Monday, October 30, 2017

Discovery 1x7 “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Max”

rating: ***

the story: Mudd attempts to use a time loop against the crew.

what it’s all about: This is hardly the first time Star Trek has featured time travel, much less a time loop. The most famous example is Next Generation’s “Cause and Effect,” where the ship is destroyed repeatedly and Kesley Grammer cameos at the end. The most recent is “Future Tense,” an Enterprise episode that plays with the concept as part of the plot rather than its focus. “Magic” is much like that. Although the time loop is a defining element of the episode, it should best be understood as a follow-up to the show’s earlier Harry Mudd appearance (“Choose Your Pain,” two episodes ago).

The episode helps provide further context for this show’s storytelling framework. Like the previous episode featuring an in-depth look at Sarek, “Magic” takes advantage of being a prequel story in much the same way as the last season of Enterprise, which was happy to explain in a fairly forthright manner how things came to be. If other elements of the season have also done their own thing, that again finds Discovery following in the footsteps of its immediate TV predecessor.

Mudd is a fine way to explore the episode, but so is the increasingly eccentric Stamets, the continuing hints that this series is addressing the concept of whales aboard Starfleet ships as previously only existed in noncanonical technical manuals, and yeah, the budding relationship between Burnham and Tyler. There’s also some great Lorca material, but mostly in how Mudd kills him repeatedly, which is darkly hilarious in its way.

But yeah, Mudd. In his original incarnation, Mudd was a conman gifted with an inexplicable expertise in creating lifelike androids, who existed only to further his schemes. It was easy to underestimate him because there was little effort to legitimize him. But this Mudd has a lot more going for him, including a wide range of technological know-how. In his previous series appearances, Mudd distinguished himself by rejecting Starfleet as the only way a human could get by in the future. If he was far from a moral equal to your typical Starfleet officer ( comments about Lorca, or Butnham), “Magic” makes it clear that he doesn’t need Starfleet to have educated himself on the possibilities the future offers. In fact, like...Burnham and Lorca, he hardly seems worried about the implications of his actions, just so long as he benefits. But what separates Mudd from a Burnham or a Lorca is that he only has selfish goals in mind.

By the end, we learn the truth about his relationship with Stella, seen in the flesh for the first time, as she really is, not as Mudd describes or fears her to be, but as the logical conclusion to the way he approaches life. She’s the bride who accepts him at face value, but at the same time calls his bluff. How much more of a nightmare can a guy like Mudd expect?

criteria analysis:
  • franchise -A time loop episode.
  • series -  Doesn’t advance the plot.
  • character - But it does work well further exploring these characters.
  • essential -  A must-watch for Mudd fans old and new.

notable guest-stars:
Rainn Wilson (Mudd)

Monday, October 23, 2017

Discovery 1x6 "Lethe"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham comes to the rescue of her father, Sarek.

what it's all about: The main takeaway from that brief summary of "Lethe" is that this is a Sarek episode, as much as it is a Burnham episode.  It details their history together, how they became family.  And it gives as complete portrait of Sarek as has ever been attempted in the franchise.  Not bad for a character who has appeared in three series already (original series, Animated Series, and Next Generation) as well as five movies (The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, The Final Frontier, The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek).  Actually, I think as of Discovery he's the most represented character, easily, in all the whole franchise, a record that would be about impossible to beat.

 (Riker, who has appeared whether as himself or transporter duplicate Thomas in Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, plus four movies, probably comes next closest, and then Worf, who was not only the only series regular of two series, Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, but appeared in five movies, including his ancestor in The Undiscovered Country, also played by Michael Dorn.  Of course, the original series main characters appeared in two series, the first six movies, some of them the first seven movies, and then the last three, plus other appearances in Next Generation and Voyager, but mostly as a unit and in association with each other.  Anyway...)

