ST Retroview: Haven & Lonely Among Us

My apologies for taking a while with these… I got side-tracked doing life things. Here’s two more I watched the other week…

Haven

Haven is one of those episodes with a relatively boring premise, largely dealing with the incredibly dull “Didn’t they or Didn’t they / Imzadi” plot between Ilia and Decker… erm, sorry, Troi & Riker. Fortunately, it’s also one of those episodes that’s saved by a brilliant guest star. Or, more accurately, by its brilliant gueststars.

Like John de Lancie as Q, even a bad episode of TNG with Lwaxana Troi in it is a pretty amusing episode, and Mr Homn… well, let’s just say this fine fella deserved a spin-off series.

"Thank you for the drinks."

“Thank you for the drinks.”

The over-all story is probably a bit more Star Trek’y than some earlier stuff, but then… I’m watching these episodes in the order they appear on iTunes store in HD, not in the production order, original TV airing order or DVD order… all of which are seemingly wildly different. So, keeping in mind this was actually an episode produced about half way through the first season, it makes sense it doesn’t suck quite so much.

Characterwatch

I’m always confused by what they’re intending with Riker. We see him alone in his quarters, beaming from ear to ear at two creepy holographic women who’re playing harps. What the shit kind of weird sexual fantasies does this guy have? I’m probably reading too much into this scene, but it’d have been much less creepy if we just found him in his quarters banging some ensign or something.

Actorwatch

I'll just smile creepily from this door, shall I then?

I’ll just smile creepily from this door, shall I then?

Armin Shimmerman (Quark, various other crappier Ferengi) plays, uh… the automated wedding box?

A very young Jimmy Dolan from Carnivale (and Sid Rothman from the short-lived Mob City) plays Wyatt, Deanna’s betrothed ’80s-haired love-interest. Seriously, he looks like he walked off the set of a Men’s Hair ad.

And Wyatt’s father is, seemingly, the Federation President from Star Trek IV. Heh.

Wil Wheaton gets a reprieve in this episodes, and was probably chilling out doing some school-work or something.

I’m out of things to say. It’s a memorable episode in your mind, until such time as you try to recall the specifics of the episode. Meh.

Lonely Among Us

Now, this was an episode I loved as a kid. Creepy as hell to Young Me, and showing some glorious “humans are advanced and awesome and very mature” Trek stuff. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t stand up very well in retrospect.

"It's alright, sir, I got this!"

“It’s alright, sir, I got this!”

The A-plot for this episode is that an entity which can magically blend in people’s brains but is transfered between the crew using a very shiny-looking ILM lightning sequence is trying to get off the ship after accidentally being scooped up because La Forge can’t fly straight and gets too close to cloud of scientient beings.

The B-plot is that two awkward-looking alien races hate each other and want to cook each other.

Neither work very well, and there’s a lot of heavy-handed writing.

Our designated comic relief for the episode is “Data discovers that he loves Sherlock Holmes”. Oh ha-ha. Lots of fun. Everybody laugh. Good joke. (On the bright side, it pays off later as some of the Data-as-Sherlock moments actually prove to be pretty neat in future seasons)

Characterwatch

O’Brien is back! But in his gold engineering uniform rather than being referred to as “Ensign” and wearing red like in Encounter at Farpoint.

Actorwatch

Allegedly, one of the “out of ideas for aliens – let’s just make them look like Earth animals again, yeah?” B-plot fellas is Marc Alaimo (Dukat from DS9) even though he isn’t credited.

Outfitwatch

I just love the way the diplomatic “dress uniform” idea in TNG, starting in this episode, is taken so literally.

Some nice gender-neutral use of clothing styles, really.

Shipwatch

The thing I remember really liking as a kid and still liking as an adult with this episode is that the episode felt very creepy and dark.

It turns out the “it felt dark” vibe I got as a kid was actually just because it is dark. For some reason the overly-bright cinematography TNG used pretty much up to Generations took a back seat and this episode’s Director/DP decided to dim the lights. In fact, a whole deck is shown dark during a ship’s “night cycle”. Probably done so as one of the alien guest stars needed to get the drop of a Starfleet Officer.

Rhetoricwatch

The Roddenberry “Humans as evolved species” thing is pretty heavy here. They’re mediating a dispute between two species who want to eat each other, and think that humans not eating the flesh of animals any more is “sickening”.

To be fair, it’s not so much that they’ve all become vegetarians, as that they’ve used the replicators to create “chicken” that was never a live chicken, etc. This, apparently, is the sickening thing. I’ve heard those purely-emotional arguments from meat eaters, actually, and it’s never made sense. “Would you eat vat-grown meat?” “Ew, no! That’s gross!”

