Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 6

Welcome, gentle reader, to the sixth of a projected series of 7 blog posts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For convenience, I'll be using the standard fan abbreviations to refer to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the original series (TOS).  Also, probably best to assume that a Spoiler Alert remains in effect at all times, just on general principle.  I'm not precious about giving away details of a TV series broadcast 25 20 years ago.


So here we get not one but two mid-season two-parters.  In both cases, the episodes feel sufficiently contained and different from one another that I think it's worth handling them separately rather than as complete stories.

The trend of the writers towards grittiness continues.  Picard gets at least one full-on action hero episode this season, as well as one that glorifies his reckless Academy days when he used to get into fights and womanise, just like the Junior Kirk one suspects some of the creative team would have preferred.  The season finale is the peak to date of all their worst tendencies, and it all looks a bit grim heading into Season 7.

Also, Season 6 is the one that puts Deanna Troi in a proper official uniform with a military rank and everything - I'm really not sure if this is a good thing or not.  Yes, fine, she's a part of the militaristic heirarchy on board the Enterprise, but at the same time she's always seemed kind of outside it in her rôle as ship's counsellor, and her previous wardrobe freedom seemed to fit with that.  I imagine that if the Season 6 creative team had been in charge for Season 1, they'd have dropped the whole counsellor angle and made her a Lieutenant Commander Chaplain or something, which would have been appalling.

My overall impression: Season 6 is to Season 5 as Season 3 was to Season 2.  The level of quality is more consistent - and it's a higher level of quality now than it was three seasons ago - but Season 5 has the lion's share of stand-out episodes.

"Time's Arrow, Part II"
Yes, that'll do nicely.  This episode's basically all runaround, apart from the scenes where it uses Clemens' cynicism to restate TNG's uncynical intentions.  I might mention here that doing a backstory for a fundamentally mysterious character like Guinan is always a risky move, but the writers were smart enough not to spoil her by blurting out too much information.
"Realm of Fear"
The one with flying worm monsters living inside the transporter beam.  Howlin' Mad Reg Barclay is a hero now, so hooray for that.  Average.
"Man of the People"
TNG does The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Oh look, Deanna Troi is mentally assaulted and demeaned by a predatory male, again.  Didn't we get all this out of our systems in Season 3 and Season 5?
"Relics"
The one with Scotty.  We're obviously invited to draw parallels between him and the Dyson Sphere, but given the size of James Doohan here, that's rather cruel on the part of the writers.  Starts out by putting some distance between TNG and (as represented by Scotty) TOS, but ends up reconciling the two.  I imagine card-carrying Trek fans probably rate it highly.
"Schisms"
The one where several crewmembers unearth repressed memories of having visited the dentist.  TNG has already done at least one "alien abduction" episode, but here it goes into full-on X Files mode.  The mysterious set-up is a lot more interesting than the resolution.  Notable for featuring Data's poetry recital.
"True Q"
The one with Olivia d'Abo.  I don't have much more to say about this one.  Given a brief of "there's a Q adopted by humans on board the Enterprise", this episode turns out pretty much exactly as I would expect.  We're falling back on our baseline of mere competence again.
"Rascals"
The one where four crewmembers are youthed by a magic explosion, or something.  Shush, science.  TNG has been lucky so far with its child actors, for the most part, but it's a very risky move to ask a bunch of child actors to stand in for some of the regulars.  I think they just about get away with it.  The choice of Keiko O'Brien, Guinan and Ro Laren offers the opportunity for some interesting character work that is barely touched on before it's completely shelved in favour of an action runaround.  Hilarious scenes between little Picard and "Daddy" Riker.  A lot of fun, but it was looking a lot more interesting before those Ferengi showed up.
"A Fistful of Datas"
The TNG Western episode, but far more importantly, the start of the very short-lived Geordi's Beard Arc.  Alexander inviting Troi in on the Worfs' family time makes it look suspiciously as if he's trying to set her up with his father - watch this space.  Another fun episode.  Very cheeky last shot with the Enterprise moseying off towards the setting sun.
"The Quality of Life"
The one with Exocomps.  A bit like Season 1's "Home Soil" - mining outpost, machinery with a mind of its own, unconventional form of intelligence - but with the resources of Season 6 behind it.  Some unfortunate wirework on the Exocomps, but hey, it was the early Nineties.
"Chain of Command, Part I"
Another one of those episodes that shows why the series is what it is by showing how wrong it would have been if it had been done differently.  Captain "1400 Hours" Jellicoe is the sort of over-aggressive by-the-book captain that I can imagine some viewers might have expected to see in command of the Enterprise, but he clearly shows by contrast that cuddly man-of-the-world Picard is the right captain for TNG.
"Chain of Command, Part II"
The one with four lights.  The Captain Jellicoe material carries through into this episode, but the real focus here is on Patrick Stewart and his gargantuan acting skills.  Also very nice to see genre favourite David Warner.  A small-scale but powerful episode.
"Ship in a Bottle"
The other one with Holographic Professor Moriarty.  I was expecting this to reprise a lot of "Elementary, Dear Data", but it builds on it quite nicely.  That Moriarty has been forgotten for four years (notwithstanding real-world problems with the Conan Doyle estate) and has to fight for his rights is very much on the nose.  The resolution that apparently leaves everybody happy is actually a bit of a bum note.  We're still a couple of years away from properly autonomous holograms in Star Trek.
"Aquiel"
Murder mystery on a relay station.  Once it becomes clear that this episode's main inspiration is The Thing, it isn't hard to see what the next twist is going to be.  Unremarkable stuff.
"Face of the Enemy"
The one with Deanna Troi posing (against her will) as a Romulan.  Again, unremarkable.  The whole resolution is very pat.  Still, interesting to see this side to Troi.
"Tapestry"
The one where Picard apparently dies and meets Q in the afterlife.  A well-constructed story about accepting one's past mistakes, another nice showcase for Patrick Stewart and possibly the best Q episode.
"Birthright, Part I"
The rather modest crossover with Deep Space Nine.  Also the one where Data first dreams.  Lots of nice off-kilter imagery around that.  It's a shame there wasn't enough of this to sustain a whole episode in itself, because the material that sets up the next episode is pretty dull.
"Birthright, Part II"
The one with the lost colony of Klingons and Romulans peacefully cohabiting.  This could have been the setup for a much more optimistic episode, but instead the writers present it as a social prison based on lies that Worf must undermine with his authentic warrior ways.  I'd like to have seen the more optimistic episode.
"Starship Mine"
Die Hard on the Enterprise.  The scenes of Data first observing Commander Hutchinson and then practising his small talk on him are priceless, but - as seems to be the way with Season 6 - this material is dropped cold once the action plot kicks in.  Hutchinson disappears completely after he's been shot (stunned? killed?) and is never even mentioned again.  Still, it is a very good action plot, even though the John McClane stuff feels out of character for Picard.
"Lessons"
The one about Picard's doomed love affair.  This is a really nice episode up until it flubs it by suggesting that Picard, almost uniquely among his crew, is apparently unable to form a meaningful romance with a fellow officer because reasons.
"The Chase"
The one that explains why the galaxy is full of humanoids.  I imagine that to some fans this question may have seemed important enough to spend an episode answering it.  (Actually, I'm pretty sure TOS already did.  Maybe there's one of these for every Star Trek series?)  Biggest point of interest: spotting Maurice Roëves out of Doctor Who story "The Caves of Androzani" as a Romulan.
"Frame of Mind"
Kafkaesque shenanigans with a lot of nice surreal visuals.  I particularly like the scene where various TNG regulars stand in for aspects of Riker's subconscious.  This one would probably reward repeated viewing just from the standpoint of trying to spot clues in earlier scenes that I might have missed.
"Suspicions"
The one where Dr Crusher turns detective.  Actually develops her character meaningfully by showing her first taste of mission command.  I'm pretty sure it's the first TNG episode to tell a significant part of its story in flashback with voiceover narration - a choice that feels a bit odd.  I think I'd place this one somewhere on the border between the top and second rank for this season.
"Rightful Heir"
He's not the Klingon messiah, he's a very naughty boy!  Better than a number of other Worf-centric stories so far, with an unusual and interesting focus on Klingon religion.  I like that, even though this story inevitably has to give the mystical premise a science fictional debunking, it refuses to invalidate Worf's own spiritual experience.
"Second Chances"
The one with two Rikers.  So, like "Tapestry", another story about regrets and paths not taken - is there something the writers would like to tell us?  It's a neat idea, but what really caught my eye is the way debut director LeVar Burton gives background extras the centre stage in the first couple of scenes.
"Timescape"
Another one of those episodes that fools around with time, so naturally I expected to like this one.  There's a fun moment when Picard draws a smiley face on a frozen billow of smoke coming out of the warp core, but by and large this story just didn't grab me.  And it's all over far too suddenly, with the Romulan ship just magically disappearing.
"Descent"
The other big team-up season finale.  This year, it's the Borg and Data's evil twin!  Feels as if TNG has been assimilated by a different series - possibly one of the unpleasant "gritty" alternate versions hinted at in a few earlier episodes.  Data's first emotion is anger and he turns out to be a closet psychopath, which is the worst kind of teenage angsty fanfic guff.  Honestly, who needs Data's evil twin when you're making Data himself evil?  Rotten pulpy dialogue all over the script, too.

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"Tapestry"
"Ship in a Bottle"
"Starship Mine"
"Chain of Command, Part II"
"Rascals"
"Rightful Heir"
"Time's Arrow, Part II"
"A Fistful of Datas"
"Frame of Mind"
"Lessons"
"Suspicions"
"Timescape"
"Chain of Command, Part I"
"Second Chances"
"Relics"
"Birthright, Part I"
"Schisms"
"The Quality of Life"
"The Chase"
"Realm of Fear"
"True Q"
"Aquiel"
"Birthright, Part II"
"Face of the Enemy"
"Descent"
"Man of the People"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 6 ("Relics", "Rascals", "Chain of Command, Part II", "Ship in a Bottle", "Tapestry", "The Chase")

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: "Tapestry" and "Ship in a Bottle", certainly.  I'd probably rank "Starship Mine", "Chain of Command, Part II" and "Rascals" in a sort of mezzanine tier between the top and second rank - close borderline stuff.  Perhaps another half dozen or so episodes below that in the second tier.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5

Welcome, gentle reader, to the fifth of a projected series of 7 blog posts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For convenience, I'll be using the standard fan abbreviations to refer to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the original series (TOS).  Also, probably best to assume that a Spoiler Alert remains in effect at all times, just on general principle.  I'm not precious about giving away details of a TV series broadcast 25 years ago.


