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Posts Tagged ‘Ronald Moore’

The Pegasus, an instalment of Star Trek: The Next Generation first shown in January 1994, is one of those episodes of a TV show which didn’t receive much in the way of particular attention on its first appearance, but found itself on the outskirts of severe fannish opprobrium over a decade later. This is because it’s also one of those episodes which has another episode going on inside it, in this case the supremely unpopular series finale of Enterprise, These Are The Voyages. (How does this work? Well, in the course of The Pegasus, Riker finds himself wracked by a crisis of conscience and – not being able to talk to anyone about it – decides to resolve this problem by talking to holodeck simulations of the crew of the NX Enterprise. It is an odd, slightly contrived conceit and – one might argue – a fairly transparent attempt to boost the ratings for the Final Episode of Star Trek by arranging guest appearances by stars of the much more popular Next Gen.)

I don’t think These Are The Voyages quite deserves all the hatred directed at it by both Trekkies and many of its own cast and crew, but it’s certainly unfair for The Pegasus to get tarred with this particular brush, as it is a solid episode (written by Ronald D Moore) which touches on a few interesting points and manages to do things which Next Gen usually struggles at.

A case in point is the opening scene, which manages to be charming and understatedly funny, all without compromising the regular cast. Preparations are underway for the Enterprise’s annual ‘Captain Picard Day’ (the ship’s children have all been making pictures and models of Jean-Luc) when a priority signal comes in sending them off on a new mission to be carried out under the auspices of Starfleet Intelligence. Quite apart from setting up the plot, the scene neatly carries out a couple of other functions, emphasising the close and warm relationship between Picard and Riker before it comes under severe strain later in the story, and also giving Troi some actual lines in an episode where Marina Sirtis otherwise appears to have been on holiday.

Well, Admiral Pressman of Starfleet Intelligence beams aboard (a strong performance by guest star Terry O’Quinn, possibly best known for playing Locke in Lost) and announces that they are off to locate and ideally salvage the Pegasus, a ship believed lost in slightly obscure circumstances twelve years earlier. Pressman was commanding the ship at the time, with a youthful Riker as his helmsman: Riker is quite shocked by this, although it isn’t immediately apparent why (sensors detect an Incoming Plot Point, Captain).

The search takes them to an asteroid-filled system near the Neutral Zone, and they discover a search is already underway by a Romulan ship. Another rather nice scene ensues, in which Picard and the Romulan Commander engage in the best traditions of diplomacy by being very courteous and pleasant to each other, even though they both know the other is lying through their teeth about why they’re there.

A search gets underway, with everyone aware that they are in a race with the Romulans to find the Pegasus. As this proceeds, it becomes apparent that we are in for a Riker-centric episode, as Jonathan Frakes is in nearly every scene, and even when he’s not there the other characters (essentially Picard and Pressman) are talking about him. Pressman believes Riker’s great virtue was his unquestioning loyalty to the chain of command, while Picard thinks his best quality is his ability to prioritise doing the right thing over more personal concerns. The episode basically comes down to a conflict between these two principles.

The Pegasus turns up, inside one of the asteroids of the system, although the Enterprise can’t mount a salvage attempt for a few hours without tipping off the Romulans to this. This delay gives everyone time for another cracking scene, this one between Riker and Picard. The captain has been doing some digging and turned up a classified report concerning an attempted mutiny on the Pegasus immediately before it was believed destroyed, something Riker (who assisted Pressman in resisting the mutineers) has never spoken of before. Given everything that’s going on, Picard is smelling a rodent of unusual size, and is not best pleased when Riker is forced to admit he’s under orders from Starfleet Command not to discuss the matter, even with his own commanding officer. Picard breaks out the righteous anger, at one point even intimating he may sack Riker as first officer. Patrick Stewart gets to do moral outrage and show Picard’s sense of personal betrayal in this scene, and it must be said that Frakes also gives a fine performance, in the sense that he’s not blasted off the screen by Stewart.

(It’s not really clear at what point Riker pops down to the holodeck for his These Are The Voyages guest spot, as he does seem quite busy throughout this episode. But I digress.)

On with the adventure-intrigue plot: the Enterprise is taken inside the asteroid itself, against Picard’s explicit objections, and they discover the remains of the Pegasus, which has weirdly ended up merged with the solid rock of its surroundings (the Pegasus is a rather venerable Oberth-class starship, one of those models where you wonder how they get from the saucer section to the secondary hull, unless there are actual lift shafts running through the nacelle supports). Riker and Pressman go aboard and the mysterious doohickey Pressman has been so keen to recover is located – forcing Riker to finally make a decision – obey orders or do the right thing?

