother).  And on the whole, the actors rise to the challenge and do a fine job.  Emilie de Raven’s Chris is still a selfish, self-centered teenager, but she’s not as unremittingly evil.  Chris’ friend Norma is transformed into the bitchy-but-popular Tina, who is excellently portrayed by Katharine Isabelle as something more than Chris’ henchwoman.  Chelan Sommers’ Helen and Meghan Black’s Norma are wonderful as well, the former a slightly ditzy, but friendly ally for Carrie in her transformation, and the latter as an over-energetic, over-hyped student body president.  Tobias Mehler, who plays Tommy, has more to work with than Bill Katt, and this Tommy is a more active participant—and a more likeable person, with real and genuine emotions—in Carrie’s transformation.  Rena Sofer—one of those actresses who I always enjoy watching—also does a solid job with Miss Desjardins, the teacher who takes an interest in, and attempts to help, Carrie.

Angela Bettis’ Carrie is so very different from Sissy Spacek’s that it’s almost impossible to compare them.  For example, this Carrie understands exactly what is going on, and refuses to accept help past a certain point.  She’s still sweet, but she’s much less naive.  She’s also—and this is important—crazy.  Her telekinetic gifts may well spring from her unconscious mind, as she exercises them and doesn’t always realize what she’s done or remember it.  Patricia Clarkson plays Margaret White, and while the DePalma Margaret is a steely-eyed fanatic with a hard edge, this Margaret seems softer and less brutal.  Kandyse McClure brings a wonderfully human aspect to Sue Snell, and I really enjoyed her performance.

As I mentioned, this movie was intended to be a pilot for an ongoing series, and as a result there were substantial changes to the script.  One of those is the framing story, in which a detective (David Keith) interrogates the survivors of the Black Prom about Carrie White’s disappearance.  Naturally, you get a good idea about who does and doesn’t live, with one or two major surprises…

I’m going to reveal the biggest surprise of all:  Carrie survives the entire experience, but has no memory of anything.  Sue, who saw enough of the destruction to know exactly what happened, hides Carrie from the police and, at the end of the movie, drives her to Florida.  Given where the series probably intended to go, there was no other way to end the movie, and to my surprise, it didn’t feel like a cheat.  It actually worked, though not brilliantly, and that’s at least in part because all of the destruction took place while Carrie was in some kind of fugue state.  She simply didn’t remember the prom—or the destruction and death she wreaked on her way home—at all.

Was a series based on Carrie a good idea?  I’m of two minds on that point.  One description of the potential series described it as Carrie helping other people who have telekinetic powers—presumably learning to control and live with them.  That idea is, on its surface, laughable, especially given what Carrie herself does.  But the movie managed to sow some seeds of a fairly interesting potential series.  There’s Carrie herself, of course, with her out-of-control powers and the question of her moral responsibility.  There’s the potential for further havoc in her little episodes, a sort of ever-present danger.  But more importantly, I suspect that Sue Snell, Rita Desjardin, and a certain too-clever detective might very well have figured in the series as it progressed.

I won’t say that it’s a shame that the series never took place, but it at least had potential to be interesting.

Wrap-up

Given that there was no television series, of course, the only way to look at the movie is as a stand-alone entity.  And on that front, Carrie succeeds, though not as powerfully as the 1976 film.  Everything seems a little more muted, a little duller, a little less.  It’s still a good movie, mind you, but it can’t really stand alone against the DePalma version.

At least one commentator has said that if you read the novel first, you’ll like the TV movie better, while if you see the 1976 film first, you’ll prefer it.  I think I understand that, in that the TV movie is closer to the novel.  But as a piece of film-making, the 1976 DePalma film is simply stronger, more emotional and more hard-hitting.

That said, if you like any of the performers, or just love the story, this one is worth a look.

Detour: Star Wars The Old Republic MMO

Posted in Random Science Fiction Goodness, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 21, 2011 by top50sf

So, among other things, I’m a gamer.  Not a console gamer, mind you, but a PC gamer.  And in particular, I love the sheer scope and complexity of the massively multiplayer online games. In my time, I’ve played 3 Kingdoms, a MUD or multi-user dungeon and thoroughly enjoyed it (it’s still out there—the Wikipedia entry is here, and the MUD’s web page can be found here).  So when World of Warcraft launched in late 2004, I was there, although not without reservations.  In the years since, I’ve spent way too much time in the world of Azeroth—generally as an undead warlock—doing things with my guild, questing, and learning to PvP.

