Happy Hannukah!

Star Trek: Discovery – The Verdict So Far

Discovery‘s first half a season was certainly an interesting experience. It’s gone from a show I initially wrote off before it even started to something I actively look forward to watching each week. I know I am going to miss it the next two months that it’s on hiatus. But that doesn’t mean it’s been a completely satisfying ride. I’ve said more than once that Discovery‘s cast is the best Star Trek ensemble since The Next Generation. Their individual personalities as well as their chemistry with each other is off the charts. In fact, it surpasses other genre shows I enjoy like The Expanse, Supergirl, and Doctor Who. In that way it’s very similar to shows like Lost and the Battlestar Galatica reboot. But like those two shows, Discovery puts those characters into a lot of half-baked situations that I have a hard time wrapping my head around.

For instance, the first part of Discovery‘s finale, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”, is a complete and total mess. While I sort of got what was happening planet-side, the subplot on the Klingon ship was utterly indecipherable. I have no idea what L’Rell’s plan was, if she was really willing to work with Admiral Cornwell on an escape, or if Cornwell was even alive at the end. The second part sheds absolutely zero light on anything but the admiral’s medical status, and considering she’s paralyzed, the blow she received could well have been intended to be fatal and just wasn’t.

Even the more straight forward mission on Pahvo was a strange set back for everyone involved. I really appreciated that it was an old-school Original Series style first contact mission, even though the aliens were basically Final Fantasy VII‘s life stream that created a giant, magical Materia spire and look way too much like the star drive spores. The struggle over including a third party in a war and the discussion about the misuse of native people’s resources is a valid one. That’s colonialism 101, and Star Trek has always grappled with this issue. The Prime Directive is, at it’s heart, a direct reaction to colonial abuse. However, Saru’s turn was completely out of character. He’s been busting Burnham’s chops all season about the mutiny, and yet, with very little provocation, he beats up his crew mates in nearly the identical way to get what he wants. You could argue that there should be an understanding between Burnham and Saru now. He now knows that there are personal convictions that warrant mutiny, but it’s not addressed or explored at all. He’s just a big old hypocrite now.

As weird as the whole, Pahvo mission was, it opened up the opportunity for a non-battle related encounter with the Klingons in part two, “Into the Forest I Go”. IO9’s review saw it as a similar situation to the Organians’ peace overtures in “Errand of Mercy”, and I looked forward to seeing how that might play out with a different set of characters and circumstances. What would it have been like if the Pahvans had given Lorca and Kol the same treatment they gave Saru? What would their philosophy make of these two? Who would they have decided was the “good guy”? Unfortunately, the whole plot line was dropped in it’s entirety in favor of a complicated and empty technobabble solution involving algorithms, scanners, and blinky, Starfleet branded pedestals. Not that the technobabble completely took center stage. We did have some great character moments between the two romantic couples of Burnham/Tyler and Stamets/Culber. But, as Paul McCartney once said during a demo session where he was only half satisfied with the results, “It would be nice to have those bits AND the other bits.” Ah, Paul. He was the eloquent one.

“Into the Forest I Go’s” cliffhanger is also pretty low stakes and uninteresting. Sure, Stamets is all Gary Mitchell eyes and that’s something to agonize over. Did Lorca do this to him on purpose? Was the medal ceremony a Starfleet ploy, and is Lorca going to be arrested on Starbase 43? If not, is Admiral Cornwell still gearing up to strip his command? This is all tangentially interesting, but the big mystery about Discovery’s location is not tantalizing at all. They’re in normal space. There are some debris. And…?

Oh, and Tyler is totally Voq the albino.

Thoughts on the season as a whole:

• Lorca is the character I like least, and not in the way the show wants me to. I don’t get him at all. I don’t understand the logistics of him blowing up a ship under his command with all hands on board and surviving, nor do I understand how he could get a second shot at a command after such a horrible and unexplainable event. What crew would trust him enough to be effective?

• Through half the episodes I considered Sarek being Burnham’s adoptive parent to be pure fanwank, but the show actual made a good case for it. If you see Sarek as putting on a grand cross-species experiment with his half-human kid and now a full human raised in Vulcan society, he’s really the only Vulcan that would fit the bill.

