Archive for February, 2022

Oscars 2022: Licorice Pizza and Drive My Car

Posted on February 27th, 2022 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Licorice Pizza

I blow hot-and-cold on Paul Thomas Anderson, with only Magnolia really ringing my bell (Boogie Nights is fine, Punch Drunk Love is fine, There Will Be Blood doesn’t seem to be aware of how silly much of it is, The Master is good but gets locked into a repetitive cycle, Inherent Vice is fun but insubstantial and Phantom Thread is reviewed here). I also can quickly tire of “hang-out” films where we just pass the time with some characters until it’s time for the closing credits, so this doesn’t exactly feel tailor-made to my preferences.

Reader, I loved it. There’s something so beguiling about Cooper Hoffman (in his film debut, but man, those Hoffman genes are strong) as whizz-kid entrepreneur and child star Gary Valentine pinballing from press tours to water beds to – well, pinball machines; while at the same time pursuing Alana Haim’s 25-year-old photographer’s assistant who has started to give up on her dreams. It’s such a fresh, novel, endlessly fascinating relationship that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen.

And lucky I didn’t, as there’s a delightful parade of cameos, many of them evoking or just playing real people from the period, whether it’s faux-Lucille Ball, actual Jon Peters or if-you-squint William Holden.

True, the ending is never in doubt, and if you told me you got restless waiting for it, then I would totally understand why, but if this were to win Best Picture (and I don’t think it stands much of a chance), then I would practically skip upstairs in order to sit down and watch it again. I don’t think it will change the world, and I don’t think it has anything very profound to say about Age, The Past, Men and Women or The Human Condition but it’s blazingly original, beautifully played, with an exceptional score and a faultless period feel.

Drive My Car

Drive My Car is a harder film to love. Featuring an emotionally closed-off central character which only adds to the barriers erected in front of an English-speaking audience watching a story told mainly in Japanese (plus some Korean and some sign language) about a Russian play written in 1899. If Licorice Pizza feels long at two hours and ten minutes, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film feels glacial at three hours, and if one was so minded, one could certainly make a case for axing most of the first hour, since all the key events depicted are later recounted by other characters, and often have more power the second time around.

I think I would have struggled with this far more if I hadn’t already seen Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy by the same director, which taught me something about his rhythms and his interests in a more digestible version – it’s three short films together running for less time than Licorice Pizza. And as I watched, gradually my restlessness began to subside as firstly the characters began to blossom and bloom and secondly, the architecture of the story began to reveal itself.

Of particular interest to me was the relationship between director Kafuku and his driver Misaki Watari, whose fierce stoicism is brilliantly evoked by Tōko Miura. In the end, this is a story about loss, set in – of all places – Hiroshima (although the bombing is scarcely mentioned). Loss of a loved one, loss of dignity, loss of autonomy and loss of control. The all-powerful director who is king of the rehearsal room but can no longer steer his own vehicle is just one potent image among many.

Again, I don’t think this stands a chance of winning Best Picture, but unlike Licorice Pizza, that’s not because it’s in any way flimsy or insubstantial. But The Power of the Dog feels just as daring while giving Academy voters a more familiar structure and setting to guide them through. I think I’d have to see both again to be absolutely sure, but possibly – just possibly – I might prefer the Russo-Japanese story over the New Zealand-American one.

Trekaday 010: Patterns of Force, By Any Other Name, The Omega Glory, The Ultimate Computer, Bread and Circuses, Assignment: Earth

Posted on February 24th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TOS S02E21 Patterns of Force (2 out of 5 stars) takes us into the home stretch for season two, and alas, the strain is starting to show, as familiar ideas get remixed and repurposed. Once again, an old mate of Kirk’s turns out to have made some pretty poor decisions off-screen. Yet again, a primitive race has nastier weapons than they are supposed to (see also A Private Little War and A Piece of the Action). One new wrinkle is the subcutaneous transponder which gets air-hissed into Spock and Kirk. Seems like that should be a standard piece of kit. It’s used here not to locate the captain and first officer, but to facilitate their escape from jail, following about the feeblest lashing I think I’ve ever seen.

There’s a whole run of episodes now which dick around with the Prime Directive. People do at least remember that it exists this week (unlike A Private Little War) but it doesn’t seem to hold Kirk and Spock back a whole hell of a lot. Among the supporting cast, Richard Evans and Valora Noland stands out. Noland in particular manages to play a young female character who isn’t the object of lust of any man at any time, which is a turn-up. It is odd in this tale of warring races that both the Ekosians and Zeons look identically human. TNG would definitely have given them forehead ridges or freckles or something.

Sadly, this has nothing like enough plot for the running time. The mystery is thin and the resolution is trite. And I’m not absolutely sure, but I think this was supposed to be some sort of very subtle allegory about the evils of Nazism.

TOS S02E22 By Any Other Name (4 out of 5 stars) starts with a bang. In less than three minutes of teaser, Kirk and co. are captured and helpless. In less than six minutes, the Kelvans have the Enterprise secured (and the actors do a very decent job of standing stock still). Kirk’s obedience is secured by a brutal method. He is “punished” for disobedience when they off a red-shirt and a red-skirt (although the justification for the captain’s plot armour isn’t bad – at least they’re trying). Compared to other red shirt deaths, this is really grim. They both look absolutely shit-scared before it happens. And it’s the dude who gets reconstituted. The young woman is dead and gone. Christ.

With the Enterprise under their control, and the crew reduced to a collection of paperweights which Gene Roddenberry had picked up on holiday (really!), the Kelvans set off for Andromeda – a journey which will take several centuries (vast distances actually mean something this week, which is very refreshing). Spock and Scotty work out a horrifying solution. They’ll mess with the intruders’ gizmos and blow up the Enterprise – and Kirk can’t bring himself to do it. He doesn’t believe in the no-win situation.

So, the stage is set for another grim, tense, battle of wits to rival Oh Crikey We’re In A Giant Virus (why can’t I remember these episode names?). What happens next is… not that. One Kelvan asks “Captain, what is this thing you humans call ‘food’?”. Another learns snogging from Kirk (of course). Scotty manages to get one of them drunk. It’s not always clear why they’re doing this, but it is often terribly funny, especially watching James Doohan go through his liquor cabinet, and the whole thing does kind of work in a Yojimbo sort of way.