The year of the shiny, shiny logo.

It's also the first season to include a two-part story mid-season.  I don't intend to be consistent about how I approach these mid-season two-parters - I think this season's works best if considered as a single story, but next season we'll get two that really work better as discrete episodes.

I can't not mention the appearance of Picard's new "smart casual" look, with his grey shirt under an open-fronted jacket.  Strangely, no one else on the Enterprise seems to be wearing a uniform in this style.

Ignoring the season-straddling cliffhangers for a minute, this season is bookended by very strong episodes, and I think (sneaking a look ahead to the remaining two seasons) it might be my overall favourite season of TNG.  It is, however, notable that it contains three stories ("Silicon Avatar", "I, Borg" and "Time's Arrow") that raise the idea of killing off an entire species or unique life form because nobody (on the Enterprise or on the writing team) can think of an alternative way of supplying their feeding habits.  Late period TNG's writing team seem to want to take the series into darker, grittier territory, and I can't say that it's a direction I want to see this series go in.

"Redemption II"
Federation starships for everyone!  The best thing about this episode is the way Data pressures Picard into giving him one of the temporary commands on offer; the Hornblowerish adventure of Captain Data and his prejudiced first officer offers a lot of dramatic potential, but sadly no time is spent on the aftermath of that adventure.  Meanwhile blah blah Klingon Empire blah.
"Darmok"
I'm amazed it took this long for someone to point out the flaw in the "universal translator" idea - it's all very well presenting a word-for-word translation of a foreign language, but it won't mean much if you don't know the context.  If only every "first contact" story could be as good as this.
"Ensign Ro"
The one that introduces the Bajorans.  Some of the regular characters are a bit off (when did Guinan become so pushy?), but it's hard to say whether Ro is off here, where she's cartoonishly insubordinate, or in every other story she appears in, where she behaves more or less like any other Starfleet officer.  The story of underhanded dealings within the Starfleet admiralty is nothing we haven't seen before, but plays out well.
"Silicon Avatar"
A pretty good episode.  Of this season's three "kill 'em all!" stories, this is the hardest one to judge because it's so unclear whether or not the Crystalline Entity is acting maliciously and whether Picard might actually have been able to talk it into finding a way of feeding that doesn't involve destroying entire inhabited planets.
"Disaster"
The one with Captain Picard trapped in a lift with three kids.  A compelling 45 minutes of peril for several characters in a variety of situations across a crippled Enterprise.  Notably sees Troi stepping up to act as Captain on an isolated bridge with (count 'em!) three crewmembers under her.
"The Game"
Oh yeah, the '90s was the time when people really started panicking about the possibility that computer games might be damaging and addictive, wasn't it?  Exploring that idea in a Body Snatchers plot starring Wesley Crusher does not make for my favourite episode ever.  Icky.  Also, the whole business of "Robin's Laws" is just too twee, like some kind of off-the-shelf manufactured character quirk.
"Unification I" & "Unification II"
The one with the dedication to Gene Roddenberry on the front.  Probably the first notable crossover of a major TOS character - McCoy only had a blink-and-you'll-miss-him (I certainly did) cameo in "Encounter at Farpoint", and even though Sarek got a whole episode named after him I wouldn't have said he was a major character in that sense.  I'm pleased to note the script isn't too fawning around Spock, with its cheeky references to "cowboy diplomacy" (as if TNG hasn't indulged in that itself once or twice).  Probably the best bit is the random levity in the second episode with the 4-armed club pianist.
"A Matter of Time"
The one with Matt Frewer.  It's largely thanks to his performance that this episode punches above its weight.
"New Ground"
The one about Worf's parenting issues.  Eminently missable.
"Hero Worship"
The one about the little orphan boy who imprints on Data.  Nice metaphorical mirroring of his coping/denial in the business of turbulence outside the Enterprise being made worse by the Enterprise's own defences.
"Violations"
Oh dear, another supernatural rape for Deanna Troi.  I mean, all the telepathic attacks are explicitly described as a form of rape, but only Troi's is overtly presented in a rapey way.  I'm sure this episode was well intentioned, but it's horrible viewing.
"The Masterpiece Society"
By numbers stuff with a colony built on eugenics.  The dilemma for the colonists and the Enterprise crew is explored well, but I just don't care enough about the guest characters and their society.  Deanna Troi's romance with the colony leader feels contrived, and why she would want to holiday there is a mystery.
"Conundrum"
Even though there's very little character work or thematic depth to this episode, I am a complete sucker for stories that suddenly introduce a mystery character into the line-up of a SF series like this.  (See also the Torchwood episode "Adam", or the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
"Power Play"
Well, I suppose it's been a while since we had a possession story.  Narratively more routine than other examples of the type, but the performances and the production are pretty darned good.
"Ethics"
The one about Worf's spinal injury.  Covers some similar ground to "Half a Life" but takes almost the exact opposite position, with Riker and Dr Crusher refusing outright to make concessions to Worf's request for euthanasia.  It's particularly astonishing that Riker of all people, who's spent more time in closer contact with Klingon culture than any other character barring (possibly, and only arguably) Picard, should be so vehement.  I mean, it would have been a huge shame to lose Worf, but even so.
"The Outcast"
Not only do I remember previously seeing this episode, I remember the British press getting excited about it beforehand because it supposedly had something to say about homosexuality and was therefore tremendously newsworthy in some way or other.  A bit like Season 4's "The Host", this episode has two distinct messages.  The one conveyed by the big set-piece monologue, by the whole legislative aspect of the story and by the writers to the press is about homophobia, but the one conveyed overtly by the episode itself is about the unrelated subject of transgenderism.  Actually, it seems odd that a species with no gender distinctions would have a concept of gender strong enough for them to experience it and legislate against it, but that's just one of this episode's many problems.  It's a muddle of garbled messages and flubbed opportunities.
"Cause and Effect"
A hugely popular episode back in the day, for the simple reason that you get to see the Enterprise blow up several times.  (In fact, it's possible I only watched repeat broadcasts of "Time Squared" and "A Matter of Time" because the titles led me to suppose that they might have been this episode.)  A hugely popular episode for me now, too.  All this SF mystery goodness, and some lovely character scenes too, hooray.
"The First Duty"
The one in which Wesley Crusher is exposed as a great big fibber.  It's nice to see Starfleet Academy on scenic old Earth, and it's nice to see Picard chatting with the oft-mentioned groundskeeper, and the story itself is done well - it just isn't a story I was tremendously interested in seeing.
"Cost of Living"
The one where the Enterprise starts turning to jam.  Meanwhile Lwaxana Troi takes Worf's son Alexander on a holodeck tour of the Planet of the Mudbathing Clowns.  None of this is particularly inspirational.
"The Perfect Mate"
Sweet Jesus, what have we done to deserve this sexist nonsense in the fifth year of this series?!
"Imaginary Friend"
The "imposter human" and "creepy child" tropes play out pretty much as expected.  Nothing startling here.
"I, Borg"
Ends with the nice thought that introducing the Borg to concepts of individuality and friendship might be a more effective way of defending against them than committing genocide.  Unfortunately we go through the whole genocide conversation first to get there.  Picard and Guinan are won over eventually, but not before they've spent half an hour speaking in terms of total war and looking like uncharacteristic bastards.
"The Next Phase"
The one where Geordi La Forge and Ro Laren attend their own funeral.  A competent middler, but I don't really have much to say about it.  One niggling question: how come Geordi and Laren don't pass through the floor?
"The Inner Light"
The first TNG episode to win a Hugo Award, and quite right too.  Like "Darmok", an unusual and engaging story of contact with another culture.  Also like "Darmok", it focuses heavily on Picard to the detriment of other regulars, but not much can be done about that.
"Time's Arrow"
The one with Samuel L Clemens.  A nice SF mystery and some juicy character work in the first half as everyone comes to terms with Data's mortality, leading into a solid runaround for the remaining half episode.  I think (sneaking a peek ahead to the end of Season 6) that this might be my favourite of the TNG season cliffhanger episodes.  It's got a touch of Doctor Who about it, which probably helps.

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"Darmok"
"Cause and Effect"
"The Inner Light"
"Time's Arrow"
"Hero Worship"
"Conundrum"
"Disaster"
"A Matter of Time"
"I, Borg"
"Silicon Avatar"
"The Next Phase"
"The First Duty"
"Ensign Ro"
"Unification"
"Power Play"
"Redemption II"
"The Outcast"
"Ethics"
"The Masterpiece Society"
"Imaginary Friend"
"The Game"
"Cost of Living"
"Violations"
"New Ground"
"The Perfect Mate"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 7 ("Darmok", "Ensign Ro", "Silicon Avatar" - three episodes in a row? must have been broadcast during a school holiday in the UK - "A Matter of Time", "The Outcast", "Cause and Effect", "The Inner Light").

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: "Darmok", "Cause and Effect" and "The Inner Light" are very fine episodes; to those I'd add "Time's Arrow", "Hero Worship" and "Conundrum".  Perhaps another half dozen or more episodes below those that I'd rank in the second tier.  It's a very strong season.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Hugo Awards 2015: A Consideration of the Sources

And so to a consideration of some of the Hugo nominees themselves.  This more or less amounts to a "Books read in May/June" post, which I've deliberately held onto until now because it didn't seem quite right to comment on my own voting choices until after voting on the Hugo Awards closed last month.  But I wanted to get this in before the results are announced next week at Worldcon.  I'll be interested to see the voting statistics when they're made available, hopefully not too long after Worldcon.

The Hugo Award categories that have been most heavily affected by the slate campaigns are all the shorter fiction categories (Novella, Novelette and Short Story), Best Related Work, both Best Editor categories and Best Fan Writer.  The Best Novel and the two Best Dramatic Presentation categories were less heavily affected by the slate campaigns (it's roughly half and half).  Hardly affected at all, probably because the slate-makers didn't take much of an interest in it, is the Best Graphic Story category.  I'll pass over the Dramatic Presentation categories and the esoterica and talk a bit more about the print categories.

Now, I'll admit that I don't read a lot of short fiction and tend not to pay a lot of attention to those categories, so as much as their hijack irks me on principle, in all honesty it doesn't make a lot of difference to me as a reader.  It's nice to be able to read a good shorter piece while considering the Hugo nominees, and it's a shame that there really weren't any good shorter pieces this year - even the small handful of non-slate nominees were a disappointment - but I'll get over it.  I put down No Award for all three categories.

