Archive for February, 2023

Trekaday #073: Resolutions, The Quickening, Basics, Body Parts, Broken Link

Posted on February 26th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

VOY S02E25 Resolutions (2 out of 5 stars). Another day, another virus. Infected before the story began, Janeway and Chakotay have been in stasis on the planet below for two-and-a-half weeks and the Doctor’s best idea is to contact the lung-stealers, which the Captain vetoes. I dunno, it might have been better to stick with plan a) and just haul ass back to the Alpha Quadrant rather than doing whatever it was that got the two most senior bridges officers this dose of space dropsy in the first place. Speaking of plan a), half an episode later, after endless handwringing and debating, Voyager does contact the lung-stealers, notably the Doctor’s ex, and they are only too happy to help (kinda). Good thing we went on this massive detour then. All told, this little stop-off must have added three-or-four months to their journey.

The fate of Tuvix is never mentioned, naturally, but third-in-command Tuvok now takes over the centre seat (although he sticks with the gold shoulders). He beams down his erstwhile boss some picnic blankets and a Gameboy and leaves her to play with “protein cofactors” whatever they may be, while Chakotay just sticks to colour-coding their campsite and refuses to call Janeway “Kathryn” (he finds it easier when she’s in the hot-tub in the nuddy). As Voyager cruises away, naturally, it’s do-gooding by-the-book Harry Kim who foments rebellion and questions Tuvok’s orders, while wildcard Tom Paris keeps his head down and tries to quietly get on with his work. Meanwhile, on the plague planet, Maquis terrorist leader Chakotay is all “Some things you just can’t change – more soup?” Very few Starfleet officers we’ve ever seen would be so defeatist, but this makes no sense at all for someone who was prepared to throw away his whole career for the sake of a cause he believed in. That’s a huge problem for a show at the end of its second year. It’s very late in the day for the characters to still be getting randomly-assigned motivations according to the needs of this week’s plot. It’s a good showing for Tuvok and Janeway, at least, even if the Kathryn/Chakotay pairing has even less flirty crackle than the fish-fucking in Threshold.

We’re down another photon torpedo, this one used like a video game smart bomb to take out three Vidian ships at once. Is anyone keeping count of how many they have left?

DS9 S04E24 The Quickening (3 out of 5 stars). Quark is making public access TV commercials and spamming the station with them and his branded mugs, to the fury of especially Worf who isn’t used to Ferengi shenanigans. This breezy scene contrasts sharply with what follows as Bashir and Dax beam down to a plague planet. Yup, another episode, another virus, but whereas on Voyager this is an excuse for a lovely camping trip with a friendly monkey, here it looks grisly, painful, existential. The wrinkle is that those who come down with the titular (and always fatal) “Quickening” are spirited off to a death camp which is considerably nicer than their home world, but where the “patients” are given a swift release. This all feels a bit “off-the-peg” to me. We’ve seen so many incurable plagues and brutal societies which only needed the firm hand of the Federation to set them straight. Despite mentions of The Dominion and the Jem’Hadar, this doesn’t feel like it has much to do with the main plot and the lack of specificity doesn’t help tie it to our characters. That’s before we get to the dreadfully shopworn clichés like the doctor pumping the chest of some poor guest actor yelling “Breathe! Breathe!” as if the thought hadn’t occurred to them. I do like Dax with her hair down though. The fourth act is a sort of Bashir Must Suffer with some tough love from Dax, and the strength of this helps a little. The trouble is, I’ve become conditioned to expect bleak endings from this show just as much as I’ve become conditioned to expect whiplash-inducing reset buttons from Voyager, so it doesn’t induce a sickening realisation when everybody dies, rather a feeling of “oh yes, that makes sense,” which I don’t think was the intention.

VOY S02E26 Basics, Part I (3.5 out of 5 stars). Hey – Suder is still onboard. And is playing with orchids, always the plant of choice for the psychopath, for reasons which are beyond my horticultural ken. Rather more dramatically, Seska is reaching out to Chakotay for help when their son is seized by her Kazon allies. So now, instead of continuing with their first and most important mission – hauling ass back to the Alpha Quadrant – they’re going to turn back again and return to Kazon space.

Chakotay’s dream ghost dad has some spooky words of wisdom to impart, but Janeway needs no such encouragement to commit Voyager to this rescue mission. They scoop up a wounded Kazon who relates the unlikely news that Seska has been killed off-screen. All I’m saying is, she’d better not have been. Knowing that the episode has to be 45 minutes long, the Kazon make brief attacks, one at a time, picking away at Voyager’s belly, until the unguarded Kazon they brought on board detonates the bomb in his bloodstream, crippling the ship. More talk of low power reserves but Janeway still thinks using a couple of spare batteries to conjure up some holographic decoy ships is a good idea. When they try this, the Doctor briefly appears outside the ship in a bafflingly stupid gag which undercuts the tension at precisely the wrong time and is the least funny thing Robert Picardo has ever said or done on this show. They later go (in the heat of battle!) and get real Talaxian ships to provide actual support, which seems like it might have been a better idea in the first place.

Janeway calls for evacuation, but the self-destruct system has been hit and has blown itself up. That leads to the actual point of this slackly-plotted and rather slow-moving season finale. The Kazon take control of Voyager (very, very easily, even given that Seska has been able to give them a few pointers about how to operate Federation ships) and strand Janeway and her crew on a volcanic planet with no food, water or shelter. It’s not a bad end-of-season cliffhanger, but there are plenty of threads to pull on for part two (the Doctor, Suder, Paris, Seska herself) and one wonder why the ruthless Kazon didn’t just kill them all when they had the chance.

Part of the problem is that a lot of the major developments feel familiar from very recent episodes. The ship was messed up just as badly if not worse in Deadlock and Janeway was abandoned on a remote planet with no hope of rescue just last week. And the effects work frequently falls short of what the script requires, with ropey shots of Voyager taking off and One Million Years BC style local wildlife which I assume were the work of Ray Harryhausen on an off-day. “Command codes”, a gimmick from The Wrath of Khan, is still going strong as a method by which any ship may gain access to the systems of any other ship, even one from the other side of the galaxy.

DS9 S04E25 Body Parts (2 out of 5 stars). Quark is back from Ferenginar with a fatal diagnosis as a result of his annual insurance physical (and he knows it’s accurate because his is the most expensive doctor on the planet, unlike that hu-man Bashir who doesn’t charge anything and therefore can’t be any good). Top of his list of concerns his paying off his debts before he passes on, for which reason he plans to flog off his remains, and then finds himself having to go through with the sale even after it comes to light that he isn’t dying after all. We also get our second medical ethics storyline in two episodes. A rock-climbing accident puts Keiko’s pregnancy in jeopardy and – ridiculously – Bashir beams the foetus into Kira’s abdomen. This is described as a “change of address” which completely fails to account for the wholesale physical and chemical changes which occur in a woman’s body during gestation – the fact that Kira is Bajoran is the least implausible part of this whole scenario, given that Klingons, Romulans, humans and Cardassians all seem capable of interbreeding. Nana Visitor was pregnant when this was filmed and that seems to be the entire reason for this narrative choice.

Quite what any of this means, or why these two particular storylines have been juxtaposed is anyone’s guess. Armin Shimerman, as usual, locates the tiny sliver of acting terrain between heartfelt sincerity and absurd overplaying with uncanny accuracy, but we’ve seen Quark in far more interesting scenarios than this one. Likewise, it’s nice to see Jeffrey Combs back as Brunt but his impact isn’t nearly as strong third time around (and I prefer him as Weyoun). Similarly, Garak is back and Quark tries to hire him as a hitman (better to die than to break a contract), but the sub-Pink Panther shenanigans which ensue make this the Cardassian tailor’s least interesting outing to date

DS9 S04E26 Broken Link (3.5 out of 5 stars). Odo is so appalled at Garak’s uncharacteristically clumsy match-making that he has some sort of fit and collapses in the middle of the shop. He’s an irascible patient but being laid up in sickbay does provide an opportunity for some bonding between him and a still-pregnant Major Kira. As his condition continues to worsen, Odo insists that he be returned to his people in the Gamma Quadrant. Once they reach Dominion space in the Defiant, Jem’Hadar shock troops beam on board and Salome Jens attempts to separate Odo from his friends, but instead they are effectively led blindfold to the new Changeling homeworld. That Odo killed a Changeling is something they cannot forgive and that’s why they forced him to return home to the Great Link for judgement.

