Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Voyager, Season 2

Season 2 of Star Trek: Voyager, the third Trek spinoff, originally aired on the UPN from August 1995 to May 1996--about the same as my senior year in college. Four of its first six episodes were actually shot during the show's first production season, but the network held them over for Season 2. Perhaps this was a budget-cutting measure, but its side-effects included some impatience among fans who had already been teased about the upcoming episodes, to say nothing of an unintentionally low-key ending for Season 1. As it turned out, Voyager's second season had an ingenious symmetry. It began and ended with the spectacle of Voyager landing on the surface of a planet, an ability unique among Trek's hero starships, and one that was only used three times after this season. It began by laying to rest doubts as to whether the ship's crew would keep voyaging homeward, whether they shouldn't rather find a welcoming world in the Delta Quadrant and make the best of it... and it ended with the entire crew marooned on a particularly unwelcoming world.

This was the season in which the Voyagers were almost constantly harried by the Kazon, an alien race based on the present-day L.A. gangs. After the beginning of Season 3, the ship left the Kazon behind, moving on toward conflict with several other races--most notably, the Borg. Throughout this season Anthony De Longis ("Culluh") and Martha Hackett ("Seska") played their recurring characters with exquisite villainy. Other recurring guests this season include Brad Dourif (late of "Dune" and "The Lord of the Rings") in two of his three appearances as a bent Betazoid named Lon Suder; previous TNG guest Henry Darrow (of the classic western film The High Chaparral) in both of his appearances as Chakotay's late father Kolopak; prolific character-actor Raphael Sbarge in a five-episode arc as the traitor Michael Jonas; John Gegenhuber in three appearances as two different Kazon characters; and previous TNG guest Susan Diol in both of her appearances as the uniquely sympathetic Vidiian physician Denara Pel. The Vidiians, like the Kazon, made several appearances in Season 2, including the unforgettably terrifying encounter pictured above.

Season 2 was also, perhaps embarrassingly, the season in which things came in twos. It has two episodes ("The 37's" and "The Thaw") in which people are found in cryogenic stasis and revived. It has two episodes ("Maneuvers" and "Basics, Part I") in which the Kazon outsmart the Voyagers. Chakotay personally gets captured twice ("Initiations" and "Maneuvers"). In two consecutive episodes ("Threshold," "Meld"), a regular character has to be restrained behind a medical forcefield for public safety reasons. B'Elanna is twice held hostage by an intelligent machine she set out to fix ("Prototype," "Dreadnought"). Neelix has two brushes with parenthood ("Elogium," "Parturition"). Two Voyager shuttles make crash-landings ("Parturition" and "Innocence"), although the one that involves a fatality does less damage to the shuttle; this isn't counting Chakotay's shuttle in "Initiations," which blew up in space. It all comes to a head in "Deadlock," in which there are (for a short while) two Voyagers, each complete with officers and crew.

The 37's is an episode that would have made a bang-up finale for Season 1, as it was originally intended to be. The story begins with Voyager following a trail of rust to a 1936 Ford truck floating in space. The truck's dashboard radio puts them on the trail of an automated S.O.S. signal being broadcast on the AM band. This, in turn, leads them to a planet where unknown aliens seem to have taken people abducted from Earth in the year 1937. Some of them, including Amelia Earhardt (pictured, as played by the Emmy-winning Sharon Lawrence of "NYPD Blue"), are still in cryogenic stasis until the Voyagers revive them. After an all-too-brief conflict with the planet's mysteriously hooded inhabitants, the Voyagers find out the planet is populated by a thriving human society descended from the original abductees, who had driven off their alien captors. Once their little misunderstanding about invading the sanctuary of the sacred "37's" is resolved, the episode turns into a sort of family drama in which everyone has to decide whether he or she is going to stay on the planet or push on toward earth. Until Janeway and Chakotay look inside the cargo bay, where those wishing to stay behind are supposed to congregate, they don't know whether they will even have enough crewmen to keep going... Uh-oh! Could it be the last one they ever made? Guest stars include the late David Graf (who had also appeared as a Klingon on DS9) as Amelia's loyal navigator Fred Noonan; and John Rubinstein (who played two characters in three appearances on Enterprise) as John Evansville, the leader of the human colony.

Initiations guest-stars Aron Eisenberg, a.k.a. DS9's "Nog," as a young Kazon gang-banger who needs to kill an enemy (or be killed) to earn his full name. Although Eisenberg puts in a terrific performance, the success of the episode was hampered by fans' instant recognition of the actor's familiar voice. To be sure, several actors with a distinctive screen presence have been cast in multiple principal-guest roles in Star Trek; but none of them appeared 44 times as a single character! Apropos this episode, young Kar locks his phasers onto the shuttle where Chakotay has retreated to sit shiva for his late father, or whatever their tribe's equivalent is called. Chakotay swiftly turns the tables, blowing up the boy's shuttle and beaming him off at the last moment. His attempt to return the prisoner to his own people backfires for both of them: for Chakotay, because there is no forgiveness for transgressing on a Kazon sect's turf; for Kar, because he can never earn his name, having once failed to kill or die as commanded. Just when they seem to have no future except ignominious execution, the pair escape in a shuttle and beam down to a Kazon training moon just before the pursuing ship blows them out of the sky. There, surrounded by high-tech booby traps, with both the Voyagers and the Kazon closing in for a final tragic tableau, Chakotay plans a ruse in which Kar will kill him; then Voyager will beam his body to sickbay to be instantly revived. Kar, however, chooses a surprisingly different option. The guest cast includes three-time Trek guest Patrick Kilpatrick as the First Maje of Kar's sect, and four-time Trek guest Tim de Zarn as his second-in-command.

Projections introduces TNG crossover character Reg Barclay (played by Dwight Schulz)--who would eventually make half of his 12 Trek appearances in this series--now serving, evidently, as a member of the Jupiter Station programming team that assisted Dr. Lewis Zimmerman in creating the Emergency Medical Hologram. Barclay appears to the Doctor in the middle of a shipwide disaster to inform him that he is actually Dr. Zimmerman, and that a radiation surge has trapped him in his own holo-program while he was testing it. Now that same radiation is gradually killing Zimmerman, beginning by messing up his memory so that he thinks he is the program he created. Barclay desperately urges the Doctor to blow up the ship (i.e., its holographic simulation) so that the program can end and he can get lifesaving medical help. Just when the Doctor is all but convinced that he is real, everything else is a hologram, and that he should follow Barclay's advice, Chakotay appears and tells him to do nothing, that he's really the holo-Doctor, and that the crew is working to extricate his matrix from the technobabble-babble-babble. The most exquisite part of the Doctor's confusing experience is the fantasy that Kes is his (Zimmerman's) wife--a gimmick that comes back in one of those "false endings" that are a key ingredient in this "mess-with-your-mind" type of story.

