Some Favorite Current Audio Dramas

A few years ago I wrote about a number of audio drama podcasts I was listening to, as I’d just gotten into the medium as a vehicle for fiction. Today I listen to even more audio dramas than I did then – and I wanted to write about several I’m really enjoying. All of these are currently releasing episodes or will resume doing so soon, so this is a good time to jump in and catch up on any that sound appealing to you.

Badlands Cola

You’ll find that I enjoy a lot of weird mystery stories, and Badlands Cola might be the weirdest mysteriest of all of them (including its name!). Private detective Sunny is hired to go out to the Canadian badlands where cult leader Jasper Moon grew up. Moon was arrested just recently following the deaths of several of his followers. The town is known mainly for its dinosaur fossils, and its large dinosaur replicas around town. Sunny meets local radio host Strathcona (what a name! Apparently named for several places around Canada) who has some connection to Moon and his sister Melinda, as well as the closed paleontology center. Sunny pokes around trying to find out what Moon was up to, but there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

Renee Taylor Klint’s show is built around Liz Morey’s performance as Sunny – who seems increasingly out of her depth as a not-so-hard-boiled but determined detective – and the ubiquitous Briggon Snow as Strathcona – a traumatized yet strong-willed man caught between his past and the present. The show has an atmosphere of bleakness, of Sunny being stuck out there on her own with only this one weird guy who doesn’t even like her to have her back. It’s nearing the end of its first season and looks like it’s building to something big and ominous, and the fact that it’s building to anything at all – as opposed to Sunny just getting the perpetual runaround from the locals – is only revealed a bit at a time.

Boston Harbor Horror

This is flat-out Lovecraftian horror based in and around New England. It focuses mainly on Coast Guard Petty Officer Alex Devereaux, who finds a mysterious artifact and gets caught up in the machinations of a cult. While he finds allies in Professor Matthew Alvarez and Special Agent Kerri Stone, Alex doesn’t quite make it through the first season unscathed – but he does make it through. In season two he investigates a particularly brutal murder, while season three (in progress) has been split between Agent Stone investigating strange events in Antarctica, and a group of sailors trying to rescue a drifting ship in the Atlantic.

Creator Mike Gagne voices Alex – one of three shows here where the creator also voices the lad character. I have very little insight into what goes into making audio dramas, but it’s pretty impressive that all three creators do fine jobs in both roles.

Fans of The White Vault ought to enjoy Boston Harbor Horror, though it’s more overtly horrific than TWV but it has some of that slow-burn feel at times. It steadily improves season-over-season, and I’m looking forward to the rest of this season playing out, although it’s been slowed down a bit because of Gagne’s work situation (internet at his current posting is not great). If cults and ancient artifacts crossed with the realistic (as far as I can tell, anyway!) modern maritime procedures are your jam, then this one is for you.

How I Died

Dr. Jon Spacer is a forensic pathologist with a unique talent: He can see and talk to the dead. This is pretty useful in his job – working for the police department of the town of Springfield – except that his boss, Sheriff Fran Crowley wants him to stick to examining the bodies and not solving cases, and of course no one knows what Jon can do. On top of this, the now-defunct Springfield Corp research lab experienced a weird event back in 1989 whose effects are still being felt – but only Jon perceives them. And on top of that there’s a serial killer.

Creator Vince Dajani voices Jon and does a lot to carry the show, as Jon is often caught between doing the right thing, keeping his secret, and investigating the deeper mysteries of the town. Shaina Waring is an effective counterweight as Crowley, who goes from finding Jon annoying, to suspicious, to… well, any more would be spoilers.

Now in its third season, How I Died reminds me of Babylon 5 in structure, in that each season has a significant change to the status quo (and a new arrangement of the theme music, too!). Overall it works really well as both a mystery and a character drama. I might quibble that sometimes Jon’s actions seem a little too reckless, and sometimes other characters are too conveniently willing to overlook his weird behavior, but it’s easier to just go with the flow of what the show is doing than try to poke holes. It has some things to say about death and being a good person. It can be a very intense show at times, and doesn’t shy away from some gruesome crime scenes, so be aware.

