Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

So, after my less than entirely satisfying encounter with late-period Enterprise and the serialised storytelling which seemed to define the series at that point, it seemed sensible to check out a much earlier, non-serialised episode and see if this was any more to my taste. (I know I have looked at a couple of first-season episodes in recent weeks, but not with any particular intent beyond just watching the show with my critic’s socks on. Some people have a critic’s hat, I have critic’s socks.) I ended up watching the first ‘normal’ episode to follow the pilot: Fight or Flight, first shown in October 2001 and written by the show’s creators, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga.

The episode kicks off with another of those peculiar non-grabby cold opens which are practically part of Enterprise‘s format: Hoshi visits the sickbay to look in on one of the animals genial Dr Phlox is looking after. Then again, part of the premise of the story is that the Enterprise has been out in space for a couple of weeks and nothing worth mentioning has happened, beyond discovering a slightly poorly slug, so it’s a bit difficult to see how else they could have pepped things up a bit.

Various things are used to establish the fact that this is still a ship and crew that is coming together: Phlox still treats the humans as specimens to be observed, there’s an odd squeak under the floor of Archer’s room, the torpedoes won’t shoot straight and T’Pol is a mood hoover in whatever room she happens to enter. Everyone (apart from the Vulcan) is getting frustrated by the lack of activity and is keen to get on with some proper exploring.

They get their chance when they come across an alien cargo ship, apparently derelict in space (the Easter egg in the script is that the aliens eventually turn out to come from Axanar, which later – which is to say, back in the 1960s series – had a medal named after it, not to mention a fan-made Trek movie which ended up causing immense ructions between the Trek rights holders and creative fandom). Despite T’Pol’s declaration that the Vulcan thing to do would be to let well alone and carry on with their original course, Archer goes aboard and insists that Hoshi comes along to translate, despite the fact she gets claustrophobic in an environment suit. The ship seems abandoned, until the boarding party discovers some odd machinery hooked up to the corpses of fifteen or so of the original crew, who have been murdered and strung up from the ceiling…

Fight or Flight does do a good job of establishing that the Trek principles that were in effect throughout the series set in the 2360s and 2370s no longer apply here in the 2150s: Enterprise is one small ship slowly heading out into a largely unknown galaxy, without the immense power of Starfleet and the Federation to back it up. There is much more of a sense of peril, which is most effectively communicated by the fact that Archer’s initial response to finding the dead crew is to pull his people out of there and warp out of the area as fast as possible.

Needless to say, they go back, but run afoul of the aliens who murdered the other ship’s crew, and here the episode’s A-plot and B-plot rather-too-neatly intersect, as you might expect from a Berman and Braga script: Hoshi has been struggling all episode with the realities of exploring the unknown, and has been contemplating asking to be taken home so she can return to a purely academic environment where she is more comfortable. But, needless to say, when the climax arrives, she conquers her self-doubt, develops the ability to speak an alien language practically spontaneously, and saves everyone from the bad guys. I suppose it makes up for the fact that most of her earlier scenes made heavy use of an extended metaphor where she was compared to a sickly mollusc.

It’s not just the pacing which is sluggish. Ha! Ha!

It’s all very glib, pat, and predictable, and it feels like it’s taking up bandwidth that could have been more profitably used to develop more interesting elements of the story: the murderous alien villains seem quite promising, but turn up too late to do more than be generically threatening before they are disposed of, for example. However, for me the really interesting development of the episode is one which barely receives any emphasis at all.

To begin with, Archer and the other human characters are just keen to start exploring and meeting new alien species, which is fair enough: this is the sort of thing which a lot of Trek pays lip service to, although (if we’re going to put on our pedantic socks) only a comparatively tiny number of episodes, across all the series, revolve around genuine exploration. But exploring only goes so far in terms of creating conflict and drama, and so there has to be a little bit more to it than just being menaced by natural phenomena and hostile aliens – it can’t just be scientific observation, there has to be an element of virtuous self-expression to it as well. Starfleet ships don’t just zip around looking at stuff, where possible they get involved and try to do the right thing – you could argue that the whole notion of the Prime Directive is, in dramatic terms, just a device to increase the conflict involved in this kind of situation.

The shift in Archer’s attitude from ‘let’s explore!’ to ‘let’s explore virtuously!’ thus seems to me to be what this episode is really about, but – in what seems to be another key Enterprise trope – rather than handling it through a dramatic scene, with different characters arguing their points of view, and the actors getting a chance to shine, Archer just thinks about it at lot, mostly off-camera, and eventually announces his decision to everyone else. It is in the failure to provide these key moments of character, tension and drama that Enterprise seems to consistently fall down: it seems to treat the resolution of rather hackneyed character arcs, most of them limited to individual episodes, as being of higher importance. Having hit upon a successful formula during the making of TNG – most latter episodes are built around a single character tackling a particular issue in this way – they seem to have been reluctant to abandon it, and it’s this which keeps Fight or Flight from being a more satisfying episode or reaching its full potential as anything more than meat-and-potatoes Trek.

Read Full Post »

Some friends and I were having a discussion just the other night about the virtues (or not) and place (if any) of serialised storytelling in Star Trek. I say friends, but most of these people I’ve only met (and by met I mean ‘have begun to talk to via internet audio messaging’, as we live in four different countries) recently and all we have in common, I suspect, is a shared interest in Star Trek and games related to it. Things therefore got a bit fraught when I suggested I’m not necessarily a fan of ongoing storylines; our DS9 fan strongly argued that this was the best of the Berman-era series, which inevitably rolled on into a somewhat heated debate about whether Voyager is, in fact, any good at all, and so on. I nearly had to step in and calm everyone down.

The odd thing is that while I’m not at all a fan of Discovery (or Picard, much), and these are shows which are largely defined by their serial nature, I do like Deep Space Nine a lot, mainly because it does have that big, overarching storyline running for most of its seven seasons. Am I just having another one of my little interludes of total inconsistency? I would like to think not. I think this is really a case of plot as opposed to meta-plot; in DS9, the meta-plot about the Dominion threat to the Alpha Quadrant powers is there from the middle of the second season, motoring along in the background, but most of the episodes are standalones without particular continuing threads. In the newer shows, pretty much everything runs from one episode to the next.

As it happens I was thinking about this just the other day, when I watched a couple more episodes of Enterprise. Why am I watching so much Enterprise late at night at the moment? Well, to be honest, under lockdown, I find myself watching reruns of the original series and TNG two or even three times a day on regular TV, while a run of Voyager recently concluded and my sense is that DS9 really demands a complete rewatch if you want to fully appreciate it it. Plus it seems that Enterprise still has a bit of a bad rep – our Voyager fan has never even watched it – and I can’t resist an underdog.

