Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Myriad Universes: Whoever Fights Monsters Part 1: The Pay Off!

One of the big appeals of the comic line back in the day was that because it was a monthly series that ran year 'round, this meant you could get a regular stream of new Star Trek stories even when the show was on summer hiatus. And I'd be willing to be that in Summer, 1990, in the gap between “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II”, the comic line filled a very desperate demand indeed.

Perhaps that's the reason why the Summer Event miniseries came about. It's odd to talk about such a thing at first, considering pretty much every story in this line belongs to some kind of multipart serial: That's the entire nature of the medium we're dealing with, after all. During the summer months, however, DC would go all-out with a particularly extensive serial that sometimes lasted well into the fall, oftentimes far more heavily hyped than any of their usual fare. These miniseries tended to have big, imposing-sounding titles and could even be collected in trade paperbacks after the fact, while few of the books that came out during the other seasons were. Even though Star Trek: The Next Generation was a licensed book, whenever summer rolled around it felt as if DC was treating it like a top tier title that not only deserved to stand alongside its TV namesake, but the rest of DC's stable as well. So while there's good stuff in the other months to be sure, including some excellent standalone tales, given the gravity they exert over the line we're going to be talking primarily about the Annuals and the Summer Event miniseries here.

Given that, the serial that ran during the crucial summer of 1990 is a peculiar one. It didn't have the hype of some of the later miniseries, and doesn't even have its own unique title (I've chosen to call it Whoever Fights Monsters after the final issue in the story because it quite frankly sounds cooler than the titles of any of the other issues). Even so, it's definitely a milestone for the book because even though it doesn't upsell itself to the extent some of its successors will, it marks the moment where Michael Jan Friedman and Pablo Marcos' take on Star Trek: The Next Generation finally and definitively arrives in full. They weren't around for the first volume, of course (well, at least Friedman wasn't) and while the second volume has had some nice bits here and there, it hasn't yet quite had its first real knockout story that can be called a bona fide classic from its actual creative team: The big highlight so far in my view, if you'll recall, is John de Lancie's “The Gift” that ran in the 1990 Annual.

But even now, this arc is shaping up to be the one that does it for Friedman and Marcos. “The Pay Off!” pulls no punches out of the gate delivering blow after blow: Captain Picard receives an eyes-only from a furious Admiral Rosenstrum (who amusingly looks a bit like a raging Gene Roddenberry), demanding to know if he's planning on starting a war with the Ferengi. It turns out the Enterprise has been spotted patrolling Ferengi space, in clear violation of treaty. Obviously the Enterprise wasn't there, but Rosenstrum wants to see Picard at Starbase 104 to sort the matter out. While Picard tries to figure out what's going on, Doctor Crusher is suddenly struck down by a rare but life-threatening illness called called Rihehnnia. It turns out she's been a carrier for the disease, which she helped treat on the planet Onnohr on her first Starfleet mission. Unfortunately, being native to that planet, this means the vaccine is only available on Onnorh, so in order to save Beverly's life Picard openly violates Admiral Rosenstrum's summons to divert the Enterprise there, knowing his crew is more important than regulations. The situation is further complicated when the Onnohrans reveal they are now under Ferengi jurisdiction and will not part with the vaccine unless they receive compensation deemed fitting by their Ferengi occupiers. It just so happens, of course, what they want is the plans to the Enterprise's warp engines.

It's an engaging plot to be sure, but what really elevates this one to the major leagues is the characterization. Friedman finally has a good handle on his whole cast, and the increased freedom and space of the tie-in comic gives him room to breath and explore them in ways the show's been skittish about doing lately. Through his internal monologues, Picard is revealed as a very passionate, principled and caring man who would rather sacrifice himself then allow his crew to be cast in a poor light, a theme that will be further developed as the miniseries goes on. This isn't just generic burden-of-command stuff, though: We really get the sense that these are beliefs and concerns that come out of the captain's own personal convictions, and the warmth he exhibits towards his crew, especially the Crushers, goes a long way towards showing that humanity that Star Trek fans seemed to think he lacked.

And the rest of the crew is every bit as strong as he is: Even incapacitated, Beverly is as quick-witted and sardonic as ever, and her delivery as she recounts her history with Onnorh and Rihehnnia belies the touch of a master scientist. Wesley is unlikable, but believably so: He snaps at Captain Picard for not understanding what he's going through because he's not related to Beverly, even though he cares about her too, and he loses his composure on the bridge and lashes out at the Onnorhan representatives. But this is all the sort of feelings we would expect someone in his position to be going through (Captain Picard even says as much, both to him and to us) and it feels like a realistic extension of the character Wil Wheaton has been increasingly been playing, if not of the one that's being written for him.

Friedman doesn't ignore the other cast, either: There's a great series of exchanges between Picard, Riker and Deanna Troi in the observation lounge and the bridge where they discuss their predicament, and their voices sound both spot-on and far richer, fuller and more lyrical than they do on TV. I especially love how Deanna gets to throw cold water on the two men pompously discussing things like “acceptable losses” and “the needs of the many” by politely reminding them that they're using “the arithmetic of war” and that there has to be a way to save Doctor Crusher without compromising the security of the Enterprise. She's right, of course. Even though it's Wesley (natch) who comes up with the actual plan, it's Deanna who reminds everyone that there is, as always, another way. Once again, Friedman demonstrates himself as very probably the best writer of Deanna Troi we've seen to date.

So of course Beverly gets saved and the Ferengi's plot is foiled, but we still have the small matter of a very pissed off Admiral Rosenstrum wanting to know why the Enterprise wasn't where everyone said it was. He can't be too happy that Picard violated his direct orders to make a detour to Onnorh, either. And no sooner do we get out of that than the Enterprise is ambushed by two Federation starships under the command of one Captain Lavelle...Who's just accused her and her crew of destroying the USS Nairobi, murdering everyone aboard.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sensor Scan: Quantum Leap

I remember quite well when the first trailers for Enterprise debuted. I'll save talking about exactly how much of an event it felt like for me (that's two books from now, after all), but one thing in particular caught my attention straight away: There were these two guys (in *baseball caps*) sitting in what I assumed to be some form of shuttlecraft talking about how the new Warp Drive engine would allow them to go to “Neptune and back in six minutes”. One of those guys looked awfully familiar-Was that...was that who I thought it was?

Omigish it is! It's Scott Bakula! The guy from Quantum Leap is on Star Trek! And he's the new captain! 

Quantum Leap is a show I have fond memories of. It was never something I followed religiously; I was only ever a casual viewer. But it was a show that seemed to always be around, it eventually developed a kind of comfort blanket appeal for me and, in retrospect, seems actually sort of lovely and wonderful. I remember Starlog Magazine covering it back in the day when it was on the air, talking to Bakula, Dean Stockwell and the show's creative team, so it was one of those shows that was one of my early introductions to science fiction. In much later years, I remember it primarily as the lead-in to the Sci-Fi Channel's reruns of the Original Star Trek in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Sometimes I would tune in early to watch a whole episode, while other times I'd just catch the tail end of one before TOS came on. Either way it was something I always enjoyed and appreciated whenever I managed to see it: It always seemed a rather pleasant and charming little series.

A great deal of Quantum Leap's appeal for me comes from Scott Bakula's character, Doctor Sam Backett. He's a quantum physicist heading up a research programme looking into the possibility of time travel, and when the government threatens to shut the project down Beckett protests by throwing himself into the quantum accelerator, “leaping” through the time-space continuum. Thus begins the series' central gimmick: Every episode Beckett “leaps” to a new point in time and *into* the body of a different person. Soon, Beckett and his friend Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell's character) and their AI friend Ziggy (series executive producer and narrator Deborah Pratt) discover that Sam's leaps through time are caused by his behaviour in his present time: In particular, his efforts to right a wrong or correct an injustice that subtly alter the course of history. Upon this revelation, Sam is emboldened to keep leaping through the timeline to do what he can to change history for the better.

It's this simple, unpretentious conviction to do good, to be a good person and to do what you can, no matter how humble the act, to make the universe a better place in your own small way that makes Sam such an endearing character for me. He's honestly, genuinely, sincerely a nice guy, and it helps Scott Bakula is the perfect actor for the job: He consistently, doggedly conveys this and drives it home each and every time for 97 episodes and five seasons. Sam is so likable and sympathetic he naturally, and entirely appropriately, becomes the narrative singularity around which the whole of Quantum Leap's universe revolves-Not only do a lot of stories end up dealing with his own life, but he's understandably the primary reason we want to tune in and keep watching. This helps the show in other ways too, as Quantum Leap's sci-fi convictions are in truth little more than a framing device to tell a series of anthology tales, the creators fearing they wouldn't be able to sell such a series without such a conceit. It's Sam Beckett's good nature and Scott Bakula's affable and incredibly attractive charisma that link together all these wildly disparate personal vignettes about otherwise unrelated people.

