Archive for December, 2022

Trekaday 064: Through the Looking Glass, Improbable Cause, Heroes and Demons, The Die is Cast, Cathexis, Explorers, Faces, Family Business

Posted on December 31st, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

DS9 S03E19 Through the Looking Glass (3.5 out of 5 stars). I was knocked out by DS9’s first trip to the Mirror Universe and stunned to realise that it had never been revisited since TOS Season 2. The teaser wastes no time in having O’Brien bundle Sisko onto a transporter at gunpoint and take him to Looking Glass Land – seemingly the first time that anyone has made the trip purposefully.

Avery Brooks’s swaggering portrayal of alt-Sisko was a huge highlight of Crossover, so on the one hand, it’s disappointing that we won’t be meeting him again. On the other hand, I’m waiting and waiting for Brooks to show what he can do, and playing “our” Sisko pretending to be “their” Sisko sounds like it could be great fun. “Their” O’Brien is much like our O’Brien, but we also get to see omni-horny Intendent Kira again which is a delight.

All the changes are run deliciously well. Dax is Sisko’s lover. Sisko’s wife is a collaborator. Rom is a spy. Tim Russ appears as Tuvok in a neat bit of corporate-cross-franchise-synergistic-collaboration. But, if anything, Sisko finds the deception a bit too easy for it to be really fun.

Felecia M Bell, who had a few brief scenes as Jennifer in the pilot returns here, and is… fine. She sees through Sisko’s deception, when Kira doesn’t, which is cool. There’s nothing really wrong with this episode, it’s salutary to see what the galaxy looks like without the benign influence of the Federation, and this is the series to do it. It just doesn’t have the ice-water shock of Crossover, that’s all.

DS9 S03E20 Improbable Cause (3.5 out of 5 stars). Garak is tangling with Shakespeare and gets as little out of Earth literature as Bashir got out of Cardassian Enigma novels. But just as he’s finished fuming that Caesar should have known that opposing forces were massing against him, somebody firebombs his shop with him inside. Pretty soon he and Odo are joining forces to try and track down his would-be assassin. While Andrew Robinson is still a delight, the pattern of lies within lies and casual dissembling has started to become overfamiliar, and this doesn’t have the high stakes of The Wire, which makes the fact that it’s another stealth two-parter even more surprising. Let’s have a fuller discussion of the overall plot when everything has been wrapped up (or as close as we ever get to that on this show).

VOY S01E12 Heroes and Demons (2.5 out of 5 stars). As Janeway and Torres are technobothering a proto-star, it is noticed that Harry Kim is not onboard the ship. He was due some Holodeck time and – look, yes, I know this was covered in a line of dialogue a few episodes ago, but it still strikes me as completely ridiculous to start a story fretting about running out of power and then transition to a plotline about how a very junior officer is burning energy running virtual simulations in his leisure time. Part of the problem is that, as noted, Voyager has to be simultaneously the most awesomest ship that the Delta Quadrant has ever seen, swatting Kazon cruisers lazily aside, and also a Federation rust bucket, on the brink of falling apart because they can’t ever get to a Starbase to make repairs.

As such, it’s even more difficult than usual to shrug off the absurdity of the Holodeck, which is usually presented as little more sophisticated than a CS Lewis-style dear old magic door, but here is presented as a magic door inside a wardrobe with flat batteries. There can also be no reason at all not to shut the program down. Chakotay even says at one point that doing so would definitely reveal Kim, dead or alive. Instead, the plan is to stick the Doctor in there, because he can’t be hurt, and he can’t be turned into a hologram. No other way of influencing the computer-controlled environment is even considered.

So, the science fiction here is basically all handwaving and gibberish, but the focus on Robert Picardo makes everything better. His first-night-nerves are very touching and he even gets a snog out of it. Theologian, missionary and philosopher (and doctor, to be fair) Albert Schweitzer is a curious person for him to name himself after (and it doesn’t stick) but it’s hard to feel much when the Holodeck phantoms sacrifice themselves to save him. Plus, it’s the Farpoint ending again.

DS9 S03E21 The Die is Cast (4 out of 5 stars). Part one had plenty of good dialogue and a pleasantly unhurried pace, but a slight sense that there probably wasn’t quite enough material for 45 minutes. Its key purpose was to put Garak back by his old mentor’s side with Odo bearing witness. Rather sweetly, Bashir is missing his friend (O’Brien makes a poor substitute). The other big plot element, which is played as shocking news at the top of part two, is that the Cardassian and the Romulan secret polices are joining forces to mount a pre-emptive attack on the Founders. It’s a curious idea to try and wring tension out of – three of our traditional enemies are going to go toe-to-toe. Seems like whoever loses, we win. But this broader canvas is very much a part of DS9’s MO, and I suppose nobody wants war.

Part two continues part one’s unhurried pace. The episode is almost a third over before we catch up with Odo, but any time we get to spend with Andrew Robinson and René Auberjonois trading bitter quips is time well spent. Sisko defies orders and plunges into the wormhole in the Defiant, looking for his head of security, who is the subject of a kind of tug-of-sadism between Garak and Tain, which results in a truly chilling scene where Odo is forced to remain humanoid as a form of torture. However, when the attack on the Founders goes south, Garak rescues the shapeshifter and it quickly transpires that the Founders were pulling the strings all this time. This two-parter is probably more noteworthy for its arc-significance than for its pure entertainment value, but it is good stuff, and it’s rare to see a part two which is better than part one. So let’s give credit where it’s due: to Ron Moore’s script which pays everything off and to Avery Brooks, back in the director’s chair, keeping it all moving.

Admiral Toddman is wearing the TNG-style uniform in gold with weird rank pips on both collars.

VOY S01E13 Cathexis (3 out of 5 stars). We start with more grinding Holonovel nonsense, and only a week after the Holodeck damn near killed three crewmembers. Every time we step into this fantasy world, I can’t help thinking “Being stranded on the other side of the galaxy seems like a trivial inconvenience rather than a life-altering crisis. And lucky our lifeboat is this impregnable pleasure-machine.” Meanwhile, Chakotay’s brain is missing. I dunno, after the theft of Neelix’s lungs, you’d think the crew would have learned to take better care of their vital organs. In a further mystery, which rather points the way to a solution to the first problem, the crew are taking actions that they hold no memory of and Kes is feeling haunted.

As the creeping paranoia takes over the ship, the tension does ramp up quite effectively, and it’s cool to see the crew taking strong clear decisions in a situation where they have very little information. But this is all plot, all the time, and nobody’s personalities are to the fore – even the scene of Torres trying to help Chakotay by making him a dream blanket and the Doctor being nice about it just feels like it’s empty of any actual individual feeling (and lo, it’s a plot point, not a character beat).

Janeway’s Holonovel proves to be nothing more than time-wasting at the top of the episode, a sin for which a more petty reviewer might have knocked off half a star.

DS9 S03E22 Explorers (3 out of 5 stars). When he took the part of Sisko, Avery Brooks wanted to play it as he had done in ABC’s Spenser for Hire and its short-lived spin-off series A Man Called Hawk, i.e. with a shaved head and a goatee beard. He put this to the producers who mused “No, then you’ll look like your character Hawk from Spenser for Hire and A Man Called Hawk. You’d better do it clean-shaven and with short hair.” Finally, after 67 episodes, Brooks has his beard back. The shaved head (and the promotion to captain) can’t be far away.

Sisko’s strand sees him building an ancient Bajoran solar sailing ship in order to demonstrate the plausibility of tales of Bajoran interstellar travel decades before the Cardassians ventured out of their solar system. Bajoran enthusiasm for their own ancient technology recalls Chekov’s insistence that all the best things were invented in Russia in TOS but here, the attempt is baked into the ongoing political story, rather than just being the subject of interchangeable character gags.

This mission is interesting from a couple of perspectives. Is this something we imagined that Sisko would do? He drags Jake along, who continues to do Generic Teenage Boy things, rather than develop a real relationship or personality, but Sisko’s determination a) to test an ancient legend and b) to doggedly pursue a dangerous hobby seems to have dropped out of thin air slightly. On the other hand, I definitely can’t imagine Janeway or Picard doing this (no, building ships in bottles isn’t the same thing) but it feels like more the kind of idée fixe that would consume O’Brien, or possibly LaForge, rather than our steady-as-she-goes Station Commander.

The other thing it does is to massively expose the Key Star Trek Metaphor, which is so baked into the series, and has been virtually since day one, that it usually goes unacknowledged, but all the talk of sailing here forces us to confront it. Basically: space = oceans, planets = nation states, races = societies, Federation = NATO, Starfleet = navy. It’s why so many alien races are so monolithic. They look to humans the way the French look to the British or the Swedish look to the Americans. And – wouldn’t ya know it? – it turns out that the journey of the ancient Bajorans is highly plausible. While Dukat’s smooth climbdown is as delicious as ever, I can’t help thinking that “Huh, the nice guys were right all along,” is probably the least interesting way this strand could have ended. DS9 has conditioned me to expect doom, or certainly ambiguity, and so I really expected that the Sisko boys would need to be rescued, or that they would fluke their way to Cardassia in a way which didn’t really support the ancient legend.