The write-off of the Best Related Work category is much more disappointing, because I do love a good bit of lit. crit. and analysis around SF.  The best item on offer this year was a short article advising writers of military SF to take thermodynamics into account when writing their action scenes, which just looks like 101 stuff to me.  The rest of the nominees were vacuous dreck, and two of them weren't even related to SF, so why the hell they weren't removed from the shortlist on eligibility grounds is beyond me.  I put down No Award for this category too.

Best Novel

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie
Sequel to the previous year's winner of every award available, Ancillary Justice.  Another extremely good novel in my opinion.  It's more straightforward, playing out in one continuous narrative whereas Justice switched between "present" and "past" narratives to reveal its story.  It starts out looking like another slice of grand space opera, but partway in it becomes clear that it's actually going to be a small-scale character piece; the larger scale does creep back in right at the end.  My vote: 1st place.

The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J Anderson
First in a series that ties in with a previous, very long series of space opera novels.  I could say that this book met all my generic, uninspired Star Wars knock-off needs for the year, but that would be unfair.  It exceeded them.  My vote: 4th place.

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
One of those novels that subverts epic fantasy.  I'm in favour of this as a concept, but haven't found many examples that I like, probably mainly because I don't much like epic fantasy itself.  This is a perfectly good example, but I felt that it dragged heavily.  The cod archaic speech patterns didn't help much.  My vote: 3rd place.

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (trans. Ken Liu)
First of a trilogy written by one of China's top SF writers, and thus the only novel nominee this year to go any way at all to putting the "world" into "Worldcon".  Starts out as an intriguing mystery with an engaging backdrop of Maoist China, but lurches into a generic alien invasion runaround about two thirds in.  My vote: 2nd place.

Skin Game, Jim Butcher
Book #5,000,001 in the Dresden Files series.  Competently written pap.  Butcher's obviously found a formula that works for him - again and again and again - and I'm very happy for him.  I just don't see any artistic or literary merit in it.  My vote: unranked.

Best Graphic Story

Ms Marvel, vol 1: No Normal, G Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona & Jake wyatt
As a teenage superhero origin story, fairly ordinary.  Making the heroine the Muslim American daughter of Pakistani immigrants is a bit different, and certainly a welcome bit of diversity in a largely white, Anglo-American and predominantly male subgenre.  The art looks kind of fluffy, but at least it's a change from the usual photo-reference style of superhero art.  My vote: 3rd place.

Rat Queens, vol 1: Sass and Sorcery, Kurtis J Weibe & Roc Upchurch
A grungy comedy D&D-style fantasy story with an all-female cast.  Nice art, some smart dialogue.  I'd be prepared to seek out vol 2.  My vote: 2nd place.

Saga, vol 3, Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples
This is of course still terrific, but in judging it as a book in its own right - as opposed to a middle volume of an ongoing story - I find it relies too heavily on the reader's awareness of vols 1 and 2 to stand on it own.  My vote: 4th place.

Sex Criminals, vol 1: One Weird Trick, Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
The only one of this year's nominees to do anything of significant interest with narrative form, character subjectivity and artistic presentation (notwithstanding Kamala Khan's mystic vision in issue 1 of Ms Marvel).  Also the only one that has something unusual to say, being a consideration of the ways in which we learn and talk about sex.  Heartfelt, honest, filthy and sniggeringly funny in equal measure; all this, and a SF action story too!  My vote: 1st place.

The Zombie Nation, vol 2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate, Carter Reid
Apparently a print collection of a webcomic, but widespread reports suggest that nobody has actually seen the print version.  The webcomic itself is easily found, and is nothing in any way outstanding or interesting.  There are hundreds of webcomics just like this, and dozens of much better ones.  My vote: unranked.

Hugo Awards 2015: What Is To Be Done?

So, the time has come for me to unload on the subject of the Hugo Awards.  If any of my five (that many?) readers don't already know the details of the screaming match that's been unfolding within SF fandom since the Hugo Award shortlist was unveiled in April... well, that's not exactly startling.  It's of minor interest in real terms, as I'll suggest below.

The short version is this: a small cabal - consisting of a fascist troll and his dupes/friends - didn't like the Hugo Award shortlists that were being produced by democratic means, attributed the results to political bias on the part of the nominators and voters, and started a politically biased campaign to force a shortlist that they did like.  They published online two broadly similar slates - that is to say, entire proposed shortlists - to give their supporters something to rally behind.  The slate personally touted online by the fascist included several items published by his own small press and was aggressively pushed as something that his supporters should replicate as part of a concerted political operation.  (Hilariously, he prefaced this demand with the words, "We of the right do not march in lockstep.")  The other slate was presented with a more publicly palatable air of wanting to suggest something that disillusioned right-wing SF fans might want to consider when nominating, and did not include a lot of the small press material.  However, the more extreme wing of the campaign was more successful - roughly two thirds of this year's Hugo Awards shortlist are a dead match for that version of the slate, small press picks and all.

I'll repeat that: two thirds of the Hugo Award shortlist were dictated by a fascist and forced through by his lockstep-marching goons.  Yay, science fiction.

Reasons given in defence of the slate campaign have varied over time as the situation requires, and have all smacked of attempted justification after the fact.  The simple truth about the slate-makers and their motivations can easily be discovered by measuring their rhetorical posturing against their actions: they're full of shit.  Their whole campaign has been built on hypocrisy, delusion and self-importance.

The prime motivation behind this campaign, so far as I can tell, has been a desperate desire for attention, which the slate-making cabal have been receiving in spades.  For that reason, I don't propose to provide names or links here.  Let's face it, anyone who does already know and care about this will already know the names and will probably have seen the relevant blog posts too.  If there's anyone reading this blog who hasn't already given the slate-makers the undeserved attention they crave, good.

So how did a fringe group like this manage to hijack the Hugo Award shortlist?

Part of the problem is that only a couple of thousand SF fans in any given year actually put in nominations for the Hugos.  Participation is sufficiently low that a small organised lobby (estimates vary between 200 and 400 individuals - more meaningful statistics should be released after Worldcon) can influence the shortlist out of all proportion to their actual significance within the broader fandom.  In other words, the Hugos themselves are of active interest to only a minority of fans.  Most fans probably take no interest at all in Worldcon or the Hugo Awards; of those that do, to the extent of actually attending Worldcon or buying a supporting membership (typically in the region of 5,000 people in recent years), most appear willing to vote on what's put in front of them but are not sufficiently motivated to put in nominations.

This isn't a political problem, or an ideological problem, or a "clique" problem.  Everybody's welcome to nominate whatever they like from the previous year's SF output, provided only that they're a member of that year's or the previous year's Worldcon, or a pre-supporting member of the following year's Worldcon.  Nobody's gatekeeping, nobody's vetting the nominators or their nominations - there just isn't the will among fans who've already paid their fees to get up and nominate.  Even this year, before anyone particularly cared about this, the number of fans who were eligible to nominate works for the Hugo Awards must have been many times more than the number that actually nominated.

But this isn't even (well, only partly) an apathy problem.  The real problem, I would say, is one of wealth.  Leaving aside the question of having to pay for Worldcon membership, keeping up with all the latest books and films is a rich person's game.  I'm personally in the habit of waiting for books to become available cheaply, even if that only means waiting a year for paperback editions of new books I already know about and really want; borrowing from friends or the library is financially less punishing, but depends on friends or the library buying those books instead.  As for films, waiting for them to appear (if at all) at the rental store is only marginally a better arrangement than paying cinema prices.  And who has the time to spare for all of this stuff?

Increasing participation at the nomination stage is clearly desirable, but it requires a larger number of fans who are prepared to pay top dollar to consume brand new SF material on a regular basis in the hope of finding something that they're prepared to nominate.  Voting is less burdensome - by that point the entire mass of the previous year's output in any given category has been whittled down to just five items that can either be found in the digital voters' packet or picked up at cheaper year-old prices.  Even so, not many fans bother - last year fewer than 4,000 fans voted, and that was an abnormally high number, with around 2,000 ballots cast in 2013 and typically only as many as 1,000 ballots in previous years.  (This year should see an all-time record number of ballots, but only because of the highly visible shitstorm around this year's awards.)  And beyond that, I would guess that only a trifling minority of people who consider themselves to be SF fans have ever been near a Worldcon or the Hugo Awards, or spend much of their time and money on keeping up to date with this year's eligible material.

If there is a problem with historical nomination patterns in the Hugo Awards, none of the campaigning and reaction around this year's Hugos has come anywhere close to addressing it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 4

Welcome, gentle reader, to the fourth of a projected series of 7 blog posts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For convenience, I'll be using the standard fan abbreviations to refer to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the original series (TOS).  Also, probably best to assume that a Spoiler Alert remains in effect at all times, just on general principle.  I'm not precious about giving away details of a TV series broadcast 25 years ago.


All right, now I'm confused - the opening theme reverts to its original shorter version after Wesley Crusher is dropped from the credits mid-season, and as far as I can tell it stays that way for the rest of the series.  Now I have no idea why I should remember more of the later seasons of TNG than of the earlier, yet associate them with the longer version of the theme.

A spot of online research suggests Deep Space Nine didn't start airing until after the next season, but it looks as if the groundwork is being laid here - both the Cardassians and the Trill are introduced in TNG Season 4, and I confidently recall that they're hugely important to DS9 in a way that they don't seem to be so much to TNG.

My overall impression of Season 4 is that it's a big step up in quality after Seasons 2 and 3.  The writers seem to have worked out how to build on Season 3's steady baseline while simultaneously reaching for the occasional stand-outs of Season 2.

