Thursday, February 26, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 6e

(Minor administrative note: I've reconfigured the numbering for "Hidden Frontier" reviews. Seriously, it was getting out of hand, miles to go, yadda yadda...)

So we've finally reached the long-awaited sixth season of "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier". Does it redeem the mistakes of the past? Does it hit your brain like a particularly pleasant splash of acid, burning away the horror of "Santa Q"?

Yes. Yes, it does. To an extent. It would be more accurate to say that season 6 changes the type of criticism it invites, but before we get to that, let's take it episode by episode:

* "Countermeasures" is the Big Action Episode, as the Tholian/Breen alliance launches an all-out attack against the Federation. We've got ships exploding left and right, Commodore Cole delivering an Aragorn Speech that actually kind of works... and there's a last-minute surprise that really works.

Traya Knapp's been hit by the SORAS bug and is now Harvard-bound; I actually like her better at this age, as it lets her have her own storyline away from her father. In related cast news, Bobby Rice replaces Arthur Bosserman as Ro Nevin, and... let's just say it's a big step up and leave it at that.

One other noteworthy thing about this episode: the scene with Iliana suggests it's been three years since "Worst Fears", but that timeline just doesn't add up without mid-season time jumps every single season (because the finales and subsequent premieres are always two-parters). That's a lot of time to compress into half a dozen episodes, and we'll see the reprecussions of that towards the end of the season.

* "Dancing in the Dark": Oh, hey, Martinez! Long time no see. But the big revelation in this episode is Brandon Stacy as Betazoid interpreter Milo Surgant, who has this delightfully creepy way of alternating speech patterns between himself and his Horta partner. Brr. Meanwhile, we get a new tidbit of information regarding the Tetrahedrons: they're somehow connected to Omega, an ill-defined molecule that can somehow stop warp travel in the entire galaxy, forever. Not quite sure where the hell that came from, but... okay, I'll go with it for now.

* "Homeport" sets quite a few things in motion. First, the villains are starting to pull together, as Glinn Betras (from S4's "Grave Matters") joins Vorina (now played by Julie Anne Gardner, though I find she lacks the flourish Suzy Kaplan brought to the role) and Surgant (on a slightly shallow note, Brandon Stacy looks damn good in black; practically a dead ringer for the world's hottest serial killer).

I do have a slight problem here, though: it's never made clear why these individuals are working with Siroc. What exactly is Betras after? What's Surgant's motivation?(We can assume Vorina's getting paid.) The Tholians have no screen presence to speak of, so they're hardly important, but if we're getting to know Siroc's inner circle on a personal level, it would've been nice to understand their stake in this whole matter.

Meanwhile, there's a nice bit with S'Tal and Barrett exploring humor, though I still think S'Tal's depiction is a touch on the extreme side - she's basically being written as a flesh-and-blood Data, which makes her romantic subplot rather awkward.

We're also introduced to Tara Abis, a new love interest for Ro; this seems to put a quiet end to the Ro/Aster/Dao triangle (which never really seemed to go anywhere, as I can only recall a single episode where Jorian and Nevin were in the same room), but as we'll see later, the situation's not quite that simple.

Speaking of Dao, this is really the first time we see Jorian with his new gestalt personality, and I'm pleased to say that Adam Browne pulls it off, giving Jorian a quiet but solid well of confidence that most certainly wasn't there before. Nicely done!

* On to "Beachhead", and how's this for continuity: Aris and the trapped Ethereals, last seen in "Worst Fears", make a comeback. We also return to Vrijheid ("Security Counsel"), still under the control of the subtly menacing Vindenpawl. Knapp is promoted to Admiral (oy) and the Federation manages to sign up virtually every Alpha Quadrant power to take on Siroc, the Tholians and their Tetrahedron (no mention of the Breen anymore; are we to assume they backed out?).

There's also an odd twist with Aster and Dao, where Corey basically flies off the handle for reasons that don't make a lot of internal sense (though, from a plot-centric perspective, it's certainly obvious where they're going with that). More on that later.

* If "Beachhead" deals with internal continuity for the "Hidden Frontier" series, "Vigil takes intertextuality a step further: James Cawley (who plays Captain Kirk in "Phase II") guest-stars as Mackenzie Calhoun, Shelby's ex-boyfriend and the protagonist of Peter David's "New Frontier" novels. On top of that, this episode is a quasi-sequel to my second-favorite DS9 episode, "In The Pale Moonlight" ("Duet" being at the top of the list), as a Romulan commander exposes the Federation deception that led the Romulans to participate in the Dominion War. Unfortunately, that plotline gets aborted halfway through to deal with a more generic scenario (tension between former enemies dissolving in the face of teamwork).

Tension's also starting to mount between Ro, Tara and Aster. Let's start with the good: I loved how Tara's insight is so subtle, in that she thinks Ro doesn't like to talk and it turns out he just hasn't been talking to her.

Of course, the most noteworthy scene is the Big Reveal where Ro finally admits everything: that he lied about remembering Corey from the Academy (a nice callback to "Encke"), that he's been in denial all this time, and, of course, that he's in love with Corey. Now, granted that there's a bit of a fake-out here (which I loved), but... okay, it's pretty clear by now that the writers have done an about-face and they're set on Ro and Aster getting together. And I could see that working, except for two things: first, it's way too soon, Tara had only just started out and there hasn't been enough... hell, there hasn't been any groundwork laid to really sell this development.