Elogium is the one where Voyager gets swept up in the mating dance of a swarm of really fast-moving critters that live in the vacuum of space. When the big, solitary female (?) gets jealous of the numerous little male (?) aliens trying to hump the ship's nacelles, she begins swatting the ship with her prehensile tail. This leads to a high-tech solution reminiscent of TNG's "Galaxy's Child," only with the addition of Tuvok's memorable line: "It appears we have lost our sex appeal." Meanwhile, something about the horny aliens has messed up Kes's biological clock, bringing her out in her elogium--a once-in-a-lifetime mating cycle that forces her and Neelix to decide in a hurry whether they want to have kids. I remember watching this episode in a dorm TV lounge with some guys who hated Kes, or at least Jennifer Lien's portrayal of her, and this episode was especially unpopular with them because it brought out all of her distinctive mannerisms with the utmost intensity. I actually like Kes, however, and I think this episode's depiction of the Ocampa mating drive was intriguingly weird. Plus, very few Trek episodes approach the topic of sexual procreation as frankly as this one does. The only drawback was that it proved to be an overly talky episode with a lot of "should we or shouldn't we" angst that, in my opinion, didn't do much credit to the 24th century.

Non Sequitur begins with an extreme close-up of Harry Kim's face as he wakes up, the echoes of Capt. Janeway's voice, offering to beam him off his shuttle, dying in his ears... and he finds himself lying next to his girlfriend Libby in an apartment in San Francisco. Has he traveled in time? No, it's the same date as whatever happened on that shuttle. As he flounders around, trying to figure out what has happened, Harry gradually learns that he has crossed over to another potential reality in which he was never an officer on the lost ship Voyager. While one of his academy buddies went off in his place, Harry has set up a promising career as a warp-field engineer at Starfleet Headquarters. His trouble now is that he has no knowledge of the project he is supposed to be ready to present to the brass, and he has precious little time to find out how to get back to the way things were before the authorities close in on him and charge him with being a Maquis spy. With the aid of Tom Paris, who has also missed his ship and, as a consequence, is now living the life of a drunken ne'er-do-well in Marseilles, Harry steals a runabout and tries to recreate the accident that shunted him into this timeline. Interestingly, Tom Paris has to sacrifice his life to get it back again.

Twisted, the last of the episodes the network held over from Season 1, is universally regarded as one of the worst episodes of the series, and at least the worst of Season 2. I remember how, even before it first aired, there was so much buzz about how bad it was (thanks to leaks by cast and crew) that some even speculated that it would never be aired. Alas, it did not gain the magical aura that clings to "lost episodes" of any TV series. Instead, it is left with the talky, slow-paced, dramatically thin banality of a more-bottled-than-average bottle show. There aren't even "Voyager flybys" between scenes to brighten up the scenery. The reason should be obvious from the computer display shown here. Some kind of two-dimensional spacial effect is crushing the ship. The characters spend interminable minutes wandering around, trying to find places that aren't where they should be, and either getting totally lost (like Neelix) or finding themselves drawn, time after time, to the holodeck program of Chez Sandrine. The Doctor lightens the tedium with some humor as he evades the advances of Mme. Sandrine; but Neelix heaps it back on again in the first of two consecutive episodes--though, remember, they weren't originally intended to be aired in that order--featuring his jealousy of the friendship between Tom Paris and Kes. Then there's four-time Voyager guest Tom Virtue, appearing for the second of two times as as Lt. Walter Baxter, a totally colorless character whose scenes of chatty insignificance repeatedly prompted me to blurt out, "Haven't you walked away yet?" The solution (to do nothing and see what happens) is only the capstone on an episode that, if you'll forgive the contradiction, is fascinating in its mediocrity. Yet, you know, as a minimum baseline for the quality of a Voyager episode, it's really not that bad. If this is (by far) the worst it gets, it must be a pretty good show!

Parturition, on the other hand, comes over nearly as bad as "Twisted," in part because it continues the obnoxious, unworthy-of-the-24th-century theme of Neelix's jealousy. Happily, this is resolved by the end of the episode. Less happily, in order for this to take place, Neelix and Tom must survive the most hackneyed Star Trek writers' gimmick for building a bond between two characters: a shuttle crash. Though the shuttle is totaled, the two heroes walk away from it suffering from little more than skin irritation, and that as a result of "trigemic vapors" in the planet's atmosphere. This gaseous technobabble turns out to be the source of the nutrients that showed up on sensors and led them to this planet. While the pair await adjustments to Voyager's transporters, allowing the ship to beam them up, they try to escape from the vapors by sealing themselves inside a cave--only to realize that the cave is actually the nest of a repto-humanoid (pictured), whose eggs have started to hatch. As the first hatchling begins to die, Neelix and Tom realize that they have cut it off from its mother's milk, i.e. the trigemic vapors. Then, in spite of the transporters being ready to beam them up, they feel obligated to wait and see whether the infant's parent accepts it in spite of their interference. It's really an obvious and predictable story, but it's enlivened by the charming bickering between Neelix and Tom, including a line in which Neelix actually says the word "technobabble." I believe the designation "Planet Hell," used in this episode for the world where the Repto-humanoids lay their eggs, was a kind of Trek in-joke, referring to the set where many supposed planet exteriors were shot. One wonders, though, how a race like these repto-humanoids managed to evolve when they need a starship to get to their mating grounds...

Persistence of Vision is the one where Kes saves the ship, though not without emitting a few of the hideous shrieks that added to her unpopularity in my college dorm. Because of her race's latent psychic abilities, Kes is partly resistant to the psychic attack that has gradually turned everyone else catatonic except the Doctor. The attacker is an alien who has apparently gotten on board undetected, and is trying to incapacitate the ship for some nefarious purpose--or perhaps none. His exit line, after being foiled by a bit of technobabble that Kes manages to activate after a climactic struggle, is: "I'm not really here." To prove it, he vanishes into thin air. Meanwhile, thanks to the other characters' hallucinations, we get our first eyeful of Tuvok's wife, played for two out of T'Pel's three appearances by Marva Hicks; and of Tom Paris's admiral father, played for the first two of Owen Paris's six appearances by Warren Munson. The episode also guest stars Thomas Dekker (late of "Heroes" and "Terminator: The Sarah O'Connor Chronicles") in his second of two appearances as a holographic Brit brat; Dekker had also played Picard's infant son in Star Trek: Generations. His sister is played by three-time Voyager guest Lindsey Haun, late of "True Blood." Playing their father for the second of two episodes is Michael Cumpsty of "L.A. Law," and Mrs. Templeton accounts for two of Carolyn Seymour's five Trek appearances. Stan Ivar reprises his pilot-episode role as Janeway's boyfriend Mark, and appearing as the alien is Patrick Kerr, who had a recurring role on "Frasier" as an obsessive Star Trek fan.

Tattoo provides an insight into Chakotay's background, in the form of flashbacks to an expedition on which the then-teenager accompanied his father Kolopak (Henry Darrow) to a jungle on earth, in search of the last remnants of their ancestral culture. These memories come to the surface when Chakotay recognizes a rune associated with his father's tribe on a Delta quadrant moon. The ship follows a warp trail leading from the moon to a planet whose elusive aliens prove capable of altering the planet's weather patterns and magnetic field to drive off unwanted visitors. Eventually Chakotay finds himself alone on the planet, where an alien finally reveals himself to be one of the visitors his tribal mythology memorializes as the "Sky Spirits." Perhaps more interesting than the revelation that the Rubber Tree People's mythology was based on extraterrestrial visitors is the series of flashbacks showing Chakotay as a snotty teen whose resistance to following tribal custom tested his father's infinite patience. The guest cast includes young Douglas Spain (of "Band of Brothers" and Star Maps) in his first TV role; Richard Chaves (late of Predator and TV's "War of the Worlds") as the earth tribal chief; Richard Fancy (Elaine's boss on "Seinfeld") as the Sky Spirit; and Nancy Hower in one of her eight appearances as Ensign Wildman, who would soon become the first crewperson to give birth on Voyager.

