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.