90 Degrees South

Part police procedural, part eccentric character drama, with dashes of weird fantasy mixed in, 90 Degrees South had me looking forward to it every week of its first season. After a scientist is murdered at Amundsen Research Station in Antarctica over the winter, U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Marlowe is sent to investigate. Under immense political pressure, Marlowe finds allies and friends on the station to balance out the suspicion and wariness he inspires in others. He also finds a smattering of supernatural occurrences which might be relevant – or maybe not.

The show has a surprisingly small cast despite a large number of characters: Marlowe and most of the male roles are played by Trent Shumway, which I had no idea about until I saw the cast list on the show’s web site, because many of them are extremely different from one another. While the few – the two IT geeks and the janitor, for instance – are obviously played as very broad caricatures, others are straight dramatic figures. It’s an impressive set of performances.

90 Degrees South revels in its eccentric characters, even as Marlowe is engaged in a very serious and potentially deadly hunt. But there are also some very touching moments as characters learn or confess things about themselves. And then there are the moments of outright weird, starting with the man who claims to be a demon lawyer.

The first season brings its main story to a close, but also ends on a cliffhanger, and leaves several threads unresolved. I’m hoping that some of the smaller weirdnesses will be explored and/or explained and not just be transitory color. In any event I’m very much looking forward to season two.

Palimpsest

Palimpsest has two characteristics that I’m not usually into: It’s an anthology series – each season is a new story – and it’s a single-narrator fiction series – Hayley Heninger narrates Jamieson Ridenhour’s stories. But in fact it all comes together nicely: Full-season stories get into enough depth to satisfy me, and Heninger gets into each of the main roles convincingly, while adding some color when other characters speak up. The stories are all written as diaries or reminiscences of the main characters, which further sells the approach.

The show’s tag line is “embrace what haunts you”, and “haunt” is the right word: There’s some horror here, but the stories are more creepy and haunting, rich with atmosphere and setting. I think my favorite season is the third, about a woman who worked for the British code breakers during World War II, but all four are excellent. The show is currently running a set of single-episode vignettes between the fourth and fifth seasons.

Spectre

This one reminds me of Becky Chambers’ novel A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: Both are found-family stories that take place on starships with small but diverse crews. A key difference is that while the main character in the novel joins the ship voluntarily, in Spectre the lead character of Rho (voiced by creator Stef Howerton) has escaped from a facility and ended up on the ship because it was one she was able to get on. Fortunately, the Spectre is a crew of good people – even if they do take jobs as mercenaries, albeit ones trying to work for the right people.

Rho has also lost her memory and has no idea why she was in the facility, though it turns out she had been augmented with fantastic abilities – which might be great if she could just control them (just what you want when you’re on a tin can in space). Not that the crew of the Spectre doesn’t have secrets of its own, starting with its mysterious captain.

Nearing the end of its first season, Spectre has been focusing mainly on Rho, so the large cast of characters feel a bit thin, as does the backdrop. Hopefully these details will be filled out in future seasons.

Unwell

Lily Harper moves to the small town of Mount Absalom, Ohio to help take care of her mother Dot, who runs a historic boarding house, is recovering from an injury, and has the early stages of dementia. Which all sounds like a bummer of a show, except that Unwell actually has some of the liveliest and funniest dialogue of any audio drama, with off-the-wall characters and secrets and mysteries galore. Lily befriends the long-term lodgers in Fenwood House as well as some of the locals, and starts to peel back the curtains hiding what’s been going on in Mount Absalom for centuries.

Unwell feels to me like it takes place in perpetual autumn. It’s not horror per se, but is genuinely creepy at times, and the creepiness is sometimes played for comedic effect and sometimes not. You never really know what direction an element of the show is going to go in. All the characters have their flaws and their own motivations, making them all – even the more sinister ones – pretty complex.

The show just wrapped up its fourth season, and it sounds like the fifth will finish the story. Much like How I Died, it feels like Unwell has changed so much since the first few episodes, but in its case it’s been a gradual evolution, where characters end up in places that make perfect sense, and it’s only on reflection that you realize that a couple of seasons ago they wouldn’t have been in those places at all.

