Archive for September, 2022

Trekaday 048: Frame of Mind, Progress, Suspicions, If Wishes Were Horses, Rightful Heir, The Forsaken

Posted on September 28th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S06E21 Frame of Mind (4.5 out of 5 stars). On board the Enterprise country club / retirement village / community centre, Riker is rehearsing for a play in which he portrays a disturbed man who has evidently suffered from serious delusions. Suddenly it seems as if the world of the play is the real world and his life on the Enterprise which is the fiction. This is another one of those high concept episodes I like so much, and here we have the added meta-textual layer of actors in a fictional TV show playing out a story in which they believe they might be only actors in a fictional reality. That could all be incredibly tedious and self-regarding but the constant rug-pulling and literal fourth-wall breaking (Riker’s psychotic episodes are signaled by the “glass” of the “TV screen” seeming to shatter) keeps us on our toes and Frakes is as good as he’s ever been, making the fun-and-games increasingly disturbing. Of course, it isn’t real, it can’t be real, but the explanation of what’s really going on when it comes is satisfyingly brief and ticks all the necessary boxes. This is top-drawer stuff from all concerned.

DS9 S01E15 Progress (3.5 out of 5 stars). Well, that’s at least an aspirational title, and we start with a card game, which has generally been a good omen. We also start with Jake and Nog, probably the most generic and least interesting characters in the series. And yet, as Nog tells Jake he’s got a lot to learn about opportunity, there’s a glimmer of something with a little more depth and texture. Kira meanwhile is dealing with that hoary old Trek cliché, the stubborn evacuees who won’t leave as ordered. And, because this is nineties Trek, the chief evacuee (and the only one to speak) is a sexist old dinosaur who calls Kira “girlie” and “dear” – and after a while, Kira gets to like it. This Federation vs the natives stuff is pretty routine, with only Nana Visitor’s megawatt charisma keeping me watching. And it’s that committed playing that makes that shocking ending work, but it’s a bit of a slog getting there. Entirely to my surprise, I was actually rather caught up in Jake and Nog cos-playing as Del Boy and Rodney. It’s not deep, it’s not high stakes, it’s not even particularly new. But it is fun, and that counts for something. This gets tantalizingly close to a four but doesn’t quite make the grade. It is promising though. Now even Morn is sharking after Dax. Jeebus.

TNG S06E22 Suspicions (3 out of 5 stars). This one is just weird, in all sorts of ways. There’s a not-particularly necessary framing device in which Crusher is telling the episode’s story to Guinan. This kind of thing is usually a promise to the audience – stick with us through the dull stuff because the good stuff is coming. But this is all equally dull and it’s bizarre that medical Dr Crusher is suddenly fascinated by the kind of engineering problem which you would expect to be exercising someone like Geordi, although the handwringing about ethics is far more Crusher-ish than LaForgean. Was a last-minute substitution made but they didn’t have time to change all the space jargon to medical jargon? And it’s cool to see a bunch of our headlining aliens together again (although with a less starry cast than last time) and the choice of Ferengi to be the scientific innovator feels fresh – just what is all this nonsense about Ferengi death rituals? Where’s the profit in forbidding an autopsy? All of this feels like it’s been assembled from unrelated parts and hastily bolted together in the hope that no-one sees the joins. Gates McFadden shows once again what a skilled actor she is, given the chance, but she’s trying to navigate her way through a script rife with contradictions and contrivances which doesn’t convince for a second.

DS9 S01E16 If Wishes Were Horses (1.5 out of 5 stars). As usual, rather than a tense, attention-grabbing teaser, we just check in with various characters until O’Brien’s storybooks start coming to life. This is scarcely a new idea – in Trek it goes back to Season 1’s Shore Leave and I’m certain it has a far longer pedigree than that – but Discovery recently showed how to do it with flair. Here it’s just dull, when it isn’t being skeezy. It strikes me that, as diverse as the DS9 regular cast is (it’s the first Trek show with no white human American men in its main characters, and that’s still quite rare) it’s a very male environment, and while Kira ain’t taking none of your shit, it’s depressing that Dax is so often portrayed as little more than an object of male lust. What is refreshing, and does feel a) 24th century and b) in keeping with Dax’s personal history, is that she’s actually very sympathetic when confronted with Bashir’s nympho sex doll version of her, telling him that she feels it’s his privacy that has been invaded, rather than hers. Perhaps now these two can start to build a relationship as colleagues, rather than the Confessions of a Star Fleet Doctor stuff we’ve been subjected to so far. There’s a glimmer of interest in seeing the situation from the point of view of the fantasies, but the explanation at the end is pure nonsense and there’s no resonance or depth to any of this silliness.