In the end, the Kelvans discover that the human forms they’ve taken give them human frailties like drunkenness, jealousy, lust. And while I love that compassionate Kirk is still willing to help them work things out with the Federation, the solution – put them back on the planet they started on – is a bit pat and very hasty. For a while, I thought this one might get the full five stars, but the rapid tonal shift and trite ending take off some of the lustre.

TOS S02E23 The Omega Glory (1.5 out of 5 stars). The back half of season two seems very interested in what happens when Star Fleet interferes in the development of pre-warp planets – this is the fourth time in seven episodes. It’s also the second time in two episodes that crew members are reduced to their base chemicals. Another mysterious space plague requires the Enterprise crew to quarantine on the surface of the planet, where what look like mongol hordes turn out to be led by the missing and undessicated Star Fleet captain.

“A star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive,” hams out Captain Kirk, before continuing “I was saying that just the other day as I handed out modern weapons to one side and not the other on the planet Neural.”

Captain Tracey thinks he’s found the fountain of youth and tries to get the Enterprise to back off. Scotty would never be fooled by Tracey’s cock-and-bull story over the radio, but sadly, Sulu is in temporary command. Once again, Kirk and Spock are locked up and Kirk earns the trust of his “savage” cell mate – who then betrays him in a way which doesn’t feel very Star Trek. Then, while Kirk’s out, there’s a very expensive massacre which happens off camera. Turns out old Tracey is an anti-vaxxer. Kirk, rightly, is furious at him. But the fountain of youth doesn’t exist and McCoy’s assessment of the bitter irony of Tracey’s poor decision making is nice – but after that, Tracey is the only real threat, so the tension evaporates.

The backstory here is that the two tribes fought a war and “The Asiatics won” – horror of horrors. Kirk and the white savages bond over the Pledge of Allegiance. At one point Kirk casually refers to the “yellow civilisation”, which I could really have done without. Somehow it all ends in a fight to the death between Kirk and Tracey, with the added wrinkle that they’re bound together at the wrist. That same damn music cue plays in this episode every time someone clenches a fist. I’m over it.

There’s also a moment when Spock puts the whammy on the sexpot savage. This apparently was a holdover from an earlier conception of Spock in which he could control females. A better version would surely be that she’s drawn to him, and they build up a relationship over the course of the episode, but this script isn’t really concerned with characters and their relationships. Play the fight music again!

At the episode’s conclusion, The captain Shats out the US Constitution as music swells. ’Murica! Ugh.

TOS S02E24 The Ultimate Computer (4.5 out of 5 stars) starts pretty poorly with more dated anti-computer rhetoric. The M5 can do everything a captain can do and never needs food or sleep. Kirk is aghast “I can’t run a starship with twenty crewmen.” (Until I need to steal one to get Spock’s body off the Genesis planet and then I can do it with a doctor, an engineer, a navigator and a Russian guy. I won’t even bring the comms chick. Hold my beer.)

But, as it becomes ever clearer that Daystrom’s (that’s another name we’ll keep hearing) machine is going to put him in mothballs, the script zeros on exactly what this means to Kirk. “Am I that petty?” he asks McCoy, in one of the episode’s best scenes. In fact, all the character stuff here is first rate – Kirk’s rueful acceptance of his situation, Spock’s rather touching declaration of loyalty, McCoy making him food like a mother hen. Kirk’s even sympathetic to Daystrom’s dilemma.

When the time comes, M5, like the computer in Superman III, won’t allow itself to be turned off. TNG would have explored whether M5 had a right to its life. Here they’re just try to find a way of turning it off / blowing it up / confusing it to death. Daystrom (a much richer character than most misguided-villains-of-the-week) has to talk M5 down personally. On the edge of a breakdown, he has made a digital copy of himself and it’s just as paranoid as he is.

So, on the one end, this is essentially the same solution as The Changeling, but with the added wrinkle that Federations ships are preparing to fire on the Enterprise. And, in contrast to Oh No The Crew Have All Been Turned Into Paperweights, Kirk preparing to sacrifice his ship and the skeleton crew is something I almost believe in. This is very classy stuff all round.

TOS S02E25 Bread and Circuses (3 out of 5 stars) is another example of something never really seen after TOS, the planet where “parallel development” has dolloped bits of Earth history onto another planet for no reason. This is due to something called Hodgkin’s Law of cheap episodes and cultural touchpoints, and on this alien planet, even extends to everybody talking English.

So, it’s another episode, another alien planet which has developed along Earth-fascist lines, but with a big scoop of the Roman Empire thrown in as well, so we end up with a very weird mash-up of Network, Gamesters of Triskelion, Arena, A Piece of the Action and The Omega Glory. This episode seems confident that it’s satirising something but I’m really not sure what that might be, or why I should care.

On the other hand, there’s really, really good stuff between Spock and McCoy this week (even if Kirk gets to have it off with a slave girl, just cos) and you can’t deny this thing has energy. Once again, Scotty is the MVP of the senior staff, so this feels a bit desperate and clearly doesn’t have the focus of the show at its best, but it passes 50 minutes relatively painlessly.

TOS S02E26 Assignment: Earth gets off to a bad start because the TARDIS, I mean the Enterprise, has popped back in time for a quick shufti before the teaser has even begun!?

Very quickly, this becomes the Robert Lansing and Terri Garr show – it was a “back door” pilot for a new series which was going to get Roddenberry off Star Trek. Lansing isn’t bad, with his Diet Coke Steve McQueen intensity, and Terri Garr is as charming as ever, but this sci-fi Get Smart isn’t what I tuned in to watch. Lansing barks orders at his computer which prissily responds “Identification not verified. Please supply exposition.” Spock weirdly falls in love with his cat. Terri Garr does her thing. And so on, and so on.

The problem is that after this many episodes with the regular crew, it’s hard to get invested in whatever it is that Gary Seven is trying to do, and even harder when we don’t know whether his purpose is noble or not. If it’s ignoble, then I’d rather spend more time with Kirk and Spock as they track him down. If it’s noble, then why am I interested in watching Kirk and Spock try and stop him? Kirk at one point tell us “I have never felt so helpless.” Uh-huh. Not great for the supposed hero of the show to be so completely denied his agency, is it?