Many of these Next Gen episodes do feel rather formulaic, not that this is necessarily a bad thing, and while watching this one I concluded that Moore had decided to an episode about Riker’s moral dilemma first and come up with the lost ship plot-line later. But apparently not: it seems Moore encountered one or other version of Raise the Titanic! and decided to Trek it up a bit. Apparently Moore was also sick of being asked why the Federation didn’t use cloaking devices, when the Klingons and Romulans are so keen on them, and wrote an explanation into the episode in the form of it being one of the provisions of a treaty between the UFP and the Romulans.

Prior to this the closest thing to an explanation was Gene Roddenberry’s declaration that sneaking about in a cloaked ship was against the principles of the Federation and Starfleet. Moore’s explanation is a little more credible, though once again one doubts the Great Bird would have been particularly enamoured of this episode’s presentation of black operations and illegal experiments carried out secretly by Starfleet Intelligence – the episode kind of foreshadows the more morally grey and pragmatic depiction of Starfleet which would become increasingly common as DS9 progressed. As it is, with the various conflicts and arguments between the three main characters, the episode is (at the very least) pushing up against the limits of the Roddenberry box.

Given that the episode is concerned with illegal attempts to develop a Federation cloaking device, one does have to wonder why Starfleet Intelligence were apparently field-testing the thing just around the corner from the Romulan Neutral Zone, the location where the Romulans would be most likely to notice if there were any problems. Oh well – the imperatives of plot, I suppose. The same is true of the fact that this is apparently a ‘phasing cloak’, which makes the ship on which it is operating not just invisible but intangible, able to pass through solid objects. One wonders just what additional advantage this would present in the normal course of ship operations on top of the standard invisibility, although I expect I am showing a dreadful lack of imagination.

Another issue that would only occur to the troubled: at the end of the episode, Riker is placed under arrest and slung in the brig, presumably for his role in the initial Pegasus experiments twelve years earlier and the fact he never spoke up about their existence. Vulcan lawyers would no doubt argue that, logically, the Other Riker whose existence was revealed in the episode Second Chances should also be arrested, as he is equally at fault (he was there at the time, too). And if, as it is implied here, Riker’s exemplary service on the Enterprise is one of the reasons why he’s not more severely punished (in Moore’s first draft he got a month in the brig and his chances of further promotion were effectively ended), one wonders what would happen to Other Riker, who doesn’t have these mitigating circumstances in his favour? It’s easy to imagine Other Riker having a very hard time as a result of Enterprise Riker’s actions here, which (it is tempting to think) may explain why he eventually goes rogue.

Let us emerge from the rabbit hole. I would say this was a solid episode, good but not quite great, and a very fair representative of this series when it is functioning well: it has an engaging plot, strong characterisation, and makes a point of giving Picard the opportunity to exercise his moral authority (good TV though this is, one wonders if one of the reasons Picard is still out there commanding a ship rather than working in the Admiralty is because the other admirals don’t want him around, causing trouble by taking a principled stance on everything: he can almost come across as a bit of a prig sometimes). It’s certainly one of the better Riker-centric episodes, too; well worth revisiting.

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Dear Jane,

Well, here we are one disc into the weekly series of the new Battlestar Galactica and I actually beginning to see just why you rate this series so highly. Usually with this sort of undertaking I pick out selected landmark or highlight episodes and just mention everything else in passing, but the thing about New BSG, like quite a few modern shows I expect, is that they all sort of run together in terms of plot and so on.

Anyway. The first episode of this bunch, 33, is one that I’d actually seen fifteen minutes-ish of before when it first showed up on British TV in 2006. There was clearly no point in my committing to another big TV show despite a characteristically hearty recommendation from Rusty Davis, as I was flying off to Japan for a year very shortly, but in an case I found the thing completely discombobulating and rather inaccessible. (Bear in mind the mini wasn’t shown prior to the weekly series.) The low-key nature of the whole thing threw me, as did the plotting with the multiple Boomers, and I bailed out fairly rapidly.

Where exactly is this business with Agathon and the Boomer-copy on ‘Cylon-occupied Caprica’ going, anyway? (Not very heavily occupied from the look of things, by the way.) At the moment all it seems to be achieving is providing a timescale for the rest of the series (’12th day on Caprica’ and so on). Don’t answer that, by the way.