"The Best of Both Worlds: Part II"
Can TNG stick the landing?  Yes, apparently it can.  A convincing and exciting resolution to the story.
I still say having Riker as Captain and Shelby as First Officer would have made for an interesting alternative Season 4.
"Family"
A necessary bit of recuperation after the previous two episodes, which also nicely carries on with the idea that Picard might still leave the Enterprise.  It's obviously just a feint at this point, but it is very well done.  A lovely character-driven episode.  Of the two parts of "The Best of Both Worlds", I think the third might be my favourite.
"Brothers"
The one that puts Data, Lore and Dr Soong in the same room together.  I'm not entirely sure what merit this episode has, apart from moving a couple of the pieces in the longer-term Data story arc and allowing Brent Spiner to play multiple parts.  Nice script, though.
"Suddenly Human"
The one with the human boy raised by warlike aliens.  I can't help feeling Picard et al could have approached this whole matter more diplomatically and with the starting assumption that just maybe the kid did belong with the aliens like he said, and it still could have made for an engaging TNG episode.  Not exactly a bad episode, but off-key.
"Remember Me"
The one where everyone except Dr Crusher starts to disappear from existence.  A nice science fiction puzzle episode, but short on character work - most of the episode is focussed on Dr Crusher, and what have I learned about her at the end that I didn't know before?  Also picks up the suggestion from Season 1 that Wesley might one day metamorphose into some kind of science god - as with "Brothers", this looks like a bit of story arc movement without any organic character development, a bit like watching stage hands redress a set without then watching the actors play on it.
"Legacy"
The one set on Tasha Yar's home planet.  We get to meet Tasha's sister, who looks and acts nothing like her, and everybody says how much she reminds them of Tasha.  Very little happens, and it's hard to believe based on his performance in the previous three seasons that Data could possibly have needed the "moral of the week" he gets at the end.  And my word, those street gangs all have very clean, very Eighties hair.
"Reunion"
The one that fridges Worf's female equivalent from Season 2's "The Emissary" and introduces his half-Klingon son.  Also notably introduces Gowron and his mad, staring eyes - the Bug-Eyed Earl of Klingons.  (I think this is also the first appearance of Background Crewmember With Androgynous Eighties Hairdo, who becomes increasingly noticeable in successive seasons to the point where she's in the front row at Data's poetry reading two seasons from now.)
Plays out a lot like Season 3's "Sins of the Father", and like that episode it's an OK but not stellar instalment in the Worf Saga.   A damn shame to have written K'Ehleyr out like that, though.  I'm not even sure there was any need or good reason to use the character here except to overegg Worf's revenge story.
(One further small, niggling thought occurs: from all the carrying on about it, I didn't think Worf and K'Ehleyr were supposed to have had sex before "The Emissary" - just how old is Alexander supposed to be?)
"Future Imperfect"
The "Captain Riker" fake-out episode.  The set-up is more interesting than the resolution - I almost wish this had been a straight-up time travel story.  Why, knowing in hindsight what they ended up doing with Voyager's Doctor, they might even have gotten away with giving Future Captain Riker a holographic wife.
"Final Mission"
The one that strands Wesley Crusher on a desert moon with Picard, just before he's due to leave for Starfleet Academy.  "You'll be missed," Picard tells Wesley - bahahahahaha, haaahahahahaa!  In fairness, he has been less annoying recently than he was in the first couple of seasons.  Still, away with him.
"The Loss"
The one in which Deanna Troi temporarily loses her empathic abilities.  As a story about coping and denial, it feels like it's walking a fine line between meaningfulness and clunkiness.  Some of the characters seem to be having a bad week too - the portrayal of Riker is particularly off-key.  On the other hand, Guinan's scene is predictably great.  Perhaps the episode works better as a more literal comment on the importance of empathy.
"Data's Day"
A lovely slice-of-life episode filtered through the character of Data.  The framing device of Data corresponding with the cyberneticist who tried to commandeer him for research in Season 2 is also a nice touch.
"The Wounded"
The one that deals with the aftermath of the previous year's war with the Cardassians, about which we have previously heard nothing.  (Perhaps it's a consequence of the historical shenanigans in "Yesterday's Enterprise"?)  The business of chasing after the rogue Federation ship is great, the contrast between diplomatic Captain Picard's response and hawkish Captain Maxwell's response to the Cardassian situation is great, the scene between the two captains is great...  Basically, it's great.
"Devil's Due"
What's a TOS throwback like this doing in TNG's fourth season?  And yet, quite well handled.  My impression is that the baseline for "average" TNG has risen over the past three years to the point that even the below average stuff like this works.  On a note barely related to the main story, the idea of Data using a kind of reverse method acting to study emotions is a nice one.
"Clues"
A nice SF mystery story.  It's more mechanistic and less character driven than I'd like, but it works well.
"First Contact"
The one where Riker is held in an alien hospital and propositioned by a UFO nut.  Probably a better first contact story than "Who Watches the Watchers" - at least here nobody's hiding behind a duck blind.  Also very obviously taps into the UFO conspiracy tropes that were all the rage in the '90s, so it's somewhat of its time.
"Galaxy's Child"
The one about how you shouldn't meet your heroes.  Actually, as regards Geordi's holodeck activities, I'm with Dr Leah Brahms - what he did with her likeness and personal data isn't very far removed from what Barclay was doing back in "Hollow Pursuits".  Basically he's her stalker.  This episode is strangely reluctant to acknowledge and deal with that side of the story.
"Night Terrors"
A high middling episode - one of those SF mysteries that TNG is getting good at.  Gets extra points for noting the interesting overlap between the effects of sleep deprivation and the tropes of ghost stories.
"Identity Crisis"
The one where Geordi La Forge mutates into an alien creature that glows under UV light.  All the better to stand out at the alien mutant disco, I suppose.  Like "Devil's Due", weak yet competently made.
"The Nth Degree"
Charly rewritten with Reg "holodeck perve" Barclay.  Another example of how Season 4 has raised the standard of "average" TNG.
"Qpid"
Oh, please, remind us about the episode "Captain's Holiday", said no one ever.  So, a fitting sequel, then.  I'm sure the cast had a ball doing a Robin Hood episode, but... feh.
"The Drumhead"
"Coming of Age" reworked for Season 4 and done with more flair.  I particularly like the way that Worf, with the accusation of his father collaborating with Romulans still hanging over him, throws his lot in with the inquisitors like he needs to prove something.
"Half a Life"
An episode that deals extremely well with questions of culture clash and personal ethics in cross-cultural relationships.  The return appearance of Lwaxana Troi didn't bode well, but this episode reins in her worst excesses and adds surprising depth to her character.  Nice guest turn from That David Ogden Stiers Off Of M*A*S*H, too.
"The Host"
This episode appears to want to convey one message, but ends with a ham-fisted monologue that suggests the writers had a different message in mind.  On the positive side, both messages are applicable to the episode and both are perfectly sound.  The writers' message is that love should be about the essential character of the people involved and not about their physical appearance.  (It could be read specifically as Dr Crusher being unwilling to accept her love interest changing sex, but she's not exactly thrilled about the symbiont temporarily wearing Riker's body either.)  The episode's own message, and the one that I think is more applicable, is that in this situation, the people involved are entitled to disclosure in advance.  I mean, the Trill guy actually deliberately hides the fact that he's a symbiont wearing a host body (could have volunteered an explanation whenever the transporter was mentioned, but ohhh no), and then implies Dr Crusher's in the wrong when she discovers he's not who/what he led her to believe he was.  Not in the top rank, but an interesting episode.
"The Mind's Eye"
The Manchurian Engineer.  Less interesting than it should have been.
"In Theory"
The one where Data gets "a passionate kiss in the torpedo bay" (I've never heard it called that before, nudge nudge, etc etc).  "Data experiments with romance" is an arguably interesting premise but horrible in practice - the scene in which he acts out a string of sitcom clichés is particularly foul.  Stomp on that Lieutenant's heart, stomp on it!  A watchable middling episode if you can refrain from caring about the characters at all.
"Redemption"
First of the "team-up" cliffhangers.  This year, it's the Romulans and Evil Tasha Yar against the Klingons, building on groundwork laid down in "The Mind's Eye".  Also featuring the Duras sisters and their absurd boob-windows.  If the truth be known, I'm starting to get Klingon story arc fatigue; I wouldn't mind so much if this two-parter were to be the end of it, but I suspect it won't be.

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"Data's Day"
"The Wounded"
"Family"
"The Best of Both Worlds: Part II"
"Half a Life"
"The Drumhead"
"Future Imperfect"
"Night Terrors"
"Clues"
"Suddenly Human"
"First Contact"
"Redemption"
"The Host"
"The Nth Degree"
"The Mind's Eye"
"In Theory"
"Galaxy's Child"
"The Loss"
"Reunion"
"Brothers"
"Remember Me"
"Final Mission"
"Identity Crisis"
"Devil's Due"
"Qpid"
"Legacy"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 3 ("The Best of Both Worlds: Part II", "Night Terrors", "In Theory")

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: "Data's Day", "The Wounded", and "Family" as part of a three-part story including "The Best of Both Worlds".  "Half a Life" and "The Drumhead" would also be likely choices.  I'd rank a few episodes below those as stuff that I'd be happy to watch but wouldn't personally reach for.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 3

Welcome, gentle reader, to the third of a projected series of 7 blog posts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For convenience, I'll be using the standard fan abbreviations to refer to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the original series (TOS).  Also, probably best to assume that a Spoiler Alert remains in effect at all times, just on general principle.  I'm not precious about giving away details of a TV series broadcast 25 years ago.


Ooh, a new title sequence.  This one feels more familiar to me, but I think I prefer the other one, with its journey out of the Solar System.

Still loving Ron Jones' musical stylings.  Also, welcome Jay Chattaway who debuts with some interesting sounds in "Tin Man".  Every time I notice interesting incidental music in an episode, I smile and imagine Rick Berman shaking his fist in thwarted fury.

My feeling about Season 3 after watching it all is that it has a higher number of passably good episodes than Season 2, but fewer standouts.  It's as if both seasons started with the same total volume of quality, and Season 3 spread it around more - but more thinly - than Season 2, which concentrated it in some episodes at the expense of others.