And I genuinely couldn’t give a shit about this rocket and whether it stays on course or not. There is nothing human, compelling, interesting, engaging or edifying about it. It’s just people reciting numbers at each other, intercut with model shots. Make it stop. The spin-off series went no further, so let’s be thankful for that at least.

Season Two wrap-up

  • The two major differences between Seasons One and Two are as follows: Season One is the adventures of Kirk and Spock, plus some interchangeable crewmembers. Season Two is the adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, plus a regular family of recognisable crewmembers. But Sulu and Uhura never get anything much to do. Uhura gets a few choice lines here and there, but Sulu (not helped by the fact that George Takei was off doing a movie for several months) is eclipsed by Chekov who’s prettier, funnier and easier to write for.
  • The other difference is that the overall quality takes a pretty major dip. There are still some classic episodes here, and it’s rare that the Big Three are poorly used, but there are some real clunkers in this collection and a sense that this series which can go anywhere and do anything is already running out of ideas.
  • On the other hand, the more I see of the OG Kirk, the more I despise the JJ Abrams face-pulling, hand-waving, shouty-bang-bang, karaoke parody version of Star Trek. Nimoy presumably only read the script pages which included Spock Prime.
  • Average rating for Season Two is 3.1 (compared to 3.75 for Season One, and not counting Assignment: Earth). Best episodes: Amok Time (the only five star episode), Mirror Mirror, The Doomsday Machine, The Immunity Syndrome, The Ultimate Computer. Worst episodes: Catspaw, Wolf in the Fold, A Private Little War, Patterns of Force and The Omega Glory.
  • The only episode I’ve even heard of in Season Three is the first one, and it doesn’t have what you might call an unblemished reputation…

Trekaday 009: Wolf in the Fold, The Trouble With Tribbles, The Gamesters of Triskelion, A Piece of the Action, The Immunity Syndrome, A Private Little War, Return to Tomorrow

Posted on February 18th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TOS S02E14 Wolf in the Fold (1.5 out of 5 stars) never quite commits to being a “Scotty” episode. Despite the fact that the teaser in three minutes of belly-dancing we don’t get to see the incident which earned the ship’s chief engineer his shore leave and he is rapidly sidelined after his arrest for a knife murder in foggy old London Town (by way of Aladdin’s Agraba). Kirk suddenly remembers the Prime Directive and his diplomatic responsibilities. He has a flashback/mind-reading machine sent down from the ship, but he makes the rookie error of having a woman sent down with it who is promptly gutted. (This gizmo seems like a handy thing to have. Odd that it was never mentioned before.)

This episode is very peculiar mix of Perry Mason, Sherlock Holmes, Arabian Nights and 12 Angry Men with very little actual Star Trek. (It turns out that Psycho author Robert Bloch repurposed his short story Yours Truly Jack the Ripper, crossing out existing character names and writing in “Kirk”, “Scott” and so on. Bloch also wrote What Are Little Girls Made Of and Catspaw, so at least I know who to avoid from now on.)

Of course, it all works out for the best, and everyone’s laughing and smiling at the end, as they wash the blood of their friends and co-workers off their hands. That’s par for the course. What’s also common, but far far worse than usual here, is the patronising and parochial treatment of women who are practically treated here as a separate species, even harder to understand than Klingons or Romulans.

TOS S02E15 The Trouble with Tribbles (4 out of 5 stars) is one of the show’s most famous episodes and it is quite a treat, especially given the recent run of mediocrity. Again, it’s one I knew from the Blish books (although I at first mis-read the title as The Trouble with the Tribbles, which I still think sounds better). There isn’t a lot I can add to the thousands of words already written about this instalment, which is basically tremendous, if not quite hitting the heights of the very best of the season, such as The Doomsday Machine or Amok Time. Herewith some stray observations.

  • Chekov is easier to write for than Sulu. Chekov is young and silly and thinks everything good was invented in Russia. Sulu’s just this guy.
  • Even by the standards of this series, the lighting here is bonkers (in a good way). Every wall is a different colour.
  • Cyrano Jones (Stanley Adams) is far preferable to Harry Mudd and other comedy characters that the series has visited on us. Like Indiana, in early drafts his surname was Smith.
  • It’s nice to spend some time with some of the other bridge crew.
  • The unit of currency is “credits”.
  • These Klingons again look quite similar to the ones we will meet in future incarnations of the show. In fact, Koloth looks very similar (because it’s Trelane actor William Campbell). The brusque Klingon attitude has not been refined yet, however.
  • Comedy episodes (or moments of episodes) of Star Trek tend to marred by tiddly-pom musical cues to tell us how amusing everything is, and this is no exception. The difference is that this genuinely is amusing and the problem manages to be both absurd and very nearly intractable.
  • Who threw the first punch? If only we had a machine on board which could replay memories, or tell whether or not someone is speaking truthfully.
  • Same issue here as in Peter Harness’s majestic Kill the Moon. You can’t get two 1lb tribbles from a single 1lb tribble unless you first give it at least 1lb of food. Sure, they gorge themselves on quadrotriticale, but what are they eating on board the Enterprise? Dilithium? You don’t care about it here, so why do you care about it there?
  • The whole cast is having a wonderful time, and Shatner in particular is effortlessly charming and charismatic.

TOS S02E16 The Gamesters of Triskelion (2 out of 5 stars) suffers from a lot of drawbacks of sixties Trek. This is another recycled plot – in this case it’s a re-run of Arena (with a dose of, yawn, The Cage) – but this time with extra-ridiculous costumes, a Batman villain pulling the strings and some pretty shoddy fight choreography. The silliness isn’t helped by a couple of really nasty moments. It’s implied at one point that Uhura is going to be raped in her cell which is a bit fucking much for a show that won’t allow a bare navel or an “open-mouthed” kiss. I almost stopped watching at that point.

All the good stuff happens on board the ship, and it’s a relief whenever we cut back there. Ensign Haines is treated by acting Captain Spock as a valuable member of the crew, and not on object of lust or a subject of mystified speculation, which is something of a rarity. In fact, Spock, Scott and McCoy get some good material throughout – frustratingly good. All three act according to their natures, and they almost constantly butt heads, yet my estimation of all of them does nothing but increase.