What "Lethe" does is finally explain why Sarek had a half-human son, a human wife, and as Discovery has revealed, an adopted human daughter (aside from the Vulcan son some fans want to pretend never existed), and what it meant for him in Vulcan society.  Clearly the episode draws on the nationalist trend from present times (although Enterprise was also doing that a dozen years ago, but it was called xenophobia then), and that explains some of what happens to Sarek during it.  But it's also about that fundamental aspect of his character that previously was only explored in his son Spock's turmoil.  Star Trek first explained his marriage to Amanda Grayson because he "loved her."  Which is heartwarming but doesn't really explain anything. 

The word Lethe comes from a river in Greek mythology that existed in the Underworld (sometimes called Hades, because that's where Hades himself lived; it's equivalent to Christian Hell, where you go if you haven't attained Elysium, the realm of the heroic, chosen dead).  This river has a remarkable property, though: it erases your memory.  Far from a mercy, it's considered a torment, as souls become untethered and miserable, more so than they would have been remembering their lives, in the afterlife. 

Burnham struggles in the episode to understand why Sarek's mind keeps bringing her back to a specific memory, of the day her fate was decided, whether she was going to join the Vulcan service, or Starfleet.  She had always been led to believe it was the Vulcans who rejected her because of racism, but she learns that it was actually Sarek who decided, having had his hand forced.  His fellow Vulcans (and yeah, it basically still is racism) say that his two exceptional children would both taint the perfect the perfect Vulcan record of never having anyone but a Vulcan in its service.  Spock is half-Vulcan, and so he's half-human in their eyes.  And of course, Burnham is human.  Sarek chooses his son, which would certainly surprise Spock (and was perhaps information Picard was able to give him, much later), although of course we know Spock joins Starfleet, too.

Anyway, Sarek's decision, and all his life choices, and even his brilliance as a diplomat and negotiator, are explained by his ability to accept other races as his kinsmen.  Other Vulcans aren't as capable.  In Enterprise, the thought of xenophobic Vulcans seemed contradictory to the way they'd been presented before.  And yet, was Spock really ever presented as warmly accepted by his people?  Not that I recall, except maybe in Search for Spock, when he was reunited with his katra.

Ah.  Speaking of katra.  The Vulcan soul is the reason Burnham and Sarek have a unique link, and a unique way to mind-meld.  That's also explained in "Lethe." 

In fact, it's difficult to explain "Lethe" as anything but essential.  It's the first one since the first three to really feel as if it's continuing the outlining of the premise, a truly necessary episode in a series that initially seemed perfectly serialized, like all favored TV shows in this era.  And yet, in recent episodes, Discovery has become more episodic.  "Lethe" itself is episodic.  Other than being a deep character study, it's fairly standalone, except for the fact that we're clearly still following characters with a continuing story.

Speaking of which, Tilly gets some advancement.  Lorca certainly receives some advancement.  (Actually, he begins to look almost like a Starfleet version of Deep Space Nine's Kai Winn...)  And Tyler receives some advancement.  I actually like him a lot more, all the way around, in "Lethe" than his debut in "Choose Your Pain."  He feels more natural.  I can begin to understand, better, all those fans who never quite saw how Voyager's Starfleet misfits were misfits, since they never felt like Starfleet misfits (except B'Elanna, of course). 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Gets to the heart of a character, Sarek, who has appeared extensively in Star Trek.
  • series - And imbeds his deeply into the heart of Discovery.
  • character - Not just Sarek, but Burnham, Lorca, Tyler, and even Tilly.
  • essential - It's the first great episodic entry of the series.
notable guest-stars:
James Frain (Sarek)
Mia Kirshner (Amanda)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Discovery 1x5 "Choose Your Pain"

rating: ***

the story: Lorca is kidnapped by the Klingons.

what it's all about: This one will probably end up being known for two things: the return of Harry Mudd, and the first explicit same-sex relationship in franchise history.  Okay, three!  The swearing.  Wow, right?

