Sunday, August 30, 2015

Myriad Universes: Separation Anxiety Part 4: Second Chances!

“Second Chances” is perfect Star Trek: The Next Generation.

...Oh no, not the goofy episode from next season where the transporter retroactively cloned Commander Riker on his previous post that fucks up Will's relationship with Deanna Troi and Mae Jemison is the best part of it. That's ridiculous. I'm talking about this comic book that's the fourth part of Separation Anxiety.

You know it's going to be a good story, or at least noteworthy, when it opens with a “chief medical officer's log”. And this one doesn't disappoint, with a lengthy portion of its runtime dedicated to just letting us watch Beverly Crusher be awesome leading an away team mission. Any Beverly Crusher, Science Officer fan will be spoiled by scene after scene in this book of her being unflappably competent, whip-smart and quippy. And continuing a thread introduced in The Return of Okona, Bev is also portrayed as having a manifestly different style of leadership than Commander Riker, though still compelling in its own right: She's far more involved in the nitty-gritty of the technical research, not issuing orders to her team but managing, delegating and actively working with them to help gather as much information as they can. Seeing how effortlessly and perfectly she slides into this role here only makes you wish all the harder that this had been her role on the TV show much, much more often than it really was.

But we barely have time to appreciate that before we're treated to a scene so defining it could have come from “The Wounded”. Which, incidentally, is what it's positioned as a sequel to. Miles O'Brien and Terry Oliver are investigating a computer room the away team discovered on the planet they beamed down to last issue. Doctor Crusher has learned there aren't any sentient life-forms still around who could help, but figures the computer banks are probably still intact and could yield some clues. Terry expresses concern that time is of the essence as the Sztazzan no doubt know of their whereabouts and will probably send a team of their own down. What follows is an exchange between her and Chief O'Brien so priceless and air-pumping I had to repeat it in its entirety here.
“After all, it won't take long for those Sztazzan filth to find our coordinates and beam down after us!” 
“'Filth', eh?” 
“You'd call them that too, if they'd murdered your friends the way they murdered mine!” 
“I see. Funny...You sound the way I did not so long ago. Except it wasn't the Sztazzan I had a hate for – It was the Cardassians! I'd witnessed the kind of slaughter they're inclined towards – First hand!” 
“Then you know how I feel!” 
“Sure – But that doesn't mean I approve of it! Not so long ago, we had some Cardassians on the Enterprise – Making some wild charges about my old captain. It was all I could do to keep from slugging one o'them! Unfortunately, the wild charges turned out to be true. And I learned a valuable lesson: There are usually two sides to a story.” 
“Not when it comes to the Sztazzan!” 
“Are you sure? What do you know about them except that they fired on your ship? Maybe they had some provocation – At least from their point of view!” 
“Forget it chief...Nothing you say is going to make me love those bloody butchers!” 
“You don't have to love 'em. You just have to co-exist with them.”
There are only so many ways I can say a thing is perfect without sounding like a broken record. But that's what this scene is. The attitude on display here, from beginning to end, is absolutely, spot-on to-the-note perfect for Star Trek: The Next Generation. This encapsulates better than anything I could hope to put to prose myself the utopian conflict resolution and commitment to personal growth I love this series so much for. It solidifies what the purpose of “The Wounded” was and what it meant for Miles O'Brien as a character for anyone left who might be unsure. There's the significance of this coming in the wake of “I, Borg”, because this is a treatment of the “know your enemy” pitch I personally far prefer to what we got in that episode. But there's also the more implicit significance of this coming less then a year out from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Terry hasn't been with this Enterprise very long, so she's still prone to the kind of militaristic categorical dismissal of “the enemy” that defines the rest of Starfleet (tellingly, Miles is cut off before he can finish his speech by asking “Isn't that what the Federation's all about?”).

But she is now, and this means she has the opportunity to look within herself to become a better person. And though its Miles who is ultimately saved in this moment, this exchange also sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to Terry's salvation too. For she's right, the Sztazzan do beam down and assault the away team in the book's climax, and while they do all get out in time comparatively unscathed, it's not before Terry catches sight of an injured crewmember...Who turns out to be Sztazzan. She hesitates for a moment, but ultimately decides to call Doctor Crusher over. Thanks to her split-second intervention, the crewmember's life is saved. Clearly the ramifications of this will need to be explored more later on, but for now this restores Commander Riker's (and our) faith in Terry, just as Beverly had hoped.

So all the stuff going on with the saucer section is so fascinating we haven't even talked about what's happening with the stardrive section crew yet! Thankfully Data and Geordi have found a way to keep the relay station from exploding, but the Stazzan fleet is growing progressively more irritated and starts to take action. So to buy the team time to get on that, Captain Picard and Ro Laren decide to play along. What follows is a rollicking space battle action sequence the likes of which would make the TV show's VFX department blush and budgeting department quake in their boots. The stardrive section spins around, takes off vertically and flips around behind its pursuers (bringing a whole new meaning to “thinking three dimensionally” in space).

It reminds me a lot of the Dirty Pair TV episode “Lots of Danger, Lots of Decoys”, and a lot of space-based action sci-fi anime of that type in general. I'm unashamed to admit it's an absolute blast to see something like that in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it's also noteworthy because of how genuinely rare it is, even in the comic line: You would expect this kind of scene would be right up this series' alley, but Michael Jan Friedman and Pablo Marcos are surprisingly reserved about giving it to us, preferring to shift the visual spectacle elsewhere. This works to great effect, of course, but it also means the action scenes are all the more breathtaking and memorable when they do happen.

The story on the stardrive section is mostly about Laren and Jean-Luc this month: We get the obligatory progression of Worf, Geordi and Data's subplots on the relay station, but it's those two who get the overwhelming majority of the dialog here. Deanna Troi is surprisingly underserved by this book's standards, though she isn't in the miniseries on the whole and I'm actually OK with that as it gives Friedman a chance to play with a character and character dynamic he really hasn't been able to before. And Laren and Jean-Luc are wonderful under his pen, becoming nothing short of a veritable tag-team partnership during the Sztazzan firefight. There is the obvious healthy, functional portrayal of a relationship that didn't typically get that treatment on TV, but I want to lay off the contrast here as I feel like now I'm just punching down. What struck me more about the way Laren and Jean-Luc behave here is that they seem to embody the best of anyone in this story so far the creation of a unique micro-team dynamic.

Maybe it's the more stripped-down and utilitarian feel of the battle bridge, but Captain Picard's team seems much smaller and much more finely honed then Commander Riker's. They also have a really distinct and attractive dynamic that is utterly their own. I don't mean that as a criticism of Will's people or his leadership style, but it does seem like Will has a bigger ship and more resources to work with. He's got Doctor Crusher (and with her all of sickbay and all her science labs), Chief O'Brien, Terry Oliver and an extra who's familiar and recognisable to us in Jenna D'Sora at tactical (who, and let's be perfectly fair and honest here, Captain Picard's tactical officer Burke kind of isn't). Including the civilians, he's also got Alexander (whose story gets developed a bit further when Mott takes it upon himself to ask Ms. Kyle if the young lad might like a “distraction” to take his mind off his father) and Keiko O'Brien as well, not to mention the fact Will has the normal, full-size saucer section bridge at his disposal.

Captain Picard, by contrast, really just has Laren and Deanna. Sure, he's also got the away team on the relay station, but they're cut off from both ships and have their own set of challenges to work through. But the interesting and curious side-effect of this is that it makes Captain Picard's team seem a bit more tightly-knit and tenacious, and the captain himself is more engaged and more of an active participant in the action than I think he's ever been in recent memory. It reminds me of maybe an older way of doing Star Trek, or at least a different one...More akin, perhaps, to how I imagine life aboard the Stargazer might have been like for Captain Picard. Much as I love the sprawling starship Enterprise in its own way, I've long held a fascination with space-based science fiction aboard comparatively small and cramped starships with a crew manifest not exceeding the single digits-It feels cozy and homey to me for some reason, and I guess marks a nice contrast with the vastness of space. That's part of the reason I like Dirty Pair and Raumpatrouille Orion as much as I do, and that's the vibe I get from the battle bridge action this month.

(Interestingly, as I write this I'm also reminded of how the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation described their friendship with each other on set. They say that while they were all part of the same circle of friends, there were also different subdivisions and subsets, and each pair or subgroup of people had a unique dynamic with each other they didn't have with anyone else. So each time you came on set and each time somebody had a scene with somebody else, the energy was always just a little bit different, and equally compelling, from the last time. It's funny how Friedman seems to have captured that so well here.)

