Sunday, August 31, 2008

This Week in Geek (25-31/08/08)

Buys

Based on the strength of the first series, I got the other two Extras DVDs. And while I thought the second season of Heroes was at least half rubbish, I still got THAT DVD, mostly because I'm curious to see what might have been if it hadn't gotten harpooned by the Writers' Strike.

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: Flipped the Barefoot Gen DVD, which held both the original anime and its sequel. Barefoot Gen is a semi-autobiographical story about the author's experience with the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I had the original on VHS and it provided me with a shocking experience, doling out hope and horror in equal measure. Knowing what was about to happen made the courageous scenes of family life as unbearable as the horrifying results of what was, by today's standards, a dirty bomb. The sequel, which I'd never seen, continues Gen's family's struggles a few years on. It's more rambling (evidence of the original manga source), but manages some poignancy as well. In the end, Barefoot Gen isn't just a personal story, it's a metaphor for Japan's post-war journey. The DVD is slim on the extras, just a few pictures of Hiroshima in ruins and a three-sentence biography of the author. The picture hasn't been particularly cleaned up and the sound mix shows its age. Surprisingly, an English track isn't even provided.

RPGs: Last Monday was the penultimate episode of our Warehouse 23 series, in which one of the agents discovered his family line has been genetically manipulated by aliens for millenia. But are they too late in destroying a facility where the Greys are impregnating similarly resequenced women with human/grey hybrids? It all comes to a close in the center of the Bermuda Triangle tomorrow. I'll let you know how it went.

New Unauthorized Doctor Who CCG cards: 8, pretty much finishing up what I wanted to do with Survival. Last of the Time Lords in next on my slate.

Someone Else's Post of the WeekOverthinking It's provocatively-titled Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women provides an interesting discussion on the subject of women's portrayal in cinema and other media. Check it out.

Star Trek 632: Strange New World

632. Strange New World

FORMULA: Resolutions The Galileo Seven + Empok Nor + the Shore Leave planet

WHY WE LIKE IT: Ensign Cutler. Mood lighting.

WHY WE DON'T: Planet doesn't seem that strange or new.

REVIEW: It may be a little early to develop supporting characters when the cast itself is so fresh and new, but we have to remember that Garak appeared in the second DS9 episode, and that I've always liked Ensign Cutler. There are a couple of good reasons to use supporting characters like Cutler and Novakovich. 1) They add to the life of the ship and make it a more realistic and compelling place. And 2) they are more easily killed off.

Novakovich was apparently scripted to become Enterprise's first redshirt, but Bakula intervened, convincing the producers that the first casualty should be a major event for the crew to reflect on. Seems like he was born to play a Starfleet captain. so not the first redshirt, though he is the victim of the first transporter accident (showing how this untried technology still has some bugs to hammer out). We also see the first (understated) nerve pinch, and Earth plants its first flag on a planet outside the system, basically the first M-class planet Enterprise encounters. M is for Minshara, apparently, and here I thought planets were simply graded with letters of the alphabet.

Aside from looking a heck of a lot like the one in Shore Leave, the planet in Strange New World (great title) has some nasty psychotropic pollen that turns the members of the away team against each other. Though we've seen this kind of thing before on Star Trek, lighting the confrontation only with flashlights creates a tense and moody atmosphere, perfectly in line with the tone of Travis' ghost stories. Archer's solution is to put a lie to the hallucinations so that Trip in effect "suspends his disbelief" and allows himself to be forcibly medicated. I suppose T'Pol did try to warn Archer, but as the voice of Vulcan protocols, his first reflex is to dismiss her caution. It's a fun rivalry that doesn't take the usual confrontational, aggressive road, but rather has Archer chuckling to himself and doing what he feels like doing.

So it is that humans start their great adventure as glorified tourists, taking holiday snaps, letting the dog mark its territory ("where no dog has gone before" is pretty funny), and telling campfire stories. We're the same people who played golf on the moon. We bring grandeur back down to our level. Though I mentioned Cutler above as a favorite, and she gets a nice, enthusiastic introduction (seeing a planet come into view in the window, a beautiful shot), she doesn't quite have enough to do here. We do see that she's open-minded about other cultures, which will no doubt make her approach Phlox in future episodes. Speaking of Phlox, the first crack in his armor appears here, where Novakovich almost dies. Though largely upbeat, we see that he isn't callous, and that casualties and mistakes carry a heavy burden with him. John Billingsley is da bomb, no matter how much or how little screen time he gets.

LESSON: Scan before you leap.

REWATCHABILITY - High Medium: It's one of those "the characters aren't quite themselves" episodes, routine perhaps, but it features a great atmosphere, a promising guest-star, good acting, and a Space Dog peeing on an alien tree.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Spaceknight Saturdays: Rom Does the Limbo

Last week, we left our friendly neighborhood Spaceknight falling into Limbo. And as you can see from the cover, he's got more problems than an army of Dire Wraiths living down there. Bill Mantlo just done noticed that Limbo was mentioned before in the Marvel Universe as the stomping ground of Avengers villain the Space Phantom, who can take your place while YOU spend time in Limbo and see if you like it.

These days, he's kind of stuck in Limbo, so new blood is just what the doctor ordered.