In some ways, Quantum Leap serves as a much more elegant and streamlined version of Doctor Who, another series that, at its best, is basically just an anthology show with a science fiction framing device. Quantum Leap's advantage here is its staunch rejection of serialization, thus meaning there's no way it's going to inherit a huge surplus of continuity baggage to make it intimidating for new viewers: You could tune in entirely at random, as I did, and still get a great deal of enjoyment out of Quantum Leap's done-in-one morality plays and character dramas. It's an entirely functional and effective approach to sci-fi television that dates all the way back to The Twilight Zone. But I think what appeals to me the most about Quantum Leap at the stage of life I'm at right now is what I read its values and beliefs to be in the most general: This is a show about a person wandering through time and space, guided by the universe to do good deeds and leave the collective unconsciousness of humanity a little better off then when he got there. Sometimes Sam must do things that seem counterinutitive or live through events that are traumatic or hurtful in the short term, but history is always the better off for it in the end. It's a lesson Kei and Yuri would not at all find foreign, and the moment I realised this, Quantum Leap's stature in the pantheon of my half-remembered pop culture memories shot up quite a bit.

I don't have a ton of specific episodes of this show I remember especially vividly. Quantum Leap was always something I enjoyed in the aggregate and I don't have any real lasting or formative memories of it. I do recall not really liking whenever they did so-called “Kisses with History” episodes where Sam is injected into real, actual documented historical events-My distaste for this kind of story comes from the same place as my baseline rejection of historical fiction as a genre that I talked about *way* back in the first volume in the context of “Balance of Terror”. There was at least one episode where Sam lept into the body of a pregnant woman I remember finding...interesting. But the one episode I want to highlight in particular I just found out about now when I was doing research for this piece to refresh my memory: The fourth season finale is an episode called “A Leap For Lisa”, in which Sam leaps into the body of a young Al, at risk of being court martialed for a murder he didn't commit. Al can't prove his innocence without revealing he'd been having an affair with an army nurse named Lisa Sherman while they were both married (...to other people).

What makes this story noteworthy, apart from the strong character moments for Sam and Al, is the character of Lisa. In the original, “bad” course of events she dies in a car accident, but Sam's intervention keeps her alive. At first it seems like this has actually made things worse, as this new set of events leads to Al getting convicted and executed. But Sam manages to change history a second time by finding a key piece of evidence that creates a timeline where both Lisa *and* Al live.

By the way, Lisa is played by Terry Farrell.

Lisa is no Cat to be sure, but Farrell is every bit as coquettishly and provocatively sexual and every bit as magnetically energetic as she is in every other part she plays. And of course, I can't get over how giddy it makes me to find out that one of my favourite men and one of my favourite women were in an production together, and they even play lovers!

(There's an additional level of poignancy here for me in having a character played by Scott Bakula saving the life of a character played by Terry Farrell in order to bring about a better future. That hits at a number of levels and will prove somewhat heartrendingly prophetic.)

Utopianism need not be an ideal state. It need not even be a roadmap to such things. “Utopianism is a framework for utopias”, in the words of Robert Nozick, and maybe utopianism also means doing small things for each other to make everyone's lives a little happier, a little more hopeful and a little more wonderful. Maybe we can't leap through time like Sam Beckett or journey to the stars like Jonathan Archer, but we all travel through time and space together every day and the effect is the same. The future is always now, and it's always been on us to make it a good one.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Ultimate Dirty Pair Episode Guide Master Post

Yesterday's post on Flight 005 Conspiracy is Vaka Rangi's final word on Dirty Pair. Some of you are no doubt rejoicing at this news. For the rest of you, since I've now finished the entirety of the Classic Anime Series I've whipped up something special: It's called The Ultimate Dirty Pair Episode Guide Master Post.

Perhaps my writing has inspired you to take a trip through Dirty Pair yourself, but are unsure where to start. If that's the case, then this is for you. If you're new to Dirty Pair and are looking for a reading guide to get you started, this list should have everything you need: It's a complete, enumerated, categorized breakdown of every single story of note from the original novels and Classic Anime series (that are also in English) I've curated to be as definitive an experience as I can provide. I've also provided links to where you can watch the show online, buy the books and DVDs as well as my own posts on each story I've highlighted. Think of it as a Greatest Hits compilation and an introductory course in one.

You can find the list here, and once this post goes live it will also be a permanent fixture of Vaka Rangi itself, accessible at anytime at the top of the sidebar under "Pages".

Thursday, March 26, 2015

“May there always be an Angel by your side”: Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy

No goodbyes, just good memories.

This is the final Dirty Pair movie. The final Classic Anime. The final performance of Kyōko Tongū and Saeko Shimazu as Kei and Yuri. And it's time for us to take stock of just how far we've come and where we might be going from here. Because while Dirty Pair does not end with Flight 005 Conspiracy, a very important part of it does, and this is where the Lovely Angels bid Vaka Rangi farewell: Transcending our narrative one last time in search of their next adventure together.

The existence alone of Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy is something of an oddity. In the years since the release of Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture in 1987, the franchise had been slipping into more and more of a decline popularly, falling ever more out of the public eye as audiences and tastes began to change. There's a marked dropoff in, say, promotional material and tie-in merchandise from the release of The Motion Picture, through the OVA series to this movie that tracks alongside Dirty Pair's inescapable slide into obscurity. In fact, there was next to no promotion for Flight 005 Conspiracy at all, with no significant ad spots in magazines I could find and nothing except a soundtrack CD and a small calendar to go along it. Even the LaserDisc cover is the most unassuming and humble of things: While even Original Dirty Pair got unique, elabourate and colourful sleeve art for each volume, here we only have a simple illustration of the girls set against a solid colour background and the title printed in basic, no-frills font in a tiny corner at the top of the sleeve.

Of course this is not at all to insinuate the series' quality had been declining in parallel, the contrary, in fact: I'd argue the run from the premier of Original Dirty Pair to now is a strong contender for the single greatest run of stories in all of Dirty Pair. Yet it seems like even as animated Dirty Pair came into its own, gradually leaving its own indelible mark on the series as a whole, viewers started to grow less and less enamoured of it. It's not like this is anything of a surprise, considering the TV series, debatably the most well-known and well-loved version of the franchise, was canceled before all its episodes could be produced. I suppose you could point the finger at Dirty Pair being science fiction that trends more or less to the traditional side of things as the culprit behind its fall from favour, but I don't think that really explains it: Plenty of other sci-fi shows that had just as traditional roots went on to be far more successful. For an especially poignant contrast, look at Star Trek: The Next Generation, the popularity of which only continued to steadily climb during this exact same period.

No, I'm far more inclined to blame shifting demographics. I think viewers overlooked Dirty Pair and left it behind in favour of newer and more exciting series as the popularity of shōnen anime and manga exploded in the late-1980s and early-1990s owing to the increasing dominance of the so-called “otaku” subculture in the discourse. There's a whole essay that's not this one on how and why self-professed otaku naturally gravitated towards media that is strictly speaking intended for children and why those particular tastes became synonymous with anime and manga in the Long 1990s, but the long and short of it for our purposes is that Dirty Pair isn't a children's show-It's a science fiction show for adults (primarily, arguably, adult women) that just happens to be a cartoon, and that's what had gone very out of vogue by 1990. Dirty Pair will always have fans in adult sci-fi enthusiast communities, just like the one Rick Sternbach and Mike Okuda were a part of, but those people were no longer the target audience for anime. And so the series retreats further back into its OVA sanctuary for its final screen outing of note.

One wonders if the Sunrise animators were aware of all this on some level. While I'm not sure Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy was intended to be the last Dirty Pair as it doesn't have a particularly funereal tone about it, it does very much feel like a series looking within itself and doubling down on its strengths. That's not to say the film plays it safe either, actually this might be the most brazen and envelope-pushing effort of the lot, at least in some respects. But Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy is definitely a film that knows what it is, knows what it's good at and knows who really cares. It's a veritable Dirty Pair Greatest Hits of thematic elements and plot beats executed absolutely flawlessly: It's once again a dense espionage thriller, there are mentions of Planet Lionesse, Yuri gets to wield her signature Bloody Card for the first and last time on TV and even Lucifer plays an important role. Yet Chief Gooley still makes a cameo, the Lovely Angel herself is the model from the OVA Series and Kei and Yuri's uniforms resemble their outfits from Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture. The story even involves a mystery surrounding a plane that's tearing a family apart, just like in “No Way! 463 People Disappeared?!”/“We Did It! 463 People Found!”. The film reaches across the entire span of the Classic Series and the light novels to bring together all the quintessential little signifiers that make Dirty Pair Dirty Pair for one last show.

And that's even before you get to the writing and direction.

I'm not even going to bother talking about the plot: It's a complex tale of twists, turns and fake-outs and relies on world-building to such an extent I'd be spending the whole essay just summarising it, and that's not what I want to talk about. I hasten to add this is not in any way a complaint or a criticism: Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy is sprawling tale of political intrigue and human drama that spans the entire galaxy and beats within each and every human heart, even that of the smallest child, and I've never before seen a story like this conveyed this effectively. If you're looking for a recommendation or endorsement, that's it: If you haven't seen it before and care at all about Dirty Pair, go watch it. Now, preferably. It is “harder” and less openly metaphysical than, say, Affair of Nolandia, to use the obvious point of comparison and it also has something of a reputation for “darkness”: Flight 005 Conspiracy is a somewhat somber and melancholy film and is definitely the darkest of the Classic Anime series, but it must be said (and without spoiling too much) there's nothing here that would seem out of place in, for example, The Dirty Pair Strike Again.