• Between Commander Landry’s death, the interrogations and rape implications in “Choose Your Pain”, the disembowelled Klingons corpses in “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”, and the explicit torture/rape/surgery scenes in the finale, the violence on Discovery was off the scale in a bad way, and I really resent it. I was looking forward to some PG-13 level action with my kid in the first live Star Trek show of her generation, and I was robbed of it. I didn’t think any of the violence was necessary other than to capitalize on the on-line distribution’s lack of standards. It’s just not sophisticated enough of a show to warrant it.

• If you’re wondering if I care equally about the swearing, I would have to say “fuck no”.

• The Klingons are really stupid. Like really, really stupid. They aren’t an interesting or nuanced enemy, and I think the fact that they’re not even in many of the episodes is because the writers know this. Kol is a complete moron who’s bereft of any personality beyond the Klingon stereotype of a growling, knife wielding troglodyte that Klingons have all been since Gowron and Duras first butted heads. I mean, the guy completely lost interest in an intense space battle to have a duel with Burnham. L’Rell could have been interesting, but her subplot has been way too confusing to get excited about. And how could any of these mental midgets hold our attention when they talk…. so….. slow….. ly. Even in english their dialog is ponderous. This is another problem with late-era Berman Klingons. They grunt their language instead of speaking smoothly like the The Original Series film Klingons did. You can be harsh and guttural and speak quickly. Just look at Hebrew or German. You just need a good language coach to help you do it.

• “When I took command of this vessel, you were a crew of polite scientists. Now, I look at you. You are fierce warriors all,” is the saddest line ever uttered in a Star Trek production.

• “Dance with me… for science”, might be one of the best.

Star Trek: Discovery Cast Wallpaper

Discovery’s midseason finale is tonight, but you don’t have to wait until January to get your fix. Decorate your desktop and mobile devices with this wallpaper of Discovery’s crew in the style of the show’s unique opening credits. Click the header image to embiggen and download.

Why “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is Better than “Cause and Effect”

I haven’t been reviewing individual Discovery episodes, despite really wanting to, because I’ve been insanely busy as of late. I may do a mid-season break review, so look forward to that. But I wanted to take a moment to comment on last night’s episode, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”, and The Next Generation’s “Cause and Effect”, Discovery’s implementation of the “time loop” device being thousands of times more entertaining than the episode than most likely inspired it.

“Cause and Effect”, like many later Berman-era Star Trek episodes no matter the series, is a puzzle, plain and simple. It does nothing and says nothing. A lot of people remember it fondly because the Enterprise blows up several times and Frasier shows up at the end. But between all that mishegas the crew painstakingly acts out the same boring card game over and over, the Enterprise’s entire propulsion system fails catastrophically due to a minor knick of its engine, and the answer to the whole thing comes down to a choice between two random actions. Nothing that happens says anything about the crew and their personalities or their ability to cope with their situation. We learn nothing about these people even as we follow them through their daily lives over and over again. If there is a personal conflict in the episode it’s Picard’s ridiculously long inaction as he asks for and has solutions explained to him. Both the tractor beam and the shuttle decompression would have worked fine if they’d been enacted thirty seconds earlier. But that’s never addressed because mindless discussions during a crisis are a feature of TNG, not a bug.

“Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”, which is a repulsively long title, kicks the whole concept up a notch by bringing in very real, personal stakes. Each time the 30 minute window loops we learn more about Michael Burnham, her weaknesses, her anxieties, and her joys. And when the solution for saving the ship comes to her it’s based on her need to save someone specific she cares about, not a mechanistic desire to solve the puzzle. In fact, seeing Michael pop the dark matter pill in her mouth might just be one of the most frighteningly real and oddly delightful moments in the series so far.