The episodes I watched were Affliction and Divergence, from quite near the end of the show’s run. The story starts with the Enterprise returning to Earth for the launch of her sister ship, the Columbia, to which chief engineer Trip will be transferring for personal reasons. However, trouble is afoot, taking the form of genial Dr Phlox being kidnapped by persons unknown.

Well, naturally, Captain Archer won’t take this sort of thing lying down, and sets off in pursuit of the abductors (that old reliable Trek plot device, the Vulcan mind meld, gives them a clue as to the species responsible), but things are complicated by the fact that tactical officer Reed seems to have an agenda of his own. His initial reports that the Orion Syndicate may have been responsible starts to look very suspect when the ship is attacked by a Klingon vessel – although the Klingon boarding party is a decidedly odd one, the warriors in question lacking their bumpy heads and looking like nothing so much as members of a post-grunge rock band under a lot of fake tan…

Phlox, meanwhile, has found himself in a Klingon medical research facility (Klingon ideas about medical ethics are quite as alarming as you might expect) and discovered the truth: a plague is sweeping the Klingon Empire and he has been ‘recruited’ to find a cure. What the Klingons don’t initially come clean about is that the virus is one derived from human attempts at genetic augmentation (the same ones that produced Khan, he of wrath fame, back in the 20th century) – but rather than genetically enhanced super-warriors, the result is a new breed of human-looking Klingons who quickly expire, although not before infecting those around them.

Naturally, the Klingons aren’t keen on telling anyone about their little mistake, hence the attack on Enterprise, which was mainly to sabotage the main reactor – it soon becomes apparent that unless the ship maintains a velocity of at least warp five, it’s going to explode, which is a bit of an issue given that’s barely below its emergency maximum speed…

I have to say that I find myself very ambivalent when it comes to this particular story, even at a conceptual level. The origins of the whole thing surely lie in the thirtieth anniversary episode of DS9, where there is a very droll gag about the difference between the original series Klingon make-up and the more elaborate prosthetics used ever since the movies got going (‘It is not something we talk about,’ declares Worf, deadpan). Prior to this, explanations for the difference had ranged from there being different subspecies of Klingons (bumpy-headed ‘pure’ Imperial Klingons and human-Klingon ‘fusions’) to there being no actual in-universe difference, just a presentational one. The motive behind Affliction and Divergence is basically to continuity-cop the difference in Klingon appearance away.

What it all really boils down to.

And part of me, the tiny hard-core Trekkie part, really likes and responds to this particular impulse. The fact that Discovery (and, to a lesser extent, Picard) break so profoundly with established continuity is not the main reason for my dislike of them, but it is certainly a factor. But on the other hand, there is also something slightly mad about devoting eighty or ninety minutes of your TV show to resolving continuity inconsistencies that have developed over the course of a nearly-forty-year franchise: this is not a question your average viewer would have been burning to discover the answer to. In the past I have been deeply critical of long-running series and franchises that became overly-obsessed with their own lore and continuity.

(Perhaps if Enterprise hadn’t been canned and the original series-style Klingons had made more appearances, and the ramifications of the ‘human’ virus had been explored further, the episode wouldn’t feel quite so niche. But this turned out to be the last major piece of Klingon-focused Trek of its era.)

Perhaps part of the problem is that the episodes just feel like a piece of continuity-copping: it doesn’t feel like there’s any other compelling reason for the decision to tell this story. The big high-concept set piece – Star Trek does Speed! – comes midway through the story; the conclusion is a very generic late Berman-era space battle (the kind where people stand around on the bridge shouting out percentages as CGI starships zap away at each other inconclusively) while Phlox tersely issues medical technobabble.

Most of the rest of it feels almost entirely procedural, and here we come to the issue of the serialised storytelling: this episode refers back to many previous ones, including such elements as Archer’s recent experiences carrying the soul of legendary Vulcan Surak, Trip and T’Pol’s personal relationship, Reed’s relationship with the enigmatic Section 31, xenophobia on Earth, and so on. All this is probably more acceptable if you’ve been following along with the series to this point, but it makes for a much less satisfying experience watching the episodes in isolation.

Perhaps I’m doing the final series of Enterprise a disservice, and the episodes aren’t intended to be watched this way – the fact the season is almost entirely composed of two- and three-part stories is probably a clue to this end – and I know that these particular episodes are well-liked, by the cast and crew at least. But I have to say that for all that I appreciate the impulse responsible for them, I enjoyed them rather less than the best episodes of the first couple of seasons. Perhaps in the end this, like DS9, is a show you really need to watch from start to finish to be able to properly appraise.

Read Full Post »

(With due apologies to Tony Hawks.)

It is interesting, and not a little cheering, to see that most people are resisting the crack of the whip as wielded by the vested interests of the untrammelled capitalist system and not trudging back to the old status quo simply because those who would benefit most from this demand them to. For me and many others the pause in everyday life continues (not quite a complete pause, as the passage of time is reflected in the slow erosion of my savings, but that’s by-the-by) and we continue with whatever we’ve been doing for the last two months. In my case this has been online gaming of various kinds and watching films and TV shows online and on DVD.

One of the games I ended up trying was Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures, the latest in a very long line of Trek-related role-playing games and wargames. I and the player group I rassled together have been having quite a good time with this – although it’s hard to tell whether the dud moments we occasionally have are down to problems with the way the system translates Trek into an RPG context or just us not getting the vibe right ourselves as players.

Anyway, we have been having a good enough time to want to continue for the foreseeable future – inasmuch as that expression has any meaning at present – and this has put my mind to the question of writing stories for the game (this would probably be a more appropriate topic for a more gaming-focussed blog, but hey, one thing at a time). Star Trek RPGs can be difficult to write for, as the characters are not acquisitive or inclined to violence as a first resort, standard jeopardy plots are often negated by the ship’s transporter beam, and many key conflicts are often internal or somewhat abstract (you want your players to respect the Prime Directive, but if they treat it as an unbreakable rule in the way that Picard and Kirk frequently don’t, it becomes an obstacle to stories rather than a facilitator of them).

Then there are the really odd episodes that a game like Prime Time Adventures would probably handle better than even a semi-traditional RPG like STA: the one where Picard goes home to his family, or the one where someone unknowingly gets stuck in a micro-universe and has to figure our why the galaxy is now only half a mile across, or… you get my point. Or, and we finally reach our topic, the one with the baseball game.