But just as was the case with Affair of Nolandia, the keyword here isn't “dark”, but “adult” and “mature”. This is a Dirty Pair that plays itself straight for a change (well, not *too* straight: This is still Dirty Pair with all the requisite puroresu performativity that goes along with it, of course). There's no more Blade Runner-influenced Elenore City; there are no more clueless and strangled shout-outs to James Bond. This is a Dirty Pair movie with unfaltering confidence in just being a Dirty Pair movie and the knowledge it doesn't need to be anything else to blow us away. Star Trek, however, thankfully does still remain: We get to see a lot more of the Lovely Angel then we ever have before, including quite a few going-to-warp sequences that are obviously a hat-tip to similar effects shots from the film series. The animation and art direction, by the way, are both top-notch, here and in every other scene: This movie is as vivid, colourful, imaginative and evocative as the series has ever been.

But having Star Trek stick around is both touching and also quite fitting because, with Flight 005 Conspiracy, Dirty Pair is once more and for one last time a space-based science fiction show about a voyaging starship. And appropriately, this is the most mature and nuanced depiction of Kei and Yuri's relationship we've seen in a very long time. The girls go through hell in this movie and, under the strain of their charge, come perilously close on quite a number of occasions to explicitly confessing their obvious feelings for each other. But they always stop short, because that wouldn't be appropriate in this setting: That's not what this film is about. The mission must come first. The mission must always come first. There will be time for that after the credits roll. But we can read it plain as day in the way they talk and act around each other, like we never could before. Two hearts beating as one, the entire universe before them. 

Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy show a Kei and Yuri with the weight of the world on their shoulders and well aware of it. And it's not just them: This is the most crazed and obsessive Chief Gooley of all, apparently driven completely to the brink of sanity due to the combined stresses of his job and working with the Lovely Angels, and not entirely in a comedic way. And in a way this is quite fitting, because as much as Flight 005 Conspiracy reaches across the span of Dirty Pair's collected history, it also serves as a kind of limit case for it: Frankly, this movie can make a strong case for being the absolute pinnacle of Sunrise's animated Dirty Pair franchise, but in order to be that it must push every single thing about the series as it exists right now as far as it can possibly go. There's a brilliant scene where the girls use the trappings of fluffy pulp sci-fi and detective fiction against itself (and us), reappropriating it for themselves. The movie even ends with the Angels squaring off against the leader of Lucifer himself in a life-or-death stakes battle the likes of which they've never seen before. There can never be another detective mystery as simultaneously sweepingly grandiose and heartrendingly personal as this. There can never be another Golden Age-influenced sci-fi story this powerful and effective that doesn't also bring something else to the table.

This is Dirty Pair's Loser Retires match.

And yet at the same time, the film knows this, because of course it does. Kei and Yuri are here, aren't they? Who knows their story or the fabric of narrative magick with which it's woven better than them? And Kei and Yuri know better than anyone just where their path will take them next. Music once more plays a very integral role here, and it's overwhelmingly more effective and memorable than any other time the series has tried this. The OVA Series themes were perfect, but music was not worked into the basic structure and body of that show except for the familiar leitmotifs that played during the action scenes. Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture wanted to be a feature-length abstract music video, but it had trouble syncing up its musical symbolism with its linear narrative. Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy, however, works just like Miami Vice, delicately weaving music into key wordless moments throughout the movie. Unlike the dissonance of The Motion Picture's score, here the story's animation and its soundtrack (very, very appropriately called Love Songs) at last truly compliment each other, working in perfect tandem to elevate the entire production.

(And of course the theme song is a work of genius. Why wouldn't it be? In fact, to me it anticipates, uncannily, some of Dennis McCarthy's scores for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Enterprise.)

It's a refreshing reiteration, here in the year that Miami Vice itself went off the air, of the timeless beauty and power of Long 1980s visual logic and cinematography and a metaphor for the lasting legacy of Dirty Pair itself. The true gift of Kei and Yuri's magick is its ability to settle in our hearts, remind us of our greater selves and our more cosmic purpose, and to inspire us to reach for them. They're always within our sight should we take the time to remember them and reflect on them. Because the biggest secret of all is, for all of its alleged “darkness”, Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy may just be the most hopeful Dirty Pair yet. Utopianism does not mean a perfect world free of strife and conflicts, but it does mean a world where we can deal with such things in a positive and constructive way. It's a commitment to improve ourselves and to strive for an ideal that is not necessarily a tangible thing for us to reach, at least not in this life, but that allows us to sublimate the life we have now. Kei and Yuri know this better than anyone, and in order to prove it they once again break the God Canon. But this time they too are caught in the blast.

Kei and Yuri have always stood in for the concept of the Glorified Body, and it's always been their charge to help prepare humanity for the next phase of their spiritual development, oftentimes by bringing forth traumatic, yet necessary, transformative change. And now it's time to do that for each other, and for Dirty Pair itself: Summon all the franchise is and has ever been, and explode it outward spectacularly in every direction. Blow it up so that it may be sublimated. With Flight 005 Conspiracy, Dirty Pair as a viable franchise is effectively over, but as an idea, as a dream, it's become infinite, immortal, and unending. Just like our Glorified Lovely Goddesses. There will be more official Dirty Pair here and there, certainly, but there will be even more homages, reiterations, reincarnations and evocations in all but name. Dirty Pair belongs to the collective unconscious and the realm of symbolic magick now, and that's where its greatest work can be done. Dirty Pair has reached its own point of singularity. The Lovely Angels have transfigured into higher states of being. Kei and Yuri have grown up.

What more can I say about Dirty Pair? About Kei and Yuri? As much as they have changed at the end of this movie, so they have changed me. They've certainly changed the course of this project permanently, that much is self-evident. But the effect on me personally will be even more lasting and resonant. As I was writing this book, my world slowly became a more and more uncanny, and unmistakable, example of life imitating art. This isn't a true autobiography, in spite of what it looks like and the influences it draws from the genre, so I won't go into too much more detail here. But this show...This series...Those girls...Those ideas, have changed my life forever. If a goddess is the idea of a goddess, then Kei and Yuri are mine. Like Kira Nerys once said, “That's the thing about faith: If you don't have it, you can't understand it and if you do, no explanation is necessary”. There's a landscape of memory and emotion Dirty Pair evokes for me, and the amount of truth I can convey about it through pseudo-academic prose is rapidly running thin, so I too, must depart, alongside my Lovely Holy Guardian Angels. All I can do is invite you to take your own journey and discover your own truths for yourself...And to hope your journey is even a fraction as rewarding, fulfilling and affirmational as mine has been.

So, after all of that what have we learned? We've travelled across the universe and traversed the future-scapes of our most vivid memories and imaginations to discover the universe that exists in all of us; in each and every living thing. We've touched the soul of world and seen the paths that lie before us, and that lead us to each other. It's been an amazing ride, and I can only dream of where we're going next. We've barely only scratched the surface. What does the future hold for Kei and Yuri? Only the stars can know. But they do assuredly have a future, because their future is now, and it is them. They live it, and every day the tide turns over once more, they live it again.

And now, I really can't say anymore. Take it by yourself. And let it always be summertime.

See you next volume...!? Again, bye bye...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sensor Scan: Red Dwarf

 This is going to be another of those essays that crop up every now and again where I am 1000% confident my readers know far, far more about the subject matter than I do.

I never watched Red Dwarf. In fact, I'd never even *heard* of it until I started hanging around niche sci-fi analysis blogs four years ago. Apparently, this is something that's been a huge part of a lot of people's lives for many years now though, and given there are ten (going on eleven as of this writing) seasons of this show plus a fair amount of tie-in material, there's no way I could be expected to put together a comprehensive retrospective of this thing, so, sorry in advance. What I'll try to do instead is briefly take stock of some observations I've made about Red Dwarf's fandom and how they feel the show fits into the larger narrative of voyaging starship stories.

The curious thing I've noticed about Red Dwarf fans, at least the ones I've read and from what I've been able to discern through my admittedly limited interactions with the fandom, is that they seem to spend more time talking about Star Trek than they do talking about their own show. I have seen Red Dwarf labeled more than a few times as an explicit parody of Star Trek, or as “Britain's answer to Star Trek: The Next Generation”. The general argument seems to be that while the USian Star Trek: The Next Generation concerned itself with the pretentious, po-faced navel-gazing of a bunch of upperclass neo-colonialists, the British Red Dwarf follows the adventures of two chicken soup machine repairmen (one of whom is actually dead), a malfunctioning AI and the descendant of of race of hyper-evolved cat people stuck together on a ramshackle mining ship three million years from anywhere who are not particularly concerned with terribly much, and certainly not Seeking Out New Life and New Civilizations.