A lot of stylistic choices also set the Discovery episode apart from the TNG version. “Cause and Effect” really focuses on repetitive action. It’s a mildly fun watch the first time around, but I rarely rewatch it because, knowing the end, it’s just tedious. “Magic” avoids this completely by not only making every loop different, but quickly skipping over bits we would have recognized from the previous loop. The main reason Brannon Braga says he wrote “Cause and Effect” was because he personally loved blowing up the ship over and over again, making the episode a means to an almost pornographic end. It’s really no wonder the episode lacks any real substance. “Magic” gets rid of the ship exploding gimmick completely, showing the Discovery blow up only once on screen before relegating it’s destruction to flashes of fire. It’s all quick and painless to make room for the plot, not pad things out between money shots. Basically, “Magic” is built around getting Burnham to fall in love while the central mission of “Cause and Effect” is simple pyrotechnics.

No, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” isn’t perfect. I mean, look at that title. Its ending is a comical reduction of the climax of a typical Mudd story, basically letting the extremely dangerous rogue off the hook by trapping him in a silly situation rather than punishing him outright. This time it’s worse, because Mudd isn’t even really stuck some place with no conceivable escape. I could see him fleeing Stella mere minutes after beaming away. Stella, of course, is hot now, because every out-of-shape old man since the beginning of TV has had a spouse who’s utterly out of their league. Crewman running at Mudd with rifles instead of shooting at him from a secured position during the initial loop is completely unbelievable. I also mourn the dwindling number of moral foils on this show. Stamets is now fully compliant on water bear happy pills, and Mudd, instead of being an ambivalent voice of the civilian population, al la Tom Zarek, in now just a full-on Klingon collaborator. That leaves Discovery’s war mission nearly unopposed. Even Tilly is hot for soldiers now. Hopefully this will change as things develop.

Star Trek: Discovery “Context is For Kings” is Full of Surprises

Last night’s episode of Discovery was a whole new animal. The show’s two episode prologue was pretty standard action fare, but it’s proper storyline seems to have made a left turn into mystery/horror. It’s a jarring shift that leaves me guessing about where this show will be going, which, I’m assuming, is the point.

Hijacked enroute to a new prison facility by bugs I’m assuming were placed by Discovery‘s devious Captain Lorca, our newly jailed hero, Michael Burnham, is brought aboard the titular ship and put to work in a mysterious lab debugging a mysterious experiment involving what looks like a biological weapon. A screw up on Discovery‘s sister ship, the USS Glenn, involving that very experiment may have killed its crew. Burnham is sent as part of a team to check it out when they find that everyone onboard, including some invading Klingons, has been twisted inside out. There’s also a giant, hungry tick on board, though I’m not sure if it’s the same thing that corkscrewed the crew. The team gets out mostly alive with the Glenn’s logs and the ship is scuttled, however, shortly afterward, we learn that Lorca has transported one of the ticks to the Discovery.

It’s a much more interesting episode than the two that preceded it simply because the action and the drama are on a so much more personal scale than the grand pew-pews we got last week. The longer we stay off the front lines, the happier I’ll be. There was also no grinding Klingon language soliloquies to drag things down leading to a much faster pace.

I’ve been ranting a bit in one forum or another that the positions of Lorca and Georgiou should have been switched. Georgiou’s relationship with Burnham was too interesting to only spend two episodes on. Now I’m wondering if Lorca isn’t an another mentor for Burnham, but rather a villain she’s going to need to expose. If Discovery really is the rise of Burnham through the ranks, and all this talk about her being so close to making captain seems to support that, then Lorca meeting his end when the season wraps up makes a lot of sense. Though, I still would have preferred to see more Michelle Yeoh over Daddy Malfoy even as a big bad.

Besides its sudden switch from epic space battles to close quarters scares, Discovery‘s plot line is also going places I wouldn’t have figured. I imagined that the ship’s ultimate mission would be to use some good old hippy-dippy Roddenberryisms to human condition the war to its conclusion. Instead the Federation seems to want to tech this war to death with a good old fashioned one-button-kills-all ultimate weapon. This would mean Discovery is a story about the lone individual rooting out the hidden evil society has let brew. That seems just a little too cynical for Star Trek‘s utopia. Plus, we’ve already seen this type of deconstruction done in Deep Space Nine and Into Darkness. Also, an out of control, blue glowy, spore bio weapon coming between two hostile forces sounds an awful lot like The Expanse. I’ll be more than happy to eat my words if things go a different way as the series continues. With twelve more hours to go, goodness knows it can’t be done surprising me yet.

