Wo-ow, “Et in Arcadia Ego” part one, the first half of the conclusion to this first season of Star Trek: Picard, was one great hour of television. Past Star Trek series had plenty of visits to idyllic worlds with a dark underbelly, but here we’ve had a season of build-up to visiting the planet of the synthetics, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Google Translate tells me that “Et in Arcadia Ego” means “And in Arcadia I am”, where Arcadia is a poetic term for a utopia, which is certainly appropriate here.
One thing to watch for in this episodes is the spectacular acting by much of the cast; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a virtuoso ensemble performance in any episode of Star Trek, where Patrick Stewart might not be delivering the best or even the second-best performance.
I’d originally planned to review the last two episodes together, but this one had enough stuff in it that I decided to cover it separately.
Three episodes of Picard this time around, and they’re an odd set to review together:
“The Impossible Box” finishes the second third of the season, as Picard and company make it to the Borg cube and find Soji. It’s the most exciting episode of the season to this point, and starts moving the story into high gear.
So, oddly, the next episode, “Nepenthe”, isn’t really part of any of the three parts of the season (beginning, middle and end). Rather, it’s a pause, a time for the characters (and viewers) to reflect on where we are. While the popular focus has been on the return of Will Riker and Deanne Troi, it also allows Soji and Picard to adjust to recent developments which have left them reeling, while the crew of La Sirena deal with some their own problems.
Finally, “Broken Pieces” resolves several plot points, in a way clearing the decks for the two-part finale, as well as giving us some insight – finally – into Captain Rios.
All three episodes are quite good, and quite different, and everything seems to be coming together. More after the cut:
The fourth and fifth episode of Star Trek: Picard operate as a pair of sorts. Where the first three episodes concerned Picard learning that he had something he needed to do and arranging to be able to do it, these episodes see him and his band leaving Earth and learning where they need to go. They’re more adventurous – in the literal plot sense – than the first three, but they’re also a little awkwardly dropped into the story: Whereas the second episode “Maps and Legends” felt like it was moving pieces into place for the purposes of the plot, these two have a similar purpose but to get to their goal they’re developed in the context of a pair of smaller stories.
After the first episode, “Remembrance”, I’d thought maybe I’d write a review for each episode of Star Trek: Picard, but the second episode, “Maps and Legends”, didn’t feel like it needed a review. It wasn’t a bad episode, and certainly I didn’t expect it to be as good as the first episode as it was a hard act to follow, but it was mostly a moving-the-pieces-into-place episode, without much of a narrative arc.
The third episode, “The End is the Beginning”, jumped the quality back up and made me decide to cover both of them at once.
I figure if you haven’t watched the first episode, or if it didn’t grab you, then you’re not likely to be reading this, so I’m just going to jump to spoilers after the cut:
(In the unlikely event you’re curious what twentysomething me thought of mid-series Next Generation, you can read a bunch of my reviews here.)
That said, I do enjoy Star Trek: Nemesis, and I enjoy it more now than my review at the time says I did at the time. Indeed, I think it’s the best NextGen film, though it’s not perfect, but it boiled down NextGen to its two best characters: Picard and Data. It struggles to fully develop its themes, but at least it has themes.
Star Trek: Picard seems to have highly variable word-of-mouth. Some people love it, some people hate it. I inferred from context that big fans of NextGen did not enjoy it. So maybe that meant I would? And the more I learned about it, the more appealing it seemed: Michael Chabon is involved. Picard is struggling with recriminations in his retirement involving Data’s death and the destruction of Romulus (a plot point in the Abrams reboot).
And, well, Jean-Luc Picard was the best thing about NextGen.
So tonight I signed up for CBS All Access, and watched the first episode.
And it was a fine hour of television.
My spoiler-free reaction to the first episode, “Remembrance”, is that Picard is a deep character who is indeed dealing with some of the traumas of his career, and the story overall moves Star Trek substantially forward from The Next Generation, rather than just rummaging around in the show’s past. There’s drama and action, and the promise of a lot of suspense and ratcheting up of the stakes to come. But – perhaps most importantly – it moves beyond the feel-good utopian-future nonsense of The Next Generation: Picard is fallible, the Federation is fallible, people make mistakes and have feelings about it. Like humans.
I recent finished reading John Scalzi‘s recent novel, The Consuming Fire, the second in his Interdependency trilogy. It’s quite good, and I agree with some comments I’ve read that although it starts slow, it ends up being a more satisfying read than the first volume. But what won me over fully to it is not the satisfying ending (which is about as satisfying an ending as the second book in a trilogy can have), but the bits in the middle.