What we don't realize about Limbo: While it's a weird Doctor Strange-ish dimension, it's also superimposed on our reality, and people in Limbo can become aware of it as ghosts.
The other thing we don't realize about Limbo: Some Wraiths have a lot of fun there. I like the guy in the middle.
But where's the Space Phantom I promised? Well, he's hanging with another surprise resident of Limbo: Karas, AKA Firefall, Rom's ambiguously gay friend from the old days!
The Phantom takes his place, sending him back to Galador to admire his "remains" while he tries to manipulate Rom into freeing him from Limbo. But the Wraiths are already on to the silver Spaceknight, including a gray lump who used to be Rachel Sweet, with a double-whammy of summoned monsters and visions about the destruction of Earth and Galador.
Faux Firefall to the rescue! He gives the Wraiths a taste of living fire and tells the real Firefall's story about how he sent himself to Limbo just as the Wraiths were about to draw him out of his armor.
As the Phantom is about to betray him, the real Karas returns with bad news. Something about Galador no longer being there. The Phantom gets thrown to the Wraiths and the living fire opens a rift that sends Rom back to Virginia. But what about Galador?!?
Meanwhile... a couple hundred years ago in Saga... of... the... Spacekniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiights, our heroes get to a medieval world where SOMEone spoke out of turn and ruined the Spaceknights' reputation. I can't really get into the politics of it, not when the king of the realm is riding THAT:
Aided by Wraith technology, the "King of Hearts" manages to capture the trio, but Starshine exposes his Merlin type as a Wraith.
But while her powers are murder on fabrics, they don't kill. That's why the gang is flying with the Terminator.
And then dude goes crazy and kills the king too. Oops. Well, I guess we're in for a trial... NEXT... on Saga... of... the... Spacekniiiiiiights!

Star Trek 631: Fight or Flight

631. Fight or Flight

WHY WE LIKE IT: Hoshi makes good.

WHY WE DON'T: Disposable enemies.

REVIEW: Typically, the second episode of a Star Trek series features a light plot and gives the extra room to characterization, trying to build a better picture of shipboard life. Fight or Flight does this very well. Everyone on board is getting antsy because they've been traveling a fairly empty part of space. Some are desperate for action, others are feeling more anxious. Only Phlox is truly enjoying himself, trying new foods, sniffing crew members, and wondering if he can watch humans mate. And I suppose Porthos the Space Dog reveals his love affair with cheese here, a running gag throughout the series.

The others don't fare so well in this exploratory drought. Archer is becoming obsessed with squeaking in his floor plates. Trip begs to be taken on an away mission. And Malcolm is working on his spatial torpedoes - all he really wants to do is blow stuff up. It's really Hoshi's episode though. She's not comfortable on this mission, is insecure about her abilities, and on the whole, pretty terrified of everything that comes her way. She identifies with the first new form of life encountered by the ship, a slug simply called Sluggo, who's also not thriving outside its native environment. The metaphor would be rather ham-fisted if it wasn't for Dr. Phlox's knowing remarks about it (he's great). Mayweather seems fine, maybe because he's used to long, empty journeys. T'Pol, for her part, remains a sticking point with me. I know it can't be easy to play an unemotional character, but where Spock and Tuvok cultivated an air or irritability, Blalock plays it T'Pol at best as bored, and at worst (the dinner scene) as robotic.

When the crew discovers a derelict ship and explores it, they find 15 dead bodies, strung upside down and being drained of their fluids. Hoshi is naturally freaked out, but it's Archer who's most disturbed by it. His passion and ethics don't let him abandon the site, and he shows just what humanity has to bring to the galactic landscape. We can't expect the show to always take this much time with languages, but it's really interesting to see the difficulties that would come with actual first contact. Hoshi gets a chance to shine, and once she lets go of the fear and dives into her element, she does. The evil space vampires come back and their ship is a frightening thing worthy of their modus operandi, but are sadly never seen again. They're just a mystery here, and might have warranted more development. As for the people Enterprise helps, they're the Axanar. They've never been seen before, but they WERE mentioned back in TOS. According to Court-Martial, Kirk participated in a peace mission at Axanar, which was also the site of a famous battle. I love these small connections to Trek history. If you don't get them, it's no bother. If you do, it's a lot of fun to see the Trek universe open up.

The show continues to look good, with some excellent spooky lighting aboard the alien ship, letting the EV suits' lights do all the work. These bronze suits look really good too, better than "later" models. We also see how a torpedo is loaded into its tube, so that's pretty cool. I mentioned them in the previous review, but Enterprise's are the only opening credits I watch every time instead of skipping to the next chapter. The images keep telling me a story, and I find myself singing along with the song. I do believe I used to do this when the show first aired as well. If you're not a fan of the song, they've changed the end credits for you. The pilot played an instrumental version of "Faith of the Heart", but now it's blaring trumpets, like a standard outer space score for the show would be. Just imagine it at the beginning if you like.

LESSON: It pays to be a nerd who's heard of things like the Battle of Axanar.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High: Enterprise is shaping up nicely, with a likable crew and obstacles only it could face among all the franchises. Maybe that's why it feels too fresh for a Formula entry to me.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Try-Outs and Apartment Shopping

SECRET ORIGINS #46, DC Comics, December 1989
Personally, I loved Secret Origins, especially when the title went with some crazy concepts. It's not like I was wondering how Superman came to Earth, after all, so something like #46's origins of various superhero headquarters was just what the doctor ordered. And it fits nicely into Legion try-out week, since it includes their very first in their clubhouse's origin.

Better yet, writer Gerard Jones gives us a crazy-ass story that would have easily fit into the Legion's Silver Age, even more so since Silver Age superstar artist Curt Swan draws it. "The Little Clubhouse That Could" is essentially the Legion's second story, taking place just after the original three have formed the Legion.

