Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "The Battle" (November 16, 1987)


Stardate: 41723.9

Summoned to the Xendi Sabu star system by the Ferengi, the Enterprise waits for three days for a further transmission, much to the dismay of Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart).

Strangely, Captain Picard develops a headache, which Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) can “cloak,” but not eliminate.

Soon the Ferengi make their move. Daimon Bok (Frank Corsentino) has arranged a unique gift for Picard. He has recovered Picard’s previous command, the Constellation class U.S.S. Stargazer, which Picard was forced to abandon nine years earlier; following a sneak attack from an alien vessel.

As Bok reveals, that vessel was a Ferengi ship, and the encounter is now known as “The Battle of Maxia” by his people.

As Picard learns more, he starts to experience powerful memories from his last day aboard the Stargazer, and that fateful battle. The only way his crew survived the attack was a last ditch gambit now known in Starfleet lore as “The Picard Maneuver.”

As Picard grows more unable to discern past from present, the Enterprise crew learns that Bok is utilizing alien “orb” devices to trigger his memories, an attempt at revenge for the death of the Ferengi’s son, who commanded that alien ship all those years ago.

 


“The Battle” is another minor, and undistinguished episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987-1994) troubled first season. 

This makes the third story out of eight to feature an incapacitated Captain Jean-Luc Picard (the other two being “The Naked Now” and “Lonely Among Us.”)  Here, he takes command of his old ship, the Stargazer, and attacks his current ship, the Enterprise.

If we are to run a check on Captain Picard’s record in the first eight episodes of the series, we’ve got three instances of the character being incapacitated, and two surrenders by Picard of the Federation flagship (“Encounter at Farpoint,” and “The Last Outpost.”) 

Again, had these instances and scenarios been spread out over an entire season of twenty-four episodes, we would have a different first impression of Kirk’s successor. As it stand, he isn’t a towering figure of command, at least not yet.


If any character suffers more deeply than Picard does in the first stretch of TNG episodes it is Wesley Crusher. 

It’s as though the writers are deliberately trying to undermine the poor kid. Here, once more, he proves himself cleverer than the Starfleet officers who represent “the best of the best.” In “The Battle,” it is Wesley -- not a trained professional -- who realizes that Picard’s brainwaves are in “tune” with broadcasts emanating from the Ferengi Marauder.

The problem, as we have seen before, is that by making Wesley the “hero” so often, he not only seems like an obnoxious know-it-all, but the other characters, from Riker and Geordi to Worf and Yar -- seem incompetent. 

Don’t even get me started on Data. He’s supposed to be able to complete 60 trillion operations a second, and still Wesley figures out the similarity in patterns before he does.

Since I ran a tally for Picard above, I’ll give you Wesley’s tally at this juncture. In the first eight episodes, young Mr. Crusher provides the answer that saves the day in three stories: “The Naked Now,” “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and here in “The Battle.”

So if you were serving on The Enterprise during the series’ first season, there was a 37.5% percent chance you were alive because of a wet-behind-his ears, untrained genius teenager.

Still, you’d be glad to have him aboard, considering Picard’s track record!  How does Acting-Captain Crusher sound?

Seriously, it’s easy to pick on The Next Generation at this early juncture, but it’s a bit of a wonder that no writers or producers were seriously looking out for how viewers might perceive these characters, hour-to-hour, episode-to-episode.

In terms of other elements in this story, one tough one to swallow is the condition of the Stargazer. It’s pretty much intact, it seems. 

I understand the Ferengi must have done some repair work, but just in terms of the ship’s structure, it still possesses its saucer section and all four nacelles. 

Consider for a moment, how the Reliant looked after a similar battle, in The Wrath of Khan (1982). The Enterprise blew off a torpedo pod and a nacelle in the Battle of the Mutara Nebula (before Khan detonated the Genesis Device). It was a wreck. It clearly went through a battle.

Now look at the Stargazer by comparison. Structurally sound. All engines intact. There’s some cosmetic damage inside the ship, but not enough to merit evacuating it.  

Once again, we have a reason to question Picard as a captain. Why’d he abandon a ship that is still, largely, space worthy?


There is another problem that crops up in "The Battle," and again and again on this show: lax or incompetent security. 