Cold Fire features "Alien Nation" alum Gary Graham, a runner-up for the captain's role in both this series and DS9, who also appeared 12 times on Enterprise as the Vulcan Soval or his mirror-universe opposite number. Here Graham plays the leader of an Ocampa community the Voyagers are surprised to discover on a replica of the Caretaker's array, many light years from the Ocampa homeworld. Kes had no idea that anyone before her had ever left the planet. This group, moreover, has developed advanced mental abilities and learned to extend their lifetime far beyond Kes's 9-year life expectancy. The cost, however, is that they are evil, deceptive beings who serve the omnipotent Suspiria, the late Caretaker's former mate. Suspiria is convinced that the Voyagers murdered her mate and refuses to help them return home. No big surprise; after all, that would be the end of the series! Four-time Trek guest Norman Large plays an Ocampa, and young Lindsay Ridgeway (late of "Boy Meets World") plays the humanoid manifestation of Suspiria, whose voice is supplied by Majel Barrett.

Maneuvers revives the villainy of ex-Voyager crewwoman Seska, who went over to the dark side (i.e. the Kazon) in Season 1. Using her knowledge of Federation tactics, she plans a raid in which the Kazon-Nistrim (the sect led by First Maje Culluh) steals a transporter device. Culluh believes that, armed with this technology, a coalition between the Nistrim and the Kazon-Relora could overwhelm Voyager and use its gadgets to tilt the balance of power in the quadrant. But after his first victory, Culluh starts to have a bad day. First the Relora decline to ally up, then Chakotay attempts a daring (and unauthorized) sortie to recapture the transporter. Even after being captured, brtually interrogated, and relieved of a DNA sample for purposes yet to be disclosed, Chakotay succeeds in disabling the transporter. Then, in front of an audience of the Majes of three other sects, Chakotay witnesses the embarrassment of Culluh's tactics to subdue Voyager, and escapes into the bargain. Only, he has to face the wrath of the captain whose authority he undermined, and the news that Seska is going to have his baby... Guest stars include the late Terry Lester, who starred on "Ark II" during the 1970s and "The Young and the Restless" in the '80s, as the Relora boss who gets a gruesome demonstration of the transporter's effectiveness.

Resistance, meanwhile, stars Oscar alum Joel Grey (Cabaret) as a harmlessly demented citizen of a totalitarian planet who hides and nurses the wounded Janeway after a black-market transaction goes pear-shaped. While the KGB-like Mogra police force detain and interrogate Tuvok and Torres, Janeway tries to work out how to spring her captured crewmen and get back to the ship. Her eventual success depends on the self-sacrificing courage of a man whose cowardice wiped out his family and broke his mind. The moment when Caylem puts on a humiliating clown act to help the captain and a local freedom fighter elude capture is one that may stick in your heart. The episode is enhanced by guest appearances from frequent Trek guests Alan Scarfe and Glenn Morshower.

Prototype is one of those ingenious tales where the full truth doesn't come out until the end. Only after the final, gruesome surprise do the Voyagers know how much danger they court by beaming aboard a dead android and figuring out how to revive it. The Pralor and Cravic automated units turn out to be the only remnant of two alien races that became extinct after centuries of war... a war that rages on, senselessly, between the two groups of robots. So when Unit 3947 takes B'Elanna hostage, it is clearly with the intent of using her engineering know-how to break the stalemate and crush the enemy. The purpose of their programming is, after all, to achieve victory. The chill doesn't really go down your spine until 3947 admits that both sides' robots "terminated" their builders when the latter threatened to make peace. This grim revelation, coming hard on the heels of B'Elanna's success in giving "life" to a new droid, puts her in the heartbreaking position of having to "kill" her own "child." Much of the effectiveness of this episode's script is canceled out by the cheesy appearance of the automated units, two of whom were among the six Trek characters played by Rick Worthy.

Alliances guest-stars three-time Trek guest Charles "Chip" Lucia as a leader among the Trabe, the race that once shared a homeworld with the Kazon. Since the Kazon sects united, some 30 years ago, to throw off the yoke of their oppressors, the Trabe have been relegated to a scattering of starship convoys, searching in vain for a new planet to call home. The Voyagers meet them at a vulnerable moment, when a series of deadly Kazon attacks have left the crew demoralized, the ship limping, and the captain under pressure to reconsider her sacred Starfleet principles. Mabus (pictured) seems so reasonable, and his ideas so full of promise, that Janeway actually considers forming an alliance with the Trabe. But a peace conference, arranged on Mabus's advice with the leaders of several Kazon sects, turns out to be nothing but a filthy trap with the unsuspecting Voyager serving as the bait. Though we never see the Trabe again (except as non-speaking background characters), this episode is the harbinger of things to come. First, it introduces Starfleet traitor Michael Jonas and his Kazon "control," Rettik (played by Mirron Willis for the first of two episodes). It is also the first of seven episodes featuring a nice young crewman named Hogan (played by Simon Billig), whose bones would become a crucial plot point several episodes after his death in Season 3.

Threshold is the one where Tom Paris breaks the "warp barrier," becoming the first known pilot to reach Warp 10 at which, theoretically, one occupies every point in the universe at the same time. While this is a fascinating enough concept, there isn't much drama in it. After all, one can only sit through so many molto rallentando chants of "Warp 9.8... 9.9... 9.95... 9.98..." before one begins to foam at the mouth. So, to fill up the rest of the hour, the writers concocted this totally daft storyline about individuals evolving at a vastly accelerated rate. Like the TNG episode "Genesis," it's a scenario that shows a total disregard for the supposedly scientific theory on which it is based. Also like "Genesis," it shows humanoids evolving into what appear to be giant salamanders. The big surprise, from the standpoint of Trek ideology, is the idea that human evolution might be headed in a rather disappointing direction. But frankly, once you see through the dramatic window-dressings (such as Tom's fascinating physiological and psychological changes), you can't help but admit that it's a silly concept. You especially can't help it after you see the creatures Paris and Janeway (don't ask) turn into. A more hokey example of the limits of special effects, especially on a TV-series budget and production schedule, could hardly be imagined.

Meld guest-stars notable character-actor Brad Dourif, frequently typecast as a creep, as--what else?--a creep. His Lon Suder is a Betazoid (the reason for his pupilless, all-black eyes), but not a telepath or empath--a combination that, according to references in TNG (e.g. "Tin Man"), ought to have been an warning sign of mental instability even before he bludgeoned a crewmate to death for no apparent reason. For Tuvok, who as security chief is in charge of the investigation, a crime without a motive is inconceivable. It goes against both his Vulcan logic and his experience among races at the Star Trek stage of social development. So, even though the case against Suder seems open-and-shut, Tuvok is unable to satisfy himself without some insight into the mind of a psychopath. Hence the mind-meld pictured here. Unfortunately, a bit of Suder crosses over into Tuvok's mind, straining the Vulcan's emotional control to the point where he finds himself in the brig with his fingers wrapped around the Betazoid's throat. On the surface it's a predictable episode, but under the surface it says some interesting things about the way evil can challenge the values of a peaceful society... and vice versa. Along the way lots of interesting things happen, including a priceless scene in which Neelix provokes Tuvok into murdering him and then: "Computer, end holodeck program."