(Spoilers for The Consuming Fire, as well as some other stories discussed below!)
The Interdependency in the series is a collection of worlds connected by wormholes, except that after millennia the wormholes start collapsing. Since most of the “worlds” are actually uninhabited – the population live on artificial satellites in orbit, and only one world is known to itself be habitable – this is a big problem, since the worlds can’t survive on their own. The fact of this collapse is a nascent scientific discovery which is not widely believed, but a major development in this book is that a wormhole which had collapsed centuries before has recently reopened for a limited period of time, and our heroes – in the form of the Emperox – send an expeditionary ship through to see what happened to the settlement there.
They break into the main satellite, which is predictably dead and dormant, and manage to reactivate some of the computer systems, whereupon they discover that they’re not the first ones to do so: The system had been reactivated several times since civilization collapsed, and our heroes figure out that not only is there a remnant of the centuries-dead civilization still hanging on, but that they had been visited from elsewhere during that time.
And I love this stuff. Stories about finding long-forgotten and long-dead remnants of past civilizations or even people whose stories ended tragically long before they were uncovered thrills me more than almost anything else in science fiction.
I was trying to think when my fascination with this sort of story started, and the earliest instance I can think of is the Space: 1999 episode “Dragon’s Domain”. Five years earlier, a probe to the recently-discovered tenth planet of the solar system ended in tragedy when it discovered a graveyard of alien ships. On docking with one of them, three of the four crew members are killed by a mysterious creature, and the fourth barely escapes and makes it back to Earth. In the present, he senses that the creature is nearby, and the Alphans find the same graveyard, many light years from Earth, and have a final showdown with the creature. As with most things in the series, the story doesn’t make much sense, but when I was six years old when it first aired in 1975, it made an indelible impression on me, enough that when I had the opportunity to buy a few episodes in the 90s, it was one of the two that I bought. (Yes, I was disappointed when I watched it.) It’s not even very satisfying in exploring the ships they find – we never get to see inside any of them – but somehow it was just enough to stimulate some part of my brain.
Somehow many Space: 1999 episodes are available in their entirety on YouTube, and I watched it before writing this post:
(I could write at some length about Space: 1999, basically that I think there is some good stuff in there that could have been used as the springboard for an actually good series, but it’s buried under so much nonsense and terrible writing that any good series would have been substantially different from what actually aired. But I digress.)
Another episode which tickled a similar part of my brain was “Another Time, Another Place”, in which the Alphans meet their doppelgängers from another universe who had recolonized the Earth, with mixed results. I haven’t re-watched that one, but I recall the exploration of the doppelgänger Alpha was pretty powerful. Again, to my six-year-old self.
Star Trek also had a little of this, though the memorable episodes involved finding derelict starships. “Space Seed”, “The Tholian Web”, and my all-time favorite episode, “The Doomsday Machine”, all feature these small-scale discoveries and piecing together what happened, although the main thrust of each episode heads in a somewhat different direction; the space relics are primarily part of the episodes’ color. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode actually entitled “Relics” features an ancient Dyson sphere, but it’s really about Scotty coming to the 24th century. And the Star Trek: Enterprise story “In a Mirror, Darkly” is a sequel to “The Tholian Web”, but it’s really a love letter to original series fans.
The movie Alien starts off with the characters exploring a derelict alien hulk, and although the film is overall excellent (and I am not a fan of horror films generally), plumbing the depths of the hulk is not the point of the film.
So with all of these TV shows and movies teasing me with glimpses of old relics that don’t really get explored, what really got me hooked on this stuff? Well, it was a book titled Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space which was part of a series of art books from the late 70s about the fictional Terran Trade Authority. Set over the next thousand years or so, the book is a collection of short stories with corresponding illustration (I inferred that the illustration was done first and the story written to more-or-less match it, but I really have no idea) about spaceships which had been lost and later found abandoned, or maybe just found without anyone knowing where they came from (e.g., alien ships). Mary Celeste-type stuff. It was not great literature, but I read through it several times as a teenager, fascinated by the stories with their sometimes-oblique tragedies of years long past, buried more by obscurity than by intent.