Sadly, I became quite bored with WoW and found myself playing less and less this year.

BioWare and LucasArts Do Cosplay for Star Wars...

Image by Colony of Gamers via Flickr

Fortunately for me, the good folks at Bioware and LucasArts have something I’m excited about:  Star Wars: The Old Republic.  It’s a massively multiplayer role playing game set in the Star Wars universe years (okay, 3500 years) before the events of the films.  It features a cold conflict between the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic, which may or may not wind up erupting into open war.

Have I mentioned that I’m excited about the game?

It launches on December 20, though folks who pre-order their copies of the game will get early access, possibly up to five days early.  Since it doesn’t cost any more to buy it early, I’m already in, as is another member of the Wretched Excess Crew, Chris.

I was actually privileged to be in the weekend-long massive beta test—something I’ve kept very quiet about up to now.  The NDA (now lifted by the developers) is one reason for that; another is that this is the second beta test I’ve participated in, much to the consternation of my friends, none of whom have gotten such invitations.  Fortunately my gamer friends, including Chris, don’t actually read this blog, and therefore I’m safe in revealing it here.

During my weekend of access to the game, I played one of the evil Sith, and found that the storyline is fascinating and involves plenty of choices between good and evil, one of the things that should make the game more interesting.  The game also gives each player “companions” who will assist them in their adventures.  Finally, the gameplay seems fun enough.

I’m expecting this game to be a considerable drain on my time over the next six months or so, but it should be a lot of fun.

Oh…before I go, check out this cut scene, illustrating the conflict on Alderan between the forces of the Empire and the Republic, including an epic battle between a Jedi and a Sith Lord:

Detour: Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (A Dr. Who Movie)

Posted in Film, Random Science Fiction Goodness, Science Fiction, television, TV, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2011 by top50sf

1966 (in the U.K.)

Director Gordon Flemyng

Cast:  Peter Cushing, Bernard Cribbins, Ray Brooks, Andrew Keir, Jill Curzon, Roberta Tovey

Introduction
Plot Summary
Impressions
Wrap-up

My Rating:  Class M (7/7, dim red star).  It sounds like it should be an astonishing outing—Peter Cushing as Dr. Who, the time-traveling alien, versus the Daleks in an invasion of planet Earth for a nefarious purpose involving a mine in England…but it doesn’t work out too well, as the acting is a mite substandard, the script is remarkably silly, the Daleks are not very threatening, and the music score is down-right inappropriate.

Introduction

The movie, a sequel to 1965’s Dr. Who and the Daleks, is based on a television series which is often cited as the longest running science fiction series in the history of television.  However, you don’t need a true understanding of the series to follow the movie, and in fact if you’re a fan of the series the movie might be disconcerting.

The series was first broadcast in 1963, and it introduced “The Doctor,” a very intelligent alien with a rather quirky time machine called the TARDIS.  The TARDIS is bigger on the inside than the outside, and shaped like a police box—a British invention containing a telephone with a direct link to the closest police station, a log book, a first aid kit, and a few other necessities.  In the first season, the Doctor is a fairly mysterious figure who travels through time with his two granddaughters, a history teacher, and a science teacher.  Eventually it is revealed that the Doctor is a Time Lord, a species from the planet Gallifrey, and that he’s on the run from his own people because he stole the TARDIS, one of many time machines.

The movies, however, do not draw on this rich background.  Doctor Who, in the movies, is an eccentric and brilliant human inventer with the last name “Who” who builds a time machine and travels through time with his granddaughters Susan and Barbara.  The only point of commonality between the movies and the television series—which had reached season two at the time of the first movie’s debut—is the appearance of the Daleks, one of the Doctor’s worst enemies.

The first movie did well enough, and so this title was green-lighted and there were plans for a third movie.  The box office take for Daleks’ Invasion Earth was so poor that the third movie was scrapped.