All the Odo stuff here is superb. René Auberjonois is terribly affecting as the ailing Changeling, and the brief farewell scene between him and Quark is a mini-masterpiece of acting and writing. Then his punishment is to be returned to the Federation with none of his shapeshifting powers. Garak has to fit him for a uniform, he has to eat for the first time, he feels itchy and tired. But the rest of the episode is filled out with bits-and-pieces that don’t pay off. Relations with the Klingons continue to deteriorate, with Gowron deliberately provoking the Federation by suddenly laying claim to a system they have had no interest in for decades – the big end-of-season cliffhanger is Odo’s realisation that the Klingon Chancellor is a shapeshifter. Seems like a better way to keep that secret would be not to stick Odo in the Great Link in the first place.

Garak also tries and fails to use the Defiant’s weapons to destroy the Great Link and end the Dominion War before it starts – a huge story swing which is over and done with in about five minutes. And Kira continues her journey away from the centre and towards the fringes of the ongoing narrative as she’s left behind, pregnant and sneezing. Compared to the apocalyptic opening, this season ends with a bit of a whimper. When this episode is good it’s sensationally good, but as a whole it’s rather awkward and unsatisfying, which is a real shame as this has been a pretty incredible run of episodes overall.

Shakaar is mentioned but not seen. I wonder what he thinks of Kira’s sudden surrogacy! Garak fights well for a tailor.

VOY S03E01 Basics, Part II (3 out of 5 stars). We pick up right where we left off, with lots of talk of keeping the crew’s morale up, and exploring some impressive looking caves and cliffs shot on actual location. But before long, crewman Hogan is Sam Raimi shakey-cammed to death – seemingly the first clue that surviving with no food, water, weapons, shelter or hope of rescue on a desolate planet might not be quite as easy as everyone had supposed. Meanwhile – surprise! – Tom Paris’s destroyed shuttle turns out not have been nearly as destroyed as the Kazon claimed and he manages to take out an enemy ship almost without pausing to put down his repair kit.

A big deal was made last week about the Doctor turning himself off but setting an alarm. He fakes being turned back on when Seska invokes him, but then he seemingly deactivates when she orders the computer to turn him off, only to reappear when she leaves the room. I did enjoy his double-talk when she asked if he could be lying to her. (He’s a doctor, not a counter-insurgent.) Having to turn Suder back into a killer is the source of some interest, but once again we’re falling into the trap of giving all the best material to the supporting characters and not the regulars. With no universal translators (which appear to be in the com-badges and not inside the crew’s heads as they were in Little Green Men) Chakotay can’t talk to the native troglodytes, but manages to recover Kes and Neelix largely without incident. He’s also the only “Indian” in the universe who can’t start a fire by rubbing two sticks together (he’s better at tracking). Janeway donates her hair to the cause. It’s never mentioned, but the days and nights on this planet seem to last about twenty minutes. It could just be bad continuity.

This was Michael Piller’s last writing credit for Star Trek on TV (he returned to write Insurrection). It’s not a great send-off for the man who saved Star Trek. Trapping the smug Federation crew in a survival situation with none of their fancy tech sounds like a cool idea, but the promise is that social cohesion will start to break down, whereas this stiffly professional crew is about as far from Lord of the Flies as it’s possible to get. I suppose I don’t want to see Janeway in pathetic hysterics, but it’s hard to feel the stakes when everyone takes the direst of circumstances comfortably in their stride. This is all incident and no character. We had enough of that on Berman-Trek before Piller got here. And they don’t spend more than a few hours having to survive on cucumbers and beetles before Voyager returns to rescue them, so their mettle isn’t ever really tested.

More shoddy effects work this week, with matted-in volcanoes that look like something out of a 1960s James Bond film. They lose two more people to the Pixelworm, bringing the crew complement down to 144. Various escape pods are also launched, so let’s hope we don’t need them any time soon. It’s seemingly the end of Seska too, who never lived up to the promise of those amazing early episodes. Her Kazon hubby takes what’s apparently his baby with him when he leaves.

Voyager Season 2 wrap-up

  • Looking back on this season, it feels like an improvement, as you might expect. The first episode out of the gate was confident and fun, promising characters like Tuvok and Torres have been given more room to grow, strong characters like Janeway and the Doctor continue to impress, and we kept Martha Hackett around as Seska.
  • But this is not reflected in the season average which is pretty much the same as Season 1, 2.73 compared to 2.77 – about the same as the first two seasons of TNG.
  • That’s not only due to another absence of five star classics, but the disappointing number of absolute clunkers like Tatoo, Lifesigns, Alliances and The Thaw – and that’s after I dredged up two whole stars for Threshold, which for some people is the worst episode of Star Trek ever made.
  • Best of this lacklustre bunch were Maneuvers, Dreadnought and the excellent Meld which not only had a strong science-fiction adventure plot, and managed to ask some pertinent questions about justice and morality, but it deepened the characterisation of what should have been one of the major assets of the show – Tim Russ as Tuvok, who too often has been written as Just Another Vulcan, but who here shows a reckless, almost naïve streak which is (sorry) fascinating.
  • As well as the format fighting itself – Too serialised or not serialised enough? Voyager can’t pop into a starbase for repairs but always starts each episode looking brand new. Maquis and Starfleet are at each other’s throats or get along great? – the big problem continues to be the characters. Chakotay is little more than a bundle of vaguely First Nation stereotypes with no specificity at all, and shows nothing of what drove him to join the Maquis. Paris and Kim are interchangeable placeholders. I have no interest in Kes whatsoever.
  • Also stalled is Neelix who began to show a bit more depth in Jetrel but whose character has not developed at all since then. Even his relationship with Kes and the love triangle with Paris, as tiresome as that was, seems to have been neatly resolved and put away. But resolving these conflicts makes the characters less interesting, not more.
  • Maybe nothing exposes what went wrong with Season 2 more clearly than Tom Paris And The Arc That Never Was. We spend half a dozen or more episodes setting up first the traitor on board Voyager who is secretly working with the Kazon, and then three or four setting up Paris’s reluctance to continue serving on this Federation ship – only to chuck all of that character development away and substitute a ludicrous spy mission instead, following which our onboard traitor obediently chucks himself off a gantry.
  • Still, we are finally out of Kazon space now, so perhaps the next batch of adversaries will prove more interesting.

DS9 Season 4 wrap-up

  • While Voyager thrashes around trying to figure out what stories it can tell, and what stories it wants to tell, Deep Space Nine continues to both settle down and refuse to stand still. Episodes like Hippocratic Oath, Starship Down, Hard Time and To The Death make it clear what an asset a really strong regular cast can be, combined with a really detailed and well-thought-out world.
  • But there have been some big successes in the wilder swings as well, with episodes like Rejoined, Our Man Bashir, Little Green Men and most amazing of all, the sublime The Visitor. These are episodes which no other series in the franchise could even have attempted.
  • Now, you can also say this about some of the less successful efforts this year, like The Muse, Body Parts and Bar Association. And my low tolerance for Klingon mythology has also dragged some scores down. But we still end with a very fine 3.72 average, just behind TOS Season 1 and approaching the dizzy heights of TNG Season 6.
  • Character development has been strong with some amazing stuff for Odo, Quark (even if not all the comedy Ferengi episodes worked) and O’Brien; good material for Dax, Sisko and new arrival Worf, and Bashir and even Jake finally starting to come into focus. The only disappointment is Kira, moved to the sidelines as the focus shifts away from Cardassia vs Bajor and towards Klingons vs Federation, and ending up as walking womb for Keiko’s baby.
  • The secondary cast continues to impress as well, with familiar faces showing up in multiple episodes: Garak, Weyoun, Brunt, Dukat and more besides. There’s a very deep bench here and it gets richer every year.
  • What’s exciting is that I get the distinct impression that the Dominion War is going to bring us even more compelling episodes and even bigger threats to the status quo. Since the end of Season 3, Worf has joined the station, Quark has been exiled, Rom has quit, Odo has been stripped of his powers and Kira is having Keiko’s baby. Let the network show hit the reset button every week. We’re in syndication and we can do what we like.

Oscars 2023: Elvis and The Fabelmans

Posted on February 21st, 2023 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

I was lucky enough to find a cinema still showing Elvis after all this time, and so settled in to the Vue Westfield to watch this superior biopic, blessed with an uncanny central performance from Austin Butler, all wrapped up in Baz Luhrmann’s signature kinetic style. It’s easy to write off all of this frantic editing, multiple images, dizzying camera removes and dense soundtrack as “anything but subtle” but actually, it’s precisely this layering of sound and image which allows for a certain amount of subtlety, mixing in a few shots of the real Elvis early on, for example. But it is an onslaught, particularly the first half hour or so.