Dreadnought is the nickname of a Cardassian missile which the Maquis commandeered and reprogrammed to target a Cardassian fuel depot. Now the very Maquis engineer who did the job--our own B'Elanna Torres--is embarrassed to discover her deadly toy cruising in Delta Quadrant space, evidently having been snatched out of the Badlands by the Caretaker before he took Voyager and Chakotay's late Maquis ship. Her embarrassment turns into horror, however, when Dreadnought locks onto a completely innocent, and heavily populated, planet, mistaking it for its lookalike target in the Alpha Quadrant. B'Elanna beams aboard the missile and tries to reprogram it, but her own too-clever-by-half security subroutines, combined with the missile's adaptive intelligence, enable Dreadnought to craft a counter-argument to everything she says. Finally, as Voyager steers a collision course, proposing to sacrifice itself to save the planet in Dreadnought's crosshairs, B'Elanna pulls ahead in her duel of wits with the computer she programmed to think (and speak) just like herself. Meanwhile, traitor Jonas gets a new Kazon "control" in this episode, one Lorum (played for two episodes by Michael Spound), who pressures the crewman to sabotage Voyager.

Death Wish is Voyager's first "Q" episode. Before John de Lancie appears, however, we first meet another Q, played by Gerrit Graham (pictured) in his second Trek guest role. This Q, who later opted for the name Quinn, turns up imprisoned inside a huge comet after making a request that threatens to shake the entire Q Continuum: the ability to die. When de Lancie's more familiar Q shows up to take Quinn away, the latter sues for asylum on Voyager. Janeway reluctantly agrees to hear both sides in an asylum hearing, though she is uncomfortable with the fact that a decision in favor of granting asylum would also, most likely, result in Quinn's suicide. In one particularly effective scene, the Q's give Janeway & Co. a walking tour of the Continuum, adapted to their understanding in the form of a way-station on an endless desert highway. Janeway inevitably rules that immortality, from Quinn's point of view, entails intolerable suffering, and just as inevitably he kills himself... but not before brief cameo appearances by Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker, English thesp Peter Dennis as Isaac Newton, and a certain Maury Ginsberg as a hilarious character by the same name.

Lifesigns is this season's love story for the holographic Doctor. The object of his fascination is a Vidiian woman played by Susan Diol, previously a guest on TNG. While the Doctor looks for a way to stabilize the diseased woman's vital signs, he transfers her consciousness to a holo-program based on what she would look like without the dreaded Phage (see photo). As she experiences for the first time what it is like to live without the stigma of a feared and isolating illness, Denara is tempted to terminate her real body--even knowing that her holo-life will be very short and circumscribed after doing so. The Doctor prevails on her to keep fighting the Phage by telling her that he loves her, and not just the Phage-free holo-version of her. In return, Denara gives the Doctor a pet name ("Shmullus"), heard again only once after this episode. Crewman Jonas's treason, meanwhile, seems to be reaching a head as Seska personally appeals to him to help her take over Voyager.

Investigations is the episode in which the Michael Jonas story-arc comes to full fruition. Having appointed himself the ship's morale officer, Neelix begins broadcasting a daily video called "Briefing with Neelix." At first, his show features recipes, gossip, "humanoid interest stories," and displays of crewpersons' varied talents. Then Harry Kim gives Neelix some bruising criticism, suggesting that he dig deeper for real stories rather than fluff. Neelix takes this advice to heart, first in his coverage of Tom Paris's shocking decision to resign from Voyager and to join the crew of a Talaxian convoy. (This is foreshadowed by scenes in several previous episodes, showing Tom's increasing opposition to crew discipline). No sooner has Neelix broadcast a moving farewell speech than he uncovers a piece of evidence implicating Tom in treason. At this point Janeway and Tuvok take Neelix into their confidence, revealing that Tom is actually working undercover to help them identify the real traitor. Neelix continues his own investigation, often using an engineering workstation only a few feet from where Jonas is working, and sometimes even accepting "help" from Jonas. Just when Voyager is about to cruise into a cleverly-laid Kazon trap, Neelix finds himself trapped alone in Engineering with Jonas. As Jonas scrambles to disable the ship in time for the scheduled Kazon attack, Neelix realizes who has been in secret communication with the enemy. The two of them struggle. One of them flies into a stream of technobabble and is instantly vaporized. Amazingly (!) after all that, Neelix is still standing. All this, and Tom Paris makes a narrow escape from the Kazon too!

Deadlock is the episode that, for my money, contains the season's most terrifying image. I am not referring to the picture at right, featuring Kate Mulgrew acting opposite herself in a technically virtuosic scene pulling out all the tops of split-screen and motion-control methods then available. Actually the picture I mean is way up at the top of this post, the disturbing image of an enormous Vidiian ship descending on Voyager like a predatory insect preparing to suck the vital essence out of its helpless prey. This is only one part of the jeopardy involved in one of the year's most exciting and memorable episodes. Somehow, the Voyager has split into two waveforms, linked together by a common (and quickly dwindling) supply of antimatter fuel and an interyaddayadda portal on Deck 15. While the two identical crews figure this out, one of them does a lot of damage to the other. The two Janeways get together to discuss their options, and more or less decide that the weaker of the two ships must be destroyed in order for the stronger to survive... But then the less damaged Voyager gets visited by the Vidiians, and the tables are unexpectedly turned. While the Vidiians board the ship, Harry Kim makes a run for the rift carrying Ens. Wildman's newborn baby, since neither of them made it on the ship that is going to survive. So, technically, the Harry Kim and Naomi Wildman seen after this episode belong to another universe.

Innocence is perhaps the least objectionable of Star Trek's many episodes demonstrating the foolishness of focusing an hour of the series on children. The three children pictured here approach Tuvok after his shuttle crashes on an alien moon, killing the crewman who was flying with him. The crash, and Tuvok's subsequent attempts to defend the children from a mythical monster that snatches them one by one, complicate the Voyagers' attempt to establish friendly relations with the reclusive Drayans. Eventually it is revealed that the Drayans age backwards, and the children are actually elderly folks who have regressed to a state of innocence; and also, that the cave that is said to be the monster's lair is also the point to which all Drayans are drawn at the end of life, surrendering the energy that holds their bodies together to its source. The Drayan leader is played by Marnie McPhail, whose character in Star Trek: First Contact got assimilated by the Borg. And I have to admit, the accomplished young actors whose childish ways so deliciously annoy Tuvok were used to unusually good effect, as Trek kids go.

The Thaw features Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap, "Laverne and Shirley," etc.) as clown who, naturally, represents fear. He is actually part of a virtual environment designed to stimulate the minds of the animationally suspended survivors of a planetary ice age. Now, it seems, Fear has taken control of the whole program, refusing to let the last handful of survivors be taken off stasis because it would mean the end of his existence. He uses a cast of freaks and specters to keep them on edge, and once in a while, just to maintain order, he scares one to death. Like Freddy Krueger, the Clown has realized that if you die in your dreams, you die for real... only his method (guillotine) is much more swift and impersonal. Now he has not only the surviving aliens, but the Voyagers who have entered the system to guide the others out, as his prisoners. Until Janeway offers herself in a hostage exchange. Which proves to be a ruse, leading to the exquisitely dark and unique ending of this episode. I enjoyed it for its visual style, which threw me back to the Original Series, while one of Thomas Kopache's seven Trek guest roles is always a welcome reminder of his appearances on the other spinoffs.