On the other hand the plotline with the other Boomer taking a very long time to admit to herself she’s probably a Cylon doesn’t seem to be doing much either. Presumably it is Boomer-1 who blew up the water tanks on the Galactica, although as usual the series is taking a very long time to answer any of the questions it poses.

I sort of like this, I may be baffled and lacking in any sense of closure, but at least I feel like an adult whose intelligence is respected who is baffled and lacking in any sense of closure. For example, all that business in 33 with the apparent link between the Cylons and the Rising Star – had the ship really been infiltrated? Were there actually nukes on board? Why were the Cylon attacks so closely linked with the ship’s presence?

I know, Jane, that you said the Iraq/post-9/11 stuff really gets going in later seasons, but it seems very obvious to me that this show is the product of a nation which believes itself to be threatened by war. Every time the characters are forced into a tough, morally questionable decision like blowing up a civilian ship which may have been infiltrated, the programme is surely being an apologist for every suspect choice and misstep made by the Bush administration in the name of homeland security.

Of course, the look of the show is really helped by the presence of Mary McDonnell as a thoroughly sympathetic president. She’s very good, and I can’t help but wonder if she was on some level a model for Doctor Who‘s unexpectedly-elevated Prime Minister in the 2005 and 2006 series. In the circumstances, McDonnell’s resemblance to Elisabeth Sladen is troubling, but that’s no-one’s fault.

I was going to do a long thing here about the whole way in which the characters from the original series have been reimagined and recast, probably at the same time as talking about the appearance of Richard Hatch in Bastille Day. But that is going to be a long thing and I am aware that this update has gone on a bit already. So I will save that for a more auspicious moment and instead comment more on Act of Contrition, which for me was the outstanding episode of this batch.

act_of_contrition

Perhaps this was because it is much more of a standalone than the others (for all that it turns out to end with a big TO BE CONTINUED caption), with less of a presence of some of the peripheral characters who I find slightly annoying. On the other hand, the complex structure of the thing (I counted four layers of flashbacks going off in close succession at one point) made it a little difficult to follow: it took me a while to figure out that the accident on the hangar deck was actually happening ‘now’ rather than being a flashback to Zak Adama’s death. In the end I was impressed with how it worked, simply as a piece of character drama.

I know you like Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck, and I agree that she has tremendous screen presence – but I can’t help but find the whole wisecracking-tough-but-vulnerable characterisation to be a bit obvious and maybe even cliched. But here I was surprised to find myself genuinely caring about the central characters (Adama, Apollo, and Starbuck) and their relationships, which never really happened with Disco Galactica. (For what it’s worth, at this point my favourite character is probably Apollo, mainly on the strength of his stand at the end of Bastille Day: he’s not afraid to be a bit of a tool in the service of a good cause, something I always find very admirable.) I’m not sure to what extent it honestly qualifies as true SF (I don’t really think that just being set on a spaceship is enough), but this episode had some riveting moments of human drama, and I hope I’ll always be happy to watch that. Especially if there’s a spaceship involved.

.

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Dear Jane,

I’m going to be perfectly honest and say that the responsibility for this is largely yours. As you may recall, on February the 9th 2011 at about ten to five in the afternoon GMT, you said to me ‘Dude. You’re just going to have to sit down with the BSG miniseries and season 1… trust me,’ on the grounds that it was ‘the best TV show in history’. (I don’t need to tell you what BSG means, but just in case anyone else is reading our correspondence, it’s shorthand for Battlestar Galactica. I don’t really understand why it’s not just BG, as the show isn’t called Battle Star Galactica, but that’s just my OCD-pedant tendency coming to the fore again. But I digress. I suspect I’ll be doing that a lot.)

Anyway, for a long time I paid this little heed, but then I found myself coming to the end of a pilgrimage through the original Star Trek, which had itself come fairly close on the heels of similar trips through The Tomorrow People (original version) and Babylon 5. A strange conjunction of factors was in play: I was casting about for something new with which to occupy myself, found the lack of current space-opera style TV shows a little regrettable, and stumbled upon a box set of the entirety of New BSG (something with which I was still almost wholly unfamiliar) going at a fairly reasonable price on the same day I was sent an unreasonably large cheque in the post by my family (a Significant Birthday had occurred). And so I uttered that incantation which has presaged so many dubious enterprises: Ah, what the hell.

And I thought I would tell you my opinion of it. I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who has always had a bit of a soft spot for original BSG (or Disco BSG as I usually refer to it) and was somewhat wary of what, on the face of it, looks like a fairly radical rethink of the whole concept.