Plot Summary

A policeman attempts to stop a jewelry store robbery, and runs to a nearby police box when they escape.  Unfortunately for him, the police box is actually Dr. Who’s TARDIS, a time machine, with its passengers Louise, his niece, and Susan, his granddaughter.  Dr. Who is in a hurry, so even though the unconscious policeman—who turns out to be named Tom—is aboard, Dr. Who travels into the future, to the year 2150.  London is in ruins, and before long, the girls have met a resistance group while the boys have been captured by the Daleks and their robomen.  The resistance manages to rescue Dr. Who before he’s turned into a roboman, while Susan is trapped on their ship and Tom remains behind to find her.  They all wind up at the mine, where they discover that the Daleks plan to drop a huge bomb into a flaw in the Earth’s mantle, forcing the core out of the planet, so they can steal the entire planet and take it back to their home system and put it next to their own planet.  Dr. Who figures out how to stop the plan by diverting the bomb to the “convergence of the north and south magnetic poles” where the bomb will magnify the Earth’s magnetic field and suck the Daleks into the Earth’s core.  Of course the plan works and the Daleks are defeated.  To put the cherry on the sundae, Dr. Who returns the policeman to a point a few minutes before his failure to stop the robbery, and this time he gets it right.

Impressions

Oh dear.  Such a waste of potential, this movie.  Sure, the early Dr. Who seasons were a little clumsy, with laughable special effects.  The fearsome Daleks, which in some ways are the nastiest cybernetic villains ever dreamed up, have a plunger as one of their limbs.  No, I’m not kidding.  It’s symptomatic of the series’ low production values, at least back in the sixties, and those values often found their way into the scripts and the acting as well.  But the television series always had a certain spirit and elan, and I had high hopes that the movie would retain that.

Ah well.

My first impression was that movie Dr. Who was not at all like series Dr. Who.  Not having seen the first movie, I didn’t know that Dr. Who was an ordinary human being, and I missed the somewhat manic alien Doctor almost immediately.  Movie Dr. Who seemed fallible, capricious, and all-too-mortal—it was as if I was watching a movie called Superman, but the Man of Steel was an ordinary body builder instead of the Kryptonian super-hero.  And that’s because I was, and I think that initial disappointment affected my enjoyment of the movie.

I still enjoyed the movie, mind you, but it wasn’t because it was a good movie.

The performances were a little lack-luster.  Only Cushing was truly good, and his Dr. Who is a befuddled, absent-minded, somewhat capricious man who displays flashes of brilliance.  The other performers, discounting Bernard Cribbins, more or less phone in their performances.  Cribbins, the kidnapped policeman, shows character and does his best with the rather silly situations that the script forces him into…

If you’re a fan of the series, the name Bernard Cribbins might be familiar.  None of the Wretched Excess Crew twigged to it, but in the modern series Cribbins plays Wilfred Mott, the grandfather of Companion Donna Noble (the angry bride)—and the man who plays a significant role in the Doctor’s regeneration at the end of The End of Time, which marked the last appearance of David Tennant as the Doctor in the modern television series.

Visually, the movie is something of an improvement over the television series of the same era, and at the same time, it’s not.  For starters, it’s in color.  And we get lots and lots of Daleks, virtually an army of them, which is fun to watch.  These Daleks show some new characteristics, starting with the ability to submerge in water; in deference to their method of locomotion (Daleks have wheels and roll along) their ships and buildings have ramps rather than stairs.  But the striking destructive rays are gone, replaced with a weapon that looks like a plume of smoke or steam, prompting Chris to exclaim FUMIGATE!

I might add here that the Daleks look really silly, but one of the great strengths of the television program is to make the ordinary and innocuous into terrifying villains.  On this count, I can’t say the movie fully fails, but it is not completely successful, either.  These Daleks are peculiarly vulnerable, so that when grabbed by two or three resistance fighters and shoved down a ramp, they topple and explode.  When hit by a car, they topple and explode.  They’re still dangerous, mind you.

The score is…well, it’s surprising.  It uses a mod-sounding near jazz thing which is dissonantly light at some of the most peculiar moments.  It’s as if the composer viewed the entire film as a joke, and wanted to let us in on it.  One of the potentially more impressive and moving scenes, when the wheelchair-bound leader of the resistance deliberately sacrifices himself to prevent Dr. Who’s capture, is nearly ruined by a light-hearted and silly musical passage…

The script is weak in a lot of ways.  For starters, there’s no introduction to Dr. Who and his family and how they came to be in possession of a time machine.  Given that this was a sequel, and that it was so very different from the television property, there’s no real excuse for not working in some exposition so that viewers would know what was going on.  Dr. Who’s decision to essentially kidnap a policeman is without any real motive or explanation.  He’s just ready to go, and the policeman is coming with them because he’s inside the time machine when Dr. Who decides to go.  And that’s just the first few minutes.  The script is plagued with that sort of weakness throughout.