Tuvix begins with Tuvok and Neelix, the galaxy's odd couple, bickering amiably as they collect botanical samples before beaming up to Voyager. What materializes isn't either one of them, but a single being who combines the memories, personalities, and DNA of both. "Tuvix," as he chooses to be called, is the victim of a transporter anomaly caused by one of the alien orchids they were beaming up with them. Or him. These orchids reproduce by an amazing process called "symbiogenesis," which allows different species to pollinate each other, and which somehow transformed a Talaxian and a Vulcan into a hybrid of both. No one is more confused about all this than Kes, who doesn't believe Tuvix can replace either her friendship with Tuvok or her romance with Neelix... though he would clearly like to do both. Ultimately the dilemma devolves upon the Captain who, once a way is found to restore Tuvix to his separate existence as Tuvok and Neelix, must then carry it out with chilling ruthlessness, in spite of Tuvix's desperate plea to be allowed to live. Frankly, I can't quite see how Janeway can come out of this looking good, no matter what she does. Playing Tuvix is prolific character actor Tom Wright, who also had a guest role on Enterprise.

Resolutions is the episode where Janeway and Chakotay catch an alien disease which remains dormant as long as they stay on the planet where they caught it... but which, like the disease in TOS's "The Omega Glory," will kill them soon after they leave. So, for the time being at least, they have to accept the fact that they are marooned. Janeway puts Tuvok in command of Voyager and orders the crew to move on homeward and not look back. This puts Tuvok in the tricky position of having to maintain ship discipline amid a crew that is ready to mutiny over the possibility of getting medical advice from the Vidiians--which Tuvok, respecting Janeway's final orders, refuses to do. Meanwhile, back on the planet, the ex-Captain tirelessly continues her search for a cure, while Chakotay seems more inclined to do home-improvement work on the assumption that this place will be their home for life. It's an episode that tantalizingly explores some possibilities of their relationship, possibilities that will be held in abeyance as long as discipline, the loneliness of command, and the hope of getting home are a part of their daily life.

Basics, Part I is Voyager's first season-ending cliffhanger. Seska sends out a call for help, claiming that Culluh means to kill her and Chakotay's newborn son. Later Voyager rescues Tierna, a member of the Kazon-Nistrim sect, who claims to have witnessed Seska's death and reluctantly hands over command codes enabling the ship to navigate through Kazon-defended space. Nevertheless, the ship is harried by a series of attacks causing minimal damage, but all suspiciously targeting the same non-essential part of the ship. The purpose for this ruse becomes clear when Tierna blows himself up with some type of bio-explosive and a Kazon fleet closes in on the disabled Voyager. Suddenly Janeway realizes that the secondary technobabble that all those low-level attacks disabled was essential to their last defense against Starfleet technology falling into Kazon hands... the self-destruct system. Janeway is unable to do anything but stand by and watch while the Kazon take control of her ship, drop the crew off on an inhospitable planet, and fly away. Meanwhile, Tom Paris--last seen taking fire on an out-of-control shuttle--is missing, presumed dead. And unbeknownst to the Kazon, two Voyager crewmen remain on board: the holographic Doctor (in spite of a brief glitch of the "hologram overboard" variety) and Lon Suder (the psychopath from "Meld"). Hmmm... I wonder what happens next.... I guess I'm on the hook for Season 3!

Unsurprisingly, for all its doublets, Voyager Season 2 is a very consistent season of Star Trek; even its bad episodes are surprisingly good, when viewed from the perspective of 15 years later. Where it has unique touches, they are unforgettable. The comedy of the battle in the mess hall in "Projections"--priceless! The idea of Seska impregnating herself with a DNA sample (??) taken by force from Chakotay--ghastly! Kes using her newfound psychic powers to boil Tuvok's head--shocking! A suicidal Q? A hologram attempting to kill her flesh-and-blood original? People who age backwards? Mind-blowing! A clown who represents fear? Diabolical! Tuvix's fight for his right to exist? Poignant! And don't even get me started about a romantic tryst in a 1957 Chevy convertible on Mars....

And it is also unforgettable as the final season in which co-creator Michael Piller was involved in Star Trek. The long-time executive producer had joined the Trek writing staff during TNG's third season, helped create DS9 as well as this series, and earned 37 writing credits, including the 1998 feature film Star Trek: Insurrection. His final episode for Voyager was the conclusion of "Basics" as the third-season premiere. Piller went on to co-create the series The Dead Zone with his son Shawn Piller, and to create Nana Visitor's post-DS9 series Wildfire, before his cancer-related death in 2005 at age 57. Trekkies mourn the creative mind who scripted four of this season's episodes.

Want to brush up on your Star Trek? See my reviews of TOS seasons one, two, and three; of TNG seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven; of DS9 seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven; of Voyager season one; and of Enterprise season one. As a control group, see also my review of Babylon 5 seasons one, two, three, and four.

Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit

Some time over the holiday weekend, I went to a big cine-plex and enjoyed a luxurious screening of True Grit, the Coen Brothers' re-adaptation of the novel on which was based the 1969 John Wayne movie by the same name. As one would expect of a film by Joel & Ethan Coen, the 2010 version is visually rich, colorful, surprising, thought-provoking, violent, often darkly funny, and haunted by a grim, existentialist view of life. It features relatively unknown actors in unforgettable roles, well-known actors who fearlessly vanish into their characters, and the astonishing sense of being a remake that in no way competes with its original.

I discussed this with my Dad during a long phone call the other night. An interesting observation came out of that talk: Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, the John Wayne character in the 1969 film. Jeff Bridges plays him, and disappears into him; John Wayne, on the other hand, gave an inimitable, tour de force performance as John Wayne. Which actor really owns this role?

Rooster Cogburn is a roguish U.S. Marshall in the late-1800s American West. A pigtailed young girl named Mattie Ross hires him to help her track down her father's killer. Dad remembers the 1969 Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby, as a whiny brat. Today's Mattie, courtesy of Hailee Steinfeld, came across (at least to me) as a strong-willed, fiercely determined young woman with a talent for getting her own way far beyond her years. Maybe the difference is that she never for an instant resorts to shrillness. She does it all by speaking quietly, distinctly, yet passionately; by reasoning grown men into a corner; and by staring them out of countenance with her hard, old-fashioned eyes. For me the moment that really defines the character is her parting remark to Frank James while visiting the Wild West Show (years later, as a 40-ish spinster, in the film's brief epilogue): "Keep your seat, trash."

Both films feature a Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf, who rounds out the search posse. Played in 1969 by Glen Campbell, the 2010 role goes to Matt Damon. Then there's the bad guy, Tom Chaney: played in 1969 by Jeff Corey and in 2010 by Josh Brolin. An even bigger and badder bad guy in both films is called Ned Pepper, played by Robert Duvall (1969) and Barry Pepper (2010). There's an ill-fated young fellow named Moon, played first by the late Dennis Hopper, and now by Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan's promising son and lately Bill Weasley in the 7th Harry Potter movie. Both films are filled out by a distinguished cast of character actors whose careers it is fun (for me) to reflect on, but you can IMDB them yourself. Their interesting faces add to each film's rich texture and individual character.