If I can say one good thing about Discovery it’s that it makes me laugh in all the right places. It’s not a comedy, like Orville says it’s not, nor is it a nonstop snarkfest like Firefly. It just has the right amount of humor to punctuate a scene and not kill the mood. Besides several great jabs and the introduction of Burnham’s new neurotic roommate, there’s a great moment Burnham’s team is surprised by a live Klingon on board the Glenn and his first reaction is to shush them. It’s nice moment where we see Klingons in a different light than their usual gungho, brutal, kamikaze selves. I hope we see more of this.

I’m also pleased that, while there was tech talk, it was interesting and even thought provoking, unlike some of the stilted technobabble that haunted the first two episodes. Engineer Stamets’ description of his experiments were almost poetic, and I’m glad to see how unhappy he is about all these hostilities biting into his peaceful research. He’s obviously a complete dick, but he’s not an incompetent or morally bankrupt one. Tilly may be a nervous wreck, but she’s also the first to point her gun and yell at whatever was hiding in the Glenn’s corridors, so she’s also not a one-dimentional “type”. In fact no one really is. A lot of the conflict between Discovery‘s crew is over who’s the smartest, but not necessarily the most “clever”, in the room, which is mildly refreshing. At this point I like the entirety of the crew sans Lorca, which again, is probably the point. I hope they don’t squander that.

What I’m not happy about is the level of gore in this episode. I’m not saying Star Trek should be a kiddy show, but seeing all those crew members graphically mutilated and dismembered was over the top and unprecedented in a Star Trek property. We’ve seen plenty of dead crews before and there is a way to invoke horror without making it look like a John Carpenter production. I thought this was a cheap attempt at taking advantage of streaming’s lower standards and it makes family viewing more difficult.

In the end, I keep finding reasons why this show really should be a reboot and not a prequel. The tech being researched on the Discovery and the Glenn are major leaps over what we know in The Original Series and beyond. It’s going to be a shame when the reset button is hit at the end of this story to make things line up with the other shows instead of taking the universe into a whole new direction.

Other thoughts and observations:

• I was as confused to see that people still program in C++ as I was to learn that polyester still exists in the future. A friend of mine actually found the on-screen code Burnham was working on. It’s from a project to reverse engineer a military virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities several years ago. Fitting, considering what Discovery is working on.

• The fanwank was off the charts in this one, with a tribble in Lorca’s office and several recognizable Original Series locations in Burnham’s teleportation sequence including the Preserver Monolith, Starbase 11, and possibly Janus 6. Lorca’s statement about a starship not being a “democracy” also echos Kirk’s same statement in “The Corbomite Maneuver”.

• I couldn’t pin down Lorca’s accent, but it sounded mildly Southern. Making fortune cookies his family business was an odd choice.

• Another odd choice was a breath-a-lizer security system that never ever had a chance of being secure. I’m assuming the writers sat down and said “how can we make this a bio-lock but not need Burnham to assault or dismember someone to get passed it?”

• Stamets’ discussion of a merger between biotics and physics is reminiscent of The Traveller’s philosophy of mind and space, just more grounded and less new-agey.

• It’s funny that Burnham mentions the Geneva Convention when lecturing Lorca about his possible bio-weapon considering this take down of Georgiou’s desecration of a Klingon body in the previous episode.

• Where’s the Klingon raiding party’s ship? Did it just bug out without them?

When People Hated TNG: A Collection of Vintage Rants and Humor

Thirty years ago Star Trek: The Next Generation was not seen as the beloved show it is today. In fact, it was debated, ridiculed, and, frankly, despised by many vocal Trekkies even before it aired. Very few people could believe Star Trek could be done with a new crew and ship, even if it was being written and produced by Gene Roddenberry himself.

To remind us of its humble beginnings I present to you my very old stock of Next Generation parodies, mostly written during the first and second season as evidenced by the particular episodes they’re ribbing. Written by various authors and distributed on dial-up bulletin boards and early internet newsgroups, this library of amateur comedy is very representative of its time. Some are hilarious, some are juvenile, and most are resentment-filled trash.

