Star Trek Discovery: Unification III (S3E7)

A slow and thoughtful episode with a cheeky title and overt connections to both The Next Generation and Picard. The risk it runs is playing dangerously close to being dull and/or mawkish but I enjoyed it and the slower pace allows the strong cast to carry the emotional stakes. There are a few surprises, so I’ll put the spoilers after the fold.

Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery: Unification III (S3E7)”

Star Trek Discovery: Scavengers (S3E6)

The core of this episode is a bit weak and cliched but it is surrounded with decent character work.

Book’s ship turns up at Star Fleet HQ with only Grudge the cat on board. With Saru keen to prove Discovery’s reliability to Star Fleet he forbids Michael from going on an impromptu rescue mission. Naturally Michael goes on an impromptu rescue mission.

The mission itself involves Michael and Georgiou visiting a junkyard planet that’s just some sort of rusty mineral processing factory but filmed with a yellow filter to look alien. The factory is run by the bad-guy organised crime gang and populated with slave-prisoners. The slaves can’t escape because they have devices on their necks that blow their heads off if they cross the perimeter. Book is one of the prisoners etc. It’s fine but you’ve seen it all before.

What is better here is that episode finally makes an attempt to deal with the question of Michael’s propensity for rogue missions in a way that is neither court-martial-life-imprisonment nor a pat-on-the-head and praise for what a cheeky scamp she is. The set-up for her disobedience is (more or less) a bit of a genuine dilemma for both Michael and Saru and the consequences for her insubordination are significant and have impact but aren’t absurd or unjust.

Trek has wobbled all over the place with these kinds of issues through every iteration. The problem is creating a dilemma for what are supposed to be military officers that doesn’t imply that at least one party is both an arsehole and shouldn’t be an officer with access to the weapons of a starship. The result adds to the wildly inconsistent portrait of Star Fleet as an institution and as a place where the chain-of-command is on one hand sacred and on the other hand a more of a vague custom rather than something enforced.

Meanwhile, the episode moves things along with whatever mysterious thing is going on with Georgiou and also moves things along with Adira and Stamets. The bridge crew also get new toys. None of which are big plot points (yet) but do demonstrate that the show continues to improve in giving a sense that everybody on the ship aren’t just holograms that wink off when Michael leaves the ship. A short scene with Tilly and Grudge likewise does a lot of this work. You don’t need big speeches or even a B-plot to ensure that a show about a crew of a spaceship feels populated.

ETA Cora makes the valid point that while the slave-worker story is a familiar one, it’s not one that is common in Star Trek http://corabuhlert.com/2020/11/21/star-trek-discovery-goes-on-an-unsanctioned-mission-in-scavengers/

Review: Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

The past few years have been trying times and it is hard to say positive things about 2020 that don’t pale against it’s immediate horrors. One thing we do have is a host of high profile fantastical horror from Black American creators. Lovecraft Country is a major TV show, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us were popular and critically acclaimed films, N.K.Jemisin’s The City We Became has gained mainstream press attention. A common theme is the subversion of horror tropes (particularly but not exclusively Lovecraftian ones) to reflect social issues and in particular systemic and overt anti-Black racism.

To that extent, Ring Shout will feel like familiar territory. In post World War 1 America a group of heroes must fight a resurgent KKK that is also a front for cosmic monster from some other dimension. Klan members vary from being humans under the sway of hate-consuming creatures to actual unearthly monsters (nicknamed Ku Kluxes for obvious reasons). Clark has stated the multiple influences he has thrown into this rich brew of history and fantasy, including Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the books of Toni Morrison.

Like a lot of novellas, I really wanted this to be longer. There are some intriguing characters, particularly in the core group but I feel like we barely got to know them within the space of this story. The same is true of some of the supernatural beings as well. We do learn a lot about the central character of Maryse but the story is crowded with history as well as both action and supernatural sequences that some of the interpersonal dynamics that we get sparkling glimpses of doesn’t get the room to breathe. So many rich ideas here that I wanted to linger but it was all over when I was most invested in the scope of it.