Here, Worf just unquestioningly delivers a heavy trunk from a Ferengi-controlled vessel (the Stargazer) and deposits it in the captain’s quarters, without checking its contents.  Wouldn’t security go over absolutely everything, especially as it is going to the personal quarters of the ship’s commanding officer?



Dr. Crusher should also be on the list of incompetent officers, at least in this episode. Several top-rank Starfleet officers witness Captain Picard, in a briefing, unable to distinguish past from present. 

And yet Crusher doesn’t relieve the captain, even with prior knowledge of the fact that he is experiencing debilitating headaches. We know from Crusher's comments earlier in the episode that headaches are no longer common.  (They must have been cured since the Original Series era, since Kirk had a headache in "The Trouble with Tribbles").  

So, any good doctor would relieve Picard based on his physical condition, and the stress of the Ferengi situation.

The whole revenge plot is rather hackneyed too. It's been done before on Star Trek, and done far better.  Bok is no Khan. Let's just put it that way.


One nice aspect of “The Battle,” however, is Riker’s friendship with Kazago (Doug Warhit), first officer of Bok’s ship. The two characters develop a nice rapport over the course of the episode, and come to trust one another. Something about the relationship seems oddly realistic. Both men are loyal officers, and yet both men know something is amiss with their respective commanding officer. Perhaps out of empathy for their opposite number, they unexpectedly develop a sense of trust.

The final scenes on the bridge of the Stargazer, with Picard surrounded by the “ghosts” of his Stargazer crew, are also well-visualized, thanks to director Rob Bowman.

But overall, "The Battle" another decidedly mediocre show; with some sloppy storytelling and a reliance on clichés we have already seen on the show (the genius kid, and the incapacitated captain, to name two.)

Next week: “Hide and Q.”

Monday, January 22, 2018

The X-Files: "This" (January 10, 2018)


In “This,” Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) receive a strange transmission on Mulder’s smart phone, apparently from the late Richard Langly (Dean Haglund) of the Lone Gunmen.  On the phone, Langly asks if he is dead.

Before the agents can process this strange encounter with a man who died 15 years earlier, they are the targets of a brutal surprise hit. Heavily armed assailants attack their house, and attempt to gun them down.

Scully and Mulder survive, and learn that the attackers are foreign nationals operating legally in the United States. More specifically, they are from Russia, from a private intelligence company called Perlu.

On the run, Mulder and Scully flee into the woods. They arrange a meeting with Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who informs them that the Russian nationals are operating, with Executive Branch authority, in the U.S. He also reveals that the X-Files have been digitized by Perlu, and are now all online. 

Attempting to stay alive, and one step ahead of their would-be captors, Mulder and Scully investigate Langly's life and death, commencing at his tombstone in Arlington cemetery.  From there, they find the tombstone of Deep Throat, and a microchip stored there.

They then learn of a strange plot operating from “Titanpointe,” or the Long Lines Building in Manhattan, NY.  There, Erika Price (Barbara Hershey) oversee a digital repository of dead geniuses.  Like Langly, their consciousness has been uploaded to a server, where these individuals serve the conspiracy...forever.

Langly reports to Mulder and Scully that this “life after death” is but a form of digital slavery, and that he wants to be killed, so that he can escape from it. Together, Mulder and Scully attempt to turn off the server, even as Price’s forces close in for the kill.


Glen Morgan writes and directs “This,” an unusual installment of The X-Files (1993 – 2002; 2016 - ) that feels like a steroidal mash-up between a work of Alfred Hitchcock, and the earlier series firfth season episode, “Kill Switch.” 

From Hitchcock, the tale adopts the dramatic device of protagonists running for their lives, hunted and attacked by deadly, shadowy operatives (North by Northwest [1959].) This is a novel point of attack, since The X-Files episodes traditionally start with Mulder and Scully investigating a case file and going to the location of a murder, or strange phenomenon.

Here, the case file comes to them in a literal blast: a splendidly choreographed fight scene cut to “California Sun.”  Usually, in standalone stories, the prologue is reserved for characters we don’t know who experience something paranormal or even supernatural. Here, we see Mulder and Scully in the prologue, contacted by Langly, making our protagonists the center of their very own X-File.