They're looking for two things, and being the wholesome teens they are, they aren't the two things I'm always looking for. The Legion needs a clubhouse (and no neighborhood will have them, cuz who wants a bunch of teenagers loitering in front of their house?) and it needs new members. Cue the first Legion try-out! Check out that collection of freaks:
You can tell right away that none of them are gonna make it. Up first is this guy:
I happen to think that Arm-Fall-Off-Boy could have given the Legion a hand, but they don't agree. Again, look at their (future) track record: Guy that turns into a bouncing ball, yes. Dude who can whup your ass using his torn-off arm as a club, no. Maybe it was the unsightly warts. He's followed by Mnemonic Kid, which leads to a cute bit with how to spell her name, but only if you buy the idea of Saturn Girl as a dyslexic moron.
Mnemonic Kid can make you lose memories (but not restore them). Get ready to checkmark the cliché about rejects becoming villains, because she's a right bitch. And if you've recognized the Legion clubhouse in the yellow guy with red winglets in the group shot above, you know where this is going. Enter Fortress Lad, from the planet Fwang where, because of constant meteor showers, the males have evolved the ability to turn themselves into buildings. Look at this inhospitable crap-hole:
You shouldn't be surprised that such an evolutionary adaptation is possible. You should be surprised that anything on that planet managed to evolve at all. Anyway, the Legion-for-pretty-humanoids-only rejects him, and he leaves crying. But he's got a good heart, so when he finds Memenonumic Kid wiping out the Legion's memories and about to shoot them, he promptly protects them!
Then hit with memory loss, he's turned into a vegetable. Well, into a building really. And the Legion, figuring that they just forgot they had an HQ because of Mnemonic Kid, adopt it as their home. So there you have it, the Legion's first recruit and no one ever knew it.

TRY-OUT CHECKLIST: A, A2, C, C2

I must also mention the other stories in this book. First, there's the origin of the Titans Tower. There. I've mentioned it.

It's the other one I liked, more Silver Age insanity by artist Curt Swan (though George Freeman's inks give it a more modern edge I quite enjoy) and written by my personal god of comics, Grant Morrison. Yes, some 8 years before he would helm the totally wicked reboot of the JLA, Morrison got a turn at the Justice League to tell, for the first time, the story of how they set up shop in a mountain in Rhode Island.

It all starts with the Justice League being attacked by their own costumes. Even at this relatively early stage, Morrison is doing what he does best: Taking a silly Silver Age concept and making it weird and creepy.
Turns out the costumes are being animated by an alien intelligence. When the Flash vibrates through the mountain it emanates from, he finds out its wonderful secret: that aliens imposed a crystalline matrix to the mountain which turned it into a kind of sentient computer that, when made to vibrate, replays images from its past. Or as Morrison calls it, "recreated in dynamic aural sculpture". The costumes are animated remotely by aliens who want to pay homage to their dead, which must be resonated back into life by the mountain. Between Black Canary and Green Lantern, you've got the proper tools:
(You'll note that Aquaman is the only Leaguer without a spare costume. If you're really a king, how about you spring for one you cheap bastard? No, instead he apparently steals Flash's belt.) Anyway, where it gets me right in the ticker, is that the JLA decides to live in the mountain and become part of its memories, so that when some small creature makes a sound at the right frequency, "for a moment, they [the League] are with me once more... burning brief candles of life... bright and splendid... flickering... long gone. Ghosts of stone."

Morrison MAGIC!

Star Trek 630: Broken Bow

630. Broken Bow

FORMULA: Caretaker + Redemption + Relativity

WHY WE LIKE IT: Lots of promise. Looks great.

WHY WE DON'T: The temporal cold war. Gratuitous sex.

REVIEW: After Voyager broke the timeline in Endgame, the TNG/DS9/VOY era was no doubt unusable [/snark] so Enterprise is, what else, a prequel. Personally, I really like the idea, even if it came with its own problems. Sure, yes, it's hard to reconcile the more modern look of Enterprise with the super-retro future of the Original Series, but you know what? It's hard to reconcile the PRESENT with the look of TOS! Set 100 years after First Contact and 100 years before TOS allows the show to strike the right balance. It looks like something that would be made today, while still presenting technology and attitudes that are retrograde to those of Kirk's time.

The ship is certainly prettier than the original USS Enterprise, but it's still obviously less streamlined, more claustrophobic and filled with ladders and walkways. Gone is the tractor beam, replaced with the very cool grappler. There's but one primitive industrial transporter that no one wants to use, with two shuttlepods being taken out on most away missions. Instead of phasers, we have bulkier plasma pistols and phase pistols. The warp engine can take it to a whopping Warp 4.5. Slower communications. There's a handheld universal translator that has to be updated by a linguist to work on new species. A decontamination room is required since the crew can't go through a biofilter. Artificial gravity still leaves "sweet spots" where you can float away. There are no replicators, but there's a chef aboard. Communicators are back to their TOS selves (more or less, but same chirp), and Spock's viewfinder makes a comeback too. The good thing about more primitive tech is that the show will rely a lot less on technobabble solutions!

As far as attitudes go, there's a definite "astronaut" vibe to the show. The crew is competent, but not up to Starfleet's almost blasé levels. Everything is new to them, and it even freaks them out a little. Prejudice is still a part of the human condition and a policy like the Prime Directive are still decades away. We're stumbling into the dark unprepared. Or at least, that's what the Vulcans would like us to believe. 100 years after Cochrane's flight, they're still holding us back, slowing our development for fear of what we might do to ourselves and others. It's a tension between allies that will be interesting to watch develop. If you liked the political aspects of Deep Space 9, like I did, then Enterprise is worth watching for near space politics. Our struggling "nation" brushing against all these greater powers. How will we become instrumental in founding the Federation?

Enterprise's production also makes a break from the previous three series, whose continuum I believe trapped them in an antiquated look. Because they all followed each other, they sort of had to match. Enterprise looks far more contemporary. Letterbox (HD) format. More source lighting. More steady cam. More flash cuts. Subtitles. Cuss words. Baseball caps and zippers. People weren't unanimous about the new theme song and montage on the opening credits, but I personally like it despite its power ballad roots. A clean break from the earlier series, the montage shows the history of exploration (and indeed, the series is about Star Trek history), and the song is definitely the captain's theme.