Hopefully it will spawn a sequel.

Star Trek Discovery: Die Trying (S3E5)

I think this is the most self-confident episode of Discovery we have had. Ironically given that the plot involves the crew of the ship having to prove themselves to the remaining rump of Star Fleet, this is an episode that acts like it has nothing to prove. Stronger than last week’s episode but it shares that quality of not being a stand-out episode of Trek in general while being clever, engaging, entertaining and visually brilliant. Where it has the advantage over past episodes is that it uses small moments to make use of a large cast.

Discovery has finally found the hidden remains of Star Fleet and the Federation. Do you want starship porn? Well we get a big glowy show of ships (including a version of Voyager) that makes the secret Star Fleet base feel more like Iain Bank’s Culture than earlier versions. There’s even a USS Nog for DS9 fans. Here the Discovery runs into an excellent threat: a reasonable, measured and quite rightly suspicious Star Fleet whose last records of a “USS Discovery” is a ship that was destroyed centuries ago and which also has very strict laws against time travel (a nod to Enterprise). Hey! Lots of inter-show continuity going on here but all done in nods and without interrupting the plot.

The threat to the ship comes in the form of military bureaucracy and I really like this. Star Fleet has gained a new ship and traumatised crew and so (arguably sensibly) wants to split up the crew and repurpose the ship. Saru and Burnham have other ideas (arguably sensible ones) and we voila! We have a dramatic conflict in which reasonable people are in conflict for reasonable reasons! No secret conspiracies or mirror universe doppelgängers , just two sets of people with different agendas.

OK, I mean we DO have a mirror universe doppelgänger in the form of Emperor Georgiou who gets her own time to shine in a debrief interrogation scene with Michael from the Good Place. No, no not actually a Ted Danson cameo but a flippin’ David Cronenberg cameo, as the future-Federation’s resident mirror universe specialist. If that and the rest of the crew’s debrief scenes (some very funny plot summaries of seasons 1 & 2) aren’t enough, we also have a mysteriously-abandoned-ship/base story.

The episode crams a lot in! Yet, it keeps things together and sticks to a good pace. The weakest part is centring security officer Nahn and her people’s culture. Yet even here the sense of unearned emotions arise from flaws in previous episodes. Nahn has been a character in 13 episodes of Discovery but prior to this episode, I would have struggled to remember her name or how she joined the crew. So we get a bit of a “Hello, I’m Commander Nahn. Here is a quick backstory about my people who are very unique because we breathe funny air but our culture has a thing about death, no time to explain what it is and I was very attached to the nice robot lady who died. Goodbye!”

Security Officer of Discovery is a position with a bit of a curse attached to it.

Five episodes in and so far I haven’t felt disappointed by a single one of them! Aside from Nahn, the only annoying thing was Saru’s version of the Dark Ages versus the Renaissance and given the time period is forgivable. Future Alien guy has a very potted & distorted take on human history? Technically that’s realism.

Anyway, David Cronenberg.

Cora’s review is here http://corabuhlert.com/2020/11/14/star-trek-discovery-is-determined-to-fulfill-its-mission-or-die-trying/

Star Trek Discovery: Forget Me Not (S3E4)

We have all been asking for an episode about the crew and I suppose this one is it. I’ve no complaints even though it feels like an episode with two B-plots. The show takes some time for healing and for the crew to work out some issues. It isn’t one of those episodes that is an instant classic but it is well paced and avoids the kind of clumsiness of past Discovery episodes.

Dr Culber frames the start of the episode as he carries out routine health checks on the crew. Not surprisingly they (unlike the ship) are structurally sound but, as he later reports, they are stressed out after everything they have been through. Saru must work out a way of raising morale and improving the mental health of the crew and sadly he has no ship’s counsellor to help him…or does he?