To me, this argument is merely an extension of a pre-existing cultural tension that separates the United States from the British Isles: The unflattering comparison to Star Trek: The Next Generation is typically accompanied by a(n at least implied) statement about the difference in values between the US and the UK, with a tacit premise that UK values are superior due to their self-effacing modesty and lack of jingoistic expansionist fever dreams. It is also, in my opinion, what we would refer to in modern parlance as a “humblebrag” and further evidence of the inane, self-conscious, warlike factionalism of science fiction fans that is but one reason among many that I hate science fiction fans. As much as I'd rather not, I'm going to take some of these accusations seriously, as there is at least one level at which they have something resembling merit.

Star Trek does, in fact, have something of a class problem and it's one the future creative teams on Star Trek: The Next Generation do actually and explicitly make worse. This first becomes most evident, in fact, in the second episode of the fourth season, “Family”, which, as we discussed last time, generally fails at its attempts to make Captain Picard relatable by making him even *more* privileged and aloof-seeming. Irritatingly, this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise: It is, after all, the series' Original Sin that it curses itself with after its spectacularly toxic inability to make Tasha Yar work. But it's always dangerously easy in hindsight to assume everything is teleological; inexorably leading towards the present day and the connotations the artistic works of our past retain in our memories, and that's what we should be careful to remember here.

There was nothing conceptually wrong with Star Trek: The Next Generation from the outset that would have rendered it unable to be more egalitarian in this regard: There's no reason a Vasquez-type character couldn't have worked on the show, or that Captain Picard *had* to be an academic from wine country. Those were all conscious decisions made during the course of the show's material production that left it lesser off as a result. Indeed, just last time we saw a fascinating alternate history take on the same concept that seemed at once tantalizingly fresh and retroactively obviously fitting. There's no reason the fundamental idea, the original spark, was doomed from the start. So when people slag off Star Trek: The Next Generation for being too clinical, too imperialistic and too privileged, it does set my teeth on edge a bit, because not only is it judging the entire show by its worst moments, but it's dismissing the entire concept because certain creative figures at certain points in its history may not have been able to fully realise its potential for any number of reasons.

You know, it almost sounds like the same sorts of people who would dismiss, say Red Dwarf or Doctor Who for their camp and bad special effects. 

Red Dwarf is also interesting as a near-textbook example of the sorts of things that happen to long-running franchises, in particular science fiction franchises, with a strong connection to cult fandom cultures (well, the ones that aren't called Dirty Pair anyway). At its heart, this is pretty much nothing more than a bog standard British comedy that just happens to take place in a science fiction setting. As it goes on, however, the show starts to play more and more with traditional sci-fi narrative tropes and archetypes and becomes increasingly concerned with issues of continuity, with frequent fanwanky call-backs, retcons and retroactive grafting of heavy significance onto what were once mere throwaway gags (albeit ones that were good enough to be memorable). From what little I've seen, I tend to think Red Dwarf works best as a straightforward comedy and when it tries to go beyond that to do “proper” science fiction, even just to take the piss out of it, it's punching above its weight class a bit. But either way, you'd never see this stuff happening to any *other* sitcom: Just *try* to picture Red Dwarf: Back to Earth, Red Dwarf X or anything having to do with Kristine Kochanski happening on, say Keeping Up Appearances.

Another way Red Dwarf plays into this archetype though is through the concept of the reboot or reimagining, an altogether more positive and complimentary outgrowth of its science fiction heritage that reminds us that, no matter how incestuously fannish this type of show can become, it can also serve handily as modern myth. There are a number of soft “in universe” reboots in the show itself, but the one everyone wants to talk about is, of course, the failed US remake from 1992. There were actually two pilots commissioned (wow, deja vu): One that was a more-or-less straightforward retelling of the first episode (the cheekily named “The End”), and another that featured direct involvement from the show's original creators.

I only care about the second, because it's a brilliantly mad little thing: Cobbled together at the last second after half the cast had been replaced on a budget of apparently negative dollars, it's basically an outsized trailer comprised of footage from the first pilot, effects shots from the original show and vignettes recorded with the new cast with enthusiastic and ambitious assurances that they come from “future episodes”. This Frankensteinian aberration is stitched together by linking narration by Craig Beirko, replacing Craig Charles as Lister. Beirko actually does a good job with what he has and is pretty likable straight away, though the character he's playing isn't really Dave Lister as originally conceived (for one thing it's a bit unfortunate that Beirko is white and Charles is Afro-British, though the original show's handle of race and gender did strike me as a bit...odd).

Holly is played by Fraiser's Jane Leeves instead of either Normal Lovett or Hattie Hayridge, and I have to say I adore Leeves in the part: She strikes a perfect balance between dry, sardonic snarker and scatterbrained, ditzy cloudcuckoolander and seems like a ideally distilled version of the character: She's fully aware she's spent three million years slowly growing senile, but she ran out of fucks to give somewhere around the first two million. So sure, the second pilot has issues (for one thing it's pretty obvious Rob Grant and Doug Naylor's style of comedy writing doesn't translate too well to a United States context and cast, but that's not necessarily the cast's fault) and then there's the minor issue the pilot is only ten minutes, which does somewhat drastically cut down the amount of time you have to set up and sell your premise. And yet it's also easy to see that, with more appropriate writing and a more competent production, this was a setup that did have some potential for success.

But of course the main attraction for me, and the entire reason I'm doing Red Dwarf at all, is Terry Farrell as Cat. Once again, Farrell is not at all playing Danny John-Jules' character: The original Cat was a very self-absorbed and vain person programatically fixated on his appearance and fashion sense. Terry Farrell's take, by contrast, draws influence from other stereotypes of cats, being a keen and relentless (and borderline sadistic) hunter instinctively built for the kill. On the other hand, she's a fierce and loyal protector of her turf and her family and is always the first to take charge and leap into action. She also really, really gets around, openly and casually chatting about her sexual interests and exploits (she can't understand how human women are satisfied with just one partner a night). Farrell is an absolute knockout in the part (in more ways than one: Her *fantastic* 1980s glamour model hairstyle, Cats eyeliner and street punk tiger skin bodysuit do her quite a number of favours) and decisively steals the whole show (which is admittedly not too hard when your show is ten minutes long and comprised of disconnected skits). I daresay this might even be her definitive, or at least defining, role: Star Trek would have seemed a *lot* less tame had she been allowed to show her feline side as Jadzia Dax more often.

On the whole, Red Dwarf's saga reminds me of how an argument could be made that science fiction and professional wrestling both are viewed as soap operas for men (except in Japan, of course). Just like soap operas, they cultivate and reward long-term viewers with continuity fanservice that, after a time, becomes the only reason anyone bothers to watch these things. And yet perhaps counterintuitively, this is also the very thing that prevents so much science fiction from actually being successful and accessible: Whenever it frees itself from these constraints, it gives itself breathing room to cut loose, play and be imaginative. And as for the gender component...Well, that would explain a lot about science fiction.

If you're a Red Dwarf fan and haven't seen the second US pilot, or even if you're not, you can watch it here. I definitely recommend it from an academic perspective, and it's worth watching for Terry Farrell alone if for nothing else.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Myriad Universes: The Gift

One of the things Star Trek is often praised for going forward is how involved it would get its actors in the creative process. Now admittedly we haven't seen a ton of that so far, especially where Marina Siritis, Denise Crosby and Gates McFadden have been concerned, but this is beginning to change. Shari Goodhartz recalls specifically consulting Brent Spiner during the production of “The Most Toys” to get his input on how Data should behave, there's Patrick Stewart's somewhat infamous alleged meddling in “Captain's Holiday” and Jonathan Frakes is, of course, now one of the show's regular top tier directors. Even Denise Crosby was invited to pitch the basic concept of “Yesterday's Enterprise”, and she'll be the guiding figure spearheading all her return appearances from now on. Yet Crosby's is not the marquee name on any of her stories: One thing the cast member's *haven't* gotten to do yet is pen their own script themselves.

Until now.

“The Gift” is DC's first Star Trek: The Next Generation Annual, a special extended length issue published once a year every year for the duration of the book's run. I always looked forward to these Annual issues for a number of reasons: Firstly, they were always event stories, but not in the contemporary parlance of big, overblown, often incredibly lurid and brutal bits of crossover fanwank. No, for Star Trek: The Next Generation the Annual (and, subsequently the summer event miniseries) is the comic line's chance to do its “Yesterday's Enterprise” or “Transfigurations”: That one sublime story that everything sort of builds towards, standing out as the iconic moment of the year. The other reason I tended to look forward to the Annuals is because I never subscribed to any of these books; I bought my comics and magazines at the grocery store (yes kids, once upon a time you could do that) and since the racks were re-stocked just infrequently enough these tended to be the issues you'd see on the shelves most often.

“The Gift” is also none other than John de Lancie's authorial debut on Star Trek, and naturally, it's a landmark Q story. In fact, it's the very best Q story since “Q Who”, if not “Encounter at Farpoint”. It's a story of unprecedented depth and sophistication from the hand of someone who plainly knows his character better than the staff writers on the TV show do. This is the second story to be included in The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation and it absolutely deserves it: “The Gift” is a potent mixture and anticipation of “Yesterday's Enterprise”, “Family”, “Tapestry” and “All Good Things...” and comes damn close to outdoing each and every one of them. It's a story that's actually incredibly difficult to explain, so focused is it on dream imagery, hallucinations, memory and alternate timelines. It's the story that singlehandedly catapults DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation into the big leagues, conclusively demonstrating that not only is it more then capable of playing on its parent TV show's level, it can pick up its slack and, if it's not careful, actually outclass it. It's the most daringly surreal and abstract Star Trek: The Next Generation has been yet in *any* incarnation, and also the most intensely personal. No surprises it's also the best.