Within the Wires

My favorite audio drama from the Night Vale Presents network, Within the Wires features a different story each season in its alternate universe where things went in a very different direction in the early 20th century, where the First World War didn’t end until the Great Reckoning in the 1930s, resulting in the formation of the New Society, a global government with radically different approaches to families and raising children, and many apparently hallmarks of autocratic states.

But the series is told obliquely, through found footage audio relics dating from the 1950s to the 2000s, with a different narrator for each one. The first season started slowly – to be honest I didn’t warm to it at first, only going back to finish it when I got into the second season – as a series of relaxation tapes, which we eventually learn are being used in a center run by the New Society. The second season are a series of museum audio tapes from the 60s through 80s about an artist named Claudia Atieno. But I think the series really hits its stride in seasons 3 (dictaphone notes from a doctor involved in setting up the New Society in the 1950s), 4 (audiocassettes by a woman involved in resisting the family planning of the New Society in the 1990s), and 5 (a series of voice mails told backwards from 2008 to 1997 by an artist at the fringes of the New Society in England). The sixth season is about a young nurse who arrives to care for an elderly woman in rural Ireland in the 1970s and is a sort of ghost story, which I felt didn’t entirely deliver on the promise of the strange things it chronicled. Season 7 is coming out shortly, and there’s also a novel, You Feel It Just Below The Ribs, which is a quite good chronicle of the Great Reckoning and early days of the New Society by a woman with a unique insight into those events.

The series often feels claustrophobic and dark, its characters trapped by their circumstances even if they’re not physically confined. You’ll find a little bit of multiple genres as you progress through the series, and the nature of the New Society is gradually revealed. But as I said we see most of this only obliquely, as few of these people are involved in shaping or running the New Society, and some of them stand in opposition to it. You can take it as a commentary on how ordinary people try to live their lives within such a framework, or a commentary on our own society – or just take it for what it is, a series of stories about people. However you take it, it’s very good.

Bonus Recommendation: An Episode of Archive 81

Archive 81 was a horror podcast that ran for three seasons from 2o16 to 2019, and whose first season was adapted into a single season of television on Netflix. Each season was radically different from the previous one – and it goes steadily better, as well.

While not a “current” series like the ones above – although apparently they hope to produce another season sometime – I only caught up on it earlier this year, and I was blown away by one episode in the third season. The third season features a pair of half-siblings, Nick (Peter Musante) and Christine (Kristen DiMercurio), trying to complete a mystical ritual left to them by their late father. The season plays around with various tropes of the genre – for example, Nick is initially portrayed as weak and somewhat subservient, while Christine is outspoken and strong, but both have more depth than that.

In episode 28, “Exist in the Place You Are Currently Occupying”, Christine goes on a dream-quest to acquire an ingredient to complete the ritual, and ends up falling in with a crew on a sailing ship who help her pursue her quest. The episode shows Christine living an alternate life as an adventurer, as told in a series of smart, self-aware vignettes as she and the crew make their way across their world and become friends and trusted companions. It’s a tour-de-force piece of drama, and I think would stand well on its own even outside the context of the larger story. (It’s also an adventure story and not a horror one – which the rest of the season very much is, so be warned if you decide to listen beyond this episode.)

Wikis

Fandom.com hosts wikis for many different interests, including many audio dramas. The better ones can be useful for refreshing your memory of previous episodes, clarifying plot points, or connecting pieces that you might not have connected while listening to episodes across many weeks. Here are a few wikis for audio dramas above:

Star Trek: Picard Season 2

The first season of Star Trek: Picard was maybe the best season of Star Trek ever. I adored it so much that I wrote six reviews covering its ten episodes! (If you’re interested, you can start here.) It wobbled a little bit on the landing, but overall it was character-rich, exciting, and thoughtful – all the things that The Next Generation muffed on a regular basis.

I was certainly disappointed to hear that Michael Chabon stepped away from being the showrunner of season 2, but was happy to give it a chance. Unfortunately my disappointment was warranted, as season 2 was a big step down from season 1.