I speak of Take Me Out to the Holosuite, fourth episode of Deep Space Nine‘s final season. DS9 has a reputation as the grimmest and grittiest of the Trek series, which I suppose is not undeserved – although personally I think of it as a series which, once it found its stride, was essentially about what happens when a utopia faces an existential threat: can it hang onto the values and philosophies which are at its core? When does survival come at too high a price? Nevertheless, the show also occasionally throws out what I can only call a goofball episode, of which this is a good example.

The USS T’Kumbra, an all-Vulcan ship, is docked at the station for repairs and refits, and it turns out its captain, Solok (Gregory Wagrowski), is an old rival of Captain Sisko. That doesn’t sound very Vulcan, I hear you say, and I agree: but quite apart from holding a grudge, Solok is also arrogant about Vulcan superiority and dismissive of other less developed races (which is to say, all of them). Solok completes his bid for the title of least authentic Trek alien this side of Australian Romulan Legolas by also revealing he is a follower of baseball and has formed his senior officers into a team. (It is implied he has done this just to wind the baseball-loving Sisko up – I know, I know, it just keeps on like that.)

Needless to say Sisko accepts Solok’s challenge of a game between the Vulcans and his own staff, to be played on the holosuite in two weeks’ time. Cue various droll scenes of Klingons, Trill, and Bajorans sitting around trying to learn the arcane rules of baseball, try-outs amongst the regular characters, and so on: even sour-natured barkeeper Quark ends up on the team, even though he has virtually no reason to want to take part. Odo is recruited as umpire; O’Brien invents whiskey-flavoured chewing gum for his role as coach; and so on. (Meanwhile, the Dominion War, in which more than a billion sentient creatures die, continues to rage off-screen, although no-one really mentions this as it would break the whimsical tone of the story.)

Most of the latter part of the story is taken up with the game itself, between the Logicians (Solok’s team: in one of many nice touches, their team symbol is the Vulcan IDIC icon) and the Niners (their symbol merges DS9 itself with a baseball). But how can Sisko and his people hope to stand a chance against a team who are much stronger, tougher, and faster, and – perhaps more crucially – actually know how to play?

I suspect I’m coming across as a bit dismissive of this episode, which is not my intention – I do like it a lot, mainly because it is so atypical of DS9. The thing is that it is quite self-indulgent – or that you have to indulge it in its various conceits, I’m not sure which is more accurate. The characters forget about the war to play baseball for a while; there happens to be a Vulcan baseball team in Starfleet; Sisko believes for a moment that his guys have a chance against them (only Worf the Klingon and the genetically-augmented Bashir can realistically match the Vulcans). There is something deeply un-Roddenberry-esque about the decades-long, and seemingly quite bitter rivalry between Sisko and Solok, and Sisko’s characteristically ruthless determination to win (to begin with at least).

There I go again. It is still really very likeable, even if, like me, your grasp of the rules of baseball is negligible – this is apparently one of those stories which has proven a victim of history, as the rules of baseball have changed since it was made – it seems that while people are still playing the game in the 2370s, they’ve reverted to an archaic version of the rules. I would never have known this; I don’t really understand what is going-on game-wise at the end of the episode, although of course I can follow the emotional track of the story, which is about Sisko learning to loosen up and Rom getting his moment of glory (the famous behind-the-scenes anecdote from this story is that Max Grodenchik, who plays the Ferengi, was a semi-pro baseballer in civilian life and found it almost impossible to convincingly play badly).

In the end this is a cheery little story, two-parts character study to one-part love letter to baseball itself. The stakes are personal and the tone gently comic, for the most part. How you’d make people buy into it as a traditional RPG scenario I’ve no idea, but perhaps the lesson to be learned is that some things just don’t transfer from one form to the other that well. In any case, this is an entertaining example of what Deep Space Nine routinely absolutely isn’t.

Read Full Post »

The cold open has become part of the standard structure of episodic TV drama: this is the name for the bit of the story that runs before the opening credits. The idea is to hit the viewer with a hook so arresting and engrossing they feel compelled to stick around regardless of the lack of stimulation provided by the title sequence. You do sometimes get the sense that some programme-makers have forgotten that this is its purpose. Dear Doctor, an episode of Enterprise from early 2002, has as its cold open Phlox, the ship’s doctor, pottering mildly around sickbay feeding his collection of pet animals. The effect is sort of gently agreeable rather than arresting or engrossing, which is a reasonable capsule description of the episode as a whole.

The writers responsible are Maria and Andre Jaquemetton. Phlox is our central character for this episode, played with customary warmth by John Billingsley, and the story is framed by his voice-over, which is a letter to a human doctor posted on Phlox’s home planet of Denobula. Phlox comments on his dealings with the rest of the crew, the possibility of a romantic liaison with one of the ship’s biologists (Kellie Waymire), his relationship with the captain, and so on.

It looks like the whole episode could turn out to be slice-of-life stuff until Enterprise comes across a spacecraft from a pre-warp civilisation, the Valakians. It turns out that the Valakian civilisation is in the grip of a terrible plague or similar disease (good job this is science fiction) and they are desperately looking for help from off-worlders (they have already been visited by other aliens, including the Ferengi). Big-hearted Archer decides to render whatever assistance they can to the Valakians; T’Pol looks disapproving as usual but agrees the risk of cultural contamination for the Valakians is small.

Medical investigations get underway and Phlox makes a number of curious discoveries: firstly, the Valakians share their planet with another humanoid species, the Menk, who are treated well but essentially subject to a sort of benign oppression by the more advanced race. However, the Menk are completely immune to the affliction threatening the Valakians’ future – and this is because it is not caused by a virus or bacteria, but flaws in the Valakian genome which are making the species non-viable.

Enterprise has a decent bash at the how-many-people-can-we-fit-into-one-frame challenge.

Meanwhile, the Valakians have asked Archer if he can give them the information they need to develop their own warp engines, as this will increase their chances of finding another race who can assist them. Suddenly Captain Keen-to-Help is having second thoughts, as the reality of long-term involvement in the Valakians’ affairs sinks in on him. T’Pol observes that Vulcan agreed to help Earth in roughly similar circumstances: nearly a century later, the Vulcans are still there. What are the limits of getting involved?

The question becomes a pressing one for Phlox and Archer both, as the doctor discovers the Menk have developmental potential currently being held in check by the fact they are dominated by the Valakians. Giving them the cure he has developed will mean consigning the Menk to their subordinate role in perpetuity – but he’s a doctor, tasked by his captain to give whatever medical aid he can. What should he do?

You can’t beat a moral dilemma as the driver for a great episode of Star Trek, and the premise here is a good one. However, despite the fact that this is very well-regarded as Enterprise episodes go, I think the realisation lets it down a bit in a couple of ways. This is still a strong and watchable episode, but it doesn’t quite sing as it might.