TNG S06E23 Rightful Heir (3 out of 5 stars). More Klingon mythology, but I can feel my knee-jerk antipathy towards these stories waning, drawn in as I am by Michael Dorn’s magnetic performance. The sight of him, hair in disarray, learning the easy way that there are no smoke-detectors in crew quarters, is very striking, and his telling-off at the hands of the captain is a beautiful piece of writing and acting. Off he goes on a peyote retreat in search of visions of Klingon Jesus. After a couple of weeks of sitting around the fire and hoping, Worf is ready to pack it in, but eventually the ’shrooms start working and Kahless appears to him. It doesn’t take much wisdom to deduce that the physical manifestation of a long-dead prophet is some sort of imposter but nonetheless there’s a lot of soul-searching and tricorder testing to be done before we get to that conclusion. Robert O’Reilly makes a welcome appearance as Gowron, but this doesn’t add much to the corpus of fake-deity stories and without Dorn this would be an empty shell of a story. The ending is particularly limp. Kahless is revealed as a clone and then everybody just goes home. Whuh?

DS9 S01E17 The Forsaken (3 out of 5 stars). A trio of Federation ambassadors is touring the station and their low-level squabbling is not nearly as diverting as we’re supposed to think. Wait, it’s a quartet, the fourth being Lwaxana, livening the place up considerably. As usual, she’s shopping for a husband (because this-is-the-story-we-tell-with-this-character) but the choice of Odo as her latest intended is marvellous and Barrett and Auberjonois find a sparky chemistry very quickly. Sadly, the show can’t think of anything more inventive to do with them than trap them in a (turbo) lift together. Meanwhile, O’Brien is fighting a losing battle with the fussy Cardassian computer controlling the station, in a throwback to some of the anti-technology sentiment we used to see on the sixties show. All of this is pretty low-stakes but when Lwaxana takes her wig off to reassure Odo, it is rather touching. Weirdly, a similar bonding apparently takes place with Bashir and the other delegates, but this one happens entirely off-screen.

Trekaday 047: The Nagus, Starship Mine, Lessons, Vortex, Battle Lines, The Chase, The Storyteller

Posted on September 22nd, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

DS9 S01E11 The Nagus (3.5 out of 5 stars). A decrepit Ferengi known as the Great Nagus Zek visits the station and we delve a little more into Ferengi lore as a result. Just because of that, this does start to feel a tiny bit like a story which this show could do and which other Star Trek shows could not. To tell this story in Next Gen you’d have to have O’Brien stuck on the Ferengi homeworld, or LaForge as part of an officer exchange programme or somesuch. Here, it’s Quark who’s our point-of-view character, not a friendly human. Adding to the fun, that’s none other than Wallace Shawn under all that foam rubber – maybe the best guest star since Jean Simmons. Sadly, he doesn’t live much past the second act break (or so it would appear). With or without him, all of this double-dealing and the many reversals of fortune are highly entertaining. Sure, most plot developments required Quark to be something of a doofus, but that’s entirely in character and Shimerman manages not to make any of it embarrassing (this time).

Rather sweetly, it’s Odo who comes to Quark’s rescue. One thing which no earlier version of Star Trek pulled off is that most adorable of long-form storytelling tropes, the traditional enemies who end up as friends. It’s the one major thing that I think Peter Jackson fumbles in The Lord of the Rings (Legolas and Gimli, the details of whose relationship get rather lost in the shuffle) and it’s an undoubted highlight of Babylon 5 (G’Kar and Londo). I’d rather forgotten that it would be played out here between Odo and Quark, and how marvellous that it’s maybe the two best actors on the show who get to go on this journey.

Elsewhere, however things are duller.  Apparently Sisko has a son. Cirroc Lofton’s name has been in the titles consistently, but apart from a couple of brief scenes here and there, he’s hardly been in the actual show and he certainly hasn’t influenced any plots. Here, not for the last time, he’s paired up with Quark’s nephew Nog who can’t produce his homework because (he claims) Vulcans stole his pad. Should have backed it up to the cloud, Nog. Jake’s stuff with Nog and his dad is frustratingly generic and almost completely devoid of interest. Luckily, it’s less than a quarter of the run-time, so let’s gloss over it.

The first Rule of Acquisition is quoted here (which is also the First Rule of Acquisition, if you see what I mean) to whit: once you have their money, you never give it back. Rom returned a lost purse intact because he was dazzled by a customer’s beauty, a cardinal sin in Quark’s eyes.

TNG S06E18 Starship Mine (5 out of 5 stars). Some stories seek to flesh out parts of the universe which have so far gone unexplored. Some seek to push our characters further than they’ve ever been pushed before. Some are meditations on the deep questions of life. Then, there’s Starship Mine, which is Die Hard on a Spaceship. The all-plot, all-action approach is evident right from the beginning as Picard strides about the ship, exposition flying in all directions. Everyone is being evacuated because of blah blah. The ship is being shut down because of yada yada. There’s time for some warmly funny byplay about a tedious speech which everyone wants to evade, and Data amuses while trying to learn the art of smalltalk. But lo! It all goes tits-up. Picard is trapped and the ship is being taken over by Hans Gruber Tuvok trilithium thieves. Posing as Mr Mott the barber, Picard is taken prisoner but quickly starts to fight back. This is terrifically well done – exciting, funny and surprising with great character beats and the oncoming baryon sweep providing a novel and suspenseful ticking clock. Who could ask for more?

