Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Shadow of the Sun written by Robert Valentine and directed by Nicholas Briggs

This story in a nutshell: After an accident, the TARDIS lands on a luxury star-liner. Leaving their ship to repair itself, the Doctor, Leela and K9 find themselves facing a great terror: mingling at a cocktail party. Something seems awry behind the pleasantries, however. Guests are going missing, and equipment is breaking down. When the Doctor investigates further he discovers that the star-liner is literally on course for disaster. But no-one seems surprised by this information, still less troubled. What’s going on? And can the Doctor and his friends save everyone... when nobody wants to be saved?

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor dares to suggest that his middle is prudence. What a nerve. Ironically, Tom Baker is at his most confident in the early stages of the story (and that is very confident indeed) until he walks into a catch-22 situation. His friends are a terrible nuisance and he likes to think that they take after him. There's a wonderful moment where the Doctor pretends to have something profound to say...just to give Leela enough to attack the focus of his attention. 

Noble Savage: Leela flatters the Doctor by suggesting that when she first met him that she wanted to travel with him because he was a great and wise man...that frequently needed saving. Louise Jameson is precisely the actress you want to give a speech about the pointlessness of sacrificing yourself and she imbues her words with real emotion and desperation. The fact that she gets through to two people is the result of the earnestness of Leela's proclamation. 

Standout Performance: A huge round of applause for the prolific Barnaby Edwards, who manages to take ahold of what could have been a thankless part (the autopilot of the ship) and twists it in the most sinister character in the story. And that is a story with a Death Cult and an insane cult leader. His impassive voice (loaded with sarcasm, at times) reminds me of the Robots of Death. He'll open an airlock and suck you into space but he'll be incredibly polite while he does so. 

Great Ideas: Cruising the solar system at some point in the 26th Century, not even the Doctor could have perceived why this cruiser is sheltering in the shadow of the sun. He's convinced this is a place of drama, celebration and living it up...but not that they are have one last galactic knees up before burning to a crisp and ascending to a higher plane. Doctor Who tackling a suicide cult is not the sort of real life horror that Big Finish has the nuts to dive into these days and I admire the audacity of inserting the ebullient fourth Doctor into a story where the people he is trying to save don't want him to do that. There was a sick feeling in my gut early on when I realised that if even he does manage to save the day, he wasn't going to thanked for it. Does he have the right to involve himself in what is effectively a religious exercise where all the people involved are perfectly content to die? Leela is a great choice for this story too, because she is manipulated into a situation where she has to beg people to want to live (which isn't her usual style at all). The Helios Society believed that the Earth's nearest star contained a habitable paradise. 

Standout Scene: In a gloriously unexpected moment, the Doctor declares that the ship is heading into the sun and that within the hour they will all be dead. When he makes melodramatic portents of doom like that he isn't usually greeted with utter indifference as he learns that everybody is very well aware of the fact, and they welcome it. His words are twisted from a warning into the portent of a glorious future. I loved the cliffhanger too; which is very much a take on the 'Dead men do not require oxygen' mould but it is still a glorious moment of jeopardy as Leela faces ejection for espousing anti-Heliotopian sentiments. Having to realise the moment when the disaster hits, with all the accompanying screaming and frying, isn't what I expected to be listening to on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. 

What the Writer Said: My thinking behind writing SHADOW OF THE SUN was basically to comment on the whole 'my opinions are as good as your facts' thing. It was conceived post-Brexit and pre-Covid, and while you can read either situation into the story, initially my thinking was more along the lines of the Flat Earth movement (although Brexit does play into it with the character of disaster-profiteer, Hix). The members of the Helios Society have decided to test their belief that the Sun is a habitable paradise by flying a spaceship into it. In a religious context, what they'd be doing is testing God – and I understand gods frown on that – but in a secular sense it's simply madness, a disagreement with reality which they can only lose. And that's an interesting situation for the Doctor, Leela and K9 to wander into!

Result: Shadow of the Sun uses the one hour format of the fourth Doctor adventures to fantastic effect with the story effectively having four quarter hour segments that continually push the story along in a very engaging way. It opens with the Doctor and Leela visiting a spaceship and crashing a party and it looks as though this is going to go the way of an amiable Graeme Williams story before Robert Valentine hits with a dark twist that pivots the story off into much more insidious territory. Once the danger has been established, it is a race against to try and stop the catastrophe and when it is clear that that wont happen it is all about the Doctor and Leela salvaging as much from the situation as they can. The story stops to ponder on the very sinister idea of a Death Cult and the sort of faith you need to engage with to give up your life so freely and I really appreciated the thoughtful ending where there are no easy answers about the catastrophe that has occurred. Or even if those who did believe they were going to a better place were wrong. It's all tied up in a fine production with some terrific sound design and a score that veers between sombre and derring do depending on the tone of the scene. It's not many writers that would dare to let Tom Baker's Doctor exit the story feeling defeated by his perceived failure but it goes to show that there are still fresh avenues to take this incarnation down. If all this sounds dreadfully serious then I have misled you. It's a punchy, pacy hour with Tom at his height and more substance than I have come to expect from these two parters. Given this was the first story recorded remotely, it is a complete success story, and it paved the way for Big Finish to continue their work during a period where they couldn't get the actors to the studios. Pioneering: 8/10

Monday, 20 June 2022

The Rotting Deep written by Jacqueline Rayner and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What's it About: A mysterious SOS summons the Doctor and Mel to an oil rig in the North Sea where a dwindling group of survivors awaits rescue from a lethal menace. One of their number is Hebe Harrison, a wheelchair-using marine biologist who is definitely more than she seems. Can our heroes escape the rig? And just what is killing off the rig's beleaguered crew?

