Sunday, September 24, 2017

Discovery 1x2 "Battle at the Binary Stars"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham's actions lead to an all-out fight between Starfleet and the Klingons.

what it's all about: Essentially the second half of "The Vulcan Hello," until further episodes define just how serialized this series really is, but certainly concluding an opening story for Burnham and Discovery around her, "Battle at the Binary Stars" is perhaps most notable by how it ends, in a manner most shocking indeed...

I mentioned in my thoughts about "Vulcan Hello" how Burnham's arc in these first two episodes is like seeing things the franchise usually only talks about, except in the one other instance in which a series has begun showing exactly where a character's mindset came from (Sisko's experiences during the Battle of Wolf 359 in Deep Space Nine's pilot, "Emissary").  Next Generation's Picard had commanded a ship prior to the Enterprise (we later get a version of how his tenure aboard the Stargazer ended in "The Battle"), while his first officer Riker had distinguished himself by questioning a previous commanding officer; Voyager's Tom Paris, meanwhile, is the only other disgraced Starfleet officer to be featured as a series regular, but it's only with a different character actor Robert Duncan McNeill had played (in Next Generation's "The First Duty") where we actually saw a version of the circumstances behind what he'd done. 

There's no such ambiguity in Discovery.  This is a series that shows everything.  Not only do we see exactly what apparently happens to Burnham's career, but there are also flashbacks (Burnham as a young girl as she struggles to cope with what happened to her parents, and by whom, which is similar to Next Generation's Worf, too, who happens to be Klingon) and even a unique bond with Sarek.  Speaking of Spock's dad (it'll be interesting to see just how that's acknowledged in the series), he's another layer of how Discovery is seizing its opportunity to look at the franchise from a fresh set of eyes.  We see a unique version of the Vulcan mind-meld, complete with an explanation for it, in this episode, for instance, and even Sarek's thoughts on where he believes his strengths lie, and how he relates to those closest to him. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Rich in its examination of both Starfleet and Klingon culture.
  • series - Concludes the origin story...
  • character - Of lead character Michael Burnham.
  • essential - This is something we've often been told about before in Star Trek, but never quite gotten to actually see.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
James Frain (Sarek)

Discovery 1x1 "The Vulcan Hello"

rating: ****

the story: Klingon radicals provoke Starfleet into a war.

what it's all about: The first new Star Trek TV show in more than a decade may seem to have reinvented the wheel, but its first episode immediately grounds the action in very familiar territory, the stuff we normally don't get to see, and that is as refreshing as new material can get.

Michael Burnham as a lead character is like the young William Riker (Next Generation) receiving his own series (or as the second episode, "Battle at the Binary Stars," will help make clear, perhaps Voyager's Tom Paris), an officer who jeopardizes their career believing they're doing the right thing.  When Riker did it, it sent a signal to his future commanding officer, Jean-Luc Picard, that he was a valuable asset as first officer.  Ironically, Burnham has that rank already when she does it.

The circumstances are actually, in this first episode, perhaps more fascinating, a return to the Klingons as the defining alien menace of the franchise.  The original series introduced them as a Cold War analogy; in Next Generation they took on new vitality as a rich and vibrant culture all their own, capable of considerable nuance and even greater fan appeal than they'd enjoyed previously.  Their appearances in the original six Kirk movies culminated in The Undiscovered Country, which built on the Next Generation appearances to not only conclude the Cold War analogy but settle once and for all whether or not they were mere enemies, or something greater.  But it was the culture more than anything that grew in that time.  In Discovery, it seems, this legacy continues to blossom.

The idea of Klingon houses is not a new one, but never before has it been featured so prominently and in such detail.  The use of the Klingon language itself, and how it sounds when employed at length, joins with the houses to create a new kind of analogy, one I would argue is more intriguing than the Cold War: these Klingons are Native Americans.  The name of the series itself calls to mind the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition, which was one of the earliest sustained contacts between the emerging American nation and the tribes on whose land it was built upon.  While the story begun in "Vulcan Hello" is not about exploration, the spirit of contention that still exists today between Americans and Native American tribes, who like the Klingons here once sought to unite under common leaders, is indeed relevant.