The science behind the movie is laughably idiotic.  The Daleks’ master plan is basically to steal the Earth and move it to their own solar system, but in order to do that, for some reason they need to get rid of the Earth’s core.  Don’t ask me why, as I can’t imagine a reason—unless they were planning on putting an engine there or something.  I found the idea that there was a region in England where the influence of the north and south magnetic poles met singularly silly—the magnetic poles are features of a single magnetic field, after all rather than two things that could mingle.  And if the mingling takes place in England, the north pole would be substantially weaker than the south…and the idea that a bomb could somehow amplify the effects of that region is even worse.

Wrap Up

We had a good time watching this movie, which may seem a bit odd given my review.  I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a really bad movie and enjoyed the experience because it was so bad, but I think that encapsulates my reaction to Daleks’ Invasion 2150.

Part of my reaction stemmed from the fact that this Dr. Who is so very different from the Doctor I see in the modern television series.  He’s a completely different character with only a surface similarity to the television Doctor.  But the movie has substantial weaknesses on its own merits, and that’s true regardless of the changes to the concept.

Some might suggest that my review is unnecessarily harsh, as it is a children’s movie.  I can only say that my reaction is mirrored, in general, by Dr. Who fandom.  In point of fact, I could find only one or two positive comments about the movie at all, and they were frankly tinged with nostalgia.

All things considered, I had a great deal of fun watching this movie, though not for the reasons the director and producers intended.

Bonus:  The music score, or part of it

Detour: Terra Nova

Posted in Random Science Fiction Goodness, television, TV, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on October 4, 2011 by top50sf

Terra Nova
Fox Television
Premiered on Monday, September 26

Rating:  Class B (very large, very hot blue-white star).  With a ten million dollar budget and Steven Spielberg, how on earth could this one go wrong?  And it looks like it’s going to be a fun family adventure series with a nice batch of mysteries to intrigue, pretty people to watch, and stellar visuals in terms of settings and the dinosaurs.  Check it out!

Another detour, this time for a television show.  I think we’re far afield now, though at least we’re back into the territory of science fiction—even if it’s on the small screen.  And I have to add that for me, television science fiction is always a mixed bag; the last science fiction series I found truly engrossing was the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, which always had a strong emotional punch (though to be fair I never miss an episode of Dr. Who, either).  But for every BSG or Dr. Who, there are shows which are just flat out silly, or not terribly adept, or which seem to struggle to find their voice and pace, so I always approach television SF with a jaundiced eye…

So…a family drama set 85 million years in the past, with an attractive cast, talented and experienced producers, and one heck of a budget.  This one seems like a no-brainer to do well, but science fiction sometimes struggles to find an audience on television.  There’s no telling how this one will play out—but based on what I’ve seen so far, it’s got the potential to have a nice run and is well worth checking out.

We’ve got two episodes under our belts, by the way, and I’ll briefly address the second episode after a discussion of the pilot.

First off, the producers:  Brannon Braga, Peter Chernin, Rene Echevarria, and Steven Spielberg (!).  Any way you look at it, these guys have some serious success behind them.  I could tell you all about them, and how the four augur well for this series, but I don’t want to start any arguments with folks who think one or two of them ruined Star Trek.  It’s enough to say that the producers have some heavy-duty science fiction experience behind them…

Next, the setting.  In the year 2149, the ecology is in ruins, and the Earth is dying.  The wealthy live in isolated, climate-controlled domes, while the rest of humanity makes do in giant cities with ruined air and few living species other than man.  An orange is a rarity; leaving one’s climate-controlled apartment means wearing a breathing apparatus; and significantly, couples are limited to two children.

In all this mess, scientists in Chicago (Really?  Chicago?  Who would put a high energy physics research lab in the middle of the Midwest’s biggest city?) either create or discover a “fracture” in time which leads 85 million years into an alternate past, and someone comes up with the idea to save humanity by creating a colony on the other side of the fracture.  Fortunately, there’s some kind of sidestep involved—the time portal leads to another worldline, so nothing the colonists do can change their future (some scientists have speculated that if time travel is possible, the closed timelike curve would lead to another worldline, apparently under the influence of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics).  There’s a little bit of drift involved, so people who step through the gate one after another do not necessarily arrive in the past one right after another.  It’s a one-way trip, as well, though there’s some method of communication through the portal (I imagine it’s like the time gate in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, in which anything which goes through the time gate from the past to the future takes on the full span of years, so only certain inorganic materials can survive the trip, but we don’t know yet).