Softer Six: We're at a point where the sixth Doctor and Mel travelling together for Big Finish is old hat and yet it still feels like a rewarding and exciting thing to me. I adore their chemistry; gently ribbing and intimate and they both have a real lust for adventure. The Doctor quotes Rosetti and a quote never sounds more poetic than in Colin Baker's plummy tones. Even better, he makes an Are You Being Served? gag. Jac Rayner really understands how to make this Doctor sing but given she was largely responsible for his second wind on audio (both The Marian Conspiracy and Dr Who and the Pirates feature some of his best ever characterisation) that isn't surprising.  The Doctor's coat reminds Hebe of a beautifully coloured sea slug (but to get to that lovely observation with have to endure the dreadful Ghostbuster gag: 'You aint afraid of no coat!'). Jac Rayner remembers to give the sixth Doctor some bite and in a pretty tense moment he screams at one of the guest characters that all they think about is themselves. He decides that he likes Hebe very quickly, and admires her smarts. The Doctor does pause before granting Hebe access to their adventures but it's clear he has been pretty bewitched by her already. 

The Intergalactic Bush: Mel is a great character to pair up with Hebe because she is precisely the sort of ultra polite sort that will walk on tiptoes around somebody in a wheelchair trying desperately not to offend them. Hebe bursts that bubble straight away by having a go and then instantly apologising and immediately there is a relaxed chemistry between the pair. Mel is shat on by a bunch of seagulls, which provides a moments relief. She manages to get on her high horse with everybody else on the rig, and nobody does moral righteousness than Melanie Jane Bush! Let's hope that Hebe doesn't call Mel Melanie Mel all the time - the last thing we need is another The Doctor in the Tardy Box. I remember reading that Bonnie Langford didn't want Mel to scream on audio but clearly she has changed her mind...and clearly Langford is a little more tentative about doing so because her voice doesn't have the welly it used to. It does allow for a wonderful gag about Mel's 'noise' being worse than the monster of the week. She has been stung by a jellyfish, it is completely justified. 

Newbie: Hebe, like the shrub. The reason that everybody is talking about this new set is fresh new companion Hebe and whilst I wouldn't want to be the person that says a companion has a USP, they have chosen to represent a disabled character in the TARDIS, which comes with many interesting logistical and creative possibilities. At first I feared that Hebe would be only about the wheelchair, which I have heard some people complain that she is, but if you put yourself in the mind of somebody who cannot walk I can only imagine that that would be on your mind predominantly. I thought it was handled with great sensitivity here, and whilst Hebe has something of a chip on her shoulder at first, she soon realises that she is in the hands of people she can trust and in an all important moment (one of the sixth Doctor's best on audio, I would go as far to say) he asks her to unburden herself of anger in a quite beautiful scene. She doesn't want anyone making decisions for her and it sounds like that has been happening for her entire life. As a child she was annoyed about the story of The Little Mermaid but it wasn't because she did a deal for a pair of legs but rather because she gave up the wondrous world under the sea to explore ('She gave it all up for some stupid Prince!'). It began Hebe's obsession with marine life, and subsequently her career. She doesn't run away, in any definition of the word run. When she was at university she created a group called the Lame Ducks, re-claiming the slur and owning it. They were united in their imperfections. 

Audio Landscape: My partner and I listened to this story on the seafront at Eastbourne, literally the perfect environment for this kind of sea-based story and the scenes of attacking squawking gulls left us looking overhead just in case the swarms in the sky were coming in for the attack.

Standout Performance: I realise Mandy Simmonds' Skye is supposed to be one reef short of a barnacle and under a great deal of strain but her insane laughter in episode two and hysterical breakdown stretch credulity to the limit. When her excuse for such murderous behaviour is because she loves the Earth more than anybody else, you know you are on pretty shaken ground with the character. 'Mother Gaia calls me home!' She couldn't have died soon enough. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Passion for the wonders of this planet is not something you need to apologise for.'
'I think you've fought very hard to be angry because angry is better than scared, or patronised, or infantilised. And I like anger. Anger can change the world. But would you allow me, and Mel too, to take that burden from you, just for a moment.'    

Great Ideas: How glorious that the SOS that we hear at the beginning of the story is so satisfyingly answered at the end of the story. I was wondering if this would be a mystery that would go unsolved but what Rayner does instead is tie the answer into a gloriously warm piece of nostalgia featuring an old favourite of the Big Finish world. It's beautiful how the two scenes bookend the story giving it a real sense of structure.

Isn't it Odd: I'm not sure that any of the guest characters manage to squeeze out of the caricature mould; being either obnoxious, bullying, frightened or morally explosive. Sometimes they were all within one scene. I couldn't remember anybody's name after my first listen, and I was unconvinced that they were genuinely in any peril because the tone of the performances was so heightened. The story also suffers from being quite a simple narrative but a pretty obscure threat until the last minute. At first I thought it was the seagulls, then the barnacles, then the jellyfish...before it turned out that the antagonist this week is the water itself. Which wouldn't be a problem if we hadn't already done that in the much scarier Waters of Mars in the New Series. 

Standout Scene: The scariest scene comes when Hebe is at the hands of the water when the fame hunter of the gang drinks some and is taken over and he taunts her viciously over her disability and threatens to make her the victim of his recording of the ordeal. It's really rather revolting. 