So let's talk about those characters, shall we? There was a lot of buzz at the time about Scott Bakula being cast as Captain Archer, and later some backlash about whether or not his performance was different enough to his work on Quantum Leap. While both characters are earnest and decent, I've never had that problem. Archer is harder character, with definite issues about the Vulcans having stalled his father's dream, but still willing to keep an open mind by the end of the pilot. He's got a good sense of humor and a really cute dog (nobody dislikes Porthos that I know of). His best friend and engineer is Trip Tucker, the first southerner we've had on a cast since McCoy. He and Archer make a genial pair and the early heart of the series. Trip is a bit of an idiot too, which makes him endearing as hell. The other friend Archer brings on board is Hoshi Sato, a maverick linguist who'll be acting as translator and communications officer. My early favorite, Hoshi isn't quite at home aboard a starship, more neurotic than any character we've seen since, well, Barclay, and it plays great. It helps that she can pronounce alien languages so perfectly too.

There are also two aliens aboard, despite this being Starfleet's first big mission outside human space. The first is T'Pol, a Vulcan assigned as first officer and chaperon because we lowly humans can't take care of ourselves. She's smug and superior and clashes with Archer and the rest of the crew, but it turns out that her knowledge is invaluable and that she can see the big picture and be loyal to Archer when need be. I'm afraid I'm not a big fan of T'Pol, and it's largely due to the casting. With pouty, plastic surgery-enhanced Jolene Blalock, they've tried to recapture the magic of Seven of Nine. She's too fake to be truly sexy, in my opinion, and there's something really icky about gratuitous scenes like the one in the decontamination chamber, where she and Trip are rubbing oil into each other in indiscreet places. If that's how they're going to keep things "saucy", I'm afraid it's not working for me (just like the butterfly-eating strippers). The other alien aboard is the total opposite. The ebullient Dr. Phlox is a great joy in every way. His optimistic, devil-may-care attitude always keeps his scenes bouncing along, and he's made very different from past (future) doctors by his use of a traveling menagerie of creatures with healing properties. Don't tell them the medication's made of dung, Doc! His weird smile is shown here for the first time, barely scratching the surface about what makes his species (unnamed, but Denobulan) different.

There are two other characters, but they remain largely ciphers in the pilot. Helmsman Travis Mayweather has the most potential (and potential it will largely remain) as the rookie who is also the veteran. He was raised on starships, albeit slower ones, all his life, and he demonstrates knowledge about ship life and alien encounters that make the others look like rubes in comparison. His busom buddy (in a sort of reverse Tom Paris/Harry Kim set-up) is Malcom Reed, a Brit who's actually allowed to be a Brit on the show, is weapons officer. He's got an eye for the ladies... maybe. They just don't do much with him here. One thing that's well set up in Broken Bow is that the crew (aside from the aliens) are just regular people. They have the same sense of wonder, the same fears and anxieties, the same kinds of relationships and way of speaking, we do. Everything is more relaxed, less military, but by making the characters less extreme and more like real people, it's also softened them. None of their personalities especially stand out.

The plot is simple enough: A Klingon crashes on Earth chased by evil aliens and the Enterprise must return him to the Klingon Homeworld so he can deliver whatever message the aliens don't want him to. Along the way, Enterprise finds out what's really going on, loses the Klingon, gets him back and makes good on the delivery. And there's a lot of slam-bang action here. If Kirk and crew were "cowboy diplomats", Archer drops the "diplomat" part. There's more than one extended fire fight, some fist fighting, ship-to-ship action, the capture of an enemy ship which must then be flown by the seat of Trip's pants (don't let this guy parallel park), and lots of explosions. The sequence in the teaser where a corn silo is destroyed sets the tone for a more action-driven era.

What's unfortunate in my view is that the plot (i.e. those evil aliens) is driven by something called the Temporal Cold War. Its inclusion is a mistake. There's so much else going on, so much to see and experience for the first time, so many holes in Star Trek history to fill in, that a time travel element is hardly necessary. More than that, it gets in the way of the story, and it never pays off. Part of the problem is no doubt the fact that the identity of the mysterious figure instructing the Suliban was never even decided by the show's creators. Not only was it then never revealed, but it made it hard to understand why he was doing X or Y to the timeline. How can you have a coherent agenda for a character with no identity? In this one, he wants to manipulate the Klingon leadership, but we never find out why, nor is it something that's followed up on. I thought an eventual series finale might pay it off using that shot of T'Pol in Archer's flashback, but I guess she was just a dream and never visited him in the past.

In a sense, the Temporal Cold War might have helped make sense of the other type of problem Enterprise opened itself to. The show was in a unique position to contradict established Star Trek history if it wasn't careful. Why was the NX Enterprise never mentioned or seen (in processions of ships with the name, just like in Archer's drawings) before? Is this episode really the "disastrous first contact" between Humans and Klingons that would plunge them into war? What about T'Pol sort of, kind of stealing Spock's place in history as Starfleet's first Vulcan? If the timeline is being manipulated in and around Enterprise, then maybe these are changes to the timeline. Maybe. At the same time, the show's unique position allows it to fill in the blanks and make interesting reveals, such as Cochrane here first pronouncing the speech "Space... the final frontier..." that Kirk and Picard would later repeat. I don't think that takes away anything from previous series, it adds to them.

The worst of it is, the Suliban are a pretty cool enemy race, using their own DNA as a weapon rather than the usual technology. We know Earth struggled with genetically enhanced tyrants, well here's a whole race of them, with an arsenal of ever-changing superhumanoid abilities. They have a distinct look, the ability to be creepy, and a cool recurring leader in John Fleck's Silik. I don't see why their impatience with natural evolution couldn't have been built into their culture, cutting out the help from "Future Guy". I remember people criticizing them for never having been seen before, but they are supposed to be a specific Cabal of Suliban, probably not associated with the main race, and potentially erased from history at some point.

