Saturday, October 21, 2017

THIS is Star Trek!

For a change, I'm not going to do spoilers. I simply want to say that this episode of Star Trek Continues is not just Star Trek... it's quintessential Star Trek.

It has numerous well-incorporated call-backs to the original series, excellent guest stars, and a superb script by award winning author Robert J. Sawyer. As you watch it, note that they are making a continuation of a 1960's TV series. The goal here is to mimic the look and feel of that original series, while doing it subliminally better. Pay particular attention to planet surfaces (esp. the distant horizon) and the effects in space... they're updated without taking you out of the established universe.

The allusions to events in the original series are so nuanced that at one point I had to ask myself... "wait a minute? Was she there? Did she do that?" Re-watching the original episode itself, I answered, "Damned if she didn't!"

This is brilliantly done. I wait for the conclusion with bated breath.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Sci-Fi Progress Report

In a moment of curiosity, I thought I'd check in on Rotten Tomatoes and see how The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery are faring today.

For The Orville, the critic score has dropped, but the audience score is higher than before. As I mentioned before, this discrepancy is massive, and cannot simply be explained by taste. Clearly, the broader audience here likes the show, and the critics are either clueless or biased.

Notice the poster. This is an ensemble show, and it's reflected here.

For Star Trek Discovery, the audience score has climbed a little bit. It's still a disappointing 59%, made more disappointing when you realize that the audience for this show is pre-disposed toward liking it, to the point of having paid a subscription to CBS All Access. Despite this, they're not nearly as impressed with the show as the paid critics.

Also, notice the poster. This show has no ensemble dynamic, and it's reflected here. Unlike every Trek of the past, this is purely a vehicle for one character... a character which, judging by the vast majority of fan reviews, doesn't earn the spotlight. One who, as earlier noted, began as -- and remains -- a Mary Sue.


One thing puzzles me. Despite this piece of guidance from Rotten Tomatoes:

...and despite the fact that Star Trek Discovery has received 3,912 reviews as of this writing, you have to know to drill down to the season 1 page to see those reviews. You won't find them on the main page, where the superficially impressive "want to see" icon is used instead of the more disappointing 59% rating from those who have actually seen it.

This artificially makes the show look more popular among viewers than it actually is. The Orville has a larger potential audience but a much worse timeslot. Nevertheless, with a similar number of reviews (4,285) the audience score of 92% is prominently featured on The Orville's main page.  There doesn't seem to be anywhere on The Orville's main page to actually post a rating. I'm not saying there's something untoward, here... but I am pointing out something obviously inconsistent and strange about the way presents the two shows.

As for me, if I had to pay for The Orville and got Star Trek Discovery for free, I'd still watch The Orville. The same can't be said the other way 'round. This is my last month of CBS All Access.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: Some Good, Some Bad

As usual, I don't care about SPOILERS. Read at your own risk. You've been warned.

I watched Blade Runner 2049 last weekend. It's a mixed bag. I could rave about the things I like -- Edward James Olmos' return, some clear nods to fans-in-the-know (like Olmos' origami sheep, or the alternate-universe continued success of Atari) -- but gushy reviews are boring ones. In Blade Runner fashion, bring on the dystopia. Let's see the bad, the boring, the indifferent.

I'll start by saying I liked most of it except Jared Leto. I thought his character was idiotic.

To clarify: I think that they were trying to use Leto to bring to his role some of the poetry of Rutger Hauer's performance in the original. Only, Hauer's performance brought something significant and new to the character. He showed us that the replicants were not merely desperate killing machines. Leto's character is pointless. So much so that I don't remember one damned line he said. He's quirky for the sake of being quirky. If half of his scenes were simply cut -- not re-written, not replaced -- it would improve the final film immensely. All of his scenes are too slowly paced. I would never want this as action-adventure; but I want conversation to occur at a pace that doesn't leave me feeling like Barry Allen.

As for the rest of it, I liked it, with a nit to pick here and there. One of the things that made Blade Runner a cult classic was the uncertainty of whether Deckard was a replicant. Well, that's off the table. I don't mean the issue is resolved, despite Ridley Scott's insistence that Deckard is a replicant. I mean, they just don't address it... at all... and we don't care about it... at all. And truth be told, the events that play out indicate that he isn't. So whatever you believe about Deckard, just keep believing it. But I think they did successfully transfer a similar form of that  uncertainty to Ryan Gosling's character ('K'); and they execute that particular head-fake pretty well. Blurring the lines between what's real and what isn't is signature Philip K Dick, so I'm pleased with not having seen the obvious-in-retrospect.