As it settles down, we get the basic beats (sorry) of the story, avoiding almost all of the Dewey Cox traps (but I did cringe when the young Elvis was offered pills in the back of a car) and sensibly focusing on a few key areas rather than pedantically ticking every available box. And with Butler’s astonishing physical performance and vocals which blend his voice with Elvis recordings, it’s an amazing recreation of what it might have been like to see the King live.

Using The Colonel to provide a Salieri-like framing device helps to provide context and some (unreliable) narration to move us from plot-point-to-plot-point, but whereas the title character is a near-perfect evocation, Hanks as Tom Parker is a pantomime villain version of the real person, and although Hanks can’t help but elicit sympathy, and exude warmth and charm, he appears to be a refugee from a different movie entirely, which is disappointing.

Casting is also an issue for The Fabelmans, which in many ways is a very fine film: detailed, engrossing, moving, warmly funny, cheeky and nostalgic without being cloying. Gabriel LaBelle is remarkable as the young wannabe filmmaker, being moved from town-to-town by his parents, and struggling to fit in. By and large, the story is told with nuance, suggestion and economy – with one odd exception being one scene towards the end (after the Ditch Day screening) where suddenly everybody just starts announcing their true feelings at each other with next-to-no provocation.

What’s odd is the casting of Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as Sammy Fabelman’s parents, in a story which is so concerned with Judaism. The debate is ongoing about the extent to which we want great actors to be able to take imaginative leaps to transform themselves vs the need for the kind of authenticity which only comes from casting actors whose lived experience matches the character, but it is odd how often the decision seems to come down against casting Jewish actors to play Jewish parts. Dano just about convinces as Sammy’s dad, but Michelle Williams, although finding the inner emotional life of the character very accurately, never remotely resembled any Jewish mother I’ve ever met (and I’ve met a few). Perhaps that’s why Judd Hirsch turns up near the beginning of the film, dines hungrily on any available scenery, and then leaves, having barely influenced the story in any way.

The final shot of the film, however, is absolute perfection. If this is Spielberg’s final work, as some say it was intended to be, it won’t be his masterpiece, but it is one I would happily revisit. I just wish the casting had gone differently.

Trekaday #072: The Muse, The Thaw, For the Cause, Tuvix, To the Death

Posted on February 20th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

DS9 S04E21 The Muse (2 out of 5 stars). The teaser consists of two brief moments. Jake is people-watching and coming up with loglines for short stories in the way that I don’t think any short story writer has ever done. Then Lwaxana turns up and tells Odo she’s pregnant. Both of these strike me as rather silly and not in a good way. Mrs Troi has run away from her new husband whose culture believes that boys should be raised exclusively by their fathers. Eventually, Odo has to “pretend” that he is in love with Lwaxana and wants to marry her. None of this feels like it means anything or amounts to much, and Lwaxana obediently leaves the station once Odo’s sacrifice has been made, although René Auberjonois never even hints that this is the worst script he’s had all year.

Elsewhere, a mysterious older woman spouts gibberish at Jake, promising him all sorts of “exercises and techniques” which will make him a better writer, if he comes to her quarters tonight. She might as well be telling him there are sweets and puppies in her van. Talk of Jake’s writing career (and his career-making novel Anslem) brings back fond memories of The Visitor, but this has nothing like the level of invention and depth of feeling of that episode. Lwaxana also brings up the events of Crossfire. Something about this episode compels everyone to intone their dialogue at half speed and the overall effect is close to numbing in its soporific mood. Jake’s “muse” gives him amazing and innovative authorial advice like “editing exists”. Eventually, the twist is that the eerie older woman with a predatory interest in Jake who isolates him from his father is actually – crumbs! – the bad guy.

This is the last time we see Lwaxana and it makes rather a poor swan song for her despite (or because of) Majel Barrett’s own hand in the script. That’s Meg Foster as Onaya – she was the second Christine Cagney, taking over from Loretta Swit after the pilot and being replaced herself by Sharon Gless after the first season of Cagney and Lacey. Jake seemingly writes his stories with a pencil, even before Onaya introduces him to this newfangled “paper”.

VOY S02E23 The Thaw (1.5 out of 5 stars). A message from a dead planet includes strict instructions to stay the hell away, so of course Janeway puts their journey home on pause and rapidly beams up their stasis pods and begins trying to defrost them. Examining alien machinery from the other side of the galaxy, Kim begins confidently pressing buttons and announcing what the people in the pods are experiencing. In fact, most of what’s said about the pods is nonsense. Why bother going into stasis if you’re going to be conscious the whole damned time? You might as well just build a bunker and make some sandwiches. Surely the point is that your consciousness skips the intervening years?

Kim and Torres enter the dreamscape which looks like some kind of hideous children’s television version of a sex party, redolent of some of the more embarrassing episodes of TOS like Catspaw or The Empath. It’s ghastly and even the frequently-brilliant Michael McKean can’t save it – the grey romper suit doesn’t help, but it’s a doomed enterprise in any case. There’s a glimmer of that handy ethical dilemma about saving the lives of artificial persons, but the one-dimensional moustache-twirling of The Clown makes it all thoroughly unconvincing. Once more, all of the dialogue is blandly functional. McKean’s Clown reels off facts about Kim and Torres but that doesn’t amount to them registering as people. You could swap pretty much all of their dialogue and it would sound the same. They are also dumber than usual. “It’s almost as if he can read our minds,” announces Harry at one point, seemingly having not understood a word of what’s been said to him for the last fifteen minutes. The plot is resolved only when the Clown acts decisively against his own interests and lets Torres go virtually on a whim. Including a little person as a dose of added weirdness is pretty nasty as well, considering we’ve never seen a little person on the crew of this or any starship. Half a star for the quietly effective closing seconds, but this was very close to being a one-star clunker.

DS9 S04E22 For the Cause (4 out of 5 stars). Klingons having devastated Cardassia Prime, the Federation are having to bail out the Cardassians with industrial replicators, but there’s a worry that the Maquis will try to intercept the delivery. The finger of suspicion falls upon Kassidy Yates which creates a conflict of interest for Sisko, the pillow-sniffing softie. Disappointingly, he opts to protect his girlfriend rather than Federation allies (he does say Odo can search her ship if he can find a suitable excuse). Eventually, he follows her in the Defiant, but it turns out that this was a ruse to remove him from the station. This is very clever plotting, disguising a turncoat rebel story as a personal relationship drama. And the fact that it’s Eddington who turns Maquis is brilliant. He’s a familiar face, but we don’t know a lot about him, except that he’s rubbed some people up the wrong way. Gratifyingly, Sisko owns his mistake, telling Kira that everything that happens on the station is his responsibility. Meanwhile, red-blooded, all-hetero Garak is sharking after Dukat’s daughter Ziyal (now played by a different actor) and they share a chaste Cardassian sauna together. Their arid flirting is quite horrifying and knocks half a star of what’s otherwise a typically strong episode.

VOY S02E24 Tuvix (4 out of 5 stars). I remember this one. And I remember the stink about it from those who criticised every decision Janeway made from blowing up the Array onwards. Apparently the ethical thing to do was to let Tuvix live. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. From the first season of TOS, a malfunctioning transporter has been a handy plot-generating mechanism. It’s best not to ask exactly how it works. Just as no physical principle exists which could split Kirk into good and evil, no physical principle exists which could combine a Vulcan and a Talaxian into a single living entity with a blended personality. And it’s notable that the transporter functions as a body-back-up whenever there’s a debilitating disease doing the rounds and at no other time. (The Doctor also asserts that he has none of Tuvok or Neelix’s DNA on hand, which seems profoundly unlikely. There would be skin cells on their pillows for a start.)

Anyway, this is really about Tom Wright’s performance as “Tuvix” and it’s a testament not just to him, but to Tim Russ and Ethan Philips that this works at all. You couldn’t do this with, say, Harry Kim and Chakotay because bland plus bland still equals bland. But Tuvok and Neelix are distinct and they are well-defined enough by now for this to work. Sadly, the rest of the bridge crew are their usual dry professional selves for the most part. Only Kes shows a flicker of emotion at this extraordinary turn of events, although she tries not to show it – and that further saps the drama. The episode’s best scene uses Kes’s loss to shine a light on how Janeway is dealing with being stranded in the Delta Quadrant. And after that, I can accept any decision the Captain makes.