Much of it is shaped by the fact it’s framed by Phlox’s voiceover, as he writes about the reality of living as an alien amongst humans. You can see what they’re trying to do here, but the problem is that Phlox isn’t a terribly alien alien – there’s not a single strong characteristic you can grab onto to define the Denobulans, in the way you can with the most successful alien cultures in Trek. The Vulcans are brainy and logical. The Klingons are violent and honourable. The Denobulans, on the other hand, are polygamous and genial: I always find Phlox himself comes across as being rather like Frasier Crane under prosthetic make-up. As a result, you don’t really get that sense of seeing humans from a genuinely new and alien perspective, and the voice over just becomes a slightly unusual framing device.

The meat of the episode, however, concerns the moral dilemma of the situation involving the Valakians and the Menk. We shall, as usual, pass over the plausibility of the problem afflicting the Valakians (a species seemingly just spontaneously dying off due to something going wrong with their genome) as the plot is predicated on this, and just consider how the episode handles the dilemma faced by Phlox and Archer.

I say ‘Phlox and Archer’ because the episode was rewritten at the network’s request – in the original version, Phlox lies to Archer and says he hasn’t been able to develop a cure, effectively deciding the issue for himself. Billingsley apparently wasn’t a fan of the change, but I think it works well, giving both characters more depth (even if you can, if you really want to, construe the ending as Archer committing genocide). The episode is making good use of the Enterprise premise, anyway, as the absence of the Prime Directive forces the characters to think the problem through for themselves and genuinely make a decision about it.

The issue is that the problem and their cogitations are not well-presented, dramatically. There aren’t big scenes where dramatic revelations are made, nor do we get the kind of moment where Patrick Stewart used to shine so well, where the captain is forced to accept his humane instincts may not be entirely correct. Archer just leaves one scene thinking one thing, then comes back in in the next announcing he’s thought it over and changed his mind. The sweet spot of really effective drama and character development has been missed.

That’s basically the problem with this episode, the thing that keeps it from truly being a classic: all the elements and structure are here, but it doesn’t find ways to dramatise its ideas effectively. As a result it is intellectually involving, and the change of pace is agreeable, but it never quite grabs the emotions in the way it needs to.

Read Full Post »

Unexpected, an episode of Enterprise first broadcast on October 17th 2001, opens with the ship (NX-01 incarnation, back in the 22nd century) experiencing various odd technical problems: vending machines producing the wrong items, gravity malfunctions, and so on. We get to see this when the gravity fails in Captain Archer’s bathroom (luckily he is only having a shower: things could have been a lot worse). This is quite a lavishly CGI-d scene for what is basically just a throwaway gag, but it is the cold open for the episode so it may have been intended to impress and lure in casual viewers (this may be overestimating the appeal of a damp Scott Bakula clinging to his shower head).

Well, naturally, the Enterprise crew are smart cookies and figure out the source of the problems: a cloaked ship is tailgating the Enterprise, causing problems with the warp exhaust, or something like that (it’s good old fashioned treknobabble). The aliens (who are called the Xyrillians) are very apologetic and explain they have been beset by engine problems, and are using the Enterprise‘s exhaust to recharge. Despite the fact that the episode strongly indicates that the Xyrillians are considerably more advanced than Earth, Archer decides to lend them chief engineer Trip (Connor Trinneer) for three days so he can fix their teraphasic warp coils.

Of course, this is Enterprise, so things aren’t as straightforward as they will be in centuries to come: Trip has to spend hours in an uncomfortable acclimatisation chamber in order to board the Xyrillian vessel, and when he gets there he finds it very disorienting and challenging (the direction and performances suggest the experience is a cross between severe jet lag and a bad trip). However, Trip’s trip improves when he discovers the human food the Xyrillians have laid on for him (they appear to have invented water-flavoured jelly), and the fact there is a distinct spark between him and Ah’Len (Julianne Christie), one of their engineers. Literally so: electricity crackles whenever they touch, which is not the most subtle metaphor ever, but what the hell. The two of them even take time out together to visit what is essentially a Xyrillian holodeck, where they stick their hands in some granules that create a temporary telepathic connection between them (easy, tiger).

Make sure she’ll still respect you in the morning, Trip.

All too soon it’s time for Trip to go home and the ships go their separate ways – but it seems he’s brought back more than happy memories and information on the Xyrillians. He starts growing extra nipples on the inside of his wrists, and the ensuing medical exam requires Dr Phlox to enquire if there was any romance during his time away. Yes, it turns out that Ah’Len has managed to knock Trip up, and he is now pregnant with an alien baby. Various surprisingly broad comedy scenes ensue, as the ship searches for the Xyrillians and Trip has odd cravings and frets about whether Enterprise is a child-friendly environment.

Unfortunately, Trip’s repairs have turned out to be no good, and when the ship catches up with the Xyrillians they are pulling their cloaked tailgating manoeuvre again, only this time with a Klingon battle cruiser. As these are especially brutal and shouty 22nd century Klingons, their first reaction on being informed of this is to declare that all the Xyrillians will be executed, but Archer talks the Klingon captain into letting them off in return for the Klingons getting some holodeck technology (we are pre-Prime Directive so they can get away with this), although not before Trip has to show his baby bump (actually, it looks more like a tumour) on the main viewscreen. Trip’s bundle of joy gets transplanted somewhere non-specific, the Klingon captain shouts ‘I can see my house from here!’ as he visits a holo-recreation of Qo’noS, and everyone heads off happily.

This is one of those episodes (written, by the way, by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman) with a toxic reputation and you can kind of understand why: while there are some good things in it (Trinneer’s performance is charming, and there’s a nice turn from Julianne Christie, who actually manages to make a bald scaly alien in a tinfoil jumpsuit rather alluring), in other places it is just inept or feels bizarrely misjudged.

The pacing is off, for one thing: you can tell that the character-based-emotional-core of the episode is Trip having to come to terms with the possibility of becoming a parent (the kind of theme other Trek episodes deal with reasonably successfully). But after spending a good chunk of the episode getting him over to the Xyrillian ship, and then establishing his relationship with Ah’Len (presumably so Trip doesn’t just come across as an easy lay), the episode only has about five minutes to contemplate this before they have to think about resolving the plot. The other issue is the tone, once the fact of the ‘pregnancy’ becomes apparent: it is much closer to goofy, gonzo comedy than you’d expect in Star Trek, with the other characters smirking and struggling to keep a straight face when talking to Trip.