Result: The setting is perfect for a good old fashioned creepy base under siege story. That isn't quite what we get because the guest performances err on the side of comical, which occasionally takes you outside the action but there is certainly enough plot here to pass an hour amiably. The sound design is very strong and gives you an immediate sense of place. The focus is new companion Hebe, and she is given a strong introduction (although not as strong as Rayner gave Evelyn) because the story puts her front and centre and much like Russell T Davies does with Rose, she isn't always entirely likeable. There's a bit of ice to thaw with this character and fortunately the Doctor is at his most charming and that has begun already and by the end of the story they have reached an understanding and a commitment to each other. I liked her very much, not despite her occasional frostiness but because of it because I like it when we get to see all shades of a character. It's very easy to make somebody all smiles and gushing (actually that's Mel) but to offer up somebody this rounded in an hour is a real achievement. A story like The Rotting Deep sounds like it might dripping with horrific incident but instead this is quite a light affair, with one or two violent moments. As an introduction to Hebe it hits it's ambition but as a story in it's own right it suffers from the same problem I find with so many hour long Big Finish stories these days, it's passable, unambitious fare. This gets an extra point just for the love letter to Evelyn Smythe. Because Big Finish can't mention her enough, and it gets a beautiful reaction out of Colin Baker: 7/10

Sunday, 5 June 2022

The Mind of the Hodiac written by Russell T. Davies and Scott Handcock and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it About:
In the depths of space, the mysterious Hodiac is manipulating the Galactic Stock Exchange to raise money. His aim? To hire mercenaries for a deadly quest across the stars. Meanwhile, on Earth, an ordinary British family is plagued by a series of psychic events. The one thing connecting these events is a magnificent patchwork coat - which just so happens to belong to the Doctor! 

Softer Six: The Doctor is happily reading The Wind in the Willows because it does no harm to keep in touch with a little magic. Mel says there is a good bit of Toad in the Doctor; pioneering, devil-may-care, reckless, the adventurous spirit, a pain...never day die. Having been brought up on The Wind in the Willows and Doctor Who, I can definitely see the parallel. Toad (as irritating as he was to his friends) was always my favourite character. There's a glorious moment when the scanner opens and the Doctor cries that all of time and space is the open road and there's to explore. It's the sort of material I would have loved to have seen Colin get whilst he was on television. I'm not sure how anyone can possibly object to the sixth Doctor quoting literature, since he was doing that ever since he stepped out of the TARDIS on Jaconda. He doesn't like not understanding things and rather petulantly states that when that happens it isn't fair. I rather love his proud exclamation that he is going to leave their destination up to the TARDIS (as if that isn't what happens all the time anyway). The Doctor gets a lovely moment when he gets to bamboozle a guard which reminded me of McCoy in Dragonfire but the guard is given lovely touches of RTD characterisation that made it sing. 

The Great Ginge: If the Doctor is Mr Toad, that makes Mel Ratty. The Doctor attempts to give an entirely nonsensical explanation for what is going on in the TARDIS and Mel, as curt as ever, calls him out on it. There's a lovely warmth between the two of them and there is no sense that Mel doesn't trust the Doctor completely. That's why she is so appalled when starts behaving in a disreputable manner when they reach the family home. Mel is delighted to be back in a suburban setting after a series of showy and colourful adventures, you get the sense that she yearns for a bit of normality after waltzing around the universe with the most bombastic of Doctors. Often Mel is used as an avatar to express how appalling people are behaving ('you're despicable!') but for once it is entirely justified when she cannot comprehend how Mrs Maitland has been convinced by Mrs Chinn that the horrors that have beset her household are the work of God punishing her for breaking her matrimonial vows. In a wonderful moment of comedy, Mel gets to impersonate a religious zealot and it is exactly the sort of fun that Bonnie Langford should have been having on TV. Pairing up Mel with a child feels fresh and fun, she gets to be protective and a little petulant when dealing with an emotional adolescent. 

Standout Performance: If there's one thing that you can guarantee with a Doctor Who story on television or audio and that is if Annette Badland is involved you are bound to have a grand time with her scenes. She gets to chew the microphone outrageously as the preposterous and irresponsible Mrs Chinn. I'm still not entirely sure the story needs the psychic investigation subplot but the story would be much less entertaining without Badland's presence. This is season seventeen fabulous, every line a delight. 'I smell...a discovery!' 'Let's not stand around like grinning ninnies!' Because this is such a grotesquely characterised villain (I say villain because she behaves appallingly whilst never quite reaching for world domination) you can't help but detect strong traces of RTD's anti-religious sentiments. Everything terrible thing she does is to reach out touch a higher power. She's both absurdly comic and slightly terrifying in that respect. This is obviously considered something of a prestige Big Finish release and so they pulled out all the stops and with no less than sixteen actors involved, this is as full cast as these stories get. T'Nia Miller is the standout draw and I was surprised that her part felt a little underwritten but just made Sutara Gayle's Nan standout all the more. Gayle really sells the emotional material. What could have been an agonising celebration of family above all else becomes something quietly profound as she plays the age-old Hodiac with no regrets of the life that she has made for herself on the Earth.  

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Some people call it the Music of the Spheres' 'Well it's certainly not the Archers.' 