Burnham herself is at odds with competing natures.  She is a Starfleet officer, and yet her loyalties lie with the Vulcans who adopted her, embodied by Sarek, one of the two most famous, and original, Vulcans in Star Trek lore.  It's familiar franchise territory for Vulcan logic to be at odds with Starfleet directives, surely, but this will also be one of the most direct representations of that trend outside of T'Pol joining Archer's formative crew in Enterprise

The feel of Discovery, at least in "Vulcan Hello," seems to call on The Animated Series, the last time the franchise was truly uninhibited in its visual vision.  Great strides in that regard can be found in the last two live action series, Voyager and Enterprise, and yet nothing in them can match the mere glimpse of a truly alien, and convincingly so, being we see early in the episode.  There also seems to be something of "Beyond the Farthest Star," the first episode of The Animated Series, to how the Klingon encounter begins, and perhaps more ironically still, a callback to The Motion Picture in how Burnham finds out what her crew has really come across.  The first Star Trek movie has been accused of a lot of sins, but it's also one of the most visually imaginative adventures in the whole franchise.

This is a bold beginning.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Callbacks to Star Trek lore can be found throughout.
  • series - It's the all-important first episode.
  • series - Establishes the lead character, Michael Burnham, quite well.
  • essential - Has the feel of showing something we've never quite gotten to see before.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
James Frain (Sarek)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Voyager 7x8 "Nightingale"

rating: **

the story: Harry is given command of an alien ship.

what it's all about: This is the definitive character study of Harry Kim.  Of all the characters in the series,  he was difficult to comprehend by incredulous fans who never understood why a perfectly dependable officer never got promoted during the course of seven seasons.  Here's why.

Simply put, it's because he never understood the human element, and had never been in a position where this was exposed.  Janeway's crew functioned perfectly for having been cobbled together, but there was a reason why personnel settled where they did, and worked together as they did.  Just as Chakotay's role as first officer became redundant in a crew accustomed to sharing the burden of command under a visionary captain, everyone tended to slide into the roles that were needed.  If someone like Neelix proved ambitious, they were granted additional responsibilities.  You'll see that Harry never left his post as operations officer.  Tom Paris and Tuvok, meanwhile, did handle multiple responsibilities, and were promoted accordingly.

But more than that, it's really about Harry's self-confidence, which is exposed as being disproportionate in some areas, so that it becomes overconfidence.  That's why he's an ensign, because he's still got a lot to learn.  In a way, he really was the crew member who lost the most being lost in space.  He gained plenty of experience, but never realized what he lost in the bargain.

So that's what "Nightingale" is about, helping him realize that.  Interestingly, there's a subplot about Icheb naively believing B'Elanna has a crush on him.  Again, it's innocent inexperience that's the problem, and a rare instance in which the main and subplots of a Voyager episode reflect each other.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Won't particularly appeal to casual fans.
  • series - Apparently there was a plan to keep Harry on that alien ship, much as Neelix later split off from the crew before the end.  But obviously that didn't happen.
  • character - Harry explained.
  • essential - A darn clever way to do it, too.
notable guest-stars:
Ron Glass
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)

Voyager 7x7 "Body and Soul"

rating: **

the story: The Doctor seeks temporary refuge within Seven's circuits, taking over in the process.

what it's all about: "Body and Soul" is the kind of episode that can easily be dismissed as gimmicky, where Jeri Ryan (Seven) is basically being asked to impersonate Robert Picardo (the Doctor), and that's really the whole point.  There's of course a reason why it's happening, and it's relevant to the recurring subplot in the series about how holograms are interpreted by various cultures, but the way it's used this time is hugely reminiscent of the far superior "Counterpoint," and so I wouldn't go out of my way to sell in on those merits.

Instead, what's most noteworthy about the episode is how Tuvok's pon farr is the subplot.  Obviously it would've been difficult to make the main story center around it ("Amok Time" is difficult to contend with, and Voyager already had a Vulcan have a crisis over it in "Blood Fever"), but the fact that the series deals with it at all is a nice touch.  Like Kes's short lifespan stood over the early seasons as a ticking time bomb, seemingly designed to become relevant at some point (eventually in "Before and After"), Tuvok being stranded so far from home, and his wife, meant it was bound to happen eventually.  I'm glad it did.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The classic pon farr matter is once again addressed.
  • series - Seems like an episode that was done on a lark.
  • character - The Doctor and Seven are always fun to watch together.
  • essential - Not especially.
notable guest-stars:
Megan Gallagher

Voyager 7x6 "Inside Man"

rating: ****

the story: Ferengi intercept a holographic Barclay.

what it's all about: Reg Barclay in Voyager is one of the most remarkable developments of the whole franchise.  In Next Generation, Barclay was the poster boy of neurotic behavior, whose skills as an engineer always took a backseat to his latest psychological problem.  Then he starts making appearances in Voyager, and then in "Pathfinder" becomes an official member of the family as he spearheads regular communication between Voyager and Starfleet, itself a milestone development in the series. 