This sequence starts the episode off in surprising, high-tension fashion. First, we see Mulder and Scully asleep together on a sofa, having fallen asleep while watching television. Then they get the call from Langly.

First, I love this imagery, because: welcome to middle age! Mulder and Scully aren’t the thirty-somethings they were in the original series and that means, among other things, less stamina. This is a charming moment, watching them asleep beside each other before the action starts.

And then the action kicks in, and it isn’t just action, it is hyper-action. Scully flips a sofa for cover, and Mulder darts to take the high ground (the top of the staircase), as the brutal assault commences.


What I love about this is that Mulder and Scully just jump into action, reflexively. Without words, they work together to fight their way out of a life-and-death situation. And again, they don’t do it by being young and strong, but by (wordless) coordination, and smart strategy. They pick off their enemies in a cross-fire, even if the bad guys outnumber them, and ultimately capture them. At least briefly.  This sequence is a blast, and a great way to begin a story.

Later in the episode, Mulder must physically take down a younger Russian agent, and I love Duchovny’s performance in the sequence. Mulder is still  quite physically fit, but he’s older, and it’s clear that after the knock-down, drag-out fight, he’s winded. When he approaches Scully, after the fight, and notes, triumphantly, that he got his phone back, it’s a great moment. 

He’s still got it.

But he'll be feeling it tomorrow, if you know what I mean.

From “Kill Switch,” “This” takes its central premise: that of human life preserved, digitally, long after physical death. The great thing about this story is that it feels like a legitimate outgrowth of “Kill Switch.”  The technology we saw back then (in 1998) is now up and running, and housing scientists who can serve Price’s cabal of the elite. She reveals to Fox that now the cabal can upload a human mind from a smart phone, a terrifying thought.


Indeed, a fascinating angle of this story is the notion of “digital slavery.” When Langly died, his consciousness went to Price’s device, to serve her agenda...forever. Sure, he gets to eat donuts and watch the Patriots lose, but Langly's intellect is being used for purposes beyond his control, beyond his choice.

I read this idea not merely as a development of the plot-point we saw originated in “Kill Switch” but as an acknowledgment of some of the harsh criticism The X-Files faced in 2016. I read some reviews in prominent periodicals, after Season 10, blaming the series, essentially, for the fact that our culture now widely believes in conspiracies and distrusts government. 

To me, this might be a form of digital slavery. Critics were harnessing aspects of the series for their own agendas. They looked back at the nineties, and tried to rewrite what it meant, and what impact it had on the culture. 

Largely, they had the answer in reverse. 

The X-Files tapped into something happening in America as far back as Watergate, which it then explored, in an era of paranoia.  But the series has been enslaved, sometimes -- like Langly in "This -- for purposes beyond its original intent. Intriguingly, this idea has a corollary in the episode’svery text. 

Without Mulder and Scully’s knowledge, their case files have been uploaded to the Net, for others to utilize, without their consent.


Beyond this self-reflexive touch, “This” is very much about the current state of our country, and serves as a pointed criticism of the Trump Era. 

Mulder and Scully are left to fend for themselves, basically, because the FBI is no longer in “good stead” with the Executive Branch, according to dialogue. This is a reference to Trump's attacks on the FBI, ostensibly to silence investigations into his affairs with Russia.

And, of course, there are armed Russian mercenaries operating with impunity in the U.S. in "This." The episode connects the President to Russian infiltration, and name-drops Robert Mueller and Edward Snowden. 

The literal idea here is that Mulder and Scully have nowhere to run, because they are being hunted by foreign agents on American soil, and can’t get help from the FBI, the attorney general (also implicated in the Russian collusion), or our President himself.

On a deeper level, “This” is about how a foreign power has infiltrated America, and undercut our freedom. 

In real life, we know the Russians meddled in social media, during a presidential election. The X-Files goes one step beyond that fact by suggesting that a Russia-Friendly Administration has allowed foreign agents into the country, who are helping Erika Price’s cabal maintain security around their operations. 