I think that’s part of what appeals to me about such stories: Unlike typical mysteries, in which there’s a perpetrator who is deliberately trying to conceal the truth, in these stories the truth has been lost due to the ravages of time, or due to something simply dropping out of sight, or becoming inaccessible. There may have been some corresponding or causal tragedy to the mystery – that’s sometimes where the story comes from – but I find the peeling back of the layers, and the revelation of what happened to the long-dead people to be the part of the tale that grabs my imagination.
And that brings me to what, to my knowledge, is the preeminent example of this sort of story: Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict series.
Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer who inherited money from his anthropologist uncle after he was lost in space, and set up his own business. In the first book, A Talent For War (1989) – which is one of my favorite novels – he investigates the disappearance of a crew of heroes who helped end the war against the only known alien species in the galaxy. As a group of legendary officers, the crew lightly evokes the crew of the original Star Trek, but all of them are two centuries dead. The story has some good twists and turns, and a solid ending. It was probably the most satisfying story of its sort I’d read up to this point – it might still be at the top.
To my delight, McDevitt turned this novel into a series, with 9 millennia of backstory for his characters to explore:
Polaris (2004): An auction of relics from a ship whose crew disappeared under impossible circumstances unfolds the mystery of what really happened to them.
Seeker (2005): A lone cup unlocks the mystery to the location of one of the earliest colony ships from Earth, nearly 9,000 years earlier. This one won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.
The Devil’s Eye (2008): A mind-wiped friend of Alex’s is the clue to a government cover-up and a lost colony. The series’ nadir in my opinion.
Echo (2010): A deceased scientist known for searching for other intelligent life beyond humans and the one other species we’ve encountered found something. But if he found aliens, why did he bury the news?
Firebird (2011): Another deceased scientist who was known for researching parallel universes also found something. What he found is very different from the story in Echo, and is perhaps the most arresting storyline of the series, and very much on-theme for this article – but I won’t reveal it here because I definitely recommend reading it yourself. It’s concluded in the next novel…
Coming Home (2014): In addition to the continued story from Firebird, Alex is presented with a relic from the earliest days of humanity’s space age, and he heads to Earth in search of its origin.
Coming Home seemed like a perfect ending to the series, and it was hard to see how McDevitt would top it, but apparently there will be a new volume, Octavia Gone, published next year.
Despite my fondness for the series, I do caution readers to temper their expectations: McDevitt is clearly influenced by the SF Golden Age grandmasters such as Asimov and Clarke, which means his writing can be a bit dry. He also has a decidedly clumsy approach to writing women, which is doubly unfortunate since after Talent – narrated by Alex – the remaining books are narrated by his assistant and pilot, Chase Kolpath. Chase is a pretty capable figure, but there are many cringeworthy turns of phrase involving her gender. So I’d expect some people would find the writing would cancel out the good qualities of the story, but if you can get past its limitations perhaps you’ll enjoy it. Unfortunately in such a limited niche, it’s nearly impossible to have it all.
By the way, an earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996), has some moments that resonated for me in this way – humanity discovers an abandoned network of portals to other worlds – although the main thrust of the story lies elsewhere. I suggest skipping the disappointing sequel, Thunderbird (2015), however.
I’m sure there are other stories I’m forgetting about, but those are the major ones. I wish more writers would play in this space (though I’m not so willing to sit through dozens of episodes of bad television for the occasional story of this sort), but I take what I can get.
Are there any notable stories in this vein that I should check out?
A friend’s comment on Facebook reminded me that I wanted to mention a couple of similar tropes which I see as different from the trope that interests me here:
First are Big Dumb Objects, unfathomable artifacts from ancient civilizations. Stories around these tend to fall into two camps: Either people trying to figure out what they’re used for and eventually reactivating them (usually to disappointing effect, since the payoff is rarely satisfying after the build-up), or as something which trigger the story but isn’t central to how it plays out (for example in Alastair Reynolds’ novella Diamond Dogs). While I can enjoy these stories, they different from the trope I’m discussing here because they’re fundamentally more impersonal; there’s little speculation in or resolution of what happened to the specific characters who left behind the BDO, it’s just a driver for the main characters’ story.
Second are ancient and dead civilizations, which again tend to be impersonal, the discovery of vast swaths of culture and/or technology rather than the story of a specific relic left behind. Star Trek worked this territory a lot, usually encountering the degenerate remnants of such civilizations, though occasionally they found completely dead ones, such as in “Contagion”. “The Inner Light” is a more personal take on a dead civilization, although it contains more of what I enjoy, but it subverts it by throwing Picard into the middle of events (and is shamelessly manipulative and maudlin to boot).