Great Ideas: Davies is making political, social and economical points even at this point of his career. The line about a worker being 'devalued' is something that I heard myself bandied around. The idea that you can be boiled down to a number which determines your value is terrifying. Coming from a writer that draws upon the personal strengths and weaknesses of all his characters and doesn't criticise them for it, this has to be a deliberate point about the clinical appraisal system of the executive world. The Hodiac is reaching across the stars for a woman, described as 'like a sister, and something more.' Searching, and determined to never give up. Was I the only person who made a connection between the institute of the psychic science (on the thirteen floor, ahem) and BURPS from The Sarah Jane Adventures. After their father left, things in the Miller household started going wrong, things moving and going missing and then as time went on it became more insistent. Mrs Chinn gets in touch because she wants to pay Mrs Miller to investigate the psychic phenomena in their family. The Hodiac aspects are born to different worlds; the male and the female, they adopt an appropriate form, live out their lives and then the cycle begins again. The Hodiac is never together, that is how it thrives. Separate, experiencing different cultures. One of the aspects has become arrogant and frightened, and he is clinging to this existence and wants to cheat death by becoming God. He wants to find the aspect living on the Earth, purge everything that makes her human and force her to feel his love. It's an intriguing layer of SF concepts but I'm not entirely sure I completely understood what the point of the Hodiac was, except to exist to allow Nan to stress the value of the family that you create rather than the family you are born into. Perhaps that is enough. With Russell, I am used to a great thematic unification of ideas but the SF elements here are merely a catalyst to explore the characters. It's played for comedy, but if you were the right way inclined you could say that the Hodiac arriving on the Earth resembles a manifestation of God. 

Isn't it Odd: 'Big Finish; for the love of stories...' It's a bizarre catchphrase, isn't it? 'We love stories' was a bit on the nose but it was sharp, punchy and to the point. This offshoot declaration of romance for storytelling lacks the same kind of impact. It's a bit...twee, and it doesn't set these stories off on the right foot. It's time to rename the company. 'For the satisfaction of Finishing Big.' The first episode could easily be half the length with the amount of plot it has to offer and could get the family and the Doctor and Mel to the Bechman Centre in a handful of scenes. It would lose some of its rich characterisation but it would certainly get to the point a lot quicker. The discourse on capital feels fitting in the mid eighties ('This is it! The Day of the Middle Man!') but there is a great deal of running time given over to the acquisition of the Tungsten Warriors that doesn't really go anywhere. I'm so used to RTD getting to the point with a dense single part script these days that this does feel authentically...relaxed in its pacing. Things step up a gear in the second episode but getting there might try some people who aren't enamoured with The Wind in the Willows' patience. The cliffhanger (Mel screaming!) is very funny as realised. 

Standout Scene: The story makes a lot of noise about the family members but keeps Nan in the shadows for the most part and so I should have figured that she was going to have a pivotal role in the story. However, when the moment comes and the Doctor calls her out as the other aspect of the Hodiac I was taken by surprise (my other half wasn't, so I can only imagine that is me not paying enough attention). It's a fantastic moment too, one of those astonishingly gentle scenes where the sixth Doctor gets to be empathetic and sensitive and reach out. Baker sparkles. 

Result: Conceptually, this is very exciting for me. Russell T. Davies is my favourite Doctor Who writer and Sixie has always been my favourite Doctor and so the idea of bringing these two greats together in a Big Finish adventure is very enticing. A script written by the man who would eventually reshape what Doctor Who can do written in the mid-eighties before his career had taken of is such a tasty peek into the developing creative mind of a genius. What transpires is a fascinating hybrid of what was and what is but with an emphasis on the latter rather than indulging the former. The Doctor and Mel take an age to enter the story (much like Revelation of the Daleks they don't impact the larger narrative until the end of episode one) but rather than waste time with pointless bickering scenes, Davies uses this as an opportunity to explore their relationship and to give the Doctor a chance to wax lyrical on the wonderful absurdities of his lifestyle. Very New Series. There's a slightly cheesy science fiction plot about a lifeform that has been split across several worlds wanting to be brought together (not a million miles away from the high concept stories of season 20) but that is married to a touching and heartbreaking treatise on family and the emotional bond that transcends species. We've even got space mercenaries stomping about the place, but that's offset with a wonderfully theatrical turn from the ever reliable Annette Badland as the doctrinaire, Mrs Chinn. Even the Doctor's coat has a plot purpose rather than a representation of ghoulish eighties garishness. It's a mishmash of classic and new with scenes that would have felt completely out of place in Saward era Who (the domestic drama that exudes warmth and genuine emotion) but would have pre-dated precisely where the show was about to head in the Cartmel era and beyond. He would have paved the way once again. The fusion of all these elements doesn't sit completely easy and ultimately this quite a simple story about a being that is trying to unify itself that could have been told in a hour without the complications of the galactic stock exchange, psychic investigations and the like but the whole piece is put together with such care that it is a pretty smooth listen as a whole. I especially liked the score, which stood out in a way that little music does for Big Finish these days. Colin Baker hasn't been written this well for a while now and he responds extremely favourably to the material, and his chemistry with Bonnie Langford is so effortless at this point it is a joy to hear them being written for with such love of the characters. The Mind of the Hodiac lacks the weight and drama of Damaged Goods but it is a satisfying curiosity and there were scenes in the last episode that left me with a lump in my throat in the way that only a good Russell T. Davies story can. Props to Scott Handock for taking on the mantle and delivering such an enjoyable listen. I'd pay just to hear Colin Baker say 'Poop Poop!': 8/10 

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

VOY - Warlord

Lisa Klink is a rare female name writing for 90s Trek and I realised whilst looking her up that I had no idea what episodes she had helmed, which surprised me when I saw that she had 12 instalments under her belt. It's an eclectic bunch of episodes too, with a couple of standouts (Resistance, Dreadnought, Remember) and just as many duds (this, Sacred Ground, Favourite Son) and some real vanilla shows in between (Displaced, Scientific Method, The Omega Directive). She's credited as writing the teleplays more often than not which means she is responsible for the dialogue rather than the story, which might explain why it is such a variable cluster of episodes. She might be able to put Shakespeare into the mouths of the characters but that doesn't mean she can turn premises such as 'Harry Kim discovers his long lost race in the Delta Quadrant' into art. 

