Interviewed by Falmouth University, init: https://falwriting.com/new-blog/2019/1/30/interview-a-j-dalton
So, Tilly is seeing a dead friend from her school-days. Spock’s mum explains at length about Spock’s half-Vulcan/half-human psychological disorientation (stuff we all know very well). Ash, down on the Klingon homeworld, is going through his whole I’m Volk-the-Klingon in the body of the human Ash Tyler confusion. And Burnham is hallucinating red angels and crying about it – actually crying, even though we’ve seen her go through hell and highwater in season 1 without shedding a single tear! Okay, okay, we get the theme of duality and self-doubt already! Do you really need to belabour it so damn self-indulgently? Stop whining about your anxiety already.
The main problem though is that with so many split personalities needing ‘resolution’, the 50-min episode really doesn’t have time for us to go through the crisis and dramatic symbolic/psychological progression for each character. So what do we get instead? We get a big block of exposition or an immediate explanation and solution for the ‘problem’. The closest we get to an actual plot-line is down on the Klingon homeworld, where all sorts of politics are going on. Yet, we expect Ash to prove his worth and save the day… except that all gets fudged and we get an awful deus ex machina moment of salvation… with a character who’s already died at least twice and really shouldn’t exist anymore (except they’re a big star and the series doesn’t wanna waste them).
In summary, then, we only stay engaged because we have learnt to care about these characters in previous episodes. We give the episode leeway and tolerance. But, honestly, it’s a really duff episode (that’s me being polite). A critic friend of mine called it a ‘process episode’, which means it dumps a load of info on us so that we will understand/enjoy the drama and action of upcoming episodes. Fair enough. But it’s sooooooo clumsily done. Oh well. Onwards!
Wow. After the decidedly pitchy season-opener, Star Trek Discovery really gets into its stride with the second episode. [No spoilers] We are given World War Three, angels (with the possibility of divine intervention), a properly interesting counterpoint debate about the Prime Directive and the Beta quadrant! It’s a lot for one episode – but it all manages to remain coherent. It’s a triumph. There are some proper science fiction concepts and writing going on here.
More than that, there’s even a classic-series style episode-of-the-week based on an away-mission to a strange planet. It’s New Eden. I’ll not say more than that. I’ll let the episode title suggest what’s going on.
This episode is not really ‘a Michael Burnham’ episode. It’s much more of a Tilly and Pike episode. And one of the bridge crew finally gets some back-story: the Ops Officer Lieutenant Joann Owosekun. It turns out that back on Earth she comes from a ‘Luddite Commune’. Wow. Sounds cool. They are obviously anti-tech because of how technology (with its rare-metal mining) has ravaged the environment.
[Spoilers from here on] In episode 1, Burnham saw some demonic sort of angel – but it could have been a trick of the light or she might have imagined it. Episode 2 confirms that the angels are a real thing. And they have been interfering with human affairs for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Clearly, the angels do not adhere to the same Prime Directive as the Federation. Are they well intentioned or malign in intent? Spooky. How have they altered the course of human development? Have they limited us through malign meddling or enabled our ascent to the stars?
In the New Eden episode, the angels have used their power to relocate several hundred humans from the midst of World War Three on Earth (in the year 2059) to a virgin planet in the Beta quadrant. Potentially, they have saved our species and allowed it to start again. But the human survivors on New Eden have regressed, with their technology slowly failing and without the necessary knowledge or resources to fix it. With each generation, they’ve gone backwards. They’ve become more superstitious/religious too – forming a hybrid religion out of the seven old religions and the relics of the original settlers. Is that a good or bad thing? It’s hard to say. Should the crew of the Discovery take them off the planet and return them to Earth? Or should they leave well enough alone?
So, it’s some epic, spiritualist, near-future, hard science fiction going on in the series now. Long may it continue!
First, let me lay out my stall. I’m a lifelong trek fan but I’m not wedded to the so-called Prime timeline, the Kelvin timeline, or any other timeline. I’m happy for new stories to be explored under the general umbrella of Star Trek, which I define as a philosophy of life and an optimistic vision of humanity’s future. It is not a specific set of rules about how many engine nacelles a ship should have, or what colour uniform the people should wear, or even whether or not Klingons should have hair! And perhaps because of this, I enjoyed season 1 of Discovery, was perfectly happy to forgive its various problems and was looking forward to season 2.