Elsewhere, Bashir’s old college rival is on the station, but she walks right past him. There’s probably something being said there about different perspectives on the same events, but it doesn’t get the screentime it needs to be fully developed. I do treasure O’Brien telling the bouncy doctor: “People either love you or they hate you. I hated you when we first met. And now…” (munches on peanuts). And the sight of them singing “Jerusalem” together at the end is perfect.

Sisko comments that going home for lunch every day must have used up a lot of transporter credits, which is an odd thing to say in a post-scarcity society.

VOY S01E14 Faces. (3 out of 5 stars). Starting an episode of TNG is easy, because the Enterprise usually had a thing it needed to be doing. Starting an episode of DS9 is harder, but sometimes we benefit from just hanging with our guys for a while until a ship docks, bearing a plot. Starting an episode of Voyager is hard because there’s no-one to give them missions and any sense of “we’re just kicking back for a while and unwinding” kills the premise. This one opens as if they’ve been given a cartography mission, which they definitely haven’t. Why are they messing around charting whoosits and whatsits and looping back to pick up crewmembers so doing, when they should be hauling ass back to the Alpha Quadrant?

We also get a glimpse of some sinister silhouettes operating on B’Elanna. Yep, another day, another plague-ridden planet, another member of the crew transmogrified – this time the Chief Engineer into a full-blown Klingon and once she has the makeup on, Roxann Dawson starts impersonating Michael Dorn. This requires a rescue and since strong regular characters are so thin on the ground that the away team consists of Paris, Torres and good old “Cannon-Fodder” Durst (I wonder why they call him that?). Kim, Tuvok and Chakotay are needed to form the rescue party.

And here comes the twist! While Klingon Torres is helping the lung-stealers to find a cure for the phage, a human version is locked up with Paris. So this is The Enemy Within but with a character divided along racial lines instead of merely by temperament. And I use the word racial advisedly. This is a show centring a mixed race-looking actor playing a character (with a Hispanic-sounding name) who reveals that she was taunted as a child and so tried to conceal her racial characteristics. Here, rather than being a metaphor for European seafaring explorers, The Federation is coded as white America and the Klingons living among Federation people as pre-civil rights Black Americans, some of whom attempt to “pass” as white.

It’s strong stuff. The question is: does this frequently silly primetime science fiction adventure series have the chops to tackle these issues with any depth or finesse? We never really find out, because most of the episode is about gibberish DNA technobabble, viral strains, daring prison escapes, Vidiians disguised as Starfleet and vice-versa. But the episode does give Torres some much-needed depth and Dawson a chance to flex her acting muscles a bit, especially when playing scenes with herself. We also see another Talaxian which is cool. Speaking of which, Neelix’s Plomeek soup is somewhat piquant.

DS9 S03E23 Family Business (4 out of 5 stars). This is another non-arc episode, and yet one which sets up three different future recurring characters. It occurs to me that whereas story-of-the-week shows have been with us forever, and now almost everything on TV is serialised, this semi-serialised pattern with arc and non-arc episodes was short-lived and feels odd today. Modern television almost always gives us either a movie cut into chunks, or an episode with an element of a self-contained story which nonetheless advances the season-long (or sometimes series-long) narrative as well. Here, nothing that happens touches on the Founders, the Cardassians, the Dominion – even the wormhole scarcely merits a mention. You could watch this one in complete isolation if you wanted a taste of what Deep Space Nine was all about. But at the same time, it’s picking up threads from past episodes and will itself be returned to more than once.

Given very little time to make an impression is Penny Johnson Jerald, now more familiar to me as Dr Finn on The Orville, but debuting here as Sisko’s love interest, the eccentrically-spelled Kasidy Yates. Dominating the episode is the saga of Jeffrey Combs’s Liquidator Brunt vs Quark vs the amazing Andrea Martin as Ishka, his mom. As a one-off gag “you allow your women to wear clothes” is a bit silly and now feels a bit “The Worm That Turned” from The Two Ronnies. The job of this story is to take that silly idea and make us buy it. It works, largely because Armin Shimerman and Andrea Martin are so good, and while Max Grodénchik isn’t in quite the same lead, he does well here (and his co-stars make him look good).

So, one the one hand, this is a bit of a reprise of Rules of Acquisition from Season 2, but this time we make it the planet Ferenginar and there are plenty of plot twists, choice gags and excellent character work to keep us interested. Both Ishka and Brunt will be back and so will Combs in a variety of guises. René Auberjonois directs smoothly.

That brings me to the end of this review, this post and this year of watching an episode of Star Trek every day. Thanks if you’re reading this – especially if I don’t know you personally. 365 down and just 359 to go. Happy new year and see you in 2023.

Trekaday 063: Eye of the Needle, Visionary, Ex Post Facto, Emanations, Prime Factors, Distant Voices, State of Flux

Posted on December 23rd, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

VOY S01E07 Eye of the Needle (3.5 out of 5 stars). Harry Kim has found a wormhole but it turns out to be only a tiddler, 30cm in diameter. Voyager stories seem to one of three main types. “Oh crap, we’re running low on unobtainium.” “This looks like something we should investigate.” And “This looks like it might get us home if only we can… never mind.” With no friends or enemies in the Delta Quadrant, no visiting dignitaries, no missions from Starfleet Command and no way in which wider political stories can impact them, they’re somewhat limited. And all three of these stories have their problems.

“We’re running low…” stories contradict one of the premises of the show, that Voyager is a superior ship to anything else in the area. And they either end with “We won’t have to worry about that for a while,” in which case there aren’t that many of those stories you can tell, or you actually commit to having the ship fall apart, which breaks the show as well as the craft. If memory serves, those go away almost completely after Season 1.

“Might get us home…” stories tell you the end before they start. Just like breaking the ship, getting home – or even getting near to home – once again breaks the show. So “We should investigate” episodes become the norm, and slowly the political forces in the quadrant become part of the established lore, which does make one wonder what the benefit was of stranding Voyager in the Delta Quadrant in the first place, if the most successful kinds of stories are the ones which ignore or seek to progressively minimise the significance of that premise.

This week, it’s the second kind of story, and Harry Kim is mournfully fretting about what his family are thinking, and whether anyone is looking for them. The wormhole, wherever it leads, can’t accommodate their ship, but they might be able to get a message through – or a transporter beam. The understandably cagey Romulan scientist they contact is able to beam onboard, but it turns out he’s from 20 years in the past, which is a novel enough way of keeping the show going, and there’s some depth of feeling in the plight of the crew and their desire to try and get messages home. However, I don’t know how many more times I want to see this story. Threading the needle indeed.

The Doctor requests a name. It will be a while before he gets one.

DS9 S03E17 Visionary (2.5 out of 5 stars). Chief O’Brien has radiation poisoning and has to take it easy, so he’s installing a darts board at Quark’s – and finds himself watching himself from across the promenade. It’s a very spooky and beguiling image, but as questions are replaced with answers, what at first seemed shocking becomes increasingly mundane and almost trivial. Adding to the general sense of trademarked Deep Space Nine suspicion and unease, Klingons and Romulans are both on the station. The Romulans have come for an intelligence briefing on the Dominion, and accuse Odo of either being a spy or holding out on them. Meanwhile, O’Brien’s frequent trips through time turn out not to be an existential threat but a neat get-out-of-jail-free card. Eventually he even stops fainting when he comes back to the present, and greets his past self with a cheery “Am I pleased to see you!” Even the Rick and Morty-esque ending is treated with blasé indifference by everyone except O’Brien, who therefore also shrugs it off. A good premise rather thrown away.

VOY S01E08 Ex Post Facto (1 out of 5 stars). The challenge of being stuck in a remote corner of the galaxy without access to a starbase to repair the ship is clearly not going to be enough to keep this series going, and nor will we be regularly coming across promising-looking anomalies which give us soon-to-be-dashed hopes of a shortcut home. So instead, plenty of episodes are going to be standard Star Trek plots with this low-wattage cast instead of Picard’s or Sisko’s crew. In this case it’s the courtroom drama, set in a society with a different kind of justice than ours. Tom Paris is sentenced to relive his crime of murder (in noir-ish black-and-white) every 14 hours. It’s the kind of thing that a society focused on generating drama rather than delivering justice would do.

In flashback, Paris and Kim find themselves in a remarkably 20th century Earth society – even by Star Trek standards. Their host wears a grey business suit, has people over for dinner, smokes cigarettes, drinks tea, owns a dog, squabbles with his hot wife. It’s quite confoundingly familiar.

When we get more flashbacks it seems as if a team of writers from a dreadful daytime soap has taken over. Paris’s interactions with the Hot Wife are drenched in clichés and it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Plus, the solution to this problem is evidently going to be that the Always-Knows-Best Federation is going to be the first ones to point out the flaw in the system of justice used by this planet for generations. Add to this that Paris appears to be the horny architect of his own misfortune and there’s very little to recommend this effort. Plus it’s the damned dog again. As usual, actors-turned-directors (in this case LeVar Burton) seem to be handed the weakest scripts available. One star for Chakotay’s “Maquis trick” (he has more).

Tuvok has been married for 67 years.

