Sunday, March 29, 2009

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

Today we'll be concluding our stay in Rob Caves' fan-series universe, with a review of the three Star Trek: Hidden Frontier spin-offs.

The first thing worth mentioning is that there's a plot superstructure in place here, which I honestly didn't expect: all three spin-offs use the same event as a launching point, though they each go in very different directions. The event in question is the invasion of Romulan space by the Archein Empire, hailing from the Andromeda Galaxy. "Odyssey" follows a Starfleet crew stranded in Archein territory; "The Helena Chronicles" is set in the former Briar Patch; and "Federation One" explores the political fallout of the invasion. In the background of the latter two, Section 31 - a black ops splinter group of Starfleet - is conspiring to do... well, something. It's not entirely clear yet.

The internal post-HF chronology is a bit tricky. While "Odyssey" stands independent of its sister series, the prequels to "Federation One" take place between episodes 2 and 3 of "The Helena Chronicles". In fact, it's been suggested that the best way to view the spin-offs is to combine them into one season - the numbers work out, as "Odyssey" has five episodes, "The Helena Chronicles" has three and "Federation One" has two (plus a pair of prequels), so it just about comes up to one of the longer seasons of "Hidden Frontier". However, the three series are so thematically different that I advise against that kind of amalgamation.

I have to admit, I'm a little disappointed that the central hub of the post-HF narrative is yet another war story. Granted, the Archein attack is much more compelling and interesting than either of the major conflicts in "Hidden Frontier", but it would've been nice to see something different. I understand that war's in the zeitgeist (just look at the Marvel Universe over the past five or six years) but it's wearing a bit thin, especially in a science-fiction setting that's always had a... complicated relationship with the concept of war.

Visually, there's been an incredible surge upward in terms of CGI quality and screen resolution; the final seasons of "Hidden Frontier" looked good, but I can honestly describe the current efforts of Caves and associates as "professional-level quality".

So let's get to it, then:

Odyssey comes first, mostly because its series premiere ("Iliad") seems to take place immediately after the "Hidden Frontier" finale: Ro and Aster are on their honeymoon, and it's implied that the Romulans are having trouble fending off the Archein due to their losses in the Briar Patch war.

The pilot episode does a great job of establishing the Archein as a very different threat than the Tholian/Breen alliance of "Hidden Frontier" - we have specific characters within this enemy organization such as the demented princess Seram, her dying mother, the honorable but determined General Morrigu and so on. Moreover, the Archein are given a strong, rational explanation for their attack: their home systems in the Andromeda galaxy are collapsing into singularities, and their only hope for survival is to seize and colonize the Beta Quadrant (specifically, Romulan territory).

Without spoiling too much, the premise of the series involves the Odyssey, a Starfleet vessel deployed to Andromeda through new (and apparently dangerous) slipstream technology, to stop the invasion at its source. Though successful, the Odyssey finds itself stranded deep within the Archein Empire, struggling to find a way home.

Well, it's "Voyager", obviously... albeit with a few correctives applied. For example, it's acknowledged rather plainly that, being three million light years away from Earth, there's no conventional way for the Odyssey to get home. The inter-character dynamics are also different, as junior officers like Ro are forced to assume command positions following the deaths of the senior staff.

The only characters imported from "Hidden Frontier" are Ro, our central protagonist, and bit character Wozniak (Rawlins' replacement from the fourth season). Everyone else is tabula rasa, though the series features many of the same actors such as Sharon Savene (Faisal/Seram), Julia Morizawa (S'Tal/Maya), John Whiting (Henglaar/Morrigu), Michelle Laurent (Tesla Mor/T'Lorra) and Adam Browne (Zen/Caecus). Some, like Morizawa, are clearly having fun playing characters so different from their previous roles; others can't help a certain level of bleed-through (Caecus is every bit the timid mouse Jorian was in his pre-Dao days).

But if we're talking actors here, the big news is that the part of Ro Nevin has been recast again - though Bobby Rice reprises the role in the first episode, he's then replaced by Brandon McConnell. It's a striking change, because McConnell is much more emotionally reserved; this is somewhat justified in that Ro should have developed some kind of stability by now, having gone through all that emotional uncertainty in the final seasons of "Hidden Frontier". On the other hand, Rice's version of the character was an open book, you could always tell what he was thinking and feeling, and I don't get that with Ro 3.0. But McConnell's new to the role... we'll have to wait and see where that goes.