Meanwhile, new recruit Adira has a different problem. They have a Trill symbiont but they don’t have Trill memories and those memories contain the location of the remanent of the Federation. Discovery sends Adira and Michael to visit the Trill home world by shuttle (a nod to the original Trill TNG episode where the Trill eschew transporters). There, things do not go well as Trill society is not in good shape.

I don’t want to through out too many spoilers but we get the addition of another new character via flashback. Adira previously lived on a generation ship and had a Trill boyfriend Gray (played by Ian Alexander) around whom they have painful and traumatic memories that they must confront if they are to connect with the symbiont’s memories.

It is moving but it is also another LGBTQI relationship framed in tragedy. In Discovery’s defence, all romantic relationships so far have been framed in tragedy (or worse if we think about Ash Tyler’s relationships). This one goes in some interesting directions though.

Meanwhile, I really do appreciate how well Anthony Rapp plays Stamets as a well meaning arsehole. It is a very difficult type of character to get right. He is a good person and he’s not a ‘lovable rogue’ style of arsehole or badass-psycho-but-we-love-them arsehole like Georgiou.

Keyla Detmer’s mini-arc coping with the horror stress of piloting Discovery through the temporal wormhole comes to a head. Again, nicely done but as always with Discovery perhaps wrapped up too quickly.

I haven’t been doing rankings this season. Currently, I’d probably rank them in episode order but overall the show has been a lot more consistent. This is a good but not remarkable episode and that is remarkable because the show needs some of this character and aftermath-of-truama connective tissue to stop it being just a sequence of crazy-shit happening to Michael.

ETA: I’d intended to track what pronouns Adira’s character uses but didn’t. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw’s review (https://www.dailydot.com/upstream/shows/star-trek-discovery-adira-gray-trans-characters/ ) says the character uses she/her. I’m not going to change the pronouns above but shift to she/her next time.

Cora looks at the plot in more detail here http://corabuhlert.com/2020/11/07/star-trek-discovery-deals-with-trauma-and-recovery-in-forget-me-not/

Review: Truth Seekers (Amazon)

This 8 episode British horror-comedy series is pitched as Simon Pegg – Nick Frost vehicle. That casting is a nod to the genre-savvy audience it wants but a tad misleading. The show rests on Frost’s shoulders as Gus Roberts — the number 1 technician for a British telecom company by day and a YouTube psychic investigator by night.

We are firmly in the world of horror-comedy and X-Files pastiche but unlike the dry absurdity of NZ’s Wellington Paranormal, this show has dialled back the comedy. Don’t be put off by that. The humour is largely gentle and at times the show has the tone and tempo of a British TV cosy mystery. Less comedy and more not entirely serious despite the subject matter.

When we meet Gus he has just been saddled with a new partner (the implausibly named Elton John played by Samson Kayo ) by his boss Dave (Simon Pegg in an intentionally bad wig). From there, Gus’s investigations into the paranormal suddenly become far more substantial, including the arrival of Astrid (Emma D’Arcy ) who is being actively hunted by deeply unnerving ghosts.

The show does a very good job of building up an ensemble of characters who become embroiled in the increasingly sinister goings on, including Elton’s agoraphobic sister Helen (Susan Wokoma) and Gus’s “dad” Richard (Malcolm McDowell of all people). It is a nice demonstration that if you get a group of likeable characters together, you can carry some sometimes shaky stories.

The cosy camaraderie is sharply contrasted with a haunting-of-the-week style episodes that are sometimes genuinely unnerving, as well as some bloody and violent scenes. Malcolm McDowell ending up in a mass hypnosis session has a neat nod to A Clockwork Orange which maybe gives a hint of how the show sees itself: a sitcom grandad accidentally wandering into some ultra-violence.

Like Wellington Paranormal these are short episodes but Truth Seekers is scarier (note: I’m easily scared so if you are a horror fan revise your expectations down) and the season story arc adds some extra depth to the stories.