In fact, everything seems rather close to Earth here, with Q'onoS a mere 80 days away at Warp 4.5, but that doesn't contradict episodes in other series. Earth, Vulcan and Q'onoS seem to be real close to the Alpha and Beta Quadrant borders, along with other early Federation members, which is no doubt why most allied to stand up to the other. We also see one of the Rigels, a recurring planet name on TOS and even later. There are plenty of homages to the early Trek history, in fact, from Admirals all named after the original cast's first names (and a Vulcan named Tos) to a miniature statue of Zeframe Cochrane. A big thumbs up to the effects. Even if some of the Suliban effects are a little hokey, the outer space stuff is gorgeous and the matte shots incredible (especially wintry Q'onoS and snowy Rigel X).

LESSON: Vulcan nipples WILL scratch you.

REWATCHABILITY - High: While I can't stand behind the time travel element (too soon!), I really like the way Enterprise has begun. Already, the series is less reliant on technobbable and ST characters haven't been this fallible since Deep Space 9 (if not ever). As a diehard Trekkie, the potential for telling stories that build on Trek history is exciting, and the series has a more contemporary, mature look. Now if it can only remember than "mature" does not mean "raunchy".

Thursday, August 28, 2008

SW6 Try-Outs

LEGIONNAIRES #2, DC Comics, May 1993
In the 90s, the Legion became all dark and nasty and adult, so they didn't have try-outs anymore. They were too busy becoming lesbians, or transsexuals, or disguised Proties, or werewolves, or whatnot. But writers Tom & Mary Bierbaum saw there was a reason for a teen Legion that was fun and happy-go-lucky, so they unveiled the SW6 Legion, a batch of clones that were just like the LSH of old, except a lot more hip. It gave us a Ferro Lad that could outlast an issue, and some pretty sexy babes thanks to artist Chris Sprouse. SW6 started in the regular Legion book, and then moved to their own title: Legionnaires.

And guess what? They could hold tryouts. They could, but they didn't. So halfway through their second issue, their meeting gets interrupted...
How DARE they not uphold this Legion tradition? What's next? Scripts that make sense? So of course there's a mob of super-teens clamoring for a shot at the new Legion. I guess they didn't notice you had to be a clone of the original LSH to be in the SW6 club.

The gang is willing to give it a shot though, and up first is X-Bomb Betty.
Aside from being a sexpot, she has the power to not get sued by Marvel for putting an X on her costume without the proper trademark. Oh wait, this is the 30th century... the copyright no longer holds. No, her power is to create a 150 million megaton explosion... but she can do it only once. Homage to Wildfire's original appearance? As Superboy would say... aw, you know by now.

Next up is Cera Kesh, who doesn't have a codename yet, but I think it probably would have been Plain Jane.
She has unrefined telekinetic powers, and after dropping Live Wire on his ass, he calls her names and makes fun of her chunkier disposition, acne and split ends. That sends her straight to an alley where she is destined to meet the Emerald Eye, which will turn her into a new Emerald Empress as part of the Return of the Fatal Five storyline. If you've got your Legion clichés card handy, go right ahead and checkmark the box next to "rejected hero will turn into a villain". I'll wait.

Anyway, they saved the best for last! Plaid Lad! The guy can turn any textile into plaid. And if you thought that would be enough to get him rejected, THE POWER ALSO TENDS TO GET OUT OF CONTROL!
It never rains but it pours for the Tartan Teen. Matter-Eater Lad (whose a real hoot in this incarnation) has the last laugh: "I'm sorry, Plaid Lad, but until you learn to better control your unique abilities, you'd be as great a danger to us as to our enemies." Dissed by the guy whose power is to eat stuff. That's got to be the worst.

TRY-OUT CHECKLIST: A, C, D

Star Trek 629: Endgame

629. Endgame

FORMULA: Dark Frontier + Firstborn + All Good Things + The Search for Spock + Timeless

WHY WE LIKE IT: The real timeline. Harry's speech.

WHY WE DON'T: The new timeline. The ending.

REVIEW: Endgame begins by showing us how Voyager's journey ended 16 years later (after 23 years total), and just how the characters were faring an additional 10 years after that. Harry's a captain. B'Elanna has pull with the Klingon High Council. Tom and the Doctor are noted holonovel writers. Miral Paris is all grown up and an ensign in Starfleet. Naomi Wildman has children of her own. Janeway and adopted crew member Reg Barclay are teaching at the Academy. And the Doctor's got a newly minted wife and a name for himself (amusingly, just "Joe"). They didn't all do so well, however. Tuvok is mentally ill and both Seven and Chakotay are dead (the latter from sadness at losing the former, his, hem hem, wife). Which is why this timeline simply has to go, as crazy Admiral Janeway decides to change everyone's fates.

This is really too bad. Not just because it involves one of this ill-considered, ill-designed temporal paradox stories, but because it breaks Voyager's premise. As soon as the ship gets home, it's no longer special. And while I have no doubt the characters continued their adventures in spin-off novels, it's like following the DS9 crew NOT on DS9. It's not the same. Imagining the ship lost out there for the remainder of in spin-offery would have been fine with me, a lot more believable AND a lot more impressive to boot. A 7-year trip isn't all that long, is it? Whatever the details upon the ship's return, a longer voyage is simply a cooler idea. It's Harry who gets the big homage speech in this finale - "To the journey" - and it defines this idea well. For a second there, it lets you believe they won't take the easy (and quick) road home.