Meanwhile back on the saucer section (and I like how the cliffhanger ends with them this month, as it ended with the battle bridge crew last month), Doctor Crusher and Chief O'Brien have learned the history of the people who built the relay station. Apparently their homeworld was facing natural disaster, and having only found one other planet in the galaxy that could support their kind of life, they pooled all their resources into building a machine that could transport vast quantities of people and material over great distances in a very short period of time. Unfortunately, the planet they settled on wound up being struck by a comet a few centuries after they arrived, so they tragically all went extinct anyway. It seems there is another station on this side of the galaxy that could conceivably be rewired to send the saucer back, but there's a problem: It's a year away at impulse (which is all the saucer can do), and their deuterium tanks would dry up long before that anyway. Whoops.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Streaming Update (and a Brief Treatise on Crap Home Video Standards)

Hey Dirty Pair fans! All three of you! Guess what?

I just found out something really exciting: It turns out Nozomi Entertainment, one of the rights-holders to the English language version of the Classic Anime Series, has been putting up complete, *subtitled* versions of Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, Original Dirty Pair and Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy on its official YouTube channel all summer! You may recall that these were among the releases Manga Entertainment chose not to include in subtitled form among its own uploads of the Classic Anime Series, so it's a really big deal to finally get these versions in free, legal streaming form.

The TV show never received an English dub because it was localized on the cheap and only very recently, so this doesn't apply to the Manga Entertainment releases of those episodes,  but this is, to my knowledge at least, the first time folks who prefer to stream their visual media over the Internet have had to watch these later Classic Series Dirty Pair anime productions with the original Japanese language track and English subtitles. I've updated the video embeds on all my posts about those episodes and movies to these new uploads, and I do very much hope you'll consider taking this opportunity to give them a second look. I mean my work is surely rubbish and will make me cringe with embarrassment over a year later, but Dirty Pair itself still holds up!

If you were turned off checking out the OVA Series and movies because of the unavailability of a proper subtitled version through steaming services, I hope you'll go back and watch them now that there is one. And even if you were kind enough to follow along with my coverage of Original Dirty Pair and the film series, I hope you'll still think about giving them one more go-around now that you have the chance to see the original actors' performances. I'm not sure if this applies to the versions that are available on Hulu as well, so I've left that disclaimer on The Ultimate Dirty Pair Episode Guide Master Post, but I can now conclusively say for certain the YouTube versions are subtitled ones.

So what are you waiting for? The very best English language versions of some of the greatest sci-fi or anime ever made is now just out there waiting to be seen in all its glory! You can find a playlist of the OVA Series here and one for the movies here. And if you're for some reason still interested in hearing me go on about Dirty Pair after all that, you can always catch up with my more recent ruminations on the Lovely Angels at this humble side blog of mine. It's sadly been dormant for the past few months because of stupid life reasons (though I thankfully managed to update in time for the 30th Anniversary of the TV series on July 15), but I'm hoping to get back into it in the near future.

Now for the remaining 99% of my audience, I have something for you too.

The high definition restoration of Star Trek: The Next Generation is *finally* available to stream on Netflix! I'll freely admit I sound like a shill for this project, but I really, truly believe in it at a fundamental level. First a little background for those of you who might not know what this actually is, even though I harp on it all the goddamn time. So back in the day when they were making Star Trek: The Next Generation for TV, Paramount decided that because videocassette was obviously the technology of the future (and also because it was very cheap) the series would be *recorded* traditionally (meaning on 35mm film), but *composited* on tape. This means all of the editing and effects shots for the biggest new TV show of 1987 would be done on the utmost pinnacle of crappy 1980s consumer grade home video. This also meant there was a considerable visual downgrade from what the cameras were seeing in the studio to what audiences were seeing at broadcast, but it didn't matter back then because the average home TV set wouldn't have been able to pick up all that extra detail anyway.

The problem with this approach comes in the form of future proofing, or rather a glaring lack thereof. Because television sets got better, or at least good ones eventually became more affordable, this means that Star Trek: The Next Generation was curiously stuck in time: Even as technology moved on, it still looked like it was intended solely to be seen via broadcast TV in 1987, which, OK, it was, but that media climate is somewhat troublingly fleeting. This has the predictable, if unfortunate, side effect that if you happened to be watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in any medium or climate other than broadcast TV in 1987, it happened to look like utter shit.

This became particularly a problem once home video started to become commonplace. Here's what normally happens with stuff shot on film: As I understand it, film has a limitless (or at least very deep) well of potential visual detail and information it can capture, something other media standards don't necessarily have, particularly the ones used for consumer grade home video (and certainly not VHS which is and always was, let's be clear, rather crap). Luckily, as home video technology gets better, it can convey more detail, and so all someone has to do to put out a new release of an old movie or TV show that was shot on film is to go back to the original print and make a new copy or transfer that takes advantage of the improved tech. And because this happens with goodly regularity, the process is fairly streamlined and effortless.

That didn't happen with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in fact it *couldn't* happen.

Because there was only one print of the show ever made and because of the unusual way it was produced, instead of being able to turn back to a "definitive" film print, every single home video release of Star Trek: The Next Generation had to draw *exclusively* from that one composite job done on *VHS*. That is, the one that was consciously designed to be crap, but good enough for right now ("right now", of course, meaning broadcast TV in 1987). To make matters worse, those involved with producing said home video releases made the unfortunate decision to just outright *copy* the original VHS print: Anyone who's had the experience of trying to copy video tapes for a friend by daisy-chaining VCRs back in the day will have a keen understanding of what happens to a VHS signal after several generations of copying copies (also Roxette FTW).

Yeah, so now imagine that but with Captain Picard instead of Marie Fredriksson. That's what Star Trek: The Next Generation on home video used to look like, *including* the DVD releases from the early 2000s: All they did there was take the Nth Generation shitty VHS transfer and try their best to make it presentable through "digital remastering", which is marketing speak for doing some bullshit with sliders on a video editing computer programme to fuck with different colour balance levels. It's that DVD version that was used in syndication for the past ten years or so *and* on Netflix until, well, right now.

This means that if you were trying to enjoy the adventures of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D in any form other than as they aired on a huge-ass 1980s CRT TV or debatably on the very first LaserDisc release of the show from the early 1990s (LaserDisc having a comparatively higher visual and audio fidelity for standard definition content than VHS provided you set your player and TV up right), they would have in all likelihood looked like utter shit. But thankfully, they don't have to anymore!

In 2012, Paramount released a new high definition Blu-ray release of Star Trek: The Next Generation to tie into the show's 25th Anniversary. They called this a "high definition remaster", which is unbelievably misleading because this was manifestly not a "digital remaster" like I talked about above (and you can't even "remaster" something that isn't audio anyway: That's actually a physical impossibility and I wish people would stop abusing that word): This was nothing short of a brand new print of the entire series done completely from scratch: Because the show was still shot on film, all that filmic detail was still there, even though it was *composited* on VHS. All that was needed was to go back to the original film and make a new print using modern video production methods. The only issue was that given that compositing is where the effects shots were combined with the raw video footage of the actors, every single effects shot in all seven years and all 176 episodes had to be completely re-done.

It was an absolutely mammoth undertaking, but the end result is a Star Trek: The Next Generation that looks jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly beautiful. It also means that the Blu-ray releases are arguably the only place you can see the show as it was "originally envisioned" by its creators. In fact, because of all the VHS shenanigans I'm actually rather adamant that it's actively disingenuous to criticize the aesthetics and look-and-feel of Star Trek: The Next Generation unless you've seen this new print. Of course, given that, until now, this meant ponying up money for an admittedly pricey set of seven Blu-ray box sets, this is something understandably out of reach for those not swimming in disposable income or not insane to the point of being dangerously irresponsible.

But now you don't have to spend a dime more than your Netflix subscription fee, as its these new prints of those episodes that are now available to steam. The Netflix version has been compressed somewhat for Internet streaming when compared to the Blu-ray print so you'll be accepting a minor visual downgrade, but not enough for reasonable people to really give a damn, and the upside is that it looks like Netflix fans get to enjoy further tweaks, revisions and corrections to admitted mistakes that were spotted after the Blu-rays shipped. So now you *really* have no excuse not to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation the way it always should have been seen.

(And if Amazon Prime is more your thing, not to worry: Their version of Star Trek: The Next Generation is the new print too.)

