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!