Season 2 featured a lot of Trek fan service, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. It set the early tone for the series as the first episode was packed with views into Picard’s life, his current role in Starfleet, what the other main characters were doing in and around Starfleet, the return of an old friend, and the return of the Borg. But things get turned on their ear when Q shows up and most of the principals from season 1 find themselves in an alternate timeline, and have to return to the 21st century to set things right.

The problem is that the writing was all over the place. As in season 1, each character has their own story arc, but they’re embedded in a tired framework (going back to “the present day” to fix history) with extremely awkward pacing (a lot of running around to set up later payoffs, but the running around gets tedious quickly). Finally, it absolutely does not stick the landing, although the final episode has a few nice bits.

Spoiler-rich commentary after the break:

Continue reading “Star Trek: Picard Season 2”

Steven Brust: Jhereg

Jhereg, by Steven Brust, MMPB, Ace, © 1983, ISBN 0-441-38551-6

Jhereg, by Steven Brust

Earlier this year I read Jo Walton’s collection of essays What Makes This Book So Great, which is a collection of essays from over a decade ago mostly about books she re-read and discussed on the Tor blog. In it she covers all of the books published up to that time in two series. One of them I’ve read before, Lois McMaster Bujold‘s Miles Vorkosigan stories. The other was Steven Brust’s Draegarian novels, which I haven’t. I enjoyed her writing about them that I decided to start reading them myself. (I bought a used mass market paperback on eBay because I dislike the trade paperback format, but that’s another story.)

I’ve never been a big fantasy fan. I could have jumped onto this series fairly early, as I blasted my way through most of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy in 1986, but these were pre-Internet days, and it was unlikely I was going to get into a series through other than word-of-mouth. Brust was a fixture in midwest conventions when I lived there and attended them, and I remember seeing Five Hundred Years After on dealer’s room tables at the time, but I didn’t start reading them then. These days I still gravitate mostly to science fiction, but I read the occasional fantasy novel, and after reading Jhereg, the first book in the series, I’m looking forward to continuing, as one of its prominent features is something I really enjoy, and which I want to discuss here: The world building.

I hope to keep this spoiler free, as there are some nice twists in the story for those who haven’t read it.

At 239 pages, Jhereg is comically short by the standards of today’s fantasy series. Even in the early 80s it was on the short side, but not ridiculously so. However, it packs a huge amount of world building into that span, while still having space for an engaging story with a couple of nice twists. It’s quite an accomplishment for a first novel, especially the first of a series which has been running for nearly 40 years. I understand the series moves backwards and forwards in time from here, and I’ll be interesting to see how much consistency the series exhibits.

The lead character is Vlad Taltos, a human on the world of Draegara, who hails from the East, but lives in an empire of Draegarans, who are humanoids who live for centuries or even millennia. There are seventeen houses in the empire, each associated with an animal on the world, and the book makes clear that membership in a house strongly governs the lives and behavior and alliances of its individual members. Vlad is a member of House Jhereg, who are assassins, and by some considered the lowest of the houses. Vlad is in business as an assassin, and apparently a good one.

Draegara has magic, of at least two forms: Sorcery, which appears to be an exertion of will, and witchcraft, which are more ritualistic and time consuming. Vlad has some familiarity with both, the the book opens with him performing a ritual to obtain a Jhereg dragon egg, which grows to become his familiar, Loiosh. The world also features telepathy and teleportation, as well as resurrection from death, and methods to thwart such resurrection. The clever, powerful, and resourceful all take measures to deal with these various powers, and while one could not argue that Brust builds an airtight balance of forces, he does a good enough job in the scope and length of this novel that it’s not needed.

(Thanks to Clarke’s Third Law, one could imagine that this series is science fiction with a fantasy skin, but I prefer to take stories like this at face value unless given reason not to.)

Vlad is essentially a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. He’s constantly surrounded by people who are better than him at any one sill, but his edge is in fitting all of the pieces together. He also has an extensive backstory, having inherited his membership in the Jhereg from his father. He is married to another Jhereg, and is head of security for Morrolan, a powerful member of House Dragon. He’s friends with several other powerful people associated with Morrolan, and he runs his own business with his own staff and contacts. It’s unclear how old he is, but probably late 20s or 30s in this story.