One last treat for Netflix users: LeVar Burton's "other" show, Reading Rainbow, is also now available to stream. There are only a handful of select episodes to choose from right now (and "The Bionic Bunny Show", which visits the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is *not* one of the ones on offer, though it is on iTunes and I believe Amazon Prime), but I'm sure more will be coming soon. My personal pick of the ones available now is "Tar Beach", which is an episode I've always had very vivid and fond memories of. Reading Rainbow, and LeVar Burton's joint position on both it and Star Trek: The Next Generation, is pivotal to the reading I've been building throughout this section of the blog, so I heartily recommend it to any Vaka Rangi reader.

UPDATE 9/6/15: Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture/Dirty Pair: Project Eden is now up in full and subtitled too and I've updated the post for that movie as well. So that's a thing you can watch. I mean, only if you really want to.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Myriad Universes: Separation Anxiety Part 3

Picking up where we left off last month, this issue opens with Captain Picard and Ro Laren trying to figure out where the hell the saucer section went. It obviously wasn't destroyed, but somehow it's been picked up and moved somewhere without any indication of how it was moved or where it ended up. One thing they can be reasonably certain of is that it likely *wasn't* the Sztazzan, as one of their ships has apparently gone missing too. Thankfully the battle bridge crew soon receives word from Geordi, Worf and Data, and it turns out they may have found a clue as to what happened.

They figure the artificial moon is actually some kind of large-scale relay transporter device meant to move entire ships across huge distances instantaneously. Reasoning it must have been triggered by the energy discharge from the Sztazzan's weaponry, they think they might be able to tease out how to make it work on command and bring the saucer section and the other Sztazzan ship back if they had some time. Unfortunately time is not something our heroes have in abundance, as the Sztazzan are a bit rattled and trigger happy about what happened, and, to make matters worse, there is naturally an energy buildup inside the moon that will cause the whole thing to go up in flames if Geordi and Data can't shut it off. Meanwhile, at the other end of the galaxy, the saucer section crew has come to the same conclusion and have problems of their own. They too are dogged by a Sztazzan ship with an equally itchy trigger finger, and don't have the benefit of a nearby relay station to work with. What they do have is a seemingly uninhabited planet, presumably one the builders of the moon intended to send people to, so Commander Riker sends an away team down to see if there are any clues still to be found on its surface.

One thing that's immediately somewhat of a concern with the way this serial is shaping up is that it's already bearing a worrying number of similarities with The Star Lost. Once again, we have a huge portion of the crew flung across the galaxy by unknown forces, giving us two discrete teams each with their own unique dynamics. It's not that Separation Anxiety is doing this poorly or is coming across as a pale imitation of The Star Lost so much as we've seen a lot of this before already and it simply can't be as effective the second time around. However it must be said this serial gives a significantly different weight to certain thematic aspects such that it still feels relatively fresh: In The Star Lost, for example, the Enterprise was eventually forced to give up on the Albert Einstein and leave its crew for dead. The story thus became one about loss, grieving and moving on. Here though there's never any indication this situation is anything other than temporary-The whole crux of the motivation for everyone involved is reunification. Indeed, Captain Picard is steadfast in his dedication to stay put until he can both rescue Geordi, Worf and Data *and* reunite with the saucer, damn what the Sztazzan want, and you could read that as a direct outgrowth of what he was almost forced to do in The Star Lost. 

Separation Anxiety is not a story about loss, it's a story about distance and being apart from one another. We get confirmation of this during a succession of scenes where Alexander asks when he'll get to see his father again, followed by Keiko O'Brien conversing with an officer whose husband is on the stardrive section, not long before she expresses concern to Miles about being separated from him after Doctor Crusher picks him to join her away team to the planet. One thing Separation Anxiety does carry over from The Star Lost, and actually The Return of Okona as well, is the notion of various crewmembers in positions we wouldn't normally expect to see them in and acquitting themselves really well. In Deanna Troi's absence, it's Robin Lefler who gets to explain the situation to the children of the saucer in her usual confidant and chipper tone. We didn't get to talk much about Robin Lefler in the show proper because “The Game” was so fuck-awfully shitty the criticism sadly wound up eclipsing her, but seeing her here reminds me of how good Ashley Judd was in that part and how I used to wish she had become a reoccurring character.

As mentioned, it's Beverly Crusher leading the away team again, just as she did in The Return of Okona, and she's got Miles O'Brien on it. Terry Oliver is there too, and this may or may not prove to be a bad idea. We also build some more on the theme of paralleling people between both teams: Last month we compared and contrasted Laren with Terry. Here, the big one is obviously Captain Picard and Commander Riker, with both of them in a leadership position and Will having to relinquish his usual role as away team action hero. There's Robin/Deanna, which is interesting in a lateral sort of way, and then finally there's Data/Jenna D'Sora.

Naturally I'm not sure this was the wisest move Michael Jan Friedman could have made here seeing as I'd just as soon retcon “In Theory” and anything that reminds me of it out of existence, but I have to say it works and gives us probably the most memorable exchange in the issue. When Data and Geordi contact Captain Picard and the battle bridge crew, he's about to explain their theory about how the moon works. But then, in a wonderfully elegant cut, we switch to the saucer section where it's Jenna who gets all the tech exposition dialog as she's explaining the theory to Will. Then we cut back to the stardrive section where Data has already finished his spiel, and we never get to hear it. As Will's tactical officer you wouldn't expect Jenna would get a scene like that, but she sells it really well: In a sense I guess it really did have to be her, as it's her connection to Data that ironically helps underscore how it's really not necessary for him to do *everything*.

The cliffhanger is one I like. Nobody is in any real danger, or at least not any more then they were when at the beginning of the issue. Beverly's about to take her away team down to the planet, and the stardrive section is in a continued standoff with the Sztazzan fleet. As Captain Picard remarks they obviously have no choice but to remain, the final text box gives us a truly Star Trek: The Next Generation version of “To Be Continued”: “Continued? Of course”.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Myriad Universes: Separation Anxiety Part 2: Bone of Contention

With the Sztazzan demanding they leave the area based on territorial claims that are questionable at best and Geordi, Worf and Data stranded on the artificial moon due to its alloys blocking communication signals (and the distinct possibility it is in fact no moon at all, but a superweapon), the Enterprise is faced with a difficult set of options. Captain Picard eventually decides to separate the saucer, with Commander Riker taking the saucer section to safety while he stays behind with a skeleton crew on the battle bridge to deal with whatever the Sztazzan decide to throw at them. Joining him in playing the waiting game are Ro Laren, Deanna Troi and relief officers Solis, Burke and Thorne. Commander Riker will take Doctor Crusher, Jenna D'Sora, conn officer Dooley and Terry Oliver with him along with the civilians to Beta Cangelosi.

It's nice to see the battle bridge again. It's also nice to see Deanna Troi on it instead of twiddling her thumbs off screen in the saucer section with the civilians and “non-essential personnel”. Not that I should be surprised by this of course, as Michael Jan Friedman is the single best author ever to write for Deanna Troi, and her expertise with extraterrestrial cultures would obviously be needed during what amounts to a diplomatic incident (also, I should hasten to add, it's not like Friedman would be so incompetent as to completely ignore the action on the saucer section, especially as he has one of his narrative prime movers aboard it). I dig Pablo Marcos' rendition of the battle bridge: It strikes me as a cross between the set we saw in “Encounter at Farpoint” (and that we haven't seen since as it's been scrapped and repurposed so many times it's by this point in various states of disrepair) and the main bridge redress from “Yesterday's Enterprise”, which I find to be appropriate.

(I also quite like Captain Picard's little aside observation in his internal monologue that “it's been a long time” since they last separated the saucer because it's an intricate and complicated maneouvre that requires an annoying amount of preparation; a nice meta nod to how laughably impractical saucer separation has always been from both a narrative and material TV production reality perspective.)

Story-wise this issue is a bit of a holding-pattern one, serving mostly to present the key saucer separation scene itself and recap the miniseries' major story arcs. It's handled fairly elegantly, though, with Worf and Geordi bringing their respective subplots up with each other as conversation to pass the time. By interesting contrast, Laren exposits not to a friend, but directly to us through an internal monologue. This is noteworthy because while Captain Picard isn't the only character in the series to have the internal monologue as his explicit signature, he is the one who uses it the most frequently, typically as an extension of his captain's log entries. As a result, on rare occasions you could slip into the mistaken assumption that he might be Star Trek: The Next Generation's narrator. Laren is the first character in awhile (at least that I can remember), who gets more than a few panels to talk to us, and in fact she gets the majority of a whole page. Naturally this got me very excited, because it tied in so nicely with how I read “Conundrum” as having catapulted Laren to Captain Picard's level of narrative influence as a diegetic improvisational performer.