The Enterprise crew are throwing a party, and Will comes into Captain Picard's room to ask if he'd like to accompany him to the celebration. But Picard seems preoccupied and deep in thought, and brushes Riker off. Not long afterward, the ship encounters an interstellar anomaly, and everyone onboard start to lose control of their mental faculties. Then, one of the most bizarre and disturbing scenes in the history of the series happens, as Picard slowly transforms into a goat (like, an actual, literal barnyard creature) on the bridge before Q appears to him, claiming to be upset with him after the way he embarrassed him in “Deja Q”. Q then spirits Goat-Picard away, telling Riker and Troi that they're going on a “homecoming trip” together. Picard (now no longer a goat) awakens in the Paris of his childhood and, upon realising his parents are still alive, goes to meet them. But his parents do not recognise him, and Picard discovers that Q has somehow adopted the role of Picard's teenage self, and Picard must now dig deep into his memories and values to out-debate Q prove he is who he says he is.

...And that's just what happens in the first 20 or so pages. It goes on, getting more and more unpredictably wonderful with each passing panel. There's even a scene where Q takes Picard to a primordial wasteland to show him his true roots (that is, his genetic history), and remember this was written in *1990*, before Ron Moore and Brannon Braga even had the *remotest* of ideas for “All Good Things...”. Trek scholars will be most interested in (and Trek purists will howl at) de Lancie's conception of the captain's relatives, which is dramatically different than what the “canon” version will give us a few months from now: They have different names, of course, but what's more important is that instead of being academics from wine country, they're a very small, quiet family living in a humble townhouse in downtown Paris. I hesitate to call them “working class” because those sorts of distinctions aren't really applicable to Earth in Star Trek's 24th century, but they're certainly not high society. Indeed, Jean-Luc's memories of them are charmingly mundane, recalling most fondly the times his father would take him fishing, or how they came up with a secret code together to make sure he got home from school safely.

Yes, I'm going to say it. There's no two ways around it, this version of Captain Picard's biography is absolutely superior to the one established in “Family”.

It further turns out that the source of Jean-Luc's malaise of late has been his brother, who in this version of events is not a vineyard owner named Robert, but a moody underachiever named Claude. He's also dead, having tragically perished in an accident when he and Jean-Luc were very young, an event Jean-Luc has been riddled with guilt over ever since and hasn't been able to ever truly move beyond. This, it's soon revealed, is the true purpose of Q's visit: He manipulates Picard into admitting and confronting his feelings of loss the way he was never able to before, and gives him the chance to finally grieve and heal with his parents. Which is all the more needed, because, as we learn not long after, it's a good thing Claude died because he was a total fucking psychopath who hated his brother and his family and, had he lived, would have grown into a tyrannical despot modelling himself after Adolf Hitler and become the one catalyst Starfleet and the Federation needed to explicitly take the final step into becoming a full-on conquering military empire. With Claude the Great and Terrible (the actual title he bestows upon himself) on the throne, Starfleet launches a genocidal purge of all non-human races in the galaxy, the sole holdout being a band of worn-down rebels onboard the renegade starship Enterprise under Captain William Riker, the only people left who care about the ideals Starfleet so casually abandoned.

(As great a handle as de Lancie clearly has on Jean-Luc Picard and Q, he also shows himself to know the other members of the crew just as well. While all these temporal shenanigans are going on in Paris, the Enterprise stays where it was when it all happened, and Riker has a lot of heavy, and personal, discussions with Deanna, Geordi, Data, Worf and Doctor Crusher about what Q might be planning and what they might be forced to do if Captain Picard never comes back or the timeline changes beyond their control. Even Guinan is on hand to further complicate things. All of which becomes prescient, of course, when everything goes “Yesterday's Enterprise” and the anti-time reality kicks in. Everyone's voice is pretty damn spot on, and I daresay this is one of the best ensemble outings of the year.)

Trying to explain the plot by necessity does a disservice to this story, because it's got such an unorthodox and experimental structure: I'm making it all out to seem much, much more straightforward than it really is. We're left by the end of it all not really clear on what was “real” and what wasn't, or on precisely how much time and history has been rewritten, if indeed at all. The art compliments the dreamlike haze that surrounds the story superbly-It's an absolute high water mark of Pablo Marcos' early work on the Star Trek: The Next Generation book. Here he's even got help from Gordon Purcell, another luminary in the world of Long 1980s Star Trek comics, as well as some terrific cover art from the acclaimed Jerome K. Moore, whose style is very much the iconic one of this period for me.

This issue once again sees the art in a transitional stage from its early stylization to its later photorealism, and that turns out to be exactly what “The Gift” needs. The Enterprise and the depths of space she resides in are particularly memorable (though she does get a bit squished in a few smaller panels), but the real highlight is the depiction of Q: In some scenes he appears as normal and human as anyone else, but in others he becomes sort of an inverse Cheshire Cat with a wicked grin; a vaguely human-shaped hole in the very fabric of reality itself, beyond which is an infinite, swirling maelstrom of cosmic wonder. And always, of course, clad in his signature Post-Atomic Horror Judge's robes.

Which also ties brilliantly into his character in this story. Q is deceptively and cunningly manipulative here, playing head games not just with Picard this time, but with us now as well. We never quite know until the story's very final moments just what Q's end goal is, when he confesses to Picard by way of a title drop. This is his gift to him and to the Enterprise crew. It was they who helped him discover his humanity, and now he wishes to return the favour by cutting Picard free of his past, thus giving him back to them. For we end where we begin, with Will inviting Picard to a party. But this time, the captain accepts the invitation. Just as Q could demonstrate his own humanity, now Captain Picard is allowed to do the same for us, for his crew, and for himself. Quite simply, never before has Q been depicted this well, and he never truly will again. And furthermore, it's a decisive claim to relevance for the comic book's alternate continuity: You could read this equally well as a sequel to "Deja Q"...or to the 1987 pilot miniseries.

“The Gift” is many things. It is brave, it is heartfelt, and it is as deep and complex as the cosmos itself. It's the kind of story that absolutely could never be made on the TV show, and the show is, quite frankly, all the poorer for it. There's a classic anthropological study of gift exchange that essentially claims gift-giving is rarely altruistic, and there is oftentimes an unspoken economy of debt associated with gifts. Ever as much our guardian spirit as our trickster god, this story is John de Lancie's gift to us. He's repaid the debt accrued when Captain Picard and Star Trek: The Next Generation helped him in the past, but he's also laid out a defiant statement of purpose: A challenge, once more, to prove ourselves capable of living up to our own ideals.

I only hope that someday we may return the favour.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Myriad Universes: Serafin's Survivors and Shadows in the Garden

Given Star Trek: The Next Generation's steadily climbing ratings and popularity, it was only natural that DC would bring the series back to the world of comics for a second volume and greenlight a monthly tie-in comic to go along with its television counterpart. In much the same way then that “Encounter at Farpoint” was the pilot for the series prior, it could be said that DC's 1987 miniseries was a pilot for this book line. And indeed, DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation would go on to be so successful it actually outlasted the show it was based on, running well into 1996. It probably could've run indefinitely had Paramount not pulled DC's license in lieu of its ill-advised mid-90s “Paramount Comics” partnership with Marvel.

And furthermore, this series comprises an absolutely *massive* chunk of my personal history with Star Trek: The Next Generation, so there's simply no way I couldn't cover it, or indeed no way I could not have it be the dominant form of spin-off media this project explores.

This being comics, one thing that differentiates four-colour Star Trek: The Next Generation from fuzzy VHS Star Trek: The Next Generation, even at this stage, is an overt focus on serialization. While the stories tend to have the same scope of an average TV episode (though there are exceptions), they also tend to be spaced much further apart, sometimes running for months at a time. The two stories we're looking at today, “Serafin's Survivors” and its conclusion “Shadows in the Garden”, actually comprise issues 5 and 6 of the monthly series: The line proper began back in the second season and did a few stories set in that period that began to lay the groundwork for what it would become later on, but I chose to start with the third season material because, much as is the case on TV, this era sees the show in a time of transition, slowly evolving into the form it will be most remembered for.

One of the biggest transitions this series makes from the first volume is the addition of Michael Jan Friedman as head writer, who goes on to not unimpressively pen pretty much every single Star Trek: The Next Generation thing DC puts out. He comes in with volume 2 so this isn't his debut, but it's his positionality and approach to conceptualizing these characters and this setting that will define a lot of what we're going to say about this book. We'll get into that, but first I want to open by saying “Serafin's Survivors”/“Shadows in the Garden” isn't actually a personal favourite of mine from Friedman's run: It's got a few nice bits here and there, but it isn't anything amazingly special, is more than a little rocky in some places and not batting at the level I know this series is capable of when it's going at full tilt. The reason we're looking at it though is because it was included in a compilation trade paperback called The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation released in May 1994 when the (TV) series was coming to a close.