Meanwhile, on the planet, we have a scantily-clad handmaiden in a tinfoil bikini and green hair, asking Captain Kirk what love is. He explains: “Love is the most important thing on Earth. Especially to a man and a woman.” A short while later, Kirk kisses her, belts her hard enough to knock her out, and then starts fishing around in her underwear. Jesus.

The problem isn’t just that it’s a rehash of Arena (and it really is, the shots of the Enterprise crew watching the fight are almost identical) it’s that it’s far less interesting version. Of course Kirk isn’t going to slaughter tinfoil bikini girl. The point of Arena is that he didn’t murder ugly lizard guy – because killing… is wrong. The message here seems to be that impaling big burly men to save your own skin is fine, and nobody should shed a tear over it, but sticking a knife in a pretty young woman is barbaric.

No jokey tag scene, we end on the moist eyes of the woman Kirk manipulated, lied to, snogged and abandoned (in that order).

TOS S02E17 A Piece of the Action (3.5 out of 5 stars) does give us a cool set-up. We get to revisit a planet that had contact with the “Federation of Planets” 100 years ago and see what transpired. It’s a lesson in why the Prime Directive exists. In reality, of course, this is just a flimsy excuse for transporting our crew into a Damon Runyon-style gangster movie. What works well about this is that the balance between the fun of the pulp world and the reality of the high concept science-fiction show is maintained. Kirk takes responsibility for what has happened on Sigma Iotia II and wants to fix it. But we also have the fun of hearing our noble Captain using the local slang and seeing him in fancy duds. Once again, it’s utterly impossible to connect the charming and amusing Star Fleet captain who struggles with a 1930s automobile to the brash and cocky asshole stealing a sports car in the JJ Abrams parody version.

There probably isn’t quite enough plot for the run-time. Spock and McCoy get captured, escape, beam up to the ship, beam back down to the planet and promptly get captured again. And the final negotiation is largely free of tension, as Kirk comprehensively has the upper hand throughout, but this is largely very entertaining stuff. I’m sure I heard James Doohan doing one of his silly voices on the radio. And that’s Vic Tayback (from TV’s Alice) as the number two boss who wants to be number one.

TOS S02E18 The Immunity Syndrome (4.5 out of 5 stars). Long before Nicholas Meyer conceived of the Enterprise as a submarine, or before Wolfgang Peterson created Das Boot, Star Trek was playing around with these story ideas, and there’s an amazingly oppressive atmosphere of doom in this story, which starts off with some familiar tropes involving missing planets and mysterious blobby things on the viewscreen, but which develops into something very tense and chilling in which Kirk makes some of his toughest ever command decisions. It’s very linear and maybe gets a little repetitive in the third act, but these are minor criticisms of a very strong episode, with decent sci-fi concepts, palpable tension and wonderful character work. There’s a very good chance that if you don’t like this episode, you don’t like Star Trek.

TOS S02E19 A Private Little War (2 out of 5 stars) begins strongly as Spock is shot in the back (it’s not a very gory wound, with or without the green blood). For the second time in three episodes, we’re going on a return visit to see how things have changed since we last made contact, but here the Prime Directive is summarily suspended so that Kirk can personally arm the natives in a heavy-handed Vietnam allegory that smothers everything else about this episode, but can’t quite eclipse the ludicrous sight of a very silly unicorn teddy bear monster with poison fangs which nobbles the Captain and causes him to speak only in single word sentences.

Of all the things that TOS struggles with, the one I really can’t stand is the patronising depiction of primitive cultures. This is better than embarrassments like The Apple and Friday’s Child but it’s still not great. Nancy Kovack (with another bare belly button on flagrant display) does a huge amount to try and make this work but it’s uphill all the way. Nurse Chapel’s chief character trait turns out to be: has the hots for Spock (and has to spank him back to health).

TOS S02E20 Return to Tomorrow (4 out of 5 stars) gives us our first sight of Diana Muldaur in a Star Fleet uniform (accompanied by soaring strings as if the mere sight of a female officer is the most surprising and alluring vision imaginable). We haven’t done much with alien possession on this show so far, which is surprising as it’s a) cheap and b) plays to the strengths of the show: casting and characterisation. Taken over by Sargon, Shatner goes for broke, and luckily doesn’t go full Kroagnon on us. He teeters on the brink a few times though.

The deal that the incorporal aliens make seems acceptable at first – they merely want to borrow Star Fleet bodies and will return them unharmed (I recall a very funny Red Dwarf episode which played with this idea). They even let the crew return to the ship to think it over, which they do while munching the scenery. Kirk’s big speech at the conference table is pure Shat through and through (but I kinda love it). DeForrest Kelley is a very underrated actor. His speech to Kirk when he’s restored is pure nonsense but Kelley sells the shit out of it.

Pretty soon, Kirk, Spock and Diana Muldaur (why isn’t it Nichelle Nichols??) are all mere vessels for alien minds. As soon as the all-powerful pure energy being wakes up inside Spock, he starts coming on to Nurse Chapel, natch, but Nimoy has great fun playing the chipper psychopath. It’s a slight issue that three all-powerful mind-reading aliens have no clue that one of them is plotting to kill one of the others. Maybe Henoch is “shielding” his thoughts?

Kirk’s “death” is exciting but it’s clearly not going to be a permanent state of affairs, although it is hard to guess how the resolution will play out. Thalassa attempts to swap Mulhall’s life for Kirk’s and McCoy turns her down, which is a great bit of nobility from the irascible doc. In fact, the only real problem with this story is that our heroes don’t have much to do. The fact that it’s their lives that are at risk sustains our interest, but almost all the crucial decisions, nefarious and noble, are taken by the telepaths with Star Fleet officers merely observers until “Nurse Chapel” turns that hypo on “Spock”. The ending is pure Trek, compassionate, complicated, and slightly ridiculous – but it works. I can’t help thinking that Kirk needs a Picard-style ready room, though.