TNG S06E19 Lessons (3.5 out of 5 stars). While an insomniac captain roams the corridors, stellar cartography is bogarting all of the ship’s resources. As noted elsewhere, Patrick Stewart felt that Picard needed to do more fighting and fucking. His chance to play action hero was last week, so this week, his attention is drawn to scientist Nella Daren played by Wendy Hughes. We should be grateful, I suppose, that the TOS days are over when wailing saxophones would fill the soundtrack whenever a woman under 50 passed in front of the camera. Picard and Daren’s love language involves fractal particle mathematics and herbal infusions. She also plays classical piano alongside Data at one of those interminable concerts which plague the Federation’s flagship. The problem is that this isn’t a serialised show, so we know that she’s not going to be a permanent fixture in Picard’s life. The only real question is: will she turn out to be infested with an alien slug creature bent on the destruction of the Federation (which would risk being silly), will there be some more personal reason why the relationship can’t continue (which would risk being dull) or will they kill her off (which would risk being a bummer)? Nice to see the flute from The Inner Light again, and to hear the captain’s own account of that experience, and Patrick Stewart navigates these shallow waters with his customary class, but this doesn’t tell us anything new about Picard and feels like filler after such a strong run of episodes.

DS9 S01E12 Vortex (3.5 out of 5 stars). More good Quark and Odo stuff. I don’t know whether to be frustrated that the show is doing so little to explore the weaker characters or pleased to be spending so much time with the stronger ones. Some nifty effects allow one actor to play both Miradorn twins, although only one of them survives to the first ad break. The killer (with some of Michael Westmore’s least convincing bumpy-forehead latex) has heard of shapeshifters before, which is of great interest to the station’s constable. Despite the poor makeup appliance, I rather like Cliff DeYoung’s casual delivery, which avoids that sub-Shakespearean thing which so many actors in sci-fi and fantasy productions seem to do as standard. Odo has to escort this knowledgeable fellow back through the wormhole while avoiding the surviving twin, bent on vengeance. Meanwhile, Quark sics the Miradorn on Odo. There are probably too many moving parts here, and the chase-adventure-revenge plot gets in the way of the Odo-finds-out-about-his-origins plot, but that latter element is fascinating and Auberjonois is rapidly becoming my MVP of this show, able to make silly stories work and good stories approach greatness.

Also, I know this is becoming a bit of a silly obsession, but the necklines on the uniforms are still flapping about untidily, and Sisko’s has now been cut very low, almost to his collar bone, to expose several inches of purple undershirt around his neck and throat, instead of the usual narrow strip. It’s not particularly an improvement.

DS9 S01E13 Battle Lines (2 out of 5 stars). Of all the elements set-up in the pilot, the one I was least excited about was all the religious jumbo-jumbo with Sisko and the geegaw of hallucinatory flashbacks, so I wasn’t thrilled to hear that the Kai Opaka was making good on the promise Sisko made to give her a tour of the station. Meanwhile, and amusingly, Kira is dismayed to learn that her enemies didn’t hold her in particularly high regard. On an outing through the wormhole, the runabout receives a distress signal and is then forced to crash-land – the Kai dying in the process, which was a big surprise to me. Nana Visitor is remarkable here, keening over the body of her spiritual leader. But, lo! Mike Ehrmantraut (in standard-issue Mad Max style 80s sci-fi togs) soon has her, Sisko and Bashir at gunpoint – paranoid because they are a people at war. So, this is the Federation (kinda) getting involved with a Zags vs Zoombars conflict again: lots of backstory, lots of people we’ve never met before and will never meet again but who we’re supposed suddenly to care about. But none of this feels like it means anything. It’s just people in silly clothes talking nonsense on an unconvincing planet set.

TNG S06E20 The Chase (2.5 out of 5 stars). A long-winded and tepid exploration of Picard’s career prospects segues through a series of plot contrivances into a genetic treasure hunt which eventually leads to Klingon, Romulan, human and Cardassian delegates listening to a TED talk about why all aliens on television look like people with latex bumps on their foreheads. Watching television science fiction requires a certain suspension of disbelief. If you ask too many questions about how things like subspace communications, universal translators, transporters, warp drive or even phasers actually work then you will discover that the explanations tend a) not to make very much sense and b) take storytelling possibilities off the table, rather than adding to the options available. The question: why do all aliens look vaguely human is adequately answered by observing that both the practicalities of making a weekly television show and the need to make a show which will appeal to a vaguely human audience strongly lead us in that direction. Spending an entire episode creating an “in-universe” explanation is a huge waste of time and resources.

So, this is worth at best a two, maybe less, but I’ve bumped it up a bit because of the outstanding guest cast. Not just Norman Lloyd as Picard’s old professor, but Tara King herself Linda Thorson as the Cardassian and Maurice Roeves from The Caves of Androzani as the Romulan. Yum, yum, yum.

DS9 S01E14 The Storyteller (1.5 out of 5 stars). Sisko is overseeing treaty negotiations between squabbling Bajoran factions – you know, like Picard does. Meanwhile, Bashir and O’Brien are witnessing the death of a Bajoran elder who held his people together by telling stories. Meanwhile – again – Jake and Nog are clumsily sharking after the seemingly-teenage girl who is leading one side of the negotiations. Berman-Trek would love to believe that it takes place in a post-racism, post-sexism universe, but countless episodes are mired in patriarchal bullshit and the presentation of Gina Philips as Varis Sul is toe-curlingly embarrassing.