Character: The worst excesses of Neelix's characterisation hit during his relationship with Kes where he turned out to be controlling, jealous and childish. We see glimpses of that here but because Kes is inhabited by Tieran for the majority of the episode and this is where she breaks up with him we don't get to see an actual conversation between the two characters where 'our' Kes gets to express that the way Neelix behaves in a relationship is unacceptable. Instead our sympathies are supposed to be with him because she appears to rather summarily dump him on a date. I really needed Neelix to understand that he wasn't cut adrift because of a random Star Trek plot but because he treated her unacceptably for two seasons. For the half season that Kex remains single on the ship what emerges is a rather sweet friendship between the two of them, which is probably what it should have been all along. It is certainly less icky. Ethan Phillips was under the impression that a scene filmed for Fair Trade later in the season that saw the break up of the two characters cemented had made it into the episode but was later corrected and he was left with the feeling their their separation in this episode is a bit muddy. He's not wrong. 

Performance: There is nothing subtle about Lien's performance as Tieran as Jennifer Lien chews the scenery with remarkable gusto and declares every line as if her life is dependant on it...but let's be honest it is far more entertaining then her usual flat delivery and she injecting some real gusto into an episode that is utterly predictably and obviously plotted. The joy of these possession episodes is to see the regular actors behaving out of character and Lien is going for Shatner high camp rather than Rosalind Chao sinister (The Assignment) but it is still a fun turn. She's completely uninhabited, which is rather refreshing, and makes me wonder if we have wasted Lien's potential as she played the good girl for three years. What's astonishing are the moments where Kes fights back in for control of her mind and we see her teeth as she takes him out. I would have loved to have seen a lot more of this Kes. 'I'll find every crack in your defences, you'll feel yourself crumbling from within, your sanity slipping away. I won't stop until you're broken, and helpless. There's nowhere you can go to get away from me. I'll be relentless and merciless...just like you. 

The Good: There's a great scuffle in the transporter pad where Mulgrew elbows Lien's into the wall violently and she retaliates by punching her in the face. It's so weird to see these two characters in combat that it really bites. 

There's some interesting sexuality on display because Kes is inhabited by man. Tieran is not above coming on strong to Ameron whilst he is in the body of Kes, which is close to a male/male flirting scene that you are going to see on Voyager and Lien plays the scenes where Tieran flirts with Tieran's girlfriend with an overt sense of wanting to get her into bed as soon as possible. Tieran is suggesting a polygamous relationship with Nori and Ameron, which he is clearly up for but she resists. There's plenty of cheating going on here (it takes possession for characters to express gay tendencies) but I appreciate the effort all the same. For Berman era Trek, this is erring on daring. The moment where Tieran uses Kes to force herself on Tuvok certainly made me sit up and pay attention. 

The Bad: Any episode that starts with a close up on Neelix's face as he experiences orgasmic joy whilst a woman in the hideous Talaxian male up massages his hideous webbed feet is asking for trouble. The Paxau resort on Talax is our holodeck locale of the season and it is every bit as tedious as Lord Burleigh's manor in the previous season. What baffles me is that this show is capable of getting this sort of thing right; Sandrine's and the Captain Proton programmes were fun and visually different but more often than not we are stuck with stuff like this and Fair Haven. There's nothing wrong with the idea of Voyager's crew hanging out on a beach resort but this clearly isn't a beach resort but the 90s Star Trek colony set redressed slightly (only slightly) and given some artificial sunbathing lighting. It's not a locale with any substance or any style. That's my problem. Add in Tom Paris' revisions, which is to add a bunch of women in skimpy leotards and some Caribbean music and you're in for a wonderful (I jest) time. According to my co-host on Untitled Star Trek Project, Nathan Bottomley, the pre-credits sequence usually indicates exactly what we are in for for the rest of the episode but there is no sign of that here. Just educating us on how revolting Neelix's feet are (as if we couldn't have guessed that already) as he dances with said women because the camera ensures that we get full disclosure before the end because the make up team have bothered to dress them up. 

No good ever comes of helping survivors of a wreckage in Star Trek. Remember when Bashir beamed aboard the Kobliad ship in The Passenger and the evil conscience of war criminal Rao Vantika is transferred into his body. You should, because this episode is ripping off the plot beat for beat. We should have been immediately suspicious of Kes' behaviour because it is pretty unusual of her to throw her arms around grieving patients in the Infirmary. Remember, when Star Trek characters act out of the ordinary it is always because they have a malicious conscience inside of them.

The same thing that makes this such an entertaining bit of old tosh (the fact that this society seems to be a bunch of corrupt turncoats) is exactly why it is impossible to give any kind of a fig about the planet of the week, or believe in them for a second. 

Five minutes from the end of the episode and Tieran is still in full control of the planet. That can only mean one thing. We're in for a shift and unsatisfactory resolution to the episode. 