VOY S01E09 Emanations (2 out of 5 stars). Everyone on Voyager is all-a-tizzy because a stash of unobtanium has been located on an asteroid, but when they beam down, the caves are littered with corpses. Kim and Chakotay disagree about whether they should investigate the bodies or leave them be and there’s a diverting discussion about post-mortem rituals. Because this is Voyager, they are interrupted by a space-time-anomaly-vacuole and Kim is left behind when everyone else is beamed out. He pops out of a coffin and is told he has returned from the dead.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is able to actually bring one of the aliens back from the dead and once again the stage is set for The Federation Knows Best as generations of wonky beliefs are swept aside by one visit from smug people in colourful space pyjamas. Turns out that encouraging inconvenient family members to off themselves isn’t the kindest thing imaginable.

This has echoes of the far superior TNG episode Half a Life but that was deeply rooted in the characters, and this is all about the concepts. Plus, the TNG story was saying something about how we treat the elderly. This is criticising an entirely made-up attitude to death and dying and so it doesn’t really resonate.

What’s most disappointing about all of this is that, a few comments about Native American traditions aside, you can swap the roles of Chakotay, Kim and Torres all you like and nothing much would change. Even given that it’s early in the development of the series, that’s pretty poor.

Jerry (“Mark Twain”) Hardin makes a return appearance as Dr Neria.

VOY S01E10 Prime Factors (3.5 out of 5 stars). Just as the Federation frequently empires its way around the galaxy studying the primitive natives from a respectful distance, Voyager seems to be making a habit of stumbling across rubes who could learn a thing or two from their Alpha Quadrant betters. It’s nice therefore to have Janeway’s crew encounter their first batch of technologically superior people since the Caretaker. Thrillingly, they have come with offers of a vacation. Their pleasure planet looks like a Manhattan pop-up modern art exhibition and the Sikarians wear decorative audio cables around their heads. It’s all a bit low-key and laid back, with the chief interest appearing to be in whether or not poor Harry Kim will get his end away. (Who’d have thought that the major developing plotline of Voyager Season 1 would be scurrilous gossip about the Delaney sisters?)

The Sikarians have magical space-folding technology which could magic the crew home in the twinkling of a video effect which they cheerfully demonstrate in order to give Harry a change of scene. But when it comes to using it a second time to get our guys back to Federation space, it’s no dice. Their own prime directive won’t let them transport aliens (more than once, I assume) and the irony isn’t lost on anyone.

Voyager doesn’t have the kind of deep bench of supporting characters that DS9 is assembling – it doesn’t even have its own Ensign Ro, Reg Barclay and Miles O’Brien knocking around the ship. But this Seska keeps cropping up, doesn’t she? We know she’s Maquis because Janeway, ever eager to integrate the two crews, has given them all their own rank insignia instead of giving them field commissions into Starfleet. Seska sees Janeway’s diplomacy as infatuation and puts pressure on Torres to take matters into her own hands.

Stuck as we are with the way-home-that-isn’t storyline, having Maquis elements in the crew oppose the captain isn’t a bad way of making it a bit more interesting than it might otherwise have been. But as with The Caretaker, the moral dilemma feels a little synthetic. The Sikarians may (or may not) have a principled reason for refusing to help the Federation. But once they’re unmasked as hedonistic and selfish badguys, what ethical reason could there possibly be for not doing an under-the-counter deal? It doesn’t hurt them, and it vastly benefits the crew. So, the plot ending of the episode was inevitable, but the character beats with Torres, Tuvok and Seska kick this up a notch.

DS9 S03E18 Distant Voices (2 out of 5 stars). We open with Garak and Bashir, which is usually a good sign. Bashir is fretting about turning 30 which is scarcely the most eye-poppingly novel bit of character-building I’ve ever seen. Garak hands him an early birthday present – a Holosuite program adapted from a Cardassian mystery novel. Quark’s Lethean friend wants to buy some Biomimetic gel from Bashir but it’s not available at any price. Suddenly Bashir awakes to find himself in a smashed-up lab with a terrified Quark hiding under a table. Presumably therefore, this is either the Holosuite program or the Lethean’s doing, and the only real question remaining is which?

As well as being an obvious fantasy, the implementation doesn’t make any sense. Having already figured out that everyone he’s interacting with is a figment of his imagination, Bashir still marvels at “Sisko’s” medical expertise. Unconscious Bashir’s mind can’t magic up the kind of tricorder readings he’s seen before and would expect to see but is capable of showing him accurate medical data about his real body which he can have absolutely no knowledge of.

Breaking a character down into component parts is the kind of thing Red Dwarf used to do brilliantly. Here, if Bashir didn’t laboriously identify who was who, we’d have no clue as the regulars all come across as generically argumentative and petulant. In the final showdown, there’s an attempt to ret-con the furiously tenacious Bashir as a quitter who could have been an awesome tennis player and who deliberately flunked his exams. As if this wasn’t all clichéd enough, we’re also giving the aging-rapidly-to-death storyline another outing. Dear oh dear.

In Cardassian Enigma novels, all the suspects are always guilty. Cardassian hearing is not as acute as that of humans.

VOY S01E11 State of Flux (3 out of 5 stars). The Kazon are back – and remember, the awesome and implacable threat of the Kazan is the whole reason we’re in this jam. Nevertheless, when they fire on Chakotay, they are sure to keep their energy weapons on stun. Very considerate warlike alien race! The away mission is oriented around Neelix ferreting out revolting vegetables, but Seska has gone missing just at the moment when everyone needs to beam back. As the sole remaining representative of the two-warring-crews idea, Seska is one of the most fascinating characters in the show, very ably played by Martha Hackett. I’m dismayed to hardly remember her, which tells me that she gets written out / killed off / left behind quite soon.

Even more weird is the fact that we smash into the titles from Chakotay being felled by the Kazon, but then we discover that he and Seska evaded their remaining forces, made it back out into the open, communicated with the ship, beamed back on board safely, got patched up by the Doctor and made soup off-screen, while the carefully cloaked Kazan ship just stood by and watched. It’s bafflingly poor.

Today’s off-the-shelf ethical dilemma next presents itself: the Kazan themselves are sending out distress calls. The disaster which befell them seems to have been caused by trying to jury-rig Federation technology into a Kazon vessel. Seska seems to be the obvious person to be slipping the baddies Voyager’s tech. So, we trudge through an investigation of this malfeasance, until finally the truth of Seska’s identity is revealed. Seska was a Cardassian who infiltrated the Maquis disguised as a Bajoran. That’s actually exciting, but she high-tails it out of there and I believe we won’t see her again for some time.

Even while trying to seduce him, Seska calls the first officer “Chakotay”. Doesn’t he have a first name? Torres does not exaggerate her repair time estimates.

Stray thoughts

  • There’s nothing so terribly wrong with taking a Federation ship and stranding it halfway across the galaxy. It seems clear that the idea of making this a part-Federation part-Maquis crew was one that Berman, Piller and Taylor (or some comibination of) rapidly came to regret as this aspect is written-out faster than Jennifer Parker in the Doc’s DeLorean. Out of three aspects of the premise therefore we have one that doesn’t work – the ship will fall apart and can’t be put back together; one that no-one wants to do – the ship is composed of two warring crews with different ideas about the Federation. That leaves us with: we’re 70 years from home, but that doesn’t generate any stories, except of course for: I think I’ve found a short cut which will, wait, no, never mind.
  • So, fine, we’re exploring uncharted space just like Kirk used to and Picard was briefly said to be. That means that the interest will lie in who are main characters are and what people and situations they encounter. Sadly, the main characters are a bit of a mixed bag. Janeway and the Doctor are the clear standouts. Thank goodness for Kate Mulgrew who time and again holds soggy dialogue together, and for Robert Picardo who’s such a gift to the writers. Strong performers, working hard to bring their under-utilised characters to life are Roxann Dawson and Tim Russ. Having so few stories built around either of them is quite baffling.
  • Neelix is permanently sitting in the comic relief spot (when he isn’t having his lungs confiscated) and so doesn’t tend to make stories happen either. Kim, Chakotay, and Paris are three interchangeable Starfleet guys and Kes is just along for the ride, smiling wanly at the Doctor and rarely displaying anything remotely resembling an inner life. It’s a pretty thin collection, and that’s going to be a problem.

Trekaday 062: Life Support, Heart of Stone, Phage, Destiny, The Cloud, Prophet Motive

Posted on December 16th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

DS9 S03E13 Life Support (3.5 out of 5 stars) A ship docks with a busted blah-de-blah. Kai Winn and Vedek Bareil are onboard and Bareil is stretchered out of there. Wearing the regulation Dead Ringers red gimp suits, Bashir operates on Bareil with the help of a Bajoran nurse but all the saltshakers in the world aren’t doing him any good. Which is a bummer because Winn and Bareil have been back-channelling peace talks with Cardassia for ages now. About to perform an autopsy, Bashir notices neurons still firing and is able to bring his patient back from the brink, but not without cost.

Bashir wants to put the Vedek back into stasis while he works the problem, but Bareil wants to get back to the negotiation table. Naturally, there’s an experimental drug which could help, and equally naturally Bashir capitulates to his patient’s demands to be put on it. As ever, Bashir is a simple personification of medical ethics – it’s striking that the Emergency Medical Hologram on Voyager has more personality than the completely human Julian Bashir, and it’s due to the writing far more than the acting – Siddig does everything that’s asked of him.

