Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Discovery 1x11 "The Wolf Inside"

rating: ****

the story: The journey to the Mirror Universe gets real in a most unexpected way when Tyler's secret is exposed.

what it's all about: "The Wolf Inside" is everything "Despite Yourself" wasn't quite.  Where "Despite" was almost completely setup, "Wolf" cuts deep.  It's essential in just about every way, and once again proves the strength of Discovery's storytelling.  This is a series that has embraced serialized storytelling from the start, something Star Trek has been working on since Next Generation but most enthusiastically in Deep Space Nine and Enterprise.  At times Discovery has slipped into episodic mode, the franchise's old wheelhouse, even if it's been an awkward fit.  "Wolf" proves how rousing the series is in its natural serialized mode, moving forward with big dramatic moments that in any other Star Trek would've been the subject of a reset button after one story. 

So yeah, Tyler really is the Torchbearer.  "Wolf" is almost a direct sequel to the first two episodes of the series, with effective use of flashback so we know exactly what we're dealing with.  In all previous iterations of the franchise, this would've been exiled to a "previous in" pre-episode recap.  It's refreshing to see so many of the old rules broken, in ways that benefit the storytelling.

But there's a lot of tradition in the episode, too.  Even more than "Despite," "Wolf" feels like it's carrying on the storytelling tradition of the Mirror Universe, picking right back up where Enterprise left off.  In more ways than one!  This happens to be the first time Discovery features Tellarites and Andorians, both of whom appeared in Enterprise (the latter quite extensively), for the first time since the original series.  The rebellion featuring them as well as Vulcans and Klingons also serves as an ironic nod to the Deep Space Nine episodes that followed up on "Mirror, Mirror," where Kirk is able to convince Mirror Spock to end the tyrannical grip of the Empire...to disastrous results for humans. 

Beyond the big reveal of the Emperor at the end of the episode (which again follows tradition, where Hoshi Sato in Enterprise and Worf in Deep Space Nine kept the role in the family), is how Tyler's drama plays out, in parallel aboard Discovery and with Burnham in the enemy ship.  I can't state how much Tyler has turned around from his inauspicious, seemingly random origins in the series.  The more we've seen of him, the more he's been given exactly the development he's needed.  By the time we're asked to reconcile the truth about him, we feel just as betrayed as everyone else, and paradoxically we want him to survive his execution, too.  How else does Tyler find redemption?  Or will there be some even juicier results from the nature of his existence?  It's Seska redux (Voyager), what we never got to see from Ro Laren in Next Generation, and what Deep Space Nine tried to pull in a single episode ("Defiant") with Thomas Riker (the transporter duplicate).  Seska had a whole season to let the dagger sink in, plus several rewarding surprise appearances later.  Tyler is Seska as if we care as much about her, before learning the truth, as we did about Ro Laren.  See where this is a good thing?

Also?  Stamets meets Mirror Stamets.  And that's the biggest tease of the episode...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The Mirror Universe just keeps getting better.
  • series - This crew's journey in it just keeps getting more complicated.
  • character - Tyler reaches one climax of his existence(s).
  • essential - Reaching immersive depths not really seen since the start of the series.
notable guest-stars:
James Frain (Mirror Sarek)
Michelle Yeoh (Mirror Georgiou)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Discovery 1x10 "Despite Yourself"

rating: ***

the story: The crew finds itself stranded in the Mirror Universe.

what it's all about: So, the serialized story continues, in an unexpected new direction.  Or, new for Discovery, but hugely familiar in the franchise at large.  Mirror Universe?  Does that mean nothing to you?  In the original series, "Mirror, Mirror" introduced the Mirror Universe (and that explains the name, too), which famously featured Goatee Spock, where the gimmick was everyone there was basically the evil counterpart of everyone here.  Flash-forward to Deep Space Nine's "Crossover," where the story picks up again, and then continues throughout the rest of that series, mostly one episode a season.  And then Enterprise had the two-part "In a Mirror, Darkly," where the origin of the Mirror Universe is revealed (and ties in with First Contact), among other things.