Result: The joy of Warlord is that we get to spend most of the episode behind the lines with a bunch of backstabbing villainous types who are all trying to kill and betray each other, and in watching Jennifer Lien give the archest performance as the villain since side of season three of TOS. That means that this episode is essentially a massive comic strip that you can't take at all seriously and with some obvious plotting and insanely over the top lines it ends up being a bit too broad to get a handle on. Kes goes evil isn't the worst premise of the season and her extreme behaviour (murdering and coming on to anyone that comes in sight) means that at least we are seeing something novel. I just wonder if with a little more restraint that this might have been a lot more impactful, and potentially frightening. Instead it's hilarious, and not for all the right reasons. This is basically Game of Thrones as a theatrical comedy. Take of that what you will. 

**1/2 out of ***** 

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

TNG - Code of Honor

Why does Patrick Stewart sound like a robot during the opening Captain's Log? There is a definite feeling of Stewart being at sea in the role at this point and slowly feeling his way into a part that he would eventually come to cherish. He's so stiff and awkward throughout, like he is suffering from imposter syndrome. 'She's a rather lovely female' he says of Tasha to Lutan in a moment of misogynistic diplomacy. 'With the power of the Enterprise we could overwhelm this planet easily and just take what we want...' 

This is essentially the Lieutenant Yar episode from season one and proves to be as over the top and as ridiculous as the character herself. She's such a liability that I fail to see the reason that Picard is so insistent on getting her back. He's willing to go to war in order regain his Security Officer who by her own confession (several times, agonisingly) is horny for her captor. Astonishingly at the climax it is clear that Yar still desires Lutan despite the fact that he has behaved like a sexist pig throughout. The only reason she doesn't want to keep him is because there would be complications with her career. How did Denise Crosby play any of this with a straight face? 

Terrible Dialogue: In a hilariously inept sequence where Troi informs the Captain that Yar was bowled over by being coveted by such a 'basic male image' such a Lutan, Tasha declares: 'Troi, you're my friend and you tricked me!' It might be the worst written scene in TNG's run and that is against some pretty stuff competition. 

'Lutan wants you to be his First One!' 'Impossible Yarena, I am a career Starfleet Officer!' 

The Good: Whilst this episode does feature the artificial TOS-style exterior planetary backdrop that is very popular in the early episodes, I did appreciate how they inserted the set into the matte painting of the planet. The nicest thing I can say about this episode is the quality of the handful of the visuals. 

The Bad: We should have known that we were going to be in trouble when Lutan beams upon the Enterprise in arrogant ceremony and declares a woman being Chief of Security an astonishing thing. It was a production choice to have the entire population of this planet being played by African actors because the script only specified that the guards were. Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner both go on record as saying that this episode is racist and the worst episode that TNG put out. I'd agree with the first part of that statement (it is certainly troubling that this society, entirely consisting of black actors, is seen as behaving in a primitive fashion in it's obvious sexism and love of violence and superstition) but I wouldn't say this is the worst episode of TNG. Top ten, for sure. But there are far less visually interesting episodes along the journey than this. Even the score is in on the racism, leaning on stereotypical themes. The Ligonians talk in a simple, broken English, seem astonished by the great technology of the Federation and have an unusual and creepy interest in the women. 

There's a very funny moment when Yar is kidnapped by the Ligonians and Picard barely raises an eyebrow and turns to the camera in such a lackadaisical fashion that you would swear that he expected this move was always going to happen. The direction and performance are so lazy it feels like nobody is making any effort. Even funnier is the scene where Dr Bev demands to talk to Picard about her son and then drops that he is hiding in the turbolift the entire time because he isn't allowed on the Bridge. 

Isn't it hard to believe that the Federation cannot synthesize a vaccine that this bunch can conjure up. The script needs a reason for the Enterprise to stay and sort out this problem with Lutan and Yar otherwise Picard would be well within his right to send a couple of photon torpedoes at the planet and warp out of there. We're estimating deaths in the millions if the vaccine isn't obtained. 

Result: 'I fight for the vaccine!' I find it astonishing that anybody would show up to Star Trek to watch something as insulting as this. Insulting in terms of treating the audience with a complete lack of intelligence with storytelling as simple as this, that they would want to experience a culture that is made up out of racist and sexist clichés, and that they would be invested in regulars that are characterised this appallingly. How the show ever recovered from an episode quite this offensive is beyond me. This is the sort of backwards script that the writers of the Original Series would have rejected on the spot. Beyond the 'threat' of not obtaining the vaccine, there is no substance at all in this episode and given we have no interest in where this going even that is beyond caring about. So it is the fate of Tasha Yar, who is treated as both a sex object and a horny teenager in a script that damages the character beyond repair. I think this is going for an Arena style action sequence in the finale, but this time replacing Kirk and a Gorn for a couple of grunting women fighting over the chance to become a sex object of a man. The biggest insult is that I took the time to watch this and write this review. There is no end to Code of Honor's shame. 

Monday, 18 April 2022

DS9 - Chrysalis

I suppose the big question is did we need a return appearance of the Jack Pack after their memorable debut in Statistical Probabilities last year and your answers depends on how much mileage you think they have as characters. I often complain that Star Trek introduces one shot wonder characters that get their moment in the sun but no chance to further expand their characters (mostly in shows on the move like TNG and VOY) and DS9 has a better hit rate of bringing people back to further delve into the depths of their character. Sometimes it backfires because the characters are really dreary (Bariel, Shakaar) and other times it works beautifully because the characters continue to evolve and become part of this shows ongoing secondary cast (Kai Winn, Garak). The Jack Pack were memorable because they so far outside the norm of what Star Trek usually presents us; a group of socially inept, almost dangerously unpredictable genetically enhanced people who have been embarrassingly shuffled aside by the 'perfect' Federation society into an Institute. It was a fascinating comment on what a society does when it has square pegs trying to fit into its round holes and the answer is to study and control them. They were very likeable because of their extreme character traits and broad performances. So the question is does the show take them to the next level here...or calm them down a little? Is it DS9 increasing it's repertoire of recurring characters or flogging something again that has already been covered? They're essentially cartoon characters here, to provide comic relief whilst the sweet and tragic story of Serena unfolds around them. Jack's obsession with changing the cosmological constant is amusing, but I'd say that Lauren's vampish behaviour and Patrick's ability to cry at the drop of a hat verge on the side of caricature here. 