It doesn't last though, as the very next page affords the same treatment to, of all people, Terry Oliver. At first I was confused and mildly irritated by this purely because, I confess, I've been slowly developing a rather strong bond of affinity with Laren over the past season (more than I expected to, actually, and far more than I ever did back in the day) and I will admit I'm growing a bit protective of her and her uniqueness. But then I realised this actually made sense and was perfectly appropriate of the story to do for a number of reasons. First of all, it plays into Friedman's tick of paralleling the two different crews aboard the saucer and stardrive sections: Terry and Laren are framed as both compliments and mirror images of each other, delivering monologues with similar sound and body.

This is critical because they're also both relative newcomers to the Enterprise from somewhere else, but have reacted in two diametrically opposed ways. Terry goes full-on Benjamin-Maxwell-From-“The Wounded” on us here in regards to the Sztazzan (though to be fair to her a better example would probably be Stiles from the Original Series episode “Balance of Terror”), demonstrating she's not yet an arbiter of Enterprise values and culture, though she might be if she makes strides to better herself and move beyond her pain. Terry's monologue is all about being wracked with guilt over the Sztazzan incident and how consumed by a desire for vengeance she is, even though she admits that's unbecoming (and it's also a nice, subtle indication of how perceptive Captain Picard is that he had her leave with Will and the saucer section instead of staying behind to fight).

Laren, however, in delightful contrast to the way she's all-to-often portrayed on television, seems to have no such hangups and her monologue is about how happy and honoured she is to have the chance to stand with her friends, as she would just hate to have to stand aside unable to help them-Another nod to “Conundrum” where we learned what bothers Laren more than anything else is feeling helpless and powerless. And yet Laren also confesses to us that she's secretly glad on some level to have a temporary “distraction” from her feelings of loneliness and isolation, even if she'd prefer it didn't happen this way. That's when it finally struck me why it was significant that it be these three characters in particular, Laren, Terry and Captain Picard, who speak the most freely and openly to the audience: They are, essentially, the three loneliest characters in the story. Laren's whole subplot is about feeling like she doesn't *really* have any friends, even though her crewmates are nice enough and she's certainly loyal to them, Terry is a recent immigrant with a whole swath of her own personal issues and Captain Picard constantly, willfully cuts himself off from his crew needlessly.

Such thoughts materialize themselves in the narrative when the Sztazzan blast both halves of the Enterprise with a kind of wide-field energy beam, and the saucer section vanishes without a trace.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Myriad Universes: Separation Anxiety Part 1: Bridges

Saucer separation. It's always been kind of a weird concept, if you think about it. Presumably the Enterprise is a capable enough craft on its own such that it could defend itself without the cumbersome process of politely asking the bad guys if they would be so kind as to hold their fire for a minute whilst the ship does the splits, yes? Andy Probert didn't even design the Galaxy-class to separate: He had to chop the ship up after the fact when word got to him late that Gene Roddenberry wanted the saucer to come off, because that was apparently something he always wanted the ship to do in the Original Series. And of course, it was prohibitively expensive for the VFX team to shoot a saucer separation scene every week, so that particular plot thread got promptly dropped (probably in hindsight wisely) after the first season.

But what if you did a story overtly about a saucer separation? One that uses the technobabble gimmick of the show not as a plot device, but as an actual level of textual metaphor? A story where the Enterprise is quite literally divided in half, with families and communities kept apart from each other by a vast expanse, with a symbolic reunification at the end?

This is essentially the backdrop for the event miniseries I call Separation Anxiety, spanning issues 39-44 of DC's version of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Between the Enterprise returning Captain Okona to his ship and now, we've had a few smaller serials one-off adventures, none of them especially noteworthy. Q came back in a rather embarrassing trilogy about turning the crew into Klingons, and the comic book line has tried to redeem a few more one-shot characters from the TV series-Sonya Gomez and Ardra, namely. While those were more or less functional tales that once again demonstrate the spin-off series' better mastery of its source material than the actual source material, and generally cleaning up the various messes it occasionally makes of Star Trek: The Next Generation's world, they're above par for this line's truest pinnacles and I can't really recommend them to a casual fan (though the Adra miniseries boasts what has got to be the most terrific title in the entire book line: “Shore Leave in Shanzibar!”).

As for Separation Anxiety itself, it's actually not a typical summer event miniseries mainly because it starts in October 1992, which means we're well into the TV show's sixth season speaking strictly chronologically. However, I read it as a far more fitting coda to the stories and themes of the fifth season, and the summer event series for 1993 is likewise a perfect fit for where the show will have just recently left off. So there's really no better time to look at this story than here, and in Star Trek's two-year 25th Anniversary year, such temporal chicanery seems more than appropriate. The separation itself doesn't happen in this opening issue, but it is effectively and ominously foreshadowed. There's the hint in the title, “Bridges”, a clever and subtle nod to the fact that an Enterprise split into two sections will in fact have two bridges, but this also refers to the multiplicity of subplots and character arcs this story introduces here. All of which, appropriately, revolve around the different ways bridge motifs can be used as metaphors: As liminal spaces, they can unite, divide or serve as a transition from one phase or place to another.

Ro Laren is sad because a very important Bajoran holiday is coming up, one that commemorates a great victory for humble everyday people over imperialism. Traditionally, this is a date meant to be spent with one's friends and family, but Laren doesn't have any friends or family on the Enterprise. Data offers a friendly ear in ten forward, and Laren begins to excitedly retell the story of how a small village heroically stood defiant in the face of a tyrant's encroaching army by forcing it to retreat at a narrow land bridge. Unfortunately, she is interrupted when the senior staff get called to the bridge to investigate what appears to be an artificial moon. Data tries to apologise to her as he gets up to leave, and while Laren says she understands completely, she's still obviously crestfallen as she's once again left alone.

On the holodeck, Doctor Crusher is spending some time with an old friend, Terry Oliver, the daughter of Beverly's replacement at Starfleet Medical. Terry has recently transferred to the Enterprise after her previous ship was destroyed by a species known as the Sztazzan, and though she claims she's over the tragedy, she's still clearly rattled by it. Their visit to a soaring alien cliffside span is cut short when Captain Picard calls them to the bridge. Miles O'Brien and Geordi La Forge are in the crucial moments of a pool tournament when Geordi is called away. Unfortunately for Miles, the rules state that a team that splits up at this stage is obligated to forfeit the championship. Scrambling to find a partner within “the next fifteen seconds”, Miles desperately enlists the aid of the first person he sees-Deanna Troi, who cautions him that “Betazoids do not play pool”.

In the ship's hair salon, Alexander is getting a haircut. Mott tries to make small talk with the young warrior about a tactical manouevre he heard was used to great effect on the USS Yorktown. Alexander unknowingly makes an insensitive remark to Mott about how the Enterprise and the Yorktown are very different ships and thus the same tactics would not apply, and as he and his father leave, Worf points out that Alexander probably hurt Mott's feelings. As he's in the middle of explaining how complete honesty might not always be the most tactful way of interacting with others, he's called to the bridge to investigate the moon. With the bridge crew assembled, the decision is made to send over an away team to explore the artificial structure, though Geordi, Worf and Deanna point out the possibility the moon might have been a dangerous weapon, as it appears to be thousands of years old and made from unfamiliar tech. As if to prove their point, a group of warships immediately materialize off the Enterprise's bow and take aim.

It's the Sztazzan.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Myriad Universes: The Return of Okona Volume 2

This run of issues is an interesting one, as to my knowledge it's the only example of a story arc being interrupted midway through. While issue 28 “The Remembered One” picks up the Return of Okona storyline from issues 25-7, the next issue “Honor Bound!”, has absolutely nothing to do with it. It also sucks and introduces a raft of difficult-to-ignore-even-for-me continuity errors, so we're not talking about it (perhaps not coincidentally, it's also not written by Michael Jan Friedman). Issues 30 and 31, however (“The Rift!” and “Kingdom of the Damned”, respectively), do continue this story arc and bring it to a fitting conclusion.

“The Remembered One” continues the subplot about Worf dealing with being a widower and absentee father introduced in the first half of this series. It's the anniversary of K'Heleyr's death and Worf isn't handling it especially well. Discussing the matter in ten forward with Guinan, Worf reveals that the source of his anxiety is the fact that he misses K'Heleyr and feels guilty about doing so, because she died a warrior's death, and thus an honourable one, and he should be happy for her instead. Of course, I'm not entirely certain how true that is since in “Reunion” K'Heleyr was actually murdered by Duras and I don't think Klingons consider murder honourable as it's not fair and equitable one-on-one combat. But I'm going to let that slide as anything that retcons even a little bit of “Reunion” out of existence is more than OK in my book. In this timeline of events, we'll say K'Heleyr died a warrior's death in honourable combat with Duras.