"Evolution"
The one in which Wesley Fricking Crusher's science project achieves sentience and is granted its own planet.  Honestly, that child needs supervision.  A fair season opener, but not a dazzling one.
"The Ensigns of Command"
In which Data has to persuade a colony to evacuate a contested planet, while Picard buys time by picking loopholes in a treaty.  This kind of feels like the sort of story Star Trek ought to do, but it also kind of feels like the writers and the characters are just going through the motions.  Which is no less true of the next couple of episodes, but somehow this one has left less of an impression on me.
"The Survivors"
An old-fashioned episode, but well handled.  It actually has a bit of the feel of an old Twilight Zone story about it.  It's Kevin's revelations at the end that save this episode from sinking into blandness.
"Who Watches the Watchers"
Presented as a dilemma-tastic Prime Directive episode, except that nobody really seems to have much trouble with throwing the Prime Directive out the window.  Plays better as a story of first contact, none too surprising but somewhat charming.  I enjoyed it.
"The Bonding"
A welcome left turn, examining how the crew of a utopian 24th century exploratory starship manage a child's bereavement.  A really good handling of difficult subject matter.
"Booby Trap"
Geordi and the Enterprise on Holodeck 3, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.  As a story about how poor old Geordi La Forge can't get a date, awkward.  As a story about the alchemical marriage between the Chief Engineer and his ship, better.
"The Enemy"
Enemy Mine rewritten with Geordi and a Romulan.  Pretty good.
"The Price"
The one where Troi is pressured into bed by the sort of manipulative weasel I wouldn't have expected to find working as a diplomat in the 24th century.  And yes, I dare say this was intended and I dare say that everyone was happy with the result - so a slow handclap there, production team - I just don't believe it should have been made as an episode of TNG.  Uncomfortable viewing.  And Troi (certainly in the opening scene) seems strangely out of character to me.  This whole episode looks like it was written by an intern.
"The Vengeance Factor"
Reconciliation between alien factions, blood feud, etc etc.  This feels like rote Star Trek storytelling - a so-so episode.  And the Snake Plissken Cosplay Society Gatherers are far too '80s to be taken seriously.
"The Defector"
As episodes about the Neutral Zone go, a good one.  Including the "king in disguise" scene from Henry V is a good move on several levels: that it establishes the "eve of war" mood of the episode is fine, that it prefigures later revelations in the episode is a bit more subtle, but that it should feature Patrick Stewart - the Enterprise's own king - in disguise as one of the holographic soldiers is downright brilliant.
"The Hunted"
The one about the rehabilitation of war veterans.  Well-constructed in narrative terms, but unsubtle and didactic.
"The High Ground"
The one where Dr Crusher gets abducted by terrorists.  Unlike the previous episode, this one presents the issues for the viewer's own consideration and doesn't pull its punches as often, so TNG is to be commended for that.  But it's a bit too gritty for me to want to watch it again.  Let's get back to the wacky cosmic shenanigans, shall we?
"Déjà Q"
As a comedy episode, it feels quite mean spirited in places, but the script is a lot wittier than almost any other TNG comedy episode I can think of.  Almost witty enough for me to forgive the excessively cheesy ending.  A couple of nice reflective moments in here too.
"A Matter of Perspective"
The one where Riker is tried for murder on the Enterprise's holodeck.  Hinges on the rather odd and dubious premise that the holodeck's set dressing can somehow interact with scientific apparatus outside the ship in exactly the same way as the real - and apparently experimental - bit of apparatus it's imitating.  Still, a pretty good episode.
"Yesterday's Enterprise"
Not just a good old time travel/parallel timeline story, but a way to reaffirm the joyous voyage of discovery TNG wants to be (and sometimes is) by contrasting it with the grim militaristic adventure it so easily could have been (and that Deep Space Nine would end up becoming).  War with the Klingons?  That's not what this series is about.  Probably my favourite of Season 3.
"The Offspring"
Feels a lot like the poor cousin of "The Measure of a Man".  Captain Picard's behaviour here runs completely counter to his position in the earlier episode, which makes for uncomfortable viewing.  And too much of Lal's screen time is given over either to "amusing" antics or to sledgehammer sentiment.  Like a number of other episodes in this season, it's well made but just not what I came looking for.
"Sins of the Father"
The one where Worf accepts public dishonour for the sake of political expediency.  I can see that this episode is deliberately setting Worf up for further development later on, so can make allowances for the downbeat ending.  Perhaps not as strong as other Worf episodes to date, but Michael Dorn hasn't had a bad one yet.
"Allegiance"
The one with the alien abductions and fake Picard.  Unremarkable stuff.
"Captain's Holiday"
In which Captain Picard takes shore leave on Risa, the planet of the sex tourists.  Cue a lot of lingering bikini shots and gags about "the women", lest there be any doubt as to the target audience being pandered to.  The story itself is a so-so Indiana Jones runaround.
"Tin Man"
The one with the neurotic telepath and the living spaceship.  I didn't find this one a knockout episode, but I did find it quite charming - somewhere just short of the top rank of the season.
"Hollow Pursuits"
The first one to feature Howlin' Mad Murdoch as Reg Barclay.  Here we have the same problem as with Ensign Gomez in last season's "Q Who", namely that a qualified Starfleet officer - I mean, somehow he's made it to the rank of Lieutenant - could possibly be such an incompetent klutz.  Still, it's a pretty good episode for Guinan.
(And speaking of Ensign Gomez, that's the last time I can remember seeing a female crewmember in Engineering.  They've started to reappear in Season 4, which only emphasises Season 3's shortcomings vis-à-vis female characters.)
"The Most Toys"
The one where Artie from Warehouse 13 kidnaps Data for his collection.  A great guest performance from Saul Rubinek.  The story itself... another one of those Season 3 also-rans.  And having Data possibly attempting to kill the collector sullies his character unnecessarily - having him throw that "only an android" remark back in the guy's face at the end and leaving it at that would have been ample payoff.
"Sarek"
So TNG is visited by part of TOS, and within 20 minutes there's a full-on old-fashioned brawl happening in the bar.  I think this one falls within the top third of the season, but let's face it, it's largely carried by (and possibly, for all I know, built around) that scene of Patrick Stewart showcasing his theatrical skills.
"Ménage à Troi"
The one with the Ferengi sex pest.  Naturally I'm not keen on seeing another Lwaxana Troi episode - the "predatory older woman" stuff has been dialled back a bit, but the "overbearing mother" stuff has been dialled up to compensate.
"Transfigurations"
Oh, that old business about evolution being a teleological progression towards non-corporeality.  A good-enough story about finding potential within ourselves, but a decidedly ordinary TNG episode.
"The Best of Both Worlds"
At last, TNG figures out how to do season finales!  Introducing an obvious replacement for Riker and dropping hints about Riker's own imminent promotion to Captain makes for a good feint - it really does feel as though the resolution to the cliffhanger in Season 4 could go either way.  I'm prepared to make allowances for the fact that this episode is all set-up for next season's opener - there's a lot of running on the spot to get us to the big "Locutus of Borg" moment.  But I think this episode's strength is not in its plot, but in the friction between Riker and Shelby - it could have made for some very interesting character development in Season 4.

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"Yesterday's Enterprise"
"The Bonding"
"Déjà Q"
"Sins of the Father"
"The Best of Both Worlds"
"Who Watches the Watchers"
"Tin Man"
"Sarek"
"The Defector"
"The High Ground"
"The Offspring"
"The Most Toys"
"A Matter of Perspective"
"The Enemy"
"Booby Trap"
"Evolution"
"The Survivors"
"Transfigurations"
"Allegiance"
"The Hunted"
"The Ensigns of Command"
"The Vengeance Factor"
"Hollow Pursuits"
"Ménàge a Troi"
"Captain's Holiday"
"The Price"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 3 ("The Enemy", "The Offspring", "The Best of Both Worlds")

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: "Yesterday's Enterprise" has the richness of content and themes to support a rewatch.  I think that's the only real standout for me this season; maybe "The Bonding", at a stretch.  But as I said before, there are a lot of episodes here that I would describe as passably good - more or less on the level with Season 2's second tier episodes.  Probably the entire first half of the list above would fall into that category.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 2

Welcome, gentle reader, to the second of a projected series of 7 blog posts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For convenience, I'll be using the standard fan abbreviations to refer to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the original series (TOS).  Also, probably best to assume that a Spoiler Alert remains in effect at all times, just on general principle.  I'm not precious about giving away details of a TV series broadcast 25 years ago.


A surprising number of things have changed in the interval between seasons - this year's opening episode almost amounts to a "soft reboot".  Riker's grown his familiar beard at last.  Troi's got a better hairdo.  Geordi's been relocated from the bridge to the engine room.  Miles O'Brien is a semi-regular character and actually has a name now (having appeared as "Battle Bridge Conn" in the pilot).  Worf's original sash, which looked as if it was fashioned out of wicker, has been replaced with a chunky metal one.  Dr Crusher is ignominiously written out, although tragically she didn't take Wesley with her.  In comes the new Medical Officer Dr Pulaski, who doesn't really have the same chemistry with the rest of the crew but who does at least get a small amount of interesting development in her attitude towards Data.  The opening theme is now the slightly longer version I was expecting.  The effects team have put together a new "warp speed" effect for use in Ten Forward which is just lovely.

And of course, Whoopi Goldberg starts turning up as Guinan, possibly the TNG character I remember liking the most.  She arguably treads on Troi's toes somewhat as a counsellor-figure for the main crew, but she's a lot more fun.