Character: Rene Echevarria manages to succinctly reveal just how alone Bashir is in about 30 seconds as all of his friends dash off to various social activities without him. Most of them are in relationships by now, which has continued to elude him. He's such a handsome, smart man that it is hard to imagine why that would be...until he opens his mouth. Instead he spends his evening in bed studying mutating viruses. Poor Bashir was considered a bit of a pariah in the first couple of seasons because he was characterised so irritatingly as a man who never knew when to shut up, close his legs and keep his opinion to himself. I'm of the opinion that the reveal of his genetic manipulation by his parents was a bold and brilliant move that reversed the fortunes of the character in the early years. Suddenly there was a reason why Bashir was so eager to impress, and achieved so highly at school, and tried so desperately to make friends. He was an outsider, he was different. And it meant that Siddig was able to measure his performance a great deal more and tackle way more exciting plotlines. So bringing in a series of characters who reveal how things could have (and probably should have) gone for him was a great idea. There but for the grace of God, go I. 

Sisko is such a thoughtful, considerate man but sometimes he has to tow the Starfleet line as the lead of this show. He's there to remind Bashir that this bunch of misfits once threatened to bring down the Federation in favour of the Dominion in their previous appearance, and shows appropriate horror at them turning up and posing as an Admiral and their staff. 

Hurrah for Ezri Dax for reminding Bashir of what an abject failure he is. What a counsellor she turned out to be. 

Performance: Salie silently stole the show in Statistical Probabilities and really gets to show off what she can do here. It's a warm and childlike turn, with moments of haunting silence when you realise she is always on the verge of withdrawing again when things get too overwhelming. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'That's a stupid question' 'Will you stop saying that!' Turns out you can shove on an Admiral's uniform and stroll onto DS9 with a bad attitude and say this a few times and you're access all areas. Or at least you are if you happen to bump into Nog.  

'I have a new man in my life...that gorgeous little Ferengi.' 

'If I had to find someone to replace Atlas and hold up the world it'd be Miles. He'd do it with a smile too.' 

The Good: You might say that the Do-Re-Mi sequence is indulgent and unnecessary but I think it is a well choreographed and performed song that serves a genuinely plot purpose. Serena learns how to speak again the most beautiful fashion and Bashir sees that spark of life in her that really attracts her to him. It's one of my most played scenes in DS9's run because it is so damn catchy. You have been warned. Hurrah for O'Brien who is the only person who actually says the words 'Julian, she's your patient' and looks a little uncomfortable about the whole thing. Mind, I think the episode is suggesting he's unhappy because Serena has taken his boy toy away (especially given the lengths they go to to not say how much they love each other later in the season). 

The Bad: The only reason I cannot imagine that Julian Bashir's friends don't point out that his behaviour towards Serena is predatory is because they understand that he is a lonely guy who means well. But if you had a friend who was a Doctor who worked hard to get a patient out of a catatonic state but then emerged as essentially a child and then he tried to seduce that patient...wouldn't you have a few things to say? What helps is the sincere performances of Siddig and Faith Salie and their terrific chemistry but at the back of my head I couldn't help ask why this wasn't ethically forbidden. Or someone didn't just say 'oh yuck.' The weirdest moment comes when Julian makes the suggestion he takes this duckling to Risa for a frisky holiday. I would have excised that line completely. Almost as bad as him breaking into her quarters when she doesn't turn up on their date. 

Result: Julian Bashir. The only man a woman will fake a coma to prevent from going on a date with him. 90s Trek romance have a track record of being of unconvincing chemistry or being packed too densely into 40 minutes of screen time with no chance of the pairing to convince. Think Meridian, Unforgettable and any episode featuring Leah Brahms. Neither one of these is a problem with Chrysalis because the chemistry between the actors has been established in a previous episode and the episode takes it's time to establish the couple and why they might turn to each other. However it completely fails to approach the ethical issues of a man in a medical profession taking advantage of somebody in his care. That's the elephant in the room here and I find it very odd that it isn't addressed more thoughtfully, especially for a show that is willing to embrace thorny subjects like DS9. We know Bashir isn't that sort of man these days but if he was a one shot Doctor character and Serena was our regular in distress I wonder how this would play out. The episode ensures that our sympathies are with both characters and it is beautifully acted and scored. Bashir's salvation comes when he realises what a douche he is being and pulls back from could have been the relationship he has always longed for for her own good. This is sweet episode, with slightly icky undertones that stop it from being the best DS9 single episode romance (for my money that is still Rejoined). The Jack Pack provide some nice laughs along the way. Essentially this is paving the way for the Bashir/Ezri romance later in the season. 