The scene that really seized my imagination was the end of the story, properly speaking. Mattie has been snake-bit, and Rooster rushes her to medical care--first riding her horse to death, then running with the delirious girl in his arms in a dreamlike, starlit sequence, accompanied by the most unearthly strains of the film's musical signature: the homespun piety of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Finally he collapses within sight of a settlement and, unable to take another step or utter a sound, fires his pistol into the sky to summon help. And this is the last we see of Rooster Cogburn; "we," in this case, including Mattie Ross. Suddenly, all his abrasive manners aside, this feels like a loss. That such an adventure could be only an incident in a lonely woman's life, and not the beginning of a relationship with those who shared it, is so movingly sad that viewers are likely to leave the film in a subdued mood--a strange ending to a great modern western.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hymn for Evening or Dying

Here is my attempt to adapt Luther's Evening Prayer for use as a hymn for the dying. I did not have a particular tune in mind as I wrote it, so I have no particular preference as to what tune you might use to sing it. Out of several tunes that, in my judgment, could adequately serve this hymn, I have selected two that happen to be in the public domain. This way at least you can test-drive it and maybe leave me a constructive comment or two...Dear heav'nly Father, hear, as sinks life’s day,
The boon for which, in gratitude, I pray.
As You have kept me through the hours of light,
So keep me at the setting-in of night.

Upon me shine the favor of Your face;
By dint of Jesus Christ Your Son, erase
My debt, for which He, bared and bowed in blood,
Gave good for ill, and so procured my good.

Clothe me in Him, that my iniquity
May drown and sink beneath His purity.
Buried with Him, with Him I must arise,
And He live more in me as this shell dies.

Sustain me by the life that Jesus gives,
Who died but once, and ever after lives;
Be His sweet Testament the remedy
To cleanse, to nourish, and to quicken me.

Now, as my eyelids close in peaceful sleep,
Grant me Your holy angel, watch to keep
Till, wakened by Your Holy Spirit’s breath,
I rise, unmarked by Satan, sin, or death.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Moviepalooza

I'm embarrassed to say how many movies I have seen, either on the big screen or on video, in how few of the past few days. I really shouldn't be, though. It's kind of a good thing.

I've been hooked on movies since I was a kid. When I was in college, my buddies and I went to the cinemas at least once a week, often exploiting the discount prices on long-in-the-tooth, "about to come out on video" movies. I kept up this habit when I was at the seminary, usually going with friends but sometimes (with a touch of guilt) taking myself out for a "decompression date" after a Friday or Saturday night shift at my off-campus job. It wasn't until I went on vicarage that I experienced what it was like to really live alone. If I wanted to dine out, I usually had to go by myself. If I had to go shopping, I went alone. For a while, it was a little painful. I found myself with so much time to fill when I had no one to talk to or share it with. But I adjusted. At the end of that year, the pain of living alone had subsided to numbness. And I learned to enjoy escapes like movies for what they were.

And then movies started to suck.

After years and years of nary a week going by when I didn't see at least one big-screen movie, I started walking away from the box office without buying a ticket. At first it was just a week here, two weeks there... but now the weeks when I do go to the movies are the exception, rather than the rule. I go online to check the titles playing on local screens, and more often than not my response is roughly, "Meh." Either I have changed a lot in a handful of years, or Hollywood has given up on providing worthwhile entertainment.

So the fact that I've just gone through a movie-watching orgy is really a nice change. That's what I'm trying to say.

First, on a day when I had nothing better to do because the roads were in bad shape and I didn't dare drive outside my immediate neighborhood, I went to the immediate-neighborhood moviehouse and saw two kiddie movies: Disney's Tangled (officially the studio's 50th animated feature) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third installment in the ongoing Chronicles of Narnia film cycle. Both movies were totally excellent. Makers of films for maturer audiences should study them for ways to make their entrées more palatable to the paying public.

Tangled is a beautifully textured, emotionally rich, fun-filled, romantic adaptation of the fairy tale of Rapunzel (as in "let down your hair"). Featuring the voice talents of Mandy Moore (as Rapunzel) and Donna Murphy (as the evil witch who pretends to be Rapunzel's loving mother), music by Alan Mencken, a cuddly chameleon and a hilarious horse, it also has a story that, and I say this without any exaggeration, made me laugh and cry. And although many parents may rightly quibble at the film's themes of children disobeying their parents and of girls sneaking off with handsome ne'er-do-wells because they just have to find their own way, it also depicts a noble sacrifice, a low character raised up by love, the anguish of loving parents when their child is abducted, and the same family's happy reunion. So, taking the good and the bad, I think the balance tilts toward good. Plus, the songs are terrific. Donna Murphy stops the show with her song "Mother knows best." When a tavernful of ruffians sang a song about having a dream, I almost cracked a rib laughing. Even the love duet, set to imagery of a swarm of paper lanterns floating over a lake at dusk, had me choked up. Other cast members to listen for include Ron Perlman, Richard Kiel, Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett, and Zachary Levi of TV's "Chuck" (which, by the way, I have never seen).

Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the one where the younger two Pevensie children, Edmund and Lucy, make their last visit to Narnia (apart from, you know, the very end). It also introduces their (at first) obnoxious cousin, a passive-aggressive, unimaginative twerp named Eustace Scrubb. If you've read the Narnia books (and I have, several times), you already know that Eustace comes in for a hard time, learns his lesson, and is thus poised to play a more heroic role in the next Narnia adventure--The Silver Chair, if memory serves. Unless you're a follower of this film series, you probably won't recognize the names of most of the principal cast, except Liam Neeson (voice of Aslan, the lion who serves as a Christ-figure), Tilda Swinton (reprising her role as the White Queen from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), and Simon Pegg (voice of Reepicheep, the anthropomorphic rodent who makes an emotionally moving exit at the end of this film).

Last night, my end-of-week debauch included a trip to see the more grown-up movie How Do You Know. This is a romantic comedy starring Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon as the hero couple who, unfortunately, never really convincingly fall in love. Which is to say, she never quite seems to fall in love with him, though his smittenness is evident from early on and, at the end, she seems willing to go with that for the time being. Reese plays a female jock whose world crumbles when she gets cut from the national women's softball team. On the same day, Rudd finds out that he is the target of a Federal investigation into some type of shady business practices, though in fact he is innocent; he also gets dumped by his girlfriend. That evening, the two get together on a blind date and, rather than depress each other with their personal sob stories, mutually agree not to say a word to each other throughout dinner.

Somehow, this disastrous date forms a connection between them that endures Reese's relationship with a repulsive baseball player (played by Owen Wilson) and Rudd's difficulty communicating with his domineering crook of a father (Jack Nicholson, playing a character who, just as he is about to go into one of his patented "You can't handle the truth!" screaming jags, is suddenly brought up short by the realization that his son can't hear him when he shouts. "It's hard not to yell," he confides). It would be a really sweet love story if (1) there was the least bit of chemistry between Rudd and Witherspoon, and (2) Wilson and Nicholson didn't play such show-stealing cads. At the end of the movie I was actually rooting for Paul Rudd going to prison for his Dad (which doesn't happen).

Since then, I have sat through two films on DVD, which I found marked down really low at Target. First there was District 9, the Oscar-nominated, quasi-documentary sci-fi action film set in South Africa, and starring Sharlto Copley (lately "Howling Mad" in the A-Team movie). Copley plays a nebbishy Afrikaner who, owing to his marriage to the boss's daughter, wins the choice assignment to lead Multi-National United's task force to evict 2.8 million "prawns" from their shantytown in the Johannesburg suburbs. The prawns, FYI, are tentacly, very roughly humanoid crustacean types who descended from a gigantic spaceship that, some 20 years previously, stalled over the city.