The medical ethics get increasingly absurd. Having heard Bashir talk about replacing damaged organs, Winn wants to know if he can replace damaged bits of his brain as well. Bashir puts up a decent fight against the nonsense but ends up giving his patient positronic implants, not knowing what the outcome will be, which does rather pose the question: for what purpose were these devices constructed, if no-one can be certain of their efficacy? Essentially, Bashir ends up turning Bareil into Data – not an uninteresting storyline but the path to this conclusion is paved with gibberish.

In a rather dull B-plot, Jake is on the station and he’s a smoooth operator, chatting comfortably with Leanne, a cute human girl he remembered eating Klingon food with. Nog expects this to be a double date, and he doesn’t expect the “females” to do any talking. It’s pretty thin culture clash stuff and Nog is at his most annoying. Mysteriously, Jake can only talk to Nog about how he’s being a bit of a dick if they’re both arrested.

Maybe it’s been like that for ages and I haven’t noticed, but Kira’s hair which used to be swept straight back is now parted on one side and makes her look just a tiny bit like Harry Potter.

DS9 S03E14 Heart of Stone (3.5 out of 5 stars). Kira and Odo return in a shuttlecraft, casually swapping exposition, before they pick up a Maquis ship which they pursue to a moon in the Badlands. They begin exploring the cave system but no sooner than Odo’s back is turned (why is Odo’s back turned?) than Kira’s foot is trapped in crystalline quicksand. Because Kira doesn’t know The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, she phasers the crystal which doubles in size. Unable to contact the runabout, Odo returns to the surface. But he can’t help from there either. On the one hand, this is a suitably intractable problem, and Nana Visitor and René Auberjonois sell it well. On the other hand, I super don’t trust the way we got into this situation and it’s hard to buy into the reality of her dilemma when I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

On the station, Nog has had his bar mitzvah and wants to become a Starfleet officer. This is pretty silly stuff, but Sisko’s treatment of the young Ferengi is not without interest, and his clumsy insistence on shaking hands like a hu-man is funny enough. I actually hope they stick with this one. Why shouldn’t there be a Ferengi in Starfleet and why shouldn’t it be Nog?

Odo, who can assume any form he wishes, crouches down when trying to estimate Kira’s assailant’s height. Kira actually says “There’s one thing I still don’t understand,” at the end of the episode.

VOY S01E05 Phage (2 out of 5 stars). Voyager has a power shortage and requires dilithium to keep the lights on (plus a refinery). Janeway seems very cheerful about their desperate situation, stranded seventy years from home – she’s chatting happily to Chakotay about breakfast and is then plunged into a sitcom scene with Neelix who has set up a galley kitchen in the captain’s private dining room, and who then invites himself on to the away team.

I know this is going to sound hard to believe, but down on the rogue planetoid, things don’t go entirely according to plan. Neelix is zapped and the Doctor determines that his lungs have been removed from his body. Mulgrew and Beltran exchange this information with admirably straight faces. A replicator, which can create any design imaginable, cannot make lungs for Neelix. But the hologram projector can create holographic lungs, which really doesn’t make much sense.

This would love to be a really moving and thought-provoking medical ethics drama, but it’s far too ridiculous for that and far too strait-laced for the absurdity to be entertaining. Ethan Phillips is remarkable here, and Robert Picardo continues the great work he’s been doing (“I’m a doctor, not a decorator.”), but Jennifer Lien and Robert Duncan McNeill continue to offer very little and this has rather too little plot for the running time.

The away team has nifty wrist-torches which keep the left hand free. In overly-precise-countdown news, the Doctor has a gizmo which will breathe for Neelix for exactly 60 minutes, following which he will immediately expire – which seems like a manufacturing shortcoming to me. Apart from anything else, does the Doctor not have any more such gizmos? The EMH, which is created and controlled by the ship’s computer, still has to give verbal commands to the computer to get things done. Once again, Voyager is faced with more than one image of a ship, at most one of which is real.

DS9 S03E15 Destiny (3.5 out of 5 stars). The new plan is to rig up a pair of tin cans and a length of twine through the wormhole and to this end, there are Cardassian scientists coming to the station. But Vedek Yarka is here too with a warning from the prophets – Sisko will bring destruction on us all. When they arrive the scientists are flighty, nervous things, hardly the harbingers of doom we expected. As the mission unfolds, aspects of the prediction start to come true, or so it seems. Kira is convinced that if they continue with the mission then disaster awaits, but hard-headed Sisko is equally sure that the prophecies are just vague stories.

Meanwhile, the Cardassian scientists are butting heads with O’Brien who has rebuilding and replacing aspects of the station. On Cardassia women dominate the sciences and so O’Brien is thought to be ill-equipped to help. This worm-that-turned stuff is better by far than the blatant sexism of TOS but it still feels dated and awkward in 2022, especially as Gilora (Tracy Scoggins) ends up doing a lovesick woman act which put me in mind of McGivers and Khan in Space Seed. The endless prophecies of Trakor are so tedious that we cut to titles as Vedek Yarka is in mid-sentence.

In a particularly nifty pair of Rules of Acquisition, we learn that peace is good for business. But then so is war.

VOY S01E06 The Cloud (2 out of 5 stars). A rather slow, undramatic teaser is at least paying lip-service to the idea that stuck out in the Delta Quadrant, some things won’t be the same. Janeway’s introspection about whether the crew wants her to be an icon or a buddy is rather affecting, but – as Kim puts it – Paris is working from an old rule book. This transitions into a rather less deep motivation: the need for better coffee. Because something else which is still being paid lip service is the idea that there aren’t any starbases at which their craft can refuel, which means that replicator power is rationed. A handy nebula may provide some fresh batteries.

Before long, just as happened in three earlier episodes, Voyager passes through a weird thing in space and the door closes behind them. And then Kes starts snogging Neelix, leading me to suspect that it’s this show’s turn to do The Naked Time, although in fact nothing comes of this romantic interlude. Meanwhile, both to get in and to get out, Janeway raises shields, fires phasers, and generally burns what must be far more energy than was required to get her a morning cup of Joe. Very wisely, the writers decline to put many easily-trackable numbers on any of these issues, but that does mean that the problem we’re supposed to be wrestling with is very fuzzy and ill-defined. The Holodeck, remember, uses triple-A batteries and the rest of the ship uses double-As so people can go nuts indulging their fantasies without worrying about wasting needed energy. The lengthy sojourn with Kim and Paris (and the long scene of Janeway meditating under Chakotay’s guidance) only adds to the languid feel of the episode.

I imagine that the idea of this episode was to establish who these characters are, or were before this catastrophe befell them. But this is a science fiction adventure series and what we’re interested in is how these characters will react under the pressure of high stakes situations, not whether they prefer to play pool or drink coffee when off-duty. As such, this is a pretty dull episode, despite its emphasis on the life-or-death aspects of the show’s premise. Even the big revelation about the “nebula” is a lift from Encounter at Farpoint.

Voyager has a complement of 38 photon torpedoes and no way to make new ones.

DS9 S03E16 Prophet Motive (2.5 out of 5 stars). The Grand Nagus is back and cock-blocking Quark who might finally be able to get rid of those self-sealing stem bolts, but before he can sign the contract, he’s kicked out of his apartment and forced to re-enact The Odd Couple with Rom. Worse is to come, as the Nagus appears to have taken leave of his avarice and is rewriting the Rules of Acquisition to focus on hugging and kittens instead of profit. His seeming insanity may be connected to one of those Bajoran flashback boxes.

In the B-plot, Bashir has been nominated for a medical prize, but his nomination appears to have nothing to do with all of the extraordinary feats he pulled off which resolved so many medical-ethics plots in past episodes. Instead, it’s for biomolecular replication, whatever that may be. Bashir is more irritated than honoured, as the Carrington Award is usually seen as a lifetime achievement rather than something given to eager young bucks with their best work ahead of them.

Neither plot strand is particularly diverting, although any episode focusing on Quark and featuring Wallace Shawn is fine by me, and it’s fun seeing the irreverent Ferengi pushed through the usually po-faced Bajoran mysticism. René Auberjonois directs, but I’d rather have him the other side of the camera.

Trekaday 061: Caretaker, Parallax, Time and Again

Posted on December 10th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

VOY S01E01-2 Caretaker (2 out of 5 stars). Genevieve Bujold lasted about a day. The idea was kinda nuts. Counting The Original Series, three different Star Trek shows had established beloved characters by casting experienced TV actors, none of whom were household names. And the actors with the highest profiles prior to their casting (LeVar Burton and René Auberjonois) had been rendered pretty much unrecognisable underneath costume and makeup. So there was no need to cast a movie star in the lead of Voyager, no matter how much pressure there was to make the third Star Trek spin-off a success.

And there was pressure. For many years, American television had been ruled by the Big Three networks: CBS, NBC and ABC. Fox had launched in 1986 but it was still struggling. The way seemed open for another network. Two major media conglomerates – Warners and Paramount – decided to have a go, each seemingly unaware of the plans of the other. Finding an audience for a fourth network seemed plausible. Finding an audience for a fourth and fifth network seemed a lot less likely.

The WB launched in January 1995, with one night of programming per week, and it gradually added more. Flagship shows included The Wayans Bros, Unhappily Ever After, and it scored a big hit in 1997 with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The United Paramount Network also launched in January 1995, and Star Trek: Voyager was the first show to be aired. It was the lynchpin of the project and as it turned out, one of the only UPN shows to last more than one season.

Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor devised the format and Piller turned Deep Space Nine over to Ira Steven Behr so that he could focus on the new show. Ron Moore stayed with DS9 but Brannon Braga came over to Voyager. Voyager took over the stages which TNG had been using, and the Berman machine kept on trekking.

The might of that machine should have been enough to guarantee success, but somebody somewhere wanted a film actor, possibly to counterbalance the perceived risk of building a show – in 1994! – around a female leading character. Either way, it didn’t work out, and Bujold walked off the set on day two, citing the rapid pace of television production. The part was offered to the “first runner up” and the result is that Kate Mulgrew is still playing Janeway today (lending her voice to Star Trek Prodigy). Bujold would have been Nicole Janeway. Mulgrew is Kathryn. Everything Bujold shot can be seen on the DVD box set. She doesn’t look comfortable.

Far more than either TNG or DS9 the first episode is a “premise pilot”. Encounter at Farpoint and Emissary are both mainly “Here’s the world of the show, and these are the people in it.” Caretaker is chapter one – but it also has to establish the world and the characters. The world, well, initially that looks like a done-deal. It’s the world that Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana and so on established in 1987, which by now is seven years ago. As with Emissary, we begin with scrolling text to set the scene for new viewers – the Cardassians, the treaty, the Maquis. Then a whizzy space battle gets underway and we meet some new characters. The captain of the Maquis ship is a Native American named Chakotay. Other officers include a half-Klingon B’Elanna Torres and Vulcan, Tuvok. They’re heading for “The Badlands” briefly mentioned in a recent episode of DS9. They’re a pretty bland bunch, despite their very different backgrounds. Their dialogue is all business. Titles.

After using two classic pieces of Star Trek music stapled together for TNG, one of that show’s small stable of regular composers was tasked with coming up for the theme for the first spin-off. The result is a slightly constipated march which keeps threatening to develop into a really catchy melody and doesn’t quite succeed. So, for the new show, proper movie composer Jerry Goldsmith was engaged to come up with a theme. And he produced a slightly constipated march which keeps threatening to develop into a really catchy melody and doesn’t quite succeed. Sigh. The CGI Voyager with nacelles that move into position when it goes to warp is cute though.

Next, and slightly bafflingly, we meet Tom Paris in a Federation penal colony. This is Nicholas Locarno in all but name – he even has basically the same backstory. Possibly he has been renamed to provide greater freedom for the writers – possibly it’s to avoid paying a freelance writer for the IP. We also meet Janeway. While Robert Duncan McNeill is as generically rebellious here as he was in The First Duty, Mulgrew makes an instant impression. With her smooth Katharine Hepburn purr, she’s as warm as Kirk and as commanding as Picard. I liked her at first sight. Compare Mulgrew and Bujold’s versions of the “clarinet” scene. We got lucky here.

On board the Maquis ship lost in the Badlands was Janeway’s chief of security, undercover. Janeway wants Paris to help her retrieve ship, chief and all, but she makes it clear he will just be there as an observer. Voyager is a brand new ship, with a brand new crew. Introducing us to lots of new faces and then killing off some pretty major players – including Janeway’s first officer, medical officer, and a Betazoid ensign that Paris is sharking after – is a baller move, reminiscent of the first episode of Red Dwarf. But it somehow doesn’t feel as shocking as maybe it ought. Everybody is so bland that it’s hard to spot who’s going to survive to episode two and who isn’t, but it also doesn’t seem to matter all that much. A big deal is made of Voyager having “bio-neural” circuitry. I look forward to that being a major plot point very soon.

Just as Picard was there to give Sisko a send off, Quark is here to give Harry Kim his introduction to the world of Star Trek. He’s yet another bland figure whose only defining characterisation appears to be “young”. Even Bashir managed “young, cocky, doctor”. The bridge is a nice set, halfway between the hotel-in-space of the Enterprise and the Das Boot aesthetic of the Defiant.

The displacement field fries the ship (just after Tom Paris has got through telling Harry Kim he’s not exactly a good luck charm) and we get our first sight of The Array. What follows is some pretty convoluted storytelling. Now stranded on the other side of the galaxy, in a badly damaged ship, Voyager needs some friends (and some consoles that don’t explode when the ship gets damaged). Shutting down the warp core feels like drama, but doesn’t really impact the plot or reveal character. Again, it’s all business.

If this sounds like I’m dunking on this a bit – just you wait. Replacing the deceased doc is one of the show’s masterstrokes. Robert Picardo is genius casting, and the character of the Emergency Holographic Doctor is genuinely original and will be endlessly fascinating as the series develops. Picardo holds a lot back here – a smart move – but it’s already easy to see the potential.

Suddenly, and ridiculously, we’re on location in a southern plantation. Thankfully, Janeway figures out immediately that this is an illusion. Given the trauma of the situation, no-one seems especially bothered about their crippled ship, the enormous distance they’ve travelled or the loss of close colleagues and vital crew. And now the superfluous holography is done away with, and the truth is revealed. After sticking the crew with needles, everyone but Kim (and Torres from the Maquis ship) is returned. Janeway offers Chakotay a truce and Tuvok unmasks himself.

Robert Beltran makes zero impression as Chakotay, snarling at Paris and then curling up with his tail between his legs as soon as possible. Roxann Dawson makes more of an impression as Torres – at least I believe her when she snarls – but, rather like Dax she’s suffering from species instead of backstory (just as Paris is suffering from backstory instead of characterisation). Familiar face Tim Russ gives a good performance as Tuvok, suggesting tiny flickers of suppressed emotion, it’s just that I’ve seen that performance before when Leonard Nimoy did it on TOS.

What happens next is all rather confusing and convoluted. Characters visit the array, get knocked out, return, get sent back, get experimented on, protest, analyse data, go back, make some new friends, Paris and Chakotay re-enact the end of Second Chances with extra racism… Nothing feels like it has much of a purpose, and almost nobody seems to think that any of these problems require anything even approaching urgency. It all builds to Janeway’s decision to destroy the Array rather than risk the sector’s badguys, the Kazon, getting their hands on it – a choice which smacks of “there must have been another alternative.”

Quark has proven that a TNG-style drama adventure series can stand a comic relief character, and so Ethan Philips as Neelix is slotted into this role. He’s charming enough and I can understand why a local guide might be included, but again, it’s hard to understand what drives him, compared to Quark or Data or Odo (or even Troi!). Far less necessary and even blander than Kim, Chakotay or Paris is Jennifer Lien as Kes. So whereas TNG started off with at least five very able actors who made instant good impressions (Stewart, Spiner, Burton, Dorn, Crosby) and DS9 had one of the strongest casts in the whole franchise, here I’m clinging on to Mulgrew and Picardo and hoping for good things from Russ and Dawson – and the rest are kind of a right-off. It’s amazing how, after seven years of doing this, Berman, Piller and Taylor struggle so much to devise, write and cast characters we’ll want to follow for multiple seasons.

That’s problem number one. Problem number two is that the purpose of this first episode is to establish two main plot engines for the series. One is that this crew has been patchworked together from Starfleet officers, Maquis terrorists and locals. This is basically unwritten before the episode’s end, as everyone puts on a Starfleet uniform and Janeway’s authority becomes absolute and unquestioned. The second is that now they are stranded on the other side of the galaxy, there can be no resupply, no refitting. If they lose a shuttlecraft, it’s lost. If they damage something, it can’t be replaced. This rarely seems like it’s actually an issue, and so what we are left with is: it’s Star Trek, but we don’t have the benefit of building on any existing stories and have to start from scratch. It’s all a bit misbegotten – probably my least favourite pilot episode so far.

VOY S01E03 Parallax (3 out of 5 stars). The Voyager crew is at each other’s throats (and noses). In a very rare instance of the kind of  inter-crew squabbling we were seemingly promised, B’Elanna Torres has committed what would be a court-martial offence in other circumstances, but Chakotay is clear that they are both no longer Maquis. The dialogue here is pretty clichéd: “I will make a full report.” “You do that.” Ugh.

Lipservice is also paid to the fact that what was once routine maintenance isn’t without access to a Starbase. Again, if memory serves, you won’t hear much of that over the next 170 or so episodes. About the only concession to their self-sufficient status is Neelix in the galley. At this stage, he dragging Kes around like she’s a ventriloquist’s dummy. Janeway gives her the task of creating a hydroponics lab in cargo bay 2, and gets Tom Paris to train with the EMH (who is either “I am the embodiment of modern medicine” or has only “very limited capabilities” depending on who you ask). She also agrees to try out Torres as chief engineer. There’s a decent scene between Chakotay and Janeway regarding Torres, but Beltran is completely outclassed by Mulgrew. I guess that’s the right way round, but still…

But it’s not all crew rosters and personnel admin this week, it’s also gibberish science. Voyager encounters a “type IV quantum singularity” which sounds an awful lot like a black hole to me, except that the description of its event horizon is so off-beam that even Red Dwarf’s Holly could come up with a more accurate explanation from his Junior Encyclopaedia of Space. This turns out to be the Singularity that Jack Built and there’s a weird scene where Torres and Janeway aren’t sure which is the real ship and which is a ghost image, and Janeway is convinced to give Torres her promotion when Torres picks the wrong ship and Janeway picks the right one. Also, Paris calls their ship “the Voyager” which sounds completely wrong.