What many have in common is a sense that the writer is laughing at the show, not with it. These are not loving sendups. They’re teardowns draped in jokes. Recurring themes include Picard as a wimp who surrenders a lot, Gumbies as the revolving cast of chief engineers, references to Pepsi (who’s slogan at the time was “The Choice of a New Generation”), Riker smirking, and a heavy amount of physical abuse heaped on young Wesley Crusher. Some of them blame Roddenberry for the perceived mess, some seem to be under the delusion that The Next Generation was forced on him. What’s really ironic is all the complaints about the show’s lack of action considering today’s old coots can’t stop ripping the new films and shows for being too action oriented. No one’s ever satisfied.

Highlights include a Next Generation driving game, a musical where Kirk’s crew meets Picard’s, and a list of probable second season plot lines.

Mixed in with the Next Generation files are some Original Series parodies and some random other stuff like the rules for Fizbin and an early attempt at a chronology. If anything it’s an interesting look at the tech-saavy fandom of 30 years ago and a well needed lesson on how times and tastes change.

Star Trek: Discovery – It Could Have Been Worse

Not since The Next Generation premiered in 1987 can I remember a Star Trek show being as divisive as Discovery before it even aired. Many a rant has been written about sets, costumes, Klingon makeup, and canon. Heck, I wrote one. The most disturbing fracturing of fandom over Discovery has been regarding race. How dare a franchise that had a black main character and a woman main character have a black woman main character? In 2017 of all times! “Forced diversity”, they called it, as if casting a white guy as a lead is some kind of meaningless default and not a tactical decision. In fact, it’s become painfully obvious that Discovery is in a heavy weight battle with Orville cast as the “Great White Hope” of TV sci-fi. So there’s a lot riding on Discovery being good. Is it? I don’t know yet.

There’s a lot this show has going for it right off the bat. The cast is great. They grated on me a bit in the trailer because its dialog consisted solely of “big idea” cliches. Hearing them speak like mere mortals throughout the two hour premiere certainly made them more human, nuanced, and likable. The lead character, first officer Michael Burnham, is an interesting twist on the stoic Star Trek character. Unlike Spock, who was a mostly-Vulcan struggling to suppress his human side, Burnham is a human raised on Vulcan who may not mind showing her humanity, but doesn’t quite know how. She’s cold and meticulous, yet bursting with passion that she’s not exactly embarrassed by. She’s openly and outwardly in (nohomo) love with her captain, Philippa Georgiou who has been her tutor in the humanities for seven years. Georgiou is a great captain – wise, patient, and strong in the mold of Picard. It’s a shame we won’t see enough of her in this series, as her relationship with Burnham was the best part of Discovery so far. The next best part is Lt. Saru, who is, for all intents and purposes, C-3P0 on Xanax. His pride in his abilities and intensely paranoid sense of self-preservation are, fortunately more subdued than his droid analogue, but no less hilarious.

I’m still not sold on Discovery‘s look, however. My criticism of the show’s cliched sci-fi military blues and bland, dark grey sets stand. I also am not thrilled about the ship design. The most memorable space ships have always been the simplest, with instantly recognizable silhouettes. Discovery lacks this entirely. Every ship is so cluttered and messy looking that I found it hard to tell the difference between Klingon and Federation vessels during the big shoot out at the end of hour two. In fact, it was even hard to tell what was a ship and what was an asteroid at times. The ones with the lasers coming out of them, I guess. New viewers won’t mind, but long time fans will be completely baffled and annoyed by the strange mix of Original Series and Next Generation sound effects.

Where Discovery really falls down is its semi-nonsensical plot and its main character’s completely off-the-wall behavior. Burnham was raised by Vulcans because her colony was attacked by a random group of Klingons, killing her parents. Because of this she’s a total Klingon racist. When the Shenzhou finds itself nose-to-nose with the first Klingon ship it’s ever seen, Burnham wants to shoot at it because that’s all Klingons understand. Her desire to fire first on the Klingons is so strong she nerve pinches her beloved captain and attempts to commandeer the ship. That makes Burnham come off like a total loon even though, apparently, she’s right. Seeing Burnham’s prejudices come to pass doesn’t make her seem like a hero, it just makes the show writers seem prejudice.

