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!

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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!

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Star Trek: Picard: “The End is the Beginning”

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:

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Star Trek: Picard: "Remembrance"

Why did I even watch Star Trek: Picard? I noped out of Star Trek: Discovery after the godawful first episode. I’ve been pretty consistently disappointed with Star Trek ever since The Voyage Home back in 1986. I went into The Next Generation with optimism, but was quickly disenchanted with its character-light, conflict-free, unimaginative storytelling, bailing in the second season. I came back to it late in the third season (the series’ modest high point) when I started participating in rec.arts.startrek, but bailed again in the sixth season. I ejected from Deep Space Nine in its second season, and other than a brief fling with the first season of Enterprise, that was it for me and Star Trek on television. I did enjoy the first J.J. Abrams film, but the other two were pretty meh.

(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.

A more spoilers review after the cut:

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Seeing J. Michael Straczynski

Saturday night we went up to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco to see J. Michael Straczynski speak in promotion of his memoir, Becoming Superman. The talk had been postponed from mid-August because JMS had a freak accident and badly dislocated his shoulder while leaving for the airport.

The museum is in one of the busiest parts of the city, next to Fisherman’s Wharf, so we went up early and got an early dinner so we’d be there on time. We walked past the museum and noticed the talk had been moved from 7 pm to 8 pm. Huh, just a typo? I checked Twitter, and it seemed Straczynski had been stuck at the airport in Burbank for hours due to fog in SF. (The SF airport is actually about 10 miles south of the city, but in an area that arguably gets much more fog than the city itself!) Nonetheless, after killing some time at the Musée Méchanique, we were first in line when the doors opened at 6:30.

Fortunately, Straczynski was able to get a standby seat on an earlier flight and managed to arrive nearly to the original schedule! However, since the event had been announced to have been postponed until 8, he and his interviewer vamped for half an hour. The vamping, however, was just as enjoyable as the talk!

I haven’t yet read the book – I bought a copy as part of my ticket to get it autographed – but I’m quite looking forward to it. Because this event showed that Straczynski is as good at telling stories about himself as he is at telling fiction. (I’m a huge fan of Babylon 5, and have enjoyed many of his comic books as well.) After the “warm up” where he told a few stories of his previous visits to San Francisco, he bantered with the interviewer and related tales of his early life and career, through The Real Ghostbusters and Murder: She Wrote. Unfortunately time ran short for later stories and turned to questions from the audience, but nonetheless it was well worth the trip. He was funny, self-deprecating, and thoughtful. Afterwards he signed books and briefly chatted with attendees. I had him sign Becoming Superman and Midnight Nation, although if I’d thought of it I might have had him sign The Twelve instead – though they both hit me in similar ways, they just take different paths to get there.

Now, here’s the paragraph that I’ve written several times and just can’t get quite right, but I hope my meaning comes through:

I don’t really have “heroes” or “idols” among media figures. Many of them seem like good people, many of them have admirable stories, but it also seems like they often don’t live up to the hopes we vest in them. And, well, they’re only human. That said, I’ve been following Straczynski since the early 90s when he was promoting Babylon 5 online before it aired, and I’ve always thought of him as a good guy, a straight talker, someone who deals with people fairly. These days he’s quite active on Twitter and watching him politely but firmly stare down Twitter trolls can be a sight to see. His writing is fun, engaging, and thoughtful, and he pulls back the curtain to explain where he’s coming from. He owns up to his own failings. He’s not the only person with these traits, but what he writes and who he is speaks to me like few others do. And I was delighted to see that all of that comes through when seeing him in person, too.

Oh, and he was willing to have his photo taken with this guy:

I highly recommend seeing him speak if you have a chance. And I’m very much looking forward to reading his new book.

Audio Dramas by A.R. Olivieri

Last week I did a binge-listen of all of A.R. Olivieri’s audio drama podcasts. I recently started listening to the one that started last spring, Great & Terrible (because I’m about 8 months behind on podcasts these days), and something clicked and made me think I should go listen to them all. This isn’t as big a project as it sounds, because individual episodes top out at about 8 minutes, less credits. I started listening on Sunday and finished up on Thursday.

I casually follow what might be called the “audio drama community”, but mostly I’m a listener. From what I can tell, Olivieri projects an aura of obscurity, doing projects that are notably different from many other audio dramas, and also being personally something of a mysterious figure. His web site is pretty sparse, and the only info about him his this interview podcast, which I listened to after finishing (or catching up on) his series. I have no idea if all of this is intentional on his part, but it’s an interesting image. Many other podcasters are pretty transparent about their personas, at least in broad strokes.

His podcasts, too, are kinda quirky, with a distinctive – though evolving – structure which makes them stand out. For example:

  • Each podcast title & episode title is in ALL CAPS.
  • Every episode is almost exactly a round number of minutes, for example 3:00, 4:00, 6:00, 8:00. Sometimes they’re a second longer, but that might be a rounding error in my podcast app. While he sometimes pads an episode with music to get to this point, it seems likely that he plans or edits many episodes to fit into a specific amount of time. Does any other audio drama do this?
  • Only his first series, 2298, has introductory music, which comes in almost exactly 1 minute in. All the others have a cold open.
  • Every series except for Limbo has closing credits which are 30, 60 or 90 seconds in length. Most of the credits have a memorable turn of phrase where he says, “<this podcast> is written, directed and produced by… me! A.R. Olivieri.”, followed by some info about his Patreon.
  • His podcasts have music by a variety of performers (none of whom I’m otherwise familiar with), but they all feel somewhat similar – like they’re in a particular style which I infer Olivieri likes.
  • Structurally several of the stories are grouped into “chapters” of 2-to-4 episodes, although except for 2298 there’s no clear indicator in the audio itself of this; you need to look at the show notes.