Stray thoughts

  • I can see why this show was so beloved, but also why it was so endlessly parodied. When it goes silly, it doesn’t just go a bit wonky, it goes fully ridiculous.
  • For a series which can go anyway and do anything, a small number of plots get recycled an awful lot – the quixotic alien with godlike powers, the gilded cage, the infection which sends the crew mad, the naive alien species which needs to learn about how to live freely (or how to bone). The best episodes are often the ones which find something genuinely new – Devil in the Dark, Space Seed, City on the Edge of Forever, Amok Time.
  • Some weaker episodes are saved or nearly saved by the interplay between the main characters. This cast really is fantastic and when the writers keep the emphasis there, the series can do little wrong.
  • Even the weaker episodes are very well paced. Watching some 80s shows like Moonlighting or The A Team now they seem amazingly sluggish. With very few exceptions, these episodes fill 50 minutes amply with plenty of plot, action, and character detail.
  • Why are these episode titles so vague and so hard to remember? I never have any trouble recalling which Doctor Who story is which (you’re a real Doctor Who fan if it’s never even occurred to you that people might mix up The Seeds of Death and The Seeds of Doom) but without looking, I couldn’t tell you now which one was Wolf in the Fold, which one was Return to Tomorrow and which one was Errand of Mercy if my very life depended on it.

Oscar Nominations 2022

Posted on February 11th, 2022 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It’s Oscar time again and the Academy has voted. We have a full roster of ten Best Picture nominees and a full five nominations in every other category. I don’t remember that happening before. Oscar’s favourite is Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog with 12 nominations – Campion also becoming the first woman to receive two nominations as Best Director. Behind that is Dune with ten and then Belfast and West Side Story with six. Here are some thoughts on Best Picture and some of the other interesting categories. Firstly, here are the ten Best Picture nominees.

Belfast. Pure hand-milled Oscar bait. Famous theatre-types. Black-and-white. Poverty porn. I haven’t seen it yet, but despite that snark I am keen to. Also in the running for Director, Screenplay and Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench in the acting categories.

CODA. Again, I haven’t seen it, but good on Apple for making more of an impact on this year’s race, even if this does feel just a smidge like The Sound of Metal 2: Sounds Metaller.

Don’t Look Up. Why is it only Adam McKay who gets to make goofy comedies and have them nominated for Oscars. After the near-brilliance of The Big Short and the intermittently amazing Vice, this was a major disappointment – the cinematic equivalent of a small child picking lots of low-hanging fruit and then screaming “Look at all the fruit I picked!” at top volume for two hours.

Drive My Car. I recently had the chance to see Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, another Ryusuke Hamaguchi joint, which I thought was marvellous and this apparently is even better. Hamaguchi is also nominated as Best Director, but that doesn’t (quite) mean that Best International Feature is a forgone conclusion.

Dune. Masterly evocation of half of a classic novel, which only occasionally falls into the trap of people in funny clothes standing in theatrical postures, declaiming space dialogue at each other. More frequently, it manages to combine the epic and the personal in a very engrossing fashion, but it clearly doesn’t stand a chance of winning Best Picture, not least because Part II is on the way.

King Richard. It’s an odd way to approach a biopic about the two top tennis players in the world. It’s rather as if the recent Stan and Ollie biopic focused on James Finlayson. But Will Smith is usually worth a look, even if this is mainly here to make up numbers.

Licorice Pizza is the “small” movie, this year’s Brooklyn, Lady Bird, Room or Manchester by the Sea. I like all of those, but I often find Paul Thomas Anderson’s stuff hard to swallow. I am keen to see it, but at the same time, I’m approaching with caution.

Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro is back for more gothic thrills and spills, with what is apparently an epic performance from Bradley Cooper, who missed out on a Best Actor nomination. With only four nominations total, none in major categories outside Best Picture, again I don’t think this one is a real contender.

The Power of the Dog. It’s entirely predictable that Jane Campion’s return to the big screen should be so completely surprising and beguiling. This fascinating movie never tips its hand, leaving you with plenty of questions even as the credits roll, but without denying you a cathartic resolution. Masterful stuff from a true artist.

West Side Story. Brilliant reworking of the 1957 play and 1961 movie, itself a Best Picture winner, this more than holds its own, even if not every choice worked for me. However, poor box office will have hurt its chances, and it didn’t get a nod for its screenplay, although it may do well in other categories.

Speaking of which – Best Director I think will likely go to Campion along with The Power of the Dog winning Best Picture. It’s about time the Academy made up for not giving The Piano its top prize. Likewise Benedict Cumberbatch must be in the running for Best Actor, but Andrew Garfield is magnificent in Tick Tick Boom and having Spider-Man out at the same time helps to demonstrate his versatility as well as keeping him front-of-mind.

None of the performers nominated for Best Actress are in films nominated for Best Picture, which is disappointing. Some people love Kristen Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana, and others hate it, but the Academy loves a biopic and this seems like a more realistic option than Nicole Kidman – although it’s always possible Jessica Chastain will pinch it.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons are head-to-head for Best Supporting Actor which probably hurts both their chances. Ciaran Hinds makes sense to me here, far more than Judi Dench for Best Supporting Actress which seems almost guaranteed to go to Ariana DeBose. Original Screenplay seems wide open to me, but Branagh probably has a good shot at it, whereas I think Adapted is between Dune and Dog.

I’ll put up reviews of more Best Picture nominees as my Star Trek schedule allows.

Trekaday 008: Catspaw, I Mudd, Metamorphosis, Journey to Babel, Friday’s Child, The Deadly Years, Obsession

Posted on February 11th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TOS S02E07 Catspaw (1 out of 5 stars) really didn’t work for me. Redshirt Jackson beams back alone and promptly collapses. “The man is dead,” intones McCoy, but a voice from his corpse proclaims that there is a curse on the ship – definitely one of the sillier teasers we’ve seen. Rather than one of our regulars, someone called La Salle is put in charge of the ship as The Big Three beam down to investigate. La Salle has a stick up his ass and is mean to Chekov, but that never turns into anything particularly interesting. Meanwhile, the landing party ends up manacled to a wall, and before long, they are face-to-face with a Batman villain. “Why all the mumbo-jumbo?” Asks Kirk not unreasonably after 15 long minutes of tedious padding. He does not get a satisfactory answer. This is the playful alien with god-like powers yet again, only dressed up in Halloween clothes (it did air in late October). About the only Trek cliché more dreary than that is the alien sexpot to whom Kirk has to explain love. And that’s here too. I honestly couldn’t wait for this one to end. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any sillier, it turned into Kitten Kong.