Sunday saw the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, the latest installment in the Star Trek franchise. The first story was a 2-parter, only the first part of which aired on CBS; the rest of the season will air on the new “CBS All Access” subscription streaming network, which I have no interest in subscribing to, so I only saw the first episode, which ended on a cliffhanger.
As my readers may know, I’m working on over 30 years of disappointment in Star Trek. Despite the occasional good story here and there, Star Trek has been a dramatic, storytelling and characterization wasteland since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987. I guess it’s a testament to how wonderful the original series (and Star Treks II and III) were that I keep trying the new series. (Well, okay, I passed almost entirely on Voyager, since Star Trek was entirely superfluous from 1994-1999 due to the presence of Babylon 5.)
Despite hoping that the decade-plus since Enterprise went off the air would lead to some philosophical changes in the Star Trek TV franchise, the first episode of Discovery, “The Vulcan Hello”, was about as mundane as ever. The series takes place in the original timeline (i.e., not the J.J. Abrams reboot timeline), approximately 10 years before the original Star Trek series (i.e., about 2 years after the events of “The Cage”, the one Christopher Pike episode), and it focuses on the (apparently last) adventure of the USS Shenzhou, which encounters an alien object while investigating damage to a remote yet apparently important satellite.
There isn’t really a way to discuss the episode without spoilers – frankly, there isn’t enough story here to discuss otherwise – so I’ll continue after the cut:
When I was a kid – this was probably the summer of 1974 – my dad sat me down in front of the television (or so I remember it) and said, “You might like this.” This was Star Trek: The Animated Series. I don’t remember much about watching it back then, except being compelled by the episode “Albatross”.
A few years later, a friend and I would play Star Trek on the jungle-gym in our yard. He was Captain Kirk, and I was Mister Spock.
After seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I eventually realized (although it would take some years) that Star Trek was fundamentally about Captain Kirk. (One reason among many why none of the later Star Trek series worked for me.) But like, I imagine, many engineering types, I still identify more strongly with Spock than with Kirk as a personality.
Yet more years later, in my days of arguing Star Trek: The Next Generation on USENET, my main sparring partner made an observation that Leonard Nimoy was the only actor on the original series with much of an acting range. While I think this sells many of his co-stars short, it’s clear that Nimoy’s acting was a big factor in bringing Spock to life. With any other actor the character would, at least, have been quite different. Heck, even with Zachary Quinto doing his level best to imitate Nimoy’s performance, his version of Spock in the recent films feels considerably different from Nimoy’s.
Today Leonard Nimoy has died at age 83. And, as is usually the case when someone passes – in this case, a man I never met, whom I only really know through a fictional character he played – I don’t know what to say.
How about this: I always thought it was great that back when the original Star Trek was bring produced, Nimoy and William Shatner became good friends, and stayed friends for the rest of their lives. Considering that Shatner was cast to be the series’ star, but that Spock was the breakout character of the show, it’s easy to see that they could have instead been rivals and not gotten along at all. I think each of them came away with a lot of baggage from the show, but in a way I think their lasting friendship is as powerful a lesson as any of the morality plays that Trek threw up on the screen.
Before I saw Star Trek Into Darkness I saw someone sum up the film as “A fun film. Not a good film, but fun.” While I tried to avoid learning too much about it before seeing it, I learned things here and there, and was not encouraged by what I’d learned. Finally I saw it last weekend, and I’d say it’s certainly not a good film, but it has its fun moments. It also drags in places, and the screenplay is a complete disaster of plot, pacing and characterization. It’s certainly a big step down from 2009’s Star Trek (which has grown on me since I originally saw it).
Batman #700 already? Seems like only yesterday that I was buying Batman #400 (okay, it was really 1986). Conveniently, Superman #700 and Wonder Woman #600 are right around the corner (both to be written by J. Michael Straczynski), almost like DC planned this. Hmm.
This particular issue is a slice of Batman’s current status quo, being a time travel locked-room murder mystery taking place in the past (when Bruce Wayne was Batman and Dick Grayson was Robin), the present (when Dick is Batman and Damian Wayne is Robin) and the future (when Damian is Batman). It brings back the quaint 50s plot point of using hypnosis to effect time travel (I know, it makes no sense, but it was still rather fun), and plays up the differences among the three Batmen, especially how Dick is a much more lighthearted figure than either of the Waynes. The story is basically absurd, with the motivation behind the murder not holding water (this is Morrison in his “too-clever-by-half” mode), and there’s a series of epilogues with other future Batmen which is completely irrelevant to the issue, but it’s still a charming issue. Rather in the mode of Earth-1/Earth-2 stories of decades past, contrasting the retired Batman of Earth-2 with the in-his-prime Batman of Earth-1 (one of the best of which being The Brave and the Bold #200).