Characterization has improved since "Hidden Frontier" but remains a bit off: I find myself constantly wanting to see more of these characters, to go beneath the surface and see what makes them tick, but the first season of "Odyssey" doesn't deliver much of that. Oh, there are quite a few likeable characters: Maya's fun, Gillen is just adorable, and T'Lorra's an excellent foil for Ro. But there's still something missing, that little extra bit that makes a character memorable.

The plot also gets a bit repetitive after a while; nearly every episode involves Ro getting the ship into trouble by setting off a trap, while encountering alien cultures that have inexplicably learned all about Bajorans, Romulans and Starfleet. There's a Kirk reference in there somewhere, which makes me wonder whether the whole Andromeda thing has actually been done before, but I can't seem to find any solid reference one way or another.

Still, I like the core concept and certain twists, like Seram's true connection to Caecus, were well-executed. All it really needs is a bit more depth of characterization and some new storyline ideas. Of course, what I'd really like to know is whether the writers intend to follow the broad outline of Homer's poem, because Ro succumbing to an Andromedan (male?) analogue of Circe probably wouldn't go over with viewers as smoothly as Odysseus' Old-School Mattress Marathon, but it'd certainly serve his character arc.

The Helena Chronicles picks up six months after "Iliad", in a more familiar setting (Ba'ku and what used to be Briar Patch). We're following the Helena, commanded by Theresa Faisal (former XO to Tolian Naros). Jorian Dao is first officer, Artim Ibanya is helmsman, and Corey Aster joins the crew in the series premiere (basically providing the Penelope to Ro's Odysseus). We even get to peek in on DS12 (though this comes with an unwelcome dose of Knapp - I suppose someone had to hold the Idiot Ball), and the second episode brings back Joseph Johns (the last surviving member of Admiral Cole's crew), Robin Lefler and Admiral Rand.

Which isn't to say that we don't get a bunch of entertaining new characters, such as Chief Engineer Rockney (a technophile in the creepiest sense of the word), the semi-psychotic Lt. Dais, snarky Dr. Ness or the flamboyant pirate Caeleno. As with "Odyessy", I'm left wanting to know more about these characters, but with the first season consisting of only three episodes, there isn't much room for development.

I should point out, apropos of characterization, that there's a real effort being made here to push Ro and Aster as an epic romance - they're having visions of each other, they're acting out the parts of mythological figures, but even after all this time... eh. Still not feeling 'em, dawg.

Meanwhile, if the premise of "Odyssey" remains consistent throughout its first season, "The Helena Chronicles" does an abrupt - but entirely welcome - left-field twist in the second episode, as Lefler, Aster and Dao start experimenting on ways to either follow Ro to Andromeda or bring him home. I'm not entirely clear on why the reaction to their work is so hysterical, since it's already been done in the very recent past, but if you can make the leap that Starfleet is willing to murder its own officers to prevent some kind of unexplained galactic catastrophe, you'll be okay with the new, and rather bold, direction.

And finally, we have Federation One, a very different creature altogether. The series begins with two prequels - "Orphans of War" and feature-length "Operation Beta Shield" - both of which are crossovers with Scottish fan production Star Trek: Intrepid. This isn't actually the first time these two fan series have crossed paths: the fifth-season finale of "Hidden Frontier" featured a cameo by "Intrepid" character Keran Azhan. But in the context of the episode, it was a rather superfluous appearance.

Not so here: both the Intrepid and Shelby's Excalibur are front-and-center in both prequels, and they actually mesh rather well together. Shelby has a playful rapport with Captain Hunter, and that's a side of her we've never really seen - her friendship with Lefler is, after all, offset by her status as Lefler's commanding officer.

(Speaking of Lefler, it turns out she's engaged to Ben Nordstrom, the Excelsior's new Chief Engineer. It's yet another relationship that's taken place almost entirely off-screen...)

"Orphans of War" is a short ten-minute piece about the Intrepid and the Excelsior picking through the debris of an Archein/Romulan battle and finding some surprises left behind; servicable, but the real story begins with "Operation Beta Shield". Here's where the chronology gets a bit tricky: "Orphans of War" is set before the game-changing second episode of "The Helena Chronicles", but "Operation Beta Shield" takes place afterwards - this explains Lefler's absence and Barrett's promotion to first officer of the Excelsior (which has a new and interesting look).