Anyway, that stuff is kinda nerfed a bit with the awful “humour beat” at the end of the episode, when it’s discovered that one of the deligates has gone missing and the other party was found cooking some fresh meat.

Haha. An alien diplomat got eaten. Big laugh there, fellas. Top job.

Haha. An alien diplomat got eaten. Big laugh there, fellas. Top job.

ST Retroview: Where No One Has Gone Before

Ah. We finally get to an episode which has a desire to be an actual Star Trek episode in the grand traditions of… well… episodes that don’t have totally stupid concepts.

I was pleasantly surprised re-watching this one. I’d seen it numerous times before, even once fairly recently, and recalled it not being particularly good. But for whatever faults and annoyances it has (oh boy, Kosinski is an annoying shitsmear) some of the ideas are alright.

The line about time, space & thought all being one thing is a bit… well, pretentious, but it’s hard to fault it when at least it’s trying to prompt the odd thought in the viewer. More than that, the point where crew-members start finding their imaginations made manifest is rather interesting, and a theme that will appear a few times later in the series.

At least as an episode to impress just how powerful the human mind is, I guess it’s rather interesting. And, y’know, at least it isn’t overtly racist, sexist or preachy.

On top of this, it’s also a very pretty episode. I remember it being visually stunning as a child, but remastered in HD it remains something beyond the rather boring soundstage-planets the last few episodes have largely given us.

Watch that first step...

Watch that first step…

Characterwatch

This is really Wesley’s episode, which is funny, given he has little to do. He says something about time and space, implying that he’s either mad or slightly psychic, founds the “Nobody listens to Wesley” trope, and then gets made an Acting Ensign for holding the Traveller’s hand. So, I guess… that’s… a thing.

It’s worth noting that Worf manifests a Targ, saying it was his pet. I find this rather interesting as in later episode we find out he was raised by foster-parents – humans. I suppose it’s possible they wanted to give him a Klingon pet and got a Targ imported or bought one from a black market zoo or something, but… it’s much more likely that back-story simply hadn’t been decided on yet.

It was also nice watching Picard have a tender moment with his grandmother. Or, rather, with a manifestation of, uh… something. Either way, it was rather lovely.

Family Tea

ST Retroview: The Last Outpost

Oh boy. We finally hit the famously bad introduction of the Ferengi as the “new villains”. The funny thing? After the preceding two episodes being pretty darned awful… this one doesn’t seem as bad as I remember it.

The Ferengi Clamship, "Capitalism"

The Ferengi Crabship, “Capitalism”

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ST Retroview: The Naked Now & Code of Honor

The Naked Now

Oh boy. This is the first cab off the rank after Encounter at Farpoint? I suppose in some ways it vaguely makes sense. It’s an episode with little to no serious sci-fi’ey content, focusing almost entirely on the characters. So if you want to spend more time just developing your characters, getting them drunk and showing their deepest desires is, uh… well… now I feel I’m just making excuses for it.

My biggest two issues with this episode are, in no particular order:

Firstly, it’s kinda sexist and crap. When the women get drunk, they suddenly want to bang anything that moves. The men largely try to keep it together (or become megalomaniacs like Wesley). Nice message, fellas. Top job.

Secondly, the idea of re-hashing a TOS episode is a bad one, I feel, this early in the piece. It’s not just a re-hash, either – it’s a direct sequel, with Kirk and his Enterprise being referenced directly. I think this kinda diminishes the show a bit. It lends a “No, look, we’re Star Trek, too!” feel to the whole thing, and just shows a lack of confidence in themselves.

On the upside, I guess, there’s a few bits of comedy in the episode, and you shut your brain off and try not to over-analyse (or, really, analyse) the thing at all it’s not really dull or anything.

This episode also begins the running theme of rotating chief engineers every other episode, too. Until Geordie got the biggest sideways + up promotion in Starfleet history, for some reason they decided the chief engineer of the starship shouldn’t be a major character in any way on TNG, so they just got random one-or-two-line wonders in as required for the plot.

Here, we meet Chief Engineer "blink-and-you'll-miss-her" MacDougal. She even has a Scottish name so we know she's real engineer material!

Here, we meet Chief Engineer “blink-and-you’ll-miss-her” MacDougal. She even has a Scottish name so we know she’s real engineer material!

The season would show several chief engineers, and at one point Riker mentions that a project would be overseen by “one of our Chief Engineers”, implying that there’s a whole mess of the buggers floating around.

I guess Roddenberry’s socialist utopia reached its zenith in the engine room or something?