It’s quirky, but I think a lot of it is cool, appealing to the structure work in me. It’s just… very different compared to other audio drama podcasts.

It took me a while to realize that many – maybe all – of his shows take place in the same world, and that he’s slowly revealing the nature of that world. There’s connective tissue, but where everything fits together is not entirely clear. I find this deeply neat, and it definitely elevated my interest in his shows to another level. I believe in one of his “thank you” shows he alluded to it being a single world.

Olivieri is clearly very respected in the audio drama community, and he gets several top-notch voice actors from other podcasts to appear in them. Some actors appear more than once, and it’s not always clear whether they’re appearing in different roles, in the same role but we don’t know that they’re the same role, or if there’s something else going on. (“There’s something else going on” is a recurring theme in his shows.) For example, Sarah Rhea Werner, who does the great Girl in Space audio drama and who recorded the interview above, shows up several times. She has a really distinctive voice, which which made me wonder, “Wait, is this character also this other character… or not?”

Olivieri also does voice acting, appearing in a few of his own podcasts as well as others. I first heard him as one of the two main characters in the SF horror drama Janus Descending, which is maybe the best performance I’ve heard by him. In his own dramas he plays an everyman sort of character, observing, commenting on and questioning the world around him, while in Janus he’s a scientist who gets thrown in way over his head and is by turns frustrated, panicked, annoyed, terrified, and angry. It’s quite a range.

At time of writing, Olivieri has 5 audio dramas of his own, 4 complete and one still ongoing. Here are some of my thoughts about them. Also, while I didn’t listen to them in this order, I think this is the best order to listen to them in, as least as of the time of writing:

2298: A dystopian story taking place in the titular year. Number 24 is a “profile” in the remnant of humanity, somewhere on Earth in an enclosed environment after civilization’s collapse led to an invasion and a new society being set up run by a computer system called the Network. 24 – voiced by Olivieri – is a happy young cog in the machine until a bird and some strange dreams lead him down a path outside the one the Network has assigned him. The story contrasts a totalitarian society to a free one through the eyes of someone who’s happy with the system he lives in. The ending hints at where some of the other shows are going, although I imagine that wasn’t very clear when it first aired in 2018.

Magic King Dom: This was the first show I listened to; it grabbed my interest because of its conceit of a girl who grows up in Walt Disney World after the end of the world destroys everyone else. Dom (voiced by Lysette Alvarez of Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services, whose performance is great) survives for 6 years by herself before she encounters other survivors in the park, who need her to escape. There have been two seasons so far, with the third and final one coming soon. The writing is pretty strong as far as it goes, but there’s an awkward discontinuity between the first two seasons and there are several bits I found hard-to-follow, so I’m glad I re-listened to it. I think the story takes place about a century from now. The second season is where the hint of the tie-in to 2298 appears, but it’s still not clear how it fits together.

Limbo: David (Olivieri) is a thirtysomething (?) man who dies and finds himself in a house her grew up in, alone, except that he receives one visitor each month. Only 6 episodes, but to be continued in the future. It’s the lightest on plot of all the stories, and if you prefer stories which focus on the background, foibles and anxieties of the main character, then this is the one for you. It’s not quite my thing, though, as I am more plot-oriented, and I felt this was basically a collection of settings and moods without a sense of moving forward. I’m also not sure what more there is to do with what’s here if it does continue as the final episode seems, well, pretty final.

Great and Terrible: This one is the story of a woman who was gifted and cursed with immortality (and maybe other powers?), but who has to kill someone every new moon or her life is forfeit. (No spoilers – it’s right there in the podcast description!) This is the slowest of slow burns: While it’s self-narrated from – it seems – centuries in the future, the whole story so far takes place in 1988, when the main character of Jane (Leslie Gideon) is in high school and acquires the curse. It’s weekly 4-minute (less credits) episodes, and after 8 months we’ve just gotten to the curse, but it is nonetheless quite good and at times arresting, and it’s the sort of story that could go on for many years at this pace, so I wonder if that’s what Olivieri plans for it – I hope so. The high school dialogue is perhaps just a bit too precious (TBF I wouldn’t want to write high school dialogue from that era, and Jane is only 3 years younger than I am!), but Gideon’s performance sells just about everything else. This is in my opinion Olivieri’s best series to date.

The Easiest of All the Hard Things: Kelsey (Lucille Valentine, who gave perhaps the most memorable performance in the first season of The Six Disappearances of Ella McCray) is stranded on an island with only a turtle for company when they find a cell phone, and work to charge it to hopefully get off the island. How did they get there? How do they expect to get a cell signal? Who left the phone? I found the last episode of the season pretty baffling, and the story overall felt slight compared to the others, although with more of a plot than Limbo. But overall I wasn’t sure what I should have taken away from it.

I definitely enjoyed the binge-listen, and found myself much better able to engage with the stories than I was when I’d just listened to Magic King Dom and Limbo, which are at the more surreal end of the spectrum. It looks like he has at least a couple more series planned, and I’m definitely curious whether the pieces across the stories will start to knit together more closely as time goes on. I hope so!