Ironically, as a counterpoint to his first appearance ("Hollow Pursuits"), Barclay here gains a holographic version of himself! 

"Inside Man" continues that arc while also bringing back the idea of the Ferengi as antagonists.  The Ferengi were Next Generation's first attempt at new villainous aliens.  They were quickly exposed as difficult to take seriously, and so they became progressively comedic, until in Deep Space Nine virtually every spotlight episode for Quark was played for laughs, regardless of how nuanced Ferengi society was depicted in that series. 

They'd appeared in Voyager previously ("False Profits"), but "Inside" makes a more concerted effort to return the Ferengi to their roots, when DaiMon Bok was envisioned as Picard's mortal enemy.  Here they're refashioned as essentially faceless, which is perhaps key to making the idea work.  Devious but incapable of following up on their schemes, the Ferengi in the episode are exactly what they always were, but in a situation that at last sells the concept on every level it always needed to work.  They're revealed as cowards, which is why their best bet is gambling against each other, where the fa├žade can truly function.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - An honest-to-god attempt to redeem the original vision of the Ferengi.
  • series - Progress in communications with Starfleet!
  • character - Barclay once again proves he belongs in this family.
  • essential - For those who claim the episodic format can't handle serialized material, this is yet another example to the contrary.
notable guest-stars:
Dwight Schultz (Barclay)
Marina Sirtis (Troi)
Richard Herd (Admiral Paris)

Voyager 7x5 "Critical Care"

rating: ***

the story: The Doctor is kidnapped and forced to work in a hospital that has seriously messed up its priorities.

what it's all about: This is the Star Trek episode about healthcare, applying it so that it covers everyone equally.  Clearly it's still an issue today, and so here we have a Voyager story that is clearly evergreen and part of the franchise social message tradition.

In some ways, it's the Doctor's version of "The Most Toys," the Next Generation episode where Data is "collected" and makes an extraordinary decision to use lethal force (though he's thwarted by a timely beam-out) against his kidnapper, who has demonstrated monstrous inhumanity.  The Doctor makes a similar decision, although "Critical Care" doesn't pull its punches in the consequences, even if the results are an unambiguous happy ending, except for the Doctor, who wonders how he's reached the point where he can do something like that.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - It's exactly what Star Trek is all about.
  • series - It didn't need to be a Voyager episode.
  • character - Although of course it works well as a Doctor spotlight.
  • essential - It's the one episode where the quagmire of healthcare is addressed in the franchise.
notable guest-stars:
Gregory Itzen
William Daniels

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Voyager 7x4 "Repression"

rating: ****

the story: Tuvok is used to reignite the Maquis.

what it's all about: The constant criticism that Voyager blew its premise by making peace between the Starfleet and Maquis personnel aboard ship was so often refuted in the series itself it's almost not even worth addressing, but luckily the series also liked to revisit the concept, so I get to talk about it whenever it comes up.  "Repression" is the final time this occurs, and it's perhaps the rival of the already hugely-clever "Worst Case Scenario" from the third season in how it addresses matters. 

Bajorans were a signature element of Deep Space Nine, and their struggles against Cardassians were a well-established fact, one they eventually shared with Federation rogues who called themselves the Maquis, some of whom ended up being featured in Voyager.  But "Caretaker" (the pilot) introduced a fascinating wrinkle: one of them was a counteragent.  His name was Tuvok (it's therefore appropriate to see him among a different group of revolutionaries in Deep Space Nine's Mirror Universe arc entry "Through the Looking Glass").  "Repression" is the episode that finally capitalizes on that fact.  Even this late in the series, it's still a welcome moment. 

It's not even the fact that his counteragent status is featured, but how it's featured, with a rogue Bajoran having tricked Tuvok, via conditioning, to become a counter-counteragent thanks to his Vulcan-specific mental powers.  That's exactly how thoroughly "Repression" considered the possibilities. 

Thanks to the messages the crew is able to get from home at this point in the series, the Bajoran is able to trigger Tuvok and effect one last "this is how it should have been" scenario.  It also gives Tuvok a chance to spotlight his loyalty to Janeway.  In some alternate version of the series, this would've been featured more often, but then, it would've risked fans claiming Voyager ripping off Kirk and Spock.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Deep Space Nine will appreciate the Bajoran element.
  • series - The last Maquis story.
  • character - One of Tuvok's best spotlights.
  • essential - "Last Maquis story" actually means franchise-wide, and it's an appropriate nod to everything that came before it.
notable guest-stars:
Derek McGrath (Chell)
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