Lots of neat twists and some genuine scares but not big laughs.

Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I apologise to whoever recommended this book in the comments but I can’t recall who it was! Thank you anyway, as this book is delightful.

The town of Grafton in New Hampshire has (according to this book) been a somewhat independent sort of place, keen on low taxes and small government. It has also been a town with a long history with bears. Hongoltz-Hetling tracks the history of the “Free Town” project where some internet libertarians got it into their heads to tray and concentrate their numbers in a single town.

For details of some of the shenanigans (and the impact on bears) this article in the New Republic covers a lot of ground.

“But tracking headlines on human-bear encounters in New England in his capacity as a regional journalist in the 2000s, Hongoltz-Hetling noticed something distressing: The black bears in Grafton were not like other black bears. Singularly “bold,” they started hanging out in yards and on patios in broad daylight. Most bears avoid loud noises; these casually ignored the efforts of Graftonites to run them off. Chickens and sheep began to disappear at alarming rates. Household pets went missing, too. One Graftonite was playing with her kittens on her lawn when a bear bounded out of the woods, grabbed two of them, and scarfed them down. Soon enough, the bears were hanging out on porches and trying to enter homes.”

https://newrepublic.com/article/159662/libertarian-walks-into-bear-book-review-free-town-project

The author even brings in some speculation around the role of toxoplasmosis in the events — the parasitic disease carried by cats that may have behavioural impacts on infected mammals. With the local bear population consuming a proportion of the town’s cats, maybe bear behaviour was being impacted by more than just inconsistent human reactions to the encroaching bears.

More broadly and more pertinently to some of the previous topics of this blog, the book charts the impact of a community dealing with right-wing entryism as a means of affecting political change. Prior to the town’s experience with the libertarians (and very much the wackier kind rather than the Republicans just pretending kind) the Moonies had also once set up shop there as well.

The tone of the book is wry, humorous and sympathetic towards the often eccentric and independent minded citizens of Grafton. That relatively gentle tone shifts when the inevitable encounters of humans and bears turns more violent. There are many distressing aspects to the story as inevitably there are cases of violence and neglect towards humans, domestic animals and wild animals (and from wild animals too…and from domestic animals as well in the case of one very protective llama versus an intrusive bear).

And as I was writing this review, the day’s XKCD popped up with a synchronicitous topic:

https://xkcd.com/2381/

The Eve of Something

…but we don’t know what.

By virtue of time zones, it is already Tuesday 3 November here. In a normal year, this would be Melbourne Cup day — the big Australian horse race that everybody bets on and people wear hats and get drunk. This year, things are a bit more subdued.

Meanwhile, it is still Monday in the USA. The final vote tally for the US Presidential election won’t be known for awhile but tomorrow things will be changing rapidly towards a conclusion. The polls and the models point toward a victory for the Biden/Harris ticket. Over shadowing those polls is the fact that Trump won last time and, more darkly, that Trump may not accept defeat even if he does lose.

Nate Silver at 538 is busy reminding people that a 10% chance is not a 0% chance https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/im-here-to-remind-you-that-trump-can-still-win/ There are uncertainties of many kinds, particularly around Pennsylvania and Florida where the chance of a Trump winning the state is much closer than in national polls.

In addition, the polls and models are unlikely to have adequately compensated for a number of factors:

  • Increased early voting
  • Potentially increased turn out
  • Attempts at voter suppression
  • Attempts at vote intimidation

There are also claims of a “shy Trump voter” bias in the polls — more centre-leaning Trump voters not wanting to say they are Trump voters out of shame or fear. This last one I am doubtful of.