This feeling lasted right up until I saw the first episode of season 2. Then I read A.J. Dalton’s review of it and thought “Are we watching the same show?”
Significant spoilers follow…
Well, Mr Dalton, I thought you went very easy on episode 1. My review in a nutshell would have been two words: utter drivel. You quite rightly observe the apparent Star Wars influence, which we see in the frenetic action sequences and in the sublimation of any kind of plot to that action. But you didn’t make much mention of the horrible characters that this episode subjects us to, some of which we’re going to be forced to endure for the rest of the season.
There is, for instance, the really quite bizarre episode of the Enterprise science officer. This unfortunate sole seems to have carried out a very brief and entirely one-sided vendetta with Michael Burnham (of which Burnham appeared blissfully ignorant). I won’t name him: you won’t need to remember his name. He arrives onboard with his chin tucked into his throat and his eyes bugging in two different directions, which seems like a sad attempt by the episode’s director, Alex Kurtzman, to instantly cue the audience into the fact that he’s an antisocial arsehole. He then answers the questions asked of him accurately and with perfect clarity. He does this only to suffer an unjustified put-down by Burnham who uses a completely inaccurate analogy to summarise what he said… and she gets it wrong. So do the writers, who confuse an ‘analogy’ with a ‘simile’. Silly writers. Three of them wrote this and not one of them checked a dictionary.
Science Officer (okay, okay, his name is Connolly) then gets sneezed on with alien snot from an alien with a huge head. Oh, the hilarity! Oh, raptuous jakes and funnies! How we are supposed to laugh. And how we most definitely do not.
Connolly is then shown behaving in a monstrously unprofessional and irrational way by ignoring both common sense and the direct orders of his commanding officer during a moment of acute danger. This results in him flying his pod-racer… sorry “landing pod” into an asteroid fragment, suffering an unnecessary, messy and pointless death. The end. WTF?
I noted earlier that the director was Alex Kurtzman. This should in fact explain everything about the bizarre and tragically short life of Connolly, because it was Kurtzman who brought us classics such as the Transformers movies, a fine example of frenetic action prioritised over actual plot where the target demographic is seven year-olds. So, naturally, they put him in charge of Star Trek!
Not long after this we meet another character and this one, I’m afraid, looks like sticking around longer than poor old, misunderstood Connolly. She is Jett Reno, an engineer and textbook Mary Sue character whom the crew rescue from the wreck of the USS Hiawatha.
For anyone not familiar with writers’ short-hand, a Mary Sue character is one who is unrealistically perfect in almost every way, having more brains than Spock, possessing enormous charisma and self-confidence, and being completely unflappable in the face of scrotum-clenching danger. The term was coined to describe wish fulfilment characters that appeared in Star Trek fan fiction writing of the 1970s.
In this case, Jett Reno is extraordinarily gifted at pretty much everything. Whilst stranded on a tectonically unstable dark matter asteroid with no atmosphere, she manages to find the time to invent, perfect and even apply a smart paint job to a brand new drone technology that Starfleet, with all its vast resources and comfortable working environment, has so far failed to develop. But no! That’s not all! She also finds time to dabble in transplant and neurosurgery which she performs under conditions that make M.A.S.H. look palatial, and she does all this whilst under constant threat of invasion and messy evisceration from Klingons.
So what? You might be muttering. Isn’t Star Trek all about exceptionalism? Well, to the extent that Star Trek encourages us to be exceptional, and shows us examples of what we might aspire to be. But this is extreme and potentially fatal for any future plot line involving Reno. You see, Reno can basically do anything, and do it with a smile. With a character like Reno around, the writers will struggle to invent situations of believable jeopardy to place the ship in. This will render useless one of their biggest tools for creating conflict and drama, and thus make the whole show into “one long plotless Kurtzman-style empty action fest” which is my slightly longer, eight word review of episode 1 in a nutshell.
Okay, now that I’ve vented my spleen, what were the good points?
No lens flare. You can actually see stuff! Yay!
Everything is just so pretty! Now that I can see it all, I realise what I was missing in season 1. The sets, the seamless, photographic-quality CGI, the textures. It’s all there. Your eyeballs will not be sorry.