(In fact, with everything this story arc has been doing over the past few months, it may have just come up with a version of the Worf/K'Heleyr/Alexander story that actually *works*.)

What Guinan was going to remind Worf of, before she was interrupted by a pulsar exploding and freezing the crew's life energies in a state of suspended animation, was that he was still raised human and thus could still react to things with human emotions. So when an energy being feeds on the life force of the Enterprise crew to assume the visage of K'Heyler to learn about love and loss from Worf (individual members of her species, which live in the pulsar, are born, grow and die in only one day, but their experiences live on through a race memory), he's able to react to her in true Enterprise fashion by calling upon both the human and Klingon sides of his positionality. In particular, he's able to show the new K'Heleyr how her predecessor valued loyalty and sacrifice to others and would have been appalled at what she's doing now, consigning the Enterprise to burn up in the pulsar because the crew are rendered incapable of making the necessary course corrections.

This issue is also noteworthy for marking the comic book debut of Ro Laren: She's not much more than an extra here, but it's not her story after all and everyone else who's not Worf sits out two-thirds of this issue too. It's also interesting to look back at these books in the context of when they were being written: Michael Jan Friedman would have no way of knowing which of the “supporting” and “guest” characters the TV show was going to bring back to develop further, which has the happy side effect of putting, at least at this stage, people like Laren, Alexander, Jeremy Aster, Jenna D'Sora, Tess Allenby, and of course Captain Okona (and in the serials immediately following this one Sonya Gomez and Ardra) all pretty much on the same level.

As for Captain Okona himself, his only real contribution to “The Remembered One” is to freak out when he learns Beverly is Wesley's mother. You might think it odd for a serial supposedly entitled The Return of Okona to neglect him so much and it is certainly an indication this arc may be a bit misnamed, but the truth is Worf is frankly ever bit as important a character to this story. His capacity for decidedly un-Klingon reactions (or at least what he perceives as such) plays a major role in the last two parts of this story, following the weird and shitty filler story of issue 28 (for real, Okona isn't even in that one). In “The Rift” and “Kingdom of the Damned”, the Enterprise is responding to a distress signal from a space station that seems to be disappearing into a mysterious and unexplained rift in time and space. Commander Riker leads an away team to help evacuate the base, but is faced with a testy station commander who accuses him of not trying his hardest to ensure the safety of the scientists and personnel. This is compounded by the fact the rift is wreaking havoc with the Enterprise's transporter beams and is swallowing the station at an accelerated rate.

Will stays behind and orders Chief O'Brien to save him for last (putting others before himself, just as Worf told us K'Heleyr would have done), but before Miles can get him the station disappears into the rift. A grief-stricken Worf lashes out in a blind rage refusing to believe Will is gone, and does not react at *all* well to Okona, who is ready to lay the Commander to rest and move on. Your first instinct upon seeing Worf's behaviour is naturally to be taken aback, as you'd expect him to be happy for Commander Riker to have transcended into the Great Beyond (he told Data as much in “The Next Phase” when it was Geordi, though he didn't seem to much care about Laren-Data had to remind him about her), but remember this is coming in the wake of “The Remembered One”: Worf's human side is still getting over the loss of K'Heleyr one year prior, and now he's faced with the prospect of losing someone else whom he is incredibly close with. It's all become a bit much for him to handle on his own, and Captain Okona was unfortunately the wrong person for him to meet in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(This is, by the way, the one area I might pass some criticism of this story were I inclined to: Coming so soon after The Star Lost and the last few episodes of the TV series, these themes of dealing with loss and moving on, while important and needed ones, are becoming somewhat exhausting for me. I could certainly stand to see some lighter fare at this point.) 

Will is still alive, as it happens. He finds out that the rift is a gateway to a different realm of space time where life as we know it can't exist, though it can, apparently adapt: He meets a group of beings who had fallen into the rift over the years and had their entire physiologies changed as result. They have become, in effect ghosts: Impermeable, immortal phantasms doomed to haunt this part of the universe for eternity. They hover over him constantly, always goading him to give up and accept being consigned to oblivion, claiming they were like him once and if they couldn't find a way out there must not be one. Most cuttingly, they insist his friends on the Enterprise will eventually give up on him. The artwork also conveys the mood really well: Everything is delightfully misty, warped and obscure, and you can't tell where the characters end and the scenery begins. I would make more of a deal of the Otherworld trappings in this story except they're not as fleshed out in the way I typically like them...These are fairly straightforwardly ghosts in the Dickensian/“Catspaw” sense and there's not a ton more erudition to glean in regards to faeryland wonderfulness here.

But that's not to say the story is devoid of erudition entirely.

“Kingdom of the Damned” was far from the first Star Trek: The Next Generation comic book I got or read, but it was the first one I got after the series had ended, which means it was the first one I got as a collector's item. I remember my parents finding it for me at the local flea market one year during one of our summer trips to Cape Cod, and as such it was another signifier to me of my interest in Star Trek shifting from being part of a present moment to a nostalgia-fueled, backwards-facing exercise in self-reflection. By its very nature as an old, out-of-print comic book it drove home the fact that the world had moved on from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and yet I, in at least some sense, hadn't. Ghosts indeed.

Speaking of, I remember this being the first time in awhile I was genuinely creeped out and unsettled by Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I remember...remembering how nice that actually felt. For too long had I been pouring over dry and monotonous reference books written by obsessive fans compelled to categorize things: *This* is what this series was supposed to do. It may not be the best example of Star Trek: The Next Generation just totally fucking over your brain in a good way, but you can at least see how this comes from the same show that gave us “Frame of Mind”, “Schisms”, “Phantasms”, “Masks”, “Dark Page”, “Eye of the Beholder” and “Emergence”.

But the ghost stuff serves a purpose above and beyond just providing us with some nice lite psychological horror. The interesting thing is, the only other person expressing comparable sentiments to these “demons of self-doubt” is Captain Okona, albeit far more politely and sympathetically. And here's where the genuine critique of him and his character comes back, and where the story really plays its ace about contrasting him with Commander Riker. Both Okona and the Enterprise are functionally nomads in both spirit and materialistic living conditions, bound to no one place whose calling is to travel the universe. But Okona being a romantic “lone gun” rogue pulp hero is a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing that kind of worldview, and a fundamentally selfish one.

Okona is ready to pay his respects to Commander Riker and give him up for dead as soon as he disappears into the rift, and while, yes, it is healthy to be able to move beyond relationships and accept that people will always come into and out of your lives, Okona is taking it to a dangerous extreme. He's not displaying a healthy approach to moving on, what he's actually doing is not giving anyone a chance to stay in his life long enough to make an important impression on it to begin with. It's the same kind of wildly reductivitst approach to self-reliance and individuality that led him to distrust everyone in the first half of this miniseries, and the story is saying this is what marks him as an outdated character archetype and an irresponsible traveller. Because someone who understood the true meaning of voyaging would know that every person, place and thing you meet leaves its mark on you, and a part of their energy remains with yours from then on.

(To bring it back to the other major subplot of this story, Worf has to work through moving beyond K'Heleyr in his own way while Captain Okona has to learn to allow himself to be more open and vulnerable.)

But Okona has now been travelling with the Enterprise for some time now, and, like it or not, they're beginning to rub off on him as well. So when he tells us that he in some ways looked up to Commander Riker and says that if he ever considered “settling down” (or what he considers settling down) the Enterprise would be the kind of community he'd like to be a part of and Will would be the sort of person he'd strive to be, we believe it. Here it's not just divine idealism in terms of individual characters we're considering, but utopianism in narrative storytelling: Okona, like many other visitors to the starship Enterprise, represents a kind of storytelling (and really, beavioural worldview) Star Trek: The Next Generation claims has become demode. But instead of railing against it, the series instead extends its hand and tries to work with it through searching for common ground. As much as Star Trek: The Next Generation is deliberately setting itself apart from Captain Okona here, it *is* also looking for comparisons as much as contrast. And so Okona's friendly warning to Commander Riker at the end to always be worthy of his crewmates' loyalty to him still takes and bears merit.

It's stagnation and complacency that will doom us more surely than anything else. There's always so much to learn and experience no matter how old or how young you are.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

“ antiquity its due reverence”: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

There was a time when being the sixth film in a motion picture franchise would have been the subject of mockery. Once considered a laughingstock, a movie with five sequels all set in the same continuity is completely unheard of nowadays, being as we are in an era where it's rare to go two films without getting a full-on “reboot” or “reimagining” with a new cast and director and suspiciously returning everything else.

So Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country feels oddly and quaintly dated today. It's a film that sets about closing a story decisively for no other reason than it's the artistically and creatively right thing to do, and that's just something you won't see today in the age of Cinematic Universes that are unfinished by design and consecutive reboots within three or four years of one another that all tell variations on the same stock plot. And make no mistake, it absolutely is and does: In 1991 there were not yet any plans for a second Star Trek film series, so this was a movie made for the express purposes of thanking the fans for their support and bringing the Original Series story to a dignified close. A lot of received fan wisdom seems to posit this film was greenlit to “make up” for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which would otherwise have been the final Trek movie, but from the studio's perspective the past *three* Star Trek movies had all underperformed at the box office and they didn't see much difference between them one way or the other. But this was the 25th Anniversary, and the Star Trek film team felt something needed to be done.

(This also explains why the movie looks somewhat stunningly cheap: While I remember the VFX shots having been breathtaking and they're certainly impressive when it counts, everywhere else the fact Paramount only allowed this movie to be made if it was produced on the thinnest of shoestring budgets plainly shows. Most notably, while I slagged off Star Trek V: The Final Frontier for reusing the sets from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's actually way more egregious in this movie. I mean, they didn't even try to hide the fact the transporter room, corridors, observation lounge and ten-forward are painfully obviously from Captain Picard's Enterprise. More on that later, actually.)

You might think a movie with that pedigree would be cripplingly fanwanky, and there are a whole slew of references on display here. But none of them feel like forced name-drops done simply for the sake of pandering. Everything feels organic and freeform, with the grand finale that takes centre stage flowing seamlessly into a prequel for the story that's playing out for us elsewhere. Leonard Nimoy and Nicholas Meyer are back behind the camera, and the end result is much of what you would expect from the team: It's Meyer's name on the director's chair, but it's clearly Nimoy's deft eye for cinematic photography that elevates the look and feel of The Undiscovered Country *substantially*: There was a chance the film could have worn its bargain-basement trappings a little too obviously, but Nimoy gives the movie a grandiose, epic sense of scale befitting the send-off of such iconic folk heroes of modern myth.

As for Nicholas Meyer...Well, his usual raft of issues apply. And let's just deal with this straight away, the mind meld scene with Valeris is completely unacceptable, but at the very least Meyer has admitted in more recent years it was a terrible, ignorant thing to write, he should have known better and wishes he could go back in time to tell his younger self not to do that. Elsewhere, Meyer is still a bit too bombastic, a bit too on-the-nose and remains frustratingly middlebrow. But this movie also sees him growing further from his surprisingly improved performance with the San Franciscan deli meat from the Star Trek sandwich that was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Meyer's characters feel a bit more naturalistic and a bit less like they're reciting from a high school English curriculum. It also helps him a lot that the entire movie seems custom-built to tailor to his brand of pomposity and because he's got a savvy partner in Leonard Nimoy he's not allowed to go quite as self-indulgent as he did in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

It also helps that Meyer has such a fantastic talent to work with in the likes of Christopher Plummer, whose scenes as Commander Chang remain a highlight of the film for me to this day. Like Christopher Lloyd before him, Plummer's got just the right balance of Shakespearean gravitas and cured pork such that his scenes are just the right level of over-the-top. He's delightfully maniacal,, especially when cackling and spewing Great White Western quotes lifted from Barnes & Noble refrigerator magnets. This is probably my favourite role of Plummer's, even counting his turn as Master Arngeir in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that helped change the course of my life. That's not to discount the rest of the cast, mind, particularly William Shatner, who had served as Plummer's understudy when they were on stage together many years ago: Their chemistry is plainly on display up there.

One more thing to note about Meyer's script: The racial undertones, and rather blatant racism, on the part of the Enterprise crew has drawn a bit of scorn over the years, most significantly from Gene Roddenberry, who apparently threw a fit about it not long before his death. Although I'm not sure if the sentiment is still there, some fans back in the day felt that the Enterprise crew wouldn't hold such bigoted views. The thing is though, in my view, they absolutely would. I think it's important for us to remember here that this isn't the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew: This is the Original Series one, and that sort of utopianism isn't actually built into this story by default. This crew has fought the Klingons consistently for decades and are military officers first and foremost, *not* scientists and diplomats. This is precisely the kind of attitude this crew would hold. It's the one time Nicholas Meyer's space navy stuff, and his themes about aging, are genuinely appropriate: This crew doesn't actually know any life other than war, and they've become so set in that way of thinking that the kinds of “knowing your enemy” sentiments we talked about in “I, Borg” may actually be beyond them. In fact, the film posits that this is tacitly the main reason they need to retire.

In that respect, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a truly bizarre 25th Anniversary special, isn't it? Most media artefacts like this are insufferably self-aggrandizing things, spending an interminable amount of time talking about how wonderful they are, how many wonderful things they've done and how many more wonderful things they have yet to do. Which, incidentally, you can be a part of if you line up to buy the newest product proudly bearing the brand name at the low, low price of your nostalgic memories of the original work. But this is a movie explicitly *about* the original work in question, and is even the brainchild of a not-insignificant number of the original creative figures. And it is unmistakably about how dated, tired and out-of-time said original work is: This is the movie all those people who worship Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for its supposedly powerful handling of aging and death need to watch, because here it's perfectly timed. Star Trek, in this form, *really doesn't* come back again after this. And it can't.

Although the film never wavers from the eminently justifiable postulate that the Original Series had a tremendously important impact on world society, nor does it waver either from its firm commitment that its time in the sun has now more than passed. The world it came into and was meant to comment on doesn't exist anymore (I don't feel the need to talk about the clear parallels with the Cold War and Berlin Wall subtext, mainly because calling it subtext is being wildly and inappropriately generous to it. This is, after all, Nicholas Meyer) and there's no more good it can do without wearing out its welcome and cheapening its own legacy. Perhaps as a collective cultural myth the Original Series will live on in perpetuity (indeed, history since this movie more or less solidifies that assertion, TOS being the only Star Trek anyone important seriously talks about anymore), if it does it will be thanks to the transformative energy of the people who love it so much they don't ever want to let it go. As an extant media artefact, the original Star Trek has finally reached its limit break.

And yet even within this, the true meaning of this presence remains clear within Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. One point of singularity and egress where all that is, all that ever was and all that ever will be exists in a single moment. This is an Original Series story, but it's an Original Series story about, if absolutely nothing else, the existence of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are having conversations in spaces that really belong to Jean-Luc Picard, Guinan and Beverly Crusher. So much so the film doesn't even make an attempt to disguise this fact. Of course, many of those sets were actually built for Star Trek Phase II and the film series first, something that was, I confess, a disappointment for me to learn. It would seem the only set that was *really* built for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: The Next Generation alone was the Enterprise bridge: The oppressive weight and shadow of the Original Series materializes even within the show's physical reality. That said, I don't think anyone watching this film would look at those rooms and think they belong anywhere else than on the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D.

Even our future role models themselves are here, deliberately haunting the narrative to remind us of where our true calling lies. There's Michael Dorn, of course, even playing a character named Worf. And it's not just Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is here too, over a full year before it's supposed to properly make its debut to the world. Dax is aboard Kirk's Enterprise (framed for murder, no less), and the man behind the conspiracy to instigate a second Klingon/Federation war is the mysterious Colonel West, who spends part of the film physically altered to resemble a Klingon. West is named and styled after Colonel Oliver North (and who else has invoked and caricatured Oliver North to skewer the heart of Star Trek at its most vulnerable?) and is played by a personal friend of Nicholas Meyer's by the name of René Auberjonois. There's also a shapeshifter named Martia who at one point assumes the visage of Captain Kirk, the erstwhile performer, to challenge him with the weight of his own celebrity image.

And last, but not least, in an iconic scene, Kirk and McCoy are tried and sentenced to Rura Penthe in the exact same manner as Jonathan Archer a century before them in one vision of reality. 

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country's version of time, strange as it might seem given the headiness of the plot, is not a linear or teleological one. It's a diffuse, dreamlike one, with visions and half-remembered stories all playing over the mindspace above and beyond the comparatively paltry media on display. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country has thus always been and always will be *my* Star Trek movie: I was vaguely aware of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home through the broader culture and caught up with them later, but this is the film I remember being in theatres. This is the film I can quote and whose setpieces I can still most vividly remember. The movie poster is one of the most iconic images from my history with Star Trek: *The* defining image representing *the* Star Trek movie.