The second issue is simply that the writers sold me on Aster and Zen back in the fourth season: they were cute together, the actors have chemistry, and there haven't been any significant Ro/Aster scenes in the interrim. To get Ro and Aster together, Dao's got to go, which explains the sudden and exaggerated bickering. It's all more than a little forced.

Oddly enough, there's no follow-through on last episode's cliffhanger. Hmm.

* And finally, we have "Her Battle Lanterns Lit" in which the Klingons make their long-overdue debut (excluding Qu'Qul from "Entanglement"), McCabe deals with his grief by visiting Sensei Kickass again (always a pleasure!), and the Alpha Quadrant powers move against Siroc.

Lest you think that Knapp's ascension to the top of Starfleet's food chain has in any way changed him for the better... no, he's still a douche. Uprooting Shelby just because he's comfortable on the Excelsior? Check. Folding in the middle of combat because of a personal threat? Check. I'd love to know whether he's supposed to come off as a complete idiot, or... no, I can't think of an alternative to that. It must be intentional.

The season ends on the best cliffhanger so far, which says a lot about how far the series has come over the years. Now, remember when I said the sixth season changes the type of criticism it invites? Here's the thing: in earlier seasons, the sentiment I found myself repeating over and over was that I could just about see what Caves and his team were aiming for on the conceptual level, and in those terms their ideas were sound and interesting. But the execution of those ideas was awkward at best, downright awful at worst, resulting in a consistent sense of missed opportunities.

That's not the case here. Or rather, I do feel opportunities were missed, but in a more general "spilled milk" sort of way. For example, Surgant's betrayal would've had a lot more bite to it if he'd been around in the fifth season; the problems between Aster and Dao should have started much earlier so that Ro's sudden change of heart wouldn't seem so convenient, etc. It's not the execution that's flawed here, it's the timing. And that's a different matter, because if you took the events of this season, intact, and simply rearranged the sequence of events so there'd be enough build-up over an extended period of time, those same events would've been much more dramatically satisfying.

So there's definite, tangible improvement here, all across the board. It's not an ideal jumping-on point by any means, and I don't rightly know if it's enough to keep less-patient viewers going through the earlier seasons... but for me, personally, this series just got a lot more interesting.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Game Review: Overlord

Now this one's just plain cute.

Seven heroes (a Halfling, an Elf, a Paladin, a Dwarf, a Wizard, a Thief and a Warrior) defeated the Evil Overlord, ransacked his Tower and scattered his minions throughout the land. Years later, you awaken as the new incarnation of the Overlord, and set out to rebuild your empire.

There's just one problem: those heroes who vanquished your predecessor? They've each succumbed to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so the Halfling steals food from other villages and has ballooned up to the size of a small house, the Paladin's lecherous liaisons with succubi has brought a plague of undeath down on his city, the sloth-induced slumber of the Elf King left his people vulnerable to an invasion of greedy Dwarves seeking gold, etc.

It's a subversion of typical fantasy fare, because while the game casts you as the traditional villain of the piece, you're fighting fallen heroes who are arguably worse than you. But the real appeal of "Overlord" is its darkly humorous approach and the many in-jokes: for example, as you stand at the mouth of a labyrinth, your chief advisor (and the game's narrator in lieu of the silent Overlord) tells you to kill any dancing goblins or singing princesses you may encounter. It'll probably come as no surprise that the game was written by Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of Terry), as its semi-irreverent parody of the fantasy genre and its conventions is very much in line with something like "Good Omens".

"Overlord" belongs to a particular sub-genre I've only just started exploring, where the environment and storyline react to the choices you make. At various points throughout the game, you're offered certain choices: do you save the last surviving Elven women or abandon them for a cartload of gold? Do you forgive the treacherous peasants who conspired against you or slaughter them to the last man? Do you stay loyal to your strategically-minded, prim and proper mistress or throw her over for her sluttier sister? You can choose to be noble or truly evil, and your appearance and powers will change depending on what you do; likewise, your Dark Tower (seen from the outside only at the main menu) will reflect your level of Corruption, as will the game's multiple endings. For the most part, the game seems to reward the most vile and wicked courses of action, as they result in more powerful minions and far more damaging spells. But to get full 100% corruption, you have to do things like kill 500 peasants, burn down the Elves' Sacred Grove, and steal a sacred idol just because it looks nice in your mistress' quarters. Too evil? That's up to you!

This compensates for a rather linear plot. While quests in any given land can generally be completed in any order, you can't choose which of the seven heroes to target, and you can't leave your current "zone" until the major quests have been resolved (probably a good thing, given that the levels get progressively harder). On the other hand, the game's script is so enjoyable that I don't much mind its restrictions.

Gameplay is interesting: you directly control the Overlord, but most of the action is achieved via your loyal minions - using the mouse, you order them to attack enemies, pull switches, pick up items and so on. Initially you start with five Browns (simple warriors), but you'll eventually recover the lost tribes and gather a horde thirty or forty strong. Summoning minions requires life-force, which you harvest by killing anything that moves: from sheep to townsfolk to trolls to rock giants. Controlling the minions can be a bit tricky, as you have to specify targets via a mouse-keyboard combination and you will encounter scenarios requiring you to multitask and split your followers accordingly, but once you get the hang of it, you'll enjoy setting traps and launching two-pronged attacks on unwitting enemies.