The aliens' treatment by humans, from the brutally pragmatic MNU to the savage Nigerian gangsters who live among them, showcases the worst humanity has to offer. It would be easy enough to read into this movie an allegory about apartheid and South African racism, or about the concentration camps, forced deportations, and genocides that have been so much a part of recent world history, or about the immigration issues that disrupt the political scene, not just in the U.S. but in many other countries as well. Yet it would be a fascinating film simply from the perspective that it is an ultra-violent sci-fi shocker pitting alien invaders against earth-bound humans, but in which the humans are undeniably the aggressors. Of course, maybe now that everyone on earth (except me) has seen Avatar, that doesn't seem so novel.

Copley's character, the unforgettable Wikus van der Merwe, remains as unsympathetic as a character can be until almost the last instant, yet (a tribute to Copley's acting ability) somehow holds your sympathy. At first you accept his eerily cold-blooded behavior toward the aliens as a result of the pressure he is under from his boss/father-in-law, and the tough soldier-types he is surrounded by. Then, after he gets infected by a mysterious alien "liquid," his wildly destructive actions, heedless of the lives and wellbeing of others, seem excusable as self-defense, or at worst the rampage of a scared and wounded man-child who has everybody, and I mean everybody, gunning after him from all directions and for all reasons. It's only at the end, when he tells the prawn improbably named Christopher Johnson, "You're on your own; I'm out of here," that you realize that Wikus is an irredeemable shmuck, and then it occurs to you that all this could end very badly. That it doesn't is a sign that even a bottomed-out loser like Wikus can be redeemed. For a gore-splattered actioner, it's a very thought-provoking film.

Lastly, I saw Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated film based on the children's book by Roald Dahl. This one features vocal contributions by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson (again). I should have known better than to watch it when I saw the cover of the DVD, which looks like a toy-animal version of the poster for The Royal Tenenbaums. Which is essentially what the movie is--Bill Murray and Owen Wilson included.

What Dahl wrote as a simple English country fable, Anderson directed as an American urban soap opera. The characters aren't just anthropomorphized; they are neurotic. At times, the flow of the story so breaks down that parts of the movie are incomprehensible, or at best, deliberately non-rational. By the time George Clooney says the words "just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant," I could no longer trust my eyes and ears, so weird had the experience become. I prayed for the movie to end. That's never something I want to have to say in a movie review.

So, on a scale from A to F where A is exceptional, B is good, C is fair, D is crap, and F is unprintable, I would grade my five recent movie experiences as follows:
  • Tangled: A
  • Voyage of the Dawn Treader: A
  • How Do You Know: C
  • District 9: A
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox: D
I guess I can't complain. Three out of five were awesome movies!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Epistemological Tackiness

This week's lighted-sign message at the neighborhood ELCA clearinghouse for tacky platitudes:

TO KNOW GOD'S WILL
SAY "I WILL" TO GOD

Wow. That's an answer that opens up so many new questions! For example:

1. Since when do Lutherans teach that your act of will makes you at one with God?

2. Since when has any breed of "small-c catholic" Christianity regarded an individual's self-surrender as a source of divine revelation?

3. What about listening to what God says in His Word?

4. What if His Word says, "Thou shalt not"?

5. Need I remind you, it's two weeks before Christmas? Where is the seasonal tackiness we should expect? Do these Lutherans not observe Advent anymore?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Computer Has Ears

...at least, it looks like it does. Cat's ears. This is because Tyrone, my feline life partner of the past 8 years, likes to watch me use the computer. Typically, after trying several times to walk across the keyboard and getting picked off the desk and set on the floor, he takes up a perch on top of the CPU, which lies flat on the desk, and behind the flat-screen monitor that sits on top of the CPU. So, more and more often, I've been noticing the shape of cat ears sticking up from behind the monitor. It's a sight to make me laugh.

Tyrone likes being the focus of my attention. But after being denied four or five times in a row, he tends to settle for just keeping me company. When I'm in bed, he will often push his nose into my face and "ask" to be let under the covers, only to come right out again, over and over until I throw him off the bed. And then he'll jump back on and "ask" under the covers again, and get thrown off the bed again, and jump back on, etc. After several reps of this exercise, he will frequently curl up next to my leg, on top of the covers, and lie there very contended-like for a long time.

He has lived with a piano as long as we've been together, but until recently he hasn't done much practicing on the instrument. Lately, Tyrone has started playing duets with me. I'll be playing the piano and he'll jump up and walk across the keyboard, stepping over and between my hands, and maybe turn around and walk back the other way. [EDIT: Actually he has only done this a few times. More often, he walks to and fro in front of my sheet music, forcing me to "vamp until ready."] Luckily for him, this makes me laugh. I just keep playing regardless, and after he tries two or three times to drag my attention away from the piano, he may just join me on the bench and watch my performance with wide, interested eyes.

Tyrone's favorite places to be petted are around his muzzle and all the way down his tail. Sometimes he encourages me so firmly to pet the top and sides of his muzzle that I worry about getting my fingers stuck up his nose. I have never known a cat who was so keen on having his tail touched. I'm glad, though. It's a lovely tail, and it feels very fine in the hand. I treat it with respect because I know that this cat's tolerance of being petted there is a rare and precious thing, an artifact of his trust in me.

Ice Day Bachelor Chow

Today I had the day off due to the effects of an ice-storm that hit last night during my church's Advent midweek service. When I got to church, the ground was dry. When I left, I could scarcely walk down the sidewalk because it was so slippery.

This morning, the icy conditions forbade any thought of driving the twisty, turny country roads to where I work. I thought things might be better in my city neighborhood, but when I tried to take a walk I almost got killed, slipping on glare ice on a section of sidewalk that sloped down toward the street where heavy traffic was whizzing by. By the grace of God, I did not skate into traffic. I didn't even fall down, though I have a record of diving under a (thank God) parked bus in conditions like these.

So it was a cold, stay-at-home kind of day. I ransacked my cupboard for some comfort food, preferably of the zesty persuasion. This is what I came up with.

SHELLS, PEAS & ZING
Start by boiling a couple cups of water. Add the shell pasta from a package of Velveeta Shells & Cheese; also add the packet of cheese sauce (still sealed!), and bring the water back to a boil. After a few miinutes, remove the cheese packet & set it aside to cool; it will still be very warm and soft when you need it to be.

Meanwhile, empty a bag of frozen peas into a ceramic dish, add a couple tablespoons of water, and microwave (covered) at high power for 6 to 8 minutes. Strain the water out of the noodles when they are done (which is best determined by picking one out with a fork from time to time and eating it, until they reach the desired tenderness). Combine the noodles, cheese, and peas with the contents of a can of Hormel "No Beans" Chili and a drained can of Rotel. This makes about four large servings, which for a fat guy like me accounts for lunch and dinner.

Political Stupidity

All right, pulling no punches now...

QUESTION: Why doesn't our country get out of the war, stop picking on third-world countries, and mind its own business?

ANSWER: Don't be a dumbass. We're fighting against evil. Evil that has killed thousands of innocent people and intends to kill more. It isn't going to stop being evil if we pull out. Its servants aren't going to stop trying to kill us and destroy our way of life if we back off and appease them. Neville Chamberlain tried that, right? And how did that work out? To do the same with today's forces of oppression and terror would only give them more room to do their evil worst. And if our society can no longer make sacrifices to fight against it, evil is close to beating us already.