I could probably also put my armchair xenobiologist’s hat on and comment on how very implausible the Xyrillian reproductive process seems – apparently the males of the species don’t contribute genetically to the embryo at all, they just host it, which begs all kinds of questions about how they maintain diversity in their genome and what the male gets out of the process at all. The fact they also apparently procreate by sticking their hands in holographic psychic gravel together also seems rather unlikely to me. But when the plot demands such things…

I suppose it is all part of an attempt to communicate just how weird and alien the Xyrillians are. This would work better if the show had not apparently been running out of money, for despite everything suggested by the script about the exotic environment of their ship – food growing out of the walls, grass growing on the floor – what we end up with are some of the most garish, ugly, cheap-ass looking sets ever seen in Berman-era Trek. (The technical incompetence of the episode extends into other areas: for instance, Christopher Darga, playing the Klingon captain, is very obviously looking at the wrong camera during most of his communicating-by-viewscreen scenes.)

And yet I find myself oddly reluctant to consign Unexpected to the same reliquary for horribly inept Trek where you will find episodes like Spock’s Brain, Angel One, Shades of Gray, and anything featuring mushroom-powered teleport drives. Quite what the point of it was supposed to be admittedly remains unclear, but there are certainly pleasures to be had along the way, from the performances to the fact that it is, in places, much more genuinely funny than most of the supposedly comedic episodes of Next Gen. It’s not great drama, or great SF, or even particularly great comedy. But it passes the test, some of the time at least, in that it engages, diverts and entertains.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

As regular readers may recall, not too long ago I shared my thoughts on David A Goodman’s The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard, which is hardly a great book, but still hardly deserves some of the venom heaped on it by dedicated Trekkies. What caught my eye was the fact that Goodman wasn’t actually being dissed for writing a bad book, but for ignoring what was apparently a much better one: namely, Christopher L Bennett’s The Buried Age. Now, I don’t much go in for tie-in fiction these days, but I was somewhat intrigued, so I decided to check out Bennett’s novel and see if it was as good as everyone seemed to think.

The Buried Age differs from the Goodman book in that it only seeks to cover one interlude in the life of Jean-Luc Picard, albeit a significant one: namely, the almost decade-long gap between the loss of the Stargazer to a Ferengi ambush and his assuming command of the Enterprise in the early 2360s. Bennett discharges his responsibilities with great punctiliousness – the book opens with Picard on one bridge, minutes before the attack, and concludes on another, just as the TNG pilot is getting underway. The question is whether the author does so in a way which is both satisfying and entertaining.

Anyone criticising Goodman for disregarding other tie-ins in his ‘autobiographies’ has a point, but then again he is equally wont to disregard generally-accepted parts of the canon if he doesn’t like them (the animated show and at least one of the movies, for instance). It’s certainly true that there is no way to reconcile the two books, for all that they cover the same events and the same period – the Stargazer has different bridge crew, just for starters, and The Buried Age depicts Picard taking a lengthy sabbatical from Starfleet, whereas Goodman just has him piloting a desk for many years.

It’s actually rather peculiar to compare the two books. Obviously both authors have done their research when it comes to the TV show, and are aware of certain established points of history which they have to abide by – Picard first saw Tasha Yar negotiating her way through a minefield, for instance, and met Geordi LaForge when he was on a piloting assignment – and as a result there are weird moments of them echoing each other, momentarily coming into synch.

But for the most part The Buried Age follows a wildly different path. It opens with an extended prologue, not having much to do with the rest of the story, depicting the Ferengi ambush, the loss of the Stargazer, and the subsequent court martial of Picard.

Following this, our man leaves Starfleet and becomes a mature student of archaeology at the University of Alpha Centauri, where he seems well on course to get his doctorate and become an academic. Guinan, of course, has reasons of her own for wanting to get Picard back in a captain’s chair, and beguiles him with tales of artifacts left behind by lost alien civilisations from two hundred and fifty million years ago, in the hope this will stir his spirit of adventure.

It does, but there are inevitably unintended consequences, chief amongst them the resurrection of the Manraloth, a frighteningly advanced and subtle alien civilisation from the ancient past of the galaxy, and an existential threat to the Federation as Picard knows it. Feeling responsible for the appearance of this new menace, Picard dedicates himself to ending it – but what will the cost to him be?

I don’t read much tie-in fiction, as I say, partly because I can’t help thinking of it as second-order stuff, and there’s still a lot of original fiction I’d like to get through in the comparatively few decades left to me. Also, so much of it is undemanding stuff – I used to write fan fiction myself, and I quickly learned that all you needed to do to be acclaimed as a ‘master storyteller’ was to have a reasonably competent prose style and insert the requisite number of continuity references for other fans to spot and feel smug about understanding.

Well, Bennett seems to have got this part of the job down pat, for The Buried Age is shotgunned with references to various bits of Trek, ranging from fairly obscure Enterprise episodes to song lyrics from the original series. There are doubtless many I didn’t even notice, what with me not being a Trekkie and all. However, they don’t get in the way, and many of them are there because they serve the plot.

One level, the book serves as an answer to one of those questions about the Trek world it never occurs to most people to ask – just why are there so many dysfunctional godlings knocking about the place? It also attempts to reconcile the different versions of Picard from the TV show, and explain just why he’s initially so aloof and withdrawn as TNG is getting underway (no spoilers, but let’s just say he’s been through a rough time) – also why, for such a keen archaeologist, it’s a couple of years before he even mentions this on the show.

Suffice to say that, yes, Bennett does a much more satisfying job of this than Goodman, and writes the Star Trek universe much more deftly too – I knew I was going to have a good time reading this novel when Bennett’s extrapolation of Ferengi culture included the fact that the commanders of their ships have to bribe the rest of the crew to do their jobs properly. He writes an excellent, authentic Picard, a superb Data, and pretty good versions of Troi, Yar, and Worf, too. How he deals with Janeway probably depends on how much you like Voyager: here, she’s a smirking cleverclogs.

However, The Buried Age goes beyond this and into the realm of what I would describe as genuinely classic literary science fiction – not just because the book attempts a higher standard of scientific rigour than most Trek, although it does (there’s a lot of stuff about quantum physics, and the intersect with how this influences and is influenced by transporter function), but also because it has clearly been influenced by the likes of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic myths and Iain Banks’ Culture stories – in some ways, the book is about the difference between the Federation (a society still recognisably based on our own) and a genuinely transhuman milieu not entirely unlike the Culture itself.

There are well-drawn characters here, thought-provoking ideas, and well-written action sequences. Picard is, perhaps, written as a little too gullible in places, but then the point of the story is that he’s dealing with intelligences vastly older and more experienced at manipulation than he is, so perhaps this is forgiveable. On the whole, however, this is an enormously satisfying book, both as a Star Trek novel and a piece of science fiction. At the very top end of the tie-in genre; highly recommended.