The expansion pack, "Raising Hell", takes the story a step further: you learn that villagers attempting to escape your tyranny have fled into mysterious portals that have opened up throughout your kingdom. Of course, as befits a Pratchett story, it's not quite that simple: the heavenly backdrop falls away to reveal a dimension of fire, torment and pain called the Abyss. And the souls of the fallen heroes have ended up here as well, suffering eternal torture of the ironic kind (ie: the Halfling's gluttony is stymied when the food comes to life and fights back). Since "Raising Hell" is integrated into the main game, you can actually access the Abyss levels before completing the core game - the death of a hero unlocks the Abyss zone correlating to his land. But the difficulty level is significantly higher, so you're better off postponing your trip to Hell until you're properly equipped.

I had a really great time with this game: it's charming, it's relatively fast-paced (except for the long walks between checkpoints...), it takes a hilariously sardonic swing at some of the biggest cliches in literature, and you'll probably get a little attached to your imp-like minions after a few hours. Very much worth a play-through.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Movie Review: Otto

It's been a while since I've reviewed works in other media... as usual, HERE BE SPOILERS.

"Otto" (or "Up With Dead People") is a trippy, surreal, metafictional German movie about zombies. Sort of. Otto is an undead teenager in a world where fringe society has embraced the image and concept of the zombie as the ultimate outsider, representing the corruption and rot of the mainstream. The opening narration also informs us that zombies have evolved and now exhibit a semblance of intelligence, though their hunger for living flesh is still their most prominent feature.

Enter Medea Yarn, the bastard offspring of Wednesday Addams and Karl Marx. She's working on a movie called "Up With Dead People", a semi-pornographic tale of gay zombies revolting against the capitalist upper classes. (Just to point out how weird this movie is: Medea's girlfriend, Hella Bent, literally lives in a bubble of silent film - whenever she's around, her section of the screen goes black-and-white, piano music starts playing, and her dialogue appears on plaques after she speaks. It's whimsical, but amusing.)

Medea sees herself as a champion of the downtrodden, so when she meets Otto - a filthy, shambling, bloodied mess who can't remember his previous life - she takes him under her wing and casts him in "Up With Dead People". But the joke's on her, because Medea thinks Otto is just a method actor wholly dedicated to his role.

That's what makes this movie so interesting: at some point, we're led to question whether zombies even exist in this world, because aside from Otto, every walking corpse we see turns out to be an actor in Medea's film. In fact, it eventually becomes clear that we've been alternating between "reality" and "Up With Dead People" all along, and maybe there were never any real zombies at all.

But if that's true, what about Otto? There's a twist here that's basically an inversion of Ryan Reynolds' "The Nines", because we expect a bizarre and unnatural resolution to that question - maybe, by some freakish coincidence, Otto is the only real zombie in a world that has appropriated his condition and made it completely symbolic - but we eventually get a perfectly rational explanation for what's going on. It may not be true, because Otto's damaged memories can support either scenario, but I always prefer narratives that leave the choice to the audience rather than raise an ambiguity and then force the audience down one path of interpretation; it didn't work for "The Nines" and it hasn't worked for "Battlestar Galactica" (as evidenced by the fact that the mumbo-jumbo has been mostly absent since Earth).

Most movies like "Otto" tend to straddle a very thin line when it comes to suspension of disbelief, and it's very easy to cross that line: in fact, I'd say the overwhelmingly dominant trend is to strain that suspension until it snaps and can't be restored. This is exactly where "The Nines" or "Jacob's Ladder" would go wrong, by creating an unstable and ambiguous world and then going just a touch too far for us to follow. It's relatively rare to find a narrative that toes the line without crossing it... but "Otto" does so very nicely.

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 6d

To use the Savage Critics' scale, if the first four seasons of "Hidden Frontier" represent a slow rise from AWFUL to OKAY, the second half of this season finally edges into genuinely GOOD territory. For the first time, the series makes proper use of its core concepts and character arcs; it's still far from ideal, because there's more mileage that could've been wrung out of every storyline, but at least the basic execution holds together. Carlos Pedraza, one of the series' staff writers during the fifth season, pointed out to me that this was the point in which the HF story arcs stopped being ad hoc, replaced with a long(er)-term plan, and I think that much is readily apparent.

* The season starts with "Entanglement Part II", and it actually feels more like part of the fourth season because the improvements haven't quite kicked in yet: it turns out the Grey are using mind-control parasites on their subjugated population (aren't they supposed to be telepathic?), Iliana pops up to remind everyone that the Tren'La storyline from the second season was never resolved, and everyone's still worked up about Tetrahedrons. But the episode does have some high points, mostly to do with Qu'Qul and Henglaar squabbling over Sou.

* "Imminent Danger" reintroduces S'Tal, last seen in S4 episode "Addictions" (though, wow, she looks a lot better without the Eyebrows of Doom). It's basically a character piece for Andrew Barrett, who undergoes the traditional Heroic Blue Screen of Death after killing a Tholian during an ambush. It's done competently enough, though I thought depicting S'Tal as being unable to understand basic concepts like friendship and psychological trauma was a bit much. Meanwhile, the Tholians have appointed Siroc as their ambassador to the Federation, and I'm definitely starting to warm up to him as the primary villain, despite the obscurity of his plans and agendas.