Draegara itself has an extensive backstory, with periods of war, an interregnum, and characters who have lived through it all. And I’m sure there’s plenty we don’t see, since there are whole novels later in the series which take place centuries in the past.

Weaving all of these pieces together without seeming like two hundred pages of exposition is no mean feat. To be sure, Vlad spends a lot of time talking, gathering information, and even learning a few things he didn’t already know. But it all works. I think because Brust is careful not to go in too many directions at once. For example, only three houses – Jhereg, Dragon, and Dzur – figure significantly in the story, and mainly because of the characters’ connections to them.

Oh yes, the story: Vlad is hired by a high member of the Jhereg named The Demon to find a man named Mellar who has stolen a large amount of money from the House. This is embarrassing for the House, but moreover it could signal the others could and should try the same thing if it gets out. So The Demon wants to kill Mellar quickly and permanently, and recover the money, so that even if it does get out, the risks will be clear. Unfortunately, once Vlad finds Mellar, actually killing him proves to have huge and unexpected challenges.

So the story is partly a mystery about Mellar, and partly a puzzle as to how to kill him – or, more precisely, how Vlad can fulfill his contract, do right by his house, and overcome the challenge that killing Mellar presents. (I was pretty happy to figure out the mystery about ten pages before Vlad did. I sort of figured out the puzzle, but my solution probably wouldn’t have worked – or at least, it just would have shifted the steep cost to other parties.) The story is also pretty clearly a set-up of Vlad’s relationships and loyalties, as well as laying the ground rules for how some of the characters and structures in Draegara work. I expect these will be developed and play out in later novels.

All in all, Jhereg is a remarkable piece of work. It even doesn’t feel very dated – for example, several of the major characters are women, including one of the most powerful ones, even though it’s a book with a male protagonist written by a male author. In some ways it’s what I’d wanted George R. R. Martin’s A Song if Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) to be, with more action, more character, less wordiness, and more of a sense of wonder. Definitely recommended if any of these elements appeal to you, and I hope the series only gets better from here.

Star Trek: Voyager

As long as I signed up for CBS All Access to watch Star Trek: Picard, something made me decide to watch Star Trek: Voyager. Longtime readers may recall that I was not a fan of The Next Generation, and I only made it through a season and a half of Deep Space Nine before I hit the eject button, as by that time Babylon 5 had sucked all the air out of the room for television science fiction. (It’s still the best SF series I’ve ever seen.) So I had little interest in Voyager when it debuted in 1995.

I think what made me decide to watch it this time was hearing that it had a bunch of time travel episodes, and I’m a sucker for a good time travel episode. Once I decided to watch that many episodes, I figured I’d draw up a list of the supposed best episodes and go through those. I didn’t really have the interest or patience to watch the whole thing, and while I assumed I’d miss out on some nuance of character development over the full 7 seasons, I also figured – based on the other “NuTrek” series between 1987 and 2005 – that characterization would not be the series’ strong suit. If the episodes I came up with ended up being surprisingly great, then I could branch out to some second-tier episodes.

We powered through the 48 episodes on my list (plus one we watched by accident) throughout June and July, and the verdict is: It was okay. Not great. Most episodes were watchable, none were great, none were outright awful. Definitely some disappointments, though. But I doubt I’ll watch any more than this. (It’s over a quarter of the series, which seems sufficient.)

Anyway, spoilers for a 20-year-old TV show in case you care about such things.

Here are the ones we watched, with my grades (on an A-F scale):