I am surprised that the script doesn’t rustle up a medical emergency which forces the decision to separate but I think it is a more interesting story when it doesn’t let Janeway off the hook, even if the outcome is never really in doubt – of course she’ll kill one person to save two (especially when those two are in the opening titles). That makes all the brow-furrowing and anxious standing around doing nothing from the rest of the crew feel a bit synthetic and half-assed. This storyline was originally pitched as a goofy comedy, and I admire the decision to try and play it more seriously, but the last five minutes of the script feels as helpless in the face of this dilemma as all of Tuvix’s crew mates. It is a nice scene with Janeway, though.

DS9 S04E23 To the Death (4.5 out of 5 stars). Returning in the Defiant, Sisko and team find that an entire pylon of the station has been destroyed, leaving multiple casualties – the work of the Jem’Hadar. It’s a devastating opening, and it’s smart (as well as budget-saving) to play it as a discovery by the returning crew and not have the melodrama of putting us onboard the station when the attacks occur. It puts us in their shoes. On the theme of Hippocratic Oath, Sisko’s ship ends up rescuing a bunch of Jem’Hadar grunts, but with them is the smooth-talking Weyoun, played in this and countless subsequent episodes by Jeffrey Coombs (even though he’s seemingly offed in the closing minutes). He’s a wonderful addition to the extended cast, filling the void left by Dukat, who has been somewhat gelded over the course of recent episodes.

Continuing with the Deep Space Nine theme of: everything is grey, it turns out that there are good and bad Jem’Hadar and this group (and the station) were set upon by renegades who are trying to build a “gateway” which will make them “virtually invincible” (according to Sisko). This is apparently picking up a discarded thread from Next Gen Season 2, but I don’t think it needed to be (it reminded me more of All Our Yesterdays). Of far more interest is the Jem’Hadar attitude to Worf, Sisko and in particular Odo, who they see as a god that has inexplicably turned against heaven. It’s absolutely fascinating.

We take our sweet time getting to the Jem’Hadar Death Star, but the lengthy journey never feels like padding or busywork. The scenes with Weyoun and Odo, Worf and Sisko and especially Dax and O’Brien are wonderfully written and played. However, as the centre of gravity of these stories moves inexorably away from the now largely settled Cardassian-Bajoran conflict, Major Kira is getting less and less to do. Let’s hope that she finds a place in the new landscape before too long, and we don’t get many more of these “You have the station, Major,” moments. She’s not Tasha Yar for crying out loud.

Worf doesn’t wear his baldric into battle.

Trekaday 071: Lifesigns, Investigations, Deadlock, Rules of Engagement, Innocence, Hard Time, Shattered Mirror

Posted on February 15th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

VOY S02E19 Lifesigns (1 out of 5 stars). For reasons which pass understanding, the Doctor creates a holo-puppet of a patient before trying to cure her. Most people on this ship end up simply announcing facts which relate to their job. Now, Kes is reduced to a bland Nurse Chapel which seems an odd use of a character who looks on paper to be so unusual and exotic. The patient is the latest guest on board to be suffering from the phage. The Doc and his new patient wander around and pass the time of day until he decides to fall in love with her. It’s criminally uninteresting. Even worse is the dire management training film enacted by Paris and Chakotay, which is so boring that even Janeway refuses to participate – and then the writers bail on it too, as it isn’t resolved. I almost didn’t make it to the end of this one. Dr McCoy gets a shout-out. Seska is wasted again.

VOY S02E20 Investigations (2.5 out of 5 stars). Oh god, Neelix has a podcast now. His disreputable Talaxian friend is legitimate now and has come to pick up Tom Paris. Although this storyline has been brewing for a few episodes, it’s frustrating that we have to hear about his reaction to being stood down, his decision to leave, Janeway’s response and so on – all second hand. It makes for a strong(-ish) out of the teaser, but I’m not sure it’s a price worth paying. Making Paris’s story all about Neelix is not the way I would have gone. And nor is making Neelix’s reaction to Tom’s departure all about the Doctor’s sudden and mysterious desire to be television star.

Similarly, Janeway’s plan to get Tom kicked off Voyager and thus unmask the spy makes a certain amount of sense, but denying us access to all of this decision-making in the hope of catching us unawares means we trade understanding of our characters for surprise. Sound familiar? And of course, if it isn’t even that much of a surprise, then that’s simply weakening the fabric of the story, with no upside, especially given that the surprise is that Tom Paris is on a less interesting journey than we were briefly led to believe. On the other hand, Neelix’s laborious detective work plods its way towards a conclusion which we’ve known about for many episodes now. In fact, almost nothing that Neelix does really impacts the outcome – he’s just a mechanism to dole out the actual story slowly enough that it last 45 minutes. And why was Jonas so keen to give up Voyager to Seska and the Kazon anyway? Does he think he’ll get home quicker on a Kazon ship? Why?

During these shenanigans, the warp drive is out of action and once again Voyager needs supplies in order to make repairs. Visiting a nearby star system on impulse power seems to present no problems which makes interstellar distances seem very small (or impulse speeds very fast). Torres waits for Jonas’s console to explode in his face before giving the computer verbal instructions. It’s been almost a year since The Caretaker. Martha Hackett is wasted yet again.

For anyone keeping score, Jonas’s death means that Voyager is now down eight crew from the 154 they started with in the Delta Quadrant, counting the psychopath in the brig and the turncoat Seska as both no longer active members, even though they’re still alive.

VOY S02E21 Deadlock (3.5 out of 5 stars). After all this time heading out of the Delta Quadrant, we’re still in Vidian space. I understand the show’s reluctance to give us any clear idea of how far we’ve gone or how far through our journey we are, but c’mon. When they take a detour, suddenly photon blasts start taking the ship apart. It’s all fairly bewildering, but it is at least dramatic, culminating in the death of Wildman’s new-born. That’s clue number one that a big ol’ timeywimey reset button is marching in the direction of this story – and that suspicion becomes a racing certainty when Harry Kim is sucked out into space.

Suddenly we’re on a different version of Voyager. Essentially this is adventure-series-as-video-game. If you get killed on this attempt, switch to another saved game and have another go. Hurrah! We get to blow up the ship. Boo! Nothing really matters anymore. Once again, the characters are reduced to cardboard cut-outs who just announce facts at each other. What if the Voyager that solved the problem correctly the first time was more like the Mirror Universe, where their success was due to selfish decision-making which prioritised only their own safety. Now which ship do you want to survive? Better, isn’t it? Instead we get drenched in technobabble during which the two ships “merge” (complete with profoundly weak double-exposure visual effects) and then the Vidians storm on board the “good” ship, but by that time, it doesn’t matter who lives or dies – we can restore anyone we lose from the backup. Still, it is at least fun and exciting and it’s always cool to have two versions of this (or any) captain sharing the screen, even if the effects work isn’t always 100% convincing.

Ludicrously, the Doctor’s solution to Ensign Wildman’s excruciating labour is to use the transporters to beam the horny-foreheaded infant out of her only after she’s pushed for several hours. Moments later, when engineering is hit, all casualties have to walk themselves over to sickbay.

DS9 S04E18 Rules of Engagement (3.5 out of 5 stars). Further isolated from the Klingon Empire, Worf is now up on charges and facing extradition. During a battle which we have yet to see, Worf commanded the Defiant and destroyed a Klingon transport. Far from saluting this zeal for warlike glory, Worf is accused of negligence, even though the event occurred in the heat of battle. Unable to dispute the facts, the Klingon prosecutor effectively puts his own people’s battle-happy mind-set on trial.

As director, LeVar Burton includes some flourishes, especially having witness give testimony to camera during flashbacks in a way which recalls Ray Liotta leaving the stand at the end of Goodfellas. The trial stuff is the usual nonsense, resembling no known trial procedures, and the killer evidence-giving at the end barely makes a particle of sense, but Avery Brooks has fun chewing the scenery. The best material in the whole episode is the final conversation between Worf and Sisko.

Those bonkers admirals’ uniforms are back. T’Lara’s tailor got bored making the sleeves and added pointless black bands and extra gold braid to the cuffs. Everyone else is in their standard dress togs.

VOY S02E22 Innocence (2.5 out of 5 stars). We might be in a hurry to make it home, but there’s always time to stop and smell the flowers, even if such olfactory investigations cost the life of a crewmember. Having failed to protect his comrade, Tuvok now has three moppets to keep alive. This is basically a rerun of The Galileo Seven, but with kids, and once again Tuvok’s – sadly never seen – family life turns out to be the most interesting thing about him. His Vulcan approach to life is regarded as odd by the very human-seeming moppets, who contrast strongly with their isolationist, philosophical parents. They also bear no resemblance whatsoever to long-lived pensioners with juvenile bodies, which renders the would-be clever twist completely ridiculous. Voyager can run for four years without refuelling. No sign of the absolute paddywacking which the ship received last week. Everything looks as good as new. (“That’ll buff right out.”) Lucky that, as a tour party of drab locals are being shown around and sneering at most things.