* "Darkest Night" is... well, it's a bit odd given that it follows "Imminent Danger", because there's another planet-side ambush, another Tetrahedron-related mystery, and Barrett once again gets slapped upside the head by the Bad Luck Fairy. The episode holds itself together in a very basic and adequate fashion, but it had so much more to offer on the level of character dynamics: there's a build-up to a Ro vs. Zen showdown that never actually happens, and Barrett... I would've loved to see him interpret his misfortune here as karmic payback for killing that Tholian last episode, but that doesn't happen either. All things considered, it feels like a missed opportunity.

* "Security Counsel" is an interesting post-9/11 allegory, where a corrupt president of a Federation world is using anti-terrorist measures to assume more and more control over the planet and its people; McCabe serves as the voice of reason, teaming up with a sympathetic civilian investigator to uncover the truth. This episode does for McCabe what "Grave Matters" could have done for Ro, fleshing out his character just enough to make him an effective focalizer for the audience. The metaphors for the Patriot Act and its ilk are a bit heavy-handed, but then, I assume that's the whole point - to take that whole discourse to its most extreme conclusion. And it works well, despite being a bit dated in the post-Bush discourse (which I imagine is the same problem all Bush-era fiction will face in the coming years).

* Continuing the theme of long-overdue characterization, "Epitaph" finally gives us a closer look at Elizabeth Shelby. For all that she's been the center of the post-Knapp series, this is the first time we've seen her outside her capacity as captain of the Excelsior. Now, ordinarily we'd assign the fault for that to the writers, but this episode puts a rather clever twist on things: Shelby, as it turns out, has been so focused on her career that she literally has no personal life, and that's become a point of regret for her. Coming so close to the end of the season, there isn't much room for this plotline to continue, but I hope it shows up again.

Back at DS12, Iliana's still moping about, but we finally get some answers about the Grey, the Tetrahedrons, the Patch and the Tholians. There's a bit of rewriting going on, if Naros is to be believed: apparently the Tren'La provoked the Grey in the first place. And yes, that changes the dynamics, but I'm not comfortable with the implication that the extermination of the Tren'La is karmic payback - it seems disproportionate, especially in the Trekverse where wholesale obliteration isn't exactly common.

* I've neglected to mention this before, but seasons four through seven of "Hidden Frontier" bring the episode count down to six (as opposed to nine). The pros: less filler, a greater sense of urgency, and momentum. The cons: well, season five finale "The Battle Is Joined" starts with Aster and Zen celebrating their one-year anniversary. Three episodes ago, Zen was still insecure and jealous of Ro, and that whole situation was very much unclear. It feels a bit like a cheat, fast-forwarding through all the actual relationship bits to get to the Drama... but that's the price we pay for having so many storylines and so many characters in the rotation.

Anyway, this finale makes some dramatic changes on both the personal and the galactic level: Zen's worst fear comes to pass, as he's asked to join with a Trill symbiont at the risk of destroying his relationship with Aster. That's a storyline I've been looking forward to ever since the possibility was raised back when Zen and Aster first got together; I'm quite curious to see how it turns out. Meanwhile, the Federation finds itself in the middle of a free-for-all, as the Tholians turn out to be at war with the Grey as well. I like this development despite still not seeing enough of either faction to care, one way or another, as to what they're up to.

Apparently there's a minor crossover here with fan series "Star Trek: Intrepid", as Naros chats with another El-Aurian from that production. It's a rather superfluous scene, though guest character Keran makes an interesting point: the El-Aurians (and Siroc) are, by virtue of their long life, "playing a longer game" - each one of them could potentially be setting up schemes that span decades, even centuries. It's not an easy thing to pull off in fiction, at least not convincingly, so I doubt this scene foreshadows some Grand Master Plan in the wings so much as a generic Ominously Vague Chat Between Two Folks In The Know.

And with that, we've caught up with the ideal entry point pegged by the series' creators: next time we'll look at Season 6 and see whether enough progress has been made to really make a difference.

Monday, February 16, 2009

High Eight Us

Vacation time at last! See you guys on Sunday!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 6c

The fourth season of "Hidden Frontier" represents a step sideways rather than forward: we get some changes to the status quo, a few set pieces moving around, but in general the quality is equal to last season. Which means it's neither excruciatingly bad nor genuinely entertaining; an acceptable limbo in the short term, not so much for a span of thirty episodes.

Because of this, I don't have much to say about the fourth season, but some things merit attention:

* Last season's finale and this season's premiere constitute the "Hell's Gate" two-parter, in which we lose an old villain and gain a new one in Siroc, a man from Naros' past who's working with the Tholians against the Federation. Luko is sent off to command his own ship, replaced by Matt McCabe (formerly of Cole's crew). McFarland also seems to have disappeared, though she's still mentioned often.

Luko was a borderline character: far from fleshed out, but more sympathetic than earlier attempts in this series. We get a last-minute reminder that there was something going on between him and Lefler, but as has become par for the course, it doesn't go anywhere.

