Sunday, February 22, 2009

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.