Pairing Bashir and O’Brien makes more sense – it’s a chance to use the character we’ve been getting to know for nearly six years to bring a newer and so far rather ill-defined character into focus. But it’s O’Brien’s story, not Bashir’s who’s just along for the ride. The chief of operations feels utterly unable to take over from the beloved leader who hands the baton over to him with his dying breath. (And also filed under patriarchal bullshit, O’Brien is presented with a trio of teenage girls offering him sexual services as thanks for assuming the role of storyteller.) Luckily, someone else is ready, willing and able to take over for him, so he’s rapidly and easily off the hook, and the border dispute fizzles out in much the same ho-hum, low-stakes way. Even by the fairly low standards set by this new series so far, this is almost entirely free of incident, excitement or interest. Why are we watching Jake and Nog throw porridge over each other? Why, to be blunt, are we watching at all?

Trekaday 046: Dax, Tapestry, The Passenger, Birthright, Move Along Home

Posted on September 15th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

DS9 E01S08 Dax (3.5 out of 5 stars). Anyone with an interest in criminology, true crime or murder mysteries will have heard of DNA identification and may have heard of chimeric DNA. A very few individuals whose conception included the fusing of two different zygotes may have cells containing two different sets of DNA in their bodies. This can result in all sorts of shenanigans with crime scene investigations, but – crucially – a person with chimeric DNA typically doesn’t know they’ve got it. So having chimeric DNA doesn’t make your experience of being you any different than anyone else’s. In a nutshell, that’s what’s wrong with this episode. These reinvented Trill live enormously long lives, upgrading their hosts every so often, and merging the memories and personality traits of the old with the new. And DC Fontana (writing with Peter Allan Fields) works through the process with her customary rigour. But this episode treats Dax’s symbiosis as little more than chimeric DNA, a technical detail which creates a legal problem. What is it like to be a symbiont? That’s a far more interesting question with much deeper ramifications. And it goes essentially unexplored here. In fact, we learn more about Curzon Dax than Jadzia Dax.

The story starts with Dax being abducted. Bashir witnesses this because he’s sharking after her – that being the extent of their relationship. Seeing the crew scramble to prevent the abduction from taking place is a satisfying show of competency and teamwork. And also in the plus column, the chief baddie is Gregory Itzin and the arbiter trying to decide the case is Anne Haney, both of whom do much to elevate the material, which is all basically courtroom drama, complete with surprise last-minute witness. Again, although it’s all well-enough handled, there’s little here which I can’t imagine occurring on the Enterprise, with a more comfortable cast and nicer costumes. Auberjonois, Shimerman and Visitor continue to impress, even when given little to work with. But when is this new series going to emerge from its progenitor’s shadow?

TNG S06E15 Tapestry (5 out of 5 stars). Picard dies and goes to heaven, and discovers it’s run by Q. That’s the shocking, but also blackly funny opening to this episode, a real gem and a personal favourite. Once again, the TNG staff gets inspiration from re-watching old episodes of their own show, and the thread they find to pull on this time (sorry) is one from a Season 2 story called Samaritan Snare. Cocky young Picard was stabbed through the heart during a bar-fight a Nausican and he laughed. Why did he laugh? Ronald Moore has a theory, and he borrows a page from Frank Capra’s book to tell it, not to mention Charles Dickens (like all the best writers, he steals indiscriminately). The presentation of these early scenes, in a budget-saving white void, is not exactly novel but Les Landau finds fun things to do with it. While DS9 is squandering the talents of John de Lancie, and too interested in the biology of symbionts to probe their individual personalities, here we have an entire episode devoted to finding out just who our captain is, and why. And vitally, it’s Patrick Stewart who plays the young Jean-Luc, not some callow youth two days out of drama school. The structure is also beautifully worked out. Picard spends two acts trying to make sure he doesn’t have to have an artificial heart, and then the next act desperately wishing he had it back again. And the ending is a perfectly-judged moment of ambiguity. Even those half-and-half Star Fleet uniforms look a little smarter. I still think they look silly without the ribbed turtle neck, but the have a neat undershirt now with which pulls them together a little more.

DS9 S01E09 The Passenger (2 out of 5 stars). Bashir continues to be given the most obnoxious and unlikeable lines imaginable. It’s a good job that Alexander Siddig is as charming as he is, or this character would be irredeemable. As it is, he’s still fairly punchable (Kira does well to restrain herself) and when a dangerous prisoner tries to strangle him, I’m not sure who’s side I’m on. Speaking of unacceptable behaviour, in the minds of this writing team, Dax seems to exist only for male cast members to lust over, Bashir in earlier episodes and now Quark. A Lt Primmin from Star Fleet security turns up and he’s now in the space station uniform, which suggests that these are being rolled out to all personnel, or though news of the change doesn’t reach the Enterprise while TNG is on television. I’m still distracted by the floppy necklines. Are they always like that and I just never noticed or were they stiffened and starched in later episodes, and on Voyager? Much is made of just how different security is on a space station than it is on a starship, but this still feels like alien-of-the-week stuff to me and not all the cast are growing on me equally quickly. As a sort of space procedural, it’s fine enough and there is good stuff for Odo, but I was told this was the best and most complex Trek there is. How long do I have to wait? As well as Quork/Quark we also have a mix of VEN-tiga and Ven-TEE-ga this week for the name of the resurrecting murderer/thief, which is annoying. The twist is pretty poorly concealed too, with the only question being, which body will the villain use? This isn’t much of any acting showcase for Siddig, who doesn’t have anything like the swagger this requires.