Christopher Pike. In another instance of disagreement with Mr Dalton, I thought Pike was pretty good over all. And I think he will improve as the season progresses. Although there was one instance when he seems to put his foot in his mouth: after discovering the wrecked USS Hiawatha, he appears to suggest that they might not mount a rescue for practical reasons, and because they’re already on another, more important mission. But wait… if you listen carefully you might conclude that the bridge crew didn’t wait for him to express that opinion. They jumped straight in (or rather, Burnham jumped straight in) and assumed he was about to justify leaving possible survivors to die on the grounds of practicality. Lorca did quite a lot of this, because Lorca was all about “the mission” and this got him a certain amount of respect, until the crew realised that Lorca’s mission was very different to theirs! And so, once bitten, twice shy and we see a suddenly very nervous bridge crew all trying to read the Captain’s mind… and getting it wrong. Trust issues? In the wake of Lorca, you bet! They get it wrong, but Pike doesn’t react like the authoritarian Lorca would have. Instead he very gently sets them straight without any posturing and without throwing his weight around.
This felt like a very realistic and human moment. It was a moment firmly grounded in the collective past trauma of this group of people who find themselves struggling to overcome the damage left behind by their former captain/abuser. So, in this case, well done the writers! I only wish we might see more of this in future episodes.
Oh yeah, there was something about Spock, blah blah blah retcon, don’t care, got bored and was sighing with fatigue when I realised that Burnham was now going to run across an exploding asteroid, and there would be fire and danger and emotion. Then the cavalry arrives in the form of Pike who has somehow developed the magic power of transporting himself onto the surface of the asteroid; the asteroid that they spent ten minutes telling us they could not transport onto the surface of, because “technobabble”. (And because they really wanted to play pod racer, instead, because beaming down is, like, so last century.) But then Pike beams back down anyway, despite not being able to, and then transports himself and Burnham away, in exactly the manner they said they could not.
Funniest moment: when Saru’s ganglia came out and the unspeaking bridge officer gave him a significant look, to which Saru remarked “Really? Are you surprised?”
Saru was, of course, sensing the imminent cancellation of the show! Because, really, I actually quite enjoyed season 1. I thought season 1 worked and was perfectly happy to give Discovery every benefit of the doubt. And now they’re making me regret it.
Bah humbug. What else is on Netflix? Some kind of Titans thing, but I bet DC have cocked that up, as well. And dozens of really miserable movies, with stories that are tedious and end badly for the main characters. What’s going on? What’s with this relentless doom and gloom? It’s almost like a genre unto itself. We can call it gloomfic, or something. It’s what comes after grimdark, but with less grit and more misery. Marvellous.
And on top of that it’s January and it’s raining.
[The Grumpy Guest Review is always provided by Michael Victor Bowman, whom you may wish to check out, to abuse and amuse at www.lifedescribed.com. Or follow him on Twitter: @mvictorbowman.]
So, Star Trek Discovery’s second season has started! Captain Pike comes aboard the Discovery and promptly commandeers it. His own ship (The Enterprise, of course) has been damaged and Pike needs a ship to complete a secret mission from Starfleet, to find out why seven red energy bursts have occurred across the solar system.
Pike brings his Science Officer with him… but it isn’t Spock! Where’s Spock, Michael Burnham (Spock’s estranged half brother) wonders. Indeed, the episode is entitled ‘Brother’, so we’re all wondering where Spock is. We get some tantalising flashback memories of the young Spock from Burnham, but they don’t tell us much.
Yet the episode pursues the red energy bursts instead of the Spock question. Fair enough, especially as Pike brings some welcome ‘old Star Trek’ style and vibe with him. Indeed, the away-mission down onto the crazy asteroid at the centre of one of the red bursts feels like an episode from the classic series. Hurrah!
Sort of. Because of the debris field around the asteroid, Pike and co. have to take individual pods to the asteroid surface and it feels like nothing more than a Star WARS pod-race. The tech and reference is all wrong. Down on the asteroid is a wrecked medical vessel, where Engineer Denise Reno has been keeping brains in jars alive using weird necrogothic technology. It’s like something out of Alien or The Chronicles of Riddick. Again, it’s all wrong.
Anyway, the asteroid is made of some material promising to get the ol’ Stamets-super-jump tech working again, but safely this time, without any cute Tardigrades being hurt. Whatever. The main question, though, is where the hell is Spock?!