I can still vividly remember the initial teaser trailer for this film, included in the very first home video releases of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As I was eagerly looking forward to reacquainting myself with my favourite show alongside my family in outer space, I was treated to a bittersweet tribute to a story I had never heard. A quiet, dignified and melancholy montage of unfamiliar, dissociated images of people I didn't know and places I'd never been. Even without foreknowledge or asking my parents for confirmation, I instantly and intuitively realised that this must be the “other” Star Trek I had heard about. And though I didn't know anything about who these people were or the lives they had lived (and, frankly, had no particular desire to learn) I could feel, *and appreciate*, the weight of history still.

I could sense that even though this was not my family, these people must be honoured distant relatives of ours. It's a simple little piece, but there's an uncanny, haunting familiarity about it. It reminds me of what Star Trek: The Next Generation looked like five years ago, when it was just getting started, and that set of iconography and emotions resonates with me at a very deep level. Even so, this looked just old and different enough for me to feel apart and removed from the stories being remembered. They were as strangers to me, and yet not. And so I respected them as my elders and forebearers, for I knew they were the ones who had gone before. I thank them for all they did such that me and my people could benefit from the legacy they left behind for us. If this was to be their final story, then so be it. I'm sure they had lived full, rewarding and prosperous lives and had earned it.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Myriad Universes: The Return of Okona Volume 1

It's perhaps inevitable that at some point spin-off media will begin to revisit one-shot characters and plotlines from their parent series. I don't personally consider this to be necessarily bad or fanwanky: A lot of times it makes good storytelling sense to return to those concepts, so long as it's not done simply because it can. You could argue that this is in fact the point of media like this, to go back to things the parent series abandoned and examine it in more detail, and while I think there are a lot of other reasons spin-off media is good, that's certainly one of them.

The title of this story arc is a bit misleading, as while it does indeed mark the return of Captain Thaddeus Okona it's actually about a great deal more than that. The Return of Okona immediately follows on from The Star Lost, and expands greatly on its predecessor's approach to character building: This miniseries marks the first time Michael Jan Friedman begins to seriously double down on the number and intricacy of parallel subplots for DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation-From here on out each issue or set of issues is going to explore at least one important story for every one of the main characters and several reoccurring characters to boot. It gives the comic line a very novelesque sense of pacing and scale and makes the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation feel far more vast and expansive as a result.

In fact, it's so lengthy, gets so intricate and I've got enough to say about it (and I've got a whole other summer event miniseries, plus assorted one-shots and two and three parters I want to look at for this summer hiatus) that I'm breaking protocol a bit for the comics: Instead of doing a post for each issue, I'm covering the first three stories, “Wayward Son”, “Strangers in Strange Lands!” and “City Life”, in one extended essay and calling it “The Return of Okona Volume 1”. I'll do the back three (“The Remembered One”, “The Rift!” and “Kingdom of the Damned”) a post from now, with the expected entry in-between. I'm not technically sure all six issues are considered part of the same story arc as the major plot is different between the two sets of books, but Captain Okona features prominently in both of them so I'm considering them all part of the same story for category purposes. If I didn't, I'd basically end up reviewing the entire comic line issue by issue and quite frankly nobody wants to see that.

Right now the important thing is that The Return of Okona is every bit as elegant and meticulously crafted as anything else Michael Jan Friedman has done. You wouldn't think so given how Captain Okona is a bit of a broad-strokes character, not the sort you'd expect to divine a lot of nuance out of, but Friedman manages it: His care and attention to not just narrative structures, but the symbolic context, meaning and associations of said structures, enables him to craft a compelling and provocative story about the kind of character Okona is and the role he plays in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But the delightfully weird thing is the whole thing doesn't even open up appearing to be a story about Okona: By all accounts it seems at first to be a Worf story, then moves over to be an Alexander one. Which is intriguing, as this series was written well before “New Ground” and Alexander moving to the Enterprise. Predictably, this gives us a fascinating counterfactual interpretation of how Worf and Alexander's relationship could have worked. And you can probably guess I like it way better than the one we got on TV.

Worf's major crux is that with Alexander light years away, he doesn't feel like he's fulfilling his duties as a father, even though he's in the capable hands of the Rozhenkos. To make matters worse, Worf's brother (not Kurn...Jeremy Aster!) is coming to visit Worf's family and he wishes he could be there with them. This is an interesting and obvious pairing to explore: For a number of reasons, Worf was actually a better teacher and mentor to Jeremy than he was to Alexander, and one of the things his presence in this story does is remind us of that. In fact, even though the two of them are supposedly roughly comparable in age, Jeremy winds up spending this story very much playing the role of Alexander's uncle: He shows him fun stuff and acts as a confidant who's a bit cooler and more approachable then his father or the Rozhenkos. Jeremy is a definite highlight of this story-He's grown leaps and bounds from “The Bonding” and even “The Lesson”: He's completely over the trauma of his mother's death, even though that's something that will always be part of him, and acts many years older than his age.

This turns out to be precisely what Alexander needs when it's revealed that he blames his mother for abandoning him and has taken to holding it against all Klingons, far preferring to live among and emulate humans. And remember again this story is coming before “New Ground”, and even “Hero Worship”. Actually, it feels like this story could serve very well as a compliment to the latter episode, with Alexander experiencing a sort of mirrored inverse of what Timothy goes through. Jeremy takes it upon himself to subtly show Alexander that his people have a strong tradition of loyalty and pride too, by telling him a story (serialized, natch) about two Klingon warrior comrades named Marut and Radak that conveniently bears some similarities to the Terran myth of Damon and Pythias. In doing so, Jeremy ironically “humanizes” the Klingons for Alexander, and bonds with him over the shared loss of their mothers by pointing out that K'Ehleyr didn't mean to die and leave Alexander alone, just like Marla Aster didn't mean to leave Jeremy, and that Worf still loves Alexander and tries to show it in different ways.

It's an organic and naturalistic evolution of both characters that's a perfect mesh with Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopian themes. As much as I dislike “Reunion”, this is straightforwardly the correct way to move on from that story in the most constructive and helpful way possible. And it's only the B-plot. The A-plot, is, of course, about Captain Okona, whose ship the Enterprise has found mysteriously adrift above a seemingly empty planet sending out an automated distress signal. Concerned for their old friend, an away team beams down to the planet to investigate, and the first interesting thing is that it's led by...Deanna Troi. Despite Commander Riker's objections, Captain Picard rightly points out how other officers need command experience too, and Will doesn't have to lead *every* away mission. It's also an apropos extension of Deanna's major role in The Star Lost, where she was the one who singlehandedly figured out what the Lanatosians were up to.

Alongside Deanna are Doctor Cruser, Data and Worf, and what's immediately interesting here (again, much like the latter half of The Star Lost) is how this changes the by-now somewhat hackneyed dynamic the crew has with one another. Delightfully, Deanna seems to consider her position as team leader a purely nominal one, and Beverly ends up doing a heavy chunk of the commanding too. Where Will would tend to just issue orders, Deanna and Bev brainstorm with their teammates, (and Okona, who happily, though inevitably, turns out to be alive), delegate tasks according to each person's individual strengths and come to decisions generatively and from the bottom-up. Meanwhile on the bridge, an anxious Will doesn't seem to know what to do with himself, constantly disagreeing (albeit respectfully and amiably) with Captain Picard and chomping at the bit to be down in the thick of the action, especially when contact is temporarily lost with the away team.

(Speaking of bringing back minor characters, it's also neat to see Tess Allenby and even Jenna D'Sora back here and getting substantive roles. Tess fills Data's narrative role effortlessly, while Jenna D'Sora pitches in on the bridge for Worf when he's not there.)

But it turns out not to be Will who Deana and Beverly are contrasted with, but Captain Okona (in fact, the difference between Will and Okona is going to become the major theme in the second half of this story). Here, Okona is portrayed, fittingly, as a very old-fashioned kind of roguish masculine hero. This story really emphasizes his lone gun personality and rakish tendencies, and shows them to be little more than an act that's a little past its time. Okona naturally tries to woo Beverly, whom he's never met before, but she just rolls her eyes and plays along. More gravely, his gut instinct is to mistrust the life-forms on the planet they've found themselves on (turns out it wasn't so empty and uninhabited after all), and this serves as the crux for what Friedman is trying to tell us about the kind of character archetype Okona represents.