VOY S01E04 Time and Again (3.5 out of 5 stars). So, this is the show. It isn’t Voyager and our urgent need to survive long enough to get home. And it isn’t how will these two crews manage to work together? It’s The Next Generation without Starfleet command. We’ll keep turning up to new planets and finding plots there. While Michael Piller and Rick Berman have oversight of both shows, over the next few years and months, DS9 becomes the Ira Steven Behr all-pain-no-game show, while Voyager turns into Brannon Braga’s wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey time. So it is here. We arrive at a planet which is a burnt cinder, but when the away team goes to investigate, Janeway and Paris are plunged into the past.

This is the second timey-wimey story in a row, and even has similar dialogue about widening a fracture. Couldn’t we at least vary the technobabble we’re applying to our space problems? Other than that, this is decent adventure-of-the-week stuff, and Janeway makes a great hero, instantly calling the terrorists’ bluff (“I’m a hostage”) and then the bluff-caller has her bluff called. This is more interesting and (slightly) more layered than Parallax but it’s all about situations and actions and barely at all about characters. And of course, it ends with a big ol’ reset switch. Still, if you get the lead right, there’s time to sort out the rest, and I’d follow Janeway to the end of the universe at this point.

Media Centre update – Sonos Beam

Posted on December 9th, 2022 in Technology | No Comments »

Since the last Media Centre update, we’ve gained Sonos One speakers in three rooms, which by-and-large have worked very well, although in our loft conversion, the WiFi signal sometimes drops out which can create issues. However, the incredibly good value Sony Blu-ray player-cum-AV receiver has been wheezing and groaning a lot and keeps turning itself off when not in use, so it is clearly going to fail some time in the next six months. At the same time, I totted up everything I was paying to Sky and realised that replacing my dish-based solution with a single Now TV subscription would save me hundreds of pounds a year, so I rang up and cancelled everything. That makes the Sony device even less needed. It’s a Blu-ray player but I have all my Blu-rays on my NAS drive. And it’s an AV receiver which never switches inputs because now everything is on my Apple TV. So really it’s just a 5.1 amp. And there are better, more modern versions of those.

I took delivery today of a Sonos Beam and two Sonos One SLs (SL for speechless, i.e. they don’t have mics) and took the opportunity to clear out some of the clutter in my AV cabinet, untangle some cables, label things properly and so on.

The ideal way to connect a Sonos speaker to an Apple TV is to use your TVs EARC HDMI out, which requires a newer TV than I’ve got. You can use an optical connection, but that would mean taking my TV off the wall to access it, and I wanted to do some future proofing, so I also got an HDMI switch/splitter which will take two inputs and send the video of one to the TV and the audio to the speaker. In practice, I didn’t bother hooking the Sky box up to the other input because it doesn’t do anything now I’ve stopped paying – I can’t even play back old shows I’ve recorded. But now (I think) if I upgrade the Apple TV HD to one which provides Dolby Atmos, then that will work, and if I ever have occasion to add another device, then again I have the option.

Configuring the Sonos Beam was very straightforward and so was adding the rear surround speakers. As well as hard-wiring the speaker with HDMI cables, I also hard-wired it to the Internet, fearing WiFi drop outs, but that’s not possible with the rear speakers. I did order a Sonos Boost, a £99 device which creates a Sonos-only WiFi network to keep devices in touch with each other, but DHL declined to deliver it, for reasons so far unknown. However, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be necessary (fingers crossed).

Final hurdle was the Harmony remote. The Harmony range of remotes was by far the best solution available to operate multiple devices from a single controller, but Logitech announced that they would no longer be supporting or updating them a while back and now I live in fear that mine will wither on the vine. It was very unwilling to have my HDMI switcher added to its configuration, and although it seemed to understand the Sonos Beam, adjusting the volume over WiFi was very hit-and-miss. After much experimenting, and Googling, I ended up putting the old Sony system back into the Harmony database, then telling the Sonos speaker I was using my old Sony remote to operate the volume over IR and finally telling Harmony to adjust the volume using the Sony amp and denying to it all knowledge of anything made by Sonos. It’s a kludge, but it works.

It also works with the three existing speakers, so I can potter down to the kitchen, and have the TV audio briefly playing on the Sonos One in there and not miss anything, which is nice. And I don’t think I’d realised how loud the fan in the dust-filled Sony amp was until it wasn’t on the whole time.

I didn’t bother with the Sonos Sub Mini, which costs almost as much as the main sound bar, and which was frustratingly millimeters too large to fit in the cabinet, so this is a five channel system, not true 5.1, but in my small TV room I haven’t noticed the lack of bass so far. Maybe if I feel the need, I can get it for my birthday.

Trekaday 060: Defiant, Fascination, Past Tense

Posted on December 7th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

DS9 S03E09 Defiant (4 out of 5 stars). Kira is struggling with scheduling, logistics and resources and she’s taking it out on Bashir who prescribes a vacation. She’s just coming to terms with that when Riker smarms into view, in what I believe is known as cross-franchise-corporate-synergy (Generations was in theatres). He likewise has been prescribed downtime by Dr Crusher, he claims and he’s in the old-style uniform (but with the new-style com-badge).

Kira is caught off-guard when he asks for a tour of the Defiant and makes off with it – for this is not Will Riker, loyal number one on the Enterprise. This is transporter clone Tom Riker, who has now thrown his lot in with the Maquis. In order to avoid a war, Sisko agrees to return to Cardassia Prime with Gul Dukat and help him to hunt down the rogue ship and – if Dukat has his way – destroy it. It’s a wonderful set-up.

And the story doesn’t squander all this promise. We get to see another side of Riker, who does his best to get Kira on side, and who can’t stop being a Starfleet officer just a little bit. Then we have Sisko and Dukat trying to outwit Tom and his cronies, and fencing with the Obsidian order, who seem to have their own secret ships in operation. And it’s very hard to guess the outcome – Tom is deliciously killable. In the end, it comes down to diplomacy which gives the final act a slightly low-key feel compared to the sky-high stakes in the middle – Tom’s offered a decent deal, and he takes it. And I note that Kira high tails it back to Federation space at Warp 8, so I trust that silly business about space having a speed limit is something we can all forget about now.

Of course, this is all a set-up for the upcoming Star Trek: Voyager (in what I believe is known as cross-franchise etc etc).

DS9 S03E10 Fascination (1 out of 5 stars). In yet more cross-franchise etc, Lwaxana is on the station and hoping to pick up where she left off with Odo – and she helpfully supplies a recap for new viewers. Kira is enjoying time with Bareil and trying to fit in preparations for a Bajoran festival. An exhausted Keiko is reunited with O’Brien. It’s all a bit domestic, dull and laborious – the exact details of the Bajoran ceremony are of scant interest to me, for example. When Jake starts cracking on to Kira, I can only assume that some kind of mind-altering love potion is in the air. That would be clichéd but if that isn’t what’s happening, then it would actually be ludicrous. When Bareil does the same to Dax, it becomes clear that that is indeed the story we’re to be subjected to. Presumably Lwaxana’s doing. Oh, I see. It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Make it stop.

DS9 S03E11 Past Tense, Part I (4 out of 5 stars). Sisko and team are returning to Earth for a jolly when – whoopsie – a transporter glitch sends Sisko, Dax and Bashir back in time to space year 2024 where some kind of fascist regime wants to see their IDs. It’s a nifty premise. Rather than have them come back to the time the show was made, or back to a familiar period of history, we visit a time period significant to the Federation but where the writers can make up the details (for more examples, see Picard Season 2 or Star Trek: First Contact).

Separated from Dax, Bashir and Sisko are in a Sanctuary District – something which keen history student Sisko knows all about – and are interrogated by none other than that guy from that cult film you like, Dick Miller. Dax meanwhile is hacking herself some ID, courtesy of a blandly good-looking local media mogul. This is a lovely, intractable problem, ripe for a two-parter, so I can forgive it for being another non-arc episode, although I assume that the Dominion aren’t going to wait forever before making their move.

Naturally, it turns out that a few days from now, Sisko and Bashir will be caught up in historic riots which will see hundreds of deaths at the hands of government troops – and time travel is sufficiently commonplace that Bashir was taught not to interfere in key events while at the Academy. One Gabriel Bell will become a national hero and martyr which will lead to the end of the Sanctuaries and put the USA on the path to Federation-style peace and harmony. That hints at America’s racist past (and present) but neither of these two non-white men encounters any explicit racism. What they do encounter is that same Gabriel Bell – and they get him killed.

On the Defiant, O’Brien thinks he knows when the others are (or has narrowed it down to half a dozen different time periods) and Kira proposes sending a series of search parties. Using the transporter and some handy “chronoton particles” handwaves how to send people through time from the ship. No thought is given at this stage as to how to get a Defiant-less party back to the 24th century. For no very clear reason, at this exact moment, the Federation winks out of existence and only Kira, O’Brien and Odo are unaffected. Roll credits!

DS9 S03E12 Past Tense, Part II (3.5 out of 5 stars). Sisko’s plan has a notable flaw. In order to take the place of Gabriel Bell, he’s going to have give his own life. Freed from his Starfleet uniform and the constraints of command, Avery Brooks loosens up considerably, and begins to demonstrate the charisma that a major historical figure like Bell will need. The building-under-siege situation helps build the tension and there are some nice moments with some of the hostages and hostage-takers. Bashir, frustratingly, remains as bland as ever. Alexander Siddig is settling into the part, but there’s nothing to the character except his job description.