It's 30 years on, but visually, it's the same incessant rain, the same giant billboards, the same crowded squalor, the same flying cars limited to the same cops. And somehow they managed to carry that rainy feeling to Las Vegas in the form of a persistent dust cloud sans wind. Take your choice... constant grit or constant rain. Empty sky is for utopias. The visual message is that change and growth are not happening here. It's stagnant future, very little removed from that which was imagined in 1982.

Nothing much changes in 30 years.

As a vision of the future, Blade Runner and its sequel are set way too close to the present, but beyond that, the world they paint is just weird. They presumably have supra-light interstellar travel, as they talk of battles in distant star systems. They have off-world colonies. But that tech doesn't appear to have brought home much of value. In the original, we were left to assume that the City had just built up over the years. Here, we see that they just abandoned the whole damned modern world and left the old buildings to rot. Look at Dresden... Berlin... Coventry... that's not how humans rebuild. And they side-step the persistent nature of a surveillance society with a little lip-service about a global blackout that had erased... well... everything. Except what it didn't. As a software developer myself, I realize that there is no difference to a computer between programs and data, and I shudder to think of the scope of re-writing all of the software in existence. If you will, imagine the task of getting any computer to run when everything down to the bootloader is deleted by an EMP. But this was a special magic blackout that deletes data and leaves the software. But if Star Trek can have magic gravity, I suppose I can suspend disbelief for this logical fallacy.

Joi. You can look, but not touch.
One thing new that their tech has bought is personal company. Shell out the dough and you can buy a holographic personal assistant. Think "the Siri I wish I had". "Joi" can be anyone you want her to be, except a flesh-and-blood woman. And in one of the most uncomfortable-in-a-guiltily-good-way sex scenes ever put on-screen, she manages to find a temporary loophole around that little limitation. A little more moolah will get you an "emanator" (a mobile emitter). Late in the show we're still left with that signature question, "How much of this is real? If the simulation is good enough, is there even a difference?"

As for the acting, I have no complaints, except Leto. He takes the place of Tyrell from the original film. If there's one character in the whole story who should be grounded, and know the difference between reality and simulation, it's him. Despite putting on the fatherly mentor façade for his creations, Tyrell was insightful and could convincingly hold down a nuts-and-bolts technical conversation. Leto's character, Wallace, didn't project anything even approaching competence. What grounding he might have had was undermined by filtering his entire reality through software. And then they chose to put the most execrable yet forgettable dialog in his mouth. In the end Wallace was nothing but yet another delusional little god wanna-be, as cliché as they come. The saving grace of this is watching Harrison Ford's wtf facial expressions as Deckard tries to decipher Leto's crypto-speak.

Then again, it's in one of Leto's scenes that we have the high note, which is the biggest spoiler. Rachael's return. Granted, I've only seen the film once, but I was looking hard at this, and the CGI'd "Rachael 2.0" (Sean Young) was picture-perfect. Perhaps this has something to do with her slightly surreal performance in the original film, but this is one case where there's not even a hint of the "uncanny valley". And even the one detail they "got wrong" was crucial to Deckard's reaction. Great job on that one.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Few More Thoughts on The Orville/Trek

There are a number of thoughts and observations I didn't get into my reviews of The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery, so I'm just going to put them here, in no real structure. I may add to it from time to time.

The Orville
  • The Moclan race, of which Lt. Commander Bortus is a member, self-identifies as "all-male". However, genetically, that can't be true, as these "males" lay eggs, which is definitive of female biology. Nevertheless, however they are classified, they are certainly homosexual. This makes their complete lack of a sense of humor ironic. As the most decidedly gay member of the crew, Bortus nevertheless plays "the straight man" in any joke in which he's involved. I hope they meant to do that.
  • The bright and spacious interior of Union ships, complete with house plants, are not a mere matter of aesthetics. The intent is to avoid the risks of psychological stress that come from long exposure to cramped environments that lack personal space. Because of these risks, submarine crews are given regular psychological screening. In other words, it's a logical design feature.
  • Episode 4, If the Stars Should Appear, was as good as any episode of classic Trek. The surprise appearance of uncredited guest star Liam Neeson was a treat, and the appearance of the stars, accompanied by the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, was genuinely awe-inspiring. "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!" 
  • Again, from Episode 4: "BOOM, BITCH!" is just perfect. Bortus' reaction is as well.
  • The Orville is episodic TV. It is a series, not a serial.  As such, story arcs are not continuous. You will be dropped hints until a story is ripe for the telling, but that story is not developed over many episodes. Nevertheless, when you receive that hint, it does not follow that it was a missed opportunity, or that they dropped the topic. Rather, it's a teaser that you will be visiting the topic later in the season. An episode of a series stands alone; and episode of a serial does not. To illustrate... go watch a mid-third-season episode of Lost and you'll know what the title actually means. It is the difference between an anthology of short stories and a novel. This is a major difference in kind that appears to be throwing off critics who seem to expect topics to drag on and on. 