  • Caretaker (season 1 episodes 1-2) C+
  • Parallax (S1 E3) C
  • Time and Again (S1 E4) C-
  • Eye of the Needle (S1 E7) B
  • Non Sequitur (S2 E5) D+
  • Deadlock (S2 E21) B-
  • Flashback (S3 E2) C
  • Future’s End (S3 E8-9) D
  • Unity (S3 E17) C+
  • Before and After (S3 E21) B+
  • Worst Case Scenario (S3 E25) D
  • Scorpion (S3 E26, S4 E1) B
  • The Gift (S4 E2) C
  • Year of Hell (S4 E8-9) D
  • Message in a Bottle (S4 E14) B-
  • Hunters (S4 E15) C
  • Prey (S4 E16) C+
  • Living Witness (S4 E23) B
  • Demon (S4 E24) C-
  • One (S4 E25) C
  • Hope and Fear (S4, E26) C
  • Drone (S5 E2) B-
  • In The Flesh (S5 E4) C
  • Timeless (S5 E6) C
  • Dark Frontier (S5 E15-16) B
  • Course: Oblivion (S5 E18) D+
  • The Fight (S5 E19) D (this is the one we watched by accident)
  • Relativity (S5 E23) C+
  • Equinox (S5 E26, S6 E1) C+
  • Survival Instinct (S6 E2) B
  • The Voyager Conspiracy (S6 E9) B-
  • Pathfinder (S6 E10) C-
  • Blink of an Eye (S6 E12) B-
  • Memorial (S6 E14) B-
  • Collective (S6 E16) C
  • Unimatrix Zero (S6 E26, S7 E1) C+
  • Repression (S7 E4) C
  • Shattered (S7 E11) B+
  • The Void (S7 E15) B-
  • Homestead (S7 E23) C-
  • Endgame (S7 E25-26) B

I also erratically live tweeted watching these episodes, and if you care you can read my at-the-moment reactions in this thread.

For those unfamiliar with Voyager, the premise is that the USS Voyager is captured and taken to the Delta Quadrant by an alien called the Caretaker, along with a ship of insurgents from a group called the Maquis. The ships end up stranded there, with casualties on both, and integrate into a single crew on the Voyager, captained by Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), who makes the Maquis captain Chakotay (Robert Beltran) her first officer. 75,000 light years away from the Federation, it will take them 75 years to get home, through entirely unknown territory.

“Caretaker” appeared on several best-of-the-series lists, and while it wasn’t a bad episode, I figured if it ended up among the ten best of the series then I was going to be glad I didn’t watch the whole series. Having not watched deep (heh) enough into Deep Space Nine I didn’t have any knowledge of the Maquis, but I could take them on principle. So the first half of the episode was mostly based around Tom Paris (Maquis) and Harry Kim (Starfleet ensign), which was enjoyable enough, but once the Doctor showed up, he overshadowed everyone else as a character.

I didn’t have many episodes in the first 3 seasons in my list, and what I did have wasn’t great. Despite being a bit padded, “Eye of the Needle” was the best episode of the first 2 seasons, with a nifty kicker which I wondered whether it would become relevant near the series’ end (it didn’t). “Before and After” was a touching episode which foreshadowed some future events, but unfortunately those didn’t really play out very satisfyingly either. The other time travel episodes were pretty mediocre. “Future’s End” was sort of the centerpiece of these three seasons, I guess, but it was basically another dumb “go back to the 20th century” yarn.

Maybe the best episode of the whole series was “Scorpion”, which introduced Seven of Nine. It was a solid adventure, gripping at times, with a fairly smart interaction between Voyager and the Borg. Species 8472 is (briefly) a breath of fresh air in introducing aliens which look and feel alien compared to the typical Star Trek fare, and it’s just about the only episode of the series which has a genuine “yeah!” moment when Janeway tells Chakotay to execute “scorpion”.

It’s not exactly all downhill from here, but it’s a bumpy ride from here. The biggest change is that Seven of Nine sucks most of the oxygen from the room as far as characterization goes, as she far overshadows almost everyone else in interest and development. Tom Paris had been nominally the point-of-view character (certainly he seemed to be the one with the best mix of practicality and moral compass), but he gets smothered by Seven. I guess there’s a subplot which leads to him and B’Elanna Torres getting married, but Torres was not a very interesting character to me.

The biggest disappointment of the series was “Year of Hell”, touted as the best episode of the show in at least one list, and teased in “Before and After”. It was basically a big waste of time, the dumbest of time travel stories (everything gets reset at the end), with lots of questionable decisions by Janeway and others. I guess it was trying to ramp up the tension and the stakes, but it was all so artificial and manipulative it was hard to take it seriously. And of course it didn’t track with “Before and After” at all.