TNG S06E16 Birthright, Part I (4.5 out of 5 stars). Well, this one is just weird. I don’t know for certain, but looking at the finished episode, my guess is that someone – presumably René Echevarria who gets sole credit for Part II – had an idea about Worf searching for his father in a Romulan prison camp, but there was too much for two episodes and not enough for one. Meanwhile, someone else – presumably Brannon Braga – wanted to do a story about Data discovering his father in a dream, but there was only enough there for a B-plot. The solution – to do Braga’s story alongside Echevarria’s as Part I and then let Worf’s story take over Part II – should result in a wonky structure which fails to satisfy, but all of the components are excellent, and actually each half of Part I is strengthened by the thematic resonances of the other. Oh, and we’re also on Deep Space Nine for part of this one, in what I believe is termed “corporate synergy”.

TNG S06E17 Birthright, Part II (4 out of 5 stars). So, in part one, Worf is approached by James Cromwell in some Dobby the House Elf prosthetics who tells him that his father did not die on Khitomer but was ignominiously captured and held by Romulans. Generally speaking, the word “Khitomer” causes me to come out in hives, but the emotional line of actual is very clean here and we never get bogged down in endless nonsensical Klingon rituals. The chief conflict in part two is fascinating, and the deep relationships between traditional enemies is rather moving, but compared to the propulsive first half, the second installment is a bit more languorous, with several scenes reiterating the same information. What makes it work is the strength and commitment of Michael Dorn’s central performance. It’s easy to forget that it was TNG that defined Klingons as noble warriors with a deep sense of honour, and much of that is inspired by Dorn’s stately glowering.

DS9 S01E10 Move Along Home (1 out of 5 stars). Generally speaking, I’ve been waiting for DS9 to get good for nine episodes now. I remembered the pilot quite clearly, but no other episodes have stirred my memory. I do remember this one though, and I don’t remember liking it. Continuing the theme of “Let’s just pretend we’re on the Enterprise and not on a space station,” we’re on a first contact mission. The Wadi at least know how to pronounce “Quark” but what they want is to play games. What follows is incredibly dumb and astonishingly tedious as Sisko, Dax, Bashir and Kira find themselves reduced to tokens in a seemingly-lethal board game being played by the Ferengi bar-keep. What this actually means is a lot of walking through identical corridors solving sub-Pyramids of Mars puzzles. It’s deathly dull. Quark, who has been clearly established as not giving a shit about anything except making a profit from his casino, looks deathly concerned when he figures out (from the flimsiest of clues) that his game pieces are the station’s senior staff. He thus always chooses “the safer path” which means that the stakes are as low as they can be. Wouldn’t keeping him in the dark, gleefully sending our heroes into more and more peril, have been far more effective? In a frankly embarrassing scene (and there’s no shortage of those here) he panics and wets himself when asked to choose a piece to sacrifice, which is exactly what you’d expect from an arch-capitalist like him, who barely knows these “hu-mans”. At the end, in an astonishing “fuck you”, it turns out that the game is only a game and the crew were never in any real danger. DS9 replicators can’t make dress uniforms, for some unaccountable reason.

Trekaday 045: Ship in a Bottle, Captive Pursuit, Aquiel, Q-Less, Face of the Enemy

Posted on September 9th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S06E12 Ship in a Bottle (5 out of 5 stars). As we’ve seen, these later episodes of TNG are keen to go back and revisit past triumphs and stumbles, to play the hits or to make amends. The Season 2 episode Elementary Dear Data is about as good as we could have expected, but you can almost see the creative team banging their heads on the limitations of the understanding of what is possible in this narrative world. By the sixth season, the writing staff is functioning as a precision-engineered team and the regular cast are all in complete control of their characterisations. Moriarty’s rebuke to Picard that he’s been abandoned and left to rot feels a little like the fans talking to the producers. And they’re both right. Picard should have tackled the problem sooner, but while this episode could have been made sooner, it’s hard to imagine it being made better. Moriarty’s key deception is brilliantly-handled – second-time round, the clues are all there – and it makes perfect sense that Picard would be able to use that same trick against him. Picard understands far more about how 24th century technology works than ever the savviest of computer-generated 19th century supervillains. If this was just a faultlessly-constructed puzzle-box, that would be satisfying enough, but this doesn’t miss the opportunity for great character beats, some lovely faux-period flavour and a playful treatment of the theme as well. Outstanding stuff. In barely a handful of years, walking talking holograms will be standard-issue on board ships in the form of emergency doctors. Possibly Lt Barclay continued working on the problem?