Star Trek: Discovery
  • I dislike the tendency of writers (both here and in classic Trek) to have Vulcans and those trained by Vulcans give answers with excessive specificity. That's why when Michael predicts the arrival of the storm down to the second, it's a more egregious failure than had she said, "about one and a quarter hours".  For instance, I've seen Spock give an estimate of ship disappearances which, when calculated, indicates a period of every 27 years, 126 days, 6 hours, 57 minutes, and 10 seconds, though it's nigh impossible that ships even approached the area with such exacting regularity. Such specificity is impossible to verify, and is both illusory and meaningless. 
  • It is The Orville that is produced by Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, which is noted for its formulaic overabundance of "cut to flashback" scenes. However, The Orville is devoid of such scenes, while ST:D is filled with them. Now that's funny.
  • The producers of ST:D have declared that the Klingons are allegorical of the Trump administration. Yet it is the Federation officer Michael Burnham that displays more of the characteristics popularly attributed to him. She is fearful of alien incursions and highly aggressive in her reaction to the mere possibility of such a thing. She believes that displays of aggression are necessary to maintain Federation security.
  • The Klingons, on the other hand, are strict isolationists who fear the incursions of the Federation. These are fears that are fully justified by the actions of Michael Burnham. If the Federation were to strictly adhere to its principles of non-interference, then they would leave the Klingons to themselves. They might stop to consider that the presence of an ancient and important Klingon artifact in "Federation space" gives great weight to the Klingon claim of priority in this star system. This brings to mind the questions, "Who is the bad guy here? Why is the Federation intent on imposing its values on another civilization? Is this really an optimistic vision of the future?" See the next section.
  • Though in the two-part pilot, Burnham swears that emotions do not factor into her decisions, her face and body language betray her. Who does she think she's kidding?
  • Major kudos to actress Sonequa Martin-Green for portraying Burnham's overconfidence and arrogance in the pilot. She brought a positive swagger to her body language that persisted until her incarceration. 
  • The writers missed an amazing opportunity in the pilot. They should have named the white Klingon "Chang", and simply had Burnham successfully put his eye out, thus setting the stage for the eye-patched character we met in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He would be about the right age.
  • I've heard some say that they think the show is setting up for an appearance by Spock. That may be the case; however, in the original timeline, Spock and Sarek had not spoken for 18 years. In 50 years of Star Trek, we never heard so much as a whisper of Michael's existence. It logically follows, then, that their paths may simply never cross. There is no evidence whatsoever that they have.
  • The USS Enterprise and other Constitution class vessels are already in service by this time. It is possible that we will catch cameos of other known characters, such as Robert April or Christopher Pike, or Captain Stephen Garrovick of the USS Farragut. Again, we have no evidence of it, but there is nothing to preclude it, and some good fan service reasons to do so.
Yeah, that's him, all right!
ST:Discovery EPISODE 3: 
  • I think the "varmint" is the Galaxy's biggest Tardigrade. In fact, I'm very close to 100% certain of it.
  • The Top Secret Project reveal is mid-1970s Doctor Who-level ludicrous. Instant travel across interstellar distances using fungal spores that permeate the Universe? Seriously? Perhaps we could scare up some midichlorians while we're at it.
SPECULATION (Star Trek: Discovery)

I don't think this isn't the Prime Universe at all. I'm not saying it's the Mirror Universe, but it appears to be an alternate universe that has the potential to evolve in very similar fashion. Observe:
  • The aforementioned protectionist stance of the Klingons, and the fact that of the races mentioned as having been diminished by the Federation, humanity is not mentioned.
  • The fact that Klingons gather their dead; something they don't typically do in the Prime Universe.
  • The Klingon ships don't resemble those of the Prime Universe. HOWEVER, the Klingon sarcophagus ship does look as though it could have inspired the design of the Mirror Universe Klingon ships.
  • The what-the-fuckedness of Captain Lorca in both attitude and outlook, as well as the aggressive say-hello-by-opening-fire attitude of the Vulcans. Vulcans.
  • The metallic fabric in the uniforms; a hallmark of the Mirror Universe, but of no variant previously seen in the Prime Universe or the Kelvin Universe.
  • Technology not previously seen in the Prime Universe. 
A fondness for metallic accents
Now, keep in mind that I don't think that the writers or producers in any way intend for this to resemble the Mirror Universe, and they'd probably be offended by the suggestion. I'm just saying it does. And this is sort of an inevitable thing when you get folks in charge of production that have a burning need to be "different". Toss out what came before, and there are really only a few ways to go. So in Captain Lorca they've gone dark, gritty, creepy, aggressive, authoritarian, and lacking in respect for law or common sense judgement. In Burnham they have the most untrustworthy graduate of the Vulcan Science Academy in its history.