“Living Witness” was a nice little surprise in the middle of a bunch of otherwise unremarkable episodes, feature the Doctor being revived 700 years later to help set straight what happened when the Voyager encountered a particular planet on their journey. While not an entirely original premise, it was one of the best executed of its type. I certainly enjoyed it more than the maudlin NextGen episode “The Inner Light”.

The biggest disappointment of Voyager was without a doubt the portrayal of Captain Janeway. While I guess they were aiming to show her as less perfect than Kirk or Picard, in a different way from Sisko, she was written very erratically, often headstrong and stubborn and honestly something of a tin dictator at times. “Year of Hell” had some of this, but the peak of Janeway stupidity was “Equinox”, in which the Voyager encountered another Federation ship, the Equinox, which had also been pulled to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker and had been trying to get home despite being a short-term research vessel. That ship ended up making some morally reprehensible choices to try to get home, which by the end of the first half left the Voyager in a bad spot. But in the second half Janeway goes around the bend, engaging in her own morally disgusting actions, and everything comes to an end when the Equinox captain has a change of heart for no apparent reason. A great set-up wasted by lousy writing in the second half.

(Several Equinox crew end up joining the Voyager, and I assume are never mentioned again – they weren’t in any of the episodes I watched.)

Though if she was frustrating as a Captain, her interactions with Seven and Chakotay were her high points. I suspect I missed the full nuance of her mentoring Seven to become a functioning human being, but even the glimpses I got were engaging. Jeri Ryan’s portrayal of Seven as imperious and haughty felt a bit off in her debut as a full Borg, but seemed more and more spot-on as Seven’s personality developed. Seven got many excellent moments, disagreeing with Janeway, confronting other Borg, interacting with one of the few children on the ship. She was surely the high point of the season.

Then, Chakotay ended up filling Tom Paris’ role from the first 3 seasons, as the ship’s even keel and moral compass. One of the final season episodes, “Shattered”, was a clever way of revisiting a number of key moments from the series without doing a clip show, but it was Chakotay as the featured character who held it all together, recruiting and convincing a much younger Janeway to help.

One interesting dynamic was Janeway and Chakotay meeting privately, since they were effectively the only people on the ship who were truly equals. They could air their differences, and argue all they wanted, as long as it was behind closed doors where their reports couldn’t see. This was one of those bits where the show almost seemed to understand what it had – a chance to show the power dynamics among Starfleet personnel, especially in a high-stake scenario – but it mostly treated it as an opportunity for NuTrek’s patented irrelevant character moments, showing things the character liked or remembered or experienced without really giving us a reason to care about it.

What about the rest of the cast? Well, in true NuTrek fashion there were just too many characters for all of them to be treated as major characters. The aliens Neelix and Kes were both somewhere between “just there” and outright annoying (though Kes at least got a good story in “Before and After”). Most of the rest just never really grabbed me, either. Torres was the typical “grumpy former rebel”. Paris also kind of filled that role, but with a vaguely self-destructive, sarcastic attitude, but I wish they’d played up a lot more. Ensign Harry Kim seemed like a cousin to Geordi LaForge, especially in that both of them were a little too earnest and a little too underdeveloped. The real missed opportunity was Tuvok, in whom Tim Russ turned in a pretty good Vulcan performance in the style of Leonard Nimoy, but the character himself was quite generic, and could have just been “Vulcan Science Officer #1”.

The only other character that worked for me was the Doctor, as Robert Picardo immediately brought humanity and humor to the role of the ship’s artificially intelligent medical officer. He got several good stories to play off of characters other than the main cast, including off of himself in “Equinox”. He was also the best part of “Blink of an Eye”, which was a fairly routine “this planet is in a faster time frame than our heroes” story elevated primarily by his performance.