TOS S02E08 I, Mudd (2 out of 5 stars) opens with Bones’s spidey-sense tingling when new crewmember Norman walks past. (Note again that the Enterprise is not far from home, seeking out new planets and new civilisations. They are less than 72 hours from a starbase which supplied them with a new crewmember – and yet before long they are orbiting a planet which has never been charted.)

“I don’t believe it!” exclaims Kirk on seeing Harry Mudd (he obviously didn’t read the title of the episode). Chekov doesn’t recognise him, so he joined the ship somewhere between Mudd’s Women and Space Seed. Mudd is no longer running a human harem but he’s still fairly unreconstructed, keeping an android version of his shrewish wife to torment for his amusement. Lol.

Just like last week, the main cast stroll around gaudy sets while a guest star villain strokes his moustache and pontificates until it’s time for the episode to end. I watch this show for three things – strong science-fiction adventure plots, character interplay between the regulars, and thought-provoking ideas about the future or the nature of humanity. This provides none of the above, but ploddingly takes us back to the OG Star Trek cliché, the gilded cage (which is even described as such). The plot is largely resolved when the androids turn on Mudd without our characters having to lift a finger. When they do start taking action, I rather wish they hadn’t bothered as they contrive to confuse the androids to death (yawn) in the most embarrassing way possible.

TOS S02E09 Metamorphosis (3.5 out of 5 stars). It apparently takes three senior bridge officers to ferry one Karen-ish ambassador from A to B after she succumbs to a virus (she refused to get vaccinated I assume). All she can do is grumble about “The Star Fleet”. When they ditch on an asteroid, Shatner almost dances out of the shuttle, pointing his phaser in every direction. 18 months in and he’s still having the time of his life.

When they meet another survivor, he begins cracking on to the Ambassador because of course he does. It’s odd that the crew doesn’t immediately recognise him, given how famous Zefram Cochrane is in space-faring circles. Cochrane is willing to help them escape (so no gilded cage this week) which cuts down on conflict but we have Ambassador Karen for that. He is reluctant to see his jailer murdered, which is a fascinating wrinkle, recalling Devil in the Dark, but this time with Kirk urging lethal action instead of fighting to prevent it. The robot voice which speaks for the “companion” sounds female, which the crew takes to be a reflection of the feminine nature of the entity rather than the programming of the translation device.

Full of fascinating bits and pieces, this one doesn’t quite hang together (Why does it have to be warp pioneer Cochrane on the planetoid? Where did this Companion come from? What’s this war that she and only she can prevent (or not!)? What will happen now that she’s being metamorphosed into an Eve for Cochrane’s Adam on their barren Eden?) but it’s a huge step up from the last two. It ends when the Companion Superman II’s herself, giving up her powers for love. But did anyone ask Karen if this was what she wanted?

It’s ages before we see the Enterprise and Scott has to record the ship’s log. Kirk is never seen on board the ship – which I think is a first.

TOS S02E10 Journey to Babel (4 out of 5 stars) sees the return of Mark Lenard – and he’s Spock’s daddy! Not only that, he’s brought Spock’s mummy. The Enterprise is awash with alien dignitaries this week. The Telluride delegates are under particularly shitty masks but they do sound and behave like an alien race, albeit a rather monolithic one. The Andorians are another example of the series’ reach exceeding its grasp, but whoever said that was a bad thing? Lenard is iconic as Sarek and “Miss Jane Wyatt” is a bit of a treat as Amanda.

The dissection of Vulcan culture is utterly fascinating. Amok Time was exciting because it showed us a side of them we’d never considered. This episode is exciting because it shows us aspects of their culture which we already knew about but it explores consequences of that culture which we’d never considered. At one point, Kirk mentally rounds up the usual suspects –  Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons… the Star Trek galaxy begins to have more and more familiar faces and species. Kirk is beaten up so significantly, he offers to temporarily relinquish command, even as Spock refuses to abandon his post in order to save his father’s life. Keep watching, as Kirk’s command of the Enterprise will be called into a question a lot in this batch of episodes.

The unidentified alien following the ship becomes a murder mystery plot which in turn gives way to a medical emergency/family sacrifice story and the combination is a little muddled, but the components are all first class. Even if Shirtner gets his shat off again (strike that, reverse it) for no good reason.

TOS S02E11 Friday’s Child. (2.5 out of 5 stars) is a relentlessly silly runaround with poorly-matching studio sets and location work at Vasquez Rocks. More diplomacy. More Klingons. Tige Andrews doesn’t look much like the Klingons we’ve seen before (or since). They’re portrayed as much more cunning and charming than they will be later. More redshirts get mown down too. Bones says to Kirk at one point “I know what it means to you to lose a crewman.” After this many deaths, he should know.

Main guest star is Julie Newmar, who does much to class up the joint, but the whole plot turns on the fact that the red-shirts are dumb-dumbs and that Kirk refused to do his homework before beaming down. Thank heavens for Scotty, who at least still knows how to Captain a starship.

TOS S02E12 The Deadly Years (3 out of 5 stars) features heavily in the book about the making of Star Trek which I devoured as a boy, going into great detail about how the makeup was done, so the surprise for me was seeing geriatric actors as the colonists/scientists/ambassadors/whatever on the planet of dreadful ageing. This is a great science-fiction concept of course – recently repurposed by M Night Shyamalan for his diverting movie Old.

I was briefly surprised to see Kirk treating a woman on board as a subject matter expert and not as tottie, but in moments it turns out that she’s an old flame because of course she is. The initial effects on the crew are delightful subtle. Kirk has a moment of forgetfulness. I think I can see a little grey at McCoy’s temples. But our team are a bit slow on the uptake – until a virtually decrepit Scotty walks into sickbay.

Somehow Shatner manages to look more fit and healthy today at ninety than he does under the final stage of his old age make-up here. Whether he’s wearing a thinning hairpiece over his regular toupee or not I could not say. It’s lucky that Kirk’s natural aging doesn’t make him this forgetful this quickly or The Undiscovered Country might have gone very differently.

The science fiction aging-to-death stuff is all great, there’s some lovely Spock and McCoy stuff as age increases their foibles – there’s even some good material for Chekov. Kirk’s dalliance with his old flame is of scant interest, however. The trouble is that the “affliction” is so grave that a full and hard hitting of the reset button cannot be too far away. Making the story more about Kirk’s competency helps to distract us, but it’s an in-built flaw of the premise – thus the young Lieutenant who keels over with unseemly haste to raise the stakes. And the result is that when they should be racing to solve the problem, our team is sitting around a conference room, reviewing the events of earlier scenes. Then when the reset button is hit, Kirk rebounds to full strength like an overstretched bungy cord, ricocheting around the bridge, hammering out his Corbomite bluff once more. Consequences are for losers.

TOS S02E13 Obsession (4 out of 5 stars) is Star Trek’s first go at Moby Dick, but not the last. Kirk confronts an alien cloud he failed to defeat on his first mission and his judgement is clouded as a result. This is another episode with a very high redshirt bodycount and Kirk keeps putting these young men in harm’s way, which makes his chewing out of the poor boob who froze when confronted with the menace even less acceptable.

Kirk is considered possibly unfit for command for the third time in as many episodes, with some dialogue near identical to last week. This is fairly clearly the superior version, rooted in character and not a space virus, but it is so much less impactful due to the broadcast order of the episodes. The resolution, when it comes, is tense and well-handled (although the outcome is hardly in much doubt) and the episode is well-paced with good character stuff. Although I was somewhat surprised to see Spock going to give the pep talk to Lt Frozeup? They give this job to Spock? Spock??

Stray observations

  • We’re past the half-way point of TOS now and the strain is starting to tell. There a couple of famously fantastic episodes to come – but there’s also Spock’s Brain.
  • If you’re ever tempted to show someone an episode of Star Trek who’s never seen it before, I can’t recommend not showing them Catspaw or I, Mudd highly enough (no I did not make that mistake).
  • The average score so far for Season Two is quite a lot lower than Season One, hovering around 3.1 out of five. Can the back 13 redeem the season?

Trekaday 007: Amok Time, Who Mourns for Adonais, The Changeling, Mirror Mirror, The Apple, The Doomsday Machine

Posted on February 4th, 2022 in Culture | 1 Comment »

TOS S02E01 Amok Time (5 out of 5 stars) is another one where I know the James Blish version very well, but what Blish’s lucid prose can’t convey is the depth and detail of Leonard Nimoy’s acting. In the middle, on board the ship, fighting with the raging torrent within him, it’s just incredible, and luckily The Shat is nowhere to be seen this week. It’s a testament to the confidence of the series, that even after five months off the air, they trust that the audience knows the characters well enough that Spock refusing to eat his soup is a big enough climax to send us into the opening titles (which now include McCoy as well as Kirk and Spock).

Making his debut, with a gorgeous close-up, is Chekov, who’s made to seem like another member of the crew who’s just always been there (and who sits next to Sulu, which I believe is a rarity – normally episodes use one or the other).

The Kirk/Spock fight reminds me of something I saw about the making of Generations, where one of the writers (Ron Moore?) observed that their original vision for the poster was the two Enterprises firing on each other. But in the writing, they couldn’t figure out how to bring this about without one or other captain coming off like an asshole. Here, it’s Kirk vs Spock to the death and the plotting is seamlessly, ahem, logical. Even the ending makes sense, although you have to wonder what the therapeutic value is of whatever McCoy injected Kirk with. On the Blu-ray version, the hypo is very clearly non-functional, barely even touching Kirk’s uniform.

A blazing start to the second season and an all-time great episode. Spock’s delighted cry of “Jim!” when he sees Kirk alive is enough to make a grown man weep.

TOS S02E02 Who Mourns for Adonais (2.5 out of 5 stars) begins with three men sharking after one mini-skirted lieutenant who they ruefully surmise will quit the service when she finds a man. When she transports down, she’s magicked into one of Bill Theiss’s abdomen-and-shoulder-baring (but navel-concealing) silky gowns (which she proclaims to be beautiful) and immediately falls for the good-looking bad-guy. DC Fontana should hand in her feminist card.

In the latest (but not the last) iteration of Roddenberry’s go-to plot “the Enterprise meets God”, a glowing green hand looms in front of the ship and holds her in place. Very quickly, the Hulk hand is replaced by an NPR-sounding dude on the view screen who tells the crew that their long wait has ended. Chekov gets to join the landing party – on a sound stage rather than on location. And of course, this is another version of the trapped-in-paradise dilemma which goes all the way back to The Cage.

I love how flexible this series is (as I’ve said before) and I love seeing it go for broke. There’s certainly some fun to be had in the story trying to be a glorious fantasy riff on Greek mythology, while Kirk continues to insist that he’s in a science-fiction adventure drama, but this is all far too ridiculous for its own good and there are no saving graces in the character interactions – indefatigable Scotty is rendered here as a whining hormonal teenager. And here comes The Shat: “What if he… is… really… Apollo?” Like Gordon Ramsay, he appears to be able to stress every single word in a given line, which is arguably a talent, but is also a gift to impressionists.

With Chekov and Sulu both present, we have a complete set of seven in this episode (although Spock doesn’t get much, by his standards). Only Nurse Chapel fails to report for duty. Compared to Season One, this feels a lot more like – look it’s our regular family who you see every week (as opposed to – hey, haven’t we seen him before?).

TOS S02E03 The Changeling (3.5 out of 5 stars). Right, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A hugely powerful alien cloud is approaching and destroying everything in its path. It treats the Enterprise as a valuable commodity and the humans on board as “units” which “infest it”. Kirk and Spock discover that it was an Earth probe sent out in the long distant past, but contact with an alien race has given it prodigious destructive powers. After some tense negotiating with its “creator”, the threat it presents is neutralised.

So, there’s no Decker and Ilia here, and the whole thing is wrapped up in 45 minutes, but despite all the Phase Two scripts knocking around, the Nomad probe from this episode is essentially recreated as Veejur for The Motion Picture a dozen or so years later. As far as the 1968 incarnation is concerned, Nomad is a mighty threat (and an implacable one) which manages to be a bit more interesting than the standard-issue quixotic alien being with god-like powers. But at the end, Kirk talks it to death which is a bit ho-hum (although his logic is nifty).