The art, by several big-name artists, unfortunately is mostly mediocre and uninspired. What flair Frank Quitely showed early in his DC career (such as in JLA: Earth 2), I think he’s pretty much lost it, in favor of over-rendered figures in drab layouts and poses. (Gary Frank’s development as an artist has gone down a similar blind alley.)
Others have observed that this didn’t feel like a very satisfactory anniversary issue. Its flaws as a comic aside, I think it worked about as well as most; not many anniversary issues really live up to their promise (Justice League of America #200 is the exception rather than the rule), we just wish they would.
I mainly wanted to run that Astonishing X-Men cover because it’s so awful.
The story isn’t much: Arriving in Africa, the X-Men show the army that shows up to stop them who’s who, then learn that the mutant babies being born in this poor and oppressed nation are, in fact, not actually mutants (which they already knew) but being created by Ghost Box radiation (which they didn’t). Ghost Boxes being devices they learned about earlier in Ellis’ run which are used to move between parallel worlds, suggesting another attempt at an invasion, an ongoing plot point which is taking seemingly forever to go anywhere (and not just because the series has been running well behind anything resembling a monthly schedule). Finally the army shows up again threatening to kill all the doctors if the X-Men don’t clear out and stop interfering in their business.
On top of that, Emma Frost is becoming so insufferable that I’d rather like someone to rip her lungs out. What exactly does Cyclops see in her?
Next issue’s cover is even worse, so I’ll be back then to run it, too.
This was pretty much inevitable: I’ve added Ed Brubaker’s Captain America to my pull list. I’m nearly caught up on the series through the trades, I just haven’t read Reborn or the story before this one yet. But it’s truly an excellent superhero comic, maybe the best being published today.
This issue starts a new arc in which Bucky Barnes – who is the current Captain America since Steve Rogers died a few years ago (he’s back now, but Bucky is still Cap) – is continuing to struggle with depression. Aside from having lived a hellish life since World War II (the details of which were explained earlier in the series), he’s also having a hard time filling Rogers’ shoes, living up to the symbol he represents, and he recently had a nasty run-in with another former Cap. So he’s gotten a little reckless and might have a death wish, which Rogers and the Falcon try to help him with. Meanwhile, Baron Zemo, whose father was the one who nearly killed Cap and Bucky at the end of World War II, has learned that Bucky is still alive, and decides to start gunning for him.
This is actually a pretty good place to jump on to the series, since aside from Bucky’s complicated backstory it’s a good starting point, laying down several threads that Brubaker will follow in the coming months. And it’s a good example of the tone of the series, with strong character bits and intricate plotting, with moments of action that don’t dominate the comic (which makes it rather un-Marvel-like).
Brubaker’s art teams have also been outstanding on the run, Steve Epting having done most of the earlier issues, with Butch Guice and a few others contributing as well (Guice is the artist here). The common thread in the art is that despite the series frequently involving people standing around talking, they make even that interesting through solid compositions, good use of body language, and complex shadows.
If, like me, you haven’t been following Brubaker’s run on Captain America, I urge you to check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
With the latest issue of Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor, we see that John Byrne is pulling together plot threads from several of his Star Trek series, and I think every one is represented here: Gary Seven (from Assignment: Earth) appears to help clean up a problem he accidentally created in his series, the Klingons are involved (as they were in the Romulans series), and Number One (from Crew, and now an admiral) arrives to take a hand in matters. I’m not entirely sure whether all of these bits are going anywhere, but it seems like they might be. I can’t quite see the shape of it, though.
This particular issue is more-than-usually improbable, though, as I didn’t buy the reason that McCoy and his team ended up on the planet the way they did, and the developments at the end of the issue that shake up the status quo constitute a rather strange page to turn in the middle of the 5-issue series. Still, Byrne’s Star Trek run has had a number of odd twists and turns, story developments that don’t feel very satisfying; I can’t tell whether he’s just playing around, or whether there’s a method to his madness. But it’s still a great run for an old-time Star Trek geek like me. Warts and all (heck, maybe sometimes because of the warts), it’s one of the most-fun comics out there.