This is actually a pretty decent book if you're looking for an introduction to the DC series as the rest of their picks really are stories I would hold up as absolute classics (and we'll get to them in due time). This though is the one inclusion I would personally quibble with as it's not *exactly* showing the series at its very best in my opinion. But by its mere presence in the omnibus, and the fact that not only was DC editor Robert Greenberger (who put the collection together) apparently a fan of it so, it would seem, was Star Trek: The Next Generation executive producer Jeri Taylor, who wrote the introduction, so this means we have to look at it. Taylor will be joining the show in the fourth season and is one of the major, major creative figures of Star Trek going forward and since we'll be talking about her a great deal in the near future any story she likes is one worth paying attention to.

“Serafin's Survivors” and “Shadows in the Garden” features the Enterprise crew coming to the aid of Serafin's Colony, a group of planetary settlers who have attained a near-mythic reputation across the Federation for their nigh-superhuman tenacity and will in the face of a disease that nearly wiped them all out. When they reach the planet, however, they discover that only a small handful of the colonists are still alive, apparently the hardiest members who managed to fight off the plague. Geordi has a friend named Dahlia among the colonists, later revealed to be a former lover and is overwhelmed at the prospect of seeing her again. Deanna, however is growing suspicious that the colonists are hiding something from the crew, and launches an investigation to find out what they might be holding back. She's eventually proven correct when it turns out the survivors were exposed to a toxic mutagen that grants them augmented strength, stamina and vitality, yet at the expense of cursing them with a vampire-like ability and need to drain the life force of others.

There's also a subplot each for Data and Doctor Crusher. In the former, Data befriends a young boy named Randy who is new to the Enterprise and isn't used to seeing androids. Data bonds with Randy over their shared status as outsiders and helps him overcome his fear of others, and they soon become fast friends. Randy is an extension of a trick Friedman pulled in the previous story arc “The Derelict”/“The Hero Factor”: He's an outsider character who for one reason or another doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the Enterprise crew, but is helped and healed by them. In that story, the character was Assistant Chief Engineer McRobb, a quiet, reserved fellow who feels intimidated by the great men and women he perceives surrounding him. He doesn't quite feel worthy to be counted among their ranks, but with some help from Riker, Worf, Geordi and Doctor Pulaski he eventually discovers that even he can be a hero. McRobb is sort of an interesting anticipation of Reginald Barclay here, although far less socially crippled.

In both his and Randy's case, however, it's worth pointing out how Friedman at once feels the need to craft a subplot about character development, and also feels unable to do this with any of the main characters, probably out of the general feeling at the time that it was completely impossible to do this with them. To his credit Friedman knocks it out of the park: He manages to make the Enterprise crew at once larger than life and also eminently likable and relatable, making sure to give each person distinct personalities and realistic sounding interactions with each other. And both Randy and McRobb's stories are heartwarming examples of the utopian conflict resolution Star Trek: The Next Generation is so uniquely suited to displaying (especially as both go on to be reoccurring characters), and that the current TV writers on balance have no clue how to write. But it is telling that two arcs in a row he's had trouble articulating this with any of the regulars, though he does get better at it (in fact, Friedman will soon show himself to be a masterclass at it).

The subplot with Doctor Crusher is better on this front, and it's one of the only moments this year (in comics *or* on TV) that actually think to look at the ramifications of her having been away for a year. It starts with her sharing drinks with Data, Riker and Worf in Ten Forward before being interrupted by Wesley, who wants to talk. Beverly thinks he has a problem and is looking for her advice and is thankful he thought to come to her, but it turns out Wesley was actually concerned about her, worrying she might be feeling lonely because they'd been apart for so long and he's moved out of her quarters on the Enterprise, and wanted to make sure she was handling it OK. It's a lovely little scene and, in spite of it being sadly pretty out of character for Wesley Crusher, it's something that one could imagine seeing in a universe where a more constructive and functional version of that relationship exists.

In fact, Friedman already has a great handle on the characters: While some of them, like Wesley, actually seem more rounded than they do on TV, I always hear the actors' voices in my head when I read Friedman's stuff, which is always a good sign when it comes to licensed media as far as I'm concerned. Deanna in particular is positively refreshing here, getting a meaty mystery plot about the colonists to unravel all by herself and even gets to show off some mad parallel bars skills while dispensing two of my favourite lines of hers ever:
“Betazoids are not given much credit for their physical abilities, but like anyone else we are creatures of mind and body.”
And in response to one of the colonists talking about how life on Serafin's Planet taught them to keep to themselves and ignore the rest of the galaxy (while also painfully obviously hitting on her)
“That is not a very productive attitude, Mister Uribe. The galaxy is full of interesting things. Some might even say wondrous things.”
Which is just brilliant, as far as I'm concerned. It's a ton of fun to see, more material than Deanna's had all season and almost makes up for “The Price”.

But there is one gap in Friedman's characterization here, and unfortunately it's with the most important person in the story: Geordi. The story paints him so fixated on Dahlia that it blinds him to the danger the colonists pose, and he adamantly refuses to believe there's something up with him (even angrily lashing out at Deanna when she asks him if he's noticed anything strange!) until the literal last second when the colonists inevitably start killing people. It's more than a little frustrating to see him so out of character here for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he was served so well not only in the last story arc but in the pilot miniseries too. As we'll soon see in the fourth season, Geordi seems to be a character a lot of people for some reason have a huge problem getting a handle on, even though, to me at least, he should be self-evidently the easiest: Just let LeVar Burton play LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation and you've nailed it. How is this difficult?

I won't spoil the story for those of you who haven't read it, but *obviously* Geordi gets a tragic ending because this is the third season. And it does concern me that this is being pegged as one of the best stories in the comic series by people like Jeri Taylor because, frankly, I *hate* tragic endings in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's such a cliche of hack pathos to say something like “there should have been a better way”, but, well, yes: There should have been a better way. That's the sort of thing this show (and series) is supposed to be showing us, and it jars even worse in this context as all the other stories in this omnibus provide a far more nuanced and sophisticated sense of drama that weaves Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopianism into their plots far more effectively and movingly. This not only introduces a love interest simply to provide angst for Geordi, but does so in a way that makes him look incredibly petulant and shortsighted and that's just awful for me to see.

So what we see here is that while Friedman is starting to get a really good feel for his cast, he's still having a few growing pains making everything come together exactly the way he needs it to. But that's OK, because Star Trek is about growing and learning, that's just what happens and we're only a few issues away from the series finally hitting its stride. Like I said, this is a time of transition across the board, evident as well in the book's art style: The earlier story arcs, like the pilot miniseries, had that same signature stylized, hulked-out Liefeldian look, but with “Serafin's Survivors”/“Shadows in the Garden” we see Friedman's art partner Pablo Marcos (along with Juliana Ferriter and Bob Pinaha) starting to move towards a more photorealistic style that will become this book's standard going forward, perhaps even influencing Malibu Comics' later run on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. So it's a story worth looking at from an academic perspective, and it does boast a handful of genuinely good moments, so it gets a recommendation for that if nothing else.

And I still enjoyed it more than I did the majority of TV stories from the third season.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

“No Future”: The Best of Both Worlds

This was not meant to be.

This war's not supposed to be happening.

The demons of our future have finally caught up with us. Forced to face a full disclosure of human ugliness before we were prepared, they found us, they fought us and they won. A tragedy of such proportions that its reverberations are still being keenly felt to this day, made even more tragic by the knowledge of how entirely avoidable it was. What happened? What went wrong?

“The Best of Both Worlds” is the episode that just about universally gets cited as the point where Star Trek: The Next Generation stopped messing about, came into its game and at long last stepped out of the shadow of its predecessor. Even in the comparatively recent re-evaluation of the series in mainline fandom that posits the *entirety* of Season 3 as the show's high water mark, not just “The Best of Both Worlds”, this episode *still* gets wheeled out as Star Trek: The Next Generation's finest hour time and time again.

It's not. It's not any of those things. But it is important.

Nor is any of that other received history true either, by the way: As I never tire of pointing out, Star Trek: The Next Generation was never cult or unpopular, consistently being rated among the top twenty most watched shows on television for its entire seven year run. In fact, ratings had been steadily climbing over the course of the third season, and while “The Best of Both Worlds” may well be the peak of the show's early popularity, with damn good reason, I might add, it didn't do anything more to make or break this show's success then anything else we've been looking at over the past three years. But it can perhaps be said that Star Trek: The Next Generation was still not being embraced by a particular subset of its audience, namely hardcore Star Trek fans, pretty much only because it wasn't the Original Series. Fans being fans, they loudly voiced their non-directional dissatisfaction at anyone who made the ill-advised decision to listen to them, including members of the production team.