Back in 2016 I thought it would be interesting to see how people associated with the Sad/Rabid Puppies movement would shift (or not) during the Trump years. As reflected more broadly in the polls, people who were already solidly right wing have only consolidated more in their support of Trump. Where a number of notable Sad Puppies were dubious (or even hostile) towards Trump during the GOP Presidential nomination process all those years ago, most shifted towards some degree of support by the election (or at the very least overt hostility towards his opponent). In between times, that has only strengthened. John C Wright and Sarah Hoyt shifted from sceptical/grudging support to full on Trump-advocacy. Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen have been more circumstance and adopted an ‘anti-anti-Trump’ position. I don’t think either of them have overtly said they’d vote for him but their anti-Biden position is unambiguous and also shallow (focusing on Biden’s age and his dodgy son — qualities which don’t distinguish him from Trump). Vox Day has been an avid Trump supporter and remains so.

On the whole, most of this former leaders of the Puppy groups remain bullish about the election. There is an underlying belief that Trump is very popular and the polls are very wrong. That is compounded with a confusion about how wrong the polls were in 2016 — as if dismissing the result of the popular vote for constitutional reasons also (magically) means the polls got it wrong that Hillary Clinton was more popular than Trump.

Adjacent to the Puppy leaders we have other puppy-characters like Michael A Rothman being super bullish on Facebook:

“Mark this as my official prediction:
Trump wins electoral with at least the same margin as last time.
Trump likely wins popular vote as well.”

https://www.facebook.com/MARothman/posts/10217545584647542

That seems unlikely.

If the opposite happens and Biden’s win is more substantial then maybe some Republicans will re-evaluate their support of the Electoral College. That will be interesting to see. Because of the above, I’ve ended up watching Utah conservatives extolling the virtue of the EC, even though it remains a bad deal for Utah conservatives (the way the Senate works is a different question). Ironically, the 2016 election would have been an opportunity for Utah Republicans to leverage the EC by voting Democratic and ironically giving themselves far more influence over the GOP as a result…but that’s not how people actually vote or behave.

Speaking of which, I was gifted yesterday a cursed item: a book! Entitled “Divided we Fall: One Possible Future” it is a political-science fiction anthology edited by the pseudonymous Mack Henckel and according to the cover features:

“Stories by Sarah Hoyt, Brad Torgersen, Jon Del Arroz and More!”

The premise is all the bad things that will happen to America if Trump loses. This is the flip side of the apparent bullishness: a deep seated fear of what happens next.

You won’t be astonished to hear that it isn’t very good but let me reassure you that even by standards of Hoyt’s, Torgersen’s and Arroz’s writing, it isn’t very good. Indeed, all three are more than capable of word-smithing readable fiction — they aren’t inherently bad writers and Hoyt in particular gains a lot more clarity when she writes fiction. This book though, is rushed and poorly edited both in a broad sense and in a copy-editing sense. It falls even below my extraordinarily low standards for typos.

Torgersen’s persecution fantasy is that the Federal Government will outlaw the Mormons:

“Ephraim Roberts watched the feds from behind his own sunglasses. Until six months prior, he’d been among their number. The injunction—which had come swift on the heels of the church having its tax-exempt status revoked—had put paid to any plans Ephraim had of retiring on a federal pension. He’d watched two nephews and one niece go to jail during the early days, when idealistic church members still actively challenged the blockades that had sprung up around every single Latter-Day Saint temple in the United States.”

Secret Combinations by Brad Torgersen, in Divided we Fall: One Possible Future

Jon Del Arroz’s story is more unpleasant but is basically just trolling for outrage. Sarah Hoyt’s story is quasi-autobiographical which has the unfortunate effect of making it read like one of her not-intended-to-be-fiction columns. The protagonist lives in Colorado and in 2016 is considering voting Libertarian but is persuaded reluctantly to vote for Trump. Unlike Hoyt, the protagonist is gay and has a liberal wife but the dialogue from either of them reads like direct quotes from her columns. For example take this dialogue about Covid19:

‘“Sure. Very dangerous, if you’re like 80. Maybe. Look, I did a deep dive into the Diamond Princess numbers. It can’t be that dangerous. Those ships are plague vessels at the best of times.”
“Ah.”
“And what they’re doing is putting an entire country under house arrest. A lot of the economy won’t come back, can’t come back.’