What this season does demonstrate successfully is a quality that sets "Hidden Frontier" apart from the canonical "Star Trek" on a thematic level: change occurs much more often in the former than the latter, and I'm referring to change both on the level of character and on the level of galactic events. In seven years of the Picard era, the core bridge crew changed exactly twice: Tasha Yar died in the first season, and Dr. Crusher was replaced for a while before coming back. The first Borg attack on Earth had no visible reprecussions (those turned up in the "First Contact" movie). The Klingon civil war that erupted in the fourth or fifth season (I forget) was about Worf, and ultimately led him right back to where he'd already been. Stability was very much part of the show's foundations at that time. "Deep Space 9" tried to change this with the Dominion War, and it worked (for a while), but on the other hand, the only main character to die throughout that series' run had a resurrection angle built into her backstory.

"Hidden Frontier" seems to openly oppose that notion of stasis and stability: people are always moving about, arriving and departing and dying, and the Federation can find itself fighting the Grey one moment and the Tholians the next (although this can be as much a weakness as a strength, as it leaves no room to develop the villains). Incidentally, this is one reason why I'm so fond of the established Mirror Universe, because it's also very dynamic and active, things can change and characters can die, and there's no obligation to stick to any particular status quo (one of the great tragedies of the Berman/Braga era was the eventual decay of the Mirror Universe into a repetitive farce; as a plot device, it worked wonders for characters like Kira, Quark and Sisko).

* We also have "Grave Matters" and "Crossroads", a pair of back-to-back episodes that complicate the Ro/Aster storyline, which I'm continuing to follow with some degree of interest.

We'd seen Starfleet dealing with post-Dominion Cardassia prior to "Grave Matters", but this is the first time we've had Cardassian characters interacting with our cast. When a science vessel uncovers a mass grave for Bajoran refugees, Starfleet and Cardassia launch a joint investigation, and Corey finds himself attracted to one of their junior officers (much to Ro's consternation).

Now, I know I'd decided not to criticize acting in these reviews, but... well, "Grave Matters" is the episode that should have made Ro Nevin. He's at the center of this story: still carrying the scars of the Occupation, still ashamed of his feelings for Aster, and quite possibly disgusted - racially - at the thought of Aster having sex with a Cardassian, which is the sort of thing "Star Trek" never did before with regards to race relations; what do you do if you're a Klingon and your quasi-love interest sleeps with a Romulan? What if you're a Bajoran and a person you're interested in falls for a Cardassian? After all, the aliens of "Star Trek" tend to carry personal baggage on species-wide levels (ie: all Klingons hate all Romulans, all Romulans hate all Vulcans, etc., though you always have a minority that opposes this).

But Arthur Bosserman, the actor who plays Ro, can't get any of this across. This was perhaps the pivotal Ro episode and it's botched because Bosserman doesn't emote, doesn't put out any kind of feeling beyond detached apathy and juvenile anger that doesn't even scratch the surface of what should be going on.

"Crossroads" complicates the romantic subplot by throwing Ensign Zen into the mix, an unjoined Trill who's fallen for Corey but doesn't want to get involved; if he's chosen to bond with a symbiont, he might not be the same person afterwards. As with "Grave Matters", "Crossroads" takes general facts already established in the Trekverse and asks very practical questions about them: we don't know what Jadzia or Ezri were like before Dax, so maybe Zen's concern is legitimate - could you have a relationship in which one person undergoes a transformation so profound and so permanent that they essentially become someone else? It's a metaphor for the way people change over time, except that for Trills the change is instant and the ramifications are immediate. At any rate, Corey's decision isn't a surprise, though I do think it's the more interesting of the two possibilities.

Meanwhile, the Federation has another encounter with the Tholians, and Starfleet is defeated. Again. For all that it's a welcome change to the perceived invincibility of the Federation in earlier series, I have to admit the losing streak in "Hidden Frontier" is starting to get a bit out of hand. By constantly being in the dark and on the defensive, they - and by extension, the viewer - still have no idea what Siroc wants with the Tetrahedrons (which were introduced two seasons ago and yet remain completely obscure).

* The season finale, part 1 of "Entanglement", follows the same broad lines as "Hell's Gate": Vorina and the rest of the Orion pirates return, now working for Siroc; it's still All About The Tetrahedrons, for reasons that are still unclear. There's also a subplot in which Henglaar's ex-wife visits with her new Klingon beau, and it's almost - almost - fun. Points for avoiding the stereotype of the shrewish ex: Sou (bad name for a pig-based humanoid) is likeable enough, and all she really wants is for the two men in her life to get along.

That's about all I have to say at this point; the fourth season doesn't really distinguish itself beyond the Ro/Aster/Zen storyline, which is still being handled a touch too clumsily for my tastes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 6b

Onto season three of "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier", and I'm glad to say the upward mobility continues - at a snail's pace, but it's something.

* We start with the two concluding chapters of "Worst Fears", in which the Grey finally attack DS12 using the old bait-and-switch tactic. I didn't mention the cliffhanger ending to the previous season because all three parts of "Worst Fears" are oddly abbreviated, only about 10-15 minutes per episode. This likely contributed to how abruptly the whole situation is resolved; it also kills any drama that could have emerged from the body count, as a first-season character dies off-screen while another introduced last season is written off in a manner that seems permanent. Unfortunately, we're not only lacking any reason to care about these characters in the first place, but there's no time to see anyone else react except for a rather awkward one-line eulogy in the next episode: "That boy never knew when to quit." Ouch.