"Operation Beta Shield" gives us a look at the political effects of the Archein attack and the resulting rescue of the Romulan Empire by Starfleet and the Klingons. It also marks the return of my favorite "Hidden Frontier" villain, Karah Vindenpawl, who rises to the most powerful position in the Federation through a sudden and violent assassination that she may (or may not) have instigated. As in fifth-season episode "Security Counsel", Vindenpawl brings out the best in Matt McCabe, who's still determined to expose and defeat her even as her machinations take on galactic proportions.

All of which leads to "Federation One", as McCabe - now Head of Presidential Security - tries to investigate Vindenpawl while simultaneously being forced to protect her against external and internal threats. It is, in that sense, a much more subtle series than either its sister shows; McCabe is the only Starfleet officer in a cast of politicians, reporters and scientists, and the focus veers away from space battles and the physical/visual manifestations of war. This, by the way, probably explains the season 2 format switch to audio drama: that sort of thing wouldn't work with either of the other spin-offs, but I suspect it'll do nicely here.

Normally, this would be the point where I'd make a comparative assessment and try to determine which series is "best", but I don't think it's so much a case of being qualitatively better as it is that each spin-off compliments the others: "Federation One" has the best character dynamics, since it's mostly just Vindenpawl and McCabe and they've had the benefit of exposure in the parent series. The Helena's story, on the other hand, is much more kinetic and exciting, while Odyssey... well, Odyssey has the potential to do a lot of new and interesting things but that hasn't really happened yet.

One thing I can say, with a great degree of confidence, is that "Odyssey", "The Helena Chronicles" and "Federation One" continue the tradition of gradual overall improvement that their parent series demonstrated; as with the later seasons of "Hidden Frontier", my feeling is that there are certain gaps and flaws that repeat themselves (mostly to do with plot and characterization techniques), but these diminish over time.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Some thoughts about yesterday's TV

I expect I'll have more to say once I've fully digested the events of "Daybreak" and look back on the final season, but "Battlestar Galactica" is over, and... yes, I feel a loss. For all that I disagreed with the increasing pseudo-mysticism, for all that I found the finale's ultimate message problematic, for all that the unresolved questions left me deeply disappointed, the truth is I was in love with these characters, these remarkably complex and flawed and compelling people; with Adama and Roslin and Lee and Kara and Cottle and Helo, with everyone who made it to the end and everyone who didn't. Yes, even Baltar. I loved them all, and I'll miss them terribly.

Meanwhile, the sixth episode of "Dollhouse" aired yesterday. For context's sake, this was the episode Joss Whedon flagged as being of interest to those viewers who, like myself, were having mixed reactions (at best) to his newest project. According to Whedon, all we had to do was wait until episode 6 for the show to start hitting its stride.

I'll get to the actual episode in a bit, but that kind of request annoys me. I mean, isn't it unreasonable to expect your audience to just patiently hold their breath for a month while you get your act together? I'm not saying it's unheard-of for series to improve over time - even within Whedon's own filmography, the second season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was superior to the first - and patience is certainly rewarding when it comes to the slow-burning plot.

But there has to be some kind of baseline appeal that transcends the problems, that makes you want to hang around. "Dollhouse" doesn't have that, for reasons I've already discussed, and the only reason I'm still watching is because Whedon's got a lot of goodwill stored up with me. But that won't last forever.

Especially since the much-hyped sixth episode is good, but not great. Don't get me wrong, it is a very different creature: Ballard is pushed much closer to the spotlight, there's a lot of physical action (the kitchen fight scene was rather good) and our attention is finally shifted away from the inconsequential missions (the whole conceit of the show is that nothing the Dolls do matter, so why then have we been following their "engagements" so thoroughly?). And it's somewhat amusing that this episode aired the same day as the "Battlestar Galactica" finale, because "Dollhouse" also seems to be working the whole "Sleeper Agent" bit; we now have two characters who've turned out to be Dolls hiding in plain sight. And we're only six episodes in.

I don't know... I'll admit the sixth episode is an improvement, but I still don't feel like I need to know what happens next. While I'm all for experimental, postmodern approaches to fiction, I don't think Whedon is able to circumvent the very real need for a hook, a reason to tune in next week. And so far, that hasn't turned up. At my most charitable, I'm still only mildly curious about the future of this show.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

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

To sum up, some macro-level observations about "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier".