Let's tackle each one, shall we?  Harry Mudd appeared three times over the course of the original and Animated series.  Had the movies (and thus, the return of Khan) never happened, he would continue to have a dominant place in Star Trek lore.  As it is, he was reduced to a brief nod in the Abrams timeline (Star Trek Into Darkness), which might have been the sum total of his further significance, until it was announced he'd appear in Discovery, depicted by The Office's Rainn Wilson, no less.  So what was that going to look like?  Turns out, both the character and actor justified the gambit.  Mudd even gets something of an origin story from the appearance, and arguably becomes a far more significant, and poignant, character, despite being at the same time as arrogant and opportunistic as ever. 

The first explicit same-sex relationship in franchise history, meanwhile, is a follow-up to the brief glimpse of Sulu's love life in Star Trek Beyond, and I do mean glimpse.  But the scene at the end of "Choose Your Pain" between Stamets and Culber leaves no doubt of what we're seeing.  This is akin to the kiss, at least in the franchise, between Kirk and Uhura in "Plato's Stepchildren."  Where that kiss broke broadcast history by featuring a white man and a black woman kiss, the LBGTQ community has for years enjoyed mainstream representation, but its inclusion in Star Trek, long delayed, is a breakthrough of another variety.

And the cursing...!  The decision to air Discovery on CBS All-Access has been met with considerable controversy, but one benefit is a loosening of network (and syndicated) guidelines.  This is the first instance of those loosened restrictions, in a scene where the ice is broken with a knowing wink to the audience, as if the characters are giddy to be so liberated but also shocked that they're getting away with it.  One can easily imagine the salty McCoy joining in...

The episode itself relies less on Burnham than the first four of the series gently pushing her aside to share the focus with Saru (always worth spending time with) and Lorca (whom we learn more about).  We also meet the last series regular, Ash Tyler,  but actor Shazad Latif proves himself, alas, to be by far the weakest member of the cast.  It's not surprising, in some ways.  Latif was originally cast as a Klingon, but allergies to the prosthetics forced the producers to redirect his participation.  In some ways this is the first visible proof of the complicated production history of the series. 

Thematically it's the first episode of the series to step away from strict serialization, although one lingering plot thread is resolved, the life-form that had been utilized by the ship for its alternative propulsion system being released back into the wild, so to speak, a resolution for events depicted in the previous episode ("The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry").  "Pain" also has Klingons in it, with some interesting new things to say, especially where Lorca, Mudd, and Tyler's imprisonment aboard one of their ships is concerned.  It's where the name of the episode comes from...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Mudd's back!  And also, the same-sex relationship.  And swearing!
  • series - The soft break of serialization is evident.
  • character - Lorca, Stamets, Saru, and even Mudd all have strong showings.
  • essential - This is all strong Star Trek material.
notable guest-stars:
Rainn Wilson (Mudd)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Orville 1x6 "Krill"

the story: Mercer and Malloy infiltrate a Krill vessel.

what it's all about: This is the first episode of The Orville I've managed to catch.  Like Galaxy Quest before it, Orville is both an homage to and parody of Star Trek.  It seems to have been created in response to Discovery, which from the beginning was announced to be a dramatic departure from the Star Trek franchise.  Whereas Babylon 5 ushered a floodgate of challengers in a previous generation of new Star Trek programming, Orville is the exact opposite.  Actually, along with Discovery it signals an improbable resurgence of sorts of the kind of programming the Babylon 5 surge eventually ended, somewhat symbolically with the abbreviated run of Firefly some fifteen years ago (Firefly itself could be considered a literal interpretation of Gene Roddenberry's famous "Wagon Train to the stars!" pitch for the original Star Trek).

This particular episode even features the recurring Krill threat, another Orville parallel relevant to Discovery.  The Krill, who sort of look like a cross between Deep Space Nine's Jem'Hadar and Nemesis's Remans, might otherwise be considered Klingon analogs, and of course the Klingons are at the heart of Discovery.