Given what we already know of Trump’s many, deep, long-standing Russian entanglements, this is hardly a leap into fantasy; more like some believable speculative fiction. (For instance, there have been reports of Russian mercenaries operating in Syria).  And "perlu" means "necessary," I believe.  So perhaps, these agents are in some way necessary to the success of Erica's plan.

Bolstered by great action, an immediate crisis for our heroes -- who are on the run -- and a great concept (digital enslavement), “This” is a terrific addition to Season 11. 

My favorite moment, however, is the one in which Mulder notes that the 1990’s -- once an era of paranoia, and crazy conspiracy -- now, in the Age of Trump, seems like “simpler times.”  This comment is made in a scene (set in a graveyard) which connects “nostalgic” X-Files characters such as Deep Throat and the Lone Gunmen, to the twisted, new 2018 narrative.  

This juxtaposition seems to me the sweet spot for Season 11.

The series is openly acknowledging the past, and Mulder and Scully’s age (again -- middle-aged, and asleep on the sofa!) at the same time it pushes forward into the most pressing concerns of this dangerous and tumultuous new age.


Next week: “Plus One.”

The Cult-TV Faces of: Protests

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Doomsday" (December 9, 1978)


The Super Friends foil an attack by the Legion of Doom on the brand new vessel Dauntless, the largest aircraft carrier in the world.  The Legion abandons Sinestro, Cheetah and Black Manta, rather than help them during the crisis.

Enraged, the three super villains seek revenge, leaving anti-matter robots in their place, in the Hall of Justice, and heading out to execute their wrath.

Soon, it's a battle between two Legions of Doom!



"Doomsday" features members of the Legion of Doom turning against the villainous organization, and boasts some intriguing moments. 

For one, we get to see the holding cells at the Hall of Justice. All the criminals housed there, intriguingly, are extra-terrestrial in nature. 

On one hand, this alien round-uup captures the idea that the Justice League protects more than Earth, but rather the whole galaxy. 

On the other hand, it doesn't seem realistic that Earth would house these prisoners, considering how people feel, today, about housing terrorists in American jails. How do you think such people would react knowing dangerous alien criminals are incarcerated in the middle of a major city?



Secondly, Black Manta carries a hand gun in this episode that very clearly resembles an inverted Colonial Viper, from Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979).

Bad dialogue watch: Rboin says "Holy Abominable Snowman," and Aquaman gets the honor of saying "That's what you think" this week. The target of his quip is Sinestro.

Nextweek: "Super Friends: Rest in Peace."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "Captain Torque, Space Pirate" (November 13, 1975 )


Captain Torque, notorious and tyrannical space pirate wants to recruit the two stupidest volunteers in the galaxy to serve on his crew, and settles on the space nuts: Barney (Chuck McCann), Junior (Bob Denver) and Honk (Patty Maloney).

Once on the pirate’s spaceship crew, the space nuts must “walk the space beam” (a plank made of light) and endure other indignities, until contacted by space authorities for a secret mission.

Now they must double cross the captain, and procure an important treasure protected by “zapatron” rays, so it doesn’t fall into Torque’s hands.



The set-up for this week’s episode of Far Out Space Nuts (1975) is familiar indeed: a villain seeks nincompoops for henchmen and settles on the series protagonists. 

Why villains should require idiots (instead of smart, competent assistants) is a peculiarity of this particular Saturday morning universe.  The Space Nuts are constantly being chosen for jobs on their basis of their stupidity. They guard alien eggs, because they are dumb. They are made space pirates, because they are dumb.

The problem, which villains rarely see, is that not only are the starring characters stupid, but they are cowards as well.



Here, the old cult-TV “space pirate” trope gets trotted out for a heist episode in which a “cosmic treasure” aboard an intergalactic museum ship is the quarry.  That treasure, the “Quasar” is captured by our heroes, but they almost contend with another sci-fi trope: space foam! 

Here, a device called “the vaculator” can douse people in slimy, sticky foam. Such foam has appeared as a menace to space adventurers on Doctor Who (“Seeds of Death”), Space: 1999 (“Space Brain”), and Blake’s 7 (“Space Fall”) to name just a few classic series, but it isn’t much of a menace here. It looks like shaving cream is sprayed in characters’ faces, straight from the (off-camera) can.


Next week: “Vanishing Aliens Mystery.”