You will, of course, be familiar with the plot of the mini-series: at some distant point in space and time, the human civilisation of the Twelve Colonies has almost begun to forget about the lurking menace of the Cylons, a race of intelligent machines which turned on their creators decades earlier. Now, of course, the Cylons are back, able to pass as human – and they have used this ability to infiltrate Colonial society prior to launching a devastating assault…

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One of the ships taken by surprise by the Cylon blitzkrieg is the venerable battlestar (a big sort of aircraft carrier sort of spaceship) Galactica, commanded by crusty old grumpface Adama (played by Danny Trejo Edward James Olmos). The Galactica is en route to be decommissioned, but the collapse of civilisation as everyone knows it leads to a rethink.

Adama is all for digging in and taking on the Cylons toe-to-toe (probably mixing my metaphors there, sorry), but the newly-installed President (Mary McDonnell) – only in the job because her 42 superiors have all been killed – wants to focus on rescuing survivors and abandoning the system entirely. Can they settle their differences before the Cylons catch up with them?

Well, Jane, you did warn me that the first hour of the miniseries was ‘kind of dull’ and I can see what you mean. Then again, this is a┬ástory with over a dozen significant characters and a new world to establish, so they have to do at least a bit of laying in of plot at the beginning. My problems with the mini are not to do with it being slow, because right from the start the thing is laced with striking and engaging moments – the scene with the dead baby was genuinely shocking – but more connected to the fact that at times it seemed in danger of turning into very generic Hollywood SF.

Most obviously, there is the presence of the slippery, untrustworthy Baltar (James Callis), who just happens to be the only character with an English accent. Also, the key character hook for the new versions of Adama and Apollo (Jamie Bamber) is that they have a strained father-son relationship: this is just as much a cliche.

However, apart from this, and certainly once the Cylon nukes start dropping, I found the mini to be very engaging and highly enjoyable stuff. I believe this was originally made for broadcast on a minority network in the US, which may explain the occasional signs of a low budget, but it may also explain the mini’s willingness to go beyond the unchallenging norms of most American TV SF – there is a running theme of characters being forced to take very tough decisions, and the mini does not shy away from showing the consequences of these (a sweet young girl gets vaporised at one point, for instance). It may also be the source of the (to my mind) surprising quantity of sexytime in the mini, certainly compared to Disco BSG: the pilots are having sexytime with the flight crews, the Galactica crew are having sexytime with the presidential staff, the humans are even having sexytime with the Cylons. Crikey. At least the President’s suggestion that the survivors ‘need to start having babies’ seems likely to be fulfilled, and sooner rather than later at this rate.

Watching the BSG mini now it’s easy to see it is, like all SF, a product of its time. It’s very easy to see that this is a piece of post-September 11th drama, contemporaneous with the invasion of Iraq: civilisation is under threat from fanatical ideologues who have managed to infiltrate it, hard, cruel, pragmatic decisions have got to be made, and so on. Perhaps this explains the sheer lack of disco and the down-to-Earth tone of the thing, certainly compared to the kind of Star Trek being made around that time (the Disco-style robotic Cylons are notably short on screen time). I wonder how much of this is a result of the subject matter and how much is down to market differentiation (that said, much of the zero-G Viper combat struck me as being very much post-Babylon 5 in its presentation).

Having said that, Jane, I do find there is a certain disconnect in the milieu of the new show – so much of the technology is recognisably close to our own (nuclear weapons, projectile sidearms, and so on) and yet this is also a civilisation capable of constructing massive FTL spacecraft and advanced AI and robotics: there is perhaps an element here of the makers of the show cherrypicking ideas to suit their story. I think this also connects, sort of, with the issue of the rethought versions of Starbuck and Boomer, but I think I will return to this particular topic at a future date.

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(I am aware, by the way, that Katee Sackhoff, who plays the new Starbuck, has become the breakout star of this series – my understanding is that she is a bit of a cult rave in some quarters and many people are keen for her to play Warbird or Ms Marvel in a future MCU movie. Well, Sackhoff is certainly a very engaging and charismatic performer, but I couldn’t quite buy into her as a top gun fighter pilot. Again, I suspect I will come back to this.)

I would say that this is the best piece of 21st century TV SF I have seen in a very long time, but given that I have watched virtually no new TV SF since Enterprise got canned that doesn’t really mean very much. Let’s just say that it is good, and a promising start for the series. Thank you for the recommendation.

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