DS9 S01E06 Captive Pursuit (3.5 out of 5 stars). O’Brien saves the life of a nervy-looking fellow who comes careering through the wormhole and won’t say what he’s there for. The resolution presents a fairly standard issue Prime Directive moral dilemma, resolved with a little more insouciance than is typical for Trek of any kind. There’s some decent Quark and Odo stuff here as well, but Dax and Bashir remain stubbornly bland for now. But after four regular episodes, what’s the engine for this new series? If we’re just going to sit and wait for another alien-of-the-week to drop in with the kind of ethical conundrum you can solve in 45 minutes then how is this different from the shows it spun-off from? What benefit are we getting from being stuck on a space station? This is a fine enough hour of television but it doesn’t point the way forward in any meaningful way.

TNG S06E13 Aquiel (2 out of 5 stars). It’s been a while since an away team beamed down to a research station / ship drifting in space / remote colony / Federation outpost and found it deserted, but here we are again, with only a little doggie remaining alive on this subspace relay station. (There is no money in the 24th century, so we must assume that the people staffing these facilities are there by choice. It would not be my choice.) Geordi is attempting to puzzle out what happened by reviewing logs from one of the crew, a young woman named Aquiel, and of course he falls in love with the recordings of her because this-is-the-story-we-tell-with-this-character. While Geordi is mooning over the pretty Lieutenant, Picard barely breaks a sweat outmaneuvering the Klingons and meanwhile, the damned dog keeps snuffling around, virtually screaming “I will turn out to be the solution to the mystery!” This is pretty thin stuff, by recent standards, a mix of old tropes and idiotic surprises. Again, the beam from Worf’s phaser emerges at a sharp angle to the barrel, which just strikes me as sloppy.

DS9 S01E07 Q-Less (2 out of 5 stars). One way to discover what makes this show different from its progenitor is to make a direct comparison. We haven’t reprised The Naked Time (at least not yet) but we can send Q over to the worm hole to see who this crew respond to his smug provocations. His arrival is foreshadowed by the reappearance of Vash, trapped in a stricken shuttle when the docking doors won’t open. (Did no-one think to beam her off?) It turns out that even Vash finds Q irritating given enough time and now she wants to be shot of him. Last time we saw these two, Vash and Picard were attempting to replicate screwball comedy dialogue and falling a long way short. This time round, no-one can be bothered even to make the attempt. Meanwhile, Bashir is given Geordi’s role of unlucky in love, which does little to further define his character. “My God, you’re an impertinent waiter,” is the kind of line which makes me want to never see him again. It’s the sort of dialogue you’d give to the bad guy in an eighties family comedy to make sure we all hated him and would enjoy seeing him humiliated. Meanwhile, in a directed comparison with Picard, Sisko looks childish and petulant – much easier to provoke as Q astutely determines. This new series is not so much suffering from growing pains as it is terminally stunted, feebly aping the tropes of its now-legendary progenitor.

TNG S06E14 Face of the Enemy (5 out of 5 stars). As previously noted, I do love a good teaser, and this one is an absolute cracker. Troi wakes in the middle of the night and when she looks in the mirror, she sees Romulan features staring back at her. Now, it’s true that not all of the explanations given for this make a whole lotta sense, but who cares when we’re having this much fun. It’s also a cracking episode for Marina Sirtis, barely adequate compensation for six years of saying “I sense frustration Captain,” but nice to see nonetheless. She gets to go toe-to-toe with Carolyn Seymour which is a far more equal battle than you might expect. This late in the game, you might expect TNG to be running out of ideas. Even though it’s riffing on story ideas set up in Unification, this story feels amazingly fresh and bold, while the punky young spin-off seems overly cautious, afraid to try anything new lest they break the show. Guys, you need to drive it like you stole it. Worf is now sporting a pony tail which hangs down the back of his neck. Before long, he’ll be eating avocado toast and buying antique typewriters.

Trekaday 044: Emissary, Past Prologue, A Man Alone, Babel

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

DS9 S01E01-2 Emissary (3 out of 5 stars). Paramount wanted a new show and Berman and co. didn’t want to send another ship with another crew out exploring. If the original series had been Wagon Train to the Stars, the new show would be Border Town in Space. Various tendrils connect the old show to the new show, although not quite as many as hoped. Michelle Forbes was asked to return as Ro Laren. When she declined, I think I read somewhere that the part of Kira was offered to Suzie Plakson. In the end, it went to Nana Visitor. Colm Meany turns up as Chief O’Brien and Captain Picard passes the baton in early scenes.

The big question mark hanging over TNG was: could they get lightning to strike again with the regular cast? And it took a while. By the time DS9 was being planned, the TNG regular cast had been thinned out to just seven. I rate these actors as world class (Stewart), excellent (Spiner, Dorn, Burton) and good enough (Frakes, McFadden, Sirtis) and by now all seven of these characters have become fan favourites. That’s not a bad track record. This first episode of the new show counts eight actors in its titles. None of them can hold a candle to Stewart, but at least four of them can easily take that “excellent” tag (Auberjonois, Meany, Shimerman, Visitor) and Farrell, Siddig and Lofton will get better as the series continues. Avery Brooks I find a bit of a mystery. Many fans think he’s wonderful, but his style of delivery never strikes me as entirely natural and I find he’s stuck between wanting to emulate what worked so well for Stewart and the need to create a new character. The scenes between him and Picard want to be able to distinguish between two equally-capable yet profoundly different leaders. In fact all they do is distinguish between a supremely able actor who’s incredibly comfortable in his role with one who is still feeling his way.