* "Heroes" marks the first time I was drawn into a character's subplot, as Sha'Kev returns to torment Robin after their last encounter in "The Great Starship Robbery". Now, this doesn't actually go anywhere until the season finale, but the episode still manages to create a sense of empathy for a character who, until now, had been a sometimes-irritating cipher.

It's also worth noting that "Heroes" is the first episode to really take advantage of the multiple settings available in this series, as the A-plot features Commodore Cole and the USS Independence taking on Tzenkethi pirates. It's a nice change, but Caves and company haven't quite mastered the art of character introduction - we get new faces like Commander Johns and Lieutenant McCabe, but they're as much ciphers as anyone else in this series and we're given no reason to like them any more than we do the crew of the Excelsior. The one person who does stand out is Jennifer Cole, if only because her composed and unshakeable command style is a marked contrast to Knapp's hysterics.

Speaking of the Galactic Prat, we also have a (mercifully) short C-plot with Knapp and Traya stuck on a shuttlecraft and and finally communicating properly; I understand that they're trying to soften him up through his daughter, but after over a dozen episodes with Knapp in the spotlight, the damages has been done. The good news is that this is the last episode with Knapp in the foreground, but we'll get to that later.

* "In Memory Of" brings Corey Aster back for a flashback episode in which he, Jason Munoz and Jenna McFarland went up against the Borg and the Q. It's actually a decent enough story, marred only by Munoz figuring everything out moments after getting involved - though, if we're inclined to be lenient, we can handwave this as the result of pacing versus "air" time; most "Hidden Frontier" episodes run for 25-30 minutes, whereas the average "Next Generation" episode would go for at least 40, and could therefore afford to spend five or ten minutes investigating the Mystery of the Week before providing a solution.

It's interesting that this episode tries to restore the Borg's credibility as a viable threat - they really were terrifying during the Picard era, especially in "First Contact", but it's my understanding that "Voyager" pretty much castrated them by the end of its run. "In Memory Of" begins with present-day Aster dreaming of Farpoint Station being destroyed by the Borg; moments later that event is reported on the Federation news network. Being a Wolf 359 survivor, Corey is bitter that Starfleet had become complacent about the Borg, especially since the Borg have now adapted to whatever technological advantage the Federation had previously held. It's a valid point and a great way to reestablish the Borg as a major threat... except that "Hidden Frontier" already has a technologically-superior antagonist in the Grey. I can't see the Borg serving any long-term story-related purpose, which begs the question: what are they doing here, then?

* "Modus Operandi" introduces some interesting character dynamics. First we have Commander Tolian Naros, a mysterious El-Aurian who seems to have his own agenda; Shelby, of course, starts digging. Naros may or may not be the character who crossed over to Sulu's timeline in "Yesterday's Excelsior" last season: it was the same actor, but there's no evidence to suggest a connection so far. We also get to see a more sympathetic side to Nechayev, and Lefler's friendship with Shelby (apparently established in Peter David's "New Frontier" novels) gets some screen time as well.

Rawlins is the latest off-screen departure, sent off with his half-Son'a girlfriend to start a family. Again, I appreciate what Caves is doing here in terms of keeping things fluid (though I do wonder how many of these changes were intentional rather than imposed due to real-life considerations), but Rawlins was an incredibly minor character - the only real contribution he made in two seasons was his indifferent reaction to the Ro/Aster thing.

We're also starting to see the beginning of a bigger picture, so to speak: Matt McCabe is still investigating the artifacts retrieved from the Orion Syndicate in "Heroes", and he believes they're connected to the hyperdimensional Tetrahedrons from "Encke". The episodes are too far apart to be considered a running subplot, but it's better than nothing.

* But "nothing" would have been far better than "Santa Q". Oh God, it's bad. It's so, so bad. Knapp and Elbrey explain the Meaning of Christmas to Traya while admitting that, being the 24th century and all, nobody actually celebrates religious holidays anymore (we are, after all, dealing with Roddenberry's Homogenous Humanity). And then Q turns up to talk theology for a bit. NEXT!

* "Ashes takes the Ro/Aster storyline a step forward: seems Ro is attracted to Corey, he's just too uncomfortable with that idea to admit it to anyone. Corey, of course, sees right through him and pushes forward anyway. Being the First Gay Storyline in "Star Trek" (regardless of its non-canonical status), these developments are certainly noteworthy, though I still find I much prefer the "Phase II" approach of treating the Issue as a Non-Issue; it certainly smoothes out awkward moments like the cliche-tastic speech Corey delivers on how he and Ro should understand themselves rather than listen to other people. That said, I liked the reversal at the end, and matters between them are left very much unresolved, so we'll see where that goes.

But by putting Ro in the spotlight, "Ashes" inadvertently calls attention to the fact that, in terms of his backstory, he's the most problematic character in the entire series. Generally speaking, the cast of "Hidden Frontier" divides into two categories: imports drawn from pre-established series (ie: Shelby, Ibanya, Nechayev) and original characters (ie: Knapp, Elbrey, McFarland). We do have some minor continuity implants, such as Luko being a former member of the Voyager crew (though nothing is done with that potentially interesting set-up), but Ro Nevin is a problem: he's Ro Laren's little brother, except that Laren's entire character arc was about how alone she was. So does she think he's dead, despite being in Starfleet? Does he think she's dead? We literally don't know anything about him, and that wouldn't be a problem (because how much do we know about Elbrey or Henglaar or any non-established characters?) except Ro Laren was one of TNG's most compelling characters, and - as with the "remixes" of last season - comparison becomes inevitable.