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow" (October 8, 1970)


In “Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow,” tycoon Arthur Maitland (David Brian) and fugitive Ben Richards (Christopher George) both seek out Doctor Walter Koster (Jake Albertson), a  local physician who believes that he can stop and even reverse the aging process.

After learning that Koster and his lovely daughter, Dr. Anne Koster (Rosemary Forsythe) are trustworthy individuals, Ben Richards confides his secret to them, and consents to testing. Perhaps, if he can unlock the mysteries of his unique blood, he will no longer be a hunted man. At least that’s the hope.

Unfortunately, Maitland shows up at the Koster Clinic too, also seeking treatment. With Fletcher (Don Knight) at his side, he offers to give Koster a million dollars to continue his research. At first, Koster seems incorruptible, but before long, he sells out Ben for the promise of making a difference with his work.

Fortunately, the doctor sees the error of his ways, and with Anne’s help works to free Ben from custody. The Kosters help him escape from the clinic, but Ben has grown close to Anne and their goodbye is sorrowful.


Although lacking in any real science fiction storytelling, “Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow” is another riveting episode of the short-lived The Immortal (1970-1971). The episode favors suspense over action -- which is a bit of a change, -- and the romance between Richards and Anne doesn’t feel at all forced, remarkably, even though it is a trope of man-on-the-run series such as this one.  The result is an entertaining hour.

“Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow” is very much about character, particularly the character of cantankerous Dr. Koster. 

When he first see him, he is a guest on a local TV series “Frontiers of Science,” operating a clinic, and happy with his place in life. He loves his work in fact, and is clearly a genius in his field, even without notoriety, fame, or the promise of a professional legacy. Koster resists Maitland’s efforts to corrupt him, at least for a while, but loses sight, finally, of his oath to do no harm.  It takes a while for Koster to understand that his real legacy in this life is Anne, a better version of himself, perhaps, and she shows her father how to be his best self again.

It’s fascinating how Maitland manages to appeal to Koster’s vanity over time. Koster claims he is concerned with “millions of lives” and therefore doing the right thing. It is Anne who must remind her father that if he gives in, Ben will be “…caged like an animal…long after we’ve died.

In other words, you can’t be a hero for saving millions if you are willing to let one of your patients suffer.


On the other hand, this discussion simultaneously lessens our identification with Richards. Ben has the capacity, basically, to change the world, if only he accepts some limits on his freedom. As is pointed out, he doesn't have to turn himself in to Maitland or some other greedy private individual. He could surrender to the government, and hope to be treated fairly.  

Richards' insistence that he's "gotta be free" means, essentially, that he risks squandering his gift, and never helping those whom he could save.  At time, this feels very, very selfish.

In terms of presentation and style, “Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow” doesn’t exactly end on a high-note, unfortunately. Anne helps Ben escape from a strait jacket, and he puts on a disguise before fleeing the clinic, but he’s been drugged, so he’s shaky. To escape the building, he must walk out on his own two feet, and not draw attention to himself.  This is difficult, and we can see how groggy he is, thanks to George's good performance.

Director Leslie H. Martinson shoots the scene well, to, again, heighten the sense of suspense. But, alas, he is undercut by the scene’s lack of extras. We get several point-of-view shots, as Richards walks the halls of the clinic, trying to escape. We see the same patient in a robe twice, for instance, in different rooms. Once, he walks by Richards. The next time we see him, Richards enters a new room, and he is sitting down there. Another extra tries to disguise himself by wearing a surgical mask in one of his two shots, but we’ve clearly seen him before as well.  

If you have an attentive eye, these repeat “extras” will undercut the hard-fought attempt to build suspense.

Finally, this episode adds significantly to the sense of villainy surrounding Maitland. When he learns that Koster has betrayed him, for example, the rich man's default position is to threaten to burn down the doctor’s clinic. That’s his first instinct. To commit arson to hurt the person who defied him. The fact that the clinic is filled with sick people is immaterial to the guy. It’s actually a shocking moment because it is so ugly. We know Maitland is single-minded in wanting to live forever, to cage and use Richards at his discretion. Here, we see he is vindictive and murderous too.


Next week: “The Legacy.”