DS9 S04E19 Hard Time (4.5 out of 5 stars). The brilliance of The Inner Light is that it’s the reset button that isn’t. Picard is returned to exactly where and when he was, but he carries (at least some of) the memory of those decades he lived as Galen, and they contribute to who he is when he returns to his life as a starship captain. I’ve always thought of it as something a bit less than a real lived experience, but something a bit more than a dream. Something similar happens to O’Brien here – he’s been given memories of twenty years of incarceration in mere minutes – but as punishment, rather than as commemoration of a doomed society. And the emphasis is mainly on rehabilitation and recovery rather than the experience.

Unsurprisingly, he takes a while to adjust to life back onboard the station, even seeing glimpses of his cell mate, about whom he is being oddly secretive. The script even finds something for Jake to do – quizzing O’Brien on which tool is which. You go, Jake. Colm Meaney is better than ever here and this manages the excellent trick of being an episode of a science fiction adventure television series where the jeopardy is principally whether or not one of the characters will recover from trauma – without it ever becoming maudlin, low-stakes or boring. Whether the final revelation makes sense or not is open to debate – presumably the Argrathans could have given O’Brien memories of him doing any appalling thing they wished – but the impact is hard to argue with.

We’ve seen Starfleet doctors selectively erase memories before and so while Sisko’s observation that these implanted experiences can’t be removed by Bashir isn’t particularly convincing, it’s nice that Keiko even brings it up.

DS9 S04E20 Shattered Mirror (3 out of 5 stars). Just as Jake is beginning to make sense of Nog’s absence from his life, he pops home to find his dead mom sitting on the couch. She’s popped over from the Mirror Universe in what seems like it’s going to become an annual event. It’s a neat way of distracting us from any thoughts we might have about O’Brien’s trauma last week having long-term effects. By spending most of the episode “over there”, we can keep Colm Meaney in front of the camera and not have to examine “our” Chief too carefully.

Jennifer’s visit turns out to be a ruse to lure Sisko to “her” station. The Terrans have taken back Terok Nor and have ripped off the blueprints of the Defiant, but can’t get it to work. Once again, the Defiant appears to be simultaneously a super-ship which would be the envy of any force in the galaxy, and a hopelessly over-gunned, over-powered failed prototype which is still not ready for prime time. Because Worf is in the cast now, Worf is in the Mirror Universe too. And it’s the first time we’ve seen Garak in absolutely ages as he sucks up to his Klingon captors, in some of the episode’s best scenes.

Captured by the Terrans, Kira’s “Intendant’ is a tiny bit less fun than usual, and Alexander Siddig never really convinces as a hard-bitten rebel, but elsewhere it’s still exciting to see the regulars adopting goatee beards and sarcastic sneers. Alas, since we know the set-up quite well now, we can’t be quite so thrilled at the reinventions of those characters, and since being able to bump off the regulars is part of the point of these stories, we can’t be all that shocked when Kira kills Nog either. There’s a pretty nifty space battle at the end though, where the Defiant manages to knock out an entire enemy fleet. Tough little ship that. Last appearance by Felecia M Bell as Jennifer.

Oscars 2023: Tár, All Quiet on the Western Front, Women Talking

Posted on February 13th, 2023 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Tár is one of those films built around a single actor. You sometimes hear directors saying “I wouldn’t have made the film if I couldn’t have got X to play the part.” Is that always true? I doubt it, but it probably is here. The intricacies of the performance is the whole point. Just as Lydia fanatically teases out details of classical pieces from her orchestra, so too does Cate Blanchett tease out details of this fascinating, complex, unlikeable, tyrannical, desperate, cruel, selfish and yet somehow relatable individual.

It’s lengthy, and it takes a while for anything to “happen”. I mean, stuff happens, but it’s not at all clear for a very long time what the actual point is, and I have to say, even now, I’m still not 100% sure what it’s trying to say. But like a number of other relatively plotless films which take place in very unfamiliar worlds (Gosford Park, The Hurt Locker, The Wolf of Wall Street) it’s the immersion in the details of the world that sustained my interest – although I’m not the least bit surprised to learn that it tried the patience of others.

But if all of the supporting players and the minutiae of a conductor’s life are the orchestra, then the soloist is of course Cate Blanchett who wrings every drop of nuance she can out of what could in lesser hands have been a wildly undisciplined caricature or a thin portrayal which couldn’t summon up the sheer charisma required to make the story work.

Women Talking has even less plot than Tár, and the most dramatic scenes all take place before the movie starts and are generally only described, or shown in brief flashbacks. But Sarah Polley’s unhurried and literate screenplay focuses on the rigour of the debate and the shifting moods of the characters. Essentially, this is Twelve Angry Men, restaged in a Mennonite Barn and where the stakes are far more personal.

Polley’s direction is also clear, unfussy and sensitive. She knows when to just let the words and the faces do the heavy lifting and when a little bit of an extra flourish will be helpful. And she has an absolutely crackerjack cast, led by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Ben Whishaw, but also including a brief turn by Frances McDormand (who also co-produced) and a remarkable performance from Michelle McLeod as the fragile Mejal.

Polley’s control of tone is precise and when things take a turn for the melodramatic in the closing fifteen or so minutes, she’s able to prevent the story from tipping over into action movie or soap opera clichés, but instead remains steadfastly intent on the details of the character interactions, all the way to the incredibly moving final shots. It’s a deeply absorbing piece of work, and what’s delightful about this very strong slate of Best Picture nominees is that it’s hard to think of two movies more opposite in their aims, intentions, methods and influences than Everything Everywhere and Women Talking and yet they’re two of my favourite films of the year. (Top Gun Maverick I guess is the third leg of this stool, but that’s my least favourite of the ten nominees by some distance.)

Lastly, let’s look at All Quiet on the Western Front. Remakes of previous Best Picture winners are rare, but not unheard of (and we had another one last year with Spielberg’s take on West Side Story) but this is particularly interesting. Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel had been conceived as a silent film, and traces of this earlier style of film grammar remain. It’s a testament to the studio’s desire to render the story as accurately and unflinchingly as possible, as well as the skill of the director and crew, that it has as much power as it does. When we watched it for our Best Pick podcast, we were all blown away (sorry) by the sheer force of the storytelling.

But this was a film about Germans in World War One, made by Americans in the inter-war period. The 2022 version is made by Germans, and is made not only with two world wars now in the history books, but also at a time when another conflict is raging in Europe. So, not only is there the opportunity to re-tell this story with the extra detail, sophistication and nuance which one would expect after ninety years of advances in filmmaking, but the time and nationality of the filmmakers gives it extra resonance.

There are plenty of changes from the earlier film, which was a pretty faithful rendering of the novel. Most obviously, this version is in colour, but this is no Technicolor fantasy. Director Edward Berger and cinematographer James Friend shoot it all in muted, muddy reds and fetid, billious greens. Milestone’s version kicks off with the rousing patriotic speech which inspires our young, callow heroes to enlist. Berger knows we won’t fall for that, and gives us the horrors of the battlefield right up front, with the dark irony that the jacket ripped from the shoulders of one unfortunate young soldier has the bullet holes patched up and is then given to the next new recruit.

Some of the episodes from the novel make it through intact, some are expanded or deleted. The most obvious omission is the sequence where Bäumer gets to go home briefly and discovers that he no longer fits back into civilian life. Instead Berger hints at his hero’s disassociation, and keeps him trapped on the front lines. He also gives us a window into the political dimension of the war, pitting Daniel Brühl’s Erzberger against Thibault de Montalembert’s Ferdinand Foch – whereas Remarque’s novel kept us in the trenches with the grunts. This leads to what I think of as an overreach, however, since the final death of Bäumer, instead of being the simple banality of the novel or the famous image of the first movie, is the product of an over-engineered ironic twist, which was such a shift in tone that I suspected it must have been based on a specific real event, but I’ve been unable to find any evidence of that.