* "Voyage of the Defiant" is... well, it's filler. It's a sequel to "The Tholian Web", and the original Defiant is recovered, and to be fair it makes more sense here than it does in that "Enterprise" Mirror Universe two-parter. But other than making Starfleet look completely incompetent by having them fall for the exact same tactic the Grey used in the season premiere, I'm not sure what this episode is meant to accomplish. On the surface, it establishes the Tholians as yet another hostile power for Starfleet to contend with in the Briar Patch, but given the sparse screen time given to the threats we've already seen, I'm far from convinced we needed another. And we get Luko in command of a Kirk-era ship, but he's obviously not going to keep the Defiant. And the Defiant's story is glossed over, so it's not actually about the Defiant either.

* As with last season, we end this one on a cliffhanger, but I'll save that for next time.

Overall, the third season of "Hidden Frontier" makes some changes that result in a better series: Knapp's promotion (rank) and demotion (screen time) is indicative of a larger, more gradual process where most of the characters from the first two seasons are being quietly shunted off in favor of newer faces: Henglaar and Elbrey are minimized, Martinez and Rawlins are swapped out for Luko and Aster, Shelby replaces Knapp while Naros occupies her former position and role in the crew dynamic. It's a stronger cast, not necessarily because they're being characterized any better than their predecessors, but because there's a difference between being a cipher and being an unbearably annoying cipher (*cough*knapp*cough*). "Voyage of the Defiant" aside, there's also a very clear and visible effort here to recreate the feel of Trek stories without remixing specific episodes (which was last season's primary weakness).

To be honest, while this series is improving, it's not happening quickly enough for my tastes: steps have been taken to make things better, and I certainly appreciate that, but... well, they're baby steps. At this point, I'm following "Hidden Frontier" more out of my commitment to review the project in full than out of any sense of fun I'm deriving from it. I wouldn't blame any other viewer for jumping ship at this point, with the caveat that we haven't jumped the shark just yet - theoretically, at this specific point in the series, it's still possible for "Hidden Frontier" to get so much better that its past mistakes can be overlooked. The potential is there; will next season finally seize it? Stay tuned!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 6a

Well, the good news is that the second season of "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier" is a marginal improvement over the first. The bad news? It's largely because some of the episodes remix "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space 9". For example, "Yesterday's Excelsior" is basically TNG's "Yesterday's Enterprise" only with Borg instead of Klingons; "Old Wound" is a take on DS9's "Rules of Engagement" where Worf is court-martialed for allegedly destroying a civilian transport, etc. It's an unfortunate creative decision, because I think the one thing fan films should avoid at all cost is inviting direct comparison to the source material; it's possible to let a lot of things slide when it comes to fan-created projects, but I'll never choose David Dial over Patrick Stewart, you know?

The cast has been juggled around a bit: after being promoted to Second Officer at the end of last season, Wesley's nowhere to be found; Rayvan the Iconian is also killed off-screen as an afterthought (pretty much a tacit acknowledgement that he was superfluous anyway), and we lose Toby Witzcak (sp?) midway through. Artim Ibanya, apparently a canon character from one of the later TNG films (the last one I saw was "First Contact"), is introduced as a new Ensign (Knapp is, of course, kind of a dick to him), and we also have a new Tactical Officer in Lieutenant Luko. Admiral Nechayev, another TNG import, assumes command of DS12.

And I've made this point before, but it bears repeating: a rotating, dynamic cast is a good thing. There's a lot of potential drama in the idea of characters disappearing into the night or suffering a quick and sudden death, leaving others to cope with the fallout. This was something "Exiles" did quite well during the Winick days: losing Thunderbird the first time was hard, and Blink's absence was felt every time Magik opened her mouth to cause trouble.

But for this tactic to work, you have to forge some kind of connection with the characters, an emotional attachment that gets you interested in them as people. "Hidden Frontier" is, at this point, still too concerned with plot machinery and doesn't offer enough "heart" for me to care about any of these changes.

The second season scales back the threat of the Grey considerably; as a result, after fifteen episodes we still know very little about them and their objectives. It might be because one element this series has lacked over the past two seasons is focus: the Federation's struggle against the Grey ostensibly glues the whole of "Hidden Frontier" together, and yet it's treated as an afterthought (if the Grey are mentioned at all) throughout the second season. Likewise, character moments occur in isolation, with no consistency from one episode to the next: Robin suffers a certain trauma in "The Great Starship Robbery" and it's never mentioned again, there's a Ro-centric episode after that except Ro has minimal screen time, and "To The Stars" delivers an origin story for Ibanya, a minor character whose presence is barely noteworthy. All of these represent what would ideally be the first step in an ongoing plotline, but they're completely scattered and, consequently, ineffective.

Noteworthy episodes:

* "Yesterday's Excelsior" does a cute '70s "Battlestar Galactica" homage, complete with the Colonial theme. It's worth noting that even in an alternate timeline, Knapp is an asshole. The episode is apparently missing its teaser due to... legal problems? I don't know, again, Caves seems to be dealing with problems no other fan production has had to cope with. Characterization of the Federation at large is also very problematic: we're supposed to believe Kirk-era Starfleet exterminated the Klingons en masse, and the present-day version abandons helpless civilizations to a superior threat. I'd applaud bringing the idealized United Federation of Planets down a notch, but this seems to go a little too far in the other direction.