Read Full Post »

The idea that Starfleet might make a first strike was a terrible precedent and undermined the philosophy of peace that the Federation had lived under for centuries. – Captain Jean-Luc Picard (who would presumably be as surprised by the new show as everyone else)

Hmm, well, quite. When David A Goodman and Titan Books published The Autobiography of James T Kirk a couple of years ago, the entity that is Star Trek had been coasting along amiably enough for many years, keeping a nice low profile most of the time, with only the occasion trial of an Abrams-directed movie. No-one would have suspected that the power converters would come off the warp core quite as spectacularly as has been the case over the last eighteen months or so, with the most recent movie underperforming at the box office and the release of Discovery being scorned, mocked and reviled by various elements of the fan base (personally, I’m a mocker, and I’m not even that big a Trekkie).

Such is the world that The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard finds itself sent forth into, once again by Goodman (presumably with just a little help from the man himself, I’m not an expert on how these things are done). Once again, the aim of the book is to tell us Picard’s side of the story and basically join together all the dots that the various TV episodes and movies laid out over the years.

Before we go any further, let us take a moment to consider who is most likely to be reading the autobiography of a fictional character from Star Trek. If you are completely unfamiliar with Trek, especially the late 80s and early 90s version of it, then you are unlikely to give this book much time (also, what the hell are you doing reading this blog? Is there no paint drying or grass growing near where you are?). The pleasure of this kind of thing, surely, is not necessarily that of learning anything new, but of feeling rewarded for all those hours and days spent watching TNG episodes again and again: specifically, that moment of slightly smug recognition when the book covers an event only mentioned as a tiny aside on the actual show.

Goodman potentially has a bigger job on his hands than he did when dealing with Kirk’s memoirs, for a couple of reasons. First of all, Kirk was still a young man when his TV career got underway, and the general details of the second half of his life were established fairly clearly by the TV show and the movies. With Picard it’s different: the show makes it quite clear that Picard had a long and distinguished career prior to the start of TNG – one way and another, he spent more time on the Stargazer than he did on any version of the Enterprise – and naturally the book has to reflect this. Also, the history of the Alpha Quadrant during Kirk’s younger life is generally quite vague (or was, if you still think Discovery actually happens in the original timeline, in which case the Kirk book instantly becomes apocryphal), but for this one Goodman has to make some sense of the occasionally confused references to relations between the Federation, the Klingon, and the other main powers in the mid-24th century, not to mention the peculiar fact that the Federation has supposedly been at war with the Cardassians for years prior to TNG‘s fourth season, yet this was never mentioned in any of the previous episodes.

To be fair to him, Goodman does a pretty decent job of trying to get it all straight, although a couple of very obscure continuity points still manage to trip him up (he implies that it’s a youthful Picard who makes first contact with the Cardassians, which seems unlikely given that the episode Destiny reveals that a Cardassian exile was apparently on Vulcan prior to 2250) – and hey, this kind of thing is surely forgiveable, it’s not like he retcons a new magic warp drive that runs on mushrooms, or something. And it’s not as if the series itself is exactly consistent about everything – for the record, Goodman seems to go with the TV series’ suggestion that Picard went bald while captain of the Stargazer, rather than as a very young man (as implied by Nemesis).

Certainly every major reference to Picard’s past that I can think of is picked up on rather deftly, the only time it becomes laborious is when the fact of his presence at Spock’s wedding has to be explained. Given that we know nothing else about this event, Goodman is obliged to turn it into low comedy, with Picard never quite managing to find out who Spock is getting hitched to, not even her name, despite being in the front row of the ceremony.

To be honest, the book has bigger problems than this. There is, for one thing, the fact that there are at least three different versions of Picard that have to be reconciled in order for this book to really work – there’s the young, ambitious, rakish officer who we hear a lot about, the dry and stiff-necked functionary of the early years of the TV show, and finally the warm, subtle, witty man of enormous moral authority whom Picard eventually developed into.

The thing is that none of these guys really show up in the book, or at least not consistently. Goodman just isn’t a good enough writer to make you believe you’re actually reading something from Picard’s own hand (you’d expect Jean-Luc to have a more elegant prose style, for one thing). It’s all a bit pedestrian, not helped by the same simplistic and slightly gloomy cod-psychology that was a feature of the Kirk book – Picard’s life is dominated firstly by the fact of his poor relationship with his father, and secondly by the fact that he is quietly and deeply in lurve with Dr Crusher throughout his screen career. Goodman is palpably much more enamoured of this second notion than Picard ever seemed to be of Crusher on screen, to be honest, but there you go (the book seems to suggest that the possible future of All Good Things is largely how things will turn out).

This is one of the reasons why this book has picked up some fairly toxic feedback on everyone’s favourite on-line site named after a big river – this, and the fact it apparently disregards an actually pretty good novel someone wrote about the decade or so between Picard losing the Stargazer and being given command of the Enterprise. To be honest, none of the things that Goodman suggests happen to Picard and the rest of the gang after the end of Nemesis strike me as remotely convincing (including his role in the back-story of the first Abrams movie, but that’s another set of gripes).

I would have to say the bad reviews are onto something, for the reasons mentioned above, although it would be unfair to say the book has no merit at all. It’s technically competent and very readable, and Goodman pulls off one big moment that the TV show never managed, by making the captains of many of the ships that Picard/Locutus destroys at the battle of Wolf 359 old friends and colleagues previously established and fleshed out in the earlier sections of the book. This gives the battle emotional stakes and sense of personal horror that just wasn’t there in an event which was talked about much more than seen, in TNG at least (I suspect we will not be seeing future volumes on the other Trek captains, and will have to settle for brief appearances by Sisko and Janeway in this one – Picard describes Sisko as ‘ferocious’, which is just, well, odd).

I suppose the book will also be helped by the sincere affection many people have for Jean-Luc Picard as a fictional character – the most nuanced and interesting of the Trek captains, in many ways. The same goes for his crew – reading this book, I was suddenly aware of how well-rounded and textured his senior staff are as characters, much more so than the supporting members of the original crew. I mean, Scotty’s a beloved character, but even Riker or Troi seem closer to three dimensions than he does. If nothing else, The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard will remind a lot of people of just how fond they are of TNG.

As I say, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing any further books in this series (the consensus seems to be that DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise-related books are less commercially viable), and I would have to say that on balance it’s less successful than the one about Kirk. But then it has a harder job to do, covering more ground and dealing with a much more complex central character. Even so, Trekkies should find something to engage them here, one way or another.