However, the rest of the film is incredibly strong, with horribly convincing battle scenes, stripped of the grand tragedy of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, or the fleetingly optimistic showmanship of 1917, but reminding me more of a more reserved, more European Platoon. And Felix Kammerer as Bäumer is superb, as the enthusiastic idealism of the early stretch is replaced by horror and revulsion, and finally a blank fatalism as he reaches the end. It’s clearly going to win Best International Feature, and although I’ve yet to see the other nominees, I suspect deservedly so.

Trekaday 070: Return to Grace, Meld, Sons of Mogh, Dreadnought, Bar Association, Death Wish, Accession

Posted on February 8th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

DS9 S04E14 Return to Grace (4 out of 5 stars). Kira is having to get her jabs before she goes to a Cardassian outpost with her new fancy boyfriend. In a follow-up to the excellent Indiscretion, she is accompanied by Dukat, who has been demoted due to following Kira’s advice regarding his half-Bajoran offspring. Their verbal sparring is delightful – Dukat trying and failing to drive a wedge between the Major and her new beau – but when they arrive, Klingons have destroyed the outpost. Dukat picks a fight with a Klingon Bird of Prey and isn’t fired upon – there’s no honour in destroying a virtually defenceless freighter. Pretty soon, Kira and Dukat are reluctantly joining forces in hunting down and destroying the Klingons. This is typically nuanced stuff, Kira and Dukat make a great pair, and again we end with a new status quo – Dukat’s daughter living on Deep Space Nine. It’s nothing special by the very high standards of this show, but that’s still makes it an engrossing and worthwhile watch.

VOY S02E16 Meld (4.5 out of 5 stars). In an unusually grim teaser, the burned remains of a murdered crewmember is found in engineering. Since it turns out there’s a weirdo on board and since Brad Dourif is available, he’s played by Brad Dourif. In fact, he’s more than a weirdo. He’s a stone cold psychopath who killed a man just because. This is something which Tuvok cannot accept. But the bigger problem is: adrift decades from home, with no higher authorities to refer to, what is to be done with an irredeemable danger to others? Tim Russ is as good as ever, and for once manages to become something a bit more than just Spock Lite when the Doctor therapeutically removes Tuvok’s emotional control.

DS9 S04E15 Sons of Mogh (2.5 out of 5 stars). Not a title guaranteed to inspire enthusiasm in me, this one. As the title suggests, Tony Todd is back as Kurn and wants Worf to murder him in some kind of ritual Klingon honour code blah de blah. This is all because Worf refused to join in with the war against the Federation and that is not reflected on the rest of his family. Worf manages to get the blade into his bro, but he lives and Worf is chewed out by Sisko who thinks all this wokery has gone too far and he’s no longer going to be supportive of cultural diversity which involves bloodshed. The upshot is that Kurn ends up working for Odo which seems to me to be wholly lacking in interest. The writers presumably agreed and so this phase of the story bites the dust. Pick an idea and stick to it, guys. The resolution, involving mind-wiping and plastic surgery is redolent of bad pulp comics. Of rather more interest are the shady Klingon war games which Kira and O’Brien stumble over on their way back from some inspection or other. Klingons have been mining the area but not for long.

VOY S02E17 Dreadnought (4 out of 5 stars). B’Elanna is coming into focus now. Roxann Dawson has been impressive from the start, but initially her only character trait was “shouts and throws things”. This is, to be fair, a significant improvement on Harry Kim (“is young”) and Chakotay (“unspecified type of Native American”) but not much to build a character on. More recently, something more detailed, conflicted and interesting has emerged, and this storyline is a great vehicle for those traits, as Torres has to disarm a deadly self-aware missile which she created (and creepily programmed with her own voice).

You have to swallow a lot of coincidences to make this one work – it’s basically a square DS9 storyline, hammered into a round Voyager hole – but once you get past that, you get a foe which rivals Nomad or the Doomsday Machine for its implacable cunning, and personal stakes which actually feel like they mean something. LeVar Burton directs and makes the most of the tense script. That creepy lieutenant is still writing fan mail to Seska, but she’s got her assistant to fend off his advances now.

DS9 S04E16 Bar Association (2.5 out of 5 stars). Family Business delved deeper into Ferengi society with some success and set up a new recurring villain in Liquidator Brunt. Here, Nog cos-plays as Fred Kite and becomes the Quark’s Bar shop floor steward, but the satire is weak, the insights into alien races slim, and the drama almost non-existent. If you’re a huge fan of the Ferengi, this is fine, but it doesn’t add anything to what we know already and just feels a bit inconsequential. Equally inconsequentially, Worf is bunking up in the Defiant, which is… fine, I guess. I am liking the pairing of Worf and Dax, however. One extra half-star for the fact that Rom quits the bar and doesn’t go back. Every time this series does stuff like that, I have to remind myself that this went out in 1996, when everybody “knew” you had to design episodes to be completely self-contained and watchable in any order. And everybody was wrong.

VOY S02E18 Death Wish (3 out of 5 stars). While I’m waiting for Seven of Nine to turn up, I dimly remember that the pairing of Q and Janeway is meant to be rather good fun, especially as Q’s visit to Deep Space Nine was the rather soggy Q-Less. Alas, it’s not John de Lancie who materialises on the transporter pad, but rather Gerrit “The Critic” Graham whose impersonation doesn’t have the bite and fizz of the original and who badly overdoes the hand gestures. Thankfully, the OG isn’t far behind, patronising Janeway and smarming around the bridge, whereupon the Q who wants only to die seeks asylum onboard Voyager. That hearing takes up the rest of the episode, which seems a bit low stakes given that either party could whisk everyone home in an instant. Flowing in to fill the gap is a return visit from Jonathan Frakes as Riker – in the old costume (plus, rather less interestingly, Maury Ginsberg and Isaac Newton). Excitingly, Janeway offers the mortal Q the chance to join the crew. Predictably, he goes ahead with his plan to take his own life.

Mixed in with all of the legal wrangling, and Q-stunts, there are some real world considerations of assisted suicide, but unlike say the excellent TNG episode Half a Life, here it plays as didacticism rather than drama. The double Q effects are disturbingly poor. Speaking of double acts, Michael Piller wrote the script with his son Shawn.

DS9 S04E17 Accession (3 out of 5 stars). The commander of the station being adopted as a Bajoran prophet is one of the odder concepts assembled for this series. We get a quick reminder of this set-up just in time for a 200-year-old ship to come through the wormhole with a Bajoran on board who claims that he is the Emissary. Rather sweetly, he’s a poet who learns that schoolchildren can recite his most famous works from memory. But he wants to take Bajor back 200 years and reinstall the ancient caste system, which would mean Kira becoming an artist instead of a soldier. The set-up is strong, but it’s the strongest beat – the Bajorans enthusiastically and murderously getting with the old/new programme – which has to be hastily discarded off-screen to make the ending work. We’re just told that everybody believed Sisko’s story without question spontaneously agreed to pretend that the last few days had never happened.

Elsewhere, the Battle of Britain having been holographically won once more, Bashir and O’Brien are faced with a far bigger conflict – the fit that Keiko will have once she sees the bachelor pad which her husband has made of their family home. This domestic strand really only serves to reintroduce Keiko and otherwise is of not much interest.

Only Star Trek script from Jane Epsenson who used to write an excellent blog about screenwriting – she also worked on Buffy, Battlestar Galactica and Torchwood among many others. Worf has no wish to help Keiko with another birth after his experience onboard the Enterprise in Disaster.

Oscar nominations 2023

Posted on February 5th, 2023 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

The Best Picture nominees, along with the rest of the Oscar contenders, were announced a few days ago. Here’s my quick assessment of the runners and the riders…

All Quiet on the Western Front. Like Spielberg’s West Side Story last year, this is a remake of a previous Best Picture winner, but instead of this German World War One story being told by an American studio in the interwar period, it’s now being told by Germans at a time when no-one who fought in that war is still alive. It should be an interesting watch, it’s clearly going to win Best International Feature, and it’s Netflix’s big hope for this year, but will it be better than the transcendent 1930 version or just slicker?

Avatar: The War of Water. Living up to Cameron’s maximum that “more is more and too much is never enough” this lumbering epic reprises most of the biggest hits of its now ancient-seeming progenitor only soggier. I saw it on an IMAX screen and was frequently bored. The plot seems to hinge on a 3D-printed version of the badguy from the first film committing an enormous amount of army resources (including people) to his own personal vendetta. Who signed off on this? Apparently Kate Winslet is in this one, but I didn’t spot her.

The Banshees of Inisherin. Containing none of the exuberance of his awesomely entertaining In Bruges, this melancholy character study reminds me most of McDonagh’s bleakly moving The Pillowman which got me close to tears when I only read it – I’ve never seen it. Rather like Moonlight, this left me oddly unsatisfied when I first watched it, but it’s really clung on to me. With nine nominations total, including four for its cast, it’s a real front-runner for the big prize.