Things shape up a bit during the battle with some nice action pieces, including Burnham reasoning the ship’s computer into helping her escape the brig. Georgiou’s solution for defeating the main Klingon ship by beaming a warhead into a dead warrior being tractored in for preservation brilliantly uses established (within the episode) Klingon cultural quirks against them. It’s at this point that the newly freed Burnham states that avoiding a prolonged war would involve capturing the Klingon cult leader at the helm of this battle rather than killing him and making him a martyr. Makes perfect sense to me. The execution, however, is completely absurd. I get the whole Trekkie thing of putting the command staff at the heart of an away mission because drama, but Kirk never landed anywhere dangerous without a bunch of red shirts at his side. So, when Georgiou and Burnham beam over to the massive, hugely populated Klingon dreadnaught alone they look like idiots and Georgiou’s death is as predictable as it is upsettingly pointless. What’s not expected, in a WTF kind of way, is Burnham killing the Klingon big bad instead of capturing him as she, herself, suggested.

I’m not a big fan of war stories in Star Trek. There are already a dozen sci-fi franchises that are entirely about war. Only Star Wars has ever matched the wide popularity of Star Trek at it’s most pacifistic, so I don’t know why, exactly, this genre is being mined for Star Trek‘s first TV outing in a decade. I had been hoping that Discovery would at least be a nuanced approach to the topic, perhaps a situation where you’re the good guy but you’re still in the wrong. The trailer made it seem like some kind of misunderstanding or cultural incompatibility on the part of Burnham had caused the conflict. “You helped start this war, now help me end it,” was one of the big lines. There was even some ambiguity on the Klingon’s motivations. I may have been misreading things, but at some point it seemed like all this mishegas was an overture of peace on their part – one that Burnham’s hawkish stance might completely ruin. But that wasn’t the case. The Klingons were bad. Nothing our heroes did made that better or worse. There was going to be a war no matter what. Burnham’s part in it was practically irrelevant.

There’s a lot of really bad racial stuff going on in Discovery, which I alluded to earlier. It’s kind of annoying that the evil Klingons have gone from a shoe-polished brown to all out black-face. They are still seemingly genetically-hardwired, like most fantasy races, to a single personality type – in this case aggressive warriorness. There is some discussion amongst the humans of knowing the difference between a race and a culture, but it’s a complete throwaway line and the fact that the writers know how tone-deaf they’re being but don’t care makes things all the worse. No one says the “Germans” are a bunch of genocidal maniacs. That description is reserved for “Nazis”. Culture and ideology are separated from ethnicity by using specific terms. Klingons are just referred to as Klingons. I also found it exceptionally cringe-worthy when, in this same conversation on race, a white, male admiral point-blank chastises Burnham for being prejudice because she’s a black woman who should know better. Um, what? This leaves me wary about the kinds of wisdom the USS Discovery’s white guy captain is going to impart on Burnham when he arrives.

Despite it’s flaws, Discovery is a satisfying watch. I saw it with the whole family and, even though we all seemed to be yelling the same frustrations at the screen, we each came away wanting to see more. I like the concept of the characters. Although half of my favorite dynamic was lost, I’m still willing to see where the survivors go after this. At this point I’m as annoyed with Discovery‘s opening two hours as I am with Encounter at Farpoint, and I like Encounter at Farpoint.

Orville is “The Honeymooners in Space” with Jizz

I’ve been sitting on the script for Orville’s first episode for a little over a month now. I didn’t review it for several reasons, first being that it could have been an early draft, and therefore not anywhere near the quality of the final project. I also didn’t want to accidentally ID the leaker by mentioning a detail that was only in that specific copy. My initial thoughts were not good. The main character was dull, the jokes were stale, and the premise was problematic at best. And certainly the facial the main female character gets in the very first scene – a sex act so demeaning even the most seasoned porn stars can’t make it seem like anything but uncomfortable – would be written out by production time. I also didn’t understand how such little material could fit forty-five minutes of airtime. This was a twenty-two minute comedy at most.