And that gets us to Terra Nova, the colony 85 million years in the past.  In the pilot episode, we meet the Shannon family:  father Jim, a policeman; mother Elisabeth, a doctor; oldest son Josh; middle daughter Maddy; and youngest daughter Zoe.  But wait, you say, I thought that families were limited to two children!

You’re right, and because of that little fact, in 2149 the police arrive to search for the third child.  Jim loses his temper and slugs one of the police, which lands him in jail.  Two years later, Elisabeth gets invited to join the tenth Pilgrimage to Terra Nova, with the two older of her children.  She accepts.  But she’s also got a plan, and smuggles a laser cutter to Jim, in prison.  He escapes, grabs their third daughter, and the family manages to escape through the time gate.

Once in the past, the Shannons face a strikingly different, and dangerous, world.  The Terra Nova colony is a giant fenced-in circular area enclosing farms and a living area—fenced in to keep the dinosaurs out.  In the pilot episode, Jim Shannon manages to thwart an assassination attempt, becoming a member of Terra Nova’s security forces, while son Josh hooks up with a group of teenage miscreants and winds up trapped outside the colony overnight.  Jim and Elisabeth accompany the security forces which ride to the rescue, and the pilot ends with the family gazing up at the moon and the stars in their first night in their new home.

The pilot sets up several mysteries and plot arcs that make it clear that this show will not just be a show about surviving in a hostile environment.

  • Why have the “Sixers,” a faction from the Sixth Pilgrimage, separated from the rest of Terra Nova?  What’s their goal, and who in the future is behind their efforts?
  • What’s going to happen when the true state of affairs is reported back to the folks on the other side of the time gate?
  • Who’s the Sixer mole in the colony?  We know there is one, since someone managed to communicate with Mira, the Sixer leader, and let her know that Terra Nova had her man in prison.
  • What’s the relationship between Skye, the miscreant but fearless girl, and Commander Nathaniel Taylor, the leader of Terra Nova?
  • Someone is carving mysterious equations on the rocks in the off-limits area frequented by Skye, which Mira, the Sixer leader, says are carved by Commander Taylor’s son and deal with controlling the future.  Is Mira right?
  • If Commander Taylor’s son is the one doing the carving, does Taylor know about it?  How is the son surviving all on his own in an area frequented by killer dinosaurs which can damn near take out a truck?
  • If nothing else, the possibility of fresh pilgrimages opens the door to further complications…

Next, the cast.  Wow, those are some pretty people.  Apparently the main criterion for getting to go back in time is being ridiculously attractive.  The men are lean and muscled, while the women are fresh-faced and athletic.  These people are really something!  But the majority of the actors are doing a fine job, led by Jason O’Mara, who plays father Jim Shannon.  He’s believable, likeable and clearly loves his family—but he’s not perfect, having a bit of a temper and a tendency to break the law.  Shelly Conn, who plays Dr. Elisabeth Shannon, brings an English accent to the table and a hint of an aristocratic manner, but she’s also a paradigm of maternal concern and warmth.  The rest of the performances are pretty solid, as well.  I found myself particularly fascinated by Skye (Allison Miller), a teenage orphaned by a disease outbreak in Terra Nova, and who displays unusual perceptiveness combined with a typical teenager’s recklessness.  One of the biggest problems the show may face is the middle daughter, Maddy, who is apparently going to serve as something of a genius who recites scientific facts (and provides exposition where necessary) at the drop of a hat.  Fortunately the show seems to be setting up a crush on her part on one of the other residents of Terra Nova, so maybe she’ll be more than just a plot device…

The show is going to be a treat from the visual angle.  The dinosaurs are rather well-done, though not perfect, and the producers have made the decision that since by some estimates, we only know about 10% or so of the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous Period, they aren’t constrained by the fossil record.  That’s a strength, in some ways, since it means that they’re going to be able to hit us with surprises pretty much at will.  So far, we’ve seen something like a brontosaurus, one of the larger (and herbiverous) dinosaurs; carnosaurs, which are something like fast running but small (about the size of a panel truck) tyranosaurus rex; and slashers, smaller thick-bodied nocturnal dinosaurs with bladed tails.  I have a feeling that there’s a lot more in store…I’ll add that during the Cretaceous Period, not only were there a lot of dinosaurs, but mammals had already made their appearance, as well as primitive birds and flowering plants.