As a fan-series, "Hidden Frontier" has an interesting and somewhat contradictory relationship with its source material. On the one hand, Rob Caves and his associates explored themes that neither Roddenberry nor Berman and Braga dealt with at length (or at all), such as homosexuality, clinical depression, drug addiction and the deeper implications of interracial relationships. That's the sort of thing you'd expect from a fan-based project, since the lack of a censoring authority means freedom to depict any controversial concepts the mainstream would've avoided. And in a way, that approach is very much in line with the most basic premise of "Star Trek" - to go where no one's gone before.

On the other hand, if we look at the overall narrative of "Hidden Frontier", what emerges is a story that doesn't really conform to "Star Trek" at all. It's clear that the series was heavily influenced by the Dominion War arc of "Deep Space 9", but that arc also had a spiritual/metaphysical dimension (the thing with Sisko and the Big Book of Evil, which I suspect was the long-lost eighth Harry Potter novel). Once Siroc comes into play, "Hidden Frontier" becomes a war epic to the exclusion of all other storylines, and there is no additional dimension to that conflict.

Moreover, it's not a war between two collective identities or ideologies - in DS9, you had certain characters who represented the factions, like Weyoun and Dukat, but the Briar Patch Wars are fought against Siroc and his cohorts on an individual level, with the Tholians and the Breen minimalized to the point of eventually becoming irrelevant altogether. And... well, that's more along the lines of "Star Wars", isn't it? With the Empire of Evil British White Guys just being an extension of the Alpha Villain? Think of that last celebratory scene in "Return of the Jedi" - the Emperor's death is equated with the death of the Empire as a whole. Hell, even the Expanded Universe could never shake this need to associate the entire Empire with a single figurehead, whether it was Grand Admiral Thrawn or Daala or Darth Krayt. And that's Siroc's function here: everything revolves around his actions and agendas.

But Siroc only rose to prominence in the fourth season; what about before that? Well, the main antagonists for the first three seasons of "Hidden Frontier" were the Grey Confederacy, an ill-defined race that seemed to combine the strong points of the Federation's two greatest opponents in the 24th century - like the Dominion, the Grey were a consortium of races all dominated by the psychic Ethereals; like the Borg, the Grey take over the minds of their victims and their ships can regenerate over time.

Unfortunately, the Grey failed because where Siroc was a highly specific and individualized enemy, the Grey are too anonymous, too vague. They have no voice, no personality, no real communication with their enemies - even the Borg had their infamous catchphrases ("You will be assimilated, resistance is futile"). In seven seasons we learn nothing of value regarding the Grey themselves: their member races, their philosophies, their motivations. They just turn up as a plot-required wild card whenever needed.

Moving on to another issue: time. I mentioned during the sixth season review that the series develops a timeline problem by equating each previous season with a year of story-time, so that the Federation had been fighting the Grey for three years before Siroc showed up, and that conflict lasted another four years.

Carlos Pedraza makes an interesting point about the perception of time in this particular fan-series: the episodes were produced at intervals of roughly two months, which meant that in real time the series had lasted for seven years. The assumption (which becomes explicit in the last two seasons) is that viewers who were watching the series as it was being produced would equate real time and narrative time.

But I disagree with that assumption, simply because "Hidden Frontier" is a visual narrative - and like all visual narratives, time only passes if we see it pass. It's certainly legitimate to pull an occasional time jump, with or without a "Two/Five/Ten Years Later" tag; however, I strongly doubt real time has any influence there. For example, the "Lord of the Rings" films were released annually, but in story time only a few days pass between installments (at most). If we go a little closer to the subject matter, the various Trek series made roughly the same equation - Picard had been captain of the Enterprise for seven years by the end of "The Next Generation" - but twenty-odd episodes are a much longer (and much more credible) span to depict a year's worth of stories than six, or even nine.

Of course, the bigger problem is that if you add a two-month gap after every single episode, it kills a lot of story momentum: McCabe's grief in "The Widening Gyre" doesn't make much sense if you're meant to think it's been over a year since "Vigil", Aster's one-two punch with Hanar and Zen in season 4 falters, and so on. It doesn't help that there was no explicit indication of time passing on that kind of scale until the fifth season - and even then, it was just Aster and Zen celebrating their one-year anniversary, and enough time had passed in-series since "Crossroads" to sort-of-justify the jump.

Winding down, let's talk about what "Hidden Frontier" did well: conceptually speaking, I loved (and still love) the idea of exploring a fixed location in space (the Briar Patch), with both a static setting (DS12) and several ships in rotation (Shelby's Excelsior, Cole's Independence, etc.) There's a clear and visible improvement from the fifth season onward in terms of story arc construction, acting and visual effects. I should also note that "Hidden Frontier" is exceptionally fair to its female characters, with women like Cole, Elbrey, Nechayev, Lefler and Shelby holding their own against (and in some cases, outshining) their male counterparts. And we can't ignore the fact that this series ran for seven years - warts and all, that's an impressive achievement that speaks to genuine dedication and consistent hard work.

What "Hidden Frontier" didn't do so well: characterization. Looking back, I can point to several characters and say they're my favorites - McCabe, Bobby Rice's Ro, Rebecca Wood's McFarland, etc. - but I can't say that any of them were explored in any depth. Some characters didn't seem to have a personal life (Shelby has an in-story excuse for that in the fifth season, but nothing happens after that), others were locked in a monotonous cycle (the Aster-Dao merry-go-round of "I love you/No you don't"). And Ian Knapp will forever baffle me.

As I said, the Grey just didn't work out in the long run - they go from being the primary innovation of the fan-series (at least at first) to sixth-stringers in just three seasons. Things get much better when Siroc is integrated into the story, but there would've been no way to plausibly retcon the Grey at that point so they just sort of hang around.

I gather the green-screen technique will have its detractors and defenders: personally, I didn't mind it, as that's precisely the sort of thing I'm inclined to overlook when dealing with fan-productions (again, it's all about standards and expectations being adjusted for the medium and the mode).

And finally, what I would've liked to see: according to John Whiting (who played Henglaar), the writers of "Hidden Frontier" deliberately avoided three concepts throughout their run: time travel, the Borg (with the exception of "In Memory Of", which really wasn't that bad) and the Mirror Universe. The reasoning behind that decision was that these concepts had already been done to death on the various Trek series. And I'll concede the first two - TNG gives us more than enough time travel stories, and nothing more needed to be said about the Borg after "First Contact" - but...

Obviously, as a fan of the Mirror Universe, I'm going to wish "Hidden Frontier" had gone there. But it's more than just an appreciation of the setting: the appeal of the Mirror Universe is that it lets actors put different spins on their characters. Someone like Rebecca Wood pulls this off easily enough - Betras, McFarland and Vindenpawl are very distinct and separate characters - but it might've been interesting to see Bobby Rice attempt a Mirror Ro in the mold of Intendant Kira, or see Risha Denney portray a broken and hopeless Shelby (alternatively, a gun-crazy sociopathic Shelby). Knapp would probably still be a douche, but some things never change. The point is, yes, the Mirror Universe degenerated into farce by the end of DS9, but it still offered a bit of leeway and range for the actors, allowing their characters to do things that wouldn't be possible in a standard episode.

Final thoughts: overall, I have to admit that "Hidden Frontier" ended up being more an academic project than genuine entertainment for me. I can say it was an interesting experience, but fun? Not so much. And that's not because I held it up to the standards of network television - on the contrary, I tried to avoid making any kind of unfair comparison, not only because different fan-production groups have different resources, but also because "Hidden Frontier" is much older than, say, "Phase II", and it's not impossible to see Cawley's efforts as being informed, at least to a degree, by the successes and failures of its thematic predecessor. All that said, I hesitate to recommend "Hidden Frontier" for anyone just looking for an enjoyable fan film, as I imagine the flaws will be difficult to overlook if you're not interested in doing a bit of digging.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

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

At last we've come to the final season of "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier". It's been a long road, with plenty of ups and downs. Today we'll do an episode-by-episode review of Season 7, and next time I'll take a macro-level overview of the series in terms of what it has (and hasn't) accomplished.

* "Heavy Losses" picks up right where we left off, in the middle of the Battle of Tren'La. Knapp is, of course, behaving like a child, sulking at Elbrey because she had him removed from command. Meanwhile, it turns out those giant constructs in the middle of the Tholian fleet are orbital platforms, and all this time I'd thought they were Tetrahedrons. Hmm.

The villains have a chat about vague bargains they've made with Siroc, and I really wish this had been developed further: given what his ultimate goal turns out to be, and Betras' actions in the finale, I'd love to know why any of them were helping him in the first place. I'm also a bit disappointed that the Cardassians are shown to regress to Dominion-era behavior, as I'd thought "Grave Matters" had done a fine job of moving them beyond that.

Dao gets reassigned to Naros' ship, the Helena, effectively splitting him and Aster up. The next few episodes are pretty much a textbook deconstruction of a relationship, very predictable and thorough, but I still can't help feeling that it's incredibly forced and that the alternative we're heading towards hasn't been established.

"Heavy Losses" ends with a new status quo, effectively setting the stage for the last act of the story. It's worth noting that the closer we get to the end, the bolder the risks "Hidden Frontier" will take; while we've had a few character deaths and departures so far, it pales in comparison to the next eight episodes. And I'm quite pleased about this: in mainstream television, characters will be killed off because their actors want to leave, or want more money, or get arrested for drunk driving, but "Hidden Frontier" had been more resistant to this, with very few characters actually being killed off as opposed to recast. And that makes sense: if you don't have a network imposing its authority on you, and - barring real-life constraints - your actors want to be there, you could conceivably become protective of your characters to the point where they're beyond real harm. It's a very easy trap to fall into, but Caves and company dodge the bullet quite well, as we'll soon see.

* "Bound" has Knapp resigning and heading off in search of Traya. I hoped that meant he'd stay away for a while... no such luck. We also have an amusing subplot with Lefler not quite adapting to her new position, and I liked that twist simply because it's completely in character: she's not command material, she doesn't have Shelby's ambition, and she only accepted the job because Shelby couldn't find anyone else.

But the most interesting storyline here is Ro's, as Matt pushes him to hook up with Nej'ta (the Klingon captain from last season's finale). The results are... pretty hilarious. I mean, it's a milestone for Ro because he's finally with a guy (even if it's not the guy he wants), but the whole Klingon-mating-through-S&M is so overwrought it skirts dangerously near parody (ie: turns out Klingons have ridges in other places too).

Here's the thing, though. Nej'ta? Is Karen Filipelli from "The Office". Perfectly likeable, but nothing more than a placeholder, a delaying tactic to make sure the real love story (Jim and Pam, or - in the case of "Hidden Frontier" - Ro and Aster) goes as far as it possibly can. And a Ro/Aster pairing has been so heavily telegraphed that you can't see Nej'ta as anything other than an obstacle.

* "Past Sins" sees the surprising return of Jenna McFarland, last seen in the third season. She's now played by Rebecca Wood, her third role on the series (she also plays Betras and Vindenpawl), and I thought she did a great job of separating the three, putting much more of a Starbuck-esque "crazy pilot" spin on Jenna.

The Doomsday Clock is still ticking for Aster and Dao, as Jorian reunites with Cassius Dao's former lover. Unfortunately, this leads into an uninspired Trill storyline that's basically a retread of "Security Counsel", yet another corrupt and hypocritical politician abusing his power, etc. That said, it leads to a great reveal where Siroc turns out to be much more flexible than most serial archvillains.

Elbrey and Henglaar have a subplot with Henglaar's niece Silan, and right about here is where Elbrey's sarcastic streak really takes off. It's pretty refreshing to have such a bitchy counselor, especially after Deanna Troi, but I do wonder about her success rate with patients - if Silan is any indication, probably not great.

* "Hearts and Minds" is another milestone, telling the last story of the USS Independence. I've always enjoyed the momentary asides to Jennifer Cole and her crew, and this final tale is appropriately tragic given that it's the last episode before the series finale gets underway. I loved the unnerving sequence with the collapsing bulkheads, and the glimpse of civilian resentment towards Starfleet raised some interesting questions about the supposed unity of mankind in the 24th century.

I'm less enthusiastic about Lorenzo Leonard replacing Brandon Stacy as Surgant - Leonard gives it a good try, but can't come close to Stacy's previous performance. It's a bit odd: "Hidden Frontier" tends to do very well when it replaces protagonist characters (ie: Ro, Lefler, Traya), but falters when it comes to recasting antagonists (I still think Suzy Kaplan's touch of flamboyance added a lot of color to the character of Vorina, and it didn't survive the switch in actresses).

The Aster/Dao storyline is just becoming repetitive at this point, and neither party is shown in a positive light: Corey's grasping at straws (seriously, what does he want already?), Jorian's being an asshole for no reason and is probably lying about wanting to play Hide The Symbiont with Mor. I see this sort of thing in romance storylines, where the writer wants a certain couple to reach a specific emotional state, but can't quite seem to get them there without someone overreacting in less-than-credible ways.

* As the name implies, "The Widening Gyre" is basically the beginning of the end, as "Hidden Frontier" wraps up with a four-part finale. Naros and the Helena go after Dr. Mor, Silan joins Traya in captivity, and Shelby's starting to crack under the strain of maintaining the Alpha Quadrant alliance.

Character-wise, McCabe has a new look - not so much the fresh-faced newbie anymore - and I love that he's still dealing with the fallout from "Vigil". Ro's looking a bit worse for the wear, which still amuses me (you have to wonder what constitutes Klingon spouse abuse). Anyway, this is the first episode with a significant Ro/Aster scene since... well, since Tara Abis was around. It's a scene that almost works thanks to Ro's newly-acquired self-awareness: it's a great reversal of "Ashes", where Corey was the one who knew exactly what was going on. But it doesn't work here because Ro basically talks himself out of his own offer - this could have been the starting point of an actual relationship, but good guys don't cheat, so nothing happens.

"Things Fall Apart" keeps the momentum going, finally taking us back to the Grey Research Facility and what they've been up to all this time. There's an odd comedy sequence where Ro, Aster, McCabe and Lefler run interference for a recuperating Shelby; this doesn't strike me as the most ideal time to try and get a laugh out of the viewers, but better late than never, I suppose. This episode also pulls off what may be the best cliffhanger in the series' entire run: there's an abduction, a bombing, a death, and a comeback for a presumed-dead character (although any real surprise is negated by the fact that S'Tal has basically been telegraphing the twist since last season).

"The Center Cannot Hold" starts by driving the final nail into the Aster/Dao coffin, so to speak. And I know I've stressed the point ad nauseum by now, but this latest development feels so transparent and manipulative, especially in light of Aster's decision in "The Widening Gyre" (in retrospect, he probably should've gone for broke). But Corey does manage to sum up the entire problem towards the end of the episode with a single line: "You are not the man I fell in love with."

Elsewhere, Princess Iliana fulfills her plot function as the Grey finally stage their comeback. In the long run, the Grey haven't quite worked as ongoing nemeses for our heroes, both because they're totally inconsistent in their motives and actions and because we never get to see any individual characters within that faction.

I should note that the pacing seems a bit off here, as characters find time for extended heart-to-heart chats while an apocalyptic battle rages around DS12. But that's a symptom of a larger issue we'll talk about next time.

And so we come to "Its Hour Come Round At Last", the series finale. For better or worse, seven years and fifty episodes come to an end here.

Sadly, we're still dealing with pacing problems, as Shelby and Nechayev have to deal with a new threat that quite literally comes out of nowhere, shifting our attention away from the Dyson Sphere showdown (which had been building up for a few seasons now). The villain alliance falls apart much too quickly, and when Siroc's motivation is finally revealed, it turns out to be pretty compelling - which would've been great, if it wasn't part of a last-minute reveal so condensed that I still don't understand what happens in the end.

On the up-side, there's a lot of closure here: for Jorian and Corey, for Myra, for Aris, for Ro and Nej'ta (that silent scream during the montage was actually rather moving). Of course, we're left with a few loose threads: was the Cardassians' treachery discovered? Why were the Tholians and Breen still involved after Siroc discarded them? Why wasn't Ba'ku destroyed by the giant wave of fire that spread throughout the Patch? Did Nechayev survive the final battle? (She's noticably absent at the end.)

The penultimate scene of the series is a Six Months Later epilogue with Ro and Aster getting married. And... look, I'm not necessarily saying Dao and Aster should've stayed together, because if the point of the Trill storyline was that you can't maintain a relationship with someone after his whole personality changes, that's perfectly valid. But Ro and Aster never had a relationship. Never even started one. The scene is played as a culmination of an ongoing storyline (Shelby's speech practically spells it out), but that's exactly the problem: we haven't seen any of this. Hell, even the wedding scene is laden with religious mumbo-jumbo as opposed to wedding vows (because at least then the characters could verbalize some kind of sentiment). As with Siroc, it just seems like a massive missed opportunity, telling rather than showing, summarizing events and emotions that should've played out on screen.