"The Child"
The first occasion on which Deanna Troi is supernaturally raped - but not, sadly, the last.  (Yes, I've seen Star Trek: Nemesis and wish I could unsee it.)  That this is presented as a wonderful, magical form of alien contact that Troi should embrace by having her rape baby only makes it worse.  A bad episode, but still - strictly in terms of its production - better than a lot of Season 1.
"Where Silence Has Lease"
A bit like "Skin of Evil", with a capricious blob killing a bridge officer and threatening to kill off other crewmembers for its own amusement.  (I'll bet poor old Ensign Haskell didn't get a nice funeral in the holodeck, either!)  Car crash stuff.
"Elementary, Dear Data"
A nice bait-and-switch, as a story about Data proving he's sentient becomes a story about Professor Moriarty, Data's holodeck plaything, proving that he's sentient, too.  Anticipates the "equal rights for holograms" material that I recall Voyager playing with at length.
"The Outrageous Okona"
Heavens preserve us from "lovable rogue" stories.  A middling example of the type.  Also notable as the episode in which Data attempts stand-up comedy.  Like "The Child", it just about skims over the surface of Lake Car Crash.
"Loud as a Whisper"
A great episode about communication.  The deaf mediator's telepathic "Chorus" is a brilliant idea, and unusually inventive for a series that typically ignores the whole notion of alternative forms of communication.  (Yes, I'm looking at you, universal translator!)  Finally, an essential TNG episode.
"The Schizoid Man"
The one where an unpleasant old git cheats death by invading Data's body.  Cue scenes of Creepy Data stalking the man's female lab assistant.  Grist to Brent Spiner's mill, of course, but not great viewing.  Most notable for the apparently unrelated opening scene in which Data wears a beard - now what the hell's going on there?
"Unnatural Selection"
The one in which Dr Pulaski rapidly ages, but it's all right because that can be undone by science-magic.  A mildly interesting cautionary tale against second-guessing nature, but more obviously a showcase for Diana Muldaur's acting skills.
"A Matter of Honor"
The one where Riker gets a work placement on a Klingon ship.  An excellent window on Klingon culture, building on last season's "Heart of Glory".  I remembered this one pretty clearly, and no wonder.
"The Measure of a Man"
Perhaps this should have been a flashback episode - the whole question of Data's right to determine his own fate surely should have been cleared up when he first became a Starfleet officer.  But then we wouldn't have had the great scene of Guinan playing devil's advocate to Picard in a quiet bar, which really opens up the episode thematically and elevates this story to the level of top-tier TV SF.
"The Dauphin"
Wesley Crusher in love, yikes.  Cue a lot of awkward nonsense from various characters about What Women Are Like And How To Win Them, although the fact a lot of it is played for laughs does at least demonstrate how ridiculous it is.
"Contagion"
The one where the Enterprise contracts a computer virus.  Captain Picard really should have scanned the Yamato's log before he opened it, tsk tsk.  Notably, the first instance of "tea, Earl Grey, hot", although only as a pretext for showing the replicator malfunctioning.  Overall, a pretty good episode.
"The Royale"
As Quentin Tarantino might say, a Royale with cheese.  Some interesting surreal potential early on gives way to what is, by the script's own admission, the plot of a crappy novel.  Tra la.
"Time Squared"
The one where time becomes a loop.  Where time becomes a loop.  Where time becomes a loop.  And yet not really a story about time travel or second chances or any of that stuff.  Alt-Picard is really an externalisation of Picard's own doubts, which in itself makes Picard more interesting as too many other episodes present him as the perfect decisive hero.  An interesting way of fleshing out a character.
"The Icarus Factor"
The one about Riker's daddy issues.  Not helped by a scene of Pulaski and Troi spouting a lot of toot about how Generalised Women Just Gotta Love Generalised Manchildren.  A bit of a '60s throwback, this one.
"Pen Pals"
The one in which the Prime Directive supposedly forbids the Enterprise crew from talking to the inhabitants of an alien world, but doesn't prevent them from saving those aliens by forcibly halting all tectonic activity on the planet.  Blimey.  Pleasant but forgettable.
"Q Who"
The first appearance of the greatest threat the Federation has ever faced - Ensign Gomez, who spends her first day in Engineering spilling hot chocolate over Captain Picard.  I mean, look, it's bad enough to see TNG falling back on the "ditzy woman" stereotype for comic relief, but she's supposed to be a qualified Federation engineer.  The undermining of a new character's potential is strong in this one.  Oh yeah, and Q and Guinan and the Borg and all that good stuff.  It's a bit of a non-plot, but a solid middling episode.
"Samaritan Snare"
Unpleasant in its depiction of an entire alien species as "a bit slow".  I really can't think of anything else to say about this one.
"Up the Long Ladder"
The one with the comedy Oirish.  Another '60s throwback episode, and a rotten one.  And yet, tacked on the front and completely unrelated to the rest of the episode is the fantastic business of Worf apparently romancing Dr Pulaski with his tea ceremony after she agrees to keep quiet about his measles.
You know, I think if we could just snip out some of the high quality unrelated opening scenes from some of the low quality episodes of TNG, we'd be able to stitch together an entire new episode.  It wouldn't make a lot of sense, but it'd be very entertaining.
"Manhunt"
Basically a replay of "Haven", with Troi's mother doing her "embarrassing predatory older woman" schtick and chasing after Picard.  Now with added bigotry towards piscine aliens, yaaaaay.
"The Emissary"
And suddenly the quality bounces back!  This episode does a sturdy job of examining Worf's situation of being stuck between two cultures, first by pairing him with a similarly conflicted character and second by having him pose as the captain of a Klingon/Federation fusion Enterprise when dealing with the captain of the time-slipped Klingon ship.
"Peak Performance"
A good ensemble episode, and even though the guest alien is being played for comedy, he manages not to be irritating.  When even Wesley Crusher gets some good character work and it's not even an episode specifically about him, I think we can call the episode a success.
"Shades of Grey"
Really, TNG, you're making your season finale a clips show?  I'd be against a clips show anyway just on the grounds that it shows the writers have run out of ideas, but more than that, it's not as if this has been earned after just two seasons, and doing it as the finale is just begging for a kicking.  And what is the title supposed to mean here anyway?

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"The Measure of a Man"
"Loud as a Whisper"
"The Emissary"
"A Matter of Honor"
"Peak Performance"
"Time Squared"
"Elementary, Dear Data"
"Contagion"
"Q Who"
"Unnatural Selection"
"Pen Pals"
"The Dauphin"
"The Schizoid Man"
"The Royale"
"The Outrageous Okona"
"The Icarus Factor"
"Manhunt"
"Samaritan Snare"
"The Child"
"Where Silence Has Lease"
"Up the Long Ladder"
"Shades of Grey"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 3 ("A Matter of Honor", "Time Squared", "Q Who")

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: Certainly "The Measure of a Man" and "Loud as a Whisper", probably also "The Emissary".  And it'd be no hardship to watch "A Matter of Honor", "Peak Performance" or "Time Squared" again.  The overall quality of this season is a clear improvement on Season 1.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 1

Welcome, gentle reader, to the first of a projected series of 7 blog posts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For convenience, I'll be using the standard fan abbreviations to refer to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the original series (TOS).  Also, probably best to assume that a Spoiler Alert remains in effect at all times, just on general principle.  I'm not precious about giving away details of a TV series broadcast 25 years ago.


With some time on my hands, I've decided to undertake a marathon viewing of TNG in order to fill a gap in my fannish awareness.  I've never seen this series all the way through - or any of the various Star Trek series, for that matter - having only ever caught individual episodes here and there depending on what the BBC was showing on a given idle evening.  My best guess, based on what visual moments and plot elements I can remember (and allowing that any number of other episodes may have slipped my memory in the intervening years), is that I've probably seen less than a sixth of TNG, not counting the films - roughly two dozen stories I can confidently recall out of 168 (178 episodes, including 10 two-part or double-length stories).  The figures are probably similar for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, but it seemed sensible to start with this series rather than with either of those.

(Marathoning TOS isn't a priority, as I think I'm more familiar with more of that series already, and while I know there are some good episodes in there, I know there's a lot of outdated gunk too.)

The plan is to write up my thoughts on TNG one season at a time, partly to keep my hand in at blogging and partly as an aide-memoire for myself if I should decide to come back to this series again at a later date.  Posts are likely to appear weekly, but if I suddenly land a day job, that'll change.  On, then, with Season 1.


First impressions: the Enterprise interior feels a lot more softly lit and more homely than in TOS.  Obviously I'm going to prefer the characters overall, simply because TNG is 20 years closer to my own social attitudes today than TOS.  In narrative terms, it's nice to see TNG fall back on space battles and fight scenes far less than TOS, and try to resolve its plots in a way one might actually expect from a utopian interstellar Federation.  Still, the stories are patchy as hell in this first year - more detail on that below.

It seems trivial to mention that the Enterprise's female crewmembers are not routinely put in skirts as was the case in TOS (although some do wear skirts), but I can't help but notice that a few crowd scenes in the earlier episodes of Season 1 include a male crewmember in a skirt.  An interesting and subtle hint that the utopian future of 1987 defines gender more broadly than the utopian future of 1966.  Non-binary behaviour is even hinted at in some of the regular characters, most notably Tasha Yar.  My memory of the later episodes I can recall suggests that TNG will become a lot more precious and openly didactic about gender issues - it'll be interesting to see if the covert non-binary elements are confined to Season 1 or pop up again in later seasons.

Musically, Season 1 is a lot more interesting than I remember TNG and its successor series being.  According to the little research I've done since watching this season, it's Rick Berman's fault that Star Trek's incidental music became so dull later on.  Composers in Season 1 were encouraged to produce melodic and thematic incidental music - which is the kind I like - but Berman was more of a "sonic wallpaper" man, and when he took over as the executive producer of all things Star Trek he started to clamp down on the kind of music that might stand out and get itself noticed.  The chief casualty of this decision was Ron Jones, who eventually got the boot during Season 4, and naturally it's his work that I've enjoyed the most while watching Season 1.  Every time I've felt the need to check the end credits to see who composed that rich, creamy music, blow me if it hasn't been Ron Jones again.

Anyway, on with the episode-by-episode breakdown.