It’s difficult to evaluate the science behind the show, and some of it is going to be unpalatable to some viewers.  That’s especially true of the notion of ecological catastrophe—Americans tend to believe that there is no scientific consensus regarding global warming, and a majority suspect that global warming does not exist and further that man’s activities do not contribute to climate change.  So there’s that issue, though the pilot doesn’t make any particular case for ecological collapse, and since the show’s set on the Cretaceous end of the time portal, there may never be any further explanation.

The time gate, on the other hand, looks to be an integral part of the mysteries, and I suppose we’ll have to brace ourselves for pseudoscience.  The jury is out on whether or not time travel is possible;  certain solutions of Einstein’s equations of general relativity appear to suggest that time travel into the past is possible.  On the other hand, no one can determine if those solutions are physically possible or not (for example, stabilizing a wormhole probably requires “exotic matter” with “negative energy density”), and some have suggested that the incorporation of quantum mechanics and relativity will close those loopholes…at any rate, it’s fun to speculate, isn’t it?

Before I close, allow me to describe the opening scene of the pilot.  It demonstrates a lot about what’s good about the show.

The pilot opens on the moon, and pans past the American flag at the Apollo landing site to show the Earth.  But it’s not the blue and white swirled globe we’re familiar with—it’s a tan and umber globe.  The camera pans in, past satellites and through the brown clouds to a futuristic city of high buildings, and it zooms into one of them, which turns out to be an apartment building.  Jim Shannon, wearing a breathing unit, walks through the dirty, darkened corridor to his home, where he opens a hermetically sealed door and greets his family.  There’s an easy cameraderie; they obviously love one another.  The only spot of color, though, in the entire opening sequence, is the orange which Jim has brought home for his family.  Josh, his son, peels the orange for little Zoey.  Then Maddy arrives, and warns that the police are coming…

In that one scene, you get glimpses of what the show might be:  the core of it is going to be the Shannon family and its interrelationships.  They love each other, but like any family, they’re going to have problems.  I also thought that the lack of color, but for the orange, probably means that the producers will be paying a lot of attention to how the show looks, which is all to the good.

Among all the positives, I have to say that in some ways the show is a little formulaic.  We’ve got the father, who is the typical hot-headed cop type who breaks the rules to make things work.  His son is a chip off the old block, and as Skye—who’s known him for only a few hours—points out, they’re too much alike.  Maddy is the voice of exposition, and while I welcomed the science I suspect that many others will find her irritating.

The pilot glosses over some things, too.  How did the Shannons manage to hide a pregnancy and a third daughter for three years in their apartment?  It’s not like Elisabeth wouldn’t have shown, and unless there’s something really startling about that pregnancy—I haven’t ruled that out as a major plot twist—it seems unlikely that they could have hidden little Zoe’s existence for three years.  I also found myself wondering why it was only Jim who got sent to prison, and not Elisabeth as well, unless—as the dialogue implies—Jim went to prison for hitting a cop.  If that’s so, then there was no punishment for breaking the child limitation, and if that’s so, why were they so keen to hide her, and why did Jim get mad enough to hit the officer?

Here’s the bottom line:  based on the pilot episode, if you enjoy family dramas this is going to be a show to watch.  I’ve already heard (in fact, even made) one reference to the bastard spawn of Lost and Jurassic Park, but if this show follows through on the promise displayed in the pilot, I don’t care.  So, on Monday night, settle in and watch; you’ll be glad you did.

Update on the basis of the second episode:  In the second episode of the show, we get a “monster of the week” style episode in which a flying dinosaur—or possibly a bird—emigrates to its spawning site right where Terra Nova was built.  They’re carniverous and nasty little critters which could cause huge problems for the colony.  But alongside the “physical danger” thing we also get some new character stuff.  It turns out Elisabeth was specifically requested by the colony’s chief medical researcher, who went to medical school with her and has a thing for her.  He was surprised when Jim and little Zoe turned up as well…Skye also figures out that Josh had to leave a girl behind who meant quite a bit to him, and he displays a talent for the guitar while Skye demonstrates an altruistic streak and the boy Maddy has a crush on may reciprocate her interest.  I was right about the family drama focus as well—the threat to the colony plays out with Elisabeth providing the scientific solution, which is implemented by Jim and Commander Taylor, while the children face danger in the swarm of bird-things.  It wasn’t a magnificent episode, but it was fun and it had some genuinely warm family moments.

I’ll be watching again next Monday.

Visit Fox’s Terra Nova website, where you can watch episodes a week after they air.