It’s not a bad opener at all. Lots of promise. It’s gonna struggle to deliver on soooo much promise… but you’ve gotta keep the faith, eh?
Queen Anne (ruled 1702-1714), sympathetically played by Olivia Colman, is one of the loneliest of people. She has lost 17 children and her long-time husband. She suffers from gout and other illnesses. She has low self-esteem and lacks confidence. Fortunately, she has the loving companionship of Lady Marlborough (a vampish Rachel Weisz), albeit that Marlborough then effectively uses her position as favourite to run the country in a way that directly benefits herself and her husband’s political ambitions. It’s not an entirely cynical relationship between Anne and her favourite, however, as there is a genuine tenderness there and Lord Marlborough leads the fight against the French.
Enter Lady’s Marlborough’s down-at-heel cousin, Abigail (the ever so pretty Emma Stone). Abigail quickly starts to vie for the Queen’s attention, while also securing a rich husband for herself. There is plenty of comedy and chicanery here, and this is where the movie is at its romping best. There are intrigue, double-dealing and political dalliances aplenty.
We feel sorry for the Queen – ruling is a lonely business. No one is truly your friend. You end up being used. But there are certain compensations, let’s say. And that pretty much sums it up. Ho hum.
It’s difficult to know how to end this review. Similarly, The Favourite doesn’t quite know how to end. In fact, it doesn’t really have much of an ending. It just stops. Odd. Not thought-provoking. Definitely anti-climactic. Weird. Oh well. It scores a respectable 8 out of 10 from me.
Vice is a thought-provoking film, but you might not like the thoughts it provokes. Vice is a cynical film about an apparently cynical man: Dick Cheney, Vice President to George W. Bush.
Vice is far from being non-judgemental as a biopic. According to this movie, Dick Cheney was responsible for creating Donald Trump’s playbook, for instituting the vain and foolish George W. Bush as a puppet President (so Cheney could then run everything unobserved behind the scenes), for instigating the Iraq War (so US companies could financially benefit), for instituting ‘extraordinary rendition’ and Guantanamo Bay, for creating ISIS, and the list goes on. No wonder the right-wing press in the US is up in arms about Vice.
Vice is a fun movie, full of humour and directorial tricks – as we might expect from the team who brought us The Big Short. There are visual metaphors interpolated during scenes to create satire, there is an ‘alternate ending’ happy-ever-after sequence about 30mins in, there is a playful and mischievous narrator, etc. All good.
The cast is impressive as well. Christian Bale brings gravitas and a certain authenticity to the Cheney role (even mastering Cheney’s particular style of breathing), Amy Adams is his ballsy driven wife, Sam Rockwell is convincing as the vain and dim-witted George W. Bush, and Steve Carell is the rapier-like and witty Donald Rumsfeld.
For all that’s charming and high-powered about Vice, however, there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right. The main problem is with the character of Dick Cheney himself. All too often, even when he’s central to a scene, he seems absent or so at odds to how he appeared in a previous scene that things aren’t quite cohesive/coherent. Sometimes Cheney is weak and ineffectual, sometimes he is a Machiavellian genius. Sometimes he seems to care about people, sometimes he doesn’t care about human life. Sometimes he is an ideologue, sometimes he only calls himself a Republican as a matter of convenience. All these contradictions mean that we never quite feel that the film knows as much as it pretends.
This fundamental issue with the film isn’t down to Christian Bale’s performance: it’s more about the ‘forced’ nature of the plotting, the political stance of the film, the directorial stance or the fact that nobody really knows what motivated and defined this most ‘secretive’ of politicians. And the movie admits this right at the start, during the title sequence, as there is a written message to the audience about how difficult it is to know what really went on. The message concludes with this actual statement: ‘But we did our fucking best!’ And that sums up the cavalier, whimsical and subversive tone of the entire movie, actually.
For all that, it’s an enjoyable film, even though it runs to 2hr11mins (you’ll need a toilet break). We do root for the young Dick Cheney character at the start, and we do hate the elderly Dick Cheney by the end. We’re left wondering how this bright young man ended up being twisted and corrupted by Washington. We’re left aghast – and there are vampiric horror movie aspects about it all in truth. Vice is not a movie you will quickly forget, which for my money makes it a worthwhile watch. It scores 8 out of 10 from me.