"Encounter at Farpoint"
I could have sworn this one started with Riker being introduced to the ship and crew.  More likely, I've probably only seen the second part of a two-part re-edit before.  Interesting to see how the character of Data hasn't been nailed down yet, while Wesley Crusher is already the infuriating gimboid he will be remembered as.
"The Naked Now"
Car crash!  And compounding the problem, it's a blatant half-arsed rip-off of a TOS episode that even I can spot - not a good look for the shiny new series.
"Code of Honor"
Car crash!  That is all, except to note what a damn shame it is that the first two episodes after the pilot are such howlers.
"The Last Outpost"
The one that introduces the Ferengi.  More or less as I'd remembered, which is to say, shrugworthy.
"Where No One Has Gone Before"
Hooray, a better-than-average episode!  Lovely visuals.  Admittedly the story is a coatstand on which to hang the visuals, as well as providing the excuse for shoehorning Wesley Fricking Crusher into the bridge crew.  Still, like a stream of bat's piss, it shines out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark.
"Lonely Among Us"
The first one to do alien possession of the crew.  The alien diplomat plot, which might have seemed important to the casual viewer, is completely dropped at the end despite the fact that one of the mutually antagonistic ambassadorial parties hoping to join the Federation has just eaten a member of the other party.  Like it won't be awkward for Picard to explain that when the Enterprise arrives at the space summit.  Ah well, turn it into a throwaway joke for Riker, no one will care.  A mediocre episode with some nice alien make-up.
"Justice"
The one where the crew get shore leave on a planet where people dress skimpily and have sex a lot.  Must have sounded like yuk-a-minute gold to the writing team!  Oh, wait, we'd better have a plot... um... Wesley Crusher gets sentenced to death for trampling some flowers.  Yeah, that'll do.  Oh, wait, we'd better resolve the plot...  So Captain Picard shrugs and ignores the Prime Directive, and the problem magically vanishes.  Shit by anyone's standards, surely.
"The Battle"
Already an improvement in the portrayal of the Ferengi.  If only the Enterprise crew had included a Fictional Tropes Officer, they'd have noticed what was going on somewhere around ten minutes in.  Still, an upturn in quality.
"Hide and Q"
The one where Q gives Riker godlike powers.  Surprisingly superficial, given the potential of the premise.  Heigh-ho.
"Haven"
The one that introduces Troi's mother.  Oh, and Troi is expected to give it all up for an arranged marriage, except that the other party goes off instead with an alien he's never met on the strength of some handwavily explained dream-visions.  Better than it has any right to be, but still not actually good.
"The Big Goodbye"
In which Picard has apparently never been on a holodeck before, despite the fact it's been seen and referenced several times already.  But a welcome first stab at playing across genres, with the bridge crew crashing a noir detective story.  Passably fun, with the promise of more where that came from.
"Datalore"
The one that infodumps Data's backstory and introduces his evil twin.  Clunky as hell in several places.  Brent Spiner's good, though.  Odd to see the Crystalline Entity, which I definitely remember from another episode, but had no idea it wasn't just a one-off thing.
"Angel One"
Car crash!  Honestly, didn't Gene Roddenberry write this in the '70s?  I'll swear this was one of his misbegotten Genesis II pilots.
"11001001"
A little peculiar, but highly enjoyable.  Lovely visuals again.  The Binars' excuse for the entire plot is daft, yet makes a kind of sense for binary thinkers.  (It's tempting for me to make another comment about TNG being non-binary here, but to be honest I don't think there's enough material in this episode to support an analysis on that front.)
"Too Short a Season"
A high watermark of the series to date.  Good drama, good characters (acceptable acting).  With a dodgy gun-running Admiral using Captain Pike's old wheelchair, this episode's wide open to interpretation as a critique of TOS, which is no bad thing.
"When the Bough Breaks"
This one certainly has a TOS feel to it.  The build-up paints the writers into a corner, and consequently the resolution feels pat.  For all that, it's a passable episode.
"Home Soil"
A solid bit of old-style SF detective work on an isolated base.  I could imagine this being rewritten as a Doctor Who script circa 1968 without much difficulty.  The terraforming stuff all adds nicely to the series' depiction of the Federation.  Not bad.
"Coming of Age"
Interesting as a sort of mid-season evaluation of everything that's gone before, as an unpleasant "political officer" type character quizzes everyone on decisions made in previous episodes.  Probably more interesting in hindsight as a prelude to the next-but-five episode, "Conspiracy".  Also notable for focussing heavily on Wesley Fricking Crusher and not making him insufferable.
"Heart of Glory"
The one that openly contrasts and replaces the old "blood and thunder" variety of Klingon honour with the new "inner struggle" variety.  It's a good week to be Michael Dorn.  The Geordi POV material is lovely too.  Nice episode.
"The Arsenal of Freedom"
Relatively light (and light-hearted) anti-militarist stuff.  The plot is dropped pretty quickly once the away team manage to switch off the automated sales machine.  Forgettable, but some nice individual lines of dialogue - "Peace, through superior firepower!"
"Symbiosis"
The one with the heavy handed drug addiction message.  In spite of which, it's a pretty good episode.  The ending, in which the Prime Directive forces Picard to not resolve the problem, is questionable, odd, but also at least complex and realistic.
"Skin of Evil"
In which a cartoonishly evil tar creature kills Tasha Yar very, very abruptly.  It's not a great character exit - no real plot, no real meaning.  The funeral scene at the end of the episode is kind of nice but also kind of schmaltzy, and certainly can't carry the rest of the episode.  The last of the Season 1 car crashes.
"We'll Always Have Paris"
Casts its prominent female guest star in a very '60s role and treats her in a very '60s way.  I'm not sure whether the time experiment shenanigans are good enough to smooth over this and carry the episode.  I'm fairly sure this episode will be more interesting as a footnote to the Time War episodes I know are coming in later franchise series than it is in its own right.
"Conspiracy"
Possibly the least exciting political thriller ever.  Attempts some bold visual effects, but the technology and/or the budget just isn't there to do them justice.  And with the gruesome death of just one character, the entire threat of the Federation being infiltrated is handwaved away, tra la.
"The Neutral Zone"
Possibly the least exciting space opera ever.  One scene of Picard and some Romulans nodding at each other is cushioned within a whole episode of 21st century castaways gently adjusting to the 24th century.  The mystery of who's been destroying everyone's starbases is left hanging, but there's no effort made to suggest that it'll be picked up again or to ensure that the viewer will remember about it after the credits roll.  Hum-ho stuff.

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"Heart of Glory"
"Too Short a Season"
"Home Soil"
"Coming of Age"
"Encounter at Farpoint"
"The Battle"
"The Arsenal of Freedom"
"Symbiosis"
"11001001"
"The Big Goodbye"
"Where No One Has Gone Before"
"Lonely Among Us"
"The Last Outpost"
"Hide and Q"
"Haven"
"Datalore"
"When the Bough Breaks"
"We'll Always Have Paris"
"The Neutral Zone"
"Conspiracy"
"The Naked Now"
"Justice"
"Code of Honor"
"Skin of Evil"
"Angel One"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 2 ("Encounter at Farpoint" and "The Last Outpost".)

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: in this season, probably none of them.  It's early days, and with the benefit of hindsight I know TNG will improve, but quite honestly I don't think I'd have bothered to tune in for Season 2 if I'd watched Season 1 when it was first transmitted.  Still, some moments of interest here and there.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"I Need My Friend Back!" - Doctor Who, Series 8 (2014 season)

And here's step two in my latest attempt to get this blog back up to date in the hope that I might start using it again more regularly.  At least I've managed to write up my thoughts on last year's season of DW before this year's has started to air!


A new year, a new tweak to the theme and the titles.  I'm quite keen on the new theme arrangement, with its bells and its twiddly theremin noises.  Less sold on the new title sequence - and when we'd only just arrived at a title sequence I really liked, too!  It does at least have the zooming eyebrows in its favour.  Meanwhile, Murray Gold's putting more synth into his music, and it's exactly what I wanted to hear, so yay for that.

As far as the stories are concerned, stripe me pink, but it's another year of improvement.  I mean, I'm still waiting for JB Hi-Fi to drop the price below $30 (I'm not proud...), but this is the first year of Moffat Who I absolutely swear shall find its place on my DVD shelves.  Peter Capaldi is of course brilliant as the Doctor, but this would mean nothing if the finest scripts weren't there to support him, and some of this year's output is fine indeed.

I think it helps tremendously that Steven Moffat took more of a hand in controlling the tone of the season, co-writing several stories in the first half as well as penning his own episodes.  Series 8 had exactly the tonal consistency that I found lacking during Matt Smith's tenure.  And when the brief for this season seems to have been "do properly what they tried to do during Colin Baker's tenure" - another era of DW that was tonally all over the place - keeping a firm hold on things is vitally important.  Totally paid off, as far as I'm concerned.  This season finally gives me hope that Moffat's vision for DW is something that can fit with the broader ethos of the show, and something that I might be able to get behind.


Deep Breath

The new Doctor pretty much had me at the point where he describes the destruction of the T-rex as a murder.  This season may play heavily on his less likeable alien qualities, but it's clear in that moment that underneath his harsh pragmatism, the Capaldi Doctor is acting from a deeply rooted sense of morality.  See also his speech at the end to Clara in which he suggests it's time he "did something" about the mistakes he's made - this may not chime entirely with his behaviour in later episodes, but on a metatextual level it suggests that Moffat is keeping an eye on the Doctor's morality this year, and plans to actually develop and address it over the course of the season.

On which note, yes, the Doctor leaving Clara on her own while he infiltrates the clockwork crew in his own way.  We're obviously expected to ask, with Clara, just how far we can trust him now (and given that he pops up exactly when she invites him to, the answer appears to be that we can trust him just fine), but we may as well ask, how far does he expect to be trusted?  Perhaps a little too far?  Given the way in which later episodes show the Doctor falling afoul of his own assumptions about how he can or ought to treat Clara, we might expect the season to build to a revelatory moment of self-assessment, with optional apology.  (In fact we get that in Flatline - the self-assessment, if not the apology - and he does seem to have figured himself out by the time the finale rolls round.)

Lots of interesting and broadly signposted stuff about the question of where the Doctor gets his faces from - which, surprisingly and a bit disappointingly, hasn't been picked up at all in subsequent episodes.  Presumably Moffat is leaving this thread hanging in case he can think of something to do with it in a later season.  It did, however, make for some enjoyable thematic/visual business in this episode.

Nice to see Madame Vastra and Jenny being developed a bit more as characters rather than just presented as the comedy action lesbians again.  Strax is increasingly being lumbered with the farcical/slapstick business, which may become wearing in due course, but so far I'm OK with it.  Fandom wanted more of these characters, and fandom is getting more of these characters, and by and large it's working out peachily.  They're starting to take on the cosy feel of the UNIT family, with Vastra's in-context quote of the Brigadier's line "Here we go again" providing a further wink and a nod in that direction.

Overall a very confident season opener.  It may echo and reference earlier eras of DW, most obviously the Pertwee (Brigadier quote as mentioned, dinosaur in central London) and Tennant years (rehash of the clockwork droid concept from The Girl in the Fireplace, hot air balloon ride over Victorian London), but it doesn't rely on these moments to cushion the impact of the new Doctor.  Peter Capaldi's already quite comfortable in the part he's clearly always wanted to play, aping Tom Baker here and there but finding his own way too.  The "veil" scene between Madame Vastra and Clara is a direct challenge to any viewers who might be struggling to adjust - he is the Doctor, whether you like it or not.  (And in stark contrast to the end of the 1984 season, after one story with the new Doctor, I do like.)


Into the Dalek

This looks a lot like a "new recipe" version of 2005's Dalek - lone Dalek, moral compare-and-contrast between the Doctor and the Daleks, even down to the almost-quote of calling the Doctor "a good Dalek".  But where Dalek simply juxtaposed the actions and behaviour of the Doctor and the lone Dalek, here we take a close look at the inside of the protagonists' heads - not just into the Dalek, but into the Doctor as well.

The picture we get is painted in broad strokes - perhaps necessarily, after all this is only 45 minutes of family entertainment - but it's a bold picture all the same.  The idea that it actually would be possible for the Doctor to (literally) change the Daleks' minds is something DW has only ever touched on once (The Evil of the Daleks, 1967); the idea that the one obstacle to this is his own hatred of the Daleks is revolutionary.  The Doctor could actually reform his deadliest enemies, if he could only get over his own past experience of them and his preconceived ideas of them.  This is a highly provocative statement for the show to make - I would say timely, but it's not as if there's ever been a time when DW couldn't have made this statement and had it appear relevant.