Now on to Admiral Janeway, showing all the signs of crazy finale Janeway, messing with the Temporal Prime Directive for a handful of people she didn't think should have died or become senile (and the actual Prime Directive too since she's been manipulating Klingon politics). Admiral Janeway is corrupt and everything she does or undoes is fruit from the poisoned tree. She cuts Voyager's journey short by 16 years, undoing every impact the ship had during that time. If the last seven years are any indication, how many people have been "unhelped"? She also brings future technology to the present, setting the Federation up to become a military giant with phased torpedoes and ridiculous batmobile armor. (No really, even if such a thing didn't look like magic, where the hell did Voyager get all that metal just sitting in deep space?) To top it all off, she annihilates the Borg, ridding the galaxy of them perhaps permanently. How can the guys on the Relativity just sit by and NOT undo the finale? The Borg Queen is under the impression that killing young Janeway will prevent old Janeway from coming back in time and destroying the Borg, but isn't sending Voyager back home now ALSO going to undo that timeline. In other words, nothing here makes sense.

Destroying the Borg is just too much. I don't just mean in the tally of Admiral Janeway's temporal crimes (though genocide is pretty bad), but that it makes Voyager too powerful, competent or legendary in comparison to other starring ships. How great is the Enterprise's victory in First Contact once Voyager's blown up the Collective? The writers are playing at escalation to the detriment of past stories, or since those older stories are much beloved, to the detriment of this one as viewers roll their eyes at pseudo-cool attempts to top everything that came before. Blow up a transwarp hub, sure, but erase the entire threat? Come on. Would only have worked if there were a cost, but Voyager indeed "has its cake and eats it too".

The return of Alice Krige as the Borg Queen might have been reason to cheer if it just wasn't so odd to see her back in the role. It's odd because it's so different from Susanna Thompson's. Did Alice's Queen die or didn't she? How can she be back? If she could (cloning or 4D thinking), then why didn't she back in Dark Frontier? While I prefer her performance, it's amazing how much is lost with Voyager's cinematography in place of First Contact's. That harsh, flat green light on her dry, unsweaty skin changes her tremendously, and not for the better.

Back on present-day Voyager, I can't say I like things any better. The episode tells us two surprising things about the future, and then retroactively makes them true in the past. That is extremely cheap writing. They had 4 years to develop a romance between Chakotay and Seven, and though we knew Seven had an interest (Human Error), Chakotay never showed any. Suddenly, and because it's relevant to the plot, they're on their 3rd date. And it's EXTREMELY AWKWARD. There's no real chemistry and Chakotay seems way too in love with her for a handful of dates and the preceding nothing. The other cheap plot point is Tuvok's illness. This time, the writers had 7 years to introduce a degenerative illness for Tuvok and didn't, but here it's retroactively inserted into his medical record.

I seem to have a lot of issues with the finale, don't I? But is a series finale, and so it tries to be a celebration of sorts. There are appearances from a number of regulars, like Barclay, Neelix and Icheb, with Naomi and Chell rating mentions. It all looks pretty sharp, with lots of ships and explosions. Celebratory fireworks. However, the lack of an epilogue is a woeful mistake. There's a quick fake out where you think they didn't make it back before they come out of the Borg sphere surrounding them (awkwardly staged), then you see they're at Earth (the ships in shot include a Galaxy and a Defiant, which is a nice tip of the hat) and then... credits. WHAT??? Except for a few "what will you do?" conversations (that yield no answers), there is absolutely no closure for the characters. There were two things that were almost bound to happen: The birth of Miral and Voyager's return. And they chose only to show us what was obvious from the outset. With other series, you had a sense of what would happen the next day. Not here. And this is one series that almost demanded answers, with half the cast not being Starfleet, some even wanted by the law. If the future isn't the future, then what is? We shouldn't be forced to dig into other media to get a real ending.

LESSON: Regret is the mind killer.

REWATCHABILITY - Depends: Personally, I wish I'd never seen the finale and consider it a Low. I've been relatively negative about the series, I know, but when it's part of your daily routine for more than 5 months, you still get attached to the characters. You want it to do well. Endgame doesn't do right by them, and I sometimes think it would be better if the ship never came home (though I certainly would have included a sequence that shows them home 16 years later or whatever). If you were happy to see them get home, then I can't call this anything better than a Medium. It shares traits with a number of other nonsense paradox stories, big on eye candy, short on plot and characterization. Either way, it's the first finale (if the TOS story ends with ST VI) that doesn't tug at your heart strings.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Legion Spreads its Net Wide

TALES OF THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #339, DC Comics, September 1986
Reprinting the Legion try-outs from Legion of Super-Heroes vol.2 #14 (September 1985), this try-out occurs in the Paul Levitz era, which to me IS the Legion of Super-Heroes. It's not really his characterization, since many Legionnaires remain interchangeable. It's not the plotting, which is ok, but rarely memorable outside key story arcs. No, it's his total commitment to his 30th-century world.

The book is always full of throwaway lines, technologies, creatures and Encyclopedia Galactica entries that make you believe this is an intricately designed future. Look at this neat piece of gear worn by Shadow Lass to make herself grow hair after having spent too many years with the most severe of brush cuts:
That word, by the way, is Voila! Because that's another thing: The 30th century has its own language called Interlac, and Levitz makes sure all manner of signage is written in that invented alphabet. I love it! Thanks to Wikipedia, you can get your very own alphabet key and read all that stuff you never could before. Thanks Wikipedia! Now I know that the following sign says "Meeting in progress"!
Those Legionnaires are voting on an unprecedented number of new members because their original three are retiring and they were down a couple before that. Who will make it in?

For my money, they gave too much of a chance to Comet Queen, a thoroughly annoying character who can put you to sleep with her comet gas:
My thoughts exactly, Timber Wolf. I wouldn't mind her so much if she didn't speak like some kind of outer space valley girl. "Parse me to the Nth power!" "Boost me to stardrive, this is maximal!" "Prism you for C-speed fools!" "Burn me no more - glim your eye-sockets at the lizard lounge now." I don't know what any of that means, but it just leaves me wondering where Superboy is to scream out "REJECTED!"