Odo (who can assume any form he wishes) sends O’Brien and Kira (who needs to wear a band-aid on her nose to avoid drawing attention to herself) into the past. They turn up in the roaring twenties and can’t pick up the trail. Then they try the flower-power sixties and dematerialise in front of some whacked-out hippies. These jolly japes sit oddly with the life-or-death-intensity of the siege stuff. Travelling to later time periods gives O’Brien a clue about when his crew mates might be – and they have three candidate timelines left to choose from, but only one more shot. O’Brien doesn’t use the clue he got though, he just makes a blind guess and gets lucky. That’s pretty poor scriptwriting, but this whole section has just been about keeping Kira and O’Brien busy until the time is right for them to enter the story.

As usual in these time travel stories, once our heroes take the action which their memory of history tells them they should take, the timelines are restored exactly as they were, with not a single glitch. It’s a simplistic take on time travel from a show which is making its name as the part of the franchise which embraces complexity, nuance and grey areas. But the two-parter as a whole shows ambition and daring and kept me watching and guessing.

Trekaday 059: Star Trek Generations

Posted on December 3rd, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

MNG01: Star Trek Generations (3 out of 5 stars). When Deep Space Nine launched, there was a desire to try and make it seem different from the old show, hence the new, more utilitarian jump-suit style uniforms. Throughout the first three years of the spin-off’s existence, whenever anyone from Starfleet dropped by, they tended to wear the old TNG style togs. Somewhere along the way, that thinking changed and on Voyager, everyone wore the DS9 black-with-coloured-shoulders affairs. Now the implication seemed to be that Starfleet was rolling out the new look across all its operations.

Where did that leave Generations? Sticking with the old look would leave them behind the times. But the new uniforms designed to look good for TV wouldn’t necessarily work on the big screen. Robert Blackman, who had done such a fine job on the Season 3 re-design for TNG, created a whole new set of Starfleet uniforms just for this film, but they didn’t work, and there wasn’t time to have another go. In the end, the costumes are a mish-mash of TNG and DS9-style outfits, including Jonathan Frakes borrowing Avery Brooks’s and LeVar Burton borrowing Colm Meaney’s. Geordi and Data have several scenes together where Geordi is in the old-style uniform and Data is in one of the new ones. It looks a mess. Quite what was so wrong with the new specially-designed clothes isn’t clear, but the inconsistency, last-minute making-do, uncertainty and era-confusion evident here is symptomatic of a film which was chaotic to make, searches for an identity without finding one, and ends up pleasing almost nobody, despite the fact that many of the ingredients – and even whole sequences – are excellent.

For the first time, arguably since The Motion Picture, we’re slamming into just what makes these movies so difficult. You begin with a television series featuring an ensemble cast, where you can choose who to focus on, and experiment with different styles, tones, approaches, week-by-week. Now instead of doing 25-odd stories a year in 45 minutes each, you’ve got one chance to tell a two-hour story every two-or-three years. You need to find a story big enough to make that worthwhile – no wonder the Trek movies keep returning to the template of: an alien probe is threatening to end all life on Earth – and you need to provide some kind of arc for at least some of these characters you’re saddled with, who have all been explicitly designed not to grow or change.

Add to this the fact that the production team is stretched incredibly thin right now. The movie was being prepped while TNG Season 7 was in production. The main cast barely had a break after All Good Things wrapped and then returned to Paramount to start work on Generations. Deep Space Nine is shooting its third season. Voyager is about to begin production on its first. No-one is focused only on the movie. Everyone’s attention is split.

Tasked with writing this were reliable hands Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga who, separately and together, had written any number of classic TNG episodes (plus a few stinkers). They took months to hammer this screenplay together, under Rick Berman’s supervision – taking a few weeks out to knock off the television finale before returning to the movie – and they had an almost impossible task. They had to connect the old cast to the new. They had to establish the TNG characters for an audience that might not have been watching their syndicated show. They had to tell a new film-sized story. They had to keep Shatner, Stewart, Berman and Paramount happy. They had to “service” the other TNG regulars. They had to make it work for die-hard fans, general audiences and everyone in between.

Problems started quite early on. Obviously, it should have been Kirk, McCoy and Spock on the Enterprise-B. That’s why Chekov heads up the medical team and Scotty keeps making scientific assessments of novel phenomena (and Moore and Braga should have rewatched Relics before having Scotty witness Kirk’s death). There’s some wry satire in the press treatment of Kirk when he visits the new ship for its big send-off. You can also glimpse future Vulcan Tim Russ among the bridge crew along with Jenette (Aliens) Goldstein and Glenn (24) Morshower.

But then we cut from the tension and drama of the death of Captain Kirk to jolly japes with the TNG crew all cos-playing Mutiny on the Bounty in order to promote Worf in the silliest way imaginable. To catch up new viewers, Data has regressed considerably in his sophistication and so this is all rather embarrassing, with Picard indulging in some nostalgic but not very believable anti-technology sentiment. When we get down to work, the lighting on the bridge is very dramatic – but it doesn’t make the Enterprise feel like a very comfortable place to live and work in.

In one of the series’ more durable cliches, the bridge crew are exploring an abandoned space station littered with corpses. This at least provides something to do for someone who isn’t Patrick Stewart or Brent Spiner (now third-billed after Stewart and Frakes) and the reappearance of Malcolm McDowell, 80-odd years later, is a nifty mystery. But at this stage, it’s hard to pin down what the story is. We seem to be cutting from point-to-point at random, lurching from continuity-heavy references involving Romulans and the Duras Sisters to beginner’s guides for people who’ve never seen the show before.

Data’s emotion chip provides him with some sort of an arc but it’s only very vaguely connected to the theme of the story, such as it is. Spiner is amusing when discovering that he doesn’t like what Guinan is pouring, less so when doing Mr Tricorder for Geordi, who of course gets to be Data’s-Best-Friend (and is then reduced to unconscious kidnap victim for the remaining run-time of the film).

Picard’s arc is a complete mess. Troi discovers him looking at family photos (printed out and stuck into albums the way you definitely would in the 24th century) and he reveals that his brother Robert and nephew René have been killed off screen – burned to death which is kind of horrifying. But we don’t see them together (unless we took the time to screen Family before watching this movie), so despite manly tears from the Captain, this is something we know about, rather than feel.

Then, at the movie’s midpoint, Picard gets swallowed by the Nexus, where a completely generic, very English Christmas is supposed to tempt him to abandon any sense of duty or purpose. This is only barely connected to the loss of his family members (one of the moppets is identified as René) but Picard sees through the deception almost immediately and, with only the tiniest of pushes from Guinan, he rejects the fantasy. Would this scene have played any differently if we hadn’t heard about the fatal fire? I don’t see how.

Picard is then told that he can leave the Nexus at will (funny kind of gilded cage, this one) and return to any point in time and space. So rather than being a trap, or a fantasy world, it’s a place where you can hang out for as long as you please, at absolutely no cost, and with absolutely no risk, and then it becomes a taxi service to the next convenient bit of plot? And where does Picard want to go? Back to France to save Robert and René from the fire? Not only does he reject that option, preferring instead to have another go at stopping Soran, while making life maximally difficult for himself by returning to a point where his devastating plan has almost completely succeeded, it doesn’t even occur to him to try and save his brother and nephew. So, why did we spend so much time establishing them? Surely a moral dilemma about whether to do the noble thing and stop Soran or do the selfish thing and save two people you love would have some drama to it? Surely that would make the Nexus mean something? No, Picard immediately knows what the right thing to do is, and does it, without a second’s thought.

Also in the Nexus is Kirk – although bafflingly, not Soran – who goes on essentially the same very rapid conversion, with again a bit of a push from Picard. How is it that, when exposed to the Nexus, Soran, who seems like a bright enough chap, becomes obsessed with remaining within its synthetic fantasy world, and yet two random Starfleet captains become bored and want to leave inside five minutes? This is a pretty poor honey trap. It certainly fails to understand Picard, who is driven by justice and by curiosity, not by family.

Moore and Braga relate that their initial concept for the film was the two Enterprises firing on each other (which I noted when discussing Amok Time). But no amount of plot convolutions could bring this off without one Captain or the other looking like the badguy. The solution? They present a cooking show for two minutes. The point of all this, of course, is to give Kirk a proper send-off. Trouble is, they did that in the first 15 minutes. This would love to be Yesterday’s Enterprise in which a meaningless death is replaced by a meaningful one. Alas, all it actually does is take a heroic death, valiantly saving a ship from imminent destruction, and replace it with a stupid one in which Kirk is brought down by a wonky bridge. From saving the Enterprise to done in by shoddy workmanship. Oh my.