What amazes me, though, isn’t the inconsistencies (show me a long-running show that isn’t littered with them), but rather that they thought a chief engineer shouldn’t be a main character.

When your ship and its capabilities are so darned important to almost every episode, having a regular character to explain all the technobabble and provide reasons the warp core didn’t blow up this week seems rather important. Oh, well – they fix that problem soon enough.

Code of Honor

Oh your gods. There’s a theory I read once that the third episode of a new series is the most important. It’s at about this point that viewers often tune out if they aren’t interested in the show. I suspect that wasn’t so much of a thing when you weren’t using a running plot and when people were often just catching episodes – sometimes out of order – whenever they felt like it.

That said, I always find it interesting to judge a show on its third episode, and ignoring for the moment that Encounter at Farpoint carried two production codes and was often aired as two episodes, Code of Honor effectively amounts to the all-important third episode.

And there’s no nice way to say this: Code of Honor is a disgustingly racist, sexist episode with almost nothing to redeem it. It’s not even well-written or original.

In it we see an “alien” culture which is not only based on some shoddy Gilbert & Sullivan-era version of a “generic African tribal culture as imagined by a sheltered white person”, but we’re also treated to watching Yar, a “strong” female character who it’s established grew up avoiding “rape gangs” on her home planet fight another woman for the pleasure of men like it’s a 1960s James Bond film.

Like that isn’t bad enough, there’s a bit where Yar is pressed into admitting, after she’s been a captive on this planet for at least 18 hours that yes, she indeed finds this tribal leader attractive. “But that’s not the point!” she protests.

Wow.

Yar is given more embarrassing things to do.

Yar is given more embarrassing things to do.

Anyway, to step away from the awfulness for a moment… somehow… I found it rather interesting that a big deal was made of the enterprise’s scanners being used to monitor what’s happening on the planet below. It took crews many hours to get the scanners aligned and sending useful data. I rather like this – no magical “computer, scan the planet and give us all important plot device” – you got the sense that the enterprise is a complex machine that needs to be operated carefully.

The episode also shows us the Holodeck for only the second time, and at this point it still seems much more limited than the fantastical device of later seasons. Unless I mis-read something, the implication as Yar creates a combat simulation program is that the holodeck could really only handle simulating up to about ten figures at once. Combined with the very limited environment shown in Encounter at Farpoint, the holodeck sure seems to quickly advance a great deal in the coming seasons.

I strongly believe that limitations of ‘technology’ in a sci-fi show often produce the most interesting stories and events, and part of me wonders what TNG might have been like if the Holodeck had remained this limited device which produces simple facsimiles of vague places (such as the creek-with-forest from Farpoint) instead of being a thing capable of perfectly simulating, say, a specific cafe in France from decades past.

Much like the initial (and quickly dropped) conceit that the transporter was unsafe for human use in Enterprise (anyone else remember that rather creepy sequence where a person is first beamed, and appears with leaves literally fused to his skin? Blech!), having a limited holodeck might have been really interesting thing for later TNG.

Oh well.

ST Retroview: Encounter at Farpoint

Introduction

So, I recently decided to finally purchase the HD remasters of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is the series I grew up on, and as some of you may know, Star Trek is something about which I have many feelpinions. It was a huge and important part of my childhood, and along side the writings of people like Carl Sagan, helped forge much of my adult worldview.

So, mostly for my own interest, I have decided to post a sort of “retro-active review” of each episode – a short one, at least – from the perspective of the series as a whole, what it had been (in TOS) and what it’d become later.

Now, these will not be long blow-by-blow write-ups with commentary added. Lots of people have done that, and probably far better than I. (Will Wheaton’s Star Trek reviews spring to mind, for instance). These might be as short as a paragraph or as long as a few hundred words, if I feel inspired. I figure, the shorter I have to be, the clearer I’ll have to get my thoughts.

So, with that, it’s time for the TNG pilot…

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Little Blue Babies – On Epic Story Telling in Video Games

This article was originally published in 2012 at GameArena, a site I wrote for which has since shut down. I have re-posted it here for entirely figurative posterity.

Warning: This article discusses the art of telling epic stories, and includes major spoilers for the Mass Effect, Star Wars, Matrix and Lord of the Rings series’.

It was in the final hours of the battle of Earth. All hope had faded. I had said goodbye to my love, Liara T’Soni, and as I charged with a rapidly-decreasing number of Alliance troopers toward our objective, I pondered my relationship with her.

Liara, a beautiful Asari woman with distinctive blue skin, had wistfully talked to me several times about us one day having little blue babies. Before this climactic battle, we had spent a last few hours together, to make those little blue babies happen.