Read Full Post »

‘Star Trek lures you into a false sense of positivity that the world can be a utopia and recent events have proven it cannot.’ – Adam Savage

So, here we go, finally: Star Trek: Discovery is with us at last, not exactly preceded by the positive buzz its makers might have hoped for, but accompanied by the kind of media attention you might expect from the stirring of a genuine pop culture colossus. I don’t agree with the quote above this paragraph, by the way: I disagree with it rather strongly. What the world needs now may indeed be a new series of Star Trek at its best. What I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need is a tidal wave of reviews of the beginning of the new series by rather excitable Trekkies and other interested parties, but hey – can’t have one without the other, I guess.

It feels a bit odd to be writing about an episode of Star Trek without doing the traditional capsule synopsis of the plot, but I rather suspect that would constitute a spoiler given the episode in question is less than 24 hours old as I write. Let us try to be usefully non-specific, for the time being – I cannot guarantee that a few spoilers won’t slip through the net later on, especially if I find myself getting exercised, which may well happen.

Anyway, here we are in the mid-2250s, supposedly about ten years before the start of the original series (yes, yes: we will inevitably come to Discovery’s exact location in the space-time multiverse), all aboard the good ship Shenzhou (er, what?). Oh well – after a spot of teaserage allowing some high production-value location filming, and an insight into the new show’s take on the Prime Directive (apparently, it’s no longer the case that you should never interfere in the affairs of less-advanced species, only that you should never get caught interfering – hmm).

Well, from here we move to a CGI starscape where a Federation comms relay has been mysteriously nobbled, and a strange alien object is discovered nearby. The ship’s adventurous first officer Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) rockets off to investigate, only to discover it is some kind of Klingon cultural artefact, and the bumpy-headed ones (yes, yes, we’ll come to that, too) are close by in force, and spoiling for a fight…

I have to say that, following the last few movies and all I’d heard about Discovery over the last few months, my expectations for it were dialled down to almost-subterranean levels, and so it was rather a surprise to discover (no pun intended) that there were many things about The Vulcan Hello which were genuinely rather delightful – it has the look and feel of Trek much more than I had anticipated, to begin with at least, and Doug Jones’ alien science officer, whose culture’s response to any situation appears to be to run away as fast as possible, promises much. The – oh, dear, here we go – virtue signalling inherent in the casting and characterisation which drew so much scrutiny during early publicity was handled with a much lighter touch than I was expecting, too.

Still, there are a couple of things which make me rather uneasy about Star Trek: Discovery, partly because I’m such an utterly ossified old-school Star Trek fan, partly because I’m fully aware Star Trek is not the be-all and end-all of life, but only a significant reflection of where we are as a culture.

While I was watching and enjoying the bulk of the episode, I found myself repeatedly thinking ‘If only… if only…’ If only they hadn’t made such a big deal about the fact that this was a show set in the main Star Trek universe, ten years prior to the original series. Based on what we see on screen, this is a frankly unsupportable assertion, which seems to me to be calculated merely to shift merchandise and avoid the unpopularity with fans that the Kelvin movies suffer. Do I even have to list some of the ways in which Discovery jibes with the established history of the Trek universe? The uniforms don’t match, the level of technology doesn’t match (the use of long-range holography to communicate doesn’t start showing up in other Trek shows until over a century later, and is hardly common even then), and this is before we even get onto Discovery’s take on the Klingons – props to the writers for the shout-out to the mythology created in The Final Reflection, but if it wasn’t for this and the use of Okrandian Klingon, they would be almost unrecognisable as members of the same species – pretty much the only thing to pass my lips while watching the episode was a cry of ‘That’s not a bat’leth!’

I expect there are perfectly sound commercial reasons for attempting to crowbar Discovery into the main timeline (toys and suchlike ain’t gonna sell themselves), but the decision to set the show in the 2250s is rather baffling one. If they’d simply moved the prime timeline on a hundred years or so and set the new series in the 2490s or whenever, it would have been considerably easier to rationalise all of the incongruities – for instance, the Klingons have shown a certain genetic mutability in the past, so another radical shift in their appearance would have had some kind of precedent. They’d have had to parachute in another classic character instead of Sarek, but no big deal there, surely.

As it is, the only way to make sense of Discovery is to assume we’re off in another alternate timeline (maybe the Kelvin universe, but most likely not). Does this really matter? Well, maybe only if you’re a die-hard Trekkie or fellow traveller, but I still think all this constitutes a misjudgement on the part of the makers of the show – grumpy reactions from the fanbase have apparently already imperilled the production/distribution deal between Netflix and CBS, and created a rather negative buzz around the new show, which I still think could have been avoided fairly easily.

Onto more serious issues, and here we do face the prospect of genuine spoilers, so caveat lector. The thing about The Vulcan Hello is that it builds to a climax about a genuine point of moral principle – that of whether, as a person of good conscience, it is ever permissible to shoot first, starting a fight. The episode’s argument seems to be that yes, this is possible (let us skip over the slightly febrile handling of this in the actual narrative of the episode).

Hmmm. I turn off Star Trek and I turn on the news, where I see an old man and a young man, both of them ridiculous and frightening in equal measure, both of them acting like babies, waving their nuclear devices at each other and indulging in the most ludicrous rhetoric. Is this really a good time for Star Trek, famous for its optimistic vision of the future, to be suggesting that sometimes the wisest thing is for the good guy to shoot first? I would argue not; I would argue very strongly not.

Of course, I write this as someone who has published an essay discussing the fact that the original series came out in support of American involvement in the Vietnam War, so a touch of realpolitik in Star Trek is not without precedent. But even so. This is a frankly slightly disturbing sentiment to find at the heart of a 2017 episode of Star Trek. Who knows, maybe this ideology will be discredited and rejected as the series continues; there are still many episodes to come. But for now, it’s enough to make me slightly concerned. I think the world needs Star Trek, but it needs a Star Trek that shows us how the world could be better, not one that reflects how messed up it currently is. And I hope that’s what this show ultimately turns out to be.

(Yeah, I know there’s a second episode currently available. All in good time, I expect.)

Read Full Post »

‘I’ve decided to put that novel idea on ice, I don’t think the maths underpinning the concept work,’ is something you only really hear while hanging around science fiction writers (or people with delusions of being science fiction writers). My writing coach, to whom I said this quite recently, was a bit startled and perhaps a little disappointed, but then they are a literary author and unfamiliar with the peculiar requirements of SF. I wasn’t delighted myself, as it was an idea I really liked, but I couldn’t imagine being able to sell it to a reader if I wasn’t completely convinced of its plausibility myself.