Now that I’ve seen the aired episode I can say definitively, and disappointedly, that the script I read was the one they shot, TV censor-friendly bukakke and all. The only real revelation is how they stretched this thing out to an hour: everyone. talks. really. slow.

Orville is everything every other review has made of it: a ponderous and vapid slog that wants to be taken seriously as is plies us with rejected Family Guy jokes. There are tipsy navigators, drinks spilled on bridge consoles, generic warrior aliens, and holodeck scenes every bit as dull as the ones you’d see on Voyager. It’s a Star Trek parody that wants to stand on it’s own two feet. It has top of the line CG and makeup effects and expansive exteriors mixed with internal sets that are as flatly lit as an office cubicle and more cardboard looking than anything made in the 80’s or even the 60’s. It demands sci-fi credibility while leaning on “it’s only a comedy” to avoid real criticism. Other than the opening sex scene, Orville plays it incredibly safe with very little to offend, rile, or even excite the viewer.

But the biggest problem with Orville is probably why it’s defenders, many of whom have proclaimed it “better than Discovery” before having seen either, will still lap it up: the main character is an aggrieved white guy. Captain Ed Mercer is as dull and witless as his name and not very good at his job. He’s every working-class schlub who’s ever been on TV since Ralph Kramden, only now he’s in charge of a space ship. Even though there’s nothing interesting about him we’re somehow supposed to feel his pain as we see him make weak decisions, get berated by his boss, disrespected by his crew, and cheated on by his wife. This last bit is the most important part of Ed’s sympathy-based characterization because it is this very ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson – the one that got splooged on by her alien lover in scene one – who is assigned as his first officer.

Two antagonistic exes forced to work with each other? Comedy gold, right? Maybe in more skilled hands, but here it just comes off as sad and depressing and indicative of why Seth MacFarlane is the worst person to be writing “optimistic” speculative fiction. Kelly is smart, ambitious, and all around awesome – everything her ex-husband isn’t. At the end of the episode it’s her solution that saves the day. She should be captain. The problem is she’s forever beholden to Ed because of her transgression. It doesn’t matter that Ed is a complete doofus that she should never have married in the first place. The ungrateful bitch cheated on him. In the twisted universe of a dudebro like MacFarlane, who used his time as Oscars host to reduce all the actresses to their body parts in song form, it’s a sin that can never be forgiven no matter how dysfunctional the relationship that caused it was. This dooms Kelly to a supportive and subordinate role, forever lifting up the incompetent man she wronged, and we’re all meant to believe she deserves it. In the end, when Kelly is apologetically discussing her reassignment, Ed makes it seem like he’s making this overture of forgiveness by asking her to stay when, in actuality, he needs her just to function.

To quote one of Seth’s own heroes: Is this your utopia? Your grand vision of the future?

New Footage of the Eleven Foot Enterprise Making a Flyby

Proving The Roddenberry Vault can actually be a useful resource, I pulled this unused footage of the Enterprise doing what seems to be a 180º flyby. I made the stars the way they some of the effects companies did back in the day: I splatted paint with my thumb running off a brush onto paper and tinted some the resulting dots red and yellow. I then hand animated several layers of them to make a parallax effect as she passes by. I also pulled the ship in a little closer than she was in the footage just to make the pass a bit more dramatic. It’s not perfect, but it proves the shot could have been great had it been included in an episode (or ten).

My Romp Inside the Roddenberry Vault

I know I’m a little late to the party, but I finally got a hold of the Inside the Roddenberry Vault Blu Ray set. While owning yet another copy of the same “best of” episodes – which, time-wise, is the majority of the set – was not appealing to me, many reviews seemed to make it clear that the documentaries and extra footage included were well worth the purchase. They were partially right. There is a lot wrong with this set beyond the filler episodes that is nearly fatal. There’s stuff in here that’s worth watching, for sure, but it comes with a heavy price.