"Despite Yourself" actually has a tie-in to that one, which is also a tie-in to the original series episode "The Tholian Web," where a lost ship called the Defiant is found.  "Web" didn't state that the ship was in the Mirror Universe, but "Mirror, Darkly" established that.  And so now Discovery does, too. 

There's plenty of Discovery-specific material, too.  "Despite Yourself" is a direct continuation of "Into the Forest I Go," which means Lorca and Stamets are responsible, indirectly (or was Lorca deliberately leading the ship there?  fans wonder!), for getting everyone to the Mirror Universe.  Speaking of Stamets, he's beginning to look, more and more, like he's going to be the latest Star Trek character to flirt with godhood, a tradition that also goes all the way to the original series.  Seeing him with the pupil-less eyes is spooky!  And just another thing being serialized.  We'll see.

And what about Tyler?  We find out that he's been overwritten (or underwritten?) by the Torchbearer from the early episodes of the series.  That's another fan theory confirmed after a fashion.  To finally have that mystery solved is pretty huge, and arguably the most important element of the episode. 

My only gripe?  That this is the kind of episode that needed to hit harder than it did.  Serialization has its drawbacks.  The biggest one is that when a story doesn't have resolution within a single episode, a given episode can't stand on its own as well as it might otherwise seem it does.  A different series would've dealt with Tyler's revelation as the whole episode, and yet here it's just a subplot being explored across multiple episodes. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Return to the Mirror Universe!
  • series - The latest twist in the journey!
  • character - But the big reveal?  Tyler is basically the Torchbearer.
  • essential - Juggling these elements, in this case, diminishes the impact of the whole.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Voyager 7x13 "Repentance"

rating: ***

the story: The ship temporarily houses alien convicts.

what it's all about: "Repentance" is basically the Dead Man Walking of Star Trek episodes.  It's not really about a member of the crew at all, but the guest character played by Jeff Kober, a convict who undergoes an operation that cure him of the impulses that led him to murder, but leaves him with unbearable remorse.  The family of his victim has a chance to grant him an appeal, based on this development, but ultimately chooses against it.  It works as a tragedy, whether or not the viewer carries the idea into the real world, and that's all due to Kober's sympathetic performance.

There's other shenanigans going on around this plot, including a formulaic fellow convict played by F.J. Rio (playing a far less sympathetic character, certainly compared to the last time we saw him, in Deep Space Nine), basically padding.  Seven is loosely tied into the plot, a Borg parallel concerning her lingering guilt over her actions while a drone, but it's not terribly memorable.

What "Repentance" does is affirm the strength of Star Trek's original episodic mandate, in a way Voyager had in particular come to master, so that guest characters were capable of carrying whole hours, as in the masterful "Distant Origin."  This one's comparatively minor, but as a late addition in the final season, it's a great reminder of what Voyager was capable of, regardless of persistent fan criticism to the contrary.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A testament to Star Trek's original episodic format.
  • series - And how Voyager could so masterfully employ it.
  • character - A weak effort to tie Seven into the plot.
  • essential - A compelling guest character effortlessly sells his own case.
notable guest-stars:
Jeff Kober
F.J. Rio

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Discovery 1x9 "Into the Forest I Go"

rating: ****

the story: The crew takes the fight to the Klingons.

what it's all about: The wonderful thing that didn't exist in previous incarnations of the television franchise that's now ubiquitous is the concept of the midseason finale.  Season finales themselves are something Star Trek helped revolutionize, with "The Best of Both Worlds" at the end of Next Generation's third season, where something truly important and potentially game-changing happen.  Most of the ones that followed, across the franchise, were two-part episodes.  Voyager gave new emphasis to two-part episodes within seasons, but no story ever had to wait until the next set of new episodes to be completed.  Now, in the binge era, there are whole seasons released in an instant, but the more traditional platforms have been featuring the midseason finale, which is exactly like what season finales have become, but, well, in the middle of the season. 