Building up a regular “family” of bridge crew has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, when Scotty is whammied (“he’s dead, Jim”) it counts for more than when a nameless red-shirt is offed. But it’s also hard to believe that he’s going to stay that way. Same goes for Uhura’s memory-wipe which is barely reset at the end of the episode. And note that Nomad’s assessment of her – “Its thinking is chaotic, a mass of conflicting impulses” – is put down to her being a woman. Sigh.

Speaking of nameless redshirts, four get offed here and are never referred to again – the credits roll as Kirk trades gags about being Nomad’s daddy with his senior officers. Ho ho ho.

TOS S02E04 Mirror, Mirror (4.5 out of 5 stars) begins in media res on the planet Purple Cyclorama with Kirk indulging in a little friendly diplomacy during an electrical storm. Lo! After beaming back to the ship, Kirk, Scotty, Bones and Uhura find themselves in a goatee universe of wrong ’uns.

Much has been written over the years about NBC’s Standards & Practices which oversaw everything which Roddenberry and co attempted to put on the air. Among their forbidden fruit was the infamous “open-mouthed kiss”, the depiction of hypnosis on camera (lest the audience be hypnotised in their living rooms) and a general dislike of violence and brutality (while of course, including as much “action” as possible). They were also squeamish about women’s belly buttons and so legend has it that once freed of this odd restriction (which required costume designer Bill Theiss to add little extra patches over women’s abdomens) Roddenberry showed them off wherever and whenever he could – notably on Denise Crosby in The Naked Now. However, this is one of those stories about Star Trek which can only be disproved by taking the extraordinary measure of watching Star Trek because – among other examples – here’s the shocking sight of Nichelle Nichols’ comely navel, on full naked display in scene-after-scene.

We’re in a parallel universe of course, where (despite all logic) every familiar detail is present, save for a handful of specific difference – which specific differences never amount to a wider divergence no matter how much time elapses. Quibbling aside, this is great fun and the mirror universe proved to be a wonderful playground for storytelling. Seeing our familiar characters as malevolent versions of themselves and/or pretending to be malevolent versions of themselves is hugely enjoyable. Evil Spock is a particular pleasure, but it’s also great to see George Takei and Walter Koenig flex their acting muscles a little.

Watching softie Kirk negotiate with Fascist Spock is great fun, so it’s shame that the situation is largely resolved with fisticuffs and not with an appeal to logic, decency or even curiosity. McCoy insisting on treating the injured Vulcan is a nice touch, and so is Sulu’s final move. The ending is deliciously open-ended too.

TOS S02E05 The Apple (1.5 out of 5 stars) gives us another paradise planet and another alien plant poofing spores into the face of a nameless red shirt, this time with fatal consequences (and in the studio instead of on location). This trope of offing anonymous crew members, which you might imagine to be the stuff of legend, is 100% real. Scotty and Kirk spend a moment regretting the loss and then start bantering away about whether or not the ship’s engineer will get any shore leave. You can either bump off crew members to raise the stakes and make the threat seem real and present – or you can retain a light tone of jolly japes, but you can’t do both. Kirk’s bitter speech of recrimination helps a little, but only a little.

It’s Chekov’s turn to crack on to the mini-skirted yeoman who beams down with the rest of the landing party. You can bet she a) lives to the end of the episode and b) we never see her again. Spock is the next to be struck down (and note that he gets tended to by McCoy with despatch). The repeated refrain of Star Fleet’s monetary investment in the crew returns, with Spock able to give a precise figure (although he’s cut off by Kirk before he gets to the units).

When our first inhabitant turns up, things take a definite turn for the silly. This is a crude and patronising depiction of a primitive tribe, who say things like “What is love?” and who look fairly ridiculous. “Nothing makes sense down here,” muses Kirk and I know what he means. The rest of the episode is basically vamping until Scotty nukes the planet from orbit. The fate of the “natives” is paid lip-service but never really addressed. This dreadful mess has been my least favourite episode so far. Even the nonsensical The Alternative Factor didn’t irritate me like this one did.

TOS S02E06 The Doomsday Machine (4.5 out of 5 stars) features a white blonde lady sitting in Uhura’s chair throughout the episode, for reasons I haven’t been able to determine. Not for the first time, the Enterprise arrives at a planet and discovers it’s no longer there – which still manages to amaze Kirk. A certain “Matt Decker” is in command of the USS Constellation, which we find adrift in space and so it’s our first time beaming our crew on to another Star Fleet ship – which looks an awful lot like the Enterprise – and Commodore Decker turns out to be the only survivor.

There’s some lovely lighting on board the wrecked Constellation which does much to disguise the reused sets and a lovely committed performance from William Windom. Whether Stephen Collins is playing his son is never made clear in The Motion Picture, but it’s certainly possible. Conceived as a cheapie episode, this is hugely high stakes adventure story, told with great vigour and energy. “There is no third planet.” “Don’t you think I know that!?”

Compared to Nomad a couple of episodes ago, this thing can’t be reasoned with which makes it a greater, even more implacable foe, but a less philosophically interesting one. Instead, the drama comes from the unhinged Commodore Decker attempting to take control of the Enterprise while Kirk is stranded on the crippled Constellation. Internal battles for the command of a vessel are a staple of naval dramas of all kinds and one to which versions of this show will return in future, but it’s the first time we’ve seen it here and it works gangbusters.

Scotty has just earned his pay for the week by charging up one phaser bank on the QT and the transporter effect this week is blue instead of yellow.

Thoughts and observations

  • As we approach the mid-way point of TOS (The Doomsday Machine is episode 35 out of 79) the cracks are beginning to show a little. The series is still capable of superb highs, but the lows are getting lower and the tropes are getting tropier.
  • Behind the scenes, things are getting tougher too. The cast got pay-rises but Desliu cut the budget which meant less money up on the screen every week.
  • Looking ahead, there’s only one truly famous episode yet (albeit, one of the show’s most celebrated instalments of all time). Can the rest of Season Two keep up the quality of Season One?