At this point there's no hope of reconciling ST:D with Prime Universe canon. Period. It must take place in an alternate universe. And at this point it looks as though it could easily lead to a nascent Terran Empire. All that's necessary is a bloody war (already seen), a slight turn to aggressiveness (already seen) a few misplaced quarks (already seen), and the Butterfly Effect. All the elements are there.

Renegades: The Requiem

I really dread writing what I have to write here, because I'm about to discuss a film that I not only helped fund, but which is produced by a lot of people whose work I have enjoyed and respected over the years. I want to see this crew succeed.

Let's drop some names: Nichelle Nichols. Walter Koenig. Terry Farrell. Robert Beltran. Gary Graham. Tim Russ. Bruce Young. Cirroc Lofton. Aron Eisenberg. There are a lot more.

And the name of the film is Renegades: The Requiem. It is the sequel to Star Trek: Renegades.

Originally, this started out as a Star Trek fan production, but in the wake of the CBS/Paramount crackdown on fan films, they dropped the Star Trek connection and decided to re-frame it as its own thing. So far it's been released to donors. I don't know when the full release will be accessible to the public, but when it is, I expect it to be pay-per-view or on-demand at Atomic Network. Part 1 is there now.

I really, really, really want to like this film. The fact that it started as a fan production makes me want to give it a good bit of leeway. The fact that it is not only staffed and acted by professionals, but that it aspires to anchor a new on-demand streaming service forces me to judge it by a somewhat higher standard. Sadly, whether it be because the budget was stretched too far, or for some other reason, the costumes suffered. That's understandable. Unfortunately, I can find no excuses for the acting or the script. I think you may already see where this review is going to go.

Let's start with the cheap shot. First impressions. It's not possible to adequately convey how vitally important the costuming is in a show like this. Get it right, and you can put the characters anywhere. Get it wrong, and no amount of CGI or chroma-key is going to make it look right. Your costume is your most intimate practical connection to your fictional world. And these are execrable. I really don't have another way to say this. Refer to the screenshot. Poor Tim Russ is wearing a tunic that looks for all the world as if it had simply been put on backwards. Puckered seams, bad gathers, foam padding... it's like bad cosplay. Koenig's is no better. And lest you wonder, it's the same for just about anyone wearing a Confederation uniform. Corin Nemec's leaves him looking like Dana Carvey as the turtle guy. The civilian costumes fare better simply because they don't have to follow a standard, and many of them could be assembled from actual carefully-chosen street togs, or simply weren't recognizably Star Trek enough to be replaced on short notice. Again, this is probably a time and budget thing, but it is unfortunate. It's made all the more puzzling because the Renegades-style Star Fleet uniforms were already significantly different enough from existing designs that they could have simply removed the comm-badge insignia.

A good bit of the time and budget had to have gone into the re-design and re-rendering of all of the external space shots. Every ship had to be replaced with a new non-Trek Confederation design. I have no complaints about any of that. I think they did a fine job of it. Then again, I'm probably in a minority when I say that I don't care much about the ships and the FX. I know a lot of people go bonkers over the details of ship classes and designations, but it's the story and the people that hold a show together for me. Still, this is extremely well done.

The space scenes are as spacey as they need to be.

I also really don't care to go too deeply into the script in this review. If you've ever played any sort of tabletop RPG, you're familiar with the plot summary: baddies are wearing badges, so nobody official can be trusted. A team of ne'er-do-wells has been recruited to work under the table to do what has to be done and save the Confederation. Sacrifices will be made. It's a pretty familiar formula, so I really can't geek out over it for its cleverness or originality. Since they're telling a standard quest in space, success of the production depends on the execution more than the plot.