Obviously Orville has deep affection for Star Trek.  It virtually is Star Trek.  It's Star Trek with nitpicking commentary built into it, which is about as meta as you can get with Star Trek fifty years in.  The nitpicking is the only real parody involved; otherwise it's just as if Seth MacFarlane gave himself permission to continue the Star Trek franchise as it has been traditionally known.  The storytelling is more or less exactly the same.  Mercer and Malloy find themselves in a moral dilemma where the Krill have developed a superweapon, and in order to prevent it from being used, they must decide whether to take out the Krill, or let them use it on an unsuspecting colony, basically in order to guarantee their own safety during the risky mission aboard the Krill ship.  They end up killing most of the Krill, saving the children they find aboard, and a Krill woman Mercer has developed a relationship with.  But the woman chillingly tells him that he hasn't saved innocent lives but rather created new enemies. 

This is a twist that probably is only possible in the age of terrorism, in which the laws of cause and effect have been observed more keenly than perhaps ever before, how they take their time to play out, not merely action and reaction, but what happens with the next generation that has witnessed the sins of the past.  Mercer makes the call that has always previously been considered the right one, but he's forced to accept that it maybe isn't as right as it used to be, so to speak.

It's fascinating.  MacFarlane previously did this sort of thing with A Million Ways to Die in the West, which I think also worked extremely well on its several levels, but his fans, and audiences in general, will mostly think of him in terms of Family Guy and Ted.  Which is a shame.  I knew he was capable of something like this from his Family Guy Star Wars specials alone. 

No matter how long Orville lasts (history doesn't favor Fox's patience), it'll be a worthy testament to Star Trek's legacy, and in some ways an expansion of it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Discovery 1x4 "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry"

rating: ***

the story: Burnham solves Lorca's biggest immediate problem in true Star Trek fashion.

what it's all about: I've mentioned before that it's still too early to know just how serialized Discovery is.  It's possible that the whole season will feature one continuing story, so that every episode is linked.  This has become increasingly standard since Star Trek last had a TV series (Enterprise).  For now, I'll continue to treat episodes in their immediate context, and consider "The Butcher's Knife" as a kind of second half of the "second pilot" that was "Context Is for Kings," much as "Battle at the Binary Stars" was a continuation of the first episode, "The Vulcan Hello."

In that sense, we get some clear resolution in this episode, seeing where Burnham settles in among Lorca's crew, and even see her at her unabashed best, which was probably kind of necessary after seeing her Starfleet career literally self-destruct previously.  We see her perform a classic compassionate solution to a vexing problem, another alien life-form needing to be understood (see: "The Devil in the Dark").  If you don't want to see this as merely a continuation of previous episodes, that act itself is as close as Discovery has gotten to Star Trek's episodic roots.

In the process, we get the show's second shocking death of a character who seemed like they would otherwise have been in it for the long haul.  Previously it was Captain Georgiou (a lot of fans are saying it was obvious she was going to die, when they saw Michelle Yeoh listed as a guest-star; it could just as easily have meant Burnham merely being transferred to another ship, which is to say, Burnham's fate at the end of "Binary Stars" itself couldn't have been predicted, either, except in hindsight).  This time it's Landry.  Matter-of-fact Landry in a lot of ways represented the darkest fears of Lorca himself, his apparent rogue captain status.  And yet, once Burnham figures out the truth behind the alien life-form, Lorca isn't there demanding everyone ignore it.  One has the sense that Landry wouldn't have been so malleable.  And yet, she's a compelling element of the episode all the same, and it's a shame to see her go.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A classic Star Trek narrative.
  • series - Burnham finds her place in the new crew.
  • character - Finding redemption in the process.
  • essential - It's a little disappointing that she is so straightforwardly heroic this time.\
notable guest-stars:
Rekha Sharma (Landry)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)

Discovery 1x3 "Context Is for Kings"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham is conscripted by Captain Lorca following her discharge from Starfleet.

what it's all about: For all intents and purposes, "Context is for Kings" is what the pilot of Discovery would be if it were like every other Star Trek series to date.  It sets up the ongoing continuity of the series, whereas the first two episodes explained the backstory.  And it's another winner.