Elvis. Wouldn’t be the Oscars without some hefty biopics and this is one I missed at the cinema but am hoping to catch up with soon. Austin Butler has some stiff competition in the Best Actor stakes, but even with eight nominations total, given that its director hasn’t been recognised, I don’t think this is a major contender.

Everything Everywhere All at Once. Dazzingly original, hugely authored movie which manages not to lose sight of the simple human story at the centre of its bewildering whirlwind of images. Arguably a bigger achievement than Banshees, and remarkably it leads the way in nominations with eleven – including another four acting nominations for its largely non-white cast – but I suspect that the Academy’s innate conservatism will swing it back towards Banshees and I wouldn’t be dismayed if that’s what happened. This could be a Mank-like situation, where the most-nominated film walks away with very few awards (although this is a far better film than Mank).

The Fabelmans. I’ve been hearing about this film for almost a year and have yet to see it. Recently, Spielberg seems to have been doodling in the margins a bit. This might be the film which lets us see the director’s heart and soul a bit more clearly, which would be fascinating. Will report back soon.

Tár. Watched this last night on the TV. Cate Blanchett is sublime and Todd Field’s intricate screenplay creates the world of Lydia Tár through shrewd detail and subtle suggestion. For a film in which not a whole lot happens, you need to pay attention and when I did, it was utterly absorbing. Does it mean anything? Well, that’s something I’m going to need more time to consider.

Top Gun: Maverick. The film that saved cinema. Well, maybe not quite, but it is a precision-tooled entertainment machine with all the cold cynicism that that implies. With its sentimental nods to its ludicrous 1980s progenitor, its by-the-numbers boys-on-an-impossible-mission central concept, and its punch-the-air reversals of fortune, I can’t quite bring myself to hate it – in fact I admire its streamlined efficiency – but I find it vastly surprising that it’s in the conversation at all for Best Picture. Also nominated for its screenplay and for a handful of technical awards. It’s also Cruise’s most commercially successful movie by quite some distance, making around twice as much as the (far-better) Mission Impossible: Fallout.

Triangle of Sadness. Ruben Östland follows up the enthralling Force Majeure and the fascinating The Square with this messier (in every sense) outing which skewers the world of modelling and the super-rich. Arguably soft targets, but the insights are still strong and the middle section is as bravura as the opening is contained and acutely observed. Only the last act didn’t quite work for me, gradually coming into land instead of building and building to an explosive climax. With only two other nominations, even if one of them is for Östland as director, I don’t think this has much chance of winning Best Picture.

Women Talking. The one I know the least about, despite having chatted briefly to the costume designer at a fancy wedding earlier this year. I’m a huge fan of Sarah Polley and I can only imagine that this will be excellent, if not exactly a laugh riot. Will report back.

Elsewhere, both The Daniels and Spielberg certainly have a shot at Best Director, but I think this could be McDonagh’s night, in which case I can see him picking up Original Screenplay too, with Adapted Screenplay I think likely to go to Ishiguru for Living. Best Actor is hard to call, but I wouldn’t count out Austin Butler. Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nomination has survived, but I think the controversy will have badly hurt her chances, so this is probably Blanchett’s to lose. I’d love Barry Keoghan to win Best Supporting Actor and I’d be thrilled to see Stephanie Hsu walk off with Best Supporting Actress.

Check back here in March for the results.

Trekaday 069: Our Man Bashir, Resistance, Homefront, Paradise Lost, Prototype, Alliances, Crossfire, Threshold

Posted on February 1st, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

DS9 S04E10 Our Man Bashir (5 out of 5 stars). Jay Chattaway’s music is a pitch-perfect pastiche of mid-sixties John Barry, as Bashir indulges his adolescent Ian Fleming fantasies on a Holosuite, whereupon Garak intrudes, eyes ablaze with curiosity. Knowing now what I do about the behind-the-scenes debates regarding the Garak/Bashir relationship, it’s easy to surmise that this was the production team’s effort to de-queer the good doctor by casting him as the red-blooded star of a thoroughly butch spy adventure. The only problem is that the James Bond films are so ludicrously camp that the attempt is doomed to fail. Probably for the best.

Dependable Eddington has to perform an emergency beam-out to save Sisko and much of the senior staff from a sabotaged shuttle and the crew ends up “stored” in Bashir’s recreation of Sean Connery spy movies. This is a fabulous opportunity for the cast to play new versions of their characters, something I always appreciate. Kira becomes a Russian femme fatale. Dax is a kidnapped scientist. O’Brien an eye-patch wearing henchman. Worf a white jacket-wearing casino owner. And Sisko is the big bad Dr Noah.

Some of the satire here is spot on – the costumes are wonderful. Some is rather sub-Austin Powers (the name “Mona Luvsitt” almost caused me to chuck the remote control across the living room). But then again, Austin Powers was still two years away. The name of the episode is a nod to James Coburn’s wannabe Bond flick Our Man Flint. Meanwhile, Rom is quickly proving himself to be O’Brien’s (or LaForge’s) equal when it comes to jury-rigging get-out-of-jail-free devices. His lash-up to connect the Holosuite to the Defiant looks like something out of Apollo 13.

In a complete reversal of Distant Voices, Bashir is incensed when Garak suggests that they should quit while they’re ahead. And it’s that not-quite-climactic scene which pushes this delectable nonsense firmly into the five-star league. Everybody mispronounces “valet” but that’s so typical now that the wrong pronunciation is virtually correct.

VOY S02E12 Resistance (3.5 out of 5 stars). Neelix, Janeway, Tuvok and Torres are undercover in an attention-grabbing teaser. Janeway is shot and they are all arrested in pursuit of this week’s supply of unobtanium, the absence of which requires Voyager to drop its shields (briefly). Bafflingly, junior ensign Harry Kim is the one tasked with repairing the warp drive, whereas chief engineer Torres is part of the team on the planet below.

Janeway’s absence on the bridge means that Chakotay is in the centre seat, running things with his usual bland efficiency. Held prisoner by the invading Zagbars, Tuvok and Torres make a more interesting pairing, but Tuvok has yet to reveal anything beyond standard issue Vulcan detachment. Speaking of which, Janeway finds herself seemingly adopted by Very Fancy Guest Star Joel Grey, one of the native Zoobles who mistakes Voyager’s captain for his missing daughter. This is all perfectly decent adventure hijinks, with purring villains interrogating our captive heroes, political manoeuvring from orbit and so on. Joel Grey’s subplot feels a bit fresher, a bit more meaningful, but can’t transcend the overall feeling of familiarity, despite the excellent performance from the Broadway legend.

DS9 S04E11 Homefront (4 out of 5 stars). Nothing’s quite right on the station. The wormhole has the jitters. Someone has moved Odo’s chair 3cm to the left. But this pales in comparison to the massacre committed during a peace conference on Earth – a bomb which left 27 people dead, and it looks like the work of the Changelings. Sisko’s family has always been a bigger feature of his life than Picard’s was for him. We were introduced to him with a wife and son. Now we meet Brock Peters as Sisko’s dad, who’s keen for him to spend time in New Orleans. It’s a slightly odd mix. Ben is at pains to point out that this trip is not a vacation, but his later conversation with Jake is all about domestic chores and there’s scarcely a mention of the galaxy-spanning crisis he’s actually there to deal with. And this tone of cheerful levity is maintained when O’Brien and Bashir visit Quark’s, straight from cos-playing as the Dambusters (complete with full costumes and funny voices).

The two strands collide when Sisko’s dad refuses to submit to Changeling-testing, and before long there’s an unexplained planet-wide power outage, and Sisko insists to the Federation president that Earth be put under martial law. The question here is a pertinent one – how much freedom are you prepared to surrender in order to preserve your way of life? The trip home also makes possible a reunion between Jake and Starfleet Cadet Nog, who has belatedly discovered that “Academy” is another word for “School” and is having trouble fitting in. This doesn’t really go anywhere, but this is part one of two.

On Earth, Sisko is back in his TNG-style uniform, which makes the Voyager togs even more confounding. And not for the first time, a potential job-change for a member of the regular cast is played as a doom-laden act-out. Susan “Leah Brahms” Gibney returns as new character Benteen. Klingon gods were more trouble than they were worth, and so the Klingons had them all executed.