Due to a combination of Trekkers being pretty much the dictionary definition of “vocal minority” and a dangerously myopic view held by Paramount corporate that Trekkers were Star Trek: The Next Generation's primary demographic, one can perhaps understand why Michael Piller went into this story with the express intent of demonstrating Captain Picard's humanity, which fans seemed to think he lacked, by stripping him of it. Piller had grown increasingly distant from his writing staff as the third season went on, rightly figuring most of them would be walking out on him by year's end (sadly, this was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I'll bet this is exactly what strained his relationship with people like Melinda Snodgrass). He delegated more and more day-to-day operations to Ira Steven Behr, whom he came to confide more and more in, only taking on the last-minute cleanup jobs on scripts the other team members had already worked over (and here also we can perhaps see why Behr's positionality has become increasingly central to the show's ethos in the waning half of the year).

But now Behr has given his notice too, and even Piller himself has almost committed to following suit. So he decides to shoulder the full responsibility for the season finale himself, one of the most ambitious efforts the show's done to date, because he figures he has a strong feeling for it. In later years, Piller would say the subplot about Riker's uncertainties about accepting promotion and moving on came explicitly out of his own self-doubts and insecurities he was experiencing as he was writing it.

And yet there's an unmistakable and inescapable sense of cynicism and futility about “The Best of Both Worlds”. Part of the impetus to end the year in this particular fashion was due to contract negotiations stalling between Paramount and Patrick Stewart's agent (an impasse that, it should be noted, Patrick Stewart himself was apparently unaware of: He's said he was worried upon reading the initial script that Piller was writing him out of the show). From what I've read, somebody actually came down to the writers and told them “Hey, contract negotiations with Patrick are running long and we don't know if we're going to be able to cut a deal, so we may have to kill Picard”. How lurid must your sensibilities be, and how depressed must you be creatively that the *first* course of action your mind turns to in this situation is “kill 'em off”? This is both the true legacy of “Skin of Evil” and a tragic end result of a year that's proved to be little more than anger and tears for all aboard: Just as bitterness and frustration led the creative team to kill the alternate cast of “Yesterday's Enterprise” and destroy their ship in the most spectacularly violent manner imaginable, here they seriously entertain the notion of killing off a major character once again just for the shock value and to twist the knife one final time.

This is the real reason the Borg are here and, more to the point, why the Borg win. What they impose on the show, what all of “The Best of Both Worlds” does, is narrative collapse. Defined as a combined diegetic and extradiegetic threat to the continuation of a specific structure such that the risk no further stories within it can ever be told becomes frighteningly real, narrative collapse manifests itself when the narrative internalizes its own unsustainability, and can only be averted through a blood sacrifice. And this is precisely what's happened to Star Trek: The Next Generation, because, even by its admittedly rocky pre-existing standards, this season has simply gone too far. The show's infuriatingly constant failure to follow its own example and live up to its potential has become pathological, and it's now even found itself staffed by people who not only don't understand it, but openly hate it and actively work towards the detriment and dissolution of its ideals. The Borg see this, take advantage of it, and they make their move early.

The very thing Star Trek: The Next Generation was supposed to be self-evidently superior to such that open warfare with it would be unthinkable in this form catches it completely off guard and horrifically curb-stomps it into submission, dealing a crippling blow that even tears apart the Enterprise family.

And yet even so I can understand the tears, the anger and the pain and I can empathize. In its own way, this season has been as difficult and as hurtful for me to write about as it sounds like it was to produce. I knew Season 3 was going to be hard for me and I knew I wasn't going to like it as much as fan consensus dictated that I should-I never have. But I underestimated the real toll it would take on me, especially given it happened to fall during another rough patch in my personal life. I've had deadlines slip and neglected my mental and physical well-being to pull all-nighters to make up for it (in fact I'm doing that right now). I've felt impossibly frustrated, held back and stifled all throughout this whole process. I'm so angry that the show is not living up to my memories of and expectations for it, and I've been running into *massive* creative blocks the likes of which I've *never* had on this project before as absolutely all of my enthusiasm and inspiration has slowly been sapped from me over the course of the season.

Almost every episode this year has been one I've hated, and I yet I've not been able to skim over *any* of them because they're all not only historically important, but actually *well constructed*. And I feel all the angrier at the show for making me trudge through all this as it's been keeping me from getting to the last Dirty Pair movie and from bringing closure to that period of my life. Like Michael Piller, I feel tired, worn down, burned out and unsure where I'm going to go from here.

Because also like Michael Piller, I'm approaching this as a two-parter, but have only put actual thought into the first part. When Piller wrote “The Best of Both Worlds”, he was not anticipating returning to Star Trek: The Next Generation for its fourth season (which it was most assuredly getting, just in case you may have had any doubts) and had no clue how to bring everything home again. He set up the most terrifyingly comprehensive and meticulous deconstruction of the show he could think of, and wasn't planning on being in a position to undo it. Will Captain Picard survive? If he does, how will we get him back? Will Patrick Stewart come back? Will Michael Piller? Can we stop the Borg from realising the Federation's destiny before its time? Can we prevent the narrative collapse and save Star Trek: The Next Generation, and, if we do, what will we be forced to give up? How am I going to continue this essay even though I've made all of the points I wanted to make already?

Right now, I honestly don't know.

To Be Continued

Sunday, March 15, 2015

“Point of Singularity”: Transfigurations

If you've seen “Transfigurations” and know literally anything about me, you know what my feelings on it are going to be.

This is plainly the best episode of the entire third season precisely because it's so unlike anything else in it, with the exception of perhaps “Tin Man”. This is the moment where the promises and themes Michael Piller hinted at in “Evolution” finally come to fruition: It fulfills the potential the earlier episode could only grasp at and is where Star Trek: The Next Generation's new mission statement finally becomes clear. Tellingly, it's not written by any of the current staff writers, but is a concept fleshed out and fully realised by “The Offspring” scribe René Echevarria at Michael Piller's personal request, in the pitch that actually got him his staff job. Knowing this, the title of “Transfigurations” becomes particularly apt, as change finally does seem to be in the air. It's a fleeting burst of clairvoyance, a brief glimpse at what this show could be, should be, and has always had the opportunity to be in the last moments before everything implodes in on itself.

It's curious that this is a story Piller warmed up to as much as he did (even putting the finishing touches on it himself), considering it's once again a script that seems to go against his central tenet that everything must fundamentally be about the main characters. That it's so self-evidently successful and beautiful is also the clearest sign we've seen yet that Piller might be wrong about this particular conviction, or at least that he ought to refine it a bit. Because in spite of its origins as a story about “how 24th century medicine works up close and personal”, this episode is absolutely about John Doe and the effect he has on the crew, and critically, the effect they have on him.

Doctor Crusher is John's primary and obvious interlocutor, and yet her actual role in the story is somewhat elusive and deceptive. A number of readings try to interpret this story as her falling in love with him, but that's not what's actually going on (indeed, this is a tack even the show itself seems savvy of, given the dinner scene between Bev and Wesley). No, while “Transfigurations” is unquestionably Bev's best outing so far, what's happening here is a full realisation of her new role as live sciences mystery solver: John is the ultimate science mystery for her to crack, because in him she (rightly, as it eventually turns out) sees the future of humanoid life, albeit perhaps only unconsciously. The quest for knowledge and understanding, and a hope this will help us know the universe and our place within it even just a tiny bit better, drives and energizes her. And let's not forget that for all of John's miraculous and seemingly impossible acts of healing, as both he and Beverly repeat a number of times throughout the episode, it was she who “gave him life”. Which we shouldn't be at all surprised by, considering Doctor Crusher has previously brought people back from the dead herself: In “The Neutral Zone” which, not coincidentally, offers the clearest explanation of what Star Trek: The Next Generation's diegetic utopianism actually is and looks like we've seen yet.

There's also, of course, Geordi. While I'm not necessarily a fan of the awkwardness around women this season's creative team saddled him with, there's no denying “Transfigurations” offers terrific payoff for that story. Geordi's entire subplot is absolutely sublime, and it all comes together in that exchange on the bridge when John tells him “Perhaps I only helped you find something you already had”. What a perfect description of how we can learn from and help each other; of the healing effect we can have on others whom we meet throughout our lives. Maybe we should all strive to help each other understand and discover things about ourselves we couldn't find on our own. And I can't help but smile that it's Geordi, the heart and soul of the Enterprise, who gets the most intimate encounter with John Doe. Not only is his extradiegetic wounding and subsequent healing an apt metaphor for Star Trek: The Next Generation's identity crisis, but it's a wonderful fit for a children's educator who places paramount value on our ability to learn as much through the act of teaching as those we interact with.

And I'm naturally obliged to mention the new laboratory set, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the control room of another famous starship: The TARDIS from Doctor Who. Those glowing roundels on the walls could pass for something one might expect to see on a big(ger) budget relaunch of the Classic Series circa 1990, the central operating table seems to take more than a few cues from the iconic time rotor and you can even see the roof of the TARDIS itself on the ceiling in a few shots. To have this here, only a few weeks after an episode bitter Whovians hold up as a nasty Doctor Who parody and have it be something that can only be the work of an adoring and caring fan is just wonderful, and I'm not even a Doctor Who fan: What I really care about is how this so clearly sends a message of camaraderie and solidarity. For two fanbases that seem to have such animosity towards one another (well, a one-sided animosity at any rate), it's very moving, and fitting, to see this hand of friendship extended in this of all stories.

(And just who is working those controls? Of course it's Doctor Crusher, not just a scientist, but arguably the most passionately humanist of the entire crew.)