Another loser is Energy Boy, who is wearing one of the worst costumes in Legion history (since the 70s, at any rate).
A nuclo-globe? Shades of Molecular Master, right there. Anyway, his audition is interrupted by Polar Boy, the leader of the Legion of Substitute-Heroes who never deserved to be rejected in the first place. He steals Energy Boy's thunder, and boldly asks the Legion to wave the rule requiring new members to be under 18 years of age (yes, the Legion has yet ANOTHER stupid rule when it comes to recruiting).

But this try-out is full of irregularities. If I had been rejected like Power Boy, Mentalla and those two goldfish I know nothing about...
...I would be mighty pissed. I mean, look at those new members:
From left to right: Magnetic Kid is Cosmic Boy's brother (nepotism). Tellus is a monster. Quislet (that little ship) can't even be seen and didn't even show up at the try-outs. Polar Boy is over 18. And Sensor Girl is there because Saturn Girl pulled rank and asked for this mysterious character to be accepted sight unseen.

Not that I'm complaining, you understand. Sensor Girl and Polar Boy are great. And cheers to the Legion for finally picking up a couple of non-humanoids. The days of the racist Legion are over. As for Magnetic Kid, well, nepotism is still wrong. That, and pink costumes.

TRY-OUT CHECKLIST: A, B

Star Trek 628: Renaissance Man

628. Renaissance Man

FORMULA: Brothers + Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy + Inside Man

WHY WE LIKE IT: The Doctor's multi-tasking.

WHY WE DON'T: Nothing's done with Vorik.

REVIEW: The Doctor doesn't do himself any favors with his smug and superior attitude in Renaissance Man, but as with Data in Brothers, it's really fun to see a super(non)human cut loose and really show his abilities' potential. The Doctor manages to impersonate a number of crew members, jump through walls, befuddle Tuvok on the holodeck, and totally own him with some Matrix-style fighting. He's a surprisingly good actor here (especially considering his "restraint" in Body and Soul when impersonating Seven), but that may be more new subroutines. He even makes use of his ECH persona to steal the warp core and get away (command codes are the best).

Pulling his strings are rogue members of the Hierarchy, once again using his matrix to see through his eyes. One of them's bad, the other's a nice, dumpy loser, in keeping with the species comedic tone. They've got Janeway, and the Doctor is only complying to save her life. The first scene makes a point of his ability to multi-task, and it's they key to their victory and rescue. While running the scam to steal the warp core (that cover story is a doozy), he has to play five parts (including his) AND manages to leave Voyager a clue to his whereabouts. So while Janeway is pissed that he disobeyed her orders and took the core, he still built an escape into his plan, with enough time left over for a little bedroom farce with Tom Paris.

Of course, they didn't want to create too powerful a character with this episode, so it's revealed that all the subroutines he had to take on in Renaissance Man are causing his matrix to decompile itself. While B'Elanna rushes to fix him, he breaks down and confesses all his secrets, including his love for Seven (she's in total denial though). B'Elanna's rueful expression when she saves his program is priceless. So much for his dignity. The Doctor gets his comeuppance.

Vorik makes his final appearance on the series here, but doesn't go the way of Joe Carey. Actually, nothing much happens to him at all. He gets about as much play as regular stuntman/extra Ayala, now in red at the conn and getting some lines. Gee, talk about a bad time to get your character developped. One episode to go!

LESSON: The Hierarchy is aware of Douglas Adams ("mostly harmless").

REWATCHABILITY - High Medium: A lot of fun.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wild Try-Outs

TALES OF THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #343, DC Comics, January 1987
Actually a reprint of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #195 (June 1973) and #201 (March-April 1974), this issue of Tales of the Legion actually takes us through two, count 'em, TWO Legion try-outs. And both involve Wildfire, or as he was originally known, Erg-1.

I'll give you a second to review yesterday's Legion try-out clichés...

Ready? Ok, let's go. "The One-Shot Hero" is a 70s Legion story, which means everyone is wearing the most garish costumes in the history of comics. Check out this lot:
Colors that don't go together, insignia that have nothing to do with their powers, holes in weird places, silly haircuts... The 2970s were as bad as the 1970s, fashion-wise. Of course, these are superheroes who, in their first appearance, wrote their names on their shirts in plain Arial.

Erg-1 is trying out for the team with a costume that's better than most, but it does remind me of a motorcycle suit and the Doctor Who serial The Ambassadors of Death, all at the same time. What are his powers? Well, he's made of antimatter energy, which only his suit can contain. It seems to give him the powers of Superboy, Colossal Boy, Shrinking Violet, Chemical King and Phantom Girl, so of course they can't accept him as a member. So what if he's as powerful as 5 Legionnaires combined? Club rules say you must have one power no one else has, and rules is rules.

Then Bouncing Boy comes into the room and tells the team about an S.O.S. That's right. Bouncing Boy. The guy who can turn into a bouncing ball. He made the team. Wildfire did not. Now let me act as his lawyer for a second. The Legion actually has a number of members with the exact same powers: Superboy, Supergirl, Mon-El and Ultra Boy are all pretty much the same. Turns out they made an exception for the two Kryptonians because they're icons from the past or something. So only Mon-El counts as a Kryptonian-like powerhouse. Ultra Boy? He's got "flash vision" instead of "heat vision", but these are the same. I believe his actual "unique" power is that his x-ray vision can see through lead (actually penetra-vision), whereas the others' cannot. Can you believe that? Why don't they just count the fact that energy comes out of Wildfire's feet to allow him to fly? Or that without a body, he's probably immune to a ton of things? BEING MADE OF ENERGY! Heck, I'd count that as a unique power.