The other contrast is in their uniforms. The Enterprise crew stick in the same togs until Generations (and more on that wardrobe shit-show when the time comes) but Star Fleet officers on the space station wear all black with coloured shoulders and a purple undergarment peeking through a small v-neck. I’ve really enjoyed watching TNG’s colourful episodes, the images beautifully restored from the original 35mm film elements. Watching DS9 means watching smeary NTSC video which even modern AI algorithms can’t do much to clean up, and so it really doesn’t help that almost everyone is inky black from the collarbone down, without even a proper belt to break up the monotony. And those coloured v-necks flop about in a very un-military way. Alas, Voyager will inherit the same look (and not get the upgrade that comes around the time of First Contact).

What is welcome is an even greater commitment to diversity and complexity. Of those eight regulars (and the cast of recurring characters will grow and grow) only four are Star Fleet. The others are a Bajoran major, a changeling security guard, a human child and a Ferengi bartender. This widening of the number of viewpoints is crucial to what makes this series work and one of the reasons why it’s so many people’s favourite. It’s also the only show never to have the airwaves to itself. These four episodes were shown in January 1993, after TNG went off the air for Christmas (following the mic-drop of Chain of Command). Thereafter, both shows aired new episodes until TNG wrapped up its seventh season, whereupon Voyager kicked off. So, DS9 became the “deep cut” show which marked out the connoisseur fan from the casual viewer.

I don’t remember when I saw these episode for the first time. I think DS9 was first shown in the UK on Sky. Possibly I watched it there, maybe I caught up with it when the BBC was finally allowed to air it. I remember trying to follow it, and admiring it greatly, but now I can only call to mind a very few episodes, mainly concerned with key events in the war. Wanting to watch the whole show through from the beginning was one of my main motivations for starting this project and I’m thrilled that the moment has finally arrived.

We open with the Borg attack on Wolf 359, referred to but never depicted in The Best of Both Worlds, and now seen from Sisko’s perspective. This is followed in short order by the fridging of Sisko’s wife Jennifer. Most of this I think is model work, but the wormhole which is the main MacGuffin of these early episodes is primitive but effective CGI. That’s why these episodes look like crap compared to TNG. Everything in the earlier show was shot on film, even the spaceships. But so much of DS9 was created digitally, and at 1990s TV resolution, that it would all have to redone from scratch to create a Blu-ray master. The relatively poor sales of the TNG remasters didn’t inspire Paramount to spend even more money on a less popular series.

The titles are only so-so as well. Visually, it’s just a montage of shots of the space station for the most part, and the title music keeps threatening to arrive at a really good melody and never quite gets there. What’s far more effective is Sisko’s initial tour of the space station. After the gleaming newness of the Enterprise for more than five years, the grime and disrepair of this environment is quite a tonic. We’re also introduced to our regulars more smoothly than we were all those years ago in Encounter at Farpoint. Familiar Miles O’Brien shows Sisko (and us) around and introduces him to Major Kira. Nana Visitor makes an instant impression, immediately dispelling any regrets about Michelle Forbes. She’s electric and her character is fascinating. O’Brien later gets a whole scene in which he formally leaves the Enterprise which feels unnecessary and poorly placed. Acting royalty Rene Auberjonois is next, his highly impressive Odo taking on a small gang of bandits including Nog – a series regular in all but name – who in turn brings us to Quark, already spouting aphorisms but these are not yet dubbed “rules of acquisition”.

In amongst all this, there isn’t much room for a story. When we first meet him, Sisko seems just as fed up with his job as Pike was in The Cage but he rapidly ends up more like Picard than anyone else: pragmatic, compassionate, prone to giving inspirational speeches. He also comes up against a Bajoran high priest who recognises him as The Emissary of their legends. So, he’s either Diet Coke Picard or The Second Coming of Space Jesus – take your pick. He gets the chance to revisit his first meeting with Jennifer (so this is the kind of fridging where you’re really saving something for later). Sisko, having been charged with keeping the peace by Picard, is now charged by Kai Opaka with finding Bajor’s Celestial Table. Big day for Sisko who takes the flashback machine with him for safekeeping (and the supplying of backstories).

As noted when I wrote about The Host, the Trill get reinvented here. Jadzia Dax is still the same old Dax, more or less, unlike Odan who was exactly the same mind but in a different body. Terry Farrell doesn’t get much to do, but seems happy enough to do it. Dr Bashir is keen as mustard, which is something we haven’t seen much of in adult Star Trek characters, but the actor seems a little uncertain at this early stage. It’s also in this first episode that we meet recurring villain Gul Ducat. Marc Alaimo was the original Cardassian, but following David Warner is no easy task, especially when he’s given the series-sell speech in the middle of the episode. Like so many others, he’ll grow into the role as time goes on.