DS9 S04E12 Paradise Lost (4 out of 5 stars). Now the “Red Squad” storyline set up by Nog last week takes centre-stage. Far from being a Dominion vs Earth narrative, this is actually Starfleet vs the Federation, which is pretty dark and nihilistic even for this show. Worse is to come, as Sisko is removed as Acting Head of Earth Security, fails to get the Federation president on side, and is taunted by an O’Brien changeling who tells him that the humans’ fear is what will defeat them. Admiral Leyton – latest in an implausibly long line of corrupt, misguided or compromised Starfleet top brass – manages to frame Sisko as a shapeshifter, and with his old friend out of the way, he looks forward to essentially installing himself as dictator. Like I said, this is dark stuff. And that’s before we get to the Admiral ordering his ships to destroy the Defiant. The climax is hurried though, with the major plot-resolving decision being taken off-screen by someone we barely know – due to budget limitations perhaps?

VOY S02E13 Prototype (2.5 out of 5 stars). Prior to the episode’s start, Voyager has picked up a silver mannequin which looks alarmingly like the shapeshifting Kamelion robot from 1980s Doctor Who. Unable to determine its power source, Torres pulls an all-nighter. We actually get some glimmers of personality as she spars with first Kim and then Neelix, and Roxann Dawson is better than ever. Repairing the machine is really only act one busywork however. It perks up and its unsettling politeness now causes it to remind me of Legion from the Red Dwarf episode of the same name. V’Ger-like, it wants to find that which created it. It is – like so many things in science fiction stories – supposedly the last of its kind and it kidnaps B’Elanna so she can make it new double-A batteries and revive its fellows.

As director, Jonathan Frakes shoots the teaser from the automated unit’s point of view, RoboCop-style, which adds a little interest, but this fairly routine outing is only really worth watching for Roxann Dawson, and the Cybernaut-style costumes are particularly silly and unconvincing. Did Frakes really learn nothing from the Exocomps? The final reveal that the war between the Zagbars and the Zoobles only continued because the robots wanted to keep fighting is a nicely savage twist, but I could have done without Torres literally saying “My god, what have I done?’

Torres asserts that there is only one sentient artificial life form serving in Starfleet – Data. That will change before the series is over.

VOY S02E14 Alliances (1.5 out of 5 stars). The Kazon, least impressive season Big Bad candidates since the Ferengi first showed up, have Voyager pinned down, but mysteriously depart before dealing the final blow. In engineering, some poor boob has been badly burned when his console exploded in his face – they really should do something about that. There’s nothing the Doctor can do to save him.

There’s often a feeling on Voyager that – despite all the complex reality-bending plotlines – nothing much matters because it’s always reset city. Bumping off a character who’s never been heard to speak before doesn’t change that, whether or not Roxann Dawson looks grief-stricken, whether or not Robert Beltran tells bland stories about first meeting the guy. So when Chakotay pitches a change in tactics to Janeway, making Voyager more Maquis and less Starfleet, it’s not so much that I don’t want that to happen, or I don’t believe any of the changes will be lasting (although both are true), it’s that I don’t much care. It feels cosmetic.

Since Chakotay is a walking charisma bypass, when Tuvok makes all the same points, in a well-acted but rather laborious scene, Janeway does an abrupt about-face and decides to forge an alliance with Seska – yay, more Martha Hackett. But I’m increasingly dismayed at the extent to which Tuvok is becoming Just Another Vulcan. His relationship with Janeway is similar to that between Spock and Kirk, but where is the McCoy character to round out the triad? Voyager’s most significant on-ship relationship is turning out to be a two-legged stool.

Eventually, circumstances solve Janeway’s dilemma for her when a more palatable alliance presents itself. Her attitude to the Prime Directive (which i thought only applied to pre-warp civilisations) switches from “We are forbidden from involving ourselves in local affairs” to “If there’s a chance to bring stability to this region, I can’t pass it up.” There are interesting ideas here, but there are so many different plot beats packed into 45 minutes that none of them really has a chance to register. We go from we’re Starfleet, to we need to be more Maquis, to we need an alliance with Seska, to we need an alliance with the Kazon’s enemies, to our enemy’s enemy can’t be trusted, to the one thing we don’t need is to be more Maquis. So on the one hand, Starfleet’s supremacy onboard ship is assured, and on the other, there aren’t any real consequences for the ship, which has plenty of food and anti-matter, despite the dire circumstances of the teaser. They don’t even make good use of Martha Hackett. I’m incredibly disappointed.

DS9 S04E13 Crossfire (4 out of 5 stars). Everyone’s in their dress blues to welcome First Minister Shakaar whom we first met at the end of the last season, but he made so little of an impression that everybody spends half the teaser reciting his backstory at each other. He’s played by the ghost that bothered Crusher in the idiotic TNG episode Sub Rosa. He’s fairly punchably smug, and that doesn’t make me want to assassinate him – but Cardassian extremists disagree. Shakaar almost courts his own demise, insisting on parading around the station with minimal security, allowing Worf and Odo to bond over how annoying it is when people change their plans.

Star Trek has a pretty poor record when it comes to love stories. They tend to be perfunctory, like Kirk’s various squeezes, ludicrous like Worf and Troi, or easily forgotten whenever they’re inconvenient like Crusher and Picard. The torch Odo carries for Kira is a little different. It’s a tragic tale of love unrequited, seen most clearly and affectingly in the otherwise rather silly episode with Kira seemingly consumed by a giant crystal. Now, Shakaar confides in Odo that he similarly has the hots for the Major, and Odo takes his bad mood out on Quark. Neither TNG nor Voyager could ever get away with this kind of story, so it’s exciting to see it attempted here, but Shakaar’s bland anti-charisma manner makes him scarcely a threat to the far more appealing shapeshifter, who valiantly saves all three of them from a plunging turbo lift.

While I struggled with the First Minister, I can’t fault René Auberjonois and Nana Visitor, and if anything it makes the love story play better when we see only those glimpses of it which Odo is privy to. Auberjonois in particular manages to create amazing depth from behind all of that foam latex. The whole story is written in his eyes. And then, incredibly, and rather sweetly, it’s Quark who is able to put Odo back together, again (for purely financial reasons of course).

VOY S02E15 Threshold (2 out of 5 stars). Paris and Torres are working on a new trans-warp drive. I note that Torres seems to be able to recruit whichever regular character seems convenient to help her with engineering problems – Janeway, Paris, Kim, the Doctor, even Neelix. Similarly, if Starfleet’s best pilot, Lt Tom Paris, isn’t medically fit for the record-breaking, epoch-defining test flight, Junior Ensign Kim can take over. These people not only don’t have much in the way of interiority, they don’t even have areas of expertise we can rely on.

The warp ten conversation is pretty much gibberish. If that’s the theoretical limit, tending to infinity, then why do they need to cross it? Wouldn’t getting 99% of the way there be just as useful for all practical purposes? And once Paris does get the shuttle to Warp 10, nothing we see looks anything like infinite velocity. It just brings Paris back as a rapidly-decaying, pan-allergic, chlorine-breather. But as a vehicle (sorry) for examining the main characters, it’s serviceable – at least to begin with, Paris getting more character stuff than he’s had all season. And I’m really warming to Torres. I loved her acid-tongued “fill him in” as she leaves the table to get snacks while Paris and Kim attempt to sum up years of warp theory in two minutes to an eager Neelix. The Doctor’s sarcastic quips struck me as a little overdone this week though.

It all goes tits-up in the finale however, which sees Paris and Janeway transformed into corpulent whiskery seal creatures which have sired rubbery offspring. Big news you say? Nah, they’re restored to full health and sanity moments later. Phew. It’s often said that DS9 was far more interested in the consequences of its characters’ actions, and had no need to return to the status quo at the end of each episode, whereas Voyager always had its finger on the reset button. If so, this is Voyager’s “hold my beer” moment, as the last act is practically made of reset button, taking mere seconds to reverse the biological calamity visited on the Captain only minutes earlier, and all off-screen. This is a famously terrible episode, many peoples’ least favourite, but I thought the first twenty minutes weren’t that bad, whereas Alliances – although nothing in it is quite as terrible as Paris and Janeway fish-fucking – was basically nonsense all the way through.

Also, since the trans-warp drive did work, kinda, after only a month of trying, and based on what seemed like a fairly minor insight, it does suggest that generations of Federation engineers didn’t create this simply because they didn’t want to. Despite their partial success, Voyager’s crew doesn’t seem to want the gift of infinite velocity much either, because they never return to the project. On the other hand, threads with disloyal crewmembers, began last episode, continue to pay off, which is heartening.