The idea in question was about an encounter between human beings and a very similar alien civilisation, whose main point of difference biologically is that they have three sexes. Many opportunities there for interesting alien world-building, also to see ourselves from a different perspective (I know it sounds a bit like an Ursula le Guin pastiche, but what can I say, if you’re going to rip someone off, make sure it’s someone really good). The problem is that, from a real-world perspective, a three-sex system of reproduction is incredibly inefficient and would almost certainly be out-competed by two-sex or one-sex organisms in the same environment.

(My research into this – still ongoing, Coach, if you’re reading this, so don’t abandon all hope – turned up some curious facts, such as the fact that even a two-sex system is fairly inefficient, but this is offset by the advantages it brings in terms of genetic diversity. Some scientists are still trying to discover why mono-sexual reproduction is not more common on our own planet.)

Well, anyway, having been kicking this idea around for quite a number of years, I have inevitably taken an interest in how other people have handled a similar notion. When multi-gendered aliens do turn up, it’s mainly as ‘colour’ – casual mentions of a particular species having five genders or whatever is basically a flag to indicate just how weird and non-human they are. The instance I’m most familiar with is the Azadian species from Iain Banks’ The Player of Games, who have a male, female, and ‘apex’ gender – this is a marvellous book, but for all that it is about the nature of Azadian society (as compared to the liberal utopia of the Culture), the biology of the inhabitants seems curiously secondary. I’m inclined to conclude the triple-gender arrangement is just a device to obscure (initially, at least) the fact that the Empire of Azad is an allegory for contemporary western civilisation, but I digress.

Speaking of liberal utopias brings us to a take on the triple-gendered aliens idea that actually made it onto TV – Cogenitor, an episode of Enterprise from 2003, written by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman. Some thought seems to have gone into the biological arrangements here, but as usual the focus of the story lies elsewhere.

The Enterprise is surveying a ‘hypergiant’ star when it encounters an exploratory vessel from the planet Vissia. Neither side have any knowledge of the other, but the Vissians are friendly and the two ships link up so they can learn more about each other. It turns out the Vissians are rather more advanced than the Humans (they have had warp drive for a thousand years), but the cultural exchange goes swimmingly, with Captain Archer forming an immediate rapport with his opposite number (the great Andreas Katsulas, in one of his last roles).

However, chief engineer Trip discovers that the Vissians have a third gender – their species is made up of males, females, and ‘cogenitors’. Only about 3% of Vissians are cogenitors, but they are vital to the process of reproduction. There is only one cogenitor on the Vissian ship (their own engineer and his wife are hoping to have a child), but Trip is disturbed by the indifference with which they are treated. The cogenitor (Becky Wahlstrom) doesn’t have a job beyond their role in facilitating procreation, doesn’t have their own property, doesn’t even have a name – it seems to Trip that they are treated worse than Captain Archer’s pet dog. Dr Phlox confirms that the cogenitor is every bit as capable, intellectually, as the other Vissians, which just makes Trip more certain he is witnessing a grave injustice.

This being Star Trek, Trip decides to help the cogenitor actualise themself as a person by teaching them to read and showing them old Earth movies (he starts with The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is not a movie I would personally show an alien only newly-acquainted with human beings, but whatever). And this being Star Trek, within a day the cogenitor has transformed into a bright and charming individual with a real passion for life and a desire to go beyond their traditional cultural role. But the other Vissians are appalled and outraged when they find out what Trip has been up to, leading to the cogenitor requesting asylum on the Enterprise

Enterprise has something of a bad rep as the show that killed off Star Trek’s second TV phase, and to be honest if you choose an episode at random you’ve a good chance of finding one which supports that idea. But some of its stories are strong and interesting, such as this one. This is not to say it is perfect – the dramatic meat of the tale is left to the third act, and in the meantime there is a lot of filler material which could easily have been snipped. This includes (I am somewhat pained to say) most of Andreas Katsulas’ scenes with Scott Bakula, and a very odd moment in which we get to see Lieutenant Reed’s approach to the fine art of courtly love, as he flirts with one of the Vissians – first he gets out his cheeseboard, then he invites her down to look at his phase cannon. One should perhaps not mock, as the not-uncomely alien in question still comes on to him like a rocket.

Seriously, though, if you’ve got Andreas Katsulas in your cast, why not give him more to do? I suppose you could argue that he is playing an important role, which is to demonstrate the potential for a positive relationship between Earth and Vissia, which in the end is (we presume) badly compromised by Trip’s interference in Vissian society and its consequences.

The episode isn’t in any real sense about the unusual biological arrangements of the Vissians, but about Trip and his decision. Here we find two of the great drivers of Berman-era Trek set in opposition to each other, to useful dramatic effect. There is the liberal humanistic idea that all sentient creatures have the same right to live a fulfilling, self-determined life, a right which is denied to the Vissian cogenitors – it’s made clear that the other Vissians are not actively cruel or callous, they just treat the cogenitors as non-people (quite how plausible this is, is another question, but that’s beyond the scope of this episode). And on the other hand there is cultural relativism, raised to the level of a moral imperative.

Another Starfleet officer might have known better than Trip, but the thing that enables this story to happen is the fact it is set before the adoption of the Prime Directive, which forbids interference in the internal affairs of other societies. This story has, by Trek standards, a very downbeat, even tragic conclusion, and you could certainly argue that if Trip had minded his own business and left well alone, things would have gone much better. Everyone else in the story – Archer, Phlox, T’Pol (at her least endearing this week) – encourages Trip not to sit in judgement on the whole of Vissian culture, or at least not to get personally involved.

And yet there’s a sense in which the episode isn’t quite playing fair here – we learn virtually nothing about the Vissians in the course of the episode, beyond their curious reproductive arrangements and the fact their hot young women are suckers for cheese and phase cannon. But we do see that, by human standards, they treat their cogenitors extremely poorly. There may be sound social and biological reasons for this, but if so they are left unrevealed. What is revealed (courtesy of an endearing performance from Wahlstrom) is the potential for the cogenitors to lead much more satisfying and fulfilling lives than they currently do.

By any normal, humane standard, then, Trip’s decision to help the cogenitor seems absolutely morally justifiable. And yet his sole eventual reward is, one imagines, immense guilt, even if we disregard a severe rollicking from Captain Archer. Either the episode is suggesting the appropriate perspective is one of almost superhuman detachment and absolute moral relativism (somewhat at odds with Trek’s standard liberal humanism), or the message of the story is that sometimes, there is no correct option, and whatever you do, bad things will be the consequence. The former is unrealistic and hard to swallow, the latter all-too-believable but unusually pessimistic for Trek. Either way, this is an impressive, thought-provoking episode.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »