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).