And then we get a coda with Shelby, Lefler and the Excelsior - there's a sense of palpable relief now that the war's over, and Starfleet can return to its roots (exploration, diplomatic relations, etc.) It's good that Caves and his team remembered that, because it's what separates "Star Trek" from its contemporaries: war was never the norm for Roddenberry's universe, and even if you needed the occasional Borg or Dominion or Grey threat to rear its head, that idea of exploration, of discovering cosmic anomalies and new species and whatnot, never completely faded away.

So that's how the story ends.

Sort of.

Turns out "Hidden Frontier" has produced no less than three spin-offs, and we'll be looking at those as well: what does it mean to extent a fan-fictional universe beyond its core narrative? What kinds of stories emerge from that? Do the series define themselves via the parent series, or is the "canon" Trekverse still the standard? Which characters make the transition to which spin-off, and why? All things I'm interested in examining.

How does the seventh season rate, then? On a purely technical level, there's no question that we've come a long, long way: actors are much more comfortable in their roles, the CGI's been refined, and if the storylines don't totally satisfy, they're at least exhibiting basic structure and coherence (which is more than we got with earlier efforts). I'll go into greater detail next time, but for now, suffice to say that "Hidden Frontier" goes out with a bang (more than one, in fact).

First Impressions: Dollhouse

I've been holding off on reviewing this show, because frankly, I still don't know where I stand with Joss Whedon's latest project.

It's no secret that I've found his recent output disappointing, whether it's the horribly unfocused eighth season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or the sloppy last quarter of his "Astonishing X-Men" run. And news of pre-air tinkering hardly bolstered my confidence in "Dollhouse".

But I could never have predicted that the strongest feeling I'd get from this show is how strangely anti-female it seems to be: setting aside the rather gross implications of what these Dolls are actually used for, all the women we've seen so far are uniformly pathetic, whether it's last week's Beyonce stand-in or Ballard's simpering neighbor or Saunders. Echo's had her moments, but they don't really count, do they?

Because that's the biggest problem "Dollhouse" faces: the premise doesn't allow for character development. At least not in the short term. It's certainly a great platform to display acting skills, and both Eliza Dushku and Dichen Lachman do a great job of playing multiple distinct characters, but they're constantly being reset at the end of each episode - regardless of what may or may not be bleeding through. And even non-Doll characters aren't moving: Ballard's still playing his one note (even as Tahmoh Penikett demonstrates more range over on "Battlestar Galactica" this week), Topher's kind of a skeeze, and Lawrence... why is this guy around? Besides not liking Echo just because?

So yes, there are quite a few problems with this show. I appreciate Whedon trying to be experimental with the whole Doll concept, but there are some fundamental questions left unanswered, such as why you'd bother with a Doll since you can get the real thing for a lot cheaper - it's implied that Dolls are basically gestalt entities combining the best traits of a bunch of people, which theoretically makes them better at any task than a normal person... but that certainly hasn't borne itself out with Echo so far.

I'll be giving this show another two or three episodes, but to be honest, I kind of doubt a premise with as many holes as this one can turn things around in short order. We'll see...

Season in Review: Being Human

Now that the chaos of the First Week of my Last Semester is over, it's back to business!

And wow, this one turned out to be a disappointment.

I'd noted before that the pilot episode of "Being Human" made a great first impression with me; I also pointed out that most of its strengths didn't actually survive the transition to the series premiere (namely, Mitchell was recast and there was a very tangible swerve away from the more light-hearted and comedic aspects of the series towards a more standardized "drama/horror" format).

Which pretty much sums the whole thing up, because by season's end, this show was about as funny as an episode of "Damages" or "In Treatment". That's not to say it couldn't have done well in that particular genre... it's just that what we ended up with was a fairly uninspired storyline with quasi-philosophical ditherings about what it means to be human, a dull "vampire wannabe-soulmates" plot that was about as exciting as the Angel/Darla Merry-Go-Round of Angsty Sex and Fake Repentance. Been there, seen that, and I wasn't all worked up about it the first time either.

Very much a missed opportunity, then. Too bad; it really did have potential.