As if to emphasise the Doctor's role as part of the problem, we get some standout moments of callousness from the Doctor, first towards the pilot he saves at the start of the episode, but more memorably in his sacrifice of the trigger-happy soldier and his "Top layer if you want to say a few words" later on.  It'll take the Doctor a few more episodes to file off the rough edges of his pragmatism (see also Mummy on the Orient Express); at least in this particular episode, and at this early stage of this particular season, it's not out of place.

There's not a lot more to say about this story.  I grant that it's light on plot, but I do like it very much - hot contender for best post-2005 Dalek story, for what the competition's worth - and thematically it's one of the stronger links in this season.  And ideologically, it's very much my DW.


Robot of Sherwood

Mark Gatiss, a lightweight historical story - this review could pretty much write itself.  And yet it's still a pretty good episode - with about half the season tied for first place, it's still going to rank fairly low in the season for me, but I'd put it ahead of other episodes to be discussed in due course.  The Sheriff's amusingly low-stakes villain rant was a high point.


Listen

Not at all suprising to see this episode made it onto the Hugo Award shortlist.  I think this is the moment when Moffat's experiments with the fairytale nature of DW finally come together, in a weird examination of the Doctor's relationship with the whole concept of monsters.  The creature in little Danny Pink's room and the creatures outside the base at the end of the universe clearly exist, but they're never explained.  They may not even be the same creatures, and as it turns out they're certainly not the same creature that the child Doctor feared was hiding under his bed.  They're less important than the Doctor's own fear of the unknown, says the episode; if he can overcome that, he may find that what he thought were monsters can in fact be friends.  A worthy theme for DW, and one that carries over into the next episode.

(In light of the series finale, it's worth wondering where Orson Pink comes from, assuming he still exists at all.  Perhaps events in the finale (and follow-on in the Christmas special) weren't that final after all...)


Time Heist

What appears to be a morally questionable heist story turns out to be a thoroughly compassionate rescue story.  It's all a question of what the characters know and what they assume.  Another episode that does a great job of overturning some stale story structures and viewer assumptions, while still looking good and providing surface entertainment.  DW has definitely found its groove again.


The Caretaker

Strange that the Doctor should take such exception to Danny being an ex-military maths teacher - after all, cut back to Mawdryn Undead and you find his old pal the Brigadier in the exact same position.  (What's that you say - a foreshadowing reference to the Brigadier?)

So, a low-key character episode with laughs and a largely incidental generic alien menace.  Gareth Roberts is evidently the go-to writer for this variety of story.  Underneath the comedy, the character work is surprisingly sharp and fits nicely in retrospect with later developments.  Perhaps not one of the keystone episodes of this season, but what it does, it does well.


Kill the Moon

Yes, the science on this one is laughable.  It's not as if DW has troubled itself greatly in the past to get science right, but certainly this episode is an extreme example.  And yet...

There is an argument, which has spread through fandom like wildfire, that this episode can be read as a commentary on issues relating to abortion; I think this is quite plausible.  The argument further runs that this episode is making a pro-life (or, if you prefer, anti-choice) statement, on the grounds that Clara makes a unilateral decision not to abort the moon-dragon, and that she's proven right; I think that that's a misreading of the episode.  The real substance of the episode, and of the subtext, is the Doctor's refusal to make the choice for Clara, to the point that he disappears for much of the episode in order to force her to make the choice herself.  It has to be, can only be, the woman's decision (and note also the Doctor's lampshady remark about "womankind") - and moreover, the individual woman's decision, hence the business of having Clara ignore what the rest of humanity is telling her to do, which doesn't make a lot of sense in a pro-life interpretation of this subtext.  Clara's anger towards the Doctor later on seems to stem not so much from the fact that he presented her with this choice at all as from the fact that he didn't stick around to help; the issue seems to be not that he didn't tell her what to do but that she couldn't use him as a sounding-board while she made her decision.  So if we're going to read an abortion subtext into this episode, I think the message we should take away from it is that it has to be the woman's choice, but that she shouldn't be denied moral support in making her choice.

As far as the actual textual decision to have her not kill the moon-dragon is concerned - well, look, it's DW, a show that celebrates diversity and not solving problems by killing.  Given a straight choice, there was little chance the scriptwriter would opt to resolve the episode any other way.  This is simply in keeping with the Doctor's little pep speech at the end about humanity reaching out to the stars, and with the show's history in general.

So is it a problem that this story presents the familiar old Moon as an eggshell for a growing (presumably transdimensional, how else to fudge away explain the change in mass/gravity) space creature?  There are all sorts of real-world science problems in having the moon-dragon lay a replacement Moon of identical size and appearance, or having the tidal waters just in front of where the Doctor and co stand at the episode's end be completely unaffected by it all.  It's bollocks, yes.  But, eh...  I'm inclined to claim that it's magic realism and simply belongs at a strange angle to the normal run of DW.  As ridiculous as this episode seems on a surface viewing, thematically it works, somehow, or at least I believe it does.  Which is more than can be said for episode 10 of this season.


Mummy on the Orient Express

Back in the groove again, with an episode that plays like something straight out of the Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker songbook (and note also Capaldi's dead-on Tom voice when he's talking to himself, and some unmistakeable homage to Dudley Simpson's style in Murray Gold's soundtrack).  Welcome, welcome, welcome Jamie Mathieson, who turns out two excellent episodes in succession, very different from each other yet both very Whoish, and here's hoping he'll be back next year.

Presumably the whole matter of Call-Me-Gus and his puppetmasters has been left hanging for a reason.  Something to look at again after the 2015 season has aired.  I thought the scene on the beach at the end of this episode was a tremendous comment on the Capaldi Doctor's morality - possibly a little overdue two thirds of the way through the season.  And Jo loved the lounge jazz version of "Don't Stop Me Now".  I haven't told her about the Series 8 soundtrack CD yet.  Let's see how long it takes her to notice this blog post.


Flatline

This one's my personal favourite of the season - as I may have mentioned before, I'm a sucker for stories that play around with the TARDIS.  All the dimensional shenanigans in this episode are brilliantly realised and a great science fictional idea for DW to play with.  Also notable for being set in a parallel universe Bristol that has underground trains - eh wot?  Best Bristol accent on display, tragically, was the first guy in the community service group to be killed.  Still, we don't watch this show for its convincing portrayal of the West Country, and at least it wasn't plain old London.

The one bit of the episode I would have happily left on the cutting room floor was the scene of the Doctor pointlessly giving the 2D creatures a monster name, presumably just so that the merchandisers have got something to work with.  Otherwise, perfick.


In the Forest of the Night

DW ventures into the realms of magic realism again, but this time the thematic material is lacking - what, "trees are good"? - and the episode ends up being a dribbling mess.  I've tried to compose a more detailed response to this story, but I just can't seem to avoid using the words "or some shit".  Probably best to drop it.  It's just... gah.


Dark Water

An episode which gets its title from a substance that has been created for the sole purpose of hiding the Cybermen in plain sight of the viewer, and for no other meaningful purpose.  I don't have much to add to that.  Some very nice work from Michelle Gomez as Missy - let's face it, she's carrying this episode.


Death in Heaven

So let's talk about the transgender Master.  This subject could sustain several academic essays, and I look forward to seeing them in fanthologies to come.

My first thought is that this does interesting things to the long-standing slash fiction interpretation of the relationship between the Doctor and the Master.  RTD already did interesting things with that in Last of the Time Lords when he pretty much implied that it was the Doctor, not the Master, who was wrestling with an unrequited Time Lord love.  Moffat seems to reject that take - the Master can't have failed to notice that the Doctor, particularly the version she last met, is strongly attracted to human women, so having her turn up now in a female body looks like a deliberate ploy for the Doctor's attention and affection.  Note also the aggressive kiss in the previous episode.

But that gets in the way of the more simple but equally interesting fact of just having the Master turn up in a female body.  Previous throwaway references to the gender fluidity of the Time Lords are finally embodied on screen.  And of course, fans who've been asking why the Doctor can't be played by a woman are given a sop, and a strong piece of fresh ammunition.  Or are they?

On the one hand, yes, having the Master change gender does look like a dry run for the possibility of casting a woman as the Doctor.  On the other hand, Moffat has previously been dismissive - almost to the point of outright insult - of the idea that the Doctor might change gender.  And then, note how, through the character of Missy, Moffat symbolically attacks the younger generation of fandom twice in this episode: first when she vaporises Seb for squeeing, casting a pitying look directly at the camera as she does so; then when she kills Osgood, who once again is seen cosplaying as the Doctor.  Is Moffat pandering to the fans, or cruelly mocking them?

It's a tough one to call, especially when you have the beloved character of the Brigadier resurrected as a jet-propelled flying version of Kroton the Friendly Cyberman.  Is that thumbing the nose at older, more conservative fans and their sacred cows?  An invitation to them to dismiss the episode and everything in it?  A way for Moffat to show that he's sympathetic to the idea of transgender Time Lords by contrasting it with something really outrageous?  A way for him to double down on his previous dismissal of the idea - "well, if you're going to have that, you might as well have this"?  Just another zany, punk-rockin', DW-can-do-what-it-likes idea thrown into the mix?  Am I reading too much into all of this?

The last scene is a lovely one, with the Doctor and Clara both lying about having got what they wanted.  Clara's relationship with the Doctor - in 2014, at least - has practically been defined by lying, usually to Danny.  It'll be interesting to see how that pans out in 2015 in Danny's absence.

Overall, a finale that just about sticks the landing, and one of those rare occasions when the second part is at least as good as the first.  The unsurprising return of Missy has already been confirmed, hooray; knowing Mr Moffat's general approach to character deaths, I wouldn't be too surprised if we haven't seen the last of Danny Pink or the Cyber-Brigadier either.


Last Christmas

Not much to say about this one.  It's a Christmas episode, so my expectations are lowered; it's actually better than many previous Christmas episodes, probably the best Moffat Who has provided thus far.  It makes a modest amount of sense, it doesn't rely on "the tears of a family at Christmas", and it actually moves the characters forward.  Love the cheeky banter with Santa and his elves at the start.  I kind of hoped Moffat might actually stick with the old version of Clara at the end, but hey.