QUESTION: Wouldn't legalizing drugs solve the problem of drug-related crime?

ANSWER: Don't be a dumbass. We don't fight the drug war simply because people are killing, stealing, kidnapping, and pimping for the drugs. We fight it because these drugs cause unbelievable damage to people's minds, bodies, families, and careers. The drugs would still do all this damage even if they were legalized. The toll on society from drug use alone is plenty of reason to keep fighting them with the full power of the law, regardless of the forces fighting back. Just because evil people target those who try to fight them doesn't mean that if we stop fighting them, they won't be evil. And you know they are evil, whether they are involved in murder, prostitution, extortion, or none of the above, because the drugs they sell hurt people. And those who profit from those other crimes will continue to do so even without illegal drugs in their portfolio.

QUESTION: But don't you think that, once legalized, the drugs could be regulated so that they are not used harmfully?

ANSWER: Don't be a dumbass. If the harmful drugs are getting to people when they're illegal, they will find a way around your regulations and, even as legal drugs, will still be used illegally and harmfully. The only difference will be a higher class of criminals who, while publicly distributing drugs according to government regulations, are privately running a tax-free, unregulated drug trade under the counter. The mental, physical, social, and economic damage will still go on, only with the connivance and complicity of your own government.

QUESTION: What's the big deal about illegal immigration? Shouldn't people who come to our country in search of a better life have a chance to become citizens? Isn't it just hateful to insist on enforcing the immigration laws?

ANSWER: Don't be a dumbass. The reason the immigration laws were passed was to protect the citizens of this country. To say the laws shouldn't be enforced is to say that our country shouldn't protect its citizens. Plus, the reality is, illegal immigrants aren't motivated by a desire to become U.S. citizens. They come either to benefit themselves or their families back at home, or (in many cases) to be exploited by the people who send them across the border. And by benefiting themselves, I don't mean pursuing the American dream (see next Q&A). They benefit themselves, their families, or their exploiters by working in the sex trade, or by serving the illegal drug trade, or by cutting the throats (job-market-wise) of documented aliens and U.S. citizens by taking less money under the table to do the most menial jobs. Some of them are stealing government benefits from the legal residents who really deserve them. And more and more often, they bring gang violence across the border where innocent Americans can get caught in the crossfire. You don't think this should be stopped?

QUESTION: What would be so bad about higher prices and higher taxes? Don't Americans have too much as it is, compared to the rest of the world? Couldn't we learn to make do with less and give more to the government?

ANSWER: Don't be a dumbass. The reason this country has been so prosperous is that the American dream actually worked. By "American dream" I mean the idea that, through hard work, a little luck, and freedom from the power of an overreaching government, any individual can become more than he was. The "American dream" has brought about the most change for the better in the least number of years of any experiment in history. And it's not as though Americans' willingness to give hasn't already benefited every country in the world beyond its wildest dreams. Envy us as they will, we owe them nothing--except China, of course...

QUESTION: You can't legislate love, can you? So what can you possibly have against gay marriage?

ANSWER: Don't be a dumbass. Marriage is a religious institution, commanded by God. The people who really care about it, as a matter of the deepest conscience, believe what the Bible says about it: "Male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27); "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24); "Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:6). Marriage is a 'mystery' signifying the union between Christ and His bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33); the nucleus of society and wellspring of proper conduct (Colossians 3:18-21); and when properly ordered, gives both husband and wife the best opportunity to build each other up in the fear of God (1 Peter 3:1-7). The "gay marriage" issue isn't about pensions, benefits, and inheritances; all that can be handled without redefining marriage. The real issue is whether our government has a right to abolish an article of the faith and require an entire society, including believing Christians and Jews, to alter their beliefs about marriage.

QUESTION: But isn't all that stuff about wives submitting to their husbands sexist and medieval?

ANSWER: Consider it good practice for when the religious fundamentalists and political fascists whose evil you want to appease and accommodate destroy our country and institute Sharia law. If you think Biblical marriage is medieval, just wait! Meanwhile, if your idea of enlightenment is to allow the Faculty of Gender Studies to open up a satellite campus on every U.S. military base, so that interminable homilies on identity politics can replace the clipped, tight-lipped sound of soldiers and sailors doing their duty, your wait won't be very long.

QUESTION: Wait a minute! Why shouldn't the U.S. military admit openly gay servicepeople? Wouldn't it be great if Congress had the guts to repeal the injustice of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?

ANSWER: Don't be a dumbass. All one soldier needs to know about the next is whether he can count on his buddy to have his back (and I mean that in a good way). Knowing much more could put the harmony, cohesion, and discipline of a military unit to a perilous test. Expecting this to happen without violence, loss of morale, and a paralyzing proliferation of claims of harassment and discrimination, is to demand that people hold to "the better angels of their nature" in the highest-pressure situations Americans may ever deal with. The chances of that expectation being fulfilled are about equal to the chances that any productive end will ever be served by graduates in Gender Studies since, after all, the only thing they learn is how to be an even bigger narcissistic bore than they were before.

QUESTION: But surely, you can see that these laws dictating how people can and can't love are unjust and violate our citizens' liberty and basic constitutional rights?

ANSWER: Don't be a dumbass. Laws against that sort of thing have been on the books in every society, including ours, since the beginning of time. If these were basic human rights, don't you think someone would have noticed before? Either there has never been a truly just, decent, or free society until now, or you're dreaming anachronistic dreams when you try to read the come-lately pro-gay ideology back into the Founding Fathers, etc. My fear is that the more our judiciary conjures up novel "freedoms" and "rights," the less our citizens will enjoy the really basic freedoms and rights that generations of loyal Americans have bequeathed on us: freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, etc.

QUESTION: Why don't people stop bitching about the airport scanners and pat-downs? In these dangerous times, isn't safety and security an acceptable trade-off for a momentary, voluntary (though compulsory) surrender of a little individual freedom?

ANSWER: I don't know why I bother talking to such a dumbass. The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect us from unreasonable search and seizure. But we're supposed to let airport security frisk us, or at least digitally strip-search us (and revealing photos of passengers have already found their way to the internet), without giving any probable cause to be suspected of anything. Real criminals get off the hook every day because the searches that discovered evidence of their crimes were "fruit of the poisoned tree," but law-abiding grandmas have to get x-rayed or felt up if they want to see Boca Raton by Christmas.

QUESTION: Aren't you missing the point here? Everybody equally has to submit to searches and scans, otherwise the security staff will have to resort to racial profiling; and that would be unjust, wouldn't it?

ANSWER: All the shrillness about racial profiling is supposed to protect us from being suspected of a crime (including possible terrorism) on the basis of skin color or apparent ethnicity. But don't you think somebody should at least have to act suspicious before they are treated as a suspect? Meanwhile, our government seems to think it must take away the rights of all in order to protect the rights of a few. And why are we so keen on insisting that terrorism suspects be tried in civilian courts? Do their Fourth Amendment rights matter more than ours? And given the much greater likelihood that, tried under civilian rules of evidence, they will get off scot-free only to try to kill us again (which has also actually happened), how does this make us any safer?

QUESTION: You're not a very nice person, are you? This is why I don't like talking to conservatives. They get so angry about anything that smacks of progress. Admit it!

ANSWER: Phooey! I have a question for you now. Why does everyone always call those on the political left "liberals," when the only thing they are liberal about is spending other people's money?

There's a conversation-killer if there ever was one.