* "Old Wound" has what may be the most contrived ending to a Trek courtroom drama ever.

* "Encke" introduces engineer Corey Aster as the first explicitly gay Starfleet officer we've seen (remember, this was filmed long before "Phase II"). When I reviewed "Blood and Fire" I mentioned that the two fan series treat the subject matter differently, and "Encke" is a perfect example: Ro is clearly conflicted about Corey's attraction to him, and it is about gender (contrary to what he says), which suggests that homosexuality is still seen as something "different". In "Phase II", it's just taken for granted that Alex and Peter are lovers, and the reaction would be exactly the same if Alex were a woman. To be honest, the treatment here is a bit on the clunky side, more concerned with The Issue than how said Issue affects the characters involved.

* "Fire in the Heart" is another Knapp-centric episode; surprise surprise, he's still a douchebag whose main concern during a reunion with his estranged daughter (after nine years of slavery!) is that she doesn't mess up his comfy life.

I hear ya, Captain.

In conclusion, I'm still seeing a lot of potential in this series, but so far they haven't capitalized on it. Maybe three's the lucky number?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 6

As promised, starting this week we'll be doing a season-by-season review of "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier", quite possibly the longest-running fan series currently available. I'm hoping to get a twice-weekly rhythm going, but that depends on my progress with various seminar papers and my commitment to the Savage Critics.

Series creator Rob Caves has a short note on the "Hidden Frontier" website, in which he asks viewers to start with the sixth season premiere, rather than season 1. Obviously, that's out of the question if you're doing a comprehensive review... but after briefly comparing the two, I can certainly understand Caves' request.

If "Phase II" impressed me in terms of how much it improved over time, the gap between the first and sixth seasons of "Hidden Frontier" is even more remarkable (granted, they'd been working at it for much longer than Cawley's group). But I don't want to go into that now, as it'll be far more relevant when we actually get to the later seasons; we should just keep that in mind as we go over Caves' earlier efforts. Because the first season of "Hidden Frontier" is a mess. I want to be charitable, I really do, but I can't find many redeeming qualities in the initial six episodes.

For starters, we have a fairly large cast of characters and yet there isn't a single sympathetic person in the bunch: Knapp, our Captain figure, is a douchebag of galactic proportions, and you'd think that was intentional except he never gets his comeuppance and he's not viewed in a negative light, despite the fact that he constantly berates his crew (when he's not abandoning them to die on hostile alien vessels) and he's way too trigger-happy for a starship captain. Robin Lefler, imported from "The Next Generation", quotes her Laws so often that it quickly goes from cute to annoying (Diana's Law #26: Don't speak in platitudes, because you can't eat an omlette without gaining some calories). Munoz, the cheerful first officer, disappears midway through the season and is replaced by Elizabeth Shelby (another "Next Generation" import), only this incarnation of the character lacks the backbone that made her such a great foil to then-Captain Riker. None of them act much like Starfleet officers, and the only characters who aren't unbearably annoying are Counselor Elbrey and Dr. Henglaar, who don't get enough screen time to make the most of their appeal.

The plot doesn't do much better, either on an episode-by-episode or season-wide basis: the three-part premiere is basically a rehash of the Dominion War, in which a new enemy - the Grey Confederacy - launches unprovoked attacks against the Federation. Unlike the Dominion, there's a far more parasitic nature to the Grey, as they mind-control humans in order to feed off their neural energy. That storyline is then interrupted so we can have a bizarre time-travel story involving the Titanic, and an episode featuring a visit from Darth Vader's flagship. The season finale reintroduces Wesley Crusher in an utterly disjointed storyline where the Tzenkethi demand access to the healing planet of Baku, for reasons that are neither known nor discovered, and then we abruptly segue to a Grey invasion of Tzenkethi space. This episode also recasts Lefler with an older actress, and that's an interesting choice, but Joanne Busch doesn't have enough screen time to leave an impression, good or bad.

On a technical level, I have to criticize the use of low-resolution Quicktime videos; Caves says this was done with an eye towards preventing the sale of pirated DVDs (which, in turn, could bring the Wrath of Paramount down on the whole production), but no other fan film I've seen so far seems to have this problem.

"Hidden Frontier" represents an interesting thematic departure from what we saw with "Of Gods and Men" and "Phase II". Those fan projects emphasized homage, recreating specific characters and getting as close to the "feel" of the original as possible. As I said, this series does feature characters from the canon series - Lefler, Shelby and Wesley Crusher - but they're secondary figures, and part of a mostly original ensemble. The setting's also quite distant from usual Trek fare: focus tends to alternate between the station, Deep Space 12, and the various ships assigned to that sector, which obviously allows for a much wider array of potential stories as it combines the fixed center as seen by "Deep Space 9" and exploring the unknown via starships. We'll see where that leads us.

All in all, it's off to a very awkward start; thanks to Caves' urging, I know the series will improve, but it's also true that there's a limit to how far one's patience can be stretched while waiting for things to get better. We'll have to see whether the second season has any kind of upward mobility in that sense; I can't see myself sitting through another two or three seasons as poor as this one.