But no. Thanks for trying out though. Back to the S.O.S.: There's this giant renegade "eating machine" that's sucking up all the crops on planet Manna-5. Just the kind of food emergency Bouncing Boy would bring to the Legion's attention. So a cadre of Legionnaires head for that world (but not Bouncing Boy - it's a lazy day for him) and Wildfire/Erg-1 tags along as a stowaway. However, the Legionnaires are defeated by the giant vacuum cleaner of death, and as it's about to suck in Colossal Boy, Wildfire shows off his one unique power:
He shoots himself at the machine, destroying it. And when the Legion finds his empty suit, they leave him for dead and put his suit on display in their personal cemetery (population at this point: Ferro Lad).

Cut to one year later, and the Legion's holding try-outs again. The three candidates are first shown a video of Wildfire biting the big one, so that they know that 1) it's a dangerous business and 2) that he'll be back to life by story's end. First up is Porcupine Pete:
To me, funny. Superboy is worse than Simon Cowell as he rejects Pete's application, even as he shrugs off a bunch of quills with his eyes (without a single doubt in my mind the inspiration for that scene in that Superman movie). Next up is Infectious Lass whose power is to give you any disease she likes. She uses Star Boy for a demonstration:
Never a good idea to give a Legionnaire explosive diarrhea at your Legion audition. She gets summarily rejected too. Third is Molecular Master, who can apparently create a giant atom and then boast about how big and powerful it is.
I know he told us to watch his hands, but it's very hard to concentrate on anything but the gazillion quills covering the Legion's audience chamber. I'm really glad Pete at least made it to the Legion of Substitute-Heroes. Meanwhile, Wildfire IS back, this time as energy. See, they left with his suit before he could return to it and it took him a year to get back to Earth to get physical again. To make matters worse, the Legion's put the suit behind a force field that prevents him from getting it. He can sort of possess the bodies of other living beings, but the Legionnaires' flight rings create the same kind of force field around them. (This all begs the question: Isn't there ANYONE on Manna-5 which could have been possessed long enough for him to make a call back to Legion HQ?) Anyway, Molecular Master isn't a Legionnaire yet, right? So Wildfire tries to possess him. Doesn't work: He's a robot sent to destroy the Legion and steal the "Dream Machine", a gadget from a previous adventure that grants the user any wish he cares to make.

Not only are they not using the thing to fight evil, but it's not protected by a force field because Wildfire can get into it. He possesses it to wish the Legion back to life and himself back into his suit. (So he can possess machines? So why not Molecular Master?) Anyway, a battle ensues between the evil robot and our boy Wildfire, a battle which ends with one of the best super-powered martial arts moves I've ever seen:
One rocket-fueled kick to the noggin splits Molecular Master's head in two! Told you that was his unique power.

TRY-OUT CHECKLIST: A, B, B2, C2, D

Star Trek 627: Homestead

627. Homestead

FORMULA: Insurrection + Redemption Part I

WHY WE LIKE IT: A proper exit for a cast member.

WHY WE DON'T: Distance issues. For once, the effects.

REVIEW: When Voyager discovers an asteroid full of Talaxians, Neelix realizes that he's on the opposite trip from everyone else aboard. Yes, we're saying goodbye to Neelix, he won't be going the whole way to Earth, and it's a proper exit from the series. The episode tries to fake us out a couple times, setting up a deadly self-sacrifice and then a goodbye scene between Neelix and what will become his adopted family, Dexa and Brax, but by the end, he leaves the ship for real.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. My big problem with this episode is that it treats everything in the Delta Quadrant as if it were bunched together. Not only is the first isolated spot these Talaxians ever found is decades out from Talax, but they actually discuss the possibility of going back there. How? Just coincidentally finding Talaxian refugees this far out made it a small galaxy, let's not go overboard. And I don't know if the cash is running out or if they're getting bolder about the effects, but the ones in Homestead don't quite work. The Flyer's crash doesn't look convincing by the show's usual standards, and the miniature of the Talaxians' set-up would fit in well on TOS.

But there's a lot to recommend about Neelix's last adventure. Once the Talaxians are endangered, watch how Tuvok instructs Neelix on how to take a leadership role in this. Is he acting out of friendship, or trying to get rid of a pest? Neelix can of course get involved, it's his people and the Prime Directive doesn't apply (though Janeway can't help herself later). Tuvok is right though: Neelix has it in him to be a leader, which leads to a reasonably exciting sequence in which he's almost heroically killed. With fingers hovering over the reset button, Neelix expresses weariness and regret at leaving his people behind, but it's clear his sense of duty is stronger than any of his more selfish concerns. Janeway, in a moment of rare psychological clarity, provides him an out. She makes him ambassador to the Delta Quadrant, something requiring frequent contact with Voyager (via the magic Starfleet telephone system eventually).

The episode makes it clear that Neelix is important to the crew (such as when they save him from embarrassment when the boy Brax asks where his station is), but it's the walk stolen from Redemption that best tells the tale. There is, after all, no character who could possibly have touched the lives of everyone on board like Neelix, so I forgive the steal. I was disappointed that his farewell scene with Naomi wasn't so much a goodbye as a brush-off. She's 6-going-on-13 and doesn't need him anymore? Meh. Much better was the idea of giving Tuvok the last goodbye given the history between these two. The Vulcan dance step was a beautiful gesture that got me a little teary, I have to admit, despite seeing it coming from the first scene when such a thing was mentioned.

LESSON: If you want a lost ship to come home quickly, just make sure there's no one to do the cooking. They'll be home any time now.

REWATCHABILITY - High Medium: Neelix gets a proper send off. In rewatching the series, he's probably the character I found most improved, from his annoying early years to Voyager's resident wise man.