Watching Voyager in 2020, it seems like a series of missed opportunities for story and character development: The ship just flits from place to place with no continuity. When the Equinox showed up I wondered just how they were able to make it through the obstacles Voyager had just barely cleared with far fewer resources. Sometimes they’re badly outclassed by the Borg, other times they’re willing to face them directly. The characters change in very small increments, but mostly there’s no character development here. All of this was par for the course for The Next Generation, making Voyager a natural successor to it, but it’s also very much an 80s/90s series with storytelling that seems shallow by today’s standards. It shows just how far ahead of its time Babylon 5 was compared to Star Trek.

The series finale, “Endgame”, is one of the very few episodes I’d seen before. When I did, I was glad I didn’t sit through 7 years of stories just for that. Watching it again, it works to the extent it does largely because of Kate Mulgrew’s performance as Admiral Janeway, who is driven to save her old crew but is also convinced by her old self to try something different. The story ends very abruptly, with no denouement, no winding down of the characters after they make it back to Earth, despite the backstories they’d all built up. It was pretty disappointing, and other than a brief appearance by Janeway in a NextGen film, and Seven appearing in Picard, I don’t think we learn anything about what happened to the others. (I imagine other media covered this, but I don’t care about anything other than what’s shown in TV and movies.)

So am I glad I watched it? Glad enough, I suppose. It wasn’t bad, but it always felt like the really good stuff was right around the corner… right up until the end, when it still felt that way.

Star Trek: Discovery: Seasons 1 & 2

If Picard represented a brave new world of solid storytelling for Star Trek after more than 35 years, Discovery is, well, the same old thing, lightly refurbished to meet modern dramatic television sensibilities. Since I subscribed to CBS All Access to watch Picard, I decided to give Discovery another try, despite the first episode having been so bad that I mocked it live on Twitter.

Overall the show is, well, better than that first episode, but not very good. The first season is very hard going, partly focused around a war with the Klingons, but also spending several episodes in a strange digression. The second season is more coherent and generally improved, but still kind of disappointing. The general feel of the series is one of flamboyant and nonsensical plotting, without much of a message. The characters are generally pretty flat. Overall it feels very much of a piece with NextGen and the later series, albeit with a rougher edge, but that’s not really a good thing.

Lots more – with spoilers – after the cut:

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Doctor Who, Season Twelve

Jodie Whittaker’s second season as the Doctor was an incremental improvement over her first, and while it introduced a big mystery into the Time Lord’s existence, the show seemed reluctant to go all in on that to craft a full story out of it, opting instead to have pieces at the beginning, middle, and end, and otherwise make the season another set of standalone episodes. Much like last season, the stories were enjoyable enough but kind of nondescript and thus forgettable.

And as for that big mystery, well, some of it was carried off quite well, and some of it was not so great. I enjoyed it overall, but it really should have been a lot more than it was, and ultimately while it sets up some interesting stuff for future seasons, if the series continues in this vein I think it’s going to feel more like an afterthought, possibly one thrown away by the next showrunner.

Anyway, if the last five seasons of Doctor Who are the kind of thing you like, then you probably liked this one too.

Spoilers after the cut:

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Star Trek: Picard: Emotional Resonance

“Et in Arcadia Ego” part 2 brought the first season of Picard to a close, and overall I’m quite happy with how it turned out. I think the final episode was a little overstuffed so that not everything was as smooth as I’d hoped. In some cases I think they should have restructured the last three episodes a bit to have some threads get resolved earlier, and in others I think they made some poor storytelling decisions. But the most important thing is that I think they got the emotional resonance of the story right, as there was a lot to cheer about.

For convenience here are links to my earlier reviews of the season:

  1. Remembrance (episode 1)
  2. The End is the Beginning (episodes 2 & 3)
  3. Absolute Candor (episodes 4 & 5)
  4. The Impossible Box (episodes 6, 7 & 8)
  5. Et in Arcadia Ego (episode 9)

Now, on to the spoilers!

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Star Trek: Picard: “Et in Arcadia Ego”

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.

Onwards to the spoilers!

Continue reading “Star Trek: Picard: “Et in Arcadia Ego””

Star Trek: Picard: “The Impossible Box”

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:

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Star Trek: Picard: “Absolute Candor”

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.

(My review of episodes 2 & 3 is here.)

Onward to the spoilers!

Continue reading “Star Trek: Picard: “Absolute Candor””