Before long, Dax and Sisko find themselves on Planet Blue Screen in the centre of the wormhole. The trippy visuals here are quite a treat but the concept of non-linear time is one of those things that you really don’t want to interrogate too closely. Why do beings which exist in all points in time fear their own demise? And why don’t they know that the Federation is coming? At one point, one of the wormhole dwellers pretty much says “What is this thing you call love?” for crying out loud. Moving the station to the edge of the wormhole is a great sequence for O’Brien (virtually mirroring the saucer-separation procedure from Farpoint) but not many of the other characters get moments as revealing as this. Kira pops, Odo is fun, Quark shows promise but (despite getting the lion’s share of the screen time) Sisko is all back-story and no personality so far, and the others just get TNG Season 1-style functional dialogue.

Compared to the TNG pilot, this has the advantage of taking place in a universe that’s already five years old, and all of the additions to the lore work well. Ultimately though, this is trying to keep too many balls in the air to be truly satisfying as a ninety minutes of television drama. It’s a overly-complex guided tour of a place stories will take place in, rather than a narrative in its own right, but never dull for all that.

DS9 S01E03 Past Prologue (3 out of 5 stars). Virtually the first thing we see in this episode is Garak the Cardassian “tailor” who will prove to be one of the most fascinating and enduring members of the supporting cast. It’s very clear what Andrew Robinson thought the subtext was, but it was never allowed to anything more than a hint. For the full sorry story, see this fascinating YouTube video. Meanwhile. Sisko and Kira are in (whisper it) conflict once more as she attempts to go over his head regarding his dealings with a Bajoran “freedom fighter”. And – hey! – it’s the Kleavage Sisters again, being made to surrender their weapons to Odo. Speaking of which, he seems to be able to morph into the shape and size of a rat, which either means that that’s an incredibly heavy rat which would probably overstrain the floor structures, or that his shapeshifting is little more than magic and he doesn’t have to maintain the same mass. The Klingons are in league with the freedom fighter, who isn’t nearly as reformed a character as he maintained, so the Federation is proven right and the Bajoran liaison proven wrong, which is probably inevitable, but does make the balance of power on the station a little more stable and thus a little less interesting. This episode doesn’t screw anything up but it isn’t terribly interesting on either a plot or a character level. It feels like more table-setting, a continuation of the pilot rather than a bold new leap into a fresh world of storytelling possibilities. In the pilot, I’m pretty sure people called the Ferengi bartender “Quark” to rhyme with bark, lark, stark, park, hark and – as the word’s inventor James Joyce had it “Muster Mark”. Now people are starting to rhyme it with pork, dork, fork, cork and so on. This is going to piss me off. Speaking of Quark, this is the first mention of gold-pressed latinum, needed to solve the problem of a profit-oriented culture in a post-currency society.

DS9 S01E04 A Man Alone (2.5 out of 5 stars) opens with the limpest, most nothing-burger of a teaser we’ve seen in ages, with the two least-well-defined characters playing a video game for a while before deciding not to. SMASH CUT TO TITLES. The interplay between Odo and Sisko is more interesting. The most senior authority figure and the head of security and they – gasp! – don’t trust each other, or at least not yet. While Gene Roddenberry gets over his attack of the vapours, there’s yet another shady Bajoran dude sneaking around the station while Nog and Jake are making friends and the O’Briens are doing their best to stay married. So, again, this feels low-key, soapy and I’m still waiting for the show to earn its keep as a syndicated science-fiction adventure series, since the characters aren’t nearly well-defined enough or being put through enough for this to qualify as prestige drama. First appearance of Morn whose presence will soon become a very funny running joke.

DS9 S01E05 Babel (3 out of 5 stars). Hey! An actual science-fiction plot with the potential to deeply affect our characters. Some kind of bug is going around and first O’Brien and then Dax lose the ability to process language. This results in their speech coming out as word salad – a challenge which the actors rise to very impressively. Odo tries to organise a lockdown, but you know how well that kind of thing goes down. So, although the symptoms are frighteningly novel, this is that familiar Star Trek cliché, the virus on the loose, complete with mutating strains, the regular cast dropping one-by-one and a last-minute cure which works almost instantaneously and leaves zero ill-effects. But it is at least exciting, which is more than can be said for the last couple of episodes, although the most exciting moment – the ship trying to pull away from the docking clamps – barely registers because the show can’t afford to show us what’s physically happening.

Stray remarks

  • On the basis of these early episodes, the nay-sayers were right. A regular group of characters crewing a space station, waiting for adventure to come to them just isn’t as exciting as exploring the unknown. With the exception of the bonkers drug trip in the pilot, this is all pretty mundane stuff.
  • Which is doubly a shame when the setting feels so fresh. Seeing different cultures living, working and playing alongside each other is genuinely exciting. Very different from seeing a Klingon on the Enterprise, with all of the hard edges sanded off.
  • The standing sets are also gorgeous – handy, since we’re spending so much time here. And Nana Visitor, Rene Auberjonois, Armin Shimerman and Colm Meany are all enormously watchable but the series either needs to figure out how to put these characters through the wringer or find some proper science fiction adventure stories, and fast, because at the moment this is handsomely-mounted televisual Ovaltine.
  • Dax, Bashir and Jake are just job titles and/or one line of backstory (“Doctor”, “Symbiont”, “Sisko’s kid”). The writers are leaving it up to the actors and the actors are leaving it up to the writers. That can work, but it takes time and it’s a risky strategy.