Teach the Children by Sarah Hoyt, in Divided we Fall: One Possible Future

Anyway then tomorrow happens and society collapses:

‘Well, you know what happened. The election was called for Joe and the Ho, and Trump didn’t dispute it. And things got crazy. Really crazy. It was hard to know what was actually happening, you know, because the news was all bizarre. They’d started the fiction with their Tales of the Covid, and they just ramped that up. The Green New Deal was going to save us. The Native Americans were coming out of the reservations to teach us to love Mother Earth. Police were disbanded. The committees of reconciliation…’

Teach the Children by Sarah Hoyt, in Divided we Fall: One Possible Future

The story rapidly skips into an apocalypse society but the protagonist and friends keep the faith and at the end have started a kind of religion whose faith is the USA (a theme Hoyt has used before).

…and so on. Yes, obviously the anthology is an attempt to make a quick buck (and a quick book) but the fear mongering is both cynical and sincere. That combination is quintessentially the story of the Puppy years — a mix of grift, confabulation and paranoia.

Star Trek Discovery: People of Earth (S3E3)

[Some spoilers about a character]

As Discovery matured it got into a rhythm of its own kind of wacky space-opera versus (or complimentary with) more The Next Generation style episodes. I’m sure there are examples of each from various directors but the first category I associate with Olatunde Osunsanmi and who better to represent the second than Jonathan “Will Riker” Frakes.

True to form we get an episode that is so TNG that we get the return of the Trill and a new Wesley Crusher-like character. Yet this is Discovery, so this is still TNG but updated and with its own spin.

The twist is that the planet that gets the TNG treatment (where a whole planet of people gets boiled down to one character who basically makes planet wide policy on the spot having been shown the error of their ways by the stern wisdom of the charismatic Starfleet captain) is Earth. Yes, the episode has all the flaws of the standard Picard solution of getting two antagonistic space-groups to realise what they have in common and work together rather than fighting a war. It’s too quick, too simplistic and utterly unlike any actual real world dispute. However, making the snooty up-itself planet Earth…that is actually quite a neat twist. How intentional that was, I don’t know but it adds a spin to a corny scenario that has a nice subversive quality to it and acts as a mild critique of all those “why don’t you two just put aside your differences and get along” episodes from the original series onward.

Meanwhile, we get another new character: Adira, a hyper-intelligent teenager from future Earth who is part of the Earth defence boarding party. Played by Blu del Barrio they aren’t nearly as annoying as Wesley Crusher and their big secret [spoiler] is that they are actually a human with a Trill-symbiont [1]. del Barrio is non-binary and that is a neat casting choice for a class of Trek characters that have had an interesting play on questions of identity.

Still…I can’t help feeling that Discovery already has more characters than it is properly utilising. The under-used bridge crew do get some collective moments (greeting Michael, visiting a great big tree) but aside from a brief hesitation, we don’t get an update about whatever is going on with Detmer.

Even so, the episode uses the emotions of the crew well. Even though Michael has only been separated from them by two episodes, I found the initial reunion quite moving. I’m also really glad that Saru is now wholly and unambiguously the captain of the Discovery. It’s an ill fated role but it is an outcome that retrospectively makes the previous seasons better. The Discovery was a dysfunctional ship with a dysfunctional crew many of whom were individually capable. Events have changed them and the ship and Saru’s captaincy emphasises that as a story arc, even if some of that arc was unintentional.

Cora’s review is here http://corabuhlert.com/2020/10/31/star-trek-discovery-pays-a-visit-to-the-people-of-the-earth/


[1] I assume that will engender some arguments about how the whole Trill thing was supposed to work but in a nod to continuity, Saru had to learn about the Trill’s symbiotic thing courtesy of the sphere data. Riker/Frakes of course was briefly a host for a Trill-symbiont in the TNG episode where the species was introduced.