Star Trek is fifty years old now and nearly everything that could be said about its uniqueness, reach, and historical resonance has been said, ad nauseam. There will always be a place for that sort of self-congratulatory exercise, but a set promising new material to a dwindling number of hardcore fans who have seen it all is not it. A conglomeration of alternate takes, raw effects footage, and deleted scenes is a very niche product. Only the die-hard would buy it. Yet the documentaries included are 80% talking heads bloviating the same uncritical worship of all that is Gene Roddenberry’s great vision of future humanity. Almost nobody on these discs says anything interesting at all. An utterly bewildering lineup of guests like the creator of Two and a Half Men, the producer of The Librarians, a Family Guy writer, and Bill Nye the Science Guy just talk and talk and talk about how special the show was and how nothing like it had ever been seen or done before. A lot of it is myths about Star Trek‘s exceptionalism that won’t die, but even if it was all true, why would you trot it out in what should be an extremely technical product? Even David Gerrold has nothing revealing to add. He just rambles like all the other famous fans. None of them are more insightful than any random dork you’d meet on TrekBBS. Maybe less. Some Simpsons producer actually marvels about Kirk saying “Let’s get the hell out of here” in “City on the Edge of Forever” as if it’s some kind of censorship breakthrough. Really, dude?

There are a few moments of insight that enter into sublime. Dorothy Fontana has some interesting stuff to say about script production and her disagreements with directors, but her audio is so heavily edited to speed it up that she sounds clipped and unnatural. Meanwhile we’re given the entire, sprawling mess that is Edith Keeler’s starship speech for the hundredth time. No, damn it. Give me more Dorothy! There’s a long interview with Richard Edlund who worked at one of the special effects houses employed by the show. He discusses everything from hand-lettering the opening sequence to developing a library of effects shots, to the freaking ISO of the film they used to shoot the eleven foot Enterprise model. Did you know the asteroids in “Mudd’s Women” were cornflakes? Thanks, Richard! Doug Drexler is also a high point. He wasn’t there when the Original Series was in production, but his knowledge of technical minutiae about model shooting and matte paintings is unsurpassed because he researched that shit. Then it’s all interrupted by the Librarian guy telling us how the transporter is such a brilliant plot device and that shot of Rigel VII belongs in a museum. Wank, wank, wank.

While the other features are peppered with good material, like a discussion of racism Sulu has with Kirk in “Corbomite Maneuver” and extra lines from Kirk’s speech in “Return to Tomorrow”, the best feature in the set is the last one, which contains no talking heads, only unseen clips with titles to tell you where they came from. They include dialogue from “Conscience of the King” that establishes Kirk as a midshipman stationed on Tarsus IV, not a colonist, and an odd, out of context snippet from “Tomorrow is Yesterday” where Kirk asks his interrogator if he’s stopped beating his wife. The raw, unmatted ship footage is fantastic, showing the level of quality the Enterprise was shot at. There are clips of several prototype engine cap effects. One is a set of sparkly jewels rotated on the outer dome, another is a simple glowing pulse effect, and another is the blinking lights they finally used, but without the turbines in front of it. There’s an amazing 180 degree rotation of the ship with a zoom in and out that would have made a really cool fly by. All of this is capped off with Nichelle Nichols singing the entirety of “Beyond Antares” as heard on the La-La Land series soundtrack, but now with visuals.

So, it’s a mixed bag, folks. I’m glad I got to see all this footage, but my sanity was put in utter jeopardy by the constant onslaught of on-screen fan adulation. It’s nothing short of a goddamn slog. Music rarity sets don’t have this problem. If you were to pickup Nivana’s “With the Lights Out” you’d be overwhelmed by 213 minutes of demos, alternative takes, and live performances uncut and with any commentary left to the booklet insert. There will not be more than a introductory paragraph talking about how innovative and amazing Kurt Cobain was. That’s because music companies know the only people who will buy a rarities set are those who have heard everything else and already know how great the band is. Inside the Roddenberry Vault should have been several hours of footage with occasional, completely technical discussion on one of the audio tracks. Instead it comes off as an advertisement selling how great Star Trek is to people who have already been obsessing over it for fifty years. It’s such a poor choice it baffles my mind.