I will say, though, that there's a lot of just standing around and talking in some scenes. See the screen capture, above. It's every bit as exciting as you might imagine standing around talking with your hands at your sides would be. A bit more attention to detail... not in the scripting, but in the filming... could have fixed that. Real people do things while they talk. Sharing some tea would be more natural and visually stimulating. I know there's this great background shot, but it only takes a few seconds to establish the location and walk off the green screen and into a park. The same thing applies to a conversation aboard a space station. Having some age on me myself, I know there is nothing old people like better than standing around shouting at each other from across a large room with no furniture.

The production team had a few hard decisions to make, and I don't think they were aggressive enough in their choices. Once you decide that you're not going to be Star Trek, it's time to get rid of the baggage. You know that the character names have got to be changed, so change them. The Treknobabble has to go, so replace it. Trek references need to be excised. Cut them out. Given that the original script was a bit of a darker departure from usual Trek fare should have made the transition not too difficult, story-wise.

They didn't go that far. In that same scene I've illustrated above, "The Admiral" is meeting with "Jacob Sisko" (Cirroc Lofton) and "Commander Kovok" (Tim Russ) (of course, these are totally not "Jake Sisko" and "Tuvok" - wink, wink).  Andorians become whatever-they-are-now through the simple expedient of removing their antennae. And some other characters have behavior that's only explicable through a connection to their Star Trek counterparts. Again, this is a difficult call, because they're continuing a story that they started as Trek.

In script-writing, details are important. Dialogue is important. It really shouldn't sound stilted or forced; and for all that is holy, it can't sound like it is "dialogue". Bad dialogue results in deterioration of the fourth wall, taking you out of the story. It reveals an actor on camera acting. Now you're no longer watching the action; you're watching the screen. You're not seeing the Admiral talking to a renegade captain; you're seeing Walter Koenig deliver his scripted lines. The last thing you want to do is catch an actor acting. If you're still not clear on what this means in practice, you have only to watch this film. You will catch everyone acting. Even the seasoned professionals.

pant, pant, pant.
Often, the acting that you catch them at is just plain weird. And it reminds me of something. As a kid, I caught more than a few hognose snakes. These little critters, when captured, decide to play dead. And for a hognose snake, that means turning onto its back, opening its mouth, and sticking its tongue out. If you then flip it back onto its belly, it refuses to act like an actual dead snake would. Instead, it will flip itself back onto its back. It has a certain conception of what "dead snake" looks like, and will act that way every single time, even when it makes absolutely no sense. Something similar is going on in this movie.

Let's all watch the captain pant.
For instance, it seems as though someone decided that in a moment of tension it's dramatic for a captain to be out of breath. So Captain Singh (Adrienne Wilkinson) is out of breath during a tense moment. She's sitting in a chair. She has been the whole time, moving nary a muscle but her neck and mouth. But she acts like she just lifted a refrigerator. The same is true of Captain Alvarez (Corin Nemec). Sitting in a chair, as captains do; but panting like a marathon runner. Meanwhile, the bridge crew are sitting and standing at their stations, cool and professional. Sure, their ships have been hit, but it doesn't explain the level of exertion exhibited by these two characters, especially when the other actors are more reasonably controlled. There are other 'pre-programmed actions' that occur multiple times, as if there were only one conceivable way of conveying resolution, for example. When that happens with so many experienced actors, you pretty much have to toss it at the director's feet. Sorry, Tim Russ. I don't know what happened between Star Trek: Renegades and The Requiem, but the acting and direction in the first episode was superior.

Wilkinson in particular is suffering from an egregious case of trying-too-hard-to-be-a-badass. Every motion is overtly controlled, as if she were constantly engaged in isometric exercises. This is the telltale sign of planned actions. When we see this in CGI characters, we label it "the uncanny valley". We know it's not real. Wilkinson would be so much better if she just loosened it up and let her movements and facial expressions come naturally. And as for Admiral Armstrong, I have no idea why actor Bruce Young decided to use a stilted, snobbish British accent that's a century out of fashion even in our own time. Maybe that's just how they speak in his corner of Illinois and he's been putting us on for all these years. Frankly I wish someone had talked him out of it, just as I wish someone had dubbed over Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises. And there's a cantina scene that's just painful to watch although the alien design and makeup are admirably done. There are a few jokes, and every one of them falls flat.

The dude on the left is Bevus. He's a butthead. Get it?

Anyway, as I said, I spent money on this. I truly wanted it to be successful, so all this beating up on it is intended as purely constructive criticism. And God help me, I'll probably spend money on the next one, too; hoping that they bring the writing, acting, and costuming up to the standards of the set design, SFX, and make-up. But I can be hopeful for the future and disappointed in the present at the same time. And I am.