John Doe is obviously, textually, in fact, a transhuman character; one possible next step in humanoid evolution. Cast aside for a moment Darwinian conceptions of natural selection: While valid, they are not entirely the most efficacious way of reading what's happening to John in “Transfigurations”. Natural selection is not teleological. There may be no higher species or life-forms, but there perhaps are higher states of being. And that's what John is transitioning to-His story touches on the notions of the Singularity Archetype, that fictional construct that seeks to convey a time when humanity might reach a deeper understanding of that which binds us to the cosmic oversoul of nature, thus joining with our Glorified Bodies and freeing the gods that live within all of us. His name, “John Doe”, conveys that he is at once everyone and no one. He could be you or me, or nobody, depending on how cynical you want to be.

And yet who are the real spirits here, and who are the shamanic messengers who can merely sit back and try to explain their convocations to their fellow mortals? Can you even make a meaningful distinction between the two of them? John metamorphoses into his Glorified forme, yes, and he helps Geordi, Beverly, O'Brien and, in the climax, the whole crew. But he could never have attained that state had he never met the Enterprise crew. A shaman, as part of her performance, will oftentimes wear the guise of her spirit guides to convey the lessons she's learned while traversing the heavens through storytelling. Were the Enterprise crew transformed through meeting John, or was he transformed through meeting them? Must the two be mutually exclusive? What is living to an ideal but crudely moulding yourself in the image of a favourite role model? And who's to say that after a life lived that way you don't become, in a sense, that role model yourself? The symbol and the object are one and the same. You can choose the aspect of divinity that speaks to you and take it into yourself. Meditate on your Mahavidyas and you will become as they are. And remember to live in the now, and know then how to live as a goddess on Earth.

(What's the first thing John does upon leaving the Enterprise? Return to his people to share what he's learned.)

Ascension. Transformation. Transcendence. Regeneration. Behold the event horizon that lies at ego-death and the end point of history. Behold the card of death, which means not death but the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another. But know also that any true form of transformative change will by necessity entail shock: The Singularity looks like the apocalypse from below. See also the card of the tower, for one world is about to end so that another may begin.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

“Paint me like one of your French girls”: Ménage à Troi

"ahahahahaha I have no idea what's going on"
Possibly the kindest thing I could say about “Ménage à Troi” is that it perfectly encapsulates the entire third season in one convenient package. If you want to know what Star Trek: The Next Generation looked and felt like in its third year of existence in soundbite form, look no further because this one episode runs the entire tonal gamut.

It is a comedy episode, or at least a decent stab by the creative team at what a comedy episode should maybe look like, it ticks off the “bring in Majel Barrett for her annual guest spot” box, it gives certain actors room to relax and clown around a bit, it had Gene Roddenberry pop in to make a minor tweak to the script, it's an episode prominently featuring both the Ferengi and a surplus of silly and embarrassing costumes, has some clumsy attempts at world-building and art direction that manage to completely ruin the wonder of a Star Trek alien society, it's built around a few surprisingly touching and well done (and obviously Michael Piller inspired) character moments that echo each other (yet that don't *quite* manage to get a real hold on the people involved) and it shoves Deanna Troi in a box to shut her up for twenty minutes while men talk over her.

Let's talk about the good first. Namely, this is the first proper “Lwaxana Story” the show has done, meaning the first story actively invested in looking at who she is as a character rather then wheeling her in either to shake things up and set the show straight (like in “Haven”) or to take part in a tragically unfunny sexist runaround (like in “Manhunt”). And true to form Barrett runs with it, delivering a wonderfully interpolated and multi-layered performance that manages to be poignantly sympathetic and broad-strokes comedic all at the same time. Here's where we get the first glimpse of precisely *why* Deanna and Lwaxana have such a strained relationship, and it's painfully relatable: There's an actual “generation gap”, as it were, in play here where mother and daughter have two conflicting and irreconcilable views of what makes for a fulfilling life. And I will say this is sort of the first time this year the show has tried to do something like this and has actually managed to pull it off, as this feels like a genuine extension of what we knew of Lwaxana before that adds genuine depth to her character as opposed to just kind of throwing all of that out in favour of generic angst. The way her unwavering love for her daughter and her well-being shapes all the decisions she makes is actually really touching and heartwarming.

(Although that said, it is a bit weird in hindsight to have the notoriously vivacious and flirtatious Lwaxana Troi suddenly so interested in heteronormative domestic wedded bliss-Thankfully this doesn't manage to completely take for her later appearances.)

It helps Majel Barrett is such a knockout performer: This is the first time we get to see the full extent of her range hinted at in “Haven”. She's obviously grown a *lot* as an actor in the decades since “The Cage” and brings an earnestness and a heart to Lwaxana that really adds a lot to the character, unsurprising as there seems to be so much of Barrett in her by design. She really is the highlight of this episode and the primary reason to watch it if you happen to be so inclined: Barrett is wonderfully, flamboyantly theatrical here, telegraphing her every move and reaction with delightfully exaggerated performativity that never manages to lose sight of an inherent honesty. In a sense, perhaps she really is setting Star Trek: The Next Generation straight again because this is precisely the sort of thing this show can do so well at a production level, and precisely what this creative team has absolutely no idea how to work with. And, to top it off, this lays the groundwork for more sophisticated and nuanced Lwaxana stories down the road that, well, happen to be better than “Ménage à Troi”.

Lwaxana's scenes with Deanna, particularly early on in the episode, are equally good. Marina Sirtis is as terrific as she always is when the creative team is actually considerate enough to fucking give her material, of course, and that material she gets this week (well, in this one scene at least), is especially excellent. I love how the script has her angrily stand up to her mother for not recognising that the Enterprise isn't a job, but a lifestyle and a family and for not respecting her life choices as an adult (which the story so wonderfully has Lwaxana echo back to her in refrain during the climax with the Ferengi DaiMon). The story actually gives Marina Sirtis the words to express what's so special about Star Trek: The Next Generation on a textual level, which is something of a minor godsend after a production year so fraught with anxiety an unfulfilled potential.

What “Ménage à Troi” is not so good at, however, is handling Deanna's relationship with Will. When I would see screenshots of this episode back in the day, I always got the sense this was the first episode that tried to move things toward getting Deanna and Will back together. It does feel uncomfortably like the show has become a shipper on deck now and, like Lwaxana, is trying to push Will and Deanna back into a romantic relationship by having them go back to the site of their past life romance. They even actually kiss, although Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis thankfully play it more casually then they could have, and the story doesn't ever go too far with this because all of this character stuff that I sort of thought we were supposed to be paying attention to gets interrupted midway through by a dumb fucking kidnapping plot that takes up the rest of the episode. And then we get to sit around for the next half an hour watching an insufferably stock pulp serial runaround (with a mad scientist torture chamber porn scene for bonus inanity!) while Wesley Goddamn Crusher heroically drops of out the wild fucking blue to commandeer the narrative back on the Enterprise.

And this is where I have to draw my line, because this is ridiculous and juvenile. This show should be way way beyond this by this point. I don't know what it is about crap pulp film serial tropes that seems so appealing to so many goddamn science fiction creators, but I had my fill of them in 1960s action cartoons and don't ever need to see them again, least of all here. I guess I should also mention the stonking great Dirty Pair reference, which even I admit I was impressed by the chutzpah of. The Ferengi commander's access code, which he actually verbally speaks onscreen, is *literally* “Kei, Yuri, Dirty Pair”(or rather ダーティペア, that is, Dāti Pea, the Japanese transliteration of the series' English-derived name). And as much as I loved seeing that, I had to ask “Really? Now? *This* of all episodes is when you decide to do your first Dirty Pair evocation since 'Evolution'?” Although I guess it makes some sense as Kei and Yuri certainly have their fair share of Ferengi admirers in their fanbase.

Because all I could think about now that they had done this was how much I'd actually *rather* be watching Dirty Pair than this. And it has to be said, Dirty Pair, a series that, I remind you explicitly came out of pulp science fiction magazines, would never do something this stock and pulpish. In fact, on balance, animated Dirty Pair has been *kicking this show's ass* for the past few seasons. As much as I've liked Star Trek: The Next Generation over the past few years and as many wonderful moments I've seen and remembered so far, there is quite simply nothing this show has done that comes anywhere near comparing with the understated magic of Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, the sublime confidence of Original Dirty Pair, the bravery of “Love is Everything. Risk Your Life to Elope!!” or the bold, mad ambition of Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture. And it says something that what we're comparing here is a niche sci-fi comedy cartoon and a big-budget Hollywood primetime smash hit.

And yet there is one respect where it's more than fitting that Kei and Yuri re-enter the narrative here, albeit briefly. As much as “Ménage à Troi” may embody the entire spectrum of the third season, it's also the last “average” episode of the year. The remaining two episodes in the filming block for this year are transformative in every sense of the word. Something very big is on the horizon, and it draws ever nearer with every breath we speak. The Lovely Angels have been dispatched, which can only mean something is about to burn to the ground to make way for a needed change that will make the universe a better place.

And quite honestly, for Star Trek: The Next Generation, change has never been more badly needed.