Long story short, that's "Into the Forest I Go" in a nutshell.  It's a midseason finale, where big things happen.  Nine episodes in, with a lot of big things happening at the start of the series, covering a third of the show's existence, that may not sound like much, but it really is.  Given that it seemed to be heavily serialized at the start, only to give way to more episodic storytelling in the back stretch, that puts the season back on track, in some ways, or merely back in familiar, identifiably Discovery territory.

Obviously the Klingon conflict has been at the heart of this story from the start, so the episode is climactic in that regard.  We discover, or are given a considerable clue, a hidden truth about Tyler, all but confirming a favorite fan theory about him, that he was really the Torchbearer of the Klingons from the early episodes all along.  Only he may not even know it.  I've had a conflicted take on the character (Tyler) since he first appeared, but he's emerged as worthy of the weight placed upon him, as a kind of answer to Burnham.  Burnham is the character who has earned considerable distrust, and yet Tyler is the one who seems to truly earn it.  And no one has a clue.  You've got Lorca, who's the shadiest Starfleet captain to ever be featured as a main character, and Stamets, who has also been compromised (a defining attribute of this cast) and trying to get out from under it.  Lorca manipulates Stamets, it seems, as he's manipulated others, for his own ends.  Burnham goes on a suicide mission looking for redemption, to earn the trust Lorca had previously given her freely...And in the end, it's all about Tyler.  His PTSD is as notable in the episode as anything else we see about him, and it's harrowing and feels like the most real thing we've seen from the character...But then, what is real about him?

So the Klingons are handed a big defeat, and yet, they come out better positioned, seemingly, than before, by the end of the episode.  Big things happen, and big things promised for next time...That's exactly how to do a midseason finale.  There's been a lot of criticism about the release model, the streaming service and yet the adherence to traditional standards.  This kind of storytelling affirms that they got it right.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Anytime a big Klingon moment happens, it's historic.
  • series - A moment the season has definitely been building toward.
  • character - Tyler emerges as Burnham's chief rival for most important character in this series.
  • essential - As good a selling point for the emerging legacy of Discovery as you could ask for.

Discovery 1x8 "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum"

rating: **

the story: Saru is compromised by aliens.

what it's all about: This is the first episode to really disappoint me from the series.  It's as flat a story as could be expected, with Saru being featured at face value, which for me is the most disappointing thing about it, as Saru has consistently been a highlight of Discovery, who along with Burnham has been the uniting element from the early twists of the journey.

Then this happens.  "If you want peace, prepare for war," as the title translates.  The title has far more to do with Lorca than Saru, which is about as telling as the undercooked nature of the episode can be expected to deliver.  It's clearly an homage to classic Star Trek storytelling, with too many examples to bother referencing here (yeah, I've indulged that instinct plenty of times in other reviews across the franchise, but I don't really think it's relevant for an iteration of the franchise that has until this point gleefully broken new ground).  That's a problem especially if the subject is Saru and we're supposed to just accept that it's a logical conclusion to tell it this way because of the nature of the character, and feel warm and fuzzy because he feels a sense of peace he's never known and...This was the chance to expand the character, not limit him, and yet that's exactly what happens.

Logistically, the episode also comes up with a convoluted turning point for the Klingon conflict, a Star Trek scenario where the good guys have to be the good guys for traditional reasons...Again, this is below the series.  Deep Space Nine, which broke this ground, never stooped to something like this.  It just reeks of that last itch of the growing pains following the loss of showrunner Bryan Fuller, like someone was desperately trying to figure out where everything was supposed to go without really thinking about it, so they fudged it.  And that fudging is a whole episode.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will probably see how this connects to Star Trek tradition.
  • series - But Discovery fans ought to feel something like a slap in the face.
  • character - In any other context, this Saru spotlight would be much more acceptable, but instead it's disappointing, even if it's nice that it finally happened.
  • essential - No, not really.

Monday, October 30, 2017

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

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 (...no 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)
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