Okona and the away team have landed on a planet that seems built around a sort of futuristic European Renaissance aesthetic populated by artificial beings, many of whom seem to be going out of their way to kill them, even though, paradoxically, their every need has been catered to. They're immediately provided with food, shelter and clothing (rather lavish, luxurious ones in fact) which seems to mysteriously appear around them at the spot they beamed down, but as soon as they move down to the village they get immediately attacked. Okona's first instinct is to distrust everything and react defensively, but Deanna and Beverly advocate a more diplomatic and cautious approach. They, along with Data, reason that the beings might have motives they just don't understand yet. This is bolstered when an elephant-like steed seemingly comes out of nowhere to save the team from a group of assailants, and a mysterious woman appears to help guide them out of the city (which has been blocking their communications). Okona doesn't trust either one of them at first, but Deanna and Beverly convince him to give them a chance.

This turns out to be a wise move, as Tess eventually discovers that the planet they've found is actually what amounts to a historical theme park designed to retell the story of a beloved and heroic king by placing visitors in the role of the king himself for some of his greatest exploits. Okona, it turns out, has been unwittingly playing that role, and the away team that of his generals and allies. The elephant was the king's mount, and the woman, of course, the queen. So interestingly, what we have here is not really so much a planet based around a futuristic Renaissance aesthetic as much as one that's built around populist, aggrandizing history in the form of what really amounts to dimestore sword-and-sorcery and pulp sci-fi. Naturally, Pablo Marcos does a wonderful job realising this through the lens of charmingly schlocky 1980s pulp art, and of course Thaddeus Okona would be the kind of person the pseudo-sentient artificial intelligence that runs the ride would be drawn to.

The purpose of having Okona here, in this setting, is thus revealed to be a metatextual commentary and the kind of stock archetype he initially came out of. Because “The Outrageous Okona” was conceived as little more than a vehicle for bringing Billy Campbell back and maybe giving us a taste how he might have played Commander Riker, his actual character was fairly programmatic. This story is saying that kind of rakish, rogue lead is the hallmark of a particular sort of dated artifice, and not the kind of artifice that conveys meaning through metaphor and allegory, but more the kind that rings a bit hollow, insecure and insincere. Trying to model your life after that kind of character also sets you on a path for a kind of willfully lonely existence, as demonstrated through the fact that while he has some good instincts, they're ultimately more or less 50/50 and his unwillingness to trust others in lieu of doing everything independently and on his own isn't going to get the team out of their predicament. It's a callback and development of the one bit of commentary in “The Outrageous Okona” proper, where Will tells Wesley that you can live life on your own terms without sacrificing family, community and companionship.

This will of course come back and ring even louder in the second half of this story, where Captain Okona and Commander Riker are explicitly compared and contrasted. Because for the immediate future, Captain Okona is a fellow traveller aboard the Enterprise, and through him we'll get a clear look once and for all the true nature of the lineage Star Trek: The Next Generation shares with the kind of adventure romance Captain Okona hails from.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

“Now will never come again”: Time's Arrow

Writing fanfiction was probably the earliest way I ever dynamically or critically interacted with media. I guess I always found it the most intuitive and instinctual to express ideas and concepts through the voices of particular characters. Perhaps it's something like Lwaxana Troi said in “Cost of Living”: All those little people who live inside of us, each of them voicing a different facet of ourselves. I suppose part and parcel of being the sort of person who undertakes a project of this scope and magnitude is that these particular characters, or at least versions of them shaped by my own perspectives, readings, interpretations and projections, are always going to live inside of me.

In a sense, this is nothing more than an extension of the way we read. The overall impact a text is going to have on you is largely contingent on the positionality you bring to the text itself. When we're talking about speculative fiction, we're talking about a genre that, perhaps more than any other, is designed to stimulate and inspire imaginations. And a hallmark of storytelling has always been its mutability: That multiple storytellers can and do take familiar characters and stories and tell them in different ways, bringing something a little bit new and different along with a piece of themselves into the tapestry of myth.

“Time's Arrow” is a good episode. More of a straightforward adventure story than maybe some other episodes, but well done. The two things that have always stuck with me are the Devidians themselves and the part at the beginning when the time travel stuff is first introduced, which dovetails into what's actually a quite good allegory for mortality for what it is (Deanna rather aptly uses the term “terminal illness”, and her cute little imitation of Data is another sign of her current status as a character because that's not at all Deanna Troi, but it's pure Marina Sirtis). It's a fitting way to close off a season that's dealt so heavily with time travel (indeed, time becoming unbound, which will return with aplomb next season), death, the afterlife and counterfactual alternate realities exiting simultaneously and coming into contact.

So here's a small alternate reality of my own. When I was watching the scene where Geordi and Data are talking in ten forward about Data's imminent death, I still had “The Next Phase” fresh in my mind, so my thoughts drifted back to Laren and how she might take all of this. And then all of a sudden, this exchange popped into my mind. Laren isn't in “Time's Arrow”, but this is something I thought she might say given everything that's been going on lately. I imagine this scene taking place just before the one between Geordi and Data. I swear this isn't even the kind of fanfiction I normally like to write-I typically couldn't care less about filling in blanks in aired stories or adhering to the televised canon of events too terribly much, and I actually surprised myself that I came up with this. But it's an exchange I felt compelled to write, for whatever that's worth.

Geordi is sitting alone at the bar. He's clearly pensive, trying to work through the events of the past few days. Trying to figure out what to think and what to say. From behind him in the background, Ro enters and takes notice of Geordi. She stops herself in her tracks, hesitates for a moment, then moves into the foreground. She comes up to Geordi. 
Do you mind if I join you?
Oh...Hi, Ro. Sure.
I hope I'm not intruding or anything-You look like you'd rather be alone. But, well...You also look like someone who wants someone to think they'd rather be alone, but secretly hopes that will get that person to come talk to them anyway. Now I could be wrong...But Guinan tells me that nobody comes to Ten Forward to be alone.
Ro sits down across from Geordi and looks straight at him. He turns away from her, shakes his head and grins.
Well, I guess you've got me figured.
I speak from experience. Trust me.
They are silent for a beat as they look down at their drinks. It's Ro who speaks up first.
I heard about Data. I'm so sorry-We were all his friends, but I know you were really close with him and...
Ro suddenly catches herself and realises what she's saying.
“Were”? Listen to me, going on in the past tense. He's not even dead yet and here I go talking like he's already gone.
Don't worry-This has been hard on all of us. But yeah...Data was the first friend I made on the Enterprise. We met working together on the bridge...
He thinks for a moment, and tries to force joviality to lighten the mood, however briefly.
I used to have your job, actually-Did you know that?
You were a pilot...? I know Captain Picard said he met you piloting a shuttlecraft, but...
Yeah...Started out as one, but always wanted to work with propulsion. Was lucky enough to make chief engineer our second year out.
A beat, as they both realise this tangent isn't going to take.
You know, what always struck me about Data is that for someone who claims to have no human emotions or desires, from the beginning he always seemed to have imagination. He sees things differently, hell, probably better than anyone else, but he's always eager to learn from us. He probably doesn't consider himself an artist, but he is – He's always trying so hard to express himself and share what he sees...Sometimes in spite of himself.
Maybe that's why you get along with him so well.
He does not pick up on the message she's trying to send him. He continues
It's like...You build up so much of your life used to always being around some people. You're with them every day, coming and going and living, day to day. I guess you could say you almost take it for granted. And then suddenly...They're not there anymore. I guess it makes you think.
I've been thinking about it a lot lately too. I mean, we've been dead. That's bound to change your perspective, right? But I was also thinking about the Captain's experience with the Ktaan probe.
Really? What about it?
I was listening to him in sickbay talking about this...whole other life he had lived. For years, decades. Do you remember what he told us he had told his daughter...well, I guess it would really be Kamin's daughter...when they found out their sun was going to go supernova? He told her to “seize the time”. To “make now always the most precious time”.
There is a beat, and she continues
My people believe it's very important for the dead to make peace with their past lives. I'm starting to believe we can do that when we're still alive. I think Kamin was right. Maybe we all need to remember to always live in the now, and to treasure the time we spend with each other for what it brings us, because those moments will never come again.
Geordi considers Ro and her words for a time, then smiles.
People come in and out of our lives all the time, and each one has something to teach us. I guess it's up to us to make the most of whatever time together we have.
It looks like he's about to say something to her, but then Data enters from behind them. Ro notices him, and gets up to leave.
I'd better get going.
Wait, Laren...I'm going to be free again in a couple hours. Maybe...we could get together to check out a holodeck program or visit Miles and Keiko in the arboretum or something?
She looks down at him and smiles.
I'm going off-duty at 0700. See you then?
With that, she turns to leave, gently squeezing his shoulder on her way out. She passes Data, who looks at her quizzically before moving into the foreground to the bar. As Data comes up to Geordi, Ro moves into the background and leaves ten forward, the doors closing behind her.