This accounts for about an hour and twenty minutes of the film. But someone has taken another film and cut in forty minutes of scenes from it at random. In this movie, Geordi is kidnapped by Klingons who hack his VISOR and try and blow up the Enterprise. Yeah, that does kinda seem like an act of war, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, nothing comes of it. And, we assume Geordi is fine, and they find the bug and take it out. We have to assume that because we never see Geordi, the VISOR or the bug ever again. Then the Enterprise crashes and – with a third of the film left – every member of the regular cast of the television show whose name isn’t Patrick Stewart is written out of the story, unable to influence events in any way at all. Sulu, Uhura and Scotty might not have had much to do in Star Treks I-III but at least you could see them on the bridge in the back of the shot sometimes. In Generations Troi, Crusher, Riker and Worf get about ten lines between them and Geordi only does better because he’s in scenes with Data.

So, this is a complete mess, far worse than the also structurally flawed The Motion Picture, but unlike Robert Wise’s film, which feels like a far more self-important and sombre version of the usually fairly breezy TV show, this does feel like TNG most of the time. It’s fun. The actors are all great. There are individual scenes which work well – some of them work very well. And it moves, unlike The Motionless Picture. But, more than anything, this feels like a pile of different pieces which have been rivetted together at the last minute, and you can really see the joins. Let’s not forget, that’s basically how Wrath of Khan was written, so it can work, but it’s not ideal. And what Nicholas Meyer found was a meaningful throughline which united all the disparate pieces. Here we have Data facing up to what having emotions means, and then not being in the Nexus where he might have to confront that – instead he just figures out his shit off screen. Then we have Picard thrown by personal grief that he then easily dismisses. He’s joined by Kirk who seems happier making lunch than saving the day – just like you remember! And lastly, there’s a villain whose vision of paradise we never even see. It’s not exactly precision storytelling.

The following are all things I would be happy to see in a Star Trek film…

  • Kirk dies and is brought back for one last adventure by Picard
  • Picard faces his mortality when he learns of the deaths of two close family members
  • One or more characters is trapped in a fantasy world where they can live happily in a dream
  • The Enterprise crash lands and is destroyed
  • A madman must be prevented from annihilating a planet to fulfil a personal ambition
  • Data gets an emotion chip and must understand viscerally what it means to be human

But do they necessarily all belong in the same one?

Last appearance of James Doohan as Scott. Last appearance of Walter Koenig as Chekov.

Trekaday 058: The House of Quark, Equilibrium, Second Skin, The Abandoned, Civil Defense, Meridian

Posted on December 2nd, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

DS9 S03E03 The House of Quark (4.5 out of 5 stars). When Quark scuffles with an inebriated Klingon who ends up with a fatal dagger wound, the Ferengi sees no harm in taking credit for the murder. It’s excellent PR. But pretty soon, family members are crawling out of the woodwork and Quark is not initially able to successfully navigate these waters. That’s the one false note in this very entertaining episode. I can’t help feeling that Quark should’ve known more about Klingons. As an experienced bartender, and an excellent businessman, it’s his job to know about the peoples and races who frequent his bar. But, I suppose, he needs to explain Klingon honour codes to us, the audience. Later in the episode, it turns out that Quark’s expertise in bookkeeping is quite the asset, and there’s always fun to be had in finding loopholes, even in made-up statutes. His final confrontation, refusing to give his Klingon foe an honourable kill, is a big moment for him too.

My only real complaint about this episode is that this is not the show I was watching last episode. Babylon 5, which had a full five-year plan mapped out before show one went on the air, used to include a variety of “arc” and “non-arc” episodes over the course of a given season. I guess this is a “non-arc” episode, and it’s a very high quality one. But there are loose ends from last week. Such as – when did Odo get his job back?

DS9 S03E04 Equilibrium (3 out of 5 stars). So, I guess Cooking With Sisko is going to be a thing. Bashir is being a dick as usual – in this case to beets – but I suppose this is the DS9 version of the TNG poker game. We also recently saw Captain Pike pulling the same trick over on Strange New Worlds. There’s a family feeling to the senior staff now, which wasn’t present before. I think I like it. Bashir and Dax swapping childhood stories about doctors, for example, does a lot to build a bit more empathy for his character. But it’s Dax who’s at the centre of this story, and again, this is more about Trills in general than her in particular, which is frustrating. Key to the resolution is the discovery that there is a lie at the heart of Trill society. Rather like that silly TNG episode Dark Page in which Lwaxana’s family history nearly does her in, the problem is that I wasn’t heavily invested in this fact before this episode and so being told that reality is different is only of passing academic interest. Unlike, Dark Page, this is dramatic and there is some striking imagery in some of the dream sequences: characters who take off their masks to reveal further masks underneath is very nifty.

DS9 S03E05 Second Skin (4.5 out of 5 stars). Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one. Kira awakes and sees her reflection in the mirror – and she’s a Cardassian. Yep, it’s Face of the Enemy, but with a bit of Patrick McGoohan seminal The Prisoner stirred in too. Friendly Cardassians – one of them claiming to be her father – tell her she has been undercover for ten years and that it will take a while for her memory to return. What’s fantastic about this is that Kira doesn’t believe a word of it – she’s seen Face of the Enemy as well! True, this is another story asking: what really happened in a place we’ve never seen, years before the show started? That’s potentially a weak structure, but the drama of this episode isn’t rooted in the details of the historical Cardassian/Bajoran conflict, it’s Kira’s refusal to submit and it’s the relationship between her and Lawrence Pressman’s Ghemor, hoping to see his daughter again.

Also adding to the fun – it’s Garak who helps Sisko come riding to the rescue. Sisko has had the Defiant upgraded with Zoom filters, but when his deception seems to be foundering, Garak reels off a string of threats and code words, all of which he claims to have overheard while hemming somebody’s trousers. He’s brilliant. But don’t trust him – he’s a dangerous man, according to some of his fellows. Of course, this is also an opportunity to see the world of the show from the point of view of the bad guys. The Cardassians love their children too, to paraphrase Sting, and to put Kira so close to one of the bastards who massacred so many she was close to is very affecting.

This really is top-drawer stuff: exciting, funny, moving, unpredictable and brilliantly played, especially by the always-excellent Nana Visitor who looks amazing in Cardassian make-up. The only thing stopping from awarding this the full five stars is that I’ve already seen Face of the Enemy. I also can’t tell you how pleased I am that they got those uniforms sorted out.

DS9 S03E06 The Abandoned (3.5 out of 5 stars). Quark gets more than he negotiated for when a consignment of junk turns out to include a fast-growing infant, who ages to seemingly eight or nine in 24 hours, and then starts talking. This is all kinds of nonsense, having nothing whatever to do with how language acquisition really works. Moses turns out to be a young Jem’Hadar warrior and Star Fleet command wants to run tests on him. Odo, usually pragmatic and hard-headed (if you see what I mean) suddenly has an attack of conscience and wants to protect and nurture the boy, and not see him treated as a lab rat. But then, this is personal for him. This is not inconsistent characterisation, it’s layering.

The attempt to socialise the Jem’Hadar infant is doomed, which is obvious from the beginning. There’s a certain amount of tragic power in this, but because it seems like it was running on rails (I didn’t think we were going to add a Jem’Hadar to the crew roster – still wait till we get to Voyager). I was never hugely invested in the fate of the boy, and the stakes felt low.

Meanwhile, Sisko is dealing with his actual son growing up faster than he anticipated. Yes, everyone, Jake exists! He’s banging a Dabo Girl. You go, Jake. Sadly, Sisko’s dinner with Jake and Mardah is equally generic and predictable. Avery Brooks directs smoothly.

DS9 S03E07 Civil Defense (4 out of 5 stars). Sisko, Jake and O’Brien are trapped when an old Cardassian security device is triggered. Skinny Jake has to crawl through an ore pipe to get them out. But everything they do makes matters worse as the AI continues to believe that the station is under threat from rebelling Bajoran workers and continues to implement counter-measures including flooding the habitation areas with nerve gas and then beginning a count-down to self-destruct.

While I have to question the wisdom and/or competency of the Bajoran and Federation operatives who took over the station but who left the tanks of nerve gas hooked up to the ventilation system, this is a fun mechanism for putting our characters into jeopardy and creating some unlikely alliances – between Odo and Quark, Garak and Kira, Jake and O’Brien. The situation is seemingly resolved by a swaggering Gul Dukat taking gleeful advantage of the hazardous situation. Marc Alaimo is a fabulous actor and a huge asset to this series, making this Deus Ex Cardassia ending far more satisfactory than it might have been – especially as he then screws it up. Lovely stuff.

DS9 S03E08 Meridian (1 out of 5 stars). Despite the continuing threat posed by the Dominion, Sisko has convinced Starfleet that this is a non-arc episode, so off the Defiant goes on another sight-seeing tour of the Gamma Quadrant. We have here two competing storylines with varying levels of dullness. The here-today-gone-tomorrow planet doesn’t connect deeply to any of our people, making the question of whether it can be made to endure rather a theoretical one. Quark pimping out holo-Kira is just ick (plus homosexual anxiety gags, yay) and not nearly funny enough, despite the welcome presence of Jeffrey Combs – who will have a much more interesting role in future stories. Oh, and someone is sharking after Dax again, this time in a particularly cloying and doe-eyed fashion. The trouble is that, even in this new long form, serialised show, I know that the relationship is doomed. Deral 100% will not be living happily ever after with Dax, counting her spots as they grow old together. And their dreadful flirting makes me want to claw my eyes out of my head.

Jonathan Frakes directs in what was presumably punishment for past misdeed. Kira, who as far as I know has never been to Earth, has strong feelings about how to drink coffee.