That thought kept coming back to me as I charged past explosion after explosion, watching people die all around me. I had to survive this. Saving the galaxy wasn’t enough – I had to get back to Liara, to raise our little blue babies.

Then, a blast finally goes off too close, and I find myself crawling the last few steps, blood all over me, barely able to stand and unable to hear anything. It wasn’t until this moment that it really dawned on me – this really might be a one-way trip. My stomach turned.

I may never see Liara again.

This sort of story is familiar to us, and with good reason – the story of Commander Shepard in Mass Effect is one of many which follow the guidelines which we have subconsciously refined and crafted over the years – the Hero’s Journey.

A Fucking Fairy Tale: Chapter Six

The continuing story of Princess Lisa and her hangover. More can be found here.

 

Chapter Six: Bedbugs, Knights & Suitors

Defeating horrible creatures was becoming easier.

I have to admit, at first I was pretty disgusted. I’d turn my head slowly, realise one was nearby, and would never have bet money on just how successful I’d be in vanquishing it.

But I’d gotten better.

When I saw this one crawling along, its tiny body barely visible against its surroundings, I held my breath ever so quietly and stayed very still.

Then, with dexterity and swiftness even the tailor from that fucking seven-with-one-blow story could be proud of… I crushed it.

“Eighteen,” I mumbled, crawling out of bed, wincing as I stepped on my tender leg and racking my brains to think of some way – any way – to get the disgusting number of lice and bed-bugs out of this place.

No soap.

No cleaning products of any kind.

No shampoo.

No tooth-paste.

No tampons.

Just a thousand bed-bugs and other creepy-crawlies, and a population who had little idea of the preventative merits of bathing more than once every year or so.

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A Fucking Fairy Tale: Chapter Five

The continuing story of Princess Lisa and her hangover. More can be found here.

 

Chapter Five: The Consequences of Violence

It’s called an action sequence.

That’s the way we think of them.

The main character (me, I guess… oh man, this place is SO fucked) rises to the challenge of defeating a bad guy. Now, it happens in a spectacular way – and usually in pretty damn vicious but visually pleasing weather. It starts out bad, there’s a twist in the middle, but right near the end the protagonist gets the drop on the villain and emerges victorious.

There’s flowers, there’s a parade, the hero is awarded a goddamn medal, gets the girl (or guy – but that’s rare) and the credits roll.

And the most important part is that no matter how wrecked and damaged the hero gets in the fight, he or she (usually a he) is all better for the after-party and the medal-giving ceremonies. Well, except maybe a stylish cane.

That’s a great concept, but as I stood there – on top of a roof with every muscle aching, my shin throbbing and all but shivering in cold – over the limp and nearly-lifeless body of a guy wearing a cravat, with a collection of confused and angry looking men in armour standing below me and staring at me like I’d just gone down on their daughter… well, I began to doubt I’d be teleported to any awards ceremonies right away.

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Playing in the Sandbox

This article was originally published in 2011 at GameArena, a site I wrote for which has since shut down. I have re-posted it here for entirely figurative posterity.

In films, it’s just expected that a new technique – some trick of editing or clever lens-work – would be used, once it’s first devised, by many other filmmakers. From the early tricks of juxtaposing imagery in an edit used by Lev Kuleshov to Hitchcock’s famous dolly zoom in Vertigo, these ‘tricks’ are used by other filmmakers, and after a while simply become more tools in the kit.

The games industry has an interesting habit of being overly critical of any game which ‘borrows’ mechanics from another. When Call of Duty 2 tried removing the health bar in favour of a regenerating system, anyone who borrowed the ‘trick’ got sneered at (especially amusing given CoD itself borrowed this particular Good Trick from at least one earlier shooter). For a while, at least – it has become the standard, now, to the extent that even games trying to be ‘old-school’ such as Duke Nukem Forever have absorbed it into their makeup.

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A Fucking Fairy Tale: Chapter Four

More of the fairy tale. The rest can be found here.

 

Chapter Four: How To Defeat An Evil Wizard

There are three things I now greatly regret doing in my life. The first was sharing a secret with Leon Sumpter in the sixth grade. The second was telling my parents that I’d seen fairies when I was twelve. The third and final regret I must now live with is slipping two tabs of acid to a powerful wizard from 19th-century England who had mastered the ability to control the weather.

I sat there, in a repeat of how I’d first met Brenton “The Plagius” Byrne, behind a wooden wall as it rocked back and forth as it and many blocks around were engulfed in a rain and wind storm the likes of which I’d never felt before.

A smear of mud landed in my eye.

I winced and wiped it away.

“STAND BACK, HEATHENS!” came Plagius’ voice, shrieking from atop the tallest nearby building.

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