Burnham is now a convict, being transported with other convicts, until fate intercepts her with Lorca and the Discovery.  Lorca seems to be akin to the kind of rogue captain Kirk kept running into in the original series.  Since he isn't the lead character (and unlike every other series in franchise history there is a clear lead character, and it isn't by default), there's no automatic assumption that he's the good guy or right in his decisions, and there's no reboot at the end of the episode where everyone learns from their mistakes, that sort of thing, regardless of whether or not he's another rogue. Our allegiance necessarily falls to Burnham, who tries to understand what a science vessel being run by a war-hungry commanding officer can possibly have for someone like her.  Like Picard thought of Riker in Next Generation, perhaps it's merely her willingness to defy expectations.

At any rate, it's the introductions that carry the episode.  Where Saru made a strong impression in previous episodes, it was really Burnham carrying the bulk of the material.  That changes in "Context."  Lorca certainly makes a huge impact.  So too does science officer Stamets, whose differences in philosophy with Lorca recall Wrath of Khan, where Carol Marcus and her son David were equally aghast of domineering Starfleet methods.  Also noteworthy is Tilly, Burnham's bunkmate who's struggling with anxieties of one kind or another, not the least of which is realizing that Burnham is one and the same mutineer she'd just been babbling about to Burnham herself...!  Plus, there's the awkward reunion between Burnham and Saru.  These are all strong, and strongly-defined, characters, right from the (re)start.  There's also Landry...but more on her next episode.

There's been a number of complaints among fans that Burnham can't really be classified as a mutineer based on how circumstances played out in the first two episodes.  "Mutineer" is the word on everyone's lips around her in "Context."  And it is appropriate.  Her confrontation with Georgiou is off the bridge in "Battle at the Binary Stars," and yet she's the only one, initially, of the two on the bridge when she changes the ship's orders.  The crew complies with her orders with little protest despite the radical departure she's introduced.  In effect, she fakes a mutiny; the crew remains blameless but was also complicit.  Had Georgiou not turned up so quickly, no one would've known differently, but she did, and so the situation devolved into chaos.  Chaos is the result of conflicted motivations, which is to say, there had been a de facto mutiny under Burnham's brief leadership.  The crew believed Burnham's lie, and that's really just about enough.  If this had been a pirate ship, these "conspirators" would be dead. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Meeting the main characters of any series is always pretty important.
  • series - Effectively a pilot episode.
  • character - Aside from the new faces we meet, we also follow Burnham as she finds herself in unexpected new context.
  • essential - This continues to be bold new Star Trek storytelling.
notable guest-stars:
Rekha Sharma (Landry)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Voyager 7x12 "Lineage"

rating: ****

the story: When B'Elanna learns she's pregnant, it causes her to once again anguish over her mixed heritage.

what it's all about: "Lineage" is among the most harrowing character studies in franchise history.  Of course it's a classic.  It's the culmination of B'Elanna Torres's whole arc in the series, beginning with "Faces" in the first season, in which we literally see her Klingon and human sides struggle with each other.  Here, she replays the struggle on behalf of her unborn daughter. 

Star Trek has often tackled big moral problems, and slightly less often put a main character in the position of being wrong.  Clearly B'Elanna is wrong in her desperate attempts to modify her child's DNA, to wipe out the Klingon side entirely.  And she goes to extraordinary measures to try and achieve it, even messing with the Doctor's programming...

We also get rare flashback material in a Star Trek episode, in which the young B'Elanna goes on a camping trip with her human father, and we see firsthand her early struggles.  We'd seen Chakotay's flashback childhood troubles in "Tattoo," so it's a nice callback, too, and even Tuvok's ("Gravity").  Seems if you're Maquis (Tuvok pretended to be, anyway), that's what you get. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A gripping example of Star Trek's moral compass.
  • series - Concludes a main character's arc.
  • character - B'Elanna's.
  • essential - Said character is arguably the true MVP of the series.  So, pretty important.
notable guest-stars:
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)
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