*** out of ***** 

TNG - Peak Performance

One thing that the first couple of years of TNG could get very right is the fun premise. Planet of the super weapons. A planet with a creature made of pure hate and rage. Scorpions taking over Starfleet Academy. That sort of thing. Where they go wrong is in executing these ideas most of the time. Peak Performance scores a double win because it not only excites with its ideas - a war game featuring Picard and Riker going head to head - but it manages to drive a great deal of mileage and entertainment out of it too. I loved the motive behind this simulation too; Picard feeling that the Borg threat is strong enough that it is prudent that his officers undergo tactical exercises to ensure battle readiness. It feels like TNG is pulling itself in a particular direction for once, and all roads are leading to The Best of Both Worlds at the end of season three. 

Character: You can actually feel the gears shifting as the writers figure out how to make this cast of characters work in an ensemble script where everybody has plenty to do, everyone has their own opinion that they own, each of them brings their individual skills and everyone gets something to do. Data is impressed by Kolrami's Stratagema ability, Riker gets to be sly and cunning in the battle simulation, Geordi is salivating at the chance to take on the Enterprise in a battered old ship, Worf has his ego poked about until he gets involved in the game, Picard is wary but a little arrogant to be in charge of the superior ship in the fight, Pulaski wants to bring Kolrami down a peg or two...everyone gets their moment. And somehow you just know that Wesley is going to save the day. I think she's always pretty great but Pulaski is extra fun in this episode where she is determined to see Data best Kolrami at Stratgema and puncture his ego. It's a shame that she wasn't characterised as cheekily as this throughout because the wider audience might have warmed to her far more than they did (and I think I might only the only person who really loves this character and prefers her to Dr Bev). Picard calls Riker the finest officer that he has ever served with, a far cry from his brusque appraisal of him in Encounter at Farpoint. Maybe there is more character development in this series than I thought. It's more likely how Patrick Stewart's performance has softened over the two seasons.  

Ray Brocksmith gives an unforgettable turn as Kolrami, a character that is designed to be annoying and so given the fact that he achieves that in spades means it is an enormous success. He's rude, arrogant, opinionated and self obsessed. Star Trek could use a few more characters with those kind of flaws. It's a shame that Brocksmith is in high demand because I could see this impish irritant making fun re-appearances in the same vein as Lwaxana Troi. The second Kolrami suggests that Riker is wanting as a first officer you just know that he is going to win the battle and prove him wrong. The fun comes with watching how he does that, besting even a strategist of Kolrami's calibre. 

Somehow, and I'm convinced it is only because the other characters (Pulaski and Troi) prescribe him with emotions, they manage to pull off the 'Data has a crisis of confidence' episode. he's mostly in his quarters trying to find a malfunction because he was beaten by a humanoid at something (which rather suggests he arrogantly has been programmed to think that can never be the case) and refusing to take his place on the Bridge unless he gives unsound advice. Doesn't this sound trite? It's not, it's really fun, and it mostly works because Brent Spiner is so good at playing the emotions card whilst maintaining his robotic air and also because it once again allows us to see just how much his crewmates care about him. The scene where Pulaski bulldozes into his quarters and tells him he has had his ego knocked by defeat is pure Bones/Spock material, but it really works with these characters. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Because when someone is that smug you have to deflate them, just a little...' 

'We're less than one hour away from a battle simulation and I have to hand hold an android' 'The burdens of Command.' 

The Good: The irony is that whilst Worf is complaining that the bridge of the Hathaway is 'not good', it is far more exciting a space to shoot in than the Enterprise bridge. Cramped, underlit and strewn with wires and cobwebs, it makes for a great alternative to the Enterprise. Wesley teaches Riker the difference between cheating and improvising in what is probably his best written scene to date. Finally they have stopped writing this kid as a precocious child and started writing him as a smart young man with some wit about him. There's a wonderfully witty sequence where Data tries to second and even triple guess what Commander Riker's moves will be. The only conclusion he can draw is that he will be as cunning as a fox. The build up to the battle is so good that when it finally starts in the final fifteen minutes and Picard and Riker are smiling at each other as the flag is waved I was completely behind this premise. I was eager to see how this played out. It's so fun to see Patrick Stewart enjoying himself so much. I don't think he smiled convincingly once in the first season. Too busy calculating how much the flight back to Britain would be. Riker looks fantastic slouched on the bridge of the Hathaway. 

The Bad: Can you think of a more shocking space name than Sirna Kolrami. It has all the hallmarks of desperation; heavy consonants, an 'i' at the end and it is almost impossible to say without sounding like a total twat. And poor Patrick Stewart is tasked with the challenge. This also takes place in the Braslota system. Good grief. 

Result: Can you imagine a more jolly premise than splitting the Enterprise crew in two and having them fight one another in a battle simulation? It means we get to see the best of all the characters (even Wesley) as they try and outfox one another. It's an particularly strong effort for Riker, who gets to be humble (taking on Kolrami at Stratagema despite the fact that he knows he will lose), arrogant (I don't think he ever thinks he is going to lose the simulation) and sly (his final gambit with Wesley is a stroke of genius). Frakes is clearly loving the chance to shine. Apparently the producers were wary of a story that featured a battle because space fights are an expensive affair (then forgive me why would you set your show in space?) but for once I am pleased that they went with the pricey option because this story just gets better and better as we head towards the climax. What I love is that it isn't a phaser or photon torpedo that wins the day but a moment of guile. This ridiculously entertaining and it's TNG emerging out of a sea of mediocrity at the tail end of season two proving that this cast can be a joy to watch when they are written this adroitly. Just when you think things can't get any better, Armin Shimmerman turns up as a really dodgy Ferengi. 

****1/2 out of *****